The Doctor does what he always does. He runs. Jack won’t be left behind this time and sets off too, as soon as he realizes that the wall of light and energy is no wall at all, no shield; it’s a doorway.
The Doctor realizes it too.
“Doctor,” he bellows, but the Doctor, brown coat flapping like floppy-timey-wimey wings, doesn’t stop, doesn’t turn as he launches himself at the portal wall and gets sucked in.
“Stay back, Jack. Dangerous…”
“Doctor,” he shouts at the top of his lungs.
The wall flickers before his eyes -- the last trace of someone passing through -- and then it starts to glitter and vanish. Left behind again, he thinks. And after all the song and dance. The dancing especially.
But he reaches the portal before it blinks out of existence and falls in, feeling the pull of it as soon as his fingertips brush through.
“DocTOR,” he screeches, get cut off and still hears his own voice echo back at him in the middle of this pull of nothingness. Between worlds, while his hand is reaching for the Doctor on the other side and his foot is still dangling back out wherever it was they came from. In between, he’s splintered, split, pulled and gone. Then he’s through and falling, toppling forward.
Some alien floor comes up to meet him.
But it’s soft.
When he looks down, bracing himself to the left and right of a startled looking blonde man, lying on his back and blinking up at him.
“Oh my,” the man said.
“Sorry,” Jack said with a flirtatious grin, “you’re not the man I was looking for but I’m not complaining.”
“Would you let me up anyway?”
“Oh,” Jack sat back on his haunches. “Of course.”
He hadn’t even had time yet to get his bearings. But there were metal walls around them. When he listened carefully he could hear the humming of the drive. A spaceship. Alright. Where did the portal take him?
Jack got to his feet and helped the other man up. He was an unexpectedly attractive chap to run into in the middle of a time portal mishap. “I’m sorry, bet you didn’t see this coming.”
The man grasped his hand and let himself be pulled to his feet and dusted off his beige slacks.
Which was when Jack paid attention to the man’s clothing for the first time. He snapped open the Vortex Manipulator and took readings to be sure. “52nd Century spaceship. Doffelgrun technology if I’m not mistaken,” he said after a moment inspection. “How then is it I just crashed into a man with an enticing smile and old-fashioned cricket clothes? Is that celery?”
The man stared at him, eyes zooming in on him like he he was the mystery. Then he “Excellent restorative for some races. World War II coat,” he said. “Not memorabilia, I take it. Vortex Manipulator. Why do you fall out of portals then?”
Jack didn’t need the confirmation, but was still somewhat gratified when a female voice shouted: “Doctor!”
The Doctor - the wrong one clearly, but generally who he’d been looking for - was staring down his nose and waited for Jack to say something.
A girl with bushy hair, wearing a wine red velvety overall, sprinted towards them. “Doctor! We need to help Tegan!”
“We do, Nyssa. All in good time. Now, who are you?”
“A man,” Jack said and grinned, “looking for a Doctor actually. Looks like I found one. Not the one who jumped into the portal before me though.”
“Do you need medical attention?” the girl asked, but the Doctor was studying him hard.
“He might need someone to unstick him from time. How’s it possible to become this entangled in time that you become a fact?”
Jack's stomach twisted, because there was some of the familiar disgust on this Doctor’s face that he knew from another man.
“Tardis and a lovely girl wanted me to go on. She was trying to save everyone she loved, including you.”
The Doctor looked taken aback, his eyes quickly flew to the curly haired girl at his side, more voices were calling for him from down the hall. A short-haired woman was sprinting their way followed by a redhead in a posh school uniform.
“A Tardis did this?” The Doctor didn’t gesture at him or make any sort of all-encompassing move. But his eyes narrowed.
“‘Not all this.” Jack didn’t feel the need to keep his hands in check and let them move in a huge arc to explain that the portals were not connected with his immortality.
“Why don’t we go back to the Tardis, and figure this out.”
“Yes, by all means, let's try to untangle this mess. Nyssa, Tegan, Turlough?” Three heads shot up as if they were used to follow the man’s suggestions. “Stay close this time. I’d rather not lose anyone to a portal that spits you out god knows where.”
“Could be Earth, 21st century,” Jack suggested. “That’s where the portals started cascading.”
The Doctor let his eyes wander over his face. “For a time agent, who was loved by a Tardis and a girl who anchored him to time, you are surprisingly open with information.”
“I learned,” Jack said. “Bets are our if you ever will.”
Leaving the Doctor to blink after him, he strode forward as if he had any idea where he was going. He wasn’t worried. The Doctor always helped. Right now he might not know what to make of Jack, but he would help.
That’s why he was the Doctor.
And Jack would do his best to help him solve this in turn -- not only because he had a brown eyed-brown haired menace of a whirlwind time lord to save.
“This is unbelievable.” This Doctor’s laugh was warm.
In the short time, they’d spent together, Jack had already learned that this one hid a temper behind mild manners. He thought of himself as old with a young face, but he had none of the age behind blue eyes that his Doctor carries around.
It was so like the Doctor -- hints of both men he knew and the many he’d only seen run past from a distance. All Doctors had that something that made them the same entity, unifying the varying aspects.
“I’m unbelievable,” Jack said. “That’s what you mean.”
“No,” the Doctor told him and he was actually grinning. “The Tardis is purring like a kitten. She knows you. But I don’t.”
“How’s that possible?” Tegan wanted to know. She had warmed to Jack quickly, quicker even than Nyssa -- but she and the Doctor like to challenge each other. “Jack said he met you down the timestream.”
“Your time-wimey timeline,” Jack said. “The old girl’s always though, isn’t she? Less linear even than you can see.” His hand ran along the controls and the Tardis made the sweetest honey sound.
The Doctor was surprised. It looked like he was about to splutter in anger. “True,” he conceded. “In a way, she might have known we’d be inseparable from the moment I stole her…”
“You stole her?” Tegan shrieked.
The Tardis hummed.
“She keeps insisting that she stole you,” Jack and patted the console.
And with just that he had risen another notch in the Doctor’s esteem. “You can stay as long as you need,” the Doctor said and smirked.
“Until he forgets you at an airport.” Tegan looked sour.
“You wanted to go home!”
“Now, now, Doctor, Tegan!” Nyssa said mildly and smiled at Jack. “I can show you a room? If you don’t want to go find one for yourself?”
The portals start cascading across the universe. “I can’t reach Gallifrey,” the Doctor said sourly.
With a pang, Jack realized that another Doctor didn’t even have the luxury to try. Time Lords were gone.
“Better for me,” Jack said and tried to smile. “They might decide to clean up the mess that is my existence.”
“They wouldn’t. They would find you interesting. For a time.” The Doctor’s face went through three different shades of thoughtful and then apprehensive. “Maybe it is for the best.”
For a week or so Jack told himself that maybe the Doctor had always known this would happen? Perhaps Jack had stayed here and never seen the other one with the lanky figure and pinstriped suit again.
It was stupid.
He knew that wasn’t how it worked.
Time would straighten out when all pieces fell back into place and then this one would forget about Jack.
That was how it worked.
That was why when the time came to close the cascading once and for all by throwing a fact into the one that started it all, the decision was easy.
“There has to be another way!” Tegan pleaded.
“Think, Doctor,” Nyssa begged.
But the Doctor was at a loss, staring at Jack with true regret.
It was more than Jack ever expected to see on any Doctor’s face.
Impulsively he leaned over and kissed him squarely on the lips. “At least this time you don’t get to run out on me. That’s something for a change.” He took a backwards step towards the portal and saluted, grinning. This might be it. This might be his salvation. Saving another Doctor so he could go on to save a younger Jack. It would be rest and oblivion and…
The Doctor took him by the collar and stared straight in his face. “Listen to me,” he said. “Tell the other one that he’s an idiot for running in the wrong direction. Might be old age. But never forget that we care for all of those we travel with.”
His voice had changed into something strange and scary. Overlaying with another.
The Doctor's face changed in front of Jack’s eyes, time pulling his vision this way and that until he could see different faces on the edges, then he was pushed backwards into the portal, could feel the strands of it latch onto his skin, suck him in and out of time and existence.
He was floating, dissolving, dying. Finally for real?
Then he woke, heaving a heavy painful breath.
The Doctor - brown mess of hair, pinstriped suit, and flappy coat - sat beside him, legs propped up, watching him.
“Took you long enough. How?” he croaked.
“You're welcome. I remembered something from years ago that I’d forgotten. Spent a few years mulling it over back then. Put it down in the console. Took the Tardis about 400 years to calculate,” the Doctor admitted. "When I realized you'd were gone and I couldn't find you, my brain went ding-ding-ding and she popped up the solution."
“Thanks,” Jack said. “The old girl is a little fond of me.”
“Yes, yes, the Tardis. She is.” And in the quickness of the words, Jack heard: Not only her. I am, too.
He wasn't imagining it. He remembered the other Doctor's words he was supposed to pass to his future self. Did this Doctor remember it? The words? The kiss? The short time spent together?
“Time's straightening out,” the Doctor said and stood, hopping around the Tardis console.
“Yes,” Jack said and sighed. “Time to run again.”
“This time,” the Doctor promised, “I won't leave you behind.”
The promise referred on the way they'd been separated by the portals, but with all their history they both knew there was deeper meaning.
Grinning, he pulled himself up.
“You will never outrun me anyway, Doctor.”
Their eyes met. There it was: A deeper understanding beneath their everyday banter. It had all been worth it then.