Jack froze as he entered his nest-room. The round external windows were dimmed to non-transparent, but a glow was coming from the side opposite the sleeping nest - a glow in the shape of familiar TARDIS windows. In its dim illumination he could see an indistinct figure huddled in the hollow of the nest. There was a taste in the air that said TARDIS, too, a fizzle of energy that didn't belong on 43rd-century Her-Yat.
He hesitated only briefly, turned the lights on at low and sat down on the edge of the nest beside the tousled head he could see half-burrowed under the blankets. The figure didn't stir. Something warm expanded in Jack's chest at the sight, quickening his heartbeat. The Doctor - it had to be the Doctor - asleep, in his bed. Well, nest.
Here for a reason, surely, but still: here.
Jack's hand found a shoulder, bony under what had to be several layers of clothing beneath the blanket.
The Doctor jerked upright, a pale, wide-eyed face suddenly right in front of Jack's. Blonde hair stood every which way, settling down only slowly. A swirl of glowing energy flowed out from parted lips - this regeneration was very new.
New, and female. That was a first. Not an unexpected first - the Doctor had mentioned the possibility before - but still a first.
The Doctor grabbed him by the collar. "Jack," she said urgently, intently. "Jack, I need you to come with me."
Jack would have recognised that look anywhere, in any face.
"Sure," he said easily. When the Doctor was like this, it was always best to just go along, let the storm drive you where it would. And he'd been meaning to move on from Her-Yat soon, anyway, before all his Yatiri friends could grow old and die. Before he lost someone else. It always came to that, in the end. - Oh, who was he kidding? If the Doctor wanted him to come, he didn't need excuses to say yes. "Where are we going?"
The Doctor blinked. Golden energy swirled in her eyes. "Black hole," she said. "Right now." And then she collapsed back into the nest, out like a light.
Jack considered. Her urgency might simply be due to her freshly regenerated state. He'd never personally witnessed a full regeneration, but from everything he'd heard the Doctor was often rather out of it at first. Then again, she might have good reason to be in a hurry.
Jack stood and walked over to the TARDIS. When he put a hand against the door, it swung open of its own accord, a silent invitation. He stepped inside and looked up into a familiar, blue-lit dome.
"Hey, gorgeous." Unlike the Doctor, she hadn't changed since the last time he'd seen her. Still, the TARDIS never failed to awe him. "Just how urgent is this? Do you think we can wait until the Doctor is on her feet?"
The TARDIS never quite answered in words, but her soothing thrum against his mind was just as clear. No shrill urgency, no Cloister Bell ringing. This could wait, at least in her estimation. Jack grinned. "Thanks, beautiful. Waiting it is."
"Good timing," he muttered under his breath, moving back into the nest-room. "I should be so lucky."
As if lured by the smell of tea, the Doctor suddenly sat up again in the hollow of his nest, and for the first time Jack noticed that she was wearing a coat over a black hoodie, both several sizes too large for her.
"Why are we still here?" she demanded, her face pushing forward belligerently. Then her nose twitched. "Tea? Is that tea? Give it here."
Grinning, Jack did. The Doctor's coat half-covered her hands as she took it. She did her best to push her entire face into the thermoglass bowl, breathing in deeply. Then she poured the hot liquid down her throat as if it was nothing, finally sitting back with a sigh.
"Ah," she said. "I needed that." She blinked rapidly, several times, looking around herself, registering her surroundings anew. Green eyes narrowed at Jack. "Why are we still here? I said urgent. Didn't I say urgent?"
"You did say," Jack agreed, trying not to find her rambling too endearing, and failing. "But you didn't tell me where you needed to go or why, and the TARDIS didn't seem in any hurry."
The Doctor ran a hand through her blonde hair, brushing it out of her face. It fell back immediately; she ignored it in favour of glaring in the direction of the TARDIS. "Well," she said finally, "I don't suppose she likes it."
She shrugged. "We got in, we got out. We can get in and out again. Going to take some spare parts, though. Better safe than sorry."
Jack considered the uncharacteristic carefulness. "You're not actually in a hurry, then?"
"Well," she said, drawing the word out and sounding for a moment very much like an earlier regeneration, "no ... and yes. But - time machine!" She grimaced. "Just going to have to be very careful to catch the right moment, this time. No mistakes." Her eyes were on Jack again then, sharp and intense. "I do need you, though."
No surprise. She hadn't turned up here by accident. And he hadn't deluded himself that she was here for him. That wasn't how things worked between them; it never had been. "At your service," Jack said lightly, miming a Yatiri bow.
The Doctor laughed, but it fell away quickly. "You probably won't like it either," she said, sounding morose and sulky.
Jack's eyebrows went up. "Won't I?"
She shrugged, looking around the nest-room, avoiding his eyes. "Her-Yat? No wonder you actually had decent tea."
He really wasn't going to like it, then. He'd known she was here for a reason ... Best to get it over with. "Doctor," he prompted. "You said something about a black hole."
"Magic space hole," she muttered, incomprehensibly. Her hands fidgeted with the corner of a blanket. "Mm. Colony ship got too close. We answered a distress call, but, well. Massive time dilation. Lots of things went wrong. The TARDIS barely got out."
"And?" Jack prompted again when the Doctor didn't continue, merely stared at the blanket under her hands.
"Left someone behind. Companions. Friends." She threw him a pre-emptive glare. "Not deliberately, I didn't run away from them! Don't look at me like that."
"I wasn't," Jack said mildly. He might have been, just a bit, even after all this time, but he wasn't going to dwell on it.
The Doctor scowled. "Just because I cast you off so discourteously, doesn't mean I make a habit of it."
Jack held very still, suppressing a flinch. This was the Doctor; she was always going to be like this. She was always going to be worth it anyway.
Running away included.
As if she could read his thoughts, her green eyes narrowed again, simultaneously softening a bit. She ended up with an expression of belligerent fondness which was so much the Doctor, Jack's heart clenched.
"Didn't make a habit of it," she said gruffly, "even with you."
"All right." That was true, and they'd met and parted several times since then. They'd met; they'd travelled together; they'd fallen into bed together. He'd never left Jack behind again, not without saying good-bye. Jack closed his eyes for a moment, collecting his calm. He should be old enough by now to possess some serenity, even in moments like this. "I suppose you didn't."
"I don't even know how I ended up in the TARDIS," the Doctor continued her explanation, defensively. As if he hadn't spoken; as if she hadn't said what she'd said. "I was a hundred decks away when I died. But I need to find them. Bill, I need to help her, don't know how yet, but I'll work it out. And Nardole, and those children - well."
Jack just nodded. "So what do you need me for?"
"Said I'd need to arrive at exactly the right moment, didn't I? On a ship just escaping a black hole. Lots of time dilation, like I said. Even the TARDIS can't navigate that precisely, that close. Nothing can." The Doctor smiled, wryly. "You need an absolute reference point. And there's only one such thing."
Jack stilled again. "Me," he said, his throat suddenly tight. "A fixed point in space and time does come in handy sometimes, then."
"Sorry," she said, sounding not very sorry.
He breathed out, let calm flow over him, set his momentary peevishness aside. Serenity. "All right," he said, waiting for her to get up, to head for the TARDIS.
She didn't. Instead, the Doctor rolled her shoulders and looked down at the blankets again, not meeting his eyes.
With a sinking feeling, Jack realised there was something else she hadn't said. Something worse. He sighed. "What?"
She scrunched up her nose. "You're not going to like this."
"You already said so." Jack already wasn't liking this, not one bit. This kind of hesitance wasn't like the Doctor. They always asked, or demanded, whatever they needed; they didn't visibly worry about it.
"Not that - we've done that. You didn't like that either. But this -" The Doctor broke off, grimacing.
Jack crossed his arms over his chest, waiting her out.
"Fine," she spat out eventually, a hand combing into her hair, fingernails scratching vigorously against her scalp in what, worryingly, had to be a nervous gesture. "Fine, it's the Master, all right? Well, the Mistress. She goes by Missy, now. I need to save her."
Jack stared. "Missy," he repeated, addressing the least important part first. "The Master calls herself Missy."
The Doctor shrugged. "She always liked a good performance, wasn't going to pass this one up."
"Like you, you mean?" Jack shook his head. "Never mind. Of course you want to save her. You always do. But you -" He broke off himself now, rubbed a hand over his forehead, squeezed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. No, it really was no surprise at all that the Master was alive and had regenerated, or that the Doctor wanted to save her. In some ways, it was inevitable. Selfishly, Jack had hoped to be very far away whenever it happened next.
"Actually, never mind that either," he continued. "Of course you'd ask me to help you save the Master. Why wouldn't you?" A slightly brittle laugh began to spill from his lips, and he forced it down, swallowed it away. Hadn't he just thought he should aim for serenity? Nothing was further from his grasp right now. Perhaps he should take a page from the Doctor's book and just run away. Yeah, right. As if, Jack, as if. "Fine. Just fine. What exactly are we saving the Master from?"
The Doctor leaned forward, an unreadable expression on her face. She cupped a hand over Jack's shoulder. Jack wished for his old greatcoat back; he could feel her fingers far too clearly through the thin fabric of his shirt.
"Jack," she said gently. "I wouldn't. I wouldn't if there was any other way -"
"Yes, you would." Jack forced himself to take a deep breath. "It's fine. Forget I said anything." He snorted, a humourless huff of a laugh. "You can be a rather capricious god."
The Doctor flinched, then looked at him, dismayed. "Is that really how you see me?"
Jack shrugged, not feeling like explaining away the jibe. "You're a lot of things to a lot of people. I think you know what you are to me."
She grimaced. "I'm not any kind of god," she insisted with a scowl, "I'd be horrible at it. And it's not fine. Do you really think I don't know that? Do you think I don't know what I'm asking? There's a lot I pretend I don't see, you know that. You know I know. You always have." She blinked rapidly, in furious thought. "Haven't you?"
Her sudden uncertainty was ridiculously endearing. He couldn't help it; he had to meet it with honesty.
"Yes," Jack said quietly. "Of course I know." The Doctor could be as blinkered as the next person, sometimes, but some things even they couldn't miss. Of course the Doctor knew how Jack felt - about the Doctor; about the Master; about the terrible tangle that was the Doctor's relationship with the Master. "Does it really matter?"
"It matters," she told him, insistent. "Of course it matters, it always matters. You always matter."
Jack smiled, a little sadly. "Yes," he said simply. "It's fine, Doctor, I mean it. Do you think my feelings are so fickle that I'd turn away just because it's the Master?"
Suddenly, inexplicably, she was beaming, and her hands cupped his face between them, her too-long coat sleeves brushing his skin. "I knew you understood," she said, delighted. "Jack, Jack, what am I going to do with you?"
Jack winked at her, taking refuge in flirtation. "I could come up with a few suggestions."
"I'm sure you could." The grin fell away, her hands slipped back down, and her green eyes bored into his, intently. "But you asked about Missy. I felt her die. It was bad; I'm not sure she'll manage to regenerate. Even if she did, there's still the Cybermen."
"She was killed by Cybermen?" Poetic justice, perhaps, given the Toclafane, but the idea of a cyber-converted Master was horrifying. That brain, integrated into the Cybermen's neural net ... No.
"I don't know." Something grim and worried passed over the Doctor's face before she pushed it aside. "I just know she died. We need to get there at the right time, do you see?"
Jack merely nodded.
"She - well. She's changed," the Doctor continued. "I promise you that. She's not as he was."
"Isn't she. All reformed now, is she?" Jack couldn't quite hold back the jibe, couldn't quite regret it once it had come out. Did the Doctor really think he needed this kind of facile reassurance?
"Don't be obtuse, of course she's not. Well, she's started - maybe - oh, it's complicated. But she really has been changing." Something terrible burned in the Doctor's eyes. It looked like hope. "I can't promise you she won't do it all over again, sooner or later, I can't. I'm sorry, I can't. I don't think she will, not now, but I don't know. I can't know, I can only have faith. And I have faith in her. Do you understand me?"
No, I don't, Jack wanted to say, pettily, spitefully. I don't understand that kind of faith, and I don't want to, not when it's for the Master. But that would have been too big a lie, even for him. He could understand it just fine, no matter how little he wanted to.
"I hope you're right," was all he said out loud. For your own sake, most of all.
The Doctor smiled, bleak and wry, reading his unspoken meaning. She lifted her hands to Jack's face again, her thumbs brushing over his cheekbones, then pressed her lips to his. He tasted a tingle of something that had to be regeneration energy.
So very new, this regeneration.
Jack buried a hand in her hair, keeping her close as he returned the kiss, learning her new mouth, her new taste. Not their first; not their last. It didn't have to be easy, or painless, or even fun, though it always was, in the end. It was the Doctor, in all her difficult glory, and Jack wouldn't trade those particular difficulties for anything.
Besides, hope was not the worst sentiment to start a new regeneration on. Perhaps Jack could use a little more of it himself.
Perhaps they'd been apart too long.
Jack smiled into the kiss, then pulled away slightly. Forehead against forehead they rested for a moment, breathing against each other, the Doctor's hands resting on Jack's shoulders.
"I know it's cruel to ask," the Doctor whispered eventually, against Jack's mouth.
"If it is," Jack murmured, just as quietly, "I want you to keep being cruel to me. Hope isn't wrong. And you were right to ask."
Her hands clenched, clutching at Jack's shoulders, and her mouth was on him again, seeking, desperate, urgent. She'd needed to hear that, Jack thought, and his heart ached.
Even she needed an answering spark sometimes: an affirmation. But her faith in people's capacity for better was still a beacon; it never faltered, even then.
The Doctor had always been an excellent teacher of hope. And Jack was looking forward to letting her teach him, all anew.