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last sunrise in the wasteland

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They’re visiting her mum the day it happens.

At this point, they’ve got it down to a routine. The Doctor lands the TARDIS at the Powell Estate, somewhere roughly equivalent to where Rose’s personal timestream is at. They climb the stairs all the way up to her mum’s flat, where Rose first gets an earful and then an armful. The Doctor, after escaping her mum’s fussing, settles down to tinker with something on the sofa while Rose and her mum have tea and catch up. He always jokes that he’s just there so Jackie has someone to yell at when Rose’s stories get a little too high adrenaline, and Rose always spots him smiling to himself out of the corner of her eye.

But today the routine is broken, and maybe Rose should’ve taken that as a forewarning.

“I’ll be right back,” the Doctor promises. “Just a spare part I need to pick up on Sotra 7. It’s all mechanics shops there, Rose. You would be bored to tears.”

“You’d better not be late for tea, or mum’ll smack you,” Rose says.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he says and grins at her. She grins back.

He’s gotten some new freckles, she notes. And there’s still a bit of chocolate just to the left of his mouth, from those yay-we-didn’t-die pastries he’d bought a few hours ago. Rose weighs the pros and cons of wiping it off.

The Doctor runs a hand through his hair and looks away. “Right. Yes. Sotra 7. There and back again, in time for tea on threat of Jackie-slap.”

“Go,” Rose laughs, and he gives her another grin before he pops back inside the TARDIS. The motors start up and the wind dances through Rose’s hair as the TARDIS dematerialises, leaving her staring at a thoroughly graffiti'd piece of estate wall.

The grin clings to her lips. She shakes her head, laughing a little with self-consciousness, and turns to make her way back to the flat.

It really isn’t her fault when she runs right into a woman standing by the stairwell, except it sort of is.

“Sorry!” she squeaks and stumbles back. “Blimey, didn’t see you there, I’m so sorry.”

The woman is blonde, hair styled in a well-coiffed bob, and Rose would call her a bit posh-looking, except dark roots are showing at the top of her head and her unorthodox clothes—a soft grey coat and a washed-out red tee with a rainbow print, blue ankle-length trousers and big, heavy workman’s boots—scream of charity shop. She’s about Rose’s height, and she looks like she’s just seen a ghost.

“Are you all right?” Rose asks, suddenly caught wrong-footed. People don’t look like that when they’ve had a stranger run into them. They look like that when they’ve run into someone they never expected to see, ever again.

Time traveller. It happens disturbingly often.

The woman adopts a quick smile, but it’s too sharp to be genuine. “Oh, what, me? Right as rain, me. I’m fine.” False or not, the smile makes her whole face light up, and the Yorkshire accent is a pleasant surprise.

“Oh, good,” Rose says. “‘Cause I totally wasn’t looking an’ ‘s all my fault, really. Head in the clouds, you know.”

The woman nods.

They stand there for a moment, looking at each other. Rose takes a breath and makes to push past her, but changes her mind mid-step. She stops and turns and says, a hand on the wall, “Sorry, but… do we know each other?”

Something flashes across the woman’s face, too fast to catch. She seems to shrink in on herself, then, and her gaze drops to her toes as she scuffs her boots against the pavement. “That’s an odd question,” she says, which is not an answer.

“I… have a nonlinear lifestyle,” Rose says, parroting the line she’s heard the Doctor say so many times. Maybe it’s her turn to have an as-of-yet non-met friend. “Sometimes I run into people and they know me but I don’t know them.”

One of the corners of the woman’s mouth quirks upward. “That sounds like an interesting way to live,” she says.

“It is,” Rose agrees. “It’s brilliant.”

And you, she thinks, aren’t freaking out over the fact that I just casually mentioned time travel.

The woman looks at her, oddly still, and then startles into flustered activity. “Well, Rose, it was lovely to meet you, and don’t worry about bumping into me, happens to the best of us. I’d better be off—”

Softly, Rose says, “How do you know my name.”

“I— hah.” The woman scratches her neck. “Hah hah, hah. Well.”

“Don’t you think it’s fair you tell me yours,” Rose says, a sense of creeping dread in the pit of her stomach. She hopes the Doctor isn’t too far away. “When you already know mine without me tellin’ you, I mean.”

The woman stares at her again. Then she says, mournfully, “Oh, I knew this was a bloody stupid idea.”

Rose is very aware of her heart in her chest and its sluggish, heavy beats.

“Hello, Rose,” the woman says and gives a brilliant, heartbroken grin. “I’m the Doctor.”

Rose’s breath halts in place in her lungs for a moment, and then it rushes out as a, “Sorry?”

The woman shoves her hands in her trouser pockets and rocks back on her heels. The movement leads Rose’s eyes to her coat, and she spots something tubular and silver peeking out of a pocket, topped by an orange crystal. It’s not the same shape and the colours are wrong, but she can make an educated guess.

“Is that a sonic,” she says and points.

The woman brightens again. “Yes! Made it myself,” she says and picks it up, flipping it in the air once with the easy grace of someone used to handling it. “Lost my old one. A real life-saver, it was, and then it just fell out of my pocket. A bit of a sad ending for it, really.”

She flashes a nervous grin.

“Uh,” says Rose, trying to calculate how far away the Doctor is.

“Oh, he’s not coming back ‘til tea,” the woman mentions. “I got caught up at this— well, it doesn’t matter.”

Rose stares.

The woman’s eyes dart away. “I’m— Sorry. Really not supposed to be here,” she mutters and makes to leave. “Really, really not—”

Before she manages to even take a step, without thinking about it, Rose grabs her arm. They’re left standing there, staring at Rose’s hand around the woman’s arm.

Just to break the silence, Rose says the first thing that pops into her mind. “Why didn’t you mention you could regenerate into a girl?”

“I did!” the woman protests. “I said, ‘regeneration reshuffles every molecule in my body.’ Why would I be bound to one particular gender? Seems a bit arbitrary, that.”

Distantly, like it’s happening to someone else, Rose feels her hand grip a little tighter around the woman’s arm. Through the coat, the woman’s pulse throbs against her fingers, a too-quick double beat.

“Honestly, humans and your hang-ups,” the woman says. “You’re a ridiculous species.”

And now Rose can’t help herself; she snorts, an ugly, startled sort of laugh, and claps a hand over her lower face to stifle it. “Oh my god. You’re the Doctor.”

The nervous smile flits past again and the Doctor gives a little wave. “Hi.”

“You’re the Doctor,” Rose repeats and believes it, “from the future.”

“Well, technically,” the Doctor begins. Rose shushes her, and then remembers that she’s still holding her, sort of really tightly, and lets go. “Thanks,” the Doctor says and rubs the spot. Her eyes don’t leave Rose’s face for a single moment.

There’s a pause.

“You sound like you’re from the north again,” Rose says because she can’t figure out what else to say—what do you say?—and because that little fact makes her happy, in a totally inappropriate way. She thought she was over this.

A smile quirks the corner of the Doctor’s mouth. “I do, don’t I?” she says thoughtfully. “No idea where I got it from. Does it suit me?”

“I— yeah. Yeah.” Rose swallows. “It does.”

“I was Scottish, the last go-round,” the Doctor informs her. “I had this friend, she— Well. She was Scottish. And ginger!”

A tiny, fragile laugh bubbles up in Rose’s chest. “Still not ginger,” she observes.

“No,” the Doctor says, smiling a little. “And probably still rude, I think.”

“You were always terrible.”

“Oi,” the Doctor says, too softly to sound properly offended.

She’s still staring at Rose like she can’t believe she’s actually there. There’s an unnerving intensity in her eyes—though, maybe that’s just what this regeneration is like. Somehow, Rose doubts it.

“D’you want to come up for a cuppa?” she blurts out, but she’s not surprised when the Doctor shakes her head.

“I shouldn’t even be here,” she says apologetically. More decisively, like she’s trying to convince herself, she adds, “I’ve already made all sorts of terrible decisions today, ‘m not gonna cause a paradox out of carelessness, too.”

What sorts of terrible decisions, rests on the tip of Rose’s tongue. She swallows it down and files it under 'things you never ask the Doctor.'

“Sorry,” the Doctor says again. “I— It was lovely meeting you, Rose. Really, really was. But I should be off, I think. Yes.”

Before Rose has a chance to react, the Doctor spins on her heel and hurries away, shoulders hunched. Rose stands there for a moment, registers something like, Oh no you don’t, flitting past in her mind, and then she chases after.

“Doctor!” she calls. The Doctor’s shoulders hunch even more. “Doctor, wait!”

They leave the shadow of the block of flats. The Doctor sets off across the field of grass, following the paved path—towards, Rose realises, the same spot the TARDIS was parked in the first time the Doctor visited the Estate.

The stammering. The staring. The attempt at remaining incognito.

Rose decides she’s brave enough.

“How long?” she calls.

The Doctor stops. Turns. Looks. It’s all very deliberate and carefully, tellingly empty.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” Rose says softly. It’s not really a question.

The Doctor shoves her hands in the pockets of her new coat, pushing the fabric outward. For a moment, she just looks lost. “One and a half thousand years.”

Rose’s head spins. “Oh.”

They stare at each other for a minute, just standing there. The Doctor opens her mouth, like she means to say something, but changes her mind and shuts it again. Opens it again, shuts it again. Then she squares her shoulders and strides forward and Rose is gathered up in a strong, fierce hug.

“I’m sorry,” the Doctor says into her shoulder.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

The Doctor’s shoulders shake a little. Out of politeness, Rose pretends it’s from laughter.

They’re almost the same height, now, so instead of getting a faceful of chest, Rose can hook her chin over the Doctor’s shoulder. “It wasn’t,” she insists, clutching the Doctor closer. She doesn’t even know what happened, but she’s sure of it. It wasn’t the Doctor’s fault.

As if to really underscore that this is a different incarnation, the Doctor doesn’t argue. It almost leaves Rose feeling off-balance; her Doctor would’ve argued until they were both blue in the face and for a moment, she realises, she expected this one to be the same. But she’s not. She just keeps shaking a little and crushing Rose to her chest and Rose didn’t realise that this is what it looks like, loneliness.

She wants to ask her to stay. She knows she can’t.

“You said you had a friend,” Rose says, grasping at straws. “The Scottish, ginger one.”

“Amy,” the Doctor says. It’s muffled against Rose’s shirt. “Her name was Amy.”

“Was.” Is that why she’s here? Because now Amy ‘was’ ginger and ‘was’ Scottish?

The Doctor nods. “Was. But then there was Clara—she was an English teacher, you would’ve liked her, I think—and Bill. Bill Potts. She was amazing.”

Was, was, was. Rose feels sick. “You don’t have anyone?”

The Doctor is quiet.

“I want to ask you to stay,” Rose admits.

“You can’t.” But the Doctor holds her a little closer.

“I know.”

They stand there for a moment.

“You can’t tell him,” the Doctor says eventually. “He’s going to ask and you can’t— you can’t tell him. Anything.”

“I know,” Rose says again. She thought she’d be crying by now.

The Doctor presses her face hard into Rose’s shoulder and she really, really can’t pretend not to notice the wet spots bleeding through her shirt anymore.

“D’you realise how wrong this is?” she says before she has time to think it through, putting a little humour into it to soften the blow. “The Doctor doesn’t cry. Not over silly shop girls, anyway.”

It doesn’t shake sense back into the Doctor. Instead, she says, somewhat petulantly, “This one does.”

It startles a huffed laugh out of Rose, just for a moment. That tone of voice—she sounds exactly like him.

“Yours is stupid,” the Doctor adds. “I hate him.”

One and a half thousand years,’ Rose remembers. She remembers the hollowness of her voice, then. Now, the petulance almost covers it up, but she can hear the rawness behind those three words. It breaks her heart.

“I thought you were a genius,” she says. “You never shut up about being a genius.”

“I can be both!” the Doctor protests and pulls back.

At her tone, Rose’s lips curl into a grin, the one where her tongue pokes out because the Doctor always grins back when she smiles like that. And she does, she grins back even though her eyes are red-rimmed and her cheeks are blotchy and she looks so haggardly ancient through a face that can’t be more than thirty-five.

“You just watch me,” the Doctor says, and steps back like she’s ripping off a plaster.

Automatically, Rose’s arms wrap around her middle. The Doctor smooths down her coat. Weighs back and forth on her feet a couple of times, from heels to toes and back again. Sticks her hands in her trouser pockets.

Rose doesn’t know this regeneration, doesn’t know its tells and its quirks and moods, but this is as see-through as glass. She doesn’t want to go. Rose doesn’t want her to go, either.

The Doctor takes a step back, and it feels like something tears in two.

“You just watch me, Rose Tyler,” the Doctor repeats, softly, slowly, a sad but affectionate smile playing on her lips. She takes two more steps backward and then she spins on her heel and hurries away, coattails trailing in the air behind her.

Rose stands there on the pavement and watches her go.

From behind a copse of trees and a fence, she hears the wheeze-groan of the TARDIS motors. The fact that it still sounds the same almost makes her crumple, but she stands her ground and listens until the noise dissipates. She owes him—her—them—that.

As she stands there, and listens, one singular, empathic, all together selfish thought runs through her mind on repeat.

She never, ever wants to become that old.