"Rose," he says, and he's lost and confused and very much terrified. "You're gone."
She steps into him, is crushed into him. His arms close around her and she presses her cheek to leather. Her hands are trapped between them for a moment, an instant where wool presses into her palms and his hearts seem to be vibrating under her fingers instead of pounding. She shifts and twists and her arms are around his neck.
"You get me back," she tells him, hand on the back of his head, his face buried against her neck. "You'll find me, I'll be okay." His hair is so flat under her palm, a stiff, closely cropped fuzz. "You get me back," she says again, because he needs her to. "I exist, I'm here, you get me back." It makes sense in the twisted way she's learned to think in, makes sense enough to see the danger in the counter-argument he'll voice.
"An' if I don't, you stop existing," he tells the side of her throat and she knows it's the truth.
"Best not mess this up, then," she replies, holding on with a strength that doesn't begin to match his.
His hands are fisted in the back of the t-shirt, his t-shirt, and she can hardly believe that this soon, he's so shaken. And then, remembering an embrace in an underground base in Utah, she can believe it. That can't have been so long ago, for him. He's holding onto her like he can't let go and that's the only hint she needs to be sure:
Whatever's going on, it's bad. It's Dalek bad. It's bad enough to shake the Oncoming Storm, so why isn't she terrified?
She realizes that she isn't. She's not, at all. There's a place in her where fear could be, where fear should be, but the sight of him, the smell of him, the feel of him is filling her too completely to let anything else in. He's all ears and nose; he's leather and wool and TARDIS engine grease; he's thick and solid and so real that he might as well be the only thing true in all the universe because no one and nothing else could compare.
Instead of holding on forever, instead of keeping as close to him as she can, instead of saying I love you, Rose pulls back, the movement slow and gentle. His fingers unclench, releasing the top; his palms press against her sides. She looks up into those blue eyes and his hands fall from her entirely.
"C'mon," he says abruptly, turning away from her. "Sooner I get those scans done, the better."
He could be embarrassed or he could be scared in another way or this might be step one of ignoring that the fearful embrace ever happened. Whatever the reason is, it doesn't stop her from taking his hand. It never will.
His hand is everything she'd forgotten it had been. It's coarser, rougher in different ways. It's the sort of hand made for work and maybe cracking walnuts to show off — he wouldn't, because he wouldn't think it impressive, but he could. These hands aren't made for fine adjustments but for percussive maintenance. Completely familiar and utterly different, they are undeniably his. That's all she needs them to be.
His fingers tighten around hers before he glances at her. She makes sure to keep her tone playful as she asks, "Do I get to get dressed first?"
He shakes his head, his look coming close to amused. He's forcing it, that's obvious. If he doesn't think they have enough relative time for her to grab something, she doesn't want to think about how bad it must be. "Cold hands, cold table, pants off. Standard Doctor procedure."
"What happened to the out-of-date magazines?" she quips, joining in on a joke they’ll make in the future without a pause. So they're playing with the idea early. Not a catastrophe, as these things go.
She squeezes his hand and fights the urge to wriggle her fingers around, to feel each and every bit of skin in her small grasp and commit it to memory.
He smiles. "Time machine. Never technically went out of date, so I pitched 'em. And the waiting room just seemed like a bad idea."
"Too many lectures on relativity?" Rose asks on purpose and when he rolls his eyes, she simply grins through his lecture on real relativity. It's a different lecture than the one she's memorized over the years, but it remains comfortingly unintelligible to her.
His words last until she's sitting down on a pleasantly warm table and she interrupts him with a quick "Two out of three isn't bad." He blinks at her, distracted, and that's just one more sign. Rose thinks about her expression and is fairly sure she doesn't look like she's about to panic. Mostly.
And then he cups her face with his cold, cold hands and she yelps.
"That one counts twice," he tells her.
She hits him on the shoulder when he starts the scans and the way he's looking at her in that moment, he might as well be grinning. That look slowly disappears as she cooperates automatically with the equipment requirements, turning her head so, raising her hand like this, breathing into the tube for that long. It might be that strange respect she's getting now, that odd and wondering consideration of what it means for her to be so intimately acquainted with each and every medical device he wants to use on her.
He hands her something that she absolutely knows to be unrelated to her physiology and she raises an eyebrow at him. "Any reason we're testing for my chlorophyll levels? she asks.
"Ruling out the possibilities," he says, but he seems pleased. His hand on her jaw, he shines a small light in her eyes, such a seemingly mundane check of her status that she nearly giggles. It's nerves and contact and not knowing how to react, so she keeps it in check, refuses to start laughing or crying. Once she does, she's not sure she'll be able to stop.
"Tell me where we were last," he tells her, breaking her out of her thoughts.
"Billazha," she replies simply, trying her utmost not to blink as he switches eyes. The light is tinted purple and as it shines into her, she wonders what exactly he’s seeing with it. "Nothing temporally unstable there."
"What year?" he prompts, not commenting on the choice of planet just yet.
"Something five-thousand-ish before some big event involving coasters," Rose answers, not remembering the exact date. "You didn't really say."
"The Coaster Revolution of Billazha?" he asks, saying it so matter of fact that she knows he can't be lying. "Important lesson there: never annoy the table-washers. Did you?"
Rose shakes her head and he catches her chin gently but firmly. "Sorry," she says and he tilts her head back, apparently searching for clues in her nostrils.
"Mm," he says and Rose might be a little more self-conscious about her nose if he'd stop brushing her legs with his. She's sitting with her knees tight together, the shirt preserving modesty to halfway down her thighs. Usually, she'd be in jeans and he could simply stand between her legs without any issue at all, but now any time he leans forward that's his thigh against her knee, black denim against skin. "Pollen-free," he reports, not clarifying as to why that could possibly be important. The nostril-search ends and it's time for the ears.
She turns her head and tucks her hair behind her ear. Recently cut and aided by her less-than-steady hand, the blond-dyed strands fall back into the way and his hand is quicker than hers to fix them. Coarse fingers brush the shell of her ear and, according to the machine she's determinedly staring down, her heart rate has jumped up considerably. All she can think about is that table, that bloody table he's going to tell her about, that bloody stupid table like the one she's sitting on while half-naked.
His tone is all business, straight to the point. She can feel his breath on her cheek as he speaks. "Were we in temporal orbit when you went to bed?"
"Might've been. Yeah," she agrees. "But we usually land before I wake up, so..." She shrugs.
She doesn't try to twist for a look at his face and by his voice, that's a good idea. "No hint of where?"
"Going to be a surprise," she explains.
"It was one, I'll give you that," he agrees dryly and pulls away. She turns her head accordingly, offering up the other ear. Again she tucks her hair; again he fixes it.
"Maybe a little, yeah." She's proud at how steady her voice is. He's dead, but he's not; she's mourned him, but he's here; he's missing her, but she's right in front of him. His thigh and her knee; his fingertips and her hair.
Rose closes her eyes, sets herself to memorizing, to keeping as much of this in her mind as she possibly can. The way he sounds when he's not talking, the soft creak of battered leather, is something she's forgotten with time. She won't forget this time. She won't.
She couldn't. Not ever.
She tells herself this and knows already that it's not true.
"Keep thinking that hard and you'll break something," he warns and when she opens her eyes, he's looking into them. There are so many questions in his face and so much restraint in his body.
"You'd know," she answers, completely delighted when the comeback surprises him. They grin at each other for one mad moment before reality breaks back in once more.
He steps away from her, does something with the equipment, reading his strangely geometrical language to himself. She watches, wonders, worries. "What if," she starts and stops.
He doesn't turn around, doesn't stop whatever it is that he's doing, but he does ask, "What?"
"Nothing," she says because there's everything, everything she could say.
"You said 'what if'," he reminds her, his manner still brisk, still tense and vaguely ignoring her. She has an odd feeling of déjà vu and wonders if they've had this conversation before, wonders just how much she doesn't remember.
"That Time Lord trick," she says, shrugging. "You're going to hide your memories from yourself to prevent a paradox from happening, yeah? So what about me?"
He looks at her like he's not following the way her brain is skipping, like she's completely daft. "I'm goin' t' get you back, Rose," he tells her like she doesn't understand.
"I know that," she says.
Her faith draws him to her, the doubting man returning to stand in front of her, to marvel at her. She knows he's marveling, just has that feeling even if it doesn't look like he's at all impressed. It's something she's sure of, something about him that wouldn't change.
"Then what?" he asks, voice quiet without dropping in volume.
"If young me's gone and I don't remember it," she reasons, "I must have forgotten it, being gone and you getting me back. And if you can make you forget . . . "
She takes his hand and he lets her, allows her to press his palm against her cheek. His eyes are wider than they ought to be and his body is wary, but still he lets her. Cradling his hand between hers and her cheek, she looks him in the eye and shifts the fingers under hers in a motion that has never been more deliberate. With his fingertips against her temple, something in him shakes.
" . . . then you must've made me forget.” She holds to his hand tightly, trying to convince him of her trust with nothing more than a steady grip and eye contact. "Make me remember," she tells him, watching blue eyes carefully before closing her own. She drops her hand from his.
"Don't know where to look," he says but she can feel him there already, brushing against her mind, pushing, pressing. She feels his storm, is ready to run into the eye of it, to stand surrounded by fire and ice and lightning, to stand surrounded and untouched, encompassed by the protectiveness of the wind. The taste of the air is different, the bitter tang of an otherworldly winter instead of the bitingly crisp autumn she has come to know. Winter air, yet somehow stale, somehow unstirred. It's familiar in a way she can't define, like the burnt autumn she has become intimate with. Only once this way, she thinks. It was like this only once.
"Makes two of us," she replies.
"If you don't want me to see something . . ." he starts.
"I know," she tells him.
Balance is suddenly established, her metaphorical feet planted as his hands cup both sides of her face, chilly fingertips firm on her temples. She throws open the door he'll teach her to visualize and beckons him inside, invites the tornado to tear the house apart with the secure knowledge that it won't. He won't.
She reaches forward, blind, and touches chest, shoulders, neck, temples. It's a play at reciprocation, a mutual sort of holding that bumps their arms together. This isn't how they usually do this. They should be cheek-to-cheek, chest-to-chest, his left hand on her right temple and her hand the same for his. The telepath's embrace, he'll say when she sees it for the first time, sees two people silently embracing and communicating for a fraction of a second before pulling away, content with the exchange.
The stale air inside him begins to stir, begins to move and Rose thinks suddenly of the same feel with a different taste. He was like this, too; he will be like this; he has been like this — untouched like this. She remembers it as completely as she can: you never really forget your first time. She remembers how he hung back, surrounded her slowly, moved into her with the hesitancy born of restraint. The autumn was crisp and taught, stiff winds trying to rush into her and being forcefully pulled back before contact was made. She thinks of this, thinks of how firmly, how tightly he controlled a desperation unlike any she could ever know.
He has told her of how they were always there, before, of how their echoes resided in his mind across the winding paths of time. He has told her this, told her how even the echoes have faded and he has shown her — unintentionally, but he has — how essential the contact is to him. Denied for too long, all finesse had been lacking; acted for the first time, the motions were clumsy, his mind against hers. Contact for the sake of contact had been almost unwieldy in the indefinable way of the alienated Time Lord mind. It had hurt the first time, hurt her enough to terrify him and she knows it will happen again.
She doesn't let go.
Once again, the air is stirring, becoming wind once more. She is surrounded and frozen, and he's holding to her too tightly. She opens the door anyway, opens it further because he's holding back and she can feel the static on the hairs of her arms even though she can't. Static is lightning and lightning might be fear; she's not sure, never has been.
He's not looking yet, not fully with her yet. His mind reaches to her as naturally as his hand does, searches for hers to clasp his in return. The beginning of the motion is automatic; the completion of it has to be his conscious choice.
The Doctor releases her instead, pulls back, breaks away from her touch. His abrupt motions leave her blinking into the strangely unreal lights of reality, an oddly dull glow from the fixtures overhead. She's stared into a storm of fire and ceiling fixtures can't hope to compare. She's stared, but he hasn't looked, hasn't even touched properly: he can't possibly be done yet, couldn't have found anything.
Rose orients in time to take in how he's looking at her, to see something startled and enraged in his eyes, something not directed at her no matter how his gaze is finally going to her legs, to the details any human bloke would’ve fixated on immediately. He’s processing, thinking, his mind going too quickly for her to possibly follow.
"Who else is on my TARDIS?" he asks her and he's looking at the spot where her knickers would be under his shirt if she was wearing them.
"Just us," she says and she knows exactly what — thinks she knows exactly what she's admitting to. She might know.
His hands return to her temples, a rough grip, and he tilts her head down so she can't look at his face. Rose makes a noise of protest but stills as she feels him, feels the storm coming on, coming closer. He stays there, out of reach, on the edge of contact.
She opens the door.
The hurricane arrives and the door is blown off of its hinges, wood splintering. Wind pulls lightning away from her with the whip-crack of thunder, leaving her deafened; fire and ice collide, a rain of steam showering down around her. The world burns and freezes, the storm an unending cloud of darkness covering the expanse of eternity. She runs to the eye of it, struggles to find the center only to find herself thrust out of it. He doesn't realize the safety in the center of himself, doesn't see it or doesn't trust her to enter it. The storm rages with restraint, shakes her with the gentlest hand possible, threatens to break her with the slightest pressure and does. It rages and shakes and roars and shatters.
It stops and he's saying her name, saying it and saying it. She reaches for the cloth of his coat and finds leather instead. Disoriented, she clings to it anyway, falling against him, as bewildered by the lack of contact as she was harmed by the presence of it. He's saying something but it sounds wrong, sounds deeper and slower and not at all like a babble.
"Doctor?" she asks, needing to check, her cheek against wool. "Did you find-"
"You stupid ape," he's saying, he's repeating as he holds her against him, rocks her the way he will after the next time this goes awry, the way he had the last time. "You stupid, stupid ape."
"'m all right," she tells his jumper, feeling not at all as if she'd woken up only a short time ago. She's been awake for hours, for days, and now all she wants is to dream with him. "Wait a little and try again, yeah?"
He grips her shoulders, pushes her back to make her look at him, make her see his face. "No," he tells her, using the word as he will one day wield it against Daleks, brandishing the syllable for the sake of her safety. "Shouldn't've done it the first time."
"'m all right," she says again and by the way that he looks at her, she knows that she almost wasn't. She's tired and wants a hug and it's been so long since he was telepathically out of practice that she's amazed at what happens when he is. "Okay," she decides, agreeing with him for now. "Scans and stuff it is, then."
He nods, watching her eyes to make sure she's being on the level with him. "Go get dressed," he tells her, a dismissal which means that she's right about being okay, a dismissal which means that he’s not okay at all.
She still wants that hug and knows that he needs one far more, even if he'll never admit it. He's not about to accept it right now and for the first time in forever, she thinks back to a shouting match over the soon-to-be-burning Earth. Don't argue with the designated driver.
He's not really, not anymore, not to her, but he still thinks he is.
"Okay," she says again.
He goes back to the equipment and it's obvious that he's giving her an opportunity to get off the table without accidentally flashing him. She takes it immediately, not wanting to risk anything more than she already has. They're going to have such a row when he remembers this; she's already sure.
Still, she can't help but turn back when she reaches the doorway, can't help but pull the edge of the shirt down as far as it will go and ask, "Doctor?"
He says "Yes, Rose" without looking at her.
"Shouldn't've asked you to do that," she tells him, shows him that she knows, shows him that she can learn over time. "'m sorry. An' you didn't hurt me, not really."
He turns his head, lets her see his eyes even if he doesn't look to hers. "But I will," he says, knows it because he's seen that much in her mind, in the way she reacts.
"Not that much," she lies and he knows that too.
She opened the door.
Not letting go of the handle, Rose moved, keeping the alien likeness of wood between her and the man. He stepped inside slowly, holding his hands at chest level, keeping them in plain sight. Rose was distracted for a second by his hair, large tufts of it in disarray, sticking up in random directions. His brown eyes glanced upwards, trying to follow her gaze. He stopped quickly, simply raising one hand to brush the mass down and flatten it in a way that human hair wouldn't flatten.
That done, he looked at her as she was looking at him, he standing at the base of the ramp as she practically backed herself into a corner between the open door and the wall. He was thin, he was rumpled, and he was studying her with his stranger's eyes in his stranger's face.
For a man not at all in her personal space, he was very, very close.
He began to step forward and she stepped back, foot hitting the wall, a roundel nudging into her back. He stopped the moment she moved, put his foot down almost before he was done picking it up. He looked at her as if she were the stranger, like she was the one out of place. "Rose," he said, his eyes so very, very brown even as they narrowed.
"Yeah," she said, edging slowly to the side. He was the same height, she realized. She tried to realize something else, but that was it. No, wait, he had lapels. Cloth and striped instead of black and leather, but still lapels. Oh god, she was grasping at straws.
Two tiny details.
Two tiny details and nothing more.
"How old are you?" he asked and now she couldn't pretend that the London accent was only there because of the door muffling his voice oddly.
"Nineteen," she said, straightening her back, stopping her sideways retreat. Any farther and she would have to let go of the door handle. Then, realizing that there wasn't any point in holding onto it any longer, she let go of it anyway, pushed it closed. She swallowed and raised her chin.
"Oh," he said and those brown eyes were suddenly so sad.
Two tiny details, and one big one.
"Oh?" she repeated, ready to move, unable to move.
"Oh," he replied, nodding. He looked at her with his mouth open and then closed it, teeth clicking together. As he agitatedly ran a hand through his hair, Rose realized why he'd looked so ruffled when he'd stepped in. "Not twenty-seven, then?"
Rose shook her head.
"This," the man said, "is a problem."
They stood in near silence, the hum of the TARDIS the only sound, a piece of background noise that only made the stretching moment more painful. The man opened his mouth to speak before closing it, tried again, tried again. Swallowed. Ruffled his hair.
They spoke at once:
"I'll get this sorted out, Rose-"
"What happened to him?"
The man frowned, stepped closer, halving the distance between them. Rose fought not to press into the wall. "To me, Rose," he corrected, holding eye contact as if he thought that alone could sway her, change her mind with the wrong eyes in the wrong face. "What happened to me."
"Okay, yeah," she said, brushing it off, trying to avoid really thinking about that. "What happened?"
He considered his answer, his gaze going through her as he did, his mouth a thin line. "Daleks," the man said at last and the despair of memory in those brown eyes made him the Doctor. "A fleet of them," he said, voice hard at the thought, and Rose didn't understand, couldn't understand how it could be the same expression on a completely different face, but it was.
"Oh my god." He wasn't-
"Gone now," he continued, forcing something lighter into his tone, misinterpreting her reaction. He wasn't looking at her. "Over and done with. Kaput," he added, over-articulating the "t" and becoming less like the Doctor with each word. And then his gaze went inside of himself and the resemblance made her shiver. "Finished, this time."
He looked at her and she looked at him and she could see him remembering.
"I win," he said, two words laced with something bitterly victorious, both wry and lost. Two words from three months ago in Utah, two words he repeated now and watched for her reaction.
Rose swallowed, the roundel on the wall digging into her back. "And then he-" Her voice stuck in her throat. "You . . .?"
"Absorbed a little too much energy," he said with a shrug that wasn't nearly as nonchalant as the shrug of the Doctor Rose knew. "Cells died, had to regenerate — that's what it's called, regeneration."
"And you just didn't . . ." Rose searched for a word, for a phrase, for something she could understand. "Didn't grow back the same way?" She felt like her head was about to break open, her mind churning and trying to find some sort of solution.
"I can't change back," he told her, interrupting her before she could ask. He looked sad, but he sounded hurt. "Could you move away from the wall?" he asked suddenly, going from depressed and serious to somewhat irritated. The swift change in mood was at once jarring and reassuring and jarring from being reassuring. It was like the Doctor, but it wasn't.
"Why?" Rose asked, nervous.
"I feel like I'm cornering you," he said, his expression leaving no doubt for his dislike of this idea, this truth that was so obvious to her. She could reach out and touch him, from here. She could shove him away. She could do a lot of things, from here, and yet she couldn't do any of them at all. "And you keep looking at me like . . ."
Like she was frightened of him.
"Oh," the man said, his face not blank, not expressionless, but a mask of restrained emotion. He was rage and fear and desperate, unwanted affection. How could she not be afraid of him?
Not that afraid, she told herself, assured herself for her own sake.
"What's going on?" she asked instead. "Right now. Why d'you think I'm twenty-seven?"
"Because you are," he said and she'd sort of been expecting that. "Something odd is going on with your timeline, Rose," he continued. "This didn't happen to you. You never randomly jumped into your own future." He stopped, mouth clicking shut, and messed up his hair in a gesture of what Rose assumed to be thought. "I'll get you back," he said instead of whatever it was he'd thought of.
"What if you don't?" Just the idea of going back, of getting back to the TARDIS that made sense — well, almost made sense — was enough to focus her. Maybe a little too much. The sooner she was back in her own time, the better.
It occurred to her that she'd just believed him. Impossible thing after impossible thing, but she'd just believed him. Before she could even try to process that, the man replied indignantly: "Oi! What happened to 'the Doctor can do anything'?"
"He got all . . ." Rose looked at him, tried for an adjective. "Brown."
"That's rude-and-not-ginger," he corrected her seriously, then grinned at her like she should be grinning back.
For perhaps the first time in her life, Rose was literally saved by the bell.
They looked up at once, the echoing chime ringing through the TARDIS. "What's that?" Rose asked, recognizing the sound as some sort of alarm but not sure what.
"Cloister Bell," the man sort of explained before pausing. "Wait, no. No, not quite. Wrong tone." He screwed up his face puzzling it through before bursting out: "I forgot to turn the waffle iron off!"
"What?" Rose asked, not sure which part she was most confused by.
"Fire alarm!" he exclaimed. "Burning down the kitchen!" He bounded away and turned back to her, catching himself in mid-step on one of the railings. "Go to the med bay. I'll be along, do some scans — give you some Spock, how about that? Sort it out quick and-"
"Go save the kitchen, Doctor," Rose said, trying to use the name on him without flinching, trying to give him a small, reassuring smile.
She must have succeeded.
He grinned widely before darting off, a manic grin that it hurt to almost know. "Med bay!" he yelled back at her as he went. "I mean it!"
"Okay!" she yelled in reply.
And if he thought she was really going to do that, he couldn't even pretend to be the Doctor.
Rose went to her room instead, smelling an odd smoky scent as she went. Waffle iron, she thought to herself. Doctor plus waffle iron equaled no. It was a very simple equation.
She reached the door, leaned against it with her eyes closed, just breathing. She was going to have to do this quickly, before he started to look for her. She'd have five or so minutes, maybe.
Right then. Time to see how much his story and the reality of her room matched up.
Naturally, she first double-checked the part of the story that he had left out.
Doing a quick inspection around her bed, she found her pants on one side of it and a pair knickers she didn't recognize on the other. Very deliberate knickers, these were. The sort of thing she might have worn for Mickey on his birthday. Rose swallowed, and when she found the matching bra, she was almost braced for it.
This was the point where she looked at the other things in the room.
The room, not hers. The more she looked around, the less she recognized. There was a pair of glasses on her nightstand. Knickknacks from alien worlds were scattered over her dresser. A book written by Tennyson sat atop Great Expectations amid a sloppy pile of magazines for no readily apparent reason. She opened a small, metallic box from the top of her dresser. From inside the surprisingly heavy casing exploded light and sound, projecting a colorful hologram and startling her into shutting it immediately.
She breathed in. Out.
Rose sat down on an almost clear section of the rug, set the box down in front of her. Opening it more gingerly this time, Rose found a small knob on the side, turned it. Volume decreased, colors changed in a kaleidoscope pattern, and the music box — because that was what it must have been — played an ethereal tune.
Listening, watching, staring at the rainbows dance on the walls, the idle thought that she'd want one of these convinced her it was hers.
. . . Okay.
She could do this.
Keeping the box open, Rose got up, went to the dresser and looked through it. None of the clothes were hers, but they looked like they could be hers. Eight years, she reminded herself. I could dress like that in eight years.
She picked up a shirt. Not bad, actually.
Putting it away, Rose closed her eyes. Folding her arms and leaning on them against the top of her dresser, she thought about what she knew. Regeneration. Sex. Books. Clothes.
Now, if she was going to store anything personal, where would she-
She dug through the fallen clothes and unmatched shoes until she hit the box. This, this cardboard crate, all falling apart, this was hers. She knew it. Without any idea of what was inside now, Rose pulled it onto her lap and hugged it, crushing the edges, a corner digging into her leg. Things shifted inside and she wanted to look, longed to keep the lid on. This was here, this was hers, this was completely hers, right up until she opened it and peeked inside.
The top was folded shut, flap under flap under flap under flap under the first flap. The same it had always been. The scribble on the side, the lopsided "Rose's Things" with the slip in the tail of the "g" in blue marker, that was the same.
Rose opened the box and looked through her life.
There were envelopes, letters with names on them. Recognizing the one she'd written to her dad — yellowed and crunchy now, written only a month ago — Rose put the letters back, not wanting to look at the names, not wanting to know who she was going to grieve over before she'd met them. Who had told her about that, writing letters to people she’d never get to talk to again? Mickey, right.
Rose wondered what happened to Mickey.
The paper slid off of a small book, landing on what looked like a crystallized twig. There were some odds and ends, really random things that she had to assume would make sense with time. Her passport threw her for a moment: why would she ever need that, traveling through space and time?
Along with what she assumed were some ticket stubs was something she recognized, something that she'd put on her dresser a week or so ago. The seashell was still a spiked mass, swirls of color wrapping around each spine. It felt almost exactly the same, but she couldn't imagine why she'd have it in the box, or why she would have put duct tape all over one of the spines. It must have snapped. She lifted the Hesolian Message Shell to her ear, expecting something vastly important to be on loop inside, but only heard a conversation she'd yet to forget. Rose forgot very few conversations with the Doctor that involved his face inches from hers. He'd held it between them, told her she'd have to lean in if it was going to pick up on her speech.
". . . an organic message-in-a-bottle, no bottle required," said a voice close to her ear and so far away, sounding exactly like him, like the Doctor, the proper Doctor. "The resonance patterns on this one-"
"Yeah?" Rose heard herself ask.
"-right there. Gives it about a two-minute recording time, this size. The purple spine is hollow in a trisonglion pattern and-"
"Lobster trap for sound. The sound waves go in and can't get out. This little chat could last for years."
"Can you, I dunno, record over?"
"Talk into the purple spine," he'd said and had pointed to it. "Best it you clean it out first. Words get scrambled, otherwise-"
Rose lowered the shell and looked at it, really looked. Her stomach was churning in the same way it had when that hologram had spoken. The same way it had when she'd stood on a sidewalk a month ago and waited for her father to die. She looked at the purple spine, at the duct tape all over it, stopping any accidental sound from getting in and marring that Northern voice.
Putting it down took effort, almost as much effort as it took not to cry.
Biting her lip and screwing her eyes shut, Rose focused on one thought, one hope. This hasn't happened yet. Hasn't happened, it's not real, can't be real, he can't be- couldn't be gone.
Rose thought of Reapers and her hands trembled when she reached back into the box. She held onto the edge of it instead, listening to her music box. Calming sound, there.
Not enough time to stop.
She'd been expecting the photos, recognized the ones on the top. She tried to be reassured, tried to think about that and only that. So she'd still keep them like this, in order, bound by rubber band. Okay. Normal enough. There was a bunch under the first and that was the one she pulled out, her fingers brushing something smooth and soft in the process. She took that, too, running the silk strip over her hands. A soft gray, it wasn't exactly a tie, more like a double-sided tie. What was the word? Cravat? Whose was it?
Whose had it been?
Draping it over the side of the box, Rose pulled off the rubber band from the clump of photographs, finding the one on top reassuring when she realized the importance of it. It had the Doctor in it. A shot taken from behind and not really of him, but still the Doctor. He was one of many, seated in her mum's flat, watching the telly for news of the spaceship that had hit Big Ben. Rose thought back to that night, her first night back after the end of the world and Dickens. Yeah, she could think of a couple of her mum's friends who might have taken pictures, marking the first night of aliens or the first night of having her back. Probably the aliens though.
The pictures of the Doctor ran out far too quickly. There were only a few where he was actually looking at the camera, three where he was actually smiling.
There was one where he was holding her against his side, arm around her waist, and glaring over her head at a handsome, laughing bloke. Rose looked at her own face, looked at a moment that hadn't happened yet and knew her heart had been beating faster then. It was now, just looking at it.
The handsome, laughing bloke showed up with only her a few times, dark-haired and blue-eyed with a friendly-bordering-on-very-friendly arm around her shoulders. There was a blush on her cheeks and Rose wondered why she was biting her own tongue in the picture, smiling like that. Probably to keep from laughing.
She flipped that picture to the back of the stack and nearly dropped them all at the sight of the next.
It was a photo of the man. Not just the man, but her and the man, her and the man grinning at the camera, sitting at her mum's table. It looked like Christmas. He had this paper hat on and she was poking him. And another photo was below that, with them standing sort of awkwardly in front of the wall her mum always took pictures in front of because she thought it made a good background.
Rose quickly flipped through the pile.
Her mum and Mickey. Her and Mickey. Her and her mum and Mickey. Mickey and the man. Her mum harassing the man. Her and the man. Her and the man. Her and the man.
In each and every one.
Rose put the pictures down and pressed her palms against her eyes. Her shoulders shook. Her throat tightened. But the music box played on and, getting annoyed with the calming melody and light show, Rose got up to shut the thing off. Picking it up off the floor, she flipped the lid shut and put it back on her dresser, looking once again at the random clutter on it in the loud silence she'd created. A strip of shiny paper caught her eye and, expecting an alien ticket stub, Rose reached for it, held it.
She turned it over.
It was a strip of tiny snapshots, the sort of thing you got from a cramped photo booth. Just four pictures — when had she started to take so many photos? — but the sight of them hit her like a punch to the gut.
Her and the man, the Doctor-who-wasn't. In a photo booth. Acting like children. The first shot showed the man wearing glasses, the second and third with him trying to recover said glasses from her as she laughed and laughed. The fourth was him with his glasses back on, pouting. Pouting. And she was hugging him, arms around him from the side, her face on his shoulder and —
Was that really her? Her face, yeah, but, well, older. Shorter hair, and with her roots showing.
She was nineteen, and she was twenty-seven. None of this had happened yet and all of it already had.
Rose put the photo strip down before she either stared at it forever or threw up from confusion. She put it down, kept a hand on her dresser and looked at her bed. Consensual. That was consensual.
Very consensual, judging by those knickers on the floor.
The Doctor was going to die and change and not even be vaguely the same and she was going to screw him anyway. Or maybe she was going to shag him and then he was going to die and change. "Would you still love me even if I had a horrible, refiguring accident?" Rose thought and clapped her hand over her mouth to hold in her resulting giggles, high-pitched and nervous squeaks not sounding at all like her.
She laughed until she was gasping, until her hand on the dresser had become her forearm, holding her up, keeping her from falling over with dizziness.
This was going to happen and she couldn't stop it.
She was going to have to live and wait and know, because this was going to happen and she couldn't stop it.
And she didn't have a lot of time until he found her — he had to be looking by now — so she'd have to pull herself together. Right now.
She could do this.
Nodding to herself and forcing down any further terrified giggling fits, Rose went back to her box, replaced what she'd pulled out, tried to comfort herself with the fact that she still recognized the contents on the bottom. Not everything changed. Just almost all of it.
She closed the flaps and lifted the cardboard box. Kneeling and leaning over into the closet, she let her knuckles hit the floor as she put the box down. That wasn't carpet under her knuckles. More like cloth. Wool?
Pulling the box back out was easy; getting the item out was harder. Big and blue, it came unfolded in her hands and proved itself to be far longer than it was wide. Settling back on her heels, Rose draped the coat over her thighs, fingering the buttons. It looked military. Not recent military, though. World War Two, maybe? There were pins on it, things that might have implied rank. 133 Squadron. Royal Air Force.
No idea why that was there. Not sure she wanted to know why.
She bunched it up into a ball before thinking one of the weirder thoughts of her life: If this was special to older her, she was about to annoy older her by mistreating this thing.
Nonlinear lifestyles were complicated, the Doctor had once said to explain a friend he hadn't met yet. Now she knew what he meant. Sort of.
Before she put the coat back, she checked this time, peering into the dark of her closet. Black, she thought. Dark black. Bad lighting or not, her carpet was peach. Folding the coat badly, she set it on the box before pulling out the mystery item.
It was black and leather and heavy and the instant her hand touched it, Rose knew exactly what it was.
With a choked sob, she buried her face against the Doctor's leather jacket. It wasn't at all as she remembered and that might have been because he wasn't wearing it, might have been because there wasn't a man to fill the piece of him he'd left for her, the piece of him she'd saved. Without needing to imagine it, she knew that she had held this jacket, had wrapped it around herself as a shield the way he had once done, had slept with it in her arms and cried into it. She must have.
She closed her eyes, closed them tight but not tightly enough to keep the tears in. She breathed in but it didn't even smell like him. Years ago, the man had said. That was years ago. It couldn't smell like him anymore.
He was gone.
The Doctor was gone.
The memory of a Reaper flashed behind her shut lids, the horrific sounds of a Time Lord's destruction echoing in her ears. But he'd come back. He'd come back and led her back to the TARDIS by the hand and sat with her through tea and tears, held her and spoke gently into her ear as he cradled her in his lap. Cradled her the same way she was cradling his jacket, like she was something precious and never ever to be lost.
"I can't change back."
He'd known she would ask and that only made her cry the harder.
Oh god, what was that going to be like? Was she going to have to watch him die, watch as every cell in his body deteriorated and him aware of it all? He would scream and it would be the worst sound in the universe. His skin would tear away until holding his hand would only hurt him more. He would fall apart, down to his very bones, feeling all of it.
And then he'd grow back. Alien tech helping him, he'd grow back slowly, still screaming. There'd be blood and pus and he'd itch like mad. How long would it take? How much was her Doctor going to have to suffer?
Her mind racing, her shoulders shaking, her throat raw from sobbing, Rose was only distantly aware of the door opening, of sounds of movement, of someone saying "Oh Rose" with a pain that equaled hers. She pressed her face against the leather, hugged the heavy material as if it might hug her back somehow, might somehow fill up with the man who belonged inside it.
A hand touched her shoulder and a voice she didn't want to hear said her name softly.
"Rose, it's all right," the man told her gently, kneeling or sitting down behind her.
"S'not, though," she argued, shaking her head and wanting him to stop touching her. "He's dead." The hand left her shoulder, an arm reaching around her to her wrist. Thinking he was going to try to pry the jacket away from her, Rose held on tighter. He put his other arm around her and she stiffened.
"He's all right," the man continued and caught her hand. Before she could scream or yell or try to hit him, before she could do more than flinch at his breath on her neck, he turned her hand, held it to his wrist. "Feel for a pulse," he offered.
He was the right temperature, his skin was. Rose thought of Doctors and doctors and cold hands for them both and maybe she laughed or maybe she cried, but the man hugged her against him anyway, his hearts beating against her back, beating so fast they were almost vibrating.
"I want my Doctor," she said into the Time Lord's jacket, repeated it and repeated it, the only thought in her head.
"I am your Doctor," the man said and this time when he lied, it wasn't so gentle.
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