Echoes in Time

Grainne Ni Mhaille

"Where are we going?" She asked casually over the console.

"Wait and see." He smiled. He liked teasing her.

"How do you decide, anyway?" Rose wanted to know.

The Doctor cocked an eyebrow, and looked across the console, a little surprised by the question.

"Where we go next, I mean…how do you decide?"

"I throw darts at a map of the universe while you sleep." He said dryly.

"I've played darts with you." She grinned. "That would explain a lot. Ever miss the map?"

"Rose the universe is infinitely large. It's an impossibly big map." He sulked a little.

"I've PLAYED darts with you…" She teased again.

He frowned, and turned up his nose, feigning insult. Eyes sparkling, he turned his attention back to the display screen. All of the saving of worlds, dying and almost dying, and taking turns killing each other may have deepened their friendship, but it was taking a toll on him. Worse, he worried it was taking a toll on her. She never complained, but she looked tired. He'd been trying to take her somewhere peaceful, for a much needed break. The characteristic whine of dematerialization indicated that they'd arrived somewhere.

"So, where are we NOW?" Rose asked, moving to stand beside him, peering around him at the monitor.

"Shaula Four." His brow furrowed.

"And when?"

"In earth years? Ten thousand seven hundred and sixty one." Still scowling.

"Why?"

"The TARDIS has detected something. An anomaly. That sort of thing attracts her attention." He continued to frown at the display.

Rose tried to make sense of the display. The Doctor had been trying to teach her the basics, but understanding quadri-dimensional mathematics was never going to be her strong suit. She swallowed her pride, and asked the question.

"What sort of anomaly?"

The Doctor turned his gaze to Rose, as if returning from a long journey to another world. The tiny line between his eyebrows was the only clue his expression gave to his puzzlement.

"Well, for starters, Shaula Four doesn't exist. Another peaceful planet caught in the crossfire of the Time War." He set his jaw, and offered her his arm.

Shaula Four reminded Rose of pictures she had seen back home of a Caribbean sea port. The air was warm and humid, scented sweetly of tropical flora and nearby ocean. The sun felt warm and pleasant on her bare arms and legs, the indigenous dress of this planet being not much different from a halter and shorts back home. The Doctor, as ever, remained in his customary jacket and jumper, but his expression was a mix of pleasure and puzzlement. The TARDIS had materialized in an alleyway, behind a row of bustling market stalls in an open square. The buildings, mostly shops and with small homes above, were of a pale turquoise stone. Some had intricate mosaics of tiny jewels laid into the mortar around the doorways.

Rose turned to regard the Doctor. He had a faraway look on his face as he studied the market, and the view of the ocean beyond the gates of the city. She waited. As if sensing her question, the Doctor shook his head.

"We used to come here for holidays."

"We?" Rose hesitated. He'd spoken very little of his life before the Time War. It hadn't occurred to her that there might have been a "We". She wondered if "We" meant his parents and siblings or if perhaps he'd been a parent. On the rare occasion the conversation had moved in that direction, he'd always steered it away. Rose wondered if he knew that in spite of himself he wore his loss on his sleeve.

In an instant, he snapped back to himself, the moment gone. He met her eyes and gave her the infectious schoolboy grin that always made her forget about everything besides right now.

She followed his gaze, out into the marketplace. The locals all had pearlescent skin in varying shades of blue and green. Once she got over the strangeness, Rose found some of them to be quite beautiful. She immediately started into the square and felt a sharp tug on her hair from behind.

"Oi!" He scowled down his nose at her. "How many times have I warned you not to be wandering off? It's still a strange planet that's not supposed to be here."

"I'll have you know I'm not the one with the wandering off problem." She sniffed, but waited for him to lock the door behind them, and come to stand beside her. "Must be something that happens to your lot when they get to be your age," Her face was deadpan, but her eyes sparkled. "Just forget what you're about and wander away, leaving us poor stupid apes to come to your rescue once you've finished bollocking things up."

He pursed his lips, and did his best to shoot her a dark look.

"It's not too late to push you out of an airlock you know."

"You'd bollock that up too." She grinned and took the hand he offered.

"I'd end up in the broom closet."

"That's also an option." He shot back, looking straight ahead, the smile tugging only slightly at the corners of his mouth.

They ventured from stall to stall, and he could see the cloud of fatigue begin to lift from her features. Sunlight suited her. Solving the mystery of why Shaula Four was here at all could wait a little longer.

The atmosphere was positively carnival. Street performers played sweet sounding instruments she'd never seen before while acrobats and jugglers performed for anyone who stopped long enough to watch. Rose was touched and delighted when he stopped and bought a beautiful beaded necklace, also in shades of azure and emerald. She hadn't noticed the brief clouding of his expression as he'd watched her fasten it under her hair. If she noticed that he held her hand a bit tighter than before, she gave no sign.

It was just after midday when they'd explored the entire market. They'd found a café the Doctor remembered from his earlier visits here. She'd been enjoying playing tourist for the morning. He tried to keep his tone light, in spite of the growing feeling that something was indeed, very wrong about this place. In spite of the midday heat, the covered terrace was cool, and the breeze pleasant. They were at the high end of the square, facing towards the city gate, and the road leading down to the sparkling ocean below. A sparkling turquoise beach was visible from their seats on the patio. He studied their surroundings as he spoke. Something was definitely not right. The feeling was getting stronger.

"This place was…is this galaxy's seashore." He began to explain. "A bit off season too from the look of things, no other aliens, but every species in the galaxy that has achieved space flight so far visits here eventually."

"What happened to it?" Rose asked. She had caught something in his tone that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Now that they'd stopped moving, the eerie sense of seeing a ghost had begun to creep up on her. She could feel, more than see, that something wasn't right. In spite of the warmth of the day, she shivered a little.

The Doctor fixed his gaze out towards the ocean. His face was unreadable.

"Gone." He said flatly.

"Something in the war, likely way back in time, changed the timeline for this planet. None of these people ever evolved."

He jumped a little, as the waitress set his drink in front of him. He stared at her until she disappeared back inside the kitchen.

"I'm the only being in the universe that even remembers they were here." He stared into his drink as if looking for an answer there.

"Like your world?" Rose asked softly. Regretting her words the moment she'd said them. Watching his face absorb the impact as though she'd slapped him. He smiled a bitter, thin lipped smile in return.

"Like my world. Gallifrey."

"Gallifrey." She repeated. He'd never told her the name of his planet before. He was staring at his hands now. She reached out to touch him. She took his hand and he raised his eyes. What passed between them was the silent reminder that as long as the choice was hers, he wasn't quite all alone in the universe. He studied her for a moment, forgetting where they were.

The magnitude of what she had given him always overwhelmed him a little in the rare moments when he forced himself to consider it. Rose would live maybe a total of 90 years. She'd given her days over to him without a moment's hesitation, to keep him from being alone. No one had ever given him a greater gift. He was struggling frantically for the right words to thank her when they heard it.

It was like an enormous bell ringing, only with a damper. The sound was a dull clang that shook the entire world. All of the colour drained out of his face in an instant. Rose looked startled. Without a word, the Doctor shot to his feet and grabbed her, pulling her into his arms and wrapping her in as much of his jacket as would fit around her. He pushed her face into his shoulder, and held her there, bowing his head over hers to offer as much protection as he could. Sensing urgency, Rose didn't struggle as he widened his stance, bracing for impact. Some instinct told her to hold on for dear life. She wrapped her arms around him, gripping her own hands behind his back with all the strength she had. In the distance, the doctor saw what looked like a wave, just this side of the horizon, begin to move towards them, faster than a human eye could even have registered. As soon as he'd seen it, the wave was ashore, bringing with it, not water, but time. He could feel it. The locals seemed not to notice as the wave swept through the marketplace. At this close range, the Doctor could see what was happening. Everything here, for the split second the wave touched it, was umade, returning back to normal in it's wake. In the thin line of disturbance the wave created, the Doctor could see dead rock, and dust, and the darkness of a sky without atmosphere. He held Rose, and focused, concentrating on maintaining the physical link to her and to their own timeline. The wave passed around them on all sides, the force of it threatening to tear Rose from him in a split second. He held on, with arms and with mind.

As quickly as it had come, the wave was gone. The Doctor exhaled into Rose's hair, and held on for a moment more, shaken by what had almost just happened. A second slower, and Rose might have been unmade as well. The implication was staggering to him. As a Time Lord, he had some natural protection against this kind of event. Being human, she was defenseless. He stepped back from her and twined his fingers tightly with hers, already moving.

"Do NOT let go of my hand!" He said forcefully, as he dragged her out of the café and into the marketplace. "We have to get back to the TARDIS. Now!"

"What's happening?" She shouted, as they fought their way through the crowd in the marketplace, all of whom seemed unaware that anything had happened.

The air shook, as a dull clang sounded again, louder than the first. The ground shook with the force of the sound, and Rose fell, as suddenly the ground beneath her feet seemed to slope away from her at a crazy angle. Unable to get her to her feet again in time for what he knew would follow, he threw himself to the ground on top of her, covering her body with his own, and turning her face into his jumper again. This second wave was stronger. He could feel the temporal field around the two of them start to collapse. He gritted his teeth and strained to hold on to her, both in time and space as once again, the world was unmade around them. Steadying the field with nothing more than sheer force of will, he forced his mind to hold on to everything that was Rose Tyler. Even the mouthful of blond hair that he had at this moment was a lifeline. Her smell, and the feel of her underneath him, stock still with fear, the feel of her pulse and the sound of her heart racing, all of these things he fixed in his mind as he held on for both of their lives. He would not allow her to be ripped from him, as one other had been, as this world came apart.

The next instant saw them tangled up like lovers, on the ground in a busy marketplace full of happy shoppers. Confused, and not understanding the nature of the danger, but knowing from his reaction what the scope of it must me, Rose clutched his hand tightly, and shot to her feet. They were moving together now, each holding on to the other for dear life and racing for the TARDIS with no words needed between them. She led the way, looking ahead for both of them. He wouldn't risk taking his eyes off her now and weakening the connection with even the distraction that words would have caused. He'd never succeeded in holding another person outside of time with him.

They reached the TARDIS just as the third note shook the air. He pushed her ahead of him, inadvertently sending her face first into the blue panneling of the police box exterior. He pinned her against the door, his left arm around her waist, holding her from behind in a grip so tight he worried he'd break her ribs, as he unlocked the door with his free hand. He panicked a little realizing that the blood he was smelling was hers. They fell in the door in a heap of tangled arms and legs just as the third wave hit with such force that even the TARDIS shook.

"No!" He shouted, and wrapped himself around her. He would not let go of her. He would not allow it to happen again. He buried his face in the spot where her neck met her shoulder and tried to concentrate again. He could feel her pulse racing under his lips, and smell her fear. Her heart hammering against his chest was reassuring as he braced for the impact.

It never came.

The TARDIS hummed quietly as just outside the door, a world was undone. He lifted his head, and relaxed his grip, though still not letting go. Eventually it registered. The TARDIS shield was holding, even though the door was still open, both he and Rose were safe in the timeline attached to the ship, as the one outside the door fell away into nothing. Gently, taking her with him, he rolled off her and onto his back, and sat up, moving her to sit in front of him on the floor, his legs on either side of her, her back pressed against his chest. Mind still reeling from how close he'd come to losing her, he held her close. They sat together on the floor of the control room, barely inside the door, and watched as the "seaside of the galaxy" blew apart. Everywhere the wave touched, the scene shattered and turned to grey dust, and dead rocks. In less than a minute, the ocean, the market and all the people were gone, along with most of the planet. The tranquil blue sky was replaced by the blackness of deep space. The TARDIS now perched precariously on a rock no larger than a schoolyard, floating in a field of similar rocks, as the world they had been in only seconds before was completely unmade.

They sat like that for a long time, staring out into blackness.

Finally, she spoke.

"So that's how it happens, then?" She turned to see a million losses reflected in his face.

"That's how it happens." Grimly. The tightness in his throat making it difficult to speak.

He tore his attention away from the view to look at her. Blood was trickling down her face from a cut above her left eyebrow, no doubt from the impact with the TARDIS door. She seemed oblivious to it and to the bleeding abrasions on her hands and knees from the fall in the marketplace. The local attire had offered very little protection for delicate human skin from the contact with the cobblestones in the marketplace. She showed no sign of caring, keeping her eyes on his face as he stood, and gently picked her up off the floor as well, lifting her under her arms to avoid contact with her bleeding palms. Silently, he closed the doors, and turned to study her.

She stood staring back at him. Her white summer outfit smeared with dirt and blood. Her face was a mask of shock and horror, and worse, comprehension, having just absorbed the unmaking of an entire world. He might have expected this to be too much for her, yet instead of falling apart, she'd taken it all in. In spite of all she'd just seen, her face still showed concern for him, as she registered that this was what had become of his world. This tiny, fragile little human amazed him, as he realized that she understood all of it, and looked him with eyes much older than her nineteen years. She was astounding.

And she was bleeding on his TARDIS.

He crossed back to her in two steps, lifting her in his arms as if she were a child, and strode past the console and into the corridor.

"I'm not crippled, you know" she protested as her carried her towards the medical bay. "I can walk."

He looked down at her, unwilling, for the moment, to give up the comfort of the contact with her. He knew too, that caring for Rose would distract him for long enough to collect his thoughts.

"You'll get blood all over my TARDIS." He said gruffly, shifting his grip as they reached the med bay.

He sat her on an exam table, and bustled about in drawers and on shelves. First, he gently cleaned the blood off her face the old fashioned way, with a damp cloth, then working carefully, with a tissue regenerator he closed the cuts on her face, hands and knees. He frowned while he was working, and she didn't speak, knowing he was thinking, trying to process what had just happened.

Finally, he snapped the switch on the tissue regenerator off, and placed it on the table, surveying his handywork. For good measure, he placed a quick kiss on her forehead, above her left eye.

"All better." He smiled. "Not even a scar."

She caught his hand as he turned to tidy the table behind them.

"Doctor…" he froze.

"What was that, back there?" She waited.

He turned back only halfway, looking intently at the floor as he answered.

"An echo."

His face was a mix of anger and sadness as he turned all the way to face her, helping her to step down off the table. He held the door for her, a muscle in his jaw twitching as they began to make their way back to the console room. They walked in silence as he struggled to find words to explain what had happened in terms she would understand. When they reached the console again, he busied himself pressing buttons and flicking switches.

"When you make a significant change to a timeline," He began, "for example, erasing a planet, there are implications. Every atom in the universe is affected to a small degree by a change that large." He glanced up to make sure she was grasping what he was saying. It was always a struggle to explain without patronizing. Rose had the intelligence, just not the experience, to figure most things out by herself. "When a world just vanishes, for a fraction of a second, there is a hole in time and space before the universe shifts to fill the gap. Sometimes, something gets through before the hole closes up." He pointed to a display on the console, motioning for her to move closer so he could show her.

"An echo of what should have been, but isn't. That's the anomaly the TARDIS picked up. The echo." He studied her face as he spoke, gauging the effect of his words.

After a second, she nodded.

"So, none of that was ever real?"

He scrubbed at his face with his hands, exhausted suddenly. The wall he kept in place around his own loss was faltering. It was a constant drain on him to keep in there. Still, he shored it up again as he looked at her.

"None of it. Shaula four never was."

"And no one even remembers it?" She asked. He had the feeling she was leading him to something.

"No one but you and I." He waited for her to make whatever point she was getting at.

"And there's nothing left?"

"There never WAS anything Rose. It never was."

Pain was evident on his face, as he watched her, absently playing with the beaded necklace she still wore, frowning as she tried to absorb what he was telling her, the jewel tones of deep green and sparkling blue standing out against the pale ivory of her throat.

In his mind, a thought was forming, frantic to have him think it.

"Doctor," Something in her voice forced him to look her in the eye, as she unclasped the necklace, before placing it gently into his hand. Realization crashed down on him.

He stared dumbly at it for a minute before clutching it against his lips, his eyes closed against the tears that threatened.

He understood what she'd been trying to tell him, clever little Rose. He looked at her again, shaking his head with amazement as she laid a cool hand over his. Solemnly, he fastened the necklace back around her neck before turning back to the console, frenetically setting coordinates.

"Where are we going?" She asked casually over the console.

"Wait and see." He struggled to contain himself, as he sent the TARDIS to the place that would have been Gallifrey.