A/N Did I say 'short' epilogue?...Opps! Well, here it is, the last chapter. I just want to take a moment to thank everyone who stuck with me all the way through, and especially to those beautiful reviewers who helped me get through so much writers-block and plot-sinkholes with their kind words. This story is dedicated to you!
As far as a sequel goes (a few of you have already mentioned it to me) I currently have no plans to write one, as I have another story I'd like to get up soon. But a sequel will never totally be off the table, especially if enough people express interest in one.
"What you fear most is fear itself." –Remus J Lupin
With a great gasp for air Jack launched himself upright, eyes bulging as he was pulled back to life. He sat there for a long while, breathing hard, trying to get his breath back as if he hadn't had any air in his lungs in a lifetime. Maybe he hadn't. It felt like it'd been – not only a lifetime – but centuries since he'd been alive last. So long he'd almost been convinced this was it…he was finally going to die.
His throat was parched and dry. He tried to swallow, but his throat convulsed from the effort, unable to move the glob of saliva all the way down what felt like a tube of sandpaper. Jack coughed violently, his entire body working to clear his throat. When it was finally done he was suddenly sporting a brilliant headache. He flopped roughly back against the pillows, cringing.
It was then, his headache yelling at him still, that he turned his head and opened his eyes to see the Doctor staring at him with surprised amusement, his eyebrows raised. "Good morning." He said with the hint of a laugh. Just a hint.
"D-Doc?" Jack began to cough again instantly as the word scrapped its letters against his sore throat. The Doctor untangled himself from the chair he'd been sitting in, long legs drawn to his chest, chin resting on his knees, and walked over to the bedside table. Jack saw how he winced slightly as he stood, how his right leg dragged a little as he walked. How his left arm was resting in a sling, his shirt sleeve thick with hidden bandages. Guilt threatened to suffocate him. "Where r'we?"
The Doctor didn't look up as he pulled out a small paper cup and a pitcher of water, handling it carefully with only one hand. "You don't recognize it?"
After an embarrassingly long moment of looking around Jack finally realized he was sitting in the Hub medical bay on a warm bed. A bed that had become known in the weeks prior as the Doctor's bed. He blinked. The scene in the cellar flashed before his eyes. He – he'd been shot. He remembered that much. How'd he get back to the hub? How long had he been 'dead'? But for some reason the first thing to come to his lips was, "Well, congrats on finally getting me into your bed." He laughed hoarsely. The Doctor didn't.
The small paper cup was handed to him carefully and he grabbed at it, realizing just how thirsty he was. He didn't notice the way the Doctor's hand jumped back at the sudden movement as he tossed back the water like the pro-drinker he was, relishing in the way the cool liquid soothed his sore throat. "Careful." The Doctor warned. "Don't drink too fast." This time Jack did notice something wrong. The flatness in the Doctor's voice.
Jack handed the cup back to him and coughed once to get more comfortable before looking up, trying to catch the Doctor's elusive eyes. Busy pouring another cupful, the Doctor wasn't looking up.
"How – " Cough. "How long have I been out?"
The Doctor set the pitcher down quietly and handed the second cup to Jack. "Slowly now." He reminded the time agent as it was taken from it. Jack took a careful, calculated sip as the Doctor shrugged and bopped his lips together as he thought. "Oh, about…two and a half weeks?"
The water came shooting out of Jack's mouth. The Doctor took a hurried step backwards, avoiding the spray. "What!" Jack gasped. "Two…two and a half weeks?" The Doctor nodded, his voice, for once, hiding willingly. Jack blanched. "I-I don't understand. It shouldn't have taken that long…"
"It's a miracle you came back at all, Jack." The Doctor sounded neither happy nor sad as he said it. He just…was. Jack settled back into the pillows, breathing out his disbelief.
"Two and a half weeks…" He mumbled again then gave a short laugh. "I'm surprised you haven't taken off by now. You found the TARDIS, right?"
"Yeah, we found her. And, no offense, Jack, but if I had it my way we would be gone." His face darkened as he remembered the argument he'd had with Martha just a week before.
The TARDIS hummed to him, a comforting old tune from Gallifrey that had lost all meaning to the Universe, except for to the Doctor. But this time it had no effect. The Doctor would not be soothed as he flung himself around the center consol, striking buttons and turning knobs desperately, supporting his still healing body on the circular control panel. He growled with frustration as the ship refused to budge. In his anger he kicked out at his beloved ship, striking the control panel hard and breaking a toe. He barely noticed the pain. Tears glistened in his eyes as he slouched over the consol, exhausted.
The door opened with its usual creak, but he didn't look up as Martha walked up the familiar grated ramp to stand on the other side of the round consol, arms crossed. "You finished?" She asked roughly. The Doctor didn't reply. "Or are you going to keep trying to run away on us?"
The Doctor pounded his fist more viciously than necessary into a button and pulled harshly on a lever. Nothing happened. "Doctor, I told you – "
"Don't!" The Doctor snapped. "Don't pretend you know what's best for me, Martha Jones. You know nothing!"
"I know your attitude is completely unnecessary, I know that." She shot back. "I know your shoulder's still killing you and that you're still not sleeping. And I know you're just frustrated because she won't take off for you. Give me a little credit at least."
The Doctor turned from her and collapsed into the Captain's chair, glaring at the wall of his ship, sending her waves of telepathic anger intermixed with pleading. She only sent back her mental song, as if trying to hush a troublesome child. "Why can't I get her to go?" His voice had dropped to a whisper, dramatically different then how he'd shouted before. "Why can't I do it anymore?"
Martha took a step forward as her posture softened. "Did it ever cross your mind that maybe she's staying here on purpose? Maybe she knows you need to be here."
The Doctor snorted. "I'm fine! I'm as patched-up as you'll ever get me. I don't need to be here anymore. I'll heal fine on my own. I need to deal with some things."
Martha sighed at his stubbornness. "Maybe – and here's a crazy thought – but just maybe, you don't need to be here for you." There was a pause as the Doctor finally met her eyes. "Maybe others here need you." And suddenly he could see her vulnerability, the same helplessness she had always attempted – often successfully – to hide. The Doctor stood up silently then and crossed the control room to her, throwing his one good arm around her neck and shoulders.
"Martha, I'm so sorry." He whispered into her hair as she returned the embrace, clinging to him like a lifeline. "You're right. Of course you're right."
Jack downed the rest of the water, this time really wishing it was a shot. As the Doctor reached for it again Jack took his hand, giving it a small squeeze. "Doctor, I am so –"
The Doctor pulled his hand away slowly, cutting off Jack's apology. He pulled it close to his chest as if it had been hurt and refused to look up. An awkward moment fell between them as the Doctor returned to the bedside table, moving the pitcher over so Jack could reach it from the bed himself. Finally he cleared his throat.
"Martha told me to sit in here with you, but now that you've come around she'll probably want to check on you."
"I'm fine –"
"I'll go get her –"
The Doctor stopped walking towards the door and turned slightly, just enough to catch Jack's confused, pleading eyes. He sighed sadly and collapsed back into the chair he'd been occupying before.
"Yeah…" He put his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair. "Maybe not all of us as completely healed as we'd hoped. But that's the good thing about time; it gives us a chance to repair our broken bits with more fortified ones. It might just take longer than you might hope."
"Doctor, I –"
"Don't." The Doctor shook his head. "Just don't, Jack. I know. I know it wasn't you but…I look at your face and I still see him. And it's going to take a while, 'cause I'm not going to forget this all too soon. And forgetting the pain is half of what tricks us into giving forgiveness. Someday soon I'll be that naïve and sympathetic again," He looked up and caught Jack dead in the eye. Jack could see it all, swirling around in the Doctor's brown orbs. The pain, the sadness, the fear. The hope. The determination. The desire to forgive and the trepidation to not. And one was winning the battle. "I promise."
The Doctor stood up and headed for the door again, leaving a stunned and hurt Jack behind. He got only a few steps before he stopped and, not turning around, added, "I'll be around Jack. Just…let's both have some time, okay?"
Jack nodded, even though he knew the Doctor couldn't see him. The Time Lord gave one more sigh, a nod, and then swept from the room.
Martha was pacing around the small kitchen as the Doctor emerged, talking into her cell phone. She spotted the Doctor and nodded for him to come over. Into the phone she said, "Yes, of course, don't worry 'bout it – Listen, I've got to go. I'll call you later tonight. – Love you, too. – Bye."
She hung up the phone and quirked an eyebrow as the Doctor hopped up to sit on one of the countertops, grabbing one of the three dozen or so bananas sitting in a bowl. One of his terms for staying. He went to peel it but then stopped and just stared at the bizarre yellow fruit. Martha gave a short laugh. "Okay, what's it now?"
The Doctor looked up at her, his deep brown eyes not giving anything away. "Jack's awake."
The smile flickered out for a second on Martha's lips. "Oh… how is he?"
The Doctor shrugged and pulled back the shinny skin of the banana carefully, like an artist making sure his masterpiece wasn't destroyed. "He seems fine. Same old Captain Jack, I suppose."
"You ran away as soon as you could, didn't you?" Martha sighed. The Doctor took a large, telling bite from the banana. "Did you at least say something to him?"
The Doctor rolled his eyes. "No, actually, I gave him one disgusted look and bolted from the room. Of course I talked to him! Does this gob ever stop?" He bit down on his tongue the moment he said it, the uncomfortably fresh memory washing over both of them. His teeth landed directly on the thick, swollen scar now lying across his tongue as a reminder. He would have that scar for the rest of this regeneration.
Martha quickly cleared her throat, moving the conversation on. "What did you say to him?" The Doctor took a moment to respond as he nibbled on the banana.
"I made him a promise." He said simply. Martha raised an eyebrow but accepted it, not pressing on.
"So now what?" She asked. "You're a free man finally." The Doctor laughed quietly. A free man. It'd been way too long since he'd been that. Those three words were too sweet to be repeated out loud, so he said them, over and over again, in his mind. Free. Free. Free.
"Not free yet." He admitted with a sigh. "Still have one more job I've got to do." Martha just nodded, knowing what he was talking about. That vacuum sac of blue hatred was still acting like an annoying splinter from where it sat, detached from the gun – which had been promptly destroyed – in a reinforced metal drawer down stairs. Sometimes Martha would find the Doctor sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the drawer, just staring at it from a safe distance away. She never questioned him about it, didn't even mention she'd seen him down there. But it had been a great source of stress to all the inhabitants of the Hub since bringing it back two and a half weeks ago. None of them had known what to do about it.
"What are you going to do with it?" They had never said the name 'Sir' again after all that. A silent, mutual agreement between all of them.
The Doctor finished up the banana and tossed the peel in the bin across the kitchen with a perfect shot. "Take it back to where it's from, I suppose. I can't think of a worse punishment than living in that kind of world."
"And after that?"
"I dunno." He admitted with a shrug. "A little R&R would be nice for a bit. Maybe I'll visit Space Florida. Haven't been to those automatic sand beaches in a long time. Or maybe stop by Mars, it's been a while since I last saw that desolate red landscape. Then, I guess, back to the same old life. Last of the Time Lords…"
"You want some company?" Martha asked sincerely. She would still go with him to the edges of the galaxy if he needed her to. All he had to do was ask.
But instead he just laughed, a confident smile finally back on his lips. "Oh, I think Mickey would absolutely kill me if I took another one of his girls away in the TARDIS. Which would be tremendously ambitious of him."
Martha found herself laughed at the idea, too. "Alright, I guess he does deserve a break from all the woman-stealing."
The Doctor hit her playfully in the shoulder. "Oi! It was only once! Not my fault he was a bumbling idiot in the beginning! But new-Mickey I like. That alternate universe did wonders for his badassery."
"Did you really just say 'badassery'?" The Doctor cringed with guilt at the accusation. "He finished up his work in New York and is flying in tonight, by the way. Will you still be here?" The way the Doctor glanced down quickly, no longer laughing, was enough of an answer. "Yeah, didn't think so. That's alright, though, we'll see you again. The universe is going to be in jeopardy again some time soon, I'm sure it's due."
"Humans." The Doctor mused, eyeing Martha with a proud-father look in his eye. "I'll never be done saving you, will I?"
"We'll return the favor one day."
"I think you already have…"
When Jack opened his eyes again after the short nap he'd fallen into, it was to the whirling of the TARDIS engines, finally disappearing back into the time vortex. He gave a heavy sigh, still reeling in the guilt of what he had done. How soon would the Doctor forgive him? How soon would he be able to forgive himself?
The answer came not long afterwards when the Hub found itself one smartly-dressed Welshman short.
The Doctor carefully slid through the crowded doorway into the neon-lit pub. A Slitheen casually cut him off on its way across the floor. A pair of Hath sat at a tall table, bubbling to each other in conversation as a waitress with spiky pink hair and earringed antennas set their drinks down. The Doctor found a spot along the bar beside a large Jadoon. "Fro mo toe." The Doctor said in civil greeting. The Jadoon nodded as politely as their kind ever will – which isn't very politely at all – as the Doctor grabbed a napkin sitting on the bar. "Boe cho doe mo lo?" Do you have a pen?
The Jadoon grunted as he reached into one of his various leather pockets and pulled out a black pen. "Ma-ho." The Doctor thanked him as he took the pen and scribbled a message quickly onto the napkin. When he finished he signaled over the bartender with a quick flick of his finger.
"What can I do ya for?" The young man asked as he wiped a sticky wet spot off the bar in front of him.
"Nothing, thanks, but can you hand this to the guy in the big blue coat over there?" The Doctor motioned to the opposite side of the bar, where Captain Jack Harkness sat with his head bowed, eyes downcast as he swirled his clear drink – something far stronger than a normal human should be taking – around its glass.
The bartender followed his gaze before glancing back at the Doctor, trying to hide an amused smile. "Okay, mate."
The Doctor took a few steps back from the bar as the bartender crossed the expanse to Jack. The Time Lord watched as the napkin was set down and the bartender jerked his head in the Doctor's direction. Jack looked up, surprised abolishing the glazed-over look in his eyes. The Doctor nodded slightly but pointedly at the napkin when Jack froze. The Time Agent carefully unfolded it, scanned it over, and looked up again with even more question in his eyes until the Doctor nodded once more to the spot on Jack's left. One glance showed Jack a young star sailor settling into the barstool. Alonso, apparently.
The Doctor gave a two-fingered salute in Jack's direction, and Jack knew that, with that one, fluid motion, the promise had been fulfilled. In that small, so Doctor-ish movement, Jack knew what the Doctor was saying. Maybe now it was time to forgive himself, too.
So he cast one more long salute back at the Doctor as that beautiful man in the long beige coat and pinstriped suit turned slowly away, leaving the pub and Jack to his new friend. The feeling was – exhilarating, experiencing the pain of his fear washing away.
But it never washed away completely.
Years and years and years later, the same man with a different face in a different suit walked down the dizzying hallway of a 1950s style hotel and came upon a door. It read '11' in big, white numbers on a plaque. With great trepidation, a hand gripped the gold doorknob and slowly, carefully, agonizingly turned it. He flicked the door open quickly and was met by a dazzling, electrified blue light. Slanted eyes expelled it, illuminating a long, historical blue coat and the shadow of a familiar woman lying, motionless, at its feet.
The man in the new face suppressed a shudder as he attempted to smile. His face gave a little jerk as he shrugged. "Of course…who else?" The shadow did not respond. He closed the door quietly behind him, dropping the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the handle, and turned away – walking, once again, from the fear, each step back down the hall taking him further and further away.