“Ah,” the Doctor blinked, head flitting from side to side as he took in his new surroundings carefully.
“Well,” he tried again, reaching up to readjust his bow tie self-consciously. His vortex manipulator fizzed and sparked on his wrist, but he didn’t really notice that so much as he noticed the deep, warm, familiar brown eyes drinking him in like a fish starved of water.
The Doctor scratched at the side of his head, fingers tangling in his hair.
“I,” he started again, taking a short pause before deciding that yes, he was finishing this one, “was not expecting this.”
He lifted his wrist up to his face and studied the vortex manipulator with a rapt fascination. He experimentally clicked a button, only to pull his hand back when it spouted sparks at him.
“Well, isn’t this just peachy keen!” he muttered loudly, slapping the wristband in frustration. “Is that in, then? Time Agency equipment! Absolute rubbish! Don’t they know anything about travelling through the vortex?”
A hand settled on the Doctor’s upper arm, and a shiver ran down his spine. Oh, how that was familiar too. He froze immediately at the touch, halfway to checking his watch for the timestamp, and raised his gaze hesitantly towards hers, looking her in the face without quite looking her in the eye.
She was younger than he’d last seen her. Properly seen her, that is, when he’d left her on that beach in Norway. She wasn’t younger by much, admittedly, but it was enough-- she had an expression of hopelessness that was so entirely unfitting on her normally exuberant face.
“Doctor?” she asked in a voice so quiet he probably wouldn’t have heard her at all had he been human, even with their proximity.
The Doctor’s hearts panged painfully in his chest, and he swallowed down the nervousness rising into his mouth. He desperately ignored the voice in his head telling him this is wrong and you can’t stay and somehow managed out a strangled, “Hello.”
Rose Tyler bit back a choked sob and flung her arms around his neck. The Doctor rocked backwards, one arm flailing to the side as the other wrapped itself haphazardly around her waist. Her tears stained the edge of his bow tie, but that was alright because she was Rose Tyler, and her face still fit perfectly into the curve of his shoulder.
“Oh, Rose,” the Doctor murmured, voice thick with emotion he hadn’t even realised he still possessed. “Rose Tyler, look at you. Just look at you. And--” He raised his eyebrows as he picked up the scent of baking. “--and smell that. What is that?”
Rose laughed against him in relief, the sound reverberating all the way down to his toes and back.
“I made biscuits,” she said eventually, pulling on the tails of his jacket familiarly.
“What kind? No, hang on.” He breathed her in, her hair tickling at the edge of his nose, and brushed his lips across her temple. He smacked his lips loudly and proclaimed, “Chocolate chip. You always did like the classics.” Her laughter rolled through him again, and for the first time in a very, very, impossibly long while he felt light.
“Did you just taste me?”
“Maybe a little,” the Doctor admitted, and her smile pressed against his skin.
Rose pulled back, moving her hands from his back to his face, tracing her fingers along his jaw and cheeks and nose and eyes. “You’ve changed.”
“... Maybe a little,” he repeated, a sadness he couldn’t quite mask edging into his voice. “It was... a while ago. No need for you to worry about it.” The vortex manipulator flared up again, and the Doctor pulled his arms away from Rose as quickly as he could, spinning around and taking another look at her flat.
“Anyway, we’ve got bigger fish to fry! Well, not actual fish. Actually... do you have fish fingers? No, nevermind, you’ve made biscuits. We’ll have those. With grape juice? No, that’s just weird. Best to stick with milk. Mind if I use your technology?”
His universe was being unwritten, falling through the cracks in the skin of the universe and into the depths of the Never-Were, and he’d fix that. He would. For now, though, it was just him, a broken vortex manipulator, a tray of biscuits and Rose Tyler. And, blast it all, if this was the last thing he’d ever get to do with her, he was going to make the most of it.
The Doctor grabbed her hand and twined his fingers through hers, and for just a moment even time stood still.