The Doctor was arguing with himself.
This was, admittedly, not new - Sarah Jane had heard him do it plenty of times. There was usually a low level buzz of muttering and commentary around him whenever he was working.
Sarah Jane stood off to the side, and she watched as the Doctor - that is, the tall man with curly hair and a flair for dramatic clothing - argued with the Doctor - that is, the short man with the Scottish accent and the odd looking jumper covered in question marks.
"My dear man," said the tall Doctor - Sarah Jane's Doctor, as she was already starting to think of him, "surely you must be mistaken."
"I'm not mistaken," the short Doctor argued. "You need to rejigger the Regional Stabilizer!"
"I won't lie, this is doing my head in," said the girl who had come onto the TARDIS with the short little Doctor.
"Hm?" Sarah Jane looked over at the girl, leaning into the wall. It, admittedly, wasn't the first time she had met one of the Doctor's other... selves, but it still got weird.
"Thinking the Professor used to be such a -" The girl - Ace? - started to say.
Sarah Jane kept her eyebrow up, and Ace had the good grace to look faintly sheepish. "Well," she said finally, "it's nuts to think that he's changed so much, that's for sure!"
"He does look pretty different," Sarah Jane agreed. There was a familiarity in the backs of the eyes of the small, Scottish Doctor, but he was still so utterly unlike her Doctor.
Both Doctors were both talking at once now, and they were also getting louder. "We should probably get out of her for a bit," Ace whispered in Sarah Jane's ear. "He's got that look on his face."
Sarah Jane couldn't recognize a specific look on his face, but it matched the one on her Doctor's face, and she could at least recognize it as a sign they weren't going anywhere soon.
"Between the two of them digging their heels in," Sarah Jane said, leaning in to whisper into Ace's ear, "I think the two of us might as well go out and get some air."
Ace gave a snort of laughter, and Sarah Jane grinned.
"Could do with a bite to eat," Ace agreed. "You think the local aliens have something like a fish and chip shop?"
"Certainly couldn't hurt to check," said Sarah Jane. "I don't think the locals are fish people."
"Oh, has he taken you to Piscon?" Ace asked, and now she looked interested. "He keeps bringing it up as having the most amazing coral reefs, but then he starts muttering about something."
Sarah Jane frowned, going to grab her coat off of the hook by the door. "He hasn't mentioned anything about it."
"Professor," Ace called, "we're going for fish and chips!" She was grabbing her jacket covered in pins, shouldering her rucksack.
"Be careful," the Doctor called back, "and no Nitro-9!"
"None at all, Professor," Ace agreed, and she was slipping out of the TARDIS door.
Sarah Jane shrugged on her coat, did up the buttons. "We'll be back," she called to the Doctor.
"Don't get into too much trouble," her Doctor said, but he sounded distracted.
"What's Nitro-9?" Sarah Jane asked, as the two of them made their way across the rocky beach.
"Little homemade explosive I invented," Ace said, and the rucksack jostled as she adjusted it on her back. “He’s always on about not bringing it, but I can’t even count the times the stuff has gotten us out of a sticky situation!” There was a slightly ominous clanking from Ace’s rucksack. “You never know when you might need it,” in the same tone of voice that some people talked about always carrying an extra set of keys.
"Homemade explosive," Sarah Jane echoed, her eyes wide. "And it's just... bunged in there?"
"Yep," Ace said cheerfully.
"Just... rattling around?" Sarah Jane clarified, because it always helped to have clarity in these sorts of situations.
"Yep," Ace said.
"Um," said Sarah Jane, and she took another few steps in front of Ace.
"Oh, don't worry, perfectly shelf stable," Ace said cheerfully, and she bounced the bag. There was an unholy cacophony of things clanking against each other, but otherwise nothing... untoward.
Sarah Jane kept her ears primed anyway.
"I'm still not the best at the timing of 'em," Ace confessed. "But while they're still in the can, they're mostly safe."
"What kind of can are you using?" Sarah Jane asked, because… well, what kind of bottle would hold something that had a name like Nitro-9?
"Oh, nothing special," Ace said, her tone breezy. "Just old deodorant bottles."
"Old deodorant cans," Sarah Jane echoed. "Where are you getting all the deodorant?"
"So I had this mate, right," Ace said, "who was dating this older bloke..."
The story of how Ace managed to develop Nitro-9 and blow up her art classroom took them all the way to
"I hadn't actually meant to," Ace said earnestly, as they were making their way towards the spires of the great city. The gravel crunched under their feet.
"But it still blew up?" Sarah Jane asked, her eyes wide.
"Yeah, but not on purpose," Ace protested. "Although it was a proper explosion," she added, and she looked pleased with herself.
"I don't have much experience with explosives," Sarah Jane admitted, "although I’ve been told I'm a crack hand with a rifle."
"Never got to shoot a gun," Ace said, thoughtful. "Not a proper one, at any rate. Probably will, at some point!"
"The Doctor isn't very fond of guns," Sarah Jane said, her tone thoughtful. I wonder why I stopped traveling with him, she didn't say.
"He isn't," Ace agreed, "but he's not afraid to do violence to get what he wants, is he?" She wrinkled her nose. "Although he's always got a way of comin' out smelling like roses."
I'm sensing some resentment there, then, Sarah Jane didn't say. "It can be tricky," she agreed.
"The thing that drives me bonkers," Ace continued, as rocks slowly transitioned to an old wooden pier, "is that he always makes such a big deal out of being a pacifist, and then - "
"He's up and fighting?" Sarah Jane interrupted.
"Exactly!" Ace clapped her hands together, a loud noise that might have made Sarah Jane jump if she wasn't used to the Doctor's own sudden exclamations.
"Did he ever... tell you about me?" Sarah Jane asked, and she tried to keep her tone casual. She wasn't entirely sure if she was succeeding, but it helped to try.
"He hasn't talked about you in particular, no," said Ace. She had her eyes on the toes of her shoes. "I know that he cares about everyone he's traveled with, though," she added. "And he remembers all of us. I saw him use that faith he's got in us one time!"
"Mm," said Sarah Jane, because that was a lot to digest right then.
It was strange, to think of some future Doctor, running around with a pyromaniacal (if enthusiastic, and very sincere) teenager. She tried to imagine her own Doctor in his frills and opera cape walking along with the likes of Ace.
She could see it, if she squinted, come to think of it. And the odd little man, with his question mark jumper and funny hat... Well, traveling with him wouldn't be too bad either, would it?
"What are you grinning about?" Ace asked, looking at Sarah Jane sidelong. She had her hands in the pockets of her ridiculous jacket, and Sarah Jane was faintly envious - it looked warmer than the one she was currently wearing. The wind seemed to blow up between the gaps of her own coat, and it was making her shiver.
"I'm just thinking," said Sarah Jane, "how much the Doctor is still... the Doctor."
"He is, isn't he?" Ace agreed, and she grinned. "I'll tell you what, it's weird, seeing the Professor be so tall."
"I was going to say it's odder to me, seeing him so short," Sarah Jane countered.
Ace grinned. "How'd you meet him, anyway?" She looked Sarah Jane up and down, one eyebrow up. "I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you don't strike me as the type who would -"
"Go on an adventure through time and space with an alien?" Sarah Jane's voice was dry.
"Well... you seem a bit more... put together," Ace said, and she had the good grace to look faintly sheepish. "I can't imagine you dealing with Cybermen or Daleks or... any of that." Another pause, looking sidelong at Sarah Jane. "Not meant as an insult, either," she added hastily. Then she wrinkled her nose. "I'm making a proper cock up of this, aren't I?"
"I've heard worse," Sarah Jane said, and she was grinning in spite of herself. Ace was a bit like a puppy, tripping over her own conversational feet. "I lied to meet the Doctor, y'know."
"I was gonna ask how you met," Ace said, and then she was laughing - ugly guffawing, bent forward and cackling like a hyena.
"What, did I say something that funny?" Sarah Jane asked, bewildered.
"I just realized that we sound like my mum," Ace said, still giggling. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, and Sarah was still frowning, confused. "Y'know, 'how'd you meet your husband,' that sort of thing. I've sat through loads of boring dinner parties with that sort of thing before."
It was Sarah Jane's turn to grin. "I take it you never expected to think about your mum's dinner parties off on an alien planet?"
"If I had my way I'd never think about my mum at all," Ace said sharply, and her whole face suddenly went dark, closing like a door.
"I never met my mum and dad," Sarah Jane said, although why was she saying that? She wasn't usually one to open up like that. "They died when I was a baby."
"Oh," Ace said. "I'm sorry."
"Why? You didn't kill them." It popped out of her mouth before she had a chance to stop it.
There was an excruciating pause, and this time the laughter was erupting out of Sarah Jane's throat, ugly, honking laughter, that made her lean against the railing of the pier and Ace leaned over, one hand on Sarah Jane's shoulder. She met Sarah Jane's eyes, and then she was starting to giggle too, the both of them laughing under an alien sky.
"I mean," Ace said, "with all the time travel we do, there's a chance."
It brought on another wave of ugly laughter, and maybe it shouldn't have, but sometimes she just plain forgot the absurdity of her life. Their lives.
"I feel like that's something I'd remember," Sarah Jane said faintly, and she wiped her face on the back of her hand. Had she been laughing or crying?
Another ugly snicker from Sarah Jane, and she sighed when Ace linked their arms, leaning in. She let herself rest against Ace, and she gave a long sigh. "It's a strange sort of life we've got, isn't it?"
"Definitely," Ace agreed.
All the places they touched were... warm, and Sarah Jane's cheeks were turning pink. "Wouldn't trade it for anything, though."
"Definitely not," agreed Ace, and she crowded a little closer.
I want to kiss her, Sarah Jane thought, and that was a surprise.
She'd kissed women before, and more than kissed, but she wasn't usually one to jump feet first into any kind of romantic entanglement.
And then there was an enormous kaboom, and Ace jerked upright, eyeing the plume of smoke that was beginning to billow upwards.
They were already holding hands, as they both began to run, and Sarah Jane’s fingers tightened in Ace’s. So… investigate. Then possibly… What, offer to buy her a drink? Maybe see a movie? How did these things work, out in outer space and in the future?
Sarah Jane grinned, as the alien wind blew across her face and her heart beat in her ears, Ace’s fingers laced through her own.
She couldn’t wait to find out.