Five days later...
"And then wecrashedintotheground!" Tony yelled, smacking his fist into his palm. "And there was fire pouring out from the ceiling vent, and the smoke got thicker and thicker and I could hear Mum and Tab calling for me, but I was with Addie and her leg was trapped and she was all, 'where's my mummy?' and 'help help help.' Then in swooped Captain Morales with a fire extinguisher, and she put out the fire with a pfft, pfft, pfffft, and then, weeeeeeooooo, BAM! we all just started to fade. Then, blink, there we were, on Felsius Four, and it was awesome."
James grinned. "I bet it was. Wish I could've seen it." He tousled the boy's hair. Taking Tabitha's hand, the three of them crossed the garden to where the apple tree dangled its branches over the stone wall. The air smelled of rain and green, with a brush of the sea in it, and everything felt fresh and full of possibility. "And what about you, Tab? What'd you think of Felsius Four?"
"It was a'right," she chirped. "The bug ladies were nice. They gave us fleecy robes and hot chocolate."
"Did they?" James asked.
"It wasn't reallyhot chocolate," Tony said.
"Was too!" Tab cried.
"Was not, it was honey-foam," Tony said. "The Locastalan feed it to their babies. I read about it."
Tabitha stuck out her tongue. Tony rolled his eyes. He gripped the lowest branch of the tree and swung into the foliage with a deftness only small and fearless children can manage.
James knelt with Tab and put his hands on her waist to lift her into the branches, just as he always did, but before he could, she placed her palms against his cheeks and stared into his face.
"What is it, Tab?" he asked.
"Rose says you're having twins," she told him. "Is that true?"
"That we are," James said with a wink. "Confirmed this morning. Binary stars."
"Are you having a girl?" she asked.
James arched one brow. "We'd like that bit to be a surprise."
"Aw, now, I thought you liked surprises," James said.
She pudged out her bottom lip, and James thought she might actually cry.
"Tab, what is it?"
"If you have a girl, you'll have no time for me," she said.
He smiled then, a gentle smile. "No, that will never true. I'll always make time for my little Tabby Cat."
Her frown deepened. "You'll be my valiant pony, forever and always?"
"To the ends of the universe and back," he told her.
"And you'll be my assistant defender when the evil Master Snarkypants comes to take over the earth?" Tabitha asked.
"Every time," he said.
A lingering crease of doubt rested on her brow, so he went on. "And," he said, "When she's old enough, she can be an assistant defender, too."
Tony called down then, "Oi, Tabs, you coming up or not?"
Tabitha lifted her eyes to find her brother hanging upside down, trying to look blasé, but managing instead to seem a touch nauseated. She shook her head as if to say, 'he can do nothing without me.'
"If Rose and I have a girl, you'll have a niece to help you guard the planet. Whaddya say to that?" James asked. "And who knows, maybe we'll have two girls? Two nieces, eh? A trio of Tylers, defending the earth?"
"Pish," Tab said. "One's a boy. I've always known that."
"Have you?" James asked, bewildered.
Tabitha shrugged. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for saving the earth," she said. "I love my apple trees." Then she lifted her arms, waiting expectantly for him to lift her into the branches.
Soon as he did, she scrambled into the tree's embrace, and in moments he heard them laughing as they launched into one of their games of pretend — this time something about a ship lost at sea and a sea-witch and a friendly narwhal named Wilf.
Across the garden, Rose stood at the arbor gate, conversing with the Doctor. Her body weight shifted in the few days, so that she now resembled an inverted question mark. She smiled as she listened to the Doctor talk, and in the late evening amber light of spring, it seemed to James that she was glowing.
Was it any wonder that the Doctor had held onto her as long as he did? James thought. And on the tails of that thought, came another: Would it pain the Doctor worse now to go, now that he knew all he was leaving behind?
The answer came immediately. Of course it would pain him. Yet still he would go, because he must. He was the Doctor, and though he saved the world, time and again, he could never stay in one place.
No one knew that better than James.
Before the swell of sadness could overwhelm James, Rose turned, and seeing him beneath the apple tree, she waved and smiled that bright, breath-taking smile, and he took the garden path to meet them.
"James," the Doctor said, grinning broadly as he shook his hand. "Come and have a look."
In the grassy courtyard that spanned between the solarium and the orchard behind the main house, dozens of families and friends ambled among the visiting Locastalan dignitaries. Amy and Rory chatted with Jackie and Pete near the dessert cart. Gareth and Professor Taylor were busy making fools of themselves over River. Jake lounged in a wooden lawn chaise with Magda drifting into nap-land on his lap, while Addie and Miranda showed Commander Pheereneeke the garden, pointing out the thistles and foxgloves that bloom in the spring. Two dozen airships, brushed bronze by the evening sun, hovered in the background, tethered to the scaffold of the hangar's rooftop.
"It's brilliant, innit, this world we saved?" James said.
"Oh yes. Absolutely," the Doctor said.
Rose slid against James, wrapping an arm around his waist. He kissed the top of her head and breathed in the coconutty scent of her hair. His wife. Still he found it hard to believe, even after all of these years.
"Will you stay?" Rose asked the Doctor. "A few more days?"
The Doctor swallowed hard. "I would," he said. "If I could, I would stay seventy-eight and three-quarter days, thereabouts. But long as we're here, the rift remains open, and we all know how badly that can turnout. Speaking of…" He turned sideways as if looking for a place to hide, and finding none, he brought his sheepish smile face to face with Jackie Tyler.
"Oi, all this time, you've barely even said hello," Jackie sang. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you've been avoiding me." Then she grabbed his face and kissed him hard on the mouth. He floundered and flailed until Tony and Tabitha's laughter carried across the field. Jackie pulled sharply away and whirled on James. "You didn't leave them up that tree on their own?"
"Mum, they're fine," Rose groaned. "They're more agile than a pair of cats–"
But Jackie stalked into the garden, calling Tony and Tab down from their perch, with Rose trailing after her, and the Doctor spluttering and wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
"Well, there is that," James said.
The Doctor cringed. "I thought that would end when she and Pete–"
"–No," James said, shaking his head. "No."
"Oh you unfortunate man," the Doctor said, and both shared a private laugh before James suddenly sobered.
"Have you been to the Singing Towers yet?" James asked. "With River, I mean. In the Library, she mentioned it's where you took her before..."
The Doctor scratched his neck. "No," he said. "Not yet. Her life isn't linear. She jumps and skips, all over the place, it's maddening. Though, I think it must be soon."
"Right," James said. "So..."
"So much still to look forward to," the Doctor said.
"Onwards and upwards," James said.
"Sometimes looking back..." the Doctor said and his mouth curved into a half-smile.
They stood for a while, watching the crowd milling beneath the heathery twilight.
"And I have this," the Doctor said, tossing a lump of purplish-white crystal and catching it in his palm. "There's a lingering psychic energy in those crystals. Someone will have to clear them up, and that'll be an undertaking, without a doubt. But you have a science team and an Ardit and a mind unlike any other, except for, well, me–"
"–Oh you do like to talk," James said.
"But!" the Doctor interjected, "This one is special. This one's for Rose. It's the memory. The memory, the one I... we... took. She should have it."
"Right," James said.
The Doctor placed it gingerly in James' hands, and then brushed his hair back, trying to seem unbothered. Trying, but failing. Miserably.
Then Amy and Rory turned up, right on cue, and Amy said, "Tell him, Doctor, because he doesn't believe me."
"Tell him what?" the Doctor asked.
"That you speak cat," Rory said. "She says you speak cat. But no one can speak cat; cats are mysterious."
"I can speak cat," the Doctor said.
"Lots of people speak to cats," James added.
"No," Rory laughed. "No no no. What could you possibly say to cats?"
"Lots of things. How's the weather, where are the best mice, are there any alien races surreptitiously luring humans into a would-be time traveling device?" the Doctor said.
"They're quite handy for gossip," James added.
Rory shook his head. "Smashing."
"I win! You owe me sixteen trillion dollars and a back rub," Amy purred. "C'mon, River's talking to the President!" She hooked her arm in Rory's and dragged him off.
The Doctor and James watched them as they swanned into the party, effortlessly mingling with the multitude of guests. River joined Rory and Amy, Pete, and Professor Taylor as they listened to President Jones and Commander Pheereneeke retell the story of the Locastalan Invasion.
Beyond them, Mr. Price and Padma huddled together, talking sweetly and quietly beside the flower-decked memorial to Alicia and Prescott. After a moment, James muttered, "Well done, Mr. Price. About time."
Rose and Jackie came up the garden path, having convinced Tony and Tabitha to come down to earth long enough for cake. The four of them wound up the path, the two children between the two women, all of them holding hands like paper dolls, all of them chattering excitedly about the possibility of fireworks at sunset.
"It's always like this," the Doctor said, quiet, reverent. "Always on the outside, always looking in."
As the little group parted around them, Rose stretched on tiptoe to kiss James on the cheek before continuing into the courtyard.
"Well…" James said.
"Dr. McCrimmon," the Doctor said, then cleared his throat. "You have a good life here. I'm proud of you."
James' face lit up, bright as a shiny spoon. "C'mon," he said. "Come and meet the President. Again."
And together, they joined the party.
The morning sun silvered the dew in the fields, and in the distance, the line of crystals sparkled like fairy lights along the horizon. Rose and James said their goodbyes and lingered on the damp lawn, waving as Rory and Amy and River entered the TARDIS. The Doctor placed a hand on the door and turned.
"Goodbye," he said. "Take care of yourselves. Don't become an overlord!"
"He won't!" Rose shouted, laughing. "Now go!"
The Doctor returned the grin. "I'm watching," he said, playfully, gesturing with two fingers at his eyes and then back at James before disappearing into the TARDIS.
Moments later, as the TARDIS whisked to life, James slipped his hand into Rose's. His grip tightened as the TARDIS dematerialized and vanished, leaving them with the whisper of the wind in the cliffs and the chatter of distant seabirds.
Rose and James ambled up the path toward the house, swinging their linked hands. James said, "I say we take the hoverlink to Fairbanks, Alaska. Professor Taylor says the aurora borealis are at their peak–"
"–We've got tea with the President of Burundi," she reminded him.
James frowned. "Right. First, tea with the President of Burundi, then borealis in Fairbanks, then maybe a few nights in Vancouver, I love Vancouver, it's so Canadian, what do you think?"
"Hmm, don't suppose we could pop by Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco while we're oot and aboot?" she asked. Together, they pushed open the doors to the tower room and circled the console.
"Ghirardelli Square?" he asked as he slowly twisted a crank on the control panel. "What's in Ghirardelli Square?"
"Ghirardelli chocolates," she said. "I've got a mad craving."
"Mad craving times two. Can't ignore that," he said.
"It would not be advisable, sir," Rose said, in her very best Queen Victoria tone.
"Then it's Burundi, Fairbanks, Ghirardelli Square, Vancouver, and…oh..." James puffed out a breath. "Anywhere we like."
The clockwork in the tower pulsed to life. Shimmering particles of light buzzed and gleamed within the cylinder. The skylight irised open, and James pulled her body close.
"How long are you gonna stay with me?" he asked.
Rose cupped his chin in her hand. "Forever," she told him.
He beamed back at her. They each placed a hand on the lever and pushed, sending a burst of golden energy through the skylight and into the sky. The shield settled like a gossamer curtain around the grounds of the house.
"Forever," James said. "I like that sound of that."
Thank you so much for reading this story!