The painting in the National Gallery was almost abstract, all orange blobs, a futuristic city on fire. Of unknown origin, by an unknown painter, and yet it was hung here on the wall, in a corner of a side gallery. Rose knew what it was. Rose knew it was not a fantasy, not a painting that ought to have been the cover of a pulp magazine. It was a painting of a real place. Or a place that had been real once, with real people living on it. Real Time Lords. Gallifreyans, with two hearts. Her heart, single heart, was aching right now. She always went and looked at this painting when it was especially bad.
Today she was feeling particularly aching, because it was the fifth anniversary of the Battle of Canary Wharf. The fifth anniversary of her stranding.
There was a new placard up next to it. It had a title on it. “Gallifrey falls,” she said, reading it aloud. It had fallen. In this universe as well as hers. Only this one didn’t have her Doctor in it.
“It’s called Gallifrey falls no more,” somebody said.
Rose looked away from the painting at at the man who’d just spoken. A Scotsman, by his accent, older, reed-thin. He was well-dressed, if oddly so, in a coat that looked like even her father would jibe at its cost, lined with red. And those were Loakes on his feet. Definitely minted, but unkempt. His silver hair was rumpled.
He was gazing at her oddly, but then he’d looked away at the painting again.
“That’s not what the card says,” Rose said. “The punctuation’s different.”
“I know. But it’s wrong.”
“Gallifrey doesn’t fall?”
“No.” He flashed a little smile at her. “Whatever Gallifrey may be.”
“Yeah. A fantasy world, I suppose. The painter did a whole series showing it, according to the card.” Rose leaned as close to the painting as museum manners allowed. “Very realistic. It’s almost like the people in it could step right out.” She wished it. So hard. Wished.
“Almost,” he said, and his voice was contemplative. “A door to another time, perhaps.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“You think so?”
He smiled at her. It was an alarming smile, almost scary, but this man’s face was kind. And young, somehow, despite the hair and the crows feet. There was something about him that caught her attention. A question she wanted answered, perhaps, or a question that he would ask of her.
He said, “There’s a cafe in this museum. Would you like to get coffee? Or chips. We could do chips.”
“Coffee’s great. But first you have to tell me your name.”
He thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets. The red lining of his coat flashed. “I’m the Doctor. And you’re Rose Tyler.”
The museum shop had coffee, adequate coffee even, proper espresso made by a human and not a machine like so many things in this universe. The universe where her father had lived and her mother hadn’t. The man who’d introduced herself as the Doctor hadn’t had any money-- of course-- so Rose had bought coffee for them both. They sat at a table in the corner far from the door, a quiet place, where if she cried no one much would see.
He looked so different but he was the Doctor. There was something in her that knew that, could recognize him no matter what the face was. She’d loved two of his faces, after all, and he had told her once he’d had many more.
This face was far older than either of the ones she’d known best, more worn in some ways. Less worn in others. This face looked like it smiled, genuinely smiled. Those narrow shoulders in the natty black coat were unburdened.
“Are you before or after my Doctors?” she asked.
“After,” he said. “A long while after.”
“As much as you missed me.”
That was said so quietly that Rose looked at him sharply, to see if he meant anything odd by it, but he was looking at his hand, laid flat on the table. Long fingers, nervous fingers. He wore a ring with an odd green stone in it.
He said, “Sometimes when I think of you I get chips in Brighton. Proper ones, in newspaper.”
“Can’t get those here.”
“Not in this version of England. Too much littering. I miss it. I miss you. The version of you I met.”
“The one who took you to get chips in Brighton,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m not him. Not exactly. I remember being him, of course. And the one with the sand shoes.”
Rose bit at her thumb. She’d hurt him by saying that, but it was true. She did miss the Doctor when he’d had clipped hair and ears.
“Are you really here? Or is this another hologram?”
He picked up his demitasse and drank his espresso in one gulp. “Really here,” he said.
“The painting. It’s linked to the one that exists in my universe. Via Gallifrey, which is in a pocket universe between ours.”
“I thought it was–”
“Turns out it wasn’t.” He smiled at her for a moment. It was a boyish smile in a face that yes, a face that enjoyed smiling, despite those eyebrows. “I can’t use it to get through to Gallifrey, but it turns out that I could use it to get through to any universe that has its own version of that painting. This one doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t have a Black Gallery, but it is still connected.”
Rose covered her face with her hand.
“I never could figure out how to get back. I worked with UNIT for years. I couldn’t figure out how. The painting-- the whole time–”
“You would have needed a TARDIS to do it. Don’t-- Rose–”
The Doctor stood up abruptly. Rose was afraid for a moment that her tears had driven him away, but no. He stretched out his hand to her.
“Rose Tyler, would you like to get some chips with me after all? Proper ones, in paper?”
She took his hand, of course. She always would.
Rose took his hand and the Doctor smiled, a lovely surprising smile on that face, under that silver hair. He bent over her hand and brushed his lips against it, and was that a tremor she felt? But he’d straightened and was tugging her after him. Down the hall, up the stairs, to a corridor she hadn’t noticed, and a door marked staff only that he opened with a moment of whirring from the screwdriver. He was elegant in this face, all tall and slender in his black trousers and jacket. A little bit of a showman.
The door opened, and there she was: the TARDIS, as blue and as improbable as ever. Something in Rose had reserved a tiny bit of herself until she saw the TARDIS, until she laid a hand on it and felt it speak to her. Bad Wolf Girl would always be a tiny bit connected to this ship, this strange little police box, this relic.
The door opened for her and she smiled.
“You still have your key,” the Doctor said. “She still knows you.”
“Yeah.” Rose pulled it out from under her shirt. The chain it hung from was more posh in this life, because of all the money her father had, but that was the only difference. TARDIS key, over her heart. He reached out and touched it. His hand over hers again, a warm dry touch. He smiled briefly and turned away to the door, turned back to bow her over the threshold.
“Yeah, had a bit of a crash. Needed repairs. It all came out a bit different.”
“I like it! It’s-- it’s very you.”
Rose nodded firmly. “Yeah.”
He looked pleased. He gestured toward the console, so very different to how it had looked, with technology that looked so much newer than anything she’d seen even in her current life, with its strange path through time. The console was as different to the one she remembered as the the rest of the decor. Sleek, glowing, like something from the Sixties when the future was an exciting place.
“Fish and chips,” the Doctor said. “Brighton. 2005.”
His fingers danced over buttons that hadn’t been there the last time she had, threw a lever she’d never seen, and set his hand on a lever she knew. Eyebrow up, looking at her. She set her hand on his and they pulled together. The rotors spun, the TARDIS growled, and they were moving.
“So long since I heard this! Thought I never would again. Yeah, love it!” Rose laughed. He was watching her as if transfixed, with an odd expression. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, Rose. It’s been a long time. So long since I’ve seen you. Your smile. I–”
He shrugged. “More than a thousand years.” Now that voice was casual, but it was a cover for something.
“That’s a long time. Long enough to forget me?”
“Forget you? Never. I never forget anyone who’s traveled with me. Long enough to travel with others. To, to be with others. If you can forgive me.”
Rose remembered Sarah Jane Smith, and how she’d pitied her at first, before she’d realized they were the same. “There’s nothing to forgive. You thought, I thought, that was it. We were separated. Forever. Moving on is something we had to do.”
“It took me a while.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
His hands were in his jacket pockets. “Forever is-- difficult for me. I find it hard to believe in.” That smile again, a little bitter, visible for a moment and then gone.
“Where are they? The people who travel with you? Can I meet them?”
And now his face was utterly bleak.
“They’re lost to me. In time. When I realized you weren’t, when I figured out how to use the painting, I nearly didn’t come. I thought it would be better not to. To leave you to your new life. Unfixed, for me. A choice unmade. Forever unmade.”
He spun away from her and marched up the steps to the catwalk. He leaned against a bookshelf and was still. Rose hesitated, then followed him quietly. His hand was over his face and his shoulders were trembling. She touched him, and he flinched.
“Sorry. Sorry. I just–”
Her arms were around him without thinking. It was the Doctor, and it didn’t matter to her in the least what face he wore. She’d loved two of his faces so far and probably she would love all of them if she met them. And this one, this one was weeping because like her he’d thought they’d never see each other again. His last words cut off, a hologram she couldn’t touch on a beach she wanted never to see again. Down, down onto the catwalk, holding each other close, clutching at each other. His hands, with those long fingers, touching her face reverently. His own face was wet.
“It’s really you,” he said. “You’re really here again.”
She smiled at him. “Some choices need to be made. Some choices are good. Some days, you have somebody to hold your hand.”