It was such a cursed temptation, but really, she had resisted for so long and here was a perfect opportunity so how was she meant to say no? Luke was busy with exams at uni, Clyde and Rani were on a school trip, and everything was quiet on Bannerman Road. If anything, it was a nice change to be able to relax in her home instead of worrying about things. And then, that noise.
She’d been sat in the living room, reading one of the many books that were on her ever-growing pile. It was so rare to have any time to just sit and read, so she was trying to take advantage of it. The evening sun was starting to scatter on the wall and faint laughter from the radio in the kitchen drifted into the room. Sarah Jane had never been a fan of silence. Her reading glasses were beginning to slip down her nose as her head lolled forward, sleep threatening to take her like an old woman having a nap, and then… that noise.
Surely it had been a dream, a trick the evening was playing on her or else madness setting in. Still, she checked anyway. If it was her imagination, or indeed insanity, then just making sure it was nothing couldn’t have hurt. That was what she told herself.
But there it had been! That old, beautiful, blue box, sitting in Sarah Jane’s garden.
The internal alarms were blaring and flashing, everything was shaking and spinning. They were probably crash landing, or at least being flung off somewhere in space or time, tumbling through the vortex with no control. The Doctor was spread over the console, using both of her arms and legs to try and do six different things, desperate to regain any form of control.
Sarah Jane was just trying to hold on. And despite the immediate panic, she was trying to hold back a smile. This was just like she remembered.
“Sarah!” The Doctor was stretching her toes to try and hit a level on the console, contorted as though she were trying to grow a new arm. “Flip the blue one!”
The Tardis jerked again as Sarah Jane lurched forward, stealing the floor from under her. She stumbled hard into the console, crashing into it and flailing her arms, trying to grab anything at all to give her some balance. For just a few seconds she managed to plant her feet and flip the lever before being thrown back again against a railing. She tried not to scream in surprise. That was so 70s.
She hadn’t been sure what to do with a police box in her garden. She’d stood up to look through the window, book in hand, seen it, then pushed her glasses up and looked again but properly as if she’d imagined it again. If it wasn’t real, then she certainly was going crazy. She all but threw her book and glasses onto the table, then scrambled to the back door, grabbing the first pair of boots she saw and struggling to get them on fast enough to get outside.
Had she been thinking straighter, she might have liked to have glanced in a mirror and make herself properly presentable, but part of her was working under the fear that she would open the door and the box would be gone, that she would stop looking and he – she? – would run away again the second she stopped looking. She wasn’t about to let the Doctor go without saying goodbye, or hello.
Which face would he have? Would it be one that she’d seen before? She had last seen the Doctor in a new woman’s body, one that suited her well. If anything, it was the height difference, or lack of it that had taken Sarah Jane most by surprise. The Doctor had always been so much taller than her that it was almost hard to believe that she had regenerated so short. Other Time Lords had always seemed to have so much more control of their changing forms than the Doctor, who was only ever consistent in their eccentric outfits.
Sarah Jane always found it strange when the Doctor regenerated into a younger body, as if she was trying to hide her age, her longevity. To seem less like a lonely wanderer. If you knew what you were looking at, though, you could see it behind her eyes. All that kindness and sadness was etched into her laugher lines. Sarah Jane had hardly doubted it for a second.
And, of course, the fact that things had been going wrong helped too.
The cloister bell tolled once as the Tardis steadied herself. Sarah Jane released her white-knuckle grip on the railing she had been clinging to, not letting go altogether until she was absolutely sure that the Tardis wasn’t going to sling them off into space again. Her hand hovered over the rail just in case. “Have we landed?”
The Doctor was fiddling with a switch, staring intently into the screen. She glanced away for a second at the question. “I’m not… sure.” She frowned back at the screen, the crease in her forehead deepening as the rest of her face scrunched up in concentration. “The good news is that I don’t think we’ve been chucked into the vortex forever.”
“Oh, good.” Sarah Jane muttered, daring her feet to move. They shuffled towards the Doctor.
“Since when did you get sarcastic?” The Doctor turned away from the screen again, her mouth open in mock surprise.
Without hesitation, Sarah Jane shot back, “Since when did you notice?” which made the Doctor blink in surprise again. Was it so unexpected that she was quick witted too? She had always made remarks at the Doctor, he had just never seemed to notice before. This regeneration was a lot more perceptive than ever before. Maybe at last age was teaching her something.
Perhaps if the Doctor had been this attentive before she might have stayed. Part of her knew it was stupid to think like this, that he would have had to go back to Gallifrey no matter what she had wanted, but maybe it would have felt less like she was walking away from the universe. Maybe it would have just hurt more. It hadn’t exactly been easy back on Earth for all these years.
Sarah Jane had met this face of Doctor while she’d been poking around in a lab that was claiming to be working on ‘the cure for all ills’. Of course that had sounded far too good to be true, and it had been. To no-one’s surprise, it had been aliens, so really it was no surprise that the Doctor had turned up too. She had always been a magnet for danger, drawn to it as much as it was drawn to her.
All Sarah Jane really remembered of that day was running, in and out of the building, in and out of the Tardis, up and down stairs. She wished that she could regenerate her knees. Graham shared her complaints – for a timeless being, the Doctor really was lucky not to have the joint pains of old age. In the end, despite blowing everything up, the aliens had got away, but they also didn’t destroy the world, so that was a win in everyone’s book.
Something was different about this Doctor. Sarah Jane had noticed it straight away, the way she seemed attentive to her companions for a change, listening to what they said, asking them what they thought. She was gentler now, though she still seemed to forget that humans didn’t quite have a Time Lord’s intellect and explained things at a million miles an hour. Some things never changed.
The last time Sarah Jane had seen the Doctor, she had had a young face, hiding all her pain and age behind a clownish act. Sarah Jane found herself wondering what had happened since they had last met, because something must have done to give the Doctor some peace with herself. That was the only explanation for the behaviour, and she deserved it. The Doctor had given herself to the universe so many times, and it was nice to see her at ease with herself. Of course, Sarah Jane knew that she hadn’t been there enough to really see how the Doctor was feeling, but in her recently, he had been sadder than she’d ever seen him, lonelier.
It wasn’t too much of a stretch to guess that he had taken losing Gallifrey badly. Perhaps now, though, if Sarah Jane asked, the Doctor might have told her what had happened. But Sarah Jane hadn’t wanted to intrude too badly, especially as the new team were so nice. She had tried to be over the jealousy this time, because she was happy with her life on Earth now, finally, but the sight of Yaz looking at the Doctor like she was watching all the stars in human form had made the bitterness rear its head and threatened to unleash all of the resentment again.
She had left that life behind. Now, she had Luke and Clyde and Rani, and they needed her as much as she needed them. They were family, just as the new gang were the Doctor’s family, for now. Yaz wasn’t much older than Luke, and Sarah Jane hoped with all her heart that the Doctor was looking after them properly.
She knew full well what the Doctor could do. They had all been so young for the Doctor to cause hurricanes in their lives.
Sarah Jane had decided that just knocking on the door was the best thing to do. She did, and there was a silence. Sarah Jane felt her heart drop as a flood of worry washed over her – what if the Doctor didn’t answer and it was all a mistake? But then she heard the sound of boots thumping towards the door in a hurry.
The Doctor stuck her head around the door, her face splitting into an enormous grin. She all but jumped out of the Tardis and hugged her old friend. “Sarah! You came!”
“You landed in my garden! I hardly had a choice!” Sarah Jane had been knocked back a step by the hug and she was trying not to laugh. As if the Doctor thought that she wouldn’t come running every time she saw that damn box!
The Doctor let go of her at last, then gestured to the door. “There’s a cuppa waiting?”
Hesitation barely crossed Sarah Jane’s mind and she practically skipped into the Tardis, not hiding her joy at its interior size. She wasn’t quite used to this design yet, not having had enough of a chance to see it. Part of her longed for the crisp lines of the console she remembered, but there was something charming about all the crystals, as if the Doctor had grown the Tardis herself as part of a school science experiment. It was as if the Tardis had gotten sick of people not remembering she was alive too.
The Doctor floated past her, down some steps into an alcove where a table had been set for afternoon tea. Books lined the shelves behind, and a plate of assorted biscuits was the centrepiece. Sarah Jane followed her.
“I think I remembered how you like it,” the Doctor said, as she sat. Milk, no sugar, Sarah Jane thought, sitting and examining the mug. It had a cartoon alphabet of space on it, most likely a gift from a companion with a sense of humour. The Doctor had been a bit eager with the milk. Sarah Jane didn’t mind. Just the fact that the Doctor had made an effort felt like a change enough.
If the Doctor had given her this much attention before, would she have stayed?
“Where are your friends?” Sarah Jane asked. She could never be certain how much time had passed for the Doctor.
The Time Lord stared into her ‘World’s Best Dad’ mug. “They’re… having a break.”
Sarah Jane felt the urge to reach across the table and take the Doctor’s hand. “Nothing bad happened, I hope?”
“They just wanted some time.”
“So you thought you’d come and pick up an old one, then?” Sarah Jane thought she’d said it as more of a joke, she’d intended it as more of a joke, but her voice had an edge and the Doctor’s face grew panicked. Sarah didn’t think she’d ever seen her so vulnerable.
“No – I don’t mean it like – you don’t really think that, do you?” Without thinking, Sarah Jane placed her hand over the Doctor’s, squeezing gently.
“Of course not. I was joking! If anything, it’s a nice change for you to take an interest.” The Doctor looked up, her eyes searching Sarah Jane’s face as if she had lost something. Sarah Jane noticed the lines around the Doctor’s eyes and wondered if she was doing the same. There was a small smile on the Doctor’s lips, a sad one that was telling its own monologue of being tired of all the responsibilities of the universe.
Eventually, the Doctor said, softly, “You changed since we travelled last.”
“I got old.” The words escaped her mouth before she was even aware of thinking them. She hadn’t had such a bitter thought in years. The Doctor turned her hand beneath Sarah’s, holding it properly. Her smile grew wider, soft and real.
“You got kinder. Wiser. Luke’s done good things for you.”
The mention of her son made Sarah Jane smile too. The Doctor was right, of course she was. For so many years before Bannerman Road, just like the Doctor, she had drifted from place to place, lonely. She just hoped that maybe one day the Doctor would find something truly worth living for too.
They spoke for a long time over tea, telling tales of adventures and aliens, of threats overcome and gifts given and received, and running around seeing things beyond what most people could ever dream of. And they said things they’d never said to each other, apologies and regrets, desires and wishes and memories of what they had been, once.
In the end, that was all that was left of anything. Memory.
Sarah Jane ate another custard cream. She was beginning to wonder if these mugs were bottomless because she had easily drunk three mugs worth of tea and it wasn’t empty. The conversation had lulled, a natural pause and a comfortable quiet. The Tardis hummed around them.
“Come with me.” The Doctor’s voice was quiet but clear. “Just one trip. Please. Like old times.”
Sarah Jane blinked a long blink, thinking about Luke, and Clyde and Rani. Could she leave them? A thought of the universe floated into her mind. She had missed it, really.
It was a time machine. One trip couldn’t hurt.
The cloister bell tolled again. Gallfreyan circles span urgently on the screen, most likely warning about the imminent danger they were in.
“What’s the matter, Doctor? Honestly.”
The Doctor hesitated. “I think we’re going to have to find out the long way.”
Both women broke into a grin. The Doctor held out her hand. Sarah Jane took it, and with purpose they ran through the doors into their next adventure.