Who's turned us around like this, so that whatever we do, we always have the look of someone going away? Just as a man on the last hill showing him his whole valley one last time, turns, and stops, and lingers -- so we live, and are forever leaving.
-- Rainer Maria Rilke
If you ask him to recall his favorite memory of Sarah Jane, he won't sigh initially, like so many do, when asked to dredge sunken ships from the unrelenting seas of their mind. He will pause, though, maybe parting his lips with wandering thought, brushing a pointer finger once at his temple, as if to pull a memory -- so lost in the multitude of memories -- from his North Sea, holding it like a photograph, and reading it and learning it as though it were a map and Sarah was just waiting in some abandoned lighthouse, indignant about the weather and the chill and the promises he'd never kept.
Memories, he might tell you, are just stars holding their breath -- some are actually supernovas, the closer you get, and all of them will disappear. But right before they go, the memories, like stars, burn brightest, pushing forward through the retina and playing out like grainy archival footage one last time. Even he marvels at how philosophical he's become, but this is his last regeneration, and now he's feeling edges, so he tires of restraint occasionally, choosing to flirt the lines between sentimentality and reticence.
It might bother him that his favorite memory of Sarah Jane is the one burning brightly, anticipating its end. It might bother him, because he is so old, and most of his thought cinema is now just stardust -- he doubts he has any more memories of her left to pull. It makes him think, briefly, that maybe his favorite memory of her has already flickered out, and that the one he will tell you of is just his favorite by default.
But as he describes it for you, he knows it's the one he tucked away long ago, with the moniker, never to be forgotten, though it will -- just not yet.
The memory, he says -- his lips parting again for the telling -- will make you wish you knew her, but don't say that, because you never can, and we mustn't dwell on absent friends. He won't look at you, because he's trying to find her again, to remember her face as he relates it. Then, maybe, he's got the hue of her eyes on his periphery and he smiles and the memory, he says, goes like this:
They landed on Rillusa in the middle of a fierce rainstorm. Lightning flashes illuminated the flat coastline in the distance, and thunder rumbles were muffled in the ugly clouds above.
"Doctor, you're improving -- after all, you did say we'd get wet," Sarah had shouted over the rain, quickly grabbing an oversized coat from the TARDIS.
The Doctor glared at her, pursing his lips as he threaded his fingers through hers and pulled her along. The rain was easing to a constant, but gentler fall, allowing Sarah to pull the hood back and enjoy the feel of the drops against her head.
"You're getting wet," he said to her, observing her darkening, clumped strands of hair.
"I had noticed," she retorted, closing her eyes for a minute and stopping in her tracks to absorb the precipitation further.
Mad creatures, these humans, the Doctor thought, but smiled in spite of himself as Sarah reopened her eyes and returned his merriment.
"I miss this about Earth, leave me to enjoy it," Sarah declared, pulling on the Doctor's hand to urge him onward again.
"I doubt very much that you get a rain quite like this on Earth, Sarah Jane," he smirked knowingly, tucking a secret into that expansive brain of his that he would entice her with, but likely not reveal so easily.
"How do you mean?" she squinted at him.
"If I'm right, and I usually am, you'll see for yourself just what I mean before we leave this planet."
"And I've just got to accept that ambiguity."
"A little mystery never hurt anyone. Besides, it's much better seen than heard of."
Sarah shrugged, stopping abruptly as the Doctor tugged his hand away from hers, putting it out to halt her movement. He stepped forward to peer over the side of the cliff they'd reached, then turned around to face her again, smiling broadly.
"The village is below -- magnificent food, very friendly. But the descent is a bit...unorthodox."
She brushed the wet hair clinging to her cheeks back from her eyes, watching him intently, and waiting for further instruction.
Upon their descent, it was still raining when they reached the village of huts, and wet clothing added unwanted chill to Sarah's body, so she wrapped her arms around herself. The Doctor put his arm across her shoulders, pulling her against him as he led her to the village.
An older woman, wearing a long-sleeved leather shirt and leather pants, approached them. Her face was instantly friendly, and she put out a hand to the Doctor, whom she recognized.
"Hello there, Myra. This is Sarah Jane Smith, my best friend. I intended to take her swimming, but we landed here, and I recall the only moisture your planet collects is that which falls from the sky," he pointed upwards, smiling wildly.
"Aye, yes, quite right -- we do get a lot of rainfall here. Would you like to change your clothes and dry off? We've a large campfire started just beyond that hut there if you'd like to warm up."
"Sounds lovely," Sarah supplied, letting the Doctor's hand lead her to an empty hut where a change of clothes had been folded and placed for her to use. She quickly donned the soft fabric, walking outside again to meet the Doctor, who had changed his clothes as well, except for his scarf, which he held in his hand and handed to her.
"I've just spoken with Myra again. They need some extra firewood and heyla berries for the delicious pastries they'll be serving us tonight, so I'll be collecting some for them. Dry this off for me, won't you?"
Sarah took the scarf, glancing at him skeptically for just a moment.
He sensed her unspoken question, "These people are friendly, I've been here before. They love to meet outsiders, just work your human charm on them."
He winked and his fingers lingered over her knuckles as she took the scarf, sharing a smile with him as he turned away from her to complete his task. Sarah looked beyond, noticing the fire Myra had described, and walked towards it.
The Doctor didn't venture far beyond the campfire to gather the wood and berries, relishing the activity for its simplicity, though he knew he'd deliberate over the quality of each berry as he picked it from its stem. As it was, Sarah took a seat beside a man who gestured for her to join him. The Doctor watched her spread the scarf across her lap, then turn her eyes to the flickering firelight, as he went about his task of gathering wood, not helping that he could overhear the conversation which arose.
"You came with the Doctor?" the man asked, the firelight illuminating the abundant curiosity in his eyes.
"Yes, we travel together. We were supposed to go swimming," Sarah mumbled.
"Well, you are wet."
"Just what I said. Can't stay mad, anyway, not with him," she smiled to herself, smoothing her hand over the scarf.
"But you had to slide down the waterfall from the cliff to get here -- I saw you. You weren't frightened?"
"I wasn't completely without fear -- I've sort of had a fear of heights ever since I was dangled from a rocket on a planet called Skaro. But...I trust the Doctor -- he said he would catch me, and he did. Just as I knew he would."
The Doctor smiled to himself, warmth overriding the dampness infiltrating his changed clothes, consequence of a still-drizzling rain.
"I remember when the Doctor came to our village the last time -- I was just a boy then. He had someone else with him, a woman, if I recall. What happened to her?"
"Well, I don't know for certain, but he must've taken her home, I'm sure."
"Do you think she wanted to leave?"
He saw Sarah pick at the tassels of the scarf, running the thread between her fingers.
"I suppose it's different for everyone."
"He's regenerated, I see."
"All teeth and curls now. Rather mad, too, but I wouldn't have him any other way."
"You're fond of him, then?"
When she paused, he looked up to see her inch a bit closer to the fire. Then she looked around, as if trying to affirm she was only admitting this to the man beside her, as though she wanted the Doctor not to know.
"Terribly," she almost sighed, and the Doctor took a deep breath. He didn't know what to do with words sometimes.
The firewood sat in a pile, so he turned to the bush with heyla berries, picking them as Sarah and the man continued their conversation.
"And you're his best friend, I heard him say."
"I am that," she was immodest in her confirmation, causing the Doctor to smile.
"So would he ever leave you?"
There was a pause again, and even the Doctor stopped for a second before picking another berry.
"He's a Time Lord. He doesn't really...leave anyone, so much as...well, he lives much longer than the people he usually travels with. And he hates goodbyes."
"Well, it makes sense to me -- he wants to depart before he has to say a goodbye that hurts too much."
"Something like that. And I think -- when you say 'leave,' it means you move on and forget the people you've met, and who they were to you. But I don't think the Doctor ever forgets, or ever stops missing anyone."
"How do you know?"
The Doctor put the last of the berries in the barrel, standing up to watch Sarah as she put her chin in her hand, staring distantly beyond the fire.
"There are things you just have to believe about someone. Otherwise, you wouldn't ever be able to let them go."
The Doctor's breath caught, and he knew Sarah would never know that what she'd just said was exactly what he'd felt about so many of his friends these long years. Every time he left a companion behind, or they left him, he believed it was the best thing, believed they were safer, and would live happier, more enriching lives. And even if it wasn't true, he never considered anything else. He believed it, and that's how he continued.
And they were sharing an immutable loneliness, in that instant, bridging the divide of centuries and disparate DNA to make them, simply, two creatures with heartbeats and constant breaths and uncertain futures that would ultimately see them apart, clinging to moments anchoring them to days when they were never so lonely.
He stepped from the trees to give the provisions to Myra, then joined Sarah around the campfire.
Some time later, as darkness dissolved the last traces of sunlight, both the Doctor and Sarah felt a vibration beneath them. Sarah looked up at the rain, which had begun to fall heavier -- its steady downfall creating rhythm with the wet ground -- and then they heard it: melodic humming. It was ethereal, transcendent even, increasing in volume and growing more beautiful with each note
And the rain itself became a golden, dancing light, encircling Sarah in a suspended waterfall, with no beginning and no end. She could see through the cascade outwards, watching the Doctor as the rain continued to fall on him -- but she was within the rain in this moment, so it wasn't wetting her at all, but welcoming her into a natural symphony of melody and luminance and raindrops. The light grew so bright around her, she shut her eyes for a moment.
But it was warm and singing, carrying her beyond the boundaries of human existence, making her almost, the Doctor thought, timeless -- untouched, for just a moment, by anything mortal. Few things had ever been quite as beautiful to him as this sight -- and few things would ever be, centuries hence.
Eventually, the light faded, the waterfall disappeared from around Sarah, and the melody stopped. There was only the familiar sound of the raindrops themselves, and Sarah was getting wet again. He handed her a tunic they'd been given, draping it over her shoulders as she pulled it around her head.
"Doctor -- the rain was singing."
"Quite talented, isn't it?"
She hit his knee in amusement.
"You've ruined me for Earth rain permanently now. Every time I see it, I'll think of this."
"That's not bad at all, is it?"
She smiled, and he brushed a wet strand of hair away from her eyes.
Leaning closer to the fire, she asked of him, "What was that, anyway, that sort of suspended waterfall?"
The Doctor steepled his fingers, thinking of Sarah Jane Smith and the light that danced around her -- hoping to sear it into his long memory to survive the drought of age.
"Every twilight, the rain sings its own song...and chooses one being to illuminate, and warm for an instant -- to share with; a being with a kind soul and noble heart."
"Rather flattering. But if that happens every twilight, it's not so special to be chosen, is it? I mean, there's not exactly an abundant population here."
"It seeks to choose a being, Sarah -- it hasn't actually chosen one for many, many years. You're the first in a long time."
It was rare to be chosen -- the villagers had told him that the rain usually danced around inanimate objects: trees, huts, rocks. It had been so long since a person had been within the circle of light that the occurrence had nearly been likened to myth. He knew, more than Sarah could, what it meant for her to be chosen, just as he'd known she would be. And it made him love her more.
But then, he did only travel with the best, and that meant many, many things. He thought of his past companions, and the ones yet to come -- how many would have been chosen by the rain, to glow? Sarah Jane, he'd always known, was just special enough to be hugged by water on a planet far from Earth.
And that is the memory, he tells you -- the one that survives.
But maybe the first thing he ever understood about humans was their impermanence.
He wishes often now that he could speak with ghosts. But you can't ever relive memories exactly, and if he saw Sarah's ghost, maybe she'd be different somehow -- green eyes, braided hair, perhaps, maybe a different voice, and maybe she wouldn't be his best friend anymore, might just smile briefly and wave and live a life he knows nothing of. And that would be worse, he thinks, then just knowing she existed.
He does wish he hadn't spent so many years keeping the light of her memory so dim he wouldn't even consider her ending.
He wishes, in fact, that he knew how to fathom endings, because he mostly likes to just pretend that the people he loves are continuing beyond him, somewhere, if even on another plane entirely. But that logic doesn't mend.
And so he tells you now, because he's never told anyone:
Sarah Jane is dead.
He often thinks he misses her most. And maybe he shouldn't. He wishes -- his last wish -- that he wouldn't miss so many people. Because it used to be that he surveyed the cosmos as limitless, each star a bridge to discovery and infinity.
Now, when he looks up, he sees all the holes where stars (his stars) should be.
And Sarah? Which star was she? you might ask.
Maybe he's a little sad when he says that it's darker now, your Earth -- haven't you noticed?
Now you know why.