The Doctor paced around the TARDIS's console, its humming and whirring providing suitable, ambient background noise.
"Are you gonna open it?"
Jack was sitting on a rung, knees apart, leaning forward eagerly with his hands clasped.
The Doctor looked at the cylindrical box. It measured roughly a foot in all three directions, one of those old hat boxes that people used to buy back in the early twentieth century. It was wine-coloured and slightly rough, peeling as if it had been opened and closed many times, its treasures repeatedly indulged in.
"Of course I am. I'm just waiting for the right moment." He covered his nerves with an anxious titter, absurdly jubilant in the subdued, suddenly claustrophobic area.
The box had appeared without introduction or notice on the floor of the TARDIS. One moment they'd been outside enjoying the fresh air of the thirteenth century, when River had gone back inside to fetch her jacket. She'd called them both in, to investigate the suspicious package that had apparently just been silently placed on the floor. Attached, had been an enveloped letter, inscribed, "To the Doctor."
He'd carefully ripped it open without a moment's hesitation, the round, loopy handwriting disturbingly familiar.
My Doctor. How long has it been? For me, just moments. You're in the garden right now, potting your new geraniums and whistling unashamedly. Yes, that's the sort of man domesticity has turned you into; a gardener. Not literally, that's not your profession – but it's certainly your most treasured solo pastime. But for you – I hope it hasn't been millennia or anything. I don't know when this will reach you; knowing the technology, it should latch on to the TARDIS in its nearest linear progression with our time, but knowing Torchwood that probably won't happen.
I would give my life for you to be able to respond, but I fear by that time it will be too late. I'm not going to tell you my age, I want to keep your image of me as an exuberant young girl alive, but I can't exactly say that I'd be able to keep up with all of our old adventures if we were to meet again.
Inside the box are a few mementoes of our life together – a life well lived, the one you gave us. I think it's only fair that you should be allowed a glimpse of the immense happiness we shared together, how much I appreciate the gift you gave me. But that makes it sound too simple; I'm sure you knew when you left us there together that it wasn't going to be smooth. I know you had to do that for both of us, all of us. But, Doctor; three hours! Three hours we had together and you sent me away. I know, that after all we went through, I got to be with you forever – just like I promised – but you; it makes my heart ache to think of you, all alone in our old world, especially after what you had to do to Donna (yes, you've told me that and much more besides - I'm so sorry). I know you were just being noble, but that doesn't mean it didn't hurt.
Still, she was right. It really was the greatest gift you could give me. I suppose, with all of the trauma and obstacles, I didn't think something like that would be possible. But it was. So, here is a bit of it – just enough to fit in a box and through a gap. I've done my best to pick the best bits. And I am so, so thankful – for everything, all of it, right from the word, "Run."
Yours until the day I die and beyond,
He'd folded up the letter, placed it in the pocket next to his chest, and that was what had prompted Jack's question. Sighing, he leant against the railings and exhaled deeply. River, noting his aura of subtle torment and sadness, touched Jack's shoulder and indicated that they should leave. They meekly exited the main room, at which the Doctor gave a small nod.
Sighing, he opened the box.
The first 'item' was a Polaroid photo. The Doctor made out his former self, standing in front of a wooden front door with vines and foliage cascading down around it. He was clutching the hand of a beautiful blonde woman and both were smiling radiantly on the verge of laughter, their eyes caught by someone or something to the left of the person taking the photo. He turned the card over, to find "10/09, moving out" scrawled in faded pencil. She looks so happy, he thought. Nevertheless, inspite of his happiness at her joy, he felt slightly resentful of his alter ego, standing next to her content with his companionship.
There were a few more photos like these; ones of just the two of them; lying on a beach in Cornwall, sharing a drink at a pub, entwined affectionately on a sofa. There were others, too. Himself holding Tony Tyler and grinning as if he were his own son. Rose arm-in-arm with Jackie, squinting into the sunlight, her hair blown around in what resembled a mushroom-cloud in the wind. There were some of them with people the Doctor didn't recognise; their new friends, he thought. A pang of sadness and loneliness hit him and he was glad the others weren't there to see it. Still, it was tinged with the most obscure bittersweet euphoria. They looked so, so happy and seeing the face he once possessed grinning up at him made him confused but giddy. It was like seeing his daydreams and reveries from long ago made into tangible reality.
He hadn't thought about her in a long time. Not because he'd ever stopped loving her or caring about her, but because to think about her and everything he'd forgone hurt too much for him to bare. She was right; he'd waited for that moment for so many years, two replacements had entered his life and he'd fought relentlessly against his foes. Hearing the Roman warning, "Doctor; she is returning." He hadn't been sure who "she" was, but of course, he'd had his suspicions. What other female was there that could strike such resonance? Then, sitting with Donna in the market, hearing her talk about a girl with blonde hair. Then those two words: Bad Wolf. He knew then that something terrible must have been happening, but he could barely think about it; Rose was coming back. The courageous girl who had saved his life so many times, waited for him when others would have deserted him or given up. Loved him inspite of his regeneration and sudden unfamiliarity, healed the wounds he'd made himself. He had waited so, so long and when he saw her at the end of the street it hurt him the need for her was so great. Then, scarce hours later and he'd realised he could never keep her. This was the one possible solution. Sure, he could have held her presence for longer, but would he have been able to let her go after they'd fallen back into their old habits? And how much more would it have hurt to lose her again, after all he'd put her through?
He continued to flick through the collection of photos, noting they had been carefully arranged into chronological order. She's put so much effort into this, he fondly pondered. The next picture indicated a more canon, conventional progression in the romance he was witnessing. He had his arm round her, and she was holding her hand up, a sparkling gem glittering on her ring finger. The next one confirmed this. The two of them, leaning together and kissing. She was beautiful; her hair pinned stylishly and white dress fluttering subtly in the wind, their friends and her family standing in the background beaming.
There was a picture of what he presumed was their house; an eccentric, large town house with a flight of steps leading up from the unkempt garden through a pair of French windows, to a dark yet warm looking drawing room behind.
His heart skipped a beat. Rose standing in a bright room, clutching her swollen belly and smiling quietly but earnestly. The next piece was an A5 black photograph, a skeletal child outlined in its foetal fragility. Afterwards, Rose lying on a hospital bed, worn out and exhausted, sweat plastered her hair to her forehead. Himself, holding a tiny, pink, newborn baby with tears in his eyes. The two of them, sitting together with the tiny baby curled into the crook of Rose's arm. He turned over the photo, where was scrawled, "The Doctor, Rose and Grace, three weeks."
He watched the child growing through these photos. He saw his daughter turn from innocent baby, volatile toddler, vivacious child, adventurous ten-year-old. She had dirty blonde hair and a face that echoed Rose's, although splashed with freckles. His favourite was one of Rose and Grace, standing together in a muddy field. Grace was wearing dungarees and wellies, her face splattered with dirt and flowers in her hair, arms reached up to the sky. Rose was leaning down, hugging her shoulders and looking up at the camera and laughing, her woollen, cream cardigan swamping them both.
The photos continued and each member of this nuclear family grew older. Rose's face was thinning out and her hair becoming duller and the same happened to him, too. Grace was taller, slimmer, a teenager and then a young woman. She was pictured going off travelling with a couple of friends, music festivals and excursions to exciting, vibrant looking places, driving her first car.
There was a CD-disc in a plastic wallet with no label. He hastily slipped it out of its packet and placed it inside the slot of the TARDIS console. The screen fuzzed a little before going black, then suddenly came to life with a bright picture. It wasn't used to playing DVDs. The camera was focussed on the floor and there was his own, old voice talking confusedly.
"Hold on … yep, got it. We're rolling."
There was spluttered laughter and the sound of a sprinkler, whoops of excitement and a hammering in the background.
The image was turned around; there was his old self, talking down to the camcorder.
"Uh, hi – don't know if you're seeing this. Hope you're well! Sorry about … everything. But thanks. Here we go …"
The scene swivelled again and he could make out a dishevelled garden. His alter ego took a few clumsy steps forward, attempting to keep the camcorder level and walk in a straight line, before stopping and slowly and allowing it to glide over the scene. Rose was sitting back in a deck chair, a book lying discarded at her bare feet. She shielded the sun from her eyes with one hand and grinned widely. "Hello," she gushed, "show Grace!"
The camcorder's vision swooped over to the other side of the lawn, where Grace was playing with some sort of swing-ball, solo-tennis game. She grinned and waved; "Hi Dad!"
Does she know that's him or me? The Doctor wondered.
The screen went blank.
The next piece of paper just said: "Sorry about the film. It never really worked."
There was even more; sketches of himself and Grace that Rose must have worked on, finger prints and baby painting. Christmas cards, postcards and letters, full of everyday business and affection. It seemed they were living (or maybe had lived) a full life, judging by the spread of countries they'd visited.
The last item was a final picture, another Polaroid. It was a Christmas photo – just like the one they'd taken all those years ago after he'd regenerated. He still had the original, although he hadn't looked at it in such a long time. In the first photo, it had been him and Rose, standing next to each other, beaming and holding hands, Rose's other arm linked around her mother's waist, who was clutching Mickey's shoulder. This new one echoed it so much. He and Rose were together in the centre, arms chummily linked, Grace sitting cross legged between them on the floor, she must have been twelve or so. A young man, eighteen or nineteen, who he could only presume was Tony, stood in Mickey's place, next to Jackie and Pete. They all beamed out at him. Together.
He didn't have a photo like this anymore. It wasn't the same. Everyone who'd been in the one they'd taken all those years ago, they'd all got each other and more. Mickey had lived out his days working for Torchwood – he died young, late thirties or so – but at least there had been someone with him; Jack had made sure of that.
And Rose – look at everything she had, everything he'd given up.
What did the Doctor have? His companions were fleeting, their presence haunting him for a few months before they were ruined or left him. He knew River would be with him for a while, what with their paths having crossed before, but his life and its nature meant that he had the certainty she wouldn't last past her forties.
He hoped she'd stay until then. Because, no matter how much it hurt him to move on and forget those he loved, he had too. Otherwise he'd keep on looking back and seeing all the pain he'd left in his wake.
But, at least, he thought; at least this was one avenue of his long, bitter life that had ended in happiness. That much he knew, even though he couldn't, really. And how it eased the pain … even if only for a while.