What happens now?
In the aftermath of the 456, it's a question that's asked endlessly; on the TV, in the Houses of Parliament, in offices and pubs and homes all over the country.
The political and military machinery groans and shudders under the strain of trying to find an answer. There are inquiries, allegations and accusations. The tabloids are hysterical, spitting outrage in every direction. Some schools - ones that allowed those buses to load -- are firebombed. There are resignations, disappearances and suicides. A dozen new cults spring up overnight, and a dozen more go underground. There are demonstrations, marches and riots. There's looting, because there always is. And as a backdrop, there's the relentless, grating beat of those three desperate words: What happens now?
It's a question Jack doesn't have to ask. In the wider context -- that of justice, law, history -- he doesn't care. In the narrower context, the immediate, personal context, he already knows the answer: Alice will try to kill him, Gwen will try to save him.
Since neither has any chance of succeeding, Jack decides to spare them the effort. He knows what comes next for him -- knows what you do in these situations, when you've fucked up so badly, when you've lost so much, when you've saved the world but damned yourself. You run. You run for as long as you can.
For Jack Harkness, that's a long time.
He doesn't try to forget, or to die: another two equally pointless endeavours. He just keeps moving.
He works a few jobs, runs a few scams. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't. He moves on either way. He takes passage where he can find it, on battered freighters and dilapidated cargo ships. He was never really that good at the con game, although he was a better swindler than he was a hero. At least he's still a good whore, though, so he doesn't starve.
He eats, sleeps, fucks. He goes on.
What choice does he have?
One thing he doesn't do is try to find the Doctor. He doesn't look for him, not in a single one of the godforsaken places he washes up. Doesn't listen out for the sound of the TARDIS materialising in a deserted alley or abandoned building. Doesn't ask any questions or tell any stories. Doesn't wish, doesn't hope, doesn't think about him at all. Doesn't even remember.
He congratulates himself on how completely he's managed to wipe the Doctor from his mind. He congratulates himself on that a lot.
He tries his hand at a little gambling here and there, with variable results. During one particular game of dice on a run-down Tegharian space station, he's convinced that his opponent is cheating -- until the end result goes in his favour and nets him the title deeds to the station's bar.
Six months later, he suspects he was right the first time. The bar is a liability, not an asset. It's gradually falling apart; deteriorating infrastructure, a mountain of bad debt, a transient and impoverished clientele. He inherited an insurance policy with the deeds -- he guesses the old owner's Plan A was going to involve burning the place down -- but like everything else, the policy is sub-standard. Once he ploughs through the fine print, it looks like you can only count on it paying out in the event of interstellar war. Which is a lot harder to arrange than a firebomb.
He tries putting in a claim anyway. They send someone out to inspect the bar, a tiny blonde in a corporate suit who barely looks old enough to be allowed through the door. She walks around taking readings from the metal, then shakes her head sadly. 'This is all due to corrosion,' she pronounces. 'Which isn't covered by the policy, I'm afraid. You can't insure against the inevitable, sir.'
He thanks her for her time, shreds the policy document and uses it to soak up a leak at the back of the dishwasher.
He's working the bar one night -- well, caretaking it, at least: he's hardly rushed off his feet -- when he hears his name called. He doesn't react at first, because it's the old name, the one he hasn't used for a while. And because he tells himself he doesn't recognise the voice. It clearly isn't addressing him -- it must be a customer he doesn't know, talking to someone else.
He carries on trying to clean the glass he's holding. Since the cloth is dirtier than the glass was to start with, it's an absorbing task. Just not quite absorbing enough to stop him realising that the voice is still calling that name.
There's only one other customer in the whole bar, a huge three-armed ex-miner who's presently still sitting with a full pint on his table, so there's really nowhere else Jack can legitimately focus his attention. Finally, he has to acknowledge the man standing in front of him.
'Hello, Jack,' the Doctor says.
The lights that aren't broken are on low-output, but Jack can still make out that the Doctor looks more or less the same as he remembers. A little older, perhaps. He looks tired, too. Jack knows the feeling.
He opens his mouth with no idea of what he's going to say. What comes out is: 'Where were you?'
'I'm sorry,' the Doctor says. 'I'm really so very sorry, Jack.'
Jack puts the glass down and stares at him. That's not enough. It's nowhere near enough.
'I know,' the Doctor says, as if he'd spoken aloud.
Jack finds his voice again. 'Then where the fuck were you?' he says. It surprises him to realises that he cares about the answer.
'There was nothing I could have done. Some things... some things have to happen, Jack. Some people have to die. I'm sorry that's how it is, sorrier than I know how to say, but that doesn't change it. It can't be changed. Not by anyone, not even me. I -- I understand that now.'
'Good for you. I don't. I don't understand it at all. Because this wasn't just people, Doctor. This was Ianto. This was my grandson. I had to... I had to...' He stops. This is supposed to be ancient history, but it isn't. It's yesterday, it's now, it's still happening. He realises that it's never stopped happening.
When his voice is under control again, he says, 'You should have been there. Even if there wasn't anything you could've done. You should still have been there. To-- to--' He stops again, unsure of what he's trying to say. Bear witness, perhaps.
He closes his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed by the pointlessness of it all, the futility. He's tired. So very, very tired. He slumps back against the rusting metal panel behind him, the cold seeping through the thin material of his shirt. There are no answers here, no solace. There never were.
'Okay,' he says. 'You're sorry. Thank you. Now you can leave.'
The Doctor shakes his head and walks round behind the bar, coming to a stop only when he's so close it makes Jack's skin tingle. 'No.'
There's a note in his voice that takes Jack by surprise. He's heard that tone, seen that expression, so many times before -- but not in this voice, not on that face. He never expected he would. Dreamed of it, once, yes. Believed it would ever happen, no.
'What--' he begins, but that's as far as he gets before the Doctor's lips close on his.
He thinks about protesting, about stopping this thing, whatever it is, before it can go any further. Before it can do any real damage. It would be the right thing, the sensible thing, to do.
But good sense has never been one of Jack's virtues.
His berth is on the station's outer rim, a cheap cell seven feet square with a cot, a toilet and a comscreen that doesn't work. It's a step up from many previous places he's called home, but he can't bring himself to take the Doctor there. And while there are better rooms for hire in the core, he can't afford them. So although the idea of going to the TARDIS makes him uncomfortable, he follows the Doctor without protest.
She seems subtly different, but he can't quite put his finger on how. Some small change in colour, perhaps, or air pressure. They take a route he doesn't remember through corridors he's never seen before, but the room they end up in is exactly, to the smallest detail, how he left it. It looks like a museum, a tableau of a forgotten era. It sets up an ache in his chest, and he runs his hand over the wall surface in a kind of apology. He wants to appreciate her effort, but the man who lived in this room is long dead.
He turns around, starting to realise what a mistake this is, but the Doctor shuts the door behind them. Jack stands still, watching. He feels disconnected, adrift from his body. He tells it to move, to leave, but it doesn't obey.
The Doctor, in contrast, is pure fluid motion. He strips off his clothes with typical energy, displaying himself for Jack with his head high and a burning darkness in his eyes. He loses patience with Jack's hesitation, reaching out and grabbing a fistful of shirt. He pulls, hard, and the fabric rips. The Doctor's passion is fierce, demanding, somehow reckless. His urgency finally ignites something in Jack, the smouldering need that he'd only stopped noticing because it had become as much a part of him as his skin. It frees him, allowing his frozen muscles to loosen.
The Doctor is, as Jack has always known he would be, beautiful. He's not as thin as the clothes suggest; no sharp edges or hard angles, just smooth, clean lines of muscle working under pale skin. You wouldn't know he wasn't human, if not for the accelerated rhythm of his heart. And his eyes.
Jack doesn't listen, doesn't look. He puts all of his senses into his hands and tongue. Just touch and taste, that's all he wants. Just two human bodies, taking pleasure in each other. Just two humans, together.
If he doesn't listen, doesn't look, doesn't remember, he can believe that. For a little while.
He wakes to find the Doctor up and dressed, leaning against the door and watching him intently. He wonders for a second if he dreamt the night before, but no; the ache in his body and the bruises that can just be glimpsed under the Doctor's collar say otherwise.
He used to enjoy this time once, this kind of lazy morning after, but he's gotten out of the habit. Small talk is a lost art. 'Why?' is all he says.
'Why what, Jack?'
'Why this, why now? I thought I was an abomination in the sight of Time. I thought it was painful for you to be anywhere near me.'
'It is.' The Doctor keeps looking at him steadily. 'It hurts me just to look at you.'
'I deserve it, although that's not the reason. I'm dying, Jack.'
For a moment Jack thinks he must have misheard, but then he looks at the Doctor's face and he knows he didn't. He's seen enough dying people to know what they look like. He leans forward. 'What happened?'
'He knocked four times.'
'I'm sorry, what?'
The Doctor shakes his head. 'It's a long story, the last chapter of which is radiation sickness. A fatal level, even for a Time Lord.' He finally looks away. 'It's not going to be long, now.'
Jack hauls himself out of the rumpled bed. 'So this is, what? One last hurrah?'
'It's goodbye, Jack. I wanted to try and do it properly. For once, with you, to do it properly.'
Jack doesn't know what to do with that. He's lost the art of goodbyes, too.
He stands up, finds his clothes and dresses quickly. The swift, uncomplicated exit -- this, he still knows how to do.
Once more, the Doctor bars his way to the door. 'Jack. Let me help. Let me...' he trails off.
Jack waits for him to finish. He finds himself genuinely interested in what the Doctor thinks he can do for him.
'Come with me. Let me take you somewhere... somewhere better than this.'
Jack smiles. On some level, he's missed that kind of naivety. 'It doesn't matter,' he says. 'Where I am, I mean. It doesn't make any difference. Besides, I've come to like this place. It suits me.'
The Doctor reaches out to grab his arm. 'Jack--'
Jack shakes his hand off. 'I won't watch you die,' he says.
The Doctor looks at him for a long time, then seems to sag. For the first time, Jack thinks he looks old. 'No. I... no.'
This time, when Jack tries to leave, the Doctor moves out of the way.
There's movement under his feet as he heads for the main door, as if the TARDIS has shivered in place. He wonders if she can feel it, the approaching end.
Outside, he's momentarily disorientated. The TARDIS is still where she was, at the end of the service corridor on deck nine, but it looks different. Brighter. Cleaner.
As he gets closer to the bar, he realises why. The sign above the door says 'Red's,' and there are so many customers that some are spilling out onto the walkway. He stops a passing waitress. 'Can I help you?' she asks brightly.
'Yes. Can you tell me what year this is?'
Her smile widens. 'Tegharian vodka is a trip, isn't it? It's T673. Don't panic - however long you think you were passed out for, it's still T673.'
He thanks her and runs through a quick mental calculation. The year 673 on Teghar equates to, what, 2015 on Earth? He wonders how many times has he's been through this particular year already. Was it a vintage? He can't really remember.
According to the wall comscreen, it's almost midnight. Jack fights his way to the front of the bar and orders a shot of bourbon. He'd come out with thoughts of breakfast, but he's nothing if not adaptable.
He smiles at the tall guy who serves him -- a tall guy with bright ginger hair swept back in a long braid. 'You Red, by any chance?'
The guy gives him a once-over. 'Who wants to know?'
Jack just smiles. 'Watch out for that corrosion,' he says, then throws back his drink and orders another.
He's staring into his fourth bourbon when a new bartender slaps a note down in front of him. 'From the man over there,' the bartender says, and steps aside to let Jack see the Doctor over the other side of the bar. Jack unfolds the paper to see, written in the Doctor's scrawled handwriting, his name is Alonso.
Jack glances to his left as a boy in uniform takes the stool next to him, placing his hat on the bar. He looks almost impossibly young, and more than a little out of his depth. He starts studying the drinks list as if there's going to be an exam at the end of it.
Jack looks up at the the Doctor again, and snaps a salute. Message received loud and clear, sir: life goes on.
He signals the bartender for another drink as he watches the Doctor turn and walk away.
He'd imagined how it would begin, with the Doctor, and he's imagined how it would end. He's had a long time to understand that everyone -- everyone else -- dies. Even the Doctor. He's imagined regret, anguish, heartbreak of every sort. But as he sits and waits for his life to go on, the only thing Jack feels is envy.