He had taken them back into the vortex while he slept and made the repairs. He hadn’t wanted to lose the precious hours being on the ground where he couldn’t go back and regain them otherwise, so, feeling considerably less grumpy, and, happily, more hopeful, he returned to the amaranthine twilight of the market planet only minutes after he’d left, in Garazone Prime time, ready to find the errant Time Lords.
His new idea consisted of gathering local intelligence. He snorted at the idiom. Intelligence was, after all, relative, and Gallifreyans looked like humans – well, no, humans looked Gallifreyan – anyway, he knew the average observer would never have spotted the difference, but these were the straws left to grasp, and grasp at them he would.
He started in the pubs, picking half-heartsedly at a basket of fried food, pretending to sip at a pint of ale, and asking questions which earned him raised eyebrows and shakes of the head.
It was slow and frustrating and occasionally – not often, only when it seemed like the human or Garan he was speaking with wasn’t being entirely forthcoming – and it was important, or he’d never even contemplate it – touching and peeking into a mind here and there.
Any self-respecting telepath would have been shocked and appalled by this. That kind of permission-less invasion was just not done, and was very much against the rules of propriety. Well, not just propriety really, it was bad. Very extremely. One just didn’t violate another mind. He knew it was bad. It was, but the hope of his species was at stake, and part of him felt past worrying about the rules when no one – not even the minds he touched – would know he’d done it. Under any sort of normal circumstances, he’d never dream of it – he told himself he wasn’t like the Master – he knew it was wrong and he felt guilty for it, he really did-ish… especially since he hadn’t gleaned anything useful, but it didn’t stop him from repeating the performance whenever he felt it necessary.
The orange tinted Garan before him was starting to seem like one such a fellow. “Who’re ya lookin’ for again?” he rasped, not looking the Doctor in the eye.
“New people, would’ve come about two or three weeks ago,” he supplied in return. It was twenty days, five hours and six minutes actually, but no, he didn’t need to know that. “May have caused a disturbance, or crash landed, or…?” He gave a weak-wristed, flopping hand gesture as though it completed his thought admirably.
The Garan – Tuk, yes, he’d said his name was Tuk, or maybe Tum, didn’t matter, never mind – scanned the crowded dance floor and swigged at his beer and frowned. “Nawp, been quiet fer a few months a’least. Were a bit o’ ruckus few months back, but tha’ were ages, tha’.”
The Doctor had already been extending a hand in his direction when the last bit caught his attention. He pulled back quickly in what he hoped seemed like just a stretch, and ran his fingers through his wayward fringe. “What kind of ruckus then?”
“Oh, y’know. Off-worl’ers nickin’ bobs outta tha market. Were sorted quick as ya like. Good a’ tha’, us.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He had been to the prisons already and knew they weren’t holding any Time Lords, but he would be hacking into their data banks nonetheless. This was an actual lead. He’d been completely thick. Of course, they could have gotten here months before him, he was an idiot for assuming the timelines would concur. “Wouldn’t happen to know the names of the off-worlders, would you?”
“Nawp, on’y tha’ they were let out pret’y quick ‘cos there weren’t no evidence to keep ’em in. Stuff jus’ up an’ disappeared when’ey searched ’em. “
“Which shop was this?”
“Tha’s the strangest bit, tha’. Were an android outfit’ers! S’posed to’ve nicked hundreds o’ metres of livin’ wire!”
This did surprise him. What did they need living wire for? TARDIS wires were organic and very much alive, but he’d never seen one damaged enough to need synthetic replacements. His hope for finding whole, unmarred Gallifreyans was waning, and he suspected more distinctly that the direction he needed to look would reveal dark deeds in need of righting and rescue. Were these off-worlders of the alien-biological-experimentalist variety? What were they doing? Harnessing regeneration energy and siphoning it with living wire? Were they thieves? Thugs working for a mastermind? Who was behind it all? Where were they hiding? How were they able to stay off his radar? How was he going to find them, and how was he going to defeat them when he knew so little still?
Oblivious to the shadow that had fallen over the Doctor, Tuk continued in a gossipy, clever-in-his-cups manner, “Weren’t nowhere to put a load of it when they was caught, an’ it were gone from the shop, but they’d nothin’ on ’em in the end. Guards were right buggered by tha’. Merchan’ who fingered ’em still won’ let ’em near ‘er shop with their devilry.”
“Ah, they’re still here then, are they?” The Doctor couldn’t help the bit of desperation that had seeped into his voice. Tuk merely nodded and smiled at his nearly empty pint glass. “Know what they look like by any chance?”
“Three of ’em, yeah? Two tall blokes an’ a lass – a bonny lass a’ tha’. Don’ care much fer tha’ humans, me, min’ you, but she’s a looker no matter wha’ species. Tall, dark ‘air, light skin, wears a lotta leather an’ a red muffler. Tha blokes stay out of it mos’ly, dunno where, an’ when ya see ’em, don’t make much o’ an impression, do they? Jus’ tall an’ a bit dodgy. Hide in their coats, even in ‘eat. But she’s in market mos’ days an’ she’s not easy ta forget.”
“Tuk, I could kiss you!”
“Jus’ said I didn’t go fer humans, didn’t I? An’ tha name’s Tam.”
“Sure, it is! Thank you, Tuk! I’ll send another round for you!” He motioned to the bartender and bounced off the wobbly, lavender-coloured wooden stool he’d been occupying.
He knew exactly to whom the Garan had been referring and—
Oh. Right. Yes.
He knew exactly to whom the Garan had been referring.
Okay. Slightly, a little more complicated, but not really, nothing serious – he’d only successfully irritated the bloody hell out of her earlier – but ha! She had been a puzzle that had attracted his attention and he’d only grudgingly ignored it. Now, he would give himself full license to solve it. It was brilliant! And he hadn’t liked her one bit! His instincts were superior in every way! Why hadn’t he trusted that? She rubbed him wrong and he was going to find out why.
First, he would pop back to the TARDIS and download the prison records, then he’d seek her out in the morning – well, if she were a Time Lady she wouldn’t necessarily need to sleep tonight, but he really, honestly doubted she was – they were – they looked like children for Rassilon’s sake. And thugs. And they had mysteriously stolen specialty wire, arguably for nefarious purposes. And he couldn’t feel a thing from her telepathically. She just couldn’t be a Time Lady.
It was far more likely they had information, and something to do with the disappearance of his real focus. He’d deal with whatever else he found when and if he found it.
Mercenaries. The more he thought it, the more sense it made. Oh, he hated mercenaries. The reclusive behaviour of the young men was telling. They had something to hide and didn’t want to be noticed, or at least wanted to minimise the noticement—er—noticement? No, forget that, that was rubbish and wasn’t a word, they were discreet in any case – and they were doing a fairly good job staying off the grid.
It was actually impressive that it had taken this long for him to find them – well, maybe he should have just paid attention earlier when she’d caught his eye – and by caught his eye, he meant looked ready to murder him over spare parts.
They’d probably crashed, when he considered what she was buying, or trying to buy, and maybe they had his people imprisoned on the ship! Perhaps under heavy sedation or in a binding field! And that would be why he couldn’t feel them!
Blimey, what kind of ship was it if it could do that?
He had to see it, had to find a way inside. Maybe set off a chain reaction or two which would permanently disable it or, well, he rather liked it when they went boom.
The familiar thrill of saving the day was coursing through his veins, making his skin and mind buzz and hundreds of thoughts with thousands of possibilities just begging to be analysed.
He practically skipped on his way back to the alley where he’d parked his TARDIS.
He could solve this. He knew. Genius, him.
He caught her out of the corner of his eye slinking into another pub. Larger. Flashy. Seedy. A line of locals and two burly orange guards with sickly, yellow-green hair failed to notice the three who had weaved their way through the line and not paid the cover charge.
Perhaps a detour was in order. A little quiet observation and study might be just the thing.
He slipped quietly in the back door stepping through the fry kitchen, flashing his psychic paper at the cook and nicking a plate of chips as he went. Settling in a back corner that afforded him the best view of the room while being mostly shielded from view, he watched.
Surprisingly, she had shed her leathers but was still more covered than anyone else in the room, save maybe himself. She was missing the muffler and hat she’d worn earlier, leaving her curtain of sleek black hair to swing about her angular face. She wore an oversize, black wool jumper that hung on her willowy frame like a tunic. Despite it she was sleek and predatory. The only skin she showed were fingers and face, but all eyes seemed drawn to her. She oozed sensuality, and no one in her vicinity was spared.
Bodies bathed in coloured light undulated to the fashionable music preferred in the system. A mix of electronic pulses and pan flute, he cared little for it, but the sea of orange, and pink, and green, moved as if they were an entity alive with only the bass for a heartbeat and the melodies the very breath of life.
She moved in time with the music, her body only barely grazing those near her for fractions of a second before she moved away from any real contact. Many reached out to her and tried to pull her in for a dance, or just get her attention, but she ignored everyone… except a rather short and squat Garan male, with ruddy orange skin and pale-yellow hair, who looked at her with a lasciviousness that was, frankly, rather nauseating. He obviously was someone important by the look of his garb – richly embellished, and made of fabrics not seen on many present – and he seemed used to the attention of beautiful women despite his homeliness. She caressed his many chins, and pressed her body close to him as they swayed to the music, letting him grope her unashamedly.
It was hard to watch, to be honest. Something inside made him want to scold her for being lewd… and having abysmally poor taste. The man was a nasty piece of work if he ever saw one. He was unreasonably angry with her. He wanted to send her to her room to rethink her life choices. It was silly, really, he was sure he hated her, so why should he care about her choice in mates, but she was too young to be acting… like that.
He scanned the crowd quickly, and noticed two tall figures in heavy, brown wool overcoats near the entry. One keeping unwavering blue eyes on her, the other continually scanning the room through a curtain of curly brown hair. Her subordinates, yes. They were in the middle of a job then. The curly man’s wary brown eyes rested once, then twice on the observing Doctor, making sure he posed no threat to the girl as she did… whatever she was doing.
He turned his attention back to her, and saw her pull out of a kiss that sent the ugly little Garan reeling and gasping for breath. The Doctor made a disgusted face and shook his head. She was hopeless. He watched her take the opportunity while the Garan staggered to shrink into the crowd and slip away. She abandoned her attention-seeking behaviour as she made her way back to the men at the door, seeming to shrink in on herself and become invisible to the people in the crowd that had only minutes before been pawing at her. When she reached the shadowy, coated figures, she quickly slid into her coat, scarf, and a black straw fedora before the three of them slunk out the door and into the night.
Right. That was his cue to leave.
By the time he’d waded through the bodies and made his own exit, they were at least a kilometre ahead on grey, cracked city pavement, quickly becoming hidden by velvet darkness in the balmy night. He hurried to bridge the distance, but hung back by ten or so metres; within earshot for his acute hearing but not so close that he’d draw their attention… he hoped.
“So’d you get it then?” The taller one with the long hair asked eagerly.
The Doctor let out a small, reassured sigh that they hadn’t heard him approach.
“Really?” She shook her head and pushed him playfully.
He stumbled slightly, but didn’t retaliate.
“You doubted me? Think I like bein’ groped by manky carrots, eh?” she chided playfully then withdrew an acorn-sized, silvery sphere and tossed it in the air.
He caught it fluidly, slowing his pace to examine the object.
“Not now, you gormless git! Put it away! We’re still on the bleedin’ street, an’ you wanna faff about. God, you’re jus’ like Dad, you are, completely daft.”
“Oi! I just wanted a look!”
“Well, now isn’t the time, is it, Dum-dum?”
“You know, you can be a right terror when you’re cranky.” He looked down at her with what the Doctor imagined was a wounded expression.
“Yeah, well, I’ve had a pretty-not-very-nice-very-bad day, haven’t I?”
“Better now though, yeah?” he insisted with a nudge from his elbow.
“Yeah.” She bumped him back with her shoulder and relaxed visibly, even from far behind.
“Let’s go put it in, shall we?”
“Yeah. An’ I could murder a cuppa. With biscuits. Bagsie the chocolate biscuits, an’ the crisps. All of ’em.”
They both looked down and scowled at her. She laughed lightly. The one with curly hair shook his head while the other just resumed his forward-facing stare.
“Wha’ ’bout you then?” She looked up in the direction of the shorter, less loquacious man, who had been watching in the pub like a hawk with icy blue eyes. “You’re all quiet—er—well, more ‘n usual. Wha’s goin’ on in tha’ impressive head of yours, Little Brother?”
He simply shrugged while he looked ahead and kept walking.
So, they were siblings, these children, and thieves. Interesting.
“Oi!” She stopped walking for a moment before catching a hold of his sleeve and forcing him to look down at her. “Don’t you get cross with me! We talked about this! He was never gonna part with it, an’ we need it!”
Again, the man shrugged, but didn’t lower his gaze from the young woman.
“Don’ look at me like tha’! I’m jus’ doin’ wha’ I have to – to take care of you lot!“
“Yeah, I know… sorry, Alpha,” the quiet one breathed and dropped his eyes to his shoes.
“Look, we get off this rock, an’ I won’t pick another pocket, I promise, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Obviously, he didn’t believe her, but he loosened up considerably, though that may have been due to the distance they had now put between themselves and the pub where they had just robbed a man.
He wondered if Alpha was really her name, or some sort of code assigned to her. It wasn’t a human name, or at least not a name that nice human parents gave their daughters. Maybe they were clones. Renegade, mercenary, thieving, bunny-kicking clone soldiers made a certain kind of sense.
The brothers – he was calling them Dum-dum and Little Brother – flanked Alpha a step or two behind as they trotted down the dark, empty streets. They approached an open park and disappeared into a small copse of violet-leafed trees.
When he caught up and entered the thicket, he’d completely lost them. He wandered around the pitch and thickets for an hour and twenty-eight minutes before admitting that they’d given him the slip. He used his sonic to scan for any cloaked ships in the area, but all scans came back negative.
He had a choice. He could return to the TARDIS and get the prison records, or he could wait them out. They’d have to come out again some time, and he could be patient… it wasn’t easy or pleasurable, no, but he could… or he could go back to the TARDIS and move her here… Kill two birds with one stone, as it were, only he wouldn’t be killing any birds, why would he want to do that? Birds were good, but the idea was sound, and he dashed back the way he’d come.
He was halfway there when a small stone hit him on the shoulder with enough force to smart.
“Ow!” he whinged and spun around to see who had thrown it at him.
“‘S wha’ you get for followin’ me ’round all day, you pervy sod.” Alpha was glaring at him not four metres away.
He hadn’t heard her approach. It was unsettling.
“What? Following? Pervy? No, no! What are you, eleven years old? Eugh! I haven’t been following you! Well, maybe a little, but certainly not all day! You were following me! Through the market!” he ranted hotly. “And now you’re throwing stones! Are you mad? Who does that? That hurt!“
Her heavy, arching black eyebrows contracted as she regarded him, but the look was more evaluating than hostile.
“Who’re you, then?” she postulated with her throaty voice almost a growl, and amber eyes narrowed with mistrust.
“John Smith,” he answered without hesitation. If she was truly dangerous enough to hold his missing Time Lords prisoner, there would be no sense in adding another to the ranks… also, always using aliases was rule number fourteen when dealing with hostile, young, alien girl-terrors.
Curiously enough, for a split second, her eyes had flashed with something – recognition? trepidation? longing? what had that been? – but her face had remained the assessing mask.
“And your name, Miss?”
“Sally,” she supplied after an appraising pause. “Sally Woolfe. I noticed you behind us a while before we lost ya. Not very good at tha’, are you?”
“Oi! I’ll have you know, I’m very good at tailing people – excellent even!”
She grinned for the first time, and it lit up her entire being, the deep scowl seemingly a mere fleeting memory. “Tha’s why you stomped about behind us like a bilgesnipe, an’ lost us in ’bout two seconds once we hit the trees, innit?”
He couldn’t help returning her smile, but his guard remained intact. He gathered she was capable of being whatever she thought the situation called for to get what she wanted – he’d just witnessed it first hand in the pub, after all. He found he was more comfortable with her scowl. At least he knew what to make of it. Maybe she was hoping to steal one of the parts he’d bought earlier. Though they were all safely installed, she wasn’t to know that.
“So, are you jus’ a rude nutter tha’ follows an’ nicks space junk from young women, or were you comin’ to apologise for your behaviour today?” she teased amicably.
“Well, actually, I saw you nick that orb and got a little curious.” There. Just enough truth to throw her off and not enough to arouse suspicion.
Yes, very, very good.
“Yeah,” she conceded and folded her arms, “alright. Not denyin’ it. I’ve been after tha’ bit for months, but tha’ nasty bastard wouldn’t give it up unless I shagged ‘im rotten, an’ he’s been really pushy ’bout it too, so I nicked it. Would you shag someone for somethin’ you need? I think not.”
The Doctor made a face like he’d been force-fed bacon. Really? Was she purposely trying to make him uncomfortable in retaliation, or was it as black and white as she was claiming? Still, why did some strangers feel the need to go into detail about personal things he did not care to know?
“Happy? He got to squeeze my bum, an’ a snog out of it, so I’d say we’re quits, yeah?”
He cleared his throat, and navigated the conversation into safer and hopefully more fruitful waters. “Who were those men with you?”
“My brothers. Only got each other.” Her reply was soft and almost as if she was momentarily preoccupied. She shook it off in a flash, however.
“What happened to your ship?”
“’S not finished yet.”
That took him aback. “You’re building a ship from nothing? As in, ground up? No modifying an existing hull?” Ah, that potentially explained the piecemeal monster he had envisioned before.
She just stared at him without expression.
“Can I see it?”
“Spaceship expert, are you?” she furrowed her brows again and tilted her head.
“Yes!” He clapped his hands together. “No. Well, more of an enthusiast, actually. See? here are my credentials.” He pulled out his leather wallet and flashed the psychic paper at her with a grin. “I’m known on several systems as the foremost expert on hyper drives, ultra drives, mega drives, and floppy drives. I really could help.”
She studied it curiously for a moment before those unfortunate eyebrows met up once again in trepidation. “I dunno. ‘S our home, y’know? Bit like askin’ you back to my flat after two chats tha’ were more shoutin’ matches, really. Be a bit strange.”
“I’ve been told I am a bit from time to time. Strange, I mean.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“All the greatest people have been, you know,” he said as charmingly as he could.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re in good comp’ny,” she chuckled almost grudgingly.
“The best even.”
“Cheers. But jus’ ‘cos I snogged someone I hate tonight don’t mean I wanna take you home.”
The Doctor gave her a horrified look and took an involuntary step back from her, hands coming in tightly to his chest.
“Calm down, Harpo, I’m jus’ takin’ the piss.”
He allowed himself to relax and once again look at her expectantly.
She shifted from foot to foot for a second or two as she looked over her shoulder, then heaved a sigh, and brushed her silky black hair behind her ears with both hands and swallowed.
Shaking her head, she allowed the words to leave her lips like she was having to force them out. “Look, I can’t jus’ show up home with you in tow, my brothers would go completely mental,” she blustered, and he noticed her accent always seemed to thicken when she was uncomfortable; he filed this away for the future, “but meet me in the park in the mornin’ an’ I’ll talk to ’em tonight, alright? Plans are good. Advance notice, an’ all tha’. ‘M not makin’ you any promises, but maybe you can help us – a bit – since you’re obviously familiar with some of the systems we’re tryin’a run.” She didn’t wait for a reply. She simply turned on her heel and took off silently – how was she that quiet? – running back the way she’d come without a goodbye.
Still, he’d managed an invite exactly where he’d wanted one.
When he opened the doors to the TARDIS, he was feeling happier than he had in months and preened to his ship accordingly. “Oh, Sexy. I am good.“