They’re sitting in the library with two cups of tea. A fire is roaring in the grate, crackling away happily as it fills the room with cosy heat. Rose is sitting on the sofa, her feet tucked underneath her, and she holds her mug in both of her hands as she stares distractedly into the fire. The Doctor sits in an armchair just to the side, spectacles perched on his nose as he frowns down to a chessboard on the small coffee table in front of him.
It’s part of the rare down-time they share, because for once the Doctor couldn’t think of an excuse to hop off and do something else.
He remembers once trying to teach Rose how to play chess. She was good, he recalls, but they haven’t played in a while, and she declined his offer earlier tonight. Now he’s playing to teach himself how to checkmate his opponent in three moves: his father could do it, years ago, and it used to stump him every time.
“D’you reckon they’ll be okay?” Rose asks, and it takes a moment for the Doctor to respond. He picks up a knight, black, hesitates, then puts it back in the same place, considering a different tactic.
“Who?” he asks.
“Elton and Ursula. Now that she’s... well, got a good relationship with a paving slab, let’s say.”
The Doctor’s mouth twitches up slightly in a smile; he always did like the way Rose phrased things. “Oh, I imagine they’ll be all right,” he says wearily, sighing and sitting back in the chair. “They’re quite unique.”
Rose looks at him. “Are they?”
“Well, if I turned into a paving slab, would you still want to spend your whole life with me?” It’s meant as a joke, of course, but the tone that accompanies it and the raised eyebrows as he says it probably spell it differently to Rose. She sits up a little, careful not to spill tea on the plush red sofa, and looks him right in the eye. He wishes he hadn’t asked.
But then, miraculously, she seems to understand, and she laughs. It’s been a long time since he’s heard it like that; he’d forgotten what it sounded like.
“I could call you slab-face,” she jokes, and without meaning to, he lets out a small explosion of laughter in response that sounds like something mixed with a sheep and a dog. There is silence in the room for a few seconds as he abashedly tries to go back to his chessboard, but then before he knows it, they are both helpless with laughter.
“That was — the stupidest sound — I have ever — heard!” Rose pants, this time failing to protect the sofa from a splash or two of tea. The Doctor, still giggling, agrees. Picking up his tea, he decides his chess game is never going to get finished, and crosses the room to sit next to Rose. It feels like such a natural thing to do he wonders why he didn’t do it earlier.
“Been a hell of a day, hasn’t it?” he says with feigned tiredness as he collapses back into the sofa.
“Been a hell of a lifetime,” Rose quips back, then ducks her head as she takes a sip of tea. The Doctor looks at her, pondering what she means. He then looks away, into the fire, and watches as the flames hungrily lick the edges of the grate. He almost feels normal, sitting like this, as though nothing has happened. Of course, there’s the tight coil of guilt resting just above his diaphragm that he knows will never quite go away, but aside from that it almost feels like they’re companions again.
In response, he says, “Try having ten of them.”
Rose smiles. “No, thanks. I don’t think I could cope with all that... regeneration stuff. Don’t you find it weird? The whole ‘same man, new face’ thing?”
From the wistful look in her eye, he knows she is remembering him — the old him — and he can’t help but smile at that. It is good to be remembered while he’s still alive. If he tries, he can still remember the feel of that old jacket, the woollen jumpers, the close-cropped hair and the leather wristwatch. He doesn’t wear a watch now, doesn’t feel the need for the pretence. But it’s nice to remember.
It’s then that he realises Rose looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer.
“Well...” He puffs out his cheeks, considering her question. “After the first time, it’s not so strange. I always forget what it’s like, though, the feeling of... newness. It’s exciting. There’s nothing like wanting to test yourself out, find your own limits and boundaries. It’s great fun. If you lived for hundreds of years, you’d probably get bored of yourself, too. It’s good to have a bit of variation every couple of centuries.”
Rose snorts into her tea, then looks up to him with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. “Every couple of centuries? Does that mean you’ve got to live for four hundred years in this one, then?” She reaches out and tickles him gently in the ribs.
“Oi!” He laughs and grabs her wrist gently, trying to pry her away from him.
“To make up for the short time of the last one?” she adds, tongue dipping out from between her teeth.
He’s helpless to reply for a few moments as he tries, unsuccessfully, to push Rose’s hands away. Eventually she relents and he glares at her, mockingly. She looks back imploringly.
“I won’t live through four hundred years,” she says, as though that isn’t obvious enough. The Doctor, not wanting to dwell on thoughts like that, says nothing. “So I guess this — ” she gestures to his body with her hand “ — is all I have from now on.”
When he still doesn’t say anything, Rose just shrugs and gazes absently away from him, the moment gone. He watches her. She has a beautiful profile, he remarks to himself, especially with firelight reflecting off it.
“Look, Rose...” He shifts a bit on the sofa, closer to her, leaving his elbow draped over the back. “Recently you may have noticed me acting a bit...”
She looks at him, the movement quick. “Odd?” she supplies. “Distant?”
“Right,” he agrees quickly. He dips his head, once, in a nod. “Right, yes. ‘Odd’. And, well... I just wanted to say... sorry.”
She stares at him a moment as though what he said hasn’t quite registered. Then she shakes her head a little, waking herself up from wherever her mind took her. “Not like you to apologise, Doctor.”
“I always apologise!” he persists, only a little hurt. Rose’s eyebrows rise slightly and she give him a look as though he’s trying to cover up the truth. Quickly, he continues, before she can interrupt. “But, I mean it... I am sorry.”
He’s not going to give her any explanation, and likewise he knows that Rose doesn’t need one. He’s a bit shocked, however, when she avoids his gaze and starts to stare at the carpet.
“What’s the matter?” he asks, worried.
“It’s just...” She shakes her head, biting down her words. The Doctor suddenly feels a flitter of fear: something has been bothering her, and she hasn’t told him.
“What?” Gently, he decides, is the way to go. If he pushes too hard she might bolt like a wild animal.
“I thought... maybe... you were thinking of taking me back. To London.”
When she looks up, the Doctor feels like someone has just kicked him in the stomach. Doesn’t she know by now that no matter what happens he’s not just going to dump her ? Even if he wanted to, he’d never have the strength.
“Oh, Rose...” he responds, sympathetically, her revelation truly shocking him. “No...”
He moves towards her slightly, but she stops him, indicating the tea as a warning. He wonders if it’s an excuse.
“I’m all right,” she assures him, but he’s not sure if he believes her. “I know you’d never, really. It just... crossed my mind. That’s all.”
“Rose, I’ve told you: I’m not just going to dump you back on Earth. It’s up to you when you leave.”
The conversation seems to be over, as she bows her head and looks away. Whatever she’s thinking, the Doctor decides he probably can’t change her mind right now. He looks across the room at his unfinished game of chess, the abandoned pieces waiting patiently for his return. He’s just about to stand up when Rose speaks.
“Do you think love is really like that?” He looks back to her, a question in his eyes. “With Elton, I mean,” she clarifies.
The Doctor feels momentarily caught, like an animal in a snare. This is not a conversation he needs to be having.
“Um...” He swallows, hoping he can swallow this feeling away too. “...What do you mean?”
“Well, when Mum rang me she was really upset,” she explains, still not looking at him. “By the sound of it they’d had something of a thing going on... but he’d only been trying to get to me. Least, that’s what she said.”
“So...” the Doctor prompts. He can’t see the link.
“So.” She looks at him, shaking hair out of her face. “After everything he went through with Mum... he ended up with Ursula. He went through all that bother, trying to win her over, then sorta turned around and realised it was Ursula he wanted. Not my mum. It’s just a bit weird. You’d think he’d have seen her from the off. But it took him all that time to — ” She bites off her sentence then looks away again, shaking her head. “Sorry. It’s not important.”
A decidedly awkward silence hangs between them like a deflating helium balloon. The Doctor stares at Rose, feeling frozen to his seat. He’s watching her very much not looking at him, which he wants to change, but he’s also keenly aware that the conversation Rose is touching upon leads to very dangerous grounds. He wets his lips with his tongue, because they have suddenly become very dry.
Even by taking this moment, he knows he’s done too much to ignore it. He’s taken the time, registered what she said, and she’ll know that by now. He’ll have no excuse for getting up and leaving her alone. Best to take the bull by the horns, he decides, and he just hopes he comes out of it relatively alive.
“Well...” he begins, taking his opportunity to look elsewhere, at the wall for example, and keep his gaze fixed there. “That’s often the way of it, as far as I can tell. Humans often don’t see what’s right in front of them. It’s part of what makes them so... human. And then it makes it so much better when you do realise, because you can spend all that time fawning over the times you didn’t realise in the first place.”
He becomes increasingly aware that Rose is looking at him: he can practically feel her eyes burning into the side of his neck. Sure enough, when he turns and looks at her — and offers her a small, cursory smile — she’s staring at him like he’s just sprouted an extra head.
“What?” he asks innocently.
She blinks. “Nothing.”
“Oh, don’t give me that,” he says, chuckling. “You don’t get to use that one, I’m afraid. What is it?”
She’s still staring at him like she can’t quite fathom his existence. “Just... you. I’ve been with you... I dunno, months. Months and months and months.”
The Doctor smiles subtly. “Two years, three months and eight days, actually.”
She holds his gaze, her surprise getting more intense in her eyes. “Okay...” she continues slowly. “Two years, three months and eight days, then. And, in all that time, you still surprise me. Every time I think I’ve got you figured out, you change.”
“But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?” he asks, winking at her. He feels some of the threatening tension diffuse. He relaxes into the sofa again, shifting ever so slightly closer to Rose. He can’t help it; there’s just something about her warmth tonight that he wants to be close to.
She laughs, apparently unaware that he’s getting closer and closer to her. Their knees are touching, now. “I guess.”
“If you had to wake up next to this face every morning,” the Doctor continues before his brain can command his mouth to stop, “I dare say you’d get a bit bored of it. Surprising you in other ways just keeps things... interesting.”
Rose looks at him, and her eyes are calculating. She’s trying to figure something out about him and the Doctor just can’t help but smile at that thought. There’s something... comfortable about her looking at him in that way.
He watches as she hesitates, on the edge of words. He just looks back, patiently.
“Don’t... don’t change,” Rose says quietly. Before he’s aware of what’s happening, her hand is on his cheek, her nails just touching his skin. He becomes acutely aware of the stubble there and wonders what it must feel like to her.
He doesn’t move, either into the touch or away from it — he just sits on the sofa, looking at Rose, and concentrates very hard on pushing sentences with the word beginning with 'l' out of his mind.
She frowns, slightly, then swallows, and the tension in the room rockets into a different direction than before.
“Don’t change,” she whispers again, and she wears a look suspiciously of a woman who’s close to beginning to cry.
He wants to promise her that he won’t — but what does he know? He wants to tell her that they’ll always be like this, happy and content, but he knows from his own past that it won’t be the case. It can’t be the case. That’s not the way the universe works.
Slowly, he reaches up and takes her hand. He lowers it from his face then clasps it warmly between his.
“Rose...” he starts, but isn’t sure where to go from there. Looking at her becomes too much, so he glances to the floor instead. “Rose. We’re... I can’t...”
She squeezes his hand and it makes him look at her. The firelight makes shadows dance across her face and she looks so achingly beautiful that he wants to remain like this, forever, just looking at a wondrous beauty who, once upon a long time ago, was just an ordinary shop girl. Now, she’s more than that: now, she’s his. His.
“I know,” she says quietly, and she nods with it. “It’s okay, Doctor. No promises. It’s okay.”
Why does it feel like she’s just forgiven him for something she shouldn’t even know about?
With a shake of his head, the Doctor lets go of her hand. He wants to tell her that she’s fantastic and one of the most incredible people he’s met in his whole life. But the words won’t come. If he’s honest with himself, he feels a little overwhelmed.
“I think...” he says, after clearing his throat with a cough. “I think I’m going to head to bed.”
Rose frowns amusedly. “Going to sleep are you, Doctor?”
“Ah, but I didn’t say sleep, did I? There’s something... I need to do.”
Where, once, Rose may have stopped him, this time she doesn’t. He rises freely off the sofa and bids her a happy goodnight, before sliding his hands into his pockets and walking slowly towards his room.
He won’t sleep tonight, he knows that, despite the fact he can feel the rare ache of tiredness pulling at his consciousness. There are things he needs to do that are better done without Rose.
He lies for hours in his room, with the light on, and stares into the mirror on the other side of his room. He’s thinking, remembering, forcing himself to think about things he’d rather not in ways he never thought he would. He spends all night staring into his own deep, dark eyes, the eyes of a man who — through past actions — he should probably hate. But he doesn’t. By the end of the night, something changes. And finally, for the first time in weeks... he smiles.
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