“His roommate was there the whole time,” Brenda finished, shaking her head ruefully. The other women around her laughed, but they all immediately sobered as the door to the room opened in case it was their boss coming in to tell them off for dawdling over their lunch.
Brenda relaxed when she saw it was Rose Tyler entering the room, who was in some ways a boss here at Torchwood, but not one who would reprimand them for something that wasn’t serious. In fact, if the situation wasn’t serious, Rose rarely seemed aware of it. She moved through the daily aspects of her job at Torchwood with a despondent sort of indifference, as though she were living in an unhappy dream from which she had little hope of awakening.
Both in spite of this and because of this, Brenda took every opportunity to show Rose some extra kindness.
“Sit down,” she offered the blonde, indicating the empty chair at the table. “We’re talking about first dates.”
“Yeah?” Rose always smiled as though she knew she was supposed to but could only manage it because someone had taught her how. “The good ones or the bad ones?”
“Any,” Brenda replied, pleased that Rose seemed willing to participate. “You used to date Mickey, right? What was that first date like?”
“Well we were fourteen,” Rose said, and while she sat down at the table her voice remained dispassionate as though she was talking about someone else. “So you know, a movie, a bit of a snog outside my flat, nothing special.”
“I had a first date just like that last week,” one of the other women chimed in. “And I’m bloody twenty-six!”
Rose didn’t join in the laughter that followed that statement, but her face lost of a little of its customarily distant expression, making her seem far more present in the reality around her than usual.
“There was this other bloke, Jimmy Stone,” Rose said, and Brenda was pretty sure this was the most she had ever heard Rose speak on a non-work-related subject. “He took me to dinner, and dancing, then we sat on his roof and watched the stars.”
“Sounds perfect,” several of the woman sighed wistfully.
“And there was another guy,” Rose continued softly, as though she not only hadn’t heard them but had also forgotten they were there. “We saw a … show, I suppose, and then we had chips.”
As she said those last words her face was transformed by a light that seemed to blaze from her insides out. It was as though a dark curtain had been drawn aside, allowing the real Rose Tyler who was young and beautiful and truly alive to be seen.
“You… just had chips?” one woman asked in a hushed voice, her tone expressing the wonderment they were all feeling at the memory of such a mundane act inspiring so large a change in Rose’s whole being.
“Yeah,” Rose replied, and the extremity of the joy and the sadness in that single word made tears spring to Brenda’s eyes.
“Wow,” she breathed. “He must have been one hell of a guy.”
Rose smiled, not her memorised smile but a genuine one, exquisite with heartbreak.
“Yeah,” she said again. “And the chips were fantastic.”
“And that was a disaster, let me tell you,” Donna declared, swinging her feet contentedly off the TARDIS jumpseat as she applied a coat of glittering teal polish to her nails. “I ended up walking the fifteen blocks home, but I did make sure to snatch twenty quid from his wallet first. I knew I’d ruin my shoes and it was only fair he pay to replace them.”
The Doctor cast her a half-amused, half-alarmed look from his place by the console, but was prevented from saying anything by the bunch of wires he was holding in his mouth as he tinkered.
“Of course, my next first date more than made up for it,” Donna plowed happily ahead, taking advantage of his temporary silence. “Lance was such a gentleman–”
She broke off abruptly, her mind catching up with her mouth and stinging with the sudden pain of memory. She bent over her nails, making a show of carefully applying polish to her left thumb, but saw the Doctor remove the wires from his mouth out of the corner of her eye.
Not wanting to hear anything sympathetic, Donna snapped her head up and spoke before the Doctor had a chance.
“Go on, then,” she said. “Your turn. A nine-hundred year old spaceboy? I bet you’ve had loads of first dates.”
The Doctor’s look was half-amused, half-exasperated this time. “Come on,” Donna wheedled, starting to enjoy herself again. “Just tell me one. Tell me… the best first date you ever had.”
She expected him to roll his eyes and maybe refuse, but instead he went unusually still and quiet.
“We had chips,” he said after a long pause.
Donna waited for him to elaborate, but he remained uncharacteristically silent, staring unseeingly at the bits of console in his hands.
“Is that it?” she asked at last. “Because whomever you were with must have been some date if all you did was eat chips and it was your best first date ever.”
The Doctor looked up at her, his gaze dark and broken like it had been when she’d first met him. With a feeling of a blow to her chest Donna understood, though the Doctor only replied with, “She was.”
Now Donna was the one about to give sympathy, and while the Doctor accepted her hand on his arm he allowed the deep, heavy shadow within him to rise to the surface only for a moment. Then he flashed Donna a grin that was partially for her benefit and partially for someone else’s, adding,
“And the chips were fantastic.”