Fourth in the dystopian!verse series.
She has questions, but he will not answer. He has a question, but she cannot answer. Of being haunted by yourself, and everything you cannot remember doing.
When: Post-Ground Zero
Her hand connects with the lamp on the bedside table, and Rose Tyler jerks awake as it crashes to the floor. He is up like a shot beside her, gun in hand and safety flicked off, and she lays a hand on his arm in reassurance that there is no danger present. Her breaths are heavy with shock, and her heart is pounding in her ears. He runs a warm hand down her back in comforting strokes.
The room around them is decidedly spartan, more utilitarian than anything else. The limp curtains by the window are drawn shut, and the room holds nothing more than a double bed and a desk. A door to the side leads off into the equally plain bathroom. The wallpaper had once been a rather pretty green, she surmises, but time has turned it into the putrid colour of vomit.
The hand on her back stops stroking, and she is left almost bereft at the loss of his warmth. He climbs out of bed, walking over to the desk where his coat lies neatly folded. Rummaging around in a pocket, he pulls out an aged fob watch.
“What time is it?” She asks, wishing their night of rest hadn’t passed so fast. Life on the run is exciting and thrilling, but it is also exhausting, and sometimes she just wants it to stop. He doesn’t answer, now absorbed in reading a sheet of paper he had pulled out from his coat. Walking over to her side of the bed, he absentmindedly hands her the watch.
The watch in her palm is warm from his hand, and it is a solid and assuring weight. She runs her fingers over the cover, tracing the intricate swirls and patterns that had been engraved. Delicately prying the cover open to read the time, she admires the ornate work that had gone into the creation of this watch, and wonders at its cost. It must surely have been expensive, and his lifestyle does not support this sort of luxury. The cover pops open with minimal fuss, and she notes that the inner face bears an engraving in looping cursive.
To John ‘Theta’ Smith
One for sorrow, Two for joy – Forever.
She wonders about him, and wonders at the infinite number of secrets he must hold. She is among those secrets, she knows, things-she-once-knew and the girl-she-once-was counting among the detritus of things he knows but will not tell her. It is four, and they have to depart soon. A safehouse never remains safe for long. She presses the watch close slowly, carefully, almost as if she is afraid that it will break under her touch. Somehow she knows that this watch is special to him, and she thinks he might never forgive her if she loses or breaks it.
“John,” she calls to him, holding the watch in an outstretched hand. “Doctor.” He is still absorbed in the contents of the letter he is reading, and merely raises his chin a little in acknowledgement of her. She tries again. “Theta.”
His head jerks up in a movement so sudden that she is startled out of her train of thought. Before she can regain it, he cuts her off. “What did you call me?” His voice is soft, low, without inflection, so soft that she almost misses it.
Unsure of his reaction, she doesn’t know how to respond. His eyes are deep and searching on hers, and she wonders if she has crossed one of their unspoken lines. “Theta,” she says again, and her voice is stronger. “I called you Theta.”
He draws closer to her, and retrieves the fob watch from her hand, flicking it open with a deft motion that convinces her he has done it many times before. “And you saw it in here? You got my name from the watch?”
She nods. He shuts the watch, and grips it tightly in his fist. She can see the whites of his knuckles, pale in the relative dimness of the room. It is a long while before he relaxes his hand and turns away from her. His face is shuttered.
“We have to leave,” he tells her, and they gather their scant possessions. When he turns to lock the safehouse door behind them, it is the first time she notices that his key is identical to the one that hangs on a chain around her neck.
Her mind wonders at this as he takes her hand, and they slip off into the night.
Beijing is a good place to lose a tail. The streets are crowded and noisy, and the lights are bright and flashing. Teetering skyscrapers hustle for space alongside shambling buildings of a bygone era, and glass and chrome are as easily found as brick and stone. The entire city is a breathing contradiction.
They shake off their tail in a bustling street market, weaving in and out of stalls and peddlers hawking their wares. The din around them is deafening, and the aromas of hot food are everywhere. He leads her to a tiny alcove next to an abandoned temple, and they catch their breath in this miniscule spot of respite from the crowds.
Later, they wander down streets in a fairly suburban area, glad to be away from the noise and claustrophobia at the heart of the city. Beijing is crowded and densely populated, and the housing blocks around them soar into the sky in a bid to save land area. They stroll down narrow lanes hand in hand, speaking of everything and nothing. She points to a pretty poster on the wall and he hums in agreement, and he ushers her around puddles that have gathered in the pavement hollows.
This is the peace that exists between their lives. It will not last long, she knows, but it makes these brief moments sweeter.
They pass a park, and she can see several toddlers ambling about the sandpit in the distance. She can’t explain the sudden pang in her chest or clenching in her gut, but she knows she smiles a little at their untainted innocence. Her fingers curl deeper into his hand, and he squeezes her hand lightly in response. She will not try to explain what this exchange between them means.
It is approaching seventeen, and the sun streaks the sky in angry lines of blood red and painful orange. The children in the park are bathed in this morbid glow, and she watches as they run off towards a woman when she calls for them. It is dinnertime, and the sky is bleeding.
The backs of the children disappear beyond her field of sight, and she sighs. “Three for a girl, and four for a boy,” she murmurs, and wonders where the line came from.
He freezes beside her, and her arm is uncomfortably jolted by his abrupt halt in their walk. She looks up at him questioningly.
“Where did you hear that?” He asks, and she can hear the catch in his voice.
“I don’t know. It just came to me – it’s a rather common rhyme, after all.” Her tone is measured, and she wonders what other relic of her (their) past she has drudged up now. She wants to know so badly, but he will not tell her, and the-girl-she-once-was weighs heavily on her mind.
“And so it is,” he agrees, and she cannot help but feel that his words are like shields. They resume their walk at a leisurely pace, but the air between them is different now. The spectres of things she cannot remember and the ghosts of what she doesn’t know she has done lie between them, and the distance that separates them is vast.
They wind up at a dinky Chinese restaurant as the clocks near nineteen. The shop is filled with the usual dinner crowd, buzzing with activity and movement, and it is a good place to lose themselves in.
He smiles a little when she orders deep-fried banana fritters, and shakes his head when she asks him why. She finds herself using chopsticks with ease, and wonders at this other newfound skill. She has never used chopsticks before. She doesn’t know who she is, not really, not after meeting him, and she tries to tell herself that it is okay. She uses her chopsticks as skillfully as a native, recalls herself speaking flawless Russian, and a tiny voice at the back of her mind tells her it isn’t.
He does not comment on her skill with the utensil, and their meal is shared in relative silence. She frowns. “It’s funny, how you talk so little.” His chopsticks pause for a brief moment before continuing their journey to his mouth. It is almost seamless, his movement, but she had been watching, and she had caught the jerk of his hand. She presses on. “I don’t know, but I just – You just seem to be the type that’d talk a lot more, you know?”
His eyes are unreadable on hers when he responds. “Really? What gave you that idea?”
“A gut feeling,” she lies smoothly, before realising it isn’t one – it isn’t a lie, not really. Her hand grips her chopsticks with a little too much force, and the banana fritter she had been grasping with it slips and falls back into her bowl.
He chews slowly, eyes kept on hers, and he is almost contemplative when he replies. “Ah,” he says, and the single syllable is nothing and everything at once.
The remainder of their meal is quiet.
They reach a new safehouse at twenty-two, one of the dozens that he tells her are scattered throughout almost every major city in the world. She doesn’t know why they were set up or by whom, and she is sure he will not tell her even if she asks.
All safehouses are the same: spartan, plain, and barely furnished. They are not built for comfort, but she is too tired to care. The bed is soft when she collapses on it, too exhausted to toe off her shoes or strip off her jacket.
There is movement somewhere to her right, and she feels him tug off her sneakers. She is pliant and unresisting when he nudges her to her side to ease off her jacket, and sighs in pleasure when he tucks her in. After some wiggling and struggling, she manages to get her jeans off, and lets her mind drift as the sounds of him washing up and changing reach her ears.
She hears the sound of the light switch being flicked off, and the room plunges into darkness. The bed beside her dips, and his warmth is a welcome heat next to her. He doesn’t lie down, and instead sits with his back facing her, staring out of the tiny window.
Despite being caught up in the languorous tendrils of drowsiness, the question is strong in her mind, and she cannot help but ask.
“Why?” His shoulders tense, and she swallows once before continuing. “Why is it so important to you that I remember?”
He doesn’t answer, not for a long while, so long that she almost thinks he won’t. But he does, eventually, and his reply cuts a yawning hole in her chest.
“I need you to explain why you left me.”
Neither of them gets much sleep that night.
Part Three - Aftermath; Part Five - All Along the Watchtower