Written for Challenge 35 on then_theres_us over at LJ.
A Handful of Sand (With Kisses)
In the park just up from the Powell Estate, there was a small playground, with a set of swings, a seesaw, a heavily graffitied merry-go-round, and a small sandbox with timber for edges. There was also Rose Tyler. She'd not taken a seat on the swings, but on the edge of the sandbox, picking up handfuls of the sand and pouring them back out on the ground. She watched the sand intently as it fell.
The Doctor watched Rose just as intently, counting the moments, unsure when he should approach her but certain he had to do. Among other things, Mickey had been entirely too smug about everything for the Doctor to even suspect otherwise.
Another handful piled up, and then another, pouring through Rose's fingers like an hourglass ticking off the rest of her life. So short - if he even blinked properly, he felt like he'd miss it.
"You shouldn't be here," Rose said suddenly, quietly. "Thought you were talking to Sarah Jane. She's not seen you in forever." Sparkling in the full moon light, sand fell.
The Doctor felt hope rising. Rose was being her usual kind self, no longer angry and sulky about things he couldn't help. "She's gone home, gone to bed. Well, I say bed." He turned back to the house, then back to Rose. "She said she was going to bed, but Sarah Jane never sleeps when there's a mystery to be solved. She did say I should come fetch you..."
"I don't need fetching, thanks," Rose said. Hope died as she glanced up at him, her eyes every bit as frosty as her voice. The sand that fell from her hand looked like ice crystals in the bluish moonlight.
"So you're gonna sit out here all night?" he said. He forced a smile, forced chipper charm into his voice. "Don't even think it, I'm not listening to Jackie Tyler if you..."
"Oh, shut up," Rose cut him off. She dropped the handful of sand atop her pile, pressed the pile down, glared at it as if it had offended her mightily. The Doctor watched, helpless.
After a long moment, Rose sighed heavily and grabbed up another handful of sand. She poured it in a pattern, the Doctor thought, letting it fall off her hand in careful swirls and spirals. She sighed heavily as it all fell away. "Life with you's like this," she said, and nothing further, just another pile of sand.
"Like?" he offered, not sure what else to do.
"Like a handful of sand." She closed her fist, squeezed tightly, and sand squeezed out through her fingers. "Hang on too tight and it all gets away from you." She picked up another handful, held it in the air. "Hold on too loose, and it's gone like that." She turned her hand over and the pile mostly dropped to the ground. Some wisps of mica and dust sparkled off into the night breeze.
The Doctor frowned. "Are you trying to tell me something?" he asked, almost hotly.
Rose shrugged. "Maybe I'm trying to tell you what you always tell me," she suggested, like she was debating the weather.
It made him angry. He watched another pile of sand slowly form, and felt a pile of annoyance rising with it. "What do you want from me?" he demanded.
"That's my question," Rose shot back. Standing, she dusted the sand off on the back of her jeans, then turned sharply to walk away from him.
He followed her, his hearts hammering in his chest. Rose, Rose of all people should understand this, he thought. She should know how hard it was to talk about things some times. She should realize that the past belonged where it was and no where else. She of all people knew what happened when you let yesterday haunt you.
He caught up with her in three long strides. Before she'd even escaped the sandbox, his hand was on her arm, spinning her around until she fell against him. He opened his mouth to deliver the truth of her jealousy and her pettiness on her, but she interrupted him, her voice fast and desperate and sad.
"It was all a lie, wasn't it?" she asked. "I thought... I can't believe I thought... but you never said... I wasn't..." Her voice cracked. "'I'm left traveling on my own 'cuz there's no one else,'" she quoted, her voice thick and sounding so painful the Doctor's own throat burned in empathy. "Everything we ever were came down to that I thought, and it was a lie..."
Now, she broke, tears pouring down her cheeks, tears like she hadn't cried since he changed. She'd been happy with him, he'd found ways to make her happy, to help her get used to this new him, to keep her from running, from leaving. And here she was, regretting ever staying with him in the first place, because she thought he'd lied to her from the beginning.
The Doctor's thoughts all collided together, piling on top of each other like Rose's impromptu sand castles. He'd been about to chide her for thinking he'd lived nine hundred years alone before her. It wasn't that at all, he could see it in the trembling, shrinking line of her shoulders, as she drew in on herself, like she was trying to contain the force of her pain.
"It wasn't... I didn't..." His lightning fast words and even faster thoughts weren't going to save him now. He couldn't think, just let his hands tighten and loosen convulsively on Rose's shoulders, trying to hold her up, trying to keep her together, keep her with him. "Rose, we were... are... were..." He couldn't keep track of the words, couldn't get them all into coherence so they could get out in any understandable order.
"Didn't you ever love me at all?" managed to escape that torrent of tears and choking sobs.
The Doctor stopped thinking, and he was almost certain he also stopped breathing. His hands, though, didn't let up this time. He clutched Rose's shoulders tighter, even as she tried to shrug him off, tried to twist out of his grip. Terror and awe boiled out in words he just suddenly had, just suddenly knew were right. "How can you even ask that?" he demanded fiercely. "How?"
"Oh god," Rose whispered. "I said I wasn't gonna and I... oh god..." She finally managed to escape him, not by wrenching loose but by going boneless, like a bit of a jelly, collapsing to the sandy floor of the playground. She kept talking, her voice soft and strange and almost hysterical. "Like some needy ex-girlfriend... said I wasn't... s'not like there was ever... no promises..."
The Doctor's eyes widened, his breath all escaped at once, and he found himself folded on the ground with her, staring into her horrified, tear-streaked, mascara-smeared face. His hand caught her chin, and his lips just sort of fell on hers, and that was his story and he didn't care what anybody else thought.
He realized he'd forgotten that Rose always needed to be left alone when she was hurting, allowed to stare at space and absorb and process, or there was every chance of a completely unexpected emotional response. So he kissed her, deeply and harshly and desperately, kissed her until he wasn't flying apart anymore, until she'd stopped seeming like she was about to scream. He broke the kiss only to dive back into her, to taste more of her, and it was only the resistance that had been holding him in check this long that stopped him from going through with it, that made him lean back and look at her instead.
"What was that?" Rose whispered when he pulled away.
"You were hysterical," he claimed defensively.
"I was not!" she shot back, hotly.
"Sorry," the Doctor bit out sarcastically. He raked his hands through his hair, heedless of the fact that one of those hands was covered with sand.
He scanned the area frantically for reasons he couldn't even explain to himself. Just, it felt like there ought to be something here that would make this make sense. "If you're asking those questions, yes you are! Didn't you hear me, earlier, Rose? That day, that one that's bothering you so much, meant everything to me, everything, you understand, and I think by now I've made that sort of plain! I told you what it's like, what it's gonna be like for me, I told you, and I'm still gonna do it, don't you get that..."
He was cut off because there was suddenly a whole lot of Rose in his way, specifically in the form of her lips blocking his. For a moment, he forgot that there was even a problem, just allowed himself to indulge the sheer bliss of the tear-salty, bittersweet flavor of her.
"What was that for?" he mimicked when she pulled away from him. His tongue automatically crossed his lips, trying to capture every last sip and wisp and breath of her.
"You were hysterical," Rose copied, gently.
"It wasn't a lie," he murmured.
"OK," she said but did not believe, and her dark eyes wandered away from him again.
The Doctor stared at Rose. Rose stared at the ground. After a long moment, she reached a hand for a pile of sand, and they were almost right back where they started. "It wasn't a lie," he insisted, after her small molehill had built up to a mini-mountain that reached as high as his trouser cuff.
"It wasn't true, either," Rose said with a sigh. "It's not the end of the world, okay? It's just, I sorta thought you'd stopped keeping stuff from me with this one." Her hand described the length of his body, the changes that his regeneration had brought to his form. "But it's not gonna be that way, is it? The day before I die, I'm gonna find out something about you I shoulda known all along."
The Doctor looked up at the sky, considering the haze of the London street lights, the faint smattering of distant stars. "Who's the first boy you kissed?" he asked.
"What?" Rose asked.
"Who did you kiss? The very first time those sweet pink lips graced some lucky ape with the hint of Rose, who was he?" It had been awhile since he'd referred to a human as an evolutionary antecedent instead. It pleased him to see the irritation and confusion in her eyes joined by recognition.
She turned away. "All right, I admit it. I was jealous and it's a stupid thing to be jealous about," she said. "Happy?"
"No," he said. "Well, yes, I s'pose, maybe, but no, I mean, answer my question."
Rose shrugged and dug up another handful of sand. This one she tried to lightly sift down onto the side of the previous pile.
"Well?" the Doctor pressed.
"I don't remember," Rose admitted. "Just this ginger-haired boy I met out here. At the swings, I think, actually."
"So you do remember?" the Doctor insisted.
"No!" Rose rejected the idea. "I mean, I guess. Not his name, don't think he ever said. We were playing together, and he pushed me on the swings and I wanted to say thanks. Shireen dared me, and so I chased him down and kissed him, and I think I was eight, and what difference does it make?"
"I never knew," the Doctor explained. "I never knew how you got your first kiss. I've known you, technically, since you were a baby, and I never knew that."
"Yeah," Rose agreed, morosely, but the Doctor could tell she didn't see the point. She was back to pouring sand, this time making a sand path in between her sand mountains.
"No, you're not seeing it. I've known you all your life, and I didn't know that really important fact about you. You've only known me for twenty years, and most of that time, you were a child. I've been alive forty-five times that long. So I've got forty-five of your life times to have had things happen that I don't think about, or don't want to think about, or that are irrelevant to me but seem to matter the world to you. What I'm saying is, even regular couples have this." He caught her sandy hands, tugged them to his chest, making her look at him. "Even people who can live their lives together run into this sort of thing, even when they've been married for years. It's going to happen to us, and all the more often because I've lived so long without you."
Rose looked a little dazed and a lot baffled. "We're not a couple," she said vaguely, her expression tense like it often did when she was picking some tiny part of a situation because the thing as a whole was too much for her.
"Oh," the Doctor said. "I thought..."
"What?" And there was hope in those dark, bright eyes. He could see the golden hint in the moonlit depths, an indelible mark that even he couldn't take away.
"You don't listen when you're upset, do you?" the Doctor said, starting to grin. He couldn't help it - she was beautiful when she was confused, his Rose. "You can live." He tapped her forehead. "The rest." He tapped her nose. "Of your life." He tapped her full, pouty bottom lip. "With me." He cupped her cheek. "Rose Tyler."
There were resolutions that could have been made, promises that could have been offered, explanations that could have been given. There were three words that very probably should have been said. But he was the Doctor and out of all the stars in all the skies, as numerous as the grains of sand beneath them, this was all he had to give.
"Oh," she said, and she looked every bit as dazed as she had watching chunks of her planet float by. However, she was also starting to smile, that same star-bright smile, full of grace, that she'd turned on him when he first appeared in this suit for her inspection. "Oh," she breathed.
Because his fortune was richer than if the sand had been his and made of diamonds, all he had to offer seemed to be all Rose Tyler wanted.
There was a shuffle of sudden movement and mutual decision, and sand went flying, glittering blue and gold in the full moon light. The Doctor pressed Rose down, the mountainous little castles she'd been building becoming a pillow for her head. "Yeah," he whispered, right across her parted, startled lips, "Oh."