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Habits

Chapter Text

There were some things she’d allow the Doctor to know. These ‘some things’ were most things, really. She took her tea with milk, no sugar. She preferred digestives to custard creams, and bourbons to digestives. She wasn’t a natural blonde. She’d had a punk phase in Year 9 that she would sell her soul to bleach from living memory. Charles the Second was her favourite king, Elizabeth the First her favourite queen, closely followed by the formidable monarch’s mother. She liked peonies more than roses. Toast was only acceptable if it was the colour of coal, eggs were only acceptable fried (“Sunny side up!” was the refrain of their mornings), and baked beans and ketchup went perfectly together and nothing would ever convince her otherwise.

These fragments of her were enough for him. They were nice and clean and pretty and he believed them, he believed in their completeness, with an undeserved and innate trust that came as easily as breath.

What he didn’t know was that his knowledge of her wasn’t organic. It didn’t find its roots in their first awkward murmurs over morning tea, broaden its trunk with laughs in the galley, sprout branches with each passing adventure and leaves with every familiar quip. Their hugs and smiles and affectionate words didn’t bring blossoms to its boughs, however much she wished they would. But he thought they did, and that was what mattered.

Rather, his knowledge of her was a minefield. With a deliberate softness, she’d led him, her blindfolded Doctor, around the danger. He ventured too close sometimes, but no matter. She could always guide him back to the proper path with an evasive remark or a glib little joke, and the child in him was all too easy to divert, to distract, and the blindfold would tighten.

It wasn’t that she liked lying (“A lie by omission,” she told herself, “is not really a lie at all.”), but telling the truth would do nobody any good. He would pity her, and she would be pitied, and the golden goddess, the Bad Wolf, would be reduced to a whimpering child in the eyes of the only surviving Lord of Time. If now he envisaged her as a Vermeer, then reality would warp her into a Picasso. In spite of her shallow justifications and excuses, guilt had still managed to lodge itself in her throat like a poison.

How could she do this to him? It was a question she asked herself frequently, mostly at night when she hadn’t the entire universe at her disposal, nor any immediate distractions to hand. In the quiet and the darkness, they berations of her mind could echo so much louder. Nothing could drown it out, not even sleep, and one thought, just one thought, rose above the din. It always managed to rise above the din: how much longer could she keep doing this?

He was good to her, so very good to her, and gave her more of him than she suspected he’d ever given anyone. In return, she gave him crumbs.

There were good days and bad days. On the good days, she believed her own acting almost as much as the Doctor did. Her smiles were real and her laughs were real and the snippets she would give him of her life before his arrival in it weren’t shrouded in the smoke that she’d usually put there. His eyes were brighter on those days. On some level, Rose thought, he knew. His subconscious had picked up on something that the rest of him had failed to.

But the good days were few and far between. More often than not, his smiles were real, but her reciprocal ones were half-baked, appeasing. She would listen to him well enough. She would enjoy traversing the planets he took her to. She would enjoy saving them even more. But still, there lay a fog above it all. She had no interest in exploring what lay within it. And thus, her lies continued.

It was her lies that had carried her, on unsteady feet, to the safety of her bedroom that night. Her journey was accompanied by a hazy floral breeze of French perfume, still lingering from Madame de Pompadour’s wandering down those same corridors, and that only made the tightening in her chest sting more. She wasn’t sure what she felt, exactly. It wasn’t jealousy. No, ‘jealousy’ felt juvenile. And it wasn’t betrayal either, because betrayal required a promise and he’d never promised her anything. It was something deeper and rawer and more visceral than that and, still, that bloody perfume stuck to her nostrils and-

And didn’t that take her back. Somewhere in her memory, compressed into near silence, was a sixteen year old Rose, all silver hoop earrings and hoodies and off-brand trainers, shunting her way along Peckham High Street. She didn’t have much, just the clothes on her back, really, and a crumpled fiver in her pocket. But she was going to see the man who was most certainly, most definitely, most absolutely, the love of her life, Mister Jimmy Stone. His asbestos-ridden bedsit was no fairytale castle, but he was her prince charming (albeit with greasy hair and more tattoos than skin). It wasn’t the perfect Cinderella story, but then whose was? Did it ever say in the fairytales whether Prince Charming was any good at monogamy?

She was resigned to the fact that she wouldn’t be the only one there. She knew to expect the sickly artificial vanilla perfume of some other girl he’d dragged home from the pub as she pushed past the door, but that didn’t stop her hoping. One day, she thought, he’ll change. One day she would be enough.

Four years on, and she was back at square one. Different man, same damn cycle.

She sighed heavily, allowing the tension to drain from her frame. No, that wasn’t fair. She and Jimmy were supposed to be exclusive. She and the Doctor were… Well, she didn’t know, and she suspected he didn’t either, but Reinette’s presence had set in stone their status as ‘absolutely, never, ever.’

As her door closed behind her, she slumped unceremoniously onto her bed, shoes and all. It hurt. There were no two ways about it. It wasn’t the sobbing, weeping kind of sadness, the kind that made doing any kind of anything impossible, the kind that cut right to the quick, but a accumulative dull ache. Each little stress sharpened it just a bit more, the sting of the psychograft, tug of the manacles, the reality check that was Sarah Jane, the whirring of clockwork droids, and as it sharpened so too did her need to alleviate it.

She tried to resist, and much of the time she succeeded. Usually, all she needed was to remember Jackie’s heartbreak (disappointment? Shame?) as her sleeve slipped, by sheer, stupid accident, past her seventeen-year-old self’s wrist, revealing the thin white lines sliced into it, and she would be galvanised into disgraced inaction. Though her fingers itched with the need to do something, anything that would make herself hurt just a little less, anything that would quiet the cacophony in her mind, she could manage not to. Sometimes.

But some straws were heavy, and some camels had really, really weak backs. And sometimes, just sometimes, she relented. Her hand reached for her draw, and it pulled out a pen knife. Briefly, she twiddled it between her fingers, cool metal against warm skin. Then, she pushed up the blade.

Though that age old adage came to mind in the dead of night and the cold light of day, ‘an ugly truth is better than a beautiful lie’, Rose was inclined to disagree. Beautiful lies changed nothing. Ugly truths could change everything.

Chapter Text

Life was easier as a littlun, Rose realised. More regimented, of course, but easier. At 7AM, Jackie would yank her, floppy with sleep, out of bed. By 7:10, a no-more-conscious-than-at-7 toddler would be plonked at the breakfast table and force-fed some cornflakes (most of which ended up on her jammies, and a good deal of which ended up on her less-than-impressed mother). By 7:30, she’d been negotiated into some non-cereal-coated clothes. By 7:40, she’d almost been convinced that her toothbrush was not about to murder her. By 7:45, it finally touched a tooth (“One small step for a tooth, one great leap for tooth-kind”). And by 7:50, they were out of the door, plodding off to nursery.

As was customary, ‘nursery’ entailed chucking an army of kids, so plagued by various bacterium that they may as well have been petri dishes, into a vaguely musty church hall, and allowing them to run riot under the unwatchful eye of lavender-steeped old ladies. The morning would pass like a orange-squash-fuelled dream. The afternoon, like a packed-lunch-fuelled nightmare. It was all primary colours and plastic, and their spirits were not lowered by grazed knees and playground spats. It was only as the day’s end drew near that some semblance of calm was established.

Come storytime, they would dutifully tuck their too-big cushions under too-small arms, and plonk them down onto the parquet, and then themselves. Snotty faces would tip upward, watery eyes would widen. The clock would tick, and pages would rustle in a wrinkled hand, and then “Once upon a time…” would be drawled, and the regiment of toddlers were, all at once, captivated.

There was always a smile in the teacher’s eyes as she read; it was a smile that, as a child, Rose didn’t really understand. But she realised now what it was. There was a magic in it, a wizardry, to hold an entire room in the palm of one’s hand, eliciting laughs and gasps and horror and delight. The roar of playtime had long since been forgotten. After all, the Big Bad Wolf was knocking, and they had to learn the three little pigs’ fate.

Now, at twenty years old, she felt like she was three. Crammed onto the jumpseat, between a poised Reinette and a slouched Mickey, she could practically smell that old church hall, feel the crick in her neck, hear the turn of the page as the Wolf huffed and puffed and blew houses down. The Doctor, who was appearing to her by the second more and more like the elderly women making ends meet at the nursery, leant against the console, stained blue from the light it cast. That same smile rose in his eyes as he spoke.

“So, crew,” he began, and Mickey rolled his eyes. Rose steeled herself for a ramble. “Crew? Gang? Squad? Squadron? No, I like ‘gang’. Very ‘Scooby Doo’. ‘Let’s split up gang!’ Ooh, I do like that.” He grinned. “Right, gang. We promised Madame de Pompadour the stars and the stars she shall get.” Reinette sat up impossibly straighter at that, and offered an encouraging nod. The Doctor’s focus was now entirely upon her. “New New New New New New New New New Earth.”

Rose blanched, heart slowing to a dull thud, but he didn’t notice. His gaze had not drifted from Madame de Pompadour. “New New New New New New New New New Versailles, to be specific. Ninth since the original. After the seventh, the Planetary Establishment Agency had the bright idea of shunting them closer to the stars to make them, y’know,” he paused to contemplatively nod his head. “Jazzier.”

“Jazzier?” Mickey echoed.

“Jazzier.” The Doctor brightened, then, as he tended to with an audience for his lectures. “Anyway, Baroque goes out of fashion, but what’s Versailles without a palace, eh? So, they had a little brainstorm.” He abruptly cut off his speech to slam down a lever, hurling the TARDIS through the vortex. The ship groaned and roared and swung from side to side, but Reinette maintained her posture in spite of the turbulence. Her entrancement was unwavering, and her dignity was unfailing. “Outside those doors, Madame de Pompadour, is the result.”

Her eyes flickered to the doors in question, trepidation piercing into the mask of assuredness which she usually wore so tightly affixed, and she bowed her head. Her voice was soft when she spoke. “A new Versailles?” She drew in a breath, audible in the silence that greeted her, and it was slow and measured. The rings on her hand glistened as she wrung them together.

The Doctor hesitated, then propelled himself from the console to the jumpseat. When Mickey saw this, he noticeably straightened and, unbidden, a smirk to bloomed on his face. He began extending his leg to form a not-so-subtle booby trap. His plan was foiled when, in perfect synchronicity, Rose slapped and the Doctor kicked the offending appendage away.

On those thin legs of his, the Doctor lowered himself down and knelt before Reinette. Despite his proximity, or maybe because of it, her gaze remained on the ground, and he sighed knowingly. In a gesture that seemed oddly intimate, he placed one hand on her knee and the other beneath her chin, tilting her head upwards to meet his eye. “It’s new, and that’s frightening, Reinette,” he began, voice little more than a whisper. “But I promise this; I would never take you anywhere that you isn’t safe. Never. Never ever ever.” She seemed to relax a fraction, offering a tiny smile. Emboldened, he tried for humour. “Can’t risk the uncrowned queen of France, can I?” Reinette chuckled. Mickey was stony-faced. Rose winced, but mercifully no-one noticed. “So c’mon, let’s get you onto a new planet, hm?”

Standing, he offered her a hand. She smiled with a quiet gratitude and took it, his cold fingers against her warm softness, and gracefully rose to her silk-clad feet. His grip didn’t loosen once she was upright. Gently, he led her to the doors, then placed her fingers upon the handle. “I think this one’s yours, Reinette.” She turned to smile at him, and he turned to smile at her, and for the briefest and brightest moment she was not Madame de Pompadour, but Reinette Poisson, a girl in a fireplace who’d dreamed of the stars. She was dignified and radiant and afraid, but excited, too. She was so very excited to be there, amongst the impossible. Gaze still on the Doctor, she opened the door. “Et voila.”

 

---

 

Reinette had retired to bed, too exhausted from the day’s events and too accustomed to early nights in court to rendezvous any further, leaving Mickey, Rose and the Doctor sat in the thick silence of the TARDIS galley. The lights were dimmed, and the quiet hung heavy and rich and stagnant, surpassing awkward and arriving straight at hellish. Despite this, they were loth to break it. To break it would upset some unspoken equilibrium, and it was only that equilibrium which stopped everything from falling apart.

But, as with all fragile things, it was doomed to break sometime. And, as with all idiots, it was Mickey’s job to do the breaking.

“Twice in a row, mate,” he snapped. “Twice, you leave us to die to save madame. Twice.”

The excursion hadn’t gone to plan. Well, it had gone half to plan. Two of them had a great time, two of them almost got murdered, so exactly half to plan. Still, Reinette was happy. The Doctor, if it weren’t for the silent treatment he was on the receiving end of, was reasonably content. Mickey and Rose, on the other hand, were not. The former was enraged. The latter was resigned. He hated that. He really, really hated that. An upset Mickey he could cope with. An upset Rose was… Well, it was affront to rightness.

But really, was it his fault that a murderous court jester had been on the loose? Some things couldn’t be planned for, and he thought that was definitely amongst them. Anyway, there was no harm done. Everyone had got away unscathed.

Despite this, Mickey was apparently not finished ranting. “Ten seconds more and that possessed-”

“He wasn’t possessed. He was psychografted,” the Doctor interrupted, and Mickey’s frown did nothing to stop the verbal diarrhea that would inevitably follow. “It’s just bad planetary design, really. Rookie error. Replicate the Earth, replicate Versailles. ‘Whoopsie daisy, we’ve replicated all the people too. Whoopsie daisy, all the people are dead. Whoopsie daisy, lots of consciousnesses floating about, not many bodies. Whoopsie daisy, electrostatic atmosphere. Whoopsie daisy, psychografting left, right and center. Whoo-”

“Don’t get smart with me, Doc. I’ve seen ‘The Exorcist’. He was posses-”

“He was not!” the Doctor cried, turning imploringly to the room’s other occupant. “Rose, tell him.” She looked up at him, just a little, gave her head a little shake and stayed silent. His hearts thudded harder.

“He would’ve had Rose and me’s heads on spikes right about now if she hadn’t got us out of there. And don’t think it was easy, neither, cos he nearly had ‘er arm off before we got away. Show him your-” Mickey tugged at her sleeve, and Rose held it steadfastly in place. Her grip on the fabric was unyielding. Trying his luck, he tugged once again, and his questioning look was met with a warning glare. After the third try, he let sleeping dogs lie. She snatched back her wrist.

“It’s space, Mickey. It’s dangerous. Rose knows it. I do my best to keep her safe, and she knows that, too. What more can you ask of me?”

Mickey rolled his eyes so violently that, for a second, he feared his optic nerve would detach, and chanced a glance at his ex. Hers was on the floor. The onus was on him, then, to stand up for them. He drew in a sigh and spoke. “Maybe realise that me and Rose staying alive is a little bit more important than madame getting to try some Vol-au-Vents.”

Rose could practically hear the ticking of the Doctor’s mind in the silence that followed. Though her eyes were on the grating, not on his face, she could picture the affronted visage that would greet her should she look up, and just beyond her reach were the whispers in his head of ‘It wasn’t like that at all. Not at all. Not even slightly.’ Denial always was his downfall. Denial, but something else too. It was guilt. Raw and visceral and hungry for redemption, it was guilt. It plagued him, had done from “Run!”, if she were honest with herself. He was remorse made flesh, really, and the quiet gave him far too much freedom to linger on his failings. She couldn’t allow that. Reluctantly, she spoke.

“Leave it, Micks. It was her one trip. We didn’t need to give her PTSD.”

The Doctor grinned at her words. “Exactly. Thank you, Rose.” He turned to Mickey, gesturing to the blonde in question, and became impossibly more smug. “See, Rickey, Rose agrees with me.” That was that, then.

At his words, some kind of testosterone-fuelled staring competition seemed to begin. Unblinking stare met unblinking stare, and hush fell once more. It was broken only by the screech of chair legs on the floor.

Rose was already halfway out of the door when one of them spoke up.

“You alright, babes?”

“Early night.”

It was kinder to say that than the truth, after all.

Chapter Text

In the aqueous purgatory between sleep and waking, she hovered. Though weightless and formless, breath seemed to come easier without the burden of realness, all fluid and freedom, and the blessed silence in her mind that came with it birthed a peace unfamiliar to her, but oh so welcome. The universe beyond was only dampened light and buffered sound, one quiet step from the cocoon in which she rested. Still, she chose not to take that step. To take it would be to leave the oasis and fall to the flames, and the oasis was so much softer than the cataclysm and chaos consciousness promised. So she hovered.

“Not again, Rose. You can’t do this again.”

That was rude, she thought. Who was- was it Mickey?- to make demands of her, in her own dream, no less?

“What would your mum say, hm? Good old Jacks?”

Something loud, probably.

“And the Doctor, too? He’s an arse, Rose, but even he-”

If he was trying to wake her, he’d succeeded.

“Shu’ up, Micks,” she grumbled, a halfhearted attempt to silence her friend’s nonsensical monologue. “And switch off the lights, while you’re at it.” She drew in a breath, took a moment to murmur incomprehensibly, then snuggled back into her duvet (which, a more conscious Rose would have noticed, seemed much less substantial than normal.).

Her fingers were firmly crossed that he’d go away, not that he ever did before.

A lifetime ago, back at the Powell Estate, when the lazy bird had failed to catch the worm, he’d chuckle and quip and tug her upright, and promise that if she was up in five minutes time there might just be a cup of tea waiting for her in the kitchen. If he was feeling like quite the Casanova, bacon and eggs would be there, too, with a single rose beside it on special occasions. Love’s young dream, indeed. On some level, she thought his sincere but mundane attempts at saccharine sweetness were an apology. Sorry for not seeing Jimmy for what he was when she was too blind to. Sorry for not checking up on her enough. Sorry for not saving her from the worst of him. Sorry for not saving her, full stop. Just sorry. So he would wake her with a grin or laugh and hope she’d eventually be able to do the same.

But now, as he tried to rouse her from her rest, he sighed. He just sighed. The sound was not exasperated, nor was it even slightly self-indulgent, but utterly forlorn, and she wondered what about her lie-in could provoke such sorrow.

Rose’s curiosity got the better of her. She peeked an eye open.

Well, that was odd.

The TARDIS was, at heart, a very maternal creature. And such was her maternal instinct that there were three things she’d never, under any circumstances, allow her passengers to feel: hungry, cold, or unwelcome.

The issue of hunger she dealt with easily. Often, Rose had awoken to pancakes of mysterious origins on her bedside table, and the distinct lack of bananas upon them that told her they weren’t the Doctor’s doing. The cold was also not too taxing an issue. His ship, without fail, took care to ensure her heating was turned up high enough that Rose would wake up medium-rare (not that she complained, of course. Back at home, or what used to be home, Jackie would fastidiously check the thermostat for any adjustments, the slightest clockwise shift apparently cause for World War Three, and remind Rose that they weren’t, in fact, made of money. “Blankets will have to do!” was a familiar refrain).

Making her passengers feel welcome was a touch more complicated. It was difficult, after all, to give children of Earth a sense of belonging amongst the stars. So stubborn was their planet, its gravitational pull, that everything to its inhabitants, however innocuous, seemed impossibly alien. Rose took this in stride, far better than most. But still, familiarity beckoned, and the TARDIS was determined to give her a piece of home. That piece came in the form of her room, it turned out. All acid pink and plush, but infinitely soothing after a long day’s alien fighting. It was a perfect replica of that from the Powell Estate.

Which is why, when Rose awoke to Mickey’s rambling, it was odd. Because it wasn’t fuschia that greeted her, but white, made blue by fluorescent lighting. Not somewhere soft, warm, comforting, but cold, lifeless, and sterile.

It was the med-bay. She thrust herself upright, confusion dulling the burning in her wrist as she moved.

“Mickey, wha-” Her question was cut off by an unexpected bout of wooziness that left her briefly winded, and fragments of memories began to bleed through the haze.

“Careful, babes. I patched you up but… The TARDIS helped but…” He drew in a trembling breath. “I wasn’t really sure what to do and I wanted to ask you before I got the Doctor and-” His words tangled together, jolting and stopping and starting as though he’d never learned how to string them into sentences, and he looked imploringly at Rose. Her heart broke a little bit at the wateriness of his eyes.

“Slow down. What happened.”

“I, um…” he coughed. Then, in a gesture that was born more of subconscious need than conscious thought, he took the hand of her uninjured wrist. It shook a little when he continued. “I went to check on you. You said you were alright, but I know you, Rose, and I know when you’re not alright.”

“Mickey-” her voice was a warning, but it was one he did not heed. He was far too consumed by memories to do that.

“And, you were lying down, and I thought you were asleep. And for a second I thought ‘Oh, I got it wrong. She really was just getting an early night.’ But then I saw the blood, Rose, and I-” the words caught in his throat, almost as though he was gagging on them, and when he met her eyes she couldn’t tell whether it was anger or anguish burning within them. “You told me you’d stopped. You promised, Rose. You promised me.”

“Mickey, I can explain.”

“Can you, Rose? Really? Because if I’d been a couple of minutes later…” he squeezed her hand as though tethering her to him, to life, to something more real than the abyss she was bound and determined to hurl herself into. “You can’t do that to us. You’re Jackie’s only kid, Rose. You’re too important.”

On the final word, his voice cracked, and with it so too did Rose’s resolve. Heedless of her injury, she leant forward and drew him into her arms. That’s when the tears came. The thought flittered in her mind that it was odd how she, the patient, was comforting him, the makeshift nurse, but when he was so brazenly falling apart, how could she not? Rifling her fingers through his sparse hair, she waited for his breathing to calm before she spoke again.

“Listen Micks, I wasn’t trying to-” Though the sentence went unfinished, cut short by pride, the implication was obvious. He tried not to wince. “I was an idiot. I must’ve just, I dunno, pressed a bit too hard or somethin’. I didn’t mean to-”

Her quiet words were cut of by Mickey’s desperate ones. “Please, babe. Stay with me, yeah? In my room? Let me keep an eye on you, just for a while-” Rose tensed in his arms, and Mickey noticed. He was quick to mend his speech. “Nothing like that. I know you’ve only got eyes for ‘im, but…” Bravado slipping, as though it hadn’t already slipped, he breathed out a sigh then breathed out an explanation. “I worry, okay? Just for my peace of mind. I’d offer to stay in yours instead but it’s, uh, out of commission. Blood.”

The clarification was delivered so tactlessly that Rose had to stifle a laugh.

“What do you say?”

“If it’ll shut you up.”

“No shuttin’ me up, babes.”

After a brief silence, she spoke again. “No funny business, yeah?”

“Nah,” he promised. Then, he pulled back from their hug with a smirk and tapped her nose. “Unless you’re talking about my jokes, in which case, funny business 24/7!” Her only reply was to scrunch up her face. He smiled. Compliantly, she smiled too.

When it fell, and a frightened sorrow blossomed in her eyes, Mickey knew exactly what she needed him to say.

“I won’t tell the Doctor.”

She nodded, infinitely grateful for her friend and confidante.

Chapter Text

“Rose?” he called. “Ro-ose?”

Well, that was odd. He’d checked everywhere: her room, the galley, console room, library. There wasn’t a trace.

That was a lie, actually. A tiny, itsy-bitsy fib. There was a trace. But it was a nonsensical trace. A nontrace, if you will. Because it made no sense. Because Mickey, Mickey who not two days prior had been the pariah of Team TARDIS, Mickey the coward, Mickey-the-Idiot (™), should not have Rose’s scent lingering beyond his door. It must have been a fault with the ventilation system. Yes, that must have been it.

There was just one thing a broken ventilation system couldn’t explain. Why on Earth was Rose’s head now hanging out of that door?

He gulped. “Rose?”

“You alright? You shouted.” Her voice was crackling with dregs of sleep, and she dashed the same sleep from her eyes with impatient fingertips. He was ashamed to say the movement left him momentarily distracted. It was only the lift of her left eyebrow, a habit she’d borrowed from him, that drew his awareness back to the present.

“Um, yes. Right I did. No, sorry- ‘right you are’, that’s the phrase. Right. You. Are. Right you are. Righteroony. Right y-” The eyebrow climbed impossibly higher. “You weren’t in the Galley.”

She shook her head a little, as though unsettling the cobwebs within it. “Wha’?”

“Tea and toast,” he said. It took a second for him to realise the words had come out as a snap. With a sigh, he ruffled his hand through his hair, the slight tug of it grounding him just enough to soften his voice. “All made, like every morning, but you weren’t in the Galley.”

“Oh, right. Sorry,” she murmured. “You know Micks. First experience of seven-dimensional telly, freaked ‘im out a bit. Think he thought it was possessed.” His doubtful stare seemed to twist something in her. She paused. Then, empty-eyed, she allowed one little question to fall from her lips. “Still, weren’t alone. Had Madame, didn’t you?”

Judging by her expression, the words had surprised her no less than they did him. He wasn’t entirely certain how rhetorical the question was.

The ghost of a retort tingled the tip of his tongue, but it never found breath. For just when his tumultuous thoughts were about to be moulded into even less predictable words, Mickey appeared at Rose’s shoulder, stupid grin blazing like a lighthouse. “Aight, Boss.” The words were said without malice, but were entirely lacking in warmth, and the Doctor wasn’t stupid. He could tell that the smile upon his face wasn’t really a smile- it was a warning.

“Mickey-Mickster!”

Well, apparently he wasn’t receptive to the Doctor’s feigned joviality, either. His eyebrow lifted to match Rose’s, and silence fell. The seconds ticked and tocked by, passing still in absolute hush, and the seconds extended into minutes and the minutes seemed endless, dragging on by miniscule degrees, all stillness and strain, and the air seemed too dry in their throats to be sculpted into words, and so they, statuesque, remained.

“Cockerel!” The Doctor yapped. “That’s what I am- cockerel! Or a, um- oh, what do you call it- rooster! I crow and I yell and I wake up the farm!”

“Nice poultry analogy. It’s seven AM,” Mickey deadpanned, already turning back into the succour of bed.

It was only once Rose turned too that the Doctor was forced to intervene.

Why, he didn’t know. Really. It was a total, complete, absolute mystery to him that the thought of her there with Mickey evoked a burning ache somewhere around his chest, but all he knew was that it hurt and that he wanted it to stop hurting.

“Rose, can I borrow you?”

She sighed. He spoke with such timidness that she was loth to refuse, but the thought of being alone with him, lacking the buffer of Mickey or Madame de Pompadour, was nauseating. Without them, she’d be hurled into a confrontation (‘not a confrontation’, she corrected herself, ‘a conversation’. The distinction between the two was getting blurrier.) that she was beyond certain she wasn’t ready for. “S’like Mickey said, Doctor. Seven in the morning. Silly human, need more sleep.”

“It’ll only take a second.”

Her patience, though not broken, was experiencing some hairline fractures. When next she spoke, her words were clipped. “Can’t you just find Reinette for- y’know- whatever this’s about.”

Briefly, the Doctor contemplated. He could have dropped this. He could have let Rose dawdle back to Mickey, let the revolting fictions his imagination conjured of them become reality. He could have indulged her jealousies and wandered back to Reinette. He could have dropped the rope and dropped her, and waved goodbye to the intangible future he’d wished for the Bad Wolf and the Last of the Time Lords. He didn’t know whether what he did next was crueller. “Nope!” he proclaimed, and his tone brooked no argument.

She threw him a withering glance, but did relent, and hesitantly followed him, the door clicking shut behind her.

“So, what do you need me for?”

Ah, right. He needed a reason. Reason, reason, reason… Ah!

“Like I said, Rose- breakfast!”

Admittedly, it was not the best reason. Rose’s reaction certainly reflected that.

“Thought you said this would only take a sec,” she mumbled, already inclining her body back towards Mickey’s door.

‘Well’, he wanted to say, ‘I hadn’t come up with my excuse yet, then.’ It was only when she began ambling away from him that he abandoned imaginary retorts for real ones.

Grabbing her by both shoulders, he gently but firmly swivelled her around, not softening his grip even when she faced him. She was solid and real beneath his fingertips. After days of distance growing between them, that solidity was everything, and he was not even slightly inclined to forsake it. She glanced at his white-knuckle grip, but did not object. Rather, she waited.

It was at precisely that moment, her brown eyes staring widely, expectantly up at him, anticipating some magnificent explanatory ramble, that he realised he had nothing to say. “Ah, yes. But-” This was where the gift of the gab usually came in handy. Why did it choose to abandon him then? He attempted to speak, but each time it came out as a choke or a cough or a garbled attempt at a syllable and he really did have no excuse for his actions except desperation for her pink and yellow presence, which he couldn’t very well say out loud, so he was forced to pretend that actions spoke louder than words. Snapping his mouth closed with an audible click, he attempted to grab her hand.

He didn’t consider himself easily astounded. He’d seen mummies and menoptera, autons and axons, catkind and clockwork droids. He’d seen civilisations rise and civilisations fall. He’d watched suns burn to nothing, suns form from nothing, galaxies burst into being and roar out of it. He’d seen the best of the universe and the worst, and everything in between. All of it, he could take in stride. So why was it that Rose, tugging her hand from his, left him utterly dumbfounded?

“Y-you-”

“I think I’m going back to bed,” she interrupted, and took a substantial step away.

He couldn’t help but twist the knife a little. She’d been more than happy to do it to him. “Your bed?” he asked, all saccharine sweetness and acid bitterness, and she didn’t dignify it with a response. Throwing him a glance, one he wished was fiercely enraged, rather than profoundly disappointed, she pivoted on her heel and marched down the corridor, lost to his vision when she was consumed by shadows.

This wouldn’t stand.

He hesitated for a second, but only a second. He was far too selfish to wait any longer.

Propelling himself in her direction, he ran to the first place he presumed she’d be- her room. Pausing outside her door, he considered his actions. She wanted to be left alone. She obviously wanted to be left alone. And, on a strictly intellectual level, he knew he should have respected that. But he was very old, and his dotage made him all too aware of how human lives passed with the swiftness of a lightning bolt, and was as much for her sake as it was for his that he decided he could not delay.

So, only slightly abashed, he launched himself into the silent, empty room.

His heart sunk a little when he realised Rose was not there. She was probably with Mickey the Idiot (™), was probably laughing with him, was probably plotting to get away from the TARDIS and move to a two-up/two-down in Luton where they’d raise their entirely human children and live their entirely human lives and- his imagination was getting ahead of itself.

His heart sunk a lot when he saw the blood pooled on the bed.

Chapter Text

For a moment, he was convinced he’d imagined it. But he closed his eyes and reopened them, and it was still there. He shook his head from side to side, hoping that the image would be shaken away with it, and it was still there. He squinted and it, albeit blurrier, was still there. And slowly, so very slowly, it dawned on him that no amount of blinking or head-shaking or squinting would ever banish the reality before him from the world. It was there, a giant red brand across her bed, and it wasn’t going away.

As though his entire body had been suffused with a thrum of electricity, he was rendered senseless by the tingling that extended from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, and he felt such a severe disconnect from his physical being that for a moment he feared the sight had prematurely forced a regeneration. It took his several seconds to realise he was trembling. The relief of knowing whatever meshed his soul and body together hadn’t torn wasn’t sufficient, not nearly sufficient, to quell the swelling dread in his stomach.

Questions swirled in his head at breakneck speed. They crashed and collided with one-another into incomprehensible nonsense, infinite hows and whats and whys roaring into a hellish cacophony that no amount of Time Lord Academy training could silence, and the quaking of his frame grew more violent as he allowed himself to zero on in the imagined images the instinct of self-preservation had valiantly tried to blur.

He didn’t realise he’d moved to the bedside until it was too late to retreat.

From its brownish tint, he could tell that the blood wasn’t fresh, although- he pressed a finger to the stain- still tacky, so not very old. A day, at absolute most. He didn’t need to take it to the lab to be absolutely sure it was Rose’s. For beneath the potent tang of iron lay something achingly familiar, a scent that sung of time and space and budding flowers awaiting spring, a scent that he relished when it clung to his coat or hovered in the corridors and detested now, now that it was drowning in red.

There was far too much. At the very least, blood loss on this scale would cause unconsciousness. And that was being optimistic. More likely, it would require urgent medical attention, transfusions, constant monitoring. He hadn’t provided it. Rose would have been in no position to tend to herself, and he was steadfast in his belief that Mickey lacked the intellectual wherewithal to wrangle with the needles and saline drips and frozen bags of O-negative blood he’d have needed to drag her back from the brink. So how on Earth was she talking to him not two minutes before?

His musings were interrupted by a great crash behind him.

He swung around, preparing to defend himself from whatever hellbeast was bull-in-a-china-shopping its way around the TARDIS, and instead saw Mickey stumbling in, gasping for breath.

“Doct-”

“What’s this?” he interrupted, voice crackling with some nameless emotion. His brows contracted half-spasmodically into a frown, so deep-furrowed that it conferred age onto that ageless face, and Mickey, with obedience he’d usually have been mocked for, followed the Doctor’s line of vision. The man’s eyes were far too haunted for him to do anything else.

The stain was yellowed at the edges, rich garnet and wet at the centre, and in the cold light of day the extent of Rose’s injuries became all the more clear. His heart stuttered a little as the horror of the previous night flared back to life. But more prominent than that was the time-honed loyalty that forced him to speak before he could even attempt to silence himself.

“I- um- I cut my hand. Got Rose cos I- uh- I didn’t know where the med-”

“Stop lying, Mickey.”

“Not lying.”

Had the circumstances been any different, the Doctor would have been impressed by the strength of Mickey’s allegiance to Rose. The tin dog- woman’s best friend, indeed. But now, with her blood still wet on the mattress, his capacity to admire such traits had worn thin. He would tolerate this no longer.

Summoning a long dead self, a self born of the fire and cinders and dust of war, the rage and the hate of the Last of the Time Lords, he rose to a distant citadel. It was from there that he uttered his condemnation.

“Let me be very clear, Michael Smith,” he snarled. “You are on a TARDIS. I have the capacity to drop you off slap-bang in the middle of the Great Plague, or on a sun just cold enough for you to not be immediately incinerated- slow roasting, one of the nastier ways to go.” He stepped forward, glower scorching the other man’s skin. His voice grew impossibly dark when next he spoke. “Or I could hurl you into a black hole and get it over with. There are misandrist planets that would trial you like a Salem witch. There are anthrophobic planets that wouldn’t give you the dignity of a trial. I could drop you straight in the middle of the Marian restoration with nothing but the clothes on your back and a copy of ‘The God Delusion’ to your name, or hand you over to Vlad the Impaler. I’m sure you can guess what that entails. I have all of time and space at my disposal, every second of your puny history and beyond it, and whatever moral scruples you think may stop me do not apply when it comes to protecting Rose. Bear that in mind when I advise you not. To. Lie. To. Me.”

All was silence. Mickey had drawn back, clinging to the doorframe as though it were holding him upright. The Doctor hissed out his breath through gritted teeth. Time itself seemed to fizzle around them, tangible as static. And then, as though that frozen moment had never been real, it shattered around them.

He’d anticipated fear, horror, rambling explanations and hurried revelations, a little bit of grovelling and a lot of backtracking. What he got was “That’s what she’d want, Doctor?”

More jarring than the words themselves was the fact that they were said entirely without malice. He was not a man conferring judgement. He was just a man asking a question of another.

The Doctor had not prepared for this eventuality. Before he could even try to knit together a response, Mickey was speaking again, and a new confidence seemed to bloom in his voice this time.

“You can do whatever you want with that French bint, Doctor. That’s none of my business. But Rose is my friend, and if you’re stupid enough to think I would ever, ever betray her for your sake, then you’re even more of an idiot than I thought.”

“Mickey-”

“I cut my hand, Doctor. ‘S all that happened.”

He walked out, and shut the door behind him.

 

---

 

“Don’t worry, babes, I set him str- Rose? Rose?”

She was on his bed, just where he’d left her. But not just as he’d left her. Because he was beyond acquainted with Rose Tyler, knew each tiny idiosyncrasy as well as he knew his own, better than his own. And from the years he’d spent beside her on the Powell Estate, lazy Sundays tinged yellow by the dawn, her warm breath tickling his neck, he knew that she slept stretched like a starfish, taking up as much space as her small frame could possibly occupy. She did not sleep like that. Not curled up as tightly as possible. And definitely not pallid and grey.

He hurled himself towards her.

Instinctively as breathing, Mickey grappled for her arm and pushed up the sleeve.

He anticipated a repetition of the previous night’s horror. Even before he’d looked, his mind’s eye was conjuring up vivid pictures of smeared red and ripped flesh and fresh wounds alongside the old. Muscle memory left him tense, ready to leap into action. Already, he was formulating the quickest route to the med-bay. Yet he looked down and-

He traced his thumb along her torn wrist, and the edge of yesterday’s wound peeled away like a skin on milk. Mickey bit back a gag. Between those softened bounds, her tissue was so swollen that the hours-old stitches were engulfed, and it wept with a clearish-yellow substance that was speckled with red. Her pulse was just visible. It trembled beneath the flesh with the imperceptible thrum of a plucked guitar string, and he didn’t know whether it was his relief at this irrefutable evidence of life or disgust that she was simultaneously breathing and decaying that left him momentarily dizzied.

Somehow, this was worse than anything his imagination conjured.

In that moment, Mickey loathed himself. He loathed what he was about to do. He also knew he’d no choice but to do it. And if Rose couldn’t forgive him, if she spent the rest of her life cursing his very name, so be it. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

He couldn’t deal with this alone.

He called for the Doctor.

Chapter Text

“Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael. I knew you’d see sense!”

The Doctor’s cry whipped down the TARDIS corridors like a declaration of victory. It made Mickey want to punch him.

He could hear the Time Lord’s approach before he could see it, for the smack of plimsolls upon the metal grating was not a sound which could not be easily concealed, and it was becoming ever clearer that the Doctor was flat-footed. Mickey almost chuckled to think that that noise was a mere irritant in the past. Back then, it signalled the interruption of an ever rarer tete-a-tete between himself and his ex. ‘Clang, clang, clang’ and, as naturally as drawing breath, Rose would snap back to herself, dozy murmurs sharpening to something infinitely more detached, while Mickey would be reeling from her sudden 180. ‘Back then’, the beautiful ‘back then’, was fast attaining the mythical status of Narnia. Now, when he knew every step drew the cause of Rose’s suffering closer to her, it forced to life a curling, coiling thing which squirmed in his gut like a parasite.

Mickey Smith, tin dog extraordinaire, stood sentry at her bedside when the door swung open.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d expected to happen. A part of him, a part he was only slightly ashamed of, had steeled itself for having to witness the Doctor’s unquellable scientific curiosity in the face of Rose’s peril. He could just see it: “Oh, what’s that? MRSA? That is typical. Absolutely typical.” Then he’d scrape at the wound and stare at its pathogens wriggling in a petri dish and poke at them a bit until he had to be reminded of the greying girl before him. And after that, Mickey presumed, the Time Lord would just throw some antiseptic at the problem and scuttle away to Madame de Pompadour, whistling some jaunty tune as he went. The bastard.

Mickey couldn’t tell whether it was with relief or horror that he was proven wrong.

The Doctor was silent, and so very still. He was just a silhouette at first. The brightness of the corridor and the gloom of the bedroom had cast him into shadow, and the buffered light left his edges fuzzy.

Then he stepped forward, throwing his features into sharp focus.

The change in him was miniscule yet great. His lip barely quivered. His muscles barely tightened. His brows stubbornly refused to frown. But those eyes, eyes which Mickey had seen alight with victory and crinkled with confusion and black with the rage of the Last of the Time Lords were none of these things, now. They were empty. Dead. Time froze around him, for he would not countenance its passage, and the air fizzled with something greater even than himself. The man before Mickey was one that had witnessed death and destruction, and not just witnessed it, caused it, and the desolation within him had never been so tangible than in that single, roaring second.

“R-Rose?” The Doctor’s voice was soft, so soft, like the voice of a child. It crackled with the same infantile anxiety, the same desperation for reassurance, for ‘everything’s going to be fine’, that every one of his nine-hundred years seemed to have slipped away on a sudden breeze. He was a husk, now, impotent in the face of fear.

As quickly as it had formed, the amber-caught moment shattered. Time started, mercilessly, once more.

Forcing Mickey aside, he hurled himself towards the bed. For the briefest of seconds, he just stood there, tall and thin and quaking, and then exhaled. He lowered himself onto his elbows, one on either side of her head, so his face was just millimeters from hers. His fringe flopped forward to brush her skin. His breathing was ragged, violently so, as if compensating for the barely-there wisps of air passing between her lips. He could not quieten it. His body, or rather his control over it, was somewhere else entirely, cast off in a universe outside of the nightmare he’d awoken to. So his diaphragm continued to convulse, and his breaths continued to roar. The sound was harsher within the new stillness of the room, and harsher still when even the Time Rotor seemed galled into silence by its owner’s anguish. The warmth of that broken to-and-fro caressed Rose’s face. She didn’t react.

Then he lifted a hand, placing it first upon her waist. It tightened, just as it had after reclaiming her from Cassandra or escaping from the Werewolf or returning from 18th-century France but, this time, the rush of blood beneath his fingertips was less pronounced, perhaps non-existent. He was quaking too much to know for sure. He didn’t know if he wanted to know for sure. So instead, he loosened his grip to sweep his palm up her side. His fingers traced the planes of her stomach and the mountains of her ribs and the valleys between them, as though the certainty of her physical presence could perpetuate the pulse beneath her sinew and skin, until it came to rest along her face. The hand upon her cheek gently patted it, but Mickey didn’t think that movement was deliberate. The Doctor’s body was shaking from head to toe, barely managing to hold itself upright. Then he ran that hand back down her body and caught hers within it, and he sobbed a little to realise that his white-knuckle grasp was not reciprocated by her listless fingers. “R-Rose? C’mon, Rose, wake up.”

Mickey realised he had misjudged the Doctor earlier. Then, ‘then’ being not a minute before, he hadn’t sounded like a child. Not really. Not when now, he was hovering above her, whimpering her name and begging for her return. “Mickey, check her pulse. Just ch-check she’s-” The sentence went unfinished. To complete it would disturb some unspoken equilibrium, upset whatever cosmic balance had kept Rose with him thus far, so his voice softened to a murmur then trailed into silence.

“She’s alright, boss,” Mickey said, quiet but decisive. Pushing himself to his feet, he approached the Time Lord as one would approach a trapped animal, instinct to reassure him and protect himself battling for dominance. Though he hated the man, probably still did, it was impossible not to pity him. Mickey Smith, tin dog though he was, knew better than to let him suffer alone, and knew better than to leave Rose in hands immobilised by grief, so clapped the Doctor on the back before going to stand at his side. “It’s, um-” He stopped. To think the words was one thing, to say them was quite another. Though calling the Doctor was a bow to necessity, breaking the promise he’d made to Rose not twenty-four hours earlier didn’t feel like that- it felt like a betrayal. Really, it was a betrayal. So he chose not to speak. It would be on a technicality, just a technicality, that he remained loyal to Rose, but he’d take what he could get. He could feel the Doctor’s perplexed eyes trace his movements as he turned her wrist over.

There was a change. It was in the air, sizzling like a live wire, rushing like a current. The Doctor straightened and took Rose’s arm from Mickey’s grasp. With one hand, he grasped the back of hers. With the other, he cupped her elbow. Tilting it gently from side to side, he examined the torn flesh as realisation dawned by miniscule degrees in his eyes. “This-” he bit out, the word heaved from somewhere deep within him. He tried again. “This… She’s done this to herself.”

Really, how was Mickey supposed to respond to that? It was true, after all. No matter how much he wished it wasn’t, it was true. So he shrugged.

“How long?”

He shrugged again. Strictly speaking, his claim of ignorance was a lie, but bringing the Doctor to her was treachery enough. He felt no need to indulge his curiosity if it wouldn’t help Rose. Though the other man shot him a look that told him he knew full well he wasn’t being told everything, Mickey couldn’t bring himself to feel abashed. So, in lieu of a real reply, he refocused his attention on the unconscious figure before him. Tipping his head towards the supine girl, he mumbled “Med bay, yeah?” Mickey was holding open the door before the Doctor got the chance to respond.

Chapter Text

Despite himself, an odd relief poured through him. The thought of surrendering Rose to Mickey’s arms was repugnant in that moment. For every time his hands lost contact with her skin, he shuddered a little, as if his physical presence was Rose’s only tether to their world of beating hearts and filling lungs and brains electric with thought. Mickey, standing at the door, clearly had no intention of removing her from the Doctor’s grasp. With a half-nod of acknowledgement to the man, he turned back to Rose. His gaze once more mapped her fragile form, and he couldn’t silence the whimpered sigh which fell from his lips. She was so grey.

Slotting an arm, whose trembles he’d half-successfully repressed, under her knees, the other at her back, he eased her up, and he took a second to shift her lolling head onto his shoulder. Her breath was warm and soft against his neck. Usually, that would be a reassurance. Not now. Now, it was far too weak for comfort, more the rattle of a baby’s cough than the regular tide of an adult’s sighs. He let his glance shift to her. “C’mon, Rose,” he murmured, and strode out the door. Mickey followed wordlessly in his wake.

The TARDIS had taken the liberty of moving the med-bay to just outside Rose’s room, so it was only a couple of steps until she was safely lain upon the metal bed. It was time, the Doctor knew, to reclaim a vestige of self-control, draw down the veil of professional detachment, and save her. But he couldn’t. The fingers, lingering still upon her waist, wouldn’t release her. She was solid and real beneath them. When they freed her, he feared she would be lost to him, she and her warmth and the anchor he’d found within her. In the end, it was Mickey who broke him from his trance.

“What is it? What’s wrong with ‘er?”

The Doctor glanced up. His eyes were wide, mouth half-open, as if shocked at the revelation of a world beyond his ponderings and self-recrimination. Then, he drew in a great breath. He was a doctor now, lowercase ‘d’. And his world was centered, wholly and absolutely, on her. Moping could wait. Palsied hands unwinding from her body, undecipherable mumbles falling from his lips, he got to work.

No less instinctively than breathing, his retrieved the sonic screwdriver from his pocket. He glanced at it, then gave it a quick shake. It was unlit. Clearly finding something wrong, he thwacked it against the palm of the opposite hand. It seemed that giving the device a concussion did the trick, for its head started to softly glow, albeit with some flickering (Mickey suspected that was more the product of the Doctor’s roughhousing than the gadget’s own failings). Hesitating no longer, the Doctor placed its bright blue tip above the crown of her head. With a swish up and down her, and back again for good measure, he drew back to analyse its readings. His hand, Mickey noticed, had snuck down to rest on the crook of her elbow. The thumb moved gently back and forth.

“What’s it say?” Mickey murmured. Immediately after saying the words, he realised that he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
For a long moment, there was no reply. The silence drawled on and on and on, unheeding of urgency or time, and Mickey was getting twitchy. Then, the Doctor slumped a little, and began to speak.

“Schillian flu.” His voice was soft and crackling. Whatever Time Lord superiority had kept him aloft on some high citadel had well-and-truly crumbled, now. It was obvious from the deadness of his eyes, to the whiteness of his pallor, to the thrumming tremors that ran like a current through his frame. “It’s a -uh- a flu. From Schillia,” he added redundantly. “All sorts floating about the TARDIS, I never thought…” He trailed off, allowing a second for the guilt-driven misery of the moment to settle in his veins. Then, he steeled himself to speak again. “I never thought anything like that would be a problem. It can only get in through severe wounds and I didn’t think I’d ever let Rose get hurt so badly that- I was wrong, anyway…” The hand at Rose’s elbow squeezed.

“How serious is it?” asked Mickey.

“Curable. Definitely curable.”

“But?”

The Doctor’s gaze flitted to Rose. “It's bad.” Before elaborating further, he lifted his other hand to sweep some errant hair from her face. His palm then went to lie upon her cheek, and he heaved a great sigh. “Schillian flu works by eating away at major organs. ‘S why she became unconscious so quickly- it attacks the brain first, because without the brain working at full throttle, it’s free to attack everything else.”

“So, what? She’ll be brain damaged?”

“It’s a, uh-” the words caught somewhere between his lungs and larynx. Only after the assuaging effect of a few long, slow breaths could he speak again. “Her brain’s on standby, now. Autopilot. Doing the bare minimum to keep her alive.” He paused again, collecting himself. There was a bit of him, no less enraged than it was miserable, that knew it would soon not be enough. Rose’s body was at war, and there was no guarantee of her victory. The thought made him shudder. “Schillian flu feeds off living tissue. It can’t eat the brain until...”

“It’s eaten everything else.” Mickey looked to the Doctor for confirmation, and received only a curt nod. “That’s good, yeah?” he tried. Desperate to provoke a reaction, some ramble or movement or revelation, it didn’t occur to him that the words could be misconstrued. Judging by the other man’s expression, his phrasing of the question was far from perfect. “Not good, but-”

The Doctor, mercifully, interrupted. “Buys her some time. Enough, hopefully.” The silence which followed those semi-optimistic words made it all too clear that he was holding something back. His awkward scratching behind the ear only served to confirm this. Just when Mickey was on the verge of demanding answers, he spoke again. “But then-” The sentence was broken by a sharp sniff, and he didn’t quite manage to look at Rose when next he spoke. “I got to her too late to prevent all damage, Mickey.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s not- it isn’t pleasant to recover from,” the Doctor stuttered.

“And the longer it’s left, the worse it’ll be,” Mickey extrapolated, again looking to the Doctor for confirmation, and again receiving a short nod. It was the only reply he would get, for the other man’s gaze had returned to Rose. He watched as both of the Doctor’s hands slid down her sides, ever so slowly encasing her fingers within the safety of his and then squeezing experimentally, as if hoping for his grasp to be reciprocated. He would be disappointed. Well, Mickey thought, though the Time Lord before him was content to wallow, but he certainly wasn’t. Still, nerves bubbled in his stomach when he spoke again. “Then you might wanna… Y’know…”

“What?”

“Start doing something.”

It seemed the thought had never occurred to him. He froze for a second. Then, eyes widening, hands mechanically detaching from Rose, he stepped back. “Right. Yes. Of course.” His words slipped out on a breath. “Of course, I should...” There was something woven through his voice now. Initially, Mickey thought it was indecision; so long had the Doctor been left to his ponderings, after all, that it was as if he’d been yanked from purgatory straight into A&E, and no amount of Time Lord superiority could dull the jarring effect of it. But the wetness of his eyes, the tremble of his bottom lip, the rootless floating of his hands now that Rose wasn’t beneath them, those all told a different story. It was inadequacy. After all, it wasn’t just anyone in his care. It was Rose Tyler. And he couldn’t afford to mess this up.

Since the Doctor was apparently unable to get the ball rolling, or unwilling to, there was just one person who could. “How can I help?”

Chapter Text

Their easiest task was first. Though Rose’s body was still and silent, this was no proof of stillness and silence within her mind, nor could they be certain that her nerves had been rendered incapable of screaming if provoked. The Doctor refused to contemplate the possibility that his actions, supposed to heal her, could sting with the same ferocity as the weeping gouge carved deep into her flesh. He would not, could not, countenance that. She’d already come to enough harm on his watch.

 

While the Doctor began preparing a syringe, Mickey was kneeling to rifle through the med-bay cupboards. His head and most of his torso were swallowed between shelves, so every small movement he made caused great tidal waves of glass to clatter and crash around him, but neither man paid the noise any heed. “What’s it called, again?” his muffled voice asked.

 

“Anetide B. Best anaesthetic in the universe,” the Doctor absently replied. After a long moment passed with no further progress made, his gaze flickered from the needle between his fingers to the other man, who was now struggling through the ‘Z’ section of the cupboard. “It’s alphabetical, Mickey.”

 

“Ah,” he mumbled, circumstance dulling his instinct to feign pride. “Right.”

 

Despite this clarification, it was still a couple of minutes before he’d found and safely deposited the vial of anaesthetic in the Doctor’s palm. A couple more, spent in indecisive silence, before he retreated. Medically, at least, he could be of no more help, but he could be what he always had been: a familiar presence, a warm hand to hold. Maybe that was just what Rose needed. Slowly, as though awaiting permission to do so, he settled himself at her bedside and wrapped her hand in both of his.

 

Meanwhile the Doctor, frowning, carefully began to pour the vial’s contents into the syringe. He could, at least in theory, have given her a lot less, numbed the pain in her arm without cementing her in an extended unconsciousness, but it seemed kinder to hope that the quiet of sleep would dull whatever roaring horrors had driven her to this. He tried not to believe that he was amongst them. He tried to map out the things that came before him, a fatherless childhood, a penniless one, whispered and half-taboo mentions of ‘Jimmy Stone’ from her fellow Powell Estate residents… Yet, try as he might to blind himself to it, each white line written across her wrist seemed to spell out his name. Was that narcissistic of him? Maybe, he conceded. Probably. Still, he believed it.

 

He glanced up, intending just to look at her, to make sure her chest was rising and falling, breath rattling in and out. Each second he spent with his gaze elsewhere was a second quietly thrumming with anxiety, and her long absence from his sight while he prepared the anaesthetic did little to help matters. But then he did look, and his hearts twinged in his chest.

 

It was funny, because on an intellectual level he’d known of Rose’s life before they’d met, and of Mickey’s role in it: childhood friend became teenage boyfriend became something indefinable somewhere between the two. But it had always seemed abstract, intangible, Mickey himself a ghostly manifestation of the world she’d left behind. Maybe it was for his ego’s sake, but the Doctor had never stopped to consider that that world was real. What he saw then left him in no doubt. For Rose’s small, pale hand was securely encased within Mickey’s darker ones, his thumbs not tracing its contours as the Doctor’s did, nor convulsively tightening his grip as the Doctor did, but simply resting there, warm and steady upon her.

 

It was a tether, the Time Lord thought. And though that word seemed claustrophobic to him, spoke of the drop of an anchor, the weight of a ball and chain, the insistent tug of gravity, to Mickey, it meant something else entirely. It was the call of the familiar. It was the knowledge that time and space were nice, but sometimes a cup of tea was nicer. The intimacy and innocence of that moment spoke of a lifetime at each-other’s side, at each-other’s throats, and always on the slow path.

 

For the first time in his long, long life, the Doctor was grateful for Mickey Smith. Or rather, grateful for the harbour that Rose had found in him. Though he’d mocked him, resented him, quietly pitied him, he never thought he’d have respected him. Yet here he was. Glad of a tin-bloody-dog. Ha.

 

He didn’t speak as he slipped the needle beneath Rose’s skin. Probably wouldn’t have been able to around the lump in his throat, which grew bigger as he withdrew it, freeing blood to well to the surface. That flash of red left him more upset (more tired, more disillusioned, more old…) than he’d ever care to admit, even as he denied the stinging in his eyes. Although it was just a droplet, a speck of dark upon her porcelain skin, and nothing in the grand scheme of things, to him it… It wasn’t. It was the stilling of the heart, the thready final breath, silence and sorrow then the mourning and decay and the promise that she would wither and die , not this day but one day, and his hand would be empty and-

 

He scrunched his eyes closed and sucked in a deep breath. I’m overreacting , he rationalised. I’ve had a shock but I’m overreacting and she’ll be fine . Those thoughts failed to calm his frenzied hearts or stop the squirming in his stomach. However, they succeeded in drawing his focus back to reality. Slowly, reverently, he brushed the droplet away with his thumb, leaving behind a scarlet smear. Even he wasn’t good enough at deluding himself to think that made him feel any better.

 

The previous night’s amateurish stitches had been largely engulfed by swollen tissue, making unpicking them an arduous task, and one more surgical than he’d initially anticipated. This put him into some uncertain territory. Though ‘Doctor’ by name, his credentials had been left dubious from having not been put to good use, or any use, in centuries. The most he’d done was press the ‘on’ button of a dermal regenerator, or dutifully prescribe paracetamol to his hungover companions. Now, he was presented was a living specimen, and this living specimen just so happened to be his favourite thing in the universe, and he was expected to be the objective doctor (lowercase ‘d’) and chop her up and put her back together and cross his fingers that he hadn’t somehow hurt her more…

 

But then, what else was he to do? He could help her, or at least try to, or he could leave her at the mercy of time and hope and pray that the fates were kinder to her than they had been to him. There was no contest.

 

He asked Mickey to leave the room. It wasn’t personal. Perhaps, a lifetime ago, it could have been, but their rivalry had been somewhat eclipsed by the revelations of the last twenty-four hours, and it didn’t matter now. But ultimately Rose was, and needed to be, his focus. A squeamish tin dog couldn’t be there to distract him.

 

When Mickey didn’t object to his expulsion, planting a brief kiss on Rose’s palm then ambling silently out of the door, the Doctor felt the true gravity of the situation fall upon his shoulders. Argumentative, contrarian, pugnacious Mickey Smith had left without a word. And that meant Rose’s true condition was not the exaggeration of his wild and fretful imagination, or the nightmarish hallucination of a fatigued mind, because the other man had seen it, too… He wasted no more time thinking. He got straight to work.

 

This bit was the worst; putting a scalpel to her wrist, and pressing in. He tried to ignore the sensation of her flesh yielding to the pressure, the wet sound of metal through tissue, the freckles of red that rose to the surface, but he couldn’t. It was all so wrong. Nine hundred years, and nothing had ever felt this wrong . There she lay before him, his precious pink and yellow human, and he was sinking a blade into her arm ( better than thinking about her putting a blade there ...) and pretending, somehow, that he was okay.

 

It took far longer than he’d have liked to cut the old stitches and dead tissue away, but some things could not be rushed. The stakes were too high. He circumnavigated veins and carved through capillaries, and dashed away blood with a professional detachment which bordered on the eerie. He didn’t blink. If he blinked, his mind would be (however briefly) submerged in darkness, and free to conjure whatever horrors it liked. Nor did he breathe. For he was sure that, if he did, his exhalation would emerge a scream, or a whimper.

 

In later days, he would look back on that moment as an out-of-body experience. Though his hearts and mind raged with their desire to break down, cry until his eyes burned, sob until his chest felt hollow, he did none of these. His movements were precise, mechanical, and distinctly calm. He didn’t know how he summoned him, this impossibly cold version of himself, but oh was he grateful. This new him, the imposter, saved Rose.

 

From then, his task was easy. First, he cleaned the wound and sealed it with stitches. Once she was well again, he’d be able to use the dermal regenerator, make sure she (or, selfishly, he) had no visual reminder of what he was already euphemistically referring to as the ‘mishap’. For now, though, he would leave it at that. The aesthetic was, after all, not his priority. His next problem was greater in scale, but lesser in complexity; the Schillian flu.

 

Time was beginning to weary his restrained facade, so his hands trembled as he attached her to various monitors. The one at her wrist tracked her heartbeat; the one at her chest, her breathing; and the one at her temples, her brain activity. It was the third which worried him the most. A pulse, respiration: machines could easily replicate those, but nothing in all of space or time could sustain an unwilling mind. Discordant beeps began to fill the med-bay as he switched them on.

 

Beyond keeping her vitals up, there was little he could do for her. This was a battle her body would have to fight for itself. All he could do was provide the armour.

 

He hated it, having to prod and pierce her precious skin. Despite the knowledge that he was acting in her best interests, when he watched the needles slip into her flesh it felt, somehow, like defiling her. What little of her wrist was still unmarred was now dotted with little red pinpricks, and they were his doing. The various IVs and injections he supplied her with would bolster her immune system, give her the means to weather the storm, but there was nothing else he could do for her.

 

Breathing out a sigh, he sat at her side. And he waited.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t hold her hand. He wanted to, wanted with a fervency that made his fingers twitch and reach and ache, but he just couldn’t. It was illogical, it was stupid- and more than stupid, it was human- still, he couldn’t. And he wouldn’t. For he would not touch her flesh if it would soon be lifeless, or seek out her warmth if it would soon cool, or risk feeling the blood in her veins grow stagnant beneath his fingertips. That, he knew, would be an earthquake, the fall of Arcadia, Gallifrey’s dying breath, the smoke and the flames and the screaming desperation to reclaim what the universe had stolen from him again. No, he wouldn’t… He needed first to hear her pulse strengthen. He needed first for her small, rattling breaths to grow stronger, and he needed first for the monitors attached to her sing their confirmation that she would be absolutely fine. And, until that moment, he couldn’t hold her hand.

So, instead, he talked.

It wasn’t meaningful, not really. He wished it had been, wished he was brave enough to make it so, but from those first stuttered syllables he realised that the words came no more easily when spoken to her unconscious form than her wakeful one. Whether she could hear him or not, she was still Rose; that alone left his iron defences in ruins. To give voice to the fluttering in his stomach or the tightening of his hearts would leave him dangerously exposed. Coward that he was, he settled for less treacherous territory.

“We’ll visit Jackie, hm? Once you’re better?” the Doctor murmured. As he spoke, a gentleness, more alien than his double-heartbeat or cold skin or each of his nine-hundred years, brewed in his tone. There was no fight, now. There was only desperation. “Or New Earth again? Barcelona? Never did get to go there, did we?” he pleaded.

It was an unconscious movement when his fingers began to ghost the edge of hers. Though they didn’t quite touch, never touched, warmth emanated from her and prickled at him. He tried not to feel it, to not draw hope from it. Instead, he let his chest tighten, his eyes burn, his mind whisper horribile, and probable, possibilities. He could barely speak around the lump in his throat but still, he spoke again. “M-maybe actually go to Naples this time, eh? Rose? Or we could go see Sarah-Jane? Or even Shareen? Just- Rose. Rose, please…” His voice grew strangled, desperate, as the one-sided interrogation wore on, words getting tangled together, syllables tripping over each-other, gossamer-thin promises and pleas spilling from his lips.

The universe, it seemed, had finally succeeded in breaking the Oncoming Storm. Head falling to the mattress, he began to spasm with muffled sobs.

He didn’t know how long he lay there. It may have been seconds, it may have been minutes, it may have been hours. In the end, it made no difference. His shoulders still heaved, and his lungs were still left raw. His throat burned with the scream it had caught, in tandem with the burning of his reddened eyes, and even then, he couldn’t bring himself to touch her. Oh, how he needed to. He needed beyond her understanding, beyond his comprehension. But she was soft and warm and innocent, and he was cold and hardened and brutal… He imagined his palm meeting hers, her flesh blackening into stone beneath his own, the fires of Gallifrey roaring under her skin, no Rose left behind, just a mirror of himself. The Time Lord Victorious.

Though it agonised him to do so, he knew he couldn’t touch her.

Then there came a weight at his shoulder, and his heart, along with his tears, stopped. It was her, he thought. Against all odds, it was her, a pink and yellow miracle. Rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, resourcefulness and kindness and a force of nature and- she was okay. She was conscious. She was with him. The relief was dizzying. In that moment, he’d have plucked constellations from the sky if she’d asked him to, presented entire galaxies on a silver platter for her perusal. But because she was Rose and because she was good, she’d never ask for that, never ask for anything. And though she didn’t ask for the universe, perhaps because she didn’t ask for the universe, he was all the more determined to give it to her. She was back.

What a glorious second that was, before his hearts turned back to dead weights in his chest and the lump swelled in his throat once more.

Looking up, he realised that it wasn’t Rose’s hand at his shoulder. It was Reinette’s.

On an intellectual level, he’d come to know who she was. For the textbooks he’d perused over his ten lifetimes had been more than willing to spout her importance to humanity and to history. A domestic revolutionary in the Palace of Versailles, a political trailblazer in her homeland, she was Reinette Poisson, ‘uncrowned queen of France’. And it wasn’t just knowing, either. He could see it, and feel it in the air; the timelines around her shimmered and shook like plucked harp strings, stretched taut and infinitely fragile and unquestionably necessary.

But ‘uncrowned queen of France’- that wasn’t how he’d known her. She was Reinette. And just Reinette, the bright, vivacious courtier from the other side of the fireplace. As his unsteady gaze rose to meet hers, she wasn’t Reinette anymore. This was Madame de Pompadour.

With instinctive decorum, she first drew back her hand. He immediately relaxed a little. Then, she averted her eyes, allowing him to wipe his own. The med-bay remained absolutely silent as he did so, save the rattled inhalations that the Doctor wished he could compose. Though Reinette had been calm in the face of clockwork droids, she’d be a liar to say she wasn’t unsettled now. The things her Lonely Angel seen, the things he’d done, and it was this, this, which left him distraught into silence. Her own lip trembled sympathetically.

As much to keep herself busy as to help him, she handed him her embroidered handkerchief. A quiet nod, a muttered thanks, and he took it. Glancing down, the Doctor hated to notice the intertwined ‘L’ and ‘R’ in its corner, or the scattered irises captured in thread and framed in lace, because Rose would have noticed too, and that made the stinging in his eyes just a little more acute. If she were with him now, awake and safe and well, she’d have asked about it, and he’d have answered that the iris was France’s national flower, and it had been since the 12th century, and that the lace was Parisian and the dye came from sea snails, and that it was King Richard II who’d invented the handkerchief in the first place, and that they could visit him next (“If you want.”). But she couldn’t ask, so he couldn’t answer. His hand convulsed around the fabric when he dabbed his eyes.

For several minutes, they didn’t speak. Words wouldn’t come to Reinette, and voice wouldn’t come to the Doctor. They were at a stalemate. In the absence of platitudes, “there, there”-s, rationalisations, his ragged breaths rang out even louder, and their only accompaniment was the steady beep-beep-beep that promised Rose’s heart still pulsed within her. Watching him then, trembling violently in his seat, swallowing air down in great gulps, Reinette’s heart broke. The labyrinth of his mind had been so dark, so lonely, so empty, and she’d found only one light there. That light now lay unconscious before them, and she feared what he’d become without it.

Unable to continue sitting and watching as he fell to pieces before her eyes, she slipped into a crouch at his feet, and rested her hands on his knees. Though he flinched at the contact, he didn’t push her away. The development encouraged her. With some residual reluctance, she slowly lifted one hand to his cheek and turned him back. He looked down, and she looked up, and in his bloodshot eyes was a vulnerability that she’d only ever seen in children, that silent yearning for a hug or a lullaby or the promise that everything would be okay.

For the briefest moment she was reminded of her own lost daughter. And that moment was enough. Unwilling to be constrained anymore by ancient concepts of correctness, she reached up and dragged him into a motherly embrace. In her arms, he was unresponsive, so she just tightened her grip. And eventually, the warm breaths against her ear grew slower, slower, slower… And he was better. Not well, not by any stretch of the imagination, but better. She pulled back, hands resting upon his shoulders.

“My Doctor,” she murmured. “I daresay this is terribly unpatriotic of you.” He looked up, confused, and she continued. “You English-” she spat the word with feigned derision. “You have tea. But emotions- those are French.”

He rewarded her quip with a tight smile. “Not from England.”

Reinette paused. If the Doctor squinted hard enough, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the cogs turning in her brain, attempting to jam his patchwork-quilt life together into something coherent. Still, he offered no explanation. “But, if you’re not from England,” she asked, “Why do you speak like an Englishman?”

She did not understand why that question made his gaze flit to Rose, or cause something resembling a smirk to rise on his lips. For the response hovered on the tip of his tongue: ‘Lots of planets have an England.’ Instead, he tipped his head at the bed, settling on an enigmatic “Picked some things up.”

“From Rose?” Though her voice was soft, there was a teasing element to it, and the Doctor’s deep blush was a reply in itself. Nevertheless, he indulged her suspicions with a small, bashful nod. She gave a little chuckle. Indeed, there might have been a time, so very long ago, that she’d have resented that. But with maturity had come clarity. And the ‘fireplace man’, her ‘lonely angel’, was neither of these things, not really. Though she’d gone to great pains to mythologise him, he was just a man. And he’d fallen in love; there was nothing wrong with that.

For a long while, they sat in comfortable silence. The Doctor’s gaze had returned to Rose, and hers was exploring the unfamiliar machinery surrounding them, so they paid each-other no heed. The respite from active distractions gave Reinette much time to reflect. She remembered the man who’d hurled himself through a mirror for her. His confidence had bordered on the sublime, he was so utterly fearless, so extraordinary... and he was a different person entirely. That Doctor was a character, and this one was a person. He’d forgotten, it seemed, that she had walked the corridors of his mind, looked behind that elaborate facade, and seen who it was that lay at the forefront of his every thought. Suddenly, she felt compelled to speak.

“W-when my daughter, my Fanfan, passed...” she began tentatively. The Doctor’s head shot up, and she briefly contemplated not continuing. But even in his anguish, she couldn’t allow herself to do so. “I never regretted loving her, Doctor. Not for a second.”

A little embarrassed by her outburst, she did not elaborate further.

He didn’t reply, couldn’t. He opened and closed his mouth again and again and again, but the movement was not accompanied by sound because words would not come to him. Instead, with wide, watery eyes, he looked at her. They were filled with bafflement and amazement and something like a plea, as if the ‘help me’ he couldn’t verbalise could be conveyed by his stare, and she couldn’t. Though it hurt to admit it, she couldn’t help him. She could only help him help himself.

“Tell her,” she implored. A few seconds passed in silence and stillness, and because he didn’t speak, neither did she. Eventually, the passage of minutes without a reaction became instruction enough to leave, so she rose from her crouch. Dusting off her skirts, she stroked his shoulder. Then, she walked to the door.

She was almost out of the room when she heard a quiet, almost inaudible, “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Finally, it was calm. For Reinette’s words had soothed him, and eased the flutterings of fear in his chest. Rose would be okay, and she would wake up, and then he would tell her, because he needed to say it and she deserved to hear, and she might say it back or she might just hug him and not say anything at all but either way, they could be happy . He’d make sure of it. At long last, he allowed himself to take her hand. The world didn’t end when he did. Indeed, memory hadn’t done her warmth justice, or cast in amber the map of lines across her skin, but he could feel them now. A palm reader would have taken the lifeline as a promise she’d be at his side for centuries, the presence of a tiny cross a sign she would wed, the little feathered dashes a suggestion of the children that could one day come. He didn’t believe in things like that, not really. But even as the thought blossomed in his mind, the Doctor tried not to smile at the idea of a legion of toddlers with Rose’s smile and his hair. His grip on her tightened.

 

Then in one, great, climactic scream, the monitors began to shrill.

 

Her heart had stopped. Her heart had stopped . The words were somehow disconnected, because ‘Rose’ and ‘heart’ and ‘stopped’ made no sense to him. How could her heart have stopped? The Schillian Flu was powerful, yes, and there was always the risk of it reaching her heart, but Rose was a force of nature. She was strong. She should have been able to fight. He’d trusted her to fight, and instead her body had given up on her and her heart had stopped.

 

No, no no… She can’t do this. She can’t do this to me.

 

When he threw himself upright, he couldn’t hear the clatter of his chair being propelled away, nor could he hear cabinets shatter as it careered into them. He could just hear that one, continuous beep. And then, with impossibly growing horror, he realised Rose was turning white.

 

He didn’t allow himself to think any more. If he was thinking , he wasn’t doing .

 

His hands shook as he interlaced them. They shook even more when he placed them on her chest, knowing what he was about to do. He was watery-eyed and so, so sorry, but he had to. If saving her meant hurting her, then he was tired and selfish and needed her with him; he’d do whatever it took. Pushing down with his entire body weight, he winced when her ribs and sternum yielded to the pressure and snapped. And he winced when he did it again, and again, and again.

 

Rose, come on. Please.

 

His arms ached and his lungs screamed but he couldn’t stop.

 

Please.

 

Neither of them were breathing. She couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Oxygen deprivation was turning her blue, and cold, and numbing him like fizzling static. He kept on pressing. He couldn’t feel the sobs tear up his chest, or see how his tears fell onto her face. He could only envision the possibility of a future without her, and know that it was not one he wanted to live in, so he kept on pressing. She was slipping- had slipped- away, but he kept on pressing. It wouldn’t be enough.

 

Rose, don’t you dare!

 

Then his lips met hers, and it was nightmarish. Hers were too soft, pliable- without resistance and without fire- and they yielded too readily to his pressure, grew colder and colder and colder in spite of his heat. He could taste how her hormones began to disperse, how her blood fled to wherever gravity drew it. He could taste her dying. And when he paused for breath, her head lolled listlessly to the side as though she were already gone. Her lips had turned purple, now, and that word sprung to mind again: dead.

 

He wept openly as he began another round of compressions. He begged her, begged God, begged gods, begged the universe itself, promised them anything they wanted as long as he could keep Rose. His lungs heaved and burnt and screamed, and his arms were trembling from fear and exhaustion, but he couldn’t stop. He pressed his lips to hers, forcing life into her body, and propelled it with the push of his hands.

 

He barely felt it at first. And after that, he barely believed it. A flutter, hardly tangible, hardly believable, just a flutter, but there . It was enough. He granted himself a second to allow a rush of immense gratitude wash over him, letting the reality of her life to settle in his bones, and it manifested in something that was maybe a laugh or maybe a sob but definitely brought tears with it. Then, he set about keeping her.

 

The flu had eaten away at her heart, left it irreparably compromised, so he left her side and ventured to the cupboards to seek out a solution. It took a while to do so; between Mickey’s rifling and his own hurling of a chair, the cabinets and their contents had been reduced to little more than rubble, but that restored ‘beep, beep, beep’ promised that Rose was surviving his absence, so he allowed the search to continue. Finally, he found what he was looking for. It was small, unassuming. Just a silver disc, no bigger than an inch in diameter, no greater than a centimeter in depth. Nevertheless, it could be Rose’s saviour.

 

He rushed back to her bedside and hacked her shirt open with scissors- desperate times called for desperate measures- then tugged it aside. It was his sense of decency that kept him from deliberately looking at the new expanse of flesh. He’d almost a millennium of learned decorum to his name, and he’d every intention of putting it to good use. But, without his conscious volition, the corner of his eye still managed to fall upon it, and the rest of his gaze couldn’t help but follow.

 

It was funny, how temporary actions could seem. When the shirt had hidden her from his view, he could so easily have forgotten the snap of her ribs, the breaking of cartilage, the feel of fractured bone moving beneath his palm, so easily presumed that all the fabric concealed was unblemished pink skin. Looking at her now, the real her, not the product of wishful thinking or a desperately, stupidly hopeful imagination, the illusion shattered. She wasn’t black and blue, but a thousand shades of purple, interspersed with red, and her chest was slightly concave from shattered bones where he’d pushed and pushed and pushed her back to life. His jaw clenched at the sight, and it was only that which held the tears at bay.

 

Hesitating no longer, he pressed the disc hard onto her chest, right in the centre of the bruise. It began to gently buzz. Though he couldn’t see it, he knew that underneath the device, a thousand tiny wires were emerging and disappearing beneath her skin. It was technology beyond Rose’s time, an affront to the rules ingrained in him by the Academy, and practically a taunt to the legions of reapers that defended the universe from his own hypocrisy, but he didn’t care. Those wires would burrow through her flesh, wrap around her heart, contract and release to simulate a beat, and keep her artificially alive for as long as her body was unable to. Her life was his priority.

 

It was eerie, this new quiet. The chaos of those horrible minutes and the silence of its resolution left him feeling a little lost, a little restless, as though a tornado had passed but the winds were still howling, and he was at a loss to know what more to do.

 

Directionless and exhausted, he forced himself to inhale; it seemed a lifetime since he’d done that. Then, he hissed out the breath through his teeth. And again. And again. Never before in his life had respiration required such a conscious effort. Without that little voice in his head, ‘in through the nose, out through the mouth’, he’d probably have forgotten how to entirely and regenerated right there on the med-bay floor. Usually, having two hearts was beneficial, but they just made those last dregs of adrenaline course through him all the more rapidly, affect him more severely, made him twitch and tremble more ferociously, and even thought was a monumental challenge. He collapsed into the chair at her bedside.

 

His hand felt empty. Very empty. Cold, too, without hers in it. And hers was hanging limply off the edge of the bed, probably shaken from her side when he’d resuscitated her, so he reached out and-

 

In one, great, croaking gasp, she sat bolt upright and was thrust into consciousness. The Doctor started violently, and dropped her hand as though it burned. Though her eyes were wide, their blank stare showed no awareness of what was happening, and her breaths came in fast, shallow gulps. He tentatively extended a hand to place on her shoulder, an attempt to return her to reality, but she yelped and coiled away. Delirious. She was clearly delirious. Disorientated.

 

Moving to her side, he placed one arm around her waist and used it to haul her to him. This time, she didn’t protest. Her upper torso flopped sideways as he did so, but he could feel her abdomen still rising and falling beneath his fingertips, and that was reassurance enough that he was doing her no further harm, so he held her tighter still. Meanwhile, his other hand rested on her upper sternum. He held firm in spite of her irregular breathing, and pressed gently down before releasing, an attempt to restore some rhythm to it.

 

“Come on, Rose,” he murmured. “With me.” And press, and release, And press, and release. “Come on.” The hand at her waist moved round to her back, which he moved in slow concentric circles, but the one on her chest never faltered, guiding her breaths through her delirium. Bit by wonderful bit, her desperate gasps became short, quiet pants. The colour even started to return to her face. Relief at that small blessing engulfed him, left him momentarily boneless, and he grew lightheaded. Though the temptation to close his eyes was indeed there, a compulsive need to just absorb the moment, he would not surrender to it even to blink. He needed her in sight. Instead, he let his forehead fall forward to rest at her temple in a strange mixture of elation and sheer exhaustion. His lips brushed her ear when he continued to whisper encouragements. “With me, Rose.”

 

She didn’t reply for a long while; he didn’t need her to. He was quite content to listen to the soft rattle of her breaths, see how her hair fluttered out with each precious exhalation, tune his senses to the reality of her at his side... It was, after all, a reality that had so nearly been taken from him. At the thought, he returned his arm to her waist. When he tightened it, he wanted to reaffirm her warmth and life and solidity beneath his hands, but instead the motion made her whimper a little, and the Doctor immediately returned his arm to its previous position. Just when he was about to apologise, Rose spoke first.

 

“It hurts.” The words came like a punch to the stomach. She’d just had her organs chewed away by a virus, and then had her chest smashed to pieces by his haphazard CPR. Of course it hurt. He was an idiot, an absolute bloody fool for not even stopping to consider it and he would help right now, right now, if he could fucking move . But he couldn’t. He was frozen. “It really-” She curled in on herself, tried to wrap her arms around her abdomen, but the motion tugged the IV from her hand, and blood began to drip from it. It was that horrific sight which finally spurred him into action.

 

Crashing from his chair, and barely hearing her confused objections, he began to scramble through the rubble of the med-bay. His left arm was slung into a cradle shape, which allowed him to balance a plethora of bottles of bandages atop it, and he had to lean back with the newfound treasures against his chest to stop his leaning tower of miscellany from toppling over. When he stood up and toddled unsteadily back to the bed, the sight of it was almost enough to make Rose chuckle.

 

He didn’t look at her while he worked. From the moment he was back on the chair, he adopted the persona of the detached doctor, dabbing up blood and dialling up the drug dosage and periodically asking whether she was alright and taking her half-hearted mumbles as an answer. However, it wasn’t out of medical necessity that he decided to keep her conscious. That was selfishness, through and through. Regardless, it took a long while for him to get the courage to look at her again, and when he finally did, he found she was very deliberately not looking at him.

 

“Rose?” he murmured.

 

“I’d like to go to my room. Please.”

 

There was no fanfare, no further discussion. She had that infamous Tyler look on her face, and there’d be no moulding her iron will. He nodded, and slotted his arms beneath her, and she was too delirious to do anything but lie listlessly when he hauled her up. She did take the liberty of snuggling into his neck a little, and he took the liberty of resting the side of his head against the top of hers, but even false intimacy couldn’t obliterate the massive elephant in the room. The distance between the med-bay and the comfort of her bed had never felt further.

 

When they arrived, he shouldered open the door, taking care to ensure Rose’s head wasn’t involved in the collision, and placed her gently but unceremoniously on the bed. In the dim light, both could make out the brownish-red splotch that lay beside her. Neither mentioned it. Instead, the Doctor lifted the duvet and placed her underneath. It was with an almost obsessive precision that he pushed its edges around her, keeping her warm and comfortable and stationary, and Rose didn’t think his focus on keeping her right where she was was entirely accidental. Her thoughts stopped dead when he stopped his frantic movements and stooped to place a kiss on her forehead.

 

This done, and ignoring her suddenly dumbfounded expression, he stood and turned in the direction of the door. She closed her eyes. Her heart hurt, and so did her head, and so did most of her body, and she was waiting on that click of the doorknob when she could finally, finally , ease it at the end of a blade, but it didn’t come. She peeked one eye open. He hadn’t left. Instead, he was standing at her dresser, looking. Privacy was not much of a concern of his, then. With absolute nonchalance, he rifled his hand through the clutter on its top, mascaras, bra straps, knick-knacks from their travels... She opened her other eye, and her glare intensified, and still, he didn’t leave. In fact, when he turned to face her, the look she received could be described only as defiant. Then he turned back, and started searching the drawers.

 

With a sudden sinking feeling that she realised he knew ; she didn’t have to ask what he was looking for.

 

Like a puppet with his strings cut, his joints seemed to fall in on themselves, and he leant heavily on the dresser for support. She tensed. She could hear his breathing, slow and unsteady. There was an intensely deliberate quality to it, and the visible strain proved he was still conscious, so she didn’t leap up to help him. Instead, perturbed and a little disturbed, she just watched. His forehead rested on his templed hands, and his elbows dug into the wood, and his chest shook with every exhalation. She couldn’t see his face.

 

“Rose,” he declared. “I think we should talk.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t.” Rose blanched. For that had not left her mouth voluntarily, and the Doctor tensed the moment he heard it. But before time allowed him to think too much on that statement (his mouth was already working around phantom questions, tongue already curling around phantom words), she was trying to snatch it back. “Sorry. I… Sorry,” she sighed. “I didn’t- I don’t…” Whatever she was going to say was lost to that familiar breathlessness. With lungs still spasming, she jerkily pushed herself upright on the heels of her hands, in the hope that the new angle would facilitate airflow. It didn’t. The Doctor lunged towards her as she began to gasp.

And then there he was, crouching at her bedside. Though her vision was blurry, she could still discern how his brows had contracted into a deep frown, how his eyes grew dark with worry, how his jaw was tightly clenched, and that only made breathing harder. Harder still when he placed two steadying hands upon her back and collarbone, trying to guide her struggling lungs. They were cool, and gentle. But they were not soothing. She found them suffocating. With them came the rhythmic murmurs of “With me. In, out, in, out…” She couldn’t see him at all, now. Teetering on the knife-edge of consciousness, her room as she knew it was hurled into a kaleidoscope, fractals of white and acid pink and scarlet erupting in her sight. In her new blindness, the Doctor’s voice became a tether to reality. Still, her grip even upon that was tenuous.

“It might be a struggle to breathe for awhile, Rose. Remember, the CPR,” he continued over her frantic wheezing. “Your lungs aren’t damaged, but-” She heaved in a particularly rough breath, and he briefly resumed his verbal guidance. “In, out…” Moving the hand on her sternum to the pillows behind her, he quickly fluffed and arranged them, then encouraged her back before settling himself on the edge of her bed. Her head lolled, but he took it between two palms and forced her unfocused gaze to him. “But when your intercostal muscles move, so does everything above them. Unfortunately for you, you have a good few cracked ribs above them, but there’s nothing wrong with your respiratory system itself, so you can breathe, Rose.”

Slowly but surely, she began to believe him. “In through the nose, out through the mouth,” he reminded her, and though quivering still, her lungs gratefully accepted the increasing increments of oxygen she sipped down.

“There we go,” he smiled. The expression was a little forced, a little tight, but nevertheless a welcome reprieve from the wide-eyed terror of the preceding minutes. “I can fix that, by the way. If you’ll let me. It would only take a minute and it wouldn’t hurt and I wouldn’t have to put you under again and-”

Silencing his ramble with a finger upon his lips, she caught the word that she’d prevented from materialising and held it, warm and intangible, in her palm. He gaped. She nodded. “Thank you.” He still gaped, and the finger remained. Normally, he’d have noticed that it was shaking from hypovolemia, and blood was still caked around her nail, and she only smelt like vodka because vodka and antiseptic smelt the same, but he was making a very conscious effort not to think. Instead, he centered his focus on the pulse blooming just below her skin. It struck him, in some distant part of his mind, how that moment was quite odd. But not nearly odd enough for him to want it to end. She was alive, and her touch was proof. He was in no hurry to forsake it. But in the end, it was Rose who withdrew, smiling a little as she did. His hearts sunk to realise the expression didn’t harbour a flicker of sincerity.

“Rose,” he said, and his voice was no less warning than it was imploring. After all, he could see what that smile was: the rug that they were both going to sweep it under. One grin, only half-apologetic, and the incident would become just that, a euphemistically-monikered blip on their radar between one trip and the next, never to be spoken of again. A non-event. The norm. If that happened, what would there be to stop history from repeating itself? The more he thought about it, the more upset he became.

“Rose-” he tried once more. But nothing followed. It was all too real, too raw, too fresh. The ghost of her static heart still resonated in his fingertips, and that continuous lifeless beep still echoed in his ears, and adrenaline was still coursing through his veins, and he knew that if he spoke, he’d have said something selfish and terrified and so, so angry. Instead, he bit his tongue, and clenched his jaw tightly enough that nothing could slip out. He swallowed the words that could have been, feeling them scald all the way down.

Actions, for now, were enough. He put his hands on her shoulders, slowly maneuvering her upper body to face him, and though he was as gentle as possible, her sharp gasp did not escape his hearing, nor did her tense muscles escape his touch. His head shot up to question it, but silence was all that greeted him when hers remained bowed. It was fine- he understood. He was struggling to meet her eye, too.

Shaking himself, he got to work. His movements were mechanical when he retrieved the sonic from his jacket pocket, and he ignored Rose’s gasp when he nonchalantly held it to her chest (his hands only trembled a little, which he internally commended himself for). The bones beneath had been made semi-concave by his violent efforts to revive her, and being so close, he could almost trace the bruises his fingers left. In fact, if he put his mind to it, he was sure he’d be able to recall the unnatural sound of her ribs’ destruction, the feel of them yielding under his palms, the scatter of blood cells whose passage he’d interrupted. The best course of action was not to put his mind to it.

“This won’t hurt,” he promised, the flicked the sonic on. There was a beat when nothing happened, then suddenly and with a resounding ‘crack’, her bones popped outwards and back into place. Satisfied, he withdrew, sliding the sonic back into his jacket. “There we go.” Although tempted to examine the injury site further, to reassure himself she was well, he knew she would not appreciate any more prying than was absolutely necessary, so he forced himself into inaction. Still, though, Rose didn’t speak, and her breaths were only marginally steadier than before. “Rose?” When she didn’t react, he grew concerned. “Rose?” he repeated, his hand beginning to tiptoe across the duvet towards her.

“It hurts,” she murmured, just as his hand finally encased hers. “Everywhere.”

Ah. “Ah.” She was in pain, still in pain, and he couldn’t even help because she was already on maximum-dose analgesics. Guilt twisted his guts.

On the tip of his tongue were explanations. Long, rambling explanations. Explanations that, had she been someone else, someone who meant less and he needed less, would have fallen easily from his lips. But she wasn’t, so they didn’t. So, instead, the only words he was capable of were, “You got ill.”

“Ill?”

He coughed awkwardly, and this time it was he who avoided her eye. “Schillian flu. It a- uh- a flu. From Schillia.”

“I don’t remember visiting there.”

“You wouldn’t,” he replied, finding the a speck of fluff on his jacket suddenly fascinating. But he didn’t add to that statement. It hung in the air, still and heavy and somehow claustrophobic, like they were trapped within the unvoiced words beyond it, and he made no effort to remedy the situation.

When the silence drew on, and on, and on, Rose realised he was being deliberately evasive. She also knew that they’d get nowhere if she indulged it. Though only half-sure she wanted to know the rest, she cocked an eyebrow, instructing him to continue.

He sighed heavily. “We never visited Schillia.”

“We didn’t,” she concurred, her upwards inflection digging for more. Though she tried not to notice how the Doctor’s fist twitched and clenched in the duvet, knowing that he’d not only anticipated those words, but dreaded them, she did. And though she tried not to react, her hand was upon his before she’d even given it permission to move. Instinctively, his flipped around so that they could entwine.

“There’re all sorts floating about the TARDIS. This ship’s old- thousands of years old- and bound to have picked up some things on her travels,” he began. Rose said nothing in reply, and when he glanced up at her, she gave him a look that told him not to expect her to. Clearing his throat, he carried on. “Now, any disease I know is lingering about that you’re in danger of catching, I vaccinate you against. Schillian flu, I didn’t think you were in danger of catching.”

The hand in hers began to shake, and she realised that this, here, was the bit they’d both been tiptoeing around. But rather than speaking, he reached for her wrist. Expecting a little resistance, he was surprised when what he got was resignation, and he was able to take it towards himself without a peep from Rose. Slowly, he began to roll her sleeve up.

And there it was. He struggled to look at it even now, though the storm had passed. Already, the wound was healing, but the relief of that didn’t balm the agony of its presence upon her porcelain skin, red and raw and hitting far too close to home for his hearts not to twinge when he saw it again. Safer territory was to watch her.

Her reaction was more subdued than he’d anticipated, perhaps more subdued than he’d have liked. Because when her breath hitched a little, and her eyes scanned the wound, he couldn’t help but remember his own desperate sobs as he’d forced her reluctant body back to life, begging and pleading for her to return to a world that, judging by the coldness of her gaze, she was completely apathetic about.

“It can only enter-” he began, surprising even himself, not to mention the suddenly wide-eyed Rose, with the bitterness of his tone. He sucked in a breath through gritted teeth, and tried again. “It can only enter through major wounds. I never planned on letting you get hurt enough for it to be a problem.” And when she looked up, this time it was him who looked away.

Itching to do something, or just itching to get away from those kind, patient, and completely unmoved eyes, he sprung up from the bed and launched himself back towards the drawers. He hurled them open one by one, grunting with annoyance each time he came up empty, and after his efforts were proven fruitless, he rifled through her wardrobe, too. Only once her bedside cabinet, and her jewellery box, and her makeup bag, and her bookshelf, had all been inspected, and none had harboured what he sought, he returned to Rose with one hand extended.

Her first response was to feign ignorance, so she shrugged. But he was having none of it. “Rose,” he warned, his voice a promise that he’d turn the entire TARDIS upside-down if he had to. She remained still, and silent, and he stepped closer. “Give it to me.”

He could sense the cogs of her mind whirring. The room was silent, making her measured breaths seem far too loud, and her fingers began tapping an irregular rhythm onto her bedding, and her eyes were half-lidded to keep the thoughts behind them from spilling out into the air, and when her decision was made, he could tell before she even moved. Her hand sunk beneath the duvet and, after a second, withdrew, holding a pen-knife.

Striding forward, he took it in his hand and nodded. He could feel the difference in himself immediately. A weight was lifted. She would be okay, and the cold weight of the blade in his pocket, not in her hand, was testament to that. “Thank you,” he murmured. And though his tone was joyless, the half-smile that accompanied his words was sincere.

But then, when he looked at Rose, his hearts sunk to realise the weight that had been lifted from him had been thrust upon her. When her lip began to tremble, he was at her side in a heartbeat.

Chapter Text

Ever since Rose had stumbled into his life (or rather, since he’d exploded into hers), it had been noisy. Noisy from her absent-minded chatter, from the clatter of teaspoons in the galley, from her humming in the hallways, from her footsteps on the grating, from the creak and slam of doors, from her laughs and her yawns and chuckles and sighs and even, if he listened hard enough, the warm hum of her telepathic presence, dormant and unused but still there, at the back of his mind, still always there. If becoming the last of the Time Lords was his punishment, then the constant hubbub was proof of his redemption. She was here. He wasn’t alone.

Now, for the first time since ‘run’, the TARDIS was silent. And it was devastating.

Afraid to speak, lest he said the wrong thing, and afraid to touch her, lest she bolted, he opted for hovering indecisively at Rose’s bedside, shifting from foot to plimsoll-clad foot. His eyes never drifted from her, not once. They were probing, and no less analytical than they always had been, but there was something more. Had she seen it, the guilt twisting in her stomach would have grown intolerable, but she daredn’t look up. For the blood on his hands seemed to emanate from his gaze, and manifested in the welling tears he found there. Never before had he been so keenly aware of what he was. The passing of the seconds coincided with his death-knell heartbeats, and time itself spun webs around his veins, but he was powerless. Now and then, he’d open his mouth, as if that magnificent mind of his had finally conjured something equally magnificent to make it all better, but whether through lack of courage, or the absence of epiphanies, he said nothing, could say nothing. Then she pushed herself upright, and it wasn’t silent anymore.

The words were quiet. So quiet, in fact, that it took him a moment to realise that that’s what they were. Meshed with the silence, and almost indistinguishable from her ragged breaths, she rasped, “Please give it back.”

His hearts stopped. The cool metal in his pocket became a dead weight. Torn between the instinct to go to her and the burning desperation to run, his muscles tensed and he froze. “Rose, I-”

“Please.”

Oh, that hurt. That really hurt. He lurched back from the sting of her plea, its power no less direct or acute than that of a physical force, and tried (failed) not to replay it in his mind. Running a hand across his face, he tried again. “I can’t.”

Though he meant the words, was quietly certain they were for the best, he regretted them even as they passed his lips. Because as soon as they did, she deflated.

Nodding, she murmured a resigned, “Right.”

“Right...” he confirmed. A beat passed. Then, with a sudden certainty, he repeated, “Right.”

Now wasn’t the time for bowing to pressure. Now wasn’t the time to do what was easy. And though instinct told him to do anything to make her silent tears stop, reality told him that following instinct would kill her. He had to be her advocate, not her enabler; obey his head, not his hearts. He’d stand firm in his choice.

Somehow energised by this revelation, he was propelled again to her side with the certainty of a moth to the flame. He clambered onto the foot of her bed- and startled Rose, who yelped as he squished her ankle, out of her daze- then looked very deliberately nonchalant as he crossed his legs and his arms and raised his eyebrows to make shooting that demanding stare of his just a little easier.

“Rose-” he began. But something wasn’t right. Amongst the many not-right things of that day, something else wasn’t right. Her head was still bowed. Perfectly lovely though it was, he wouldn’t talk at her scalp. Re-startling her, he stretched out and captured her chin above two fingers, then tilted it slowly upright. For once, he wasn’t thrilled by the quickening of her pulse at his touch. All it signified was fear. As she heaved in a shuddering breath, he sighed one out and withdrew. “Rose,” he repeated. She cut him off.

“You can take me home, you know,” she said, deadpan,and just like that, his hearts went into freefall. She’d promised him forever. Promised. Known it was too good to be true, of course, but she’d promised. And for a moment, one shining and impossible moment, he’d believed her. Shouldn’t have. If he hadn’t, he’d have been able to suppress the tensing of his muscles, the trembling of his bottom lip, the swelling lump in his throat, and his ears wouldn’t be filled with a strange buzzing, and his sight wouldn’t have become suddenly blurry, but all that mattered was the horrible realisation that she’d realised what the rest of them had: he was cursed. Everything he touched, the fetor of rot and decay latched onto, and she would sooner seek shelter from the storm than stand alongside him as the rains drenched them, and he would lose Rose, too. “If you want.”

Three words. Three, not particularly elaborate, or enthralling, or beautiful words. And, had they been spoken by any other mouth, in any other place, under any other circumstances, they’d have been practically meaningless. ‘You can have milk in that coffee, if you want.’ ‘Come round Tuesday, if you want.’ ‘I’ll babysit for you, if you want.’ Weightless. Pointless. Disposable. Yet it was those three magical (and somewhat crap) words that restored colour to his universe.

“No,” he breathed, momentarily dizzy. “I don’t want.”

The gaping-mouthed, eyebrow-raised expression he received in reply was the closest a face could come to morphing into a question mark.

“I don’t want you gone. God, Rose, I don’t want you gone. I want to help you.”

For a moment, a fraction of one, the surprise at his words stilled her. But, whether it was pride that did it, resilience, the Powell Estate-honed poker face, she recovered. “No, you need to. Think you need to, anyway.”

His brow furrowed and, without conscious volition, he leaned in towards her. “I don’t quite understand.”

“Right,” she nodded, then, “Sorry. I’m… I’m trying not to be a bitch.” Her voice was measured and calm, and horribly rational. Why wasn’t she falling apart at the seams like he was? Why didn’t she have to bite or choke or spit out the words as he did, try to arrange them into sense after? And before he could respond, deny that he could ever think of her as anything less than perfect, she was talking again. “It’s like… If you see a kid in Woolworths throwing a tantrum because they want pick and mix, they’re their parents’ problem. But if it’s your kid, you’ll buy the bloody sweets.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with-” he broke off, gesturing vaguely at her wrist. His discomfort at acknowledging her injury was written all over his face, from his wide eyes to the gaping mouth that seemed to whisper ‘I can’t believe I just did that’, and it was almost enough to make her smile. Somewhere in her memory was a Jackie Tyler wearing the exact same expression whilst explaining the birds and the bees.

“Doctor, please just hear me out,” she pleaded. “You think I’m your responsibility-”

“You are my-”

“No, but that’s just it. I’m not.” His mouth was already open to refute her claim, so she beat him to it. “I won’t turn you into my babysitter, Doctor. That’s not fair.”

“Did I offer to be?”

She didn’t answer. Not properly, anyway. “So you are taking me home?”

Only then, when her insecurity bled through into her face, did he find it right, necessary even, to touch her. Broaching the distance between them, he sandwiched each of her hands in each of his. “I’m not taking you home. I am not your babysitter. I am your friend.”

“Then what-”

“Rose,” he interrupted. “I want to help you. Want to.”

He had the air of a man yearning for, needing, her trust. She had the air of someone desperately trying to keep her patience. Struggling.

Rose replied, with her teeth gritted, “So you keep saying.”

He said nothing back.

Humming lowly in accompaniment to their quarrel was the TARDIS, and it was she who filled the silence that fell alongside Rose’s words with the rich, mellifluous cadence of Time. There was no reproach in her tone, no threat of disapproval, no promise of judgement. It was the tone of a mother. And, as a good mother, she would not play favourites with her two children, though she’d known one for a moment and the other for a lifetime.

The minutes drew on, and on, and on… With the gentlest touch, her song began to extinguish the fledgling fires in Rose’s blood. They’d never burned bright, anyway. It was little work to mould them into something softer, something more human, though the only visual evidence was her fists unfurling, the only audible evidence the ghost of a sigh between her lips. She wasn’t well. She was far from well. But that glorious ship would not permit her daughter to suffer alone, and suffer alone she would if every cell in her body screamed for solitude, so she continued to ease her into the calmer reaches of her mind.

Slowly but surely, she returned to the real world. It was sight, first. The blurry mass of pink turned into pillows and lampshades and shiny trinkets, and before it even felt real to her, sound rushed in, the rattle of the Doctor’s controlled breathing, the crumple of cheap cotton, even the friction of eyelids against cornea when she blinked. And when touch returned, the fibres of her bedlinen seemed suddenly more significant, as though the threads had become ropes in her daze, and she’d forgotten that her hands were in someone else’s until the Time Lord squeezed, told her it was okay without using words of his own, or demanding them of her. She could have cried at the- she couldn’t even call it a smile- bared teeth, that he showed her when she squeezed back. There was no telling what the expression signified. The rational part of her said gratitude. The less rational part, apology. She squeezed again, grounding both of them, and opened her mouth to undo the damage she’d done.

He beat her to it.

“You’re right, Rose,” he murmured. At his words, her mouth clicked shut, but he didn’t comment on it. He was far too consumed in grazing his thumbs along hers, imbuing warmth into her flesh, to even notice that she’d moved. “I want to help you, but I do need to, too.”

‘I told you so,’ didn’t even cross her mind. Her only thought was making him smile again, because in all her years, she didn’t think she’d ever seen anybody look so desolate. His suit was rumpled, and his hair was a mess, and his eyes were wide and red and unblinking- and he was the Last of the Time Lords, and she’d reduced him to this.

Not dropping his hands, and with some awkward maneuvering, she clambered atop the duvet- ignoring the Doctor’s weak protestations- and sat again, mirroring his cross-legged position. Rose’s muscles still burned with corrosion, of course. They would for days, weeks- illness like the Schillian flu was brutal. It didn’t slink quietly away from the battlefield, and half the battle now was concealing her winces. But he needed her. He needed her to do this. She shuffled forward until they were knee-to-knee, and suddenly, he became more real. The clenched jaw, the furrowed brow, those crinkles around his eyes: she could reach out, if she wanted to, and touch them. They’d be soft, she knew, because they’d been at her temple before, always accompanied by the widest, brightest grin, after they’d escaped from some horror or the other, defied impossible odds once again. No longer were they hers to touch, hers to claim. Because he was hurt, and it was her fault.

Where before she could read each minute shift in his expression, now his head was bowed, and all she could see was a crown of- even in the circumstances, frankly magnificent- hair. She wouldn’t do as he’d done, tip his head upright if he wouldn’t lift it himself. Though it ached to admit it, Rose knew that the walls he’d built weren’t hers to break down. She had to wait for them to crumble, hold his hand until they did. She squeezed again.

In the silence, her mind was free, practically compelled, to work overtime, half-dreading and half-anticipating what he’d do next. There was no precedent she could work off. Not from this incarnation, anyway. The rage of the Time Lord was safely contained in pinstripes, not leather. This him, the new him, was exactly that: new. All she was certain of was that his was a simmering rage, a quiet rage, a forest fire that was as lawless as it was volatile, and though she feared it, it would burn itself out before even grazing her.

When, at such long last, he spoke, his tone wasn’t what she’d expected. Logic told her that he’d be gentle, use kind words and use them in hushed voice, because that’s what people did to people in padded cells and straight-jackets. But though he was gentle, and though he was kind, she saw his hard edges clear as day. And the hard edges said differently. Wondering just how it would feel to have his anger directed at her, she was left reeling by the sheer lightness of his tone when, finally, he opened his mouth.

“Let’s say we forget all about this, Rose. Let’s say we sweep this under the rug, and let the past be the past,” he began, head slowly rising. The sudden change in him perplexed Rose but, more than anything else, relieved her. He wouldn’t hold it against her. They could carry on as normal- the stuff of legends. But even as she sighed out her worry, she realised something was wrong. His hands were violently trembling. “And one day, I’m gonna land us on a brilliant planet. Let’s say… I dunno- Barcelona! I land us on Barcelona. Sun’s shining, birds are singing, no-nosed dogs are barking, etcetera, and I skip down corridors because I’ve got such a great day planned for us. And I burst in here, Rose, because it’s an exciting day.” As his monologue drew on, his eyes grew wider, his voice louder, taking on a manic quality, and Rose felt horribly sure- heart-droppingly sure- of where he was going with this.

“But then I look at you, tucked up in bed, and you’re blue. And for a minute, I don’t know what that means, Rose, because it won’t- it doesn’t- process. Because you’re pink and yellow, so if I’m looking for you, that’s what I look for. Not blue. And then I remember what blue means for humans. And I panic. So I run to you- that’s what we do, Rose. We run. So I run to you, and it’s only a few steps but in my heart-of-hearts, I know it’s far too late even before I get there. And that’s when I see the blood. And all the pieces are there, Rose, but I can’t put them together. You’ve never been in that situation, Rose. You might think you have but-” his voice caught, and finally, finally, he cracked. Sniffing, and coughing, and then squeezing his eyes shut, the water in them spilled over and a single tear tracked down his cheek. He didn’t notice it, didn’t dash it away. He was far too consumed by his own thoughts to do that.

“Death, real death. You’re seeing a person you love-” He didn’t even hesitate over the word. “But they aren’t that person anymore. That person’s gone, and there is nothing you can do. And you’re numb, because shock sets in. But not for long. Not long enough. And the moment you can move again, you’re searching for a pulse that you know you won’t find, trying anyway, trying everywhere. The wrist- the one that’s not ripped open, of course- the neck, behind the knees, and trying again, because you hope to god you missed something the first time. And you know you’re lying to yourself, because rigor mortis will’ve set in by then. So her body will be hard.” The change in pronouns didn’t go unnoticed by Rose, whose chest burned now not just from the damage done in resuscitating her, but in horror at what she’d put him through. She yearned to reach out, draw him into her arms, silence the rest of his speech, but any attempt to move her hands from his was stopped by his instinctive iron grip, so she settled for the best thing- only thing- she could do: staying strong for him. “But you persist. Because that’s what you do when you love someone. That’s what you do when you’re terrified of living without them. You breathe air into their lungs and break their ribs to make their heart work again and you’d do it forever if there was no-one to stop you, and there’s always someone there to stop you, but there is no-one left to stop me, so I keep going. I keep going.” His voice was high and tight and terrified. “I want to help you. But I need to, too. Not just for your sake.”

Her mouth opened, and nothing came out.

“Rose, talk to me,” he said, then, desperately, “Please.”

Still, nothing came out.

“Rose, I’ll do anything. Anything at all. Please, just tell me what I can do.”

He squeezed her hands again, not to comfort her, not to prompt her, just to remind himself that below her soft skin was warm muscle, heated by flowing blood that came from a pumping, living heart.

Had he been willing to release them, she’d have hugged him tight. But he absolutely, categorically wasn’t. They were his lifeline. His tether to sanity. He’d lost his planet, nearly lost her- she couldn’t begrudge him a hand to hold. Instead, she settled for leaning forward- ignoring how his breath grew loud and unsteady, and ignoring how he craned his neck to avoid taking his eyes off her- to place her head on his shoulder.

Chapter Text

He was a Time Lord. It was an absolute, irrefutable fact. He had two hearts and a respiratory bypass and an ego bigger than jupiter. His hands were warm when they were in hers, but icy without them; children of the loom were built cold, after all, and under the scalding heat of the Gallifreyan sun it was better that way. There was mud on his shoes, because a Time Lord never stopped moving. There was mud on his coattails, because a Time Lord moved at a running pace or not at all, but neither that nor the perfumed head upon his shoulder could quite drown out the stench of blood and death upon him. It was the price of nine-hundred years. Curse of the Time Lords, he called it, though he alone was the executioner.

He was a Time Lord. It was an absolute, irrefutable fact. But in that moment, there was nothing left to prove it. Utterly defeated, a little bruised, completely powerless, all he could do was wait.

She murmured something indecipherable into his neck, then, burrowing even closer to him, and he wished she wouldn’t. Each warm exhalation, or brush of her hair against his collarbone, or drowsy half-formed word was a stark reminder of what he had so nearly lost. Though she was the Bad Wolf to the universe, to him she was infinitely more. She was Rose Marion Tyler. 20 years old. Born and raised on a Peckham council estate. Mouthy like her mother. Clever like her father. Pink and yellow and warm and- his hearts said his before his mind caught up. He had no claim on her. Intellectually, he knew that. But if the twisting in his chest and the desperate burn behind his eyes and the urge to never release her hands from his said anything, it was that he wished he did. A revelation in itself. As if replying to his inner monologue, Rose mumbled again, and he sighed fondly. His grip on her hands tightened.

“Nothing.”

The word was unnaturally loud in the otherwise silent room. Louder still because it was spoken right into his ear. And though there was no logical doubt he heard it, he wondered briefly whether he had imagined her voice into existence. Not a syllable of what she’d said made sense, and Rose, enigma though she was, liked to make sense.

Dragging herself upright (the Doctor daredn’t object, though his internal protestations were vehement), she sniffed a little and averted her eyes. Everything about her expression screamed her discomfort, even fear. And though he tried to meet her gaze, tell her without telling her that he was there for her, that she would be alright, that he’d make sure she was alright, she managed to evade him at every turn. Trepidatious now, the Doctor was about to speak when-

“You don’t have to do anything,” she clarified. The words had barely left her mouth before he was groaning in frustration.

“Rose, were you not listening to a word I said?” the Doctor growled. “I want to.”

“No, I mean-” Her voice caught. “I mean…” Desperate now, looking very, very young and very, very lost, and just a smidgen afraid, she finally faced him. “I mean that there are some battles you can’t fight for me.”

And of course, because he was him, he took that as a challenge.

The clingy, anguished man of the past few hours seemed to fly away on a sudden breeze, and left behind was a half-frantic, half-manic ball of barely-contained energy. From the tips of his wiggling toes to the post-electrocution mane atop his head, his entire body seemed to feel the change. He was itching. Positively itching. Every moment of stillness felt like a wasted one and-

He freed her hands from his grip so so quickly that the return of sensation left her yelping, but the Doctor didn’t even hear it; he was too busy pushing himself upright and clambering across the duvet. With every step it was marked by the mud on his chucks, and Rose would have protested if she weren’t baffled into silence. Really, she doubted he would have cared if she had. Whatever he was up to, he was intent on it. Once he reached the edge of the bed, he leapt nonchalantly off, not even breaking stride to land, and made a beeline for her dressing table.

Once there, he bent down and out of Rose’s sight. Her interest was piqued when she heard rustling.

“Doctor, wh-”

He sprung up and, as he resurfaced, it became swiftly apparent that the brief disappearance had done nought for his sanity. If possible (it certainly didn’t seem so), the mania in his eyes had become a little more acute. Almost no iris now. A little too much pupil. And though each individual hair on his head was as glorious as ever, any sense of cohesion between them was dead, buried, six feet under, all five stages of grief well and truly over with. If Rose didn’t know better, she’d assume they were making a very conscious effort to avoid touching each-other at all. It was as though his body had finally decided to correspond with the person it contained. This was it, she thought; he’d cracked. She’d wondered whether she would see the day, and here it was.

So distracted was she by his face (not for the reason she was usually distracted by his face, mind) that she failed to notice, for a long moment, the fabric of his coattails was held around his front and folded into a (less than sturdy looking) bucket shape. Not bothering to shoot her even a cursory glance, he began rifling through the table’s contents. From the second he started, she knew what he was looking for. What she didn’t know was whether it was worth protesting.

On one hand, he was helping her. That’s what he was doing on paper, anyway, and even if she didn’t need the help, he needed to provide it; if his impassioned speech had proven anything, it was that. Rose meant something to him, far more than she realised, far more than she deserved, but something. The knowledge felt like a responsibility. Last of the Time Lords, and she had one of his hearts in in each of her hands. Though she wasn’t up to the task of holding them, she knew she wasn’t, here she was, and surely that counted for something. She didn’t want to hurt him again by not letting him try.

On the other hand, he was trying to take her comfort away, and a bigger part of her than she realised was terrified even at the thought. It made her feel young. Weak. But there was something so reassuring about the option of switching the dead weight of emotions for the paper-thin ease of physical pain, and the child in her couldn’t let that go. It was a tempting trade-off, however toxic it was.

He won out, as he always had. As he always would. And she allowed him to proceed.

Anything sharp went in the bucket. Anything that could, with a good amount of time and a reasonable amount of know-how, be fashioned into something sharp, in the bucket. Anything vaguely pointy, into the bucket it went. And again, with her chest of drawers, with her wardrobe, with her bedside tables. And again, just to make one-hundred percent sure he hadn’t missed anything the first time. And once more, to be a little more sure.

Then, without ceremony, he poured it all down a rubbish chute.

“I’ll do the rest of the TARDIS later,” he said, starting to amble back towards the bed. His nonchalance jolted her a little; it wasn’t like he was talking about hoovering. He’d ransacked her room, was planning on ransacking his entire ship, and saw nought unusual or objectionable in doing so.

“What?” she replied intelligently.

“The rest. Of the TARDIS,” he explained, with a similar amount of eloquence. When her face remained blank, he added (by way of clarification), “Pointy,” and shaped his hands into pincers. He was right at her bedside now, making the gesture impossibly more ridiculous; this great, looming figure, with darkness swirling in his eyes and time in his blood, doing a none too shabby impression of a lobster.

A strange combination of boredom and fondness brought his charade to an end. Shuffling sideways, she reached up then dragged him down, and he collapsed onto the bed beside her. She realised her error immediately.

Neither mentioned how he’d landed on the bloodstain. It seemed too brazen, even for them, to do so. The red was as vibrant as ever, and still a little wet, and he wasn’t sure whether it being cold made it better or worse, but he did know that he needed to get away from it, and feared being away from her. He didn’t think about the decision. Rose didn’t object to it. Without a word between them, he propelled himself closer to her.

The shadow of their shared trauma had brought them nose-to-nose.

There was nothing invasive about the moment. Though his breath brushed her face, and his hands moved (she was quite sure the movement was unconscious) onto her waist, and his eyes were probing and patient, she’d come to realise that her personal space had become less of a physical concept, more of a mental one, and his accepting silence proved he had no intention of violating it. He wouldn’t push anymore. She would speak on her own terms.

“Sorry,” she began. The word had barely materialised before he prepared to object, but she hushed him with a finger on his lips. “For what I’ve put you through.”

“You don’t need to ap-”

“No, but I do. And I know you won’t let me say sorry for…” Her glance skipped to the mark on the distinctly vacant other side of the bed, but she couldn’t quite vocalise what she was thinking. Maybe it was cowardice, maybe it was mercy, but she couldn’t say. The spasmodic contraction of his hands told her that he knew anyway. “But I can say sorry for upsetting you. So I am.”

Though he’d defeated Daleks and Cybermen and brought his own species to their knees, speaking around the lump in his throat was too great a challenge even for him. Instead, he pulled her closer, told her he forgave her without words and without there really being anything to forgive. His arms were tight around her waist (she ignored how they trembled), and his breath travelled in rivulets through her hair, and his head was tucked right under his (now stubbly) chin. It was warm there, a little too warm to be entirely comfortable, but she could think of no place else she’d rather have been.

“Not my battle,” he eventually whispered. “But when’s that ever stopped me, eh?”

She nuzzled into him and breathed out a murmur of half-agreement, half-contentment. With her head against his chest, he could feel the beginnings of a smile blooming on her face, and his hearts grew so full that he feared they might burst. She’d be alright; he’d make sure of it.

Bit by bit, her breaths slowed and evened, and her tense muscles grew slack, but the Doctor’s hold on her remained as firm as ever. He knew there were conversations to have still, wrongs to right and unspoken things that needed to be said, but he was content now to just be. She was warm, and her pulse strengthened with every passing minute. The damage she’d wrought to herself and that the disease had wrought to her was still all too real, but she was alive, and she was healing, and that was enough for now.

With a light kiss to her forehead, he finally closed his own eyes. It had been a long day.