A/N: The eleventh of thirteen completely unconnected Doctor/Rose fics I'm planning to write throughout the course of series three simply because I miss them so much. Sorry if I don't get next week's up in time - I'm having awful internet problems, but it will be done eventually!
Wandering around the first few stalls of the alien market alone, the Doctor having disappeared off to buy a "boringly technical thingie-majiggy" for the TARDIS, Rose is delighted to look up and see him heading back already. All prepared to bound over to him and comment on his quickness, she is suddenly frozen to the spot when she catches sight of the look on his face. Such is the transformation that he has undergone in a few short minutes, she almost brushes him off for another person entirely despite the clothes. His happy demeanour, his confident stance, his absolute, unquenchable enthusiasm for life – all gone. He's practically a different man. What can possibly have happened to him in such a short space of time?
She's about to call his name, a hundred thousand terrible possibilities careering through her mind, when something holds her back and she bites her tongue. Logic tells her that something – something beyond the change wrought in him – is very wrong here. He's ambling towards her from the left side of the market, completely submerged in his own thoughts, while the Doctor who left her not five minutes ago had certainly strode contentedly off to the right, head turning from side to side and drinking in everything around him.
And, sure enough, Rose realises with a jolt that makes her blood run cold, if she whips around and strains her eyes away to the right she can still see him, bargaining cheerily with a vendor over some sort of silver object.
Shocked, overwhelmed and more than a little scared, she turns slowly back around and fixes her gaze on the second man, his solitary figure not difficult to find even in this thronging crowd. In fact, he seems to actively repel company, crowds parting silently for him as he walks past the stalls.
Except for the woman he's with, of course. A woman who is very definitely not Rose as she shadows his footsteps through the market, looking almost as dejected as him though with plenty more interest in her surroundings. She's gazing around gloomily, throwing sad glances at the back of the man a few paces before her. He remains oblivious, perhaps impervious.
Rose would say it's a coincidence, a horrible, horrible coincidence, but she's travelled with him long enough to know that things like this are never simple chance. And, having only met slightly older versions of themselves weeks before (that had been an interesting conversation), it all drops into place with startling clarity.
He's the Doctor, a future Doctor – it has to be; she's been with him his whole life this time and they've barely been apart in the last year – and all the implications of that come crashing down on her as the woman's eyes flick over her from a distance and move absently onto the next person.
She's not with him. She's gone. Not only gone, but well and truly replaced.
Rose throws an urgent glance behind her, needing to reaffirm the image of her Doctor as though they both might disappear if she spends too much time gaping at the scene before her. He's still there.
But the future Doctor? He's replaced her. Somewhere, deep down, she can't believe he ever would do such a thing, but the evidence before her all points to the contrary. After all his promises, after all her belief, they still end up apart. They don't get the forever that even he is beginning to wish for, the time that, quite frankly, the universe owes them.
The Doctor looks at the woman, says a few small words to her, and continues on his way, shadowed as ever by his brand-new companion – who looks slightly more cheery now that she's received some sort of acknowledgement from him.
Rose hasn't the room to be jealous when her heart is breaking.
It takes a few minutes of horrified observation before she can take some small comfort in the knowledge that, whatever happens to her (a topic she physically can't consider, knowing that the only way she will ever leave the Doctor is in death), he won't be alone. There'll be someone to look after him – something he needs more than he knows or will ever admit.
Not that her replacement seems to be exactly filling his life with comfort and companionship, Rose notices as he turns and wanders away from her without a word, such a stark contrast to the way her own Doctor left her side in the very same market – with a grin, a wave and a promise to return. She can't decide whether she's triumphantly envious or happily devastated over this. The distance between Doctor and companion, though, hardly looks as though it's from lack of effort on the woman's part. She stares after him, sighing and lost, watching him mindlessly browse the stalls, picking up tiny metal trinkets with miserable indifference. Perhaps Rose was more right than she knew when she thought of him as impervious.
What happened to the man full of such tactile warmth, to his infectious smile and boundless, bounding enthusiasm for absolutely everything life threw his way? What happened to his hope and fascination, to his profound love for all things alien and interesting? What happened to her?
One tiny part of her brain whispers that she could have popped out for food, that perhaps she's asleep on the TARDIS or traversing another stall, travelling with both the Doctor and his mysterious new companion, but Rose isn't stupid. The voice is hammered down by a thousand others. She knows with more certainty and conviction than she can even place in her own existence right now that she'd never leave him. When Rose first froze in the street, the new woman saw but did not recognise her, ruling out the possibility of continued travel, and that leaves only one option.
It takes every ounce of strength she has to stay standing and force her knees not to give way as it all hits her in a way she'd never quite allowed before. Sick and dizzy, she wants to grab something, hold onto life, deny the inevitable future as though she can somehow prevent it all by simply placing her hands around an object more solid than herself, but she's standing in the middle of a crowd. There's nothing to grab hold of.
Nothing seems stable anymore. It's more than feeling as though someone has pulled the ground out from beneath her; it's like the ground itself is trying to shake her off, twisting and dropping away as she struggles for breath. The foundations of everything she knows, loves and believes in are crumbling away right before her eyes, and she doesn't have a clue how she's supposed to feel. Why does the idea of replacement hurt more than the concept of death?
Hands pressed to her mouth, she takes a deep breath, struggling not to hyperventilate. There's no use contesting or fearing the inevitable; she's learnt that if nothing else from her time with the Doctor. It's a long moment before she realises that her eyes are squeezed shut and she's being jostled by member after member of an impatient crowd. Springing her lids open and blinking in the blue-tinted light, her eyes automatically lock onto the Doctor's future frame once again.
More than anything, his utter desolation registers and remains inside Rose's brain as the one solid fact in the entire universe right now. He looks so broken that it's tempting to rush up to him and kiss the melancholy decline of his lips right off his face, to rewrite history and promise him that everything will be alright, needing that reassurance for herself almost as much as he seems to. She'd had no idea that the loss of her could ever affect him so potently.
Rose takes another breath and forces herself to remember that her Doctor is only a few metres away, that she has time with him yet – years, maybe – and that she believes him when he says he won't leave her behind.
Grief has aged him, made him appear slow and weary, but there is nothing in his face to suggest a single day has gone past. "I don't age. I regenerate," he had said.It could have been ten, twenty, thirty, three hundred years or more for him. Perhaps it's stupid even to assume that he's grieving over her. He told her, once, that his very first body lasted half a millennia. She's pretty sure that, time-vortex-related kissing notwithstanding, he's not likely to have died within a year once again. There's no telling how old he is now.
He promised something that night, though, so why does this feel so much like betrayal?
Perhaps in support of that idea, perhaps in denial of it, the Doctor certainly doesn't look as though he's just left the woman he – well, as though he's just left his best friend behind by choice. Maybe he kept his promise. Maybe she broke hers.
Forever is such an easy concept when it's all there in front of you, the world full of potential and your senses blind with love.
Rose doesn't want to believe it, but she hasn't got the time to stand around and debate over whether or not she actually does. How she feels about the whole thing doesn't matter, not when she can practically see him falling apart in front of her simply because she's no longer there. She's fully aware of how petty her jealousy is. The tiny, sly voice in the back of her head whispering that part of her wants him to be by himself forever if he cannot be with her is unforgivable in the face of all his heartbreak. And so what else can she do but push it all aside and try her best to help him now? If she thinks about this too much, she'll probably be too scared to ever set foot outside the TARDIS again. Time is precious, the woman who has taken her place reinforcing that idea like nothing else ever could, and she'll be damned if she forgets to live because she's wasting whatever seconds has left worrying about what will happen to her.
Her mind skips over the issue of how long they had and how it all ended, then, flipping through the questions so frantically and fleetingly that she can convince herself she doesn't have to deal with them. For all she knows, they could have spent seventy happy years together, and she clings to that thought as she tries to determine exactly how she's supposed to deal with this.
Feeling more than a little light-headed, she's desperate for a chair to sink down into but there isn't a single seat to be seen. Her mind is ticking over at an impossible rate, throwing puzzle pieces together and never quite coming up with a clear-cut solution. One thing, however, one thought, keeps returning to Rose with full force.
Go to her.
Rose's access to the Doctor himself well and truly denied (much as she wants to think he needs her, she doesn't think he's quite so desperate for her presence as to willingly watch her rip apart half the universe with irreparable paradoxes just to say hello), it's the only option she has. He has someone, but somehow he's still alone, and in this sea of confusion and fear, that's all Rose has to cling to.
The woman, now standing by herself and having given up staring after the Doctor, is young – perhaps four or five years older than Rose herself – annoyingly pretty, and carrying a set of medical textbooks. Rose feels suddenly inadequate, not only as a former shop girl travelling with a man whose knowledge is so far above her own, but in her right and ability to approach and talk to this woman.
Then her eyes fall again upon the man the Doctor will become and knows she must. He's so melancholy, so alone, so utterly without a hand to hold that she has no choice but to tell this woman to hold it in her place.
She can't stop the voice in the back of her mind from asking, fervently and desperately, why she can't be there to hold his hand anymore. They were – are – both so sure of forever, her Doctor now actively seeking and asking for such a response to the questions he once used to never dare voice. Only yesterday, he'd turned to her and asked, knowing full well how she would answer, how long she will stay with him. He even smiled when she replied the way he'd always known she would. They've come such a long way, just started to allow themselves the fantastical belief in always and never ever. It seems cruel to have everything snatched away now.
But it doesn't matter. Not really. Whatever the reason for her departure, his grief, her replacement, this is something she has to do, because she knows she can't stand around and watch him fall apart anymore. If he has someone with him, it's high time he let that someone do something to put the pieces back together. Rose knows she'll never forgive herself if she doesn't try, never have peace of mind if she isn't positive the new companion is trying, too.
If she can't be with him, she can at least give him that.
He disappears around a corner, and she takes her chance.
Martha's busy examining a Venusian stethoscope, wondering exactly what the prongs are for, when a shaky but determined voice leaps through her senses.
" – Really don't know how to say this," the voice is telling her, and she whips around to face the speaker, startled to think that anyone would talk to her at all, let alone so urgently, in a place so very far from home. "You're gonna think I'm completely mad, but – you travel with the Doctor, don't you?"
Martha takes a visible step backwards, eyes widening, instantly wary of yet another mysterious alien warning her off the man. "I don't know what you mean."
"Only I think you do," the girl says gently, taking a step forwards to compensate for Martha's manufactured distance and tugging awkwardly at a chain around her neck. A key, glowing with the lightest of golden hues, tumbles out of the front of her tshirt and Martha's eyes become, if possible, even wider.
For the first time, she looks, really looks, at the girl before her.
She's young, and blonde, and wearing a ring.
He must have travelled with loads of people, she doesn't have to be…can't be…
Martha is so preoccupied with the sense of dread and realisation filling her stomach that she hadn't noticed the blonde pressing the warm key into her own hands. "See?" she says. "And I bet you've got one, too."
Martha pulls it out of her jeans pocket, the chain just as long and exactly the same but her key refusing steadfastly to glow, and stares down at the two identical keys in her palm. The girl's smiling, but it's not happy, triumphant or even grateful. She looks wistful, somehow, full of regret and resignation as though she'd somehow been hoping to be proved wrong about this.
"Oh, you are kidding me."
Obviously not kidding, the girl puts her hands over Martha's and talks in a low, urgent voice. "I need to know he's alright."
"How did you – ?!"
The incredulous question is shrugged off. "Time's complicated," she says, and Martha is reminded suddenly of the Doctor's speech about wibbly wobbly stuff. "'S not a straight line, is it? You can be born in the 21st century and die in the 18th if luck wants it that way." She smiles again, less sad this time. "You must've learnt that by now. You're not tellin' me he hasn't sat you down and given you the Time Talk yet?"
Martha's too stunned to laugh, but she notices a spark of something in this girl that occasionally surfaces in the Doctor during his better moods. She has the same air of a broken heart about her, undeniably, but she sparkles with mischief and life in a way she's certain the Doctor used to. She wishes he could be like that again, for everyone's sake.
Then, a question she'd never been expecting seems to spring from nowhere – "What happened to me?" The girl's voice is quiet and lost, higher in pitch than it was a few seconds ago as she glances continually over Martha's shoulder, presumably keeping a wary eye out for the Doctor. Completely unsure what to say, baffled as to whether this girl is a prime example of time's wibbly-wobbliness or something she should really be telling the Doctor about before she disappears, Martha remains silent.
"Right, you can't tell me. Course. I get it." She sounds like she was expecting this, as though she's berating herself for having asked in the first place.
I don't even know, Martha wants to say, but she can't find her tongue.
Resolve forming on her face, the girl seems to return to her original purpose in coming over. "Look, I haven't got much time. I can't explain; he might come back and he can't know I was here." She risks another glance behind Martha, heart breaking for a man she can no longer see. "Just…look after him for me, yeah?"
Head reeling, Martha finds herself completely incapable of speech for quite possibly the first time in her life. " I – "
It's a good job the blonde interrupts, really, because she'd had no idea what was going to come out of her mouth after that.
"You have to promise me," the girl says urgently, tugging on her hands, more earnest than Martha has ever seen anyone to be before. She follows the unfamiliar hazel eyes over her shoulder to the Doctor, brooding and quiet, now making his way slowly but surely towards them. "Please. I need to know that he's gonna be alright."
When she looks back, Martha's shocked to find the other woman close to tears. There's such heartbreak across her face that she finds her brain and tongue connecting once again, sure that these two people should have the chance to be together again no matter what it means for her. "D'you not think that's something you should see for yourself?"
A sad smile crosses her features. "You travel with him. You know what it's like out there. Can't muck up the timelines, can I?" She looks over Martha's shoulder once again, soft and wistful this time. "I can't explain how I'm here and I can't stay, but you've got to promise me you won't let him be sad."
Martha laughs bitterly. "If there's some magical formula for making him happy then I'd love to hear it, 'cause I don't think anyone's capable of that."
"Sit with him when he has nightmares," comes the simple reply. Martha can't see that eventuality happening any time soon; she hasn't even found his room yet. She didn't even know he had one. "Make him tea when he's sick, and laugh at his stupid jokes when they're not funny, and let him remember his people when he tries to make you forget he's the only one. Hold his hand, 'cause he needs someone. And I want it to be me, course I do, but maybe I don't get to be around forever." Her voice trembles on the final word, and Martha can't help but squeeze her hand in sympathy. She knows all too well how a sense of absolute security builds up after surviving each little impossibility, how one begins to feel invincible until the next challenge rolls along. "Maybe he doesn't always have me."
Both of their eyes are on the Doctor, now, getting steadily closer. He throws a glance in their direction and the girl ducks almost comically before he changes tack and loses himself in between two stalls full of cheese, evidently not even remotely interested in what they're selling. He's trapped inside his mind, dwelling on the same place and hour a million lifetimes ago, laughing where he now frowns, loving where he now mourns. Oh, he can hide it most of the time. He's very good at hiding it. But there's no denying that here, today, the memories are too close to the surface for him to do anything but sink.
This could be the only chance she has.
"Rose?" she tries, suddenly, not quite liking the sound of the name on her lips. Because it's obvious who she is, really; a simple case of horrified denial her reason for not having realised it before. If nothing else had given it away then the blonde hair certainly would have.
Rose freezes for the slightest of seconds before whipping her eyes back to Martha's face, mouth open, forgetting to check that the Doctor can't see her in her bewilderment. "How'd you – "
"He talks about you. All the time," Martha says, rolling her eyes and laughing with the slightest hint of bitterness. Rose looks both stunned and apologetic. "Rose'd know, and Rose would have done it, and if Rose were here… He doesn't even see me, not really."
"I don't – "
At that moment, the Doctor emerges from between the stalls and begins heading certainly towards them, feet determined, hands in pockets and gaze on the ground. Rose's eyes go wide. She takes a step backwards, throwing one last, pleading glance at her replacement, and disappears into the crowd.
Despite knowing that the universe probably would have imploded had she acted differently, Rose can't help but wonder if she's done the right thing. Quite unable to believe that he actually talks about her once she's gone, she's desperate, even now, to find him and simply hold him. She never managed to extract a promise from the other woman, and she can't help but worry that she was too bewildered to have truly taken notice of what had been asked of her.
There's no question of Rose's leaving the Doctor she's with now, though; not even to comfort a more melancholy version of himself. Could she really give him such hope and promises only to take them away and return to his past only minutes later?
She's beyond glad she didn't when she feels a cool hand slip into hers, leading her across to a particularly bright and buzzing market stall with a bounce. Even in the few minutes she's been watching the man he will become, she's grown to miss his happiness. It's such a defining part of who he is that she can't bear to think of him any other way.
"Look, Rose! Bazoolium!" the Doctor declares, showing her a tiny item from a stall his future self had been eyeing with his desperation only moments before.
He's dropped her hand, now, moved closer to the stall, and she has the sudden urge to seek his fingers again, to make the most of every second they have now that she knows forever is no longer infinite.
"And…" Rose waits for the explanation, but it doesn't come. He's beaming at her expectantly, as though his level of excitement automatically dictates that she should have some sort of inherent knowledge on the subject. "What's that when it's at home, then?"
The Doctor doesn't seem disappointed by her ignorance. In fact, he looks positively delighted that she has to ask. He picks the dainty thing up and plops it into her palm, closing her hands around it and keeping them shut with his own.
"Go on, then. How's it feel?"
She frowns. "Warm?" Metal shouldn't be warm.
The Doctor beams. "And what's the weather like?"
It's a clear, sunny day. The wind whips her hair about her face, and the device in her hand – their hands – grows a little colder. "I don't – " And then she realises. "Can it predict the weather?!"
"We'll make a weather girl out of you yet. Got it in one, Rose Tyler, correctamundo. Oh, I said I'd never use that one again, didn't I?" She has no idea when that happened, but she smiles at him fondly anyway, suppressing her giggles and noticing how his hands are still firmly around hers. "Shame. I quite like it now. Tell you what, though," he adds, changing tack at lightning speed, "bet your mum wouldn't half go mad for one of these. What do you reckon? Little trip home? Not yet, mind, got a few things I want to show you first…"
"Yeah?" Rose asks, unable to stop the spread of a grin across her face, delighted as ever at the prospect of new places and adventures. She pushes away the fleeting thought that this could well be their last. "Like what?"
"Creators of that thing, for starters," he says, nodding towards their hands. The wind picks up again and the bazoolium sends a sudden thrill of cold through her as a raindrop plops onto his nose. "Intelligent alien race, classical civilisation, great art considering it was all done with flippers, bit of a fetish for dinky little objects that diagnose the weather. Oh, and ham, of course. We could go have a bit of a look-see, bit of a nose around." He nudges her. "What do you reckon? I promise I won't let them mistake you for ham. Or a windsock."
Rose enthusiastically expresses her consent, clinging to every second she has while there are still some before her. The Doctor lets go of her hands; she puts her arm through his and leans her head on his shoulder as he pays. The vendor smiles warily, a little confused at the change of woman, but that doesn't matter. Not right now.
He pockets the Bazoolium and turns to smile at her, almost bumping his chin into her forehead in their proximity. He removes his hand from his pocket, leaving it free for her own to trail down his arm and find. "Come on! Places to see, people to go…oh, no, that's not right, is it?"
The Doctor continues to babble softly until they reach the TARDIS. Both of them paused outside the door, she realises he's waiting for her to get her key out. On impulse, she tiptoes up and presses a light kiss to his cheek, looking down with a face painted pale pink as she pulls away and tugs at the key-chain around her neck.
"What was that for?"
Not quite the reaction she'd been hoping for.
"Just…being you. This. Today. Bazoonilum. Offering to visit my mum." Rose waves her hand and the tiny bag contained within it. "Buying her presents. Never thought I'd see the day!"
It's Bazoolium, but he doesn't correct her. "Hm! Do I get a proper kiss if I buy you a present?"
Rose grins. "Maybe."
"Well then," he says decidedly, pushing open the door and guiding her inside, "Remind me to take you shopping more often. …Oh, I can't believe I just said that."
Martha watches from a lonely distance as he pushes open the door and Rose ducks under his arm. The door shuts, closing them into their own little world, and the box fades slowly away, engines whirring, magical as ever.
Her own Doctor cuts a lonely figure in amongst the cake stalls. Except…he's not really hers. Before today, she might have argued that he's entirely his own being, but now it's quite clear that he belongs to someone else. To Rose.
Seeing the two of them together in the height of their happiness has shown her that in a way his words never could. Had he known he'd brought them back to the same place, to the same day? Had he done it on purpose?
The difference between his interaction with her and that with Rose hurts. He'd never smiled at Martha like that – oh, he'd smiled at her a hundred times or more, in relief and happiness and humour, sometimes even with care and delight, but never so beautifully at ease, never so hopelessly in love. It reminds her of the way he'd smiled at Joan, and she realises that, whoever he is, he will never be hers in the way he is still theirs. He'd never taken her hand so tenderly – in fact, he'd barely taken it at all. Once or twice at the beginning, but not like that, and he seemed to stop once he realised it wasn't the same, that her fingers were never going to change length or her palm shrink and pale, that she could never – should never – mould into the person he was bereft of.
He'd kissed her, alright, when they first met, but even that had less feeling than the way he'd simply looked at Rose.
Martha tears her eyes from him and looks out into the distance, eyes glazing over the spot where the TARDIS had been only moments before. It's hard to process, this idea that everything's happening at once, that somewhere the Doctor and Rose are still running around together, oblivious and happy. Somewhere, Martha's meeting him for the very first time, and somehow, within the very same second, the day she leaves is playing out before another's eyes.
Look after him for me.
She couldn't be Rose. She didn't want to try. But she could do that.