"So," said Rose as they exited the building through a throng of other challengers. "Is there some sort of…point you're trying to make here?"
"Whatever do you mean?" asked the Doctor, nonchalantly taking her hand.
"It's just…" Rose glanced back at the pack of hopefuls, who were now following some distance behind them. "We could have taken a transport, and we wouldn't have that lot behind us. Seems like maybe there's a point."
"No, no point. Well, not really," he said, tugging on one ear. "Maybe a little one."
"Stick with me, baby, I'm the fella you came in with?" she asked him with a playful grin.
"Something like that," he said, smiling back.
She bumped him with her shoulder. "You're so full of it," she teased. "Admit it—you got caught up in the whole thing."
"I did not! What whole thing?"
"The whole honor-and-glory, proving yourself thing."
The Doctor snorted. "I don't need to prove myself, not to these ridiculous people anyway."
"Uh-huh," said Rose, clearly not convinced. "And the fact that I had to stop you from dueling Mr. Head-Honor-and-Glory-Himself was just…what? All in a day's work?"
"I would have won, you know," said the Doctor, pouting a little.
Rose rolled her eyes. "Of course you would have won," she said, and a smile bloomed on his face. "You'd have skewered him and then felt really bad about it later. Why'd you think I stopped you?"
"Expediency? Pacifism?" He paused and then added, in a slightly deeper voice, "Curiosity?"
Rose's cheeks pinked up a little. "Well, sure," she said, clearing her throat, "some of that, too."
The Doctor's eyebrows rose slightly. "Yeah?" he said, one corner of his mouth curving upward. "Wait, which one?"
She just tilted her head and smiled at him, catching the tip of her tongue between her teeth, and he adjusted his grip on her hand so that their fingers could interlace.
"So why'd they go all…Cassandra?" she asked after a moment's silence. "I mean, they weren't like that before, right? Wait, is this where Cassandra got it from? The whole pure-human thing?"
"Well…" said the Doctor thoughtfully. "Sometimes a big disaster will leave these sorts of odd cultural quirks. Still, I think it's on its way out, for the most part. Like I said before, timelines can be surprisingly resilient. As for Cassandra, well, she's from very, very far in the future, so it's probably not related. At least, I don't think so. But give it another hundred years or so, I think everything will be back to the way it should be."
Rose was quiet for a moment. "So what you're saying," she said at last, "is that, once again, we didn't quite make it to the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire?"
The Doctor growled at her. "We are not, NOT going to try again."
Rose just laughed and swung their joined hands.
"So we'll just be in here, then," called the Doctor to the group of young men following them as he and Rose stepped into the TARDIS. "See you soon, eh?" He closed the doors.
Rose giggled. "You're terrible," she said, swatting at his chest.
He just grinned at her.
"So, um," she said, taking a step closer to him. A half-smile was playing across her lips.
He waited, watching her.
She bit her lip.
"What?" he asked, his hearts beating faster. He wondered if she was going to kiss him again.
God, he could still taste her.
"I was just wondering," said Rose, reaching a hand toward his chest, "what's with the, uh, bling?" She gestured to the white challenger's pendant that he was still wearing, her lips twitching.
"Oh," said the Doctor, blowing out an explosive breath. He shook his head to clear it. "Right, I forgot about that." He pulled the pendant of over his head and looked down at it for a moment.
It sparkled in his hand, reflecting the glow of the console light. He ran his thumb over the top of it and thought, for a moment, about traditions.
He looked up at Rose, whose bright eyes were still dancing with amusement.
"Here you go." He tossed the pendant to her lightly. "A little souvenir for you."
"Thanks," she said, surprised, as she caught it in midair. She pulled it over her head. "Hmm, the cord's a bit long."
"Here," said the Doctor, stepping behind her. "Hold still." He pulled out the sonic screwdriver and used it to cut through the ribbon. He then pulled it up and tied the ends in a bow at the nape of her neck, his fingers brushing her skin. She shivered.
"There you are," he said softly.
Rose tucked her chin to look down at the pendant. "It's pretty," she said with a smile. "Might be too fancy to wear every day, though."
"No, you should wear it," he said, and something in his voice made her look up at him. His eyes were warm and dark and just a little possessive, and Rose felt a blush rise to her cheeks. "It suits you," he added quietly.
"So, ah, we gonna take off?" asked Rose, to break the awkward silence.
"Not quite yet," said the Doctor, stepping away to adjust the view screen.
"What's the hold up?"
"Well," said the Doctor, drawing out the word. "In twenty-six minutes, your little band of ardent admirers is going to try to break through those doors." He gestured to the screen where a group of young men could be seen milling around the outside of the TARDIS. "So I thought that maybe we'd make some popcorn and enjoy the show." He grinned wickedly at her.
Rose's mouth gaped open and then she started to laugh. "Oh, that's genius! I love it! Twenty-six minutes?" she asked, bouncing on her toes.
"You get the popcorn; I'm going to change into my pajamas and fuzzy slippers." She skipped out of the control room. "Make the real stuff? Not the microwave kind? Oh, and we should make hot chocolate, too, yeah?" she called back to him.
The Doctor watched her go. "Anything you want," he said softly.
Later, when the popcorn was almost done, the Doctor leaned back onto the jump seat and flung an arm around Rose's shoulders. "So," he said, "how did you like the Mostly Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire?"
Rose took a sip from her mug and watched a particularly stubborn young man try to pick the lock on the TARDIS doors. (The ship didn't seem to appreciate it much and kept jolting him with a mild electrical shock. Still, Rose figured that she had to admire his persistence.)
"It was OK, I guess," she said finally. She leaned back into him and rested her head on his chest. "Kind of boring in parts, though. All in all, I guess it was a nice place to visit, but I'm glad I'm not being forced to live there." She grinned. "Besides, it's nice to…" she trailed off.
"To what?" he asked.
"Y'know," she said, glancing up at him and blushing a little. "Be home, I guess."
He looked down at her, at the way she fit perfectly into the space under his arm. "Yep."
They sat in happy silence for a few moments before Rose bit her lip and reached over to run a finger over the front of his lapel.
"So…where are we going next?"