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Donna sat at the kitchen table, a cup of tea held between her hands. Her granddad sat across from her, his own tea untouched.

"I said so, didn’t I?" he asked intensely. "I said that aliens were real!" He grinned. "I just didn’t expect them in a little blue box."

Donna laughed. “I don’t think anyone expects the Doctor, gramps, and it’s bigger on the inside.”

"Are you safe, then?" he wanted to know, suddenly serious. "Can he keep you safe?"

"He’s amazing, gramps," she replied, sidestepping the question. No, she wanted to say. Not safe at all, never safe, but that’s not important. She wasn’t safe at home either, not really, not with what she’d seen. The difference was that with the Doctor and Rose she had a chance to change things, to help people. She knew just how big the universe was and she wanted to see all of it. "He’s just—dazzling." She smirked. "Don’t tell him I said that. His ego doesn’t need to get any bigger."

"But is he safe?” Her granddad wasn’t going to let it go.

She bit her lip. “I trust him with my life, him and Rose.”

"Hold up!" he said and sat straighter. "I thought that was my job! And who’s this ‘Rose?’ You didn’t mention her last time."

"You still come first," she reassured him with a smile, "and I hadn’t met her yet. They were separated for a while." She leaned forward in her chair conspiratorially. "She’s his girlfriend, even though he won’t say it."

"Is she an alien too?" her granddad asked with wide eyes.

Donna laughed. “Definitely not! She’s from London.” Although, there was something off about her, something that struck Donna as not-quite-human. It shone through when she was angry sometimes, or when she was thinking, like that telepathy bit with the Ood and the TARDIS. “She’s nice, loads nicer than the Doctor. He’s a bit rude,” she confided. “You’ll like her, gramps.”

He mulled her words over for a while, and then sighed. “For god’s sake, don’t tell your mother,” he instructed.

Her brow crinkled. “I don’t know, gramps. This stuff is massive. It’s sort of not fair if she doesn’t know, isn’t it?”

He shook his head as footsteps sounded from just beyond the door. “Doesn’t know what?” Donna’s mum asked as she entered with a basket of clean clothes on her hip. “And who’s ‘she,’ the cat’s mother?” Her grandfather made a face behind his daughter’s back and Donna hid a smile with her hand. “And where have you been these past few days, lady, after that silly little trick with the car?” Her voice was characteristically sharp. “I phoned Veena and she said she hadn’t seen hide nor hair.”

"I’ve just been sort of, traveling," Donna replied with a sigh.

"Oh, hark at her, Michael Palin," her mother muttered as she folded one of her father’s jumpers. "Are you staying for tea, ‘cause I haven’t got anything in. I’ve been trying to keep dad on that macrobiotic diet," her grandfather made another face and Donna giggled, "but he keeps sneaking off and getting pork pies at the petrol station." Her father tried to protest but she cut him off. "Don’t deny it; I’ve seen the wrappers in the car. Oh, I don’t miss a trick."

Donna giggled again. It was comforting, seeing her family like they always had been, well, since—since her dad died. It was nice to know that some things didn’t change, even when she did, even if she didn’t quite fit into this life anymore.

Her mother finished folding the laundry and turned back to Donna. “Now then, what were you going to tell me? What don’t I know?”

She paused, considering, really considering telling her mother, and then decided against it. “Nothing,” she said. “Just, nothing.”

"Good, right then," her mum continued. "You can cut those coupons. This new mortgage won’t pay for itself, you know. Every little bit counts."

So Donna picked up the scissors that sat on the table, pulled the adverts out of the paper and started cutting. She wanted to laugh; the whole situation was so absurd. There were devices in cars that could turn them into weapons, and she was sitting in the kitchen cutting coupons! For some reason that moment, that little bit of domesticity, felt more alien than the TARDIS.

Miles away, Rose, the Doctor, and Ross had almost reached their destination. With Donna gone the ride was tense until the Doctor began plying Ross for information. “UNIT’s been watching the Rattigan Academy for ages,” the young man explained. “It’s all a bit ‘Hitler Youth’—exercise at dawn and classes and special diets and all that.”

"Turn left," a computerized voice intoned. The Doctor frowned.

"One more question," he began. Rose snorted. As if he could ever stop at just one. Questions were like crisps to him. He looked down his nose at her. "One more question," he said again. "If UNIT thinks that ATMOS is dodgy…"

"Go straight on," the voice interrupted.

"How come we’ve got it in the jeeps?" the young man finished. "Tell me about it. It’s fitted as standard on all government vehicles. UNIT can’t get them taken out until we can prove there’s something wrong with them."

"Turn right."

"Drives me around the bend," Ross said as they curved off of the main road and onto a driveway. Rose groaned.

The Doctor grinned. “Well done.”

"Timed that perfectly," the young soldier replied smugly.

"Yeah, yeah you did." The Doctor was still grinning.

"I see the pundits are out in force today," Rose commented dryly. "Exactly how much of this punishment will I be forced to endure?"

The Doctor groaned. “Oh, that was horrible.” She elbowed him.

"Rude," she chided. She was still angry with him, he could tell. Her eyes didn’t sparkle as much as they usually did, and her smile didn’t stretch quite as broad as he was used to, but she was talking to him now. And if she was joking, then she couldn’t be furious. He wanted to explain that she was different, that he knew her and he trusted her to use a weapon in a way he could never trust himself, or people in general. She had killed people, yes, but she wasn’t a killer. The difference was slight, but profound.

The Rattigan Academy was housed in a castle. The Doctor knew that tactic well—intimidation. Make the visitor seem small in the face of something vast and supposedly more important. Had he been anyone else it might have worked, might have thrown him off balance enough to give Luke Rattigan an advantage. However, he was the Doctor. He was a Time Lord, and he was not intimidated by buildings. Rose walked next to him, her hand in his as it almost always was. She was not intimidated either. She’d stared into the Time Vortex, faced down Daleks, and crossed the Void. What was a building to her? If anything, it reflected the ego of its owner. The man himself was waiting for them. Young men and women dressed in orange sweat suits ran past them as they walked up the gravel path.

"Is it P.E.?" the Doctor asked brightly. "Wouldn’t mind a kick around. Got me daps on." As tactics went, the Doctor was using an old one, one that Rose recognized from her travels. He babbled, partially because he loved to hear himself talk, and partially because it consistently caused people to underestimate him and that made them careless.

"I suppose you’re the Doctor," Luke Rattigan replied. He stood facing them, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. Confidence bordering on arrogance seemed to roll off him in waves. "Your commanding officer phoned ahead."

Rose raised an eyebrow. She knew what his response would be. “Ah,” the Doctor replied. “I don’t have a commanding officer.” He studied Luke for a moment. “Do you?” Luke did not reply. The Doctor grinned suddenly and jerked his head towards their escort. “Oh, this is Ross. Say hello, Ross.”

The young man obeyed. “Afternoon, sir.” He even manage to smile. Luke barely glanced at him, dismissing him as inconsequential. Rose disliked him already. He reminded her far too much of people who used to look at her that way when she worked at Henrik’s. Then his gaze turned on her, and she could almost feel him sizing her up. She stood her ground, her posture relaxed. He was not impressive, not at all. He was like Adam—a tiny man with delusions of grandeur.

"And you are?" he asked, tired of waiting. Impatient as well.

"Rose Tyler," she replied.

"Your commanding officer did not indicate that there would be others," he said to the Doctor.

The Doctor took her hand. “Where I go, Rose goes.” His tone allowed no argument. She could almost see the exact instant when Luke wrote her off as a bit of skirt. She almost smirked. He really had no idea. “Right! Let’s have a look!” the Doctor declared. “I can smell genius,” he confided as they walked towards the entrance. “In a good way, of course!”

The Rattigan Academy lab looked like something out of a science fiction novel. It was impressive for a private lab, but Rose had worked for Torchwood for years and it wasn’t quite up to Institute standards. She recognized some of the machinery—bits and bobs that Tosh had shown her. The other woman always seemed so enthusiastic, but Rose’s main concern was the Cannon. More young men and women in orange sweat suits occupied the various stations that littered the room.

The Doctor’s eyes lit up like a little boy’s at Christmas. “Oh, now!” he exclaimed as he dashed off to examine bits of machines more closely. “That’s clever. Look!” he instructed. Out came the brainy specs and he slipped them on as she bent closer to the shimmery fabric he indicated. “Single molecule fabric,” he explained. “You could fit an entire tent in a thimble.”

"Useful," she commented.

"Immensely," he agreed. "If Donna’s clothes were made out of this she wouldn’t have needed all those suitcases!" Something shiny caught his eye and he straightened. "Ooh! Gravity simulators!" He glanced around. "Terraforming, biospheres, nano-tech steel construction." He rocked on the balls of his feet and laughed. "This is brilliant! Did you know, that with equipment like this you could, oh, I don’t know, move to another planet or something." The laughter drained out of his voice so that by the end of the sentence he was deadly serious. Luke was looking distinctly uncomfortable.

"If only that was possible," he replied with the barest of smiles.

"Were," the Doctor corrected. Luke blinked. "If only that ‘were’ possible. Conditional clause." He pulled the brainy specs off and tucked them in his jacket’s breast pocket. The smile, small as it was, dropped away from Luke’s face and was replaced by resentment.

"I think you better come with me," he said, and walked quickly out of the room.

Rose raised an eyebrow at the Doctor. “He was a bit touchy,” she said casually.

The Doctor nodded. “He’s hiding something.” Then he grinned. “Let’s find out what!”

"You’re smarter than the usual UNIT grunts," Luke said as they followed him into what looked to be a huge living room. "I’ll give you that."

The Doctor looked offended. “He called you a grunt!” he said to Ross, who remained professional as ever. “Don’t call Ross a grunt, we like Ross.”

"He’s nice," Rose put in, the unspoken ‘unlike some,’ hung between them.

The Doctor turned on the spot, taking in the room. “Look at this place.”

His constant shifting was apparently getting on Luke’s nerves, as he dropped the arrogant bastard act and threw up his hands. “What exactly do you want?” he snapped.

The Doctor wandered around, looking at the paintings and objects that littered the room. One, a large metal cube with a hollowed out end—just large enough for a person to fit in standing up—took up most of one corner. The Doctor focused on it for a second, and then turned back to face their host. “I was just thinking—I do all the time, but I was thinking about something specific—ah yes, what a responsible eighteen-year-old!” He pulled the ATMOS device out of his pocket. “Inventing zero-carbon cars, saving the world.” He tossed it into the air and caught it.

Luke shrugged. “Takes a man with vision.”

The Doctor hummed noncommittally. “Blinkered vision, maybe.”

"What?" the young man’s voice was shrill with disbelief.

"ATMOS means more people driving. That means more cars, that means more petrol—end result: the world runs out of oil faster than ever. The ATMOS system could make things worse."

Luke started forward. “You see, that’s a tautology!” he exclaimed with a look of manic glee that seemed to hint at something darker. “You can’t say ‘ATMOS system,’ because it stands for Atmospheric Omission System. So-so you’re saying Atmospheric Omission System system.” He smirked. “Do you see Mr. ‘conditional clause.’”

The Doctor met his gaze evenly, all trace of his playful demeanor gone. He quirked one eyebrow, and then said with something like pity: “it’s been a long time since anyone’s said ‘no’ to you, hasn’t it.”

Luke’s triumphant expression wavered for a bit and then solidified. “I’m still right, though.”

"There’s something to be said for being wrong," the Doctor replied calmly. "I’m wrong all the time. Get the date wrong, get the location wrong, tell someone they’ll never see me again…" he glanced at Rose and smiled at her gently. "That’s why I’ve got people like Rose, ‘cause it’s hard being clever. You look at the world and you connect things—random things." Intensity crept into his voice. "And you think, ‘why can’t anyone else just see it? The rest of the world is so slow.’ And you’re on your own. Because when you’re really clever, and I mean really clever, then who’s going to tell you ‘no?’ Who’s going to even understand what you’re talking about? So you get used to hearing ‘yes,’ get used to listening to that mad little voice in your head that pushes you forward until you do something brilliant and phenomenally stupid.” The Doctor held up the ATMOS device. “Like this, because this might be Earth technology, but it’s way out of its time. It’s like finding a cell phone in the middle ages.” He tossed the device to Ross, who caught it just before it hit the floor. The Doctor whirled and strode toward the strange cube in the corner. “No, I’ll tell you what it’s like.”

"Get away from there!" Luke snapped as he entered the thing.

"It’s like finding this in someone’s front room!" the Doctor continued. "Very large front room, but still." He grinned at them.

"What is it?" Ross wanted to know. Rose raised an eyebrow.

"Just looks like a ‘thing,’ doesn’t it, some sort of sculpture or what have you. People don’t question ‘things,’" the Doctor replied cheerily. "They just think ‘oh there’s a thing.’ Me, I make these connections, and this," he pressed a few buttons, "looks like a teleport pod!" A flash of light lit the room and a metallic taste coated Rose’s tongue and the Doctor was gone.

She frowned. “I am getting really tired of him doing that,” she said to no one in particular.

Luke was pale. “Get him back!” he ordered.

She threw a scornful look in his direction. “He’s the Doctor. He’ll come back when he’s good and ready and not a minute before.”

"He does this a lot, then?" Ross asked lightly.

"You have no idea." She frowned and checked the thick leather strap that held a strange, circular device on her left arm. "Although if he isn’t back in two minutes I’m going after him."

"Two minutes?" That was Ross again.

She didn’t look away from the device. “Usually takes him about three and a half to get thrown into prison.” The thing beeped softly as she pressed buttons, her tongue between her teeth in concentration.

As all geniuses were, she suspected, Luke Rattigan was terminally curious. “What is that thing?” he asked as he tried to get a good look at it.

She turned away. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He stiffened. Didn’t like to be challenged, this one. “I think I would. Genius, me,” he reminded her.

Rose turned back to face him very slowly. “Oh really? I wasn’t aware that you were an expert in inter-dimensional travel and temporal mechanics.” She met his eyes with an intensity that he found disturbing. Suddenly her whole being seemed to shift, to become something more than the pretty toy he’d believed her to be, or perhaps he was seeing her clearly for the first time.

She was talking nonsense. “What are you on about?” he snapped.

Her mouth twitched in amusement. “I’m talking about time travel. Now, this is a bit delicate, so hush!”

He sputtered for a moment, but quieted when she glared at him.

Miles above the Earth, the Doctor faded into existence. He was on the command deck of a ship—a space ship, judging by the lovely view of planet Earth that a huge viewscreen displayed. Smaller beings bustled about, completely concealed by blue armor. Their helmets were round and squat, as if they had no necks. Suddenly the creatures froze. He was noticed, then. He pressed the quick recall button and blinked as Luke Rattigan’s living room materialized before his eyes. Rose was standing just outside the teleportation pod. Ross was next to her, his gun drawn and aimed at the Doctor. He moved it aside as the skinny alien burst out and pulled both of them back. Luke Rattigan stood some distance away.

"Ross, Rose, get out!" he snapped. They ignored him. No one listened to him, why?

Another figure was fading into existence inside the teleport pod. The Doctor aimed the sonic at it and sparks flew from the controls. The figure within was only as tall as a young child, but the musculature was obviously that of an adult, and a strong one at that.

"Sontaran!" the Doctor declared. The alien—Sontaran—pointed something that looked like a thick wand at him. Rose tensed. She knew a weapon when she saw one. Her hand drifted to the gun at her waist, but the Doctor grabbed it with one of his. "That’s your name, isn’t it," he continued. "You’re a Sontaran. How did I know that, eh? Fascinating, isn’t it." He replaced the sonic in his breast pocket but kept his other hand wrapped around Rose’s. "That’s worth keeping me alive."

"I order you to surrender in the name of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce," Ross declared, his gun back up and aimed at the Sontaran.

"That’s not gonna work," the Doctor muttered at him. "Cordolaine signal, am I right?" he called. "Copper excitation stopping the bullets," he explained for Ross and Rose’s benefit.

"How do you know so much?" the squat alien demanded.

The Doctor grinned. “Genius, me,” he responded and sauntered off. Rose followed him, as he still would not release her hand.

"Who is he?" the Sontaran asked Luke.

"He didn’t give his name," the young man replied hastily. His eyes were wide with fear.

The Doctor leaned up against a desk casually. “This isn’t typical Sontaran behavior—hiding, using teenagers, stopping bullets.” He watched the alien closely, weighing his words for maximum impact. “A Sontaran should face bullets with dignity. Shame on you!”

"You dishonor me, sir!"

He leaned forward, expression intense. “Yeah? Then show yourself.”

"I will look into my enemy’s eyes," the Sontaran declared. The wand went under one arm as his hands traveled to the back of the helmet. With a sharp ‘click’ and a tug it came off.

Chapter Twenty-Five