The Doctor wakes up with an audible gasp that echoes around his room, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, which is illuminated by the dimly lit lamp on his bedside table. He can feel the sheen of perspiration on his skin and his hearts tripping double-time against his ribs. Visions of his nightmares flash through his mind - the laughing face of the Master, duplicated billions of time onto the face of every human being on Earth, the impossible reappearance of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, and the terrible, agonising moments of death.
It's another in a long line of terrible dreams that have been to affect him lately.
Turning the pillow so that the cover is cool beneath his flushed and sweaty face, he rolls onto his side, pulling up the blankets to cover him — he’s developed a bad habit of kicking them off when he has dreams like these — and stares at the framed photo on his bedside table.
Somehow, no matter how miserable he might be feeling, this image never ceases to make him smile. His eyes travel across her face, lit by the golden sun of England in the 1920s, the Edison manor looming in the background, a warm smile that has never failed to make his hearts sing making her look positively stunning.
He wipes at a droplet sliding down his cheek and sniffs thickly.
The voice in the doorway startles him so much that he gasps again, shifting suddenly into an upright position and staring at the woman in the doorway.
Donna Noble gazes back at him, concern visible in her eyes even in this low light.
“Are you all right?”
Wordlessly he reaches out a hand and she crosses the few feet to the bed, linking her fingers with his and sinking onto the mattress. Her eyes are warm with sympathy, an expression he's seen more and more often over the past few days.
“Did I wake you?” he asks hoarsely, his mouth dry, and he gives a painful swallow.
She gives a guilty half-shrug. “Well, with the way things have been,” she admits, “I thought I might as well just wait until I heard you.”
“I wasn't aware I was making that much noise,” he retorts sharply.
“You weren't.” She lightly strokes his hand with her thumb. “It was the TARDIS.”
“So she thinks I can't take care of myself then, is that it?”
He doesn't actually know why he's snapping at her like this. Perhaps it's the fact that he feels as if she might think he can't take care of himself. Or maybe it's the fear lurking in him that, if she ever left, like he dreams about her doing, he would actually have to.
Donna doesn't look that surprised by his outburst.
“Actually, I asked her to,” she tells him, and he feels a deep sense of shame.
“Sorry,” he mumbles awkwardly.
They sit in silence for a time. The Doctor finds himself listening to Donna’s breathing, using it as reassurance that he isn’t alone. The sound is soft and regular, and he finds himself breathing in the same way, feeling as the tension begins to drain away.
Even the headaches he’s been having over the past few days fade a little at the peace and quiet. He briefly closes his eyes to ease the burning he can feel in the back of them, sighing as he does so, but starts violently at the sudden feeling of a hand on his shoulder.
He opens his eyes to find that his head has sunk down without him being aware of it and he has begun to slump forward. Only Donna’s hand on his arm is keeping him upright and on the bed.
“Why don’t you lie down and try to sleep again?” she suggests as he pulls himself upright, feeling the headache returning in full force as his hearts race with the shock flowing through him.
“No!” he snaps. “Don’t be stupid! How would that help? More nightmares!”
“Then tell me what they’re about.” She draws his hand onto her lap and lightly touches the edge of her thumbnail onto his skin, drawing delicate shapes.
“No,” he repeats, not wanting to burden her with his nightmare images, and secretly, superstitiously, afraid that, if he puts them into words, somehow they’ll come true.
“You won't talk to me,” she scolds, although her voice is quiet, her eyes on his hand as she continues to sketch intricate patterns on his skin with her thumbnail. “Ever since they started, it's like you don't want to admit a weakness, like you’re hoping I somehow won't notice the huge shadows under your eyes and the fact that you're so tired, you can't even think straight anymore.”
“I'm not!” he protests, but she continues to talk across him.
“You trip over your own feet, you're trying so hard to stay awake that you're tense all the time, you can barely get out a coherent sentence, you nodded off today when we were having breakfast, and you don't have any energy anymore so you don’t bounce around the place like you always did, and it's all due to those nightmares of yours.”
He opens his mouth to argue - only to be caught out by a yawn so large that it causes his jaw to ache. As he's desperately fighting to make it go away, he feels the mattress lift and looks up through bleary eyes to find her standing beside the bed.
“Scoot over,” she orders.
He stares at her, his mind blank, unable to think of any sort of argument and wondering tiredly just what she’s planning to do. When he does move, she seats herself on the very edge of the bed, nudging him until he unconsciously shifts away and there's a space big enough for her to lie down without falling off. As she sits down, he can feel her warmth close beside him and realises that the flush of heat caused by the nightmare has faded, leaving him feeling icy cold.
Almost without realising it, he draws closer to Donna, feeling her arm sliding behind his shoulders. The gentleness of her touch is a relief, and as he finds himself leaning against her, he remembers the terror he felt when he was trapped without her among a group of strangers who wanted to throw him outside where he would burn in the deadly xtonic sunlight, at the mercy of the unnamed entity who had stolen his voice.
He can't help shuddering and feels her hold on him tighten.
“It's all right, Doctor.” Her voice is soothing and gentle, and he finds himself relaxing at the sound.
He rests his head back against her shoulder, feeling her hair brushing lightly against his forehead. It's such a relief to let go like this that he can only wonder at his anger and stubbornness before. He blinks tiredly, his vision blurry when he forces his eyes open, before he finally decides it's easier to leave his aching, heavy eyelids closed. He sighs a little as he makes this decision and feels himself relax even further into Donna's warm, comforting hold.
“Want to talk about it?”
Her voice is a soft question, but it takes a moment before he can summon the energy to shake his head. “Later,” he finally replies, the word fuzzy in his ears.
“All right.” The words are a reassurance, and then he feels her exerting a small amount of pressure on his shoulders. He feels himself tense a little, uncertain of her motives. Her voice is gentle and soothing in response. “I just want you to lie down, Doctor. I’m not going anywhere, I promise.”
If he had the energy, he would argue with her. If he wasn’t so tired, he would get up and they would head off somewhere that he wouldn’t have to think. If he didn’t feel so awful, he’d at least make some tea.
Instead, before he can do any of that, he finds himself lying back against the pillows, and he forces his eyes open — what a terrible effort it is! — to see Donna settle herself next to him.
Her hand comes down to smooth his hair and stroke his sideburn and cheek. For a long moment, he stares unblinkingly, almost unseeingly, up at her, before what she’s done finally makes sense.
A slow sense of surprise begins to unfold inside him.
She’s never been this up close and personal with him before. In fact, he remembers, this was the woman who claimed she wanted to be ‘just mates’.
And maybe this is just a ‘mates’ thing, her taking care of him. She always takes care of people. He knows that. He remembers the way she was on Messaline with Jenny, forcing him to accept the young woman as his daughter. She took care of Agatha, too, when they were back in the 1920s. He’s positive that she was given a family in the Library because CAL knew how much she longs for one.
Of course, there was the way she looked after him ever since they left Midnight.
For the first time, as he feels her hand make that gentle, repeated, light contact with his skin, so comforting and soothing, he begins to wonder if that strange unseen presence has prompted these nightmares.
“Don’t think about them, Doctor,” she urges quietly, and he realises slowly that the thought made him frown, which is how she must have known.
He nods a little, mesmerised by the warmth that is filling him with such comfort. He can’t help feeling that he would do almost anything she asked him to do at this moment, just as long as she doesn’t move away, doesn’t leave him alone.
Then again, he’s always been willing to do anything she wanted.
With an effort, he makes himself move the tiniest amount, turning his head slightly towards her so that his face is touching her neck.
The feel of her skin against his and that familiar scent of her soap and shampoo is the final assurance he needs that she’s really there.
He can really properly let go now and it’s surprisingly easy, feeling as if, with every light touch of her fingers, the world around him is gradually being soothed away. It’s as if he’s floating — flying — and the darkness gradually rises around him, washing him away into absolute nothingness.
He wakes to the soft sound of human breathing in his ear.
It takes a moment for him to orientate himself, to understand why he’s lying against the pillows, more relaxed than he’s been for some time. To understand why he isn’t sitting upright and staring at the room around him, his hearts racing at the after-effect of the adrenalin coursing through his system as a result of the dreams that haven’t let him sleep properly for days.
To understand why this moment in time is so different.
He opens his eyes to a stretch of pink skin, flushed with sleep, and he can feel the gentle waves of healthy, human heat coming off her. As he tilts his head up to look at her face, he feels her arms instinctively tighten around him, before she relaxes again.
He’s never been this close to Donna Noble before with the luxury of time to study her features. His eyes trace the lines of her closed lids, the ginger lashes almost invisible against her freckled skin, before travelling along the gentle curve of her brows and then down her cheeks to those pink lips, slightly parted as she breathes.
He never realised until now how truly beautiful she is.
Not just beautiful in appearance — although he knows she would scoff at the suggestion. Still, he’s always admired the combination of her hair and eyes and skin — but also beautiful inside.
He can’t remember the last time a companion expressed as much concern for his safety as she does, nor one who actively tries to protect him from danger as much as he does to her.
Certainly he doesn’t think even Rose asked the TARDIS to alert her if he was having nightmares, although that may have more to do with the fact that Rose saw him as a contemporary or her elder, rather than someone who needs an eye kept on him, the way Donna seems to.
You need someone.
Almost as if she knows that she’s the subject of his thoughts, Donna tenses slightly, her arms tightening around him again, before her lashes flutter and then lift. For a moment she gazes sleepily in the direction of his bedside table before he feels the echoes of memory returning in a rush and she looks down at him, her expression almost comically dismayed as she draws back a few inches. He feels the gap like a cold breath down his body that almost makes him shiver.
“I’m so sorry,” she begins breathlessly, a deeper colour flushing her face. “I never meant to spend the night here. I was going to wait until you fell asleep and then go back to bed, but I must have fallen asleep and — ”
He silences her with the lightest touch of his finger against her lips and she stares at him, her eyes wide with shock and perhaps a hint of shame.
“Do you think I’m angry?” he asks quietly, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“But — we agreed,” she offers in hesitant tones, “just mates.”
“I can’t think of anything much ‘matier’ than the reason you came in here last night,” he tells her, remembering the concern in her voice and the fact that she refused to be driven away by his rudeness.
“That was different,” she objects, although he can’t help noticing that she hasn’t moved any further away. “That was then.”
“And this,” he agrees, lightly stroking his hand down the arm lying across him, his voice soft, seeing as her skin raises into goosebumps at his touch, “is now.”
“Don’t,” she protests, finally pulling away and freeing the arm that is under his neck, shifting abruptly into a sitting position.
“I’m sorry,” he says contritely, realising at once that he was taking things in a direction she is clearly uncomfortable with.
“No, I’m sorry.” Donna turns back to face him and replaces her hand on his with a gentle squeeze of his fingers. “I came in here to help you. I shouldn’t be biting your head off.”
At the resumption of her touch, he lets himself relax a little because the last thing he ever wants is to upset her.
“You certainly did that,” he assures her, lightly stroking her hand with his thumb as he realises that he’s slept for the equivalent of about seven hours — more sleep than he usually has for weeks.
He knows he could never have managed that without Donna’s presence, as if that was enough to keep all of those nightmarish visions that have invaded his mind over the past few days at bay.
But as he lets himself think about them again, he can’t help a faint shudder that ripples through him at the memory of the various horrific sights and sounds that lurk in his subconscious.
Him dead… Donna dead… a giant beetle, a poisonous gift from the Trickster… the Earth stolen almost from beneath their feet… a confrontation with the Shadow Proclamation… facing death from the Daleks and Davros… everyone taken from him… Donna gone by his hand, her memories wiped…
Hands violently shaking his shoulders and Donna’s raised voice finally breaks through to him and he looks up, his hearts pounding almost audibly in his chest. He manages to meet her gaze and sees a look of concern in her eyes.
“I didn’t spend the night here, only for you to have waking nightmares instead,” she scolds, rubbing her hands briskly up and down his arms.
“Sorry.” He shakes his head, as if trying to dislodge the misery that has dogged his waking thoughts and disrupted slumber for so long now.
“Talk to me,” Donna orders, scooting back a little on the bed so she can lean against the bedhead, pulling a pillow loose and laying it over her lap. “You’ve kept it to yourself long enough and I won’t stand for it!”
“You’re not standing,” he can’t help pointing out.
“Doctor,” she says warning, “I intend to find out what’s wrong. I will threaten you if I have to. No banana smoothies for a week or something.”
Despite the mock-sternness of her voice, there is still an overriding concern in her eyes, and he can’t help appreciating the affection she has for him. Her hand lightly pats the pillow and he accepts the invitation, wriggling up until he can rest his head on the white cover, feeling as her hand begins to smooth his hair.
“You’ve had bad dreams before,” she reminds him. “You warned me about them when I started travelling with you. But I don’t think they were this bad.”
“They weren’t this vivid,” he agrees, entwining his fingers with those on her free hand, which is resting on his chest. His eyes study the ceiling. “I’ve started to wonder, Donna, if it might have had something to do with whatever that entity was on Midnight, if somehow it was able to drag forward other nightmares and that’s why it’s having this effect on me.”
“But it’s not still affecting you,” she points out, her eyes flicking around his face as if trying to see some remnant of the presence. “You’re in control of your body and your mind, and it’s not as if you’re repeating every word I say, or saying it before I do.”
“I know.” He nods, tightening his hold on her fingers, frustration beginning to tug at him in the same manner as it did on that ship when he couldn’t work out what was wrong with Sky.
“Anyway,” Donna says softly, and his attention is drawn out of his thoughts at her words, “I don’t want to hear why it’s happening. I want to know what’s wrong — what the dreams are about. What I need to do to help them go away.”
“You already have done,” he tells her passionately, bringing her hand up so that it smooths along the side of his cheek. “More than you can imagine, just by being here.”
A smile flits across her face, as if she’s grateful for his words, but it doesn’t banish the concern in her eyes and he knows she isn’t going to let him stall for much longer.
Sighing, he returns his gaze to the ceiling and begins to talk.
He tells her about the world where she was never there to save him from letting himself die as he destroyed the Racnoss and the way the world fell apart as a result of that, until Donna Noble has to sacrifice herself to end it.
He describes how the Earth is stolen, placed in a time pocket with twenty-six other planets that sorted themselves into a perfect balance that would create enable the total destruction of the Universe.
The words flow, as do the images in his mind — reunion with Rose and Jack and the aborted regeneration, the TARDIS being captured by the Daleks, Donna being left behind when the others left the TARDIS so that she’s dragged into the bowels of the Crucible, the creation of the half-human half-Doctor hybrid, Donna being zapped so that the latent meta-crisis activates, turning her into the DoctorDonna, defeat of the Daleks, but at such a terrible price, and all the bitter goodbyes that left him sobbing helplessly into his pillow when he first dreamed them.
He’s almost forgotten that she’s there until a tear splashes onto his cheek.
Looking up, he finds her wiping viciously at her eyes, and he hates that he’s caused her that pain, although he can’t deny that the burden of those nightmares is easier now that he’s shared it with her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, grabbing a handful of tissues from a box beside his bed and reaching up to press them into her hands.
“I told you to tell me,” she chokes out, wiping her eyes. “I don’t know how you can bear it though — all those goodbyes. I mean, those aren’t real, but I know you’ve lost people before Rose. Maybe not in the same way, but they’ve left you for one reason or another.”
“There’s no such thing as forever,” he tells her quietly, and it’s almost a relief to say the words at last, because he knows he’s thought them every time that dreaded word has crossed her lips. “No matter how much you or I might want there to be. It’s like I told Rose once — the curse of the Time Lords. You can spend forever with me, but I can’t give you the same gift.”
She nods, clearly unable to speak as she fights for control. “I know,” she chokes out in the end.
He works his arms around her waist and hugs her, even if it’s somewhat awkward in his present position. Finally she swallows hard several more times and tosses the tissue into the wastepaper basket beside his bedside table before looking down at him.
“That isn’t all of them, though, is it?” she gets out, her voice cracking.
“No,” he agrees, shaking his head. “But I don’t want to tell you until you’re ready.”
Donna doesn’t make a sound — doesn’t even move! — as he tells her about the dreams of Victorian England, although he feels her fingers tighten around his when he tells her about Jackson Lake challenging him that he has no one to live for. Still, it’s a happier ending than his other dreams, as are his adventures with the bus on San Helios with the Swarm and the Tritovores.
The events on Mars are the most difficult to describe yet. The worst part is that, if he found himself in that situation, he couldn’t be certain of acting in any other way than what he saw in the nightmares.
Donna, however, clearly isn’t convinced when he ventures to suggest it to her.
“I don’t believe it,” she says stubbornly, her fingers clutching a fistful of his hair as if she’s planning to pull it out by the roots. “You wouldn’t do that — not the man who lectured me about the things we couldn’t change at Pompeii.”
“Oh, well, if you were there,” he says with deceptive lightness, “I’m sure you wouldn’t ever have let me get away with it.”
“You’re right about that, mate,” she retorts, resuming the light touch across his head. “Is that it then?”
“One more,” he says, his voice suddenly hoarse, and he shivers as the memories of that nightmare crowd in on him.
Donna reaches down and tugs on the bedspread that is folded across the foot of the bed, pulling it up to cover him and tucking it in around him.
“Now,” she says gently, smoothing her hand down his cheek before resuming that blissfully reassuring touch on his hair, although he hates to think what it will look like when she’s done, “go ahead.”
He snuggles in under the duvet, pulling it closer around him, before telling her. Perhaps because he’s dreamed it so often, it’s the easiest to describe, although he has to detach himself a little in order to prevent the descriptions of what he sees in his mind from overwhelming him.
It’s only when he gets to the sacrifice he has to make in order to save Wilf that it all gets too much.
Tears slide down his face, his arms clinging around Donna’s waist as if she was the only thing keeping him from being swept away from this moment to live through that terror, and his face is half-buried in the pillow so that he can’t be sure that she can even hear what he’s saying.
When he gets to the final goodbyes, the words catch in his throat and he all but buries himself under the covers.
“I can’t,” he chokes out, burying his face completely so that he can stifle his sobs, but Donna’s hands are gentle and yet firm as they uncover him, providing comfort in their strength as she slides down into the bed beside him and holds his body against hers, her hands smoothing over his back.
He weeps into her neck, the nightmare playing on in his mind — the terrible agony as it became impossible to hold off the regeneration any longer, those last images of Ood Sigma, the final moments in the TARDIS, and then everything collapsing into burning and fire.
Her arms around his shoulders are the only reassurance he has that he isn’t actually going through those scenes that are so clear in his mind. Her voice is soft in his ear, although he’s too distracted to make out the words, and he occasionally feels her lips brush his cheek, though he has enough awareness to know that the kisses are intended as comfort and nothing more.
He clings to her, scarcely knowing what he’s doing, until finally the pain in his mind dies away and he finds himself lying against her, his head pillowed on her arm, her other hand rubbing slow circles on his back, her face pressed lightly against his, her skin surprisingly cool against his flushed cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, feeling himself tremble as occasional sobs still shake him.
“It’s not your fault.” Her voice is calm and reassuring. “None of this is your fault, Doctor, please understand that. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be, and it wasn’t as if I didn’t have an idea of how bad the nightmares would be.”
His lips twist into a painful attempt at a smile. “I can’t keep a secret from you, can I?”
“I wouldn’t want you to,” is her boundlessly soothing reply.
For what feels like ages, he lies there, gradually feeling his hearts return to normal and his respiration slow, knowing that the tension is leeching out of his muscles. Donna’s touch is so comforting that he realises he doesn’t actually want to move in case she stops.
Finally, however, although he’s tried not to think about them, he can’t completely ignore the nagging memories of the dreams.
He looks up to find her watching him.
“I don’t want to go, Donna.”
For an instant, he fears she’s about to throw off a flippant comment about how there’s no danger of that, but all he can see in her eyes, as she steadily meets his gaze, is absolute sympathy and understanding.
“I don’t want you to either,” she replies honestly.
“I will,” he says with an anxious gulp, staring past her at the ceiling, unable to look her in the eye. “One day. Not even a Time Lord lives for ever.”
“When I thought I’d lost you, on Midnight,” she swallows so hard that he can hear the sound in the otherwise silent room, “that was the first time I realised how long you’d really lived, that all those humans you were on that ship with were only children in your eyes, that I was so ridiculously young to you, and all my worries about turning forty were stupid.” Her eyes travel over his face. “And the thing I realised at that moment that I loved most about you is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen you waste a single moment.”
In any other situation, he would start here with one of his long speeches about the burden of a Time Lord and how he’s the only one left, but realisation strikes him so hard that he almost flinches.
Because Donna Noble never had the chance to see him when he had just become this man, when every day was a new experience, when he was seeing the Universe through new eyes and loving every minute of it.
She simply doesn’t realize how bitter he’s become, how dark, how joyless.
He pulls himself upright into a sitting position, moving away from her. She shouldn’t have to have someone near her who is so far from what she believes him to be.
He understands now what the dreams have shown him — what he could become, what even darker places he could take descend to, what rules he could uncaringly break, if he doesn’t have someone there to stop him.
“What is it, Doctor?” she asks anxiously, her hand coming to rest on his shoulder. “What’s the matter?”
Abruptly and without warning or saying anything in response to her concerned questions, he turns back and pulls Donna into his arms, feeling as she freezes for an instant at the shock of his actions before melting into his hold, her arms warm around his back, her head providing gentle pressure against his neck.
“I used to be better,” he says hoarsely, stroking his fingers through her hair, relieved when she doesn’t pull away. “So much better.”
“Everyone changes,” she replies, rubbing her hands across his back in a comforting gesture. “Nobody stays the same.”
What hurts most is that he knows how hard it would be — it will be — to explain to her the circumstances that have made him into this empty shell of the man he first was after his most recent death.
And yet he knows she deserves to know, and to decide whether she can bear to put up with what he can only see as a form of deception, even if he never set out to deceive her.
But when he thinks back over their time together, he knows he’s held back, wary, worried about what might confront him next.
And considering how much he can see the way she’s embraced every single moment, has never let anything hold her back, he’s almost ashamed at having let her down.
“I’m not… who you think I am,” he gets out in the end, and he sees her eyes widen, confusion obvious on her face.
“Who are you then?” she demands reasonably, and although he’s expecting it, he can’t help hating the instant when she pulls away from him.
Maybe because that wasn’t the way she was expecting him to frame the question, he doesn’t immediately have an answer ready for her.
“Doctor?” she asks again, fear in her voice. “Who are you if you’re not yourself? The Master in disguise or something?”
He almost feels the ridiculous urge to laugh at that question. “No,” he says in the end, shaking his head at the leap of logic her mind made. “I didn’t mean that,” he goes on. “I’m still — me. It’s just — you have this idea of me in your mind, Donna, of what I’m like, the sort of man I am. And I’m not really like that at all.”
She’s relaxed at his initial answer and now glances at him in obvious confusion as he goes on.
“Explain,” she orders, although he can only feel relief fill him when she reaches out to take his hands and wrap them in her warm fingers.
He can’t bear to lose her, the way he’s lost so many people recently.
He stares down at their linked hands, smoothing his thumb over her fingers, before looking up to meet her gaze.
“Every time I die,” he tells her quietly, “I become someone else. A new man. It’s a chance to change, to leave behind all that I was, any bad things that I became or that happened to me, and move on. And I thought I’d done that here, after — that…”
His eyes track around the room, different from the appearance it had when he occupied it as his former self. But it’s not different enough to let him escape.
“But I didn’t,” he finishes miserably. “Oh, it all started so well,” he hurries on, finally getting up off the bed and tearing himself away from Donna’s gentle hold because he can’t bear to see her face when she understands it all.
His legs shake a little as he strides across the carpet, stopping short to stare at the images that decorate the wall on the far side of the room — pictures of companions who have left him for one reason or another. There are a few people missing, those he had no chance to capture on film, but he knows he won’t let himself forget their faces, even if the vivid memories fade a little once he moves on from the life of which they were a part.
“It was fun,” he says, finally turning back to see that Donna is still sitting on the bed, watching him. “Those first hours, fighting the Sycorax, showing off. And then Harriet Jones ruined everything.”
“How could she have?” Donna asks, and it takes him a moment to think of a response to that because, again, it wasn’t a question he had expected.
“With each new regeneration,” he says slowly, clasping his hands behind his back and studying the floor, realising with a start that he’s wearing the pyjamas that are almost identical to those he was wearing on that day, “each new face,” he goes on, “I tend to — forget. Forget how bad things were. Forget what people are capable of.”
“She did something you didn’t approve of,” Donna suggests, her voice calm. “I still don’t see how that can have ruined everything. The only way that could have happened was if you let it happen.”
He’s silenced by this reaction because he hasn’t thought about it quite like that. She’s right, of course, and he has to admit that to himself the next moment.
“What was the real problem?” Donna prompts when he remains silent.
“I wanted to escape death.” He spreads his hands out in a gesture of demonstration, glancing down almost as if he could see the metaphorical blood on them, before looking up at her again. “That’s all there’s been ever since the end of the Time War, and I’m so tired of not being able to save people.” He drops wearily into the chair standing beside the door that leads to his wardrobe. “You can’t imagine what it’s like, Donna, to know that, wherever you go, people are going to die.”
Donna gets up from the bed and crosses the floor, kneeling in front of him and sliding her hands into his.
“When did that all become your fault?” she asks gently. “Having gone through all the things we have, I would have hoped you’d be able to see all of the people who’ve lived because of what you’ve done.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, his voice barely above a whisper, and it’s an effort to avoid sounding as if he means the word to be sarcastic.
Standing up, she tugs his hand and leads him back over to the bed, wrapping the duvet around him once she’s seated him on the mattress. It’s only as she does so that he realises that he’s shivering with cold. Donna sits beside him, her arm around his shoulders, rubbing his back until the chill subsides and he can focus on her properly again.
“You never ask,” he tells her, taking her free hand, her fingers beautifully warm against his cold skin. “You never push me for answers, for information — not unless you know you have to.”
“You always tell me what I need to know,” she replies simply. “I trust you.”
“Rose always used to ask.” He almost feels guilty admitting this, as if he’s somehow betraying the memory of Rose’s love for him by saying it, but it’s the truth. “She knew about everything,” he goes on. “The Time War and Gallifrey and what happened. He’d told her — my previous incarnation. And she just kept asking.”
He finds himself grinding his teeth, remembering all of the times when he wanted to beg Rose to stop talking, to stop asking, to stop telling him what she’d done with his previous self, as if he couldn’t remember.
“She didn’t know,” Donna points out, and he can only be grateful to her for defending her unknown predecessor. “From what you’ve told me, Doctor, Rose was young. Maybe too young to see how it was hurting you. Or maybe she just didn’t believe that you could be hurt.”
“Martha did it, too,” he retorts, abruptly changing the subject, not wanting to talk about Rose any longer. “She pushed and pushed and never left me alone. I was just starting to get over it all when she came along and she never left it alone.”
“Martha was in love with you.” Donna squeezes his fingers. “That’s what people do when they’re in love — they want to know everything about the person they love, to share the bad parts as well as the good ones. She just couldn’t appreciate what it was doing to you.”
He nods a little, having to acknowledge this. Maybe he already knows it, but hearing it stated in Donna’s calm, reasonable voice, particularly with the knowledge that she’s met Martha and understands how she thinks, it carries even greater weight.
“It went on like that though,” he’s forced to admit. “More nightmares from the past. The Master came back — I almost shouldn’t be surprised after he’s managed it so often, but I was so sure he was lost with everyone else on Gallifrey. And then,” he goes on before she can ask him anything, because after his nightmares of the Master, he doesn’t want to relive his most recent meeting with his old foe, “there was everything that happened on the Titanic.”
Donna raises her eyebrows, and he remembers their reunion at Adipose Industries when she denied that that could have been real. However he shakes his head a little, not wanting to have to go into details, and knows that, as he’s already said, she won’t ask.
He makes a mental note to tell her about it another time when it won’t be as painful.
“I lost someone there though,” he explains. “Astrid. She invited herself along in a way, just like you,” he adds, stroking his thumb over Donna’s hand and meeting her gaze steadily for the first time in several minutes. “And you did so much to help,” he goes on, his voice low and passionate. “I could relax with you — laugh and joke and just enjoy things in a way I hadn’t been able to do for such a long time. But,” he adds after a moment of silence, “I can’t be like I was then.” He can hear the pain in his own voice. “With Rose,” he adds by means of explanation. “That easy and relaxed and — and innocent!”
There’s a tiny half-smile on Donna’s face that makes him wonder what she’s thinking, but he isn’t left puzzling over it for long.
“What makes you think,” she challenges, “that that’s the Doctor I want?”
He frowns, thoughts of Martha and Astrid and the Master gone in an instant. “What do you mean?”
The smile on Donna’s face widens until it’s almost mocking. “Do you really think,” she begins, “that I haven’t seen the difference between what you were like when we first met, when I was zapped on board the TARDIS, and the way you were at Adipose Industries? I even told you that,” she goes on, as he stares at her, wondering why he hasn’t been able to appreciate that, of course, she would have seen a change, “up on the roof, when we were waving at all those little blobs of fat.”
“Oh,” is all he can come out with in reply.
“Doctor,” she becomes more serious, “I didn’t go looking for you for all that time because I wanted to travel with a complete stranger. I didn’t want you the way you were when you’d just changed, the way you were when you were with Rose, or even the way you were with Martha. I wanted the man I’d come to know and trust, who saved my life and would have done the same thing for anyone he met.” She squeezes his hand. “I wanted the man who I thought might just turn out to be the best friend I’d ever had,” she smiles at him, “and who’s done just that.”
“And what happens the next time I change?” he can’t help asking. “When I become someone new all over again?”
“I’ll deal with that when it happens,” she replies calmly. “But that doesn’t meant I want you to try and be someone you’re not, just so I’m ready for that to happen whenever in the future it might occur. The thing about you, Doctor,” she goes on, “is that you change to suit the people around you. I saw how you were with Martha and you don’t treat her the same way as you treat me.”
“I don’t?” he asks incredulously.
“No!” She shoots him a look of aggravation. “Of course you don’t! Because you know she and I aren’t the same person — that we’ll react to you differently. You only had to see how we treated you after you were transported back from the Sontaran ship to see that!”
“I suppose so,” he admits almost awkwardly, because it’s starting to become disconcerting just how right Donna is about all this — and as a result, how wrong he’s been.
She smiles understandingly. “Change of subject?” she suggests, and he embraces the idea.
“Okay.” She gives his hand one final squeeze and then stands up. “I’m going to get us both something substantial for breakfast and you are going to get back into bed or you’ll come down with triple pneumonia or something.”
He wriggles at the commanding tone of her voice, but he can’t deny that the idea has a certain element of appeal.
“I’ll have a hot shower,” he suggests as a compromise. “Then see.”
“If you’re not in PJs and between the sheets when I get back,” she threatens, “I’ll never make you banana muffins again.”
“Bully,” he says in mock-sulky tones, folding his arms, his lower lip protruding.
“You better believe it, chum,” she says with a laugh and then leaves the room.
He watches her go, unable to help being surprised at how the knots of tension that had been filling his stomach for days have faded away. He knows he’s only been able to get all of that out because he knows Donna would never misinterpret his emotional outburst in the way that Martha might have done, and because Rose would never have been able to cope with the idea of him having any sort of emotional breakdown.
He knows Donna is the very person that she once told him he needed.
Unable to help smiling as he hears the sound of her getting pots and pans out of the various cupboards in the kitchen, he crosses to the wardrobe and digs out a clean pair of pyjamas — light blue with tiny pictures of TARDISes all over them — and heads into the bathroom.
Ten minutes later, after he has a quick shower and finishes styling his hair — Donna’s ministrations had certainly done terrible things to it — he comes back into the bedroom to find that the sheets have been changed. The pillows are piled at the head of the bed, the covers turned back invitingly, and a cup of tea is steaming on the bedside table.
“Brilliant,” he tells his ship, but then there’s a soft denial in the back of his mind and he knows that it’s his companion he’s got to thank for this tempting scene.
He only hopes she hasn’t burned breakfast, because he realises as he settles back against the pillows and sips his tea, just how hungry he is.
The various tempting aromas are almost enough for him to get out of bed again and head for the kitchen, but luckily Donna appears with a heavily laden tray before he can give into the temptation and she grins in obvious satisfaction at the sight of him between the sheets.
“Good boy,” she says patronisingly, and he pulls a face at her as she laughs and then places the tray across his knees. “I don’t think you’ll have to work too hard to polish this lot off,” she announces before removing the cover to reveal a plate overflowing with crispy strips of bacon, a huge serving of scrambled eggs and several golden-brown slices of toast.
“Donna Noble, I think I love you,” the Doctor announces in satisfaction, hearing his stomach growl as he picks up the cutlery.
“Yeah, yeah, dream on, Time Boy,” she retorts, picking up her tea as she takes a seat on the end of the bed.
He shovels in a large mouthful of food before a thought occurs to him.
“Aren’t you — ?” he begins, almost choking as some egg goes down the wrong way and saved by his handy respiratory bypass system, which kicks in just in time. He chews fast before managing to speak more clearly. “Are you having anything?”
“I had my breakfast while I was preparing yours,” she tells him.
“You can’t have had much time,” he says somewhat reprovingly. “Not considering you changed the bed.”
“Oh, I’m an expert at that,” she replies airily. “My two claims to fame — 100 words per minute and the world’s fastest bed-changer.”
“Eat something,” he orders, pushing the tray in her direction, arching an eyebrow expectantly until she gives in with a wry grin and reaches for the plate.
“What were we going to do today?” she asks as she picks up on a piece of toast and nibbles it.
“I thought about taking you to a market,” he replies, piling scrambled eggs precariously on a piece of toast and cautiously adding a strip of bacon, only just getting it into his mouth before it collapses and he has to chew and swallow the mouthful before he can continue. “It’s a place I’ve been to before, a planet called Shan Shen. Lots of shopping.”
“No.” Her voice is soft, but firm, and he looks up at her in surprise as he’s about to pick up his tea.
“Not today.” She rests a gentle hand on his foot. “I don’t think you’re up to it — and I know I’m not.”
He can’t decide whether to be annoyed that she’s clearly telling him what to do, or relieved that she’s taken the decision out of his hands.
“Another day,” she promises, apparently in response to the discontent he suspects he’s showing on his face as he somewhat grumpily drinks his tea. “But for now,” she goes on with a grin, “I left the kitchen in such a mess that there’s no way you’re seeing it or you’ll never let me live it down. And frankly,” her voice softens, “you look as if you could do with a nap, Doctor.”
He’d argue with her if he wasn’t actually starting to feel tired again, particularly now that he’s finished off the very substantial breakfast she brought him.
“Well, what do you want to do instead?” he replies, trying for a diplomatic answer that won’t sound like he’s letting her tell him — the last of the Time Lords! — what to do.
“Stay right here.” She smiles at him over the rim of her mug and he suspects she knows what he’s thinking. “No markets, no shopping, just staying here and doing something, I don’t know, normal. Watch a bunch of movies — funny ones, mind you, nothing serious — and then you can cook me dinner and we can just forget about the Universe and its nightmares for one day.”
He’s surprised by how relaxed that suggestion makes him. Usually the thought of spending a day in this way would make him fidgety, but right now, it sounds perfect.
“If it would make you happy,” he concedes at last.
“It would,” she agrees, finishing her tea and putting her empty cup onto the tray before getting up off the bed and lifting the breakfast dishes up off his lap. “Now, I’m going to clean the kitchen so that the TARDIS will be willing to let you play around and make a terrible mess later when you attempt to put together something reasonable for dinner — ”
“… and then I want to get my diary for Gramps up-to-date,” she goes on blithely, paying no attention to his indignant interruption. “But,” she adds, fixing him with a firm look, “don’t think I won’t be keeping an ear open for you, chum, just in case you decide you haven’t had enough nightmares lately.”
“I won’t,” he assures her. “I’m sure I won’t.”
“I hope not,” she replies and then turns away. In the back of his mind, he can hear her asking the TARDIS to let her know if the Doctor needs her while she’s cleaning up the remains of breakfast and finding ways to kill time while he naps.
“Thank you,” he tells her softly, seeing as she smiles back at him over her shoulder before she closes the bedroom door and leaves him alone.
He wriggles down in bed, scattering the pile of pillows that were stacked behind him so that he can lie back against them. He’s tired again, drained by the outpouring of emotion, but he knows it was necessary. Now that he’s told someone else about them, he can feel that the nightmares no longer have the hold over him that they did before. He realises it wasn’t the Midnight entity that caused the nightmares to plague him in the way they were, but rather his own suppressed guilt and grief.
Pulling up the blankets again, he rolls onto his side so that he can look at the smiling photo of Donna on the bedside table. This time he can smile back because the fear lingering inside him that she would somehow disappear from his life has vanished.
He decides, as he lets his eyes close, that he won’t take her to Shan Shen. Not because he knows she wouldn’t enjoy it, but because there are other places she would like more.
The Planet of the Shoes, for instance.
He wants to see her happy, enjoying every single moment, and he wants to be right there with her, remembering just what it is about this universe and the beings in it that he loves so much.
He’s going to stop fearing a future that might never come and stop regretting things he has no control over.
He’s going to be happy.
After all, it’s not as if dreams always come true.
Not the bad ones anyway.
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