She is asleep, finally, and the Doctor lets out a wearied sigh, his eyes closing with grief. He bows his head, hands braced against the controls, arms straight and back arched, and just lets himself exist for a moment. He tries to remember how he used to feel, all those months ago. Before Rose. Before the War. Before all of time and space. It is nothing and everything all at once, adjectives that seem useless and happiness that is only content when he thinks of Rose, of the War, of life.
It has been a long day. The trip to Woman Wept is supposed to have served as a cheering up visit, but he’s not entirely sure he hasn’t just made things worse. She let out a lot about her Dad, probably things that she has never told anyone else in the world.
As he gazes distantly into space, a small smile plays at his lips.
Then it is shaken away quickly and he steels himself, reminding himself that it does not matter who she tells, or why, or how. There are things in his mind that he has never told anyone else. Things that she will never know, that nobody will ever know. Things he wishes he didn’t know himself. Because he can’t change the past, yet still these images haunt him.
Damn them all.
He tries to push dark thoughts out of his mind, but this time they are persistent and he soon feels threatened. A shrouded haziness is touching the corner of his vision and he feels himself swaying slightly on his feet, gripping the controls tighter to steady himself.
His knuckles turn white. He doesn’t notice.
Then the Doctor wonders what Rose would do if she were here, remembers her hand in his when she gripped so hard he thought she was never going to let go. She would tell him not to be silly, that she was there, that it’s all right to be afraid. Oh, his Rose. She teaches him so much.
He remembers she spoke about her father openly, willingly — and he knows how difficult it is for her to open up about that. Especially after what they have just been through. She told stories, wonderful stories, that made him wish his own family were alive. Then they had been at the front door all too soon, forced to go back to the lives they lead rather than the lives they wish to have.
There is something she said that bothers him. Some passing comment that stuck with him while she spoke. Though he paid attention to her keenly, his mind kept wandering back to this one little point, and now he is alone with nothing much else to think, her voice fills his head as the memory replays itself.
“It’s a bit like riding a bike. You never forget.” The warmth of her arm around his waist is comforting, too comforting, but he cannot do anything to stop it. Instead he pushes forwards, his boots making deep footprints in the soft ground. “There’s nothing like your first bike. It always means something, y’know.”
She turns her head to look him squarely in the eye, not sure whether to laugh or agree. “You’re serious? They had bikes on your planet?”
“Yeah,” he scoffs, as if it is the most obvious thing in the world. “Course! You wouldn’t recognise it as a bike, but it was. Hell of a thing to ride, though — I’d take my chance with the TARDIS.”
“Blimey; must be bad.”
“Oi!” He laughs with her, the gentle sounds seeping into the atmosphere. For a moment or two, the wind picks up again and he holds her torso as close to his as he can. He wonders if she can feel his double heartbeat. Then he wonders if it matters.
A little time goes on — enough to make him have to back track their conversation to make sense of her comment.
“I never had a first.”
Even so, he still looks at her with that sideways glance, the sort of look that might mean something else if the laws of black and white were different. “Bike?” he offers.
Rose shivers and nods in his arm. He nods with her.
“You never learnt?”
“No, I did. But it was with Kirsty from down the road. I used her brother’s — it was mad, almost went straight into a bleeding lamppost. Bit big for a first go, but I managed.” She pauses and looks around them, feeling comfortable in his arms. He doesn’t push her, and eventually she continues, “I’ve never ridden one since.”
“Have you not?” he asks, surprised.
“Nah. Not really much call for it.” Then she is looking back at him and the world falls away. “Not with this sort of life. Not with you.”
He doesn’t quite know what else to say aside from that, but his mind is whirling already. She’s right, in a way — there is no call for bike riding in this life. Unless they end up on Gamma V, but that’s unlikely considering its coordinates and unstable atmosphere.
“Have I lost you?”
He snaps himself out of his mindset almost at once, grinning to her. “Nope, can’t get rid of me that easily. What were you saying?”
“I was saying that Mum never got the whole ‘bike’ thing. Reckon she thought it woulda been Dad’s expertise. And even then, we couldn’t afford one, anyway.”
“That’s a pity. Every girl should have a first bicycle. How old were you when you learned to ride?”
Snippets and cuttings of the memory stick themselves to the foremost part of his mind, making it difficult for him to concentrate on much else. Until finally, he has made a decision.
He moves around the TARDIS controls carefully, quietly, like a clumsy man in a china shop. He pleads with his ship that once — just this once — she can do things like he asks, quietly and quickly. She obeys. It’s about ten minutes later, after he has hunted through the storage cupboard near the back end of the second room, that he pokes his head out of the doors of the TARDIS and, without a sound, leaves one of the best presents a twelve year old girl on a council estate can ever have.
And the next time they meet, he gives her the stars. Just because he can.
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