Standard Disclaimers Apply.
Chapter 1: Tempting Fate
"So," the Doctor said, darting around the control panel like a live-wire without glancing up at his companion, "Where to next? 51st century? … Nah. Might run into someone before I'm supposed to, with my luck. Oh! How about the Renaissance! I haven't been back there in ages! Just think about it, Donna; you could meet the Leonardo Da Vinci! The original Renaissance Man!" He paused, frowning up at the ceiling briefly. "Mind you, you'll have to meet him on your own; we had a bit of a falling out the last time we spoke." The frown vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and he finally looked over at his friend's face. "Or we… I suppose we could… just go and get some chips, or something. So? What d' you think?"
Donna was still standing where he'd last seen her, just inside the doors of the TARDIS. She was staring through him, her mouth slightly open, her coppery hair slightly mussed, and was still wearing the deeply purple toga that she'd gotten in Pompeii. … It looked a bit singed. "Um… I donno," she said quietly after a moment, "Whatever you like."
He studied her in silence for a few seconds, his expression suddenly grave. "… You alright?" He kept his tone light, almost offhand, but his eyes were concerned. Even as he said it, he regretted it; she'd seen an entire city buried alive in a sea of ash, and that was AFTER almost being sacrificed and then nearly killed by rock monsters. He wasn't sure that he was alright. How on earth could she hope to be?
She blinked, her eyes finally focusing on him completely, and then shook her head once, sharply. "Yeah. Fine. What were you sayin'?"
He crossed his arms and leaned back against the TARDIS' main console. "I was saying," he said carefully, still taking pains to sound fairly cheerful, "That we could take you home and just… get some chips. If you that's what you want."
Donna's far away look vanished completely in two seconds flat. "Oi! Are you tryin' to DUMP me?" she growled. His eyes widened with surprise and (a millisecond later) indignation, and he opened his mouth to protest. She talked right over him, pointing forcefully at him every few seconds for extra emphasis. "I don' THINK so! You're not takin' me on one bloody trip and then chuckin' me out. You said you'd take me travelin', one trip ain't exactly 'travelin'', now is it?"
"Alright! Alright!" he exclaimed, then turned around and muttered, "See if I ever try to cheer you up again."
"What was that?" Donna snapped.
He ignored her question completely. "So, where did you want to go, then?" He was fiddling with the controls again, but it was mostly at random. "Any preferences at all? Or…" he added, his tone comically faux-casual.
Donna sighed, still sounding irritated, but when she spoke he thought he heard a trace of a smile in her voice. "Or?"
He turned back to face her very fast. "Or, I could tell the TARDIS to randomly generate a location, and just see what happens," he told her, his eyes very bright. "Entirely up to chance. We could end up anywhere," he concluded in a low, intense voice.
Donna pursed her lips, and he wondered briefly if he'd overdone it. Then she grinned, her eyes just as bright as his. "Fine by me!"
He beamed right back before spinning about and starting to manipulate the controls in what probably would have been called a frenzy if he'd been anyone else. "Alright, Donna Noble; let's tempt fate!"
"Isn't that what we do, anyway?" Donna asked cheekily.
The Doctor frowned, opened his mouth to contradict her, thought for a second, and then closed it again before shrugging and shooting her a sheepish little smile. "Allons-y!" His hand shot forward, pressing down on what looked suspiciously like an elevator button (corresponding to a basement floor, to be specific), and that strange, repetitive, mechanical sound, somewhere in between a groan and a scream, filled the cabin as the TARDIS began to do what she did best.
"Doctor," Donna said, her voice sincere, "I jus' wanted to say… thanks again."
"For savin' that family. The children especially. I couldn't have lived with—" She cut off, tears in her eyes again, and looked at the floor. "Anyway, thanks."
He looked up at her from under his eyebrows, his expression unreadable "… Yeah," he replied shortly, and turned his attention back to the controls without another word. He had caused Pompeii. He had. The choice had been his, and he'd chosen. To be honest, he was getting really, really sick of being stuck with choices like that. Of having to pick the lesser of two very evil evils. He'd doomed thousands and saved four; as a result, Donna was thanking him. THANKING him. Like he had done something… good. Something heroic. And maybe he had, but he didn't feel like a hero. Hadn't for a while, if it came to that. If you hadn't chosen this place-- on a whim-- would anyone have died?
Oh, yeah. Brilliant. He ought to go and get himself one of those little single serving ice cream things and curl up to watch Love Actually, or something. With a box of tissues. "I don't want a lot for Christmas," he sang absently under his breath, "There's only one thing I need…"
"It's almost May," Donna told him severely.
He shot her a glare. "Yeah? So? It's just a song! You humans and your seasonal music," he added, twisting several different sized knobs in quick succession.
"What's that supposed to—"
The TARDIS shuddered. The Doctor went stock still, staring up at the glowing green cylinder at the heart of its console. It still seemed to be working, but…
"Doctor," Donna said slowly, "What was that?"
He continued staring. Something was wrong. "I don't—"
This time, it didn't shudder. It convulsed. The odd sound that came with its travel suddenly sounded more like a real, living thing—a real, living thing that was screaming at the top of its lungs. Both Donna and the Doctor were pitched violently to the floor: him falling backward and away from the console, and her crashing back into the doors.
The TARDIS continued to scream.
After a few seconds of black, Donna blinked the spots out of her eyes and tried to sit up, only to be thrown back again by another tremor. Her heart hammering in her chest, she frantically cast about the TARDIS, looking for some sign of movement. After a moment, she found him, crouched on the floor next to the control matrix, or whatever he called it. She couldn't see him very well, what with the flickering lights and the random sparks issuing from damaged wiring, but it seemed like something was… wrong. "Doctor!" she called, struggling to be heard over the TARDIS' wails. The sound was awful, like nails on a chalkboard, the yowling frightened cat, and the pained screaming of a woman, all rolled into one. "DOCTOR!" He didn't respond, and the feeling that something was wrong got stronger.
Gritting her teeth, Donna started clawing her way across the floor, keeping low and close to the ground so that when the box's shaking threw her down—which it did every few seconds—she wasn't much hurt. She got close enough to see him properly… and then stopped, something heavy and unpleasant settling in the pit of her stomach.
The Doctor was throwing up.
And not just a little bit of retching, either. The grating on the floor in front of him was covered with a thick coating of stinking slime, and she could only assume that most of the goop had poured down onto the machinery beneath. His face was ashen, tinged a ghostly green by the failing light of the struggling TARDIS, and he was shaking at least as much as it was. From this angle, she could see that he wasn't crouching as much as he was curling up into a little ball, his back arched, arms at his sides, and his nose almost touching the vomit covered floor.
To sum up, he looked like he was dying.
She stared for another second, feeling a bit ill herself. She'd never seen him like this. Not ever. Then he retched again—a dry heave. Apparently, he was all out of stuff to throw up—and she snapped out of it, pulling herself over to his side. Her right arm went around his shoulders, and she ran the fingers of her free hand soothingly through his hair, pushing it out of his face. "Shhh… It's alrigh'. I've got you, sweetheart," she told him softly, close to his ear in order to be heard over the noise. "I've got you."
Shivering, he leaned into her. "R-rose," he gasped, "I-is that y—" He heaved again, his whole body tensing.
Donna was sure that she was going to cry, but when she spoke, her voice was surprisingly steady. "It's alrigh', Doctor. Shhh… I've got you." She didn't have the heart to contradict him, just then. What could it hurt, being Rose for him? Just for a bit?
Finally, his muscles went loose again. "It hurts," he whimpered, his words coming in between quick, frightened little breaths, "It hurts Rose, it hurtsithurtsit—GAHHAGH!"
As he cried out, the TARDIS let out a shriek that surpassed any sound it had made so far, and Donna shouted, automatically clapping both hands over her ears. Unfortunately, this left her unable to support herself when a final, bone-shaking vibration seemed to shatter the very air around her. She felt herself slam into something hard, and then felt something long full of sharp angles slam down on top of her. She knew what that was, at least. Damn him and those pointy elbows, she thought absently.
Everything went very dark for the second time in as many minutes.
When she woke up, things were still very dark, and at first she panicked. Something heavy was on top of her, and she couldn't move, and things were too quiet and too still, and it was DARK! Then a feeble spark of dying electricity went up from one of the cables, and she got a good look at the top of somebody's messy, brown-haired head. The Doctor was on top of her. That was right; she'd been thrown across the room, and he'd landed on her. With his face on her—her chest. Not that it mattered. It wasn't like—"Oh shut up," she told herself, and started trying to shift his weight off of herself, being as gentle as she could.
He was heavier than he looked.
After a lot of work and even more cursing, she managed to get him off of her and rolled over onto his back. He'd still been warm, but she checked for a pulse just in case, gingerly pressing two fingers just under his chin. 'Thu-THUD.' That was some good news, anyway. "... Well, the electricity's still on, " she told him, as another brief shot of white light crackled from the cord, "So I reckon I couldn't 'ave been out for more than a minute or two, yeah?" There was, of course, no answer, and she pursed her lips, trying not to cry. She couldn't help. She didn't know anything about medicine, nothing at all, and even if she had… He was an alien. He had—Hang on a tick… Isn't he supposed to have two hearts?
Her own heart hammering, she placed her hand over the right side of his chest. A lazy Thu-THUD immediately greeted her. She swallowed, then moved over to the other side.
"Oh, God," she heard herself say, her voice scarcely above a whisper. What was she supposed to do? She'd only taken those stupid safety courses at the temp agency, and it wasn't like she'd been thinking about any of it; it had been a mandatory thing, something you just had to get out of the way. Biting her lip, she tried to remember. "Okay. Okay," she breathed, "Jus'—I'm goin' to save you. Alrigh'? … And you're still unconscious. Not much point in talkin' to an unconscious bloke, is there?" She needed to get a hold of herself.
Interlocking her fingers, she placed her hands over where she assumed his other heart would be—she'd never asked. Should she have? Was this the sort of thing that you were supposed to ask when you traveled with somebody who had two hearts?—she pushed down. HARD.
She tried again. Still nothing. And again. STILL nothing. And now she was crying outright, because she couldn't help, and was so useless, and what if he died while she was sitting there pounding on his chest! "WAKE UP!" she shouted, emphasizing her words with two mighty pushes.
Suddenly, there was a heartbeat beneath her fingers. Weak, thready, but definitely there. A second later, he coughed at let out a little groan. Donna laughed, relief making her feel weak. "D…Donna?"
"Yeah," she replied immediately, the laughter still in her voice, "I'm here."
"… You alright?"
"Oh, shut up," she told him automatically. He let out a choking sort of sound, and she tensed—then relaxed when she realized that it was laughter. "Yeah, right. Hilarious. What the hell was that?" Gingerly, he started trying to sit up—almost at once, he gasped and fell back down. "Doctor!" she yelled automatically, fear tightening her chest.
"Ow," he snapped, "Ears. Yelling. Yelling in my ears."
"Sorry," she whispered, then hesitated for a second. "You might want to stay lying down for a bit."
"Yeah, I got that, thanks," he informed her in a tight, pained voice.
The two of them sat in silence for a few seconds. It didn't feel awkward, exactly; more like the hushed sort of quiet that comes after a nearly life-ending experience. Finally, she repeated, "What the hell was that?" Somehow, the intonation she used reminded her of the way her mother sounded when she prayed.
The Doctor was silent for so long that Donna thought that he might have passed out again. Then, finally, "… I have no idea."
"No, see," Donna began impatiently, "You SAY that, but you always have some sort of—"
"Not this time," he cut in, emphatic. Well, as emphatic as he could be, given his current state. "What just happened—That's never happened. Not ever. And I'm not just talking about my own experience, either; that has never happened in the entire history of my people, nor has it happened to any other time-traveler as far as I'm aware."
Donna thought about this. "…Oh."
"… What was that?" he asked, sounding almost... lost.
They were both silent for another few minutes, the dark and quiet only interrupted by the ever more occasional spark.
"Your TARDIS," Donna began slowly, "It's…"
"Dead," he confirmed, his voice flat. She flinched at how devoid of emotion it was. "As a doornail. Muerto, mort, tot, νεκρός, мертвый, and very, very umarły."
"But, then…" she continued, not sure that she really wanted to even as she said the words, "Wherever we are, we're stuck."
"Oh, yes," he confirmed, sounding much too calm.
"But… That's bad, isn't it? What does that mean? Can't you… build another one, or something?"
"In order: very bad, yes; alternate dimension, with my luck; and no, I can't." He was quiet for another second. "It doesn't work like that."
"But… You're takin' this… pretty well," she protested slowly, "It's your TARDIS! Your… I mean… You STROKE it!"
"I do not! Why does everybody always…" he began, then dissolved into coughing. She waited, concerned. "And anyway, I've got.." he pulled something small out of his pocket. "A backup."
"… A rock?"
"No! It's a power cell. More particularly, it's an isolated power cell from the TARDIS. See, the TARDIS draws power from our reality; if it's dead, then we've probably fallen into a different one."
"What makes you say that?" Donna asked, skeptical.
"… It's happened before," he replied quietly, in his 'I'm not discussing the particulars' tone. "And last time, we managed to bring the TARDIS back to life with this. Only for five minutes or so, but long enough to get back to our own dimension."
"… With the rock."
"Will you let go of the rock bit?" he asked, exasperated, "It's not a rock, alright? It's not. Just trust me. The main problem is…" He went quiet again, this time for about 30 seconds. Donna tapped her fingernail against her shoe. "Donna…?" he said finally.
"Yes, Doctor?" she sighed, resigned. She wasn't sure that she wanted to know what the main problem was, at that point.
"I might… I might have… lied. A bit."
"A bit?" What did that even mean?
"I do sort of have something that's vaguely similar to… an idea. It's just that—It's mad. I mean it. MAD."
"About what just happened."
"You just said! We ended up in an alternate dimension!" This was getting far too confusing. Running from monsters—Fine. Puzzling things out—Brilliant. Doctor Tech Speak? No. Thanks all the same, but no.
"It's not the what that's important in this case," he explained, though he sounded more like he was talking to himself, "It's the how. And the how is so impossible that… I don't even…"
"Oh, just EXPLAIN it, will you? And anyway," she added crossly, "You constantly say things are impossible, even though if they're happening they're clearly not as impossible as you thought they were."
"No, see that's exactly it! I think things are impossible, but they never are. Because they're happening." Donna stared at him blankly, even though he probably couldn't make out her facial expression in the dark. "Something truly impossible can never, ever happen, because then it would be possible, right?"
"Except that… Did you see what the TARDIS was doing? What I was doing?"
Donna thought about it. "Yeah. You were—" She cut herself off, swallowing. "You were both sick. You were both really sick. "
She stared at him. "… You've gone round the bend, haven't you?"
"Donna," he pressed on, still obviously thinking hard. "Even if something supposedly impossible happens, it's still part of that particular time stream. Which I can see. Feel. Which the TARDIS and I are connected to on a fundamental level. What just happened—It was so.. WRONG. I don't even know how to—Can't describe it. Even the paradox last year didn't…"
He trailed off, and Donna waited a few seconds before timidly asking, "What paradox?"
That seemed to snap him out of it somewhat. "It was like… Whatever was supposed to happen next, it wasn't this. Maybe we were supposed to go to a masked ball, or get chased by witch hunters, or be captured and made into house pets by the Cat-Kind; doubt we'll ever know, now. Point is, it wasn't supposed to be this." He went still again before whispering, "I felt like I was going to..." He stopped talking, swallowed, and did not continue.
Donna stared at the dark shape that was her Doctor, and then breathed, "I don' understand."
"I suppose… The best way to say it…" She could feel him looking at her, even if she couldn't see his eyes. "If I'm right, we didn't just tempt fate, Donna. We broke it."