When he comes to find her, she’s in the library. Curled up on her favorite couch with a book in hand, Rose looks up when she feels him standing there and marks her place with her finger.
“You didn’t come back,” he says, leaving against the towering bookshelf, a semi-organic construct growing out of the floor. The books lean into each other on the shelves, set on too wavy of a surface to stand by themselves. It’s strange to see him here, this him. She remembers sitting in here with him, listening to him read excerpts of this and that after an adventure and loving the rumbling flow of his voice as she drifted off to sleep. She remembers that, but somehow, he still doesn’t match the library, not in the slightest. So much less bookish, this Doctor.
Rose has a sudden image of this him wearing next him’s glasses and despite his unfathomable tone, she wants to smile. “Thought I’d stay out of your way,” she explains and the urge to smile wavers. After getting dressed, she’d felt . . . out of place. None of her jeans fit, not one single pair. Her calves, her thighs, her hips: everything’s changed. She’s resorted to a skirt and a hoodie, completely failing to match. She’s wearing knickers, though, and it’s amazing what that’ll do for a girl’s confidence.
All the same, her heart trembles absurdly as his gaze falls on her choice of reading material. “What book?” he asks, speaking for all the world as if there isn’t a looming catastrophe. That doesn’t mean there isn’t, but it seems like a good sign.
“Great Expectations,” she replies. “Almost done, so. . .” She trails off as he grins and pushes himself off of the shelf with his shoulder. Dickens, right. He’s the one who introduced her.
He sits down beside her, the cushion indenting and encouraging her to slip down next to him until hips press and arms tangle. “How far are you?” he asks with that focused interest she hadn’t realized she’d missed. Brooding intensity, she thinks to herself and nearly smiles.
“Almost done. I was reading this, y'know, before. Wemmick’s going walking with a fishing pole,” Rose replies, opening the book and glancing down at the page. “And he’s saying ‘Halloa’ a lot.” She feels him grinning wider and returns the expression in equal measure, looking up into such amazingly blue eyes and sliding a little closer.
They’ve had sex on this couch.
Swallowing, Rose shifts, reestablishing distance and sticking her finger back into the book, covering her need to look away with a glance at the page number. She tucks her hair behind her ear with her free hand, but he interrupts her before she can even start to say anything more.
“Keep reading.” He nods at her when she gives him a confused look. “Go on.”
She raises her eyebrows at him before reading on nevertheless. He doesn’t stop looking at her for a moment, watching her face for a reaction. One paragraph later, he gets it.
Rose laughs before she can help herself, laughs with him laughing right next to her. “God, that’s brilliant.”
“Good ol’ Charley,” the Doctor agrees, turning her hand to let him see the page. “‘Halloa, here’s a church. Halloa, here’s a pair of gloves…’”
“‘Halloa, here’s my girlfriend’,” Rose finishes, chuckling. “‘Let’s have a wedding!’” It’s abrupt and silly and perfect for a character who lives in a castle with cannons and has a mouth like a mailbox while at work. “That’s just brilliant. Wish I’d read this before I met him.” She looks up at the Doctor, finding him tense and only a little sad. Holding the book in her lap, she turns and pulls her legs up onto the couch to sit cross-legged, adjusting the skirt to cover her legs entirely. Now when she slides towards him, it’s her knees hitting the side of his thigh, an unfamiliar position unlikely to give her any sudden remembrances of him, say, playing with the hem of her top, fingers slipping beneath as he watches her face with dark, dark eyes.
She tries to focus on the jarring contrast of his pale, pale eyes but the contrast is simply there, not jarring in the least. “So,” she somehow says conversationally, “how bad is it?”
“‘Bad’?” he repeats, sounding playfully indignant. “Not bad at all. Very good book, that.”
She shoots him a look and he gets the message.
“The problem isn’t with you, Rose,” he tells her. “The TARDIS was finishing up calibrating.” He looks down for a moment, avoiding her eyes. “We met your father last month,” he says and it doesn’t come at all as a surprise. “After that, this old girl had a few internal adjustments to make.”
“Like after she absorbs new equipment?” Rose asks, remembering her fear with the buffer of time. That paradox had gotten to the TARDIS long before the Reaper had ever gotten to the Doctor. “But on a bigger scale,” she theorizes. “And when the contents were getting all shook up, I got shuffled. An’. . . Just guessing, but there’s some paradox proofing on this thing, yeah? Later me gets shuffled in during the mix up, younger me gets shuffled out, and all chances of me meeting me get chucked neatly out the window.”
“Exactly.” God, he looks so proud of her. Her stomach twists and warms at once. He’s thinking of how far she’s come, she can tell. He’s thinking and reasoning it out and his smile isn’t manic or mad or bursting with energy. It’s small, hovering at the edge of his mouth like something he can’t fully hold back.
“Sort of like Donna,” Rose muses, trying to distract him from her blush with new information.
It works. “Like who?”
“Donna Noble,” Rose elaborates. “We’d got this- this extrapolator thing. Pandimensional surfboard, pretty much, right? Great for force fields and stuff but not really compatible with the TARDIS. Took it half of forever to sync up. When it finally did — got all coral-covered at the bottom — the calibration process left a sort of gap for her to come in through.”
He frowns and it’s the strangest thing in the world when he doesn’t ruffle his hair, even though he hasn’t enough hair to ruffle. Sitting there slightly turned, legs crossed towards her, one hand on his thigh and the other arm across the back of the couch, his hands stay where they are. Rose looks between those hands, the one on the couch temptingly close to her shoulder, the one on his thigh dangerously close to where she shouldn’t be looking. “Come through how?” he asks, mercifully concentrating on the problem at hand.
“Definitely not the way I did,” Rose tells him. “She was all lights an’ yelling an’ I just woke up in my bed. Completely different. Anyway, she was being dosed with Huon energy particles. Yeah, I know, bad,” she adds when he’s about to interrupt. “Got it sorted out fine in the end, don’t worry.”
“But the particles pulled her into the TARDIS,” he states, not at all asking.
Rose nods. “Yeah. Gonna happen no matter what. The bit I’m getting at is that it happened when it did because of the extrapolator finally getting absorbed, ‘cause of that stability gap.”
“That’s a start. Still doesn’t explain what pulled you into the gap,” he adds. “Or where you are.” Younger her, he means. The look on his face as he says it, the guilt and the worry and the edge of annoyance at the universe, that narrowing of his eyes and the turn of his lips, that look says everything. Watching him is like falling in love again, more than simply like it. He’s always cared about her, always wanted to keep her safe.
Rose smiles. “We’ll find me,” she says because it’s the easiest thing in the world to say, a simple fact born of her trust in him. She shrugs and doesn’t let her smile fade no matter how he’s looking at her. “I’m okay now, aren’t I?”
His hand cups her cheek. Leather creaks as his arm on the back of the couch shifts, as his callused palm cradles her jaw, as blunt fingertips touch the side of her face, a pair on either side of her ear, his thumb nearly brushing her lips. Her eyes flutter shut at the cool contact, her breath catching in her chest. She hears denim on denim, feels the Doctor shifting through the cushion under them both, knows he’s uncrossing his legs, twisting his body towards her. With just the barest pressure, he guides her closer, brings her to him. Leaning forward, she feels more unbalanced than she actually can be, feels like his hand is the only thing keeping her up. It’s sudden and abrupt, but so is he. Hairpin turns of thought and emotion, that’s him. No wonder she can’t keep up.
His breath plays across her lips and he tells her to open her eyes.
She does, lips parting at the sight of his proximity. Blue eyes watch her intently, flecks of gray commanding her attention as his gaze focuses, fixates upon her with a single-minded intensity. He holds her head still with both hands now, keeps her only far enough back to properly look at. Their noses bump lightly, a brush of contact she might have only imagined.
Her mind tries to race, attempts to find words to explain who they’ve become together, to reassure and entice, to make him understand that it’s not domestic at all, that it’s only them, only the best thing in the universe. There are words her mouth should be forming, sounds her tongue should be shaping, but mouth and tongue are waiting for something else, preparing for something else as his eyes look back and forth from hers, searching. All she can do is stare back, study his once familiar features from behind half-closed lids.
He lets her go and all traces of balance vanish instantly. Though sitting, she falls forward, catches herself with a hand on his leg and one on his side. She lets go immediately, pulls back and stops touching him and starts to realize why he looks like he’s mad when he speaks. It’s because he is. “Huon energy particles,” he says, repeating her earlier words. “Those are deadly, Rose. In a living thing, in a human being, Huon energy particles mean death unless they’re removed. Rose, you-”
“They’re in me, yeah,” she interrupts, able to get angry back. It’s so easy to get angry right back at him, more satisfying than only being angry at herself. How stupid can one human get? He’s looking for bits of death in her eyes and she’s waiting for a kiss. “Not enough to actually do anything.”
“And you didn’t think this was worth mentioning?” he demands. “Didn’t wonder if something should be done about it before you off yourself by being an idiot?”
“We’ve already done something!” she yells right back. “Everything that can be done, we’re already doing! You’ve already done enough!” Reopened grief breaks through anger, breaks into her words and tinges her voice. He’s already died for her. He’s put her first and become another man. There’s nothing else she wants him to do, nothing else she’s about to let him do.
His eyes narrow. “What happened?”
She shakes her head. “You- You’re chasing after the wrong thing here.” He makes to interrupt but she talks right over him. She can talk over next him, has learned how to do it when she needs to; this him hasn’t got a chance. “The TARDIS needs to recalibrate after having a paradox thrown at me. There- maybe there isn’t enough energy or maybe she just wants more energy than she’s got, so when she puts everything back, she pulls in this me, Huon energy particles and all. Younger me. . . The TARDIS wouldn’t just chuck me out to make me not meet myself ‘cause that would make another paradox, me never growing up to be this me,” she reasons, laying out her rationale before a gaze like ice. “Younger me would go somewhen else, somewhen else -”
“What happened?” he repeats.
“- where there’s no chance of me meeting me,” she continues without pause, talking to the book still in her lap. “An’ probably a time when the Huon energy particles aren’t needed. So, past or future, but still on the TARDIS. If it was past, you’d have left yourself a- a what’s it, a memory catch, memory trigger, yeah? Remember finding that me only when that me’s gone and this me’s here. So that leaves -”
She looks up.
“Tell me what happened.” He’s not asking, not ordering. The command comes out as a statement of fact; he says it, so she will.
Rose shakes her head. “No,” she tells him instead. “I don’t want to and I don’t have to.”
She’s killed him. This daft old face, those endearing ears, all gone because of her. He’s running out of regenerations and she pushed him that much closer to extinction, a semi-genocide that didn’t go all the way through. He’s still alive, but she’s killed him. Saved him and killed him and he’s never blamed her, never begrudged her anything. She woke him up when his brain was collapsing and still no accusations sounded. She’d had to fight and argue and rage about Jack before he’d been willing to tell her how the Daleks had died, tell her what she had done. He’d protected her from the knowledge, stood between her and what she’d done, thinking she would be forever horrified.
She was and she still is, just not for the reasons he’d thought. Saving the Earth, saving the universe, ending the Time War: this she finds no shame in. Being unable to save her Doctor or her Captain; this was why she had cried and clung to her New New Doctor. He’d been right for the wrong reasons. He’d known it would hurt her and the look in his eyes when he told her was one she never wanted to see again, not in any of his eyes.
“Rose,” the Doctor warns, stern, coarse.
“No,” she says, not about to waver, not about to hurt him with this. “You don’t need to know yet, so you can just shove it.” She’s gotten a clean bill of heath from him before — “Well, I say clean, I mean fairly tidy. Well, I say fairly tidy, I mean fine. Human’s human and that’s you, Rose” — and she doesn’t doubt that he knew what he was talking about. Will know what he’ll be talking about. “If it’s a small enough amount that you have to resort to some- some Time Lord staring contest to pick up on it,” she continues, “then it’s not dangerous enough to kill me.” She’d nearly called it by another name, nearly uttered a word that could break this him. Not a Time Lord staring contest. Gallifreyan.
“It’s not safe,” he tells her and it’s so obvious that he believes her a child. His hands are fisted, his jaw clenched.
“Neither are you,” Rose counters and bites back a comment about still letting both of them inside of her anyway. “An’ I can live with that,” she says instead.
“Until one or the other gets you killed.” They’ve yet to cross into this territory, he has yet to. He thinks he can scare her off, impossibly believes that the danger matters. He has no idea.
“Yeah,” she says with a nod.
After he regenerates, his mouth will work in moments like these, opening and closely wordlessly, stalling for time with a pout. When that fails, his lips will form a thin line and his eyes will burn into hers, mild only in color, wild in all else. He’ll protest and argue until she teaches him better, until he learns what she already knows. That she loves him. That she’s never going to leave him. That he’s all she wants in life.
He has no idea, not yet, but she thinks he might be learning already. His expression unreadable, she takes in his body instead, notes the tension in his shoulders, in the set of his jaw. She watches him, tries to see how much of his body language he kept besides crossing his arms and leaning in doorways. Glancing back up to his face, another Time Lord staring contest results.
Listening to her own pulse, Rose closes her eyes in a slow, deliberate blink. Opening them, she offers him the next move wordlessly, not nodding, not shrugging, not doing anything at all. And still he understands.
“So you were saying,” he reminds her, shifting on the couch once more, “something about paradox prevention?”
“Yeah,” Rose says. “I was.” She doesn’t ask him if he was paying attention.
“You were right,” he tells her, giving her that and not giving an inch.
She remembers when the contradiction that was the Doctor fascinated her. Now she’s just sort of annoyed. There’s been no happy hug, no playful teasing, no oddly made breakfast. She wants that. “I’m clever,” she says and shrugs.
“I would have left myself a memory trigger, or at least a note,” he adds. “Done that before, when I was Merlin.”
“When you were what?” she asks, perking up with interest before she can remember that she’s being cross. Does he know what he’s doing, giving her tidbits of distraction? And for that matter, does next him know that he does the same thing, just with winks and flirting and occasional pouting? “Merlin? Can’t imagine you with a beard.”
“No beard yet, then?” he checks, a note of curiosity in his voice that makes perfect sense when she thinks about it.
“Just the sideburns,” Rose replies. “And no,” she adds before he can ask, “you’re still not ginger.”
He makes a noise of disappointment and Rose can practically see next him snapping his fingers in a gesture of “And I was so close!” The mixture sits strangely in her head and not laughing isn’t an option.
“Oi!” he protests, but the more indignant he gets, the more she has to laugh. He’s all ups and downs and spinning her every which way. He’s almost everything she remembers and some things she doesn’t. He’s teasing and silly, and he’d forgive her anything. He’s the Doctor and she loves him and she misses him.
It’s the thought that she wants both of him that sobers her, that puts a stopper on her helpless giggling. She wipes at her eyes with her sleeve, telling herself they’re wet only from laughter. Matching his manic, infectious grin, she prompts, “So you forgot to leave a note?”
“Or I’ve yet to. Or . . .” He trails off and Rose leans forward, waiting for the stroke of brilliance.
When it doesn’t come, she pokes him in the leather-covered side. He looks at her, puzzled, and she prompts, “Or?”
“Or we’re running parallel,” he replies. “If my Rose is in my past or my future, either one, and we’re running parallel, a note or a memory trigger would be useless for whichever me was older.”
“What’s that mean, running parallel?” She assumes it’s a Timey-Whimey term.
“Multiple uses of the phrase,” he answers. “I’ll start with the simplest one.” He twists at the waist to face her as fully as he can while seated, his leg bumping against her knees, pressing, staying there. Holding his hands up so his arms are two straight vertical lines between them, he explains, “Anything that’s parallel never touches what it’s parallel with. In time terms, running parallel can mean aging at the same rate. Once had a friend who went off into E-Space being centuries younger than me and came back a few hundred years later being older. That’s running nonparallel.” He shifts his hands, one still straight, the other tilted to touch.
“What’s running perpendicular?” Rose asks, feeling a headache start to build at the back of her skull.
“You don’t want to know, trust me,” he tells her and grins, setting his hands back down. “In this case, running parallel means happening at the same time.”
“Aging at the same rate, yeah,” Rose agrees, then blanches. “So . . . if I’ve had a morning with you, younger me’s had a morning with some other Doctor too?”
“Probably, yeah,” he agrees, looking worried about it himself. His hand on his knee draws her gaze, pulls her back into a state of wondering. She feels his eyes on her face and knows if she asks for him to look again, he’ll still say no.
Rose rubs at the side of her head, trying to get past the feeling of knowing that she can’t remember what’s happened to her. She thinks of Jack, poor, brave Captain Jack and she can only wonder how he didn’t go completely mad from frustration. “’m tryin’ t’ remember, but I can’t,” she says, that headache building.
“You don’t need to,” he tells her, says it a little more strongly than is strictly necessary. “The calibration gap might’ve gone both ways. You slip through this one, she gets sent out into another.”
“You can make up a list of every single time the TARDIS has recalibrated in nine hundred years?” Rose asks skeptically. “And then check it. One at a time.”
He rolls his eyes. “I can make a list and run it against the TARDIS log. Whichever ones I miss are the ones I don’t remember. Those I check. Quick visit, you keep out of the way, I find younger you, and that’s that.” He stands up, hopping to his feet. The cushion stops tilting her without his weight to draw her in; her knees are cold.
“Anything I can do?” Rose offers, unfolding her legs and standing up as well, leaving her book on the couch. She’s more than ready to point out the big flaw in his plan, the flaw called The Future. Younger her could be anywhen. Only the very secure knowledge that she’s standing here, perfectly fine, keeps her from panicking. She’s seen people wink out of existence, has had nightmares about it.
“Make a list of the ones you remember,” he replies, the expected answer. “Along with any more Dora —”
“- incidents,” he finishes over her and the mistake is so deliberate that she wants to hug him.
So she does.
It’s a hug of comfort this time, a firm squeeze with arms wrapped around each other naturally, barely desperate at all. “Yes, sarge,” she replies and she can feel his laugh, his short chuckle over jokes to come. It’s a vibration moving through his chest and into hers, filling her up. Once again, she’s struck by how unbelievably solid he is, how stable and not wiry at all. He’s here, here in her arms, here and breathing, but he was there, too. There and different and now that she looks, she doesn’t know what she’s looking for any longer.
They pull back from each other and exchange the most reassuring smiles they can muster. Hand finds hand instantly, Time Lord and human reaching for and fitting one another naturally. Something true pulls at the corners of the Doctor’s lips and Rose lets him lead them out between shelves organic and metallic alike, the fixtures as varied as the books they hold. It’s utterly familiar and indefinably hers on a level deeper than emotion or instinct.
Palm pressed against palm, fingers entwined, Rose can almost imagine she’s safe.
She couldn’t stop shaking. She shook and shook and he never let go, never allowed her to pull away and curl up on herself. The battered jacket in her arms was wet against her cheek, fallen tears mingling with those still on her face.
Her head hurt. So much. There was no telling how long she’d been crying, been asking for a man who wouldn’t — couldn’t come. God, she was tired. Just barely woken up, but she was already exhausted.
“We’re going to put you back, Rose,” the man told her, one arm releasing her, the other still around her waist, still holding her against him, still keeping her close enough to feel the thrum of his hearts. He shifted behind her and Rose heard the strangest sound, the strangest familiar sound she knew. She turned to look at the source, pulling away and turning towards him at once, his hand sliding around her waist and the small of her back before dropping away faster than thought. He looked down when she looked at his eyes.
Too difficult a gaze to maintain even when he wasn’t looking back, Rose focused instead on the sight of the man’s hand digging not simply into his pocket but seemingly his leg as well. Something jingled faintly, something crinkled; a world of indescribable items was being rummaged through in a dimensionally transdescendent pocket. His arm disappeared to the elbow and when the man muttered something, the corner of Rose’s mouth twitched.
“Ah-ha!” he cried and Rose could feel him watching her face, knew he was trying to pull out a smile. Reclaiming his hand from his pocket, he held out the prize to her: a ridiculously crumpled packet of tissues.
Biting her lip and daring only one short glance at his expectant expression, his nervously hopeful smile, Rose took the offered packet, careful not to touch his hand. Blowing her nose, she had to shift the jacket in her arms, fold the heavy material over one arm. Once done sniffling into the thin, scratchy tissue, she held it in her hand awkwardly, being the pocket-less member of this pair.
Wordlessly, the man reached behind him for her small rubbish bin and almost offered that as well. She saw his jaw tighten as he took in the incriminating contents of the bin.
He looked at her.
She looked at him.
He held out his hand and, after a moment of pause, she handed him the tissue. He dropped it into the rubbish bin very deliberately, as if hiding the condom now would make her forget its existence.
She sniffled once last time, rubbing at her eyes with her sleeve. “Right,” she said, and then repeated once again, attempting to get her voice to work properly. “Right, you were saying?”
“I’m going to fix your timeline,” the man replied, all hair and freckles instead of ears and nose. He watched her eyes, watched her face as she struggled to hold his gaze. He looked away first, giving her that reprieve as he took in the other jacket on the floor. “Do you know Jack yet?” he asked.
Rose glanced at the blue coat, hugging the leather jacket to her tighter. She shook her head, piecing it together.
Jack. Military Jack. Human, to be in World War Two. Lost with her Doctor? Before? After? Was Jack the smiling bloke in the pictures? The gorgeous one her Doctor had prickled at?
Rose shook her head again. “Haven’t met him yet,” she answered, wondering how much she was going to love him if she kept his coat with her Doctor’s.
“Ah,” said the man as if this were a very bad and complicated thing. He ruffled his hair and shifted as to be sitting cross-legged instead of kneeling.
“What?” Rose asked, glancing to the wool coat once again. “Would Jack make it easier to get me back to the TARDIS?” The permeating hum of the ship changed pitch and Rose amended, “To the TARDIS I’m supposed to be in.”
“No,” the man said, now moving on to scratch the back of his neck, his hair already sticking up in wildly random directions. “Well, maybe. Well, probably not.”
“Then what?” Asking questions she didn’t really want to know the answers to had never been a good idea in the past, but Rose couldn’t seem to help herself. She put the packet of tissues down, the leather jacket a comforting blanket across her legs.
“It’s not so much Jack as certain . . . conversations Jack inspired,” the man explained slowly, over-articulating the searched for word once he found it. “You, ah, not knowing about them makes this a little more . . . out of the blue.”
Involuntarily, they both glanced towards the bed.
“He doesn’t even like humans!” Rose protested. “He flirts with trees!”
The man blinked at her, mouth first gaping open and then closing shut in rapid succession. “When did I- I haven’t- I haven’t even- Not since-” He blinked again, teeth clicking together as he shut his mouth once more. “Ah,” he said.
“Ah?” Rose prompted, trying not to think about how he’d looked for a moment like a bloke accused of cheating.
“Ah,” he agreed. “Not a tree-hugger, this time ‘round,” he assured her. “Well, not specifically. Hug anyone, you know me.” He grinned at her hopefully, a tense expression.
Wanting to shake her head, Rose forced herself to nod and had to settle for quick, nervous bobs of the head. Because when it came down to it, she really didn’t want to know. Not yet. Not like this. She thought of the Doctor, the proper Doctor, thought of what the Dalek had said three months ago, thought of being described as the woman the Doctor loved. And maybe that was true and maybe that was wonderful — fantastic — but this wasn’t. This was frightening and strange and, and-
It occurred to her that this was what scared her the most. The human-ness of it all. Sharing a bed, using condoms, making waffles in the morning; it was all so human.
She didn’t want the Doctor to be human, Rose realized for the first time, had reason to think it for the first time. She didn’t want him to be human at all.
“Rose?” the man asked, dark eyes fixed on her face. “Are you listening to me?”
“No,” she replied honestly. Feeling that wasn’t enough, she added, “Should I be?”
He raised his eyebrows. “So cheeky, so soon,” he mused, speaking as if to himself. “Well, then,” he continued much more loudly, climbing to his feet, “let’s get you to the med bay. Put you back where you belong, how about it?”
He offered her his hand and she stood without assistance.
Ruffling his hair before sticking both hands into his pockets with a strange sense of determination, the man looked at her, eyes flickering between her face and the jacket in her arms. She hugged the familiar object to her chest, refusing to let go, refusing to drop either her gaze or her keepsake.
Finally, the man looked away, turned his head to the side impatiently. An oddly placed vein in his neck was starting to twitch. “You can wear it, if you want,” he allowed grudgingly, as if the permission was his to grant.
Trying not to hesitate, Rose did, draping the leather jacket over her shoulders, unable to go so far as to slip her arms into the sleeves. Even so, it was like crossing some invisible line, like stepping on sacred ground. The jacket was weighty in a way that had nothing to do with kilograms, massive in a way that had nothing to do with size or thickness. She felt as if she had just violated something, touched something better left undisturbed.
But from one breath to another, something soft came into the man’s face and the heavy press of alien leather became a hug.
Rose knew that look, had seen it before. Not on her Doctor’s face, but on Mickey’s or, more rarely, on Jimmy Stone’s. It was the look of a bloke seeing a girl in his clothing. And there it was again, that desperate affection. Desperate but restrained, blatant restraint in the tension of his arms, his hands buried in his pockets.
She thought of the shirt on the bed, glanced at the white cloth on top of her duvet. He was used to this. Seeing her in his clothes.
“C’mon then,” she said, fighting down fear and raising up her chin. The Doctor’s jacket brushed against the backs of her thighs as she shifted. “Show me some Spock.”
His eyebrows went up and for a moment, Rose wondered if that had somehow been a worse thing to say. Worse than what, she had no idea. There wasn’t anything she could say that fell under the category of “better” at least.
Without a word, the man took one hand out of his pocket, raised it and smoothly split his hand into a double-fingered “V.”
Surprised, Rose laughed.
“There we go,” the man said, an ear-to-ear grin blooming on his face as she ducked her head and bit her lip. “That’s the Rose I know.” He beamed at her, hopeful and very nearly delighted by this progress.
Her stomach lurched. Same expression, different face. Not as compelling, exactly, but he was, well. He was bloody gorgeous when he smiled. Not something she wanted to think about. “More Spock than that,” she insisted, trying to sound forceful and only managing teasing.
“Well, then,” said the man, “off to the med bay we go! That’s Star Trek, isn’t it? Med bays?” He looked at her expectantly. “Yes? No?” As his enthusiasm dwindled, his head turned, tilting and angling to the side. “Maybe so?”
With no other options, Rose shrugged somewhat helplessly, the effort more difficult than usual. “Suppose so.”
“Right,” the man said, stressing that “t” as their previous awkwardness resumed exactly where it had left off. He nodded towards the door but had only taken two steps before he altered course, picking something up from her nightstand. “Ah, right,” he added, tucking the pair of glasses into his suit pocket. “Nearly forgot these.”
“Right,” Rose said, wondering how often he did.
“Yeah,” the man said, presumably remembering. Shaking himself, he coughed loudly, an abrupt clearing of the throat. “Anyway. Allons-y, Rose Tyler, c’mon.”
She followed him into the hallway without thinking about it, lengthening her strides to keep behind. He stayed close to the wall, giving her enough room to walk beside him, an offer she didn’t take him up on. While the hand closest to the wall remained pocketed, the other hung freely, swung back and forth in a way Rose couldn’t see as anything other than intentional.
“Hold my hand,” he was saying with every line of his body. “C’mon, take it.” Practically a command, but still left up to her. The choice was hers; accepting or rejecting, he was leaving her to decide. Would the Doctor have done that? she wondered. She wasn’t sure.
In the end, the walk to the med bay was long, strained and utterly separate.
Once inside, the man pointed to one of the examination tables and she hopped up onto it, no further prompting required. She shifted, the jacket bunching under her where she sat and bunching out in a way she couldn’t quite remember it ever doing for the Doctor. She was fairly certain she looked ridiculous, sitting here in her night clothes and trainers with an over-large jacket around her. Didn’t matter, though.
Rose pulled the jacket tighter around herself, burrowing into it, holding it shut by the edges rather than sitting with her arms through the sleeves. She didn’t think she’d be able to bring herself to do that no matter how long she wore it, bring herself to cross that one last line. Even given the time she’d had to adjust, it was unimaginably heavy, pressing down into her shoulders with a solid thickness that Earth leather would never be able to compare with. Never mind the TARDIS doors, Rose thought in a numb attempt for humor. The assembled hordes of Ghengis Khan couldn’t get inside this jacket.
“Can you tell me when you’re from?” the man asked, interrupting her thoughts. “Anything memorable happen recently? Well, not this, something else memorable. I wouldn’t say this was exactly memorable for me. It is now, of course, but then, no. It’s all a bit wibbley-wobbley, really.”
“It’s what?” Rose asked, blinking.
“Wibbley-wobbley?” the man repeated, looking at her over his shoulder, one hand still on something with little purple lights on it. “Timey-whimey?” he added at her blank look. “No?”
Rose shook her head, trying to remember something less useless. “The- the shell. The Hesolian Message Shell,” she clarified, recalling the item formerly from her dresser, now from her box. “That was about a week ago. An’- an’ more beaches yesterday. Frozen ones, yeah?”
“Woman Wept?” he prompted, still watching her, hands flipping switches blindly with an unconscious ease, almost a grace. The TARDIS hummed appreciatively, might have hummed appreciatively.
“That’s the one, yeah,” Rose agreed, latching onto the name. He’d turned back to the equipment before that little punch to the stomach hit, one more to add to the list. Being like that; acting like that; knowing things like that.
Moving like that. Like he fit here, like he belonged in the TARDIS, to her and her to him. That’s what she’d thought, that’s what had scared her. All that time ago, rushing into the alien ship and seeing the Doctor fit it, seeing him as alien. Time Lord and TARDIS, the pair somehow intertwined. It had scared her then, the Doctor being alien. It scared her now for an entirely different reason.
He fit. Oh god, he fit. He was yammering and asking too many questions for her to get an answer in, but he moved with all the confidence of a man in his longtime home, brushed the walls and stroked the counters. Without thinking, he did it.
“How come you sound like you’re from London?” Rose asked, throwing out the question as soon as she’d thought of it, hoping to catch the man off guard, trying to get some truth.
And maybe, just maybe, it worked.
His rambling halted immediately, that brown-tufted head instantly being ruffled. “Lots of-” He paused, looking up to the ceiling. “Well, at least two dozen planets have a London. More have a New London, there is that. Odd though: not all of them have a north.”
“Is that where it happened?” she asked. “Your regeneration? In a London.” She thought but did not say aloud, “Does that make it my fault, then? That you’re like this?”
Brown eyes studied her for a long moment that couldn’t’ve possibly been so long, so terribly infinite. “My recovery from it,” he told her at last, leaning back against the wall, arms folded in front of his chest, legs crossed at the ankle. Leaning like the Doctor did. “In your mum’s flat, actually. Took me right in, gave me a bathrobe full of fruit. Mind you,” he continued, “all I needed was a cup of tea. Not the brightest woman, your mother.”
She bit her lip, bit back confusion. “How-” Her voice caught in her throat and she had to push it through. “How long did it take?”
“Oh, not that long,” he assured her. “Barely half a day. Well.” Twiddling the fingers of his right hand, he looked as if he was about to say more, yet didn’t.
“Yeah?” Rose prompted, wanting to know more, wanting to never hear another word.
“It was quick,” he assured her, picking up one of the handheld diagnostic tools. “Regeneration is, as a rule. Draw it out and you get a bit of a mess.” Waving the device about as he spoke, he waited for eye contact before moving closer. “Anyway, I’m going to do a quick check here, so if you’ll just stay absolutely still . . .”
Rose did, swallowing and fighting not to shut her eyes, not to hide behind closed lids. He was careful about it all, moving the handheld around her head, never touching, never so much as brushing. He looked awkward, unbalanced, and it took her a moment to figure out why. He was standing bent over a bit, keeping his lower body as far back as he could, utterly avoiding any contact of the legs.
It occurred to Rose that he hadn’t so much as tried to touch her since she’d pulled away from him.
Would the Doctor do that? Keep back, keep away? Give her this distance? Like a self-inflicted buffer zone, that’s what he had going. Giving her space. Making her almost feel safer.
Stupid question. ‘Course he would. That was who he was. That was always who he was. He’d argue, he’d get mad, but never hurt her, never let her be hurt if he could stop it. Was this the same? Felt like it could be.
“So you an’ dyin’. . .” she started to say, started and didn’t know how to finish.
He picked it up for her, shrugging, a gentle rise and fall of the shoulders under brown pinstripes. Blue pinstripes on the brown, she saw, close enough to see. “Oh, you know. ‘Death cannot stop-’” He cut himself off, looking puzzled, unhappily so. “No, wait. That’s The Princess Bride.” He shook his head, turned back to setting the controls for the full-body scanner. “It’s a Time Lord thing. Superior physiology.”
“Right,” Rose replied, falling back on a conversation filler as her mind whirred. “Yeah. So . . . is there some reason this is the first time I’m hearin’ about it? I mean, it’s sort of the thing you’d mention, being able to turn into someone else.”
The man’s hands stalled on the control settings, one smoothly clicking knob making a jarring catching sound. “I don’t turn into someone else, Rose,” he said to the wall. “I’m me. I have always been me. Body quirks and brain chemistry mix up a little, but I’m still me.” There was anger in his voice, but there was something else, too, something older, something that struck her and made her wonder if-
“You’ve said this before.”
He nodded without looking at her.
“What I meant to say,” Rose continued, fumbling her way through his alienness, “is why didn’t you mention the- the body quirks and brain chemistry and all that.” It came out flat, only barely a question any longer.
“It’s just regeneration,” he said, back still turned towards her, simply brushing it off as if it hardly mattered, as if it were so normal as to never need mention.
Maybe it was. For him.
He was such a bloody alien.
Didn’t matter to him. Like the TARDIS in her head — he didn’t even think about it. Just like-
. . . Oh.
Huddling into the jacket and watching him move, little things jumped out at her. His shoulders under his suit jacket. His lean runner’s legs. And maybe . . . yes, even the set of his jaw. He was . . . .
She could see it now. See him now.
There was supposed to be a point where unpleasant realizations stopped hitting people like a load of bricks, Rose was sure. Eventually, after enough, she’d have to reach that point. Unfortunately, realizing that she’d actually locked the Doctor — the Doctor, not some man replacing him, the Doctor — out of the TARDIS was apparently not enough to get her there. And she’d — oh god.
“Rose, if you could just stand right on this little square — the one in the blue tape — right there?” He tapped it with one trainer-clad foot before stepping back, giving her that distance, putting it between them. “Quick overview diagnostic system overhead. Little light and you’re done. Narrow it down from there and we find out what’s happening.”
Nodding, she slid off of the table, part of her wanting to know if she’d had to sit there just to be out of the way, just so he could avoid her. Avoid the way she was acting. Hesitating, Rose held the jacket shut for one moment longer before pulling out of it, setting it gently on the table. One hand upon the familiar lapel, she looked at the man looking back at her.
“Right there,” he reminded her quietly, all tension and enforced patience and the desperate, desperate affection of a man who had been lonely for far too long. He gestured, pointing, his expression controlled. There was no accidental play of feeling across this face, might have been too much in there to show with just eyes and lips and nose and eyebrows. He left his hand out as she moved forward, her eyes going to the little blue square set on the floor beneath the big scifi light bulb device. Her gaze returned to his.
Her hand wasn’t steady. Not when she reached for his. Not when she touched his. Cool fingers twitched beneath hers but failed to pull away when she failed to jerk back.
In a sudden surge of daring, in an abrupt insight or foolish hope, she pressed his palm to her cheek. Eyes wide, body tense, he let her. Cradling his hand between hers and her cheek, she looked him in the eye without flinching and something in her shook.
“I’m sorry,” she said, testing him even while taking this step. “I am, I’m sorry,” she repeated, restating words just said and uttered once before as well, words the Doctor asked her for a month ago in a church when the world was torn apart for her mistakes. An apology, just an apology, and the Doctor would forgive her anything. She’d thought. She’d wondered. She’d been amazed and awed and devastated and then he’d been dead. “I didn’t- didn’t realize- Doctor, I’m sorry.”
She looked into those eyes and there was such recognition, such certainty there as to push back all other details. Blue or brown, that wasn’t important. For a heartbeat only, but it was enough. Enough for her.
And quite clearly, as a small smile dared to touch his new face, it was enough for him too.
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