They said that the company kept a stable of lawyers, and Traci felt the description was accurate: she certainly spent her time mucking through the bullshit. A stack of folders a foot high sat on the corner of her desk, and she worked through the requests for reviews and research as fast as she could. A typical day had her at her desk from seventy-thirty in the morning through six at night, and it was widely discussed among the junior staff that the the senior staff's offices were usually empty by five.
Today was no different from any other day. She was currently working on reviewing some minor copyright issues; somehow, all of the tasks no one else wanted to do ended up on her desk. After that, well, she could choose any one of thirty other onerous, boring, non-challenging tasks from the pile. This had been her job for the past two years, and was likely to stay the same for the foreseeable future. She wasn't quite the bottom rung on the ladder, but even the guys who'd been here for five years hadn't moved up yet, and she was quite sure her gender wasn't helping her at all.
The door burst open and one of the senior lawyers strode in and dumped another folder on her pile. "Here's another for you. Critical. Get it done today, will you?"
Traci reached over and flipped the cover open, glancing at the material inside. "This would take you ten minutes!" she exclaimed as she scowled at it. "It'll take me the rest of the day to gather the information you already have on this contract."
He wagged his silver pen at her. "It's good training and experience for you, essential if you ever want to start working on your own projects. Get it done quickly and I'll put in a good word for you."
Traci bit back the reply she really wanted to make and tapped the papers in front of her. "Is this more important than the other 'critical' task you gave me earlier?"
"Much. But get them both done today. That's a good girl." A turn and he was gone, the door slamming behind him.
Traci threw her pen across her desk and slumped back in her chair, puffing her breath up so that her bangs flipped. "Bastard. I don't even think he knows my name," she grumbled.
Deb, one of the two women who shared the office with her, snorted. "Oh, he knows all the women's names. But you've got a ring on your finger, so you're not eligible for his kind of promotion."
"Not like he hasn't tried." Traci shook her head. "This place is the worst. Old boys' club and corporate red tape. We're all still stuck in this office, and you, Jen, you've been here three times as long as I have."
"Yeah," Jen agreed, peering at Traci over the tall stacks of folders on her desk, "and this place is resumé death. It's not like I haven't tried to find something else."
"No use bitching about the same old thing every day." Deb dropped her pen on her desk and slumped back in her chair. "How did last night go, Trace?"
"It didn't." Traci ran her hand through her hair and pulled at a handful, dejected. "Aaron had to work late again, so we had to cancel the reservations. He got home around eleven."
"That stinks." Deb eyed Traci, taking care to hide her suspicions behind a tower of papers. "Nothing after that, I'm guessing."
"Nope." She shrugged. "Said he was beat. He went straight to bed."
Deb and Jen exchanged knowing glances, but Traci didn't notice.
"Well, there's always next time, Trace. Maybe this weekend." Jen made a tolerable effort to sound hopeful.
"There never seems to be a next time. Always a raincheck. For everything." Traci didn't need to be more explicit; she'd expressed her frustrations with the lack of intimacy in her marriage to Deb and Jen many times. She threw her hands up in a wide shrug. "He's going fishing early on Saturday, and that'll be the whole day, and then on Sunday there's a basketball game." She shook her head, missing Deb's and Jen's cynical smirks at the list of Aaron's weekend activities. "You know, Aaron hated it when we moved to SF. All he wanted to do was stay at home and do stuff with me. He was smothering me. And now, we barely ever see each other. All he wants to do is go out with his friends. It's like it's one extreme or the other."
"Well, maybe you should go with him, get to know his friends," Jen suggested, and Deb silently motioned to her to shush.
"I've tried! He says it's a guy thing, that they don't bring their wives, so he can't." Traci shrugged and stared at the papers on the desk in front of her while Deb shot angry looks at Jen. The phone on Traci's desk buzzed, startling all of them, and she snatched up the receiver. "Yeah?... Is it Aaron?... Then who is it?... Oh!" Her eyes widened and she blanched. "Um. Tell him I can't, I'm working… Yeah… No. I don't…" She ran her free hand through her hair. "But… Tell him no… No… I know, I can hear him!… Okay! Okay! Tell him okay!... Twelve-thirty, at the square. Sure." She slammed the receiver back in the cradle, then picked up her pen and pretended to dive back into her work.
Deb peered at her, one eyebrow cocked, then asked, "Who was that?"
"Sharon at reception." Traci didn't look up.
"And she wanted… ?"
"There's a guy here to see me." She didn't look up, so she didn't see Deb's smirk.
The innuendo in her tone was unmistakable, and Traci glared daggers at her. "It's not like that. I met him once, a few years ago. Not happy to see him again."
"You met him once a few years ago? You mean in Chicago? And he found you here? Sounds intriguing..." Deb smirked, eyebrows hidden high behind her bangs.
"No. Not intriguing. Stalking. Creepy." Traci pursed her lips. "''Creepy' is definitely the right word." Deb grinned back at her, then returned to her work. The office was silent except for pen scratches and papers flipping for about fifteen minutes.
"Deb?" Traci's mumble was almost inaudible.
A pause. "If a guy came up to you and offered to take you off to see the world, but on the condition that you left your life behind and never returned, would you do it?"
Deb pursed her lips. "Is he gorgeous?"
Traci thought for a moment. "Um, let's say no."
"Damn straight. In a heartbeat."
Traci laughed. "Okay. Thanks for the advice."
On one of the first dry spring days of the year, everyone was outdoors for lunch. Even here, deep in the city, the breeze kept the air fresh and the trilling of the birds floated over the noise of the people and the traffic. It was still a bit chilly and Traci pulled her jacket close around her. She threaded her way through the crowd, forcing her feet to keep moving. She was not looking forward to having this conversation again. She hoped that the little urban park would be so packed that she could make the excuse of not being able to find him.
Unfortunately, the Doctor spotted her almost the moment she gained the sidewalk encircling the square and called her name. Again, he looked exactly the same as before: blue suit, brown overcoat, hands in his pockets, hair sticking straight up over that still-young face. That bubbling energy that kept him rocking back and forth on his toes as he waited for her to join him and his sparkling smile lifted her spirits. She couldn't help but smile back at him.
"Traci! You're looking lovely as ever!" He bowed to her.
"Doctor. Good to see you again." It was a lie, but she couldn't think of anything else to say. "It's been a long time."
"A bit. About four years. How have you been getting on?" They started strolling about the square together.
"Pretty good." The small talk irritated her, so swallowing hard, she steeled herself to take the conversation where it needed to go. "Look, I know why you're here."
"Down to business, eh?" Though his demeanor remained perfectly pleasant, his amusement infected his tone. "If that's what you want."
Looking up at him, she caught his eye and set her hands on her hips with some defiance. "I haven't changed my mind."
"Didn't think you would."
The wind picked up, rustling the bright new leaves on the trees above them, and Traci shivered. She had changed to a lighter jacket earlier in the week, but it was obviously too early in the season to rely on warm weather. Shedding his overcoat, the Doctor draped it over her shoulders. The hem dragged on the ground as she walked, so she made a point to hike it up by pulling it around herself. "Thanks," she murmured as she adjusted the garment. "That's a lot better. Aren't you cold?"
"Nah. Our core body temperature is much lower than that of humans, so this is comfortable for me." He shrugged.
They strolled a bit more, the Doctor observing the people around them with a slight wondering smile on his face, before Traci felt she had to break the silence. "I wasn't sure you'd find me here in SF." She snorted. "No, that's not true. You could find me anywhere, couldn't you?"
"Long as you have the watch."
"Yeah." Without being conscious of it, she hugged her purse closer to herself. "I couldn't get rid of it if I wanted to. You really want me to do this, don't you?"
The Doctor glanced at her sideways, then sniffed. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't, but it's not up to me and you shouldn't care what I want. It's all you, what you want to do. I only want to make sure you have the option. Like we agreed four years ago."
"Yeah, well. To tell the truth, I've thought about it." Traci felt lucky that they were walking, so that she didn't have to look at him as she talked. "I mean, it's not like I can avoid thinking about it now and then. When you took me in the TARDIS, all those stars… But, it's hard to take it seriously, all this talk about Time Ladies and all. When Sharon said you were at reception…" She rubbed her hand over her stomach to quiet its roiling. "It was like she was telling me that the executioner had come for me on Death Row."
"Traci." The Doctor's voice was low and dead serious. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. I'm not here to force you."
"I know. But you're a symbol, of the end of me." She halted and turned to face him. "You're my death, aren't you? You'll be right there, at the end. You'll be the last person I see, that Traci sees, ever. You terrify me." The wind had died down, but she still shivered, even in the big warm coat.
Though his expression didn't change, a deep sadness crept into his eyes. "I'm so sorry, Traci. That was never the intention."
"I know, I know. But it's like," and she glanced around, searching for the words, "if someone tells you that if you die, you become an angel, it sounds great. But then if someone tells you they'll kill you right now so you can become an angel, and they hold a knife in your face, it's horrible."
The Doctor held up his hands to show they were empty. "No knife, Traci. Just a choice. You can always say no."
Breathing deep, she nodded. "Then I say no. I'm happy. I'm young. I have a great life."
The Doctor flashed one of those brilliant smiles of his. "Glad to hear! Change of scenery worked out for you?"
"Yeah. California is a lot more my style than..." Her sentence trailed off as something occurred to her. "You don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" he asked with a slight quizzical frown.
"About my life. About how it's been going and all."
Confused, he frowned at her, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "No. Why should I?"
"You're a Time Lord and all." She gave a vague wave at his chest. "And you've been following me around. I figured you knew everything about me."
"I've only seen you those few times I told you about, and that's all I know about you." He seemed genuinely surprised that she thought he'd know more about her than he did. "I'm not a god, Traci. I'm just a man."
"Who can see time or something like that."
He jerked his head towards an empty bench under a flowering plum and strolled over to it, waiting gallantly for her to sit before joining her. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees as he spoke.
"It's not like that. I can see the timestream, how events progress, interweave with each other. Where they might go, where they might not. I can't see individual lives like I'm watching a film. It's like..." He gazed around the square as he searched for an explanation. His mouth hung slightly open, with the tip of his tongue pressed up just behind his front teeth. An idea came to him: his entire body lit up with energy, and he illustrated his statements with expressive hands as he spoke. "It's like standing over a river and watching it flow. I can see where the water comes from and where it's likely to go, where it won't, where it shouldn't, and all the currents and eddies. And there are rocks in the way that the water erupts against, or little pools off to the side that stay calm and steady. Sometimes I can see individual fish, but just for a second before they flicker and flit away. I can't follow the path of one individual fish and see details of how it swims, or how it lives and dies. That's not what a Time Lord sees. I see the flow of the water in the entire river of time, not each fish."
Traci could imagine watching a river, and tried to apply that thought to watching time. It was impossible to actually picture it, but she had a much better idea of what he was trying to convey. "And you see this everywhere? In addition to seeing and hearing normally?" He nodded. "How… how can you do that? It must be…" - she couldn't think of a better word - "enormous."
"It is. It's not easy. Some of our people couldn't do it, and they went mad. A human couldn't do it; his mind would burn up." He reached over and squeezed her hand. "But you were able to. You wouldn't be here if you hadn't."
If he meant that to be reassuring, to make her realize that she had once been as powerful as he, it had the exact opposite effect. The concept of her alien self scared her more and more as she thought about it, and she stuffed that away in the back of her mind, determined to ignore it. "It's too much to even imagine."
"Quite right." He patted her hand before withdrawing his, then smiled broadly. "But! Tell me about your life! I'd love to learn more about the real Traci." He suddenly curbed his enthusiasm. "If I'm not being rude. I'm rude sometimes. Well, a lot of the time."
She smirked. "Yeah, that was rude, but it's okay." She thought for a moment about what he might want to hear. "Well, we moved here about three years ago. By 'we,' I mean me and Aaron. You remember him? We were in that cafe where I met you."
"Oh, yes. I remember him."
"Good." She nodded. "At that time, I had been studying for the bar in Chicago, but I finally decided I really didn't want to stay there and switched to California law, and Aaron said okay, he'd come with me. He found a good job right off, working for Pacbell. Then I passed the bar and got a job here, and then we got married." She grinned. "I'm still working my way up, and we're holding off having kids until we make a little more."
"Sounds lovely! Everything you hoped, then!"
The image of her little office with Deb and Jen, cramped and filled with unfulfilling work, flitted across her mind and she shrugged. "Well, it's never what you imagine it's going to be, is it? I mean, the legal department is such an old boys' network. It's going to be a while before I can move into a challenging position. Way too many people ahead of me for promotion." Her candor surprised her. For some reason, she felt comfortable telling the Doctor things; maybe it was because he seemed to be actually interested in her life, in all the details. That hadn't changed since she once walked home from school with him.
"How long have you been working there?"
"Little over two years. To be honest, it's nowhere near where I wanted to be at thirty. Not at all." She shrugged. "I have time. And I've got Aaron. He's my rock."
"Splendid! Tell me about him!" He grinned like a child waiting for mom to tell him a story, and she couldn't help laughing.
"Yes, well, he's wonderful." Her eyes glowed as she spoke. "He was happy to follow me out here, when I finally got sick enough of Chicago, even though it meant that he gave up a great job and we had to start over. It took us a while to really find our feet, but now it's working out. At least he's not the only one supporting us anymore. If I can get promoted, I'll be making more than him." She smiled proudly. "Then we'll be able to afford a house, and kids."
The Doctor's eyes lit up at the mention of children. "Ah! I can just see the little Tracis and Aarons running around."
She grinned, but shook her head sadly. "Won't be for a while. Aaron really wants us to be secure first."
"Well!" he exclaimed, cocking his head to the side. "That's not all bad. Gives you plenty of time to enjoy each other's company while you're young."
"We try. Work gets in the way a lot. Aaron always has to work late." She pursed her lips in regret. "I mostly go out with Deb from work and my friends."
"But there's weekends, right?" The Doctor's grin changed to confusion. "I never really got how weekends work. That's the part of the week when you don't have to be somewhere, right?"
Traci stared at him, incredulous. "You don't know what a weekend is?"
"Well," he drawled, "I don't really work to a timetable."
She eyed him with a jealous grimace. "Must be nice. But yeah. It's when you have time for stuff other than work. Like, I've been taking cooking classes. And Paula and I, we volunteer at the kids' center once a month. And Aaron, he loves his golf and hiking and camping and fishing."
"Oh, yes! Last time you were shopping for camping equipment, weren't you?"
"That's right. But I don't do that anymore. Too dirty and cold." She sneered her distaste for the activity. "Aaron camps with with his friends. All the time. It's his favorite thing."
"Doesn't sound like you spend much time together then," the Doctor observed. His face fell as he realized what he sounded like.
Traci jerked back, staring at him. "What?"
He grimaced, embarrassed. "That was rude, wasn't it?"
Traci frowned at him. "Yes, it was!" The Doctor apologized, but she barely heard him as the thought distracted her. "I never really thought about it." She thought back, trying to remember the last time she'd done anything with Aaron. "We haven't spent a day together in a couple of months. He's always off somewhere. And he's always working late."
Gazing off at a particularly interesting corner of concrete tile, the Doctor rubbed the back of his neck. "Oh, I'm sure he's just securing his job and earning some extra money."
She turned and stared right at him, her eyes filling with cold fire. "No, he's not. I do the finances, and I just realized he's not making any extra money. His paychecks are the same as they always were. He's not working late. The lying sonofabitch!"
"Now, Traci, I'm sure there's a good explanation for it…"
"Oh, there is! I know what it is. And I'm going to beat it out of him! I don't believe..." She inhaled sharply, slapping a hand to her mouth. "Deb and Jen! They knew! They could tell, but I couldn't! God, I'm so blind!" And she lost it. The tears flooded out and she buried her face in her hands. Moving over on the bench, the Doctor put an arm around her shoulders, comforting her as she cried.
"It was… It was going so good… We were going to… How could he?... Doctor, how could he? What… What am I going to do?" She gasped, her breathing ragged.
The Doctor bit his lip, not really knowing how to respond. "Er, honestly, I haven't the foggiest. I'm rubbish with relationships."
She looked up at him, her cheeks wet and her eyes puffy. "At least you tell me the truth." She nestled back into his shoulder. "It's all so clear. The late nights. All the weekends. He's always exhausted. He barely talks to me, and he never touches me. We haven't had sex in forever. He hasn't even nagged me about getting out of this terrible job. What am I going to do?"
The Doctor sputtered a bit, unsure of what to say. "Talk to him, I expect? Try to work it out? I'm sure your friends can help you. It's nothing you need to decide now."
Stifling another sob, she tilted her head back and looked up at the Doctor again. "The watch. I don't have to take this. I could just make it all go away."
The Doctor's brow creased with worry. "You know that's not the way. The watch is not a cheat, to get out of life. That's not a good reason to do it, and you'll regret it."
"You don't know that. My Time Lady self would probably be happy to be back, wouldn't she, Doctor? Or maybe you do know. Do you regret choosing to stop being John Smith?" She wiped the tears from her eyes.
Biting his lip, he hesitated before answering her. "No, I don't. But you know what I'm saying. Pain and loss are as much a part of being human as happiness and love. You're hurting now…"
"...but I've loved before and will love again, no matter how much it might seem like I won't?" Scowling, she jumped up from the bench and whirled on him. "Stop patronizing me, Doctor! I don't need some universe-wise, holier-than-thou alien to tell me it's all going to be just fine. Why would anyone even say that? How does that help at all?"
The Doctor sat back, shaking his head at her. "I'm not telling you anything of the sort. I'm simply saying that throwing away your human life is not something you should do simply to escape your problems." He eyed her purse. "Is that what you really want? Is his betrayal so important that you're willing to die for it?"
Traci buried her face in her hands, her chest heaving as she tried to suppress the sobs that threatened to burst forth again. "No. No, it's not. He's not. I know, I know. I shouldn't take the easy way out."
Standing up, the Doctor placed a hand on her shoulder. "And it really isn't the easy way out anyway. Being a Time Lady has its own glories and troubles."
Traci sniffled and drew the overcoat tighter around herself as a puff of wind rustled the branches above. "Doctor. If I did open the watch, would I be able to stay here on Earth?"
"You can do whatever you want. That's a possibility, yes. But I would be surprised if you chose to do so."
Inhaling deeply to compose herself, she stepped back to put some space between them. "Then, what would I do? Where would I go?"
"You could go anywhere, in any time, and do anything. The entire universe is open to you." The Doctor's voice was low and serious.
"But you said our planet is gone, right?" It had been years since that last conversation, but that was one detail that had stayed fresh in her mind: that war and the terrible loss of their people. "So I can't go back there."
"That's right. You can't."
"Then how would I figure out where I would go and what I would do? And how would I get to wherever that is?"
"Well," he began, glancing up at the sky, "you as a Time Lady know far more about the universe than you do as Traci. I'm sure there are hundreds of planets and civilisations you'd know from your studies that would be suitable, and I can take you to your choice and help you get started there. Or," and he bowed his head slightly, peering at her from out of the corners of his eyes, "if you wanted to, you could travel with me."
Drawing herself up straight, Traci frowned at the Doctor with suspicion. "Wait." She began to rage with anger again, and her hands were fists by her sides. "That's what this is all about, isn't it?"
"What?" Taken aback by her sudden change in attitude, he stared at her with wide eyes, one eyebrow cocked.
"What you're saying is, whatever I might want to do as a Time Lady, it really is all dependent on you." She spun away, her mouth working soundlessly as the full realization of the restrictions on her life hit her. She turned back to him, panting as she fought to keep her anger from overwhelming her. "I can't go anywhere without you and your spaceship!"
The Doctor blinked. "I never thought of that. I suppose…"
She didn't want to hear any more of his evasions. "No, that's really what's going on here! If I become this Time Lady, I'm stuck with you. Is that what you're really here for? A woman to follow you around, completely dependent on you?" She threw up her hands with a sarcastic shrug. "Repopulate the species while you're at it?"
"What? No!" he sputtered. "That's not… No!... I never even thought…" A sudden gust of wind scattered tiny pink petals from the tree above all over them. The Doctor drew back from her. "No! I mean, yes, we've only one TARDIS, unless you have a TARDIS, but you won't know until you change. But I don't want you to follow me! I mean, unless you want to! It's all up to you. I just want to help. I'm not going to hold you back."
Stomping forward, she jabbed him in the chest with a finger. "You can't help but hold me back! I can't do anything without you! Nothing! That's the way it always is, isn't it? People in a position of power, telling you they're helping you, they're teaching you, they're taking you where you want to go, they're giving you the choice, but all they're really doing is keeping you under their thumb! They pretend you're making the decisions, but they hold all the strings!" She tore off the overcoat and threw it into his startled face. "Go away, Doctor. The answer is no, and it'll always be no." She added in a low, dangerous voice, "Don't bother coming back."
Heels clicking on the pavement, she whirled and strode off, disappearing into the crowd.
Traci burst into the office and, shutting the door too firmly, slammed her purse down on her desk and dropped into her chair, staring at the mess of papers in front of her. Deb threw a glance at Jen, then decided to risk Traci's wrath.
"I take it you decided not to run off and see the world, then?"
WIth a disgusted smirk, Traci snorted. "Men. They could come from a different planet even, and they're all fuckin' the same. They control everything, decide what you get to do, how high you can climb, where you get to go. They go off and do whatever they want and expect you to be waiting for them." She whirled on Deb. "Aaron's cheating on me, isn't he?"
With a sheepish grimace, Deb bit her lip. Glancing at Jen, she replied, "I'm so sorry, Trace. I don't know for sure, but we've suspected it for a long time. How'd you figure it out?"
"I don't know. It suddenly all just made sense." She pounded the desktop with her fist. "That asshole."
"What are you going to do?"
Traci rasped in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. She hadn't even thought of the future, but the question sparked the answer in her mind immediately. "First, determine if it's true. And I'm pretty sure it is. Then, I'm going to move on with my life. No more waiting for someone else to make me happy." She stared at Deb with grim determination.
Surprised, Jen let her jaw droop open. "Aren't you going to give him a chance? To make it up?"
Traci sneered a smile. "Oh, he gets a chance if he wants it. But he's going to have to convince me that he's sincere and going to change his life, and let me tell you, that won't be easy. Because I'm not going to let anyone deceive me anymore. No one gets to manipulate me. No one tells me how to live my life." She pounded the desk once more. "And that goes for here, too. Promotion within six months or I'm out. I'll find someone who'll appreciate my talents."
Deb rose from her desk and circled around to Traci. "That's it! You go!" She knelt next to her friend and hugged her. Traci leaned into Deb's shoulder and started to cry.