Donna smoothed his hair, very gently. He wasn’t wailing in agony, as he had last time; instead he was making the strangled noises of a man trying very hard not to weep, but failing. She wasn’t sure if that meant he was still battling the Stranger, or even if the Stranger might be manipulating her somehow, pretending to be the Doctor just to undercut her defenses, to get a rise out of her. How could she possibly know what was happening here? She had no way of knowing what was really going on inside the Doctor’s mind...
No, wait. Someone did have access to the Doctor’s mind, at least to a certain degree. She listened to the TARDIS’ hum in her own mind, and felt nothing except a gentle affection and concern. The TARDIS was no longer terrified for her Doctor.
And that suggested that the Stranger was gone, or at least… neutralized.
“Doctor,” she whispered again. He had wrapped his arms around her legs and pressed his face into her lap. Gently, she disengaged him and dropped to her knees beside him on the carpet, putting her arms around his shoulders. His arms went around her again, and he buried his face in her shoulder, clinging tightly and still making those suffocated noises.
She whispered the usual words in his ear–shh, don’t worry, it’ll be all right, everything will be fine–and after a few moments, he seemed to get hold of himself. He sniffled, rubbed his eyes against her shoulder, and straightened up with a familiar I’m-perfectly-fine-don’t-worry-about-me-in-the-least expression, marred only by the fact that his eyes were red-rimmed and his cheeks were still damp.
“Donna,” he said, and his voice was a little hoarse, but otherwise steady. “You all right?”
Those were the exact words the Stranger had uttered when trying to convince her that he was the Doctor, and despite the TARDIS' reassurance, alarm bells went off in her mind. She studied his face carefully, trying to ascertain who he really was. “I’m okay,” she answered. “You?”
She’d noticed before that his Londoner accent tended to veer toward a Scottish lilt when he was under stress–a holdover from an earlier incarnation’s accent, he’d once explained solemnly, as if it was perfectly normal that his accent changed along with his body–and this was one of those times. “I’m fine, just fine,” he answered, only it came out foine, which meant he was definitely not fine.
“It’s gone.” He put an odd emphasis on the word it, she thought. She could almost hear the capital letter in his voice, as if It were a proper name. “I managed to get rid of It.”
She frowned with suspicion, narrowing her eyes and observing him carefully, because the Stranger had fooled her before, if only for a moment. He held out an imploring hand and gazed into her eyes. "Donna," he said, his voice low. "It's me. I promise, it's me."
She returned his stare steadily, looking into the dark and fathomless depths of his eyes. The madness and the mindless rage she'd seen so clearly in the Stranger's eyes were gone, and he looked gentle, concerned, and perfectly sane, if somewhat distraught. He also seemed more or less oblivious to all the flesh exposed by her ripped t-shirt, whereas the Stranger had stared with a horrible sort of lust on his face. Even so, she couldn't be absolutely certain...
"How did you get rid of him, then?"
“Welllll,” he said, “you showed me what needed doing, actually. You showed me the answer. The way you didn’t fight back–you just ignored everything It did to you-- that was the key. Brilliant, really.”
She rolled her eyes, because brilliant was the one thing she hadn’t been. She’d been way out of her depth, and she knew it.
But so apparently had been the Doctor.
“I didn’t have a lot of choice,” she said, shrugging. “If I’d fought back, he would have hurt you.”
“If you hadn’t let It go,” he countered, his eyes narrowing a bit, “It couldn’t have hurt you.”
She bristled. “Oh, right, like I was just supposed to let him go on hurting you like that?”
“Better me than you,” he retorted. “You could have been killed, Donna. I’m not worth it.”
Oh, you are so wrong, she thought, but didn’t say so, because her feelings for the Doctor were far more tangled than she wanted them to be, and admitting that she’d gladly die for him seemed a little more than the average mate would do, maybe. Her emotions were already confused enough where he was concerned, without her blurting out silly things that might muddy the waters even further.
Regardless, his words had gone a long way toward convincing her that he really was the Doctor. She didn’t think the Stranger could have faked that kind of concern for her.
“He was looking for new experiences, it seemed like,” she said, shifting the conversation back to its earlier path. “But they had to be big and exciting, or they didn’t interest him. And he obviously liked getting a reaction out of people. The way he–“ She almost said tortured, but bit the word back. “Hurt you. It was obvious he liked seeing people in pain. I reckoned he wanted me to fight him, to cry and scream and struggle. So I didn’t.”
“And that was brilliant.” He tried for his normal cheeky grin, but only managed a rather ghastly half-smile. “You were exactly right, Donna. It needed resistance to fuel it. It needed thoughts and emotions to keep going. My thoughts and emotions, specifically. Once I stopped fighting It… It just faded away.”
Her heart lifted. “Are you saying he’s gone for good? That he's... dead?”
“Didn’t have enough neural energy to keep It going,” he said, in a determinedly cheerful voice. “Starved It right to death.”
She was sure there must have been much more to it than that, but she didn’t press for details. He'd tell her when he was ready to talk about it-- if he was ever ready. "And you're all right? Really?"
After everything he'd been through, she was sure he couldn't really have recovered so quickly. But being the Doctor, she was also sure he'd never admit to weakness.
"I'm foine," he said, and corrected himself quickly. "Fine."
She smiled at him, suspecting her smile didn’t look any more sincere than his did. She didn't feel much like smiling right now, honestly. The memory of him screaming in pain, the memory of the Stranger striking her, the Stranger's hands on her, pushing her down-- it was all still too distressingly vivid in her mind.
“Any idea what he–it–was?”
He nodded. “It was a Vashadorian,” he answered. “A species with a long, grand history. They ruled half the galaxy, once upon a time. An empire based on good law and a commitment to human rights. A model for every race that came after. But there was a galactic war, and they ripped themselves to pieces. It was…” He broke off and looked unhappy, then went on, more slowly. “The very last of its kind. The last survivor of a gentle and decent people.”
“It wasn’t gentle or decent,” she retorted, somewhat indignantly. “It was psychotic.”
He sighed. “I don’t think It was, originally. Probably a perfectly ordinary bloke, once upon a time. But It lost everything–and It lived apart from Its own kind for so long– exiled and lonely and... well, I think It just went mad, in the end.” He lowered his eyes and looked down at the carpet. “I suppose I can understand that.”
Despite her lack of telepathic ability, she could almost hear him drawing uncomfortable parallels in his head, and she frowned, because that-- that thing had been absolutely nothing like the Doctor. Admittedly she’d known him to go too far, to temporarily misplace his own basic decency beneath rage and hurt and loneliness, but she knew, she knew, he could never draw pleasure from hurting anyone. He was as capable as anyone else of making mistakes, but psychotic he would never be.
“Well, thank God it’s gone now,” she said, as cheerily as she could manage. “All’s well that ends well, as Gramps always says.”
He looked at her, and there was no humour in his eyes, no answering smile, only a profound misery. Whether it was for himself or for her, she couldn’t tell. “Donna,” he said, very softly, and reached out for her, placing his hands on her arms. Her bruised arms.
The last time his hands had touched her that way, they’d been about to–
She couldn’t help herself. She flinched.
He yanked his hands away as if she’d screamed at the top of her lungs, and the miserable expression in his eyes deepened.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’m so sorry.”
He leapt to his feet, and carefully did not offer her a hand to help her rise. She watched as he spun about, his shoulders slumped and his head low, and strode rapidly from the room.
She’d looked at him as if he were a monster, and he couldn’t blame her.
He sat on the floor of the darkened TARDIS control room, slouched with his back against the center console. The room was silent but for the quiet whirring of the time rotor. Donna had gone to bed an hour ago, and he should be tinkering with the engines, or working in the lab, or even just making himself a cuppa in the galley. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to do anything but sit here in the dim nighttime lighting, going over the day’s events in his mind.
The memory of pain, sharp-edged and horrible, rose up to assault him, but he pushed it away. He wasn’t ready to think about that just yet. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to bear thinking about it, really. He’d been tortured many times in his long life, but what It had done to him was far beyond anything he’d ever experienced. He just wanted to forget the pain he’d suffered, to file it away in the dark, hidden corners of his mind and hope the memory never surfaced again.
Instead, he thought about the only slightly more bearable memory of Donna flinching. The way she’d looked at him, just for an instant. The brief flash of horror in her expression. The memory made him cringe, and yet he couldn’t seem to block it out. It played over and over in his head, haunting him.
Donna had come to mean a great deal to him. She wasn’t just his companion. She was his mate, his best friend in all the universe. But now… what if she could never look at him the same way again? What if every time she looked at him, she saw the monster that had worn his face, reaching for her?
What if she eventually decided she just couldn’t stand looking at him, and insisted on going back home to Chiswick?
Quiet, something almost-said in the back of his mind. Be quiet. Be calm.
He looked up at the ceiling, lost in the shadows high above, and snorted irritably. “That’s always your answer, isn’t it?”
He knew the TARDIS was doing her best to comfort him, and he appreciated her concern. Really, he did. Her love and support had helped save him today, and not for the first time. But even though it might be good advice, he couldn’t just calm his mind and let himself trust that everything would be all right. Donna was so very important to him, and he couldn’t bear the idea that their friendship might have been ruined by the day’s events. The thought of losing her tied his insides into knots.
He sighed, pulled his knees up, and buried his face against them, wrapping his arms over his head.
Curling up in the dark again, he mocked himself grimly. Yep, that was a great idea. Best bloody way to deal with everything, wasn’t it?
But despite the unpleasant awareness that he was hiding from his problems like a frightened child, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to get to his feet and slog through his normal nighttime routine. He just didn’t have the wherewithal to keep going, somehow. The memories of what he’d gone through today weighted him down too heavily.
He had no idea how long he sat there, curled up in the dimness, but eventually he heard the faint sound of bare feet against the metal grating of the floor.
His hearts pounded a little harder, but he didn’t dare lift his head to look at her, for fear he’d see revulsion or disgust in her eyes. He huddled there, curled in on himself, and waited.
She sat down next to him, and a hand brushed lightly against his hair.
“You couldn’t sleep either, huh?”
He considered straightening up, lifting his chin, and saying something typically and obnoxiously arrogant, along the lines of Sleep? We Time Lords don’t need sleep the way you lesser life forms do. But he just didn’t have it in him to be arrogant tonight.
“Yeah,” he admitted without lifting his head. “Couldn’t even think about sleeping.”
“Not surprising. You went through an awful lot today.” Her hand kept caressing his hair, for which he was absurdly grateful. Not only was it comforting, but it was an enormous relief to know that she could stand touching him. Maybe she’d quit flinching when he moved toward her, eventually. Maybe she’d stop looking at him with horror in her eyes, sooner or later. Maybe things could go back to normal between them. Maybe.
“You too,” he muttered hoarsely, remembering the sight of his own hands on her arms, hurting her. “Donna… I want you to know that if I could have done anything, anything at all, to stop It–”
“You did,” she pointed out.
“Not fast enough.” He thought of the bruises marring the side of her face where It had struck her viciously, the purple bruising on her arms where It had held her too hard. He’d taken her to the med bay and cleared up her injuries with the subdermal regenerator, of course, but that didn’t erase them from her mind, or his.
His hands had bruised her.
That wasn’t the kind of thing he could ever forget, or forgive himself for.
She must have sensed somehow that he was starting to drown in self-reproach, because she smacked him on the head, very lightly.
“You dunce,” she said, without any real heat. “It wasn’t your fault.”
He knew that was true, intellectually. But emotionally… emotionally, he couldn’t seem to separate himself from the monster that had been in his head. He pressed his face against his knees harder than before, and didn’t answer.
“Doctor,” she said, her voice gentle, as if talking to a child. “You were as much a victim as I was. More, really.”
He hadn’t thought of it in quite that way before, but he had to admit it was true. He’d been invaded, horrifically violated, both physically and mentally. But somehow that realisation didn’t make him feel any better. He was a Time Lord, with a highly advanced mind and a tremendous amount of training and experience. He was supposed to be able to fight off psychic intrusions, to control his own mind.
He wasn’t supposed to be the victim. He was supposed to be the victor.
She kept on stroking his hair. “I just wish I could have done something to help you.”
That compelled him to lift his head. He gazed at her in the dimness. She wore a dark blue nightgown, her long copper hair falling around her shoulders, and she looked so lovely it made his hearts twist in his chest. “You did, Donna. I told you. You gave me the idea I needed to fight It. If it weren’t for you, I might never have got free of It.”
“I mean…” She pulled her hand away, and clenched her fists. “I wish I could have fought it with you, Doctor. I hated just… just standing on the sidelines. You know?”
He did know. Donna hurled herself into dangerous situations with a vengeance, and had since the day he’d met her. She wasn’t the type to sit quietly and watch while someone else suffered. She had to be in the fight, throwing punches and calling names. To watch him struggle and not to be able to help him must have driven her half mad.
He let the memories in, just a bit, remembered howling in pain, begging her to–Well. He could imagine how he would have reacted, if she’d been in so much pain and he’d just had to stand by and watch her screaming.
And that could so easily have happened. Thank the gods things hadn’t gone quite that far. If he’d had to watch helplessly through his own eyes, unable to save her, while It had–
But It hadn’t. He could be thankful for that, at least.
“I’m glad you’re all right,” he said hoarsely. “So glad.”
“Yeah." She smiled. "Me too, Martian.”
Their eyes met and held. Slowly, he lifted his hands and reached out for her, because he had to know how she’d react.
He put a hand on her arm, very gently.
She didn’t flinch. She only looked at him, smiling a little, and he could see the unspoken apology in her eyes. Relief flooded him, and he wrapped his arms around her, hauling her against his chest. She hugged him back, not seeming at all distressed by the physical contact.
At least one of them was able to separate him from the monster, he thought gratefully.
“You need to sleep,” she said into his ear.
“I don’t sleep much. You know that,” he responded with dignity, and promptly yawned widely, which rather ruined the effect. She snickered.
“Maybe not most of the time. But you’ve had a rough day. Go to sleep, will you?”
He had to admit that right now, sleeping sounded like a highly desirable activity. No wonder he hadn’t been able to work up an interest in following his normal nighttime routine. He was just too tired.
He considered getting to his feet and walking to his bedroom, but the idea of wandering around the TARDIS corridors somehow seemed like far too much of an effort. Weariness was suddenly overtaking him with a vengeance. He could feel his head growing heavier on Donna’s shoulder, and she moved slightly, settling herself on the floor against the console, and gently shifting him so that he could put his head into her lap. It seemed like the polite thing to do, so he did.
The cold metal grating might not be the most comfortable surface in the ship to sleep on, but he was so exhausted that he didn’t much care. He drew up his long legs in order to stay warm and closed his eyes, enjoying the gentle touch of her hand against his hair, and the soothing hum of the TARDIS in his mind. His girls-- his brilliant, wonderful girls-- were quite obviously conspiring together to see that he got some sleep. And he was in no condition to argue.
As he drifted off to sleep with his head in Donna's lap, it occurred to him that he was curled up in the darkness again.
But this time… he wasn’t alone.
And that, he thought drowsily, made all the difference.