AN: Oh lord, I've found a new fandom in my long hiatus. A "what if?" pseudo-alternate ending to "End of Time" that wormed its way into my head after seeing the deleted scenes bits about the piece of TARDIS 10 gives to 10.5 and rewatching the season 3 finale in close succession. Nothing groundbreaking, I assure you, but hopefully a bit of fun.
Spoilers: Through season 4 "End of Time"
The Doctor's right hand strokes a column of his time ship. Resonating within the coral he feels the pulse of the TARDIS's systems as she hurtles them across time and possibilities, as well as an echo of the Other's effervescent delight as he flirts with Rose.
The Other leans against the console, flicking a switch or knocking a knob now and again to help keep the thrum of the ship steady and easy, but 99 percent of his attention is fixed on Rose: eyes taking in every facial movement, hand gesture, muscle flex; nose flaring wider than normal as he attempts to achieve the same olfactory awareness in his limited half-human body; mouth and tongue flapping even faster about even less with the combined power of Time Lord and Donna gab taking the helm.
Rose lounges in the jump seat, feet propped up against the console as though it's been only four hours instead of four year since she's claimed companion's rights to that seat. She regards the Other with the same intensity, but her expression is hard to read. The set of her mouth, the tilt of her head, and the slight squint to her eyes has an inscrutable quality that the Doctor has not yet learned to decipher. It's an expression she's developed for a different universe, during the time she's spent trying to get back to him.
Donna sits beside her, nudging shoulders with Rose, gigging, and skewering the Other with her own razor-sharp observations whenever his rambling gets too ridiculous. He crosses his eyes, pulls a face, and once even sticks out his tongue in response, but his attention is always pulled back to Rose, to the staring contest they've had going for the past hour or so.
The Doctor doesn't like to indulge in selfish emotions he can't afford at any time, much less right now when he knows exactly what he will say to Rose in three hours, forty-two minutes, six, five, four, three seconds, and where he will leave her, and with whom. And exactly ten minutes, fifteen seconds after he steps onto that beach, he knows what he will have to do to Donna in turn. So, the logical, Time Lordy, self-righteous part of his brain doesn't listen to the part that just wants, wants, wants Rose to look at him once, for just a moment, and give him some kind of clue to what that expression she keeps looking at the Other with means.
Rose turns at that precise moment and looks directly into his eyes, as though his need has worked its way through his fingers, into the ship, across the room, and back up through the seat where she sits. Their gazes lock, and she smiles slow and sure. The sight of it sparks a fission of emotion in his hearts, and his hand compulsively grips the support he's been stroking. The hum of the TARDIS spikes, and a piece of the ship breaks off in his hand. He whips his head around and stares at it, horrified. Then he realizes what this warm piece of coral could mean. It could mean everything: for the Other, for Rose.
"Thank you," he murmurs to his ship, and looks back up at Rose feeling a little older, a little wearier, but much better about the decision he's about to make for all of them. In his hand he holds a bit of hope, a bit of freedom he wishes he had the luxury to seize for himself. With this, the Other and Rose will be all right.
Rose's gaze searches his face, and her smile falters.
Four and half years ago & fifteen and three-quarter years later (relatively speaking)
"Hello," the Doctor drawls as he turns down a corridor he's never seen before. There are always corridors in the TARDIS he's never seen, since half the time she's making it up as she goes along, but there's a certain tang in the air of this corridor that's arresting. It smells both new and old, familiar and strange. It smells like adventure.
He pauses exactly two strides into the space and halts, bouncing up on the balls of his trainers in consideration. Rose is spending the day out with Jackie, visiting some old haunts of Mickey's to laugh, cry, wax nostalgic, and generally get rather soggy and all over with emotions he'd rather not deal with right now. Rose he doesn't mind; she'd buried her face against his shoulder more than once in the past week to share her sogginess. He'd put his arms around her and rested his cheek against her hair, because in general he knows what to do when it comes to Rose. Jackie, on the other hand, tends to raise her voice to decibels that grate his delicate Time Lord hearing. And she hits him in the arm, with her salon-enhanced talons snagging at his suit and coming dangerously close to his vulnerable neck. Even if he had the inclination—which he does not—he doesn't think Jackie Tyler would appreciate him giving her a hug and murmuring nonsense shushing noises when she gets into an emotional state. Especially not when the emotions center on Mickey's decision to stay in the parallel universe, a decision for which she's decided the Doctor is responsible.
The point, he reminds himself, is that Rose is currently not here to share this discovery of a brand-new, slightly alarming corridor in his TARDIS, which, to his knowledge, has not sprouted a corridor that's smelled and felt quite like this in all nine hundred-ish years he's known her. An adventure might take Rose's mind off of losing Mickey for a bit. Not to mention, if she finds he's gone off and explored without her, she is likely to get in a huff with him. Since he is feeling just a touch guilty—well, and "guilty" is a strong word anyway—about the whole Mickey situation to begin with, that is trouble he does not want to borrow.
On the other hand, this corridor has just popped up quite literally out of nowhere. What if by the time he tracks down Rose, prizes Jackie off of her, and drags her back to the TARDIS, the corridor has winked out again as mysteriously as it appeared?
He is saved from having to make a decision by the even more exciting and alarming sound of high heels click-clicking at a sharp pace toward him from the opposite end of the corridor.
"John?" Rose calls from the direction of the heels, her voice sounding huskier than normal and a bit irritated.
"Rose?" the Doctor calls back, not sure what he is more puzzled by: Rose's voice, that she is wearing heels, or that she is calling for him by his pseudonym. Has he even passed himself as John with her yet?
The moment her name is in the air, she materializes at the other end, striding with purposeful, grounding-eating ease in a pair of black stilettos. Her long brown hair drapes and sways over one shoulder as she fastens a glittering earring in one ear. Since her gaze is focused on the floor as she fiddles with the earbob, he has the time to close his mouth with a click and fully comprehend what he is seeing: Rose, in heels, a little black dress, diamonds at her neck, ears, wrist, and—hold on—ring finger, and sporting about twenty-odd more years than when he last left her.
"Rose, you're—" he sputters, not sure if he is about to say "gorgeous," "older," or "not blonde," but not really caring since none of these finishers is likely to help what he realizes is about to become a very awkward situation.
"Ready to leave," she snaps, not unkindly but with the edge of someone at the end of her patience and about to be pushed to unkind. "Tony's honors dinner is in less than an hour, and we promised mum we'd be on time this time." She holds up a hand as she finally gets the earring fixed and shakes her hair back over her shoulders. "And yeah, time machine, but she's still getting the hiccups when we try to go anything less than a century, and I don't like the idea of straining her after last week. After all, she's still a—" She looks up then, takes in his appearance, and halts, a hand flying to her heart. "Oh, and what are you wearing," she asks, voice cracking.
He opens his mouth, determined to get something intelligible out, but he is distracted as he catalogues all the changes twenty-something years has wrought in her face and body. She has grown into her strong features a little more, and her body has finished filling in the sketches of her young curves with long, lean lines that undulate and entice as she walks. After a moment he decides he likes her hair this shade of auburn brown; it isn't better than the blonde, and it isn't worse, just different. She is different. There are lines around her mouth that speak more to grimness than laughter, and her eyes at this moment are haunted and tired. She is beautiful, and she is weary.
He tears his gaze away and glances down at his suit. "What, this old thing?" he asks, knowing he should come right out and warn her they are meeting out of order and to be careful what she says, but needing to know more about that weariness. She is still with him, obviously; why isn't he keeping her happy?
"John," she sighs, "this is one of the rules, remember?" She fixes him with a look that is equal parts disappointment and entreaty. "It's what's keeping us OK." A corner of her mouth kicks up, and she finishes closing the distance between them. "No reminders of the Doctor."
She says it at the same moment she presses her hands against his chest and the pounding double heartbeat beneath. This close, he is able to see the minute tensing of facial muscles when her expression freezes because she realizes she is not talking to whom she thought she was. He almost doesn't catch her when she half-faints because he is just as flabbergasted by the realization that he is not who she thought she was talking to. So who is this "John," then? A man that looks like him, sounds like him, but who is apparently actually named John and isn't a Time Lord. And if he has analyzed the situation correctly, she is married to the cockswain.
"Easy," he says, gathering her against him and pressing a hand to her cheek as she blinks rapidly and gazes, thunderstruck, into his face. "There must be a malfunction in the TARDIS's paradox systems. We're meeting out of order," he says in his most soothing voice. Just at the moment he's not sure which of them he's meant to be soothing. Something about this situation isn't right. Or rather, even less right than usual.
"Doctor?" she asks in a tiny voice, and he flashes back to several months ago when he first looked at her out of these eyes and she'd not quite believed he was real.
"'Fraid so," he says, and grins. "You're looking well, by the way."
She ignores him, shaking her head slightly as a deep V forms between her eyebrows. Wriggling her hands up between them, she cups his cheeks, ruffles through his hair, tilts his face this way and that. "Scars gone, no gray, fewer wrinkles," she mumbles to herself, and he is momentarily diverted by the fact of her cataloging him just as thoroughly as he cataloged her. Finally, she presses her hands against his chest again.
An expression passes over her face then, and he's pretty sure it's murder. Her fists grip his jacket, and her voice trembles low as she demands, "How long?"
His eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, and he reflexively covers her hands with his, but whether to offer comfort or to prevent further damage to his person, he's not sure.
"How long since wha—?"
She cuts him off, impatient in her fury. "How long since you left us there?" Her voice rises and she gives him a short, sharp shake as she asks, "How long since you decided everything all neat and tidy for everyone without asking"—she leans in to him, biting off the words—"without giving us a choice—like we were less than all your enemies even—and swanned off to take away Donna's choice and leave yourself all lonely and noble and so stupid because you don't ever stop to think that it's not us that does the leavin' it's you who're always droppin' us off like, like broken toys even though you still need us and—" She inhales sharply and draws her lips into her mouth, tears brimming in her eyes.
"Rose," he says, low and warning, trying to catch her gaze even though she refuses to look away from the knot of his tie. She is revealing too much about a future he can't know about yet—albeit he didn't get much sense out of what she was saying.
She spaces the words out with awful precision as she says, "He is not you. Oh, you had me fooled right at first, but you lied—maybe even to yourself. He isn't broken, he isn't dangerous, he doesn't need me, and he is not you." She punctuates the last damning statement with a small shake for each syllable. Then the dam in her eyes overflows, her lips drawing back in a grimace as she begins to sob in earnest. In a way, it is almost a relief, because this, at least, he knows how to deal with.
"Shh, Rose, no, I've got you," he murmurs as he wraps his arms around her and lets her cry onto his shoulder. After a moment she releases the crumpled front of his suit jacket in favor of throwing her arm around him and crumpling the back in a desperate, clinging grasp.
"You're such an ass," she gasps out between sobs.
"Well," he starts to protest but clamps his mouth shut when it earns him a sharp kick in the shins with the very pointed toe of her stiletto. He grunts in pain, but sighs a moment later and lays his cheek against the top of her hair.
Rose at any age and in any state, he decides, is wonderful to hold. His senses are swamped with sensory input as he takes in the essence of "Rose." Certain factors are altered—her hair is a little softer now that she isn't bleaching, she's using different soaps, and she's firmer in form overall—but the essential elements are still there. And he's more than happy to collect and file the new data and add it to the long, complicated, emotionally befuddling section of his mind that she occupies.
When her crying trickles to a snuffling finish, he fishes a handkerchief from his pocket, shakes loose a few bits of lint and stray thingummies, and presents it to her. She leans back just enough to take it and dab away her running mascara, but doesn't step away. In fact, if anything, her other hand has taken an even stronger death grip on the back of his jacket—like he might try to wriggle away at any moment.
Deciding that, well, now that he's in the thick of it, he might as well see if he can mop up whatever mess his future self has created, he settles for lightly clasping his hands together at the small of her back to ride out the Tyler storm.
"Better?" he asks, and bites the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing when she glowers at him through puffy, raccoon smudged eyes. "Now, before you say anything else, I feel it's my Time Lord duty to warn you: In my timeline, I haven't left you anywhere." He pulls a face. "Well, unless you count opting out of 'comfort shopping' with your mum as 'leaving.' Well, and you called that 'hiding in the TARDIS,' not 'opting out' anyway." He takes a deep breath. "The point is, you're due back for tea in a few hours, and then we're supposed to find somewhere relaxing and tropical and danger-free for our next trip."
The little V had formed between her eyebrows again, but then she gasps, the handkerchief and her hand flying up to cover her mouth. "Oh," she mumbles before pulling the handkerchief away. "You're not—I mean, you haven't yet." But then the eyebrows crash back down, and he begins to wonder if maybe he's not being a little too vague.
"Do you mean to say you haven't left me yet?" she demands. "Or just that you haven't left me yet again? Because you've done so much leaving, and I've done so much chasing you down that, frankly, I'm not sure where the score is at anymore."
"Uh…" he trails off and swallows heavily. "Well, that is, I think I've only left you the once so far? Back when I had big ears?" His own eyebrows furrow. "Oi, but that was only to protect you anyway. Even a Time Lord couldn't be expected to guess you'd do a daft thing like opening up the heart of the TARDIS to try and hitch a lift back across the universe."
Her eyes glint, and he swears he can see a bit of gold spark in them. "Universes," she corrects, "I've crossed universes to find you whenever you've lost me or thrown me away."
"Whaaaat?" he drawls, outraged. "Now see here, Rose Tyler, I may have misplaced you a time or two—and always promptly came to pick you up after—"
"After I was already running for my life," she cuts in.
"All part of the plan, whatever it was at the time, of course," he counters, bobbing his head furiously. "But I would never 'throw you away.' I told you—remember?" His gaze flicks madly from one brown eye to the other as he searches for something in her eyes—he's not even sure what—something to counter the grim set of her mouth.
"You lied." He can't find anything in her expression but disappointment and loss and heartbreak.
Silence stretches between them, and he realizes that at some point his hands have unclasped to press insistently against her back, holding her to him. He wonders and tries not to wonder what his future holds for him and his younger, blonder star, who at this moment is grieving for one lost friend and doesn't even realize that, one day, grief will be the carver of every line in her beautiful face. He is the one who will put those lines there, he realizes, and the knowledge is like a fist between the eyes. So much of his time is spent trying to delight her, protect her, cherish her, but not smother her. And here, in his arms, is the proof that one day not so far in his own future, he will voluntarily break her heart.
"I lied?" he whispers after a long moment, hands clenching at her dress. "I will?"
Something in his expression softens her toward him, because suddenly she sighs, long and loud, and he can hear much of her anger escape with it.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I know it isn't fair of me to lay all this on you. Seems like this must be a ways away in your future yet. You aren't even the right Doctor yet."
"Just how many times do I change on you?" he demands, despite himself, and then because he can't resist: "Are any of them ginger?"
She laughs once, sharply, and a chill runs down his back. The Rose he knows laughs effortlessly and with her whole body; this Rose has to have a laugh forced from her.
"Not what I meant." She shakes her head and clasps his face between her hands. "Just that you'd changed—inside—by the time...Well, I could tell you weren't the same as you are now." She squeezes his cheeks until he makes a fish face so he knows she means "now" in his timeline, not "now" in hers. "And I know I shouldn't say too much else—just that…well," she sighs and releases his face in favor of looking down and tugging lightly on his tie. "Look, John and I have had plenty of time to sort everything out, and we understand why you're going to think you have to do what you're going to do. And…it honestly hasn't been as bad as all that."
The downward tilt of her head prevents him from seeing her eyes, but he spies the tip of her tongue flick out and wet her lips in that way that lets him know she's not being completely honest. But she's right: she shouldn't say too much else. Too much else could cause a paradox, or at the least severely muck up their timelines.
"And obviously you must have felt really strongly about it all," she muses to herself, tugging at his tie hard enough that he has to rock up onto the balls of his feet just to keep from tumbling into her. "I mean, s'not like my blubbering all over you now ends up making a difference then." She frowns and looks up at him. "But come to think of it, I'm surprised you manage to keep your giant gob shut about all this—I certainly never knew I ran into you here, now, or then or...whatever."
"Rose, this is my personal timeline—a Time Lord's timeline. I wouldn't want to do anything to endanger it and therefore reality. Snarly flying dragon things and all that." He grips her shoulders and stoops just enough that they're eye to eye. "Whatever ends up happening for you… it must have to happen. And, like as not, our meeting out of order like this must be part of what builds that timeline, otherwise my paradox senses would be tingling."
Her eyes narrow in to very Jackie-esque slits at that. "So nothing I do right now matters? No chance I could possibly be the ghost of Christmas future come to warn you about what a git you're going to be, so better watch it? Cause the Doctor is always right, always knows best—even though John's pretty sure he's worked out that if you hadn't separated him and Donna, he could have safely siphoned off some of that stuff that was burning her up, since they share a bit of each other? Cause if the Doctor says it's 'impossible' it must be—Satan pits and decidedly non-homicidal-metacrises never you mind?"
"What?" he manages, sounding a bit strangled in his own ears.
"Well," she says with an exaggerated wave of one hand, "I guess I'll just toddle off back to my end of your personal, all-important Time Lord timeline."
"Hold on," he tries again, wondering if he ever had anything like control in this entire encounter.
"No, you hold on," she says, and uses her grip on his tie to pull his lips to hers.
A squeak escapes his throat as she works his mouth over in a way that suggests she is very familiar with the contours of this particular set of lips. And yet, the hand that isn't strangling his tie she's pressed against his second heart, leaving him no doubt she knows exactly who she's kissing. With that realization, he loses track of time for a minute, only resurfacing when she releases him with a sort of wet popping noise.
They stare at each other for a moment, and she looks about as stunned as he feels.
"Well," she says and then clears her throat and smoothes her hair back away from her face with trembling hands. "I hope that gives you something to think about, Mr. Know It All."
"Quite ri—" She thrusts her fingers against his lips.
"Just…don't," she warns before dropping her hand and taking a large step back. "I should go now. I'm going to go now."
"You're doing the leaving this time?" he asks shoving his hands in his trouser pockets.
She looks at the floor, at the walls, at the ceiling, blinking rapidly the entire time. "I just can't watch you walk away again, that's all." She offers him a tired smile. "I'm a lot stronger now than I was then, but only in most ways. You're still my Achilles heel."
The hum of the TARDIS slowly creeps in to fill the silence, and he realizes that, up until now, his ship's been almost deathly quiet. He hadn't noticed because Rose was filling his ears.
"I'm sorry," he blurts out then. When her expression remains puzzled, he shrugs. "I'm not even sure what for yet, except that obviously I end up being a major git for reasons that, I hope, from what you've said, are well intended and—probably, knowing me—correct even if it doesn't seem to make sense." He rakes a hand through his hair. "Maybe I'm just apologizing now for not explaining it better to you then. I can't imagine I would do anything that wouldn't be in your best interest."
She sighs. "That's the problem, yeah? Always deciding what's best for everyone else…for me. Ever thought that maybe if you quit trying to manage us all by yourself, we might sort ourselves out all right?"
He wisely doesn't answer what is obviously a rhetorical, if foolish, question. He's a Time Lord; it's his job to see how everything would best be sorted out. Although… there were rules against interfering for a reason, even if he usually thought those rules were ridiculous.
She begins taking tiny, swaying steps backward down the corridor. "I guess the only other thing…the last thing…is this:" A lopsided smile, a parody of her old, mischievous grin, spreads over her face. "It does need saying. And I guess if you had really meant it, you would have."
She shakes her head and chuckles. "Never mind. Maybe you were just trying to make sure I kissed the wrong idiot—give yourself an excuse, yeah? At this point, I don't think I could bear knowing one way or the other."
He tells his feet to move, to chase after her, as he watches her long brown hair swing against her back in counterpoint to the click-clacking of her heels. But his entire body feels heavy and dumb, so he just keeps his eyes open wide and unblinking so he can watch every step, every swing, until she fades into the gloom at the far end of the hall. The hum of the TARDIS is almost painful inside his head, buzzing insistently behind his eyes until they prick with unshed tears.
When the buzzing subsides, and he can move his feet again, he only takes one step forward before realizing that this corridor feels, after all, just like every other on the ship. And he knows if he were to run full tilt down to the other end, all he would find is a wall.
Four and a half years later (relatively speaking)
The Doctor's right hand strokes a column of his time ship. Resonating within the coral he feels the pulse of the TARDIS's systems as she hurtles them across time and possibilities, as well as an echo of the Other's effervescent delight as he chatters nervously at Rose.
The Other—John, he reminds himself—leans against the console, flicking a switch or knocking a knob now and again to help keep the thrum of the ship steady and easy, but the majority of his attention is fixed on Rose: eyes taking in every facial movement, hand gesture, muscle flex; nose flaring wider than normal as he attempts to achieve the same olfactory awareness in his limited half-human body; mouth and tongue flapping even faster about even less with the combined power of Time Lord and Donna gab taking the helm.
Rose lounges in the jump seat, feet propped up against the console as though it's been only four hours instead of four year since she's claimed companion's rights to that seat. She regards John with the same intensity, and her expression is hard to read. The set of her mouth, the tilt of her head, and the slight squint to her eyes has an inscrutable quality that the Doctor wouldn't be able to decipher if he hadn't met her future self. It's an expression she's developed for a different universe, during the time she's spent chasing him down. It's an expression of wariness.
Donna sits beside her, nudging shoulders with Rose, gigging, and skewering John with her own razor-sharp observations whenever his rambling gets too ridiculous. John crosses his eyes, pulls a face, and once even sticks out his tongue in response as he teases both women. His attention is always pulled back to Rose, to the staring contest they've had going for the past hour or so, but he seems completely at ease with Donna.
The Doctor doesn't like to indulge in selfish emotions he can't afford at any time, much less right now when he knows exactly what he will say to Rose in three hours, forty-two minutes, six, five, four, three seconds, and where he will leave her, and with whom. And exactly ten minutes, fifteen seconds after he steps onto that beach, he knows what he will have to do to Donna in turn. So, the logical, Time Lordy, self-righteous part of his brain doesn't listen to the part that just wants, wants, wants Rose to look at him once, for just a moment, and give him some kind of clue to what he's not going to say on that beach that's going to mean so much to her years from now.
Rose turns at that precise moment and looks directly into his eyes, as though his anxiousness has worked its way through his fingers, into the ship, across the room, and back up through the seat where she sits. Their gazes lock, and she smiles slow and sure. The sight of it sparks a fission of emotion in his hearts, and his hand compulsively grips the support he's been stroking. The hum of the TARDIS spikes, and a piece of the ship breaks off in his hand. He whips his head around and stares at it, horrified. Then he realizes.
The edges of the room grow fuzzy as emotions and thoughts similar, but not quite the same, as the ones he's having now flood through his Time Lord senses and lay out the path that will lead him to meeting an older, sadder Rose in an unfamiliar corridor of the TARDIS four and half years ago, or roughly fifteen years from now—relatively speaking.
This warm piece of coral means everything to John and Rose because the TARDIS, meddling sweetheart that she is, used it, will use it, is using it, to show him what a self-righteous ass he is.
"Stretching those paradox stabilizers out, then, aren't you, old girl?" he murmurs, thinking how clever she was/is to keep all the influences on his and her timelines contained within herself so the paradoxes might be safely managed.
"All right, you want me to do better this time around," he says under his breath, tucking the piece of coral into his pocket. "Thank you," he murmurs to his ship, and looks back up at Rose feeling a little nervous, a little giddy, but infinitely better about the decision he's about to let her make for herself.
Well…he might have a bit of an edge on John now that he and not John knows exactly how Rose likes to kiss. And now that he knows exactly what needs saying—at least what needs kissing, at any rate—John is never going to have the luxury of learning any of that for himself. Though given that he and Donna are going to have to keep in each other's pockets for the rest of her life so he can help her keep from burning, John will likely have his hands too full to know what he's missing.
He realizes the grin on his face must be especially manic, because as Rose's gaze searches his face, her smile falters, but only because she doubles up laughing at him.
AN: You are not mistaken if you think I've based adult Rose's appearance on Billie Piper's character Hannah/Belle from Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Heart Billie.