Disclaimer: BBC owns the Doctor. The Doctor owns YOU.
Author's Note: Thanks to Intrikate88 for the fantastic beta!
Before, After, Maybe
The TARDIS was restless.
Rose wasn't even sure when she'd started thinking about the TARDIS like that, like it was a person or something, but there it was. The ship was restless, and she could feel it, and there was no sense rationalizing about it. Better not to dwell on things like "Well, that doesn't make sense, it's just a ship." Better to skip ahead, all the way to "I wonder what's wrong?"
But in a sense, she already knew what was wrong. If the TARDIS was restless, that meant the Doctor was restless. That was just the way things worked. And on this, a rare night-cycle when he'd confessed that he needed sleep as much as she did, that kind of agitated energy worried her. So she climbed out of bed, debated throwing a robe over her pyjamas, decided against it, and headed down the series of corridors that led to the control room.
And there he was, sitting far too still, feet propped up against the console, suit rumpled, hair sticking up every which way. She thought for a moment that he was staring at the controls, or maybe at one of the screens. But no, his eyes weren't focused on anything in particular. Just space. She wondered if he'd even noticed her come in.
But it was silly to think that. Of course he'd noticed her. He was the Doctor, and nothing escaped his notice! Well, very few things. Well... this and that, here and there. But usually the noticing trumped the not noticing.
Even so, she cleared her throat just in case. The smallest of noises, just to get his attention.
He cleared his throat back at her, then turned and looked at her with one of his easy smiles. "Snappy jammies," he said. "Love the puppies. Don't think I've seen them before."
She followed his gaze down to the fabric, which was printed with a pattern of puppies chasing butterflies. In front of anyone else, she supposed it might've been embarrassing, but here and now she just shrugged it off with a smile. "I was thinking about puppies," she said, "and when I went to get changed, these were waiting for me."
The truth was, she hadn't been thinking about puppies at all. As she brushed her teeth, she'd been thinking about that horrible planet with its looming black hole and bottomless chasms and the voice saying she'd die in battle and how she very nearly lost the Doctor, not to mention her own life. She'd been thinking how very nice it would be to have a normal day for a change, with no monsters, like back when she was a kid.
And when she put down her toothbrush and went back to her room, she'd found the puppy pyjamas on her bed: a simplistic, silly, and utterly perfect embodiment of everything she remembered about being a kid. The print had made her laugh, had made her heart lighter, and had made it that much easier to sleep.
Until, of course, the TARDIS had started making those uncomfortable noises.
"Couldn't sleep?" said the Doctor, peering at her.
She knew that look. It was the look the Doctor got when he knew something was happening inside her head, and maybe he even knew exactly what it was, but instead of just coming out and saying so, he danced around the point until she said it first. Maybe it was his way of trying to be more human, or maybe he just liked watching her squirm and struggle to find the right words. Either way, she still had to fight the urge to look down and fiddle with the hem of her shirt. So instead, she pointedly turned the question around on him: "Well, neither could you."
"Got things to do," he said vaguely. Planting his feet on the floor, he stood up straighter and flipped a lever on the console just to prove that he was, in fact, quite busy.
She raised an eyebrow.
So he jumped up, this time putting his whole body into the show of having very important things to do. Buttons got pressed, levers got flipped, things got typed into the keypads.
"What sort of things need doing?" she asked politely.
"Oh, you know," he said. "The usual time-travelly stuff. Proximity to the black hole made things go a bit wonky, so I've got to keep watch in case the residual energy starts to leak into the systems."
"Mm," said Rose, keeping her face deliberately blank. "You just made that up, didn't you."
The Doctor glanced at her, and a smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "A bit, yeah."
"The TARDIS told me you were still awake," she said, almost wincing at how silly the words sounded.
But the Doctor didn't even blink. "Did she, then?" he said, turning the half-smile toward his ship. He tapped the console with two long fingers. "Meddlesome old girl, aren't you."
"So, you know," faltered Rose, "I thought I'd come round for a midnight cup of tea. If you've got any. Or hot cocoa. Or whatever."
The Doctor looked at her, his smile widening like a little kid. "And you wonder why I like you English so much. It's all in the beverages, culture is, and you've got it just right. Heartbreak? Cup of tea. Won the lottery? Cup of tea. Beastly nightmare while you're careening through the time vortex? Cup of tea. It's brilliant, is what it is."
"Nightmare?" she echoed, a bit taken aback. That was something that had never even occurred to her, the Doctor having nightmares. But then, the Doctor never stopped surprising her.
"Theoretical nightmares," said the Doctor, a bit too brightly. "Which means theoretical tea, I suppose. Though I'd much prefer literal tea at the moment. Back in two shakes."
With that he jumped up and sprinted out of the room, leaving Rose blinking in his wake. Not just nightmares, then, but nightmares that he both did and didn't want to talk about. Hence the Bring It Up And Then Oops Did I Say That Out Loud routine, which she was all too familiar with, having done it many times herself.
It was interesting to be on the other end of it, though, especially with the Doctor. He'd been all kinds of things to her while they traveled. Her best friend, some days. The dad she'd never had, other days. The ridiculously good-looking guy that made her heart beat a little faster, on occasion.
But this new thing, almost like he was a little brother? This was different. Her very own nine-hundred-year-old little brother, who had nightmares and wanted a cup of tea to make it better.
She leaned against the console. The TARDIS hummed something like encouragement.
In what seemed like seconds, the Doctor returned with two mugs and handed one to her. "Three sugars for you," he said, sinking into his seat again.
"Perfect," she grinned, and sipped it. They drank in silence for a moment, savoring. She thought about how she might bring up the subject of nightmares again.
She chanced a look up at him, only to find him watching her intently. He gave her a knowing smile. "You're scheming about something."
"I'm not!" said Rose defensively.
"You are," he said, and wiggled his eyebrows at her. "I've seen that look before. What are you scheming about?"
She tilted her head a little bit, smiling. "Not really scheming. More like wondering, sort of."
"Ah, right," he said. "That's the wondering face. I forgot. The scheming face has a raised eyebrow and a bit more 'mwa ha ha' to it, am I right? Now, what were you wondering about?"
"Just theoretical wondering," she said. "About theoretical nightmares. The ones you, well, like you said before. I was wondering what kind of nightmares... you know... I mean... do you wanna talk about it?" she finished lamely. "Theoretically?"
He sipped his tea. "You know when you say a word so many times that it just loses all meaning?" he mused slowly. "Theoretical, theoretical, theoretical."
"Doctor," she said, half laughing and half admonishing.
"Theoretical, theoretical," he replied, rolling the R. "Sounds like an exam, or a university degree. Hello, I've just got my theoretical in metaphysical fourteenth century literature written by upside-down monks. Good for me."
Rose rolled her eyes, and almost folded her arms across her chest, but didn't, because her tea would spill. "Are you quite finished?" she said, feeling very much the big sister.
"Maybe so," he said, leaning back in his seat as he propped his feet up on the console again. "What were we talking about?"
"Nightmares," she said, all gentleness and sincerity. "What happened, Doctor?"
He gave her a soft sort of look. "Nothing that can't be cured by a nice cup of tea with a good friend," he said.
"Come on," she said, giving one of his legs a little push. "What's going on? And don't do that thing where you're all like, oh, you're a human so you couldn't possibly understand."
"I don't do that!" he said indignantly.
She gave him a look.
He had the grace to look a little bit ashamed. "I don't mean to," he amended, then thought a moment and added, "Anymore."
And his voice was so small, so calculatedly innocent, that she had to smile. "I know you don't," she soothed. "Never mind it now. Just tell me. You can tell me anything, you know that, right?"
He looked at her for a moment, eyes so dark and body so still that it unnerved her. "I suppose I can," he breathed, and the little touch of wonder in his voice made her want to hug him. But she didn't. She put one hand on the console behind her, maybe for support, maybe just in gratitude for waking her and bringing her here.
"Was it... you know," she began. "That thing in the pit? Whatever it was? Because I was afraid I'd have nightmares too, and I wasn't even down there."
He bobbed his head from side to side, considering. "Not exactly," he said. She could see a million thoughts crossing his face all at once, as if he were deciding how to condense them all into something she could understand. She waited.
Holding his mug in both hands, he looked at her quite seriously. "Have you ever woken up thinking that you might not actually exist?"
She blinked a few times. Was this his Super Serious But Really Joking face, or his So Serious That He's Actually Serious face? It was hard to tell, sometimes. So she settled for a noncommittal "Can't say I have."
The Doctor raised an eyebrow, and shifted in his seat a little. "I don't expect many people do," he said. "More than nine hundred years, and I never did. But today," he began, and stopped. Ran a hand through his hair, and didn't quite look at her. "When we were down in that pit, the Beast said it was from before time. Before time. It didn't say outside of time, or a different time, it said before time. It's a paradox. The word before, by its very nature, implies temporal relativity. You can't have a before without an after, you can't have an after without a before, sort of thing. And you can't have either one without time. So saying before time means that time is just a construct, something we've invented to make ourselves feel better about one day being different from the next, some sort of concrete and finite thing where there's actually something before it and the beginning isn't the beginning, which completely defies the nature of time as everyone knows it. Well, as I know it. And for you lot, sure, that's fine, as long as the days keep rolling by, everything's just dandy. But imagine, right, someone comes up to you one day and says that water isn't water. You don't even think about it, because that's just silly, water is just a word, a signifier of the thing it signifies. But the idea gets into your head, and you think wait a minute, the human body is what, sixty percent water? Seventy? Eh, numbers. So if water isn't what it is, then your own body is something different than what you thought it was, and where are you then? Who are you, and what are you? That's me and time. I live in it and around it and through it, and it lives in me. So if time isn't what it is, then I'm not what I am, and what have we got then? A giant pile of absolutely nothing, that's what. I don't exist, you don't exist, maybe nothing exists."
Rose squinted at him. "You're a bit strange, aren't you."
"You asked," he said calmly, and took another sip of tea.
Rose paused for a second, and he watched as she tried to absorb all he'd said, the relativity and the beginnings and how water and time were somehow the same thing. "So," she said slowly, "some voice says it's Satan and then tells you a paradox, and suddenly you're having nightmares that you don't exist."
"A very big, very scary voice, speaking through hundreds of Ood," clarified the Doctor. "And yes."
"The same voice that told me I was going to die," she said flatly.
"Yeah, that one," he said, and then the meaning of her words seemed to click. "No!" he said quickly. "I mean, it's not the same thing. It's just a nightmare. Just the subconscious something-or-other acting up while the old conscious mind nips out for a break."
She smiled. "It is the same thing, and I know it's just a nightmare. That's exactly what I mean. It lied. It told us both things that would mess with our heads. Although," she added slyly, "seems like it's messing with yours more than mine, yeah?"
"A bit, I'd say!" he laughed, and leaned his head back a little, looking upwards.
Rose looked up too, and found nothing in particular worth looking at. "I think, therefore I am," she mused. "So therefore you are, with all your thinking. Right? Who said that?"
"Descartes," replied the Doctor. "Odd fellow. Not necessarily true though, that. I always thought it should be 'I think, therefore I think I am.' Because how can anyone know for sure? I prefer Saint-Exupery's theory. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists."
Somewhere in her mind, Rose recognized the quote, but she didn't say so. She was too busy being stuck on the bit before that. She turned the words over in her head, and after a moment she said, "That's true, isn't it."
"What?" said the Doctor. "About the sheep? Well, I should certainly think so."
"No," said Rose. "You said how can anyone know for sure." She turned to him, her skin suddenly tingling with the excitement of a new idea. "I mean, how can anyone know anything for sure? I used to know things like, say, aliens aren't real. Time travel is science fiction. Things are smaller on the inside than they are on the outside. And now, here I am—"
"—traveling through time with a guy from a different planet, in a big old space ship that looks like a little blue box," finished the Doctor with a small smile. "Isn't the universe fantastic?"
"That's just it," said Rose. "It's so much more fantastic that I ever could have imagined. I knew all those things, never questioned them, never even thought twice about them, because I never had a reason to. Just like you and time. How do you know there's no before and after? You might know a lot of things about time, Doctor, but who's to say someone can't come along in a little blue box one day and show you something bigger?"
"But that's," the Doctor began, then promptly shut his mouth, giving Rose a sidelong look. She raised an eyebrow at him. "That's a bit brilliant of you," he said suspiciously. "Downright scheming."
"Mwa ha ha," she said.
"Something bigger than time," he said thoughtfully. "Sounds a lot less scary when you put it that way."
For a moment, Rose was so taken aback that she didn't know what to say. A big part of her was very tempted to make him repeat and possibly clarify what he'd just said, so she could make sure her ears weren't playing tricks on her. An even bigger part wanted to invent a brand new I Was Right dance, just for him. And more than anything, she just wanted to find the perfect witty retort, berating her for all the times he'd implied that she was just another stupid ape.
But something, maybe the TARDIS and maybe something inside her own head, told her to wait. So she held her tongue, and when she looked at him again, he was regarding her with an expression that was so open and so... full. Full of something that she couldn't even name. So she swallowed her little flash of pride, and instead she just said, firmly and sincerely, "Good."
"Rose Tyler," he said, and in a flash he'd stood up and was hugging her tight. "Saving this old brain from voices. My hero."
She smiled into his shoulder. "Guess it had to be my turn eventually," she said, and hugged him back.
They squeezed as tight as they could, then separated. "Now," he said, clapping her on the shoulders, "to bed with you, young lady. You've had a very big day, what with all the near-death experiences."
"You say it like it's unusual," she chuckled.
"Yet another good point," he said with a tender smile.
He looked at her for a moment, and something in his eyes made her breath catch. Reaching a hand out, he brushed her cheek with a thumb. She smiled into his touch.
"Rose," he said softly. "My lovely, brilliant Rose."
"What?" she breathed. From little brother to strict parent to charming friend, in the blink of an eye. It was confusing and wonderful and completely unfair, but she basked in the moment and hoped it would last just a little longer.
He cupped her cheek with his whole hand, just for a moment, and then let go. "Thank you," he said quietly.
All she could think was that she wanted him to touch her face again, but she couldn't very well say so. So she just murmured, "For what?"
"For listening," said the Doctor. "For lending me your clever brain and your charming ears," he added, playfully tapping one of the appendages in question. He grinned one of his infectious grins, and she grinned back, even though she was a little bit sad to see the gentle smile go. She wondered, for just a fleeting moment, what he might do if instead of waiting, she just reached out and touched him for a change. His cheek, his ear, his hair...
But it was just a moment. She shook the thought away and said briskly, "You going to bed too, then?"
"Nah," he said, dragging the syllable out as he plopped himself back down in his seat. "I think I'll just stay out here for a bit, you know, keep an eye on the old girl. Make sure she doesn't wake you up again." This last he said with a very dramatic evil eye at the TARDIS's console.
"Mm," said Rose. She shouldn't be surprised; she knew he didn't need to sleep as often as she did. But she didn't need the TARDIS to tell her that that wasn't the reason, not this time. "I think maybe I'll stay up for a bit too," she blurted out.
"Yeah?" he said, and she was pleased to hear a note of hopefulness in his voice.
"Course," she said. "Make some room, will you?"
He obligingly scooted over, and she climbed onto the seat beside him. He propped his feet up again, and she did the same, her yellow socks looking quite small next to his trainers. "Hello," he said, wiggling his feet at her. Then, seeming to think better of it, he grabbed her legs and swung them over his own. "Comfy?" he asked lightly, arranging himself beneath her so that both of them were a little bit diagonal, but neither was quite sideways.
Her heart was thumping, her pyjamas felt soft between her skin and his suit, and when he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her closer, she felt so safe that she thought she might cry. But that would just be silly. So she settled for "Yeah," and leaned her head against his shoulder.
She felt his head rest gently against hers, and she closed her eyes. The TARDIS hummed softly, some kind of lullaby. After a little while, the Doctor hummed along.