NewDrWhoFan gave me the prompt of an AU after Journey's End where Rose stays with the Doctor and there isn't a not a Doctor. She's resigned herself to loving him as a friend, and his regret has been the words unspoken. For her birthday on the 15th, I wrote this story without that prompt. Then, I spent the past ten days trying to get it to upload. Finally, FINALLY, here it is. With my sincere apologies for the tardiness of this ficlet, I present to you, in honor of a lovely author and brilliant, helpful friend:

Where Forever Starts

The Doctor found Rose in the library. She was sitting on the fluffiest divan, half sprawled, and her leather jacket was hanging over the back of a nearby chair. All in all, she looked utterly miserable. Afraid that questioning her mood would equal questioning her continued presence - which was the last thing he ever wanted to do - the Time Lord settled for a pastime that had always worked when Rose was younger; namely, distraction.

"Donna says she'll call you," he said, and flung himself down on the divan, stretching his long legs out over her lap because... well, he wasn't about to explain that, was he? "She never said exactly what she'll call you, but I was afraid to ask, mostly because I'm afraid of Donna, tell the truth." He scratched at the back of his neck. "Well, not afraid as such, more, well terrified, really. She's... she's like your mum, a bit, only without the suspicion that she loves someone who likes me. So she doesn't even turn a hair at insulting me fifty times a day. I mean, honestly, how many different ways are there to call a bloke an alien without saying 'hey, look, an alien!' Did I tell you she claimed I was from Mars at first? Called me Martian, constantly."

Rose smiled a distant, wistful looking smile. "Why'd she leave?" she asked, by way of interruption.

The Doctor shrugged. Then, scrunching down a bit so he could get more comfy - or so he firmly told himself - he leaned a up a bit and said, confidentially, "I think she's after Jack."

Rose chuckled, though it sounded a bit hollow. "Poor Donna," she decided, which made the Doctor grin. "Poor Jack," she added, a little more cheerfully.

The Doctor couldn't resist her smile - he never could. "They're well suited in a way. She's never impressed and he's impressed with himself. I think they've got a good friendship going if nothing else."

They sat there in a strained but companionable silence for a long while, and then the Doctor kicked off his trainers. Rose started and it looked almost like he'd woken her up. "Make yourself at home," she said, glibly.

"Don't mind if I do, thanks," the Doctor said and wriggled a bit to get out of his suit coat.

Rose pushed playfully at his legs and he only anchored her further, snuggling down until he was practically sitting on her lap. They'd played games like this before, back when they were both as innocent as they could be, back when she believed in forever and he believed in her.

It wasn't that he'd actually stopped believing in her, because he didn't, he couldn't. But he did stop believing that just because she believed it was possible. Then again, she was already actively doing two impossible things, just from sitting on his couch in the library of his TARDIS. She'd come back to him and now, to all appearances at least, she was staying with him. Impossible.

"I came back for the music, you know," Rose said.

The Doctor stared at her as she turned her head and gave him a serious, but twinkle-eyed look. He couldn't read her - how frustrating was that? "Wha?" he managed.

"No, really, you have no idea what it was like. It's horrible. I got used to all of the political changes, all of the strange little differences, but the one thing I absolutely could not get over - I mean it - was the complete lack of decent music. It was like they were stuck in Big Band meets Country and Western. No Elvis, Doctor. No Michael Jackson - hell, no Jackson Five. Nothing good like Queen or Janis Joplin, not even something crap like Air Supply. Flashest music celebrity in Pete's World? Some blond Broadway diva called John Barrowman. Pretty as hell, great voice, but all he sang was Show Tunes." She tilted her head to the side, thoughtfully. "Reminded me of Jack a bit, actually, the one time I met him, come to think of it."

"No Elvis?" he asked, the only thing he could manage out of all of it. She sounded just like him, and that wasn't fair - he was supposed to have a monopoly on 'babbling over uncomfortable silences'.

"No Elvis," she confirmed.

"Unnatural," the Doctor decided.

She nodded fervently. "Tell me about it. I'd be singing something that popped into my head and anyone who knew me would ask what planet it was from." She started to grin. "And I'm like 'It's not a planet, it's Madonna,' and I'd get the weirdest looks."

The Doctor started to chuckle. "Oh, yeah. Some place where the only use of 'Madonna' is religious, and you're belting out 'Material Girl'."

Her face fell, her expression still and somber. "'Live to Tell', actually," she corrected, after awhile.

A man can tell a thousand lies, the Doctor thought, and a Time Lord, even more. The world wasn't back the way it was supposed to be, and he should have realized it never could go there again. Rose wasn't nineteen anymore. She knew better than this now, had outgrown him and their brief little fairy-tale romance. She knew now that he wasn't a happily ever after, and had probably realized by now that she deserved better, anyway.

There was nothing else for it. "There's still time to take you home, Rose," he confessed softly. "There's still enough of a window, if we hurry."

She turned her head to meet his eyes and looked at him for what he knew was only twenty seconds and for what he felt was a small eternity. "I am home," she said at last. "I'm sorry, maybe that makes me the most horrible person in two Universes, but I am home."

"But... but don't you think... Rose, you're..."

"Doctor, it doesn't work like that, all right? I'm back here, where I think I belong. If you don't want me here, then say so, and I'll go and make Donna come back. Or I'll take over at Torchwood and send Jack back with you. Because you're not going it alone, you're not. If I have to spend the rest of my life recruiting people throughout time and space to keep you company, then that's what I'll do, but you can't be by yourself."

Was that what she thought? She'd come back because the nine hundred year old alien couldn't look after himself? He vaulted up from the divan, furious, glowering down at her with the full force of the storm in his eyes. "So that's it, then? You've appointed yourself my eternal caretaker, and nothing's gonna stop you?"

Rose jumped up and glowered right back at him. "No, that is not it. I told you what it was a long time ago." She turned away and walked out of their cozy little area and into the library proper, where she began looking over the shelves as if they were the most fascinating things in the Universe.

"How long are you gonna stay with me?"

Not a heartbeat, not a hesitation. "Forever."

"You'll never see her again, your own mother."

"I made my choice a long time ago and I'm never gonna leave you."

"I lo... I love you."

"Quite right, too. And, I suppose, if it's my last chance to say it..."

"Rose Tyler," the Doctor murmured.

She turned from the books, and her brown eyes glowed with quiet grief. She'd made her choice, no matter what, for better or worse, 'til death and all that.

He couldn't give her his forever, but wasn't that what he was doing, anyway? He'd died inside without her, a little more every day. There wasn't a time or a place he could go to that didn't make him think of her, a little or a lot. Some days, the grief only stung, some days there were smiles instead of sorrow. But it was there, every day, even if only for a minute, the knowledge that Rose had been there by his side once, and the knowledge that he could take any hand in the Universe, but it wouldn't be hers.

Three words described his regret, the thing left undone and unsaid. And maybe it was true, that he'd resigned himself to never saying it. Maybe she had made a fantastic life for herself without ever hearing it. Maybe she deserved better, maybe he deserved worse. Maybe life on the knife's edge wasn't the right sort of life for anyone. Maybe it was better with two, any two. Maybe it didn't have to be her, and maybe it didn't even have to be him.

The Doctor held out his hand. Rose stepped toward him without hesitation.

Maybe it did have to be them.

The Doctor waggled his fingers like that day so long ago when he didn't know for sure if Rose would ever believe him again. She smiled slowly, like she had then and, ever so slowly, reached for his hand. They met halfway and Rose's eyes lit up like morning.

Maybe it didn't need saying.

He tugged their joined hands and his Rose was back in his arms, smelling of stars and rain and the light of distant moons. She hugged him fiercely, her arms trembling just a little, her warmth radiating through both of them. The Doctor curled the fingers of his free hand up through her golden hair, smiling as she tilted her head into his touch.

He said it anyway.

He said it when he tilted her head further, when he brushed her lips with his own, said it again when they broke the all-too-chaste kiss. "Rose Tyler, I love you," and it was so much easier than he ever thought, here in the silences between their heartbeats.

It didn't fix everything between them. There would be a lot of work before they reached that point. Stories would have to be exchanged and truths told that had been omitted in the past. There might be promises, and there would probably be apologies. But this was the first step, the three words too long unsaid, three words to mend three hearts.

It wasn't forever, but it was a start.