The Doctor frowns at the monitor. These readings simply don’t make sense. They’re impossible.
Except that every time he uses that word, the universe has a tendency to turn around and sucker-punch him. And the TARDIS seems convinced her sensors are working fine. So he needs to investigate.
They are currently in orbit around – well, essentially, a huge glob of mud. An asteroid at the outskirts of a galaxy that’s not very interesting to begin with. The mass of rocks and dirt has no name, no designation.
There are other things it doesn’t have – like metals, life, or even much of an atmosphere. Oh, there’s some oxygen and nothing too toxic – most humanoid life forms could probably live in this for about an hour, which is just as well, because that’s about how long they could withstand the extreme cold, too. Even with his respiratory bypass, he wouldn’t want to spend more than a few days in this. There is absolutely no reason why this hunk of nothing-of-interest should be producing the most interesting readings he’s seen in a long time.
Yet there it is. The TARDIS started picking up the pattern long-distance a few days ago, and brought it to his attention this morning. Timelines curling and bending, reassembling as if in some kind of pattern, but every time it seems almost complete, another strange spike, a brief moment of nothing, and then the timelines dissolve into chaos again. He’s never seen anything like it. Never wants to again, either. This is just so… wrong. He shudders. He’s certainly not looking forward to getting any closer to whatever it is.
He shakes his head and pushes a lever to set down on the surface, as close to the center of the disturbance as he can make it. Whatever this is, it can’t be good, and he has to figure it out and deal with it.
The TARDIS door opens on… mud. Lots of mud. Well, yes, he’d expected that. The Doctor gingerly steps out and sighs as his feet sink into the slimy dirt. Nothing for it. He wraps his greatcoat tightly around himself – this is a bit nippy even by his standards – and sets out in the direction of what seems to be some kind of structure.
It’s a hovel. Not even a hovel – on closer inspection, it’s a bunch of crates covered with a tarpaulin, and nothing else. He opens one, and takes a step back, surprised. It’s packed to the brim with high-powered explosives. Carefully, he opens another, and another. All the same. Who comes to a glob of mud with nothing but lots and lots of explosive? Some type of mining operation? But there’s nothing here to mine, and even if there was, one would assume a mining crew needed some food, beds, medical supplies…
He’s torn out of his thoughts by the sound of an explosion, not too far away behind some hills to the – well, North is as good a descriptor as any, though with the wobbly rotation of this piece of space dirt, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. He starts running towards the source of the sound, as fast as he can on the muddy ground.
On the top of the first hill, he stops and stares. This isn’t a hill, it’s one side of an explosion crater. One of many explosion craters. Incredulous, he looks around. So apparently, whoever brought all the explosives here is using them to set off a bunch of explosions in a random pattern in the middle of nothing. Why?
The furthest crater is still smoking. Whoever is organizing these muddy fireworks is probably somewhere over there. He sets off in that direction. Will sort them out soon. Find out what all this is about and then, very probably, put a stop to it. Can’t be anything good, surely.
He reaches the top of the newest crater and looks around. Nothing. No one. Well, maybe they took cover behind one of the other cr-
Wait, what’s that? He wrinkles his nose at the stench. Horrified, he stares into the center of the crater. As the smoke clears, he sees it.
“Oh no. Nononono!” He hastens down and kneels near the hunks of…flesh. The Doctor feels his throat tighten. This is definitely flesh. A minute and seven-point-eight seconds ago, this was life. Whatever this nutcase was playing at here, it seems like he (she? it?) hasn’t been careful enough.
Slowly, the Doctor pulls out his screwdriver and scans the smoldering lump. The result is almost instantaneous. He looks at the read-out. Human.
Human? Here? In this time? Not impossible of course, what with the Time Agency and other apes who think they have “mastered” time travel when they’ve in fact barely scratched the surface, but why-
There’s another sharp beep from the screwdriver, indicating further results. The Doctor frowns, and slides open the display again. What else could there be to-?
“No. Oh no. Nonononono.” This can’t be right. It can’t be. He scans the mass again, feeling both of his hearts beating in his throat. Two more beeps later, and the Gallifreyan script swirling on the display is saying the same thing as before. “Positive DNA match: Jack Harkness.”
The Doctor looks around slowly, taking in all the other craters. Dozens. Scores. Must be over a hundred. He thinks of the huge stock of explosives not too far away. It can’t be. And yet, it makes complete, horrifying sense. A fact. A fixed point in space and time. Blowing himself into tiny smoldering bits again and again and again. Then – and the Doctor can feel it starting to happen now – the universe steps in to reassert the fact. Repair what has to be repaired so that what must be true will be true again. It fits the strange readings the TARDIS has been recording perfectly. He should have seen it right away. Probably would have, if it weren’t for his knowledge that there’s only one immutable fact in the universe. His imagination could never have connected the dots to come up with this picture.
He pulls a heavy bag from one of his bigger-on-the-inside pockets. Considers gloves for a moment, but feels it would be wrong somehow. Slowly, he collects whatever pieces he can find, handling each one carefully, almost tenderly. When he finds half of Jack’s skull, he flinches back at first, but then swallows and forces himself to stroke the cheek tenderly. “What have you done, you stupid, stupid ape?” he asks, the old familiar insult slipping out as his mind flashes back to his first meeting with this human, when Jack had done something that, until six minutes and thirty-eight seconds ago, had been the biggest idiocy the Doctor would ever have thought him capable of. He cradles the fragment – cradles Jack – in his arms for a moment.
He puts the skull with the rest. “Well, whatever it is you are doing – it ends now.” He looks around himself one more time, and sighs. He’s found as much as he will find, though it’s not much. Slowly, with a gentleness that doesn’t make a bit of difference but that’s important, so important, nonetheless, he cradles the bag full of pieces that once were his friend in his arms and starts back towards the TARDIS.
It’s crossing the last crater that his foot catches on something hard and he almost falls. Regaining his balance, he looks down. It’s Jack’s wristcomp. Blackened with soot, the leather strap burned clean off, but the unit itself still basically undamaged. The Time Agency did occasionally know what they were doing. He picks it up and puts it in a pocket. Jack will want this back. Eventually. He hopes.
He arrives at the TARDIS, and feels her react almost immediately. She, too, can feel the strange convolutions of the timelines around the bundle he’s carrying, and her first reaction is to shrink back. But then her scanners kick in, and they almost immediately confirm what he already knew to be true – though he has never wished so much that he made a mistake when constructing his screwdriver – and he can feel her desperate, sorrowful keening in the back of his mind.
“I know girl, I know,” he sighs. “But we’ve got him now. We’re going to fix this.” He carries his burden to the med bay, and carefully lays the remains out on one of the beds. He realizes with a shudder that what he’s taking out of the bag now is already more than what he put in not half an hour ago. The tingling of the timelines is intensifying, too. Jack is definitely coming back. And as much as the Doctor loves Rose Tyler, at this moment he’d cheerfully slap her face for what she’s done to their friend.
Except it’s not her fault, of course. She had no way of controlling it. It was his TARDIS, and he’s the Time Lord. He’s responsible.
With a sigh, he pats a bone that will soon be a hand again. “I’ll be right back, Jack,” he says, knowing fully well that there’s nothing there to hear him.
Well, all the better. It gives him some time before he’s needed here.
He needs to take the TARDIS into the Vortex, and then he has a phone call to make.
Martha picks up at the first ring. “Doctor? Is that really you?”
He’s not in the mood for small talk. “What happened to Jack?”
“Jack…?” Her breath catches. “Do you know where he is?”
“Just found him.”
Martha sounds choked. “How is he?”
“Dead. Dead enough that it’ll take even him a while to come back. What happened?”
So Martha tells him. Tells him about the 456 and the children of the Earth. About Ianto Jones. About Alice and Steven. The Doctor listens, for once in his life, without interrupting. In the end, Martha gives him a phone number, and begs him to fix Jack.
He promises to, but he’s lying through his teeth. There are some things that can never be fixed. He knows that all too well.
As soon as he hangs up with Martha, he dials the number she’s given him.
“Hello? Gwen Cooper? This is the Doctor... Yes, Jack’s Doctor.” The title feels like ash in his mouth. He’s only ever made Jack worse, not better. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there. I didn’t know... Martha tried, but she couldn’t get a signal through. My phone never rang... It doesn’t work that way. If I cross the timeline… It just doesn’t work that way, I’m sorry.”
He’s silent then for a long time, letting her rage, cry, letting her throw all her anger and pain at him. He deserves it. Deserves so much worse. Once she’s calmed down, she asks him a question – and he can tell that to her, it’s the most important question in the universe right now.
“Yes. He’s right here, on my ship... Bad... I know. I will, maybe. Eventually. He needs… time. Time and… healing.” Scabbing over, more like. But there’s no point in telling Gwen that. “Please. Please, I need your help. Just… tell me. Martha told me as much as she knows, but… I need to know everything.”
Again, he listens for a long time. Again, he’s left with another number to call.
“Hello? Please don’t hang up. This is the Doctor. I’m… a friend of your father’s.”
“It’s me again, please don’t hang…”
He listens to the dial tone and sighs. She has every right to refuse him. Neither he nor Jack has any claim to her help.
Time to check on his patient.
He enters the med bay and breathes in sharply through his teeth. On the bed, where he left a few pieces of charred flesh and bones, is now an almost complete cadaver – flayed, with deep holes still, but almost an entire body. And the disturbance of the timeline is so intense he almost thinks that… But surely it wouldn’t…
With a desperate gasp for air, the bleeding, raw form sits up – and immediately begins screaming. Bleeding fingers are clawing at bleeding flesh, the body writhing in absolute agony.
“No! No, Jack, calm down! You’ll be all right now, I’m here…”
If anything, the clawing intensifies.
The Doctor quickly grabs a hypospray from a tray. After a brief struggle, he injects the cada… he injects Jack. Within seconds, the screaming stops and the form falls back on the bed, unconscious.
He’d wanted to avoid that. Jack’s body isn’t in any state to metabolize drugs. But then, surely anything must be better than being awake during this. Besides, even if there’s some organ damage, it’s not like it will be permanent. Not for Jack.
With a sigh, the Doctor moves Jack’s limbs into what might be a comfortable position if it wasn’t for the bleeding gashes and the complete lack of skin. He’s trying not to imagine what it must have been like for Jack all the other times he woke up, on that noxious little piece of mud, with a raw and bleeding body, air that’s painful to breathe, temperatures below freezing, and completely, utterly alone.
He’s trying really hard not to think about it.
Looking at Jack’s prone form – the skin on his face is slowly coming back now – he remembers that this was not something that was done to Jack. It was his choice. He did this to himself. Not just once. Many, many times. And therefore, there’s only one responsible choice the Doctor can make right now, much as he loathes it.
He takes some hospital restraints from a drawer. Secures Jack’s feet to the sides of the bed. Fixes his poor, raw arms to the hooks above his head. Fastens a belt around his thighs to prevent struggling. He feels a right bastard doing it, but Jack has more than proven that he’s capable of hurting himself. Hurting himself in ways so horrible that the Doctor has to fight bile rising in his throat every time he thinks about it. No, he doesn’t want to do this to his friend, but there’s no other responsible option. And damn it all, for once in his life he’s not going to let Jack down. He’s going to take proper care of him this time, no matter what.
Jack blinks as consciousness comes back. He feels strange. For one thing, he’s not in as much pain as normal. And he’s warm. And there are bright lights, instead of a greenish overcast sky. And a humming sound that seems somehow familiar… No!
His eyes open wide as realization kicks in. He’s in the TARDIS. God, no. This place means warmth, and safety, and the Doctor. All things he doesn’t want, doesn’t deserve. He tries to jump up, tries to get away, but he finds he’s secured to the bed. He struggles, and suddenly he’s looking up into a pair of very concerned brown eyes.
“Jack. It’s all right. You’re safe.”
Yes, he knows he’s safe. That’s why it’s not all right. He struggles harder. But he can tell from the feel of the restraints on his wrists – he has some experience with restraints in other contexts – that these are made from Purganian silk. Good as unbreakable. Life forms much stronger than him couldn’t get out of these.
“No! Let me go! Take me back! Please take me back.”
“Jack, Jack calm down, please…”
“Noooooooo!” he wails. “No! I need... Just stay out of this!”
Suddenly, the Doctor’s eyes turn hard. “We’ve had quite enough of this. You either calm down this instant, or I’ll give you a nice sedative and some mood boosters. Your choice.”
Jack lies still and averts his eyes. He can tell the Doctor means it, and the last thing he wants is to be made even more comfortable. His arms and legs are cramping from the struggle, and he hugs this pain to him like protective armor.
“That’s better.” The Doctor is every inch the oncoming storm now. “Now, you need to eat. I don’t trust you without the restraints, so I will spoon-feed you.”
He makes to protest, but the Doctor silences him with a glare. “If you cooperate, I’ll think about letting you do it yourself. Eventually.”
Well, good. If he’s allowed to eat, he might be able to choke himself. Or maybe he could ram the spoon into his throat, if he gets the angle right…
The Doctor seems to be looking straight into his soul. “Stop thinking about ways to hurt yourself. It’s out of your hands now. You’re in my charge, and I will take proper care of you, until such time as I can trust you to do so yourself. Is that understood?”
“You don’t know what I-“
“I know everything. And we will talk. But not before you’re stronger.”
He’s a prisoner. All he wants is the oblivion of death; and since he can’t have it permanently, he wants it as often as possible, as quickly as possible. And in between, he just wants to suffer. That’s why his solution was so perfect. Die, live a little in excruciating pain, just long enough to get another grenade from the crates, then achieve oblivion again. It was working. The past – how long has it been? He doesn’t know. The time spent on that asteroid is just one big chunk of mind-numbing pain and nothingness mixed in his mind. It’s exactly what he wants. And now the Doctor’s taken it away, and he’s not going to give it back. Damn meddling, interfering, know-it-all Time Lord. Jack feels tears of frustration streaming down his face.
The Doctor leans forward, and gently, oh so gently, wipes them away. “I’ll go get your food now. You just lie still.” He kisses Jack on the forehead. There’s caring in his eyes, and so much love. And that’s what hurts worst of all.
When the Doctor enters the kitchen, he finds a big pot of choree stew on the stove – hot, but not too hot to eat. The traditional comfort food of theBoeshanePeninsula. He strokes the doorjamb tenderly. “Thank you.”
He feels a slight ping of reproach in his mind, combined with a question.
He sighs. “Oh, I know. I’d rather coddle him, too. But he needs this now. He needs to have all choices taken away. For once, he needs to not feel responsible.”
A slight caress ghosts through his mind, and he smiles. “Yes, sometimes I do. But I’m the last Time Lord. I can’t get it for myself. Can give it to him, though.”
As he fills a bowl with the thick, savory stew, another question pops into his mind. He shrugs, wishing he had an answer. “As long as it takes, girl. As long as it takes.”
When the Doctor returns, Jack stubbornly turns his face away. He doesn’t deserve food, no matter what.
A wonderful aroma hits his nose. It’s choree stew. God, is the Doctor trying to kill him with kindness? This is Jack’s absolute favorite food, and he hasn’t had it in over a century. Why give it to him now, when he can’t enjoy it? Or when any enjoyment he might get from it is just going to hurt him so much more? He feels a sob wrangling up his throat. He tries to fight it down, but fails.
“Please. Please no. Anything but this.”
The Doctor walks around his bed until he’s in his line of sight. There’s a puzzled frown on his face. “This?” he asks indicating the bowl. “Don’t you like-”
“I do! That’s the fucking problem!”
He sees understanding glimmer in the Doctor’s eyes and instantly realizes that he’s made a mistake. “I mean… no. Hate the stuff. Always have. Couldn’t you get me some… some… mashed swede? That's my favorite.”
The Doctor scoffs. “Nice try.”
“But I like-”
“Mashed swede. Like you got every single day on the Valiant. The single food that by now, you must hate most in the universe.” The Doctor pulls up a chair and sits down next to him. “It’s no longer your decision, lad.” He consciously chooses an appellation he hasn’t used since they were both so much younger, and everything was so much simpler between them.
Jack is crying again now. “Please.” The Doctor must see that he’s being cruel. That this is crueler than what Jack was doing to himself on the asteroid.
The Doctor shakes his head and dips the spoon in the bowl, then slowly moves it to Jack’s mouth. “You will eat. Because I say so. I’m in charge, and you’re not. That’s all you need to remember for now.”
Jack wants to protest – but he doesn’t. Part of him feels the appeal. It’s not his choice. This is a fucking Time Lord he’s talking to. The last Time Lord. Genius. Superior being, all his flaws notwithstanding – and who is Jack to complain about flaws, anyway? And he’s tied up, helpless. Any resistance would just be a token gesture, and would be instantly quenched by the Doctor anyway. He has no choice. No choice but to obey. God, there’s so much peace in that thought. He opens his mouth.
The Doctor feeds him the stew, watches him chew and swallow. Then he gives him a small smile. “Good boy.” He fills the next spoon, brings it to Jack’s lips.
Jack opens his mouth again. It’s not his choice. He has no choice. He’s just obeying.
A while later, when the Doctor orders him to sleep, he closes his eyes and tries to relax his sore muscles. It’s not that he wants to sleep. Not that he has any right to peaceful slumber. And it has nothing to do with the food in his stomach, the warmth of the TARDIS, her quiet hum. He deserves none of these things, and he isn’t enjoying them. He’s simply obeying. No choice. That’s the thought he’s holding on to when sleep claims him.
The next days are much the same. The Doctor makes him eat. Makes him sleep. Makes him use the bedpan, and washes him twice every day. Makes sure he's covered with a warm blanket. The Doctor massages his arms and legs when they start cramping from the restraints. And the Doctor shushes him whenever he tries to talk about what happened. “When you’re ready. And I’ll tell you when you’re ready.”
It’s cruel, and restful. It hurts, but that’s not his concern anymore. All he has to do is as he’s told. So he does. And at night, when the Doctor holds him and pets him and speaks to him gently, tells him he’s a good person, that things will get better again, that he’s loved, he cries, but doesn’t contradict. It’s not his place to argue.
He’s not sure how long it has been, but one day, after washing him and rubbing some ointment on his back, the Doctor looks at his face searchingly, and seems to come to a decision.
“What would you do if I opened the restraints right now?” the Time Lord asks.
A question. Jack considers. That’s new. The Doctor hasn’t asked him any questions since that first bowl of stew. He wants to think about it carefully, make sure he gets this right, but there’s really only one answer by now. “Whatever you tell me to.”
The Doctor’s eyes search his a moment longer, then he nods. He opens the restraints – first the wrists, then the feet. He stopped using the thigh belt after the first few days – it only had to be taken off and put back on every time Jack needed to relieve himself, and Jack has given up struggling long ago.
Jack lies still, waiting. Finally, he looks at the Time Lord. “So…” he begins hesitantly, “Does this mean I’m allowed to sit up?”
The Doctor nods. “Of course! Sit up, stand up, walk around a little… But no leaving the med bay, and no trying to hurt yourself, understood?”
Ah, so this must be why the Doctor put away all the equipment earlier, and locked all the drawers and cabinets. He nods. “Yes, Sir.” He slowly sits up, and starts rubbing his wrists, trying to get the circulation going. Stops abruptly. Looks at the Doctor uncertainly. “Am I allowed to do that?”
For a moment, there’s immeasurable pain on the Time Lord’s face. Jack wonders why, but it’s not his place to ask. The Doctor nods. He cups Jack’s neck with one hand, massaging it briefly. “You can do anything you want, except leaving the med bay and attempting to hurt yourself.”
“Ah, so hurting you is okay then?” He means it as a joke – he has not forgotten how to joke yet – but the Doctor flinches.
“Would be more than fair, at any rate.”
“I didn’t mean it! I didn’t!” he hastens to assure the Doctor. “I’d never do that.”
“Yes, I know,” the Time Lord sighs. “And that’s part of the problem.”
What has he done? Has he overdone it? Jack needed this when he first found him, but did he take control away from him too completely, for too long? Has he destroyed…
But there was the joke. A weak joke, which he ruined completely with his reaction, but it was there – just a glimmer of the old, irreverent, insuppressible Jack. He’s still in there.
The Doctor’s spent a lot of time quashing all the fight out of Jack – for his own good, for Jack was only fighting himself. Building him up again will take time. Luckily, that’s the one thing they both have plenty of.
Over the next few days, the Doctor starts giving Jack more and more choices. Simple ones at first – does he want the blue t-shirt or the red? Tea or coffee? Would he like to have breakfast in the kitchen today? At first, Jack feels anxious to get these right, tries to guess what the Doctor wants him to say. But whatever choice he makes, the Doctor just nods and accepts it. So Jack begins to be more daring. Asks for orange juice instead. Says he doesn’t want to wear a shirt. Gets his will on the first, but not the second. But even though the Doctor insists he has to wear a shirt, there’s a slight smile playing on the Time Lord’s lips at his request. The Doctor seems happy at Jack’s initiative. So one night, when the Doctor is sitting with him again, watching him as he drifts in and out of uneasy, fitful sleep, Jack decides to push for the big one. “I’m ready now.”
“Ready?” the Doctor looks at him questioningly.
“You said we’d talk when I’m ready. And I’m ready.”
He sees doubt in the Doctor’s eyes. The Time Lord’s looking at him intensely, searchingly. Then he gets up.
“I’ll be in the library. If you’re sure, get dressed and meet me there. If you’re not there in half an hour, I’ll come back here, and I’ll expect to find you in bed, asleep. Unharmed.” There’s slight emphasis on the last word.
The Time Lord leaves, and Jack slowly start pulling on his jeans. He can do this.
Rassilion, he can’t do this. But Jack is clearly ready. Jack needs this. And hell, it has been long enough – he wonders if Jack is aware how long he’s been on board. It’s high time they dealt with this. If, after everything, Jack is back to the point where he can push for this, he’s ready. If he can get dressed and walk the long corridor to the library without changing his mind, he’s ready.
So the Doctor better get ready, too. He paces up and down, trying to map out the conversation in his mind. He knows some things he needs to tell Jack. Some questions Jack needs to answer. But as for the rest… and he’s only got one shot at this. If he screws this up… If he fails Jack yet again…
He hears footsteps outside the library, and the door handle begins to turn. Ready or not, here he comes.
Jack enters the library slowly, hesitantly. He’s not looking forward to this by any means. But he wants to get this over with, finally. He knows the Doctor is furious with him. He knows he’s going to get a lecture that will make the Doctor’s speech next to the Chula ambulance seem like a nice afternoon chat. But God, he deserves this, and he can’t watch the Doctor pretending and holding all the anger in for his sake anymore. The Time Lord has treated him gently, though firmly, since he’s been aboard, but he knows that was just due to his condition. Pity has always been the Doctor’s Achilles heel.
It’s time to face the music. To be told exactly how much of a failure he is. And maybe then the Doctor will let him go.
Oh, he’s not planning to return to the asteroid. He doesn’t have the strength of desperation to go through with something like that anymore. But he can find some quiet place to live, far away from anyone else, and just wait. Wait to be sucked into the last black hole when the universe ends. If he’s very, very lucky, it might even kill him.
The Doctor gestures to the sofa. “Close the door and sit down.”
He obeys with alacrity.
There’s a flicker in the Doctor’s eyes – almost embarrassment. “I didn’t mean…” The Time Lord sighs and sits down opposite him. “All right then. Tell me.”
“You said you knew-”
“I’ve heard other people’s version of the story. Now let’s hear yours.”
So, haltingly, Jack’s tells the story of the 456. He starts with the events of 1965, and doesn’t stop until he’s gotten to paying a cargo ship captain to bring him to the loneliest, most out-of-the-way piece of space dirt he can find, set him and his crates down on it, and then take off and never look back.
He’s not sure at what point during the story he started crying. Probably with Ianto. Definitely with Steven. He’s also not sure when the Doctor left his armchair to join him on the sofa, or how he ended up lying against the Time Lord’s chest, being rocked back and forth, having his back stroked gently. But he does know that all through his halting, stuttered story, the Doctor hasn’t interrupted once. Hasn’t uttered a single question. Not one word of reproach.
He tearfully looks up at the Time Lord. “Aren’t you going to yell at me?”
The Doctor bites his lips. “Which part of the story do you think I should yell at you about?”
Jack is incredulous. “Everything! I almost let the world be taken by aliens! I killed my own grandson! An innocent child!”
The Doctor hugs him tightly and God, his heart is going to burst with the pain. He’d so much rather be back on the muddy asteroid right now.
“Jack. You did the best you could.” Before he can interrupt, the Doctor shushes him. “And yes, what you did was horrible. But it was the least horrible in a sea of horrible choices. What kind of person would you be if you’d have let millions of children die to spare your grandson? Or if you’d sent the soldiers to find you another child, so you could sacrifice someone else’s son or daughter, to spare yourself and your daughter the pain?”
Jack sobs and scoots away, hugging himself. The Doctor just doesn’t understand. “I’m a monster.”
Jack looks up, surprised. He had expected at least a token protest, even though he knows it to be true.
The Doctor’s gaze is steady and serious. “You’re a monster. Because that's what happens if you keep on being a hero long enough.”
Jack doesn’t understand, but he lets the Doctor take his hand.
“I’m so sorry. My poor, poor Jack. I wish you hadn’t had to live long enough to find this out.” The Doctor sighs. “Becoming a hero is not that hard. First, you only risk yourself, and that’s easy. You make the choice to put yourself in danger so others won’t have to, and if you survive, they love you for it, and if you die, you die a hero’s death.”
Jack wants to mention that the last part doesn’t apply to him, but the Doctor continues before he can speak up.
“The trouble is, if you live long enough, and if you’re good enough at it, you slowly become a bigger and bigger hero. You start having to make bigger and bigger choices. Terrible choices. Choices people will hate you for, no matter how they pan out.” The Doctor’s eyes are distant now, and Jack is not sure if the Time Lord is even aware of him, or of this room, any longer.
“Eventually, you end up deciding who lives and who dies. And that’s when it happens. That’s when you become a monster. It doesn’t matter how hard you try. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are. It doesn’t even matter if in every single case, you manage to make the absolutely best decision that it is possible to make. The first time you make a choice and let someone die to save another, you become a monster. And then, there’s no turning back. Not ever.”
Jack finally understands that the Time Lord is not just talking about him anymore. He squeezes the Doctor’s hand. “You’re not a monster.”
The Doctor looks at him, and in his eyes burns the pain of centuries. “Oh, but I am. I’m the Oncoming Storm. The Bringer of Death. The Ka Faraq Gatri. Ask the Dalek. The Gelth. My own people. Ask Harriet Jones. Or the Family of Blood. Ask all those that I decided had to be sacrificed for the greater good. I’ve been a monster to all of them. Damnation, I’ve been a monster to you.”
“Who left you by yourself, on a space station full of corpses, knowing fully well you’d just gone through the most terrifying change any human ever had to experience? Who led you to resist the Master, being tortured to death every single day for a year? Who kept you tied to a bed for over three months?”
The last one startles Jack. “It’s been three months?”
“Four months seven days since I found you. Three months, four days, eleven hours, and seventeen minutes you spent tied up. One month and three days ago I decided that you were fit to be allowed to walk around again.” The Doctor’s voice is cold and full of disgust, but Jack knows it’s not directed at him. It’s self-loathing.
“Shouldn’t my muscles have atrophied?” He still can’t believe it’s been this long.
“Anyone else’s, yes. Yours, no. But if they had, I’d still have kept you tied up. Because I do whatever I think is best. As I did in the Time War. As I do every single time I start meddling in other people’s affairs. Because I’m a monster.”
“You are not a monster,” he says with conviction. He may have lost faith in everything else, but he still believes in the Doctor. Will always believe in the Doctor. “You only ever did what was necessary. Made the hard choices that no one should have to make, but somebody had to, because the consequences of doing nothing would have been even worse.”
Suddenly, the Doctor’s gaze is focused on him again, and his eyes are warm and soft. A cool hand caresses Jack’s cheek, and a gentle voice asks “So how is that different from what you did?”
It isn’t. He sees that now. The Doctor is right. If Jack is a monster, they both are. He can’t condemn himself without condemning the Doctor. And he’s not prepared to do that.
He shakes his head. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
“I know. It’s hard to see something from the outside when it’s burning in the very core of your heart.”
A strangled sob. “I keep seeing their eyes, looking at me. Steven’s. Ianto’s.Alice’s. Gwen’s.” He looks away, ashamed. “That’s why I was on the asteroid. I didn’t want to have to think about their eyes anymore.”
The Time Lord shudders. “That, my lad, is the one part of this whole episode that really does show incredibly stupidity. And cruelty.” He turns Jack’s chin, forcing him to face him, and fixes him in a hard stare. “And I expect there to be no repeats, and nothing similar. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir.” The reply slips out automatically, but Jack really means it.
The Doctor almost smiles, and strokes the back of Jack’s hand with his thumb. “Then I think you can be excused on the grounds that you weren’t thinking clearly at the time.” He flinches. “Also, that type of behavior rather carries its own punishment.”
Jack shivers. The Doctor’s right. He’s never allowed himself to admit it before, but the pain, the loneliness, the ongoing terror of the asteroid were horrifying. He welcomed it at the time, but nevertheless, part of his soul starts screaming every time he remembers. And he has no one but himself to blame. He was being a monster to himself. And he would have continued to be. But the Doctor put a stop to it.
For the first time, he allows himself to cry about the horror of what happened on the asteroid. The horror he inflicted on himself. The horror that, though his body didn’t keep as much as a scar, his soul will carry forever. It was easy enough at the time to tell himself he deserved this, but it didn’t relieve his suffering about what happened on Earth by one iota. The pain, the horror, the endless torture – it only served to add yet more darkness to the universe. He wasn’t making amends, not doing penance like he told himself. He was making it worse.
The Doctor opens his arms, and without hesitation, he creeps into them. Is welcomed there, held, rocked and petted. The Doctor doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t try to shush him. He’s just there. Strong and silent and warm and there. And it’s only now that Jack really understands what the Doctor was trying to tell him: even after you’ve become a monster, you are still a hero, too. The Doctor will always be his hero. And so Jack will have to learn to go on and be a hero to others, too, even if that means he’ll also have to go on being a monster. So others won’t have to.
In the Doctor’s arms, on the library sofa, he falls into a deep, dreamless sleep. And when he wakes up later that night, he finds himself lying on a wide, soft bed – not the narrow med bay cot – and he finds the Doctor’s cool body still wrapped around him. He presses his face into the pinstriped suit and goes back to sleep, feeling – well, not peace, but a calm contentment that’s probably as close to it as he’s ever going to get again.
Of course, it’s not all all right now. The Doctor didn’t expect that. But Jack is close enough to the man he knew again that he doesn’t need to micromanage his life anymore. Can rely on Jack to eat, sleep and take care of his personal needs unprompted. Can carefully start to take him to a few planets he wants to explore, and to respond to some mauve alerts again. Jack is by his side, steady and reliable and cool in a crisis. Maybe a bit quick to react to the Doctor’s commands still, but hasn’t that always been the case?
The first time Jack stands up to him, tells him he’s being an idiot, he laughs with relief. Isn’t even angry. Listens to Jack’s concerns, and together, they find a better solution.
Of course, they still lose people. That’s the nature of the beast. And the first time they lose a child, Jack is gutted. The Doctor holds him as he cries that night, and allows himself to cry with him. He’s not used to being this open, letting his companions see his weakness. But he’s never before had a companion who understood him the way Jack does, either.
And despite the pain and the losses and the hurt, things are beginning to be pretty darn good again.