Title: Two Steps Forward, One Back

Author: Gail R. Delaney

Series: The Unseen and In Between

Setting: During Series Two up through Age of Steel

Genre: Angst, Romance

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Not mine. If I owned Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant would be my own private little playmates.

Summary: Summary: Rose is mourning Her Doctor, and yet… he's right in front of her. She put on a good face for her mother, for Mickey… even for the Doctor; but, inside, she's struggling desperately for a balance. The road back to each other is by no means easy.

CHAPTER ONE

The Doctor's hand lingered on her shoulder as they walked back to the TARDIS, and she glanced back only once to watch Cassandra — still in the willing body of Chip — die in her own arms. Rose had hated Cassandra, and despised her for hijacking her body, but the scene saddened her.

His fingers slipped down her back, tracing her spine, and caught her hand in his. He unlocked the TARDIS with his left hand, and she wondered why she hadn't known before that he was left-handed.

Then she remembered. He hadn't been left-handed.

Rose looked down at their joined hands, palms against each other, his fingers wrapping nearly around her hand. The touch was warm, though not as warm as a human touch. Just like it had always been. And with a slight tugging at her heart, she realized she hadn't noticed the difference in his hand until she looked down. Her body had reacted to his touch just as it always had, with a pleasant warmth and awareness. It was her eyes that couldn't make the connection.

But, it seemed her eyes had the overpowering authority.

He released her hand to let her step inside the TARDIS first. No matter where they went or what they had done, Rose always knew she was 'home' when she entered the console room. It was one of the few things she was sure of these days.

The Doctor brushed past her once the door was closed, taking his time in engaging the TARDIS engines. They were in no rush, had no plans, so they might coast for a bit. She was tired, and welcomed the thought of sleep. Rose made her way across the console room, stopping to lean back against the padding wrapped railing.

He looked up quickly, his eyes shifting back to the console, but came back immediately to her. The Doctor stepped to her, his eyebrows forming a crooked line across his brow as he studied her. Before she could brace herself for the contact, he touched her face, his fingertips gentle against her temple.

"How are you feeling?"

"Fine," she said, but her voice came out like a rough scratch. "Better."

"Are you sure? Rose, you need to tell me if the psychograft — if she —" His lips tightened over his teeth, and he swallowed. "Are you sure?"

She felt the tension in his body, and the way he demanded her honesty made her remember another time when she'd hidden the truth from him.

The Doctor's eyes shifted to her face briefly, then he returned to his examination. He pressed his large hands against her ribs, and she gasped.

"That hurt?"

Rose blinked rapidly, swallowing. "N-no."

"Come on, then. Sit up." He rose to set one knee on the mattress and took her hand, sliding the other beneath her as he helped her upright. Her head swam a bit, but she held on to the sleeve of his jumper until the room stopped rocking. "Good?"

"Yeah," she answered, nodding. "Just — I just need a sec."

He sat again so they were facing each other and Rose ran her hand over her disheveled hair. She had to look a fright. But her senses were off-kilter and her body hot, and she couldn't focus enough to care.

"Rose," he said, his voice stern. "Look at me."

She still had hold of his arm, and raised her chin to meet his intense gaze. His jaw was set firm, his lips forming a thin line. Rose wasn't sure if it really was anger she saw in his eyes, but whatever it was, it danced a shiver up her spine.

"Don't you ever do that again. Do you hear me?"

"Do what?"

"If you're hurt, you need to tell me. I can't fix you if I don't know."

"I thought I was all right."

"But you weren't…" His gaze slid away, then back to her again, softer. "You weren't. Just…don't."

"Okay," she said, nodding her head even though it made the room tip again. She tightened her grip on his arm and his other hand curled around her side, holding her firm. "I promise. I won't. But—"

"But what?"

Rose pulled her lower lip through her teeth, breathing slowly to find the words. "I didn't want you to think it was your fault."

"It is my fault—"

"No, it's not. You saved the world. And you took care of me. The way you always do. The way you promised my mum."

"A man doesn't take care of a woman, and leave bruises on her body." He looked down, and she felt the touch of his stare on her skin as real as a caress.

"I'm fine. Honest." She reached up to lay her hand across his wrist. "Doctor, I swear."

He touched her other cheek, both his hands framing her face, his breath skimming over her skin as he studied her features with intensity. His brown eyes shifted down, focusing briefly on her lips, and his thumb stroked the corner of her mouth. Rose held her breath.

Her breath hitched and her heart beat faster, a slow, languid heat spreading beneath her skin. Her body responded to him, just as it always had. And sometimes, she hated the treachery. Her head was willing to accept that he was still 'The Doctor – Time Lord', her body still wanted him as 'The Doctor – her Lover'. Somewhere in between, the two didn't meet up.

His hands were larger this time, fingers longer, not as rough and calloused. She missed the roughness, but his touch was just a little gentler. How could she miss his touch and enjoy it at the same time? She felt like a traitor, like she was cheating on a man who wasn't gone – standing in front of her. He'd talked before about paradoxes – and this was a paradox if she'd ever known one.

The TARDIS tipped slightly, either hitting some turbulence in the vortex, or taking it upon herself to give a little shove, and the Doctor took a step closer. He spread his fingers so he could touch her cheeks and the skin along her throat that she had exposed by piling her hair at her crown in a haphazard twist. This was the closest she had been to him since his change, and she realized she didn't need to tip her head back as far to hold his gaze.

It was all different… so why did she feel the same?

"Rose," he said softly, his thumb stroking her lower lip.

The tears came in a burning flash, and she snapped her eyes shut trying to keep them at bay. But the action just squeezed the tears free and they ran down her cheeks to wet the point of contact between his fingers and her skin. Rose sucked in a sharp breath and stumbled away from him, needing the support of the railing to keep her on her feet.

She stopped at the door, holding her knuckles against her mouth and nose to muffle the sob that threatened to come. He stood where she left him, his hands limp at his side and his head down. Slowly, knowing that she looked back, he raised his head and his gaze settled on her.

"I'm sorry," she choked out. "I'm sorry."

Rose stumbled down the hall to her bedroom and fell to her knees before she ever reached the bed. She curled forward, crossing her arms over her body to try and hold back the wave of grief.

The pain in his eyes floated in her memory. And the worst part was that as she cried, she could tell if they were brown… or blue.

! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

She woke up hours later, curled up on the floor, her head pounding and her stomach queasy. Worst of all was the empty feeling that sat in the middle of her chest where she was sure her heart had been. Half a dozen emotions battled for priority.

Smothering sadness because he was gone.

Hesitant elation that, in truth, he was still here.

Guilt for causing the dark pain in his eyes.

Confusion because nothing seemed to line up anymore.

Loneliness… she missed him. Even though he was right there, she missed him.

Anger at him for doing this, letting this happen, and not at least warning her.

And through it all, laced delicately between everything, tying it all up in a messy bundle… was love.

Rose had to find a way to fix this. She had to, or she might as well go back to London now. She couldn't go on like this. With aching muscles from sleeping on the floor, Rose crawled to the edge of the bed and worked herself up to sitting on the mattress edge. Her throat hurt from crying, her eyes scratched when she blinked, and her face felt stiff from dried tears. Rose couldn't remember the last time she'd cried like that. The more she thought about it, she never had. Nothing… ever… hurt like this. Not when she left Jimmy Stone. Not when her dad died in her arms. Not when she felt lost and confused and didn't know how to fix the Doctor.

With a groan, Rose got to her feet and stripped away her clothes as she made her way to her bathroom. For the hundredth time since making the TARDIS her home, Rose was thankful for the endless supply of hot water. Rinsed and dried, she felt moderately better, but her head still hurt and her stomach felt hollow.

Rose found her favorite flannels and wrapped herself in her thickest, fluffiest robe before leaving her room. She was torn between first finding the kitchen or the infirmary for some of that amazing headache stuff the Doctor had given her once. Then again, she didn't know how much to dose and she recalled he said something about it being a fine line between 'kill' and 'cure'.

They were in the vortex, hovering. She could tell by the vibration of the floor beneath her feet and the soft thrum in the air. Rose took the chance that he'd be in the console room, and turned that way.

The Doctor was stretched out on the jump seat, his arms laid out along the back in both directions and his trainers rested on the edge of the console, ankles crossed. His head was tipped back, his eyes closed, but she knew immediately that he wasn't asleep.

"Doctor?" she said softly.

He practically sprang to his feet, stumbling over his new gangly body, and tripped over a cable on the floor before finally righting himself. Despite everything going on in her head, and heart, Rose had to stifle her giggle by curling the fluffy collar of her robe over her lips.

His eyes brightened. "Like that, did you? New dance. Very popular in 1970's Philadelphia. Called the Bumble. Early precursor to the Hustle."

Rose smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Very classic."

The Doctor pushed his hands into his suit pockets and walked toward her, his eyes trained on her face. "Did you need something? You didn't sleep very long."

"Yeah, I've got a bi'of a headache. I wondered —" Before she finished, he reached out his hand and touched her forehead, smoothing her hair away, looking intently into her eyes. " — if you could give me some of that stuff. That liquid from Cora Prime."

"Of course," he said softly, but his attention hadn't shifted from her face.

Rose had done her best to wash away the signs of her crying jag, but she knew they were still there. Her eyes were puffy and red, and she hadn't bothered to put any make-up on before coming to find him. The Doctor dropped his hand from her face and held it out between them, silently asking that she take it.

She smiled, hoping that their silent exchange let him know everything was okay. They were okay… as okay as they could be. He led her down the hall to the infirmary, and told her about he 'may well have single-handedly' inspired the Rock Revolution in the late 1970's. And while The Bumble was 'truly an inspired move', he preferred some of the more creative dances of the 1980's.

They moved from the infirmary to the kitchen, and he gently insisted that she sit while he made her some warm milk and crackers with jam. Rose drew her feet up into the chair, hugging her knees to her chest as he moved around the kitchen.

"Doctor?" she interrupted, and he paused in the middle of a sentence about the Bee Gees.

He stuck a marmalade-covered fingertip in his mouth, smacking loudly as he turned to look at her.

"Do you still love bananas?"

He stilled, tilting his head slightly. His gaze shifted over her before coming back to look into her face. "Oh, yes." His eyes darkened, and he smiled slowly, licking his finger again. "I still love bananas. I still love everything I ever loved before."