At the entrance to her tent, a supplicant stood, wringing his hands together. The Elder Priestess grimaced, abandoning hope of completing her mental preparations before the ceremony. “What is it, Novice Adon?”
“One of the couples is threatening to undo their bindings! We will not have a full complement at evening time!”
She frowned. “Is it Maryella and Vun? I told that girl that she needed to…”
“No, Priestess,” interrupted the novice. “It is one of the visiting couples, the blonde woman and her tall friend. They’re arguing about it right now.”
The Elder Priestess sighed a deep sigh that started in her shoulders and ended somewhere on the floor. “Very well. Where are they now?”
The novice winced. “They ran off…?” He jerked his head in the direction of the shore line with a weak shrug.
The Elder Priestess cursed under her breath. Every single Festival of Zahn…
The day started off so beautifully.
The Doctor and Rose landed on the southern continent of Ecrolina, sometime in the late spring and right in time for their planting festival.
They joined the throngs of dancers, the beautiful mass of color and joy swirling through the grassy fields. Laughing, they held hands as they were swept along with the crowd. The steps of the dance weren’t too complicated, and the other couples were very forgiving. It was fun, weaving through the ribbons and showers of flower petals.
As the dance progressed, and the crowd rotated in a huge circle, Rose noticed that the pair ahead of them had moved under an awning, where they were bedecked in flower garlands and ribbons. The lively movement of the dance never paused, though, and as the couple twirled away again, another happy shout went up along with handfuls of petals.
The music kept up, and without missing a beat, she and the Doctor traipsed under the awning as well, clasping forearm to forearm for the next series of dance steps. They were joined rather suddenly by old woman in a long white robe and two younger girls, their arms full of flowers. In a flurry of color and sound, the girls twirled right along with them, looping garlands around their waists, over their heads. Rose brushed a bit of greenery out of her face and laughed out loud at the sight of the Doctor, bedecked in pink and white buds, with a wreath that tilted rakishly over one ear.
The robed woman was weaving something over their hands, ducking and bobbing through their joined arms in a strange dance of her own. As she finished, she reached into a pouch at the front of her robes and pulled out a handful of bright red petals. The crowd gave another loud, joyful cheer as she tossed them in the air, and the dance continued on.
Keeping up with the steps, they worked their way to the edge where the dancing gently transitioned into couples just milling about. Still keeping hold of each other’s wrists to keep from getting lost in the crowd, the Doctor and Rose slipped through the press of bodies until they reached a bit of open space. Rose was still out of breath and pink-cheeked with laughter.
“You’ve got a flower crown,” she observed as she fished in her pocket for her phone with her free hand. “No running off—I need a picture. Immediately.”
“A manly flower crown,” insisted the Doctor. “Very, um, manly and impressive.” He blew a pink petal off his cheek.
Snickering, Rose let go of him so she try her other pocket, but the Doctor’s hand came right along with hers. She gave a tug, yanking his arm in the process, and then held up their joined forearms. Beneath the generous heaping of flowery garland, a thin leather cord bound their wrists together in an intricate series of twists and knots.
“We’re tied together,” she said, wriggling her wrist against the cord. Some of the greenery shook loose and landed on the ground. “Is that what the lady in the robe was doing? What’s it for?”
“Oh,” said the Doctor, staring at their joined hands in apparent fascination.
“What do you mean?” Rose asked nervously because she knew that ‘oh.’ “Time to run? Might be tricky, tied together like this.”
“Er, no. No need to run.” He couldn’t seem to look away from the bands around their wrists, though, and it wasn’t doing anything for Rose’s peace of mind.
“What is it then?” She pulled their joined wrists closer for a better look. “Sacred tradition profaned? We’re going to be sacrificed to their gods? This is some sort of marriage pledge?”
“We-ell,” began the Doctor, and Rose paled.
“Wait, which is it?” she demanded. “It’s not the one where we get thrown into the volcano, is it?”
The Doctor blew out a long breath. “No. It’s definitely the marriage one. Well, I say marriage, but it’s more like a handfasting. Fifteen year commitment at the most. Probably. Nothing to worry about.”
“We got married,” said Rose blankly.
“Handfasted,” the Doctor stressed again. “Totally different. Mostly. Sort of. I mean, not really that different, technically speaking, but—”
“We danced a dance and got married by accident.” Rose stared at their bindings. “Um, does this happen often? When you travel?”
“Er, no. Well, not as often as you’d think.”
“I hadn’t thought it would happen at all.”
“Hmm. In that case, only very slightly more often than you’d think.”
Rose glared at him. “This isn’t funny, you know. What are we supposed to do about it?”
The Doctor tugged at his ear, and a stray leaf slipped down past his cheek. “Live happily ever after?” When Rose refused to respond to that with anything more than a withering look, he shrugged. "It's not such a big deal. Handy, when you think about it—just remember all those times we had to lie and say we were married to avoid imprisonment. ”
“Right, ‘course it’s not a big deal,” she said, struggling to get her wrist free and dislodging more flowers in the process. “Why would it be a big deal?” She gave the bindings a few more tugs, but their arms were held tight.
“Exactly,” said the Doctor, stilling her efforts with his free hand. “And really, it's only on this planet. In this culture. During this time period. So nothing to worry about. We’ll just leave it on for now, have a nice afternoon of dancing and eating from the wedding buffet, and at sunset, they’ll untie it for us as the final part of the ceremony. We leave, off to new adventures. Footloose and fancy free.”
"Fine. Easy as that.” Rose set her jaw. “And the next time we visit my mum, and she asks if we've gotten married on some alien planet, I'll have to say yes—she'll know if I try to lie. And then? She’ll come for you." She poked him in the chest with her free hand for good measure.
The Doctor winced, either at the poke or the image of an irate Jackie, and then furrowed his brow as a new thought occurred. "Wait. Your mother asks if we've gotten married? On a regular basis?"
“Yes,” answered Rose tersely. “Every visit. Without fail.”
"Not the point," Rose sing-songed.
The Doctor looked like he was considering pursuing that line of inquiry some more but was interrupted by the jerk of his arm when Rose gave another experimental turn with her wrist.
"Ow! No, no, don’t do that. Look, if it really bothers you that much, we'll figure out how to get out of it. Er, by sundown. I think. If we can manage to unbind our wrists by then, we present the cord to the High Priest or Priestess, and voila—an annulment. Just like it never happened. We don't even have to split up the china," he joked.
"Fine," said Rose, clearly not amused. "So let's get started.”
"You're in a mood," he muttered.
“Just get out the sonic and cut it already," said Rose. "They don’t have to know. There’s probably a setting for reattaching leather thongs in there, right?”
“We can’t cut it,” the Doctor said firmly. “It’d be a terrible offense. I don’t remember what the punishments are, but it would definitely cause a scandal. Ruin everyone else’s day.”
"Alright," said Rose, exasperated, "how do we get it off, then?"
"We've just got to untie it, that's all. Shouldn't be too complicated," he said, leaning in closer to get a good look at the knots. "Especially with me here. I’m an expert with knots. Now let’s take a look…”
Several minutes passed as the Doctor turned their joined wrists back and forth, examining them at every angle. Rose shuffled back and forth cooperatively at first, but she was growing more and more annoyed.
“Well, go on then. You’re the one who knows all about knots and things, you said.”
He peered at the complicated braiding. “You know, these are very tiny. You should give it a try; you’ve got littler hands.”
“Fine.” She squinted at the bindings and pulled their joined arms closer to her face. “Where do I even start?”
The Doctor shifted around so that he was standing behind her, their joined arms meeting just in front of her as he looked over her shoulder. Reaching around her with his other hand, he pointed to a small section of braid. “I think…just there, maybe. Try to get that bit, with the little curve."
Rose frowned. "This part here?"
"Wait, which one have you got?" The flowers in her hair were impeding his view. Doctor pressed closer against her back, his arm wrapped around her in a parody of a cuddle, leaning in, breathing in her ear. Rose’s scowl deepened.
“I don’t know…this little bit at the top,” she snapped.
“You were supposed to start with the curvy part.”
“It’s a knot! They’re all curvy parts!”
“Ahem,” said a voice, and the Doctor and Rose looked up to find a young man in a long ceremonial robe watching them. “Is everything well?” His eyes kept darting between them and their bindings.
“Fine, just fine,” said Rose, with perhaps more sarcasm than was strictly necessary.
“Er, yes, like she said,” said the Doctor, running his free hand over the back of his head, accidentally dislodging his flower crown. “It’s just, well, you see, we think…that is to say, my, er, wife thinks that maybe we rushed into this. Just a bit.”
The man said nothing, though his lips pursed together in officious disapproval.
“So,” continued the Doctor gamely, “we thought that we’d just untie the bands, follow the ol’ protocols for an annulment. Um, so to speak.”
“Any chance you could help?” asked Rose. “Or are you just going to stand there like a lump?”
The man drew himself up with a shake of his head. “I will have to consult the High Priestess,” he informed them before trotting away through the crowd.
“Well, that’s just great,” snarked Rose. “How many Time Lords geniuses and fancy High Priestesses does it take to untie one small knot?”
“What in the world has you so upset?” demanded the Doctor, pulling her around by their joined arms so that they were face to face.
“Oh, well, funny you should ask,” she said, glaring up at him, “but you see, I accidentally got married today. I hadn’t planned on it, just thought I was having a bit of a dance, but there we are. Married.”
“Handfasted,” he corrected.
“Oh for the love of— Fine! Handfasted!”
The Doctor’s frame had gone stiff. “I’m so terribly sorry for this truly horrible fate that has befallen you,” he snapped. “But it doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to!”
“Yeah, exactly,” she yelled back. “It doesn’t mean anything. It should, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean anything at all, and it never will!”
Around them, the crowd hushed. The Doctor stared at her, looking for all the world as though she had just said something astounding. Rose replayed her last words in her head and felt herself flush. Onlookers were watching them curiously.
Rose blinked away the tears that were somehow swimming along her lashes. “Can we, I dunno, go somewhere? Away from all of them?”
The Doctor cast a glance around with wild eyes.
“Please,” she begged. “I dunno, somewhere private. I don’t really fancy getting a lecture on propriety just now, ta.”
“C’mon.” With a pull of their joined limbs, the Doctor started dragging her through the crowd.
They wound their way through the festival, past the ribbons and garlands that bedecked nearly every surface, ignoring the congratulatory shouts and flower petals tossed in their direction. Eventually, the throng gave way to open field and then to sandy dunes overlooking a calm, blue sea.
The Doctor finally came to a halt. “Alright, there we are, a bit of peace and quiet.” He offered her a small smile and then gestured at the knots. “Did you want me to…?”
Rose discretely swiped her free hand across her nose and sniffled. “Can we just sit for a bit?”
In near perfect tandem, they dropped down onto the edge of a hill where the grassy verge gave way to sand. They sat quietly for a long moment, staring out at the water. The wind blew off the waves, smelling of salt and sweet beach grass.
“Sorry,” muttered Rose, when the silence was stretching on. “For the shouting.”
“What I want to know is,” said the Doctor, looking straight ahead and not at her at all, “does your mother really ask if we’ve gotten married every time we visit?”
“I dunno,” said Rose. “Since forever. Just before you regenerated, I guess.”
The Doctor was silent for a long moment, staring out at the water. And then, somewhat mournfully, he said “I always thought that, deep down, Jackie liked me.”
Rose turned to stare at him. “She does.”
He sniffed. “I guess. She’s still warning you off from marrying me.”
Rose rolled her eyes, turning back to the water. “That’s not what she’s doing.”
The Doctor leaned in a bit, tilting his head to look at her. “What do you mean?”
“She’s not,” Rose started and then stopped, a little embarrassed. “She’s not warning me off.” When the Doctor just kept watching her, waiting, Rose let out a little huff. “She just wants to make sure she gets to go to the ceremony, alright?”
The Doctor’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh.”
“It’s ridiculous,” said Rose, ducking her head to hide her red cheeks.
“Huh.” The Doctor shifted back and turned his gaze to the sea. After a moment, he shrugged. “Well, that’s easy enough to fix,” he said. “We’ll just pop back here for last year’s festival with Jackie, do the whole thing over again.”
Rose’s mouth fell open. “What?”
“It’d be the first ceremony, from a linear time perspective, that is. And she can wear a really big hat. It’ll be lovely!”
He grinned, and despite everything, Rose snorted in laughter at the thought of her mother attending an alien handfasting while wearing the world’s most outrageous fascinator.
“You see?” crowed the Doctor. “Perfect!”
“Except,” said Rose, “she’d also want to do it proper, on Earth. There would be planning. Magazine cuttings. Fittings.”
“Honestly,” said Rose, feeling a little bewildered, “I’m surprised you’re not trying to gnaw your own arm off. I wouldn’t have ever thought you’d want to go and do it again.”
He was looking at her intently. “Why is that?”
“Because…,” she fished around, trying to find the right words. “Because it’s domestic. Because you don’t do…this sort of thing.”
“Or any of the other sorts of things that go along with it,” she mumbled.
The Doctor, unfortunately, had really excellent hearing. “Which things?”
“I really am sorry,” she said, ignoring his question. “About snapping at you, I mean. It’s just that it’s all sort of sudden, you know?”
“Oh, yes, definitely,” he agreed quickly. “Very sudden.”
“I mean, you’d think they’d put up a sign or something.”
He nodded sagely. “Warning—weddings ahead.”
Rose started to chuckle. “Exactly. Well, and usually there’s a proposal involved and all that.”
“Right. The old ‘will you have me?’ That sort of thing.”
They lapsed into silence. The sun began to kiss the tops of the clouds hovering over the horizon.
“Getting pretty low,” commented Rose, chewing on her lip.
“It’s not really the only way to ask, though, is it?” asked the Doctor. “On Gliflux Beta, you propose by presenting your intended with a ripe piece of fruit. And on the Moons of Mandrell, it’s the woman who asks, and she does it by yodeling for three days straight.”
Rose gazed at the sinking sun, trying to picture what that must be like. “Yeah, maybe we should steer clear of the Moons of Mandrell.”
“Don’t worry; the yodeling is seasonal,” the Doctor assured her. “And really not all that unpleasant.”
The soft breeze picked up, blowing in off the water and playing with the loose bits of Rose’s hair.
“Doing better?” the Doctor asked after a moment.
“Yeah,” she said, a little abashed at all the fuss she’d caused. “We can go back, enjoy the festival like you said.”
“You were upset.” He was watching her thoughtfully with a bit of a furrowed brow. “I can take another whack at untying the knot, if you’d like.”
“Nah, it’s alright.” She flashed him a quick smile. “Just a silly bit of panic, that’s all. And anyway, like you said, it’s not really real.”
“We-ell,” said the Doctor, stretching out the word as he ran his free hand over the back of his head, “it’s not not real.”
“I mean, it’s not really the…Earth tradition.”
“They have handfasting on Earth.”
“No, I mean,” said Rose with a touch of frustration, “it’s not the full marriage ceremony.”
The Doctor frowned. “Flowers, dancing, lots of food. Officiants. Symbolic gestures. We’re not missing much on the list.”
“There’s vows,” said Rose, trying to make some sort of point.
“Hmm.” The Doctor nodded thoughtfully. “I think they have us repeat something when they untie the knot.” His brow furrowed as he pondered. “Or was it that we’re supposed to say something to each other in secret?”
Rose turned to him with some exasperation since he was insisting on being dense. “There’s kissing.”
He squinted as though trying to remember. “They might have that? You know, I really can’t recall. Anyway,” he added with a shrug of his shoulder, “I don’t think they’d quibble with a little improvisation. If you’d like.”
Rose’s jaw dropped. “And that’s no big deal, is it?”
“I dunno,” he said with almost-studied casualness. “Not so strange, is it? Could be…nice.”
“Wait.” She stared at him, suddenly struck by a new, entirely bizarre thought. “You like it!”
“What?” His voice squeaked a bit on the word.
“You’re happy about this.” She lifted their joined wrists and shook them for emphasis.
His mouth hung open and his jaw moved as though he was going to utter a denial but nothing came out.
Rose tilted her head, trying to force the world to make sense again but it stubbornly refused to cooperate. “Did you…did you know this would happen?”
The Doctor’s eyes widened and he sat up straight. “No!” he said quickly. “No, I honestly thought we were participating in the spring planting festival. The marriage bit was a complete surprise.”
“Handfasting,” corrected Rose dryly.
“Handfasting,” he agreed. “But no, I would definitely have said something. Beforehand.”
“The old ‘will you have me?’”
“Right.” Then he jumped up even straighter that before. “No! Well, I say no but only if you—”
Before he could babble out whatever excuse he had rolling about in his head, Rose leaned over and kissed him. It was just a quick, soft press of her lips to his, but it halted his ramble in its tracks.
She paused, her face still just inches from his. The Doctor was perfectly still, eyes lidded and lips still parted just a bit.
“Look at that, you’re right,” she said, working to keep her voice steady. “No big deal. Just a nice, normal, pleasant thing, us kissing.”
His mouth closed with an audible click of his teeth, and he swallowed. “Yep. Er, my thoughts exactly. Very…standard.” His eyes darted down to her mouth.
“Mm-hmm. Nothing surprising here.” She leaned in a bit more, catching her tongue between her teeth as she grinned. “Mundane, really. It’s practically boring.”
He was huffing in protest even as he moved to close the distance, this time bringing his free hand up to cup her jaw as he kissed her.
She wanted to laugh at the cleverness of giving him something to prove, but he caught her lower lip in his teeth, and abruptly he was proving it too effectively for her to remember why it was funny or clever or anything else.
Their binding, somewhat ironically, made it hard to sink into each other properly, the combined distance of their forearms forcing their bodies into a confounding triangle. The Doctor compensated by slipping his hand behind her head to pull her closer, chasing her lips with his own. A small, needy sound escaped him, and Rose answered with a soft touch of her tongue to his.
At that, he opened his mouth, attempting to lean in further, but the movement made Rose slide back as the sand beneath her gave way. He let out something close to a growl, pushing to get closer.
Rose squeaked as she began to topple to the side. He caught her by the elbow with his free hand as she began to laugh. She scooted back up onto crest of the dune and softly leaned her forehead to his, still chuckling.
“Rose?” The Doctor’s voice was gravely.
Her eyes had fallen shut. She opened them and stared into his, just inches away. “Hmm?”
“How long are you going to stay with me?”
Her answer was immediate. “Forever.”
He smiled. “Well then. Fifteen years doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Hardly a drop in the ocean of forever.”
She thought it over. “That’s a fair point.”
His thumb was softly tracing the line of her jaw, his fingers running over her neck whisper-light. “I thought so.”
“Time to go back to the festival?”
“Hmm.” He placed a series of kisses along her neck. “I suppose. Or we could go back to the TARDIS for a bit. Just in case there are any requisite marital activities that need doing. Although…” He nudged her flower crown up a bit, revealing the curve of her ear. His voice had gone husky as he whispered. “Apparently I don’t do such things so I’ll probably need detailed instruction.”
He bit her lightly on the earlobe.
“Oh..h.” Her eyes fluttered shut again only to pop open. “But the marriage doesn’t count unless we get the Priestess to remove the band after sunset.”
His mouth was busy but he managed to respond. “Details, details.”
The two of them turned their heads in union to find an elderly woman in an ornate white robe standing there, glaring at them. The same woman who had fastened their bindings in the first place.
“Those details,” she said, rather tartly, as she folded her arms, “are generally considered important.”
The Doctor scrambled up, pulling Rose after him. “Ahh, yes! Of course! Quite important! Wouldn’t dream of violating the sacred rites of, erm…” He trailed off, trying for the name of the deity and failing. “…Sacredness.”
Rose discretely elbowed him in the side, and he cleared his throat.
“Marvelous,” said the Priestess dryly. “Then you’ll come with me and join the others for the final stage of the handfasting?”
“Will we?” The Doctor glanced sideways at Rose for confirmation. She suppressed a smile and gave him as serious a nod as was possible under the circumstances. “Oh, look at that,” he said, sounding relieved and pleased and just a bit giddy. “She’s saying yes.”
“Well, yes, one would hope that she would—” began the Priestess only to stop short. She squinted at them both. “Wait. Weren’t you both here last year?”
“Were we?” The Doctor and Rose asked in union.
Exasperated, the Priestess put her hands on her hips. “Yes, I distinctly remember the pair of you. You,” she said, thrusting a finger at them, “are already handfasted.”
“We-ell,” said the Doctor with a tilt of his head and a light shrug, “you see, it’s an interesting thing. The timelines are such that—”
The Priestess made a noise somewhere between a snort and a growl. “We have laws about this sort of thing, you know.”
“Yeah, thanks so much, we’ll be going now,” said Rose, tugging the Doctor along to stop him from an extended discourse on the affects of temporal mechanics on marriage rites.
“In fact,” the Priestess added, “the penalties can be quite severe—”
“Doctor,” said Rose, tightening her grip on his wrist, “Run!”
The Priestess rolled her eyes as the pair of them took off at a gallop across the fields, leaving a trail of fallen flowers in their wake. “Give my regards to your mother!”