The room is small, and plain to the point of severity. The roundels set into the white walls gleam with their own light. As they walk in, she discovers that the floor is made of some soft, resilient material that absorbs the sound of their footsteps. The same material covers the walls and the inside of the door.

The only furniture in the room is an antique writing desk in black lacquer and a matching straight-backed chair. Sitting at the desk is the room's only source of colour: the Doctor, in a long, simple robe of scarlet and orange.

On the desk before him are two containers, both open. One is a bottle of Teraillian dew-wine. The other is a small plastic vial of pills. Half of its contents are spread across the desk, and the white disks seem to glow against the black lacquer surface. The Doctor has arranged them into patterns. Rose smiles. She used to do the same thing with Smarties when she was a little girl. The smile vanishes as she realises what she's seeing.

"Doctor! No!" She rushes over, and sweeps one arm over the surface of the desk, sending everything flying. "Why? How could you do this?" she shouts, and bursts into tears.

Jack's beside her in an instant, ready to offer comfort, but not sure why it's needed. "Rose? What's wrong?"

"Huh?" The question makes her focus. Right. Fifty-first century bloke. Prob'bly doesn't even recognise the stuff. She points an accusing finger at the one white pill remaining on the desk. "That's aspirin. 'S for little aches and pains."

"Like paracetamol?" That one he knows, because he sometimes brings it to her when she has cramps.

"Yeah. Only we don't keep aspirin on the TARDIS, 'cos it's poisonous to Time Lords!" The last four words emerge as a shout.

Click. Jack has flicked the 'soldier switch'. That's what she calls it, that moment when the other, serious part of him takes over. He bends over the Time Lord. "Doctor. Did you take any of those?"

The Doctor's face is expressionless. "No. Was jus' gettin' ready when you came in."

Jack repeats Rose's question. "Why?"

The Doctor studies the ceiling. "'S complicated. You two weren't s'posed to be here yet. Not until... after."

She feels another surge of fury. "So the plan was for Jack and me to come in and find your body?" She looks down at the desk, bare of any writing materials. "Were you even gonna leave a note?"

He won't meet her eyes. "I was gonna explain it all to you afterwards."

"After you... died?" Now she's too confused to feel angry.

"After I regenerated."

****

In the Time Agency, there had been a lot of stories about the mythical Time Lord race. He remembers a tale that said that they could rejuvenate their bodies whenever they began to age, and consequently lived almost forever. Another story claimed that they were shape-shifters, able to change from one humanoid form to another.

The truth is much more interesting and convoluted. Jack listens, open-mouthed, to an explanation of total cellular renewal. Thirteen lifetimes, and each one with the potential to last centuries. At nine hundred, the Doctor really isn't very old by his people's standards. Jack has a million questions, but now is not the time for most of them.

"So, you look different every time? Can you chose your appearance?"

The answer, apparently, is yes... and no. Some Time Lords had the ability to control the regeneration process. In cases of sudden or violent death, control was usually impossible, and the newly-regenerated Time Lord might be ill or unconscious for hours, even days.

"I've never had a controlled regeneration. Never had the chance to try," the Doctor says, still looking at the floor. "Thought maybe if I followed all the old rituals, I could control it enough to look mostly the same. Didn't have any Elixir of Acheron, but aspirin is a slow poison, so..."

"So now we know what you were doing," Rose says, "But you haven't told us why." Her fury has blown over, but she's still angry, scared, and hurt. So is he. He's just better at hiding his feelings.

The Doctor is sitting stiffly in his chair, his face expressionless. It's odd to see him wearing something other than his uniform of jeans, jumper, and leather coat. In the simple robe that falls almost to his bare feet, he looks more vulnerable than he does when they are naked together.

Jack lets himself drop to the padded floor and sits cross-legged in front of the Doctor. It's a submissive, non-threatening posture, and the Doctor has spent enough time on Earth to react instinctively to human body language. Jack looks at Rose, who is leaning against the edge of the desk, and pats the floor as an invitation. She hesitates, then settles herself beside him, drawing her legs up and hugging her knees.

He looks up at the Doctor. "I'm guessing that this isn't because you got tired of the ears." Rose lets out a half-hearted snort. A little of the tension goes out of the Doctor's shoulders, but he doesn't speak.

Jack remembers a conversation they had with the Doctor on Haven. The end of the Time War -- and his previous incarnation -- was only two or three years ago. Much too soon to need to regenerate again. Unless... "Are you ill?" he asks quietly.

That draws a response, though not the one he hoped for. The Doctor lets out a short, harsh laugh. "Leave me be, Jack. Jus' leave me be."

Rose shakes her head. "Doctor, we're worried about you. We can't pretend something isn't wrong. We want to help."

For the first time since they entered the room, the Doctor looks directly at his human partners. "Rose, Jack -- the best way you can help is to go back to the flat an' let me do what I came here to do."

"No," Rose says flatly. "Not until you explain."

Jack drapes his left arm around her shoulders and pulls her closer. "Neither of us is going anywhere, Doctor. Whatever you do, we're staying."

"Humans!" the Doctor hisses. "Stubbornest race in twelve galaxies."

"Guilty as charged," Jack says mildly.

"'S one of the things you like best about us," Rose adds.

*****

If he wasn't already going mad, these two would probably drive him to it. Humans! Never more stubborn than when they're blatherin' on about things they don't understand. Right. Time to set some things straight. "You can't be here when I regenerate. It's too dangerous. I might be unstable."

"You wouldn't hurt us," Rose says with the confidence of youth.

"I can't be sure of that, an' I'm not goin' to take the chance."

"Who's going to make sure that you don't get hurt?" Jack wants to know.

He sighs. "'S why I'm in here. Not quite a Zero Room, but the closest I can manage right now. The TARDIS will lock the door until I recover. You shouldn't have been able to get in. Someone--" He glares up at the featureless ceiling. "--has been meddling."

"Good girl!" Rose pats the floor.

"Maybe we don't know what you need," Jack says, "but the TARDIS does."

"And she knows what you don't need," Rose says with a note of triumph.

He glances around. The floor is completely empty. None of the items that Rose knocked off the desk is anywhere in sight. Biting back a curse, he rises from the chair and begins to pace. The humans watch him, but don't move from where they're sitting. He walks to the door, spins on his heel, and glares again. The desk and chair are gone. Very subtle. He leans heavily against the wall furthest from Jack and Rose, then slides down into a sitting position.

Rose gets up and sits beside him, not touching, but close enough that he can feel her body heat. "Doctor, trust us. Please."

"I trust you," he says, and his gaze includes Jack in the statement. "It's myself I don't trust."

Jack comes over and sits on his other side. "Then let us help you. At least tell us what's wrong."

Maybe he should tell them. Maybe it'll scare some sense into them. "I've been seein' things -- people -- that can't be real. Dead people."

Rose makes the connection first. "People from your world?"

He nods, not trusting his voice.

"How often do you see them?" Jack wants to know.

"All the time, now." He glances sourly at the High Councillors standing at the far end of the room, resplendent in their formal robes. "They don't say or do anythin', they just stare at me."

"Time echo? Psi attack?" Jack asks.

"Gas creatures, maybe, like the Gelth?"

Their eagerness to help makes him feel frustrated and guilty at the same time. "None of those." To forestall any more useless suggestions, he lists all of the possibilities he's considered and discarded.

"Doctor..." Rose's voice is soft and hesitant. "Is it possible that these are, y'know, messages? That some of your people survived?"

"Nah. Told you, I'd feel it here." He taps the back of his head. "It wouldn't be like this -- seeing them. I can't explain it any better. Sorry."

"Were all Time Lords telepaths?" Jack wants to know.

"Yeah. Some more'n others." For him, it has varied from regeneration to regeneration. Susan was extraordinarily sensitive, though the only training she got was what he could provide. Her beloved face comes to the forefront of his memory, and he has to push it back to keep control.

"So... there was some kind of a racial telepathic connection, awareness of the others, but not a group consciousness?" Seeing him nod, Jack continues, "And that was cut off when--"

"When Gallifrey was destroyed, yeah." When I destroyed Gallifrey an' killed every other Time Lord.

"Oh, God. Doctor, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--"

"You only spoke the truth, lad. No need to apologise."

Rose is scrunching up her face, gazing blindly into the middle distance. "This is prob'ly a load of rubbish, but I was thinking..."

He gestures for her to continue.

"Mickey has this mate, Nigel, who was in the army. He got sent to Kosovo, and the poor bugger stepped on a landmine. He lived, but he lost one of his legs. Nigel told Mickey when he was in hospital, he could feel that leg hurting, even though it was gone. Sometimes it itched, and it drove him bonkers 'cos he couldn't scratch it."

"Phantom limb syndrome," Jack chimes in. "But that usually starts soon after the trauma, and it gets better over time, not worse."

Rose flushes. "Said it was a rubbish idea," she mumbles.

He stares at her, this human from a primitive world, not even a tenth of his age. "Rose Tyler. You--"

She holds up a hand. "Yeah, I know. I'm a stupid ape."

He grins. "You are a very clever ape. A brilliant ape."

"But-- what Jack said--"

Jack shrugs. "I didn't say you were wrong, just that the parallels weren't exact. We're talking about the somatosensory cortex in humans versus whatever part of the Time Lord brain handles telepathic input. Apples and oranges. No reason they should act the same.." He pauses. "Doctor, you have a telepathic connection with the TARDIS. Could that be why these... manifestations haven't shown up before this?"

"Two brilliant apes!" he exults. Then, just as abruptly as it came, his glee vanishes. Nothing's really changed. He's still going mad. Only difference is, now he knows why.

*****

The Doctor's grin is so wide, it looks like his face might split in two. And then -- bang! -- he's wearing that mask that means he's really upset and doesn't want to show it.

"Doctor?" she asks, "what's wrong?" She can see the moment in which he swallows the comforting lie he was about to tell them.

"There's nothin' I can do about it," he says quietly.

"Can't you just do whatever you do with the TARDIS, only more often?"

"It's not the same." She can see him trying to pick the words that will make sense to her. "You know the TARDIS is alive, yeah?"

She bobs her head.

"Sentient and self-aware," Jack says.

"Right. The TARDIS was bred to be compatible with a Time Lord mind, an' she is, for the usual purposes, but she's got a very different kind of sentience from me or you. The connection I've got with her is nothin' like the one I had with my people. I'm surprised she's kept me goin' as long as she did." He strokes the wall behind him gently. "She's a clever old girl."

Jack isn't about to accept defeat, any more than Rose is. "Can't you reconfigure her telepathic circuits or something?"

"No!" the Doctor says, glaring at Jack as though he'd suggested vivisecting a kitten. "An' I told you, her mind's too different."

Rose looks at Jack. A silent message passes between them with no telepathy involved. "Doctor, what about our minds?"

The Doctor looks at them both. The mask is back, and if she were a telepath, she could probably hear the click of a door locking his thoughts in.

"Can you connect with us? I mean, I know you can, but would it help?"

"It can't hurt to try," Jack offers.

Silence. The Doctor must be trying to figure out a kind way to refuse, to tell them they can't help, because human minds are too small and limited. "Doctor?"

"Thing is, there wouldn't be any privacy," the Doctor begins.

And he's the most private person I've ever met. Lots of things he doesn't like to talk about; bet it would be a lot worse for him to have us seeing inside his head. "I'm completely ignorant about this stuff," she says honestly, "but if there's some way you can teach me to stay out of places I don't belong--"

"No!" the Doctor says, cutting her off. Before she can decide whether she wants to apologise or blow up at him, he's pulling her and Jack into a hug. "I can block off thoughts of mine that might upset you -- I meant it wouldn't be very private for you two."

"I don't have anything to hide from you, Doctor." Yeah, there's stuff that would be embarrassing for him to see, but she won't risk the Doctor's life and sanity to spare herself a red face.

Jack taps his own forehead. "I guess you know what sorts of ugly crap I've got up here. If you think you can put up with it, then I want to help." He leans over and places a surprisingly gentle kiss on the Doctor's cheek.

He's gonna need some pushing. Stubborn old git. "Doctor, I know you're afraid this will hurt us or scare us. What would hurt the most is knowing we could help you, and not being allowed to do it."

"So, what's the first step?" Jack asks, as if it's all settled.

The Doctor mutters "Stubbornest race in twelve galaxies," and sighs again. Maybe Rose is a telepath after all, because she knows without being told that the sigh means yes and thank youI love you.

Jack says, "I'm guessing we need physical contact."

"Yep," the Doctor confirms. "Skin to skin is best."

"I think we can manage that," Rose says, and peels off her shirt and jeans in record time.

Jack aims an exaggerated leer at the Doctor. "So tell me, what do Time Lords wear under their robes?"

The Doctor raises his eyebrows. "If you're so curious, Captain, why don't you find out?"

*****

It has been a long time -- Oh, such a long time! -- since he has felt the delight of bodies and minds so closely intertwined that he can scarcely tell which ripple of pleasure comes from his own flesh, and which from his lovers'. The pleasure is all the greater because the humans have never experienced anything like this. Even for Jack, interstellar Casanova though he is, this is unfamiliar territory.

A fragment of memory drifts by: Jack wrapped in the six arms of a Rhodian, her telepathic projections enveloping him in a vivid fantasy that would have been the envy of holovid producers in four galaxies. That was great, but this is-- oh god oh god ohgodohgod-- Jack holds his breath, then exhales forcefully as Rose's orgasm reverberates through the pleasure center of his brain.

Rose is making soft breathy moans while her mindvoice is nearly shouting with desire and joy. One thought floats to the surface, tinged with mischief and just a little embarrassment. She hastily tugs it back down out of sight, but not before he catches a glimpse. We can try that sometime, if you want, he thinks at her, trying to sound unsurprised.

Jack, of course, can't keep his mouth shut, even when his mouth is shut (or otherwise occupied). Why, Rose Tyler, where did you get such a naughty idea?

Rose reaches over and does something with her quick, clever hands that leaves Jack unable to speak coherently, telepathically or out loud.

Thought you'd have learnt by now not to aggravate her, Jack, the Doctor teases. Like good old Rudyard said, 'the female of the species is more deadly than the male'.

I'll show you aggravation, Rose promises, and she proceeds to demonstrate to both of them that the female of the species is frequently sneakier than the male.

*****

Rose mumbles something unintelligible into his chest.

"Huh?" he grunts at her, since they are disconnected, and need to use words again.

"How are you feeling?"

He takes in a long breath and releases it slowly. "Like I'm the only Time Lord in the room."

"'M glad. Guess this was just what the Doctor ordered?"

Jack lifts his head from its resting place on the Doctor's thigh. "Repeat dosage as needed."

"Dunno how often that will be," he replies.

"We'll have to experiment," Rose suggests. "I don't mind donating my body to science."

"Minx." One of his hands drifts upward to explore the soft roundness of her breasts. The other strokes gently through Jack's hair. The younger man makes a contented sound and stretches slightly, arching his back. Idly, he amuses himself by imagining the research paper he could write for the Galactic Journal of Psycho-Biology: 'Grooming Responses in Post-Coital Humans'.

Rose rolls onto her back. "I need a shower," she says to the ceiling, "and as soon as my legs start working again, I'm gonna take one."

"Food first," Jack says. "I'm starving."

"No wonder," she replies. "You haven't had anything 'cept those biscuits--"

Then, as if they'd rehearsed it, the two humans sit bolt upright. "Oh, shit!' they chorus.

"Mum is going to murder me." Rose is on her feet, scrambling into her clothing. "She prob'ly thinks we've taken off."

"Rose, love, I think you'd better take that shower," Jack advises her, gathering up his own clothing. "Otherwise, your mother is going to know exactly what's kept you."

He looks up at them jumping about, his two clever, wonderful, foolish humans. Then he rolls his eyes and gives them Annoying Smile #8: You're-being-stupid-but-I-still-love-you. "By the way -- did I mention it also travels in time?"

*****

Jackie Tyler stands by her window, watching Jack and her daughter hurry down the street and disappear around the corner to the place where that blue box is parked. If they go off without a by-your-leave and leave me with a shepherd's pie in the oven and no one to eat it, we're gonna have words next time. Her heart sinks as she hears a familiar grinding whir, until she realises that it's not coming from the window. It's behind her.

She whirls around. The TARDIS is appearing out of thin air in the middle of her living room. Before she has a chance to wonder what it will do to her carpet, the door opens, and out pops Rose, followed by the Doctor and Jack. "But--"

"Sorry, Mum," Rose says in that too-cheerful voice she used when she was a child, and was trying to get away with something. "The repairs took longer than we expected, and we didn't want to be late, but we couldn't take the chance of crossing our own timelines--" She coughs, not quite covering a giggle.

"Rose Marion Tyler," she begins, but that Jack is coming forward and giving her a smile that could make any woman who isn't dead forget her own name.

"Mrs. Tyler-- Jackie," he corrects himself, "is that wonderful scent your shepherd's pie? I'm really looking forward to trying some."

"They don't have shepherd's pie where Jack comes from," Rose explains.

Right. She remembers Jack saying that he was human, but from another planet. Must be a poor excuse for a planet if they don't have shepherd's pie. Maybe it was settled by Yanks, and they only eat cheeseburgers and chips.

With six extra helping hands, she gets tea on the table in record time. They all tuck into the food, even the high-and-mighty alien, and there isn't much left over to put in the fridge. Rose starts to clear the table, but the Doctor waves at her to sit down. "You relax," he says, and starts gathering up plates and cups. As if this wasn't strange enough, he turns to her and smiles. "That was delicious, Jackie. Let me help with the washing up."

She gawks at him. "I knew it! I knew this day would come. He's finally gone bonkers!" As if to prove her point, the crazy alien begins to guffaw. The other two join in, and she can only stand there, baffled, as the walls of her flat echo with the sound of their laughter.

--- The End --