"Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers, that the mind can never break off from the journey."
— Pat Conroy
There had never been a celebration quite like the one that was happening at Torchwood One in London.
Inside the building, men and women hugged, cheered, spun in circles, and popped champagne corks into the air, although no one afterward could recollect having brought champagne to the office in the first place. One of the operatives stood on a desk, throwing wads of shredded paper into the air in an impromptu confetti shower for one. A slightly overweight older man had stripped down and was running naked through the hallway, whooping in delight and getting smacked on his flabby arse by everyone within range. In a corner, a man and woman who had earlier managed not to give in to the temptation for a last, desperate, end-of-the-world shag were snogging frantically and tearing at each other's clothes.
All it had taken was a brief shout from the operatives watching the telescopes:
They're back! All of them!
They had all spent too much time in the past weeks staring up at the sky, searching fruitlessly for stars that had simply disappeared and watching others wink out day after day, not to succumb to the very ordinary human emotions that followed intense strain and knowledge of approaching doom.
In the commotion, the sound of Pete Tyler's yell went unnoticed at first. When he realized that sound couldn't overpower the jubilant chaos around him, he yanked at the jacket of one of his senior operatives.
"I need you to get a team to Bergen," he shouted.
"Bergen. Norway. My wife called and they're stuck there," he roared. "Do it now!"
The man who picked up three hitchhikers along a deserted road on the Norwegian shore stopped asking questions after the first few minutes.
Rose and Jackie had shaken their heads at his initial query, not speaking the language, but Rose said "Bergen?" in a hopeful tone and he nodded enthusiastically. The Doctor, sober-faced, said something in Norwegian that made the man laugh out loud, but no one else joined in.
They didn't have to hitchhike, of course. The Torchwood team that Pete had put into motion could have come to the lonely beach to collect them, but without much discussion, they had begun walking down the winding coastal road toward the nearest town. No one wanted to linger on Dårlig Ulv Stranden any longer than they had to.
Jackie rode up front with the man, and the Doctor and Rose piled into the back. The car was tiny, so they had no choice but to sit knee to knee, thigh to thigh. Rose couldn't get her mind around who was sitting with her here; he wasn't her Doctor, but he was.
She couldn't quite find the right place for her hands. They drifted from being folded primly in her lap to clutching at the door handle, and finally, she let one drift down to rest against the Doctor's leg. She saw him swallow, and then with a gesture that might have been casual in another setting, his hand settled down to brush against hers. After that initial touch, their fingers threaded together and they sat awkwardly in the back seat, holding hands and not looking at one another.
When she awoke, she found that the Doctor had also fallen asleep, his hand still loosely curled around hers. His head bobbed against the door and she knew, from having been in the same position, that it was terribly uncomfortable.
She had never seen him sleep, really rest, before. When she'd asked about it, long ago, when he'd still had big ears and blue eyes, he'd said something about dolphins and the ability of his brain to categorize and archive information on the fly. He had then proceeded to change the subject by taking them to a planet with a sunset coloured by a thousand shades of purple, and she'd never asked again.
His slack face now couldn't be more different than it had during his regeneration sickness. His freckled skin glowed with health and his pupils darted back and forth under his closed lids as he dreamed. In the corner of his left eye, there was a crust of dried sleep. She suppressed the urge to smooth it away, to touch him and draw his head against her shoulder.
Her mouth was so dry. She wished she had something to drink, but she wouldn't impose further on this kind stranger. She swallowed and licked her lips, and saw that her mother was watching her in the visor's vanity mirror. Jackie's eyes flicked over to the other occupant in the back seat and back to Rose. I'm okay, she mouthed, but she wasn't sure if that was true.
The Doctor's hand was soft and very warm in hers.
The man dropped them off in the middle of Bergen. Rose tried to mime her way into getting his address, and finally after a few confused responses from him, she turned to the Doctor and asked for help.
"I'd like his address, to send him something when we get home," she said. "Could you ask him?" She didn't know why this was such a hard question to ask. He could speak Norwegian and the man had helped him, too.
A short-lived smile flickered across his face and then he was bending into the car's open window. After a brief exchange, he patted the man on the shoulder and withdrew, waving goodbye.
"Here." He offered a piece of paper with some scrawled writing on it, which she took and read. Erlend Grieg, with an address in Bergen. As she raised her head to thank the man, the tiny car was already screeching off toward its next destination.
She put the paper in her pocket and looked over at her mum, who was trying to give directions to someone, presumably from Torchwood, on the other end of her mobile. "I don't know where we are," Jackie said with evident frustration. "There's a little shop with a green awning. Oh, can't you tell them something?" This last was aimed at the Doctor, who took the phone and spoke quietly into it. He ended the call and handed the mobile back to Jackie without further comment.
"What, did you come with sat-nav?" asked her mum. "Never mind, I don't care." She pushed inside the shop with a tinkling of tiny bells.
Rose and the Doctor were left alone together for the first time since — well, if she thought back on it, the last time they had been alone was in Torchwood Tower. All of their drama since then had been conducted in front of an audience. She wanted desperately to hold his hand but felt the uncertainty come upon her again. He was out there, on the other side of the Void, but yet he was here too. She wanted to rage and cry and lash out at him — both hims, either him — but she wanted to fall upon him just as badly. It was a dizzying combination.
In the end, she wasn't the one to make the first move. As he had on the beach, as the TARDIS had disappeared, he reached for her hand and held it tenderly. She blinked back tears and let herself squeeze back, just the once, and couldn't meet his eyes. Oh, he was looking at her, she knew; she could feel his gaze on her. He was so quiet now, having spoken no more than a handful of English words since the whispered completion of that long-unfinished sentence in her ear.
"I don't know what to do," she said into the air.
"Well," he said, speaking with care, "I don't expect there is much precedent for this sort of situation."
"I'm — I'm so angry." She swiped at her eyes with her free hand.
Everything went misty at this simple statement of understanding. When her vision cleared, she let herself look at him again. He seemed the same, except for his new suit, with the same ancient eyes and wild hair and laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. He waited patiently, letting her look her fill.
"You're not talking," she said finally.
"You're not ready for me to talk."
"Never stopped you before!"
"Rose," he said, his voice so familiar and full of feeling, "I talked you into accepting me once, didn't I? I pulled out memory after memory to persuade you that it was still me. I could try that again — if you want." As they had before, the three words came out almost casually, but she knew what he meant as she had known when he first said them. If you want me.
"I get it. It's you," she said. She pivoted perilously between falling and flying. It was him, it was really him, but he had also abandoned her and he was out there somewhere, without her. "It's just a little weird, yeah?" She moved her fingers, settling them in between his, intensifying the contact between them.
He didn't smile, but his eyes widened slightly, less guarded than they had been a moment before. "You could say that," he said, still exquisitely careful.
She remembered her parched throat suddenly, and if they had the rest of their lives to work on this … thing between them, she needed to take care of the immediate necessities. Something needed to be normal. "I'd like something to drink. You?" He nodded.
They maneuvered carefully into the shop, not letting go of each other's hand, and found Jackie with a pile of clothes on the counter, mostly red-and-white t-shirts featuring the local football club. The proprietor was smiling broadly and talking non-stop to Jackie, who kept smiling and talking back. Neither seemed particularly bothered by the fact that they weren't speaking the same language.
"Come here, you," Jackie said, waggling a finger at the Doctor, who approached her with a wary look. She held up one of the t-shirts against him and nodded in satisfaction. "That'll do. I was telling Christian you could stand to put on some weight."
"Mum, what are you doing?" Rose started to fold up one of the scattered shirts.
"I'm buying himself something to wear! For heaven's sake, Rose, he's got nothing but the clothes on his back. You remember how awful that was!" She scooped up a pair of socks with the football logo embroidered on the side and gave them to the Doctor. "Go on now," she fussed at him, "pick out some more things. It's on me."
"Mum, he doesn't need —"
Jackie turned on her. "Don't start with me. I'm being practical."
The Doctor turned over the pair of socks, looking vacantly at them. In all the confusion, Rose had dropped his hand, or he'd dropped hers. She touched his elbow, and he turned toward her, his face suddenly open. Her hand traced down his elbow and found his, feeling the reassurance of fingers tangling together.
"It's okay," she told him. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Oh, I hope you are," he said with a ghost of a smile. "I'm not all that keen to stay in Bergen."
When two Torchwood operatives arrived to transport them to the airport in a sleek, dark sedan, Jackie had several bags bulging with new clothing for the Doctor and Rose had a bottle of Vitex.
She was relieved to find that she knew the others only in passing. She wasn't prepared to deal with the peppering of questions about the mission from her close colleagues. Mickey would have been better able to handle it, she thought, and she bit her lip at the thought that he was really gone. Their goodbye in the TARDIS had been brief; she had thought, with him staying in their original universe, that she would see him again. The flash of anger came quick and fierce — the Doctor had known, when Mickey left, where she was headed. Where he was going to leave her.
The Doctor at her side shot her a questioning glance and she tamped down her frustration. She didn't want to make a scene in front of the other Torchwood operatives, and she certainly didn't want to raise questions about Mickey that she wasn't prepared to answer. Instead of responding, she took a long drink and helped her mum pack all of her purchases into the boot of the car.
The brief drive to the airport was punctuated primarily by niceties between Jackie and the two operatives, who seemed to be extremely conscious of the fact that she was Pete Tyler's wife. Rose, sitting in the middle of the back seat between her mum and the Doctor, fiddled with her Vitex. He eased the bottle out of her hands and unscrewed the cap. Before he drank, he sniffed the contents as if testing for poison.
"That's very tasty," he said, surprised, and took a more enthusiastic swallow.
"You've never had Vitex before, sir?" asked the operative in the passenger seat.
Rose nudged him with her knee and he coughed. "Of course I have! I just thought it would be different in Norway. You know, different bottling standards …"
"Different water," Jackie chimed in helpfully. "Pete says consistency is one of the biggest challenges with global distribution."
"Exactly." He finished the Vitex and juggled the bottle in his hands.
After a moment, Rose took it away from him and tucked it into the pocket behind the driver's seat. "Could have left me some," she pointed out.
"Oh. I thought you were finished."
"You mean you thought about it?" Did you know that I'd never see Mickey again? Or Jack? Or him? She kept her hands balled up on her knees until they arrived at the airport.
The flight from Bergen to London would take about two hours. While this was much less time than it had taken them to get from Dårlig Ulv Stranden to Bergen, it seemed like an eternity to Rose. She ached for her own bed. The aftermath of a dimensional crossing left her sore in more than body; it stretched the mind as well. During a transit, the adrenaline kept her going, and this very long day had been no different in that respect.
Torchwood had procured a small jet for their return to London, more efficient than the leisurely travel of a zeppelin. The attendant fetched pillows and blankets for them and dimmed the overhead lights.
Rose took off her jacket and her shoes and plopped down with a thump beside the Doctor, who was staring out the window. Outside, the lights of Bergen sparkled like stars in the evening sky.
She adjusted her seat so that she was nearly flat before curling onto her side facing him. Across the aisle behind her, she heard her mum's chair click back and the shifting of blankets around her. She must be even more exhausted and wrung out than Rose.
"You okay, Mum?"
"I'm fine, sweetheart," Jackie said sleepily. "We'll be home soon."
She let her eyes drift closed and felt the Doctor settle a blanket over her before he too folded his seat and armrest back and eased onto his side. Unable to resist, she opened her eyes and found him watching her.
"Hello," she whispered.
"Hello," he said back, just as softly.
She reached out and traced his sideburn up to his ear, and then started to draw her hand away. His hand came up to cup hers, preventing her withdrawal. "Tell me how you found me," he said.
She blinked in confusion. "I already — Oh." It hadn't been this Doctor who had heard her story, who had beamed back at her when she'd told him that she'd used the Dimension Cannon to come back to him.
"I remember everything up until I started to regenerate," he told her, keeping his voice down. "Anything that happened afterward was him, not me."
He had told her that he wasn't going to parade out memory after memory to convince her he was still himself, but she hadn't expected him to emphasize the differences, either.
So, she repeated her story. "On the beach, the first time, I told you I was working for Torchwood. We've been building this machine called the Dimension Cannon, adapting technology from the disks we used to cross the universes before." At the exasperated look he gave her, she dug her fingers deeper into his hair. "It didn't do anything after until the stars started going out, and lucky for us that it did, yeah?"
"Lucky," he whispered. His eyes shone with reflected light in the dim cabin. "So unaccountably lucky."
"I found Donna and knew I had to follow her. Everything kept circling back to her, all of the parallel universes we found and all of the timelines."
"The metacrisis. The Doctor-Donna. We're unique in space and time, and it rippled back across the possible universes."
"You weren't unique before?" she asked with a half-smile, stroking his hair.
"Mmm. Not like this, no."
"How much — how much Donna is there in you?"
"It's subtle. My physiology is human, mostly, and that's from her. I know a lot of what she knows. Go ahead, quiz me about Posh and Beck, I'm so ready! I've also absorbed some of her mannerisms. Done that before, actually. I came out sounding like you when I regenerated last time."
"Did you?" That came out louder than she meant it to and she dropped her voice again. "You mean, your accent? I did that?"
"Yep." His face softened and went serious. "Rose, both of these last regenerations were about you. I changed twice thinking about you. Loving you." He whispered the last two words with such emphasis that she flushed to the roots and her hand tingled where she still touched him. "I poured all of that emotion and everything I am into that hand. That's me, now."
"But he's still out there," she protested. "I'll never see him again."
"No, you won’t, but Rose, you couldn't have stayed forever. It was going to be just as unbearable when you were gone, no matter when that happened. This way, you and I have our little forever. He knows that. I promise you, he knows that."
"I still don't understand," she said miserably. "Isn't it better to have something, even if it's just for a while?"
"That's a very human sentiment."
"But it's true!" she stammered, trying to keep her voice down.
"It is now, for us," he agreed. "Not before."
"He couldn't have just told me that? He pushed me away. Didn't even say goodbye."
"Would you have come with me if he had asked?"
She looked helplessly at him, her gaze flicking from one dark eye to the other, pretending to consider it carefully but knowing that she would never have agreed. "I couldn't have left him." She swallowed down the certain knowledge that she would have never left this Doctor, either.
He nodded back at her. "That's why it had to be that way."
"What about Mickey?" she whispered furiously, pulling away from him. "And Jack. I didn't get to say goodbye to them. I didn't know I would never see them again."
Guilt — a familiar expression — flashed across his face. "I'm sorry."
"That's not good enough. You make all these decisions for everyone around you and expect us to understand. Are you going to try and do that for the rest of our lives?" For the first time since this conversation had started, he wouldn't meet her eyes. "Well?"
They remained like that for some time. Rose curled into herself and refused to look away from his face. He stared at a point just over her shoulder, guarded and silent, blinking slowly.
"Do you need fixing?" she asked, when it was clear he wouldn't answer her other question.
He flashed that self-effacing, quicksilver smile. "Probably."
"I mean it. He said you were born in battle. What does that mean?" She didn't see some bloodthirsty lust for revenge in him. She had seen him wipe the Daleks out of existence, but she couldn't disagree with his instinct. She hadn't carried a weapon to idly wave in their direction.
"I was born from great need," he said. "I killed them all in cold blood, when they were helpless."
"They wouldn't have stayed helpless."
"No," he said. "No, they wouldn't have. So they're gone, and I did it."
I can see the whole of time and space - every single atom of your existence, and I divide them.
"Same thing I did, once," she reminded him.
He finally looked her in the eye then. "Yes."
"Does that make me dangerous?"
That flashing smile again. "Definitely."
"I'm glad you did it," she confessed. "God, I hate them so much."
"Don't be glad. Be relieved. Be resigned. Be — anything but glad. It's still a terrible thing."
"That doesn't sound like something a man craving blood and revenge would say," she said, reaching out for him again. This time, she touched his cheek with the back of her fingers.
"Mmm." He settled more deeply into his pillow and let his eyes drift closed.
"You look tired."
"Oh, thanks. I'd prefer to look fabulous, but I can only manage so much in one day."
She chuckled. "We can work on that tomorrow, yeah?" She reached down and tugged the blanket across to cover him, then scooted a little closer. Their pillows bumped together and she felt his arm come up to settle around her waist. Her shirt had ridden up a bit and his thumb traced lightly across her bare skin.
Across the aisle, Jackie snorted in her sleep and then sighed loudly, and they both tried not to laugh. "How long until we land?" she asked.
"About an hour and a half."
Time enough for some sleep, which they both could use. When they landed, Pete would have questions, and they would have to deal with another car ride. She knew her mum wouldn't want her to go back to her own flat tonight, and after Jackie had crossed universes to protect her, she felt like staying with the family was the least she could do. And the Doctor —
"You're not going anywhere," she said, partly a statement and partly a question.
"Five hundred and twelve miles an hour," he murmured, half asleep already. His hand at her waist tightened perceptibly. "Wherever you go."