He whirls around to see Jack Harkness rise from his seat so quickly that his table overturns, spilling the rest of his frothy drink on the floor. The counterman and a few customers shout angrily, but Jack pays no attention. He's running headlong towards the Doctor and Rose, and the light on his face says that he recognises them.

Jack and Rose collide in a joyful tangle of arms while the Doctor stares. Impossible. Can't be. Rose buries her face in Jack's shirt. "You weren't there when I woke up. The Doctor said you were fine, but I wanted to see you. You two blokes should've waited for me 'stead of sneaking out."

The two blokes exchange looks. The Doctor's glance says, What the hell happened, Captain?

Jack's steady gaze replies, Not now. His eyes flicker down to the woman in his arms. Not in front of Rose.

He nods. Later... but as soon as possible.

'As soon as possible' is several hours later. They can't get away for more than a few minutes without making Rose suspicious, and this is not a conversation he wants to have in the male visitors' hygienic facility. Rose is back to her usual energetic self, dragging them in and out of little shops that sell trinkets and souvenirs and fripperies. When she finally tires of it, he and Jack are loaded down with her bags and parcels. The Destroyer of Worlds, turned into a shopping trolley. He can't deny Rose her fun after what almost happened today. Not that she knows it. Her memories of the last half hour aboard Ikrid's Valour are blurry, thanks to the toxin. She still thinks that Jack came to Gahui Station with them on the TARDIS.

Jack laughs and banters as if it's any ordinary day. He leads them into a H'grex noodle shop, flirts outrageously with their reptilian server, and coaxes Rose into trying a dish that she describes as looking like "fat blue worms". He shows her how to use the H'Grex noodle tongs, and she soon gets the knack of it.

It's one hour, seven minutes, and thirty-eight seconds before they walk into the TARDIS. He moves them into the Vortex, but doesn't set a destination. Later. Luckily for what's left of his sanity, Rose announces her need for a "proper shower". That means washing her hair, applying all sorts of goops and lotions, and performing other mysterious female rituals. They won't be seeing her any time soon.

He takes a breath he doesn't need. "Jack, how did you get here?"

"Hitched a ride on one of the lifepods."

Damn it, this is no time for jokes! Only... Jack's face is perfectly calm and serious. "They all launched before we finished settin' the power dampers."

"Yeah. Right after I set my last damper, I started to smell the alpha-dicadmolene. Not good news, that stuff. I decided that a prompt exit would be best for my health." He holds up his right arm and taps a finger against his vortex manipulator. "So I took the direct route."

He never knew that it was possible to be chilled with fear and hot with anger at the same time. "You used that... gimcrack toy to teleport between two moving ships? Without coordinates? Do you know what would've happened if you'd missed?"

"I know," Jack says quietly. "I decided it was better to take the chance." Right. The possibility of a quick death versus the certainty of a slow and painful one. "It wasn't as if I had a lot of choices." He ticks off an invisible list with his forefinger. "I couldn't run. Couldn't teleport into the TARDIS. I thought about teleporting near the TARDIS, but you said that artron energy deflects a teleport. I didn't want to wind up in the engine room -- or on the wrong side of the hull." He pauses. "And I knew that you weren't coming for me."

The heat and the chill drain out of his body, leaving only numbness. He can't deny it. Jack knows what choice he made. What can he say? Sorry I left you to die. No hard feelings, right? The silence between them is almost tangible. Say somethin'. Yell. Call me a bastard. Take a swing at me.

"I don't think I could forgive you--" No surprise there. "--if you'd come for me and left Rose to die."

Looking into Jack's eyes, he remembers that sapphire was once used to make surgical knives. Sharp, an' nearly as hard as diamond.

"She's so young, and she's hardly lived," Jack says. "Did she even travel outside England before she met you?"

"School trip to France," he replies, "an' a holiday in Wales." Where is he goin' with this?

Jack nods. "I've been around. Seen lots of places, done lots of things." There's a sharp edge to his smile. "Had lots of things done to me."

You're still young, Captain. So very young. "An' your point is?"

"I've had more than my fair share of close calls and miraculous rescues," Jack says evenly. "Got pulled off a ticking time-bomb of a ship by a guy who had every reason to leave me in my own sorry mess. And ever since then, it's been one hell of a ride." Jack takes in a deep breath. "Do you know what I thought, just before I made the jump to the lifepod?" He doesn't wait for an answer. "I thought, 'Whatever else happens, Rose is safe,' because I knew that you were going to take care of her. I knew it for a fact, the way I know the value of e and the atomic number of feynmanium."

He doesn't glance away. A few centuries ago, he might have done. His fourth and fifth incarnations had worn self-deception like a suit of armour. The War changed that. Over and over again, he looked into horror and destruction and saw his own face reflected there. What he sees now in Jack's eyes is much more frightening: neither the anger and condemnation he was expecting, nor the forgiveness he doesn't deserve. What he sees in Jack's eyes is unshakable trust and love that tosses aside forgiveness as unnecessary. It scares him worse than a Dalek battle fleet. He might have a chance against the Daleks.

What can he possibly say? He leans with deliberate casualness against a coral strut. "Where'd you get that outfit, Captain Jack Flash? Ugliest thing I've seen since the zoot suit."

Jack gestures at the black-and-silver skinsuit. "This? Borrowed it from a friend of a friend of a friend. My other clothes--"

"You puked all over them." It's not much of a guess. Even a mild dose of alpha-dicadmolene causes nausea. Add in the effect of teleportation on a human's inner ear, and the result is predictable. He frowns at the skinsuit. "Puke might improve the look of that."

"I think the fit flatters me. Emphasises all of my... attributes," Jack purrs in a tone of exaggerated seductiveness.

He forces a dry laugh. "You feelin' insecure about your attributes, Jack?"

"Very," Jack agrees solemnly. He closes the distance between them in three long strides. "Maybe you should reassure me."

Bloody hell. The lad's good-hearted, and means well, but even Jack's powers of seduction aren't enough to wipe away the guilt he feels. He starts to speak, then notices that Jack is standing still. Very still. He's waiting for the Doctor to make the first move. His shoulder muscles are taut, and his pupils aren't dilated. This isn't like Jack. Though he guards his heart carefully, he's always open and generous with his body, whether for comfort or for pleasure.

'Cept this time, he's the one needin' comfort. Doctor, you are a blind an' stupid old git. Ought to know by now what delayed shock looks like in a human. "C'mere, Captain." He doesn't wait for a response, but pulls Jack into his arms. Jack tenses, and his whole body trembles violently. He gulps in air like a drowning man. The Doctor holds him. He doesn't rub the Captain's back, or murmur soothing words. He's rubbish at soothing words, and he doesn't think Jack is listening to anything, except maybe his own staccato gasps. He holds Jack firmly. Implacably. He will hold him all night, if needs must, and through the day. He will hold him until they both turn into trees and sink their roots deep into the deck of the TARDIS.

After three minutes and twelve seconds, Jack's breathing becomes calmer, his single heartbeat slower. Twenty-nine seconds later, he leans back in the Doctor's grip, just far enough apart that they can see each other's face clearly. "I was afraid I'd never see you or Rose again," he says in a quiet, even voice. "You couldn't know I survived, so you'd have no reason to search for me. I hoped you'd come to Gahui Station to check up on the Ikridu, but I wasn't sure. Figured I'd wait three days, then I'd head out, try to find the TARDIS."

Today's the third day. Oh, Jack...

"The reason I was in that cafe?" Jack continues. "I was waiting to meet a Tuleg freighter captain who was hiring for a one-way run to Kaessen. As soon as he showed up, I would've gone on board. The freighter was scheduled to take off at 19:00, station time."

Something cold stabs through his hearts. The TARDIS had materialised at 18:12. If he'd landed a bit later... if he'd remained inside to watch over Rose... If, if, if. You could drive yourself mad speculating about potential branches in the timelines; there are several recorded cases of Time Lords who'd done just that. "You are here on the TARDIS where you belong, Jack Harkness," he says firmly, and he's not sure if he's trying to reassure Jack or himself. He leans forward and kisses Jack. It's not a tender kiss; it's hard, demanding, and possessive, and Jack responds with equal urgency.

"Oi! Starting without me?" Rose sounds more amused than annoyed. She walks into the Console Room, bringing with her the scent of hibiscus shampoo, Pears soap, and freshly laundered clothes.

They pull apart and turn to look at her. She wrinkles her forehead, apparently seeing something other than lust on their faces. "What's the matter? You two look like a month of wet Sundays." She adds, "We ought to be celebrating -- everybody lived."

"Everybody lived," he echoes. He glances at Jack. We've got to tell her. "Yeah, but it was a near thing. Nearer than you know."

At Jack's suggestion, they move to the vid lounge. Good choice. It's a place where they've spent many relaxing hours. This is the room where Rose snickered at The Tragical History of Rekk and H'nagh; where Jack was introduced to the real Mr. Spock ("Very sexy ears!"); the scene of many lively discussions, heated arguments, and popcorn fights. More than one impulsive shag has started in here -- and some have finished here, too. The overstuffed sofa is large, and the silk Tabriz carpet -- a gift from a Persian Vizier -- is very comfortable.

He's trying to decide how to begin when Rose blurts out, "You lied to me, Doctor! You told me Jack was fine."

"I didn't want you to fret." He holds up a hand to hold off the retort that he knows is coming. "You were poisoned, Rose. Another ten minutes an' nothin' could've saved you. Even with the antidote, you were in a bad way. So, yeah, I lied to you, an' I'd do it again."

She nods grudgingly. "Tell me what happened."

He and Jack take turns explaining the events of the past two days. They keep it as short as possible. Jack sounds like the soldier he once was, reciting a mission report.

Rose presses her lips together tightly as she listens. When the whole tale is told, she stares at the floor for thirty-nine seconds before speaking. "You left Jack behind? On purpose?" she says slowly, the way she does when she's not sure the TARDIS translated something right.


"No," Jack says almost at the same time. "He saved you. On purpose."

"'S the same thing!"

"No, it isn't," Jack replies. He leans towards her; takes the hand nearest him and clasps it between his own. "Rose, I've been in the position of having to chose who to save. People I'd known for years, who were closer to me than blood family. It's the hardest--" His gaze flickers towards the Doctor. "--one of the hardest decisions anyone can face."

Thank you, Captain. He's such a coward, letting Jack speak for him, but what can he say that won't sound like a piss-poor excuse?

Rose looks steadily at him. "If you'd given me the antidote, then run to where Jack was--" It's a question.

"I'd have got back to the TARDIS with his dead body." He takes two seconds to review his calculations. "About a half minute before the ship blew up. Probably."

She considers this. "And you didn't know Jack was alive until you saw him in the cafe." This isn't a question. She's talking aloud to herself, so he just nods. Emotions flit across her face like clouds on a windy day: bewilderment, anger, fear, sorrow. Rose pulls her hand free from Jack's and jumps to her feet, turning to face them both. "Don't you ever lie to me again. Neither one of you." She jabs a finger in the Captain's face. "You did it, too, Jack Harkness. The Doctor lied with words and you lied with silence. 'S just as bad."

If Jack's surprised to find himself under attack, he hides it well. "Yeah, it is. Forgive me?"

"An' me?" The words slip out more easily than he expected.

She gives them her best Jackie Tyler glare. "I'll think about it. Promise you won't do that again."

He winces. "Don't like to make promises, me. 'Specially ones with 'never' or 'always' in them. If a lie will keep you or Jack safe, I won't hesitate, an' I won't apologise." He pauses, wanting to get the words right. "I won't lie if it's just to keep from hurtin' your feelings." Beside him, Jack murmurs agreement. "That all right?"

Her glare fades to a frown. "I s'pose." Then her smile breaks out -- bright, and merry, and just a little bit wicked. "Course, it would help if I got a proper apology."

"An' just what might that be, Rose Tyler?"

Her smile widens into a grin. "I expect you two clever blokes can think of something."

And they do.

Much later, he gently pulls free of the tangle of limbs. He rises, crosses to the far side of the room, and removes three bottles from the small fridge. On his return. he pauses to admire the scene. His two lovers are sprawled on the carpet, bare skin highlighted against the jewel tones of the ancient silk. Rose is lying on her back, her head pillowed on Jack's thigh. His eyes are half-closed, like a dozing cat, and one hand rests loosely on her left breast. They make a lovely picture, his two humans. He'd paint them if he still had the artistic skills of his previous incarnation. Instead, he fixes this moment in his mind. The bright corona of Rose's hair swirling around her face... the strong lines of Jack's features... the sheen of perspiration, and the musky scent of humans after sex.

I almost lost them today. He will lose them someday, in one way or another. He always does. But right now he has them -- he has this moment, this memory to hold in his hearts. It will have to be enough.

He sets the bottles on a red lacquer table beside the sofa. At the sound, Rose turns her head. Jack opens his eyes. "Teraillian dew-wine?" he asks hopefully.

"Yeah. From 6257."

"A good year," Jack replies, "but right now I have a taste for an older vintage."

Rose grins. "Much older." Laughing, the two humans reach for him, and he allows himself to be pulled down into their embrace.

-- THE END --