It had been an uneasy night. She had fallen asleep in front of some tat on BBC3 — puff pieces on reality TV, that was all editors wanted these days — and drifted into strange dreams where Anthea Turner brandished chocolate bars in her face, shrieking all the while that she’d never be the perfect housewife if she let her robot dog do all the cleaning. “But I’m not a housewife,” Sarah tried to protest; “I’m not married, and I’m certainly not married to a house, thank you.” Anthea started to cry, her face melting and dribbling away until there was nothing left but circuits and two puffy, staring eyes, and then Sarah jerked awake.
“…too short to stuff a mushroom,” she mumbled, making a face at the tacky feel inside her mouth.
“Never mind, K9.” After a night spent sleeping in it, her so-called comfy chair had lost all rights to the description. She felt as if she’d been catching forty winks in a Dalek. “I’m much too old to not sleep in a proper bed,” she told K9 as she unfolded herself. “You mustn’t let me do that anymore. I’ll have lots of time to fall asleep in front of the TV when they finally drag me away to an old folks’ home.”
“Suggest any attempts to remove you to elderly persons’ residence be met with force, Mistress,” K9 said loyally, and she reached down to pat him on the head.
“Good boy. Is the kettle on?”
The kettle was on. Other people, she supposed, programmed teasmaids to be ready when they woke up. She just told her dog to get the tea going when it looked like she was about to rejoin the living. She sat at the kitchen table, heaping in the sugar and feeling quite mellow at the stillness outside the window, the kind of tranquillity that only really existed between the dawn chorus and the milkman’s arrival.
That tranquillity was gently but insistently nudged aside as a certain blue shape in the garden sidled into her consciousness.
“K9,” she said, at length.
“I don’t know if you were aware of this — I’m assuming not, since it’s the sort of thing that might leap to mind as something to mention as soon as I was up and about, and I can’t help noticing you didn’t say a word about it - but the TARDIS is in the back garden.”
K9 whirred in what she assumed was a suitably shamefaced manner. “The Doctor-Master instructed this unit not to disturb your sleep, Mistress.”
“Did he really.” Well, Sarah wanted to say, you can just go out and tell the Doctor-Master that…
Except she hadn’t thought she would ever see him again, not really, and she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“The Doctor also apologises for appropriation of the toasted sandwich maker,” K9 added, wheeling himself backwards a little as if he was resigned to being despatched to Argos in hunt of a new one forthwith.
“Oh, stay there, K9, I never used it anyway. It’s not as if he took something important.” Sudden fear gripped her, kidnapped-by-Zygons level fear she hadn’t felt since, well, last time she’d been around the Doctor. “He didn’t take the coffee machine, did he?”
He was a brave old thing, her K9, but he did have his limits. She could see him quail at the thought. “Coffee machine remains in correct place, Mistress.”
Phew. “I should go out and say hello,” she said, a little less decisively than she’d hoped. “Before he just vanishes again.”
“I mean, it’s a very him sort of thing to do. Break in in the middle of the night, steal a sandwich toaster and vanish without a by-your-leave.” She took a sip of the tea and grimaced. Freezing. “Stick the coffee on, K9, and I’ll go out and see if the Doctor wants some.” She stood up, squared her shoulders, and marched straight out the back door towards the time machine that stood — or rather leaned — in her flower bed.
After a moment she marched back and asked, “It is the one we met last time, at the school, isn’t it?” and sighed with relief when K9 affirmative mistress-ed. “At least that’s something.”
On her second trip she almost made it to the TARDIS door before she decided she’d better go inside and get dressed first.
If it was disturbing to find the TARDIS parked in one’s azaleas — or rather, where the azaleas would hypothetically be one of these days when Sarah Jane had nothing more interesting to do with her time than fix up the weedy rectangles of dirt that passed for her flowerbeds — it should be much more so to push open the unlocked door and step into the mind-bendingly large room beyond. Sarah had spent a good deal of her early twenties traipsing in and out of the TARDIS, so the sudden shift in dimensions didn’t phase her. Nor did she blink at the sight of the Doctor sitting cross-legged on the walkway beside the base of the console, stroking it and talking quietly to it as if he was in a particularly insipid Nicholas Evans novel. It was her own reaction to seeing him that worried her. She wanted to tell him to comb his hair and ask if he was eating properly.
It was his own fault for looking so horribly young.
“Don’t tell me,” she said, cutting across what was no doubt an affirmation that the ship was a good TARDIS, a lovely TARDIS, “you’ve given up on ever fixing her with engineering so you’re having a bash at psychiatry.”
He scrubbed both his hands back through his hair. “I’ve tried everything,” he said. “Literally everything; uninstalled the zoetrope, rejigged the maxi and super-maxi buffers, I even fiddled around with the circuits to do with the Rassilon imprimatur and I knew it couldn’t be that but I gave it a go anyway, and nothing. She won’t take off.” He gave the machine a guilty pat. “I mean, hitting it with the hammer probably didn’t help, but it’s usually worked before.” Then he grinned up at her and, bouncing to his feet with an agility that made her feel like a slow and rickety old lady, swept her into a hug. “Sarah Jane Smith! I thought you were going to sleep all day. Some of us have been up fixing things for hours.”
“And some of us have silly human needs like sleep and breakfast. And oxygen, by the way…”
One last squeeze, just to get rid of the last of that pesky breath, and he let her go. “Still, clever old TARDIS, eh? She must have known she was going to break down and where does she bring me? Straight to you.”
Sarah might have felt flattered, if he hadn’t immediately added, “K9’s been a great help. You’d never know he was a new model. I’m not saying he’s perfect, he still needs to be helped over any slight unevenness in the floor, but him and the TARDIS are like that.”
“I’ll just stand over here and be surplus to requirements, then, shall I? And if the next words out of your mouth are ‘we’ll need somebody to make the coffee’,” she warned him, suddenly remembering the very first time she’d ever met him — a different him, arch and patrician and fond of velvet jackets and ordering her around but him, nonetheless — “then you can take your Rassilon imprimatur and shove it right up your super-maxi… what?”
He was grinning at her, all teeth and endless affection. “Oh, there’s lots of things I could call you,” he said. “Lots and lots. We’d be here ages and K9 would have to come and rescue us. But I don’t think ‘surplus to requirements’ would ever get on the list.”
She found herself grinning back. “Lucky for you I actually do want coffee,” she said. “I was coming out to ask if you could tear yourself away from your tinkering long enough to drink a cup. And then you can tell me where Rose and Mickey are, and what happened with the Cybermen and the Daleks last year, and why ‘Just Married’ is spray-painted across the outside of the TARDIS.”
“Ah, right.” He scratched his nose. “You might want to make it breakfast as well as coffee, since all those things — which aren’t entirely unrelated - are going to take a while to explain.”
It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday morning, watching the Doctor putter around her house, catching him up on her life and easing him away from the things he shouldn’t go nosing into without permission. His inexplicable interest in the contents of her fridge kept him occupied for a good half-hour as he opened all the yoghurts, one after another, and ate a spoonful of each. Sarah Jane idly wondered whether she could interest any of the Sunday supplements in a piece on OCD in Time Lords.
“The whole country went mad with the ghosts,” she said. “If you dared suggest they might not be benevolent emissaries from the other side you were worse than a heretic. I think the Daily Mail wanted me burned at the stake.”
“You complain, that’s a life ambition for some people.”
“And then they turned out to be Cybermen, of course, and I felt like a complete idiot for not realising.” She dredged up one of the few good memories of that day, when it had looked like the Cybermen had won and the Doctor wasn’t going to some through this once. “Harry was staying with me, you know. The second we realised what they were the pair of us started grabbing all the gold we could find. We smashed the window at the jewellers in town. We must have looked liked looters. And then it didn’t work, and we were flinging handfuls of the stuff at the Cybermen and they were just standing there as if we were mad, and Harry said in the most Harry-ish voice you’ve ever heard ‘I say, do you think we ought to run for it?’…” She stopped to catch her breath. “It wasn’t funny at the time.”
The Doctor had been laughing with her. “No,” he agreed, “it wasn’t funny at all.”
He still hadn’t told her what had happened to Rose, except that she was fine and with her family, and then that no, Sarah couldn’t ring her, because she was officially dead and off in another universe anyway. It was no good asking more questions. He’d just close off, and half a story was better than none at all.
“I wonder how K9’s getting on with the TARDIS?” she said for something to say.
“He was looking a bit over-friendly with her interfaces when I left them to it.” He jabbed the spoon into one of the Petits-Filous she only kept around for when Harry was staying. “If I go back to the patter of tiny timeships I’ll… what’s this?”
Bored of the inside of the fridge, he had started investigating the outside, and especially a yellow flyer she had stuck up with a magnet in the hopes it would stop others of its kind coming through her door every hour.
“It’s a fete,” she said cautiously. “That’s English village-ese for ‘social gathering involving sinister events with maypoles and giant vegetables’. The village council keep asking me to do a reading at it or judge a cake competition or something.”
The Doctor scrutinised the flyer. “It doesn’t say anything here about giant vegetables,” he said, in the tone of someone living in hope. “It does say special celebrity guests.”
“It’ll be Mr Wittenstal again.”
“Is he a special celebrity?”
Sarah shrugged. “He owns a couple of carpet shops. They’ve had a TV ad. That’s close enough, round here.”
“When’s the 21st? Is that today? It’s today, isn’t it? It feels like a 21st sort of a day. Can we go to the fete?”
There had been a time in her life when Sarah would have done anything for this man. The things she had done for him were pretty incredible. Broke him out of prison cells, faced down Daleks, been his lookout for innumerable daring after-hours raids on the UNIT canteen; but this was asking too much.
“They’ve got a tombola,” the Doctor said happily. “I love tombolas.”
“Yes,” Sarah sighed, “I had a horrible feeling you would.”
Sarah wore a hat to try and forestall any chance of being asked to give a humorous reading to a bored crowd or pick which of the ten million identical home-made jams was the best. She quickly realised she needn’t have bothered. There was nothing like being out with a handsome, much younger man to make a girl feel invisible.
Still, the Doctor was enjoying himself immensely, winning prizes that had to be worth, ooh, at least a tenth of the money required to play the game, and judging competitions on spurious authority. “I think you’re a fraud,” she whispered as they left the bun-decorating tent. “I don’t think you’re really a senior-ranking member of the WI, whatever that bit of paper said.”
“You can say what you like, I think you’ll find Mrs Whitaker was convinced of my qualifications.”
Mrs Whitaker was 83 and one of the most fearsome matriarchs Sarah Jane had ever had the misfortune to cross swords with, some forty-five years before when she had been visiting her Aunt Lavinia and strayed into the next garden. She had never been allowed to forget the cheap ornament she had broken. It had never been mentioned, but she could see the steely glint of it in Mrs Whitaker’s eyes every time their paths crossed, that narrowed look of I’m watching you, girl, and don’t you forget it.
When the Doctor had presented her with her first-place rosette and pecked her on the cheek Mrs Whitaker, terror of at least three generations of Smiths, had giggled. Like a schoolgirl. Like an actual human being. She had blushed.
Sarah put her arm through the Doctor’s and wondered how you went about telling someone they were really pretty amazing without it sounding silly, or inflating their head to proportions even the TARDIS would find tricky.
She settled on, “Come on, I saw a candy floss machine over there. My treat.”
“When I fix the TARDIS —“
“When K9 fixes the TARDIS for you —“
“When K9 fixes the TARDIS after learning all he can from my expert programming,” the Doctor said, glaring at her, “I’m going straight to Namensia. Biggest twentieth-and-twenty-first century renaissance fair in the whole galaxy. Imagine this, only covering a whole continent, Sarah. Sarah?”
Call it an immature reaction, but she called burying your head under the picnic blanket perfectly sensible when faced with horrors like a planet-wide fete. “I’m trying not to imagine the size of the maypole. Oh god, whole platoons of folk dancers. Intercontinental duck races, first rubber duck to the pole wins.”
When she peeked, she saw that he had produced a huge handkerchief from somewhere — probably the same place as the blanket — and was knotting it at the corners to make a hat. “That looked slightly less silly when my granddad used to do it,” she said. “But only slightly.” Ignoring her, he lay back to enjoy the sun, and she watched the screaming local kids whiz around the stalls, sometimes pausing to guzzle another pound or two of pure sugar before they went back to their 200-decibel games of Daleks vs Cybermen. “It must be exhausting to be that young,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s nice to be old.”
“Old,” he snorted. “You’re, what, forty? When I was your age…”
“I’m fifty-five,” she said. “This year. You never were very good with ages. I tried staying fifty, but it wasn’t really me.”
“I don’t go in for all that lying about your age.” He stretched his hands behind his head. “Just start going backwards once you hit the big thousand. That’s not lying, that’s just creative maths.”
“I’m not likely to ever reach a thousand,” she pointed out. “I’ll be doing well to get my telegram from the Queen — or Charles and Camilla by then, I suppose, is it?”
He wagged a finger at her. “Can’t tell you the future.”
“What, not even something as simple as that?”
“Laws of time, chances of you nipping down the bookies tomorrow, all of that. Unless,” he said, still lying back with his handkerchief hat over his eyes, still for all purposes looking as if he was asleep, “you could come with me and have a look.”
It should have been harder, she thought, to say no this time, knowing that she would be sending him off by himself, no Rose or Mickey to look after him.
“I can’t travel with you again,” she said. “That real life thing, I’m still putting it all together. And, you know, it’s not half bad.”
Either asleep or doing a good impression of it, he didn’t reply.
Her neighbour’s crocuses smelled beautiful in the summer evening air, and Sarah reminded herself to think about sorting out her own garden. She had avoided it for such a long time; for years there had been the tiniest thought in the back of her mind that she shouldn’t devote too much time to things like gardens because the Doctor might whisk her away again at any moment, and it would be left to overgrow and decay.
She walked slowly around the TARDIS, committing to memory the exact blue of the paint, the precise way it hummed against her fingers. “Did you really bring him here?” she asked the ship softly. “That was nice of you. I might never see you again, so thank you, for everything.”
The doors opened, and she could tell from his smile that the ship was fixed, that he was free again.
“So what was wrong?” she asked.
“Oh, who knows. Could have been any number of things. Probably she just wanted a holiday after… everything. She nearly got sucked into a parallel reality forever, you know, that’s serious trauma for a ship as old as this.”
“I bet you did all the work, K9.”
“You programmed him.”
And he smiled at her, still inside the threshold of the TARDIS, and she realised it was goodbye again.
“Honestly,” she said, unable to resist the temptation to straighten his tie, just this once, “of all the flowerbeds in all the gardens in all of South-East England, you had to end up in mine.” She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. “Enjoy Namensia. Don’t promise you’ll drop in and see me. But if you’re ever in the right place at the right time, come by. I’ll even make the coffee myself.”
She stood in the garden for a long time after the TARDIS had faded, until K9 nudged at her legs and enquired if she was well.
“I’m well,” she said, and surprised herself by bending down to hug him fiercely. “K9, I think I’m very well indeed. Shall we go for a walk? There’s nothing on TV anyway, and I’ve never introduced you to Mrs Whitaker. I think she’ll be just in the right sort of mood to meet you.”