It started with a dream. A nightmare.
Jack was standing on a beach at night, and the sky was on fire with hundreds of burning houses. There was a small, sweaty hand in his, and then it was gone.
Beach. Fire. Hand. Gone.
Beach. Fire. Hand. Gone.
Heart pounding, the taste of adrenaline in his mouth, Jack sat up. He covered his face with his shaking hands and tried to bring his breathing under control. He hadn’t had that dream in weeks - not since coming aboard the TARDIS. He didn’t know why he’d had it tonight, but he hoped it didn’t come back. He needed his wits about him. The Doctor hadn’t made up his mind to keep him yet, and if Jack started dropping the ball and the Doctor decided he was a liability, he’d be out on his ear.
He wasn’t going back to sleep right away, if he got back to sleep at all. Rose was a great believer in the soothing power of a cup of tea; Jack wasn’t sure he had quite the same faith, but at the moment he was willing to try. He climbed out of bed and dressed quickly, having been informed in no uncertain terms by the Doctor on his first day that public areas of the TARDIS were not clothing optional. Then he opened the door to the hallway and came up short.
What lay beyond his bedroom door was not the corridor he expected. It wasn’t a corridor at all, in fact, but a room Jack had never seen before: a dimly lit grotto with a swimming pool in the center, throwing watery light on stone walls, which glistened with some sort of mineral, almost iridescent.
“Well,” Jack said, voice echoing off the walls. “This is new.”
The room was beautiful, and any other time Jack would have been pleased to find it. But what he really wanted now was the kitchen. He knew that the TARDIS rearranged her rooms based her passengers’ needs, so it was strange that he’d ended up here and not there.
There was a door at the other end of the room, Jack saw, and so he walked past the pool - hoping he could find it later - and opened it.
It led into a library. But not the library that Jack was familiar with. That library contained books, as strange as Jack had found that to be, mostly written in Ancient Earth languages, and comfortable, cozy furniture. This library also contained books, but whatever language they were written in was not one Jack had ever seen before; it mostly looked like geometric shapes, and the TARDIS did not see fit to translate it. Or maybe, Jack thought, she couldn’t.
Jack paused. Something was wrong here, he thought. And it’d been wrong since he’d woken up. He reached out and pressed his hand against the wall, but the welcoming thrum he’d hoped for didn’t come. There was no reply, not even the slight telepathic tickle that Jack was used to feeling from the TARDIS. Jack’s stomach twisted. But there didn’t seem to be much he could do except keep moving and hope he’d find the Doctor.
There was a door at the other end of the library. He opened it and walked through, and found himself outdoors.
Not really, of course, but it certainly felt like it. There was “sunshine” coming from somewhere, though no sun that Jack could see, and a perfectly blue sky overhead. There was springy green moss underfoot, flowers, and even butterflies. Jack could hear the sound of running water - somewhere around here was a veritable babbling brooke. And ahead of him, a tumble of enormous moss-covered stones, as though an ancient temple had collapsed right there, in this room.
It looked like a great spot for a picnic, but Jack’s sense of unease was growing with every room. This one was much bigger than either the library or the grotto. To his left was the smooth, seamless white walls of the TARDIS, but there was no ceiling overhead that Jack could discern; to his right the room seemed to go on forever, sloping upward toward the top of a hill. Jack spent several minutes prowling around the stones, looking in vain for this room’s second door. Finally he gave up and decided to climb to the top of the hill. Hopefully that would offer him a full view of the room and he’d be able to see the door from there. Assuming, of course, that there was one.
The top of the hill did indeed offer a full three-hundred and sixty degree view of the room. Jack caught sight of the second door, down the other side of the hill and across the stream he’d heard earlier. He started down the hill toward it, even as he wondered if that was what he should be doing. Maybe he should just stay in one place and wait for the Doctor to sort everything out and find him. After all, it was clear that the TARDIS contained entire realms that Jack had never seen before, and there was no guarantee that he’d ever actually find the console room this way. On the other hand, the only thing he knew for sure was that he wouldn’t help the Doctor - or Rose for that matter - by staying here. If he kept going, he might run into one of them doing the same thing he was.
He reached the next door, and with one last glance at the room behind him, walked through.
And found himself in the Doctor’s bedroom.
It took him a moment to realize that was where he was. It was dark and rather chilly, and there was a low bed, the covers rumpled and thrashed, trailing onto the floor, as though the occupant had gotten out of bed in a hurry. There was little other furniture and no little decorations or personalized adornments, as could be found in Rose’s room or Jack’s own. It was austere and a bit harsh - rather like the Doctor himself.
Jack quelled the urge to look around, curious though he was. He hadn’t been sure that the Doctor even had a room. He hadn’t been sure the Doctor slept. But it seemed that he did, and that he’d been sleeping when whatever had happened, happened.
This room’s second door was located on the opposite wall. Jack stepped around the discarded bedding and was about to open it and go through, when a noise like a sharply drawn breath stopped him. He turned, suddenly tense, and realized that he wasn’t alone. The Doctor was there, crouched in the shadowy corner created by the wardrobe and the wall.
“Doc?” Jack said.
The Doctor didn’t answer. Jack could hardly see him in the room’s low light, even now that his eyes had adjusted, but he could make out his bare outline. He was clutching his head in his hands.
“Doc?” Jack said again, stepping a bit closer. When the Doctor didn’t react at all, Jack went and crouched in front of him. The Doctor’s eyes were shut, his hands over his ears. “Doc, it’s me,” Jack said. The Doctor’s only reaction was to flinch. He was shivering, Jack saw, and though the room was cool and the Doctor was naked from the waist up, Jack didn’t think that was why.
Jack hesitated to touch him. He’d seen something like this before, and he wasn’t at all sure that touching the Doctor wouldn’t get him punched in the face. On the other hand, he couldn’t leave the Doctor here like this, and in order for them to go on together, he had to snap out of it.
Bracing himself, Jack touched the Doctor’s wrist.
The reaction was immediate. Before Jack could blink, he found his own wrist in an iron grip, and then he was on his back, winded and staring up at the Doctor, who was now crouched over him.
Maybe that hadn’t been such a great idea after all.
“Doc, it’s me,” Jack managed, before he’d managed to get his breath all the way back. “It’s Jack, don’t -”
“Jack?” The grip on his wrist - wrists, Jack realized, the Doctor had hold of both of them - didn’t loosen, but the Doctor froze, as if in confusion.
“Yeah,” Jack said, not daring to relax. “It’s me. Normally I wouldn’t be complaining about any of this,” he added, thinking about how the two of them must look, “but I think there’s something wrong with the TARDIS.”
The Doctor shuddered faintly, then let go of Jack’s wrists. “You’re right about that, lad.”
Jack pushed himself up and back. The Doctor hadn’t moved. “What’s going on? Do you know?”
The Doctor shook his head, then finally straightened up out of his crouch. Jack got to his feet, and when the Doctor just stood there without saying anything, Jack led him over to the bed and pushed him down to sit on it, then sat beside him. The Doctor leaned over and put his head in his hands. “I didn’t know,” he said, so quietly Jack almost couldn’t hear him. “I had no idea.”
“About what, Doc?” Jack asked, putting a careful hand on the Doctor’s back.
The Doctor turned his head, looking up at Jack. “How much she helped,” he said. Jack blinked, lost, until the Doctor put a hand to his temple, in a gesture that in Jack’s time indicated telepathic activity. “I didn’t know how much she was helping, until . . .”
Until she stopped, Jack filled in, and suddenly understood. Jack hadn’t had his old nightmare about the Boe since he’d come aboard because the TARDIS had prevented it. “There’s something wrong with her telepathic circuits,” he said. The Doctor nodded. “What could do that?”
The Doctor shrugged. “Could be a virus. Not much that’ll mess with a TARDIS, but it can happen. I’ll need to get to the console room before I can say anything more.”
“The rooms are all scrambled,” Jack said. “No corridors at all, and nothing’s where it usually is.”
The Doctor closed his eyes. “Damn. That’s . . . not good.”
He looked exhausted, Jack thought. A flashback would do that, though. Once the adrenaline rush was over, it left you totally drained. “Okay,” Jack said, because the Doctor didn’t seem like he’d move on his own. “We need to get to the console room, then. And we should try and find Rose while we’re at it.”
“Hopefully she just stayed put,” the Doctor said, then turned to frown at Jack. “Which is what you should’ve done, too.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s a good thing for all of us that I didn’t.” The Doctor grunted but didn’t disagree. “Let’s get going, then,” he said, standing. He found one of the Doctor’s sweaters, dropped in a puddle by the bed, and handed it over. The Doctor stared at it for a moment, as though not sure what to do with it, before finally pulling over his head. Combined with the soft flannel sleep pants he was wearing, it made him look surprisingly normal, in a twenty-first century sort of way. It was a mark of how off his game the Doctor still was, Jack thought, that he didn’t immediately pull his jeans on, too. Or even his shoes.
“There’s no guarantee that we’re ever going to find the console room, you know,” the Doctor said, grimly. “The TARDIS is . . . well, she isn’t infinite, but we could walk for days and not get where we want to go.”
“Well, if we stay here, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Jack said. “And Rose might be wandering around, lost and scared.” Actually, Jack doubted that even if Rose was wandering the TARDIS, that she was very scared. A bit bewildered, maybe, by her inability to find the console room, but probably not scared. And he doubted that there was much on the TARDIS that could hurt her.
But his words had the desired effect on the Doctor, who suddenly looked more resolved. “Right. Let’s go, then.”
Jack glanced down at the Doctor’s bare feet. “Do you want to maybe put on some shoes first, Doc?”
Minutes later, with the Doctor not only wearing shoes, but also his jeans, they set off through his bedroom’s second door and walked straight into what looked like a wardrobe - but not the wardrobe that Jack was familiar with. That one contained racks and racks of bright, clean, ready-to-wear clothes, but this one, though much smaller, had a jumbled up, long-disused look. And the clothing was strange: Victorian frock coats, beige cricketing gear, and at least one truly terrible multi-colored coat that made Jack raise his eyebrows.
The Doctor stopped dead in his tracks, staring. Jack ducked around the rack of coats to try to find the door. He finally found it, but it was blocked by racks of more strange clothing: vests with question marks, a long - very long - scarf that looped around an around the neck of its hangar, an old velvet coat and ruffled shirt. “Doc, come help me shift this,” Jack said.
The Doctor moved slowly, as though in a dream. He came around the other side of the rack and together they picked it up and moved it enough that they could not get to the door. “What is all this stuff, Doc?” Jack had to ask.
The Doctor’s answer was quick and sharp. “No business of nosy apes, that’s what it is. Now come on.” He opened the door, but Jack didn’t miss the way he glanced over his shoulder one last time before going through.
They went through another library, this one more like the one Jack was familiar with, though not precisely the same, what looked like a secondary medbay or laboratory, and two bedrooms - neither of them Rose’s unfortunately - before finally ending up where Jack had wanted to go to begin with: the kitchen. The Doctor wasn’t speaking at all, but it wasn’t only for his looks that Jack had been recruited to the Time Agency. In the bedrooms especially, the Doctor had hesitated, gaze lingering on clothing left draped over chairs and scatterings of small knickknacks - souvenirs, Jack guessed. Jack had always thought that he and Rose were probably not the Doctor’s first companions. Now he knew.
This little trip down memory lane wasn’t doing the Doctor any good, Jack suspected, especially on the heels of his flashback. Jack himself wouldn’t have minded stopping for a minute or two to get the cup of tea he’d wanted two hours ago, or even for a bit longer to get something to eat. But he didn’t think the Doctor would. If only Rose were here, he thought. Somehow he always knew exactly what to say to get the Doctor to see sense.
“Doc, wait,” Jack said, when the Doctor reached to open the next door. “What do you say we take a quick break?”
“What, now?” the Doctor demanded, the first he’d spoken since the wardrobe. “No. We have to keep going.”
“We don’t know how long we’re going to be doing this,” Jack said. “I need to eat. And you should, too.” A cup of tea might do him good, as well. He still looked off, somehow, though not in any way that Jack could put his finger on. “I’ll make us some eggs and tea, and then we can take some water with us when we go.” He wasn’t too worried about water, truthfully, since many of the rooms they’d passed through so far had contained it in some form, but it was better not to risk it.
The Doctor frowned. “Well, be quick about it, all right?”
Jack was glad to see that the eggs he remembered from yesterday were still in the fridge; he’d been half afraid that everything might’ve ended up in a different dimension or at least a totally different room. He busied himself at the stove, making scrambled eggs, toast, and tea. The Doctor prowled restlessly around the edges of the kitchen, a tall, dark bundle of anxious energy. When Jack finally set the food on the table, the Doctor looked at it, then shook his head. “I’m fine.”
That was patently untrue, but Jack knew better than to say so. “We should both eat something anyway, seeing as we’re here.”
“I don’t need to eat.”
Jack closed his mouth on his first reply, and instead asked himself what Rose would say. “I made enough for two,” he said after a moment, “so you might as well.”
The Doctor grumbled but sat, and when Jack put a plate of eggs and toast in front of him, he ate readily enough. Jack decided not to bother him with conversation until he’d mostly finished his tea, at least, and concentrated on his own food. By the time they were both done, the Doctor looked a bit better; he had color in his face and looked less drawn around the eyes and mouth.
“Good?” Jack asked.
The Doctor nodded from behind his mug of tea. “Thanks,” he said, grudgingly. “Don’t always know what’s good for me.”
But the TARDIS usually did, Jack thought. “What’s going on, Doc? Really?”
The Doctor shook his head. “I don’t know, lad. Her telepathic circuits are all buggered. I can feel her, but it’s like - like she’s underwater and far away.” He sounded sad, Jack thought, and frustrated, and very tired.
“Are we under attack?”
The Doctor shook his head. “Wouldn’t think so. Not much left in the universe that could attack a TARDIS. She must’ve picked something up in the Time Vortex. Just bad luck.”
Sensing that it might be better to let the Doctor brood into his tea for a bit, Jack put together some sandwiches from stuff in the fridge and grabbed a few bottles of water to take along, too. He stuffed it all in a backpack he found in one of the cabinets, then prodded the Doctor out of his chair. For all that he had agreed to the stopover only grudgingly, he seemed reluctant to move on. Jack wondered if he was worried about what they might find in the next room.
Not much, it turned out. It was an old gym, dusty and disused. The Doctor didn’t pause there, nor did he stop in the room after that, another bedroom.
The third room was . . . strange. It was all white, with softly glowing walls and no furniture whatsoever. The Doctor entered ahead of Jack and then stopped, forcing Jack to edge around him. Jack blinked. “What is this place?” he asked, when the Doctor neither spoke nor moved. He half-expected to get his head snapped off with yet another comment about things that weren’t the business of stupid apes, but to his surprise, the Doctor actually answered.
“It’s called the Zero Room,” the Doctor said, in a very quiet voice.
Jack glanced at him sideways. “And what’s that when it’s at home?” he asked, using one of Rose’s favorite expressions.
The Doctor didn’t reply. He closed his eyes, and his face went utterly still. Jack could see the door on the other side of the room, but he stood quietly. They’d move on when the Doctor was ready, he decided, and not before.
By Jack’s watch, it was five minutes and thirty-six seconds before the Doctor spoke. “It’s a place to rest and recover,” he said, then. “I thought . . . I thought it’d been destroyed. I didn’t realize she’d built a new one.”
“Maybe she thought you needed it,” Jack suggested.
The Doctor shook his head. “I did need it,” he said. “But it wasn’t here then. She must have decided to rebuild it afterward - but she never told me.”
“Didn’t think the two of you had any secrets,” Jack said, unable to resist probing just a little, even when he knew it might get his hand metaphorically slapped. A Time Lord and his TARDIS were the stuff of legend at the Time Agency.
“I don’t have many from her,” the Doctor said, and his voice was uncharacteristically soft. “But she’s beyond even my comprehension.” He looked around, and if Jack wasn’t mistaken, he thought the Doctor’s eyes were just a little damp. “I’ll have to thank her.”
“Can’t do that until we get her telepathic circuits back online,” Jack said, gently. “C’mon, Doc. Time to move on.”
“Right,” the Doctor said, and seemed to gather himself. “Lead on, then.”
The Zero Room seemed to have a profound affect on the Doctor. He was notably calmer for at least the next hour, and even made small talk when Jack initiated it. But eventually their aimless journey from one room to the next started to wear on both of them. Under other circumstances, Jack would’ve loved the chance to explore the TARDIS and see parts of her that apparently even the Doctor hadn’t known about. But in the back of his mind was an ever present sense of wrongness; looking at the Doctor only made it worse. He had a sense of grim determination about him, and also an edginess that seemed to increase with every room they entered that wasn’t the console room. The edginess made Jack wary; he was only too aware of how much powerful the Doctor was, and not only physically. Normally, that didn’t bother him, but at the moment there were storm clouds gathering behind the Doctor’s eyes. Jack just hoped they reached the console room before the storm broke.
Eventually, Jack started to think that they both needed a break. Neither of them had spoken in a long time, and Jack’s legs were starting to hurt from all the walking, not to mention that the tension in the Doctor’s jaw was starting to make his own jaw ache. In the next room, he decided, he’d suggest that they stop to share a sandwich and a bottle of water.
The Doctor was ahead of Jack by several paces by then. He opened the door ahead of Jack and went through. “Hey, Doctor,” Jack said, and then froze as the Doctor staggered backwards out of the room, pulling the door shut and leaning half-collapsed against the wall. “Whoa, Doc,” Jack said, rushing toward him. The Doctor was white as a sheet, he saw, and shaking, and his eyes were distant, unfocused. Jack suspected that he wasn’t really seeing him at all.
What the hell was in that room? Jack eased the Doctor down to the floor, then opened the door himself, braced for Time-only-knew-what. Had the Doctor banished a dragon down here or something? He supposed it wasn’t out of the question.
But Jack didn’t find anything like that. Stretching before him was a field with grass like spun gold and overhead a sky that glowed like the most brilliant of sunrises on Earth. In the distance was what appeared to be a forest, with silver leaves that moved and flashed in the breeze, reflecting the red light of the sky.
Jack had never seen anything like it before, but he knew where he was anyway. A Time Lord and his TARDIS weren’t the only legends at the Time Agency. Rumors about the Time Lords’ home planet, Gallifrey, had run wild and rampant, but the only details anyone had been able to agree upon were these: the sky had been blood red and the trees silver.
“Oh sweetheart,” Jack murmured, though he knew the TARDIS couldn’t hear him at the moment. “Is this something else you were saving for when he needed it?” Or maybe, Jack thought, until he was ready to face it. Which the Doctor clearly wasn’t.
The room was larger even than the room with the ruins that Jack had encountered. Finding the next door was going to be a challenge and might involve a certain amount of wandering. Jack could do it alone if he had to, but at some point the Doctor was going to have to enter the room, if only to cross to the next door.
Jack went back into the room where he’d left the Doctor, and closed the door behind him. The Doctor seemed to have recovered a bit; he was sitting with his back against the wall, head down between his arms, elbows resting on his bent knees. Jack sat beside him and pulled a bottle of water out of the bag. The Doctor took it, wordlessly, and drained half of it one swallow. Jack unwrapped one of the sandwiches he’d brought, but when he offered it to the Doctor, he winced and shook his head. Jack ate half a sandwich and sipped at a bottle of water while considering his opening line.
Bald honesty wasn’t a strategy he was used to employing, but he decided to give it a try. He didn’t think anything else would work with the Doctor. “My home is gone, too,” he said. Beside him, the Doctor went very still. “I grew up on the Boeshane Peninsula on - well, it doesn’t matter.” The Boe had barely made it onto the maps of his homeworld, which had, in turn, barely made it onto the maps of the quadrant it was in; there was no reason for the Doctor to have ever heard of either of them. “When I was fifteen, we were invaded. We lost my father and my brother.”
The Doctor stirred. “Not your mother? Always assumed you were an orphan. The Time Agency -”
“- only takes orphans,” Jack finished. He shrugged. “My mother didn’t die, but she always blamed me for losing my brother. We both went on, but our family didn’t. When I signed up for the Agency, I felt like telling them that my parents were dead was more truth than lie.” The Doctor merely nodded. Jack drew a deep breath. “So you see, I can -”
“Don’t,” the Doctor said in a dangerous voice.
Jack swallowed back the rest of his words. “What?”
“Don’t say that you understand how it feels,” the Doctor said. He finally looked at Jack, and it took everything Jack had not to recoil from the darkness he saw there. “You can’t know how it feels.”
Jack decided not to argue. It would do neither of them any good to get into a game of trying to one-up each other’s trauma, and he was pretty sure the Doctor would win.
Jack was quiet for a minute or two. “You didn’t know, did you?” he asked at last. “That she’d saved a piece of it.”
The Doctor shook his head. “I don’t know how she did it, either. There was no -” He swallowed. “There was no time,” he managed, voice rough. “I don’t even know how she did it, or how she knew . . . transdimensional folding, maybe . . .” He lapsed into muttering to himself, transdimensional physics that were way over Jack’s head, even if he had been top in his class in the subject once.
Jack waited until the Doctor had finally fallen silent. Then he asked, “Is there any way around it?” The Doctor shook his head. Jack let out his breath. “No way out but through, then.”
“Yep,” the Doctor said, grimly.
“What if I went on by myself?” Jack suggested. “I could at least find the door -”
“No,” the Doctor said flatly. He shoved himself to his feet; Jack followed, half a second behind. He stood looking at the door, and Jack wished, briefly and intensely, that Rose were here. Rose always knew what to do when the Doctor was in one of his dark moods, and what was more, the Doctor let her do it.
The Doctor might not want the help, Jack thought, but he had to try. “Doc,” he said. The Doctor looked at him. Jack held his hand out, the way he’d seen Rose do a dozen times, and braced himself for the Doctor’s rebuff. But after a moment the Doctor took his hand, cool fingers closing over Jack’s warm ones.
The Doctor let Jack lead the way through the door. Jack heard him gasp sharply as they entered, but he kept moving forward, the Doctor’s hand in his.
It took them two hours to find the door, hidden as it was behind a copse of silvery trees. Several times, Jack thought about telling the Doctor to go wait in the previous room, while Jack hunted for it on his own. But one glance at the Doctor’s face made him keep his mouth shut. He just tightened his hand on the Doctor’s own and kept moving.
When they finally found the door, Jack could have wept with relief. But the Doctor stopped him as he was about to go through and turned, looking back over the silvery forest and the golden fields. “Doc, let’s go,” Jack said, quietly.
The Doctor didn’t seem to have heard him. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” he said.
“It is,” Jack agreed. He hesitated. “Was it really like this?”
The Doctor nodded. “I hated it for so long. Not the planet itself, but the old men in their robes. So much power, so much ambition. So little curiosity. So I told myself I could run away and it would always be there. Gallifrey. Home.”
“I used to do the same thing,” Jack said quietly. “I’d dream about running away from the Boe, ending up somewhere interesting where I could be anyone.” But it wasn’t the same when there was nothing and no one to go home to, he’d discovered when he finally did leave.
“I miss it,” the Doctor said, in a low, low voice. “I never thought I would. She must have known, though. She must have known that some day, I would want this. I would want to remember exactly how it looked, red sunlight on silver leaves. And she saved it for me.”
Jack closed his eyes, straining to remember the smell of salt air on the Boe, somehow different from that of Earth beaches, the perfect blue-green color of the waves, the feel of surf over his toes. The rocky beaches and the ferns that grew there with their huge leaves and mossy undersides, perfect for hiding away from the world to do whatever it was you wanted to do with whomever you wanted to do it.
Maybe when all this was over, he thought, he’d ask the Doctor to take him there. They could land well before the first settlers ever arrived, it wouldn’t interfere with anything. And he could show the Doctor and Rose where he’d come from.
They left the slice of the Doctor’s homeworld behind.
Four rooms later, they found themselves facing a ladder, rather than a door. The door itself was high up in the walls of what Jack thought of as their third secondary medbay. Jack was about to ask if that meant anything when he saw that the Doctor was smiling. Not just smiling - beaming.
“Is this good?” Jack asked. The door was very high overhead; maneuvering it open and climbing through without falling was going to take some acrobatics.
“Better than good,” the Doctor replied, stepping onto the first bar and starting to climb. “It’s fantastic! At the top of this ladder is a console room.”
“What do you mean, a console room?” Jack asked, looking up at the Doctor. “I thought there was only one console room.”
“Nah, there’s at least nine now,” the Doctor replied from above. “Unless she’s also archived ones I haven’t had yet, but that’s just cheating. Keep up, Jack!”
Jack shrugged. He just hoped there actually was a console room at the top; he didn’t want to think about how disappointed the Doctor would be if there weren’t.
But it seemed the Doctor’s instincts were correct. When Jack scrambled through the door at the top of the ladder, he found himself in what was, indeed, a console room, albeit a much smaller and less imposing one than he was used to. The walls were white and glowing faintly, not unlike the Zero Room, and the time rotor was small, almost diminutive compared to the one Jack knew. The Doctor was already halfway under it, even as Jack was still getting his feet under him. Jack paced carefully around the perimeter of the room, and paused to rest his hand against the wall, hoping for a flicker of recognition from the TARDIS. But there was none.
At last, the Doctor crawled out from beneath the console. “What’s the verdict, Doctor?” Jack asked.
“Just what I thought, her telepathic circuits are blown,” the Doctor said. “Something got in there - some sort of virus maybe, I’ll have to chase it down once she’s back online.”
“And you can fix it from here?”
“Yep,” the Doctor said. “Console room, just like the other.”
“It doesn’t look like the other,” Jack said.
“Nope. Different me, different console room. I was feeling understated, I guess.” The Doctor glanced at him. “You don’t like it.”
Jack shrugged. “I miss the coral,” he admitted. The small white room felt sterile. Cold.
“Have us back there soon,” the Doctor assured him, but then he fell silent, examining the console. Or seeming to examine the console.
Jack frowned. “Doc. What’s wrong?”
The Doctor didn’t look at him. “Nothing.”
“I don’t believe you. C’mon, we’ve come this far, and I haven’t managed to screw anything up, have I?”
The Doctor did look at him, then. “No, lad, you haven’t.”
“So probably whatever it is, I can deal with it. At the risk of stating the obvious,” Jack added, knowing he was about to push his luck, “I’m not Rose.”
The Doctor glared. “Rose is fantastic.”
Jack sighed. “Yeah, she is, Doc. But that isn’t what I meant. You don’t have to protect me from whatever it is. I can help.” He held his breath, hoping he hadn’t overstepped. Normally it didn’t bother him too much when the Doctor called him and Rose silly apes, because that was just how he was and most of the time it was meant as an endearment. But after everything that had happened the last few hours, Jack didn’t think he could stand it.
“You’re right,” the Doctor said at last. “You can. I’m just not sure you’ll want to.”
Jack blinked. “Why would you think that?”
“Telepathic circuits, lad,” the Doctor said. “That means delicate psychic work trying to fix them. I had the impression you weren’t terribly fond of anyone rooting around in your head.”
“I’m not,” Jack said. “But I guess the TARDIS is there anyway.” That had unnerved him at first; he’d had psychic interfaces with ships before, of course - almost all navigation systems in his time had a neural component - but never one like the TARDIS. It wasn’t just an exchange of data with her, Jack had realized upon seeing the room she’d created for him. She knew who he was. And that - that had frightened him deeply. He’d gotten used to it, though, as part of life on the TARDIS - so much so, that he missed it now, when it was gone.
“Not the TARDIS,” the Doctor replied. “Me. Easy to get lost in a TARDIS, you know. I need someone who can hold me back. An anchor.”
“Oh,” Jack said. That made sense, he supposed. The TARDIS was far more powerful than the Doctor. But the Doctor was far more powerful than he was. Even if Jack blocked things off, there was no guarantee that the Doctor wouldn’t see them anyway.
But the alternative was letting the Doctor go it alone, and that was no kind of option at all.
Jack drew a deep breath. “Okay.”
The Doctor looked at him sharply. “Okay?”
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Jack clarified. “Just tell me where you want me, Doc.”
The Doctor was still looking at him. Jack refused to look away or even blink. He was going to do this, dammit, and the Doctor wasn’t going to talk him out of it. “Here, with me,” the Doctor said at last, and Jack nodded, relieved that they weren’t going to do another round of questions and assurances. He dropped down to the floor and the Doctor sat up fully.
“I’ll protect you the best I can from her,” the Doctor said. “Just keep hold of me, all right? That’s all you have to do. I hope it won’t take long.”
Jack nodded, not quite trusting his voice. The Doctor took his hands and placed them at the psi points at his temples, then lay back down, his hands disappearing back inside the console. He looked at Jack. Jack nodded, even though he felt like his stomach was trying to crawl up his throat. Then he closed his eyes and the world fell away.
The only metaphor he had was . . . music. Soaring orchestral music in a vast cathedral, each note perfect in its own right, and together they were not just perfect, they were perfection. Jack reeled, overwhelmed, tried to block it out and couldn’t, and reached out blindly for the Doctor’s mind. He found him, and Jack had never thought that he could have found a Time Lord’s mind comforting, but he did. The Doctor’s mind was vast, too, and wounded, with burnt edges, but compared to that of the TARDIS, it was comprehensible. She was holding back with him, too, he realized; she and the Doctor were both trying to protect him, even while they worked.
Jack held on. That was all he could do. He held on and tried not to lose himself in the TARDIS, even though he had never in his life felt so small: not standing at the edge of the sea on the Boe as a small boy, not even in the vastness of space. He was a mouse next to a lioness, and the only thing standing between them was a house cat.
The Doctor would probably make him pay for that metaphor, later.
He had no idea how long they were there, and he had no conception of what the Doctor and the TARDIS did while they were. It felt like a long time, but at last he felt the Doctor pulling back and taking Jack with him. The music swelled one last time, leaving Jack’s head ringing as he opened his eyes on the console room - their console room, with its beautiful coral struts. He blinked, vision blurring, then blinked again when it didn’t clear. Then he realized he had tears streaming down his face.
“Doctor,” he choked out.
“Here, lad,” the Doctor said, and to Jack’s shock he found himself enveloped in the Doctor’s arms. He pressed his face to the Doctor’s shoulder. “You did well,” the Doctor said quietly in his ear.
Jack shook his head. “I didn’t do anything.”
The Doctor’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “Yeah, you did.” He pulled just a few inches away to look at Jack. “All right?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah, it was just . . . I thought I knew. But I didn’t.”
The Doctor nodded. To Jack’s surprise, he didn’t pull away, but pulled Jack back into him instead, against his chest. Jack closed his eyes, slowly calming. He was exhausted, he realized, and the Doctor was, too. They were leaning together, holding each other up.
Finally, after some indeterminate length of time, the Doctor murmured, “A house cat, Jack? Really?”
Jack gave a brief laugh and pulled away. “It was the best I had at the time.”
“Hmph,” the Doctor said, but his lips twitched in amusement.
Footsteps pounded up the hallway outside the room. “Doctor!” they heard Rose call, just before she burst into the console room. “There you are - I’ve been wandering around for ages, I couldn’t find - why are you both on the floor?”
The Doctor pushed himself to his feet and then gave Jack a hand up. “Long story. You’re all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, just confused - all the corridors were gone, nothing was where it was supposed to be. Did you know you had a butterfly room?” she added, eyes lighting up. “A whole room of butterflies!”
“Huh,” the Doctor said. “I’d forgotten about that room.”
“Is everything okay now?” Rose asked.
“Should be,” the Doctor said. “Telepathic circuits are back online. I need to ferret out whatever caused it, but she’s got it contained for now.
Jack saw Rose’s eyes flick from him to the Doctor and back again. He didn’t know what she saw when she looked at him, but the Doctor looked worn out. “Then I think we all need a cuppa,” Rose declared. “At least I know I do. Jack?”
“Sounds good to me,” Jack said. The Doctor protested briefly, but together, they steered him out of the console room and down the - thankfully entirely normal and fully present - corridor. Jack thought they might head to the kitchen, but Rose had other ideas and led them to the library.
“You two sit,” she said, depositing them both on the comfortable, overstuffed sofa. “I’ll get the tea.” She disappeared.
Jack sat on the sofa. The Doctor sprawled next to him, all long, lanky limbs. “Have something for you, lad,” the Doctor said after a moment. Jack glanced at him. “Know I’ve been - well, a bit of a bear since you came onboard. Nothing to do with you - well, a little to do with you,” he amended, when Jack raised an eyebrow at him. “Not a very trusting sort of person, me, and you started off worse than most. But that doesn’t matter now. Here.” He held something out to Jack.
It was a key. An entirely ordinary key. Jack swallowed. “Is this . . .”
“Yep. You earned it. Lose it and I’ll have your ears.”
Jack grinned and slipped the key into his pocket. “Got it, Doc.”
“Don’t call me Doc,” the Doctor said, but there more wry amusement than real heat behind it. They were both quiet. Jack got a bit more comfortable on the sofa; somehow, their shoulders ended up touching, but neither of them shifted away. The Doctor closed his eyes. Jack thought he might have fallen asleep, until he said quietly, “Maybe you do understand.”
Jack looked at him. “What?”
“Maybe you do understand,” the Doctor repeated, and now Jack remembered the Doctor telling him that he didn’t, that he couldn’t understand how it had felt to lose his home. But of course Jack’s memory of that feeling had been close to the surface when their minds had touched. The Doctor would have known how it had felt for him. “A little bit.”
Jack was briefly silent. “When the TARDIS is better,” he said at last, “do you think we could . . . I’ve never been back.”
“Yeah,” the Doctor said, slitting his eyes open enough to barely reveal the steely blue-gray. “Rose’ll like that. Always bothering me for a beach, she is.”
By the time Rose returned a few minutes later, carrying a tray of not only tea but also scones and clotted cream, the Doctor had fallen asleep. Jack watched Rose take in the way the Doctor’s head rested against Jack’s shoulder. She raised her eyebrows and met his eyes. “What happened to the two of you?” she asked quietly, setting the tray down on the the low table in front of the sofa.
Jack shifted just enough to look down at the Doctor’s head, then looked back at Rose. He shook his head, not sure how to reply. Finally, he smiled.
“We took a long walk.”