One Long Starless Night, Two Old Soldiers Met at a Crossroads
Immortals are never alien to one another.
— The Odyssey
“How did you get in here?” he asks his visitor. His own voice sounds strange to him. Cracked, at first, and then, when it clears up, too young. It echoes overloud around the empty warehouse. He’d tried talking, at first, to remind himself that he wasn’t alone. To fill the time, to fill the space, to keep him sane, but eventually he’d given up, just like he’d given up on everything else. Everything else but one thing.
“Friends in high places,” his visitor replies, a sort of awkward smile in his voice. A little weird that he’s even that in tune with human gestures anymore to know that.
“Why are you here? Why did you come?”
“Figured you were lonely. Thought maybe you’d like some company.”
Almost defensively, he reaches out behind him, pressing his palm against the surface of it and feeling the almost imperceptible hum, the hum that says I am living.
“Have all the company I need, thanks.” It grits out through his teeth.
His visitor takes a step forward.
His hand goes to his blade.
“Whoa! Touchy!” his visitor exclaims. “Listen, I just want to talk.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose, stumbling back to sit at its base. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time. Talk, then.”
“Can–Can I sit down?” his visitor asks, and he sounds so tentative and so young.
He doesn’t want to do this anymore. But he waves his visitor over. “By all means,” he doesn’t say.
“Thanks,” his visitor says and saunters over, remarkably graceful for someone so big. He takes a seat, as close as if they were brothers, their shoulders running alongside. The wool of his visitor’s coat scratches the bare skin of his exposed arm.
They sit in silence a little while, and he listens to his visitor’s breathing. It’s been a long time since he’s heard breathing. It’s deep and wet and peaceful. He resists the urge to rest his head on the other man’s shoulder. Instead, he takes his helmet off, setting it on the stone to his side.
“It’s funny,” his visitor says, as if to recall a story. “Torchwood ‘owns’ this thing. ‘It’s alien, it’s ours’ being the motto, and we have no idea what it is. We’ve never studied it. We could never get close.”
“Don’t apologize to me! Look–I don’t know what you did to scare them off, and I don’t need to. I’m not here to change whatever arrangement you have with Torchwood London.” He seems sincere.
“They shot me. When I resisted, when I told them not to come close to her with their. . . their machines, when I drew my sword, they shot me. The bullets melted holes right through me and I kept on standing.” He looks down at his hands, that look human but are not, that kill but not by strangling. “I didn’t want to fight! But I swore!” He doesn’t realize what he must look like from the outside. Guilt. Fear. Guilt again. Grief. His hands. He doesn’t realize how much emotion his face and his body are still capable of showing until his visitor’s arm is crushing around his shoulder, drawing him in.
“You did what you had to. To protect. . . her.” His visitor turns his head, looking over his shoulder at it. At her. It hums I am alive to them. The crushing hug relaxes. The arm retreats away. “Torchwood’s had it coming, anyway. So what is it, er, who is she? To you?”
“What year is it?” he asks, angling his head up to the ceiling. It feels remarkably light without the helmet.
“Nineteen thirty-eight,” his visitor replies. There’s something hanging at the end of his statement, as though he wishes to elaborate on it in some way. But he doesn’t.
“Then I can’t tell you, not without creating a paradox. But it’s not long now.” The back of his head hits it with a tired thunk.
“Until what? Not long until what?” his visitor asks, suddenly desperate. “Tell me, does this have something to do with the stars disappearing?” A pause. “I know I’m supposed to believe that they were never there, like everybody else, but I don’t. I dream of them. Please, tell me I’m not crazy. I came from somewhere else. Some time else. Nothing about this makes sense. I don’t make sense. You want to talk paradoxes? You’re looking right at one.”
“Another time?” he asks. It can’t be. But he wants to believe there are coincidences. That there can be coincidences and ridiculous miracles in the universe.
“I’m sorry I can’t be more specific. I’m not holding out on you, it’s just I don’t quite know myself. It’s all muddy. Like something’s clouding my memory, something to do with the stars not existing. All I have is this vague sense like I don’t belong here.” His visitor shakes his head. As though it’s full of smoke. “But not just that. You say they shot you and you kept on standing? Well I lived right through the Great War. Not for lack of trying. I drowned in mud in the Somme. Shot to death by enemy machinegun fire at Passchendaele. I came to Earth in 1869 and since then I’ve barely aged. I’m not sure I ever will. I was hoping to meet up with a very specific Doctor in Cardiff, but now with the stars gone, I’m not so sure I will. Who’s to say he ever existed?”
If he was human, it would make all the hairs on his neck stand on end. Instead, he just tightens his hands into fists. “He existed. He exists. He’s coming back to fix all this. I just. Have to wait.” He has to believe that.
“Then let me at least wait with you.”
“What?” he sputters. “Out of the question!”
“I travelled with him, too, once. I could help, when the time comes. Besides. Being a man who can’t die? It’s lonely, I know.” His visitor leans over, nudging him in the shoulder companionably.
“What’s your name?” he asks in resignation.
“Jack,” his visitor replies. “Captain Jack Harkness. You?”
“Rory,” he replies, not sure if he should get more detailed than that.
“‘Rory’? That’s not really much of a name for a Roman Centurion, is it?”
“It’s short for ‘Roranicus’,” he replies, and smiles without crying.
When the bombs fall on London, Jack is composed like he’s seen it all before. He has, apparently. He tells Rory about Rose and ‘his’ Doctor, a sort of abrasive but manic man with a toothy grin and cartoonish features. He’s sure that his time with the Doctor made him a better man, even though he’s not quite sure what kind of man he was before he met the Doctor. What he does know is that the Doctor was distrustful of him at first, and there must have been a reason for that. And there’s so much hurt in his eyes. Like without the Doctor’s approval, he is nothing. For the first time, Rory wonders why Jack was left waiting for the Doctor here on Earth in the first place.
It’s Jack’s intimate future knowledge of this war, stemming from that time here in London with the Doctor, that alerts them to the fact that a bomb is due to fall on the warehouse where the Pandorica is being stored. But they can’t move it, not even with two of them, not in time. The heat of the explosion and the fires as Jack pulls him out of harm’s way . . . it doesn’t hurt, exactly, to watch his extremities begin to lose their form. His fingers drip like tapered candles, extended out toward the blaze, reaching. Jack’s arms circle his chest and crush against him, sink into his shapeless body.
“My fiancée!” he howls, and it must sound meaningless to Jack, who doesn’t know because Rory never told him. “It’s my fiancée!”
“The video clips they run in the exhibit about you are so romantic, don’t you think?” Jack says, smiling at Rory over a drink of his coffee. It’s probably the thousandth time they’ve had this same conversation. Their thousandth coffee break together. “The ‘Lone Centurion’, they call you! Pfft! What about me?”
“What about you?” Rory quips back. He’s a little on edge: it’s twenty-sixth June today. It’s today. “Typical American. A Brit does all the work, and then you pop in for the last leg and suddenly you want all the credit. Let’s just remember I was the ‘Lone Centurion’ for eighteen-hundred years before you showed up.”
Jack laughs, showing all his infuriatingly white teeth.
Just then, a little Amelia Pond bustles impatiently by with a humongous cup of soda and her Aunt in tow. Rory turns to Jack, formally saying, “This is it.” He gets up from the bench they’re both sitting on.
“Promise me one thing,” Jack says, and all the humour is gone from his face. He clutches Rory’s wrist, and there’s tension thrumming all through him. “When this is all over, come find me again? It’s been nice, with you.”
All those years ago: It’s lonely being a man who can’t die.
He claps a hand on Jack’s shoulder. Smiles.
When he returns to the bench with the Doctor and Amy (beautiful lovely amazing charming living Amy!) all that’s left is a styrofoam cup. It rolls listlessly back and forth in a pool of spilled coffee, long since cooled. A remnant.
It’s just garbage, and they’re busy. Saving the universe, and all.
Nobody notices when it, too, blinks out of existence like it was never there.
After their wedding, as they’re chasing the Doctor to the TARDIS, Rory remembers the two thousand years. Belatedly, almost as a footnote, he remembers Jack. His promise to Jack. But he’s not a man who can’t die anymore, is he? He’s human again now, with human hands and human lungs and human hairs that stand on end (for instance when Amy kisses him, like just then). What would Jack want with him now? In fact, Jack probably doesn’t even remember him. Those years without stars are all gone now, like the Lone Centurion and the Pandorica never even existed.
But Jack’s a time traveller, like Amy and River and Rory himself, so maybe he does remember it all, even if it’s just in dreams. Rory could look him up: maybe in this universe he’s still working with Torchwood, still waiting for the Doctor. And then what? Even if he could find him, what would he do? Call him from the TARDIS telephone? Say, “Hello, this is Rory calling. I don’t know if you remember me, but once upon a time I was the Lone Centurion and you were the Man Who Cannot Die and for a little while we weren’t so lonely”?