“Take this song with you.”
Donna answers first, solemn, her usual brashness tempered by the honor the Ood are offering. “We will,” she assures them.
“Always,” he intones with a quiet smile of his own.
Ood Sigma is speaking, but the Doctor listens to more than words, savoring the haunting voices that lie beneath words and feelings and wind and ice before turning away.
Following Donna, he pushes through the snow to the patiently waiting TARDIS. She falls back as they approach the door, and he can feel her beside him, a quiet hitch in the reverberations of song. Her warm human presence waits at his shoulder as he fingers his key, slides it into the lock, hesitates. Knuckles brushing the familiar wood, the Doctor lingers, willing time to slow down for just a minute, drawing out the moment.
He breathes in the icy air, the currents of telepathic song rushing through his mind, filling the empty spaces with their unfamiliar presence — the bittersweet touch of alien thought washing away the ache of silence. It’s no substitute, he tries to tell himself. Even the cloying beauty of Oodsong is nothing to the constant susurration of Gallifreyan minds stretching across time and space, ever-present. Forever quiet now.
Donna clears her throat, elbowing him in the ribs. He flashes her a quicksilver grin, all teeth and fervor, opens the door and shepherds her inside. The door closes behind them with a terminal click.
No song pulling gently, insistently at the edges of the pit inside his mind. No impression of others lingering just beyond his senses. The sudden, severed connection takes his breath like a blow to the gut, and he stops at the threshold and leans against the closed doors, teeth gritted, eyes closed.
Donna’s rubber soles squelch across the console room, a counterpoint to her voice. “Who’d ever imagine people like the Ood making music like that? Very Bach. Very Mozart, if you know what I mean. Ood to Joy.”
“Beethoven,” he corrects automatically, leaning his head back against the TARDIS. “Only sounds that way because the ship translates it into something familiar.” His isolated voice inside his head echoes as if across a vast distance, lost, desolate. He raises a hand to rub his face, leaves it there.
She’s been talking, he knows. Asking questions. He sighs, opens his eyes, drops his hand, moves through the silence toward the central column. He can feel her gaze on him, curious and perhaps concerned. He wriggles out of his snow-damp overcoat and flings it carelessly onto one of the coral struts, giving his spiky hair a tug for good measure. Just like always. Nothing gained. Nothing lost.
“You all right?”
“Fine,” he answers her quickly, so quickly that he fails to stop his tongue from shaping the obvious follow-up question. “Why do you ask?”
“Dunno.” She flumps down on the jump seat, letting her furry hood fall to her shoulders in a small spray of melting ice. “Brrrr. It’s just that you seemed so — sad for a moment. You do that sometimes, you know.”
Flicking several toggles, he spins and cranks and pushes buttons on the console, green and amber lights flickering in time to his dancing fingers. “Do what?” The words spill out again, unwanted.
“Turn sad all of the sudden, like someone turned the light off inside.” She watches his hands. “Just like that.”
He flips a lever, swings the monitor creaking over to peer at the intricate geometric symbols that scroll across it. Gallifreyan. A language as lost as its speakers’ telepathic touch. He turns away with a grimace, aware of the shadows that fill his eyes, the silence that fills his mind. With a snort, he whirls around the console finding other things to look at, other clicks and whirs and words. “Jack always said I was sexiest when I brooded. Of course, that was another me. Well, not entirely. I mean, as much as any me ever is. And we are talking about Jack. The Ood would have been sexy to Jack. No offense to the Ood. On Paxar 12, tentacles are all the rage.”
Donna’s hand catches his wrist, pulling him up short, blocking his haphazard path around the control room. Water droplets fizz on the console from her sleeve. “Doctor,” she begins.
“You don’t know Jack, though, do you, Donna?” He gives her a somewhat sickly grin. “We’ll have to rectify that one day, maybe. I mean, I know you’re not interested in mating, but he can be an all right–“
“Doctor!” Donna’s voice turns to steel. “Stop babbling, for Chrissakes. And I don’t want to know what sort of weird alien mating rituals you or your friends get up to. Got it?” She yanks him firmly toward the jump seat she had just abandoned. “Sit,” she commands.
He sits. “Look, Donna–“
“I’m talking,” she reminds him. “I don’t know what’s going on in that spaceman head of yours, but you were happy outside and now someone kicked your puppy and set you talking nonsense again. The way you do sometimes when you’re trying to talk your way out of a trap.”
She cuts him off with primly raised eyebrows, and he sinks a little on the seat.
“I’m not trying to trap you, Doctor. And you don’t have to do that for me.”
“Do what?” Stupid question, in the air before he can even look away.
He studies his knee with interest.
“And don’t say that you don’t,” Donna continues, no-nonsense and earnest at the same time. “You pretend to be happy. You pretend to have fun.”
“I do have fun!” he protests, straightening, a little disconcerted by the force of her concern and her unwanted insight. He needed stupider companions, really. “You tell me what’s not fun about rescuing a whole race of telepathic tentacle-faced, hindbrain-holding people from the evil bureaucracy that wants to keep them enslaved forever? Have you ever done anything more fun than that? I mean, Donna Noble of Chiswick, social justice activist from the galaxy next door? Come on, what’s not fun about that?”
She settles beside him on the tattered seat, making him budge over with her elbow. “Shhh. I didn’t say we didn’t do good, or that it wasn’t amazing. I wouldn’t be flying about in this rattletrap contraption with a skinny, moody alien if it wasn’t. In fact, -- Oh, all right! Don’t get so indignant. It’s even fun.”
He nods, vindicated, and pats the seat consolingly, murmuring to the timeship.
“But you’re not happy.” Donna reins the conversation back to her point. “At least, not any more than you were when I first met you. Your Jack–whatever kind of crazy thing he might be–pinned you about right as a brooder.” She pokes his shoulder with one finger. “Not sexy, though. Bit scary sometimes, maybe.”
He sighs and leans backward, sliding down into the seat until his head rests on the top edge, his long legs splayed out in front of him, his brown eyes fixed upward on the cavernous ceiling above them. “What do you want me to say, Donna?” The emptiness in his mind reverberates with the words, and he feels suddenly weary and a little cold.
Her hand slides into the crook of his arm, squeezing slightly. “Tell me what’s wrong, you daft man. Do I need to spell it out? Did you want to stay?”
“No,” he replies, too quickly. “I mean — oh, Donna.” He heaves another breath, rolling his head to look over at her. “I didn’t want to stay. Staying, in fact, would be a Very Bad Thing. I mean, the Ood don’t need more humanoids sticking their noses in while they’re trying to reconstruct their whole society. And–“ He pauses, closing his eyes briefly against the faint static in his mind now, the noise of a brain losing purchase on a reawakened sense. “It’s bad for me. I shouldn’t be around the Oodsong. Not for too long.”
Donna is quick to jump to conclusions, brilliant human that she is. “Because it’s too loud? Because you can’t tune it out?” Wrong conclusions, but he can’t help smiling a little at how instinctive it is for her to think and solve the puzzles of the universe, of him, even.
“It’s not so loud, or so heartbreaking, now that they’re free,” he reminds her. “But it hurts to walk away, Donna, and that’s why we have to go.”
She looks for a moment as if she might thump him. “What kind of pea-brained extraterrestrial logic is that, then? If it hurts you to leave, we can always stay.” He can see the glimmer of worry behind her brave words. What would it be like to stay forever on the ice-crusted Ood planet, surrounded by aliens–aliens who look and act alien?
“No, we can’t,” he assures her, enunciating each word. “The longer I’m around them, the harder it would be to leave.”
Her brow furrows in confusion.
“Look,” he finally says, reaching one long-fingered hand up to her face and lightly touching the familiar contact points. “I’m telepathic, yes? So were all of my people, the Time Lords. Although we couldn’t read minds without making physical contact, or only in very special circumstances, we had a constant residual connection with every other Time Lord mind. Like a hum in the background.”
“Sounds right awful.”
“You can take the girl out of Chiswick, but you can’t take Chiswick out of the girl. It was natural, Donna. More than that, it was what we are. Were.” He exhales slowly and shakes his head. “Losing it is like losing any other sense. Like blindness. A universe suddenly without taste or without physical touch.” He traces her jaw line with his thumb before he drops his hand again. “Can you imagine that?”
She swallows and nods, a mixture of horror and understanding dawning in her expression. “And the Ood’s song filled those empty senses?”
“I’m sorry” is all she finds to say, but her hand has found his arm again, stabilizing and oh-so-human warm.
They sit like this for a long moment, the quiet enveloping them both like fog. Then, he shrugs, shakes himself vigorously, and changes the subject. “So, where to next?”
She thinks for a minute, studying him too closely. Her somber expression cracks into a grin. “You letting me pick this time?”
Eyes narrowed in suspicion, he nods. “As long as you don’t want to go back outside.”
“Oh! No,” she replies, sliding off the jump seat and heading for the interior door. “No, but I know what we should do next. After I get out of these soggy, steamy winter clothes.” She spins on one heel and gestures to him peremptorily. “Well, don’t just sit there, mister. While I change, you have work to do!”
He blinks at her.
“Come on, move your ancient alien arse. You’re going to the kitchen and getting the following,” She lists several items quickly, ticking them off on the fingers of her well-manicured hand. “Just put ‘em on the counter, and make us a pot of tea while you’re at it.”
Half an hour later, the Doctor finds himself surrounded by the gentle whirr and clink of Donna puttering around the kitchen, the scrape and flap of her slippers as she bakes and chats and tells stories of her adventures between her Christmas not-wedding and now. Every so often, he can’t help but chime in with questions or a bit of a tale of his own, but mostly, she carries the conversation. He sits in his shirtsleeves at the table, chin on his hands, relaxing amid the warmth, the smell of burning sugar, the piping of the teakettle, and his latest companion’s easy and interested chatter.
It can’t replace the connection to like minds, he reminds himself. It isn’t the same as what was lost.
But as he spreads Devonshire cream across the top of his third crumbly scone, he is surprised to find that it does indeed go a long way toward keeping the silence at bay.