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