With her hands on her hips, Traci twirled in front of the mirror, letting the skirt of the dress flare out. The cloth draped well in the front, and she twisted to try to get a view of the back in the reflection. "What do you think?" she asked the woman standing behind her.
Deb eyed her up and down, bracing her chin in her hand. "It's okay, but I've never really thought blue was your color. I really think you should go for a red sheath. Or a black one if you prefer."
"Really?" She turned to Deb, her face scrunched. "I don't want to look like I'm coming on to him or anything. This is Alex we're talking about. He just asked me to this party because he needed a plus-one."
"It's one of those snobby art gallery parties. You'll be hobnobbing with all those blue bloods or whatever they're called. You gotta look the part." She pursed her lips. "And besides, I don't think that Alex asked just because he needed a plus-one."
"We're just friends, Deb. I like this dress. I'm going to get it." She swept back into the dressing room and shut the door.
Deb snorted. "You're just friends, and yet, he's all you can talk about." Her tone switched to a wheezing mockery of Traci's. "'Alex came over last night to watch 3rd Rock. Alex and I went to see Gladiator this weekend. Alex's sister came into town, and we all went out for sushi. Alex got a big bonus for the project he finished at work. Alex went down to San Jose to get his teeth flossed. Alex is going to -'"
A ball of blue dress sailed over the door and splatted Deb in the face, cutting off her monologue. "That's just ridiculous! I don't do that."
"Sure you don't." Deb's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Hey, what are you doing tonight?"
There was a short pause before Traci replied sheepishly, "Going to the Giants game with Alex." The door burst open, and she emerged in her own blouse and jeans. She wagged a finger at Deb. "But that doesn't mean anything."
Deb handed her the dress and her purse. "Suuure..."
Traci paid for the dress and the two friends headed out of the boutique into the walkway of the mall.
"What about shoes?"
Traci shook her head. "Nah. I hate buying matching shoes. I never ever get another outfit to match them. I have a pair of gold heels that'll do fine. And a purse."
"Great!" Deb elbowed her friend. "Sounds like it's lunchtime, then. And then we can head back to Macy's. I really need some new suits for work."
"'Kay. Which way is the food court?" Traci scanned down the mall in both directions and saw the food signs off to the right, but a familiar figure clad in a blue suit and long coat caught her eye, and she groaned to herself. She hadn't expected to ever see the Doctor again, and she wasn't sure she wanted to. The intervening years had mellowed her dislike of both him and what he symbolized to her, but she hated having to think about the choice he had offered her. Still, she knew that if he was here, meeting with him was inevitable and she might as well get it over with.
"Hey, Deb, there's a friend of mine over there. I wanna go say hi." She jerked her head in the general direction and motioned for her to follow. Without waiting to see if Deb was coming, she strode towards the man.
"Doctor!" she called. He spun around and, spotting her, smiled. It didn't shine as it always had before, and she wondered if he was tired or ill.
"Traci!" He clasped his hands behind his back and bowed as she approached.
As they reached him, Traci glanced at Deb. She had that look on her face that she always had when she was checking out a guy. Traci rolled her eyes. "Deb, this is an old friend of mine, the -" She stopped herself, knowing the name was too weird. "Uh, John. This is John." She turned to the Doctor. "This is Deb. I used to work with her, back when we last saw each other."
Deb extended her hand, and the Doctor caught and shook it eagerly. "Hullo! A pleasure to meet you, Deb."
She smiled coquettishly. "Pleasure's all mine," she oozed, looking him up and down, her eyes obviously lingering on specific interesting features. "Traci, why haven't you ever brought your scrumptious friend around before, if you've known him that long?" Turning back to "John", she licked her lips and murmured, "You're one I'd definitely remember."
The Doctor's demeanor transformed from friendly exuberance to acute embarrassment. "Oh, I'm from out of town," the Doctor quipped, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets and backing a step away.
"Of course you are!" Deb cooed. "The accent's even more delicious."
The Doctor looked like he was about to turn and sprint away, so Traci came to his rescue, laughing to herself. "Sorry! Deb loves to see how much she can make a man blush. She's an incorrigible flirt."
"Not just flirting." Deb smiled seductively, then her laugh turned mischievous, and the Doctor relaxed.
"Hey," Traci called to catch Deb's attention, "do you mind if I catch up with John? We don't see each other much, obviously. I'll join you in a little while."
"Oh, sure, take your time. Gonna grab lunch, then I'll be in Macy's like we planned." Deb turned to the Doctor. "Nice to meet you. Come visit more often." She winked and strolled off.
The Doctor pulled a hand out of his pocket and rubbed the back of his neck. "Your friend is very nice."
Traci smirked. "The man of the universe can't handle a little flirting."
He shrugged. "Told you. I'm rubbish at that sort of thing."
Deciding it was best to take command of the conversation, Traci changed the subject. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
The Doctor studied the toes of his sneakers. "Well, it sounded like you needed a little space."
"I did." Embarrassed by the memory of their last encounter, she shrugged. "I got a little emotional, and took it out on you. I'm sorry."
Looking at her in earnest, he shook his head. "Oh, no! I'm the one who should apologize. You were right, absolutely right. Coming to see you, telling you about who you were: that was pure selfishness. I thought... I thought you'd want it, that you'd be eager to take up your old life again, but I should have known better. Of course you wouldn't want to die. I was really only thinking of myself, of not being the last anymore." Leaving her face for a moment, his eyes roamed around the shopping mall without seeing any of it. He sniffed and caught her gaze again. "I can't offer you a good life. We don't have a home, or a purpose. Not anymore. You'd just be wandering the universe like I do, or you'd just live amongst another species somewhere, never quite feeling like you belong. You'd be a Time Lady in name only, doing whatever you could find to occupy your time. What kind of life is that? You're far better off with the life you've already made for yourself."
He bowed his head for a moment, seeming to search for the strength to continue, then faced her with solemnity. "I came here to, well, I just wanted to make sure you're all right, and to assure you that I won't bother you anymore."
Shocked by the apology and the promise, Traci looked directly into his eyes to ascertain if he was actually sincere, and she lost herself in their ancient depths. For the first time, she was conscious of the desolation he kept so carefully hidden, and her callousness sickened her, that she had not realized that as the last of his people, he must carry a massive burden and be lonelier than she could imagine. Tears filled her eyes, and, as she often did, she covered her discomfiture with irritation.
"That's just ridiculous," Traci blurted, and he jerked back, staring at her. "I can't imagine at all what it's like to be you, to be the last of your kind, to have lost your whole planet, to be alone in the universe. But only a lunatic would blame you for wanting someone by your side," she stated, waving an exasperated hand at her own chest to indicate just who that lunatic was. "I'm being the selfish one here, completely absorbed in thinking it all affects me and me only. And honestly, you needed to tell me. It wouldn't have been fair to not let me know."
Horrified, the Doctor held his hands up to stop her from continuing. "No, Traci, you can't make your decision based on how it affects me. That's the last thing you should do. What happens to me is not important. Make your choice for yourself, not me."
"Oh," she replied, a sarcastic smile on her face, "you still don't get to tell me what to do. Don't worry, I haven't changed my mind. I don't know if I ever will." She continued in softer tones, her pursed lips expressing her regret. "I'm just saying that I didn't think about what it all means to you, and I acted like a tool last time, accusing you of all that B.S. I think I was yelling at Aaron through you." She glanced down at the ground. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." He ran his hand through his hair. "I think we both have a lot of work to do to understand each other."
Traci frowned. The Doctor's hand had dislodged few tiny pink petals, and she watched them flutter to the ground. She stepped forward and picked one from where it had settled on his lapel.
"You have plum petals in your hair."
He leaned closer to inspect the one in her hand. "So I do."
"Plums flower in spring. It's July." Her jaw dropped. "They're from the trees in the park downtown, aren't they?"
"I suppose they are." He didn't look surprised at all.
Her jaw dropped open and she shivered her amazement. "That was three years ago!"
"About fifteen minutes ago for me." His shrug communicated that it was nothing out of the ordinary for him. "I stopped to watch the choir on the stage in the food court."
Traci's words caught in her throat and she hacked them out. "You… you've been using that.. that... machine of yours to just hop around in my life? You're, like, spending a day jumping through my whole life?"
Nonplussed, the Doctor tugged at his ear. "Well, yeah. I reckon I am."
She threw up her hands in astonishment. "You… I… It's been three years! And I yelled at you fifteen minutes ago? You can't do that! That's not fair! Have you been doing that all along?"
He ran his tongue over his teeth before answering. "Well, from my point of view, I met you in Pasadena about five hours ago," he admitted with a sheepish grimace.
Sixteen years ago. She stared at him, mouth wide open and arms dangling, limp at her sides, for over ten seconds. She blinked, then exhaled heavily. "Okay, after this, you're going to do this the right way. However many years pass for me, that many years have gotta pass for you, too." She pounded a finger in her palm, emphasizing each word. "Got it?"
"Traci," he whined, sticking out his chin like a petulant teenager. "I'm a time traveller. I don't live from one second to the next. I go back and forth, into the past and the future. Keeping track of how much time passes for me is proper hard, bordering on impossible."
She frowned. "Then you don't even know how old you are?"
He shrugged. "No, I don't. The TARDIS probably knows, but it would depend on whether or not we count certain parts of my life as actually aging and that's not something we've ever been able to settle on…" He broke off when he noticed Traci glaring at him with her arms crossed. "Oh. Right. Well, I usually say somewhere around nine hundred years, give or take a century, though I expect that's a bit of an underestimation. How about 904? A good happy number." He seemed inexplicably pleased with himself.
"No no no." Holding up a finger, she shook her head to clear her confusion. "You know what? You're just too weird. So, fine, you can't tell how long it is between visits. Just stop time-stalking me! It's creepy! Go do something else for a while, then come back and see how I'm doing."
An amused grin spread across his face. "All right. I can do that."
"So? Get out of here!" She swept at him with both hands.
"Until next time, Traci." He bowed and turned to leave.
He spun back, continuing a few more steps backwards. "Yes?"
"I'm doing better. Finally got rid of Aaron. Got a new job, some great friends. Still slaving away, but I'll get there."
The Doctor smiled, and it brightened her day. "Brilliant. I'll see you in a few years, Traci."