It had been a week. They'd left Messaline and all the tragedy there, they'd said goodbye to Martha, and the Doctor had put them into the vortex. Now it had been a week. The Doctor kept saying he was doing repairs, or he would make a dozen plans and then claim he couldn't decide and put off landing anywhere. Donna knew he was hurting, but knew just as well that it would be a fight to get him to admit it. But after a week of floating while he avoided seeing her outside of the console room, she was fed up.
"Are you alright?"
The Doctor barely glanced at her. "I'm always alright. So, where to next? Medrulgia 7? They have mermaids!"
"Doctor," Donna said quietly.
"Or, no, how about Barcelona," he continued, ignoring her. "Been meaning to go back there for years. The planet, not the city. The dogs have no noses," he added with a manic grin.
"Doctor," she repeated, more insistently.
"Yeah?" He still wouldn't look at her.
"Doctor, are you alright?"
"I told you—"
"I know," Donna cut in. "But I don't believe you."
The Doctor finally stopped dancing around the console, and now appeared to be clinging to it for dear life. "Leave it, Donna," he said darkly.
"I can't do that," she responded. "What kind of friend would I be if I didn't try?"
"Try to do what, exactly?" The Doctor spun around with a look in his eye that Donna recognized but never had directed at her. "Try to understand the last of the Time Lords? Because I can tell you right now that it's not going to happen. You can't."
"Maybe not, Spaceboy," she shot back. "But I can understand loss. And I know you've had a lot of it lately. And I know that if you don't stop and deal with it, you're going to go completely mad, if you haven't already."
"I barely knew Jenny," he said quietly, looking away.
"Not just Jenny," she said. "Everything."
"There's always loss," he replied. "Everywhere I go, there's loss, and death, and chaos. It follows me everywhere. But it's not new."
"No, I never said it was," she said evenly. "But you've had a lot of personal loss lately. The Time War, you lost your planet and all your people. And then I saw you after you lost Rose. You were broken. And now Jenny, who you cared about even though you tried not to. That's a lot for any person, Time Lord or no."
"I didn't think I had another piece to lose," he said after a moment. "I thought I was already too shredded to care. It wasn't until…after…that I realized…I still had something I could lose."
Donna felt tears burn her eyes. This strange alien had whisked her away from the drudgery of her life and shown her amazing and terrifying things and been a hero over and over; it was so easy to forget sometimes that he was still just a man, someone who could be wounded.
The Doctor pushed off the console and collapsed into the captain's chair. He looks so tired, Donna thought bleakly. Times like this she could almost believe that he was centuries old like he claimed. She moved and sat beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at her briefly, a muscle working in his jaw, then looked away again.
"She was good, wasn't she," he whispered.
"Yeah," Donna agreed. "She was. Picture of her father."
He gave a bitter laugh and then swallowed hard. "She even sort of looked like Rose."
Donna barely kept herself from twitching in surprise. "I thought you and her weren't…"
"We weren't," he said with a small shake of his head. "But, if we had been…well…"
Donna nodded. She was starting to understand why this particular loss was hitting him so hard. Jenny had represented a lot to him in a very short amount of time.
"I write her letters," the Doctor said quietly.
The Doctor nodded. "When I'm alone…it…it hurts. A lot. More than I ever thought it would, more than I ever thought it could." He took a deep breath. "I write her letters…because then it almost feels like I can still talk to her."
Donna's heart broke for the man beside her. She had thought she loved Lance, and his betrayal had hurt. But the Doctor's pain was something Donna was stunned by. She had known, back on her wedding day, that he was in agony. She remembered the look on his face when she picked up the girl's sweatshirt, the still wet tears on his face when she'd first turned to him, the darkness on his face as he drained the Thames.
She'd seen him since then, the way he reacted with the smallest things; a book found open to a certain page, a certain food in the depths of the cabinet, a towel still left out in the pool. She'd even heard once or twice the screams from his nightmares when he called for her. She'd seen him stroking the door with the rose on it.
"Did you tell her?"
The Doctor shook his head. "I always thought there'd be more time. Another moment. Sometime more appropriate. And then…she told me. She told me she loved me when she was already a universe away. And I ran out of time. I burned up a sun to say goodbye, and it still wasn't enough."
She felt more than heard the sob that broke from him then, and felt her own tears spill down her face in sympathy.
"I can't ever tell her how important she was to me," he said roughly.
"She knows," Donna said firmly. "And you know what else? If she's as good as you say she is, I'll bet she's working on a way back to you right now."
The Doctor shook his head. "Travel between worlds is impossible."
"Not impossible," she said with a small smile. "Just a bit unlikely."
The Doctor looked at her sharply. He studied her face for a moment, then forced a small, sad smile. "Not this time, I'm afraid."
"Yeah, alright," Donna said, rolling her eyes. "Only, I've heard you say 'impossible' quite a few times, and forgive me for mentioning it, almighty Time Lord, but your track record isn't exactly perfect." Her eyes turned serious again, but she let a small smile creep onto her lips. "You might not be able to see it yet, but that doesn't mean it's never going to happen. Never say never, yeah?"
"Never ever," he whispered before pulling her into a tight hug. "Donna Noble, have I told you before that you are brilliant?"
"You have," Donna assured him. "But feel free to mention it as often as you'd like."
He chuckled and pulled away, jumping for the console. He started talking a mile a minute about the roaring twenties and Agatha Christie, seeming to finally have a destination in mind.
She smiled at him. She knew that he still wasn't alright—there was just too much pain in his past to be remedied with one conversation—but maybe, just maybe, he was a little more alright than he had been. She'd count it as a victory, in any case.