In the Footsteps of Giants

by galiifreywolf [Reviews - 7]

Printer Chapter or Story
  • Teen
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Drama, Fluff, General, Het, Romance

Author's Notes:
Originally part of Chapter 6, with some minor tweaks :)

May 2061
T-13 weeks to Harmony Launch
Final Vehicle Integration


Rose slumped into her favorite comfy armchair in the media room. Since the Harmony kick-off meeting, the world had been a blur, minutes blending into long days blending into even longer nights. She hadn’t even taken the weekend off; there was too much to do, too much to catch up on. Bowie Base One was accelerating the frequency of their expeditions to the ice cap to drill for more fossil samples. Several floors below her feet, the heat shield was being installed onto Harmony - one of the last major integration landmarks remaining before test and roll-out. Every waking minute was filled with press releases, social media maintenance, and antsy interviewers desperate for the latest and greatest of whether or not each mission would see success.

The strangest part about all the chaos that she had yet to put her finger on was how she could simultaneously be so tired, yet also so energized to keep going; how the leaden press of fatigue behind her eyes and cheekbones could make her whole head throb, yet simultaneously make each moment feel more vivid, more crisp, more worthwhile. Everything was sharper - including the loud knock at the door to the room, followed by John’s eager voice.

“Roooose, you’re late for lunch! Come on, I have the huddle room with the windows booked today. I need you to hold down the fort while I pick up some parts from downstairs.”

She hurriedly crammed her work into a bag, slung it over her shoulder, and dashed across the room to open the door before John could run off.

“Food truck here already, then? What’s it today?”

“I think it’s fish and chips, actually. Though I have to say, I don’t quite know what day of the week it is at this point.”

“Me neither, mate, but that sounds gorgeous. I’ll go check, yeah? Meet you back at the huddle.”

John beamed and gave Rose a little two-fingered salute before jogging towards the lab. Rose wound her way out to the food truck parked in the lot and made sure to get a third serving of chips to share, just in case. When she got to the huddle room John had booked, she was delighted to see he had taken the time to write their names on the white board, lest anyone try to camp out with no reservation (as engineers so often loved to do.)

Rose loved how quickly they had slipped into the routine of booking one of the many small conference rooms under the guise of discussing important business - when in reality it was simply a midday reprieve from their respective teams, a chance to sneak in a bite to eat and brainstorm together for fresh perspectives on whatever challenges they were facing.

With each passing day, their semi-secret meetings felt more and more normal, and Rose found herself exponentially more at ease simply spending unstructured time together. By day three, she and John had started swapping a ‘song of the day’ recommendation for the afternoon commute home. By day four, he got through to her about just calling him ‘John’ and not ‘Dr. Smith.’ By day six, John finally caved to her jokes about how posh he looked in his suit compared to the casual dress code the rest of the office favored, and had forgone his usual pinstripe jacket in favor of just a light blue oxford. By day eight, only about half the time was actually spent doing work, and instead they swapped stories about travel, home, and office gossip.

Rose had nearly finished the pile of chips by the time John finally shuffled through the door, carefully holding a whirring and blinking radio-like device with both hands while holding his mobile phone to his ear with his shoulder.

“No, Donna, that’s exactly the issue. That UNIT company already has a recall out for serial numbers two hundred through three hundred forty, so you have to override the software and run it as a sole-source contract with Torchwood. Better quality anyway. Just email me a screenshot if it hits a block again.”

He navigated the door closed with his hips, gently placed the equipment at the center of the table, and groaned as he could finally stretch his neck out and release the phone from its perch.

“Alright, now I know that’s not one of your weird gadgets, what the hell are you up to this time?” Rose teased while swallowing down the last of her chips.

“Hmm? Oh, this!”

He plopped down into the chair across from her and began gesturing animatedly to the contraption whirring loudly between them.

“Funny story, this part. Toby Zed, the geology bloke, was getting all kinds of off-nominal readings from this deployable spectrometer. Mickey and Danny thought it must be picking up chemical signatures from the heat shield composites now that it’s installed, but none of the readings matched up. I had already finished up with my papers and Tosh was hogging the test bench, and I’ve never actually gotten to put my materials engineering degree to use, so I offered--”

“Hold on, your what degree?”

“Materials! You know, study of the engineering application of various metals, composites, organics, pseudo-archeo-organics, one of the fundamentals of good systems engineering! Worked out quite nicely really, systems and materials go perfectly hand in hand, so doing both programs together sped the graduation process right along. But so Toby’s--”

“Right, you’re makin’ that up,” Rose cut him off with a smirk, rolling her eyes.

“Why would I be making that up?” he asked, crestfallen. With careful movements, he gingerly picked the device up to cradle it in one arm.

Rose worried her lip, disconcerted by the way John was suddenly avoiding eye contact. Memories of their first conversation began to bubble up, memories of how desperate he had been to convince her he was telling the truth about who he was - and she immediately began to backpedal.

“I dunno, seems like the sort of thing you’d say to cause a little trouble on another subsystem, satisfy your curiosity. Just caught me off guard, s’all. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Nobody ever does,” he sighed. “I should expect it by now, really. Plenty of people have gotten away with bigger fibs to look impressive. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get defensive like that, just a long day. But for the record, Rose Tyler, I don’t get into trouble, I make sure we stay out of trouble.”

Rose opened her mouth to tease him about the set of brackets he crushed in the hydraulic press a few days ago, but bit her tongue as she watched his face fall, something stormy clouding his gaze.

“There’s no room for trouble this close to launch.”

Silence settled heavily over the tiny room, punctuated only by the beeps and chirps of Toby’s geosensor. John pulled a few tools out of his bag and took to poking at the device, clearly not planning to expound upon his obvious anxieties surrounding the launch schedule. The instrument proved to be a welcome distraction; for John, it served as a focus for his nervous energy. For Rose, it was a rare chance to watch him work up close with no distractions - a chance to truly stop and observe the extraordinary man she found herself growing so fond of. If he was the sort of man to keep quiet about several extra university degrees, what other surprises did he have up his sleeve?

Her calendar told her that it was only a week or so since they started spending time together. Her heart begged to disagree; it must have been longer. Why else would she feel so strongly about him, about wanting more time together, about wanting to unravel the mysteries that made up one Doctor John Smith?

Against her better judgement, she gave in to her burning curiosity and hazarded a continuation of their conversation.

“Pretty amazing, really.”

John snapped back to attention with a curious look on his face, the clouds hanging over him seeming to part a bit.

“That you’ve got at least three degrees, by my count. Astrobiology, materials, and systems engineering. Makes me wonder just what else I don’t know about the famed Doctor John Smith.” She made extra effort to over-annunciate his title, finally drawing a small smile back out of him.

“That is quite a dangerous can of worms to open, Rose Tyler,” he quipped back, matching her overdramatic tone. “You sure you want to ask that question?”

Rose huffed, putting her hands on her hips.
“Well, that’s kind of my job, ask the right questions.”

John leaned his head back to squint at the ceiling, making a scene of searching for a perfect sleepover-worthy secret to appease Rose’s curiosity.

“Alright then, here’s one I don’t think I’ve told anyone at work before. You can’t tell Ida this. Or Zach or Scooti, for that matter. They’ll never let me live it down.”

Rose snickered and leaned in a little closer.

“On my life, I won’t tell ‘em. But you can’t back out now.”

“Don’t you make fun of me either.”

Rose made a little “x” over her heart and waited expectantly.

“Back in my undergrad program, I ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign based on the Krop Tor Antarctica Habitation experiment. It was a bit of a horror module - the players were stranded on the base there with the same resources as the real team, except things started to go wrong, telepathic Lovecraftian horrors and such started getting inside, and at the very end, I had them fight the literal devil.”

“Oh my god, you are such a geek!”

“You love me though.”

“Hard not to.”

The words slipped out before she could think to stop them. Lips pressed firmly together, Rose shifted to hide her embarrassment behind the screen of her laptop. She couldn’t place why she even felt embarrassed, when he had been the one to flirt with her first. Playful banter was not odd for them, but John seemed a bit like the island’s afternoon thunderstorms today; mercurial, unpredictable, and perhaps dangerous if caught in the wrong spot.

“I’d better finish my report for this afternoon,” Rose muttered. As much as she loved their lunch hour together, she was ready to just throw herself back into her work and avoid mucking things up.

“Yeah, absolutely, brilliant, I’ll just - diffraction mirrors probably need to be double checked anyway.” His words tumbled out a bit too quickly, a distinct shade of pink creeping up his face.

The silence became eerie by the second half of the hour, and Rose quietly started packing up her laptop to leave early, doubtful the forecast was going to change for either of them. It was not until she was moving to throw away the empty chip basket that John finally spoke again.

“I’ve got another, if you want.”

“Another?”

“Another secret, if you want to call it that.”

Rose’s heart flipped a few times in her chest, her fingers numb as she fiddled with the clasp on her bag. Hauling the bag up onto her lap, she let her nails dig into the soft material in a plea to keep her voice steady.

“If you want, yeah. Always happy to listen.” It was not a lie, but the anxiety of not knowing which direction this would go kept her on edge.

He hesitated, visibly second-guessing this decision to share more, weighing each word carefully before speaking. The intensity in his eyes when he finally looked back at her had shifted to something less stormy, but equally dangerous, something more like a levee prone to break from floodwater.

“What if I told you some days I just feel lost? That all this is so much different than I could have ever expected?”

“How do you mean? I thought this was the same stuff you’ve always been doing, with your bio… thingies,” she finished lamely.

John set the device down unceremoniously and pushed aggressively out of his seat, turning to face the window. He scrubbed his hand back through his hair, leaving it in utter chaos atop his head.

Dread was a much better name for what was now settling into the pit of Rose’s stomach as John started pacing along the small area between the window and the table.

“It… is. That’s the frustrating thing. Hypothetically, you’re absolutely correct. Same work, same codes, same protocols. So why is it that the days go by faster, and I just feel lighter? Why am I so much happier working here at this office than any other in my whole life? The first week or two, I could write it off as a bit of tourism excitement. Now, I don’t know quite what to make of it.”

He let his arms drop unceremoniously to his sides, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Do you know how unsettling it is to think you have everything figured out, to know where you fit in the picture, and then the curtain lifts and you realize everything you’ve done and worked for is just--” the words caught in his throat, his arms frozen in front of him mid-gesture– “just one piece of a puzzle. But I - it’s not - it’s complicated.”

“S’only complicated if you want it to be,” Rose offered hesitantly, hardly understanding the point he was trying to make. Up until now, he had given no indication anything was bothering him at all, and as Rose mentally retraced the steps of their conversation, she wasn’t sure what had struck the wrong nerve to cause this sudden shift.. The last thing she wanted was to tighten that tension. Rose padded around the table and hopped up to sit on the edge next to where he still stood, paralyzed, and reached for his hand. It was becoming a practiced motion, a quiet gesture that ran deeper than words, some unspoken understanding that began to bloom from the minute John had first chased after her.

His eyes flew open and he shuddered in surprise as her hand brushed his. He sunk back down to sit beside her on the table, directly in the harsh glow of the midday sun. Without looking over at her, he entwined their fingers again, a wistful glaze stealing over his features.

“NASA hired me on contract with a very specific funding grant - to develop life-detecting scientific instruments. That’s a chunk of money that most of my colleagues would do unspeakable things to get their hands on.” He chuckled darkly. “How bloody self-absorbed of me to take working on a history-changing discovery for granted.”

Rose bit her tongue as they stood on a proverbial cliff. She knew better than anyone how to get a story out of someone, and if she were to interrupt his train of thought now, to give any indicator of hesitation, this ephemeral moment would evaporate.

“They all think it’s brilliant. That not a single thing in the world could compare. Doctor John Smith, award winning alien life research. Top of the world.” His fingers tightened painfully around hers, voice beginning to crack. “But they don’t like to acknowledge the shite parts. The days spent working through stressful problems alone. The peer reviews that leave you exhausted and demoralized. The fact that it’s simply a job, at the end of the day, and sometimes that’s not glamorous at all. But that ruins their image of ‘the dream job’ in their heads. So I stopped talking about it. Ignored how awful I felt a lot of the time.”

In the bright sunlight, Rose swore she saw the sparkle of a tear run down his cheek.

“What’s different now, Rose? What am I not seeing?”

Rose sucked in a breath, her heart shattering as his quiet, careful words pierced the tense air between them.

“What am I supposed to do when I have to leave in a few months? What if I can’t solve this puzzle in time? What if I have to go back to that feeling?” he asked, panic lacing his voice as though his departure was in mere seconds, rather than months - as though she would be pried from fingers if he didn’t tighten his now-crushing grip on her hand.

“Well, ‘m not goin’ anywhere. We’ll just have to figure it out together, yeah?” Rose said, leaning her head gently against his shoulder. Relief washed over her when she felt his head rest against the top of hers, warm under the blinding light streaming through the window. In the minutes of silence that followed, she could only hope that he felt a little less alone while they were together.

All too soon, John’s phone chimed, and with a groan, he sat back up to respond to the incoming email. Before long, he shoved it back in his pocket and turned properly to face Rose, reaching to hold her hand again.

“Erm. Thanks. For listening. I - well, I didn’t quite plan for this to all come out this way. I think I drove the point home quite well that there’s not a lot of people in my life who I can talk to about these sorts of things. If anything I feel a bit badly burdening you with this mess.” He tapped lightly on his head to indicate exactly which ‘mess’ he was referring to.

“Better with two,” she smiled gently. “Just promise me one thing, yeah? You can always talk to me. Always. Don’t go bottlin’ this kind of thing up...”

He did not answer immediately, but sitting this close, he didn’t need to. The sunlight laid bare all sorts of little things Rose had never noticed before - constellations of freckles scattered across his cheeks, the way his left eyebrow always seemed to be quirked up slightly, the hopeful gratitude shining in his warm brown eyes, the way his lips parted slightly as he leaned closer, forehead bumping against hers -- what is he–

The door to the huddle room slammed open with a resounding crack as it hit the wall, revealing one extremely perturbed Donna Noble.

“Oi, Spaceman, why the hell did you drop off the phone? Mickey needed you down in the executive conference room twenty minutes ago, stop canoodling and get your arse down here!”