She wishes she had a camera.
There are a lot of things Rose could be thinking about at this moment, watching the monitor on the console, listening to a man talk to himself. She should probably be worrying about her safety, about his. How much contact until it’s a paradox? And is she here or not? Does he know her? Did he forget her? And what must it be like, seeing the person you used to be standing in front of you. The person you will be. She’ll wonder later.
But right now, that’s the Doctor and that’s the Doctor and Rose really wishes she had a camera.
Seeing him side-by-side makes him shorter — and taller, she amends. The contrast. The him before this him is shorter. She’d known he was — she’s seen him before after all — but it’s still strange. Large ears and closely cropped hair stand before a small smile and chestnut curls. They almost have the same eyes, almost. It’s the only thing that seems at all similar, leather jacket and frock coat giving her yet another glaring example of the changes time can bring.
Biting her lip in thought, Rose fiddles with the controls, sets the function of a knob to volume and then adjusts. "Can you save this?" she asks the TARDIS, still mulling over the camera issue. "Or is there some Timey-Whimey reason against recordings of him with himself?"
A small green symbol blinks in the corner of the screen as the TARDIS hum gives her an affirmative. Patting the console, Rose murmurs a thank-you and finally gets the volume up to where she wants it.
Naturally, they’re speaking in Gallifreyan. Of course. What other language would he talk to himself in?
Rolling her eyes, Rose plunks herself down in the Doctor’s chair and listens anyway, tries to understand the conversation through sheer will power. The TARDIS either can’t or won’t translate — Rose has never been clear on which. She knows that there are some words that don’t translate, has known it ever since the Doctor once attempted to explain what he meant by the phrase "in an instant."
Pulling her mind away from temporal physics, Rose bends her mind in other ways, watching. Her Doctor stands with his arms crossed, gives the impression of leaning back against something solid while standing tall and unsupported. The younger Doctor is in front of him, facing towards whatever sensor it is that feeds into the display on the monitor. He’s almost impatient, might be. His gestures give his flowing words a slightly clipped quality, as if he’s trying to get very quickly to the point.
She thinks about the gray silk cravat she keeps in the box at the bottom of her closet. She thinks he might still be wearing it.
She wonders how much temporal confusion it takes to make a human brain explode. Probably more than this. Hopefully.
A giggle escapes her as the Doctor begins to argue with himself, familiar tones of sarcasm and bewildered exasperation being directed at each other. He’s so daft. This probably happens every time he meets himself, Rose decides. Really, she wouldn’t be surprised.
Another thought strikes her and she laughs outright, realizing that in returning her, both of her Doctors will have to meet. Covering her mouth to stop her amusement, her eyes squeeze shut and her shoulders shake. God, that’s going to be brilliant.
The TARDIS hums in what feels like agreement and the pair grin at each other. Or, in the TARDIS’ case, perform nearest equivalent action.
"No chance you can just slip me back through, is there?" Rose asks, venturing the comment with the ship in such a good mood?
There’s a general feeling in the air suddenly, a sort of strain that worsens before it stops. Maybe the ship tried or maybe she apologized; either way, Rose isn’t going home so easily.
"S’okay," Rose replies and resumes watching a pair of her favorite man. "This is sort of fun."
The volume had gone out again and Rose readjusts it for a long moment before she realizes that it’s not the volume that’s gone, but the conversation. She frowns, leans in, and watches the face she can see.
Chestnut curls bounce as he shakes his head. Something in his expression looks bad, looks awful, actually. All of her previous amusement drains out of her, leaving her cold and still. Her first Doctor uncrosses his arms to make some sort of gesture, but he does it entirely in front of his body and all she can see is his back.
Those aren’t happy shoulders, though. She’s very much certain of that. Terrifyingly so.
Turning the volume back down — it’s too loud now and it’s not like she knows what they’re saying anyway — Rose waits out the rest of the very short conversation. It’s abrupt in a way that makes her want to slap him and hug him, respectively.
As the chestnut Doctor walks back to his own TARDIS and whatever companion that he had with him — who Rose is not jealous of, because that would be pointless and petty and kind of confusing in a Timey-Whimey way — she makes sure the recording saves. The TARDIS monitor beeps at her reassuringly once, twice, and the green little symbol disappears. A circle of Gallifreyan text pops up, probably saying something about how it’s now saved. Or maybe asking for a file name?
Whichever it was, the symbol disappears as the Doctor, her first Doctor, returns into the TARDIS.
"Check that one off the list," he tells her, false enthusiasm clear in him as his long strides eat up the distance between them.
"Consider it checked," she answers, staying where she’s sitting with a sense of determination. It’s in the way he moves, in the way he’s wordlessly lying about his emotions. At once, she expects him to pull her up into a hug, wants to give one to him.
She swings her legs and remembers she’s wearing a skirt, remembers what he did the last time she wore a skirt and sat down here. Remembers the time before that.
The Doctor raises his eyebrows.
She shakes her head, straightens the fabric across her legs, knees pressed together. She’s trying not to think about not-ginger sideburns brushing against the insides of her thighs and she nearly manages. Really, she’s not normally this obsessed, but having him taken abruptly off of the menu is mucking up her thought processes.
"Anyway," she says, standing up to avoid further chair-inspired thoughts, "when’s the next one?"
When he replies, it’s a battle not to watch his tongue behind his teeth. Not orally fixated, this him, but that doesn’t mean he’d be any less- Not thinking about that right now. God, she feels like a teenager again, all wrapped up in the want of him.
"’Bout thirty-two years back, his time," the Doctor says, nodding at the door behind him, indicating his past self. "Still the same face."
Rose can’t help but grin, drifting back to teenaged habits. If she couldn’t flirt with him, she’d simply have to tease him relentlessly. "It’s a good face," she replies, keeping her expression so carefully controlled that he’ll have to make her say more.
He looks at her oddly, but he doesn’t demand clarification. She’s baiting him the wrong way, she realizes, working on him in the way next him would react to.
So she adds, tongue touching her smile, "He’s a bit pretty, though."
Rose has never seen this Doctor look more offended than he does now.
"Something you’re trying to say, Rose?" he asks.
"Just that last you was gorgeous," she replies and is very obviously amused about it. She remembers finding out, remembers how utterly confused he was when she laughed until it pained her. "Y’know, I used to think you got annoyed at all those pretty boys we met ‘cause you were just you. Now I know it’s ‘cause you weren’t that you."
"This next me," the Doctor says, looking at her speculatively and clearly struggling not to rise to the bait. "How pretty is he?"
"I wouldn’t call him ‘pretty,’ actually," Rose replies, pretending to think about it. She delivers the gut-punch with a grin: "More like adorable."
He looks completely and utterly horrified.
"I am not!" he protests, somehow turning the childish argument into a very serious line of debate.
"Not yet," Rose answers, grinning at him. It’s an expression she doesn’t think about, a look she gives him that the older him would understand instantly. This is her "you can’t win this argument" grin, her "you’re going to have to snog me if you want me to be quiet" grin. It’s as cheeky as she can make it, Rose leaning towards him with her tongue between her teeth.
He rolls his eyes and slices through her with one sarcastic word:
Rose freezes, body and heart stalled, mind derailed. She pulls her tongue back inside of her mouth, tugs at the hem of her hoodie.
He doesn’t notice, not at first. Going back to the controls, it’s a moment for him until he realizes that he shouldn’t have won the argument so easily, and with that word. Hands on the console, back bent, legs braced wide, he’s in the ready position for flight, prepared for a rollicking dematerialization.
The TARDIS prompts him, her hum emphasizing Rose’s silence, and the Doctor looks at her over his shoulder. "Rose?" he asks and she bites her lip.
"Yeah?" she asks, and his eyes narrow.
He straightens, steps towards her and she’s struck by how very tall he is. Next him’s the same size, so it’s not like he’s suddenly grown, but he’s still abruptly very tall. Looking straight forward, his maroon jumper commands her attention from beneath that jacket, soft wool encouraging her to step into his arms and never let go. It wouldn’t be hard. The easiest thing to do, actually. Hug him, hold him, keep at it until he holds her in return.
"Something wrong?" he asks.
She shakes her head, tells him no, tells his jumper. It’s not a lie. It’s not a lie at all. Because it’s not wrong, simply very, very right in a way she’s not used to. In a way she could never be used to ever again.
If the universe were just and fair, he’d kiss her. Smooth her hair down beneath his hand and draw her up to him. Brush his lips against hers and tell her it was all right. Tell her without a doubt that this him had fallen in love with her, that regeneration hadn’t — no, couldn’t have — scrambled his mind around until he felt that way about her. Tell her that her accidentally killing him, changing him, making him into a new man, had absolutely nothing to do with him beginning to love her.
The universe is not just and fair.
The Doctor takes her at her one-syllable word, or at least he pretends to, giving her a thoughtful look and no more. It’s a look that says he would ask if he could hear the answer, a look that promises nothing but a general concern.
"So," Rose prompts, "thirty-two years ago?"
They go, the TARDIS giving them a ride that feels more like a thrashing, sirens going off as the claxons sound. It did this last time, too, and it’s starting to scare her. Her feet leave the grating at one point, her body lifting into the air before the Doctor catches her arm, pulls her to him. She laughs, holding his jacket, holding to the surface of the console; she’s never felt so bipolar.
"Are you sure about the alarms?" she yells, tries to yell over said sources of noise.
"Proximity alert!" he yells back into her ear. "They’re a good sign! Mean we’re going the right way!"
Their heads crack together as the TARDIS shakes beneath them. "Then why’s it flashing mauve?"
"Landing the same TARDIS next to itself-" he starts, is interrupted by the need to flip three more switches. Rose flips the third without prompting and he loses track of what he was saying.
"What about landing it?" she reminds him as the alarms sound louder.
"Bad idea!" he yells back and suddenly, they’re on the floor, his hand behind her head as they hit metal.
The air is forced out of her, sprung from her lungs with the impact. He’s laughing, that stupid git, him and his respiratory bypass. Soon enough, she’s laughing too, rolling over to him in a way that’s completely natural even on the metal grating. His arm is still under her when she props her head up on her hand, elbow on the floor. "You’re such a bad driver," she tells him.
"Oi! I’d like to see you do better!" But he’s grinning and she’s grinning back and if this wasn’t so uncomfortable, it might even be romantic.
"From where I’m sitting, you already have," she answers and it’s sort of a lie. He says she’s a good student, but even after years of following his lead, he’s never let her fly solo, not even close.
She sits up, skirt risen up a bit around her waist from the tumult without rising up too far. Unselfconscious, Rose simply stretches a little, makes sure everything’s working. There’s going to be a bit of a bruise on her arm and it feels like she might get one on her hip, too, but beyond that, she’s fine. Oh wait, here’s another one, along the side of her thigh. Thoughts of time and changes whirring through her mind, she wishes they’d put in the emergency cushions a little earlier, even if they never actually deployed. Dragging her fingers through her hair in a perfunctory attempt at ordering it, she realizes that the Doctor hasn’t moved.
When she looks at him, he’s looking right back.
"What?" she asks, needing to pull a few hairs free from her mouth in the middle of her short question. She rubs her tongue off with her teeth, getting the taste of dyed hair out of her mouth as best she can. Her gaze wanders in that second and when it returns to him, her mouth goes dry.
His eyes are dark under these lights and his expression is... one she knows well. Her lips part in wonder and he springs to his feet, goes to the monitor without giving her a hand-up, avoiding a moment of his own making.
Rose bites back a smile and it tastes very much like victory.
Standing, she straightens her skirt, hides her legs to the knee. It amazes her, the way the tension in him eases, just a little, when she does that. Rose thinks about a certain table, confident in the knowledge that she has incredible legs. Running for your life pays off, especially when you’re successful at it.
When he tells her that he’s going to go talk to himself, it’s in a tone of voice she hasn’t heard since he was trying to resonate concrete. Since that hasn’t happened yet for him, she spends the length of his chat wondering out the chronology of that tone before eventually giving up.
Even without understanding the words, her first Doctor’s conversation with the chestnut Doctor seems to be remarkably similar to his last one. Save for the chestnut Doctor’s change of vest and cravat, it’s disconcertingly identical. Right up until the end of it, that is.
The minor argument that had resulted the last time repeats, grows exponentially larger. Frowning, Rose watches the screen in a state of worry, fearing more than a little for the Doctor’s general sanity.
In the end, they part in much the same way as they did the last time, the chestnut Doctor returning to his TARDIS, her first Doctor returning to her. This time, however, no amount of false cheer can hide what she can so clearly see on his face.
"There’s a hole in this plan, isn’t there?" Rose asks, watching for the telltale signs of him lying to her.
"Not that big of one," he answers, shrugging. "Nothin’ t’ worry over."
"Why d’you keep arguing?" she questions, pressing further.
When he blinks at her, she realizes that he didn’t know, wasn’t aware of how well she could use the TARDIS systems. "You were watching?"
"Yeah," she answers, shrugging in a pointed repetition of his mannerisms. "Nothing else to do. So what’s the problem?"
The Doctor watches the stationary Time Rotor, an angry version of his next self’s sulk. When he looks at her, he’s gotten over it, more or less. "Hiding memories in my mind means putting them fully into my subconscious. Anything I learn from this me stays in my memory. In little ways at first. It’s very slight right now, but I can feel it. I can think back through my life and I can feel it there."
It’s not the turn of the world beneath his feet that he means, not something that brings awe but something that heralds fear. She can tell. She knows him.
He’d said before, this him, that he had been able to feel other Time Lords in his mind, know they were there. If he could do that to himself as well, another one of himself, would that other him know the state of this him’s mind? Be able to see how barren it is now, how cold and stark and alone?
"They know the war’s coming," Rose breathes. "In the back of your mind, you know- Knew. We’re making it worse, changing it all." She looks at the Time Rotor as if for confirmation from the ship, for her to back Rose’s line of thought. "The more we do this, the more you..." They're letting him know sooner and sooner. No wonder younger him keeps getting upset.
They’re changing history. And not just any history: the Doctor’s personal timeline. The most precious timeline there is.
There’s only one answer to this problem and she’s willing to accept it. "We have to stop," Rose decides.
The Doctor shakes his head. "We have to be careful," he contradicts. "Never said anything about stopping."
He loves her. He loves her, and it’s making him an idiot. "Doctor, if we muck up your timeline, I don’t even want to think of what’ll happen to me. We’re going to get both of ourselves killed by paradox and that’s really not the way I want to go." She’s saying it more selfishly than she feels it, saying it in the hope that it’ll make him see reason.
"Rose, we’re running parallel to ourselves," he counters. "When younger you reaches the age you are now — and when I reach the age older me is now — there will still be a fatal paradox for the both of us."
"That’s seven years off!" Rose protests. "We figured out what the problem was in less than half a day — don’t tell me we couldn’t do better with more time!"
They stare each other down, Rose unsure of when exactly they got this close to one another. It’s an unimportant detail, her focus better spent glaring into blazing blue eyes.
"You wouldn’t risk Gallifrey for me, Doctor," she tells him, voice soft, tone hard. Yes, it’s a dead planet, but for him, it existed. For his younger selves, it still exists. For his younger selves, it could await a fate far worse than the one it had already received. "That’s not who you are, so don’t you even suggest it. And if we keep letting you know early, you know it can only make things worse."
She’s crossed a line and she knows it. Doesn’t matter. This Doctor is still trying to protect her from him when what he really needs is for her to protect him from himself. She can do that, can give him that.
Taking a deep breath, she looks into the eyes of the Oncoming Storm and informs him, quite simply, that she’ll be the one who will go and check to see if she’s there.
He calls her a stupid ape.
She calls him a bloody alien.
They argue for a while.
When they make their next trip back in time, Rose knows for a fact that he’s making the ride rougher than it has to be, knows that he’s doing it deliberately. It doesn’t matter, because she’s won the argument. They each have a word that can destroy them but he doesn’t know hers, doesn’t know he used it earlier in a moment of sarcasm. Rose, however, can wield his like a sword, the name of his world falling from her lips with ease.
Her Doctor’s going to be so mad at her, but as neither of them will be dead, she can live with that.
When they land, Rose picks herself up off of the grating without looking at him. Bruises, bruises, bruises. Whatever past him she encounters is probably going to be worried about the man he’ll become. Good. So is she.
"Which you is this?" she asks.
"Seventh," he replies. "And if you’re already there-"
"Don’t touch," Rose interrupts. "I know."
They glare a bit more.
She leaves, grabbing her old jacket off of the railing by the door. It’s a motion of habit as much as it is a gesture of wanting to get away.
After slamming the TARDIS door behind her harder than was strictly necessary, Rose winces and pats the wood paneling behind her. "Sorry. Don’t mean to take it out on you."
She can see the other TARDIS in the distance, not too far away across the grassland they’d materialized in. Alien plants brushing against her bare lower legs, Rose moves with some difficulty, wobbles about in annoyance as she pulls on a jacket that doesn’t really fit her anymore. Stupid alien git. Stupid, stupid Time Lord.
As she breaks into a sweat from the exertion, she feels strangely chilled despite her additional layer and looks up, squints at the red sun overhead. It’s not big, but it’s red, so that means it’s probably distant. Temperature explained, she continues on, legs bothered less and less as she moves out of the prickly grass and into a more human-friendly field.
Without so much as tripping again, she completes the rest of the trip quickly enough, occasionally needing to tug her skirt free of the grass. Her stomach churns, all of her insides burning, aching. Right, yeah, should’ve had lunch by now. Stupid ape, that’s her. Had she had breakfast this morning?
Looking at the TARDIS door, this earlier TARDIS door, she’s almost dizzy with nerves, heart pounding, the world twisting around her. She hadn’t asked about which him this was, had she? No, she did, she has, she’d... Seventh him, yeah. Rose Tyler was indeed the proud owner of a decent short-term memory.
Taking a breath to steady herself, Rose closes her eyes only to find that she can still see.
She opens her eyes, closes them again, a jolt of panic shooting through her. She raises her hands, tries to, feels them move without seeing them do so. Fingertips touch closed eyelids, but she can still see the TARDIS, still see it right in front of her even if it’s looking a little bendy and wavy right now and that’s really not good, is it?
Pressing both hands over her eyes, Rose realizes that she’s transparent, fading, crumpling to the ground as her body becomes temporally unstable. She’s fading from existence, from time and space.
Death by paradox, they’d argued about before. Death by paradox, not the way she wanted to go. Death by paradox.
Always thought it would hurt more, she has time to think before consciousness is gone. It’s not really that
She wasn’t sure whether or not his hair had always been that size. It seemed to be expanding as they went, growing and reaching in random directions, brown tufts rising ever higher as he pulled at it with an annoyed mutter.
In a numb, distant sort of way, Rose wondered if that was why her Doctor had kept his hair so short, wondered if this habit of his was one he’d been trying to break.
In a more pressing sort of way, Rose was wondering what could possibly be so bad to have him acting like this. He paced and made noises, a great "Ah-ha!" followed by a surprised "Oh" or, even worse, an awkward "Ah."
At last he stopped, leaned against the counter and simply looked at her.
"What is it?" Rose asked, bracing herself for the news.
"There’s nothing wrong with you," the Doctor said, sounding personally offended. "I’ve checked. Five times, I’ve checked. Nothing wrong with you, nothing at all. No temporal warping, no unaging damage, no chrono flu — good thing, that — and absolutely nothing... Ah-ha!" he yelled abruptly, gesturing wildly. "Hold on a tic!"
Slightly alarmed, Rose watched the man dig through his pockets and swap his glasses with a pair of paper ones, those 3D specs that came with special DVDs.
He looked at her through them and barked a manic laugh that was almost familiar. "Hah! There we go!"
"Why, what is it?" Rose asked. "What d’you see?"
"Nothing!" he exclaimed, grinning wildly.
"Nothing?" she repeated, eyebrows rising.
"Nothing!" he confirmed. "Exactly the right sort of nothing. Had a friend in E-Space who could’ve told you as much. Lazlo, bit of a furry fellow. Shed something awful, got on my nerves. But yes! Right on track!" He bounced over to the door, looked at her expectantly. "C’mon, allons-y!"
"Wait, hold on!" Rose yelled, her demand incredibly making him pause, footsteps stopping. "What’s going on?"
He popped his head back around the corner, came back without reentering the room. "There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you, Rose. You haven’t regressed, your internal clock hasn’t been mucked with, and you certainly aren’t suffering from any Huon particle affects." He was looking at her as if she would obviously be following along, waiting for her to jump to an answer she couldn’t think of.
"I thought I’d just been sent forward in time," Rose replied, brow furrowed.
"Exactly!" he exclaimed. "That’s it right there, you have. But you might not have, so I had to check. And," he added, pulling out his 3D specs again to wave them at her, "it’s a bit telling, once you know how to look. There are things that could have changed your mind and body — unaged you, so to say — but they wouldn’t have taken away some of the very specific background radiation you’ve picked up over the years." At her wide eyes, he waved his glasses at her again. "Mostly harmless." He paused. "No, wait. That’s Douglas Adams. It’s completely harmless, sorry."
Rose watched him, wondering for her safety in an entirely new way. "Are you sure?"
"Yup," he replied, popping the "p." "Sure as sure can be. Point is, you’re simply misplaced. No other damage done."
The other damage thing wasn’t entirely reassuring, but she was more than starting to realize that nothing about this version of the Doctor was particularly reassuring. "So all we’ve go to do is put me back?"
"Um," the man said, his wildly expressive hair in sharp contrast with the muted deer-in-headlights look on his face. "More or less?"
Not good. "Emphasis on the more?"
"Just a little," he admitted. "Just the tiniest amount. Not enough to worry about, mind you. Tiniest amount."
The repetition wasn’t making her feel any better.
"Honestly," he said, catching onto her discomfort and trying something new, "I’ll have you back before I notice you’re gone. Already done it," he added, tapping his temple with his slender index finger. "Don’t remember you being gone in the slightest."
"Oh." Rose thought about that, frowning, and hopped off of the examination table. That sort of made sense. She rubbed her chilly arms as she thought some more and picked up her Doctor’s jacket, hugged the cool leather absently. "So what happened to older me?"
The deer-in-headlights look got worse.
". . . Doctor?" Rose asked, her hesitancy two-fold.
"Can’t tell you," he decided at last. "Could get very paradoxical, that." He looked at her pointedly. "You understand."
Her grip on the jacket tightened. "Yeah," she answered. "I do."
He nodded at her in what she recognized as approval. "All right then, c’mon. I know exactly where we were — more or less."
She followed him out of the med bay, called after him: "Emphasis on the less?"
Turning on his heel, he stared at her, offended, before breaking out into a grin. "Always the cheeky one, aren’t you, Rose Tyler?"
"You tell me," she replied, grinning back despite herself.
"Oh, I’m sure you’ll find out on your own eventually," he answered, standing still as she approached. "Wouldn’t want to encourage you."
"Gonna be such a handful that you wouldn’t know what to do with me." She was grinning as she said it, tongue touching teeth and peeking between lips. It nearly felt natural for all of an instant, teasing him.
He took her hand, the cool skin of an alien more familiar than his face ever could be. "Oh, I don’t know," he replied, squeezing lightly. "Handfuls can be fun."
He smiled at her and her heart faltered.
Releasing her quickly, he rubbed the offending hand through his hair, mussing it up even more if that was still possible. "Best get you back home, in any case," he hurriedly added. Awkward, he gestured down the hall towards console room and set off with a hunch to his shoulders that she could almost call self-conscious.
Following after him quickly, Rose did the only thing that made sense, the only thing that she really could do. If he was still the Doctor, then that was still his hand. Of course she would still hold it.
Surprised, he looked at her, steps faltering, gaze traveling from her face to the jacket held in her other arm and back. Rose matched that gaze as best as she could, squeezed his hand a little too tightly, the gesture infinitely more nervous than it was affectionate.
Slowly, he squeezed back.
They walked hand-in-hand, but all the ease was gone from it. It was the sort of handholding she hadn’t experienced since she was still in school, the gesture turned awkward by a strange palm against hers. Awkward for both of them, Rose found, the Doctor bounding away from her at first opportunity, practically leaping for the TARDIS controls.
"Set the coordinates, drop you off and there we go: you don’t have to worry about a thing for seven years," he told her as he bounced about, propelling himself from control station to control station around the sectioned console. He rambled as he worked. "Easy as pie. Or pi, if you prefer it. The Greek letter, not the dessert. Ah, Archimedes. Now there was a clever man. Though I don’t suppose ‘easy as pi’ would apply to him. In his case, it’s more like ‘as profoundly difficult to calculate as pi’ and that gives an entirely different meaning to the phrase, doesn’t it."
"Right, yeah," Rose replied, leaning against one of the railings, holding back. "Did we visit him?"
He paused in his movements, seeming either clumsy and lucky or graceful and hurried. Maybe a combination of all four. "Why, d’you want to?" he asked, the question somehow tentative.
Rose shrugged, uncomfortable. "Just wondering if we had, that’s all."
He looked at her for a moment longer. "Right." Turning back to the console, he made a final adjustment with a small flourish, a tiny, unconscious motion to draw her attention to how impressive he was.
Yeah. The Doctor.
Caught up in wondering if there was any way to change his brain chemistry back — not his entire body, that’d be too painful, but maybe just his brain chemistry — Rose failed to hold on in time. The TARDIS shuddered beneath them, tossed them about, the Time Rotor whirring, claxons sounding.
The Doctor whooped and Rose laughed, the sound ripped from her throat as she stumbled forward, hands outstretched to the console for support. His arm appeared around her waist, anchored her tight to his side. Her head jerked up, looked to his face in the expectation of brown eyes staring into her own.
Instead, his gaze was locked on the Time Rotor, a brilliant look of wild pride in his eyes. "She doesn’t normally do this well!" he yelled into her ear. "Not an easy thing to do, landing inside of yourself! Mucks up the dimensions something horrible!"
"Then why’re we doing it?" she responded, shouting back. The TARDIS rocked, lurched sideways, sending them staggering together.
His grip on her tightened, holding firm despite the movements of his ship. "You have a better idea?"
Rose shook her head against his shoulder, one hand fisted in his suit jacket, the other clutching the edge of the console. "Not really!"
"Didn’t think so!" he replied right before they were dumped unceremoniously to the floor.
Rose landed on her side, her head cushioned by the pinstripe-clad arm beneath it. She laughed without knowing why, laughed when they were nearly thrown up once more, laughed harder when it all stopped and the Doctor grumbled about some pad-related modifications that didn’t seem to be working.
Sitting up, her hair a mess, she brushed it out from in front of her eyes as best she could. "I think your driving actually got worse," she told him, teasing. "Didn’t think it was possible."
"Oi! I’ll have you know that I am a brilliant driver," he protested, propping himself up on his arms, long legs stretched out before him. "Absolutely, positively brilliant. You couldn’t’ve found anyone else to make this landing any better. Parallel parking? Not even close. Not that I can’t do that too."
"God, you’d be a terror in a car," Rose replied, laughing right until he reached out and straightened her hair, fingers weaving through the dyed strands and brushing her scalp with an unnerving familiarity.
He was watching her from a distance, his mind far away and hidden behind brown eyes searching for the woman she would grow to be. She shivered, cold in her nightclothes, and he pulled his hand back with the same gentleness with which he’d reached for her. There was no awkwardness in his eyes, no quick jerking away. There was only . . . the Doctor.
The Doctor and Rose.
"I was," he said and pulled them both to their feet, leaving her to wonder what he was replying to. What had they been talking about?
Oh, right, driving. Yeah. ‘Course.
Pulling her mind back on track, she was surprised to find herself almost used to the way he bounded about, the Doctor bouncing over to the TARDIS door. "Right," he said, turning around to address her. "I’m going to go out, check to see we’ve got things right and then, after a quick little patch of paradox proofing — don’t you love alliteration? — you’ll be right where you’re supposed to be." She opened her mouth to ask what he meant by paradox proofing but he cut her off. "And Rose? Don’t lock me out this time, okie-dokie?"
She turned red, nodded mutely even as he smiled at her to lighten the blow. "Wasn’t planning on it."
"Good," the Doctor said, opening the door behind him and nearly stepping out into the Time Vortex.
Rose darted forward, reached him only after the moment of terror had passed. Hands catching at the doors, the Doctor pulled himself back before he’d fully crossed the threshold. Reaching around him, Rose slammed the doors shut and proceeded to hug the living daylights out of the alien git.
"You parked wrong," she informed him angrily, face pressed against his lapel. "Really, really wrong."
He chuckled, his tense arms loose around her. "Maybe just a little."
She pushed him a little, gave him an annoyed shove, a gesture that surprised her. The last person she’d done that to had been Mickey. Choosing not to tell him not to scare her like that — not as if anything would come of it — she shook her head at him, breaking away to get much needed distance. "What went wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," he told her and she glowered at him. "No, really, I’m serious this time. I checked the coordinates where we landed and by rights, we should be in the TARDIS. Both TARDIS, the current one and the younger one."
"But we’re not," she reminded him, arms crossed.
"Basically, yeah." He ran his hand through his hair once more, broke apart the ruffle it had started to reshape itself back into. "But for the lives of me, I can’t understand why it-"
Something beeped insistently.
They looked at each other.
It turned out to be the TARDIS monitor, a small green symbol flashing in the corner. "It’s a reminder. Went off a little while back, but we didn’t catch it the first time." The Doctor bent over it, his glasses back on his face. "What d’you mean, ‘finished recording’? Finished recording what?"
"You could always press play," Rose reminded him and, pressing the button, he looked at her as if she’d just dribbled on her top.
The instant the footage began to play, she forgot all about her previous ire.
"Oh my god." It was him.
The man leaned over her trying to watch the screen but unable to get her out of the way. "What in the name of bananas is . . ." He trailed off, touched the back of his head, fingered his earlobe and tugged at it. "Did I always look like that? All . . . like that?"
"Yeah," Rose breathed, watching her Time Lord meeting with a stranger. It was him. Oh god, it was him, still alive and there. The leather jacket over the railing was still on his shoulders, still invariably worn with every outfit. When he spoke, she knew his voice, was so wrapped up in the sound of it that it took her a moment to realize that the translation was off.
"I don’t remember that," he said. "Really, you’d think I would — twice, even."
"Twice?" Rose repeated absently, watching the stranger with the brown curly hair shake his head. They made a strange pair, her Doctor and the man in the fancy coat and gray cravat. "What d’you mean?"
"I mean that’s me," he answered, pointing at the screen.
"Yeah, I know," she replied impatiently. "Who’s the other bloke?"
Once again, he looked at her as if she’d dribbled on herself.
". . . You’re not serious."
He made a noncommittal noise. "Sure, ‘course I’m not. Blimey, did I really talk like that?"
Rose narrowly avoided her third condescending look of the day, stopping herself before she asked if he could understand what they — what he — what the men on the monitor were saying. "Guess so," she said instead.
Only wishing she could understand the strange, somehow lyrical language the Doctor was conversing in, Rose waited until the recording ended, frowned as the two men — they had to be two men, didn’t they? — parted ways on a sour note.
When the recording ended, the Doctor did not look happy. She didn’t need to have a full introductory course about this version of the man to know that much.
"What’s going on now?" Rose asked.
"That," he said, "is a remarkably apt question."
She nudged him with her shoulder. "Has it got a remarkably apt answer?"
"What we just saw only finished recording a little while ago. About twenty minutes or so. The catch is, the events it filmed were over seven years ago, and that’s going with the smaller number."
"Sorry, what?" It was officially brain-stretching time.
The Doctor sighed, hands back in his hair. He really couldn’t seem to keep them out of it. "We’ve got two nows, running simultaneously. Two times, running in parallel. Both moving forward without ever meeting. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer when it’s for the same timeline. Technically, any line is parallel with itself, but-" He cut himself off, shook his head. "I’m rambling. The point is, I tried to land at where you were when you popped over to here. However, since time is passing for me at the same rate as it’s passing for me, by the time I went to go to where I was, I’d already left. About twenty minutes ago, by the looks of it."
Rose blinked at him.
"No?" he asked, seeming vaguely disappointed.
"No," she agreed.
"Okay," he said, trying to work out an explanation that would satisfy her tiny human brain. "There are two of me in the same time at the moment. Third me on the recording doesn’t count — at least, I hope he doesn’t. Once it gets to me more than two of me at once, things tend to get complicated. Not to mention confusing." He paused. "Where was I?"
"In two places at once," Rose answered.
"Ah, right. Two of me, one looking for you, one looking to return you," he explained. "And to prevent a paradox, I must have made myself forget meeting this me and so on, which is why I don’t remember either losing you or getting you back."
"Like it never happened," she summarized, thoughts piling up in the back of her skull.
"Just like," he agreed. "Too much future knowledge of yourself is always a bad thing. That’s why all Time Lords have a knack for burying it away in the back of the mind. Otherwise, you either run into what’s going to happen or you run away from it and that always changes the outcome. And if the outcome is changed, how could you have heard about it in the first place? One of the classic paradoxes, that one."
She nodded, keeping a handle on herself. She changed the topic before she could give her thoughts away. "One question, though: if both of you were outside talking, who made the recording?"
The man broke into a grin and patted the TARDIS console. "This lovely girl right here. Oh, she’s brilliant." That hand began to stroke, a motion that was half a fond touch and half a lover’s caress.
Rose looked away. "That’s one mystery solved, at least. Now what do we do?"
He shrugged easily. "I figure out what I’m doing and I head myself off. Not too hard to manage. Nobody knows me like me, after all!"
"Mm," Rose agreed by means of not disagreeing.
"Hold on for a little while longer, Rose, and I’ll have all this sorted out," he assured her, already doing something to the TARDIS controls. Rose could only assume it was something productive.
Nodding, she took her Doctor’s jacket back off of the rail, hugged it to herself as he set about to work. It smelled like him, like the way he should smell, like leather and wool and goofy grins with too-big ears. Sitting down on the chair, she breathed it in, forced herself to focus on where she was supposed to be.
He watched her and she watched him back until he looked away.
There was a Doctor who wouldn’t do that, who wouldn’t give in or be awkward, who wouldn’t do domestics or hold her hand like it was fragile. She was going back to him, to the him with closely cropped hair that never grew in frustration, to the him that flirted with trees and would never ever ever make Rose Tyler alien post-coital waffles in the morning. As soon as this unknown man who knew her far too well reached into her mind and took the memories of him and his pinstriped suit, she'd never have to see him again.
Not for seven years.
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