Jessie Pond Williams has the most amazing friend in the whole universe.
He comes for all sorts of holidays: Christmas, every year, and most Bonfire Nights, and sometimes her birthday, though he doesn't always remember. He brings her all sorts of amazing presents -- stars to stick to the ceiling of her bedroom, which glow all night and flicker the way real stars do; roast not-quite-chestnuts that taste much better than the sort Leadworth's shopping centre sells; pretty little rocks that don't look anything like the pictures in her geology book -- and he always has funny things to say, like "Guy Fawkes was a very nice man, you know, just a little hot-headed."
Mum and Dad are always happy when Jessie's friend turns up. Mum yells "Doctor!" and gives him a big hug, and Dad claps the Doctor on the shoulder and asks what trouble he's been up to this time. The Doctor says, "Trouble? What trouble? I always keep perfectly safe," before kneeling down to give Jessie the latest little present and envelop her in a hug that smells of tweed and tea and strange metals.
As she gets older, though, Jessie starts to notice things about the Doctor. He's always wearing the same outfit every time he visits, for one, which isn't something other grownups do. At first she thinks it must be to make Mum laugh, because there's nothing Mum likes better than making fun of the Doctor's bowtie, but then comes the Bonfire Night when Jessie is nine. The Doctor missed her birthday that year, and he makes up for it by bringing the most amazing firecrackers; Dad makes a few vague protesting noises, but both Jessie and the Doctor promise to be careful. Jessie's fine, but one of the Doctor's jacket sleeves gets a bit singed.
When he turns up for Christmas, the sleeve is still smoldering.
Jessie ponders this at New Year's, sitting quietly on the back stairs and thinking very hard. She's old enough now that they're getting to interesting history at school, and making timelines of important dates. Jessie's seen all her parents' honeymoon photos, and pictures of holidays they've taken with the Doctor, and she's beginning to get very suspicious. She thinks the Doctor might be magic, because all the evidence suggests he can time-travel.
Once she's worked it out, Jessie wants to confront her parents about it. But when she reaches the doorway, she hears Mum and Dad talking in the next room, in the quiet serious tones that grownups get when they don't want her to hear. Jessie sits back down very carefully on the bottom step.
"It's been ten years," Mum says. "And I expect it's been like -- a day for him. I bet he goes dashing about collecting presents and coming back on interesting days."
"Well, yeah," Dad says. "It's what he does."
"I'm sick of it," Mum mutters. "I know Leadworth's been great for Jessie, but it must be about time." A funny note enters Mum's voice, one Jessie hasn't heard before. "Isn't it time, Rory?"
"Amy," Dad says softly. "She's still so young. Would you want her around those -- those vampire things? Or the Silurians? Or Daleks? The Doctor isn't perfect, and, well -- is he going to remember that she's a child?"
"He'll remember," Mum says. "He will." A pause, so long that Jessie starts creeping forward, before Mum sighs. "Two more years. She'll be smart enough then. She can already run really fast." This draws a reluctant laugh from Dad. Mum says, "We all want what's best for her, I promise. I just -- can't. Wait much longer. Eventually he's gonna stop coming back, and I want more before he does."
Jessie lies in bed that night, staring at the twinkling stars in her ceiling, and wonders what Mum's afraid of missing, and why the Doctor would ever stop coming back.
He does turn up for her birthday that year, coming into the garden on a bright May afternoon while Jessie sits on the swing Dad strung up from a tree a few years back. The Doctor comes tramping through the grass and beams down at Jessie. "Look at you!" he says. "Ten years old. Didn't think I'd miss this one, did you?"
Jessie squints up at him. "Hello," she says. "Mum thinks you might not come back after a while. She's only giving it two more years."
The Doctor looks affronted. "Before I don't come back?" he demands.
"No." Jessie kicks her heels. "Before she stops waiting." She watches faint frown lines appear on the Doctor's big forehead, and realizes that for the first time she's caught him a little off-guard. Figuring she'd better take advantage of it, Jessie adds, "Are you a time-traveler?"
He focuses on her again. "Yes."
"How?" she wants to know.
He raises his eyebrows. "In a time machine."
Jessie rolls her eyes. "Can I see it?"
"Yes," the Doctor says, "in two years."
This is extremely unsatisfactory, but the Doctor has brought a glowing amber stone for Jessie's rock collection, and a dreamcatcher that seems to be made entirely of spider's-silk-fine filaments of light. Better than that, when Jessie drags out her favorite history book after dinner and interrogates him on the particulars, the Doctor answers all her questions readily, and makes her laugh. Jessie is mollified.
Mum and Dad are a bit startled at first, but by the end of the night Jessie's heard about the time that Dad was a Roman solider at Stonehenge, the time they went to Renaissance Venice, their adventures in American 1969 and how they were once kidnapped by pirates. Jessie listens with delighted fascination, and at the end she turns to her parents with huge pleading eyes and says, "Two years?"
It's Mum who replies, firmly, "Two years," which means Jessie really does have to accept it.
Two years are a long time. Jessie suddenly becomes a lot taller and has to start wearing bras. She gets angry about things a lot more easily, which Mum says is just hormones, which makes Jessie slam the door in her face. Dad starts looking like he's seriously reconsidering their deadline, and Jessie realizes that she has to prove she's capable of handling herself on important adventures, or they won't take her along. She tries not to slam doors. Instead she starts getting excellent marks on all her history exams, because she's taking detailed notes and writing down all the time periods she thinks it might be most fun to visit. She really wants 1920s Hollywood, the sacking of Rome (if it won't upset Dad too much), and an audience with Cleopatra.
After a while, Mum and Dad start contributing to the list. Jessie is absurdly happy.
The Doctor turns up for Christmas before her twelfth birthday. Jessie gives him the list and says, "This is what I want for my birthday."
"Hm," the Doctor says, looking it over. "I'll see what I can do." He flashes her a grin.
Jessie is ready to be all packed the night before her birthday, but Mum insists she leave her suitcase under her bed and get a good night's sleep. Jessie tries; in the morning, she even has some friends over for a birthday party. Despite herself, Jessie enjoys it; after all, it's the last time she'll be seeing any of them for a while.
The Doctor doesn't turn up. But he's got hours still.
Jessie packs. When she's halfway through deciding which t-shirts she wants to bring, Dad turns up and watches her from the doorway. "I'm a bit worried you'll fall behind on your schoolwork," he says.
"Dad." Jessie gives him a look. "I'll be learning things firsthand!"
"I suppose," Dad says. He looks less than convinced, but Jessie's learned that Dad always takes a little while to warm up to things. He'll go along with it, though, and even enjoy himself. Jessie isn't worried.
By the time it's dark out, and the Doctor hasn't turned up, she is.
Mum finds Jessie sitting on the front stoop, waiting. She sits down next to Jessie, long legs stretched out in front of her, and wraps an arm around Jessie's shoulders. "I know," she says quietly. "That's just the way he is sometimes. He'll be here, but it might not be tonight. It might be tomorrow, or the next day, or Christmas."
Jessie blinks rapidly. "He promised."
"Yeah." Mum's arm tightens briefly. "And he keeps them. He just ... takes a while, sometimes."
"Oh." Jessie isn't sure she ever wants to be a grownup, and sensible like Mum.
But neither of them go inside. They sit there, in the summer night, watching the stars come out. Mum's arm around Jessie's shoulders is a comfort. She'd be fine staying out here all night, she thinks. Maybe they've all become very good at waiting.
Then something happens. There's a weird wheezing noise, and a slow-flashing light, and a great wind picks up in the front yard. Moments later Dad comes clattering downstairs with their suitcases, but Jessie hardly notices, because a big blue box that says POLICE PUBLIC CALL BOX on it, in glowing letters, has just landed, or materialized, or something, right in front of her.
She leaps up and dashes over to it, and right into the Doctor's arms. He catches her and swings her around, laughing. "Happy birthday, Jessica Pond!"
"Is this your time machine?" she asks. He grins and steps aside, and she walks forward into another world. It's obviously the navigation centre for a spaceship, full of warm copper light and more gadgets than she'll be able to figure out in a hurry. She drifts up to the central console, delighted; after a moment, she hears the door close, and the Doctor and Mum and Dad join her. "This is wonderful," she says. "This is perfect!"
The Doctor beams at her, and at Mum and Dad; Mum's beaming back, and even Dad looks a bit happy, though Jessie will have to be careful for him, at least for a little while. "So," the Doctor says. "Where to, Ponds?"
"I think Mum should decide," Jessie says.
"Anywhere," Mum says, "everywhere," and shrieks with delight as the ship shakes to life.