Disclaimer: Not mine.
A/N: I wrote this between May and June 2008 in the middle of 4th season, and posted it before "Turn Left" aired. The "Turn Left" bits are speculation based on the preview. So, consider this AU to the end of 4th season from "Turn Left" on, but saying anymore would spoil you. Any mistakes are mine and mine alone.
Being Donna Noble
"Gallifrey," is what the Doctor says when the Empress of the Racnoss demands to know where he's from.
And afterwards, after she has declined his offer of traveling with him because he scares the living hell out of her, Donna frequently dreams of a city under a glass dome and orange skies, silver-leaved trees, and time like clay in the palms of her hands.
When she wakes, she does not remember the dreams, but she feels trapped, pressed in; bigger on the inside and unable to get out. Her whole life should have changed, but it remains doggedly the same; days come and go, monotonous, repetitive. Even a holiday in Egypt seems lackluster.
The Doctor has ruined her on a normal life forever.
Then, two days into a job with Health and Safety, she is surfing the internet at lunch, by chance finds a website full of conspiracy theories about alien sightings, weight loss drugs, and missing bees, and walks out before the end of her break.
The answer has come to her, and she doesn't know why she didn't think of it before.
It's time to find the Doctor.
It turns out that finding the Doctor is harder than she expects, and when she finally does, she's dangling from a bit of metal within moments and waving at fat. But the running comes naturally, as does the banter, and she doesn't think twice about how right it feels.
"Partners in crime," Miss Foster, Matron Cofelia of the Five-Straighten Classabindi Nursery Fleet Intergalactic Class, calls them.
It's as good a description as any. She's there when he panics because he can't override Miss Foster's computer with his single Adipose capsule, but she has what he needs, a second capsule, holds it up for him to see, shares his joy in beating the bad guy. She's there to take him down a notch while he's bragging about poor Mad Martha's crush, she's there to cut him off when he tries to show off with the TARDIS.
On her wedding day, oh so long ago, she told him that he needed someone to stop him. She wasn't talking about herself, but he does need someone, needs someone who loves him but isn't impressed by his species or his genius, needs someone to take him to task when he's off on his high horse, and she does a right smashing job of it.
Clearly, she's the right person for the job.
And when he gives back to her, takes her two miles over to say goodbye to Gramps, lets her have that moment for herself, she knows this is where she's meant to be, here, traveling with him in the TARDIS, keeping him in line.
It's a bit like coming home.
When she unpacks, she finds a strange fob watch in her toiletry bag.
She turns it over and over in her hands, her eyes following the whorls and curves of the circles and ellipses linked together on its silver cover. She would swear she's never seen it before in her life, but it's familiar in a terrifying way; there is a pattern in the design that she almost recognizes, and when she flips it over, there is nothing to tell her who made it – no maker's stamp, no markings, no indication of where it came from.
She frowns, blinks away the strange image of an orange sky, tries to reason out how the watch might have come to be in her toiletry bag. A little gift from Gramps, maybe? Though why he would think she would like a fob watch is beyond her. And honestly, it's a bit ironic at this point since she's now living in a time machine. With a shrug and a mental note to thank him later, she drops it into her jewelry box and almost immediately forgets about it.
The next time she sleeps, she dreams of the city beneath the glass dome and the orange sky, but this time it's burning and time has become ashes in her hands.
"And you, Daughter of London, there is something on your back," Lucius Petrus Dextrus, Chief Augur of Pompeii, tells her.
And there is, the weight of knowing that the next day twenty thousand people will be dead in one day, buried alive, suffocated by hot gasses and lack of oxygen, burned, and she can do nothing because the Doctor won't let her.
"Pompeii is a fixed point in history," he says. "What happens, happens. There is no stopping it."
She refuses to accept that and keeps at him, keeps arguing, keeps fighting, won't let him wield the arrogance of his species at her like a weapon, refuses to let him make the rules. But it isn't until they are in locked inside the escape pod with the marble circuits and those giant rock monsters breathing fire on them that it comes out, that she begins to understand.
"That's the choice, Donna," the Doctor says. He is terrified, eyes wide with panic, and that only amplifies her own fear. "It's Pompeii or the world."
"Oh my god," she says, and there isn't a word in English for how she feels, that kick in the gut feeling when she understands what he's saying, when she grasps the sheer enormity of it.
"If Pompeii is destroyed then it's not just history," he continues. "It's me. I make it happen."
It's too big for her to comprehend, that choice. And his plan, it's mad. There has to be a way out, something else they can do, a flaw…
"The Pyrovile things! They're rocks. Maybe they can't be blown up." It seems obvious to her, but deep inside she knows this is denial. His understanding of the situation is flawless and perfect; it is hers that is flawed, despite what she thought of his highhanded superiority that morning.
He's pushing buttons and moving things about, preparing the pod to carry through with the eruption. "Pompeii explodes with the force of twenty-four nuclear bombs. Nothing can survive it. Certainly not us."
And it's still too big to comprehend, but she moves very quickly into the acceptance phase. Greater forces are at work here; twenty thousand versus the whole world, the very future of the earth. There just isn't any time for a proper panic, and really, there is no choice, nothing else to be done.
"Never mind us," she tells him.
He stares at her, scrutinizes her, as if he isn't sure she's really there, then puts his hands over a lever. "Push this lever and it's all over. Twenty thousand people."
And then she's looking at his hands, his clenched jaw, his stricken expression, and understands for the first time that it's too big for him, too, choosing the world over the twenty thousand lives, people whom they were walking among just that morning. But he's the only one left to make these choices, to shoulder the burden.
Her heart swells, full to the brim with affection and what little understanding she can give, and she is overcome by a sudden overwhelming urge to protect him. What it must be like to be him, to make these earth shattering choices, to have such blood on his hands. How lonely. How terrible.
And she knows what must be done.
Donna slides her hands over his, tears streaming down her face, and chooses the world with him. He raises his eyes to hers, and she has a moment of such familiarity, of such powerful déjà vu that she is sure she has shared this with him before.
And then the moment is gone. As one, they press the lever. Vesuvius erupts, and a city dies.
She sleeps badly for a few days after and dreams of delicate silver-leaved trees burning in the heat of twenty-four nuclear bombs.
After that, she asks to go somewhere cold.
After their little run with the Ood and their giant Ood brain, Donna feels the need to have a nice hot bath to shake off the cold. While the tub fills, she bushes her teeth, and when she leans over to spit, she finds a silver fob watch lying in the basin.
She picks it up, frowns around the toothbrush gripped between her teeth, and decides the watch must belong to the Doctor. Why he left it there and what he was doing in her room in the first place was anyone's guess, but she'll have to have a good shout at him about it later.
She leans through the bathroom door, tosses it onto her bed, finishes brushing, and has a nice, long soak.
By the time she gets into bed, she's forgotten about it completely.
And dreams that the Doctor is wearing the wrong face.
He's all teeth and curls and protruding eyes. A ridiculously long scarf that only he would dare to wear hangs around his neck. He kneels on the floor of the console room, also wrong, with its sterile white walls and floor and a console full of blinking lights that looks like its come out of some 70s sci-fi program. A robot dog is pulled apart, gutted, its parts scattered on the floor while the (wrong) Doctor tinkers with its insides.
She sweeps out into the console room to pose in front of him, rather liking the height of this new body.
"Well?" she says, twirling.
He glances up briefly, then does a double take, his eyes bulging. "It's a bit ginger, isn't it?"
She smirks. "Jealous?"
"No." He shakes his head violently, his curls whipping about. "No, no, no. Jealous? Of ginger? No. Not me." Then he scrutinizes at her with an expression that really does fit better on the skinny, pinstriped version of him. "But don't think you might choose a body that's a bit less…" His eyes dart to her chest and away again. "…bossy?"
"And why do that? You clearly need someone who can stand up to you. Otherwise you'll be drowning Racnoss and blowing up small Italian towns without a second thought. Now if you'll kindly lower the chameleon arch-"
Donna leaps out of bed, still half asleep, her heart pounding wildly in her chest, and bolts down the corridor and into the console room.
"What is the meaning of this?" she shouts, and the Doctor, who's flat on his back and halfway under the console, sits up abruptly and whacks his head on the edge.
"What the…?" The Doctor scowls at her, hand to his forehead. "What's the meaning of what?"
She blinks at him, glances around the console room. It's all coral and organic, not sterile and white, which is good, and the Doctor is skinny and pinstriped, not all teeth and hideous scarf, and that's good, too. If only she could remember why.
She blinks at him again. "I… I don't know. I was having a dream…"
"About what? Finding ways to cause me bodily harm?"
She only looks at him blankly. He eyes her thoughtfully then sighs. "Go back to bed, Donna."
"Back to bed. Right," she says, then a flash of memory, the Doctor's eyes dropping down to her chest followed by the word bossy. "And next time I change," she shouts so loudly that he starts and hits his head again. "Keep your eyes to yourself!"
She storms back to her room, the Doctor staring after her in confusion. She shakes out the blankets, knocking out something that lands on the floor with a heavy thump, and crawls back into bed.
"A bit less bossy," she says with a snarl as she tries to get comfortable. "Bloody alien euphemisms."
She decides she needs to learn to drive the TARDIS.
The Doctor's a rubbish driver, always pushing buttons and pulling levers at random while running off at the mouth and barely paying attention to what he's doing. She watches him closely whenever he pilots, trying to discern a pattern or some kind, any kind of method to his madness. Or at least she tries to, but is usually too busy clinging onto the console in fear of her life to make sense of his movements.
After a few trips, she's absolutely convinced she can do a better job than him, method to his madness or not.
"I think it's time you taught me to drive this bucket of bolts," she tells him after a trip to the pleasure planet Crighton Three-Zed-Eight, which wasn't all that much of a pleasure, what with the huge flipping dinosaurs eating everyone.
His head snaps up, positively scandalized. "What?"
"You heard me."
He looks away, tugs at his ear, moves around the console. "No. That's a bad idea. Terrible idea, really. Not as bad as say, marrying a bloke who wants to feed you to a giant spider-"
"-but still bad. Besides, she probably wouldn't respond to you anyway."
Donna glares. "And why not? At least I wouldn't pound on her with a mallet and lick her levers whenever I thought no one was watching."
"Because she's a TARDIS, and you're human. TARDIS. Time Lord," he says, raising and lowering his hands like a scale. "Time Lord. TARDIS. It's this whole… thing."
She rolls her eyes. "Oh, shut it. The Time Lord superiority thing may work on the tourists, but not on me." She crosses her arms and smirks. "I think you're just afraid that she'll like me better."
The Doctor gapes at her. "My ship would never like you better."
"Well, then, I don't see why I shouldn't have a try at driving her."
"It's piloting, not driving, and still a bad idea. Besides, she's… complicated."
"Complicated?" Her voice goes up a decibel as she puts her hands on her hips. "Are you saying I'm not clever enough to pilot your little time machine?"
"Well…" The Doctor starts, but she eyes him in a particularly dangerous way, and he very wisely doesn't voice whatever his opinion of her intelligence might be. "Fine. If you must. Get over here."
With a rush of smug satisfaction, Donna hurries to his side while he grumbles on about humans and learning things the hard way. She eyes the console hungrily. "Now, how exactly does this work?"
With a sigh of long suffering and a dark look, he rushes through an explanation of the console, what buttons to push, which levers to pull at a million miles an hour, probably hoping she won't catch enough of it to pilot the TARDIS. But she's been through hundreds of such explanations in offices where the word "temp" was synonymous with "idiot" and "waste of time," and Lord of Time or not, the Doctor hasn't got anything on a condescending middle manager in high heels and a short skirt with hopes of shagging the boss to the top. She catches every last thing he says and has the distinct impression he's left something out, but that's fine because once she stands where he usually does, in front of the monitor with the majority of the controls in front of her, she knows what to do.
She pushes the right buttons and pulls the right levers in the sequence he showed her while in the back of her mind there is a voice helping her along, advising her to set the multi-loop stabilizer and cautioning her to mind the synchronic feedback. Maybe it's the TARDIS helping her out – it is in her head translating alien languages for her, after all, so why not help her one up Martian Boy? Donna doesn't dwell on it, though, because the Lord of Time is at the moment the Lord of Stunned and for once, his gob is shut. She is flawlessly piloting a vintage Type-40 time capsule like she's done it a million times before, and he hasn't got one thing to criticize.
Elation washes through her. "I can't believe I'm doing this!"
"Ah, neither can I." he says, stunned. Then he shouts, "Careful!" and leans over her to pound the console with his mallet and pull a lever. Now her concentration is shot, and he's shouting directions and complaining that she's coming too close to the Eighties.
"What am I going to do, put a dent in them?" she snaps.
The Doctor says something in reply, but she doesn't bother to listen because the TARDIS is making an odd noise, shrill and repetitive-
"Hold on!" she says. "That's a phone!"
The Doctor steps around her, snatches a silver mobile out of a compartment on the console that she would swear hadn't been there thirty seconds ago.
"It's got a mobile?" It's ludicrous. A mobile on a Type-40 capsule? Leave it to the Doctor to downgrade a perfectly acceptable vintage ship with a bit of flash-in-the-pan human technology. "Since when?"
"It's not mine," is what he says in reply as if that explains everything, and then there's no more time to explore the tragedy of early twenty-first century technology ensconced in the last TARDIS in the universe because someone named Martha Jones has them off and running about with soldiers and getting gassed by potato head aliens.
Later, when she's poking about in the Atmos personnel office, she finds a fob watch with strange but familiar geometric designs in her pocket. She frowns at it, mystified as to how it came to be there, not to mention whose it is, and for a moment, she sees the world burning bright orange, towers toppling, transports falling from the sky –
Out in the corridor, there are people shouting. Donna looks up as a pair of soldiers stomp past the office herding workers in front of them and when she turns back to the task at hand, she's already slipped the watch back into her pocket and forgotten about it entirely.
The next time she sleeps, her dreams are haunted by screeching pepper pots and the screams of a billion people burning in the white hot heat of a temporal holocaust.
"You're not real," is what she says to Jenny on Messaline, which is in many ways ironic, though she couldn't say exactly how.
It's certainly hypocritical since only moments before she had been naming her and arguing with the Doctor about his role in her life. Jenny takes her to task for it, defending her existence, and Donna has to concede the point. It bothers her that she's said it; it seemed a bit foreign, almost alien, as if it didn't come from her, and for the first time there is a whisper of worry in the back of her mind, a feeling that something just isn't right.
But as always, there's little time to ponder it, what with being locked up in a cell, Martha missing, and the humans and the Hath heading for war with one another.
Besides, she can see the numbers on the wall – the literal kind, those numbers, descending in order - and the figurative kind – the Doctor and Jenny, both solitary and in need of adding. Donna is brilliant at numbers; even though she's hasn't figured out the numbers on the wall yet, she has figured out the rest. The Doctor is a single, solitary one, but add Jenny, and that would be two. A bit of easy maths there, and that darkness, that weight that the Doctor carries around with him might lift if he has something to live for, something that would make his burden worth it.
And Jenny is young, barely an hour old and practically a blank slate, so eager to learn and not afraid to challenge the Doctor. She'd do him good if he lets her, but he's being such an arse about the whole affair, and Donna has had about enough of it.
"You belong here with them," he tells Jenny when she wants to escape with them.
"She belongs with us. With you." Donna is aghast by the Doctor's treatment of the poor girl; how he can reject Jenny so callously is beyond Donna's comprehension. With the Time Lords dead, it seems the Doctor would welcome this turn of events, but clearly, he is lousy with numbers, no matter how clever he professes to be. "She's your daughter."
"She's a soldier! She came out of that machine."
"Oh yes, I know that bit," she snaps. His behavior is atrocious, despicable and now he's made her angry. Dad shock is one thing, but this is going beyond the pale. She'll have to set him right. Again. "Listen, have you got that stethoscope?"
The Doctor just looks at Donna, clearly not intending to give it to her.
"Give it to me. Come on."
He digs it out of his pocket and hands it over with a sigh then backs away, his eyes going shadowed and dark.
"What are you doing?" Jenny asks, confused.
"It's all right." Donna puts the ear pieces in her ears, places the chest piece against Jenny's sternum. "Just hold still."
She listens, first on the left then on the right, hears the double heart beat, and pulls off the ear pieces. She turns to the Doctor. "Come here."
The Doctor is all darkness and reluctance but he takes the stethoscope anyway and obediently puts the ear pieces in his ears. She places the chest piece against Jenny's chest again, first the left then the right, and can literally see his wall of denial shattering, crumbling to dust. He backs away, putting space between them, but she's won, put him in his place again. There will be no more shouting, no more denial, no more rejection.
"Two hearts," he says.
"Exactly," she replies.
Jenny glances between them, still confused. "What's going on?"
"Does that mean she's a...?" Donna pauses, struggles. She should know this. It's right on the tip of her tongue. "What do you call a female Time Lord?"
"What's a Time Lord?" Jenny asks.
"It's who I am," the Doctor finally answers. "It's where I'm from."
"And I'm from you."
"You're an echo, that's all. A Time Lord is so much more. A sum of knowledge. A code. A shared history. A shared suffering." He looks away, pain and grief radiating off of him. "Only it's gone now. All of it. Gone forever."
Gone. Donna aches, aches for him, for his pain, but also for the Time Lords, all dead now, for that beautiful orange sky, the silver-leaved trees, the Citadel shining within its glass dome, all gone.
Vertigo comes upon her; it feels like the floor is bucking beneath her feet. In her ears, there is a roar like a freight train, in her nose, the smell of ozone, the scent of Time itself burning. The Doctor and Jenny go on speaking, ignoring her as she closes her eyes and tries to regain her equilibrium, but even with her eyes closed, she feels the ground breaking, splitting apart…
"Donna!" Pain spears the joint of her shoulder as someone grabs her by the arm and yanks her forward. Her eyes fly open to see it's the Doctor, and she just barely manages to bite back a scream of panic and pain because whatever she expected to see when she opened her eyes, it hadn't been the Doctor.
"We're getting out of here," he whispers, his eyes on Jenny, who is at the bars of their cell, speaking to their guard.
It isn't until later when she discovers a silver fob watch in her trouser pocket that Donna realizes that the Doctor never told her that he has two hearts.
Afterwards, the worst dream yet:
The city under glass, the orange sky, all the same, but now the robot dog glides around her ankles, calling her mistress. A headdress on her shoulders, weighing her down, and the Doctor with a different face and long hair, dressed in a velvet waist coat like he's been burgling John Keat's closet.
She is trying to convince him of her plan, but he only stares at her, aghast.
"Have you gone mad?" he gasps.
A strange little laugh escapes her. "Perhaps I have, but it's the only choice we have if we lose the Cruciform".
"No. That's a terrible idea. It will kill us all, wipe us from Time itself. There has to be another way."
"Look at us, Doctor." She gestures at the city, at the dark night sky dotted by thousands blue lights. Not stars, not even close, but the eye stalks of thousands of Daleks, hovering over the transduction barrier, besieging Gallifrey. "We've been fighting this war for over a hundred years and trapped within our own defenses for the last twenty. If the Daleks get in, if they take the Cruciform…"
"That won't happen. I won't let it." No matter the body, the Doctor is always like this, never willing to concede defeat until the last possible moment, always fighting until he realizes that the only way out is death. "Once we take back Arcadia-"
"And if we don't?" she says, impatient. "If we lose at Arcadia? You know as well as I do that if we lose the Cruciform, the war is lost. It will be Gallifrey or the universe, and I can't trust anyone else to push the button if-"
Donna opens her eyes.
She's sweating and shivering, curled up in a tight, cramped ball, blankets kicked off and onto the floor. Around her the TARDIS hums almost as if in anticipation, and her temple aches where something hard presses against it.
She unfolds herself and sits up, rubs at the aching spot just below her hair line, then reaches for the dark shape on her pillow, the thing on which her head was resting.
It's heavy and round and warm from prolonged contact with her skin. She leans over and switches on the lamp then stares at the object in her hands, the circles and whorls gleaming in the light.
"What the flippin' hell?" she mutters.
For some reason beyond her understanding, she has been sleeping on a fob watch.
Then there is River Song.
And the way she looks at Donna…
That feeling that something isn't right has been with her since Messaline, and that look of shock and pity when the Doctor says Donna's name, when River understands who Donna is, that's when Donna knows something is isn't right.
Fear douses her like cold water; she isn't sure she's ever been so afraid before, not even when the Racnoss was going to throw her down into the center of the Earth, not when she was wandering about the Sontaran ship, not when she thought she was facing certain death in the bowels of Vesuvius.
In fact, this is worse than facing immediate death; at least immediate death had you in the moment. This is knowing that something is coming, of being aware that it is slinking up behind her and could be anything - a man eating shadow, a stray bullet, a slippery shower floor, whatever - and being unable to do anything other than wait it out. She couldn't shout at it or slap it or call it names or fight it. She had to wait for it to take her, to make her gone, to turn her into a ghost in the memory of people who would live after.
"I could look you up," the Doctor offers when she mentions it to him later, tongue pushing at the back of his teeth, his fingers wriggling anxiously on the cover of the diary. "What do you think? Shall we peek at the end?"
She's tempted, so tempted, but one of the first things she had learned when she had entered the Academy was that one should never seek to know their own future. It only brings misery and tears; when it comes to your personal future, ignorance is bliss.
"Spoilers, right?" she says, and that feeling that something isn't right is so strong, so overpowering, because she has never attended any kind of academy, and certainly not one that taught the rules of time travel. It takes all of her willpower not to let the Doctor see it, and he must not because he smiles at her, his eyes full of pride and not a little bit of relief, like he expected her to make the right choice but had just the tiniest bit of doubt that she wouldn't.
But later, once the Doctor has dematerialized the TARDIS and has gone off somewhere to lick his wounds, she finds her feet moving of their own volition, steering her into parts of the TARDIS she has never visited, down corridors she has never seen before.
She's lost; she's scared; she's confused. She wishes Lee were here to comfort her then remembers that Lee wasn't real, just a bit of code in a computer somewhere, and wishes instead that the Doctor could be the strong one this time around and offer her a bit of comfort. She barks out a bitter laugh; the Doctor, as much as he tries, isn't all that great with comforting since he needs so much himself, and she marvels at how damaged this Doctor is compared to the one she first met six regenerations ago-
Donna stops, sucks in a deep breath and tries not to panic. All of these thoughts, she keeps having all of these thoughts, and they aren't hers. She can't remember them all, but she knows she has had them. Often. Repeatedly.
River Song's expression of pity rises in her mind's eye and suddenly, her legs go weak beneath her.
She needs to sit down, to think, to try to figure out what is happening to her. A few feet ahead there is a door; she tries the knob, and the door swings open on a familiar white room with a narrow bed and rondelles embedded in the walls. There is a red hat on the dresser and a framed drawing on the wall of a woman with the face of a fob watch. Her rubbery legs carry her over to the bed and let her drop her down onto the springy mattress. She sits for a moment, hands in her lap, and then she looks to the right, just by chance, no good reason really, and there it is, the fob watch, just lying there on the duvet.
She picks it up, turns it over and over, finally and at long last seeing it properly.
Everything floods back to her, every strange word she's spoken, every odd thought, every nightmare about the orange sky and burning kaeden trees, even the stupid dream with the wrong Doctor and the gutted robot dog. She remembers finding the fob watch several times before, in her toiletry bag, in her pockets, once under her head in the middle of the night, another time in the bathroom sink. She remembers the strange geometric designs on the cover, its lack of a maker's mark, it strange familiarity.
"Spoilers," she says softly, her thumb stroking over the incised designs.
And before she can let herself think about it, she pushes the release.
The orange sky, the kaeden trees burned to ashes, and Gallifrey is dying.
The ground is bucking and twisting beneath her feet as the planet breaks apart. She is hurrying through the Panopticon, trying to out distance the Daleks invading the Citadel, her personal guard having long since abandoned her. In her head, there are screams, her people dying, burning, the heat so very far beyond the heat of twenty-four nuclear bombs that it is inconceivable, even by her highly evolved mind.
But even worse than the screams of the dying is the tang of fear in the air, of blind, animalistic panic: her people brought down to their basest level, trampling their own family members, friends, even children in their attempt to outrun death. They can feel it, the end, approaching like a predator stalking a small forest animal, and they can't fight it. Millions of years of evolution, of molding time like clay, and the Time Lords have come to this, trying to outrun screeching pepper pots while their planet disintegrates around them.
As she passes the High Counsel chamber, now abandoned, someone grabs her by the arm, nearly dislocating her shoulder as they drag her into an alcove. She screams reflexively, more out shock and pain than any real kind of fear, and finds herself face to face with Braxiatel.
He is in Earth clothing, a phaser gun in one hand, and he's scheming. When faced with certain death, some people panic, others fight, but Braxiatel, he schemes, and whatever he's come up with, she knows she won't like it.
"No," she says. "Don't you dare."
"There's only one way to survive this," he replies, and his face is a mask of ruthlessness, and for the first time she is afraid of what he intends to do.
"No," she says, tries to wrench her arm away from him. "My place is with Gallifrey."
"Gallifrey is dead."
"Then I shall die with-"
Donna's eyes snap open.
She's still in the unfamiliar room, sitting on the narrow bed. She's breathing heavily, shaking, and the screams of the dying still echo in her ears. The fob watch is pressed between her palms as if she slammed it shut like a book, but she can still feel Gallifrey breaking apart beneath her feet, taste the acrid flavor of panic in the air.
She is still Donna Noble, but she is certain that if she opens the watch again, she won't be.
She drops it as if it is on fire; it lands on the bed, bounces once then lays flat, the design on the cover gleaming in the bright lighting of the white room.
And suddenly, the design has meaning.
It's not a bit of geometric art. It's a word, a name, it's her name, and it isn't a spoiler.
The days that follow are agony.
Donna carries her secret in silence, her true name always poised on the tip of her tongue, threatening to burst forth at any moment. She fears it will come at the worst time, in front of the Doctor, when he isn't ready, when she isn't ready, but she still carries the fob watch with her at all times now that she can see it properly, just in case the right time might come when she least expects it. This can't go on much longer though; whatever is in the watch has been leaking out for a long time, seeping into her opinions and speech patterns and dreams, and every day the fight gets harder.
The Doctor takes her to a leisure resort on a planet called Midnight. The surface of the planet is made of diamonds, but the sun is poisonous, and when he invites her to visit a waterfall made of sapphires, she declines, claims she wants to sunbathe. But really, she just needs some time away from him, time to think about what to do. She should tell him about it all - the fob watch, the dreams, the knowledge of things he has never discussed with her, the strange thoughts - she should. It's bloody stupid not to; people who keep secrets in sci-fi movies always get eaten by the alien in the end, and since she's living in one, it's a safe bet that if she keeps her own secret too long, things will go pear-shaped.
Besides, no matter who or what is in the watch, the Doctor is probably better equipt to deal with it, and in the end, lying there next to the pool with the poisonous sunlight filtering through fifteen feet of glass, she decides she'll tell him over dinner.
She falls asleep in the warmth of the sunlight, dreams of the kaeden trees burning and Daleks screeching in her ears, and wakes to the staff telling her that something has happened to the Doctor's space truck.
He gets out of it, of course, she never thought he wouldn't, and when he returns to the Leisure Palace, he looks broken. The first thing she does is hug him, hyper aware that the fob watch is in the pocket of her robe and pressing between their bodies. He doesn't notice, though, too distracted by the miserable show of humanity he experienced. He tells her about what happened in a voice laden with bleak weariness, and at the end she decides that whatever is living in her fob watch can wait for a bit. She'll tell him about it when he has had a break from all the tragedy that seems to follow him about.
But she never gets the chance.
Donna Noble's last dream:
She is in a huge chamber, filled with furniture that seemed to be designed with an 80s pop star's idea of futuristic and a massive inlay on the floor in the shape of an elaborate and stylized figure eight. There is a desk in front of a large window, an expansive marble affair, and there are papers scattered across it, maps of the stars, hand drawn schematics for a device that Donna understands is the Cruciform. The window looks out over a city of gleaming steel towers, and the night sky beyond is pricked with the tiny blue lights of Dalek eye stalks, waiting for their chance to destroy Gallifrey.
And there is a woman at the window.
She is looking out over the city, hands linked behind her back, her white robes and large headdress insinuating dignity and importance. Donna approaches her, no, is drawn to her; she can't help but to go forward, to speak to her, to learn who she is.
"Hello?" she calls, moving forward, her footsteps echoing through the huge room.
"Look, Donna," the woman replies, her voice heavy with desolation. "These are the last few hours of Gallifrey. Soon Arcadia will fall, the Daleks will break through the transduction barrier, and the Doctor will destroy us all, wipe us out of Time completely. The majority of us, anyway."
She turns, her robes sweeping over the floor, and Donna gasps.
She's looking at her own face, could be staring into a mirror except for the robes and the headdress and the darkness so very like the Doctor's in her eyes, all guilt and sorrow and defeat.
"Who are you?" Donna demands, terrified and angered by her terror.
"My name is Romana. I was once the president of-."
"I know that!" Donna shouts. "I can read the name on the bloody watch. I mean, why are you in my head? I know that if I open the watch, I will become you, but I want to know why. Who are you? Why did you choose me?"
"You know the answer to that."
Donna pauses, considers it, her mind rolling back over everything that has happened to her, the dreams, the strange thoughts, the things she's known that she should have, and then reality slides sideways. Donna finds herself short of breath, nauseous, overwhelmed by the same fear she had felt when River Song looked at her as if she were already dead.
"You're me, aren't you?" she whispers.
"Actually, Donna, you are me," Romana replies gently. "The chameleon arch rewrites a Time Lord's biodata, changes their DNA, and extracts all but a fragment of their personality small enough to fit within a human mind. The fob watch is the container that holds the original biodata, and once it is opened, the human reverts back to the original personality."
"This can't be happening," Donna says, horrified by the realization that she isn't real.
"Please understand that it is not a fate I would have chosen for either of us," Romana continues. "I was prepared to die with the rest of my kind, with Gallifrey, but Braxiatel refused to let me go down with the ship." She sighs. "I still haven't decided whether he thought he was saving me or damning me."
Donna shuts her eyes, tries not to drown. "How many years?"
"Do you remember your first kiss?"
"When I was fourteen," Donna replies, a dim memory of a dark closet and a wet and sloppy meeting of mouths. "Darrel McPhearson down the street. He moved away a week later."
"And your first boy friend?"
"Tim Hollister." Clearer memories this time, sill wet and sloppy, though. "When I was sixteen."
"Tim was real, Darrel was not."
Donna can only stare at her. "But that's… years. Decades. I've been the wrong person my entire life."
The woman grasps Donna's arm desperately. "No, you musn't think that. Please don't think that. You haven't been the wrong person, you've been Donna Noble, and I could not have chosen to be anyone better."
Donna looks into the other woman's eyes, her own eyes, and sees nothing but sincerity there. "You mean that, don't you?"
"Absolutely. In fact, I would happily remain you for the rest of your life and never face my deeds, but I fear the current situation won't allow for it."
Donna's eyes tear up. "Then you know…"
"That the Doctor is dead?" Romana nods solemnly. "Yes. But I believe we can rectify that, just like we can be rid of the thing on your back, and the immanent doom of all the universes in existence."
"And how exactly are we going to do that? Because I certainly don't know."
"When the time comes, Donna, you will know." Romana turns back to the window with a sigh. "You always do."
Someone shakes her awake.
Donna starts, sits up abruptly, is disoriented to find herself on an uncomfortable cot in a warehouse full of UNIT soldiers and the dry, pungent smell of engine oil. The image of steel and chrome towers and a sky full of Dalek lights lingers a moment, then dissipates, leaving her staring up at a solemn Rose Tyler.
Donna rubs her eyes. "How long have I been out?"
"A couple of hours." Rose shifts uncomfortably, a look of pity not unlike River Song's in her eyes. Behind her a UNIT soldier hovers, his side arm prominently displayed on his hip. "Donna, they have this machine. It will take care of the thing on your back and solve our current problems, or so they say."
Rose's voice trails off into silence, and Donna decides that she really doesn't care for the way the Doctor's girlfriends keep looking at her.
Donna raises her eyebrows. "I hear a 'but'."
"But they want to use it on you, since you seem to be the center of it all, and you probably won't survive."
Donna nods. "Yeah. All right then. What do I need to do?"
Rose looks distressed, darkness not entirely unlike the Doctor's in her eyes. "Donna, you do understand that the machine is going to kill you if you do this?"
"Yeah. I remember you mentioning the dying bit earlier, when we found the Doctor's body. But what can I do, right? It's me or every universe in existence."
Then she stands, pushes past Rose before she lets herself think about what she is about to do and marches across the warehouse floor, head held high. The colonel or brigadier or whoever she is sees her coming, starts to say something, but Donna cuts her off before she can start giving orders, or worse, words of comfort.
"Right. I know. Machine, I'll die, the world will be saved, and et cetera. Just tell me what I need to do, and let's get on with it."
Everyone is looking entirely uncomfortable, as if her sanguine acceptance of her fate is far worse than if she had begged and screamed and cried and had forced them to put her in the machine at gun point.
The colonel, brigadier, whoever nods sharply. "Very well, Miss Noble. Queen and country thank you for your-"
Donna merely rolls her eyes. "Oh, please, don't say sacrifice." She turns to the cluster of technicians with their clipboards and white lab coats. "Which one of you geeks is going to tell me what to do?"
They all glance at each other nervously then one bravely steps forward and clears his throat. "Miss Noble, if you will step this way, I will explain everything."
Numbly, Donna follows him over to a cluster of computers, lets him rattle off a bunch of techno-babble gobbledeegook at her, nods at all of the places that seem appropriate, then goes where he sends her to stand at the center of the machine. It seems to be little more than mirrors and flood lights, and she realizes that this is the end of her, either death by something on her back, flood lights and mirrors, or death by fob watch, but either way, she's going to die.
It's so surreal, it's almost funny.
She panics then, knowing that it's time, that the thing slinking up on her is here, about to take her down, and for a moment thinks she might give into cowardice and run for it. But then she remembers why she's about to die and reminds herself that this isn't about being Donna Noble, this is about doing the right thing. This is about saving the universe, every universe, and the Doctor too, if what Romana said in her dream was true. It's a good way to go, being the hero. The Doctor got to do it all the time, and now it is her turn.
But that didn't mean she isn't scared out of her mind.
Someone touches her shoulder. Donna starts, looks over to see Rose Tyler standing next to her with a gentle, compassionate smile on her face. Donna thinks she must have stolen the Doctor's heart the minute he saw that smile and understands a bit better why he had barely been able to say her name that Christmas after he lost her.
"The Doctor told me once that he only takes the best," Rose Tyler says, slipping her hand into Donna's and squeezing. "He wasn't wrong."
Donna manages to dredge up a smile in return. "I always knew that alien had impeccable taste."
Rose's smile brightens. "He really does."
One of the technicians calls out that they are ready.
"Well, time to save the universes." Donna finds herself tearing up, swallowing around a lump in her throat as she disentangles her hand from Rose's. "If this works properly, could you tell my mum and Gramps that I love them?"
"Of course," Rose says.
"And tell the Doctor…" Donna pauses, unable to think of any good last words, and says with a sigh, "Oh, he knows."
"Yeah," Rose says with a nod as she backs out of range of the machine as it begins to hum and the floodlights ignite, "I think he does."
And then it's just Donna, standing in the center of the machine, her heart (hearts) pounding madly and her legs watery beneath her. A new wave of fear floods over her, but she ignores it as the hum of the machine increases into a high-pitched whine, and the flood lights become so bright that she's nearly blinded.
"When the time comes, you will know what to do," is what Romana said in her dream, and suddenly she does, even if she doesn't understand the how of it.
She slips her hand into her pocket and slowly pulls out the fob watch, even as pain joins the hum and the lights of the machine, pain beyond the telling, pain so intense it freezes her scream in her throat. The thing on her back that everyone says is there but she just can't see begins a panicked chittering, and around her, beyond the flood lights, there are people watching, just standing there watching her die, and she thinks, I can't do this.
Then a memory:
The Doctor, soaked to the bone, eyes full of darkness and sorrow, standing next to the TARDIS and saying, "And just... be magnificent."
And that memory, that tiny, nearly insignificant memory coming out of nowhere is all she needs to carry through.
So Donna Noble, who was nearly eaten by a bloody great spider in her wedding dress, who met Agatha Christie and ran from voracious shadows and shared the Doctor's burdens even if only for a little while, who saw the horror and the beauty of life, the universe and everything while running beneath the stars hand in hand with a mad, wonderful, stick thin streak of alien nothing, presses the release.
And is really quite magnificent.
Someone lets her go back to the cot where Donna was sleeping before. Rose Tyler brings her a cup of sour, army-issue coffee with a wary look on her face, but everyone else stays well away, watching her furtively out of the corner of their eyes. She huddles there, holding the coffee under her nose but not drinking; the scent of sour coffee is so much better than the smell of burning ozone emitted by the machine, burning ozone which reminds her so unpleasantly of Gallifrey.
Rose leaves a bit later, and sometime after that, the Doctor returns, comes bursting into the warehouse radiating fire and ice and rage, his eyes falling on her immediately.
A few people try to greet him as he crosses the warehouse floor, but most back away from him, from the heat of his fury. Rose trails behind him, confused, still wary, but stops half way across and stands at a distance, watching them.
The Doctor himself comes right up to her, looms over, his eyes pinning her with his outrage and relief, his joy and his hate.
"Romana," he says.
Romanadvoratrelundar, once the Lady President of Gallifrey, nods. "Doctor."
There is a pregnant silence as they stare at one another then the Doctor looks away as if he can't stand the sight of her, misery and anger etched into the lines of his face.
Romana drops her eyes and stares down into the coffee, now cool between her hands. She never wanted to be here, never wanted to outlive her planet, never wanted to face the Doctor again after what she asked of him. But here she is, and although Donna was merely a figment of her personality, she was a real person to the Doctor, one he loved, and most importantly, one who had never asked him to destroy the entirety of Gallifrey's existence.
"Donna was-" she begins because the pressure of his silence is too great, and she must say something to ease it off, to help her escape it.
"Donna was what?" the Doctor shouts, whirling on her with the full force of his anger and grief, and she very much wishes she hadn't opened her mouth.
Romana resists the desire to recoil from him, from that horrible darkness that Donna so often saw. Rage pours off of him, rolls outwards in waves, and this is the moment that will define their future relationship, whether he will consider her enemy or ally, whether they might mend whatever is broken between them.
Her next words can not be wrong.
She takes a deep breath, gathers her courage. "Donna was… magnificent."
The moment of silence that follows seems to stretch forever outwards and beyond all of her time senses as she waits, waits on his judgment, waits to know among whom, friend or enemy, she can now count herself.
Then it passes. The Doctor deflates, the rage bleeding away, his shoulders slumping with misery. He rubs his eye, shoves his hands into his pockets, looks away again.
"Yeah," he says with a sigh. "They always are."