The Doctor stuck his head out of the TARDIS, checking that a) he'd landed in the right garden, and b) he'd not landed in Sarah's bedding plants. He'd not done that (to Sarah) before but he knew that she wouldn't be too happy and he'd rather not be on the receiving end of her temper. Again.
No bedding plants, that was good. Corner of the garden, out if sight of anyone who might be able to glance in. Not that anyone ever looked twice at the TARDIS. Well, most people didn't. And this was a pre-Chrissie Jackson time.
He shuddered a little at the memory of meeting her. All of time and space, worlds and (at one time) dimensions at his feet and it was a run in with this bold-as-brass woman that made his skin crawl. Give him Daleks any day.
(Thankfully he'd managed to avoid Sarah ever finding out this and he wanted to keep it that way.)
Stepping out onto the grass he turned to face Amy with a slight degree of flourish, arms outstretched and a "get me!" look on his face. Amy wasn't impressed. And in any case, she was busy looking up at the grand house in front of her.
"Reminds me of mine," she said, shuddering involuntarily. "Big and empty."
"Ah, but this isn't empty," he grinned, grabbing her hand and pulling her out of the TARDIS. "There's a whole family in here."
Amy rolled her head back as she sighed with her whole body. After she'd had a go at him about Sarah he'd insisted on showing her how it all worked out. Just a peek, he'd said. They'd drop in, have a look, fly off. No one would know and no one would be any the wiser.
She knew what his timing was like and she was suspicious long before they reached the open front door. Lined up neatly inside were a range of shoes, far too many for the little family that were supposed to live here. The Doctor noticed it a heartbeat(s) after Amy and he froze, looking at his watch. He tapped it and looked back at the shoes.
This was wrong.
"Doctor?" she asked. "Thought you said it was Sarah, Peter and this... Nicole."
"It should be. She'd be about seven years old. They just moved in. Last week..."
"Nicole's a girl, right?" Amy asked.
"Of course she's a girl," the Doctor said, crouching down to peer at the shoes. "What a stupid question." Two adults, one man one woman. Two, no, three kids... One boy, two girls, and they were close in age.
"Not really," she said, her tone making him look up.
Stood in front of them, a little way down the driveway, was a young boy. He couldn't have been more than seven years old and he was staring at the pair of them with a mixture of confusion and concern.
"Oh hi there," the Doctor said, righting himself and striding over to the boy. He held out his hand to the child who took it cautiously. "I'm looking for a friend of mine, she lives here."
"I live here," the boy said.
"Is this Luke?" Amy asked.
The boy looked at her, his attention drawn from the strange man in front of him. "I'm not Luke," he said nervously. He pulled his hand back and edged around to the door.
Amy recognised the look on his face and immediately moved towards him. "No, it's OK, it's..."
But he still opened his mouth and called for his mum, running into the house.
"Doctor, I think we should get out of here," Amy said, tugging on his sleeve.
"No, this isn't right," he said. "This is Sarah's house. This is Sarah and Peter's house. Nicole and Luke grew up here, they lived here, they're supposed to live here... Nicole is supposed to be seven years old now but with all these shoes it's like..."
"Doctor," Amy hissed, directing his attention to the woman now stood in the doorway. There was something about her that looked familiar but she couldn't quite place it.
The Doctor, however, did and he broke into a grin as everything made sense.
The woman looked at them for a second before she started towards him. For one heartbeat Amy thought she was about to attack them for trespassing, or scaring her son, or worse, but she flung her arms around the Doctor and held on tightly.
"Hey you," she said.
"Hey yourself," the Doctor replied as he hugged her in return.
"Apparently I do that. Sorry."
"Is someone going to explain?" Amy asked.
Not letting go the Doctor said, "Amy, this is Nicole Grace Dalton. Sarah's daughter."
Nicole invited them in and introduced them properly to her son. Despite his mother's assurances Peter – the young namesake of his grandfather – was still unsure about the two weird people who had walked out of the blue police box that had appeared out of nowhere in his garden.
"You were my Grandma's friend," he said. "Mum told me about you and the blue box."
"That's right," the Doctor grinned, squatting down so he was more on Peter's level.
"Mum said you change faces."
"So how do I know it's really you? You could be anyone pretending to be the Doctor."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because people want to hurt Mum and Dad."
The Doctor shot a glance up at Nicole before going back to the young boy. "Not me. I'll always protect your mum and dad. But more than that, I'll always protect you."
"That's what they've said before. They came and said we had to go with them for our own protection. But I didn't believe them then and I don't believe you."
"Your mum hugged me," he pointed out, trying to find a way out of this.
"So?" Peter questioned, folding his arms, almost daring this strange man to take him on.
Stood back, watching the pair of them, Amy and Nicole made no attempt to intervene. It was clear that Nicole was enjoying her son giving her mother's best friend the third degree. She knew it was the Doctor and she knew that Peter was one to work things out for himself. She also knew that her son's protective streak wasn't something that could easily be abated and this would have to play out if Peter was ever going to accept the Doctor.
Amy, meanwhile, was just enjoying watching someone not take him at his word. He strode around time and space as some know-it-all, now a seven year old boy was chanting 'prove it'. And the Doctor was stuck. Daleks? Sure. Prisoner Zero? No problems. A kid? Um...
"What's it going to take? I can show you the TARDIS?" the Doctor offered.
"I'm not supposed to go with strangers. And you could have stole it."
"He did," Nicole muttered to Amy with a grin.
"I have this," the Doctor said, producing his sonic screwdriver.
"Mum's got one like it. It was Grandma's. Could have stole that too."
The Doctor sighed. "I have two hearts, I change faces. I can tell you stories about your mum and your grandma, what they were like when they were younger. I am a 900-year old Time Lord who travels around in a blue police box and a seven year old boy questions everything I say." He shot a look at Nicole. "And you can stop enjoying this so much." He turned back to the boy and shrugged.
Peter's eyes were now wide. "You have two hearts?" he breathed. "That's cool."
"Very," he grinned.
After that Peter seemed to warm to the Doctor. The child dug out a toy stethoscope from an old play set and listened to the double beat of his new friend's hearts. Then he allowed the Doctor to use his sonic screwdriver fix a toy that had been broken for ages. ("Just to see if it works and it's not a toy.") After that he went outside, scouted around the outside of the TARDIS, before peeking inside.
(Mum had told him and the Doctor, in no uncertain terms, that he was NOT to go in. If he stepped across the threshold then no regeneration energy would save him. Peter had just smiled at this, but Nicole and the Doctor remembered the last time she'd made that threat.)
"It's bigger on the inside!" Peter exclaimed and the Doctor could have kissed him because someone ifinally/i said it. After a few more magic tricks he had soon warmed to the Doctor and followed him around the house. This mad man might have been weird when it came to the contents of their porch, but he was pretty cool.
Nicole made them tea, bustling them into the living room where they sat, sprawling out over the furniture. Nicole hugged her mug protectively while Amy sipped at hers carefully. The Doctor, always the Doctor, ignored the tea in favour of looking around.
"Barely changed the place," the Doctor remarked.
"At first I couldn't," Nicole said quietly. "This was my home, the family home... Then when Peter, my Peter was born it was his home. Then Sarah's and... well... It'll change as they grow, same way it changed as I was growing up. Things change in their own time," she said pointedly, looking at the Doctor.
"How did you know?" he asked.
"The tie," Nicole said. "Mum told me that if a man in a bow tie turned up then I should play nice. She meant you. But then I told you that already."
"Him and that bow tie," Amy muttered into her tea.
The Doctor sighed and rolled his eyes. "Someone I know, a very good friend of mine, told me that they were nice. Cool even. She made her husband wear one on their wedding day."
Amy rolled her eyes and in doing so she caught sight of Nicole and Scott's wedding photo. Then her gaze snapped back to Nicole.
"I can't believe you remembered," she said, "and I certainly can't believe you actually chose one."
"I like it!" he said, tugging at it.
Amy caught Nicole's gaze and silently blamed her before the women burst into giggles.
She insisted they stay for dinner – after all they'd come for a reason. Deep down she knew that he'd probably been aiming to see her mother but there was a part of her that was so glad to see him. And she was slowly figuring out why that was.
Amy watched, amazed, as Nicole deftly wrangled two young children and got them sat down for their tea without killing each other, while simultaneously preparing something for the adults. Young Peter and Sarah, namesakes of their grandparents, were bursting with life and excitement and Amy was struggling to make sense of it all.
Then the baby started to cry.
Scott took over the supervision of the eldest two while his wife disappeared upstairs. She returned with a young girl – not a baby after all.
"And this," Nicole said, balancing the child on her hip, "is Amelia."
Amy's eyes widened. Nicole's third child – how had she forgotten?
"What?" Nicole asked, noticing the red head's reaction.
"Go on," the Doctor said to Amy, nudging her gently. "Why don't you hold her?"
"Is that allowed?" Amy asked. "I mean, in all those movies bad stuff happens when..."
"She's not you," he said.
"What?" Nicole breathed as the Doctor took her youngest child from her and passed her to his companion.
"Well hello there little one," Amy purred in her lilting accent.
And Nicole froze. "Oh god," she breathed. "You. It was you. You spoke to Mum that day... The flame haired Scot." Then her gaze flicked to the Doctor. "You and her, you..."
He nodded once, briefly, his eyes resting on Amy holding her little namesake. Nicole walked to stand next to him, leaning against him almost unconsciously. And just as unconsciously he put his arm around her and held her close.
The children were in bed, Scott had retreated upstairs to give them space. Even Amy knew to keep her distance and so she sat in the kitchen, listening in while Nicole and the Doctor finally talked.
"I like Amy," Nicole said. "Or is it Amelia?"
"Both," the Doctor replied.
"I told you about her. At Mum's funeral. I told you about the 'flame haired Scot' called Amelia and now here she is."
"Did you go looking for her?"
"Total accident. I destroyed her shed."
"No!" he protested.
"Had to check," Nicole shrugged.
"I met her just after I regenerated. Didn't remember our conversation until... after."
"But you regenerated years ago. Well, for me at least. You saved Luke." She'd been at Scott's that Christmas and when she'd gone home her mother and brother had told her about the near-miss. And they'd all known, deep down, what it meant for that incarnation of the Doctor. "Mum knew, didn't she? She knew that was you – the other you – saying goodbye."
"I'm still me. Him."
"I know that it's just... You're too complicated, you know that?"
"Makes life more interesting."
"So you didn't go looking for her, for Amy, because of what I said?"
"No," he said. "I destroyed her shed, accidentally, when she was eight. Came back a few hours later, or so I thought, and it's... quite a few years later. Then it was another two years before I finally got her to come with me."
"She must have been something for you to have kept going back to see her," Nicole said with a hint of sadness.
"She is," he grinned, missing Nic's point entirely. "And you know that."
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her, so I guess..." Nicole looked up, fixing her eyes on the Doctor's. "You came looking for Mum, didn't you?" she finally asked.
He nodded. "I meant to show Amy that everything was going to be OK. She was so mad at me when I told her that Sarah... what she did, for you. To save you. She couldn't understand why I would let my friend, my best friend, start off on a path that would kill her."
"Why did you?" Nicole asked.
"Because she wanted you. She loved your dad so much and she wanted you. And Sarah? Oh she was meant to be a mum. Having Luke in her life showed her that. And what an amazing mum she was. She fought for you, she loved you, and more than that... she was home for you every night. She helped you with homework and she held you when you cried and she hugged you when you laughed. She loved you unconditionally and..."
"And she gave her life for me," Nic finished. "The second I held Peter I understood that. The second I held him I knew I would give my life for him in a heartbeat without a another thought, not a hint of hesitation. So of course Mum did it for me."
She stopped and looked up at him. "Is this it then? You're going to leave and...?"
"And what?" he asked.
"Nothing, it doesn't matter."
"No, I get it. It was Mum, it was always Mum. I mean... you and her? You had something amazing. Something fantastic. So of course you were..."
"So what?" he interrupted. "You think...? You think that I don't care about you? You are your mother's daughter. I loved your mother, Nicole... How can I not...?"
Nicole let out a laugh of relief. "I haven't seen you since Mum's funeral. Almost eight years. I thought you... I thought I was never going to see you again. You kept going back to Amy but you never once came to see me or Mum or Luke..."
"I thought you all wanted me out of your lives."
"Mum was angry, but I told you that she forgave you. We all did."
"Maybe," he said quietly.
"Did you ever forgive yourself?" Nicole asked. "It wasn't your fault."
"If I'd just stayed away..."
"Then I wouldn't be here," she challenged, "and even if that had worked then Dad wouldn't have died and the Trickster would have taken the Earth. God knows what would have happened. He knew that and he made the choice. You don't get to be the martyr on this one, Doctor. You don't even get to be the bad guy.
"We all missed you. Mum especially. And now... what? This is my goodbye? Wave you off and I don't see you again?"
"Do you want that?" he asked.
"No," Nicole blurted out. "And not because of what you were to Mum. Because of everything you are to this family. You've been a bedtime story to my kids – the man from the stars who saves us all. We've told them about all the things you and Mum did, and now they've met you and you're real to them... You're a link to the grandparents they never knew. Mum, Dad, even Harry..."
"So you want me to stick around? Call in from time to time?"
"You're a very big part of the reason they're here. So yes. You owe it to them."
"How?" he asked in bemusement.
"I don't know," she replied. "Just think of yourself as... as their godfather or something."
"Your mum was one of my best friends," he said. "You don't get rid of me that easily. If you want me around then I will be. But for the record... I never left. I couldn't. I watched and I checked in on you guys. I owe it to Sarah to make sure you're all OK, to be here for you."
"Good," she smiled in return. Then it dropped. "What about being there for Mum? You were there when she died. When she... But you haven't been there yet, have you?"
The smile remained in place on the Doctor's face but it wasn't real any more.
"You've been putting it off."
"You are your mother's daughter alright," he said. "She knew me far too well."
"No, it's just... I'd be putting it off too."
"I know that one day..."
"Something Mum taught me is that you need to face up to what is going to happen. She was meant to lose Dad, she was meant to die to save me. Took me a while to figure that out but I got there in the end. And you're meant to be there for her."
"There's no rush though..." he began, but stopped when she got up. She picked up a photo from the mantelpiece and held it out to him.
"That's the photo Mum had with her," she said, looking at the picture of the five of them; her, Scott and their three children. When she'd seen it on the digital camera display she'd had to fight the urge to be sick knowing that things were coming full circle.
"Still..." he started, but quickly stopped.
"Do you even know what today is?" Nicole asked. Then she laughed. "You were aiming for me aged seven, not Peter aged seven. Of course you don't.
"Peter was born three months, two weeks and five days after Mum died. In three months, two weeks and five days he turns eight. Eight years ago today..."
"Sarah died," the Doctor finished. "She knew."
Taking a deep breath Nicole fixed her eyes on his. "And she's going to take you to Mum next."
"It's just... hard. Saying goodbye."
"I know," she smiled. "When you leave here, Mum's really gone. It's like... all this time... Because you'd not gone there, been with her that last day, it was like she still had a future. But now she's really gone. She's just in our past and we can't get her back."
"I don't have to..."
"Yes," she said sadly, "you do."
He nodded – he knew she was right.
Wrapping her jacket around her to ward off the cold, Nicole walked out with the Doctor and Amy, a promise of much contact over the coming years and not just with her. Nicole stood outside, looking at the doors.
"It's changed," she remarked, her hands running down the seemingly wooden door.
"Wanna see?" he offered.
He held the door for her as Nicole stepped inside. The TARDIS hummed and Nicole laughed as she felt her. "Hey there girl," she whispered softly. "I believe you and Mum were good friends."
"Fancy a trip?" the Doctor offered as he bounded past her to the console.
"I've heard the stories, Doctor. You dropped Mum off in Aberdeen in 1981, miles and years away from where you picked her up."
"You were late coming back for me," Amy added.
"I have three children and a husband who puts up with me for some reason. I have Mr Smith and K9 constantly sniping at each other, and my kid brother is getting married next month."
"That's Luke, right?" Amy checked.
"Yeah," she smiled. "I have a life here, Doctor. So thank you for the offer but... I have enough adventure as it is. Besides," she added, running a hand along the nearest surface, feeling the warmth and vibrations follow her fingertips, "you have somewhere to be."
The Doctor walked down to her, enveloping Nicole in a hug. She listened to the thud-thud of the double heartbeat for a moment before turning on her heel and walking out, turning only to look back at the last moment.
Scott wrapped his arms around her waist, kissing the side of her neck.
"Mum's gone," she said quietly. "I know it's been eight years but... she's really gone now."
"No she's not," he said. "She's you and she's in Sarah and Amelia. Don't know if you've noticed it but you and those girls... I can't get away from my mother-in-law even now," he laughed and kissed the side of her neck again. "Come on, you'll catch your death out here."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Got to make Peter and Sarah's lunch for tomorrow and did you make that appointment with the nurse for Amelia's jabs?" When Scott hesitated she smiled. "And when I've done looking after our kids how about I follow up on that report Mr Smith gave us about the fleet of ships heading our way? I mean they may not be trouble but if I get a moment I might get to save the world?" she quipped.
Scott laughed and followed her back into their home.