Ace walked into the console room of the TARDIS and immediately noticed two things. One, the time rotor moving gradually up and down, indicating flight and two, there was a lot of banging coming from underneath the console. 'Hey Professor,' she paused as she saw two pairs of legs sticking out opposite sides of the console. 'Oy, what are you two working on? And where are we going?'
'We're not in flight, Ace,' the Doctor's voice called out.
Sarah was first to crawl out from under the console. She wiped her hands on her jeans absently. 'I think we've about fixed that Gulag oscillator.' She looked as Ace pointed at the moving time rotor. Alarm crossed her face as she began frantically pushing buttons on the console. 'Doctor! Ace is right, we're in flight!'
'Not possible, Sarah,' the Doctor's voice came through still muffled.
The entire room shuddered, causing Sarah and Ace and grab the console for support. Sarah watched as the time rotor stopped. She walked over to the scanner and quickly turned it on, then faced the viewscreen, looking outside. She immediately recognised the terrain. 'Doctor, we've landed.'
He popped up beside her, a frown deeply set on his face. 'That's wrong, very wrong.' He looked up at the viewscreen, then spun around to begin looking at various readings, walking around the entire perimeter of the console.
'I don't like it,' Sarah admitted as she turned to look at the Doctor. 'We were supposed to stay put in the attic.'
'Apparently the TARDIS had other ideas. Besides, it's not the first time she's taken us where we needed to go instead of where we wanted to,' the Doctor said as he looked over to Sarah. 'At least she's consistent.'
'But is it safe?' Ace asked, gesturing towards the image on the screen.
Sarah didn't need to look at the readings, but turned to verify them, including looking at the chronometer stamp. 'It is,' she said softly. 'We shouldn't be here.'
The Doctor ducked under the console again, then shouted up at Sarah. 'Sarah, did you set the randium stabiliser? You do know what could happen if that stabiliser wasn't functioning properly at the precise moment of materialisation?'
Sarah crossed her arms and raised her voice enough for him to hear her. 'Yes I do, and of course I set it. I'm not an amateur, Doctor. I have been doing this a long time now. I'm not the one that threw the take-off switch.'
'Neither did I.' He popped up again, then suddenly stopped moving, closed his eyes and tilted his head as if listening. Opening his eyes, he pointed his finger at Sarah. 'I know what's going on here, Sarah.'
Sarah threw her hands up in frustration. 'Well don't blame me, I didn't input any coordinates in the first place. You probably got your numbers crossed again. You are good at that, you know.'
He gestured wildly to the controls around them. 'You were the one nearest the spatial directional keys when we were working on the console.'
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. 'Do you think I'm still just that journalist looking for a good story? I've changed over the years and worked on the TARDIS more times than I care to count helping you. I would remember hitting the directional keys.'
Ace watched the two of them go back and forth before clearing her throat loudly. 'How long are you two going to bicker like an old married couple?'
'What?' Sarah asked.
'You're going back and forth like parents. Bickering parents,' Ace continued until she got identical glares from both the Doctor and Sarah.
The Doctor pointed a finger at Ace. 'No.'
'We are not,' Sarah replied, her voice harsh.
'Definitely like parents,' she whispered under her breath.
The Doctor then glanced over to Sarah and gave her the smallest smile. 'Although, it's not like we've not both been parents before.'
'Not together,' she fired back.
He waved his hands around absently. 'A minor technicality.'
Sarah turned her glare towards him. 'Doctor!' her tone warned him against further comment.
Ace scrunched up her nose. 'Sarah travelled with you, you said, but I'm thinking you two have something more going on.'
The Doctor caught Sarah's wary eye and changed topics. 'I think we should check out where we landed, don't you, Ace?'
'Sure, I suppose,' Ace shrugged as she looked at the reddish tinge of the planet outside. An idea occurred to her. 'Hey, Professor, I've been meaning to try out the new fuses on my latest cans of Nitro, can I do it here?'
'It's as good a place as any.' He studied the readings on the console, then looked over to Sarah. 'Nice and deserted.' He nodded back towards the interior rooms. 'Go on, get your rucksack.'
'Ace!' she pumped her fist in the air. 'Thanks Professor!' As Ace disappeared through the interior door, the Doctor stepped closer to Sarah.
'Do what you need to do, Sarah,' he whispered cryptically. Sarah just tilted her head in response, but before she could say anything, Ace quickly reappeared, rucksack slung over her shoulder and a broad grin on her face.
'Well, come on.' The Doctor opened the door and ushered Ace outside before glancing back towards Sarah, noticing she hadn't moved from her spot by the console. 'Coming, Sarah?' he called over his shoulder, knowing her answer even before he asked.
Sarah took a deep breath. 'Yes, give me a minute and I'll catch you up.' She looked at her watch, then looked at the readings on the console. 'This is going to be interesting,' she muttered.
Sarah exited the TARDIS, shutting the door behind her, as the Doctor and Ace headed off in one direction, not paying much attention to whether or not she was following. She took in her surroundings and looked up at the sky, gauging her position. 'Wasteland of the Crimson Heart,' she whispered. Once Ace and the Doctor were out of sight, Sarah headed off in the opposite direction. She quickly made her way over the ridge and saw exactly what she expected.
Bits and pieces of equipment cluttered the landscape, but Sarah focused on the figure sitting in the dirt. The newest Doctor with the bow tie and tweed jacket sat in the middle of the wreckage trying to fasten two wires together. Sarah walked up behind him, knowing her boots were crunching loudly on the terrain, but his concentration didn't break. She pulled her sonic lipstick out of her pocket and reached around to hold it in front of his face. 'Will this help, Doctor?'
He looked up and smiled. 'Perfect, thanks Smith.' He reached up for the sonic, but then realised. He stood and whirled around all in one motion, a large grin plastered to his face. 'Sarah Jane!' He picked her up and spun her around before setting her down and holding her at arms length. 'You recognised me!' He gleefully leant forward and kissed her forehead.
Sarah smiled, but it didn't go to her eyes. 'Doctor, we have a problem.'
'Yes, we do. This group called the Shansheeth nicked the TARDIS and I'm stuck here.' He looked at her as she just raised an eyebrow. 'Which brings up a point, how did you get here?'
'Think back,' Sarah replied softly.
The Doctor's face struggled, his eyes narrowing as he concentrated until realisation hit. 'Oh,' he drew the word out. 'That's bad, isn't it?'
'I thought so, as soon as I recognised this place.'
He frowned. 'Knowing that version of me like I do, since I was once him after all, I remember suspecting that there's another me about. I'm pretty sensitive like that, although it varies from face to face.' He waved his hands about. 'A nice wibbly-wobbly ball. Or something to that effect.'
'You're right, given what you said to me back in the TARDIS. You already knew I needed to take care of something. But, at least you're not in the same place?' Sarah offered, but the Doctor only shook his head in return. 'Ah, well, not much I can do about it now, is there Doctor?' She took a deep breath as she looked around. 'You know the Shansheeth are telling people you're dead. Unfortunately, I can't stay very long or the other you will come looking for me.'
'I appear to be stuck then.'
Ace dug in her rucksack and pulled out two cans of Nitro 9. She looked over her shoulder where the Doctor was sitting on a large rock, his chin resting on the question mark handle of his umbrella. He definitely appeared lost in thought. 'I thought Sarah Jane was coming?'
The Doctor looked up absently. 'Hmmm?'
'What about her?' He stood and walked towards Ace, crouching down to inspect the cans of Nitro. He picked up a spare fuse and began to examine it intently.
Ace sat back on her thighs, folded her arms and stared at the Doctor, her explosives temporary forgotten. 'Professor, if I didn't know better...' She dropped off, not really wanting to say what when through her mind. 'Who is she, really?'
He snapped to attention. 'I told you, she's my friend. She used to travel with me.'
'And?' Ace prompted.
'There is no and.'
Ace reached out and put a hand on his arm. 'She's very important to you, isn't she?'
He sighed, putting down the fuse before tweaking Ace's nose, giving her a small smile. 'Just like all of my companions, Ace.'
'I've never seen you look at anyone the way you look at her,' Ace's voice lowered.
'How's that, hmm?'
She shrugged her shoulders. 'It's just different. I know how you are with me, and saw how you were with Mel. But with Sarah Jane, it's like it was something more, something you lost and now you're trying to get it back.'
The Doctor looked into her eyes, a dark look flashing across his face that Ace couldn't quite place as he changed topics. He picked up one of the cans of Nitro. 'So, about those new fuses, what adjustments have you made on perfecting the timing?'
Ace gave him a blank look, but understood. He was done discussing Sarah. She turned back to her explosives, a plan forming in her mind.
Sarah shook her head as the Doctor walked away from her. 'Well, you're not stuck, not really. Remember that Clyde has a lot of Artron energy surging through him. What about finding a way to key into it?'
'It's not that easy, Sarah.' The Doctor sat down on a rock and gestured for Sarah to sit beside him. 'When the Shansheeth nicked the TARDIS, my sonic was inside, and to make any transfer with Clyde permanent, I need it. Or your lipstick.' He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and resting his chin in his hands. ' Figures. Just when I need you, you can't stay because you're with me.' He began to mumble. 'Never thought I'd be jealous of myself. Especially that version of me.' He gestured towards the ridge in front of them. 'That's a ridiculous jumper I'm wearing, by the way.'
She nudged his shoulder playfully. 'Says the man in the bow tie.'
'Hey, bow ties are cool,' the Doctor reached up and played with his tie. 'You always seemed to like them when I wore velvet.'
'Of course. And despite my comments to the contrary, I liked the scarf too.' Sarah laughed. 'I've tried to never judge your fashion sense, Doctor. You are who you are.'
'Timelines are strange things, Smith. They bend and twist when you least expect it. When I saw you at the school, it had been such a long time, even from my perspective. Yet now, this time we're spending together, you and me, or you with him, the other me, it feels so fresh, so right now. Each moment is so vibrant. I know how this started, how it continues.' He looked at her, his eyes boring into hers. 'How it ends. Again.'
She threw her hands up in the air. 'I don't want to know.'
'It has to, you know. I have to go on, so I can see you again in the past.' He sighed, sadness crossing his face. 'It's not fair.'
Sarah looked at his expression. It was impossible to quantify it as anything other than a pout. She reached out and took his hand in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. 'When did fair ever factor into our relationship? Now, you know how and when to find me, and where to find me. Jo and I were at your funeral at the UNIT base under Mount Snowdon.'
The Doctor smiled. 'Jo Grant?'
Sarah took a deep breath. 'Did you really look in on all of your companions during your last regeneration?' He gave her an odd look, so she continued. 'All you've ever travelled with?'
'I wanted to, for once. I usually regenerate and don't look back, but this time, it was different. I needed to ground myself somehow. Unfortunately, the radiation wore me out faster than I expected. You were one of the last ones I saw.'
'Radiation again.' Sarah reached up and put her arm around the Doctor's shoulders. 'Oh Doctor. I suspected from the look on your face that's what was happening. Who was with you?'
He looked down at the ground. 'No one,' he whispered.
Tears immediately sprang to her eyes as she rested her head against his shoulder. 'I'm so sorry. If I'd known, I would've stayed with you.'
He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close to his side. 'You couldn't. Too dangerous. Literally explosive.' He turned to her and smiled. 'Boom!'
She returned his smile and shook her head before taking a deep breath. 'Then I have to tell you something that will save you more explanations later.'
'Are you bending the laws of time, Smith?' the Doctor asked with a laugh.
'I learned from the best! You have to tell Jo that you did, check on all of us, that is. She has seven kids, thirteenth grandchild on the way and she sailed down the Yangtze in a tea chest.'
'And I really need to know this?'
Sarah turned to look at him, her expression serious. 'You need to tell her. She needs to think you didn't abandon her.'
The Doctor jumped up. 'I didn't abandon her, Sarah. I don't make a habit of dropping off my companions in the middle of nowhere. Or Aberdeen.' Guilt washed over his features. 'A mistake on my part, purely accidental given the emotions raging through me at the time, of course, but I'll deny that if you ever ask.'
Sarah smiled and shook her head. 'Let it go, Doctor, we're so far beyond that now.'
He nodded. 'Good. Because I still haven't quite forgiven myself for that one yet. Now, as for Jo, it was her choice. She left me to get married.'
'And you were jealous.'
'Was not,' he quickly denied.
Sarah stood up and walked over to him, putting a hand on his arm. 'I heard what the men at UNIT said when they thought I wasn't nearby. They talked about how close you were, and even called me her replacement.'
He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. 'You're no one's replacement, Sarah Jane Smith. Never in a million lifetimes.'
A large explosion echoed nearby. The Doctor started laughing, even as he continued to hold Sarah close. 'Let me guess. Ace and her Nitro 9.'
'She was trying out some new fuses apparently.' Sarah pulled back and looked up into the Doctor's eyes. 'Doctor, I have to go now and get back to you, but I'll see this you soon and not so long ago.'
'I'm looking forward to it and remember it fondly.' The Doctor leaned forward and kissed her forehead. 'Thank you, my Sarah Jane.'
Sarah made her way back to the TARDIS, and was leaning against the door when the Doctor and Ace headed back in her direction. She smiled as she saw Ace carrying the Doctor's umbrella and the Doctor having slung Ace's bag over his shoulder. 'Have fun?' she asked with a smile.
'The timing on Ace's fuses still needs a wee bit of work,' the Doctor admitted as he brushed some dust off of his jacket and traded Ace's bag for his umbrella.
'I thought you were going to be right behind us,' Ace said, a hint of disappointment in her voice because Sarah hadn't seen her latest project.
'I had a few things to take care of.'
The Doctor ushered Ace into the TARDIS first, then turned to Sarah. 'And how was I?' Seeing her quickly hide her expression of shock, he reached up and caressed her cheek before leaning in and lightly kissing her opposite cheek. 'Thank you for keeping the timelines in check, Sarah.' When Sarah only nodded, the Doctor smiled. 'I can still read you like a book.'
He entered the TARDIS as Sarah called after him, then followed. 'You can not!'
'I absolutely can. I've been in your head too much, Sarah Jane, so reading a mere expression is child's play.' He turned to her and grinned before focusing on the console and inputting coordinates. He waited a moment before looking up and winking. 'You love it, admit it.'
Sarah crossed her arms, but smiled, unable to be aggravated at him for very long. 'Your ego certainly hasn't improved any in this regeneration. Just as large as it ever was.'
Ace sighed as she headed towards the interior door. 'Here we go again.'
Sarah stood back from the console and rubbed her eyes. 'Doctor?' Only a grunt from underneath the console answered her. She couldn't stop herself from yawning. 'Doctor, it's been thirteen hours.'
His voice was mumbled. 'These things take time, Sarah, you know that.'
'Well my poor human eyes need a break.' A loud bang echoed from underneath the console, followed by a puff of smoke. Sarah quickly knelt back down and stuck her head under the console. 'You all right?'
'If you don't need anything, I'm going to take a bit of a break.'
'Good, yes, fine.'
'Some things never change.' Sarah stood back up and walked towards the interior door. 'And I think while I'm at it, I might go jump into a nebula.' She smiled to herself, waiting to see if he'd respond.
'Yes, fine, enjoy yourself,' came back the disconnected voice.
Sarah just laughed, shook her head and headed deeper into the TARDIS. A couple minutes later, the Doctor popped up from under the console and looked around. 'Jump into a nebula?' he muttered, a confused look on his face.
In the TARDIS library, Sarah sat on one end of the oversized sofa with her legs tucked up and a book in her hands. She was obviously relaxing as Ace walked in the room. 'Hey, Sarah Jane, can I talk to you?'
'Of course.' Sarah looked up and smiled. 'I thought you'd gone to bed.'
Ace plopped down into the opposite end of the sofa and shrugged. 'Couldn't sleep. Mind works a million miles an hour sometimes, ya know?'
Sarah nodded. 'I do. I find reading helps calm the mind.' She held up her book. 'Case in point.'
'So, you and the Doctor go a long way back, yea?'
Sarah laughed. 'Some days feel longer than others, but yes, you could say that.'
'How long did you travel with him?'
'Time's relative in the TARDIS, of course. I tried keeping track at first, but then I realised it didn't really matter.' Ace watched as Sarah's eyes appeared to zone out, as if she was reliving the memories. A slow but genuine smile crossed her face. After a moment, she softly added, 'I was travelling the universe with my best friend. I never wanted that to end.'
Ace took a deep breath. 'Is that how come you two seem so comfortable with each other?'
'I suppose.' Sarah smiled, her eyes refocusing on Ace. 'What's on your mind, Ace?'
'He's shown me so much, Sarah Jane, but he does like trouble.'
'And always has.' Sarah regarded Ace for a moment. 'So that's nothing new, and it doesn't answer my question. You're worried about something, I can tell.'
Ace stared at her Dr. Martens. 'It's obvious the Doctor cares a lot about you, but I don't want to see him hurt.'
'No, I'm afraid I don't.' Sarah sat back and waited. When Ace didn't say anything else, Sarah continued. 'Ace, whatever else the Doctor and I may be, we're friends, close friends first and foremost. We treasure our time together, however much or little it is, but we know we have to live separate lives. The Doctor's lifespan is so different than ours, Ace. He'll outlive us both by centuries. Whether you want to admit it or not, one day, you'll have to leave him, as I did. I can only hope that it's because it's a choice you made, and not a decision that was forced on you both.'
'I don't think your lives are as separate as you think, Sarah Jane.' Ace ignored Sarah's notion that one day she'd have to leave the TARDIS behind, and kept on her train of thought. 'Or you wouldn't have dropped everything to help him when we showed up.'
'You're very protective of him,' Sarah sighed. 'Which is a good thing, because he needs that sometimes. As for my relationship with him, no matter what, I'll help the Doctor whenever I can, just as I know he would help me. But that extends to any of his friends, because that's how he is. Don't you think he would bend the laws of time and break a hundred rules if you were in trouble?'
Ace shrugged, then looked up at Sarah. 'I guess.'
Sarah saw a trace of doubt in Ace's eyes. 'But you have your doubts. Why?'
'He's had his moments of saying some really ugly stuff, but then said he didn't mean it later. It sticks with you though.' She sighed and went back to staring at her boots.
'Sometimes the best way to protect someone is to hurt them. Or at least appear to hurt them. He's done that to me too.' Sarah regarded Ace for a moment. 'Tell me Ace, when you think of the Doctor, how would you describe your relationship?'
'He's kind of like a father figure, I guess. Pushing me to learn and experience new things and broaden my mind. Or so he says.' Ace wrung her hands together. 'I never had that before.'
'So you weren't close to your parents?' Sarah asked.
'Nah, never knew my dad and would prefer to have never known my mum. She out and out hates me. Haven't spoken to her since I was thirteen.'
'Don't be. I can take care of myself. Always have, always will.'
Sarah reached out and gave Ace's hand a gentle squeeze. 'Of course, but there are times when we can't do it alone. If you ever need anything, I'm here.' Sarah noticed something in Ace's expression while she spoke. There was almost a tear in Ace's eyes. 'Ace?'
'It's nothing.' The tears welled up a little more.
Sarah recognised "nothing" as something from the time she spent with her teens. She slid closer to Ace and wrapped her in a warm, maternal hug. Ace resisted for a second, then her arms flew around Sarah, seeming to hold on for dear life as she began to cry in earnest. 'Hey, it's all right, Ace.' Sarah's words were soothing as she continued to hug Ace. 'Sometimes we all need someone.'
Ace's words were muffled, but Sarah heard them all clearly. 'And sometimes you need a mum's hug.'
Sarah took a deep breath and smiled. 'Yes, yes you do.'
The Doctor walked into the library and wasn't surprised to see Sarah curled up on one end of the overstuffed sofa. Obviously, she'd fallen asleep while reading, given the awkward angle her book was laying across her chest. With a smile, he knelt beside the sofa and eased the book out of Sarah's hands. Placing the book on a nearby table, the Doctor resisted the urge to push the edge of Sarah's hair behind her ear. He straightened, intent on heading back to the console room.
As he got to the doorway, he heard Sarah's sleepy voice call out to him. 'Finished the repairs?'
He turned and walked back towards the sofa, a small smile on his face. 'Not yet, but even I need a break from time to time.' He wiped his hands over his tired eyes, then looked around. 'Where's Ace?'
Sarah sat up and stretched. 'Gone to bed. Can't say I blame her'
He dropped down in the empty spot next to Sarah. 'I didn't mean to interrupt your nap.'
From outside the library, Ace walked towards the doorway, intent on asking Sarah something else, but stopped as soon as she saw Sarah and the Doctor sitting on the sofa. She backed away from the door, making sure to stay out of sight, but close enough so she could hear their conversation.
Sarah smiled at the Doctor. 'I used to be really good at catnapping while in the TARDIS. I guess it's like riding a bike and comes right back to you. Getting a full night's sleep was a luxury I don't seem to remember getting much of when we travelled together.'
The Doctor reached out and wrapped an arm around her. 'Was it that bad?'
Sarah allowed her head to drop back down to rest on the Doctor's shoulder. 'Never. No matter where we went or what happened, I always had this to look forward to.' She looked up and grinned, even as she turned slightly towards him and brought her hand up to rest over one of his hearts. 'You were more likely to interrupt if you thought I was napping rather than if you thought I was really asleep.'
'Perhaps,' he admitted with a laugh, knowing she was right. He reached out and ran his fingers through her hair. 'I have to admit, my Sarah, that this is my favourite part,' he whispered. They sat there in companionable silence for several minutes. The Doctor looked down and could tell by Sarah's even breathing that she'd fallen asleep. He smiled, then turned to place a light kiss on the top of her head before leaning his head so that his cheek was resting against the top of her head. Closing his eyes, a few minutes later, he too was asleep.
Ace peeked around the corner and saw the Doctor and Sarah curled up together, sleeping on the sofa. She smiled knowingly, then turned around and silently headed back to her room.
Sarah stood at the open TARDIS doors, staring out at the stars, a sad smile on her face. She couldn't stop a stray tear from escaping and quickly reached up to brush it away with the back of her hand. She didn't see the Doctor walk into the console room and stand back, watching her for several moments.
'Sarah?' in a quiet voice, he finally announced himself. 'I woke up and you were gone.' He mumbled to himself, 'Used to always be the other way round.'
Sarah didn't hear his last sentence, she was so lost in the starscape on display in front of her. She finally responded at a whisper. 'I never thought I'd see this again. At least not like this.'
The Doctor walked up behind her to hear her words. 'We have all the time in the world to see it now, Sarah.' He reached out and put his hands on her shoulders. As she glanced back to him before resuming her stare outside, he couldn't help but notice the glistening of the tear tracks on her cheeks. 'Hey, what's wrong?'
'I think it's time I went home.'
He turned her around to face him, then reached up to cup her face with his hands, the pads of his thumbs brushing away the remaining tear tracks. 'What? Why?' he whispered.
'I had a chat with Ace earlier that got me thinking. As much as I love being here, travelling the stars again with you, just like all those years ago, the truth is, I have a life back on Earth. A life I can't neglect too long.'
The Doctor moved his hands away from Sarah's face, but stopped to tuck a lock of hair behind one of her ears. 'I know I've made promises in the past that I didn't keep, but I'm not the same man anymore. I can get you home five minutes after we left.'
'What if you can't? I don't want Luke to worry about where I've disappeared off to.'
'You're making excuses.' He took a step back and regarded her, before stepping forward again and rubbing his hands along her upper arms. 'You're right, I never thought you'd be beside me again, exploring the universe.' He pulled her into a warm embrace, allowing himself to inhale the scent of her hair. 'Stay with me, Sarah Jane. Even if just for a little while. I'm not ready to let you go just yet.'
He felt her sigh in his arms. 'Oh Doctor.'
'We can control this, it's our choice this time.'
Sarah finally pulled back, looking him in the eyes. 'Ace is learning so much from you. This is her time to learn and shine. I don't want to get in the way of that.'
The Doctor frowned at her argument. 'Ace can learn from us both. And don't take this the wrong way, but she's never had a mother figure in her life. You could be that for her.'
'That would have to be her call, not mine.'
The TARDIS materialised on the landing of Sarah's attic. The Doctor popped out and looked around, a smile on his lips, but sadness in his eyes. 'Here we are, Bannerman Road.'
Sarah exited the TARDIS and looked around, noting the TARDIS seemed to like this one particular spot, or would like it in the future. 'Indeed.' She looked over to where Mr. Smith was tucked up into his cabinet. 'Mr Smith, I need you.'
With all the normal fanfare, Mr Smith slid out from his normal spot, his panels extending wide. 'How can I help you, Sarah Jane?'
'How long have I been gone? I need to know the date.'
'It's only ten minutes since the TARDIS last departed. It's still 26th January, 2011.'
The Doctor smiled. 'See, I told you I'd get you home on time. Can't have you away from Luke too long now can we?'
Mr Smith interrupted. 'Sarah Jane, given your question about the date, I took the liberty of scanning you. It appears by your cellular levels that you've been away for approximately six months.'
The Doctor walked over and wrapped his hand around Sarah's. 'I made the mistake of missing before. I wasn't going to take a chance on doing that again.'
'Thank you,' Sarah replied softly.
'Wicked!' Ace exclaimed as she walked out of the TARDIS and took a look around. 'I didn't really take a look when we came by before.' She gestured up to Mr Smith. 'Is that a computer?'
'I am a Xylok,' Mr Smith responded.
'An alien? Ace!' She grinned as she continued to examine the contents of the attic. Sarah smiled at Ace's enthusiasm, then turned to the Doctor.
'You do seem to have collected a lot of alien technology, Sarah,' the Doctor admitted as he looked around.
'Just by picking up a piece or two over the years as the opportunity came up. Every little bit helps, especially if that's what ultimately helped you fix the Gulag oscillator.' She leaned into his shoulder playfully. 'I've met some really interesting people along the way.'
'I bet you have.' Ace gave Sarah a knowing grin. 'I'm so looking you up when I get to this time.'
Sarah returned her smile. 'You're always more than welcome here, Ace.'
Ace walked over and wrapped Sarah in a warm hug, whispering in her ear. 'Thanks, Mum.' Ace looked at the Doctor, then made her way back towards the TARDIS. 'I'll let you two say goodbye.' Ace quickly disappeared inside the TARDIS, but then shouted back. 'Make it count, Professor!'
Sarah laughed, even as she ducked her head, a slight blush creeping up her cheeks.
The Doctor walked over and took Sarah's hands in his. 'It doesn't have to be goodbye, Sarah.'
'Oh Doctor, if only that were true. It seems we have so many goodbyes.'
He looked at her hopefully. 'Which means more hellos.'
She smiled, but it didn't go to her eyes. In looking at the Doctor, she realised that she didn't really want to say goodbye, especially never knowing when it would be the final time. 'It has so far, yes.'
'I don't want to leave, Sarah. It doesn't seem right. Not after all this time. Not like this.'
Sarah sighed sadly. 'I know. The last six months have been amazing.'
He reached out and held her face in his hands. He leaned forward to rest his forehead against hers, even as he continued to look in her eyes. This moment alone made him thankful to be shorter in this body, to be so close to her. Reluctantly, he spoke. 'I'll see you again, but I don't know about with these eyes.'
Sarah could feel her heart breaking, not knowing from her perspective whether she'd ever see the Doctor again. She reached up and put her hands along his face, running her thumbs just under his eyes. 'No matter the eyes, it's still you.' In the last six months, she'd gotten used to this face. Her heart ached, knowing some of the pain she'd seen reflected in the eyes of his future self. Pain that was still to come for this version of him. If there was any way she could change it, she would, however she knew better than anyone how fragile the timelines were.
'It's been good though, you me and Ace.'
'Our own bizarre little family?' Sarah asked with a smile. 'It's been great. A little unconventional, but that's par for the course. It works.'
The Doctor tilted his head to kiss her lightly on the lips before wrapping her in a warm hug, burying his face in her hair. After a few minutes, he pulled back only enough to keep his forehead touching Sarah's as he continued to hold her. 'It always works with us, Sarah.'
'So you had a good time, Mum?' Luke asked across Mr Smith's viewscreen.
Sarah nodded, keeping her arms crossed so as not to show her full emotions about this latest adventure. 'It was really nice, actually. Different than before, of course, but nice.'
Luke smiled. 'I'm glad, Mum. You deserve it. I know how close you and the Doctor are.'
'Thanks, Luke. So, anything interesting going on there?'
Luke shrugged, an innocent cheerful smile on his face. 'Pretty much same thing, different day. One of my professors has me working on an experiment involving z-neutrino bursts in a subspace environment.'
Sarah thought for a moment, then remembered where she'd heard the term before. 'Be careful with that Luke. You remember what happened with the Daleks and their planetary alignment field.'
'Don't worry Mum. Anything I find will be fudged enough that they'll never find the true functions. However, I'll give them enough to tease them in the wrong direction for the next thirty or so years.'
Sarah smiled. 'Let me know if you need Mr Smith to help in any way.' The doorbell rang, interrupting them. 'I'd better get that. I'll talk to you later. I love you.'
'Love you too, Mum.'
After disconnecting the call, Sarah made her way downstairs to the door. She opened it up to find a woman in her early thirties wearing dark jeans, a leather jacket and dark glasses standing on the doorstep. 'May I help you?' Sarah asked.
Ace pulled her glasses away from her face and smiled. 'Hello, Mum.'
'Ace!' Sarah quickly wrapped Ace in a warm hug. 'What are you doing here?'
'You said I was welcome anytime, so here I am.' Ace took a step back and grinned. 'I simply had to wait till you got home, well from my perspective anyway. Sixteen years, give or take a time storm or two.'
'Then it's been too long.' Sarah ushered Ace inside and shut the door behind her. 'Come on, let's have some tea and catch up.'
Ace sat her mug down on the table. 'You know, I saw you two together before you left, you and the Doctor. Snuggled up on the sofa in the library,' Ace admitted sheepishly.
Sarah nodded. 'Ah.'
'It certainly didn't look like it was the first time. I know you two swore you were nothing more than friends, but I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now.'
Sarah sipped absently on her tea. 'Is that a fact?'
Ace shook her head with a laugh. 'Yet neither of you will admit it. I just don't get it, Sarah Jane.'
Sarah sighed, not wanting to get into the details of her relationship with the Doctor. It was a topic she always tried to avoid whenever possible. 'Come on, Ace. Did you really wait all that time, then come over here just to ask me about that?'
'No, of course not.' Ace's look turned serious. 'I heard about what happened with the Shansheeth and put it all together with what I remembered from all those years ago. I wish I could've been here to help. I wanted to come right away, but I knew I had to wait until after you got back. Timelines and all, right?'
Sarah nodded, then reached out to give Ace's hand a reassuring squeeze. 'It's what we do.' Sarah thought for a moment. 'How did you hear about the Shansheeth?'
'Sir Alistair might be stuck in Peru, but he manages to hear pretty much anything that goes on where the Doctor is concerned. It didn't surprise me in the slightest to hear that you were there.'
Sarah tilted her head slightly. 'How do you know the Brig? More to the point, how does he know you?'
Ace smiled. 'Met him a long time ago. He was a lot of help when I got back to Earth, getting me re-established and all.'
'Shows what I know. He never mentioned you.'
'I asked him not to, as a precaution.' Ace reached out and picked up her mug of tea, swirling it around before taking a large drink. 'The Shansheeth singled out you, Jo Jones, Liz Shaw and the Brig. Basically the UNIT crew. The rest of us seemed less important. You and Jo especially interested them.'
'Well, Jo worked with the Doctor at UNIT, so that makes sense. And of course I knew UNIT through my association with the Doctor. Colonel Karim merely used that to her advantage.'
'Please,' Ace rolled her eyes. 'We all know of your "association", Sarah Jane. Several of us also know that you've essentially been designated as the Doctor's successor here on Earth.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
Ace smiled. "Means I've been getting some interesting phone calls.' Her look returned to serious again. 'Your work hasn't gone unnoticed, so as your friend and a member of your surrogate family, I wanted to warn you to keep your guard up.'
Sarah frowned. 'Any particular source I should be concerned about?'
'Nothing concrete has come up yet, but I'm starting to hear rumours. A Charitable Earth does more than just what's written on the brochures, Sarah Jane. I may not have my own Mr Smith, but I do hear a lot of rumblings from the odd off-worlders that come through my doors.'
'I'll be careful.'
Ace drank the last of her tea. 'I want you to know that if you need me, I'm here. As you well know, UNIT can't always be trusted, and I have a different sort of loyalty where you're concerned. I know how you and the Doctor would prefer to have weapons as a last resort, but I can provide other sorts of backup.'
Ace laughed. 'Naturally. And a few other cocktails I've cooked up and perfected over the years.'
Sarah joined in laughing with her. 'Don't let Clyde hear you talk like that, you'll have him as a new recruit.'
'Don't worry, Mum, I'm not stealing your companions from you.'
Sarah reached over and squeezed Ace's hand. 'Well, no matter what, we're still family, right?'
Ace smiled. 'Absolutely.'
A whirring noise caused them both to look towards the kitchen door. Sarah jumped up from the table and held her hand up, gesturing for Ace to be quiet. With a nod, Ace stood up and moved behind the door, opposite Sarah.
The door burst open and a head with floppy brown hair popped in, looking around with expressive eyes. 'Ah, there you are, Smith. I was hoping to catch you at home.'
Sarah released the breath she was holding. 'Doctor, you could've just knocked.' She pushed the door open as the Doctor walked casually in.
'I had a spot of bother with the microtransic phase alignment in the dematerialisation circuit, and was hoping you and your marvellous Mr Smith might help me get it back in synch.'
Sarah shook her head. 'You've been leaving the brake on again, haven't you?'
The Doctor reached up to adjust his bow tie, an indignant expression on his face. 'I'll tell you like I told River, I do not leave the brake on.'
'Admit it. You do, and it's gotten harder on the poor TARDIS as the years have gone by.'
Ace cleared her throat from behind the door. Sarah shut the door so the Doctor could see her. 'Dorothy Gale McShane!' the Doctor grinned as he clapped his hands together, an expression of sheer joy on his face. 'How are you, Ace?'
Ace gave the young man with the tweed jacket and bow tie a good once over. 'Professor?' Ace quickly dropped back to her own term of endearment. 'Quite the young face this go round, eh?' She gestured towards him. 'Suits you.' She smiled, 'I see you and Mum are still bickering as always.'
'We are not,' Sarah defended.
'Yes, we are,' the Doctor grinned as he reached out and pulled both Sarah and Ace to him in a warm hug.