The Doctor held Jack’s gaze for almost a full minute before a shiver ran through him and he looked away, dropping his gaze down to his hands. Jack tensed. There were times when he thought he had reached his peace with the cosmos for what had happened to him, even thought he had reached his peace with the Doctor, but his recoil the moment Jack tried to approach brought all the pain and anger of those early years after the Gamestation surging back, surprising him with their intensity. Bright. What the hell did that mean?
It didn’t help that he couldn’t blame the Doctor for shrinking from him; the bewilderment in his face was too familiar. It had been decades since Jack had given serious thought to the two years of his life that the Time Agency had taken from him–two years were hardly a drop in a life that would stretch out over centuries–but he remembered all too well the terror and confusion that had followed their loss. Jack had crawled into a bottle and stayed there for weeks.
And the Doctor had lost far more than two years. If his response to encountering a spatiotemporal anomaly such as Jack was to ask him to keep his distance, well, Jack could hardly be angry at him. At least he hadn’t run away. At least he hadn’t called him wrong.
Jack took advantage of the Doctor’s averted gaze to look closely him, wrapped in that leather jacket like it could keep him safe. His last incarnation had been prickly at best when Jack met him, and he had always suspected that Rose had smoothed over some his sharp edges by the time Jack came along. This wasn’t that Doctor. Whatever had happened, it had pushed him back to something much earlier, more vulnerable and more haunted.
But he remembered Rose. The Doctor remembered Rose and not him. Jack had always known where he stood in the Doctor’s hearts when it was the three of them, but the evidence of it made him ache in a place he thought he’d long since forgotten. More to the point, it didn’t make any sense. How could the Doctor have lost two entire lifetimes and still have Rose?
Why Rose and not Jack?
He cleared his throat. No sense dwelling on that. Not right now, anyway. “Right,” he said, clasping his hands and trapping them between his knees. “The beginning.” When was that? The end of the universe? No; before. “I met you and Rose in London, in 1941. You were still–” He gestured toward the leather jacket. “There was a girl named Nancy, and I tried to con you.”
The Doctor leaned forward again with his elbows on his knees, studying the floor in front of Jack’s feet as he listened. The first part of the story was easy to tell: London, 1941; Cardiff, 2005; everything in between. Beside the Doctor, Martha listened as well, her face rapt. She’d not heard most of these stories, and for a little while Jack lost himself in the telling, until they arrived at the Gamestation. He paused and took a deep breath before he continued, not intending to spare either of them the details. But when he reached the end, he found he didn’t want to tell the Doctor what he had done and why. And so he left it out, saying only, “You and Rose defeated the Daleks, and then you went to London. Christmas Day.” He forced a smile.
There was a silence. The Doctor glanced at him, quickly searching his face before he dropped his eyes back down to the ground. “I left you behind.”
Jack sighed. “Yeah.”
Jack winced. Of course he would ask. Too much to hope he would let it go by. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
“It really doesn’t.”
The Doctor caught and held his gaze this time, suddenly commanding. “Tell me.”
Jack glared back. He took full advantage of the Doctor’s discomfort with him, daring him to look away. “You sent Rose away. You tricked her into the TARDIS and you sent her back home, but she wouldn’t leave you. She looked into the heart of the TARDIS and she came back. She defeated the Daleks, and she brought me back to life. For good. And you left. I spent more than a hundred years looking for you, Doctor, and when I found you, you ran away again. All the way to the end of the universe. You said I was wrong. I’m a fact, a fixed point in time, and that’s not supposed to happen, so you ran away.” His voice had risen to a shout. He clamped his mouth shut, gripping the edges of the trunk. He hadn’t meant to get angry, but how could he not? How could he go back to that moment and not feel heartbroken all over again, much as he wanted to spare the Doctor?
The Doctor looked away. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment.
“Yeah.” Jack couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. He forced his hands to relax. “We kind of already did this part, Doctor.”
“Still, I–I’m sorry. I thought– I just assumed–”
“That you were already like this when I met you.”
“What? Immortal?” Jack looked incredulously at him. “In what universe would you not have run from me if I’d been like this when we first met?”
The Doctor flinched. “I don’t know. You’re right. I just– I’m sorry, Jack. For what it’s worth.”
“Yeah.” He gave a tired sigh and scrubbed his hands over his face. “I know you are.”
They were silent for a moment, and then Jack sat up straight again and squared his shoulders, giving himself a shake. “Anyway, that’s not what’s important.” He waved away the Doctor’s protest. “What’s important is that after you regenerated, you went back to London and you lost your hand in a sword fight with a Sycorax warlord. Your right,” he added when he saw the Doctor looking down at his two hands. “You grew another one.”
“I can see that,” the Doctor muttered, lifting his right hand, wiggling his fingers and grinning a little. “That’s handy.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “I found your severed hand and I kept it,” he continued, but the Doctor interrupted him, arching an eyebrow at him.
“You kept my severed hand?” he repeated. “What, in a jar on your desk? What sort of thing is that to do?”
Martha couldn’t contain a sudden burst of laughter. She covered her mouth with her hands. “Sorry,” she said, when Jack looked at her sharply. “It’s just, well, you did.”
“I was using it to find you!” Jack told the Doctor defensively.
“I see.” He nodded. He caught Martha’s eye and smirked. “And that’ll be important?”
“Very,” Martha replied. “But we’re not there yet.”
“Right,” he agreed, and looked back and forth between them. “What’s this about the end of the universe?”
They were leaving things out, of course; skipping over details, leaving whole months unaccounted for, whole adventures. And then there was all the time when the Doctor had been without either one of them, and so he still didn’t know exactly how he had lost Rose. Well; Jack knew enough of what had happened at Canary Wharf to extrapolate, but he was missing the details: the looks, the touches, the arguments, the hands that reached for each other even as the space between them grew ever wider and impassable–
She falls. He screams her name but he can’t let go, can’t even reach for her. He can only watch The wind whips at him and her eyes meet his before–
He gasped. A stab of pain shot through his mind and he shut his eyes tight, clutching at his head until it dissipated. When he opened them, Jack and Martha had both fallen silent and were watching him warily. For a moment the only sound was him catching his breath.
Finally Martha asked cautiously, “Are you all right?”
He nodded, sitting up straighter. “Fine, yeah. Fine.” He forced a smile. “Always.” He tugged at his collar; the alcove was beginning to feel rather close. Martha reached for him again as if to feel his forehead. He shrugged her off.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Really, I am. Go on, please. I need to hear the rest.”
The two of them exchanged a look that made the Doctor want grit his teeth, but after a moment they seemed to reach an unspoken agreement and Martha nodded. “All right,” she said. “Where was I?”
“The chameleon arch,” the Doctor said. “I used the chameleon arch.”
A shadow crossed her face. “Right,” she said. She let out a deep breath. “That part’s not really important, actually. It’s just that it came around again, later on. The fob watch.”
The Doctor opened his mouth to protest–it was important, all of it was. How was he to puzzle out the reason that he had lost his memories of his last two regenerations if he didn’t have all the pieces? The chameleon arch certainly seemed promising–but Jack shot him a sharp look and he closed it again without saying anything, surprising them both. He looked at Martha expectantly, and she skipped ahead.
One thing was clear: Jack and Martha were his friends, and he had hurt them. Badly. For all the time that had passed since the Game Station, it wasn’t hard to see that Jack’s wounds were still raw, however much he might think he had healed. Martha was something else: a little harder, a little more closed off. She wouldn’t say what he had done, but he could see it in her eyes as she recounted the year she walked the Earth to save it from the Master. To save him. Heartbreak. He always broke their hearts. He was still that man.
And yet they both seemed keen to protect him from that knowledge. He had landed in Cardiff and they had come to help him. He had left so many of his companions behind. Left them, lost them. It was preemptive action: break his own hearts before someone else could. But listening to Martha and Jack, he could see that they hurt just as much as he did. He left, and they were left behind, picking up the pieces.
It wasn’t his story they were telling him; it was theirs. Jack’s story. Martha’s story. Rose’s story, Sarah Jane’s and Donna Noble’s, and there were others, so many others. His story was all of theirs.
It took them the better part of the afternoon to finish the tale, trading the narrative back and forth by the end, picking up details for one another, making observations the other had missed, filling in their own separate experiences from the night the earth was stolen.
The Doctor was silent for a long time when they had finished, trying to process it all, but he kept coming back to one detail. Rose. Rose had come back for him.
And she had left with him. Gone where he couldn’t follow. Jack and Martha didn’t say–maybe they didn’t know–but he was quite certain of it.
He shook his head, trying to focus. He was getting warmer, could feel his heartbeats growing more frenetic, but he didn’t want to call attention to that fact by taking off the leather jacket. He had all the pieces in his hands now; it was just a matter of fitting them together. He wasn’t about to be distracted by another trip to the medical bay.
He tugged at his collar again. “Instantaneous biological metacrisis, you said?”
They both nodded, and he lapsed back into silence, thinking.
“And I was with Donna the last time you saw me?”
Martha nodded. “That was a few months ago, for us.”
“She was fine?”
“Better than fine, if you ask me,” said Jack. Martha nodded her agreement. “She was giving you a run for your money.”
“You didn’t try to contact her?”
They looked at each other. “We thought she was with you,” Martha said.
A human-Time Lord metacrisis. Impossible. And he had left her behind. Why?
She stands in front of the console, bathed in blue-gold light. “Binary–binary–binary–binary–binary–binary–I’m fine.”
Another stab of pain made him gasp for breath. Again, he shook Martha off. “Not yet,” he said. “Just–not yet.” He steadied himself against the arm of the sofa, his fingers digging into the velvet. Martha sank back against the cushions, but she remained tense, watching him warily.
“It hasn’t been that long for me,” he said at last. “A day. Two, at the most. I’m still regenerating.”
“But I thought you siphoned off the energy into your hand,” Jack said.
“Wellll. I’d still have some residual energy, but I’d expect to have reabsorbed it by now.” Instead, it was building, almost like it was waiting for something.
“Tell you what,” the Doctor continued, getting to his feet and searching for an opening between the racks of clothing that enclosed them. “I’d like to talk with Donna Noble.”
He pushed aside a chain mail shirt hanging on one of the racks and shoved his way back toward the door, trusting the other two to follow him.
“But what about the other Doctor?” Martha asked when they reached the console room. “Won’t he have a better idea of what’s going on?”
“Possibly.” The Doctor padded across to the controls and pulled the monitor around to face him. He pulled up the flight records and scrolled back through them, pausing when he came to the set of coordinates that weren’t of this universe. It was exactly what he had expected to see, but he was unprepared for the depth of the loss he felt. For a moment he just gazed at them. He swallowed hard. “They’re gone,” he said.
“Where?” Martha asked.
He ignored her. A quick glance at Jack told him he had pieced it together on his own.
“Now then!” He hit a button with a flourish. “The last place I went was Chiswick. Before that it was Cardiff, and Ealing before that.” He glanced at Jack. “You were right about my timeline.”
Jack smiled back. “Ex-Time Agent. Good instincts about these things.”
“We’ll want Chiswick,” Martha said. “That’s where Donna’s from.”
“All right then.” He released the hand brake and began the dematerialization sequence. “Off we go.” The TARDIS began to quake.
Much to the Doctor’s relief, Jack and Martha both stepped up to the console to help him fly, and neither needed his prompting to work the controls. He still had to dart around and do the complicated calibrations to keep them on course, but without them, he wasn’t sure he’d have managed it. Cardiff to London was a short trip, but he was rapidly losing his strength, and piloting the TARDIS solo could be a strain under any circumstances. They landed with a shudder and he stood still for a long moment, steadying himself against the console.
“Doctor?” Jack asked.
He gave himself a shake. “Right. What are we waiting for?” He pushed away from the console and started for the door, but he only made it a few steps before a wave of dizziness overtook him and he had to catch himself on the railing.
For a moment all three of them stood very still. He caught Martha and Jack looking at each other, arguing silently. Then Martha approached him cautiously and touched his arm.
“You should stay here,” she said. She searched his face, but didn’t make a move to touch him again. “You’re getting worse. Jack can go. He’ll find her.”
The Doctor shook his head. “I have to go,” he said, pushing away from the railing. He paused for a second to make sure his legs were steady under him before he started for the door. Jack blocked his way to the ramp. The Doctor came up short, his skin prickling at standing so close to him.
“Jack,” he sighed.
“You don’t have shoes on.”
He spluttered. “Oh, now really, this is–” He turned to look beseechingly at Martha, still standing where he had left her, but she only raised her eyebrows.
“You don’t,” she pointed out.
“Doctor.” Jack laid a hand on his shoulder, ignoring his flinch, and caught and held his gaze. “You don’t even know what she looks like. Let me go. I’ll find her.”
They stand on the deck of a war-torn space station, lit only by the glow of the TARDIS. Jack stands so close he is all the Doctor can see, and he cups his face in both hands and kisses his mouth, and then he is gone.
Pain seared through him, white-hot and blinding. He groped for the railing as his legs gave out, but it was Jack who caught him. “I’ve got you,” he said, his arm coming around his waist to hold him upright.
The Doctor scrabbled to get his feet under him. “I’m fine.” The words slurred. His tongue felt thick.
She backs away from him with tears in her eyes, shaking her head. “Don’t make me go back. Please.”
He struggled for air, his fingers fisting in Jack’s shirt. Martha was at his other side, now, pressing a hand to his forehead. “Medical bay,” she said over his head. “Right now.”
He tried to protest, but all that came out was a moan. The room tipped on its side and he was aware of being carried, the light changing from the gold of the console room to the bright white of the medical bay. Jack laid him on the table and started to move away, but the Doctor caught his wrist, clutching at him when another wave of pain made him cry out.
“Okay,” Jack said, patting his hand. “I’m right here.”
“Doctor?” Martha bent over him, shining a light in his eyes. He felt something cool on his forehead. “Can you hear me?”
They clutch each others’ hands and as the Master turns away he bends close to her ear and whispers, making tears run down her cheeks.
He convulsed, his fingers digging into Jack’s wrist. Stars exploded behind his eyes. He sobbed with the pain of it, only dimly aware of the urgent voices above him.
“Can’t you give him something?
“Working on it. Try to keep him still.”
The sound of his own screams. Jack’s weight across his chest, holding him down. His voice in his ear, low and soothing. A sharp pain in his neck.
There was a moment of phenomenal agony. Just for an instant, he could see everything with a clarity that took his breath away. Then it all began to fade.
Jack and Martha’s worried faces blurred above him. He moved his arm, tugging on Jack’s hand until he bent close. He had seen it, seen what he needed, but now all he had was a piece. “Donna,” he said. “Find her.”
Jack glanced up once and then focused on him again. He smoothed the Doctor’s hair with his free hand. “I will.”
He clutched at scraps of memory. “I took her home,” he mumbled. Darkness rolled up over him.
“I’ll find her.” Jack smoothed his hair again and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Now rest.”
Consciousness slipped away.