"I already fixed the handlink," the Doctor complained, "and we've been through this before. I don't want to do it again. I hate repeats." That's all this was: a repeat. He was strapped into one of the contraptions in the Holding Chamber beside an unconscious leapee, and Zoey had shown up for one of her interrogation sessions.
"I imagine you've lived through enough of them," Zoey replied, looking him over. She was probably trying to see if he'd managed to loosen anything. When she saw that he had, she tightened it up again. "But don't think you'll manage such a miraculous escape from us again, Dr. Smith."
The Doctor glowered at her. "What do you want, Zoey? You know I'm not going to reverse what I did last time, so there's no point in even asking me that. You might as well just kill me and be done with it."
Zoey's lips tightened. "I have the distinct feeling that wouldn't stop you, Dr. Smith, and I intend to find out why."
"Good luck with that," the Doctor said sarcastically.
"Tell me what happened in the Imaging Chamber," Zoey demanded.
"I did," the Doctor pointed out. "The answer's not changed."
"I want a real answer," Zoey ground out.
"Well, you'd have it if you'd just accept it," the Doctor shot back. "I'm not a magician by trade, you know. That wasn't an illusion. Unlike other things around here, everything that happened in the Imaging Chamber, everything you can remember, was perfectly real. It was real, and you're very lucky that you can remember it and even more so that you're even around to remember it. Things may be fine now, but they very nearly weren't."
"So you keep saying."
"Because it's true. Is that so hard to believe?"
"It is when the words are coming out of your mouth."
The Doctor snorted. "You're one to talk." He waited, and when Zoey didn't press him, he changed the subject. "Why are you in here, anyway? Alia leaped out, didn't she? That's someone else now." He nodded at the leapee. "Grace is gone. I did my bit; I made sure she didn't wake up until this nightmare you built was over for her. So if Alia's leaped in, you're not planning on keeping me here, are you? Not unless you like repeats. I'll just get out again if you do."
Zoey spared the leapee a brief glance, then said, "She'll be out for a time."
"You know who it is, then?"
"Quite. But I can assure you, Dr. Smith, that it is no concern of yours."
"Yes, but it is yours, isn't it? You should be off to the Imaging Chamber again, shouldn't you, catching up with Alia? I mean, she wasn't gone very long, so you might think you aren't quite ready, but everything's working perfectly. I don't have to take a look at anything to know that. The pattern's not broken anymore, so everything works out. Past, present, and future."
"And how can you be so sure of that?"
"I'm the Doctor. Do we really need to go over that again, too? I'd be careful if I were you, Zoey. People might think you're slipping."
"Lothos, cut the lights," Zoey ordered sharply.
The Holding Chamber plunged into abrupt darkness. Oh, yes, everything was working perfectly, as he'd said. Just his luck. "Do you really think a little darkness is going to scare me, Zoey?" the Doctor asked. "I've seen scarier shadows than this." He'd run for his life from those shadows, and with good reason. He didn't fancy being stripped of his flesh by the Vasta Nerada. It would be a quick death, granted, but there was no coming back from that.
"Who are you, Dr. Smith?" Zoey asked quietly. She was standing right next to him now, so close he could feel her breath on his face. He tried to pull away, but she'd already made sure that he had no wiggle room.
"I thought you didn't put much stock in names here," the Doctor replied, "so what's it matter?" Without giving her time to answer, the Doctor continued, "Anyway, I've told you who I am. I'm the Doctor. I'm a time traveller. You're Zoey. You pretend to run a secret time travel project. Now that we're introduced, why don't you just get on with it?"
"I don't see why you insist on keeping this insufferable attitude," Zoey remarked. She'd walked around to his other side during his little rant. Probably trying to unnerve him.
It hadn't worked last time, either. "Well, you have to look at the context," the Doctor said. "Considering the context, my attitude's not too insufferable, is it? I mean, you are holding me against my will, and you haven't even given me my suit jacket back. I do want it back, you know. I love this suit. And you can't do much with just the jacket, now can you?"
"If you don't want me to begin another session, Dr. Smith, I would suggest that you shut your mouth."
The Doctor didn't buy Zoey's threat, though he had no doubt she'd be quite willing to carry it out in other circumstances. But these ones? Oh, no, she wasn't prepared. She'd need the lights back on, for one, and he knew that she'd move him to one of the Observation Chambers before she'd work on him in front of a leapee. She wanted the leapees to think they were alone. It wouldn't do to show them another prisoner. "It's a bit hard to answer questions if I keep my mouth closed," the Doctor pointed out. "I thought you wanted answers?"
"Do you ever give them?"
The question took the Doctor by surprise; he'd expected Zoey to make one comment or another about his snarky remarks or to just continue with her questioning. He wasn't really sure where she was going with her questioning, though. This certainly wasn't her usual line of questioning. "Come again?"
"You're so proud that I haven't been able to break you," Zoey said. "You were bragging to me that you only told me what you wanted. Tell me this, then, Dr. Smith: do you ever give anyone any real answers to their questions, or do you just answer the questions you feel comfortable answering rather than the ones you should answer?"
"By 'should answer'," the Doctor asked, "do you mean, 'should answer or deal with the consequences of not answering'? Because I tend to find that not answering in those situations is probably better off for me. Well, so long as the questioning side doesn't have a good bargaining chip. Well, so long as I can rescue whichever poor sod went and got captured and used as a bargaining chip. But if I'm the only one in any danger, I usually do keep quiet, yes, because people like you are more likely to kill me once I give you the information than you are if I don't because you keep hoping I will." The Doctor paused. "Well, that all really depends on who's captured me. If you don't take that into consideration, you might as well be trying to follow rules that aren't applicable. I'm sure you know, Zoey, that you can't win if you're playing the wrong game."
"Are you quite finished?"
"Oh, I dunno. Depending on the circumstances, I could just be getting started. I just seem to have a bit of trouble determining the circumstances right now. Tell me, have you got a knife on you that you're just waiting to use?"
The Doctor wasn't really expecting an answer to that, but he had thought Zoey would say something before she did. When she finally did speak, she just said, "I'd intended to kill you, you know."
"Intended?" the Doctor repeated. "You mean that's not on the agenda now?"
"Oh, believe me, I wish it were, but it's not that simple, is it, Dr. Smith? As I've said, you're horrendously difficult to kill, and as you've said, I don't call all the shots. I can be punished just as easily as Thames and the rest of them."
"Oh, and I'll bet you have been," the Doctor said. "When Alia let Sam go, I'll bet both of you were punished." He paused. "And do you know what the best part is? As horrible as that experience was, I'll bet you that Alia would risk it again if there's even the faintest glimmer of hope that everything'll turn out. However much you managed to bury her true self, you haven't managed to change her core beliefs. There's hope for her yet."
"You think she'll leap home, then, despite your meddling with our retrieval system?"
"I think she'll leap somewhere where she feels safe, yes," the Doctor replied. "Eventually." He paused, then asked, "Why are you here, Zoey? You didn't just come to chat. That's not your style."
Zoey didn't answer. The Doctor heard could hear her fiddling with his restraints, but he was surprised when he felt them loosen. "What?" he asked. It wasn't enough for him to get out yet, but he'd manage it with a bit of twisting. He knew that she had to know that.
"Like I said, I want answers. I'm willing to bargain for them."
The Doctor frowned, then said, "You're not allowed to kill me, are you? You were ordered not to. By whomever it is behind your orders."
"Unless you want me to strap you right back in," Zoey snapped, "you can keep your speculations to yourself. Answer my questions, Dr. Smith."
"I have," the Doctor insisted. "How many times do you need to hear it, Zoey? Time was cracking. You saw the effects of that yourself. Now it's not, and things are back to the way they were before. I've got everything sealed back up, and the pattern is back in place, so whatever is meant to happen will happen. I intend to make sure of that. Of course, in one sense, I already have, or the pattern wouldn't have been set again in the first place, so I suppose that means that either you let me go or I get away from you. Isn't that a cheerful prospect?"
"Whose project are you affiliated with?"
The Doctor rolled his eyes, but of course Zoey wouldn't have been able to see that. "Are you going to keep asking questions I already told you the answers to? I'm not affiliated with anyone. What makes you think I am? The fact that you can't get a fix on me? The fact that you can't make anything of what I keep in my pockets? Because that's suspicious, isn't it, the lack of any identifying trinkets? You can't even figure out my sonic screwdriver."
"Little silver tool, blue on the end; you know, the one I was using to great effect around here before you confiscated it and threw me back in here."
"You call it a sonic screwdriver?"
"Yes, but only because that's what it is," the Doctor said. "Look, Zoey, some things don't matter. That's one of them. It's not like I can't get things done without my sonic screwdriver. I've spent years without one. I'm hardly incapable. You must have realized that from the time I spent here before."
"I never said you weren't resourceful. I wanted to know where you learned to be that way."
The Doctor chuckled. "Most of it's just experience. I've been around for a long time, Zoey. Longer than you think. Necessity has been a better teacher than any one place I've been when it comes to learning to cobble together whatever I need. But that's just common sense, really, for someone as well-travelled as me."
"How did you find our Project when you came the first time?"
"I'm a time traveller. That's where I ended up."
"You said you could control where you went, Dr. Smith. How did you find us?"
"With a bit of luck," the Doctor replied.
"Are you sure about that?" Zoey asked in a tone of voice that made it quite clear she didn't believe him.
"Quite. It would've been difficult for me to find it if Sam hadn't been around. I got a trace off of him."
"Dr. Beckett has never been here."
"Yes, and hopefully, he never will be. I'd hate to think of the welcoming committee you'd give him if he ever did show up. No, Sam's never been here, but Alia has, and, as I've said, there's a connection between them. I used that. Happy?"
"Would you care to tell me how?"
"Not really, no," the Doctor said. "To how I did it or to how those two leapers are connected." He paused. "Mind you, though, they might've been connected before this even began."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well," the Doctor said, "for all I know, a couple of featherbrained Eternals set them up on this, playing them against each other. I don't know why. Well, okay, yes, fine, I do know why, if they are behind this, but I don't know why they would've chosen those two. It would explain a few things. How they managed to go at it for so long without me noticing, for one, and how inevitable it seems in retrospect that I got mixed up in all of this, for another." He blew out a breath. "That's all speculation, really. I wouldn't pay it much mind. I don't suppose, if we're going to keep up this chatting, that I'd be able to get a cup of tea? Even some water would do. I'm a bit parched."
Zoey was silent for a moment. "How much do you know?" she finally asked.
"About our projects!" Zoey spat out.
"I know enough to get by, that's it," the Doctor replied, "though I seem to learn more all the time I spend around you lot. But that's to be expected, isn't it? I'd hate to have to say I never learned anything." He'd managed to work an arm loose now, and he carefully set about freeing his other arm. He imagined that Zoey knew—she certainly wasn't deaf, after all—but, for some reason, she wasn't stopping him, and he wasn't about to question it.
"You know something about the future of this Project," Zoey said, "and I expect you to tell me what it is."
"The future's not scripted in stone. I should think you would have realized that by now."
"Oh, don't take me for a fool, Dr. Smith. All your babble about cracking and what's meant to happen, what needs to happen—am I supposed to assume that's all for nothing? The future may not yet be written, so maybe it can be changed, but there are some things that you think shouldn't be changed, and one of them involves this Project. What is it?"
The Doctor glanced in the direction of the leapee. He couldn't see her, of course, but he could hear the rhythm of her breathing. She'd wake up to this nightmare soon enough. "If that's who I think it is," he said, assuming Zoey would know he meant the leapee, if not the fact that he'd just gone about calculating numerous impossible variables and concluded that this likely matched the timing of Alia's last leap for the Project, "you may not have to wait long to find out."
"You're not going to get out of this facility again, Dr. Smith."
The Doctor started to fumble with the straps that held his feet. "I'm a time traveller, Zoey. I don't need to get out of this facility. I can get out while inside it. Did you think of that?"
She still wasn't stopping him from getting free. He couldn't help but wonder why. "Your things are in my office," she said. "I expect you remember the way."
"You're actually letting me go, then?" The Doctor didn't bother hiding the surprise in his voice. Bargaining, yes. He'd expected that from her. He just hadn't ever thought she'd hold up her end of it, especially when he hadn't really told her the answers to her questions, or at least not enough so that it would satisfy her. He'd still been expecting her to stop him sometime.
"I don't call all the shots," was Zoey's bitter reply.
Curiouser and curiouser. He'd been as good as given that free pass he'd been convinced he wouldn't see, and Zoey didn't dare cheat and take it away. Then there was the fact that the break in the pattern had caused the cracks, which in turn had caused the break in the pattern. That put him in the mind of the integrity of the never-ending circle, except that things had been broken and wiped clean. Perhaps it was a bit more like the Ouroboros symbol, though that still didn't fit. The cracks were gone. Wasn't a trace of them left. Alia was going to face her choice, now, and judging by the effects that he was seeing—or rather, not seeing—she was going to make the right one. She was going to leap with Sam at the end of this.
That had all worked out awfully neatly. He really had to wonder who was leaping them around, and who had been manoeuvring him. He'd played his part as a pawn, he was sure. If he'd had any doubt, being given a way out erased it. He'd done his part, fulfilled his purpose, and now he could go on again.
He wondered what else had been so carefully arranged, what else had been put out of place for one unknown reason or another so that things happened just so.
When his feet were free, the Doctor eased himself to the floor, wincing a bit at the pins-and-needles sensation that the movement triggered. He could find his way to the door from here, but he wouldn't be able to open it. He didn't have his sonic screwdriver, and he highly doubted Lothos would be so obliging. Zoey's orders, as far as he could tell, were only to free him from the bonds she'd put him in. He had to escape on his own. She wouldn't have made the comment about his likelihood of getting out of the facility otherwise.
She hadn't known he had the TARDIS here, but whoever kept her in line certainly did. Lovely thought, that.
"Are you going to let me out of here," the Doctor asked lightly, "or do I have to find my own way?"
"You can follow me." Judging by the tone of Zoey's response, it was accompanied by a withering look. Perhaps leaving them in darkness wasn't such a bad idea of hers after all, though he'd assumed it was only so that anyone watching wouldn't know she'd let him go. He suspected she'd wanted to do whatever she could to preserve her reputation. His second—well, third, but second that they knew of—great escape wouldn't look good on her record, but it was a better pretence for her than to admit she'd actually let him go.
"Guards not on duty, then?" the Doctor pressed. No sense in leaving just to get shot.
"Not at present, no. This isn't a trick, Dr. Smith."
"Well, you can't blame me for being a bit wary," the Doctor pointed out.
Zoey didn't reply, but he did hear her making her way to the door and followed. It slid open at her command, nearly blinding him with the light. Zoey turned back to him and simply said, "I don't want to see you here again. Do you understand me?"
He did. She'd probably slit his throat herself if he turned up again, orders or no. He wouldn't be so lucky again, and clearly, in her opinion at least, he shouldn't have been so lucky this time. The Doctor made a mental note to watch his back extra carefully. They'd gotten him before when he'd had it turned.
He watched as Zoey went off to the Control Room, and then he headed to her office. He could only recall being there once, in his first few days at the Project, back when she'd asked him some questions under one pretence or another. They'd been trying to get information out of him, trying to figure out who he was and who he worked for, without divulging everything that was going on within their facility. They hadn't known that he knew so much about them to begin with, if only because he'd spent time at Project Quantum Leap as a leapee.
His jacket, as Zoey had said, was in her office. He checked the pockets and found nearly everything in place, including his sonic screwdriver. The only thing that was missing was the oiler. He supposed he really didn't need it, but he did wonder why they'd taken it. He didn't imagine that they had any use for it. Perhaps Lothos had recognized it as something that was out of its time? Or perhaps he'd placed its origin as Hillsdale, Minnesota, the place of Alia's first leap?
Or perhaps, the Doctor thought as he spied a drawer in Zoey's desk that was opened a crack, it had been confiscated for an entirely different reason. The Doctor eased the drawer open and found the oiler tucked inside. A souvenir? It certainly wasn't an ordinary choice of keepsake. Couldn't be a trophy, not when he was getting away again. Maybe a reminder of what could happen, if they weren't careful?
Ha. Zoey was more likely to pinch it to see if she could get any DNA from it. Not that she would, or at least nothing she'd recognize. He'd managed to keep that secret, at least. And secrets were important in this game, oh yes. They were important in any game Zoey played, and he had no doubt she'd played many, though he expected most were with unwitting opponents. He'd at least had an idea of what he'd been walking into.
Maybe it was a souvenir after all. A token. A game piece. She'd found him a worthy opponent. He'd given her a run for her money, after all. If she hadn't been told to fold, they'd still be playing.
Besides, he doubted she knew what it was, unless Lothos had analyzed it and Thames had found the information worth repeating. They wouldn't be able to make anything of it. It was, after all, just something he'd nicked from a pile of scrap in hopes of finding a use for it. For him, for a time, it had been nothing more than a souvenir, either.
The Doctor pushed the drawer closed again, leaving about the same amount of space as had been left before. Zoey may still know that he'd been poking around, but it didn't matter. He was fairly certain he wouldn't see her again. Well, if he did, he'd probably try to duck out of sight before she spotted him. This parting wasn't exactly on the best of terms.
Still. Things to do, places to go, people to see. A bit of patchwork might not be on the agenda, but he still had to nip back to 1987 to return Grace's textbooks. The last thing he needed was for things to change because he'd held on to them by mistake. The cracks had receded, yes, and everything was sealed up and holding and just as it should be, but there was already a dent in the 1980s; he certainly didn't need to irritate a sensitive spot in the timeline.
He didn't fancy leaving things unfinished, but sometimes he didn't have a choice. Sometimes he had to admit that it was better if he didn't poke his nose into things and investigate. He wanted to know who, or what, was leaping Alia and Sam about, and who had drawn all the strings to get them together, to keep pulling him to their lives. At the same time, however, he knew it would be best if he didn't. Whoever was behind it all was formidable, and he really didn't need another enemy.
He'd walked away from some things, even recently. He still didn't know what had attacked them on Midnight, for instance. Oh, how glad he had been, then, that Donna had chosen not to come…. But things might have been different if she'd been there. The stewardess might not have had to sacrifice her life. Donna may have been able to talk the others out of it. Surely she would have realized—
It didn't matter. That was done. It was over. He'd made sure that the luxury resort on Midnight was permanently closed, relocated to another planet. Sapphire waterfalls might not be an attraction there, but the sunlight wouldn't kill the inhabitants, either—or harbour something that enjoyed playing deadly games with a shuttle bus full of tourists.
This wasn't like that, but it wasn't like he hadn't tried, just out of interest, to find out who was behind it all. He hadn't looked very actively. He'd rather enjoyed the mystery, to be perfectly honest. He liked not knowing things, at least when he thought he could find the answers. Now…now it was different. He knew finding the answer wouldn't be easy, and that there would be a price to pay for that knowledge. He'd find out eventually, wouldn't he? Perhaps not in this lifetime, but surely in the future, he'd have the chance to do a bit more investigating.
Or perhaps not. Likely whatever was behind it all didn't want to be found and was better at erasing any traces of meddling than he was, and he'd had years of practice. Besides, he could see so many other things with these eyes if he went elsewhere than if he spent his time tracking this particular mystery back to its source. And, well, Zoey had been told to let him go. If that wasn't a sign to be told to move on, he didn't know what was. Yes, he'd like to ignore it, but he wasn't sure if he should, not now. He knew, right enough, that he had essentially primed the timeline for the cracks. Alia's leaping into Grace had only been the last straw. What had he told Verbeena Beeks? Humans loved blaming that last straw, ignoring the rest of the haystack involved and happily continuing on with blinkered vision. He didn't need to do the same, not when he knew better.
Besides, he didn't even know what had been keeping Alia in place. Something certainly had been. As far as he knew, she'd gone about changing history gently. He had no doubt she'd managed to convince Andrew. He'd seen them signing papers, after all. She was right. She should have leaped out then. But, for some reason, she hadn't. He didn't know why. He doubted the cracks were the reason.
Come to that, he'd never found out how successful she and Andrew had been in searching for the cracks, or for traces of them. He hadn't met up with them again. He wasn't sure what they would have seen. He hadn't realized how far along things had been when he'd told them to search. They could have found something, he supposed. Then again, perhaps they wouldn't have been able to see it. Fickle things, those cracks. They had a tendency to blend in. He'd've noticed them earlier if he'd really looked. Andrew and Alia would really have had to look to see them, too, and not a lot of people could look closely enough. He'd thought Alia would be the one to spot it, but if they'd managed to find a crack that had manifested itself differently than he'd been thinking, or one that had begun to widen, revealing a piece of the alternate timeline—well, anyone would have been able to spot it, if they'd looked.
It didn't matter now, though. That, too, was over.
Over, and with nothing the worse for the wear.
But lessons had been learned, he knew. He'd learned a fair few, and he'd lectured Alia often enough, and Andrew had no doubt realized a thing or two himself. He'd given Thames a few things to think about, and Zoey had tried to get answers out of him without asking the questions she wasn't entirely sure she'd wanted the answers to. But more importantly, everything was back in place. He had a hunch that Alia and Sam were now both in North Falls, New York, and he knew they'd leap together at the end of it, and Sam would be able to cut the lines that tethered Alia to her Project, and Alia would be free. She'd remember everything, then. It would take some time, but it would come back. It always did, once the leaper stopped leaping. He wasn't sure how readily her first leap would have come back had they not encountered the cracking, but both she and Sam had managed to recall what had been buried, and those memories would be kept close to them now. A recalled memory stuck strongly in place when the memory was recalled while leaping. It wasn't likely to be lost again.
He knew what it was like to feel lost, to not remember things, though his experience had been due to a nearly failed regeneration rather than a version of quantum leaping. He knew the frustration of a lost memory, but he also knew the joy of recovering it. He owed Grace for that. She'd helped him find himself when he'd been lost. Had he ever properly thanked her for that, or for anything she'd done afterwards? He couldn't recall now; he didn't always stop to do those sorts of things, even if he should.
What he should do, though, is return her books first thing, lest the memories of the past distract him. He knew when Alia had leaped out, and if he centred in on her shortly before that time, he should be able to sneak in and drop off the book bag without drawing attention to himself. He didn't want them to notice him; they'd ask questions, and he wasn't sure he knew all the answers. He was used to leaving people with questions, but he still wasn't quite as used to being left with them himself.
Well, he did enjoy a good mystery. He could enjoy this, too. It had all worked out, after all. There weren't any ill effects, and rather than something being lost, something had been regained. The lost had been found, the lessons learned, the cracks patched. He couldn't really ask for more.
The Doctor slipped back into his suit jacket, fished out his TARDIS key, and headed back to his beloved ship. He knew where he was going next, but after that, well…. Where he ended up after that was as much a mystery as anything, and he'd never tire of that.
A/N: Well, that's it. I'd like to thank everyone who's stuck with it to the end and especially those who have taken the time to review and offer me some encouragement, specifically Questfan, Jonn Wolfe, James Birdsong, secooper87, Elvaro, and Amazing Bluie.