Jack’s vortex manipulator was pretty useless after he used it to jump a couple hundred thousand years into the past, but there were a few things it was still good for. One of them was tracking temporal anomalies, of which there were a surprising number in Victorian London. He’d seen a lot since he landed here, but an invisible staircase into the clouds? That was new.
It seemed like nothing would kill him now, not even curiosity, so Jack hoisted himself up and climbed. And climbed and climbed, wondering where he was going and if he’d ever actually get there. By the time he did, there were droplets clinging to his greatcoat, and he was a little out of breath. For a moment, when he reached the top, he thought he was hallucinating.
It was the TARDIS.
His breath caught in his throat. The Doctor had come for him after all, Jack thought, staring stupidly at the beloved blue box. The Doctor hadn’t abandoned him. He fumbled out his key, still on a chain around his neck, and opened the door.
Nothing inside was the same. Where there had once been warm coral struts and a grated floor, there was glass and metal and a strange blue lighting. But when Jack opened his mind to her, she responded as she always had. Jack felt a warm glow spread through his chest, and he felt instantly safe and loved.
Behind him, the TARDIS doors opened. Jack turned, but where he expected to see the Doctor there was a stranger. A stranger in a strange coat with a bow tie and ridiculous, floppy hair.
“Jack!” the stranger exclaimed. “Jack, what are you doing here? Not that you need a reason, of course, but this is definitely unexpected.”
Jack blinked. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
The stranger blinked back. “It’s me, Jack,” he said, sounding suddenly crestfallen. “Or do you really not recognize me, just because I changed my face?”
Jack frowned, studying the stranger more closely. He looked totally different, but Jack suddenly wondered, recalling rumors and legends about Time Lords, if that meant anything at all. “Doctor?” he said.
The stranger smiled. “That’s me,” he said. “Hullo, Jack.”
“You’ve changed,” Jack said, and immediately felt stupid.
“A bit,” the Doctor said. “Twice, actually, since I last saw you. Well, this you.” He sighed. “This is early days for you, isn’t it?”
“I . . . don’t know what you mean,” Jack said. “I’ve been looking for you ever since the Game Station, but I overshot the 21st century and my vortex manipulator got fried on the trip here. But I’m glad to have found you,” he added, because he was. So, so glad, even if the Doctor seemed to be someone entirely different from the man Jack had known.
The Doctor regarded him sadly. “Oh, Jack. Our timing is always terrible, isn’t it? You’re too early. Or too late, one of the two.”
Jack frowned. “What do you mean?”
The Doctor stepped closer to him, invading Jack’s personal space in a way the other Doctor (the real Doctor, he couldn’t help but think) never had. He put his hand on the side of Jack’s face, cupping his jaw and smoothing his thumb over Jack’s cheekbone. Jack swallowed.
“Jack,” the Doctor murmured, voice low and intimate. “I wish I could keep you. You have no idea how much I wish I could keep you. My Jack. Jack the Fact.”
Jack frowned again. “What?”
“You can’t die, Jack. You must have realized that by now.”
Jack stared. “You know,” he said in horror. “You know and -” Jack stepped back, out of reach “- and you left me!”
“I did,” the Doctor said. “And I’m sorry about that.”
The apology didn’t do much to soothe the hurt. “Why?” Jack asked. It was the only question that mattered to him in that moment.
“I was afraid,” the Doctor said. “Of you, of what you are, of what Rose and the TARDIS did.”
Jack swallowed. “Are you still?” he asked. He wasn’t sure he could bear it if the answer was yes, but he also didn’t think he could bear not knowing.
The Doctor shook his head. “No. And I’m sorry that you’re never going to get a real apology from the next me - well, the last me. I wish I could take you with me, but I can’t, and I’m sorry about that, too. You have to live through it, Jack.”
“Live through what?” Jack asked.
“The twentieth century, for starters,” the Doctor said with a sigh. “And everything that is to come. You’re too important. Without you, the time lines go all wobbly, and I’m not sure Earth would survive at all. I can’t take you with me, because you have to live through all of that, and the next time you see me, you can’t have met this me.”
Jack looked away. “In other words, you can’t help me.”
“I can’t,” the Doctor said. “But I can do this.”
Quickly - more quickly than Jack would’ve thought possible - he found himself enveloped in the Doctor’s arms. He stiffened at first, startled, but the Doctor held him firmly, and slowly he relaxed. The Doctor tightened his grip, and Jack took a deep breath, pressing his face into the Doctor’s shoulder.
“Now you listen to me, Jack Harkness,” the Doctor said into Jack’s ear. “There are things to come that I wish I could spare you. Terrible things, and dark, dark days. I can’t spare you any of it, because you’re a lynchpin in any number of fixed events. The most I can give you is this.” He paused. Jack started to lift his head, but the Doctor’s cool hand was there on the back of his neck, holding him in place. “You are loved,” the Doctor said. “No matter what happens, no matter what anyone - including me - says to you. You are loved.”
Jack’s throat was tight. “Doctor,” he managed.
The Doctor pulled away, just far enough to look at him. He cupped Jack’s face in his hands again, both sides this time, and looked into his eyes. Jack felt unshed tears burning the backs of his eyes. “I can’t let you remember this,” the Doctor said. “But I’ll make sure that you have that to hold onto when you need it most.”
Jack flinched. “No,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” the Doctor replied. “There’s no other way. But I can leave a trigger, so that someday, when it’s all over, you’ll remember.”
Jack swallowed back the fear and tightened his grip on the Doctor’s shoulders. “And you’ll find me?” he said. “When you can?”
The Doctor nodded. “I’ll find you.” He drew a deep breath. “Are you ready?”
No. “Yes,” Jack said.
The Doctor’s fingertips came to rest at Jack’s temples, and then he kissed him. Jack surged up, kissing him back. He felt the Doctor’s mind brush against his own, felt rather than heard him say, You are loved, and then knew nothing more.
Most of the time, the Doctor knew, the universe was not kind. There were forces for good, and on his best days the Doctor hoped he was one of them. But the universe in general simply didn’t care what anyone wanted or needed.
Every once in a great while, though, through sheer coincidence and pure dumb luck, something wonderful happened. Like meeting a young version of an old friend. Like having the opportunity to atone, even just a little bit, for something the Doctor had once thought he could never atone for. Like realizing that that little bit might be just enough.
He’d been up here too long, the Doctor thought, mourning his Ponds and mourning his River. It was time to make good on the promise he’d made ten minutes and a thousand years ago. It was time to find Jack.
Fortunately, Jack was easy to find. It was the work of a moment to have the TARDIS trace Jack’s unique biosignature. The Doctor materialized the TARDIS, then glanced in the mirror to straighten his bowtie, the motions familiar and bittersweet, reminiscent of all the times he’d done it for River. Then he ducked out of the TARDIS and into a hallway that smelled of recycled spaceport air.
Jack was sitting more or less where he had been the last time the Doctor had seen this him: in a bar, albeit a different one. But he looked a lot less like he was trying to drown himself in his drink.
The Doctor slid onto the stool beside him. “Hullo, Jack.”
Jack looked at him and blinked, and then his eyes widened. The Doctor saw the moment the memories cascaded, flooding Jack’s mind. He gasped and his hand jerked, sending his glass tumbling to the floor.
“Oops,” the Doctor said. A cleaner bot was already trundling over to wipe up the glass and suck up the whiskey. “Let me get you a new one,” the Doctor said, signaling to the bartender.
Jack didn’t seem to have heard him at all. “Doctor,” he said, in a stunned sort of voice, just as the bartender set a fresh glass in front of him. Jack looked down at it, then knocked back most of it in one go.
“Easy,” the Doctor said, reaching out to cover Jack’s hand with his own.
Jack turned his hand over and gripped the Doctor’s, hard. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely.
The Doctor shook his head. “It was so much less than I should have done.”
“It was enough,” Jack said. “In the worst moments, I would think, I’m loved. I am. I didn’t even know how I knew, but it got me through . . . it got me through a lot.”
“I’m glad,” the Doctor said quietly. “And it is true, you know.” He hesitated and then reached out to pick up Jack’s glass. He took a cautious sip, but it seemed that while this body abhorred wine, it liked whiskey. “Will you come with me, Jack?” he asked, as he set the glass back down.
Jack was studying him, frowning. “You’ve had a rough go of it lately, haven’t you?”
The Doctor nodded, just once. He looked away, but Jack leaned in, turning the Doctor’s face back to him with a finger on his chin. Jack tasted of smoke and peat as he brushed his lips against the Doctor’s and murmured, “You’re loved, too, Doctor. I’ll come with you.”