A/N ~ Firstly: you might be interested in this video I made recently in celebration of our beloved Doctor/Rose: www . youtube watch?v=4juxsbXqd-M&list=UU2dLGS_N1w0r1FqtMfVZRTw&index=1 (take out the spaces)

Secondly, this is going to be either the last, or possibly second-last, chapter before an epilogue. This story has been a real challenge for me with lots of characters and LOADS of plot, but I've had fun and I hope you guys have liked it – you probably have, on some level, or you wouldn't still be reading it by now! I have a massive readership for this story but I hardly ever hear from you and I'd really love to! Drop me a review, let me know what you liked about it, and I'll try and point you towards some other stories you might like. Thanks for coming on this journey with me!

As the shot tore from the barrel, bass echoing like a drumbeat through the chamber, a cry tore from the Doctor's chest.

"ROSE!"

Chapter Twenty Two ~ Collapse

The giant bird opposite Ty opened its wings and launched into the sky, and for a long while the only sound was its wings beating against the air, over and over as it climbed and began to turn towards the far edge of the lake bed. Then a lonely, mournful cry rang out as though, to the bird, all other life had disappeared. Amber lifted a hand to her mouth, choking as her heartstrings trembled.

"The tunnels," Jack breathed after a moment.

"What?" Ty glanced at the others. They were starting to gravitate together, slightly pale and trembling. A brand new, primitive world lay in darkness around them, and the cry of the strange bird rang in their ears, and it made each of them count every breath in their lungs. Captain Jack's eyes were still slightly wide, and he stood with his legs further apart than usual, a focus on balance, as though the planet might rupture beneath him.

"The tunnels fell in because of the suns," Jack explained. "The force they must have created...it would be huge. But it's not a supernova, not a black hole. It's something else. Something just as destructive."

"What does that mean?" Josh demanded, though his voice shook.

"The planet could fall apart around us."

Trance-like, minds still swimming, there was a moment of baited breath as everyone tried to fathom the full implications of this. Suddenly, from under their feet came another sound. Another combination of crack and boom, just like the suns, but on a comparatively minute scale. Then, there was a voice, distorted by the distance and the earth, but still familiar. It was a desperate cry, just one word.

Like a bloodhound on the scent, Jack was off, coat flapping behind him as he sprinted across the lake bed and dove for the next porthole, where they had heard the sound. As he battled with the opening of it, the Doctor's voice echoed in his head, the layers of distortion fading until Jack knew, with heart-stopping certainty, what he had said.

Rose.

.o.o.o.

It was a dull pain at first. Rose was reminded of that time in eighth grade when she got hit by a softball on her way to home base. It was strange to think that a tiny splinter of metal could produce this kind of pain.

But then it erupted into a spider's web of agony, splintering and spreading out from the impact point like a shattering glass, overwhelming all thought. Rose screamed, but her scream died as the world swam and morphed and faded to black. She was falling.

Her blood ran hot, and then cold, and she could feel arms under her shoulders.

"Mum? Mum?" Jenny begged. Hot tears splashed down onto her mother's face, but Rose did not seem to notice them. Rose grimaced in pain, and Jenny hugged her mother tighter, leaning over her body and pressing their foreheads together. A gentle hand touched her shoulder, and Jenny turned her tearful eyes to Martha's soft but solemn expression.

"I'm a Doctor, okay?" she whispered. "Let me look."

"Doctor, Mickey, get back here!" Donna ordered, bursting the bubble of shock that had everyone reeling. With only a vague sense of recognition, Mickey jogged over, feet dragging, his bones feeling like lead. He could not tear his eyes off his best friend even as Jenny flung herself into his arms. Her own arms were pinned in front of her as Mickey hugged her back, and Jenny covered her mouth with her hands but it hardly did anything to mask the ugly choked sounds of her sobbing. The tears didn't even slightly sting as they slid down Mickey's cheeks, his whole body numb as he watched over Jenny's shoulder, Martha try to staunch Rose's bleeding, and to get a response from her.

At Donna's shout, the rest of the room made an attempt to reconfigure their expressions, but they could not – and some of them did not want to – hide the sympathy and the horror they were feeling. On the periphery, a substantial band of soldiers joined the wounded Christopher, checking his poultice and helping him up, bracing him with their arms to observe the dramatic goings on.

For all his previous concern about the threat against them, the Doctor did not bat an eyelid as almost half the force opposite them shifted sides. He glared at Sergeant Tucker, teeth gritted, eyes dark, shoulders tense, his very blood seeming to boil. At the head of the crowd, Sergeant Tucker glared back down the barrel of his weapon, his posture unfailing and his expression hard. Sergeant Major McCarthy stepped slowly in front of Tucker, lowering a hand to indicate Tucker should lower his weapon. After a moment more, Tucker did so, and the Doctor's burning eyes locked onto McCarthy's face, which bore a vicious, satisfied sneer.

"Doctor?" Donna called.

"ROSE!" Another voice, a distinctively American voice. Something dark blue and heavy hit the ground. Jack rolled and stood, but knew better than to lay a hand on the fuming Time Lord. He turned to look at Rose. Martha was still bent over her, still working, but it didn't look good. The worry in Donna's eyes, standing nearby, made Jack's throat seize up.

"Jack."

It was the Doctor. He did not take his eyes off McCarthy, but held one hand out towards the Captain. Jack eyed it warily.

"I really don't think that's a good idea," he said.

"Jack." It was more of a growl now. Donna shivered, remembering that day with the Racnoss. Captain Jack slowly pulled one of his pistols from his belt. He did not strongly object to shooting anyone who now remained on the opposite side, especially not Tucker or this new guy, but the Doctor was...well, the Doctor. He doesn't kill people. He doesn't use guns.

"JACK!" The Doctor snapped. "GIVE ME THE GUN!"

Jack could not get out of the way fast enough. The Doctor snatched the pistol from his hand and stormed forward. The terrifying crunch of the gun preparing to fire was louder than ever as he held the barrel unwaveringly an inch from Sergeant Tucker's head.

"Oh my God," Amber whispered slowly, covering her mouth with both hands, hardly able to believe what she was seeing. From up here, from this strange angle, it was almost surreal – being unable to step in and change things, and yet, unable to deny the consequences: Rose, bleeding out on the floor; the Doctor playing the vengeful god; Jenny, her newest and already one of her closest friends, crying her heart out in the corner. "He's actually going to do it, isn't he?"

Josh offered her sympathetic eyes, tears of fear and pain beginning to slide down his cheeks, matching those already streaming down his sister's. Ty, between them, briefly wiped his eyes and then wrapped an arm around Amber's shoulders and hugged her close. The three of them stared in silent horror as the Doctor's trigger crept painfully slowly towards the firing pin.

"Doctor..." Jack rocked onto his front foot, arm outstretched, before realising that he would be no match for the angry Time Lord. At this rate, there was still a chance to diffuse the situation, but if he made a sudden move, the Doctor would act, and then anyone in the room could fall victim to a stray bullet. Jack glanced at Donna, but for once she was lost for words. Martha turned, fear and sorrow in her eyes as she slowly stood.

"Doctor," she began. "Think about this. Think about what you're doing, okay? Think...think about Rose. She needs you."

A tremor crossed the Doctor's face, but he fought to keep his expression hard. The nose of the gun began to tremble. The Doctor pulled it up, cocked it again and whirled on his feet to aim it at McCarthy. There was going to be no pause this time, no agonising wait while the trigger closed in. It was going to be fast and angry. Until -

"STOP!"

Jenny threw herself out of Mickey's arms, staggering towards her father, and though she was still out of his field of vision, her strangled voice betrayed her red eyes and tear-marked face.

"Stop, Dad, please! Mum wouldn't want you to do this!"

The Doctor's arm remained braced and ready, but he chanced a look over his shoulder and Jenny locked her eyes onto his.

"She told me stories about you. About how you could change people's minds, save worlds, with words. You never used a gun, she said. Not ever. She loved you for that – and so do I." Jenny's agonised expression slowly morphed towards a smile, her eyes sparkling with hope. Her father seemed to be listening. "My father would never do this. We always have a choice."

There was a long stretch of silence. Above and below, the spectators held their breaths. And at last, the Doctor's shoulders relaxed. Jack stepped up and took his pistol back, whipping it quickly out of sight, and McCarthy closed his eyes in a moment of pure relief. Donna and Martha almost laughed with the release of tension, and glanced up at the porthole, where Amber, Josh and Ty were hugging one another and laughing too.

Amongst all this, the Doctor sunk slowly to the ground, and gathered Rose up in his arms, trembling slightly as her one human heartbeat stuttered against his chest. Not her, not Rose. Not after all he had been through – all they had been through together, and all that she had saved him from. His pink and yellow human girl, with a smile that could light cities and a simple, powerful devotion to the people and the things that she loved. Rose Tyler. He pressed his lips to her forehead softly, but clung to her as, simultaneously, she were the most fragile flower but he could crush her back to life.

From high above, there was a long, mournful screech – full of age and loss, like the cry of a phoenix. The Doctor closed his eyes, letting his tears fall into Rose's hair, as it seemed the universe was in mourning with him.

Then the Tardis cloister bell sounded its first heart-stopping knell. The Doctor looked up, and met Jack's wide eyes.

"Doctor," he breathed, shocked – he had forgotten. "The sun is gone. The planet's going up. We've gotta get out of here."