But Broken Lights by rosa_acicularis



Summary: Rose and the Doctor after The Age of Steel.
Rating: Teen
Categories: Tenth Doctor
Characters: Rose Tyler, The Doctor (10th)
Genres: Action/Adventure, Het
Warnings: Swearing
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2007.03.12
Updated: 2007.08.01


Index

Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
Chapter 11: Chapter 11


Chapter 1: Chapter 1

Author's Notes: Excerpts from Tennyson's 'In Memoriam'. The first in a series.


++

He thrids the labyrinth of the mind,
He reads the secret of the star,
He seems so near and yet so far,
He looks so cold: she thinks him kind.

She keeps the gift of years before,
A wither’d violet is her bliss:
She knows not what his greatness is,
For that, for all, she loves him more.

For him she plays, to him she sings
Of early faith and plighted vows;
She knows but matters of the house,
And he, he knows a thousand things.

Her faith is fixt and cannot move,
She darkly feels him great and wise,
She dwells on him with faithful eyes,
‘I cannot understand: I love.’

++

It had taken nearly two days for Rose to find her copy of the key to Mickey’s flat. She’d rummaged through every drawer in her old bedroom, pulled long-abandoned purses and wallets inside out with no luck. She’d been unreasonably frantic until her mum had found it in a little ceramic bowl they used to keep loose change.

They’d been parked at the Powell Estate for nearly a week and — as far as Rose knew — the Doctor hadn’t left the TARDIS since he’d moved her from the middle of her mum's flat to the street below. She was grateful for his absence, though she wasn’t sure if he'd stayed away because he sensed she needed space or because he was avoiding Jackie and her terrible wrath.

Or maybe, Rose couldn’t help but think, maybe he’s avoiding me.

But the key had been found and Mickey’s flat emptied and cleaned. Rose posted a letter to his mother’s last known address, telling her that Mickey had gone travelling, and that it might be a long time before he had another permanent residence. She didn’t bother to feel guilty for the lies. Even if the letter reached her, the woman probably wouldn’t open it.

She left her key on the newly scrubbed kitchen counter (totally different colour now that it was clean, and how did that disgusting fact make her miss him?) and left the empty flat. She’d already said goodbye to her mum. It was time to return to the TARDIS.

He wasn’t in the console room when she opened the door, which rather surprised her. She’d thought he’d be desperate to leave, hungry for the next world, the next disaster. She brushed her hands across the console, then leaned into it and sighed. Home, finally, she thought, then snapped her hands back as if the TARDIS had burned her.

“For now,” she reminded herself firmly, out loud. “Home, for now.”

The pitch of the TARDIS’ constant, comforting thrum changed slightly (in objection? Rose couldn’t be sure), and she patted the console again before walking down the currently short hall to her bedroom door. Wherever the Doctor was, she wasn’t going to stand around waiting for him. His disappearance was something of a blessing, really, as she was suddenly desperate to bury herself beneath the big, soft comforter on her big, warm bed. Not a lot of time for catnapping when the Doctor was about, and she was damned well going to take advantage of the opportunity.

Thus her disappointment rivalled her shock when she opened her bedroom door to find the Doctor relaxing on that big, warm bed, legs splayed, glasses perched on the end of his nose and a large, open cardboard box in his lap.

The tone of the TARDIS changed again, and even to Rose’s untrained ears it sounded very much like, “Busted!”

The Doctor opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. Rose stared back at him, for once in her life hoping to look as much like her mother as possible.

His expression transformed into a bright smile. “At least I took my shoes off first, eh?” he asked, wiggling his stocking feet at her. His socks clashed.

“Those are my things,” she said slowly, keeping her voice perfectly even. “You are in my room, looking through my private things.”

“My TARDIS,” he pointed out casually enough, though she could tell he was more than a little nervous. Oh, but her mum had slapped him good when she'd learned where they’d left Mickey. Rose didn’t imagine that the Doctor was eager to repeat the experience any time soon, even with a Jackie-in-training.

Rose slipped her hands into her pockets. “She led me right here, you know.” His eyebrows shot up at that. “Yeah, she may be your TARDIS, but I think she’s on my side this time — aren’t ya, girl?”

He looked up at the ceiling and frowned. “Traitor.”

She leaned against the door frame, but didn’t release him from her stony glare. “So why are you in my room, again?”

“Erm…tidying up?” He gave her one of those grins, and the charm rolled off him like waves of too-strong perfume. She sighed.

“Doctor, you might as well quit. That’s not going to work on me anymore.”

He blinked. “You want me to stop smiling?” His confusion grated on her nerves.

“I want you to tell me why you’re lounging on my bed, digging through my stuff.”

“Well, I am a nosy bastard. And quite rude, as you know.” He smiled at her again, more naturally this time. “Come here. You look tired.”

“I am tired.” She pulled off her trainers and stepped toward the bed. Then she paused. “I don’t know, though, Doctor. You and I on the same bed at the same time? Don’t you think the universe might implode or something?”

His face went suddenly and very carefully blank. “What a strange thing to say.”

“I’m having a strange sort of day.” She climbed onto the bed, settling with her back against the wall, a safe distance away from him.

The Doctor was quiet for a moment before he asked, “Get Mickey’s flat sorted, then?”

“Yeah. Did what I could, anyway.”

He held out his hand, and she took it. They sat quietly until Rose suddenly broke the silence.

“Do you ever get used to feeling like this?”

He paused, weighing his answer. “I don’t know. I suppose some people must.”

“You’d think…I mean, after all that’s happened, you’d think I’d at least have learnt to expect it. Losing people. It’s just that…” She struggled for a moment, and then the words came. “There are things that are always there, you know? They’re sure and they’re constant and when everything around you’s going mad, you can point to them and you remember where you are. Like constellations. Like the North Star. And maybe,” her voice broke, and his fingers twined with hers, “and maybe you take them for granted a little, just thinking they’ll always be there. So when they’re gone, or you find out you never really had them at all…” She stopped, closing her eyes.

The Doctor cleared his throat softly. “Rose, how many places have you been where there will never be a North Star in the sky?”

“How many skies have I seen without you?” Rose asked. She held her breath for a moment, but he didn’t seem to have anything to say to that. She could feel his pulse against the soft skin between her fingers. She bit her lip and tried to continue.

“With Mickey…it’s like I almost wish he’d died.” She inhaled sharply, shocked at her own words. Staring straight ahead, she refused to meet his gaze, afraid of what she might see there. “‘Cause now I’ll never know. Anything at all could happen to him, and I’ll never know about it. One day he will die, and I won’t even know to be sad.” His hand tightened around hers, and she realized she was crying. “God, that’s so selfish, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said softly. “It is. Very selfish and very human.” He rummaged through his pockets a bit, then pulled out a wrinkled handkerchief and offered it to her.

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose a little. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure. I’m pretty sure that one was clean, too.”

She chuckled damply and gave him a playful shove. “Prat.”

He retaliated with a sudden lunge, wrapping his arm around her waist and pressing his face into her hair. She was too stunned to move. “Doctor?” she squeaked.

He sighed, his cool breath tickling her scalp. “Oh, Rose.” She felt the press of his lips against her hair, her eyes closed, and she had just enough time to think, He isn’t, he doesn’t, I know he doesn’t– when the touch changed, becoming wet and–

“Oi!”

He pulled back just in time to avoid her slap and slumped against the wall, grinning with lazy self-satisfaction. “Hmm. Lovely. A bit floral for my taste, but still.”

“You licked my hair!”

“Yes, and you should really lay off that conditioner. All wrong for your hair type.”

“You licked my hair!”

“I know. I was there.” He grimaced. “Unfortunate rhyme, that. Neither subtle nor particularly witty. Ah well,” he finished cheerily.

She leaned over him and snatched up the cardboard box that had fallen to his side. “I think you and I need to have a conversation about boundaries.”

“Oh, I know all about boundaries, Rose Tyler,” he said lightly, trying to peer into the box even as she held it away from him. “After all, boundaries are nothing but lines, and I might as well be an intergalactic expert on lines–lines between two points in space, lines to keep you out, lines to keep you in, lines improvised, lines drawn in the sand — hello, what’s this?” He was too fast for her, and before she could snatch it back he’d liberated a photograph from the box. “Oh please,” he said, nearly feverish in his delight, “oh please, tell me this is you.”

She glowered at him. “It’s not me.”

“Oh, but it is!” he crowed. “I’d know that cheeky grin anywhere. Oh, Rose, that is a very, very large sombrero.” He squinted at the picture for a moment, ignoring her consternation. “Or maybe you’re just very, very tiny. What age are you here? Four? Five?”

“Five. I was five. And it was a very large sombrero.”

“What’s that all over your face?”

She closed her eyes and winced. “Chocolate custard.”

His laughter was so lovely she nearly forgot to be unhappy, and just let herself revel in the sound of it. He took advantage of the moment and snatched another picture from the box.

“Doctor!” He smiled mischievously at her and she sighed. “Fine,” she said, dropping the box onto the bed. “Have at it.”

He did.

“This must be the famous Shareen, then. My, she’s the intimidating sort, isn’t she?” He pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose and looked closely at the photo of a teenaged Rose and Shareen, dressed rather provocatively for a night out. “You two look quite dangerous.”

Rose couldn’t help but give him a sly grin. “We were.”

The next photograph pulled from the box was almost immediately tossed back in. Off her questioning look he said, “Jackie Tyler. Lycra.”

She snorted. “Serves you right.”

The Doctor feigned a wounded expression. “It was just a teeny, tiny invasion of privacy, Rose. I hardly deserve to be–” He stopped, staring blankly at the small stack of photos he’d unearthed. He gently removed the rubber band that bound them together and flipped slowly through the top few.

A younger Rose — fifteen, sixteen at the very most — looked back at him, smiling brightly and wrapped in the arms of a ridiculously pretty older boy with dark hair and darker eyes. The boy wasn’t smiling.

“Jimmy Stone,” Rose said, answering the question she knew he wouldn’t ask.

“Ah.” His usually expressive features were still. “Him.”

His reaction puzzled her. She hadn’t told him about Jimmy in any great detail, but he knew the basic facts and she didn’t see why it should bother him. It had been years ago, now — a bit late for him to be feeling protective.

“He hurt you, and you kept these.” His confusion made it sound like a question. “Brought them here.”

Rose shrugged. “I loved him.” He looked away from the photos for the first time since pulling them out of the box, turning to stare at her. She gave him a crooked smile that wasn’t, really. “I did. It was stupid of me, yeah, but I did and I don’t want to forget it.” She rested her fingertips on the rough edge of the cardboard box and looked down at the photos of Mickey the Doctor had so nimbly managed to avoid. “Don’t want to forget any of it.”

For a long moment he watched her face with a wondrous, almost enthralled look in his wide eyes. “You…” She didn’t believe for a second that he was actually speechless, but he was certainly doing a bang up job of faking it.

“I?” she prompted.

He regained his composure and gave her a warm smile. “You human beings. You lot never stop surprising me.”

She snatched the photos out of his hands and dropped them back in the box. “So glad we keep things interesting for you.”

“Oh, you do, Rose. You do.” She pretended she couldn’t see him still watching her out of the corner of her eye. “You know,” he mused idly, as if he were considering what brand of toothpaste to buy, “I think I might have to taste your hair again.”

She stuck a finger in his face. “Don’t even think about it.”

He arched an eyebrow at her. “It’s rude to point, Rose.”

“Don’t care. Keep your tongue to yourself, all right?”

He chuckled. “If you say so.” He returned his attention to the box in front of him, and for a few minutes only his occasional snickers of amusement broke the silence between them. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend he wasn’t there.

“Oh,” he said suddenly, sounding a little breathless.

She opened one eye. “What?”

He was staring at a photograph, transfixed. “You’re beautiful,” he said, and the awe in his voice made her warm and a little dizzy, like she’d just downed one too many glasses of champagne.

The photo was candid. She’d been in the middle of telling someone off (she’d long ago forgotten who or why), and she'd had no idea that Mickey had been mucking about with his camera a few feet away. They were at the playground a few blocks from the Estate, and the sun was low in the sky. She couldn’t have been more than twelve.

She bit the inside of her cheek and inspected his face carefully for signs that he was teasing her. “I don’t understand. I’m not–”

He smiled, but didn’t look away from the picture. “You are. Just look.”

She turned back to the picture and tried to find what he’d seen in it. She’d been a bit of a mess at twelve, really — all teeth and elbows and angles — and this photo had been taken at the height of her prepubescent awkwardness. She’d thumped Mickey more than once over the years for taking it. But she’d kept it, secretly enjoying her younger self’s tangled hair and dirty knees and remembering a time before she could command attention with little more than the curve of her hip and a crooked finger.

“Your hair is the same colour as mine,” the Doctor said, sounding surprised.

She couldn’t help but smile at that. “What, brown?”

“Why do you dye it?”

She shrugged. “Dunno. I like it this way.”

He turned to her, and the sudden intensity of his focus on her was unnerving. “What were you like?”

“What?”

“When you were small. What were you like?”

The question made her horribly, irrationally angry. She’d known him for years (forever) and most times it felt like he owned every part of her. And most times, that was exactly what she wanted.

But she had grown tired of giving him pieces of herself that he didn’t really want or need, and she couldn’t help but wonder what would be left of her in the end. After all, it wasn’t like he could give her anything of himself in return.

She snapped the photo out of his hand and jumped down from the bed. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because I do.” He said it nonchalantly enough, but she knew better. The question had been anything but casual.

“But why?” she insisted, and his expression became annoyed.

“I just do.”

“Like you ‘just’ want to know what my hair tastes like?”

“Well…yes.” He frowned. “Is there something wrong with that?”

Rose didn’t have an answer to that question — not one that made sense, anyway. She sank into the chair by her desk and rested her head in her hands, trying to swallow the words that buzzed in the back of her throat like flies. “I’m sorry. I just…” After a moment she looked up and met his concerned gaze. “I miss him. Mickey.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it was. She was almost disappointed that he didn’t notice.

“Are you angry with me because I let him come with us?” the Doctor asked, hesitating slightly, and Rose thought that he might actually be afraid of the answer.

She smiled at him, just a little. “I was at first. I thought…” She stopped, shaking her head. “But you were right to bring him along, I think.”

The Doctor held her gaze. “And to leave him?”

“That was his choice.”

“Yes. It was.” He paused. “You’re allowed to mourn him, Rose.”

“He’s not dead.”

“But he is gone,” he said, too gently. She felt another surge of anger, and looked away before he could see it in her eyes.

“Yeah, well, we all have to leave you eventually, don’t we?”

Rose couldn’t see the Doctor’s face, but the nearly inaudible intake of breath from the bed let her know that she’d hit her mark. Bullseye, she thought, and felt sick.

She thought about apologizing, but instead she said, “Where to next, then?”

He slid off her bed and reached down for his shoes. Not quite meeting her eyes and trainers dangling from one hand, he paused by her door. For a moment she thought (the tension in his shoulders, the twitch of his fingers) that he might reach for her, but he didn’t. “I know just the place,” he said, and left.

++

Back to index


Chapter 2: Chapter 2

Author's Notes: Slight spoilers for the tie-in novel The Stone Rose.


++

I vex my heart with fancies dim:
He still outstript me in the race;
It was but unity of place
That made me dream I rank’d with him.

And so may Place retain us still,
And he the much-beloved again,
A lord of large experience, train
To riper growth the mind and will:

And what delights can equal those
That stir the spirit’s inner deeps,
When one that loves but knows not, reaps
A truth from one that loves and knows?


++

When Rose joined the Doctor in the console room a few minutes later, he was hurtling from control panel to control panel with an almost manic glee.

“Rose!” he cried delightedly when he saw her. “Come here and hold this down for me, will you?” She pressed down on the spiny lever that always rather reminded her of a toilet brush, and he leapt away to the other side of the console. “Excellent, excellent!”

Apparently he’d decided to pretend their earlier conversation had never happened. She wasn’t exactly surprised.

“So, where are we going, then?”

“No, no, Rose. No ruining the surprise.” He stood back from the console and studied her. “It’ll be a bit nippy, I’m afraid. You should bring this.” He tossed her a jacket that she’d left hanging from a railing. As she caught it, the TARDIS went silent. The Doctor beamed and gave her a courtly bow. “After you, milady.”

Rose slipped the jacket on over her hoodie and made for the door. She rested her hand against the familiar rough wood (which probably wasn’t wood at all, she knew) and hesitated. Turning back to the Doctor, she saw that his giddiness had vanished as quickly as it had come. Instead, he watched her with a sober and unreadable expression.

“Doctor?”

“Go ahead, Rose.”

She opened the door.

The sky was a pure, almost painful white; the green of the trees shocking in contrast. The TARDIS had landed in a small clearing surrounded by tall, wildly overgrown hedges. Directly in front of them lay a marble fountain in obvious disrepair, choked with ivy. And everywhere, twisted and twined about every statue and bench, every hedge and archway, there were flowers.

She felt him at her back, his lips by her ear. “The Vittore star system in the Otricoli galaxy — not so very far from your own, as these things go. The year is 302,003 and this…” He gave her a little push, and she stepped onto the planet, the gravel of the pathway crunching beneath her feet. “This is The Rose Garden.”

For a moment she simply stood and stared, her breath turning to a visible mist in the cool air. “A rose garden, you mean.”

“I think you can trust someone named ‘The Doctor’ to know his definite articles, don’t you?” He slipped past, shrugging on his coat, and winked at her. “Of course, it’s had a dozen names in as many languages over the years, depending on who was running it at the time. It’s abandoned at the moment, so it hasn’t really got a name at all — or does it have all of them simultaneously until the next one comes along?”

Rose bit her bottom lip and stared at something beyond his shoulder. “Abandoned, eh?”

“Absolutely. Deserted, forsaken, unoccupied.” He leaned towards her with a grin. “Nobody home.”

“The blood-sucking clown behind you might disagree.” She pointed and he spun around wildly, sonic screwdriver already in his hand. After a moment of scanning the empty clearing, he turned back to her with a sour expression.

“Funny.”

“I really am, now that you mention it.” She smiled tightly and took his hand, swinging it slightly between them and trying to ignore the constant sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. “What kind of sonic screwdriver setting works on blood-sucking clowns, anyway?”

The Doctor gave her one of the many variations on his ‘Please don’t dribble on me, you ridiculous monkey’ look. “34999, the exsanguinating clown counter-attack setting. What else?”

Rose stared at him, stunned, and her grip on his hand slackened. He’d obviously spotted something interesting through one of the archways, and strode off.

“Oi, wait up!” she called, running after him. “You mean there’s really such thing as a…” He arched an eyebrow at her and she groaned. “Oh, I wish I didn’t know that.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Unless you’re just having me on.”

His grin was wicked. “You’ll never know.”

She noticed the paths leading off from the one they followed, each walled by rose-covered hedges. “We’re in a labyrinth!”

“Right in one. So,” he linked her arm in his, “that means we stick together. No meandering, no mucking about, and absolutely, positively no wandering off.”

“Why not just put a leash and collar on me and be done with it?” Rose huffed.

“Oh, believe me, I’ve seriously considered the idea,” he replied, his tone two parts stern and one part slightly naughty.

“I thought you said this place was deserted?”

The Doctor stopped walking, annoyed. “Rose, do you honestly think I’m going to fall for–”

“No, I meant — if we’re the only people here, why are you worried about getting separated? It’s just a garden maze. If I get lost you can call my mobile.”

He looked perplexed. “You want to get lost?”

Rose itched to be out of his sight and explore this extraordinary place on her own for bit, but she knew there was no way she could explain the feeling without talking about things she absolutely did not want to talk about. She shrugged. “You usually don’t seem to care if I go off by myself.”

“Well, no, but–” he seemed to struggle for a moment. “Rose, this ‘garden maze’ as you call it covers the entirety of this planet. You could slip off for a second and I might not be able to find you for weeks. And while there may not be any dangerous fauna lurking in this flora, there is the small matter of the–”

He was interrupted when nearby a large, winged statue toppled over and shattered. The ground beneath their feet trembled and shook, and Rose would have met the same fate as the statue if the Doctor hadn’t steadied her. It lasted only a moment, and then everything was still again.

“Earthquakes,” the Doctor finished. He glanced down at the ruined statue. “Icarus. Poor chap never could keep his feet on the ground.”

“A small matter of earthquakes,” Rose repeated incredulously.

“Not the most stable of planetary crusts, unfortunately. Speaking of which, have you noticed anything odd about this planet?”

She gave him a crooked grin. “Aside from the impossibly Technicolor roses, the deserted labyrinth, and the earthquakes, you mean?”

“Aside from all that.”

She pondered her surroundings, then watched the warm mist leave her lips as she exhaled. Looking up, she searched the sky for the sun. It was tiny and mostly obscured by clouds. “It’s the middle of winter. Why is everything in bloom?”

He beamed at her, making her feel a bit like a prize poodle that finally piddled on the newspaper instead of the Persian rug. “What if I told you that it’s always this cold here?”

She gaped at him. “But the sun’s so far away! How could all of these plants possibly get enough light?”

“They don’t.” He pulled her to the nearest cluster of roses, each a pale, delicate yellow that deepened in colour at the edge of the petals. “Breathe on them.”

Rose was fairly sure he’d gone completely mad. “What?”

“Go on, give ‘em a good blow,” he insisted, puckering his lips and hallowing his cheeks to demonstrate. Rose sniggered. “Humans,” he said, sighing wearily. “Everything is about sex with you people.”

She looked up at him through dark lashes and curled her lips into a lascivious grin. “Yeah, but can you blame us?”

He whirled away from her, hands in his pockets. “Rose, you of all people should know that there are any number of experiences in the universe far more impressive than sex.” He leaned against a nearby trellis. “Yeah, it’s pleasant enough, if a bit sticky, but think of the things you’ve seen, the places you’ve been! Just last week you watched a thousand stars explode into life in the space of a heartbeat, then had afternoon tea while the sun rose over the Valley of the Kings. We sat there and ate biscuits and watched the sky over the Nile turn from the black of night to a blue the world hasn’t seen for three thousand years!” he finished, throwing his arms open dramatically. “Tell me that wasn’t better than sex.”

“Depends,” Rose said. “Are we talking good sex, or just ‘okay, if that’s the best you got’ sex?”

He dragged a hand over his face and groaned. “Just blow on the bloody roses, Rose.”

“So impatient,” she said, and bent to breathe on the flowers as seductively as she could manage. Her teasing was rather ruined when she nearly fell on her arse in surprise — the moment her warm breath touched the roses, the plants arched into her face, pressing their petals against her mouth. “What the hell?” she sputtered, staggering backward and wiping a stray rose petal from her lips.

“Thermal energy!” he crowed, terribly pleased with himself. “Seeing as photosynthesis isn’t really an option, all plant life on this planet was genetically engineered to use thermal energy for the same purpose. The bloom reacted to the heat of your breath.” He paused. “Which is a bit dirty, if you think about it too much.”

Rose bent down to inspect the rose stems. “But how do they get enough heat? The ground’s cold.”

He knelt beside her. “Up here, yeah, but the upper crust of this planet is incredibly thin. The root systems don’t have to dig down very far at all to get to the nice steamy, molten bits. And believe me when I tell you, these roots can dig.”

Rose ran her fingers along a thick, green stem. It was warm, and strangely smooth. “No thorns.”

“Not during the daylight hours, anyway.” She looked up at him quizzically. “Retractable. So patrons could enjoy the gardens prickle-free during the day and the nocturnal nasties weren’t treated to an all-you-can-eat flower buffet at night.”

“Hold on. Nocturnal nasties?”

“Long extinct, I promise.” He linked their arms, then gestured to the garden around them with his free hand. “So, what do you think?”

She made him wait, giving herself a moment to absorb the sight of vividly-painted roses against cold, white sky. Then she looked up and gave him the smile she knew he needed. “It’s brilliant.”

He pulled her closer and she snuggled into his side, chilled and unable to withstand the temptation. “It is, isn’t it?” he replied, as if pleasantly surprised himself. “I always meant to bring you here, but we just never seemed to have the time.”

“Or you forgot.”

He nodded. “Or I forgot.”

He draped his arm over her shoulder, and she let herself lean into him just a little more. No harm in that, not when it was so cold outside. The rasp of the fabric of his coat against her cheek was so familiar it almost hurt. Her chest tightened, her breath coming short and hard, and for a moment she saw lights dancing just beyond her vision.

He turned her to him and tightened his grip. “Rose, are you all right? Rose!”

She broke away from him and took one, two steadying breaths. “No, no, I’m fine.” He took another step toward her and she held up a hand to ward him off. “Honestly, I’m fine. Just wasn’t letting myself breathe properly.”

He still looked worried, and in that moment she wished for nothing more than to get away from his stupid face and its stupid worried looks. So she shoved a hand in one of his pockets and started to root around.

The Doctor squeaked. “Erm, Rose? Not that I’ve forgotten that I spent most of this morning digging through your personal effects — sorry for that, by the way, don’t know what possessed me — and I realize that turnabout is fair play and revenge is a dish and all that, but what on earth are you doing?”

Unsuccessful, Rose switched to another pocket. “Looking for something.”

He sighed. “‘Looking for something,’ she says. Ah yes, well, that explains everything. It all becomes clear. She’s looking for something.” He paused. “Looking for what, Rose?”

She halted her search and glanced up at him. “Do you honestly think you know what’s in here any better than I do?”

“Well, no.” She moved her focus to his inside left pocket. “I wasn’t offering to help, actually,” he muttered indignantly. It hardly mattered, because she’d found what she was looking for.

“Aha!”

“Aha? Aha, what?” She held up her prize. “Aha, a ball of string.” He shook his head. “Do you know that of all the very strange creatures I have met in my very long life, you are quite easily the strangest?”

“Finger,” she demanded, and without hesitating he offered her his right index finger. “Do I get a trophy?”

“Hmm?” he replied, no doubt trying to sort out why his companion was tying the end of a ball of string to his finger. “What?”

“For being the strangest. Do I get a trophy or a medal or something?” Before he could answer, she tightened the knot. “There. Now we’re set.”

“Set for what, exactly?” She could tell that his patience was running thin, and she wondered if Time Lords counted to ten to keep their tempers in check. Considering his sudden mood shifts, she didn’t think it terribly likely.

She pulled on the string a little, testing the knot. “It’s a labyrinth-friendly leash.” She gave him a quelling look. “For you, not for me. This way, I can wander off and easily find my way back to wherever you are. Ball of string, labyrinth — I figure, why mess with a classic?”

The Doctor gave her a slight smile. “Someone’s been reading up on her mythology.”

She shrugged, not quite looking him in the eye. “Nearly spent eternity as a statue of a Roman goddess. Thought I’d brush up.”

“Rose, I don’t like the idea of us getting separated.” There were more words that belonged at the end of that sentence, words like since you’ve suddenly become a bit of a nutter and when you’re trying so hard to leave me — but he didn’t say them.

“We’re not going to be separated,” she insisted, giving the string a tug. “See? I’ll keep hold of the ball, and that knot will hold just fine.” She ran the pad of her thumb over the string where it looped around his finger, unable to keep the sad smile from her face. “Forget-me-knot.”

Then, before he could object, she walked away.

++

Back to index


Chapter 3: Chapter 3

++

Such clouds of nameless trouble cross
All night below the darken’d eyes;
With morning wakes the will, and cries,
‘Thou shalt not be the fool of loss.’


++

She wished she’d had time to ask Sarah Jane how she’d gotten home to Croydon.

There were dozens of questions she wanted to ask, really, but in the end she always came back to this. Had Sarah Jane had a friend to call, someone left who’d been willing to drive to Aberdeen and bring her home? Or had it been a long, lonely ride by bus or train?

Had he even left her with enough money for a ticket?

Rose tried to imagine it, tried to picture the Scottish countryside flying by on the far side of a darkened window. She pressed her forehead against the cool glass, and watched her own shadowed reflection as every moment she traveled farther from the place where he’d–

She felt a sharp tug on the ball of string in her hand. She turned to see if the string was caught on something, but it trailed free behind her, disappearing around a nearby hedge. String or not, he obviously didn’t intend to let her wander very far.

The first time Rose had tried to imagine what it must have been like for Sarah Jane, she had found it nearly impossible. Now, she couldn’t stop. Now, all she could see was him leaving. Now, every time he reached for her he was walking away.

He’d stood outside the chip shop and said, “No. Not to you,” and she knew he wanted to mean it.

That didn’t make it any less of a lie.

Rose took a deep, stinging breath and perched on the edge of an empty marble fountain. In its center, chubby-faced cherubs frolicked around a blossoming stone tree. She thought it looked rather stupid.

The garden was beautiful, though. Strange that he would think to bring her here, particularly during such an obviously uneventful time in the place’s history. She reached for a nearby red bloom and wondered at the depth of its colour. Both Mickey and Jimmy had been great fans of giving her a single red rose as a gift — each thinking himself terribly clever, of course. But she liked roses just as much as any other flower, and had never thought twice about it.

And now the Doctor had given her an entire planet of roses — alien heat-sucking roses, yeah, but roses nonetheless. How oddly…human of him. Human on a very him scale, sure, and yet undeniably odd.

There was another tug on the ball of string, and Rose found herself staring down at it, still gripped in her chilled hand.

He’d been holding onto her so tightly lately. She was sure it wasn’t her imagination — he’d become almost clingy. Or as clingy as a nine hundred-year-old emotionally-evasive lonely angel with a god complex could be.

Going through her things like that was entirely unlike him. Not that he’d ever had any particular respect for her privacy — certainly not. But this was the same man (mostly, anyway, and boy, did she not want to think about that right now) who’d refused to so much as have tea with her mum. Converse trainers or no, the Doctor was not the sort of bloke who enjoyed a stroll down a teenage girl’s memory lane. So what was he up to?

Rose realized she was gripping the ball of string so tightly she could feel the fibres digging into her palm. She was tired of thinking about him. Tired of worrying about him, tired of waiting for him, and bloody well tired of looking at him and remembering how unbelievably stupid she’d been.

She had thought she could stay with him forever, because she’d never stopped to think about the future (and imagine that, a time traveler forgetting about the future). She had thought she understood him as well as he did her — which wasn’t always that well, but was always enough.

She had thought she was his and he was hers, and that everything really was that simple.

Stupid, stupid ape.

Rose watched as her hand opened and the ball of string slipped through her fingers.

++

Oh, he was going to kill her.

He was going to track her down, save her from whatever inevitably mortal danger she’d gotten herself into (because uninhabited garden planet or no, she was Rose bloody Tyler and was probably dangling upside down over a lava pit filled with man-eating fire manatees by now), and then he was going to kill her.

Which was maybe a bit counter-productive, but still.

The Doctor shoved the ball of string into his coat pocket and stalked away.

++

Back to index


Chapter 4: Chapter 4

++

But thou art turn’d to something strange,
And I have lost the links that bound
Thy changes; here upon the ground,
No more partaker of thy change.

Deep folly! yet that this could be—
That I could wing my will with might
To leap the grades of life and light,
And flash at once, my friend, to thee.

For tho’ my nature rarely yields
To that vague fear implied in death;
Nor shudders at the gulfs beneath,
The howlings from forgotten fields;

Yet oft when sundown skirts the moor
An inner trouble I behold,
A spectral doubt which makes me cold,
That I shall be thy mate no more,

Tho’ following with an upward mind
The wonders that have come to thee,
Thro’ all the secular to-be,
But evermore a life behind.


++

As it turned out, the planet was not quite as abandoned as the Doctor had thought.

Rose nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the whir of wings pass just by her ear. She spun around, trying to spot whatever had just flown by, then let out a squeak when that whatever landed on her shoulder with a solid plop.

She froze. Whatever it was, it was small — maybe the size of a sparrow. A lethal alien sparrow, knowing her luck. Rose held her breath and tried to get a glimpse of the creature out of the corner of her eye.

There was a blinding flash of light and as Rose blinked she felt a flurry of movement by her ear. The weight was gone. She squeezed her eyes shut, still seeing spots of violent colour against the darkness of her eyelids. When she finally was able to see again, her attacker was looking back at her.

It was a bug. A big bug, and not a terribly alien-looking one, at that. If anything, it most resembled a large, grey cricket — perfectly normal but for its size and a pair of brilliant, iridescent wings. Rose took a hesitant step toward the rose bush on which the insect rested, and watched as a distorted reflection of her own face grew large on the surface of the creature’s mirrored wings.

The bug shuddered and light danced across it, reflecting prismed colour into her eyes. “Disco cricket,” Rose breathed, unable to keep the awe from her voice. It was beautiful.

Which didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. On the contrary, it probably meant that any moment the thing would reveal its dripping fangs and try to eat her face.

Rose leaned closer. It seemed normal enough. Except, she noted with some concern, it seemed to be studying her just as intently as she was studying it. Suddenly, the cricket chirped, startling Rose so badly that her feet slipped out from under her and she landed on the grass with a wet thud.

The cricket perched on her knee, and chirped again.

“I suppose you think that’s funny, eh?” Rose wanted to run a finger along one of its shimmering wings, but didn’t dare. Taking a deep breath, she continued casually, “Well, you chirp, so that means you’re a boy, am I right?”

He chirped.

“Thought so. Trying to get some attention from the ladies?”

The cricket chose not to justify that impertinence with a reply.

“Right. Well, obviously I’ve gone mad.” The cricket seemed to cock his head to one side inquisitively — which Rose was fairly sure was physically impossible, but she answered anyway. “You see, Disco, from where I sit there are two ways to explain this. Option one, you’re a completely unexceptional, innocent bug and I’ve finally lost my grip on reality. Option two: you’re a sentient alien fiend about to devour my eyeballs. Either way–”

The cricket chirped.

“Exactly.” She bit her lip. “So which is it, then?”

He gave her a look that was eerily reminiscent of Mickey’s when he was winning at cards. Rose stared at the cricket.

The cricket stared back.

Her eyes started to water.

Beginning to feel the absurdity of the situation, she looked away. “You’re not going to try and kill me, are you?” She sighed, not a little disappointed. “Got plans to take over the planet, maybe? I hear invasion schemes can be very rewarding, personally and professionally.”

No fangs, no diabolical laughter. Rose felt the damp from the ground seeping into her jeans.

“You could throw me in jail and threaten to torture me. That’s usually good for a lark.”

The cricket wiped a foreleg over his antennae.

“Oh hell,” she groaned, her head falling into her hands. “Option number one it is.”

The cricket was just that and nothing more, and she’d reached a whole new level of nuttiness. Had her life really gotten so mad that she couldn’t recognize normal when she saw it? Yeah, the bug was shiny and alien, but it wasn’t going to hurt her and it certainly wasn’t trying to communicate with her. It was just a dumb bug, after all. Rose sighed.

“New friend?” asked a voice by her ear, and she jumped. The cricket shifted in annoyance (No, Rose reminded herself, just a dumb bug, remember?) but stayed on her knee.

She looked up at him. “You found me.”

The Doctor gave her a tight, false smile and settled next to her, wiping some mud from his trouser leg. “Of course I did.” There was an edge to his voice that she’d never heard directed at her before. “I always will.”

She looked away. “I know.”

“Do you? I wonder.” His shoulder brushed hers, and he was cold. “I’m entirely furious with you, you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t mean that, so I’d rather you didn’t say it.” He paused, then reached out a slender finger and gently prodded the cricket, who chirped. “Gryllus speculis. The mirrored cricket.”

“Oh,” she said. “I thought he was a bit disco.”

“Certainly is. Come here, little fella.” Without much prompting, the cricket stepped from Rose’s knee to the Doctor’s outstretched palm. The Doctor slipped his glasses on with one hand and held the insect close to his face with the other. “Oh, look at you,” he said, his voice hushed. “You’re beautiful.”

Rose’s stomach turned to stone.

Usually, revelations are meant to be all light and clarity — the singing of an angelic choir, the electric zip of a light bulb popping to life. But in that moment, as the cold, damp earth sapped the heat from Rose’s body and the pale sun began to set in the distance, Rose saw not a light, but a door — slamming in her face.

Look at you. You’re beautiful.

She couldn’t breathe.

The pressure on her chest was incredible and she was gasping but there just wasn’t enough air, she couldn’t get enough air and she could feel the Doctor’s hands on her shoulders, gripping her hard. Her vision swam and there was his face and a blue light in her eyes (the sonic screwdriver, of course, said a voice in the back of her mind. Get it together, Rose) and she still couldn’t breathe–

He was pulling her to her feet and she was stumbling and he was saying something about the TARDIS and for some reason that made it even worse, that or the way his arms wrapped around her, dragging her along, when she just wanted him to let go, and, oh, why wouldn’t he let her go?

Then some part of her mind that had been lost or drowned out returned, and she realized what was happening to her. She, Rose Tyler — who had faced down Daleks and Cybermen and Slitheen; been turned to stone, possessed by a prissy megalomaniac, and survived nineteen years of her mum’s cooking — was having a panic attack. Now. Over a bug.

That’s when she started to laugh, suddenly gripped by a breathless hysteria and unable to walk. The Doctor half-carried her the last few steps to the TARDIS; the doors closed behind them. He started to make for the infirmary, but she shoved him, hard, in the chest, and he stumbled away, finally releasing her.

“Rose, you’re sick,” he said, reaching for her again, and she eluded him. “I need to find out what’s happened to you.”

She shook with silent laughter. One ragged breath, and she had just enough air to say, “No, no, it’s nothing. I’m nothing, I swear.” She giggled, dizzy and gasping, and collapsed onto the jump seat. “I’m fine.”

His eyes were dark and anxious, and for a moment her focus sharpened and all she could see was his face — hair wild, his lips drawn to a thin line. “You are not fine. Rose, listen to me–” His hands gripped her forearms, and she panicked.

“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked, striking out with her arms and legs. She connected once, twice; hitting him in the chest, in the shoulder. He stared at her, stunned, before coming to his senses and pinning her limbs to the chair, holding her down with his own weight.

“Rose, please,” he panted into her hair, and suddenly she could hear how afraid he was. “Please, you’re in hysterics. Tell me what happened. Let me help you.”

She laughed so hard tears began to run down her cheeks. “I will, I will, just stop touching me. Oh, please, don’t touch me.”

He pulled away from her so quickly he nearly fell over. Which, of course, only made her laugh harder. She dug her fingernails into the upholstery of the chair and tried to breathe. He hovered nearby, but she pushed him from her mind. There was only breath, in and out and in again.

“Rose–”

She held up a hand to stop him. “No.” She still felt like she was teetering on the edge of an abyss, like the slightest push or pull would send her reeling and she would lose what little control she had.

God, she’d hit the Doctor. Screamed at him. The small part of her capable of rational thought cringed in horror. The rest of her longed to scream at him again.

You’re beautiful. Just look.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said through gritted teeth, her eyes still closed. She couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his face.

“It’s all right,” he replied softly.

“No, it’s not.”

“You forget how often I’ve been on your mother’s bad side. I’ve survived much worse.” She knew the Doctor was hoping for a smile or a laugh or any reaction at all, but she couldn’t give it to him. She breathed, and he waited. Minutes passed before he spoke again. “Was there anything you touched or smelled, anything at all that could pass along a toxin of some–”

“No.”

She heard him take a hesitant step toward her. “Rose, something did this to you.”

She opened her eyes and stared at the space just past his shoulder. “A bug,” she mumbled. “Just a dumb bug.”

The Doctor shook his head. “No, no, that’s impossible. Even if by some freak chance you have some sort of allergy, there’s no way the cricket would have–”

It took her a moment to realize that the sound that interrupted him was coming from her. It didn’t sound like her laugh — barely sounded like laughter at all, really, too angry and broken to ever be mistaken for humour or happiness.

She stopped.

“That’s not–” She paused and tried to swallow, her throat tender and raw. Her voice was so harsh. “That’s not what I meant.”

He waited for her to continue, and she knew how he hated waiting. How he hated not knowing. She laughed again, and it stung.

“Don’t you see?” She looked into his eyes. “I’m the bug.”

In all the time she’d known him, she’d never seen him look so utterly befuddled.

Before he’d changed, become a man she knew wearing a face she didn’t, he had been so easy for her to read. For all he’d tried so hard to hold himself apart from the world, she’d seen his thoughts and fears spelled across his lovely, ridiculous features with an ease she accepted as her due. Then he’d died, and when he came back to her he’d smiled and winked and hidden everything away behind twinkling brown eyes. He was a closed book to her now.

I’m always all right.

At the moment, though, he obviously didn’t have the presence of mind to hide anything. She could see quite clearly the forty or so impatient questions he wanted to demand she answer, the creeping certainty that she really had gone mad, and the barely repressed desire to take her by the shoulders and give her a good shake. It was all there in his face.

After a silence he settled on a frustrated, “Rose, you’re not making any sense.”

“I am, though. You just don’t understand.” She slid down from the jump seat. Her legs felt strange taking her weight, like they hadn’t had to do so in a long time, and she wobbled. He reached for her, and then jerked his hands back self-consciously. “Don’t know why I lost it like that,” she said, mostly to herself, and leaned against a railing. “It’s a bit embarrassing.” She giggled.

“Rose,” he said softly, beseechingly.

“I was just so…surprised, you know? Which is ridiculous.” She shook her head and held tightly to the metal under her hands. “I must be deaf, yeah? It’s not like you don’t say it nearly every day. ‘You humans’ this and ‘you humans’ that. Some days we’re stupid, some days we’re brilliant, but it’s all the same.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “And I knew. I just didn’t understand.”

The Doctor’s face was perfectly empty. When he spoke, his words were flat and resigned. “I’m alien.”

“No,” she said, her voice nearly breaking. “I am.” She released the railing and took a step forward, trying not to shake. “It’s like…when I was small, there was this boy who lived on the Estate. Robbie Davison, I think his name was — he and Mickey were mates. And Robbie, he loved bugs. Ants and centipedes and moths and spiders — anything he could get his hands on, and his favorites he kept in this great glass jar that he carried with him everywhere.” She made a face. “We never got on that well. I used to ask him why he liked them so much, those gross little wiggling things, and he would always say, ‘They’re not gross to me. I think they’re lovely.’”

She took another step forward, and the Doctor stepped back. She wondered what he saw in her eyes.

“But the problem with bugs, Robbie learned, is that even if you punch holes in the lid of the jar, it’s still…it’s only ever a matter of time. They wither and they die, and he didn’t like to watch — so eventually he figured out that it was best to chuck his lovelies before it happened. So he wouldn’t have to see.”

The Doctor retreated another few steps, and though his expression was still blank, he was shaking his head in tight, jerky movements — denying the implications of her words, denying her. She felt the pinch of her fingernails as her hands curled into fists, and her voice grew as cold as she’d ever heard it.

“I remember watching him dump out the jar on a patch of grass by the Estate and wondering what those poor, ugly little creatures must think. Snatched up, taken places and shown things they could never understand, and then dumped back where they came from,” her laugh crackled, “more or less. I wondered if they had any idea what had happened to them, whether they could understand any of it at all. I wondered how they must feel, being left behind.” Without realizing it, she’d cornered him, his back against the console and his face inches from her own. She leaned in slightly, still not touching him. “But I won’t have to wonder long, will I, Doctor?”

His eyes were wide, but she could read nothing in them — not shock, or anger, or amusement. She looked up at that strange, familiar face, traced the lines around his eyes and the freckles dusted across the bridge of his nose, and saw nothing at all.

Then she was spinning — not from a return of vertigo, but because he’d taken hold of her shoulders and whirled her around, reversing their positions so she was pressed against the console. Before she could protest or resist he had the sonic screwdriver pressed hard against her temple, digging uncomfortably into her skin. She froze.

The screwdriver whirred. “Adrenaline,” he muttered, not meeting her eyes. “System’s practically flooded, which would explain the hyperventilation and tachycardia.” He moved the screwdriver to the delicate skin of her throat, and she could feel the cold metal against the throb of her pulse. “Abnormally high levels of acetylcholinesterase — though, falling quickly enough that at a consistent rate, which…yes.”

He stood back and slipped the sonic screwdriver into the pocket of his coat. “There’s nothing physically wrong with you,” he said, his voice raw.

“I told you.”

“You did.” She thought she saw a flicker of something, some emotion in his face, but he turned away, casting his features into shadow. “Is that really what you think of me? What you think we are?”

She paused. “What else could we possibly be?”

For a moment, she thought he might actually have an answer.

Then he jammed his hands into his pockets and the doors of the TARDIS swung open, seemingly of their own volition. He stalked to the threshold and paused, the back of his head silhouetted against the grey twilight of the sky.

“Don’t follow me,” he said, and she flinched.

The doors slammed closed behind him.

Rose slumped against the console, and looked down at her hands. They were still shaking.

++

Generally speaking, the Doctor did not curse.

This is not to say that he did not wish to, or even that he did not occasionally try. Trouble was, his TARDIS had developed a rather priggish attitude towards profanity in her old age, and thus had the unfortunate habit of censoring his more colourful turns of phrase by mistranslating them. He could blaspheme until his face turned blue, but those around him would hear only nonsense — or French, which was essentially the same thing.

Usually, this restriction didn’t bother him overmuch. But this regeneration loved words of all kinds, the roll and taste and stink of them, and he wanted to try them all. Even more importantly, he wanted Rose to hear him try them all. So he was a bit peeved. Miffed, if you will.

Not long after his regeneration he’d spent a good two hours saying absolutely filthy (yet very complimentary) things to his young companion, just to drive the old girl mad. Rose was a well-educated young woman and thus knew all the decently dirty words in French and German, so the TARDIS had chosen Italian instead, with an occasional dash of Swahili to keep things interesting.

Rose hadn’t understood a word, of course, but the undeniably rosy hue of her cheeks had implied she’d caught more of his meaning than he’d intended.

At the memory, he couldn’t help but think of those same cheeks red and splotchy with tears, and hear the sob in her voice as she begged him not to touch her.

Generally speaking, the Doctor did not curse, but generally speaking the Doctor had not just fallen ten meters into a pit with an inhospitable stone floor, a pit he’d been too angry and miserable and unbelievably stupid to even see. Generally speaking, the Doctor wasn’t watching brightly-coloured lights dance before his eyes, a clear sign that he had a great big honking head wound and was about to slip into unconsciousness.

Ah well. It wasn’t like there was anyone around to hear, anyway.

“Bollocks,” the Doctor said, and passed out.

Back to index


Chapter 5: Chapter 5

++

Forgive what seem’d my sin in me;
What seem’d my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.


++

Rose waited.

She spent the first hour on the floor of the console room, sitting frozen in the same spot she’d been when he’d left.

She finally stirred when she realised she had to pee. Her legs had fallen asleep, and she found the resulting pins and needles a welcome and distracting pain as she stumbled to the nearest loo.

She washed her hands without looking at herself in the mirror.

Most of the second hour was spent sorting dirty laundry. Darks and whites, delicates put aside to be washed separately. A t-shirt stained with some mysterious, otherworldly goop set to soak in the sink. As always, the TARDIS laundry was uncomfortably warm and smelled of dryer sheets and wool.

She passed the third hour with her face pressed against the cool metal of the washing machine, listening to regular revolutions of water and soap. She didn’t wonder when he would come back.

The fourth hour was the worst. The dryer was too loud, so she left to wander the halls. She came upon a long-forgotten room where every available surface was piled high with telephones — some grimy antiques with rotary dials, others so advanced that she could only guess at their original purpose. She picked up a bulky black mobile from the late twentieth century, cradled it in her hand and felt the weight of it.

She remembered that day in 1987 when she’d wondered if there was anything she could do that he wouldn’t forgive.

She spent the fifth hour searching for a torch and the heaviest coat she could find.

When the dryer buzzer went off nearly five and a half hours after the Doctor had left the TARDIS, Rose wasn’t there to hear it.

++

It was very, very dark outside.

Rose had seen all sorts of darkness while travelling with the Doctor — the shadowed blue of a midnight lit by three moons, the eternal night of space, the stuffy black of a broom closet as a battalion of militant warthogs marched by — and in comparison, a grey, misty night in the Rose Garden wasn’t much to look at.

It was, however, quite pointy.

She stumbled into the labyrinth wall and hissed as rose thorns ripped into her sleeve. The mist refracted the light of her torch, making it nearly impossible for her to avoid the now vicious flowers.

She hoped that whatever trouble the Doctor had gotten himself into, it would be well-lit.

This is insane, she thought giddily. Absolutely, totally, completely bloody insane.

She came to a fork in the path. To the left, the rose-lined corridor seemed to double back on itself. To the right, the labyrinth opened into a large clearing.

“Doctor?” she called, her voice small and unfamiliar in the darkness. She tightened her grip on the ball of string in her hand, her lifeline to the TARDIS. “Doctor, can you hear me?”

She was just about turn left when she heard the tiniest ghost of a noise from the clearing.

Her head snapped around so quickly she nearly hurt her neck. “Doctor, is that you?”

She strained to hear an answer, but there was nothing. Just the whisper of her breath and the wind in the trees. And then the noise again, like something scrabbling against rock and maybe, just maybe like a voice…

It took all of her self-control not to break into a run. She couldn’t be sure it was him and she was defenceless, virtually blind. Better to approach slowly and evaluate the situation. “Oh please,” she said under her breath, creeping towards the centre of the clearing, “please be him. Be him, and be all right so you can yell and scream and hate me forever, I don’t care, just please be him.”

Then she heard her name, and threw herself at the sound of his voice.

This, as it turned out, was a mistake.

The ground crumbled beneath her feet, her trainers struggling for purchase on dirt that was no longer there because it was falling, and she was falling with it — until she wasn’t anymore.

Her landing was soft, but still knocked the air from her lungs.

“Rose! Rose, are you all right?” The Doctor’s voice sounded muffled and far away, but she could hear the panic in it. “Answer me!”

For a moment, her only thought was relief that she had found him and that he was well enough to sound so irritated. “I’m fine,” she gasped. “Where are you?”

“How far did you fall? Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I landed on hay or dried grass or something; I’m fine.” She crawled to the still-lit torch and grabbed it. Standing, she slowly turned in a circle, taking in the full view of her new abode. She hadn’t fallen very far, but the surface was definitely out of her reach. She was surrounded on each side by walls of dirt, the nearest one consumed by an elaborate root system. At the far side of the pit was a passageway, a large tunnel leading into a darkness even the torch could not penetrate. “Blimey. We’re trapped in some sort of giant rabbit’s warren.”

“Correction,” the Doctor said, and she followed his voice to the smooth dirt wall on her left. “You are trapped in some sort of giant rabbit’s warren.”

“Where are you, then?” She looked up and down the wall that separated them, but there were no doors or openings.

“A nice, homey pit. Lined with…” There was a pause. “Black shale, I should think, given the tang of unoxidized carbon. Not terribly exciting, as rock goes.”

“What happened?” she asked, half-expecting a wild tale involving vestal virgins, a fascist regime, and cream pies.

Instead, there was a silence. “What do you think happened?” he asked peevishly.

“Ah,” she said, amused. “You fell in a hole.”

“Yes, I fell in a hole. Not exactly alone in that, am I?”

She nearly snapped back at him, but stopped herself. “Are you all right?”

“Unconscious for a bit, but all healed up now. Not that it does me much good.” His sigh was so loud she could hear it clearly through the dirt and stone between them. “There’s no way out.”

Rose turned and the torchlight illuminated the large tangle of roots again, revealing a ladder-like structure that reached from the hole in the ceiling to the floor. She grinned. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”

There was the sound of sudden movement from the other side of the wall. “Ooh, I know that Rose Tyler tone. I like that tone. What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” she said, moving to the root-covered wall, “that I’m going to climb right out of here, fetch a rope from the TARDIS, and spend the rest of the evening folding my nice, fluffy laundry.”

“Sorry, couldn’t quite hear that. How exactly will laundry be helping us, again?” He paused. “Are you going to make a grappling hook from your brassiere?”

Her snappy rejoinder died in her throat when she saw the thorns — each bulky root was covered with them. She looked down at the thin wool of her gloves. “This should be fun.”

“I don’t mean to be a bother, hate to interrupt, really, but could you possibly — if you get a free moment, of course — share this genius escape plan of yours?”

She leaned against their shared wall, shoved the torch in her pocket, and began ripping long strips of fabric from her coat. “You know, I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell you — I don’t think sarcasm really works for you anymore. Something about your hair.”

“And you somehow thought this was that right moment?” he asked dryly.

“Yeah,” she said, wrapping the heavy fabric around her hands. “I did.” She pulled her gloves on again and flexed her fingers. “That’ll have to do, I guess.”

“Have to do for what?”

“There’s a sort of root ladder growing from the wall. I’m going to climb it to the surface.”

There was the scrabbling sound of shoes against loose rock. “Rose, those roots will be filthy with thorns. They’ll tear your hands to pieces.”

“Probably.” She reached for the lowest branch and hissed as it bit into her palm, easily piercing the layers protecting her skin. “Have you out of there in a mo’, Doctor!” she called and started to climb.

“Rose Tyler, you stop what you’re doing this instant!”

She snorted, wondering if he realized just how shrill his voice had gone. “Now who sounds like my mum?”

“That’s not funny!”

“It’s a bit funny,” she muttered, and then tried to swallow a gasp of pain. Her right hand was entangled, the thorns deeply embedded in the delicate skin of her fingers and palm. She tried unsuccessfully to ease her hand free and pain bloomed white in her vision. Her eyes watered fiercely, but she refused to cry out.

“Rose?”

“Fine! Just a bit…just a bit stuck, is all. I’ll just give it a good tug…” She bit down hard on her bottom lip, steeling herself, and then ripped her hand free. The force of the pull sent her flying and this time her landing was not quite so gentle. She stared up at the ceiling, the dirt floor hard against her back. When she was finally able to breathe, it came out as a groan. “Okay. Not one of my better plans.”

She heard her name followed by a string of thick, incomprehensible syllables from the Doctor’s side of the wall. She winced and pulled herself up.

“Doctor, are you speaking Russian?”

“No,” he snapped. “I am not.” He took a long breath, and when he spoke again his voice was somewhat calmer. “Did you injure yourself?”

Looking down at her badly bloodied hands, she said, “Not really.”

“Are you lying?”

“Does it matter?”

“Does it…does it matter?” he stuttered, outraged. “In the name of…does it matter? You, you demented blond berserker, are easily the most stubborn, ridiculous little life-form I have ever had the misfortune to…” After that, all she could hear was an indistinct noise of fury, sounding very much like, “Argh.”

Rose slid down the wall between them, suddenly exhausted. “If you’re trying to say thanks for the rescue–”

“Oh, yes. Thanks ever so,” the Doctor said waspishly. “Speaking of which, did I or did I not tell you to stay put?”

“I’m not your cocker spaniel. I go where I like.”

“Is that so? Because earlier this evening you were singing quite a different tune.” Her breath caught in her throat and she felt a sharp twist of tension in her stomach. “Isn’t that the way of things with us, Rose? Wasn’t that your great revelation? I pat you on the head, toss you a biscuit, and say, ‘Sit, Rose. Stay. What’s that, Rose? An alien civilization’s fallen down the well? Who’s a good girl? Who’s a good–’”

“Stop it!” she cried, and he went silent. “Just…” Her voice broke. “Just stop it.”

They sat in silence for a long time.

Rose turned off the torch, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. The cuts on her hands stung terribly, and when she felt the prickle of tears behind her eyes she found herself hating him, just a little bit. She looked up at the small circle of night sky visible from her hole in the ground and blinked hard.

“You said the thorns retract during the daylight hours,” she said finally, pleased with the evenness of her voice. “How long until sunrise?”

He gave a little squawk of surprise. “You remembered that and you still–”

“Didn’t really fancy spending the rest of the night trapped down here.” With you, she didn’t say, but knew he heard it anyway. “Can you honestly say you wouldn’t have done the same?”

“No,” he said, his tone curt. “Sunrise is in eight hours and thirty-seven minutes.”

“Right. We’ll just wait, then.”

“Right.”

There was another long pause. Rose gathered her coat close around her and tried to get comfortable. The earthen wall was warm against her back, and she remembered what the Doctor had told her about the thinness of the planet’s crust. At least she wouldn’t freeze.

“I’ve travelled with plenty of non-humans, you know.”

Rose seriously considered pretending to be asleep, but after a moment’s hesitation she took the bait. “Robot dogs don’t count.”

“I’m not talking about K-9, Rose. I’m talking about people who would be as alien to you as I am.”

“But you usually travel with humans.”

“Yes.”

“Why is that, do you think?”

“I…” He faltered. “I have my reasons.”

She chuckled, but there was no humour in it. “I’m sure you do.”

She heard movement on the other side of the wall and imagined that he was sitting near her, his back against stone. “How long has it been like this?” he asked, his voice almost too low for her to hear.

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t just wake up this morning and decide that I…” He stopped. “How long have you felt this way? Since before we left Mickey?” He waited, but she didn’t answer. “Since Reinette?”

“Is that what you think this is about? Jealousy?” She gave a sharp bark of a laugh. “That is so typically male. I’m almost impressed.”

“Fine,” he sniped. “Don’t tell me. Bit typically female, isn’t it, to expect everyone around you to somehow read your mind–”

“You’re telepathic!”

He sputtered incoherently for a moment. “That has absolutely…entirely beside the…oh, never mind.” He gave an explosive sigh and she heard the skitter of rocks as he kicked the ground. “Eight hours and twenty-six minutes until sunrise.”

“Right,” she said. “Thanks.” They lapsed into silence again.

She’d managed to evade the conversation, but her victory was a hollow one. She was wounded and angry, but beneath the anger waited the thought that had haunted her since he’d slammed out of the TARDIS earlier that evening: the Doctor was dear to her, and she had hurt him.

It should have been impossible. She’d seen herself through his eyes that day, finally understood her size and consequence in his life, and yet some hidden, irrational part of her ached with the thought of her betrayal. She wanted to apologise, but she couldn’t think what for.

What had she done but tell the truth?

Suddenly she found herself saying, “It wasn’t Reinette.”

“If you say so,” he replied graciously, which made her rather want to smack him.

“It wasn’t,” she insisted. “I won’t say that it was easy, waiting. Thinking you’d forgotten us.” She swallowed hard. “That you’d already left me behind.”

“Rose–”

She cut him off, dreading what empty comfort he might offer her. “But I understood. She was in danger, and you did what you would have done for anyone.” A small, sad smile crossed her face. “But she wasn’t just anyone, was she?”

“No,” he said softly. “She wasn’t.”

Her throat constricted, even now feeling his grief as her own. Yet when she spoke again, her voice was steady. “It wasn’t Reinette,” she said again, and was fairly sure she was telling the truth.

Rose had been jealous, of course — fiercely so — but that wasn’t in and of itself particularly unusual. The Doctor made friends fairly easily (nearly as easily as he made enemies) and these friends were more often than not nubile young women in peril. Rose thought of the pig-tailed girl from the Game Station and felt a sinking sort of guilt at the memory.

The girl had been murdered by Daleks, died fighting, and Rose had wanted to shove her out an airlock for daring to touch her Doctor.

Reinette had been elegant and wise, bold enough to simply take from the Doctor what Rose was afraid to want, but the territorial urge to scratch the woman’s eyes out had been familiar and easy to ignore, no matter how Mickey had egged her on. Such petty (human) jealousies made her feel small and coarse, and she was eager to leave them behind.

No, the trouble with Reinette hadn’t been jealousy at all, but rather that, in the past, no matter whom the Doctor flirted with — or, for that matter, what pretty boys Rose took a fancy to — she had always been sure that it would end with his hand in hers. No matter how many times she’d been asked if she were his wife, his whore, or his pet, she’d never before needed a word for what they were to each other; they were the Doctor and Rose, and that was all she needed to know.

But she’d stood alone on that spaceship, staring up at faraway stars, and for the first time she’d wondered. Then he’d brought her here, and she’d stopped wondering.

She knew.

“You’re wrong, by the way,” the Doctor said, too casually, as if they were debating the merits of various types of drain plugs.

“About what?”

“I don’t leave people behind.”

She closed her eyes. “Assistants.”

“What?”

“You said people, but you mean assistants,” she said crisply. “That’s what I am, aren’t I? Your assistant, just like the others.”

“No. Not you.”

Rose felt like she’d had the breath knocked from her lungs for the third time that evening. “Stop saying that,” she hissed, ignoring the ache in her chest.

“I will when you stop pretending you don’t know what it means.”

She took a deep, steadying breath and then exhaled. The air tasted of dust, and she ran her tongue along the front of her teeth, then across the rough surface of each molar. The cuts on her hands stung, and when she spoke again her voice was hard. “What about Sarah Jane?”

“What about her?” It was clear from his tone that he didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking.

“She was your assistant.”

“She was my friend.”

“And you left her in Scotland.”

She heard the sudden squeak of rubber soles on stone as he stood. “I was called home. She couldn’t come with me.”

“Why didn’t you go back for her, then?”

“She was ready to leave,” he said somewhat desperately, and she wasn’t entirely sure which of them he was trying to convince. “I know the signs. It was time.”

Rose rolled her eyes. “So you made the decision for her. How helpful of you.”

There was a smack as his hands struck the wall, venting his frustration on unforgiving rock. “You don’t understand,” he bit out. “You think you do, you think you know, but you don’t.”

“Then explain it to me!” she demanded. “Unless you think it’s beyond my tiny little ape mind.”

“Seems to be,” he snapped, and she was glad he couldn’t see her recoil.

“No wonder you get tired of us so quickly. Poor Doctor, we must bore you to death, yammering on about our insignificant little lives. Chocolate custard, sombreros, and beans on toast.” She leaned against the wall, pressing her injured hands into the dirt until they burned. “‘Course, like any new toy we’re entertaining for a bit. How long, do you think, before the shine wears off and you chuck me too?”

“Honestly, how thick can you get?” he shouted, enraged. “How can you not understand? I don’t leave you behind, Rose — you leave me!”

There was silence but for the sound of his breathing through layers of dirt and stone.

“What?” She was dumbstruck.

“The people I travel with — my companions, my assistants, whatever you call them — they leave me. They find something or someone better, they get tired of running, and they leave.” He stopped. When he spoke again, his voice was low and strained. “And I let them go. I smile and wave and wish them the best and don’t you dare think that I don’t miss them, because I do. But I let them go, because they weren’t ever meant to stay.”

“You could visit. After they’re gone,” she suggested softly, though she already knew what his answer would be.

“I don’t do that.”

She nodded. “No. Of course you don’t.” For the first time that night, she wished she could see his face. “I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t tell you.” He sighed. “I’ve become so selfish, Rose. Used to be, I’d pick up a human with a nose for trouble, take them on a whirlwind tour of the universe, and then let them go on their merry way. But now I…” She waited, breathless, for his next words. But when he continued, his tone was suddenly sharp and false. “Mickey found his fight, and I should be happy for him. But I see how you and Jackie miss him, and I feel responsible, don’t I?”

She bit her lip, at once disappointed and unsurprised. “That’s selfish how, exactly?”

“Don’t know,” he replied breezily. “Just is.” She heard him sit again. “Eight hours and three minutes until sunrise.”

In that moment, she understood. “Of course,” she whispered, and felt the anger begin to build again. “Gingerbread.”

“What’s that?”

“Alternate universes are gingerbread houses. Full of temptations. That’s what you said, isn’t it?” she said, accusation clear in her voice. “You thought I was going to leave you.”

“Didn’t you?” he asked, his voice gone cold. “Can you honestly tell me that if Pete ‘Trust Me On This’ Tyler had swept you into his arms and named you his heir on the spot that you’d still be trapped on a frozen lump of a garden planet with me?”

Rose fumbled for an answer. “I told you, I wouldn’t–”

“Leave your mum. I remember.” He laughed, and the sound was harsh and unfamiliar. “Time was, you would have ripped the universe to shreds to stay with me. You very nearly did, once.” Then the bitterness left his voice, and he just sounded lost. “Am I really that different?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I am.” To her horror, her eyes began to well with tears. She pressed the back of her hand against her face, trying to stifle the sound. “I feel different.”

He said her name, softly, beseechingly, and some hidden part of her chimed in response — the part of her that had always known, whenever he said her name or took her hand, what he couldn’t, wouldn’t say. But that had all been a lie, and she knew better now.

Didn’t she?

She shuddered, and pushed her doubts aside. Anger was safer. “You begged me not to see him. Asked me to trust you, and all along you were just afraid that I might find something better.”

“I was trying to protect you!”

“You were trying to keep me for yourself!”

“And what’s so wrong with that?” he asked, his voice raw. “I lose everything, Rose, everything and everyone, and I’ve grown used to it — but I’m sorry, I refuse to lose you too. Not you. Not yet.” She heard his shuddering sigh, and felt herself exhale in an unconscious echo of sound. “You can hate me for not needing you or you can hate me for needing you too much, but you can’t do both. Either way, I–” He stopped, and something about the following silence frightened her.

“Doctor?”

“Rose,” he said, his voice full of a new urgency, “Rose, get away from the walls. Move to the centre of the cavern. Now!”

She obeyed him instinctually, stumbling backwards even as she asked, “What is it? What’s happening?”

Then she felt it. A tremor beneath her feet, slight at first but building to a thunderous rumble. Clumps of dirt and dead roots rained from the ceiling, and she curled into a ball to protect her face and neck. The noise was incredible, and from the Doctor’s pit she heard the shriek of stone against stone. The walls were collapsing.

She opened her mouth to scream his name, but choked on the dust.

++

Back to index


Chapter 6: Chapter 6

++

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.


++

After an eternity that took no time at all, there was silence.

Rose gasped and rolled out of her protective crouch, coughing up dust and the acrid bile of fear that rose up from the back of her throat. When she had the voice to do so, she cried out for him.

His name sounded choked and strange in her ears, and she knew he couldn’t hear her. Not through all that rock. She tried to stand, and realized that her legs were shaking too violently to support her weight. She crawled to their shared wall on her hands and knees, scrabbling over fallen clods of dirt and long dead roots. When she reached it, she pulled herself upright.

“Doctor!” she sobbed (her ears still echoed with the unbearable screech of stone, the crush of collapsing walls and even as clever as he was, what could he have done–) but then she stopped, took a deep breath, and bellowed his name in the clearest, strongest voice she could manage.

Nothing.

She tried again, an edge of panic making the word echo sharply. There was no reply but a gentle rain of dirt from overhead.

Rose gripped her hands into tight fists, and the throb of her injuries cleared the frantic haze from her mind. She needed to think.

Assuming the Doctor was injured and unconscious (there were no other options she could accept, unless he’d decided to take a rather inconveniently-timed nap), she needed to reach him as quickly as possible. The thorny root ladder was still a possibility but, struggling to be rational, Rose had to admit that even if she actually managed to use it to climb to the surface, her hands would be fairly useless in any sort of rescue plan that would follow. Hard to pull an unconscious alien out of a pit if you couldn’t hold a rope.

Something else, then. There had to be another way.

He could be regenerating right now. Dying again, changing again, and again it was her fault.

She wondered if he always went through his lives this quickly, or if she killed him more efficiently than anyone else.

She slammed her fist into the dirt wall, and the pain was a blossoming white light behind her eyes. “Stop it,” she hissed to herself. “Stop it, you useless little ape. He’s fine, you know he’s fine. Just think.”

It was Christmas morning all over again. Without him, everything she’d become since that night beneath the London Eye disappeared. When he held her hand, she could pretend she deserved to be there, that she’d learned and grown and become something more, but–

Wait a tic, she thought suddenly. Something’s off. She frowned, trying to locate the source of her unease. She looked around her, taking in the walls, the hole leading to the surface above her, the dirt and grass floor, her bleeding hands…her hands. Her fist.

She’d struck the wall, hard. As hard as she could in a punch with all her anger and fear and frustration behind it. And it had hurt, but not nearly, not nearly as much as it should have. Holding her breath, she reached out and poked the wall where she’d hit it.

The dirt gave way.

After that, she went a bit wild. She started with her elbow, slamming herself into the rapidly forming hole with the full force of her body. But it wasn’t fast enough for her, not with him right there on the other side, so she thrust her hands into the cracks and ripped clumps of dirt from the opening until her fingernails were torn to shreds and her eyes burned with dust.

When her hand finally made it through to the other side, she almost laughed, shouting, “Hold on, Doctor!” She didn’t wait for an answer, but kept digging, expanding the hole until it was the size and shape of a large serving platter. Then she did laugh, staggering back from the wall to scrabble on the floor for her torch. “Light, light, light,” she muttered under her breath. “I need light.”

When her hand finally came down on the torch, she almost couldn’t feel it. Her fingers had gone entirely numb.

Rose held the light to the hole she’d made and peered through into the pit.

It was worse than she’d expected.

The room was obviously man-made (sentient being-made, she corrected herself absently). The walls were lined with great slabs of stone, many of them now fallen and shattered. Some had fallen yet remained relatively intact, creating huge towers of rock. She could see neither the floor of the pit nor its ceiling. The Doctor was nowhere to be found.

She couldn’t contain the small sob that rose up in her throat. The torch shook in her hand.

From the other side of the wall there was a gurgling sound, shortly followed by a damp sort of sputtering. She froze.

“My, my,” the Doctor croaked. “Is that you, Tinkerbell? It’s been ages.”

Rose threw herself against the wall, pressing her face to the hole and shining the torchlight desperately around the pit. “Doctor, where are you? Are you all right?”

“Oh, quite, I should think,” he said lazily, as if she’d just woken him from an afternoon nap. “Though I’m not entirely sure where my arms and legs have got off to. Slippery beggars, aren’t they?” Then there was a great hacking cough, and the sound of nearby movement. When it stopped, she heard a whispered, “Rose?”

“I’m here,” she said, and felt the tears slip down her cheeks even as she grinned. “I’m right here.”

“There was an earthquake,” he said, his voice panicked and oddly young.

“I noticed, actually,” she replied gently. “Where are you?”

“I don’t know.”

She swallowed hard. “You don’t–”

“You’re dead,” she heard him gasp, and his voice was like thorns ripping into her skin. “Rose, my Rose, I killed you.”

“No, I’m here,” she said as steadily as she could, though her heart slammed in her chest. “I’m fine, I promise.”

“I didn’t reach you in time. I felt you fall between my fingers, turned to dust, too late.” He gave a choked cry. “Too soon, I closed the door and stood by like fool while you said goodbye. Wouldn’t have missed it, not for the world, but you’re gone and I, and I miss…” She heard his laboured breathing as he struggled for control. “Rose,” he said finally, desperate and low, “something’s wrong with me.”

“Hold on, Doctor,” she said and began to widen the hole with the butt of the torch. “Hold on, I’m coming.”

“That’s what she said!” His manic giggle turned to a groan. “Oh, please tell me I did not just…” his voice trailed off into a miserable silence. Rose dropped the torch and began to claw into the dirt with her fingers.

“Keep talking,” she said through gritted teeth.

“I’d really rather not. God knows what I’ll say.”

“Don’t care. I need you to talk.”

He laughed weakly. “I’ll be reminding you you said that. Unless, of course, that odd sensation at the back of my head is my brain leaking out onto the floor, in which case–”

“You’ll probably have forgotten yourself?”

“At the very least.” There was a pause, and then he sounded almost himself when he asked, “Rose, are those your fingers I see coming out of the wall?”

“I certainly hope they aren’t anyone else’s,” she replied, full of terrified cheer. Then her hands hit stone, and she nearly shrieked in frustration.

“You dug a hole through the wall with your bare hands?” he asked, sounding both annoyed and a bit awed.

“Didn’t exactly have a choice, did I?” She closed her eyes and let her forehead fall against the dirt. “I can’t get through. This is as big as I can make it without something to break through stone.” She looked up. “Does the sonic screwdriver have a jackhammer setting?”

“Would that it did. Oh, the fun we could have.” He coughed. “I think you dropped a clump of dirt into my left nostril.”

“Well, I would blow your nose for you, only I haven’t a hanky and I’m trapped on the other side of this stupid, bloody wall!” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Sorry. I’m sorry, I’m just–”

“‘A rosebud set with little willful thorns, and sweet as English air could make her, she,’” he said suddenly. “That’s Tennyson, you know.”

“Of course it is,” she said and slid down the wall, her every muscle trembling.

“Alfred, Lord.”

“Right.”

“That’s what I thought, when you first told me your name. And I didn’t really much like poetry then, you know, but I had a bomb in my hand and there you were in that alley behind the shop, all gold and fear and confusion and I heard those words. Still do, all the time. Funny how that happens.”

She had no idea what to say. “Doctor–”

“Fiddlesticks. I think I’m going to vomit.” She heard a soft gagging sound, then a grunt as he pushed himself up. “Oh, well done me.”

“Do you think you have a concussion?”

“If by concussion you mean massive brain damage, yes, I think I have a concussion.” There was loud smacking sound. “My tongue feels huge.”

“Are you…” her voice broke. “Are you going to change again?”

“Oh, no. No, no, no.” He paused. “Maybe.”

“All right,” she said, her voice soft.

“Will you leave if I do?” he asked flatly, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment before she gave her answer.

“No.”

“Good.” He sighed. “Good to know.”

“Yeah,” she said. “It is.” She searched for a clean bit of jumper she could use to wipe the dust from her eyes. Then she looked up. “I’m an idiot.”

He hesitated. “Is this some sort of trick?”

“No, really. I’m an idiot.” She pulled herself to her feet. “The tunnel.”

“The what?”

She gestured to the dark passageway at the far side of the cavern, though she knew he couldn’t see. “There’s a tunnel leading out of here and I didn’t even think–”

“No.”

She frowned at the finality of his tone. “I’ll take the torch. It’ll be fine.”

“You don’t know where it leads.”

“Neither do you.” There was a stubborn silence from the other side of the wall. She sighed. “Doctor, we need to get you back to the TARDIS. The tunnel might take me right to the surface.”

“It won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Well,” he began reluctantly, “this planet has occasionally been used for purposes slightly less sunny than gardening.”

“Such as?”

The Doctor cleared his throat. “Such as the death row of an intergalactic penal system?”

Rose sat down, hard. “We’ve fallen into an abandoned gaol.”

“Yep.”

“We’re in prison.”

“Yes, we are.”

“Again.”

“So it would seem. Mind you,” he continued brightly, “it’s hardly the worst incarceration I’ve ever experienced. Remind me never to tell you about the two months I spent scrubbing toilets after I offended the Rajah of Amsterdam. Amsterdam the planet, of course, not the city. You see, toilet brushes had been out of date there for centuries and my hair was quite curly at the time, so–”

“Why didn’t you mention this before?”

“Well, to be honest it’s not that good of a story. Mostly just a decent anecdote with a dancing monkey and jokes about poo.”

“Not that,” she snapped. “The fact that we’re trapped in ancient, underground execution chambers!”

“Oh.” He paused. “I didn’t want to spoil our holiday.”

For a moment, Rose wanted to throttle him. Then, quite unexpectedly, she began to giggle.

“What? What did I say?” the Doctor asked, bewildered.

The giggle turned to a laugh.

“Rose, are you sure you didn’t get knocked in the head?”

She laughed so hard she snorted. Twice.

“Have you gone completely mad?”

“Not yet,” she managed to get out between snickers. “But if we don’t get out of here soon…”

“Will you still be able to climb out when the thorns retract at sunrise?”

She turned to inspect the root system dangling from the adjacent wall. It looked a bit more precarious since the earthquake, but was still basically intact. “Yes,” she said, though her hands twinged slightly at the thought.

“You’re sure?” he asked sternly.

Rose smiled. “Ninety-eight point seven percent, yeah.”

She could practically hear him roll his eyes. “I’ll assume that’s you being sassy and not a figure you’ve actually calculated.”

“My, you’re clever. When did that happen?”

He snorted. “I have a gaping head wound, do you mind?”

“Are you saying you can’t keep up with me?”

There was silence from the other side of the wall.

“Doctor, did you hear me? I just implied that you may not, in fact, have the biggest, barmiest brain around. Don’t you have something to say to that?” The silence continued, and dread crept into her voice. “Doctor? Doctor!”

“That’s not my real name, you know,” he said slowly, and she shivered against the warm dirt wall.

“I figured that.”

“I can’t tell you what it is, and I can’t tell you why I can’t tell you.” He clicked his teeth together, two loud clacks of enamel against enamel. “Such a lot of secrets I keep.” Then she heard the skitter of rocks as he stood and a groan as he pulled himself up to the hole she’d made. He whistled. “Nice work. Very thorough. Very…much like there had been wall here, and now there isn’t. Which is just what I like in a hole in the wall.”

Her stomach felt like lead. “Thank you.”

“No, really, this is excellently done. I’m surprised it’s your first–” He stopped, and when he spoke again his voice was like ice. “Rose, is this your blood?”

She pulled her knees to her chest and pressed her cheek against the filthy denim. “I called for you and you didn’t answer.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” he snarled. “Get up here.”

“Don’t talk to me like that!”

“Of all the idiotic…Rose, let me see your hands.”

She reached for the torch and stood, keeping away from the hole. “I’ve cut them up pretty badly, all right? And yes, they bled when I dug through a foot of solid soil using only my manicure. But I–” She laughed shakily. “I am not the one who can’t tell the difference between Satellite Five and a hole in the ground!”

Then she shone the light into his face.

He was pale, his skin ghostly white but for where a vivid purple bruise spread across his left temple. His hair had gone grey, the whites of his eyes shone red.

He squinted and winced. “Oi, give a bloke some warning next time, eh?”

“Oh,” she gasped, like she’d been punched in the stomach. She dropped the torch.

“Ashes,” he said.

“W-what?”

“The floor of this place is covered in them. Now so I am.” He sneezed. “Ick.”

She stumbled towards the wall, and when her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could just make out his shadowed features. “But your eyes–”

“That would be the ‘concussion’.” He scratched the back of his neck with the hand he wasn’t using to keep himself upright. “We’re going to be okay, you know. Nothing we can’t handle.”

“Of course.” She wanted to reach through the opening, to touch him, but she didn’t. “You have a plan?”

He grinned. “Oh, absolutely.” There was a pause. “And in three seconds, I’ll remember it what it was.”

“Doctor–”

“Count it down, Rose.”

“But–”

“Count it down! Count it down to Chinatown!” he cried, and she seriously doubted he should be bouncing up and down like that in his current state.

“All right, all right,” she said quickly. “Three, two, one!”

“No, no, no. Other way, other way.”

“You’ve got be to kidding me.”

“Have I?” he asked, as if he really weren’t certain himself. “I suppose I am a bit of a kidder. A josher. That’s me, just joshin’.”

Rose had had enough. “Doctor,” she said, her voice even and very, very calm, “if you do not start making sense right this moment, I will reach over there and give you a slap so hard it’ll knock your brain back into place.”

The Doctor gaped at her. “Blimey, you’re terrifying!”

She shrugged. “It’s genetic.”

“Sure you didn’t learn that one from me? I used to be very good at ‘serenely furious’.” He rested his chin against the rim of the tunnel. “Now I mostly just yell.”

Rose could count the number of truly normal conversations she’d had with the Doctor on one hand, but this was beyond surreal, even for him. “You’re, um, very good at it. Yelling.”

“Am I? That’s nice.” He snapped back into something approaching his usual self. “So this is a three part plan. Part one: I stop feeding you blackmail material and instead enjoy a lovely restorative coma. Part two: the sun rises. Part three: you make me a cup of tea back at the TARDIS and give me a well-deserved foot massage. Any quest–”

The Doctor was interrupted by a howl, a low-pitched, staccato sound that reverberated throughout the cavern. It was like nothing Rose had ever heard before.

Rose and the Doctor stared at each other for a long moment.

“Okay,” he said lightly. “Looks like we’ll be revising part one of the plan.”

++

Back to index


Chapter 7: Chapter 7

++

I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:

I envy not the beast that takes
His license in the field of time,
Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;

Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.


++

“I’m Henry the Eighth, I am, Henry the Eighth, I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door — she’s been married seven times before — and every one was an Henry…” The Doctor stopped singing and cleared his throat pointedly. “Rose?”

“‘enry,” she repeated, and then returned to trying to salvage her ruined fingernails with an emery board made from a hunk of dried root.

“Wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam…” He waited, but she said nothing. “Look, do you want to be backup or not?”

“Not.”

“You, Miss Rosie Tyler, are a party pooper.”

“And you, you nameless alien git, are tone deaf.”

He gasped, deeply insulted. “I am not!” There was a grunt as he pulled himself up to the hole in the wall between them. “You take that back.”

“Which bit? The part about you being nameless? Or the part about you being a tin-eared alien git?”

“Wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam…” the Doctor sang, very loudly and very, very off-key. She stayed stubbornly silent. “I say, a Willy or a Samsamsamsamsamsamsam–”

“All right, you bloody lunatic,” she shouted over him. “Or a Sam!”

“I’m her eighth old man, I’m Henry. Henry the Eighth I am!” he crowed. “Two hundred and twenty-seventh verse, same as the first. A little bit louder,” he shouted, “and a little bit–”

The howl sounded again. They both froze in the silence that followed.

“It’s getting closer,” she said finally, breaking the eerie stillness.

“Sounds like it, yeah.” The forced nonchalance of his words did nothing to ease the chills along her spine.

Rose dropped the hunk of root and stood. “I’m sure of it, now. It’s definitely coming from the tunnel.” She took a hesitant step towards the passage that led from her cavern into darkness. “And you’re sure the singing is a good idea?”

“Oh, absolutely, my dear. Nothing better to frighten the beast away.”

“I know I’m terrified.” She paused. “Did you just call me ‘my dear’?”

“No,” he said quickly. “Definitely not.”

She smiled at the panic in his voice. “I think you did.”

“Didn’t.”

“Did,” she teased.

“Didn’t.”

“Did.”

“Didn’t.”

“Didn’t.”

“Did!” he concluded triumphantly. Then he realized. “Oh. Blast.”

She snickered. “I can’t believe you fell for that.”

“You may have noticed I’m not exactly operating at full capacity. Few screws loose. Some of the lights upstairs could do with replacing. Bats in the belfry got into the liquor again.” She heard him slide back to the rocky floor. “But seriously, have you ever seen a drunken bat? Not just tipsy, that’s nothing to toot your horn about, but a bat that’s really, truly pissed?” He laughed. “I get dizzy just thinking about it.” There was a pause. “Or maybe that’s the hole in the back of my head.”

Rose bit her lip. “Speaking of which–”

He groaned. “Rose, how many times do I have to tell you? I’m fine.”

“It’s funny. Normally you’re such a good liar.”

“Oh, me-ow! Little Miss Kitty’s got her claws out,” he said in a strangely American purr. There was an awkward silence. “All right, so maybe I’m not exactly fine.”

“But you could be fine. You could heal yourself.”

“And I will, just as soon as we get back to the TARDIS,” he replied tersely. This was the fourth time they’d had this conversation in as many hours, and he hadn’t had much patience to begin with. Unfortunately for him, it took more than a cranky Time Lord to intimidate Rose Tyler.

“The longer you wait the worse it gets, and we still have hours until the sun rises.”

“I see your point, but there’s one thing you seem to be forgetting–” He sneezed violently, sending up a cloud of ashes. “Here there be monsters. Or a monster, at least, and while it is perhaps simply either very lonely or suffering from severe constipation, it may also be hungry.”

Rose tried not to think about the last time she herself had eaten, though her stomach rather persistently reminded her that she hadn’t touched a thing since the piece of toast she’d scarfed down in her mother’s kitchen early that morning, nearly fourteen hours ago. “You really don’t know what this ‘monster’ is?”

“I have a hunch,” he said, his voice chipper and evasive. “I think we should get back to Henry. I’ll sing backup this time, if you like.”

“What’s your hunch?”

“My hunch is that it would be best for both of us if my hunch stayed just that — a hunch.” He blew a rather loud raspberry and she jumped at the sound. “Hunch hunch hunch hunch hunch. Isn’t it funny how words are just noise? Say them often enough and they don’t mean anything at all.” He spoke in a deep, ringing voice. “Dónde está el baño? Where is the bathroom? Me gusta la biblioteca. I enjoy the library. Yo tengo muchos gatos. I have many cats.” There was a significant pause. “Shifty creatures, cats. You can see it in their eyes.”

“I like cats,” Rose said hesitantly.

“Well, aren’t you just a puddle of gravy,” he snapped nonsensically, and she flinched. “Braca venusta, indeed. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it a conspiracy of misinformation.”

Rose rubbed her eyes hard, the sinking dread that accompanied these outbursts of gibberish returning. “Doctor, are you…what does that mean?”

“Hunch — a guess or feeling not based on known facts, an intuition,” he replied serenely, as if he hadn’t just been in the middle of a hissy fit about cats. At least, she thought it had been about cats. It wasn’t the first time in the past few hours he’d let loose a stream of nonsense and been unable to remember it afterwards. “Also, to round one’s back by bending and drawing the shoulders forward.”

She stepped up to the hole in the wall and looked through. “Doctor?”

“Hmm?”

“I’m scared,” she said softly.

She heard him leap to his feet, then fall back down again. After a moment, his face was framed by the hole in the wall that separated them. “You never say that. Never.”

“I figure that in most of our life or death situations it rather goes without saying. But this is different.”

“It isn’t, though,” he argued. “It isn’t even life or death. It’s boredom or mild panic. A game of I Spy or running about a bit.”

“Running about? You can barely stand.” Before he could get out more than a squawk of objection, she continued, “You’re getting worse. It’s scaring me.”

His face was in shadow, but even so she could see that he didn’t know what to say to that. “Well, you…your mum scares me all the time, and you don’t hear me complaining, do you?”

She laughed weakly. “You’re joking, right? You? Not complain about my mum?”

“That is entirely beside the point.” His head snapped forward suddenly and he sneezed. He looked down. “That’s interesting,” he said blandly. “I think a bit of my brain just came out my nose.”

“Doctor!”

“Aw, I was only teasing.” He sneezed again. “And it’s not like I don’t have brain to spare. I could give handouts and still have more than enough for myself. In fact, I could ride through the streets of London tossing out brain bouquets with little sprigs of potpourri–” He stopped, then leaned forward and pointed a finger at her inquisitorially. “Oi, what is potpourri, anyway? All the things I know, all the things I’ve seen, and I still have no bloody idea what potpourri is made of.”

His hands were shaking, the tremors clearly visible as he gestured. Rose felt cold despite the warmth of the dirt wall. “It’s…um, dried flowers and bark and stuff, I think.”

“Brilliant!” he cried, nearly toppling over in his excitement. “Just brilliant. Remember that, Rose — that is the stench of human ingenuity. Potpourri,” he said again, savouring the word. “With such things in the world, how can you worry? Everything’s fine. We’re fine.”

I’m fine,” Rose said under her breath.

You, missy, have great gaping holes in your hands.”

She shot back, “Better than great gaping holes in my–”

“I’m not leaving you alone,” he snapped. “If I go into a healing trance, you won’t be able to wake me until it’s complete. I don’t care if that howling is nothing more than a fluffy kitten with a kidney stone — I’m not leaving you.”

Her first instinct was to argue, to remind him that she wasn’t completely helpless, thank you, and that there were some things she could handle on her own. The small part of her that was still angry with him wanted to point out that, conscious or not, he wasn’t going to be much good to her in his current condition and on the other side of that damned wall. He was being overprotective and irrational, which…

She shuddered.

Which, whatever his usual faults, was entirely unlike him.

Inane babbling was one thing, but this complete disregard for reason was disturbing. She watched as he seemed to take great interest in a bit of root that protruded from the dirt of the wall. She wondered if this was another symptom of his injury or if he was simply avoiding looking at her. Her voice wavered when she finally replied, “How exactly do you propose we play I Spy? I mean, we’re not even in the same room.”

He looked up from the root and beamed crookedly at her. “Listen and learn, Ms. Tyler.” He cleared his throat dramatically. “I spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter ‘h’.”

“Hole,” Rose said immediately.

“Yep. Your turn.”

“I…um…I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘d’.”

“Dirt.”

“That’s…” she giggled a bit, despite the rising panic. “That’s amazing.”

The Doctor laughed. “Isn’t it? Just proves how perfectly in tune we are.” He jumped up and down excitedly. “Oh, oh, oh! I know the very next place we’ll go when we get back to the TARDIS. Earth, England, Carlisle. 1971, I think. We’ll wipe the floor with those old bats.”

Oh dear, Rose thought. More bats. “Which old bats are these, then?”

“Our fellow contestants on Mr. & Mrs. of course. Do try to keep up, Rose. It’ll be your fault if we get sent home with nothing more than that stupid carriage clock.” He sighed. “Honestly, I’m more than nine hundred years old. Do you have any idea how many carriage clocks you accumulate in nine hundred years?”

She gave a nervous little shrug. “I don’t know. How many?”

“Seventeen.” He clapped. “Or, even better, The Newlywed Game, Los Angeles, 1966. A good bit racier — Americans, you know — but with far better prizes. The TARDIS could use a new washer and dryer. With our inexplicable bond, we’re a shoe-in. Piece of cake. Easy peasy.” Suddenly coming to a disturbing realization, he stopped bouncing. “Oh, Rose,” he said, his tone dire. “You and I have never made whoopee.”

For a moment, Rose was quite sure she was hallucinating. “Sorry, what?”

“Sex, Rose. We have never had sex,” he enunciated carefully. “Sexual intercourse, carnal gymnastics, a bit of the old in and out. What, do I have to draw you a diagram?” He dragged his hand over his face. “Bob always asks about whoopee, nosy bugger. We can’t win without it.” He sighed explosively. “You humans and your sexual hang ups. If it weren’t for your prudery, I’d have an ultra modern Whirlpool washer dryer combo in avocado green by now.”

She had about two dozen things to say to him at that moment, things like If Time Lords call it whoopee, then no wonder you never get a shag and Who the hell is Bob?, but what actually came out of her mouth was, “My sexual hang ups?”

He laughed rather nastily. “Oh, so now I’m the reason we don’t have sex? Pull the other one, Rose.”

Rose slumped against the wall and closed her eyes. “This isn’t happening,” she murmured to herself. “It’s a nightmare, a terrible, terrible dream, and when you wake up you will no longer be going mad.”

“Going mad, are you? Congratulations! Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.” He reached through the hole, grabbed her hand, and shook it vigorously. “I’m the Doctor, by the way. What’s your name?”

She stared at him, taking in his unsettlingly vague expression and polite smile. “That’s not funny.”

“Sorry, was it supposed to be? Let me give it another go.” He continued to pump her hand up and down, and said solemnly, “I’m the Doctor, by the way. Ooga booga.” He grinned. “Funny?”

++

Back to index


Chapter 8: Chapter 8

++

‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run;
A web is wov’n across the sky;
From out waste places comes a cry,
And murmurs from the dying sun:

‘And all the phantom, Nature, stands–
With all the music in her tone,
A hollow echo of my own,–
‘A hollow form with empty hands.’


++

Rose slumped against the wall and closed her eyes. “This isn’t happening,” she murmured to herself. “It’s a nightmare, a terrible, terrible dream, and when you wake up you will no longer be going mad.”

“Going mad, are you? Congratulations! Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.” He reached through the hole in the wall between them, grabbed her hand, and shook it vigorously. “I’m the Doctor, by the way. What’s your name?”

She stared at him, taking in his unsettlingly vague expression and polite smile. “That’s not funny.”

“Sorry, was it supposed to be? Let me give it another go.” He continued to pump her hand up and down, and said solemnly, “I’m the Doctor, by the way. Ooga booga.” He grinned. “Funny?”

She pulled her hand from his grasp (even with the makeshift bandages she’d made his grip should have hurt, but she hadn’t felt a thing) and took a few stumbling steps back. “You really don’t know who I am,” she said, not bothering to make it a question. He looked at her as if she were a stranger.

“Should I?” he asked, his curiosity obviously piqued.

“I’m Rose,” she said numbly. It was as if the cold, impervious feeling had spread from her wounded hands to the rest of her. “My name is Rose.”

“A rosebud set with little willful thorns,” he quoted grandly, “and sweet as–”

“As English air could make her,” Rose finished, her voice soft.

The Doctor chuckled. “You’re familiar with Tennyson, then? Brilliant man, though he was a bit of a bore when I bumped into him that time in Vienna. Smacked right into the poor fellow and he was very cross about it. It was raining, you see, and he had this cheese sandwich–” He stopped, suddenly alarmed. “My goodness, do I have amnesia? How terribly irksome of me.”

“You’re badly hurt.”

“I’d noticed that, actually.” He violently shook his head back and forth, releasing puffs of ash into the air, and then rapped his knuckles against his skull. “Nothing’s quite where it should be up here. Like a Madrian box after somebody’s dropped it down a flight of stairs.”

“A what?” she asked, bewildered.

“A Madrian box,” he repeated slowly, as if he had just realized he was — once again — stuck with a complete idiot. “You’re human, surely you must know — wait, what century are you from, again?”

“Early twenty-first,” she said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice.

“Practically a cave person.” He clapped a hand over his mouth. “Oh dear, are you a cave person? Is this your home?” He let out a mighty sneeze. “If so, it could do with a bit of dusting.”

Despite herself, Rose smiled a little. “Have you always been this rude?”

“Can’t say. Don’t remember.” He leaned heavily against the wall and sighed. “A Madrian box, Rose, is a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that became enormously popular during the twilight of the thirty-seventh century. The Tickle-Me-Elmo of its day, though considerably less giggly.”

“And if you drop one down the stairs it gives you amnesia?” she asked wryly.

“Of course not!” he groaned. “Haven’t you been paying even the slightest…” He paused mid-rant. “Ah. You’re winding me up.”

“Yes.”

“Do you do that often? To me, I mean.”

“Yes.”

His grin was enormous. “Fantastic.”

She turned away, hoping to hide her reaction. The word stung as if her loss were still fresh, as if she hadn’t struggled for months to accept the changes forced upon them both. She closed her eyes and felt them burn.

There was a low, rumbling growl. Rose jumped, her eyes flying open to search the empty cavern, thinking for a terrifying moment that she was about to be attacked, and then realized it was nothing more than the groan of her own empty stomach. Bit anticlimactic, she thought wearily, before taking a moment to consider the nutritional potential of dried alien rose root.

“Jelly baby?” offered the Doctor, who had overheard her gastrointestinal bellyaching.

“You’re out,” she said miserably, leaning into the wall and letting her head rest in the curve of the hole. One good lick had told her that roots would not be an option.

“But…but that’s impossible!” he cried, and began to dig through his pockets. “I always have jelly babies. Always.”

“You did have, but you decided they’d gone off and chucked the lot.” She yawned, unable to deny now that her feeble human body was both hungry and exhausted. “Must have forgotten to restock.”

“Gone off?” the Doctor repeated incredulously, pulling off his coat to go through it properly. “Gone off? Jelly babies don’t ‘go off’ — they’re the cockroaches of snack food! They’re indestructible, eternal, the only–” He went quiet, and then thrust a fistful of tampons through the opening between them. “Are these yours?”

Rose felt her eyes go huge. “I…um…” She stared, hypnotized, at the white cylinders, heat rising in her cheeks. “They’re my brand.”

“Ah,” he said, apparently satisfied. “I must keep them around for emergencies.” He returned them to his pocket. After another moment of searching, he gave up. “Once we get out of here, Rose,” he said, meeting her gaze very seriously, “we are going straight to a Tesco’s, where we shall buy all the jelly babies we can carry.” He shook his head. “Out of jelly babies. I never heard such a thing.”

She chuckled weakly. “Will that be before or after we go to 1966 and win The Newlywed Game?”

He tipped his head to the side and studied her intently for a moment. Sounding not at all shocked by the idea, he asked, “Oh, are we married, then?”

“No!” Rose shouted, a bit surprised by her own vehemence. “No, we’re not.”

The Doctor tsked fretfully. “Oh dear. What your poor mother must think of me.” He put a hand to his cheek and winced. “On second thought, let’s not talk about your mother, hmm?”

“That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said in hours,” she muttered. Then inspiration struck. “Doctor,” she began casually, giving him a look of wide-eyed innocence that she never would have tried on him under normal circumstances, “isn’t there something you can do to, I don’t know, heal yourself? Being a Time Lord and all.”

“Of course,” he replied, scratching the back of his neck. “Bit of quality shut-eye and I could quite easily return the puzzle pieces to their proper places.” He grinned at her. “But I won’t.”

She nearly kicked the wall in frustration. “Why not?”

“Did you ever have nightmares when you were small?” he asked, as if he weren’t intentionally being impossible and changing the subject.

Rose slid down the wall until she was sitting just beneath the hole. “Yeah. All little kids do, I suppose,” she answered, defeated.

“About what?”

“About…I don’t know. I read this book when I was eight and for ages afterward I dreamt that I was turned into a mouse. I tried to tell my mum what had happened, that I was fine if a bit more furry, but she didn’t know me. She never knew it was me, and it always ended with her trying to beat me to death with a broom.”

“That’s dreadful.”

She tried to make a joke of it, but her laugh was faint. “And you don’t even properly remember my mum.” She rubbed her eyes hard with the heels of her palms. “You didn’t answer my question, you know.”

“Typical human impatience,” he tutted, then continued. “The dream isn’t even the worst part, I’ve found. Did you ever wake from a nightmare too frightened to fall back to sleep? Instead you simply laid awake, the dream world still pressing against the thin reality of your bedroom, and as the shadows danced on your walls you became sure that, even if you crept down the hall to your parents’ room, you would still be alone. Sure that outside the streets were empty and the lamps dark. Sure the sun was never going to rise.” He sighed softly. “And then it did. Tiny, hazy beams of light through drawn curtains, then the glorious burn of daylight. Dawn comes, the nightmare fades, and the world returns. The sun brings it all back.” He paused, the silence almost reverent. “That’s what she is to me.”

“Who?” she asked, the word escaping her lips before she could think to hold it in.

“If I sleep, the sun might set.” His voice began to shake. “I know it will one day — will set and never rise again, that’s the way of stars — and when the time comes darkness will fall and I’ll rely on nightlights and torches to guide my way, stumbling along as I always have, but she’s here, right here, burning me and I still can’t let go. I don’t want to.” He inhaled sharply and cried out, “Rose, are you there? I can’t see you, please, I can’t–”

She was on her feet, her hands reaching for his. “I’m here, see? I’ve got you.” His hands were freezing, far colder than she’d ever felt them before. She ripped the torn remnants of her coat from her wounds and laced their fingers together, pressing her skin against his, hoping to give a little of her warmth. “I’m here. I’m right here.”

His teeth chattered, his face eerily pale. “It hurts.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She wished he would open his eyes and look at her, but he kept them closed and his face turned away even as he clung to her hands.

“Don’t let go,” he begged.

“I won’t. I promise I won’t.” She tried to smile. “Not ever.”

He opened his eyes, and even in the darkness she could see the rings of blood around his brown irises. “You will,” he whispered. “The sun always sets.”

The howl startled them both, and the Doctor’s grip on her hands tightened. She inhaled sharply, feeling the pain of her injuries for the first time in hours as the sensation crashed over her in waves. “Ouch,” she hissed. “Ouch ouch ouch.”

He relaxed his hold on her. “Rose, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–”

She pulled him back, knitting their fingers together. “No, don’t. It feels good.” She winced. “Good pain. Pain is good.”

He gently ran his thumb along the back of her hand, his tremors shaking them both. “Silly human,” he said, and the frank affection in his tone made her blush.

“Sillier Time Lord.” She felt light-headed and fizzy, like she’d spent the evening at a party instead of at the bottom of a pit. “You forgot me.”

“I never did,” he said, shocked, and she couldn’t tell if he was feigning insult or if the idea really did offend him.

“You called me a cave person and pitched a fit about jelly babies.”

“That’s what I forgot to do!” he shouted happily. “It’s been bothering me for ages. I knew there was something I was supposed to pick up at the shop. I wrote a note to myself and everything, but then I forgot about the note, and isn’t that always the way of things?” He gave her a shaky smile. “But you, Rose Tyler, I never forgot you for a second. Not really.”

“I believe you,” she said; what she meant was I’m sorry.

The Doctor nodded. “I think I’m about to fall over,” he said solemnly.

She grinned. “You should sit, then.”

“Our arms don’t stretch that far.” If she didn’t know better, she might have thought he was pouting.

“I’ll be right here on the other side of the wall,” she said, unable to keep the teasing note from her voice.

“I know that. I’m not a fussy toddler,” he snapped, but all the same she felt his reluctance as he let go of her hands and slipped to the floor. “Ouch.”

She sat as well. “You all right?”

“Rocks are pointy.” He sneezed. “Rose?”

“Yeah?”

“That last howl sounded awful close.”

She sighed. “Let me guess. More singing?”

“Well, if you think it best, who am I to argue?”

Rose rolled her eyes.

“Oh, don’t do that,” he said. “I’ll start to think you don’t take me seriously. Give me a complex, you will.”

“How did you–”

“Time Lord magic,” the Doctor interrupted in a stage whisper. “Ooga booga.”

She laughed. “You guessed, you wanker.”

“Language, Rose! There are impressionable rocks about.”

“Only thing’s made an impression on those rocks is your big, fat Time Lord–”

“Watch it.”

“Head,” she finished demurely. “So what is it now? Two millionth verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a hell of a lot–”

“Actually, I think I’ll perform an original composition, if you don’t mind.”

“By all means. Give me a moment to plug my ears.”

“Saucy thing.” He cleared his throat, and then sang, “I’m Doctor the Tenth, I am, Doctor the Tenth, I am, I am. My best mate, her name is Rose, once she thought I was asleep and painted sparkly varnish on my toes–”

“Hang on. ‘She thought I was asleep’? You weren’t?”

“Nope,” he popped cheerily.

“Then why on earth did you let me do it?”

“It made me feel pretty.”

Rose sat on the dirt floor of her cavern, mouth agape. “Pretty?” she managed.

“I had no hair, Rose. You don’t remember how sad it is to have no hair, because you were all red and wriggly at the time, but it is. Sad. Very, very sad, and I pretended I liked it ‘cause I was tough and wore dull jumpers, but really it made me sad. And then you came and painted my toes and I wasn’t sad anymore.” He paused. “No, I’m lying. I didn’t want any hair, and the varnish didn’t make me feel pretty. I just liked it when you touched my toes.”

“Oh,” Rose said, not quite sure how she felt about that.

“Is that odd?” He sounded worried.

“No,” she said, hoping his Time Lord magic didn’t let on how badly she was blushing. “Not really.”

“It is odd, isn’t it? I can tell by your voice, you think it’s odd.” She heard him curse under his breath, but was unable to make out the words. “You know, I have different toes now. Maybe they won’t like it if you touch them.”

“Maybe,” she replied, working hard to keep the sudden stab of disappointment from her voice. “Shouldn’t you be singing?”

There was no answer from the other side of the wall.

“Doctor?” she asked, breaking the silence. “You’re not still thinking about your toes, are you?”

She heard the skitter of rocks and his soft exhale as he moved. She imagined him lying on the stone floor, his eyes closed. “In my entire life, I have had one hundred toes,” he said, his voice distant and reflective. “That’s twenty different pinky toes alone. So many toes, so many years.” For a moment she felt the burden of those years, the weight of time and restless feet and the planet without a name that she still saw in his eyes. “Rose,” he said suddenly, “talk to me.”

She blinked in surprise. “About what?”

“Anything. I need…” There was a long pause. “I just need you to talk to me.”

She thought back to their conversation in her bedroom that morning (just hours past, but it felt like forever) and what he’d wanted from her that she’d refused to give. He’d only asked for words, stories of who she’d been before she’d been his, but she’d held back.

After all, it wasn’t like he could give her anything of himself in return.

She took a deep breath. “When I was small,” she began, her voice steady and clear, “I spent most of my time in trouble.”

He snickered.

“Yeah, like you weren’t the same,” she said.

“You have me there.”

“Thought so.” She let her head fall back against the wall. “My teachers sent notes home to my mum all the time, stuff like,” her voice changed, becoming high and clipped, “Rose has aptitude, but lacks focus. Rose is disrespectful and disruptive. Rose is suspended until further notice. Perhaps next time she will think twice before inciting the school choir to riot.”

“You didn’t!” he said, delighted.

“It was a peaceful strike. They blew it way out of proportion.” She blew a loose strand of hair out of her face. “Poor Mum. She didn’t know whether to kill me or throw me a party.”

“What age were you?”

“Fifteen.” Her smile faded. “Mickey got me a cake with, ‘Rose Tyler: Sticking It to the Man’ written on it in pink icing. A few weeks later I met Jimmy.” She traced a meaningless pattern in the dirt with her fingertip. “Suppose it’s only fair that, in the end, he got to leave me.”

“Rose–”

“It’s all right. I’m all right.” She pushed away the memory and forced a grin. “Did I ever tell you that when I was four I covered my entire face with blue eye shadow and spent the day hiding behind corners and scaring people out of their wits?”

“Were you an alien or a pict?”

“A Smurf, actually.”

“Of course. Silly me.” She could hear the warmth of his smile in his voice. “I’m sure you were positively…smurfy.”

She chuckled. “I think the popular opinion that day was that I was a little terror who should be locked in closet until I learned some manners, but yeah, smurfy will do.”

There was a pause.

“Rose?” he asked hesitantly.

She pressed her face to the wall between them and thought of sunrise. “Yeah?”

“Tell me more?”

So she did.

++

Back to index


Chapter 9: Chapter 9

++

Sweet soul, do with me as thou wilt;
I lull a fancy trouble-tost
With ‘Love’s too precious to be lost,
A little grain shall not be spilt.’

And in that solace can I sing,
Till out of painful phases wrought
There flutters up a happy thought,
Self-balanced on a lightsome wing:

Since we deserved the name of friends,
And thine effect so lives in me,
A part of mine may live in thee
And move thee on to noble ends.


++

She awoke to the sound of humming.

Which was perfectly normal and familiar and exactly as expected, but the pitch wasn’t right and the TARDIS didn’t usually sound quite so much like the theme from Chariots of Fire. She kept her eyes tightly closed and tried to bury her face in her pillow, only to find her pillow gone and her bed sheets horribly gritty. “Doctor,” she murmured, still half-asleep, “did you put dirt in my bed again?”

There was no answer. She opened one eye to see pale lines of dawn light stretching across the earthen floor and sat up with a jolt. The sun was up.

“Doctor!” she shouted, scrambling to her feet. “Doctor, are you all right?”

The humming stopped. “Everything tastes like ashes,” he said, his voice so faint it was almost unrecognizable. “It’s icky.”

“I’m going to the TARDIS now,” she said, rewrapping her hands as quickly as she could. She may have been numb last night, but she felt everything now — muscles stiff and sore from falling twice to the ground and then sleeping on it, hunger, exhaustion, and the fire in her blood-caked hands. She grinned widely. “I’m going, and then I’ll have you out of there. Is there anything I can bring back that will help?”

“Rope,” he croaked. “Rope would be good.”

“I love having a genius around.” She reached for the lowest tangle of the roots that made up the extensive, ladder-like system and tried not to notice how her hands were shaking. “You always have the best ideas.” When she tightened her grip, she had to bite down hard on her lip to keep from crying out. The thorns covering the roots were smaller, but not entirely gone.

“Rose?”

“I’m fine,” she grunted, pulling herself up again. “Keep humming.”

“The sun…it’s not up yet.” She heard his labored breathing and climbed faster. “Not fully. You need to wait.”

She paused, the cuts on her fingers and palms screaming. “Can you wait?”

There was a silence. “No.”

She tried to laugh, but the sound stuck in her throat. “Then shut it.”

Rose climbed.

The moment when she finally pulled herself to the surface was a glorious one, but she didn’t have time to enjoy it. She swiftly surveyed the surrounding area that had been shrouded in darkness the night before. The light in the clearing was pale and grey, the sun only just visible on the horizon. The mist was still heavy, but she could see the green walls of the labyrinth in one direction and a massive, low-bowed tree nearby. And at the foot of that tree, she saw a Doctor-sized hole in the ground.

“Oh, finally,” she whispered, smiling. “Finally, something goes our way.” She walked to the hole as quickly as she dared, cautiously testing the ground before she stepped. “Anyone home?” she called as she reached the opening.

“Blimey, you’re up high,” the Doctor pointed out astutely.

“You’re down low, actually, though I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.” She could only see one plimsoll-clad foot, but found it immensely comforting. She looked up to grin at the thick tree branch that extended not far above her head. “Brilliant.”

“Don’t like being low, Rose.”

She bent over the hole. “Hang on, Doctor. I’ll be back before you know it.” She wanted to say something else, something more, but didn’t know where to begin. “I can see your right foot.”

He wiggled it at her, and she laughed.

“I’ll be right back,” she said again, and then ran.

The Rose Garden was beautiful in the early dawn light, but she saw nothing but the white line of string that led her back to those wonderful blue doors, which she gave a huge smacking kiss as she put her key into the lock. She nearly kissed the time rotor (with tongue) when she saw the heap of supplies laid out on the console room floor.

“You amazing, amazing machine!” she cried as she gathered up rope and blankets and a bottle of water. “You wouldn’t happen to have a hammock or a net or something, would you?” Knowing better than to wait for an answer, Rose sprinted to the hallway and opened the first door she saw. There on the floor waited one large hammock and a chocolate biscuit. She nearly swooned at the sight.

“I mean it,” she said, still chewing the biscuit as she hauled the rope and other supplies out the door, “that H.G. Wells junker has got nothing on you. And that car from Back to the Future? Pitiful, really.” She closed the door behind her and pressed her bandaged hand against the wood. “I’ll bring him back soon, I promise.”

Weighted down as she was, it took longer than she liked to return to the clearing. “The TARDIS wants you to get your arse back home,” she said by way of greeting when she reached the opening to the Doctor’s pit and began to unwind a coil of rope.

“Funny,” he replied weakly. “I forget you’re funny.”

She tied one end of the rope securely around the trunk of the tree and dropped the other into the pit. The TARDIS had given her a second rope, and as she attached it to the metal rings at either end of the hammock she smiled at its alien smoothness. It took a few tries to loop the rest of the rope over the low-hanging branch above her, but she managed. She pulled the end through a large hole made by a protruding tree root and tied it off firmly to another.

As she loaded the rest of the supplies into the hammock, a pair of blue gloves fell out from between the folds of a blanket. They were made of a thick, entirely unfamiliar fabric, and when Rose pulled them onto her injured hands, she grinned. They fit perfectly.

“In-coming,” she called down to him, before easing the laden hammock to the floor of the pit. Then, grabbing hold of the rope tied to the trunk, she followed it.

Rose only had to abseil about half-way down the wall before her feet touched the massive pile of stone slabs that had fallen during the earthquake. She nearly stumbled more than once as she navigated the crumbling rocks down to the floor where the Doctor lay sprawled.

She couldn’t help but touch him when she reached his side, pressing her hands to his chest, feeling right heartbeat and left, passing gloved fingers over the beaded sweat on his forehead.

“Hello,” he murmured through the chatter of his teeth.

She brushed her lips against his bruised temple. “You’re so cold,” she said and clutched his hands in hers. “Your skin is like ice.”

“Never…” he took a rattling breath, “had any complaints before.”

“I’ve blankets,” she said, rising to fetch them. “Hang on.”

His grip on her hands tightened and he pulled her back down. “Wait.”

“Doctor, I have to–”

“Just wait.” He reached for her face, his fingers hovering above her lower lip before moving to the curve of her throat. His touch was cold, but she leaned into the pressure until she could feel her pulse throb around his fingers. “One little heart,” he said reverently. “Just the one. Beating.” His mouth widened into a beautiful, delirious grin. “Rose Tyler, my hero.”

Then his eyes closed and she knew they wouldn’t be opening again any time soon.

For a moment, she panicked. “No,” she said, grabbing fistfuls of his suit jacket and shaking him gently. “No, not yet. Wake up. Please, you can’t, not yet. I can do this, but only if you’re here. You need to wake up.”

She felt him shiver under her hands and remembered his hair against the pillows on her mother’s bed, his face unfamiliar and pale with regeneration sickness. She’d felt betrayed and helpless from the first moment she’d seen him wear this face.

Rose looked down at him now, at his filthy, wonderful features gone still and slack, and got over it.

She sprinted for the blankets and wrapped them around him as tightly as she could, making sure to support his head as she moved his disturbingly limp form. When her gloves came away from his neck flecked with blood, she didn’t pause. No time, she repeated to herself, no time.

Then there was the small matter of carrying him to where the hammock lay by the far wall. He was heavier than he looked, as she well knew, and she worried about jostling his head and spine.

“Sorry about this,” she said, pulling him into a sitting position by his armpits. “Not exactly dignified, but you didn’t leave me much choice.” She dragged him across the rocky floor, wincing as his head sagged to one side. The only remaining sign of whatever damage he had suffered during the earthquake was the blood in his hair and the stains on his shirt collar — the surface wound had healed, as she had suspected it would. The surface wound was not the problem.

She tied him into the hammock and smirked at the thought of his reaction to this treatment had he been awake. “Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your lap belts,” she tightened a knot, “and remember to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” She leaned over him until her cheek was directly above his mouth, holding her breath so she could feel the brush of his. “Hang on,” she whispered before she got up and walked away.

Then she was climbing out of yet another hole in the ground, pulling herself to the surface as the muscles of her arms shrieked in protest. “Ow,” she muttered under her breath as she collapsed onto the grass. “Ow, ow, ow, ow. Ouch.”

She was almost surprised when her makeshift pulley system worked. With one smooth loop of rope over the tree branch and another under the root, she was just strong enough to hold his weight and slowly (too slowly) pull him up. He and the hammock were just visible over the rim of the opening when she froze.

Later she would think it funny that, when what she’d been dreading all night finally came to pass, she would smell the beast long before she heard it. At the time, she just knew that something was burning.

The acrid stink stung her nose and when she looked over her shoulder to find the source, she saw that the nearby labyrinth wall was smoldering. And towering above that wall was a giant manatee.

Rose blinked.

No, it was definitely a giant manatee. Hulking and grey-skinned, with flippers that were just enough like feet to walk upright on but too much like flippers to be anything else. It wobbled closer to Rose and then howled, a sound which had been bad enough from a distance but was far worse up close. Its breath smelled like rotted flowers and smoke.

Her knuckles went white as she clutched the rope, the only thing between the Doctor and another long fall.

The manatee squinted her for a long moment with small, glassy eyes, and Rose remembered the darkness of the tunnel and the Doctor’s casual mention of this planet’s supposedly extinct ‘nocturnal nasties’. The sun was still low in the sky, but perhaps, Rose thought, perhaps

The manatee opened its mouth and a jet of flame consumed one of the branches on the other side of the tree. The branch fell to the ground, nothing left but smoking ash.

Rose looked from the Doctor’s prone form, snug in the hammock, to the pile of ashes, to the colossal beast waddling ever closer.

“Oh, fuck,” she said.

If the man-eating fire manatee had had any sort of sentience at all, it probably would have wondered why she was speaking Japanese.

Back to index


Chapter 10: Chapter 10

++

That which we dare invoke to bless;
Our dearest faith; our ghastliest doubt;
He, They, One, All; within, without;
The Power in darkness whom we guess;

I found Him not in world or sun,
Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;
Nor thro’ the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun:

If e’er when faith had fall’n asleep,
I heard a voice ‘believe no more’
And heard an ever-breaking shore
That tumbled in the Godless deep;

A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason’s colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer’d ‘I have felt.’


++

To her horror, Rose’s first instinct when confronted with a ten-foot tall, fire-breathing sea cow was to sing a novelty song about a serial monogamist with a fetish for men named Henry. She clutched the rope keeping the Doctor aloft and tried not to make any sudden movements.

“I’m…” she began breathily, and then swallowed. “I’m Henry the Eighth, I–”

A clump of grass a few feet from where she stood burst into flame.

All right, she thought, fighting back panic. Apparently that whole ‘frighten the beast away with song’ thing was his idea of a joke. Funny, funny little alien man.

She was so going to smack him when they survived this.

While the idea of standing entirely still until either the Doctor woke up or the sun rose higher in the sky (an animal with eyes like that has to be nocturnal, she prayed, it just has to be) had its appeal, Rose knew she’d be reduced to a person-sized pile of cinders long before either eventuality came to pass. She tried not to think about the thick layer of ash covering the floor of the stone pit.

Her first priority was to get the Doctor and his hammock safely onto solid ground. With almost painful slowness she knelt by the protruding tree root through which the rope was looped, and, with as little movement as possible, tied it securely to the smooth wood.

There was a sizzle by her right ear, a flash of heat against her skin, and the scent of burning hair reached her nostrils. She tensed, resisting the instinct to clap a hand to the side of her head and beat out the sparks singeing her hair. She raised her eyes to the tree before her and saw a large scorch mark burnt into the trunk, still smoldering. Either the manatee’s aim was improving or it had tired of playing with her.

After her second encounter with the Slitheen a few months ago, Rose had begun to keep record of her near-death experiences. In doing so she discovered that, on average, she felt fairly certain that she was about to die at least two point seven times per week. After working out that depressing statistic, she’d stopped keeping track. It was, she decided, the sort of thing it was better not to think about.

Nevertheless, the feeling that crept over her then was a familiar one. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the Doctor’s hammock swing slightly in the early morning breeze. She knew that if the movement attracted the manatee’s attention she’d offer herself as a diversion. She waited.

Then there was a whirring sound and something the size of a sparrow landed on her shoulder. It chirped in her ear.

“Disco cricket?” she had time to whisper before words filled her mind, like a large block-lettered sign.

CLOSE YOUR EYES.

Without thinking, she obeyed.

The air around her filled with the buzzing of wings, hundreds upon hundreds of them, and there was a flash of light so intense that even through her closed eyelids it managed to stun her for a moment.

The manatee let loose a miserable wail, and she felt as much as heard it fall to the ground.

Another word emerged from the chaos of her thoughts: RUN.

Rose stumbled away from the tree. Grabbing the rope, she pulled the Doctor from his place suspended above the pit to rest on the grass beside her. Panting with exertion and fear, she burrowed her hand through the cocoon of blankets to reach into the Doctor’s jacket pocket and pull out the sonic screwdriver. A deft flick of the switch later and she was slicing through rope, cutting him free of the hammock.

There was another brilliant burst of light from over her shoulder, and she couldn’t resist the temptation to turn and discover its source.

Hovering in the air above the manatee was a wall of mirrored crickets, their shining wings angled in such a way that the meager dawn light was reflected directly into the eyes of the prone creature below them.

Rose took a brief moment to pity the beast before heaving the Doctor over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry and staggering towards the TARDIS.

She never would have managed it if it hadn’t been for the adrenaline and terror pumping through her system. As it was, when she finally reached the blue doors her legs were shaking so badly she could hardly stand. She fumbled for her key, and when she looked up she saw the cricket fluttering in front of the lock, staring back at her.

“Thank you,” she gasped. “Sorry I called you a dumb bug.”

HAVE A NICE DAY, read the sign post that appeared in her mind. VISIT AGAIN SOON.

It flew away.

“Telepathic cricket,” she muttered as she lugged him into the TARDIS and made her way through the blessedly short hallway to the infirmary, bowing under the Doctor’s weight. “You could have mentioned that.”

His only answer was a slight snuffling noise as she dropped him as gently as possible onto the exam couch, carefully cradling his head.

She looked down at him, his features slack and his skin ashen even below the filth that covered his suit, face and hair. Though still wrapped tightly in blankets, his lean body was wracked by shivers, and cold as he was he was drenched in sweat. She reached out and carefully wiped a bit of dirt from his chin with one gloved finger.

Then her legs collapsed out from under her and she found herself staring up at him from the pristine infirmary floor. “Ow,” she said, and then lay back so she could stare up at the pristine infirmary ceiling. Everything was very white.

“I am never,” she said, “moving ever again.”

Her stomach and her bladder each lodged their objections to this plan.

She couldn’t help but think it was for the best that he was still unconscious when her legs refused to cooperate and she found herself forced to crawl on her hands and knees to the nearest toilet, which was more than a little demoralizing. Exhausted and, she realized, terribly dehydrated, she spent a few moments gulping down cool water from the bathroom sink.

Now that they were safely in the TARDIS, there was nothing she could really do for him. His injuries were internal, and he was sorting them out on his own as he slept. She felt useless.

So as soon as her muscles deigned to obey her once more, she went to the kitchen and made tea.

Rose placed a steaming mug beside him and settled down in a nearby chair with a box of chocolate biscuits. “Did you know,” she asked, munching away, “that the TARDIS has an emergency supply of biscuits? We didn’t buy these, but here they are.” It was unsettling to look too long at his oddly still face, so she focused on his stained tie. “I doubt you do know. She’s yours, after all — she knows what a terror you can be around sweets.”

She swallowed loudly. It was ridiculous, but the coil of frantic tension in her stomach refused to relax. He was perfectly safe and in a few hours time would be back to normal. No doubt his babbling would now sound almost logical in comparison with some of the nonsense he’d spouted last night. But, she couldn’t help but think, he’d waited so long to go into his restorative coma. What if he had been wrong, what if there was permanent damage?

What if he didn’t wake up?

Rose tossed aside the biscuits and set about doing what she could to make him more comfortable. The blankets were filthy, so she unwound them from around his legs, his waist and his chest, trying not to jostle him too badly. She dumped the soiled blankets to the floor and pulled fresh ones from a cabinet. She was about to cover him again when she noticed the rusty stains that marred the collar of his white shirt. Blood stains.

She gently pulled off his overcoat and set it aside. She loosened and removed his tie. His suit jacket gave her a bit of trouble when she tried to pull his long, limp arms from the sleeves, but with perseverance and one sharp tug she managed. She began to unbutton his shirt, but paused. She’d done this before, undressed him while he slept. Unbidden, the thought occurred to her that someday she’d like to do it while he was awake.

“Humans,” she muttered to herself as she unbuttoned his cuffs, her gloved fingers fumbling a little. “Everything’s about sex with you people.” Though there was no one to see, she hid a smile.

When the Doctor was naked from the waist up, she hesitated. He was clearly having trouble maintaining a normal body temperature, but it wasn’t like a human fever. She had no idea whether to cool him or keep him warm. Acting on instinct, she pressed her cheek to his bare chest and gasped at the chill of his skin. He arched slightly off the exam table, leaning into the contact. She stumbled backwards.

“R-right,” she stuttered, blushing furiously. “Warm it is.” She covered him with a clean blanket and pulled a flannel from a cabinet. After soaking it in warm water from the infirmary sink, she wringed it out and returned to his side. Working slowly and thoroughly, she cleaned his face, hands, and neck, and if she lingered a little too long on the swell of his Adam’s apple — well, she was, after all, only human.

She pulled him by the shoulders until he was sitting upright, and let him slump forward against her so she could reach the back of his head. As she scrubbed the blood from his hair he made a small noise in the back of his throat. At first she thought she was hurting him, irritating his recently healed wound, but when she stopped he nuzzled her neck and made the noise again, only now it was quite clearly not a noise of pain.

Rose bit her lip and closed her eyes. “Stop that,” she scolded faintly. “You’re unconscious and this is taking advantage and you need to stop that.” His breath was cold against her throat and she shivered. “You have the worst timing ever,” she said, and this time she wasn’t sure whether she was talking to him or to herself.

It was a relief to escape to the wardrobe for a few minutes to find a spare shirt and tie. When she returned she dressed him gently but efficiently, leaving the tie loose around his collar. Then there was nothing left to do but wrap him once again in blankets and wait.

After nearly an hour of sitting quietly by his bedside, the silence of the room became unbearable. Her thoughts were jumbled and chaotic, jumping between the irrational fear that she’d be waiting forever and memories of the terrible things she’d said to him the day before. Hurtful things.

Unforgivable things.

She stood stiffly and, after checking yet again for the even up and down of his chest, walked down the corridor to the TARDIS library. She wandered through the endless aisles of books, searching for some distraction, some other words to replace those that haunted her memory.

When she found herself face to face with a green, well-worn volume with the name Tennyson emblazoned on the spine in gold lettering, she didn’t hesitate. She pulled it from the shelf and returned to the Doctor’s bedside.

The creak of the spine as she opened the book sounded unnaturally loud in the quiet room. He’d stopped shivering some time ago, but this unearthly stillness was nearly as upsetting. She placed one hand on his chest to feel his steady breathing and flipped past the first few pages until she reached one titled simply Prologue.

“Strong Son of God, immortal Love,” she read aloud, her voice hushed and unfamiliar to her own ears, and then continued awkwardly, stumbling over unfamiliar rhythms:

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

She looked up from the page to glare at the Doctor. “Wow,” she said, deadpan. “Skulls and Death. Don’t know ‘bout you, but I feel comforted.”

When she had seen the book she’d been sure that these were the words that would fill the silence and give her the answers she sought. Now she felt how silly that had been. The Doctor who had bumped into Tennyson that day in Vienna had not been her Doctor, and this was not her sort of poetry. Rose had found more awe and goodness and meaning in what the Doctor had shown her than she ever had sitting in a church or holding a Bible, and these words meant nothing to her.

“This is pointless,” she muttered and was about to close the book when she felt gentle the rise and fall of his chest and thought better of it. She remembered his face that night in the alleyway behind Henrick’s when he’d looked at her, really looked at her for the first time. He’d asked her name, and she’d answered.

She looked down at the book. In that moment, he’d thought of this.

She cleared her throat and began again:

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

She’d always known, from the first time she looked at him properly that morning in her mum’s flat, that he was something miraculous, something beyond the world she knew. She’d felt it when he’d taken her hand and told her of the turn of the earth, and ever since it had been an itch, a burning beneath her skin, an inescapable awareness of the size and beauty of the universe she’d seen in the lines of his face and the pale light of his eyes.

She’d known he was great, but until yesterday he’d never made her feel small.

She let her free hand slip from his chest to the hand that lay limp by his side. She squeezed his fingers and imagined that she felt him squeeze back. She kept reading.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

She gripped his hand and closed her eyes against tears that rose from nowhere. The sun always sets, she thought. The light dies.

She was small. Small and bright and so temporary, a fleeting moment in a thousand years of living. One short day, the rise and fall of the sun.

And it terrified him.

So he held her close and pushed her away, and she’d never been able to keep up with the steps of the dance. She’d stumbled, lost her footing, lost the lines of his face and the pale light of his eyes. She’d lost sight of him, and begun to doubt what she’d always been so sure of.

She opened her eyes and read one more verse, and though she felt her heart beat furiously in her chest her voice was steady.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,

She paused, looked down at his thin, freckled face and felt it again. The turn of the earth. She leaned forward, pressed trembling lips to the chilled skin of his cheek, and whispered, “A beam in darkness: let it grow.”

The book fell to the floor with a smack as she buried her tear-stained face in his shoulder, shaking with laughter and relief. “Oh, Doctor,” she choked out, her voice muffled by the fabric of his shirt, “what did you do to that poor man’s cheese sandwich?”

++

Back to index


Chapter 11: Chapter 11

++

O when her life was yet in bud,
He too foretold the perfect rose.
For thee she grew, for thee she grows
For ever, and as fair as good.


“Speech is but broken light upon the depths of the unspoken.”
George Eliot

++

She awoke to the strange sensation of something vaguely slimy moving over her nose. She batted at it, and hit flesh.

“Excuse me,” a voice rumbled beneath her ear, “but you have some dirt just…” She opened her eyes to see the Doctor lick his thumb and rub it across the bridge of her nose. “There. Got it.”

She sat up so quickly she went a bit light-headed. “You were not just cleaning my face with your spit,” she groaned, and wiped her nose with her sleeve. Which was itself entirely filthy, she noticed.

“You fell asleep with your head on my stomach. I didn’t have a lot of other options for entertainment.” He folded his hands behind his head and smiled lazily at her. From the twinkle in his eye to the color in his cheeks, he looked entirely normal. For a crazed moment, she seriously considered kissing him.

Instead she grinned back and said, “You could have woken me up, you know.”

“Now why would I do that?” he asked, and winked at her when she blushed.

She stood and began to fuss with the tea things she’d left lying around the room, carefully not meeting his eyes. “So. You’re all better, then?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, obviously pleased with himself. “Right as rain. Fit as a fiddle. Corny as Kansas in August. As perfectly perfect as perfect can be.” He sat up suddenly and arched one eyebrow at her. “You,” he said, his voice dangerously warm, “changed my shirt.”

“You were dirty,” she answered, and bent down to pick up the Tennyson. He snatched it out of her hand.

“And you read me poetry as I lay ill,” he said cheerily. He looked from the cover of the book to her face. “In Memoriam.” The teasing note left his voice. “Interesting choice.”

She kept her expression as blank as possible. “I couldn’t find the bit about the rosebud and its little willful thorns.”

“You wouldn’t. It’s from something else.” He swallowed and looked away. “I don’t remember ever telling you about that,” he said, his tone carefully casual.

“You did, though. Last night.” He turned back to her, obviously surprised. She gave him half a smile. “How much do you remember?”

He hopped down from the exam couch and gave his ear an idle tug. “Oh, bits and pieces. Everything’s still a bit hazy at the moment.” He frowned. “Can’t quite recall how I ended up in that pit in the first place. Why I’d go wandering the labyrinth at night, I’ve no…” the sentence faded, unfinished. She followed his suddenly intent gaze and realised that he was staring at her gloved hands. Something shifted almost imperceptibly in his expression, and she knew he’d remembered.

He turned abruptly on his heel and walked to the sink at the other side of the small room, opening the white cabinet just above it. He began to pull out glass bottles full of various brightly coloured substances. “What have you done for your injuries?” he asked briskly, his face in profile, his expression shuttered.

“Huh?” she replied intelligently.

The Doctor gestured vaguely without looking at her. “Your hands. What did you use? Antiseptic, cutaneous tissue cream, the dermal regenerator?” When her only reply was an awkward silence, he turned to face her fully. “Well?” he prompted, either unable or unwilling to hide his irritation.

She stared at the floor. “Nothing,” she murmured.

He took a step towards her. “Sorry, what was that?” he asked, though the sharp disbelief in his voice suggested that he’d heard her perfectly.

“Nothing,” she said again, louder. “I didn’t think to use anything.”

“Oh, but you did think to strip me half-naked?” He gave her a scathing look. “I see your priorities are in order.”

That, she decided, was enough of that.

She met his eyes directly and walked towards him until his back hit the cabinets. “If you think for one second,” she said with deliberate slowness, “that I’d ever be able to watch you lie unconscious, shirt soaked in your own blood, and not do any little thing I could think of to help, then you are much, much stupider than I ever thought possible.” She held his gaze for a long moment, standing so close that she couldn’t avoid the vivid awareness of the tension in his shoulders and the shortness of his breath. He was the first to look away.

“Take off the gloves,” he said.

Not once looking away from his face, she did.

Rose,” he gasped. Judging by his expression, it was a good thing she hadn’t looked down. Now that she thought about it, she wasn’t surprised. Her hands hurt.

He reached to grip her forearms, but dropped his hands to his sides. “Wash them with soap and hot water,” he said tightly. “Now.” He stalked away to the other side of the small room.

She took in the array of options before her, and tried to remember what she’d used in the past. “Red soap or blue soap?”

He slammed a drawer shut, and then opened another. “Both.”

She ran the tap, still carefully not looking at her wounded hands. When the faucet ran hot, she poured the soap into her palms and let the water run over them.

If he hadn’t been standing a few feet away from her, tall and furious and unforgiving, she might have screamed. The pain sliced through her like a blade, and not just in her hands, but in her arms and her chest and an almost delicious ache between her shoulder blades. She refused to cry out, but even so he was hovering by her side in an instant, a blur of brown and white through the film of tears in her eyes. After today, she told herself, I am never crying again.

“Not a fan,” she panted, “of the blue soap.”

“Neither are the bacteria.” He put on his glasses and watched as she gingerly washed her raw and broken skin, but he didn’t touch her. Not once. “This is what happens,” he said, sounding far away, “when something hurts and you just pretend it isn’t there. It gets worse and worse until one day, you can’t pretend anymore.” He reached over and turned off the tap. “And by then, healing hurts as much as the injury ever did.”

She looked at him, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.

He stood back and cleared his throat. “That’s enough. Dry them on the sanitary towel and rub this,” he uncorked a glass bottle and set it on the counter with a clink, “into the skin.”

He left the room.

Rose did as he said, and found the clear solution in the bottle cool and soothing. The thorns had done all the serious damage — not one of her fingers had been spared the gouging cuts they’d inflicted — but her attack on the wall had scraped away the skin of her knuckles and left her hands bruised and sore.

She returned to the chair she’d slept in, holding her still-wet hands out rigidly in front of her to prevent them coming into contact with anything. She waited for him to return.

When he burst back in the door, she jumped. “This,” he said, his voice unusually loud, “is one of the fanciest health care toys ever to come out of the Loxorhynchus Planetary Confederation. I could explain the astonishingly advanced technology involved, but it’d take days and you wouldn’t understand it anyway.”

He dropped the machine onto the exam couch with a flourish. It looked exactly like the old nail varnish dryer Rose’s mum had borrowed off a manicurist friend of hers and never returned. Rose raised her eyebrows and gave him a look of obvious skepticism.

He ignored her. “Hands in that opening just there, flash of light, good as new. Well,” he drawled, tipping his head to the side, “better than new, really. All that fresh tingly skin. Wouldn’t give anyone a high five for the next few hours if I were you.” He darted away to inspect a cupboard full of unpleasant looking jars. “Go on, then.”

She placed her hands inside the machine. “Nothing’s happening,” she said.

“Give it a moment,” he tossed over his shoulder. “Oh, forgot to mention — you might feel a bit of a tickle.”

The opening filled with soft blue light, and ‘a tickle’ didn’t even begin to describe the sensation. Her skin crawled, itching with a deep, sandpaper sort of grind, like years of sunburns, one of top of the other. Then the light dimmed, and the pain was gone. She removed her hands and they were completely healed, if a bit pink.

“That’s brilliant,” she said. She looked up to where he stood, still facing away from her. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” he replied distractedly, sounding anything but pleased.

This was her chance, she knew. This was the time to apologise, to make him understand why she’d said the things she had. She’d learnt so much in the hours since she’d stood in the console room and compared him to a careless child; she had to find a way to tell him.

Trouble was, she had no idea how to begin.

“Doctor,” she said, standing, “I wanted to–” She was interrupted by her own cry as her hands flew to the sharp, ripping pain in her back, just below her shoulder blades. She sagged back into the chair.

“Rose!” He was kneeling by her side before she’d even realised he’d moved. “Is it your back?”

She nodded. “Feels like I pulled a muscle.” She winced. “Or five.” She kneaded her fist into the spot and then felt an entirely new pain, a deep, dull ache. “Fantastic,” she said, chuckling through clenched teeth. “That’s where I hit the ground when I fell. Both times.”

“Stand slowly and lift up your shirt,” the Doctor ordered. She did, wincing as she straightened, and he whistled. “That,” he said, “is a very nasty bruise. Luckily, I have just the thing.” He bounced back to the cupboard and began to sort through the jars. Gingerly, she pulled off her shirt. It was grimy, torn, and just a bit singed. She sighed and tossed it into the bin.

“Oh,” she heard the Doctor breathe. She turned around and he was staring at her with a jar of unappealing grey goop in one hand and a horribly blank expression on his face.

“What?” she asked, noting that it hurt even to breathe.

“You took off your shirt.”

She blinked at him, utterly perplexed by his behavior. “I have a bra on.”

“I noticed,” he replied. “I…” He shook his head. “I’ll just leave this here for you.” He placed the jar on the exam couch and made for the door.

Rose ground her teeth together. Her back ached, her top was ruined, and the Doctor was being an idiot. If he continued to be an idiot, it was going to make apologising to him extremely difficult. And since when, she wondered, was he squeamish about seeing her undressed when she was injured? It wasn’t as if she’d flounced into the kitchen for tea completely starkers, after all. She was in pain.

“I can’t reach,” she said quickly, and he paused. She grabbed for his arm. “Help me.”

He pulled away, and she gaped at him.

“Doctor?” Maybe he heard the hurt in her voice, because for a brief moment he turned and met her gaze. In his eyes there was something dark and wounded that she could only remember seeing once before.

“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked, striking out with her arms and legs. She connected once, twice; hitting him in the chest, in the shoulder. He stared at her, stunned, before coming to his senses and pinning her limbs to the chair, holding her down with his own weight.

“Rose, please,” he panted into her hair, and suddenly she could hear how afraid he was. “Please, you’re in hysterics. Tell me what happened. Let me help you.”

She laughed so hard tears began to run down her cheeks. “I will, I will, just stop touching me. Oh, please, don’t touch me.”


Later she would have no memory of any kind of conscious decision on her part, but in that moment she knew what needed to be done. She stepped in front of him, blocking his path to the door, turned around and reached behind her for his hands. Before he could react, she’d placed them on the bare skin of her lower back.

The Doctor made a strangled sound and snatched them away as if she’d burned him. “Rose,” he snapped when she reached for him again, “what are–”

“Just let me.” She covered his hands with hers, pressing his cool palms into the curve of her back. She held him there for a long moment, aware of the tension of his arms and the stiff resistance in his touch. Then she drew his hands down along her sides to her waist.

She felt him hesitate. “But–”

“It’s all right,” she murmured, leaning back into him. She wrapped her fingers around his wrists and felt the hard double beat of his pulse. “I want you to.”

She heard him exhale as something wound tightly within him relaxed and she released her hold on him, letting her arms fall to her sides. His touch lingered, skirting along her skin as he traced the outline of each bruise, his fingers like a breath teasing the tiny hairs across her shoulder blades, her sides, the skin of her hips just above her jeans. His touch was cool, but in its wake there was heat, a flush building in her face and chest.

“You have,” he said softly, “a mild contusion just…” his fingers slipped past her jeans, beneath the elastic waist of her knickers. She shivered. “Here.”

“Oh,” she said dazedly. “All right.” She reminded herself that bad things happened when she forgot to breathe.

His hands skimmed back up to her waist, then around to her stomach. Her eyes fell closed. For a moment he was still, the fingers of both hands spread wide across her belly, the heels of his palms resting against her ribcage. She froze, almost trembling, afraid that any movement would disrupt the spell cast by the press of his skin against hers and the sound of her uneven breathing. She felt the distance between their bodies like an ache.

Then his touch disappeared, replaced by a tug on the snap of her jeans and the drag of the zip. She bit back a gasp as his thumb hooked the waistband at the back and pulled down to expose the skin of her right hip.

“The jar, please,” he said, his voice perfectly even.

“Jar?” she repeated hoarsely, overwhelmed.

He chuckled, and though her trousers were undone and his free hand still rested on her bare hip, that sound was the most wonderful thing she could imagine. “The jar, Rose. On the couch in front of you?”

She couldn’t help but laugh. “Right,” she said, opening her eyes and reaching for the grey goop, “that jar.” She passed it back to him. “You should be more specific,” she sassed.

“You’re absolutely right.” He tickled her a bit in retaliation, his fingers dancing up her side. “So sorry.”

She fought back a giggle and tried to smack his hand away. “Yeah, but don’t let it happen again, eh?”

She stopped giggling when he began to rub the goop into her skin. He started with the bruise low on her right hip, and though he was gentle, the area was terribly sore. She tried to focus on something else.

“Is that…” She sniffed the air. “Is it just me, or does that stuff smell like banana?”

She heard a wet smacking sound and winced. “Hmm. Tastes like it too. That’s funny.”

“An ointment made of grey bananas?” She twisted to look at him but his hands on her shoulders turned her back around. “Are you sure it’s not mislabeled?”

Mislabeled? What do you take me for?” He poked her hard in the hip where he’d been applying the goop only a moment before.

She yelped and jumped away from him. “What the hell was that for?”

“How did it feel?”

“How did it feel?” she repeated incredulously. “It bloody hurt, that’s how it felt, you great–”

“No, I mean — yes, it hurt because I poked you, but what else?”

She paused. “The bruise is gone.”

“From black and blue to in the pink in a matter of minutes. Also a mild analgesic to help the strained muscles.” He pulled her back to him and began working on another spot. “That’ll teach you to doubt the power of the mighty banana.”

She smiled and rolled her shoulders into his hands, feeling each ache as it sparked under his touch and then faded. “It’s not really made of bananas.”

“Oh?” he asked, and she could hear the laughter in his voice. “And how you do know?”

“Because if it were that would have been the first thing out of your mouth. ‘What’s that, Rose?’” she chirped in an exaggerated parody of her own accent. “‘You’ve fallen down a hole? A banana will fix that right up.’”

“I don’t sound like that,” he said severely.

She giggled. “You really do.”

“Well, if I do — and I don’t — it’s your fault.”

She grimaced as his thumbs reached a particularly sore spot on her left side. “I’d wondered about that, actually,” she said through the pain.

He made a sympathetic noise and pressed harder. “I don’t suppose the line, ‘Lots of planets have a London,’ will be explanation enough this time.” There was a sucking sound as he pulled more of the goop from the jar. “Though it is actually true.”

“But your planet didn’t.”

“Nope,” he said distractedly, his hands and his focus returning to her back. “Gallifrey had many things, but never a London.”

She went still beneath his hands. Gallifrey, she thought, and wished she dared to repeat it aloud. It sounded at once impossible and incredibly familiar, as if he’d been saying it all along. Gallifrey.

He squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Rose, this one goes deep. I’m almost done.” He thought she’d stiffened up because of the pain; she wondered if he even realised what he’d said. But then again, wouldn’t it be just like him to tell her like this, to share something important when he knew she couldn’t react to it?

“You were going to tell me,” she said through gritted teeth, “why you — bloody hell, that hurts — why you sound like you grew up down the street from — do you mind? I’ve got nerves there, you know!”

The Doctor snickered. “Who’s he, then?”

She closed her eyes and tried not to laugh. “Shut it.”

There was a short silence. Then he said, “It’s a hard process to explain. Every time you regenerate it’s a bit different.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “You mean you don’t always burst into flame?”

He looked surprised. “Did I?”

She nodded.

“No wonder you looked at me like that. Must have been terrifying.” He sighed. “That’s one respect in which I wouldn’t have minded being a bit more traditional. I never have had a peaceful regeneration.”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“So I am.” His touch lightened again, his hands moving in lazy circles across her skin. “I don’t age the way you do, Rose, you know that. But I do change. Life changes me. The war changed me.” His hands stilled. “You’ve changed me.”

“I killed you,” she said softly. It wasn’t something she liked to think about, but it had to be said.

“That’s not what I mean. Yes, I chose to regenerate rather than let you die, but how I am now — who I am — has everything to do with what you were to me before.” He paused. “Except maybe the teeth. And the babbling. Oh, and the mole.” His fingers dipped beneath the waistband of her jeans again. “Unless you have one you’re not sharing,” he added, his voice low.

“Whoa there, sailor,” she shot back, and he snickered. She hoped he hadn’t noticed just how throaty her voice had become.

His touch on her back drifted down to the base of her spine before his fingers traced with aching slowness the path of her backbone, tripping over vertebrae, pausing over the fastenings of her bra for a breathless moment before continuing to the nape of her neck.

Struggling for coherent thought, Rose remembered the Doctor as he had been when she first met him, the badly concealed need in his eyes as he’d asked her to come with him. She thought of herself, young and thoughtless and flushed, running to the TARDIS, heedless of what she’d left behind. She remembered them as they’d been, and then returned to the sensation of his clever hands dancing over the angles of her shoulder blades.

“I think I understand,” she murmured eventually.

“Oh?”

She grinned. “It’s like growing up, only with pyrotechnics.”

He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Sorry, did I say it was difficult to explain? What I meant was, it’s incredibly simple and really quite amusing.” His hands left her back, and for a moment the absence of his touch was disconcerting. “That’s you all done, then.” He made a noise of disgust. “Blech. My fingers are all gloopy.”

Without turning, she reached for him. “Give ‘em here. My hands are still a little sore.” She pulled his hands in front of her, tugging him forward until she felt the brush of his shirtfront against her naked back, his elbows pressing into her sides in a wriggly sort of embrace.

The Doctor wiped the excess ointment onto her fingers and palms. “Gloop gloop gloopy,” he pronounced, and bumped his chin against the back of her head as he stooped to match her height. “Take it, take it all.” She laughed and, tangling her fingers with his, rubbed the ‘gloop’ right back onto his skin. “Rose!” he whined.

“Bananas are good,” she replied, holding his hands tightly in her own. She noticed that he didn’t exactly struggle.

“You, on the other hand, are a menace.”

She shook her head and pulled him closer. “I’m delightful.”

“Well, that too.” For a long moment they stood still, his arms around her, his face against her hair. Rose stared down at their entwined hands and slowly ran the pad of her finger up and down the inside of his right thumb, before dipping to the soft skin between his thumb and forefinger. His hand flexed a little, giving her better access.

“I’ve changed too, you know,” she said, tracing the rise and fall of his knuckles, watching intently as the muscles in his hands shivered in response.

His nose brushed her ear, and she knew he was watching her touch him. “I know.”

“I even had some pyrotechnics myself.”

He tensed, and for a moment she was sure that he would pull his hands away. “I can’t joke about that,” he said flatly, and she thought of golden light and things only half-remembered.

“I was talking about Henrick’s,” she corrected him softly.

“Ah,” he said. “Right.” He nudged her with his shoulder. “You should be more specific.”

“When it comes to you and your explosions? Not a bad point.” She trailed her fingers across the back of his hands, feeling ridges of bone and tendon beneath the light hairs. She released his left hand and it fell to her hip, his thumb brushing once across her skin before settling.

His right hand she kept, cradling it palm upturned. She studied the graceful length of his fingers, his closely cut nails. The veins at his wrist (slight weakness in the dorsal tubercle) were blue and delicate and so very human. She wanted to touch them, feel the course of his blood beneath the skin.

She started with the long line that bisected the solid square of his hand, tracing it with only the barest touch of her fingertip. She began to catalog mounds and valleys, the creases of joints and the supple webs between fingers. He had been right — her newly healed hands were extraordinarily sensitive, the pads of her fingers singing with the subtle friction of whorls and lines and skin against skin. She found herself fascinated by a callous on the side of his thumb, running her own thumb across it until she felt his breathing change, becoming slow and deep, as if she were lulling him to sleep. She didn’t think she was.

“I’m sorry I said those things to you,” she said softly. She didn’t know if this was the way or the time to say it, but the words slipped out before she could stop them.

He stilled; she felt the brush of his cheek against her temple and the hand on her hip slid across her stomach, his arm encircling her waist. He waited silently for her to continue.

“I…I won’t say I didn’t mean it, ‘cause I did. It was like I finally understood why I’d felt, ever since…” She shook her head, frustrated. “I’m not saying this right.”

“But you’re saying it.” The fingers of his right hand twined with hers.

She licked her lips and started again. “There are things I knew from the beginning — and it wasn’t just knowing, it was more than that, like I didn’t even have to think about it, it just was. You showed me the end of the world and we ate chips and I just knew.” She tightened her grip on his hand. “It wasn’t that you changed. I’m human; I understand change.” She closed her eyes. “You left.”

He couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Rose–”

“And you came back, furious and wonderful and sort of brown, but I couldn’t…you left me, you were gone, and those things I knew, those things I’d been so sure of — I forgot them.” Her eyes opened and she looked down at their entwined fingers. “But I remember now.”

His lips grazed her temple. “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds,” he said solemnly, but she could feel the curve of his smile.

She chuckled. “Tennyson again?”

“It’s a recurring motif,” he replied. There was a short pause, and she waited, sensing he had more to say. “I haven’t always…there are things I should have…” he began unsurely. “I’ve made mistakes.”

She hid a smile. “That an apology?”

“I’m working on it, all right?” he said snippily.

“Well, don’t strain yourself. I can wait.” She trailed her fingernails up the soft skin of his forearm to the dip of his elbow and she felt the swell of his chest as he inhaled sharply. “We have time.”

His left hand slid from her waist to the curve of her ribcage, his thumb just barely grazing the fabric of her bra. Her heart beat against his palm and he pulled her flush against his chest until she could feel the scratch of his tie against her bare skin. Her fingertips followed the path of tendons and muscle back down his arm to the velvety skin at his wrist, where she traced the blue of his veins and the lines of his skin, and then, mad and dizzy and joyful, she raised his hand to her mouth and brushed her lips against the drum beat of his pulse.

“Rose,” he said. For months she’d heard nothing but the rise and fall of his voice, this new voice that was so rarely silent, but she’d never heard him sound like that. He’d said her name like it was the only word he knew, pulled from the back of his throat in a rasp that dimmed the lights and sent her mind racing to impossible places.

She stood paralyzed for an unbearably long moment before she realised that he was expecting a reply. “Yeah?” she managed, and was very proud of herself.

“I have a question.” His lips against the shell of her ear, his voice a whisper, and she was going to go mad.

“What?”

“At what point in the past day or so was your hair set on fire?”

“Giant fire-breathing manatee,” she replied dazedly. “While you were unconscious. Nearly died. Saved by wall of shiny crickets.” Then the implications of his words sunk in. “My hair!” The sudden realization of how entirely awful she must look (and smell) served as an efficient mood killer. She winced. “Is it bad?”

“Well, it’s not good. Sort of…” he hesitated. “Charred.”

She stepped out of his embrace and there was a slight slurping sound as his now gloopy shirtfront clung to the skin of her back. “I need a mirror,” she said, and after opening a few drawers he found one and handed it to her.

On the right side of her head towards the back there was a spot where clearly there had once been hair, but were now only frazzled roots. “Oh my God,” she murmured miserably, her hand hovering over the damage, almost afraid to touch it.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” This Doctor, she knew, took quality hair care very seriously. “We can get it fixed. I know just the–” He stopped. “Wait, I’m sorry, did you say giant fire-breathing manatee?”

“Well, I know it wasn’t actually a manatee, but that’s the best I can do. S’not like it was wearing a name tag.”

“Seriously? Big upright manatee, spurting flames out its mouth?” He sounded like a little kid who’d peeked at the presents under the Christmas tree. “Oh, but that’s brilliant! I thought they were extinct! And they’re still living right here in the Garden after all this time?” He paused, then placed one hand on the counter and leaned into her. “Rose…”

She knew that tone of voice. “Absolutely not.”

“But–”

“My hair, on fire. You, dead to the world. Crickets, who you neglected to mention were telepathic. So, no. No more field trips to the Garden of Misery and Earthquakes and Supposedly Extinct Sea Mammals who are not in any way frightened by songs about Henry the Eighth!”

Her heavy breathing sounded unnaturally loud in the otherwise quiet room.

“Feel better now?” the Doctor asked after a moment.

“Much, thanks.” She leaned against the counter and smiled up at him. “You were saying something about getting my hair fixed?”

“Oh, yes!” He grabbed her hand and bounced out the infirmary door and down the corridor to the console room. “Perfect place, you’ll love it. Waterfalls and music and the most luxurious spa in the tri-galaxy area.” He paused mid-bounce and she nearly smacked into him. “Well, second most luxurious, but seeing as we are each of us sadly lacking tentaculated protuberances, this one will have to do.”

Rose laughed, delighted and entirely skeptical. “You’re taking me to a spa?”

He gave her a playful frown. “Now, why do you say it like that? You’d think I didn’t take you to all sorts of nice places.” He dashed around the console, flicking switches and turning cranks, setting the course for their next destination. He looked up at her and beamed. “You hungry?”

She let her tongue slip between her teeth as she grinned. “Starving.”

He ambled over to her, his eyes dark and flirtatious. “They have food there, Rose, that you wouldn’t believe. Cakes and wine and fruit you’ve never dreamed of, and oh–” he moaned. His eyes fell closed and she gulped. “The chocolate.”

“Chocolate?” she repeated, her voice gone hoarse.

“Chocolate.” He opened his eyes and grinned. “You,” he said, his voice low, “are going to love it.” He reached around her, his arm brushing her naked side, and flicked one last switch. The TARDIS lurched into the vortex and they tumbled into each other, laughing.

She patted his damp shirtfront. “You’d better change first. You’re covered in banana gloop.”

He looked at her intently, and though his eyes never left her face, she felt a sudden, fierce awareness of her exposed skin. “You’re hardly covered at all,” he said, and there was heat beneath the teasing in his tone. He winked at her. “And in need of a shower, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Oi!” She poked him in the chest. “Watch it, or I won’t share my chocolate.” She paused. “Is it just me, or did that come out sort of–”

“Dirty, both figuratively and literally! That’s my girl.” He shooed her towards the corridor. “Go, bathe and dress yourself. Then we shall away.” He returned to the console, setting the new coordinates.

She took a few backwards steps. “Is there anything I should bring? You know, in case of emergency? First aid kit, mountain climbing gear, helicopter?”

“Rose,” he groaned.

“I’m just saying, whenever we go somewhere to relax, that’s when–”

“Look, everything is going to be fine, I swear.” The Doctor bounded up to her, slipped his hand into hers, and smiled. “It’s you and me, Rose. What could possibly go wrong?”

++

It was a dark and stormy night.

Or perhaps not — from the four hundred and forty-seventh floor of the Hyacinth Hotel (second most luxurious spa resort in the tri-galaxy area) it was nearly impossible to tell. The Hyacinth had no windows, so the concepts of ‘night’ and ‘dark’ were entirely contingent upon the clock radio and the light switch, and if a storm had raged outside, it would have been far below, closer to the planet’s surface.

But Lena Croy von Stade, three-time Beauty Queen of the Balafon System and this year’s favourite for the InterGalactic Crown (Humanoid Division), possessed a temperament predisposed to melodrama, and as she sat in her darkened suite, lit solely by the bulbs framing the grand mirror of her vanity, she was quite determined that it was, in fact, a dark and stormy night.

Though prone to histrionics in general, on the evening in question Lena’s tears were unflatteringly sincere. The skin around her eyes was swollen and red, her face sickeningly pale. Each attempt to reapply her mascara only added to the rivulets of black sludge streaming down her wan cheeks.

“I h-hate him,” she moaned to herself, her nose leaking unpleasantly. “I hate hate hate him. And his stupid trousers too.”

There was another knock on the door of her suite, louder this time. “Madame von Stade? Are you in there?” It was her manager, Herbert. The rest of her entourage had finally gotten nervous enough to call in the big guns.

“Go away!” She slammed her fist down on the wooden surface of her vanity, rattling the bottles of creams and perfumes. “Why won’t you bloodsucking bastards just leave me alone?”

“I beg your pardon, Madame, but you’ll be late for the Opening Ceremonies Banquet,” Herbert said, as maddeningly reasonable as ever. “Perhaps if you unbolted the door, Evelyn and Puce could help you dress–”

Lena let out an inarticulate scream and hurled a bottle of outrageously expensive hand cream at the door. It shattered on impact. “Piss off!”

Judging by the fading murmurs from the hallway, they did just that.

Turning back to her reflection in the mirror, Lena let out a choked sob. “They left me. Ungrateful, greedy…everyone leaves me…” She straightened her back and stared defiantly at her own wretched face. “See if I care. I don’t need them. Any of them.”

She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her dressing gown and began to apply her makeup, lipstick in one hand, eye shadow in another, and in the third she clutched a crumpled, tear-stained piece of paper. A letter.

Lena was well on her way to looking presentable again when the light bulbs surrounding her mirror flickered out, sending the room into total darkness. She sat back in her chair, dropping the wand of eye liner. “This is impossible. How am I to be expected to meet expectations when this stupid hovel of a hotel can’t even…” her voice faded, her rant unfinished. There, in the mirror before her, was the tiniest flicker of light.

She spun in her chair, but there was nothing behind her. The room was dark, empty. She slowly turned again to the mirror. The light danced, illuminating small parts of her own reflection — her nose, her left ear, the dimple in her chin. Fascinated, she reached out and touched her finger to the golden glimmer.

It began to grow, spreading across the surface of the mirror, larger and larger until it swallowed the reflection of her face. It became blindingly bright, but when Lena tried to close her eyes and pull her hand away, she could not. She was held frozen, unmoving, as the light encompassed the whole of the mirror, bathing her in its radiance.

Though Lena may have thought the Hyacinth a hovel, there was one thing you could say in its defense — the walls between suites were far too thick for anyone to hear her scream.

The room went dark, and one crumpled, tear-stained piece of paper fell to the floor, forgotten.

++

To be continued in Heartbreak Hotel, coming this fall!


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