Nonzero Sum Equation

by DameRuth [Reviews - 7]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Angst, Romance, Slash

Author's Notes:
The Flowers!verse can't stay too happy for long without a quick dip back into angst . . . so here it is! Thanks to aibhinn for beta-ing, though I've made some changes since then, and thus any errors are mine and not hers.

"A man is the sum of his memories, you know, a Time Lord even more so."
The Fifth Doctor, in "The Five Doctors"



“Get a move on, Doc! They’ll be here in a few minutes!”

“Just a second, almost got it . . .” The sonic screwdriver sparked and flared in the darkness as the Doctor frowned into the control box. Then: “Hah! That’s done it!” The Doctor looked over his shoulder and flashed Jack his tooth-baring I’m an insane genius! grin. His eyes were wide and mad, a ring of white showing all the way around the dark irises. “They’ll be resetting the defenses, trying to catch us — but instead they’ll trap themselves, now!”

“That’s great, but it only works if we’re on the other side of the fence!” Jack yelled back, jumping from foot to foot in his eagerness to be gone while suffering from a bad case of deja vu. Just another typical side-trip with the Doctor, including Great Wrongs to be Righted — and a boatload of armed maniacs in the way.

The Time Agency might be defunct in Jack’s personal timeline, but it still had a reputation to conjure with in other segments of Time and Space. When the Doctor had found himself in a situation in which a Time Agent would be the perfect ticket into a prison compound where a large number of political prisoners were being unjustly and brutally detained, he’d decided to call in expert help. After all, a retired (or, more accurately, “permanently AWOL”) Time Agent could still talk the talk and walk the walk . . . with the added benefit of possessing an impossible-to-forge wristband.

Jack took his growing role as the Doctor’s freelance consultant with good grace and amusement — after all, he’d done the same for Torchwood for over a century. It was something he was good at, and the Doctor’s ability to return him to Cardiff within minutes of his departure only sweetened the deal. A chance to see the stars now and then and keep his position as guardian of the twenty-first century was irresistible. Rather like the Doctor himself.

Anyway, the con had been successful and the political prisoners were long since scattered to freedom. Jack and the Doctor, who had stayed behind as decoys, wreaking havoc throughout the complex to keep its masters occupied, were the last ones out.

One more shower of sparks, and the Doctor spun and began running for the fence. Jack didn’t need any further encouragement. Three running strides for momentum, and he leapt and hit the metal mesh fence almost halfway up. The knowledge that a huge electrical current was about to go surging through that mesh very soon was great incentive to get him clear in record time. He practically did a cartwheel over the top of the fence, and shoved off in an almost-graceful arc. He landed on his feet in the damp grass-like vegetation on the far side of the fence, letting his knees bend nearly double to absorb the shock. He ended in a crouch, facing the fence — so he had a perfect view of what happened to the Doctor.

The Doctor didn’t quite make it. He swung over the top of the fence, and was clinging, probably intending to drop, when the power came back on. It was like a hundred flashbulbs going off. Jack’s eyelids snapped shut, and his head jerked to the side in reflex, but he still saw the afterimages of the Doctor, silhouetted against that blaze. Jack was up and moving even before his vision was working again, his legs moving of their own accord. His ears, perfectly fine, heard the dull thump of weight hitting the ground, and he aimed in that direction.

He found the Doctor mostly by instinct and feel, since his retinas were giving him outraged washes of light/darkness/color. The first thing to do was get out of sight. The guards might not be able to exit the compound once the Doctor had locked the defenses in place, but Jack was betting they could still fire projectile weapons at outside targets. Fortunately, beyond a cleared perimeter zone, there was thick scrub surrounding the isolated facility. Jack hooked his hands in the Doctor’s armpits and dragged him backward at high speed.

Jack’s vision was slowly returning; it helped him steer well enough to get himself and the Doctor safely situated behind a clump of scrub in a slight hollow of the ground. Only then did Jack take the time to check the Doctor’s vital signs. Skin cool to the touch, which was normal; clammy, which was not. Pulse oscillating wildly (Jack was willing to bet that was what two separately-spasming hearts felt like). Not breathing.

What Jack did next was spinal reflex, the balances of pro and con weighed so quickly that the action was nearly instinctive.

He know how painful his immortality was to the Doctor and he normally took great pains to hide it as best he could, tamping that eternal light deep down into his ribcage whenever the Doctor was around. But the light was life, and it was life he could share sometimes. The Doctor was a Time Lord, true enough, and had the ability to regenerate. If he died now, it probably wouldn’t be permanent. But Jac felt the press of eternity very strongly at times and knew in his heart that he couldn’t afford to lose any time he might have with this one person who might manage to last even a fraction of his lifespan.

So he called the fire of his immortality to the surface, focused it, and sent it pouring into the Doctor with a kiss.

He still wasn’t sure how the sharing worked — he’d discovered it decades ago when he’d been trying to administer a desperate case of artificial respiration to a fallen comrade — but he knew that it did work, at least on humans. For one queasy moment, he thought it wasn’t going to work on Time Lords, as the flow of power bunched up and refused to flow into the Doctor. Then after a long pause the resistance vanished, the flow sped up, and the Doctor’s hand was on the back of his head, knotted in his hair, pulling him into the kiss.

Jack yielded gratefully, glad it had worked . . . and then the unexpected draw started as the Doctor began drinking in Jack’s immortality, speeding up the flow, demanding more. It was glorious. Jack groaned deep in his throat, giving himself over to that bright river, as part of himself reached and touched and became part of another . . .

The only time he’d experienced anything similar was with Abbadon, and that had been pain, not pleasure. Jack had planned to yield then, too, making it that much easier for Abbadon to doom his/its self, but his life force recoiled — or tried to — the minute the connection formed. Abbadon was wrong, an evil thing from outside Time and Space, and the power that animated Jack cried out against the joining. Against his will Jack had fought, though there was no way to stop the flow once it began. It was reflex, pure and simple, but it still hurt as the demon ripped the life from Jack. The neural burn caused by attempting to resist the energy transfer had probably served to keep Jack dead for twice as long as necessary that time.

Now, though, there was no resistance at all, because this was right, and desired. If it felt like this, Jack could let himself be drained dry and count it no more than the fair price of admission.

But . . .

That would be dangerous. Not to him; he’d wake up again eventually. To the Doctor. Abbadon had drunk from the same wellspring until he died. That couldn’t, wouldn’t happen to the Doctor, not while Jack had any last scrap of control.

At the same time, oddly disorienting, came the thought, I could drink till he dies, for no other reason than my own pleasure, and the power . . . It wasn’t Jack’s thought, but it sang an eerie harmony with his own fears. That shared moment was the cutoff, and the two of them broke apart. The flow of energy snapped, and two simultaneous physical shoves propelled them away from one another.

Jack opened his eyes and the afterimages were gone, though odd black spots bloomed and shrank in his vision. Dark-adapted now, his eyes had little trouble seeing the Doctor in the light that filtered to them from the detention compound. The Time Lord crouched a few feet away, taut as a coiled spring. One glance at his face, and Jack dropped into a wobbly defensive stance from sheer reflex.

The Doctor looked feral, hungry, and very, very alien — almost like the first night they’d shared the Holy Grail drug, when the Doctor had been swamped by an overwhelming wave of physical desire. This expression was similar, but there was something chillingly impersonal about it. Jack recognized it; he’d last seen it on the Master’s face, during a year that didn’t exist. Power-lust. Raw, instinctive, all-devouring. Jack had always known that the Doctor and the Master were the same type of creature at the core, but some part of him had never believed it before now.

“Doctor,” Jack said in a low, taut voice, and it was almost a question. “We need to get out of here. They could start lobbing grenades at random . . .”

He might as well be talking to a starving tiger for all the apparent effect his words had. The Doctor stared with pure animal focus, unblinking eyes measuring the distance between them.

“Doctor!” Jack hissed, voice breaking with tension and worry. They had to get to the TARDIS and safety, but he didn’t dare turn his back to lead the way. “This is neither the time nor the place!”

The familiar admonishment, turned back on its source, actually worked. The tension drained out of the Doctor’s spine and shoulders and the lines of his face eased and softened, beginning to shape an expression Jack knew he didn’t want to see.

“Come on,” he said, indicating the direction of the TARDIS with a jerk of his head. He turned and hurried in that direction with bent knees and back, trying not to stumble from the weakness brought on by the brief power drain. He kept his mind focused on staying out of sight beneath the branches of the low vegetation and almost managed to convince himself that he was running towards the timeship, rather than away from the Doctor.

They moved in near silence; the only way Jack knew the Doctor was behind him was from the occasional vibration of a footfall, or the snap of a twig. Then they reached the crest of a deeper hollow, and there was a friendly oblong shape, marked by the light at its peak and the familiar, glowing Police Box panel. Jack’s key was in his hand when he reached the door, and the two men slipped inside like ghosts.

The Doctor ducked immediately around Jack without so much as brushing against him in the process, heading for the controls. Jack slammed the door shut behind them (no need for silence now), wishing he could shut out the last few minutes along with the night.

No such luck with a personal timeline, though, not once those minutes had been experienced and made real. Jack forced himself to turn and walk up the ramp towards the control panel and the TARDIS’s heart. The ship, at least, no longer feared him.

In the ghostly green glow of the Time Rotor, the Doctor danced lightly around the controls, perfectly in time with the grating roar of the engines. He played his makeshift controls with virtuoso skill and total concentration. Too much concentration, in fact. A simple hop into the Vortex wouldn’t have needed that much care, ordinarily. The Doctor was deliberately keeping all of his attention focused on his ship so that he could avoid looking at Jack. Jack could feel the first fissure crackling across his barely-mended heart.

The TARDIS stabilized, and the Rotor slowed its oscillations. The Doctor kept his attention on the controls, however, flicking switches, pressing buttons. Silent. Fiddling.

This wasn’t the normal end to such an adventure. Now was the time that the Doctor should be looking over his shoulder at Jack and grinning like a lunatic. Jack would shake his head and walk slowly up the ramp, trying (and failing) to suppress an answering grin. Doc, he’d say, you’re as crazy as ever. He’d drop a friendly hand onto the Doctor’s shoulder, caressing for a moment before slipping easily around to rub the back of the Doctor’s neck. Even with layers of fabric between, the touch would send the Doctor’s eyes happily half-lidded. Pot and kettle, the Doctor would inform him, voice like velvet, radiating affection and amusement . . .

Jack walked slowly and carefully up the ramp, making noise, not wanting to risk startling the Doctor by getting too close without warning. Assuming that was possible — he had no doubt he shone vividly and unnaturally in the Time Lord’s inhuman senses right now. The temporary weakness from the power drain was nearly gone. “Doctor . . .” he began.

The Doctor’s head came up, and he looked over his shoulder at Jack. His eyes were wide and skittish, like a half-wild animal about to dart away from a threat. His entire body was rigid as glass.

Jack could sympathize; his stomach muscles were clenched rock-hard to suppress a deep, pervasive shiver. He managed to speak anyway, keeping his voice as steady as possible. “ . . . I’m going to get cleaned up,” he finished.

Skirting the central column carefully, making sure to pass on the side opposite the Doctor, he headed into the depths of the TARDIS, and his room.

--

It wasn’t his old room, the room he’d had when he and Rose had traveled with a different-but-not Doctor. Jack was sure that room still existed somewhere, but he’d never sought it out. Old, sad memories aside, he knew he’d find it more than a little embarrassing. Back then, when he’d discovered the ease with which the TARDIS could alter her interior on request, he’d gone a little nuts with the furnishings.

The room Jack used now was quite different. Spare and elegant, almost plain, it was comfortable in a way that made it clear nobody actually lived in it. It was a room for guests, temporary people only. Jack found it reassuring, a subliminal sign that the Doctor understood and accepted Jack’s decision to find a permanent home out on the slow path, while still providing a familiar place to visit.

Absently, Jack stripped out of his clothing, tossing everything on the bed for the TARDIS to attend to. Last of all went his wristband, the one thing as dear to him as his own skin. Here and in his bunker back at the Hub were the only two places he felt comfortable parting from that last piece of the fifty-first century.

He didn’t particularly need the shower — outside of a little sweat and a few mud spatters, he’d stayed remarkably clean during this venture — but it was a familiar, soothing ritual, one that set his body on autopilot and let his mind mull over what had just happened.

He’d grown up on legends of the Time Lords . . . and some of the stories were downright schizophrenic at times. All of them insisted that a Time Lord was a frightening thing to encounter. But some described that ancient race as cold distant archangels, unconcerned with anything but the proper order of the Universe, while other stories painted a different picture, of capricious, cruel demigods. Either way, they were beings of power, always seeking and controlling any source of energy that drew their attention.

Jack, though, had seen a very different side of the legend in his first travels with the Doctor. Those short months had been enough to reprogram his expectations and make the words “Time Lord” synonymous with “grumpy, geeky individual fond of foot rubs and tea with two sugars.” As a result, Jack’s time with the Master had been a brutal awakening. That had been a Time Lord worthy of the old stories — the bad ones, anyway.

We’re lucky he was crazy, Jack thought, shivering even as he ducked his head under the spray of deliciously warm water. The Master had been happy to keep Jack around as a sex toy and occasional punching bag, mostly valuable for his connection to the Doctor. Jack’s immortality had been a mere freakish plus to him. But what if he’d realized . . .?

A Time Lord with the power of the Vortex would be a god — a vengeful god — in the words of the Doctor. And the Doctor would know, being a Time Lord who had held that power briefly. Very briefly; he’d dropped it like a hot rock at the first opportunity. Jack had finally heard some of the real story recently, wrapped in the Doctor’s arms deep in the depths of the TARDIS. Even so, in the heart of his territory, the Doctor had been unable to meet Jack’s eyes as he told the tale, burying his face against Jack’s neck and speaking in a voice that alternately grated with human harshness and split into alien harmonies.

“Rose was so much more than I am,” the Doctor had said, using the past tense as if speaking the dead. “All that power, and she only fought to save what she loved. But she was human, she couldn't understand what she held. It was killing her, so I pulled it from her, and then it was mine. I knew what it was. I understood. The things I could have done . . . but I let it be stripped from me. Killed me in the process, but better that than —“ He’d broken off and begun to shiver, odd, slow, whole-body shivers that rattled his bones and Jack’s together. “Than if I’d kept it and lived,” he’d concluded through clenched teeth.

Jack scrubbed at his face, vaguely aware that his fingertips were wrinkling up and that there was only so much time he could reasonably spend in a shower, no matter how much he dreaded what was to follow. Reluctantly, he shut off the water and dialed the shower into drying mode.

One of the ones that ran. That was always the Doctor’s response upon being shown — or offered — power. Now Jack understood why the Doctor had run from him at first, called him wrong, said it hurt to look at him. He wasn’t passing judgment on Jack, but rather on himself, on the potential and temptation he saw embodied in his friend. Rather than risking his own weakness, the Doctor had done what he always did: ran.

Then I found him again, forced my way in . . . and he didn’t run, for my sake. The Doctor even came back, sought out Jack for company, became his lover, defied his fears and the deepest desires of his own nature. All for someone he cared about . . . and to soothe his own desperate loneliness.

Gods above, even the TARDIS had the sense to run from me, in the beginning.

Jack ran his hand through his hair, absently settling the part in place, as warm air puffed around him.

Abbadon hadn’t survived, but what about an entity who could absorb that power without dying? What could be done with that energy? Jack might not know the specifics, but he could certainly guess the larger picture. Together we could rule . . . or destroy.

Terrifying thought, all the more so because Jack knew in his deepest, darkest heart that if the Doctor asked, he would comply. Jack’s defenses had always been rubbish where the Doctor was concerned, no matter how insane the circumstances. He’d spend his power freely, all of it, and be glad. Emptying himself totally, until black flowers bloomed in his vision and spread to cover everything, again and again . . .

Without really noticing, Jack had exited the shower and was leaning with his hands propped against the marble countertop, staring blankly down at the grain of the stone. He didn’t dare look up at his own reflection in the mirror. He hadn’t realized until just this minute just how much he’d come to look forward to his odd, long-term, long-distance star-and-comet relationship with the Doctor. He’d begun to make plans, made sure he had some free time scheduled for the Solstice and the holidays beyond. All of that pointless now.

I didn’t realize what could happen, and I think the Doctor made himself overlook it. We both wanted each other’s company so badly. But we aren’t just Jack and the Doctor — we’re the Lone Immortal and the Last of the Time Lords. We’re poison together no matter what we feel, what we want. We can’t be together. We don’t have a choice.

Do we?


His hands tightened into fists, and the marble warmed under his touch, thrumming faintly. The TARDIS, offering what subtle comfort she could. That tiny kindness almost broke Jack. He clenched his eyes shut for moment, then made himself relax. “Thanks, girl,” he whispered, and ran a grateful hand along the smooth, friendly stone. Then he went to get dressed.

The rumpled clothes he’d tossed to the bed were clean and neatly folded, his vortex manipulator lying on the bedside table. All the small niceties the TARDIS offered when she liked someone. Jack dressed as he’d showered, slowly and automatically. When he finished, he looked in the wall mirror for a final check. The Jack that looked back was clean, neat, and completely expressionless. Good — no need to make things harder than they were.

He gave the doorway a soft pat on his way out, refusing to look back at a room he probably wouldn’t see again.

Walking to the control room was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, but he forced the nerves to fire and muscles to move, all the same. He’d had an easier time walking to executions, even back when he was mortal. But then, he’d never had so much to lose.

If only . . . his undermind began to whisper but he crushed it down. That was the way to madness. No way to turn back the clock, once things had happened. Except . . . something small and hidden germinated in his mind, and he carefully avoided looking at it; he certainly didn’t let himself feel anything like hope.

He stepped into the control room, and the Doctor’s head jerked up — still skittish, but trying to control it. Not doing very well, though. The look in his eyes twisted the invisible knife that seemed to be planted in Jack’s heart.

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody hears, does it make a sound? that small inner voice whispered. And if something happens in Time but nobody remembers, was it real . . .?

Then he did feel hope, and was reminded what a painful sensation it could be. If only.

“Doctor,” he began aloud.

“I’ve set the coordinates for Cardiff, we should be there shortly,” the Doctor said brightly, with a brittle, false smile and terrible dark eyes that begged Jack to understand. This touchdown in Cardiff would be their final parting, and the Doctor saw as clearly as Jack did how bleak and lonely the future had become. Two long lives never intersecting again. Never the comfort of knowing that someone would be there, beyond all the everyday cycles and losses . . .

“I think . . .” Jack faltered. “I have an idea,” he finished, and reached into the pocket of his greatcoat. He withdrew a small glass vial, a half-dozen white pills jingling merrily inside. He held it up and walked slowly towards the Doctor.

“Oh, Jack,” the Doctor said, his anguish suddenly plain and in the open. “No going back, you know that, you felt it, same as I did . . .”

“But what if I hadn’t?” Jack breathed, and popped the cap on the bottle, offering. “What if neither of us did?”

The Doctor blinked once, slowly, staring deeply into Jack’s eyes. Jack saw understanding dawn and held his breath.

He knew what he was asking, knew the way the Doctor prized memory above all else — the Time Lord had so many treasured things that only survived in his mind. More than that: based on past conversations, there were hints of a powerful species and culture reverence for memories, far beyond anything a human could comprehend.

Jack was well aware of the Doctor’s opinion of Retcon — nearly as low as his opinion of guns, violence, and keeping dangerous Weevils locked in cells (which Jack still felt was better than just up and shooting them in the head as his predecessors had done, though he didn’t press the point) — but it had always been a sign of the Doctor’s respect that he didn’t badger Jack about how Jack managed the internal affairs of Torchwood Three, so long as Jack obeyed the Doctor’s rules within the TARDIS. Rules Jack was breaking with even this mere suggestion.

Jack had no love of lost memory, either — he knew very well what the aftereffects of losing a part of yourself forever were like. But he also understood that sometimes memory loss was the lesser of evils. He could only pray, in this moment, that the Doctor would feel the same way.

“It wouldn’t solve anything,” the Doctor said, voice rough and pleading. “Nothing would change. We’d still be like some loaded weapon, ready to go off.”

“Only if we hit the trigger,” Jack said. “Only if we know the trigger even exists. We’ve risked it until now and it’s been fine. I didn’t even have a clue. Did you?”

“I . . . suspected,” the Doctor said, voice dropping, “But I didn’t know.”

“So,” Jack said, and jingled the pills again. “We can not know again.” He tried very, very hard not to let the Doctor see how desperate he was, how much he wanted the Doctor to compromise his deepest principles and beliefs, and knew he failed utterly.

The Doctor held perfectly still for a few moments more, then without looking away from Jack, he reached out and hit a switch on the console. The Rotor froze, and the TARDIS stopped — in the Vortex, not in Cardiff.

Silently, the Doctor held out his hand, and Jack shook a white pill into it, unable to disguise the faint tremor running through him.

Gingerly, the Doctor touched the tip of his tongue to the pill, then closed his eyes as he rolled the chemical sample around his mouth. “Yes,” he murmured, “that should work, even on me.”

“I designed it to be broad-spectrum,” Jack replied, in a ghastly attempt at a conversational tone.

The Doctor opened his eyes again, and they were black and fathomless, pure Time Lord. “It will make us sleep,” he said, and it wasn’t a question.

Jack nodded, the invisible knife melting in his chest.

“We should go somewhere we can lie down, then.”

Without speaking, they left the console room and the Doctor led the way to Jack’s recently-vacated room, the familiar furnishings almost painfully welcoming. Jack shrugged out of his greatcoat, and the Doctor removed suit jacket and tie, but there the disrobing stopped. There was an air of formality that felt oddly right when they lay down together on the bed, still mostly clothed.

The Doctor considered the pill cradled in the palm of his hand, but Jack caught his wrist. “Wait.” In response to the Doctor’s raised eyebrows, he rolled over and fumbled a pad of notepaper and an ink stylus form the drawer in the bedside table. The TARDIS really did supply everything that a fine hotel might.

Quickly, Jack scribbled, “Retcon: don’t fight it!” and added a signature. He showed it to the Doctor. “The few times I’ve had to do this before, I’ve learned it pays to know later that it was on purpose. Otherwise, you start trying to find out what happened — and sometimes you do . . .”

The Doctor nodded comprehension and accepted the proffered stylus and paper. Quickly, he sketched a sparsely-decorated Gallifreyan circle-glyph beneath Jack’s note, then handed the writing implements back. Jack set the note on the table where one of them would be sure to see it upon awakening, with the stylus as a paperweight.

Then he rolled back to the Doctor and shook a Retcon tablet from the vial for himself. They took the pills together, dry. Retcon wasn’t bitter, ironically enough, just a little chalky. As they settled down to await the effects, lying on their sides facing each other, the Doctor managed a small smile. “Always the chemistry with us, isn’t it?” he asked.

“If that’s what it takes, yeah,” Jack breathed.

The Doctor reached around to cup his hand behind Jack’s head and pull him in for a kiss. It wasn’t particularly passionate, but more importantly, there was no power, no drain, no unnatural temptation. Those triggers would never be touched unless they were actively sought by one of both of them.

I’ll never say “just a kiss” again, Jack thought as they pulled apart — nonsensically, since he would be forgetting this, too. Aloud he said, “I think we can do this.” He dared let himself smile, faintly, finally.

“Yeah,” the Doctor replied, sounding surprised, “I think we can.” He released Jack’s head, and then yawned cavernously — an impressive sight from just a few inches away. Nothing wrong with the Doctor’s teeth, that was for sure.

“’Night, then,” Jack murmured affectionately, rolling over on his back as the Retcon began to affect him, blessed oblivion blooming like a black chrysanthemum in his mind, petals spreading gently to encompass the entire world while the Universe's mathematics re-worked themselves.