Usually, it’s one of the other Doctors that finds the newest arrival. Usually, the new arrival kicks up a huge fuss and - rightly - panics over their new existence. Usually, Rose is introduced after a very long explanation has been given and the new arrival has settled down. Usually.
It’s Rose who finds him one afternoon, standing in the attic watching K-9 and Mr. Smith argue over a chess match. He’s only paying half attention, the rest of it devoted to the numerous pictures of his third and fourth incarnations that Sarah had taken over their time together. The small ones of his other selves clearly lifted from U.N.I.T. records.
His somewhat curly chestnut hair is a mess covered in soot, his skin dusted with ash and dirt and cuts and blood. His once-shiny black leather jacket is dull and ill-treated, his formidable black work slacks and high hunting boots caked in mud. Bright cerulean eyes are dead and haunted, a wealth of pain inside them. He sways slightly on his feet as if he’s about to come apart at the seams but somehow resolutely remains firmly in a standing position. It looks suspiciously like the pose Rose sees at U.N.I.T. called “parade rest.”
He doesn’t bother to turn around when she walks in and freezes in the doorway. He simply continues to stand and look at the photographs.
“Doctor,” Rose whispers.
“I’d often wondered what the afterlife would be like,” he says softly. His voice is at once firm yet smooth, deep yet light, warm like honey and cool like mint. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
“I don’t think anyone does,” she replies gently, taking slow tentative steps forward. “Where have you been?”
“Ending a war that would have destroyed all of reality.” It’s spoken flatly, whatever emotion it invokes strategically hidden behind layers of suppressed expression.
“And... who was fighting?” She’s seen him like this before, but never so broken. It’s like looking in a warped and fractured mirror of the first few weeks trying to figure out his fifth incarnation. She hates it.
“Time Lords, against the Daleks.” He blows out a breath, wincing slightly when he realizes there isn’t any air to puff out. “The Last Great Time War.” His shoulders slump, his hands balling into fists to disguise the tremors in the fingers, and he swallows several times as his throat constricts. “It turned everyone into monsters in the end, and my own people... they were as bad as the Daleks.”
“What did you do?” Rose whispers hoarsely. She’s frozen a step or so behind him, allowing him the privacy of keeping his face turned away, an arm outstretched to reach for his shoulder but unable to make the final movement.
“I ended it. And they’re all dead, and me with them.” The Doctor’s head tilts slightly upward as he stares at the ceiling. “As it should be.”
She’d once called him suicidal without understanding his need to be a martyr. But this is different. This actually is suicidal for him. To be so accepting of permanent death, no longer dying for a cause but because everything hurts.
It breaks the spell the moment has had over her, and she ignores the way his entire body stiffens as she delicately moves to stand in front of him and wraps her arms around him. It’s a difficult trick to master, not pressing hard enough to pass through him, but she’s had twenty-four years of practice. The anticipated electric shock passes between them and he abruptly pulls away at the contact, gaping at her with his hands pressed over the singular beat of her heart on the left side of his chest.
“You’re not dead,” he rasps, stumbling. “How...?”
“You need to talk to your other incarnations,” Rose says softly.
The first ten months are horrible. Even his younger incarnations tip-toe around him, not understanding what the War had been like, and he refuses to speak with Rose. He takes comfort from hearing Sarah regale her adopted son - and now adoptive daughter - and their friends with tales of her adventures and follows her around as much as possible, but when she’s gone he just... isolates.
Rose is turning twenty-five when he finally makes an effort to speak with her. He’s still bloody, still ragged. Still lost. Without a word she leaves the room and comes back with a damp cloth and tells him to sit, and mutely he does. With the lightest of touches Rose washes the grime and blood off of him and untangles his hair with nimble fingers, and he feels something release inside of him that had once been strangled.
“Why is it that yours is the only touch I feel?” He whispers. There is raw emotion in his gaze as he stares blankly at the empty space between them and Rose bites her lip.
«Because I love you,» she whispers in Gallifreyan. Tears spring to his eyes upon hearing the language of his people, a language he never thought he’d hear again unless it was spoken by none other than himself.
“Do you really think a future version of me made it out of the War?” He asks after a few charged moments. Rose pauses in her mission and nods slowly.
“I think I’d know, in here, if you were gone for good,” she says after a thoughtful minute, placing her hand over her heart. He shivers as he feels the pressure of her fingers against his own chest and blinks when she lightly takes his hand and links their fingers together. He holds the position as if afraid that if it breaks, he’ll shatter with it, and sits in silence for the remainder of the time she tidies him up.
He’s shocked to see the bowl of water clouded by dirt, soot, and blood when she finishes and stands on shaky legs to look into the mirror, blinking at the reflection staring back at him.
He might look the worse for wear, but the wounds are gone from his face and the filth of war has been scrubbed from his person. His hair is neat and curls gently just past the tips of his ears, but the effect is incredible. It’s as if his death doesn’t have to be defined by his sacrifice in the War, and he realizes after a few moments that it isn’t simply a soft and short scrub that made him look like that way but that his appearance is a direct reflection of his soul.
Bit by bit his appearance improves. Rose heals a piece of him every day, no matter how minute, and they become closer. He talks with his younger incarnations, and even if he’s still quiet he’s engaging again.
Rose is twenty-six and has just taken the stage at her Commencement Ceremony, the long and hard work for her doctorate finally paying off, and it’s the first time he truly smiles. He hangs back as his younger selves congratulate her, chuckling at the enthusiastic peck on the cheek his sixth self delivers and sighing at the affectionate presses of lips to hair from the majority of the others, and something slots into place.
She looks up to see him slowly approaching from under an oak tree with sparkling eyes and her breath catches at his face.
The stubble, the stress lines, the weary and tired demeanor are gone. A somewhat younger man is watching her, a reflection of his spirit moving past the war; not all of it can ever be washed away, but it’s possible for him to live again without being buried under the pain and guilt, and the sight of him makes up her mind for her.
After a huge party at Sarah’s house by Jackie and far too many people showing up from U.N.I.T. to try and get her to take one too many shots, she’s finally able to escape to the back garden to get some fresh air late in the evening. He follows her out, even as a ghost his tread lighter than a cat’s and more precise, and stands beside her as they stare up at a rare cloudless sky.
“Congratulations doctor,” he teases gently.
“Thank you, Doctor,” she teases back before sighing in contentment. “It won’t much change things at U.N.I.T., what with me being their field scientific specialist, but the pay’ll be better. I’ve already been to the moonbase - love Liz by the way, she’s amazing - and honestly it doesn’t really matter to me if I get recognized for it.”
“You’ll know you did it,” he summarized with a wide smile. “The accomplishment. ‘Hey, look ma! I made it!’ Nothing better.” The moonlight seemed to shine on his well-kept black leather jacket and Rose swore the wind was ruffling his gleaming chestnut curls.
«I love you,» she whispers in Gallifreyan, watching his eyes flutter close and his chest move in a sigh as the words of his people wash over him. «All of you. And I am so proud of you for how much you’ve accomplished.»
“I found strength in your trust in me,” he admits freely. When his eyes open again he is looking directly at her. “Honestly, Rose. You saved me from myself, and I’m very stubborn. What you’ve achieved in getting me to believe there’s something more than the pain... don’t take that lightly. I still don’t fully understand why you felt the need to bother.”
In response, Rose arches up slightly on her toes and ever so gently presses her lips against his. The Doctor gasps as it feels like every cell of his being is flooded with unconditional love, trust, and patience and he mentally forces himself to not try and deepen the kiss. If he does, he breaks the moment, and the moment is...
The moment is...
...They can break the news to his other selves later. Right now, this is between the pair of them.
They may not know where this kiss is going, and frankly they can’t find it in them at the moment to care, but wherever they’ll end up it will be together.
He might still be recovering from the War, the scars on his soul still evident in the dusty treads of his boots and rips in his trousers, the frayed cuffs of his shirt, but he can get through it if she helps him and she doesn’t have any plans to stop.