"Doc, I hate like hell keeping her tied down tight like this."
He was so emotionally shredded, so tired, so yes admit it so worried and terrified and heartsick that he didn't even bother to bristle at the nickname. Besides, he was pretty sure that Jack, just as scared and helpless as he, didn't even realize he'd said it.
"Jack, you saw what happened when I left slack in the bindings. I know she's worse right now, but we shouldn’t loosen them. If she's improving and we've missed the signs, if … I think of her waking up alone and scared, Jack, would you risk it? We can't take the chance she might…"
His brain was stuck, smashed up against the barrier of a reality it couldn't climb over or plow through. Not like Rose's brain though, which was really stuck, neurologically stuck, and he'd finally admitted it to himself though not yet to Jack, terminally stuck. A cascading systems failure he should have identified before cute little perceptual quirks like seeing pixies out of the corner of her eye and smelling burnt peppermint in the clean laundry grew into troubling episodes like laughing so hard at Jack trimming the tree that she couldn't stop and she couldn't explain why, couldn't even form words, only belly-laugh and hold her stomach and point. Finally she drew stick figure pictures of their Christmas tree standing on its crown, balanced like a top, and Jack floating upside-down next to it jamming a star between the treetop and the floor.
He should have wondered why the woman who was prone to finding jeopardy and then the way to get them out of it was suddenly prone to clumsy injuries, and why she'd begun concentrating intently as he gave instructions instead of just smiling and enduring him until she could drag Harkness away into some of that waiting jeopardy. He should have wondered about the recurring burn blisters on her palm, when he was fairly certain her skin always felt perfect slipping his hand into hers.
He should have seen it before she started talking softly to herself and it sounded like nonsense verse to them. Before auras closed in her vision when she looked at anything blue. Anything blue. The TARDIS exterior caused her blinding migraines. And when he smiled at her, when he stupidly forgot himself and smiled at her and Rose met his gaze and smiled back, which she always did, he would see it in her eyes that he was hurting her.
He should have been able to do something before they had to bundle her into soft blankets so she wouldn't hurt herself flailing around, and then restrain her to keep her from banging her head repeatedly. Before he insisted they keep Rose tied into her bed even when one of them was there, just in case. Before she stopped her incoherent babbling… just stopped talking completely. He should have done something before her brain's neurotransmitters started eating her synapses and the myelin sheathes shredded off their axons like peeling carrots, and her sensory-motor processing disorder became a full-blown irreversible cognitive collapse,
He was a genius. He was clever. He could fix anything, sort any problem, and find every solution, except how to keep her from losing her mind, losing her self, and ultimately dying of it.
He should have done something to bring Rose back to health before he'd had to accept that there was nothing he could do to help her.
"Jack, we can't. She might…"
"She might what, Doctor? She might hurt herself again?"
"But Jack, what if— " He exhaled sharply and shut up.
"But Jack what if she gets twisted between the bedding and her restraints and something happens? But Jack what if she goes looking for us and falls and something happens? But Jack what if —"
Jack's eyes shifted to their girl so still in bed then back to his, and he would have given almost anything not to see that face or hear Harkness's voice so measured and chill.
"—what if she has one lucid moment and decides it is time to make something happen. Lord, Doctor, don't you see at this point it would be a blessing."
Jack Harkness was flying across the room before either of them knew what happened. Then he was getting Jack into a chair and wiping away blood. He closed up the gashes on Jack's scalp with his sonic screwdriver and righted the bureau and lamps. Jack didn't give him one look, one word, of recrimination.
He deflated against the arm of the chair, shaking and useless. When he tried to apologize, Jack patted his knee lightly and shook his head. He squeezed Jack's shoulder. They sat like that without speaking for… well, he honestly didn't know for how long.
They had simplified their routine as Rose's condition deteriorated. While one worked in the lab the other remained with her. They ate together in her room with small talk and outrageous stories fit to make her wake up and roll her eyes at them; then they went back to work, to watching, to feeling useless and anguished. They didn't work on the TARDIS and the ship didn't complain. They slept... they must have slept... he was pretty sure Jack slept, more than that time he'd found him face-down on notes from a spectrophotometric analysis of RNA samples.
On his way back to the lab, somewhat cooked and wooly-minded from the twenty minute hot shower Jack had insisted he take, he found himself at the doors of their Victorian drawing room. He cracked them open and peered in. His indulgent psyche unwrapped certain diaphanous strands of preserved time, safeguarded raw memories; and though he knew it was selfish he took out a few precious minutes of peace.
Soon after he'd joined them Jack had taken it upon himself to 'culture' his new companions, as he'd put it. The Doctor had been somewhat amused at Jack's choices, the TARDIS had been very keen, and Rose had been fascinated or scandalized depending on who was saying. When he sat them down to watch the three hundredth anniversary presentation of The Nutcracker ballet on telly, Rose was enchanted. She'd never seen the likes of it before and insisted they watch it again – five times straight through again in fact— then made them take her to a live performance. Upon their return, the TARDIS gave them the room.
The drawing room was furnished with rich mahogany panelling, flocked wallpaper, heavy full-length drapes and opulent furniture in complementary patterns and shades of russet, brown, cognac, and gold. A Victorian sofa and settee angled into a conversation nook in front of a real wood-burning fireplace; putting comfort above authenticity, the TARDIS had updated their style and upholstered them in cognac velvet. With eclectic chic she'd added end tables acquired on their adventures. Étagères displayed toy soldiers and animals, wind-up dolls, nesting figures, and puppets from all over space and time. A Lladro bowl full of Spanish chocolates and circles of peppermint-stripe hard candy sat upon a Chinese table next to a silver box of Arabic coffee and a jade Chinese tea set. On another table were a vase of hand-painted porcelain flowers and a snow globe. Inside the globe a fairy danced over frozen waves.
In one corner stood a grandfather clock well over eight feet tall, elaborately carved with ivory and brass inlay. The fanciful top called to mind an old man's bobbed hair and top hat, and something about the clock face suggested eyes, as if the spirit of the powerful old magician Herr Drosselmeyer was watching the room. Next to the clock was a drunkard's chair upholstered in flame-stitch silk and backed in the cognac velvet. It was so wide and deep and tall, with flaring wings so high and deep, that even a big man could get lost in it. In the center of the room stood the Christmas tree. Just sixteen feet tall, on the first stroke of Christmas morning — and any time they wanted, it was Christmas morning — the tree would grow up and up and up, so high into the TARDIS's transcendent rafters that even she didn't know how far.
Propped up on the settee were three dolls: the black-haired, twinkling-eyed, square-jawed dimpled Nutcracker Prince wearing an obnoxious and somewhat lascivious smirk; the Mouse King with seven crowned heads, all of which were irritatingly familiar; and the rather creepy white-wigged, eye-patched Drosselmeyer. A ballerina doll in a long nightgown and pointe shoes stood on one of the end tables. She had an open sweet face and long blonde spiral curls. When Rose pressed a button hidden by her curls she did a plié and low bow then rose onto her toes and twirled, her curls dancing and her gown billowing out around her like a bell. He was sure that the TARDIS had modelled the beautiful Clara doll on Rose, including the spun silk gown that was gorgeous because Rose wore it gorgeously when she danced around the room and twirled like Clara.
With regretfully little urging on Rose's part and seditious duplicity on the TARDIS's, they had actually performed, well, done terrible things to the ballet. Captain Jack Flash had called white tights and tunic jacket like the Nutcracker Prince's. To no one's surprise Jack informed them he wasn't wearing a dance belt, he simply was that large.
At first he'd refused to wear Drosselmeyer's eyepatch, wig, and cape and hide behind the grandfather clock; then Harkness reminded him that Drosselmeyer held Clara very close and threw the Nutcracker Prince around the room in the last act. He'd done it for art's sake.
Along with the Tchaikovsky Suite, the TARDIS played outrageously bawdy Old English drinking ballads that made Rose giggle and his eyebrows rise at his ship's guttery leanings, which only egged Harkness on. Berlin and Gershwin and other holiday songs played as well. And Glenn Miller, always. And they danced. Three gloriously, boisterously happy time-traveling lunatics in tights and masks and capes and top hats and princess gowns. Sometimes Jack wore the gown. And one time the captain had held him down and gotten his kit off, and a giggling Rose Tyler dragged the gown, which was suddenly much too large for her, over his head.
As he and his memories lingered outside the drawing room, the Ouverture Miniature began to play and a fire ignited in the hearth. Reluctantly he entered. His fingers glided lightly over the flocked wallpaper and smooth wood panelling, the marble mantel, the worn velvet upholstery. Rose's giggles echoed softly through the music, or his perfect recall, or the TARDIS database. He sat down on the sofa with a sigh.
Glass and metal splinters caught in the carpet threads glinted in the flickering light. The third of four pairs of glasses he'd made as Rose's vision worsened, their prism lenses had inverted and flipped the refracted light into images that her visual cortex would process and recognize. Rose had been so brave, upbeat and joking far longer than he could have been in her place, and so so very everything he loved about her. Until the evening he'd impulsively taken a meticulously wrapped little box from under the tree, put it into her hands, and suggested she open it. I'm going to die quite soon, aren't I, she'd stuttered. He'd told her of course not and she'd called him a bad liar. She gave him back his present unopened, then threw her glasses against the fireplace and ran straight out of the room. Rose Tyler nearly blind still could see right through him and was courageous enough to call him on his lie.
Too soon after that – adventures and Christmas celebrations and years too soon, lifetimes and dreams and heartsbeats too soon– glasses no longer were much help, Rose couldn't run or walk, couldn't talk, couldn't feel the fingers that closed a delicate chain around her neck and smoothed it along her throat, couldn't see the Christmas tree grow huge and smell its heavy pine scent, couldn't feel the fire's warmth on her face and hear pine cones crackling in the flames, couldn't care about the bowl filled with her favourite chocolates or squeeze the hands that held hers. She still heard the TARDIS singing to her, perhaps even felt some comfort there, but she couldn't hear him apologizing and begging her to forgive him. She couldn't see the tears on Jack's face when he carried her into the console room, held her on his lap in the jump seat, and recounted stories of their adventures. She barely knew the ship's cool green caress. She didn't ask what he was doing under the grating, too quiet to be working.
The other evening the TARDIS told him she was having trouble finding Rose inside her head.
The TARDIS kept the drawing room though she wouldn't play "In the Mood" and she added "All I Want for Christmas is You". He wanted never to see that room again and he wished he'd never have to leave it.
He dragged the settee over by the tree and sat down. Watching the Christmas lights play against wonderful little mementoes of their adventures that were hung as ornaments made him feel… not better and strangely not worse, not sad or lost or anguished, not anything like that or maybe all of that. All in all, the lights and thingamabobs and whatsits along with the memories they evoked just made him feel.
Tchaikovsky ended. "Moonlight Serenade" began to play and his eyes drifted closed.
He sat in front of the tree, for a time looking not at it but at an infinitely more beautiful reality, one that hadn't yet given him new reasons to curse it and himself and any gods that turned their backs on the people he loved. One that let a smile feel right on his face. Rose and him trapped during the London Blitz, her teasing him to show her his moves and him finally giving in, though the battle had never really been with her. Back on the TARDIS, the look of her laughing up at him as he dipped her back, daring a kiss.
Jack Harkness walked in on him, towing painful actuality.
Actually Jack staggered in barely in control of himself, actuality roadkill. He couldn't hate the man for that. But he could hate him for not blaming him the way that he blamed himself. He hadn't found the cure, hadn't found the cause, and he was tired damned tired of finding only hell.
"Yo, Doc. Some imper-impressive Time Lord you are, your cooler broked down 'n' your bear isss blech."
"What? I can hardly understand you. Bear? What bear?"
"Blech. Beer. Warm." Jack enunciated clearly but ruined it all by tripping in the general direction of the settee, landing partway on his lap and sliding to the floor in giggles. "Oops."
"Harkness, are you drunk?"
"Never, nope, not th'Capn. Don' drink warm beer ever 'cept in valid emergency sitrations."
Jack's actions clearly contradicted the assertion but he didn't mention it, just as Jack didn't mention the bad twitch below his eye as he kept himself from saying what they both were thinking. Instead he said, "Oi, I don't need a valid emergency sitration to drink with a friend, even warm beer; but let's have the TARDIS find us two cold ones."
"I may or may not have spilled some ice. An' broked the cooler. An' burned down the control room."
He stopped trying to pull Harkness off the floor to frown down at him.
"Just kidding. Wasn't me, was the vortex. But seriously Doc. Maybe. Could've been. Don' remember past the splosion. I'll clean up mañana."
Harkness climbed onto his knees and squinted at the tree, then grinned back at him madly. "I'm a child on Christmas morning," he crowed, moving his hands through the air like a befuddled mime feeling around for a misplaced wall. "Differential gravity pickets, pockets... cool! What's the plan? Grow tip-first, down through the floor? Or up through the roof of the TARDIS ass-backwards, and moon the vortex?" Jack laughed and laughed at his own cleverness.
Then Jack attacked him.
But the ex-time agent's reflexes were fershit, gone with Rose, and it was ridiculously easy to sidestep then hold him down. "Jack, calm down!"
"Your sick brain needs to turn the screws deeper, that it, Doctor? But you crap forgot all 'bout me, din't you! You narcissistic self-indulgent jerk! Why don' you jus' take your damn tree an' bore a bloodier bigger hole deeper into my heart?"
"Harkness, you've gone daft!"
Spitting barely comprehensible filth, Jack pulled free and staggered to the tree, and the git would have dragged it down on the both of them if he hadn't dropped forward and kicked out hard, catching Jack's shin and bringing him down. Jack collapsed into his arms.
"So how 'bout that beer, Doc?"
He pulled himself up and dragged Jack along with him. "C'mon, I'll get you another coffee and join you. Then maybe we'll do some work in the lab." He patted Jack's shoulder and smiled benignly. "What d'you say to that, Captain?"
Jack pulled himself up to his full height, stood to attention, and saluted; he barely wobbled at all.
He wouldn't leave the drawing room to disappear on him even though the flocked wallpaper made him want to puke. He'd dragged the settee back into place a week ago or the other day or, huh, maybe a week or two after Jack ... left; but he had to change the pattern it made with the sofa because 90 degree angles gave him vertigo.
The Mouse King lay faces-down on the floor in the conversation nook and the Nutcracker Prince sat on his most annoying head. Clara was on the Chinese table with Rose's chocolates, having refused to join them, clever ballerina. She would have lived longer that way. He pressed the doll's hidden button. She bowed deeply then went up onto her toes and began to dance. When she spun her silk gown billowed out, showing off rose-patterned silk knickers with little pink bows and red rosebuds along the lace edging. He smiled, the first time in ages.
He moved the end table over to the tree and set the dolls on it. The Nutcracker and Mouse King prepared to engage. Their girl kept twirling as she waited for her Prince to finish up and take her to the Kingdom of Sweets. He wondered what would be if just once time played out differently. A controlling-old-magician sort of man, not a handsome-rogue-in-no-need-of-a-dance-belt sort, might have answered they didn't have to like it but they did have to dance it best they could. But that was before all this and the pompous know-it-all-ness of it made him laugh until his gut cramped up and his knees went wonky.
Herr Magician was skulking behind the clock's bonnet, probably having realized things were out of control. He winked at the old fake as he dragged the wing-back chair over to the tree, which he made scrupulous note still stood crown up.
"You know," he informed his companions, "the music stopped and Drosselmeyer made the sun come up. Clara's big adventure ended in a bust and the Prince never returned from the Land of Sweets." Harkness made a rude noise. No, that was the Prince.
He began laughing again. But then she stopped dancing and he stopped laughing. Favouring his cracked shinbone, he sat down and edged his body back. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the depths of the drunkard's chair, and the depth of silence in the drawing room and throughout the ship.