Grabbing her keys and phone from the counter, Traci dashed for the door but paused before yanking it open, spinning back to gaze at the mess of groceries on the counter and still in their plastic bags. She hoped she had gotten all the perishables into the fridge, but she really didn't have time to worry about that now. Pulling the door open, she ducked into the garage and jumped in her car to head back out. She'd had the presence of mind to not close the garage's automatic door, knowing she wasn't going to be in the house for more than a few minutes. As she backed into the street, she thumbed the opener, and as the door slowly descended, she sped off. Well, with as much speed as she dared on a residential street that was usually teeming with playing children.
As she drove towards Katie's school, she mentally reviewed her schedule for the next couple of days. After she picked up all the kids from their respective activities (oh, Sara was a godsend, offering to babysit Mikey today), she had to head home to make dinner and then, after the meal, drop off Mikey at Alex's mom's so that the rest of them could attend parent-teacher night at the school. She'd be baking items for the bake sale for the rest of the evening, probably well into the wee hours of the morning, then the next day, while the kids were at school, there was Mikey's doctor's appointment, then cleaning the house and cooking a full dinner for Alex's friends (Tom and Shawna, and Jim and whoever he might be seeing this week), not to mention getting Jason bundled off to spend the weekend at his friend Josh's house. And then Saturday was the Girl Scout bake and craft sale, all day, something that Katie had been excited for over the past two weeks.
At a stoplight, she banged her head against the steering wheel a few times. She loved her family, more than anything in the world, and would do anything for them, but she just wanted to have a little time for herself. What would be great would be a few days to go off somewhere, with no one asking her to do things and no one that she had to talk to. Of course, that wouldn't work. She'd tried a few times to tell the kids, "Mommy's going to go read in her room by herself for a little while, ok?" and each time, within fifteen minutes, one of them (or their dad!) interrupted for something. She couldn't go an hour by herself; a few days was out of the question.
Slipping the car into one of the spots in the school parking lot, she grabbed her purse and trotted off to the art classroom. Ms. Price was standing in front of the closed door, bag on her shoulder and arms crossed, with Katie standing by her. "I'm really going to have insist that you pick Katie up promptly at four o'clock," she stated, glowering as Traci approached. "I can't be standing here waiting for you all day."
Katie ran to her mother and Traci took her hand, smiling at her daughter and murmuring, "Hi, sweetheart." She looked back up at the art teacher. "I'm really very sorry. It's been such a mess today and I was running late -"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure it's been awful. See you next week." Ms. Price stalked off. Traci rolled her eyes, then snuck a peek at the phone in her purse. Seven minutes late. She really needed to get Katie into a class with a different teacher. Traci didn't need the attitude, and she wondered how this woman treated the kids when no one was watching. The few times that she'd been here before four o'clock, she'd observed that the teacher had shut down the activities fifteen minutes early so that she could leave at four; Katie wasn't getting the two hours that Traci was paying for.
She took her daughter's hand and smiled at her. "Come on, little lady. Let's go."
Katie babbled merrily as Traci buckled her into the car seat and drove off towards Jason's soccer practice, telling her mother about all the things she did in art class. It was times like this that made it all worth it: Traci was at her happiest, her most fulfilled, when her children were happy, excited about their lives and what they were doing. She continued to ask Katie questions, to encourage her daughter to relive happy memories and reinforce them.
A short drive later, she freed Katie from the carseat and they ambled off towards the soccer field at the recreation center. She easily picked Jason out of the crowd of boys chasing the black-and-white ball around and waved, but she knew he wouldn't see her, engrossed in his favorite sport. As was her habit, she led her daughter to the playground; Jason knew to find them there after practice was over.
As the little girl ran off to climb on the jungle gyms, Traci found an isolated spot to sit on a low wall. Pulling a book out of her purse, she smiled to herself, about to enjoy a few minutes of solitude set to the music of laughing children, when Anna, the mother of one of Jason's friends, sat down next to her and began chatting. Stuffing the book back into her purse, Traci engaged her in conversation while silently wishing she could turn invisible. It wasn't that what the woman had to say wasn't interesting, or that Traci didn't have anything to talk about. It was simply that she had had enough of people taking up her time. But it wouldn't do to take her frustrations out on her acquaintance. She smiled politely and said all the right things, but the end of soccer practice couldn't come soon enough.
Anna's son arrived first, and Traci bade her a cheerful farewell as the woman waved and headed with the boy to her car. Jason then trotted up and, before Traci could call Katie to them, he blurted out, "Mom! Can I stay for a while more? Coach Miller wants to run extra practice, and he asked me special!" Hopping from foot to foot, he was obviously trying to conceal his delight about being selected; only the best boys got asked to stay later.
Traci felt pressured by the activities of the evening to get home and get started on the baking, but she couldn't deny her son this honor. "Of course you can! Not more than a half an hour, though. Is that ok?"
"Killer! Thanks, Mom!" He jumped and punched the air, then sprinted back to the field.
"Knock 'em dead!" she shouted after her son, smiling proudly. The circle of mothers around the playground had thinned, as many had left with their soccer-playing children, so hopefully now she would get a little peace.
Reaching back into her purse for the book, her hand brushed the cold metal of the pocket watch, and she pulled it out. She always had it with her, but she rarely ever looked at it. It appeared incongruous in the bright sunlight, the antiqued brass dull, almost ancient. She wondered if the pattern of circles and lines etched on the front had any meaning, or if they were just decoration. It was certainly pretty. With a finger, she flicked the little charm the Doctor had added on his last visit and it tinkled against the larger body of the watch. I wonder… Impulsively, she squeezed the charm between her thumb and forefinger, releasing it a few moments later.
"Oh, man!" The woman sitting on the bench off on her right slapped her thigh in frustration. The tablet she'd been playing a game on had suddenly turned off, and she punched the power button to no avail. "What's wrong with this thing?" A little farther off, Traci saw a jogger stop and fiddle with his MP3 player, smacking it in frustration. She frowned in bewilderment.
"Held it down a bit too long. Told you, three seconds."
The Doctor's voice startled her and she jumped up and whirled to face him. "How… How did you get here so fast?"
Standing behind the wall she was sitting on, the Doctor grinned, eyes twinkling with mischief. "I'm a time traveller. Got the message and landed before you sent it." He pulled the blue-tipped silver rod from his breast pocket and, holding it hidden under his other hand, he activated it, pointing first at the woman's tablet and then the jogger's music player. Traci glanced at them as the device chirped and saw the screens of each flicker on. "There. They at least won't suffer for it." He flipped the rod, caught it, and stowed it back in his pocket, looking pleased with himself.
Traci flicked a hand at his pocket. "What is that thing? Some kind of remote control or something?"
Crossing her arms, she pursed her lips, regarding him with sarcastic disgust. "Oh, come on. That's just ridiculous. You can just say it's an alien thingamajig if you think I won't understand."
He stared at her with a hurt look. "No, really." He pulled the sonic back out and held it out for her. "It's a screwdriver."
Taking it, Traci turned it in her hand to inspect it. "A screwdriver that turns on iPads from fifteen feet away? And it works by sound somehow?"
"Well," he drawled, "it started out as a new type of screwdriver. It's changed a bit since then." He shrugged. "You know how it is. Decide that you need to add a hyperdimensional actuator, and next thing you know, it's three days later and you've rewritten the base software and added an isotemporal spectrometer, a transhoroterical analyser, and a database of chocolate biscuit recipes." Staring at the device, he scratched the back of his head. "I never did get that actuator added."
Traci blinked at him. "Let me think." She bit her lip and rolled her eyes in mock thought, then shook her head. "No, I can honestly say I don't know how it is." She handed the screwdriver back to him. "Hello, Doctor."
"Traci." That shining smile. She couldn't resist returning one of her own. His eyes remained fixed on her face as he slipped the screwdriver back in his pocket.
"It's good to see you." She felt an impulse to give him a hug, but it felt awkward. She definitely considered him a friend, but she wasn't sure how close of one he was.
The Doctor glanced around the park, at the playground and the playing field. "Splendid day! Ah, football!
"What?" She frowned at the practicing kids for a moment, then remembered the alternate term for the sport. "Oh, you mean soccer."
"Ah, yes. Wrong term, isn't it?" he commented as his eyes followed the ball down the field. "A fine sport. Though, I'm more of a cricket fan, myself. Perhaps in the future I might try it out."
"I've never been interested in it either, but Jason loves it." She pointed at one of the boys. "That's him there. The one running after the one with the ball."
Following her finger, the Doctor picked out the right boy. "The one with the red shoes? Good taste, he has. So that's Jason."
Traci frowned. "Oh! Yes. The last time you were here, only Katie was home with me and Mikey. She's in the playground, just over there, on the swings."
The Doctor turned and spotted Traci's daughter immediately. "She's grown so much!"
Traci rolled her eyes. "Of course she has! It's been, what, four years since the last time? She's in third grade already." With a sly grin, she glanced up at him. "She remembers you, you know."
Completely taken aback, he spun back to Traci. "She does?" One eyebrow was cocked high.
"Well, not you specifically. But every so often, she builds her time machine out of the sofa cushions and goes exploring with her imaginary friend, the Doctor." Amused, she watched him to see his reaction. When Katie, at three years old, had clung so persistently to her new "imaginary" friend, playing "time machine" every day for nearly a month, Traci had worried about the alien's influence on her daughter. It hadn't helped that Alex had been thrilled with his daughter's sudden interest in space, gushing, "A time machine that's also a spaceship? Only my daughter could come up with something that cool!" and had encouraged her to play pretend every chance he got. However, it had simply been a phase, and while Katie had moved on to the next childhood obsession in due course, her occasional play sessions as a Time Lady never failed to make Traci smile.
Turning back towards the swings, the Doctor gazed at the playing child with a pleased but embarrassed grin. "I'd no idea."
Traci hid a smirk behind her hand, pleased to have set him off-balance a little. "But yeah. It seems like time never passes as fast as when you're watching your kids grow up. I always wonder where the years go. Mikey starts kindergarten next year, you know."
"And this is the time you wish would never end." He swept his coat back to stuff his hands in his pockets and, with delighted wonder, watched Katie as she jumped off the swing and ran to play on the merry-go-round.
"If only it were always so idyllic." At that statement, the Doctor glanced at her, an eyebrow cocked in surprise. She laughed. "Oh, I'm not really complaining. It's just that, when you're a mom, there's really not much time to do anything else. I wouldn't give up my babies for the world, but I would love to even just have a conversation that wasn't with or about children."
"Well! That I can provide!" The Doctor clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward in almost a bow. "What would you like to talk about? Or…" and his eyes twinkled, "... where would you like to go? Or when?"
Surprised, Traci stepped back, blinking a few times as she processed his implied offer. "Oh!" Then she smiled and shook her head. "No, I couldn't."
The Doctor's face fell. "Why not?"
"I can't just go running off like that. I'm watching Katie, and Jason's at practice over there for only another twenty minutes." She pointed in the directions of her two children.
"Katie can come along, if you like. Plenty of space in the TARDIS. And the point of having a time machine is that you can return to whenever you want." Stepping towards her, he nudged her gently with his elbow. "Whaddaya say?"
She glanced at Katie before shaking her head again. "No, I can't. I really can't."
"C'mon." He stepped back, holding his hands out to his sides as if he were holding up the universe for her to see. "Anywhere in time in space. You'll be gone for less than a minute, if you like."
Indecision tore at her. To run off and leave her family behind, even for a few minutes... It felt like she was cheating. And she supposed the little button she carried in her purse was a cheat, calling this strange alien to her side any time she wanted. Looking up at him, she saw both mischief and concern for her in his eyes.
"Why are you doing this?" she blurted out before she could stop herself.
He frowned, rocking back on his heels. "What?"
"Why are you offering to take me somewhere? Especially now? You haven't offered that in years." She cocked her head to the side. "You're not just trying to influence my decision, are you?"
"No!" He appeared appalled at the suggestion, and he ran his hand through his hair. "I was just trying to help. Honest! I just… I just thought you wanted a break."
"I do! But not like that!"
Something in the tone of his voice made her glance up at him. His brow was slightly furrowed; she could see that he was furiously trying to figure out what the problem was. A sudden insight flashed through her mind: he really didn't understand her, or possibly any human, at all. He seemed to like to fix things, but she didn't need, or want, fixing, and his presumptuousness angered her. "I didn't call you because I wanted you to help me change my life or anything."
"No! That's not what I meant!" Scrubbing a hand through his hair, he sounded exactly like Jason when the boy was trying hard to figure out what he'd done wrong and being over-apologetic for whatever it it was. "I just thought you wanted something different for a bit."
Traci blinked and stared. Maybe she was the one who didn't understand him. Or perhaps she was assuming he was more human than he actually was. She realized that she had automatically assumed that he had an ulterior motive for taking her on a trip, and maybe that wasn't fair. As far she could remember, he had always been straightforward with her; strange and unexpected, maybe, but not deceitful. She leapt up from her seat and spun away, massaging her temples with one hand across her eyes. "Look, Doctor," she began as she turned back to him, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have… I mean, I know you were just trying to be nice. I think…" She sighed. "I think I might be more stressed out than I thought I was."
The Doctor smiled kindly. "Whatever you need, Traci." He gestured at the pocket watch still in her hand. "I'll come whenever you call, whenever you need me. I promise."
She sighed. "Maybe I do need that little trip. Alex calls it 'decompression.' An old college term, for taking some relaxation during finals week." She stowed the watch back in her purse. "Just a moment, okay?"
Traci trotted off to ask Liza, one of the other mothers, to keep an eye on Katie for ten minutes. Receiving assurances that she'll be looked after, she returned to the Doctor. "Okay, I'm ready."
"Are you sure you don't want to bring her with us?"
Traci bit her lip before answering. "Uh, no. No offense, but I really don't want to get Katie… involved."
"Of course not." The Doctor bowed with great gallantry and indicated with his hand that she should precede him.
It was a short walk to the blue police box, which was parked next to the recreation area's gym. Traci felt her face reddening as she realized that the people in the area were about to see her climb into a narrow booth with a man. "Um, Doctor?" she murmured as she halted, still a hundred feet from the TARDIS.
"Hmm?" He came abreast of her and turned to face her as she played nervously with the strap of her purse.
When her meaningful glance toward the box failed to elicit a response from him, she groaned inwardly before stating her reservations out loud. "I can't go in there with you."
"What?" His eyes darted toward the TARDIS, then back at her, puzzled. "Why not?"
She was speechless for a moment. "Two grown adults, climbing into that little box? In plain sight?"
"Oh!" From the look on his face, it was obvious he had never before been concerned about such a thing. He spun around, scanning the area. "I could move the TARDIS behind there, if you like?" He pointed behind the dance center building, which was backed by a copse of trees.
"Yeah, I guess that'll be fine."
"Hold on just a tick." Fishing his key out of his pocket, he strode to the police box and, unlocking it, disappeared inside. As the repetitive groan of the time machine crescendoed, Traci trotted off to the meeting spot, goggling at the people around her who didn't seem to notice the phone booth-like structure fading out of existence. She was still apprehensive about sneaking behind a building, but it was nowhere near as questionable as the first plan.
Traci had only been in the TARDIS once, nearly twenty years before, and stepping into it again was nearly as shocking as it had been back then. As the Doctor closed the door behind her, she wandered up the ramp, staring around at the huge room crammed in the tiny police box. "I don't know how you can get used to this."
"She amazes me every time, even after all these centuries." His voice was reverent, and as Traci spun to look at him, she could see the awe and pride in his eyes. "So!" He bounded up the ramp and leaned against console. "Where can I take you?"
Traci thought for a moment. "Anywhere?"
"In all of time and space?"
"Yup." He began bouncing on his toes as he waited for her decision.
She rubbed her face with both hands, then threw her head back and laughed. Grimacing sheepishly, she admitted, "All of time and space, and all I can think is that I just want some time to get the baking done for the sale on Saturday."
An excited grin slowly spread across the Doctor's face. "That, I can give you! There's all the time in the universe in here, Traci! I'm sure we can spare you a little. Where do we start?"
Astonished that he was offering to help her with her baking, she clapped a hand to her chest and stammered. "Oh! I... I'm not sure. I mean, I've got all the ingredients at home. I just bought them an hour ago. But, Alex will be home in an hour, so I should be starting dinner." She tried to think like a time traveler. When could we have the kitchen to ourselves? "Um… Well, we'd have to find a time when the kitchen was empty. Oh! We took the kids to the zoo three months ago. That would be perfect!"
"No need for that. We'll do it in here." The Doctor had spun to the console and worked its controls, sending the craft lurching into flight. They both grabbed onto the railings to steady themselves.
"In here? You've got a kitchen?"
"Among many other things I rarely use, yeah. I've got to eat sometime, you know. Mind you, it's usually easier to get take-away." When the shaking subsided, the Doctor hopped to the door. "Come on."
Traci stepped out of the TARDIS into her own living room. "Oh my god! You didn't!" She spun around to see the police box parked in front of the sofa. For a moment, her mouth worked soundlessly as she stared, incredulous, then she started laughing. "You are just ridiculous, Doctor!" She followed him into the kitchen.
"Are these them?" He picked up two of the bags of groceries.
"Most of it." She yanked open the pantry and squatted to check the lower shelves. "I've got more flour and sugar here."
"Never mind that. We can use the TARDIS' stores." He tried to adjust the bags in his arms so he could pick up the last one on the counter, then thought better of it. "Could you grab this last bag?"
"Really? Thanks!" Standing back up, she took the bag of groceries in her arms, then snagged her recipe book from atop the fridge. "I think that's all we need."
They returned to the TARDIS, where the Doctor sent the ship back into flight, then led her to the kitchen, remarking that he was letting the craft drift in space around a red giant in same arm of the galaxy as her solar system. The kitchen wasn't too far away from the console room, but they passed multiple doors on the way, and with each step, Traci's eyes grew wider.
"Just how big is this place?" she gaped.
He stopped and elbowed a door open. "Just in here. Pretty big. More than I ever use."
Stepping through the door, Traci was stunned by the huge modern kitchen, furnished with multiple counters, two large sinks, two stoves, and four ovens. Every utensil she could think of, and far more that she suspected weren't of Earth origin, depended from hooks on the walls and racks hung from the ceiling. "This is enormous! You cook so much that you need a kitchen like this?"
"Oh, no. I'm sure the TARDIS knew what we needed and set this up for us." The Doctor slipped past her to deposit the groceries on the center island.
"Wha-?" Traci sputtered a bit before continuing. "You're saying this... this... this spaceship, it's actually thinking? And changes things around on its own?"
The Doctor had begun unpacking the bags, lining up the ingredients in a neat row. "Oh, yes. She's very helpful. You've quite the assortment of ingredients here. The pantry's right there, if there's anything else you need." He jerked his head at a door near one of the stoves, then turned to her and clasped his hands behind his back. "What are we making here?"
Traci was still gawking at the room, and, shutting her mouth with a pop, she blinked a few times. "Okay. Yes." Striding to the island, she began unpacking her bag. "I wanted to make some cupcakes and some lemon tarts. And a whole bunch of cookies."
The Doctor's eyes lit up at the last suggestion. "Oh! I'm not much of a baker, but I can do that last one."
"Okay, then, let's do it." She grabbed an apron from a coat rack near the door and tied it on.
Traci and the Doctor spent the next few hours in a whirlwind of flour, sugar, and confections. Each of them claimed two ovens, so there was little delay in the baking of batches, and the kitchen was large enough that they didn't get in each other's way at all. The TARDIS' pantry was extensive, stocking both dry and fresh ingredients, and Traci found that she couldn't resist taking advantage of it, delving into her recipe book for unusual baked goods and recipes she hadn't had the chance or the bravery to try. This resulted in batches of cherry brownies and cheese pockets, and some raspberry petits fours, even though those took her longer than she had intended.
Despite the Doctor's claim that he didn't know how to bake, he seemed to do just fine, his array of cookies growing at a steady rate. Though she never saw him refer to any recipes, she noticed that he often used the utensils she suspected were alien in his cooking, and occasionally he pulled out his screwdriver and held it to his ear, listening to it intently, before heading into the pantry to fetch ingredients.
The long period of work gave them plenty of time to do so something they hadn't ever done before: simply chat. The Doctor inquired after the strangest, most boring things, asking her for stories about her family, what she did at home all day, what her kids were doing. Traci loved to talk about her children, of course, but that was a conceit every mother shared: everyone wants to talk about what's important to them, and few people ask for them to do so. The Doctor did, however, and he was an attentive listener, asking minute questions about details that interested him and delighting in every tale that Traci offered.
Oddly enough, she found it difficult to steer the conversation in a direction that would help her get to know him better. He was very deft in taking any topic she might ask him about and steer it back in her direction, except when she asked about where he traveled. He definitely didn't care to talk about himself, but he reveled in sharing with her the planets and peoples he visited. And what a storyteller he was! His words sparkled and breathed, and the pictures they formed in her mind were so vivid, she felt she was standing on the threshold of the TARDIS, seeing them all for herself. His zeal for exploring new places and times was so infectious that the scant time she spent baking in the TARDIS was the closest she'd ever felt to wanting to open her watch, just so that she could join him and see these things for herself.
"You make the universe out there sound so enthralling," Traci remarked after the Doctor's description of a planet colonized by humans in the far future, whose people had been forcibly evolved into two separate societies, one weak but highly intelligent and technical and the other physically strong and savage. "Don't you run out of new things to see, since you've been traveling so long?"
"The universe is vast, Traci, far larger than you think." He was sprinkling chocolate shavings on a batch of spooned dough balls in preparation for putting the pan in the oven. "If I decided to visit each galaxy and spend a single day in each one, I'd die of old age before seeing even a tiny fraction of them. I'll never run out of new things to see."
Traci placed her mixing bowl under the mixer and switched it on; the computer-controlled appliance blended the batter to the perfect consistency as she waited. "I'm surprised that you come back here to Earth so often then. This planet must be boring to you by now."
"Earth is one of my favourite places!" he exclaimed as he placed the cookie sheet in the oven and set the timer. "Humans are so brilliant, so vibrant. Look here." Leaning across one of the counters, the Doctor snagged a bottle of candy decorations. "See this? Edible ball bearings. Invented by humans and utterly unique. You humans are splendid!"
Traci threw her head back, laughing. "The silliest little things really catch your attention, don't they?"
The Doctor tossed the confection bottle from hand to hand. "There's wonder everywhere, Traci, for anyone who cares to look for it."
"Oh, I don't know. Cupcake decorations just don't hold my interest." She noted that they obviously held his, as he opened the bottle and tossed a few silver beads in his mouth. "I guess I've never really been one to explore, but there are plenty of people who do. One day, we'll travel to the stars and see all of these wonders that you do. It's sad it probably won't be in my lifetime, but..." She faltered as she remembered that she did have the option of traveling to the stars, if she wanted to take it, and tried to cover it up by taking the conversation in a different direction. "I suppose for now we have to be content that the stars seem to be coming to us. Sometimes I think that Earth must be a interstellar turnpike or something, with all the aliens traipsing through."
The Doctor tossed back another handful of silver sugar balls. "No more than most places. As I've said before, aliens have been visiting Earth for ages. They've just been a slight bit more discreet than they are now."
"I'll say." She moved back around her counter to claim the batter bowl from the mixer. "I don't know how we've been able to fight them off. Like those robots when there were all the planets in the sky."
Startled, the Doctor poured far too many decorations into his hand and spent a moment pouring them back in. He capped the bottle and licked the last few beads out of his palm. "Robots with planets in the sky? What?"
"Yeah. Everything went dark, like the sun had gone out, and it looked like there were other planets up in the sky. Then these robot things started attacking, killed a lot of people." She shuddered as she remembered. "After a while, they all disappeared, and then there was an enormous earthquake and everything was back to normal. Well, other than all the destruction." Her tone was sarcastic.
He scratched his head. "I wonder what that was all about. Seems like the Earth survived, though. Perhaps I'll encounter that in the future." He shrugged.
"If you do, tell me about it." She began portioning the batter into the muffin tins in front of her. "No one really knows what happened. That and that other time, that mass hallucination. Everyone looked like the same man. And they said there was another planet in the sky, over Europe."
The Doctor stared at her with one eyebrow cocked. "Sounds like some interesting times. If I ever find out, I'll let you know."
Traci grinned. "I'm looking forward to finding out what that stuff was all about. But…" Traci hesitated a moment. She wasn't sure if this was something she'd be allowed to ask. "There's something I've always wondered about, if you're willing to tell me."
He leaned on the counter with an encouraging smile. "Anything, Traci. What is it?"
Her question was low and tentative. "Will you tell me about Gallifrey?"
The Doctor froze. The question obviously startled him, and it was a moment before he nodded. "Of course I will, Traci." His voice was soft and serious, and she hastened to give him an out.
"You don't have to if you don't want to. I know it's a painful subject."
"No." He caught her gaze and held it to emphasize his sincerity. "I'll tell you anything you want to know."
"Yes." His smile was sad but encouraging.
She barely whispered, "Thank you. I'd like to know about my home."
Still leaning on his elbows, the Doctor stroked his chin with one hand as he peered at her. "You've seen it before, in your dreams, haven't you? Your memories as a Time Lady bleeding into your dreams sometimes?"
"I think so, but it's so hard to remember them."
He nodded. "That happened to me, too, when I was John Smith. Wrote them down as soon as I awoke, so that I could remember them, though they made little sense to me at the time." He bit the tip of his thumb. "What have you seen?'
Frowning, Traci leaned against the counter behind her as she tried to call up the images that danced just out of her mind's reach, as if they were compelled to stay hidden but longed to be remembered. "I've seen… I think I've seen great vast halls in a city with soaring towers protected by a glass dome under an orange sky. Like the way they always show kings and grand palaces in movies, all marble and tapestries everywhere. But there's also computers and technology and robots and things." She shook her head, trying to straighten her thoughts out. "It's almost like it's two completely different places. There's always lots of people. Mostly young people, but I think that might be because I'm picturing people I was going to school with, maybe? Everyone's in robes, and they're a lot of different colors but I'm always wearing red and orange. And there are two people that show up all the time. They might be my parents." She glanced up at the Doctor. "Is that right? Is that who they are?"
"Could be. I can't know for sure." Pushing off the counter, he spun to check the oven, then moved to start working on a new batch, while Traci removed her bowl from the mixer and began spooning the batter into cupcake shells set in a muffin tin. "But the pictures in your mind, they're accurate. Gallifrey was a mix of futuristic technology - well, futuristic to you - and ancient laws and traditions. And yes, the Capitol was enclosed in an enormous, transparent sphere. Not glass, of course. Set against the mountains of Sola -" He broke off, biting his lip, then laughed quietly to himself.
Setting down her bowl, Traci took a step toward him. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"
He rubbed at the back of his neck with a floured hand. "Nothing. I was being myself. So typically myself." Rolling his eyes, he gazed up at the ceiling as he traced his upper lip with his tongue. "I was about to tell you about the beautiful skies and meadows and trees around the citadel, and how, when the seasons change and the twin suns rise over the mountains, the land itself shines like fire. All the fantastic imagery I paint for my companions that dazzle their imaginations but ultimately mean nothing. I mean, it's all true. Gallifrey was a beautiful planet, grace and splendour in the cities as well as the countryside." He caught her eye and shook his head. "But that's not what you're asking, what you want to hear. You want to know about your home and the life you should have had." He sniffed. "And I must remember that you're not my companion. No matter the form you're in, at heart you're a Time Lady, the only other member of my species in existence, and I should pay you the honour and respect that you're due. No equivocations, no pretty words to placate your curiosity. It's always so easy to talk my way around any situation, but I won't do that to you." Grinning, he held up one finger to ask for a moment. "Let me just gather the ingredients for this next batch."
As they continued their baking, the Doctor described for Traci the typical lives of Gallifreyans and Time Lords. Though he had no knowledge of her parents and family, he illustrated how life might have been like for a child of Time Lord parents who was destined to train at the Academy to follow in their footsteps: the discipline instilled in her from the moment she could speak, the hundred years of schooling, and her path after becoming a Time Lady, entering the profession she would likely occupy until she died. He described some of the things a Time Lady have chosen to do, giving preference in his fashion to those that sounded flashier, such as study the complex science of stars as a stellar engineer, ensure the integrity of the Web of Time as an agent of the Celestial Intervention Agency, or going into politics.
For her part, Traci listened to the Doctor in awe. The life of a Time Lady sounded horrible: serious and determined, without joy. And yet, though the Doctor obviously had no interest in living such a life himself, his words and phrasings acknowledged the importance of the Time Lords' work, and Traci could not help but be fascinated. She also felt some amount of pride, that though she had no idea who she might have been in that life, she had applied herself for a hundred years and successfully graduated from the Academy, become a Time Lady, achieved what very few people in the universe had the opportunity to even attempt. For the first time, she could imagine herself as this unknown person, so much greater than simple Traci, and she had to concentrate on the cupcakes she was baking for her daughter to keep herself grounded. There still wasn't a question in her mind - Alex and her wonderful children were her universe - but for once, she could feel her Time Lady self waiting patiently for her.
"I think," Traci began, as she finished individually wrapping the lemon tarts and began arranging them in their box, "that we overdid this a little bit." Her counter was stacked with baked goods, and the Doctor's cookies were spread over two counters, cooling.
"Too much?" Pausing as he tied up a half-dozen bag of cookies, he tilted his head, gazing at her with a worried expression. He had streaks of flour up one cheek and all over his blue suit, as well as through his hair; he had obviously run a dusted hand through it.
She laughed. "This is way more than I'm supposed to bring. About four times as much." Closing the tart box, she wandered over to the cookie pile. She hadn't looked before, but now she could see that the Doctor had baked many different kinds of cookies. "Whoa! What are all these?"
He held up the bag he'd just tied. "These are Florentines. Not baked, actually. Bit of chocolate shortbread over there. These are your basic chocolate chips." He grinned proudly at his handiwork. "These here are ilmarazons, though I used chocolate instead of salringi syrup. And these are Toupkachian seylids. They've got a sweet that goes well with chocolate, especially when you…"
"Wait. These are alien cookies?" She picked up a seylid and held it up, staring at it. She had no idea why she let these things surprise her anymore.
"Not all of them. Those over there are Scottish macaroons. These, though, are from…" He faltered as he caught her horrified gape, and his delight faded into contrition. "I did it again, didn't I? Too much weird?"
"I can't sell alien cookies!" She shook the cookie at him. "What do I call them? What if people get sick?"
The Doctor waved his hands in front of her. "Oh, no no no! They're safe! I'd never give you anything that wasn't. Honest! Go on, you can eat them." He glanced at the cookie in her hand.
Brow furrowed, she hesitated, then took a small nibble of the seylid. Her eyes widened as she almost spit out the crumbs in surprise. "Oh my god. This is fantastic!" The chocolate and a tart but smooth fruity substance swirled through the airy, buttery cookie. She couldn't resist taking another, larger bite. "Why'd you say you can't bake?"
"Oh," he shrugged, "I just followed the recipes. I only chose the easy ones."
"Recipes?" She glanced around for a book. "I didn't see you working off recipes."
He pulled out his screwdriver and held it up. "Recipes! I told you I had a database of chocolate biscuits."
"Oh!" He grinned. "Yes. British word for cookies."
"I had no idea!" She stepped back and surveyed the mounds of baked goods. "Well, if you're sure they're safe, then I guess it's okay." He grinned like a boy who'd just been told he was going to Disneyland.
They spent the next half hour bagging up sweets in sellable portions, then packing them in boxes. Organized neatly, the boxes took up nearly two large counters. Tapping a box with one hand, Traci shook her head. "If I take these home, no one's going to believe I did this, this afternoon."
"Take what you need to show you're done, and I'll bring the rest to you at the sale itself." Jamming his hands in his pockets, the Doctor flashed her a hopeful smile that she'd accept his offer.
"You'd do that for me?"
"Thank you, Doctor." Stuffing a leftover ilmarazon in her mouth, she began setting aside the boxes she wanted to take home.