"So what happens now?"
"What do you mean?" The Doctor asks from his perch on the infirmary bed opposite, feet kicking the air lazily as he watches the Quadruple Helix Heddle isolate and analyze her sample. He's bursting with energy, this new Doctor of hers, and Rose can't wait to see if this is just a side-effect of his recent regeneration, all his neurons ablaze with new life in the hours and weeks after, or if it will be a permanent part of this incarnation. She hopes it's the latter. She's not going to kid herself and think the darkness in him fled with his old face, but this cheerful, chatty, somewhat manic version seems so much less broken than the last that she can only take it as a sign of true healing.
"I mean... what happens now?"
There must be something in her tone, because he tears his eyes away from the monitor - first a glance over his shoulder through the glasses which may or may not be affectation, before turning to look at her properly, worry heavy in his new brown eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not the girl you died for-"
"-and you're not the boy I left behind at graduation."
"Is that a problem?" he asks, tone blank; eyes wary, weary.
"I dunno," Rose sighs, letting herself sprawl backward across her own bed, legs hanging over one end, head upside down over the other. "Is it? I don't know how much of me is Rose Tyler and how much is Arkytior of Arcadia, or if there's even a difference." Or, she does not say, which one you want more.
Silence follows her statement, dragging long enough for worry to pierce her heart. She's only known this incarnation a few hours, but every version she's known has been able to talk and say nothing at all. What does silence from such a man mean?
Then, over the faint whirl of the Heddle, comes the squeaking of springs. The mattress dips next to her after a moment more, and then The Doctor is laying next to her, both of their legs dangling over the side of her infirmary bed. "Is this your first regeneration?" he asks quietly. "The first new you?"
She was four hundred nine when the Lord President threw her into the dungeons underneath The Citadel. She doesn't know how long she was there before they dragged her out again, only that it was shortly after they lost control of The Nightmare Child. She was so old and frail by the time she decided to risk the Perversion Forge, so desperate for everything to just end and too afraid her regenerative instinct would kick in to try it naturally.
"Six, seven hundred years - not a bad run for a body. Certainly better than I ever managed. Then you got another, what, twenty?"
Rose considers her memories. "More like eight."
"Right. Eight. Then you got another eight in years this one here," The Doctor pokes her side for emphasis. "Usually you get the confusion all at once. You're one person, then you're another, but there's no real question about it. The change happens all at once - it's undeniable. But you, my dear friend, you've been two different people without knowing it. Plus there's whatever memories you were given to make everyone accept you in the first place. It's going to take a while to sort yourself out."
"Next one will be easier. Each successive regeneration is a little bit less of a shock to the system. Well, I say easier. My fourth one was a bit dodgy, nearly failed. Ended up wearing a decorative vegetable, which says it all really. My fifth was a bit unstable in the beginning too, and my sixth and seventh both-" He catches himself, perhaps catching the grin Rose can't seem to help. "There we go. There's that smile." He nudges her shoulder with a grin of his own and stays that way, leaving them pressed shoulder to thigh to dangling knee against each other. "Good to know I've still got it."
"You've always had it, Doctor."
"Like you don't know," she teases, watching his grin turn self-satisfied in the corner of her eye. "I loved you so much when we were children. You were more than just a way to escape - you were my everything."
"And now?" he asks, his tone confident even as his whole body stills beside her.
"Like you have to ask?"
Rose stays silent as long as she dares, searching for the words that will make him understand all he is to her - all he is and was and will ever be. It reminds her of Looming, this careful threading of words to fit into the warp and weft of their lives, picking out the best of all possible patterns. She is The Spinner, the Weaver of Fate, the Needle of Destiny - she may still be learning how to make herself heard by sentient beings, but finding the best pattern is her life's work. This she can do, even if she doesn't know who she is or who she's meant to be.
"You're not my everything anymore," she says slowly, and if he was still before, The Doctor is frozen now, locked in this moment, hating every second but unable to let himself flee before he's heard enough to properly crucify himself. "I've got Mum and Mickey and Jack if we ever see him again - even Harriet Jones if she ends up forgiving us. And that's better. Healthier, I think. Two people shouldn't be everything to each other. That kind of loss... It almost destroyed me once. It's not fair to either one of us to risk putting ourselves through that again.
"But," she continues, shifting on the bed until she's facing him as best she can after her earlier sprawl, "out of all the things I do have and all the things I could, you're the one that matters most."
"Arkytior-" he says, barely audible over the squeaking of springs as he too turns to face her.
"No. Let me finish, Doctor. I need to say it. And I think you need to hear it because you should never need to ask how I feel about you. Because I may not be certain about a lot of things right now, but I do know this: I love you.
"I loved you when I was nothing more than a pink and yellow human who knew - knew in every way it's possible to know anything - you could never love me back. Not in the way I wanted, at least. You were so angry at the universe for letting you live, so willing to die for a bunch of stupid apes on an uncharted backwater of a planet nobody and no one back home had even cared enough about to drag into their War - and I loved you.
"I loved you on Gallifrey when my hair was dark and everyone said there must have been something wrong with my Looming because I wasn't meant to be a throwback to Father's third incarnation, and I only knew what love was because of the crumbling old books we had to teach ourselves three extinct languages to read. You were rude and not ginger even then, all undirected rage and teenage self-importance - and I loved you.
"I love all the versions of you I missed. I love you now when neither of us knows exactly who we are or what we might become. I will love you in the future, whatever face you wear, whether I have a dozen lives left or just the one. And when it comes time for us to be parted for the last time, everything that was once me will love everything that was once you, forever and always."
Laying as they are, Rose can't see his face, only the shaking breath he takes before, "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life. I wish I could say the worst was letting Gallifrey burn. But no, the thing I've regretted most was leaving you behind all those centuries ago."
Her heart - still singular - stutters in her chest.
They called their leader the Lord President, and hidden in that title was the subtle secret at the heart of their society - that Gallifrey was not, and had never been, free. The Untempered Schism hid it, twisting all but the strongest minds until the lie became the truth and the unknown became synonymous with blasphemy, but that was only the final piece in a hundred thousand years of thought control. It had started with the language, changing what it meant to live and learn and love, until Gallifreyan had no need for the last at all.
The Doctor has never been human. He might never be able to say those three wonderful, terrifying words, but the sentiment - the sentiment was in those three sentences, and the sentiment was all that mattered. Even so, she never expected to hear it, but this!
This time Rose knows she's the one who throws herself into his arms, kissing him fiercely, and it's terrible and awkward because, really, what was she thinking sprawling across the short end of the infirmary bed like this in the first place, but none of that matters. All that does is that they are finally where they always planned to be: together.
And when the Quadruple Helix Heddle analyzing her genes whirls to a stop a few minutes later, The Doctor pulls away regretfully. He climbs to his feet, holds out a hand with a smile, and says, "Let's go see what our future holds."