Jack should have been sleeping. After everything that had happened in the last few days, he was exhausted. But instead of sleeping, either in the fold-back seats of the stolen car or the cot Ianto had implied he’d be welcome to share, he was leaning against the outside of the warehouse, staring at the stars. Wishing for help to come.
Why isn’t the Doctor here?
As though in answer to his prayers, a beacon lit up to his senses and a unique sound rang through the air like a whimsical alarm clock. Suddenly awash with hope and excitement, Jack stepped toward the end of the warehouse and the source of that feeling he would never forget; it was a part of him, his history and his future.
And then, just as the Tardis fully materialized, another sensation began that Jack reacted to just as viscerally. It was the Time Vortex, opening by the command of a Manipulator. He drew his handgun and began sliding along the warehouse wall.
Jack froze midstep when he heard his own voice. Why is another version of me here? he wondered frantically. The Doctor and I both know better. He cast out with his time senses and noticed a faint and muffled disturbance, like there was some big event just around a corner.
There was a scuffling sound, and then the door of the Tardis closed. Jack edged forward along the warehouse until he had a view of the Tardis from behind. Then he waited. He would wait as long as it took.
It was almost a half hour before the door swung open again. The other Jack stepped out and opened his Vortex Manipulator, creating a portal in the air before him that glowed like a sun, leaking red-gold light and flowing strips of the fabric of time.
Jack bit his tongue to avoid making noise when he saw the creature that reared up in the portal. It was dark and horrid. It cried out, an unpleasant sound on the hearing plane, but absolutely repulsive to any time-sensitive person. Jack watched, uncomprehending, as the other version of him walked carelessly into the creature’s beckoning arms.
The Vortex closed. Shaking, Jack rushed around the Tardis and knocked on its door, barely restraining himself from knocking again when it opened. The Doctor was waiting there, looking decades older than the last time Jack had seen him.
“Doctor! What was that? What happened?”
His old friend shook his head tiredly, retreating up to the console where he slumped in the chair. Jack followed, beginning to feel the warmth and serenity that the Tardis always exuded. It calmed him, and he stroked his fingers along her railings and coral pillars, murmuring to her in his head.
Even if the Doctor couldn’t stand him, he knew the Tardis still loved him.
When he looked back at the Doctor, though, he wouldn’t have known that this was the same man who’d said he couldn’t bear to look at Jack, because that was exactly what he was doing. His old, old eyes were filled with an aching loneliness, with compassion that Jack had seen before but never expected to be directed at him.
“What’s wrong, Doctor?” he asked.
The Doctor shook his head, looking down at the console on which he leaned. One hand was supporting him against the living coral structure, while the other hung by his side, limp and empty.
Jack swallowed, unused to seeing the Doctor so still. Hairs were standing up on the back of his neck, and some primal foreboding stirred numbly at the back of his head, spreading down his spine like war drums. Like the marching of time, of death, the drums could never be stopped.
“Doctor?” he whispered through suddenly cold lips.
The Doctor looked up at Jack, eyes more distant and alien than Jack had ever seen them. He took a nearly silent, slow breath.
In order to reach Jack, his words traveled through the ripples of time that had been formed by the last version of Jack to step inside the Tardis, captured and preserved in her temporal grace. As they passed, the words nudged the ripples against each other like a train of dominos.
The result was that Jack collapsed to the floor under their weight before he even heard what the Doctor had told him.
“No!” Jack gasped. His own words echoed back at him three times as he focused on the Tardis floor, sobbing without comprehension at the sudden weight of a thousand deaths and grief magnified beyond his understanding.
Finally, the Doctor's words reached him. “I need to take Ianto.”
“You can’t!” Jack felt the weight and power of those words like a hammer swung full-strength into his gut. “I need him! I can’t lose… I can’t…” He slumped forward, holding himself up with trembling arms.
The Doctor caught him before he collapsed completely. “We’ve got to get you outside. The Tardis preserves temporal shifts, and you’re too stubborn to forget…”
He dragged Jack to his feet, deceptively strong, and they tumbled out of the Tardis together. As soon as the cold, crisp night air touched his face Jack took a heaving gasp of air like he’d returned from the dead. The unbearable pressure of mourning and pain slipped away from his soul and Jack felt as though he had returned to life.
“What was that, Doctor?” he demanded. His thighs were shaking, from adrenaline or fear he couldn’t tell. Jack glanced at the corner of the alley, toward the door to the warehouse where Ianto lay sleeping. The urge to run to him and make sure he was safe was practically irresistible.
“A time loop!” The Doctor’s somber voice stopped him dead in his tracks. He spun around to find the Time Lord barely a foot away. “You created a time loop and trapped yourself inside it. You were minutes from tearing the fabric of reality when I stopped you, Jack.”
Jack wanted to deny it, but he could sense, now, the fraying of the time-space continuum around this moment, removed from his current incarnation by mere heartbeats. A terrible chill came over him at the thought of what could have happened, overshadowing his fear for Ianto. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.
The Doctor examined him for a few more seconds, then nodded. “Fair enough. It was a stupid choice the first time, and you should've known better," he said harshly, "but... even I make stupid choices every so often. And you couldn't control it, after it began.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and gestured behind Jack. “Lead the way, then.”
“I told you. I’ve got to take your Mr. Jones.”
Jack stared at his old friend, instinctual obedience warring with protectiveness. “Where? Why?”
“Don’t know yet, and for your own good.” He stepped around Jack and strode around the corner.
Jack was thrown off by the aching of the universe around him and the unexpected appearance of the Doctor. He followed wordlessly as the Doctor opened the door to the warehouse and brandished his Sonic Screwdriver momentarily before setting off toward the corner where Ianto’s cot was set up. A dozen feet away from the bed, Jack could see Ianto’s long body under the blankets, his pale face glowing in the light from the Screwdriver, and he grabbed the Doctor’s elbow.
“I won’t let you do this!” he whispered heatedly. He resisted the urge to grab the Doctor by the shoulders and shake him, force him. He felt like the concrete beneath his feet was tilting and the only measure of balance in his universe was standing easily before him, uncaring and out of reach.
“Believe me, Jack” the Doctor murmured compassionately, “I wish I didn't have to, but I don't have a choice.”
“Jack?” The shape on the bed stirred. Ianto’s eyes blinked open, a hand coming up to guard them from the Screwdriver’s blue light. “Who's there?”