He is in London when he sees it. He doesn't particularly want to be in London; he wants to be on some uninhabited planet where he can quietly go mad and then dispense with his remaining regenerations in peace. After five unsuccessful attempts to navigate away from the city, however, he realizes that perhaps the TARDIS knows something he doesn't and he grudgingly agrees to have a look around. That is his first mistake. The TARDIS doors slam shut as soon as he's clear and though his key fits in the lock it won't turn, and no amount of cursing or door-thumping will make the TARDIS open. She sends him a very clear message in the form of a sharp shock and he glowers at the unruly ship. The effect is somewhat ruined by the finger he's got in his mouth. Superior physiology notwithstanding, electrical shocks hurt.
The Doctor (and is he still the Doctor after everything he's done? The Doctor doesn't kill, isn't a soldier, is too clever for all of that and all the things he's done and if he isn't the Doctor anymore than who is he, precisely?) squares his shoulders and turns around. London. Well, it would be London, wouldn't it? Most jeopardy friendly city on the most jeopardy friendly planet he's sure has ever existed. For a long time (he stops counting, he's always counted time by the rhythm of his double-heartbeat but now it's a mockery and a reminder that he is alone) he wanders, marveling at the obliviousness of the human race. They hadn't even realized the Time War occurred. The universe had been fundamentally altered and here they are, going about their lives of shopping and telly and chips like, like—like it is any normal day.
That's when he sees it, a strange twist in the Time Lines. Although his friends at UNIT might deny it, there is more to being a Time Lord than an impressive ship. He can see Time, can chart its patterns and cycles, can play the different Time Lines like a finely tuned instrument. And right in front of him the Time Lines tangle and knot around a school. Something profoundly important will happen here, he realizes, something that will change the course of the universe yet again. The Doctor (he has nothing else to call himself, his name was stripped when he was cast out and he has been the Doctor for almost a thousand years, and you can't teach old dogs new tricks, as the saying goes) frowns. His history is perfect and he's certain, even after the shocks and changes the War caused, that nothing of that caliber happens in twenty-first century London.
Curiosity overcomes his irritation at the TARDIS's meddling. If there truly is an event that will serve as a focal point for universal existence occurring he should at least check it out. If his people were still around (and even though he hated them when they were alive, disdained their insistence on non-interference that was only applied to events they didn't think were important enough to meddle in) they would have had 'round the clock watchers carefully charting the course events were taking. As it is now there was only him, and he would have to be enough. A satisfied tingle worms its way through his skull and he rolls his eyes. The TARDIS, he was finally realizing, could be more annoyingly smug than even cats could manage.
He takes a position at the school. At first it's expediency: it gives him a reason to be there and will allow him to take a small flat nearby. He is well acquainted with human domestic tendencies, although he's always disdained them in favor of his TARDIS. It is, after all, the perfect home. London flats, he finds, are less than ideal on his budget. He could tap into his UNIT account. It's still open (Alistair sees to that, he reckons) and active but he refrains. They would be watching and as much as he enjoys his old friend, the man is far too observant and he does not feel like having a heart-to-heart. He will investigate this tangle, make sure that it goes smoothly, and then persuade the TARDIS to take him to a planet where his death will not bother anyone. So he settles for a one-bedroom flat with roof access and marches back to the TARDIS.
He finds a suitcase waiting for him in front of the TARDIS. She continues to refuse to open. He tries everything—cajoling, pleading, promising to give her that overhaul he's been considering and replacing her spatiotemporal stabilizers. She is not moved, and he leaves in a huff, dragging the suitcase behind him.
The Doctor finds, to his surprise, that he likes teaching. His first choice would have been biology or physics (given the current status of both subjects he was more than overqualified) but the only position open had been literature. He takes it, of course, because any position will do (he is brilliant, after all, a certified genius on Earth, at least, if not on Gallifrey). He expects boredom, perhaps monotony. He doesn't expect to be challenged, not by people who were only a few thousand years away from swinging from the trees.
He is. The school is in a less-than-ideal part of the city, right up against one of the larger housing estates, something that begins with a 'p'—Powell, that's it, the Powell estate, and most of his students are children of the working poor, kids whose parents have scraped and saved to give them the opportunity that the parents didn't have.
He thinks that one of them might be an alien. Shireen Costello is a holy terror. Most of the other teachers know her by reputation. She's clever enough, if she would apply herself, but (from what he's gathered from conversations overheard) she's only there because her parents guilted her into going. She's going to marry Gareth and he's got a decent job as a mechanic and it worked out well enough for her mum, so she figures it'll work out for her. She's not looking to make her life better, she declares loudly. Most of the other students are afraid of her, but the Doctor finds he enjoys the tongue-lashings she can hand out, not that he wants to be on the receiving end. Surreptitious scans reveal that she's most definitely human and he finds he's disappointed. One more theory on the nature of the supposedly critical even he's here to witness is a bust.
Shireen is not an ideal student. She barely applies herself and when she deigns to come to class she spends most of her time reading a fashion magazine hidden behind her book (the tricks these kids think they can pull—do they really believe he's that slow?). She loses much of her appeal when he realizes she isn't an alien in disguise. Her friend, however, shows a good deal of promise. Rose Tyler is clever, quick, and kind, and he thinks (not for the first time) that if he was still in the business of traveling with companions she would be ideal (but there will be no more traveling because he's tired and old and broken and a murderer and people who destroy their own species don't get second chances).
They're studying Shakespeare when he first notices her. She stumbles over the words, but once she understands what Will is trying to say she's remarkably quick in understanding what he means, which is why he's surprised when she does poorly on an exam. In discussion she's vibrant and sure and she holds her own. Unlike Shireen she's serious about getting her A-levels, unlike Shireen, he thinks, she wants to get out of the estate, wants to do something with her life.
He leaves the test face-down on her desk with 'see me' written on the front. There are things he should be doing, problems he should be solving, but—it's nice to affect change without having to blow something up or doom a species to extinction or even bother with local law enforcement. Sometimes it takes years for his changes to come to fruition (years that he doesn't have to spend waiting for a thank you or even an acknowledgment) but he can see the influence he's having on these kids. And it's nice (but it doesn't change his destination, doesn't weaken his resolve because he's decided).
When Rose hangs back at the end of class she's hesitant, more uncertain than he's ever seen her (and granted he's had limited experience with her but the day she fails to speak her mind he's pretty sure the sun will fail to rise out of sheer amazement). She's wearing her hair over her face today and it seems odd, like she's hiding.
"You wanted to see me, Dr. Smith?" He really should think of a better name, but John Smith has served him well enough in the past (and it's not like he's going to need a name, where he's going). She's looking at him a little odd and the Doctor realizes that she was talking, just there, and he missed it.
"Yes, Miss Tyler." He waves at the chair next to his desk and she sits. He leans back in his chair and watches her for a minute (long enough for her to fidget) before he holds out his hand for her test. She gives it to him, her teeth worrying her bottom lip. He hates the stilted formality that accompanies the education system, as if keeping that extra distance between teacher and student ever did anyone any good. But he isn't here to fix the system, he's here to make sure that whatever needs to happen to keep the universe ticking happens.
"We've gone over this in class," he reminds her gently.
She looks down, ashamed. "Yeah, I know."
"Then what's the problem? You're clever, Rose." Her first name slips out like it belongs on his lips. "I know you can get this."
Her lips twist in frustration. "It's these words—I dunno what half of them mean, and reading it just—it doesn't work."
"Have you tried reading it out loud? Everything is so visual now, but in Shakespeare's time people didn't go to see a play, they went to hear one." He rifles through the piles of papers on his desk (organization has never been one of his strong suits) and pulls out a worn copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It's a very eighth him thing, reading Shakespeare to a pretty girl, but his voice is rough and hard, like his body, and he's lost the sophistication that his eighth self seemed full of, the delicate intellectual replaced by the weathered mechanic. The universe's janitor, him.
Rose watches his face as he reads and he can almost feel the moment she understands. Her enthusiasm and joy over such a simple thing warms him all the way through. He could use a bit of that in his life. Everything's better with two.
It's been three months (months!) since the Doctor arrived at this ordinary school in the middle of London and the Time Lines remain tangled and he still has no idea why. Yesterday he broke down and bought a television and if he's not careful he'll be hanging curtains from the windows and whinging about coasters. Domestics, in any form, give him the willies.
They are studying Othello when he assigns a class trip to the Globe. Plays, like he told Rose, are meant to be experienced, not just read. He doesn't miss the way her face falls when he announces the trip, doesn't miss the wistful look she gives Shireen, or the sympathetic smile the other girl flashes back.
She hangs back after class as she often does now. They talk about Shakespeare, mostly, sometimes other writers (he has a fondness for Eliot that's continued on in this body and she has a natural curiosity streak a mile wide).
"I can't go on the trip," she says after a moment. They've got The Complete Works open in front of them again and he turns to look at her, his (frankly magnificent) Time Lord brain a bit distracted by her nearness (and when did he start noticing that she smelled like vanilla and almonds and caramel?) and it takes a moment for him to come back to the real world (such as it is).
He leans back in his chair. "Why not?" And he doesn't sound disappointed, no, not him.
She plays with the hem of her jumper. It's a good look on her, jumpers (and when did he start noticing her clothing? When did he start noticing the tiny details that set her apart from all of the other students in his classes? When did he start looking forward to seeing her tongue poke out from between her teeth like it did when she was being mischievous and clever?). "Don't have the money," she admits, and he can tell that it pains her. She's got pride, after all.
He posts the ticket through the mail slot in a plane envelope with only her name on the front. He should leave, should head back to his (temporary) flat and see if the TARDIS will let him in (she'd deigned to move herself to the living room but had given him no other sign that she was going to cooperate), but he hesitates. It's safe enough—he's wearing a perception filter and she's just an ordinary human girl.
Her mum (it has to be her mum, he knows it's just the two of them, she told him one rainy afternoon that her dad died when she was small and he is not trying to be a father figure, not at all) wanders in to the kitchen in a very pink dressing gown. She sees the envelope, bellows out "Rose!" and the girl comes running. The gift puzzles her, but she opens it and pulls out the ticket.
The look of wonder on her face is a thing of beauty.
The Doctor is walking back to his (still temporary even though it's been four months) flat when raised voices give him pause. Hers he recognizes immediately, but the other (male) is unfamiliar to him. The voices echo off brick and cement and he traces them back to their source. Rose is standing in an alley just past the school with her back to him. There's a boy standing in front of her, looming over her. He's leaning in, leering at her, and she's got her arms crossed in front of her body. Her back is ramrod straight and rigid and the Doctor can practically feel the tension radiating off of her.
"Come on, give us a kiss," the boy jeers.
"Go away Jimmy," Rose bites back. "I told you, we're through."
"You don't mean that, babe." His hand reaches out, cups her face and turns it. He's holding her hard enough to leave bruises and something ugly and dark rears its head in the Doctor's chest. No one touches Rose like that, not when she doesn't want to be touched.
She's no damsel in distress, though, and she's had enough. Her knee connects with Jimmy's groin and he grunts in pain. His hand falls from her face to cup his bruised testicles and the Doctor wants to cheer. "Never touch me again you slimy git!" she yells. "Or so help me I'll have the police here so fast your head'll spin!"
Jimmy straightens with obvious effort. The backhand he gives her sends her reeling into the wall and that is it. The Doctor, unable to watch any longer, stalks into the alley.
"Clear off, mate," Jimmy sneers. "This ain't none of your business."
"Oh, I think it is, mate." He has to wear suits for the school (and really, him in a suit?) but he's got his jacket on over it and he stands in front of Rose with his arms crossed and he knows that he's imposing. The Oncoming Storm, the Daleks named him, and at that moment he looks it. He feels it, because she's clever and brave and she deserves so much more than the abusive idiot who has the nerve to hit her. And he hopes that the boy will take the hint and leave because he wants to pound the little tosser into the ground. He's angry, this go 'round, angry and searching for an outlet and Jimmy Stone might just give him one.
"I'll be back for you, y'slag," Jimmy spits as he turns to leave. "Let's see how brave you are when you've not got some navy watchin' out for ya." Something sends chills down the Doctor's back, like someone walking on his grave—or a Time Line solidifying.