Jack sipped soda water with lime and watched his increasingly squiffy team celebrate the impending New Year. Tosh had gone adorably giggly and was getting a lot of material to giggle over, listening to Ianto and Owen arguing passionately (if not always coherently) about their favorite musical groups. Gwen and — wonder of wonders — Rhys were giving each other mostly-surreptitious flirty looks. They were also playing a bit of footsie under the table. Jack wasn’t expecting the two of them to stick around much longer; he’d been surprised enough when they’d shown up at the pub where they knew the others were meeting.
Seeing everyone together like this, having fun in a completely ordinary setting, talking about ordinary things . . . was good. More than good. It had taken a long time to forge his team into a unit, but all the effort was worth it. Jack set his glass neatly down on its coaster and excused himself. Even over the noise of the crowd, he could hear his team’s voices behind him as he shouldered his way towards the men’s room. He allowed himself an affectionate grin, shaking his head as a sudden burst of raucous laughter erupted. Nobody could say Torchwood didn’t know how to party.
Mission accomplished, he paused a moment on returning to the main room, automatic reflexes kicking in as he scanned the crowd. Nothing unusual on the radar — just the good citizens of Cardiff laughing, talking, arguing, drinking, dancing, and enjoying themselves. This was why he was here in this time and city, doing what he did: so that nights like this could happen.
Jack indulged himself in a moment’s worth of proprietary pride. Distantly, he could hear a familiar voice, rising in equally familiar cadences: Owen, off on one of his rambling, acid-washed, surprisingly articulate rants. Over what, Jack couldn’t tell — it could be anything from politics to traffic fines to the barber who’d given him a lousy haircut the week before. Owen didn’t need much encouragement to make his feelings known.
Scanning the room one last time, Jack let his eyes go slightly unfocused, to enhance his peripheral vision . . . and that was when he noticed the single island of total stillness in the otherwise animated crowd. There, across the room. Jack’s attention snapped into focus, along with his vision, and he recognized a familiar figure propped casually against the wall, near the entrance.
The Doctor was wearing his long coat over a blue suit. His arms were crossed over his chest, his shoulders to the wall, one foot kicked back so the sole of his bright-red trainer could rest against the wainscoting. He was staring directly at Jack, dark eyes lazy and half-lidded; when he saw he’d caught Jack’s attention, his lips curved in an acknowledging half-smile.
Jack arched an eyebrow, and began working his way towards the Doctor. The Doctor never moved as he watched Jack approach. Jack recognized that almost unnatural stillness as a hallmark of exceptionally long-lived creatures. Humans, primed for a short, fast-moving existence, weren’t quite able to relax into a moment with quite the same totality.
Reaching his goal, Jack eased back so he was leaning against the wall next to the Doctor, consciously mirroring his stance and setting into a stillness that almost — if not quite — matched the Time Lord’s. A century or so of life might be peanuts to the Doctor, but it had given Jack insights that most humans wouldn’t live long enough to acquire.
The Doctor’s smile widened as he considered Jack. The corners of his dark eyes crinkled with a multitude of fine laugh lines — one of the few signs of his actual age, those lines.
Jack might be just old enough to appreciate the finer points of standing still, but he was still human enough to speak first. “You’re paying a lot of attention to the calendar all of a sudden,” he said, with dry affection. Of course, he had no idea what sort of linear time the Doctor had experienced since his Christmas visit. It could have been a day, or a year, or a decade for all Jack knew.
“I suppose I am,” the Doctor said, rubbing an earlobe thoughtfully, shifting into a more active and superficially human mode. “Getting sentimental in my old age, I expect.” He raised his eyebrows at Jack, clearly expecting a reaction to that blatant straight line.
Sentimental is not a word that I would apply to you, ever . . . Jack thought, with clear-eyed realism, but he merely said, “Happens to the best of us.”
The Doctor snorted and dropped his gaze for a moment. When he looked back up, there was a light tilt to his head, a faint quirk at the corner of his mouth that Jack could read clear as day — an invitation.
Jack sighed. “You never call.”
The Doctor blinked, obviously taken aback. “I wasn’t aware that was a requirement,” he replied, shifting so that he was facing Jack more directly, one shoulder still resting against the wall.
“A little warning could go a long way,” Jack told him, not unkindly. He nodded towards the middle of the crowded room. “I’m here with my team tonight.”
The Doctor’s eyebrows shot up. “Travels in time!” he pointed out, the pitch of his voice rising slightly, as if offended that Jack would forget that little detail about the TARDIS.
Jack couldn’t help smiling. Then he sobered slightly. “Ianto and I have plans, for later,” he added, with as much gentleness as possible.
“So?” the Doctor asked, eyes wide, dark and curious, searching Jack’s face as if he realized he was missing something.
“If I took off now, even if I was back in a few minutes, his time, I think he’d notice. He’s pretty perceptive. I’ve been walking a fine enough line as it is. I wouldn’t want to do that to him,” Jack clarified.
The penny dropped — quite visibly; at times the Doctor was startlingly unguarded with his facial expressions. Embarrassed, he ducked his head and looked at the toes of his trainers.
“He’s young,” Jack added, gentling his voice even further. “And mortal.”
Jack saw that last word hit home as he’d intended. The Doctor’s head came back up, and his expression had gone more rueful than embarrassed. “And I’m out of line?” he asked.
“Not as such, no,” Jack said, shifting into a more teasing mode “Just that, for a Time Lord, your timing is lousy in this case.”
“Happens to the best of us,” the Doctor said, rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully.
“Some of us more than others,” Jack said with perfect deadpan sincerity. The Doctor’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but his lips curved in a smile.
“I need to be getting back soon,” Jack added, “before they decide to come looking for me. They’ve gotten pretty paranoid since the last time I took off on them.”
“Mmm, yes, right,” the Doctor said bobbing his head in understanding. He shifted his weight in preparation for pushing away from the wall. “Well, then . . .”
“Sorry it didn’t work out this New Year’s Eve,” Jack said. “Maybe next year, with a little warning,” he added, as broad a hint as anyone could hope for. Part of him was strongly tempted to say the heck with it, change his mind, go along after all . . . but no. He had a life here, with responsibilities and boundaries that needed to be enforced. He steadied his resolve.
The Doctor didn’t seem inclined to argue further, however. He pushed off from the wall, slipped his hands into his pockets, opened his mouth, and closed it again. He appeared to be thinking. He did not, to Jack’s great relief, look noticeably hurt, put out, or upset. Then he brightened, as if the proverbial light bulb had gone off in his head.
“Do you know what time it is?” he asked, a cheerful grin spreading across his face.
Jack cocked his head. “An hour till midnight, more or less,” he replied, knowing that wasn’t the answer the Doctor was looking for, but feeling the need to respond.
“In Belgrade,” the Doctor said, “it is exactly twenty seconds to midnight. Which means that it’s the new year just . . . exactly . . . now!” Without warning he leaned forward, cupping the back of Jack’s head with one hand and planting a solid kiss on his lips.
Startled, Jack responded, though not passionately; without chemical assistance a kiss from the Doctor was, indeed, just a kiss. Friendship and affection, no more . . . and no less. All the more significant because it was freely offered.
“So,” the Doctor concluded, pulling back and smiling. “Happy New Year.”
“In Belgrade,” Jack added.
“Just so,” the Doctor said, smile widening to a grin. He ran his fingers familiarly through Jack’s hair, before releasing him. “And with that . . .” he disengaged and spun around Jack in a swirl of coattails, heading in the direction of the door. Jack rolled his shoulders along the wall to track his motion.
“I’ll see you next New Year’s Eve, for certain, if not before. Consider it a date.” The Doctor winked, and waved a sketchy salute. Jack just had time to return the salute before the Doctor was gone, as decisive in motion as he was standing still.
Well, Jack thought, amused, Can’t say he’s not giving enough warning this time — nothing like booking a year in advance . . .
Just then, a burst of laughter and rather boozy applause erupted in the middle of the room — Owen’s rant had just run its course, from the sound of it. Reminded of his duties as designated driver, Jack pushed off from the wall and began working his way towards his team, and the New Year — in Cardiff.