Author's Note: Well, I wasn't planning on this being the last installment, but I guess that's just the way it goes. I can promise sequals, however - but I won't be writing them until 'Partners In Time' is further on in the story. I would appreciate feedback for that one, so those of you with nothing to do would be doing me a huge favour by reading it :D
I just want to say that I am very touched and impressed by the reviews this story picked up. I was writing it more for my own peace of mind than anything else - "Doomsday" still makes me cry, even now. I played the confidential the other day and I was in trears over it. Let's just hope there is more luck for David Tennant and Billie Piper in the future.
I doubt it, though. Because Russel T Davies is just mean. All the best,
Almost, Part Four
They are halfway down the beach when he asks again. This time, for what must be his fifth rendition, Rose just laughs and tugs him behind her as the large, blue box she has come to call 'home' looms closer and closer into view.
"Doctor, ask me that again, an' you're gonna get a mouthful of sand!"
He blinks and obediently shuts his mouth, not quite one hundred percent sure that she is joking. Then she is grinning cheekily over her shoulder at him and he smiles too, because he cannot remember a time where he has been this ecstatically happy before.
The sea is still roaring loudly up and down, in and out, delivering slivers of white foam every now and then across the line of damp sand. Their linked hands are swinging between the couple merrily and their shoes leave smooth, attractive indents in the grainy sand.
He had asked her, back on the road, if she really was sure she wanted to come with him. She was under no obligation to, not in the slightest. They were her family, her life and her home, and after the two of them left this universe, that really would be it. No second chances, no popping in whenever they felt like it, no more windows. This universe, as he has told her before, has been interfered with too many times to make it safe.
She had told him, vehemently, passionately and fervently, that yes, she did want to go home.
The look on his face was priceless, complete horror and disbelief – though he had obviously been trying to hide it.
Then Rose had smiled shyly and reached a single hand up behind his head, to tangle in his mass of hair. She had continued to say, quite sternly, that the TARDIS was her home. Always had been, since almost the first time of boarding it. He had pulled her in for a crushing hug, his joy evident, then planted a bruising kiss to her forehead, taking her head in his hands. Taking her hand, he had led her down the road.
Where he had continued to repeatedly ask if she was sure. Again. And again. And again.
She laughs as they pull up outside the TARDIS. Now that she has accepted that her family are a part of her past, she can't help but feel in high spirits. Part of her feels guilty, wondering if she should mourn them further. They are, after all, her family. Then again, ever since she was stranded here, in this Alternate Universe, nothing has seemed quite right. The people are scared and terrified of technology. The world is quiet. Evolution is fearful. And there's no Doctor.
The Doctor splays a hand out over the door of the TARDIS, but hesitates before pushing it. He turns his head to Rose and she can see the question in his eyes and on his lips before he has even asked it.
Best to pre-empt the repetition, she thinks.
"Doctor," she tells him calmly, stepping forward and quietening him with an index finger to his lips. He stands there, blinking at her, and swallows beneath her touch. Their gazes lock intensely, and she fights to find the words in her mind before they get sucked into the void of his eyes. At the thought of the unfortunate turn of phrase, Rose suddenly sobers. "I've made my choice: I'm not goin' anywhere. I'm stayin' with you 'til the day I die. Tha's what you said, 'n' tha's what I've accepted, cos there's nowhere I'd rather be and no one I'd rather be sharin' it with. So before we step back inside the TARDIS, you're gonna promise me that you're never gonna ask me again, right? This is it. You an' me. No holdin' back."
He nods mutely, unable to deny her, and feels rather like he has just signed his soul away to the devil. The tiniest, most alien part of his psyche wonders if he has made the right choice. However, the next second it is quelled, as Rose's fingers begin to tickle lightly under his chin. He has to fight very hard against the temptation to close his eyes and push his lips against the finger that is still resting across his mouth. There's a time and a place, he tells himself firmly.
However, no matter how much self-berating he does, a small, incoherent growl – somewhere between a gasp and a gurgle – escapes from the back of his throat and his eyes flicker almost-shut. Everywhere she is touching him burns with a fiery passion that he had no idea was possible from such a simple caress. He supposes, idly, that this is what missing someone does to you, especially when you have nothing but memories to remind you of what they once were. Memories fade and wither, becoming corrupted or misinterpreted. A memory is just useless data – the real thing is much, much better.
Rose knows she has him when his head moves, ever so slightly, giving her the opportunity to slide her hand slowly along his jawline, making sure to take in every possible nook and cranny in his strong, defined cheek. His eyes are open, watching her. She wouldn't normally be this daring or this bold, but there is something about his reaction that is very, very enticing, and she wants to know how far he will let her go before –
He has a sensitive spot, almost exactly at the point where his jaw hinges to his lower cheek. Just below the stiff bone, tucked safely away out of normal reach, just under the surface of his skin, is a collection of highly responsive nerves. When one of Rose's fingers – he isn't exactly concentrating on which one – inadvertently applies a light pressure to the dip where these nerves are gathered as she glides over him, his eyes drift shut of their own accord and he takes in long, slow breaths, his mouth dropping a few millimetres to accommodate them.
Rose, at this point, does not understand his reaction, but is nonetheless entranced by it. She watches in wonder as his head twitches slightly and she notices, with some amusement, that he is turning his tongue over and over again in his mouth, behind his row of teeth.
"Oh," he breathes suddenly, startling both of them. Rose's hand pauses a moment, not that it was moving much in the first place. She watches with fixated interest as his breath hitches and she can see the physical rise of his chest as he holds it. His voice is quiet and almost husky, like he isn't quite in control of it. Without quite knowing why, Rose applies the tiniest of extra pressures with her fourth finger, which is resting somewhere beneath his jawline. The reaction is surprising – his entire body moves in a sort of motion that can only be described as 'upward' and he lets out the smallest of gasps. "Oh..." he repeats again, his voice shaken and choked with mounting desire. "That. Right... there. That's very good. Very good. In fact – "
The rest of his sentence is cut short as Rose pushes further, delighted and excited by his shocking reaction to her touch.
His thoughts come crashing down on him simultaneously until he cannot think, can barely even breathe. There is just Rose and her fascinating, expert connection to him, and if he doesn't stop tying to think, his head and chest might actually explode with the thoughts and feelings careering down on him like a tsunami wave, building high and fast and teetering right above him.
In the same moment, he lets out the groan that has been mounting from the pit of his stomach, and relaxes his body, knowing only the woman who is doing this to him and how empty life has been without her.
He stumbles, losing his balance, as his legs forget how to hold him upright. The hand which has been splayed out over the door of the TARDIS suddenly has more pressure behind it and he begins to fall as the door creaks and swings. Opening his eyes, he grasps for the frame desperately to regain any form of control of himself. He blinks, swallows and shakes his head all in one motion, thought returning like a car hurtling down a motorway the wrong way. Vision returns where once it has been clouded and he looks at Rose, his hearts racing with panic and uncertainty.
She has a hand over her mouth, obviously trying to hide a smile – but it does her no good, as her amusement is leaking out of her in snorts of laughter. He cocks an eyebrow and, once he is quite sure that his legs can manage the impressive task of keeping him vertical, waves a warning finger at her.
He opens his mouth, meaning to lecture her for her laughing, but his thoughts begin to cloud him all at once and he can't quite pick one coherently. He smirks, mostly because he can't believe that she manages to tear away everything in him that makes him alien to her, leaving only animal instinct. Which is bizarre, he thinks, considering he is not evolutionarily related to any animals in the slightest. Unless he counts the human half on his mother's side, which may or may not have anything to do with the pump of blood and adrenalin that is now rushing desperately around his system.
He is still standing with a finger raised in the air several seconds later, his train of thought having sprouted wings and flown somewhere high up into the air. He blinks, confused, then brings his hand down.
He then clears his throat and glances down to the beach, highly thankful for the fact that he has always been good at hiding a blush if it came to it.
"Er... right," he offers weakly, stepping aside and showing the open doorway to the TARDIS. He holds out a hand to it. "Ladies... uhm... first, then?"
Rose snorts with further laughter at his incomprehensibility of his situations and takes her first steps into the TARDIS in four months.
Her dirty, muddy trainers echo around the console as she ventures forward, mouth agape, eyes wide and staring as she drinks in the scene around her.
The door creaks shut and closes with a small bang. She turns to see the Doctor standing just inside, watching her with a keen eye.
"You've redecorated," she says, looking around again. It isn't entirely different. There is still a grille floor and smooth, metallic walls – and of course, the control unit in the centre. But it is larger than she remembers it, and she is sure that there didn't used to be so many doors branching off as there are now. And rather than the bronzey, green glow she has been used to, there is a passionate, fiery red bathing the room instead, and the walls are silvery instead.
The Doctor folds his arms and sniffs thoughtfully. "It was more the TARDIS' decision than mine. She thought it was time for a change."
Rose turns back when she hears light footsteps falls softly along the metal floor as the Doctor walks towards the controls.
"How long has it been...?" she asks, watching him carefully.
He brings his head in a snap, his eyes meeting hers. He almost seems to shift uncomfortably, but he shakes it away with a small shrug. "About... two months after you left?"
"Oh." Two months? she thinks to herself. Just how long have I been gone?
"Hold on a jiffy."
The Doctor smiles shyly and dips his eyes again, keeping them on the floor as he stops by a panel in front of him. He reaches hand delicately to a dial, then brings his fingers down on a levered switch.
A soft, golden-green glow bathes the room once again. The walls sheen metallic bronze. He looks up. She is watching.
"There," he says tenderly, his eyes glittering in the dim light. "That better?"
Her answer is sincere and they smile at each other. Then the Doctor lifts a hand, beckoning her to his side. She complies in an instant and he watches her every step, only letting his gaze flick away when she is close enough to hear his quiet breath. He extends an arm not to her, but to the controls again. He taps momentarily at a keyboard before taking a few steps away, reaching for a large lever and a smaller but. He flicks switches and turns dials all in a sombre silence; Rose watches him because it is exactly this sort of thing that has been missing from her life for the past few months. It one time, she found it ordinary – almost mundane.
The doctor looks up and meets her eye. She smiles but he does not return it. Instead, he takes a laboured breath and turns it into a sigh.
With just one word, he can ask her so many things. Is she sure? Does she want to go? Is it time? Is there anything she's forgotten? Is there anything she needs? Her mind fills with questions, but right at this moment in time, she cannot spend the time to think about any of them because she is simply thinking of him.
She nods her head. "Yeah."
"Then come here," he tells her. His voice is ever so slightly hinting on husky, but he swallows it back. He wants her to press the final control for two reasons: he is sure she has missed working with him, as he has so hurtingly missed her – he's never let her manoeuvre the TARDIS before and perhaps it will mean something. The second, more important reason, is that he isn't entirely sure he can take her away from the one place he knows she is safe.
Rose steps obediently towards him, and when she is close enough, the Doctor gives himself only a second to look at her before he reaches for her hand. Slowly, he guides it to the mainframe console, where his hand lingers on hers in the air above a lever.
She has been watching her hand grow steadily closer to the control, but at his seeming hesitation, she turns her head to look to him. He is watching her. There are tears in his red, tired eyes.
He always was good at hiding his tears. She has never seen him cry; not in any of the years she has known him. He has come close couple of times, she thinks, usually when she has been in danger. His symptoms are unseeable to the untrained eye – but to Rose, she recognises every one. Eyes wide enough to show something is not right, but not enough so to reveal the white around his irises. His pupils are dilated, large and black, giving him a pained, hollow look. His jaw is set, almost sunken, and his mouth is clasped closed as he looks on at an unfair world in silence. And still he watches her.
"You okay?" Rose asks tenderly, knowing that he is not.
He continues to look at her, mouth still, eyes concentrated. She does not know that he is wondering just how much time he will have with her this time. He knows these are not thoughts to be thinking now, but losing her again, after this... he's not sure he'll be able to keep going. In a way, perhaps it would have been better for death to have stolen her from him. He can't beat death, no matter what he says. His own, perhaps, for the moment, but not anyone he cares about. With death comes the release of letting go – when Rose was in the alternate universe, he couldn't let her go. Because she was still very much a part of him and if it wasn't dead, he was just empty without her. Death would have offered an end. Except that now, if he lost her again, he's not sure that even death would offer cold comfort.
Then again, he's not even sure he won't try and cheat death for her. If he lets himself care about her – anyone – that much, he will do absolutely anything to keep them alive. Cross his own time line to save her... is he beyond or above that? He isn't sure, and the thought scares him.
"I'm fine," he returns with a small smile and soft, blinking eyes. "You know that."
He still holds her hand over the leaver. "After this, there's no going back," the Doctor says, his voice suddenly entirely serious. "This lever goes down, and we're out of here. Back to our universe, back to the life we used to live all those years ago – "
He knows the instant he's said it that it's a mistake. He curses his stupid, stupid mouth for speaking ahead of his mind and reluctantly lets go of Rose's hand as she pulls it away. She stares up to him, mortified. A disbelieving frown buries itself in her forehead and she opens her mouth in a slight gape.
"How long?" she demands, stepping back from him slightly. The Doctor takes in a nervous breath, but does not answer. "Doctor – How long?" Rose tries again, her voice hard. She does not mean to be angry – mostly, she it just shocked. She has no right to be angry, she supposes.
He meets her eye and Rose is frustrated that his face is unreadable. When he speaks, his voice is bland, void of emotion. "About... four years."
She feels something grab at her heart, squeeze down on it hard like it is a stress-relief mechanism. There is an aching pain that rises from somewhere in her stomach, and with it, a tide of nausea. Something uneasy prickles at the hairs on her back, travelling down to meet the rise of pain. Her chest tightens, making her breathing ragged. Her eyes unfocus for a moment, looking into empty space as she tries to fathom the sheer amount of time that has gone by for him. Did her muscles used to hurt like this?
The Doctor is at her side in a second, curling his long fingers around her upper arms.
"Rose?" There is worry in his voice, tainting it from its usual calmness. It begins to ebb when she meets his eye, but then something new greets him. His hearts want to reach out to her and drown her, because by the look on her face, she is suffering an unbelievable amount of pain.
Bravely, she fights it back – it is not her pain to deal with, she tells herself. "I'm fine," she sniffs after a moment, wiping her nose on the back of her hand. The Doctor almost laughs. "It's just... four years? I thought... I thought it would be the same, y'know? An' four months was bad enough. But... years." The look in her eyes intensifies and as a reaction, the Doctor loosens his grip on her arms. Her next statement is almost a whisper. "You never gave up. Four years, an' you still went on looking."
"It wasn't that long," he lies tenderly. Compared to the rest of his lifeline, it really isn't that long at all – the fact that it felt like forever, just an empty hollow in what used to be his life, means nothing now.
"Not that long? Doctor, how can you say that?"
"Well..." He isn't sure if he can tell her he only said it to make her feel better. "It's the truth. Compared to the sort of life I lead, four years really isn't anything to worry about."
She blinks. "Oh. Good, then... I s'pose."
The Doctor puts his head on one side and looks at her sympathetically. She is just close enough that he can reach for her hands, and he gently brushes his thumbs over the tops of them. He has to hide his amused smile – she tries so hard to do the right thing, even if it means ignoring how it is she really wants to feel, and it makes him care about her all the more.
"Rose," he says softly to get her attention. It works and her filmy eyes flick to him. "One month or sixty years – it wouldn't have mattered. I couldn't possibly have missed you any more than I did."
He supposes he should know her well enough by now to expect hugs out of nowhere. Her arms fling around his neck and her hands lose themselves in his hair, grasping desperately as she pulls him down to her level, nuzzling her nose to the side of his neck. He hugs her back, encasing her in his arms. He feels her tilt her head, feels damp on his neck again from her tears.
"Oh, Rose..." he tries to calm, hugging her close and breathing her in. "My beautiful Rose. Please don't cry. Not for me. Not like this."
He frowns – there is something on her breath that he has heard before. Reluctantly, he pulls back so he can look her in the eye. She is swallowing, mouth open, eyes looking up to the ceiling.
"I... I lo-"
He stops her instantly with a finger on her lips. His frown deepens and she looks at him, confused and just a little bit hurt.
"No," he growls, shaking his head slightly. Then he smiles gently and explains. "You've had your turn."
He carefully lowers his hand, trusting that she won't speak. She doesn't break his trust.
The Doctor licks his lips and looks down to her, his hearts racing. He can almost feel his blood pounding through every artery in his body. He feels a temperature switch somewhere, though whether it is the room or himself, he cannot tell.
The hand that has been resting on her back slides around to her waist, and then takes her hand. He looks almost worries as the words scream through his mind.
"Rose. Rose Tyler..." That look in her eye, that intense gaze that shows she is expecting something from him – he falters. He cannot give anything to her that she doesn't already have. He cannot offer safety or marriage or family or a life or children or old age or comfort or happiness or adventure. At this moment, he cannot even offer her love. He can offer death. Death is his gift to her. How can he offer her that? "I..."
There it is again: that small voice. In the back of his mind, chiding and sniping at him, malicious and devious. While the rest of his mind orders him to say the words she wants to hear and eh wants to say, the little voice cackles with malevolence. He can feel a shiver of worry spread down his back.
"...You know I..."
A silence hangs in the air around them, spreading like mist on a bitter, wintry evening. Rose gives a little sigh, but tries to hide it. Perhaps, after all is said and done, he just can't say the words. Perhaps the universe explodes when the Doctor says... if he was going to say that... She is pretty sure he was.
"Yeah. I know."
It is an empty victory as he feels her withdraw from him, watches as she begins to move away. He cannot let her leave like that, and thanks the great gods of the sky for the strength in him that lets him extend an arm and catch her by the hand.
"Rose, a man would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to fall in love with you," he states and he tightens his grip tentatively on her hand. His soft eyes shine in the gentle light and he half-smiles his rueful words. "Yet here I am, all-powerful Time Lord, and I can't even get the words out."
Despite herself, despite the situation, her feelings, words left unsaid, she laughs. "Maybe it's that big head of yours gettin' in the way."
He grins. A real, lively grin as he pulls her to him in a gentle huge, resting his chin on her shoulder. He cannot count how often he has hugged her and he doesn't particularly want to – the number would come out far too dissatisfying.
"Oh, and stupid," he adds as an afterthought with a contemplative frown. He feels Rose's hand grip his shoulder blades harder. "He'd have to be pretty stupid, too."
"You've been stupid," she offers helpfully with a slight snort. He closes his eyes and laughs, holding her close in the embrace.
"Yes, I suppose I have. Still love you, though."
And there it is. Nothing big or fancy, no celebrations or fireworks, no meaningful looks or awkward moments. Give or take. He hasn't even realised he's said it until the words leave his mouth, because it feels so natural. He smiles to himself. Perhaps, in the end, that was all he needed. He needed the opportunity for it to become such a mundane part of him that he can tell her without the world crashing down around him.
Rose stills for a moment in his arms, and for an awful moment he wonders if he's done the wrong thing. But then she's hugging him again, heaving a small, contented sigh and cuddling her entire body to his. They stand, encircled in each other's warmth, long enough for time to get bored and drift away around them.
It is later, a unit of time neither of them could name, when Rose hovers over the lever that still hasn't been pulled. Her right arm is outstretched, her hand holding the Doctor's. He is standing a foot or two away, watching her. As her other hand pulls down on the lever, she turns her head. And as the TARDIS disappears from a reality that has brought unhappiness in its wake, the two travellers share a smile that lasts an eternity.
There is so much he has yet to teach her. There is so much she has to teach him. There are more adventures, more people, more ups, more downs, more victories, more losses. There is much more life out there for them to experience, and he will take her hand through it all as they run
He hopes they never will stop running. Though perhaps it would be fitting to end where they started.
Whatever awaits the Doctor and his Rose, each is sure of one thing. Just one thing.
It is waiting on the horizon.