Greg Henning slid back into his cubicle after his lunch break just in time to collide with someone coming out of it.
“Greg!” said the taller man, helping Greg regain his balance. “I was just looking for you.”
“Hey, Jimmy,” Greg greeted the enthusiastic young writer. “What was it you needed?”
“You know that press release I was supposed to email to Rose Tyler to get it approved?”
“Yes . . .” said Greg warily, setting his miraculously un-spilled coffee on his desk. “What, did she not like it?” He would have been mildly surprised by that, but not shocked. While Rose tended to be fairly relaxed about publicity, as long as it remained above her strict privacy threshold, she occasionally censored unpredictable things. They sprung, Greg was certain, from her PR nightmare of a boyfriend – and those thoughts were quickly leading to places which were less than appropriate in a professional environment, so Greg refocused on Jimmy’s answer.
“I don’t know. I just finished it this morning.”
“Jimmy,” Greg groaned. “We have deadlines for a reason! We have to get that out by five, and you know she only checks her email at night.”
“I know; I’m sorry. I thought maybe you could ring her –”
“She’s in Torchwood; she won’t have reception. Get me a hard copy; I’ll take it down to her.”
“Thanks,” said Jimmy with a relieved grin. “I’d do it myself, but I haven’t got the clearance. I owe you one.”
“Just make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Greg sighed, accepting the folder from him and picking up his coffee. It looked like he wouldn’t be returning to his desk anytime soon.
It wasn’t that Greg didn’t want to see Rose. In fact, a part of him which was much bigger than he liked to admit leapt at the chance. It was just that he shouldn’t. Rationally, he knew that he shouldn’t, that he should avoid her at all costs, but he couldn’t quite manage to put that into practice.
He had admired her from a distance from the first moment she appeared, seemingly from nowhere, four years ago. Everyone had. She was young and pretty and mysterious, but more than that, she was a genuinely good person. She was kind and friendly to everyone, told all the staff to call her by her first name, and honestly seemed to care about the answer when she asked how they were. The riddle of her past and the sadness which always seemed to linger behind her smile only added to her appeal.
Then, at the annual banquet at the Tyler Mansion, he had met her properly. She was a vision in the elegant blue gown which was so different from her usual no-nonsense attire, and he had stuttered and stumbled his way through an invitation to dance. She had accepted. When the song ended she pecked him on the cheek, smiled warmly, and called him sweet. He had gone home with one thought firm in his mind: Rose Tyler was the most beautiful thing in the world.
That had been one year ago. Soon afterwards the stars began going out, and she withdrew from public sight to focus on Torchwood. Six months later she disappeared completely, only to return a few days later with a walking enigma who turned out to be her boyfriend.
If Rose’s past was slightly fabricated (and after five years in Public Relations, Greg knew fabrications), her significant other’s was a bald-faced lie. Smith (Greg refused to call him ‘the Doctor’, as if he was the only one in existence; honestly, how egotistical could you get?) was obviously not who he said he was: a top secret Torchwood agent, now turned consultant. No one who knew anything about Torchwood would believe that they had actually managed to keep a man’s existence under wraps for any length of time, and no one who spent ten seconds with Smith would believe that he’d consent to be kept under anyone’s thumb. The way that he twitched whenever it was brought up suggested that he had barely consented to pretending that he had been.
Greg had only met the man a few times, but he despised him. He knew that it wasn’t fair or rational – Smith had been nothing but cordial to him, except for his insistence on calling him ‘Gregory.’
(“Nobody calls me ‘Gregory,’” Greg had said stiffly.
“Nobody calls me ‘Smith,’” Smith had retorted. Rose had laughed and dragged him off while Greg watched them go, fuming.)
In truth, Smith was infuriatingly decent. Oh, he was certainly odd, even rude from time to time, but it was nothing that couldn’t be passed off as the eccentricities of a genius. Within Torchwood, the people who didn’t like him at least respected him. Outside of it, he got on well with the Tylers and, despite frequent rumors and speculation, there had never been any concrete evidence of anything criminal or particularly scandalous. Most grating of all, Rose just glowed when she was with him.
Therein lay Greg’s problem. He knew that he had no claim whatsoever to Rose’s affections, and that the only perceivable flaw in her relationship with Smith was that the man was, perhaps, a bit older than societal norms would dictate for a woman of her age. Logically, Greg had no reason at all to want to wring Smith’s scrawny neck every time he saw him with Rose.
Unfortunately, logic seemed to have very little do with it. He therefore was doing his best to avoid seeing them together, or separately, or at all. That would have been easier if he wasn’t the only one on his floor with clearance to go to Torchwood. It would have been a lot easier if he didn’t work for the Tyler family at all, but he needed this job.
He would just have to deal with it.
“Drake!” Greg called once he got past security and to the main floor. “Is Rose in?”
Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe he could just leave, give Jimmy a lecture about deadlines, and get the press release out in a later edition . . .
“Yeah,” said Drake, lounging back in his chair with a wicked grin. “She and the Doctor are – mm, how to put it? – having a private meeting.”
“Come off it, Tom,” said Simmonds, pushing away from his desk to join them. “They’re not shagging.”
Everyone within earshot gave him highly incredulous looks, and he rolled his eyes.
“No, I mean, obviously they’re shagging, but not right this instant.” He lowered his voice slightly, shooting a glance over his shoulder at the picture window which overlooked the bullpen. Normally it gave a clear view of Rose pulling her hair out over paperwork or, more often, her empty desk, but at the moments the blinds were closed. “He’s probably asleep. You’ve seen how he’s been lately.”
That last comment was evidently not intended for Greg, who had not seen Smith in several weeks. Perhaps he’d been ill. Well, if he had, it wasn’t Greg’s problem.
“Right,” he snapped. “Smith can sleep whenever he likes, but I need this approved by four.”
He marched up to Rose’s office, ignoring Simmonds’ protest from behind him. He pounded on the door, not bothering to be quiet about it. It swung open almost immediately, and Greg caught a glimpse of a darkened room, illuminated only by the glow of a laptop, before Rose stepped out. She pulled the door almost closed.
“Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling, her tongue peeking out between her teeth. Some of Greg’s irritation melted away despite himself. “Jimmy miss a deadline again?”
“Yeah, well, you know how he is,” he said, smiling nervously and silently cursing himself for not being wittier.
Smith was witty. Even when he wasn’t, Rose still laughed.
There was an awkward pause.
“So, um, you need me to look at something?” Rose prompted.
“Oh! Yes, sorry.” Greg fumbled with his bag to extract the right folder. “I just need you to approve this –”
He was cut off by a strangled cry from inside the office. Rose spun and darted back into the room, seeming to forget about Greg completely.
She had left the door open. Greg wrestled with his conscience for a moment, and then gave in to curiosity. He shifted just enough to see Rose crouched beside a low sofa, stroking Smith’s hair and murmuring soothingly.
“It’s okay, Doctor; it’s just a dream.”
Smith was twisting and whimpering in his sleep, tears on his face and hands clenched in pain.
“C’mon, wake up.”
Smith gave a gasp and his eyes snapped open. He sucked in much-needed air, then let it out in something suspiciously like a sob. Rose wrapped him in her arms and – Greg swallowed bile – Smith clung to her, bony hands grasping her with a sharp-edged desperation as he buried his face in her neck. He gave a few more shuddering breaths as she rubbed his back calmingly, and then – he looked up.
Both men froze as their eyes met. It was Smith who regained his voice first (of course it was), and he uttered one word, rough and low.
She sprung to her feet and turned on her heel in a single, fluid movement.
“Greg!” she snapped, eyes flashing. “For god’s sake, I haven’t got time for your stupid press release!”
“. . . and then she slammed the door on my face! As if I had done something wrong! She’s the one who left it open, and that bloody Smith is the one falling asleep in her office.”
“That’s rough, mate,” said Chad sympathetically, signaling the barkeep for fresh pints. “You know what you should do? You should get back at her.”
Greg laughed bitterly.
“And how would I do that? She’s Rose fucking Tyler.”
He didn’t usually swear. It felt strange on his tongue, and he took a swig of beer to wash it away.
“Yeah, and you’re her PR guy,” said Chad, clapping him on the back. “You know all her dirty little secrets!”
“Okay, first of all, I’m not ‘her PR guy.’ I work for her father’s PR department. I’m not even the most senior member.”
There was a pause as he took another draft.
“Second?” Chad prompted.
“You said ‘first of all.’ So what’s second?”
“Oh. Right.” He frowned, trying to get his thoughts in order. “Second . . . I don’t know any dirty secrets.”
“Sure you do!” Chad insisted. “You just don’t realize it.”
“No, no, I don’t know anything. They’re really private.”
“Come on, man, think,” Chad pressed. “You’re always popping in and out of Torchwood and parties and stuff. You overhear things, see things you weren’t supposed to. There’s got to be something.”
Greg thought. Snippets of conversations, out-of-context looks and touches, glimpses of confidential communications . . .
Ah. There it was.
“Get me some paper.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The harsh sound of the alarm clock pounded on the inside of Greg’s skull like a sledgehammer. Groaning, he forced his leaden muscles into motion and slammed on the sleep button. Hell, what had he done last night? He remembered being upset about something, heading down to the pub, running into – oh, hell, running into Chad McCurry. That explained the hangover, at least. Chad had always been trouble. Greg just hoped that he hadn’t let himself get talked into anything too stupid or illegal. What had they talked about?
Greg rolled out of bed, muttering words he had never used in his life as he flinched away from the window and searched desperately through his pockets. Not in his pants, not in his jacket, not anywhere between his bedroom and the door –
The napkin was gone. The napkin on which he had scrawled half-forgotten evidence and drunken speculation, all leading to one sickening conclusion. Where was it? Had Chad taken it? It was the sort of thing he’d do, the sort of thing he always did.
Then again . . .
Greg extracted his laptop from beneath his crumpled jacket and turned it on, squinting in the glow of the screen as he clicked a few familiar bookmarks. He sighed in relief as he found one benign piece of celebrity trash after another. If he or Chad had taken that story to any of the gossip rages, it would have undoubtedly been on the front page.
Maybe there was no damage done after all.
Rose awoke slowly, a fond smile spreading across her face as she took in the off-key singing which rang out over the sound of running water. The Doctor couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but lord, it was wonderful to hear him happy, especially after the week they had had. He was doing better, these days, but a rough mission like last Friday’s was still enough to send him into a tailspin.
Her mobile rang, dragging her fully into consciousness. She glanced at the caller ID as she reached for it.
“Hey, Mum. Hang on a sec, yeah?”
She groped under her bed for a slipper and threw it across the room. It impacted the bathroom door with a bang, and the singing stopped abruptly.
“Rose! Have you seen it? There’s this article, in the Sun, it’s about the Doctor –”
“What is it this time?” Rose sighed with equal parts amusement and exasperation, pulling her laptop into reach and waiting for it to start up. “He’s gay? He’s cheating on me? He gay and cheating on me?”
“Who’s what now?” questioned the Doctor, emerging from the bathroom with nothing but the towel which he was using to dry his hair.
“Apparently there’s some article in the Sun about you,” Rose informed him. “Put some clothes on, will you?”
“If you’re feeling left out you can always take yours off,” he replied with a cheeky grin, flopping onto the bed and stretching shamelessly. “I’m on the phone with my mum.”
“Well there’s a mood-killer for you,” he said, making a face as he got up and pulled his pants on. “What’s this about an article?”
“I dunno, Mum just told me. What’s it about?” she asked into the phone.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. Pete’s going ballistic trying to figure out who they got it from – I swear if I ever get my hands on them –”
“Mum, what’s it about?” Rose repeated, starting to get concerned. The now-clothed Doctor glanced over at the change of tone, a worried frown creasing his face.
“I think you should read it for yourself, sweetheart.”
“Alright, one sec . . .” She pulled up the Sun’s website, and her heart leapt into her throat. Her mum was still talking, but she couldn’t hear it over the blood rushing in her ears as she took in the words on the screen in front of her.
“The Doctor’s Hidden Torment!” the headline read. It was plastered across a picture which must have been from months ago, when they first arrived in Pete’s World. In it was the Doctor, thinner and paler than he was these days, looking exhausted and haunted as he frowned into the middle distance.
“Our exclusive source gives insight into Dr. John Smith’s confidential past” continued the byline, followed by several bullet points. “The secret pain behind his famous smile. Sleep plagued by nightmares. “It’s not fair,” says Rose.”
Her laptop snapped shut, and she jumped.
“Mum, I’ll call you back.”
She tossed her phone to the side, getting to her feet. The Doctor had paced to the other side of the room and now stood with his arms braced on the windowsill, breathing hard, his back rigid with tension. She came up beside him and laid and hand over his, trying to read his dark, closed expression.
“Doctor. We’ll sort this.”
He shut his eyes and gave a shuddering sigh, visibly forcing himself to relax. He gave a tiny nod of his head.
“I know.” He spun away abruptly, going from still as a statue to a whirlwind of motion in about half a second. “Let’s see what ‘this’ is, shall we?” he asked rhetorically, snatching up her laptop.
“Hmm . . .” he hummed thoughtfully, scrolling through the article at lightning speed. “It looks fairly tame, actually,” he said, relaxing further. “They’re attributing it to lingering trauma from my supposed double-oh-seven days. There’s a bit of speculation on the specifics – torture, death of comrades, extended captivity, all the basics. No one’s suggested ‘all of the above and mostly my fault,’ so that’s good, at least . . .”
“Don’t,” said Rose sharply, seeing him slipping into a familiar pattern of self-recrimination.
“Sorry.” He sighed and sat back, scrubbing a hand over his face and through his hair. “It must have been Gregory,” he said abruptly, leaping to his feet and beginning to pace.
“Greg?” Rose questioned, startled. “Why Greg?”
“That quote,” said the Doctor, spinning on his heel and pointing at the laptop. “When you said it wasn’t fair –”
“I don’t even remember saying that,” said Rose, shaking her head.
“It was five months, one week, two days ago,” said the Doctor, and it was evidence of how focused he was that he didn’t take the time to tack on the hours, minutes, and seconds which he undoubtedly knew precisely. “The first time we were together in public, remember?”
“That charity thing,” said Rose with dawning comprehension. It had been raising money for something to do with some illness. She couldn’t remember the specifics; just the strain of trying to smile through exhaustion and worry after having spent a decent portion of the night holding the Doctor as he wept.
“We paused outside,” said the Doctor. “You looked tired; I offered to sleep in a different room; said that it wasn’t fair that I was keeping you up at night. You said that it wasn’t fair to me, either, and then –”
“And then Greg opened the door for us,” Rose finished. “Yeah, okay, so it looks bad. But why would Greg do something like that? He’s worked for Pete for ages. I mean, I know he had a bit of a crush on me –”
“He has a lot of a crush on you,” the Doctor corrected. “Trust me,” he added, his lips quirking into a wry smile which chased most the shadows from his eyes. “I know the signs.”
“Oh, god,” Rose groaned, sinking onto the bed and burying her face in her hands, flushing with shame and embarrassment. “I had no idea – and then I slammed the door on his face a couple days ago. He must have gotten upset; wanted to get back at us – at me – god, I’m so sorry. It’s Adam all over again, isn’t it?”
The Doctor’s voice, warm and amused, combined with his cool hands tugging at her wrists, made her look up. He was smiling, a soft, loving expression which wiped away all traces of his earlier anger.
“Being nice to some poor bloke who’s completely infatuated with you is not the same as inviting a conceited pretty boy onto my TARDIS, and leaking mildly embarrassing things about me to the press is not the same as nearly letting said TARDIS fall into the hands of a malevolent ceiling dweller. Like you said –” He pressed a kiss to her lips. “—we’ll sort this.”
Jackie’s raised voice could be heard where Rose stood on the doorstep of the Tyler mansion. Beside her, the Doctor looked about ready to bolt. She rolled her eyes.
“Calm down,” she said as she unlocked the door. “She’s angry for you, not at you.”
“Well, you’d think so, but it’s hard to tell with her . . . Jackie!” His face broke into a wide, false grin as Jackie pulled the door open.
“Oh, come here, sweetheart,” said Jackie, pulling him into a tight hug. Rose slipped around them, smiling at the face the Doctor was making. She knew that he secretly enjoyed being coddled, at least a little bit. “Are you alright?” Jackie asked concernedly as she pulled back.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” said the Doctor impatiently, shaking her off. “I just need to talk to Pete, he in his study?” He ducked around the corner and out of sight without waiting for a response.
“That man,” Jackie huffed, shaking her head after him. “He can’t stand not to be running off somewhere, can he?” There was a fondness behind her irritation, though, and she softened as she turned back to Rose. “How are you, really?” she asked.
“We’re okay,” said Rose, wondering vaguely when she and the Doctor had become a single unit. Somehow each of their individual states of mind had become so intertwined that it was impossible for her to think of them in isolation anymore. It was never ‘he’s okay’ or ‘I’m okay,’ just ‘we’re okay,’ because if he wasn’t, she wasn’t, and if she wasn’t, he wasn’t.
That was, perhaps, a little unhealthy. She really couldn’t bring herself to worry about it.
“Are you sure?” Jackie questioned as she led the way into the kitchen.
“Yeah. We will be, anyway. We’re not quite as sunshine and daisies as he’d have you believe – he was pretty riled up earlier; I think I scared him off and he’s trying to keep from upsetting me; you know he gets. But still –”
“Wose!” The delighted exclamation cut her off, and she grinned at the sight of Tony, eating jam on toast and well on his way to creating an unbreakable bond between himself and his booster seat. At three and a half, he was eloquent enough (partially a result of the Doctor’s firm refusal to talk down to him), but he still hadn’t quite mastered the ‘R’ sounds.
“Hi, Tony!” said Rose, sitting down across from him (but carefully out of his reach). “How’s my favorite little brother today?”
“Sticky,” said Jackie disapprovingly, fetching a cloth from the sink. “Finish your breakfast, Tony, so I can get you cleaned up.”
“Issa Doctor here?” asked Tony eagerly, ignoring his mother’s instructions.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Rose laughed, not offended in the least. In all honesty, Tony’s adoration of the Doctor was the sweetest thing she had ever seen. “Yeah, he’s here. He’s talking to Daddy right now.”
“Mummy, wanna get down,” said Tony decisively, wriggling against the straps which held him in the seat. At this point, they were more for everyone else’s safety than for his.
“As soon as you finish your toast and get clean,” Jackie said firmly. Tony immediately began to scarf down his remaining food with lightning speed, and within seconds his plate was clean – sort of.
“All done now, Mummy,” the small boy declared.
“Good job,” praised Jackie, descending on him with a damp cloth. “Now, Tony,” she said, as she wiped stickiness from all the impossible places he had managed to smear it. “I want you to be extra nice to the Doctor. No bothering him if he wants to be left alone.”
“He’s a little sad today, that’s all.”
“Somebody told something to the newspapers that was supposed to be secret,” said Jackie carefully.
“I don’t know why,” she sighed exasperatedly. “And you’re not to ask him about it!” she called after Tony as he went darting off towards Pete’s study.
“Don’t worry about it, Mum,” said Rose, standing again as Jackie made to follow her youngest. “I’ll keep an eye on him. On both of them.”
One of the many advantages of a very large house was that most of the rooms had more than one entrance and several ways to get to them. This meant that Rose easily reached Pete’s study before Tony did, and was able to stop outside the lesser-used door and observe unseen.
Pete had evidently stepped out for some reason, leaving the Doctor frowning at papers and computer screens with a look of intense concentration. Politics, Rose knew, were a bit like weapons in the Doctor’s mind. He didn’t like them, he tried to avoid them, but when necessary he could use them with devastating accuracy.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the main door creaked up and a small, blond head poked in. The Doctor heard it too, and turned around, his face lighting up.
“Mr. Anthony Tyler!” he exclaimed, with the exact same delight which had colored Tony’s greeting a few minutes earlier. Tony laughed and hurled himself at his knees, squealing with delight as the Doctor caught him and spun him around, finally coming to a halt, sinking into the chair, and setting the boy down on his knee in one smooth movement. “What have you been up to, Mr. Tony?”
“Had jam,” said Tony.
“Oh, that’s brilliant, I love jam,” said the Doctor. “Marmalade, too, marmalade’s delicious. D’you like marmalade, Tony?”
“Nu’uh,” said Tony, shaking his head. “I’s got bits in.”
“Ah, yes, I suppose it does,” the Doctor agreed, looking a little disappointed. “Still, maybe when you’re older. I’m afraid you’re evolutionarily programmed to dislike unfamiliar foods, at the moment. That’ll pass, though. In a few years you’ll be trying all sorts of new things! It’s really incredible the things you lot have come up with. Calamari, fried insects, stuffed zucchini flowers . . .”
He trailed off. Tony had stuck his thumb in his mouth and was gazing at him solemnly.
“Something wrong, Tony?” the Doctor questioned.
Tony pulled his thumb out of his mouth and said, with great gravity,
“If you cry, Mummy’ll give you biccies.”
The Doctor blinked.
“If you cry, Mummy will give you biccies,” Tony repeated, more slowly.
“Is that so?” asked the Doctor, looking bemused.
“Yup,” answered Tony, popping the P in a perfect imitation of his favorite good-as-family member. Rose bit back a laugh.
“What ‘appens if you tell a secret?” asked Tony.
“What do you mean?” asked the Doctor, looking more puzzled than ever by this seeming non sequitur.
“If you tell a lie, your pants set fire –”
“Catch fire,” the Doctor corrected, with his typical sense of priority.
“Catch fire,” Tony repeated obediently. “So what ‘appens if you tell a secret?”
“Hmm,” said the Doctor, frowning thoughtfully. Rose couldn’t tell whether it was a show for Tony’s benefit, or if he was seriously considering the question. “I suppose that depends on what sort of secret it is,” he said at last. “If it’s a friend’s secret, they’ll probably get angry with you. If it’s a government secret, you could go to jail, or get executed. Some secrets could tear the Universe apart. And in most criminal organizations –”
Rose decided that it was time to cut in.
“Tony!” she said brightly, stepping into the room. “Why don’t you go ask Mummy for some biccies? Tell her they’re for the Doctor.”
“Me too?” asked Tony plaintively, cosmic consequences forgotten.
“The Doctor will share,” Rose assured him, and watched until he was out of earshot before turning to the Doctor with a disapproving frown. “We do not tell three-year-olds about mob justice,” she informed him.
“Still. He doesn’t need to hear about people getting their teeth yanked out or whatever.”
“Tongues, actually,” said the Doctor, lounging back in his chair. “They cut out the tongues. But yes, I see your point. Sorry. I was thinking about something else; my mouth just kept going by itself.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed it does that,” said Rose, clearing some papers out of the way and hopping up onto the desk. “What were you thinking about?”
“Just . . . Gregory’s not a bad bloke, really.”
“Pete’s talking about lawsuits,” said the Doctor, gesturing at the papers which covered the desk. “It all seems like a bit of an overreaction. He got upset, he did something stupid. Obviously he can’t be trusted in his job, but it doesn’t seem like anything to ruin his life over.”
“If it had been me he had leaked secrets about, you’d be wanting to tear him to pieces right now.”
“Probably, yeah,” the Doctor agreed mildly. “But it’s not you, and it’s not worth it.”
“You mean you’re not worth it,” said Rose sharply. The burning anger which the Time Lord Doctor had been so concerned about had never frightened her half as much as the cold self-hatred which it had swiftly hardened into in the absence of crises. Slowly, and with a lot of effort from both of them, they were beginning to chip away at it, but it was a long process.
“No,” said the Doctor. “I mean that nobody’s dead and nobody’s injured and the only person he’s done serious damage to is himself. I want to talk to him, nothing more.”
“I’d like to ‘talk’ to him myself,” said Rose darkly.
“Rose.” He was trying to look disapproving, but there was a fond smile tugging at his lips.
“I know, I know,” she sighed. “It just feels like he’s getting away with it, that’s all.”
“Well, he is getting sacked, don’t forget. Isn’t he, Pete?”
“Yes,” confirmed Pete as he stepped into the room, tucking his mobile away. “Morning, Rose.”
“Morning. I want to be there, when you give him the sack.”
“No violence,” said the Doctor, waving a long, scolding finger at her.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Rose innocently, hopping down and pecking him on the cheek.
“Decided against the lawsuit, then?” Pete asked, sitting in his own chair.
“Yep,” said the Doctor. Anything else he was going to say was cut off by the arrival of Tony and Jackie, the small boy staggering slightly under the weight of an enormous plate of biscuits. He looked up at the desk, apparently decided not to risk it, set the plate down on the floor, and plopped down beside it.
“Brought biccies,” he informed the Doctor, holding up a chocolate digestive to demonstrate.
“So you have,” the Doctor agreed, grinning. He stood, folded like an origami crane, and ended up cross-legged on the floor facing Tony. “Thank you very much,” he added, plucking up a Jammy Dodger.
“You’re welcome,” Tony recited.
“So?” Jackie demanded, pulling Rose’s attention away from the exchange. “Have you tracked down who it was?”
“It’s Greg Henning,” Pete said. “Our resident Sherlock Holmes there figured it out.” He nodded at the Doctor, who remained oblivious as he debated with Tony about which type of biscuit was best.
“And I will be personally firing him, as soon as I can get to the office.”
“And I expect the Doctor will be asking for an apology. Right?”
“Hm?” The Doctor looked up from his dissertation on the merits of Jammy Dodgers, looked puzzled for a moment, and then caught on. “Oh, yes, right. Why not? May as well give him the opportunity.”
“And?” Jackie demanded, looking about ready to blow a fuse.
“And nothing, Mum,” said Rose. “That’s it.”
“I thought you said you could get him on beach contract or something!” said Jackie, rounding on Pete.
“Breach of contract. We can,” said Pete, holding up his hands defensively. “We could, but the Doctor doesn’t want to press the issue.”
“What?!” shrieked Jackie, spinning to face the Doctor and making both the biscuit eaters jump.
“I don’t do vengeance,” said the Doctor lightly. “If I started going in for it now, I’d have quite a lot of backlog to deal with before I got anywhere near Gregory Henning.”
“Mum, can I have a word with you?” Rose cut in, before the Doctor could attempt to engage her less-than-rational mother in a philosophical debate. She dragged Jackie through the glass French doors and into the next room. “Mum, listen,” she said lowly. “We’re not just letting him go. The Doctor’s going to have a talk with him.”
“A talk?” repeated Jackie incredulously. “He deserves more than a talk! He deserves to be jailed; he deserves to be shot –”
“Mum!” Rose yelped, slightly alarmed by her mother’s vehemence. “Nobody’s shooting anyone – and trust me, when the Doctor says he’s going to have a talk with someone, that’s not letting them off easy.”
Jackie looked skeptical, shooting a pointed glance at the subject of their conversation, who was currently balancing a biscuit on his nose for Tony’s amusement.
“I mean it,” said Rose. “This one’s up to the Doctor. He can handle it.”
“If you’re sure, sweetheart,” said Jackie doubtfully.
Rose watched the Doctor snap his head back and catch the biscuit in his mouth. Tony burst into peals of delighted laughter, and the Doctor grinned, bright and shining and genuine.
Greg was half asleep as he stumbled his way to the front of the line in the coffee shop. He paused for a moment too long as he tried to remember his order, but the girl – Julie, that was her name – just smiled, like she always did.
“The usual?” she asked, amused, but in a sweet way rather than a cruel one.
“. . . yeah,” he said at last.
“Rough night?” she questioned as she prepared his cappuccino.
“Yeah.” He had been tossing and turning with the guilt which he couldn’t quite shake, despite the fact that no actual harm seemed to have come of his blunder. God, he was such an idiot. Rose had never been anything but kind to him, and Chad had never been anything but trouble. He should have known better.
“You work for the Tylers, right?” asked Julie. “The PR department? That story must be making things crazy.”
Greg’s blood ran cold.
“What story?” he managed to choke out.
“Oh, you haven’t seen it? Here, it’s in the Sun.”
She paused in her work to hand him a copy of the magazine, and he flipped through it, unable to hear her further comments over his swiftly rising panic. “Anonymous source . . . exclusive access . . . insider information . . .”
“. . . and it’s so sad, because he seems like such a good guy – Greg, are you alright?”
“I – yes. Yes, I just – I need to get to work.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry to keep you. Here’s your coffee.”
She sounded a bit disappointed, but he barely noticed it. He could barely breathe around the lump of cold dread in his throat. He walked the rest of the way to work on autopilot, forehead sweating, hands shaking, mind racing – it hadn’t named him; maybe they didn’t know – oh, who was he kidding? It was Rose Tyler. A fiercely competent Torchwood agent, whose father was a billionaire business mogul and also a veteran commander from the Cyber War, and whose boyfriend was a slightly unbalanced super-genius.
He was doomed.
He jumped about a foot in the air as he stepped out of the elevator and directly into Jimmy’s path.
“The Boss wants you,” said Jimmy. “In his office, ten minutes ago.”
Greg swallowed hard, and went to face his fate.
Greg’s heart was in his throat as he stepped into Pete Tyler’s office. Thankfully, the suspense didn’t last long.
“You’re fired,” said Tyler without preamble. “And my daughter wants a word with you.”
Greg heard the door snap shut behind him, and turned just in time to see a small but powerful fist flying towards him. Pain exploded in his face, and there was an audible crack as his nose broke. He stumbled backward against the desk, and a handkerchief was pressed into his hand.
“Don’t bleed all over my office,” Tyler said coldly. Greg obediently pressed the cloth to his throbbing face, his vision and his thoughts finally clearing enough to register Rose, who was standing in front of him looking utterly livid.
“Rose –” he began, but she cut him off.
“Shut up,” she ordered, her eyes flashing. “I don’t want your excuses. I just want to make three things absolutely clear. One: you do not violate our privacy. Two –” She stepped forward. “—you do not use the Doctor’s pain against him. Three –” She closed the space between them. Greg had dreamed of being this near to her, but now he just wanted to sink into the ground, away from her furious, disgusted gaze. “—you never, ever use him to get to me. Understand?”
Unable to speak, Greg nodded.
Rose fell back, and Greg allowed himself to breathe again.
“Dad wants to take legal action against you,” she informed him, slightly calmer but still visibly restraining herself from hitting him again, or worse. “Mum wants you shot.” The look she sent him said that she wasn’t entirely opposed to that option, herself. “In the end, though, it’s up to the Doctor, and he just wants an apology. You’ve got a week. Get out.”
An few hours later found him slumping out of his flat with the vague idea of getting some lunch. His regret had long since turned to anger, and he fumed quietly as he stomped his way past the broken lift and down the stairs.
Greg should have been grateful, he knew. With the power the Tylers had, they could have done just about anything to him. They could have taken every penny he owned, made sure he never worked again, locked him up on trumped-up charges – even Mrs. Tyler’s desire to have him summarily executed might not have been beyond their scope. Yet Smith, who had been hurt the most by his actions, chose to show him mercy, and that stung. It felt like he was adding insult to injury.
Do you see, Gregory? I’ve won, and I’m still a better man than you.
So consumed in his thoughts, Greg didn’t notice the shadowy figure in the alleyway until it spoke.
He jumped and spun around with a startled curse, finding himself face-to-face with Smith. The man was grinning, bright and cold as winter sunlight.
“Let’s walk, shall we?” said Smith, and it wasn’t a request. One bony hand clamped onto Greg’s shoulder with surprising strength, and he was forcibly steered down the street. For the first time, he wondered if Smith had respect at Torchwood for more than just his brains.
Smith didn’t speak as he pushed Greg in front of him and into a small café. There were a few other patrons there, and Greg was absurdly relieved about that. Smith didn’t seem the type to murder him in a dark alleyway, but then, this morning he would have said that he didn’t seem the type to skulk outside of his block of flats and abduct him on his way to lunch. Or to eye him across the table in a way that put him in mind of a cat with a mouse.
Greg opened his mouth to say something – a demand to leave, the requested apology, small talk, anything – but found that words had deserted him. He closed his mouth, watched Smith order tea for the both of them, and quietly panicked.
“So, Gregory,” Smith said at last, rolling the R’s like an assassin would twirl a knife between his fingers. “That article of yours,” Smith took a sip of his tea, and Greg clutched his with sweaty hands. “it isn’t half bad.”
Whatever Greg had been expecting, it wasn’t that. He gaped for a few moments longer than was dignified, then finally managed a rather unintelligent “It isn’t?”
“Nope,” Smith stated, tone light and eyes dark. “In fact, it’s almost entirely accurate. Except for one, very important aspect.”
“Which aspect is that?” Greg asked, struggling to keep his voice steady and almost managing it.
“There are terrible things in my past. Unthinkable bloodshed, inhuman cruelty and mind games and violence.” This was the point where his eyes should have been distant, focused someplace far away and long ago, but they remained fixed on Greg with crushing intensity. It was the barrier behind them which seemed to fall away, leaving endless, consuming darkness. “There are things in my past which are so unimaginably horrific that you literally cannot comprehend them. Thing is, Gregory, most of those things? They weren’t done to me.”
Smith took another sip of his tea, allowing his words to sink in.
Greg swallowed, hard.
“I’m not proud of the things I’ve done. But,” Smith leaned across the table, into Greg’s space. This close, it was obvious that something about the man was just a little bit wrong. He didn’t give off enough heat. He’d been holding his breath for a beat too long. He didn’t smell right. “I would do them again, in an instant, if you ever try to hurt Rose.”
“I – I would never –”
“You already have,” said Smith sharply, but he leaned back.
“I’m sorry,” Greg blurted out. He wouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t partly spurred by fear, but he truly meant it, as well. “I literally don’t know what happened. I’d had a few too many, and I wrote some stuff down, and after that – nothing. I don’t know if I sent it in myself, or if my friend took it off me –”
“Your friend,” said Smith, cutting him off. “What’s his name?”
“I –” Greg shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. He’s a bit of a prick, but he’s still my friend.”
Smith eyed him inscrutably for a moment. Greg shifted nervously, but a moment later the man’s face split into a wide grin, so bright and sudden that Greg actually winced.
“Good man!” Smith said cheerfully. “Drink your tea. It’s good for you. All full of tannins and antioxidants.”
Greg raised his cup to his lips, then lowered it quickly, alarmed and suspicious.
“It’s not poisoned,” said Smith, sounding torn between amusement and offense. “I don’t want you dead, Gregory. I don’t even want you hurt. I just want you to know where you stand.”
Which is on a very shaky ledge, beside a man who is equally capable of pulling me to safety and pushing me off, Greg inferred. Equally capable, but not equally willing. In his own blood-chilling way, Smith was giving him a chance. He really was the better man. Greg felt remorse flood him for an entirely new reason.
“I didn’t want to hurt you,” he blurted out. Smith raised his eyebrows skeptically, and Greg hastily backtracked. “No, I mean, I did, but I didn’t. I just . . . liked the idea of it. Because I was upset. I didn’t really – I’m sorry.”
Smith smiled again, softer, more genuine.
“I forgive you,” he said. Another pause to let the words sink in, and then he continued in lighter tones. “Honestly, I think Rose was more upset than I was.”
“Yes, I noticed,” Greg agreed, touching his injured nose gingerly. Smith grimaced.
“Ah. Yes. Figured that may have been her. I did tell her not to bother, but she never does listen . . . and would you look who’s here! Speak of the devil!” His face lit up as he caught sight of something over Greg’s shoulder, and Greg turned in time to see Rose burst through the door.
“Rose!” Smith exclaimed cheerfully. Any further speech was cut off when Rose seized him by the lapels and kissed him soundly.
Greg looked away, only to look back when Smith yelped in pain.
“Don’t scare me like that!” hissed Rose, while Smith rubbed his arm and looked bewildered.
“Like what?” he asked, his voice going rather high-pitched in indignation.
“I had no idea where you were!” Rose snapped. “You left your mobile on my desk; you didn’t even tell me you were leaving –”
“You were in a meeting!” Smith protested.
“So leave a note, or a message, or tell Jake, or something!” She looked as though she was going to hit him again, but she wrapped her arms around him instead, resting her head against his chest. “God, I was so worried,” she sighed.
“Rose,” Smith said gently, returning the embrace. “I’m fine. Really, I am. I was just having a chat with Gregory.”
Greg flinched as Rose spun toward him, but her fury seemed to have faded slightly since that morning. Either that, or Smith was as much a calming influence on her as she was on him. She glared, but it didn’t have the same venom behind it.
“Right,” she said coolly, and immediately turned back to Smith. “Wanna grab some lunch, Doctor?”
“Absolutely. There’s a new Italian place down the street, want to give it a go?”
“Actually,” said Rose, her tongue caught between her teeth as she grinned, “I was thinking . . .”
“Oh, not chips again?” Smith groaned in false exasperation. “Rose Tyler, I’ll make a gourmet out of you yet.”
“You love the chips,” Rose laughed, unfazed. “You just want an excuse to go on about how you and Mussolini saved the world with lasagna or something . . .”
Greg, forgotten, watched them go. He had been wrong, he realized. Rose Tyler was not the most beautiful thing in the world. They were. The two of them, together, hand in hand, laughing and joking and looking at each other with such unashamed love that it was painful for Greg to watch. The starry-eyed woman and the otherworldly man, ever-so-slightly out of synch with everyone around them, forever beyond the reach of mere mortals like him. He had never had the slightest chance of coming between them.
Perhaps, he thought, that was the most beautiful thing of all.