I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day;
their old familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet the words repeat
of peace on earth, good will to men.
The night was quiet. Snow drifted on the still air, not gentle flakes but fat white powder alighting on any surface it wished. The sounds of civilization were muffled in a blanket of cold, the streets deserted of the holiday rush. Families were home at this hour, sharing Christmas dinner, anticipating the morning. The pale moonlight glittered off the sidewalks, illuminated by gas lamps lining the cobbled roads. On a corner, a man rang a tinny silver bell, drawing the last of the wanderers to the prospects of hot cider and roasted chestnuts sold out of his cart.
The soft crunch of footsteps was deadened by the snow’s silencing blanket, as a hunched figure made his way down Main Street. Alone, bundled in the warmth of winter clothes, the man who was not Jack Harkness but who had no other name to use wandered aimlessly through this little harbour-side town in North Carolina.
The date was December 24th, 1870. For Jack, Christmas was a lost history, an archaic holiday mentioned in passing but never celebrated. It wasn’t until he’d joined the Time Agency and fallen in love with the twentieth century that he’d really gotten into the spirit of the season. Rose had promised to show him the twenty-first century version, someday. But she was gone, the Doctor was gone, and Jack, for the first time in a long time, had little to feel cheerful about.
A low breeze picked up, swirling eddies of white around his boots and Jack shivered, pulling his heavy coat tighter to his body. Since the events on Ellis Island, where a simple passage across the Atlantic to America had turned disastrously complicated, he wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
“Put the gun down,” Jack implored, holding out his hands in a placating manner as the barrel of the pistol wavered unsteadily. Holding the gun was a grief-crazed young Scot who’d lost his wife to a sickness on board. The target, the ship’s nervous, sticky-fingered Captain, trembled in the grasp of two other passengers. The gold paid by all those aboard had been meant to purchase good rations and better accommodations. The Captain had lined his pockets instead.
In the middle of the fray, desperately trying to keep things from escalating out of hand, stood Jack.
When had he become such a boy scout?
“’e murdered me Rebeka,” the young man sobbed furiously. “Ye cannae protect ‘im, Jack, ‘e ‘as te pay fer what ‘e’s done.”
“I am sorry about your wife, James, but this isn’t the answer,” Jack replied, tensing as the gun shook precariously in the Scot’s hands. “We’ll take him ashore; let the authorities straighten this out.”
This brought a heavy sob and a shake of the head from the young man. “Nae, the law willnae do a thing. They’re all like him, all aiming te get rich from the bodies of the dead. This is for Rebeka, ye damned Sassenach!”
“No, James, don’t-!”
The sound made him flinch, stop in the motion of reaching for the gun. A slow pain spread out from his chest, replaced by a numbing chill. He looked down; almost reverently, touched his fingers to the hole in his shirt. Dark red blood blossomed out over the fabric like watercolours on canvas, shining in the lantern light.
He looked up again, witnessing the surprise and anguish on James’ face. Somewhere in the cramped quarters a woman screamed, but Jack barely registered it. It was as if everything had suddenly become an old television show, static and muted. The room wavered, Jack swayed, and he tasted blood welling against the back of his tongue before the world went black.
Jack rubbed his chest, the phantom pain lingering under the skin. The bullet struck by some feat of irony in the dead centre of the pattern of burn marks left by the Dalek ray, burns that had healed in days after he had escaped the Game Station. He’d woken up the following morning, a fading tingle beneath his skin and his blood-stained clothes the only evidence he had ever died, washed up from the harbour on the small island that would in sixteen year’s time house the Statue of Liberty.
It was then Jack realized he was a danger to the history books. Without his Vortex Manipulator, burnt-out and drained of power that wouldn’t be available for centuries, he couldn’t return home, or to the twenty-first century. He would have to live his life out, something difficult enough for a mortal, let alone a man who apparently could not die. Or could he die? Was it just violent death he healed from? Unwilling to find out, he left New York as fast as possible, moving south, down into the rural towns where one could pass unnoticed by time.
Jack stopped outside a shop front, breathing a sigh as he shook loose the snow that had collected on his coat. The lights surrounding the window pane twinkled merrily, casting colourful shadows on the faces of teddy bears and dolls and the gleaming red paint on a sleek sled, and a portly little Santa figurine hiding tiny presents under a miniaturized Christmas tree. This little town seemed as good as any. Perhaps he could stay, just for a little while. It was 1870, almost the new year. A chance for a fresh start…and, if he was lucky, he’d cross paths with a tourist from his own time, with the resources to give him a lift back to the Doctor, preferably before he could accidently muck up the timelines.
For now, the sweet, spicy scent of the season called him. He dug in his pockets for change, paid the vendor for the last cup of steaming apple cider as the man closed up, and inhaled the aroma as he hiked up the sidewalk. There was an inn just up the road in which the lights still burned invitingly, and he would take the small favours whence they came.
Silver bells jingled softly in the wind from the lampposts, singing their cheer, as Jack stepped into the road.
A sudden buzz swarmed into his mind, louder than warp engines and rattling his teeth with a painful hum. The Time Agent flinched, staggered. The cider fell, splashing with a soft hiss across the icy ground as he clutched his head in his hands. He tried to block out the sound, but it couldn’t be blocked. It was as if it were coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
In London, before he left for the States, he had felt this thrumming sound once before. It had gripped him with such an intense desire to fight or flee, and only as he had matched gazes with a fair-haired young man of 18 on the docks did the sound dissipate. The young man glared almost challengingly, daring Jack to do something. Jack could only remember the startling depth and age in those ice-blue eyes, like the Doctor’s; sharp, dangerous. The young man reached into his coat, took a step back, and Jack ran in terror, for no reason he could explain. He had not been followed, but it still shook him to his core.
The same terror gripped him now, but as he spun around it was not the pale-haired boy that shook him from the daze. He registered in his senses a shout of alarm, the wild clatter of carriage wheels on cobblestones, and the frantic whinny of startled horses. Jack stumbled over his own feet, landed hard, but it was too late to do anything but brace himself as the runaway carriage barrelled over him, and Jack Harkness died for a third time, chest crushed beneath the weight of wheel and hoof.
“Whoa there, whoa! Easy, easy there boys,” the driver of the carriage reigned in the skittish animals, looking over his shoulder as the cart pulled to a stop. The battered, bloody lump lay still in the street, bathed in a circle of dim lamplight. On the edge of their minds, the low buzz of a presence thrummed weakly. Methos scowled. “I thought we were the only two here.”
“Not anymore, it seems. I think he might still be alive, Ben,” Matthew McCormick remarked worriedly in a soft southern drawl, staring at the body warily.
“Nutter,” Methos, or rather, Doctor Benjamin Adams muttered. “Bumbling out into the street like that, drunk off his arse, no wonder he got run over. He’s an embarrassment to the breed; pity you didn’t behead him with the wheel.”
“Shut up Ben. Gimme a hand,” The southerner had already begun to climb down from the cart.
“Matthew, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ben hissed, climbing down after him. “Just leave him! He’ll heal over quick enough.”
Matthew had reached the body and pressed a hand to the bloodied chest, feeling for a pulse before rifling through the coat. “I don’t think so, Ben. He hasn’t got a sword. I think he might be a fledgling.”
Ben stopped in his tracks. “Even worse,” he grumbled, and then stared disbelievingly. “What- why- but- …Matthew!”
The younger Immortal stopped in the progress of hoisting the body up off the ground to give his companion a pointed look, resolved. “You going to help me or not?”
Methos gaped like a stranded fish for a moment, before growling and stomping over to help lug the body back to the carriage, kicking snow over the trail of blood. “I’m not training him,” he snarled. “I’ve had enough of students for this lifetime.”
“Thank you kindly,” Matthew said infuriatingly, and shut the carriage door, stepping up to take the reigns as a disgruntled Ben finished covering up the blood.
Jack came to with a painful gasp, his body automatically curling in on itself to protect against the jagged sparks of agony in his chest. Every nerve ending was on fire, tingling and itching and aching, and he was uncomfortably reminded of the way the radiation felt as the Dalek’s beams boiled his insides. Strong hands pressed against his shoulders, forcing him to uncurl and lay still on the bed, refusing him the movement. The buzz swam painfully into his skull and his eyes snapped open, glassy with disorientation and pain as he struggled against them, lashing out in defence against his captors.
“Take it easy, settle down,” a voice said, and a dark-haired man, roughly 30-some years old, leaned into his line of sight. Jack blinked, feeling the buzz abate slowly. Terror was replaced by an uneasy caution. Jack stopped fighting. The man smiled.
“That’s better. Took you a while to wake up, boy; what were you thinkin’, standin’ out in the road like that?” The man asked in an accent lain heavily with a warm southern tone. “You’re lucky no one saw you get trampled.”
“Wh...wha?” Jack asked, throat dry, staring up at him in confusion. “I’m not dead?”
“Nope,” his host affirmed, and passed Jack a tin cup filled with water. “Sorry. Oh don’t get me wrong, you were deader than a doornail, but me and the Doc managed to slip you out of sight before any bystanders got wind of it. This wasn’t your first time, was it?”
Jack gulped greedily at the water, rubbing his chest with a groan as he sat up. He took in his surroundings with a bit of surprise. It looked like a houseboat, furnished with just the essentials to make life comfortable in a rural environment. There was another man sitting across from the bed Jack was on, presumably “Doc.” Green eyes, sharp angular features and a steady gaze, he was reclined back against the table in a position that didn’t seem like it was comfortable. The man had a talent, though, for making it look effortless, and not the least bit sexy either, his shirt undone at the collar, blood staining the rolled up sleeves; his blood. Jack shivered.
“N…no, not the first time…once before,” he said quietly, looking back to the first man. Neither was particularly unattractive. Had he been feeling more himself, Jack probably would’ve invited them both to bed. But as it was, he felt sick to his stomach. “I got, um, shot, sort-of. You don’t seem surprised.”
The first man chuckled and shook his head. “Unfortunately,” he said, and refilled the cup. “Drink slow now, kid. Don’t want to make yourself ill.”
“I’d rather have answers,” Jack said, bolder, a hint of anger creeping into his tone. “What’s happened to me? What do you know about this? What was with that freaky buzzing? Where are we? Who are you?” The outburst made him wince, and he was forced to stop to catch his breath. “Who are you,” he repeated, calmer. “Please.”
“Impatient, isn’t he?” the second man remarked in a soft welsh accent. “Take it easy, kid. You’ve got all the time in the world for answers.”
Jack’s brow knit into confusion. “What do you mean?”
The southern gentleman smiled sadly, and the Welshman’s smirk was amused, and Jack suddenly had a horrible feeling his day was about to get worse.
The southerner, Jack learned, was Matthew of Salisbury, going by Matthew McCormick in this lifetime. The Welshman was Doctor Benjamin Adams, and wasn’t entirely pleased about having Jack there. He didn’t give a second name, but Jack couldn’t shake the feeling he had met him somewhere before. Both were Immortals. Adams had, with almost gleeful tones, explained to Jack his new status in the world: the Rules, the Game, the price they had to pay for eternal life. It only affirmed Jack’s own suspicions, while adding on a hundred new problems.
“So, there are hundreds of people out there, like me. Like you. Some of them are millennia old. And we all go around decapitating each other for the temporary Ultimate High?” Jack summarized, looking a little pale. Matthew and Adams exchanged amused looks.
“Pretty much, yeah; don’t worry though, kid. Me and Matthew are on sabbatical,” Adams said with a smirk. “It’s only the young ones that go looking for fights. And the insane ones,” he added after a moment’s thought.
“Most Immortals just want to live in peace,” Matthew assured him, shooting a look at Adams that the other man pretended to ignore. “But you will need to defend yourself, kid. And it’s somewhat unwritten custom that the experienced tutor the new. I’ll teach you what I know, and Ben...well, Ben will probably criticize us from the sidelines and drink all my beer.”
“Only way to live,” Ben answered smartly, and grinned. “Hell of a Christmas, eh Matthew?”
Jack drew a deep breath, and scrubbed his hands over his face. In the distance, a church bell chimed softly for Christmas morning.
He was Immortal. He would learn to use a sword, become a murderer in a lifestyle he had no choice in. He would never grow old, outlive everyone he ever had known, knew and would know, and only if he kept his head.
But he would see the twentieth century again.
He’d see the Doctor.
And just maybe, he’d get his answers.
“Alright then. I’m game.”