Weeks pass. It’s the sort of hectic lifestyle where one planet leads to another, leads to another, until eventually both the Doctor and Rose feel quite giddy from the intensity. On more than one occasion Rose requests some ‘time off’, to recharge, but the Doctor always brushes it off and entices her to another new, exciting adventure with a glint in his eye.
She always gives in, of course, because this is the life she loves. But over the time they spend together, she begins to notice subtle differences in their dynamic. He talks to her less and less like she’s equal to him, and more and more as though she’s a daft pet he’s decided to keep around out of pity. He barely takes her hand any more, unless it’s a situation of life or death, and even when he looks at her, it’s as though he’s looking through her. The sparkle has faded from his eyes and his smile, and it worries her.
And, over time, she’s noticed something else. What they do, the Doctor and her, has stopped being just an adventure. It’s almost turned into work. The Doctor always gets dragged into nefarious plots, and she always ends up tangled in the middle... even the rescues feel like they’re all just part of the job. It’s only down to her quick thinking that they manage to escape Morna, but the Doctor doesn’t say a word of it.
He takes her to a place called the Howling Halls, a name that puts Rose off from the start. She doesn’t want to go, but the Doctor doesn’t heed, he says they have no choice — he has been summoned, and they must go. Something escapes and they end up chasing it through time and space, but not before it kills a whole load of people, humans and aliens alike, in its wake. When they finally return home after that one, and Rose tries to talk about it, the Doctor just shrugs and moves on.
Then, of course, there are the dreams. The horrific nightmares of screams and explosions and misery, the ones that plague her every other night. She’s lucky if she feels well-rested in the morning.
They’re a recent addition to her and the Doctor’s time together, but she hasn’t yet dared approach him about it. It’s not exactly something she would easily talk about anyway, but the Doctor’s recent attitude makes it that much harder. For not the first time, Rose wonders if he’s changed his mind about having her on board.
She’ll never ask him, of course, but she’s free to wonder.
“You’re okay, aren’t you?”
They’ve just come back from Zenahide, a place where everything likes to be upside down. Gravity was able to work in more than one dimension, the Doctor tried to explain, which was why some things were fixed to the ceilings and some things fixed to the floor. It had been all well and good until somebody had spat in Rose’s face — apparently the custom for the planet — and she’d had a go at them before she could stop herself. Then they had been taken to the Lord Emperor for their impertinence, and the Doctor had done some very quick thinking.
They’d got out safe and sound, with only a few minor bruises from all the running they’d had to do afterwards.
He looks up, sonic screwdriver still in hand and attached to something nameless on the console of the TARDIS. His face is contentedly bland. “Of course.”
“No, but,” Rose slides out of the Captain’s chair and walks slowly towards him, “are you really okay? You’ve seemed a bit...” She doesn’t know how to phrase it, isn’t even sure why she started.
“A bit what?” he asks, still as distractedly; he’s not even looking at her now.
Rose, in an effort to make some sort of peace with him, puts a hand on his wrist. He stills. “You won’t even look at me,” she says quietly.
His head stays bowed for a moment, before he looks up at her. He slides his arm from her grip. “Yes I will. Look, I’m doing it now.” He gives a false grin that Rose doesn’t believe, and she can see in his eyes that neither does he.
Now is the moment she can drop it, she decides. Now she can lower her arm, shake her head, walk away. But, for once, something holds her here.
“Doctor... You’re not fooling me.”
The grin fades. “I know.”
As they stand staring at each other, suddenly Rose realises that something between them has changed. Not in the superficial way which might be him trying to distance himself from her, for whatever reason... but something... else. She can see it in his eyes, feel it in the air around them.
Something between them has changed, and she doesn’t like that he won’t tell her what it is.
Because he knows. She can see it.
“Doctor...” she implores again, because she doesn’t have anything else to say.
He locks his jaw together so tightly she can see the muscles in his mouth clench. She watches him swallow and listens to the dull sound the saliva makes as it slithers down his throat. The way he’s looking at her, in a silent pleading way which means he’s begging her to leave it be, is so beautiful the Rose feels taken aback.
“What’s changed?” she asks quietly.
“Rose, I...” He stops, takes in a breath. “There’s something...” He stops again, and Rose finds herself holding her own breath. He’s frowning, painfully, as though whatever he’s been hiding inside himself all this time is bursting to get out, like some sort of dark, caged creature. “I can’t...”
She offers as much compassion her voice alone will allow. “Tell me?”
To see her looking at him like this, so honest and caring and hopeful, makes this suffering almost too much to bear. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he hears a little voice that tells him she’ll accept him and forgive him no matter what he does.
But then he remembers. He remembers as the images, unbidden, flicker back into his mind. The images of Rose beneath him, around him, crying and beautifully naked. They burn, and he can’t get rid of them, and he can’t tell her. He just can’t.
He wants to tell her, oh so much; he can feel the guilt and the regret and the admittance rising up in him as though he’s about to be sick. For the past few weeks it’s felt as though someone’s been sitting on his chest, crushing the ability to breathe and think and care right out of him, until all that’s left is this consuming emptiness.
Maybe he should just tell her and get it over with.
Astoundingly, his mouth opens, and words start to come out. “I... I... — ”
He is interrupted, much to his desolation, by the obnoxious ringing of Rose’s mobile. She jumps, then looks up to him apologetically. Perhaps she means to ignore it. But then he looks down at the floor, and the moment is gone, lost forever in the whirl of time and space.
Rose turns away from him as she answers her phone, so he has only her back to watch.
“Okay, Mum, slow down,” he hears, and there’s agitation in her voice. Something has happened. The Doctor straightens, feels himself put up the barriers he so briefly let down. By the sound of things, Rose — or Jackie — will need him, and he refuses to let his own feelings get in the way of either of them. They’re worth more than that.
“Mum, Mum, it’s okay... Calm down... Yeah, course we’ll come... But who’s this ‘Elton’?”
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