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The Test of Time

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            “Why can’t you and mum just go?” Rani’s fingers were beginning to cramp because of how tightly she was holding her phone.

            Clyde put down the tools in his hand and patted Mr. Smith's console with a muttered, "Be right back." He stood in front of Rani and gave her a wide-eyed look, his eyebrows raised. Rani raised a finger as her dad answered the question over the phone. 

            “It would mean a lot to Uncle Hakim if you came too. Besides, you haven’t seen your cousins in years! They’re not too much younger than you; I bet you have more in common than you think.”

            Rani rolled her eyes.

            “And…” Dad added after a moment. “Ever since you got married and started working, your mum and I haven't been able to spend time with you. We could have some family time, just us.”

            Rani sighed. There it was, the famous Dad guilt trip.

            “At least think about it. It would mean the world to us.”

            Dad’s calm reasoning always made it so hard to argue against him. “Okay. I’ll think about it.”

            “Thank you. Talk to you soon, sweetheart.”

            “Love you, Dad.”

            “I love you too.”

            Rani ended the call and shook her head.

            “So?” Clyde crossed his arms over his chest. “What’s wrong?”

            “Mum and Dad want me to go with them to visit my family in Sheffield. In two days.”

            “And…? You just said that you finished the article you were working on.”

            "It's not about work, it's just-" Rani huffed, copying Clyde’s stance. “We don’t talk with that side of the family. They haven’t even tried to stay in touch with us for years, and now they’re expecting us to go all the way to Sheffield for a birthday party!” She threw her arms out. “I don’t even know why my parents are going along with it.”

            Clyde frowned. “Maybe they’re just thinking about how important family is. How you shouldn’t take them for granted.”

            And there she was in Rani’s mind, as if she were on Clyde and Dad’s side and trying to convince her too. If she were here, she would be telling her to go. Rani knew it.

            A smile twitched at Rani’s lips, but it never fully formed. “You sounded like Sarah Jane there for a minute.”

            Clyde smiled a little. “Sometimes I think she’s still in here,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “She’s never really gone, is she?”

            Rani shook her head. Three years, and sometimes it still hurt just as badly as it had the day Sarah Jane had left them forever. “No. She could never be.” She looked down. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to go…

            A gentle squeeze to her arms brought her back to the present. Clyde looked right into her eyes, his own wide and imploring. “Think about it as a good thing. You get a chance to reconnect with your family.”

            Rani nodded slowly, but felt like she was giving in too easily. “Dad sounds like he’s planning on throwing me with my cousins again. Last time I saw them, we didn’t have anything to talk about.”

            “Well maybe things have changed. We’re not the same people we were ten years ago, or even two years ago. Give them a chance, yeah?”

            Rani just hugged him. He was right; it was the good thing to do. And maybe, just maybe, her estranged family would actually surprise her.

            “Between you and Dad, it’s impossible to refuse to do anything,” she joked as she pulled away.

            Clyde grinned and beamed with self-importance. “Just put it down to the old ‘Clyde Langer charm.’”

            “Not sure I’d call it charm,” Rani teased before pecking a kiss on his lips. She smiled at him and gently caressed his cheek. “I wish you could come with me. Dad invited you, too, but I know the deadline…”

            “Yeah,” Clyde sighed. “It’s going to be tight.”

            “You’ll make it. You always do.”

            A teasing gleam came into his eyes. “Yeah, because I have you to boss me around.”

            Rani smacked his shoulder and laughed. “Are you sure you’ll be all right without me here?” she asked as her laughter trailed off, only half-joking. She had too many memories of dragging Clyde away from his drawings just to make sure he ate.

            “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me while you’re gone, just try to have fun with your family.”

            Rani sighed, still not entirely sure about this. “Yeah. Fun.”

Chapter Text

            Rani regretted her decision about an hour into the car ride.

            They were on the second repeat of Dad’s favourite Mozart CD which she was pretty sure had never left the car during the entire span of her life. Mum kept trying to come up with things the three of them to do together in Sheffield but discarding every single idea she had. In between that, Dad tried to inform Mum and Rani about what his sister’s family had been up to since they had last seen them.

            Rani listened with interest. She was a journalist, after all, and she was curious about how her family was doing, especially her cousins. From what her dad was saying, it seems like he had been in pretty frequent contact with his sister; why hadn’t Rani known that?

            According to the information Aunt Najia had passed on to her dad, Uncle Hakim hadn’t changed one bit since they’d last seen him. Aunt Najia herself had almost been a manager at a new hotel, but there had been some sort of complications and she was moved to a different hotel that wasn’t set to open for another month or so. Her cousin Sonya was unemployed, but taking some online classes. Her other cousin, Yasmin, (though Rani remembered she always preferred to be called ‘Yaz’) was currently a police officer.

            Rani was glad to know her family was doing well, though she was still wary of the awkwardness that was sure to ensue after not seeing each other for so long. Eventually she became wrapped up in her thoughts and stared out the window again.

            A buzz brought Rani back to reality. She picked up her phone to see a text from Clyde.

            Hey babe, how’s it going

            Rani smiled as she texted back a response. Mum and Dad are about to drive me mad, but that’s normal.

            Only a few seconds passed before his response popped up on the screen. It’s the Mozart CD isn’t it

            Rani pressed her lips together to keep from laughing out loud. Clyde knew her parents too well. You guessed it. She typed another message immediately after that one. Did you fix Mr. Smith?

            Finally figured out what was wrong about an hour ago. After that it was easy

            You had to call Luke, didn’t you?

            There was a longer pause before he answered. Yeah I did

            Rani chuckled to herself. I’m glad he was able to help; are you back to work now?

            A picture popped up in the message thread. Rani clicked on it to make the image bigger and saw that it was a snapshot of the sketch Clyde was currently working on. Underneath it was his message: Yep!

            It looks great! You’re going to get it done in time and it’s going to be some of the best work you’ve ever done. <3

            Thanks babe, love you J

            Love you too J

            Rani put her phone down next to her, only to feel it vibrate a moment later. She used her thumbprint to reveal another message from Clyde, this one with a link to Spotify attached.

            If you need to escape from Mozart

            She grinned and put in her earbuds. The playlist was comprised of instrumental music that Clyde listened to while he was drawing; definitely more interesting than Mozart. And, though it might be a bit silly, it made her feel closer to Clyde.

            Finally, the end of the long drive came. The small car pulled into the Park Hill estate, which Rani remembered only vaguely from when her family had visited several years ago.

            Their arrival was greeted with loud cheers at the door of the flat. Rani was instantly overwhelmed at the sight of many family members she hadn’t seen in years, and while they greeted her parents too, most of them made a beeline for her. The questions and comments were endless: “You’re married now?” “Is your husband here?” “Why was there such a rush? I wish I could have been there!” “You’re a writer?” “What do you do exactly?” “You look so different!” “You’ve grown up so much!”

            It took some time before she could escape, making the excuse that she had to use the toilet. However, on the way there she was pushed by someone trying to rush by. The woman turned around and began to apologise, seeming preoccupied, and Rani realised it was her cousin Yaz.

            The same sort of realisation shone suddenly on Yaz’s face too and she smiled. “Rani! Haven’t seen you in years!”

            “Yeah, it’s been a long time,” Rani agreed, noting an air of maturity in her cousin that had been absent the last time they had met. “You look great!”

            “You too!” She frowned, as if trying to remember something. “You’re…married now, right?”

            Rani wondered how many times she had been asked that question in the past 20 minutes. “Yeah, crazy, isn’t it?”

            Yaz chuckled. “Seems like yesterday we were just kids running about outside the estate.” Suddenly her eyebrows shot high on her forehead. She pulled a phone out of her back pocket and brought it up close to her face. “Sorry,” she muttered as she began texting. She glanced up to offer Rani an apologetic, albeit nervous, look. “I’m waiting on news about a friend who’s in trouble.”

            “I’m sorry,” Rani offered, unsure of what else to say.

            Yaz sighed and shook her head. Her phone started buzzing and she frowned at Rani. “Sorry, I have to answer this. It was good to see you!” She offered a small smile and then fought her way through the crowd to reach a corridor.

            Rani had learned to trust her instincts at times like this, even when it seemed odd, and right now her instincts were telling her to follow. She took the same path as Yaz a few seconds after her, thinking about how her cousin had suddenly gotten very distressed when receiving that text message. It had to have been pretty serious. Yaz was a police officer, after all, so Rani figured that it would take a lot to shake her.

            Yaz went down a corridor and into a room, shutting the door. Rani went just past the door, and, taking a long look around to make sure no one was watching her, stayed put and leaned her ear towards the door.

            “Did you find out where she is?” Rani heard Yaz ask. After a moment of silence, she continued. “What are they?...Where are you? I’ll meet you there....They’ll be fine….Right. I’m on my way.”

            Rani tiptoed a little further down the hallway into another bedroom and hid behind the door. Only a second later Rani heard Yaz exit her room and leave the area. Silently, Rani counted to three before following again. She merged back into the party crowd and watched Yaz exchange brief words with her parents before hurrying out the door. Yaz’s mum and dad stared after her, looking concerned.

            Rani edged towards the flat door and positioned herself by the window looking out on the estate. Luckily, Uncle Hakim was still standing nearby.

            “Is everything all right with Yaz?” Rani asked him.

            Her uncle sighed, but then smiled. “She’s all right. She’s been this way lately, running off at a moment’s notice. It’s these new friends of hers, I think.”

            Rani nodded knowingly. “So, not the best people to be hanging around, then?”

            “They seemed nice enough when I met them,” Uncle Hakim said with a thoughtful frown. “Najia said they helped her out quite a bit with the whole spider business, only…they did seem a bit strange.”

            “Spider business?”

            Uncle Hakim chuckled. “So they did manage to keep it quiet, did they?” he said to himself. “Just a few weeks ago, there were massive spiders all around Sheffield.”

            Rani leaned forward, intent on hearing more about the strange phenomenon, but glanced out the window to see Yaz, far down below, heading towards a car. She was planning on going somewhere further away, then.

            “…aliens, but I said—”

            The keyword made Rani turn her full attention back to her uncle. “Sorry, what was that?”

            “It’s a bit silly, isn’t it? People were saying the spiders were aliens! I knew they weren’t, though; just mutations caused by all the filth around here.”

            “Mutations?” Rani echoed. Mutations, or actually alien? she wondered.

            Uncle Hakim shrugged. “Or something like that. Najia and Yaz know more about it than I do.”

            Rani glanced back out the window, but Yaz was already out of sight. She sighed silently, but then something caught her eye just outside of the flat. Some kind of animal, small and white, scurried across the ground. It was about the same size as a mouse, but not the right shape.

            “Someone out there?” Uncle Hakim asked.

            Rani shook herself from her thoughts. “No, I was just thinking. It’s weird being back here after so long. Good weird!”

            “We’ve missed you.” He chuckled. “I remember when you were just a toddler, and Yaz was only a couple years old. The things you two got up to…”

            Rani only half-listened as she turned over everything she had observed at the party so far. She snuck another look out the window, but didn’t see anything unusual. She excused herself after her uncle’s story was done and found a quiet corner where she could organise her thoughts.

            Maybe she was just really eager for an adventure; or maybe Yasmin’s stress and sudden disappearance, the white creature, and maybe even the spiders were all connected somehow.

            Whatever it was, Rani had the distinct feeling that something was very wrong.

Chapter Text

            Rani stared at her notebook and pen sitting on the bed in front of her. She was exhausted from the shopping trip her mum had just forced her and Dad on, but her mind was still buzzing. If she began writing, she would be making a commitment to see this through. But she could also stay out of it. She could play it safe, stay here with her parents for another day, and then head back home to Clyde and work.

            Yaz seemed like she was a capable person, but she had also needed help, and Rani hadn’t even offered.

            Sarah Jane never refused anyone who needed help, Rani thought. Years ago, she wouldn’t even be having this argument with herself. She would just jump right into solving the mystery.

            But teenage Rani hadn’t known everything that 25-year-old Rani knew now. She hadn’t known that friends don’t last forever. She hadn’t understood just how dangerous her alien-fighting life was, and what it would cost her. She hadn’t known what it was like to be a real grown up and have a job and have to pay bills. She hadn’t known that marriage, even with someone you really loved, was hard. All of those things, and more, had changed her.

            And yet, Sarah Jane, her role model and friend, came to her mind again. If there had even been the slightest mystery, Sarah Jane had investigated. If Sarah Jane were here, she would be investigating right now and dragging Rani along.

            Rani picked up her notebook and began scribbling. “We’ll start off easy, then,” she muttered.


 

            “Thank you for agreeing to this, Rani,” Dad said, meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror. “It really means a lot to Aunt Najia and her family.”

            “Yeah, of course, Dad.” Really, Rani was ecstatic that Aunt Najia had invited them over for tea today. Now that she had her investigator cap on, she was eager to start gleaning more information about the case. And the perfect way to do that? Insignificant small talk.

            Dad’s phone rang and he picked it up and placed it on his shoulder, leaning his head over to keep it in place. “Haresh Chandra,” he said. A moment later, “Oh, hey Najia. We’re on our way.”

            Rani chuckled. Dad never checked caller ID.

            “Oh really? Well I’m sorry we’ll miss her…Just a few more minutes…I’ll see you then.”

            “What was that about?” Mum asked.

            Dad set down the phone. “Sounds like Yaz isn’t going to be there today. Such a shame,” he added, glancing at Rani, “you two used to be best mates.”

            “Why won’t she be there?” Rani asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. Inside, she was severely disappointed at losing her biggest lead.

            “Najia said she’s with some friends, that’s all I know.”

            Rani frowned. Had Yaz been out all night? Who were these friends she kept hearing about? That was one of the top questions in Rani’s notebook. They seemed to be the answer to everything.

            “Haresh!” Mum yelled suddenly.

            Dad slammed on the breaks and the tires squealed. Rani’s heart pounded in her throat as she was thrust against the locked seatbelt, but she couldn’t see anything around to cause alarm.

            “Ghita!” Dad exclaimed. “Why’d you do that!”

            Mum pointed her finger at her window. “It’s that thing! From this morning! You know, the mouse thing!” She sighed. “It’s gone now, but I promise it was there!”

            Dad sighed and eased the car forward. Luckily, no one was behind them. “Ghita, I told you, it was some kind of lizard. They’re everywhere.”

            “Wait, you saw a mouse-lizard-thing this morning?” Rani asked. She thought of the creature she had seen outside of her aunt and uncle’s flat yesterday and wondered if it could be the same thing.

            “It was a lizard,” Dad emphasised, “and it’s nothing to be worried about. Probably just some sort of seasonal species.”

            Mum shuddered. “It was so big, and that white skin! Terrible.”

            Rani hadn’t told her parents about what she had seen yesterday; therefore, they hadn’t been influenced by her description. It seemed like they had seen the same creature.

            Rani pulled out her notebook and jotted down the sighting below her previous one. Two sightings. Two separate groups of people. Three witnesses. There had to be something to this.

            “What’s that notebook for, Rani?” Dad asked.

            “You were writing in it like you had no time left last night,” Mum added.

            Rani kept her head down, staring at her notebook, and pressed her lips together. This was one of the reasons why she had hesitated to start investigating. Just like years ago when she had fought aliens with Sarah Jane, she had to lie to her parents.

            “Work called up. There’s actually a story here in Sheffield they want me to work on.” It was amazing how easily the lie slipped out, just like it had back in those days. “I’ve been doing some research and taking notes.”

            “That’s wonderful, sweetheart!” Mum said, looking back over her seat to grin at Rani.

            “Must be a pretty quick story,” Dad commented.

            Rani swallowed and looked up. This was where she really committed. “Well, actually…I’m not going home with you today.”

            Both of her parents’ eyes widened.

            “I need to stay here for a bit longer and do some interviews. I’ll take the train back later in the week.”

            Dad frowned. She could see that he wasn’t happy; not suspicious, just maybe a bit disappointed. “Are you sure?”

            “This will be really good for me. Besides, it’s nice to be somewhere a bit different for a change.” Now that wasn’t a lie.

            “We can’t keep you from your job, Rani,” Mum said as they pulled into Park Hill. “Just be careful.”

            “’Course I will.”

            Rani felt a sense of déjà vu as they walked up to her aunt and uncle’s flat again, taking the same route as the day before. This time, Aunt Najia opened the door and invited them inside. “It’s so good to see you all,” she said with a smile. “Yesterday, the party was so crowded that we barely had any time to talk.”

            “Hey, it’s the family!” Uncle Hakim exclaimed as he walked into the room.

            “How’d you like the party?” Mum asked. “There were so many people here, I could barely stand!”

            Hakim chuckled. “It was wonderful, and I’m so glad you were able to come.” He waved them towards the kitchen. “Come on, tea is ready!”

            Sonya joined them with a half-hearted smile at the kitchen table, crowded with extra seats added. Once they settled down, Rani decided it was time to begin before the conversation was taken over by someone else.

            “So sad Yaz couldn’t make it,” she commented.

            “We are too,” Aunt Najia said. “Normally she would be here for family, but one of her friends has had some trouble.”

            Rani pretended to look surprised. “I hope everything is all right.”

            “Me too. Apparently one of her friends went missing, so Yaz and her two other friends are looking for her.”

            Rani filed away the information. This mysterious group of friends had three members, but one was missing, and she was a woman. But had Yaz told her mother the truth? When Rani thought back, she thought that Yaz had always been a pretty honest person, but who knew what time could do? And Rani knew better than anyone that sometimes you had to lie to protect the people you loved.

            “I hope she’s safe,” Mum chimed in.

            “Our Yaz knows how to take care of herself,” Uncle Hakim said, though Rani saw a shadow of concern in his eyes. “She’ll be back soon.”

            The conversation drifted to another topic, and Rani utilised something that Clyde often called her “superpower:” the ability to be inside her brain, working things out, but also present in a conversation with other people. It was a skill that had been honed over many years and came in handy often.

            Rani talked with her family for a while before using the excuse of the toilet again. She walked back to the corridor where it was located and shut the door, but remained outside. She dashed across the hall to the room she had seen Yaz enter the day previous, aware that she only had a few minutes at the most to make her respite believable.

            Her heart raced as if every beat was counting the precious seconds she had. Rani surveyed the room from left to right, noting it was rather neat and tidy, which always made things more difficult. However, the first thing to catch her eye was a framed picture next to Yaz’s bed.

            Rani picked it up and realised it wasn’t framed at all, but the photo itself seemed to be set in glass that was coloured around the edges to look like a frame. She turned it over in her hands. She had never seen anything like it.

            She took a moment to study the photo itself. The setting was indistinguishable; it was night, and the group in the centre was in the midst of a large city with colourful, flashy lights. Not helpful; Rani didn’t recognise it. She turned her attention to the focus of the snapshot. Her heart beat a little faster as she counted four people, including Yaz. The others had to be her friends.

            The man all the way to the left was dark-skinned and wore a wide grin on his face. The next person was Yaz, beaming like she was having the time of her life. The next figure made Yaz pause, and forget all about her time limit.

            It wasn’t the woman’s odd clothes, or her friendly smile; it was her eyes. Something in her eyes was so familiar, but Rani just couldn’t place it. She was positive she had never seen the woman before; maybe she was related to someone she knew.

            She was the only other woman in the photo. Presumably, she was the one missing, then. What had Yaz said on the phone yesterday? Something about “find out where she is?” That checked out, then.

            Rani finally turned her attention to the last person in the photo, an older man with an amused smile. She focused back on the whole picture. The feeling that exuded from it struck her as familiar as well, and with a pang of sadness she realised what it was.

            Family. Once, this was what she had felt like with Sarah Jane, Luke, Sky, and Clyde. Years ago they could have been the friends in this photo, with their arms around each other’s shoulders and their smiles clearly showing more familiarity than mere friendship. But after Sarah Jane had passed, and as they had gotten older…it had never been quite the same.

            “You won’t find anything.”

            Rani nearly jumped out of her skin, and she just stopped herself from dropping the glass photo. She hastily set it back where it had been and turned to see Sonya, who seemed pleased at Rani’s reaction.

            “I’ve been in here snooping too. Yaz doesn’t leave any evidence; she’s annoying like that.”

            “I wasn’t snooping,” Rani insisted. “The photo caught my eye as I walked by.” She glanced back at it. “It’s really unique.”

            Sonya huffed, leaning her weight against the doorway. “Yeah, unique is a word for it. I say they’re just plain weird, like Yaz.”

            “You’ve met them?”

            Sonya shrugged and stepped forward. “Just once. Like I said: weird.”

            “So she doesn’t bring them around here much? Where do they go?”

            “No idea. Don’t really care.”

            Well, she wasn’t helpful at all.

            Rani took one last mental snapshot of the picture. “We’d best get back to tea.” She led the way out of the hallway. It was disappointing that she hadn’t had more time to look around Yaz’s room, but at least now she knew what Yaz’s friends looked like.

            She had all the clues she could gather here, but she still didn’t know where Yaz normally went with her friends. How was she to find them? There wasn’t a way that Rani could fathom. Therefore, the next course of action was to follow the only trail of evidence she had: the strange white lizards. Maybe, if her hunch was right and this all really was connected, that would lead her to Yaz.

            Once Rani rejoined the family’s discussion, she discreetly pulled out her phone underneath the table and texted Clyde.

            Did you submit your panels yet?

            She didn’t get a response back for a little over half an hour.

            Just sent them in He inserted an emoji that was sweating with relief.

            Great! She paused before she sent the next text. Can you have Mr. Smith scan for anything strange going on in Sheffield?

            There was another long pause before Clyde’s reply. He tried, but he doesn’t have the power. Luke’s fix didn’t last as long as we thought

            Rani’s heart felt heavy, like a weight in her chest. They had been preparing for this for years, ever since Mr. Smith had reported that his own systems were beginning to slow down. Now, error messages occurred almost daily. So far they had been able to fix them one at a time, but now it was becoming too much. Luke’s theory was that the computer parts weren’t advanced enough to support Xylok life for more than a few years; it was a brutal reminder that Mr. Smith wasn’t just a computer, but an alien entity. Anything they did, even building a new computer, was only a temporary fix. Not even UNIT had been able to help (not that they approved of Mr. Smith being in Rani and Clyde’s possession, anyway).

            Rani shook the thoughts away and typed another message.

How quickly can you get to Sheffield?

            A bubble at the bottom of the screen told her Clyde was typing, but it was a minute or so before he sent the message.

            What’s wrong?

            I think there’s something weird going on here.

            Weird like Sarah Jane weird?

            Exactly like that. And I think my cousin might be involved with it.

            I’ll try to catch the next train. Should I bring anything from the attic

            Rani took a minute to think and pretend like she was still listening to the conversation at the table. Don’t think so, she responded. This is something new.

            Right. Have you talked to Luke

            Rani sighed. I’m not completely sure about it; don’t want to get him involved yet.

            He’s not just UNIT personnel, he’s our friend

            I know. Just get here, and we’ll figure it out.

            On it, boss

            Rani hid a smile at his last message. That was one thing taken care of; she certainly didn’t want to charge into alien headquarters alone. But Clyde’s question was a valid one. Luke could help, but the issue was that now, getting help from Luke was synonymous with getting help from UNIT. While Luke always insisted that UNIT was different now under a new leader, Rani had never been able to shake the sense of betrayal she had felt from the first moment he had announced he had accepted their job offer. Things had never been the same between them since.

            After what seemed like years, tea was over. Goodbyes were said to the family, and Rani resigned herself to the fact that she had learned all she could from Yaz’s family and home. Rani asked that her parents drop her off somewhere where she could rent a car.

            “Are you sure you’re going to be okay on your own?” Mum asked as Rani started moving her belongings into the rental.

            “I’ll be fine. Clyde will be here in a few hours, anyway. Figured we’d make a vacation out of it.”

            Dad sighed. “Be safe, sweetheart.”

            “Of course, Dad. Always.” She hugged both of her parents, hating the fact that she had to lie to them again, and then slid into the driver’s seat of her rental car. She looked over at her notebook and decided to find a place where she could add the developments to her investigation and think some more.

            Rani sighed as she started up the car. She had a lot of work to do.

Chapter Text

            Rani watched a few white lizards lethargically crawl towards a large warehouse as she safely hid behind a crumbling stone wall. Earlier, when the sun had been up, the little aliens (for now she was almost positive that was what they were) had gone in by the hundreds. Now, only the last stragglers remained, slowed down by the frigid temperature. Cold-blooded.

            Rani heard soft footfalls approaching. She turned to see Clyde, shaded in darkness, rushing towards her with his body low. She grinned and had to stop herself from running towards him. She hadn’t even realised how much she had missed him, especially now with a mystery involved. It just seemed natural that he should be by her side.

            “Hey, missus,” Clyde whispered as he settled down in a crouch next to Rani. He gave her a quick kiss and Rani wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug.

            “I’m so glad you’re here.” She planted a kiss on his cheek as she drew away.

            “I’m glad you thought about this so I could find you.” He held up his iPhone. “I wish we would’ve been able to send our locations to each other back when Sarah Jane was around. Do you know how many problems it would’ve solved?”

            Rani chuckled as Clyde turned his attention to the lizards. “So those are the aliens? I saw a couple of them on my way here.” He frowned. “They don’t look like much, do they?”

            “Not alone, but you should’ve seen them earlier. I followed them here a few hours ago and tried to count how many went into that warehouse.”

            “And?”

            She looked at him seriously. “Over four thousand. It’s just an estimate, but I erred on the lower side.”

            Clyde was silent for a moment. “I know we’re always supposed to believe the best about aliens, but it doesn’t seem like they’re here for sightseeing.” His eyebrows furrowed together in thought. “If there are that many, how did no one notice? I mean, with all the people keeping tabs on aliens—UNIT, Mr. Smith, the Doctor—someone had to have noticed over four thousand little aliens.”

            “I thought about that.” She watched as the last lizards meandered towards the warehouse. “Maybe this is their first time grouping up. I only saw one, and my parents only saw one.”

            “Yeah,” Clyde agreed, “when I saw one in the cab, it was by itself. Then I saw another one further down the road.”

            “Exactly,” Rani continued. “Maybe they came to Earth in small groups, scattered all over, and they’re so tiny that they didn’t attract any attention.”

            Clyde sighed. “So that means if they’re grouping up now…”

            “…it’s like they want to be discovered.”

            “Or maybe they don’t need to hide anymore. Either way, it doesn’t sound good.”

            “We need to get in there, find out what they’re planning.”

            Clyde placed a hand on her arm. “Rani, I really think we need to call Luke. There are over four thousand of those aliens in there. We make a pretty good team, but I don’t think anyone could win against those odds. We don’t even know what that warehouse looks like inside.”

            Rani sighed, knowing he was right. It looked like her little adventure was ending before it had hardly begun. Of course the priority was keeping the world safe, but deep down she had wanted to feel that rush of adrenaline again, that uncertainty, the thrill of danger…

            “What’s that?”

            Rani looked up and followed Clyde’s gaze. A human figure dashed towards the back of the warehouse about a hundred yards from where they were hiding.

            “They’re going to try to go in there!” Rani exclaimed in an agitated whisper. She could no longer see the person’s form, as they blended in with the shadows. “We have to stop them.” She stood up, but Clyde promptly tugged her back down.

            “We’re in alien territory!” he told her, giving her a wide-eyed, “you’re seriously crazy” look. “You can’t just run out there!”

            “I can’t let somebody walk in there! It’s too dangerous!” She paused. “And I have a feeling it might be my cousin.”

            Clyde frowned, staring into her eyes. “Okay, but I’m going to be lookout in case any more of those lizards come around.” He took her hand and helped her to her feet. He let her take the lead, still running low to the ground. Rani focused only on her destination, trusting Clyde to look out for any of the aliens.

            Suddenly, about halfway to the warehouse, Clyde stopped, breaking his hold on Rani. “Drop down!” he hissed.

            Rani did as she was told and dropped flat on her stomach. As an afterthought, she unstrapped her backpack purse and let it fall to the ground beside her. A strange noise, like a guttural call, pierced the air. Rani heard Clyde’s footsteps walk away from her. She turned her head to the side just enough to see him walking with his hands up towards…

            Rani blinked. It didn’t make any sense. It was like one of the small lizards, only it was the size of a person and standing on two feet. It barked at Clyde again, words that Rani couldn’t understand.

            “Yeah, yeah, all right,” Clyde said, walking a bit faster. The lizard seized him and turned its head left and right, as if scanning for more intruders. Though she was several yards away, Rani held her breath and pressed herself closer to the ground. The alien stood still for another minute before guiding Clyde towards the front of the warehouse.

            Rani snatched up her purse and army-crawled the rest of the way to the back entrance, pushing herself to go as fast as she could. No doubt the lizards would send someone else out to check that there weren’t any more trespassers.

            The closer Rani got to the warehouse, the more she became aware of a loud humming noise coming from it. When she finally reached the back entrance she could feel warmth radiating from the building. That fit with the noise, then; it sounded like the heating was cranked up all the way. It certainly matched her cold-blooded theory.

            Rani quickly realised that whoever had run to the warehouse was no longer outside. She sighed. Now she had to rescue whoever it was and Clyde.

            As Rani stood and slung her purse back on her shoulders, she noticed that there were two back entrances: a large garage door that was padlocked and chained shut, and a normal-sized door. Rani tested the handle and felt it give. How had the person gotten inside? Surely it had been locked.

            The door creaked open, and someone just inside turned sharply to look at her.

            “Rani?”

            “Yaz!” Rani shut the door softly behind her and breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped into the dark room. The air was blissfully warm, and a shiver ran down Rani’s spine. She found herself in some sort of large loading area, cut off from the rest of the warehouse by a thin wall dotted with small holes. Rani could hear voices on the other side and lowered her voice, though she had to speak louder than a whisper to be heard over the roaring heating unit.

            “I’m so glad you’re okay!”

            Confusion was written all over Yaz’s face. “How are you here?”

            “I’ll explain later.” Rani grabbed onto her cousin’s shoulders. “We need to get out of here. It’s dangerous.”

            Yaz’s expression didn’t change. “You’ve seen the lizards?”

            Rani squeezed her shoulders, growing more anxious as she thought of four thousand of those lizards being just on the other side of that wall. “Yes, and I know it’s weird, but we need to get out of here.”

            “No.” Yaz took a step back. “They have my friends. I have to save them first.” She raised her eyebrows and spoke with authority. “You need to leave; I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

            Rani huffed. “I know what it’s like to be worried about your friends, but you can’t do it by yourself. You don’t understand what’s going on here.”

            “You’re the one who doesn’t understand. I do this all the time, and it is dangerous. So I’m telling you, right now, to go.”

            Her cryptic words—and the forceful way in which they were delivered—stunned Rani for a moment. She was talking as if…almost as if she knew.

            Suddenly, the booming voice in the next room went quiet. Yaz didn’t hesitate before springing into action. She rushed to the wall and lowered herself into a crouch in front of one of the larger holes that randomly dotted its surface. Rani followed right on her heels and realised, with the dim light from the other room, that the holes were bits of the wall that were rusted through.

            If this place is so old, she thought, how does the heating still work? And the lighting? She stored the questions in the back of her mind for later.  

            “They’ve captured someone,” Yaz murmured. She inhaled sharply. “But how—? It’s giant.”

            “Maybe they can change,” Rani said to herself, remembering the large lizard that had grabbed Clyde. “That’s how that one got Clyde; it changed from tiny to large.”

            “This isn’t weirding you out?” Yaz asked, turning to lock gazes with Rani.

            Rani frowned. “I could ask you the same question.”

            Yaz’s eyebrows furrowed together. “Do you…know?” she asked hesitantly. “About aliens?”

            “No way,” Rani breathed. She smiled, despite the circumstances. “You too?

            Yaz’s gaping stare formed into a bright smile. “My mates and I, we travel around and see aliens every day.”

            Rani would be lying if she said she didn’t feel a hint of jealousy. “You know the Doctor, don’t you?”

            “Yeah! She’s the one who—”

            An earth-shattering roar brought Rani back to reality. She watched as Clyde was marched over to one corner of the warehouse, though he went out of view before she saw where they put him.

            “I’m guessing your friends are in the same place Clyde is.” Rani pointed. “That corner.”

            “We need to go for the heating first. I think it’s back here.” Yaz stood, and Rani kept pace by her side as they walked further into the storage room.

            Rani let her purse fall off of her shoulders and rummaged around through the essentials she had brought with her. After a moment she wrapped her hand around a small torch and switched it on, illuminating the darkness ahead of them.

            “Thanks,” Yaz said.

            “So this is your plan?” Rani asked. “Break the heating unit and rescue your friends in the confusion?”

            “Pretty much. They wouldn’t have this place heated so much if they didn’t need it. They’re like lizards, right? So cold-blooded.”

            Rani nodded. “I thought so too.”

            “They’ll need to find somewhere else to go if the heating is broken.”

            “How are you going to break it?” The noise from the heating unit grew to a crescendo and they faced a large panel embedded in the wall, a small red light indicating that it was active.

            Yaz pulled some kind of pen-like device out of her jacket pocket. She pointed it at the panel and the tip of the device glowed orange, emitting a vaguely familiar sound. The panel sparked, and the cacophony came to a screeching halt.

            “Sonic screwdriver?” Rani asked.

            Yaz stuffed it back in her pocket. “The Doctor's; she gave it to us before she left. Come on. Won’t be long before they come to check on that.”

            Left where? Rani wondered. She was brimming with questions about the Doctor and where he (or, maybe she?) was, but then she found herself smiling. Here was her cousin, taking charge of a rescue and thinking things through. She couldn’t believe that someone so close to her was in on the secret; and more than that, traveling with the Doctor!

            Yaz latched onto Rani’s arm and tugged her back into the shadows until they were pressed up against the furthest wall, side by side.

            “They’re lizards,” Rani whispered. “They might be able to see in the dark.”

            Yaz was silent for a moment. “We don’t have anywhere else to hide. If we go outside, we won’t be able to hear what’s going on.”

            Rani hummed in agreement. “What’s your plan for rescuing your friends?”

            “While they’re packing up to leave, I’m going to go out there and undo their chains. Or get the sonic screwdriver to them somehow. Or…this was a quick plan, all right?”

            The door to the storage room creaked open. Rani took a deep breath as her mind raced. This whole thing was becoming natural to her once more. “I have a plan,” she said in a voice below even a whisper. “Stay here. Be ready to run.”

            “What are you doing?”

            But it was too late as two of the larger lizards walked in. Rani knew they would spot her and Yaz, but not if they were too distracted. She strode forward, hearing Yaz hiss a warning at her, and waved at the aliens. “Hi! I think you found my husband; could you take me to him?”

            The aliens snarled at her, revealing rows of small, sharp teeth. One of them grabbed her by the shoulders, while the other inspected the heating unit and growled something unintelligible. When Rani was sure they weren’t looking, she glanced over at Yaz. She was still hidden in shadow.

            Rani allowed herself to be dragged out into the main room, and for a moment thought that the floor was white. However, she soon realised that there were so many of the small lizards that they covered almost every inch of available space. They sat ready in neat rows before one of the human-sized lizards, which watched Rani being carried in with steely black eyes.

            Rani met the lizard’s gaze with defiance, but inside her confidence was crumbling. Invasion, she thought. That could be the only reason why they were here.

Chapter Text

            Rani’s heart thudded in her ears as her two captors examined the tube of sonic lipstick they had taken from her pocket. They had already tossed her purse to the side, deeming it inconsequential, but they seemed to be puzzled by this particular item.

            “Don’t think that shade would suit you,” Rani said, testing how tightly the chains around her wrists were bound. Nope; no escaping that way. If they took the sonic lipstick, her plan would fall to pieces.

            The large lizard that seemed to be in charge—Godzilla, she decided to call him—barked something that sounded like an order. The aliens examining Rani dropped the lipstick by her feet and hurried over to where they had been summoned. The three lizards began talking rapidly and loudly, seeming to have bigger problems than the prisoners at the moment. Six other small lizards created a perimeter around the prisoners, their large eyes watching them.

            “That was a close one,” Clyde muttered by her side.

            “Are you all right?” Rani asked.

            “Fine, but my pride’s a bit hurt. I didn’t think about them turning gigantic.”

            “I didn’t either.” She nodded over to the prisoners sitting on the other side of Clyde, keeping her voice low. “Those are Yaz’s friends; Yaz broke the heating unit back there, so the lizards should be leaving soon. That’s when we’re going to escape.”

            “I met them. He’s Ryan,” he said, nodding at the man next to him, “and that’s Graham.” He indicated towards the older man sitting further away.

            Graham caught Clyde’s eye and smiled at Rani. “Nice to meet you.” He leaned forward and attempted a wave with his chained hands.

            “You must be Rani,” Ryan said. “Clyde said you’d have an escape plan?”

            Rani smiled, casting a glance at Clyde to show him how she appreciated his faith in her. “Yeah, I do.” She glanced between Ryan and Graham. “Could one of you cause a small distraction? Just enough so that I can get that,” she nodded at the sonic lipstick on the ground, “to Clyde without them noticing.”

            “I’m on it.” Ryan scooted forward, using his feet to propel him across the smooth concrete floor until he was just in front of one of their guards. Rani watched as the eyes of the other five guards honed in on Ryan.

            “So, er…how long are you planning on keeping us here?”

            Keeping her eyes on the guards, Rani slowly nudged the sonic lipstick towards Clyde with the toe of her trainer.

            When the guards merely blinked at Ryan, he continued. “You can understand me, right? I think the TARDIS has some sort of automatic translation thing. It’s supposed to work both ways.”

            Rani quickened her pace, trying not to make any noise. Luckily, the tube rolled easily across the smooth ground. She gave it one last big shove with her toe, and it rolled just behind Clyde.

            Ryan started to shift forward onto his feet. “Mind if I stand for a minute? I’m starting to get a bit stiff—”

            Three of the lizards suddenly became large, glaring down at Ryan. Ryan fell onto his backside and scrambled backwards. “Okay, fine, mate. I’ll just stay here.”

            The lizards shrunk down. Rani noted that their transformation was almost instantaneous; how did they do that?

            Ryan glanced in Rani’s direction, his eyes wide with shock. Rani nodded at him.

            “It’s going to make some noise,” Clyde murmured. Rani heard a soft clink as the sonic lipstick touched Clyde’s chains.

            “I’m not doing that again,” Ryan said.

            Graham seemed to get the gist of what was going on, because he promptly volunteered, “I’ll take this one.” Using the wall at his back, he raised himself to his feet and walked forward. This time all of the guards morphed into their larger forms, blocking his path.

            “Hey, don’t I have rights?” he asked, a little louder than necessary. Clyde took the chance to activate the sonic lipstick in a quick burst and free his hands. “I demand to speak to whoever’s in charge! You’ve kept me and my grandson in here for hours, and we don’t even know what you’re going to do with us!” During Graham’s show, Clyde passed the lipstick to Rani and she used it to unchain her wrists.

            The lizards pressed forward, forcing Graham to take a step back. “Look, I just want to have a chat with your leader over there.” He nodded towards Godzilla. “I’ll stay chained up, you can even hold onto me if it’ll make you feel better.”

            By the time he finished, Ryan was free. One of the guards roared In Graham’s face, but he didn’t seemed to be fazed by it. “All right, all right.” He sighed and settled back on the ground. The guards closed in towards him as they diminished to their smaller size. Now, it would be impossible to pass Graham the lipstick. They’d have to do it as they were escaping.

            They waited a long time. It grew colder by the minute, and after a little while, Rani was shivering. The lizards began filing out of the warehouse, but the guards remained, their unblinking eyes always watching. Yet, Rani noticed that they grew very still, not even fidgeting. The rest of the lizards were progressively moving slower as well.

            Once the number of lizards in the warehouse had considerably diminished, Rani caught her fellow prisoners’ eyes, silently conveying that it was time. She took a deep breath and counted down in her head. Three, two, one…

            Rani jumped up, and at the same time the closest guard grew to its full size. It grabbed her shoulder, but she wrenched out of its grasp and gave it a shove backwards. The alien staggered and swayed to the side, as if intoxicated.

            Clyde grabbed Rani’s hand and pulled her forward just as Ryan activated the sonic lipstick on Graham’s chains and freed him. However, two of the guards caught Graham as he was standing up and held him fast. Rani stepped away from Clyde to help, but Ryan didn’t waste a second before punching one of the aliens in the jaw and knocking it into the other one.

            “Rani!”

            She turned her head towards Clyde’s voice and saw Godzilla stomping towards them, backed by several other lizards that were changing into their larger forms.

            “We’re good!” Ryan exclaimed. “Let’s go!”            

            Rani led the way towards the storage room door, pushing herself to run faster as she heard reptilian hisses behind her. The door opened and Yaz’s face appeared, her expression urgent as she waved Rani forward. “Hurry!”

            Rani passed through the door and turned to see Clyde dash in next, and then Ryan and Graham after a few moments. Yaz slammed the door shut and sonicked the handle before jogging in front of Rani to lead the way out of the warehouse. As they exited, Rani let the group pass first before closing the door behind her and using the sonic lipstick on the lock. Hopefully, it would hold the lizards long enough for them to escape.

            “What’s that?” Yaz asked, waiting for her before they ran after the others.

            “Sonic lipstick,” Rani panted, holding it up. “I always carry it with me.”

            They ran for a while until they came upon populated streets, sure that the aliens hadn’t followed them. Graham stopped first, bracing his hands on his knees.

            “They shouldn’t be able to get this far,” Yaz said in between short breaths. “They’re slowed down by the cold.”

            Ryan shook out his right hand. “I hope not. I don’t fancy punching one of those things again.” He grinned. “Hey, pretty good escape though, wasn’t it?”

            “Even without the Doctor,” panted Graham, “it’s always running, isn’t it?”

            Yaz caught her breath and looked between her friends, then Clyde and Rani. “Right,” she said, “quick introductions: Graham and Ryan, Clyde and Rani.”

            “We met,” Graham said.

            “Thanks for getting us out,” Ryan added.

            Rani tried to get her breathing under control. “Couldn’t have done it without your distractions.”

            Ryan looked over at Graham. “We’re pretty much pros at this. What’s the count now?”

            “Twenty-four,” Yaz said with a smile.

            Graham straightened up. “No,” he protested, “that time with the killer monkeys definitely counted.”

            “The Doctor said it only counts if we’re prisoners for more than five minutes,” Ryan reminded him, but then his expression fell. The friends were silent for a moment.

            “No sign of her?” Yaz ventured.

            Graham shook his head. “None. And she’s not exactly a difficult person to miss; if she were around, we’d know.”

            “Why do you keep saying ‘her?’” Rani asked, deciding it was time to get some answers.

            “She’s our friend, the Doctor,” Ryan said. “Look, it’s hard to explain—”

            “No, we know the Doctor,” Clyde cut in. He nudged Rani. “Only, remember the last time we saw him, after he changed? He said he could change into anyone. Maybe even a woman.”

            “So you know the Doctor too?” Yaz said with the shadow of a smile.

            “Yeah,” Rani said, finding it impossible too. “We only met him—well, her—twice, but it was a long time ago. One of our best friends used to travel with the Doctor.”

            Ryan pointed his thumb back in the direction of the warehouse. “So you know those things are aliens, then?”

            Rani nodded. “That’s why Clyde and I were there. I kept seeing the lizards and thought they were odd, so I decided to investigate.”

            Clyde nodded as he dug his phone out of his pocket. He gave Rani an apologetic look, squeezed her hand, and walked a few steps away from the group.

            Rani understood his silent communication. He was going to call Luke.

            “Well it’s good to know we aren’t the only crazy ones around here,” Graham said, forcing Rani to put her conflicted thoughts away for later.

            “Thing is,” said Ryan, “what do we do now? Those aliens are going to invade tomorrow.”

            “What?” Rani and Yaz asked in unison.

            “Yeah, we heard them talking,” Graham said. TARDIS translation circuits, Rani remembered. “They were going to use Ryan and me as bait.”

            “This base isn’t all they have,” Ryan said. “They’ve got other ones just like it all around the world. They can get so small that they can hide just about anywhere.”

            “They want Earth?” Rani asked.

            Ryan nodded. “Sounded like it. They’ve been hiding here for years, just waiting.”

            “Which means they have a well-thought-out plan,” Yaz sighed. “How do we stop an alien invasion by ourselves? We don’t even have the Doctor.”

            “And where’s she got to? If she wasn’t there, then where is she?” Graham added.

            “Well we’re not alone,” Clyde said, rejoining the group. “Luke’s already on his way here with UNIT. They picked up large amounts of alien activity all over the world, but the group we just saw was the biggest.”

            “Who’s on their way?” Yaz asked.

            Rani sighed. “They’re called UNIT. They deal with things like this. And I hate to admit it, but I do think we need their help this time.” She turned to Yaz. “What happened to the Doctor? Did the lizards take her?”

            “No.” She shook her head. “It was…weird.”

            “We were all in the TARDIS—you know about the TARDIS?” Ryan continued.

            Rani and Clyde nodded.

            “The ship was acting weird. It was almost like it crash landed, and then it just stopped. The engines, everything. We went out and there was mist everywhere. Couldn’t see anything. The Doctor used her sonic screwdriver, but couldn’t figure out where we were.”

            “This alien showed up. The Doctor seemed to know who it was,” Graham continued. “He said that he needed her help, something about a place called Gallifrey…”

            “…pocket universes…” Ryan said, his face screwing up as he thought.

            “I don’t think the Doctor was sure about him,” Yaz said, “but what he said was important enough to make her listen. She told us that it was too dangerous for us to come along.”

            “Of course we told her that she was wrong,” Graham continued, “but she said that she needed our help on Earth. She said there was something going wrong in our time.” He frowned, his eyebrows furrowing together. “There was a word she kept using…”

            “Chaos,” Yaz said quickly.

            Graham snapped and pointed a finger at her. “That was it. She kept saying, ‘Find the chaos.’”

            “So,” Ryan said, “giant group of size-changing lizard aliens about to take over the world? Sounds pretty chaotic to me.”

            Chaos. That word rung a bell, but Rani pursued her original question first. “So what happened to the Doctor?”

            “She went with the alien, I think,” Yaz said. “I’ve never seen her push us away like that before.” Her gaze was troubled as she looked down. “She shooed us into the TARDIS, and it took us back to Sheffield. The doors won’t open.”

            “She didn’t even give us a choice.” Ryan crossed his arms over his chest and frowned.

            “Yeah, I’m going to have a chat with her about that when she shows up. ‘Stay together,’ she always says, and then shoves us in the box and goes off by herself.” Graham huffed, but Rani could see that behind his annoyance, he was worried about her. They all were.

            Clyde held his chin in his hand, lips pressed into a line. Rani recognised it as his very concentrated thinking face. “That place with the mist,” Clyde muttered, “what did it look like?”

            “Like Ryan said,” said Yaz, “just mist everywhere.”

            “And the alien?”

            “He had these dark sort of robes,” Graham said, motioning with his hands. “But his face was white.”

            “No eyes,” Ryan added. “It was creepy.”

            And suddenly, Rani realised where Clyde was going with this. She seized his arm and squeezed it. Things began falling into place in her mind: the lizards, the Doctor’s disappearance, the invasion, the mysterious dark-robed alien…

            Clyde sighed and nodded, readjusting Rani’s grip so that he held her hand. It was the only thing that kept Rani from falling into despair at her revelation that Clyde now voiced:

            “The Trickster.”

Chapter Text

            “Okay. See you in a few.” Clyde snapped his phone shut and looked around the table at the others. “UNIT lost the signal; the lizards must all be split up now. Luke is coming ahead to hear our side of the story.”

            Yaz drummed her fingers on the paper cup of tea in her hand. “Can we trust UNIT?” she asked Rani, lowering her voice. Though the café they had decided to frequent wasn’t crowded, Rani agreed that it was probably best to keep their conversation to themselves.

            “You can trust Luke,” Clyde said, speaking before Rani could get a word out. He smiled hopefully at Rani. “He’s our friend.”

            Rani tried to smile back, but there were so many thoughts swimming through her head, even besides Luke: the alien invasion, the Trickster, the Doctor’s whereabouts… The bright sign hanging in the window next to her didn’t help either, and she was started to feel a dull pounding in her head.

            She met Yaz’s eyes, bringing herself back to the present. She had to focus. “Luke is our friend,” she agreed, “but sometimes UNIT can be a bit…violent, and brash in their decisions.”

            “Reckon the Doctor doesn’t like them, then,” Ryan said with a chuckle.

            “The Doctor used to work for them,” Clyde said. “At least, that’s what Sarah Jane told us.”

            Graham choked on his coffee and coughed after he managed to swallow. “The Doc with a proper job?” he asked with a breathy laugh. “Oh, now I’d love to see that.”

            “Who’s Sarah Jane?” Yaz asked. She leaned her arms on the small table, eyes shining with curiosity.

            Rani shared a look with Clyde. She was usually the one to handle the explanation when that question was asked; Clyde always told her that she did Sarah Jane justice better than he could.

            “Sarah Jane was our best friend,” Rani said softly. She met Yaz’s, Graham’s, and Ryan’s eyes in turn. “What the Doctor is to you—that’s what Sarah Jane was to us.”

            “Still the coolest person I’ve ever met,” Clyde added. He took a sip of his tea, his eyes staring far off and no doubt seeing things from years ago.

            “She traveled with the Doctor when she was younger, but later in her life she saved Luke, our mate—”

            “He’s sort of not human,” Clyde put in.

            “—and adopted him as her son. Then Clyde met her, and I came into the picture a bit later. We stopped aliens from invading Earth so many times that I lost track. But we helped the good ones, too.”

            “We were awesome.”

            Rani chuckled. She felt a sting of tears at her eyes as the memories came swarming back. “Yeah, we were. Just a few teenagers and Sarah Jane, saving the world.”

            Yaz shook her head in disbelief. “All that time, and I never knew.”

            “I had to keep it a secret. So did Clyde. Our parents still don’t know.”

            Yaz frowned and suddenly became very interested in her cup. “Mine don’t either.”

            Rani remembered what her involvement with aliens had cost her: all those times her parents had been caught up in alien schemes, all the times she’d had to lie again and again about what had happened. She knew the guilt and doubt that Yaz was feeling all too well. “It’s hard, but it’s necessary.”

            Yaz nodded, not meeting her gaze. “Yeah.”

            “Anyway,” sighed Rani, coming back to her explanation, “Sarah Jane…passed away a few years ago.”

            Yaz took Rani’s hand and squeezed it, her expression conveying deep sympathy. “I’m so sorry.”

            “We all felt so helpless,” Clyde said. “All the aliens we’d fought together, and something so stupidly human got the best of her.” His fingers tightened around his cup and he pressed his lips together. Rani rubbed his back. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked up at his audience. “Cancer.”

            Ryan frowned, his eyebrows drawing together. “I’m sorry, mate. That’s awful.”

            Graham shook his head. “Terrible,” he murmured.

            “But we still got to spend some time with her before…” Rani swallowed. “She always joked about our wedding,” she continued, taking Clyde’s hand, “so Clyde and I pushed our wedding up so she could be there.” She could picture Sarah Jane’s face so clearly, beaming at her and Clyde as tears ran down her cheeks. In her memory she looked just like the old Sarah Jane; not the way she had looked after the radiation treatments. “I’ll never forget how happy she looked.” She brushed her hand over her eyes to wipe away the tears that were threatening to fall.

            “To lose someone so important when you were so young…you shouldn’t have had to go through that,” Graham said.

            “I know how it feels,” Ryan added. “It’s not fair.”

            “I bet she’d be proud if she saw you now,” said Yaz, attempting a small smile.

            Rani smiled back. “Thank you.”

            The gravity of the moment forced them into silence. Everyone took an opportunity to sit back and sip on drinks. Rani recovered her thoughts and started to push her sadness to the back of her mind again before Yaz interrupted the process.

            “You said she traveled with the Doctor, right? Why’d she stop?”

            Rani could feel the stares of Ryan, Graham, and Yaz all boring into her, but she couldn’t meet their eyes. She wondered how long they had known the Doctor, and how much they knew about the time lord they called a friend. Rani had always enjoyed the Doctor’s company when he had been around, but she also knew that the Doctor’s abandonment of Sarah Jane had left a crack in her heart that had never been fully healed. Of course the Doctor was different now, but still, Rani knew that the true story wouldn’t be easy to stomach.

            Luckily, Rani was spared the explanation by a new arrival.

            “Lukie boy!” Clyde exclaimed. He stood up, drawing the attention of the few other customers in the café, and grabbed Luke in a hug as he walked in the door. Luke laughed and returned the embrace, slapping Clyde on the back. He caught Rani’s gaze over Clyde’s shoulder and grinned. It was such a classic Luke grin that Rani’s heart melted and every negative thought about him washed away for a moment. She stood, and Luke moved from Clyde’s embrace to hers.

            Luke squeezed her tight. “It’s really good to see you,” he said. He pulled away, and Rani was able to take in the sight of him in full UNIT uniform, complete with a red cap. Her misgivings began to creep back into her mind.

            “Luke,” Clyde said, clapping him on the shoulder and turning him to face their new friends, “this is—”

            Luke cut in, pointing to each of them as he said their names. “Yasmin Khan, Ryan Sinclair, and Graham O’Brien.” He nodded. “Nice to meet you. It’s an honour.”

            The three friends exchanged looks of incredulity.

            “Okay,” Ryan said, “that’s a bit creepy.”

            “Luke,” Clyde sighed, “I thought we were past all that ‘weirding people out when you first meet them’ thing.”

            Luke smirked. “I have to stay updated on all of the Doctor’s current companions,” he explained. “It’s part of my job.”

            Graham nodded, frowning with his lips slightly pursed. “A bit creepier now.”

            “‘Current companions?’” Ryan muttered, but at the same time Yaz spoke a different question:

            “Your organisation keeps track of us?”

            Luke shrugged. “UNIT takes care of Earth when the Doctor isn’t here. We have to know the people we can trust the most, and the people who know how to contact the Doctor.”

            “So you’re telling me,” Graham began, “that if there’s an alien invasion and the Doctor isn’t here, you’re going to give me a call?”

            “It’s a possibility, yes.”

            He huffed. “Well. That’s my whole world turned upside down.”

            Luke took an empty seat next to Rani, across from Graham. “It would really help us if you could tell me everything you know,” he said, looking at Yaz, Graham, and Ryan. “And you too, Clani,” he added with a smile to Rani and Clyde.

            So Yaz, Graham, and Ryan first related their tale about what happened to the Doctor. Next, Rani told the story about the lizard sightings and going into the warehouse. Clyde came in at the end and told Luke his theory about the Trickster.

            Luke was silent for a minute when they were done talking, his expression troubled. “What would the Trickster want?”

            “Rani and Clyde explained about the Trickster on the way here,” Yaz said. “They said he feeds on chaos, right? Nothing could be more chaotic than an alien invasion.”

            Luke frowned and shook his head. “That’s not how the Trickster works though. If that were the case, he would have been involved with alien invasions hundreds of times.”

            “The first time, with the meteorite…didn’t it have something to do with chance?” Clyde asked.

            “But this isn’t chance. There are aliens here, and they decided to invade,” Graham said.

            “Exactly,” Luke muttered.

            Rani thought back to her first encounter with the Trickster, when he had decimated their world to almost nothing and her own mother didn’t even know her. She shuddered. What had been his purpose?

            “Revenge,” she breathed.

            “What?” several voices asked at once.

            “The last two times we saw the Trickster, he was trying to get revenge on Sarah Jane,” Rani continued, her voice growing agitated as it all pieced together. “What if…” She started considering her theory and her mouth dropped open at her own realisation. “What if this is the same thing?” She looked at Luke and Clyde. “What if the Trickster wants revenge on us?”

            Luke’s forehead was a mass of crinkles as he tapped his fingers on the table. “Even if he does, we still don’t know how.”

            “Or what the Doctor has to do with it,” Graham put in.

            A loud ring interrupted them. Luke pulled out his phone and brought it to his ear, his face smoothing out. “Luke Smith…yes ma’am…yes…on my way, ma’am.” He stood abruptly and put his phone back in his pocket. “The aliens have grouped up again. I have to go.”

            Rani stood up next to him. “We’re coming too.”

            “And so are we,” Yaz said, standing with Rani.

            Luke looked like he was about to protest, but then he nodded. “All right, but you have to stay with me and let UNIT take charge.” He met each of their eyes, as if assessing their trustworthiness. He held Rani’s gaze last. “Promise me you won’t interfere.”

            “We won’t.” Rani knew her promise was shallow, but the way Luke was looking at her seemed to say that he knew that too.

            Yet, he pushed in his chair and turned to the door. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”


 

             About thirty minutes later, Rani parked her rental car behind Luke’s UNIT transport at the base of a hill just outside of Sheffield. Headlights flashed behind her as Yaz’s car pulled in.

            “No warehouse here,” Clyde said as he stepped out of the car. “Where are they?”

            Rani opened her door and shivered as the frigid air blew in. “Underground, maybe?” She took in her surroundings and saw five huge UNIT vans already there, as well as two armoured tank-like vehicles. A feeling of dread settled in her stomach.

            Luke was already trudging up the hill, carrying some sort of box in his arms. Clyde jogged after him, but Rani waited for her three new friends.

            Yaz caught up ahead of the other two and nodded at Luke. “Quite a charmer, your friend is,” she said with a good-natured smile.

            Rani huffed a short laugh. “He used to be so different,” she murmured as she watched him and Clyde. “When I first met Luke, he was a bit…odd. Still learning how to be a human teenager. He was an awkward, cheery know-it-all, but never stuck up about it.” She frowned. “It’s like UNIT sucked all the happiness out of him.”

            “It couldn’t have been easy, losing his mum.”

            Rani nodded. “I think that’s why he did it—joined UNIT, I mean. He needed the distraction.”

            Yaz placed a hand on her shoulder. “I know what it’s like to lose a mate. But he’s not gone, he’s just changed, and the friend you knew is still in there somewhere. He’s not lost forever.”

            Rani smiled at her cousin, marveling at how she was mature beyond her years. Well, Rani thought, seeing the wonders of the universe does that to you.

            She saw Graham and Ryan approaching out of the corner of her eye, but she had a thought that she wanted to voice first. “Once this is all over, would you want to come stay with Clyde and me? I’d love to hear all about the places you’ve been.”

            Yaz’s eyes lit up. “Yeah! I’d love it! And I want to hear about all the things you did with Sarah Jane.”

            “That doesn’t look good,” Ryan interrupted as he arrived at Yaz’s side and pointed at the tanks.

            “Looks like they’re ready for the invasion to start right now,” Graham said.

            Rani sighed. “Let’s hope they don’t start it before we get up there.”

            As they began their trek up the hill, Rani yawned. She suddenly wondered how long she’d been awake and glanced at her phone. 1:29 am. Her body began to feel weary at the realisation she probably wouldn’t get any sleep tonight, but she forced her legs onwards at the front of the group as they came to a plateau at the top of the hill.

            A shiver ran down Rani’s spine, and it wasn’t from the cold.

            It was like a scene from a movie: somewhere around one hundred armed UNIT soldiers stood in formation ahead of them, with one lone figure in front. Further away, facing UNIT, were three of the alien lizards in their human-sized forms. Rani couldn’t be sure from a distance, but she would bet that the middle lizard was “Godzilla.” The aliens’ guttural language carried well across the field, but Rani still couldn’t make sense of it. They seemed to be talking to the UNIT leader.

            “At least they’re talking,” Yaz whispered.

            Rani nodded. She spotted Luke and Clyde kneeling behind the soldiers with Luke’s box in between them. Rani led the way towards them and lowered herself down beside Clyde.

            “Here,” Clyde murmured. He held out a small black earpiece. “Translator. Luke invented it.”

            Luke gave a brief smile of acknowledgement and continued twisting dials on the small black box. “There,” he said after a moment. “That should do it.”

            Rani put the gadget in her ear and suddenly an automated voice was translating the alien gibberish she heard coming in her other ear. She had to grin. “Luke, this is amazing!”

            “It’s just a prototype,” he said, though he couldn’t hide a proud grin. “I want the finished version to retain the speaker’s voice.”

            Rani felt a tap on her back and turned to see Yaz. Her cousin’s eyes told of danger as she nodded ahead, gesturing for Rani to pay attention. Rani stood so she could see the three lizards again. Godzilla, if it was him, seemed to be the one speaking, and a computerised voice translated his words in her ear.

            “…has been given to us already.” The translation cut out inflection, but Rani could hear Godzilla’s smug tone in her other ear.

            Rani looked down at Clyde and he frowned as he adjusted his earpiece. He joined her and crossed his arms over his chest. “That didn’t sound good.”

            “By whom?” the leader of UNIT asked, her voice ringing out strong. Rani remembered Luke talking about Kate Stewart, the daughter of the Brigadier who Sarah Jane had been acquainted with. Rani almost smiled as she remembered how he had helped them break into the Black Archive.

            Suddenly, a figure appeared out of nowhere by Godzilla’s side. Every positive thought was chased out of Rani’s mind and replaced with chilling fear as the black robes took shape. She heard Luke inhale sharply.

            “Why was I right…” Clyde muttered.

            “It’s that bloke that took the Doctor!” Graham exclaimed. He started forward, but Yaz grabbed his arm.

            The Trickster stared at the UNIT soldiers with formless eyes and a sinister grin. To their credit, the soldiers didn’t even stir.

            “By me,” the Trickster hissed. “I have given Earth to the Kaithorn.” Suddenly, even though he didn’t have eyes, Rani had the distinct impression that he was staring right at her. Her blood ran cold and she looked away, her heart pounding.

            “Rani?” Clyde asked. He placed a steadying hand on her back.

            “I think I was right too.” She glanced back up at the Trickster, but his gaze had moved on. “I think he’s here for us.”

            “You have no authority over the Earth,” Kate Stewart continued, standing resolute and unshaken.

            “I have seen your future,” the Trickster said. “Humankind will be wiped from the face of this planet.”

            Godzilla added, “If you surrender now, you may live a little longer. But if you begin conflict here, every one of you will perish.”

            The tension was so thick that it was almost tangible. If Kate called the wrong shots, if one soldier made the wrong move…utter chaos. What if some sort of accident tripped off this battle? What if that was what the Trickster was here for?

            If they let that happen, he would gain unbelievable power.

            In the stillness, even the wind seemed to stop. The air chilled. The silence and waiting was stifling—

            Until Rani’s phone started ringing.

            It was such a loud disturbance that even one of the UNIT soldiers turned her head to look at Rani before quickly snapping back to attention. Kate Stewart looked back over her shoulder. Ryan, Graham, Yaz, Clyde, and Luke all stared at her.

            Rani fumbled to silence her phone (which was supposed to be on vibrate anyway) but froze when she saw that she had an emergency call from Mr. Smith. She was too stunned to answer for a moment and shared a look with Clyde, as he could see the screen too.

            “How?” his look said as clearly as her thoughts. Rani answered the call, feeling like the world was watching her.

            “Mr. Smith?”

            “Rani. Thank you for answering and confirming your location. I now have your exact coordinates pinpointed.”

            “What?”

            “I had a request to confirm your location. My systems were momentarily boosted so I could place an emergency call.”

            Rani didn’t know what to say; Mr. Smith hadn’t been able to do things like call people for about a year now. And who wanted to know her location?

            “Mr. Smith, can you explain…” But her voice died as a distant noise started up; a sound she had only heard a couple times, but was somehow still very familiar.

            This time, there was a much bigger reaction in the clearing. Most of the UNIT soldiers turned towards the sound. Even Kate Stewart fully turned, her eyes wide.

            Ryan grinned, standing with Yaz and Graham a few feet away. “Right on time.”

            Rani realised the sound was coming from all around her, and a large room vaguely came into view for a moment before disappearing. When the noise sounded again, the vision of the room was more solid.

            “It’s materialising around us,” Luke said, turning left and right as the phantom room became more substantial.

            Rani noticed that Ryan, Graham, and Yaz were outside of the room as it phased in. “Yaz!” she called, but it was too late. With a boom of a loud bell, the TARDIS fully materialised and only Rani, Luke, and Clyde were inside.

            For a moment, they stood in shocked silence. The control room was vast and dark, with orange crystal arches and a round console dominating the centre. Geometric shapes covered the walls in layers, and from somewhere far away there came the distinct hum of something alive.

            “The TARDIS,” Clyde breathed, his eyes as wide as saucers as he turned in a slow circle to take it in. “How did we get in the TARDIS?”

            “Where’s the Doctor?” asked Rani, looking around, but the time lord was nowhere to be found.

            A banging started up from outside as fists pounded on the doors. Rani shook off her stupor and remembered Yaz, Graham, and Ryan. She rushed over to let them in, but halfway there the TARDIS rocked and started up its noise again.

            “No!” Rani yelled as the room shifted sideways and tossed her onto the ground.

            “Woah!”

            Rani looked back to see Clyde slam sideways into a crystal arch. “I never pictured rides in the TARDIS being this bumpy!” he exclaimed.

            Luke gripped the console with one hand and tried to work the controls with the other. “I don’t know how to do this; it doesn’t make any sense!”

            The ship continued to throw them around until it landed with one final thump, forcing them all to the floor. The lights turned dim.

            Clyde moaned and sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Think the Doctor would pay for a trip to the chiropractor?”

            Luke picked himself up first and walked past Rani to the doors. “I wonder where we are?”

            Clyde let out one more groan and stood, coming over to help Rani to her feet. “No idea, mate. We could be anywhere in the universe.”

            “Or outside of it,” Rani added, knowing that this was the Trickster they were dealing with.

            “Back there, where we just were…there’s a war about to break out. Shouldn’t we get back?”

            Rani glanced back at the dim console lights. “I don’t think we can.”

            “The TARDIS isn’t just a ship,” Luke continued. “It’s sentient. I think it brought us here for a reason.”

            Clyde sighed. “Right. Well, here we go, just like old times: the three of us walking right into danger.” He pushed open one door and walked out first. Rani filed out behind him, and Luke followed last.

            A woman stood a few feet away, arms poised in front of her like she was ready to defend herself. Her outfit displayed an array of blues and rainbow hues, adding a splash of colour to the world of unending midst in which they had landed. At the sight of Clyde, Rani, and Luke, she suddenly beamed, making the gloomy place seem a shade brighter. Her short blonde hair bobbed around her face as she rushed forward to greet them.

            “Hello, you three! You weren’t who I was expecting to see! Oh!” her eyebrows shot up and she muttered something about “rhyming under pressure” before striding forward and placing one hand on Clyde’s shoulder and one hand on Rani’s, looking at Luke in between them.

            “Look at you, all grown up!”

            Change of face, change of clothes, change of gender; it didn’t matter. It was obvious who this was.

            Rani could hardly believe it. “Doctor!” she exclaimed in unison with Clyde. Suddenly, it seemed like all their problems would be solved in an instant.

            Rani glanced over at Luke to share the enthusiasm, but he was frowning. In fact, he seemed…angry. He glared at the Doctor, but she met his gaze with her cheery smile before glancing at Rani and Clyde again.

            “At least you two are happy to see me.”

            “But how did we get here?” Rani asked.

            “Yeah, and how did Mr. Smith call Rani? How did he know about the TARDIS?” Clyde asked.

            “Why didn’t it pick up Yaz, Graham, and Ryan?” Rani finished.

            The Doctor released them and put a finger to her lips. “Shhhh. So many questions!” She took a step back and looked around her. “This whole thing has a bit of a long explanation; are you in the mood for a story?”

Chapter Text

            “I think this is worse than usual!” Ryan called over the pandemonium of wailing alarms and the booming cloister bell.

            “Yeah, I think we got that!” Yaz matched his volume as she hugged one of the crystal arches and cast a worried glance at the Doctor. “Any luck, Doctor?”

            The Doctor tried very hard to look like she knew what she was doing, but in reality, she wasn’t even remotely in control of her ship. Her mind was cycling through the sort of things that could make the TARDIS like this: crossing into another universe, going to an alternate timestream, getting dragged somewhere by another force… It could be any number of things, and the console was shuddering too much for her to read the displays.

            Graham, standing beside her and holding onto the console for dear life, seemed to be the only one who knew the Doctor was just as powerless as they were. “You haven’t got any idea what’s wrong?”

            The Doctor braced herself against the console as the room lurched. She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “No idea.”

            Suddenly, with an almighty thump, the TARDIS grew eerily still. The Doctor’s ears rang. All at once, the lights around the room shut off; even the warm orange glow of the crystals grew dull.

            “All right,” Graham muttered, “on a scale of one to ten, how bad is this?”

            Eleven, the Doctor thought immediately. No, twelve. More like twenty. But out loud, “Two! Definitely a solid two. Maybe a three.” She paused. That was being a bit too optimistic, and her friends would see through it. “Very possibly a four, no more than a five.”

            Ryan sighed. “It’s really bad, isn’t it?”

            “No!” the Doctor argued, trying not to let her voice pitch high with panic. She tested some of the controls, but nothing was responding; not even the custard cream dispenser. “It’s totally fine. I can fix it.”

            “Doctor,” Yaz said, “that’s your ‘I’m-trying-to-convince-myself-too’ voice.”

            Before the Doctor could reply, an ethereal whisper echoed in the console room. “Doctor…”

            “Did anyone else hear that?” Ryan asked, shuffling closer to the console.

            “Sounds like someone wants to see you, Doc.” Graham met her gaze, and she saw fear in his eyes. She hoped that she wasn’t giving him the same look in return.

            The voice called louder, more emphatically, “Doctor!”

            The Doctor tried to identify the voice, but it was too ambiguous. She stared at the TARDIS doors, and then turned to look at her friends who had all gathered close.

            “Whatever this is, it’s after me. It might not even know about you three. Best you stay in here.”

            “No.” Yaz’s response was prompt and unquestionable.

            “No way,” Ryan echoed. “That thing sounds proper creepy. We’re with you.”

            Graham nodded. “What they said. We’re going out there together, like we always do.”

            Sometimes, the Doctor feared their courage as much as she admired it. She offered them the best smile she could manage. “Okay. But stay close.” She led the way out the doors and into swirling mist.

            “Woah,” Ryan breathed. A shudder rippled through his body. “I don’t like this place.”

            Yaz closed the TARDIS door behind her but kept her gaze focused on the world ahead, seeming to be on high alert. “Feels creepy,” she agreed.

            Graham remained silent, brow knit in confusion and concentration as his eyes swept across the area.

            The Doctor whipped out her sonic screwdriver and scanned the boundless tendrils of mist. She examined the readings and frowned. “It’s impossible. We’re nowhere; no time, no space.”

            “The time lord emerges.” A being coalesced from the mist; black robes and a face of nightmares took shape. The Doctor heard one of her friends inhale sharply, but she wasn’t sure who it was as she stepped in front of them.

            “You could have just asked to see me,” the Doctor said, “instead of pulling my TARDIS outside the universe. She doesn’t like it.”

            The Trickster bowed his head. “My apologies. I have no power to move into other universes, only pull others here.”

            The Doctor frowned, staring into his nonexistent eyes. An apology? From the Trickster?

            Graham came up behind her and muttered in her ear, “Er…Doc? Who’s this guy?”

            The Doctor kept her eyes on her enemy. “The Trickster. Don’t worry, he only wasted his time. We’re not making a deal today.”

            “Please, listen to me for only a moment.”

            The Doctor didn’t like his pleading tone of voice. It made her infinitely more suspicious than if he had said it in his normal sly, cocky tone.

            She spread her arms, unable to find one cell in her body that would sympathise with the Trickster. “Well, seeing as you drained all the power from my TARDIS…” Her arms clapped back to her sides and she crossed them over her chest. “I’m all ears.”

            “I no longer desire chaos,” he said.

            The Doctor scoffed. “Seriously? That’s what you’re going with? You need chaos to live, and I’ve never seen you as the self-sacrificial sort.”

            “I am searching for an alternative source of energy.”

            “And why the sudden change?”

            “I have been…weakening.” He spat the last word, as if it were difficult for him to say. “My plans to tempt humans have failed and left me weak. I must find another way to live.”

            Now that’s the Trickster I know, the Doctor thought. Bent on his own preservation. Still, she didn’t buy it yet.

            “Doctor, if you will help me find another way to sustain myself, I will give to you something you treasure.”

            “How do you know what I treasure?” she snapped back.

            The Trickster’s arm rose from the sea of black robes and he outstretched his pale fist. “A token to show you that the reward is genuine.”

            The Doctor just stared at his hand for a moment, but curiosity won her over. She heard Yaz mutter a cautionary, “Doctor…” as she stepped forward to open her palm underneath the Trickster’s fingers.

            Something feather-light dropped in her hand, weighing so little that she barely felt it touch her skin. But when she looked at what the Trickster had given her, she gasped.

            “Doctor?” All three of her friends spoke at once and she felt them crowd around, looking over her shoulders at what she held.

            And a treasure it truly was.

            For in the Doctor’s hand was a small silver leaf, shaped like a teardrop. Its surface almost glittered, but its tip was turning dull. It was beautiful, but that wasn’t what had the Doctor enraptured; it was the memories that might as well have slapped her in the face for how much they hurt.

            The thought of home that had burned in her for so long and through so many bodies finally ignited within her, too. It wasn’t just a want, but a desire.

            The Doctor breathed in deeply, closed her eyes, and could see the forest this leaf had come from. Only…

            “It was destroyed in the Time War.” She tried to ignore the glimmer of hope that had sprouted in her hearts. “They all were. All of these trees.”

            It occurred to her, in a thought that went by in a flash, that she would have a lot of explaining to do to her friends after this.

            “Yes, but Gallifrey is being reborn in its own pocket universe. Life is starting anew. I have seen it; and I can take you there.”

            Liar. He had to be lying. He had to be. Because the Doctor didn’t want to think about what it would mean if she could go home. Try as she might, she hadn’t been able to locate Gallifrey after…those events. Whether the coordinates had somehow been lost forever in her memory wipe or the planet had actually moved again (to save itself from her, she thought), she had never been sure.

            But even if the Trickster wasn’t lying about Gallifrey, he had gone through awful pains to get her here and make sure she stayed. No matter what he said, she didn’t believe that her friends were safe.

            So the Doctor grinned, stuffing the leaf in her pocket. “Won’t be but a minute!” She turned and rushed back into the TARDIS, heading straight for the console. Yaz, Graham, and Ryan followed a moment later, probably stunned by her sudden action.

            “Doctor?” Yaz asked. “What’s going on?”

            The Doctor’s hearts ached, and she avoided their eyes. Too many things to explain. Too many painful stories.

            “What’s that thing he gave you?” Ryan asked. “A leaf?”

            The Doctor closed her eyes, trying to push their voices out of her head, and started to concentrate. She wasn’t sure if this would work; it was only a theory, but one she had to test.

            “Doc, you’re not acting like yourself.”

            She ignored Graham and leaned forward to place her hands against the rough crystal of the time rotor. She breathed in deeply, then sighed.

            Life drained from her body. She didn’t have to open her eyes to know that her hands were encompassed in a golden glow, which was hopefully spreading to the time rotor. She wasn’t sure how much this would cost her later on, but hopefully even then she’d remember that it was worth it. To keep her friends safe, it was always worth it.

            “Doctor!”

            Footsteps hurried closer, but then stopped abruptly.

            “I don’t think we should touch her. I’ve seen that stuff before, right after we met her. I think it’s some sort of…energy.”

            The time rotor shifted underneath the Doctor’s fingertips. She smiled and leaned back, watching the inner light slowly brighten. Little by little, the lights around the console room awakened.

            The Doctor’s legs wobbled a bit, but Yaz and Ryan grabbed her shoulders and steadied her. Graham edged in front of her, demanding her full attention.

            “Tell us what’s going on, Doc.” His voice was firm, but his eyes were soft with compassion.

            The Doctor wondered what they would think of her if she told them the truth. She wondered how she would tell the truth. Would she leave things out? Would she lie to them?

            As it stood, the Doctor could see she had two choices. One was the good, right, sane thing to do, and the other was extremely reckless and selfish. Yet, the leaf in her pocket seemed to burn. Wordlessly it called to her. She had to know; but she couldn’t drag her friends into this.

            “The Trickster. He’s dangerous.” She shook her head, trying to organise her thoughts. Getting rid of regeneration energy always made her a bit woozy. “I need to know what he’s doing, but I need your help back on Earth to find the chaos. All three of you.” Slowly, she began working the controls, pre-setting the coordinates. Please, she thought, be accurate just this once. 

            “That’s just a fancy way of saying you’re trying to do this on your own, isn’t it?” Graham frowned at her. “We already told you, that’s not happening.”

            Guilt already gripped her hearts. She finished locking in the coordinates and, keeping her back to her friends, set her sonic screwdriver on the console. She stepped back, and she could read the confusion clear on her friends' faces. They were totally in the dark.

            “Find the chaos.” She met each of their eyes, and hoped that they saw she was sorry.

            Then she turned, and bolted out the doors.

            As soon as she was outside of the TARDIS she slammed the doors shut behind her, and the engines started up immediately. She leaned her weight onto the ship. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. She backed away as it started to dematerialise. “Find the chaos.” Not only were they her thoughts, but messages that the TARDIS would relay to Ryan, Graham, and Yaz.

            The guilt began to choke her, and she could barely swallow. How could she do something like this to her friends, the best of humanity? Was she really willing to sacrifice their friendship for a slim hope of finding home?

            The Doctor shook away her thoughts. As the TARDIS finally disappeared, she knew there was no time for regrets.

            Instead, the Doctor turned, and the full reality of it hit her:

            She was alone, outside of time and space, with an enemy who would do anything to rip apart the universe as she knew it.

 

Chapter Text

            The Doctor didn’t allow herself time to panic. She rooted herself and stared the Trickster down, narrowing her gaze.

            “Now tell me about Gallifrey.”

            “First, I need your assistance,” the Trickster replied.

            The Doctor shrugged. “Not sure what we can do here. You don’t have the power to leave. You weren’t planning on using the TARDIS, were you?” the Doctor asked with mock sorrow. “Shame.”

            A twinge of anger manifested itself in the Trickster’s tight frown.

            “The TARDIS will come back to you.”

            “No it won’t. It couldn’t come back here even if it wanted to.”

            The Trickster’s frown deepened. “You exiled yourself here knowing you couldn’t leave?”

            “Yes.” The Doctor took a step forward, her voice rising in volume. “Because you are nothing but a sorry, selfish coward, and I didn’t want you getting any thoughts about my friends or my TARDIS.” She pulled out the leaf and waved it in front of her face. “I have no doubt you’ve been to Gallifrey, but everything else has been one big fat lie, hasn’t it? Tell me what you really want.”

            The Trickster spread his arms. “I have not lied to you. I believe you will be willing to help me test a form of energy that may sustain me.”

            The Doctor scoffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “We’ll see about that. Besides, we still can’t leave.”

            “No, I cannot leave unless I am summoned, but in this world, I can show you moments of time.” The Trickster inclined his head, and the mist swirled into colour and became solid floors, walls, and a ceiling.

            The Doctor watched in awe as the mist disappeared, admitting to herself that she was a little impressed. They now stood in a room that looked and smelled rather like a hospital.

            “That’s a neat trick,” the Doctor murmured. “How do you do it? Some sort of telepathic connection with that mist stuff?”

            “This is my realm,” he explained simply. “I can manipulate it how I wish.”

            The Doctor rolled her eyes at his cryptic answer and instead tried to gather clues about where they were. It was a rather small room, obviously for one patient. It seemed like a 21st century Earth hospital; no, more than that, she knew it was 21st century Earth. Even though she wasn’t really present at this scene, she could still feel time, though her senses also told her that this slice of time was frozen.

            After thinking through her time senses, the Doctor turned her attention to the details of the room. There really wasn’t anything interesting that she could see, so she moved on to study the patient.

            And immediately recoiled.

            “No!” she managed to get out, though she felt like she was going to be sick. She turned the other way and pulled herself together. “What could you possibly gain out of this? Do you want to see me suffer? Well, sorry, I’m not staying here.” She walked straight to the nearest wall, imagining she would be able to push through the mist, only to force her hands against solid wall.

             The Trickster chuckled, and knots tied themselves together in the Doctor’s stomach. Her mind replayed the image that would surely be burned there forever: her friend, who she had once called her best friend, surrounded by machines and covered in tubes, her face pale and haggard, only barely holding a spark of life.

            “I told you, Doctor. Only my rules apply here.”

            She curled her hands into fists and thought about punching the wall just to make sure—or maybe just to let out her frustration—but she knew it would only cause her more pain.

            “What do you want.” Her voice came out flat as she spoke to the wall.

            “I wish the same as you do: for you to save her.”

            The Doctor spun around to stare at the Trickster. “Why does the fact that you want me to do it suddenly make me not want to?” She shook her head. “Not interested.”

            “You would let your friend die?”

            It was a cheap jab, but it still stung. “I have to. She’d understand.”

            “Would she?”

            “Yes. This is a fixed point in time. She’d know that if I saved her, I could be destroying the rest of the universe.”

            “She’s a human,” the Trickster said, using the same tone a human would use if saying, “It’s only a bug.” “What difference can her life really make?”

            “All the difference in the universe. Some people you can get away with, sometimes, if the universe is kind. But with all of her influence, all of her knowledge; she could change the fate of every living thing.” The Doctor shook her head. “But I don’t need to tell that to you. This was what you wanted all along, wasn’t it?”

            “Excuses, time lord.” He turned to gaze at the patient. The Doctor watched him, deliberately keeping the hospital bed out of sight.

            “So close to the chaos I can feed on,” he said, “and yet it is different. Death is planted in every human from the beginning. There is no surprise about it.” His formless eyes rested on the Doctor. “And yet you still react with sorrow. You, who have seen more death than any living thing in the universe.”

            “I could try to explain to you about love, but I don’t think you’d understand.”

            “I have observed love. It is strange. It makes the most intelligent of lifeforms turn into witless beasts.”

            “I’ve seen love save the universe,” she countered. “I bet you have, too.”

            The Trickster shook his head. “It is not an energy I can consume, so I give no care to it. However, I believe that I may be able to absorb energy from her, should you heal her. The disruptions caused by the changes in time are a form of chaos.”

            The Doctor pressed her lips together. It was tempting, she had to admit. So tempting. She thought, after what happened with Clara, that she had learned her lesson. But it was one thing to theorise, and another thing to see your friend dying right in front of you.

            Besides, she told herself, this is different. I’d be saving her before she dies.

            Her mind worked through a thousand different scenarios. There were ways to trick Time into staying roughly as it was while changing a fixed point. It would be difficult, potentially catastrophic, but slightly possible. Maybe.

            “No,” she said, both to herself and the Trickster. “I won’t do it.”

            The Trickster smiled, as if pleased at her refusal. He nodded at the patient. “Heal her, and I will show you the way to Gallifrey. Refuse, and you remain trapped here forever.”

            “Is there a third option? There’s usually a third one.”

            The Trickster sneered at her. “This time, Doctor, you have no way out. You must do it my way or else be parted from your universe forever.”

            “How am I supposed to heal her with no TARDIS?”

            “Perhaps you shouldn’t have been so hasty to send away your ship. That is your problem to solve. I am summoned to Earth.”

--------------------------------

            “That must be when he showed up with the lizard aliens,” Clyde said, hand cupping his chin as his elbow rested on his knee.

            “Lizard aliens?” the Doctor asked.

            “We’ll get to that,” Rani said. She shifted from her sitting position slightly as her foot started falling asleep. “Is that all that happened?”

            The Doctor nodded. “When the Trickster left, this place turned back to normal.”

            Clyde shook his head and held up his hands. “Wait. But that couldn’t have taken more than like, twenty minutes, right?”

            The Doctor cocked her head to the side. “Nineteen minutes and two seconds, actually.”

            “You’ve been missing for a few days on Earth,” Rani said.

            “This place is out of time. What happens here doesn’t happen at the same rate as on Earth.”

            Rani frowned as she thought through the Doctor’s story. “Yaz, Graham, and Ryan are really worried about you.”

            “And I’m worried about them. I was trying to protect them; you know what the Trickster’s like.”

            “Do we ever,” Clyde muttered. “He’s like a bad penny that keeps turning up just when you really don’t need him to.”

            Luke huffed. Rani looked over at him, concerned. Throughout the Doctor’s narrative, he had grown more agitated, constantly fidgeting and changing the way he was sitting. His expression had gotten darker, too; he looked more angry than Rani had ever seen him.

            “You’re avoiding the point.” Every word Luke spoke was filled with malice.

            “Luke, what’s up with you?” Clyde asked, nudging his shoulder.

            Luke leaned away from the contact. His eyes glared at the Doctor. “Tell us who you saw. Who was the patient?”

            Rani had already guessed, but figured the Doctor had been trying to spare them the sadness.

            “I’m sorry,” the Doctor said quietly. She met Luke’s unrelenting stare with soft compassion. “I really am.”

            “It was Sarah Jane, wasn’t it?” Clyde asked at the same volume.

            The Doctor lowered her gaze and nodded. “And it’s already happened for you three, hasn’t it? She’s already gone. I didn’t even know.”

            “Because you don’t care,” Luke growled.

            Rani watched the muscles in the Doctor’s jaw tighten. She kept her eyes downcast.

            “Hey.” Clyde put a hand on his shoulder. “I know it’s hard, but the Doctor’s on our side.”

            Luke jumped to his feet and took a step back. Rani and Clyde shot up a moment later. The expression on Luke’s face scared Rani even more than the appearance of the Trickster had.

            “Is she really? Because she wasn’t there for my mum.”

            Oh. Suddenly, Rani went back to her memories from over five years ago, when Sarah Jane had started receiving treatments. Rani had kept most of that time locked up in her head, because it was too painful to think about. But now she remembered Luke’s outbursts of anger, how he had started to accuse the Doctor. Why couldn’t he save her? Why hadn’t he come to see her? They had all been upset, so she hadn’t questioned him about it at the time, but now she realised that all of that bitterness had been building up in him over the years.

            As Luke continued his tirade, the Doctor slowly got on her feet, keeping her eyes on Luke.

            “When she was dying, she talked about you. She remembered everything she had ever done on the TARDIS. She never said it out loud, but I know she expected you to come. We all did.” His voice shook, and tears trickled down his cheeks. “But you didn’t. You didn’t even say goodbye! You weren’t even at her funeral!” His voice rose to a shout and he stepped closer until he was almost toe-to-toe with her. The Doctor’s expression remained solemn and focused until the last phrase, which seemed to stir something within her. Her eyes widened a little.

            The Doctor swallowed deliberately, eyes soft. “I’m sorry, Luke.”

            He continued as if her contriteness meant nothing. “You pick up humans you like and then throw them out once you’re done with them. And you never even look back. I used to think you were some amazing saviour, but then I saw how you abandoned my mum. At UNIT, I’ve learned about the hundreds of people you’ve left behind. The ones you’ve gotten killed. The lives you’ve ruined. And you don’t even care.”

            The Doctor pressed her lips into a thin line. The look in her eyes hardened into something darker.

            “You can’t blame her for Sarah Jane’s death,” Rani said softly.

            “It’s okay, Rani,” the Doctor said, her tone of voice several degrees cooler than what it had been. “He’s not just angry; he’s scared. I’ve known enough guilt to recognise it when I see it. Why don’t you tell them what you’ve done, Luke. It’s tearing you apart.”

            The way the Doctor spoke chilled Rani to the core.

            “Luke?” Clyde asked.

            Luke’s chest heaved with rapid breaths. He took a step away from the Doctor and looked between Clyde and Rani. Anger began to drain from his face and despair took its place. “I just wanted mum back!”

            The tension kept Rani glued to the spot, staring at Luke. “What did you do?”

            He looked down, fists clenched at his sides. For a moment, all was silent. “I’m the reason why he’s here,” he said, his voice trembling. “I made a deal with the Trickster.”

            Rani felt her mouth drop open. A sick feeling settled in her stomach.

            “Luke…” Clyde muttered.

            Luke shook his head, beginning to break down as sobs shook his body. “I just wanted her back,” he whispered. “I knew I had done something terrible, but I wanted her back so badly.” He sniffed, tears streaming down his face. “The Trickster said he would save her, but in return I had to join UNIT and program a device with a fault. The translator you saw,” he said to Rani and Clyde. “I think he’s going to use it to start the war somehow.”

            “You knew and you just let this happen?” Rani asked incredulously. She couldn’t even wrap her mind around it. Luke, the genius, the logical one. Luke, the one who had always had faith.

            But now…it all made sense. It wasn’t UNIT that had taken away Luke’s personality; it was his guilt that had ruined him. It was the unnamed thing that had made Rani wary of Luke all this time.

            “I couldn’t let mum die. Not when there was hope in bringing her back.”

            “Mate.” Clyde stepped in front of him, sterner now. “You have to go back on your deal with him. If you don’t, you could start a war on Earth.”

            “But if I do that, mum dies.”

            “Luke,” the Doctor interjected. “I’m sorry to have to say this, but…she’s gone already. You have to let go.”

            He shook his head stubbornly. “I can’t.”

            The Doctor sighed. “Well, I only know one person who can talk sense into you.”

            “Who?” Rani asked.

            The Doctor began marching towards the TARDIS and said over her shoulder, “Sarah Jane, of course!”

Chapter Text

“Isn’t the TARDIS sort of…out of order?” Clyde asked as he walked to the console, knocking his fist lightly on one of the dull crystal arches. 

“Don’t think so. I woke her up with a little bit of regeneration energy not too long ago and she came here on her own this time. Shouldn’t have taken as much out of her.” The Doctor was already buzzing around the console like a bee that never alighted, pulling, pushing, and maneuvering all sort s of different controls. 

Luke hung back by the doors, and Rani paused on her way to the console. Her thoughts were conflicted about Luke; she wanted to be angry, and she had a right to be so, but she couldn’t help but wonder what she would do if she had been put in the same position. If it were a question of bringing her mum back…would she have done it too? 

But he should have asked for help. He had kept the secret all that time, when she and Clyde could have been there for him. 

Suddenly, a memory came to mind. Rani remembered an instance shortly after Sarah Jane’s funeral where Luke had confided to her that without Sarah Jane, he had felt alone. Maybe that was the problem ; not just with Luke , but with all of them. She and Clyde should have spent more time with Luke instead of getting so caught up in their own lives. They had all thought that Sarah Jane was the key to keeping them together, but it wasn’t so. Yes, she had brought them together in the first place, but they had become best friends because they truly cared about each other. 

Sarah Jane’s death should have never meant the death of their friendship. 

Rani walked over to Luke slowly, keeping her distance. She wasn’t quite sure what to say; she knew he was hurting. So she stepped a bit closer, placed a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. He looked up at her, eyes red from tears. His expression was so forlorn and empty that it alone tugged at Rani’s heartstrings. 

“Whatever happens, we’re doing this like we’ve always done it: together. The Trickster’s never been able to beat us before, and he won’t this time either.” 

Without saying a word Luke reached out and pulled her into a bone-crushing hug , and Rani was only too glad to return it. She could feel his body trembling slightly. 

When he pulled away, Luke wiped away more tears. “I’m sorry. ” He swallowed hard and shook his head. “I’ve ruined everything.” 

It’s not the end of the world,” Rani said as an automatic response, and then rethought her words. She chuckled, and Luke did too, despite his tears. “Okay, it could be, but it won’t. The Doctor’s even here this time. We’ll figure it out.” She sighed. “But you should’ve told us, Luke. We’re your friends.” 

“I know, but…” He paused, looking down . “When mum died, it was like for the first time, the world didn’t make sense. I always understood everything, knew why things happened. But when she was gone, I couldn’t make sense of anything anymore. I didn’t know what to do.” 

“Now you know. We’re here for you, Clyde and I. Always.” She gave his arm s a gent le squeeze to emphasise her point. 

The lights in the TARDIS came to life, lighting up the console room. Rani allowed herself a moment to take in the incredible sight, now that she wasn’t in a rush and drowning in confusion like during t he i r earlier flight. “Still can’t believe we’re actually in the TARDIS.” 

Luke attempted a smile , and a little light came into his eyes as he looked around. “Yeah, me neither.” His eyes rested on the Doctor, and his expression fell again. He stared at the floor. 

Rani knew that being on the receiving end of the Doctor’s disapproval couldn’t have been easy; it had made her uneasy just watching it. But the Doctor had also wanted to help; in fact, she had said they were going to see…

“Are we going back in time?” Clyde asked before Rani could voice it. 

Rani noted that Luke had withdrawn in to his own world again , his gaze far off. She walked toward the other two , letting him have a moment alone with his thoughts . The Doctor was still rounding the console, presumably preparing the ship for flight. 

“Yes we are,” she said distractedly. She paused and raised her eyebrows at them. “First trip to the past?” 

Rani met Clyde’s eyes and they both smiled. “No,” they responded simultaneously. 

“Do you think that’s a good idea,” Clyde added , “with…Luke?” He lowered his voice towards the end. 

The TARDIS engines began to roar and the Doctor finally stood still for a moment. She stepped back from the console, as if to admire her work.  “It’s the best thing for him right now. Trust me.” 

“Are we really going back to see her?” Rani asked. She didn’t want to believe it, but hope blossomed within her anyway. 

The Doctor smiled. “Wait and see.” 

A few moments later, the TARDIS landed with a slight jolt. The Doctor seemed to read something off the console, then nodded to herself. “Yep, this is right.” She looked up at Clyde and Rani, then over at Luke. 

Rani remembered what Luke had said about Sarah Jane hoping the Doctor would visit her before the end. He had been telling the truth when he’d said that they’d all hoped it, if only for Sarah Jane’s sake. And here was that chance right now, several years in the future. 

“You should go first,” Rani said, speaking to the Doctor. 

The Doctor blinked at her, and her eyes softened. She nodded. “Thank you.” She pressed a button on the console and a screen showing a hospital room appeared on the wall. “I’ll call you all out when it’s time.” She walke d toward the doors , saying something softly to Luke on the way, and left them alone in the console room. 

On the screen, Sarah Jane was stirring in her hospital bed. No doubt the sound of the TARDIS would always alert her, no matter what. The Doctor walked towards her slowly, carefully, as if she were treading on glass. She obscured the view of Sarah Jane for a moment, but Rani caught a glimpse of Sarah Jane’s confused expression over the Doctor’s shoulder. 

The Doctor crouched by her bedside. Rani watched Sarah Jane’s eyes flit back and forth between the TARDIS and her. Understanding began to dawn on her features. 

“Hello, Sarah,” the Doctor said quietly. “It’s been a long time.” 

Sarah Jane reached out a hand, as if to touch the Doctor’s face. “Doctor?” she whispered. Her eyes began to fill with tears. Rani’s eyes stung just from watching the scene. 

“I’m sorry I’m not the one you wanted to see, but—”

Sarah Jane grabbed the Doctor around the shoulders and pulled her into a hug. She closed her eyes and tears slipped silently down her cheeks. Their hug seemed to be suspended in a moment in time as they just sat there, holding each other. Rani knew there were so many things that they’d want to say to each other, but maybe they didn’t need to. That hug seemed to say everything. After a moment Rani looked away and wiped her eyes, feeling that she was intruding on something too private. 

“You’re here,” Sarah Jane said after a long while. “That’s what matters.” 

“I’m sorry, Sarah.” 

Rani looked back up to see that they had separated. Sarah Jane was sitting up, and the Doctor was perched on the edge of her bed; Rani could just see the side of her face. 

“I can’t fix this,” the Doctor continued. 

Sarah Jane huffed an ironic chuckle. “No, I never thought that you could. Fixed point in time, is it?” 

The Doctor nodded, her chin drooping and her eyes downcast. 

“It’s not your fault.” Sarah Jane grasped the Doctor’s hand and smiled. “I’ve had the best life. I got to travel across the universe, protect the Earth from aliens, and be a part of the best family I could ever wish for. And I had this best friend. It all started with him. Or her,” she corrected with a chuckle. 

The Doctor smiled back. “You’ve made a difference, Sarah Jane. This world—no, this universe— wouldn’t be the same without you.” 

“Oh, Doctor,” Sarah Jane laughed, “you know that’s not true.” 

“But it is!” The Doctor jumped to her feet and became more animated, talking with her hands, walking back and forth. “Because some people’s lives— your life—is like a stone dropped in a pond. You touch people like Rani, Maria, Clyde, Luke, and Sky, and soon enough they touch other people, and those people touch others, until soon enough the whole pond is filled by those ripples started by that one, beautiful stone. That’s you, Sarah.” Even from where Rani was, she could see a twinkle in the Doctor’s eyes. “And don’t you forget it.” 

Rani’s tears began to flow freely, and she muffled a sob with her hand. Clyde took her free hand and squeezed it. Off to the side, Rani could see Luke barely holding himself together. 

On the screen, Sarah Jane began to cry again and the Doctor wrapped her in another hug. “If you thought this was a surprise, I’m not even the best part!” She turned and waved at the screen, looking directly at them. 

“Think that’s our cue,” Clyde said. Still holding onto Rani’s hand, they met Luke at the TARDIS doors and walked out. 

Sarah Jane’s face in that moment could have brought light to the darkest of places. “Luke! Clyde, Rani!” She jumped up from her bed and ran over to them. They all hugged her at the same time, laughing and crying, not a single pair of dry eyes among them. 

After a few moments Sarah Jane pulled away and looked between them. “Look at the three of you, so much older!” 

Luke couldn’t quite meet her gaze , and Sarah Jane turned to him. “Luke?” She placed a hand on his cheek . “What’s wrong?” 

With a deep breath, he finally looked her in the eye . “I messed up, mum. I…I made a deal with the Trickster. I just wanted to bring you back.” His voice cracked on the last word and tears flowed down his cheeks. 

Disappointment didn’t even cross Sarah Jane’s face ; only compassion. “Oh, Luke.” She pulled him into her arms and let him cry. “There’s always a way to fix it . Everything will be all right.” 

Luke shook his head and pulled away. “But I don’t want to undo my deal. I don’t want you to go.” He sniffed, eyebrows furrowing together. 

“What?” Sarah Jane asked. 

“I thought you’d be angry ,” he admitted, wiping away some of his tears. 

“Angry?” She smiled fondly at him and caressed his cheek. “Luke, I know better than anyone how tempting it is to make a deal with the Trickster. I nearly sacrificed the fate of the Earth just to keep my parents from dying.” 

Luke pressed his lips together. “How did you keep from doing it ?” 

Sarah Jane paused. She looked over at the Doctor, who was watching. Then she looked back at Luke. “I remembered an important example that my best friend set for me: if you sacrifice the fate of the universe for your own happiness, will you ever be truly happy? Look what you have here!” She gestured to Clyde and Rani. “You have your friends. No matter what happens to me, you have your own life. Every child has to let their parents go at some time.” She gripped his arms . “But I’ll still be with you, Luke. I’ll always be with you.” 

Luke took a deep breath, calming his tears. “I know, mum. ” He wrapped his arms around her. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” S arah Jane held him for a long while, stroking his hair and rubbing his back.  

Eventually they all started talking , and, making sure it was okay with the Doctor (“Eh, shouldn’t hurt anything too much”) filled Sarah Jane in on their lives , as well as Sky ’s and Maria ’s.  

Sarah Jane shook her head. “It’s incredible, what y ou’re doing with your lives . You’re all amazing.” 

“It’s because of you,” Clyde said. “I don’t think any of us would be where we are without you.” 

The Doctor chipped in. “It’s like I said: your life stands against the test of time. And it always will.” She put her hands on Rani and Clyde’s shoulders. “I know you don’t want to leave, but we still need to stop the war and the Trickster.” 

As much as Rani hated to leave, she was glad that the Doctor was there to bring them back to reality. Otherwise, the three of them probably would have just stayed there forever. 

“Ready, Luke?” the Doctor asked. 

He stared down at his hands . Sarah Jane squeezed his shoulders. “You’ll make the right choice, Luke. I know you will.” 

Then came the worst part: goodbye. In some ways, Rani thought, it was almost harder than her first goodbye to Sarah Jane. After Luke and Clyde had their turns, Rani hugged Sarah Jane tightly and cried some more. 

“Keep an eye on those boys,” Sarah Jane told her with a conspiratorial smile. “They need you.”  

Rani nodded, trying to smile, and then it was the Doctor’s turn. 

“Don’t forget me, Doctor,” Sarah Jane said. 

“Never, Sarah Jane Smith.” She smiled sadly, and then her eyebrows shot up. “Oh! Almost forgot.” She reached into he r coat pocket and produced a crumpled paper package. “Jelly baby?” 

Sarah Jane just laughed, and, forgoing the jelly babies, hugged her friend once more. They didn’t say goodbye, but Rani recalled that they never really had. It was their way. 

With a final wave, they walked into the TARDIS, leaving Sarah Jane alone, grinning like she had received the best present in the world. Rani felt as if she was leaving her heart with her. 

“All right, you three.” The Doctor began going around the console, readying the TARDIS for flight. “Time to stop the Trickster once and for all.” 

The TARDIS made its signature grating noise, and on the viewing screen, Rani watched as Sarah Jane stared at the old police box with joyful tears in her eyes.