But What That Place Could Be
This seems a Home —
And Home is not —
But what that Place could be —
Afflicts me — as a Setting Sun —
Where Dawn — knows how to be.
Emily Dickinson, I learned — at least — what Home could be
Waking up knowing that by all rights he should have died yesterday tastes sweet — for about one second. Then the realization that he almost eradicated the human race slams into him, and the sweetness turns bitter.
Jack takes a few deep breaths, trying to calm his nerves. He needs to get the façade into place. He has a breakfast date with a beautiful blonde and a Time Lord — Time Lord! — whose sheer animal magnetism would make his knees go weak if he allowed himself to think about him like that.
But he doesn’t. Firstly, because his mind is still reeling at the revelation — a revelation he’d consider a boldfaced lie had it come from anyone but this enigmatic man, and been uttered anywhere but on this impossible ship. And secondly because, for all his experience flirting and charming people even in difficult circumstances, he knows of no suave way to pull off “Hey, I just almost extinguished an entire species, causing a major paradox in the process, and would be dead now if you hadn’t saved my unworthy ass — wanna go for a drink?” No, any chances he might ever have had with the Doctor or his beautiful Rose are well and truly blown. All he can do now is keep his head down, be pleasant and unassuming, and hope the Time Lord will drop him off somewhere nice. Preferably near a major spaceport. Though, really, in the Doctor’s place he’d dump himself on some backwards agricultural planet where he could live out his life ploughing fields with a pair of oxen, never as much as seeing a space- or time-ship again. Or indoor plumbing.
He takes a shower — might be his last chance for all he knows — shaves, and brushes his teeth carefully. He has no fresh clothes, only his RAF uniform and boots, so he pulls them on. Somehow, they seem cleaner than yesterday, and some of the small holes and frayed seams have been mended. With a shrug, he looks around the room — anything useful or valuable he could pocket might help him make a fresh start wherever the Doctor decides to leave him. There are some small ivory figurines on the bookshelf that fit easily into an inside pocket of his greatcoat, and the silver razor is securely stored in a boot. Well — as good as it gets, and he’s started out with less. He just has to hope the Doctor won’t inspect his room for missing inventory before throwing him out, or his sticky fingers might negatively affect his destination. But the Doctor doesn’t seem like the domestic type.
Rose is sleepily buttering her toast when Jack enters the kitchen. She smiles at him, and he smiles back, then turns to the Doctor. “Good morning.”
The Doctor just nods briefly. “Tea’s on the counter. If you want coffee, make it yourself.”
Does he have to be this abrasive? This is no way to make Jack feel welcome. “I can make some,” she offers quickly.
“Nah, tea’s fine. But thank you, Rose.” His smile remains unwaveringly bright, but Rose fancies she sees a quick shadow of worry cross his face as he pours himself a mug. She watches him as he takes some bread, reaches for the jam almost shyly. No, Jack’s not feeling comfortable. “Everything all right, Jack?” she asks, concerned.
“Yes, thank you.” His smile still seems a bit too bright.
“You don’t look all right, though.” In fact, now that she’s getting a closer look, his skin is pale and there are rings under his eyes, like he barely slept.
The Doctor snorts. “Any particular reason he should? Almost eradicated a species yesterday. Your species, in fact.” Even though he’s talking to Rose, his eyes are on Jack. Dark, glowering.
“Doctor!” Rose squeaks. This just isn’t fair.
She sees Jack duck his head. Ducks her own a little to be able to see his expression. His eyes are haunted, and his cheeks are burning. He’s not biting back a retort, he doesn’t have one. He’s taking the Doctor’s reproach not because he’s intimidated, but because he feels he deserves it.
Well, she supposes he does, but it still makes her heart clench. She knows too well how it feels. She remembers. So she speaks up. “So did I. Not a week ago.”
Jack looks up at her, surprise and disbelief warring on his face. The Doctor’s also looking at her now, guiltily. “Was different.”
“No, it wasn’t.” She doesn’t know why she’s so desperate to make Jack feel better, but if talking about the one day she never wanted to think of again can take that lost look from his eyes, she’s willing to do it. “I did something selfish and stupid and I almost killed everyone because of it.” She takes a deep breath. “See, Jack, it was like this…”
Jack listens. He’s just familiar enough with the late 20th century on Earth that Rose’s references make sense to him without having to ask any questions. So he just lets her talk, taking it all in. He didn’t know she’d lost her father that early, and his heart aches for her. He knows what that feels like — but he can’t imagine what it’d feel like to win him back and then lose him again. And he never thought Reapers were real. But then, until yesterday, he didn’t think Time Lords were, either.
The Doctor’s sitting at the table, staring at his folded hands. Jack can see the tension in his shoulders. He clearly feels bad for Rose, feels guilty that he made her recount a tale that must still be painful. Not a week ago, Rose said. God.
Rose voice is quiet, and sometimes it trembles a little, but she keeps going, all the way to “and then we took off in the TARDIS again an’ I could feel my memories of what my mum told me when I was little kinda…shift. An’ now it’s like I’ve got two sets there.”
Then she looks up at him, and her smile is warm and supportive — as if he’s the one who most needs comfort right now. “So see? You’re not the only one it happened to.”
He looks at her. God, she really thinks this is her fault, doesn’t she? He can’t keep quiet any longer. “And… you blame yourself for this?” he blurts out.
Rose blinks. “Well — yeah. Obviously. Who else?”
Jack shakes his head, incredulous. He can feel the Doctor’s eyes on him, and realizes that if he wants to have any hope of being set down on a planet with such basic luxuries as, say, oxygen, he should keep his mouth shut right now. But Rose’s eyes are swimming with guilt, and his sense of justice won’t let him stay quiet. “Well, from where I’m standing, none of this was your fault. Except possibly touching the baby. But the rest of it — ” He takes a deep breath. “The rest of it was clearly the Doctor’s screw-up.”
“What?” The Time Lord’s jumped up from his chair and is now towering over him. His posture, his expression, his eyes make Jack instantly understand why he’s been called the Oncoming Storm by some. “She just ran out onto the street and pushed him away from the car! Right in front of the other us.”
Jack feels his own temper flare. He stands, too, and, against all his instincts, takes a step closer to the Time Lord. “Of course she did! What did you expect?” Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Rose staring at both of them, speechless.
“I expected her not to break all the laws of Time in one fell swoop.” The Doctor pulls himself up to his full height.
Jack does, too. He’s almost as tall as the Time Lord, but not quite. “And how the fuck was she supposed to know?”
This actually makes the Doctor speechless for a second. Then he bristles. “Bloody obvious, isn’t it?”
Jack scoffs. “To you it is! Because you’re a goddamn Time Lord! She’s human! As alien to you as you are to her. You take a human girl to the tragic, untimely death of her own parent, of course she’s going to try and prevent it. Could have told you that before.” He sets his jaw defiantly. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. “At the Time Agency, we go through years of training telling us why we can’t mess with certain timelines, can’t prevent the Holocaust or the Trentian Plague or our own personal tragedies. It’s drilled in physically, mentally and logically. For years. And still they program our vortex manipulators in such a way that, if we even try to go into our own past or our immediate family’s, we get transported straight to an arrest cell at HQ instead. And despite all that, agents sometimes go rogue and mess up.” In fact, he’s not at all sure that that’s not what he did. Maybe those missing two years were when he finally caved and tried to go back to save Gray. “Taking Rose there unprepared could only end one way, Doctor.”
The Doctor’s eyes are cutting through him like knives. “I should have expected her to consider her own family more important than the entire planet?”
Jack squares his shoulders. This is really the crux of the story, from how Rose told it. “You didn’t warn her.”
The Doctor blinks. “What?” There’s a slight gasp from Rose. The Doctor flicks her a guilty glance. He clearly doesn’t want to be discussing this in front of her, but Jack has provoked him beyond silence.
“From what Rose just told me, and I didn’t get the impression that she was leaving anything out, you took her there without first telling her why she couldn’t change anything. Or even that she couldn’t. You didn’t mention Reapers, paradoxes, temporal integrity. You just took her there and expected her to get it right out of sheer instinct. An instinct humans don’t have.”
Now the Doctor’s gaping at him, speechless. Not a chance he can afford to let pass.
“It’s debatable if you should have taken her there in the first place. Honestly, I wouldn’t have. But if I had, I’d have explained to her first why there was no way we could change anything, no matter the temptation. And I’d still have kept a tight hold on her during, just to make sure.” He shakes his head, lips curled in disgust. “You’re a Time Lord, goddammit. I’m just a measly Time Agent, and I know better than to endanger temporal integrity like that. You do something that risky, do nothing to prevent the obvious, and then blame it on a twenty-year-old human with no knowledge of temporal mechanics?”
There’s a loud clatter that makes both men jump. Rose’s chair is rocking on the floor, and Jack just catches a glimpse of her slipper as it disappears around the corner.
He becomes suddenly aware what he’s doing. Challenging a Time Lord. On his own TARDIS. Opening all kinds of wounds for Rose, too. So much for pleasant and unassuming. Or any hope of oxygen in his new home. He sits on the bench heavily.
The Doctor is looking after Rose, breathing hard. There’s tension in every line of his body. Jack is not at all sure he’s not going to snap his neck and be done with him.
Suddenly, the Doctor straightens and takes a step towards the door. In the doorway, he stops, turns, and fixes Jack in a gaze as hard and sharp as black diamond. “Want to take that back?”
Is he being given a chance to back out of the spectacular display of disrespect and insolence he just committed? Well, he always knew his stubbornness would be the death of him one day — because he meant every damn word. Lifting his chin, he looks the Doctor straight in the eyes and shakes his head. “No.”
The Doctor nods — one abrupt, quick, angry movement. He slams something down on the table in front of Jack before he turns on his heel and storms after Rose.
Jack stares after him for a moment, then lowers his gaze to the table. It’s a key — just a plain little Yale key, unremarkable except for the fact that it’s glowing faintly. Intrigued, he touches it, noticing that it’s warm. And as soon as the warmth spreads through his hand, he knows what he’s holding. His fingers start to tremble. It can’t be. But it is. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he’s certain.
It’s a TARDIS key.
Rose is sitting on her bed, fighting down tears. She’s so torn, so confused. Jack’s words have opened all the wounds from that day again. Shifted her perception of it to a new, unsettling angle. She was just starting to get used to the idea — her incredible screw-up, her guilt — but Jack’s outburst makes her re-evaluate everything.
There’s a knock on the doorframe. The Doctor’s leaning in the doorway, shoulders hunched, gaze hooded. She looks at him, feeling like she’s drowning, needing reassurance, help.
“Is… is he right?” Her voice comes out in a whisper.
The Doctor looks back at her steadily. Licks his lips. Then he nods. “Yeah. He is.”
She sobs. God — for some reason, it would have been so much easier if he’d just handed the blame back to her. Where it belongs. Where she thought it belongs.
The Doctor comes in, kneels by her side. “Didn’t think about it right. You couldn’t have known, could you?” He lays a hand on her knee, his eyes begging permission. She closes her own hand over it. “Rose — some things in the universe are in flux, others are fixed. Some timelines are flexible, an’ some are brittle. An’ I know. I always know. ‘Cause that’s how I see the universe. All the time, that’s what I see. Ought to have remembered that you don’t.”
She gasps. That must be so… she can’t even imagine. No matter how human he looks, the man in front of her is truly alien. No wonder that he doesn’t always understand human emotion. “I just… I hadn’t planned it, I swear. But when I saw that car coming towards him — an’ right after I’d seen it hit him…” She sobs.
He gently squeezes her knee. “Course. Obvious, really. Should have known.” He gently takes her face in both hands. “Wasn’t your fault, Rose. Never should have said that. Was mine.” He looks away. “Can’t believe I didn’t see it. Call myself a genius.” He scoffs. Looks back at her, his eyes full of guilt. “Can’t believe I blamed you.”
She takes a shaky breath. All right then. Time to put this to rest, as they had before. Nothing has changed, really. Except she now knows not all of it was her fault. That should make her feel better, not worse. “So — are you sorry then?” She grins at him shakily.
A short bark of laughter. “Yes.” He looks at her seriously, openly. “I’m sorry, Rose.”
She bends forward and hugs him — unusual to do it from this angle, since he’s normally the taller one, but he’s still kneeling in front of her bed. His arms come around her tightly, securely.
“All right?” he asks her quietly as she pulls back.
She nods. “Yeah. Gonna take a shower and reapply my make-up, unless we’re landing soon?”
“Can wait for you, not a problem. Need to talk to our Captain first, anyway.”
“You’re not angry at him, are you?” Jack wanted to help her, protect her. She doesn’t want him to get in trouble for that. But the Doctor’s made it pretty clear that he doesn’t like the bloke.
“I am, actually. Furious.” Before she can say anything, try to defend Jack, the Doctor sighs. “Fortunately for him, I’m in the wrong.”
He finds Jack still sitting on the kitchen bench. He’s holding the key in his hand, staring at it as if it was a hippogryph feather or something, not a plain little Yale key. The Doctor watches him silently for a minute, then he speaks up.
“You wanna get a keyring for that.”
Jack’s fingers close over the key protectively as he turns his searching gaze on the Doctor. “Why?”
“‘Cause I’m gonna box your ears if you lose it.” Not what Jack meant, of course, but the Doctor’s still upset enough to want to keep the bloke off balance for a bit.
Jack doesn’t fall into the trap, doesn’t start to bluster or explain what he meant. Just raises an eyebrow. Well, damn. But the lad deserves an explanation anyway. The Doctor sighs.
“I’m a stupid git sometimes. Problem is, the rest of the time I’m a genius — an’ that means people who have the guts to stand up to me and tell me when I’m a being an idiot are few an’ far between. Too precious to let ‘em get away over my hurt pride.” As hard as said pride may be to swallow right about now.
Jack nods briefly. Waits.
It’s a rare human who wins his respect this quickly and this completely. And a mere hour ago, he certainly wouldn’t have thought Jack might be one of them. So he owes him the whole truth. “Not gonna make it easy on you, Jack. Never more stubborn than when I’m wrong, me.”
Now Jack grins — a real, honest grin of amusement and happiness, not the blinding grin of the conman. “I like a challenge.”
The Doctor grins back. “Come to the right place, then.” He gestures over his shoulder. “Go straight down there, under the stairs, past the bins, fifth door on your left’s the Wardrobe Room. Little yellow dresser against the back wall — top drawer should be full of keyrings. An’ pick out some clothes while you’re there. Don’t want you prancin’ about in that uniform all the time.”
Jack snaps him a mock-salute. “Yes, sir.” He grins teasingly.
Getting a little sure of himself already, isn’t he? Time to take him down a peg. He puts a hand on Jack’s arm as the lad moves past him, pointedly looks him up and down. “An’ by the way, lad — if you want to carry your decorations and toiletries around in your clothes, you can — but I promise no one’s going to steal them out of your room.” He raises an eyebrow sardonically.
Jack turns beet-red, and all traces of the smile vanish. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to steal from…” His voice trails off. He looks at his boots for a moment, then back up, straight in the Doctor’s eyes. “Well, actually, I did.”
He keeps his face serious. Lets the lad squirm for a bit. Maybe he’s being petty, but it’s gratifying. But he’s got to admire the honesty, so after a minute, he nods. “You thought I was gonna set you down God knows where. Wanted to be as prepared as possible. Understandable. But just to make sure it doesn’t happen again-” He feels Jack’s arm tense under his hand. Nice to know he can keep the bloke on his toes “-I hereby declare that room an’ whatever’s in it yours. Can’t steal it if you own it.” He grins to show that he’s teasing.
After a moment, Jack grins back. “Down there, under the stairs, past the bins?”
“Fifth door on your left.” He gently shoves Jack’s shoulder as the lad turns to go. “Hurry up, an’ get your arse to the control room when you look presentable.”
The so-called “Wardrobe Room” is more like a Wardrobe Palace. Jack’s not sure he’s ever seen so many clothes in one place, and he’s been to Sartoria IV during festival week.
He picks a few simple, basic things. Doesn’t want to appear greedy, though he believes the Doctor’s offer is genuine. A few jeans, some slacks, an assortment of shirts. A smooth leather waistcoat, because he just can’t resist it. Some trainers, some boots — and, of course, a secure little keyring with a Deadlock hook and a ring just large enough for a Yale key.
When he enters the control room half an hour later, he just catches the tail end of what seems like a serious conversation between the Doctor and Rose. He briefly considers backing out, but they’ve seen him, so it’s too late.
“Just wanted to say that, ‘cause I realized I hadn’t before. If I hadn’t touched her…” The Doctor interrupts Rose by placing a finger gently on her lips. “Yeah, okay. You’ve said it. No more of this now. On this ship, we apologize when we mess up, right our wrongs if we can, an’ then move on. No moping an’ self-castigatin’. Them’s the rules.” His gaze flicks briefly to Jack. Clearly, those words weren’t just for Rose’s benefit.
Rose laughs. “An’ you’re particularly good at following those yourself, too.”
A sheepish grin — more open, more vulnerable than Jack had thought the Doctor capable of. Rose brings that out in people. “Well, I try, me. Work in progress.” They hug.
They’re adorable. And made for each other, though they both seem to refuse to see it. Jack smiles until he sees the Doctor’s gaze settle on him. The Time Lord’s eyes are serious, and his eyebrows are raised expectantly. As if he’s waiting for something.
Jack’s not sure what to say at first, but then it hits him. The most obvious thing in the world, the first thing he should have said at the bomb site. He meets the Doctor’s eyes straight-on. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I unleashed a plague of nanogenes on London and almost destroyed the human race.”
The Doctor’s grin is sudden — slightly manic, but the corners of his eyes crinkle with warmth. He takes a step closer and cups Jack’s neck in one hand. “Good lad.” He holds Jack’s gaze for a moment. “Now drop it, move on, an’ do better in future, all right?”
“I’ll… try.” He knows that’s not enough, but it’s as much as he can promise. He wants to do better, of course, but he’s not at all convinced he won’t screw up again. And he can’t lie to this man, not with his gaze focused on him like that. Those dark, deep eyes keep searching his face, waiting, expecting more than that weak assurance. Jack doesn’t have the faith in himself to promise more, so he reiterates. “Really, I will.” The Doctor cocks an eyebrow, clearly not convinced. Jack smiles shyly. “Guess I’ll be a bit of a work in progress, too.”
The Doctor laughs and pulls him into a brief hug. “Good enough for this ship, lad.” Then he strides over to the console and engages the engine.
Rose smiles at Jack and gestures to the console. He’s dying to go up there and watch what the Doctor’s doing, but he doubts the Time Lord would be thrilled by the thought, so shortly after…
“Jack, get up here an’ help me stabilize the temporal cylinders.” Jack can see Rose throw him a “told you so” glance as he approaches the console slowly, almost reverently.
“Doctor — I haven’t got the first clue how to…”
The Doctor grins. “Wanna learn?”
“Love to. But… are you sure you want me to… after I…”
“Oi! What did I just say about moving on?” The “just” is punctuated by a playful smack to his ass.
Jack grins goofily. “Sir, yes, sir.”
“Stop that military rubbish, or you’ll get another one.”
He makes his grin flirtatious, his voice deliberate. “Sir, yes, sir!”
The Doctor laughs and shakes his head. “Gonna have my hands full with you, aren’t I?”
Jack chuckles. “God, I hope so.” Rose giggles, and the Doctor rolls his eyes, and even though it’s the first time they’re having this conversation, the banter feels comfortable and familiar, as if they’ve been doing it for ages. Suddenly, Jack is flooded by a strange and unfamiliar warmth, and almost shivers. The floor under his feet feels unstable. He draws in a sharp breath.
The Doctor catches his gaze, and there’s a knowing smile playing on his lips. He puts a steadying hand on Jack’s shoulder. “No worries. It’s supposed to feel like this.”
“What is?” Jack asks quietly.
The Doctor squeezes his shoulder gently. There’s warmth shining in his eyes. “Coming home.”