Bezoolium clutched in her hand, Rose happily skipped into the TARDIS as the Doctor held open the door. Brilliant day shopping - with only a minimal amount of Stopping Evil Things Doing Evil Stuff - and a pretty gift for her mum on top. This was the life!
"So where now?" she asked, and the Doctor grinned back at her in that way which made her heart go all flip-flop-y, because it meant that he was going to do something terribly clever to show off, and she never got tired of that.
The TARDIS was humming beneath her trainer-clad feet, and the green light from the console bathed them both in a cosy and homely glow as the Doctor casually flipped a lever without really looking.
"Weeeell," he said, "I was thinking we could try-"
Whatever he was about to say was lost, as the TARDIS suddenly shuddered and convulsed, and Rose nearly lost her footing, the Doctor grasping onto the console as if trying to stabilise it, rather than the other way around.
The strange effect was only momentary, but as Rose looked around her mouth fell open, and she stepped forward and laid a hand on the Doctor's arm, as he was busy scrutinising his instruments and hadn't noticed their surroundings yet.
Looking up at her, he followed her glance and stared for a moment in silence.
The whole TARDIS had changed - presuming it still was the TARDIS. It was far larger for a start; the walls were made of what looked like shiny copper, the floor of glass, and the central console was more... industrial. The Doctor looked more curious than worried however, so Rose figured that they couldn't be in any actual danger.
But just as he was about to speak, he took a step sideways and his jaw dropped. A second later the most thunderstruck "What?" that Rose had ever heard rang out. Not that she could blame him...
On the other side of the console were a man and a woman. The woman was sitting on the console itself, her hair a mass of blonde curls, and she was wearing a very slinky evening dress. The sort of dress that made Rose think of Movie Stars and red carpets. The man was in a very natty tailcoat, slightly undercut by the Santa hat sitting atop his hair at a jaunty angle.
They were kissing very passionately.
At the Doctor's exclamation, however, they broke apart and stared at the Doctor and Rose with undiluted astonishment, until the woman let go of the man and clapped her hands together as a wide smile broke out on her face.
"It's Rose Tyler! And the Pretty Boy! Oh this is the best Christmas present ever! However did you do it Sweetie?"
But the man (who looked a lot younger than the woman, Rose couldn't help but noticing) didn't smile, and instead slowly shook his head, brow furrowing.
Taking a step forward, he studied the Doctor with worry, absently brushing his fringe out of his eyes.
"Are you real?"
The Doctor straightened up, incensed.
"Of course we are real! Don't be-"
The stranger, not taking any notice of the Doctor’s words, poked him experimentally in the chest, causing him to shut up.
"You can't be. Unless..." A concerned look flitted across his face, and he turned to the woman.
"River. You didn't by any chance lower the shields?"
The woman - who was apparently called River - jumped off the control panel and turned to study it, raising an eyebrow as she did so.
"Yes I did. Or well... you put me there, so technically-"
"Shut up!" the man said, still looking very concerned. "This can't have happened. I don't remember it."
Eyes narrowing he studied the Doctor.
"When are you?"
Before the Doctor could answer, the man's eyes drifted to Rose, fastening on her hands, before slowly raising to meet her eyes.
"Bezoolium," he whispered, like he'd seen a ghost. "That late..."
Then he closed his eyes, and seemed to concentrate very hard, before opening them again and looking straight at the Doctor.
"I remember now. I thought - you will think - that we’d hit a small temporal space pocket. Which means... You mustn't remember this."
As Rose tried to wrap her mind around the fact that this was clearly a future Doctor, River - who was wearing the most amazing shoes - walked straight through the mounting tension building between the Doctors and stopped in front of Rose, still beaming as if she'd been given a Christmas present.
"Rose Tyler," she said, shaking her head. "Never thought I'd actually meet you. It's... Oh I don't know where to begin. The TARDIS has sung me your songs - The Valiant Child and The Bad Wolf, someone out of a fairy tale, all mysterious and long, long gone... And here you are, all gorgeous and brilliant and right here!"
Rose still remembered meeting Sarah Jane - both the discomfort and initial jealousy, as well as the bonding and odd camaraderie. On the whole she tried her best to live in the moment and not worry about the future, but even so she had sometimes imagined what it might be like to be in Sarah Jane’s shoes... Her replacement being a woman of Sarah Jane’s age - one whom the Doctor apparently snogged like there was no tomorrow - and who looked like she wanted to pet her, had never occurred to her, and she wasn’t quite sure what to say. Thankfully River was more than capable of carrying on a one-sided conversation.
"It's funny, actually, since I was just thinking about you tonight! We went to this party - a Christmas party, as you might have guessed - and I brought your big gun with me, which came in very handy."
"I'm sorry?" Rose asked, by now completely thrown, and beginning to be more than a little disturbed. "I don't have a gun!"
"Not yet!" River smiled, and took a few steps sideways, retrieving a black weapon of ridiculous proportions from the comfy seats behind them.
"Isn't it gorgeous?" she cooed. "Look it's all very simple really-"
It was at this point that the Doctor very sharply snapped "Enough!" and River stopped mid-sentence.
“Now I don’t know what kind of set-up you have going on here, what with the gun and the...” the Doctor looked pointedly from the future Doctor to River, clearly uncomfortable, “...kissing, but if this is my future then I would very much like an explanation, because quite frankly-”
“Oh there’s much more than kissing,” River purred, eyes drifting over the Doctor’s form in the pinstripe suit as if contemplating which way best to eat him, and the Doctor-in-the-hat began waving his hands around as if trying to sculpt a Slitheen out of the air.
“Come on, with two of you here... Sets the mind racing.”
“River, this is not the time!”
River looked mildly offended.
“I beg your pardon, I would say that this is exactly the time!”
The other Doctor opened his mouth and closed it again, before he trying to drag a hand through his hair, which led to him pulling off the Santa hat and tossing it over his shoulder. He then took the gun out of River's hands, carefully put it on the floor, and - with a glance over his shoulder at the Doctor - studied her very seriously, a hand on her shoulder.
“Listen Dear. He doesn’t know who you are. In all likelihood he thinks that you’re a Companion and that I’ve lost my marbles...”
“Really?” River asked, leaning sideways and looking at the Doctor with surprise writ large on her face. "He thinks I'm a Companion?"
“Yes, really. He’s very, very young, remember.”
The Doctor's face was a picture (not that Rose could blame him).
“Young? Young? What do you mean young? And who is she?”
As the other Doctor didn’t reply, Rose nervously cleared her throat and caught River’s eyes. She was feeling rather uncomfortable, but one answer seemed pretty obvious.
“Sorry, but... are you from the 51st Century?”
River beamed back.
“Oh you’re good. It’s such a shame we can’t keep you...”
The future Doctor seemed to have recovered, however, and pointed at Rose’s Doctor.
“Well now. I can actually answer a lot of questions in one go - or rather, I will show you why I can’t answer them.”
Suddenly smiling smugly he reached up and pulled the TARDIS screen closer.
"River, I'm going to let you show off. Come here and have a look at what's happening."
Eyes narrowing - as if she wasn't quite trusting him - River walked up to the screen and looked at it, her face swiftly turning serious.
"Oh. Their TARDIS and ours have merged! But..." she frowned, "that means we're going to explode. Quite soon."
"We're going to explode?" Rose asked, but her Doctor - suddenly gone very very still - reached out and laid a hand on her arm, as the future Doctor studied River.
"So, how would you stop that?"
River turned to the console and laid her hands on it, closing her eyes, and after a moment smiled.
Eyes opening again she became a whirlwind of activity, dancing around the console, pulling levers and pushing buttons just like the Doctor... if the Doctor wore slinky dresses and high heels.
Briefly looking over her shoulder, she winked at Rose.
"If in doubt, go for the big, but obvious, solution. You know, half the time when he flies her, he's just making it up as he goes along. Presses something and hopes it works... Ancient amateur, that’s him. But it's quite simple really. Look - just vent the thermal buffer, floor the Helmic regulator, and to finish off, fry the Zeiton crystals. Easy. As. Pie."
Then she laughed.
"Get ready to explode!"
And, for just a second, the world went white.
But then everything was back to normal (well, the strange new TARDIS version of normal) and Rose blinked, turning to the Doctor, who was staring at River with a look she couldn't describe, but one she was wondering whether she should be jealous of.
"What just happened?" Rose eventually asked (as the Doctor was clearly unable to communicate), and River beamed.
"Supernova and black hole at the exact same instant. Basically the explosion cancels out implosion and matter stays constant. Rather brilliant, don't you think?"
The Doctor, finally, found his voice, although it was barely above a whisper.
"Far too brilliant. I've never met anyone else who could fly the TARDIS like that."
The other Doctor smirked.
"Well now you have. Except you mustn’t remember it - it needs to be a surprise."
He stepped forward, but the Doctor shot Rose a swift glance, sudden anguish on his face.
"Tell me - what happens? Don't think I haven't noticed how you've barely looked at her. 'That late' you said. What happens?"
The future Doctor's face turned quietly serious.
"What always happens. You can feel the storm brewing already, I know it. Although that's only the beginning-"
At this point he was cut off by River, impatiently inserting herself between the two Doctors.
"You never shut up, do you? You don't have time for a heart-to-heart with yourself. Here, let me!"
And then - as Rose's jaw dropped - she grabbed hold of the Doctor's head (fingertips to his temples), and studied him carefully for a moment.
"Just for the record - he lied. I'm a much better pilot than you!"
As the Doctor blinked at her in surprise, she grinned - and kissed him.
When she let go, he stared at her, dumbfounded, saying "Who..." and then collapsed on the chair behind him, unconscious.
River tilted her head, a fond smile on her face.
"Catch you later, Time Boy!"
As Rose was still trying to work out how to respond to what she was seeing, the other Doctor stepped up to her.
Seeing where her attention was, he glanced at River and closed his eyes.
"Don't worry about River. She... does that a lot."
"What? Kisses you? Or leaves people unconscious?"
His eyes flickered.
"...both. But that's not important. Rose..."
He swallowed, faltering, and she took a deep breath.
"Doctor? What happens to me? Because he was right - you've barely looked at me. What did you mean 'What always happens?' Doctor tell me!"
Clasping his hands together nervously he still didn’t meet her eyes.
"It's... not quite the same story as usual. I lose you, but you manage to find me again. And then..."
A gentle smile that somehow made him look like her granddad, which was maybe the weirdest thing so far.
"And then you meet the perfect man and live happily ever after."
"What?" She stared at him, open mouthed, then shook her head vehemently, trying to fight un-asked-for tears.
"But I don't want anyone else. I only want you!"
As he laid his fingertips to her temples, his smile turned achingly sad.
"What makes you think it won't be me?"
Then the world began fading away, and she suddenly couldn't quite put her finger on who the well-dressed man was who was becoming increasingly indistinct...
River watched in silence as Rose’s form dissipated. She had tried to keep the mood as light as she could (Rule 27) because she knew that this particular ghost from the past had to cut her Doctor too deeply for words...
For a moment he stood perfectly still, staring at the place where Rose had disappeared, but then he leaned over, flipping a lever with sudden determination. Instantly Rose reappeared, looking rather confused, but the next second the Doctor was cradling her face, studying her intently as memory flooded her features, and then he spoke, voice calm and resolute.
"Because I never said it, and I should have - Rose Tyler, I love you."
Hesitating for the length of a heartbeat, he then leaned into her as she wrapped her arms around him, the kiss slowly deepening as he held her closer, a lifetime's worth of longing focussed into a single moment.
And then she faded away, lost to the past once more.
Unsure what to do, River slowly walked forward until she stood in front of him. He was looking at his now-empty hands, and when he finally spoke his voice was so quiet that she could barely make it out.
"Have you... Have you ever seen a firebird?"
'Of course', her mind filled in, as her heart twisted. Of course.
Firebirds - one of the rarest creatures in the universe. Smaller than an Earth hummingbird, and only alive for a minute, blazing different colours and singing - the light so bright that you had to close your eyes. And when you opened them, it was gone, the afterimage staying behind your eyelids for longer than it had been alive.
"Yes, my Love," she said gently, covering his hands with her own. "Yes, I have seen a firebird."