He does love her. Of that there’s no question.
Like a litany he repeats the words of utter and complete devotion at every available opportunity. In the morning, only half awake with the dim light of day streaming through their window, or during the afternoon, taking lunch in a small café or running for their lives again. And always at night, the words flowing freely from him before they lay down, like a prayer to God, as if he’s asking forgiveness for his sins.
These words are always whispered, always private. Like a secret he’s still not convinced he has permission to tell but needs to share. There’s an odd shyness about these whispers, a timidity that she’s never seen in him before. She supposes it could make her worry, this uncertainty. But instead it adds a weight to the words, adds a vulnerability that makes them more real, more honest, to her (their) human ears.
It is this exposure, this weakness he allows more than anything else that lets her know he means it. Aching and bending with each syllable, feeling each raspy, whispered sound of the endearments. So evident is his defenselessness that she knows when he doesn’t say it, too. Can sense him living the words with his every look, with each careful touch and hesitant exploration. Loving her completely with each breath he takes.
The power of it is staggering.
And she’s loving him. Slowly and warily caring for him the way she did once, trying to relearn how to shelter a broken and grieving man with reassurances and easy smiles that used to come naturally to her. But she’s not the girl she used to be, and she has to wonder, listening to the declarations she has never expected but been waiting lifetimes (his) to hear, if he’s the same man.
It’s taking time, she’s finding, to love him the way she wants to. Like him she’s become vulnerable in his openness, this new reciprocation defining all the more clearly how much things have changed, how he — how they both — have been altered. It’s not unwelcome but it is unsettling, making her slow with her heart, offering it entirely but with codes and locks, making sure he has all the right passwords to make his way inside.
One night while they’re lying in bed, ready for sleep after learning each other in this new way, he says, “You don’t have to call me that.”
“What?” Asked slowly, with care.
She starts, turning herself onto her side to look at him, staring at his ill-defined features. “Do you not want me to?”
“No. Yes.” The outline of his profiled face looks helpless in the dark. “I can’t tell if I’m really that man, Rose. I feel I’m him, I want to be him. But—”
“What?” She stops herself from saying his name.
He turns to her for the first time. “He never would, but I did and would again.” His gaze returns to the ceiling. “Standing there on the crucible, it was the only choice.” A small shift in the sheets. “She was right, you know. Harriet Jones. I just never understood until…”
He trails off and she waits, knowing not rush.
“For the first time I realized that my life, even his life, is finite. I’m dying. Aging. I felt this body dissolving around me with the first beat of its heart. It’s terrifying.”
She doesn’t speak, not yet. Even this way, with this one human heart he has entrusted so completely to her, he is still guarded with his feelings, is still able to say nothing without pausing for breath.
“And I knew, listening to Caan and seeing what they had done, what I had done because of them, that I might not be around next time to stop it.” He glances at her again. “So I destroyed them. I killed them because I thought I was saving you all. I became the monster I was trying to defeat.” He turns away, shame marring his darkened features. “And the Doctor, the man you helped the Doctor become, would never have been able to do that.”
It breaks her heart, to see him turn away from her, this man she’s learning to love. “No, he wouldn’t have.”
He shuts his eyes and flinches, as if struck.
She sits up, leaning over his dejected form. Gently she brings a hand to his cheek, stroking the skin and coaxing him into looking at her once more.
“But you’re wrong, love.”
And she knows, as soon as the word leaves her lips, staring at this newborn, lost and dying man, the beautiful wreck before her eyes, that it is the only thing he has ever, could have ever, been.
And suddenly, she finds she’s known exactly how to love him all along.
“I’m afraid it’s much worse than all of that.”
He frowns, nervous and still terrified, even now.
“You’re no Dalek.” She traces his face with her fingers, trying to smooth out each furrowed line, to ease each tense, uncertain feature. To love every imperfect inch of him. “You’re human, Doctor.” She pauses, grins. Whispers, “Love.”
“Love,” he repeats deliberately, savoring the word on his tongue.
She feels his smile on her fingertips before he becomes bold, grasping her hands in his and bringing his lips to hers.
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