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Hope Survives Best at the Hearth

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Donna slammed the door of the TARDIS shut behind her, shivering violently. "Why the hell is it cold in here?" she demanded, rubbing her arms in a desperate attempt to get warm.

The Doctor was doing no better as he rushed around the console, flipping switches and peering into the grating, his soaking wet hair falling in his face. He looked like a drowned cat. Donna felt like one.

"Sh– she's redirected power to repairing the engines," he said, teeth chattering. "No heat. N– no light, either."

"F– fantastic," she muttered.

It was supposed to be a nice, normal visit home. They'd just got done with a trip to the very outer edge of the galaxy, and Donna had wanted to pop in on her granddad before they flew off somewhere else. That was all. Simple. But that didn't really happen with the Doctor, so instead they'd ended up crashing in the middle of a mountain range, supposedly on Earth, the TARDIS throwing them out the doors and directly into a stream upon landing. Now they were soaking wet, freezing cold, and, apparently, without any power until the TARDIS could repair the damage.

"Library!" gasped the Doctor, bouncing on his toes. "There's a fireplace in the library, a proper one."

Grabbing her hand, he dragged her out of the console room before she could react, and hurried off to the library. There was a feeble fire already lit when they arrived—the TARDIS's attempt to help, the Doctor informed her—and they huddled as close to it as they could without getting burned. But with their clothes soaked through and the air around them almost as cold as the air outside, it wasn't nearly enough.

The Doctor grabbed a poker and started stoking the fire, trying to quell his shivering. "Y– you'll have to take off your clothes," he said.

Donna stared at him. "I'll what? "

"You'll have to take off your clothes," he repeated slowly, as if that were the issue. "You'll get hypothermia."

"Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" she scoffed.

"Oh– Donna, please," he said, exasperated. "C'mon, you're not freezing to death on my watch."

Donna thought about it for a moment. "So it's really life or death, then?"

"Well, not right away, but that water was more than cold enough. I'd guess you have a few more minutes before hypothermia starts to set in, and then–"

"Right, got the point, thanks." She sighed. She knew the Doctor wasn't trying anything; he was too clueless. (And, though she would never say it out loud, she knew he respected her far more than that.) But the thought still made her squirm.

The Doctor seemed preoccupied with trying to make the fire hotter, and the cold was starting to get quite painful, so, hesitantly, she stripped off her soaked outerwear. Right away she felt the warmth against her skin, but it was hard to enjoy it. She knelt by the fire and crossed her arms in front of her, telling herself it was to warm up faster. She felt a flush of embarrassment creep across her cheeks, and she fidgeted uncomfortably; then she chastised herself for even caring what she looked like, in the middle of trying not to freeze to death. It didn't really make her feel better.

Abruptly, the Doctor stood up, dripping water on the floor, and hurried out of the library. She watched him go, confused. When he came back a moment later, he carried a fluffy white robe over his arm. He dashed up to the second level of the library, grabbing the blanket off Donna's favourite seat, by the window overlooking twenty-second century Paris, and trotted back down the stairs. His shoes squeaked comically on the hardwood.

Gaze carefully averted, he draped the robe over her shoulders, waited for her to work her arms into the sleeves and tie it at the front, and then wrapped the blanket around her until she looked like a fuzzy burrito. She shivered, grateful for the extra warmth and protection from the TARDIS's cold interior. Overkill, sure, but it was very comfortable.

The Doctor crouched in front of the fire and glanced back at her, smiling kindly. "Better?" he asked, and she realized he knew exactly what she’d been thinking about.

Donna glanced away, suddenly feeling a bit shy. “Much. Thanks.”

He shrugged. “Don’t mention it.” Hesitating, he said, “I’m sorry about this. Controls have been a bit touchy since the Ilk incident.” His expression suddenly melted into a grin, looking very pleased with himself for the alliteration.

The knot of tension inside Donna’s chest loosened. He really was sorry for the situation he’d unwittingly gotten her into. He probably regretted that she'd been made to feel uncomfortable around him, whatever the reason. She knew he'd never want that. And it wasn’t him, not at all. It was just… well, not everyone was as kind as the Doctor, and not everyone had his ability to look past a person’s outward appearance. She’d learned that the hard way, over the years.

But of course the Doctor wouldn’t care about any of that. He wasn’t even human; why would he waste time worrying about what a human might find attractive? She wasn't even sure he found anything attractive, now that she thought about it. It was a nice change. A year ago, she supposed, she’d have been too embarrassed to even be in the same room as him while half-naked, hypothermia or no. He really was good for her.

Donna gave him a reassuring smile. “It’s fine. Really.”

He beamed in return, and went back to stoking the fire. It took her a minute, as she enjoyed the warmth of the fire slowly soaking through her blanket and robe, to realize that he hadn’t changed out of his suit. She frowned. He seemed to be getting very cold, jaw clenched to stop his teeth chattering, a blue tinge staining his lips and fingers. His hands were shaking.

"You're shivering," she noted.

The Doctor gave a nonchalant hum in response.

"Aren't you going to take off that suit of yours?"

He faltered, fumbling with the poker as if caught by surprise. "Nah," he said, recovering. "I'll be fine. Superior Time Lord biology."

Donna frowned. "You only say that when you're making excuses," she pointed out.

"I'm not–"

"Yes you are."

He was silent for a moment. Then, almost too quiet for her to hear, he whispered, "I can't."

Donna turned her head a bit to the side, studying him confusedly. Holding her blanket to her chest, she scooted closer to him and put a hand on his arm.

"How come?" she asked. She would never have thought of him as the self-conscious type—for God's sake, he never shut up about how clever he was—but clearly he was nervous about something.

For a moment he looked as if he would answer, but he only closed his eyes and let his head droop.

"Are you alright?" Concern laced Donna's voice. "Doctor, are you sure you've not got hypothermia?"

"Not yet," he said, with just a hint of his characteristic humour.

"Well, hurry it up, then!" she urged.

The Doctor sighed softly, dropping the fire poker. Reluctantly, he removed his jacket and started unbuttoning his dress shirt with trembling fingers. He paused after the last button, and glanced towards Donna.

"Please, just don't judge me too harshly," he muttered, voice quiet and rough. "Please."

"What're you on about?" she teased lightly. "Let me guess: you've got a tattoo!"

He didn't seem to find it very funny. Silent, gaze fixed firmly on the fireplace mantle, he stood up and worked off his oxford, undershirt and trousers, the wet fabric clinging to his skin. He was exactly as skinny as she would have expected, she noticed, wincing; his ribs and spine were clearly visible under his lean muscles. She was relieved to discover that Time Lords had a concept of underwear—she had wondered. But none of that really caught her attention.

By the glow of the fire, Donna could clearly see the lines of lighter-coloured flesh that criss-crossed his body, some raised and uneven, others faded almost completely. Realizing what they were felt like someone had buried a knife inside her stomach and twisted. For a moment she balked away from the reality of it; she must be mistaken, she figured. He spent all his time running around fighting aliens and crashing his ship, he was bound to have scars. But that rationale didn't last long. They were too straight, too neat, and the Doctor's gaze was far too heavy for them to be accidents.

They must have been long since healed over by now, but it was clear that many had once been deep wounds, opened any which way with a reckless abandon. Most covered his thighs and the sides of his stomach, to the point that some areas were more scar tissue than skin; there were stray marks scattered all over his body, his calves, his ribs, even his ankles. And as he sat again, carefully avoiding looking her way, she saw the same slashes layered on his arms and wrists.

She realized she was staring, and quickly looked away. "Are those scars?" she asked. For some reason, she had to hear it from him.

He rubbed his hands down his arms, crossing them over his stomach, and Donna let him pretend it was for warmth. "Yep."

"From–"

"Yes." A hard edge entered his voice.

Feeling a pang of guilt for drawing attention to it, Donna edged away from him. She had no idea how to respond. She felt stupid for it now, but she never would have guessed that the Doctor… that he would…

It should have been obvious. This was someone who'd fought on the front lines of one of the deadliest wars in history, survived the destruction of his planet and condemned himself to a life as the last of his species. She couldn't even begin to comprehend what he'd been through. But somehow she had never seen him as the type, if such a thing could ever be said. He was always so strong, so curious and eager, constantly searching for the next adventure. He had such a love for the universe and everyone in it. It was just hard to imagine him not extending the same courtesy to himself.

"I'm sorry," Donna said, "I didn't mean… I didn't know–"

"It's fine," he cut her off.

But she knew it wasn't. The air of discomfort was still there, and she hated it. This wasn't supposed to happen between them. He had only just gone out of his way to make her comfortable—she guessed he hadn't even thought, at the time, to take an extra moment to find himself a covering—and yet he hadn't felt safe enough to tell her about this. She couldn't blame him, and she couldn't blame herself either, and logically she knew that… but there was a little voice in her mind that asked how she'd got it wrong, what she'd done to make him think she'd be mad, or disgusted, or whatever was running through that alien head of his. She pushed those thoughts aside. This wasn't about her.

He clearly hated having his scars on display. Maybe all he wanted was some privacy. If he hadn't wanted her to know then he probably didn't want her there, staring at him. And she wasn't really cold anymore, so she was just about to get up and leave, give him his space. But she paused as his words really registered, and looked to him.

"Why would I judge you?"

The Doctor glanced in her direction, and turned away quickly. "Why wouldn't you?" He sounded as miserable as she'd ever heard him. A lump formed in her throat; she knew she couldn't leave him now. Not without addressing this.

She stood up suddenly, shrugging off her blanket and draping it over his shoulders, and moved to sit on the stone ledge in front of him. With a look of surprise he gathered it around himself, arranging it to cover his gangly limbs. Some of the tension left him, and he whispered, "Thank you."

"Don't mention it." She took a deep breath. "First of all," she said, "I would never, ever judge you for something like that. Okay?"

The Doctor nodded slowly. "Alright. Okay."

"Second, I'm… I'm always here for you, if you need to talk. I've said it before, I know, but I just want you to know for certain."

"Yeah." His voice was thick with emotion. "I know."

Donna looked him over with concern in her eyes. He still wouldn't meet her gaze. "I can see something's bothering you, Doctor," she said, taking one of his hands in hers. "C'mon. Why would I judge you?"

"Because you should!" he burst out. "I– I'm sorry, Donna. I should've told you sooner, you have a right to know who you're travelling with, and this…"

"Hey, hey," she shushed him. A thought occurred to her. "You know this doesn't change anything, right?" she asked. "I don't think of you any differently now that I know. I promise. And… and you… you're not different because of it, either. You're more than that. A lot more."

He seemed to think about this for a long time, watching the flames dance in the fireplace. The only noise came from the crackling and popping of burning wood, and the gentle background thrum of the TARDIS healing herself. Donna observed the subtle changes in his expression as he considered her words—guilt, and despair, and then something that looked awfully like self-hatred—and she noticed with a twinge of sorrow that his eyes shone with tears.

Then the Doctor did something rather un-Doctor-ish: he talked about his feelings.

He took a shaky breath, drew the blanket tighter around himself, and turned to Donna. "I should know better," he said slowly, "but it feels like you're supposed to think less of me for it, because I do." His voice quavered. "Because I hate it. I hate seeing my scars, Donna, I– I'm sorry, I do. And I hate that I've let you see how… how weak and– and broken a person I am. That's not how I want you to see me."

His forwardness took her by surprise, and she found herself gripped by the raw emotion on his face. Despite the weight of his gaze, dark and soft and absolutely, plainly terrified, she couldn't look away. He was placing a lot of trust in her; she was determined to show him that he didn't need to be scared.

"Listen…" She squeezed his hand tighter. "I don't think anything could make me see you as weak or broken," she admitted, "not after everything we've done."

Surprise flickered in his eyes, and she continued.

"You are my best friend in the universe, Doctor, and I can say that for sure now. I like to think I know you pretty well. I know you're the strongest, most resilient person I've ever met, and certainly the kindest." She briefly smiled to herself at the way his eyes widened ever so slightly, his eyebrows raised, so eager to believe her. She looked down at their hands. "I don't hate seeing your scars," she murmured, absently tracing circles with her thumb. "I'm sorry you feel that way. You don't deserve to."

The Doctor glanced away, swallowing hard. He gave a weak laugh. "I don't know what to say. Really, I…" He trailed off. "Are you sure? Are you really sure you don't mind this? You don't– you don't think I'm–"

He wouldn't have been able to finish even if Donna hadn't thrown her arms around him, cutting him off. He froze for a second before he embraced her in return, hands making fists in her robe, and he hid his face in the plush fabric. His shoulders shuddered as he held back a sob, and she moved her hand to stroke his hair.

"I don't know what you were gonna call yourself," said Donna, "but the answer is no. Never. I don't care that you've hurt yourself, I certainly don't want to go home. I'm your friend, Doctor, do you understand? I love you. Nothing as stupid as scars could ever change my mind about that. Okay? Promise me you understand."

He nodded vigorously, clutching her tighter against him as he broke down in tears.

"Hey," Donna said lightly, "it's alright. You're okay. Everything's okay." She continued whispering little assurances to him as he cried, holding him and smoothing her fingers through his hair. Her own eyes stung with tears. From his reaction, she wasn't sure he'd ever shown his scars to anyone before. It was a horrible thought, to imagine the Doctor going all those years hating them the way he did; so ashamed that he wouldn't even give someone the chance to tell him they didn't care, that they loved him with his past and his baggage, with every cut and scrape and bruise, every panic attack and bad day and sleepless night. She desperately hoped someone had told him that. He deserved to be told that every single day for the rest of his life.

The Doctor pulled back suddenly, his eyes wide with concern. He cupped her cheek with one hand, brushing away the tears falling down her face. "Why are you crying?" he whispered, voice raw with emotion. "Please don't cry, Donna, I'm alright, I promise. I am."

She nodded, swallowing around the lump in her throat. "I know. I believe you. I just–" She grasped his hand in both of hers and took a deep, calming breath. "I don't want you to be upset."

He gave her a weak smile, his eyes filled with affection. "I'm not upset. Not really. More…" He struggled for the right word. "Warm," he decided. "I'm all warm. Is that supposed to happen?"

Donna laughed. She reached out to rub his arm over the blanket, silently telling him she was glad. It had slipped down his other shoulder, just a bit, exposing a few of the lighter scars on his upper arm. She felt a stab of pity, and tried not to let it show on her face—she couldn't stand to imagine him… doing that to himself. She shut her eyes for a moment to block it out, but she wasn't quite successful; behind her eyelids she could see the expression on his face, that look of cold, unwavering anger that he reserved for the things he hated most in the universe. Or maybe his brow would be pinched in discomfort and he would chew on his lip to ease the pain, his hands trembling, fingers gripping the–

No, no. She couldn't do that. She could not handle seeing that. And it wasn't fair to him, to dredge it all up. Taking a few deep breaths to calm herself, willing the images out of her mind, she refocused on the present. Her eyes wandered back to his exposed arm, and she suddenly remembered that every scar on his body had looked well-healed. There wasn't a single fresh wound. Among all the emotional turmoil she was experiencing at that moment, that made her happier than she would have thought possible.

Still stroking his arm, she quietly asked, "How long has it been?"

The Doctor sniffed, trying for an air of nonchalance. "Oh… a few years, now? Three? Maybe four? I don't count."

Donna stared for a second, thinking she must have misheard. "Oh my God. But that's…" She shook her head. "That's incredible! That is so amazing!"

He glanced up at her. "You think?"

"Are you kidding?" She threw her arms around him again, drawing a muffled oof! from the Doctor. "I am so proud of you, Doctor. You understand? I'm so proud of you." Pulling back, she added, "And you'd better be too, you stupid alien."

The way he looked at her, she thought he might just break down again. But a shy grin spread across his face and he averted his gaze, blushing faintly. He gave a little laugh. "Yeah, I guess… I guess I am."

Then his face fell, gaze suddenly dark again. "I still want to do it sometimes," he confessed. "Even after all this time. I'm not sure I'll ever stop wanting to do it. Sometimes it just feels like the only thing that'll make it all better. Sometimes all I want is to hurt. Don't even know why, half the time." He sniffed. "I never go through with it. I'll never do it again. It never helped, it just made everything worse. Made me hate myself more than I ever thought I could. Nearly k–" His voice cracked, and Donna reached out, steadied him. He gripped her arm, breathing hard, fighting to keep his resolve.

"It nearly killed me. I nearly killed myself, oh, I came so close. I couldn't stand it, I couldn't stand seeing myself in the mirror. Oh, Donna," he whispered, tears brimming in his eyes. "I hated myself so much for it. So much. And somehow… somehow, stopping was still one of the hardest things I've ever done. So yeah," he said, stronger now, "even– even if it still bothers me—quite a lot, sometimes—I am proud of myself."

Donna nodded, wiping her eyes. She wasn't sure when she'd started crying, but it seemed she had. "Quite right," she managed to choke out, and then she found herself in the Doctor's arms, her face pressed against his chest and his hand on the back of her head, fingers brushing through her hair. "God, I'm so sorry," she whimpered, the syllables broken by her gasps and sobs. "Oh, Doctor, I'm so sorry."

"Hey," he teased, "that's my line."

She laughed, despite it all, her breath stuttering as she tried to calm down. "I wish I'd known," she said shakily. "You n– nearly killed yourself. You–"

He shushed her, swaying back and forth, and she let herself relax into his embrace. "That was a long time ago," he breathed. "I'm doing better. I'm doing so much better."

"I don't want you to die."

"I know. I'd also rather not, actually."

"I love you. So many people love you."

"I know. Don't you worry. I know."

Donna shook her head. "Bloody hell, Doctor, how do you do it? How– how is that even possible? After everything…" She trailed off.

I think I would've killed myself, she thought, but she dared not say it out loud.

"Well," he murmured into her hair, "most of that really comes down to my wonderful–" he hugged her tighter– "brilliant companions. I can hardly take credit."

"I think you can." She sighed, shivering as the adrenaline slowly left her body. "'M really proud. And really happy for you. You have no idea."

"Y'know, I think I've actually got the point," he mumbled.

She smacked his arm, and he giggled—properly giggled. It quickly turned into a full-throated laugh, and she couldn't help but laugh along with him, though she had no idea why either of them were doing it.

He pulled away, grinning, holding her by the arms. "Aw, Donna," he said affectionately. His expression turned thoughtful. "Your 'best friend in the universe'?" he questioned, eyebrow cocked in amusement.

Donna gave him a glare that didn't last long in the face of his warm smile. His eyes sparkled in the firelight, his grin going crooked the way it did when he was teasing her, and she started laughing again.

"And don't you dare forget it," she ordered, brandishing a finger in his direction.

He chuckled. "I won't," he said softly. "Promise. I love you too."

Donna smiled. She stood up, fixing her fluffy robe, and helped the Doctor to his feet. He wrapped the blanket around himself, making sure he was showing as little skin as possible.

"All warm?" he asked.

She nodded. "We should find clothes," she remarked.

Just then, with a whir of ancient mechanics, all the lights in the library flickered to life. The temperature changed noticeably as the TARDIS sent warm drafts circulating through the room, chasing out the cold mountain air.

"Ah, good old girl!" praised the Doctor, patting a bookshelf.

"Bit late," Donna muttered, but her tone was playful. It wasn't the TARDIS's fault that the Doctor was a rubbish pilot.

"So," he said, sweeping out of the library with Donna at his heels, "where to next? Oh, oh, you know where I haven't taken you? Pluto! Nice and close to home, eh?"

"You've got to be kidding me!" exclaimed Donna.

"What?"

"Pluto's cold, dumbo."

He grimaced, and sniffed. "Maybe not, then."

"Yeah," she agreed. "Tell you what, you turn up the heat as high as it can go, and I'll make us some tea."

"Oh no, no, I'll make the tea. I've had your tea. You think I don't know that you mess it up on purpose so you don't have to make the tea again?"

"Well, it's working, isn't it?" She patted his arm. "Off you go, then."

But the Doctor didn't move, just watched her, the corners of his eyes crinkling as a smile crept across his features. "Thank you," he murmured. "For everything."

Donna sighed fondly. "Spaceman, you are always, always welcome."