Rose was right. Mac-and-cheese and a riotous round of aliens vs. dinosaurs was more than enough for a three-year-old reveling in a night spent with his idolized big sister and basically brother-in-law. There was a reason the double-fudge cookies were kept on the highest pantry shelf. Multiple reasons, among these a second game of time-traveling extraterrestrial warfare which ended in plastic pterodactyls chucked at his head and a mile-high stack of picture books that must be read till his voice grows hoarse and Rose offers to take over, shooting him a smile that was more than a little smug.
The Doctor can’t resist hovering in the hall, watching the pair of them. Warm and soothing, Rose’s voice washes over him, recounting the oft-told tale of The Lonely Dinosaur. It’s one of Tony’s favorite stories and, anachronisms notwithstanding, one of the Doctor’s favorites, too. Everyone loves a good happily-ever-after.
Rose wets her finger to pry apart two stubborn pages, the culprit a strawberry-jam thumbprint on the corner of page fifteen. She picks at it with her thumbnail and shakes her head, lips twitching before rolling her eyes very obviously toward the half-open door. Reluctant to disturb Tony in response to the Doctor’s expression of wide-eyed perplexion, she mimes the pouring of a kettle and he nods his understanding.
“He’s asleep,” is the gleeful whisper she greets him with some ten minutes later in which time the Doctor has set out two cuppas and the remaining cookies, cleared a path through the clutter of pointy plastic army men and velociraptors, and started an (electric) fire in the hearth. Jackie and Pete refuse to invest in the real thing till Tony stops seeing anything forbidden as an invitation to unparalleled adventures. With the Doctor and Rose as role models, Jackie is fond of preaching, this could take a long time.
He doesn’t bother bragging, not when it all pales in comparison to Rose’s accomplishment.
“Rose Tyler, I don’t know how you do it.”
“Not giving in to his puppy eyes helps,” she says, rather dryly. Still, she wraps her hands over his, round the steaming mug of tea he offers, so she can’t be that mad.
“Especially when he asks for just one more cookie.”
“They remind me of yours a bit,” he wheedles. “All big and pleading - he can even squeeze out a little tear. Makes you want to do anything to make him smile again. Cookie?”
He hands her the package and she takes a couple, dunking one in her tea. Even with her eyes focused on the bobbing chocolate crumbs, Rose’s lips twitch in the shadow of a smile that he knows she won’t admit to if he prods her.
“Just trust me next time, yeah?”
“You’ll have ruling power of veto,” he promises.
“I’d better,” from over the rim of her mug she flashes him a tongue-touched smile, “else you’ll be stuck with bathtime and bedtime stories.”
Chuckling, the Doctor wraps an arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. Mug clasped tightly in her hands, she eases back against him. “Oh, I can think of worse things. Tony’s a good boy.”
“Mmm,” agrees Rose. “I was worried, when he was a baby, that he’d turn out like my cousins. He used to cry whenever I held him …”
“Tony loves you,” says the Doctor, tone brooking no room for argument.
“No, I know,” she angles her head to kiss the piece of chest visible between mismatched shirt buttons. “Think he just knew something was wrong, that I wasn’t - all the way here, yeah?”
“And are you? Now?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” she says, and that’s answer enough. “I think Tony might be even happier than me. You know he asked Mum to get him a suit for Halloween?”
“You’re kidding.” The Doctor’s voice goes high-pitched in flattered disbelief. He can’t stop the pleased smile that spreads across his face, crinkling the corners of his eyes.
“Who else’ll watch old Star Treks with him?”
“And pause it every two seconds to answer every single question he has? Or play a dozen games of - whatever this is, in a row?”
“Aliens versus dinosaurs,” says the Doctor. “Then the army men were abducted by the aliens and allied themselves with the dinosaurs. Bit cliche, that. I’ll attribute it to overstimulation. His questions on Star Trek are usually very profound. You’re staring at me.”
“It’s sweet, Doctor.” He wrinkles his nose at the endearment, if only because he knows it will make her laugh and kiss him again. “Alright. Manly, then. S’pose I just thought - it’s different, seeing you like this. Good different,” she adds quickly.
“But different,” says the Doctor. “How?”
“We’ve never been around kids much, you and me. There was Chloe and Nancy and them, but that was never - and I know you were a dad once …”
“That was a long time ago.” The Doctor stares into the artificially crackling flames. “That was different.”
“I know.” Rose’s head drops to her own chest, leaving him incongruously cold and confused till he tugs her back, shaking his head against her hair in self-recrimination.
“Good different,” he echoes her. “Very good different. My people were telepathic, Rose, but we were also very practical. The familial bond, say, between a mother and daughter was more like - like a business partnership than what you and Jackie have.”
“Or like Tony with you?”
“Yes.” She cranes her neck to face him as he nods, chin colliding with her forehead. Worry lines are forming there and he runs a tender thumb along their length. “I’ve never had anyone look up to me like Tony has. Emotions only complicated things.”
“Is that why you ran away?”
“That’s … part of it.” He pauses, carefully measuring his words. “But it still followed me. I let some antiquated ideals rule my life for the longest time, dictate how I was allowed to feel for you, how close I could allow myself to get to you. What we have now we could have had ages ago.”
“But you’re here now.”
“I’m here now,” he agrees. “I’m with you. We’re sitting in front of a fake fire and our biggest worry is what Jackie will say over how many artificial flavors those cookies were full of. It’s still the realest thing in my life.”
“I think they’re organic, actually.” Rose shifts in his hold to read the bright foil packaging. Snorting, the Doctor pokes her ribs, then wraps his long fingers round her waist to pull her into him again; the other places her half-finished mug on the coffee table.
“Fine, ruin my romantic declaration.”
At least the granules of sugar that coat her bottom lip are reassuringly real, as is the way she moans his name when he sucks it into his mouth.