Title: Playing Favourites
Disclaimer: Doctor and Donna don't belong to me. Don't shoot.
Spoilers: "Sontaren Stratagem".
Summary: Ten/Donna. "How many of us have you had?"
It was shortly after she met Martha that Donna asked the question that, in the Doctor's experience, no human woman could resist long. He had his head under the central console of the TARDIS at the time but he still caught the too-casual tone and latent curiosity of his latest favourite.
"What?" he called out, pretending not to hear.
Donna stepped a little closer, peering through the loose wiring at his face. "How many of us have you had?" she repeated.
"What's that?" he murmured absently, bleeping at a connection with his screwdriver. He could almost hear Donna rolling her eyes at him.
"Assistants. Companions. Sidekicks. Mates," she sighed impatiently: "whatever it is you call 'em. Have you ever counted?"
The Doctor peered up at her, adjusting his glasses: "That would not be the act of a gentleman."
"Why should that stop you?" she retorted, a single ginger eyebrow raised.
"Donna, do you mind if we don't talk about this?" he murmured impatiently, squirming a little further under the engine.
"Oh, gawd," she huffed, mostly to herself: "must have been hundreds."
"There weren't hundreds--!" he muttered, his screwdriver stuck between his teeth.
"Thousands?!" she squawked, aghast.
"Look--" The Doctor scooted out from under the engine to find Donna standing right over him.
"Didn't your parents ever tell you humans aren't just for Christmas?" she demanded, hands on generous hips.
"I mean…" she went on, exasperated: "you can't just go around picking 'em up like strays then dropping 'em off when you're done!"
"I never forced anyone to ride with me," the Doctor told her, finding it difficult to be firm whist sprawled on the floor. He got to his feet, wiping his hands with a rag and taking off his glasses: "There was never any kidnapping or coercion involved. They all chose to come of their own free will…" He stepped a little closer, his voice low and his eyes intent on hers: "and I showed them worlds they'd never dreamt of. I looked after them -- and they looked after me. We all need that sometimes. A little support. A little companionship. A little purpose in life." He paused briefly, peering at her from beneath his brows: "Isn't that why you're here?"
Donna's gaze shifted, glancing about the walls of the TARDIS. "Were they all human?" she murmured with a crumpled brow.
He shrugged, turning back to his work: "Not all."
She watched his face as he sorted through spare parts. "All female though, right?" she murmured cagily.
"I suppose so, yes."
She smiled archly: "And they all adored you, I suppose?"
"Weeell…" the Doctor flashed her a broad grin: "can you blame them?"
Resisting a smile, Donna paused then, tipping her head to one side, she continued: "And what about you?" she questioned, her tone soft but searching: "D'you love them?"
The Doctor sniffed, answering lightly: "Yeah."
He raised his head but still did not look at her. "Yes," he replied more thoughtfully.
Her eyebrows lifted: "All of them?"
The Doctor seemed to be thinking about it for the first time in a long while. His face grew distant, his tone more melancholy: "In different ways. At different times."
Donna was silent a long moment. When she did speak her voice was quieter and more hesitant than he'd ever heard it. "D'you love me?" she asked, simply.
The Doctor was stunned. He turned to look at her, her face completely guileless, her eyes cast to one side. He smiled quietly. He would never cease to be amazed by the courage of human beings.
Donna's gaze met his, her cheeks reddening and her hands beginning to fidget. "I don't--I don't mean--"
She blinked: "What?"
"Of course I love you," he grinned, widely and fondly. "Couldn't help but love you."
Donna looked somewhat bemused: "Right. Okay, then…"
The Doctor leaned down, sticking his face near hers: "The usual response is: 'I love you too, Doctor, you magnificent creature'."
"No kiddin'?" she gasped mockingly.
He cast a sidelong glance at her, tucking his screwdriver into his breast pocket: "Usually."
"Is that what Rose would've said? Or Mad Martha?" she teased gently, her eyes twinkling mercilessly. "Or, wait-- don't tell me…" she muttered under her breath: "who else was there?"
He hid a sly grin: "At least they could admit they fancied me."
Donna instantly looked defensive. "I don't fancy you," she retorted, with all the tact of a belligerent teenager.
"I never said you did," he mused impartially before turning to face her: "but it's interesting that you assumed I was referring to you."
Donna's eyes flared ominously. "No, it isn't," she spat: "and I don't!"
The Doctor grimaced blithely: "Except you kinda do."
"I don't fancy you!" she insisted, waving a finger at him: "Never have, never will. Never ever!"
"Are you sure?" he teased, grinning impishly: "Not even a teeny, tiny, weeny, eenny little bit? No secret yearnings," he hissed, pointing to the back of her head: "tucked away in your subconscious there?"
"Oi!" Donna slapped at his hand: "Leave my subconscious alone!"
"It's entirely understandable," he shrugged pragmatically, throwing aside a spare part and heading for the door: "like a version of Stockholm syndrome--"
"Stuff Stockholm!" grumbled Donna, automatically trailing him.
"Trust me," he placated, slipping his arms into his long brown coat: "It's the hair, the eyes…" Despite her livid expression, he leaned in close, bearing his gums to her: "have you noticed my teeth?"
"I'll use mine in a minute!" she threatened, wide-eyed and menacing.
"Donna…" he chided, reaching for her coat as well: "don't make me start naming body parts."
She shook her head but turned her back, allowing him to help her on with her coat: "God, you're annoying sometimes…"
"Only sometimes?" he scratched his head, bemused: "I must be slipping."
"You are impossible," she accused, turning to face him and flicking her red mane out from under the collar: "A great big, intergalactic loony is what you are."
The Doctor made a face and admitted: "Yeah -- part of my charm, really." He grabbed her shoulders declaring emphatically: "S'why you love me!"
"Listen, alien boy," Donna seethed at him, only half in jest: "I never said I fancy you and I never said I loved you!"
"Okay! Whatever you say," the Doctor shrugged, turning and heading for the TARDIS door. "Although..." he began, using the tone Donna had come to recognise as his 'working-up-to-a-brilliant-moment-here' voice: "if you think about it…"
She eyed him suspiciously: "Wot?"
He paused at the door, leaning back against the frame and looking at her with a scrunched brow: "Why else would you put up with me?"
"Think about it…" he murmured, crossing his feet at the ankles: "The danger, the uncertainty. The jetlag, the jetlag is brutal! The running, awful lot of running--"
Donna nodded, wandering over to him and mirroring his position in the blue doorframe: "The incessant bragging, the weird science-speak, the whole alien thing. The never-ending series of women -- not all human either. The completely unsatisfactory sleeping arrangements -- that's if I get any sleep. The secretiveness, the obsessiveness, some questionable hygiene and serious personal space issues--"
"Alright, alright," he snapped, elbowing her out of the doorway: "I get the point."
He let the door slam and turned to secure the TARDIS, his face fixed in a determined scowl. Donna couldn't help smiling at his expression.
"What?" he demanded.
"Doctor," she began, her voice and face both quietly amused: "I might not fancy you…"
"Might?" he mumbled sceptically.
"But--" she interrupted firmly: "you're right about one thing."
She seized the lapel of his coat with one hand, her eyes twinkling as she took a breath and acknowledged: "I do love you, Doctor…"
The Doctor grinned.
"…you magnificent ass," she finished with a jubilant smile.
The Doctor winked at her, unruffled: "That's my girl."
Donna sighed, her hand releasing his coat with a little shove. "Not your girl," she denied, as if by rote.
"Yes you are!" the Doctor insisted, tucking her under his arm as they headed out: "You know you are and you love it."
Donna poked his chest with her finger: "Oi, maybe I'm not so much your girl as you are my alien."
The Doctor chuckled: "Bet you say that to all the intergalactic loonies."