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Third Time's the Charm

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One

"You're seriously taking us bird watching?" Jack adjusted the strap of the old-fashioned binoculars the Doctor had shoved at him. "I mean, just birds?" He didn't really care as long as he'd get to watch the Doctor—Careful, Jack, dangerous thoughts—but it seemed a strangely tame occupation for the Time Lord.

"Not just birds." The Doctor shrugged into his leather jacket with a careless grace that made Jack's mouth go dry. He swallowed and looked away. "The Menrysian Lumbigolagoo! They only come to land once every fifty Menrys year—that's sixty eight Earth years and change—to lay their eggs. Then they disappear back into the ocean."

"The ocean?" Jack raised an eyebrow. "They're birds who live under water?"

"Told you it was worth seeing."

"I think it sounds like fun!" Rose smiled and passed Jack the picnic basket they'd prepared together. "What do they look like?" she asked the Doctor.

He grinned widely. "No idea!"

Rose blinked. "Thought you'd been here before."

"I have! Come here every Jubilee—that's what the Menrysians call Lumbigolagoo nesting season. Just haven't spotted one yet. But I have a good feeling about this year." He looked like a little kid at the space dock of Disney's Planet of Play. Hardly a surprise—Jack had only been on board a few weeks, but he already knew nothing excited the Doctor more than seeing something new.

It made sense—after 900 years, a lot of things would seem old and boring. Jack's heart clenched imagining the scars of those centuries, and he had a sudden, desperate urge to soothe them—but he ruthlessly squashed those feelings. If he ever dared to express his desperate desire for the Time Lord without making it sound like harmless flirting, he'd be out on his ear before he could say, "Just kidding."

"Well, then." Rose ran for the doors. "Let's find some Lumbigolagoos!"

"Lumbigolagee," the Doctor corrected. "I bet there's one just behind that dune."

***

There wasn't. Nor behind the next dune, or the next dune, or the next. As beautiful as Seaman's Dunes admittedly were, the only birds they seemed to be crawling with were some deep-purple creatures Rose said looked like ducks—whatever those were. Old Earth zoology had never been Jack's strong suit.

After an hour, they split up to cover more ground. The Doctor told them to shout if they found a Lumbigolagoo—apparently, the birds were deaf and wouldn't be startled.

Jack's calves were hurting from trudging through the heavy sand, climbing and descending dune after dune. And now that they'd split up, he couldn't even console himself by walking behind the Doctor and watching the muscles in the Time Lord's arse work as he stamped through the wet sand. He sighed. This was probably the least fun he'd has since he'd joined the TARDIS crew.

He turned around another dune and ran smack into the Doctor. Literally. "Whoa!"

"Easy." The Doctor grabbed Jack shoulders and steadied them both. "Careful."

"Sorry." Jack's throat went dry at the sudden closeness. "Wasn't watching where I was going."

"Then how do you expect to spot a Lumbigolagoo?" The Doctor's tone was chiding, but his eyes sparkled with amusement. He hadn't removed his hands from Jack's shoulders.

Could it be... Was there something else in the Doctor's eyes? Or was it just wishful thinking? Jack gulped. "Maybe I found exactly what I wanted." He grinned, just enough so he could play this off as a joke if the Doctor got angry.

The Doctor's eyebrows lowered in confusion. He hesitated, but then his face softened. "Oh? An' how's that?" He sounded breathless, and more nervous than Jack had ever seen him.

Jack licked his lips and leaned forward. The Doctor closed his eyes, and—

"Doctor! Jack! Come quick, I think I've got one!" Rose's voice came from the west.

The Doctor stiffened and his eyes widened. He turned and quickly strode off In the direction of her voice, his gait and shoulders rigid, and his hands clenched by his sides.

Jack bit back a curse. They'd lost the moment, and he was prepared to bet it would not come again anytime soon.

To add insult to injury, it wasn't even the right bird.

 

Two

"I hope you don't mind that we've been here before," the Doctor said, tightening the laces on his red trainers. He wondered if they'd let much sand in. "It's just that it's been fifty Menrys years for me, and..." Not that it mattered. He had a time machine. He could visit any Jubilee at any time. But he liked to keep some things linear, to give his life a bit of a rhythm.

Jack stood slumped against the console, his shoulders hunched, staring off into the distance with the same empty stare he'd worn ever since the Doctor found him in some fifth-class speakeasy on Rutmegga Six.

Well, the first thing he'd seen in Jack's eyes, once the drunken stupor had cleared enough for him to recognize the Doctor, had been stark, unbridled fury. Jack had taken a swing at him—slow and uncoordinated enough that the Doctor could easily have ducked it, but he'd chosen to take it on the chin. Still had the bruise, in fact—even drunk, Jack was surprisingly strong for a human.

Once the Doctor'd explained about the 456 being a fixed point, and told Jack how sorry—Sorry, so sorry!—he was that Jack had had to go through that, Jack had reluctantly agreed to come to the TARDIS with him. The Doctor suspected it had been more because he couldn't think of anything else to do, but he didn't care. At least now he could keep an eye on Jack, make sure he ate, slept, and didn't drink enough to kill himself outright—not that it'd stick, of course, but still.

This outing was their first since Jack had come on board. Seaman's Dunes were restful and, above all, safe—he didn't dare take Jack anywhere where a crisis might hit in his current state. And maybe this would be the year they'd finally see a Lumbigolagoo. The Doctor smiled. Surely that would cheer Jack up at least a little. He'd always loved seeing the wonders of the universe. Some of that excitement still had to be there, deep down, buried under the grief...

Jack was still staring off into space. The Doctor cleared his throat. "Jack?"

Jack startled and slowly looked at him. "Sorry?"

"I was saying I hope you don't mind that we've been here before."

Jack shrugged. "It's fine. I don't care."

The Doctor's hearts clenched. He had to find a way to make this better for Jack. He was a bleeding Time Lord. The fates of whole planets—whole galaxies—had rested in his hands—surely he could manage to cheer up one lost little ape.

He threw open the doors with more enthusiasm than he felt. "Allons-y! I've got a good feeling about this year."

***

The Doctor watched Jack out of the corner of his eye as they walked through Seaman's Dunes. His hearts ached to see his friend's stooped walk and empty eyes. The Doctor kept up an easy prattle, trying to distract Jack, but all it got him was the occasional, "Yeah," or, "Sure," and many indifferent shoulder shrugs.

This was in no small part his fault, the Doctor realized. Oh, he couldn't have helped with the 456—Bowie Base One had been his first attempt to mess with a fixed point, and it would be his last—but Jack would not even have been there if Rose hadn't turned him immortal. And as easy as it was to blame Rose for that, she hadn't known what she was doing. It was his TARDIS, he'd put her in the situation where she felt she had to take control of it, he was responsible.

He had to do something to cheer Jack up. Healing would take time, but first, there had to be a spark of interest, of hope—right now, Jack wasn't even trying to get better.

They turned into the valley between two dunes. The sand had shifted in the last fifty years, of course, but the Doctor thought they were nearly at the spot where he and Jack almost— He stopped.

Jack looked up, startled. "Seen one?"

The Doctor's mind raced. Was this a crazy idea? It was what Jack wanted, or at least it had been at some point. And himself—well, he didn't exactly want to, as such, but—surely it wouldn't be too bad. Not as bad as many of the things he'd done to help people. Not nearly as bad as some of the things Jack had done for him.

He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Jack's.

Jack jumped back. the Doctor almost lost his balance.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" There was finally some life in Jack's eyes now, though not the kind the Doctor'd hoped for.

"I—sorry, so sorry!— thought it was what you wanted."

"Now? After everything I did? After everyone I lost? Now you decide that you want me?"

The Doctor felt his mouth open and close a few times. Surely an eloquent explanation was just at the verge of emerging. "Ummm..."

Jack looked at him sharply. He scoffed. "You don't, do you? You didn't even do this because you wanted to. It was supposed to be—what? Charity? Pity?"

"What? No! No! Of course not!" He pointed from himself to Jack and back. "I just wanted to..." Unfortunately, there was really no convincing lie to be told here. It had been pity, and even if he pretended to feel desire, Jack wouldn't believe him.

Jack abruptly turned back towards the TARDIS. "Take me to the Foyoneeda Trade Station." He briefly glanced at his wristcomp. "November 9, 2010, Gregorian Earth calendar."

"But—"

"Now."

The Doctor sighed and followed Jack, feeling rather like a puppy found next to a puddle inexpertly covered with chewed-up carpet fibers. He'd managed to make a bad situation worse, and he had no right to stop Jack from leaving.

The Lumbigolagee would have to wait till next Jubilee.

Three

"Menrys again?" Jack chuckled.

The Doctor stopped straightening his bow tie and looked over his shoulder with a grin that made Jack's stomach tingle. "If you don't mind? Only, it's that time for me again, and I have a really good feeling about this year, but if you don't want—"

"Nah, I don't mind. Nice of you to ask me along." The TARDIS had turned up in his office that morning, and an unfamiliar man with impossibly long limbs had tumbled out, shouting, "Hey there, Jack! Want to come on a trip? Refreshments provided!" And, because it was the Doctor and because Jack was still Jack, he'd made a few calls, locked his terminal, and gone.

"Figured you could use a bit of a holiday, with everything the 22nd century's been throwing at you." The Doctor picked up a shopping bag from the glass floor. A bottle and a loaf of French bread were poking out of it, and the bottom was strangely lumpy.

Jack nodded. "God, yes." Everything had changed in the 21st century, and they hadn't been nearly as ready as they'd thought. But for the moment, things seemed to be running smoothly—a constant stream of minor crises, but no major ones, and nothing that Rex and the team couldn't handle without him for a while. He checked his wristcomp to make sure it was still set to the Torchwood emergency channel, just in case.

The Doctor smiled. "And we can go wherever you like for the next stop, promise." He put on his hat.

Jack raised an eyebrow. "You're wearing the deerstalker?"

"Deerstalkers are cool! Besides, we're stalking... well, birds, but close enough." The Doctor's expression turned defensive. "You're not going to shoot it, are you?"

Shoot a hat? Who would—ah. Jack grinned, and regretted once more that he'd never got to meet the infamous River Song. He put his hand over his heart dramatically. "I promise I will not shoot any innocent headgear today."

"Good, good. Because I only just got this one after what happened to the turban." He bounded down the stairs and to the door. "Let's go find some Lumbigolagee."

***

They strolled through Seaman's Dunes till after nightfall, occasionally stopping for snacks—the Doctor had brought three different loaves of bread and an assortment of cheeses and fruit as well as sweet Venuisian popberry wine—and thoroughly enjoying themselves—despite the complete absence of Lumbigolagee.

Instead, the place was full of the purple birds Rose had compared to ducks—now, Jack had to admit that, aside from the color, she'd been spot-on.

Thinking of the first time they'd been here made him remember the second. He snorted. Typical.

The Doctor looked over his shoulder. "What is?"

Damn, had he said that out loud? "Oh, nothing." Jack quickly turned into a valley between two gently sloping dunes.

The Doctor overtook him easily—Time Lord speed plus long legs, slender yet strong... Don't think about his legs!

He tried to just keep walking, but the Doctor blocked his path. There was no way to dodge him without being obvious. Jack found himself looking into the Doctor's eyes—and they were still unmistakably the Doctor's, for all that they were no longer the stormy blue that had first taken his heart away, nor the earthy brown of the man he'd endured the Valiant with. These eyes were still brown, but darker and... older. Not just the few decades they should be, but a lot older. And kinder, now that he was looking closely. His heart sped up. God, how, after centuries, after everything, could he still be nursing this impossible crush?

The Doctor smiled. "Something's been on your mind." He touched Jack's forehead gently for a moment. "Share?"

"I was just thinking of when we were here before."

The Doctor's smile turned forlorn. "Ah yes. I think it was almost here, y'know? When you ran into me and I had to catch you so you wouldn't fall."

"We almost—"

"Yes." The Doctor's gaze turned unfocused. He seemed to look back through the years, scrutinizing their younger selves. Maybe he was. "But I wasn't ready then. Wouldn't have gone well. I'd just been through..." He stopped, and the next words were enunciated very clearly and deliberately. "A lot."

Jack felt his mouth curl into a wry grin. "That's my excuse too, for the second time."

"You don't need an excuse. I shouldn't have—that me could be such a prat. I just didn't understand human... stuff then." He shook his head self-deprecatingly. "I should have known. You weren't free."

Jack nodded. "Yeah. And I don't really think you were, either."

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. His lips twitched in amusement. "I wasn't ready for a pet hamster, much less... more than that."

Jack returned the smile. Story of their lives. Despite all the very good reasons he could think of why he and the Doctor should work—their real fondness for each other, their similar ideals, the fact that they were the only people who could even begin to understand each other's lives—they were like two ships in the night, always missing each other, always close, but never quite touching. He looked at his boots. Typical.

When he looked back up, there was a glimmer in the Doctor's eyes. Something playing over his face that Jack couldn't quite read. "You know, Jack..." The Time Lord began, sounding as if each word was slowly picking its way through a muddy marsh. "As it happens... I'm free now." His eyes were full of careful hope.

Jack's breath caught. He couldn't mean—

And why not? Jack was free now, at peace with himself, his life, the Doctor... And this was something he'd wanted for centuries. Why the hell not?

There was a flicker of uncertainty on the Doctor's face. "Only if you want, of course. If there's nothing holding you back. This doesn't have to be anything more than a nice birding exped—" Jack leaned in and kissed the rest of the sentence right off the Doctor's lips.

Jack had suspected it to be awkward, but it turned out the Doctor was good at this. They put their arms around each other and gently explored with their lips, their tongues, and their hands. The Doctor's lips were warmer than expected. Jack gently stroked his tongue along the roof of the Doctor's mouth and was rewarded with a small sigh. The Doctor gently nipped his bottom lip as his hands caressed Jack's ass.

Too soon, the Doctor's burst out laughing, interrupting the kiss.

"Glad I'm amusing you," Jack said, covering his consternation with a smirk.

The Doctor shook his head and gently cupped Jack's chin, turning his head towards the moonlight.

And there—on the ridge of the dune across, not five meters from them, was a little caravan of the strangest birds Jack had ever seen. Out front was the proud mother—or possibly the father, Jack didn't know how to tell. A thick, stocky body, about the size of a pug walking upright, and covered not with feathers, but thick, glossy scales. It was followed by five chicks, each shimmering in a different color—red, blue, yellow, green, and a little gold one struggling to keep up with its siblings. Their bulbous beaks were raised proudly and shone in the moonlight like ivory.

Jack snorted. "Well, finally—we can check that off the list."

The Doctor turned to him with a soft little smile. "Was it worth waiting for?"

Jack grinned and leaned against the Doctor, who, despite the lankiness, could still hold him upright with ease. He gently flicked his tongue along the Time Lord's ear and whispered. "Absolutely."

Together, they watched a happy little family of Lumbigolagee waddle off towards the ocean.

The End