It was a pounding on her door, and it was 5 a.m., two things that Sarah firmly believed should never go together. At least the noise hadn't woken Luke yet. She hurried down the stairs, wondering what could be going on and if she should have grabbed K-9 from the attic. Then an unfamiliar voice called out:
"Sarah! Are you there? Is this a good time for you to be there, or am I in the wrong year? Sarah!"
She paused, momentarily too shocked to move. Then with a deep breath, she opened the door. A tall, gangly man stood there, a mad-looking stranger with wild hair and bright, wide eyes. He broke into a cheery smile as soon as he saw her. "Sarah!" he proclaimed with satisfaction, as if he had just conjured her out of a hat. "So this is a good year to find you here after all."
"Doctor?" she asked to be sure, although she already knew. Who else would ask if he was in the correct year, and who else would grin at her like this? Besides, while he appeared young, younger even than the last version of him she had met, there was an air about him that gave away the passage of centuries. "Are you all right?" she asked as he continued to stand on her doorstep, uncharacteristically still. "What are you doing here?"
"Regenerating," he answered. A wisp of golden energy escaped his mouth, then he smiled again.
"Okay," she said, half-worried, half-bemused. "I suppose you'd better come in, then."
"Oh no," he responded, "I’m not here to visit. I'm only here to ask you a question." He paused, as if he had forgotten his train of thought, then, "Aunts!" he proclaimed suddenly, and she took a startled step backwards. "I need to know more about aunts. You have an aunt, right?"
"I have an ant?" she asked. "I don't have any ants that I’m aware of. What sort of ants did you have in mind?"
"The human sort," he replied. "You have no aunt? I thought you had an Aunt Lavinia."
"Ah," said Sarah. "Yes, I did. What do you want to know about her?"
The Doctor swayed a little on his feet, then steadied. "She raised you, correct? Because you have no parents?"
"Yes," Sarah answered. She took a deep breath and reminded herself that he was regenerating, so it wasn't his fault that he was being tactless. Then she remembered that he was often tactless even when he wasn't regenerating, but reminded herself that he was her friend anyway. "I was orphaned as a baby, and my Aunt Lavinia raised me. Is there anything else you want to know?"
The Doctor leaned forward and peered at her. "What was that like -- being orphaned?"
Sarah reminded herself about the tact again, but gave him a pointed look anyway. "Difficult," she replied.
He didn't seem to notice. "Four more questions, then. Did your aunt leave you on your own when you were a child? Did she ignore you when you spoke about terrifying cracks in your wall? Would she have noticed if you'd suddenly disappeared one night? And would she have missed you after you left?" He held up a finger for each question, counting them off.
Sarah sighed. "Yes, no -- but I had no cracks in my wall, or no terrifying ones -- yes, and I certainly hope so. Doctor, what is this about?"
"I just thought I should check," he answered vaguely. "One more question. Just the one," and he held up a single finger. He stared at it for a moment, then dropped it and looked straight at her. "If I had met you when you were a child, and you had then traveled with me, would you have regretted it later?"
She stared at him, trying to understand where these questions were coming from. "If I had traveled with you when? As a child, or later on, after I grew up?"
"Both. Neither. No, both," he said, and then he grabbed her hands, his gaze intense as if the fate of the universe depended upon her answer. Perhaps it did. "Would you have regretted coming with me?"
"Don't you know?" she asked. He shook his head slightly, his eyes still searching hers. "No," she said. "Of course not. Even as a child, I wouldn't have. No matter what monsters I faced, or what evil I saw, I would have gone with you and never regretted a moment of it. I could never regret that, ever," she added softly.
His sudden smile was as bright as daybreak. "Good," he said. "That's very good."
"It is," she agreed. "But even so, taking a child with you would be bad. You know that, right, Doctor? Skip ahead to when your orphan friend grows up, and everyone will be happier. Especially her aunt."
"Sarah Jane," said the Doctor in an affronted tone, "do you really think I would consider stealing a child away?"
"Of course you would, Doctor," she replied, "but don't do it."
"It would be bad?"
"Yes, it would be bad."
He sighed. "Okay. I was hoping you wouldn't say that, but I suppose you're right."
"Of course I'm right. I'm always right," she teased. Then she drew him to her, and gave him a large hug. "This is what I wanted to do to you the last time I saw you."
"When I was dying, you mean? That wasn't very long ago, for me." From his tone he might have been commenting on the weather.
"I know," she replied. "I'm sorry."
"It was a bad day," he said simply. "Today is looking better, though." He tightened his arms around her to hug her back.
"I'm glad," she told him. "Thank you for saving Luke."
"You are so very welcome, Sarah." For a full minute they hugged each other, then with a final squeeze, he released her.
She stepped back to once more take in his new appearance. The vitality of regeneration still seeped from him, and whoever this orphan child was, Sarah envied her for the adventure she would soon have. "Take care of yourself, okay? And if you can, come visit me again someday?"
He smiled. "Until the next time, then." He took her hand and kissed it as an old-fashioned gentleman would, then he quickly turned and strode away, not looking back.
She watched him disappear into the shadows, feeling happy, and a little bit sad, too. When he was fully gone, she went back inside to make herself a cup of tea. After all, the sun would be rising soon, and the new day was already here.