Title: Familiar Strangers

Author: Aeshna

Disclaimer: Not mine, no matter how many DVDs and toys I buy! Everything here belongs to RTD and to Auntie Beeb, who already has my licence fee.

Notes: Thanks as always to for sterling beta work any remaining weirdnesses are all mine. Feedback of any variety is much appreciated but not compulsory I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn....

So far, so familiar:

Bumpy landing in a war-torn city on a world in the grip of invasion check. Companions wandering off into mortal peril check. Sudden attack by heavily-armed invaders and rescue by equally heavily-armed resistance fighters check. His cheery "Take me to your leader!" had been met with suspicion, muttered conversations, and finally with cautious agreement, the confiscation of his sonic screwdriver and a meandering journey through the underbelly of the ancient metropolis. The people of this far-flung colony were human, more or less, albeit subtly retouched by evolution's brush they'd probably never even heard of Earth or else considered it part of some insanely complex creation myth. He rather liked those. He'd have to ask them if

"Through here." Berei pushed a heavy curtain aside, her pale braids swinging as she ushered the Doctor into a curving corridor that had to be a good half-mile beneath the battle-scarred streets. "You're expected."

This part was familiar too win over the resistance with a bit of well-worn rhetoric and a touch of righteous outrage, sneak into the invaders' stronghold, rescue his errant friends, save the world, get back to the TARDIS, have a nice cup of tea. Easy. He bounced lightly on his toes as Berei rapped on a door panel, then slid it back in a clatter of worn bearings and stood aside. "Zaajil Cesh," she said simply, gesturing for him to enter. "He is our liberty."

The Doctor grinned at her blind faith could be so endearing took a step forward and...

And stopped as a surge of pure animal fear roared through his senses, a faint niggling sense of unease suddenly exploding into a visceral need for escape. The urge to turn and flee was almost overwhelming, but he knew this, knew its source, and so he gritted his teeth and marched into the room. "You!" he barked at the rebel leader standing to receive him. "I should've... what are you doing here?"

Blue eyes met brown and the Doctor stopped dead, shocked by the sheer lack of recognition he saw there. He knew those eyes, knew the unlined features, the strong build and casually coiled stance, but... "Jack!? Jack Harkness?"

The man frowned, suddenly wary. "Zaajil Cesh," he corrected. He gestured to a threadbare floor cushion. "Sit."

The Doctor held his ground. "Jack, Jack..." he chided. "Don't you know me? How can you forget me?"

A snort. "I've known a lot of people in my time."

"Yes, but I'm "

"A lot of people." Cesh crossed to place his hands on wiry shoulders, setting the Time Lord's every sense to screaming. Wrong, so wrong, threaded through and woven into eternity... "So, 'Jack Harkness'? Wow. I haven't used that name in... heh." A soft chuckle. "In a long while. You're a time-traveller?"

"You know I am! The same as oh." Without thinking, the Doctor reached up to press long fingers to Cesh's temples... and immediately jerked back as if burned, his eyes wide. So much, so deep, a weight of ages far greater than any Time Lord had ever known threatening to drag him down and swallow him whole, to crush him beneath its impossible magnitude. He was old but compared to this... "You lived it all?" he breathed.

"What else is there to do with life?" The smile was wide, easy, desperately familiar. "The universe is a big place."

"So why here? This world is hardly the bustling centre of the galaxy!"

Cesh shrugged. "These people needed someone."

"To fight a war for them?" The Doctor turned away, exasperated. "You can't just swan in, take over and "

"Swan right back out again?" Cesh cocked a dark eyebrow questioningly and the Doctor trailed off, suddenly feeling like a naughty child found out in a lie. "I'm here to lead them through this and through the aftermath. Not cut and run once the fun part's over." The immortal's gaze held him fast, caught in the echo of unspoken millennia. "So, why are you here, Doctor?"

"I " Was this what they saw when they looked at him, the Doctor wondered a creature far beyond any simple understanding, ancient and dangerous and all too perceptive? "I thought you didn't remember me."

"A memory of memory, but now you're here..." Cesh smiled sadly, as if at half-remembered loss. "You're not, I think, the one that I knew best."

The Doctor stared at him, hearts pounding, too afraid to ask for even the ghost of recollection. All familiarity had fled, but for this one singular and impossible fact who had grown so far beyond him...

"They have my friends," he said at last, looking away. Cesh nodded.

"Then we'd better get them back."

~ fin ~