Sometimes he thinks he ought to give up on the human genome and just study Rose.
They'd give him a grant if he explained it well enough: his wife is insane. There's no other possibility. She is sitting cross-legged on top of the washing machine as it hums steadily through the rinse cycle; eating a slice of burnt toast with jam. The jar is beside her. Every so often, it starts to rattle too wildly and almost slips off the edge- she catches it, and sets it back down beside her, and sticks her finger into the jar to lick the preserves off.
"It reminds me of home," she says.
"Where did you grow up ?" He stands in his robe before her, bare feet itching on the tile. "A laundrette ? A sticky laundrette ? An asylum ?" She laughs and slips off the machine and goes to him, pulling him closer by the lapels. Her body's so warm. He slips his hands under her top and holds them there, against the skin of her spine, stroking in circles. "I don't have to go to work today," he suggests.
"But I do." She sighs deeply and turns out of his arms. She picks up her jacket and keys from the table, and heads for the door. "Late tonight," she calls out. "I've got a client who can't make up her mind."
"Love you," he says. She pauses, halfway outside, and glances back. It's their little mountain- he knows that whatever she went through before she met him, she still has trouble with that word. He says it whenever he can, just so she's sure.
"I love you," she says, past him.
When she's gone, he stands with his feet in the light from the kitchen window; the glow of the sun makes squares like a chessboard on the floor, and he stands in each one to absorb the lingering warmth. Cats do this, he thinks, for the same reason; but they probably don't think of chessboards. Though they should. Cats, he thinks, would be good at chess. Devious creatures.
He's rambling again.
He told Rose the truth; he's not going in to work today, since Maryann is off having her baby and Peter, being the father, is off with her. Without assistants, it almost takes the fun out of going to the lab. Less of an adventure, he thinks. But he can putter around in the garage today, work on his bike, maybe fix the toaster like he's been trying to do since they moved in. He suspects Rose of sabotaging him in that particular regard. She likes her toast charred. Magnificently charred. Sometimes he forgets for a second that she's crazy, and he tries to puzzle her out.
For instance, why would a woman so secretly cynical about marriage plan other people's weddings ? Ignoring the obvious reason, that she's brilliant at it, always on-duty, always taking calls and running off last-minute, so careful and patient and concerned. But when his friends from work talk about engagements and mortgages and babies she rolls her eyes over her drink and changes the subject. Oh, she married him, that's all well and good.
"You're the exception," she told him once, in bed, with her ear against his chest. She never seems to grow tired of the sound of his heart. That thought warms him.
"Exception to what ?" he'd asked.
There is only one photograph left from their wedding- all the others, she told him, were lost when they moved from the apartment. He can barely remember that apartment; just the sensation of the neon lights from the deli across the street, glowing green and blue through the bedroom windows at all hours, soaking into his eyelids and coloring his skin. The photo's slightly wrinkled behind the glass, but there they are- him in his old brown suit, her in a pale cream dress that fluttered at her ankles, with a spray of moon orchids in her hair. They're at the edge of a beach, standing on the rocks, with nothing but sky above and around them. She's not holding any flowers. He doesn't understand it, but every now and again when he looks at that picture, he feels he might cry. Probably just an imbalance of B-vitamins. He leaves himself a note to hit the drugstore in the afternoon.
There are sticky notes on the cupboards and all along the hallway, on the path to the garage. Some are in his handwriting: new gear shifter and new piping, sample eleven-oh-five, call Peter. Some are in Rose's: please eat today while I'm gone.
He makes bacon and toast and eggs, all with their own accompanying condiments, and arranges them on the plate so that nothing is touching anything else.
And Rose says he's crazy.
Though he never likes to admit it, they weren't always as blissfully happy as he feels today; with a full stomach and his feet up and his notebooks, full of scribbling, spread out beside him. It was the night of his last conference that sticks in his mind- Rose, standing in the front hallway. She was crying. Crying about something- he'd been away for days, apparently, and had only just gotten home. They'd probably had some kind of row before he left, but nothing he can remember.
"I'm back now," he'd said, stroking her hair, wiping the tears off her cheeks as fast as they fell. "I'm not going anywhere for a month at least. Nobody wants me to speak- in fact, almost everybody wants me to be quiet," he'd joked. God, trust him to play the clown and make an ass of himself. "Rose, I'm right here."
She'd clung to him while she sobbed, and then laughed, and everything seemed better; he'd taken her to bed and loved her slowly, carefully, like it was the first time.
And here they are, still, figuring it out. Well, you don't get married because it's easy, he thinks.
He works through the morning, lazily, double-checking his own notes from the week before. He scans the paper and tosses it behind the sofa when the hysteria irritates him. He changes out of his pajamas and walks to the plaza at the end of their street; spends some time wandering the aisles of the drugstore and ends up buying tape and vitamins and a little plastic cow that poops out jellybeans. He's crossing the street, thinking about lunch, when a sight strikes him.
Just the ordinary sun, in the ordinary sky- a great, towering flame at the heart of this silly little orbit-
-you little things, that live in the light.
He stands there in the middle of the road until a car honks at him. He ignores the gesturing. The thought, if it was a thought and not a dream, slips away.
The dreams are probably what will get him sectioned, if that day ever comes. Eccentricity in his field is tolerated, often encouraged; but the dreams are really a bit outside. Once he rolled over and told Rose about them. He'd thought it an idle conversation, something to amuse her with while she stretched and itched her legs, waking up slowly with the sun in her eyes and her hair. But she'd gone perfectly still and later, putting groceries away, she'd broken down and snapped at him with a can of corn in each hand.
"You're worried that I'm mad," he'd said, with his arms around her. "I'm not mad. Okay. I'm a bit mad," he'd admitted, "but not so much that they could prove it."
"You can never tell anyone about them." Her voice was like steel, something he admired in her but never learned to anticipate- when it came, it was like rolling thunder, and retreated just as suddenly. "Promise me. Never."
"And lose the royalties from my novel ?"
"Please don't joke."
"Fine. I promise." He rested his head on her hair. "You worry too much. Nothing's the matter. I'm healthy, you're healthy, we're happy, we have plenty to eat and a roof over our heads and a garden and some doors. Nobody's going to take that away from us just because I get wacky in my REM cycle. Honestly, Rose, you'd like me in my dreams."
"I'm sure I'd love you," she'd said, a little sadly, and kissed him until his ears steamed up.
But it was just as well that he'd stopped telling and she'd stopped asking. The dreams had turned sour. They'd started with Rose- nearly everything did- and for a while it had been the two of them, rambling through the landscape of his mind in a giddy joy. And then he'd dreamed- or remembered, his doubtful mind liked to interject. No. Dreamed. He'd dreamed that the center of the universe came loose and spun them to opposite edges of the wheel. He dreamed she'd been falling, and that he'd failed to reach her. He dreamed he'd let her go.
It was probably a metaphor for his insecurities; but as metaphors go, it could go to hell.
And then new dreams: dreams of fire and sweat and loss, oh, loss; grief so sharp he wakes in pain and presses himself against her, sleeping, needing her skin to anchor him back in the world. He dreams his enemies are reborn while he dies. Thank God for her beside him, or he'd never know what was real.
On days like this, though, good lazy days; those dreams seem so very far away.
After lunch, he settles into the couch in the study and tries to read The Woman in White for the third time. But it's dense as a jungle and he has a leftover roast-beef sandwich in his gullet, weighting him into sleep; it's not long before he drifts off and away, with his glasses sliding down his nose and a slight drool beginning.
Rose's voice, echoing off the kitchen counters, wakes him.
"...can't stay like this," she says; she's only murmuring but he can hear it, sharp as a knife through the walls, her pain. It's dark outside- the only light is from the crack under the door. "It's not right. He's stuck. He can't even remember-"
"You didn't see what they did." A second voice, one he can't exactly place. A woman's voice, low and sweet. "Those- things. They killed people. They destroyed people."
"He'd know how to stop them."
"He chose this." A sigh. "He told me what to do, and I'm not going to disobey him. He said it was the right way. The only way."
"He's not a god, Martha." Rose sounds so tired; it's as if he can hear the framework of her voice, the thin steel holding everything back, together; the skeleton of her strength still upright, but bare. It sounds like a dream. He doesn't understand where it's come from, that desperation. And he doesn't know if he's to blame. "He's not perfect. He needs us as much as we need him. We could help him- we could fight. We have to set him free."
"This isn't Torchwood." The other woman says, tightly. "You're not in charge here."
"You haven't been to Torchwood, obviously, because I'm nothing like in charge." Rose half-chuckles. "But I trust them. We have to at least talk to them. We don't have to tell them everything, but we could at least be doing something- they could run a scan, assess the threat, maybe even-"
"You'd be putting them in danger."
He stands up and a floorboard creaks beneath him; the voices in the kitchen go silent.
"Rose ?" he calls out.
"I'm in here." Her voice is tense, but there's something else in it now; something that he's never been able to pin a name to. Something only present when she speaks to him. "In the kitchen." He pads in, following her voice; she's at the table, with two cups of tea getting cold between her and her guest. A tall, gorgeous woman with toffee skin and amber eyes, dressed in a sharp black suit. He takes a second to appreciate her good taste- she's even got an old-fashioned watch chain dangling from one pocket. Martha, he thinks. Martha. He knows this in his gut. I heard Rose say her name, that's all.
Rose clears her throat. "Have you been awake long ?"
"No," he lies. "Just a second. Everything all right ?" From the sound of their argument he'd expected them to be staring daggers at each other- but they're not. They share a look, a look that carries both resignation and affection, trust and doubt; and then Rose looks back at him.
"Everything's fine, darling. This is Martha- a friend of mine. I'm sure I've mentioned her before." The women exchange another look and once more he's in the wilderness, outside their understanding. Martha leans forward, offers him one delicate hand; as he reaches to take it, he's struck by a flash of-
-me too, if I ever pass my exams.
"Martha," he says. "Nice to meet you."
He dreams of the machine.
It has metal fingers that close around his brain; metal skin and metal teeth and a metal heart that remembers. Only one heart, not like him, not like in his dreams- but the machine smells his second heart, tracks it like a dog and carves it out, still beating, still warm. The machine burrows into him. Brain and lungs and hair. Eyes and tongue. Lips that kiss and feet that walk and he's erased. The machine drinks his blood. The machine drinks. The machine drinks and he's-
"Wake up." She's shaking him. "Wake up- darling, wake up. It's only a dream. You're safe. You're here."
He lies on his back in the dark.
Rose is beside him. Above him, there's a plain ceiling with a lamp; he can feel cotton blankets and a duvet, tangled between his legs. He flexes his fingers, reaches for her hand and finds it. She folds her fingers between his and he squeezes so hard he can feel her pulse. She rests her head on his shoulder, and he smells her shampoo- white tea and lilies. The really expensive stuff. The stuff she uses when she's in a good mood. When she likes him. He focuses on that; the unimportant details, the realities, the little bits- fine hairs on his legs and streetlights coming in through the curtains and every single toe on his left foot.
The world returns, if slowly.
"Just a dream," he says, more for her sake than for his. "I'm fine. Really, I'm fine. Go to sleep. No- I don't remember. Forgotten it already." But he hasn't forgotten. And he doesn't think. He plans. Because there's something that he's missing.
He has a scientist's mind; he figures now might be the time to use it.
For reasons he still cannot quite explain, he has, over the last few weeks, taken a DNA sample from everyone he knows. It began as an idle thing, staring at Rose's hair on her hairbrush; but now there is a cabinet at the corner of the lab that looks just like the other cabinets, but for the lock on the door. It is his collection.
He told Rose he had a report to finish, which isn't strictly true; so now he's here, in front of the screen, staring into the imaging patterns of his own genes like a pool of water, watching the ripples turn.
No, he's not wrong. He's different, his logical mind argues. Not a match. An anomaly.
The first twelve times he loaded himself into the imager, he blamed the results on equipment failure and tried again. Loaded Rose's profile, Peter's, Maryann's; even Richard, the next-door neighbor who cut himself repairing his front step. Their strands were stable, clean. His is- well, it's difficult for him to admit it.
His genes aren't staying still.
"It's a reflection," he says aloud, to no one, feeling very stupid. "A kind of reflection." Like a still pond giving him back his own face, the imaging software gives him a picture of what he's supposed to be- but there's a flicker, a flash of something else- the shape distorts like a ghost image, a broken television, the movement out of the corner of your eye that was a newspaper caught in the wind.
The results seem fake. Like a school project that someone didn't spend enough time on.
He's lost in thought when there's a knock outside the lab. He shuts the monitor down but leaves the program running; he rises and is halfway to the door when he glances at the clock. It's nearly ten at night- there's no personnel on this floor anymore, and security is long gone as well. There's a shape outside the frosted glass, a narrow shape that seems almost familiar. "Hello ?" It comes out thinly, and he clears his throat. "Who is it ?"
"Martha." She taps the door again, impatiently. "Let me in." He doesn't feel afraid but caught- caught in a wheel which has begun to turn. He opens the door.
"Hello, Doctor," she says.
"You're Rose's friend," he says, stiffly, when he's shut the door behind her. Again, she's so well-dressed, with an old-fashioned chain attached to her jeans. "Nice of you to drop by, but-"
"Forget all that," Martha says. She waves it away. "You know why I'm here. You must."
"Your dreams." She leans in, over the desk, and he swallows nervously for reasons passing understanding. "The machine. Space. Fire. Blood. Two hearts. Green and blue lights, like neon signs but not neon signs- your ship. You remember its name ?"
"I don't know- I don't know what you're talking about," he stammers. Martha rolls her eyes.
"You didn't get any less evasive," she sighs. And fumbles in her pocket for a moment. "I can't talk to you like this. Don't you remember ?" She holds up a watch- just an insignificant thing. It seems to be moving in front of his face, so that his eyes can't focus. "Do you remember this ? How much do you remember ?"
"You're not making sense."
Martha makes a noise of disgust, then glances down at the lights still flashing on his desktop. Before he can stop her, she reaches over and flips the monitor back on. "That's- that's confidential. Classified. My own private research."
"That's you," she says, without doubt. "God, you are brilliant. Even as a human you've seen right through it."
"Seen through what ?"
"The disguise." She swings the watch before him, like a hypnotist; it might be a cheap trick but it's working. He turns inside it like an astrolabe, settling on a fixed point and experiencing what might, in a better world, have only been deja vu. He sees starlight and fire. Fire at the edges of the earth- no, not the earth. Another world. A world red and gold and bright, breaking apart like the continents at the formation of the earth. But these aren't birthing pains- this world is dying. Martha whispers to him, "Do you see it now ? Who you really are ?"
"You called me the Doctor," he murmurs, "like you knew me before."
"We travelled together," she agrees. "You and me and all your baggage." Her mouth turns sideways, like a smile, but not quite- it's too sad. "You showed me the stars. The past. The future. You're a traveller. An alien."
"That's not possible."
"Plenty of things are possible," Martha says.
"What sort of alien ?"
"A time lord." She's far away as she says it, speaking to somebody past him. She looks the way Rose does sometimes. "Not pompous at all. Your people invented time travel, I think. That's what you said." He sits down, very hard, in his desk chair. "I'm sorry, is this all a bit much for you ? I could tell you comforting lies- that I'm mad, that I'm just jealous of your research, that I'm having a laugh." He glances up at her, and reads her tired, beautiful face very carefully.
"You're not having a laugh," he says. "That much I can see."
"So what's the reason-" he gestures at the lab equipment, the sterile coats and humming computers, "-for all this ? The disguise ? If I'm some sort of, of time-travelling alien, what am I doing here ? What am I doing on earth at all ? Oh my God," he says, eyes widening, "is Rose an alien, too ? She's not really a party planner, is she ?" Martha shakes her head. "But not an alien. If she's not, then- are you ?" He recoils from her, then thinks better of it; and Martha, at last, has a good laugh.
"Nah, we're human as can be. Your companions." She winks. "You like them young and pretty, as far as I can tell."
"You're here because of me," she says. "Because I put you in a machine that re-wrote your DNA, and then you got dumped here in this backwater universe. As a human. And I did it-" she stops, something caught in her throat. "I did it to save the world," she whispers.
"Martha-" he reaches for her. "You did all this to protect him ?"
"No," Martha snaps. "Not him. Not you. I'm not protecting you. I'm trying to undo the damage," she adds, bitterly.
"The damage ?"
"Do you know what happens ? Can you see that ? Rose told me once, that you can see what will be, and what could be, and what's already been." She peers at him, curious and still desperately sad. "Can you imagine what happens when a man with your power- your immense power, and your ship and your machines, and all your knowledge- can you imagine what would happen to that man if he let his worst side out ?" Martha leans forward. "He'd finally use that power. He'd let go. Stop caring. He'd make the world in his own image, and he'd say that it was good."
"Stop it," he says, angrily. "That's a riddle. But I'm a man. A human man. I'm not a monster or a god. I'm just a human man."
"Now you are," she says. "I did that. I stopped you. Do you know what you're capable of ?" she continues. He can see tears gathering at the fringe of her lashes, unshed tears, so familiar but still out of place in her stranger's expression. "What you could become ?" His heart seems to go almost still. "That man I saw, that future possibility- he was young like you, but so sick- twisted." She shakes her head, clearing it somehow, and when she speaks again, she's steadied by her fury. "He was a time lord, and he knew things that you knew. He knew me. But he wasn't the Doctor anymore."
"No." It's only a whisper. There's no reason for him to feel so frightened, no logical reason, but a cold tremor passes through him anyway. It feels like- God, how to explain it. It feels like tomorrow. Like the turn of days to come, and looking back down a long tunnel that's already been. He knows what happens next. And it can't be true. "It can't happen. Him. We stopped it. I- I stopped it. All of me. So many of me." He stares at Martha and he's sure he must look mad. "I don't know what I'm saying. That's not possible." She glances away. "How could I be them ? Martha- you know so much, you tell me- how's that possible ?"
"You're a time lord."
"That's not a real thing," he cuts back. "Stop saying that ! They're made-up words, Martha. Tell me the truth. Am I insane ?"
"You're a time lord," she shouts. "Two hearts, one thick head ! You can change your cells, your face- to keep from dying. That's what Rose told me." She's nearly crying, but he can see her stubborn refusal in every line of her body. "I loved you, but you- that future you, he killed people- he killed so many people and he built his machines, and I saw it ! I saw the future. He showed it to me and at first I didn't believe him, but then I saw- I saw it, Doctor ! And I hated you- I hated you for not saving us."
"He- he showed you ? Who's-"
"It doesn't matter who. Just somebody who was willing to tell me the truth." She drums her fingers nervously against the desk, and goes on. "We had to shut you down. Stop you. Before it started. Because it always ends with him."
"What is he ?"
"He's you." She sighs, rubs her temples in slow circles. "The Valeyard. Your possible future. Your probable future, really," she adds. "He's like a mirror of you. Your worst impulses. All your wrong choices- your darkest side. In the flesh. Something happens to you, in your future, and you become that thing."
"I-" he steps back from her. "I don't believe that."
She frowns at him.
"Believe it or don't believe it," she says. "But it's the truth. I saw it with my own eyes. I have to keep you here and I have to keep you here forever." When she looks down, her gaze falls onto the photo face-up on his desk. Rose. Rose, with her hair pulled out of the pins. "It's gotten complicated."
"Dose she know ?" He's whispering now, fingers brushing the glossy surface of the picture.
"No." Martha frowns more deeply. "She knows my cover story- the Family of Blood. God, I could never believe anyone would buy that. The Family of Blood."
"The what ?"
"Never mind it." She chuckles, bitterly. "But we got stuck here, in her universe. I had to think of something. I had help to trap you back in our world, turn you human; but once we were in the TARDIS, it seemed to take control." Martha runs her fingers on the edge of the desk and then sits down, legs crossed neatly at the ankles. "Popped us through a hole in the universe. I still don't really know how. But here's the best bit: we crash-land and there's smoke pouring out and I'm trying to convince you there's been a car accident; and who runs over first but Rose-bloody-Tyler. She'd had us on her screen since we popped through the void. She was waiting for you."
"Rose." He tries to remember a woman who is Rose but isn't, a happier woman who doesn't keep secrets. She's in there, somewhere, rattling around in his sense memory. In his dreams. "My wife. Rose."
"It was so adorable. So neat." Martha's voice is distant- she drums her fingers on the counter-top, annoyed. "The TARDIS found you a pretty little house and a garden and a nice job and slotted you in, and you woke up like a mental patient living in a fantasy. Thought you were married to her. Your story wrote itself."
"No," she says. "Rose played along because I told her you were in danger. But she's smarter than she looks. I told her months, and it's been months. I've had to change things too many times. She's getting tired of puttering around the TARDIS and reading books. She's learning too much. Sooner or later she's going to put things together."
"Sooner." He stands up. "Much sooner. I'm going to tell her everything," he says firmly. "And this whole thing, this storytelling, is done. You may be mad, and I may be mad, but Rose isn't. Well, she is a bit. But not much. Anyway- I think you should leave my lab." He points an imperious finger at the exit. When Martha smiles, it's like a cat; he wonders, uncomfortably, where she found a canary on such short notice.
"It's been nice talking to you, like this," she says. "I didn't mean to tell you all that, but it's... I get so bored. So lonely. Nobody remembers but me."
"Fine." She gets up from the desk, smoothly; a flash of silver catches his eye, in her right hand. He's reaching for her wrist when it comes up, quick as a spark in a circuit; the needle doesn't even hurt as it sinks into his thigh. "I'm sorry," Martha says.
I'm so sorry.
The world tilts and bursts into a glossy blue- time seems to slow. "Retcon," she says, from above him; her voice is underwater, swimming above and below him. "It won't hurt you. It never hurts you. I promise, you won't feel a thing." The ceiling becomes a Van Gogh; he slips to the floor. He shuts his eyes. "Goodnight, Doctor."
Rose, he thinks, as he goes under.
Rose would know.
"I'd know what ?" she asks him, over the marmalade jar. He glances up at her and quirks one eyebrow.
"Oh, I dunno. Plenty of things." He smiles. "Pass the sugar ?"
"You said it in your sleep last night, over and over. Rose would know. Rose would know." She licks the spoon and reaches backwards to drop it into the sink. "I was just wondering. It's flattering to find out you think I'm such a brain."
"You're fantastic," he agrees.
When he looks up she's staring at him again, with an unfocused expression that pains him to see it. He doesn't know why. In fact, there's a lot he doesn't know, this morning. He makes a mental note to cut back on the rich foods before bed. "Everything okay ?" He covers her hand on the table with his own, and rubs it gently. "I wasn't teasing you, you know. I really do think you're wonderful."
"Fantastic," she corrects, softly. "I'm fantastic."
She leaves him sleeping.
There have been a lot of mornings in her life, a lot of days when the first thought in her head was oh God, it's all been a dream.
First it was the ship: she'd wake and her eyes would focus on the unstable soft blackness of the room, and she'd drop her head onto the pillow and wonder at the weirdness of her unconscious. Only dreams. An alien; a bloke-y sort of alien with big ears and an explosive smile; a ship that spun paths out of time and space; a snowfall and Charles Dickens and the end of the world. It was only when the lights turned on, and the consoles hummed to life, that it all became real again.
And it was so real. More real than the flat and the washing and the job that went nowhere and the television that was always too loud or too grainy; it was all like a film reel where you know more is coming, more will happen in a blaze of color and sound. Her life had not totally prepared her for the fullness of living.
Then he changed, and she woke the morning after thinking everything is alright, he'll have gotten better, it was all a dream- but he wasn't better, he was just different, and he stayed different, and different was fantastic.
And then the war.
And then the fall.
Falling and falling, with only Pete and Jackie and Mickey to land on. No hand to hold, no chance to wake into the old life, with all the danger and delight. The end of dreams.
Now she remembers that first day- that second first day, the day he came back to her, just wrong, with a head full of human nonsense and a black hole where those memories ought to be, but still this- still love for her, luminous and elastic as a flame, still bright. It kills her to know what she meant to him, even filtered through his make-believe identity, through the hide-and-seek; even after all this time. She remembers, and she wakes up next to him, with the birds singing.
"It was all a dream," she whispers, and strokes his cheek. She's propped up on one elbow, watching him sleep. Pretending. "Just a dream, and you and I have always been like this- just a man and a woman in their house, in their bed, living their life."
Day after day.
He rolls over, rubbing his nose into the pillow and mumbling; he itches his nose and opens one filmy eye in her direction.
"Did you say something ?" he mumbles. Rose shakes her head.
She'll let go of this moment, because she has to. Rose has always understood her place in the universe and it isn't here, in this bed, with this man that isn't quite the man she loves. "I'm going out," she says, quietly, "just a couple of errands. You stay in bed. You looked tired last night, you probably need it."
"Tired, mm." He rolls onto his face. "Freemed of'oo."
"Dreamed of you," he murmurs, wobbily, and is asleep again before she has the chance to gather a reply. She slips out of bed and finds some clothes; the shower clears her head. When she gets out, he's still asleep; she's beginning to wonder if that isn't some sort of sign, like a kind of hibernation- like the sleeping he did when he changed his face, regeneration. He knows her more; knows things, says things that jog her memory as sharply as they seem to dimly tug at his.
Her cell's charging in the hall; she flips it open and dials. With her other hand, she finds her keys, purse, wallet. "Martha ?" she says, softly, when the other woman picks up. "Yeah. I have to ask you something. No. Not- yeah. That and something else. D'you mind if I come over ?" She waits. "Okay. I'm on my way now."
She leaves him sleeping.
At the flat, Martha lets her in and stands in the hallway, watching her, as she takes off her shoes. In what Rose hopes is a subtle fashion, she glances at Martha's hip- the chain is conspicuously absent. So far, so good. They walk together in silence to the living room, and Rose feels it again, at last- that missing ache, that warm hum that begins in her bones. The TARDIS sits in the center of the room, top nearly at the ceiling, still and quiet; but, Rose is sure, still alive. Sleeping and waiting, but always so alive. She peers in the half-open door, glimpses the warm gold of the walls, radiating slightly with pleasure and welcome.
So many hours spent in here- both before, and after. Hours spent climbing the ladders and the stairs, following the winding halls, sitting cross-legged in the Doctor's libraries and gardens and kitchens, leafing through his books, even when the language doesn't make sense. Letting her hands linger on the spines and the edges of his desk, where he rests his heels- oh, the bad manners. And fewer and fewer rooms as the weeks go by. The ship's powering down, she can feel it- can feel the urgency of what has to be done. What needs restoring.
"She knows you're here," Martha says, grinning. "And I'm finally round the bend- calling it she." Rose giggles and rests her hand against the wood, almost warm to the touch.
"She's definitely female," Rose murmurs. "You're lucky, getting to keep her near you like this. I got so used to sleeping onboard that it was weird, when I got stuck here." She strokes the grain with her knuckles, recognizing the gesture as the Doctor's. "I couldn't hear her humming me to sleep. I missed that for the longest time."
"Me too," Martha says. They look at one another and smile. "So what's bothering you ?"
"The watch." Rose tries to make it sound casual, but there's nothing casual about the situation. "Have you opened it lately ? Because he's been saying things, doing things... are you sure it isn't time ? To let him out ? I know I keep asking, but what if it's- damaging him ? His brain ? I don't even know what the device did to him, really. What if we wait too long and he can never come back ?"
"He's perfectly fine," Martha says; she's cool and distant. "If we let him out too soon, they'll find him and kill him. He's safe like this."
In her head, she'd already been certain of what Martha would say. Still, she had to hear it to be certain of what comes next. The elaborate disguise, crossing the universes, the constant danger that never materializes- Rose knows she's not a brilliant girl, but it's all wearing a bit thin. She can't wait any longer for Martha to change her mind. Hoping she's still got the vacant look still somewhere in her arsenal, she smiles and glances away, twirling a strand of hair between her fingers. She wanders through the open TARDIS door, shivers a little at the coldness of the quiet. Martha doesn't quite follow her in but watches from the doorway.
The Doctor's coat is hanging from a strut, the arms neatly- lovingly- folded. Rose pets it, absently, thinking of a hundred times her hand have brushed that coat, wrapped it around herself, spread it out to lie upon, star-gazing.
"Safe," she repeats. "Well, that's all I could want."
"It's nice, isn't it ?" Martha's voice seems strained. "I mean, having him- just a bloke. Just a good ordinary guy."
At that, Rose nearly breaks. It's not the first time, and it certainly won't be the last- not as long as she's alive, as long as the Doctor still rattles around in the universe with two kettles and a length of string and Rose Tyler's heart in his pockets. She wants to shake Martha, wants to scream that it's not nice and it's not good, it's terrible; it's terrible that a man so awfully alive should be shut up inside himself like nesting dolls; doing his taxes and driving on the correct side of the road and not remembering how special and strange he is. She wants to cry when she thinks of the two hearts that used to beat against her hand.
But she looks at Martha and she wants to pity her, too; wants to love her a little, give her back the peace that she's given up, all to protect this stubborn, selfish alien. Rose can't imagine why he charged Martha with this, blithely trusting that she'd care for him all this time, that she'd want to, that nothing would happen to her- not even thinking how sad it would be, how very alone.
It's so perfectly him that she wants to scream all over again; she's just got nobody to scream at but one lonely woman and a man who can't spell Raxicoricofallapatorius.
"It is," she says instead. She takes Martha's hand and gives it a squeeze. "He's so lucky he's got you looking after him. I'm glad neither of us had to do this alone." She is glad. She's glad. But she's not ready to bury the Doctor in this human grave. She thanks Martha and she kisses Martha's cheek.
On her way out, she steals the watch.
In the car, she starts to laugh- laughs so hard, in fact, that she nearly veers into a guardrail before she starts to cry. Because it's too funny. And it's terrible. All the new Torchwood training and the expensive weaponry and the endless schemes the Doctor cooked up, and the only tricks she's ever really relied on are the ones she learned from Jackie.
"They always underestimate blondes," her mother used to sniff. "And people dressed in pink. Don't carry a wallet in your back pocket. Don't give your number out to strange men. Never hide your valuables anywhere obvious."
Anywhere obvious, indeed.
The watch was in the only spot it could possibly have been- in the Doctor's pocket, in the coat left so carefully on the strut. The Doctor had never, not once in all the times Rose had watched him, folded the sleeves of his coat and laid it tenderly on a bar- no, Martha had done that. Rose can picture her setting it aside, needing to hold it just a second longer. Keeping everything the Doctor was safe inside the folds.
Martha told her once about the hospital, meeting the Doctor, one night late with the television muted and him asleep upstairs; Rose remembers her face as she described it. She's no great reader, except with people- people are easy enough to anyone paying attention. Martha had gone on and on about the Judoon- their suits and weapons and scanners- and the Plasmawhatsit, and the danger of losing the air, and the upside-down rain; but what Rose had heard most clearly were the things she hadn't said- the kindness in the Doctor's eyes when he smiled at her, the loneliness, the strong way he'd carried her in his arms when the air ran out. All the details she skimmed, mentioning them only with a breath, a word, a syllable. Rose heard them, and understood.
She wonders if they've ever realized how alike they are. Probably not, she frowns. Self-reflection was rarely high on the Doctor's list of priorities. But so alike- Martha the doctor, and the Doctor. Detached brilliance and a fiercely sentimental heart at war, desperate not to lose that control. Needing so much to be loved, and being so unwilling to ask.
Oh, Martha, she thinks. Rose feels momentarily ashamed of herself, for figuring it out and using it to her advantage; but she needs him. They both need him. In the end, it will all have been for the best.
I'm so sorry.
She doesn't go straight back.
To be fair, she's terrified that she's made the exact wrong choice- that Martha's way is the only safe one, and that she's damning them all to be vaporized or enslaved or whatever it is that the Family wants. The warm, living weight of the watch in her pocket's like a stone from a riverbed, swinging against her belly as she walks. Up the back trails, flipping the security systems off as she passes with a clicker in her pocket. Pete's land is gorgeous- acres of it, just outside the city, bought (she's sure) at considerable cost. She didn't have time to see the half of it, her first time here- and her second arrival, she did little more than sit in bed, awake, all through the night until it was time to go to work again. She shudders at the memory.
But when weeks turned to months, she'd been up and out, walking the trails that criss-crossed the gardens and the small woods beyond. Sometimes with Mickey, before he drove her to the hub, and sometimes alone. Often alone. Early in the morning the air had a sweet, exotic smell and a freshness to it- almost like another world. She'd needed that. She'd walked until she'd started to run, faster and faster on familiar paths, taking the time to notice new things every day. A spray of flowers growing in a rotted log, the shape of the house rising against the hill, muted by the fog. It's not where she began, but there's a beauty in this world, on this earth, that she can't deny.
I'm another sentimental fool, she thinks, with something between regret and delight. She trudges quietly up through the glassed-in patio, through the kitchens, taking the back stairs two at a time up to Jackie's door.
Rose knocks, lightly.
"What ?" she hears her mother say, through the wall. "Pete, for God's sake, I told you, you don't have to knock." Rose giggles to herself and opens the door, revealing Jackie in a blue nightshirt, hairbrush in hand. Jackie drops the brush. "Oh my God- oh my God ! Rose !" Jackie grabs her and presses her into a hug, squealing all the while. "Where have you been ?" she cries. "Three weeks since I saw you last- bit like the old days, isn't it ? Can't you tell me anything ? Come on, sweetheart, you can tell me. It's Torchwood, isn't it ? Got you running away from home with barely a duffel- have you lost weight ?" With some effort Rose detaches and sits on the edge of the bed, grinning.
"Can't tell you anything," she says, for what might be the fifteenth time, "because you'd be in danger. It's not Torchwood and it's not dad, so stop giving him hell." She glares at Jackie knowingly, and her mother frowns. Caught. "Other than that," Rose continues, smiling more widely, "I'm fine and I'm happy and I did lose four pounds- how on earth could you tell ?"
"Your face, sweetheart." Jackie picks up her brush; she shakes it in Rose's direction once, for good measure. "Looking narrow. Your color's bad, too. You're in trouble and you won't let me do a thing. You're driving me mad."
"Not far to go," she smirks.
"Is dad home ?" Rose glances around at the room her parents- well, half of her parents, and one man who's nearly her parent- share. Two of Pete's ties are strung over the closet door, and a pair of shoes are flung sideways underneath the bed.
"Yeah, he's home. Downstairs, in the office. It's not like I've been after him, not much anyway," Jackie adds, defensively manuevering. "You disappeared. You work for him, what was I supposed to think ?"
"Sorry, mum." Rose plants a quick kiss on Jackie's cheek, then heads out and down the hall. Jackie follows her as far as the top of the stairs, muttering about aliens and men and alien men.
"You'll stay for dinner ?" her mother calls. Rose shakes her head. "No, of course not. World to save." Rose smirks to herself, skipping down the stairs- leave it to her mum to make that sound like a bad thing. "I'll see you soon, Rose, won't I ?"
In the office, Pete's bent over a laptop, comparing printouts to a spreadsheet, squinting and chewing a pen. Rose watches him for a long moment, not really breathing, thinking about her father- her actual father, the one whose hand she held when- well, never mind. So many times she's wondered. She thinks about Pete Tyler of that other world, chewing a pen like this; and she doesn't know if, in the end, it even matters. If a universe is only a reflection, not a copy; or if there's something left of her father in this man, in his quiet kindness, like the steam of a handprint against frozen glass.
Rose clears her throat. "Hi, dad." He looks up at her, startled, but he doesn't show it much. This Pete is a man with authority, not easily rattled by half-sneaky stepdaughters in trainers.
"Rose." He smiles, sets the pages aside, and then seems to remember that the last time they spoke, she was running down the driveway with a plastic bag full of clothes, asking him for vacation time. "Are you home ?" he asks, evenly.
"No." She sits down, facing him, on the sofa. "But I need your help."
And if her question was ever really a question at all, she thinks she might have figured it out. Because this man who isn't her father and isn't not her father just looks at her and doesn't hesitate, just puts a hand over hers and smiles at her, probably seeing the traces of himself that she might have gotten from him, if life had treated him differently.
"Yeah, of course," her father says.
"Deep scan for alien tech," she says, glancing at the bank of monitors. "Pull out all the stops- I need to know if there's anything on earth or in the skies around it, that we don't recognize. It'd be big. Powerful. But cloaked, maybe. We'll know it when we see it, I think."
"You know," Pete grins, beside her, "I thought you needed money."
"I need money," Mickey says, from behind him, tapping out codes into a workstation. They turn and face him- Rose covering her mouth with one hand, trying not to laugh; and Pete mock-dour. "Let's pretend I didn't say that."
"Youth," Pete says.
They stand in the Torchwood One communications hub, shoulder-to-shoulder, while a couple of techs hustle around shouting orders and powering up the equipment. Pete's access isn't something she takes advantage of very often, but there are times when her fear of being ostracized as the boss's daughter is outweighed by how very stupid she'd be for not exploiting that fact. Mickey hands Pete a receiver. "Voice imprint, Peter Allan Tyler," he states clearly, into the microphone. "Authorization level one."
"Ready to run, boss."
Banks of computers flare to life, flickering signals scroll across desktops, and satellite imaging patterns display on the oversized screens above their heads. Rose watches it all impassively, one hand folded around the watch in her pocket. "Rose," Mickey says softly, "you can tell us what's happening. We could help. You know there's nothing we wouldn't-"
"Just- it's just something I've got to do," she says, evasive, with her hands up her sleeves. "Alright ?"
Mickey rolls his eyes.
"Torchwood's ruined you." He folds his arms and glances to Pete. "She used to be so honest. Except about the Doctor. And me. And she lies to her mum sometimes. So I guess-"
"I could demand that you tell me, as your boss," Pete adds. "I could threaten to fire you." Rose looks at him with a slightly wicked glint in her eye and he sighs, deeply. "And Jackie'd love that, I'm sure." He looks at the ceiling. "I thought nepotism was supposed to make hiring simpler." Rose nudges him gently with her elbow, and they all grin. In companionable silence, they watch the data tabulate itself; scanners and satellites do their work, fingers tap keyboards, Torchwood flexes its considerable reach like the well-oiled machine that it is. She's proud of them, of this. At least in one world, Torchwood got it right; helping instead of hurting.
"Little disturbance near the coast, here," Mickey says, indicating the blinking light on the screen map with his pen. "But that's just scrap parts, low-level radiation. We've already got a team there. Not your guys." He clicks through to the broader scan data. "Marker here and here- UNIT has teams on-site, both of those. One was an arms dealer, human but with an alien partner. They lost some cargo and UNIT had to clean it up. No civilians got hurt. The other's just a tourist ship, needed a stopover. They're already gone- what the scanner picked up was leftover trails."
"The tourist ship- are you sure about them ?"
"We're sure," Mickey says, watching her. "They had kids with 'em and all. I mean, alien kids, but kids. UNIT says they had a patchy old ship, and there was only five of them altogether. Not an invasion force. They questioned them and let them go."
"It'd be easier if we knew what we were looking for," Pete adds.
"I'm looking for-" Rose stops, puts a hand to her forehead, exhausted and relieved and still uncertain. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little out of it. I don't know. I don't know what I'm looking for, except that it's big, and it's dangerous, and if it isn't there then I don't know what to think." She stares at the pair of them, wild-eyed. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry- I shouldn't have come here. I've put him in danger."
"Him ?" Mickey asks, sharply curious. "Him ?"
"Rose, if this big alien danger is there somewhere, don't you think Torchwood should be out in front of it ?" Pete paces before her, gathering steam. "I know the Doctor always dealt with it alone- never let anyone else have a say or an in, but that's not how we work here. We deal with things together. As an organization."
"Him ?" Mickey says again.
"I know," Rose says, facing Pete, nearly shaking. "I know, but I just- it was sudden, and I didn't understand, and I thought- I thought I knew what I had to do to keep him safe. But I don't know anymore." She looks back at the screen. "There's nothing there. There's really nothing there. But if there's nothing there, what does that mean ? Does it mean it's over, or that it hasn't started ? Do they even..." she stops and stares out, past them. "I believed her. I believed everything. But what if-"
Rose's phone rings.
"It's probably your mother," Mickey says, scowling. "Or maybe it's him."
Her hands tremble as she flips the receiver.
"I want it back," Martha hisses, into her ear. "I want it back and I want it back now."
"Martha-" she begins.
"You have no idea what you're dealing with," Martha continues, furiously. But strangely, she sounds like she's crying. Rose strains to listen for background noise, to guess where she might be.
"Let's meet," she says. "You and I, we can talk-"
"You have no idea !" she shouts, and chokes back the last syllable with a sob. "The end of the world, Rose Tyler ! The end of the world ! If you open that watch, it's all over. I can't let you do that. I'd sooner see him dead than see him become- that thing. I won't let it happen." Rose's voice deserts her and she holds the mobile at eye level, trying to focus. Her heart's a river of ice, slowing to a crawl.
"Where is he ?" she whispers.
"He's gone," Martha says coldly, "until I get that watch back." She hangs up the phone. Rose holds it in for a moment and then lets it go, hurls the phone at the wall, where it shatters into a hundred tiny slivers of plastic and wire. Mickey and Pete move to hold her but she shakes them off. Her fists clench. So many moments she waited, so many moments she wasted on lies, mostly knowing they were lies and hoping anyway, play-acting in a pretty house with a man only half-aware of his own senses. She feels stupid and angry and God, she's so afraid for him, for this game that she doesn't understand.
She feels very, very far from herself.
"She has the Doctor," Rose says, and lets them register their shock for a long moment. "And I'm going to get him back."
"You didn't do this to protect him."
Martha sits up at the sound of her voice, swivels half-way around in her chair to face the doorway.
"No," she says. "And yes." She stirs sugar into her tea. "Maybe I wanted to protect him from himself."
It hadn't taken long to track the mobile signal to the house, the dollhouse of the scientist and his imaginary bride; the Torchwood computers could practically do that in their sleep. They were augmented by salvaged alien tech, so who knows, Rose thought. Maybe that is what they do in their sleep. Maybe they sleep. Assuming they don't spend nights plotting the takeover of the human race or playing a lot of sudoku. She crosses to the kitchen table and sits down in the opposite chair. "You can have him back when you give me the watch," Martha says, almost apologetically. "If you'd seen what I saw, you'd understand. But I don't expect you to."
"I don't have it."
"I don't have it." Rose pushes her own empty mug, left over from breakfast, closer; and pours herself a cup of the steaming tea. "I gave it to my dad for safekeeping." She takes a sip, and grimaces slightly at the bitterness. "If anything happens to the Doctor, or to me, they open the watch, and then they come for you." They sit in silence for several seconds; several seconds in which Rose is sure she can hear every tic and tremor of her muscles under her skin, every pulse of blood. She's bluffing and she's terrified. She takes another sip.
"Well," Martha says, "he might have been right about you." There's deep affection mingling with resignation in her voice. "How exactly can I bring you around ?"
"Tell me the truth."
"You're not going to like it."
"Martha-" Rose stops, takes a deep breath. "My real father's dead. I wasn't born in this universe- a universe, mind you, that uses carob instead of chocolate in almost every sweet. I get airsick on the zepplins. I killed the Doctor once. And I left him kicking and screaming." She looks away, and then back, with sudden sharpness. "There are a lot of things I don't like, but it's never stopped me."
Martha considers it.
The light in the kitchen is fading; nearly twilight, the white cabinets have gone yellow and pink, dusky and smooth as clouds around them. It's the hour Rose loves the best- the sun as red as an alien sun, orbiting slowly into the brightness of the sea. Last night, she remembers, she sat here with him; so out of place in his still human body, in a sweatshirt and jeans, eating off a plate with human manners. And she knows now, painfully, that she doesn't love the idea of him, the fairy-tale; the possibility of picket fences and children, flowers on her birthday and a ring. She doesn't love those things. She loves him.
She loves him, selfish and alien as he can be, restless and dishonest sometimes, with guilty dark eyes. She misses the tics in his hands and the dirty trainers he wore for days. She misses the pride and the righteous anger and the inexplicable kindness in him. She misses the depth of his joy, ever rising from sadness, when she said forever.
She waits for Martha to speak.
"When the Doctor took me home," Martha says at last, "I met a man at a party. A stuffy kind of thing at my sister's work. He was just an old man off to the sidelines, standing there, watching everybody; and I didn't know why, but it reminded me of the Doctor." She drums her fingers on the tabletop in a halting, nervous pattern. "There was an accident but he stopped it, saved as many people as he could- and then he recognized me."
"From where ?"
"From the future." She looks down at her hands, still ticking out a rhythm, and stills them. "He'd been searching for me, to give me a mission. To show me how to save the world."
"That's convenient, isn't it ?"
"It's true," Martha retorts. "Every choice goes somewhere. Parallel worlds you know about, but there's the more obvious one. The future. Every choice gets you closer. For you and me, we only get a few decades to really make a difference. But him, he gets centuries. Everything adds up. He makes a wrong choice here- he lets somebody die, he gives out vengeance instead of justice, he makes a mistake. You already know he can change his face. But then, one day, he changes, and everything changes."
"He changes into... what, exactly ?"
"He called himself the Valeyard." The name barely makes it past her lips. "The Doctor's future. A killer. A madman. Powerful enough to take the world in one hand, and squeeze." She trembles. "His bombs and his machines with- with people inside of them. It was so, so horrible. I didn't believe it," she adds, forcefully, "not at first. The Doctor was so good to me, I didn't think he could- I didn't think he was capable of it. Any of it. But then I saw it. That future. That old man let me reach inside his head and see- because he'd been there, he'd seen it happen and he hadn't been able to stop it. So he came back, and found me. I knew the Doctor, I- I trusted him. And he trusted me. That made it easier." She rests her forehead in one hand with such an exhausted gesture that Rose feels the urge to reach out, comfort her. So she does- extends a hand, rubs in small circles on Martha's shoulder. Martha lets out a sigh. "I feel like a monster."
"I don't think you are."
"Thanks." She smiles, wryly. "Weren't we enemies, like, two minutes ago ?"
"No," Rose says. "I don't think we ever were." She leans back, puzzling at something that's stuck with her. "But you've left out something important- that old man who told you all this. About the Valeyard ? The Doctor's future ? Who told you about the watch ?" Martha stays silent. "You looked into his mind- isn't that what you said ? Come on, you said it, you said it before- you had help. You used time lord technology against a time lord. That's not possible. There's nobody left. I know that, Martha, I know because I sat in his rooms and I read his books and I asked him, and he told me they're all gone. They're gone, so who was that man ?"
"He was the only one with the courage to tell the truth," Martha says. "Through everything, even at the worst. When I didn't want to believe it. He showed me my own world, on fire- the people enslaved. He showed me a way to save everyone."
"A name, Martha !"
"Harold Saxon," she says, firmly, tapping her fingers on the edge of her mug. "Our last, best hope."
He could be terrible and great, but he settles for that- for just being good. Doesn't that mean something?
He wakes, and Rose is there.
"Martha-" he says blurrily, "she's got this pen, but it's not a pen-"
"I know." Rose kneels beside him, smoothes the hair off of his forehead and checks his pulse in a gesture so smooth he could swear she's trained for that. "I used it on her."
When his eyes uncross, he looks up- up at the very dark ceiling of a very dark room, with the startling brightness of an open door somewhere past his prone feet. His feet, which actually seem very far away. He points at them, and then feels very stupid. "You're alright," Rose says, helping him to sit up, "just take a minute. You're not steady yet."
"I feel like a drunk in a rowboat," he agrees. He stops and thinks for a second, and then turns abruptly to face her; although she is really a good foot and a half to the left. "Wait a second, you used it on her ?" Rose shrugs.
"She's so very tired," is what she says. "She's been trying to do the right thing, and she's exhausted. I needed to get you away from her, and I needed to not hurt her to do it."
"I want to know what's going on."
"We can go over that later, but right now I'd like to get you out of the rental storage unit, okay ?" Well, he thinks, that explains the extreme cramp gathering in his lower back. She sweeps her hands under his arms and makes ready to help him up, but he crosses his arms and sits firmly on the concrete. "You need to help, you know. One, two, three-"
"Not until I know what's going on."
They remain in a very awkward position until Rose relents and lets him go; he almost immediately tips over. In the instant before head meets pavement she catches him, and they face one another, their arms tangled, Rose squatting on his thighs. "I'd make an inappropriate suggestion," he says quietly, somewhat humbled, "but I'm not sure I could follow through." She laughs. He considers the beauty of the sound.
"Okay," she says. "I'll tell you."
She weaves a story the likes of which he's never heard.
A story about aliens with three- "two," Rose corrects, hearts; about time-travel and war in the future, a war so great it could crack the world in half. A story about a boy and a girl, pulled apart by the howling void between the universes; another girl who'd been convinced he was the bringer of darkness, an old man who knew him better, apparently, than he knew himself. At the end of it, Rose rests her head in her hands for a long minute before she looks at him again, hair swept to the back of her neck and her eyes bright with tears. "And that's why I need you back," she says.
"Didn't you listen to your own story ?" he snaps, a little more sharply than he means to. "I hardly think 'the Doctor' would add anything positive to that insane cast."
"Don't what ?" he asks, genuinely confused and not a little angry. "What am I supposed to say ? Am I supposed to believe you ? Am I supposed to, to show you my time-travelling machine and say allons-y, to the future !" Rose looks inexplicably stricken. "Do you see how ridiculous that sounds ?"
"You used to say-" she stops short and a joyful expression washes over her features. "You used to say that !" She fumbles in her pocket and produces a dull-looking little thing, a pocketwatch, and holds it out to him in her hands. "Hold it," she says.
"I won't." He feels like a schoolboy stuck in some odd pageant, and he's not going to take part. Rose's eyebrows furrow and she grabs him by the wrist, so suddenly that he yelps; his arms fly apart and she thrusts the watch into one palm. Reflexively, his fingers close around it, and he's-
-new teeth. That's weird.
"Doctor ?" Rose peers at him. "Are you there ?"
-I wanted to be ginger.
"Rose," he says, "I'm not sure."
If you don't like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn't one. Books, best weapons in the world. I lived. Everyone else died, Sarah. Whole worlds flare up and shatter in his hands. The watch grows warm, almost boiling hot. The most ordinary person could change the world. "Rose," he cries out, afraid. "I'm-" Because now, Detective Inspector Bishop, no power on earth can stop me. I've trapped you here.
Rose Tyler, I-
"I know you're in there," she says steadily. "I know you're there. Come back to me."
-where's the fun for me ? I don't want to go home-
-the second sun would rise in the south, and the mountains would shine. The leaves on the trees were silver, when they caught the light, every morning it looked like a forest on fire. When you're locked away in your room, the words just come, don't they, like magic. Words, the right sound, the right shape, the right rhythm, words that last forever.
All right, so it's my turn ! Then kill me ! Kill me, if it'll stop you attacking these people. Do it ! JUST DO IT-
"No !" he shouts, and flings the watch away; it skids to a stop somewhere in the darkness. He covers his face with his hands and rolls away from her, sobbing for air. "No, no no no no no. It's not true. It's not true." He cries and he cries, his guts feel close to bursting, his head throbs. He cries for all the people- oh, all the people- and the creatures and the star he's seen burning; he cries for himself, he cries for Rose because he lost her, oh God, he really lost her and she can't be here, can't be real, and everything he loved was a lie. Rose lets him cry. The floor is cool and smooth; when he's finished he rests his cheek against it, hands curled into fists against his chest, breathing rapid and shallow. Rose lies down beside him and wraps her arm around his stomach, her belly against his back, her mouth against his ear.
He feels her single heart, beating through his spine.
"You see it," she whispers, "don't you ?" Her voice is soft as a river flowing under a wheel, the muted life of the underwater world. "How much I love you," she says, heating the skin at the back of his neck with her breath, like a sudden current of warmer water, tumbling in from the sea. "How much I'll always love you, no matter what happens."
"He's an alien. He's not even me," he adds. He rubs his fists into his eyes, trying to clear away the fire and the smoke and the neon- no, not the neon, the living lights of the ship- not neon lights, because there was no apartment, no normal house, no normal life after all. Just a living ship with a song in its head. He's going mad. "He's terrible."
"He could be," Rose admits. "He's got the power to do what he likes, but he does good. He could be terrible and great, but he settles for that- for just being good. Doesn't that mean something ?"
"It's better like this," he whispers. "Better that he should never get out. Better that he dies in this body."
"Never say that." She rolls him over, furiously, and grabs his shirtfront with both her hands, shaking him a little- rage, on such a sweetly pink-and-yellow sort of person, almost makes him laugh. But he's not laughing, not at her. "Don't you ever say that to me. It's not better. It's not right."
"Hang the Valeyard !" Rose cries out. She lets him go, stands up, paces against the wall angrily, hands in her hair. "He's a bogeyman. I don't believe in him !" she shouts. He lies on his back for a second and listens to her feet stomp the floor, looking for the watch. When he glances up at her, she's holding it out to him, questioning and ready. He climbs to his feet, a little wobbly at first; even though she's mad she's at his side, steadying him. He smiles down at her, and her eyes are starry with tears. He'll never understand what's happening here, why he deserved this, this faith- this certainty. He doesn't feel it, doesn't share it. "That future, that's never gonna happen to you," she says, more gently. He reaches for her hands, knotted as icicles around the watch, and wraps his own long fingers around them. She's shaking, but not from the cold. "I'd never- that will never happen. I just can't see you like this. It hurts. To be so close to you, and still-"
"What if you're wrong ?" He holds her hands together, breathes on them, feels them prickle under his touch, every cell reaching for him. "What if you let me out, and I'm a monster ?" Rose looks up at him and the world spins around them both; for the first time in a long time, he thinks he might really feel it. The world- the whole world. Round and round and round. Never stopping.
That's who I am.
"I'm not wrong," she says. "I know what sort of man you are. And I love that man." She doesn't look away, not even for an instant. "I love him. He's strong. Stronger than than paradoxes and futures and destiny. He made me strong. And he's in there, in you. He is you."
He leans in and rests his head on hers; there's a soft sensation like spider's legs as her fringe brushes his eyes. She's solid against him, feet planted on the ground, which continues to spin at a pace his human body can't track. Some part of him, awakening, begins to understand. This is what she feels like, all the time. Human Rose, so human. Always at the edge of something. Always falling, trusting that the landing won't be too hard to endure.
No- not trusting.
"You trust me so much ?"
"Yeah." She doesn't pause. "Always did, you silly git." She smiles at him and he realizes one thing is certain: he loves her. He hopes to God that out of everything he might be and used to be and will be, he'll be able to keep that.
"Well then, okay," he says.
He opens the watch.
It is very much like dying.
There seems to be a bright light splitting from his chest, or a mist that's like light; spilling out and around him and touching Rose with golden tendrils, illuminating the space between them. "Is that it ?" he murmurs. "Am I-"
-and then, the pain.
He knows, distantly, that Rose catches him before he hits the floor; he knows that his second heart grows like a root in his chest, heavy and solid before it begins to beat, then fluid and warm, spreading blood like fire through sleepy, almost-human veins. Everything expands and contracts; he shuts his eyes and sees galaxies spread behind them, feels the earth resume her orbit, reaches out and touches the world with every cell screaming to be known. To be remade. To say that it hurts is to forget pain- he slips back into a hole in reality that is his size but not his type, and he beats himself into place with sheer will. The man dies, and the Doctor lives.
The memories begin, and he is consumed by them.
Rose holds his hand. "You should go," he says, through a haze for him that transcends time; in his vision she could be Susan, or Romana, or Tegan or his own mother or a refrigerator or Persephone or Wonder Woman or some image of womanhood, some altar, the Virgin of the Tesseracts. It passes around him too quickly to grasp. "You should go, let me- do this. By myself."
But she's not them. She is only herself, Rose, his figure of mercy; the girl who never knew how to run away.
"No chance," she says, and holds on.
He comes to, improbably, halfway inside of an industrial-size clothes dryer.
"It's not a dryer," Mickey complains. "It's a stasis chamber. A really expensive one, mind you."
"It looks like a dryer," Rose says. She stretches out her arms to him and the Doctor reaches up, takes her hands, sits and swings his legs over the side. Still holding on. He looks at her, really looks at the rings around her eyes and the set of her jaw. She's ready for anything, he can tell- ready for him to say something stupid, like he so often did; ready to be hurt, ready to love him anyway. The man knows what to do but the time lord hesitates, only for a second. Maybe there's more of one than the other in him, in this instant, his first real instant back with her.
"Hello," he says. Rose's answering smile is like a spray of stars, cut through with slow-moving comet trails, brilliant and all-consuming, a universe on fire.
He does ramble on.
"Hello yourself," she says. They stay that way for a long minute, only their hands touching, his skin happy to feed from the warmth on hers, fingers twitching nervously and he's trying to figure it out, all in that second- what to say, how to say it, because he didn't come back on his own, triumphant, no, she did it. The aerials, the beast, the shop window dummies- Rose would know. And she must sense his hesitation because she lets him go, stands back ever so slightly, so that there's the measure of two blinks between them instead of one.
He was counting.
"Welcome back," Mickey says, and claps him on the shoulder. Rose turns away to shut off the machines, breaks the gaze and turns inward. He watches her, sadly, feeling lost. "Hey," Mickey adds, when there's too much silence, "you sure you got all the fuses plugged back in on this guy ?" The Doctor turns to Mickey and sizes him up, sees the strength in his stance and the slight wear in his eyes. Still funny, less cocky, more of a man.
"Mickey the idiot," he grins. "This is brilliant, just brilliant, the old gang- team, was it ? Conglomeration ?"
"You feeling okay, Doctor ?" Rose says, and she pauses on the last word. Only for an instant.
"Never better." He leaps to his feet, shakes his legs, spins in a circle that only wobbles a bit. Stretches his legs, cracks his neck, grins. Licks his teeth and winks. Mickey laughs, and Rose blushes. Rose blushes ? There must be something that he's missed, something that would-
-oh oh oh OH OH OH RASSILON AND THE SENATORS OF THE THIRD INTERGALACTIC CONFERENCE.
A human man, he thinks, hysterically. A human man and a human wife and yes, yes, those are her strong, beautiful thighs he's remembering. Oh, is he remembering. By the look on her face, and the way she's pointedly not directing that look at him, she's remembering too. And that thought feels- oh. Well, it feels brilliant.
Which is very, very interesting.
"We've run another scan- we were running it the whole time Rose was getting you back, and straight through to this very minute," Mickey says, pressing a remote; a monitor bolted to the wall flares to life, displaying readouts and graphs. "Happy to say there wasn't a disturbance- not a ship at least, or a teleport, or anything like that. You're in the clear, I think," he says to Rose. She looks relieved. "But there was this." He scrolls through the menu and comes up with a map, two close points blinking wildly. "Hot points- not literally hot, but we got energy surges in those two areas."
"That's Martha's flat," Rose says sharply. "That's the TARDIS." They both look to him.
Does he feel it, even a little ? The tug of adrenaline in his gut- the brink, the edge, the ready bounce in the long bones of his legs ? He feels like he's been sleepwalking, but it's there. It is so there. He takes Rose's hand and startles her, startles him, feels the electricity run down his nerves to hers, feels it hit and go to starlight.
"Allons-y," he says.
He's not at all ashamed to admit that he ran straight to the TARDIS and wrapped his arms around it like a nine-year-old.
Through the doors, up the ramp, skipping a little and skidding on the grates, arms around the console and his lungs just about bursting, Rose giddy beside him and out of breath. He stops short at his coat and pulls it on, loving the familiar weight settled on his shoulders. "Ha ha !" he says, leaping forward, hand on a button. Which button ? Probably a dangerous one. "Ohh, did you miss me ?" he says, feeling the answer humming under his muscles. "You're awfully quiet," he adds, glancing around at the silent engines and still, low lights. "A little too quiet."
"Martha said she crashed here." Rose looks worried. "That she got through, but only by an accident."
"An accident that left a big fat hole between the universes, too," he adds, tapping the monitor to faint, shaky life. "And yes, I can fix it. But you first." He turns back to the screen, enters calculations and pulls up time logs. Here and there bulbs and panels begin to flicker and wink, mechanical eyes reflecting light. "Power loss, major one- but not fatal, that's a girl. You put everything you had into this, practically killed yourself getting to another universe, but why ? I mean, obvious reasons," he adds, smiling at Rose, who doesn't look as if she knows just how to take that. "Why'd you do it ? Bust on through, not a care in the- hello."
"What is it ?"
"A bug." He taps the keys angrily, his eyes following a path of data back to the date and source. "Got it." He rummages in the wiring with his bare hands for a moment, yelping when a spark bursts up; but he finds it- rips it off of her and grins. He examines it, turning it over and sideways and almost putting it in his mouth. He refrains, thinking that Rose might mind. "It's like- like a tracking beacon. A homing device. Somebody tagged her to return."
"Somebody not you."
"Exactly." He frowns. "And not Martha. It's way beyond human tracking, it's elegant- anywhere in that universe, anywhere in time, she'd get called back."
"Is it off now ?"
"Yeah, disconnect it and it goes dead. Covering its tracks. Like I said, elegant." He dumps it into one pocket and turns back to the console. "Clever old girl- so that's why you did it. You shook 'em off. Hid here, only it wore you out, so here you sit." He strokes the wires and panels thoughtfully. "Somebody in our universe knew you."
"Harold Saxon," Rose says. "It's got to be him. The old man that Martha met, said he was from the future, said he'd seen the end of the world."
"Which one ?" the Doctor grins. Then falls back into grim thought. "Harold Saxon. That name doesn't mean anything to me. Sounds fake, in fact. Harold Saxon." He turns to Rose. "I have to talk to Martha. Maybe not talk- maybe just see. I've got to see what she saw." He pauses. "Get it ? See-saw." Rose isn't laughing. He needs so very much for her to be laughing again. "What's the matter ?"
"I'm sorry," she says first. "I'm sorry that I didn't do it sooner, and I'm sorry that you-"
"Don't, Rose- don't." He crosses over to her, rubs her arms in a comforting gesture. "You've got nothing to apologize for. I was lucky- I was so lucky that it was you. Anybody else would've chucked me in the bin, let me live to retirement," he grins. "Imagine me, with a pension ? Epsom salts, lumbago, bingo, coupons, the whole thing ?" Rose bursts into tears. "Oh, no- no no, that's not what I meant. Rose, I'm sorry."
"It's okay." She sniffles into the back of her hand, pulls her composure back together, slips out of his arms. She paces to the edge of the grates. "I'm okay." A warning beeps from the console speakers and he faces back to it, correcting code, intent and focused. He can hear Rose sigh. "I want you to know that what we did- what happened between us, when you were- if you want to talk about it, or if you don't want to talk about it- that's okay. We don't ever have to- I mean, we can forget it. It'll be like it never happened."
He gapes at her.
And she misunderstands, she must, because she sees his blank face and hers crumples completely. "I'm sorry. I said I was sorry. I took advantage of you, I should have known better." She puts a trembling hand over her face, choking up slightly. Oh, all the gods, he thinks, what a stupid, stupid man. "It wasn't you- he wasn't you, and I should have known better- I should have known that you don't, that you wouldn't- can we forget it ? Tell me we can forget it." He's perfectly still, trying to find the right words. "Can you just say something ?" she cries.
"Rose," he says carefully, "he was me. He wasn't- he wasn't somebody else, and he wasn't all me, but he was a part- there was a part of me there, with you. Always."
"I don't understand."
"I can see that." He walks back to her, pulls her into his arms; she's tentative and stiff against him until he cradles her cheek in his hand, draws her up against him like they're dancing. He dreaded this day and now that it's come, he couldn't be happier. He's not afraid- not anymore, not of the rules that he half-lived by and half-hated, not of the judgement, not of the end. He only played at being human but it doesn't mean he couldn't learn something from the experience. "Rose, that man- that little human man, so small in the greater scheme but so fantastic, I could thank him. Because he was smart enough to love you," he murmurs. "But he only loved you because I love you." She doesn't speak. He laughs, the rumbling a happy engine between them. "I think it's traditional to offer some kind of reply. I'd take a text. A song. A hand-jive."
"I'll dance it," she says, smiling, Rose again in the softening lines of her face, the overflowing light in her eyes. "Say it again."
"I love you," he says, lifting up both of her hands and kissing the backs of them, the hands that held him up, the hands that hold him close. "I love you."
In his arms, Rose laughs. The sound is so gorgeous, so welcome, that he can't help himself; he picks her up and spins her, giggling and gasping, both of them dizzy. The coat flares around them, slapping him in the ankles. Oh, how he's missed this. Devious thing that she is, she kisses him- kisses him deep and slick, her sweet, sweet mouth parted and warm against his. He kisses back and he's drowning, falling; she arches into him and his hands know what to do, where to slide so that she makes the most delicious noises into his mouth; he backs her into the console and rocks against her, and the warning chime starts to sound. "Uh," he says, with an uncooperative hand still wrapped around her thigh, holding her against him, "maybe this isn't the best time."
"Mm. Ship first, then Martha, then saving the world. And then-" she grins, and he might blush.
She shimmies away from him so he can reach the lever. He scrambles for buttons and relays, hoists the panel to climb below and boost the circuits, takes her hand as his ship comes back to consciousness around them, standing in the center of that living warmth like the eye of a hurricane. "Things are gonna be different, aren't they ?" Rose asks, softly.
"That's a promise," says the Doctor.
When the TARDIS wavers into reality, he peeks out of the door into the living room, the living room that was his, sort-of.
"I don't like the curtains," he says, scrunching up his nose in distaste. Rose follows him out, watching in amusement as he surveys the remnants of his human field trip. "Actually, I never did. I'm just back to being rude again. Feels good. I'm stretching my rude muscles."
"Stretch this," she says, hurling a pillow. "Martha's upstairs. I put her in the guest bedroom."
"You what ?" He grins. "She kidnaps me and you drug her with her own syringe, and then you put her in the guest bedroom ? I bet you tucked her in, too, didn't you ?" Rose scowls at him and folds her arms. "Oh, you did ! You bleeding heart. You'd have read her a bedtime story if there'd been time."
"What was I supposed to do ? Shove her in a closet ?"
"No, no, you did exactly the right thing. Martha's a sweet girl, not a bad bone in her body." He pauses. "That's a lot of b's. I'm just giving you a hard time."
They go up the stairs and Martha's there, awake, sitting at the foot of the bed with a photograph in her hands. She doesn't look at them at first, just stares into the picture like it contains the answer she's seeking.
"In the future, my parents were his slaves," she says at last. She holds out the snapshot- a smiling middle-aged man and woman, standing a little bit apart, directing the warmth of their love not towards one another, but out at the woman behind the camera. "They suffered and I watched them suffer. And I said, I can stop this. Didn't I do the right thing ?" she asks, looking up. "Tell me that future won't happen, Doctor. Promise me."
"I can't." He sits beside her. "It's not certain- that's why it's the future."
"Are you angry ?" she whispers.
"Not in the least. Well, yes, I'm angry, but not at you. Somebody used you, the best things about you, all your strength and your good heart and they used it against you, to trick you. So yes," he adds darkly, "I'm very, very angry. But with you ? Never."
"Doctor-" she says, and leans into him. He puts an arm around her and squeezes her close; Rose kneels in front of her and covers her hands with her own, smiling warmly. Martha sighs, and then giggles with a kind of slightly hysterical relief. "God, what a rotten couple of months this has been." She looks at the Doctor. "I'm sorry I stuck you with a needle. Twice, even."
"I'm sorry I dragged you up a flight of stairs," Rose says, and they all chuckle.
"Martha, what else did you bring with you ?" the Doctor asks abruptly, changing gears. "You had the syringe and the memory drugs, you've got this photo- how much did you bring ? What did Harold Saxon give you- what stuff, exactly ? Any electronic devices- a computer, a digital camera, anything ? A phone ?"
"I've got my phone," she says, digging in her pocket for a small silver mobile. She hands it over with a shrug. "Don't know why I carry it. It was dead the second we landed, never could get a signal here. More a paperweight than mobile." He flips it over and rummages in his own overlarge pockets for a moment- eureka. He pulls out the sonic screwdriver and takes a reading with slightly exaggerated glee.
"Not dead," he says, "just on secondary programming. You're right it's not a phone anymore- it's a transmitter. Can you pick it up ?" He holds it up to his ear and both Martha and Rose strain to hear it.
"No," says Rose. "Not a thing."
"Frequency's too high- or too low." He snaps the backing plate off and clicks to a different setting on the screwdriver, and a loud pulse emits from the phone. A rhythmic pulse, beeping out a pattern. Martha's hand twitches slightly, fingers tapping on her knee.
"You were doing that before," Rose says suddenly, pointing. "Every time you talked about Saxon, you tapped something- your mug, the table, always the same rhythm."
"It's a subliminal message," the Doctor explains. "It's controlling you, and it's strong, but it's subtle."
"What's it doing ?" Martha cries out. "My hand-"
"Just a second." The Doctor jams the screwdriver against the wires and the beeping stops. Martha's hand twitches once and is still; she rubs it nervously, examining the skin. "You're fine," he adds. "It's out of your head, can you feel it ? This signal's erased permanently, but the phone's still working. That's good. That's brilliant, even."
"How so ?"
"Because this little phone," he waggles it back and forth, "is connected to all the other phones back in our universe. And I would wager your phone's not the only one he's got his programming in. Rose, do you remember the Cybermen ? How we turned their programming off in a single beep ?"
"Mickey did it !" she says brightly, pointing at the phone. "You made a speech with the right codes, and Mickey sent it through the phones- through all the comm systems. And we shut 'em all down !"
"We're going to do it again," the Doctor says. "The second we get home, we're going to scramble this signal- end whatever hold this Saxon fellow's got on the population. For all we know, he's been herding them around like sheep with these things."
"Baa," says Martha, bitterly.
"Don't be so hard on yourself." Rose gives her hand a comforting squeeze. "You said he showed you things, convinced you. You said you saw into his head- you trusted him, and who could blame you ?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"What did you see ?" the Doctor asks, peering more closely at her eyes. "And when you say you saw his mind, what does that mean exactly ? Was there a machine ? A psychic link-up ?"
"He just held his hands up, like this," Martha says, putting her own hands on either side of his face. "And then my mind just... touched his. It was like he was opening a door."
The Doctor goes very, very still.
"Like that ?" he says softly. "Just like that. So simple."
"What does it mean ?" Rose tugs on his sleeve, watching his face closely. "Doctor- what does that mean to you ?" The Doctor ignores her.
"Martha, I'm going to do what he did. I'm going to open a door. But not into my mind, into yours. Is that alright ?" He smiles at her. "It won't hurt, and I won't look at anything you don't want me to see. Believe me, I can tell when you don't. I just need to see exactly what he showed you." Martha glances from his face to Rose's; Rose gives her an almost imperceptible nod, and Martha turns back to him, determination in the set of her chin. Trust again, he notices. Just a little bit, but there all the same.
"Okay," she says.
The Doctor sets his hands on either side of her face, and Rose draws in a deep breath. Oh, how strange to look at someone else's mind, with the mind that puzzles and thrills him most right beside him, unexplored. He's never seen her mind but he can feel it beside him; he feels it sleeping and awake, full of joy and full of sorrow, full of love, a beacon in the darkness. He could anchor himself to that mind and drift in the universe like a sea of stars. He could dream inside it.
But not unless he focuses now, he reminds himself. Martha's mind is right in front of him, like a doorway into mist- her mind is like rain, gentle and relentless, reaching up without end. He goes through it, into it, unveiling the patterns and swirls and reflections and finds it, this memory she's pushed to the front for him, hiding the rest in the currents of thought, so like the movement of water. This memory stands out like a sore thumb- it's all fire and air, drama and pain and-
-the machines, the machines across the whole of the earth- the silos of missiles to launch in the galaxy's war; the factories where humans enter and machines emerge, the twisted wombs where his armies are born. He's young and he's strong and he's mad; he's terror and he's delight. Martha sees him and she trembles but she doesn't fall, bows but doesn't kneel, keeps her heart for herself even when he breaks her mind.
"I am your master," he says.
"No," the Doctor says, half to him and half to himself. "Not, that's not right. You showed her this but she didn't understand it- she remembers it wrong because I know you, I know this, and you said-"
He's dragged under again.
-the light and the heat and the light and the heat and the light and the heat and the blinding, blinding pain of birth, of being and becoming, every cell taking form and this new blood, this new body, this new mind; and he's so close to untangling this, so close to the truth- he slips inside the memory and he knows it for what it really is, remembers the words that end the world-
"I am the Master," he says.
And the Doctor screams.
He breaks and falls and touches something, someone; without warning Rose's mind is around him, a different light, the light that glows behind eyelids and gives shelter from the cold; the light under the skin, the light behind the eyes. He opens his own. He's on his back, and Rose and Martha are looking over him, worried and tense. "I'm alright," he groans, rubbing his forehead to clear it. Rose's brightness has fled, but the warmth remains and he holds to that. "I'm alright." He stares off at the ceiling. "Martha, did I hurt you ?" She shakes her head. "Good. That's good." He sits up, both of them bracing him on either side. "Well, I've seen it. That future. And it's not me, so you can stop worrying about my going mad and ending the world."
"That's... something, isn't it ?" Martha says.
"What did you see ?" Rose asks.
"I saw," he says, "that I am not alone."
First, there's the quiet.
Nothing's gone right since that moment.
He'd come back up, gasping for air, and said the first thing on his mind- I am not alone. And Rose had stiffened beside him and asked what it meant, and Martha had remembered New New New New- sod it, New Earth, and asked about the Face of Boe, and then Rose had asked about the Face of Boe and Martha had casually mentioned that he was dead, and for some reason Rose had welled up with tears again. Now he's sitting on the jump seat, viciously re-wiring a transmitter, Mickey holding a set of tools out; supplies provided by Pete, who refused to allow them access to the Torchwood vaults until somebody told him what the hell was going on. The Doctor, distracted, jabs the pliers into his own thumb, and glares murder at his assistant.
"Mate, you've got problems," Mickey says; the Doctor watches blood well out of the small hole, and tries desperately not to scream in frustration.
But it's not frustration, he's not annoyed, he's bursting out of his goddam skin- he feels trapped, stuck, hysterical, boiling alive in the knowledge that he is there, he is there and alive and right through the thin wall of the universes, that figure of rage and grief and emptiness who will, at last, at least, be familiar. Someone else who remembers Arcadia, and the ripple that went through his mind when the wall fell- when the barrier holding back eternity shattered, and he saw the whole world as it truly was and would and will be, through his friends' dying eyes. He was just- he was there, the Doctor thinks, painfully. He was there and he remembers, and there's nobody else who does.
There's no peace to be found in this busy work, only sore thumbs.
"Alright." He sets the device on the console and their attention rests on him. "It's finished. Mickey, when we touch down, press this and turn that to boost the signal. It won't just cancel it out, it'll eat it alive, like a virus. Boom. No more mind-control."
"Do you think-" Rose asks, "those people's minds, they'll be okay ? If we let them all go right at the same moment ? Nobody will get hurt- like, fried ?"
"Nah," he drawls. "Like Martha here, it's just a low-level signal, back of the brain, not causing much trouble. They'll be a little groggy, that's all." He shoots her a dazzling, I'm-clever smile; which she examines a little too closely. He glances away. "Right. So the signal goes down, we track down Saxon- the Master," he adds, "and then we split up- I'm going to deal with him, because I know a trick or two you lot don't. You got that ? Nobody deals with the Master face-to-face but me."
"Rubbish," Rose says, off-handedly. Everyone turns to look at her, Mickey's face wearing a sly sort of smirk. "I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"That's not a request," the Doctor says mildly.
"Good, cause I'd turn it down." She favors him with an indulgent look. "There's no way you're facing him alone. We're coming with you."
"No, you're not."
"You're not alone," Rose says, suddenly sharp, and the Doctor stares at her. "I knew you'd say something like this." She folds her arms across her chest. "You told me earlier, I'm not alone. I know you didn't mean us, but here we are. You're not alone. You're not doing this on your own."
"No way, Doctor." Martha nods her own head in agreement, and Mickey and Pete generally look away towards the ceiling, where there are no opinionated women. The Doctor rubs at the back of his neck, irritated and proud of her and wondering where his monumental time lord backbone went; he wonders if any of them have noticed, after all this time, that this gesture usually comes just before he loses an argument to Rose Tyler.
"You'll all have to stand behind me," he declares, rather lamely. She smiles; it's a good sort of defeat when even that little detail makes his spirits lift.
"Now, when you say touch down," Martha asks, "you mean, we're going home ?"
"Our universe." The Doctor looks at Rose without looking at her, something large and hollow in his gut. "My universe. Home of- home of real cocoa and the Hindenburg. A little different, not so bad really if you're used to airplanes."
"Thought it was impossible." That, thankfully, from Mickey.
"Not anymore-" he taps the console with pride and defiant glee. "Best ship in the world, you know. One gap. One bridge. One little hole in the universes; we've already got the rift on the other side, remember, holding a little zipper open on our side. On your side, it's trickier, but it can be done, held open just enough. It'll be one little hole, guarded by one man-" he points at Pete, who nods. "One man who won't poke and prod, who knows full well the consequences."
"Too well," Pete agrees.
"It doesn't have to be a one-way ride," the Doctor says, now looking at Rose, who looks back with startlingly focused eyes. How has he never noticed it before, the gold in the brown ? The warm lights that flicker to the surface like candles, wavering when he speaks. He clears his throat. "Not this time. Not if you don't want it to be. You've all got a choice."
"What," she jokes, covering for the catch in her voice, "you're not just gonna put a lemon tart around my neck ?"
"No." His eyes are utterly dark. "Not like that, ever again." They stare at each other for a very long second, while the air around them hesitates and sighs. The three other people in the room share a sympathetic, if slightly uncomfortable look.
"Lemon tart ?" Martha murmurs, and Mickey laughs.
It's a bumpy ride through the vortex but he manages it, barely; they get stuck in an ion storm for a dicey fifteen minutes, and hang off the railings looking seasick.
"You're a bit rusty," Mickey grumbles.
"No complaints," the Doctor says, briskly. "I could've left you with Pete- explaining everything to Jackie." Mickey looks properly horrified, and Rose has to cover her mouth to keep the sound of her hysterical chuckling from spilling out.
"Don't threaten," he says, turning slightly green as the TARDIS takes another dip. When they land, the Doctor holds them at the door, barring their way with what look like tiny transistor radios hanging from shoelaces.
"Bless," Rose grins, eyeing them suspiciously, "is that a craft project ?"
"No laughing, Rose Tyler," he intones, shaking an affronted finger at her. "The shoelaces were all I had. You try to find string in a pan-dimensional cupboard." He reaches forward and slips one around Mickey's neck, then Martha's, then his own, before dropping one around hers. They turn them over in curiosity. "Whatever you do, don't take them off until we've stopped the signal. They'll keep you clear of whatever's transmitting the waves. Could be just phones, could be televisions, could be satellites. We won't know until we're out. Now- onward, upward," he says grandly, turning the latch and stepping out, into his own world. Mickey follows him, rubbing his eyes against the sunlight. When the Doctor glances back, he sees that Martha is still standing at the top of the ramp, staring at the overbright, dusty earth outside the doors, and that Rose is holding Martha's hand.
"It'll be okay," she says. "Whatever's happened, we'll make it right."
"Yeah," Martha nods. "Right."
They've landed in a council estate- not Rose's, he's sure, though the park with the shabby playground equipment could be a carbon copy. There's not a lot of graffiti but it seems more worn-down, more grey as he surveys it, sniffing the air like a dog. There's a charge in the atmosphere; the sky is empty of zepplins and the only shadows are cast by clouds. It's a beautiful, clear day, and the streets are nearly empty. "Oh God," Martha says, squeezing Rose's hand tighter, looking around a little wildly, "Oh please, oh my God, where are all the-" an alarm sounds, deep and resonant, cutting her off.
And it's then that the shuffling begins; the dull, irregular steps of human feet, normal human feet, attached to normal people with slightly dull expressions. They stream out of ragged doors in rows, following the flights of stairs a little unevenly; here and there people break away from the lines to greet one another, point or laugh or shout, but it only lasts a moment- they step back into formation with the next blast of the horn.
"Like watching ants," Mickey says, with obvious disgust. "What's wrong with 'em ?"
"The signal's getting stronger," he replies, squinting at the crowds. "Broadcasting on every transmitter on the planet, I imagine. Listen to the bass on it."
"Where are they all going ?" Martha scans the crowd. "And all at the same time, too." The Doctor takes in their dusty, grimy clothes and unkempt appearances- the people treading down the steps are dressed normally, if shabbily, in sweats and jeans and jackets, trainers and hats, like they'd all been plucked off the street. "Why are they all so dirty ?"
"They're workers," the Doctor says. "Look at them, marching along with the bell." He glances at the three of them. "Slight change of plans. I'm going to need to get closer to a big transmitter- a radio tower, television station, satellite dish. Something big enough to amplify our signal, because with all of this noise, I don't know how much power we're going to need."
"Crystal Palace transmitter," Mickey exclaims. "Biggest one in London. It existed in Pete's world, too- well, anyway, we used it to broadcast the code when a bunch of Cybermen came in across the Channel. It's still standing here, isn't it ?"
"Should be," Martha nods. She glances at her feet. "Was when I left."
"It's probably transmitting now," the Doctor says. "Tower like that, he'd be using it."
"Won't it be guarded, then ?" asks Rose.
"Oh, definitely," he grins.
The tower's set back from the rest of the park, with a hastily-constructed barbed-wire fence around it, and a handful of armed guards pacing a stiff perimiter. They hide in the bushes, out of sight. "Earpieces," Mickey whispers. "You think they're programmed, too ?"
"More specific commands, like Martha's phone," the Doctor agrees. "I've got to get to the controller, but the rest of you should stay here."
"What about a distraction ?" Rose suggests. "We can keep their attention off of you-" she starts, but with the hesitation of lightning, a shot cracks out, and they all duck down reflexively. "What the-"
"Down !" they hear a man's voice bellow. "I want you down on the ground ! Now !"
The Doctor lifts his head to watch- the guards don't startle, but react slowly, almost robotically, bunching together in a formation along the fence, scanning for the unknown figure; a man in a dark coat swiftly takes cover behind a tree. The guards lift their rifles and sweep a line of shots out across the grounds, thankfully missing the group in the bushes by several feet. There's a bright, metallic whine and a pulse of electricity pulses out; it seems to spark the earpieces and shock the guards' systems. They writhe and shake and tumble to the ground in a heap, twitching slightly for a second. The Doctor stands up, heedless of danger, and sprints to their side. Checking for a pulse, he finds none. Rose and Martha hiss at him to come back, but he whirls on the stranger and his pulse gun with barely-contained rage.
"They were people," the Doctor spits out. "People ! Mind-contolled, perfectly decent people." The man behind the tree is still and quiet, face in shadows. "Well, what have you got to say for yourself ? You going to shoot me now ?" The Doctor clenches his fists inside of his sleeves. "They were human, and they deserved better than that. I taught you better than that."
"Death can be a mercy," the man says, tiredly.
"And who deals it out ?" He takes a step closer, and the action's mirrored by the other man. "Do you ? Judge, jury and executioner ?"
"They were already dead," the man explains, rubbing at his scalp with an awkwardly young gesture. "Or close enough to it. They've been patrolling this piece of land for two weeks, twenty-four hours a day. I know. I had them watched. They were dead, programmed and left to run. Just the latest crop of bodies."
"Even if that's true-" he says, and then stops. The Doctor shakes his head, remembering. Martha's own blood, he thinks. Blood spilled for the world to be saved, without a second thought. He sighs. Behind him, the Doctor can hear Mickey, Rose and Martha moving through the brush, coming closer. Well, they'll find out soon enough anyway, he thinks. "The world's not too old for mercy, Jack."
"No," Jack Harkness replies; for it is him, ragged and weary, lines on his handsome face weaving together like wind against the sand. He smiles. "But I might be." He approaches, swaggering a little still.
"Hello, Jack," the Doctor says.
"Hello yourself." He appears to take in the suit and hair. "I wasn't sure it was you until the moral outrage showed up," he says, and his eyes flick to the device around the Doctor's neck. "Shoelaces ?" Jack asks. He displays a small blinking device on the inside of his lapel and smiles again, but not so far as his eyes- they're cold and grey, without light. Still water, the Doctor thinks. "My blocker. Little flashier. I could make a joke about your budget-" Jack stops. He freezes. He stares past him, and for an instant, that icy calm flickers like a lantern in a storm. "That's sick," he finishes, with ill-contained fury. "I don't know what you are, but-"
"Jack." It's Rose's voice, trembling and tender, and the Doctor adds it up in that second. Oh, of course. The dead ones always meet this way. Awkwardly. She stands in the grass, startlingly calm, like a doe. "Jack, is it really-"
"On the game station," Jack cuts in, "last thing I said to you."
"That I was worth fighting for," Rose says, just staring at him. "Jack, it's me."
"Oh, Christ," he says. There's a crack in his voice. "Rose." He shoulders past the Doctor and the others, pulls her into a hug, lifting her easily off the ground, and she wraps her arms around his neck. "You were on- you were on the list," he says, brokenly, face pressed into her shoulder. "The list of the dead. But you're here."
"Parallel world," she answers, from almost inside of his coat. "Went missing. I was fine- my mum, everybody's fine."
"I'm fine," Mickey adds.
""My cousin was on that list." Martha adds, smiling a little sadly. Mickey rubs her arm; the Doctor knows she's looking at him, but he doesn't meet her eyes.
"Rose, Rosie-Rose !" Jack cries, swinging her around. He sets her down and she kisses his cheek, sweeps the hair out of her face with a giddy, exuberant charm. "This is- this is amazing. This is unbelievable." Rose taps his arm.
"You should talk !" She turns to the Doctor, with her eyes slightly narrowed. "Didn't you say he was-"
"Said a lot of things," he cuts in hastily, but she's already frowning. "Jack was busy. Alive and busy, after all. Okay. Lots of work, rebuilding human society. The paperwork, for starters." He scrubs at his scalp, nervous and not a little angry for the sidetracking. "I don't have to explain myself." The hurt look Rose flashes him makes him feel lower than dirt, and she's right, he fucked it up, and somehow knowing that makes him even angrier than before. "Look, do we have time for this ?"
"I think-" Rose begins; but Jack marches past her, to the fence gate, leaving her open-mouthed. He's changed, the Doctor thinks. Jack's grown up, left behind the charming boy and become this poker-faced man who can walk past Rose Tyler and survey the tower framework with his hands in his pockets, giving nothing away. He looks to Rose, wondering if he should take her hand, comfort her, say something less stupid; but she glances away, staring up at the tower with the sun in her eyes. Jack doesn't turn around.
"Why are you here ?"
"Why are you here ?" the Doctor returns. "I've got a reverse signal to transmit."
"I've got an EMP." Jack pulls the pulse gun out of his pocket, and the Doctor and Mickey both reach forward eagerly. "Hey, hey now- one at a time. It's targeted, see ? I was planning to take out the tower controller with it, but if you've got a better plan-"
"When don't I ?"
"About half the time," Mickey says, seriously. Jack grins at him. "Good to see you, man. Rose said you were a goner."
"Good to see you too- and hello," Jack smiles, noticing Martha standing silently to the side, self-consciously folding her arms across her chest. "Jack Harkness."
"Martha Jones." A real smile breaks loose then, as she shakes his hand. "So are you an alien, a time-traveller, or just an expatriot ?" she asks, with a charming smirk. Jack lets out a low, appreciative whistle.
"Two out of three," he says. "I'll tell you about it sometime."
Muttering under his breath, the Doctor turns away from them all and stalks up the slight rise to the gate, whipping out the sonic screwdriver and unfastening the padlock with an annoyed haste. Rose follows him, her face still flushed with anger and embarassment; he tries not to think about earlier, her arms around his neck, her kisses, in comparison with the cold way he's just dismissed her. He's well aware of what she deserves and what he delivers, and all too vividly mindful of his worst side.
Later. He'll make it right later.
He finds the control panel and snaps it open; it's short work attaching wires to his own transmitter. "So how exactly does this work ?" Jack asks, swinging closer, through the latticework of support beams. He leans above the Doctor, watching him work.
"It scrambles the current signal- eats it up. It'll run along anything with a broadcast wave or a network; cell phones, television, crawling up the wires and across the airwaves, hopping from device to device." The Doctor flashes a grim smile, hand on the switch. "Ready ?"
"Do it," Martha says, firmly. "Those poor people- do it now."
He flips the switch, and the world changes.
First, there's the quiet.
"I didn't even realize," Martha whispers, looking up at the sky in wonder, "I didn't even realize that it was there... I didn't feel different, but I could hear it, and now-"
"Hold it together," the Doctor warns. "There's going to be some panic as people wake out of it. I'm going to need you all to stay alert, stay focused."
They walk to the TARDIS in a near-silence that's broken only by the sound of their feet, crunching grass; and the scattered cries of birds in flight, far above their heads. Without the signal shuddering over their heads, there's an immense silence, an absence, a void. He felt it the instant they touched down: the blanket shadowing the entire world, the soft muffled thoughts pulsing below it like heartbeats, but now- now, the silence. It's unnerving.
And there's something else, too. The Doctor stretches himself as he walks, not physically but mentally- reaches out across the distance, probing for the flutter of that other mind, so like his own. The thing the signal must've hid, incessant and overpowering as it was. Something he'd never have missed without that cover, something so faint and familiar. It's almost there. He can almost feel it. In English, he'd call it a sixth sense. In Gallifreyan, the word is closer to friendship. He glances over at Rose, walking beside Jack with her mouth drawn into a thin line. He wonders how exactly he'll explain everything, when he has to. What he'll have to do. That the responsibility is his.
He unlocks the TARDIS and waves them in, single-file; he starts to duck inside but Rose is last, holding him by his sleeve, her face set and calm. He glances up at the ramp at the others and shuts the door. They stand outside, alone, stiffly facing one another. He starts to apologize, and Rose puts a finger over his lips.
"Well," he says. "You remember that."
"Shut up, Doctor." She jams her hands back into her pockets, tossing a few stray hairs aside with a haughty switch of her head. "I want to say one thing before we're off again. It's going to get dangerous, I'm sure. Somebody's going to chase you," she frowns, "and I'm probably gonna get locked in a room with robot snakes or something."
"Never mind." She stares him down. "I just wanted you to know, that, I love you." She continues to glare fiercely at him, and he blinks at her.
"Excuse me ?"
"I love you," she repeats. "I'm so angry with you right now I could bite your ears off. I know there's something you're not telling me, because obviously you do that, you bottle it up and act like I'm just a little human who can't-" she stops, gathers herself. "Anyway, that's for later. For now, in case we get separated or shot with lasers or something, you need to know that I'm mad at you, but I still I love you." She looks away, down at the tips of her sneakers. "Always do."
He pulls her against him, suddenly, with her arms pinned between them; it's so quick and awkward that she lets out a sharp, short burst of laughter and wiggles against him. "Nutter," she says, giggling into his lapels, while he holds her close, pressing his slightly stubbly cheek into her warmer, softer one. Rose kisses him just at the side of the mouth, her lips perfectly soft as the skin of an egg, and slips out of his arms. She opens the door but looks back, smiling at him with the entire curve of her body. He's sure he'll remember this for the rest of his life, the arc of her eyebrows and the lean of her hips against the door; the whole and the part, the day and the hour, knowing what he feels for her.
"I don't deserve you."
"That," she grins, "is a stupid thing to say."
With Rose at his side, he scans through the exterior sensors and turns them to the rest of the group. Bringing up images off of satellite feed, he chooses one in particular and calls everyone over. Martha gasps.
"Missiles," the Doctor nods. "Weapons factories, too- that's where everyone we saw was headed. Now they're emptying- you can see the people streaming out." He zooms in on a scene of men and women stomping down chain-link fences and helping others across. "It's important that we get to the Master as fast as possible. There's no telling what he'll do if he gets desperate, and there's also the people around him. People just waking up out, people that are going to feel like this," he points to the desperate crowd on the screen. "We have to keep them from-"
"From what ?" Jack says, coldly. "From killing him ?"
"Yes." The Doctor straightens up, meets Jack's gaze. "He's my responsibility now."
"Jack." Rose goes to his side, cutting off the Doctor's furious response, and takes his arm. "Jack, he's the only other time lord in the entire-" she starts, but he shakes her off, with hurt in his eyes. "What's happened to you ?"
"I had a team," he snaps. "Torchwood."
"Torchwood ?" Mickey blurts out. Martha gives him a confused glance.
"I thought they got shut down over here."
"They did." The Doctor stalks forward, one hand on the console, cutting a path to Jack. "After everything that happened- Canary Wharf, the Cybermen, you join up ? Torchwood, Jack."
"It wasn't the same." Jack glares back, unyielding and angry in response. "I changed it, I made it better, and I did it for you." The Doctor freezes, and Jack flashes a self-deprecating smile. "Yeah. I thought I was doing so well. I thought you'd be proud of me," he adds, hollowly. "We were a new kind of organization. We protected people. We stayed here, fighting the fight."
"They were good people. Practically kids. I trained them myself," Jack adds, "picked the best, the brightest. You can think what you want, Doctor, but we did good work." He shakes his head, bitterly. "You want to know what happened to me ? I fucked it up. I let them die. I sent them out, and I got them killed." Rose covers her mouth, looking ill; Martha puts a comforting hand on her back. "Your time lord buddy sent us on a wild goose-chase to Tibet when he got into power. There was no reception up there. When we came back down, everything was nuts. Tosh picked up the signal right away, through a laptop; we had to lock her in a shed halfway up the mountain until we figured out how to block it."
"How did you get back here ?" Martha asks. "Wasn't there a signal everywhere ? The entire world ?"
"Yeah, it took us weeks; sneaking over the borders," he says, staring up at the rotor in the column with a weary gaze. "Britain was practically a police state already, with those zombie guards everywhere. I'd left a member of the team here; we had him in deep cover as a government worker from the minute Saxon showed up on the scene, making all these deals. Ianto. He fed us information and we laid low in a safehouse for a little bit, trying to get cells of people off the signal, getting them organized," he pauses here, and his hands turn into fists, "until Saxon found out, and had him killed."
"Oh, God." Tears spring out of Rose's eyes, and the Doctor is silent. "Jack, I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, thanks." He doesn't smile. "I stopped playing nice after that. We bombed a couple of weapons factories on the off-hours, knocked down some transmitters." He flexes his clenched hands, letting the blood flow back into whitened knuckles. "And then we bombed his headquarters."
"You did what ?" the Doctor exclaims.
"Don't worry," Jack adds, icy calm, "he lived. Regenerated, actually. Another one of my people died, getting the plans and schedules to us, and that bastard just gets a new face." His expression twists with fury for an instant, and then the coldness returns. He indicates the Doctor with a slight nod. "That's the first sign we had that was actually alien, instead of just contracting with aliens like we originally thought. I take it he's one of yours."
"Yes, he is."
"Then you'll know the right way to bury him," Jack says, drawing a pistol from the holster at his waist.
"Jack !" Rose cries out.
"Come on," Martha cuts in, "that's not going to solve-"
"Get off my ship." The Doctor steps forward, and they turn horrified faces to him. He can feel the rotor humming away at his back, can sense the crackling anger and fright in the room, hovering over their skin like insects. In the green and gold lights they all look frozen underwater, with wide white eyes. "I said, get off my ship."
Jack smiles, bitterly.
"And now," he says, "I've met the real Doctor." He turns for the door, his coat flapping out like waves behind him, trailing in his wake. Martha and Mickey hang back, confused and upset, while the Doctor turns away, busying himself with levers and switches, determined not to look as he leaves. Made his choice, he reasons. He's a big grown-up man with a gun, intent on using it, for better or worse.
"Jack," he hears Rose say. "Don't."
She's ignoring his order but that's hardly new; the Doctor goes very still and quiet, listening to the sound of feet on the grating as she goes halfway, beckons him back. She would, he thinks. And he might. Jack hesitates, hand on the door, halfway out into the green scrub of the fields, with an old, strange sadness in his face. He looks up at the Doctor and the Doctor feels his gaze, glances up, reads the resignation there. He looks as if he might come back inside, throw the weapon down; and then, he doesn't.
"It was wonderful to see you again," Jack says to them both, and shuts the door.
"There was nothing," he whispers. "I fell forever."
All the things she's seen and dreamt; great glassy palaces and fish that glow like stars, perfect empty darkness and the mobbed markets, the smell of sulphur and of cinnamon, skin in a hundred shades- soft and dry as cat's fur, slick and cool, scaled and reflective as oil slinking into pavement, all the color and light and the minds she's seen unlocked, the stories, the maps and moons; all that inside her, and she still can't imagine there could be another like him.
It sounds cruel, she'd never tell him so; but she's seen him on his own, so long, that she's never thought of him any other way. Maybe there was a time when his name carried the weight of history and the sound of sober voices, but it didn't for her. It doesn't. It was only a name, attached to a madman she learned to love. She watches him now, sneaking about in a hallway in trainers with the psychic paper between his teeth, and she can only see him, just him; not a powerful race with aspirations over the skies and eternity. It sounds silly, when she thinks it. He can't make toast without setting himself mildly on fire.
But it is there, hiding; she's seen it before, in his more unguarded moments; saw it again when he looked in Martha's mind. Him, then- the alien. The survivor with the rootless heart. One of two, the other tucked up in the top floors of this building somewhere, hiding like a coward from the crowds.
"Rose," the Doctor whispers, "are you paying attention ?"
"Uh, yeah." She crouches down beside him and he motions an all-clear to Martha and Mickey, further down the hall. "Mickey's going to the guard station and we're going to track the Master down on the closed-circuit cameras." Mickey, in a stolen security jacket and beret, crouches down beside the pair of them and the Doctor hands over the psychic paper, nodding with what Rose takes to be a masculine gesture of respect. Cross-species, she supposes.
"Rose," Mickey says, rising, "be careful. Take care of them."
"Will do." She flashes him a winning smile. For a second she's reminded of the missions they shared, in Pete's world, the teamwork and the paperwork and the danger, Torchwood logos glittering on their chests. He's such a good man, and she wonders what will happen, later, when she goes away again. To them. "You too," she adds, heart in her throat. Maybe he senses her uncertainty, because he pauses to kiss the top of her head before he jogs away, not looking back, disappearing down the emergency staircase. Martha clears her throat.
"Better get moving, yeah ?" she says, giving Rose a sympathetic look. "He'll call when he's there."
The hallways are nearly empty, but for the occasional patrol- apparently, the Master's personal security forces are on a different frequency than the one that set loose the mobs in the street. So far the Doctor's main tactic has been to stroll up to them and power down the earpieces with the sonic, but that's nearly gotten him shot several times. "We can just hide until they pass," Rose suggests, peering around a corner at a clump of guards. "Or ask Mickey to set off an alarm, draw them somewhere." The Doctor shakes his head.
"We'd lose time."
"Doctor," Martha cuts in, "it'd be more sensible to-"
"I don't know where Jack is," he hisses. "I don't know !" He doesn't look at Martha or at Rose, his face turned away in what might be anger, or shame. "I can't get there second."
"We'll go another way," Rose says, looking at Martha. The other woman nods. "Air ducts, how about that ?" She reaches for the Doctor's hand and finds it, without looking, certain of him as a fixed point in her universe. She'll help him. She'll get him his chance.
When Rose's phone vibrates, she opens it without a word, the three of them crouched in a utility closet, Martha listening at the door for patrols. "Rose ?" Mickey says through the mobile, his voice muted by static. "I've found him. You're on the top floor, right ? You're almost there. He's in the atrium at the west end. There's some kind of control room up there, so watch out."
"How about guards ?" Rose whispers. She can hear Mickey tapping on a keyboard, and he lets out a resigned sigh. "Is that bad ?"
"There's a bunch of them between you and the door. Nine of them, looks like. Too many to take out with the sonic."
"Not necessarily," the Doctor replies. "I could-"
"You're not jumping into the middle of them," Rose snaps. "Mickey, check the blueprints- see if there's a service way in, ducts or pipes or anything."
"Right." More tapping. "Rose," Mickey says, softly urgent, "can Martha hear this ?"
"No," she whispers, glancing at the other women. "What ?"
"Her parents are in there," he says, sadly. "In one of the side rooms. Should we tell her ? They're okay, alive. They're in uniforms or something. Like servants."
"Oh," Rose replies, leaving out the oh, God she feels like adding. She can't imagine what she'd do if it were Pete and Jackie in there- looking at Martha's grim expression and distant eyes, she wonders if Martha's already imagining it herself. "You- you found anything yet ?" she asks, more clearly.
"Nothing. Give me a sec-"
"He's right there," the Doctor says, strained. He takes the phone out of Rose's hands before she can collect herself. "Mickey, you see him, don't you ? He's right there, he's so close I can-" he stops, puts his face in his elbow. "I can hear him, Rose. I don't know if he can hear me, but I can. I can." He's shaking. Rose wraps her arms around him, holding him tightly, feeling the tremor in his hearts and his utter misery and frustration. She doesn't have to be psychic for that to work.
"Doctor," Martha says suddenly, standing up. "I don't- I don't agree with you, quite." She clears her throat. "I want you to know that, before I go." Rose and the Doctor stare at her, together, confused.
"Go where ?"
"Shut up, and listen," she says, affectionately. "I want Jack to kill him. Alright ? I want Jack to kill him- I'm sorry, but I do. I think he's right." She looks at Rose as she speaks. "But I want you to have your chance. You deserve that, and if I can help you, then I will."
"Martha-" Rose begins, "what do you mean ?" Instead of answering, Martha flings the door open and stalks off down the hall, heading for the west tower. "Martha !" Rose hisses. "Martha !" The other woman doesn't look back, but walks proudly to the bend in the hall and puts her hands on her hips. She yells something that Rose can't quite make out, and then turns for the opposite direction and runs, flat-out, out of sight. There's the sound of tromping boots and half a squad rushes past the hall- Rose shuts the door before they catch sight of her, and rips the phone from the Doctor's stunned hands. "Mickey," she snaps, "watch her. Where's she going ? You have to watch her."
"I've got her," he replies. "I'm seeing her on the monitors- she's going into the east tower, I'll try to remote lock it, buy her some space."
"Do it." She taps the phone nervously. "Mickey ?"
"She's clear," he says. "She's on the emergency stairs- I'll meet her there. We'll come to you-"
"Don't," she cuts in. The Doctor looks at her like he might argue, but Rose shakes her head. "Stay where you are. Stay safe, lock up- keep the exit clear. We'll come to you when it's finished." She shuts the phone. The Doctor gives her a puzzled look, but he doesn't challenge it. "Her parents are in there," she adds. "I didn't think that she-"
The way is clear, thanks to Martha; it doesn't take but a couple of minutes to cross the passage and put their backs to the wall, still watching for guards. The Doctor's hand hesitates on the doorknob. Rose puts her fingers over his.
"You can," she says.
He opens the door.
"You can't knock ?" the Master asks.
He is not as she imagined him.
"There are people trampling each other to death outside." The Master leans over the staircase railing and leans his chin in his hand. He cocks his head, brightly, like a bird's. "You want to watch ?"
"We're the only ones left," the Doctor says, abruptly.
"Oh, do you think ?" the Master snaps back. He takes the stairs down, two at a time, sliding smoothly on the rail; he stops short in front of the Doctor, who doesn't flinch. "You've come to tell me why. Right ? Haven't you ?" he shouts, grabbing the taller man's lapels. "Where are they ?"
"They can't be gone."
"They're dead." The Doctor's throat trembles slightly, the knot bobbing as he speaks. "Erased out of space and time. Gone." Rose hears the break in his voice like the sound of a wave beating on the shore- steady and circular. It's a pain that doesn't end, only retreats to roll on further, gathering speed. "I told you, we're all that's left." The Master snarls at his words, lets him go, backs away, as if trying to distance himself from the thought. He leans back against the railing, staring at the Doctor.
"Well," he says.
Rose takes the opportunity to examine him, this other him; he's handsome and narrow, graceful at the wrist, wearing a suit with a kind of sloppy businessman's charm. It boggles the mind that this is the cause of the chaos outside. He doesn't seem to even hear it, the clamor and voices from below, the sound of cars scraping against the metal barricades- the Master's command center, in the heart of London, is going to come crashing down sooner or later. Rose supposes sooner. She steps closer to the Doctor, not touching him, but already she feels his posture change, his attention return peripherally to her, like a flower to the sun. It sends a bloom of affection through her already adrenaline-addled brain.
"Don't have much time," she murmurs. "You can hear them coming." The Master flashes them an annoyed glare.
"Please," he drawls, "say you're not here to rescue me."
"The crowds will get in, one way or another," the Doctor says. "You're the one who made them slaves, took their families apart. What do you think happens when they get up here ?" He meets the Master's stare. "I'm offering you safety."
"You're offering me prison."
"It's better than death."
"Oh, I don't know." He grins, madly. "Last time I died, I got this wonderful new body. Young, strong, all the right parts." He turns to Rose for the first time. "You want to try anything out ? It's free the first time, but then-"
"Stop it." The Doctor's voice is steel. "I'm offering you a chance to make this choice on your own. Otherwise, I'll make it for you." Rose very carefully does not look at the Doctor's pockets, where a syringe of sedative is waiting. It was what they agreed on- the Doctor wasn't leaving without him.
"Sanctimonius as ever- I don't need your help," the Master spits, as if it were a truly filthy word.
They stand apart from one another, the Doctor's eyes nearly white with rage, and a crackling tension between them. Rose wonders if she'll have to jam the needle in herself when she tires of the male posturing and the name-calling. She feels something stand up the hairs on the back of her neck, like a spike in the energy of the room- or maybe just a breeze. It takes her a second to realize it's a draft from the door.
It starts like a cloud passing over the sun- everything is still, the intake of breath and the twitch of eyelashes. She feels nothing until the second that darkness touches her, and the small hairs on the back of her neck rise. The Doctor is still standing between her and the Master, holding out his hand. He looks silly, childish somehow, with that gesture between them. The Master is looking only at him.
Out of the corner of her eye she watches the door open, smoothly, with the inevitability of a clock striking. It feels like time has stopped, or that she's stepped through the looking-glass; she is the only one who turns, and so she is the only one who sees.
Jack steps out, two hands on his gun, surveying the room in a military gesture. In the instant that Rose sees him, he sees the Master- his posture changes, tenses, and the small muscles in his hand tighten. Rose, in a flash of understanding, follows the barrel of the gun with her eyes. Straight to the target.
And then, it happens fast.
"Rose, what-" the Doctor yelps as she shoves him, hard, tumbling him to the floor with her leap forward. She jumps with her arms out, for the Master, trying to take him down. "Rose !" The Master catches her like he'd been waiting for just that moment, twisting her momentum to lock her throat in his elbow, blocking his body with hers. Rose holds both her arms out, shielding him and herself, and Jack screams in frustration.
"Get away from-"
"Let her go," the Doctor cries out, "Rose, don't-"
But like a clock striking, like a heartbeat; rain that starts at the sky and ends in the ocean; the next second comes. The Master lurches to the side, fumbles beneath his sleeve while Rose gasps and struggles; the tremor in Jack's hands runs down the long fingers and the light pounds of pressure pull the trigger; the Master drops a hidden device out of his sleeve and flicks a button with his thumb at the same instant that the hammer drops.
Rose can almost see the bullet.
And then, at the instant that it should pass through her, maybe even through him, it doesn't. The world shimmers and shakes, hesitates, and Rose feels a sensation like her flesh pulling away from her bones- her body leaking away from her mind. She shrieks, reaches out to the Doctor but it's as if he can't hear or see her- he floats away, insubstantial as a cloud. The world rearranges like a jigsaw. It takes her a second to realize she's being teleported.
"It's gonna hurt," the Master whispers in her ear, as they vanish.
And it does.
When she comes to, she rolls onto her back and thinks, groggily, that she is part of a unique group of people- a group that spends large chunks of their lives unconscious. The floor's cold and hard, which is reason enough to stand; she climbs to her feet, swaying slightly, and finds herself before a-
-well, she hesitates to call it a ship. But a ship it must be. It more closely resembles a reinforced closet. It's a cobbled-together sort of shape, the size of a large utility vehicle, with a sealed door and riveted edges. There are no engines, no windows; but Rose knows, distantly, that she didn't make that classification without evidence. There's an otherness to it, a sense of- well, of away, she thinks. It hums and sparks against her brain, living and breathing the alien starlight, as surely a craft made for travelling as a bicycle is, though less purposeful-looking. Rose touches it, the soft skin of her hands catching against the worked metal edges.
"I made it myself," the Master says, from behind her. Rose startles and spins, wildly, cursing herself for being so preoccupied with the vessel that she didn't scan for an exit. "At great personal expense. You like it ?" She doesn't answer. He chuckles and hangs his head in mock-schoolboy-embarassment, holds up the device- so like the Doctor's sonic screwdriver, she sees now- and the sealed door swings open, smoothly enough for such an indelicately made machine. He makes an elegant gesture at the door. "After you." She shakes her head, and the playful face vanishes. "Get in," he repeats. When she stands stock-still, defiance in her glare, he aims the device at the floor and fires a solid laser beam at the concrete floor, blasting a hole the size of a toaster. The smoke curls between them, an absolute promise.
"I think I'll get in," Rose swallows. He grins winningly, his eyes still horribly dark. With his device aimed at her back she takes a nervous stride into the ship, surveying the cramped interior with something between wonder and horror. A single column, wide and glassy and pulsing with a calm blue light, dominates the small room, with enough space for a passage around the outside and a handful of control boxes. It's crude but elegant, somehow, an imperfect echo of a TARDIS.
"Say it," he prompts. "Go on, say it." He prods her with the laser screwdriver. "It's..."
"It's not bigger on the inside," she finishes. He scowls. "What did you expect me to say ?"
"That it's brilliant, obviously," he sighs, irritated, but almost too polite to be real. He leaves her side to twist dials and check fluid gauges with a casual efficiency that frightens her- it's too familiar. It's an odd game he's playing, and Rose can't pin it down- the wild tumbling between charmer and madman, the unbelievable seesaw and the potential for cruelty matched with the clever mind. It's like her Doctor, mirrored brokenly in an ugly battle of the brilliance and the brutality lurking below the surface. She still can't see why Martha mistook this thing for the better man, but she can at last see how.
"How did we get here ?"
"Instant recall button," he says cheerily, waving the screwdriver at her. "Also untraceable. And makes julienne fries." His face splits in another grin. "That last bit was a lie. I bet you caught that, though, Rose Tyler, a sharp little thing like yourself." He paces close to her, and takes a step back; he grabs her wrist and squeezes, sharply. "You're a puzzle," he tells her, drawing her closer, until he's speaking directly into her ear, his face almost touching hers. "I sent him away with the lovely Doctor Jones and he comes with two in tow. He was always lucky, lucky and stupid." She pulls back and he squeezes harder, until she cries out a little in pain. "What are you to him ?"
"I'm nothing," she says, defensively, shaking him off. She's trembling a little with fury, Jackie Tyler's daughter to the core. "I'm nothing to him."
"You're a poor liar," he says, but he lets it go. His eyes are unreadable, cycling through on some mad pattern that she can't follow, falling like a shutter of leaves. "I think I know what you are."
"You made this ship ?" Rose blurts out, and it's enough to cause a skip in that beat. He glances up, around. "Does it- does it travel in space ? Does it fly ?"
"Does it fly ?" he asks, incredulously. "I'm wounded at your lack of belief." He takes a step to the console. "Fourteen years," he continues, "fourteen years of labor and sweat and blood, but no tears. It was a manly process. I put it together with my own hands and I went looking in time and space for my people, and when I didn't find them I came here, to earth, because I knew I'd find him. And until I found him," he grins, "I'd play." Rose recoils from that word, her stomach heaving at the thought of the arms factories; but she focuses. Keep him talking, she thinks. Keep him talking, and keep yourself thinking.
"So it's a TARDIS."
"They're grown," he corrects. "I improvised. The TARDIS is a living ship, a mind wrapped in all those layers of metal and dimensional flexibility. A living ship needs a living engine. Dose a warm body with huon energy over a period of time, and you've got one. Fourteen years, that's long enough." He taps the glass with an unusually thoughtful expression. "You keep it alive, and it keeps you in the air. Good engine. Mine even had a name- Chantho. Lovely name, nice girl, blue around the edges and so self-righteous sometimes." He doesn't smile, or grin, or laugh. "Life, I suppose."
"You- that's a person ?" Rose cries out. She looks through the glass for the first time and sees an ocean of light, tumbling blue clouds in the water, and the shape of a woman suspended within, like a pulsing organ. She pales at the sight- it's a curiosity in a jar, pickled and smooth as milk. The body is almost human and the face alien, a beetle's face, but her expression is curiously gentle. Rose's heart goes out to her at once, sweet as she seems, only sleeping. She knows the Master is watching, and she doesn't care. "That's sick !"
"It's brilliant," he says, coldly. "My assistant knew her place."
"You put here in here," she says, her words stumbling over themselves in her sharp anger. "You trapped her, and you're using her body like- like fuel." She reaches out a hand to touch the glowing cocoon, to soothe her, but the Master's too fast for her- he snakes out and grabs her hand again, yanks her away, and she stumbles backwards to rub her smarting skin. He stands before the chamber, between her and it, silhouetted. A furious insult dies on her lips as he steps forward, hesitating, and stretches his own hand out. It's an oddly innocent gesture, and it frightens her more than the madness.
"Don't touch it," he says. "Don't touch her." They stand like that for a moment, his face closed-off and reverent before the humming column, Rose cradling her wrist, unable to look away. "I didn't have to trap her," he says, sounding far away. "Even after I opened the watch, she- she stayed. Helped me build. When the machine was finished I told her what it needed, and what I'd done, and she just-" he breaks off. His hand, palm up, rests against the glass. "She just stepped in. She just looked at me, and she stepped in. What would make her- what is that ?" he asks, to the air, as if he were alone in the room. "What is that ?"
Rose clears her throat.
"It's love," she says. His shoulders stiffen. "You miss her," she continues, seeing an opportunity; it's what she'd say to the Doctor in his place, and it's true- it's brutally obvious, in fact. "You're lonely," she says, "but you're not the only one any-"
-he turns so quickly that she's almost surprised to see his eyes, and shoves her, hard, against the wall. The breath is knocked from her. The Master puts a hand under her chin and shakes her, like a terrier with a rat, furiously.
"Don't- don't think that I won't kill you here, right where you stand, just because he's not here to see it," he hisses. Rose nods assent, gasping for air, and pushes him away angrily. He lets her go, facing the column again in silence. She slides against the wall, hands balled into fists. There's a long moment with only the sound of the machines and her ragged breathing; and then the Master turns on his heel, utterly changed. He's grinning from ear to ear as he puts his hands on his hips and crouches down to her level. "Rose Tyler," he says warmly. "I should thank you. You've given me an idea." He cups her face in his hands, though she flinches. "Don't you want to know what it is ?"
"I won't kill you," he says, and holds her chin firmly, tilting it so that she can see the girl in the column. "I'll make you useful."
She picks that instant to fight- something white-hot and terrified bursts in her and she throws him off, rolling him on the floor as she jumps to her feet. He grabs at her ankles, but she's already at the door, pulling the handle desperately. It's stuck, or keyed to his controller, because it doesn't budge an inch. Rose screams in frustration and kicks the bottom panel. "Hey- hey now !" the Master says, and turns her around forcefully while she scratches at him. He ducks his head to avoid having his eyes removed. "You-" he grits out, "-have no manners."
There is a slight pneumatic hiss as something pops against her skin, and the world glazes over. Rose tips drunkenly to the side, one arm still resisting him and bending at a boneless angle. She feels him lower her to the floor.
"That's noffair," she slurs. "You hadda-"
"Where do you think Martha got hers ?" he asks, waving a syringe in front of her hazy eyes. "The grocer's ?"
She slips into darkness.
Jump. She's not Rose anymore, but the Doctor- maybe Ida, even- at the edge of the pit. He described it once, after, so softly it was almost speech between their minds instead of their mouths. Sitting on the jump seat, her legs crossed over his, him so very far away, looking down into the mouth of always.
"Why did you fall ?" she asked then, and she asks now. "You couldn't know what was below."
"There was nothing," he whispers. "I fell forever."
She leans at the edge, looking down. She knows, oddly, that she is the last one on earth- the last one in space, the last gasp of oxygen, the last human, the last girl, the last dust, the last eye to see the sight and the last feet to shuffle the edge, knocking dust into the vastness. He told the truth: there is nothing below.
He stood here and these are his thoughts, his misery that rubs her ribs like a pendant. There's another sensation touching her, the warmth of some living wind, something utterly alien and familiar in the same instant. She can almost spell it, though the letters aren't a real word but a pretend word, a play. She's not the Doctor anymore. Rose stretches out her fingers and she's herself, pink and yellow, round at the edges and not the last. Not alone. Never alone.
"I don't want to die," she says. "I don't ever want him to feel this again. I'll do anything. Anything, I promise. Just don't let this happen to him."
She promises the darkness.
She is heard.
Dream and dream.
Jack drops the gun.
The Doctor isn't watching, though he hears it; he's drawn the sonic and has it pointed at the location where she last stood. He holds the button down and it whirs to life at the recall frequency. Nothing happens. He boosts the signal, adjusts for interference. The air remains perfectly static and still.
He might've guessed.
"Doctor ?" Jack asks. "Can you bring them back ?"
"He's smarter than me," he says, bitterly, by way of an answer. "He's blocked the recall."
"Christ," Jack says, brokenly; the Doctor watches him cover his mouth, then his eyes, with his hands. Jack's jaw shakes like his shoulders, and he leans forward to rest his trembling hands on his thighs. "Oh, oh God." He glances up. "I didn't think I'd- I really didn't think. I'm sorry. She got in the way, Doctor, she just-" he stops talking abruptly as the Doctor kicks a chair over, spinning into the empty space between them. The little wheels continue to spin for a long second. Outburst over, the Doctor stands perfectly still, hands bunched into his sleeves; pointedly not looking at Jack, not looking at anything as he breathes through his mouth and thinks about perfect whiteness, perfect dark, the wall that he stood beside once when the world crumpled in on itself and died and killed him, too. He can't do this again, and he can't stop thinking about it. Can't can't can't, won't won't won't. He won't let this happen. He won't let this happen again.
"I have to-" he starts, and cracks, and grabs back his control with the very last remaining shreds of the time lord. There are so blessed few. "I have to go. Back to the TARDIS. She knows Rose. She'll be able to track her." He spins on his heel for the door, hands still tightly clenched at the ends of his arms, feeling useless as rocks. When he passes through the doorway, Jack calls out to his retreating back.
And he runs.
He doesn't stop, he runs; he doesn't slow down when he nearly collides with Mickey and Martha on the stairs. Even as they call out to him and try to grab his sleeve he slips away, shivering up like a salmon against the stream, moving away on the next current. He leaps the last flight of stairs and hits the wall on the other side, sliding down against concrete; he feels the bruise burst in the flesh of his upper arm and grits his teeth against it, gets up, shoves his way through the doors and out into the street. Out on the pavement there's people running aimlessly, crowding together, shrieking at the glass offices around them and pounding on the windows, trying to find somebody to blame. He ducks their arms and passes them; he runs down a short slope beside an overpass, under which the TARDIS was quietly parked.
And stops cold.
She ought to be solid and sure, she ought to be right in a world where everything else is going wrong, but she isn't. His ship is shimmering like a heat vision.
"No !" he shrieks. He fumbles with his key and puts his arm straight through the plate where the lock's supposed to be, touching nothing but slightly electrified air. He spreads his arms reflexively and tries to hang onto her and she trembles in his vision, but there's no substance left to cling to. "No no, no no no." He aims the sonic at the ship, switching frequencies and trying to lock onto her signal as best he can. Almost like a response, the TARDIS flashes with light; a brilliant light from a dead world, the glow of twin suns and of life itself, so bright he's forced to back away and shade his eyes in terror. "Please don't," he whispers. "Please, please don't-"
-she winks once, and vanishes completely.
Once, a very long time ago, Rose asked him what the TARDIS was. Not the walls and the doors and the levers, she'd said; so clever, that girl. She'd wanted to know what she really was, that ship, that dimensional skin wrapped around a fearless sort of soul. And instead of being wise he'd been flip, as he so often was their first time around, pretending it was a lark and he hadn't lost his heart, his head. Lies. Games. Protection of a sort, from telling her all of the truth all of the time, which was what he'd wanted to do. He'd said she's my home.
Home was the lie: she was his life.
Out of the garbage heap she'd risen, his phoenix, only without the immolation, thank-you-very-much. You can only love something so much before it becomes a part of you.
He remembers what it was like when the reapers came- that his lovely ship, that wild and terrifying mind he wore so closely to his own, had disappeared from the world like an amputation- no mark, no impression left behind. This isn't that. He feels her still, unsteadily, and knows she hasn't left this time and place.
"Where is it ?" Jack huffs out, behind him; he sounds as if he's been running, and he rests against the overpass wall for comfort. "Where's the TARDIS ?"
"Excuse me ?" Jack's face is a panorama of disbelief and fear. "Sorry, gone ? Gone where ?" The Doctor shrugs and turns back to the vanishing point, scanning for trace radiation or a signal feed. There's a bit of pickup, but nothing clear. "Doctor, can we talk about this ? Is the TARDIS supposed to be gone ?"
"What's gone ?" Martha asks, appearing to the side of the wall. Mickey is close behind her, with a middle-aged man and woman in plain clothes who must be Martha's family- the woman has her smooth jaw and collected, detached stare. "Where's the TARDIS ?"
"It's gone," Jack replies.
"Gone ?" Mickey asks. Martha casts a worried glance at her parents, then back to the Doctor. "But it was parked here, yeah ? So can you just call it back ?"
"No," the Doctor grits out, "I can't. Now can you all do me a wonderful favor and shut up ?" Ignoring their surprised expressions, he kneels down and sniffs the air- metallic, slightly spicy, and tantalizingly familiar. Something he's just seen for the first time in a long time, something so close. It's on the tip of his tongue, something he's just missing. "I'm missing something," he says aloud. "Do you smell that ?"
"I don't smell anything," Martha says. She glances around. "Actually, I smell wet newspaper."
"It's- it's that tang in the back of your throat." He gestures at the air where the TARDIS recently stood; Martha and Jack scrunch up their faces in an attempt to catch the scent, and Mickey rolls his eyes. "It's residual energy- if I can figure out what it is, then I might be able to track it. Gamma radiation ? Nah, gamma smells more like butter."
"Doctor," Mickey asks slowly, "are you alright ?"
"I'm fine," he says. "I'm peachy, I'm a peach." He resets the sonic and does another scan, waving the air around and sniffing deeply. "Humans, you're always asking if-" he pauses, caught at odd angles like a statue. "Humans. Humans."
"Huon energy." He taps the sonic against his scalp with a frantic, distracted twitch. "I'm smelling huon energy and that is not possible." He pauses again. "Well, strictly speaking, it's unlikely. But that is unmistakably huon energy; which, luckily for us, sticks out like a sore thumb in the modern world. Jack, do you have access to any scanning equipment ?"
"I've got a safe house in the city," Jack says. "Two, maybe two and half miles from here."
"Then let's get moving."
"Doctor," Martha cuts in, "my parents." She tilts her head at them and they look him up and down, skeptically, fear and confusion warring for control of their features. He watches them watching for a long minute, noting with some approval that they've managed to hang onto the Jones composure, which was passed along to the bright woman before him. "They're tired. We ran all the way here, and they've been-" her voice cracks, only slightly, "they've been working for him, and they're tired. I can't-"
"Too easy," says Jack. "Pick a car. We've boosted a few running missions when we needed something that couldn't be traced back to us. It'd only take a minute."
Several eyebrows raise.
"Stealing a car ?" Martha asks. "Isn't that a little-"
"Do it," the Doctor snaps, distracted, still scanning the site. "Pick one and let's get moving."
"He could be killing her !" he shouts. The sound echoes off the wet stone and the crackling pavement, and so down the long tunnel he hears himself saying it again and again. He could be he could be he could be killing her killing her killing her. They take an involuntary step back from him; then Martha thinks better of it and stands beside him, stiffly, bending down to lay her hand on his shoulder. The touch startles him a little, breaks the tension. "I'm sorry," he murmurs. "I'm sorry, but please- please let's keep moving."
"Will do," Jack says; he jogs down the street, glancing in car windows.
"Are they safe there, do you think ?" Martha asks, not for the first time. She looks back in the direction of the safe house, the Doctor's newly acquired handheld sensor beeping steadily as they head north. It's dark now, approaching true night. Jack glances back from the driver's seat, a reassuring smile already in place.
"There's a medic and a fully-stocked kitchen; not to mention four well-armed resistance members. There's not a safer place in the city, I promise you that." Martha sits back, and returns a faint smile.
"They're a good bunch," the Doctor says suddenly, looking up from the device. "Your team. They're quick. They're smart, and they're strong." He looks across from the passenger's seat at Jack's knuckles whitening on the steering wheel. "I've lost people," he continues, somewhat more quietly. "I know what that's like, Jack. But you've done well. You've done what you could." Jack doesn't answer, just steers around a pile of overturned garbage bins. "Don't think I don't see it."
They drive in an uncomfortable silence through the waking city. The crowds seem to have tired of their rampaging in the last few hours- here and there small groups move through the alleyways, but for the most part lights have emerged from behind the boarded windows and faded curtains of the neighborhoods. Families finding one another, recovering as best they can in the shell-shocked aftermath. Waiting for a leader to emerge, maybe, or just waiting for the dawn. The Doctor can't help but stare out as they pass, at the lamps and candles, aching from the very bottom of his bones.
"You can promise me something," Jack says to him, as they round a corner, passing through a park that's nearly pitch-black, the leaves of the antique trees swaying overhead.
"What's that ?"
"If, when this is over, anything's happened to her," he replies, "I don't want you to forgive me."
The device chooses that moment to go absolutely wild, in the direction of an abandoned-looking building at the head of the park; it's a classical structure complete with smooth marble columns. There's a chain-link fence around the outside, and boards cover the long, wide windows. The Doctor jiggles the wires briefly, and the device lets out a fatalistic beep. "This is the place," he says. Jack parks just past the fence; they get out with some hesitation, all except for the Doctor, who has already launched himself out and attached his long limbs to the fence, scrambling towards the top.
"There's a gate, Doctor," Mickey calls out, pointing. "There's a- oh, never mind."
There's a thick length of chain around the push-bar doors, easily removed by the sonic screwdriver; the doors enter into a great hall, impressively sculpted and gorgeous, flanked by sweeping staircases- just the sort of thing that might have attracted his attention, in any other circumstances. As it is, the Doctor hurtles up the left staircase, noticing at the top that he's quite alone. When he looks back to his companions the air seems to tremble- all at once the chandelier suspended from a struggling bundle of wires and chains bursts into brilliant, dazzling light. The Doctor flings an arm over his eyes to protect them; as he moves, it's like a sea of light around him- he can smell food and uncorked wine bottles passing by; he hears taffeta and silk rustling, and footsteps snapping against stone. He feels light-headed, dizzy, and as he's about to fall-
"-a plan ?" Martha finishes. "Doctor, did you hear me ? Do we have a plan ?"
Blinking, he surveys the room. It's dark still, and the broken chandelier remains broken. It's only the four of them amongst the dead leaves and trash bags scattered on the once-elegant floors.
"Did any of you-" he begins, and it hits him again. The sensation of the crowd, the splash of glass and happy chatter, music from the upper floors, a sensation very much like vertigo. "Martha !" he calls out. "Jack ! Mickey !"
"We're here," Jack calls out clearly, above the din. "Doctor, what is this ? What's happening ?"
"It's-" he stops, focuses. "It's some kind of loop. There's a thinness to the air- can you feel it ? We're touching another point in time. It's all around us. If I can get to the TARDIS I can sort it out." There's a pointed silence from below. "Hey !"
"I'm here !" Martha yells. "I'm still here, but I can't see- Mickey ! Mickey's gone !"
The Doctor descends the stairs two at a time, reaching blindly into the sea of light and color around him; he grabs onto Martha's outstretched hand. He drags her to his side and reaches out again, this time hooking Jack's sleeve and drawing him out of the whirlwind. They stand together on the steps, casting about wildly for Mickey. In staring out at the crowd, the Doctor catches a familiar face.
"Martha," he breathes.
"I'm right here," she snaps, irritated and scared. "What are you- oh," she stops. "Oh my God." She looks out, as into a mirror. There at the foot of the steps is a glamorous woman in a yellow gown- she's laughing, tilting her elegant head backwards in a show of mirth. There's a man and a girl at her side, and the family resemblance is clear. She is, quite obviously, the double of the woman at his side.
"Martha," the Doctor repeats. "Martha, that's you."
"It can't be me." She looks closer. "But that's- that's my sister, just there." Her eyes widen. "How can that be me ? I've never had a dress like that. I've never been in this place." She shakes her arm out of the Doctor's grasp and starts to wade through the illusion of the crowd.
"Don't ! Martha !" The Doctor follows her, tangled in the smoky waves of waiter and guest, the tendrils of light that seem to be reaching into his very brain. Everything, down to the floor beneath his feet, feels utterly wrong. He watches as Martha swings her arms, trying to gather speed- she nearly reaches herself before he grabs for her sleeve-
-and, like the TARDIS, she slips out of his grasp. Martha herself has become as insubstantial as a cloud. "Martha !" he screams. Jack, behind him, calls out her name and makes a grab for her coat, but his hands pass through her as well. There's a rumbling sensation, a tremor that passes through the crowd and rolls his eyes back into his head, and then he's looking at one Martha instead of two, one solid and very substantial Martha who looks through him with perfect clarity. She is the woman in the yellow gown now, her hair pulled back with a clip and a champagne flute in her hand. "Martha," he says one more time, "what's happened to you ?"
"Nothing happened to me." She takes a sip. "Nothing ever happened to me again. You shook my hand and you left me here, and I went back to work. I'm a doctor myself, now."
"I what ?"
"Doctor," she says. "You didn't come back. But that's alright." She turns away from him, melting in with the crowd, calling back over her shoulder. "I got by."
"But I did come back !" he shouts. He reaches for her again, helplessly, swept back by the force of the time loop. It has all begun to make a kind of terrible sense in his head, which is so muddled to begin with. "I came back ! You went with me, and we went through to another universe, together- Martha, I came back !" Struggling against Jack's grasp on his coat, he lashes out. "We found Rose ! I worked- I worked in a lab, Martha, come back ! It didn't happen this way !" Jack, exasperated, hauls him bodily out of the crowd and they land back on the steps, rolling backwards as the Doctor pushes him off. "Let me go !"
"What's happening ?" Jack asks. "What is this ?"
"It's the TARDIS." The Doctor looks up the stairs, his head clearing. "She's the only one with the power."
"The power ?"
"To reset the timeline." He looks down at Jack with a strange sympathy in his eyes. "She's erasing all of it. Taking you back. In a minute this will all be gone- you'll forget."
"I don't understand."
"I'm sorry for this world, Jack." He rests his hand on the other man's shoulder. "I'm so sorry you had to live in it. To lose so much."
"What are you-" Jack glances down at his body, which has begun to fade slightly, a myopia of reality at his pressure points. "Oh. Oh- Doctor-" he starts, but doesn't finish; in another instant, he's vanished completely into the smooth pattern of movement around the Doctor's vision. When he stands up, straightening his jacket, he's alone.
By the time he's reached the top of the stairs, the carpet has grown back in like moss around his feet, springing up the stairs obediently and ushering him down a long, bright hallway. Electric fixtures re-attach themselves on the walls, pictures straighten. The halls are empty and the upper floors silent; when he pushes a door aside, he feels a familiar sensation, like soft hands rubbing the warm spot at the base of his brain.
"I'm here," he says, to the TARDIS before him. "I've found you." She shimmers again, so slightly, but even that terrifies him and he reaches forward to touch solid wood. The ship is present now, solid and stable, but humming with a strange current; the color and tone of her light shifts as unsteadily as a cloud passing. All at once she pulses brightly, rocking him backwards with the sheer force of her will, expanding out and past him to grasp the time streams now openly vying for control. There's a war happening inside of her and it's spilled out around him. It's changing the very world in which he stands, second by second. "You're eating again, aren't you ?" he asks, attempting not to panic. "I don't get it. Huon particles- but what from ?" he continues, circling her, extending his hand to try and make sense of her aura. He holds his palm just above her surface, probing the overpowering mind at her core, and he sees-
-don't ever want him to feel this again.
I'll do anything.
Anything, I promise.
He staggers backwards, reeling from sheer shock, and the depths of darkness between a petal-soft mind that is unmistakably Rose's, and the wild wilderness that is the ship's. It's as if a starry gulf has opened up here, in this unlikely place, splitting the world apart and remaking it over and over again. It's too much. Whatever strain it's putting on Rose, it's surely too great- how, even, could such a thing be done ? He fumbles with his keys, turning them in the lock, but for the first time the TARDIS seems to bristle at his touch. "I'm not-" he snaps, "I'm not going to stop you. Just let me in." When the door opens there's an overwhelming wash of light and airless pressure, so stunning that he's sure the TARDIS has opened up her very heart.
It fades like a sunset; and Rose is on the grates.
She doesn't stir when he kneels at her side; her pulse is steady and her breathing even, though touching her skin gives him a pins-and-needles sensation like a deadened limb. It's huon energy, it must be; a shimmer of gold runs along the paths of her blue veins, stringing from heart to fingertips and back again. "How on earth," he asks her sleeping face, pulling her carefully into his arms, "did you get huon particles in your blood, you insane woman ?"
"I dosed her," says the Master.
With a smooth movement borne from decades of close encounters and near-death escapes, the Doctor is on his feet and rounding the console in seconds flat; the sonic is drawn between him and his opposite.
Rose grabbed his attention from the second he ran up the ramp- but now, staring across the open space, the Doctor sees a spread of ruined machinery against the back walls- parts and chunks of metal plates, circuits and levers shattered and cracked, an oversized column leaning drunkenly on one side. Beneath what appears to be the heaviest slab of plating, the Master lies pinned; one arm, obviously broken, twists against his body in an ugly parody of his uncanny grace, while the other is pillowed under his head in a relaxed, mocking manner. Below his waist, he's buried in burnt-out steel. "You know, nobody has a fear of needles," he adds, "if you stick them when they're not looking. Misdirection as the cure to phobia. I told you I was the clever one."
"What have you done ?" the Doctor demands.
"She was going to be my engine," he drawls, lazily, circling his good arm in the air like a propeller. "I needed a new one, and I thought it'd hurt you. I'd have been right."
"An engine ?" His mind races. "You didn't."
"A huon-fueled vessel with a human core- I thought of it myself." He coughs raggedly. "Ugh. I think my legs are puking up pieces of my brain." The Master makes an idle gesture downwards, and trembles a little from the effort. "Would you take a look, see where my knees went ?"
"It's barbaric," the Doctor says, ignoring his plea. "It's monstrous. I'm not surprised the TARDIS devoured your makeshift machine on sight. She's undoing the damage you caused- an unshielded core, tearing about. I'm surprised you didn't destroy the universe."
"How lucky." The Master lets out a great, shuddering cough. "I wasn't concerned with covering my tracks."
"So I'm left to clean up your mess. The TARDIS is practically murdering herself to set things straight. Your machine must've ripped holes wherever it went. It's an affront to-"
"It was brilliant," the Master snaps back, viciously. "It was goddam brilliant. I was stuck out there on the rim of the universe, with guts and string and rocks to build it. I bled for that machine. I carved it out with my bare hands," he spits. "Hate me if you like, but don't you dare disrespect my work."
"I don't hate you." He lowers his arm, slips the sonic back into his pocket. The Master stares up at him in sudden knowing fear, but he walks steadily forward to kneel at the other man's side. "You already know that."
"Don't say it."
"We're the only two left."
"Don't say it !"
"Whatever's passed between us, it doesn't matter. We're just two pebbles from the same rock, and that's all. I know how alone you've been."
"I'm not listening !" the Master screams, struggling under the debris. "You self-righteous fuck !" His eyes roll up into his head, showing the whites like two pearly teeth in a terrified skull. "Don't you dare ! Don't you dare !" The Doctor kneels down, pinning the Master's good arm against the floor, and leans closer. The Master is shuddering and sick, at the very end of his strength. Already the Doctor can feel the storm of rebirth breaking towards the surface, fighting the wounds in the other man's broken body. It won't be long. When he takes a breath to speak, the Master goes perfectly still. "You can't," he whispers. "You won't."
"I forgive you," he says.
Regeneration hits as a lightning blast, splitting them apart like two halves of a healthy tree. It's agony to hold him through the change but the Doctor hangs on; the muscles knit and the bones reshape and the face thins, elongates; his hair is shot through with brown and his hands widen, soften- he's getting younger, even, than the last change. But the body's only a secondary concern- the mind bubbles and boils in the skin, alive and angry as a seething hive, desperately clinging to the emotions of the last seconds of that life.
The Doctor is able to drag him out from underneath the plating finally, now that his body is uninjured and whole. He checks his pulse, his pupils, and the Master stirs to life. His eyes are wider now, fringed with brown lashes like a girl's, and he stares up with an odd innocence borne of utter, absolute madness.
"Mercy," he says first. Some things don't die. His mouth curls up, mockingly. "I don't want your mercy."
"Too bad," the Doctor says, and sinks the hypodermic into his neck. He puts a hand beneath the Master's head as it droops, awkwardly, fighting the drug. The Master sputters a little and shakes, hanging onto consciousness, and the Doctor rocks him like a child. "Dream," he says. "Dream, and never wake up."
The new body goes still, perfectly still, save for the faint double heartbeat and the slow exchange of air. The Doctor holds him a little longer, cradles his head and looks at the features of his face, brand-new and young, unformed as new bread. He sets him down and straightens out his own knees, stands up with some difficulty. It takes some effort to heave the body over his shoulder and get him to a stasis chamber in a remote, unused wing; where he adjusts the straps and programs the dosages and locks the console and shuts the lights off.
Dream and dream.
He sets the door combination to something only he'd remember; something stupid and too simple, the coded letters of his name in Gallifreyan, with a prime-number cipher. On the other hand, maybe he's overthought it. He doesn't speak a goodbye in words, because it isn't- it might be ten years or a hundred before they speak again, but they'll speak again. He's not a planet and he's not a people, but he's something. That knowledge, that security, will have to be enough.
There will be no last of the time lords.
The TARDIS exhausts herself eventually; the time streams even out, ironed smoothly into place. He checks coordinates and double-checks them, casts out for breaches in the walls between the universes and finds none, or close enough to none. The return beacon he set so carefully has vanished- it makes sense, of course; if the Master's work has been undone, then the TARDIS never punched through the void to escape him, never took Martha so far from her home, never found Rose. But the TARDIS has a will of her own, a strange one; a will that seems to include the human woman currently sleeping in his bed, and so Rose, of everything, has remained. His gratitude has no limits.
When he's spun them into a sleepy backwater galaxy, he slips into his room and into bed beside her, sweeping the hair out of her eyes and watching her sleep. He thinks a lot of stupid things while she rolls around and mumbles into his collar, sad things and strange things and things she'd roll her eyes at him for saying, if she was awake to hear them. What a relief: that no matter how much she cares for him, he can trust her to deflate him at the appropriate moment.
"Rose," he says against her earlobe, "stay."
For now, she does.
"And then you'll open the door," says the TARDIS.
"Okay," says Rose. "This has gotten a bit weird."
She is very much not looking down- down is bad, down is the slowly-tilting vortex of an entire solar system in the inky-black spread below her feet; down is darkness and space and asteroids. Down is going to make her throw up; if it's possible to throw up at all in a dream or a vision or non-space, whatever this is. If indeed one can actually dry-heave in dreams, the universe is going to feel Rose Tyler's foot up its backside. "Really," she says, looking up, where the view is no less spectacular and startling. "I'd like to wake up."
The universe pauses for a second, and then thinks at her with a golden intensity that washes her insides out. It's a warm vibration in the back of her skull, slipping along her jawbone and bursting into colors at the edges of her eyes. She shuts them tight. It's quite overwhelming, and she thinks she might know where she is.
Correct, the TARDIS purrs.
"So I'm- inside your brain ?" She turns a circle, standing on nothing. "It's very large." Once again she's flooded with acknowledgement, connection- maybe even a little amusement. "Is there some way we can talk ? Because I'm not sure my head's going to take much more of this."
By way of a response, the galaxies around her turn faster, forming into slurries of clouds like cotton-candy, taking shape. Like thoughts spoken out loud into frosty air, something comes into being- it's a woman's shape, smooth and rounded at the edges, pulling away from the depths of light and dust. In a second she's sharpened into line and color- a blonde woman in a pink zip jacket, with golden pools where her eyes ought to be. Her mascara's running.
"Is this better ?"
"Oh," says Rose. "You even remembered what I was wearing."
"It's only fair," not-Rose says back at her. "I was wearing you." She tilts her head in an odd gesture more like the Doctor than Rose; her smile crinkles crookedly at the edges, like she's only learning how at this instant, for the first time. "Do you understand why I've brought you here ?"
"Not really," she admits. "I know I asked you for help, and you must've helped me, because I don't feel dead."
"No, Rose Tyler," her mirror says. "You're very much alive."
The view changes before her, ripples in the living water of space, now a fluid vision of the TARDIS corridors, pulsing with life. They pass a door and she touches the Doctor's consciousness, briefly, settling on the weight of it like a sparrow on a branch, before passing by. The hallways lengthen into darkness but the TARDIS doesn't hesitate to push Rose further, forward, stopping only before the rippling image of a door.
"It's locked," Rose murmurs. "That's the only door he's ever locked."
"You know what's behind it."
"I suppose I do."
"Then know this, too." The combination lights up on the lock and though Rose tries to look away, realizing too late what she's seen, the circular letters burn an image onto her mind. They fade as quickly as they've come, but they don't feel gone.
"This is wrong."
"You'll remember what you've seen, when you need it."
"Why would you do that ?" she snaps. "What if somebody's after the Doctor, and they use me to get at him ? What if they force me to open the door ? You're supposed to be so brilliant- why would you do such a stupid thing ?" The TARDIS faces her with an expression of otherworldly patience- strange to see such a thing on her own features, worn with such age and compassion and tiredness.
"Because someday, you'll need to." The stars rise and fall in hundreds of sunsets as she speaks; if anything, Rose finds herself suddenly weighted and weightless, drifting heavily at the edge of her own consciousness. The TARDIS is letting her go. "A very long time from now. You'll be at the end of need. You'll be alone. I'll lead you to the deepest darkness." There's a peaceful pattern to the old-fashioned speech; Rose shuts her eyes and listens. She's falling asleep within her own dream- funny, that. "You'll walk the longest hallway and you'll break the lock."
"And then ?"
"And then you'll open the door," says the TARDIS.
"I'll never do that," she yawns.
"Yes, you will." The gold in her eyes blurs our like a sunset on moving water. "You will because I answered you, and in return you will honor your promise."
"I don't understand why you need me."
"I don't have legs or ears or eyes, Rose Tyler." The TARDIS-Rose points at her, and the darkness returns in full force, threatening to swallow her alive. She's so close to sleep, so wrapped up in the warmth. She doesn't look down. "I don't have a mouth to shout out a warning. I don't have hands to do what must be done. What I have," she continues, "is you."
"You do have me," Rose agrees, gently. Her eyes shut. Her words come out as a whisper. "You'll always have me."
"Yes." The TARDIS-woman gives her a sad sort of smile. "More than you think."
Rose drifts to sleep.
Rose wakes up halfway through a snore.
"Mff," she says. Her head's heavy and thick, like a chest cold that's migrated north; she doesn't feel sick but exhausted, spun about and strung out until all her edges crackle. She knows she dreamed something weird- something about falling out of the TARDIS- but it's gone now. Just a vague impression of starlight and the sensation of cotton mouth. It doesn't help that she appears to have gathered all the blankets close to herself, and wedged them up her nose.
"You sleep like an angel," the Doctor says, grinning. "A sticky, congested, greedy angel."
"I should have rolled on you and crushed you in the night," she mutters, unfolding herself. "Speaking of which, is it night ? Is it today ?" She sits bolt upright. "Oh my God, Doctor, he's got this machine-"
"Yeah." His voice is vined with a quiet, inward-looking bitterness, unusually calm. "It's been taken care of." She looks at the back of her hand, which she only now realizes he's been tracing faint patterns on while she dozed- he strokes up against the bones of her hand, downwards against the veins. "You were dosed with huon energy," he says flatly, "but you're rid of it now. You're fine."
"How did you-"
"The TARDIS found you," he replies. "She dismantled the machine, too, crunched it up all by herself. Huon energy's like food to her, fuel more like. So she saved the day and got a hearty breakfast out of it." He's half-jolly and half-melancholy, rattling them both together and coming up slightly short in the cheer department. Rose reads him too well to believe he's playing for her sake.
"Could you save him ?"
"No," he says. He rolls onto his back, breaking the skin-to-skin contact. "Not really. I stopped him. I locked him away- far away, Rose, I promise you there's no danger." She nods, trusting it. "But stopping him isn't winning- it's not the same thing." The Doctor drums his long, thin fingers on his stomach. "You can build a dam and you can build a bridge and you can patch a pair of pants, but-"
"-nothing lasts forever ?" Rose sits up. "That's bollocks."
"Excuse me ?" He makes an affronted noise and stops drumming abruptly, staring at her instead. "Who's the authority on time and entropy and linear and non-linear movement, here ?"
"Obviously not you," she says. "Some things last forever. Life. Hope." She clears her throat. "Love."
"Ah," he frowns, clearly stung, but not by her. "I suppose I should give up on quantum mechanics and study Rimbaud on your advice, then. Do you think it'll improve my steering ?"
"Don't be cruel."
"I'm sorry." Instantly, he is; he softens in everything that reflects her- his eyes, his posture, the droop of his mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
"It's alright." She leans against him and he moves to adapt to her weight, shifts himself to cradle her more completely. It's a needy, deeply affectionate gesture, and even as it thrills her to be wanted so badly, it hurts her to see it. "I know how lonely you are," she says suddenly. "I've known it since I met you."
"You screamed it at me once," he adds.
"Don't be." He nuzzles the top of her head. "It was true."
"It's still true sometimes, isn't it ?" She listens for his breathing and doesn't hear it- he's hesitating to answer, and she reads into that what she suspected. "Sometimes you're still lonely for them. Of course you are. Even if you didn't get along with them, they were family. They were your family, your people."
"I don't care that I'm human," she interrupts, fiercely. "It doesn't matter to me. I know I can't fill the whole void but I can take up as much space as possible, and yell and wave my arms around."
"That's what I promised the TARDIS," she whispers. "I saw you falling in the pit and I promised her anything, anything in the world, if I could stay with you."
"Rose," he says, impatiently, "I'm going to go mad if you don't let me kiss you."
"You're- huh ?"
He pulls her back down instead of answering, presses his mouth to her with a passion that rolls off of him in waves- it's dizzying, intoxicating, and not for a second she wonders how he's kissing her straight through to her brain. He's murmuring into her mouth, opening his own wider to suck and nip at her lower lip. His hands seem to be everywhere- one curling against her nerves at the base of her neck, the other on her hip, bringing her down against him at the same instant he's arching up to meet her. He's all heat and play, needing to have her against him, and it's making Rose see stars.
"You're so human," he murmurs, still touching her with desperate affection. "Only you would think that this wasn't enough- that everything you do for me wasn't enough." He holds her back for an instant to see her clearly. "You've saved me," he says. "Did you know that ? There's so many things I could've been." That's certainly true; she's seen the storm clouds in his eyes and wondered at them, though they've never broken the surface. "Everything we feared, it could have been true. I could've ended the world a million times."
"And you believe that," he agrees, with wonder. "You really believe it, and it makes me believe."
"I just know you," she says, waving it away with an airy gesture. And giggles. "You'd get distracted. You'd wander away from your own plans of world domination because you were looking for string."
"I may not be your kind," she says, more hesitantly, "I may not be psychic, but I do know you."
"Oh, Rose," he says. "If I have a kind, you're it." He cups her cheek in one hand and strokes the soft skin there; and something blooms in her that will never wither, never fade, never be anything but a face turned up to the sunlight, waiting for another moment like this one. He has the very good sense to kiss her again, and she has the very good sense to let him.
"I'm the only one as mad as you," she agrees.
"And mad you are." His expression takes on a slightly misty tone. "You're the only one who ever laughed at Emporer Pang, that's for sure. And certainly the only one who's ever liked slug jam."
"I- what ?" Her eyes narrow dangerously. "That was made of what ?"
Life, as they know it, goes on.
They find Jack in Cardiff, running a team; from the second they touch down he's hurtling across the square with a backpack and a miles-wide grin, shouting for the Doctor. They open the doors and let him run up the ramp and when he catches sight of Rose, he shouts in delight and lifts her, spins her, dances a light samba before letting her go and repeating the process on a sputtering Doctor.
She's happy to discover that this Jack, the right Jack, is still the one she remembers.
"Fairies ?" she asks. Both Jack and the Doctor glance up at her with utterly serious expressions, not quite matching the subject of their intense conversation. "As in, fairies ?"
"They're incredibly dangerous elemental creatures-" the Doctor begins, and she rolls her eyes.
The Doctor, looking as apologetic and remorseful as he ever does, sits them down and tells them both about the gamestation and the truth about Jack; there are tears and accusations and apologies but finally Jack tells her, in halting words, he's grateful; that he's gotten to see so much of the world, that he's even gotten to see them again. He tells them stories about his lives (and deaths) and Rose hangs on every word, for hours, while the Doctor pops up with questions and dates. Much later, as she's dozing on the jump seat and they're arguing over some piece of equipment, she sees the Doctor take him aside and ask a question, one that makes Jack hang his head and turn away for an instant, before breaking into a brilliant smile.
"Everything okay ?" she asks, drowsily.
"Everything's wonderful," Jacks answers. "You're wonderful, I'm wonderful," he glances at the Doctor, "life's wonderful."
The three of them find Martha, now Dr. Jones, tall and confident and a little confused as to the particular joy of Rose, who hugs her madly on meeting her and repeats it a few times.
"I like her," Martha says to Jack, "but I think she might be crazy."
"Come with us," Rose begs. "The both of you, come with us- Jack, I know for a fact you brought your own toothbrush already. That's like, half the deal." They eye her up and down and the Doctor smiles indulgently, pretending to be concerned with levers and altitude.
"Aye-aye !" Jack laughs. Martha sighs and shakes her head, grinning.
"I must be mad," she says. "Alright."
"One stop first," the Doctor interrupts. "And sorry, but it's strictly a two-passenger deal." He looks directly at Rose, who nods. "Everybody off, leave your bags, we'll be back for you in two shakes of a-" he scratches the top of his head. "I'm pretty sure it's not two shakes of a Venusian leopard's tail, but that's all that's coming to mind."
Their passengers grumble a little but do as they're told; when they've said their temporary goodbyes, the Doctor starts his fancy footwork, spinning and hammering the console in just the right places, swearing in three languages at the ends of wires and checking and re-checking gauges every ten seconds until they come to a thumping stop. Rose watches him, sadly, and when he looks up at her expression, he deflates somewhat. "It's your stop," he tells her. "Are you ready ?"
"No," she says. "But I'll never be."
"I can't believe," she says, thickly, wiping at the corners of her eyes, "I'm really doing this. I mean, I'm really doing this again."
"So what, I'm you ?" Mickey smiles. He's crying too, trying to be funny and failing a little, holding Jackie's hand. "I'm supposed to run across a beach and hug your mum ?"
"Shut it," Jackie says. "How long've we got ?"
"Five minutes." The figure of the Doctor shimmers into view, then solidifies like Rose beside him, hanging back. "I'm sorry." Rose turns to smile reassuringly at him, seeing two layers of the world on top of one another like transparencies- the real, physical world of the ship and the ghost image of the beach laid over it. It makes her dizzy and sick, but she smiles brightly anyway. Five minutes.
"Let's make the most of it, yeah ?" she grins. "Mum, you look terrific. Pete and Allen not running you ragged ?" She watches her mum glance up at Pete and the sleeping child he's holding, and thinks about all the nights they'll have without her- dad and the baby falling asleep to television, Jackie with her feet up- and she feels as if some part of her is collapsing inside, emptying. "You three have to take care of each other," she says, brokenly. "Promise you will."
"Already promised," Pete says, gently. "You don't have to worry about that."
"But what about you, sweetheart ?" Her mother presses closer, probably forgetting she's just an image, and her eyes are crowded with tears. "You alright ? Is he going to take better care of you this time ?"
"Yes," the Doctor says, from behind her. She's surprised to hear the seriousness in his voice; he's not looking at her but at Jackie directly. "Yes."
"Good," Jackie nods. "You've grown up a bit," she tells the Doctor, which Rose finds oddly hilarious.
"This isn't a permanent goodbye," she says, holding up her phone. "He's rigged it so that we can talk through the universes. I'll call you all the time, I promise. He's even working on getting pictures through. You can send me every silly thing the baby does." Rose turns to Mickey with a sly smile. "And every silly thing Jake does, while you're at it."
"Oh, everybody knows," sighs Jackie.
"I want to hear about it all," Mickey says, suddenly. "You see an asteroid field, a planet of alien sheep, whatever- the things you see out there, you tell me. I suppose I can't get the grand tour, but it's enough if I know you're out there, seein' it for me."
"Mickey-" Rose blows her nose ungracefully into her sleeve. "Damn it ! I wish I could hug you. I can't even say anything. I can't think of what to say, but I want to hug you."
"Thanks," he grins. "Love you, Rose."
"We've got a minute," the Doctor cuts in, looking pained. "So-"
"I love you, Rose," her mother says desperately, stretching out her arms to stroke the air beside her daughter's face. "I love you so much. I've loved you since the minute we made you, Rose, I swear to God."
"Oh, mum, don't-" Rose cracks, cries, chokes on the words. "Mum, I love you. I love you so." She blinks, helplessly. "Mickey, you too- and dad- I love you all, I do, and I'm gonna miss-" -the scene fades abruptly, and she's left reaching out to empty air in the console room, the Doctor behind her and the low hum of the ship tip-toeing around her brain.
Rose kneels down and cries, sobs in great shuddering gasps and doesn't bother to wipe the spit and tears off of her face as they run. She doesn't wonder how many more times in her life she'll do this, she doesn't wonder what they're doing on the other side; she doesn't think anything at all, just cries for her mother and her people and the arms that aren't around her, like a child. She can feel the Doctor standing back, awkwardly, and she doesn't reprimand him for it, or tug him closer. She's not entirely sure he can help. Maybe nothing can.
When the worst few minutes are over she does reach for him- he kneels beside her and folds her into his arms, pressing her runny face into his jacket and rocking her, murmuring in a language the TARDIS doesn't translate. She fists his jacket in her hands and bawls, letting it all go. Letting it out.
"Rose," he murmurs; she's surprised to hear that his voice is thick with grief. When she draws back to look at him, there are tears in his eyes. "One person could- if you want- there's still a small-" he glances down. "Seeing you like this- I can't. You know I'll do anything you want. If you miss them, if you want to go back-"
She sniffles loudly and wipes at the crust around her mouth.
"If you ever tell me I can leave again," she says, regaining her calm, "I really will." He stiffens with shock against her and his eyes hollow out a little- it's terrible to see, but she holds out a second longer before finishing her thought. "I'll walk straight out the doors and find a sporting-goods store and I'll buy a cricket bat," she sniffs. "And then I'll come back here and beat you for suggesting it."
He grins, spectacularly. Her heart lightens a little, remembering that she's here, with him- the thing she chooses out of everything in the universe, the number one-and-only.
"No need," he says. "I've already got one, downstairs." He stands up and offers her his hand, pulling her smoothly to her feet; they circle the console together. "Where do you want to go, then ? Pick up Martha and Jack, see the new year's fireworks on Orion II ? Spa planet ? Home planet of the jellybean race ?"
"Which one ?"
"All of it," Rose tells him, squeezing his hand. He looks at her and she looks at him, feeling delight like a sunrise in her blood. "Every single star."
It's going to be-
"Fantastic," he says.