Title: Paying A Debt
Characters: Donna Noble, Shaun Temple, Thirteenth Doctor, Jo Grant, Sylvia Noble, Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, Ryan Sinclair, Yazmin Khan, Graham O'Brien
Chapters: Final of Three. Previous chapter here.
Summary: Nightmares, headaches, and the fear of being alone. It had been a hard year for Donna Temple-Noble. Shaun Temple was determined to find an answer; if it meant hunting down the Doctor, so be it.
Chapter summary: An end to Shaun’s search, and perhaps the resumption of Donna’s journey.
Disclaimer: As much as I wish it were otherwise, no Whoniverse characters are mine. They are the sole properties of the BBC and their respective creators. I intend no copyright infringement, and take no coin. I do, however, love them all, and thank the BBC for letting me play (and create the occasional original character) in their sandbox.
*** *** ***
“This woman’s living in some South American jungle? How on earth could you expect her to do anything for Donna? Some Brazilian eco-whackjob,” Sylvia snorted as she bustled from the counter to the kitchen table, their teas in hand.
“She’s English, and she isn’t a whackjob,” he retorted, softening the snap with a smile of thanks for his mug. “She’s a little odd, but she was able to contact the Doctor. And she’s —” “Successful? From what you said, she wasn’t successful at all!” She sat down at the table and busied herself with adding cream to her mug.
Shaun saw the way her lips were trembling, and he very gently took her free hand. She flinched away, but she steadied imperceptibly. “If that ma— that … alien , says he’s not going to help us, I can’t imagine anything in this world — in this whole universe — that’s going to change his mind.”
Sylvia rarely sounded vulnerable. Her daughter’s almost pathological need to Not Do Vulnerable had its elder mirror in her mother. But Sylvia’s face as she spoke was about as defenseless as Shaun had ever seen it, and he wished he could give her a hug. He couldn’t, of course.
“You’re know more about this guy than I do,” he allowed. “And I don’t blame you for feeling like you do, yeah? But I can’t help believing in Jo.”
He was surprised at how firm he sounded. Then again, when the strongest person in the family firm was falling apart, and the senior partner was almost as bad, he supposed the junior partner had to step up. He’d been getting used to that uncomfortable reality over the past year. He didn’t like it — he much preferred being in the background — but he did it, trying as he did to remember every bit of advice Mam and Pap had bestowed on him.
But what was resolve doing for him or for Donna now, the slightly demonic voice in his head whispered. What good was trusting Jo, even with all her optimism, if she couldn’t draw the Doctor’s help? She was only human, after all ….
Damned if I’ll stop believing.
The newly active angry dog in his head snarled, and the fear and disbelief faded. Shaun wondered if anger could sometimes be a superpower. He gripped the handle of his mug so hard that his fingers ached.
“She’s supposed to call me sometime in the next week,” he said, catching Sylvia’s eye and holding it determinedly. “I know she will.”
Sylvia said nothing for a moment.
“You’ll call me when you hear from her.” She made it into a command, and Shaun was just fine with that. Choosing your allies meant choosing their shortcomings as well.
“Absolutely.” He looked at the kitchen clock. “Oh hell, it’s that late. I’ve got to go, Sylvia.”
His mother-in-law nodded. Twilight was threatening to turn to dusk, and these days Donna hated to greet the dark alone. Shaun also wanted to stop by the florist and pick up a bouquet of bright flowers on the way home. Flowers always pleased her, especially if they were fragrant, and the act of presenting them to her pleased Shaun as well.
By the time he parked in their drive, the shadows were long. He made sure to enter the house as noisily as possible, letting Donna know friendly forces were there for her. He looked down the hall from the entryway, and heard her in the kitchen again. It was funny, he thought: she used to happily call herself the world’s worst cook, directing him to handle culinary duties and staying away from that part of the house unless he called her in for clean-up — which she loved doing, as long as someone else had made the mess. Now, though, he’d become accustomed to finding her in there, sitting at the table with a cup of tea and her head buried in a cookbook. On good days, really good days, she was recently apt to be poking about the larder, looking for ingredients for simpler recipes. He always made sure to praise her surprisingly decent results.
“Hiya,” she called, and walked out to greet him with a hug. “Thanks!”
“Yeah, for chivvying Boots to get my new prescription filled.”
“Erm … yeah, glad to do it,” he replied, trying not to sound noticeably confused. “Doctor McPherson’s office did the right thing, then.”
Donna pulled away and frowned slightly. “No. It’s the doctor taking over his practise. He’s retired.”
“This is news to me,” Shaun said cautiously. “Look, I’m perished. Can we call for delivery, and then you can fill me in?”
“I’ve actually got a lasagne in. It’s half-done, should be ready soon. Suppose you can make do with crisps until then?”
So today was a “Donna cooks” day. Shaun smiled and nodded, readying himself for whatever success or failure her project might entail once the lasagne was done, since she was obviously making it for him. He loved lasagne. “Crisps it is. Now tell me about this new doctor.”
They grabbed the crisps (salt and vinegar, one of Shaun’s few odd tastes) and headed for the living room. Once Donna was ensconced on the couch and Shaun had settled in at her feet, she said, “Yeah, it was the weirdest thing. I was upstairs and I heard the worst racket at the front door. I thought it was some of those asbos from down the road — you’d think we wouldn’t have any in this neighborhood, but teenage hooligans pop up everywhere, I guess — but when I got downstairs to tell them off, there was no one there. But there was this letter in the slot.
“It was dated last week, so I figure it must have gotten wedged into the slot and we just didn’t see it there.”
Shaun hesitated a moment, and decided against voicing his disbelief. There was no way anyone could miss an envelope in their postbox slot. “So what did the letter say?”
“Well, it said that Dr. McPherson was retiring, and this shrink’s office apologized for the short notice.” Donna had finally become comfortable with accepting psychiatric and psychological help, and being able to call McPherson her shrink rather than avoiding the designation had been a big thing. “This one’s a woman, name of Johanna Schmidt.
“So I called up the new number from the letter and someone on Dr. Schmidt’s staff answered, not Marie from Dr. McPherson’s. I’m guessing she retired too, since she’s older than Methuselah. Anyhow, the new staffer fit me in for an appointment next week, but she asked if I needed any prescription refills. Half-way through telling her what I’m on, and how it’s not helping, the girl very politely interrupted me and said that Dr. McPherson had changed the headache prescription — one of his last decisions before retiring, she said. She rattled off some long scientific name, and said she’d send it over to the chemist.
“I told her good luck with that, ours is slower than cold tar, but she went all chirpy on me, so I didn’t argue. Figured I wouldn’t get the new pills until after I meet with Dr. Schmidt.
“When the delivery guy came over with the prescription this afternoon, I just figured you’d put a word in to hurry everything up. You’re better at convincing people to do the right thing than I am, after all.”
Shaun didn’t want to lie, so he just nodded. She leaned over and patted him on the head. Sylvia once told him that he shouldn’t let her “demean” him by doing that. He hadn’t told her he loved it.
“So thanks, yeah?” his wife said.
“Seriously, Shaun, I mean it. You know the old prescription was almost useless these days, right? Well this new stuff … the directions said to take my first dose immediately. After that, it’s once daily.
“And I’m pleased to report that I feel better than I have in months — I know, I know, it’s placebo, nothing works this well this fast, and I just took it at half one — but yeah, I do feel better, and I don’t care that it’s placebo.”
Donna smiled, and Shaun’s breath caught. He’d forgotten how much he’d missed that smile.
“The appointment’s next Tuesday. They want both of us there, so can you make sure you’ve got time off?”
Now it was his turn to smile, although he figured his wouldn’t be half as spectacular as Donna’s. Thank you, Jo, or Martha Jones, or whoever, for whatever you might have done to get the mystery prescription filled. “It won’t be a problem. Promise.”
A timer sounded in the kitchen, and Donna jumped up from the sofa. “Lasagne’s done. Lay the table, will you?”
That night’s dinner was unexpectedly good, despite an overdose of thyme and oregano in the sauce.
*** *** *** ***
Doctor Schmidt’s waiting room was a long way from Dr. McPherson’s, in more than just the absurdly complicated travel instructions Shaun had found in his inbox that morning.
Plants with gorgeous blue blossoms lined the walls, and the room’s huge leaded glass windows transmuted the sunshine outdoors into rainbow arcs that shimmered across the hardwood floor and into Shaun’s and Donna’s eyes. The air smelled lightly but wonderfully of peonies. Peonies were one of Donna’s favorite flowers; despite the miserable headache and nausea she’d awakened with, she had visibly relaxed as she walked through the doors into their perfume.
The furniture was different to that in the multitudinous waiting rooms they’d endured over the past year. What doctor put rocking chairs in their waiting room? Extremely comfortable rocking chairs, Shaun admitted to himself, with blue and green cushions, striped with yellow and red. The blue sofa, with its promise of sleep-inducing comfort, was appealing; so were the regular chairs, which looked like something from his parents’ sitting room. But those rocking chairs—
“Mrs. Temple?” The older man at the front desk sounded doubtful. “Ms Noble?”
“Temple-Noble. Glued my own last name to my husband’s,” Donna said, leveraging herself up. Her comment lacked the usual bite. "But anyone of them will get my attention.”
The man grinned at that and, to Shaun’s astonishment, winked at him. “Come on in, then. The doc’ll be ready for you presently.” He turned around and shouted in the general direction of a back hall. “Ryan!”
“Coming, Grandda— coming, Graham … Mr. O’Brien.” The young man who appeared to usher them into the back looked new to the job. And Shaun was fairly sure he’d been about to call the receptionist Granddad, instead of Graham, or Mr. O’Brien. If so, he definitely took after someone else in the family tree, Shaun thought distractedly. He tried to beat back the crazy hope burgeoning inside him, akin as it was to the eccentrically beautiful room into which they’d walked.
“How long has Doctor Schmidt been here?” A little banal conversation might go a long way to slowing his pulse.
“Not long. We had to find just the right place,” Ryan said in a Yorkshire lilt. “I’m glad we waited, because this is absolutely the right place to be, for as long as we need to be here.”
Shaun decided not to ask what on earth that meant. He fell silent. Conversation was not going to slow his pulse, it seemed. Donna looked bemused, but said nothing.
The actual surgery looked a little more medical than the front of the suite, but the blue and green color scheme continued thanks to two or three very verdant potted plants on shelving above a rather old-fashioned wooden desk sporting neither computer terminal nor keyboard.
And there on the wall was a rather lovely print of what Shaun realized, as crazy hope tangled with terror, was unmistakably the TARDIS. It stood, blue and luminous, on a garden path dappled with green and gold sunlight, shaded with purple shadows.
Ryan saw him staring at the print. His eyes widened and he whipped it off the wall before Donna, who was just behind Shaun, could see it. “Sorry, mate.”
“Sorry about what?” Now that she was fully in the exam room, Donna eyed Ryan — his last name was Sinclair, or so his name tag declared — and turned on the infamous Noble glower.
“Nothing bad, Miss —”
“Mrs., if you don’t mind.” The glower deepened.
Sinclair turned an unfazed and very friendly grin on her. “My apologies, Ma’am. ‘M sorry. ’m a bit of an idiot, or so my Gran always told me.”
The glower actually brightened into a brief grin of her own. “Huh. Not many men will admit that. I thought I was the only lucky spouse in a 50 mile radius.”
Sinclair looked alarmed. “I’m not married.”
“No? Well, with that kind of honesty, and that smile, I predict you’ll be snatched up quickly,” Donna said, before settling herself in a chair next to the desk.
The look Sinclair got from the young woman coming in with a sheaf of papers was priceless. She’d heard Donna’s prediction and appeared to be reacting accordingly. Shaun tried to turn his snort into a cough.
“What’s this, then?” Shaun noticed that the woman sounded as if she were also a Yorkshire native.
“Nothing, Yaz,” the young man said hurriedly. “Nothing. Ehrm … could you let the doctor know they’re here? I’ve got to go out and … and help Mr. O’Brien.”
“Mr. O’Bri— oh. Yeah, definitely.” The young woman, Yasmin Khan according to her name plate, actually rolled her eyes, but when she turned to look at Donna, Shaun saw nothing but kindness in her face. “Ms Temple-Noble, I have some paperwork for you to fill out, but you don’t have to do it right now. You and your husband can take all of this home and deal with it later. Just mail it in, or bring it in when you have your next appointment.”
Donna’s eyebrows hit her hairline. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all,” Khan replied.
“Are you sure the NHS will approve?” Donna had grown to hate the reams of paperwork that all her specialists inflicted on her, and Shaun felt exactly the same. She accepted the papers.
“Mr. Temple? I do have some questions about some of the records that Dr. McPherson transmitted to us. The doctor will be with your wife in a minute, and we need about five minutes of your time.” She turned to Donna. “D’you mind if we ask your husband to check on that, or would you rather we let you do it after the appointment’s over?”
Donna shook her head. “No. I trust Shaun.”
“Alright. Mr. Temple?”
He nodded at Donna, trying to get across to her in that movement just how much he loved her, how much he valued her trust. “I’ll be right back, love.”
Out in the hall, Khan ushered him away from both the exam room and the front office. “The Doctor needs to talk to you before she goes in to talk to Donna.”
Shaun first registered the capital D in the way Khan referred to the doctor. Then he registered something else.
Yasmin Khan looked at him, her head canted slightly to one side. She obviously knew that Shaun with familiar with what a Time Lord was.
“The Doctor’s an alien. And 2,000-plus years old. Yeah, the Doctor can be a woman when she wants to be. And she wants to be.” She didn’t sound upset, just explanatory.
Of course. Don’t assume anything. “You’re right. My apologies.” But he kept it to that. He refused to feel like an idiot or sound like one.
Khan smiled. “Not a problem. The whole thing takes a bit to get used to. Did for me, anyhow.”
“You’ve traveled with her?”
She nodded. “Yeah, but let’s not talk outside the surgery. Don’t want your wife to hear anything.”
Shaun took a huge breath. “Right. Lead on, then.”
Khan led him further down the hall to a blue door, and opened it. “Here you go.”
She retreated and Shaun walked through the door.
This is happening. This is really happening.
She sat in a chair that seemed too big for her, one leg pulled up underneath her and the other giving a better view of her teal blue pedal pushers. Her shirt, with its bright rainbow stripe, was hardly less remarkable than the yellow braces that kept the pedal pushers up. The entire ridiculous look was anchored by brown boots covering teal socks.
The clothes, though, paled into insignificance once he saw her face and looked into the brown eyes in her heart-shaped face.
Oh. Oh. She’s good.
Later, Shaun would struggle to explain how he knew that so immediately. But he knew it as surely as he knew his own name. The Doctor was old — once you looked into her eyes, you could feel the weight of years that she labored under, he thought — but she accepted the weight with an energy that was unnervingly youthful.
That implausible chemistry suggested both wisdom hard wrested from experience and constantly reborn optimism. Years later, when he and Donna were able to talk about his first meeting with the Doctor, Donna suggested something Shaun agreed with; that the Timelord’s essence was that of a phoenix, rising improbably from her own ashes.
“You’re Shaun, Donna’s husband,” the Doctor said, unfolding herself to rise from the chair. “I’m really pleased to meet you.”
Before Shaun had time to fully register yet another Yorkshire accent, she closed the room-sized gap between them and hugged him. “I’m sorrier than you’ll ever know that I didn’t come before now.”
For a moment he gave himself to the embrace, because he wanted to get close to something that old and wise. But he found the angry dog inside him stirring once more. He pulled away in order to look her in the eye again. “Why not?”
Her lips thinned in a rueful moue . “I couldn’t. Not the me’s that used to be.” She stopped and stood back from him, her look measuring. “You know about regeneration, right? That’s what Jo told me.”
He nodded. He might still be a little shaky on it, but he had a much better handle on the general idea than he once had.
She smiled in relief. “OK then, that’s fine, that’s good. It’s hard to deal with, though, isn’t it? You being human and all. That’s what you lot all tell me.” To Shaun’s bemused surprise, she now sounded slightly bewildered, as if perplexed by the human race.
“But that’s the case, Shaun. Y’don’t have to believe me, but it’s true. The me who left Donna half-protected did what he could do, but he was … might as well say it … he was cowardly, but that’s how he had to be.
“Let’s sit down, eh?” She collapsed back into her chair and waved at the cushion bedecked chair placed opposite it. “This won’t take long, at least I don’t think so, but standing while talking’s not always conducive to good communication.”
He couldn’t disagree, and sat down carefully, never taking his eyes off her.
“I’m grateful to Jo for keeping at me, you know. I had a couple of conversations with Mr. Smith once I noticed he was hailing me, so I knew she wasn’t going to give up. I never did find the tracker UNIT put on me; probably didn’t try all that hard. But Mr. Smith and that tracker helped Jo follow me through my last life.” The Doctor looked amused for a moment, then sad.
“Was that the … erhm … the one —”
“— who told Jo I didn’t have a duty of care, yeah, that’s the one,” she agreed. Now she was shamefaced. “Worst of it was that I already knew I had a duty of care to … to everybody I’d hurt. I just didn’t want to admit it. It hurts, hurting people, once you admit it.”
He blinked. That made sense to him, and as he realized it, he felt something inside him shift.
She continued. “But Jo kept at me, across space and time, bless. At first it was just her saying, ‘No, I just want to talk about us, about the old times.’ I let her tell me that, let her convince me, because we really had some wonderful adventures. I really must keep up with her, and you should too, come to think of it.
“Anyhow, mustn’t get sidetracked. After that, then, she’d slide information into our convos about Martha and Mickey, ‘cos they were two other old friends I’d let down when I was shaped like I was when I ran from Donna. And I let her do that because … well, it’s pretty obvious, I suppose. I must have known, somewhere inside of me, where the whole thing was going.”
She laughed very softly.
“And then … and then I changed again. Surprised Jo, I can tell you! But she hung on. And this time — this time — I was ready. I’d got over the hurt enough to admit my duty.
“And so here we are, Shaun. And I’m going to try to fix what I should have tried to fix a long time ago.”
All the laughter left her voice, and she looked as stern as any school marm. “I’m not promising anything, because the truth is, this is one amazing giant of a job for me to tackle.
“I have no one to blame but myself for that. I didn’t take her meta-crisis mind from her, you see. That’s the tough part. It’s all there behind those eroding memory blocks. I have to shore up the blocks temporarily, while still leaving room for me to get into her mind —”
“What?” Shaun was alarmed.
“Not to find any secrets, don’t worry about that,” the Doctor said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “No, I’ll need to slip in and take a real look at what the meta-crisis mind’s software has been doing to her hardware. And if I’m very lucky, that will tell me whether her memories can be teased apart from the meta-crisis structure.
“If that’s the case, I can bleed off some of the … hmmm … let’s call it pressure, pressure on a human brain because of it having a different species’ mental structure jammed onto it. Once the pressure’s off, I can determine what to leave in place and what to erase. And I’m going to work very hard on giving her back her memories.
“That’s half the problem, probably more than half,” she said, warming to her explanation. “Because truthfully, I’m betting that the cause of this isn’t really the memory blocks eroding all on their own. It’s Donna’s own subconscious determination that her mind is her own, and she bloody well wants those blocks out of there!” There was the goofy grin she’d flashed moments before.
Shaun grinned in response, because that sounded just like his girl, and because what the Doctor said put his and Donna’s whole miserable year into an understandable context, slapped the last puzzle piece into its proper place. Of course Donna would react that way, without even knowing she was doing it —
He sucked in a breath and realized that blood was pounding in his ears. Relief could be just as uncomfortable as tension, he supposed.
The Doctor spoke again. “So yes, I think I know what I can do, but it’s going to take a while. And once I have the map to do it with, I can help Donna get rid of those memory blocks.
“In the meantime, I’m not going to let her suffer the nightmares and headaches anymore. I promise.”
He knew she meant it when she talked about taking on the challenge, just as he knew she’d find a way to keep that last promise at the very least.
The stone that had weighed down his stomach for so long evaporated. He took another deep breath, unreservedly grateful to the alien sitting in front of him. The angry dog in his soul retreated. He didn’t know for how long it would disappear, but he was happier than he’d been in weeks. Months, really; more like a year since Donna’s mind had started trying to free itself from the Doctor’s poorly jury-rigged barricades —
He stood up. “Is it time?”
“Yep, it’s time for me to meet her again, for the first time. And I know enough regenerations have passed, and I’m different enough, that not even her subconscious will recognise me, not for a good long while.
“And by the time she does, it won’t kill her.” The Doctor nodded as if pleased that she herself could agree with the sentence. Then she twirled around and grabbed the lab coat hanging on the back of her chair. “Wouldn’t do to look unprofessional, would it?”
They walked together down to the surgery.
“Donna, this is Doctor Schmidt,” he said, crossing to his wife and grabbing her hand perhaps a little harder than was completely necessary. She smiled up at him and pressed back just as hard, then turned to see the Doctor.
And the Doctor smiled.
“Hello, Donna I’m so very glad to meet you.”