The events of the Doctor's Eighth incarnation always remained rather a mystery to his subsequent selves.

It was the Time War, of course, that did it. However long the conflict had actually lasted - and he was never sure if it was days or centuries - the repercussions of it had wreaked havoc with his life, with all of Gallifrey, and with the entire universe at large, effectively ripping apart the threads of his life throughout all the years that had led up to it.

He knew that the inferno of the war had left the Timeline in disarray, and that those years were irreparably fragmented; fractured with memories of events and people lost or in tatters. In some cases he had conflicting memories of being in two or more places, worlds, even universes, at the same time. In other cases, there were gaping holes in his memory, and much as he suspected this to be a blessing, he still wondered occasionally as to what was lost.

One thing was for certain; he carried no recollection of his years spent travelling with Charlotte Pollard, and in particular, had no memory whatsoever of the time they travelled together to a parallel universe, and he took human form.

+ - + - + - +

The road now leads onward
As far as can be
Winding lanes
And hedgerows in threes
By purple mountains
And round every bend
All roads lead to you
There is no journey's end.

-Loreena McKennitt

She sits in her car; her carefully constructed vehicle, wearing her perfectly tailored clothing, and she waits.

It's the waiting she'll never get used to; the attempt to order life into a prescribed series of events organised around the minutes and seconds of the day. The futile attempt to put structure around chaos, because it's never possible to be precisely on time. You never know what could happen on the way – traffic or weather, the bloom of a flower or the fall of a tree branch, a heart attack, a chance meeting with a lost loved-one; the possibilities are endless and infinite.

She sits, twisting the strap of her handbag between her fingers and waits for the unexpected.

And nothing happens.

The clock ticks off the seconds until the appointed time is finally here. She gets out of the car, cup of coffee in hand, and slowly makes her way to the designated area.

Today, she's picking up her little brother from school. Mum is taking a class this autumn on Tuesday afternoons – ballroom dancing or jazz piano or something like that; she can't recall exactly, and she's asked Rose to take care of this task, once a week. Rose agreed without objections, even though she knows full well that they've got a nanny, and Mum only did this to get her away from the office once in a while.

She doesn't mind; Tony is seven now so he doesn't need much looking-after, and hopefully it will get Mum to take the nagging down a notch.

She looks across the schoolyard and spots her brother in the middle of a slightly disorganised procession of children, all apparently engaged in a raucous game of Follow the Leader. She watches Tony as he ducks under a slide, scrambles over a climbing structure, leapfrogs over his predecessor, until the entire ragtag group finally convenes around the schoolyard gates and dissipates.

That's when she notices him; the leader of the procession – a teacher who's laughing with delight at his audience as he pants for air, bent over with his hands on his knees.

She walks up to him from behind and prods him with an, "Excuse me." He turns, and then she's looking straight into blue eyes, stubbled skin and wind-tousled chestnut hair that's pulled back into a loose ponytail.

"I'm here to pick up Tony Tyler," she explains.

He's dressed in black trousers and a light blue button-down shirt, and although she's surprised to see a man working here with young children, that's not what sets him apart. It's something in the curve of his jaw, in the way he draws in breath deliberately and deeply that hints of a gentility beyond the average schoolteacher, as if he'd come from old money and abandoned it all to live a working class life.

He turns to search for the boy in question and spots him chatting with two of his friends. "Tony, your mum is here!" he calls to him.

She feels herself redden, although this is hardly the first time the mistake has been made. "Oh no," she corrects him, reaching out to grasp his arm before thinking better of it and pulling it back in what eventually comes off as an awkward-looking stretch. "I'm his sister, not his mother."

He straightens up and gazes at her and now he's really looking at her, his curiosity piqued, but before he asks the question, Tony lets out a joyful yelp of, "Rose!" and races to her, running smack into her with the full enormity of a seven-year-old's hug. It causes her to stumble backwards, nearly sloshing coffee on herself, and she lets out a good-natured laugh.

The action is unfamiliar; the impetus is positively foreign.

"Let me guess," offers the man facing her. "Remarriage? Your father or your mother?" It's a probing question that, oddly enough, doesn't come off the least bit impertinent, and she wonders if this man could ever say anything that sounds rude.

She grabs Tony's hand as he tries to slip away, deftly swinging him back into a hug round her waist. "Both, actually," she replies. For a moment, she actually considers explaining the truth to him, and her mouth edges upward at the prospect of his incredulous expression, but all she says is, "It's a long story."

His eyebrows shoot up. "Those are usually the best kind."

Something in the way he says it, in the genuine curiosity in his intent gaze – something pricks at her. It's not recognition and it's not attraction, but it's somewhere in the space between the two. She wonders if he's got a brother or a cousin or some relative that she's met before.

She mulls over just how much she can get away with telling him; finds, strangely enough that she wants to tell him, but then Tony is tugging at her hand and asking her to take him out for ice cream, so she shrugs at him helplessly. "I've got to go," she explains, and turns to leave.

He nods to her in farewell, turns away from her and Tony goes to get his book bag. And then something makes her pause and face him again. "I'm Rose Tyler, by the way."

He turns back, and she notes the way he moves; it's with a grace as if he could command the very air around him. His presence somehow seems much larger than his modest frame would suggest, and in spite of herself, she stares at him over her coffee cup as she takes a sip.

"Pleased to meet you, Rose," he says. "I'm John Smith."

She chokes on the coffee and hurriedly wipes at her chin with the back of her hand before it drips down her front.

"Are you all right?" he asks.

"Yeah, yeah," she shakes her head in embarrassment. "Known a lot of Smiths in my life, that's all," she explains vaguely.

"Well, there are a lot of us to know," he dismisses.

Mickey, Mickey's Gran, Sarah Jane, she ticks off in her mind. And him. She shakes her head as if waking up from a dream. "Used to know, I should say," she amends with a nervous laugh as she wonders why she's telling him this. "Gone now."

His expression goes beyond curiosity and it unnerves her, but there's no malice there, no hidden agenda in the way his brow creases, in the way he steps closer and touches his fingertips to her sleeve as he studies her. It's concern and it's inquisitiveness of an uncomplicated variety that's rarely found in adults, and she thinks she can see why he works with children.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he replies, doesn't press. He glances behind him where two boys are about to come to blows over a Spiderman action figure, before looking back at her with a sight bow of farewell. "I hope we meet again, Rose Tyler. I think I'd like to hear some of those long stories of yours."

And then, almost before she can blink, he's off dealing with the boys, so this time when Tony tugs at her, she follows.

She decides to take him out for ice cream after all, and when she tries Rum Raisin for the first time, she finds she quite likes it.

+ - + - + - +

The evening is a typical one, filled with Pokemon and math homework with Tony, dinner with Mum and Pete-who-isn't-her-dad, and whatever overly-sentimental movie Mum has decided has the right message that she needs to hear today to cure her of whatever ill she believes she suffers from.

This time, the selection is even less subtle than usual, featuring a career girl who's terrified to let herself love again, until the right man comes along.

Apparently three weeks is enough of a mourning period as far as Mum is concerned. She does her best not to roll her eyes at every scene, settling instead for pedantic comments about the dated wardrobe selections and the New York City sights that she recognises from the last time she was there, and she turns her head ever so slightly at the romantic climax so as not to let anyone see that she's looking away.

Mum still sees her do it.

It's after 11:00 when she arrives home finally. She turns her key in the lock and steps inside, and everything looks exactly the same.

But she knows just how deceiving looks can be. When someone has almost no possessions, it's hard to tell when they've left. But she knows.

She sniffs the air and shivers inside the space that feels huge now, when it used to be so confining. Everything is exactly in place, right where she left it, but she knows he's been by and she knows he's gone for good. The loss is enormous; crushing, but it's not new. What is new is the open space around her; the freedom from responsibility. Responsibility for the man who was never supposed to exist in the first place; the man who was never able to sit still inside four walls and who never should've been forced to try.

To have lost him once; ripped apart against both their wills between the walls of realities – it nearly killed her.

And then to find him, only to lose him again, this time in a slow whimper – the first tore out her heart and held it hostage. The second simply succumbed to the degenerative disease of daily life on Earth.

She slips into bed and cries herself to sleep, knowing that they're both as trapped as they ever were. They're just in separate cells now.

+ - + - + - +

The Doctor had worked for Torchwood for a full nine months before things imploded.

The time had been quite productive - or entirely wasted, depending on whose viewpoint was being expressed at any given time. He had taken on a pet project regarding the integrity of the timeline, and had even managed to convince the Torchwood higher-ups of the vulnerability of the Web of Time in a universe where Time Lords had never existed.

Or so they interpreted his message. Strictly speaking, the statement, while technically correct, was misleading, and when used improperly, downright disingenuous. He had explained this at quite some length to the aforementioned higher-ups; an explanation that had involved re-tracing the roots of the Web of Time itself, Rassillon, and the creation of the Eye of Harmony that anchored reality in the primary universe, and created an infinite number of variations, i.e. 'parallel' universes as a consequence. The explanation had gone on for three hours, included visual aids in a variety of formats, including animation, gone off on a number of tangents, not the least irrelevant of which involved the evolution of soft-curd cheese in western Switzerland, and ultimately put two of the aforementioned higher-ups to sleep. This necessitated returning to the original statement:

The Web of Time was vulnerable in a universe where Time Lords had never existed.

At this point he had tried to interject that the vulnerability had nothing to do with the fact that the Time Lords had never been there, but rather because they were no longer around anywhere to regulate the cascade effect of the alternate realities as they progressed away gradually from the primary one, but at this point, Pete had jabbed him in the ribs, causing him to let out a rather embarrassing squeal, successfully putting an end to his digression and shutting him up entirely on the matter.

In the end, his project had been approved, the funds granted, and the Doctor had been given lease to tinker on his project: creating a fully objective, fully universal Time monitor. It was designed to detect and catalogue, at the nanosecond level, every single disturbance in the Web of Time.

Sensing Time disturbances was second nature to Time Lords, as he had explained, so this project was rather like building artificial eyes for people who had never in their history known the meaning of sight.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, there was nothing to see.

Or, more accurately, nothing to sense. Once completed, the device ran flawlessly, and even continued running through several blackouts thanks to the backup power supply that he had built into the device, which was designed to run off of bananas.

The fact that it detected nothing only served to enrage the aforementioned higher-ups.

This was a position that utterly befuddled the Doctor, since he had considered the lack of Time disturbances to be a good thing, and was rather taken by surprise at the suggestion that his device might be useless in every respect save for its revolutionary use of bananas as fuel.

To which he had pointed out that that fact alone was enough to revolutionise the world's use of energy and effectively halt climate change.

The conversation had deteriorated from there.

In the end, the device was shuffled into a corner amongst the various other monitoring devices that ran continuously at Torchwood, and it was moved onto the roster of logs to be checked on a monthly basis.

Once a month.

Which explains why, when the Timeline folded over one Saturday afternoon around Brooklyn, New York, effectively losing a full three nanoseconds, nobody noticed.

tbc