"Excuse me!" Donna says indignantly. "What do you think you're doing?"
The alien pauses to give her a long stare. As it is a very large alien, roughly the mass of a double-decker bus, and oozing green oozy stuff out of its eyes, it has the desired effect. Donna shrinks back and shuts her mouth.
But only for a moment. As the alien continues what it's doing, she can't help but react.
"You let him go right now!" Donna pulls on the ropes suspending her arms up in the air above her head. "Let him go right now, do you hear me?"
The Doctor sighs wearily, wincing only slightly as his own arms are bound up by ropes and suspended above his head by another alien creature.
"I'm sure he heard you, Donna," he says wearily. "The whole city heard that, I should imagine. The acoustics appear to be quite impressive."
"Anything heard here in the square echoes throughout the region. The entire city will soon be hearing your death throes," the alien says in satisfaction. "Never again will you defile our scared shrine."
The Doctor shoots a look across the way at Donna. "See? Secret shrine. What did I tell you?"
She scowls at him. "How was I supposed to know that?"
"Oh, gee, Donna, I don't know. Maybe when you heard the words 'sacred shrine, don't touch that' come out of my mouth?"
"I didn't know you were serious!" she protests, her voice rising.
"Why wouldn't I be serious?" he demands, his own voice rising. "Why in blazes would I joke about danger to life and limb?"
"Are you kidding?" Donna says in disbelief. "You always joke about danger to life and limb!"
"There is a time and a place, and this wasn't-" He breaks off as the final knots are tied.
The large alien steps back, surveys his work, and nods. "We'll be back." He looks over at Donna. "And then you'll be dead."
"Lovely," Donna says, glaring right back at him. "Looking forward to it. Really. Can't wait!"
The aliens trudge off, leaving them standing alone on scaffolding in the middle of what passes for a city square in this miserable alien city. Surrounding them are aliens of varying shapes and coloring, all waiting to watch their execution. Some appear to have brought picnic lunches with them.
"Sacred shrine," Donna mutters again. "It was a square cement block! Looked like a good resting place."
"You weren't looking at the side with the sign saying "Sacred Shrine of the Troodon People," the Doctor says with a sigh. "Honestly."
"Look, I won't go around sitting on any more sacred shrines, all right?"
"Thanks, Donna. That is a heartfelt statement and I'm sure the Troodons will thank us and let us go."
"You don't have to be so sarcastic," she mutters, tugging experimentally at the ropes on her wrists.
"Whatever." The Doctor pulls on the ropes typing up his own wrists, with zero success. "Blimey, what is this rope made of, anyway?"
"It is made with the blood of our ancestors," a deep voice intones from behind them. Donna and the Doctor both spin about, swaying slightly from the scaffolding propping them up.
Donna makes a startled exclamation. The alien in front of them is even larger and uglier than the ones that tied them up.
"Hello," the Doctor says cheerily. "I'm the Doctor and this is-"
"You defiled our most Sacred Shrine to the Ever Pure and Holy Sancretan," the alien continues over the Doctor's voice. "Our laws are clear. You must die."
"Oh, but surely you have, er, loopholes?" the Doctor suggests.
The alien gestures to the side, where another creature is waiting with a large axe.
"Oh, dear," Donna murmurs upon seeing the axe. "Excuse me? How clear are these laws we're talking about?"
"You will die now," the alien announces, and a pleased roar goes up around the circle.
"There's only one thing to be done," the Doctor pronounces solemnly. From the inside of his sleeve he slides out the sonic screwdriver. Handily dissolving the ropes binding his hands, he aims for the structure above their heads. It collapses on the aliens standing on the platform with them and splinters onto the spectators, leaving them all a yelling, struggling mass. The Doctor aims at the ropes on Donna's hands. She brings them down and rubs her wrists, staring at the Doctor to see what he'll do next.
He pockets his sonic screwdriver and grins at her. "It's been a long time since I've said this to you, Donna Noble."
She raises an eyebrow expectantly, already extending her hand. "Let's hear it, then, spaceman."
He grabs it and laughs.
Most people would think that an encounter with those aliens would be enough for a day, but the Doctor is not most people. Without two or three such experiences a day, he tends to get bored.
Donna settles back in her comfy red chair with a deep sigh. "It is so nice to be back." She looks fondly around the room. The TARDIS has lit a fire in the library, and the light is low and cozy.
The Doctor, sprawled out on the couch set at a right angle to her chair, merely hums in agreement. His eyes are closed, his head resting along the sofa's arm.
"Let's take a break from all this, shall we?" Donna suggests. "No more running. Let's have a day where we lounge around and read gossip magazines."
"This was the first time we've had to run," the Doctor says, eyes still closed. "No reason to stop at the very start."
"Maybe I've forgotten what running for your life feels like. Not like I've gotten any younger, is it? I've got a lot of time to make up for. Can't do it all in one day."
This time the Doctor snorts. "You'd be bored to tears within an hour."
They have a repeat of this conversation the very next day, seated in the same spots in the library.
"I really do need to work up to all the running," Donna murmurs. Today there's a matching red ottoman in front of her chair, and she gratefully props her feet up.
"It's like riding a bicycle," the Doctor contradicts her. "Easy as pie." He's lying on the sofa, stretched out to his full length. Donna would like to make a comment about his dirty shoes on the furniture, but she's too tired to make the effort.
"Says you," she says instead. "You weren't the one being chased out of town by sticks." She jams a pillow behind her head.
"Well," he says fairly, "the sticks weren't doing the chasing, it was the people holding them up."
"Yeah, the people holding them up and the flames on fire at the top of them," she retorts. "Stupid prat. Next time you go looking for a source of water with which to cool down your spaceship!"
The lights in the room flicker off and on.
"Well, so what?" Donna demands belligerently. "If you'd been working properly I wouldn't have had to go looking, would I?"
"Donna," the Doctor says in a complaining tone. "Stop. Just once."
Donna scowls at him. There are smudges of dirt on her face and her favorite purple blouse is in tatters. She's fully aware that she shouldn't be complaining so soon after being reunited with him, but their recent encounter with flaming sticks has made her feel very out of sorts.
"I need a drink," she decides, and heads for the bar in the corner of the library.
"Oh, yes," he murmurs, "that's just what you need."
"I heard that." Donna returns and sinks back into her chair. Taking a long swig of whatever she drinking, she sighs happily. "Oh, that's better."
He shakes his head. "Humans."
"You love us."
He only shakes his head again.
Donna takes another long drink and leans in towards him. "You love humans, and you missed me. Didn't you?"
He can't stop the smile that's spreading across his face. "I did miss you," he says, sitting up on the sofa in his enthusiasm. "It's so good to have you back. It just wasn't as much fun without you."
"Well, it wasn't the first time you were on your own, was it?" Donna asks. "Sometimes a bit of solitude is good for the soul."
"Sometimes," the Doctor replies shortly. "And sometimes it's not."
Donna heads back for another refill. He glances at the container she's pouring from and hopes it's nothing too toxic. Donna can certainly hold her own, but some of the drinks aboard the TARDIS can have unexpected effects. He'll never forget the time Jack Harkness drank half a bottle of Neptunian champagne. His ears rang and he spoke in incoherent sentences for two days.
"What's the smile for?" Donna asks. "Hoping I'll get drunk?"
"What? No! Of course I'm not." The Doctor manages not to shudder, because he knows she'll belt him one if he does. "I was just recalling a time when Captain Jack Harkness got a little drunk."
Donna settles back in her seat, hanging her legs over the arm. "I'd have liked to see that. When did that happen?"
"Oh, right after I met him."
"Yeah? Which time?"
"Which time what?"
"It happened after you met him which time? The time in World War II or the time at the end of the universe?"
He nods, understanding her question. "The very first time." He smiles slightly. "He was a con man looking to con."
Donna's mind is following a different track. "You looked different then, didn't you?" she asks. "I always forget that you change your face now and then." Something occurs to her that never occurred to her before. Got any pictures?"
That's a new request. "Have I got any what?" the Doctor asks.
"Pictures. You know. Snaps of you. From before."
"Well, any before. How many are we talking about, anyway? You always get so evasive when it comes to your past selves and your age."
"I'm not evasive about my age," he says indignantly.
"Please. You lie about it all the time. You're worse than my mother."
"I do not lie about my age," the Doctor states firmly.
"If you say so," Donna says, in just the tone of voice that suggests the opposite.
"I don't. And yes, as it happens, I've got a few photos around."
"You do? Let's have a look, then!"
"Well, have a look, then." Instead of going in search of photo albums, he takes out his sonic screwdriver and aims at something that Donna can't see. In front of them appears a hologram. Donna jumps in surprise, then sits back in her chair, trying to appear as though holograms jump out of thin air in front of her all the time.
"Are these your home movies?"
The Doctor shakes his head. "Not mine. The TARDIS. She likes to keep a record of what happens in here."
"Really." Donna appears to be considering something. "That would be interesting to see. Everything you've been getting up to the past thousand years."
"Oh, there's nothing there to see, really," the Doctor says hastily.
"We'll have a talk later," Donna murmurs to the TARDIS.
The Doctor glances her way. He'll have to have a talk with the TARDIS first. No reason for Donna to know all of his secrets.
The hologram is static for a moment, and then resolves into a figure of an older man with white hair. The picture quality is very good.
"That's amazing," Donna marvels. "Just when I think there are no more surprises on this ship you show me something else."
"Well," the Doctor begins, in the tone of voice that means he's trying to be modest but will fail completely. "I've made a few upgrades to the program. This is the latest and greatest."
Donna takes in the image in front of them. The old man is moving around a white, sterile-looking room.
"Who's that, then?" she asks. "Your great-granddad?"
He laughs. "No. That's me."
"Me. The first me," he amends.
"You look older than dirt," Donna says without thinking.
"Well, I was old. I wasn't born that way, you know. I was a child just like everyone else."
"You've been telling me for ages how much better Time Lords were than humans, and now you're claiming to be just like us?"
"Well, not just like you humans," he allows. "But close enough."
"So what happened to you?" Donna is staring at the image of the old man, slightly baffled. To imagine the Doctor as a child is more difficult than she would have thought. She tries, but all she can come up with is a very small adult waving a sonic screwdriver around and sucking his thumb.
He regards the image in front of them. "I didn't really care for my people, Donna. A sad fact, but there it is. So I stole a TARDIS one day and escaped. Ran far away."
Donna looks around. "This same one?"
"It looks different there, on the screen."
"It's gone through some changes."
Donna can understand interior decorating, but there is still a huge difference between the TARDIS she can see and the one they're currently on.
"It really is the same TARDIS there? It's all white and sterile."
"It's the same one," he says pleasantly.
"And you just stole it?"
"I was in a bit of hurry. Eager to leave home."
"What did you do?"
"We traveled for a bit and then we settled down in London."
"Who's we?" she asks swiftly.
He hesitates, and then answers. "My granddaughter. She wanted to be a normal human child. Gallifrey was hard on her, too."
"Your granddaughter," Donna repeats in surprise. "Where is she?" Donna looks around, as if expecting to see a child running through the room.
"Oh, she grew up and left me," he says lightly. "Fell in love."
"She left you? She wanted to leave all of this?" Donna loves the TARDIS, loves traveling. She had never planned to leave it and can't imagine anyone doing so willingly.
"Well, I may have forced the issue for her," the Doctor admits. "But it was for her own good."
"Hang on, you made her? You made her leave?"
"I didn't make her leave. She fell in love. I wanted her to be happy, not stay with me because she thought an old man needed her."
"You arrogant git," Donna says, taking another drink. "You go around deciding people's lives whenever you like, don't you?"
"It was for the best," he defends himself.
"Did you stop to ask her? Ever?"
He frowns. "No. Never."
"How do you know it was for the best, then?" she challenges him. "Is she happy?"
"I don't know," the Doctor says slowly. "I never saw her again."
Donna sits up straight, her drink sloshing over the side of her glass. "You never saw her again. The only family you had, and you never saw her after you just dumped her somewhere with a man who might not have been the right one for her?"
Put that way, the incident is very damning. And alarmingly reminiscent of another situation, in which the Doctor may have done the very same thing again. He squirms uncomfortably. Both events are in the past for him, but when he is forced to think about them he is beset by doubts. He knew he was doing the right thing, but sometimes, just sometimes, he wonders if it was the right thing for Susan.
If it was the right thing for Rose.
"It's like a bad habit with you," she marvels. "Decide what somebody needs and do it, and never mind asking them. You know what they should do better than they do, don't you?" Her sentence structure is a bit convoluted, but between her indignation and the drink, it's hard to be as coherent as she normally is.
Well, really, what can he say to that? The Doctor opens his mouth to defend himself, but nothing comes out.
"Just 'cos you think you know best doesn't mean you do," she continues, glaring at him.
This time he sits up straight. They're not talking about Rose anymore. "You know what would have happened to you if I hadn't done it."
"You mean if you'd done what I'd asked?" she asks tartly. "And not done a Vulcan mind wipe on me?"
"It was the best for you," he says. "You would have died."
"I'd rather have died than lose my memories!"
"And if you'd died you wouldn't be here now," the Doctor finishes. He doesn't say "so there!" but it's clear in the tone of his voice.
"Oh, whatever," Donna mutters. "Who's that, then?" she asks, gesturing to the flickering hologram.
"Me," the Doctor says sullenly. "Again."
"That's you, too? What happened?"
"What do you think happened? I got old and died. When I died I regenerated."
"Did you? What did you do after that?"
"Ran around. Had adventures." He shrugs. "Did for a while, anyway. Then I got in trouble."
"Who with?" she asks. "What for?"
He sighs. "Time Lords didn't believe in interfering with anyone or anything else in the universe. I thought that we should help others if we could. No one else agreed with me. I was banished from my home."
"No!" she says.
"To Earth, 20th century."
"Well, that doesn't sound too bad. You love Earth, especially the 20th century."
He frowns. "That wasn't so bad. Only they made me regenerate to do it. "
Donna winces. "Ouch."
"You could say that," he agrees.
"So that's your third version." Donna studies the hologram thoughtfully. "Hmmm. I see velvet smoking jackets were the style back then."
"They were very comfortable."
The hologram whirrs forward, and the smoking jacket gives way to a man with curly hair and a long knitted scarf.
"Is that you, too?" Donna asks, setting her glass down and leaning forward. "What made you change?"
The Doctor frowns thoughtfully, then stands up to get a drink of his own.
"Radiation poisoning," he says shortly. He chooses a bottle of lemon-flavored fizzy water from Zebulon Five's fizzy water springs.
"That doesn't sound like much fun," Donna observes as he sits back down.
"Well, I don't recommend it, myself," he says.
"You look nice as him," Donna says. "I like the scarf."
"How long were you him?"
"Donna," the Doctor says in annoyance, "I'm still him. That's me. They all are me."
"Sorry. I know."
"I was like that for a good long while. Had adventures, made good friends, traveled the universe. Fell off a radio tower," he says abruptly. "I regenerated there and then."
"A radio tower? You're kidding."
He winces at the remembered pain. "I wish I was."
"So what happened?" Donna demands.
He nods at the hologram. "That."
Donna takes in the blond hair, boyish looks and striped trousers. "You regenerated into that? You look like a baby compared to the others."
The Doctor frowns. "I don't exactly have control over it. As young as I looked, I was still me. Time Lord thoughts and memories."
"Oh, I'm not complaining," she assures him. "You're right handsome, you are. I could see me traveling with a you that looked like him."
"Well, thanks. You've never called me that before." He's rather touched by this. Seems like just yesterday she was calling him a long streak of skinny nothingness.
"Hang on. What's with the bit of celery in your lapel?" Donna demands.
"Moving on," the Doctor says brightly.
"No, you don't. Why are you wearing produce on your collar?" Donna speaks slowly and exaggeratedly, pronouncing each word.
The Doctor looks uncomfortable. "Donna, my past regenerations often do things that my future regenerations do not approve of. All right?"
"Fair enough. So where's the next you?" she demands, eager for more.
"What, don't you want to see more images of this me?" he asks, rather disappointed.
Donna makes a winding motion with her fingers. "Keep going."
"Fine," he grumbles. "This version of myself did very well with companions, having all sorts of adventures. One day I was exposed to a toxic drug on Androzani Minor. There was only one dose of antidote available, and there were two of us. I chose regeneration, allowing my companion to take the antidote and survive."
He states this all very matter-of-factly, as though he's reciting facts that have nothing to do with him personally, but Donna is looking at him with an open mouth.
"What?" he asks, hand going to his hair. "Have I got a smudge on my face?"
"You chose death to save your friend?"
"It wasn't death for me," he reminds her. "It was just a regeneration."
Donna shakes her head. "You really are that self-sacrificing, aren't you? I knew that, but you always manage to surprise me with it."
He doesn't know how to reply to that. He did what he did to save Peri, and he would certainly do it again. He would do it for any of his companions, Donna included.
Donna senses that she's made him uncomfortable. "What did you wake up looking like?" she asks.
He points the screwdriver at the hologram. "Like that."
Donna looks and sighs. "Cute. But what's with the coat? And all the colors?"
"That was the height of fashion on some planets," he says stiffly.
"Is that a cat pin on your collar?" Donna leans forward to get a better look. "It can't be a cat. You hate cats."
"I used to love them," the Doctor admits. "This was long before I encountered psychopathic cat-nurse-nuns on New New Earth, of course. After that it's hard to enjoy the things."
Donna is still for a moment. "Parts of that statement made no sense at all," she says. "We'll talk about that later, though. Then what?"
"You have no appreciation for what I went through," he complains. "Don't you want to hear something about my adventures during these times?"
"Nope." Donna pops her p very definitively, just the way he used to. "Just keep going, please."
"Fine." The Doctor is not pouting. Time Lords never pout. "The TARDIS was attacked, and I regenerated after an injury. Bit unexpected, but I managed."
"What killed you?" Donna asks in fascination, ignoring his pout.
"Something fatal," the Doctor says repressively. The hologram changes to an image of a man wearing a white jacket and a red scarf tied round his neck.
Donna blinks. "That's you?"
"You're carrying an umbrella."
"I liked that umbrella."
"Just that it's a bit camp, isn't it? I mean, the question marks on the pullover and the umbrella..." Donna's voice trails off as she sees his expression. "Not that it's not lovely," she adds.
He scowls at her. "I landed in San Francisco in 1999," the Doctor continues. "I found myself in the middle of a gang shoot-out. I was shot and taken to the nearest hospital and was thought to be in cardiac distress because of my double heartbeats. I died as they were trying to save me."
"In a nutshell." There's rather more to it, but he's not about to launch into a long, drawn-out explanation.
Donna takes in the dark hair and the old-fashioned coat. "You didn't come back too bad," she compliments him. "You look right romantic."
"I did all right there." The Doctor studies his former self. "Had quite a few adventures before it was over."
"When was it over?" Donna asks.
The Doctor looks down. "The Time War," he says briefly, and Donna gets up to get him another drink.
"Here," she says, pushing the glass into his hand. "It's not fizzy water."
He laughs up at her. "I don't need the support. But thank you, Donna."
She sits beside him. "That's what friends are for," she says firmly. "And we are definitely friends."
The hologram spins. Donna doesn't push him on the Time War. He's shared that with her before, and he knows she will always listen if he needs to talk about it again.
A new image appears, and Donna sighs in pleasure.
"That was never you!"
"You were gorgeous there, weren't you?" Donna is transfixed by the man manipulating wires in the image before her.
"Was I?" He studies the short hair and the black leather jacket. "Always thought my ears were too big."
"If I'd met you looking that that," Donna starts, and then decides to stop talking. She takes a drink instead. "No wonder Rose wanted to come with you."
"It wasn't because of that," he denies.
"If that's what you want to believe," she scoffs. For her part, if a man looking like that ever popped up in front of her she'd be off with him like a shot, and never mind where to.
They both fall silent as the black leather jacket fades and is replaced by a tall, skinny man in a brown suit. He has wild brown hair and the sonic screwdriver is in his hand. He starts pirouetting around the console room, laughing and gesturing with his hands, speaking to someone the hologram doesn't show.
"I liked that suit," the Doctor says wistfully. "It was a great suit, wasn't it?"
Donna rolls her eyes.
The man they're watching runs a hand through his hair. "You loved your hair, too," she can't resist saying.
"It was great hair!" he protests.
She throws a glance over at him, where his hair is now a bit too long and very dark. The hair on the hologram was indeed much greater than his current look. Donna plans to remedy that before much longer. She doesn't even mind that he looks even younger this time around. He's still the Doctor, and he's still her friend.
The TARDIS chooses that moment to project an image Donna has all but forgotten about. "Oh," she says softly, and even the Doctor sits up so he can get a better look at it.
The TARDIS console room, crowded with people. Donna and Sarah Jane Smith. Martha Jones and Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler. Captain Jack and Rose and two Doctors, one in brown and one in blue. All piloting the TARDIS controls to drag the Earth back to its proper place in the solar system.
"That was brilliant," Donna says quietly. "Wasn't it? Just brilliant."
The Doctor nods. "It was." His eyes are fixed on a certain spot on the image, and Donna doesn't even have to look to see where.
"Did you ever try to find them again?" she asks cautiously.
"Travel between parallel worlds is impossible," the Doctor says, quick and automatic.
"I'm sure it is," she agrees. "You ever try?"
He sighs and looks down at his feet. "No. I never did. It's better this way."
Donna thinks about this. Her memories from that brief time as a Time Lord - Time Lady? - are once again her own.
"You hoped it was better. You wanted it to be better. But you never knew for certain."
"No." The Doctor heaves a sigh. "As it is, I can only hope. Just like Susan. I can only hope that I did the right thing."
"I think you did," Donna decides. "You always do, in the end."
He surprises her by laughing. "Always, is it? Did I do the right thing in finding you again? In taking a risk to restore your memories? It could have killed you."
"I wanted to die," Donna says. "Before you wiped my mind clean and made me forget it all, I wanted to die instead of losing it. And I didn't die this time!"
"No. You didn't." It was a risk, such an incredible risk, but he had done it because he'd regenerated, and he needed Donna. Needed her presence and her friendship. In this new body he had seen what he had to do, had seen so clearly just how to restore Donna's memories while removing the dangerous parts of Time Lord information that would result in her death.
As surely as this was the body he was now supposed to have, he was meant to find Donna Noble again.
"Well, that was lovely." Donna sets her glass on the floor and stands up. She sways back and forth, but only slightly. "I'm gonna have a bit of a lie-down," she informs him, "and then we're going traveling."
He grins up at her. "Where to?"
"Anywhere in the universe," she says grandly. "Your choice."