The Doctor was having a relaxing day. He'd foiled a small alien incursion -- it would be an exaggeration to call it an invasion -- joined in an impromptu jam session with some street musicians, and enjoyed some very nice ice cream. Now he was ambling along a busy London street in the direction of the TARDIS, his mind entirely on the idea of settling down with a cup of tea and a book, then perhaps finally giving the TARDIS that three hundred-year tune-up she was several centuries overdue for.
Except... Except, no, that wasn't all he was thinking about. There was something else. Something in the back of his mind, the corner of his eye. Something interesting. He stopped abruptly in the middle of the pavement, raised the question-mark handle of his umbrella thoughtfully to his lips, and turned in a slow circle.
A teenager talking loudly into a mobile phone nearly collided with him and stalked away, glaring. No, it wasn't him. Two elderly women passed by, in the middle of some animated conversation. He smiled. Not them. A couple holding hands, a mother with a baby, men in suits, women in suits, shop fronts, passing cars. No, no, no... Ah.
The red-haired woman on the corner waiting to cross was looking at him strangely, but that in itself meant very little. People frequently looked at him strangely; he'd no idea why. But there was something about her... Not her appearance; that was ordinary enough. Something strange, something subtle. He closed his eyes for a moment. Yes, there it was. A regeneration ago, he'd never have noticed it, never have heard it over the sound of his own ego. It tasted of tangled timelines and smelled very faintly of Time Lord. And something else, too, something even more familiar.
He opened his eyes, smiled pleasantly, and walked up to her. "Excuse me. I was wondering if perhaps you know me from somewhere?"
"What?" She stared at him, incredulous.
"Do you know me?" he repeated. "I rather think you might."
"Never seen you before in my life. Sorry." She turned to stare at the still-red traffic light, doing a surprisingly good job of simultaneously ignoring him, presumably in the hope that he would go away, and keeping a wary watch on him from the corner of her eye.
He maneuvered around in front of her again. "Are you sure?" he said, staring deeply into her eyes. "Are you positive?"
She flinched. "Yeah, I'm positive. And I'd like to keep it that way, thanks." When he didn't move, she added, "Listen, Sunshine, whatever your game is, it stops right now, okay? Because I am not a person you want to mess with." Her hand came down in an emphatic chopping gesture, then plunged into the pocket of her trousers and curled into a visible fist. "I've got mace in my pocket. And I've got mates on the police force. Good mates. Best mates. And I've got a six-foot-five boyfriend with muscles out to here" -- the hand not in her pocket gestured a foot or so from her bicep -- "who just loves beating up on strange little men who give me crap. So run along and find somebody else to harass, okay? Ta."
And with that, the light changed and she was off, striding with surprising dignity considering the speed at which she moved.
The Doctor stood on the corner, fingers tapping at his chin, and watched her go. "Interesting," he said. "Very interesting, indeed."
Donna was feeling restless and edgy. It was a mood that had been coming over her more and more often lately, this feeling that something, somewhere was missing, was wrong, and that she had no idea what to do about it. Mum and Gramps kept trying to reassure her that it was understandable, even normal, after her "nervous exhaustion," or whatever it was she'd had, and that she should try not to think about it. Easy for them to say.
She did try, though. They seemed so genuinely frightened by the possibility that she might burst a blood vessel or something trying to think too hard about the memories she was missing that it was impossible not to take them seriously. But she kept finding herself reacting to the strangest things. She'd had to stop watching Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure halfway through, the bizarre sense of déjà vu and the dull, pounding headache had got so bad. And why on earth should she react that way to a story about a couple of idiots in a time-travelling phone booth? How did that make any sense at all?
And that man on the street corner today... He'd set it off, too, somehow, whatever "it" was. This strange feeling of something familiar, something she'd lost, something in the back of her head whispering words she could never quite hear. It was bloody maddening.
Well. She simply refused to believe that, no matter how much amnesia she had, she could ever have forgotten someone who thought question marks were some kind of fashion statement. Really, there were limits to believability. She shook her head and picked up the magazine she'd already started and abandoned three times today, determined to actually finish it this time. Some nice, juicy celebrity gossip articles, that's what she needed. In Donna's experience, there was no better way to make yourself feel more normal.
She'd finished all of two sentences when the doorbell rang. Clearly, the universe did not want her feeling normal today. She sighed and threw the magazine back onto the table. "That had better be Prince Charming coming to take me away from all this, that's all I have to say."
She opened the door. The little question mark man from earlier doffed his hat, smiled, and said, "Hello again!"
"Bloody hell!" she exclaimed. "It's you! Are you stalking me? You are! You're a stalker! Oh, my God. I've never had a stalker before. You know what? I always thought it might be kind of flattering, but it's not. It's pretty much just creepy. How did you even find me?"
He pulled something out of his pocket. She flinched for a moment, expecting it to be a gun or a knife or... God knows what. A garrote? Did stalkers garrote people? But instead it was some kind of strange gadget, with spinny bits and little flashing lights. He opened his mouth to speak.
"What is that?" she said, cutting him off. "No, wait. I don't want to know. I really, really don't want to know. It's something perverted, isn't it?"
"If you'll just let me explain," he said, in a quiet, serious tone that made her feel calmer, more relaxed, more...
She blinked her eyes and shook her head, suddenly realizing that he was already halfway in the door. "Hey!" She stepped in front of him, keeping him from coming any further.
"Listen to me," he said. "It's important. I have reason to believe that you're in serious danger." He stared into her eyes again, the way he had back on the street, and this time she felt something. That whatever-it-was in the back of her head, stirring in recognition.
"Who are you?" she said, her voice barely a whisper.
"I'm the Doctor," he said. "I'm here to help."
For a moment, she felt herself falling into his eyes. A stupid expression, she'd always thought, but now she finally understood what it meant. And then, suddenly, whatever connection had begun was over, as a strangled exclamation from behind her broke the spell.
"Doctor?! Did he say Doctor?" It was Gramps. She thought he'd been off taking a nap. "I don't know what you're playing at, but you get away from her right now, you hear?" He shook his fist at the little man, who looked deeply interested by this response.
"So you know who I am, then?" he said brightly.
Gramps looked back and forth between the little man and Donna, an anguished expression on his face.
"It's all right, sweetheart. Nothing for you to worry about." He glared at the man -- the Doctor? Why did that sound familiar? "You." He pointed a trembling finger at the man. "You're coming with me. We're going to talk." He looked back over at Donna, touching her shoulder gently. "You stay here."
She opened her mouth to protest, and he squeezed her shoulder harder than she'd thought him capable of. "I mean it. For the first time in your life, do as you're asked, sweetheart, please. Stay here. I'll be back, I promise."
He released her shoulder and clamped onto the Doctor's, hustling him out of the house. The small man gave her a strange smile and doffed his hat again as the door closed behind him.
Donna's first impulse was to go after them, of course. She wasn't afraid of this "Doctor," whoever or whatever he was. But that look on Gramps' face... She'd never seen him like that before.
She swallowed, sat down, and picked up her magazine again, but the words kept trying to translate themselves into some strange foreign language in her head.
By the time he'd finished saying what he needed to say, the sun had set and the stars were beginning to come out. Ordinarily, this was Wilf's favorite time of the day, especially up here on the hill, but after all that talking, all those halting attempts to explain things he didn't entirely understand himself, he mostly just felt tired. Though perhaps it was a good kind of tired, in a way. It was a bit of a relief to be able to talk about it to someone. Sylvia tended to get hysterical whenever the subject came up, so mostly now he kept his worries, and his sadness, to himself.
The Doctor, at least, had not become hysterical. He was sitting there quietly now, staring up in the direction of Polaris with a thoughtful expression on his face. Wilf found his stillness oddly unnerving. The Doctor he'd met, he realized, would probably be pacing around right now, pulling at his hair, talking too loud and too fast. It was funny. He'd caught a glimpse, maybe, of that strange, manic man in this fellow before, but right this moment there was nothing recognizable in him at all.
"You're really the Doctor?" he said, unable to stop the words from spilling out of him, even though they'd been over this once already. "You're really the same person?"
"Yes," said the Doctor. "I am. Or I will be. That's how regeneration works, when it goes the way it's supposed to."
"'Will be'," said Wilf, shaking his head. "I never will understand all this time travel guff. Space travel, that I understand the attraction of. But time travel? Seems entirely too complicated to me."
"It can be," said the Doctor. He smiled faintly, but his eyes still seemed distant.
"Well, never mind all that," said Wilf. "The important thing is, you understand now, right? Why you shouldn't see her, shouldn't talk to her. You -- the other you, that is -- said that even the mention of your name, of the TARDIS, aliens, anything, could be dangerous. You do understand?"
"I understand a great many things," said the Doctor quietly. "Some of them better than others."
Wilf merely looked at him for a moment, uncertain how to respond to this.
"What happened to me, I wonder?" said the Doctor, his voice barely above a whisper.
Wilf wasn't sure how to answer that one, either, but he felt as if he should say something. The Doctor's gaze sharpened on him as soon as he began to open his mouth, though. "Don't tell me."
Wilf closed his mouth again, still with no idea of what he would have said.
"The interesting thing is," said the Doctor, his fingers drumming lightly against the handle of his umbrella, "that I appear to have told you that suppressing Donna's memories was the only option."
"You mean it wasn't?" Wilf felt his heart lurch with a sudden, hot rush of hope.
"No," said the Doctor. "It was simply the easiest, safest, most sensible option. Which doesn't really sound like me."
Wilf thought again of the Doctor he'd known. "No, it doesn't," he said.
The Doctor -- this Doctor -- smiled at him, as if he'd said something reassuring. "Well," he said. "No doubt I'll have my reasons. But since I don't have any of them yet..." He rose abruptly to his feet, offering a hand to help Wilf to his. "Let's go find Donna."
As soon as he returned to the house, the Doctor could tell what had happened. She was looking at him with eyes that were too big, too full of reflections.
"Doctor?" she said, her voice small and confused. "I was just thinking about you."
"Yes," he said softly. "So I see."
"You... We... I..." Her too-large pupils suddenly contracted to focus on him, and her eyebrows drew together in an expression of outrage. "You bastard! You took it from me! You took it all away from me! You... You..."
She started to rise from her chair, her hand raised as if to strike him, but Wilf stopped her, gripping her arm tightly. "Sweetheart. He can help. You have to let him help." The Doctor could hear real fear under the man's words and felt a pang. If he ever happened to run into his future self, the one who had done this, they were going to have words.
"Yeah, right, like you 'helped' me before," she said. "I don't bloody well think so! I think--" She broke off, wincing, and put a hand to her head. When she looked at him again, the fire had gone out of her eyes and the confusion was back. "Doctor? What was I saying?"
The damage was happening even faster than he'd anticipated, then. They didn't have much time. He stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, as her grandfather moved aside. The feeling of that familiar thing inside her was so strong now, so full of lostness and desperation that it was almost difficult not to make contact with it. But he didn't. Not yet. "You were saying," he answered her, "that you don't want the kind of help I gave you before. But there is another way. Not repression but compression. Do you understand?"
She did. He could see it even before she replied. "Of course! Neural compression algorithms! Oh, nice! Very nice! Must've been how the Master did all that body-snatching, hmm? Compressing Time Lord memories and thought processes to run on a human brain. 'Course, it'll be harder for us, without the power of the Keeper, or whatever that weird snake thing was..." He opened his mouth to say something, but never got the chance. "Oh! Oh, you don't know about that yet, do you? Never mind, forget I said anything. The thing is... The thing is, it's tricky, but it's doable! Why didn't we think of it before!" The happy excitement slowly leached from her face, and she looked at him accusingly. "Yeah. Why didn't you think of it, Doctor? I mean, I know why I didn't. I didn't have time, did I?"
"I don't know," he said. "I haven't not done it yet. Perhaps... Perhaps I wasn't psychically capable." Or psychologically capable, he thought, but that was a more troubling and less creditable thought. Psychic ability, after all, varied widely from regeneration to regeneration, but could his mind ever really change that much? Well. There was no data from which to draw a conclusion, but that had never stopped him from taking action.
"Are you sure it's what you want?" he said. "It will be a difficult process. Intimate. Painful. And you'll have to maintain it carefully, for the rest of your life. I could suppress your memories again, instead. Perhaps even more effectively." Not to brag, but this was his most psionically gifted regeneration so far.
"Don't you dare!" She glared at him, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Wilf looking relieved. "Don't you dare," she repeated, more quietly. "You may be a complete prat, Doctor, but I want to remember you. I want to remember."
He nodded. "All right," he said, and gently raised his hand to her temple. No time like the present, after all. "Wilf," he said, not looking away from Donna's face, "this is going to involve vacant looks, psychic spillover, and possibly some screaming. Whatever happens, do not interrupt. Whatever happens." He turned to look at Wilf now. "Do you understand?"
Wilf nodded, and the Doctor knew, with a quiet sense of relief, that he could be counted on. "Right, Doctor. Er... What's 'psychic spillover', again?"
The Doctor smiled. "Let's just say that if you have a headache by the time this is all done, I apologize in advance." He turned back to Donna. "Ready?"
He closed his eyes. "Contact," he said, and a moment later she echoed the word. "Contact."
And there was contact.
It was like plunging into rapids, swirls and eddies of thought and memory buffeting against the Doctor's mind. From here, on the inside, the psychic instability was obvious enough that he was almost surprised he hadn't seen it instantly on the street corner. Two streams of consciousness flowed together chaotically into a rocky channel far too small to contain both of them, threatening at any moment to catastrophically overflow its banks.
In the middle, the Doctor, treading water, set about smoothing, calming, damming and diverting until the remnant consciousness of his other self flowed instead in a slow, dense trickle beneath the torrent of Donna, and the boundary between them was friction-free and calm. All analogies, of course, and inexact ones. But even the Time Lords had no concise words for what he was doing, only long, technical descriptions for a long and technical process. On the whole, the Doctor rather preferred metaphor.
Of course, the process would have been much easier if the Doctor were not himself required to dive into this stream and work, as it were, underwater. It was difficult to avoid aspirating metaphorical fluid into his allegorical lungs. Echoes of his own memories kept entering his thoughts and distracting him, but more dangerous by far were the echoes of memories he hadn't formed yet. There were glimpses of disturbing things swimming in that stream: fire and death and-- He wrenched his attention away, back to what he was doing. Plunging too deeply into that stream would be dangerous, for more than one reason.
But the longer he worked, the better behaved that particular stream became, and the more the psychic waters surrounding him tasted of Donna instead. It was soothing, really, that warm rush of humanity across the surface of his mind. He loved human minds, the complex simplicity of them. The feeling, now interestingly exotic to him, of being tied to one world, one time, one life. Dimly, briefly, he wondered if this were what that fire-and-grief-filled version of him had been afraid to experience this intimately, but it was a very bad idea to consider that thought too closely.
Finished at last, he left a set of instructions on how to maintain the balance he'd created in a place where Donna could easily find it and slowly withdrew, back into a body now trembling slightly and shining with a thin sheen of sweat. Stop that, he told it sternly, and, reluctantly, it did. One had to maintain some degree of dignity, after all.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Ow," said Donna, and slid heavily out of her chair onto the floor, cradling her head in her hands.
"Yes," said the Doctor. "I did warn you." He sat down next to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I don't know," she said, "whether to kiss you or smack you right in your stupid Martian face."
The Doctor thought about these unappealing possibilities for a moment, and, as was often his habit, settled on a third alternative. "What if I make you some tea instead?"
"Deal," she said. She began to laugh, and then, without stopping, to cry.
As Wilf moved in to embrace her, the Doctor quietly set about making tea. He rather felt the need of some, himself.
The headache was finally fading now, thank God. She could feel the memories, the knowledge, the Doctorishness somewhere inside her, still, but it was nicely behaved now. Bits of it would come when she called -- she'd been having heaps of fun trying that -- but when she didn't want it, it stayed put.
She wondered if it meant anything that the Doctor -- this earlier Doctor -- had thought of his other self's psychic imprint as a flowing stream, but she couldn't help thinking of it as if it were some sort of half-trained dog. Maybe it did. He'd probably be insulted if she asked him, though. She made a mental note to bring the subject up later.
For the moment, though... He was about to make some sort of excuse and disappear, now that he was done mucking about in her head. She could see it in his eyes. "Well..." he began.
She didn't let him finish getting the syllable out. "Time we were off, then," she said.
"Off?" he said, with a small, innocently confused smile. He knew perfectly well what she meant, though, and she knew he knew she knew it, too. He'd just been inside her head, after all, and she still had him in hers.
"Off," she said. "You. Me. TARDIS. Off." She made a little walking gesture with her fingers.
"Ah," he said. "You do realize that it would be extremely dangerous to travel with someone who knows my personal future?"
"Yes. And, gosh, danger, the Doctor -- those two things don't go together at all." She gave him a challenging look.
"I'll have to suppress my own memories," he said softly. "Of everything we've done together."
"Yeah. What do you call that? Poetic justice?" She crossed her arms over her chest and continued staring at him.
He looked back for a moment, thoughtfully, then smiled, snatched his hat off the hat stand where it had at some point migrated to, twirled it on the end of his brolly for a moment, then dropped it neatly onto his head. Somewhere inside her own head, something briefly looked down at him from behind her eyes and wondered, Did I really look like that? I'm so short! Stifling a giggle, she told it to go back where it belonged. It did.
The Doctor -- the one standing in front of her -- made an after-you gesture towards the door. She gave him a big smile, but hesitated for a moment. She could run upstairs and grab her bag; she'd kept one packed, all this time. She'd had no notion of where she might go with it, but something in the back of her brain had kept insisting that she should be ready to go somewhere.
But, no. It wasn't that she didn't trust him not to swan off the moment her back was turned, but she knew how he was. She really knew how he was. Anyway, running off into the unknown with no preparation or plan sounded like fun.
She did have one thought about something to bring with her, though. She turned towards her grandfather, who'd been watching them quietly. He looked like he was trying not to cry, with happiness, or at the thought of losing her again, or both. Probably both. "Gramps? Fancy a quick spin round the universe?"
The Doctor looked at her sharply, presumably for having the audacity to invite someone onto his TARDIS, poor baby, then nodded slightly. Not that she cared about having his permission. The way she figured it, his future self owed her so big that the only way he was going to pay off that debt was by starting now, before he incurred it.
Gramps put a hand to his chest. "Me? Oh, sweetheart, I'm a little old to go running around the galaxy."
"Age is relative," said Donna and the Doctor simultaneously.
"Well," said Wilf, his eyes lighting up. "Maybe just once."
Arm in arm in arm, the three of them headed for the TARDIS.