The subterranean hum of the TARDIS enveloped him as he crossed the threshold. The Doctor closed the doors and leaned against them, closing his eyes. The wood felt cool against his palms. Astrid’s ghostly blue face hung behind his eyelids.
You’re flying, he’d told her. But in his memory she fell, down and down and down. All of them did. Astrid. Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoff. Rose. He’d let all of them fall. Even Martha, in a way. He’d let her down. More than once. And people like Rickson Slade got to live, and reap the benefits.
A cry of frustration rose in his throat. He slapped his palms against the doors and brought his head back, too, hard enough that he saw stars. He wanted to hear his shout echo, but nothing echoed in the TARDIS. Instead, the hum changed pitch so it seemed to reverberate in his bones, caressing, soothing. He squeezed his eyes shut and cried out again.
But the TARDIS was insistent, shifting bit by bit until it found just the right pressure point and he began to unkink and he sagged against the doors. He opened his eyes and looked up at the central column.
“I guess it’s just you and me, then,” he said.
He pushed away from the doors and walked slowly up the ramp. He made one circuit of the controls without touching anything. The second time around, he began pushing buttons and pulling levers, making adjustments and entering coordinates without any real direction. He pulled the monitor around and looked at his destination.
For a long moment he just stared at the screen. Then he glanced up at the central column. The hum in his bones shifted just a bit, innocently. The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “That is either a very good idea,” he said to his ship, “or a very bad one.”
Only one way to find out.
At first, Jack thought he was dreaming when the familiar grinding sound filled the air and a soft blue light came to life along the gap under his bedroom door. Then he remembered he hadn’t been asleep. He hadn’t been sleeping much, since the year that never was. But he went to bed most nights, in the hope that sleep might visit him. Sometimes he even went to bed alone. He had dozed, earlier, and woken in a sweat from dreams of the Master. Exhaustion kept him in bed after that, trying to find some rest in the gray space between waking and sleeping.
The Doctor whirled around when Jack emerged from his bedroom, his face lit by the glow from the open doors of the TARDIS. “Jack!” he said, grinning. Then he took Jack in and his eyebrows shot up. He looked away, scratched the back of his neck and looked around the room with an exaggerated sweep of his eyes across the small section of the space that Jack didn’t occupy. “Nice place.”
Jack shrugged into his dressing gown and tied the belt, grinning. “Nice to see you, too,” he said. He crossed his arms and leaned against the blue box in the middle of his living room. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
The Doctor put his hands in his pockets and strolled over to the bookshelf. “Oh, I just thought I’d pop ‘round.” He glanced over his shoulder. “You know. Christmas.”
“You couldn’t come at a reasonable hour?”
“Well," he said, drawing out the word. He put on his glasses and picked up a bit of crystal from a psychic field amplifier from the shelf. “I was busy.”
They stood in silence for a moment, and then the Doctor glanced sidelong at Jack and raised an eyebrow. “Alone on Christmas?”
“It’s the middle of the night. How do you know I spent Christmas alone?” He had, in fact; his team gone home to their families after celebrating together the week before. But Jack suspected the Doctor knew that.
“I’d think you’d be most likely to be entertaining in the middle of the night, Jack.”
Jack laughed. Point conceded, he flicked on the light and crossed the room to the galley kitchen at the other end. He filled the kettle and put it on the stove. “I don’t suppose you had anything to do with that spaceship not crashing into Buckingham Palace this morning?”
The Doctor glanced over his shoulder and favored him with a cheeky half-smile. “Maybe.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Jack didn’t push him. Another time, he might have; but they weren't trying to save the world today. And Jack certainly had time.
He leaned against the counter and watched the Doctor. Despite the days they’d spent together after the Master’s death, Jack still felt a surge of relief when he saw him–not the old man in a wheelchair or the tiny, wizened creature living in a cage, but the wild-haired, whip-thin man Jack was coming to know once again. He wandered from the bookshelf to Jack’s desk, also littered with alien odds and ends. Instead of his usual blue or brown suit, he had on a tux, a little the worse for wear. The tie hung loose, his collar undone, and Jack could see a smudge of something–soot, maybe–on the side of his neck. He trailed one hand over the desk, careful not to disrupt whatever precarious organization Jack had imposed, and picked up something else and held it to the light. Even across the room, Jack could tell that he looked without really seeing.
The kettle sang, startling them both, and Jack made tea and brought it into the living room. Closer to, he could see shadows around the Doctor’s eyes. He had dust in his hair and a tear in one sleeve. Jack handed him his tea and sat on the sofa. The Doctor claimed the armchair.
Jack hesitated. But there was really only one obvious question. “What was her name?” he asked.
“Titanic!” The pitch of the Doctor’s voice climbed with each syllable. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Can you believe that?”
Jack smiled, but didn’t say anything. He waited. The energy drained from the Doctor. He looked down. “Astrid,” he said finally. “Astrid Peth.”
The Doctor’s mouth pulled into a sad smile. “Yeah.” The briefest of glances at Jack. “She died.” His expression turned distant. “She fell, I couldn’t...”
Another long pause. And then, slowly, the Doctor told him. Astrid. The Van Hoffs. The little cyborg named Bannakaffalatta, who’d saved all their lives. “They all died. All for a–retirement plan!” His mouth twisted in disgust. “Not power, or world domination...just money.” He gulped down the rest of his tea and set the mug on the table rather harder than was necessary. But the fire died quickly. He sat leaning forward, staring down the length of his arm at his hand still cupped over the top of the mug, and Jack ached for him.
A moment went by while Jack searched for something to say, something better than, I’m sorry. Finally he settled on changing the subject. He cleared his throat. “I saw Martha,” he said. The Doctor gave his head a shake and straightened. Encouraged, Jack continued, “She’s doing okay. Better than okay, actually. Great.”
A smile crossed his features. Faint, tired, but genuine, and not a little bit proud. “I knew she would be,” he said.
“She’ll be taking her exams soon. I think she had a little trouble explaining how she suddenly fell so far behind, but...” he trailed off. The smile vanished from the Doctor’s face, and he looked away. Now you’ve gone and done it, Jack thought. You were supposed to be making him feel better, not–
“Jack.” The Doctor turned back toward him, and Jack almost flinched when their eyes met. His brows were drawn together, just slightly, and there was a rawness about his expression, as if he’d been cut too deep to ever fully heal.
“Doctor,” Jack began.
His hand came up, palm out, and Jack fell silent. “I never said...I’m sorry.”
Jack blinked. “For what?”
“Everything.” He stood up. “I’m sorry, Jack. I’m so sorry.” He turned and crossed the room, and was stepping into the TARDIS before Jack could react. He leapt to his feet and bounded after him.
Jack came up short a few feet away. For a moment they just stared at each other. Everything Jack thought he wanted to say died in his throat. “Stay.” His voice came out choked, small.
The Doctor didn’t answer. Jack crossed the space between them and reached for his hand. “Stay,” he said again.
The Doctor's mouth worked. He looked over his shoulder and back again, starting to form an excuse. But he didn’t pull his hand away.
Jack kissed him. Not hard, but not particularly gentle, either. The Doctor went rigid with surprise and then he softened, almost imperceptibly. Jack drew back and they stared at each other, breathless. Another time, Jack would have laughed at the Doctor's expression: eyes wide with shock, his mouth hanging open. He looked, Jack thought, like he'd never been kissed before. It wasn't true, Jack knew that, but–Not very often, he thought. Not for a very long time.
The Doctor swallowed. His eyes focused on Jack and for the first time that night he seemed to really see him. He reached behind him and pulled the TARDIS door shut. "All right," he said.
For all his flirting, Jack had never given serious thought to what sleeping with the Doctor would be like. If he had, he might have imagined this: like the Doctor himself, somehow both violent and gentle, alien and yet wholly familiar. The Doctor held back at first; shyness, Jack thought, born of surprise or grief or long disuse. He let Jack take the lead, and it was slow, silent. Jack expected that. Some people liked to talk during sex; the Doctor, for once, seemed to need no words. And when he finally let go, when Jack let him know that he could, Jack realized that he’d held back not out of shyness, but out of fear. He was afraid of hurting me.
Jack drifted now, sated and drowsy. The sky outside had changed from nightblack to deep gray, and Jack imagined he could feel the Earth turning as the sky lightened. The Doctor lay beside him, also not sleeping; but there was a relaxed, boneless quality to him, as if something had released inside him. They lay close, but not quite touching. Lulled by the sound of his breathing, Jack felt a deep sense of calm. Of safety.
Sometime later–the sky had turned a pale blue tinged with pink–the Doctor rose and Jack heard the shower turn on. He stayed where he was and watched the Doctor in the early morning light, admiring the lines of his body as he dressed. There was a sense of lightness about his movements that hadn’t been there the night before; the set of his shoulders was just that much more at ease as he straightened his tie.
Jack stirred. “Leaving?” he asked.
Their eyes met in the mirror. The Doctor scrubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah.”
“Sure I can’t convince you to stay?”
The Doctor turned and smiled. “I’m sure you can be very convincing, Jack. But, no.”
Jack grinned back. He hadn’t expected any different. He yawned and stretched. “Maybe with you gone I can get a little rest today. Some of us have to go back to work tomorrow, you know.”
The Doctor’s eyebrows rose. He scratched his ear. “I didn’t hear you complaining last night.”
Jack’s grin turned lascivious. The Doctor rolled his eyes.
He motioned with his head toward the TARDIS. “You sure you don’t want to come?” They both knew the answer, but he had to ask.
Jack shook his head. “Can’t.”
“Well.” The Doctor slipped his hands into his pockets. “Better be off, then.”
Jack sat up straight and saluted. “Safe journey.”
“And you.” The Doctor sketched one in return, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He started to leave, but at the door he paused and turned around, looking thoughtful. Then he smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
Jack opened his mouth, ready as always with a cheeky response–Believe me, the pleasure was all mine–but before he could, the Doctor crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. He took Jack’s face between his hands, and his brown eyes suddenly seemed to take up all of Jack’s field of vision. He smelled of soap and clean fabric and something else Jack couldn’t identify. Not a human smell; something sharper, cleaner. Stardust, Jack thought dimly. He smelled like the universe. He felt the lightest of touches on his mind, and the Doctor’s face blurred. A soft darkness rose up to enfold him. Jack felt his eyelids grow heavy. It was sheer relief; he knew without question that he would be free from nightmares, and that when he slept again–tonight, or tomorrow, or next week–it would be deep and dreamless. The Doctor kissed his mouth.
Jack opened his eyes with great effort. “Doctor–“
“Shh.” His hand was behind Jack’s head now, lowering him gently onto the pillow. “Sleep now.” His breath ghosted over Jack’s cheek. He smiled. “And–Merry Christmas, Jack.” Jack’s eyes slid shut and he tumbled down into the first real sleep he’d had since he’d clung to the outside of the TARDIS all the way to the end of the universe, so very long ago.
The Doctor stood, but he didn’t leave right away. He lingered and watched the rectangle of light slanting through the window creep across the floor and onto the foot of Jack’s bed. The world keeps turning, he thought. All of them. Well, the worlds that turned, anyway. He knew of a planet that didn’t rotate at all; they never had a sunset, or a sunrise. The inhabitants had evolved to stay awake for extraordinarily long stretches of time. And the dark side of the planet wasn’t uninhabited, either; its denizens resembled nothing so much as the creatures that lived deep in Earth’s seas, strange bioluminescent creatures that had evolved a whole host of unique adaptive features. Most of them weren’t very nice.
Lovely skiing, though.
Jack sighed and stirred, pulling the Doctor back. Time would kill everything in the end, but in the meantime–what was it they said on Earth? Time heals all wounds. A bit reductive–not a strictly human failing, that–but they had the spirit of it. He reached down and straightened the cover. Impossible thing, he thought. He chuckled and shook his head. If there was one thing he had learned in all his long life, it was that nothing was impossible.
“Not even you, Jack,” he said aloud.
He put his hands in his pockets. Back to the TARDIS; same old life. The time-winds would bring him back here soon enough.