Author's Note: This falls within the same universe as "Gingerbread", which introduces the alt!Donna present in this story.
It had been a year.
Well, technically speaking it had been three hundred and sixty-four days, fifteen hours, forty-one minutes twenty-eight seconds and counting, but the Doctor supposed, for once, that the rough estimate was close enough.
It had been – or would be, in a few short hours -- an entire revolution of a parallel Earth around a parallel Sol, and the Doctor wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel.
He missed the traveling and the day-to-day adrenaline of never knowing exactly what lay outside those beautiful wooden doors. He missed the finer points of his former physiology – the control, the resilience, the disregard for sleep, the respiratory bypass. He missed the familiar lilt of the TARDIS in his mind. Sometimes -- and he was reluctant to admit it -- he even missed the responsibility, the burden of planets saved and planets to be saved, the arrogant but accurate belief that the universe depended on him. This universe, he knew, did not need him.
But there were the Tylers, his makeshift human family, and Donna, too – a Donna not so different from the one he'd lost, for all the running-about-the-universe she hadn't done.
Mostly, though, feeling spectacularly sorry for himself was a challenge – even for him – when Rose was curled beside him, snoring softly and using an entirely unfair proportion of the blankets. He smiled at the top of her head, and Rose drooled quite attractively onto his pillow.
He wondered how long it had been on the other side of the Void, and if the last of the Time Lords was still traveling alone.
By the time he woke the next morning and made it to the kitchen, Rose was already awake, her mobile pressed between her shoulder and her ear, her hands occupied with the task of making scrambled eggs.
"Mum," she was saying exasperatedly into the phone, "Mum, it doesn't matter, honestly, it – no, Mum, I'm telling you – why don't you call --" Suddenly she seemed to notice the Doctor, twisting as best she could to look at him, and apparently lost her train of thought. She widened her eyes to send him a pained look, then turned back to the eggs. "Look, Mum, I've got to go. Just – ask her, yeah? See you soon. Bye."
"Trouble?" the Doctor asked, sliding the mobile out from between her shoulder and her ear.
She straightened and shook her head. "No, she's just… anyway, I told her we'd go 'round after lunch. That all right?"
The Doctor opened his mouth to respond – mostly to point out that the flaw in the logic of asking him that now – when the mobile in his hand started to ring.
Rose snatched the phone from him before he could read the name on the screen. "Can you finish this?" she asked, gesturing with her head towards the eggs. She spun on her heel and wandered out of the kitchen to take the call before he could answer.
The Doctor stared after her, surprised, then looked at the eggs sizzling on the stove.
The Doctor spent most of the morning, a good deal of lunch and the entirety of the car ride to the Tyler mansion wondering whether or not he should mention the date.
It was possible, he supposed, that Rose was completely unaware it'd been (very nearly) three-hundred sixty-five and quarter days since they'd been unceremoniously dumped in Norway. She was, after all, only human, and when it came to keeping track of the passing of time, humans were notoriously terrible.
It was also possible that she had noticed and was waiting patiently – or impatiently – for him to work up the courage to bring it up.
He wasn't quite sure which outcome he was hoping for. For a species with such a basic understanding of time, humans seemed to place a lot of importance on it – anniversaries, birthdays, New Year's, all annual celebrations meant to signify nothing beyond the fact that time had passed in a linear and thoroughly boring manner.
The thought was faintly unnerving. It was an anniversary of sorts, but not an anniversary. Rose surely didn't think of it as their anniversary, did she? Of course not. Technically speaking it had been a year (nearly) that they'd been together, just the two hearts between them, but it wasn't as though the years they'd been on the TARDIS didn't exist, and it seemed rather unfair to exclude those years from the timekeeping process. She certainly wasn't expecting some sort of trivial celebration with … with boxed chocolates and flowers and expensive nights out at restaurants.
He looked across the car to study her, trying to determine if she seemed as irritated as people in fiction usually were when anniversaries went unmarked. She had been rather distracted that morning, and her mobile had been ringing so frequently the Doctor had asked her if she'd started a hotline, and she was surreptitiously looking at the clock on the car radio.
The Doctor frowned. Surely if Rose was expecting some sort of ritualistic human celebration involving candles and bad poetry she wouldn't be carting them off to her mother's, of all places. Would she? Was this some parallel-world tradition Rose had neglected to mention?
"Have I got something on my face?" Rose asked, sending him a faintly irritated look of confusion, and the Doctor realized he had been staring in a rather unflattering manner.
"Wha… no! No, I was just…" He fumbled for a sufficiently appeasing word. "… Just admiring."
Rose laughed as she turned the car into the long drive that lead to her family's house. "Think you need to work on your lying, Doctor."
The Doctor rolled his eyes upward innocently as the car slowed to a stop and they exited their respective sides. "Wasn't lying!"
"Oh, 'course not." She smirked at him over the hood of the car and made her way towards the front door, grabbing his hand as she passed him.
The Doctor took it as a sign that perhaps she wasn't angry over not-quite-anniversaries that he hadn't actually forgotten and grinned back at her. "Why are we here, exactly?"
Rose shrugged, not quite meeting his eyes as she said, "Tony wanted to see you."
The front door opened for them before the Doctor could inquire further, and as he stepped through the threshold he was instantly greeted by the child in question launching himself forward and attaching himself to the Doctor's leg. The Doctor stared down at him, surprised, and then noticed that Tony was wearing a colourful, conical cardboard hat.
And then he noticed Donna, Jackie, Pete and Jake, grinning at him from the end of the hallway.
"Surprise!" called Tony eagerly, if belatedly.
The Doctor looked from the boy to the group and back again. "What?"
There was a beat of silence, and then Donna said, "Well, I think we surprised him."
When the confused look hadn't yet left the Doctor's face, Rose took it upon herself to rescue him.
"Happy birthday, Doctor," she said, bumping his shoulder with hers.
His free hand flew to his hair and he looked around, bewildered. "Right! Birthday. Guess it is, yeah."
"Ha!" laughed Donna from the end of the room. She elbowed Jake and leaned in to whisper something that Rose thought might have been "probably forget to breathe if Rose weren't around to remind him".
Jake snickered, but the Doctor continued to look utterly befuddled, as though a surprise birthday party was something he had never been privy to in his nine-hundred-and-change years of existence. It occurred to Rose very suddenly that maybe he hadn't, and she gave his hand a squeeze.
"I… well, this is…" He cast a glance around helplessly from one grinning face to the next.
Rose stifled a giggle; Donna didn't.
"… thank you," he finished lamely, still looking entirely unsure as to what the social protocol demanded in this situation.
"We gots cake," Tony announced, releasing his grip on the Doctor's leg. "And ice cream." His eyes widened as though he'd forgotten something very important. "And I got you a hat!" With that, Tony tore out of the room.
"How many times – no running inside!" Jackie called after him, exasperated, before turning her attention to Rose and the Doctor. "Well, don't just stand there, come in properly, we're not gonna bite."
Rose let go of his hand, and the Doctor stepped forward with a caution she knew was reserved for highly dangerous creatures. There was a pause, and then Jackie stepped forward, crushing the Doctor in a hug that seemed to perplex him as much as the party itself. He sent Rose a help me! stare even as Jackie wished him a happy birthday, and Rose only smiled innocently, making her way across the hall to stand with Jake and Donna.
"Thanks for coming," she said.
Jake looked at her, then looked over to where Jackie had yet to relinquish her hold on the Doctor. "You think I'd miss this? Never."
They watched as the Doctor freed himself from Jackie only to be accosted by Tony, who had returned successfully with a megawatt smile on his face and a colourful birthday hat in his hands.
"Told your mum to get chocolate cake. Still in the kitchen, no candles yet," Donna said, watching the Doctor and Tony as though she couldn't determine which one was the child. "Don't know why she wanted my opinion, but all right."
Rose smiled, and wished again that her favourite human-Time Lord meta-crisis would be a little more forthcoming. Donna was the only person in the room who knew the guest of honour merely as Dr. John Noble, and every day coincidences became harder to explain. It had been six months, now, and occasionally Rose entertained the idea of telling Donna the entire ordeal herself. In the end she'd always decided it wasn't her place, but the longer the Doctor waited, the less Rose felt like respecting that right.
"Well, you've got good taste," said Rose, turning down the hall and making her way to the kitchen. The cake was laid out on the island, white and square with swirly blue icing that read Happy Birthday, Doctor! in a font entirely too formal.
"Looks nice," she said, resisting the childish urge to swipe a finger through the icing and taste it.
"Still think they should've gone for one of the kiddie designs, if you ask me," said Donna. She looked at Rose and then looked down at the cake. "A big green Martian or something. I suggested that to your mum, she told me 'this family gets enough of stupid aliens, we don't need them in cakes'."
Rose snickered. "You should've seen her at Halloween. Tony decided he wanted to go as an alien."
Donna grinned, leaning backwards against the countertop with her arms folded across her chest. It was hard, sometimes, for Rose to remember that this Donna was not the one who had given the Doctor a handful of humanity.
"Rose, I've been meaning to ask," said Donna, her voice suddenly dropping to the low, cautious tone one used to discuss sensitive information. "Sorry if this is up front, but I thought – well, I don't want to ask him because it's not really the sort of thing you just ask, but I feel like I ought to know, like it's some secret everyone else in the room knows and I don't."
Rose stared on the loop of the blue frosting letters on the Doctor's cake and concentrated on keeping her face impassive. Perhaps Donna Noble was clever enough to work it out on her own.
Well, part of it, anyway; Rose doubted "instantaneous biological meta-crisis" was in any accountant's vocabulary.
"It's just…" Donna went on, visibly struggling to put words to her thoughts. "The Doctor, has he got any family? He's never mentioned anyone, not once, and no one's here, and it's just … did something happen? Is this a taboo I should be avoiding?"
Rose's mouth – which seemed to have opened slightly on its own accord – snapped shut of its own accord. She looked at Donna and she blinked in surprise.
It occurred to Rose right then that over the course of an entire year, it seemed, no one had thought to ask that question.
It also occurred to Rose right then that neither of them had dreamt up an answer.