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FIC: Diminishing Returns

Title: Diminishing Returns
Fandom: Doctor Who/Torchwood
Characters/Pairings: Tenth Doctor/Jack
Date Written: 2007
Summary: Ten and Jack and their respective baggage collide in the Torchwood Hub. Sometimes you need something more real than a belief, to cling to. Neither of them is ready for it.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13. Slash, non-explicit sexuality. A mild, theoretical reference to suicide. Some disturbing imagery.
Notes: This has been done a thousand times, but it’s also pretty old, from back before it HAD been done a thousand times. I sat on it for a long time and just before the end of SE03 realized that HAY I SHOULD PROBABLY POST THIS. Before it became not just future AU but instead that dreaded beast, revisionist AU. So, not as polished as my usual stuff, but I think, worth posting back when I still could. Not exactly ‘dark’, but not in any way sweet and fluffy. Boys got issues. Title is from the song of the same name, 'Diminishing Returns' by Harvey Danger, my favorite dysfunctional Ten/Jack song.
Spoilers: PoTW, I guess. In that Jack's still alive. It's a stretch.



Dreams. Death and ash and the smell of char, the sluggish pull of sleep-deadened limbs, the dull resonant clicking of a hammer dropping on an empty chamber. He never hears their voices, not in the dreams - just his heart racing in his throat, and the distant rumble-hum of the end approaching. A heat, burning like the sun. In the dreams, he can feel what he never could have the first time through – bones calcifying, blood boiling under his skin, internal organs burning and fusing together and melting. Nerves shorting out in a burst of white-hot fire. In the dreams, he feels it like he would if it were to happen to him now. Then he wakes up, and cannot be certain just which waking-up it is - the first, or the many after?

And people ask Jack why he doesn't sleep anymore.

There's a sound from above that cuts through the adrenaline, soft footfalls in the main hub, and there's no time for him to worry about the dreams, to get his composure back or damn himself for drifting off. Now is more important than Then - even as Then defines Now, in the aftermath of another quiet reliving. The pistol is in his hand without a thought. Jack has more doubts than he used to.

The stranger is in front of Jack’s desk, on the main level, rambling on to himself in a lilting stream of consciousness that tugs at the back of Jack’s brain, where the old and dead memories are stashed away. An intruder, tall and thin and crouching in front of the desk, hair plastered down by the rain outside, squinting through his glasses - one finger tracing down the glass of the suspension jar.

Jack shouts – an animal sort of thing, violence and fear. The hammer is cocked now and the atmosphere is that little bit more severe; not just an intruder but an intruder in imminent danger of losing a good piece of his head if he doesn't back away from the desk and its contents immediately. The face is strange as it turns to look at Jack, but it's filled with recognition, a flash of shock. He knows Jack but Jack doesn't know him, and that makes sense, the stranger seems to think. Logical. Would he please put the gun down?

More shouts. Escalation; It's what humans do best. His finger tenses on the trigger and the moment freezes.

The stranger takes off his glasses and says something Jack won't remember later.

The gun drops from fingers that have suddenly gone weak and nerveless. Because he understands, now. After all this time, he finally understands.

.o.

The gun goes down, and that's a good thing; the Doctor’s not looking forward to finding out how much of his brain has to stay intact for a regeneration to trip over, and the idea of dying in Cardiff has always bothered him. He says as much, and tries a smile. Jack doesn't laugh. He's changed.

They both have.

There's more shouting as Jack comes toward him, but it's an altered context now - not cold, clinical, and territorial. Now, it's personal. It's hurt, and anger, deep from the place inside where the light holds no sway, and somehow that is much, much worse.

The Doctor saw this man die. Mourned him. It was his fault and the penance for that never ends, just like it never ended for any of the others, deaths on his head and blood up to his elbows and it's not supposed to work like this - the dead stay dead and silent and only his own self-accusations remain. It's the only mercy he gets. He doesn't end up facing his ghosts down in dingy converted railway tunnels, flesh and blood, so close that he can taste the anger and smell the fear and doesn't know which is whose.

.o.

Through the raising and lowering voices, the rain beats out a hypnotic and repetitive murmur on the roof high above. The anger filling the room starts to dissipate and the momentum goes with it, leaving a blinking moment of lucidity in its wake. Dimly, what the Doctor's saying sinks in: he thought Jack was dead. Still, in some strange way, thinks he is. Jack died, and it was the Doctor’s fault so he claims, but he didn't abandon him. He abandoned a corpse. Heartbreakingly, he regrets even that. Because Jack deserved better.

Silence. Not really silence, not ever, the rain and the hum of the city and electricity and the machines in the Hub and, failing that, two sets of breath. But silence for all intents and purposes, filled in between them with a waiting, desperate sort of tension.

Jack, so quiet in the space of that tension, wants to know if it hurt. To lose him. The last question that matters, because it manages to turn into another question entirely somewhere between the words and the meaning: Did you care?

He always cares. And it always hurts.

Jack feels his resolve break.

.o.

The tension evaporates, and Jack drops heavily into a nearby chair, mumbling an apology. The gun goes away for real this time, holstered and out of sight. The Doctor leans against the edge of the desk, letting out a held breath, not taking his eyes off of his wayward friend.

Jack asks about her. The Doctor tells him, and watches his heart break just a fraction more. She isn't dead but she is gone. The Doctor isn’t dead but he is different. He perches, all lanky gristle and pinstripes, looking around this cluttered, expansive room, which for all of its content, feels very empty. Jack lives in a cluttered emptiness and it shows in every line on his face, and all his friend wants to do is grab hold of his hand and pull him out of it, drag him back home, but it's true what they say - you can't ever go home again.

There are words, long into the night and into the morning. The words are important but they begin to blur by the end, fading together like too many waves of sound over top of one another. There are no answers for Jack; Rose never remembered much of what happened in those moments of burning like the sun, and told the Doctor less. There is no absolution for the Doctor, but Jack couldn’t hope to scratch that one – his own forgiveness, given now with the weight of decades, is spitting in an ocean. They're leaning closer together, close enough for Jack to smell the Cardiff rain in the Doctor’s hair, for his warmth to be stolen, the cavernous room horribly claustrophobic in the context of their shared memories and experiences, Out There, where the space goes on and on. More and more there are pauses and thoughts left to trail off, not needing to be said. Not a lot needs to be said, by the end. They were both there, for the important bits - the rest is details.

The Doctor isn’t sure whether it's loneliness or fear or temporary insanity driving Jack when he finds himself hauled from the desk’s edge and pressed against the nearby wall, breath stolen, the other man's hands clinging to the lapels of his suit jacket with a determined need to make certain that he is real. Jack is off-balance and unpredictable in this moment, fallout from decades of waiting and rehearsing for this reunion and then watching the main event fall apart before his eyes, nothing like what he’d expected. There are no answers, and the anger is gone, unjustified, childish, banished. What’s left?

No, it doesn't really surprise the Doctor, and after all the guilt and blame, there's a part of him that needs the same affirmation, the same tactile grip on the reality that this fallen friend still breathes.

That’s all - confirmation of existence. Tangible evidence. It’s not just that he’s a lonely bastard too.

It’s not.

His hands knot in the fabric of Jack’s shirt and for once in his life, he decides not to think about it.

.o.

It’s the first and last time they give in to each other this way, and afterwards the Doctor explains why, voice soft, looking impossibly young and small and fragile sitting on the edge of Jack’s desk in only his slacks, arms slung over his knees. It has something to do with having it both ways, and how you can’t. Jack has been playing both sides, using his extraordinary past to obtain this ordinary life, and using this ordinary life to get back to the extraordinary. He can either be a immortal time and space traveler from the 51st century with a laser gun and a bunk on an alien timeship, or he can be a respected employee of a respected 21st century government agency, and do his mundane job every day with its meetings and coffee and paychecks. Freedom or safety. But not both. The old Jack would have argued that he could juggle anything life threw at him, but with the extra age on him, he knows a bit of the wisdom that this tired 900-year-old little boy is pulling from, knows how heartbreaking it can be to pretend at normality when the reality is anything but.

And the decision, as such, is already as good as made.

Jack is in too deep now to just up and leave the team he’s built, and too far into his immortality’s maudlin middle age to provide the youthful lust for life that he knows the Doctor needs from his companions. He has just plain lust, sure, but it’s a cold and selfish thing now, a desperate attempt to banish the loneliness for an hour at a time. What author was it said something about that, about using moments of fleeting contact to pretend that we aren’t immutably alone?

He isn’t sure, but he knows this: the Doctor doesn’t need more loneliness from Jack. He’s got enough to go around all on his own.

.o.

For the Doctor’s part, he is either a wandering, ageless traveler with no home and no ties and no resistance to the addictive pull of the things he hasn’t seen yet, or he isn’t. Here’s a hint though: He is. That isn't an option so much as an absolute given. It does provide a nice simple framing, though, for forcing Jack to make his own decision.

The Doctor has to make a very different sort of choice, here and now, before he leaves this place. Continue carrying on as the last guardian of Time, patching the holes and unraveling the timeline and going mad trying to keep a step ahead of every destabilizing force, or accept the fact that with the rest of his race dead and gone, with no more rules, no one left to enforce them, and more and more planets experimenting with time and dimensional manipulation every day, he cannot possibly keep the universe spitballed and duct-taped together on his own. Accept it, and come to terms with it, and move on - and let the continuum survive on its own, for as long as it can. He's not sure he's ready to make that choice.

He is sure, though, of what a proper Timelord response to Jack’s existence would be – what the Council would have ordered were they still around. How he should take care of an unintentional immortal, a glitch that could unravel the timeline in waves of complication that even he can't follow to their ends. Go back to the Game Station. Prevent the revival, or kill him after the fact. Make sure he stays dead.

He's also sure that he can’t do that – can’t, won’t, whatever. It isn't going to happen. Immortality isn’t something played with lightly, and academically the Doctor agrees with the necessary course of action. But this is a friend. It isn’t academic. And this glitch in time is going uncorrected - damn the consequences.

So that choice, too, is already as good as made. The lords of Time are dead; time to let them rest, and let the universe get on without them. His friends may go on believing in him, and perhaps entire worlds, but the bigger picture needs more than one lonely child god to sustain it.

.o.

The Doctor believes in Time, and in the hugeness of the universe, and that he hasn't seen everything. He believes in his own rightness, with an undeniability that borders on fanaticism and an egotism that would be more suited to an unruly deity. But he is kind, he believes in kindness. And in mercy - no, he believes in the idea of mercy, he supposes, but doesn't have much use for it these days. Used to have so much mercy. No second chances.

He has no idea what he believes in, anymore.

Jack, for his part, used to believe in himself - and for a while, he believed in the Doctor. Times change.

Beliefs are overrated, Jack figures. They are intangible - you can't pick them up and hold them up to the light, turn them round, crack them open and see what they're made of. They are unsatisfying and empty at three AM in the dark, with the rain howling outside and only your own shadows and echoes to keep you company.

For just a bit, they were something to each other that was more than a belief - something to hold onto that was real and made them remember that they were also real, in this aftermath of extraordinary lives, both of their impossible existences strewn out amongst the mundane – the deathless martyr and the creature that never existed. But a person is a collection of memories - memories reduce people to symbols - symbols have meanings but are no meaning on their own. Start to believe in someone and they lose their reality and you lose your grip on them and they slip away. The stuff of legends cannot be touched - just observed from a distance, and wished for, and watched as it drifts through your fingers.

A legend only appears as a legend to people who consider themselves ordinary. Jack isn't ready yet.

.o.

They say goodbye and not-goodbye and Jack doesn’t understand why the Doctor dances around the word, because he doesn’t know what the Doctor knows – that after a long enough life, the years get to you, and you start getting less and less out of it no matter how much you put in. That you eventually start needing extraordinary things just to feel normal, need the adrenaline and the wonder and need it every day, day after day, just to keep from slitting your wrists. That eventually, Me Myself and I doesn’t cut it anymore, and you start seeking out others like yourself for more than just answers.

That, given time, you go far enough around the bend that you come out the other side, and learn to live the pain and the loss as recklessly as the joy, and become young again, impossibly and bitterly and hopelessly young.

It’ll be a while before Jack gets to that point, but when he does, he’ll find the Doctor again, or the Doctor will find him. These things have a way of working out, in the end.

*

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
cynic2022
Sep. 27th, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
Okay, here's that honest comment I promised. You've confirmed for me here that I love your writing and that I hate Jack and Ten interacting.... at all. :)
etherati
Sep. 27th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
Ahahaha XD

See I don't mind them interacting, but you're right that this particular dynamic doesn't really work. There's a reason I never went any further with it. :3
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )