By her third lap past the bench, Rose is certain the man is staring at her.
He looks away every time she looks over, but Rose Tyler is twelve years old, and twelve years old is just old enough to have begun mastering the art of staring at someone, and she knows that you always look away when they look at you. So he’s not fooling anyone.
He’s older than she is, but younger than her mum; he looks about the same age as the boys on the posters in Shareen’s room, though he’s got a funny, swoopy sort of hairstyle, a big fringe hanging down the side of his face. He’s pale and dressed all in black, and Rose doesn’t like it. Black reminds her of funerals.
She does a small loop around, just to be sure, then pumps her brakes and brings the bike to a halt a few metres in front of him, leaning on one leg and send him an accusatory glare.
“You’re starin’ at me,” she says.
Busy pretending to look away, the man jumps a little when she speaks and sends her a surprised stare. “Am not.”
“Yes you are,” Rose reiterates stubbornly. “You’ve been staring at me this whole time. Why?”
He doesn’t answer. He looks down at her bike and smiles instead. “That’s a very nice bicycle you’ve got.”
It throws her, and Rose puffs up with pride in spite of herself. “Got it from Father Christmas.” Preemptively, she adds, “He’s real, you know.” This is a point of contention around school — crazy Rose still believes in Father Christmas, isn’t that a laugh? “No one believes me, but it’s true. It must be. This proves it. It’s not from Mum. She even said. We couldn’t afford it.”
“I think you’ll find people are notoriously bad at believing in things, even if that thing is right in front of them.” He grins at her, and for some reason Rose feels he’s not just stringing her along. Adults do that, she’s noticed, play along just because it’s easier. “And whether they believe you or not, you’re still the one with a very nice red bicycle.” He gestures towards her bike. “Father Christmas has got good taste.”
Rose blinks and looks down at her handlebars. She’s never quite thought of it like that. “Yeah.”
She feels awkward, straddling her bike with one foot on a pedal and one foot on the pavement, so she swings her other leg over to place both feet on the concrete. She looks him up and down again, curious. Her mother says she’s too friendly, talks to too many strangers. Rose thinks she’s learned lots of things in twelve years, and one of those things is a sense of who’s dangerous and who isn’t. This man, with his funeral clothes and swoopy hair, isn’t.
At any rate, she’s not scared of him. Sometimes she wonders what the difference is.
“You’re not from the estate,” she says matter-of-factly, and he shakes his head. “Why’re you here, then?”
He waves a hand. “Oh, I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d visit an old friend.”
She tilts her head. “You from London, then?”
“Here and there, really,” he says, waving a hand again. He shrugs. “I travel a lot.”
A faint but distinct twinge of longing occurs somewhere in Rose’s chest. “Lucky,” she mutters. “I’ve never been anywhere.”
The look he gives her is strange as he says, “oh, you never know. One day, maybe.”
Rose snorts, but says nothing. If she had the money to travel, she’d go anywhere, everywhere, all around the world. She wouldn’t waste time sitting on park benches by the Powell Estate.
She tilts her head. “Where’s your friend, then?”
“Your friend,” she says with just a hint of impatience. “The one you’re visiting? Where are they? You’ve been out here alone s’long as I have, that’s gotta be half an hour.”
“It’s only been twenty-two minutes,” he corrects absently, “and–”
“Have you been timing me?” Rose demands, reeling back in disgust.
The man is rightly alarmed at the accusation. “No! I’m just… punctual.” He laughs at a joke Rose doesn’t get. “Punctual, that’s a bit of a stretch, actually. Sometimes early, sometimes late, quite rarely on time.” He leans back, looping his arms around the back of the bench. “Early, this time. That’s all right. Got to talk to you.”
He holds her eyes and sends her a smile, and for some infuriating, inexplicable reason, Rose feels her cheeks grow warm. Flustered — he’s not even cute! — she busies herself with resting her bike on its kickstand.
Peeking at him through her sheet of hair, Rose frowns. He’s got his head tilted back and his eyes trained on the sky, a distant look on his face that seems to Rose to be achingly familiar. It takes her a minute, but finally she places it: it’s much like the look her mum gets whenever she talks about Rose’s dad.
Straightening, Rose pushes her hair behind her ears and shoves one hand into her pocket, rooting around. He’s a stranger and maybe that means she shouldn’t care, but Rose hates when her mum wears that face and she doesn’t like it now, stranger or not. She pulls a packet out of her pocket and sticks out her hand, offering.
“D’you want a Jelly Baby?”
His head snaps up and he stares at her, bewildered. Rose’s hand wavers — you’re not meant to take candy from strangers, but surely you can give it to them? — but then he leans forward again, just barely smiling.
“I would love a Jelly Baby,” he tells her, deftly plucking one from her bag with his long fingers and popping it in his mouth. “I love Jelly Babies,” he tells her as he chews. “Used to carry them with me everywhere.” He pats the pockets of his jacket. “It’s been a while, though.” He frowns in thought, and Rose has the impression he’s talking to himself more than to her. “Shame, I should get some.”
She watches him, pulling her hand back and taking out a Jelly Baby for herself. The sadness she’d seen is gone, but maybe it’s only hiding. She knows from watching her mum that some kinds of sadness never really go away. It’s selfish, she thinks, but she hopes she never learns that first-hand.
“Are you… okay?” she asks, in part because she wants to know and in part because that’s what you ask, maybe not of strangers but of everyone else.
He narrows his eyes at her, studying her seriously. Rose shifts under the scrutiny but holds her ground, shoving the packet of Jelly Babies back into her pocket.
Then, unexpectedly, his face cracks into a wide grin.
“You know what? I am.” He says it like a revelation.
Rose knows how often people lie when they answer this question — she’s done it, hasn’t she? — but he sounds sincere, so she grins back at him. “That’s good.”
He nods, suddenly seeming to crackle with excitement. “Isn’t it?”
A crisp breeze makes Rose shiver and draws her attention to the darkness of the sky. It’ll be dark soon, and her mum will be angry of she’s not home. She steps back towards her bicycle and puts up the kickstand, sending an apologetic smile to the stranger. “I gotta go. S’getting dark, Mum’ll be mad.”
The man nods, his grin muting into a soft smile. “I’d best be off too.” He stands, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Pleasure talking to you!”
“You too!” she says, and swings one leg over the seat. She’s just about to kick off with her other foot when she pauses, grins, and reaches into her sweater. She pulls out the packet of sweets and tosses it to him.
He catches it with both hands and looks at it in awe.
Rose laughs. “S’just sweets.” She grins with her tongue between her teeth as his awed expression turns to her. “Have fun traveling, yeah?”
“I will,” he tells her, still reverently holding the packet in both hands. “Thank you, Rose.”
She stands up while she pedals and steers the bike back towards her home. “Bye!” She cranes her neck around to send him one last smile.
As she watches him, he waves with one hand and nods, calling after her in a voice barely loud enough to be heard. “Goodbye.”
Rose is half-way home before she realizes she never introduced herself.
“Rose!” the Doctor exclaims in what she’s come to call his “Tony voice”, the tone he uses when he’s excited about something that ought to only excite a child. “Rose, look!”
She finds him in the next aisle and sighs. “You’re this excited about sweets? You’re worse than Tony.”
The Doctor does not seem offended. Instead he dangles a bag in front of her face, bouncing it fast enough she has difficulty focusing on it.
“Not just any sweets, Rose — Jelly Babies!” He grins at her like a maniac. “I thought they didn’t have any in this universe, but look!”
“Oh,” says Rose, pulling her head back far enough that she can actually bring the image on the packet into focus. “Yeah, they’re not as popular here, you just sort of find them in little shops like this.”
“That’s probably my fault,” he says seriously. When she raises an eyebrow, he goes on: “That they’re not popular, I mean. This universe didn’t have me traipsing all over time and space advertising them.”
Rose stares. She considers pointing out the egocentricity involved in crediting yourself with the success of a food product, then decides against it. “Right,” is all she says.
The Doctor is unperturbed by her lack of enthusiasm. He grins at the package in his hand as though it’s sentient and may start grinning back at him. “Oh, I love Jelly Babies. Used to carry them with me everywhere. It’s been a while, though.”
The déjà vu hits Rose like an Acme anvil. Her eyes widen and her head snaps up, a misty memory struggling to surface. “What did you say?”
He stares at her, perplexed. “Just… said I used to carry them everywhere. Why?”
Rose says nothing, lost in thoughts of sweets and red bicycles and ridiculous fringes. As she reaches for it the memory becomes brighter, the edges frayed but the picture clear, even after all this time. She feels a surge of warmth and grief and most of all, love.
“Rose?” The Doctor in front of her is concerned. He leans down to meet her eye level and waves a hand. “Ro-ose. You with me?”
She could tell him, she thinks, but maybe it’s better if she doesn’t. Maybe it’s better if she leaves this one single memory to the double-hearted Doctor alone, if just that one thing he doesn’t have to share.
She snaps out of it and sends him a smile. “Yeah. ‘M fine.” She gives him a quick kiss, then grabs a bag of Jelly Babies for herself and takes his hand to tug him down the aisle. “Come on. Let’s go home.”