He was standing in the middle of a children’s playground. An Earth playground. It just didn’t make sense. One minute the High Council had been telling him he was stalling for time in choosing a new face, and the next...
It just made no sense whatsoever. However, ‘puzzling it out’ was cut extremely short. The next thing the Doctor knew, a voice from his past was speaking behind him.
“Ah, so that’s how it happened...”
“What are you talking about?” The Doctor asked, turning and gritting his teeth. Interacting with his other selves on a good day was less than pleasant, but at the current moment it was...
“I believe we have a lot to talk about,” One said calmly. A child shouted and his head jerked sharply to track the rambunctious little girl with wary eyes. Upon seeing that she wasn’t in any kind of peril, he visibly relaxed. He inhaled deeply and nodded toward a bench on the very edge of the playground, indicating for them to sit. The Doctor settled beside him apprehensively.
“What are you doing here?” He asked.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” One countered. The Doctor’s brow furrowed.
“Mm... it’s a bit of a blur, really, and-“
“The process. Had it started?”
“Well, then the answer to your questions is quite simple. When you regenerated, that body died. Burnt away for the new man to go sauntering off on his merry way.” One gestured casually with his hands but a deep sadness rested in his eyes. “As you did with me.”
“I never saw it that way,” the Doctor murmured, a catch in his throat. One nodded, sighing.
“Yes, well you will now. Whether you resent the one who takes your place or not is up to you. Personally, I’m surprised I lived past Academy graduation let alone long enough to regenerate. You see, it’s all very simple. You died, Doctor. Just as I did. And now...”
“I’m not sure I like where this is going,” the Doctor muttered. His younger self shrugged, leaning slightly on a cane that the Doctor suddenly realized he didn’t need. It was more of a prop than anything, and he vividly remembered supporting himself on it more often than not in that body. “I... I’m dead? Then whatever am I doing here!?”
“Do you feel it yet?”
“Then you haven’t. On my word, you’ll know it when you feel it.”
“What, exactly, is it?” The bell rang for the children to return inside the building and the Doctor raised an eyebrow in surprise as they all disappeared through the door. His younger self shifted on the bench, visibly uncomfortable over something, and after a few moments huffed in annoyance and followed the motley bunch inside.
“The pull!” He called back. The Doctor stood and began to follow, stopped in the door as the playground monitor paused directly in front of him and made a cursory glance around the yard looking for strays. She shrugged and closed the door, and he gasped in shock as it passed directly through him.
He was suddenly aware of how cold he felt, of how numb he was to external environmental stimulus. No breath whistled through his lungs or bypass, and nothing beat in his chest. Warily, he approached his younger self with shaking limbs and stood before him.
One was seated among the group of children next to a tiny girl with light blonde hair and marmalade brown eyes looking like he wanted someone to put him out of his misery as the instructor droned on about the seven days of the week.
“Are we- are we- ghosts?”
“...How is that possible?” He whispered. One shrugged.
“To be quite honest, until you came along I thought I’d died for good. Nice to know I have a future... even if I’m no more than memories in the mind of another...”
“As I said before, it doesn’t feel that way from the other perspective- what on Earth are you doing!?”
“Helping Rose with her work,” One said calmly, blinking up at him from where he sat on the floor. The girl beside him lightly tapped him on the sleeve and pointed at the cards with the animals on them and he nodded approvingly. “Pattern recognition. I decided she was capable of learning some more complex problem-solving with this little exercise, however. Get a head start on learning the alphabet by matching them alphabetically as well.”
“She can- she can see you, hear you?” The Doctor asked incredulously, slowly sinking down to crouch on his heels in front of the little girl. He shuddered as the teacher walked through him.
“Touch,” Rose said simply, tapping the back of his hand and going back to her work.
Something very much akin to an electric shock rocketed through his mind and body as a singular heartbeat stuttered to life in his chest and Rose’s happiness drifted through his consciousness.
“‘Have I felt it yet,’” he repeated softly under his breath, ever so carefully leaning forward and using the lightest of touches to move her bangs out of her eyes. He met the knowing gaze of his younger self and sighed. “This is far more complicated than it appears, isn’t it? This pull... this draw...”
“Timelines,” One prompted. The Doctor chanced a peek at them and promptly unbalanced from his crouch to land hard on his rear on the floor.
“No shouting, it will ruin her concentration.”
His younger self was never really all that far away. It was all but impossible for them to leave her at all, but One had noted with interest that it was as if they were sharing the pull. His anxiety was lessened and he found it possible to leave her side for longer periods of time. If the Doctor happened to be with her, he felt no need to return because another version of him was already standing watch.
After a year in preschool she moved into primary school, learning basic addition and subtraction and... quantum theory.
Needless to say, both Doctors were impatient to teach her something they actually thought was useful.
Maybe a bit of French as well because there was a transfer student and Rose thought he looked lonely.
At any rate, things were going well. There was an odd sort of melancholy associated with being a ghost and it leant itself toward calling a truce. Aside from Rose, they were the only ones they could interact with and speak to. It was a sobering situation and the usual incarnation rivalries they felt seemed moot when you were already dead.
They’d worked out a system. The Doctor would sing Rose to sleep at night and One would recite, from memory, one of the hundreds of books he had read in his life. This would rotate on an every other night basis and whoever had helped her fall asleep would keep watch during the evening as well, sitting on the end of her bed and staring idly out the window onto the Powell Estates.
One was the mot responsible of the pair of them, while the Doctor was more inclined to encourage adventurous pursuits. This had nothing to do with personality and more to do with the simple fact that One automatically fell into a grandfatherly concern after spending so much time with Susan, and the Doctor hadn’t been around any young children of any kind in the body he had.
So, naturally, he was the one cheering Rose on while she attended the Jericho Street Under Sevens Gymnastics lessons and One was the one exclaiming in alarm every time she fell and hurt herself.
But it was the both of them that were immensely proud when she got the bronze at the championships, and it was the both of them that went on and on expounding the virtues of limber muscles and hard work in regards to a healthy, problem-free adulthood.
All of which she was too young to appreciate the advice of, but they tag-teamed on it with great enthusiasm all the same.
It was the Doctor that convinced her to try new foods she was suspicious of, making every single one an adventure. It was the Doctor who played the recorder when he wanted to relax so much so to the point where Rose begged Jackie to get her her own.
It was plastic, pink with a white stripe and small blue sparkles, but it was hers, and it didn’t matter that she had no sheet music because she copied what the Doctor did. She’d be well ahead of her class when they all started the instrument in their third year.
But it was One who she went to when she’d had a nightmare, asking to be held; it pained the both of them that they were unable to offer that comfort, but if she laid on her bed with her head on a pillow, he would stroke her hair and whisper soft words of encouragement to her.
It was the pair of them impatiently waiting for her to get out of the bath in the hallway that overheard Jackie and Bev talking in the kitchen.
“She spends all her time talking to people who aren’t actually there!” Jackie whispered loudly. “It’s just not normal, Bev!”
“Jacks, many children Rose’s age have one or more imaginary friends,” Bev soothed. “Both of mine did, and the youngest still does. He’s about to entire his seventh year, so he’ll soon leave that part of his childhood behind, but it’s nothing odd. If it lasts into adolescence, then you might have a psychological problem on your hands.”
“Is there no way to tell before that?” Jackie sighed. Bev grimaced.
“There are, but you run the risk of getting her labeled as the ‘weird one’ at her school if word somehow gets out that you had her tested, and if nothing’s actually wrong it might just ruin her school career.”
“You’re loads of help,” Jackie grumbled. Bev smirked and sipped at her tea.
The two Doctors exchanged a worried look with one another. It had never occurred to them how this might be perceived by the outside world, by Jackie...
“Should we... do something?” The Doctor asked lamely. One scoffed, pacing.
“Oh yes, because either of us are remotely capable of sufficiently distancing ourselves from her to allow her to forget about her ‘imaginary friends.’ I think not.”
“Well, we can’t just continue as we have been! Sooner or later, someone will wonder why it is Rose is so adamant her ‘imaginary friends’ are real. I don’t want her being hurt because of us.”
“And I do!?”
“No, of course not! I’m merely pointing out that we need to consider-“
“All done!” Rose announced, walking out of the bathroom in her pajamas with a proud expression on her face. It had been the first time Jackie had trusted her to be alone in the bath and she was all too happy to prove that she was capable of ‘big girl’ things.
Both Doctors smiled down at her, their argument temporarily forgotten, as Jackie and Bev hurried in and fussed over her.
...Especially her backwards pajamas.