The Doctor squared his shoulders, braced himself best he could with a few measured breaths before raising the sonic with trembling fingers. A lifetime ago—a body ago, even—he would have argued it was just a muscle spasm, would have rationalized the sick feeling in his stomach as he initiated the holographic transmission sequence, would have denied the stutter of his hearts as Rose Tyler materialized before him, windswept and haunting…and far less pink-and-yellow than he remembered.
She looked tired.
Was she sleeping enough? Was she eating well? Was she well? Was she taken care of? Was she with her family?
Was she loved?
Because that was the only thing that mattered, after all: that Rose Tyler was safe, and that she was loved, more than anything. She deserved that. She deserved more than that. She—
He struggled to swallow past the lump in his throat, struggled more to calm his ragged breathing. He only had five minutes; he didn’t know where to start.
“Where are you?”, she asked.
“Inside the TARDIS.”
Rose frowned; brilliant as always, she’d figured it out, knew what it meant. The flush of her cheeks confirmed it, the way she nipped her lip and tipped her face to the sky, blinking fast beneath heavy, black lashes.
He couldn’t stand to watch her tears well and fall, so he focused on her fingers instead, pale and shaking as they tugged her jacket tighter ‘round her middle.
“There’s one tiny little gap in the universe left”, he told her, “just about to close. And it takes a lot of power to send this projection. I’m in orbit around a supernova: burning up a sun, just to say goodbye.”
She didn’t meet his eyes, just held herself a little tighter, turned her face a little higher, like he wouldn’t notice the difference. “You look like a ghost.”
He may as well have been, for all the bloody good it did him.
“Hold on”, he said, and he nearly dropped the sonic, fumbling it between numb fingers when he tried to adjust the settings on the holographic projector, his mind reeling to catch up to his racing hearts and shallow breaths.
And it almost did, because both stopped the second he increased the image saturation, and the spectre that stood before him was replaced by her, his Rose, real enough to—
“No”, he corrected gently, stuffing his own hands safely into his pockets before he tried it anyway. “It’s still just an image, no touch.”
Rose stopped mid-reach, curling her fingers into her palm, and brought her hand to soothe the hair that whipped around her, to wipe it from the kohl-stained tears that traced her cheeks down to where her lips still held the pout of her last syllable—a commendable effort, given how they wobbled—and when at last they parted, her voice broke.
“Can’t you come through properly?”, she asked.
Except she wasn’t really asking, not like that, not with those eyes, no. He thought he might be sick; she was pleading, begging him, and oh was it tempting. Easy, too: wouldn’t take much more than a minute to get it all sorted. One minute, and he could have Rose Tyler in his arms again.
“But the whole thing would fracture”, he reminded himself. “Two universes would collapse.”
He thought she might laugh, might look away or smile with her tongue beneath her teeth, like it was just some morbid joke. But she didn’t; she just watched him, perfectly still—determined—while a storm crashed around her, within her. Because as surely as her eyes reflected a sky veiled in cloudy grief, and waves that ripped desperately across the sand to hold her in his stead, there was something else there. Something he couldn’t quite…
There wasn't time for that.
“Where are we?”, he asked, as if it mattered.
She played along. “Norway. About 50 miles out of Bergen.”
“It’s called Dalig Ulv Stranden. Translates as ‘Bad Wolf Bay’”, Rose said, and this time, she laughed.
He couldn’t tell if it was out of gratitude, or spite.
But whatever it was, it lasted only a few seconds before her hollow laughter turned to something choked and broken, her hands disappearing beneath the sheath of wind-spun gold to scrub roughly at her face.
“How long’ve we got?”, she cried.
He wished he could say, ‘forever’. He wished he could give her ‘forever’, instead of the truth: “about two minutes.”
“I can’t think of what to say.”
Clumsy fingers combed through tangled hair, futilely.
“You’ve still got Mr. Mickey, then?”, the Doctor supplied, and she smiled weakly.
“There’s five of us now: Mum, Dad, Mickey, me and the baby”.
‘Me and the…’
That couldn’t happen, it just wasn’t—he’d been so sure. He couldn’t even have miscalculated; it just wasn’t possible, genetically. There’d been no mistaking that, no other interpretation, no chance, nothing.
And yet, he couldn’t help the anxiety that gripped him, compelled him to ask: “you’re not…?”
“Nah, it’s mum”, she said, and she tucked her hair behind her ear, wrapped her other arm around her waist as if to keep her jacket closed against the wind, and drew a shuddering breath. “She’s three months gone. More Tylers on the way.”
But he was still stuck on her jacket: why wouldn’t she just zip it? He wanted to scold her, wanted to zip it for her, wanted to wipe her tears, and breathe her in, and keep her close and warm her wind-bit ears and ruddy cheeks, and promise her…promise her anything, everything.
But there wasn’t enough time for that; only one more minute.
“What about you?”
“I’m back working in the shop.”
“Well, good for you.”
“Shut up!” She smiled, but he couldn’t bring himself to. “Nah, I’m not. There’s still a Torchwood on this planet. It’s open for business, and I think I know a thing or two about aliens.”
“Rose Tyler: Defender of Earth. Absolutely bloody brilliant, you are.”
Rose ducked her head, covered her mouth with her hand as her shoulders shook and her knees bumped together.
His own felt dangerously weak, but he couldn’t stop. “You’re on the list of the dead, back home. So many people died, that day; so many people went missing. But you... Here you are, living a life, day after day. The one adventure I can never have.”
“Am I ever gonna see you again?”
“But what are you gonna do?”
Thirty seconds. Just thirty seconds left, and he couldn’t even touch her. Thirty seconds, and the only kindness he could offer was peace of mind.
So he feigned nonchalance: “I’ve got the TARDIS. Same old life, ‘last of the Time Lords’, you know.”
“On your own?”
By some miracle, he managed a nod.
Rose spread her fingers over her stomach like she might be sick, breathing slowly as their final seconds counted down: twenty, nineteen, eighteen…
One last gulp, and she peeled the golden threads from the tears that slicked her face, straightened her stance, and fixed him with her honey stare. “I…"
"I love you."
"Quite right, too. And I suppose, if it's my last chance to say it, Rose Tyler—”
The transmission cut out.
And the Doctor simply stood, his lips suspended in the “I” of his own confession. Three pathetically-insufficient words—a feeble summary, at best—but they were all he could give her, and he didn't even get the chance to say them.
It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair! Centuries of saving Time and Space, and all he’d dared hope for in return was the measly lifespan of a single human girl. He’d never expected a reward, but he didn’t think a few years of happiness was too much to ask for, too much to hope for. He’d even spend them on Earth, with her, or Parallel Earth, or anywhere—it didn’t matter so long as he got to spend them with her. He’d get a mortgage, if he had to, a job. He’d beg the universe, if he thought it would make any difference.
But he knew it wouldn’t.
And neither would the hormones his body conjured as the weight of it all began to settle. So he swallowed the rising bile, smudged the tears that wouldn’t stop, and, content to suffer whatever anguish might define his grief, he willed his body to move; he couldn’t stay there.
The room blurred and tilted as he dragged himself to the console: a few feet, a thousand yards—he wasn’t sure how far it was, or how long it took, or how he managed it, without her. It was like autopilot, the way he circled the console, flicking switches, pulling levers, turning knobs. And when the comfort of routine abandoned him, and the TARDIS was well on her way to absolutely-bloody-nowhere, the Doctor looked up.
He wasn’t alone.