What I am, and what I
would, are as secret as maidenhead; to your ears,
divinity, to any other's, profanation. -Shakespeare, Twelfth Night I.v.
Nothing could compare with the bliss of traveling in the TARDIS with the Doctor again, but this chocolate was coming pretty close. I closed my eyes and moaned slightly.
“I don’t think anything this good would be legal on Earth, at least not to enjoy in public.” I quipped. The corners of the Doctor’s mouth twitched slightly, but he was too busy with a huge bite of chocolate cake to respond verbally.
He had taken my hint about chocolate quite literally and brought us to a restaurant on Laisha, a planet popular among fiftieth-century tourists. Laisha was scenic enough with tightly folded mountains shrouded in cloud forest, but the tourists came for the chocolate, or more precisely the chocolaisha. Species from different planets can almost never hybridize–even if they looked similar, there were usually far too many differences in the basic chemistry of cellular function–but nobody bothered to tell that to cocoa bushes brought by human colonists and a certain native shrub. The serendipitous hybrid shrub inherited from cocoa the beans that could be processed into a substance delectable to humans and from its Laishan side a refusal to grow in anything other than the understory of mature wild forest and mild intoxicating properties. Chocolaisha was, I discovered, a lush symphony of subtle flavors, some like raspberries and almonds but most with no descriptive words in English, combined with an alcohol-like slight buzz. The Doctor and I sat across from each other in a booth in a luxurious restaurant entirely devoted to chocolaisha, which was possibly the best idea for a dining experience in the known universe. He’d passed the time waiting for our order to arrive discoursing on the planet’s history and telling humorous stories about his last visit here, which seemed to involve the continental chief’s daughter following the Doctor around like a puppy, nearly getting herself killed numerous times before the Doctor finally got her settled with an appropriate suitor. As stories went it was well-told and fun, but as hints went it was neither subtle nor effective. I decided to play oblivious, which was not hard to do once the chocolaisa arrived and impaired my awareness of everything outside of the heaven in my mouth.
“I’d be chased by Yorplins every day if every chase ended with ended with this,” I said, raising my mug of hot chocolaisha. “To the TARDIS, enabler of my chocoholic ways!” The Doctor raised his mug and toasted back.
“To the TARDIS! Well, I’m glad to see you’ll be returning to Earth a happy woman,” he said. A stranger would have thought him cheerful, but I could read the little cues that bespoke grim purpose. This incarnation was always that way, like a little babbling brook of humor, manic energy, and jaunty heroism over the hard, jagged rocks of past pain and sense of separation. I suspected I was one of very few who knew that underneath that bedrock was an underground river of his great heart (well, hearts) flowing with vast love and endless hope. Sometimes I’m not even sure he knew it was there.
Torchwood enrolled me in university–if nothing else, being a student was a good cover for my secretive real job–and my literature classes have sparked a new tendency towards figurative language. I wondered if my Doctor would be proud or if he’d think I’d turned into a pretentious prat.
“Not so fast there! I have no intention of going to Earth just yet. There’s still so much I want to see. Barcelona–the planet, not the city. The banana groves of Villengard.”
“All that’s on Villengard is a weapons factory,” he said, slightly befuddled.
“Oh, you mean you haven’t visited it yet in this reality? Did I just cause a paradox? Oops!” I squeaked.
“You’re referring to an event in a parallel universe, not a different time in this same universe. No paradoxes there. You still can’t come with me.”
“If you are the slightest bit like your counterpart in my universe, you usually travel with somebody else. Someone to keep you excited about all the mortal peril and saving the world. Someone to help fly the TARDIS.”
“I can fly the TARDIS alone, thank you very much!” he huffed. He was obviously right; it was also true that when my fingers had touched the TARDIS’s controls she had made a sound curiously reminiscent of a purr. I’d felt a strange tickle in my mind, a flash of memory of ripping open the console to look into the heart of the TARDIS that time I took the time vortex into myself, and then a sense of recognition and acceptance. The TARDIS at least wanted me aboard. The Doctor had to know that, but he wasn’t done chasing me off: “Look, I used to travel with company. The TARDIS was a parade of bright young women, men, and other-gendered sentient beings. Once I even had a robot dog. But things changed. I changed.”
“You mean regeneration? I know about that. You’re still the same Doctor in the ways that matter.” He looked slightly startled by my knowledge, but recovered quickly.
“More than that. Rose, this is my ninth body. The first eight were fine with companionship, and mostly took pretty good care of those companions, but this time is different. After the…I mean, after I regenerated, I tried to bring people along. It doesn’t work. If I don’t drive them off quickly, they die.” My mind reeled. Ninth body? Was it the same in my universe? I knew that the body I first me wasn’t his first (he’d implied that he’d regenerated in the Time War, and after meeting Sarah Jane I made him show me a picture of what he looked like for her. Then I spent the next week trying to convince him to wear the outrageously long scarf again. Eventually he got the scarf out just long enough to use it to tie me to a chair until I promised to drop the subject). Still, having more or less died and changed bodies nine times made him seem even older than the fact that he was 900. He continued:
“Let me tell you about all the people who have traveled with this body. Isobelle was a Scottish noblewoman whose husband was killed by a werewolf that was trying to get Queen Victoria. She–Isobelle, not the Queen–was with me five months before being burned at the stake on Gibrup Six. Trin was from Betelgeuse. He stayed almost a month before getting off smack in the middle of Earth’s Trojan War and refusing to talk to me even long enough to be taken home. I deserved it. Mellata was a maid for Helen of Troy I picked up as a replacement. It was about a month and a half before her memory was wiped so completely she didn’t even remember how to speak or walk. Cathica was a journalist from your distant future. She only lasted a week until she was stung by an alien insect and swelled up to twice her normal size before dying. Being in a bit of a pessimistic state of mind at that point, I went five billion years in your future to watch the Earth blow up. I met a sentient tree named Jabe. She was extraordinary–brilliant and brave and understanding. We had nearly a year together before being captured on the moon of Drith. They flayed the bark off her living body and made me watch. Stay away from me, Rose Tyler. It’s not safe to expose yourself to the heart of a storm. Don’t get me wrong, I’m great at saving the universe, but everything smaller that I love perishes.” His voice was not loud, but I had seldom heard him speak with such force and never with such bleak despair. The gruesome pictures of just what could befall those who traveled with him (several of them people I’d met in my universe, people whose deaths grieved me) were rather disconcerting, but I had accepted the possibility of death long ago. The horrible deaths bothered me less than the darkness in him. I wanted badly to comfort him and embrace him, but the table was between us and his body language invited touch about as much as a porcupine. All I could do was mutter something about being so sorry. His eyes burned cold like dry ice against my skin; I couldn’t meet them.
I turned my attention to his hands, which had his edge of the table in a vice grip. The right one bore a scar I didn’t recognize, a thick but faint white line from the base of his thumb to the base of his pinky. It looked like it once had been quite a nasty wound that had long since healed to insignificance. Suddenly I knew what to ask. This whirlpool of fury and helplessness wasn’t about the dead traveling partners, or at least not only about them. I met his eyes.
“How long has it been for you since the Time War?”
He started like I’d stuck him with a hot poker. His stance was so fierce that for an instant I thought he was going to leap across the table and attack me, then came a moment I was sure he was about to run out of the restaurant. Suddenly he crumpled. He looked blankly at his plate, shoulders slumped like an old man.
“Forty years,” came the barely audible reply. So long alone? Oh, my poor Doctor, I thought. I remembered the rawness of my first Doctor’s grief that showed through from time to time: the crack in his voice when he’d told the Nestene Consciousness that he couldn’t save its homeworld or any of them. The fear and rage and guilt when we’d found that living Dalek imprisoned in a Utah bunker. This Doctor’s face, dry-eyed but twisted in heartache, was all of that multiplied by decades of solitude that had not offered a trace of healing. The losses of his travel partners were twisting knives in an already massive wound. For the first time I wondered if I had perhaps done as much good for my Doctor as he had done for me. It was more than I could stand to see my dearest friend (my love) hurting so, even if he didn’t know me. I left my place and scooted onto the bench beside him, wrapping my arm around his waist. My other hand grabbed a piece of chocolaisha from my truffle sampler place and offered it to him silently. He took it and ate. After a moment his ragged breathing steadied slightly.
“Doesn’t sound like the war ended any happier here than where I come from.”
He nodded, closing his eyes for a moment: “My people and my planet are gone. I’m the last of the Time Lords.”
“Did you ever tell anyone?” He shook his head.
“Hints. No more. Jabe already knew most of it, but we didn’t talk about it. It’s my burden to bear, no one else’s.”
“For a genius, you can be pretty thick sometimes,” I sighed. “Do you honestly think all the people you travel with and all the others whose lives you touch can’t be allowed to know why you’re all Captain Broody? Do you think our stupid ape minds are too narrow to accept you if you do something that makes you seem less than perfect, like grieve or feel guilt?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Really? Coulda fooled me. You’re just hurting yourself, not helping anyone else. You may be the last of the Time Lords, Doctor, but you don’t have to be alone. I’m here.” I knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words left my lips. He stiffened and pulled away from me, nailing me with a look of anger, derision, and betrayal that shook me to my core. It was at least as bad as the way he’d looked at me after I tried to save my dad’s life and caused a paradox that nearly destroyed the world.
“You selfish, manipulative little girl. You dare to use the death of my world as an excuse to get yourself back in the happy time travel machine?” He had chosen his words to hurt, and he chose well. “Are you looking for someone to rip open the universe so you can get back to my double, or are you just a junkie looking for thrills from any source you can find?”
“No! I would never!” I protested. My eyes burned hot with tears right on the verge of spilling over and destroying my mascara. I felt small and disgusting as a maggot.
“Coulda fooled me,” he spat my phrase back at me. The worst part was that he spoke with a grain of truth. I wanted to heal him for his own sake, but I hoped that the best way to do that healing was to take me on the TARDIS, and I couldn’t pretend I didn’t want that for myself. I wanted to get to know him, and it had rapidly become clear that meant knowing his pain. So I pushed, trying to be like a doctor who had to rebreak an old bone injury to make it heal straight. A few ill-chosen words on my part made him think I was just trying to break down his defenses to let myself inside, and he justly enough chose not to trust a stranger who claimed that was precisely what he needed. My chance to be a healer was gone, as was my chance at a more lasting time with him. I wondered if my careless picking at his wounds had doomed him to another forty years in the wilderness.
“I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.” My apology was met with stony silence. “I didn’t mean to say it like that. I just…I miss you, the other Doctor I mean, so much. We could tell each other anything. You’re so like him I keep forgetting that I’ve done nothing to earn that sort of trust from you.” He turned away and started poking his fork at the chocolate cake, not actually eating. I took a sip of my hot cocoa, but even the divine taste could not salvage the situation. The spark that had burned in my breast since the TARDIS key lit up sputtered and died. With a flat voice, I spoke again.
“Look, as soon as we finish this chocolaisha, take me back to Earth. Have your solitude. If you ever want some company, you know where in space-time to find me, but I won’t expect anything.” He nodded slightly. Giving up on him was like knifing myself in the gut, but the harder I pursued him now the faster he would retreat. I moved back to my side of the table and attacked my chocolaisha truffles. After a few moments the silence started getting to me. In a habit I picked up from my Doctor’s other regeneration, I started to babble.
“I’m actually living a really nice life on this Earth, even though it’s not the one I grew up with. My job at Torchwood is great. This one time, my mate Rickey–he works at Torchwood too–and I were sent to Prague to investigate some disappearances…” I launched into a string of very silly anecdotes about work. By the time I got around to “and then Rickey said, ‘You mean these alien trousers I’m wearing are ALIVE?’” the atmosphere between the Doctor and me had thawed slightly. Not enough to get so much as a smile for a story that usually got guffaws, but he was no longer staring daggers and I was no longer crying. All that stood between us and what was probably my last TARDIS ride was for the waitress (who had about as many arms as an icon of a Hindu goddess) to bring the bill.
“You! You ruined me! I shall destroy you where you sit as soon as you tell me how you got here!” hissed a very angry voice. The Doctor and I both turned to see an alien, human-like except for bright purple skin and an extremely pointy set of teeth, standing halfway across the restaurant.
“The promise of destruction doesn’t give me very much incentive to tell you that, does it? Now, remind me where we’ve met,” said the Doctor in his mock-cheerful voice. The alien gave him an annoyed look.
“I wasn’t talking to you, big ears. Rose Tyler, answer me!” Luckily, I recognized the alien. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Doctor looking gobsmacked that for once he wasn’t the walking trouble magnet.
“Grishick. It’s been a while. Tell us how I ruined you, ‘cause I don’t remember doing that,” I said calmly, standing up so I could look him in the eye. Grishick, I recalled from working with him through Torchwood, was the sort who liked to give long monologs first and shoot later, if he still remembered what he was so worked up about.
“I was about to establish formal trade relations with your planet, which would have made me outlandishly rich. Then you, my supposedly trusty native guide, knocked me out and programmed my spaceship to take me out of the solar system. You neglected to notice, however, that my warp drive was broken. I had to travel under light speed, so it took nearly three thousand years to reach a planet with a decent repair shop. I survived in cold storage, but by the time I got here I’d been declared dead and my assets passed on to several generations of heirs. You bankrupted me!” He was shouting and sputtering so that flecks of spittle flew some rather impressive distances. Other diners, including the Doctor, looked at us with mild interest. I rolled my eyes.
“I saved your life, and this is the thanks I get? You wanted a meeting with the Queen before you would make any agreements, never mind that the royals are just around to give the tabloids something to talk about. Do you know how much secrecy protocol had to be violated to get you in there? I made your precious meeting happen, everything’s great, and then you grab one of the Queen’s corgis and eat it right in front of her, blood and fur everywhere. The guards would have shot about a hundred holes through you if I hadn’t knocked you out first. They would have imprisoned you until you forgot what the sun looked like if I hadn’t convinced them that we were less likely to cause an interplanetary incident if we just packed you on a ship heading away. You should be the one buying me a drink, not this lump,” I gestured at the Doctor, who gave a little wave.
Grishick, not one to take being out-talked lightly, roared and started to reach inside his coat, probably for a weapon. Without hesitation I grabbed the nearest object, which happened to be the Doctor’s plate complete with a bit of leftover chocolaisha cake, and threw. It smacked into his face, sending him staggering backwards and leaving a trail of chocolaisha down his cheek. He grabbed a mammoth bowl of ice cream from the nearest diner and lobbed it at me. I ducked, and it hit one of the heads of a the very muscular female alien standing behind me. Licking her lips (they were, after all, dripping with chocolaisha), she tossed a gooey pastry from her plate and threw it at Grishick. It hit, but spattered enough to dirty two other people. Within seconds the entire restaurant had erupted into a gigantic food fight.
It was just like the food fights I’d always dreamed of starting back in school, only in a nice restaurant with tablecloths and everything, plus a substantial portion of the participants who were clearly not human. Also, unlike my school cafeteria, all the food was some form of chocolaisa: cake, pie, cookies, brownies, danishes, ice cream, mousse, all sorts of chocolaisha beverages. The many-armed waitress had grabbed bottles of chocolaisha syrup from the kitchen and was squirting them willy-nilly around the room. Really, the only way it looked like my imagined school food fight was scale and messiness level. The dignified restaurant patrons were rapidly coming to resemble mud wrestlers, only tastier.
My antagonist, Grishick, was getting pelted with a substantial portion of the food, but despite the barrage he was still headed towards me. I wondered whether I had any chance in a physical fight with him and concluded that the answer was no. I’d seen what those teeth could do to a small, fluffy dog. Just then I felt a familiar sensation that sent thrills up my spine: the Doctor’s hand clutching mine.
“Let’s run!” he said, wearing his Here Comes Trouble smile. We ran, dodging with minimum success through a rain of food. A stream of syrup aimed at me left squiggles down my front from head to hip. A chocolate crème pie sailed past the Doctor, catching the edge of his protruding ear. A giggle I wouldn’t have thought impossible ten minutes ago bubbled from my lips. Then we were out of the restaurant and running down the street. We kept running until it was clear that Grishick wasn’t following, then I stopped and let myself laugh until my sides hurt. What an escape! Even the Doctor was chuckling. This was among the strangest days I’ve ever had. Not the very strangest, but even on the Rose Tyler scale this day was a whopper.