Rose was in the back room of the shop, organizing the stock shelves in silence when she heard the soft, tinkling of the bell on the door, alerting her to the presence of a customer. The sound jarred her. Business had been slow since the start of the war. The women and children who remained behind had less money to spend with so many of the men away, so it was typical to pass the hours of the day with only the occasional stray customer. She put down the boxes she carried onto a pristinely clean shelf, and made her way to the front of the shop.
Brushing her hands against the apron tied around her waist had become second nature to her, even though there was no dust to clean from them. With so much spare time around the shop and no one to talk to, there was nothing better to do than keep the place spotless. Rose was sure her boss would approve, if he could see the place. Of course, it was the nature of the world in this era. He too was off fighting in the war, leaving the shop in his wife’s hands. With four children to raise alone now, the shopkeeper’s wife rarely even stopped by. It felt as if the shop belonged solely to Rose.
She weaved her way through the doorway and around the counter with her eyes lowered, not looking up until she reached the main floor. Her eyes sought out the silhouette framed in the light of the doorway.
She froze, stunned. Any lingering thoughts of the war, the shop, and the world in which she had been trapped for the better part of three years went rushing straight out of her mind. All she could see was the man who stood there, silently staring at her. All she could feel was the sweet relief of seeing him alive. She choked back a sob, her fists clutched tightly into the cloth of the apron.
He stepped away from the blinding light of the window and she was finally able to make out his face, so familiar to her after all of these years. He looked exactly the same as he had more than a year before, when they had said goodbye. He was so handsome in his soldier’s uniform, his hat on his head, and his eyes completely focused on her own. It was like he was drinking in the sight of her, and he looked as relieved to see her face as she was to see his.
“Rose…” he said her name softly, his voice caressing the sound of it so lovingly that she didn’t hesitate another moment. She rushed across the room in one swift motion and flung herself into his open, waiting arms. They tightened around her in an electric hug, squeezing her almost a little too tightly, like he was clinging to her for dear life. Her cheeks were wet, eyes stinging, and this time she didn’t hold back the sob, as she buried her face into her husband’s shoulder.
“I thought I was never going to see you again,” she cried, and she honestly meant it. Growing up she had always seen the old movies and heard stories of what it was like to wait at home for your soldier husband to return from war. Never once did she imagine that she would ever experience a life like that.
But then one day she got stuck in 1913 and the man she was stranded with asked her to marry him. Then he decided that it was his duty to go to war, and he left her behind, to survive on her own.
“Oh Rose…” he answered softly, burying his face in her hair. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
His words sent a trickle of ice down her spine. They were familiar in tone, in meaning. She had heard them spoken from this mouth in so many different ways to so many different people. She froze in his arms, as the realization finally struck home that the man she was hugging was no longer her husband.
3 years earlier
The bright yellow flames licked at the sky, blinding, devouring, and destroying everything in its path. Rose could only stand there and watch from a distance, hoping and praying that all was not lost.
She had been certain, dead certain, that the Family had found them when she saw the orange glow brightening against the night sky. Her heart pounded with fear as she rushed across the fields towards the blazing school. Upon her arrival she was quickly informed that there was an accident in the kitchen. The school was burning, but from purely natural means. A normal, human accident, and it could destroy everything.
Rose hadn’t seen him yet, and she was frantic for reassurance of his safety, even though the local bystanders insisted that everyone had made it out alive. She searched the crowds of students, all of them shivering in the cold night air in their pajamas, but she could not see his lithe figure. She needed to know that he was uninjured. He had no idea how important he was, after all. He had no idea what was hidden beneath the bumbling identity of the normal human schoolteacher.
Would he have even thought to grab the watch as he ran for his life?
She finally spotted him from a distance, clad in his pajamas and a dressing gown, looking so very similar to the day when he saved the world with a well-placed satsuma. His face was glowing in the flickering light from the roaring blaze, and he looked horrified, terrified. Rose ran directly to him.
“Are you all right?”
Confused eyes turned to her, and she waited impatiently until recognition flowed into them. “Miss…Rose, is it? From the village pub?” Rose nodded, but his eyes had already returned to the burning building. “The school is lost,” he told her emotionlessly. “All our possessions…everything. I imagine the boys will be sent home immediately.”
“Were you able to save anything?” Rose pressed, praying that he’d pull the watch out of his pocket.
“No. I was sleeping. The smoke woke me up. I barely made it out. No time to grab anything at all.”
The confirmation of her deepest fear left Rose feeling simply numb. She couldn’t even feel panic bubbling up inside her, or tears, or grief. It was as she suspected. The watch…the Doctor. It was gone. He was gone. Lost forever in a simple human fire.
Her voice was void of all emotion when she distantly asked him, “What will you do?”
He blinked uncertainly. “I don’t know. Find work, I suppose. Maybe go to London? Certainly someone will be in need of a tutor there, for the time being…until I can find a post in another school.”
“London,” Rose murmured. “Right. Of course.”
His attention was soon called away to help organize the school boys, who would be moved to a safe place for the night. Rose could think of nothing more to do, so she turned and slowly made her way back to the village.
It was three days before the site of the fire had quieted down enough for Rose to search the ruins. She awoke well before dawn, biking to the abandoned shed where the TARDIS was hidden to find a torch, before making her way to the burnt-out shell of Farringham School.
Even days after the blaze, the smell of smoke was choking, and Rose had to keep a hand to her face, trying desperately to hold back the disgust rising up in her chest. There was very little recognizable within the destruction. Just charred remains. Rose could only guess whether she was remotely close to his living quarters or not. She had never even been inside of the school.
The sun was rising in the eastern sky when Rose heard the approaching footsteps of the demolition crew, and she had to quickly sneak away before she was spotted.
Regardless, her question had been answered. She had failed.
The Doctor was lost to her. Forever.
2 months later
The market was packed with bodies, the noise overwhelming, as Rose weaved her way through the crowds towards the shop where she was now employed. Christmas was soon approaching, and Rose found herself distracted by the people around her, all shopping for toys and clothes among the booths. It was all so different from the wild commercialism of the malls and shopping centers of her natural time. Yet, it was still so similar: the desire to give gifts to the ones you loved, to cherish those closest to you.
The holidays made Rose miss her home. She was so close, and yet, so very far away from home. London, but a different London, a London long before her own time. Here she had no family, no friends…not even the Doctor was here to keep her company. She was stranded, lonely in a strange place that both was and wasn’t her own. Here, it seemed that no one even knew her name.
Rose gasped at the sound of his voice, and turned to see a very familiar face beaming an unfamiliar smile. The Doctor’s face, but John Smith’s smile was so very, very different from the one that she was used to. It didn’t have the manic shine that she was so accustomed to seeing in the Doctor.
“Mr. Smith!” she greeted him formally, hoping that she didn’t sound too overjoyed to see him. Following him to London and settling in a neighborhood near him had been difficult enough without seeming like a stalker. She had to stay close to him, but she didn’t want to scare him off in the process.
“It’s so good to see a familiar face,” he continued. “How are you settling in here in London?”
“Yeah, it’s been good,” Rose told him with what she hoped was an enthusiastic smile. “I got a job in a shop down the way, and a room in a local boarding home. It’s not much, but it’s a start at least.”
“How very independent of you,” Smith commented, offering her his arm, which she willingly took, allowing him to lead her on through the market.
“Yeah, well it’s just me on my own, you know.”
“No…” Rose admitted sadly, thinking of her mother, lost through the void in a parallel universe a year before. “They’re gone.”
“Me as well,” he told her lightly. “But I’ve been alone a long time, I think,” he admitted distantly, his voice drifting off as he seemed to lose himself in his thoughts. She waited patiently until he seemed to shake his head clear. “Sorry. It’s a hard time of year to be alone.”
“It’s my first Christmas alone,” Rose told him sadly. “My second without my mum, but last Christmas at least I had my friend…” Her voice trailed off wistfully as she thought of the Doctor, Donna, and the Racnoss. She forced the memories away, focusing back onto the Doctor’s face, disconnected as it might be from his true self. “Anyway, he’s gone now too.”
“Well, that’s just not right!” Smith insisted in an unnaturally cheerful voice. “No one should be alone on Christmas!” He stopped suddenly in his tracks, turning to face Rose head on. “Miss Rose, seeing as you’re going to be alone on Christmas, and I’m going to be alone on Christmas, maybe we could…not…be alone. Together. Would you care to join me for Christmas dinner? At my flat?”
Rose was baffled. “You’re going to cook Christmas dinner?” she asked him, trying to envision the Doctor in a kitchen cooking like a normal human being. “Can you even cook?”
Now it was his turn to freeze. “You know…I don’t know. Huh.”
“You don’t know if you can cook or not?” Rose asked with a laugh. It made perfect sense to her why he wouldn’t know, but to anyone else his response would seem strange.
“No idea,” Smith admitted. “That’s strange, isn’t it? I realize of course that this would be a risk on your part. Disaster could strike with a single man cooking, but I’m willing to face the danger head on. How about it, Miss Rose? Would you like to have an adventure with me?”
Rose felt a chill deep inside her at his words, and she couldn’t help shivering a bit. The Doctor was lost to her, but she was determined to stay as close to John Smith as possible, just on the off chance that something could change. She needed something to hold onto in this strange world where she was all alone.
“Call me Rose,” she told him firmly. “None of that Miss Rose nonsense, anymore. And it’s a date.”
“A date. Right. Of course,” John fumbled nervously. “Dating. How do I do this again? I suppose, I come and call for you. At the boarding house. On Christmas. Is that right?”
“That sounds nice,” Rose agreed, giving him her address as the two of them came to a stop in front of the shop. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“Right. Good. Me as well. I’ll be seeing you on Christmas…Rose.”
“Christmas,” Rose agreed with a smile, before disappearing into the shop for her shift.