It made a certain kind of sense that on his very last stop, it snowed.
Some would even talk of poetic justice.
When he’d first stepped into the TARDIS after leaving Wilfred and his death chamber behind, he thought he might have one good trip left. One last chance to do something heroic; to give meaning to his pleading, childish rage, to his desperate proclamation that there was more he could have done, so much more he could have done.
In true vigilante fashion, he’d saved Martha and Mickey, followed by Sarah Jane’s son. He’d remained quiet and focused through each act, almost stern, performing his last rescue missions with grace and poise – possibly to make up for his recent breakdown, ready to show the universe he wouldn’t go down weeping.
He saved them all, yet the not-so-dormant cellular energy that stirred in every inch of his being remained nothing more than a continuous trickle under his skin; a tingling sensation that foretold of what was to come, as if this numbed body of his had already gone to sleep and was slowly getting ready to wake up.
Not yet, though.
Not quite yet.
He concluded his time for heroics had passed. He did try one last good deed, for old time’s sake, helping another lonely soul while getting a glimpse at another friendly face, one he would never see again. Not with these eyes anyway.
When the process still refused to pick up speed, not without conscious consent from him, he realised that this was it. His last chance to tie up loose ends. To make amends, maybe. To visit the people he’d hurt the most without meaning to.
As he set off to say goodbye to those he’d cherished the most, holding on to his last thread of dignity wasn’t that easy anymore, feeling himself slowly reverting back to that scared child he’d become when he’d heard those four knocks against the glass panel.
Knock knock knock knock…
He nearly kept Donna for last. Nearly.
Brilliant, terrific, magnificently human Donna Noble. As loud and feisty and lovely as she had been on the day she first popped into his TARDIS, wedding dress and all. He sure would have loved to travel with her forever, for the rest of his life.
In some way, he had.
The moment he left the church bells behind and stepped back into his tired ship, his beloved Blue Box feeling the effects of his upcoming rebirth as much as he did, he knew his last trip had come at last.
The walls and pipes shivered and groaned in harmony with his body as he pressed buttons and pulled levers with shaking hands, the trickle growing into a steady undercurrent that mixed with his renewed fear and sorrow, rendering him incapable of true sentient thoughts and actions for a suspended instant.
All he could do was feel. Feel her and the gaping hole she had left in her wake, not once but twice, trusting that whatever this was that had kept him going for much longer than he should have, it would grant him this last wish.
Bring me to her. Please just bring me to her.
The door opened with a lament, a whinge more pronounced than it had been in ages. He stumbled out of the TARDIS, clutching at the doorjamb as he half-stepped into the night, his clumsy steps muffled by a velvety white ground.
Long seconds passed during which nothing happened at all. He simply looked up at the sky and watched the stars falling.
They did so slowly, so very slowly, steadily and patiently, twirling straight from the depth of space.
It took his dying mind a minute to connect these icy dots together, eventually concluding that what he saw weren’t falling stars at all, but wondrous snowflakes, illuminated by a nearby lamppost.
This was the reward that kept on giving.
Over nine-hundred-years old, having visited the most improbable and incredible of places in this universe and the next, yet he still found himself enthralled by this simple display of atmospheric disturbance.
There was just something about it. The way it slowly dimmed the world. Muted it all, one flake at a time, until everything was quiet and soft and light.
Snow was one of these ridiculously banal phenomenon that always looked a bit like magic to him.
Fluffy fairy dust, scattered from the skies above.
His skin, usually colder than most species, was made feverish by his looming regeneration, which explained why he felt the tiny bites of cold all over his face, where snow kept on landing.
Time was slipping away from him, as time ought to slip away from a timelord in the last stretch of a fading life.
He couldn’t describe it, couldn’t put it into words, but he was well aware of it. What should have been instants spent watching the snow fall had turned into minutes in one blink of an eye.
Another one of those minutes ticked by before he realised where his devoted TARDIS had taken him, in one final act. She had done the impossible for her thief, defying logic, and a few thousands physical laws.
He couldn’t be sure of it unless he stumbled back inside and checked the console, but he felt it as sharply as he felt the fire within and the cold outside. He felt it all the way down in the marrow of his bones.
This was another universe. And not just any universe.
The reward that kept on giving, indeed.
This realisation alone caused a new kind of struggle to take over him, joining with his physical torment. He couldn’t grasp the implications of what this meant or might mean, of what could be yet never would. He couldn’t, couldn’t think couldn’t…couldn’t.
He was stranded in another universe, the last of his kind, about to use up the last of his regenerations, and all he could think about was a girl.
Typical. No matter the species, it always boiled down to this.
No one wanted to die alone.
He remained motionless for another stretch of that precious, wasted time, save for the shivers he couldn’t suppress anymore. Resting heavily against the jamb, one arm gripping the inside wall, eyes tightly closed, he felt the wood pressing hard into his temple; no amount of pressure would make an indentation in his skin, not with the surplus of healing energy coursing through his veins.
And time lapsed, over and over again, mostly fractions of a second, but it felt like entire hours.
A warm and wet sensation on the tip of his dangling fingers forced him to refocus; too wet to be snow, too warm to be rain. As he became aware of the noise, of that unmistakable rasp that living, breathing beings couldn’t help but make, he opened his eyes.
The dog pushed its muzzle against his hand once more, pushing it into his palm, and its tail wagged faintly when they made eye contact.
He couldn’t speak dog – one of the rare languages he couldn’t translate, but the animal was unmistakably concerned by his state. An oddity in itself, truly. His gaze followed the leash, from its collar all the way to a gloved hand, and looking up, he understood why the dog was acting with such familiarity.
Standing only a couple of meters away from him was…well, him.
He stood right under the lamppost, which made it nearly impossible for him to be simply hallucinating. He looked too real to be a figment of his imagination, even in this wobbly, almost drunken-like mental state.
No matter. His brain still worked faster than most, taking it all in within maybe a second longer than it usually took him, making all the appropriate connections.
He just happened to have stumbled upon the man who’d sprouted from his severed hand, while said man was out walking his dog at night. It also meant that somewhere along the way, he’d been human enough to get a pet dog.
One that wasn’t made of metal.
He still looked quite…him-ish, all things considered. Still got the sideburns, bless him, and the hair looked nothing short of fabulous. He wore a dark peacoat he would gladly have worn himself, the coat nicely complimented by a comfy-looking scarf that appeared to be hand-knitted.
And then, there were the differences.
The couple of days old stubble he virtually never experienced himself, since he’d always regulated his hair growth as to not be bothered by such triviality as shaving. The shadows under his eyes that indicated some difficulty sleeping, and a lack of metabolism that would easily restore proper blood flow and control light diffusion in such delicate areas.
Most importantly, there were lines on his face that would never appear on his.
These lines spoke not of months but years since Bad Wolf Bay.
Before neither of them could speak – if any of them ever was going to, the quivers suddenly stopped, as every muscle in his body briefly seized up. Pain flared, then spread, quick and vicious and unforgivable, starting deep within his brain stem before traveling throughout the entirety of his nervous system.
He doubled over slightly with an audible grunt, dragging his wet hand away from the dog to grab at the doorjamb, letting his body ride out the episode.
Quite the funny thing, rebirth. Came with its own kind of contractions.
Not that he’d considered lying to him about his presence here, but there would be no denying it, now, his behaviour a blatant giveaway. They shared the exact same memories, all the way up to their…‘separation’, when his stalled regeneration led to his meta-crisis with Donna.
They both knew what happened when a timelord attempted to delay this particular process. It was possible, evidently, but why would one put oneself through such unnecessary torture, when the inevitable was…well, inevitable?
Unsurprisingly, his first question was not ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ but:
“How long have you got?”
The pain had receded, not gone but dimmed; he straightened up, his hearts thumping furiously, almost maddingly, as if they too were aghast at this entire situation. Looking up at his…‘double’, he saw no wariness on his tired, human face, not even curiosity; maybe a hint of self-pity. Ha.
He shook his head, swallowing hard. “Minutes. Thirty, at most. I’ve had hours.”
“That’s more than we ever got,” he noted; quite right, too.
His muscles trembling at the effort, he managed to stand up a bit straighter, clenching his jaws. “It seems to be a…reward of sort. Big sacrifice, bit of a weepy speech. Didn’t expect it to last this long.”
The dog was back at it, nuzzling his hip with a low, worried whimper. He couldn’t help it. He let his hand drop to the dog’s head, scratching behind his ear, both of them finding comfort in this simple touch.
“What’s his name?” He asked, as if making small talk with another you was a thing people did.
He looked back at him with a frown and the shadow of a lopsided pout, tilting his head sharply. “That’s a tad rude.”
He half-shrugged. “I know. I did oppose to it, but…I was overruled. ‘He’d love it!’ she said. ‘Bein’ in an incarnation that gets belly rubs on a daily basis? It’d be a dream come true!’”
The way he mimicked Rose’s accent was so innate and spot on that he couldn’t suppress the sudden shiver that ran through him; it spoke of years of companionship, of being around someone for so long that their speech pattern became as familiar as your own.
Another kind of pain was taking over, one that had little to do with his every cell bursting with excess energy.
This was the pain he associated with seashores, when the sharp scent of salt water was brought forth by anguished currents and howling breezes.
Am I ever gonna see you again?
He watched as this other him’s Adam’s apple went up and down, in an attempt to swallow down his guilty conscience, maybe, having realised who he was talking to, and about whom.
Same memories, after all. They both remembered Bad Wolf Bay.
Different endings the second time around, though.
Slip slipidy slip slip.
There went another chunk of his remaining time, aware the moment he reopened his eyes that too many seconds had passed since he’d closed them.
None of them had made a move in that elapsed time, although he seemed to have slumped back more heavily against his TARDIS, unable to pretend for a moment longer that he had any kind of strength left.
He stared at the row of houses across the street instead, all identical, their roofs covered with the same layer of soft snow; a lovely sight. The kind you found on the back of Christmas cards.
Rose was in one of these houses.
“Is she happy?” He asked, because he must.
There barely was a pause; he sensed his hesitancy without looking at him. But there was no hesitation in his voice when he answered.
She’d been happy with him, too. A few times, at least. Her smiles could have rivalled with the warmth of a thousand suns in those moments.
“Are you?” He asked, quietly, looking away from the houses, meeting brown eyes that were exactly like his.
A bit younger, maybe, despite the wrinkles that had taken roots at their corners.
His shoulders hunched inward, his discomfort almost palpable. He averted his eyes, swallowing hard again with a vague shake of his head. “I don’t know how to answer this without sounding cruel.”
He observed this human-clone of his in his reluctance to speak freely and be honest, aware that the extra slice of humanity that had given him one heart and a single lifetime had little to do with it. He himself would have chosen to remain silent in a similar situation, never one to rub it in.
Yet again, this fading version of him had always been a bit too human.
A bit too fool hearted, a bit too intense, a bit too demonstrative.
What else could he have expected out of a being born from love?
He’d lived this life surrounded by companions, traveling alongside these beautiful humans, these astoundingly unique people he’d cherished and loved, these people he needed, for his sake and others’.
Yet in the end, when he was lonely, terrified and dying, he had no one.
He had no one.
A small pressure on his upper arm startled him out of his latest lapse out of time. This other him had walked closer, his hand now on his arm. He looked…pained, the way anyone would look if they were forced to watch something a bit pathetic, all the while knowing there was nothing they could do about it.
He tilted his head then, a deliberate movement, quick, and indicative, his chin unmistakably pointing toward the house right across from them.
“You should hurry up”, he said, quietly, and not unkindly. “Clock’s ticking.”
All he could do was stare, shock causing the frozen muscles of his face to relax out of what must have been quite a pitiful grimace.
He understood what he meant, his brain of his still functional, yet he couldn’t understand it.
“What?” He asked, bewildered.
He didn’t shrug, although his hand dropped from his arm, sinking into the pocket of his coat. He simply stared back as tired resignation settled on his traits.
“She cried for hours, you know. After you left that day. Refused to even talk to me for days. It took months for her to open up to me. This,” he tilted his head toward the house again, “all things considered, it is fairly recent.”
Maybe thinking he wasn’t getting his point across clearly enough, he added: “She felt like she was betraying you. She told me so herself. Couldn’t stand the thought of you being on your own, while she got to have me.”
The pain that constricted his throat was almost more unbearable than everything he’d experienced in the past few hours. That included forcing his own body to absorb 500,000 rads of radiation and successfully signing his death sentence in the process.
He took in a wobbly breath, shaking his head in disbelief. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because she wouldn’t want you to die alone. To be frank, she wouldn’t allow it.”
He couldn’t speak, both his hearts having lodged themselves at the base of his throat, wide eyes staring at that one house across the street.
Behind those walls was Rose. Kind, beautiful Rose, always so full of life and optimism. She’d been his salvation in the end, his Rose. She’d taken the hand of an old and bitter, traumatised timelord, and turned him into this giddy, unstoppable youngster that thirsted for adventures and valued all life more than his own.
For a time, at least.
He tried to speak, but his closed-up throat wouldn’t allow it, barely managing a hoarse “I just want to…” before he had to stop.
I just want to say goodbye.
He nodded, once, with a small, understanding smile he’d seen many times before. Donna’s smile. “I know.”
His free hand was back on his arm then, his grip firmer as he grabbed him and forced him away from the TARDIS. He didn’t protest or claim he could manage on his own, way past pretending anything.
Still, he supported most of his own weight as they crossed the street, the mere thought of seeing Rose’s face in the next couple of minutes filling him with unexpected determination and jubilation. The adrenaline flooding his blood helped, too.
As they reached the front door, he remembered to cast a simple perception filter on himself, not having the mental energy for much more than making sure his clothes would look like the him that stood next to him.
That, and the wrinkles.
“How do I look?” He couldn’t help asking, knowing he would be human enough to see his handywork.
He pursed his lips. “I’m not that wrinkly.”
“Ah well,” he said, his voice almost sounding like his own again. “It will have to do.”
He made to open the door, eager to see her now. Before he could turn the knob, he’d grabbed his arm again, quite strongly this time, his grip almost possessive.
“Just…” he tried, obviously struggling to say what he needed to say. “Come back out. Before it happens. You know how powerful the blast will be, after keeping it in for so long.”
No asking him to keep his hands for himself, along with other parts of him. Not possessive, no.
“I promise,” he said, before stepping inside.
Under any other circumstance, he would have taken the time to inspect every corner of this house, in the hope to find out a bit more about the life they led, here. What kind of food did they keep in their fridge? Did they leave each other little notes? Did she get mad at him for dumping his dirty clothes right next to the hamper?
Did they cuddle together in front of the telly?
Such thoughts and their many variations were irrelevant, trite even, unworthy of a timelord.
He would be damned if he pretended they hadn’t crossed his mind on numerous occasions from the moment he left her in this universe with a human version of himself.
He had no time left for prodding, however, not much time left all for anything, and so he pushed onward on stronger legs than he could have hoped for only minutes ago.
He couldn’t help but briefly look down at a pile of opened mail in the entrance, curious to see what human name he’d chosen for himself.
John Noble, the first heading read.
An unexpected wave of affection rushed through him, understanding both references easily enough. Considering the fact that Donna had literally given him life, this was a lovely gesture, a reminder that this other him shared the same fondness for their Earthgirl.
Moving on, then.
The house was small, and from what little he could see of it in the dim light, cosy; it did not take long for him to find her.
Rose was in the living room, asleep on the couch.
He approached slowly, eyes fixed on her face, which looked somewhat ghostly in the luminescent glow of the telly, its screen the only source of light, its sound turned low. The way she was curled up under a blanket at one end of the couch reminded him of the few times he’d found her in that same position, in the TARDIS’ library.
All that space, and yet she curled up into herself.
He knew a few years had passed for her, but she still looked so young.
Time, that precious, precious time, it was slipping away from him. The lapses that had started outside were resurfacing, their effect worse than before.
One blink of an eye, and he’d gone from standing a meter away from the couch on trembling legs to kneeling in front of it, the transition from one place to the other somehow lost in limbo.
Don’t blink, he told himself. Don’t blink. Don’t blink. Don’t blink.
He shook his hazy head, trying to ignore the sharp pangs that shot down his spine as he did so, one of his hands grasping at the couch’s armrest right above Rose’s head. His other hand instinctively grabbed some of her blanket, fingers curling tight into a fist, inadvertently tugging at the fabric.
The movement was small, yet it was all it took.
She stirred before him, not quite awake, but not entirely asleep anymore either. Her eyes were slits, barely open at all, but what she could see of him was enough. Knowing herself to be safe, she remained in that drowsy state.
“Hi…” she whispered sleepily with the loveliest of smiles.
He couldn’t help it.
He smiled back, a smile bigger and more genuine than he ever thought possible on this night, both of his hearts fluttering inside his tightening chest.
The smile only lasted for a second or two, the muscles of his face soon too quivery to allow such folly, but it was enough.
Enough for some of her light to beam through his darkness.
“Hi…” he replied just as quietly, aware that his voice could betray him in an instant.
Using a perception filter in an attempt to fool Rose Tyler was unwise enough; the only thing that kept his weak projection working was her half-functioning brain, as she lay there, completely relaxed and trusting.
He could almost hear them, the ticks and tocks of each second ebbing away, and yet he could not move, could barely breathe. For this one, small instant, he allowed himself to pretend it was him she was seeing, not this other him she’d been loving for years, this him who got to experience this every single day, the simple pleasure of having her look at him and smile with nothing but peace in her eyes.
Time slipped, seconds melting away like snowflakes on warm skin.
When this soft reality broke through his haze again, Rose was moving. Before his conscious mind could truly grasp what was happening, one of her hands had reached up for him, gentle fingers soon moving through his damp hair.
“I told you to wear a hat,” she said with a sigh, an amused note in her sleepy voice. “You and your snow…” she added with a yawn and a groggy shake of her head, her fingers slipping from his hair to graze his cheek.
The gesture, instinctive and tender, caused him to silently gasp for air.
Don’t let her see, his mind bellowed, every ounce of his concentration focused on maintaining the filter. Don’t let her see don’t let her see dontlethersee
The illusion appeared to be working still, despite the anguished elation that coursed furiously through his veins. He hadn’t realised how starved for her touch he had been, until he felt her skin against his own again, even through such a small contact, her fingertips on his cheek, her thumb grazing the corner of his mouth.
And then, there was tension in her body, sudden and strong, her fingertips briefly replaced by the light pressure of her nails, her face distorting in a small grimace of…discomfort?
“What’s wrong?” He asked at once, unable not to.
The grimace was gone as swiftly as it had appeared; she shook her head again, still quite sleepily, all things considered, briefly and lazily stretching her limbs out, before relaxing her entire body again.
“Nothing,” she replied with a soft smile. “Just the usual midnight kickin’.”
And just as instinctively as she’d brought her hand to his hair, that same hand left his face to grab his, swiftly pulling it down under the blanket, pressing his palm against her very round and very firm stomach.
He felt it all, his nerve endings left raw by the various attacks he’d suffered this past hour, part of his hand on the soft fabric of her shirt, two of his fingers resting upon her even softer skin.
And then, he felt it, too.
Ripples and pressures and pushes, like an undercurrent beneath the skin, except it was her skin not his.
Only centuries spent perfecting his self-control in various bodies allowed him to keep the air from rushing out of his lungs, in what would have been an extremely noisy breath.
He couldn’t keep his fingers from tightening on both armrest and the curve of her stomach, though, wet eyes fixed upon the blanket that still hid her body and their hands from view. Her eyes already closed again, she didn’t seem to find the gesture worrying, merely slipping her fingers between his and pressing down along with him, as she let out a long, contented sigh.
Even in his wildest fantasies, and there had been quite a few, he’d never let his imagination venture down that particular road, probably because he himself would never have been able to conceive with her.
Yet there she was. Growing an entire brand new life in her womb, one that carried half his genetic code.
One more lapse. One of the very last, now. But that was all right.
That was quite all right.
He refocused, his gaze finding her face again, drinking in each of her traits, carving them in his mind, as if he’d ever forgotten them.
He could have spent the rest of his eternity here, watching her and feeling the ripples beneath his palm, even if his eternity expired in five minutes.
He’d made a promise, though, the last of this life. He was determined to keep it.
He forced his hand away from her stomach, taking her fingers in his, gently bringing them up to his face, pressing his lips to her knuckles, and breathing her in slowly, so very slowly.
He allowed himself to drown into the smell of her, pushing away reminiscence of seashore, replacing it with the blossoming flowers of her scent.
“I love you…” he murmured against her skin, and on the last of his words, a small cloud of golden light drifted from his lips.
Rose hummed on the couch, too far gone to respond, although he could have sworn her mouth twitched in the shadow of a smile.
He lost time, what little of it he had left. This was an act of kindness, as he did not realise he’d stood up and left her side until he was already walking away from her.
He did not look back.
He was at the door, then, on the other side of it. He felt this other him’s eyes on him, could almost hear his unspoken questions, but he did not look at him, staring at the silhouette that had appeared across the street.
Sigma Ood stood next to his snow covered TARDIS.
“I could…” Human-him began, hesitantly, but his unfinished offer was genuine.
“No,” he replied in a breathless whisper, his eyes glued on the Ood who waited patiently, peacefully. “You said it yourself. Too dangerous. You…go back inside.”
Go back to her.
He did not wait for a reply, for any kind of sign indicating that he’d moved.
He forced his own body forward, his feet dragging, the membrane of his cells fissuring, filled to the brim with life – his death – causing his weight to quadruple, it seemed.
For one distressed, panicked moment, he wondered if he would be able to walk the few meters that separated him from the safety of his TARDIS, or if he would be left to implode here, in the middle of the street.
And then, from within and all around, he heard it.
He was terrified, yes. But not quite so alone anymore.
“We will sing to you, Doctor,” Sigma Ood said. “The universe will sing you to your sleep.”
The music rose, glorious, melancholic, and beautiful.
It rang with sorrow and loss, yet filled the air and every inch of him with such gratitude and love that it lessened some of his pain, brought strength to his failing muscles.
With the music of the universe guiding his steps, and the vestiges of her spring safe in his lungs, the Doctor walked into his song.