Genre: Character Study
Disclaimer: Doctor Who and Torchwood's characters, concepts, and events belong to their respective owners, including but not limited to Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, and the BBC.
Summary: The Doctor. And then, Jack. Always Jack.
A/N: The second part of a triptych I started with vulnerable and divine. This story belongs to that continuity and takes place after "Last of the Timelords". The whole triptych is based on the poem "instructions for a body" by Marty McConnell. azn_jack_fiend beta-d it and helped with characterization.
"the million things that will kill us"
we're gone / in a blizzard of seconds
love the body human
while we're here, a gift of minutes
on an evolving planet, a country
in flux / give thanks
what we take for granted, bone and dirt
and the million things that will kill us
someday, motion and the pursuit
of happiness / no guarantees / give thanks
“Just give me a couple of days with them, alright?” Martha says, hugging herself. She casts a quick look over her shoulder, where the silhouettes of her family can be seen moving in the front window of their house. “I just need to... think. I need to make sure they’re okay.”
The Doctor manages a smile. It musn’t look too fake, because Martha returns the expression, if a bit tentatively.
“A couple of days,” he promises.
A touch on her shoulder turns into a tight, frantic hug, and then she’s gone through her front door without a goodbye. For a moment he just stands there, taking in the door’s angles, and then he sighs and turns on his heel, back to the TARDIS. Alone. Again. And he isn’t sure, this time, whether he is sad or relieved by that fact.
But he’s not alone, of course, he realizes with a bit too much disappointment as he unlocks the TARDIS door and slips quietly inside. Because Jack is here, and though the Doctor tells himself the only reason he forgot that fact is because he’s simply unused to Jack being around, anymore, he knows that explanation isn’t much more than a weak little lie.
Because there he is, as ever, stripped down to his undershirt, arms and neck streaked with grease as he circles the console, a spanner and a soldering iron sticking out of his back pockets. Busily working away, getting his hands dirty, cooing sweet nothings to the TARDIS in a voice too low for the Doctor to really hear.
Like he’d never left.
When he finally notices the Doctor loitering by the door, he immediately shuts up, turning to him abruptly, nearly standing at attention.
“Oh, Doc,” he greets, too casual for his posture, “Hope you don’t mind. Didn’t know how long you were gonna be gone, figured I’d get a start on disassembling the paradox machine. Keep busy n’all. I mean, I’m not touching all the little fiddly bits, but I figured I could at least take down the cage.”
The Doctor feels a thrill of anxiety seize his chest at that, that irrational desire to keep and hold the things left by the dead against all common sense, as if they can be pieced together using not much more than old clothes and used tissues, data recordings and inexplicable keepsakes, but he shakes it off with a toothy smile.
“How is she?” he asks, more to distract himself than out of any real concern. He strips his coat, hanging it beside Jack’s on the old coat tree before he lopes up the ramp to the console.
“Fine, mostly,” Jack replies. He has already turned back toward the console, is working at one of the bolts on the wire mesh with his spanner. The look of concentration on his face seems patently false, but he keeps at it, not even making eye contact with the Doctor when he approaches. “A bit cranky, feeling a little violated, I think. Just needs some TLC.”
The Doctor touches the console, stroking gently over buttons and dials and levers. Without looking at Jack, fingers circling an innocuous red button, he says, “Well, you always were the go-to man for TLC, Jack.”
The spanner hits the grated floor with an overloud clang, the ambient sounds of the TARDIS sucked up in some socially awkward vacuum. Jack rounds on the Doctor, and at first his face is furious, half offended, and then the expression washes out of him all at once, leaving nothing but a bland, tired smile, no heart in it. He sighs.
There are two-point-six billion possible outcomes to this scenario, give or take, although that isn’t factoring in the hiccup that at least five million of those inexplicably involve them spontaneously turning into cats. (And the Doctor really should take an afternoon to work out an equation that excludes the cat-probabilities because really). In this reality, the Doctor drops down on one knee to retrieve the spanner, mostly because he doesn’t want to have to keep looking at Jack’s face. It’s just there’s always (now more than ever) a question or an accusation or a proposition there that he just doesn’t have the answer for. And well.
“Even you can’t do this,” Jack says, stubborn. “Pretend like nothing’s happened.”
The Doctor, for once, isn’t sure whether he means this last year (the Master) or the rest of it. And he’s not about to ask. He’s through talking in circles with Jack about Satellite Five, and if Jack wants an explanation for the Master, he’s going to have to wait a very, very long time. Scary, to think that Jack could actually fulfill that requirement.
Right now though, the problem is his convenient excuse for bending out of Jack’s view has long since run out, and now he’s starting to feel a bit silly. Fine under normal circumstances, but these circumstances in particular are... well, far from normal, actually. He stares at Jack’s knees, tightening and releasing his grip on the spanner’s handle. Pink indents from the handle have lined themselves across his palm.
“New trousers,” he blurts out, manic.
“Old ones,” Jack corrects, his voice cold, remote. If the Doctor could see his face, he’d probably see his clenched jaw and wary eyes. “Needed to get out of that stuff from the Valiant. TARDIS took me right to my old room, everything just how I left it.”
He could say, “See, even the TARDIS knew you’d be back like old times,” and be smug and optimistic and bold, but that would mean acknowledging the ugly second meaning lurking under Jack’s comment. He knows what Jack wants to say, but he’s not feeling charitable enough, just now, to bother with coaxing it out of him. Instead, he knocks the end of the spanner against the underside of the console, as if in thought. Somewhere, the TARDIS makes all sorts of sweet but awful pinging noises, like she wants to break up the awkward silence. Could always try crickets, he thinks, cocking an eyebrow at her.
“Well, except for me,” Jack puts in, breaking up the moody silence. “Oof, I had to lay on the bed to get into these. How skinny was I before? I’m gonna have to get back to the gym. Haven’t worn trousers this tight since the seventies, wasn’t really all that keen on reliving the experience.”
An out. Kind and self-deprecating and vain, everything Jack’s good at. The Doctor almost forgot that about him, that arrogant way he talks himself out of tight corners. Maybe that’s where this regeneration got it from. Cheeky, Jack had called him, wasn’t it?
Lots of things the Doctor’s forgotten about Jack, it seems. Without realizing it, he’s placed his palm on Jack’s thigh. Jack, human as he is, holds his breath.
He’s right. The leg under the Doctor’s hand is fleshier than before, the same muscle moving underneath, but padded, now, the skin less taut. Because he’s aging. Once, the Doctor would have had the matrices of Jack’s body mapped out and memorized, every scar and every rib and every tendon, but this is all so, so new.
New, right. He stands. Can’t go back, not on this.
Which is when he sees the body, just over Jack’s left shoulder, wrapped in white sheeting and rope and laid out straight on the grating. But of course... of course they’d have to do something with... the body. The body that was once the Master, was once thrumming with life, golden, steeped in time. Inert now, just a dangling snapped thread.
Jack half-turns, recognizing what the Doctor sees. “You were busy with Martha,” he says, no shred of accusation or apology in his voice, “Figured you wouldn’t just want to leave the body to be incinerated with the others.”
“That’s so funny, isn’t it,” the Doctor tries, forcing himself to look away, craning his neck to take in the cool green glow of the console column, “How attached so many cultures are to their dead. They’re just matter, you know, no inherent meaning of their own, no more than compost. And yet do you know, in some systems the bodies of the dead are preserved and displayed in the household for three generations? Just imagine, sitting down for tea with your great-nan gathering dust on the couch beside you!”
“We buried them in the sand,” Jack replies, talking past him. “Back on Boeshane. Wrapped ‘em up, waited for the dunes to swallow them.”
“Mummified the bodies?” the Doctor asks, trying to keep his voice purely academic. “I mean, with the heat and dryness, it’s a natural process, isn’t it...”
Jack nods, his expression far away. “Even if you don’t know where they are, even if you can’t see them, you know they’re always out there somewhere.”
“Assuming predators don’t get to them fi--” He mouths around the word like a dying fish. Jack’s expression is pure murder. “--No, you’re right, of course. Of course.”
“But of course,” Jack continues, his voice cruel, almost taunting, turning the Doctor’s own tone on him, “now we know that’s not true, nice a thought as it is. Nobody goes on after death. Nobody but me. You, I’m not so sure.”
The Doctor looks to the body on the floor, feeling an itch creep all through his skin. His own mortality, there in that body. Travelling alone, freed from the limitations and bonds of his culture, his people, he’d felt... is it wrong to say godlike? No, more like a fundamental disconnect, that all-too-natural sense of superiority that comes from watching generations, empires, whole planets and galaxies, rise and fall. I am large. I contain multitudes. But it only ever goes so far.
“We can die,” the Doctor says, uselessly. Because obviously. He’s glad Jack wrapped the body, that he can’t see the slackness of the Master’s facial muscles, the bloodless tinge of his skin. “It’s just... there used to be rules. Protocols. And now... well, I’ve rather been set adrift, haven’t I?”
“Huh,” Jack replies, and it’s obvious by his expression that he’s inwardly asking ‘Now where have I heard that one before?’ The Doctor half expects him to try. Instead, he says, simply, “Listen.” Pleading. Exasperated.
The Doctor looks at him expectantly, even though he’s not keen on hearing whatever Jack intends to say. Nothing personal against Jack, really, he just would rather not talk about this with anyone. He has the intense urge to disappear into seclusion for a hundred years or so, away from all sentient contact -- no, not that, he’s no monk -- maybe just run away again, travel alone for awhile, no long-term connections or commitments, move too fast to be reminded he is alone, be gone before anyone can ask uncomfortable questions. Give nothing, and get nothing in return.
“I’m not... I’m not sorry he’s dead.” Jack’s big hands twist into fists. He can’t meet the Doctor’s eyes. “But I’m sorry he left you alone.”
“Alone. Right!” An intense urge to fidget swallows him up whole and he brushes past Jack’s shoulder to the console, the sonic screwdriver humming away in his hand, taking readings. “For the best though isn’t it, look at this mess! Can you just imagine if I’d had him living here full time? I’d go bonkers. Too many cooks in the cockpit, as they say.”
“Doctor,” Jack grits out insistently.
“Jack,” the Doctor grits right back.
They’re a standstill. Again. Jack’s shoulders are squared, his face unflinching. The Doctor realizes he isn’t like to be distracted, not now, no matter how curious the anecdote.
And so, instead: “But you didn’t kill him.”
Jack shrinks back, visibly offended. “Of course I didn’t! How could you...”
“He tortured you for a year, but you didn’t kill him. You had the gun in your hand. I mean, you could have done.” Jack seems completely disarmed by the Doctor’s smile (the challenge in his voice), blinking at him wordlessly. “You probably even wanted to. You’re probably right to have wanted to. Maybe if it weren’t for me--”
“But I didn’t,” Jack protests, stony, a tone that brooks no argument, “Didn’t even cross my mind.”
“How many years past, now? And still ever the soldier, Jack.” As brilliant as he is, the enormity of that, the implication there... it only just dawns on him.
Jack kisses him. But then, Jack always kissed him first, didn’t he.
It’s breathless, overwhelmed, no pretences, and then it’s over.
“Sorry,” Jack says, and pulls back, bewildered as ever. He probably can’t even see the pattern, that’s the worst part, and that’s how the Doctor knows he is alone. Jack stands like that a second, floundering, and then puts distance between them, fiddles meaninglessly with a lever that hasn’t worked in at least two hundred years, if it ever did in the first place. His whole body buzzes with nervous energy, with life. So much life the whole universe distorts around him. More life than any one man ought to have, and maybe the Doctor even resents him. He struggles for words: “That wasn’t even... not remotely appropriate. That’s not even what I want.”
“What do you want?” the Doctor asks, an exercise in redundancy: he already knows what Jack wants, knows he can’t give it to him, knows that Jack won’t ever ask, anyway, and for that, at least, he’s thankful. Maybe he should feel guilty, the way Jack exists to serve, seems to structure his entire existence solely based on meeting what he thinks are the Doctor’s standards, even if that never quite means gaining his approval. Maybe he should feel guilty, or maybe he should be annoyed, but right now all he feels is relief.
Because you can’t go back. Not on this.
“So what next?” Jack asks back, changing the subject.
The Doctor thinks about all the places he could run away to, remote planets on the edge of civilization, huge urbanized systems where he could disappear faceless into a crowd, places past the edge of time where he can wait out the end of existence, sink willingly into the darkness. Or maybe familiar places, places of pleasure and warmth, where they can lose themselves in an easy sort of carefree happiness, float mindlessly along, untouchable. He’ll need to dispose of the Master’s body, too, along the way, and do it correctly. Maybe he can just let himself relinquish all control, let the TARDIS take him where she would.
Except all that’s ignoring a very particular subtlety: Jack hadn’t asked “Where to?”, but rather, “What?”
How do we move forward? That’s the real question, and for that one, there’s no answer. He just... does. He always has.
And so has Jack.
The Doctor casts one look back at the Master, wrapped up on the floor, gone, and everything he represented gone with him, and turns forward. To Jack. He covers Jack’s hand, pressed to the console to steady himself, with his own. And then, on a whim, turns. Gathers Jack in close for a tight, fearful hug. Jack’s shoulders tense to the point of trembling, and then he sighs, nose touching the Doctor’s shoulder, and the Doctor’s almost sorry, sorry they can’t go back and Jack can’t ask for what he wants and the Doctor can’t give him it, no matter how long he waits, no matter how loyal he is.
“Great big universe full of possibilities, Jack,” he promises instead, trying to sound brave, “Even excluding the cat probabilities -- no, on second thought nevermind the cat probabilities -- so, what next? Whatever we want. We’re free.”