The tea was steaming in the cups, still too hot to drink, when a serious tone in the Doctor’s voice set Rose on edge once again.
“Rose, there’s something we need to discuss, I’m afraid.”
Rose’s eyes dropped to the ring on her finger, and she felt her hands start to shake again while she waited for the Doctor to bring up the one thing she was terrified to discuss with him: her marriage to his counterpart, and what that meant for their future together. She slid her hands from the teacup to her lap, and immediately started twisting the ring on her finger again. She couldn’t quite bring herself to take it off yet, it had become such a part of her over the past few years.
“I know you need time to wrap things up here, and I’m not trying to whisk you away before you take care of all of your business, but I’m afraid there is a certain amount of…sensitivity to how long we can stay here at this point.”
“What do you mean?” Rose asked carefully.
“He…John Smith…is dead.”
Rose sucked in a breath and held it. His words pierced her, and brought a sharp pain that surprised her to her chest. Since the Doctor had returned, she hadn’t allowed herself to think about the man that he had been while he was gone, the human man that had wooed and wedded her in his absence. A man who had been a part of her life, and who was now gone. A sharp sense of guilt filled her at the thought of John Smith. It was horribly unfair to him that she was so very, very glad to have the Doctor back...even at the expense of her husband of three years.
“I know,” she agreed softly.
“No, I mean…he was in the army, Rose. At war. When I became me again, I found myself faced with a series of options. Stay and fight a human war, and you know that wasn’t the slightest bit of an option for me. Desert the army and scorn my alter-ego’s name, which didn’t quite appeal to me either. Or find another way to get out. So I found another way. I faked John Smith’s death.”
“Oh.” Rose exclaimed, realization sweeping over her. “So that means…”
“I have to lie low until we can get out of here. I can’t be seen. It won’t be long before the army sends someone to tell you of my death, possibly even today. I was terrified that they would beat me here, actually. And if anyone sees me…well, then there could be some problems. We need to wrap things up, get back to the TARDIS, and get out of this time before anyone figures out that my death was purely artificial. If that happens, then we will find ourselves in a load of trouble.”
“Right.” Rose sighed. “Okay. Well, at least that gives me a role to play as I bow out of this life. Grief-stricken widow is a pretty good excuse to pick up and disappear into a new life. I can play that card.”
She tried to keep her voice light, but she could practically feel the Doctor’s gaze narrowing to her, and saw his eyes fall to her hand and linger a moment too long on the ring on her finger, before looking back up to study her face. She waited silently for a moment, anticipating the inevitable questions, but the Doctor’s gaze left hers, his attention suddenly focused on the tea in front of him, swirling it around in the cup for a moment before taking a long drink of it. He drummed his hands against the table restlessly for a moment, before pushing to his feet and wandering to the window, but Rose stayed frozen in her seat. Because his nervous pounding had drawn her attention to a detail that she hadn’t noticed until this very moment.
His fingers were void and naked of any adornments.
He wasn’t wearing the wedding ring.
And in that instant, Rose’s heart broke, just a little bit.
Taking the train to Farringham on Sundays to visit the TARDIS proved to Rose how spoiled the people of her modern era were. They had all sorts of available distractions while in transit. While she sat in her compartment on the train across from a snoring old woman, Rose desperately wished for her mobile or an iPod or something to make the time go faster. Instead she just stared out the window at the familiar passing landscape and let her mind wander off.
She didn’t go up to visit the TARDIS every Sunday. Otherwise she’d probably go broke and mad, and not necessarily in that order. Still, it was a necessity to protect their safety. The TARDIS was locked safely away in a shed outside of town, and only Rose had a key to get into the shed. Her life had already been thrown askew by one accidental fire. She couldn’t help worrying that another accident would occur. Even if she couldn’t pilot the TARDIS, at least she could keep an eye on her.
It had been two months since the last time she had made the journey out to Farringham. Having what her landlady referred to as “a male caller” had taken up quite a bit of her spare time. She wasn’t complaining though. After months and months of feeling completely alone in this time, it was refreshing to have someone who paid attention to her, who liked spending time with her, who wanted her. Suddenly she understood perfectly why the Doctor had invited her along after one brief adventure. Loneliness was hard on the soul. It got inside you until it became an actual physical ache that seemed like it would never go away. Nearly six months without the Doctor, and Rose was more determined than ever to stay with him for the rest of her life, even if he wasn’t himself.
It was a mile walk from the train station to the shed outside of town where the TARDIS lay hidden. The air was cold and damp, a heavy fog shrouding the landscape with dewy moisture. Rose had to pull her wool coat tighter around herself to starve off the cold as she slowly walked to her destination.
She smiled when the shed finally came into sight. Her hand was shaking as she pulled the key out of her pocket, and it was difficult to slip it into the lock. She was relieved, however, to turn the key and hurry through the door as it creaked open. Just seeing the TARDIS made her feel a little bit closer to home. Rose carefully closed the door behind her, and quickly entered the TARDIS.
It was warmer inside of the ship. Rose slipped off her coat and turned to throw it over the closest arm of coral, but she froze mid-toss when she turned to see the Doctor's coat resting over the same surface. Her own coat fell to the floor, forgotten, as she took two slow, careful steps towards it, and laid a light hand on the familiar brown material. She trembled at the feel of it beneath her fingers, and quickly pulled away, turning her back to it, and hurrying up to the console.
Even though the TARDIS was powered down, she was still alive. A brush of her hand over the edge of the console brought a welcoming hum to Rose's ear. "Hello," Rose replied, turning to sit. "Sorry to be away for so long. I'm sure you've been lonely. Things have gotten away from me a bit lately. I have no idea what I'm doing anymore."
Her eyes drifted back to the Doctor's coat by the door, and her heart sunk a little bit. "There's still no sign of the watch. And it's been far more than three months now. The Family won't be a problem for us anymore. But the Doctor is still lost, and I have no idea how to find him."
She paused, and thought back to her experiences over the past few months. "John Smith is giving me hope though. He's clearly not the Doctor, but occasionally, it's like little bits of the Doctor are slipping through the cracks. I'm keeping a close eye on him..." Her words drifted off and sat silently thinking about the meaning of them for a moment. The TARDIS was quiet, but Rose couldn't help feeling like the TARDIS was waiting for her to explain herself further.
"He...John Smith...is dreaming about the Doctor's life. He remembers me from the Doctor's memories. It's so strange. I've been spending more and more time with him and most of the time he's this bumbling, scatterbrained, overly polite human bloke. But then, sometimes, he'll look at me a certain way, or something will pop out, and for a moment...just a single minuscule instant...I'll think I have the Doctor back."
She looked up and saw the Chameleon Arch dangling from the ceiling. Her gaze narrowed in on the empty space where once a fob watch had been pressed tightly into the device. The memory of it all came rushing back, as she remembered how the helmet rested around the Doctor's head and his screams, the stuff of nightmares, echoed through the TARDIS. Little had she known at the time that they were banishing the Doctor's consciousness away into the eternal prison of a tiny, now-lost watch.
"But that's the thing," she realized sadly. "I adore John Smith. He's a wonderful man. And if I have to be with any human while I'm trapped in this time, I'm glad I'm with him. But he's always going to let me down because he's not the Doctor." Her voice grew distant as she thought back to all of the time she had been spending with John Smith since their first Christmas date. "I think he's falling in love with me. And I have no idea if that's a good thing, or a bad thing."
Rose pushed herself to her feet and paced in a slow circle around the TARDIS console, brushing her hand reverently over the different buttons and levers, until she reached the monitor. She paused and stared at the screen for a long moment. The Doctor had recorded a message for her before he had become John Smith. It was her last link to him, and she had watched it on every previous visit to the TARDIS, but she was afraid to look this time. She was worried that the Doctor would somehow scold her from the past for caring about the well being of his human counterpart.
As she stared at the dark monitor, she thought back to an incident that had happened a month earlier. In mid-January, there had been a light snowfall over Central London one night, and in the morning John Smith had come calling at her boardinghouse. He took her out to Hyde Park, and together they had spent the day walking through the snowy fields, holding hands, watching children have snowball fights and build snowmen. When they left the park that afternoon, a nearby tree dumped snow over them, and Rose laughed while John Smith carefully brushed the wet flakes out of her hair. His hand had drifted cautiously lower, until he was carefully brushing an errant flake off of her eyelash, and then, somehow, he was kissing her. Rose was startled by the advance, but his light and loving touch was so comforting that she quickly relaxed into his embrace and found herself returning his kiss.
When Rose thought back to that first moment with him, and the many that had followed in the ensuing month, she felt the guilt stronger than ever. Because even though John Smith wasn't the Doctor, he was as close as she would get to the Doctor, likely for the rest of her life. And she liked his affections.
Rose quickly pulled her hand away from the monitor as if she had been burned. She couldn't do it. She couldn't listen to the Doctor's voice and see the Doctor's face now. She turned and hurried from the console room, desperate for a shower and a nap in her proper bed.