Jackson held the door to the bookstore open for his wife. She glanced up at him coyly from under her lashes and he grinned back down at her as she passed.
Two years since they'd met, and he could still hardly believe that she was his.
Once inside, Jackson stopped for a moment, closed his eyes, and took a long deep breath through his nose, savouring the smell of books. If time had a scent, he thought, it would be this- past and future and infinite possibility held delicately in the fragility of the pages.
"I'll be out to help you in a mo'," came a voice from the back of the shop, snapping Jackson's eyes open. "Look around as much as you like!"
Jackson glanced around and found that Rosita had anticipated the invitation and was already bent at the waist, examining the books on a shelf marked "Mysteries." He wanted to tell her not to wander off, but bit his tongue. She was clever, his Rosita, and there were surely no dangers in a bookshop.
Five years since his first wife's death, and he still wanted to wrap everyone he loved in cotton wool and never let them out of his sight. Poor Freddie got it worst of all, and it had taken the concerted efforts of Rosita, Freddie, and Jackson's new, not-to-be-underestimated mother-in-law to convince him to leave his son behind so that he and Rosita could have this honeymoon in London.
Shaking off these maudlin thoughts, Jackson turned to find a man emerging from the back room, grey-shot brown hair sticking up in wild spikes, screwdriver in hand, and bright grin wreathing his face.
"Hello, hello!" the man cried, hurrying forward to shake Jackson's hand. "John Smith, owner, proprietor, and handyman," he said in a rush before holding up the screwdriver as an explanation. "But you can call me the Doctor, everyone does. One of the shelves in the back collapsed. Thought I could fix it myself, but it'll take some excavating to get the books out of the way before I can do that."
Jackson couldn't help but grin at this rush of words. Far from the white-haired, soft-spoken man Jackson had half expected to find as the proprietor of an independent vintage bookstore off the beaten path in London, this man was probably only about ten years older than Jackson himself, thin as a rail, but bursting with energy and fun.
"Jackson Lake," he offered, continuing to shake the older man's hand. "I'm here with my wife, in London for our honeymoon."
"Brilliant!" the Doctor said, his wide smile growing impossibly wider. "Molto bene! If you or your wife finds anything you like, consider it a gift from me in honor of the happy occasion. But what brings you here? It's not as though we're in any of the guide books."
"No, it was the name that drew us in." Jackson turned back to the shop, "darling?" he called into the shop. Rosita's head popped around the edge of a shelf. She grinned to see who he was talking to.
"This is the Doctor, he owns the shop," Jackson explained as she crossed the shop to join them. "He was just asking why we stopped in."
"Well I couldn't pass it up, could I?" Rosita said, offering a hand to the Doctor. "Rose's Library? Like it was just waiting for me! I'm Rosita Lake, most people call me Rosie or Rose."
For the first time in the five minutes he had known the man, Jackson saw the Doctor's smile dim just slightly as some shutter came down in the man's dark eyes at the sound of his wife's name.
"Rose… that's a very beautiful name," the Doctor said, with a final squeeze of Rosita's hand. "As I was telling your husband a moment ago, please feel free, if you find a book you like, to consider it my wedding present to you."
"That's very generous, Doctor, thank you!" Rosita said, and vanished back into the depths of the shop.
"Are you alright?" Jackson asked when the Doctor turned away from him to face a shelf of books as though gathering some kind of strength from the ordered spines.
"I'm always alright," came a low-voiced, colourless response.
Jackson recognized that voice. It was the voice of impossible loss. He'd heard it from his own throat for years.
"She's my second wife, you know," Jackson said, looking after where Rosita had vanished, offering the coin of his own pain to pay for the Doctor's. "There was an accident five years ago, and my Caroline was killed. I went a bit mad for awhile- forgot my son, Freddie. It was Rosie that pulled me out of it, you see."
"It was cancer did for my wife," the Doctor said, not turning around, but with some of himself back in his voice.
"Rose?" Jackson guessed shrewdly.
The Doctor turned then and gave him a rueful smile. "Martha, actually. My wife was Martha. Rose… Rose is still alive and happy."
"But not with you."
A muscle in the Doctor's jaw twitched. "But not with me. It's a long story."
Jackson shrugged. He could instinctively tell that the Doctor wanted, or perhaps needed to tell it. "I'm on vacation. I've no pressing engagements elsewhere, and Rosita will be with the books for some time."
Something seemed to lift from the Doctor's shoulders at that. "Alright then, come to the back. I've some tea brewing."
"I'd decided that the kind of love you read about in books- love at first sight, lightning bolts, choruses of angels, all that rot- was a myth. Love was a deep friendship and a desire to be better. Someone who makes you better, and I had that in Martha. She was brilliant, Martha was, an absolute star. But then…"
It had been a brilliant spring day, the kind that England rarely sees. He was so pleased that Martha would have her perfect wedding day, and had even consented to wear a tuxedo, though he swore to her that nothing good ever happened to him when he wore a tux. She had insisted that this time, it would.
He'd looked up from helping to seat Martha's grandmother to find Jack Harkness, a mutual friend of his and Martha's, walking up the aisle to give him a hug that he accepted, and a kiss that he dodged.
"Congratulations, Doc. Happiest day of my life, seeing you and Martha happy. But let me introduce you to Rose Tyler."
He'd heard of her before, of course. She worked with Jack and Martha at Torchwood and they always said she was fantastic. He hadn't met her yet though, bad timing.
She'd grinned up at him, said something that he was sure was polite, and had held out a hand to shake his.
The moment his long-fingered hand had wrapped around her small one, he'd known. There had been his thunderbolt. His chorus of angels. The love of his life.
"That's beautiful," Jackson said, sipping his tea.
"It was bloody inconvenient is what it was. There I was, in a tux, a girl I loved in a white dress waiting for me, rings that cost the profits of this shop for two years in my pocket… But the thing was that I could have backed out. I wasn't married yet. I could have done it."
"But you didn't." It wasn't a question. He had called Martha his wife.
"But I didn't. How could I? We'd been planning the wedding for a year. Poured buckets of money into it- her parents had money, but we'd financed a lot of it ourselves. And there was Martha. She loved me so much, she did. And I loved her too. For all the years we were together, I did love her. Not as well as she deserved, gods help me, but I did love her."
"And Rose?" Jackson asked, knowing there had to be more to the story.
"It used to drive Martha mad. She'd say that I talk all the time and never say anything. She was right. Rose and I never talked about it. We became friends after the wedding. I… couldn't stay away from her. Like a bloody moth to flame I was. I think she wanted to talk about it- Rose is always direct that way. She speaks her mind. But I would deflect and deflect. Did it for years until she just stopped trying."
The Doctor's face looked miserable as he stared into his cup of tea. "She was better than I was, Rose. I would make excuses to casually run into her so that I could see her alone, but she never did the same to me. She didn't avoid me, but she'd only come to events that other people were at. She never spent time with me alone. She was better than me. A better friend to Martha. A better person in general. The only time she ever sought me out alone was…"
It was raining as he ducked into the grease-and-salt-scented air of Rose's favorite chip shop, and he drew a hand through his hair that had been plastered to his head. He always forgot to carry an umbrella.
Rose had been sitting in the corner booth and hadn't looked up when the bell rang. His heart sped up as it always did when he saw her, and he wondered what was so important that she had asked him to lunch for the first time since they had met.
He knew why she'd never done it before. For all they were friends, it was too dangerous for both of them. His heart sped up even more, pounding double-time at the thought of what it might mean for them that she would ask. It was a traitorous part of himself that he tried time and again to push down, but still it came back.
"Good to see you, John."
She called him "Doctor" around their friends, but when they were alone it was always the formality of his proper name. No one but Rose called him that, not even Martha, not since his teachers had done so.
He slid into the booth across from her and rested his elbows on the table, his hands an inch away from hers on the cool linoleum surface, but not touching.
"Rose. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
She hadn't looked at him then. She had, instead, stared at her hands- her nails painted bright pink, but giving way to the paler pink of the natural nail beneath where she was picking off the polish.
"We're friends, aren't we, John?" she asked, suddenly.
"Yeah, of course we are," John said, ignoring the swoop in his stomach at the question.
"Right," she said, still not looking at him. "Good."
"Is something wrong, Rose?"
She shook her head and finally looked up at him, conflict in her eyes. "I just wanted… I wanted you to know first because… because we're friends… I've met someone."
"Oh?" The Doctor's voice did not squeak as he said that. It absolutely had not.
"Yeah. He's… wonderful. Absolutely fantastic. He's leaving for Japan soon to teach a new type of surgery at a hospital there. He'll be abroad for six months, and maybe more after depending on how this goes. He's asked me to go with him."
"And you've said…" the Doctor trailed off, not sure what he wanted her to say.
"I haven't answered yet, but I'll have to let him know today. I can continue working for Torchwood from anywhere and… well I've always want to see the world, and James can give me that."
"And you're telling me because?" He was suddenly feeling irrationally angry about it.
Rose answered evenly, even as her cheeks coloured slightly. "Because you are my friend, John, and I trust your judgement. Do you mind… I mean… do you think it's a good idea for me to go?"
Did he mind, he wondered. Did he mind that the love of his life was going to take off across the planet to get away from him?
But wasn't that the point?
"She went, of course. I told her she should and she did."
"Funny that he was a doctor," Jackson said.
The Doctor gave a humourless laugh. "A proper Doctor, him. He was clever and charming. He was older than her, but he looked at her like she was every star in the sky, and I couldn't fault him that."
He shook his head, and Jackson could tell that wasn't the end of the story.
"With Rose out of London, my own marriage actually got easier. We decided to try for kids, Martha and I. I've always wanted them, and she… she'd have been a brilliant mother. We tried for ages but we never could. She went and got tested and… and that's when they found the cancer."
"I'm so sorry." Jackson reached out and laid a hand on John's.
"She was so young, Martha. A whole world in front of her, and I feel like I took it from her by not loving her properly. But always looking beyond. I'll never be able to overcome that."
Jackson could think of nothing to say, so he rose and poured the Doctor more tea, adding sugar in the quantities he'd seen the man make for himself before. When he set it in front of the older man, the Doctor had his face back under control, but he drank the hot tea greedily.
"Superheated infusion of free radicals and tannins. Amazing what it can do for the soul though."
Jackson smiled. "That's probably the sugar."
That made the Doctor smile finally.
"Is that the end of the story then?"
The Doctor shrugged. "It is and it isn't. Martha died a month before James and Rose's wedding. It was a small thing, the wedding, mostly just the two of them, but she invited me. I… didn't go."
"Did you ever see her again?"
It was dark out when he knocked on Rose's door. She didn't seem surprised when she opened it to find him standing, unannounced on her mat.
"John. It's good to see you. Come in."
"Is James here?"
"He isn't. Surgery went long at the hospital. Did you come to see him?"
"No, I came to see you."
She stepped aside and he came into the apartment. It was a small, serviceable place as James and Rose spent most of their time traveling, but there were books and magazines scattered across the coffee and breakfast tables, a pair of large black boots and a pair of pink converse lined up beside the door, and photos all over the front of the fridge.
"How are you doing, John? I haven't seen you since the funeral. Are you alright?"
"I'm always alright," he had answered.
She hadn't believed him, but he didn't want to talk about Martha and had cut her off.
"Do you ever wonder, Rose, what would have happened if things had been different?"
Rose pursed her lips. "Do you mean if Britain didn't have a monarchy into the 20th century and zeppelins had become the main mode of distance travel, or something a bit closer to home?"
He didn't answer, just kept going. "What if you… what if I had made one tiny decision differently years ago? What if it had made all the difference, in the end? What then? Where would we be now?"
Rose had seated herself on the sofa, but John couldn't sit still. He paced with a restless energy, upset and oddly excited.
"What if I had never married Martha, eh? How many things would be different now?"
"You and I might never have met, would we?" Rose said, quietly. "We met at your wedding."
"Right, but before I got married, don't you see? It could have been different."
"No," Rose said, and it was an incredibly final syllable. "No, it wouldn't have been, John. It's madness to think about such things. No one can change time, and time has past."
"But what-" he began again.
"Stop it, John. What's done is done, and we must both live with it. I think, perhaps, that you should go home before James gets here, don't you?"
"I didn't go to her wedding. I said she was better than I am, you know? More loyal. More honest. Even if I'd been willing to run away with her that day, she wouldn't have done it to Martha, I don't think. I changed the name of the shop after they left. They do come to London sometimes, but they don't see me much."
"Do you know where she is now?" Jackson asked. The pot of tea was empty, and he could tell the story was nearly over.
"Yeah, I follow them on Facebook." The Doctor went to a wall of photos and pulled one down. It was of a blonde woman with dark eyes and a tall, lean man with short dark hair, bright blue eyes and a prominent nose, leaning into each other as they took a selfie in front of the Roman Colosseum.
"Italy now, but not for work. I think it's just a vacation. Last I heard they were working in South Africa. Saving the world, they are."
Jackson could feel that there was something else, though he did not know what it was. He waited quietly for this strange, sad man to work his way to it.
Finally, after a few minutes, those dark brown eyes looked pleadingly up at him.
"Jackson Lake… do you think I did right?"
He should have known. Absolution was what this man wanted, but Jackson could not give it to him. Only one person could.
"I don't know, Doctor. Do you?"