"How can you stand this?"
There are many moments in history where the Doctor can't do anything. He's mentioned them to Donna in the past; the big wars, the big disasters and revolutions, and one particular day in 1963 in a junkyard. She very stubbornly didn't understand his words until Pompeii, until she had to see exactly what he goes through every time they land somewhere he can't touch. Now, she's still stubborn about it, but she relents after a time, more understanding.
There are also cultural things he can't touch, great cruelties he can't change. Slaves and executions and horrible genocide. He avoids these places on purpose and the TARDIS never accidently lands them there. Those places are too big, too tempting. He can't interfere, he's no god. It's better to stay away.
Sometimes, though, sometimes they land in places where he wishes, with every fiber of his being, that he could change something.
"This is wrong." Donna's voice hisses from the other side of the guest room. He glances over to where she's curled up on the floor, glaring at him.
It had started out as a nice day. They landed in China in the mid 18th century. They were initially feared because of the differences in their features, but the Doctor's charming personality (not to mention ability to slay a Retrascrio Dragon living out in the forest with the help of Donna and Master Sao's youngest daughter) immediately changed over the town's opinion of them. Mistress Sao also adored Donna, with her red hair and warm voice, and immediately invited her to join the rest of the women in their afternoon activities.
Which was really when everything went wrong.
"I know you can hear me, Spaceman, don't try pretending you can't." She hisses towards him. "We have to do something."
Lin Sao is the youngest daughter. Donna, being naturally maternal, was taken with the little girl immediately. And for her part, Lin was incredibly intelligent for her young age.
"We should come back," Donna said, that afternoon, over tea. "Pick her up in a few years. She'd be brilliant."
The Doctor considered it for a moment. He didn't want to think that he's replacing Jenny, because that's not what it would be, not really. Lin was tough and clever, but she wasn't the same tough and clever of the Doctor's late daughter. She also loved running.
"We can't," he said.
"Why not?" Donna demanded.
The Doctor looked down as Mistress Sao passed, shuffling quietly over to her rambunctious child. Her feet were curled and tiny, pressed into three-inch shoes. Donna's petite feet seemed downright gigantic in contrast.
"What?" Donna demanded.
"She's about five," he said. "Scholar for a father. Her feet will be bound later this year."
"Tonight," Donna said. "Mistress Sao invited me to the ceremony. What does that mean? They just tie her feet up like her Mum's, or something?"
The Doctor flinched. "A bit more than that, Donna."
"What do you mean, 'a bit more than that'?" At his silence, her voice went up in pitch. "What do you mean, 'a bit more than that'?"
He looked over his tea at his companion. "They really never taught you that bit in history class?"
"I always skipped it. Never thought I'd use it."
"So, what's it mean?"
Cultural differences in other species are easy for the Doctor. Sometimes, they're so outrageous that his companions are left laughing at the absurdity. When it's their own species, however, things tend to get awkward and he has to tiptoe around insulting them.
"It's basically a right of adulthood for women in China," he said, picking up a leaf from the ground. He demonstrated, with the leaf, exactly how Lin's feet would be twisted, broken, and eventually bound in that position for the rest of her life. It was obvious the moment Donna truly comprehended the process; because that was the moment she leapt from her chair, ready to storm off to Lin's parents and stop them.
"She'll never be able to run again," Donna said, trying to pull away from the grip the Doctor held on her arm "She'll never be able to do anything but get flipping married and wear itty-bitty shoes."
"And become scholarly," the Doctor said, though his tone showed he agreed.
"So, let's do something," she said, her voice desperate. "Let's save her. We could do it."
The Doctor sighed. "Donna, we can't save every child in this time. By the turn of the century, half the women in this country have bound feet."
"So?" Donna snapped. "I don't care. She's a good girl, you can't let that happen to her."
"You think I want that?" he returned her snappish tone. "I'll never understand you lot wanting to hurt yourselves, but that's all you want to do." He snorted. "Foot binding and mutilation and extreme Hollywood diets."
"Not the same thing," Donna said. "And quit insulting my species just because you're upset!"
"Isn't it?" he asked, ignoring the second half of her statement. "For this time period, Donna, what's going to happen to Lin is common. It's the equivalent of piercing a baby's ears so they'll be healed and pretty when she's older. It's not right, but it's what they know."
Donna pointed to the house. "That girl is just a child. Would you want that to happen to Jenny?" The Doctor could see from her expression that she was ashamed the moment she took that shot, but the words were already spoken.
That had changed the Doctor's attitude completely. He went from politely irritated to downright furious.
"Jenny would be my child," he said. "My child, my world, my lifetime. Lin's parents are doing what they think is right. And who are you, Donna Noble, to tell them otherwise? A westerner from the future?"
"Yeah, so what?"
"So what?" the Doctor threw his hands up in the air. "Let's say, in 2344, the Antarticans decide that coloring your hair is cruel and unnatural. Should they come back to your home and tell your mum she's wrong?"
Donna mimicked his gesture with one of her own. "Difference! Dying hair isn't mutilating a little girl's feet!"
"It's their culture, Donna, we can't save everyone!"
"But we could save her!"
"And then what?" the Doctor demanded. "Then what? Take her away from her family? Save every little girl from this fate? We're not gods, Donna. We don't get to decide who gets saved from history."
"I don't want to be a god---"
"But you will," the Doctor said. "And it's a slippery slope, Donna. You change one thing, you may not stop yourself changing other things. History can't be rewritten. Not one line."
With the Doctor squeezing her arm, Donna politely declined going to the ceremony. And now, staying in their room in the Sao house, they can hear the sounds of the ceremony. Donna wants to leave, but she doesn't get up from where she stands.
"Does it hurt?" she asks. "Or do they…I don't know, give her ancient Chinese anesthetics or something?"
He thinks, just for a moment, about lying to her. Telling her that it doesn't hurt, that it isn't dangerous, that ten percent of all girls who were forced into footbinding didn't survive the process. He thinks about saying anything at all, but if he stops focusing on staying perfectly still, he knows he'll leap up and race down the hall to save the little girl.
The little girl who threw rocks at a dragon eighteen times her size and ran faster than the Doctor when it was time to get away. The little girl who is, in many ways, like his own daughter. He couldn't save Jenny, either.
He can't save everyone, he reminds himself.
"It's just one time," Donna says. "Can't we change things just this once? Please?"
In the morning, they'll be served breakfast by Lin, who will be forced to walk on her newly-broken feet. Donna will hold back tears. The Doctor will tell Master Sao that it's time for them to leave. And they'll go, because that's what they do.
And they'll stand in the TARDIS, prepare to leave, and eventually they'll go. Donna will stare at him for a long time, and he'll avoid her gaze. She'll probably threaten to go home at some point, but she'll change her mind later on that evening.
"One day," she'll say. "One day, you'll find something that'll be worth breaking your stupid time laws for. Maybe it isn't a little girl's life, but one day, someone will make you do something about history."
One day, maybe someone will.
Muse: The Doctor (Ten)
Fandom: Doctor Who
Word Count: 1,480