Changed back from what?"
She can't breathe. Air's moving through her lungs, coming in and out of her mouth, but there's no oxygen in it, no air in the air. Her hands move back and grip the edge of the counter, the edge that's pressing into the small of her back, that's pressing into her because she's pressing into it, retreating for reasons which flood through her mind too quickly to name.
Her gaze flickers down to the mug at their feet, the newly-broken mug she hasn't seen since shortly after her father died a second time, since the Doctor led her back to the TARDIS by the hand and sat with her through tea and tears, sat with her and held her and spoke gently into her ear as he cradled her in his lap. She looks at the ceramic, at the still steaming liquid, and then she has to look at him again, all nose and ears and not nearly enough manic grin. No manic grin at all, just him looking at her like she’s in such trouble, probably because she is. Him looking at her like he's not sure how to move, looking at her like he's not sure how to look. He's so close and she could reach out and touch him, step forward and hug him, but she doesn't. She doesn't because she’s leaning away.
She's leaning away and she's not sure why until his eyes drop down for a moment, just a second, just for a heartbeat that echoes in her ears. He looks at her bare legs and she thinks domestics, she thinks stupid ape, she thinks show me your moves and knows that this him won't.
She realizes she’s terrified in a way that has nothing to do with temporal anomalies.
So she meets those blue eyes with her own brown; she looks up at his daft old face; she speaks clearly and without much sign of hesitation. "Can't tell you."
He understands anyway. "I regenerate soon," he says. "Somewhen in the next. . ." His head cocks to the side a little and, just like every other familiar and fuzzily-remembered motion he makes, it twists something deep inside of her. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-seven," she says and realizes that she's still nineteen except that she's not.
She can almost see the thoughts as they strike him and it hurts to think he might believe this him could have years yet, if only a few, when all he has is a few months.
"And you're still here," he says instead of asking for more, says in a way that is asking for more.
She shrugs and thinks she might be smiling when she replies, "Told ya you weren't getting rid of me."
He grins at her like he's always done and she can't understand how it's the same smile on both faces when it isn't remotely the same expression. She swallows and closes her eyes because she can’t look anymore, closes them even though she's afraid that letting him leave her sight might mean letting him leave for good.
"Rose?" he asks, gentle, her name spoke in a tone that makes her think of him being an alien for the first time, a member of another species standing before the controls of an impossible spaceship instead of a crazy, compelling man with a plastic arm attacking him. It's a careful tone he uses, him thinking through the situation faster than she can ever hope to, even now. He might expect panic (culture shock) and confusion (tears).
That's not what he gets.
"Are Reapers gonna come?" she asks, her hand on his arm before her eyes are fully opened, fingers on leather in a gesture as possessive as it is protective.
He looks at her as if he's never seen her before. The leather under her hand isn't like she remembers and that might be because he's wearing it, might be because there's still a man to fill what he'll eventually leave, to fill the piece of him he'll leave for her. She's held this jacket, wrapped it around herself, slept with it in her arms and cried into it. But to him, she hasnt, not from where he's standing. It occurs to her that she's still half-naked, she's touching him, and they've yet to discuss dancing. She drops her hand self-consciously and it hurts a little when he lets her.
"No Reapers, if we're careful," he says and her heart stumbles when his eyes glance downwards a second time. "You plannin' on cutting up your feet?"
She steps back from her mess, conscious of her bare feet and the way the air hits her bum as she moves. "Doesn't seem like it'd be helpful sorting this out," she tells him, shaking her head a little, trying to focus and trying not to think about how this him probably doesn't want to shag her yet — or maybe he does. Either way, it's not helpful in the least and really, it only means that now would be a great time to stop thinking about what his next self has told her concerning this fascinating topic in his post-coital ramblings.
He crosses his arms and his eyebrows rise. "Not visiting on purpose, then?" he says in a voice so unlike the one he'll use when he'll murmur into her ear, when he'll press his lips to blond-dyed hair damp with sweat and tell her I would have taken you from behind. Held your wrists. Bent you over the bed — no, table. Definitely a table.
With an excuse for her blush, she doesn't waver, looks away from his startlingly blue eyes only long enough to glance at the kitchen table. "Would’ve brought pants and an emergency kit," she replies, all cheek, and smiles once again.
He grins back just as easily as the first time, because after all and no matter what, he's the Doctor, and the Doctor and Rose Tyler smile at each other incessantly. "Shoes in that kit, or you plannin' on keepin' your feet in danger?"
"Ever been barefoot on the moon?" she asks and immediately wishes she hadn't. She thinks of his future, thinks of him asking her if he's foxy, thinks of bony hips between her thighs.
She tries to think of something else but it's hard when she can still feel the night before.
"Not yet," he says, eyebrows going back up, creasing his forehead.
"Shouldn't've," she starts to say, then ends up switching to "Sorry" and "I'll be more careful. Cryptically mime things to you instead, yeah?"
He shakes his head, but he's not unamused. "Going to have to forget this anyway," he says. "It's a Time Lord trick. I can-"
"Make yourself forget things to stop paradoxes," Rose finishes for him, finishes because he lets her. "And remember 'em later if it's safe."
When he looks at her like that, he's pleased and she knows it. He's also got a question for her, but she raises her chin a little: she's not going to tell him. She knows and he'll have to deal with it, never mind the how.
"C'mon, then," he says instead, turning away from her because that's obviously a necessary part of exiting the kitchen and not at all because she's making him uncomfortable. "The mess can wait for later, once we know the universe won't come falling down around our ears. Sooner we get you in the med bay, the sooner we get an idea of what happened to you."
"Checking background radiation and all that?" she asks, speaking about the TARDIS and traces of time, flushing as he looks at her with surprised respect. She stands her ground as they engage in a silent conversation, she daring him to have expected anything else from her, anything less than learning and adapting and being fantastic.
She's surprised to realize that she can still read this him, still knows this him enough to know that his expression is just wry enough, just amused enough. Enough for what, she'd never been able to figure out.
"Sort of, yeah," he says when they're done not-speaking, going back to her question with words that make her go back to so much more. "Hurry up, would you?"
Quick steps take her around the danger zone that was once her favorite mug from such a long time ago. She's reaching for his hand and he's holding his out automatically and then she has to stop. There's a question she needs to ask, a detail that is crucial, dangerously so. She has to make sure, because otherwise, the universe really might come falling down around their ears.
"Where am I?"
He blinks at her, his hand falling back to his side. "Still in the kitchen, Rose. You might want to try moving a little more before getting lost."
She shakes her head impatiently. "Not me-me," she tells him. "Your-me." He blinks at her again as if he's not sure if that was your me or you're me, so she quickly clarifies again. "Present-me. Nineteen-year-old me. Where am I?"
Blue eyes widen and she has to wonder if that respect in them is new or if she simply thought she'd been imagining it back then. She knows what she sees now and she hates her pathetic human memory for not letting her be sure about then.
"Can't have you running into yourself," he agrees, slipping out of the kitchen without her, doorknob in his hand. "I'll check on you." She nods and he closes the door. When she hears the sonic screwdriver on the lock, a laugh escapes her. "Can't have you wandering in — or out," he adds.
"Yes, sir, sarge," she replies and if she hears his uncertain reaction from a private joke he doesn't know yet, well, she hears it. There's nothing more she can do about it. Nothing she can do about the sound of him walking down the hall away from her.
Rose cleans the floor instead.
Rose learns just how far she can lean over and still pretend to be decent.
Rose discovers that they aren't out of jam after all, finding a jar so far back on the shelf that it looks lonely and untouched.
There are bananas yellowing on top of the fridge, and instead of crying, she eats one. If she shakes, it's only because she's cold. If there's any other reason, it can wait until a rude-and-not-ginger man remembers this.
She wonders if he's noticed that she's gone. She wonders if her disappearance would trigger his memories of these moments to rise. Part of her waits for the sound of the TARDIS materializing, for him coming to get her, but that's all ridiculous. She's already in the TARDIS. In the TARDIS, with the Doctor. Nothing bad, nothing dangerous. Just them.
She's sitting at the table long enough for the chair to warm beneath her, to make her stop shifting and shivering. She’s on her second banana, wondering if this is a tribute or a playful poke or maybe even just breakfast. It occurs to her to wonder how long it's been, makes her wish she'd looked at the never-helpful digital display on the mircowave sooner. It's almost twenty-six o' clock now, a completely useless fact without knowledge of when she'd woken up.
At four past twenty-six, she hears him. It's not the sound of the sonic screwdriver that reaches her ears first. Nor is it the pounding of his footsteps, though that's a close second.
She hears him yelling her name.
On her feet instantly, she rushes to the door, fights the urge to beat on it uselessly. There's nothing she can do from in here, which is entirely the point of the locked door. "Doctor?" she calls. "What's happened?" And why doesn't she remember this, remember waking up and hearing him cry for her as she must be waking and hearing, must be doing in this exact moment?
He stops outside the door and quickly unlocks it. She tugs it open as he pushes and nearly ends up injured in the hurried process. She utterly fails to think of this, looking to his face, to the lines of his body. It's in his shoulders, the turn of his head, the urgency in his eyes. She reaches to him because he needs her to and he holds her by the arms, gripping her tightly, painfully, at the elbow.
"Rose," he says, and he's lost and confused and very much terrified. "You're gone."
"I'm the Doctor," the man lied, but he lied so gently. "Let me take care of you, Rose Tyler. Let me in. Please."
"Open the door," he told her softly.
Her hand tightened on both the lock and the bolt, holding them in place, a precaution that nearly made her feel safer. It might have just been her imagination, but she could have sworn she'd seen the lock wiggling in a way that meant it was about to be unlocked. The bolt should hold either way, though. "No."
Pleading turned to sternness, the change too abrupt to be anything but false. "Rose, listen to me. You could be hallucinating or fevered or about to drop into a Siplian sugar coma and none of that is good. At all."
"Could be, but I'm not," she replied, pressing her weight against the door, just in case. The TARDIS did not appreciate this: there was a spark of static against her that didn't let up, continuing until she pulled back, rubbing her tingling arm and eyeing the door suspiciously. She scratched at a funny itch behind her ear, the one that felt like she'd been scratching all morning, the one that was the least of her concerns.
"Right, 'course you're not," he agreed in a tone suddenly mock-reasonable. "Because this is your normal behavior. Wake up, scream a bit, play nerve-wracking practical jokes. . . . Perfectly like you, Rose."
"Right," she mimicked. "And cooking and suits are perfectly like the Doctor."
"I thought you liked the waffles!"
Rose opened her mouth and wound up only shaking her head, unable to come up with a coherent reply to that. Somehow "Those were waffles?" didn't seem to cut it. "What?" she tried to ask, but he was still going on.
"And what are you talking about, suits not like me? Suit and tie, almost a decade!"
Her comeback was only slightly more effective than her previous one: "Like hell!"
"You did not just notice this," the man said, a note in his voice that she couldn't understand. "It's not possible that you just noticed this. Rose, I regenerated years ago. We know this. You were right there! Made a fuss and everything!"
More nonsense, but none of it was going to distract her. "Never happened! Tell me where the Doctor is. Tell me what you’ve done with him!"
"Rose, I'm me. I swear I'm me. Him. Blimey, English pronouns aren't suited to this," he muttered. "But I am the Doctor. I am. I can prove it to you."
Rose rolled her eyes. "Go ahead."
"Let me in first."
"'M not stupid," Rose told him, told him and almost thought she could hear a voice reply Could've fooled me.
Instead, the man made an exasperated noise. "From outside?" He rapped on the panel, probably with his knuckles by the sound.
"If you're the Doctor, you'd have a key," Rose started to reason.
Immediately, the lock turned over and the door shook with someone trying the handle. "And you're Rose," the man said, sounding frustrated, "so you've obviously used the bolt, what with you being not stupid."
"S-Still doesn't prove anything," she shot back, part of her wondering why she was still standing here arguing when it was almost certain that, key or not, he wouldn't be able to get in. "You — you could've stolen that."
"Could've done, yeah," he might have agreed, voice thoughtful and so quiet that she had to press her ear back against the door. Then, just because, she turned the lock back over. The man made that noise of exasperation once more, but when he started again, his tone containing something that would've been fear in the voice of someone who cared about her. "Rose, I am trying to help you. Let me. That's all I'm asking."
"No," she said and had a feeling she might be saying this all day. "You're not the Doctor."
"Have you ever tried to convince an ill person of your identity through a door-shaped transdimensional threshold?" he questioned. "It's not as easy as it looks."
Rose didn't rise to the bait, refused to doubt her mental condition. Instead, she told him, "The Doctor'd be able to do it."
The man, having been becoming so quick with his replies, suddenly reverted to his previous pauses. "Would he now?"
"Yeah," she answered instantly. "He's the Doctor. He can do anything."
When the man replied, he sounded strangely choked up. For the first time, she wondered what sort of atmosphere she'd locked him outside in. "And 'anything' includes changing every cell in his body when he's dying, so that he doesn't actually die. Not all the way."
Rose shook her head, needing the motion even if he couldn't see it. "Prove it."
". . . Benefit of the doubt?" the man asked, sounding only vaguely hopeful.
"No doubt here," she replied. Wasn't your hair shorter last night? The shirt, the sheets, the condom. Last night.
No benefit of any kind for this bloke.
Her tone had definitely gotten through to the man, his reaction to it somehow silently clear through the TARDIS doors. "Rose, I . . ."
"You what?" she demanded. "You got something to say, Doctor?"
"Actually. . ." the man said slowly, "I do."
The buzz of what sounded like the sonic screwdriver came from behind the door and the pitch of the ever-present TARDIS hum changed. She automatically looked back over her shoulder at the new noise, her mouth opening to yell as the console lit up, a bright yet deep green. He couldn't be doing that. He couldn't be doing that in a million years.
With an electronic plinking sound, a hologram appeared before the Time Rotor, blue and grainy. Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, she irrationally thought, words freezing in her throat, all of her words stopping in her mouth but one. "Doctor?"
She took a step towards the projection, heart pounding in her chest.
"This is Emergency Program Two. Rose, now listen. This is important," the image said in a voice Northern and familiar. The Doctor flickered as if the TARDIS had bad reception, jarring her nerves further. "If this programme is activated, something's happened to me, something likely to kill me."
"No!" she protested, tried to protest, but the hologram continued on, unable to hear her. Pre-recorded, she realized.
"If you saw it, I'm sorry, but you're safe and that's what's important. Now calm down and listen to me." Walking forward, she could see through him, look up into his eyes and look right through. She reached out uncertainly and his gaze lowered, just for a second, looking directly into her eyes instead of over her head. She jerked her hand back, afraid to break this contact with an attempt for more.
"I'm not dead. If I am, the TARDIS'll know and this message cuts out to Emergency Programme One. For now, I need you to listen. I'm coming back to the TARDIS, but not like this," the Doctor said, shaking his head slightly along with a small downward gesture at himself. "I survived, but I had to change. Every cell in my body had to go-"
"-but I'm still me. Goin' to be different — can't change brain chemistry without bein' different — but still the Doctor. You're not goin' to recognize me right away, though." His eyes dropped to hers once more and stayed there. Her spine froze from a sudden chill. "There'll be a man at the door. Could be in my clothes, but he might not be. Either way, he'll be using my name. And he can, 'cos it's his.”
"No!" she yelled, yelled because it hurt, because this hologram had to be fake, had to be anything other than what it claimed to be.
The Doctor continued on, not acknowledging an outburst he couldn't hear. Couldn't have heard. "And you're right, I should've said sooner. Didn't plan on regenerating this soon," he said and shrugged. "I'll explain it better once I'm back, so let new me in when I get here. Until then, keep the door locked."
Paler than ever before, transparent blue eyes flickered sideways and reestablished, looking down at her. A smile started at the corners of his mouth, turned upwards gently, softly, not at all his usual manic grin. It was the smile he used when he'd just been sad, when he'd been thinking about his lost world, when he'd been pulled completely into himself. When she'd said whatever words he needed to bring him back to her.
"Thank you, Rose Tyler," the Doctor said, and it sounded so much like "Good-bye."
The hologram flickered, faded, and disappeared.
Rose stood very still, holding her hands at her sides, fisted. Her head bowed slowly and she swallowed. She swallowed again and didn't need to tell herself that it didn't sound like a sob, didn't need to because it wasn't one. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe, but she couldn't. Air was moving through her lungs, coming in and out of her mouth, but there was no oxygen in it, no air in the air. Her shoulders shook and a voice called her name softly from outside the door.
"Rose?" the man asked. The man who'd chased her, the man who'd slept with her — the man who'd tried poorly to make her breakfast the morning after. Who'd utterly failed at it. At domestics. "Let me in?"
"I . . ."
"I met you in the basement of your work," the man began. "A Henrik's wasn't it? I took your hand and told you to run. First word to you, just that. One word. Run. And we did. And we have. And it's been — It was fantastic," he said, using the word very, very deliberately. "But don't run now. Not yet. Not without taking my hand first."
"You can't be," she said, but she said it so quietly.
"You know I can," the man said. "I can do anything."
"You-" she started, paused to breathe, stopped to sniffle. She swallowed and started again, testing. "You think you're so impressive."
"I am so impressive," the man replied and she could hear the relief in his voice, hear the smile.
Her hand trembled on the lock.
"Rose," he said. "Please."
She opened the door.
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