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1. Martha Jones

Martha walked out of the TARDIS, a spring in her step. Infinitely happier to be walking away. Infinitely stronger for having made that choice.

The Doctor threw the mobile down onto the console, scowling in distaste. It skidded to a halt against the bicycle pump, and he glared at it some more.

An electronic leash. Who did she think he was? She was the one leaving; it was her choice. Wanted to have her cake and eat it too, did she? He should just throw the thing out.

They all left him in the end, after all, one way or the other. Inevitably. And it was better this way. Better to make a clean cut, move on and not look back.

Definitely better.

His insides clenched.

He took up the phone again, hesitated. Scowled at it, moved to put it down somewhere on the console again. Hesitated. Made another aborted move toward the console. Finally gave himself a helpless shrug. Perhaps he'd had the TARDIS phone disconnected for too long.

He pulled out his sonic screwdriver. A quick twist, and a whole flow of numbers was saved onto the phone.

He scowled at it again. Stared at the small device entirely too long.

Then he pressed speed-dial #1 and held the phone to his ear with a disgusted expression.

It rang four times before someone picked up.

"Captain Jack Harkness. Who is this, and how did you get this number?" Somehow, Jack managed to make even that sound flirtatious.

The Doctor smiled to himself, a little ruefully. Jack had left him too, after all. He closed his eyes. Should he really ...?

"Hello?" Jack asked.

The Doctor swallowed the lump in his throat. "Martha's a hero," he said quietly.

A long pause.

"Doctor?" He could hear Jack swallow. "Using primitive Earth communication systems now? So not you."

Getting in touch at all was so not him.

"She's a hero," he repeated.

"I know," Jack replied, quickly going with the flow. Another bit of hesitation, then: "She didn't come back with you, did she?"

"No."

"Are you all right?"

"Oh, you know me, I'm fine. I'm always fine. Listen, Jack - take care of her for me, all right? Look out for her. She deserves it."

Martha deserved better than he'd been able to give her, and he couldn't help her. He needed to move on. For her sake as much as his.

Silence again. Then: "You didn't have to ask. But I'll tell her you did; it'll mean something to her."

The Doctor didn't quite know how to respond to that. Martha had left him. It had been her choice, hadn't it? She was better off for it, too. They were all better off without him.

He disconnected the call without another word.

~*~


2. Mr. Copper

It was Christmas, and there was something almost like snow falling from the sky. He walked through the almost empty streets, ashy snowflakes gathering on his hair, on his coat. It was quiet.

His skin itched.

The first moment of true peace he'd known in over a year. From the moment Jack had latched onto his TARDIS and they'd been flung right to the end of the universe, through the year that, for the majority of people, had never even happened, through this ...

His mind was filled with death. Three thousand dead on the Titanic. All the deaths caused by the Toclafane, a tenth of humanity first and then more, which had fortunately been undone. The deaths on the Valiant, so many of them Jack's. The Master.

The Master, who had refused to regenerate.

Ash and death. How fitting.

His hands clenched to fists in the pockets of his coat.

He stared at the blue door of the TARDIS. For a moment he rested his forehead against the painted wood, then took a deep breath and stepped inside.

Inside, where he was just as alone, surrounded by the ghosts of those he'd lost in one way or another.

He stared at the small device on the console entirely too long before he reached out. In the end it wasn't even a conscious decision; his fingers just hit the speed-dial button.

He held it to his ear.

"Captain Jack Harkness." It sounded like Jack was outside, walking.

"Captain," he said quietly.

The background sound changed - an abrupt halt and step into a quiet corner, perhaps. "Doctor?" Jack asked, audibly taken aback.

The Doctor swallowed around the lump in his throat, but said nothing.

A pause. Then: "Doctor? Why are you calling?"

The Doctor hesitated. Why had he called? "Oh! Thought I might as well tell you - there's an alien running around London with a million pounds and not a clue about Earth."

"You're telling Torchwood about an alien." Amusement tinged Jack's voice.

The Doctor scowled. "Not Torchwood. You."

"Same difference."

Not really. Jack's loyalties he could trust. He didn't say so. Instead, "He's harmless, so don't go all Torchwood on him, all right? Just ..."

"Look out for him?"

"Yes. That."

"Of course." A small pause, then, "I'm flattered you're even asking. Take care of yourself, Doctor."

Jack's kindness burned. He cut the call.

~*~


3. Donna Noble

The Doctor stepped back into the TARDIS. Leaned against the console, heavily. The TARDIS hummed at him, brushing gently against his mind. He managed a weary smile. "Least I've got you, don't I?"

He ran his hands through his hair, jerkily, and pushed himself off the console again. Strode to the other side, gazed at the scale of the quantum modulator for a moment, then turned on his heel. Restless.

He stuffed his hands into his pockets to keep himself from fidgeting, and the knuckles of his right fist knocked against something. He pulled out Martha's phone and looked down at it, bemused. When had he put it into his pocket? Why?

No matter.

He made to toss it onto the console again where it usually sat, then, abruptly, aborted the gesture and instead pushed the buttons: Speed-dial #1.

He paced, impatiently, as the phone rang.

"Human-Time Lord metacrisis," he snapped as soon as the connection activated, not leaving the man the time even to get out a greeting. Still pacing, barely contained frustration. His voice was harsh, and he made no effort to tone it down. "You're so clever, think you can handle anything. But any idea what that means?"

Silence, for a long moment. Then: "Is she all right?"

The Doctor almost growled, barely muted it into a hiss. He slammed a hand against the console. "Oh, right as rain! Couldn't be better, good old Donna. Old Donna being the operative word. Had to take her memories, you see. All of them. All of them, for good. She mustn't -"

Unforgivably, his voice broke. He swallowed, convulsively.

It gave Jack the chance to get a word in edgewise. "Are you all right?"

The Doctor snorted. As if that mattered. "Listen. She mustn't remember, all right? Anything, even the smallest memory could trigger ... She mustn't." This time, Jack didn't speak when he fell silent. After a moment, the Doctor continued, "She's amazing. She deserved better than this."

"I know," was all Jack said.

Yes, Donna really needed someone to keep an eye on her, or rather, on everything around her. She needed a buffer, protection from anything that might inadvertently remind her. She needed someone with more resources than Wilf.

Convenient that Jack was around and up to the task.

"You'll make sure." The Doctor wasn't asking. Nor was he ordering. He was stating a fact.

Jack's voice was quiet when he replied, "Of course."

The Doctor bit his lip, turned around the console, resumed his pacing. "Well! Better be off. People to meet, places to see! You know how it is."

He disconnected before Jack could say anything else.

~*~


4. Lady Christina

A red bus in the sky. The Doctor grinned as it lifted and turned and disappeared. Good on you, Lady Christina de Souza. Keep running, never let them catch you.

As he turned back to the TARDIS, his smile disappeared, and when he went inside, his steps seemed to echo in the empty console room. He trailed a hand along a coral strut, sent a complex tangle of emotion at the one companion he'd never give up. She radiated calm and comfort at him. It wasn't enough, but it had to be. He couldn't afford ...

He stretched, bowed his head, rubbed the back of his neck, slowly. No, he couldn't risk taking anyone with him. Not this time. Not again. But he'd liked Christina; they'd made a good team. He almost wished he dared, but no. Well, at least he could ...

He reached for Martha's phone.

"Jack," he said, as soon as the connection activated, again not leaving the man the time even to get out a greeting. "How do you feel about flying double-deckers?"

A brief silence as Jack digested that opening. "More than one?" he finally asked, suppressed laughter in his voice. "In this century, on this planet? Only you, Doctor."

"Just the one," the Doctor huffed. "And not on this planet. Well, not originally. Well, yes, originally, but we were stranded somewhere else when I built in the antigrav. Had to get back somehow, you know."

"Hmm-hmm. And let me guess, one of your newest friends wanted to keep it."

"Got it in one." He scratches his scalp. "Her name's Christina. Lady Christina de Souza. Keep an eye out, yeah?"

"I expect I'll recognise her by the flying bus," Jack teased gently. "What, you couldn't have kept her with you?"

"No." Harsh, like a whip.

There was a thoughtful pause. "This is getting to be a habit," Jack said eventually, naming the elephant in the room.

The Doctor wished he hadn't. He grimaced at himself. It was a bad habit to get into; he knew it. He'd known it from the start. But somehow, it seemed impossible to break, as if, once he'd done it once for one of them, he'd be letting down everyone else by not doing the same. Not a comforting thought, that. It led into a future he wasn't certain he wanted to contemplate. But all he said was, "I know. I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Jack's voice was quiet, sincere. "I'm honoured you're even asking."

And that was Jack, right there, wasn't it? The Doctor's hearts clenched. What could he possibly say to that? There was nothing more to say.

And yet he was oddly reluctant to ...

No.

He jerked himself out of the mood and cut the call.

~*~


5. Jack Harkness

Martha's phone on the console was mocking him. Messages piled upon messages, a dozen times over its original voicemail capacity. The Doctor knew what all these people were calling him about. He hadn't listened to a single one of them; he didn't need to. The 456. A fixed point. There was nothing he could do.

This was why he'd disabled the TARDIS phone in the first place. Too many calls for help that he couldn't help at all. Too many people abandoned. Best not to give the impression he might come back at all. Best stay as far as possible from any sort of ... connection.

Yes. Definitely best. He should never ...

Martha's phone just sat there. He couldn't bring himself to look away for the longest time, couldn't stop thinking about what he'd stood by and let happen. Had to, he reminded himself.

Had to. Right.

In the end, he set the TARDIS at random. Left it to her.

Contrary old thing: She who'd run from Jack to the end of the universe materialised only metres from him now. A tall wooden platform on the side of a mountain, one of many scenic overlooks in the Purple Mountains on Catacis.

When the Doctor opened the TARDIS door, he could see Jack a few metres away, standing at the guard rail, his face in the wind, his coat flapping every time a stronger breeze brushed past. No one else was around. The platform must be closed for repairs - Jack wouldn't have chosen a place where he might be surprised by tourists. Families ... The Doctor shuddered. No.

Jack's face was turned toward the impressive sight across the range of mountains, peaks and valleys and lakes beneath. But the Doctor would have laid odds he wasn't seeing any of it. Just as he must have heard the TARDIS arrive, but hadn't bothered to turn around.

The Doctor stepped quietly down to the guard rail, behind Jack. Only the stiffening in Jack's spine gave away that he noticed the approach; still he didn't turn.

The Doctor tugged at his earlobe, looked down, along the wooden structure and down the rocky slope of the mountain, the scraggly red-leafed bushes growing in every cranny and nook. "Jack." A brief hesitation, then, "I never asked anyone to look out for you."

Jack's head whipped around. For a moment, shock was plain on his expressive face, then it shuttered. "I'm aware," he said, his voice tight.

The Doctor grimaced. "Not like you needed it."

"No," Jack agreed, bitterness glazing his voice and his expression. "I'm immortal, after all." He nearly spat the word. "What could I possibly need?" He turned away again, staring unseeing into the distance. A gust of wind ruffled his hair, set their coats flapping again.

The Doctor lifted a hand to Jack's shoulder, then hesitated a moment before he'd have made contact. He dropped his hand again. "I'm so sorry."

"You say that as if it meant anything."

The Doctor looked down into the depths again. "What could mean something? I could say thank you. For Martha, and Donna, and Christina. For Mr.Copper. And everything else. You looked out for them."

Jack's face remained averted. "Like you said - they deserved better."

The Doctor's hearts clenched. The rest of it, unspoken, was nonetheless plain in the tension in Jack's voice, in the clench of his fingers around the rail, the tired hunch of his shoulders: And I don't. Not in your eyes.

The Doctor suppressed the urge to shake the man. It wouldn't help. Or maybe it would. Leave that option for later.

"No." The Doctor let his correction drop into the gloomy misery of Jack's grief, an implacable statement of fact. "It's not about deserving," he continued. "Never about that. It's about responsibility. My responsibility. They all are. You, too, when you're with me - remember the guns? I know you remember about the guns, because you always complain about that. But when you're not ..." He shook his head. "You were a time traveller in your own right before I met you. You were working on the TARDIS with me within a day of coming aboard. You were so young, but you had so many stories of your own to tell already. I never thought to look out for you when you were on your own. I thought ... You were always so vividly alive. Even when you thought you wanted to die, you were ..." A helpless shrug. He looked down again, away from Jack's face, the living embodiment of his failures. "I never thought you might need it. Or want it." He swallowed, gathered his courage and looked up again. "For that, I'm sorry. So sorry." And he finally did clasp a hand over Jack's shoulder, offering what little comfort he could.

Jack's back was ramrod straight, and he looked as if he wasn't even breathing. He didn't turn towards the Doctor. But neither did he shrug off the hand on his shoulder. The only movement was the wind in his hair, in his coat. "You don't mean any of that," he finally said, carefully calm, carefully controlled.

"Don't you think I should know?" Gentle. But he wasn't getting through; Jack wasn't listening.

Didn't dare believe.

Damn it. The Doctor was good at standing proudly at a distance. Decent enough at holding hands, even giving a hug. But that wouldn't do here, would it? He felt awkward, clumsy as he gripped Jack's shoulders with both hands, turned the man around. Jack didn't resist. "I know," the Doctor said, cupping Jack's wind-chilled face in both of his hands, forcing him to meet his eyes. "I know."

Jack's eyes remained shuttered. He stared at the Doctor for a long moment, and the Doctor tried not to fidget. This wasn't going to cut it. Only one thing to be done.

The one thing he'd never done before.

He leaned forward, brushed a careful kiss against Jack's lips.

"You know me," he said, quietly, intensely. "You know more than most about the things I've done - those I had to do and those I didn't. Trust me when I say it's possible to live with it, even when you don't have to."

Jack's harsh, indrawn breath was the first sign of the floodgates breaking. Abruptly the rigid tension went out of his spine, and he sagged. "You ..." he said helplessly. "You ..." And he let his face drop onto the Doctor's shoulder, shaking in the Doctor's arms.

The Doctor pressed a kiss against the side of his neck. "You're not alone, Jack," he murmured against Jack's skin. "Not even when you are."

They stood like that for a long time, high on the platform in the wind, their coats flapping around them. Eventually Jack raised his head again. This time he met the Doctor's gaze head-on, a long, penetrating stare. Then, very deliberately, he bent forward, bringing their lips together, mirroring the Doctor's first brief kiss. And leaned back to study his face again.

The Doctor held himself still, not retreating. He mustn't. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his coat, tried not to bounce on the balls of his feet.

Jack pressed his lips together into a thin line, then opened his mouth to speak.

"I'm not good at this," the Doctor interrupted him, hurriedly. "Sorry. I shouldn't have, I suppose. Bad idea all around. But I couldn't - I wanted -" He shrugged, helplessly, unable to put better words to his complicated, convoluted feelings for once.

Inexplicably, a corner of Jack's mouth lifted a little at that. He reached out, cupped the Doctor's cheek in his warm, human hand. Even after standing here in the wind for God knew how long, his hand was so very warm to the Doctor's Gallifreyan skin. The Doctor reached up, covered Jack's hand with his own.

Jack smiled a little, half warmth half sadness, and bent forward again. This time, the Doctor met him halfway, and their mouths opened against each other. Quiet and gentle, unhurried, lips against lips, tongue brushing tongue. When their lips parted again, they remained close, arms around each other, a bulwark against the wind.

This.

He wanted to keep it, hold on to it, as long as he could. If he could. That hadn't been the plan, but ...

The Doctor closed his eyes for a moment, breathing Jack in. Perhaps it was still too great a risk, but he could hardly do more damage to Jack, could he?

"Come with me for a while," he murmured into the quiet warmth between them.

Jack gave him another long questioning look. Then, finally - finally - he nodded, and a little while later, he let himself be led to the TARDIS, unresisting.