There was the happy one… now here is the tear-jerker.
Inspired heavily by what I’ve heard about the early Time War era and the audio dramas and also by the Tenth Doctor’s death…
I’m not even going to bother to apologize.
Auld Lang Syne
It had one full year since she had rebooted her life.
Grace had never considered teaching as a possibility. Now, she was teaching a full class while also on the job, saving lives—in a hospital across town from Walker General. Occasionally, she also volunteered at a free clinic on San Francisco’s poor side.
When she’d first begun, Grace had wondered where she got the energy. She didn’t know whether it came from the burst of joy she found in her renewed life or from the mysterious man with whom she had spent her New Year’s Eve. All the same, she was grateful for it, and continually surprised by how it continued to perpetuate itself—an eternal fountain. True, she still had bad days and down days, but as a whole she was much better than she had been. It even seemed to be catching.
Of course there was a scandal when it became known that she had left Walker General. No one was quite certain exactly what had happened, but it was clear that a patient had died—albeit that the wildest rumors and conspiracy theories circulated concerning that patient. The hospital was under new leadership now, but its record as a whole had not advanced or degraded—if anything, it was simply more honest and transparent than before. As it should have been in the first place.
She had not seen or talked to Brian all year. It felt like a new start.
Grace sat thoughtfully in the window seat, sipping lightly at a glass of eggnog—left over from Christmas. She’d excused herself from the party early, knowing she needed the rest, but she didn’t want to go to bed just yet.
She started awake at the sound of someone rapping gently at the door. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep… Glancing at the clock, she saw that it was a few minutes before midnight. It was almost 2001. Grace got up and cracked the door open. Her jaw dropped.
“Doctor!” she said, surprised.
He stood uncertainly on her doorstep, looking more than a little bit lost—but that was all that he shared with the ditzy young man she remembered. The curls had been cut short, the jacket was gray, battered leather, and Brian’s old dress shoes had been replaced with scuffed military-style boots. It looked as if he was carrying the weight of worlds on his shoulders.
“Grace,” he said softly, somehow endowing that one word with oceans of feeling. Grace gasped. The power of his sheer presence certainly hadn’t changed.
“Won’t you come in?” she said politely. The man looked as if he was about to fall down.
He nodded. “Thank you.” He stepped inside, and she closed the door behind him.
“Are you all right?” she blurted out. He looked startled, as if he had been suddenly pulled from his own little world. Slowly, he shook his head.
“Just tired,” he said quietly. Subdued.
“How long has it been for you?” The Doctor shook his head again.
“I’ve lost track.” Grace was about to ask how that was possible if he was a Time Lord, but stopped herself just in time. He probably didn’t want to remember. She was still working on her bedside manner.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, suddenly alarmed. The last time he had turned up, trouble had not been far behind. In fact, it might be argued that trouble had been a little ahead of him then. The Doctor shook his head.
“It’s nothing.” He glanced at the clock. “New Year’s eve again? Happy new year!” The cheerfulness didn’t seem quite forced, but it seemed to be a little too abrupt of an about-face. However, Grace let it be.
“Happy New Year, Doctor,” she said.
“How has it gone? The previous year. For you, I mean. It was easy to find out all the big news stories, but that’s not what matters in the end… People forget about the small and precious things.”
Is that what you’ve come here looking for, Doctor?
“Well… Things are pretty normal.” Grace half-smiled. “I don’t know what the hell happened to Brian.” The Doctor laughed. “I haven’t set foot back in Walker General. I work at St. Peter’s now. But they’ve gotten a little less… what’s the British terminology? Shady?”
“Dodgy,” the Doctor said, laughing.
“Mm. Well, they’re not so dodgy over at Walker General. More transparent about patient deaths.”
“For anyone who didn’t regenerate in the morgue, that would absolutely be a good thing,” the Doctor said with a smile. Grace frowned.
“You’re not worried that someone might hear about that?” she asked. The Doctor shook his head.
“Life’s too short for worries or second thoughts. Besides, ninety percent of the human population won’t believe the stories and no one listens to the other ten percent anyway. If someone wants to track me down, they normally do it in an over-dramatic and theatrical way, by clipping a temporal tracer to the TARDIS or something like that. Not by looking into old hospital records and ghost stories.” The Doctor leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. “They could just call.”
“You wouldn’t come,” Grace said, half-jokingly, half-accusingly. The Doctor laced his fingers behind his head and whistled.
“True, but they could,” he said. Grace couldn’t help but laugh.
“What about you? Where have you been?” she asked, hoping that the mood would last. There was barely a falter in the Doctor’s manner, but the warmth was gone from his words.
“Anywhere and everywhere,” he said, not looking at her. Grace inhaled slowly.
“It really has been years for you,” she said, staring. The Doctor nodded bleakly.
“I was running. It should have occurred to me to run back here sooner.” Grace swallowed. That wasn’t the tone of someone who was interested. It was the voice of someone who is being towed under.
“Did you find someone else to go with you?” she asked.
“Several someones… They all went home. Where they should be.”
“Would you like to tell me about them?” He looked surprised, as if he was trying to understand.
“Maybe… I don’t know…” Grace might not have been a psychologist, but it didn’t take one to realize that maybe, for this entire regeneration, the Doctor didn’t know what he really wanted or didn’t want, liked or disliked, as if he still didn’t really know himself. Like a lost child.
The grandfather clock in the hallway chimed.
“Why did you come here?” Grace asked, biting her lip. The Doctor glanced at her, eyes veiled, as if he was looking at her but not seeing her, looking far off into something else. It was more than just disconcerting. It was discomforting.
“They say that in the old days of Earth, the dignity of men was that they could know the time for their deaths… when death would come for them. When they should resist because they still had so much to live for, and when to accept it with grace.” Grace frowned slightly, not sure where this was going.
“Am I going to die soon?” The Doctor looked at her, surprised.
“No! No, of course not. It’s just that I have this feeling… if I didn’t say goodbye now, I never would. I don’t know if it’s a Time Lord thing or if it’s just me, but sometimes… I just know when I’m coming close.” Grace inhaled.
“You think you’re going to die?”
“No.” The Doctor’s face contorted. “And yes. I’ve never actually died so I can’t say, but a regeneration… If I had to say, I’d say that that’s what death feels like.”
“You think you’re going to die,” Grace repeated.
“It wasn’t my intent to be a wet blanket over your New Year,” the Doctor said, looking away. “I suppose I should know better now. Say goodbye and then run before I start spilling my hearts out.” From his expression, Grace would have said that right now the Doctor was very deliberately biting his tongue. “Something is coming. Any day now I’ll probably be called back along with all of Gallifrey’s prodigal sons and daughters. And there’s going to have to be a sacrifice before it’s all over. That’s the way it always is…” He fell silent. Grace exhaled.
“Well, good luck,” she said firmly. “Be safe—if you can.”
“I’ll try,” he said flatly. He stood up and moved toward the door.
“By the way… what happened to that coat?” Grace asked, suddenly. The Doctor paused.
“It lasted surprisingly long—after all, it was only a fancy-dress costume.”
A moment later, he was gone again. And Grace wondered at the back of her mind why she’d missed the opportunity to go with him.