thirty2flavors: (the oncoming storm)
[personal profile] thirty2flavors
Title: A Matter of Time (1/2)
Rating: PG
Characters/Pairings: Ten2/Rose, an assortment of Tylers, eventual alt!Donna and Jake, Ten and proper!Donna ver. flashback
Genre: Humour and angst, with a bit of emphasis on the angst
Spoilers?: Through 4x13
Summary: Tony's eighth birthday party forces the Doctor to consider something he hadn't before.
Excerpt: Until earlier that day, he’d never considered the possibility any more than one considers the chance of rain a thousand miles away. Now it seemed obvious, and on top of it all he felt stupid as well as panicked.

Author's Note: This one I get to blame on [livejournal.com profile] goldy_dollar, who insisted I write it after reading a one-sentence summary in that "five things of personal canon" meme. Also, she bribed me with coffee, so obviously it's her fault. This slots into the Gingerbread 'verse, but aside from some allusions there's nothing too crucial to know.


Surveying the scene before him, the Doctor could reach only one conclusion. His brow scrunched, his lip curled, and he leaned to the side to say to Rose, “Isn’t this a little... dramatic?”

Rose shrugged. “Mum and Dad can afford it. I think Mum likes spoiling him, just ‘cause now she can.”

He continued to survey the lawn – and the large white tent in the centre, encircled with balloons – with distaste. “It’s not like he’s done anything,” he complained. “Well, except survive the year, I suppose, but given that he spends his time at school and playing Grand Theft Zeppelin IV, that’s hardly surprising. Now, you and I, on the other hand…”

Rose shot him a look, and the Doctor began to suspect that making light of near-death experiences was not standard conversation for birthday parties. He added it to his mental repository of all things human and tugged at his tie. “Besides, he’s only eight.”

She shrugged again and started down the lawn ahead of him. The Doctor was grateful that Tony at least had the decency to be born at a time of year when Jackie’s idea of “dressing nicely” meant Rose wearing things like sundresses.

“He’s a kid, Doctor. Birthdays are a big deal when you’re a kid.”

“Well, that’s backwards,” he insisted, following at a distance designed to give him optimum view of the bounce of her dress. “An eightieth birthday is far more impressive than an eighth.”

She grinned over her shoulder, squinting against the sun. “I’ll keep that in mind, then. Your eightieth, you better be up for some pretty thrilling pony rides.”

He grinned back. “Absolutely.” Then, with a renewed vigour, he closed the space between them, grabbed her hand and raced down the lawn towards the tent.

--

Thwack!

The Doctor watched from beneath the tent as one of Tony’s friends landed an impressive hit on the piñata. Something about blindfolding children and getting them to beat something until it exploded, then eating whatever came out, seemed quite bizarre. It probably didn’t help that this particular piñata was green and googly-eyed, a crude version of the twenty-first century vision of an alien. It swung freely on its string, helpless as an army of eight-year-olds with sticks assaulted it.

Thwack! A flurry of green tissue paper fell to the ground, and one of the alien’s eyes snapped, dangled down alongside its face. The Doctor cringed.

“When I turned eight,” said a voice to the Doctor’s right, “I got a cake and a model car.”

Pete Tyler stood at the Doctor’s side, punch glass in hand, quizzically watching the proceedings. Beneath the piñata, Rose righted the blindfolded little girl before she had the chance to whack Tony in the head.

The Doctor nodded. “When I was eight I looked into a hole in the fabric of reality.”

Pete snorted and shook his head. “Well, you do know how to make a bloke feel insignificant.”

Crack! The little girl Rose had steered hit the piñata with an impressive force and the alien’s side split open, raining candy down on those below. Rose slipped away from the madness, beaming, and walked to join them by the refreshments. She popped a pretzel into her mouth, then looked back at the crowd of children.

“See the brown-haired girl?” she whispered, pointing with a pretzel. “I think he fancies her.”

The Doctor raised an eyebrow. “They’re eight.”

She shrugged, biting the second pretzel in half. “So?”

Beside them, Pete sighed. “Oh, don’t you start. Jackie’ll hear you, she’ll go on for weeks.”

On cue, the side of the tent lifted and Jackie peered in at the three of them, accusation all over her features. The Doctor stepped to the side, angling himself just behind Pete. There seemed considerably less chance that a high-strung, party-planning Jackie Tyler would harm her husband, and anyway, Pete ought to be used to it by now.

“What’s this?” Jackie demanded, but when no one answered her she carried on, unperturbed. “Rose, we need more punch, grab the bowl and come help me. Pete, go get the cake ready.” She eyed the Doctor and frowned. “I’d tell you to watch the kids, but you’re no better than they are.”

She was gone again before he could properly retort, which the Doctor thought was distinctly unfair. More unfair were the amused looks Rose and her father exchanged as Pete headed after his wife and Rose went to collect the punch bowl. He was definitely not as bad as an eight-year-old. It wasn’t as though he’d spent the last twenty minutes bashing something with a stick.

Worst of all, however, was that the sudden absence of Rose, Jackie and Pete left him utterly vulnerable to attack from Aunt Caroline.

Aunt Caroline was Pete’s sister, and the Doctor and Jackie agreed on nothing more soundly than they agreed on their dislike for Aunt Caroline. The first time he’d met Caroline he’d racked his brain to try and remember Rose ever mentioning her back home; he’d found out later that in the universe where Pete had died, Caroline had simply disappeared from Jackie and Rose’s lives. In the universe where her brother had made a name for himself, it seemed Caroline had done the opposite, and now she appeared at every Tyler function there was.

In and of itself, that was excusable. He supposed it was unfair to judge this Caroline by her counterpart’s actions. What bothered the Doctor was the distrust that this Caroline had for Rose, convinced as she was that Rose was some sort of adopted publicity stunt. The favoritism she displayed towards Tony was heavy-handed, and though Rose insisted she didn’t mind – Caroline was infuriating even when she liked you – the Doctor and Jackie found it intolerable. It didn’t help much that Caroline had a tendency to speak to everyone younger than her as though they were utterly thick, and as she was Pete’s older sister, that meant all of them.

Much to his disappointment, if not his surprise, Rose and her parents had only been gone a few minutes before Caroline found him. He eyed his punch as she approached and wondered if he could get away with joining the impromptu football game the kids had started on the lawn. He was just considering making the move – Tony liked him well enough, surely he could get away with it – when she reached his side.

“Makes you feel old, doesn’t it?” she asked, smiling falsely and gesturing with one ringed hand towards the playing children.

The Doctor followed her gaze, his head titled. Many things made him feel very old. Watching some children kick a football was not one of them. He opened his mouth, deliberated on pointing this out, and ultimately said, “…Yeah.”

“Better get used to it, I suppose,” she carried on, shrugging. “Won’t be long now ‘til Pete’s got grandchildren’s birthdays to celebrate.”

The Doctor raised an eyebrow. For a human, she seemed to have a very strange perception of what constituted a “long time”. “Oh, I don’t think it’ll be that soon.”

She looked at him in surprise. “Really?” She sounded delighted. “Why not?”

The Doctor stared at her incredulously. Could she really be that thick? “He’s eight.”

Caroline’s eyebrows fell back to their usual position and she sent him a most unimpressed stare. “I wasn’t talking about Tony,” she explained, exasperated and enunciating every word so he could not possibly mishear her.

It took the Doctor exactly one-point-eight-seven seconds to figure out what Caroline meant, and it took an additional second on top of that for the Doctor’s mouth to go completely dry and for the bottom of his stomach to disappear entirely. He was distantly aware of his mouth falling open and a noise akin to a croak coming out.

It was only ten seconds after that, though, that Rose reappeared on the lawn, full punch bowl in hand. From there it was another five-point-one-nine before a rather misplaced kick from Tony sent the football soaring across the grass, directly in the path of his elder sister.

She lost her footing and both Rose and the punch bowl fell backwards. With a painful looking thud Rose landed on her back, punch bowl still in her hands. The punch itself landed on the grass and on Rose, a very literal splash of red against her pale green dress.

There was a beat of silence, and then the children dissolved into giggles hidden behind their hands. Rose lay there, stunned, and Tony pressed his lips together to hold back a laugh.

“Oops,” he said eventually.

Rose sat up and looked down, surveying the damage to her dress. Her eyebrows rose up, her tongue ran over her teeth, and she sent a stern stare in Tony’s direction.

The boy flushed. “Sorry.”

Rose watched him a moment longer, eyes still wide, and set the punch bowl on the grass. Then her face broke into a wide grin and she leapt up, racing after Tony with outstretched arms. “I am gonna kill you!”

Somewhere in the time it took Tony to give a shriek of laughter and run from his sister, the Doctor managed to close his mouth. He gulped down the remainder of his punch and held the cup tilted back long after it became apparent there was nothing left. He watched Rose chase her brother and wished his heart would stop trying to leap out of his ribcage.

After years spent running for her life, Rose proved to be a very fast sprinter – as she caught up to Tony and promptly began tickling him, the Doctor tried to quell the nausea that had taken residence in his stomach.

It didn’t work. Muttering something about fetching napkins to help Rose clean up, he slid past Caroline and escaped towards the mansion.

--

By the time he abandoned all pretense of sleep, extracted himself from Rose’s limp grip and swung his legs over the side of the bed, the clock on the wall read 2:31.

Technically it was only 2:28, but the Doctor supposed it didn’t matter, as 2:28 was no better a time to be awake than 2:31. Scrubbing at his eyes with his hands, he willed them to focus more clearly in the darkness and debated what, exactly, he ought to do now.

It had been a long while since sleep had proved so utterly out of reach, and for all that he believed sleep a waste of time, the Doctor had not missed the sensation. There’d been a time, just after they first arrived in this world, when he’d dreaded sleep. Dreams forced him to consider things he could avoid when awake, and he’d taken to pacing the halls of the Tyler mansion just to avoid sleeping. Nightmares were infrequent now, but insomnia was worse with Rose beside him; he was loath to wake her, but staring blankly at the ceiling offered even less distraction than pacing did.

A ruffle of sheets behind him let him know Rose had rolled over, her hand burrowing under her pillow. He watched her, peaceful and content, and the anxiety he hadn’t felt in years – the same anxiety that kept him awake – stretched through him.

He must have been daft, but the thought had never even occurred to him. Until earlier that day, he’d never considered the possibility any more than one considers the chance of rain a thousand miles away. Now it seemed obvious, and on top of it all he felt stupid as well as panicked.

What if Rose wanted children?

She was good with them, more or less. There was a deep camaraderie between her and Tony despite the years between them, and her natural compassion and fierce protectiveness of those she loved would only be emphasized by motherhood. She’d learned from Jackie, after all, and Jackie Tyler was nothing if not a loving mother.

Beyond that, why shouldn’t Rose want children? Sarah Jane had Luke. Martha adored Leo’s kids and was bound to start a family with Tom. Donna had felt the maternal tug, had mourned the loss of her virtual children longer than she’d cared to admit. Even Susan –

With a long, shaky breath the Doctor put his head in his hands, wishing without much hope that the universe might take pity on him and swallow him whole. It struck him again how vastly unfair it was for Rose, loving someone with so very many skeletons in his closets. She deserved better, deserved someone who understood simple things like birthday parties and Valentine’s Day, who didn’t panic at the mere suggestion of children.

He’d never been able to deny Rose anything. How could he possibly tell her that he didn’t want to start a family with her?

He’d told Donna that part of him was long dead and he’d meant it. Jenny and the faint promise of redemption that went with her had reasserted that, stronger than before; it’d torn open the wound and rubbed it raw, ground it in salt. The thought of doing that again, subjecting himself to reminders day after day, trying to live with his ghosts in flesh and blood –

He couldn’t. He couldn’t, not even for Rose Tyler.

“Doctor?” Rose’s voice was quiet and strained with sleep and confusion. He turned to find her leaning on one elbow, peering blearily at him through the darkness. Her free arm stretched across the bed, her fingers sneaking up beneath his shirt and tracing the base of his spine. “Something wrong?”

He leaned back into her touch, soaking from it what comfort he could. He ignored the guilt gnawing on his heart and sent her a bright smile. “Nope! Just thirsty. D'you want something while I'm up?”

“No, ‘m fine.” He watched her brow crinkle as she tried to make sense of his words through the haze of sleep. She let her hand fall from his back as he stood, moving instead to rub her eye. “Doctor, if something’s wrong—“

“Nothing wrong!” he insisted cheerfully. He pressed a kiss to her bedraggled hair when he reached her side of the bed. “Just getting a drink. Go back to sleep.”

She grabbed his hand before he could make it to the door. “Doctor,” was all she said, but the intent was clear.

He hesitated, halfway to the door, his hand caught in hers, his heart beating double-time. He could tell her, right now. He could explain the fear that he could never give her what she deserved, could tell the truth and risk his honesty denying her something she might not even know she wanted.

Or he could do what he did best and run.

“Rose.” He paused on the word, hung from the last precipice of indecision – then he let go, and pulled his hand from hers. “I’m just getting a drink.” He grinned at her through the shadows and stepped backwards into the doorway, putting on his best Jackie Tyler voice. “Go to sleep!”

--


The doors of the TARDIS are spread wide, revealing the deep purple sky and the orange, rocky ground that lay just outside. Off on the horizon, blazes of lightning, white-hot, streak from ground to cloud, illuminating the distant outcroppings of rock. Overhead, a meteor shower sends pinpricks of light shooting across the sky.

“It’s beautiful,” Donna says. She sits next to him in the doorway, legs crossed, her knee brushing his. The TARDIS protects them from the suffocating atmosphere but not the chill, and she pulls his brown coat tighter around her shoulders. “Like fireworks.”

He nods. “The storms will stop, and eventually the ground will be covered in moss the colour of candy floss. The people here will be known for their artwork, brilliant exhibits that appeal to nine different senses.” He leans back on his hands, and Donna turns to watch him. The corner of his mouth pulls up into something like a smile. “But that’s not for billions of years yet. We’re probably the only living creatures who have ever seen this, Donna. This planet, it’s only just been born, really. Still a baby.”

A new world, he doesn’t say. The words hang heavy in his mind and he swallows around an imagined rock in his throat.

Donna nods, quietly absorbing the information and turning back to the view in front of her. He thinks of Donna in a wedding dress, watching the creation of Earth, back when she said “Spaceman” like it was a bad thing. She’s come a long way since then.

“How are you?” she asks finally.

The answer is reflex, preceded by a sigh. “Donna, I’m fine—”

“Don’t lie to me, Doctor.” She turns her head, her profile outlined in the purple glow, her features soft and sad.

He says nothing, unwilling to admit the lie or acknowledge the persistent ache that’s set up camp between his hearts. Instead he shoves himself upright again, shoulder to shoulder with Donna.

“It might help,” she says, “talking about it.”

The Doctor laughs, low and humourless. “Ah, the human solution to everything! Talking about it!”

She frowns out at the landscape. “I mean it.”

“So do I.” He shrugs, following her gaze. “By your time, you all think that’s the solution to everything, talking about it. Sharing and commiseration, the cures to whatever ails you!” He shakes his head, hopes he doesn’t sound as bitter as he feels. “It’s naïve. It doesn’t work like that. Some things can’t be fixed by talking about them.”

A derisive snort tells him he’s pushed a bit too far. “And how would you know? It’s not like you’ve ever tried it.”

He flinches, more at the irritation in her words than the meaning behind them. He stands by his conviction, knows that giving voice to emotions only strengthens their grip. Acknowledgement makes them concrete, inescapable, undeniable. There’s nothing to be gained from that, and less to be gained from forcing those burdens on someone else, no matter how many times they insist they don’t mind.

But Donna means well, they always do. It isn’t their fault that they don’t understand, that they can’t possibly –

“I can’t,” he says finally. It sounds weak to his own ears and he wets his lips, tries again. “I just—” He casts around for the words and reels in nothing. “I can’t.”

She lets out a long sigh. On the other side of the TARDIS doors, her breath condenses and turns to fog. “Yeah. I know.” Her lips pull tight across her teeth in a small, sad smile. “It’s all right.”

“I’ll be fine, Donna,” he says again, when the silence has gotten too loud. He folds his hands in his lap, and her fingers come to rest at the crook of his elbow. “She isn’t the first person I’ve lost and she won’t be the last.”

Unbidden, another face flickers through his mind, eyes drowning in mascara and tears. He shivers. He’s bad luck for blondes, really.

Donna’s fingers curl tighter around his arm, pale white against the blue of his suit. Pity and sadness and solidarity, all in one touch. Suddenly it’s hard to swallow.

A single gunshot shouldn’t be enough to kill a Time Lord.

“I could have survived a bullet,” he says. Her hand moves up to his neck and he doesn’t resist when she pulls his head onto her shoulder.


--

He cupped his chin in one hand, staring listlessly at the glass of water on the table in front of him. If he knew Rose, she was certainly waiting awake for him to return to bed, if only so he could further convince her how very "all right" he was. Really, he shouldn't keep her waiting.

Eventually, he knew, he’d have to tell her. It was a matter of time, looming uncertainly in the future, daunting and dreaded and inevitable. He’d work up the courage to disappoint her.

He traced shapes in the condensation on the glass, names crudely drawn in a language there was no one to read.



--

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