|Doctor Who, the TARDIS, and the characters of Jack Harkness, Rose Tyler and the Doctor are owned by the BBC. This is amateur fiction for entertainment purposes only, and I make no money from this story.|
His Own Man
Some bird at the bar is making eyes at him. And Jack ... well, when all is said and done, Jack is still Jack. So he takes a fortifying sip of whatever the toxic pink stuff in his glass is, and saunters over to talk to it.
"Hello," he says.
"Hello," says the bird. It speaks in a light, windy voice.
"I was admiring your, ah... plumage," says Jack, gesturing with his drink-free hand. "Beautiful sheen to it."
"Thank you." The bird seems pleased, and Jack is relieved. Local etiquette can be hard to second-guess. Then again, Jack has spent years perfecting the art of being forgiven.
"So..." Jack flashes a smile at the bird, and the bird inclines its head and blinks its round, golden eyes -- almost the same colour as its drink, which looks nicer than Jack's drink. The bird holds the tall fluted glass in a delicate humanoid hand with slender, feathered fingers, and its wings are folded over its shoulders and back like a shimmering feather cloak. Its beak is long, elegant and smooth, and Jack can't decide whether it would be warm or cool to touch.
"So," repeats the bird, and Jack wonders briefly whether it might be some species of parrot. But the further afield you travel, the less helpful these distinctions become, and anyway, it looks more like a very tall starling. It's male, he decides, although he finds himself reminded slightly of an old girlfriend. Not that she was a starling. She just happened to have some very starling-like qualities.
He shakes himself out of his head and back into the moment. Because he's still Jack, after all, and Jack lives in the moment. He's just that kind of a guy.
His new friend is still blinking at him. Not much of a conversationalist, this one.
"So do you, uh, come here often?" Jack grins lazily, leaning back against the bar as though he's been here a hundred times before, and everyone in the building is an old friend. The bird inclines his head, but does not respond.
"C'mon, the old lines are the best! No, but seriously, you gotta help me out here. Oh, my name's Jack, by the way. I'm actually kinda new in town. Could use a few friendly pointers..."
The bird looks at him, and then out of the window. Jack follows his gaze, but sees nothing but the shining city, all twinkling light and surface and reflection. The sky is a translucent amethyst, slowly deepening to indigo as night falls.
When he turns back, the bird is looking at him.
"What?" Jack smiles. "Ok, I'm missing something here. What?"
"Friendly pointers..." The bird turns away again. He appears to be looking for something, or maybe listening. "Well," he says. "Yes. In that case, I advise you to leave this bar."
"I advise you to leave this bar very shortly."
Right. There's definitely something Jack isn't getting here. Still. He's never let that worry him before, and he's been around long enough to know good advice when he hears it. He shrugs and follows the bird, who's stalking now on long, willowy legs, through the glittering, laughing crowd, out through the narrow entrance corridor and onto the street. His wing cloak shimmers in the evening gloom.
Jack catches up with the bird at the other end of the street. By the time he gets there, he's almost out of breath. The starling is pretty fast, for a starling.
"Ok, so, any chance you wanna clue me in, or..."
The bird, who is still walking, gives him a cursory glance, and then looks over his shoulder at the building they've just left. Which promptly explodes.
The world shatters into noise and light, and Jack is lying on the ground, although he doesn't remember falling. When he manages to stumble to his feet, coughing up dust, the bird is still vertical, although he has brought a wing round in front of his beak, in a defensive gesture. He's still looking over Jack's shoulder, and Jack thinks that his eyes seem devoid of expression. Maybe that's because Jack is out of practice at reading the expressions of birds. Then again, maybe not. He turns around and sees blood and feathers and bodies and shoes and broken glass.
The eerie silence is broken by a high, wavering, reedy sound from inside what used to be the bar. It's a few seconds before Jack recognises it as being the sound of someone crying. He turns back to the bird -- this stranger who, apparently, has saved his life.
"Jesus Christ -- you knew!" He's trying to shout, but his mouth is full of dust. He coughs and spits. "You fucking knew that was going to happen! Didn't you?"
He can feel the little tamped-down nub of anger and frustration he's been carrying around inside him for the last however-long bloom suddenly in his head like a beautiful, white-hot flower. Deny it, he wills the bird. Deny it and see what happens.
But the bird denies nothing. He barely acknowledges Jack. "Yes," he says, still looking past him. "Of course I knew."
Jack stares down at his boots. He forces himself to control his voice. "You did that."
"Not me personally, no."
"But you knew."
"As I say."
Jack raises his head. He looks at the bird and sees nothing he recognises.
"There were innocent people in there..."
The bird cocks his head and looks at him as though he doesn't quite understand what Jack's getting at.
"We regret all casualties, of course."
"Why me?" says Jack. "Why did you warn me, and nobody else?"
"You are a stranger here," says the bird. "Our concerns are not yours. This is not your conflict."
Jack shakes his head, turns away. In front of him, he sees a chaotic mess of dust and noise: incoherent shouts mingle with the yammering of emergency vehicles.
Behind him, the bird quietly clears his throat. "Once again," he says, "I would advise you to leave."
He arranges his wings quickly around himself: a dismissive, businesslike gesture. Then he pauses, and Jack feels the golden eyes slide over him.
"Or ... perhaps we could still come to some arrangement first, if you wish? I'm sure I could make it worth your while..."
"Fuck you, you cold bastard," says Jack, and walks away.
Jack stays on the bird planet for a week, a month, two months. Time passes and he stays, and he never sees the bird who looks like a starling again. That's probably a good thing though, because the longer Jack stays here, the more he wants to take a gun -- a good, big gun -- and shoot that bastard between his beady yellow eyes. That blossoming anger of his grows nightly more intense, whiter, hotter. Sometimes he feels it as a warmth behind his eyes, other times as a dull pain just under his ribs. He cultivates it.
He volunteers for whatever relief help is needed; he goes wherever they'll have him. There is a war going on here, in this rich, twinkling city, on this planet of mountains and cliffs. It's not his war. But it's a war. And he's a soldier, isn't he?
"Technically, it is not a war," says Heema. "It is a conflict."
"War's a war's a war," says Jack through a mouthful of reconstituted hakka-root soup. "Technically, it sucks. Shit, that's hot!"
"Once again," says Heema dryly, "your astonishing eloquence leaves me speechless."
Jack blows on his soup and grins.
He's been up on the mountain for almost two months now. A year on this planet is roughly the same length as a year on Earth, but the months are a little longer. It's late summer, and the air is warm and clammy during the day, and cold and clammy at night. They're here because some rebel group ransacked a village, torched it and moved on. Some of the people were shot, others taken. "They always need more soldiers," Heema said, and didn't look at Jack.
That day, not long after he arrived, there was an old bird woman standing, staring down into the village well. The well was still clogged with feathers and smelled rank, like old meat. A dead goat lay half thrown over the low stone wall, its throat slit.
"They hate us," she said.
"Why?" asked Jack. But the woman just shrugged, an expressive gesture that spoke of many things -- anger and resignation, and a wry, sad humour -- and then she walked away.
Now summer moves, slowly, slowly, into autumn, and with the change in season comes the fear of disease. Temporary shelters have been erected, but resources are inadequate. Heema and her team have set up an emergency clinic, where they spend all day inoculating, disinfecting, trying to keep people alive.
There is a marked contrast between this place and the twinkling city he left behind. The light here is clear and unforgiving, falling in flat, sharply defined planes of colour. It makes him feel dizzy, and a little lost.
"All right," says Heema, "You want to know? Here is what I know."
In the yellow glow of the campfire, Heema talks Jack through 700 years of wars and factions and invasions and shifting borders. She speaks both precisely and energetically, gesturing with her arms, her wings twitching and fluttering as punctuation. The tiny lights of flames reflect in her amber eyes and glint off her narrow beak.
"Complicated," he says, when she has finished. She laughs.
"Yes, that's certainly one word for it."
Jack wakes more than once in the middle of the night with that familiar, sudden rush of being. He feels it quite often, even now, like a toothache-twinge of memory: the sudden pain of breath and heartbeats, of blood pushing through the veins. A feeling that someone, somewhere, called his name while he slept, and he's missed them by a hair's breadth.
He lies in the damp darkness and listens to the high-pitched squeak of bats outside the tent. Or something like bats, anyway -- he's never seen them close up. Their sad keening lulls him back to sleep.
The school is not entirely destroyed. The thatch is gone, but the thick stone walls remain -- blackened, wet, smelling strong and acrid. All day Jack shovels debris in the humid air. Sweat drips from his hair and the end of his nose, and the feathers of his fellow workers look bedraggled and dull, spiking round their necks. They shake themselves impatiently. The building must be cleared out before they can erect a temporary covering for a roof.
"Education," says the burly, quietly-spoken man called Tortokt. Like most of the mountain people, he has the powerful, curved beak of an eagle. "Very important!"
He smiles at Jack, and Jack smiles back at him. He is not sure when it was, exactly, that he learned to recognise a bird's smile. He's not sure he could explain to anyone else how you do it. It's not like a human smile, not at all, but it's not entirely unlike one either.
There have been children hanging around their old haunt all day, playing tag in the dirt, getting under everybody's feet, being shooed away, and then creeping quietly back. Their game involves little flappings and hoppings, small, ungainly liftings up into the air. When they get tired they come over and stare up at Jack with big amber eyes. He gives them a wink, laughs when he gets no response.
"Do you come from the city?" asks a boy. He is smaller than the rest, and covered in a soft grey fuzz of downy feathers.
"Kind of, I guess." Jack dumps another shovelful of blackened wood and ash into a rickety barrow, and wipes his face with the back of his hand. "Little further away."
"The city's a long way," remarks the boy.
"Oh, yeah, sure it is. Long way. But this is an even longer way than that."
The boy says nothing. Jack watches him trying to process the concept of there being somewhere further away than the city.
A bigger girl breaks in. "Did you come across the sea? Did you come in a ship?"
"A kind of ship, yeah."
"Is it your ship? Are you rich?"
He laughs again. "No, no. Not my ship. I don't own any ship, so I had to kind of ... hitch a ride."
"Oh." The children are silent, until the girl pipes up again. "What's the sea like?"
"Wet," said Jack. He hasn't actually seen the sea on this planet, but that's usually a safe bet. "And big."
The children look at him, their eyes round and shiny gold. The smallest boy is so intent on staring at Jack, he somehow manages to fall over.
"Whoa, ok! There you go, buddy. You all right? Sure you are -- there, see? It's just a scratch." Jack crouches down next to him in the dirt.
The boy isn't crying. He examines his scraped leg with interest, poking at the bits of grit and blood matting his fuzzy feathers.
"You're very brave," says Jack.
"I'm going to be a doctor," the boy explains. "They help people." He pushes himself up off the ground and gets to his feet. "Mostly," he adds, as an afterthought. "Sometimes they can't, but it's not their fault. Mostly they do."
The air is hot on Jack's arms and neck, but the sun is lost in a grey haze. When he shades his eyes and looks down the mountain, the valley seems brown and parched, dying of thirst. But then, what does he really know about this planet, anyway? Maybe it always looks like that. Maybe it's meant to.
He takes the boy's hand. "Come on," he says. "Lets get you over to the medical tent. They'll fix you up, no problem."
"It's serious for them," says Heema that evening.
They are sitting, as usual, slightly apart from the others. She gets up and throws a branch on the fire, stands there rubbing her hands on her trousers.
"They are not like city children. They don't become doctors or teachers here because it's what their parents do, because it's expected and respectable and makes money. It's not about that for them. Standing up at school and telling the teacher what you're going to be when you grow up. It's big stuff. Life and death stuff."
It's the most she's said in one go, Jack thinks, since they met. Apart from her potted history of the war, but that was only because he asked.
"If they don't do it," she says, "nobody else will. No one will come along one day and make everything all better for them. It doesn't work like that."
"No. I guess not."
The roaring blaze from Heema's branch is slowly dying down, becoming less. Sparks float like winged things into the night. They are quiet for a while.
"So, what about you?" says Jack, eventually. "What made you want to be a doctor?"
"As I said. Family tradition. My parents, their parents." She shrugs.
Jack watches her watch the fire. She is taller than most of the villagers -- slender and long-necked. Her beak is long and narrow, curving downward at the end. She folds her limbs around herself with a slow grace.
"You're not from around here, are you?" Jack says.
"I live in the city, when I'm not here, or somewhere else like it. Which isn't often, it has to be said." She looks at him sideways and then continues, addressing the fire.
"But I grew up west of there -- on the shores of Lake Koona. Have you ever been there?"
"It's very beautiful. Lonely sort of place, some people think. I liked it."
"You miss it?"
"Sometimes, perhaps. Seems like a very long time ago, now."
"My grandmother -- she lived with us -- she used to take us for walks at night, my sister and me. When the wind blew, the reeds made a sound like whispering, and my grandmother used to whisper, too. She whispered stories to us -- oh, the old stories, you know. Myths and legends. Stories about gods and heroes and monsters. I still love those stories."
"Yeah? Tell me one."
She looks at him quizzically. "You want me to tell you a story?"
"Sure, why not? I like stories. Stories round a campfire, what could be better?" He flashes her one of his best smiles.
"Oh. Well, all right."
After a moment's hesitation, she comes over and sits down closer to him. Then she reaches over and takes his wrist in her hand. Her grasp feels strange to Jack, light and warm, unexpectedly strong. It makes the hairs on his arms stand up.
"Look," she says, raising his arm and pointing his hand skywards. "See up there?"
"See that very bright star, there, with the slight red tinge? And that one just to the left? See how they lie in a sort of curving line? Then follow it round -- here, and here, and here... That's the constellation of Harshak. Named after our old creator god. From the old religion. Have you heard of him?"
"Well, in the old stories, he created the world, and everything in the universe. Before Harshak, everything was dark. There was nothing at all, anywhere, but a small, cold stone hanging in the void. Then the stone hatched, and Harshak was born. He opened his eyes, and his eyes were the first light in the universe -- they glowed brighter and redder than the brightest flame. His feathers were burnished metal, and his beak shone with all the precious stones that are in the earth. He stood up on the world and spread his wings, and the movement of his wings created the air and the wind. He beat his wings, and they lifted him up into the black universe, and beneath him the stone world grew and grew, and became warm and fertile. Then he flew, and where he flew the sky grew light, and he created Day. He flew further, on into the night, and still his wings left traces of light in the void -- stars and constellations and galaxies. Everywhere he went, he left small traces of himself for us to see."
She lets go of his arm and settles herself again, her wings folding around her body like a warm coat.
"They say he's up there still, flying through the heavens. When clouds cover the sun, it means Harshak is sad, and when the sky glows red, that's his anger."
"Why's he angry?"
"Because he's alone."
"Doesn't he have any other gods to hang around with?"
She smiles and shakes her head. "Not that I ever heard. I always used to wonder -- why doesn't he come down here and play with us? I felt sorry for him, up there in space, just flying around."
They left him. That's all. When it comes down to it, that's all it is, this pure white, righteous anger. A little boy throwing a tantrum because he's been left behind and had his feelings hurt. It's kind of funny, really. Kind of.
The school is finished, and things in the clinic take a turn for the better. It becomes a regular, comfortable thing for Jack and Heema to meet at the campfire at dusk, to talk through the day's events or just sit in silence, side by side in their own worlds. Jack finds her good, easy company -- intelligent but down-to-earth, quiet and dryly funny. She has sharp edges that poke out now and again from under the smooth feathery surface, and he's always been a sucker for that. She doesn't talk much about herself and she doesn't ask many questions. For some reason, that makes Jack want to volunteer information -- appropriate or otherwise.
"You know," he says, "I haven't had sex for, what? Six, seven months? Not sure exactly, kind of lost count. Well, ok. Apart from that one incident with the, uh... Well. Guy's gotta pay his way somehow."
She looks at him. He grins back.
"I rather hope," she says deliberately, "you're not expecting me to do anything about that. I like you, but not that much." She glances across at him. "No offence meant."
He laughs. "Oh, none taken! Sorry, no, I had a point to make somewhere back there. Just, uh, kind of lost track of it. Not that you're not, you know... well, you're very attractive, actually--"
"You seem to be losing track again..."
Bats calling. Somewhere high above their heads, too far up to see as anything other than tiny specks, they wheel and flit between the rocks. He rubs his hands through his dusty, sweat-stiffened hair.
"Jack," says Heema. "What are you attempting to talk about?"
"Oh. Just... See, I was in this situation a while back. I had these people, these friends. I guess it's like, sometimes... it's like you don't. It's like other things are so good you don't need it. Don't need anything else. And then, when those things are gone? Well, you find you don't want it any more, anyway. It being... you know, sex and stuff."
"You don't really, do you?"
"To be honest, no."
"Oh well, never mind. I don't really understand it either."
Heema says nothing. Jack thinks that he has once again reached that legendary point in the conversation at which other people, people who are not Jack, tend to feel embarrassed and stop talking. Or maybe they're already past that point. Whatever.
"My friend," he says. "One of 'em. He was a doctor."
"Oh?" She sounds relieved at the apparent change of subject. "What field?"
Jack laughs. "Oh God, who knows? The field of sticking your nose into other people's business and irretrievably fucking up their lives, maybe? And then just... running off without saying goodbye? I don't know, is that a field?"
"Not one I'm familiar with, no." She looks as though she might be trying to hide a smile, but Jack can't really tell. He's not that good at the bird stuff. Not yet.
"Forgive me," she says. "But you sound very bitter."
"Yeah," he says. "I'm not really very happy right now."
"No. I'd gathered."
"Yeah, I'm bitter. And I'm pretty pissed off. And then, you know, that pisses me off, because I do not do this. I don't! I am a happy guy! I have fun!"
"Sorry. I'd say I'm not quite myself at the moment, but I'm not really sure who that is, anyway."
"Does anybody, really?"
"Guess not." He picks up a twig, breaks it into roughly equal lengths, and throws it on the fire. "I met a guy," he says. "Not too long ago, just after I got here. I was in a bar, in the city. We left the bar. It blew up. Apparently that wasn't a coincidence."
Heema says nothing. Jack sighs and settles against the rock at his back, hands laced behind his head.
"I've spent the last few months wishing I'd killed that guy."
"And do you still?" Heema does not look at him, and Jack feels strangely glad about that.
"Yes. But... less, though. The more I stay here. Funny, I kinda thought it would be the other way around."
He glances at Heema where she sits, folded into herself like a concertina, hugging her knees to her chest.
"The Doctor, my friend -- he's not a bad doctor, or anything. I mean, if you'd met him, you'd know... He fixes things. Mostly."
Heema looks into the fire. "We try."
They are having breakfast one morning, spooning the ubiquitous reconstituted soup from the plastic containers, when Tortokt asks, "What's it like where you're from, Jack? Where's home for you?"
Jack used to be so good at this. Making his way through the universe, doing his own thing, never staying anywhere for very long. It was what he did. It was fun. He always felt like he was independent, his own man. Now he wonders what that means, anyway. Maybe he never really owned himself. Maybe no one does. It seems to Jack that people keep taking bits of him away and adding other bits on.
He remembers smiling and saying, "I wish I'd never met you, Doctor." But of course he didn't mean it. It's the kind of thing you say when you think you're about to die. At least, it's the kind of thing Jack says when he thinks he's about to die, along with, "How about another drink?" and, "Are you sure you wouldn't like to discuss this over dinner?" He means it now, fiercely and often, and usually in the middle of the night.
He kissed them both goodbye, and then they left him, and he's never really felt quite like that before. Not quite.
Did he imagine it? Did he make it up? The feeling that he was part of something. They felt like a fine mechanism in the end, the three of them - like an engine, full of power and heat, running so smoothly you could jump for joy. Like the TARDIS.
It's raining: a thin, steady drizzle pat-patting on the plastic sheeting that is their roof. At the back of the tent, a woman starts to sing. Jack, for once, is lost for words.
This village, he thinks, is like an engine. A damaged one, sure. Everything around it has fallen apart. But it's still an engine. It runs. It has a beating heart. Jack had an engine, and then he didn't. So what does that make him now? A spare part? And what kind of fuck-up does that make him, if he is jealous of people who have almost nothing?
It is the autumn festival, the night festival. Lanterns hang from trees and in doorways, and are set into crevices in the rock. People run about with them, circling, making swinging patterns out of light. There is a new sharpness in the air, and a nagging wind threatens to blow the tiny flames out at any moment. . Three, three and a half months ago, Jack might have looked at this raw, half-rebuilt place and seen little here worth celebrating. Now, of course, he knows better and sees further. Deeper. It occurs to him that he can't remember the last time he spent so long in the same place or, for that matter, the same time-period. Not that he ever has much faith in what he can and can't remember.
It's different, though. A different way of seeing, of learning. A slow building up of knowledge and experience. It's different. The wounded village is half-obscured in the mauve-coloured dusk -- just pockets of flickering light, with people dancing in and out of the shadows. He looks, and thinks, I helped make this. I made something.
"You're very quiet." Heema appears at his shoulder and he jumps a little -- he didn't hear her approach.
"I know. So I must be sick, right? So what's your prescription, Doctor?"
She says nothing, but smiles and takes his arm. They walk a little way up the mountain path, and the lights below grow smaller, receding. The path steepens and narrows, passing through two high walls of rock. Jack looks up, a hand on each wall, and sees a thin strip of starry evening high above him.
"Where are we going?"
She calls back over her shoulder, "Not far," and disappears. When Jack emerges from the passageway, he finds her sitting on the edge of a large, flat outcropping, like a balcony cut out of the rock. He sits down next to her, his legs dangling down over the drop. Under his feet, the lanterns twinkle weakly. Further below still, the dry valley lies, veiled in shadow.
"Long way down," he remarks.
She looks at him and shrugs. "Yes."
"Some of us don't have wings."
She laughs. "What do you think I am, a bat? These..." she shuffles her wings, resettling them around herself. "Good for balance. Could probably still just about haul me off the ground if they had to. That's about it."
"Yeah, I guess I knew that."
"I'm not saying they don't help. But if you wanted to get rid of me, you could do worse than push me off this ledge."
"Nah, I think I'll keep you around a little longer. Villagers'd probably be pretty pissed off."
She smiles at him. "They say, people who study that sort of thing, that we used to fly once. Properly, I mean, like the bats and the insects. Not just hopping about like children."
"Yeah, that's evolution for you."
"Scientists reckon we used to live in the water like fish. Where I come from."
She looks at him sideways. "Well, I didn't like to say anything. But I've always thought there was something slightly fishy about you people."
"Oh, thanks! What do you mean, anyway -- 'you people'?"
"I meant no offence."
"None taken. I just mean -- what, you get a lot of us around here?"
"Not a lot, precisely. But in the city... there's always a little pocket of you somewhere. Tourists, you know? Travellers."
He fiddles with the strings on the ill-fitting leather coat he borrowed from Tortokt. He didn't really account for the change of season before he came up here. Heema is wearing a brightly coloured cloth jacket, with an intricate geometric design woven into it.
"You ever meet a traveller -- a guy with a... no, actually. Never mind."
"I meet a lot of people." She smiles at him faintly.
"You look tired," he says.
"I'm quite all right."
They sit for a while, the mauve sky darkening around them. It's cold on the mountain. Jack thinks of warmth. Without really wanting to, he remembers the heat of the TARDIS's console beneath his hands, all of her buzzing and humming and alive. He's always loved that -- the energy and power of a happy machine. Sometimes he thinks he felt the same thing when he put his hand on the Doctor's leather-jacketed shoulder, when he put his arms around Rose. The dizzy joy of finding something that works.
When he looks up, Heema is watching him.
"Jack," she says. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Why are you here?"
He smiles, but she is serious. He looks down at his feet, waving uselessly over the abyss.
"I don't know," he says. He laughs. "You know what, I have absolutely no goddamn idea at all."
The night is very quiet. Even the bats have stopped calling. A little time, thinks Jack. A little space. Maybe, sometimes, a little of both is all you need.
Heema reaches over and takes his hand. Her grip is as firm and as reassuring as ever.
"Then," she says, gently. "Perhaps it's time..."
"Yeah," says Jack. "Yeah, perhaps it is."
She nods, slowly. Her face is kind. "Do you know where you'll go?"
He smiles at her. He feels a kind of wild excitement building up in him, all of a sudden. It snakes up under his ribs and around his heart. It twists like a red vine around the place where the little flower of anger grows. He's Jack, and he's alive, and he has the whole of time and space at his disposal. On impulse, he tugs Heema's arm towards him, and kisses her hand.
"Oh," he says. "I have a couple of ideas."