The Doctor inhales deeply as he steps out of the TARDIS, shoving his hands in his pockets as he takes a moment to absorb the sweeping view. He’s landed on his usual ledge, perched high above a sprawling orchard filled with row after row of gnarled, silver-white trees.
As he makes his way down the mossy footpath their leafless, spindly branches welcome him, dancing languidly as if moved by some unfelt breeze. But the air is still and, of course, the Doctor knows they’re moving on their own accord. After all, the special sentient properties of these trees are why he came.
His chucks are covered in rusty dirt by the time he reaches the drying shed, nestled in a clearing in one corner of the orchard. A tiny chime rings as he opens the door and the Doctor smiles, remembering a similar sound made by a bell in a chippy back on Earth.
“Hello?” he calls, projecting toward the back of the warehouse, his voice echoing between large hanging scrolls of paper.
The shopkeeper’s head pokes out from behind one such sheet and the Doctor waves, grinning as the man walks swiftly toward him at a surprisingly quick gate, considering the sharp hunch in his back.
He’s nearly toe-to-toe with the Doctor before he shows any signs of recognition, eyes squinting through his inch-thick spectacles.
“Ah, Doctor,” he says, reaching up to pat his shoulder. “You look different.”
The Doctor scratches his neck and walks to the counter near the wall where they will make the transaction.
“It’s been a while.”
The shopkeeper chuckles. “You know that’s not why.”
The Doctor shrugs and picks up two small electrodes from the counter, untangling the wires before placing one on each temple.
“I’ll run the tests first,” the shopkeeper says, flicking a few switches on a crude-looking machine. They’re quiet for a moment, a soft buzz filling the air while he studies the readings on a tiny screen before turning the switches off. “Well, that part of you hasn’t changed at all since the last time. And you’re in luck, I think I have another from that same ream -- I’ll go check. While I look, would you like to make the same form of payment?”
The Doctor nods and the shopkeeper flicks two switches and pulls a lever, humming appreciatively at the readings on the screen.
“I must say Doctor, it works out for us that you’re always misplacing these things, you know that?” He chuckles good naturedly. “The last time you came by your psychic energy deposit helped nurture our best batch of saplings in twenty years. The Time Lords have the richest brainwaves of any of the intuitive beings and, well, they’re in short supply these days, as you know.”
The Doctor shifts uncomfortably and scratches at the sticker attaching the electrode to his left temple.
“Happy to contribute -- your products have always served me well. But, you see, I’m in a bit of a rush.”
“Right, right of course.”
The shopkeeper turns and disappears behind a heavy curtain for several minutes, and the Doctor can hear the soft fluttering of paper, like a thumb sifting through a flipbook. After a while the machine on the counter beeps to signal the payment is complete and the Doctor peels the electrodes from his head.
“Here we are,” the shopkeeper says, returning with a small, rectangular envelope. “I was right, had just the one you need. Suspected you’ll want another case as well -- that’s on me.” He hands the Doctor the envelope and the brown leather holder. “Would you like to give it a go?”
“Nah,” the Doctor says, opening the envelope and removing the thin sheet of paper inside. “You’ve never done me wrong before.”
He slides the paper into the plastic slip attached to the leather holder before placing it in his pocket. Thanking the shopkeeper, the Doctor leaves the shed, chime signalling his exit, and begins the slow ascent back to the TARDIS.
As the trees around him seem to wave goodbye, he thrusts his hands into his pockets, trying not to think about the events the led him here.
He hadn’t realized his psychic paper was missing until weeks after Rose was gone, after he’d burned up a sun and said goodbye for the last time.
It should’ve been in the pocket of his trenchcoat but, no matter how much he scoured its transdimensional depths, he couldn’t seem to find it.
It was only when he ran a search through the TARDIS’s security cameras that he’d realized Rose had taken it while hiding out on the ship in Torchwood. He’d gripped the edges of the console, knuckles turning white as he watched the footage of Rose digging her hands into his jacket pockets, beaming triumphantly when she found it before bounding out the door.
A few seconds later it hit him that this is the last footage he will ever have of her. The Doctor’s knees weakened and he gave in, allowing his body to slump to the floor.
The psychic paper was a universe away, and so was she.
When the Doctor finally reaches the TARDIS on the ridge above the orchard, he pilots the ship into the vortex and takes a seat in the console chair.
Extricating the leather holder from his pocket, he opens it and tests a few of his most recent go-to authorizations.
John Smith, MD
The Doctor, HRH Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Inspector
Dr. James McCrimmon of the Highlands
He watches as the inky letters appear on the page before they flicker away, and for a passing moment he wonders if they always disappeared so quickly. Then the TARDIS starts to shake and he drops the paper into his pocket while he jumps to the console, cursing as he realizes he steered the ship too close to a fierce nebula in his haste.
Once he rights his coordinates and is drifting peacefully in deep space the Doctor pinches the bridge of his nose, suddenly feeling worn down despite not having run all day. Though he is running, in a sense, has been since he watched the sand lash at her damp face.
He considers going to his bedroom but slouches in the captain’s chair instead. Within minutes the Doctor is asleep.
He dreams of her.
There’s a black hole out the window and a wolf scratching at the door, but it doesn’t matter because she’s here. She smells warm and sleepy and she giggles when he nuzzles into her neck, trying to savor every last scent before it’s gone.
“That was a short forever.”
Her voice is a whisper but it feels like a shard of glass. Behind him claws scrape down solid wood.
“They’re going to get in,” he says, but he can’t turn around.
“So don’t let them.”
The black hole expands and he cradles her into oblivion.
When the Doctor wakes he’s lying on the floor and the sharp metal grating has cut three straight gashes on his cheek. Though his body has the ability to heal them right away, he lets them linger.
Each time his fingers ghost the scab he thinks of her. It’s a shame he’s out of plasters.
The Doctor has long chuckled at the human concept of time; that it marches and passes and heals. He knows, of course, that there is nothing passive about time -- sometimes it has to be slung over one’s back and dragged, beaten down into submission, hauled against the current of the universe.
As for healing, hah, if only it were so kind.
No, it’s the Doctor who marches on, and time trails in his wake.
The scrapes on his cheek have long since healed when the Doctor finds himself thrown into a grimey prison cell, forcefield bars buzzing closed an instant later. He spins around to confront his captor, only to get smacked in the face by a small square of leather.
“Here are your credentials back, Princess,” the guard laughs, the rolls of his round stomach jiggling with the effort.
“What’s the matter, can’t you lot read?” The Doctor picks up the psychic paper and holds it open facing the guard. “Like I said before you so rudely apprehended me, I’m the Consulate John Tyler of the Myradax Confederation and I require immediate entry into your weapons stockade.”
The guard glances from the paper to the Doctor’s face and back again before erupting into an even heartier laugh than before. The Doctor watches his belly jiggle and his own stomach turns.
“Maybe you picked up your missus’ identification when you got out of bed this morning, mate,” the guard sneers, holding his midsection still. “Either way, you’ll have to take it up with the magistrate.”
His laughter echoes through the dank prison halls as he walks away. By the time the Doctor flips the psychic paper around it has gone blank.
“It’s defective.” The Doctor pushes the paper across the counter toward the old shopkeeper.
“It’s not,” the man says simply. “Every item we sell passes a rigorous quality test and, as you know, I recorded your brainwaves to find the best match. It’s as good as the last one you had, Doctor.”
“No, it isn’t,” he spits, jaw set tight. “Because of this blasted thing I spent three rather uncomfortable nights in a 9th century Agruian jail cell before sitting trial for alleged identity theft.”
The shopkeeper studies the Doctor’s face.
“Alright, give it here.”
The old man takes the paper out of the holder and examines it for several long moments before a wave of surprise spreads across his features.
“Now tell me Doctor,” he says, knobby finger scratching at his chin, “where did you lose the last one?”
The Doctor sits heavily on a couch in the TARDIS library and swallows several times, feeling his adams apple stretch the skin at his neck. He holds the psychic paper in his hands, feeling dazed with the thought that he nearly threw away something so precious.
It came from the same ream as the last one, the shopkeeper had told him, and, though it was highly unlikely, there was always a chance the sentient fibers would still hold a bond to one another, cut from the same sheet as they were.
This occurrence became more likely, he’d said, if those possessing each paper had a connection themselves, through blood or vows or love. If that happened then the psychic papers could do more than turn thoughts into words on a page -- they could send thoughts from one page to the other.
And so the Doctor bounces his knee and breathes deeply as he opens the leather holder and stares at the paper inside. Then he thinks one word and watches four black letters seep into the page.
Then he waits. He sits vigil, hardly blinking, staring at the off-white paper for so long that the edges of his vision blur. He’s not sure if it’s hours or days that have passed when several words finally appear in quick succession.
Who is this?
How do you know my name?
Are you the one who’s been messing about with my credentials? Because you’ve nearly gotten me in some serious trouble on numerous occasions and you have no idea what’s at stake.
The Doctor laughs so hard it takes him several moments to realize he’s crying.
Rose. Rose, it’s me.
Yes, it’s me. Hello.
Oh my god.
Nooo, Rose, have you forgotten already? That’s where you say hello.
I say hello, then you say hello. That’s our bit.
Oh, right. Shall we try again?
Okay I’m ready.
The weight of time on the Doctor’s back lessens, somehow, after that. He still has the same nightmares, but now when he wakes he only has to reach under his pillow to find her.
It was the wolf again.
Still on the other side of the door?
Yep. It can’t seem to get through.
I know the feeling.
Anyway, how was your day?
S’alright. I’m currently drowning in paperwork. Fighting evil aliens is much harder when you don’t have a TARDIS, you know.
My poor pencil-pushing Defender of the Earth.
I’m proud of you, Rose.
I’m proud of you too.
Keeping the wolves at bay.
Sometimes they talk for hours. Every once in a while Rose calls out sick from Torchwood and they talk all day, mostly about nothing, but at the same time it’s everything. The Doctor swears he can almost hear her voice.
Tell me about your flat.
Not much to tell, really. Haven’t had time to buy a lot of stuff. It’s lovely, though, has two massive bay windows with a gorgeous view of the park.
Oh my, Rose Tyler, aren’t you posh.
Please, you know I’m not. It’s just central, that’s all.
Do you ever go on strolls through the park?
All the time -- it’s great for jogging.
No, but I mean do you ever go on strolls… with another person?
What are you on about?
You know, strolls where you’re strolling side-by-side with--
Doctor, stop saying strolls!
Oh now don’t be cross.
I’m a universe away and I can tell you’re cross.
I am not cross.
I haven’t been seeing anyone else.
He wonders if he’s being selfish, clinging to her through a flimsy piece of paper. Because she should be dating someone, if she wants, she shouldn’t tie her life to words appearing on a page from a distance too vast to be measured in light years.
At the same time he frets that one of them might lose their half of the delicate link, that his might be confiscated by an alien soldier, that hers might get ruined by her new baby brother.
He realizes that without meaning to they’re building a new life together, and it’s as fragile as it is intangible.
Wish I could see your face.
I have a couple photos on my old mobile. Pete helped me convert them to a file type used over here and we had them printed out. They’re a bit grainy, though.
When are they from?
One is of you from that night in 2012. When I squint I can see the fireworks reflected in your eyes.
I remember that night.
Hah, of course you do.
Your toes were very cold.
Told you I get nightmares if I wear socks to bed.
You had a nightmare anyway.
That was different.
Thought I’d really lost you that time.
Is that why you kissed me?
Because you thought you lost me. Is that why you kissed me?
No, that’s not why I kissed you.
I kissed you because I found you.
Well, I’m glad you did.
Both. Now, tell me about the other photo.
It’s the two of us on that gondola on New Switzerland.
Oooh, that was brilliant!
Speak for yourself, I was bloody terrified.
Why do you think I was clinging to your arm like that?
Just thought you wanted a cuddle.
Doctor, the bottoms of my trainers got singed from those fire-breathing dragons!
Whatever. It was hardly the scenic ride you made it out to be.
Oh, I get it.
You chose that because you wanted a cuddle, didn’t you?
There are easier ways, you know.
Such as what?
You could’ve asked.
Still as tight-lipped as ever, I see. Even when you aren’t using your lips.
How do you know I’m not using my lips?
Are you talking aloud right now?
It’s like we’re on an inter-universal telephone call.
Except we can’t hear one another.
I can hear you, though. I mean, not technically, my tympanic membrane isn’t receiving auditory signals or anything, but I can hear you, Rose.
Good. I can hear you, too. Doctor?
Wish I could touch you.
It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything. Just wanted you to know. Wish I could hug you. Or even just hold your hand.
You know my dreams, with the wolf at the door?
There’s a detail I’ve, well, that I left out.
What is it?
Every night, I have that dream. Every night, I can’t turn around.
Because you’re in my arms.
He knows she’s angry; angry with the limitations of Torchwood, angry with the cards she’s been dealt, and, beneath it all, angry with him.
How are you?
Don’t really want to talk about it.
Right. What do you want to talk about?
I think I’m sick of talking, Doctor.
Where are you?
Alright, I’ll get in bed too. We don’t have to talk -- I’ll just lie here with you.
Did you fall asleep?
Must have dozed off. Sorry, what’d I miss?
Think I could see your dreams.
What, really? What did it say?
That was a short forever.
At some point the Doctor lets time slide from his back and float away. He scarcely leaves the TARDIS now, never wandering more than a few feet from the psychic paper in case she might message him.
The passage of time is not consistent between the two universes. Sometimes an hour lapses for Rose when a whole day goes by for him. Sometimes she’ll tell him good night only to say good morning twenty minutes later.
This variable makes it impossible for the Doctor to predict when she will next make contact. And so he waits.
Doctor do you ever wonder…
Do you ever wonder, well, what it would be like if I could get back?
Doesn’t do to linger on moot points, Rose. It’s impossible. If I learned anything from you Doctor it’s that nothing is impossible.
Hah, fair enough.
You haven’t thought about it?
Didn’t say that.
Oh come on, share with the class. Humor me.
Well I’d finally follow through on that promise to take you to Barcelona, for starters. And we could spend months at that little spa planet you’d been dying to go to, if you’d like. Of course there’d be trouble, always is, but I reckon you’d still be up for that sort of thing, especially with all your new Torchwood training. Your clothes are still here, of course, and I went back and got the laundry you had dropped off at your mum’s flat before… And I claimed most of your other belongings, by the way, so those are all in your room now. You know, your books and CDs and such. Some of your mum’s china and that teacup you like with the little mustache. As well as the blanket your nan knit for you when you were little, it’s folded and on your bed. Except for the times when I use it, because it is rather soft -- she was a great knitter, your nan. I just… didn’t want the council to chuck it. Anyway, so we’d be able to pick right back up where we left off, more or less.
Sorry, I just…
Nothing. Had to find some tissues. That was wonderful of you, Doctor, to save our things like that. Been afraid to ask what happened to it all.
Of course. Like I said, it’d have been a waste if they tossed it.
So… Do you ever think about what it would be like? If you came back?
Think about it a lot actually.
It makes me angry.
Angry? Why angry?
Because I’m building a good little life here -- got my mum and Pete and Tony. Mickey and my mates from Torchwood, which is a great job, really rewarding and the most exciting job I’ve ever had. And yet any spare moment I get -- riding the tube or folding laundry or going for a run in the park -- all I can think about is how much happier I’d be if I were back with you.
Rose, please don’t cry.
I’m a universe away and I can tell you’re crying.
Hah, shut up.
It will get easier.
Time… marches on. Heals all wounds. Isn’t that what humans say?
You know that isn’t true.
It’s not fair.
I miss you.
I miss you, too. Rose, you have no idea. Really, I…
I wonder if it’s a good idea for us to continue talking.
Why, do you have to go?
No I mean, at all. I think I’m being selfish, trying to hold on to you like this. It’s impossible for you to move on with your life if we continue to taunt ourselves.
You can’t be serious. Talking to you is the best part of my day.
That’s exactly why it’s a bad idea. It’s not helping -- we can’t just go on pretending we’re still part of each others lives.
Pretending? God, you really are daft.
You’ll always be a part of my life, Doctor, whether we communicate through this bleeding paper or not. And I’ll always be a part of yours, won’t I, or are you going to stop using my blanket?
Course I am, when you make a stupid suggestion like that.
Is it stupid, though? How do you see all of this playing out? You will get married one day, Rose, I’m sure your new mates at Torchwood all fancy you and one of them will win you over, eventually. So how does this work then?
Will you chat with me on your wedding night? Check in with me after you’ve seen the first sonogram a few months later? Tell me all about your child who I will never meet.
Doctor, I mean it.
Just being practical.
You’re being an idiot.
An idiot who you can’t stop thinking about getting back to.
I’m done talking about this. Goodnight Doctor.
It’s morning here.
The Doctor swears to himself that he won’t be the first to break their silence. He lasts three days.
Rose, the number of universes out there is infinite. Anything you can imagine is a reality, somewhere; universes where your hair is pink, universes where you have an older sister, universes where you are Princess Rose Tyler of the Grand Powell Estates. Universes where you break your leg from falling off your bicycle, universes where you marry Mickey when you turn 18, universes where you fight with your dad over what you study at university and you never speak to him again. Universes where time runs backwards and rivers flow upstream and flowers grow out of the sky, straining to reach the earth.
And, I promise you, there’s a universe where we will always be together.
I’m sorry, too.
I got glasses today.
They’re just for reading!
Isn’t there a laser treatment for that sort of thing?
They don’t have that here.
Oh, I see. Well, what do they look like?
Bit like your specs, actually. Rectangular. The corners are rounder, though.
What color are they?
Do you usually wear them with your hair up or down?
Up, I guess. Mostly wear them around the flat. That’s an odd question.
Just trying to get the full mental image of Rose Tyler in sexy specs.
What makes you think they’re sexy?
Because you’re wearing them. And because of that time you tried mine on.
Oh, forgot about that! You thought I looked sexy then, did you?
Didn’t say that.
You implied it.
You inferred it.
I’m glad we decided to not stop talking.
I wasn’t even going to tell you about this, but we’re sort of stuck.
Tell me about what?
I’ve been working on a side project at work. A sort of adapted version of the dimension cannon--
No, listen. This version doesn’t jeopardize the walls between universes -- it allows us to pass through the pores, in a way. The only trouble is the thing is all over the map. It can safely transport someone between universes, but it’s impossible to predict where they’ll land.
Please tell me you haven’t tried it.
Course not, could pop up in the middle of a supernova for all I know.
Good. Well I might be able to help if I can get a better idea of how it works. Can you read me the blueprints?
Yeah, I’ve got them right here. It might take a while.
I’ve got all night. But Rose…
Don’t get your hopes up.
Why did you send me away?
Hah, good point. The last time. On the Torchwood tower.
Same reason as the other times.
To keep you safe.
Because that worked so well those other times.
I didn’t know what else to do -- had to make a split-second decision.
Knowing I’d already decided to stay with you.
You’d have regretted leaving your mum forever, Rose. Your judgement was clouded by--
What’s the point in rehashing this?
If we’re able to make the alterations you described on the dimension canon I won’t have to choose between you and mum. I’d be able to go back and forth safely.
You’re being a bit pessimistic.
Don’t want you to get your hopes up.
And what about your hopes?
Not to me.
I had that dream again.
The same one?
Yeah, but it’s different. The wolf nudged it’s snout through the door.
What do you think will happen when it gets in?
Not sure I want to find out.
The Doctor digs his hands deeper into his trenchcoat as the wind whips around him, long blades of pale grass batting at his ankles. The scent is less fragrant in the cool night but he still catches it in the air, applegrass triggering a memory that makes the backs of his eyes sting.
How fitting, he thinks, that the safest coordinates will bring her here.
He can just make out the hospital among the shining city skyline across the bay. It’s centuries after the last time they were here but to him it feels like it could have been only moments. Perhaps he let time stray too far.
When the balls of his feet start to go numb from bouncing he rocks back onto his heels, keeping moving while his eyes scan the horizon in case his calculations were off.
He’s looking around for somewhere to get comfortable, to settle in for a long night of waiting, when there’s a bright-white flash and the roar of the sound barrier shattering and a shaky Rose Tyler standing not but three feet in front of him.
“Rose!” He rushes to her and grips her arms, steadying her, steadying himself, and she grabs the lapels of his trenchcoat for purchase.
She smiles up at him, eyes twinkling, and the Doctor blinks back tears because he’s just got his second chance at forever.
Even after all their planning, months and months of pouring over blueprints and equations and coordinates, the Doctor never allowed himself to imagine that she would actually find her way back to him. And so, with a woozy Rose Tyler leaning into his side and no plan, he finds himself walking them to her bedroom, sitting her down on the bed, and kneeling at her feet.
“Rose,” he says for about the tenth time since she appeared, cradling her face in his hands.
“Told you it would work.” She catches her tongue between her teeth. “Don’t think I’ll be wanting to make that trip often, though. Feel like I’ve been torn to bits and put back together.”
“Well you have, in a manner of speaking.”
“Everything back in the right place?”
“Well, let’s see.” He releases his hold on her face and gently runs his fingertips over her features. “Eyes, cheeks, nose, lips, all there, as beautiful as ever.”
Rose ducks her head a bit and smiles, biting her bottom lip.
“What?” The Doctor can’t help running his thumb over the spot where her teeth sink into her skin.
“Just, well, you’ve been more open lately, you know, on the psychic paper. Not used to hearing you talk like that in person.”
“Did I not tell you you’re beautiful before?”
“Just once, I think. When you wore leather.”
“Well I was an idiot, then.”
“I already knew that.” She smiles and her eyes begin to water. “Come here.”
The Doctor leans forward and embraces her, burrowing his nose into her neck. He feels Rose shake in his arms and she whimpers, clutching his back as she cries quietly against his shoulder.
“You’re brilliant, you know that?” he says, surprised to hear his own voice cracking. “Brilliant and strong and brave. And better than I ever deserve.”
“You deserve more than you realize, Doctor. So much more.”
They stay like that for a while, clinging to each other until Rose’s sobs quiet and they are enveloped by contented silence.
“Your toes are even colder than usual.”
“Think my circulation is still a bit poor,” Rose laughs, pressing her toes more firmly against his shins. “You have to help me warm them up.”
“Oh, alright, but only this once.” The Doctor rubs his hands in slow circles on her back. “You know, I was thinking about something.”
“And what’s that?”
“The first time I felt your cold toes, you know, after 2012, and you, well--”
“Right. And then, you said it was because you-- you found me.”
“And, I mean, isn’t that what you did tonight?”
“Are you angling for a kiss, Doctor?”
“Well, I, ehm.” He glances toward the ceiling and blows air out from his cheeks.
Rose rolls her eyes and turns onto her back, tugging his upper body on top of her.
“Since tonight is about new beginnings, I think you should kiss me this time.” She grins, tongue teasing the corner of her smile.
The Doctor hesitates, awestruck by the beauty of her lying beneath him, blonde hair splayed on the pillow like a halo. She strokes his back soothingly and he leans forward, nuzzling his nose against her skin.
“Well first let me do another check again, you know, for quality assurance.”
Rose giggles as he kisses her eyelids.
“Eyes, cheeks,” he murmurs, pressing his lips to each one. “Nose.” He hears Rose’s breath catch as he plants a soft kiss on the tip. “And lips.”
He hovers over her for a moment, mouth millimeters from hers, breathing her in, feeling her heart beat against his chest. It’s Rose who leans forward to finally kiss him, lips soft and gentle and warm. In an instant the Doctor is pushing her back onto the mattress, closing his arms around her as he seeks out as much contact as he can.
After a few moments Rose pulls back to breathe and a whimper escapes her lips, a sound the Doctor impatiently chases with his mouth and tongue. His senses are filled with her -- taste and feel and scent -- and it’s excruciating and too much and not even close to enough.
It frightens him, because he knows he can’t lose her again. There’s nothing he won’t do to keep her safe; to keep her with him.
Rose brushes her thumbs over his cheeks and he notices he’s crying, cradling her in his arms as she whispers affirmations into his ear. Not long later she’s asleep on her side, clutching his arm to her chest as if he might run off in the night.
The Doctor bends his knees to match up with the crooks of hers and pulls her tighter against him, feeling her back expand and retract with each breath. He can’t help but press his nose to the nape of her neck and breathe her in, his warm, sleepy Rose, and he feels something inside him loosen and dissolve.
As he drifts off to sleep he contemplates a new, longer forever.
The Doctor’s dream returns, except this time it’s him clawing at the door, trying to get in. After one gentle push it swings open and he sees himself in bed, curled around a pink and yellow human, both with soft smiles on their sleeping faces. The sky outside the window is peaceful, the first gentle light of dawn seeping through the panes.
The Doctor wakes and kisses Rose’s forehead, tightening his arms around her.
“There’s a universe where we will always be together,” he whispers into her skin. “And this is it.”