Rose opens her eyes to see question marks.
They’re red and moving and there’s peach and green and it’s all wavy and she feels sick. Someone’s talking, she can hear them talking, sounding all wrong and strained and very far away or very close or like they’re not even here at all.
The question marks move away, come back. There’s another voice, a girl’s voice and it sounds almost real. Rose tries to reply, but her mouth feels strange, feels like a telepathic trip gone wrong. Is that what this is?
"Doctor?" she asks the dancing punctuation and it turns into cloth, knitted and worn and- "Ow!" Something touches her arm, hurts her arm and she yells a whispered cry of indignation. Maybe she does. No one seems to hear. No air, no sound, no yell. There’s no air, only attempts to breathe.
She’s being spoken over, she slowly comprehends, sounds gradually forming words, words eventually containing meaning. It’s the girl again, the girl who sounds increasingly real.
"Professor, I’m sure: it’s just a light. You’re- Whoa!"
"Ah, now you see her." There’s a tone along with the words and it might mean he’s pleased or something like that but she’s not sure, not sure what anyone’s feeling when she can’t feel much of anything at all. It’s not that she’s numb, not at all. There’s simply nothing left to feel.
Until there is.
Air and glorious oxygen burst into her lungs, expand the pathways of her body, blood tingling, nerves flowing with energy from her fingers to her heart. It almost seems backwards but that’s what the rest of her life is like. Backwards is good. Comforting.
The girl is completely real now, solid and there and staring at her. Rose turns the head she didn’t have a second ago, uses muscles in her neck that had disappeared. She finds the question marks on a man’s jumper, the sort of jumper his crazy aunt probably knits him every Christmas.
She looks up into blue, triumphant eyes and thinks: "Lookit you, grinning away like you’re Father Christmas."
He’s even got a mole.
Her mouth moves, works through air thick and solid with reality. She struggles for words, finds the question she’s here to ask: "Have y’ seen me . . . ?" It’s a mumble and she can’t keep her eyes open but he takes her hand and tells her something that sounds like agreement. "S’good . . ."
He pats her hand and says something more and he still doesn’t sound completely real, still sounds off, but that’s okay, it’s okay now.
Rose falls asleep or falls unconscious. Either way, she wakes up to see the question marks on her left, the man wearing them talking into an old mobile — hers. His voice is still odd, but besides that, everything seems fine, seems real. Sitting up slowly, trying not to pull at the IV in her arm, she looks around, almost surprised at her surroundings.
It’s either the second time she’s been in the med bay today or the first time ever. Some of the equipment looks unfamiliar and some of it looks just a little too shiny to belong in here, but in general, it’s got this sort of futuristic eighties feel that somehow seems to go with this version of the Doctor.
She looks at the ceiling and thinks very hard at it. Do you change to fit him? Sorry — will you change to fit him?
Strangely, the touch on her mind is the same as it’s always been. It’s at once comforting and jarring, the familiarity there before it should be familiar.
"All the same," the Doctor is saying into her mobile, "it wasn’t very wise, letting her come over here by herself." There’s a pause as he replies, a Northern burr vaguely audible from the mobile. "Ah, yes, I see. Still, I hate to think of how careless I’m getting."
The Northern burr gets somewhat louder.
The Doctor turns his attention away from some readings on the scanner and blinks at the sight of her sitting up. Rose smiles in the manner of the accidental eavesdropper and wiggles her fingers at him in a "it’s okay, I’ll wait" sort of way. He waves back, traces of well-known amusement touching his unfamiliar face. He’s wearing a shirt and tie beneath his jumper and that strikes Rose as a fair enough compromise. He’s got a different jacket and a strange voice, but he’s still got a mole and he’s still comforting to have near.
"Right, right," he interrupts himself. "Have a little more self-confidence, would you?" He shakes his head, looking for a moment as if he’s about to scoff. Seeming to think better of it, he simply says, "Yes, of course. Be you later."
The Doctor hangs up with a beep and places her mobile down on top of her old jacket on the counter. Turning to look at her, he takes on a brisk air, the absentminded professor getting down to business. "How are you feeling, Rose? Somewhat more substantial, I hope."
"How-" She stops, coughs, and works her dry mouth, pushing at her teeth and cheek with her tongue.
He chuckles lightly and picks up a waiting glass of water from the counter. Shaking his head as she raises her hand to take it, he holds it to her lips, something practiced in the motion. In that moment, he’s not simply Doctor-y, but doctor-y. It’s a reassuring thought, the idea that he knows what he’s doing. What isn’t reassuring at all is the way she can feel the water moving inside of her, could swear she can feel the component molecules of the liquid running down her throat and into her stomach. She can feel it, feel her stomach, her throat, her internal organs. She focuses and she can feel and then it fades until she can’t make it out any longer, can’t feel each and every particle of air in her lungs.
She exhales slowly, just to make sure that the heightened awareness is gone. "Okay," she says as he sets the glass back down, "that was weird." There’s something else that feels like it’s missing, something that she only vaguely realizes: he’s not touching her mind, not coming close to hovering around it, and he’s always done that.
She hadn’t realized how close he was until he’d taken this step away. Or, rather, before he’d taken that step forward.
"Oddly enough," the Doctor tells her somewhat seriously, "the word most people use to describe fading from reality is ‘horrifying.’ And if you wouldn’t mind lying down as your body readjusts to a state of stable existence, I’d strongly suggest you do so."
Tired, Rose isn’t about to protest. The new, cold table isn’t here yet and the surface she’s lying on is actually comfortable. "M’kay." The needle in her arm is tugged slightly by her movements and she winces. "What’s with the needle?" she asks.
"You’ve lost a great deal of nutrients," the Doctor explains. "By becoming temporally unstable, you became temporarily insubstantial. Some of the newer bits of you tried to — for lack of a better term — drain out. You’ve lost a lot of salt, a great deal of water and I’d imagine you’re feeling quite famished around now."
Rose nods, her stomach gurgling as if on cue, and the pair shares a smile.
"You did need a small blood transfusion, but luckily, we had a willing volunteer on hand. Don’t worry," he adds at her look, "blood type and species match."
"That girl . . ." Rose tries to say, but her mouth still feels weird. She has the question in her mind and usually, the Doctor being concerned would mean the Doctor immediately picking up on this. But it’s common courtesy, she supposes, for this him not to. Or maybe it’s a talent that the New New Doctor has developed, or maybe one her first Doctor has forgotten. Either way, she has to ask her question aloud. "Sorry, where is she?"
"Just down the hall and probably listening in," the Doctor replies with a small, semi-wry smile. "Once I called and explained the situation to myself, I realized that it would be best if Ace didn’t hear much of this. I’m going to have to forget, you know, so it’s best she doesn’t know much about this either. She’s not beyond being insufferable when she wants to be." He says it affectionately, jokingly, but she’s not paying attention any longer.
"M’kay." She tries to think. Tries to get used to herself. Addresses the question that’s the foremost on her mind, even though it shouldn’t be. "Where’d you get my mobile from?"
"Your jacket," he replies simply, giving her a look she knows all too well, "which is where I suppose it belongs." Yep, he officially thinks she’s worn out and half-delusional. That she might be is a fact Rose ignores.
"’M sort of out of my time," she tries to explain. "Haven’t seen that jacket in years."
"Ah," he says all too understandingly, "that would explain it." He looks at her for a moment, sitting down on a chair beside her instead of going back to lean against the wall or the counter. "Tell me, how often do you normally pass out?"
Something very close to indignation flares within her. "I was fading from reality, you said. I think passing out is kind of expected."
"Ah," he says again and this time he’s oddly pleased. "Rarely then. Why didn’t I hear you yell for help?"
"’Cause I didn’t," Rose replies, not entirely sure where this is going.
"None of that for you, eh?" he asks, an encouraging tone entering his strange voice. "None of that screaming business."
Rose looks up at him as if he’s just dribbled on his shirt- jumper. Sweater vest? Hard to tell with the jacket on. Either way, it’s not the most flattering angle for him, below and to the side, and he’s not even looking back at her, simply considering something.
He nods to himself and glances down at her out of the corner of his eye. "You wander off, don’t you?"
Rose blinks. "Maybe just a little. But I didn’t ‘wander off’ this time," she starts to protest but he stops her with a quick wave of the hand.
"As I understand it, my dear, you were somewhat later to bed and earlier to rise than is the norm. By seven years or so, is that right?"
He’s called her a lot of things, but never his dear before. It’s strangely comfortable, vaguely avuncular in the same way her first Doctor was — is vaguely paternal. "Seven and a bit, yeah," Rose answers. "Like you, right? This is seventh you?"
He nods, pleased. "I am, yes. Though I suppose you knew that coming in."
Rose nods back, propping herself up on her needle-free arm. "Yeah, I did. Guess it’s kind of late to ask, but you haven’t happened to see a younger me running around, have you?"
"I’m afraid not," he replies, then looks cross. "Is that really all you wanted to ask? Walk into a potential paradox while only being a potentiality yourself, all to ask that one question?"
She shrugs, feeling too drained to be embarrassed. "Sor’ of, yeah." Something beeps and she stops moving.
"Ah, there we are. Back down with you, just for a moment." The Doctor leans over her, nimble fingers removing the IV needle and pressing a small bandage in its place. "Apply pressure for a minute or so. After that, you will eat, drink and be corporally realized. Doctor’s orders. Though you can sit up now. Just be careful. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is newly physical."
Doing as he says, Rose rolls her eyes at him and smiles back when he grins. "What exactly does that mean? Entail, I mean. The corporally realized stuff. Being a potentiality."
"You may or may not exist," he tells her. "Quite fascinating, as it so happens."
"So . . .?" Rose prompts, seeing an Oncoming Tangent about Schrödinger and ventilation in cardboard boxes.
"So," he says, giving her a somewhat chastising look for the interruption, "until younger you is properly returned to where she belongs, the you that you are now won’t be in good condition outside of a state of temporal grace." Won’t be in any condition at all, he means. She knows he’s avoiding saying it, knows he’s treating her gently and thinks it might be because of his chat with older him.
Oh, god, the Doctor. Not this one, her first one. From fighting to fading: Jeopardy-friendly, that’s her.
When her New New Doctor remembers this, he’s going to pitch a fit.
Still, she’ll get back to him and deal with it when she does. Nothing else she can really do beforehand. Pulling herself back on topic, Rose wracks her mind for the term this Doctor’s used, thinks she knows what she’s talking about. "You mean the TARDIS. I’m safe inside of the TARDIS because it’s Timey-Whimey proof."
He looks at her oddly, but it’s not confusion over her words, simply confusion that she’s used them. His air of bemused competency doesn’t fade, only twists like the corners of his mouth. "Yes, in a sense," he replies, putting aside that missing beat for the moment.
"So I started to fade and then you pulled me inside of your TARDIS?" Rose asks, checking the facts.
"Oh, no, not at all," he replies. "The TARDIS pulled you in here all by herself. Quite the flashy entrance, you made. I’m not entirely sure how, though."
Rose thinks of Donna, thinks of particles of death and waves of life, thinks of the paradox of golden light. "S’okay, I think I know." She shakes her head when he’s about to ask. "Long, complicated story, and I really want to get back home."
The question mark Doctor blinks and then nods. "Yes, of course. Wouldn’t do to have you becoming more out of place than you already are."
"We’re still on the planet, right? Haven’t moved or anything?" Rose checks. He shakes his head and she sighs in relief. "That could’ve been bad."
"Mm, quite," the Doctor agrees, tone light. "Running triple-parallel is a temporal monstrosity. Which reminds me: from what I’ll explain to myself, it sounds as if I’ll determine that your versions of yourself haven’t simply swapped times. I won’t say how I’ll do it, though."
Sitting on the padded table in the med bay long before she’s ever set foot in the TARDIS, regaining a stable existence and experiencing hunger pangs, Rose has been getting used to some very odd sensations. And there’s the lack of some very odd sensations, a complete and almost unnerving absence of his mind against hers. Even her first Doctor, despite his aborted attempt to enter her mind, has always been right there, right next to her. This him doesn’t need to be, not yet.
On top of that, she’s been speaking to an absentminded professor version of the man who will one day be much more like a sexy biology teacher. Despite the very Best Mates sort of feel she’s getting from this him, she’s still finding that the start and finish places of his regeneration race — as far as she’s seen, that is — are much closer to each other then the Doctors in between.
She’s taken all of this very well in stride, she finds. One strange feeling and bizarre sensation after another, she’s proven herself able to cope with this sort of thing.
It’s simply that the sensation she gets now is on a whole new level of weird.
"What?" Rose asks.
He looks at her oddly. "Why are you so certain that you haven’t simply switched positions?" he repeats, speaking slowly and clearly for her benefit. "I would think that would be the first assumption one would make — Are you all right?"
She shakes her head, then rubs at her forehead with the heel of her hand. It was her body she could feel before, every last inch of it, but now it’s her mind, now it’s her memory jumping and sparking in protest against some unseen bond. A thought tries to expand only to be beaten back down, held securely in place, and Rose can smell the fall wind, shivers in the crisp chill of a burnt autumn.
There’s a purple light in her eyes and she blinks.
"There you are," the question mark Doctor says, small diagnostic tool in hand, the same one he used on her this morning. Will use.
"My brain hurts," Rose tells him weakly, feeling dizzy again. A phantom touch chills her temples, a cool, alien touch that’s not actually there. She knows that touch, that hand made for fighting. "Doctor?"
He pats her hand amiably instead of holding it, but it’s still the most comforting thing there’s ever been. "Sometimes thoughts get on the wrong side of the head," he replies, looking as if he has an idea of what’s going on. "Now, when you were thinking about having switched places with your younger self, what did it feel like?"
"Like . . ." Rose starts, wonders. "Like, um. The dungeons on Ricostos Four? Where the shackles and stuff are made of condensed air. Felt like that, but in my mind instead of on my body." She shakes her head. "’M not making any sense, am I?"
"A mental restraint," he replies, summing up her words for her. "You’re making perfect sense. It’s a common side-effect of memory repression," he adds for ineffectual clarification.
"But." She stops and thinks. "Why?"
"It’s probably my fault, I’m afraid," he admits, having the grace to look vaguely abashed for something he hasn’t done yet. "I assume I did too thorough of a job."
"My you can get sorta overenthusiastic, yeah," Rose admits, being vague about the details she gives, being vague about her agreement. "But . . ." Oh, god, her head.
He looks at her, bushy eyebrows raised. "I’m afraid to say that I seem to have suppressed even the possibility of this situation. Are you having trouble thinking about it, holding the concept in your head?"
Rubbing at her temples, Rose winces. "Yeah, just a bit." Maybe it’s just her, but he looks apologetic at that. "Not your fault," she hastens to add. "’M a strong-willed little ape — not gonna let go of my memories easily. I’d be surprised if I made it easy for you." She pauses to consider her tenses. "Or something like that."
"Something very much like that, I’d imagine," he agrees before continuing almost amiably, so very matter-of-fact: "Now, how much of my future have you revealed to me?"
She’s still aware enough of her body to acutely realize the heat in her face. "Didn’t mean to," she replies. "I haven’t said much, but you’re not exactly dense, you know."
No matter the Doctor, she realizes as the man smiles at her, a compliment about his intelligence is always well taken.
"No, I’m not," he agrees, "which in this case could be immensely problematic."
"You’re going to have to forget this too, yeah?" she asks, ignoring the rumble of her stomach. He’d been right about being drained. When was the last time she’d eaten? Was it really this morning? The bananas? God, she’s starving.
He nods as if he finds her promising — it’s irrational and stupid when her him already loves her, but she adores that look all the same. It’s the sort of almost simple adoration she once had for him, for her first him before Jack came in to shake up all the pieces, came in to make jokes about locking the pair of them in a closet. She could’ve been mates with this one; best mates for the length of her forever, simple and straightforward friends. "I’ll look for the memory once I return you to myself — possibly even before. My self with the Northern accent seemed a touch impatient."
She grins. "Yeah, you get a bit crotchety in your old age."
He frowns, nearly wrinkling his nose in distaste. "What, again?"
There’s no help for it: Rose laughs. Because it’s absurd, because she’s stressed, because he’s not yet her Doctor. Because after all this time, she still doesn’t know him, not really. But mostly because she’s still learning, still getting there.
"Can’t tell you," she replies. "That’d be spoiling it, yeah?"
He gives her a look she knows very well, a little bit effrontery and a touch of condescension, all wrapped up in a dose of "Oh, you human."
She rolls her eyes because he’s not going to do it, not yet. "Okay, fine, yeah. So that’s my memory blank there. What about yours? What’s crotchety you’s excuse for not coming up with the obvious?"
"Same excuse as yours, I would imagine," he replies dryly. "Which is what I was getting at before you pulled me off topic."
Now that would be a change, her getting him off-topic. Rose thinks this, thinks better of saying it. "So, basically, we’re both gonna have such a memorable time of it that everything surrounding the memory has to get beaten down too?"
"Or risk a memory trigger, yes," he finishes for her.
"Guess it really was a good thing I came to see you — this you," Rose realizes. He’s too young to have forgotten the possibility, too early in his timeline to have repressed the ideas they needed to be having right about now. "So," she adds, looking at him hopefully, "any more good ideas I won’t think of?"
"Just the one to get you back to the TARDIS currently here," he replies and for some reason, that’s the cue to start memorizing his face, his voice, the way he stands. It’s quick and sudden and takes her by surprise; it’s a glimpse of him she’s getting now, a quick look at the man he used to be and that’s better than nothing. It’s got to be better than nothing, even if she’ll always want to know more.
"Right, yeah," Rose agrees. "Good idea, then."
"I’ll take a moment to wire something together. And while I’m gone: drink your water," he orders her, endearingly stern as he heads to the door.
"Yes, sir, sarge!" she calls after him, starting to wonder when exactly she’s going to say that running gag started, now that she’s spreading it back in time.
She sits in the med bay and memorizes that too as she sips her water, waiting and listening to her stomach rumble. She’s just gotten around to poking at the thing with the purple light — he’s never explained to her what it does, really, only blinded her with it — when the girl from before pokes her head up.
"You’re up," the girl says like she’s surprised.
Rose takes in the outfit, the leather jacket covered with patches. Abruptly, she wonders. Wonders about jackets. Wonders which of the Doctor’s old companions wore pinstripes if this is where the leather came from. If it is where the leather came from.
"Yep," Rose replies as brightly as she can. "Thanks for, y’know." Blood transfusion, the Doctor had said.
"Yeah," the girl says like she doesn’t know what to say, watching her. "I’m Ace."
She thinks of Sarah Jane, even though this girl is completely different. "I’m Rose."
Ace doesn’t seem to know whether she wants to make friends or lash out; Rose has a sudden feeling of déjà vu, just in reverse, of being on the other side of it.
Rose says the only thing she can think to say, something she assumes must be true. "He’s really proud of you, looks like. Partners in time, yeah?"
The cloud lifts and Ace laughs. "You sound like him, talking like that."
She grins, pleased to have caught onto this Doctor’s body quirk so quickly. "Never does seem to learn that silence is golden, does he?"
They get on well after that.
After a little while and not enough food, the Doctor returns to find himself the subject of a highly amusing conversation and is accordingly Very Cross. Except, of course, for the fact that he isn’t. Not really. What he is, is holding a small, short-range transporter, more than enough for a hop across a field.
"You’ll have about five minutes before anything starts to get critical," he informs her. "Get inside before then."
"You sure you fixed this thing right?" she questions and grins when he looks affronted. "Yeah, ‘m joking, I trust you."
The him she knows would have rolled his eyes. This him doesn’t. "I’m hiding the memory of this behind one of Ace’s worse cooking experiments," he tells her. "Remind me when I see you later."
"See you sooner," she counters and he grins. Ace looks at the pair of them as if she hadn’t realized that the lunatics were multiplying.
"Professor, look what you’ve done!"
He laughs and taps the girl on the nose, a gesture of affection that seems out of place in Rose’s mind, that seems to fit perfectly. The-Doctor-and-Ace. Or maybe the-Professor-and-Ace.
Rose bites her lip and presses the image into her mind — he’s going to want reminding someday.
"Looks like ‘m off, then," she says, not entirely wanting to be. She’s going to be walking right back into that bloody row and he’s still not going to be her Doctor yet. But that’s just what she gets, she supposes, falling in love with a madman of an alien. A madman of an alien with a completely twisted timeline.
She says her good-byes to Ace, gets a hug from each of them and then, wobbling only a little, she goes home.
It’s a jarring sensation, that transport. For a reason she’ll never admit, she always expects a yank behind her navel, always comes out winded when the yank is behind every single molecule in her body. She goes from staring at the TARDIS to staring at the TARDIS and she has to look around to make sure she’s actually moved. From the younger TARDIS, Ace waves at her and, grinning, Rose waves back.
"Bye!" she yells once more and hopes that somewhen, her new friend is still alive.
Ace waves back and, possibly forever, vanishes from her sight with the closing of a blue door. It’s always such a weird feeling when that happens; visiting Dickens the dead man had only been the first time she’d made a friend who was already deceased.
The door opens behind her and Rose is almost grateful to get back to the argument if it means getting back inside. And it’s not like she can’t settle it immediately, knowing what she knows now. And if he was still going to be such an alien git, then she could always —
Strong arms yank her inside and she stumbles into him, turning to meet him face to face, ready to meet a rebuke that never comes. The entire surreal experience snaps into place and that man had been him and Ace is probably dead now and oh my god, I nearly vanished.
She presses into him, holds on tight as if to prove to the both of them that she’s still real. No matter how she strengthens her hold, his is far stronger and she can’t hope to match it. She’d forgotten this, forgotten how his great lifting hugs had possessed a darker counterpoint where instead of swinging her upwards, he’d pull her in.
"’M sorry," she tries to say, because someone has to say it and it’s obviously not going to be him. She talks with her cheek against his shoulder, watches his neck. "Backfired a bit, but I did get a lead an’ -"
His arms tighten around her and she hushes as his mind brushes into hers with the hesitancy of an oft-rebuked child.
"Shouldn’t’ve let you go," he tells her and she sees him swallow. "I’m the one who’s supposed to know this stuff and-"
"Yeah, so?" she demands, pushing his guilt complex to the side, trying to. "You’re stupid when you’re mad," she adds and it’s not a lie, not exactly. It’s not so much that he’s stupid when he’s mad as that he’s stupid when he’s mad about her. "I shouldn’t’ve-"
"Rose," he says and she has no idea how it can sound the same, has no idea how her name has the same shape and weight and texture from two different pairs of lips.
"‘M all right," she assures him instead of snogging him. "Could really go for some chips, but ‘m all right."
She feels it in him, that drop of amusement spreading through him, some of the tension in his shoulders changing, altering slightly and never truly relieving.
He eases her back to look her in the eyes, still not letting go of her. "Tell me what happened."
She shakes her head, knowing a quicker way. "You hid the memory behind one of Ace’s cooking disasters," she says, watching to see if his face clouds at the mention of her name but he’s already far too intense for her to tell. "Dunno which one."
There’s a sudden distance to him as his focus travels within a mind that’s bigger on the inside. For a few moments, she’s left in his arms, being held without him holding her and wondering what exactly she’s supposed to do now. His mind was back and now he’s off again and it looks like she just has to wait it out. Rose knows when he stumbles upon the memory, though, knows it immediately.
He blinks, eyes curious, voice confused. "You weren’t scared."
His hands, already firm against her shoulder blades, press firmer still as she replies, "Why should I have been? I was with you the whole time."
He looks at her as if he still doesn’t understand, can’t comprehend her words and yet would like to, as if he very much wants to.
Rose kisses him then, and it doesn’t feel like a mistake.
There was only so long she could sit there before she couldn’t anymore. The longer she watched him, watched this man toy with the controls and flip switches on the console, the more he fit here and the more Rose began to resent that he did. It was irrational, but what about her life wasn’t?
He pretended to be oblivious, tried his hand at giving her encouraging smiles and trying to make idle conversation. That, too, quickly faded, Rose freezing whenever it was her turn to reply. She managed a simple question, asked him what he was doing in the knowledge that whatever else his answer would be, it would be long, complicated, and not something he would expect her to actually pay attention to.
In the end, he gave up on her listening and fell back on the option he’d always fallen back on: he spoke to the TARDIS instead.
"C’mon, old girl, there we go . . ." His entire body twisted as his hands moved over the controls and Rose bit her lip at the sight. "Just a little more to the left, a little, just a- no, no no no!"
"What?" she asked, standing up, her hand still awkwardly on the jump seat. "What’s wrong?"
"No, nothing, it’s all right," he rambled quickly, thin arms reaching and pulling and the TARDIS rattled, sent him spinning around the console, grounded only by — fittingly — his grip on the handbrake. "We’re good! We’re very, very good!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed halfway through the question. "Yes, I’m sure. I’m very, very sure!" he added and the repetition did nothing for her nerves. "Getting the old girl to retrace her steps is a tricky business, but we’re just about . . ."
He trailed off, body tense, his shoulders hunched as he stared into the rapidly flashing display on the console screen. She knew that way of standing, knew this as the calm-before-the-storm stance, as the quiet before the anger, but nothing changed. He stayed as he was, frozen on the edge of some immense motion.
" . . . We’re just about?" Rose prompted.
"We’re just about," he replied, treating it like a full sentence. "And by ‘about,’ I mean both ‘about to’ as in ‘going to’ and ‘about’ as in ‘near to.’ Time and space, and all that."
She blinked. "What?"
"Temporal mechanics," he said and waved his hand before running it through his hair, ruffling it higher. "Don’t worry, you’ll pretend to understand it eventually."
Her mouth opened to make a rebuttal and he grinned at her suddenly, a smile unnerving in its unfamiliarity. God, this was awkward. She wasn’t sure how much more she could stand, him buzzing about like nothing was wrong.
He should have bristled, should have been obvious about things not being right. He should have made some remark and thrown it into the open so they could tear the issue apart and put the pieces back together in the form of a solution. S’what they’d always done, when he was still her Doctor.
Maybe he did bristle, maybe a little.
"I’m," she started, then pointed back over her shoulder down the hall.
"Right, yes." He rubbed at his head without looking at her. "Breakfast. You go do that."
"Yeah," she agreed, even though that wasn’t what she’d been planning on.
"Use the secondary galley, mind you," he added glancing to her and looking away just as quickly. He hissed out through his teeth as he adjusted the controls, so perhaps the abrupt motion wasn’t entirely his fault. "Burned the usual kitchen down a bit — it’ll take a little while to grow back."
"Time-machine," she pointed out. "Can’t you, I dunno, adjust the speed? Fast-forward?"
"Usually, yeah," he said, sounding a little surprised, a little proud. It sound have been a sound she was used to from him, from the Doctor, but it hadn’t been a sound before, only a look. A blue-eyed look with this small smile and folded arms and a quiet intensity that was completely different from this man’s unfocused energy. "Bit dangerous to change any relative timespeeds when running parallel, though."
Rose bit her lip. "So s’not like you could send me back that way? Rewind instead of fast-forward?"
"Well, yeah," he admitted easily, too easily. "Of course, you’d be twelve and suffering from extreme de-aging effects, but yeah, it’d work."
"Ah," she said. "Let’s not, then."
He made a noise that could have been amusement or agreement or something else entirely, and when she left, it felt an awful lot like sneaking away. Stupid to feel like that, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t help feeling like that.
She took the jacket with her.
Going back into the room that used to be hers wasn’t something she looked forward to — or even wanted to do — but she had to put the jacket back. She couldn’t just- couldn’t haul it around like this, like it was some sort of security blanket.
It made her feel childish and small when she needed to be an adult, made her feel alone when she really wasn’t.
And she wasn’t.
Not in any way that actually counted.
She tried to change while she was in there, but her jeans didn’t fit and the tops were too flirty and was that supposed to be a bra? Turning it over in her hands a couple times, she tried to imagine what sort of alien would invent something like this. Or why she’d keep it. Shoving away the mental images that immediately sprung to mind, she slammed the drawers of her dresser shut to make the sentiment physical. Skimpy little jimjams or not, she was sticking with what she had.
She thought about taking a shower, about going somewhere he’d not follow, but then she started thinking, thinking about how he’d never exactly cared about her bathroom space before and now there was an entirely different spin on it and it’d probably be a bad idea anyway, getting naked.
They could have had sex in that shower.
Suddenly, every vaguely flat surface in her room took on an entirely new connotation.
Overly careful not to touch anything on her way out, Rose tried to shove it all away, tried to push back the idea. Because it shouldn’t’ve been bothering her, not that much. Not as much as it was. If it’d been Mickey, if she’d been twelve and jumped forward to when she was nineteen, somehow gotten a glimpse of her life to come, she wouldn’t be handling it this badly. Because, really, when she thought about it, the situations weren’t all that different.
True, the Doctor was an alien, but he was still her best mate. Sort of the way Mickey had been back then. And she’d vaguely entertained the thought, back then, about Mickey. A childhood crush on your best guy friend who might just want to be your best boyfriend; nothing unusual about that. Seven years later, less actually, and then, well. Just sort of happened.
But the Doctor was different. He was . . . . Well, he wasn’t a bloke. Even if she’d thought, once, twice, maybe, maybe he- but no, that wasn’t the way he worked. It was too human, too domestic.
Too unlike her fantastic alien.
S’like he wasn’t special anymore, in a way, pulling him down to shag with mere mortals. And the Doctor was always special, always amazing, always, always fantastic. This . . . wasn’t.
It was like what she'd told Mickey, all those months ago. The Doctor was better than that, than some stupid boyfriend. More important than that and now she couldn't help but feel that it had been taken away somehow.
When she stepped into the secondary galley, he was sitting on the counter with his fingers in his mouth and an open jar in his hand. There was a moment, a heartbeat of time when he wasn’t there, wasn’t behind the dark brown eyes she hadn’t wanted to know and suddenly, all she wanted was to see him looking back at her, just that, in any way possible, with any eyes at all.
He was hunched and tensed and unmoving, as if he’d forgotten himself somewhere. And then she took a breath and he took a glance and he was there again, even behind those eyes. So lonely. The Doctor, and lonely, and she couldn’t let anything else matter.
"That was fast," Rose said, willing to be impressed even despite him having his fingers in his mouth. That usually cheered him up, her being impressed. "Thought TARDIS self-tracking or whatever was all complicated."
He wiped his hand on his trousers, set down the jar with the other. Jam, she thinks, seeing the purple picture of grapes on the label. This him ate grape jam when he was lonely. That was different.
Did they still eat chips together?
"Oh, it is," he replied, sitting up a bit straighter, a bit taller. "Very complicated. Very, very complicated."
Her lips quirked involuntarily. "TARDIS console burn you again?"
He didn’t roll his eyes, but he did look away and cross his arms. "Set the process on automatic an’-"
"Yeah, she burned you," Rose concluded. "Right hand?"
He looked at her then, a blink of surprise followed by an equally recognizable frown. "What?"
"You had it in your mouth," she explained, nearly mimicking the previous position of his hand with her own. She nearly put two fingertips to her lips, between her lips, before realizing what that would look like, realizing that she couldn’t get away with flirting with him now, couldn’t just say anything and know he wouldn’t care or respond or do much more than tease her back.
Ruffling his hair with his vaguely clean and possibly burnt hand, he chuckled a little. "The TARDIS knows herself better than I do," he admitted. "A good general policy in life, that. Gets a touch problematic, otherwise . . ."
There was something there as he trailed off, something he obviously meant and just as obviously hadn’t meant to say.
Otherwise, he’d meant, you’d have problems when the people who knew you better — who were supposed to know you better — turned out to not know you at all.
She looked down, the tiling of the secondary galley floor different from that of the first. Of the primary? Of the usual one.
"Anyway," he said, a bit loudly, "the TARDIS can handle this on her own — sort of her fault this happened, when you get down to it, so you might call this an apology." The TARDIS hum changed slightly as he spoke — babbled, really — and Rose had the feeling that this wasn’t entirely on the level.
"She’s sorry," he added hastily, rubbing at the back of his neck, not at all matching the mental Doctor — the real one, the right one, hers — she seemed to have running through her head. "For, ah. Scaring you."
"I wasn’t scared," she lied automatically, denied it and still hung back by the door, her hand on the frame.
His eyebrows rose, creasing his forehead, but he didn’t say anything.
"Startled," she clarified. "I was a bit startled, s’all." The Doctor in her head, the one with ears and leather, he rolled his eyes and scoffed.
The one in front of her didn’t, only gave her a look and repeated in a surprisingly bitter voice, "Startled?"
A sudden image sprung into her mind, a small third-person mental film, as abruptly clear as a cartoon thought bubble. Her stepping forward, hopping up onto the counter next to him, petting his hair down to a more reasonable shape; her saying something and him fighting against a smile and her bumping her shoulder against his and him saying "that so?" and her saying "’course it is" and him saying something else that might have been clever and her calling him daft; them smiling at each other and him leaning in towards her and her feeling so very safe and him tasting like jam and feeling like home.
Rose swallowed, hard. Her grip on the doorframe, having relaxed, immediately tightened. "Yeah," she said, shoving the image away, mustering her cheek. When in doubt, tease. "’Cause, y’know, any you being that domestic is just traumatizing."
That certainly got his attention. "Being what?"
She shrugged, tried for casual, biting the inside of her cheek between speaking. The Doctor? Definitely still in there. "All you needed was an apron, ‘m serious."
He gaped at her, mouth open and she knew, she was completely sure that the cry of "stupid ape" was soon to sound. She was sure, but it didn’t come.
Instead, he closed his mouth, both hands on the countertop as he leaned forward, red Chucks hitting lightly against the doors of the cabinets below. "It’s in the wash, I’m afraid," he replied. "Sorry to disappoint."
Rose stared at him and then he quirked his lips and then she had the most vivid image of him wearing the apron she was sure didn’t really exist. But if it did exist, it would be dark blue with gold print on it, gold print declaring the object to be "The Manliest Apron In Time & Space." Even if the string was tied in a large bow around the back.
She laughed. Because it was absurd, because she was stressed, because he was the Doctor without being hers. Because with all this time missing between them, she didn’t have a chance at pinning him down. But mostly because it didn’t seem to matter, almost didn’t.
He grinned at her like he was pleased with himself, the arrogant git, and she felt a bit better about that.
"So," he said, "breakfast."
"Yeah," she said.
"Argued by some to be the most important meal of the day."
"Really depends on your digestive system," he clarified, tapping his own stomach. Stomach area. Region. She assumed.
Instead of asking about that, she voiced another question: "Any toast to go with that jam?"
"If you make it," he replied around his sticky fingers.
So she did.
He sat on the counter, watching her amid his jam-eating.
She leaned against the counter on the opposite side of the room, not looking at said jam-eating.
The bread took a very long time to become toast.
"When’d we what?" he asked immediately, discarding his awkward words for her awkward questioning.
She shook her head. "Nah, s’not important."
He considered her, gaze intent and curious, cheeks hollowing as he sucked on his fingers. The toaster dinged, cueing him. "When’d we get a toaster?" he guessed. "No, that’s been here longer than you have. When’d we what?"
He raised his eyebrows.
She bit her lip, one hand making the smallest of gestures, this tiny little motion.
Understanding, the Doctor looked down and coughed.
"Oh," he said. "That." And he shrugged like it wasn’t important and added, "A few years back."
Sure that he had to be missing her drift, she forced herself to clarify. "I mean, when’d we start, y’know." She made another sort of gesture with her hand between the two of them and he looked at her like she was being thick.
"A few years back," he repeated, nodding a bit.
She was chewing on her lip now, couldn’t seem to get herself to stop. "Yeah?" she asked, needing to say something and having nothing to say.
"Yep," he replied, popping his "p"s again. "About . . . four years now, give or take a timeloop."
"Oh," she said and it felt like sighing.
"Oh?" he echoed and finally sounded like he was unbalanced. Only fair, for both of them to be.
"Oh," she said again, pointedly. Rubbed at her face with the heel of her hand as the TARDIS hum changed.
He slid off the counter to stand, to shift foot-to-foot, almost bouncing despite being so clearly deflated. "So . . . ?"
"Okay," she said, scratching absently at the itch on the side of her head.
He looked at her oddly, set down the jam. "Okay?"
"Yeah," she said, a little louder than she meant to. "Stuff happens and that’s, well. Stuff."
"You’re upset," he gathered, sounding just a touch wary, just very much lost.
She bit her lip, looked away. "Not like it’s gonna matter."
She shrugged, feeling so much like a petulant child and hating every minute of it. "’m gonna forget, so it doesn’t matter."
"But you’re going to remember," he said and it was the confusion in his voice that made her look at him. "You are," he repeated and his eyes were like a child’s, like the eyes of the oldest child there could ever be. A paradox in brown. "It’s memory suppression, not memory erasure."
She kept quiet, turned back to the toaster and pulled out the pair of slices. Dropping them onto a plate, she didn’t hear his approach, only felt it. She smelled grape jam and toasted bread and an autumn with crunching leaves and didn’t understand that last one.
"Have we got any jam you haven’t stuck your fingers in?" she asked, not looking over her shoulder at him
His silence might be one of consideration. "Probably not," he said after a moment. "Although . . . no, probably not."
She had the sudden, inexplicable feeling that if she turned around, if she turned to face him and hugged him tight, everything would be all right. Everything would be indefinably better. Somehow. Because he was lonely and hurt and scared and all she had to do was turn around and tell him it was okay and it would be, tell him it was really okay and not simply pretend humany okay, tell him that and it would be, really, it would be, just turn around and-
And those thoughts weren’t hers.
"You’re in my head!"
He stepped back when she jerked around to face him, stepped back the one step with his mouth open and his eyes wide. There was a lurch inside of her mind, a feeling like an altitude change, like dropping off of a mountain or suddenly appearing at the top of one.
He reached for her. "Rose, I-"
"Stop it!" she yelled, the edge of the counter digging into the small of her back. "God, the TARDIS was bad enough, but you-"
Without warning, the lights extinguished, plunging the kitchen into darkness.
Rose yelped, might have yelled something in that cry. "What did you do? What the hell are you doing now?"
"You were the one who upset the TARDIS," he said and his voice didn’t come from where she was expecting it.
She scrambled to the side, guiding herself along the counter and nearly tripping over her own feet. "Get out of my head!"
"I’m out, I’m out!" He was in front of her, to the side.
It felt like he was gone from her mind, but she couldn’t be sure, couldn’t really tell. She hadn’t felt the TARDIS slip in and she hadn’t felt him slip in, so how was she to say she’d know when he left? Holding as still as she could, trapped in the corner, she controlled her breathing and listened to his instead.
And then she thought horrible, horrible things at him.
She released a shaking breath, felt a tension she didn’t fully understand try to drain from her. "Why- Why were you . . .?"
"I didn’t think you’d-" He cut himself off and she wanted to yell at him. Didn’t think she’d mind? Was that really what he- "Habit," he said, interrupting both his own words as well as her thoughts. "It’s, ah, something we do."
"S’my head," she said, a small piece of protestation that came out far more weakly than intended.
"It’s a very nice head," he agreed lightly, as if speaking to a child.
If the lights were still on and she could see him, he would have gotten a smack for that. Well, probably not. It sounded like bluster, that, even without being said aloud. "Why’s it habit?"
She could hear him still, which was odd. He made more noise staying in place than he did moving, shifting. "Let me try to explain," he said, tone thoughtful. "Find some context for you, that sort of thing."
He fell silent and it felt like everything in the world had disappeared. Felt like all there ever was, was two people on edge in the quiet dark, not even able to look at each other. A thought, involuntary, crossed her mind, a pleading complaint like that of a child crying for its mother: I want the Doctor. I want my Doctor.
"In Utah," the man said and he nearly sounded like the man he’d once been, the man he wasn’t any longer. "Two thousand twelve, in Van Statten’s bunker. I told you that I’d know if- well. But they’re not." There was a soft noise and she thought he might be ruffling his hair. "I’d feel it, though. In my mind. But there’s this . . . this gap," he said.
He left the "p" unpopped.
"There’s not supposed to be," Rose said, knew without guessing. She bit her lip, turned away without knowing where exactly he was. "Does it . . ."
"Does it what, Rose?" Patient, if vulnerable. He sounded the same, sounded like he had in that bunker, after dropping that gun.
"Does it hurt?"
He didn’t reply, and the room filled with the silence of a man trying not to lie.
She moved forward, hand outstretched and her fingertips touched unfamiliar fabric. Both of them jerked away and both of them recovered enough to return. She was terrified in a way, guilt-ridden in another; that was why she allowed him to hold her close, why she let herself be pressed against his chill, the temperature difference more apparent without leather between them.
"I’m sorry," he said and he was terrified and guilt-ridden too.
What did it say about him, about her, about them, that she could only recognize him when he was sad and lonely and ashamed?
"I need to see you happy more," she decided quietly and he pulled back, probably to ineffectually stare at her.
She recalled the images he’d shown her before, thought to treat them more as pieces of advise than alien subliminal messaging. "You’re completely daft," she said and this time, this time, their embrace could be called a true hug.
"Yep," he said and she fought the urge to giggle in relief when that "p" was popped. "That’s me."
She pulls back, a movement almost more natural than awkward, and he presses his cool palm against her sweaty one.
Less than ten minutes ago, she wouldn’t have cared if she’d lost her memories of this time, wouldn’t have cared if they’d been completely erased. Now, she’s not so sure. She wasn’t comfortable and she wasn’t reassured in any true sense, but . . . He was the Doctor. And he needed her.
She asked the one question that seemed safe. "Can you turn the lights back on?"
"Can you apologize to the TARDIS?" he countered. "You did hurt her feelings."
And the TARDIS had swapped Rose out of her natural timeline, she wanted to counter.
"No?" he prompted.
She hoped he was only guessing at his thoughts, wished she could trust that was all he was doing. "’m sorry," Rose said quietly, and she had the feeling that she would be saying this a lot in the future.
The lights flickered back on and she was nearly surprised to see the Doctor was still this Doctor.
"There," he said, smiling down at her, an expression that somehow managed to look right on two faces. "That wasn’t so hard now, was it? Might take a little-"
He went silent without warning, his gaze not simply going distant but vanishing off to some infinite point. His eyes unfocused and yet his expression remained the same, as if some mental pause button had been pressed without his permission.
"A little what?" she asked. "Doctor, a little what?"
"Doctor?" Her insides turned to ice. "Doctor?" She held still, afraid to touch, to be touching, afraid to pull away. What had just- what was- They’d just gotten it sorted out and then this, and then he was gone and-
He blinked, that frozen smile fading into something more natural, something shocked and confused and elated. He blinked and he looked at her and he looked at her.
"Rose," he said. "I know where you are."
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