Smoke and Mirrors
Caught completely off-guard, Sarah Jane Smith stopped in the act of passing her plate to the waitress, set it back down on the table, realised the waitress was still waiting and picked it up again, and then found her tongue. "The Doctor?"
She knew which Doctor he meant. Of course she did. The world was full of lower-case doctors, including Harry himself, but the Doctor was unique. He was also gone, long gone, had been for years, off gallivanting through time and space with nary a backward glance for the friends he'd left behind.
At least, that was how it felt. Usually she was philosophical about it. Her time with the Doctor had been incredible, a gift. Every day she was thankful for it, and, as much as she missed him, she also understood why he'd had to move on and why he wouldn't come back. Binding him to one place in time was like trying to pin down a tornado. He needed to be free, while her life was here. She knew that, she understood that...but still she missed him, longed to see him again, and wished he'd at least visit or make contact of some kind - something, anything, if only to reassure her that he was all right, that one of his latest thrilling adventures hadn't been the death of him.
She'd never quite stopped to think that if he ever did come here again, it might not be to see her.
The waitress was still waiting. Sarah handed her the plate and accepted a dessert menu in exchange without taking her eyes off Harry.
"But why would the Doctor come to see you?" she protested without thinking, and even as she said it she heard the way it sounded, saw Harry lift his eyebrows, earnest expression closing off, tiny muscles tightening around his eyes and lips.
He studied his menu intently and didn't reply.
"I'm sorry," Sarah quickly said. "He's your friend too. Why shouldn't he come to see you?"
But why didn't he come to see me? Perhaps the unvoiced question was written in her face. Harry quietly said, "It wasn't exactly a social call, old thing."
"Why, what happened? Is he all right?" Sarah hurriedly ran through every headline, every news report she'd caught a glimpse of in these last days. Had something Doctor-ish happened that she'd overlooked, that she should have known about?
If it had, if Harry had been caught up in it...shouldn't that have been the first topic of conversation when they met tonight? Why save it for dessert?
"Nothing's happened, Sarah," he said, pursing his lips at the menu in his hand. "Not here, at any rate. It was all going on where he'd come from, though, by the sounds of it."
"What was all going on - where? Oh, you'd make a rubbish journalist, Harry. You've no idea how to tell a story!"
"Perhaps it's as well I'm not a journalist, then," he good-naturedly replied, and then looked her in the eyes and said, "Zygons."
"Zygons?" A chill ran down her spine. "Are they back?"
"Apparently - oh, not here. Where he'd come from."
"And where was that?"
Harry shrugged. "Some time next century, it seems. He didn't say, exactly. Not in my lifetime, anyway."
"Then what did he want with you?"
The waitress reappeared, forestalling any response. Harry offered her a polite smile and asked for an apple crumble. Scribbling in her pad, she turned expectant eyes upon Sarah, who hadn't so much as glanced at the menu yet.
"The same for me, please," she hurriedly said, and waited impatiently for the woman to drift away again before turning back to Harry. "Oh, come on, Harry. Don't leave me in suspense. Tell me about the Zygons - what did the Doctor want?"
The waitress had taken all the menus away with her, which meant Harry had nothing to hide behind any more. He shuffled in his seat and scratched his head and glanced sideways at the tables nearby, as if it had just occurred to him now to be concerned that someone might overhear.
"Bit difficult to explain, really," he said at last, looking pensive. "He asked me to do something for him."
"And this something is connected to the Zygons next century?" That made no sense at all.
"Apparently." Harry still looked pensive. He'd been quiet all night - work stress, Sarah had thought at first, but clearly it had been this all along and it had just taken until now for him to work up to telling her about it
She waited, but nothing more seemed forthcoming. "Well?"
Harry scrubbed his fingers through his close-cropped curls again. "He said the Zygons had invaded again - worse than last time - and he wants leverage to apply against them."
"What kind of leverage?"
"Smoke and mirrors, mainly, by the sounds of it." Harry lowered his voice. "Seems he wants them to think he has a weapon - he suggested chemical, a gas of some kind, harmless to humans, deadly to Zygons."
"A chemical weapon?" Sarah stared at him in disbelief. "Are you sure it was the Doctor?"
"Oh yes. Well, he had changed," Harry admitted, rubbing his jaw. "But it was definitely him. Smoke and mirrors, he said. Where he'd come from, they were about to start looking up Zygons in all the old records and he thought there should be something there for them to find, something that'd make 'em all think twice. Not a real weapon, obviously."
"I don't see what's obvious about any of this," Sarah retorted. She took a breath and tried to understand. "All right, so the Doctor wants the Zygons to think he has a chemical weapon he could use against them if he wanted, is that what you're saying?"
"Not just the Zygons - it's our lot who'll be searching the records. He wants them to find this. Damned if I know how he thinks it'll help."
"But where do you come into all this?"
Harry threw up his hands in a helpless gesture. "He only wants me to invent the bally thing!"
The sounds of the restaurant washed around them: the chink of cutlery against china plates, the low buzz of conversation, the background hum of music playing faintly over a speaker system. Sarah became aware that her mouth was hanging open and closed it again.
Several dozen questions and objections tripped over each other somewhere between her brain and her tongue. What eventually came out was, "But why? Why you? I mean..."
She tried to think, and realised that she no longer knew what Harry actually did. After leaving UNIT he'd been seconded to NATO, doing something 'hush-hush' at Porton Down, and since then all he ever gave were oblique hints as to how it was going. Some times when they met he seemed exhilarated, as if it was the best job in the world - other times, she'd swear he hated every second.
She'd wondered if it wasn't really so different from UNIT and the TARDIS after all.
Now she wasn't so sure.
The waitress reappeared with two servings of apple crumble, fresh from the oven. Sarah waited as the plates were set down, watching Harry closely as he smiled politely and thanked the woman.
"Is that what you do now?" she demanded as soon as they were alone again, just barely remembering to keep her voice down. "Create chemical weapons? You're supposed to be a doctor. Whatever happened to 'do no harm'?"
She'd never have believed it, not Harry - but Porton Down had a reputation, after all, one she'd tried not to think about ever since he'd been there, tempting though it had always been to her journalistic instincts to press for an insider scoop. It fitted, it all fitted, quite horribly - why else would the Doctor come to him with this request...but now Harry just looked disappointed. "Is that really what you think of me, Sarah?"
"Well, what am I supposed to think? If you were ordered, you'd have no choice, would you? I may not know much about the Navy, but I do know that much. Isn't that how you ended up there in the first place?"
Harry leaned back in his chair and looked her straight in the eye. "No, Sarah, that isn't what I do now," he said. "Other end of the spectrum entirely, in fact - my team develops vaccines, antidotes, that sort of thing."
Now that sounded more like the Harry Sullivan she knew and loved. A sigh of relief escaped. "Then why...?"
Harry picked up a fork and poked at his apple crumble without much interest, avoiding her eyes.
"There was some talk," he said in a low voice, darting another quick glance at the neighbouring tables, where no one was paying the blindest bit of attention to them. "Quite a while back now. We'd all those dead Zygons on our hands after that flap up at Loch Ness. Some chap at the Ministry came up with the idea of studying them to develop a defence of some kind, in case they ever came back." He hesitated slightly. "I was asked to consult on the proposal."
Sarah had picked her fork up. She put it down again, empty. "And what did you say?" she carefully asked.
Harry fidgeted and shrugged. "Well, we always knew a second Zygon attack was probable, after all - and their shape-changing ability is their greatest weapon, you know..."
"Yes, I remember." She remembered only too well - and Harry, of course, knew the danger better than most, having been shot, abducted and copied by them.
"I said that I could see merit in devising a means of unmasking any Zygons concealed among the population," he said. "But the possible benefits of such a scheme would have to be carefully weighed against the risks inherent, which I listed - at some length."
Sarah blinked. "You've been at Porton Down too long, Harry. You're picking up the lingo. So what happened?"
He shrugged again, the tiniest hint of a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. "Nothing happened. The project failed to secure funding."
"But the proposal is on record, your name is associated with it, and you're based at Porton Down, where this research would have taken place, if it had gone ahead. Well, I can see why the Doctor came to you," Sarah said with a nod. "But what is it he expects you to do, exactly?"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Paperwork, mostly. When they come to look back, he wants it look as if the research went ahead but was then stolen."
"Stolen? Oh, I see." Sarah thought she was beginning to understand. "A locked-door, no-witness TARDIS heist, and oh dear, that deadly Zygon killing gas just disappeared, as if it was never there in the first place - which of course it wasn't, because it never existed, but now everyone thinks it did and the Doctor has it. Am I right? That's crazy.
"That's the Doctor. I daresay it makes some kind of sense to him, out there at the thick end of whatever's going on."
"But can you do that? Get all the right papers in all the right places to be convincing, without anyone noticing in the here and now?"
Harry screwed up his nose and looked unhappy, idly chasing bits of stewed apple around his dish with a fork.
"I think so," he said at last, with the air of a man who'd been thinking of little else ever since the Doctor came to him with the request. "I don't know. I know where the old project files are archived. Accessing them might be a bit tricky...but I think I see how it could be done." He flashed a rueful little grin. "Almost like old times, eh."
"Well, you always did enjoy playing at James Bond," Sarah conceded. She began to eat her apple crumble at last, almost without either noticing or tasting, so occupied was she in mulling things through and worrying, because it was clear that Harry wasn't as confident as he wanted to appear. "You said he'd changed," she remembered suddenly. "You mean regenerated?"
Harry nodded, and she should have expected it, knowing the man as she did, but still the news registered with a pang. Regeneration meant that the Doctor she'd known, the Doctor she and Harry had travelled with together had died and was gone, reborn as a new man with the same name and the same memories, but a new face and body and personality, and perhaps she'd always known she'd never see him again, but the finality of hearing it like this hurt nonetheless.
"How did he look?" she asked.
Harry lifted a wry eyebrow. "About twelve, in point of fact."
"Really?" Accustomed as she was to the concept of his changing faces, the idea of a very young Doctor was hard to imagine. A faint chuckle escaped, unbidden. "Oh, perhaps it's just us - you know you're getting old, they say, when policemen start to look young. Perhaps it goes for the Doctor as well!"
They both laughed, more than the feeble joke deserved: a needed release of tension. Sarah scraped up the last of her apple crumble, eyeing Harry thoughtfully.
"What happens if you get caught?"
He caught her eye and quickly glanced away, evasive. "How do you mean?"
"Oh, don't give me that, Harry Sullivan. You know exactly what I mean." She lowered her voice, leaned toward him across the table. "If you're sneaking around a top secret government facility filing forged documents for a project that doesn't exist - well, that's an offence, isn't it?"
"Rather a big one." He dropped the innocent act and allowed his anxiety to show.
Sarah hesitated. "End of career - or worse?"
Harry pulled a face and began to stack their used plates to avoid answering, carefully scraping any last scraps of uneaten crumble from one plate to the other and gathering up cutlery and napkins to pile on top.
Sarah sat back and watched him, wondering what had happened - or would happen - in that second Zygon invasion, so far in their future. What on Earth could have happened that would prompt the Doctor to come all the way back here to ask this honest, decent, kind-hearted man to jeopardise his reputation, career and possibly even his liberty, all for the sake of a ruse he'd never even get to see?
"So what are you going to do?" she quietly asked.
Harry looked surprised. "What the Doctor wants, of course." Said with no hesitation and no doubt, in spite of everything they'd just discussed. "Must be important or he wouldn't have asked. Could we have the bill, please?"
That last to the waitress, who'd arrived to clear the table. Sarah reached across and squeezed his hand, a sudden rush of affection. "Whose turn is it to pay?"
"Er - mine, I think."
Harry always said that, and usually she argued, because she believed passionately in equality in all things, but tonight she thought she'd let him get away with it. He was an old-fashioned man. Paying for dinner would make him feel better.
"All right, then. You settle up, and we'll head back to my place for coffee and brainstorming."
"For coffee and what?" Harry looked almost comically perplexed.
"Brainstorming, you idiot," she repeated, laughing at the look on his face. "Ideas for this imaginary gas of yours - do you really think I'd let you do this without me."
"Oh, I couldn't ask you to do that, old thing," he promptly demurred.
"Well, that's all right, then, because you haven't asked. I'm offering." The bill arrived. Harry glanced at it and pulled a few notes out of his wallet while Sarah reached for her coat. "There's no point arguing with me, Harry," she told him. "If you're going to pull this off, you'll need my help. This plan is all about selling a story, isn't it? Well, I'm a writer, remember. Telling stories is what I do."
Harry hesitated, wavered - and finally smiled. "Thank you, Sarah."
"Come on, then." She linked her arm through his as they headed for the door. "You can start by telling me your ideas, and then we'll see about shaping them up into something that might actually work..."