Traci sat in her car in the parking lot, reading through the to-do list she had scribbled in her little notebook. After all this time working with phones that got smarter and smarter with each passing year, she still found it far more efficient to jot down notes using simple pen and paper. She was probably just being old-fashioned, but she clung to it stubbornly, laughing inwardly as she pigeonholed herself into the old-person stereotype of being obstinate and unreasonable. She wasn't that old - she wasn't even sixty yet - but this was one peculiarity she wasn't willing to give up.
Alex would say that her stubbornness had nothing to do with being old, that that was just Traci in a nutshell. She sneered to herself. Alex could well learn to keep remarks like that to himself.
She'd already crossed off the errands she'd finished: taking the recycling for donation to the local youth center, shopping to refill the office supplies, picking up the parking passes for the next month. All that was left was to hit the supermarket to refill the snack cabinet and restock the coffee and soda. If she could get it all done quickly, she'd be able to get back to the office in time to check the time management system to see if everyone had gotten their timesheets done for the week. Better to get after the slackers today than first thing tomorrow morning.
When she had last worked, the job of the office manager always seemed so easy. Laura, the manager at that data storage firm, kept everything running smoothly and always seemed to be available for a chat with anyone who would listen. Working in the same position now at this software development company, with thirty-five programmers, artists, designers, and testers to take care of, not to mention the management, Traci had no idea how that woman did it. She was running herself ragged trying to keep the office humming along. But, she was starting to learn the tricks of the trade, things that made it look easy to everyone else, and it kept her busy and forced her out of her empty house.
Grabbing her purse, she got out of the car, slamming the door and locking it with the fob. Eight steps forward, she remembered that she needed to get the reusable bags out of the trunk; it had been two years since they had moved away from store-supplied disposable bags, and she still wasn't used to grabbing her own bags on the way in. She spun towards the car and gasped as she spotted the man leaning against her trunk, who hadn't been there just a moment before.
"Hey! Where'd you come from?"
With a mischievous grin, the Doctor pushed off the car and turned toward her with his hands in his trouser pockets, leaning forward with his chin out. "Just seeing if I could sneak up on you." He rocked on his feet from heel to toe, his coat swaying.
"Well, you succeeded. But then you always appear out of nowhere." She set her fists on her hips with a sarcastic expression.
"Not always! Last time, you saw me coming up the walk."
"Only because I made you stop parking that ship of yours in my living room. Before that?"
"You were in your car at Katie's school, reading a book. Not my fault you didn't see me."
"And before that?"
He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "I materialised the TARDIS in your living room."
"And the time before that, too! It scared me half to death!" Traci tried to maintain an angry stare but failed. Smiling affectionately, she dropped her hands to her sides. "Hi, Doctor!"
The Doctor replied with his own wide grin, all teeth. "Hello, Traci."
"And how are you doing?"
"Molto bene, thank you. And you?"
"Just fine. Keeping busy." As she gestured at the store behind her, it occurred to her that the Doctor seemed a bit too perfectly cheerful, and she wondered what was wrong. Not that he betrayed any hint of a concern; he just seemed a bit too flippant, beyond the usual flippancy of his demeanor.
"Excellent! This is the work you were doing the last I saw you, isn't it?"
"Yes, though last time I was only working part-time. I'm working full-time now."
"Wonderful!" He grinned at her, then faltered with uncertainty. "Er... What does that mean, 'part-time' and 'full-time'?"
Traci gaped at him for a moment before she silently laughed at herself. Of course he wouldn't know what those terms meant. "'Full-time' means I work forty hours a week and get benefits. 'Part-time' means I work less than forty and don't get benefits. And before you ask, no, don't worry about what 'benefits' means."
"So..." He rubbed his neck, shifting from foot to foot. "Full-time is a good thing?"
"Well, then," he grinned broadly, "good for you!"
While he clearly didn't grasp why it was a good thing, he was still delighted for her, and she accepted his compliments with grace. "Thanks. It's keeping me on my toes, at the very least."
"What kind of work do you do? Practising law again, are you?"
"No. That would take too much work to catch up on, after all these years." She shrugged. "I run the office for a software development firm. You know, stock the supply cabinet and the snacks, take care of the mail and the phone, make sure everyone has what they need. Kind of a glorified secretary. It's not much. Mostly it's just something to do."
The Doctor cocked an eyebrow at the hint of dissatisfaction in her tone. "Is everything all right, Traci?"
Moving to lean against his vacated spot on the car, she shrugged. "It's been a long year. That's all. Lots of changes. It's been a bit tiring."
He thrust his hands in his pockets. "What's going on?" As an afterthought, he added, "If I may ask?"
Traci laughed at that. "Someone's been teaching you manners. I don't know. It's just growing pains. You know." She fiddled with the keys in her hand, then looked up at him. "Katie graduated last year. Did you know that?"
"No! I didn't! Congratulations!"
"Top of her class." Traci beamed with pride. "She's incredibly smart, and that's not just the mother in me saying that. She wants to be an astronomer or a physicist. I have no idea where she got that from." She eyed the Doctor with meaning. "Anyway, she's going to Caltech now. Isn't that a coincidence? When we took her down there, I drove her past my old house, down on Tremont Street, where we first met."
"So long ago."
"Yes." She eyed him with a sardonic smile. "Though not that long for you."
He wagged a finger at her. "Long enough. Years. I've been spending my time, like you told me to. I just don't do it in the same order you do." His expression softened. "It sounds like she's happy, then?"
"Oh, she loves it! She says she's surrounded by people who are passionate about science, that she feels at home there."
"Brilliant! And how is Jason doing?"
Traci hugged herself before replying, absently rubbing at her arm as she thought about her son. "He's still struggling. All he wants to do is work on cars. He finally got a job as a junior mechanic in a garage, but he's impatient about moving up the ladder. Though I think that's partly because he wants a bigger paycheck. Michelle's pregnant, and he's starting to worry that he can't provide for a family."
The Doctor's eyes twinkled mischievously. "Grandma Traci."
Sneering, she leaned over and socked him on the arm. "Don't say that! Makes me feel old!" But she grinned, her bright eyes betraying her excitement for the little one.
"Makes you feel proud," he stated, his voice soft. Traci glanced up at him and wondered if she detected a trace of envy in his gaze.
"It does. It's just..." Traci stared down at her hands for a moment, then swallowed hard before continuing. "They're gone now, Doctor. They're gone, and I don't know what to do. I mean, I know they're fine and happy, but I miss them so much."
"It's proper hard, isn't it? Letting them go."
"It really is." She glanced across the parking and watched the cars on the street pass by for a few moments before continuing. "For the first couple of months after Katie left for college, I'd just wander into a room and look for her. Every night!" She shook her head in self-mockery. "And I had to stop myself from calling her up all the time. I mean, I knew I had to let go, but even when I did call, it was so obvious she didn't want to talk to me. I was bothering her."
Traci buried her face in her hands, trying to calm herself down. She took a few deep breaths, then looked back up at the Doctor. "I really don't know what to do with myself. The last twenty-three years of my life were spent making sure they were safe and they had everything they needed, and then suddenly," she shrugged, her lips a flat, regretful line, "they don't need me anymore. They don't even want me in their lives. They're living somewhere else, and they have new friends, and they're doing their own laundry. In a way, this is almost worse than it was with Mikey." Her heart clenched a little as she thought about her lost son. "Because they wanted to leave me. They don't even think about me anymore."
"You know they do. You know they still love you." The Doctor's voice was soft and tender.
She nodded. "Yeah. I know they do. But no one says it anymore. It's all so quiet now. I'm so lonely."
The Doctor reached out and squeezed her shoulder, his touch comforting her more than she imagined it would. "You've still got Alex."
Traci coughed a sad little laugh. "Maybe. Not really." At the Doctor's confused stare, she shrugged. "He was getting on my nerves! It was like we had this huge house, but wherever I was, he was, too, and doing exactly what I didn't want him to do. All these little things were just getting to me. It got to the point where I just could not imagine why I married him in the first place, he was so annoying! And I guess he felt the same, too. We've separated."
The Doctor pursed his lips, gazing down at her sadly. "I'm so sorry."
She shrugged. "Well. Yeah. My friend Lisa - I don't think you know her. Well, Lisa's daughter moved out two years ago, and she had the same problem with her husband. So she told me, we'd been Mom and Dad for so long, we'd changed and we didn't know who Traci and Alex were. She told me we needed to figure out who they are and what we love about them. It's great advice, but... We're still working on that. I don't know yet if we can pull this back out."
She puffed out a heavy sigh. "And that's where I am right now. I don't know. I'm so tired. There's nothing for me to do, no one who wants me, you know? I've got this job keeping me busy, and I've taken on some volunteer work. And I have friends, of course. But it's not the same." She suppressed a sniffle; she didn't need to demonstrate just how weak she felt. "But you didn't come here to listen to me complain about my life."
The Doctor's voice was firm and sympathetic. "I came here to see how my friend was doing, good or bad, Traci."
"Good and bad, I guess." She wrapped her arms around herself as if she were chilled, though it was a pleasantly warm day. "I'm ashamed to say this, but I've been thinking more and more about my pocket watch recently. I don't know how seriously, but it's tempting to think I can just move on, go up and out."
The Doctor opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He ran his tongue over his teeth as he considered what he should say. "I… To be honest, Traci, it won't work out the way you think it will. You see, in the end, everyone leaves. They can't help but leave. They have lives to get on with. And Time Lords live a very long time. A very, very long time. Honestly, we just outlive them."
Traci frowned. Judging by what he had told her about how long Time Lords lived and the way they had passively watched the universe, she'd thought that they'd be callous, inured to the loss they must suffer many times over their long lives. "But you said that Time Lords are different from humans. You don't feel the same way. That's why you can stand by and watch bad things happen. You don't care."
"Oh, no," he breathed, shaking his head as he stared into her eyes. "I do care, Traci. I care very much. Time Lords do see the universe differently than humans do, and have different responsibilities, different priorities, and I do have to uphold the Laws of Time. But that doesn't mean that the loss of a loved one doesn't affect me."
For a moment, she saw a deep sadness in his eyes, and on impulse, she blurted out her next question before she thought better of it. "Doctor, you've lost someone, haven't you?"
Jerking back, his mouth twitched a smile for a split second and she knew he had been about to deny it, cover it up. However, the smile fled as quickly as it had formed, and he sighed.
"I've lost lots of people. That's just the nature of my life. Hundreds of years now. More if I were really honest. I live among people that don't live as long as I do, so I can't avoid it." He shrugged. "But that's not what you meant. You meant right now." Rubbing the back of his neck, he continued, though Traci could see the effort he was making to be honest with her. "Yes. Donna's gone. You remember her, don't you? I mentioned her. She was my best mate." His eyes shone with her memory. "But she's gone now. Oh," and his attitude was suddenly bright, as if he had switched his sadness off, "do you remember, you wanted to know about those planets in the sky? Those robots - they're not robots. They're called Daleks, an ancient race…"
Traci had heard that name before. "Aren't those the ones from the Time War?"
"Yes! You remembered! That's the ones. Turns out, they survived. They always survive." Anger flickered through his eyes. "They moved the Earth and twenty-six other planets to the Medusa Cascade to power an engine that could destroy all matter in the universe. Donna was the one who figured out how to destroy it, and we sent all the planets back home. That was the earthquake you remembered."
Traci blinked at him. She knew very well that he got himself into and out of these incredible situations, but the scale of these events never failed to stun her. The Daleks descending upon the Earth and decimating the population had been mind-blowing enough, and now moving planets and destroying the universe? Sometimes he really stretched her ability to believe him. "Really?" she finally gasped out. "That's just ridiculous."
The Doctor grinned fondly at her. "Always something new and impossible, isn't there? But that's what happened." Smirking, Traci rolled her eyes and shook her head at him. "Really. But Donna had to leave after that. She's home now, with her family." He glanced away, gazing at a pair of teenagers strolling down the sidewalk.
"Oh!" Traci smiled with relief. "I thought you said she died. I'm glad she's all right. You should go see her. I'm sure she'd love to have you visit."
"No." The Doctor grimaced, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand. "She doesn't remember me. And she can't see me. Not ever. It would kill her if she did."
"What? How can that...?" Traci's words trailed off at the anger and regret that flooded his eyes. She longed to know what he meant by that, but she knew that further inquiry was not welcome. He shook his head.
"That's how it always ends. She left. They all did, my friends. They came back, to fight the Daleks. Martha, Jack, Mickey, Jackie, Sarah Jane." A slight pause. "Rose. They were magnificent, all of them. But when the threat was over and the universe was safe, they went back to their families and their loved ones. Because when it comes down to it, they have to get on with their lives, and those lives do not include me."
Traci bit back a tear and gazed at him with a sad smile. "I'm sorry, Doctor. It must be so hard..." She sighed. "I suppose it doesn't matter what life you live. Everything ends sometime. There are always going to be goodbyes."
Nodding, he scrubbed a hand down over his jaw. "It never gets any easier. It hits me right in the hearts every time a friend leaves, and there's been so many, long gone now. But what can I do? Can't stop them. If they don't leave on their own, time will steal them away eventually." Glancing at her, his lips curved in a wintry little smile. "No use dwelling on it, really."
She snorted and crossed her arms. "So, you're saying that all I can do is buck up and live with it."
"Your words. Not mine." He shook his head sadly. "If I had all the answers… But I don't."
Traci abruptly stepped forward and hugged him. "We'll muscle on, each in our own way." She then cocked her fists on her hips and gazed up at him. "I don't believe that you just argued me out of opening the watch."
Jamming his hands in his pockets, he threw his head back and laughed. "I surprise myself sometimes. However," and he held up a warning finger, "I want you to open the watch for the right reasons. That's the most important thing. Anything else would be disaster."
"And the right reasons are…?"
His hand returned to his pocket and he faced her squarely. "Whatever they are, you'll know."
"Damn!" she blurted as she spun away. "I was hoping you'd reveal one universal answer." She winked as she turned back to him.
"Oh, no!" he shot back with a mischievous grin. "No easy outs."
Grabbing the purse strap on her shoulder, she jerked her head toward the supermarket. "Care to come along with me while I do my shopping? I'll just need to drop the things off at work, and then we can grab a bite to eat. Keep each other company for a little while, anyway."
"I'd like that." The Doctor offered her an arm, and taking it, she strolled with him across the parking lot and into the store.