He wasn't really sure where he was going. He knew he needed to go somewhere, far away, and he knew all he really wanted to do was scream.
Amy and Rory were gone. He would never see them again. River had popped off to wherever again. She'd only tried to comfort him briefly because she knew him well enough to know he wanted to be alone now. She knew him better than anyone. So she was gone for now, too, off to wherever it was she a professor—He'd never seen her in a classroom, had he? Did she even really do that?—and if she was far enough in her timeline to be pardoned and a professor then it wouldn't be long before she would be gone too. Dead. And then where would he be?
Don't be alone, Doctor.
Amy meant well. She did. She was right, but what could he do about it? He didn't want to do anything about it. He didn't want to find someone else and lose them too. He'd had enough of it. Eleven lives and 1200 years and enough was enough.
Screaming. He'd been intent on screaming. Where was good for screaming?
He'd already been on his way while his mind churned. It was then the Tardis shook as it landed, because he'd been flying in a worse fashion even than usual.
Where was he? It didn't matter. He opened the doors to a cliff over an endless ravine that he knew he'd seen but couldn't pinpoint right now. That wasn't important. What was important was that he was alone, and right now that was good.
He pushed through the last of the thick foliage the Tardis hadn't quite cleared when she stopped and burst onto the wide rocky precipice. For a moment he was running toward the edge and he only skid to a stop just short of going over. The toes of one shoe hung off into thin air and he wondered what had been going through his head in that moment but he didn't know.
Pain. That was all he knew for sure.
He couldn't quite breathe correctly either. That was a new sensation, at least for this body.
He stumbled back just far enough that he wouldn't slip over, and dropped to his knees with a sharp moan. "Amy…Rory…" He had to struggle for the next breath, and intellectually he knew what was happening to him—something like a small breakdown, or a panic attack perhaps—but it was hard to process the fact that it was happening to him.
"I'm sorry!" He screamed it at the endless landscape that dropped down and soared up and echoed everything. After that he just screamed. He screamed louder than he'd let himself in the graveyard, when River was still there. Really he let himself scream more than he ever had. He just did it, because there was nothing else he could do. He screamed and his fingers dug into the rocky ground under him, and it took him a while to realize that his face was wet too.
It wasn't just the Ponds. It was Rose and Donna and Martha and anyone else who's life he'd ruined or otherwise changed forever and anyone else who'd left him or died because of him. It was his fault. It was always his fault.
At some point he found himself curled on the rocks. The last time he found himself like this it was in a glass box and part of him wonders if he shouldn't have just died there. Really died. It was a good death. Heroic and all that. But he was still here, and maybe he shouldn't be. If he'd died there for good he couldn't have hurt Amy and Rory. They'd have had perfectly normal lives and gotten married and had children that wouldn't have been stolen from them by aliens. They would have been happy. Of course, River wouldn't have existed then and time might have unraveled because he'd already met her, but at the moment that was neither here nor there…
When River really was gone he didn't know if he could keep going.
He pulled himself up off the ground, back up to his knees at least, but he couldn't go any farther. He stared at the yellow-orange landscape that was far too similar to red and to Gallifrey for comfort, and he hurt.
There was something he should remember. He never forgot things; what was wrong with him? It was something important but…maybe something he didn't want to remember, it seemed. That had to be it. It was the only way he could have forgotten anything, even for a while.
Then it hit him, like lightning.
He'd been here before. Not just here but here. Now.
"So where are we goin'?"
"Nice little break. One of the most beautiful overlooks in the known universe." The Doctor grinned as the Tardis landed and the usual racket died down. "Sound good to you?"
Rose held out a hand and laughed once. "Sounds perfect."
"Brilliant! Come on then!" He snatched the hand she offered and dragged her to the door. He threw it open and Rose was immediately impressed with the color orange. Orange and yellow and sunlight and mountains and brown rocks faces that seemed almost like chocolate.
It was rock beneath them, a wide precipice that stretched from left to right as far as she could see. There was a virtual wall of plant life behind them, behind the Tardis, but here was rock that led to a drop off that seemed like it would go down forever. She couldn't tell how far it really was; they were quite a few meters from the edge yet.
"Interesting system, this. It seems like the sun is setting for the half the day here; it makes for marvelous lighting. Of course the color of the plants helps."
"Yeah, I can see that," Rose gaped. They moved slowly closer to the edge. The Doctor's hand stayed gently in hers and she could feel him smiling beside her, letting her take it all in. She didn't think anything could distract from the image before her until a soft sound to her left made her look farther down the rocky ledge they were standing on.
"There's someone down there."
A man. On his knees. He didn't look alien and he was just there, staring out over the landscape like they were. He was on his knees, and he didn't look all right in any way, shape, or form of the phrase. He was just far enough away to be out of earshot, but she wondered why he hadn't noticed them.
"I think we should check on him."
The hand in hers tightened, and over her shoulder she heard the Doctor draw in a breath. "I don't know if that's a good idea…"
"What are you on about? He looks like he needs help; of course we should."
The tone was a warning, and when she looked back at him the Doctor wasn't looking at the man on the edge of the cliff but over and past him. She wondered what he saw, but he wasn't offering up any explanations. Instead he was trying to tug her back toward the Tardis.
"I think we should go. We can hop back in, shift a few days; no harm done."
"Are you joking? What's the matter with you?" The confusion on the Doctor's face was quickly becoming fear and anxiousness, and Rose pulled her hand from his and made him stop. "What is it? What's wrong?"
The Doctor swallowed, and he hesitated for a long moment before he took her shoulders and turned her around. She was amazed the kneeling man still hadn't seen them, even as relatively far away as they still were now. It only made her more concerned, and then…
The Doctor had turned her toward the foliage behind the man on the ground, and he pointed. "There. Just between the trees."
She saw it—a hint of deep blue that after focusing a moment became the familiar lines of the Tardis. But not the Tardis they'd come here in. Theirs was in plain sight, on the rocks a few yards back.
Her breath stuck in her throat. "Oh my god."
The Doctor took her hand, and she was being pulled again. "We have to go. I'm sorry." He wouldn't quite look at her now. "I've never seen that face before, Rose. It's my future. We can't interact with it."
Rose had to swallow past a lump in her throat to be able to speak. "Him," she said firmly.
"Him. It's a him. It's you. He's not an it."
"That's not what I meant—"
Rose stopped in her tracks again, jerking him a bit as he had to stop because she hadn't released his hand this time. "Maybe not really, but saying it that way makes it easier to just walk away, does it?"
The look on his face when he finally faced her again was pleading. "Rose, please. We have to go." He was afraid. He was still afraid.
"I can't," she said quietly. "He's you, and he needs help. How can I just leave?"
"Because it's dangerous. It's against…the rules. Timelines and wibbly-wobbly and…" He trailed off, made a face, and tried again. "I can't know what's going to happen. I don't want to know." That was what he was afraid of, then. She'd guessed that, but to hear him almost say it wasn't usual. Then again, what was happening here in the first place wasn't usual.
"Then let me talk to him. You don't have to know anything."
"Rose, either of us talking to him could create a paradox. We can't risk it."
She squeezed his hand, their arms still stretched out between them from when she'd made them stop again. "Why not? It's worth it. To me."
She saw him wince at that—not in pain, but something more positive, if one can wince in a positive fashion. He did it because he knew what she meant, she hoped. She hoped he understood what it meant…how much she cared about him…any version of him. He looked like he might be about to give her a different answer when she heard movement in the distance behind her. The Doctor was looking over her shoulder now, eyes much wider than they'd been a moment ago.
Rose spun, and the man on his knees was looking at them now; he'd turned as if a switch had been flipped.
He staggered to his feet. He looked even younger than her Doctor, physically, but it was the eyes that told her he wasn't. They were blue again—blue like they'd been when she'd met him, with the face he'd had then—but they were so much older. Sad. Weighed down and out of place in young face they were part of.
Her own Doctor began to edge in front of her. "Stay here," he said quietly.
She didn't want to. It was hard to believe this man could be the Doctor, but she felt she knew him. She knew it was him. She knew because she would care about anyone but she cared so much more about the Doctor, and she felt that same sensation toward the man before them. Somehow.
But maybe her Doctor was right. Maybe a certain amount of caution was in order, if it could mean the universe. So she didn't want to stay put, but she nodded anyway and released his hand. He looked back at her, and she couldn't quite read his face but she could tell he was trying to be reassuring. She nodded back, because she wanted to do the same.
He remembered. When he remembered he looked up, and they were there.
How had he missed the sound of another Tardis materializing? Had he really been so lost?
Rose. He almost didn't see his younger self because it was Rose.
He got up, because whether he was going to leave like he should or he wasn't he would need to be on his feet. The other Doctor was already shifting in front of Rose, protectively, and it might have hurt his feelings if he didn't understand how volatile the situation was. He was crossing his own timeline. It hadn't been purposeful, but here they were and it wasn't safe.
Those thoughts slipped away in moments. He couldn't hold them, because he hurt too much just now to care.
The younger Doctor stopped a few meters away, cautious. His hands were in his pockets as he stood there uneasily, and he did not look happy.
"You shouldn't be here."
He huffed quietly. "Don't you think I know that? It was an accident. It isn't as if I don't know the rules." He swallowed. "I'll go."
The other Doctor nodded in agreement, and he sighed a little himself. His head inclined back toward Rose. "She wants to know if you're all right," he said quietly.
His eyebrows went up, and he smiled wistfully. "Of course she does." But the smile was gone as soon as it came. He tried to make himself turn around and leave, as he should, but he couldn't do it. "Let me talk to her. Just for a minute."
"You know you can't."
"I'm not going to say anything either of you shouldn't know. If anyone understands the importance of that, it's us. I only—"
"I can't let you," his younger self repeated. At least he seemed more compassionate about it now. "I'm sorry. It's too much of a risk, and the longer we stand here the more of one we're taking. You know that."
"I'm sorry. I understand but…I'm sorry."
He was right, the Doctor knew. His younger self was absolutely right, but he didn't care. He would never see Amy and Rory again, and there was Rose…right there. Just out of reach. He knew it could only be a moment, if anything, but he wanted that moment. Didn't he deserve it? After everything he'd been through?
He was angry, too. He was still very, very angry. At himself. At the universe. He realized it too late to stop it.
"No you don't. You don't understand. You can't possibly."
"I'm the only one who can."
"But you don't! You're not here yet," he said, stabbing a finger toward the ground. "You can understand more of me than anyone else in the universe, but you can't understand everything. Not all of it. You haven't lived all of it yet! You can't say you understand until you're the one standing here!"
"I don't want to start anything; please, just leave and—"
"You leave! Run away. It's what you always do."
"You know that's not what—"
It was almost fun, cutting himself off. "Maybe not. Not always. But it always turns into that again, doesn't it? Running away from one more bad memory. Because it always ends. Always. And you know it. It never lasts. It can't." He couldn't breathe again. Both hearts hurt, and he gulped past a parched throat. "And it doesn't get better. It only gets worse. Every time."
Why was he still talking? Did he want to torment himself? Maybe he did. Maybe he thought he deserved it.
"I just want to talk to her, and I'll go. I'll leave."
"But you can't," the younger Doctor protested once more. His resolve was weakening, but at the same time the Doctor knew his other self was more concerned for Rose than anything else. He would be afraid of causing a paradox…afraid of knowing the future…but more afraid of putting Rose in any danger or causing her any distress. He understood, but he couldn't process it now.
"Just…a moment. Only a moment. I need-I need…I've lost everything. Again. Or I will. Something's happened. Something else will happen. Soon. I know it will because I was there. And I can't-I can't do it. I can't. I—"
He was losing again. The battle. He couldn't see clearly; couldn't keep it together. He didn't want to do this. He didn't want Rose to see him this way, even from a distance.
Why weren't his knees working?
When the other Doctor dropped to his knees again Rose was already closer. She'd seen it coming, he supposed. She was much better at reading people than he, apparently even if that person was himself.
He caught her hand as she tried to pass him, because he knew what she wanted to do.
She pulled away without breaking her stride, and it seemed any heed to his warnings was long gone. "Don't just stand there!"
"But you can't—!"
She didn't listen. Of course she didn't. He took a few quick steps after her, but he stopped again because he knew it was no use. Rose went right to him, the other Doctor. She dropped to her own knees beside him and wrapped her arms around his neck without a word.
She couldn't know how much older he was than her Doctor, or what had happened to him. She couldn't know any of it, and neither did he. But she was responding to a need, and it was exactly like her.
"Oh, Rose…" he murmured to himself.
She came to him. He was so close to being lost again, but then she was there. Rose was holding him and all he could do was sob. They were dry sounds, but they were definitely sobs. There were no words that could describe how it felt, to have her arms around him again.
Her embrace tightened in response to his reaction, her fingers were in the hair at the back of his head, and he shivered. It took a minute or two for him to return the embrace. It took him that long to believe it was real.
"It's all right," she was saying. "It's all right…"
When she sat back enough her on her heels to look at him he could see that his younger self had pulled away a little further. Surrendering to the inevitability of the situation that was Rose Tyler and her stubbornness. The younger Doctor had moved the edge of the overhang and was looking off at the landscape, trying to give them some modicum of privacy without relinquishing his protective relative closeness to Rose.
A hand on his face brought his focus back to Rose. She was studying him, almost incredulously. "It really is you, isn't it?"
He smiled weakly. "Hello." He couldn't help but laugh once, from the part of him that was managing to be giddy because she was here. "Hello, Rose Tyler." He curled a tentative hand around the hand on his face, and she smiled back uncertainly. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"If I…frightened you. I-I shouldn't have acted that way. I shouldn't have uhm…well, said anything…like that. Beyond being dangerous to the timeline, I didn't want to scare you."
"I'm fine. What happened? What's wrong?"
"I can't tell you that. Dangerous. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey."
"That's what he said," she told him, motioning back toward his younger self subtly. "How much older are you? Than him…"
"I shouldn't tell you that, either, but…I suppose I can say I'm quite a bit older, at least. Quite a lot. But that's all I can say."
She was quiet for a moment. He was content just to watch her watching him, until her hand dropped from his cheek to his arm and squeezed questioningly. "Then what can I do?" she asked.
Finally he dared to reach up, to hold her chin, and he smiled again. It was stronger this time, he thought. "You're doing enough. You're here. Can't risk more than that, really. He's right, your Doctor."
Her eyes misted, and he knew it was because she wanted to help and she couldn't quite accept that there was nothing she could really do.
"Whatever happened…I'm sorry," she managed quietly.
There was a lump in his throat again at that. "Thank you."
It was strange holding him, Rose thought. It was strange and yet it felt right, all at the same time. It was confusing, too. In some ways he seemed so much older and worn and wiser, this Doctor. In other ways he seemed so much more vulnerable.
All she wanted to do was protect him, but he told her there was nothing she could do.
"Whatever happened…I'm sorry."
She wasn't afraid for herself. It was clear her own Doctor was, but she wasn't. Not now. This older Doctor said he was much older. Just from looking into his eyes he was older enough, it seemed, that it didn't have to mean anything had happened to her. She didn't want to think about that, anyhow. She knew life with the Doctor was dangerous, but she wouldn't give it up for anything. She wouldn't give him up for anything.
"Thank you." It came out a little strangled, but then he smiled again and looked away, and he started to stand. She stood with him, hands still on his arms because she didn't want to let go. Part of her felt as if he might break if she let go. "But anyhow, I should…be going, I suppose. Don't want to bring all of time crashing down on us, after all."
Rose threw her arms around him again. "You'll be all right, won't you?" He held onto her again, for a long moment. He didn't answer her.
He was quiet when he answered, near her ear because they were still locked in an embrace.
"You can't worry about me, Rose. Forget about me. You have him. Take care of him for me, won't you?"
"'Course I will…"
"That's my Rose." He pulled away in obvious reluctance, but for her he was still smiling. She knew he was only doing it for her; behind his eyes she could see his heart breaking.
He didn't want to let her go, and she didn't want to leave without knowing he would be okay. But it was time. She nodded silently, not knowing what to say. Her own Doctor was at her side again in an instant once his older self had stepped away. She felt his hand slip into hers, but he was still looking at the other Doctor.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You were only doing your job, trying to keep me away," the older Doctor said with a shrug. "I'd have done the same."
The he was gone. He turned away and trudged toward his own Tardis, starting off quickly as he were afraid he'd change his mind of he didn't start moving. They were left watching his back until he disappeared into the blue box.
The Doctor shut the Tardis door behind him and sank to the floor.
Was she happy? Had she and his duplicate really been able to make a life for themselves? It was something he could only hope about. And of course even if they had, it didn't help him at all.
But he hoped she was happy.
He was out of the way now, at least. He would have to leave, but now that he was out of the way it could wait.
He wasn't certain he could get back up just now, anyway.
Rose looked up at her own Doctor. "Are you all right?"
He shook his head slowly. "I don't know."
"Come on," she gently. "Let's just go. We can find somewhere else for a break, yeah?"
"Right…" His jaw worked, and she had to nearly turn him herself to get him moving back toward their Tardis. Once he was moving he was fine, but it was the getting him started. He acted like he just wanted to stand still and think. Process. Well, she would feel better if he'd do that inside.
"Come on," she repeated.
Halfway back the Doctor began moving at a more normal pace again. He unlocked the Tardis door for them and they piled in.
"Right," he said again, as if on delay. "Let's…get out of here." He went to the console. She thought he was going to get them moving right then but he only rested his hands on the console's edge. He stayed that way for a long time, hunched over it.
"Doctor?" She'd thought maybe she should give him some space, but she came anxiously back to his side when he didn't answer her. "Doctor…?"
He was trembling faintly. When she touched his arm she felt it. He wasn't breathing normally anymore, either, and the look on his face worried her.
"Oi…come here." She tugged lightly on a shoulder. "Come on, come here." She pulled him into her arms, and he buried his face in her shoulder. His fingers twisted in her jumper at her back where he held onto her. "Talk to me," she pleaded.
A shaky exhale, and an only slightly steadier inhale before he answered. "I don't want to be him."
"Do you have to be?"
"I've seen it! It's a fixed point now. That's going to be me, somehow, someday. That's going to be me on that ledge, alone, and I—" He stopped to take another breath, which was worrying by itself. Usually he could just go on forever.
"I'm afraid, Rose," he whispered. "I know it always happens. I've lived so long I end up in that place so often it knows me well, but I hate it. Every time. And he was right; it's always worse—it only gets worse."
"I'm not goin' anywhere. You know that."
"But you're still human."
She wouldn't live forever. She only had one life. She knew that. She just didn't like to think about it…about the fact that the Doctor would be alone again when she was gone even if she really did spend the rest of her life with him.
She'd seen his face, when he tried to explain it to her a few weeks back, when they ran into Sara Jane Smith. She couldn't see his face now, holding onto him like this, but she didn't need to. She knew he had to look just as hurt as he had then. She knew it was probably worse now.
"It'll be all right."
"No it won't! Someday I'll be there again…"
Her chest ached. She didn't know if she wanted to cry or if it was something else, but it hurt. She couldn't help the other Doctor out there, not really, and she couldn't fix this either. Not really.
He pulled away and went to the seats by the railing. He sank into one and dropped his face into his hands, and all Rose could do was sit beside him and rub his back. "What can I do?" She was echoing herself from only minutes ago, and she hated that she had nothing more to give.
The Doctor began by shaking his head helplessly, but then he pulled her close again. The fact that he'd initiated it this time made her feel a little better. At the very least, he was telling her that she could do this. She could be here.
"I know…I know, I'm here."
They sat like that for a long time. It didn't really matter how long. She felt him still trembling for a little while longer, but finally it died away and he was calm. It took her that long to know what else she could say.
It wasn't an easy thing to say, but she needed to say it.
"If it keeps happening…then you already know it doesn't last forever when it happens. Right?" She made him sit up, and she made him look at her. "Right?"
"That doesn't mean it ever hurts any less," he answered painfully. He shook his head again. "I don't want it to happen again. I never do, but this time, you, it's…I can't bear to think it. I can't."
"Then don't. Not right now. He told me to forget about him; so can you. As long as you do remember that…that he'll be all right. Someday. He'll…find someone. And he'll be happy again. Because if there's one thing traveling with you's taught me it's that yeah…bad things happen. There's a lot that's bad out there, but there's always hope, too. Always. I'm not wrong, am I?"
Finally, finally the Doctor smiled a bit at that. His hand found hers between them and squeezed. "No. You're not wrong."
"He'll be all right," she repeated. "And so will you."
He let out a heavy breath, as if he'd been holding it for ages. "You're right," he admitted. "At least I hope you are."
"'Course I am. And as long as I can I'll be here to make sure I am. Deal?"
The pain wasn't gone. The fear wasn't gone. She could still see them on his face but slowly he was winning against them. His smile brightened enough to lift the weight in her chest, and he tugged her head forward to kiss her forehead. "Deal."
They sat back together in the padded seats, as if on cue. Neither of them really wanted to think about it any further; they'd said all that could be said. She knew it would haunt both of them for a while, but it would be all right.
They had each other.
"We've already sat here this long," she said after a while. "Want to have another look outside before we go? Just us this time."
She wasn't sure whether or not he'd agree, but then he did. He hesitated, but then he grinned almost like he usually did, and he took her hand and pulled her out the door.
They watched the landscape for a good half hour, perhaps. This time it really was sunset, and they couldn't help but stay until it was over and a bright moon rose that was almost like soft blue daylight.
Rose stayed close at his side, as if she were worried he might topple over. Then again, maybe it was a possibility. He didn't remember the last time he'd felt so shaken.
He always knew his future. He always knew the part of it where he would be alone again, but he'd never been confronted with it. Not like that.
But Rose was beside him, and she was right—that was what mattered now.
When they went back into the Tardis he stopped in the doorway. Rose was inside and he looked back, because he was relatively certain the other Tardis was still there. There hadn't been a peep from it, but he could just make it out. It hadn't moved.
Silently he wished the man inside it well. He would have gone back in then, but a vaguely familiar sound made him look again.
A vortex manipulator. The moonlight was so bright it wasn't hard to see the woman who materialized on the rocks just a few yards from the other Tardis. He was too far away for any details, or to really see a face, but it was clearly a woman. Red hair was all he could make out as she took a quick assessment of her surroundings.
For some reason it didn't occur to him to duck inside. He didn't think to hide, and she stopped turning when she saw him. She didn't seem at all surprised. He thought she smiled at him before she turned on her heel, unlocked the other Tardis's door with a key and disappeared inside.
He smiled to himself. Hope. There it is, then. Of course Rose was right.
"Oi! You coming?" Rose called from inside.
"What? Yes! Yes, I'm coming."
By the time the front door opened he'd at least made it to the steps. He was mostly certain he'd been there for hours when River sat down beside him.
"There's some interesting company outside. Just leaving though, I think. What have you been up to?"
"Making a fool of myself," he muttered.
"Nothing new there, Sweetie."
"Oh, shut up." He let out a breath. "How long for you then?"
"A few months. The book is finished. It's been sent along."
His head shot up. "You waited months?"
"It's never bothered you before. God knows as old as you are now you've gone longer without seeing me."
It was true, but before now she hadn't been so close to her death in her own timeline. Not that he knew how close it was. He didn't know how old she'd been. He only knew she didn't have forever. It was so much closer now.
She must have seen something on his face. "Don't get yourself in a twist; I saw you. You must have shown up half a dozen times. A little annoying, really, distracting a girl while she's trying to write," she told him suggestively.
All right…all right…months not wasted then. He would be there.
The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Oh really? What did we do?"
He managed to laugh once. It was weak, but it was there. He swallowed. "Will you come with me now?"
River's smiled softened. "For a while. I wouldn't have come to you here if I didn't plan to stay a bit."
He needed her, while she was still here. She couldn't know all of it, but she clearly knew he needed her now. He kissed her, deeply and trying not to be needy and when they broke off she grinned.
No, it wasn't over. Not yet.
I'm running TO you…before you fade from me.
All he could do was hold on, and try to remember…
There's a lot that's bad out there, but there's always hope, too. Always. I'm not wrong, am I?