As the Doctor whirled around the console, twisting knobs and turning levers, eyes nearly wilder than his hair, Captain Jack Harkness and Donna Noble were each caught up in their own thoughts. Leaving Rose and the half-human Doctor on that beach had reminded them both what vowing to travel with the Doctor forever meant—Donna felt her time was running out, and Jack still had to come to terms with the fact that he would most likely be around long enough to make good on that promise. Now who was cursed? The TARDIS lurched through the Vortex, and while the Doctor had managed to hold on to the central column, Jack and Donna were thrown off their feet and crashed into the railing.
"Mmpf," Jack groaned and rubbed his hip in an instinctive attempt to soothe the bruise that was probably going to appear by morning (whenever morning came). "Donna, you okay?" he asked, reaching out a hand to touch her arm. When he did, she flinched, as if burned. Jack frowned, his gaze briefly flickering over to where the Doctor was still busy and not sparing them a glance.
"Donna? What's wrong?" He crouched down next to her as she slid to the grated floor, her head angled away from him so he couldn't see her face. "Donna, talk to me," he said softly to coax her out of whatever state she was in. The Doctor hadn't given him a reason when he'd asked him to stay a little longer even when he'd dropped off all the others in the park, except for Rose, her family, and Donna. Jack wanted nothing more than to go back to his team, to accept the responsibility he'd been given so long ago—that he'd just taken, actually, without realizing what it meant. He wanted to grab Ianto and not let him out of his sight for a week. Jack felt that he should come back with his emotions as raw as they were now. Time wasn't the issue with the Doctor: he'd be there by the time they were back at the Hub. But he didn't want the memories to grow distant.
And yet, when the 907-year-old Gallifreyan practically pleaded with him not to leave, he couldn't say no. He never would. The Doctor knew what it meant to move on and still feel every pang of loss as if it had happened the day before; he wouldn't ask this of him just for any old last trip, for good times' sake. As he watched Donna for signs of recognition, it occurred to Jack that this was why: the Time Lord consciousness stuck in Donna's head. The Doctor had a plan to save her. From what, Jack didn't know, but he was sure it wasn't going to be pretty. Suddenly, he heard Donna's voice beside him.
"Jack, my mind… it's burning up. There's never been a Time Lord and human hybrid—because there can't be."
"What's going to happen to you? What can we do?"
"The only way to save me is for the Doctor to take away my memories of our travels and my time with him. Everything that I've seen anything at all that might trigger what he can make into a hidden compartment of my mind."
Jack paled. He could only imagine what it would be like to go back to a temporally linear, civilian life after leaving the TARDIS—but to forget all about it? He himself had been changed by the Doctor. He still remembered the day he'd kissed him on Satellite Five, certain it was goodbye. Damn that impossible man for turning the conman and coward into a fighter. So many companions had surpassed themselves: travelling with the Doctor had challenged their courage, their knowledge of what they thought to be true; and they'd made some of the most defining decisions of their lives. Many of their stories had ended in disaster, heartbreak, or death, but Jack was certain that none of them would vote not to have known the Doctor at all in exchange for safety or normality. To take what they knew of space and time away from them would be unbelievably cruel, even if they didn't know what they lost. For Donna to lose the person she had become (the most important woman in all of creation, no less), to lose the sense of self-confidence she had gained, the knowledge that she was important precisely because she was human, was the cruellest thing Jack could imagine.
"The Doctor must have a plan," he tried to console her. "He asked me to stay on a bit longer, perhaps I can help. We won't let that happen to you, Donna."
"I was going to be with him forever."
"I know. I know."
From their left, a cry rang through the console room: "Heureka!"
At Jack's surprised face, the Doctor frowned. "What? Heureka! Too much?"
"Doctor, what's going on?" Jack loved the Time Lord's wordiness, but he had no time for gilding the lily right now. Nor the patience. Just then, the Doctor started whirling around the console again, checking the monitor before pushing another hundred buttons and then dinging a bell.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, then turned to face his two friends with that manic grin of his. "I've parked us in a little bubble glued to the edge of the universe you normally occupy. Not much there, just a few asteroids, mostly junk. Buuuut, it's the perfect place for what we need to do. Donna, get up and move over there. Jack, follow me!"
Jack sighed quietly and helped Donna up. When he was sure she was at least mostly steady on her own feet, he guided her over to where the Doctor was pointing.
"Good. Now, careful—" the Doctor yanked on a cable that hung from the ceiling, which brought with it some sort of helmet.
"What is that thing?"
Wordlessly, the Doctor showed Jack an indentation at the front of it—in the shape of a fob watch. A sharp intake of breath from the former Time Agent confirmed that he understood.
"This is what you and the Master used to make yourselves human."
"You don't seriously wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-want me to put that thing on?" Donna demanded.
"Donna, you're in no state to complain. You can feel it already, can't you? It's gonna tear your mind apart! You know what the only other option is, and I won't do that unless I don't have a choice. This is a choice."
"But it's going to try and change her body as well, isn't it? She's no Time Lord per se, it's just her consciousness that's become a hybrid. Her DNA hasn't changed."
"That's why I need you."
"Oh, Jack. You can't die."
"Gives me the creeps when you say it like this."
The Doctor grinned at him. "I reprogrammed the TARDS to take only Donna's Time Lord consciousness."
Jack pondered this. "You'll let her keep her memories, though, right? Don't take that from her, Doctor."
"I'll try not to. But there's something I have to ask of you for this to work."
"The fob watch—it can contain a Time Lord's being, but it's programmed for me. It could only hold Donna's for a short period of time, after that, it would disintegrate. I can't have that."
"Why can't the watch hold it? It is your consciousness that assaulted Donna from out of your blasted hand, isn't it?"
"It is, but it melded with hers. Remember, best temp in Chiswick, human gut instinct that comes with planet Earth? In her head, she changed me, irrevocably." The Doctor smiled ruefully. "She's always done a magnificent job at putting my head right."
"So what are you doing to do with it?"
"It'll be unstable. Normally, the watch is very choosy when it comes to releasing its contents, but with this it would do anything to get rid of it. It'd even let you take a look."
"You want me to absorb it, 'cause I can't die."
"I'm sorry. I am so sorry, Jack. But you're her only hope."
"What's going to happen? It'll kill me, and then? Can you just purge it from me?"
"I'm afraid it's not that easy."
"A Time Lord consciousness is used to dying. It dies, it rises again, in a different form, with a different personality. It's the body that gives out after 12 cycles of this, but the consciousness… it could go on and on and on, the Master is the best example. I don't know how long this one might last. You might die over and over again, until at some point the consciousness falls apart."
"Any possible side effects, Doctor?"
"Well, not many. Well, a few. Well, one. Big one. It could drive you insane. Literally, permanently. But I won't let that happen. I'll be there with you. I can speed up the process by extracting it and releasing it into the controlled environment of the TARDIS bit by bit. Only small parcels, but we'll get there. The micro-molecular structure of a Time Lord's essential being is—"
"Not now, Doctor," Donna sighed, on the verge of unconsciousness.
"Sorry—rude and not ginger, got it. Jack—will you do it?"
"As if you need to ask."
"Do I get any say in this decision?"
"Donna, in your condition—"
"Doctor, don't push it. I'm not your pregnant wife or anything who can't be trusted to carry her own suitcase!"
"Donna," Jack interjected, "there's no dissuading me. You need help, and I'm willing to do anything I can. It's my choice."
"What kind of a choice is this? Either I lose my memories of my time with you, or you die and go mad, in that order."
"Neither one is without risk. Something might trigger your memories later, your family might blab something by accident, you might see something, God knows aliens love London. Someone might target you to get to the Doctor through you. And then there's just me. I have my place in time and space, Donna. I'll be fine."
"Time can be rewritten, Jack. This is no time to be reckless," the Doctor scolded.
"Come on, Doctor. Reckless is my middle name," the other man grinned at him. The Time Lord raised his left eyebrow dangerously high in approval. Jack turned to Donna. "There's no other way. Please do this."
"Are you doing this for me," Donna was wheezing by now, visibly straining to stay awake, "or to make up for someone else?"
"Jack?" the Doctor asked, softly, his voice deepening the way it did whenever Damocles' sword of guilt dangled somewhere over his head, or someone else's.
The Doctor nodded, but his brown eyes were still worried.
"Donna—let's get you ready."
With one last probing look at Jack, Donna nodded her acquiescence, now biting her lower lip, nearly drawing blood, to keep herself from screaming. The Doctor dashed back to the console and activated the new extraction protocol. Next, he pulled his fob watch from his pocket, along with his Sonic Screwdriver, while Jack was helping Donna with the helmet and the general task of remaining upright. The Doctor came back over and clicked the watch into place. He gently put his hand on Donna's cheeks and angled her face upwards so he could look her straight in the eye. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and the Doctor knew that no-one could begin to imagine the kind of pain she was in. He drew a breath to calm himself, and then spoke what he knew might be his last words to his best friend.
Then, he let go of her, stepped back, and flicked a switch on the console. A second later, the TARDIS' corridors, as far as the Cloister Room, echoed with her tortured cries.
When Donna came to again, she didn't know where she was for a moment; until she suddenly recognized the familiar, panelled coral walls and the soft humming that had always felt like the ship's vital signs to her, like a heartbeat. The TARDIS was a sentient machine, after all.
Donna stopped short. The TARDIS. She was still on the ship, she could remember things—her mind was intact, too. No Time Lord making her sound smart in her own head anymore—she almost missed it. Then she remembered the pain and decided that she really didn't, though. When she looked around, she realized the Doctor and Jack had put her in the ship's sickbay. How long had she been here? She needed to find her two friends, pronto. She got off the bed, finally noticing that they had at least taken her boots off before plunking her down. Grumbling, she looked about before finding them at the foot of the cot. She pulled them on while hopping towards the door on one foot, respectively, and then straightened up just in time to feel a ripple that seemed to pulse through the entire ship. Then, another one, so strong that she was almost thrown off her feet. Gently, she reached out a hand and put it on the wall.
"Everything alright, old girl?" she asked carefully. Interesting, she thought. I've never called her that, not in my head, let alone out loud. Must be something of him lingering in my mind. There—still a bit clever; she smirked to herself at that thought. She listened for the comforting hum of the engine, and wondered what could have shaken the ship so.
Shaking herself out of her musings, Donna grabbed the door handle. Just then, the ship surged up on another wave that sent the lights flickering and cupboards rattling. Her hand began to tingle as if she'd just put it on an electric fence. Then, everything went black around her.
Donna half expected to feel the slight nausea of regaining consciousness to claim her, except it hadn't felt as if she'd passed out at all. Everything had just plunged into darkness. She tried flexing her hand on the door handle—but there was no door handle. She raised her hand, but couldn't see it in front of her, there was not a single source of light, wherever she was. Perhaps I've gone blind, she thought, panicked, just as strange sounds began to filter in through the nothingness. Warped bits of conversation, clanging footsteps. Donna turned her head every other direction, trying to locate it. When she was reasonably sure it came from her right, she very carefully took a step, and another, until the voices grew louder, though the words were still unintelligible. From out of nowhere, as if around a corner, a bit of light appeared. Not blind, then, thanks. She moved closer and closer and, suddenly, a scene unfolded in front of her as she rounded that corner.
The room they were in now was definitely the TARDIS console room, except someone had… redecorated. The floor was made of glass now, the coral pillars were gone, and the lights were much brighter. The shape of the wall panels was the same, but it looked a lot less like a tree house this way. To Donna's right, there sat two men in a two-seater next to the console, and she knew immediately who they were, even though she'd never actually seen one of them: Captain Jack Harkness, and… the Doctor. An earlier or a later one, Donna couldn't tell, but the floppy hair, braces, and the bow tie really did give it away. She didn't dare to move closer, having no idea what this was—a memory, another echo of something still in the future, like the disconnected heartbeat she'd been hearing—but she could hear their conversation clear as a bell now, so she just stayed quiet where she was, hidden in the shadows at the top of the stairs.
"I didn't think you'd let me in here again, Doctor. After what I did, I didn't think you'd want what I've become anywhere near you," Jack now said, smiling sadly.
"I didn't think you'd want to see me. I suppose your memory of what you saw came back when it happened?"
"It did. It's not your fault. Gwen was right, in that message she recorded—you must have looked away in shame that day."
"I'm sorry I couldn't help. If I could have saved your grandson, I would have. But I couldn't. It's nothing to do with wanting to or being ashamed of humanity, because I'll never get done saving you, and I'm not sorry for that. It's just… you know the rules about fixed points in time and space. Like you are, that was one. I wasn't sure when I first saw it, but my instincts told me to leave it alone. I wasn't sure until later. I'm sorry."
"It's my fault. I've turned into a monster, and I've lost control. I can't die, nothing to worry about, but then how can I send innocent people out into the world to die for me. How can I have the right to live after that?"
"One of the first trips I took Rose on, we went to Cardiff in 1861. Met Charles Dickens, and a lovely girl who could… see things. A bunch of aliens called the Gelth tricked me into believing they were seeking refuge after the Time War, they just needed a few bodies to exist in so that I could take them out, looking for a new planet after their home had been destroyed. Like mine. They knew my weakness, used it, and I didn't see it coming. The house they had chosen was built on a part of the rift, and, luckily for them, it was an undertaker's house full of bodies they could use. They wanted the girl as a gateway to come through. They'd been communicating with her her whole life—she thought they were angels sent to look after her by her mother who died when she was young. Rose was against it, saying we should let the dead rest in peace and the girl well alone, but I told her that, when you travel with me, it's a different morality, and to get used to it or go home. I let them do it, Jack—the Gelth nearly managed to kill us, not to mention Charlie boy; and the poor girl was dead the minute she stood in that archway on top of the rift. The Gelth needed the gas used for light then to live in when were out of a host, so she blew up herself, and the building and the gaseous aliens along with her to stop them invading the Earth. We asked Gwen if hers was a nice old Cardiff family because she looks just like Gwyneth Cooper, the girl I lost that day.
"And there are so many more, you included, whose deaths are on me. Torchwood was founded because of me, because I couldn't resist poking my nose into Vicky's business."
"You're not seriously trying to tell me that this is somehow all your fault now, are you? Torchwood was founded because of an old crowned bint's misconceptions—"
"Jack, no. What I'm saying is that I know what I am, and I am no stranger to sacrifice and blood on my hands. I'm saying that Gwen Cooper is out there, looking for you, trying to keep her daughter safe. Her daughter, Jack, another in a long line of Cooper women who amaze me time and time again, and her mother needs you. She wants you to be there to see her daughter grow up. She wants to tell her child that she'll be loved and cared for and protected, but how can she do that if you're not there to watch over her?"
"Is there a point to this story?"
"There's always something worth fighting for. You are worth fighting for, Captain Jack Harkness."
"You really think I can go back."
"I think you'll want to, someday. Just don't make it another 150 years."
"How do you do it?"
"I remember. I go on. I recover. Well, trying to. Badly."
"But you never sit in a space cruiser bar, getting drunk to forget and then have some strange man with a little blue box play matchmaker for you."
"Yeah, but that's because drinks taste rubbish."
"I tore my family apart."
"You saved the planet. The PM offered up the children of a man who he'd made his pawn in a game he knew they could never have had any chance of winning without you. He did it for himself, in cold blood, he let someone else pay the price for his cowardice. John Frobisher paid the price. You paid the price. You're not the monster in this, Jack. The 456 were. I set fire to my own people because the universe was descending into hell. I'm not getting out the measuring tape, your loss is infinite. I'm just saying: you had to do it. There was no-one else there to make an impossible decision, with responsibility beyond just the planet, but the time-space-continuum, and you did, at immeasurable cost to yourself. You hurt, Jack. You bleed, and you mourn. You may have given those twelve kids away in 1965, but the man you are now would never do such a thing in cold blood. If you can forgive me for keeping it from you, then surely you can forgive yourself. And you'll get through this. I promise."
Throughout this whole exchange, Donna had stayed rooted to the spot, hardly breathing, thoughts and questions spinning 'round in her head. What has he done?
Then, without warning, and without Jack showing any signs of noticing, the Doctor's head whipped around to where she was. She gasped, and he looked straight at her.
"Go back now, Donna. You'll have questions. Go back now, Donna. Go back. Donna… Donna… Donna!"
As if by magic, the scene suddenly zoomed away, Donna found herself flung back into the darkness. This time, she did faint. The next time she blinked, she was looking up into the worried faces of Jack and her Doctor, both calling her name.
"Dammit, Doctor, this really hurts!" Jack was shouting as the consciousness forced its way out of the watch into him.
"Tell me about it," the Doctor muttered under his breath while using the Sonic to fix the setting on the console. "Alright, old girl. You're the only one who can help us now. Just, please, lock it away somewhere safe. And by safe I mean me not knowing where it is, exactly, lest I get twitchy on my day off!"
The TARDIS hummed in agreement and, despite the situation, the Doctor smiled and gently stroked the pillar he was holding on to next to Jack.
"Oh, for the love of—you feel up your space ship in the middle of a crisis and I'm not allowed to say hello to anyone?"
"Shouldn't you be busy getting your mind scorched out of you?"
"Oh, you think yours is so impressive!"
"It is so impressive! Even more so now that Donna's had a crack at it."
"You know, if she weren't unconscious in the med bay right now, she'd yell at us to stop flirting and get on with it."
One hour later, Jack had already died three times, and it was getting more painful and tiresome by the minute.
"I like to think so. Oh, Christ, lovely, now I'm seeing things."
"It's driving me insane, just like you said." The fact that Jack was, due to his enhanced consciousness, still mostly self-aware made this even more surreal. "I see Tosh, bleeding, on the floor, Owen next to her, white as a sheet as he was when he was killed for the first time. This is nice, thanks."
"Well, we're quite similar, you and I. It's easy for my mind to figure out what to torture you with. Not even Donna can completely change that."
"What? Peas in a pod, love?"
The Doctor glared at him playfully. "Careful, Captain. You're taken."
"Oh, you're just no fun!" Jack groaned. The pain obviously started intensifying now.
"How are you doing?"
"What can I say, hurts like hell. Shouldn't this be speeding up soon, so you can start extracting it?"
"Give it a little longer. With you, the build-up is slower, you're a more complicated space-time event."
"Can't I help it along?"
"That's too risky, I don't want you to interact too much, it could make the hallucinations permanent. Just flick that switch when you find it. You have to allow your mind to break down, don't fight it. If I can get in quick enough, I can salvage yours while you repair yourself."
"'That switch?' Fat lot of good your advice is today," Jack grumbled miserably and, after a suspicious look at his friend's Sonic Screwdriver, slipped his wrist strap off and put it into an inner pocket of his army coat that he'd hung over one of the coral pillars.
"You do know that I'm going to switch off your Vortex Manipulator again as soon as this is over."
Now, it was Jack's turn to glare.
"They shut down the Agency, you know."
"You didn't put up another banana grove, did you?"
"What? Oh, no, nothing to do with me. Hey, did you ever find anything about those missing memories?"
"No. They're still done, and now the chances of getting them back are… well, insignificant."
"It's okay, I've had a lot of time to get used to it. You think a little meditation could help?" he quickly changed the subject back to the situation at hand.
"No delving too deeply into your head, Jack, or you'll meld! The extractor could only just separate two melded minds for Donna, I alone can't disentangle three."
"Fine," Jack moaned—then froze. Staring straight ahead, unseeing, he started shaking.
"Doctor… I've found the switch."
"What? What are you seeing, Jack? What is it? You need to tell me so that I can help you and use it as a vantage point."
"It's my grandson. He's dead. I killed him, I'm standing over him with his blood on my hands. Doctor, I can't—"
With that, Jack's body and mind finally broke down. It was similar to his encounter with the god Abaddon, dying over and over again so rapidly that it became a perpetual state of death and undeath (rather than life) that released and consumed so much energy at the same time that the coral walls seemed to grow brighter. The Doctor rushed over to where Jack was thrashing around on the floor and managed to trap the other man's body with his just enough to take his face in his hands and close his eyes to establish a psychic link with both Jack and the TARDIS.
The same way he had once explained the workings of this process to Reinette by using the image of a door, it was easier to enter a mind by envisioning it as a landscape, or any other kind of place, or scenery. Specific places or objects could represent certain memories, things happening could encode thoughts and feelings. Inside Jack Harkness' mind, there was a battle going on inside a raging storm. By concentrating on each combatting shadow, the Doctor could extract and contain them. From there, he could hand them over to the TARDIS—she would absorb them and find a safe place for all those pieces of him to stay. It was a tedious process, and it wasn't getting any easier what with the scraps of memories that kept unfolding between the three of them: some were from the very beginning of his life, some were recent, some were from in-between. Some were painful, some were happy; and it was only the relative distance the psychic link afforded him that enabled him to package those emotions and thoughts that had once been his and push them away without getting to wrapped up in them.
Whenever the TARDIS accepted another surge of extracted consciousness, a pulse went through her—the compressed energy of a Time Lord's being: his mind and knowledge, his memories, pounding like a heartbeat. Then, as he tried to detach a very persistent part of Jack's mind that still clung to the image that broken his hold on reality, everything came to a halt. This was part of the gift of a Time Lord's perception of time: he saw everything. What had been, what was, what might, and what must never be. What Jack had seen before losing control was one of his possible futures, by extension. The Doctor forced himself not to look at it for too long and sent that part of his mind off into the TARDIS' care when the link changed—he felt around, and there was Donna, interacting with the ship. A low level of psychic abilities must have been retained, perhaps only accessible with touch, because he felt a burst of energy as the TARDIS wasn't the only one looking into what was left of his mind. He could only trace it as the psychic traces the metacrisis had left in Donna's mind absorbed the power the fragment held—and used it. He was too concentrated on keeping Jack under control to pry Donna away from the link, so he had to rely on the TARDIS to keep an eye on her. The way he saw time was a gift, but it could also be a curse, in that it confused and bewildered people who suddenly saw their own possible timelines the way he did, right in front of them; like Jack, who had lost his mind over the grief it had caused him. He only hoped that, whatever Donna saw, it wouldn't have the same effect on her.
Like this, the Doctor continued repairing Jack's mind, beat after beat, until the younger man calmed and, with the Time Lord's help, slipped into a restful sleep. The Doctor severed the connection with the TARDIS and put feelers out for Donna—he hadn't noticed she'd broken the connection as well in the meantime. He laid back on the grated floor, exhausted beyond measure and emotionally drained. He couldn't imagine how to go on now. Perhaps he should travel alone for a while, without companions. Donna's words, 'Sometimes, you need someone to stop you,' rang out in his mind, but he pushed the thought aside. He couldn't go on like this. People had died for him, people had offered to die for him today. Seeing Martha with that Osterhagen key had let his blood run cold. This should never have been an option, and yet he had made it so that his friends freely laid their lives, their entire planet, on the line for him. A chill ran through him, and he turned on his side and pulled his knees towards his chest to curl up. It wasn't like him to hide from the world, but this wasn't about the world. He wasn't scared of what was out there—he was scared of what was inside of him, and the risk he posed to the people he was supposed to protect.
He didn't know how long he'd been lying on the floor like this, but eventually he heard a moan coming from Jack, and took this as a sign to get up off his arse and make himself useful.
"Over here," he answered and knelt down next to Jack. "Are you alright? Feeling yourself again? Dizziness, confusion?"
The former Time Agent and conman sat up, rubbing his forehead as if trying to stave off a massive headache. "Don't know."
"What's your name?"
"Captain Jack Harkness."
"Do you know where you are?"
"The TARDIS, console room, in some bubble outside the universe."
"Do you know how you got here?"
"The Daleks wanted to exterminate the universe—no surprises there—and you had to stop them. Donna and your hand went through a metacrisis, creating a half-human Time Lord, which you left with Rose in a parallel universe that she is now stuck in forever. Then, you used your fob watch to make Donna fully human again, then I had to absorb it so you could pry it out of me again, letting the TARDIS handle the rest."
"You should write for Wikipedia. What was the last thing I said to Donna?"
"Good, just enough attention to detail, your memory is fine. What about perception: anything you're seeing that you shouldn't be? Hallucinations, distortions—"
"Alternate timelines," Jack interrupted him, and looked up at him with a frown. "I can't remember what exactly I saw that flicked the switch, but I know what it was. That wasn't just fear manifesting itself, that was the way you see time. Whatever I saw… it might happen."
"And it might not. Time can be rewritten, Jack. You really don't remember?"
"No, I don't. Can you see it now?"
"Can you see it?"
"Yes. It's there, if I concentrate. Very, very far away."
"I can't tell you."
"Doctor, I swear—"
"I can't tell you, Jack!" The Doctor rarely ever raised his voice with his companions, but his grip on his temper was slipping. "You know I can't!Spoilers!" he shouted mockingly. "It doesn't matter whether it's going to happen or not, you're not supposed to know."
"But sometimes you do know! What if you heard that someone was planning to kill you, which, frankly, is a given with you, then wouldn't you do anything to prevent it? Or even fake your death? Wouldn't you? You keep telling me that time can be rewritten to keep me in line, but now I'm not supposed to try? Why are you allowed to know sometimes, and just this once, when I ask you for help, you won't talk to me?"
The Doctor closed his eyes and hung his head, trying to hide from Jack's accusing words. After a while, he looked up, and straight into the other man's eyes.
"I went to Pompeii on Volcano Day. I didn't aim for it, when I realized I thought the TARDIS got it a bit wrong again. I wanted to leave, but Donna wouldn't have it. When the TARDIS disappeared, we had to stay, and because I couldn't resist, we tried to find out what would cause old Vesuvius to erupt. It was me, Jack. I caused it, to save the Earth. Donna persuaded me to save a family, to save four people who were supposed to die that day—or maybe they were supposed to be saved by us. Knowledge about the future is dangerous. It gives you power, and with that power comes responsibility. You're right, I have used that knowledge, and yes, I'd do it again. But you see what I leave in my wake, Jack. Death and chaos, even when I manage to save the day. It doesn't matter whether it is a fixed point or something that can be altered—I'm not a prophet. What you saw and what I see now, if I squint, might vanish from your timelines tomorrow. Rewriting time is risky, and it's never without consequences. Sometimes, the ripples can be smoothed out, but only too often they evolve into paradoxes that crack the fabric of time, until, someday, it breaks. If I let you alter history, manipulate the events that might lead to what you saw, who else might suffer? Do you see why I can't tell you?"
"The same reason I never let anyone near the Rift Manipulator."
"Exactly. It's unfair, I know that. But I can't. And I'm sorry. I am so, so sorry."
Jack nodded and slowly got up. He stretched and his back cracked emphatically—dying over and over again and having one's brains blown out, literally, did wonders for one's spine.
"Have you looked in on Donna yet?"
The Doctor rubbed his hand over his eyes and shook his head. "No. The TARDIS didn't alert me that something was wrong with her. But we should check on her, she should be awake by now. Are you feeling up to it?"
"Yeah," with a groan, Jack stretched again and walked towards the corridor where the TARDIS usually put the companions' rooms. "Gee, when you redecorate in here, please choose a more comfortable floor."
The Doctor laughed and put a hand on the Captain's shoulder. "Tell that to the old girl, she makes most of the colour choices."
When they arrived at the ship's infirmary, they were in for a surprise. They found Donna on the floor, unconscious. She must have been on the way to the door; the Doctor guessed it was probably when she touched the door handle that she connected with the psychic field.
"Damn it," Jack cursed, and bent down to check her pulse while the Doctor ran a scan with his Sonic Screwdriver.
"She's fine," he concluded, but then addressed the TARDIS: "why didn't you alert me that she was in trouble? Yes, I was exhausted, but that's no reason to… Fine, I know that you made sure she was okay, but still… Fine, you're right. Sorry." The Time Lord shrugged at Jack, who was looking back and forth between the Doctor and the TARDIS walls with an amused expression. "As I said, she's fine, but we should try and wake her up."
After calling her name a few times, Donna's eyelids fluttered and she finally came back to them.
"Donna, are you alright? Can you get up?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Come on, gentlemen, help me up!"
Together, Jack and the Doctor helped her up and steadied her before she shook them off and walked back to the cot to lean against it. She rubbed her head the way Jack had done after waking up. The Doctor stepped up to her and made her look at him so he could use the Sonic to check her pupil dilation.
"Headaches? Blurred vision? Any confusion, dizziness, from when you entered the psychic link, perhaps?" The Doctor turned at the waist to address Jack. "You probably didn't notice, but I felt her join the party about half-way through."
"No, I'm okay. And, of course you noticed—I touched the door handle, and then it happened, I couldn't stop it. A bit of your instincts must have been left behind. Do you think it's going to be a problem?"
"No, it's probably just traces. I checked your mind after the Time Lord part was extracted, it's just residual energy; after all, it only activated by touching a powerful psychic link. It might linger a while, or it might be gone in a few months. Anyway, it's not a wasted ability." While he talked, the Doctor continued checking her eyes, directed her to follow the light of the Sonic with her eyes, and even checked her ears. That was when she swatted his hand away indignantly.
"Would you stop bleeping me already? And you, come here!"
Jack, surprised, pointed at himself. "Who, me?"
"Of course you, who else just risked their life to save my mind?"
"Oh, yeah, that would be me," Jack grinned as Donna pulled him into a hug. While the first, right after they'd put the Earth back where it belonged, had bugged him a little, he found he was coming around rather quickly—Donna Noble was a force of nature, and, more than anything, Jack was glad he could prevent her from losing her memories. When she let go of him, she turned and studied both of her friends' faces carefully.
"Now, what's happened to you? Are you alright?"
When both men averted their eyes for a moment, and the Doctor put his hand in his neck and scratched a little in the way that guaranteed a guilty conscience, she knew 'not alright at all' wouldn't begin to cover it. She wondered whether it had something to do with the scene she'd witnessed.
"Come on, then," she prompted.
The Doctor drew a deep breath and, with an apologetic glance at Jack, told her, "We've… seen something. You know how I see time—I see the past, the present, and possible futures. When my consciousness was in Jack's mind, it tried to find something that would cause him to break down, just like it did with you. It found something when his mind touched upon that gift of perceiving time the way I do. He saw a part of his potential future that… made him flick the switch."
"I can't remember," Jack interrupted, "and he won't tell me what it was."
"Why not?" Donna asked, her eyes darting back and forth between the two.
"It's just a possibility at this point. But even if it were a certainty—it's too dangerous," the Doctor replied, and underneath his school teacher tone, Donna clearly heard the pain it caused him. If there was one thing that could break this man, it was being unable to protect those he loved. And in this moment, a horrible truth stood as clearly before her as nothing ever had. Now, Donna knew what it felt like to share that guilt—because she remembered what she'd seen, and if it had anything to do with what had happened to Jack, she knew she'd have to keep it to herself. Donna had been part of an alternate reality, she had shared her head with a Time Lord's consciousness, which, even though it had left her, had gifted her with another sort of gut instinct than the one that came with planet Earth. She'd lived through what could happen to time if someone challenged it unwisely. The Doctor had made mistakes, but she had come to accept a few of his rules. Everything in her heart told her to warn Jack of what was to come, but she could see the terrible consequences and what might be at stake if she did and he tried to manipulate time.
The Doctor observed Donna's face as she came to this realization, and breathed an inner sigh of relief as his psychic senses picked up something that felt distinctly like extremely reluctant resignation. Time could twist into any shape or form and take impossible turns, but if what they'd seen was going to happen, if time absolutely wouldn't budge, then there was no telling what time would do to right itself. He had no wish to encounter the Reapers again, or to see Earth fall to pieces at the hands of time as it tried to re-establish the timelines as they should have been. Jack's grandson would never be safe if that happened. He swallowed thickly. What had he done to have to carry this burden, this additional weight on his shoulders that had the power to destroy the friendship with one of the most colourful and magnificent men he'd ever met?
"Well… since it's a moot point now anyway," Jack sighed and straightened up, "where are we going?"
Donna and the Doctor turned to him, surprised, and the Captain grinned. "Come on, one last trip. You know what happens when you just sit around 'til something happens. A bit of fun before the big bang." Jack's smile seemed genuine, and Donna understood how he'd managed to live 150 years, working for Torchwood, changing it from the inside, waiting to finally meet the Doctor again—how either of her two long-lived friends got through all the pain and the heartache. Sheer force of will, and an incredible sense of wonder that only the universe and the stars could bestow upon anyone. With the Doctor at her side, she'd seen earnest joy and fascination: he was enjoying it, even now. So did Jack—because he had to, and because he could. She didn't think it was healthy, and the Doctor himself had told her that there were things in his past he was sure would come back to haunt him, as they always did, but perhaps they didn't have a choice if they wanted to find the strength to go on, to find their purpose.
The Doctor quickly picked up on the sentiment, and clapped his hands together.
"Weeeeell," he drawled, "there's loads of places we could go! The Sense-Sphere, the Medusa Cascade—oh! Barcelona!"
"What is it with you and Barcelona?" Donna queried as she and Jack struggled to keep up with the Doctor's strides as he practically skipped back to the console room.
"What is it with everybody asking me that?" the Doctor shot back as he pushed levers to make the TARDIS dematerialize from their current location at the edge of the bubbly universe. "Now, where to?"
"Could we, just this once, go somewhere we don't have to free slaves or topple governments or save kittens falling off of shelves?"
"She does have a point."
"Alright—I've got just the place!"