A statement of fact, a shriek of fear, and it was all over.
"I'mthe oldest thing in here."
The Reaper he'd tried so hard to hold at bay dived for him, and there was nothing but a stinking blackness and an ache in his molars like biting into tin foil. Blackness and an ache and the feel of metal grating pinching the skin on his palms and scalp. Blackness and an ache and metal and the murmur of the TARDIS's engines in the vortex.
That can't be right, he mused. He breathed deeply, slowly. Yes, this was definitely his TARDIS. He flexed his fingers and felt the ridges in the metal underneath. Yep, engine room floor, all right. He licked his lips, impossible Time Lord senses testing the air like a snake's. In the vortex, currently travelling through space, but not time. He wondered where he was headed.
What else, what else, oh, ears! How could he forget in this body? He listened over the engines and heard distinctly non-TARDIS humming. That can't be right, he thought to himself again.
There was absolutely no mistaking it. A male voice was singing. Singingin the console room, in a clear heldentenor. No, kavalierbariton. Maybe. Strauss always told him he'd never manage to keep them straight.
In any case, the chorus of "Moves Like Jagger" was unwelcomingly assailing his hearing, complete with drum-like sound effects and whistling.
He'd run out of other senses. Time to open the eyes.
Coral struts, just as he'd expected. The faint green glow of the time rotor. And a skinny, spectacled git in pinstripes mucking about with the console controls.
The Doctor pushed himself up quickly, the grating biting into the skin of his hands. "Oi!" he yelled at the suited stranger, waving his hands angrily in a gesture that meant 'clear-off' in more than ninety-six percent of the universe. "Get away from there, ya nancy!"
The man looked up from the console, spied him, and flashed perfect teeth in a grin the Doctor hoped Rose would never see. "Oh, it's that time, is it?" the intruder asked excitedly. "Hello, Doctor, haven't seen you for ages!"
The Doctor swore he saw the stranger filch a small object from the console and slide it into the pocket of his suit coat. He walked towards the controls, but the man sidestepped to keep the bulk of the machinery between them before slipping something else into his pocket.
"You have no idea what you're doing, you could hurt someone." The Doctor's tone was serious, and his eyes never left the face of the intruder.
"Oh, I dunno, not doing too bad." He reached up to scratch the back of his neck modestly. "Dimensional stabilizer's gone a bit wibbly, but nothing a new thermo-coupling and a five-minute hop to the future won't fix." He suddenly looked thoughtful. "On second thought, maybe it's you."
The initial diagnostics made sense, but the Doctor's concern was not assuaged. If he'd popped back here, maybe Rose had, too, and he wasn't going to put her at risk because some odd bloke in pinstripes liked pushing buttons. There was nothing for it. He pulled his sonic screwdriver out of his jacket and held out it at eye level, pointing directly at the chatty lunatic across from him.
"Step away. This is your last warning."
The suited man froze in the act of snatching another small item from the console and slowly backed away, both hands in the air. "Easy, easy," he said in a quiet, soothing tone, much different than his previous piping excitement. "You're stuck here about five more minutes before Rose lets her dad walk in front of that car. Everything's fine, and you'll go back to your own timeline."
"'My timeline'? Who d'you think you're talking to?" the Doctor scoffed indignantly. "If anyone knows timelines, it's me. Whoever you are, you can just– Hold on, are those knickers?"
The stranger took a fleeting look at his clenched right fist, still held up in surrender. Peeking out from behind his thumb was a small length of pink eyelet lace. He opened his mouth, taking a deep breath as though ready to launch into a lengthy explanation, then closed it with an audible click of his teeth. Still looking at the wisp of fabric, he simply stated a short, "Yeah."
"Are they yours?"
"No. Well, yes."
The Doctor gave the increasingly peculiar man a skeptical look. "Pick one. And why is it on my console?"
"Well," the man didn't look the slightest bit embarrassed, "technically, yes, they belong to me. But I'm not the one that wears them."
"And who doeswear them?"
"That would be Rose," the stranger said. Then added as an afterthought, more to himself than the Doctor, "and even then, it's not for very long."
The Doctor was outraged. "There is no shagging on the console! There is no shagging in the console room. There is no shagging anywhere on the TARDIS!"
"I'm gonna have to disagree with you there," the other man said, "But no, there's not for you. Not yet, anyway."
"Right, you're from my future, apparently. I suppose you're Rose's next pretty boy? What isit with her and sideburns?"
The man uttered a single, silly laugh. "I never thought of it like that." He seemed thrilled with the prospect and grinned at nothing in particular, reaching over to scratch an ear wit his knickers-free hand. "Yeah, I s'pose I am. Your fault, though, it was completely your choice."
"Ichoose Rose's next pretty boy?" the Doctor asked, disbelief evident in every aspect of his body language, from his tone to his stance.
"In a manner of speaking, yes. When she saves your life–reallysaves your life, and not just yours, but everyone on Earth–you'll have to regenerate."
"I what?" He lowered the screwdriver. "When?"
"Just… bear with me for a tic. When you do, the only thing you'll be thinking of is her. Of course you will, because she's Rose and she's brilliant. And when all your concentration is focused on what you need to be to make her stay, you're gonna end up," he stretched his arms out and shrugged, "just like this."
"You can't be serious."
"Never on purpose."
"Suit and trainers and brainy specs? I've done that bit before."
"Andyou pick up her accent, she thinks it's very romantic."
"Does she? And she stays, even after–" He trailed off, looking at the console. Then he looked at the knickers still clutched in the hand of his next incarnation. Finally, he met the glance of his beaming future self.
"Hold on, we…"
"Me and Rose?"
The pretty-boy Doctor confirmed with a growl in his voice. "Oh yes!"
"YES!" The Doctor roared, clenching his fists in front of him in a gesture of absolute triumph. He was stunned. "When?"
"As often as possible. She's fond of after lunch."
"That's not what…" he waved a hand dismissively, but stopped mid-motion. "Seriously?"
"Yup," his regeneration responded, making an absurd popping sound at the end of the word.
The Doctor rolled his eyes at his own forthcoming idiocy.
His future self crossed his arms and ankles, relaxing back against the console, and opened his mouth to continue. Instead of words coming out, music began blaring at an alarming volume.
~YOUR HEART BEATS IN DOUBLE TIME~
~ANOTHER KISS, AND YOU'LL BE MIIIEEEEENNNNEEEEEE!~
Both Doctors jumped for separate 'mute' buttons and the song ceased, only to re-start half a second later.
~MIGHT AS WELL FACE IT, YOU'RE ADDICTED TO LOVE~
~MIGHT AS WELL FACE IT, YOU'RE ADDICTED TO LOVE~
"ROBERT PALMER?" the leather-clad Doctor spat at his older self, yelling over the music. "ALL OF TIME AND SPACE FOR MUSIC, AND YOU PICK ROBERT PALMER?"
"IT'S THE BIT ABOUT–oh, there we go." The music stopped after a final press of a very innocuous off-switch. "It's the bit about double heartbeats, Rose likes it."
The Doctor grinned in spite of himself. "She would, wouldn't she?"
"Doctor!" a voice called from the corridor.
"Speaking of which," the suited Doctor quipped, "here she comes."
"Doctor, did I leave my shampoo in your bathroom again? Only I can't find it and it's supposed to–" Rose stopped mid-sentence as she stepped into the control room. She wore only a towel, which she held in place with one hand, arm across her chest. That particular arm, the Doctor noticed, was the only thing that preserved her scant modesty. He was having a difficult time finding an appropriate place to rest his eyes. Eyes, lips, hair, completely out of the question. This particular Rose was completely comfortable with her sexuality with relation to him, and it shone in her face. He wasn't sure he could handle that–yet. Looking any lower might get him into trouble. He decided that feet would be perfectly safe, but upon seeing ten pink, perfectly manicured toes on his TARDIS flooring, his confidence began to waver.
She cast a quick look at both of them then rolled her eyes. "Well, that's me dreamin' again. What's it this time, good cop/bad cop? You both know I can't run in those heels on this floor, I'll have to go barefoot. Mm…" she looked down at her unclad state. "Usually I'm dressed for it right at the get-go. Strange, this is new."
The suited Doctor had been watching his younger self with amusement dancing in his eyes. Eyes, the Doctor noticed, that were the same color as Rose's. Amazing how such a small thing could feel so meaningful.
His older self now craned his neck over the controls to look at the (much more than) half-naked human girl. "Rose, love," he said to her, "I'm afraid you're not dreaming."
"With both of you here?" she sniffed.
He nodded towards his previous self. "Seems I've stopped by for a visit."
"What, really?" She looked at the Doctor's earlier incarnation. He could see how happy she was, but a soft hint of nostalgia wavered in her eyes when she looked at him. She smiled, and externally, he gave her a cheeky grin. Internally, he was dissolving into a little puddle of bubbling, Gallifreyan goo.
Rose gave a false grimace of embarrassment. "Guess I should get some clothes on so you can figure out where to look, eh, Doctor number one?" She jerked a thumb over her shoulder with her modesty-concealing arm, causing the tips of his ears to go red. He swallowed the groan that was making its way up his throat and was quite suddenly grateful for his binary vascular system.
"Nine, actually," the other Doctor told her. A sharp, quick buzz from a nearby coral strut caused the three of them to turn and look. Rose's favorite dressing gown was draped over a split in the support, mirroring a long brown trench coat on the opposite side of the entrance ramp. He sighed. "Spoils her rotten, She does. Worse than either of us." He motioned between himself and his past body. "I can't keep up."
"You're doing fine, Sarge," Rose commented, her back to them. As she slid both arms into the dressing gown, the towel fell out from under it with a fwump. The red in the Doctor's ears flowed as a slow burn down his face and neck before turning into a lovely tingling sensation somewhere around his midriff. He noticed his mouth was dry and made a point of closing it. "Nine, eh?" Rose asked, turning as she finished off the knot on her robe and placing her hands on her hips. "Now there's some food for thought." She turned to the other. "Ten?" she asked, eyebrows raised. He nodded, smiling for no other reason than that he was looking at her. "D'you mind?" she asked him, nodding towards his earlier self.
"Not at all. Still me," he said, grinning.
Rose walked up to the leather-clad Doctor, and reached out to smooth the collar of his jacket. "I forgot you talked less when you look like this," she told him, "You haven't said a word."
"Rose," was all he could manage.
She smiled up at him and stepped closer. "We'll be ok, you and me. In the future, I mean." She was still smoothing the leather, though his collar had to be straight by now. "Yeah, there's a row or two and you'll have to make it past Jack, but there's nothin' in any universe that keeps us apart for too long." She shared a momentary glance with his smiling future self. "And there's somethin' I never got to tell you. This you." She slid her hand up until she was cupping the back of his neck. He leaned into her touch. "I've never met anyone else quite like you, Doctor. Sometimes you're out savin' the universe, and sometimes you're keepin' it in line like it should be. Loads of planets adore you, and loads more are scared to death. You've been a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but you've always, alwaysbeen exactly what I need when I needed you." She flicked one of his overlarge earlobes with a thumb and smiled before continuing on. "I love you, Doctor, always have. Don't you ever forget." Then she stood up on tiptoe and kissed him softly.
As his senses lingered in the bliss of intimate physical contact with Rose Tyler, the Doctor's mind drifted in and out of cognizance. After being used as a waste bin for the universe, having rubbish from all the corners of all the galaxies heaped up on him for so many centuries, it was hard to believe that he was being granted the one wish that was worth the hurt. It wasn't just about wandering around space and time anymore; it was about needing someone and being needed in return. Whatever it takes, Rose, he promised himself, I'll–
The other Doctor cleared his throat. They both looked up to see him rocking back and forth on his heels, hands in his pockets. "Keep that up, Lewis, and he's never gonna leave. Don't want a paradox, do we?"
"I dunno," Rose said, flashing her signature tongue-in-teeth smile, "locked forever in the time vortex with the two of you? Could be worse." Another buzzing chime from the TARDIS, and they all looked to see a small bottle resting where the dressing gown had earlier. "Oh, there it is!" Rose exclaimed happily, going over to pick up her missing shampoo. She reached out and gave the nearby coral a loving stroke. "Thanks, Old Girl. Well, I'm off," she told the two Doctors, heading towards the interior doors. "You won't be long?" she asked the suited one.
"Wouldn't miss it," he answered. "What's your pleasure this evening, love?"
"Bring that tie of yours and you might find out," she responded, not turning around.
He traced the line of his teeth with his tongue as he watched her walk out, and a look of dreamy expectation settled on his face. He reached up to the knot at his neck and, as he loosened it, turned to his younger self and winked. His voice was low as he said, "You've got a lot to look forward to."
After setting the engines to standby, he also added, "Looks like time's up."
The Doctor looked down to see himself fading. The walls of the TARDIS engine room seemed to be interlaced with those of an old church and the noises of a rushing crowd started to seep through. He looked up for one last glimpse at his future self, who nodded at him. His voice sounded shadowed, like a bad recording. "Go to her, she needs you."
And there she was, his Rose, at the door of the church, her back to him. The Doctor stepped forward to stand next to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. As much as he wanted to take her away from the pain she was feeling and rush her off to another world to forget her grief, he knew that wasn't what she needed. "Go to him, quick," he said. He'd be here when she came back.