For a little while on Midnight, the Doctor was himself again, arguing with the owners and insisting with his usual ferocity that the Leisure Palaces, Inc. pack up and find another novelty planet for their holiday retreat. He talked over arguments about profits and reservations and finally silenced them with a hard stare and steel in his voice, extracted the promise he wanted and strode from the office with his coat flapping behind him and assurances that he would return to make sure they kept their word.
But once they were out of sight of the executive offices his step slowed, his shoulders dropped and he was fragile again, transparent with exhaustion. They reached the TARDIS and he paused in front of it, looking wearily up at the blue doors. He raised his hand, fingers poised to snap–and then he let it fall. He dug the key out of his pocket and slipped it into the lock.
Donna stood at the top of the ramp and watched him move slowly around the console. There was an air of palpable relief about him, as if the tension that had begun to release when she hugged him earlier had just loosened another notch, but the lines of fatigue didn’t leave his face. He started the dematerialization sequence and released the hand brake. The ship jerked. Donna grabbed hold of the railing. The Doctor hung on to the edge of the console and turned his face up toward the central column, eyes closed, as if basking in the deep modulating hum of the engines.
Once the ship had steadied he pulled the monitor around and stood staring at it for several moments, making adjustments on the console. Donna waited. But there was no bright false smile, no chatter about where they would go next or what he wanted to show her. When he looked at her again, he wore the same weary, haunted expression that he had when he had found her at the swimming pool earlier.
And Donna had no idea what to do. She knew how to handle him when he was pretending to be all right, and when he had appeared in that doorway at the Leisure Palace it had been so obvious what he needed that she hadn’t had to hesitate. But now he was just–standing there, staring bleakly at the space between them, and Donna couldn’t decide if he needed to talk more, or another hug, or a distraction, or what, so she just said the first thing that came to her mind.
“You look like you could sleep for a week.”
He chuckled, but there was no energy in it. “Yeah,” he said. His hand went to the back of his neck. “I’m just going to--” He tilted his head in the direction of the door that led deeper into the TARDIS and then, without finishing his sentence, he turned and walked down the ramp, leaving her alone in the console room.
Donna watched him go. She almost didn’t go after him. Almost. But the last thing he needed right now was to be alone, she thought. She followed in time to see him disappear around a corner at the far end of the corridor. When she reached the turning he had vanished, but a door stood partway open along the next corridor, and she could see a light on inside. She pushed it open quietly.
It led to a simple bedroom, circular and domed like the console room and bathed in the same golden glow. The room itself was unremarkable–just a bed and a nightstand and a lamp–but it felt different, as if the air itself was tingling. It would have made her skin crawl if it hadn’t felt warm and somehow familiar.
The Doctor toed his trainers off and crawled up onto the bed, settling on his side with his arms tucked under the pillow. He closed his eyes.
Donna stayed where she was in the doorway and watched him. If he noticed her, he gave no sign. “Doctor?” she called after a moment. “Are you all right?”
He didn’t answer. She couldn’t tell if it was because he was asleep already or because he couldn’t admit to not being “all right” any more than he could pretend that he was. Either way, she supposed, it was a step in the right direction.
“Doctor?” she asked again. She took a step into the room. The sense of tingling in the air intensified and she stopped, shrugging her shoulders and looking around.
“Increased psychic resonance,” the Doctor said from the bed.
Donna started, looking around at him. “What?”
He had opened his eyes and tucked one hand behind his head, propping himself up so he could see her. “It’s the TARDIS.” He reached up and placed his other hand flat against the wall, looking up toward the ceiling. “Her psychic field. It’s like...she’s turned the volume up, just in this room. It keeps me from dreaming.”
“Oh.” Donna remembered the way he had woken that day in the TARDIS library, terrified and disoriented, and felt a stab of irritation with him for falling asleep there instead of going to bed when he should. Though he had today: another step. And he could only take one at a time.
She moved back toward the door and said, “I’ll just...I’ll be in the library, if you–“
“Please stay.” He was still looking up at the ceiling. She saw his throat work as he swallowed. She thought she saw him tremble.
She blinked, surprised at the request. “All right.” She crossed the room and perched on the edge of the bed.
He let out a long breath when he felt her weight shift the mattress. His shoulders relaxed another notch. “Thanks.”
Donna gave him a sound thwap on his arm.
“Oi!” He started up and stared at her with a comically wounded expression, rubbing his arm where she had hit him. “What was that for?”
“You have a room with increased psychic whatsits to block out your nightmares, and you fall asleep in the library?”
He opened his mouth and then shut it, looking appropriately abashed, and mumbled something indistinct. He lay back down.
“You may be a genius, sometimes you’re not very clever,” Donna said. She tapped his shoulder, more gently this time. “Go on then, make some room.” He moved to the side and she put her back against the headboard, kicking off her shoes and stretching her legs out alongside him.
“So am I ever gonna get that beach?” she asked.
“Hm?” He frowned up at her, confused. “Oh. You did say you wanted to go to the beach, didn’t you?”
“Yup. And then it was all, Library this, and diamond planet that. Look what happens when you pick where we go, hm?”
He flinched. She clamped her mouth shut. She had been trying for a joke, hadn’t meant for it to come off quite like that.
They were quiet for a few minutes, and then the Doctor said, “I was so scared, Donna.”
Donna swallowed hard. One thing to know it; quite another to hear him say it. But this, at least, she could help with. She reached down and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “I know,” she said. “It’s over now.”
“Shh,” she soothed, then immediately regretted it. The last thing he needed was to be shushed after what had happened. But he didn’t seem to mind. He subsided, another knot of tension leeching out of him. Donna let her hand rest on his head and stroked his temple with her thumb. His eyes started to close.
“I know where we should go,” he said at length, sounding sleepy. “Kettankung. Blue sand! Bright blue, you won’t believe it. Because of the algae. And some of the biggest fish you’ll ever see. Completely harmless. We can...” He trailed off into a yawn.
Donna smiled. “That sounds lovely. Swimming, and sunbathing, and a picnic on the beach. Just what we need. You know, I barely got a tan at that place.”
His lips quirked into a smile. “We’ll have to remedy that, won’t we?”
“You could do with a bit of sun yourself, Martian Boy.” She gave his shoulder a gentle poke. “You’re paler than me.”
He chuckled. “Quite right. And happy to stay that way.”
“So no swimming then?”
“Mmmm.” He shifted position, tucking his hands back under the pillow. “Beach volleyball, though. I like beach volleyball...”
“Beach volleyball, then,” Donna agreed. “I’m warning you though, I’m rubbish at it.”
“Nah.” He grinned up at her, a real one, his eyes twinkling. “Donna Noble. I bet you’re brilliant.”
She couldn’t help but smile back. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Only the ones I like.”
Donna swatted at him. “The truth comes out.”
He gave a sleepy chuckle. His eyes drifted shut again. Donna slid down a bit and rested her head against the headboard. She resumed stroking his hair. The last of the tension in his body finally drained away. His breathing slowed.
She didn’t realize he was still awake until he mumbled, “You really are brilliant, you know.”
Donna smiled down at him. “You’re not so bad yourself.” She leaned down and kissed the top of his head. “Now sleep.”
She didn’t have to tell him twice.