They're running hand in hand, just like they've done so many times before, in so many different places. This time, when they reach the source of the fire and come to a stop, they don't encounter danger or chaos.
"There's nothing there," Rose says in surprise.
They're standing at the top of a small hill. It's covered in green grass that's been kept pretty short by the local sheep population. Wildflowers grow all around them, and here and there the buzzing of honeybees can be heard. It's an idyllic spot, but there's no sign of anything happening.
"Well, there's the fire." The Doctor raises their joined hands to gesture at the smoke that's billowing up to the sky.
Rose peers down at it, shading her eyes with her free hand. "What do you reckon it is?"
"Could be a wildfire. They happen in Greece from time to time. Or it might be a local shepherd, having his lunch. Or it might be something else." The Doctor glances at Rose as he says this last bit.
The notion that it might be something else is impossible for her to resist.
"We've come this far. Let's go see."
The hill is not that steep, and even Rose, in her strappy sandals, has no problem going down. It helps that the Doctor's hand is firm against her back, making sure that he can catch her if she does slip. At the bottom they look around once more. No shepherd, no wildfire. The smoke is still rising.
The Doctor watches this smoke, trying to find its origins. "This is pretty weird."
Rose clears her throat. Glancing over, he sees her gesture with her head. His gaze tracking in that direction, he spots a small woman standing a few meters away. Her clothing is a dark green, blending in so well with the grass and flowers that she is nearly invisible. The smoke seems to be heaviest at her feet.
The Doctor is taken aback by this sudden appearance, but Rose is not.
"Er, hello," Rose waves a diffident hand. "Sorry to bother you."
"We saw the smoke," the Doctor explains. "We were just making sure there was nothing. Er...do you speak English?" he inquires politely when the woman does not respond.
She folds her arms, staring at them both for a few silent moments. Rose is starting to get nervous when the woman finally moves. She gestures for them to follow her, and she disappears around the other side of a small huddle of rocks. After a quick glance at each other, they follow her with no hesitation.
By the time they reach her she is sitting on the ground. A small fire burns in a pit at her feet, the source of the smoke. It doesn't smell of smoke but of something sweeter, the way lilacs and lavender might if they were burned up but their fragrance remained.
The woman squints up at them. Rose wonders how she can see through the smoke and stifles a cough.
"So," the woman says in very good English. "You made it through to the other side."
Rose glances back at where they came from. The Doctor is watching the woman with a slightly puzzled expression.
"Uh...yeah." Rose nods. "Wasn't a problem, really."
The woman nods back. "And here you are."
"We got a bit turned around. And then we saw your fire and worried there might be some trouble." The Doctor smiles. "Since there's not, we'll leave you to your, er, solitude."
"Oh, but not yet," the woman protests. "You just got here. Sit." She gestures to the ground beside her. Rose sits, hoping the ground doesn't rip her skirt. She tugs on the Doctor's hand to make him do the same. The Doctor is rather unsure about all of this, but he is curious enough to stifle his sigh and sit down beside Rose. The ground is hard but warm.
"You, ah, come here often?" the Doctor inquires, and Rose shoots him a glare. He quickly covers his small grin with his hand.
"Sometimes." The woman's expression is serene. If she gets the joke, she makes no indication of it. "My name is Sophia. I live nearby."
"It's a lovely area," Rose offers. "We're on our honeymoon ourselves."
Sophia smiles benignly. "Lovely. You shall have many years of happiness together."
"Thank you," Rose says politely.
Sophia frowns abruptly. "You are safer here than you were before," she says, and Rose feels the Doctor tense beside her.
"Did you see the aliens?" he asks.
Sophia does not pay any attention to him. She is looking at Rose. "The other side was not safer. You did well to leave it."
"The aliens are gone," Rose tells her, but she's starting to suspect that what she thinks of as the other side, and what Sophia is referring to, are two really, really different things.
"Some went back there. Some stayed here."
"One flew east, one flew west," the Doctor says rudely. He is not impressed with this woman's act. He stands up and holds out his hand. "Come on, Rose."
Rose stands up as well, suddenly anxious to be gone. "I'm sorry we bothered you."
"Aliens have always been here." Sophia speaks to them but her eyes are far away. "They've been here for a very long time. They've denied the truth to keep themselves hidden."
The Doctor is caught despite himself. "Aliens where? On this world? In this universe?"
She smiles faintly. "Here in this city."
"They're gone," Rose tells her. "We watched them leave and then we...we made sure no one would remember." The guilt still hits her, but at least she can talk about it.
"They think that no one can see them. But some of us have always known what they are."
"Who are you?" the Doctor demands. "Greece has denied the existence of aliens for years."
"They must deny themselves in order to stay hidden." The woman looks closely at the Doctor. "You must deny yourself too, sometimes. You're not an alien. But are you a human?"
"Stop it," Rose says sharply. "He's a person just like we are!"
It's too late. "Can you see that?" The Doctor moves close to Sophia, kneels down close to her. "Can you see that part of me?"
"The spark remains. It will always remain, whether you stay or run or fly away through the stars. You cannot change who you are now. I would not advise it."
The Doctor falls back. "I'm not going to."
"You were planning to," she tells him, and he glances at Rose uneasily.
"Who are you?" Rose asks the question this time. "You shouldn't know about the aliens. We've changed people's memories."
Sophia smiles at her. "My memories are much older than today. I say nothing because no evil has befallen my people and my country. But I can see the truth."
"The truth," Rose echoes. "The truth about what?"
The Doctor's mind is much, much faster. "No," he says softly. "No. That's impossible!"
"What's impossible?" Rose demands. She feels like Alice after she's fallen down the rabbit hole. Nothing is making sense to her right now.
"They deny themselves to stay hidden." The Doctor looks up at Rose and starts to laugh. "Of course! They're aliens, Rose."
"Who are aliens?" Rose demands in absolute frustration.
"The royal family of Greece! The king is an alien!"
"What? That's just...just..." Rose founders for words and can't find the right ones. "That's silly."
"Any sillier than the Prime Minister being a member of the Slitheen family?"
"But he looks like us," she protests.
"His people look like us," Sophia confirms. "They came here many generations ago and seized power when the time was right. And they remain here, determined to deny that other aliens exist to protect their secret."
It seems ridiculous, and yet Rose knows that it's the truth. She's seen too many aliens not to recognize the oddities in the King of Greece's manner. "All those years," she murmurs. "Aliens running the entire country."
"Just the royal family," the Doctor corrects her absently. "Well. We should try to avoid another run-in with His Majesty, under the circumstances." He gets up to stand beside Rose. "He probably couldn't wait to get rid of us."
"Was that the other side, then?" Rose asks Sophia. "The other side of Athens?"
Sophia remains seated where she is. The smoke is suddenly thicker, and she's staring into it. "You are where you belong. Both of you are supposed to be here. The other one. He is where he must be."
They've started to walk away from her, just a single step back, but the Doctor stops at the mention of the other one. Rose feels a tiny bubble of fear in her stomach.
"What did you say?" she whispers.
Sophia gazes at her through the smoke. "You made it to the other side and back again. And home once more. A chaos greater than anything he's ever known awaits him. He will run from you as far as he can but he will come back to you at the very end."
Rose slowly shakes her head. "Who...who are you talking about?"
"You will see him again. One last time." Sophia turns her head to the Doctor, though her eyes are still locked on Rose. "Both of you together." And she turns back to Rose. "He will come to you at the end, because you are the greatest truth of his existence."
The fear Rose is feeling grows into something much larger, and only her husband's hand on hers keeps her from shaking. She can feel how close he is to his breaking point, and she wants very much to leave this place.
"Who is the other one?" the Doctor demands hoarsely. "Who are you talking about?"
But the fire has stopped and the smoke is gone. Sophia looks away.
"It's time you went home," she tells them.
They are silent on the walk back to the car. Her hand is in the Doctor's but neither of them feels their shared grip. When they reach the car the Doctor opens the door for Rose, but she doesn't get in. Instead she stands in front of him, forcing him to look her in the eye.
"She said we'd see him again."
"Before he changes his face."
"How could she know that?" Rose whispers. "It's a universe away from here. How could she know?"
"I don't know." He draws her close to him. "But we can ask him when we see him."
She can't fight the cold that is sweeping over her. Is it dread or excitement that she feels at the thought of seeing the other Doctor again? Anger or sadness? She's worked so hard for so long to block him out of her thoughts that to have him suddenly forced back into them is a shock.
"It's not possible." Even as she says the words she knows how silly they are. Anything and everything is possible, and she's seen more proof of that than most people on the planet.
"It might not be him. It might mean Mickey. Just before he dons a disguise at Torchwood." This surprises a laugh out of her. "Or Jack, maybe."
"Don't." Rose shakes her head. "That talk of the other side and changing his face. It means he'll regenerate, doesn't it?"
"That's what it sounds like," he admits. "Eventually...eventually it will happen. An accident or age. It will happen."
"And we don't know when that would ever be, would we? Would you...would you feel it? If it happened?"
He shakes his head. "I don't know, Rose. I doubt it."
"But if we see him before," she persists. "If he comes to see me before..."
"The walls have closed," he reminds her. "I know of no way to get back. Not even the dimension cannon works anymore."
"But she said-"
"Just because she said it doesn't make it so!"
"But it might."
He can't stand to see the glimmer of hope in her eyes. He's man enough to admit to himself that he hates the mention of his other self, because of what Rose might do. She chose him, and loved him, and married him, but it doesn't change the fact that he is not the one she set out to find when she crossed the universes.
"It might," he forces himself to say, and Rose shrugs.
"I know it probably won't happen." She's speaking to his chest and won't look up at his face. "But I'd like to see him. Just once more time."
For the thousandth time, the Doctor reminds himself that it's ridiculous to be jealous of himself. "What for?"
She smiles. "To say goodbye. Thank you. Be careful."
"Come on." He ushers her into the car. "Let's get out of the city before rush hour."
They stop for lunch a few hours later, near the northern border of Greece. They eat a simple meal of salad and soup at a small cafe, sitting outside in the sunshine. Rose is eager to get back on the road, and she can tell that the Doctor is ready to start a manic drive back to London.
"All right." She places her napkin on the table. "I'm ready."
He takes a quick sip of water. "Me too. Just one thing, though."
"Yeah? What?" Rose's attention is diverted by a small goat walking across the street. The village they've stopped in is small but very friendly, and livestock seems to wander freely across the town square.
"This." Rose looks back at him, and he hands her a small box. "I've been saving it," he says, watching her face. "I wanted you to have something from me."
"A wedding present?"
"I believe it's traditional for the groom to give the bride jewelry."
"I have your ring," she reminds him, showing him her silver wedding band.
He nods absently. "Yes, but this is something else. Go on. Open it."
Rose opens the box and catches her breath. It's a bracelet. Silver links are hung with small charms. There's the Eiffel tower, a leaning tower of Pisa - only this one is straight because the tower in this universe never had a problem - and a tiny Acropolis. A few more hang in between. A souvenir from every stop they've taken.
"There's a Big Ben from London, too," he tells her. "But you'll have to wait until we're home for that one. Do you like it?" he prompts her, when she doesn't respond.
Rose looks up, eyes shining. "I love it! It's perfect!" She takes the bracelet of the box and gives it out to him, then holds out her wrist. "Will you put it on for me?"
He fastens it on and looks down at it. "I know you're not one for lots of jewelry, given what we do every day. But I thought you'd like to be reminded of what we've done."
"I love it," she assures him. "I love it so much. It's wonderful."
He smiles, relieved. "Good." The idea had struck him one day as he was plotting out this trip, and the more he'd thought of it the more it seemed like the perfect gift for her.
"You know what I'd like even better than this?" she asks him.
He blinks. It's not like Rose to compare gifts or try to barter for an exchange. "What?"
She smiles. "I'd like to go home."
The Doctor stands up. "That I can do. Let's go home, Rose Tyler."
The car pulls away from the village at a rather illegal rate of speed. The little goat bleats in alarm and runs away.
"I wonder where we ought to go for next year's holiday?" Rose muses, and the Doctor starts to laugh.