The jumps are getting harder and harder.
It’s not that they’re getting more physically difficult. Using the Dimension Cannon has never been a walk in the park, and no matter where or when she travels to, it’s always pretty much the same — an unpleasant swooping sensation in the pit of her stomach, a metallic tang in her mouth, and a pounding headache that lasts for hours afterwards.
It’s that the worlds she’s traveling to are getting more and more terrible.
When the cannon puts her down this time, Rose hits the ground running. She barely has time to register that wherever she is, it’s cold and apparently snowing — her boots skid a bit, through powder over concrete — before she topples right into a petite brunette woman.
Rose means to steady herself and then apologize, but before she can manage it the other woman squeaks in surprise and says, “Rose?”
Rose freezes, because she can’t recall ever having seen this woman before — not when she’d traveled with the Doctor, not in Pete’s World, and not in any of the forty-two jumps she’s made with the Dimension Cannon so far — but she’s looking at her not just with recognition, but with something that looks a bit like hope.
She straightens and gives the brunette a hard stare. “Who are you, and how do you know my name?”
“Oh my God, you wouldn’t remember, would you?” There’s a note of panic in the other woman’s voice, but she seems to push past it, gathering her wits and shaking her head. “I’m Clara. We’ve met before — sort of. Can you — can you help? The Doctor’s hurt, and I don’t know what’s going on—”
Clara keeps talking, but Rose’s mind stops on the word Doctor. Everything falls away, and for a moment all she can hear is her own breathing, harsh from the rush of the jump and the sudden cold. It’s only when she comes back to herself enough to look past Clara, over her shoulder and towards the wall of the alley she’s come out in, that she sees him.
It’s not a Doctor she knows. He looks even younger than the man who wore Chucks and a pinstriped suit, but those clothes are gone, replaced with dark slacks, a long purple — purple? — coat, and a bow tie. He’s sprawled on the snowy ground, back against a brick wall, and he’s pressing a hand to his side, against a dark stain blooming on that daft coat.
But as soon as he lifts his head and meets her eyes, Rose knows.
The Doctor, for his part, looks at Rose like she’s a ghost, completely fixed on her even as he clutches at his side in obvious pain — and even as she notices, with numb horror, that golden light is starting to shine just beneath his skin.
She gasps out ”Doctor? at the same time he croaks ”Rose?”, and before she really knows what she’s doing, Rose is by his side, on her knees in the snow.
This Doctor’s eyes are familiar and unfamiliar all at once, so much greener and deeper and sadder than the brown ones she’d gotten used to. “It was snowing the last time I saw you, too,” he chokes out, wincing in pain as the gold light dancing under his skin flares again. Rose can’t help but think of her first Doctor, hunched over the TARDIS console and telling her to get back. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
He lays the palm that’s not pressed to his side against her face, and it’s warm, so much warmer than she remembers his skin being. She can feel the energy thrumming through his body as he runs his fingers across her cheek. “You need to step back now, Rose.”
She shakes her head, and feels tears she hadn’t realized she was crying slip from the corners of her eyes. “No. No, you can’t do this. Not now. The stars are going out, Doctor, and I’ve been looking for you for so long—”
The Doctor takes a moment to drink her in, tracking over her face and her hair and her clothes, before closing his eyes and drawing in a long breath. It’s wracked with pain and cold and something else Rose can’t quite place, and he lets it back out slowly before his eyes open again and he looks right at her. “I’m sorry, Rose, but I can’t stop it.” He pulls his hand back from her, and she helps him while he struggles to his feet, while the gold creeps up his neck and towards his face. “Go to Clara.”
He pushes her away from him gently, and Clara, who has been observing all this from a few feet away, latches onto Rose’s arm as she stumbles back. Clara clings to her, and Rose is too busy being grateful for the contact, for a real live person to hang onto while the dark street fills with golden light, to mind the way the girl’s nails dig into her skin as they hold each other.
When the light fades and Rose can see again, there is a tall, thin man with gray hair standing in the street, wearing the Doctor’s clothes. The purple coat hangs a bit loose on him, and the bow tie has come undone, loose ends dangling limply from a slightly singed collar. He shakes his head vigorously, as if trying to clear it, then promptly begins to examine himself, muttering darkly while he does so.
He doesn’t look back towards them until Clara asks, tentatively, “Doctor?” — and then gray-green eyes snap towards them. They skip over Clara with concern before landing on Rose. They’re sharp in a way she’s not familiar with, but there’s still warmth there, the way there always seems to be for her.
“Well, that was bracing,” the Doctor mutters before regarding them curiously, apparently waiting for a reaction beyond surprise. When Rose repeats Clara’s plea of “Doctor?”, he closes the space between them in a matter of seconds, long legs bringing him right up in front of her.
All he gets out is “Rose Tyler” before she’s throwing her arms around his neck and he’s burying his face in the crook of her shoulder, hanging onto each other for all they’re worth. His hair’s gray (still not ginger, she thinks amusedly) instead of brown, and his face looks older than the ones she’s used to, though still not anywhere near as old as she knows him to be. But he smells like snow and smoke and engine grease, and he still fits her so perfectly, and he’s the Doctor — here and real and in her arms.
After a few breathless moments, the Doctor reluctantly releases her. “Oh, Rose,” he says softly, and she can’t help but smile, the way she always does when he says her name like that. “I will help you. Promise. But not here. Not like this.” He smiles at her. It’s nothing like the wide, toothy grins of the Doctors she’d known — instead it’s thin and wry, a twist of his lips that’s all dry amusement. She likes it all the same. “Not with this daft old face.”
Rose gives him a watery smile at the phrase from so long ago, spoken in a different voice and a different accent, but with all the same warmth. “Oh, I dunno. It’s not a bad face, really.” She lays a hand against the aforementioned face, and he gives her a moment to trace the angles with her thumb before covering her hand with his own, tangling their fingers together against his cheek. “Besides, I figure it’s about time you looked your age,” she teases.
The Doctor affects mock indignation. “Rose Tyler, the cheek of you!” He tsks at her. “I suppose someone’s got to be cheeky. I’m not sure I’m all that cheeky this time ‘round. What do you think, Clara?” He addresses the brunette woman, who is still observing from a distance with an expression vacillating between amazement and amusement. “Am I cheeky?”
“I certainly hope not,” Clara says, with a bit of a scowl. Rose snorts, and the Doctor sniffs crossly. “Just as well,” he mutters. “A few centuries in the same body and one does start to itch for a bit of a change.”
Rose starts at the mention of centuries, and wonders just how long it’s been for him — how long since he last saw her. “Doctor,” she says, disentangling their hands, “I don’t know if you heard me, before, but the stars are going out, and we need your help—”
He cuts her off with a finger to her lips. “I know,” he says, gravely. “And I told you — you will have it. But not now, and not from me. Not this me.”
Rose takes a small step back, puts a little distance between them. “It’s happened for you already, hasn’t it?” she asks shakily. “The stars going out. The Dimension Cannon. You’ve lived through it all.”
And I’m not here with you, she doesn’t say out loud, because he’d said centuries, and there’s some things Rose isn’t sure she wants to know about her future.
“It’s probably best,” the Doctor says gently, “if I don’t say too much about that.”
Rose nods mutely, because he’s right, and she knows it. “But — I’ll see you again, yeah?” She smiles weakly.
The sharp new eyes soften, just a bit, and the Doctor meets her smile with one of his own. “You certainly will, my dear.” It’s not an endearment she’s ever heard him use before, and certainly not with her. Maybe that’s the sort of man he is this time around, Rose thinks wryly. She wishes she could stay to find out.
“You will see me again.” He says it solemnly, like a promise, a vow, and his smile gets a little brighter. There’s even the barest hint of teeth, the Doctors Rose is more familiar with bleeding through. “And it will be marvelous.”
The next time Rose jumps, she doesn’t have to watch him die.
She just has to watch UNIT roll a dead body — his dead body, the body of the Doctor who’d laid next to her on the apple grass and laughed with her over edible ball bearings — away on a gurney. It’s shocking and gut-wrenching and by far the most terrible thing she’s seen so far, in all the terrible worlds she’s visited.
But Rose pulls herself together. She finds Donna Noble and wrangles UNIT into competence and cobbles together a time machine from the dying TARDIS, and when she wants to give up she imagines that dry voice saying marvelous—
— and eventually, it is.