You act like such a lonely man, Sarah Jane had said.
She was right: he has the largest, most wonderful family on Earth. On any planet, for that matter. It stretches across dimensions and through history, all the way to the end of the universe, bright threads in the fabric of Time. He may be the last of the Time Lords, but he isn’t alone.
It’s just times like these, when everyone goes home and the TARDIS is empty. He walks around the console on his own, flipping switches and turning dials, and silently recites their names as he passes the spot where each of them stood. Rose, Martha, Jack, Sarah Jane. Mickey Smith and Jackie Tyler. His other, half-human self and… He swallows hard and doesn’t think it. All his friends. They all have someone else.
He had Donna.
The TARDIS jerks when he releases the hand brake and then steadies to hover in the Vortex. He stands beside the console for a long time, his hand still resting on the lever and his eyes on the monitor, though he’s looking through it. He knows what Donna would say to him now but he tries not to think of it.
You look like you could sleep for a week.
The tilt of her head, the concern in her eyes, the sting of her palm on his cheek (and why is it that he’ll miss that, too?) She was a bulwark against the silence and if it took him to show her how brilliant, how incredible she was–is–well, it took her to remind him that happiness is still possible. That he’s not perfect. That even when he can’t avert disaster, he can almost always save one. That sometimes, one can be enough.
She’s there again, just a flash, standing opposite him and there is ash in her hair and tears in her eyes. Just save someone. Please.
And after he did, what had he said to her? You were right. Sometimes, I need someone.
His throat aches. Finally it dawns on him that he is soaked and shivering and Donna would be rolling her eyes right now, saying something like, You dumbo, that’s what you get for standing in the rain. Go on, get warm! and shooing him into the corridor. This is how it will be, now, imagining her like this. The DoctorDonna. She couldn’t be both, but he can carry her with him.
He heads deeper into the TARDIS and stands under a hot shower as if it can wash away the pain along with the chill. Let her die or give her a chance to do what he once told her to do–be magnificent–all on her own. It was no choice at all, really. The Donna Noble who never met him still saved the universe. Who knows? Maybe she will again someday.
He crawls into bed and curls on his side, hands tucked under the pillow. There’s no presence in the doorway, watching him. No one to ask to stay. Just the TARDIS humming in his mind, and she is a comfort, but she can’t talk to him. He knows he is safe but he felt safer with Donna leaning against the headboard, stroking his hair and wittering on about suntans and swimming. She liked that beach, with its blue sand. She won’t remember it now.
She won’t remember any of it: not freeing the Ood or working out the numbers stamped on the city works of Messaline; not walking through the Sontaran ship alone or saving Agatha Christie from the Vespiform; not Caecilius or CAL or the family she lost in the virtual world of the Library; not Jenny or Rose or Martha. She won’t remember saving the universe. She won’t remember saving him.
Oh, she was brilliant. She still is. She’s magnificent; she always was. He remembers standing with her inside the TARDIS doors and looking out the rocks and the dust that would come together to make the Earth. In the midst of so much fear and bewilderment and heartbreak, she still watched with a glimmer of wonder at the miracle of it all. Wilf’s words echo in his ears: She was better with you. But he didn’t make Donna Noble into anything that she wasn’t already. It was just buried, hidden and–yes–stamped down.
He had to blow out the flame but the spark is still there, still Donna. He hopes she can find it in herself. He has to believe she will. Her light is too bright–too brilliant–to stay hidden for long.
All his friends. They all have someone else. Donna will, too, in time.
In time, so will he.
The universe is a wonderful, beautiful, terrible place. There’s so much he hasn’t seen. Now when he travels, he will see it all for Donna, on her behalf. He will walk in the dust for her.