Lying on her back, her head on a soft pillow, Traci stared at the TV without really seeing it. Since the nurses always turned the lights down low in the room at night, the TV was really the only thing she could see, but it couldn't hold her attention; she mostly had it on just for a little noise. Most of the time, she found her thoughts just wandering, and she expected that would happen a lot more as time went on. She had overheard the doctor talking to Katie, and he had said to expect that her mind would get fuzzier and fuzzier over the next two weeks, and that she would remain fully lucid only for a few more days. It angered her that he didn't tell her that.
She was weak enough now that anything tired her out, even scrolling through the pictures of her family and her life on the tablet. Jason had urged her to see the doctor a long time ago, but she had put it off, and by the time they found it, the cancer had spread so much that they had trouble figuring out exactly where it had started. Two more weeks now, two weeks of her brain slowly shutting down, followed closely by the rest of her body. Ah, I had a good long life, a wonderful family… she tried to tell herself. She was supposed to be philosophical about it all, right? Then why was she so terrified?
A light knock on the door startled her. At this time of night, her children, grandchildren, and friends should all be home, and the hospice nurses usually didn't come by past ten unless their monitors showed something was wrong. Turning her head slowly, she saw the door crack open and a familiar voice called softly. "Traci?"
She wasn't sure why, but that voice melted away all the fear in her heart. "Doctor?" It came out as barely a whisper. "Doctor, is that you?"
The opening widened and the Doctor slipped in, then pushed the door closed. He smiled tenderly. "Of course it's me." He a pulled chair over next to the bed and sat down, taking her hand. His skin was cool.
"Oh, don't look at me. I look horrible." She covered her face with her free hand.
"Nonsense. You look brilliant." Removing her hand from her face, she gazed up at him. His eyes shone as they took in her entire form, from her gray hair and gaunt face, down to her toes hidden under blanket. He truly did see her as brilliant, even in this old, sick body.
"You look just the same, as always." Not a day older, though his eyes… They had always been ancient and haunted, but now, they were trying to hide a new, fresh despair. She longed to ask him what happened, to try to comfort him, to help him, but she couldn't summon up the courage. She squeezed his hand. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
He grinned, that same impish grin. "You can't get rid of me that easily." The smile vanished, and he sniffed before continuing. "Besides, you know what I'm about to ask you."
Traci's face crinkled in a sad smile. "A little late for that. What's the point of changing if I'm just going to be old and die? I might as well spend my last days here, with my family and friends."
He straightened up and rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, there's more to it than that. I admit that I don't know what happens if you change back with the cancer in your body. I suspect that it would stay with you, and there's nothing I can do about it." Squeezing her hand, he attracted her gaze and held it, his eyes dark. "But death is not the end for a Time Lady."
Traci frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well," and he seemed to gather his courage during the pause the drawled word gave him, "when we die, we don't. We change. Every cell reforms, and we become a new person. Same memories, same person deep down, but a different face and a different persona. This doesn't have to be the end for you."
Traci stared at him, barely comprehending his unbelievable statements. At length, she rasped, "What? What did you say?"
He stroked her hand, then held her gaze as he spoke. "We don't die. We regenerate. Our faces and bodies change, and we become different people, though we still retain our memories and identities. We can do this twelve times, before we die for good."
Her eyes widened, and if she had had the strength, she would have pulled her hand away from his. "I wouldn't die? But I'd become someone else?"
He nodded. "Yes. But you also would still be you. You'd remember everything about your past lives."
This was too absurd to believe. "And you've done this?"
"Ten times now. I've lived through ten different lifetimes."
"That's just ridiculous," she spat, and for a moment, she sounded like she was twenty-six years old again. "I don't believe you." She turned her head away from him, trying to conceal the tears forming in her eyes.
"It's true. One lifetime can last a thousand years or more. Thirteen means ten thousand years isn't uncommon."
"Ten thousand years." The idea of that long a time period was incomprehensible to her. "More than a hundred times longer than I've lived."
"But I'd be someone else. Not even who I was before."
No. It was too incredible to believe, becoming a different person and living for that long. But the Doctor had done it, and he had never lied to her before, not about the important things; if he said it was true, then it was true. But why did this idea terrify her? Here he was offering her hope, offering her life, and it was the scariest thing in the world. Why?
"What's it like?" she finally asked. "Changing. Becoming a different person." She heard him exhale heavily before he spoke.
"It feels like… it feels like what I imagine dying is like. I mean, since I haven't died, I wouldn't know. But, who I am disappears, no longer exists, and I'm someone else. I've been nine different men before, and I still remember being them, and remember their lives, but I'm me and they're not. And yet they are me." He sniffed. "I really haven't done a very good job of explaining all of this, have I?"
Traci turned her head back towards him, and though tears streaked her face, she was smiling. "You never do." She took a moment to gaze at him, those ancient eyes in that amazingly young face, the same face from over fifty-five years before. "You know, you told me something like that a long time ago, about when you were John Smith."
"Did I? I suppose you're right." Pensive, his eyes unfocused as he remembered. "The process of reverting was similar in many ways to regeneration, now that I think about it. I guess you could say I've lived through eleven different lifetimes, then." He quirked a tiny smile.
She glanced at the bedside table. "I have the watch here, you know. It's been my companion all my life."
Reaching over, the Doctor pulled the table's drawer open and fished out the watch. He placed it in Traci's hand and closed her fingers over it. She moved her hand up until it rested with the watch over her heart. Gazing up at the Doctor, she could see that he was holding his breath, awaiting her decision, and that he was keeping his expression carefully neutral. The shake of her head was barely noticeable.
The Doctor's face fell, and for a moment, she could feel his despair and loneliness, like a cloud surrounding him. Then, he reasserted his control, his expression closing him off from her. He patted her arm.
"Of course not. Quite right."
"I'm sorry, Doctor. I really can't." She tried to reach for him, but her arm felt too heavy.
"No, you're right. I shouldn't have expected anything else."
Traci sighed. "I've had such a good life. A wonderful family, and friends. Alex. I still miss him. My beautiful Jason and Katie. And Mikey. Oh, it sounds silly to say I'd be throwing that away if I opened the watch. But it feels like it didn't mean anything at all, if I turn my back on them and leave like that..."
Shaking his head, he interrupted her. "Traci, you don't have to explain."
"But I do. To be fair to you. You've been with me all my life. My most faithful friend. Even when I was horrible to you." She paused, trying to relieve the tightness in her chest. "But, being human is all I know. I like being human. I don't know what a Time Lady is. I'm scared I won't like being one. I really don't want…" She stopped herself from finishing the sentence, but it was too late.
"You really don't want to be like me."
She looked anywhere except at him. "I didn't say that."
"But it's what you were going to say." He paused, giving her a chance to speak, but she didn't refute him. "You don't want to be the last member of your species. You don't want to be a stranger in every land you step foot on. You don't want to spend thousands of years wandering the universe with no purpose, no reason for being, watching everyone around you grow old and die." He took a deep breath, but it sounded more like a sob. "You want a home, a family, to belong somewhere, even if it's only for a few more days."
He reached out and covered her hand, watch, and heart with his. "Believe me, I understand."
Traci swallowed, her throat dry. She wanted to throw her arms around him, cradle him like she had once done her children, and her grandchildren, when they were hurt or sad, but all she could do was put her hand on his arm. "How can you stand it?"
"I've been doing it for so long, that's just who I am now. But you're not me." His tongue flicked over his lips. "You're right. You wouldn't like it, you'll hate every minute of it, and you'll hate me for doing it to you. I couldn't bear that. You're doing the right thing."
They sat in silence, each lost in thought for a few minutes. Traci spoke again first. "I can hear it. I can hear the watch."
"Yes, I'm sure you can."
"It's crying for me. It's calling out. It's desperate." Tears began to fill her eyes again. "Can you… can you take it away? I don't want to hear it anymore."
He nodded. Picking up the watch, he clutched it, tapping his fist to his lips before dropping it into his pocket.
"Thank you." Her whole body relaxed as the keening in her mind silenced. "Doctor?"
He took her hand again and sandwiched it in both of his. "Yes, Traci?"
"I'm so scared."
"I'm here. I'll always be here for you."
"I know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I can't be there for you."
In the morning, Jason and Katie were appalled to find a strange man in their mother's room, sitting by her side, holding her hand, and chatting with her quietly. When they tried to have him removed, she insisted that he stay, saying that he was her longtime best friend, even though her children had never seen him before and Jason swore the man was younger than himself. Mom called him "the Doctor," though the nurses claimed they had never seen him treat any of the hospice patients before.
Another thing that didn't endear him to them was that he stayed with Mom far more than they did, apparently remaining there with her all day and overnight, every night, though the nurses never saw him eat or sleep. When the family was around, he made himself scarce, usually disappearing for a while or reading a book in the lounge, but they found that Mom wouldn't go an hour without asking for him, at which point he would return and politely wait in a corner if anyone else was in the room. He grated on their nerves, especially Jason's, but they resolved to let him stay if it made Mom happy.
This didn't stop Katie from keeping an eye on him, though. She took it upon herself to check up on her mother while the Doctor was sitting with her, and she stood outside the door to see if she could hear what they were talking about. She found that for the most part, the Doctor sat by the bed and told Mom stories, sometimes in third person and sometimes in first person, but they were all about distant planets and civilizations, or tales of the distant past or the far future. He'd tell her a story about nefarious aliens and blaster cannons, and follow it with a dull political tale of lords and ladies administering laws as the seneschals of the universe, and then the next would be a silly story about meeting some king or famous celebrity from centuries past. This surprised Katie: her mother had shown no interest in science fiction and fantasy her whole life, yet she listened to the Doctor with rapt attention.
Traci's faculties began to fail after a few days. At first, she got easily confused, but she soon degraded into long periods of sleep with a few waking hours of staring at nothing. Still, the Doctor remained by her side as long as the family would let him, and still, he continued to tell her stories, long after Katie was sure her mother no longer heard him.
A few days after Traci spoke her last words, her nurse notified the family that she was in her last moments. As her children, grandchildren, and close friends entered her room, the Doctor rose from his chair by her bed and silently slipped out. He wandered to the hospice's little garden and stood there admiring the flowers, one hand in his jacket pocket, clutching a brass pocket watch.
The Doctor knew he had to be as invisible as possible at the funeral. It certainly was not in his nature to be silent or inconspicuous, but even he could tell that his mere presence would irk Traci's children. Thus, under a tight black suit, he wore a royal blue shirt, a black waistcoat, and a black tie, with a brass pocket watch in the fob pocket on a silver chain, and on his feet were his best black trainers. Upon entering the church, he signed the registry, then joined the line for the viewing.
He stood at the casket, gazing at Traci, longer than was politely necessary. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a strip of crimson cloth embroidered with golden swirls and laid it beside her. He had torn it from his own robes: while he had never been fond of them and hadn't even looked at them for over two centuries, it felt like a stab in the hearts when he realised he would never have occasion to wear them again. He stroked her hand one last time, then retreated to the farthest, darkest corner of the church.
At the conclusion of the service, the Doctor slipped out through the crowd, but he hadn't gotten more than a few steps out of the church doors when someone called his name. He turned to see Katie trotting up to catch him.
"Doctor, can I have word with you, please?"
"Of course." He schooled his expression to be friendly but solemn. "It was a lovely service."
"Please tell me. What were you to her, to my mom?"
"Just a friend. For quite a long time, but just a friend. That's all."
Crossing her arms over her plain black dress, Katie frowned, her disbelief evident.. "Just a friend? That doesn't make sense. We've never seen you before, never heard of you, and then you appear in the hospice and spend days and nights sitting by her bedside. It doesn't make sense at all."
"You sound just like your mother." His smile was tender. "I've known her for years. I never visited her much, just here and there. And I just thought, she needed someone to be there, when you lot couldn't be."
"You told her stories."
Shaking his head, he waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, to keep her entertained, to keep her mind off things. That's all."
Biting her lip, she studied his face, then shifted, toying with the clutch in her hand. "I don't know who you are, but I want to thank you. I think you made my mom's last days very comfortable." She offered her hand, and he took it, shaking it with both of his.
"You are welcome, Katie. Your mother was a wonderful woman. She loved you and your brother more than anything, and wouldn't have had her life any other way, even for the universe." Flashing a brilliant smile, he nodded once, then turned and strode down the path to the street.
When the time rotor ground to a halt, the Doctor walked down the ramp and opened the doors. The cloud of Mutter's Spiral stretched across the deep, perfect blackness of space. With two fingers, he dug into his fob pocket and pulled out the pocket watch, unclipping the chain from his waistcoat. Tracing each of the etched symbols on the watch with the tip of his finger, he mouthed her long, complicated name, then smiled and shook his head. Gazing out into the empty void, his eyes roamed over the entire panorama as if searching for some treasure long lost. He took a deep breath, steadying himself, then held the watch out in front of him, on the palm of his hand, in solemn, personal ritual.
"Here, Traci. This is where Gallifrey should be. This is where your life should have been. I am sorry that I took that from you. I hope... I hope that you lived the life that you wanted." He opened the watch and a burst of golden energy streamed from it, out of the doors of the TARDIS, disappearing into space. He then gently lobbed the watch after it. "You're home again."
Stepping back, he closed the doors and walked up to the console. He stroked the TARDIS tenderly, then drew in a breath.
"Now it's my turn."
With a grim expression of determination, he strode around the console, setting coordinates and executing the pre-flight. After a final nod, he flipped the large lever toggle and braced himself against the railings for the journey to the Ood Sphere.
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