The light in the nursery was on.
Rose Tyler paused outside the door, hand brushing lightly against the antique knob. The faceted glass was like ice beneath her fingers. It was cold in the wee hours of a November morning. Moreso than usual. The furnace was on the fizz again-along with half of the lights-and the cozy fire that had burned to simmering coals downstairs did nothing to dispel the chill lingering in the upper floors.
She wasn't sure what woke her—what bright thought had twisted like a dancing flame into wintery dreams of far off places lost in memory and Time. Something. Some small thing, extinguishing any hope of settling back into sweet reverie and instead leading her up the long, winding staircase with only a single candle to light her way. She'd searched for a torch earlier, but it wasn't where she'd left it. Not that she was surprised.
She shivered now, wishing she'd kept the warm, lamb's wool jumper on—his jumper, the blue one he'd taken a fancy to during one of their more memorable trips to the islands. Something about the pattern of the knit reminded him of a home far way. He never really explained. She'd grown accustomed to that after so many years.
She'd rolled the cuffs three times over earlier, but the sleeves were still too long and it hung nearly to her knees. It was his after all. It smelled like cedar and lavender and… him. But before the hearth, wrapped in a tartan blanket, she had been both warm and content and had folded the jumper into a pillow on which to rest her weary head. Had it not been for that sound, somewhere in the house, she'd have stayed there the night and called on Angus, the estate's caretaker, to tinker with the cantankerous furnace come morning. The old house was having one over on her again. After all these years, she'd have thought they'd have replaced all the circuits, worked out all the wiring idiosyncrasies. Evicted all the ghosts. But no, that would require completely dismantling what had come before and it seemed a shame to tear away old hopes just to make things more convenient. More modern. More dependable. She sighed.
The old house whispered secrets down drafty halls. At night she could hear the stories. Or imagined she could. He did. She knew he did. But he rarely told her what he heard. What cool footprints were left on his heart. His single, warm all-too-human heart. Some things… were best left unspoken. For all he talked, for all he could gabble on about every bright and shining thing in the universe, some words never escaped his lips. His eyes were another story. In them she saw the past… and the future. And too many memories of both to count. Fire and ice and an inexplicable, gentle rage that burned with an unfathomable passion. His eyes. That's what she missed the most. All the stars in all the galaxies. All the sorrow of a stolen life.
She turned the knob gently, heard it click as the bolt rolled over, and pushed open the door. The glimmer of light that had edged the frame now filled the room with a soft, warm glow. The plaster walls were bare, save untold litres of light weight filler that he'd mixed with his own proprietary blend of something that looked like frozen custard and smelled like burnt onions. Pints of stain the colour of amber stood in a lonely little pyramid on one side of the room. They had never painted. That would be his fault. The ancient house's interior defied all the laws of Euclidian—not to mention Gallifreyan—geometry, and had nearly driven him mad until she'd likened the inexplicable space to the Tardis, his ship. His Time Ship.
When all else failed, appealing to the part of him that was not human often worked and anything that fueled his delight about the growing Tardis in the stable was a good thing. So the room was a mathematical mystery—so was the as yet dimensionally unstable ship that could not decide from one moment to the next if it were December or June. But that didn't mean it wasn't perfect, just the same. Or would be, one day. Just so. It made him smile. That lit her world more brightly than the sun and, like his eyes, was something she missed.
After that he promised to be done in a jiffy, put a final skim coat over the plaster, washed it all down, aired out the warm, south-facing room, and lined up his paint brushes like Michelangelo preparing to paint the Sistine Chapel—something he claimed to have first-hand knowledge of. No doubt he did. Twice over. That was before other distractions and then…
Her gaze fell upon the handcrafted cradle. That he had finished. And it was beautiful and alien, carved from a single block taken off an ancient tree lightning had nearly destroyed in a freak winter storm years before. Thunder and lightning and snow. She'd watched that oncoming storm from the warm safety of the house, awaiting its approach while he dashed about in the hail, sliding sideways on patches of ice, struggling to shoo chickens—flame feathered Araucanas and snow white Sultans—into the coop, and landing on his skinny arse in the process. She'd never seen a man be so indignant about bruises. The time it took to heal was just another reminder of his altered physiology. Another reminder that he was everything he had always been… yet not.
Rose ran her fingers over the cradle bonnet. It was exquisite, the intertwining lines giving it the appearance of a woven basket, ingeniously hung like some delicate Christmas ornament on a display stand. He did so love Christmas and this… It was ever so much a reflection of him. Elegant. Inspired. But empty. An empty cradle in a cold, unfinished nursery.
Hot wax dripped onto her fingers and Rose passed the candle to her other hand as she reached to flick the light switch off.
Across the room, blue drapes twisted and she startled in spite of herself. That window had never been fixed either and though the cozy room faced south and was warm enough by day, the November wind was cold. Storms had been worse of late. She'd been meaning to ask him why, suspecting that he was preoccupied by the same thing. Suspecting also that he had yet to work it out and that would not set well with him. No, not at all. Sleet tapped against the open casement now, icy pins falling from a sad sky as bitter as the memories that burned deep inside her. Not bitter at him. No… She glanced back at the cradle and closed her eyes briefly. Not all the memories were sad.
Rose shivered. What a night to have the furnace give out. Had she not been awakened, though, she'd have not have seen the light. Had she not seen the light, she'd have not found the open window. The old place had enough problems. Water damage—more water damage—would have been most unwelcome.
As she pushed aside the drapes, pale light devoid of any heat slid at angles through morning fog. Dawn. The sky boiled grim and grey above the flat, featureless landscape. At times she regretted having chosen such a remote location for their home. But she'd learned to see beauty in things and places she might never had. That had been one of his gifts to her. Even here, on a frigid morning with a heavy Scottish mist rolling in off the moors. She turned her face into the cold rain and waited for the sun.
Below, as the mist parted and the morning whispered promises of better tomorrows, she could just make out the shadowy silhouette of a man. No stranger, this. Well, no stranger than he'd ever been, she supposed. Not that that had kept her from falling in love with him… marrying him—when he finally thought to ask that was. After all, he wasn't going anywhere, was he? Not anymore. Not since the old Tardis, that ship of ages and wonder, had flown away with… with the man he bore the image of. The man he was… but not quite the man he had become.
She looked down on him now, wondering what he would do. Anticipating his responses was chancy at best, especially when he was as preoccupied as he had been of late. So there he was, standing in the mist, looking up at her while she looked down on him, and neither of them said a word. Truth told, it gave her the willies when he did that, standing like some forlorn Heathcliff gazing intently upon Catherine's window, his brown hair whipping about his face in the wind and the rain. His large, dark eyes like smouldering embers. He was here all the way from London, but there was no sign of the blue Jeep he favoured. Charming. Her father was going to be so cross if another one had been… misplaced. At least he was wearing a coat. Though, standing there in the frost-covered mud, under a sky now tipping down freezing rain, he'd have ruined another pair of trainers and put himself at the risk of pneumonia. Again.
It had been months since she'd seen him. Months since the he'd departed on his ill-fated mission to rewrite Time, and the fledgling Tardis had plummeted from the sky like a blazing comet into her parents' garden some 400 miles away. Talked to him, yes- about snow white swans and fireflies and summer bonfires and Christmas, always Christmas-but seen him? No. Nor talked about the foolish desire that had consumed him, burning away what little common sense he had to begin with. They kept missing one another—the proverbial ships passing in the night. One torch-bearer failing to pass the light on to the next. That he was outside the window at all was a good sign, though. Wasn't it? Her candle licked out in a rush of wind. The storm had yet to burn out.
He turned away.
She leaned out the window and cupped her hands to her mouth, the candle stub slipping from her chilled fingers. "Hold on a tick! I'm coming down…"
She ran. Down the long, cold hall she went, round and round the twisting staircase. The last time she'd run so fast through this house she'd had a werewolf after her. All right not exactly this house, but a house as much like it to be the same house in a world as much like this one to be her home. A world in another universe.
It had always puzzled the Doctor why she wanted to live here. It puzzled her as well and she had to admit that first night she'd been cold with fear and ever so grateful for his warmth. Even if he did laugh at her, and howl at the moon simply because he could and the sound echoed for miles and made every dog in the vicinity join in. But she'd never regretted it. All right, the time the kitchen floor fell in and both she and the sink—spraying water that might well have come straight from the arctic-landed in the cellar hadn't been the best. Oh, and that other time when they awoke that awful thing that the Doctor had deduced had been slumbering for a few centuries in a tunnel under a boarded up loo and she'd been up to her waist in forgotten bones—and other refuse. Oh, that time that he slid off of the roof during a snow storm while putting out a chimney fire, missed the hay stack below the eves and she thought he was dead. But aside from those times. And now there was the issue with the furnace, and her feet were cold, and her breath hung in the air, and her heart beat wildly in her chest because he was here…
The house was full of history. And mystery. And memories. Just as he was. She had wanted to add their own memories, wanted to stitch their time together into the fabric of a life filled with laughter and love and every insane adventure—because that was life with him. That had always been life with him. An adventure. A mad, mad adventure. For all he had changed, he had remained the same, and she had long ago made her choice. She had chosen this life. She had chosen him. She had chosen to eat marmalade with her fingers and serve bananas with every meal. But some memories were still too painful… some stories whispered too sadly, little flames like tears reflected on ice. She heard them, but he felt them deep inside, too deeply for words. Inside him raged a storm as terrifying and as beautiful as she remembered the cold, burning heart of the Tardis being. And he had run away. Away from grief. Away from her. Away from the empty cradle in the nursery.
She flung open the back door, ready to leap into his arms. Pull him in and put him in front of the warm fire. Take away the muddy shoes, the soaking coat. Wrap herself into his arms. Put out one flame… and light another, letting that cleansing fire put an end to the ice that clung to both of their souls.
But he was nowhere to be seen.
She leaned against the doorframe, hugging herself against the bitter cold.
"Oh, Doctor…" she said softly. "Don't you know it's time to come home?"
She didn't cry. Not this time. Somehow, she thought he might be doing it for both of them , burning tears falling down his winter-kissed face, and she accepted that his having gotten this far would have to be enough.