Rose wandered through the TARDIS’s Wardrobe Room, browsing. She’d found a pair of trainers to replace her old, mostly-destroyed ones within minutes of entering the room; then, in a lazy frame of mind, she’d began browsing, seeing what was new. The Wardrobe Room was like an enormous charity shop with a constantly rotating stock. More than once, she’d found odd or beautiful or entertaining things simply by drifting and looking through racks that were never the same twice. She got the distinct impression the TARDIS liked making suggestions, featuring clothing or ornaments that could point to possible future destinations.
It was while rummaging through a jewelry box that Rose found something to finally catch her interest — a wooden hairpin.
It was in the unusual style the Doctor used for fastening his hair in its habitual knot: a two parallel prongs joined at one end by a round disc. The Doctor’s pin was made of heavy red gold, the disc portion inscribed with a circle-and-figure-eight design that looked Celtic but wasn’t. This pin was of smooth, dark wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a delicate floral pattern. It was very lovely. Rose considered it for a moment, rubbing her thumb across the polished surface. Still thinking, she reached one arm awkwardly around her back, and caught the trailing tips of her own hair. Loose, it reached nearly to her waist. Almost as long as the Doctor’s.
Struck by a sudden idea, she caught her tongue between her teeth and grinned. She tossed the pin in the air, caught it firmly in her fist, and headed for the bedroom and a mirror.
About twenty minutes later, Rose’s tongue was still between her teeth, but she wasn’t smiling anymore. The Doctor made it look so damn easy . . .
Once again, she twisted her hair into a single tight rope, then let it double back on itself so, wrapped the remainder around so, leaving just enough free to tuck the end through the twist . . .
Holding her breath, she threaded the pin through the lot, let go . . . and it stayed. Rose grinned, and shook her head, testing. A few loose strands drifted free, but the knot as a whole stayed firm. It looked right, too, when she used a hand mirror the check over her shoulder against the reflection in the big, full-length mirror. Success.
Just in time. She felt the Doctor’s presence in the corridor a second before he entered the bedroom, and turned away from him to face the full-length mirror — giving him full view of her knotted hair and allowing her to watch his reaction in reflection.
“Oh, hullo Rose, have you seen . . .” he began before he could fully see her — and then he broke off with a completely dumbfounded expression, staring at her hair.
“How’s it look?” she asked, cocking her head flirtatiously, eyeing his reflection instead of turning around.
The Doctor blinked. Then began to laugh, helplessly.
Taken aback, Rose looked over her shoulder at the convulsing Doctor. “What?” she asked, disappointed by his response. “Didn’t I get it right?”
The Doctor sucked in a breath. “No,” he gasped, “y’ got it right — as far as it goes.” He was clearly fighting back another round of laughter. “It just looks funny that way.”
Rose planted a hand on one hip, and sent an exasperated nonverbal request for enlightenment.
The Doctor pulled in another deep breath and straightened. He was still grinning ear to ear. “That’s a man’s knot,” he clarified.
“Oh.” Deflated, Rose looked back at her reflection. “I didn’t know there were different kinds.”
“Of course you didn’t,” the Doctor told her, still looking far too amused for his words to be very reassuring. “You’ve only seen the one.” He stepped up behind her, meeting her gaze in reflection over her shoulder.
“So what’s a woman’s knot like?” Rose asked, meeting his reflection’s gaze and trying not to be either embarrassed or irritated.
“Complicated. Easiest to just show you,” the Doctor told her. He slipped the pin from her hair, and reached to the dresser for Rose’s hairbrush. Gently, he loosened her hair from the remnants of the knot, and began to brush it smooth.
It was a strange feeling — nobody had brushed Rose’s hair since her mum, back when Rose was a little girl. Though the Doctor’s strokes were brisk and efficient, there was a unique intimacy to the situation, of a sort Rose hadn’t felt before, even given their current relationship.
Setting the brush aside, the Doctor began dividing her hair into portions, which he then braided and twisted and wrapped around one another with swift, practiced dexterity. Watching carefully in the mirror, Rose couldn’t make out half of what he was doing, since her own head was in the way, but it was impressive all the same.
Holding his creation carefully in place with one hand, the Doctor retrieved the wooden pin and slipped it into position. He grinned, pleased, then held up the hand mirror behind Rose’s head so she could see the reflection.
Rose blinked. The knot sat higher on her head than the Doctor’s, and it was an elegant mass of twists and whorls, topped by the shell-inlaid pin. A few soft strands of hair fell loose in front of her ears, softening the potential severity of the style. Her neck seemed much longer and far more graceful than she would have thought possible. In fact, she hardly looked like herself, the effect was so elegant.
“There you go,” the Doctor told her, still smiling. “That’s the knot for a woman partnered to a member of my Family. You’d take on my rank, which was high enough up there to give y’ a nosebleed, thanks to nothing better than that my Family’d existed practically since the first hydrogen atoms coalesced.” His cheer turned wry at the end, but his emotions stayed clear and steady, a rare thing when he mentioned his past or his people.
That was when it hit Rose: the speed and ease with which the Doctor had constructed the exceptionally complex knot, as if he’d done it many times before; his past mentions of having been married (not just married, but linked and bound, as he was now linked to Rose and Jack together); the mention of family and rankings . . . .
She swallowed and looked at herself in the mirror, feeling like a scruffy child caught playing dress-up in a great lady’s clothes. Automatic now, her psionic shields kept her emotional reaction private, for which she was grateful.
“It’s lovely,” she said, in a small voice, feeling ashamed and appalled at what she’d unwittingly asked of the Doctor. Her reflection’s cheeks reddened. “But it doesn’t suit me.” She reached up to yank the pin free, her hand shaking as she did so, letting her hair tumble back down around her shoulders.
The Doctor didn’t appear to notice her discomfort; in the mirror, his smile softened as he rested one hand on Rose’s shoulder, using the other to loosen the whorls and braids he’d worked only minutes before. He was still watching her reflection as she was watching his.
“You’re right,” he said, and Rose’s stomach knotted up at the words, though his tone was gentle. “You shouldn’t be weighted down with all that dry, dusty history. It’d be like putting a corset on a cat or a tiara on a hawk. You’re beautiful just bein’ what you are.”
His words went through Rose like a knife — given how she awful she felt, she could have taken sorrow or censure more easily than this gentle warmth.
Shields or not, he felt her reaction that time, and gently wrapped one arm around her from behind, pulling her back against him. “What’s wrong?” he asked, smile fading and blue eyes gone worried. She met his reflected gaze and swallowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice.
His eyebrows went up, and he rested the point of his chin on her shoulder, never breaking the eye contact they shared in the mirror. “What for?” he asked.
“You used to make that knot for someone else,” Rose told him, making it a statement and not a question.
His eyes darkened with understanding, as did the tone of his mind. He still didn’t seem upset, though.
“Yeah, I did,” he responded simply.
“I didn’t mean to . . .” Rose trailed off, unable to find the right words. As she struggled helplessly to articulate her feelings, her shields loosened and the Doctor took in her discordant emotions, reading her meaning in a way that went beyond words. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
“Don’t be,” he told her, and slipped his other arm around her from behind for a full hug, even as the storm clouds of his telepathic presence enfolded her mind in a second embrace: cool, melancholy and protective. “You didn’t mean any harm, and it’s been a long, long time. She wouldn’t take any offense from it, either.”
She. “Your . . . wife,” she said, leaning her head back against his shoulder even as she watched his face in the mirror, both of them speaking to their reflections, taking an odd strength from the combination of distance and intimacy the polished glass provided.
“Yes,” he replied simply, and she remembered how he’d once sharply refused to speak of his past to her. So much had changed since then.
“You said you’d been linked to someone else before,” she began, uncertain whether or not to continue . . . but it was something she’d turned over in her mind many times and she couldn’t help asking now there was an opportunity.
“We were bound in all ways save one,” he said by way of oblique agreement. His expression was deeply shadowed now, and Rose caught not only a tremor of ancient loss but also whisper of guilt. “Every gift but the fourth.”
Rose frowned slightly as she reached up to rest her hands atop his, stroking the calloused skin of his elegant, familiar hands where they crossed at her sternum. “Fourth Gifts,” she murmured, remembering the progression. “Body, mind, children . . . and memory?”
“That’s the one,” he told her, his voice low and sad in her ear. She could feel the words vibrating through his chest as he spoke.
“How did that work?” Rose asked, greatly daring, keeping her voice as soft as his.
“When one of my people died, all their memories were stored in the Matrix — a great big computer bank, I guess you could call it. It was customary for a surviving partner to take copies of those memories into their own mind, so they’d continue on, alive. But I never did.”
Sharper guilt then, and an increased sense of loss, but no sign of the Doctor withdrawing into himself. In fact, Rose could feel that the talking was doing him some good, under the reawakened sorrow.
“What happened?” Rose asked, gently, letting her heart shine with her love and her wish to ease what hurt she could.
He was silent a long time, but in the manner of a man collecting his thoughts rather than one who no longer wishes to speak.
“Not all of my people were Time Lords,” he began. “Only the ones who passed their training at the Academy and received the Imprimatur, the genetic modification that made us able to fly a TARDIS, see timelines . . . and regenerate.”
He’d told Rose about regeneration, haltingly and confusingly, but she’d got the sense of it. Jack, for whom the Time Lords had been a familiar childhood tale, had filled in a lot of the gaps for her afterwards.
“My wife wasn’t a Time Lord,” he continued. “She’d entered the Academy but hadn’t passed. Wasn’t unusual — the curriculum was brutal, and not just in terms of crackin’ books. It could break a person, physically and mentally.
“It didn’t break her, though,” the Doctor added, and his mood warmed with bittersweet, remembered pride. “You would have liked her, Rose. She was a lot like you, stubborn and caring and brave. I loved her from the moment I met her, and our Families could go hang — especially mine, with all their twaddle about marryin’ below my station.” He snorted.
Rose hardly dared breathe, afraid of breaking whatever spell had the Doctor speaking so freely about times past. She laid her hands atop his and pressed gently, to give silent encouragement.
“We were a scandal,” the Doctor continued, sounding proud. “Shared all the ‘primitive’ Gifts, were linked and bound and didn’t bother hiding it. We said we’d be together for a lifetime, and we were. Her lifetime. I kept going, though -- Time Lord, me. I outlived her without even needing to regenerate.” He paused, radiating old sorrow, worn smooth by centuries of time.
“I took it hard, losing her,” he continued, “I couldn’t bring myself to go and tap her memories in the Matrix — it was too soon, would’ve hurt too much. And then some . . . disagreements heated up and I had to leave in a right hurry.” His short breath of amusement was dry and unhappy. “But I was sure the chance would come around again, eventually; I had the better part of forever to get back someday, tap the Matrix, do right by her memory. Or so I thought. Then it was gone, all gone, and Time Lord or not, my time ran out.” (Lost), his undermind whispered. (Never/forever/lost.)
“But you still remember her,” Rose told him, trying to give some scrap of comfort. “In the ordinary way. That’s something, yeah?”
“Something. But not much,” the Doctor said, and fell silent.
Rose closed her eyes in sympathy; when she opened them again, she found his reflection still watching her.
“I’m sorry,” she said for the third time, though for entirely different reasons than before. We’re living the fairytale now, us three, but we all know how the story will end and “ever after” isn’t an option . . .
He felt the meaning underneath her words and gave her something between a shake and a reassuring rocking motion. “Don’t be — you were right, you an’ Jack. The way I was living wasn’t living.”
Suddenly determined, she pressed his hands firmly against her chest, over her heart.
“Promise me this,” she told the mirror, with fierce intensity. “When the time comes, keep living. Keep loving. No regrets.”
The Doctor responded by closing his eyes and nuzzling her hair. “That’s a long way off,” he said, with the first hint of evasiveness he’d shown in the entire conversation.
Rose lifted one of his hands — the left — in hers and kissed the palm, just beneath the gleaming band of her father’s ring. “Promise,” she whispered, letting her breath shape the word against his skin, her heart alight with love and care. “Please? For us, and for her, too?”
He sighed into the angle of her neck, followed by a kiss. She wasn’t sure he’d respond at all, but then he said, “I promise. And I’ll remember.”
Rose caught all the levels of meaning and emotion resonating through the last word, and it felt like her heart was trying to burn its way out through her ribcage with a light so intense it bordered on pain.
She twisted around in the Doctor’s arms, turning away from the mirror so she could wrap her arms around his waist and bury her face in the familiar soft-scratchy wool of his jumper. He brushed fingertips across her temple, feather-light, and they slipped into a deeper rapport, a white-hot star blazing in the calm eye of a sky-spanning storm as they held each other for a timeless moment, burning their love into memory.