Rating: All Ages
Characters: Nine/Jack + Rose
Summary: Jack and the Doctor go to a dumpling festival. No, really.
Word Count: 2336
A/N: This is a birthday fic for my dear friend yamx, written in haste and beta-read at the 11th hour by the wonderful canaana.
“Dumplings!” the Doctor announces, beaming. He looks, Jack decides, just like a magician who’s just pulled a dozen rabbits out of his hat.
“Dumplings?” Rose echoes. “What kind of dumplings?”
“Every kind of dumplings! Today is the first day of Autumn in Ul’nam, and it’s the Dumpling Festival. Human-settled world, so they’ve got all the ones from Earth cultures, plus dozens of alien varieties.”
“I’ve heard of it, but never been,” Jack says. “Almost two square kilometres of dumpling booths-- it’s like the biggest buffet in the galaxy!”
Rose grimaces. “I’m not really interested. Why don’t you blokes go without me?”
“You feeling all right?” the Doctor demands, leaning down to study her face.
She shrugs. “I ate a lot yesterday, at Sherry’s hen do. And then we were dancing and playing daft games until the pub closed. I’m not feeling sick,” she insists, “but today really isn’t a good day for all-you-can-eat dumplings. I think I’ll stay in the TARDIS, have a hot bath, watch some rubbishy films.”
“We’ll stay with you,” the Doctor declares, and Jack nods assent.
“No you won’t. I can be on my own for half a day,” Rose insists. “I want to be on my own. For once I can relax and do exactly as I please. You two lovebirds—” She grins at them. “Go have some fun together.”
“Rose? Are you sure?” Jack tries to gauge her mood. Rose has been remarkably understanding about his relationship with the Doctor, considering the confused, narrow-minded society she grew up in. The last thing he wants is for her to feel unwelcome.
“Very sure,” she says firmly, and gives him a sweet, unfeigned smile. “And the sooner you leave, the sooner I can be soaking in that bath. With bubbles,” she adds happily.
“If you’re sure...”
Rose demands and receives the customary parting hug and kiss from each of them. “Have fun! I’d say ‘be good’, but we all know what a waste of breath that would be.”
The Doctor pretends to be offended, and stalks out of the TARDIS. Jack only grins. “I’m always good,” he tells Rose, dropping his voice into an exaggerated throaty purr, “except when I’m excellent.” He dodges her mock slap, and hurries after the Doctor, laughing.
Central Ul’nam overwhelms all their senses with the merry recklessness of a frolicking puppy. The autumn breezes set colourful banners to flapping, wind-chimes to ringing, and swirl a hundred tantalizing scents under their noses. Ul’nami in their finest festival clothing fill the streets: laughing, chattering, singing, and above all, eating.
Jack spins in a slow circle. “Gods, this is amazing. I don’t know where to begin.”
“The booths are set up in a spiral,” the Doctor replies. “It starts from the statue of King Serrin IV, and rotates out from there. The vendors with the highest ratings, the ones who’ve won awards at past festivals, are nearest the statue.”
“Then let’s go see the King.”
As they make their way to the centre of the spiral, Jack stares in wonder at the gastronomic abundance. Dumplings of every conceivable size, shape and colour. Balls as small as cherries and as big as his fist. Tidy triangles and gracefully curved crescents. Dumplings stamped with good-luck symbols, or painted with edible dyes, or even dusted with gold. Dumplings that are fried, boiled, baked, and grilled. Dumplings stuffed with meat, or vegetables, cheese, fruit, nuts, or candied seeds. Dumplings served in soup; slathered with butter, or honey, or spicy relishes; or plain, with shallow dishes of dipping sauce. The Doctor never slows or pauses, but he identifies the various kinds in a non-stop litany as he strides by. “Pierogi, ravioli, maultaschen, wontons, manti, treggu, pantrucas, y’kk’ran, sadhikhai, kreplach, kozhakattai, tortellini, gyoza—”
Jack chuckles. “If you keep reciting all the names, you won’t have a chance to actually eat any of them. How many kinds of dumplings can there be?”
“I‘ve got no idea, Captain. Almost every humanoid species makes some sort of dumpling. There are hundreds from Earth alone, not to mention the colony worlds.”
They’ve reached the statue of King Serrin. Jack waits in a queue at a booth selling small fried balls of dough with a tart berry filling. “We had dumplings like these when I was a kid. Only for special occasions, because the berries for the filling were hard to find. We used to go up into the hills to pick them when they were in season.”
“And only half of what you picked actually made it back home?” the Doctor asks with a knowing smile.
“Uh, yeah. My hands and mouth were always as purple as a Tufted Trelfu at the end of one of those expeditions. I was big on immediate gratification back then.”
The Doctor snorts. “That hasn’t changed.”
“I can wait when I choose to,” Jack protests. “I enjoy building up anticipation. Sometimes.”
“You’re not as patient when you’re on the receiving end of that slow build-up,” the Doctor says. He grasps Jack’s free hand and brushes his thumb lightly across the palm, then circles his thumb and forefinger around his lover’s wrist.
Jack shivers. It’s a small gesture, especially in the midst of a public celebration, but it’s rare for the Doctor to be so possessive, so intimate, in a public place. “If you keep that up, I won’t have much of an appetite... not for dumplings, at any rate.”
“We can’t have that.” The Doctor drops Jack’s wrist and darts over to a nearby stall which is offering dumplings made from gathered circles of dough, gathered and pleated like little pouches. They’re partly open at the top, revealing a filling tinted bright gold with saffron. “Lucky money purses,” the Time Lord says. “S’posed to bring good fortune and riches in the coming year. Just superstition, of course, but they’ll make your mouth feel lucky.”
Jack leans closer to his lover. “You can make my mouth feel very, very lucky,” he murmurs.
“Look, they’ve got wonton soup over there!” The Doctor grins at him. “Do you know what ‘wonton’ spelled backwards is?”
“Oh, very funny,” Jack grumbles.
“Everything in its own time, Jack.”
They follow the spiral, circling ever sunwards. North, east, south, west. Mushroom ravioli. Shrimp gyoza. Bright blue sadhikhai studded with bits of pickled gham. Spinach maultaschen. Cheese ‘moons’. In between mouthfuls they exchange stories—memories of meals past, of visits to the places where these foods were born. Everywhere they wander, people are happily devouring the festival treats, grabbing their dumplings with fingers or forks or small wooden eating tongs. Some of them, Jack notices, are feeding others. There’s no discernible pattern. Some of them seem to be parent and child; others are siblings or lovers or friends. One grey-haired citizen, strolling with his children, greets another man who is apparently a neighbour, and offers a golden-brown morsel. The second man accepts, licks his lips contentedly, and presents a small green triangle in return. They exchange smiles and ritual good-wishes before moving in their separate directions.
Jack sees the Doctor watching him. “Local custom?”
“Yeah. The festival goes back to the early days of the settlement. Started as a harvest festival, celebrating how they’d worked together to make sure that everyone had enough food to see them through the winter months. Sharing, thankfulness, that sort o’ thing. Now, of course, the planet is developed and economically secure, but the Ul’nami still like to remember the old days. So they feed each other. Family, lovers, friends... anyone they feel closely tied to.” He shrugs. “What’s a festival without a few daft old customs?”
Jack nods. He can think of several worlds that have much less agreeable customs. Celebrations that involve blood and pain and other unpleasantries. He’ll take dumplings and wind-chimes any day. There are also entertainers in the streets: singing, dancing, and waving multi-coloured ribbons on long bamboo poles.
He pauses to watch a troupe of gymnasts while munching another style of berry fritter. The spicing is very good, though different to his childhood favourite. “Did you have something like this? When you were a kid?”
“You said all humanoid species make dumplings. What kind did you eat when you were young?”
“I don’t remember.” The Doctor’s face closes, sealed as tight as any airlock. “Nine hundred years is a long time, Captain. I don’t remember that kind of trivial detail.”
He’s lying. Jack used to be a professional liar; he knows falsehood when he hears it. It’s not a particularly convincing lie. Worse yet, it’s unnecessary. The Doctor could just say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” and Jack would drop the subject like a charged grenade.
Is that what you’d do? a mocking voice in the back of his head challenges. If he asked about your family?
He tries to argue with himself. Family is different. That’s personal, important.
His whole planet is gone, and everyone on it. Anything about Gallifrey is going to be personal and important, numblebrain!
“Hey, look over there,” Jack says brightly. “Aren’t those y’kk’ran? I can’t pass those by.”
They’re nearing the border between ‘sated’ and ‘stuffed’ when they see a booth draped in green and purple bunting, with stylised silver comets dangling from the awning. The beings behind the counter look mostly human, except for the faintly purple-tinged skin and the bony ridges along the jawline.
Jack recognises the species immediately. He’s met a lot of Lhucutans. They love to travel, and many of them choose to work their passage between worlds as temporary hands on freighters. They’re diligent and cheerful people, and quite peaceful, (except when someone tries to cheat them at backgammon), but Jack knows nothing about their cuisine. He moves closer. “Doc, you know anything about Lhucutan food?”
There’s no answer, not even the traditional growl of “Don’t call me Doc!” Jack glances towards the Doctor. He’s frozen in place, staring at the Ikrandan booth. Jack pushes forward to see what’s there. The Lhucutans working the booth and the customers clustered in front all look ordinary, harmless—which means exactly nothing. Jack is very good at looking harmless, and so is the Doctor, but they’re probably the two most dangerous beings on this planet.
Jack goes into alert mode. He doesn’t pull a weapon. Too early for that, and possibly more hazardous than useful in a crowd this thick. First task: identify the threat... if there is a threat. He moves ahead and to the side of the Doctor so he can track the Time Lord’s gaze, and follows it... to a platter of dumplings. They’re ivory-white, smooth, and perfectly circular, with a neat hole in the centre. Beautiful little rings, about six centimetres across. A waft of steam from the booth carries a faint, fruity odour, like peaches or apples.
The Doctor is staring at the dumplings as if they’re made of neo-cyclonite, as if a blink or a breath would ignite a planet-killing fireball. Obviously, that’s not the case, since Jack can see at least a score of festival-goers happily biting down on the ring-shaped treats. No explosives here, no hidden traps or deadly enemies. Just memories.
“Doctor. Doctor!” Jack repeats his lover’s name until the Time Lord turns and looks at him. “I’m not going to ask,” Jack says quietly. “I will never ask, though I’ll listen if you ever want to tell me. Right now, I’m just going to share something I figured out a while ago. There’s only two things you can do with memories like that. You can lock them in, bury them so deep that they can only come out during the occasional nightmare...” He takes a deep breath. “Or you can transform them, give them new associations.”
With a hand that shakes only slightly, he picks up one of the ring-dumplings and slowly moves it towards the Doctor’s mouth. After a pause that lasts several eons, the Doctor lets out a long slow breath, and his expressions softens. He parts his lips and accepts Jack’s offering.
The Time Lord closes his mouth and his eyes. Savouring? Remembering? Deciding? His throat convulses briefly as he swallows, then he opens his eyes and looks at Jack. With careful, almost ritual deliberateness, he picks up a dumpling and holds it out towards Jack.
Jack arches his neck forward and opens his mouth. The dumpling has a silky texture, and it glides easily down his throat, leaving just a hint of sweetness behind. “Thank you,” he says softly. “I don’t know the words they use here, but... thank you.”
Something he can’t quite define flickers in the Time Lord’s steel-blue eyes. “We don’t need words, Captain,” he says gruffly.
Jack nods. “So... what now? I don’t know about you, but I’m almost ready to explode.” He touches his belly with exaggerated care.
“Dunno,” the Doctor replies. “I s’pose we could go back to the TARDIS.”
“This early? Rose would kill us for interrupting her lazy day.” He glances around the busy streets. “Isn’t there somewhere else we can go? Someplace quiet and private?”
The Doctor’s eyes darken. “There are some bath-houses with guest rooms,” he says off-handedly.
“A nice hot soak sounds like a very good idea,” Jack replies, grinning.
“No bubbles,” the Doctor warns.
“I can live with that. And afterwards?”
“The festival is about sharing and thankfulness,” the Doctor replies. “I’m sure we can think of something appropriate.”
--- THE END ---