The moment lasts a lifetime, that moment she stands there with her hair blowing in the sandy wind, watery eyes and red cheeks, waiting for words he can’t say.
The next moment is longer still, it stretches into eternity as she turns to the human he’d give anything to be. This man glances back at him, and when their eyes meet it’s nothing like the image in the mirror. There’s determination in those eyes, a newborn innocence, a softness he can’t fabricate. And something else, too, in this vulnerable human packaging with his consciousness crammed inside: there’s love he can’t disguise written across his face. That’s why it’s his tongue, his lips that are allowed to say the words now; he surrenders that honor to the man in blue across from him. Trusts him to heal a heart he’s broken so many times.
But the phrase still rings out in the quiet turmoil of his mind, the tender, unspoken expression fighting to escape through the lips he’s sealed shut.
I love you.
He thinks he can handle it, the implicit rejection. But he watches himself whisper in her ear, analyzing the subtle movements of his own jaw, needing to know she’s finally hearing what he’s always known. It’s meant to be a private moment, an intimate declaration, but his hearing is too sensitive to allow such privacy. The hushed words cut through the chilled breeze, piercing flesh and bone and carving new holes into his very existence, wounds that he thinks even time won’t heal. He can almost feel when her hands grip the starchy fabric of his suit and pull him closer… but he can’t. He can’t handle it.
It’s a kiss of longing, of devotion, a press of lips that reunites lost souls, stitches two patchwork hearts whole again.
But he’s still a lost soul when he turns away, without a kiss to mend the cuts and tears beating in the cavern behind his own ribs. Their echoes through his chest drown out the noise of the waves, but they can’t numb the pain, can’t erase the sight of her kissing the wrong him. Jealousy and rejection swell his throat but he swallows them down, fighting to convince himself he’s the right him, for her.
He struggles to inhale the salty oxygen in his escape, and even the pure air inside the TARDIS and he thinks maybe his lungs are gone, that’s the emptiness he feels.
Rose, I can’t breathe.
After Mars, he finds himself at her doorway again. He does this too often, loiters in the frame with a frown that doesn’t seem to go away, imagining that any moment she’ll appear from her en suite. But he hasn’t gone inside since he lost her again, too afraid to pad across the room and feel the familiar give of carpet under his feet, to let himself sit on her bed and remember the sound of her laughter and the smell of her hair.
Lingering aggression wills time to reverse, resonating how fiercely he demanded time obey him on the station. If the clocks would turn back to a moment when she was still here, patiently waiting on him to make a move while he had the chance, he’d break the streak of stubborn silence and tell her everything.
But the sound of the gunshot echoes between his ears, another life lost on account of his interference. And his fury quails and transforms to sorrow as the emptiness of her room threatens to swallow him whole, a new guilt gnawing beneath the surface, prickling his skin.
Did I break my promise to never leave you behind?
He’s still with her, though, somewhere. His final gift to her is his only redemption. Maybe she thinks about him now and then. Wonders if he’s alright, the ghost of the man that pecks her on the lips as he hands her a cuppa every morning, that holds her hand as they jump out of an airplane to get their fill of adrenaline. That lonely shadow of the man he once was, closed off in a universe she once called home. Or maybe she doesn’t think about him at all.
His feet have shuffled into the room without his mind’s permission, because his eyes have caught onto a detail he’s overlooked a thousand times, one that wasn’t there the last time they spent the night wrapped around each other in this room. A highlighter yellow sticky note hangs in stark contrast to the shiny silver of her mirror, indiscriminate writing scrawled in a messy rush on its surface, hardly recognizable as her hand.
Peeling it from the cold glass, three words are pressed into the note with black ink so hard they’ve been engraved into the fibers of the paper. Three words he never said.
The square floats away from his fingers as his knees hit the floor and again he can’t seem to pull in enough air, even doubled over, supporting his weight with his fists in the carpet as salty droplets paint his white knuckles.
Rose, I can’t breathe.
He doesn’t have to think about it, he just ends up here. He became who he is for her, with her, gave everything so she could have her forever with him. The man whose hollow body wobbles on the frozen street but whose soul only teems with life and energy in that other universe now, where she’s with him. She’s home. And if the past few years have proven anything, he’s lost without her, a broken shell of the Time Lord that was born out of affection for her.
His hearts skip too many beats as he hears her voice ring through the empty street, bringing warmth to the frigid night and a flood of adoration and relief washing through him, an anesthetic that dulls the pain in his body until he’s not shaking anymore. But then he sees her. Bright and young and unpolluted by years of battling the void, and his hearts swell with her staggering beauty and all he wants is to run to her and breathe his last in her arms.
I love you.
He can’t. She doesn’t know him yet. The high wears off as quickly as it came and he groans as a fresh wave of radiated cells dies and the agony shoots up his spine.
“You alright, mate?” she calls to him, the stranger in the shadows between the street lamps.
It takes all the energy remaining in this regeneration not to limp over to her and reveal himself, every last ounce of breath to invent answers that make him out to be a confused drunk celebrating a new year rather than a lonely god stalling an imminent death.
Smiling weakly for her, he says the last words he’ll ever say to her, and they’re disgustingly inadequate. But he had his chance, his time is up. The privilege of adequate words is no longer his.
Fleeting visions of them flicker through his expiring mind as she disappears at the top of the stairs, together somewhere across the void. Her eating chips off his plate and him drinking lemonade from her glass… running down a beach and catching each other as they trip over piles of sand… falling asleep in each other’s arms, sprawled across a red couch in hideous sweaters next to a twinkling Christmas tree, mugs of chocolate cooling on the end table.
The images don’t comfort him as he turns to confront his fate; they only enhance the misery. His footing slips and he drops to the snow before he can reach the TARDIS, the universe’s cruel reminder that no one is there to catch him.
The repressed energy of the impending change spreads as he slams into the unforgiving blue door, all his delays catching up with him in a flash, fire coursing through his blood, tearing through his gut and burning his hands and feet. He doesn’t want to be here. Wants the other life, the one Rose is sharing with him. Without her he’s so completely alone, so terribly afraid.
He grits his teeth as the yellow glow washes over his limbs and consumes his vision, and his chest is heaving with the effort but still he can’t get enough air.
Rose, I can’t breathe.