Back and Forth
The Doctor nearly passed out in shock when he saw it. Her. No, it. It had to be an it, for it couldn't be real. She couldn't – it wasn't –
She was gone, and it was impossible to get her back, therefore whatever it was rummaging through the fridge in front of him, taking out ingredients and preparing some sort of meal, most definitely, completely, assuredly was not her. An hallucination, maybe, or an imposter taking her shape to fool him – or some sort of apparition conjured up by the TARDIS for some ghostly company, even (his ship had always been strangely attached to her) but it was absolutely unfeasible to reason it was the real her.
Also, she hadn't even known how to work this oven properly last time she was aboard. She'd tried, of course; every meal she'd ever cooked for them (the number of which could be counted on one solitary fighting hand – a hand that, incidentally, had not held hers for quite some time; but that was neither here nor there) had ended up a smouldering wreck. No, wait; he told a lie – she had once made some very nice bacon and egg sandwiches one morning. But that, and cereal – and maybe toast, if he hadn't fiddled with the toaster that week – were her limit vis-a-vis her culinary skills. So. If ever there were proof that this likeness of Rose Tyler (currently standing in his kitchen cooking something on the hob) was just that – a likeness, and nothing more – then that was it.
He cleared his throat, and saw her – it – jump a little at the sound. She – no, it – span around and regarded him with wide eyes and a sheepish smile.
"Hello, Doctor," the completely-not-Rose welcomed warmly.
He staggered back a little, grabbing hold of a chair by the table to keep himself upright. She – oh blimey, it! – even sounded like her. "Whoever or whatever you are, I need you to stop this. Right. Now."
Couldn't-Possibly-Be-Rose frowned at him in that half-amused, half-frustrated way that Rose had perfected all that time ago. "What, cooking? But I'm starving! Anyway, I'm cooking enough for you, too. And I'll stick the rest in a tub for Donna and Martha if they want some to heat up for dinner tomorrow; I expect there asleep right now, right? It being two-thirty in the morning and everything."
He opened and closed his mouth a few times. "I didn't mean the cooking!" he exclaimed, his eyebrows shooting up his forehead. "Stop talking like her and looking like her and – and – just stop, alright, because I can't - " he broke off, his eyes darting around the room wildly. "What are you and why are you here?"
"Oh," not-really-Rose realised. "You think I'm not really me." She coughed awkwardly. "Here I was thinking the TARDIS had already explained this to you."
"What?" he replied exasperatedly.
"Hold on a sec; I'm nearly done." She turned back to the simmering food and turned off the hob. She dished up some rice and chilli onto a couple of plates and brought them over to the table, before sitting down and taking a sip of the tea she'd made earlier.
The Doctor just stared. Whatever it was that was taking Rose's form didn't appear menacing in its intent – then again, it wouldn't, would it? It was trying to gain his trust. Trying to trick him, lull him into a false sense of security. Playing on his weakness. What it evidently didn't realise was that as much as the mere mention of Rose Tyler made him ache with pain and regret, it also strengthened his resolve to unimaginable heights.
"Here you go," she gestured to the other plate. He didn't acknowledge her offer.
"What are you doing here and what do you want?" he reiterated.
She chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "Well, I'm here to see you. And I want to see you."
"But what are you?"
"It's me, Doctor. Honestly. It's really me."
"You expect me to believe that you just randomly appeared in my TARDIS after all this time being trapped in an unreachable parallel dimension?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Pretty much, yeah," she nodded.
"Nope – well, maybe a little. But only enough to complement your madness quite nicely." She paused, and met his gaze steadily. "First word you ever said to me was 'run.' We had chips on our first date. We built sandcastles with the Allekopians, we won ten thousand dollars in 1999 Las Vegas, we sailed across the Atlantic with a crew of prize-winning sailors from the year 2145; we travelled back and forth in time and space. We shared a bottle of wine beneath the Orengo Willow Tree of Sagnito in the constellation of Jeremiah-Two, and you juggled nectarines in front of the Queen of Gaiaii XI - "
"Enough, stop!" the Doctor interrupted hastily, his breathing laboured. "Stop, this isn't – I can't - "
Her expression softened. "We wrote a poem with Robbie Burns, met ghosts with Charles Dickens, and went to see the Beatles in concert seven times," she continued gently. He felt his throat grow tight and couldn't seem to stop her any longer, so he just watched her instead, listening and aching and oh god, wishing so very much that she was real. "We walked along the Wall of China and helped build its replica on New New New Earth. In 15-something-or-other I got propositioned by Henry the Eighth and you got jealous. Shortly after, we had a picnic on Terrafinos under a sky of amethyst. You made a perfect sculpture of me before I even knew you'd been looking. You hold the burdens of the universe on your shoulders, wear boxer-briefs under those trousers, and dribble in your sleep."
"Rose," he murmured hoarsely. "But you can't – you can't be here, I've tried, it's - it can't happen!"
"This is gonna be difficult to explain. And it also might hurt a bit, because, like with everything, there's a catch. But you have to bear with me, alright? Because you need to understand exactly what's happening. The first thing you need to trust me on is the fact that I'm real, yeah? I'm here and I'm real. And I'm also hungry, so sorry but I've seriously got to eat some more of this..." she trailed off, having another mouthful of her food.
He inched the chair he was gripping back slowly. "I don't understand. You look real. You sound real. You keep doing things that only real people can do..." He gingerly sat down opposite her, following her every move with his eyes.
"I am real," she retorted, shovelling a forkful of chilli con carne into her mouth. "And this is delicious, by the way - you should have some."
He frowned at her. "You can't cook."
"Couldn't," she corrected. "I learned."
"You hate cooking."
"I do, that's right," she smiled. "But I was on my own. Had to cook, otherwise I'd not eat. I was terrible at first, of course, kept burning everything. Anyway, I got quite good, after a while."
"Hmph," he muttered, folding his arms like a petulant little boy.
Rose rolled her eyes. "Oh, you can't seriously be telling me that you missed the fact that I couldn't cook?"
"It was something we had in common," he grumbled. "Although, I have learnt to do quite a good omelette recently."
She laughed and ate some more of her dinner. He continued watching her quietly.
"You're a ghost," he surmised, after a few minutes of companionable silence.
"Nope," she replied. "Can't be; not dead."
"But you're haunting me," he retorted, gesturing her up and down.
"I'm not haunting you," she laughed. Then she abruptly stopped laughing and pointed her fork at him. "Wait. Don't you want me here?"
"Do you want me to go? 'Cos if that's what you want, I'll - "
"No!" he exclaimed quickly, his hand shooting across the table to grab hold of her wrist. His eyes widened as he did so. "You feel real," he marvelled. "What the hell is going on, Rose? Is this all in my head?"
She gently eased his grip on her with her free hand, then entwined their fingers tightly. He shivered and she gave him a reassuring smile. "No, it's not in your head."
"Prove it. All that stuff you said – I remember all that. Could've just as easily come from my mind. You're just part of my subconscious - "
"That day on Terrafinos? With the picnic and that black dress I wore?"
He swallowed hard, nodding to show he was following.
"Yeah, I wasn't wearing anything underneath that dress," she told him helpfully.
His eyes widened. "Woah, wait, so when those people interrupted us just before we were about to go for a swim in the sea - "
"I was planning on seeing how you'd react to a bit of skinny-dipping, yeah," she grinned broadly. "Never told you that, after, 'cos I thought you'd laugh at how my seduction plan fell flat."
"Wouldn't've laughed," he assured her. "Just would've asked for you to give it another shot."
"Didn't seem to matter that much after the incident in TARDIS swimming pool a week later," she smirked. "Plus, after that, we had a lovely experience in that lake with the waterfall on that planet with the hard-to-pronounce name. That was quite nice."
He blushed. "Asscolipos? Oh yes. Weeelll..." He cleared his throat and shook those thoughts from his head. "What's going on, Rose?"
She smiled reassuringly. "It's...It's gonna be okay. We can work with this, no probs."
He stared at her, uncomprehending.
"It's sort of complicated," she began, letting out a long breath. He waited patiently for her to continue. "I'm in a kind of...limbo."
"Rose, for once in my life, I'm admitting: I don't get it."
"Okay. Right, so," she restarted, letting go of his hand so that she could grab her fork in one hand and her mug in the other. "So this is me, yeah?" she said, gesturing with the fork. "And this is the TARDIS," she continued, waving the mug at him. Her little bit of remaining tea sloshed out and onto the table with her movements, but neither of them paid it any attention. His eyes were fixed on her and his mouth fell open. "What?" she asked self-consciously.
"Nothing, it's just...I explained something exactly like the way you're doing to someone a little while back."
"Ah yes, the bride – Donna, isn't it?"
"How do you - "
"The TARDIS," she interrupted absently. "She sort of filled me in with everything that's happened on board since I was away." She arched an eyebrow at him.
His eyes widened guiltily. "Wait, she didn't tell you about..."
"Oh blimey, well, look, I didn't mean to," he said hurriedly, tugging on his ear.
"Didn't mean to what?"
"It just sort of happened," he continued, wincing.
"What just sort of happened?" she retorted, starting to get a bit anxious.
He looked at her as if it should be obvious. "Well, you know, the sleeping in your bed thing."
Rose laughed. "Why are you apologising for that?"
"Weeelll, it's a bit...weird, isn't it?"
"Well yeah, but you are weird. I didn't bat an eyelid to that. Not like you never slept in it before." She winked at him.
"Oh. Okay." He smiled a little, relieved. His fingers twitched on the tabletop, yearning to take her hand in his again; but hers were still full. "Right. So! On with your explanation," he prompted.
"Okay, so there I was in Pete's World, minding my own business, well, arranging the co-habitation of a lovely Dresdoka couple who wanted to settle on Earth with their adopted daughter, when – what now?"
He was beaming at her proudly. "Nothing, nothing. Carry on."
"Well, there I was, when suddenly I heard her talking to me – the TARDIS. Inside my head. I couldn't believe it. It'd been three years by that point. And though we'd been building this – um, this dimension cannon thing, something that would enable me to come back, we could never use it in practise, well, unless someone tore a hole in the universe first, which they hadn't. So I didn't really think I'd ever be able to come back to you, not without making sacrifices neither of us would be willing to make. So when the TARDIS spoke to me, it was like...well, it was amazing. God, all I could think was that maybe there was hope."
"What did she say?"
"She told me that she was going to bring me back, through her connection to me as Bad Wolf. Only, her capacity to do that is..."
She cleared her throat. "Limited."