“So, Rose. It’s time to talk.”
They’d just gone back inside the TARDIS, which still stood against the wall near Rose’s block of flats in the Powell Estates. The Doctor had made no move to dematerialise. Instead, he was simply leaning against the console, one hand resting lightly against his hip, smiling slightly at her. The brown eyes - still a shock to see brown instead of grey-blue - were warm as they gazed at her.
The Doctor. A new Doctor.
At first, she hadn’t believed it. Had refused to believe it. Been convinced that the brown-haired man standing in front of her in the Doctor’s clothes had to be an impostor. Some sort of alien menace who’d stolen away her Doctor and was going to do away with her. What he’d said then, about the very first time they’d met, had convinced her - intellectually, at any rate.
Convincing her heart, her soul, that this was still her Doctor was a lot more difficult.
But there hadn’t been a lot of time then for getting to know him - or, as he’d prefer her to think of it, getting reacquainted. He’d started to behave oddly - crazily, out of control, and in the brief moments of sanity in between he’d managed to tell her that he was sick. That the regeneration was going wrong. That he needed her help.
And then they’d crashed. In London, Christmas Eve 2005. And all her energies had been focused - of necessity - on dealing with the consequences. Explaining to her mum and Mickey who this stranger in the Doctor’s time machine and wearing the Doctor’s clothes was. Fighting the latest alien menace in their path. And, all the time, taking care of the Doctor, who’d needed her in a way even his predecessor never had.
Instinct had taken over there. She was like the Doctor that way - her Doctor. If she saw someone in need, she helped. No matter what she was feeling, she couldn’t have abandoned him when he was so helpless, so sick.
Now, it was all over, they were back in the TARDIS, and once again she had time to think. Was forced to think.
To look, properly, at the near-stranger in front of her. To remember how he’d changed right in front of her eyes. To try to get her head around the concept that he could be exactly the same man inside, when he looked so different. Spoke, behaved so differently. When his touch was so different.
He was the Doctor... and yet he wasn’t.
These last few days, difficult as they’d been, had been a blessing. Because they’d offered a respite. A reason not to think. Not to feel. Not to have to react to the change. She could just get on with doing, and tell herself that she’d deal with it all later.
Later had arrived.
“Rose?” the Doctor prompted again.
“Yeah.” She came closer, burrowing her hands into the pockets of her mock-sheepskin jacket.
It was all so different. So strange. Even the interior of the TARDIS had changed with the arrival of this new Doctor. The console was different - more elaborate, more fancy touches, more flashing lights. And he was dressed differently now. As soon as he’d been sane enough to do it, he’d discarded the leather jacket, so much a part of her Doctor, and exchanged it for a pin-striped suit. And trainers. Trainers!
His mannerisms were different. Now that he’d settled down, it seemed that his normal expression was a gentle kindness, with a hint of a friendly twinkle in those - brown - eyes. He had a nice smile, also friendly. His face was open, trusting, nice. Handsome.
She missed the manic grin. The mercurial moods. The blue eyes which could just as soon flash at her in impatience or annoyance as in child-like delight or humour. She even missed his brooding, the spells of darkness, his bluntly telling her to shut it! if he didn’t feel like talking and she persisted.
That was all gone. For ever.
And now he - this new he - wanted to talk.
God. If only Jack were here. If he hadn’t got left behind on the Game Station - or died? She had no idea, and the Doctor hadn’t said much, though he’d hinted that Jack was alive but busy elsewhere - it would be easier. Jack could’ve helped her handle this. He’d have cracked a joke, made a risqué remark, lightened the atmosphere.
She wouldn’t have had to get serious, which was so clearly what the Doctor wanted.
“So, now that you’ve saved the world yet again - ” His eyes twinkled, but his expression was sober. “ - not just from killer Santas, but also from an out-of-control Time Lord, and you’ve had a few days to let this all sink in... have you made your decision, Rose?”
“My decision?” She was stalling. He couldn’t ask her now. Not now. She hadn’t had time... didn’t know... this was just too difficult!
“Yes. Home - ” His hand gestured expansively to the TARDIS door and what lay beyond it. “ - or this. Here. Travelling... Me.”
Once upon a time - up until a few days ago - home would have meant the TARDIS. Now, home was...
Home was a leather jacket, close-cropped dark hair, big ears and a manic grin. Home was gone for good.
“I... don’t know yet. Can’t you give me more time?” She shuffled, avoiding looking at him.
“I’m not asking you to accept me completely. Not yet. Just... is it all so horrible that you can’t bear to spend another minute with me, or can you give me a chance?”
He was trying so hard. Too hard. Her Doctor would never have done that. With him, you got one chance. True, he’d asked her twice, but he’d made it clear later that that was an exception.
This Doctor kept trying, though, in his kind, gentle way. Another difference; her Doctor would have told her that this was the way it is and that she had two choices. Live with it, or hop it. And, if she’d hesitated, he’d have gone. Swanned off. Without her.
The differences between them weren’t just on the surface. They went very deep.
That was the real question. The one that had kept her awake at night, when she’d actually managed to go to bed.
How much of her Doctor still remained inside this new one?
Well, she wasn’t going to find out just by staring at him. Or waiting for his next attempt at persuasion, which probably wouldn’t be too far away. How could he possibly know what she needed to hear?
“Okay.” Abruptly, she spoke. “Let’s talk. I’ve got some questions.”
“Good.” He nodded. “May as well have a seat.” And he gestured to the bench around the console.
She sat a few feet from him, turned slightly so that she could watch him if she wanted. And found him watching her. Brown hair flopped untidily over a lower brow than she remembered, partially covering brown eyes.
The expression in those eyes was serious, knowing. It was... familiar.
Her breath caught. Her heart skipped a beat. And a tingle went through her. He was inside, after all. At least, something of him.
“So. Your questions. What do you want to know?”
And, again, her Doctor had never been so open. Had never invited questions about himself, and had only answered them if he’d felt like it. And those he’d answered had never really been important. Some had been to her, but not to him. He hadn’t cared if she knew he was nine hundred years old. Or that he was alien. He hadn’t wanted to talk about where he came from. Or what he’d done in those nine hundred years.
Something told her that this Doctor would tell her, if she asked. The temptation, to find out at last everything she’d always wondered...
No. She’d wanted him to tell her. He hadn’t wanted her to know. She wouldn’t betray him now by asking this new version...
But anyway, when it came down to it, there was really only one thing she wanted to know. One thing that would sway her decision one way or another.
“You say you’re still the same inside, Doctor.”
His eyes widened. Of course. She’d avoided calling him Doctor except when other people were around. She’d needed to convince her mum and Mickey, and of course Harriet Jones, that he was who he claimed to be, and if she’d shown any signs of doubt... But, alone, she’d avoided calling him anything at all.
“I am, Rose. I can prove it to you, but you have to believe it for yourself. Only you can do that.”
“Yeah, well, you can help me, can’t you?”
“Of course. Just tell me how.”
“You’ve changed so much. I mean, it’s not just the way you look. Or sound. It’s all sorts of things. You don’t like chips any more - ”
“I like chips!” His voice rose in protest. “I just think there are more food groups out there worthy of exploring.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She rolled her eyes.
“Anyway, that’s hardly an important difference, is it? I mean, the world’s not going to end if Rose Tyler and the Doctor no longer go for chips after every other adventure?”
“No, I know.” She shrugged. “But it’s just... there’s lots of things. Seems like every time I look at you or you say something there’s another difference.”
“You have to decide whether they matter.” Again, so reasonable. So willing to compromise. So unlike her Doctor.
“Well...” She fiddled with a button on her jacket. “They don’t. I know they don’t. But it’s just that... It makes me want to know what else is different. And what’s the same.”
“Ask me.” He shifted slightly, drawing a knee up across his other lap and resting his hand on top. “Unless it’s something I can’t answer...”
“You can.” But it was difficult to ask. “No, the other stuff isn’t important. This... is.”
“Go on.” His eyes were gentle. Inviting. Sympathetic.
She looked away. Squirmed in her seat. This was hard. For so many reasons... most of all that she’d never talked about it with him. Never spoken aloud what she thought was the truth for both of them.
“Me and him... you... oh, god, this is so confusing...”
“You can say ‘him’ if it makes it easier for you.” He still sounded kind, but she could hear the sadness in his voice this time. “It’s still me, Rose. But I know how hard it is for you to understand that.”
Yeah, it was hard. This whole regeneration thing was way beyond her experience. Way beyond anything she’d ever even imagined. And he’d never told her. Never prepared her. Not even a hint that one day he might be torn away from her and replaced with a complete stranger... one who knew everything about her, everything about them, yet wasn’t him.
“Okay. Well... me and him... we were close. Really close. Oh, I don’t mean... We were friends. But he cared about me. I knew that. Whatever happened, he cared. I mattered to him. And I need to know... do I matter to you?”
“Rose - ”
But she interrupted him. Couldn’t bear to hear his answer yet. What if it was the wrong answer? What would she do then?
“Cause if I don’t, I need to know. I don’t want you keeping me around just because. If... if I’m just someone you take about with you because I’m here, I’d rather leave. I don’t want to be like Adam... just tolerated because he was here.”
“Rose.” This time he was more insistent. “You’re not like Adam. I never just tolerated you. And that’s still true. Always will be.”
There was a lump in her throat. She tried to swallow it.
“I mean, you don’t take my hand any more. You don’t hug me.” Yet another difference to get used to. And that one had mattered. Even if she wasn’t sure how she’d have reacted if he had.
He tilted his head and looked at her. “Rose, of course I don’t! Think about it. You don’t see me as the same person, and that means you probably don’t want me to touch you like that. I couldn’t just assume it’s okay, the same way it always was.”
“Oh.” But doubt still flickered within her.
“Rose, maybe if I tell you something it’ll help. Do you remember what made me regenerate?”
There’d been bright lights... he’d burst into flames... what had he said?
I absorbed the whole of the Time Vortex. And no-one’s supposed to do that.
“The... vortex? How did he - you - get that inside you, anyway?”
He frowned slightly. “You don’t remember? Do you remember having it inside you?”
She’d had it? How? When?
Being sent home... Emergency Protocol One... fighting, trying desperately to get back to him, knowing that he’d die if she couldn’t... Mickey and even her mum helping her to try to open the heart of the TARDIS, so she could get back to him...
And she’d done it. They’d done it.
“The Time Vortex... has that anything to do with the... the heart of the TARDIS?”
He nodded, his expression sober. “That’s exactly what it is. You looked into it. And it took you over. Swallowed you up. And you did it, Rose. You destroyed all the Daleks. You saved my life. I was so proud of you.”
He ran a hand through his hair, making it even untidier. “But the problem is that you just can’t go around absorbing the Vortex, Rose. I mean, even I can’t do that and live. So I had to take it from you. If I hadn’t, you’d have died.”
Oh god. So it was all her fault? She’d killed him. She’d killed her Doctor.
“Doctor...” She stared at him, eyes wide with horror. “I’m so sorry... after all I tried to do, I killed you anyway...”
She’d said you. Not him. And she didn’t realise it until after she’d spoken.
“No!” he said immediately. “Don’t, Rose. If you hadn’t done it, I’d have been dead anyway. Really dead - the Dalek weaponry bypasses the Time Lord regeneration gene. So I wouldn’t have come back. Not like I did this time. And it wouldn’t’ve been just me. The world... the whole universe would have been destroyed. That’s what you did.” He smiled, and for the first time that smile warmed her. “Rose Tyler, you saved the universe. All I did was save you.”
He’d still died for her. Her Doctor. Didn’t he know that she’d gladly have died for him?
“I know, Rose.” She gasped. “No, I’m not reading your mind.” He smiled slightly. “Sometimes, your face is so expressive, and you have to remember how well I know you.” The smile grew, but was still gentle. Not the wide, joyous grin she remembered... but it was nice. It was a smile she suddenly knew she could grow used to “Do you honestly think I could bear it if you’d died for me? I couldn’t let that happen, Rose. I did the only thing I could. And - this is where I answer your question - I’d do exactly the same thing again if I had to. Any time. Even if it was my last regeneration.”
Wow. Well, that definitely answered her question.
“Yes, a lot of things about me have changed. And if you stay with me you’ll find out a lot more still, I’m sure. But none of the important stuff’s changed. Like who I am, or what I do. I don’t brood the way I used to, and that’s probably not a bad thing. I’m less likely to call you a stupid ape - I can’t imagine ever wanting to. But I still care about you every bit as much as I did before. That hasn’t changed, and it never will.”
That... helped. It helped so much.
He might look different. Sound different. Behave different. But somewhere inside he was still her Doctor. Finally, she was beginning to accept that.
Her Doctor. She’d never had a proper chance to say goodbye. She’d never told him...
Tears pricked suddenly.
“Hey!” Suddenly, his hand was cupping her chin. “Is it really that bad? Being here with me now? You miss the old me that much?” And his voice was so sad, so... hurt.
She had to be honest. “I’ll always miss him... you, the way you were. I don’t think I could ever forget... But it’s not that I can’t accept you - the new you!” she added quickly, as his hand fell away from her chin and he began to look away.
“You think you can? In time?” He turned back to her, and she saw a trace of hope in his eyes.
She nodded. “I can. You keep saying - you’re still him. And I just have to believe that.”
“I am. I swear it, Rose. I remember everything. Don’t you? Holding your hand in the basement in Cardiff - ‘I’m so glad I met you’,” he quoted softly. “Dancing with you right in here, just before we saved Jack.”
“And after,” she reminded him.
“And after.” He grinned suddenly. “Had to let him know that you were special to me, after all.”
“Yeah, the testosterone was running pretty high in here that day.” She giggled. If she closed her eyes now, she could even imagine that he was here. Him. Her Doctor.
“I never got to say goodbye.” The words just escaped suddenly before she could stop them.
“I know.” His answer was so soft, so caring.
“If I’d known... oh, god, what I wouldn’t give just to be able to hug him once more. And tell him... tell him...” She broke off. The lump in her throat was too big. And the pain in her heart too great.
Plus... something was telling her that this new Doctor would be hurt if she told him what she’d really wanted to say to her Doctor.
“Tell him what?” And, suddenly, he was reaching for her hand. “You can still tell me, Rose. I’m still here.”
The hand in hers was smaller. The fingers felt different. And yet... it was him. Her heart recognised it as him. Her Doctor.
“I...” Her gaze fell to their joined hands. “If I’d had the chance... I wanted to tell him... you... that I... love him.”
“Rose.” His fingers tightened around hers. “I always knew that. Just like you always knew I love you. Didn’t you?”
The way he’d looked at her sometimes, before she’d caught him and his expression had changed. The way he’d always protected her if he could, even at risk to himself. The agony he’d suffered when he’d thought he’d killed her.
And he’d died for her.
Would die for her again.
She looked up at him. The Doctor. Her Doctor. Who loved her still. “Yes. Yes, I knew. I... know.”
“And, in a way, I did say goodbye. Even if you didn’t know that’s what it was.”
She frowned. “You did? You mean when you were babbling on about Barcelona? Oh! You said I was fantastic...” It had all happened so quickly. He’d told her that he was in trouble. That every cell in his body was dying. And then a few words she’d treasure all her life... and that was it. He was gone. Disappeared for ever, right before her eyes, and she hadn’t even realised what was happening.
“I don’t mean that.” Now he looked a little embarrassed. “You don’t remember how I took the Vortex away from you, Rose. Do you?”
She shook her head.
“I kissed you.” A faint smile. “It wasn’t the only way. But... I’d wanted to for so long, Rose. And I knew that the Vortex would kill me. So I kissed you. That was my way - the old me - of saying goodbye.”
He’d kissed her - and she didn’t even remember it? Something she’d wanted, dreamed of, never in a million years imagined would ever happen... and she’d missed it?
“You see, you just never know how these regenerations will turn out.” He looked away from her, towards the wall of the TARDIS. “Like I said, the essentials remain the same. The way I feel about you would never have changed. But I’ve had a lot of different bodies over the years. Some weird personality quirks, too. I could have ended up being someone you just didn’t like at all. Couldn’t stand. And you’d leave. Like you’re still considering leaving.”
She shook her head slightly. Considering leaving?
Well, she had been. Sort of. But now she knew she never could.
Leave the TARDIS? Leave the Doctor?
He’d have to throw her out.
He turned back to face her. “Yes?”
The old Doctor would have said ‘yeah’. But, for the first time, the difference didn’t sound wrong.
“Told you. I’ve signed up. You’re stuck with me.”
A relieved smile. “I remember. But you know I’d never hold you to that.”
They sat in silence for a few moments. A comfortable silence. It was finally sinking in. He was still her Doctor.
The differences were only superficial. Window-dressing. He was still with her. He hadn’t left.
Again, he smiled. She was calling him Doctor naturally now, and he’d noticed. “Yes?”
“I wish I could remember.”
“You kissing me.”
He was very still and very quiet for at least a minute. And then, abruptly, he moved. Slid closer to her on the bench. His free hand cupped her chin. And his head lowered.
“You don’t need to remember it. I can show you.” And his lips brushed hers, first gently, like the whisper of a feather. She’d barely taken a surprised breath when his mouth returned, claiming hers this time as if he had a right to it - a right to her.
A right she couldn’t possibly deny.
In her dreams, maybe her subconscious, she saw her Doctor - the old Doctor - take her face between his palms. She saw him lower his head, tilt hers up to his, and press his lips to hers. She saw him draw her close, saw the bright light transfer itself from her to him. And she saw him release her, saw the joy, the love in his eyes. Love for her.
And here and now he was kissing her again. Still her Doctor. Different face, different hands, different lips... but still her Doctor. Always her Doctor.
He drew back, and the same love for her blazed from his eyes. Different eyes... yet the same. And she put out her hand and laid her palm against his cheek.
“Doctor. It’s still you.”
A brilliant smile curved across his face. “Told you.”
“You know I’m always right, Rose.”
And she laughed. “You’re so full of it.” She punched his arm, and he caught her hand in his.
There was silence while she took the time to appreciate his beautiful smile once more. And then he tilted his head again. “So, ready to explore time and space with me in this amazing TARDIS, Rose Tyler?”
And, two minutes later, the only evidence that they’d ever been in London was the echo of the TARDIS’s dematerialisation in the open square of the Powell Estates.