A Hundred Thousand Worlds
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine.
The first time, she's so grateful to see him that she never questions the idea that she might be in the wrong universe. It's only when their children stumble in through the doors, all freckled faces, teary eyes to see her, that she learns to curb her naivety in every subsequent universe.
Meetings never made, children never born. A life never loved.
It almost breaks her, leaving that universe behind and knowing she may have thousands more to face like it – that there may be a hundred other lovers and children out there just waiting for her to return and yet she will have to let every single one of them down.
She knows, though, that no matter how many different Doctors she encounters, two broken halves of long-ago lovers can't ever become the whole that the universe needs, that she's crossing worlds to find.
It's coming. It's coming from across the stars and nothing can stop it.
Twice she stumbles into universes where the Doctor never met her. In the first, he is a bitter, reckless shell of the man she first met; in the second, he blew himself up in the lair of the Nestene Consciousness and chose not to regenerate. Harriet Jones (Prime Minister) saved Downing Street, but the entire west coast was wiped out six months later when a Cardiff power station went nuclear, killing millions and destroying the landscape for miles around.
Far from being some sort of gratifying proof of his affection, the Doctor's clear reliance upon her fills her with guilt, and it is not long before Rose Tyler begins to shoulder the burdens of a hundred different worlds destroyed or damaged as a direct result of the Doctor's death, grief or absence in her wake.
And then she finds Donna Noble.
It doesn't take many mistakes before she gets good at this; before she learns she should keep her name to herself, before she knows that the wrong word in the wrong time can have a devastating effect – before she starts sounding like the Doctor.
After the first time, she learns to be detached. She learns that she shouldn't rely too heavily on these alternate versions of her old friends, that she cannot afford to get too emotional. By the time she lands in Donna's world, she is a seasoned pro at this, but she'd been so convinced this was finally the right world and then there was the Doctor, lying dead in the back of an ambulance with no regeneration and no-one to hold his hand. And even though she tells herself it's not real, the shock – the mystery around Donna – throws her off. She forgets all she's learnt.
None of this was meant to happen.
After that, no matter where she fires herself, no matter what coordinates she sets, she finds herself drawn constantly back to this world where the Doctor is dead. For a long time it feels as though the universe is taunting her, punishing her for taking advantage of its crumbling walls and dying Void to try and fight her way back to him. Eventually, she realises that she is being pulled here for a reason, to this centre of all worlds, this place where everything changes – she's being pulled here to help, because she is the only one who can.
She spends enough time here, has enough knowledge from other universes, to work out what went wrong. He wasn't meant to be alone that night. She has only the standards of the Doctor's universe and Pete's world with which to decide what is "right" and what "should" happen, but if the Doctor is alive in either of those worlds – if Sarah Jane doesn't die, if sixty million Americans get to keep their lives and Donna Noble doesn't live the life of a refugee – then that's a bloody good enough standard for her. And she's going to make it right here because somehow, somehow she knows that this is no ordinary parallel world. What happens here changes everything.
It's the first universe where she's sought another Torchwood's help. She knows the story, she knows how this one goes: lost to the Sontarans every time – but this universe's Doctor is already dead and she can't lose Jack too without at least seeing him first.
It's the emotional slip that may well have saved the universe, the proof that the Doctor was right to love everything human about Rose Tyler.
Jack holds her and rocks her and they grieve together, and for a while, just a little while, she has a name again. For one afternoon she can be Rose Tyler, lost London shop-girl trying to take on the universe all alone and, just this once, it's alright to admit that she's scared.
She tells him what happened after he was left on the Game Station and he fills her in on the history of this world, lending her his vortex manipulator so she can cheat a little, skip ahead and get information to keep Donna alive, to gain her trust.
It burns her each time she uses it, knowing as she does that it will prove useless against the Sontaran ship's security systems and leave its owner trapped without friends and without hope.
She chats to Wilf one evening when he has his telescope out, nothing but a pretty stranger on a cloudy night whose face he has soon forgotten. The next day, she borrows a ring from Gwen and visits Jival Chowdry's little photocopying business, pretending to be the wife of a client delivering an order for her busy husband. Donna, she knows, is off sick for the first and only time in all her months working here.
She picks herself a raffle ticket. If anyone sees her slip it into Donna's desk drawer, they don't mention it.
"Just keep doing what you do," she tells them back at Torchwood when they ask how they can help. She knows how this is supposed to go, she reminds herself, and it's not their fate she's come to change – besides, what sort of life and future would she be condemning them to if she helped them to live? Even so, she can't help slipping Jack a teleportation device before she leaves, dropping it in his pocket in the middle of a goodbye hug when she thinks he's not watching.
Her own Torchwood want to push on. They say there's no logical reason for her to continue if the Doctor isn't there and she knows she should listen. She can't get her aim of reuniting and he cannot help them. But even if she could have moved on, she wouldn't. Something draws her back into this world – her investigations change course, her research becomes focused around Donna Noble, around how a world without the Doctor learns to cope.
They say she's wrong, that she's wasting time and money and resources and who knows how long this world has left? If she hadn't been the director's daughter, she'd never have got away with it – afterall, a former Doctor's companion carries little to no weight in this world. They order her to move on, so she fills the floor of her living room with enormous sheets of paper, sits lost in the middle of them until four in the morning, tracing timelines, making sense of fate, learning about history before it happens. She stays late at work and skips her lunch break, sneaking off to use the canon with Jake's help, or Mickey's if it's after hours. They call her crazy, a time-waster. Once only convinced of her personal attachment and doubting her desire to save the world over finding the Doctor, they now suggest she was never in love with the man at all.
It's when the stars start going out in Donna's world too that she knows she was right.
They do official readings, they analyse Donna, they learn about the time beetle and the trickster. Rose starts seeing webbed, crossing timelines from handfuls of other universes burnt behind her eyes wherever she goes. Piece by piece, it all starts coming together – how the Doctor died, how he should have met Donna, that somehow, somewhere along the line, someone made a choice that meant she wasn't in the right place at the right time to save him. How that choice had been changed.
The readings are confusing – if Rose is honest, she's never really understood exactly what it is they're looking for anyway, and if she doesn't then certainly no-one else does. Before it was simply enough to know that they were different, odd. But now, with the added confusion of Donna's individual readings, it's getting harder and harder to make sense of any of this.
I think you dream about him sometimes.
She has dreams, little flashes of how things are supposed to go set to a song and a light that seems so familiar. A market place filled with two chilling words, over and over again. Deeds she knows she did before, long ago, a time when she wasn't completely human. She saw this coming then and she laid the pathways to stop it.
UNIT are surprisingly easy to get on-side. She identifies the TARDIS, never saying its name, acts like she knows more than she's letting on, tries not to ask when and where she is too often. Weak, lonely and saddened, the TARDIS glows feebly when she touches the console, and UNIT buy it.
This room used to shine with light.
She spends her spare hours in there, those days when she turns up thinking she's needed but the timelines have got too crossed and Donna isn't around at all, those days when an alien invasion happened in every other world but for some reason eludes this one. She brings lights and candles, she mends the seat and tidies the wires. She lies on the floor looking up at the cracked coral constructs and talks about the Doctor and sometimes, sometimes, she thinks she hears that old, familiar song in reply.
She's no scientist, and even though she has practical knowledge, she's going on whispered conversations from the depths of nights when he couldn't sleep for thinking about the war, throwaway remarks about technology in the most inappropriate settings, diagrams and descriptions read over his shoulder before books lay abandoned at their feet.
Her knowledge is of flying lessons from long ago, functions and switches lost to memories of hands guiding hands, leaning too close and forgetting how to breathe – or, worse, half-observed notions of how he might have got them there that day they picnicked under the stars in 1812, of which levers he might have pulled before he'd claimed an anniversary or a birthday and kissed her senseless under a frozen wave on another planet. Her sketchy timelines are the drawings of a child, consistently incomplete dot-to-dot puzzles, her history that of an overworked author who has crossed out and re-ordered events time after time after time until there are more corrections than words.
"Were you two...?" Donna asks and, in the long silence, Rose reflects that she's not sure she even knows anymore.
Sometimes, every now and then, she can still get to other worlds. Never his, though. Never his.
Don't say anything, she thinks on days like these. Don't get involved. It's safer that way. Easier to leave.
Here, the traffic lights are blue. She knows it's not her universe and that is enough.
It should have been like any other failed trip.
"You're not her," he says, a little too bluntly, and she tries to put into words what it is about him that seems different.
"How can you tell?"
He shrugs. She supposes there is that same slightly off sensation about her that she gets from him, from every single damn one of him that isn't hers.
"Stay, though," he asks, hand catching her wrist as she turns to leave, heart empty, and she realises that the difference is this Doctor's ability to admit his loneliness – to let it show on his face. "Just for a little while."
His hand is on her waist, drawing her closer, and he's kissed her why away before the question has had time to form on her lips.
"Tell me you don't miss this," he says, voice low, resting his forehead against hers, and he isn't the Doctor but he is and she's been looking for so long now, come so far... "Tell me you don't miss this, and I'll watch you walk away."
She only hesitates for a second before kissing him back. I miss you, she half-whispers, half-sobs, fingers breaking from between his to reach the buttons of his shirt, the knot of his tie. I miss you.
Later, they lie cocooned in his bed in a room that is so like her Doctor's but not quite, the cold of his skin familiar against her back. His possessive fingers trace the patterns of long-dead words across her hip. She rolls back over onto her other side to face him, runs a hand sadly through his hair, asking his forgiveness – the forgiveness of his counterpart in another universe – without words. Knowing what's coming, he holds her close, catches her tears with his kisses before she can say it. Their legs tangle beneath the blue sheets.
I was just passing through. I shouldn't even be here...
"I can't stay. I just can't."
I always loved you, he whispers into her throat over and over again as though it is penance for his sins of silence, his lips staining gentle bruises across her collarbone to rival the inky purple hearts marking her hips. Just a little while longer, Rose, he pleads, and God knows she would stay just to hear him say her name like that again, to have even half an identity in just one of these crazy worlds.
Beneath him, her eyes promise him a forever they both know she cannot give.
She feels guilty long after the marks that carry her into the next universe fade.
It's just before she meets Donna for a third time that they – her, Jake, Mickey, UNIT from another universe, even her mum has an input – figure it out. Donna Noble never met the Doctor because she never took the job at HC Clements, she was never doused with Huon energy and she was never pulled into the TARDIS. They follow her life and study her history carefully for weeks, planting friends, talking to unsuspecting relatives, even going back to chat to Mr Chowdry with another fake photocopy order.
"It was luck," he says. "Bad luck for her, I suppose, now, but she only decided that morning. She was supposed to have a job somewhere else."
Back in Pete's world via audiolink, Mickey is already hacking into Mr Chowdry's computer system to find the time of Donna's interview all those months ago. By the time he's finished his next sentence, Mickey has factored in the distance from the office to Donna's home, working backwards to give them a five-minute window in which Donna's choice must have been made.
It was the most ordinary day in the world...
"I feel a bit guilty about that," Mr Chowdry continues, frowning while timelines and histories and maps reassemble themselves in Rose's mind and she struggles to keep looking attentive. "Still," he says, attempting to sound cheery, less responsible, "Everyone knew Donna worked as a temp before she came here, so I suppose she would be without a job by now whatever she had done."
Smiling and letting "Mrs Brown" out of his battered office door (there won't be money to fix that for a long time), Jival Chowdry has no idea that Donna Noble's split-second decision to work for him instead of a posh London locksmith changed the world.
Every now and then, the Doctor of yet another universe is nothing but happy to see her. Once or twice he's angry – no, furious even, burning with a rage she has never before seen directed towards herself. Most of the time he cries, trying not to let her see it – more and more, it seems to her, as each encounter with the wrong man leaves her ever so slightly emptier. She's beginning to understand why he never stays in one place too long, why he never gets attached unless he can help it.
One Doctor tries to forbid her from continuing, another gives her lessons and advice. She redraws her timelines from memory; he adds his own knowledge, writes it up her arm and around her ankle in indelible ink so she can carry a potential new truth back with her across the universes to try and make things right.
It's for him, at his request and on his advice, that she always wears the same clothes for these trips – and she chooses the closest things to the last time she saw him as possible, thinking somewhere in the back of her mind that he might know her quicker this way when she finally does find him. She burnt those clothes long ago, unable to remove the grains of sand from between the toes of her socks or the cuff-lines of her jacket, but this coat, that t-shirt – they are close enough. It becomes a sort of uniform, an armour.
On days when it feels like this will never end, it makes her feel like him – and he's the man who can do anything.
"Well," Jackie Tyler says off-handedly over a cup of tea one afternoon, "If you ask me, best way to kill something that's always eating," – something that feeds off time, Pete interjects – "Is to starve it. Isn't it?"
Rose things that might be the most intelligent thing her mother's ever said.
She laughs. Now all they have to do is build a time machine.
Tell him this. Two words...
She's had this moment with him a thousand times in a hundred different worlds, a hundred different ways, but it's never been real – never been quite right. Most of the time, she realises she's in the wrong place right around the time she sees him and he always knows it, too. They have walked up to one another in shyness and in defeat, ironic smiles on their faces, bitter tears in her eyes. She has appeared in his TARDIS without warning. He has sent her messages minutes after she has arrived. They have not known where to look, they have made their way through awkward small talk and universal differences.
They generally hug – not an embrace of reunion, but the comforting contact of a person who knows exactly what the other is going through. They have laughed and cried and sketched history and, once, even caught up while drinking beer together. Often he has walked her back to the dimension canon hand-in-hand, always sad, always searching.
Don't give up, she'll tell him on these days. Don't stop fighting for her.
A hundred chances pulled from a thousand different lives and finally, finally, she gets the moment right.
Now, when she can run to him and he is running to her, emotions he has kept buried for years painfully clear across his face, she physically cannot describe how unfair it is that they should be denied this one.
One night when the darkness is far away as they lie awake in her bed, starlight streaming through the open curtains, he asks her.
"All these years, all those worlds... what did you see?"
She couldn't explain it if she tried, not even to him.