She waits until everyone's gotten the euphoria-induced hugging out of their system and settled into excited just-saved-the-world chatter, then she jabs the one in blue in the ribs.
"Oi! Handy! C'mere!" She weaves through the crowd and down a corridor, beckoning him to follow with one hand.
He's at her side in an instant, looking thoroughly indignant and horrified. "Oh, no. No, no, no, no, absolutely not. You are not calling me that."
Donna smirks back at him, wondering briefly why this Doctor seems to be even more fun to pester and if this is what it's like to have siblings. "Yeah? I can call you Thing One and Thing Two if you'd prefer. Or – what was it? – Proper Doctor and Other Doctor."
He doesn't smile and she wants to roll her eyes. Leave it to the Doctor to find time for an identity crisis just after saving every bloody universe in creation. She opens her mouth to say something – make light of it somehow – but he beats her to it, quirking an eyebrow.
"Why are you taking me to the kitchen?"
"Because we've just saved the whole of creation," she tells him, spinning on her heel to face him (which, she thinks instantly, is very much more a Doctor thing than a Donna thing), "and that calls for drinks." She raises a hand to silence him before he's even begun to speak. "I know we've all got families to check on and fretting mothers to call and I know Martha'll want to get back to her lover-boy and Sarah Jane'll want to get back to her son, but we're in a time machine, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you two skip out on this very good opportunity to be mortified by your friends trading stories."
The Doctor stares at her, one corner of his mouth tilted up in a fond grin. "Do I usually go that long without taking a breath?"
Donna considers. "Longer, usually."
He gives her a noncommittal "hmmm" in reply. Hoping he's musing over how irritating it can be to have someone jabber at you at ninety miles an hour (not that she supposes that'll ever stop her, now, either), she rolls to the tip of her toes to fetch two oddly-shaped bottles from the cupboard.
"Here we are!" She examines the bottles in her hand then holds them up to show him. "What d'you think, peach wine from the Catraxian Galaxy or silver champagne from the Ninth Moon of Ganendor?" She doesn't wait for an answer; instead her head snaps back to inspect the now-empty shelf in the cupboard. "This is really all you've got?"
He shrugs. "Used to have more - went through a great deal of it when Rose and Jack were on board," he explains.
She catches a flash of a memory that isn't hers: laughter, a young Rose with dark roots and a union jack splashed across her shirt sitting beside a much younger Jack, empties on the table, the weight of heavy leather on her shoulders – and then it's gone. She blinks and gives her head a shake; for a second the Doctor looks concerned, almost panicked – then that's gone, too, everything's back to normal and he raises an eyebrow.
"Disappointed?" he asks.
"Surprised, maybe; seems like you'd have a big wine cellar to help you… brood." She frowns at the corks firmly wedged into the tops of both bottles, blinking when the first thing that comes to mind is not a corkscrew but blue light and setting 523.
"I do not brood," the Doctor huffs, clearly doing his best to look serious and indignant and failing miserably.
Donna snorts as she roots around the kitchen drawers for a corkscrew, quite certain the sonic is back in the console room with Thing One. She'll have to make one for herself, later. "Oh, please, you're a brooding champion. You've probably got a big armchair somewhere where you sit and drink your Catraxian wine and read Byron and stare at the fireplace."
"I do not!" he insists, reaching across her, pulling open a drawer and grabbing a corkscrew. He takes the bottle of peach wine and starts to open it, a hint of a mischievous grin on his lips. "Of course this sudden desire for celebratory drinks wouldn't happen to have anything to do with intoxicating one Captain Jack, would it?"
She glares, hands on her hips. "Are you implying I need alcohol to win the affections of the opposite sex?"
"Absolutely not!" he replies instantly, innocently. "…I'm implying it might help."
"Oi!" She swipes at him to give him a well-earned thump upside the head, but he dodges her hand and springs out of her reach, grinning like a madman.
"Ha! I knew you were going to do that!"
She means to send him a warning glare but it twists into a laugh because the man in front of her knows her better than any other creature in the entirety of the universe, even the pinstriped first draft, and not five hours ago he was a hand in a jar like something straight out of the Addams Family. It's ridiculous and hilarious and all kinds of weird, and when he laughs with her she's sure it's because he's thinking the exact same thing.
"Donna Noble," he says fondly, once they've both collected themselves, "I'm going to miss you."
The laughter fades from her face and she asks the question even though she thinks she's already worked out the answer. "Miss me? Where do you think you're going?"
"Pete's world!" he answers. He pops the cork out of the wine, sets the open bottle on the counter and hoists himself up next to it, swinging his legs like a child. He tilts his head and narrows his eyes in thought. "Sounds like a theme park, doesn't it? Mascot could be a zeppelin!" He considers this for a second, then frowns. "Bit of an awkward costume, though, I s'pose."
She listens to him banter and frowns, because she doesn't need a biological meta-crisis to tell her that his rambling serves much the same purpose as "all that lip".
"He's gonna leave you there," she says. It isn't a question because even as she says it she can see that timeline spinning off into an indecipherable blur, can see the what ifs and maybes and must nots.
"Yep. He thinks I'm dangerous." His expression hardens just enough to betray a feeling of resentment. "Am I always that self-righteous? No, on second thought, don't answer that." The anger disappears as quickly as it had come and he shrugs, rubbing the back of his neck. "Still… probably for the best." He grins. "One of us would end up killing the other before long. Do you suppose that counts as suicide or homicide?"
She ignores the attempt at distraction and doesn't smile. "And Rose?"
The grin falters and he nods, staring down at his ridiculous red trainers as he swings them back and forth. "Rose too. Back with her family."
Donna rolls her eyes. "Well don't look so glum about it! Rest of your life with the woman you love, not exactly purgatory, is it?"
He looks up and meets her eyes, no trace of the grin left. In that second he looks lost and terrified and she thinks of atmospheric excitation and Rose, her name was Rose.
"She's not going to like it, Donna. She'll want to stay."
Be it through the biological meta-crisis or simply because she's spent enough time with the skinny little alien git to understand him, she hears what he doesn't say laced in with the words he does. She's not going to want me, Donna. She'll want to stay with him.
For the first time, she wonders how you deal with a love triangle when two of parties are the same person in every way that counts. Not for the first time, she wonders what the Doctor did to the universe to make it so hell-bent on tormenting him.
She can see the situation with the same horrible clarity that she's sure breaks both of the other Doctor's hearts. He's the last of the Time Lords and he's got a universe to look after, blonde shop girls with Dimension Cannons be damned; Rose has a fleeting human life, a single heart, and so does the man sitting on the countertop, like he was tailor-made for her. It's the right solution, the best solution, the only solution and Donna knows that, she can see that, the twists and turns of the timelines, different possibilities, different golden threads splitting off every which way –
It's the right solution, but not a painless solution.
"If she's clever at all, she'll stay with you," she says.
He doesn't answer.
Donna sighs and digs her hands into the pockets of her jacket. "You can give her what he can't. She can have a life with you, one where –"
She breaks off, not quite sure how to tactfully say one where she isn't doomed to die before you do and leave you an emotional trainwreck.
"If she wanted a proper human life she could've had one in her parallel world," he reasons, grim.
Donna raises her eyebrows. "I don't think it's the TARDIS she came back for."
She gets a weak smile out of him for her trouble. "Doors and carpets and mortgages," he mutters, and she opens her mouth to ask what he's on about when –
"You'd have to get a mortgage," Rose singsongs, bathed in the orange-yellow light of the impossibility burning overhead.
"I'm dying. That's it, I am dying, it is all over."
Startled by the vividness of the memory, Donna jerks her head; this time the concern on the Doctor's face doesn't disappear.
"Donna? Are you alright?"
He reaches forward as though to grab her arm, but she pulls away. "'M fine," she insists, and she is, it's just that there are so many thoughts buzzing around in her head, "just --"
And just as it had on the Crucible, everything clicks. "If you're so worried about it why don't you take a bit of TARDIS with you? Grow your own!"
"That takes thousands of years," he counters, shaking his head.
She nods. "Right, 'course, how could I forget?" She smirks. "Or you could shatterfry the plasmic shell and modify the dimensional stabiliser to a foldback harmonic of 36.3, accelerating the growth by the power of fifty-nine."
He gapes at her, stunned. Donna decides she will never stop loving this newfound ability to render him speechless.
"I – you -- that's –"
"Brilliant?" She grins. "Yeah, I thought so too."
He laughs and grins back at her.
"There you go, then," she says. "Rose Tyler and a TARDIS, what more could you want? Besides me, of course."
Just as it had before, the smile fades. The Doctor shakes his head and looks away, focusing on some insignificant spot to Donna's left. "She's still not going to – she'll see it as getting rid of her." He frowns. "Like I told her I never would."
As he says it, Donna catches another glimpse of stolen memory: a chippy and promise fated to be broken and the first of many hesitations to say a very important word. She blinks once and it's gone.
Donna shakes her head and goes to stand beside him, leaning back against the counter. "Y'see? Just told you how to grow a TARDIS and you're already back to brooding," she jokes, nudging him with her elbow.
He doesn't smile. She wonders how hard this whole thing will hit the Doctor in the console room and thinks of water and fire and the screams of a distraught mother.
Someone to stop you, she thinks, and takes a breath.
"Listen to me, Spaceman, it's gonna be fine. Rose is stupidly, madly in love with you and you're stupidly, madly in love with her – don't look at me like that, I saw you run like bloody children, and besides it's time you manned up enough to say it – and while it might be romantic and Shakespearean to know that she'd give up her entire family to be with you, it's really much better if she doesn't have to, and she's going to see that." She raised her eyebrows. "For God's sake, she crossed universes to get back to you!"
He smiled tightly, still avoiding her eyes. "No," he says, soft enough that she's glad she moved next to him, "she crossed universes to get back to him."
With a sigh of determination, Donna moves in front of him and grabs him by the shoulders. He looks up at her, surprised, a question half-formed on his lips.
She doesn't give him a chance to ask it. "She crossed universes to get back to the Doctor," she insists, staring him straight in the eye. "Now is that you or not?"
"I –" He hesitates for only a second, as though confused by her question. "Well -- yes."
"There you go, then!" She drops his shoulders and brushes her hands together. "Now enough of your moping! I'm gonna get enough of that from him once we drop you two off."
He smiles at her – the affectionate, quirky little smile she remembers from the Shadow Proclamation – and shakes his head like a proud parent. "Donna Noble. Where would I be without you?"
At the bottom of the Thames, apparently, she doesn't say. Instead she grins back. "Marinating in that creepy hand-aquarium, I'd imagine." She tilts her head. "You're like a Chia Pet. Just add Donna."
He looks mildly offended. She snorts.
"You've even got Chia Pet hair!" She reaches up to ruffle said hair and he pulls away from her, looking indignant.
"Oi! Well at least I'm not ginger," he snaps back, glaring.
Donna stares at the Doctor. The Doctor glares at Donna.
Then she laughs – big, loud laughs that hurt her stomach and throw her shoulders forward – and he laughs too, throwing his head back and accidentally thumping it against the cupboard behind him. At the thud and his "ow!" she laughs even harder, so does he, and for a moment, she thinks, there's just that. They're simply best mates in hysterics in the kitchen, free from reality bombs and genocide and parallel worlds and two-way biological metacrises.
And then it stops.
He slides off the counter and lands lightly on his feet. "Not even sure why I said that, really," he admits, tugging at his ear. "I like ginger hair."
"Rude and not ginger," she says reflexively, except – when did that become reflex, exactly?
Once more he's looking at her like she's suddenly grown another head. He steps towards her. "Donna?"
She waves a hand to brush off his concern, walks around him and moves to the cupboard he'd been blocking before. "S'nothing," she says impatiently, opening the cupboard doors and taking down several wine glasses, "just caught some of your memories, that's all. Biological metacrises will do that to you. Now gimme a hand with these!"
When he's not at her side the next second, she looks over her shoulder and finds him rooted to the spot, staring at her with an expression that sends a shiver down her spine.
I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.
She shakes the feeling aside. Raising the four glasses she's managed to carry, she arches her eyebrows. "Well don't just stand there, help me carry this! You're the one with pockets."
The familiar words do the job she'd intended and he blinks, somber expression replaced with a conspiratorial smile. "Yes ma'am." He moves forward, but his hands hover over the remaining glasses and he hesitates.
He turns back to face her. "Donna?"
She swivels to face him. "I'm listening."
"Thank you," he says, and the look he gives her tells Donna he's referring to much more than the relationship advice.
Her throat is thicker than usual when she nods and says, "yeah." She wonders how it's possible that she'll miss this Doctor even as she knows she'll spend the rest of her life traveling with a man just like him. She supposes it's the same dilemma that awaits Rose Tyler, and she doesn't envy the blonde for a second.
But getting sentimental isn't something either of them are good at and she refuses to think of this as losing him -- not when there's a Time Lord in pinstripes who will very shortly have two broken hearts she'll have to help him patch up -- so she swallows, smiles and jerks her head towards the hallway.
"Come on, Spaceman, there's a party waiting to be had."