It's the woman who gave Jack the basket of fruit. She isn't carrying a basket now, and her eyes widen when she notices Rose sprawled on the grass. "Gracious Lady! Forgive me, I did not mean to intrude."
"Yes! I mean, no. 'S no bother. Please, sit." Rose waves a hand at the patch of grass beside her. She tries to shift into a more graceful pose without being too obvious about it. "I'm Rose."
The woman drops to her knees, hesitates, then leans sideways into a sitting position. She bobs her head. "The Lady of Flowers, yes. And the Warrior, and the Healer. The priests told us."
Is the TARDIS's translation a bit off? Maybe they decided that 'Rose, Captain Jack, an' the Doctor' isn't formal enough for gods. "And you are--?"
"Me, Gracious Lady? I'm Efha. Efha n'Ruelhan."
"H'llo, Efha." Rose searches for something to say. She isn't usually tongue-tied, but she's not used to her words being so important. Efha is looking at her like she's expecting to hear the Queen's Christmas Speech, the winning Lotto numbers, and the secret of the last Harry Potter book, all rolled into one. "Umm... your daughter is very pretty." For the next three minutes, Rose doesn't have to say a single word, because she's pushed the "proud mum" button, and Efha is happy to do all the talking.
After that, the conversation goes more smoothly. Rose asks Efha about her family, about village life, and about the surrounding region. The Xoralian woman answers easily, evidently not finding it odd that a goddess should want to know about these things. Eventually, she dares to ask a question of her own. "Lady Rose, may I ask... do you have children?"
"Me??" She's so gobsmacked at the idea that Efha begins to gabble an apology for offending the Gracious Lady. "Efha, it's okay. You jus' surprised me, that's all. Nah, I don't have any kids. Not ready for that yet."
Efha nods. "I'm sure the All-Holy will bless you with many children someday. With two such strong husbands--"
"With what?" Rose can hear her voice squeaking like a rusty door on the second word.
"Two strong husbands." Efha looks puzzled and just a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Lady Rose -- do you have others? The priests didn't say, and I only saw the two..."
"They... I... no." Rose blinks. This is not the first planet where she's been mistaken for the wife (daughter, sister, concubine) of one of her companions, depending on the local culture. "Is that the custom here? For a woman t'have more than one husband?"
Efha laughs as though she thinks Rose is teasing her. "Oh no, Lady Rose. One husband, one wife. But the rules are different for gods, of course. Sitra the Wise had two husbands, and Gebhni the Hunter-Lord married the three daughters of Esken. So I thought--"
I can't do this. I can't keep on lying to her. "Efha, the Doctor an' Captain Jack aren't my husbands. An' we're not gods. Really, we're not." Rose runs a fingernail across the back of her left hand -- just enough to tear the skin without drawing blood. "We can be hurt. We get tired and sick, an' we need to eat. We make mistakes-- we're not perfect."
For a moment, she wonders if the TARDIS has stopped translating, because Efha is looking at her like she's talking gibberish. When the Xoralian woman speaks, her voice is soft and slow. "The gods are not perfect, Lady Rose. Only the All-Holy is perfect."
"The All-Holy made the world and all that dwell in it, and They made the gods to care for Their world. They made some out of starlight, some out of wind, and some out of the hearts of mountains. They made other gods from mortal flesh, to be Their champions and defend Their world from evil." Efha smiles at her. It is a gentle smile; a mother's smile. "I think you must be a very young god, Lady Rose. The All-Holy gave you valour and kindness, but if you look into your heart, you will also find wisdom. Trust it, as you trust Their other gifts." She rises to her feet in one smooth movement and bows low. "Your pardon, Lady. My children will be wanting their supper."
They work in easy silence, broken only by the occasional "pass the spanner" or "jus' a bit more to the right". Jack can chatter like a parrot sometimes, but he knows when to shut up and work. One of my better ideas, keepin' this one. He hasn't always had a choice in who comes aboard the TARDIS -- Sarah Jane and Zoe had been stowaways; Leela, a one-woman invasion force; Turlough, a lying sneak; and even Romana had been foisted on him by the White Guardian -- but no one stays without his consent.
The Doctor is glad that he didn't follow his initial impulse and dump the Captain on the first convenient planet. He's good with his hands -- Makes a nice change to have some help with repairs. He takes orders without too much backtalk. He's good in tight and dangerous places. The Doctor is even willing to overlook Jack's excessive fondness for guns, because the lad's top priority is protecting Rose.
He looked ready to step in this afternoon, when I was giving Rose what-for. Clever enough t'see it wasn't needed, but he was ready.
As if he knows what the Doctor's thinking, Jack turns to face him. "All those things you said about taking over Earth..."
"Thought we already covered that, Jack."
"Nah. Rose said you wouldn't, and she was right. I'm saying you couldn't."
"How do you figure that, Captain?" He's genuinely curious.
"You talk about yourself more than you think you do, Doctor." Jack taps the forefinger of one hand against the open palm of the other, like he's ticking items off a list. "Nero. Marco Polo. The Trojan War. Charles Dickens. French Revolution. King John. Albert Einstein. At least half a dozen attempted alien invasions -- I could go on, and that's just the stuff I know about."
"An' your point is?"
"You like Earth, Doctor. You spend a lot of time there; get involved with a lot of crucial people, key events. If you start changing history in the 14th century, you're going to run smack dab into your own timeline. That's a dangerous thing to do, even for a Time Lord."
Especially for a Time Lord. Jack knows a fair bit about Time Lords, but he doesn't know about regeneration. He doesn't know that the Doctor has the equivalent of nine timelines overlapping and intertwining in ways that no human language can describe. Still, he's a sharp lad to figure out as much as he has done. "There are other planets," the Doctor suggests. It's a compliment wrapped in a red herring. He's admitting that Jack is right about Earth, while offering him a distraction.
"There are other planets," Jack agrees. "And you wouldn't even be tempted."
"Playing god isn't all it's cracked up to be," he says, and for a dizzying moment he can smell smoke, feel a scream forcing its way out of his scorched, raw throat. It distracts him from the present just long enough to make him stupid, because he hears himself saying, "You ever been tempted to give it a try?" He sees the indignation flaring in Jack's eyes. "Tempted, Captain. You wouldn't have been the first Time Agent to think of it." An' there've been a few who tried it.
"Too much work and responsibility," Jack says casually, as if he's describing a clerical position rather than godhood. His posture is relaxed, his voice and face are calm, but there are a dozen signs that can be read by someone who knows him well enough -- a tightened muscle, a slight change in position.
The Doctor catches the human's gaze, holds it. "I know what a lazy sod you are," he says, with just the faintest emphasis on the first word.
Jack's body signals the release of tension. "Sloth has always been one of my favourite sins."
He snorts. "Don't have t' ask what the most favourite one is, do I?"
"I keep offering to demonstrate, Doctor."
"Not 'til I get that drink." The banter has become so automatic that he's scarcely aware of the words. "No pubs hereabouts."
"No, but there are other planets," Jack reminds him, and there's a question beneath the statement. Will you ever?
"There are, yeah." Sometimes, I'm tempted. "Where's Rose got to?" I'll let myself burn before hurting her.
"She'll be back soon." I love her, too.
"Right. Now, if you've finished gabbing, Captain, let's get back to work. Pass the circuit welder."
Jack throws an exaggerated salute. "Yessir!"
How long has she been sitting here, watching the river flow? More than long enough, judging from the position of the sun. Time to be heading back to the TARDIS. She jumps to her feet and sprints to the top of the slope. There are more people in the village now. Smoke rises from cook-fires. A teenage girl stumbles by, water sloshing from the two full buckets she carries. A little boy leads an animal on a rope. It looks like a cross between a pig and a goat, and it's taller than he is, but it follows its young master docilely.
A normal day. Today's just another normal day for them. Rose wonders what this place would look like now if the TARDIS hadn't landed here yesterday. Burnt ruins and dead bodies? Or wind sighing through empty huts, their inhabitants en route to some alien slave-market? She hadn't thought to ask the Doctor what the G'naduns wanted. Something evil, she's sure of that. Efha's clear voice echoes in her mind. "They made other gods from mortal flesh, to be Their champions and defend Their world from evil."
She almost laughs. Even if the Xoralian idea of a god is more like an angel, Rose can't think of herself that way. In the Junior School Christmas Pageant, she'd rebelled, begging to be given any other role -- and hadn't that led to trouble? (She never meant to kick Davy Thompson in the arse; she'd only been using her shepherd's crook to pole vault, and the landing hadn't gone quite right.)
No halo for me. She can't imagine the Doctor with one, either. Doesn't exactly go with black leather and a jumper. Jack is handsome enough, but there's too much of the devil in his smile. She remembers the look he gave her yesterday, just before he bit into the fruit. The look said, clear as anything, I'd rather be nibbling on you.
Rose had been tempted, and not for the first time. She knows he fancies her, has known it since they met. Not exactly a secret. Jack is the biggest flirt in the universe, but he'll never take things beyond flirting unless she gives him a clear go-ahead signal. And she can't do that, on account of the Doctor.
The Doctor. She know he loves her -- but there are all sorts of love. Does he fancy her? Sometimes she thinks he does, and sometimes she thinks she's fooling herself. Rose is only sure of one thing: if she gets involved with Jack, she'll hurt the Doctor.
'Sides, how long would it be before Jack started feeling like second best? Can't do that to him. Bad enough that I hurt Mickey...
"Oi! Watch where you're goin', sweetie!" Quick relexes save her from a collision with another pig-goat. Its young keeper squeaks something that might be an apology, and hurries away. Wouldn't that make a fine legend? The Lady of Flowers helped defeat a horde of sky-demons, but the following day she was run over by a fugitive from a petting zoo.
The TARDIS is within sight. Time to see what my blokes have been up to. Rose stops abruptly. My blokes? She usually thinks of them as "the blokes". One small word -- jus' two letters an' it completely changes the meaning. My blokes. I love both of them.
What surprises her is how much it doesn't surprise her. Have I changed that much? She's not the same Rose Tyler who ran through the basement of Henrik's, hand in hand with a stranger. Since then, she's lived a life that other Rose could never have imagined. Time travel, alien planets, fantastic adventures. Who wouldn't be changed by all that?
No. That's not quite right. Seeing the Earth burn up, meeting Charles Dickens and killer mannequins and gas-mask zombies -- yeah, those experiences opened her eyes and changed her attitudes. But not my heart.
There's a two-foot-high section of tree stump nearby. This morning, a villager was using its flat top as a worktable to punch holes in leather straps. The stump is abandoned now. Rose plops down on it, elbows on her knees. My blokes. The Doctor and Jack. So different to each other on the surface, so much alike where it matters.
A fragment of conversation drifts through her mind. "I trust him 'cos he's like you..." She'd trusted both men as soon as she'd met them, in spite of -- because of? -- the secrets they hid. Saving someone's life makes a great first impression. Lots better than small talk in a pub. "Bloke-wise, that's right up there with flossing."
Rose trusts them with the little things, too, and that can be scarier than jumping out of a ventilation shaft. Sharing silly worries and embarrassing memories... she'd done that once with Jimmy Stone, told him about something stupid she'd done as a kid. I trusted him 'cos I thought I loved him. No. I knew that I was supposed to trust him, so I fooled myself into believing I did. Rose grimaces at the memory. Jimmy had used her confession as a weapon against her the next time they had a row. The Doctor would never do that, nor Jack. Not that the three of them don't have rows, but they don't fight dirty.
The eddies and currents of village life are still swirling around her, but not too closely. There's a sort of invisible breakwater around her, a three-metre circle where no one enters. Rose isn't paying much mind to the people and animals just outside the circle. A movement further off catches her eye: it's the TARDIS door opening.
The Doctor emerges, followed closely by Captain Jack. Their easy stride tells Rose that no emergency popped up while she was out. As they approach, she studies them, her two blokes. Strong, confident, clever. The Doctor says something to Jack, and the Captain replies. They're still too far away for Rose to make out the words, but she can see the identical grins breaking out and hear the rumble of masculine laughter.
And just like that, the answer that eluded her by the rivwerside pops into place. Whatever happened while she was in London -- and she'll likely never get the full story -- it brought her blokes closer together. The trust between them is stronger, more instinctive. That's the change she's been sensing in all of them.
As they cross the invisible circle surrounding her, Rose sees two sets of blue eyes fixed on her, curiosity mixed with mild concern.
"Did'ya manage to get yourself lost?"
"You okay, Rose?"
She stands up. "Fine. Jus' resting a bit. Doing miracles all day takes it out of a girl." She laughs at their identical looks of dismay. "Gits. I'm only joking. Let's go inside, yeah?"
She slips between the two men, and wraps an arm around each waist. No need to worry about shocking the locals. "The rules are different for gods," Efha whispers in her head. The Doctor's arm settles across her shoulders from one direction, and Jack's from the other. They are intertwined like a complicated braid. Walking together so closely makes them stumble at first, but they don't fall, and after a few steps, they find their rhythm. It's rather like dancing, actually.
--- THE END --