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FIC: Choices (1/2)

Title: Choices (1/2)
Characters: Jack Harkness, Ninth Doctor
Genre: Character study, Gen, Drama
Rating: G
Summary: Jack gets a clearer insight into his relationship with the Doctor when they run afoul of some Time Agents.
Author's Note: This takes place sometime between "The Doctor Dances" and "Boom Town".  It is a sequel to Clues, but can be read on its own.

Jack has no idea who the two men are, but he immediately recognizes them as trouble.

As first, his conscious mind can’t figure out why he is reacting to them. The men look perfectly ordinary for this time (32nd century) and place (a small taverna on Port Korinthos space station). Both are drinking beer. One is biting into a souvlaki wrap that – according to the menu display – contains “only the highest quality vat-grown protein”. They’re not drunk or belligerent, or paying too much attention to their fellow customers. They’re minding their own business. So why is Jack’s hindbrain screaming mauve alert?

He lets his gaze drift over them again as he scans the room, ostensibly admiring the fake antiques that decorate the walls. Then, sipping his retsina, he studies the mental snapshot he’s captured. He may not have a truly photographic memory, as the Doctor does, but 51st century genes and Time Agency training give him the ability to focus when necessary.

As if his thoughts have drawn the Time Lord’s attention, the Doctor murmurs, “Jack? Somethin’ wrong?”

"I don’t know,” he replies, continuing to concentrate on the mental image. “Just give me a minute.” Two men, of average height, both wearing the earrings that are fashionable for spacers in this region. One sports polished onyx cabochons; the other, triangular silver studs. Two typical specimens of the era, middling prosperous, nothing unusual about them… yeah, that’s it. They’re just too typical, as if they were ordered from a catalogue. They blend in too well. No eccentricities of dress or manner, nothing that might draw excessive interest. Even their earrings are ordinary. Jack tenses, though he’s careful not to let his reaction show. He knows one group of people that make a habit – a policy – of blending in, wherever and whenever they may be.

Jack lifts his glass of retsina. His smile and his relaxed posture tell anyone who might be watching that he’s engaged in a light, meaningless conversation. “We’ve got a problem. The two men sitting in the rear booth—“

“—are Time Agents,” the Doctor finishes for him. “Yeah, noticed that, thanks. Knew they had to be time travellers – the timelines around them look like a cross between a corkscrew and a pretzel. Messy.” He doesn’t need to add a disapproving stupid humans! Jack can hear it clearly enough in the frosty silence without actual words. “An’ bein’ human and in this century, that makes them either Agents or rogues – and they look too spit an’ polish to be rogue. You know them, Captain? They after you?”

“Don’t recognize them, for what little that’s worth.” Jack doesn’t bother to remind the Doctor of the two-year gap in his memory. “They don’t seem to be noticing me. Any good hunter can pretend indifference, but I really don’t think they’re here for me.” He stiffens in his seat. The Time Lord has identified the Agents by the disturbances that time travel caused in their personal timelines. The Doctor’s own time signature is strong and distinctive. “Doctor, we may lack your time senses, but the Agency has some pretty sophisticated chronon detectors.”

The Time Lord snorts. “Kiddie toys. ‘Sides, I’m shieldin’. They’re not gonna detect anything I don’t want them to detect.” After a pause he adds, “Shieldin’ you, too.”

“Thanks.” Even now, having been aboard the TARDIS for a couple of months, it still surprises Jack whenever the Doctor makes a particular effort on his behalf. Perhaps he would feel more certain of his position in the TARDIS’s crew if the “crew” was larger. Instead, it’s just Rose and himself, and he can never expect to equal Rose’s place in the Doctor’s hearts. He knows that the Doctor trusts him, because he allows Jack to protect Rose from danger and to tinker with the innards of his precious TARDIS. He has been given his own key to the timeship. Surely that is recognition enough? And yet… and yet… Jack pushes the thought away. He’s travelling with a Time Lord, for gods’ sake, and how many people have ever been granted that privilege, in all of time and space? Damned few, he’s willing to bet.

He risks another glance around the taverna, this time assessing the number and location of customers and staff. Not many. By the time he and the Doctor finished their business at Honest Al’s Junque Emporium, it was well past lunch, as reckoned by station time. If trouble does develop, at least there won’t be too many civilians to worry about. And thank all the gods that might be that Rose is spending the weekend – eleven centuries and a few million light years away – on Earth, at a “hen party” for a cousin of her friend Shireen.

As Jack’s gaze travels the room, the spacer with the onyx earring stretches, rolling his shoulders and extending his arms. It’s an ordinary gesture of an ordinary man easing muscle tension after a long work shift. No one would think anyone of it – except someone like Jack. Someone who happens to be trained in the covert sign language of the Time Agency. That ordinary gesture means, Do you require assistance?

DamnDamnDamnDamnDamn! He can’t pretend not to have seen the signal. It was perfectly timed for the moment he looked in that direction. He can either reply or pretend ignorance. Either path is strewn with hidden pitfalls. Are they sure he was an Agent or are they just trying to confirm a suspicion? Do they know who he is and his current status with the Time Agency? Too many questions and not enough data, but if he is going to reply, it had to be right now, because a delayed response will raise unhealthy suspicions. It’s like jumping into the Vortex without coordinates, but he has no choice. He pushes back a lock of dark hair from his face, then scratches behind his right ear. No assistance needed. Do not contact. He delivers the second part of the message with a finger flick that indicates he is with an uninvolved civilian. Somewhere, in a back corner of his brain, Jack imagines the Doctor’s reaction to that description, and doesn’t know whether to laugh or shudder. One thing is certain. If it all suddenly goes pear-shaped, Jack’s top priority will be to keep the Doctor as uninvolved as possible.

There is no reply from the two Time Agents, and Jack allows himself to hope, though not to relax. He takes another sip from his glass, still smiling a smile that he does not feel. He murmurs, “They suspect. Used an Agency hand code. I tried a bluff. Whatever happens, just stay out of it. They probably think you’re a small-time smuggler or someone like that. Beneath their notice.”

The Doctor’s brows shoot up. “That’s a bit insultin’. Well worth noticin’, me.”

At the rear of the taverna, the two Time Agents rise, leave some credit chips on their table, and begin to stroll forward, looking well-fed, relaxed, and uninterested in anyone around them. Then, as they come parallel to the table where Jack and the Doctor are sitting, they pivot in a move as coordinated as a dance. Each man holds a compact blaster at chest height, their bodies blocking any view of the weapons from the rest of the room.

“Let’s keep this calm and quiet,” Onyx Earring says.

“Very calm and very quiet,” echoes Silver Earring, whose blaster is trained on the Doctor.

Jack silently curses Port Korinthos’ weapons policy that forced him to leave his favourite blaster behind in the TARDIS. He still has his hidden backup piece, but there is no way he’ll have a chance to retrieve it. Not in front of two Time Agents who know all the same tricks. “Is there a problem, gentlemen?” he asks, turning his palms upwards in an age-old gesture of innocence and peaceful intent.

“No problem,” Onyx Earring replies, “as long as you cooperate.” He appears to be the senior of the two.

“Cooperation is my middle name,” Jack assures him. He resists the temptation to add a cheerfully lewd comment about just how cooperative he can be, given the right opportunity.

Onyx nods. “They’ll be very happy to see you, back at Headquarters. You’ve become an annoyance. It was a mistake to get too ambitious. Should’ve kept your cons small, like the other gutter rats.” There is no tone of enmity or anger in his voice, only a mild contempt.

Onyx glances at the Doctor. “You’ll be turned over to station security. If they don’t have anything on you, you’ll be released. We have no interest in you.”

“That’s a mistake. Very interestin’ bloke, me.” He’s wearing that goofy grin that looks harmless and means all kinds of trouble.

“Yeah, sure you are,” Silver Earring says. “Shut up.”

“Stay out of this,” Jack hisses at the Doctor. “It’s got nothing to do with you.” How can a being with an intellect the size of a galaxy be so damn stupid?

“I don’t take orders from you, Captain,” the Doctor says, a hard edge creeping into his voice, “An’ it’s got a lot to do with me. I’m the one that’s gonna have to explain to Rose why you’re not on board the TARDIS when I go to pick her up. She’ll be unhappy, an’ then Jackie will be angry, an’ I’m not havin’ Jackie Tyler angry at me if I can help it. I’m also the one that’s gonna have to re-align all the gravitic stabilizers without help, so don’t think you can go swannin’ off with these two an’ not have me say somethin’ about it.”

“I told you to shut up,” Silver growls, and he waggles the blaster meaningfully.

The Doctor doesn’t even spare him a glance. “Right, then,” he says to himself, as if coming to a decision. He turns to Onyx. “I need to talk to your supervisor.”

“You need to talk to— who the hell do you think I am – your messenger boy?”

The Doctor gives him Annoying Smile #11: If-you-insist-but-you-won’t-like-the-answer. “I think you’re a Time Agency flunky with barely enough authority to decide what sort of jam to put on your toast in the morning. You’re not cleared for this, sonny boy. Your supervisor probably isn’t, either, but that’ll be a start.”

Onyx is obviously annoyed, but he’s too well disciplined to lose control just because a civilian prisoner is mouthing off at him. He looks at Jack. “Explain to your smuggler friend that he’s not helping you any by messing in Time Agency business.”

Jack wishes it were that simple. He has a terrible suspicion that the Doctor is going to try to “help” him by being imposing and intimidating. The Doctor does intimidating very well. He has a frigid stare that causes minor bureaucrats to tremble, and customs agents to hide under their desks. He could probably intimidate a glacier. But the Time Agency is something else entirely. The Agency could – and does – teach courses on ruthlessness, brutality, and coercion. A Time Agent, especially a Supervising Agent, is not going to release Jack on the say-so of a random traveller, just because he has a glare, an attitude, and a good bluff.

“We don’t call in a district supervisor to talk to every whinging petty criminal, mister.”

“Doctor,” the Time Lord corrects him. “Just ‘the Doctor,’ and there’s nothin’ petty about me, sonny boy. You can tell your district supervisor that I have a confirmation code for him. Now, he won’t be cleared for it, so I’ll just give you the middle five characters. Aleph Four Gimel Six Omicron. Got that? He’ll probably have to bounce it up a couple of levels to find someone who is cleared, so to speed things up, tell him it’s Department 391 business, all right?”

Silver’s voice is thick with derision. “Are you sure that’s all you want?”

Travelling with the Doctor is always a learning experience. At first, Jack didn’t think there was much that could surprise a jaded ex-Time Agent, but the Doctor keeps proving him wrong. He’s also had to change his assumptions about the laws of physics and how the Universe functions. Right now, Jack is learning that there is a temperature colder than Absolute Zero. He knows this, because he can hear it in the Doctor’s voice. “Make. The. Call.”

Onyx stares at him. At last, he turns to Silver and a look passes between them. “I’ll take the responsibility. Go back to the ship. Contact District.”

Silver is none too happy, but he follows orders. It takes a while before he returns. Jack knows that the call has been sent in an encoded data squib to District HQ, then relayed up the line to GHQ.

Silver returns with a sealed, written reply, which he hands to Onyx. The senior Agent opens it cautiously, as if it were something alive and dangerous that might bite. “Well, Doctor, it seems that there actually is such a code, but it’s not quite the one they were expecting.”

Jack stifles a chuckle. With the Doctor, nothing that you get is ever quite what you were expecting.

“Also,” Onyx continues, “the records indicate that there should be some kind of physical component.”

“There is, an’ I’ve got it safely tucked away. I won’t be getting’ it out until I’m face-to-face with someone who has the authority to give me what I want.”

“And just what is it that you want?” Silver growls.

“Him,” the Doctor says simply, jerking his thumb in Jack’s direction. “I want my crewman released, an’ a guarantee that this won’t happen again the next time I run into some of your trigger-happy goons.”

“Your ‘crewman’ is a disgraced Time Agent and a wanted criminal. You can’t possibly have any information that’s valuable enough to make the Agency overlook his offences,” Onyx says stiffly.

The Doctor leans back in his seat, as relaxed as a cat on a sunny windowsill. “You can’t possibly imagine what I have,” he says softly.

Jack, meanwhile, feels an icy lump growing in his throat. He doesn’t know exactly what the Doctor is up to, but it seems as though he’s preparing to trade something for Jack’s freedom. Information? Valuables? Time Lord tech? Whatever it is, Jack isn’t worth it; isn’t worth the risk of dealing with the Agency. He wants to tell the Time Lord to stop being an idiot, to walk away while he can still do so safely.

By mutual agreement, the four of them relocate to the hostel room that the Agents are using as their temporary base. Small though it is, Jack knows it’s much more spacious than the interior of any Agency timeship. Onyx requests Jack’s back-up weapon, which he relinquishes after a wordless conference with the Doctor. Then it’s more waiting. Neither of them is bound, and they are permitted to move around. Jack expects the Doctor to be pacing the room, but he is motionless on a rickety chair, lost in thought.

Jack tries to talk to him, to ask about his plans, to dissuade him from taking this risk. The only reply he gets is a reproachful look and a “Y’worry too much, Jack.”

Word comes again from the Time Agency GHQ: someone has been dispatched to interrogate the prisoner and the informant.

“Nah, I don’t much fancy interrogations,” is the Doctor’s only comment. Onyx tells him that he doesn’t have a choice. “There’s always a choice,” the Doctor replies. “Just gotta be willin’ to take the consequences. You willin’ to take the consequences of your choices, sonny?”

Onyx ignores him. Jack watches the Doctor for a signal. Two against two does not make for wonderful odds when only one side is armed, but he’s reasonably sure that he can stay alive long enough to create a distraction for the Doctor’s escape. He looks to the Doctor for orders, and gets only an emphatic shake of the head. Wait.

Continue to Part 2


Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
wendymr
Aug. 12th, 2008 03:27 am (UTC)
Ooh! I've been hoping for more of your post-JE fic, but this is every bit as good. Brilliant so far, in fact. I really love stories where Jack learns that he's every bit as important to the Doctor as Rose is (and there's not very many of those around), and this is a good one. Typical of Jack, assuming that the Doctor will just leave him with the Agents - and how he under-estimates the Doctor, too, by assuming that the Doctor needs Jack to ensure his safety.

So the Doctor's got a hotline direct to Agency top brass - and of course that makes perfect sense - and he's going to use it to keep Jack safe. Nice :) I'm looking forward to chapter 2.
lindenharp
Aug. 12th, 2008 03:45 am (UTC)
Thanks. I tried to post this all as one entry, but LJ complained that it was too long.
fatchickengirl
Aug. 12th, 2008 11:27 am (UTC)
interesting! looking forward to the next instalment...
lindenharp
Aug. 13th, 2008 01:22 am (UTC)
It's posted now, and is also archived on Teaspoon.
http://www.whofic.com/viewstory.php?sid=24788
fatchickengirl
Aug. 13th, 2008 05:06 pm (UTC)
Just read it, lovely and very thought provoking, you write 9 very well...
lindenharp
Aug. 13th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I love Nine in all his angsty, angry, goofy, snarky goodness.

fey_spirit
Aug. 14th, 2008 05:41 pm (UTC)
I loathe you - you and your tbc that sits there and mocks me... please oh please take mercy on us poor souls and give us the rest? Prove that you are despite all outward appearances a kind and generous soul?

(tone, light & teasing)
lindenharp
Aug. 14th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
No need for to beg for mercy, o desperate one! The second half of the story has already been posted. LJ (wicked, wicked LJ) would not let me post it in one piece. Read and be (I hope) content!
fey_spirit
Aug. 14th, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
Ok - you're forgiven ;)
Going over to read now!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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