Rose slowly drew her hands back from the closure of the Doctor's trousers, feeling incredibly awkward. He lay unmoving before her, his upper body tangled in the bedding and eyes wide.
"Doctor? 'M sorry, I wasn't... I mean, I just didn't wanna get the bed dirty...." She trailed off, unsure of what to do as he blinked at her and shifted in the bedding.
His voice sounded hoarse and scratchy, but it was real and alive and she felt grateful with every fiber of her being. She risked glancing at him and was surprised to see a flash of what looked like fear cross his features. Thinking she could soothe him, she brought a hand to his forehead to smooth the fringe from his eyes and was dismayed when he flinched away from her touch.
"Rose? You... are you Rose?" Confused, Rose watched as he weakly pushed up from the bed and reached a tentative hand to her face.
"Please," he implored, his voice unsteady.
She suddenly realized with a pang of guilt that he didn't know whether she was herself or Melina, and that Melina had used their bond to confuse and deceive him. Leaning forward to facilitate his touch, she closed her eyes as she felt the contact of his cool fingers with her left temple.
She was in her meadow again, the golden shimmering walls that had served as mental shields now crumbling to dust around her. The shimmering particles were kicked up and swirled about by the wind, and she shielded her eyes from the assault, looking for the Doctor. She couldn't see him, but she could feel the warm sun on her face as the wind calmed to a gentle breeze that caressed her features. She could almost sense his presence if she concentrated....
"Rose." The Doctor's voice was a groan as his fingers slipped from her temple and he collapsed back down to the bed, his face drawn and exhausted. He panted for a moment before pursing his lips. "Same teeth," he noted quietly. "What happened? From the way I feel right now, I take it things didn't go quite according to plan?"
"No, not quite," Rose affirmed. "Gave me a scare, you did. I didn't know if you were going to make it for a few minutes there. Sister Ohica had to give you the last of their Elixir."
"Oh. I suppose I'm still rubbish at regeneration, then," the Doctor said quietly. "Among other things," he added under his breath. He was silent for a few moments and Rose squeezed his hand. "Where's Melina?" he asked, his eyes quickly scanning the room.
"Um... she's a baby," Rose replied. "Did you know that would happen?"
"I was fairly sure that would happen, yes," he responded, still looking around the room. "She's not in here, is she?"
"No. Sister Ohica took her. She's probably getting her nappy changed, or maybe having a sleep."
"Good, I'm glad." The Doctor shut his eyes wearily. "She'll have another chance, and I'm usually not one for second chances. Maybe she'll turn out differently this time."
"So, um... " Rose changed the subject. "Your trousers are pretty dirty and I think there might be some of that slimy stuff on them. You're gonna get the bed all messy if you leave them on."
"If they bother you that much, take them off," the Doctor replied, his eyes still closed.
"And you're ok with that?"
"I can control myself, if that's what you're worried about," he replied. "My mental shields may not be the best right now, but they're serviceable enough - " he trailed off as Rose kissed him on his cheek.
"Good to have you back," she said, grinning. Her smile faded as he opened his eyes to stare at her, an uncomfortable expression on his face. "So is this how it's gonna work then?" she accused. "You're just gonna keep shutting me out?"
He rubbed at one eye tiredly before blinking at her. "It's not like that, Rose."
"Then why don't you tell me how it is, exactly - 'cause I really think I should know." Rose prepared herself for the inevitable as the Doctor sighed heavily.
"It's just, well, it's hard to explain, really," he said as he fidgeted in the bed. "I've put a bond on you, without your consent or permission. I'm pretty sure that I remember you saying you were ok with it. Well, after the fact, of course." He paused, swallowing hard. "But that still doesn't make it right."
"'M ok with it, really - " Rose tried in vain to interrupt before he said something she really didn't want to hear, but the Doctor continued as if she hadn't spoken.
"It's a strange thing, the bonding process," he said, fatigue filtering through his voice. "I think I must've put it on you when we were on Satellite Five. I'm guessing the energy that I absorbed from you dropped my mental shields just enough to facilitate the contact. With my barriers intact, I barely perceive the bond at all. It's not that it's a bad thing, it's just something we're taught when we're young - absolute control."
"So the only time you ever, um... really feel things is when your barriers are down?" Rose asked. "That's really sad. But you can do that, yeah?"
"What, just drop them?" The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "That's actually rather difficult - goes against years of training and it isn't something that comes naturally. More of an involuntary thing, really," he said, not meeting her gaze. "Takes some getting used to - not having those barriers up. For you, it'd be akin to walking by the crowds at Buckingham Palace starkers."
"I don't understand," Rose said. "How did your people ever, um, get together with all of these barriers and things?"
"They didn't have to," the Doctor replied groggily. "With the advent of the looms, there was no real need to. At least not for the most part. When Gallifrey still existed, there were bondings and matings, for, ah... recreational purposes, in addition to providing a family unit for primary child-rearing, before secondary education commenced at the academy. Bondings were still considered a throwback to the pre-Rassilon era - a more primitive aspect of my species. They were considered a very significant cultural... thing, though, as we mate for life. Even a weak bond can affect one quite strongly." He paused, obviously uncomfortable. "After the looms were created and artron energy replaced huon energy in general use, the barriers served more of a protective function, for the males, at least. Otherwise, in a telepathic species - it'd be complete chaos. Without those barriers, all you'd be able to think about would be going off with your mate or bonded partner and... well, snogging them, to put it in human terms. Nothing would ever get accomplished, hence the training that makes it terribly difficult to get the barriers down on a conscious level - I'd have to be very relaxed, I think," he said, rubbing at one eye with a finger.
Rose tried her best to ignore the Doctor's discomfort with the subject. "If it's an involuntary thing, to drop your barriers, I mean, how did the Sisters' soporific do it?" she asked.
"I've no idea. Maybe we can get a sample later and analyze it back in the TARDIS," he replied softly.
Silence settled in the room, save for the crackling of the fire. After a few moments, Rose decided to throw caution to the wind. "Would you ever want to have your barriers dropped again? So that you could feel... things?" she asked hesitantly.
"I... I think I'd like to be able to feel a bond again. I've been on my own now for a really, really long time and it's difficult to recall how it feels - to be part of a bond, that is. But it wasn't like what it could be now... back then. I'm not making any sense, am I?" He turned his head to her, looking at her sidelong.
"Didn't think so." He lay back on the pillow, closing his eyes. "It's just, it's something that will take some getting used to. I'm very obviously out of practice."
Rose scooted over to the Doctor's side, grabbing his hand and giving it a squeeze. "Is there anything I can do? Something I should be doing differently that would make things... easier for you? More comfortable?"
"No," he replied drowsily. "I'd never change anything about you, Rose. It wouldn't be you then, would it? If it happens, it happens."
She stroked her thumb across his in what she hoped was a comforting manner. "So... it could happen?" she asked in a small voice.
"I'm the one who put the bond on you in the first place, aren't I?" He turned on his side toward her, still holding her hand. "I don't know if I'm terribly suited to this sort of thing anymore. In fact, I never thought that I would be bonded again. It's not that it's a bad thing, just unexpected," the Doctor said, trying and failing to stifle a yawn.
"'S ok," Rose said, trying to keep her voice as normal as she could. "I won't make you talk about it." She gently disengaged her hand from his and began to rub his side slowly, up and down, until his breathing slowed and she believed he had gone back to sleep. "You'll have to put up with my lousy attempts to play nursemaid until you're feeling better, though," she said quietly.
"I've survived worse," he replied sleepily, his voice muffled in the bedding. Rose jerked in surprise.
Well, Rose thought. Still rude and, thankfully, not ginger.
The Doctor slept for another short period of time, during which Lyra returned, bringing two pitchers of warm water and another basin with her, leaving them by the fireplace to keep them warm. After checking the Doctor's pulses and the rhythm of his hearts, she seemed to be satisfied with the progress of his recovery. Rose couldn't think of anything additional that was needed, so Lyra exited again, taking the used basins and laundry with her.
The Doctor woke again soon after Lyra left. He seemed a bit more awake, so Rose helped him into a sitting position after finally removing his trousers, ducking her head as she did so to hide her flaming cheeks. When he was tucked in again under the maroon plush bedding, Rose went through the food, finding with some disappointment that there was none of the gorgeous chocolate that had been there previously. The Doctor didn't seem upset by this, however, and proceeded to wolf down most of the bread pudding, but took his time with some of the smaller fruits that had been provided, sharing them with Rose. One tasted like a fizzy pink grapefruit with a hint of vanilla, and Rose smiled at the effervescent feel of the fruit on her tongue.
As the Doctor polished off a bowl of yellow grape-shaped fruit, Rose's gaze was drawn to his hair, still wildly askew. "We should really wash your hair," she suggested.
The Doctor paused, the last of the yellow fruit halfway between the bowl and his mouth. "Oh. Well, washing would be... good. Better than good - brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I'll wash up when we get back to the TARDIS - "
Rose cut him off mid-sentence. "You've still got a little bit of blood in it, and I think you'd feel a lot better. We could do it right here - Lyra brought more water, so we should have everything that we need."
"Except hair gel," he pouted.
Rose rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I don't think the Sisters would have any of whatever it is you use. C'mon, let's just get it done." She watched as the Doctor popped the yellow fruit in his mouth and set the bowl back on the tray. He was obviously still reluctant, and Rose had no idea why. Exasperated, she helped him disengage himself from the bedding.
After a few minutes of gentle coaxing, the Doctor lay face down, still shirtless, with his head and shoulders hanging off the side of the bed and his lower half covered up with the maroon plush. On the floor below him was the empty basin Lyra had brought, the stoppered flask of amber-hued oil, the pitchers of warm water and the remaining towels. Rose's fingers were buried in his hair, massaging and scrubbing thoroughly and eradicating every itchy spot that she was directed to. By the time she reached the nape of his neck, the Doctor was gripping the mattress hard while kicking his feet, and giving her all sorts of throaty encouragement.
Rose grinned and indulged him, enjoying the feel of his wet hair sliding between her fingers. She was fairly sure that his hair had been clean for a while now, but every time she tried to remove her fingers, the Doctor would groan pitifully and she would go back to her gentle massage of his scalp. She'd already let him get away with it four times and her arms were beginning to tire.
After rinsing his hair with the last of the water in the second pitcher, she grabbed a towel up from the floor and began to dry his head, rubbing in slow circles while he moaned heavily and kicked his feet anew. After a second toweling to get it as dry as possible, she ran her fingers through his hair to style it as best she could, and the Doctor made a soft, contented sigh, his head and shoulders drooping over the side of the bed. Rose leaned forward to press a kiss to his bare shoulder, standing up to help resituate him back on the pillows.
After getting the Doctor tucked up in the bed again, she gazed down at his profile, wanting very much to lean closer to take in his scent as well. He turned his head to look at her then, and smiled softly, making her heart skip a beat. She scooted closer to him, curling her fingers into the crook of his elbow.
"There's something I want to tell you," Rose murmured, trying to muster up her courage, which threatened to desert her now that the Doctor was very much awake.
"What's that?" the Doctor responded, his eyes unfocused. Rose caught herself leaning forward slightly for a better look and quickly shifted back. "What is it you want to tell me?" he offered when the silence stretched longer than it should have. Rose squeezed his arm, wondering why she suddenly felt like hiding.
"Sorry, it's just... hard, that's all."
He waited patiently for her to speak and Rose tried to loosen the death-grip she now had on his arm.
"I... I love you. Please don't say anything yet, just let me finish. I mean, I love you and I think this could work, between you and me. I know how much older you are and I feel like I want to run away from you right now, but I'm through with that! Oh God, I sound completely mental, don't I?" she babbled, not wanting to meet his gaze.
"Rose," the Doctor began in a low voice, "I don't think you sound crazy at all, I know - "
"Wait, please," she pleaded in desperation. "I want, no, I need to tell you this, because you said you weren't suited to this. I've never had trouble just talking to you before and here I have something important to say to you and I feel like I'm ten years old! I don't understand this bonding stuff, but... I want to. I want to learn. I want to learn everything I can about it, from you and with you... because I love you. I don't want to make you nervous around me, or uncomfortable, or push something on you that you maybe don't want or aren't ready for, but I had to tell you. I had to," she said, her shoulders slumping.
"Rose, I understand what you're saying, but there's something I have to tell you, too. My mental barriers - " the Doctor started.
"Whatever you want to do," Rose interrupted, "I'll do it. Whatever you want, I want that too. I want you to be happy, I'll do anything to make that happen for you, just please let me try! Whatever you decide, I'll live with it, I promise. So don't feel like you have to - "
Rose was interrupted by a pair of soft lips pressed to hers. How had he sat up so quickly? He broke the kiss to whisper in her ear.
"My barriers are down."
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