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the bright gift of holy time

Chapter Text

Her limbs are heavy, her head slack as he sets her on the bed.

The man downstairs had given him a funny look when he'd come through the door, cradling the sleeping Rose to his chest. We've had a long journey. That was his excuse, hastily-formed and somehow pitifully true. My wife is tired. The first lie he could think of; not the last he’ll have to tell.

She'd barely stirred as the barkeep handed him a key, directing them to the first room at the top of the stairs. And she's equally unresponsive now, as he settles her atop the covers. Her hair—normally loose when she's ready for sleep—is pinned back in a period-appropriate style, or some rough approximation.

He'd done his best, but it can't be comfortable.

He contemplates taking the pins out, and then decides against it. He shouldn’t disturb her. Too much risk, if she wakes up before her consciousness settles. And an even greater risk to his hearts if she wakes up and it's all done and she doesn't recognise him.

He'll have to get used to it, of course.

But that's the work of tomorrow. For tonight, he can watch over her, protect her in sleep.

The fob watch doesn’t leave his hands.

All night, he passes it back and forth from palm to palm, like a worry stone—feeling the swirls and indents of the untranslatable language. His language. A language the woman before him doesn’t even speak, but which is now the author of her fate.

The metal is warm in his hands as he watches Rose Tyler sleep.

 


 

Rose's position is at a school.

A school for girls. Attended to almost entirely by women. She's going to be a librarian, it seems.

The only position he's remotely eligible for is that of a gardener. Which is fine, really.

Convenient, even.

It won't allow him much contact with Rose—Miss Tyler, he reminds himself; he'll have to get used to formal modes of address—but it does allow him a lot of freedom.

Or, as much freedom as he can really manage, stuck here on Earth. He pushes the thought away before it can turn into a bitter lump in his mouth.

Still, he can roam the grounds and learn every nook and cranny: there's no shortage of wandering he can do. The field where the girls "take the air," or get their exercise for the day, makes up the bulk of the school campus, but there is a dense little patch of woods on the east side that he makes a thorough exploration of, in the interest of safety. He isn't so foolish as to think they've escaped the Eaters entirely, only put them off the scent.

He doesn't mind the work itself, and in fact, he rather enjoys gardening; it gives an impression of purpose, something he so desperately needs. His movements are invisible, of no interest to anybody. And, armed with shears, he always has a ready excuse for being some suspicious place or other.

The sonic screwdriver, he keeps buried deep in his pocket. Like a talisman. A reminder that this double life is only temporary, only for a little while, and he needs to be vigilant.

In the other pocket, the fob watch weighs heavy against his leg.

Tend the grounds, watch the horizon. Protect Rose. That's what really matters.

It's rather like he's a sentry, he thinks, finding himself cheered by the idea. He smiles, and begins whistling as he crosses the field toward the shed, where a lawnmower is waiting for him.

So sunny is the day, so pleasant the turn of his thoughts, that he barely notices the eyes upon him, nor the face they’re set in. Miss Tyler watches in silence as the gardener whistles a tune that should not be—but, in fact, is—strangely familiar.

 


 

The library is a tranquil place, with its familiar smells and constant, pervasive quiet. It is the quiet of hundreds of books nestled comfortably together, their words safely contained within their leather-bound spines; they have nothing to say to anybody who does not go searching for their voices.

That is how Rose Tyler spends most of her days.

Searching.

Listening to the hushed voices of words already written, stories echoing forward from the past to touch her, admittedly rather menial, present.

Moving through the dappled autumn light that filters in through the leaded windows, she imagines herself living very different lives—some more impossible than others. She is an adventurer, visiting unfamiliar lands and meeting exciting people. She is a heroine, endlessly saving and being saved.

She is never alone on her adventures.

The most pleasant part of the day is when the girls straggle in—sometimes in ones or twos, and sometimes all at once, their hushed whispers lending some life to the sober silence of the library. When they seek her help, she is glad to give it.

But the best part of each week is when she’s tasked to oversee the girls’ physical activity period, a rotating duty shared by all of the other teachers as well as herself. She is the only one who consistently looks forward to her turn, much to the amusement of the other matrons.

It is rather unseemly, she’s heard them say—the way young Miss Tyler kicks up her skirts and runs with the girls, playing games that send their happy squeals high into the sky.

The truth is, Rose finds it delightfully refreshing. The brisk air, the cheerful chatter: all of it makes her feel less out of place. Less lonely than she usually feels, isolated among the books.

But even in these precious moments under the changing leaves, she is not entirely at ease.

She feels, sometimes, as if she does not quite belong.

 


 

It is a particularly beautiful day when she approaches him.

“Excuse me.” He hears the voice over the hedge, cultured tones so entirely different from her usual mode of speech that he almost doesn’t realise it’s her. But then, they're both playing a part.

When he draws himself upright, wiping a bead of sweat away from his brow, he is taken aback at the timid smile on Rose’s familiar face. She hasn’t looked at him like that since—

“I was hoping I might trouble you for a moment…”

He realises he’s gaping at about the same moment a pretty pink flush starts to crawl up Rose’s cheeks, vivid in the unseasonable sun. Drawing her shawl more tightly about her shoulders, she waits nervously for some sort of reply.

“Of course,” he stumbles out, his adopted brogue taking a moment to settle. “No trouble at all. What can I do for you, R—Miss Tyler?”

Her expression changes into one of mild confusion, a little divot forming between her brows. “Oh, I had not realised—I’m sorry, I appear to have forgotten. Have we met before?”

Something a little hysterical bubbles up in his chest. If only you knew.

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve just,” and he scrambles for a lie, shifting his weight back and forth as he leans heavily on the rake, “heard some of the students calling out your name, that’s all. And, of course, I’ve seen you before—Friday afternoon, during, er, recess—but we haven’t precisely… met. I’m the D—the gardener. Yes, the gardener, but my friends call me John.”

To his relief, his rambling doesn’t seem to have put her off. Nor does his little slip—recess? In fact, a little smile had begun creeping onto her lips from the moment he’d begun his botched introduction. 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, John,” she says, and even with the oddness of the wrong name, it’s something of a relief to hear it from her lips.

“Really, the pleasure’s mine,” he insists, sounding far more earnest than is strictly polite. “What did, er—what was it you wanted to talk about?”

“I was wondering if you had any recommendations for plants that would grow well inside the library,” she replies, eyes glowing with eagerness. “It’s just so dim and stuffy, and I thought—perhaps a bit of green here and there would do the girls some good when they’re attending their studies.”

The wideness of his smile threatens to split his face as she goes on about the benefits of brightening the library. But then, her face suddenly falls.

“Of course, I wouldn’t wish to risk the books—we have a few rather old and valuable volumes, and I would hate to bring in some sort of pest, or perhaps moisture, that would damage the binding, or endanger the girls…” Her voice trails off uncertainly, and he has to forcibly stop himself from reaching across the hedge to reassure her. He’s unused to uncertainty from Rose.

But this isn’t Rose, he reminds himself. Not exactly.

“I know you’d never do anything to risk the safety of the books or the students. And I know of several plants that might suit your purposes.”

Her face lights up with hope. “Really?”

“Yes, and if you’ll give me a day or two, I’ll bring them to the library for you. How does that sound?”

“That would be wonderful,” she enthuses, looking a little more like the woman he knows. But he can’t help his longing to see her tongue touching the corner of her smile, or the light of mischief in her eyes. This Rose—Miss Tyler—however sweet and good-natured, is still so sober. So restrained. “I’m sure this will benefit the girls immensely. Thank you, John.”

“You’re welcome—Miss Tyler.”

The unfamiliar title comes more easily this time. And he’s still grinning fit to burst as she walks back across the green, in the direction of the library where she spends her days. Thrilled at this chance—to have access to the library, for a start, and then there’s the matter of more time with Rose—he begins an aimless whistle, going back to his work.

“What’s that called?” she asks, and he rapidly rights himself to see her facing him once more, an odd expression on her face. “What’s the name of that tune? It’s right on the tip of my tongue…”

He certainly hopes it’s not. His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, and then hesitates further. “I don’t remember the name,” he lies. “Only the melody.”

Rose looks a little disappointed by his answer, but turns away once more—and he refrains from resuming his song until she’s out of sight.

Chapter Text

She doesn’t regret her decision to approach the gardener.

The buoyancy of his friendly smile and his frank replies to her questions carry her through the rest of the day, still lingering the following morning. It feels good, she thinks, to know someone by name. All of the teachers here go by "Matron," and the endless formality wearies her. But John, it seems, possesses no such title.

He is only John.

Despite the dreary morning, she is particularly cheery as she opens the library for the day: lighting the lamps to dispel the dimness, running a gentle palm across the protruding spines poking out from their shelves. Rose keeps the library in good order, but it's an old place—things tend to shift and settle in the night.

As she works, she whistles the fragment of song she still can’t quite name, the notes managing to soar despite the dense, muffled air of the library.

To her amazement, she doesn't have long to wait before John arrives. His shirtsleeves already bear signs of the uncertain skies, droplets staining the fabric, and his hair looks a little mussed, but like her, he appears to be in pleasant spirits.

"Good morning, Miss Tyler," he greets, striding up to the circulation desk. It suddenly strikes her that he belongs here—even with his common, work-worn clothes and dirt under his nails. Something in his very bearing: his upright posture, perhaps, or in the way he looks fondly around at the sprawling bookshelves as one reunited with old friends.

"John!" she chirps, unable to fully prevent her enthusiasm from spilling over. "I had not expected you so soon."

"This isn't a bad time, is it?" His lilting question makes her eager to reassure him, and she skirts around the desk with a broad smile.

"No such thing as a bad time," she teases. "Only bad use of it." An odd look crosses his face, but is rapidly subsumed by a crooked smile as she continues. “And I believe this is an excellent use of our time. Am I to assume you’ve brought our new transplants?"

"They’re just outside, yes."

He really does have a lovely smile, she finds herself noting. There is something almost plaintive about it: the man before her knows sorrow, and yet, he prefers to laugh. She can see it in the soft lines feathering out the corners of his eyes, which feel as if they’re older than the rest of his face.

Older and kinder, somehow.

Before she can dwell on it, John is turning his back, and she can only follow him out through the open doors to where his procurements are waiting.

There are many, many more plants than she expected—so many that she’s forced to wonder where they all came from. Surely an English autumn should pose some limitations.

But not for John, it seems.

He launches instantly into an explanation of the variety of greenery he’s brought out, all in mismatched pots piled precariously in a wheelbarrow. His exuberance is unmistakable, a bright spot against the dark sky, words coming so rapidly that Rose can hardly keep up, especially with his thick Scottish accent. But she does try, listening with interest while he points out the trailing ivies and feathered ferns and the air-cleansing qualities of all and sundry.

In fact, he uses quite a few words Rose doesn’t even recognise; she can’t help but be impressed—if somewhat daunted—by the breadth of his knowledge. He’s midway through some sort of explanation about proper humidity levels when she cuts in: “Goodness, there’s so much to remember! I had no idea gardening was quite so… involved.”

Her admission is accompanied by a hard bite down on her bottom lip. She doesn’t quite know how to ask for his assistance—how to articulate her desire for him to add the library to his verdant domain.

Perhaps because she knows her motives are not entirely to do with the care of plants.

Well, this is a wee bit different from gardening in general, but there’s no need to trouble yourself about it,” he assures her. “I’ll come by for the first few days, at least, until you get the hang of them yourself. But you’re clever—I know you’ll catch on quickly.” Her cheeks heat at the compliment. He hardly seems to notice his own words, or their powerful effect on her; his attention is already on the various pots, gathering them into his wiry arms.

In an effort to avoid the odd feeling creeping over her—a blushy, hot sensation that makes her toes curl in her boots—Rose joins him, taking up a long-haired fern that droops lackadaisically over the lip of its large pot. The slight strain on her muscles makes her smile.

He ought to jump to her aid, or at least reassure her that he doesn't require her help—or make some such gallant excuse. But John does no such thing, and she contentedly follows him back into the cavernous quiet of the library, cool clay pressed tightly to her chest, no doubt dirtying her shirtwaist horribly.

She finds the thought invigorating.

"Where do you want them?"

"Somewhere near the windows," she instructs, and he graciously accepts her direction. "What little light they'll get, they'll find there."

As if on cue, there is a break in the clouds and a stream of gentle gold shimmers in through the warped glass. It is fragile, tenuous as the sky's hold on its rain. But the beautiful sunbeam casts a faint auburn glow over John's head, and when he turns to her—shirtsleeves streaked with signs of dirt and plant life, tall and disheveled—he is smiling. And that, too, is beautiful.

 


 

It's harder to stay away from Rose once he has an excuse to visit the library. Harder still when she grants him access to the bookshelves. Only when there aren't any students around. Or teachers. She'd been amusingly stern, setting hard and fast rules for him to follow.

But if those are her conditions, he accepts them willingly.

It had taken him less than a day to feel the effects of his beloved ship going into—temporary, he tries to remember—shutdown: the tangible loss of her telepathic presence from his mind, where she had hummed and pulsed away like a third heartbeat, lingers in him like an open wound.

But he misses practical things, too. His special shampoo. And all his half-finished projects—the evenings in his rented room above the tavern are so boring without something to work on.

And he especially misses the library, with its peculiar inventory and mostly incomprehensible organisational system. He longs for the sight of the penny sale paperbacks sharing space with First Editions, mixed in amongst holodiscs and papyrus scrolls and the occasional clay tablet. Books in almost every language, covering nearly every possible subject.

None of those things are easily replaced, but he does his best to manage without them.

He is unsure of what to do with the Rose-shaped space in his life, even after weeks have passed and they’ve settled into a routine. She is there and not there—her familiar face and her generous heart are part of every day. Even the cultured accent she's been given can't hide the natural warmth of her speech, the affection she offers so freely to the people around her.

But her particular, wicked laugh when he's done something she finds absurd—her easy touches, fingers landing gently on his arm or shoulder or chest—

Those moments are conspicuous in their absence.

Still, this temporary Rose has her own charms. She is prone to blushing, her red cheeks often speaking louder than her voice. And she has occasional moments of particular, stunning eloquence—something his Rose would've found quite funny.

But even those instants remind him more of her old self: the way she saw through artifice so easily had always amazed him.

She saw into the heart of things; that much, it seems, is still true.

And then, he sees flashes of her real self all the time, like bleed-through, and those are the hardest moments of all. A particular look, or a skip in her walk, or the way she tucks a loose lock of hair behind her ear. All Rose.

He'd landed with the knowledge that it might be months, even years, before the Eaters shriveled up, becoming too weak to even crave the thrumming life force—the vortex—that possessed his ship and was once poured into Rose. Preparing for the slow path, he'd watched over her that first night and made his silent goodbyes to the girl who had wriggled her way between his hearts.

And he’d made his peace, too.

But with each passing day, as autumn wanes and wavers on the edge of winter, it becomes more difficult to be in her orbit and not be—well, what they are. The Doctor and Rose Tyler.

It becomes more difficult to pretend.

 


 

“John?”

Looking up from his book, he has to crane his head back to see Rose’s face properly, though she isn’t looking at him. In the wan light, she's paler than he's ever seen her. He wishes he could sweep her off to a beach somewhere.

Somewhere warm.

“Hm?”

She’s been dusting the upper shelves all day, perched precariously on a rolling ladder. Even though the maids do clean the library with semi-regularity, Rose had informed him, she prefers to take care of such things herself. It’s quite common for them to “miss” some of the more inconvenient shelves, though she doesn’t begrudge the staff their shortcuts.

Goodness knows they have enough to fill their days, while I…

She hadn’t finished her thought, but the wistfulness in her voice had given him a strange pang.

Using a finger to mark his place, he reaches out a hand to steady the ladder as it wobbles slightly. But her next words catch him quite off-guard.

“Why did you become a gardener?”

He wants to kick himself for not anticipating the question; it was probably inevitable, what with all the time they’ve been spending together. But he still scrambles for a moment before muttering a reply. “Just… sort of… fell into it, I suppose,” he says, wincing at the truth of his own words. “I didn’t have much of a choice, if I’m honest.”

She hums a little, lips pursing as she reaches behind a row of books, running her feather duster across the oft-overlooked stretch of shelving. “I only ask because… well, you seem very well-read. Studious,” she adds, still not looking at him. But he can see a telltale blush coming over her cheeks. “A man like you belongs at a university, reading important books and learning important things about the world, not here—at a dreary old country school for girls whose parents have more money than good sense.”

She sucks in a little breath, and holds it, chewing vigorously at her bottom lip. His lips curve; she’s clearly surprised by her own vehemence.

“A mind like yours shouldn’t go to waste.”

He snaps the book shut, suddenly quite intrigued. “Who says it is? You can learn a lot in a garden.”

“Of course, I know,” she hurries to reply. “But you’re so…”

It seems she cannot complete her thought. Retracting her duster, Rose finally turns her face to him, an unreadable emotion filling up her eyes until they shine.

The light in them is almost familiar, and his hearts kick up in his chest, working double-time. Hope and terror, all tangled up together.

She can’t know. It’s too soon for any sort of breakthrough. It shouldn’t even be possible

Finally, she sighs. And the light dissipates. “I don’t know.”

The silence that begins to settle around them is thick and uncomfortable, and he moves to dispel it. “The world needs all different sorts of intelligence, Miss Tyler. I had this friend once—brilliant woman, a lot like you—but she didn’t even have,” and he only just stops himself from finishing the sentence the way he means to.

Her A-levels. She wouldn’t have a clue what those are.

“She didn’t stay in school. She hardly had the education of the girls you who enter your library every day. But she was so clever. Always asking the right questions, always solving problems…”

The memories rush over him, then.

Submerging him. Just little things, all adding up to a massive wave of emotion.

Rose, handing him a spanner without him having to ask for it.

Rose, running behind him out of a crumbling ruin, having refused to leave until every single other person was evacuated.

Rose, with her head nestled on his shoulder in the media room, face painted blue by the light of the television.

Rose

“John?”

Rose’s familiar voice pulls him out of the stream, and he blinks once, twice, looking back up at her. She’s halfway down the ladder now, duster abandoned and brows furrowed with worry. The expression is so familiar—so powerfully like her. It makes his chest ache.

“I’m all right,” he manages, only just stopping himself from clearing his throat. “It’s just… memories. But that’s not the point—the point is that all the education in the world couldn’t have given her what she had naturally.” Her compassion, her courage, her sunburst smile, all flashed across his mind’s eye. “And I wouldn’t say her mind was wasted.

“Certainly not—I didn’t—John, I’m sorry.” For the first time, the woman before him reaches out to touch his hand; her fingers are human-warm, and soft, and their shape is well-known to him. “I didn’t mean to be indelicate. You must have thought very highly of her.”

“I did.” Swallowing heavily, he corrects himself. “I do.”

He is struck with the impression that Rose’s eyes are like amber—it would be all too easy to become trapped in them, even now. It's impossible not to feel their pull as she steps off of the last rung of the ladder, finally back to her normal height. Her skirts brush over the tops of his boots, and at this proximity, he can detect the faint, distinct Rose-smell of her skin.

Something deeper than any perfume; something that reminds him of home.

But the moment is broken by the sound of the library doors creaking open, accompanied by the hushed giggles of a troupe of students. Rose, her eyes going wide, takes a sudden step closer, shoving him down past the end of the shelves, toward the back corner of the library, where the oldest and rarest books are stored. Only they ever go there. Her warm hand feels like a brand through his shirt.

“They can’t catch you here or I’ll be sacked,” she hisses, and for a moment, he could swear he hears a trace of South London in her voice—the sharp bite of the Rose he knows. "You must hide, and stay quiet."

Grinning, he concedes to her demand, gesturing with his book. "Yes, ma'am," he says in a low tone. "Love a bit of cloak and dagger. I'll just keep myself busy, shall I? Until you find me again."

"Busy and quiet," she whispers. But he swears she's blushing again as she disappears behind a bookshelf, following the sound of girlish glee.

He grins to himself. Yes, this Rose and his are not so different at all.

Chapter Text

Rose is conflicted when winter sets in for good.

On the one hand, she loathes the cold. It stings her cheeks until they feel pink and chilled all the time, and even her warmest coat feels inadequate this far north.

To her dismay, one modest hearth is not nearly enough to warm the whole expanse of the library, and as a result the girls are less inclined to cross campus to study in the frigid stacks. In fact, nobody seems to want to spend much time outside at all, and even her weekly constitutionals with the girls have been minimised.

This is partially, she reflects with a smile, due to her own misbehaviour. But is it truly her fault if some of the more adventurous girls prefer scooping up handfuls of white, fluffy powder and flinging it at one another to marching in boring, endless circles?

And really, she doesn’t see any harm in showing them how to form more solid, tightly-packed, and therefore more effective balls of snow; it isn't like she'd started the game in the first place.

No, she finds she cannot quite bring herself to regret her actions, even if the consequences are much longer, lonelier days. It was good to hear the girls' laughter, and she does miss it so dearly.

But then, there's John.

With less to do outside, he seems determined to spend more and more time with her, in the relative warmth of her domain. The plants, he’d bumbled initially, holding them up as a rather flimsy excuse for his continual appearances. But she’s come to flatter herself—and, she thinks, not wrongly—that he’s more interested in her companionship than in plant care.

A thought which, she is ashamed to say, thrills her quite utterly.

The noticeable decrease in student presence means he can spend more time roaming the library with her—watching her while she works, or sometimes, reading aloud when she asks him to.

She finds she quite likes the sound of his voice. It has an even, rolling rhythm that slows her breath and quickens her heart. It evokes something in her—like familiarity, and yet not. A shadow of a distant dream.

She’s also discovered that he is quite tactile, an interesting rarity among the men of her acquaintance, who seem so ill at ease among womenfolk. Sometimes, when he nudges her arm, she is bewildered by his brashness. And other times, she warms to it—finds herself returning those touches with a surprising confidence, an ease she cannot name.

She does have a name, however, for other things he makes her feel.

For when he reaches around her to retrieve a book, and his chest fills her vision, his arm framing her like a painting, sending her heart soaring into her throat.

For when she says something it is clear he does not expect—something witty, or something sharp—and a smile bursts forth from his face, lighting him from the inside, and her whole body sings.

For when their fingers brush as they point to something on a page, or as they pass a book between them: there is a word for the spark she feels, like she's been licked by a candle flame.

She wonders if he feels it, too.

Sometimes, it seems he must.

And other times, the sadness she knows he carries is too much—she can feel it, then, heavy as a shroud. During the worst days, it crowds in, leaving no room for the fragile, flickering thing between them to grow.

But it always passes. And she always finds herself hoping, more than before, to see him again.

 


 

"How will you spend your Christmas?" she asks him one day, when the snow is falling on the lawn and they walk side-by-side. "Do you have family nearby?"

A wounded lock crosses his face, contorting his beautiful features into a mask of pain, and she watches as he reaches down to touch his trouser pocket, as if for some reassurance. She has seen him withdraw a watch from within, time and time again.

The touch hardly lasts a moment, but Rose wishes—wishes fiercely—that she hadn't asked, hadn’t upset him.

"No," he answers. So grave, so unlike himself. A snowflake lands on his cheek, and melts into a droplet like a tear. But his eyes are dry. "There's no one… nearby… that I can see."

There is something unspoken: the impression that, perhaps, it is not merely a matter of distance that separates him from his loved ones. She feels a pang of sympathy for the man who is perhaps as lonely as herself—sympathy, and kinship.

Impulsively, she catches his gloved hand in hers. The leather creaks between them, but she hopes he can feel her warmth, or at least, the warmth of her intentions.

"There's me," she tells him.

He looks back at her in wonderment, possibly struck by her audacity. And then he smiles—still sad, but soft, too.

"We can spend Christmas together," she goes on recklessly. "I'm not much of a cook, but—"

"I'd love to, Miss Tyler," he says, eyes warm as embers.

She'll have to get him a present, she decides. Something special. Something that will make him see that she understands—that, in some small way, they are the same.

Her heart gives an unconscionable little leap and she wishes, more than anything, that she had the courage to ask him to call her Rose.

 


 

Rose's living quarters at the local boarding house are quite modest, by most standards, but he is still impressed by how homey she's managed to make them.

Impressed, and conflicted.

The books on her shelves—the botanical sketches scattered over her small desk, a reference book on local flora resting amidst it all—her neatly-kept parlour space and precisely tucked-in bed: all paint a picture of a person he doesn't quite recognise. Rose, with her messy room on the TARDIS, who never made her bed at home, has no place here. This is all a fiction, stamped on her by the Arch in a desperate attempt to override everything that made her—makes her, he reminds himself, she's still there—who she is.

But there's a charm to it all. A warmth from more than just the merry fire in the hearth, keeping out the chill of the evening, cold even for December.

He can't help wondering if she would like this life better, his Rose.

Not beans on toast, exactly, but a home. A real and proper place to belong.

Caught in his musings, he entirely forgets himself as he stands in the middle of her little living space. "I'm not quite settled, as you can see," she speaks up behind him, and he spins to see her wiping her hands down the front of her dress in a sort of nervous gesture.

It's a beautiful dress, sort of plum-coloured—she is beautiful, in fact, with her honey-gold hair loosely and somehow artfully pulled back, softer than the way she wears it at school. "I have tried," she says, "and Mrs. Goddard has been very kind in taking me in, but somehow…"

He watches her chew her bottom lip, sending blood flushing red through the tender skin.

"Somehow, I never can make myself feel as if I'm home."

He doesn't have anything to say to that. And even if he did, he couldn't, what with his hearts in his throat.

"But that’s ungrateful of me. Would you like tea? Nice cuppa can fix anything," she laughs, recovering right away. With a half-smile, she sets about preparing them a cup of tea as if nothing's happened. Urging him to take a seat, she procures some sort of fruitcake and invites him to cut a slice while she puts the kettle on. "That’s what my mum always says."

He knows he shouldn't ask. He shouldn't. But the words come out anyway. "What's your mother like?"

Her rueful smile is all Rose. "She's strong," comes her answer. "Very opinionated. She's always believed that a woman should make her own way in the world, as much as she can."

His gob has a mind of its own, and it says, "What did she think of you coming here?"

Something—a strange, furrowed look—comes over her, and he wants to kick himself. He has no idea the level of scrutiny her backstory can withstand; encouraging Rose to dig though her memory is dangerous, and he's right on the edge of telling her to forget it when she replies.

"She didn't like the thought of me being so far away—thought it would… change me, somehow." Rose's lips purse slightly, and her eyes are unfocused as she approaches the table again. There is a light in them. "Like I would become a different woman—this strange woman, walking through the marketplace… in some city, hundreds of miles from home…"

Dread forms a knot in his stomach. Gold.

The shine in her eyes—it's nearly gold.

"'But she's not Rose Tyler.' That's what she said. 'Not anymore…'"

"Rose?"

But it's like she doesn't hear. She is in a reverie, sleep-walking while awake, caught between the warming kettle and the table where he sits.

Reaching out, his fingertips brush hers just as she jolts out of her stupor, looking dazed.

There can be no more dangerous reminiscence tonight, he tells himself. No matter how much he—

"I'm sorry. Must've been woolgathering," Rose chirps, far too brightly, as she turns back to the kettle to fuss with it, and then with their cups and saucers as she prepares the tea. "I've been so distracted lately—but not," she adds, looking over her shoulder, "distracted enough to forget about your Christmas gift."

Her smile, suddenly tongue-touched and impish, makes his throat go dry.

Swallowing heavily, he manages an, "Oh?"

"It's only a small thing, a token of our friendship." Despite making an effort to manage his expectations, it's clear she's excited just from the warm flush on her skin, and the extra vibrance of her smile. Pushing the cup of tea, somehow perfectly prepared, into his hands, she shines.

 


 

As the night wears on, the boarding house grows colder, leading them to build up the fire more and more. Both of them move their chairs closer to the inviting flames, and Rose dons the same shawl she'd worn when they met—that is, when she'd first met him.

The slip, even in the privacy of his own mind, feels like a betrayal somehow. He cannot mistake this—mistake them—for reality, no matter how much this is Rose.

No matter how much this is him.

No matter how true it feels.

But she smooths away his dark mood with her usual blend of eager questions and cheerful talk. In the firelight, Rose's cheeks grow ruddy from heat, and he finds himself tracking the play of light and shadow on her familiar features—her full mouth, her button nose, her dark brows all strike him as inexplicably different. He wonders how he's never seen her like this before; is it simply that they've never been in this exact lighting, sitting this exact way?

Or maybe it's because there's nothing to thicken or darken her lashes. None of the gloss she likes, the stuff that makes her lips smell like cherries. Just the warmth of the fire and the tea, glowing under her skin.

He cannot say which he would prefer, if asked. Which is more like her.

He doesn't realise how close they've bent their heads together until she pulls away, eyes glittering. "Are you ready for your present?" she asks, sounding eager as a child. As if she's the one about to receive a gift.

"But, R—Miss Tyler, I didn't—I have nothing to give you—"

"John," she chides, turning back to him with a small parcel in her hand. "Your friendship has been a gift in itself. I don't think you understand quite how… how lonely I felt, coming here on my own." Her fingers flex tightly around the parcel, and the brown paper crackles softly. “A feeling haunts me: a sense that I don’t belong. But you have made me feel… quite different,” she says. And it’s sharp as a pain, the miracle that she can still care for him, even though every cell of her has been re-written. A soft smile plays at the edges of her lips. “You’ve made me content.”

Something in him warms, and his answer is startling in its truth. “You make me feel the same.” It feels like a confession of something. Stuck with you, that’s not so bad.

“Come, open your gift,” Rose urges, pressing the little package into his hands. It’s a bit heavy, considering the size. He considers it, as he considers the future spanning out ahead of him: a long and winding road. The slow path in a century he doesn’t even particularly care for.

But even with the itchy wool clothes and the awkward social niceties, even without the TARDIS and her single-minded sense of adventure, even without her messy ponytails and irreverent humour, something in him knows.

As long as Rose is close, as long as they’re together, things will be good.

Better than.

They’ll be fantastic.

He doesn’t even attempt to guess the nature of the gift; he is grinning as his finger slices cleanly through the brown paper, tearing it away, revealing the contents.

Glinting gently in his palm, the bronze catches the firelight, casting shadow over the etchings on the case: a delicate circle of roses.

“A pocket watch.” The words feel airless, his head light as he turns to look at her.

Rose looks sheepish, and her fingers knot together in her lap, knuckles going pale. “I’ve seen you, sometimes, taking out your watch and looking at it. But you never open it. I thought—perhaps it is sentimental to you, or broken, and that it might bring you some… some reassurance, if you had a watch that kept proper time.”

Her voice rings oddly as she speaks the word. Time. It seems to echo, her face screwing up in something like concentration.

“Of course, it is not a replacement, you understand, for… that which is so precious to you. You keep it close to you always, and there it ought to stay. I would never presume—”

His hand stretches, seemingly of its own volition, across the small space between their chairs, pressing down on her tangled fingers. “It’s a brilliant gift,” he assures her. “Thank you, Rose.”

At the sound of her name, her cheeks grow unmistakably darker, even in the dim firelight. Wide-eyed, her mouth opens. Closes again. And then her gaze drops to her lap, endearingly overwhelmed by his unasked for intimacy.

“Is that… I’m sorry, can I call you that? Am I being too—”

Before he can finish, her shoulders set. And her face turns up toward him, an unnameable light burning in her brown eyes. It drags him in, or dazzles him, stilling his every muscle into stone as she leans forward, closing space—

Filling the air around him with the scent of holiday cloves, and of wild honey, and of Rose-hair-smell, until he can’t think

Can’t think or breathe at all as her lips touch his.

The warmth of her breath spills across his skin, making him shiver before his mind even has time to kick in, to remind him why this shouldn’t be happening. But even that desperate bid for sanity is secondary, lost under a tidal wave of pent-up longing, rushing forward to meet its object. Rose.

His whole body strains out of his seat, leaning forward to kiss her more fully. The watch, falling into his lap, opens with a faint ping: a sound so small, so unremarkable, that it barely registers beside the snapping hiss of a log in the fire, or the ragged rush of his own breath.

But his hands are gentle, careful, rising to cradle the curve of her jaw, fingers spreading down over her warm neck, where he can feel—not hear, but feel—the hum she makes in her throat. An ardent sound. And then her fire-warmed palm is skimming up his shoulders to touch his face, an exploratory touch, and so sweet.

But firm, too. Like she, rather than gravity, could hold him to the Earth.

When they part, he can feel her shudder, and he exhales on a contented sigh. “Rose.”

“Doctor?”

Ice trickles down his spine, and his eyes bat open instantly. He’s never been so alarmed to hear his own name before. And he’s never been more terrified to see the light of recognition in someone’s eyes.

Her eyes, which are still so warm in the firelight, catching gold and swirling. The leftover vortex energy, which had so long made a home in her, framing her irises once again.

“Rose? Oh, no—no,” he chokes out, nearly tipping over his chair in the effort to stumble back from her.

“Doctor, what—why are you Scottish?” She blinks up at him, bewildered. “I don’t understand. What’s—Doctor, are you alright?”

If Rose, the real Rose, is back…

Then the Eaters must be here, must have broken into—

The TARDIS.

Alarm bells begin to ring in the back of his mind: danger, danger, danger. If the Eaters are here, they are all in danger.

He doesn’t stop for anything, not even his coat—not even the sound of Rose’s voice crying, “Doctor!”—as he pelts out the door, hearts beating with a frantic rush of adrenaline. It warms him, even as the sheets of falling snow land frigid on the back of his neck.

The moon is full overhead, bright enough to see the way; it lights his path when he has to abandon the turnings of the village streets for the dark treeline. His scattered footsteps in the frost are the only evidence of a trail, left behind him in blurry smears.

But he knows the way—would know it blind, or struck dumb. He doesn’t rely on those senses to find the timeship.

The hum in his head is enough.

Chapter Text

She has no idea why she’s packing.

Her hands had started to move mechanically, as if motivated by some force other than her brain, almost the moment he left. As if to follow.

But gathering her clothes—her skirts, her second-best corset, her heavy shawl—as if for a long trip makes no sense, because when will she need them again? When will she have cause to dress up like an orderly little schoolmarm who wears the scent of old vellum and paper like a perfume? The faint smell of dust tickles her nose as she shoves piece after piece of fabric into the nearly-bursting carpet bag.

And they aren’t even hers.

Nothing here, nothing at all, is hers. Not even the sketches on the desk.

But she packs them anyway, binding them carefully together even while her eyes keep straying back to the one thing she hasn’t brought herself to touch yet. It lays open on the floor, the hands ticking busily away. It had been a fluke, the damn thing falling open, and now she can hear it marking each interminable minute since the Doctor realised what he’d done and ran away.

He’d run away.

Coward, she scoffs. But the sound she makes is more like a sniffle.

She shouldn’t be surprised—isn’t, in fact.

The way he’d been with—with her whatever she was, alternate self or false self—had been so different from how he was in their real life together. The memories are there, like she’s viewing them through a veil, but the change in him is unmistakable: he was so much more attentive, more present with her other self. Watching her every moment with greedy, almost hungry eyes.

Is it because she—this Miss Tyler—was more educated, more clever? Did she remind him of another such woman, perhaps?

The thought throbs like a wound.

Content. That’s what her other self had said. You’ve made me content.

You make me feel the same.

But with her, he is restless and running. Always running.

She only realises her hands are trembling when the twine she’s using to bind up more sketches—because there are many, and far more than just botanical drawings; oh, yes, more than just studies of hands and forms, there are studies of his face—the twine and then the papers fall from her fingers. Scattering like leaves on the breeze.

One sketch of him—a portrait so lovingly precise she can hardly believe she made it with her own hands—falls face-up, and she is filled with such a sick, angry feeling that she can hardly move.

But then she hears the downstairs door crash, and the sound of his voice. “Rose!” he cries—no doubt waking poor Mrs. Goddard, she notes irritably, if not the whole rest of the boarding house. It’s nearly midnight, for pity’s sake. She shakes away the strange thought, a thought which she can’t place firmly as her own, and falls back into motion, turning her back on the door to resume packing as the Doctor runs in.

“Rose, it’s safe again,” he announces. His footsteps make the floorboards squeak, cheery and quick, moving into the room and straight toward the fire. She knows without looking that he’s going for the open fob watch. The gift of her other self.

“It was a false alarm,” he goes on. “Or, well—the TARDIS powered back on, because the sensors picked up a change in—oh, right,” he pauses, sounding close behind her. “You’re already packing. Good thinking. I guess we’d better be going soon, unless you want to answer a bunch of questions about a madman dashing out of your bedroom at midnight.”

She can’t keep the wobble out of her voice, and she can’t look back at him. “No, I’d rather not.”

“Isn’t it funny? I thought I’d somehow swapped the watches by mistake, opened yours too early, but it was just a fluke!” She can hear his usual breathy chuckle, can hear the self-satisfied smile splitting his face. “You and the TARDIS came back simultaneously, couldn’t have planned it better myself. Oh, do you want help, or—”

“No,” she clips out, jamming a book of Arthurian legends—a book the other Rose had bought, had wanted to read for herself, because John liked it—into the top of the carpet bag. “No, I’ve got it.”

She’s trying to sound bright, trying to sound excited and normal and ready to go back to the TARDIS, but she’s failing and she knows it. Worse, she knows he knows it.

There is an obvious moment of hesitation, and then: “Rose, are you sure—I mean, biodata restoration is serious business, it can make you feel a bit… strange,” he says vaguely, and she really does tries to stifle her huffed, derisive laugh. “And yours was a breakthrough. Normally, the Chameleon Arch… helps the process along. Are you feeling—are you feeling quite… yourself?”

“Why? Were you hoping for someone else?”

The question stops them both in their tracks.

“What?” he asks, sounding thunderstruck. For a moment, he only sputters uselessly. “Why would you…?”

“I was just wondering,” she goes on calmly, finally feeling brave enough to spin around, though her hands remain knotted behind her back. Curled fists, a place for her anger and hurt to go. He’s back in his pinstripes, and the sight of them aches. “‘Cause you seemed so disappointed to see me earlier. Thought maybe I was interrupting something.”

It should be funny, seeing the Doctor speechless. His mouth is gaping, his eyebrows doing all sorts of acrobatics, while expressions cross his face a mile a minute. It’s the kind of thing that usually makes her giggle. But this silence just feels damning.

It feels worse when he slips the watch into his pocket, like an unconscious gesture.

She nods, pressing her lips together. The pain of biting down is almost enough to distract her from the prickle in her eyes. “Right,” she finally says, breathing out slowly. “Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t put her back, not unless—”

That jolts him out of it.

The Doctor lurches toward her, closing the gap in seconds with his outstretched hands reaching her first. “Rose, don’t—don’t even say that,” he cries, “of course I wouldn’t put her—it, the biodata—back. It wouldn’t be possible; that psychic profile, it was temporary. It’s gone now, or it’s been reassimilated, and that’s—it’s good, Rose, because it means you’re back.”

His fingers dig into her arms, but it doesn’t hurt. It feels grounding. And it feels a little like the reassuring embrace she so desperately wants to be given. “Yeah?”

“Yes,” he answers with an incredulous laugh. “How can you even… why would you think—”

“But you kissed her,” she rushes out, trying not to let rising hope get ahead of her rational mind. “You… you cared for her—or it—or however you say it."

"Of course I did! She had your face, she had your heart." His face is so strangely open, so pleading, and the hands on her shoulders suddenly take on a different, almost clinging feeling.

She shakes her head. "Then why'd you run away? The second I realised… what we were doing, you disappeared! Swanning off, as usual."

“To check on the TARDIS,” he insists, his voice going high and pitchy. “To check—Rose, I thought the Eaters had found us! I thought that you—that we were in danger!” Fingers skating up over her shoulders, they come to cradle either side of her jaw. “I had to be sure you were safe.”

It’s maddening, how quickly the memory—not her memory—surfaces at his touch: viewed through a sort of haze, but still so real. Only minutes ago, he’d held her just like this, and he’d been kissing her. She’d wanted it for months, wanted it to happen for real, and once again, she’d missed it. Not even present in her own body. Not really.

No matter how it feels.

But she can’t help it when her eyes drop to his lips. They’re flushed from cold, just a bit pink.

“I thought you were leaving again,” she admits, speaking to his mouth when she cannot meet his eyes. “I thought it was like—like in France. The Madame all over again. I mean, the other me… well, she was a bit posh, yeah? Bit more your t—”

She isn’t allowed to continue. His lips push back whatever she was going to assert about his “type,” and they are cold; they taste like clean, biting winter air, but they warm up quickly—

“Stop that,” he mumbles. “Stop it. I should never have got on that stupid horse.”

It’s possibly the oddest thing he could say, but it’s comforting, too.

She smiles, whispering against his lips. “Leave Arthur out of it.”

“I don’t have a type. I don’t even know what that means, ‘type.’ You humans and your categories. Mental,” he asserts between kisses. Each one feels slower, snatches more of her breath away. And it’s real, it’s her. “I was flattered, Rose—with Reinette. I have a vanity problem.”

“You don’t say.”

“But it’s never been like that with you. Not for a second.” His thumbs stroke over her jaw with such desperate tenderness, she feels like she shouldn’t be allowed to witness it, much less receive it—be its object. “I’m sorry. You’re crying. Blimey, this must be overwhelming, getting your mind back and then all of this emotional stuff out in the—”

When he goes to pull away, she tightens her arms around his neck, and shifts up onto her toes, moving with him. “Don’t you dare,” she laughs, ignoring the tears that run down her cheeks. It’s not like she’s got any makeup on to ruin. She’s never been so glad of that fact before. “I’m crying because I love you, you daft thing. I thought you were running off and I was in for another three bloody years of pretending.”

The Doctor’s kiss-bruised lips pop open in shock, and they tilt up a little at the edges, too, like this is the most pleasant surprise he’s received in his life.

And, to her satisfaction, he seems completely, totally speechless.

Now, with euphoria running through her veins and hope—powerful, potent hope in her heart—she can properly appreciate it.

And better still, she can kiss the flabbergasted expression right off of his face.

 


 

“So, are they gone for good, then?”

Her voice is bright, familiar, and distinctly Rose-like as she skips across the console room, back in her old clothes. It’s almost strange to see her two legs again, and he grins a little as she swings and hops up onto the grating, barefoot and pyjama-clad.

“Think so,” he nods, resuming his aimless circling around the console. The green light of the time rotor feels especially warm and comforting just now. “I think I miscalculated a bit, how hungry they’d have to be to go after an energy source like the TARDIS—or, well, like you,” he adds, glancing up and over at Rose, where she’s leaning on the far side of the console. “I thought it would take years to starve them out. Turns out, it only took a few months.”

For a moment, she remains silent, looking quite thoughtful. “Were you really going to just… stay with me? All that time?” She shifts uncomfortably, and her thumb lifts to her lips, where she nibbles anxiously at the cuticle.

It’s probably ridiculous to smile at the return of such a little habit. But he does.

“Stuck on Earth, I mean,” she continues. “It might’ve driven you mad.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve taken a sabbatical on your planet,” he answers gently, and a little evasively. He is suddenly quite cautious of using the word “stuck,” when it hadn’t felt like that at all.

Or—well, it had felt a little like that, but nothing worth mentioning. Not when she’s so happy, and everything is so new.

“But this was—”

“Different,” he interrupts, rounding the time rotor, reaching out to touch her. He can’t help himself, and he smiles when her hands slip easily into his. Same as always, but better. “Yes, I know it was, because you were with me.”

“But I wasn’t.”

“You were.” She doesn’t seem to buy his confidence, and he sighs. Says, “Rose, I didn’t have time to explain it properly before—because we were, well, crashing and also being chased by a family of vortex-eating vampires,” which prompts a giggle. “But the Chameleon Arch doesn’t just re-make a person from whole cloth. Or, it does, biologically speaking, but psychically? It only uses what’s there—the raw materials, so to speak, of who you already are. It’s… it’s hard to explain,” he finally admits.

“Try?”

“The Rose you were out there—the librarian who blushed a lot and gave really thoughtful gifts—is just a part of you. Her generosity, her enthusiasm, her compassion were all pieces of you. Can’t you recognise them?” He lifted her hands to his lips, and pressed a kiss there. “I could.”

To his intense amusement, Rose blushes, and a burst of longing comes over him for that small piece of her he’d had for a time. But it fades just as quickly against the image of her here and now, bright and shining.

“The Arch takes what’s there and re-shapes it, fits it in with a different potential timeline, while rewriting your biodata. Of course, to fool the Eaters, your timeline needed to be one where you never met me, and never looked into the heart of the TARDIS.”

When she shifts a bit closer to him, it’s all too easy to reorient his arms, wrapping them around her to rest his hands at the small of her back. “But I did meet you,” she emphasises, a teasing smile playing at her lips as her fingers do the same with a button on his Oxford. “You were looking after me the whole time. My hero, the gardener.”

“Yes, well,” he says, clearing his throat gruffly. Something about her guileless gaze and batting eyelashes makes him want to preen—a ridiculous impulse, even for him. “I thought it would be better—safer,” he corrects, “if I stayed close.”

“Yeah, you stayed close alright.”

Her grin turns wicked, and he knows she’s thinking of the kiss. If he could blush, he probably would. But as it is, he contents himself to giving a sniff, demonstrating his aloofness.

“But I’m back to normal again?”

“Yes.”

“And I’m still…”

Her voice drifts off; she’s still shy about the word. Immortal. Shy about the forever she is still growing to understand is hers.

“Yes,” he whispers. “Still.”

“Good."

The TARDIS gives a flash of decided agreement, though the hum in his mind feels slightly amused. Amused, and not remotely displeased. But then, she’s always approved of Rose—he’s lamented it before—always taken her side in things, and it seems their brief detour along the slow path hasn’t changed that.

As if to emphasise her point, a song suddenly pours out of the sound system, startling the woman in his arms. Her hands tighten reflexively against his chest, gripping a little, and he finds the contact quite interesting. Certainly something to file away for later—

“Ha!” Rose crows over the introductory notes. Jabbing her finger into his solar plexus with a beaming smile on her face, her nose crinkles up with laughter that he can almost feel in his own body. “I knew it! I knew I heard you singing this song—”

“I did not sing,” he protests. “I whistled. You know, like a gardener would. Just a bit of pastoral, period-appropriate… whistling.”

“ABBA? You call that period-appropriate?”

Her tongue touches the corner of her smile, and for once, he doesn’t have to resist the impulse to kiss her. He’s allowed to taste that devilish flash of pink, and he marvels at that fact even as he pulls her into a deep, silencing kiss, where he can engage her tongue in other, equally fascinating activities. Activities he, once again, wishes to make note of for future reference.

When he finally pulls back, she’s still grinning. And the song is still playing, voices ricocheting off of the coral struts, filling the room with a chaotic chorus.

Lay All Your Love On Me, huh?”

His breath hitches a bit at the sound of that word before he lets himself laugh. “Yes, I guess so.”

Rose’s eyes are sparkling. Rimmed with gold. Even looking into them takes his breath away, and he was right about them being like amber, right about being trapped in them. But he goes on doing it—he is content to be breathless, content to be trapped.

There are far, far worse things than to be trapped with her.

Soft fingers run through the fine hairs at his nape, making them stand on end, and he wonders how he ever lived without this.

Finally, with a resolute nod, Rose lays her head against his chest. Her cheek is warm, the shape of her ear pressed right between his hearts.

“All right, then,” she whispers. “I can do that.”

The Doctor breathes a sigh, lowering his face into her hair. He believes he can, too.

At least, he has forever to try.