Fandom(s): Doctor Who
Characters: Tenth Doctor, Donna Noble, Nerys
Summary: The Doctor investigates one of the most serious time anomalies he's ever encountered, right here on Earth.
Word Count (chapter): 3202
The Doctor stepped out onto the lawn behind Chiswick House, squinting in the bright summer sunlight as he affixed a white carnation to his lapel. Struggling with the flower, he grunted as he nearly dropped the pin. “You’d think I’d have the hang of this by now,” he grumbled. “I used to wish that celery came with super glue.”
“What are you on about now?” came a subdued whinge behind him.
Still fiddling with the flower, he turned around to face Nerys. “What are you doing back there? Come on, you’re supposed to be the Chiswick House’s confident and efficient assistant manager.”
Nerys shook her head. “I can’t let anyone see me like this.”
“No one will recognise you. I think we took care of that.”
We certainly did, she thought, blushing at the memory of her appearance in the mirror once they’d finished dressing her up. To make her look as little like herself as possible, they’d piled on a curly brown wig, horn-rimmed glasses, and a deep-green business suit that was a decade out of style. She’d given herself a Mediterranean look with tan makeup on her face and hands, and underneath everything, she’d added padding to create the illusion of about three extra stone. The overall effect was that of a sweaty, overworked assistant, and the hot sun only made it worse.
“I don’t want to be seen by anybody,” she hissed. “This is shaming.”
“You have to look the part,” the Doctor reminded her. “Look like you belong here and no one will bat an eye. It’ll only be for a bit.”
“Too long.” With a sigh, she straightened her shoulders and took her place next to him.
“Can’t hide behind you anyway,” she grumped. “I’m better off hiding behind that signpost.”
Across the lawn from them stood the pavilion where guests were starting to gather. A large rectangular open-air marquee, it was dressed with white roses and red ribbon, with large bouquets of red roses on the long dinner tables. Three children in their Sunday best chased each other in a game of tag whilst the waiters made last-minute adjustments to the settings and the event photographers set up their equipment.
“Wait,” breathed the Doctor. “I don’t see an altar or a minister, or one of those white lattice arches with all the ivy and flowers.”
“Oh, the wedding wasn’t here,” Nerys explained. “Donna wanted a private ceremony, so they got married at St. Mary’s the day before. Yesterday,” she corrected herself. “It was just them, Sylvia and Geoff, Donna’s granddad, Sam’s mum, and me and Alec, Sam’s best man. No one else.”
“Ah. Too exclusive for our purposes. Good thinking.”
“Don’t patronise me,” Nerys snapped.
“I’m not!” the Doctor squeaked, surprised at her acerbic response. “It was brilliant! We would have wasted our time. Much better we…” He caught her disgusted expression and fell silent.
Nerys sighed. “So what are we looking for?”
“Could be anyone really. He may have to make his move for us to spot him.”
“He. Couldn’t it be a she?” she inquired.
“Course it could. He, she, neither, both, or one or more of the other forty-three known categorised genders. Inclusive ‘he’.” At that moment, the door behind them opened and a willowy woman in a summery peach dress, her blond hair twisted in a neat updo, emerged carrying a large, flat box. Without a glance at them, she slipped past and strode across the lawn to the pavilion. The Doctor slipped a comforting arm around Nerys’ shoulders as she struggled to start breathing again.
“That was me,” she finally gasped, her voice rough.
“It was,” the Doctor agreed, “and you did well, exactly as I told you. Absolutely brilliant. Most people panic at the sight of themselves, even with all the warning beforehand.”
Nerys snorted, trying to regain her composure. “To be honest, it was the dress. I’d forgotten how bad I looked in it. Leave it to Donna to choose peach, of all colours.” She paused, staring hard toward the pavilion. “And that hair. I’d no idea it looked so bad from the rear. I’m never going back to that salon.”
Grinning, the Doctor patted her on the back and stepped away to a more appropriate working distance. He pointed toward where younger Nerys has disappeared to. “What were you carrying there?”
“Fairy cakes,” she replied. “Donna and I took a baking class when we were, oh, twelve, I think, and we made a pact that we would make fairy cakes for each other’s weddings. I almost forgot about it. Stayed up all the night before making three batches and icing them.”
The Doctor nodded. “You and Donna are really close.”
“Always have been, ever since I can remember. Met her at swimming lessons before we even started school. I still can’t swim, but we’re mates for life.” She looked askance at the Doctor. “But she’s never told you about me, has she?”
“It’s pretty apparent she hasn’t told me about anything, really. Though I suppose she’d say the same about me.” He scrubbed at his jaw with a hand. “Makes you wonder what ‘best mates’ really means, doesn’t it?”
An older woman with an imperious air walked out from under the pavilion and scanned the lawn. Spotting the Doctor and Nerys, she marched toward them. “Oh, and there’s Sylvia,” the Doctor breathed.
“Oh, right. You’d know her from Donna’s wedding.”
“Yup-ah. Not all that well, mind you,” he clarified. “Never even introduced. But I saw how she welcomed her daughter back to her own wedding reception. You can learn a lot about a person by watching how they treat family. And I don’t think she was pleased when we left to go to Clements.” He flashed a friendly grin at the woman and bobbed a bow as she approached.
“You’re the manager on duty, aren’t you?”
“Yes. John Smith, at your service, ma’am.” He stepped aside to present Nerys to Donna’s mother. “And this is my assistant, Marge.”
Nerys attempted to simultaneously smile confidently and cringe away from Donna’s mother and only produced a sour smirk like she was sucking on a pickle. Sylvia sniffed disdainfully as her gaze raked over Nerys’ pudgy form and the Doctor’s trainers.
“I suppose you’ll have to do,” she declared. “You need to put out two more place settings on that last table. The Martins brought all their children, instead of just the eldest like they promised, so we’re short two.” The Doctor opened his mouth to reply, but she waved him off. “Yes, it’s not in the contract, I know. Sam’ll settle up, I’m sure of it. Oh, and the cake table.” She turned to point toward the head of the pavilion. “It’s too small. It’d be fine if we had only the wedding cake, but Nerys insisted on bringing that load of raspberry fairy cakes and setting them up right there. It’s ruining the entire display! She just doesn’t understand that nobody cares about some cakes she and Donna made when they were girls.” Rolling her eyes, she shook her head.
Nerys swallowed down her pique and managed an even reply. “Perhaps it’s a sentimental gesture between her and the bride.”
“She can make a sentimental gesture at her own wedding, then,” Sylvia snapped. “Not that that’s likely to happen. The sour harpy never could hold onto a man long enough.” She caught Nerys’ offended scowl and rolled her eyes. “Oh, smarten up and get me a new table. A small one off to the side of the cake will do. Off you pop.” She turned on her heel and strode back to the pavilion.
“I’m sorry,” the Doctor murmured when Sylvia was out of earshot.
“No, no,” Nerys choked out, then sniffed. “I’ve heard a lot of the things Sylvia says, from Donna. Only to be expected that some of it would be about me. I’ll go find someone to add that table and the settings.” She hurried off, and the Doctor wasn’t quite sure if he’d heard her sob.
The Doctor ambled across the lawn and slipped into the pavilion to observe Sylvia managing the last-minute details of her daughter’s wedding reception as more guests began to arrive. She stalked about, issuing commands and lamenting that Donna’s reception was going to be a disaster due to gross incompetence. Behind her trailed a kind-looking man the Doctor remembered as Donna’s father Geoff. His sole purpose seemed to be making sure that once Sylvia turned toward her next victim, the previous person’s efforts were acknowledged and appreciated.
Though he didn’t personally meet the guests at Donna’s other wedding, the Doctor was surprised to find he remembered quite a few of them, enough that he could rule them out as being the unknown meddler in her timeline. This left Sam’s family and friends. It was easy enough to identify them as they selected their places at the family tables, but he couldn’t spot anything that would lead him to think they had anything to do with the time issues. Every one of them was human. He didn’t detect any shimmers or morphic illusions. No one carried any suspicious equipment. They were all simply people, gathered to celebrate the union of two beloved friends.
The Doctor then turned his attention to the staff. With most of the preparations done, the men and women dressed in crisp white uniforms waited by the serving stations for the festivities to begin. Others wove through the guests, offering canapes and drinks on trays. An older man in a crisp suit stood by watching and occasionally giving orders to the waiters; he was apparently the real event director that the Doctor was only pretending to be. He seemed to disapprove of everything he saw, and the Doctor wondered at the permanent half-sneer that wrinkled his nose.
Out of the corner of his eye, the Doctor spotted a small, older man in a crisp tux with a white rose in his buttonhole emerge from the house and amble slowly across the lawn. Something about him niggled at the back of his mind, and as he tried to place him, Nerys - the blond maid-of-honour version - stepped out with a rare delighted smile to escort him to a seat at one of the Noble family tables, where he was greeted with warmth and fondness.
Frowning, the Doctor tugged at his ear whilst he dug through his past for any clue of who the man was. An image of the man sitting in his own little wooden box, wearing a woolen cap and talking about the Queen, teased the Doctor then fled. He groaned silently; the cloud of temporal flux kicked up by these time shifts was apparently playing tricks with his memory. He knew he’d met the man before, and, given his chaotic lifestyle, meeting any creature twice by chance usually held some significance. If only he could remember. London, he told himself, definitely London, on an empty road, with -
“Got the table ordered in,” said a voice at his shoulder, startling him. Frumpy Nerys peered at him. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” the Doctor assured her, though he couldn’t quite look at her. “I’m always all right.”
“Good,” she replied, looking back the way she’d come. “I had to tell them I was with the Thomases, because the real assistant coordinator was right there. We’re going to need better stories.”
The Doctor shrugged. “Different lies for different situations.”
“Yeah,” Nerys agreed. “Pinpointed your suspect yet?”
“No,” he admitted. “Ruled out a few, though. Anyone I recognise from Donna’s other wedding, though I suppose you know them all already.”
“And a lot of Sam’s side as well. I met them all last time, which is now for her.” Eyes closed to avoid even a glance, she jerked her head toward her past self, who’d returned to her fairy cakes and was waiting impatiently for the new table to be brought in. ”There’re really not many here that don’t at least ring a bell. I’m starting to think maybe it’ll be a tourist walking the grounds.”
“Could be. What about the wait staff?”
“I wouldn’t know. It’s not like I remember them, except that girl there. Her name’s Laura. You’ll see, she’ll help me with the cakes in a tick. She thought they were sweet.” She shook her head. “You know, you’re going about this all wrong, Doctor.”
He turned to her, frowning. “How’s that?”
“You’re trying to guess which one out of over a hundred people here doesn’t belong. That’s impossible.” She held up her hand with her fingers in a V. “But you’ve already seen this happen twice, so you should be trying to figure out who you saw then that’s here now.”
The Doctor’s face lit up at the idea, then crashed. “I was in a huge crowd both times. No way I can remember everyone. I’m good, but I'm not that good.”
“Right,” Nerys drawled with a sceptical smirk. “Well, where did you say this first happened?”
“At the Spice Girls concert. We were queued up to go backstage.”
“The Spice Girls concert? You went with her?” Nerys barely managed to keep from screaming at him. “She told me she went with Susie Mair.”
“Wrong timeline, Nerys,” the Doctor reminded her, shaking his head. “My Donna didn’t get to go to the concert, so I took her back for it. She couldn’t afford to, because of the wedding.”
“The wedding.” Nerys struggled to put everything she knew about this strange world into place. “Not to Sam, right? To Lance.”
“Right. She said you offered to buy her a ticket to go with you, but she didn’t cos she would’ve felt like a third wheel with you and…” He faltered, groping for a name he’d heard once in a fading memory. It didn’t help that he hadn’t been paying attention.
“Me and who?” hissed Nerys, misinterpreting his silence as reluctance to identify the mystery man. “It wasn’t Devon Blackman, was it? I wouldn’t date him in any version of reality.”
“Sounds right,” the Doctor blurted before his brain managed to process Nerys’ comment and stop his gob.
“Bollocks!” She planted her fists on her overly-padded hips, and the Doctor could almost see the steam blasting out of her ears. “Donna’s had some loser boyfriends, but he was a world-class wanker. Milked her for her bank account, then dumped her and came after me. I did not need to know that in your ‘original timeline’” - and she clawed air quotes as she spat it out - “I’d been that desperate.”
“She just said ‘Devon’. Could be any Devon,” the Doctor suggested weakly.
“Maybe on your planet that name’s common, but not here,” she snapped.
“Oh, no,” the Doctor breathed. “No Devons on Gallifrey. Not pompous enough, that name. Romanadvoratrelundar. Now that’s a Time Lord name. Or Darkelatraquistahastrad. Fuldanquin Borusa. Narvinectrelonum. Irving.”
Nerys glared at him, then sighed. “All right. Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s a different timeline, so it doesn’t signify. Me and Devon,” Nerys muttered. She pinched at her nose, and the dark makeup on her hands reminded her that she needed to concentrate. “All right. Yeah. All right. Nice to hear I got to go to the concert in some reality, I guess.”
“What about this Susie Mair? Is she here as well?” the Doctor asked.
“Of course,” Nerys replied. She glanced around at the assembled guests. “She’s right over -“ With a gasp, she rounded on the Doctor. “It’s not Susie Mair.”
“Why not?” asked the Doctor as he craned his neck to look in the general direction Nerys had been about to point. “She’s a common thread. Donna said she was at the concert, and she could have been at Trafalgar and I wouldn’t know.”
“I’ve known her since secondary. It’s not her,” Nerys insisted, stamping her sensible-shoe-clad foot. “Besides, this time-changing thing, it’s got to be some kind of alien tech wizardry, doesn’t it?”
“That settles it, then. Susie drinks tea cos she can’t work the coffeemaker.”
“All right, then,” he conceded. “Donna mentioned a Veena as well -”
“No, Doctor!” Nerys hissed. “It’s not one of our friends. I’m not hearing another word of this.”
The Doctor rocked away from her, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Well,” he replied grudgingly, “we’ll check them if nothing else pans out.”
“If we must. Back to the concert then. Anyone stand out there?”
He shook his head as he tried to remember. “Not really. There were security guards at the door, and there were a lot of us standing around waiting to get in. No one remarkable, though. Just fans and some press.”
The ambient noise rose, catching their attention, and in a wave, the guests stood and turned toward the house. The Doctor and Nerys followed their gazes to see Donna emerging from the house on the arm of the man the Doctor had seen with her in Trafalgar Square. Blond Nerys broke from the crowd to help the bride with the train of her gown whilst the hired photographers began recording the event.
Nerys grabbed the Doctor’s arm. “Doctor! Look!”
The Doctor thumped himself in the head with the heel of his hand. “Photographers! Of course!” He took a step and barely caught himself from crashing to the ground as a wave of dizziness washed over him.
“Doctor!” Nerys cried, pulling him back to steady him. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he murmured, concentrating through the haze in his head on the three photographers at the head of the crowd. He waved some limp fingers at one of them and coughed out, “That one. The bloke, not the two women. He was at the concert. Paparazzi. Don’t let him get away.”
Though the man was too far away to hear them over the crowd, he turned and eyed the pair, then with a smile, ducked through the guests and dashed off.
Nerys hesitated. “But Doctor -“
“Go! I’m just getting my feet. Stop him!”
Nerys sped off as best as she could, hampered by the padding hidden under her clothes, which bounced bulkily as she ran. She kept the man in sight as he headed down a path and over a footbridge crossing the long, narrow pond that separated the house lawn from the woods around the cricket ground, but lost sight of him in the trees. As she paused to catch her breath, the Doctor dashed up beside her. “I’m sorry,” she panted, “I couldn’t keep up.”
“That’s okay,” the Doctor assured her. “We know where he’s going.”
“Not out of the Chiswick House grounds,” he answered as he thumbed over his shoulder. “He had a real headstart on us, and he chose not to leave the easy way.”
“Which probably means he wants us to catch him,” Nerys concluded.
“Right. On his terms, of course. I’m sure he’s got something waiting for us.”
Nerys stared at the Doctor, then shrugged. “Why not? This day can’t possibly get worse.” She headed off in the direction the man had fled.
“Is that a challenge?” the Doctor wondered as he followed.
“Absolutely not!” she hissed back at him.