Donna was hugging him. It was strange, because that’s not what Donna usually did.
Martha tended to hug him. Rose had as well, when she wasn’t holding his hand. Jack often hugged and then kissed him, or at least tried to.
Donna slapped him, more often than not. He’d come to theorize that it was her way of showing concern. It was strange, but it was Donna and it was oddly comforting in an amusingly violent sort of way.
People’s mothers tended to slap him, too. He often wondered what that meant about Donna.
But now she was hugging him. And crying. And he didn’t know what to do except hug her in return. So he hugged her.
They eventually pulled away from each other, and after she stepped out of his arms he looked down at the comm unit he still held in his hand. The now blessedly silent comm unit. He quickly closed his fist around it again and shoved his hand into his pocket. He needed to focus on something else. On Donna.
She was wiping the tears from her eyes and catching her breath.
“I thought you’d died,” he admitted. “But you wound up in the virtual world, didn’t you.”
She nodded. “It was… God, I don’t know what it was. But it wasn’t real, was it.”
“No,” he replied. “I’m sorry.”
She slapped him then, walloping his upper arm with the flat of her hand. He couldn’t help but smile even as he winced in his usual affronted reaction.
“What was that for!?” he yelped, but his hearts just weren’t in it. He was still smiling, and he didn’t even bother to rub at the potential bruise.
“You… you skinny, Martian idiot. Don’t you ever do that to me again!” she scolded him. “Don’t you ever shuffle me off just because there’s a bit of danger! This is supposed to be a partnership!”
“It is?” he replied, perhaps unwisely. She tried to hit him again, but he dodged her attack.
“Of course it is! You can’t just send me away like that!” she insisted. “I’m here because I decided to go with you. That means I’m sticking with you!”
“You’ve been hurt because you stuck with me,” he reminded her.
“No, I only got hurt after you tried to send me away,” she pointed out in return.
He had to concede that point in this particular instance, though it didn’t really invalidate his concern. She had been hurt, just like everyone else. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.
“It’s…” she cut herself off, wincing and shooting him an apologetic look. It was the second time she’d done that since they’d been reunited.
She’d probably been about to say that it was okay. He was grateful that she seemed to understand that he didn’t particularly want to hear that word ever again.
“It’s fine,” she said instead, “as long as you don’t do it again. And I’ll even let you make it up to me.”
“How?” he replied, curious but wary. It was never good when a companion said something like that to him. It often involved shopping trips and visits to slapping mothers and other potential horrors.
“You can help me find Lee. My… my husband. He’s got to be real. He’s got to be one of the people in the library now. You can help me find him,” she replied.
“O…” He cut himself off. He’d nearly said okay. It was just a word. Why did it matter? “… all right. Let’s go.”
He busied himself collecting the other items River had left on the floor for him, trying not to think about his newfound speech impediment. When everything was carefully stowed away in his pockets, he looked around to see Donna standing next to Mr. Lux and CAL’s node. All three of them were watching him sympathetically.
“Well?” he said, breezing past them. “We’ve got a man to find! Come on!”
He led the way back around the computer banks, down the short stretch of corridor, and onto the gravity platform. The two humans were silent on the ride up, giving him plenty of time to think about several things, some of which he unfortunately didn’t really want to have the time to think about.
That was the trouble with being a genius. He had a mind like a steel trap. Once a thought got in, it was well and truly stuck until he could satisfactorily resolve it. There were several such thoughts thusly stuck in his mind during that ride back up into the library. A few were questions he’d been working on for centuries, familiar and comforting conundrums. But there were three thoughts that were new and particularly bothersome.
First, he would meet River Song someday and, of all the incredible things in the Universe, he would give her his screwdriver and his name. Why? What would cause him to do that?
Second, the word okay seemed to have removed itself from his vocabulary. Of course, he knew (refused to think about, and was trying to forget) why, but it wasn’t exactly a good omen for his mental health. None of the other words she’d used bothered him… just that one. Why? He didn’t like losing even such a small piece of his control over his own mind.
And third… really, honestly, nobody could open the TARDIS doors just by snapping their fingers. Could they?
Oddly, the first of the three thoughts was the least vexing. Time was wibbley-wobbley. He would either understand eventually or he wouldn’t. It was no use fussing about it now. Acknowledging that allowed him to put the thought to rest, though a faint echo of it seemed to stubbornly remain on the edge of his mind.
The other two thoughts were considerably more bothersome. But he really, truly did not want to think about River’s last words again, and so he spent the majority of the ride up to the library proper working on the problem of opening the TARDIS doors with a finger snap. Was it actually possible? What kind of mental control and how close a rapport with the time-ship would it take? Could it be done? Could he do it?
It was a wholly inconsequential line of inquiry, though perhaps a useful one while on the run and desperate to reach the safety of the TARDIS interior as quickly as possible. So he allowed it to fill his mind and occupy his thoughts.
By the time the gravity platform had docked itself, he had concluded that it might, perhaps, be possible. Unorthodox, certainly, but possible. And what did he love if not the unorthodox? He would just have to work out a few of the details of connecting his mind to the TARDIS before…
His thoughts were interrupted by Donna. This was a common occurrence that he was now quite used to. She had a habit of insisting on getting his attention regardless of what he was doing.
“We need a computer. There’s a list, right?” she said, partly to him and partly to Mr. Lux.
“Yes,” Mr. Lux replied. “Even if he hasn’t been checked off yet, he should at least be on the list of people who were in the library that day. You can start your search there.”
“Right! We can do that,” the Doctor replied, and strode across the room to the nearest computer.
“Wait!” cried Mr. Lux suddenly. “What about the shadows? The lights have come on in the main areas and I didn’t even think about it… aren’t the shadows still infested?”
The Doctor turned to reassure the suddenly panicking human before his panic infected Donna or anyone else. That would be the last thing he needed.
“No, it’s… fine. They’ve promised to leave us alone. We’ve got a day. Well… give or take a couple of hours. So you had better get to work on getting people out of here. If you get at least two teleport stations going once per minute, you should be fine. But you need to work quickly! Go on!”
He shooed the space-suited man towards the corridor.
“They promised?” Mr. Lux asked as he retreated from the Doctor’s waving hands. “How does a swarm promise?”
“Using Anita’s comm unit,” the Doctor replied. “The comm units run on neural relays. They only need a nominal consciousness within their range to power them. It took them some effort, but the swarm was able to communicate.”
“And what about CAL?” Mr. Lux protested, refusing to move past the doorway.
“I’ll repair the damaged sections of the computer. CAL will have her library, and the Vashta Nerada will have their forests,” the Doctor explained. Then, suddenly angry, he asked, “Did you know? Did you know whose forests you wiped out to build this place? Did you think you were cutting costs? Did you think it would be safe?”
“No!” Mr. Lux denied. “Me, I wasn’t even born yet! But no, they didn’t know. Nobody knew. They couldn’t have! It’s just natural to use resources already in the system instead of importing them from farther away. How could we have known?”
“Weren’t there any mysterious deaths?” Donna asked.
The Doctor and Mr. Lux both turned to look at her in confusion.
“There must’ve been workers. A lot of them, by the size of this place. If all those people were working in the forests, cutting them down, wouldn’t they have run into any Vashta Nerada? Wouldn’t there have been mysterious deaths?” Donna wondered.
“Oh, Donna! You’re brilliant! Have I mentioned that lately? Absolutely brilliant! But no. That was the fiftieth century. They’d have used automated machinery to harvest the trees and print the books,” the Doctor replied.
Donna nodded her understanding, and the Doctor turned back to Mr. Lux.
“What are you still standing there for? Go!”
“Thank you, Doctor. Thank you for everything,” Mr. Lux said, grabbing his hand and shaking it, then pulling the Doctor into a quick hug.
He would have supposed that it was as strange as being hugged by Donna, except he didn’t really have a basis for comparison against Mr. Lux’s normal behavior. And, besides, hugs were good.
“Go on,” he said, with less urgency, when Mr. Lux had let him go. “Go make sure everyone is safe.”
Mr. Lux gave him one last grateful look, and then turned and disappeared down the corridor.
“Right, then!” the Doctor said. “Computer. List!”
Donna joined him near the computer terminal and fidgeted anxiously beside him as he navigated through the system’s menus and called up the list of the four thousand and twenty-two people who had been in the library.
“Here we go,” he said. “Search function… what was his name?”
“Lee,” Donna answered. “His name is Lee.”
“Lee,” the Doctor repeated, drawing the name out into several syllables. “Searching now…”
The search command completed within a few seconds. It came up negative.
“I’m sorry, Donna,” he said. “No record of anyone named Lee.”
“That can’t be right! Try it again!” Donna insisted.
“It won’t do any good, it’s a computer. Asking it to do the same thing twice will only give you the same result twice,” the Doctor explained apologetically.
“He’s got to be real!” Donna cried, and the Doctor would not have been surprised if she’d pushed him away from the computer to try the search again herself.
“Maybe he just uses a different name,” he suggested, trying to calm her. “Donna, I need to work on repairing CAL before we run out of time. But maybe you can find him if you look around again. Maybe you can try watching for him at the teleport station?”
“O…” It was yet another choked off okay, and both of them winced over it. Then Donna continued, “All right. I’ll find him. Thank you for trying. I guess I’ll meet you in the little shop when you’re done with the computers?”
He nodded his agreement and watched her leave, silently wishing her luck even though he didn’t really believe in luck. He just hoped she could find this man who seemed to mean so much to her. It would be nice to see her happy.
Alone again with his whirling thoughts, the Doctor quickly distracted himself by focusing on the computer.
“Now, then, CAL! Let’s see what we can see,” he spoke into the empty room.
He began to use a combination of his sonic screwdriver and the keyboard interface to check the computer’s crucial systems functions.
It didn’t look good. CAL was stable, but there was extensive damage in the data core and several of the support systems, damage left over from the memory overload and the power transfer that had alleviated the overload. And killed River. But he wasn’t thinking about that.
If he hadn’t been a Time Lord, innately in tune with the passage of time, he probably would’ve lost track of how long he’d been working on the computer repairs. The work required a trip back down into the computer core, and it took every iota of his self-control to keep himself focused on the repairs and not on what had happened just on the other side of the bank of terminals. He definitely wasn’t thinking about that.
Eventually, several blissfully and numbly busy hours later, he was finished. He’d replaced all the burnt-out components with spares he’d found in storage near the computer core. He’d rewritten large sections of the programming to improve functionality and efficiency. He’d fixed the dream world, steadying the patterns of the four expedition members who had been eaten by the Vashta Nerada and automatically uploaded. He’d chatted a lot with CAL as he worked, making sure she, both as a little girl and as an integral part of the system, was also all right.
Finally, there was nothing left to keep him busy. Turning his back on the computers, he bid CAL’s node farewell and made his way back to the gravity platform. It was time to find Donna, to find out if she had been successful, to find something else to distract himself from everything he was definitely not thinking about.
There was almost no one left in the library by the time he reached the little shop. There were perhaps twenty stragglers still milling around.
He stood just inside the doorway of the shop, leaning against the wall, watching Donna as she mingled with the remaining library patrons and staff. She clearly hadn’t had any luck. He returned to his internal musings about the TARDIS door and finger snapping, letting her get on with it.
When she eventually came over to him, dejected and ready to give up, he did his best to be sympathetic. He knew he’d got it wrong when he absent-mindedly replied honestly to a question when he should have sensitively lied. But Donna still seemed to be treating him gently. She glared, but she didn’t slap.
And then she asked him, oh so casually, if he was all right. He gave her his standard answer. He was always all right.
She floored him with her response.
“Is ‘all right’ special Time Lord code for really not all right at all?” she asked him.
He turned to look at her. “Why?”
“’Cause I’m all right, too.”
What could he say to that? He didn’t know, so instead he began to lead her back to the TARDIS.
They had one last conversation about spoilers on their way out. He gave her a chance to think about peeking at the end, and she did him proud by turning him down.
He put River’s screwdriver down with her diary, ready to leave it behind and move on. After that there was nothing more to say, nothing more to do. It was time for them to leave.
“C’mon! Next chapter’s this way,” he said, trying to recapture the feeling of adventure. He snuck a peek at Donna. Like him, she seemed too tired to really feel the excitement. He sighed.
As they made their way up the steps towards the room where they’d left the TARDIS, he tried once more to rationalize away the bothersome thoughts still stuck in his mind.
River’s past and his future would be whatever they would be. There was no point in worrying about that. The word okay would either cease to bother him eventually, or he’d simply never use it again. It wasn’t ideal but he supposed it didn’t really matter. He’d manage.
He’d keep thinking about the idea of opening the TARDIS doors with a snap, though. That might actually prove useful. The snap wasn’t necessary, of course, but he did enjoy a bit of theatricality. Theatricality balanced with practicality. Like the sonic screwdriver.
It had been odd to see two temporally distinct versions of his sonic screwdriver in the same place at the same time. Had his future self given River the sonic simply because he remembered her having it? Was it just a silly predestination paradox?
He stopped suddenly at the top of the steps and shoved a hand into one of his pockets, feeling around for and then clutching River’s comm unit. Donna stopped two paces ahead of him, and turned around to look at him curiously.
“The sonic!” he cried, and spun around to dash back down the steps. A thought had occurred to him. A crazy, stupid, wonderful, hopeful thought. What was he going to do with River’s comm unit? What had his future self already done? There were two sonics. Maybe there were two comm units?
He babbled at Donna as he searched River’s screwdriver. He knew he was babbling, but that wasn’t important because there it was… a small panel on the side. He pried it off triumphantly. Faintly glowing green lights greeted him.
He’d saved her!
The run through the library, the exhilarating fall down the gravity shaft, and the dash into that room he’d never wanted to see again all passed in a blur. Then he was there, standing on the chair where River had died, holding her screwdriver against the data port. And it was working.
He turned and looked at CAL. The face on the node grinned at him, and he grinned back. The upload finished, and he stepped down off the chair.
“Did it work?” he asked.
“Upload complete, pattern stable,” CAL reported. “Message for you. Message follows… I knew you’d think of something, you impossible man. Anita, Miss Evangelista, the Daves and I say hello. And thank you, sweetie!”
“Yes! It worked!” he said, smiling and bouncing happily on his heels. “Thank you, CAL. Take care of her.”
“Of course, Doctor. And thank you, as well,” she replied. “Will we ever see you again?”
“Perhaps,” he mused. The Vashta Nerada would rule this planet, but he could certainly connect the TARDIS computers from orbit if he wanted to. He wondered if his future self would want to. “Perhaps.”
He turned to leave, using River’s screwdriver to reverse the polarity of the gravity shaft. He stopped just in front of it and turned to look back at the node once more.
“Have a fantastic life, Charlotte Abigail Lux!” he called, and threw himself into the gravity shaft with a smile. The ride up was just as exhilarating as the fall had been, with the added bonus of the emotional high of having saved River.
He popped out the top of the shaft and stumbled across the floor, landing in an undignified heap tangled in his own coat. He pulled himself up and dusted himself off, glad that Donna had apparently not followed him and witnessed his tumble.
Other than that moment of clumsiness, he was fairly well pleased with himself. He’d saved River. Even the expedition members who’d been eaten alive were saved in the library computer’s dream world. It wasn’t quite a day when everyone had lived, but it was as close as he usually ever got.
He jogged back through the library, feeling energetic and alive.
He’d satisfied that niggling thought in the back of his mind about River’s screwdriver and comm unit. On the jog back he’d even worked out what he was pretty sure would be the necessary connection to the TARDIS in order to open her doors with only mental control. So what if there was a certain word that bothered him? Not important…
He burst through the doors into the large hall where he’d left the TARDIS. He hadn’t run into Donna and didn’t see her in the hall, so he assumed she’d returned to the TARDIS on her own after he’d gone running off like a lunatic on a mission. He wondered if she was going to be mad at him about that. He didn’t think she would, but then he sometimes had trouble predicting what Donna was going to think or do.
He slowed as he entered the room and walked at a more sedate pace to the TARDIS, stopping in a pool of light directly across from the doors.
He stared intently at his ship and focused his mind, carefully reaching out to her, searching for a certain connection, a certain depth in their casual telepathic link.
And there it was. He raised his hand, preparing to click his fingers.
If he concentrated, focused his thoughts on the control subroutines for the exterior doors and just concentrated…
Snap! He clicked his fingers. Creak! The doors opened themselves slowly. He’d done it!
He couldn’t hold back his small grin of delight, even though the open doors revealed Donna standing before the console, still looking dejected. He strode forward to join her, then took advantage of the opportunity to practice his new mental skill by closing the doors with another snap of his fingers.
He grinned again after they were closed. He just couldn’t help it. Through the slightly closer connection to the TARDIS he’d built in his mind he could feel the time-ship’s amusement at his satisfaction with his new trick.
Donna smiled tiredly at him.
“That’s new,” she commented.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Like it?”
“Could be useful in a pinch,” she replied, turning to walk around the console. She sat heavily on the jump seat.
“That’s what I thought!” he agreed, bouncing around the console in the other direction to join her.
He flopped down beside her, propping his trainers up against the edge of the console.
He was about to ask Donna where she wanted to go next when she suddenly yawned impressively.
As if yawns really were contagious, which they weren’t actually unless you counted the Golfarb Yawning Fever, he found himself unexpectedly yawning in reply.
“Wow,” he said around the yawn. “I must be more tired than I thought.”
“It’s been… a day,” Donna replied.
He could see her on the edge of his peripheral vision, staring blankly at the grating between her feet and the base of the console.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Now that I’m sitting down…”
He trailed off, thinking about how tired he suddenly felt. It was like thinking through molasses, as if acknowledging the exhaustion had given it free reign to turn his mind to mush.
“It only really hits you when you sit still for long enough, I suppose,” Donna replied.
That, the Doctor mused, was pretty much his entire philosophy of life in general. Keep running, so whatever’s chasing you never has time to catch up.
To his surprise, the next thing Donna did was slide herself down on the jump seat with a sigh. She propped her feet up next to his and let her head droop to rest on his shoulder.
That was certainly not something Donna usually did. But he wasn’t about to push her away. In his own estimation, she’d had a much worse day than his own. If she wanted to lean on him, it wasn’t a great hardship to let her. Just for a while.
He surprised himself by yawning again.
“So Martians need sleep, after all?” Donna asked lightly, though without the fire of her usual teasing.
“Of course we do,” he replied automatically. Then his tired brain caught up with his mouth and he quickly added, “I mean, of course Martians do. Not that I’m a Martian! Because I’m not. But I do need sleep. Just not as much as you apes.”
She chuckled sleepily. “Keep telling yourself that, Spaceman. You’re just as drowsy as me, right now.”
He sighed. He really was drowsy all of a sudden. He hadn’t actually slept in ages, and it had certainly been… how had Donna put it? A day. What would it hurt to rest for a bit? He let his own head droop, leaning over to rest against Donna’s.
He felt it as her breathing slowed and evened out. She’d actually fallen asleep leaning against him, precariously balanced on the jump seat.
The ever-present whirling thoughts in his mind seemed to slow, then grind to a halt.
“Hush now,” he thought he heard somebody whisper, but he was asleep before he could wonder who.