Rose drifted into awareness, slowly registering the familiar presence of the Doctor. She was surrounded by him, resting at the center of his consciousness.
Rose? Are you all right?
Yeah, I'm fine. Not all that used to the whole telepathy thing, I guess.
It can be a bit overwhelming if you're not sure what to expect. I'll be accessing the Matrix soon, so we must keep our communication to a minimum. I've shielded you as best I can, but this won't exactly be a walk in the park. Which really, the reliability of that idiom depends entirely on the pleasantness of the park in question. On Questiljainovaritus, the parks are filled with ruffians made entirely of magma. Telling a Questiljainovaritian to go on a walk in the park is the equivalent of telling an Earthling to go to hell.
Doctor? Were you planning on actually doin' something, or just talkin' my ears off?
We're in my head, Rose, your ears have nothing to do with this conversation.
Rose's amusement flared. Yes, definitely the same man.
Right, no more of that, Miss Tyler. I'm entering the Matrix.
She smothered her laughter, using the meditation techniques she had learned in Tibet to calm her own mind. I'm ready when you are, then.
For a moment more, nothing changed. Then there was a rush of something and the quiet space that she and the Doctor had just occupied multiplied exponentially, changing from a still white space to a boundless night sky. Rose stifled a gasp. God, sights like this were why she loved this life, no matter what she'd lost. The Doctor concentrated around her and suddenly they were drifting in orbit around a brilliant green star.
Following specific timelines without a telepathic connection or a TARDIS—this should be useful.
With a start, Rose realized that the stars littering the inky black sky they drifted in were actually areas of study. The Matrix was apparently a sort of celestial library.
Actually, the appearance changes to fit perception—this has always been the way I experienced it, but I had an old friend who saw it as a gigantic laboratory. The Doctor focused on the star again, the stream of knowledge coming from it almost blinding in its intensity. Rose shuddered, her mind nearly overwhelmed. She might absorb the information more quickly this way, but it was anything but comfortable.
They were both concentrating so hard that the appearance of another presence next to them went unnoticed until the stranger made the mental equivalent of a polite cough. The Doctor jerked away from the star in surprise, and Rose furled herself tightly at the center of his consciousness.
The other mind was somehow stiff and nebulous at the same time, a deep navy that hovered on the edges of the Doctor's mind. Theta. Good to see you here.
The Doctor snorted. You've never been pleased to see me, Leivos. What do you want?
The navy mind stiffened further. I was sent to offer greetings from the Council, Theta. You may have spent your lives trotting around the universe, consorting with all sorts of low creatures, but for some reason they still have need of you.
I should've known. The Doctor's mind darkened, frustration mixing with disdain and a small, hidden sense of hurt. So, what does the Council want this time?
It is not for us to speak of here, Theta. Leivos sniffed. Happy as our world might be without you, consider this your summons back to Gallifrey. The Council will be watching your timeline. Do not make them wait too long. With that, he receded, and the Doctor was once again left alone with Rose.
It seems we should be going. With barely that amount of warning, Rose found herself opening tired eyes to find the Doctor frowning into space, his hands still cradling her head. The fire had dimmed while they were in the Matrix, and she could only just trace the lines of his face.
She spoke softly, loathe to break the tense silence of the room. "Doctor?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes." He lowered his hands abruptly. "Was that helpful?"
"Yeah, I s'pose—might take a bit for me to absorb all that, but it's good to know more."
"Right." He was still staring into space, and Rose took his hands gently. He blinked and looked down at her, his eyes glinting in the firelight.
"Doctor, are you sure you're all right?"
His answering smile barely deserved the name. "Oh, I'm quite all right. Nothing for you to worry about, I'm sure."
Rose snorted. "It's you. Of course I'm going to worry."
His eyes softened in the dim golden glow, and he raised their clasped hands to kiss her knuckles. "There's no need, Rose."
He held her hands closer, but she frowned as she watched him retreat into his mind. "Doctor, please. Just talk to me. It's not good for you to hold everything in."
His eyebrows rose. "Now, that's not something that I've often been accused of."
"Oh, I'm not denying that you talk plenty. You just hardly ever say anything."
He watched her steadily, a small smile on his face. "Ever inquisitive, aren't you?" At her shrug and nod, he sighed and slumped back into the couch, pulling Rose close as he did so. "It's never a good thing when the Council summons me. I'm not exactly a favorite on Gallifrey—no matter how many times they elect me President—and they only ever call on me when they can't think of any other option."
Rose blinked. "Wait, they elected you President?"
"Oh, a couple times. Of course, I did the best I could to get out of it, and the Council still hasn't forgiven me entirely."
"Of course." Rose shook her head, the pounding in her temples growing by the moment. Everything she had learned today tumbled around in her head, and it felt like her skull would split from the pressure. The Doctor had pulled her into his side as he leaned back, and she found herself resting comfortably against his chest. She lifted her head a little as a thought came to her. "Doctor, Leivos said something—he kept calling you Theta."
The Doctor smiled into her hair, his hands brushing soothingly against her golden locks. "Ah, yes. I was wondering if you'd caught that. It's not my name, if that's what you were wondering. More of an old school nickname—I wasn't exactly fond of it at the time."
"M'kay." She curled in closer to him, resting her head against his shoulder.
He laughed a little, enjoying the almost feline way she cuddled up to him. "Get some rest, Rose. Direct transfer isn't exactly an easy way of learning for non-Time Lords. Your head must be splitting about now."
She grumbled a soft agreement, her eyes slipping shut as she drifted into sleep. The Doctor held her close, his eyes reflecting the dim light of the dying fire.
When she woke several hours later, the fire had gone out, but his arms were still wrapped around her.
As he spoke, Rose could hear the smile in his soft voice. "Feel better?"
She smiled and tucked herself further into him. "Lots, thanks."
His lips brushed against her hair. "I'm glad."
She bit her lip as she thought over their encounter in the Matrix. "Doctor?"
"What did Leivos mean, that the Council will be watching your timeline?"
He sighed and sent a mental command to the TARDIS. The fire roared back to life, bathing the room in flickering golden light. "The trouble with Time Lords—and my, that sounds like a children's book, doesn't it?—is that we can go for decades without seeing each other. Centuries, even. It makes temporally adjacent communication rather difficult if we can put off heading back to the old homestead for a century and yet still arrive on time. If the Council calls for a full assembly, though, they keep a close eye on the timelines of all those who are summoned. It ensures that we actually come when called." He grimaced. "All I need is a collar, really. Woof."
She sighed into the crook of his neck, absently noting his shiver. "So you've got to head back."
He nodded, tightening his arms around her. "Soon, I'm afraid. I won't be able to help you as much as I had wished."
She lifted her head, staring straight into his eyes. "Doctor, you've done plenty." She smiled crookedly. "It might take me a bit to digest everything you gave me, but it'll help. I'm not flying blind anymore."
The Doctor's eyes traced over her face, memorizing it carefully. "I wish I could take you with me, and damn the consequences. Do you have any idea what you've given me?" She shrugged uncomfortably, and he gave her a gentle kiss. "You've given me hope. No matter what happens to me, I'll survive, and I'll find you."
She bit her lip and blinked back tears. "You will. And then I'll find you."
He stared into the distance for a moment, his blue-green eyes focused on something she would never see. "That you will." He reached down and kissed her again, tracing her lips with his tongue gently. She moaned and opened her mouth to him, and he smiled into the kiss as he wrapped his arms yet more closely around her. When they finally broke apart, she was panting and even he was looking a little breathless.
She sat up reluctantly, shivering once she was no longer wrapped in the Doctor's embrace. She glanced over at him and sighed, running her hand through her hair. "I don't want to go."
He smiled sadly. "And I don't want you to, but I doubt the other Time Lords would be as fond of you as I am."
A bitter smile quirked her lips. "Oh, I'm sure they wouldn't." She glanced down at her clasped hands. She'd known she'd have to leave him from the moment she accepted his offer, but she didn't expect it to be this soon.
A bell began ringing in the distance, its mournful tones echoing through the corridors of the TARDIS. Rose looked up curiously, then blanched as she caught a glimpse of the Doctor's face. He was paper-white, his eyes widened in shock and... fear? The Doctor was almost never afraid.
Rose shivered and took his hand in hers."Doctor? What is it? What's wrong?"
"That's... that's the Cloister Bell. It only rings if something has gone wrong on a cataclysmic scale." He turned back to her, his jaw tight. "I have to go, Rose, and you can't come with me." He glanced back into the hallway, where the Cloister Bell continued to ring. "It's time to go back to Gallifrey."
She swallowed heavily and rested a palm against his cheek, leaning up to kiss him. "I'll leave, then." When she stood, his eyes were still closed. "I know you can't remember me, but please—remember this. Stay safe. Please."
He met her eyes gravely and nodded, glancing over at the door when a thump sounded. He smiled wryly. "Looks like the TARDIS has been preparing for you."
A small messenger bag rested there, and when Rose opened it she gasped. Her battered satchel and worn leather suitcase were sitting at the bottom of a space that was at least the size of a small broom closet. A familiar leather wallet was sitting in the front pocket of the bag, and Rose smiled as she opened it to find it blank.
Psychic paper. Now this would be useful. She'd been scraping by with whatever currency Mickey had been able to get her from Torchwood's archives, and she was running low on tradable jewelry. She smiled slightly. Her last few years in Pete's world, the tabloids had insisted she was a shopaholic. She had done a lot of shopping, but only in preparation for her travels. Gems and precious metals were tradable almost everywhere, even if it was as a snack... now that had been an odd planet.
The Doctor stood next to her and cleared his throat, and she glanced over to see him fiddling with something in his pocket. "Yeah?"
"You might find this useful." He pulled out whatever it was, and Rose found herself looking at a slender silver pen-like device with a red apparatus at the top.
She stared at at, then glanced up at him. "Is that...?"
"My sonic screwdriver, yes. I've been meaning to make a new one for a while now, and it has its uses." He grinned faintly. "Its many, many uses."
"But I can't take this! What if you need it?"
The Doctor waved a hand airily. "Oh, I can whip one up in a jiffy—the TARDIS keeps all the parts on hand for me." He looked down and met her eyes soberly. "And if I can't go with you, at least I can give you this much."
Rose flung her arms around him, attempting to ignore the heavy toll of the Cloister Bell, still ringing in the background. "Thank you. For everything."
He held her tightly to him, and she felt his smile against her cheek. "Anything for you, Rose."
She nodded miserably and stepped back, hoisting the bigger-on-the-inside messenger back over her head and straightening her shoulders.
It was time to go, and they both knew it. With one last smile at the Doctor, Rose closed her eyes and concentrated. A crackling schism formed in front of her, and she opened eyes that were blazing gold and stepped through. The tear sealed itself after she vanished, and the Doctor closed his eyes.
When he opened them a few minutes later, he frowned. What was he doing in the library? Leivos had been quite clear about him going to Gallifrey as quickly as possible, and the Cloister Bell was making it deafeningly obvious that this wasn't yet another of the Council's games. With a shrug, he headed off purposefully for the control room.
It was time to go home.
Author's note: And that's the end of this installment! I've already got the sequel mostly written, so I'll start posting that very soon. Keep an eye out for Orbiting Home. The Doctor may have had to burn the land and boil the sea, but the sky is still his to explore...