Much thanks to Beth who helped beta this.
It's hard, at first.
They stay on Badwolf beach for a long time. Rose can't sense time anymore, not now that her Time Lord is gone, so seconds feel like hours, hours feel like minutes, minutes feel like countless nightless days in a row. It's all screwed up. It's so screwed up. She can't breathe for crying and all she can think is It's just like last time. He did this to me again. Because if one thing hurts, it's watching someone walk away from you—twice.
She reaches out in the wispy, silent bay air and finds something solid and soft: the human Doctor. At that point, she doesn't care that he's not her Doctor, that he's not the real Doctor; he's what she's been given so she pulls him in and clings to him, and the worst part is he feels so stupidly real, exactly like the Doctor did—does—except she can just hear the one heart beating through the folds of his robes, and that seems to make all the difference. Still, she grips him and he squeezes her tightly in response as she sobs into his jacket, into his old-leather smell, into his skin, into his thin form, into all of him, because he's the only thing she has right now, and somewhere inside she knows that she is the only thing he has, because the Doctor left them both. The Doctor abandoned them here and they're all the other has, so she clings for herself and for him and she cries because the undeniable fact that her life is a train wreck of time and space and alternate dimensions and unfixable sadness is collapsing down upon her. And the Doctor's gone—gone forever. And for some reason as he was leaving she had thought it would be easier than last time, but it isn't. It's not easy at all.
It's fucking hard.
She doesn't talk for a while after they leave. To anyone. Not to her mom, not to her dad, not to the Doctor. (That's a thing, too; it's so weird calling him the Doctor, but it's even weirder calling him anything else, so she says it through her teeth when she must, out of habit and because that's all he'll answer to anyway.) People try to talk to her, but the words are like dull shapes, floating at her in waves, bouncing balloon-like off of her before she can take the time to register them. All except the Doctor. He tells her stories and doesn't ask her questions about how she's feeling, which is what she always liked about him. He has always known when to make her talk and when to let her be, so for the next while he just catches her up on everything he's done since their last goodbye and doesn't require anything from her in return.
"You would have loved Donna," he says, his smile sad and beautiful as he drapes lazily over the other side of the couch, all lanky limbs. Rose doesn't try to touch him anymore, not after all that happened at the beach. She hasn't touched him since. It's too hard. "She was all fire and guts. Brilliant with adventure. We went to Rome, once…"
She listens. She listens to stories about Martha and Donna and Jack, and about Daleks and the Ood and all sorts of other fantastic alien life that she vaguely realizes she will never see or hear of again unless they come to her. He tells them with glints in his eyes, like they're reflecting the stars from all the skies he's seen. Some stories are very sad. Some brilliant. Some terrible. Some all three and more. And Rose listens and re-learns the Doctor, learns that he's exactly the same, learns that he's got the same likes and dislikes, the same mind, the same humor. She gets to a point where she can predict roughly how he's going to act in any situation before he tells her, although she doesn't say. She never says anything. She just listens. She just listens and learns that he's exactly like the Doctor.
But he's not him.
That's what's hard about it. She can see it now, in hindsight. That's what's always been hard. Knowing that somewhere out there was her Doctor, doing even more great and terrible things without her is hard. It hurts every time she looks at him, so most of the time, she just doesn't.
At least, not at first. At first she watches his hands, watches the way he talks with them, how they run through his stupid identical springy hair, how he waves them about in terror or excitement as he's telling her another daring adventure that he—the Doctor—had with some girl or another.
She wonders why it doesn't bother her that he ran into so many other girls. Come to think of it, nothing really bothers her anymore—she has become inherently numb, going through motions in a fatigued state, slowly like she's moving through gel. Her mother went through the thought that she must be depressed, but they don't take her to see anyone for it—who would believe that she was clinically depressed because her alien lover left her in an alternate dimension? Clinically insane, maybe. Sometimes it's hard to convince herself that she isn't. It's the worst when the Doctor's telling her stories and he blurs. When he becomes her Doctor and her Doctor becomes him but they're not the same they're not and it scares her shitless because she just doesn't want to forget him. She doesn't want to lose him under her comfortable life and so she doesn't look at or touch this new human Doctor because she's afraid that if she did she would lose the real one forever.
They fashion him a room across the hall from hers. He leaves the door open when he sleeps, and sometimes she can see him through the crack in hers, head buried in pillows, one tuft of hair visible, a bony arm poking out of the sheets. He breathes slow and deep and even. Sometimes Rose thinks about curling up next to him, about letting him wrap his arms around her, about falling asleep—real, deep asleep—with him, but every time she does this she feels the lines crumble and blur totally and completely and it's thrilling and scary so she backs away from the idea and just watches him when she has been awoken by her impossibly sad dreams. Occasionally she nods off in that position, leaning back against her headboard, her head lolling onto her shoulder. When she wakes, she is always back in bed tucked under the covers, every time without fail, never quite remembering putting herself there.
"I've seen how you look at him," says her mother quietly one morning when she stumbles into the kitchen after a sleepless night. Jackie watches her carefully, but Rose avoids eye contact as she opens the fridge, wondering if food will have taste today.
"I've seen it," Jackie repeats. She's messing with something on the counter—drying a spoon—in a pattern so she can focus on the conversation. "I see you every night when I go check on Tony. You ought to talk to him, love."
Rose says nothing, pouring cereal absently.
"He loves you," says Jackie quietly. "And I know you love him. He just wants to be with you. Give him a chance. I don't know why you won't."
Rose doesn't speak. Silence fills the kitchen for a long moment, and Rose is almost done with her cereal when the Doctor himself comes waltzing into the kitchen, hair a mess and limbs gangly. She nods at him and puts her cereal away and goes back to her room and stays there for the rest of the day, deciding not to come out for stories or food or anything because she just needs to think. Eventually, holed up in her blankets late that night as the Doctor's deep, even breathing sounds from across the hall, she realizes why.
The truth is that she's afraid. Of what, she's not sure. But she's afraid. Afraid that maybe even though he looks and talks and acts the same, that he won't feel the same. All of this is a hoax and he's a deceptive unit her Doctor put here to trick her into being happy. For a moment she feels vindictively proud that she hasn't been fooled, but then it dissipates back into dismal grief, because who is proud of thinking the man they love is out to trick them?
No, she knows what the human Doctor is. He's a human Doctor. The Doctor told her himself that he is flesh and blood and bone with the Doctor's memories and feelings and looks. But Rose doesn't touch him—she can't touch him—so she makes a habit out of sitting on her side of the couch while he sits on his and he tells her stories and they don't touch, ever.
At least, not at first.
It's a while before she actually lets herself. Before she actually lets him. They sit in her living room one day as usual and he's going on about something he and Martha did when suddenly he stops.
They sit in dull silence for a moment before he says very quietly, "That's it."
"That's the end. You know the rest."
The she looks at him.
She had forgotten what an impossibly beautiful sight he was in all this time. His eyes are old, a washed out brown, and he runs his hand through his hair again and then down his thin jaw in tentative habit. He looks incredibly sad, suddenly. She wonders if he's just sad in this moment or if every time he looks at her he looks sad, and she has been oblivious this whole time.
She studies his face for a long while before saying, "Okay."
"Okay," he repeats. He's being very delicate with her, like she's something on the verge of exploding at the smallest touch. But he's explosive too, she thinks. That's what the other Doctor said, anyway—he was born a child of war. She needs to make him better.
And she suddenly remembers why he's even here. She would make him better and in turn he would love her—love her as he has always loved her, as he used to love her, in all the small ways tucked behind casual actions, simple hand grabs, sweet looks from across the center of the Tardis. They're blending very suddenly, this Doctor and the real Doctor, and it's scary and quick and bursting with truth. She can see him in his old eyes, in his jaw that clenches under her gaze, in the long fingers that tap at his knees while he's waiting. She sees it and it scares her because for the first time she realizes that he's real. And what has she been doing all this time to this real Doctor, to this person with one beating broken heart tucked in his chest? What has she been doing to him by avoiding his gaze and keeping her hands and body to herself? She has always thought that she was the lonely one, a rock in a river, and everyone else had parted and moved like water around her, but they are both here, and even if she's stuck here in this alternate dimension, to be stuck with him—that's not so bad.
Moving forward fluidly, Rose curls up next to him, finding the nook in his neck to place her head as she curls her arm around his familiarly thin middle. There's a moment of careful hesitation in which they feel each other out physically, get comfortable against her couch in a cuddled position, and then he's squeezing her too, tighter than she can ever remember, holding her too his chest like he's afraid she'll let go again. She feels wet warm tears in her hair as he trembles against her. They hold each other and the Doctor—her Doctor—begins to cry.
Little by little, they become intimate.
It's hard at first. Rose hasn't been physically close to someone in a long time, and the Doctor even longer. But somehow they manage. They hold hands on walks and he gives her kisses before bed—just soft ones on her forehead, but they're nice. Rose thinks for a while that he might be scared too, but she lets this take it's own path and doesn't try to control what happens too much. She's frightened enough that it's even happening.
One night she wakes up from another dream and her door's open, and so is the Doctor's across the hall. She can see through the window it makes and for a moment she watches him like she used to, but something's different—his breathing is no longer deep and even; it's short and quiet. He's awake.
On a whim, she goes to him. When he looks up at her as his door creaks open, he does not look surprised to see her.
He makes room and she climbs into bed with him. They mesh easily, their bodies fitting right against one another, as usual. He presses his forehead to hers and closes his eyes, breathing slow and deep and careful, like he's letting her essence fill him.
"Did you ever…" Rose whisper-asks into the darkness. The Doctor's eyes are bright and curious as he opens them at her voice, but quiet in the respect that he lets her continue without interrupting. "With Martha or Donna. Did you ever… you know, with them, was there—?"
"No," he says, his voice solid. "It was only you, Rose Tyler. Always you."
Then she kisses him. It occurs to her sometime that this is their second mouth-to-mouth kiss, but it might as well be their first with how rushed and sloppy it is. It's by no means perfect or sweet or slow as the Doctor's forehead-kisses are: Rose is hungry for him and, as he grips her fiercely and kisses her back, she finds that he is hungry for her, too. The lack of intimacy doesn't matter so much now, with just the dark and the Doctor's lips and the Doctor's eyes and the Doctor's stupid gorgeous springy hair (which she promptly buries her hands in), and the Doctor's hands on her neck and on her hips and the Doctor's voice murmuring I love you, I have always loved you into her lips. It doesn't matter at all because this was always coming, she realizes. They were always bound together. She was not Rose Tyler without her Doctor, and he was not the Doctor without his Rose Tyler.
That night is the start of it. From then on she sleeps in his bed with him and it becomes Rose-and-the-Doctor's Room instead of just the Doctor's. They become a proper couple, and go on proper dates and have proper sex (although the first time did involve much endearing laughter on both parties because it was actually happening and oh, how lovely and awkward and ironic it was that they could traverse the galaxy and fight of demons and save alien races and conquer death but the Doctor was still stopped short when he struggled to take off her bra). They slowly start to complete each other in a way that Rose thought she would never feel again. It gets easier and easier to love him like she loved the real Doctor, because she finally faces that he is the real Doctor, but with one beating heart that she listens to through his bare chest when they fall asleep together late at night, all the stars they have seen shining through the open window.
Then one morning, something happens.
They're having breakfast. He stops short in the middle of his eggs and gasps, long and slow and deep and rattling, and he throws his head back as if forced.
"Doctor," Rose says sharply, and she's by his side in an instant. "Doctor, what's wrong? Look at me, I'm here."
The Doctor gasps repeatedly, shuddering against her, unable to find words. He's crying again, real, raw, earnest tears, as if death were facing him right there and he was begging for his life. Rose tries to take his face in her palms, to hold him and calm him from whatever torture plagues him, but he thrusts his arms out at the table and grasps it tightly and dips his head, sobbing and gasping and sobbing and gasping.
A moment later, he lurches forward onto the table, pushing his eggs out of the way and slumping against it, breathing hard. Rose trembles beside him, frightened, but when he looks at her again, his eyes are stunned and his body calmer.
"He's gone," he says emptily. He appears neither sad nor angry nor happy, just shocked into flatness, and his eyes have drained of some spark.
"How d'you… how d'you know?" she asks weakly.
"I just felt it," he shrugs, "in my mind. He regenerated. He's—I'm—gone."
"Psychic link," he says, still staring dumbly at nothing. "I have his mind. I felt it before we came here, just a touch. I didn't think it could survive the travel through the dimensions, but I was born of his flesh and when the copy of me from that world is deceased, well…" He touches his chest tenderly, and Rose wonders if he's touching his human body or his human heart, or both. "…the reaction must have been so powerful I felt it."
They sit there again in stupid silence. Rose pulls her chair up to his. The morning sunlight highlights the sparkling tear streaks on his face, so she wipes them away with her thumbs until he's smooth again.
"You're not sad," he says.
"You aren't either," she retaliates.
"But you loved him."
There's a pause in which the Doctor looks down at his lap, his hands fold there, and he sits very still. Rose can feel the embarrassment leaking out of him, spilling from all the lines in his supple mouth to the creases in his eyebrows. She takes his face in her palms and makes him look at her with his tired embarrassed lonely old eyes.
Except. They're not all that lonely anymore, now that she really looks at them.
"I loved you," she replies simply. "It was always you."
It gets easier after that.