Scott ran his hands down his face in disbelief before turning back to face Nicole. "Seriously?" he asked.
"Oh come on," she sighed, "you were starting to work it out."
"I knew there had to be something going on, but this?"
"Call it... the other family business," she quipped, remembering what her mother had told her years before.
"We don't hunt them," she stressed. "We... help them out. Or stop them if they're looking for trouble."
"Have I been doing this?" Nicole shrugged. "Few years. Mum's been doing it for longer."
"Your... Sarah's been doing this?"
"Longer than you can imagine," she grinned, her mouth curling up at one side. "She's... It's complicated."
"Why are you telling me this?" Scott asked, joining her to sit on the bed. "Why now?"
"Well, there's a dinner party tonight I need you to be at."
"You've lost me."
"There are these creatures called the Slitheen; they were the first aliens I ever met really. Anyway, they have these cousins called the Blathereen..."
Nicole stared at the box containing the Rackweed before glancing at the others around the table. "Well?" she asked.
"It sounds cool in theory," Clyde said, starting to clear the table.
"I still think we should talk to Sarah Jane about this," Rani protested.
"If you can get her to listen," Clyde muttered under his breath.
Nicole chose to ignore the remark. Since the funeral her mother had become withdrawn, refusing to get involved in anything remotely alien. At first Nic had thought that she just needed time, and she was happy to help out.
She'd met an old friend of her mother's, Professor Rivers, and rubbed shoulders with ghosts. Then she'd been trapped in a painting, which on reflection wasn't the best day of her life. But months on and still Sarah showed no interest in returning to her old life, so Nicole was beginning to feel like her temporary appointment in leading this merry band of misbegots was becoming a little more permanent than she'd bargained for.
"Scott?" she asked, prompting her boyfriend to look up. "What do you think?"
"I think... I'm going to need a very large drink."
"Scott! Do you think we should trust them?"
"I don't know," he said. "I'm new to all this."
"Exactly why I asked you to come," Nicole said. "I know what the Slitheen are like, but you don't... What's your gut reaction to them?"
"I don't trust them," he declared. "Why would they want to help us when all their cousins have wanted to do is destroy Earth? I know that's probably... what? Racist? Specist?" he laughed. "But the apple rarely falls far from the tree in my opinion," he continued, picking up the illustrating fruit and throwing it lightly into the air before catching it.
"Luke?" Nicole prompted, but he just shrugged his shoulders. "Thoughts?"
"I want to believe them, but Scott's right," Luke said eventually. "Maybe you should get Mr Smith to check it out?"
Scott rolled his eyes and took a bite out of the apple. He'd nearly fallen over when Nicole had introduced him to K9, and then actually done so when he'd met Mr Smith. He'd not bargained on this when he'd fallen for Nic, but as he watched her use her mother's watch to scan the plant, her brow creasing in concentration, he knew he wouldn't have her any other way.
Nicole left Mr Smith running scans on the plant while she went back downstairs to join Sarah in the living room.
"How was your evening?" Sarah asked, barely glancing up from the laptop screen.
"Not bad," Nicole dismissed. "How goes the work?"
"Already? Didn't they give you a week to do it in?"
"So, you always said that if they give you a week and you do it in a day, then it can't be very good."
"When did I say that?" Sarah asked, glancing over at Nicole.
"When I was in Year 11. I did my essay on Othello the night I was given it, and you made me go over it again and again and again."
"Uh-huh. I kept my original, handed that in, still got an A."
"Then you have just disproven your own – and my – original point."
Nicole glared at her and then smiled. "We brought back something from the Blathereen. A plant."
"Yeah, they say it can feed the world. Might put Bono out of a job, but it's for a good cause." Nicole watched her mother, looking for some flicker of interest.
"That's if it checks out OK."
"I'm sure you'll be careful," Sarah said, saving her work and shutting down the laptop. "Want some tea?"
"No thanks," Nicole replied, still getting to her feet to follow her mother. "Is that all you have to say on the matter? That I'll be careful?"
"What do you want me to say?" Sarah asked as she checked the water level in the kettle before switching it on.
"I don't know, that you're interested in it? Concerned? Worried?"
"I've told you before, I don't do all this now."
"You're really just giving it all up? Forget defending the planet?"
"I'm getting too old for this," she said, "given I've lived through the best part of ninety years all in," she added as a quip.
"No, you're getting too scared," Nicole snapped. "Dad's gone and all you have done since the funeral is run away from anything and everything that reminds you of your old life. Because of that life the Trickster introduced you to Dad in some other timeline, you lose him, and then because of some... old school time travel stuff you get a second chance, living thirty years over again and setting up your life again with a family.
"Only that doesn't end the way you'd hoped and yeah, it hurts. But instead of dealing with it and moving on, you're running away and hiding."
"I am not hiding," Sarah snapped in return. "I'm still here, aren't I? I haven't run off to deepest Peru or anywhere. I still talk to you about what's going on."
"You don't suit the role of consultant, Mum. You never have and you never will. This is your thing. Those kids... they miss you. I miss you."
"I am right here, love," Sarah replied, lifting a hand to Nicole's face.
"No you're not," she replied. "And you haven't been for ages. You're just leaving me and Luke to get on with it, like we don't matter."
"You're really not coming back to this, are you?"
"Because of Dad. Because of the Doctor."
"Because of me, love. No one else. Because I don't want to do this any more. I want to enjoy having a normal life for a change."
"You haven't had a normal life since the '70s," Nicole pointed out. "The minute you met the Doctor your whole world changed. You told Alan once that you can't turn your back on the Universe."
"I haven't. I'm not shutting myself off from it all, I'm just... handing the reins over. You're doing a great job, love, and I am here to support you in any way that I can."
"I don't want to talk about it, Nic. I've made my decision, and that's final. It's up to you now. You and the others."
Nicole sighed and shoved her hands into her jeans pockets. As she started to walk away she decided that if she didn't play her trump card now then she never would. "Dad wouldn't want you to give up."
"Your father would want me to be happy. And I am."
"I know it's hard for you to understand..."
"...but this is what I want."
"What about what I want, Mum? What I need? Me and Luke... we need our mum back."
"I'm still here."
Nic shook her head sadly. "What's here is a shell. Our mum hasn't been around for months. Mum would have yelled at me for days solid when she found out I'd told Scott about everything. Mum would be racing upstairs to check out that plant for herself. Mum would have been at that gallery, worried out of her mind for me and Luke. She wouldn't be sat at home filing stupid article after pointless report. Mum would look up at the night sky, not hide away inside."
Sarah kept staring at the space where Nicole had been standing long after she'd gone upstairs. Nic's words had struck several nerves but she couldn't bring herself to admit it. She had to keep going, she had to be here to take care of her children and she couldn't do that running after every alien that crash landed in London.
Family first. Everything she did was with them in mind, because when she did something for herself then people got hurt.
"Aren't you ready yet?" Sarah sighed as Luke appeared on the landing.
"I've left my tie in the attic," he said.
"I'll get it. You go have breakfast."
Shaking her head at how someone so outwardly perfect and intelligent could be so forgetful and yes, messy, Sarah headed up into the attic. It wasn't that she avoided it now, it was just that she rarely had occasion to come up here. Since Nicole had taken over the reins in defending the Earth (proving there was something in the 'like mother, like daughter' adage) she tended to stay on the lower floors. Quite often she could spend an entire day with interacting with any kind of alien technology – Nicole now wore the watch and carried the lipstick – and the normality of it all was weirdly refreshing.
It reminded her of what life had been like back in the '80s, as a new wife and mother she was more concerned with making sure her family were OK than watching the skies for what might be heading their way.
She found Luke's tie draped over the chair, but as she picked it up some dust seemed to be stirred off it. Coughing slightly as she inhaled a little, she thought nothing more of it as she went back downstairs.
Analysis complete. The Rackweed is not harmless.
Nicole's stomach turned over as Mr Smith gave her the updated report on the plant. Her mind raced with all kinds of possibilities as she pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. "Luke? It's me... The Rackweed, it's done something to Mum... No, I don't know what... No, don't come home. Whatever this is, I don't want you anywhere near it. Just, stay with Clyde and Rani, yeah? I'll let you know if anything changes... Yeah, OK... Bye."
According to my analysis, Rackweed seeks out life forms that it deems a threat to its propagation and drains them of energy. It will send its victims into a deep, deep coma from which they will never return.
"But Mum was OK to begin with," she protested.
I can only surmise that Sarah Jane inhaled only a few of the spores, and it took time for them to take control of her system.
"If there's only a few of them, then surely it'll take longer for it to..." She stopped herself before finishing the sentence.
That would seem to be the logical conclusion, but there is insufficient evidence to say for certain.
"There has to be some way of stopping it, of reversing the process."
I will continue my analysis, Nicole, but I cannot guarantee that I will find a cure in time to save Sarah Jane.
"I am not losing her," Nicole said defiantly. "I can't."
One floor down, Scott gently mopped Sarah's fevered brow as she drifted in and out of consciousness. It had taken them minutes to find the first marks on her body after she'd collapsed. It seemed to be progressing slowly, but it was a constant and he knew that she would be unconscious before too long.
"Peter..." Sarah muttered.
"It's OK," Scott replied, not knowing what else to say.
"I missed you..."
"Oh hell," he whispered to himself. He didn't know if he could play that role, and so decided to side-step the issue. "You need to fight, Sarah. You hear me? Fight this, OK?"
She seemed to nod and he took that as a positive sign.
"How is she?" Nicole asked as she came into the room.
"Getting worse," he told her, deciding not to mention the whole 'she thought I was your dad' bit. "Don't know how much longer she's going to stay awake."
"Mr Smith gave me this," she said, holding what looked like a small bowl. "It'll help him keep an eye on her condition."
"She's going to be OK," Scott said, getting to his feet.
"Oh you bet she is," Nicole replied defiantly. "The Blathereen did this, they can damn well fix it."
"Nic," Scott protested as he watched her throw bags and boxes around the attic. "Just stop and think about what you're planning."
"A-ha!" she exclaimed, finding the suitcase she was looking for. She pulled out a super soaker and checked the barrel. "I have thought about this. Mum is dying, the plants are all over London. People are being rushed to hospital and if I don't do something about it then they are going to die." She swung the pistol so it rested on her shoulder. "I am not losing Mum. Not now, not after... I can't."
"And I can't lose you," Scott said.
"You don't know that," he said. "Nic..."
"I know," she smiled, gently stroking his cheek. "Keep an eye on Mum for me."
I only have enough energy for a one way trip, Nicole, Mr Smith announced.
"Oh no, no way," Scott said. "You are not going now."
"Just watch me," she replied, fixing him with a glare that almost dared him to argue with her.
"I love you too," she said, before nodding to Mr Smith. Then in a flash she was gone.
Scott grabbed Nicole's ringing mobile from where she'd left it, sighing as he noted the caller ID. "Luke?"
"Where's Nic?" Luke demanded.
"She's gone after the Blathereen, see if they can stop this."
"She's doing OK," he lied, not wanting to upset or scare the kid. Sarah had fallen into a coma fifteen minutes ago and Mr Smith's analysis had determined that she would be dead within hours. "Hanging in there."
"The Rackweed's in the school," Luke told him. "It's everywhere."
"Can you get out?"
"We're trapped. K9 can zap some of the spores but..."
"Why is K9 there?"
"Long story," Luke said quickly. "Does Mr Smith have any ideas?"
"He's working on it," Scott said as he turned to face the Xylok. The screen flickered as the machine worked through a number of different formulas and calculations, trying to find some weakness in the continually-adapting plant. "Just... sit tight, OK?"
"I don't know how much longer we can hold out."
"It'll be OK, kid. Just... trust us."
"I trust Nicole."
"So do I."
When Nicole reappeared in the attic Scott couldn't help but give in to his relief. He grabbed her into a hug before he'd even processed the look of disappointment on her face.
"I tried," she muttered into his shoulder.
He didn't need to tell her, the look on his face as she pulled back did it all for him. Running from the attic Nicole raced to Sarah's bedside. When she saw her mother her breath seemed to stick in her throat.
"Mum?" she almost yelled, grabbing Sarah's hand in hers. She ran her fingers over the ugly red and black blotches and resisted the urge to cry. "Mum, you need to fight this. The Sarah Jane I know and love and who's been on my case my whole life would be batting this into the middle of next week! You have never let anything beat you and now is not the time to start.
"You can't just give up. Please, Mum... If you let this win then you're basically saying that me and Luke? We don't matter. You lose Dad and that's it, there's nothing worth fighting for? You may have given up on dealing with all of this but I won't let you give up on your kids, not on us. We love you and we need you. I need you. Please, Mum... don't let this win. You're stronger than this."
It may have been her imagination, but Nicole could have sworn that she saw a flicker of movement behind Sarah's closed eyes. Before she had a chance to press it further she heard Scott calling from the attic, telling her that Luke was on the phone.
As the ringing in her ears stopped, Nicole glanced over at Scott. "You OK?"
"Think I've gone slightly deaf, but yeah, I'm OK."
"Mr Smith, report," she ordered.
My scans indicate that the Rackweed has been eliminated.
Scott grabbed Nicole into a celebratory hug, lifting her up and spinning her around before setting her down and kissing her gently.
"Mum!" she exclaimed, pulling away from him and heading for the stairs.
She'd made it down the first flight when she met Sarah coming up. Nicole took a few seconds to take in her mother's unblemished skin before Sarah wrapped her up in a hug, the pair of them clinging tightly to the other.
"I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost you," Nicole muttered into Sarah's shoulder.
"You'd have been fine," Sarah replied, running one hand down Nic's hair. "You'd have been brilliant, I know it."
"Luke, Clyde and Rani are the brilliant ones. They found out about the bell."
"Yeah, but you went after the Blathereen. That took some courage."
"How did you...?" Nicole asked, pulling back and looking at her mother.
Sarah took Nicole's face in her hands and smiled gently. "You are worth fighting for," she said quietly. "You have always been worth fighting for and I will never give up on you. I'm sorry if you ever thought I would."
"I need you to help me with this, Mum," Nicole whispered.
"Then I will," Sarah smiled before pulling her in close again.
After showering and changing (all this alien gunk was not doing her hair any favours, thank god for intensive conditioners), Nicole found Sarah in her room, staring at the letter that Peter had left. When Sarah noticed her she held out the piece of paper which Nic took and read.
"He's right you know," she said as she handed it back.
"I've been thinking," Sarah began, gesturing that they should sit on the bed. "I spent all that time just thinking... I went back for him and I was supposed to have a life with your father. So when I lost him I wondered what the point of it all was, but today I realised something. What if it wasn't about Peter? What if I went back for you? What if all this was because I was meant to have you?"
Sarah gently stroked Nicole's cheek and smiled. "You saved the world today," she said, the note of pride unmistakable in her voice. "My daughter saved the world."
"You save it all the time."
"It's not a competition," Sarah laughed. "But I am so proud of you. Your dad would be too."
"I miss him," Nicole said quietly.
"So do I." She took a deep breath, holding the air in her lungs for a moment. "But life goes on. It has to."
"Does this mean...?" Nicole ventured, seeing a glint in Sarah's eyes.
"I was told something once. The woman who helped me go back told me that the 'addition would be my salvation'."
Nicole's jaw dropped open. "I was told that too, by some fortune teller. I always thought she was spinning me a line."
"You met her too?"
Nicole nodded. "When I was... away. She told me I would be the salvation... I guess she meant this? Me saving the world?"
Sarah pressed her lips together in a smile and shook her head. "Nope. She meant you would be mine. You saved my life today, Nic, and I don't just mean about the Rackweed. Losing your dad shouldn't mean that I give up everything that's important... I have a family to fight for, to be here for. So it's time to get back to it."
Nicole gave a small squeal of delight, and pulled her into a hug.
"This means I want my lipstick back," Sarah informed her.
"No arguments here," Nicole grinned. "You want to tell the kids the good news or shall I?"
"Oh let me," she grinned. "Be worth it to see the look on Clyde's face."
"He'll be thrilled."
"I know. Got a soft spot for you has that one. Not that he'll admit to it."
"Clyde Langer admitting to liking someone?" Sarah laughed. "Has he finished cleaning the attic yet?"
"Nearly. He should be done by the time lunch is ready."
"I'm surprised you're not doing it."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nicole protested.
"My daughter, the professional cook?"
"Think that business has run its course."
"How'd you feel about that?"
Nicole shrugged. "Some things are more important."
"So long as you're sure."
"I'm sure, Mum. Really. If you're on board with this then so am I."
"Deal," Sarah said, holding out her hand for the obligatory shake.
"I'd best get down there, Scott will be burning the sausages about now."
Sarah couldn't help but laugh at Nicole's inability to completely hand over the cooking reins, the resulting smile remaining on her lips after Nicole had gone. Turning back to the dresser she saw the note lying on the surface.
She got to her feet and crossed the room. Carefully she picked up the paper, reading it one final time before folding it up and putting it back into the envelope. Then she removed Peter's ring from her thumb and dropped it inside.
"I love you," she whispered to the empty room. "Always will," she finished before leaving to join her friends and family out in the garden.
As they all sat around the table, laughing and joking and picking off burnt bits from their food, Sarah remarked on how things had played out. She had still lost Peter, she was still hurting and there was still a hole in her chest that she knew would be there for a very long time. But she had Nicole now, and through her she had Scott. Her family was bigger and she wouldn't have given up one moment of the last thirty years for anything.
Glancing up at the house, she thought she saw something through her open bedroom window. The small woven circle spun on its thread, the feathers dancing in the light breeze. Smiling to herself Sarah closed her eyes for a moment and let the same wind blow over her, bringing with it the sounds of those worth fighting for.
Then she opened her eyes, laughed at a joke that Clyde had just made, and enjoyed the rest of the evening.