“Here. Hold these.” Donna dumped her shopping bags into the Doctor's already-full arms. “I’m going to go try these on.” Scrunching her shoulders, she flashed an excited grin, then scurried off to the fitting rooms with a couple of articles of clothing draped over her arm.
The Doctor pressed his lips into a flat line as she ran off, then sniffed as he looked around blankly. He couldn’t wander off and leave Donna wondering where he went, and anyway, since he was tasked with guarding the shopping bags, there wasn’t much he could do. He set them on the ground by his feet, then clasped his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels.
Thirty seconds hadn’t passed before he began fidgeting. Got a book? He thrust his hands in his jacket pockets and felt around in the mess of objects. I have got to keep a book in here. Never know when I might be taken captive and bored to death. Like right now. What’s this?
From his pocket, he pulled out what looked like a clear hockey puck packed with multicolored plastic objects. His face lit up with a delighted grin. “My transdynamic actuator! I wondered where you’d got to! I’ve been wanting to add a hyperplasmic conduit for ages!” With his free hand, he whipped on his specs, then clipped his loupe to them. Pulling out his sonic screwdriver and what looked like a long, thin worm made of prismatic crystal, he started working on the actuator.
“Doctor!” Donna’s indignant hiss brought him back to the present, where she and two other women were standing there, staring at the man making the strange whirring noise.
“Oh. Yes. Donna. Sorry.” Flashing a friendly grin, he stowed the screwdriver and materials away. “What can I do for you?” With an irritated flick of her eyes, Donna indicated the loupe still on his specs. Unclipping it in one fluid motion, he clasped his hands behind his back, the loupe in his fist. The other two women looked him up and down for a moment, then went back about their business, shaking their heads.
Donna sighed. “Can’t leave you alone for two minutes!” Shrugging, she grinned, then twirled to show off the blue dress she was trying. “What do you think? Matches your motor.”
He gave her a good look over and smiled tenderly. Donna, his best mate, was always magnificent. “You look lovely.”
She huffed, irritated again. “You always say that.”
The Doctor frowned, confused. He couldn’t comprehend why she didn’t appreciate his opinion. “You always look beautiful.”
She threw her hands up in exasperation. “Try to get a man to give you an honest answer!” She wagged a finger at him. “Now, behave yourself!” And she disappeared back into the dressing room.
The Doctor stared after her retreating form, mouth hanging open. “Humans!” he murmured, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets.
“You know, mate, you can’t win either way.” A man, probably in his early sixties, sidled up next to the Doctor. Trim, with short gray hair neatly combed and clad in trousers and a checkered casual shirt, he looked to be in the same situation, laden with packages. He dropped the bags on the ground, then gestured in the direction of the dressing rooms. “If you always say they look great, they think you’re just saying it so they’ll stop bugging you. If you say they don’t look good, then they’re all over you.”
The Doctor glanced at the fitting room door before turning back to his new companion. “I was telling her the truth.”
“Of course you were. That’s what you think she wants to hear. But noooo.” He turned directly to face the Doctor, gesturing to emphasize every word he said. “What you have to do, see, is tell her what she wants to hear. Watch her when she comes out, and see what she says and does. If she seems to like the dress, then tell her it looks great. If she looks like she doesn’t like it, then say it doesn’t look good and you like the first one better.”
A woman came out of the dressing room, tags dangling from the sleeve of her blouse. “What do you think, Sam?” She checked herself in the mirror, sneering slightly.
“I don’t think so, Maddy. That green’s just not your colour,” Sam called to her.
“Yeah. It puffs out too much here, too. Back in a mo’.” She returned to the fitting rooms.
“See? That easy!” He puffed his chest out and elbowed the Doctor companionably. Donna emerged a moment later wearing a long belted magenta top. She stopped in front of the mirror and peered at it, turning this way and that to see how she looked from all sides. Frowning, she checked the tag, then spun on her heel to head back into the dressing room.
The Doctor called after her, "The first one you had on was much prettier."
Donna turned and stared at him in disbelief. "You are kidding me! This one's gorgeous! Do you have even one lick of fashion sense in that big ol' brain o’ yours, spaceman? A little pricey, though." She disappeared into the dressing room.
Sam elbowed him. "A good go. You'll get used to it. Not been married long, have you?"
Amazed that this man got the completely wrong idea, the Doctor quickly waved his hands to negate that. "Oh, no! We're not married."
Sam was genuinely surprised. "Engaged, then?"
"No, not at all. We’re just mates."
Sam regarded him with a smirk. "Just mates, eh? And you're clothes shopping with her and waiting while she tries things on and carrying all the bags?" He grasped the Doctor's shoulder. "Let me give you a word of advice, son. Ask her out. Tell her how you feel. You young’uns always think you have all the time in the world, but you have to think about what's important and act on it right now, before it’s too late. You never know what might happen, and if you don't, you'll regret it the rest of your life."
“Oh! Oh, no! No no no no! It’s not like that. I don’t… I mean, I can’t… Really!” Unable to articulate his alarm, the Doctor’s mouth continued to work soundlessly.
Sam laughed with a father-like air. “Oh, you can! Just man up and say it. Tell her just what she means to you, and she’ll respond. The worst thing is never getting to say what needs to be said.” At that moment, Maddy emerged from the dressing room, calling to him and hanging the rejected blouse on the return rack. “Ah, I’m off.” He picked up the bags on the floor. “Good chatting with you, mate. Go to it, yeah?” He winked and followed his wife out of the department.
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
It had been a wonderful day of shopping and touring London on foot, and now dinner at a cozy little pub. The warm, homey atmosphere made up for the rather average food, but really, the best thing about it was the company. The Doctor had never felt so relaxed, so at home, with anyone else before; Donna never wanted anything from him, except to travel with him. She regaled him with stories of her friends and family, and he did the same for her, telling her some of the little adventures he’d had with former companions, many of them humourous, but also those happy, shining moments, the ones he cherished the most. After dinner, he was going to take her to a play. They’d found a performance of The Miracle Worker at a small theater, and he knew Donna was going to love it. They really needed to take more days like this; it was rather sad that it took a TARDIS accident to force them to stop running and spend a day for themselves.
He realized he’d been staring off into nothingness and, jerking back to the present, he found Donna gazing at him in concern. “Sorry, Donna. Was miles away.” He smiled sunnily at her.
“Is something wrong?” Donna was leaning forward in her chair. Tilting her head, she furrowed her brow as she stared at him, trying to glean any information about his mood.
Brilliant old Donna. She could always tell when something important was on his mind, beyond the usual things that distracted him, like, well, most everything. He thought back to Sam’s advice and admitted to himself that the man had been right. It was a lesson he should have learned years ago, while orbiting a supernova, a moment before meeting the woman in front of him, and he resolved to prove right now that he had learned it well.
“Nothing at all, Donna,” he began. Unable to meet her eyes, he looked down at the remnants of his shepherd’s pie. This was harder than he thought. “I was just thinking about something someone told me once.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” She wiped her mouth with her napkin before leaning back in her chair, watching him as she cleaned her teeth behind closed lips.
“Nothing worth repeating. But you know…” He gazed earnestly into her eyes. “I’ve had such a wonderful time with you today. I’ve been to London countless times, but never like this. A beautiful experience! And everywhere we’ve travelled together! It’s been brilliant! I mean, yeah, sometimes it’s a bit terrifying, and a couple of times, we’ve gotten out by the skin of our teeth, but doing it with you, it’s made it all so much better! And you’ve done me so much good, taught me so much. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like without you.”
Donna’s jaw dropped. “What it’s going to be like without me?” she screeched. As he realized what he said, his expression turned from fond complacency to utter shock. “You have got to be kidding me! What, you’re just going to drop me here in this alien London, without even a way to get home?”
“No! I’d never do that! I didn’t mean -”
“Oh, so you’re going to just dump me in Chiswick after we get back to our universe? Is that it?” She planted her fists on her hips.
“No! I’m not going to drop you anywhere! Donna, listen -”
“You’re just buttering me up for what, then, spaceman? All this ‘beautiful day’ and ‘brilliant times’ nonsense!" Her chin jerked out as she spat out each of the phrases. "What’s the other shoe?”
The Doctor reached over and grabbed her hand, to stop her jabbering at him. “Donna! Listen to me.” He sandwiched her warm hand between both of his. “I was just… I was just trying to say… You know me, I can kind of say the wrong thing sometimes -”
Gazing upward in mock thought, he bounced his head up and down, his lips pressed in a thin line. “Okay, yeah, really do.” He squeezed her hand and caught her eye with earnest solemnity. “I was just trying to say, to tell you how much you mean to me. How much I treasure you. Donna Noble, you’re my best mate. The most important person in the universe to me.” He didn't smile, but his eyes shone with his love for his friend.
Donna blinked at him, then, pulling her hand from his, stood up, skirted around the table, and punched him hard on the arm.
"Oi! What was that for?" Astonished and with one eyebrow cocked, he rocked away from her, a hand holding the affronted spot.
Donna plopped back into her chair. "Scaring me to death like that, you prawn! Of course I know all that."
Exasperated, she stuck her chin forward, staring at the Doctor like he was thick. "Of course I know. You don't have to say anything, dumbo. Come on. We've got to get to the theatre."
They both stood up, Donna straightening her new blue dress while the Doctor slipped on his overcoat. When she took a step near him, he rocked back, flinching. "You're not going to hit me again, are you?"
"No." She wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a brief but heartfelt hug. "You're my best mate, too, Doctor. You've been wonderful."
Content, the Doctor smiled and took her hand, and together, they strolled out of the pub and into the London twilight.