A/N: A more modern and quiet take on our favourite couple, because I've realised that I tend to place them in extreme situations - I wanted to explore their relationship in a more ordinary, sedate and tempered setting. A key influence in this is the awesome movie Up! Also, Caffe Nero is a major coffeehouse here in the UK.
4. A Study of Strangers
Prompt: "There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open." - Jawaharlal Nehru
The first thing she remembered when she woke up was pain. It was branding, searing, a consuming inferno that coursed through her right leg and left her gasping in its wake.
There was noise and movement after the pain. Muffled voices and staccato beeps registered faintly in the periphery of her consciousness, and the blurred figures spun and tilted her world out of balance. There were shouts too, raised voices and angry words that she couldn't decipher through the haze of her thoughts and vision.
But the pain. There was so much pain. Every breath, every infinitesimal movement sent her nerves screaming for reprieve that eluded her at every turn. When the pain became too much, she moaned and voiced her agony.
"She's awake. Check her vitals."
"Holding steady. Heart rate slightly elevated."
Beyond the retreat of her eyelids, the world was bright and sterile-white. It burned her eyes. When her vision swam into focus, she was met with the sympathetic, cloyingly soothing gazes of doctors and nurses clustered around her bed.
"Miss Tyler," one of the staff said. "Please don't be alarmed. You're currently in the Royal Brompton Hospital."
Her throat was dried-out, parched and sore, but she needed to know, needed to find out what was going on. Images and distant memories whirled in the confusion of her mind, like puzzle pieces that kept falling out of her hand.
It took all of her strength to croak out words. "What happened?"
She did not fail to miss the loaded glance that was exchanged between her attending doctor and the nurse that had spoken up. Her heart clenched in fear and trepidation as warning-alarming bells shrieked and whirred to life in the recesses of her mind.
The attending doctor patted her hand. "Maybe you should just take it slow for a while. Just rest and get better. Someone will -"
"No. Tell me now. I need to know. What happened?"
The nurse cleared her throat, and rifled through the clipboard in her hands, obviously stalling.
"Well, you see, during your performance, there - well. Miss Tyler, your leg was broken."
Relief was a sharp flame through her body. "Oh, that's - yes. That's good. Thank goodness that's all."
The doctor took her hand, a gesture meant to comfort, to soothe. It felt like the gesture of a herder leading the cattle to the abattoir.
"Miss Tyler. I'm afraid it's hardly as simple as that, unfortunately. You see, your femur was shattered when he - during the unhappy accident. You've been unconscious for several hours now. From what we can see, you will have to be confined to bed rest for the next few weeks or so, and that means that by the time you're up and walking again, well -"
There was a pregnant pause, an uncomfortable overhanging silence. "By the time you get back on your feet, the muscles in your thigh would have atrophied. You won't - you won't be able to dance again."
She swallowed hard, and the action grates her dry throat. "You're joking, right?"
"I'm so sorry, Miss Tyler. I'm afraid not."
ROYAL BALLET PRINCIPAL DANCER'S CAREER BRUTALLY ENDED
BYE-BYE BALLERINA: TRAGIC CAREER-END
ON-STAGE DRAMA, REAL-LIFE HORROR
THE DEATH OF THE ROYAL BALLET'S ROSE
It was unbearable. The media circus dragged on for weeks, camping outside the hospital she was in and staking out her apartment. Her hospital room smelt perennially of flowers. People trooped in, endless streams of them, to wish her well and to express heartfelt sympathies. Cards flooded in.
It felt like a funeral.
Maybe in some way it really was. Her life as she knew it had ended, and all doors, once thrown open and waiting for her, were now shut.
What was she, if not a ballerina?
She had started classes from the age of four. She had joined the Royal Ballet's corps when she was fourteen. By nineteen, she was principal dancer.
At twenty-five, her career was over.
She has no idea what to do now. Dedication to the art has left her with little friends outside of the troupe, and with the season starting back up, they have little time for her.
Five months. Five long, arduous months have passed, and she is no more clearer about what to do with her life than when prima danseur Owen Harper broke her leg in a drug-induced hallucination during the opening performance of Giselle.
She fled to France, Spain, Greece, and now to New York. But you cannot outrun your demons, especially not when they come in the form of a nine-inch puckered scar on your thigh. When she is particularly cynical, she muses that she cannot even run at all, not with one dud leg.
It is midnight in the Big Apple when she touches down at JFK. The shift in timezones has her jet-lagged, but she puts off sleep. She has had enough bed rest and sleep and convalescence to last a lifetime.
New York. A global cultural hotspot, home to Broadway and famed ballet troupes. It is a glaring, glittering reminder of the life that was cruelly torn from her.
But she has brooded long enough, and it is time for her to move on. Almost half a year of self-pity and anger is enough for one person. Her successful years in the industry left her with quite the nest egg; she can travel, see the world. She can finally do all the things she never had the time to. She can relax and indulge her hobbies, laze around and discover herself.
Find out who you are underneath the ballerina, her therapist had told her. But how? The words are remarkably easy for Dr. Jones to throw about, almost trite. It is a far more difficult task in reality. For someone who has given her life, her every waking moment to ballet and the perfection of the art, she feels like a reborn soul, a newborn baby, an unsteady foal without it.
Rose Tyler is many things, and an ex-ballerina is now one of them. But one thing that she knows for certain is that she is not a complainer, and she is not a quitter.
She will find herself, she promises.
You're Rose Tyler, aren't you?
Yes - yes, I am.
Oh my god. I read about the incident in the papers. It must have been horrifying. I'm so sorry for -
She is healing now, one slow step at a time. There are nights that still has her lurching from her bed, sheets tangled around flailing limbs, a scream dying in her throat.
But those nights are fewer and less frequent, and even if she still cannot smile easily, she will deem it a huge victory. She likes New York. The sheer size of the metropolis lends her the obscurity that eludes her in London, and in the sea of the masses, she can pretend that she is like one of the hurried pedestrians around her, purposeful and full of direction.
She first meets him at Times Square, at six-eighteen in the evening on a cool Tuesday. She stands off to the side, gazing unseeingly at the crowds. He walks up to her, and when he speaks, it is as if she has known him forever. He talks to her like a friend from bygone days, like a fondly-remembered lover.
"Ah, there you are!"
She frowns at first, swivelling her head around to check if he is addressing someone behind her. When her quick survey turns up nothing, she opens her mouth to ask if he has identified her wrongly, but a quick motion of his hand has her shutting it again.
"Come on, let's go grab some coffee. It's too bloody cold to be out in this weather."
He is British. His accent is distinct, a lilted Estuary English that makes her think of tea and scones and the Thames and Big Ben and home. He reaches for her hand, and when hers slides easily into his, she finds herself wondering if she is insane for following this utter stranger.
"Are you sure you've got the right person?" She asks, because this might be slightly creepy, she thinks, especially when she reviews the situation: random stranger accosts her, drags her off for coffee and she barely struggles.
He sends her a mischievous side glance. "Oh, yeah. I'm sure."
A thousand questions fly through her mind. Who are you? What do you want? Where did you come from? But he feels so familiar, so right that she stops the words before they tumble out and trails behind him to a nearby Starbucks.
The coffee-lover's mecca is packed with the dinner crowd, and it takes some skillful hustling and twisting to fight their way through to the counter to place their orders and grab a seat.
"What I would give for a good 'ol Caffe Nero now, eh?" He winks at her, and no one is more surprised than she is when she returns his grin in full force.
"That's - that's my first smile in three months," she sputters out, and he raises his eyebrows and lets out a low whistle.
"Well, we'll just have to make up for it tonight then, won't we?" She cannot help but laugh at his easy charm and friendliness that chips away at her brittle shell, piece by steady piece.
"You do realise that you've failed to tell me your name," she tells him, sending him a half-smile to soften her mild admonishment.
"Ah, that is correct. How astute, milady! I'm John," he says. "John Smith, at your service."
"Wait - seriously? I mean, I know that John and Smith are the most common first and surnames in Britain respectively, but I've never actually come across someone with both in their name."
He guffaws, and his laughter is infectious and so, so full of life. She can almost believe that she is happy now. She laughs along with him.
"Yes, seriously. My name is John Smith, unfortunately. But enough about me. What's yours?"
"Far more exotic, I assure you. I'm Rose." She tries to prevent her knuckles from whitening on the white chocolate frappe in front of her, but the tension that creeps into her body tells her that she is fooling no one. He does not miss the way she deliberately leaves out her last name, and he does not press. She is not the only one with ghosts here tonight.
"So, Rose. What's your story?" She freezes, and sips on her frappe for long moments in an attempt to still her racing pulse.
"Oh, you know," she begins, waving her hands dismissively. "Change of careers, decided to see the world in between, that sort of thing. What about you?"
He smiles at her, and it is a secret smile, one that hints at stories untold and mysteries-under-the-surface.
"Oh, you know," he mimics, and she laughs a little at this, "Just in town for a conference, decided to befriend a random woman, that sort of thing."
"Ah," she acknowledges, and they share a grin. "An exciting life, I see. So where to, after New York? Where will you go to pursue that next great adventure?"
He theatrically shrinks back in horror, clasping his hands to his heart, as if fatally wounded. She tries to quell her giggles as surrounding patrons send them curious looks.
"Rose, oh, Rose!" he cries dramatically, and she shakes her head in mock exasperation, rolling her eyes at his antics. "How can you say such a thing? Oh, what blasphemy!" He leans across the table towards her, and she follows suit. They look like two conspirators.
"Rose," he begins. "Let me tell you a secret: Adventure is everywhere! Out there, in here, around us! There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open - if we choose to see them and grasp life with both hands."
She nods in exaggerated solemn understanding, and he sends her a wide smile. She purses her lips as she considers her next move. The question hangs on the tip of her tongue, begging to be asked. She decides to throw caution to the wind. What use is caution to her now? When has caution ever served her well?
"Why me?" She asks. "Of all the people at the Square, why did you pick me?"
"Oh, well -" He shifts in his seat, and looks distinctly uncomfortable.
"You looked sad," he tells her.
She smiles at him, at this stranger-from-nowhere; lifetimes of knowing and understanding and familiarity between them. She reaches for the napkin across the table, and pulls a Sharpie from her purse.
With infinite care, she traces a bold Adventure onto the pristine surface, and signs off with a flourish.
"Well," she says. "I'm not, not anymore." She stands up, and extends her hand towards him, wiggling her fingers.
He takes it.