She didn’t know exactly how she knew a visitor was coming. Perhaps she’d heard the TARDIS arrive just beyond the limit that her ears could consciously pick up. K-9 was preoccupied, as if he were busy analysing the tumultuous events of the previous day. She was still jumpy herself, starting at any unexpected metallic noise. At any rate, Sarah Jane got it in her head that today might be the day Rose Tyler showed up on her doorstep, in need of commiseration and comfort after parting company with the Doctor.
So she went shopping, laying in a fresh supply of tea and splurging on éclairs, a treat that she rarely bought for herself. (She remembered that Rose was fond of chips, but they didn’t seem to go with the atmosphere Sarah Jane wanted to create.) She tidied the kitchen and sitting room, thinking to put out an extra box of tissues. And rather than working on either of the stories she was currently pursuing and resenting an interruption, she pulled out the embroidery project that had been shut in a cupboard for months and picked up where she’d left off.
Two hours later the doorbell rang and Sarah Jane went to answer it. As she opened it, she began, “I had a feeling I might see you today, Rose–”
She broke off when she recognized the lanky silhouette towering over her. “Doctor?”
Any further words she might have said died in her throat when she saw his face. He was pale and exhausted, but it was the desolate expression in his eyes that alarmed her. She pulled him through the door and he fell into her arms, clutching her as a drowning man might clutch a lifeline. She looked over his shoulder for Rose or Mickey while trying to keep him upright. Then he spoke.
“Rose is gone.”
She got his coat off, led him to a chair and brought tea. He drained the first cup in one go and she poured more. K-9 sat quietly at the Doctor’s feet, and Sarah Jane was sure that if he could have, he would have put his head in the Doctor’s lap. She fixed her own tea, made sure that everything was in the Doctor’s reach, and waited.
He was sitting forward, his head in his hands, long fingers working restlessly through his hair. And Sarah Jane bit her lip so as not to scream at him to get on with it and explain things already. The Cybermen marching through the streets. Daleks flooding the skies. And somehow, she presumed, Rose had been killed in the crossfire. Now, given the countless times that she had come close to being killed, Sarah Jane knew that travelling with the Doctor was a risky way to spend one’s life. But for all those same countless times, the Doctor had always found a way out. What could possibly have happened this time to make him fail?
Rose is gone.
The Doctor’s shoulders hitched, and he let out a strange, short groan that she couldn’t identify at first. It took her a few moments to realize, as the two concepts had never crossed paths in her experience.
The Doctor was trying not to cry.
Sarah Jane’s first reaction was a flare of jealousy. In the time she had travelled with him, the Doctor had never shed tears. Certainly he had felt sorrow at times, but nothing had ever driven him to actually cry. Yet here he was, desperately fighting the urge to weep over a silly chit of a girl barely old enough to travel on her own, much less trip through time and space as if it were one giant playground.
As the Doctor scrubbed his hands over his face, pulling himself together with great effort, she squashed the jealousy as far away as it would go. This was neither the time nor the place for such behaviour. The Doctor had had to face down two of his most powerful enemies and had lost a companion in the process. But as he continued to stare into space, her patience wore thin.
“Tell me what happened.”
He looked at her in mild surprise, as if he had forgotten she was there. But it broke his black introspection. He sat up and began to tell her.
Over the next hours, listening as the Doctor’s narrative trailed off into reminisces of Rose, Sarah Jane developed a completely new appreciation of the girl. While Sarah Jane had always tried to be supportive of the Doctor as he led her from one bewildering adventure to the next, Rose had apparently become something of an equal to the Doctor, taking more and more initiative as she grew accustomed to bouncing around the universe. And her bravery amazed Sarah Jane…to coolly order the Doctor to do whatever it took to save the planet and never mind if it killed her…
Sarah Jane’s jealousy went in a completely different direction as the Doctor described how Rose had refused to be sent into safety, not once but twice. Why had it never occurred to her to try and find her own way back to the Doctor? She had had K-9…why hadn’t she asked him to send a signal to the Doctor, or track the TARDIS if it arrived in her vicinity? Why had she waited passively for so long before assuming that he had died and picking up the pieces of her life again?
But again, this was not the time or place for such feelings. The Doctor, the so-very-young-looking Doctor in front of her, needed comfort as he grieved through the outpouring of his words. She listened and kept the flow of tea coming as afternoon crept into the first darkening hints of evening. Finally, his well of memories began to run dry, and the haunted look returned. Sarah Jane knew he was remembering Rose’s last moments with him, before being whisked away forever by her father...not-father.
“The way she looked at me…I still don’t know what she was trying to tell me with that look. She wasn’t afraid, at least not for herself. It was desperate…”
“She didn’t want to leave you.”
His attention snapped to her and he leaned forward with a look of such burning intensity that she shrank back slightly.
“Why? All I do is put people in danger! All of you, every single one of you travelling with me! Adric was killed–did I tell you that? A boy younger than Rose, and he died when a freighter slammed into the Earth and ended the age of dinosaurs!”
Sarah Jane seized his hand in both of hers, squeezing and halting his torrent of words for a moment. This time there were no tears threatening. But she could feel the despair still radiating from him.
“Some things are worth the risk, Doctor. Yes, I was in mortal danger practically every day I was with you. I was also introduced to wonders and marvels beyond human imagination.” She reached over and took his face in her hands to make him look at her. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” She locked eyes with him, trying to force belief into his dark gaze.
He closed his eyes and covered her hands with his own, taking a moment to savour the contact. And when he opened them again, the sadness had lifted, just a trifle.
“It’s so hard. I see others die, all the time, and I regret it but move on. And Rose is alive…she’s alive, with her family, safe…but it hurts as if she’d bled to death in my arms because of my own hideous stupidity.”
“You didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. It’s part of the process. It helps one move toward acceptance. If you could find a way to do that, to say goodbye to her–”
“Yes!” He leapt to his feet. “That’s it! But I’ll have to be quick, before the fissures between the dimensions close completely–and power. I’ll need more power than I’ve ever used before…K-9!”
“Yes, master?” The robot glided forward.
“You should still have all of your galaxy charts in your memory. I need a star, an older one, with no planets and no other systems within…ten thousand light years, to be safe.”
The dog’s circuitry began humming and the Doctor paced the sitting room in long, energetic strides. “There’s no way of knowing exactly how much time has passed on her side–I’m going to have to overshoot by a few weeks–have to allow for her travel–can’t predict where it’ll come out–K-9, anything?”
“Affirmative. I am transmitting twenty-six possibilities to the TARDIS now.”
“Good dog!” The Doctor bent down and clasped the metal head for a moment. He glanced up and saw Sarah Jane’s expression of exasperated, amused puzzlement blended with concern. He stood, stepped forward, and took her hands in his.
“Thank you, my Sarah Jane. For everything.”
And with that he charged for the door, sweeping up his coat from the peg on his way.
She ran after him. “Try to let me know if it works!” He flapped a hand in acknowledgement. “And take care!”
And like that he was gone. Sarah Jane stared out the open door, feeling too oppressed by the sudden stillness to move at first. K-9 beeped, breaking her trance, and she turned to take up the dishes.
Of course he hadn’t touched the damned éclairs.