A/N: When it starts to look repetitious, watch the Doctor (both of them), and soon it will all make sense.
"So you're a friend of the Doctor's?"
"Yes," Jeff replied curtly, hoping this Martha wasn't going to grill him. She'd managed to spend three quarters of the ride in silence, and he supposed that curiosity was finally getting the better of her.
"So what do you do, then? Work in a scrapyard? I can't imagine where else he'd be meeting people. No offense, it's just…." She trailed off, no doubt embarrassed by her assumption.
"None taken." Jeff sighed. He might as well tell her the truth, or at least part of it. "I'm a private investigator. I met the Doctor on a case a few weeks back. Hadn't run into him again until yesterday."
Martha groaned. "What time is it, anyway? I've lost track."
"So have I," Jeff admitted, "but it's early."
"Too early." She yawned, belatedly covering her mouth. "What happened to that man?" She nodded with her head towards the back seat which contained Gilbert Becker.
"Took a nasty blow, just like you did," Jeff replied. "He was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Martha watched him for a moment. "You're not going to tell me what happened, are you?"
"It pertains to the case I'm currently investigating," Jeff answered carefully. "I'm not about to disclose any of the details."
"You can trust me."
"I hardly know you," Jeff pointed out. "And even if I did trust you, that's not the point."
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Martha settled back against the seat. Jeff rounded the corner, and she sat up again. "Hold on, how did you know where to go?"
"The Doctor gave me directions." And Marty was pointing out the way, but she didn't need to know that.
"Oh." Then, "How much do you know about the Doctor?"
"Slim to nil," Jeff responded. "Seeing as I don't believe half of what comes out of his mouth." He pulled to a stop in front of the building and parked the car. "Will you be all right on your own, or do you want me to come up?"
"Nah, no need," Martha said, smiling. "I have a feeling it's over now, and I missed it. Besides, you've got someone else to look after." Smirking, she then pointed to her head. "And I have to trust the Doctor when he says I don't have a concussion. Just as well, since I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep." She climbed out of the car but paused before closing the door. "Thank you, Jeff Randall. And, just a word of advice. Be careful. Around the Doctor, you can find yourself in any number of tight spots, and one of these days, I think he won't be able to get out of it by himself." She smiled again now. "But that's why I'm here with him. Because he needs someone." She shook her head, thinking of the antics of their mutual acquaintance. "Good night."
"You have a good night, too," Jeff said. Glancing at the sky, which was beginning to lighten, he added, "What's left of it, that is."
"Nice girl," Marty declared as Martha left, taking her spot in the passenger seat.
"Quieter than Donna," Jeff pointed out. "Made a nice change." He sighed. "Back to work tomorrow, Marty. None of this running around blind any more."
"Do you think you'll be able to solve the Becker case?"
"I think I'll have a good shot at it, once I talk to the Doctor again. He knows more than he's telling."
"I'd thought so, too," Marty agreed, "but then, being a time traveller, wouldn't that always be the case?"
Now was not the time to quibble over that; they had more important things to do. Jeff simply let the comment slide, thinking that was best. "I'm not changing my story with Jeannie," he said. "Don't need her thinking there's some other way to contact you."
"Of course not," Marty said, instantly supportive. "But what are you going to tell Becker?"
Jeff frowned. "I thought the Doctor said he wouldn't remember anything clearly."
"Yes, but Miriam Becker seemed like a sharp tack to me. She'll have noticed her husband's absence and will wonder."
Right. "I'll tell her…tell her…. I'll tell her he came out with me, to do some checking."
"She'll want details."
"I can make it up," Jeff replied pointedly. "Look here, we both agree that the Doctor has information, correct?" Marty nodded, and Jeff continued, "Then you'd best go watch him. I want to know what he knows. Anything could be relevant to this case. It can't all be circumstantial nonsense."
"After tonight, it's a bit hard to tell," Marty countered, looking a bit sceptical. "Still, you're right. We can sort all that out once we have the case solved." He glanced outside for a moment, gauging their direction. "Good luck with Miriam Becker. I'll pop in afterwards and fill you in."
"Thanks," Jeff answered, a touch of sarcasm in his tone. He was sure Marty was smiling when he went off this time. Still, as odd as things had become, he wouldn't change it for the world. Just like Martha—and now Donna—was there for the Doctor, Marty was there for him. And he'd learned more about friendship in the past year than he had in the twenty before that, and he wouldn't change a moment of it.
"Martha'll be fine," the Doctor reported, finding Donna easily. Wasn't the best of hiding places, a shadowed doorway, but it worked well enough for its purpose. And the Doctor took it to mean that Donna was indeed recovering nicely from the ordeal in The Library. He knew people who had spent—or are or will be spending, depending on your perspective—the rest of their lives jumping at shadows after finding out about the Vashta Nerada.
Not without reason, of course. If you were foolish enough to spend any amount of time on a heavily infested planet, not jumping at every shadow would be your downfall.
Unless you jumped away from one and ended up in another, and that one happened to be infested.
Then again, if that were the case, you'd never know it.
"Good," Donna said. "But do you care to explain to me how you expect to clear your name when you're going to walk into that police station looking exactly like someone they've already got locked up?"
Straight to the point, then. More or less. "We—well, I—have been crisscrossing my timeline in a much more compacted manner than I ought to be. Well, technically, I shouldn't be crossing my own timeline at all, let alone crisscrossing it, cheap tricks aside, but I did need to confirm my suspicion. Found out it was the Zalvja, too, in fact, when I did. Terrifying folks to death in their manifestations—"
"Hold on," Donna broke in. "What do you mean, you confirmed your suspicion? When?"
"I went back to the TARDIS earlier," the Doctor reminded her. "I just…took a quick little side trip." Did he look too guilty at the moment? Best launch back into the explanation, then, and see if he could distract her. "I might have gotten us into this mess in the first place, practically priming the situation, providing that one last kick it needed to land us in this mess. Three places at once in the same city and time period in one regeneration, when two of the selves are only a few hours apart—not the wisest of moves, I will admit, especially when the third self is known. Still, time may have been stretched a bit out of place, but it'll snap back once I'm gone—well, snap's a bit of a strong word, gives you the wrong idea about the nature of time."
She was turning a glare on him again; he hadn't even babbled on that much, had he? "Anyway, that bit of instability will create a bit of a ripple, so to speak; not too much of one but enough to unsettle a few things. More so around the centre of our positioning, since shattering the intertemporal barrier the way you did would have scattered the possibilities, reverberations temporarily reducing possible interjections along foreseeable trajectories to veritable dust. Destabilization to the base possibility," he clarified. "Causes a bit of a mess, but it is a temporary strengthening mechanism."
"Yeah, I'll start listening again when you decide to speak English," Donna shot back.
Could be worse. She could have interrupted him again. Actually, he was surprised she hadn't. He looked at her a bit more closely. She was tired. Not dead on her feet, not yet; still running on adrenaline, partially. That, and determination. And possibly fear. And trust. She trusted him. Just as well; she looked too tired to be doing much else. He'd have to make it up to her for this. He'd have a talk with the TARDIS before they left. She'd understand. She knew as well as he did that Donna needed a break. And he wasn't ready to drop her back with her family, not yet. That wasn't entirely selfish of him. She had just had a visit. Well, not just, but….
Humans travelled to get away sometimes. And he had a feeling that's what Donna was doing. If he was to be perfectly honest with himself, that was one of the reasons he'd started travelling. So he wouldn't take her back home quite yet. And probably not the trip after that, but maybe the one after the one after that. If she wanted a quick visit. If circumstances presented themselves.
Sightseeing wasn't a bad idea, after all. He could use a bit of it himself. Midnight did have that sapphire waterfall, and he'd heard that it was brilliant. Not that the waterfall was actually sapphires, or at least that was highly unlikely—he wasn't entirely sure, yet; he'd heard conflicting things, some from not very reliable sources, and that was another reason he wanted to go, so he knew which rumours to dispel—but, well, it was still a glorious site, he was sure.
The extonic sun was a bit risky, but if they'd built a resort there in the first place, then there were plenty of places the TARDIS could land them safely. And she'd get it right, once he had a talk with her; even if he didn't, she knew enough to keep him safe, and they looked out for each other, even if she did occasionally get in her head to take him somewhere. Relatively speaking, of course. Point is, Donna would be able to relax. He'd give her most of the morning before trying to convince her to come on the tour with him. That was cutting it a bit close, but he'd spent a great deal of his life cutting things close, so that would be no different.
"Shouldn't be long," the Doctor assured her. "Point is, what with things the way they are, and the time of night, and the mindset of our good Inspector Large, well…. We shouldn't have a problem."
"Right, so you mean we're blundering into this blindly," Donna interpreted as she fell into step beside him. "That's what I figured."
Observant, her. She didn't miss a trick. Well. Just the occasional one, but that was excusable. "Aw, have a bit of faith, Donna. You're not tied to a sacrificial altar this time." Before she could retort—oh, yes, he was sure she had one on the tip of her tongue—he continued, "I'll be able to interact with my other self now—no freezing up. And—"
"So what stops them from locking you up?"
"Well, there's the…. Or the…. Well. Not…much."
"Because they're not stupid," Donna continued. "Doesn't take much to piece together that if you've got a lookalike and it's not the first one, then it's probably the other one. And, knowing you, you were probably saying the entire time that you were innocent."
"There's a time and a place for admitting to something you didn't do," the Doctor acknowledged carefully. "That…was not one of them."
"I hope you know what you're doing," Donna muttered. He opened the door for her and she went inside without further complaint. She'd follow his lead; she was getting quite good at that. Grinning, he trailed in after her.
"You'd better come see this, Inspector."
Inspector Large looked up at Sergeant Hinds, frowning. "What is it now?"
"That John Smith you brought in earlier—"
"Him again? Carlson still insisting he escaped?" Inspector Large guessed rather grumpily. "We checked the cell; he was still locked in there. Carlson just fell asleep on the job and isn't happy with the consequences."
Hinds looked uncomfortable. "No, Smith just came in the front, insisting he had information on the Becker case."
Inspector Large choked on his coffee. "He what?"
"He says he knows who the murderer is."
"And he hasn't said a word about the fact that we're holding him for murder, I expect." Inspector Large slammed the coffee cup down on the desk. "He's secured?"
"Edwards and Tompkins have him, sir."
"What's he playing at, getting the insanity plea?" Inspector Large grumbled. "I don't have time for this." To Hinds, he snapped, "How'd he get out in the first place?"
"That's the thing, sir," Hinds said, sounding almost hesitant. "He hasn't. I checked the cell myself; he's still in there."
"Then who do you have out front?" demanded Inspector Large impatiently.
"He identified himself as Dr. John Smith, says he's from the—"
"I don't care where he says he's from!" Inspector Large snapped. "He very clearly is not, and I expect you to realize that and act accordingly!" Did everything have to fall on him? Was no one else capable? Had the entire station lost its common sense?
He wouldn't be surprised if Randall was somehow involved. Man had come around asking questions earlier and then sent in Jean Hopkirk to do his dirty work for him. And he'd been handed the Becker case, since Miriam Becker didn't seem to think the police were up for the job.
Inspector Large scowled, tromping out of his office. It wouldn't take long to sort this. They had witnesses at the scene, they had the murder weapon, they'd caught the man red-handed…. Simple. Someone who bore an uncanny resemblance could be dealt with as the nuisance he was, and—
Inspector Large stopped abruptly. His eyes narrowed. The man was the spitting image of their suspect. He opened his mouth to speak, but the man beat him to it, grinning despite being held roughly by two no-nonsense officers. "Hello, there. I'm Dr. John Smith, and this is Donna Noble, my assistant—"
"Right, sorry. Partner. New development, bit of getting used to. Anyway. We're here from—"
"I'm not interested in whatever spiel you've prepared," Inspector Large broke in sharply. "I don't ha—"
"Oh, well, that's fine," the man continued, talking over him. "See, I'd shake your hand, but there's been this little misunderstanding, and I was told you could sort it. You are Inspector Large, aren't you?"
Heaven help him; the men even acted alike. No respect for authority, either of them. "What are you playing at, Smith?"
"Aw, don't tell me you think I'm some jailbird that flew the coop, too!" The self-proclaimed Dr. Smith frowned at him. "Even if I was, it wouldn't make much sense to come back."
The woman, Donna Noble, opened her mouth again. "We've come all the way from Reading just because we heard—"
Inspector Large cut in sharply, saying in a disbelieving voice, "Do you really think I'm going to—?"
"Look here, mister," she started again, voice increasing in volume to override him. Woman probably had a good set of lungs on her, if that was any indication. "I don't know what you're going on about, and neither does my partner. Business partner, got that? You think you were holding him and he escaped under your guard? I'd say that's a bit sloppy of you; wouldn't want to admit it in front of my staff like this if it were me, but it's a simple matter to check, don't you think? We could clear this up so that we could get down to business. We're wasting time."
Inspector Large didn't dignify the implications with a verbal response. He jerked his head towards the cell they were holding Smith in and started off, followed by the others. Couldn't even one day go by without this nonsense?
Smith looked up when the cell door opened. "Oh, hello," he said brightly. "Come to question me again?"
"I'd like an explanation," Inspector Large said, waving a hand to beckon to Tompkins and Edwards. Dr. Smith was brought forward, and the two did a credible job of gaping at each other as if they'd never seen each other before in their lives. Tompkins and Edwards withdrew, closing the door to the cell behind them. One of them would let the inspector out when the time came.
"Blimey," Smith said, recovering first. "That's a bit of a shock."
Dr. Smith fumbled for a minute, pulling a pair of spectacles out of his pocket—disturbingly identical to the ones he'd taken off Smith, once they'd subjected him to a more thorough search—and perching them on his nose. He leaned forward, still squinting at Smith. "Impossible," he breathed. "It's just…impossible."
"Clearly not," Inspector Large said dryly. "So make your excuses."
"Looks like a pair of identical twins to me," Noble spoke up. "Separated at birth, from the sounds of it."
He glared at her. "I don't know how you managed to put this together, but—"
"Oh, c'mon, is it that hard to believe? They've run studies on this stuff for who knows how long." Noble looked at him in disbelief. "What was it, the Jim twins? Bouchard? Ringing any bells?"
"No, no, Donna, no," Dr. Smith corrected as he touched her lightly on the shoulder. "Bit early for that."
Inspector Large hadn't heard of the case in the first place, and he knew as well as anyone that the time of day wasn't at all pertinent. He was about to open his mouth again to finish what he was saying—curse that woman, she had about as many manners as either of the Smiths—when he was cut off before he could even begin.
"You've got a good decade before that," Smith added.
Apparently the time of day wasn't pertinent in the amount of nonsense Smith could spout, either. "I don't want theories," Inspector Large sneered. "I want truths."
"Technically it wasn't a theory, it was a hypothesis," Dr. Smith pointed out. "But! It's as good a truth as any, I think. Unless you've a better one?"
It was planned. It had to be planned. Someone in the station was having a go at him. He'd find out who it was. Oh, they'd set it up brilliantly, he'd give them that, but for wasting his time they'd be wishing they'd kept their ideas to themselves.
"I don't know how you managed to put this together," Inspector Large began, "but—"
"Oh, c'mon, is it that hard to believe?" Noble had interrupted him again. "They've run studies on this stuff for who knows how long. What was it, the Jim twins? Bouchard? Ringing any bells?"
Inspector Large didn't answer her; he was more interested in looking at the Smiths, both of whom shared identical looks of horror. Figures; they must have practiced that for quite a while. Still, he did have to admit it was believable, if only for a moment.
"No, no, bit early for that, Donna," Dr. Smith croaked out. He looked nervous.
"At least ten years early," Smith agreed, looking equally ill-composed.
"I don't want theories," Inspector Large snarled as the two Smiths exchanged a look. "I want truths."
"Well, that wasn't really a theory," Dr. Smith began—almost warily, Inspector Large thought—as he pulled his glasses off his nose and tucked them into his pocket. "More of a hypothesis. Still, it's as good a truth as any, isn't it?"
Well, if he'd been suspicious before, he had good reason now. The way the two Smiths were acting more than confirmed that their earlier display was absolute poppycock. It was a well-planned set up, but whoever was behind it would regret pulling it on him now. He had far more important things to be doing.
"I don't know how you managed to put this together," started Inspector Large, "but—"
"Oh, c'mon, is it that hard to believe?" Did no one have respect for authority anymore? That was the second time that Donna Noble had interrupted him, blithering on without pause, and he'd lost count of how many times he'd been cut off since the whole mess began. Smith was particularly bad, and the so-called Dr. Smith was no better, and—
Hold on. When had Dr. Smith taken off his glasses? He'd been watching the two of them the entire time, he was sure. He'd been comparing them, and he had to admit that they were immensely similar. They both looked a little green around the gills now, even. A bit too pale. And when they spoke, their voices had lost the sense of self-assuredness they had held moments before.
Still, visual assessments didn't mean he'd lost the thread of the conversation. "I don't want theories. I want truths."
Dr. Smith started to argue the point, but the inspector was still studying them with a critical eye. The entire act was believable enough, Inspector Large supposed, but he'd seen a lot over the years. And he'd been convinced of their lie, earlier, when they'd pretended that they'd never seen each other before in their lives. The looks they were exchanging now spoke volumes. "I don't know how you managed to put this together, but—"
"Oh, c'mon, is it that hard to believe?" He was sure he'd seen both Smiths wince when Noble had interrupted him; he would guess that they found her disrespect for authority as appalling as he did if they both hadn't done the same. "They've run studies on this stuff for who knows how long." Wait, was it just him, or was Smith mouthing Noble's words? "What was it, the Jim twins? Bouchard? Ringing any bells?"
"He won't have heard of them, Donna," Dr. Smith cut in, exchanging another look with Smith. "You're a tad early for that."
"And don't worry, Inspector," Smith chipped in, "because we're about to tell you the truth. Well, I say truth, it's more of a half-truth. Well, not even that, seeing as you wouldn't comprehend that."
How had Smith known he was about to demand the truth? Sure, he'd been asking the entire night, but it had never sunk in, not before. Eyes narrowed, he waited. He hadn't spent much time dealing with Smith, but he'd learned that Smith didn't leave things in silence unless he expected to be left alone.
"Thing is, we're caught in a loop," Dr. Smith continued, making no sense whatsoever. "Just a tiny one, probably centred on this room, inactive until we'd reached a certain point. And now, we're breaking it. Or trying to. Not the best approach, this, but quite doable, thanks to Donna's earlier actions."
"Things being unsettled the way they are, it…lets us do a few things that are strictly not allowed under other circumstances," Smith continued. "This included. Well, I say not allowed, but that's putting it mildly. Liable to compact time if you keep at this. And if you compress one part, another's going to expand, but you can never tell where that weak point will show up. Might even turn up in the middle, given the nature of time. It's tricky, in that non-linear, non-subjective, wibbly-wobbly way."
"Point is, we don't have much time." Dr. Smith stopped, frowning. "Funny thing to be saying, really, all things considered, because if we let the loop continue, it could go on indefinitely, but I'd get a bit bored eventually. Well, I say bored, but it had gotten old and more than a little troublesome the second time through, so…." He waved a hand dismissively. "That, or it'd wear itself out, and when it did, something might have been able to slip in. So it's better to nip it in the bud, stop it before it becomes established."
"Best thing is, you're not likely to remember much of this," Smith continued. "Oh, we'll be here, might have to play it through one more time, seeing how things turn out, but if we can keep it up long enough until something else invades the loop, we'll be able to pull ourselves out of our rut and fill it in. Not too hard; just a bit of variation thrown in, gives us a bit of a ladder to climb out on, so to speak. Bridges the gaps. Bit of an effect of the possibility shattering, actually; it has been known to create the odd dent, generally nothing to worry about, seeing as time'll smooth itself out."
Smith paused hardly long enough for a breath before adding, "Well, usually with the help of the Mylith, but they won't be migrating back here for a while yet. Not that I would have expected them to establish a colony here in the first place, but now that it's happened once, it's more likely to happen again. And migrating isn't precisely the right word; they're essentially bacteria, so they don't really migrate, but you get the idea. Some more will turn up, replenishing themselves. They're a bit like the bifidiobacteria in the human body, for example, at least for the most part, except the Mylith can be a problem every once in a blue moon, and I do mean here, because blue moons are quite common if you ever go to, say, U'licg'ar Pt'nol'x…."
"Of course," persisted Dr. Smith, not at all alarmed by the things coming out of Smith's mouth or indeed by the reactions of either Noble or himself, since both of them were staring at him and, in Noble's case, had even advanced to a convincing display of shocked gaping, "seeing as this is a destabilisation response, it is possible that you will remember this, and, to take advantage of that, I'm going to tell you about the Becker case.
"First off, those first few disappearances you've heard about but not bothered investigating are false alarms in the first place. Poor circulation of information, that. Well, at least of the facts. Plenty of circulation of rumours. Still. The first sign of trouble for you lot was when your John Doe—real name's Robert Davidson, for your records, but he much preferred Bobby—found himself frightened half to death by the manifestation of one Raymond Miller. And when people see ghosts, any ghosts, even if it's not their own ghosts, well…." Dr. Smith lowered his voice, as if to confide in them. "It can go to their head."
Resuming his normal tone, he went on, saying, "More than a few days of constant haunting, without a wink of sleep or a morsel of food, and it's enough to drive any man half-crazed. And a man's more liable to listen to the voices then, when he's in that state. Promise of peace, of rest—mighty strong temptation. Just one deed, he was told. One task." Disgust had surfaced in the voice. Dr. Smith may have found the subject extremely distasteful, but that didn't cause him to stop talking about it. "A re-enactment of a past crime, the rape and murder of an innocent woman, your Lucy Becker, and then he got rest, all right. Permanently. He was told he'd find peace beneath the waves of the river. So eager was he for that promise that he didn't even remove from the body the bit of rope he'd used to strangle the poor girl. But if you look at that rope, it's a bit odd, isn't it? Not really a rope at all. Just a bit of cloth."
"A bit of cloth," put in Smith, "that more than likely matches the material and pattern of poor Bobby Davidson's tattered coat."
"Shirt, actually," Dr. Smith corrected. "Well, more of a jumper, but it was a thin one at that. Coming apart at the seams. More patches than anything else." There was a very tiny pause. "The most recent murder victim was nearly strangled to death, too, before he took a rock to the head. Well, I say rock, it looked more like a brick to me, but I was a bit preoccupied at that moment. Thing is, you haven't been able to identify your latest murder victim, have you? Clarence Early. And he really didn't need to die. He was just being primed. For practice."
"That's the thing with the Zalvja." Smith picked up the thread of the conversation with disturbing ease. "When they infect a being, they take on some of its characteristics; they don't just use it as a vessel. They merge with it, take control, prey on emotions, slaughter their vessel, and feed in a manifested form until their energy is spent. They burst apart after that, dispersing themselves across the galaxies. Well, the entire universe, really. And then they remain dormant, waiting for the right conditions. They can be in that state for years. Thousands upon thousands of years, just…waiting. Not much in terms of a life cycle once they become active.
"There are times when they can sink back into a dormant state, of course. That's what happened here. But then they risk not breaking out of that state. Still. They came out of it a little rusty, but it didn't take them long to find a victim and choose the next host. They just needed to prepare the right circumstances. And that's partially what it was—preparation and practice. Priming the situation, getting all the circumstances in order, readying the conditions for the optimum—"
"Nonononono!" Dr. Smith cut in, seeing Noble open her mouth. "Not a word, not one word, either of you, not until we have this sorted. You're liable to throw us back into the loop if you do. Well, thrown back would imply that we've gotten out of it, and we haven't, not yet. Still intact. We're just…stretching it a bit, now." He paused. "Actually, I'm rather surprised you waited this long to interrupt. Donna might be used to this, and she'll have garnered a bit of sense, but you, Inspector…. I must say that I am impressed. By now, I'd have bet you'd be calling us—me—a raving mad lunatic, demanding I be locked up with the key thrown away!" He grinned. "Can't say I'd really blame you, given your mindset."
"You don't think I was too rude when I told him that before, do you?" Smith asked, looking at Dr. Smith thoughtfully. "Never can tell. Even hard in retrospect."
"Yeah, can't say I really remember," Dr. Smith said, gazing off to one side. "Haven't let it come back to me. Well, maybe one or two things. Well, more like half a dozen. But not everything."
Smith was the first to notice the glares. "Oh, right, I expect you might want to know how long this will take. Well, it's a bit hard to say. I must applaud your patience—and the fact that you actually listened, seeing as that might actually be a record. Most people, my companions especially, it seems, just don't listen. 'Don't wander off,' I tell them, and what do they do? They go off! Precisely because I told them not to! Rose was especially bad, and I'm tempted to think she encouraged Mickey, and—" Smith stopped, a catch in his voice. "Still. All in the past."
"We're not going to get out of the loop until someone breaks into it," Dr. Smith continued, looking just as pained as Smith himself, though it didn't show in his voice. "It's…complicated, in that respect. The thing is, being a loop, it's meant to be closed. But we can't let it close. Each time we loop, it gets stronger. And we had to let it loop a few times, just to be sure. There're a few different types of loops, and.… It's…not that important." He waved a hand. "Point is, we're stuck until someone breaks into the loop, since the resulting fracture prior to the finalization of the closing will shift the ends sufficiently to just cause a little bit of a snag in the timeline, and I'll be able to sort it properly without too much trouble when we get out of here."
"And frankly," added Smith, "I rather hope it's soon, because you two look like you'd like nothing better than to murder us. Not that you would. Bit messy. Circumstances aren't exactly ideal. Poor choice of a location. And, well, it wouldn't stick. Or it shouldn't. Of course, given the proportional factors…." He frowned. "I…don't advise risking it, really. No telling how much you'd unravel. Well. That, and I don't really fancy explaining things. Not any more than I have to."
"Time and place for everything," Dr. Smith put in, "and this isn't it."
"Of course," Smith began, looking as if he'd just considered a new possibility and was eager to share it with them, "what with things being as they are, and the wh—" He broke off, grinning. "Brilliant! Loop broken, feel free to babble."
"What the hell is going on here?" Inspector Large demanded.
"Oh, things are a bit complicated," Smith said, grin fading very slightly. "I take it you remember, then? The explanation?" He nodded, more to agree with himself than to acknowledge anything else. "Must. Would've started off with something else first otherwise. Actually, you might've tried to carry on the conversation, in which case you would've asked me what I was going on about, which, granted, wouldn't be much different from many of our previous conversations, but—"
"If you think for one moment—"
"Oh, of course I don't expect you to believe me," Dr. Smith interrupted. "Not that you'll admit, at any rate. I just think it's rather a credit to you for listening to me go on for that long without breaking in."
"Granted, I didn't leave you much time in terms of opportunities," Smith acknowledged. "Didn't really want to. Bit risky. High stakes and all. And, well, I didn't really fancy having to go through all that again. I was rather counting on it, I think, that you'd remember it. Wasn't I?"
"Oh, yes indeedy," agreed Dr. Smith, grinning like a loon.
"But, wait, hold on." Noble looked, he thought, more confused than the situation warranted. Seeing as she wasn't a professional, though, it didn't matter. She was as much of a liar as either of the Smiths. "You're saying we were looping? Like a record or something?"
"Until it was interrupted, yes."
"But I don't remember that."
"Of course not. You remember the last circuit around the loop. The others were rewritten. Well, not rewritten, exactly, but you know what I mean."
"Overwritten," Smith supplied. "Time was overwritten. It still exists. It's just been buried. You remember the top layer."
"I think this mess is giving me a killer headache," Noble muttered, shaking her head.
Both Smiths stopped and looked at her for a moment, and then they repeated her gesture, shaking their heads. "Now, look here," Inspector Large started before anyone else had a chance to open their mouths. "I expect you to hear me through!"
"We're listening," Dr. Smith said, looking surprised. "What gave you the idea we weren't?"
"I do not have time," Inspector Large growled, "to be entertaining fools! This is serious business. I—"
"Really? Never would have guessed." Dr. Smith winked at Smith. "C'mon, Donna. Places to go, people to see. And our good friend here knows all I can tell him. And John Smith there can fill him in if he forgets; he has a good memory, I'm sure, except when things need to be forgotten."
"But…but…." Dr. Smith's actions were clearly unexpected by his so-called partner, if Noble's reaction was anything to go by. "I thought we…. Didn't you—?"
"Nah, not much time left—hardly twelve hours. And the wait won't kill me." Dr. Smith knocked on the door to the cell. "We're finished," he called. "All a bit of a mix-up; nothing to worry about."
"Tompkins, don't you dare open that door!" Inspector Large roared.
"It's not Tompkins, it's Edwards," Dr. Smith admonished. "He doesn't mean it, you know," he added. "He just wants me moved to a different cell. Doesn't want to keep us together. Thinks we plan things."
"What?" Noble lost what little composure she'd maintained. "You are not going to get yourself arrested and—"
"Nah, not going to get myself arrested," Dr. Smith said, charging out the door the minute Edwards had begun opening it. "Follows orders, there's a good chap," he added to Edwards. "Good skill when you're in law enforcement." Turning back to Noble, who had followed him, Dr. Smith continued, "He doesn't have any evidence, anyway. And once he pieces together everything I said when we were stretching the loop, well, he'll realize he doesn't have a leg to stand on. And his time will be up."
"But what about Lucy Becker? And her father?"
"I, well, John Smith back there can fill Marty in now. Jeff can check for the evidence. Case closed. And Gilbert will be fine; Jeff would have taken him back once he'd made sure Martha was all right. Ol' Gil Becker will be out for a while yet."
Hold on. Marty? Inspector Large stopped in his tracks. What were they going on about? Who was this Marty? First person to come to mind was Hopkirk. The man had been nearly as meddlesome as Randall, but no one deserved to die in the pursuit of justice like that, even if it was considered a job hazard by some. But that thought was absurd. Hopkirk was dead and gone, buried six feet under.
"So it was Marty who came, then? Broke the loop?"
"Yup. Lucky thing, too. Don't know how long it would have taken otherwise." Dr. Smith blew out his cheeks. "Onwards and upwards, Donna. We'll be heading on."
Inspector Large made no move to stop them and they continued down the hallway. It wasn't worth the effort to follow up on a practical joke. After a few minutes—probably more like thirty seconds, actually, but it felt longer—Noble spoke. She seemed to have simply accepted everything that had just happened. It would have been unnerving if he hadn't thought she'd been in on it. But even with a change in topic, their conversation still didn't make any sense. "You never changed your trainers, you know," Noble said as they rounded the corner. "You're still wearing the red ones."
"Am I? My mistake." A pause. "Proves my point, though. Mind in a crisis."
"Yeah, yeah, just don't go on about it." Another pause, this one longer than the last. "Where're we off to, then? Nyxa 4?"
"Nah, we can see sunsets on most any planet. Beautiful resort on Midnight, and it has this sapphire waterfall…."
He needed a vacation. Dammit, he couldn't be expected to take the stresses of the job this long, not when he had to deal with people like Randall and Smith. It would drive any man to his wit's end. He generally liked to think things looked better in the morning, but this time it had only gotten worse. Scowling, Inspector Large went to get himself a fresh cup of coffee. It had been a long night, and he had another long day ahead of him, and he'd dealt with enough nonsense in the past twelve hours to last him a lifetime.
A/N: I was banking on Donna's reputation for knowing useless trivia. But, more to the point, we've reached the end of the story, and it's been fun. At least for me. I'd like to thank everyone who has read and reviewed, as it's always much appreciated.