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.
“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.
“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, 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.
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