It had been the hardest three days of Traci's life. What should have been a great afternoon watching Jason's soccer game with Mikey turned into chaos when the drunk driver ran the red light and plowed into the side of the SUV. She had gotten out of it relatively unscathed, while Jason got a concussion, bruised ribs, and a broken arm, and Mikey… What she wouldn't give to have been in their place! But she, Alex, and Katie were reduced to spending their days outside of the ICU, pouncing on every tidbit of news, waiting for the moment that Mikey came out of the coma.
She had stayed up in Jason's room to make sure he was okay and tried to keep his spirits up, until he told her that he understood that she wanted to be as close to Mikey as she could be, right there where she'd get all news right away. "I'm fine, Mom", Jason had said, "so go down to Mikey." Her older boy was growing up to be such a fine young man. Thus, she stayed down by the ICU, watching, waiting. She tried to occupy herself with her knitting, but every time, within a few minutes, she would stuff it away impatiently. She appreciated Alex's efforts to keep conversation with her, but she eventually told him that he shouldn't bother, that it wasn't working. While Katie staked out a corner of the waiting room doing her homework and texting her friends, Traci paced, or poked around the corridors, or sat in a chair, staring at her hands and seeming dead to the world.
Through it all, she could still hear the screams of her two sons as the other car flew out of nowhere and smashed into them. And though her rational mind reminded her that the other driver had been drunk and out of control, her heart chanted, It's my fault. It's my fault. If I'd watched better, I would have seen him coming and not entered the intersection. If I'd just accelerated more, we would've gotten out of the way. The car wouldn't have hit him dead on. I didn't protect him. I didn't save him.
It was mid-afternoon on the third day that the doctor came out of the ICU, his face serious. Traci later did not remember at all what he had said. She only knew that Mikey had died. He had held on for three days, and she'd hoped that it meant he was still fighting, but ultimately his body couldn't heal from all the trauma.
Traci knew that Alex was holding her tight, stroking her hair, but she couldn't feel him, couldn't hear his sobs in her ear or his ragged words of comfort and love. Mikey was gone. She hadn't even been able to see him since the accident, locked away in the ICU, and now he was gone forever. Her world had collapsed around her, and she was trapped in a bubble, screaming her anger and misery to a universe that heard and cared not. She felt her legs buckle beneath her, and Alex half-guided, half-carried her to a nearby chair, then sat beside her, cradling her to his chest. She could hear her wails and feel her tears burning her cheeks, but they didn't sound or feel like they were coming from her. Here, inside her, all was black, and all she could feel was pain.
But it wasn't silent. Fragments of thoughts, visions, voices, screams whirled through her mind, mostly memories of Mikey, but also bits of her rational mind trying to reassert control. She knew Katie was standing right there and needed her mother to help her cope, but Traci couldn't even take care of herself; how was she supposed to help her daughter? And Jason, up in his hospital room, injured in the same accident; he needed to be told, too. Her mind latched onto anything it could in its search for stability. I've got to call Alex's parents. And the school. Need to get his things from the school. How do we find a funeral home?
"Oh god. Oh god. Oh god," she gasped. She felt another pair of arms encircle her: Alex had gathered Katie to them, and she threw an arm around her teenage daughter, holding on to her for dear life.
"It'll be okay, Mom. It'll be okay," Katie murmured, her voice broken by sobs.
Listen to her. Thirteen years old and she's so much more in control than me. Traci pulled Katie's head down to her and kissed the top. "Oh, sweetie… Katie... Oh god. Oh god." A new wave of tears erupted.
Why? she screamed to herself. He was only ten years old! What's the point? What's the point of putting him here then taking him away from me? I don't want… I don't want… She abruptly jumped up from the chair, shaking off her startled husband and daughter. "I need… I need... Oh god..." She ran down the hallway, crying, and heard Alex's words to Katie, "Don't. Let her go."
Running down the stairs exhausted some of her emotional energy, but she still emerged from the stairwell with her eyes clouded with tears. As she stumbled towards the main entrance of the hospital, searching for an exit, an escape from the reality she couldn't accept, a large brown blur came down the hallway toward her, and, trusting her instinct, she ran into its arms.
"Traci. I've got you. I've got you. I'm here."
The Doctor held her tightly, his coat encircling her, shielding her from the world, as she sobbed uncontrollably. After many minutes, she gasped out, "Doctor... Doctor... Take me… Take me away from here. Far away. Please."
She had no idea where he led her, and only became aware of her surroundings when she heard the peculiar grinding noise emanating from the TARDIS' central column. She stared at it, her face blank, until it ground to a stop, then she mechanically marched to the door. The Doctor slipped past and pulled the door open for her, and she stepped out onto the grassy bank of a river, over which a bridge led to a futuristic city. The air was fresh and clean, and unseen birds, or alien bird equivalents, chirped and trilled.
"Where are we?" she croaked. Her voice didn't want to work properly.
"New Earth. Outside the city of New New York. About five billion years in your future. I thought you might like some fresh air and new scenery."
Five billion years. She stood on the fragrant grass and gazed at the city, with its soaring towers and flying cars. She might be sunk in her grief, but her eyes could still take in the vista. In a way, it was comforting to see this new place, to be so far removed from the worst day of her life. And yet, it was still today, still now, still mere minutes since…
She forced herself to avoid such thoughts; they only hurt more. The Doctor shrugged off his coat and spread it on the grass, then helped her sit down on it. When he joined her, he put his arm around her, and she laid her head on his shoulder. The tears came again, and as she cried, the Doctor embraced and comforted her, supporting and strengthening her though no words passed between them. Eventually, her sobs lessened, and she gazed at the city and the river, lost in her memories. She wasn't sure if minutes or hours had passed when she spoke again. "Why do I feel so… so secure with you, Doctor? I mean, I just ran from my own family."
A long moment passed before he answered. "Because I take you out of your life for a tick? Give you a break from being human?"
Her lips curved in a sad smile. "I guess being on an alien world helps me ignore all the things I don't want to think about."
"Oh, it's not all that alien." He adopted that friendly professor air that he always used when telling her something new and fantastic. "This is the current home planet of the human race. Well, humans and cats. One of them runs the city. A nice cat. Novice Hame. I should introduce you. You'd like her."
Traci flicked a glance at him; he was staring fondly at the city. It had been a while since her last surreal Doctor conversation, and it felt oddly comfortable. She nestled into his shoulder. A break from being human, huh? I'm one of the last two Time Lords in the universe. Why would I want to go back, to be human? When it hurts so much…
"I'm ready, Doctor."
"Hmm?" He glanced down at her. "So soon? We only just got here."
"No." She sat up and pulled her purse in front of her. "I'm ready to be a Time Lady again." She began rummaging for the watch.
The Doctor's hand came down on the opening of the purse, blocking her from rooting through it. "No, you can't."
She scrunched her face in irritation. "Yes, I can. It's my decision, and I've decided it's time. I don't want to be Traci anymore. I want to become the Time Lady again." She tried to pry his hand off the purse.
"You're not thinking straight, Traci. You can't use the watch to run away from your life."
"I can if I want to!" His grip on the purse was too strong for her to break, and she started pummeling his hand with her fists. "Let go!" His arms still around her, he grabbed both of her arms by the wrists, and she flailed against him. "Let me go!"
"Calm down, Traci." His voice was the gentlest she'd ever heard it be. "You know full well this isn't a decision you can make right now. You're hurting and you can't imagine how you can survive, but you will. Mikey will never leave your heart, but you'll get better. You have so much to live for. I know you don't think so right now, but please believe me. You do."
She wrenched herself from his grip and twisted to face him. "Stop trying to tell me how I feel and what's going to happen!" she screamed. "My son is dead! This is the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone! You don't know what it's like! You don't have any idea!"
Suddenly sagging, he shook his head. His exhausted eyes betrayed a misery she'd never seen in him before. "Oh, Traci. I know exactly what it's like."
Traci stared at him with the question burning in her eyes. He'd had children who had died?
"Oh, yes. Children. Grandchildren. I might have had great-grandchildren and more, but I don't know for certain. They're all gone now, of course." He turned away, to gaze back at the city.
It had never occurred to her that this young-looking man who spent his life traveling the universe might have had children, but now she remembered that he said he was nine hundred years old. Of course he would have children. And more. And they were all gone because… "The Time War?" She barely whispered the name.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know." She swallowed. "Doctor? What happened in the Time War?"
Without looking at her, he shook his head. "No. You don't want to hear about that. Not now. Not today."
"No." She caressed his cheek, and he lowered his eyes to her face. "It's time you told me everything, about this Time War and what happened. Whatever it is, it's the most important thing to you, more than just a war, even more than the end of your people. I can tell. What happened?"
The Doctor stared at her, his face grim. It was clear that he didn't want to tell her, so she urged him one more time. "I deserve to know, and you need to talk to someone about it."
He inhaled deeply. "Okay. Yeah, okay. I'll tell you. You need to know." He paused, gazing at the city as he composed his thoughts.
She squeezed his arm. "Tell me everything. Because I know that you don't tell anyone anything you don't have to, do you?"
The Doctor bit his lip, declining to answer. He couldn't look at her as he began to speak. "So. I told you there was a great war between our people and the Daleks. The Daleks... they're a created species, mutated from a humanoid race called the Kaleds and conditioned to hate. Their creator, a Kaled named Davros, his aim was to create the perfect soldier, to destroy every trace of life in the universe. I've met them many times in my travels. Hateful, destructive creatures. The Time Lords managed to keep them at bay, until they decided to declare war on us, to destroy us and Gallifrey.
"It was a terrible war, raging across all of time and all the galaxies. And I was a soldier in that war. I fought on the front lines. I didn't want to. I don't want to kill anybody." His cheek twitched. "I avoided the war for as long as I could, helping those that got overrun by it however I could. Eventually, though, it became obvious that it was spiraling out of control. Our people were once the most respected race in the universe, presiding over the Laws of Time, but the war had gone on for so long, they became no better than the Daleks. All they cared about was the war and their own survival, no matter what stood in their way. And so I decided to become a soldier, to try to end the war if I could."
He looked at Traci and shook his head. "But it doesn't work that way. You can't end a war by becoming a part of it. You become just another soldier. I fought, and I killed. Not just Daleks but their allies. And I'd be a fool if I claimed that I never hurt our allies. Call it collateral damage or friendly fire or whatnot; it's all the same. I've long lost count of how many lives these hands have taken." He stared at his open palms, and a tear rolled down his cheek.
Presently, he dipped his head, his eyes closed, then inhaled deeply before continuing. "By the end of it all, the Daleks were winning, and the Time Lords were getting desperate. I tried to stop them, I did, but I couldn't. I failed. They wouldn't listen. They began calling up horrors that should never have existed, to fight for them. They used the forbidden weapons in the Omega Arsenal. But it wasn't enough. The Daleks kept coming, and if they defeated us, they would take the war to every planet in the universe, to exterminate all that was not Dalek."
The Doctor looked directly at Traci, held her gaze as he spoke. "The Time Lord High Council was ready for this. When Arcadia, Gallifrey's second city, fell, they decided to enact the Final Sanction. They would transform into beings of consciousness, to exist eternally, by destroying time itself."
Traci stared back at him, brow furrowed in non-comprehension. "What? What does that even mean?"
"Simply put, they were going to destroy the universe to save themselves. That's what the Time Lords became, after all that war. The great protectors of the universe, running scared, willing to destroy all of creation so that they didn't have to die." The disgust on his face was mingled with the embarrassment of being one of them. "So I stopped them."
She frowned at him, her eyes wide and terrified. "How?" she whispered.
"There was one weapon left in the Omega Arsenal, the one weapon that none of the Time Lords would use. It was called the Moment, the most powerful weapon in the universe. I stole it. And then I fired it. I convulsed the time vortex, destroying the Daleks and the Time Lords, no matter where they might have been, as well as who knows how many planets, stars, galaxies across the universe. And I convinced myself that destroying two mighty civilizations, killing billions, trillions, uncountable numbers of beings in order to end the war was the right thing to do." He buried his face in his hands. "So much blood," he choked, then fell silent.
When looked up at her again, his face and hands were dripping with tears. "So, you see, I do know what it's like to lose my child. I deliberately and knowingly killed each one of my own children. And then I had to go on living. That's my punishment. I outlive everyone, and I remember them all."
Traci's entire body was numb. When he had first told her about the Time War, all those years ago, she had been unable to even imagine the scale of the conflict. The death and destruction that the Doctor had just described were orders of magnitude greater than that, and all caused by the man cradling her, a man she knew to be gentle and compassionate, whom she trusted so much that on the worst day of her life, she had fled from her own family for the comfort and strength he could provide. She couldn't imagine that the Doctor could choose to kill one person, much less countless trillions, but here he was, admitting to multiple genocides. But it all seemed irrelevant, as the horror that truly gripped her was the revelation that their own people had intended to save themselves by sacrificing the rest of the universe. She couldn't comprehend it - couldn't believe that she could have been a part of that - and sat staring at the Doctor in horrified awe, her mouth hanging open.
The Doctor mopped at his face to dry his tears, then regarded Traci with sad, ancient eyes. "Come on. I'll take you home."
Startled, Traci drew back. "What? Why?"
The Doctor's eyes surveyed her entire face twice before he replied. "I've seen that look before. I know what it means. And it's so much more coming from you."
Shaking her head, she threw her hands up in confusion. "What? What look?"
"Anger. Condemnation. Hatred, even." Resigned and weary, he climbed to his feet, his body sagging. "I know what I've done. I'm the greatest mass-murderer ever. It's unspeakable, and unforgivable. And to top it all off, what I've done to you, destroyed what should have been your home and your life. I deserve every ounce of your loathing." He started to hold out his hand to help her up, then thought better of it and clasped it behind his back.
"What? No!" She blurted the words before she consciously thought them. "Why should I be angry with you?"
He drew back and, jamming his hands in his pockets, swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing as his eyes grew wide. Traci immediately knew what he was thinking, that he was horrified at her cruelty in requiring him to confess again - the second time would be no easier than the first - and she hastened to explain. "You had to do it. You had to stop them. Both sides. If you hadn't, the universe would have been destroyed, by one side or the other. You saved us from them. There's no shame in that."
"But I killed them. All of them. All of our people. Your family, my family. Billions on Gallifrey alone." He tore at his hair, leaving it more of a spiky mess than normal.
"And if you hadn't, there'd be nothing left. The universe, all the people everywhere, that city there" - and she flung a hand to point at New New York - "all gone. Our people may be gone, but everyone else still lives." Shifting, she crawled forward and grasped his leg. "You did the right thing."
He collapsed to the ground next to her, his hand over his mouth. "I don't know. I'd like to think... But all I hear are their screams."
Traci pulled him to her and held him, stroking his head as it lay on her shoulder. "Then listen to the birds, or whatever those things are, up in the trees on this planet. They're why you did it, right? They're worth it, I think, anyway."
Turning his head, he gazed up at her, the hope in his eyes barely concealed. "You don't hate me, then? For killing them all? For destroying your life?"
"Not at all," she stated without a moment's pause. "Don't worry about me. My life is just a tiny consequence. Gallifrey wouldn't have been my home either way." Her horror at the arrogance of the Time Lords returned, and she set her jaw against it. "And if that's what the Time Lords were like, then I'd rather be human."
He shook his head, pulling back to sit next to her again. "Not all of them. The High Council. Maybe the older and more powerful they were, the more the war affected them."
"Perhaps, but not exactly." He sighed. "We live for a very long time. Probably too long. I think they convinced themselves they were so very important and forgot that death comes to even them."
"Don't think about them, Doctor." She shifted herself closer to him and snuggled into his shoulder. "Come on. Let us mourn our children together." Slipping his arm around her, he held her close and kissed the top of her head.
Traci let herself think about Mikey, and allowed her tears to flow freely. She remembered his face and his voice and all the things he used to do. She watched him play Little League, lost to him at video games, helped him with his homework, tucked him into bed at night. She imagined to herself that he was now free to fly through the universe like the Doctor did, visiting distant planets and seeing strange vistas like the one she was looking at now, and she amused herself by wondering how Jason and Katie would take it if she could show them these wonders. Nah, she told herself, this is something just for me and the Doctor, but it reminded her that though Mikey might be gone, Jason and Katie would always still need their mother. They were still her anchor. There was no way she could ever leave them.
"Thank you, Doctor," she murmured, "for stopping me from opening the watch. You were right."
"Of course I was." She couldn't see him, but somehow she knew he had winked.
"And, thank you for coming for me at the hospital. I don't know what I would I have done." She shivered a little at the thought.
"You are welcome, always, Traci." He held her a little closer. "I'll always be here for you, when you need me."
"How did you know, that... that I'd need you today?"
She felt him shrug. "I didn't, actually. I came to see you in about five months, and you thanked me for coming now, so I knew what had happened and when to come back to."
Stunned, she blinked and raised her head to look at him. "You came to the hospital because I told you that you had already been there?"
"Yup." He popped the "p."
She shook her head. "I never get this time travel stuff." An idea suddenly burst into her head and she shifted onto her knees to face him. "But you have a time machine! Couldn't you just go back a little further and stop the accident from happening, and save Mikey from…?" She couldn't finish the sentence, but she pulled back from him, the plea in her eyes finishing it for her.
Misery flooded the Doctor's face as he shook his head. "No, Traci, I can't do that."
Traci's hands fell dead into her lap as despair crushed her. "You just came back five months to see me! You can just go back three more days and stop the accident! Just find me and tell me not to take the kids to the soccer game, or even just hold me up for fifteen seconds!"
He ran a hand through the hair on the side of his head. "You don't understand. It's not a matter of it being possible. I just can't do that."
He couldn't look at her. "It's against the rules."
Tracie threw her hands up in exasperation. "What rules? What rules say that my son has to die?"
"The Laws of Time." The Doctor's voice was devoid of emotion. "They were set up by the Time Lords millions of years ago, when they created the time vortex. They prevent tampering with the timestream, and protect the universe from anomalies and paradoxes. I can't cross into an established event. I can't change it."
"That's just ridiculous!" she screamed at him, choking back her tears. "What universe-destroying paradox is going to occur because my son lives? He's just one boy!"
The Doctor shook his head. "There might not even be one. But it's not my decision to make."
Grabbing him by the shoulders, Traci pleaded with him, tears now streaming down her face. "Doctor, please! You have to save my son! You're the only one who can!"
"No, Traci." His eyes glistened with his own tears as gazed at her. "This is what the Laws of Time are for, and I'm the only one left to uphold them."
Sitting back on her heels, she slumped, her head hanging. "Is… is… is this what it means to be a Time Lady? To just… just sit back and watch people die? To hide behind rules and… and… not do anything?"
She started as the Doctor jumped up and paced around her, gesticulating wildly in agitation. "Don't you see? If I could go back and save every child who ever died, I would, but I can't! You're asking me to decide who lives and who dies!" Stopping to face her, he slapped the back of his hand into the palm of the other. "That's what the laws were designed to prevent! No one should have that power. Especially not me."
She reached out with one hand and clutched his leg, peering up at him in supplication. "But you're the one who should! You're a good man, a wise man, and you know what you're doing. You have the power to stop all these terrible things. You can make everything better!"
"And look where that power got the Time Lords!" He thumbed his chest. "The moment I start to think that maybe I should be making those decisions, that I'm above the Laws, I'm already lost. I've already had to do it once, told myself I know what's best, put myself above the rest of universe, decided that my own people had to die. I cannot allow myself to be tempted to do it again!"
Traci crumpled, sobbing uncontrollably. "It's not fair! It's just not fair! I want Mikey back!" she moaned. She didn't resist as the Doctor knelt and drew her into his arms.
"I'm sorry, Traci. I'm so sorry." He rocked her gently as she cried, stroking her hair. The spasms wracked her body, but slowly subsided as her grief was spent. When she stilled, he continued to hold her, comforting her, telling her that she would never be alone. She knew he would be there for her always.
"Doctor?" Even after all this time of resting against him, her chest was still tight, and she breathed deeply to loosen it.
Her voice stuttered as her breath continued to catch. "This... this is what you were trying to tell me all those years ago, isn't it? When you told me what a Time Lady does and I said it sounded like fascinating work?" She shook her head against his chest, hiding her face. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't possibly choose to let someone's child die just to adhere to the law."
The Doctor clutched her close again before responding. "Not as a human, you wouldn't, but you would as a Time Lady. You would see things differently, know why it has to be this way."
"I just can't imagine that."
"No." He sighed. "You can't. It's what makes you beautifully, brilliantly human."
Traci looked up to see his wintry smile, and in his eyes, she saw the pain that his own refusal was bringing him, that though she might never understand how he could do so, he was determined to obey his people's laws despite the torment to himself. She saw the truth in his words, that he did care so much, and that he'd helped her so much simply by being there. She held him close, then drew back and returned his tiny smile. "I… I think it's time we went back now. My family needs me. And you've given me the time I needed to… to realize that it's going to hurt for a very long time and I'll never get over losing my Mikey. But I can survive."
"It is my honour to be your confidante." He got to his feet, then offered her a hand up. He then picked up his coat and, shaking it to loose the blades of grass stuck to it, slipped it on. "Back to the TARDIS, then home. But first, a short stop-off."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Where?"
"I promised to introduce you to the person who runs New New York. I think you'll find that if you're looking for harmony and balance in your life, there's no one better to talk to than a cat."