He comes to her world alone and walks the winter forest. The people bow and sway in the wind, waking to graze his face with their branches and then falling back into their long sleep. It is a gesture of kindness that he accepts wordlessly. This place is at rest, mourning and he is a stranger in the cold.
The Doctor had walked this path before, with her. That was once, long ago in a different sort of universe where he was rebellious and hunted and free, and she was alive. That was long before the war that had stolen so many precious moments.
Time was cruel. She was the source of creation and change, and finally, oblivion. Touch her, just a little, and she will shatter everything you know. So when the Time Lords had first tread her fragile paths they were cautious and infinitely gentle, and the hearts of the machines they used were innocent and young. Time was satisfied and she accepted these intruders in her realm as guardians of her integrity. But make war in her land, and she will rewrite history, and leave you with the agony of remembrance. And the Doctor remembered. The Doctor remembered a very different sort of universe, one where he had never truly been alone.
Jabe had been the perfect head of state. Serene and strong and effortlessly aloof in government; charming and personable in private, where the Doctor had intrigued her enough to attract her flirtations. He had enough wit to make her laugh in public and enough sense to wait until they were alone before he kissed her. Her eloquent mouth had hidden a quick tongue and he remembered how surprised he had been by her smooth, almost varnished curves. Her rich clothes had concealed supple wood and a soft, almost moss-like skin where he would rest his head and listen in fascination to the sap circulating her body and the strangeness of her having no heart at all.
Jabe had been beautiful to him, her timeline vibrant through the centuries and her experience and wisdom a match for his own. But she was so very still in time, so constant; her path had followed a linear course and, for a while, he had followed her.
The disdainful looks he had received from her court's councillors bothered neither of them: she met them with her usual grace; he disturbed them with a cheery grin. Trees had very long memories, and if traditions had not changed in centuries, they saw no reason for Jabe to change them now: the old oak, Cheb, the duplicitous willow, Arnan, and even the gentle elm, Sanon, had been only coolly civil to their ape-like visitor. Old legends and verified history spoke of how the humans had almost exterminated the rainforests on ancient Earth for ephemeral wealth. Such bloody tales had sent shooting pains through their roots.
"I'm not human," he had protested.
"But you look like one," Cheb had replied.
Once Jabe gave him a world to save. The Forest of Cheem reached across a dozen star systems bringing life and shade and beauty to dry and barren worlds. But when plague spread across one of the outer planets, the forests had grown black and sap had congealed into sticky poison that clung stubbornly to its victims. Fires raged across the forests in a desperate attempt to contain the infection, but it was only the Doctor who smiled at the challenge of finding a solution for the Tree people. Jabe gave him free reign of the medical facilities; the Doctor presented her with a cure.
He returned to the Cheem homeworld a hero. Trees lined the streets and tipped their bows to him while blossom rained from the sky, pink and soft velvet. No one objected when he took the first dance with Jabe at the ball celebrating the Spring Revival and reopening of Parliament. Her hands were cool, her movements precise and she marvelled at his quick and light dance steps.
"You keep forgetting, I'm mostly water," he had told her, as though it was something to be proud of.
"It is a wonder you don't evaporate into nothingness," she had said.
So he whispered little titbits of the future in her ear, because he cared more about the fragile sapling-children than the stuffy old rules of a stuffy old people, and he played at the court intrigues because being discrete when you were the only pink bag of water on the planet was a challenge worthy of his time.
She gave him the botanical gardens and he crossbred flowers and cared for seedlings and sculpted hedges. And one day was much the same as the next. He found himself using the word nice far too often and dancing on the edge of the law just for a small bite of excitement and a glimmer of the disapproval that he had revelled in when he had arrived..
It was the sort of quiet life that was on the edge of driving him quite mad.
"You were not even going to say goodbye," Jabe had accused, when she had caught him packing the few possessions that he kept in their rooms.
"You were busy," he told her.
"I am always busy," she said.
He had shrugged, unrepentant. He kept his back to her, sweeping the bits and pieces of electronic gadgets off the bedside table and into his case.
"Goodbye, Jabe," he said.
The silence dragged on for over a minute, and he wished he were not quite so fond of his gadgets.
"I shall keep the forest floor of the south side clear until sundown," said Jabe finally, quietly.
"Thank you," he said.
The Doctor had listened to her footsteps fade down the corridor, wood against wood, and closed his eyes.
The forests are the same now, and he walks familiar paths, but he walks alone, the keeper of memories that should not exist. He chooses the less worn routes, but there is nothing for him to discover here.
The memories of those days are still sharp, filled with soft scent and vivid colours. He can reach out and run his hands over the bark of trees and close his eyes and pretend the universe is a very different place. For a short while this had been his very alien, very ordinary home.
And how strange that seemed to him now.