|Third Doctor, Tenth Doctor, Torchwood|
Six Hundred Seconds by Nancy Brown [Reviews - 5] |
Notes: The literary parent of this fanfic is AND's "Wendys"
which you should go read RIGHT NOW if you haven't already. Chapter breaks swiped shamelessly from Terry Pratchett.
Pairings: Mostly canon.
Spoilers: Up through CoE.
Warnings: Shameless self-indulgence, bad temporal mechanics, loose handling of canon, excessive emo, and a lack of beta reading. Also, the ending depressed me and I wrote the damned thing.
Jack adjusted his hold on the item in his hand as he knocked on the door. He tried and failed not to make it a nervous knock, but the twist in his gut loosened as the door cracked open, and his face moved into a ready smile.
"Jack? What's wrong?" Tosh's mouth drew into a worried frown.
"Nothing," he lied. But telling her "everything" would have made things too complicated, and he didn't have time for complications.
"Even you can't get into much trouble in ten minutes," the Doctor says, hands hovering over the controls.
"I trained with the Time Agency. I know the rules."
"Don't forget to follow them."
"Here," he said, pushing the lilies into her surprised hands. "I saw these and thought to myself that you don't receive nearly enough flowers."
The confusion didn't leave her face as she bent in to smell them. "They're lovely. Thank you." A pause, as she tried to read his face, but he'd had years to hide from her, and he knew she found nothing. "Would you like to come in?"
"That'd be great," he said, "but I only have a few minutes."
She led him directly to the little kitchenette area, and unsubtly tried to distract his attention from the mess in the rest of her flat. "I'll just get a vase. Are you feeling all right, Jack? I can't remember the last time you dropped by."
"No, I'm fine," he lied again. "I've been told I need to be a little more involved with everyone, not be so standoffish. I'm working on it. Talk to me," he said, and to cover the pain he could hear in his own voice, he smiled to make it a joke: "Tell me about your day."
"I spent all day working on that tracking program you want."
"Tell me about it," he said. When she shot him a look, he said, "No, really. Tell me about what you did. I'm interested."
Tosh filled her makeshift vase, a large drinking glass really, with water and began telling him about the program, clearly dumbing the explanation down for his benefit. This was fine with Jack, since he wasn't listening to her words anyway, just filling himself with the sound of Tosh's voice, the graceful sight of her hands nervously arranging the lilies. Death flowers, he thought too late, but as she focused on them, on the details of her work, her voice strengthened and he could see the brilliant woman he'd always seen inside her.
beep beep beep beep
"What's that?" asked Tosh, pulled from her description of a particular circuit pathway she'd had to reconfigure to make the program do what she wanted.
"Sorry," he said, silencing the alarm. Ten minutes. It wasn't enough. But neither would an hour, or a day or a lifetime. Jack bent over and kissed her on the cheek.
"What's that for?"
"Because I don't appreciate you enough. Any of you. I have to go."
"All right," she said, hurrying to keep up with him as he went to the door. "See you tomorrow, then."
"Yeah," he said. "Oh, better not mention the flowers tomorrow. People will talk," he said, and gave her a grin.
"No problem," she said with a nod. "Good night."
"Owen!" Jack shouted as the door spun open. "Give me some good news."
There was no answer at first, and Jack bit his lip uneasily. He knew the date and time, knew he wouldn't run into himself, but he'd been sure that Owen had stayed to work tonight.
There was a crash from the autopsy bay, and Owen emerged wiping his hands on a rag. "What the hell? I thought you said not to bother you tonight."
"Change of plans," Jack said. "So fill me in."
"On what? I was cleaning up."
"You must be sure," the Doctor says, lecturing like Jack's some green recruit, "not to cross your own timeline."
"I'll be good."
"This is serious. Do you know for certain where the other you is right now?"
He checks the clock even though he doesn't have to. "Second base. I'll be at third before the movie ends."
His mind switched gears. "On everything. You and I never talk anymore."
"You’re kidding me."
"No. I mean it. Let's sit and have a chat."
Owen watched him suspiciously, and Jack added, "I've got a bottle in my office that would go down really well right now." Owen was still alive, completely alive, and could enjoy the booze properly. Another month and that would be gone. From the edge of his hearing, Jack could almost hear the seconds of Owen's life ticking towards their end.
"Okay then. But no funny business, yeah?"
"If you were a Boy Scout, I'm the King of Sweden."
Jack kept a full set of glasses in the same drawer. He never knew when Good Cop Bad Cop would be much better settled over some scotch, and he was prepared for anything. "Ice?"
"And water down such a fine thing? Blasphemy," said Owen as he took half of it in a gulp.
Jack toyed with his glass. He'd spent too much of the past eight months at the bottom of one.
"So. Tell me what you've been up to. Anyone in your life you haven't mentioned?"
"No and if there was, I wouldn't tell you."
"No, but you are insanely jealous." Owen drank the rest and held out his glass for more. Jack gave him plenty. "Any time one of us gets serious with someone outside, someone not on the team, you pull one of your little games."
"Hey, I told you the nudity was completely optional on Pictionary night!"
Owen laughed into his hand. "You're a piece of work. You know that?"
"I do. Talk to me, Owen. Tell me something. Tell me anything."
"Well, I did find something really strange in … "
Again, the words were meaningless. The speaker was everything. Jack tried to follow along, remembering the case, something Owen would eventually track down. A quick raid on an alien drug house later, no one even scratched, and this time next week they'd already be forgetting about it.
Jack had forgotten so much. He tried to memorize everything now: the cadence of Owen's voice, the way he gestured with his empty glass.
"Anyway, I think I might be on to some … "
beep beep beep beep
"That's new," Owen said.
"Yeah. I have to go. Feel free to finish the bottle without me."
"Thanks." He smirked. "Tell the missus I like the new pager." Jack quirked his mouth. "And don't tell you know who I called him 'missus' or he'll get weird again."
"Done." And because he could and because there would never be another time he could, he swept Owen into a hug. Owen stiffened but didn't draw away.
"And now you're getting weird again."
"It's the booze. This stuff packs a punch. Be careful."
"Right. See you in the morning."
Alice opened the door without looking through the glass. Lucia had spent years trying to get it through her head that it wasn't safe, but in some ways she was exactly like him, rushing headlong into trouble. The dark look that crossed her face as she saw him was another likeness: always be wary, especially of a known con artist.
"What's wrong? It's not the holidays. Steven's birthday isn't for two months yet."
"I was in the neighborhood. I just wanted to drop by and see the two of you."
"Okay. Well. You've seen me."
"Is Steven home? Or is he still at school?"
"Here," Jack says. "He'll be in Year 2."
"Are you sure?" He isn’t asking about the age. Two trips down and Jack feels centuries older even if he doesn't look it.
"He got home an hour ago." She hadn't invited him in yet, was blocking the door with her body. He felt the seconds sliding away. Already a full minute gone forever, and he hadn't seen Steven yet. "Who's that?"
Jack glanced over his shoulder. The Doctor stood across the street, waiting.
"A friend. Can I come in?"
"Another one?" Alice sighed. "Is he coming?"
"No. I can't stay long."
"Steven!" Alice shouted up the stairs as she closed the door behind him. "Your Uncle Jack's here."
The boy, all blond mop and energy, shot out of his room and bounded down the stairs to him.
"Watch it," Alice said. "You'll break your neck."
Jack didn't flinch though his breath left him for a moment, and he covered it with the oomph from a giant hug. He let himself dwell on the hug, closing his eyes and trying to record the feel of the little arms around his neck.
"Hi, Uncle Jack! Did you bring me anything?"
"Steven, I've told you before that's rude."
"It's okay," said Jack. He reached into a pocket of his greatcoat and pulled out a toy airplane. The model had gone missing from his office the same night his bottle of scotch had, as he recalled.
"Cool," said Steven, while Alice clearly made mental notes of the sharp corners and small, easily breakable parts.
"Tell me about school," Jack said, playing with the boy's hair as he examined the new toy.
"We sang about our letters today, and Joey and Sam fought and got us all covered in mud!"
"That's brilliant." Now that he knew what to look for, he could tell Steven was fresh from a bath. The baby shampoo Alice still used on him filled Jack's nose. Something to remember, something to hold onto.
"You don't look well," Alice said.
"I'm fine." The same lie, over and over, but now he was in the presence of someone who'd grown up in his shadow and recognized his bullshit from miles away.
"Are you going to tell me about it, or keep me in suspense?"
"Suspense." A smile wouldn't make this better, but he tried anyway. "Steven, I haven't seen your room in ages. Want to show me? Maybe we can find a place to put your plane."
Steven led him up the stairs. Alice waited at the foot, and a glance back told him she still didn't trust him. Not long left, not now. He could spend his last precious minutes with her, trying to pack a lifetime of being who she'd always needed him to be in less than the span it'd take to walk to the end of her street. And at the end, she would still watch in horror as he took the center of her life away, and she would still hate him forever.
"Come on," said Steven, and Jack followed him to the brightly-decorated room. WWII model airplanes and teddy bears filled the shelves. Jack let go of Steven's hand so he could start moving toys around to find a place of honor for his newest acquisition.
"This is new," Jack said, picking up a puzzle. Was the kid already doing 500 piece puzzles? Hadn't he been crawling yesterday? Hadn't Alice been crawling the day before?
"Dad sent it," Steven said and took it from his hands, placing it back where it belonged. The divorce would have gone through a few months ago, Jack remembered. It would all be still fresh for him.
"Are you okay? Do you want to talk? Or would you rather I fly you around the room?" He made grabbing hands, which sent Steven into a burst of giggles before the first ticklish spot could be found. Soon the room was filled with flying, laughing kid as Jack mimicked airplane noises.
"Put me down!"
"Okay, okay." He sat down on Steven's bed. "What would you like … "
beep beep beep beep
He ignored it.
beep beep beep beep
"What's that?" Alice asked, walking up the stairs. Jack clicked off the page.
"Nothing." He knew if he went to the window, he'd see the Doctor watching him. Ten minutes, no more, and if Jack broke his word on this visit, he knew it would be his last trip. "I'm sorry. I wish I could stay."
Steven's face fell. "You just got here."
"I know. I know. You'll see me again. I promise." No tears, not now, not with Alice watching him and knowing his secrets so well. Already she was examining his face, his hair, looking for signs of changes. "How about one more hug, buddy?"
Steven was in his arms again, and Jack held on as long as he could. "Be good for your mom."
Jack stood up. "Alice."
"We'll see you later, then," she said.
He held out his arms. "Hug for the road?"
She stepped into his arms, placed a tight kiss against his cheek. "You're up to something," she whispered.
"You know me," Jack said, and before she could move away, he kissed her forehead like he had when she was a little girl.
"Goodbye, Steven," he said.
"Bye!" said Steven.
Alice walked him to the door. As she opened it, the Doctor stood on the doorstep ready to knock.
"I know. Would you like to meet … "
"No. We need to go now."
"Another rude one?" Alice asked. "Why can't you find someone pleasant for once?"
"The pleasant ones won't have me," Jack said, slinging his arm around the Doctor's shoulders.
"Oh, that's very nice," said the Doctor. "Are you done?"
"Goodbye, Alice," he said, wanting another hug, another kiss, another minute.
"Goodbye, Jack," she said, and closed the door on him.
Although it was technically still summer, the early evening air was cool. Jack shivered in his coat, and the Doctor knew he would pass it off as cold.
"I'm picking the time and place for this one."
"But … "
"No arguments. No, I don't trust you so don't ask."
Jack doesn't ask.
"And I'm coming with you."
The Doctor shoved his own hands in his pockets and looked around the playpark. Jack's gaze was already drawn to a child, perhaps nine years old, looking at the swings.
"This is not fair," Jack said.
"It never is. I've found it's sometimes easiest to say goodbye before you're ever said hello."
"Your time starts now." Jack reached into his pocket and then walked towards the swings.
The Doctor veered his path towards the picnic table beside the play area. A woman sat there alone, watching the boy and a group of girls playing further out. Tiny lines etched her face, but she was still quite beautiful.
She turned her head. Polite confusion crossed her features as he sat down across from her. Her attention went back to her son as Jack reached the swings with a friendly smile.
"Hey!" she shouted.
"It's all right," said the Doctor. "He's with me. I assure you that right now, he'd rather cut off his own arm than see a hair hurt on that boy's head."
Jo looked at him again, and her expression narrowed. "It's funny. The others say your eyes don't change, but they're wrong. Your eyes change along with everything else. It's the sights in them." She glanced away, a soft hitch in her chest she wouldn't acknowledge even if he pointed it out. "Where have you been?"
"I always thought you'd come back to visit, but you never do. Not for any of us." Jo wiped her face with her hand. "We all talk, you know, the ones we can find." The ones who didn't die yet, or get lost in time, she didn't have to say. "Sarah Jane calls us your Wendys. Mostly to tweak the boys, I think. Harry always got this angry wrinkle in his forehead." She broke off. "You never came for Harry. He thought you might."
"I'm not good with goodbyes."
"But you're here now. And this is goodbye, isn't it."
Jo looked over at her son again. The Doctor could hear Jack talking to him, offering a game of catch or a quick push on the swings. The boy scowled, and then shivered a little in the sudden breeze, not dressed for cool. Jack's coat was off in a second and draped around his shoulders, which only deepened the scowl.
"We haven't told the kids. I don't know how to tell them, not about you, not about this. Cliff's a good man. He'll take good care of them. He's not dealing with it well just now."
"No." The Doctor took her hand, felt the thin beat of her pulse. Less than a month left, and she would be gone forever. Academically, he knew all his companions were so short-lived, were practically dead to him as soon as he met them, and so he fled before he stood by yet another grave.
"He lost his job. He's so afraid." She smiled. "You know, you're the only man he was ever jealous of? I spent hours talking with Mike after he came home, but he knows you were the only real competition." She wiped her face again. "Mike's got a new job. Some Black Ops group. Works with UNIT sometimes, bit obsessed with you. Keep an eye out?"
Jack had finally coaxed the boy onto the swings. Jo watched them.
"You try to do the best for them you can. Teach them the important things while you still have time. Like playing fair. And taking care of your family. And that love is worth any price."
"Maybe you shouldn't emphasize that last one quite so hard."
"Promise me something." She squeezed his hand. "Promise me you'll watch out for my kids."
He pulled back. "Jo … "
"Please. Liz says it's like we're your children. You teach us a little and let us grow up and go on our way, and that's fine. I won't say you owe us. But if we're your kids, then those are your grandchildren." She squeezed harder. "Please promise me. Keep them safe. Let them be happy."
He closed his eyes. So many lost chances. So many lost lives.
Jack's head turned. "What?"
"Time to go."
"Not yet!" He pulled something out of the jacket's pocket. "I've got almost three minutes left!"
"We're leaving early. Come here." At the hurt look on his face, he added, "Trust me. Tell your friend he'll see you later."
Jack turned back to the boy, who shrugged out of the coat. "You're barmy, mister," the Doctor heard him say.
Jack turned slowly away and came to the picnic table.
"I want you to meet someone. This is Josephine Grant. I believe you've met her children."
"Josephine Jones," she corrected, and shook Jack's hand with her free hand.
"It's good to meet you. I've heard so much about you."
"Behave," the Doctor said. "That'd be weird even for you."
"But not unprecedented." The Doctor sighed and counted to ten slowly.
Jo smiled at the Doctor. "So you do talk about us sometimes."
"Jack, Jo just asked me to promise to keep her kids safe."
"Safe and happy," Jo said.
The Doctor gave her hand a last friendly squeeze. "I promise."
"Good," she said, and Jack closed his eyes.
"We have some work to do," the Doctor said, rising. "Come on, Jack."
"Still no goodbye?" Jo asked.
"Where are we going, then?" Jack asked eagerly as the door to the TARDIS closed behind him. "Thames House? Maybe we can stop things from that time Martha came to visit." Yeah, that'd be good, he thought. He'd take the bullet for Owen. It could all work out from there.
The Doctor began to play with the controls, did not meet his eyes.
"I'm looking for something." A moment later, there was a beep. "And there it is. Michael Yates, Mike to his friends. Worked for a rather familiar group."
"I know that name." Jack had seen all the records for Torchwood One, eventually.
"Seems he put in a good word for your friend. Got him a job."
"I suppose." He didn't remember the details, but Ianto had mentioned a family friend setting up his interview. The employment records, as much as they could recover, said he'd been qualified and Jack hadn't looked further, not then.
"So we'll be placing a call to Mike and stop that. Easy as pie." The Doctor picked up a cellphone and dialed.
"Wait, what?" Jack pulled the phone out of his hand and clicked it off. "What are you doing?"
"You heard what I promised."
"Safe. I can keep him safe."
"How? Locking him in a box? Ordering him out of trouble every time you go on a mission?"
"I'll find a way."
"You're not safe, Jack. No one who is with you is safe." And Jack knew he wasn't the only one the Doctor meant.
"Doctor … "
"Did he ever save the world? Just once, did he save the world on his own?"
Jack thought. "No. Not alone." He breathed. "He saved me."
"You always come back."
"That's not what I meant."
"What you're talking about. It'll rewrite time."
"Time can be rewritten, from the right point." He looked down at the controls again. "Probably," he said in a very low voice.
He held out his hand. Jack wanted to run, wanted to shout and argue, and instead gave him the phone.
"Mike! Long time no see! It's me." He waited. "Yeah. No, don't tell those idiots at Torchwood you're on the phone with me. They'll just do something incompetent."
"Hey!" Jack said.
"Mike, I need you to do me a favor, and you can't ask why. Jo's son, he's going to interview for a job soon. Oh, he started yesterday? All right. Fire him." A long pause, at least on the Doctor's end. "No, this is important. You have to trust me."
The Doctor put his hand over the phone. "Jack, do you like France? I love France! Had a wonderful time there in the eighteenth century. Lovely place, France."
"Not really my kind of place."
The Doctor spoke into the phone. "Transfer him to France. No, I don't care how."
Jack grabbed the phone over the Doctor's yelp. "Hi. Don't mind me, I'm with him."
"Okay," said the voice on the line uncertainly. "You sound familiar."
"I get that all the time. Look, you've got another employee. Woman named Lisa Hallett."
"Yes. Pretty girl, been with us about a year."
"Send her to France, too."
The Doctor grabbed the phone back. "Hold on a moment, Mike." To Jack: "What do you think you're doing?"
"You said safe and happy. They'll be happy." Funny, he hadn't thought it would hurt worse, he hadn’t thought it was possible to hurt worse.
"You're not playing matchmaker."
"She died at Canary Wharf. They'd have been married by now, with half a dozen kids and a minivan." He didn't add: You did the same for Rose. He didn't have to.
The Doctor went back to the phone. "Fine. Send Lydia ... "
"Lisa. Send Lisa to France, too." Another pause. "Thank you. And Mike? Tell the other Wendys I said hello." Jack could hear the sudden laughter from the phone, and the Doctor hung up.
"Done. Like I said, easy as pie. You know who makes the best pie? There's this bakery in Bavaria you'll love. We'll go have pie."
Jack removed the stopwatch from his pocket and rubbed his thumb over the face. "Three minutes, Doctor. Almost three."
The Doctor sighed. "Jack."
"I won't go near him. I swear. Please." He checked the watch. "One hundred and sixty-eight seconds, without that damned pager going off. That's all. And I will never ask you for another thing as long as I live."
The Doctor watched him, then touched the controls.
They'd decided to have the wedding in London. Lisa wanted her family there, and had insisted Ianto not accidentally forget to invite his own. Thus far, things had gone well. Jonny was being too loud, but there weren't any fights like had broken out at Rhi's wedding. Lisa's dad was misty-eyed; her mum had died two years ago and he'd be missing her today, just as Lisa was.
"To absent friends" the toast had gone around after the rest, and it meant more. All the friends Lisa had lost at Canary Wharf, the ones he'd never had a chance to meet because of Uncle Mike's sudden change of heart. His dad. Her mum. And for some reason, tickling in the back of his mind, faces he couldn't quite place but whose absence he felt even as he placed the ring on her finger, as he kissed her for the first time as her husband. He loved Lisa, of course he loved her, and still something felt missing, like it would be missing for the rest of his life.
But now it was the reception, and they were leading the dancing. The two of them were alone on the floor, with their friends around them. The disc jockey had put on something romantic and modern Ianto didn't recognize, so he just held her for the few moments it took for everyone else to get the hint and join them.
"You look amazing," he told her, for something to say.
"You look tired."
"It's your day. I was told my job was to show up with the tuxedo and say 'yes' at the right places."
"Then you did just fine." She smiled at him, and the world was better.
The song ended abruptly. "Hey!" someone said.
"Sorry, technical difficulty. Right back with you." Ianto noticed the DJ stuffing a few bills into his pocket as another song began to play. A man in a long coat was walking away. Ianto's memory tickled again. Suddenly he sorely and desperately missed his mother.
"You all right?"
"Yeah," he said, and held Lisa closer. It was only natural to be thinking about the people who weren't there, and the only surprise was that he hadn't felt her absence so keenly before just now.
"What the hell's this, then?" said Jonny. "Stupid oldies."
The man in the coat had moved to the bar, and was watching them intently. He hadn't been at the wedding, and all the friends Lisa had invited were women. One of their dates maybe? But Ianto knew that wasn't the case.
"I like this one," said Lisa, and began to sing softly in his ear: "Sweeten my coffee with a morning kiss / Soften my dreams with your sighs / Tell me you'll love me for a million years ... "
When they had danced their way around again and Ianto could get another look at the bar, the man was gone.
He closed his eyes and Lisa's pretty voice filled his world: "Yes, if it don't work out / Then you can tell me goodbye."
Before they left in the hired car to the hotel, Ianto spoke to the DJ. After some prodding he admitted that one of the guests had slipped him fifty quid for the song change, but he had no idea who the bloke was. The bartender wasn't any more help, but did let him have the stopwatch the man had left behind when he'd gone.
It was broken.