Jack trudged through the city towards his unconventional home beneath the Millennium Centre. Though it was barely gone five, Cardiff was dark, and street lights and shop windows were casting a glare through the steady drizzle. Just like hundreds of other nights, then. Thousands of other nights. Tens of thousands, if Jack were counting, which he liked to tell himself he wasn't.
His home-base for more than 100 years, Jack had been there to see Cardiff enter the modern age. His early investment in the electric light works project of the 1890's was the basis of his personal fortune, and it gave him a proprietary pleasure to walk through the pools of misty yellow illumination. The streetlamps could hardly be considered attractive, but they were much more effective than the romantic gas lights he'd first encountered. Now there was less chance of stepping in a puddle or being knocked over by a horse and carriage, or their modern reckless-driver equivalent, a motorbike.
The town had been smaller and rougher when he'd arrived in the 1870's, but there were already dangers drifting in through the space-time rift. Jack had had his hands full trying to mitigate the unnecessary cruelty of Torchwood, whilst simultaneously trying to limit the damage done by accidental incursions of alien tech and life forms. He'd had successes as well as failures over the years, and a list of people and places saved tabulated respectably in his head, beside the list of people and places lost. Things could have been worse. Without Jack, they would have been.
He passed the fountain tower and entered the tourist information office, shaking droplets of water off his greatcoat. The air warmed and the gloom brightened as he reached the main Hub work area, where the sound of familiar voices was muted in the cavernous space.
Owen and Gwen were playing with fire again; flirting outrageously while mistakenly thinking no one else noticed. Toshiko was packing her laptop and some file folders into a carry bag, and Ianto was collecting the latest round of used coffee mugs.
Tosh looked up as Jack came in. "Hi, Jack," she said with a quick smile. "I hope you don't mind if I leave early. I have some more work to do, but I've quite got it in my head to be sitting in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa while I do it."
Jack chuckled. "Once you see what the weather's like outside, that'll sound even better. Of course you can go. In fact, why don't you all go home? It's been a long day, but it's quieted down now, right? Nothing new came up while I was out?"
"Nah," came Owen's nasal twang. "Quiet as a church in here. All the beasties fed and bedded, and I wouldn't mind the same myself."
"It's settled, then. Just don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Owen snorted derisively. Jack had intentionally given them the impression that there was, in fact, nothing he wouldn't do.
Gwen was already pulling on her leather jacket. "Don't have to tell me twice. An early night sounds just the thing."
"I'll walk you to your car," Owen said, and the two gave each other smouldering looks. Jack refrained from rolling his eyes. He'd seen this before. It was a phase, and they'd soon get over it. Or they wouldn't. It didn't matter a lot either way.
They disappeared quickly through the door, and Tosh headed in the same direction, wrapped tightly in her coat, the heavy bag on her shoulder.
"Good night, then," she said. "Give a call if anything comes up."
"Of course," he replied. On impulse, he pulled her close for a hug. Releasing her, he said, "And my sincere advice is to leave the work for tomorrow, and find a nice, warm body to curl up with instead of your computer."
Tosh's smile faded, and she looked longingly toward where her colleagues had left together. Then with fake cheer she agreed, "Right," and made her way out.
Jack didn't intend to be cruel. He knew she didn't have anyone, but he kept hoping that would change. Tosh didn't know what a knockout she was. Any man, or woman, would be lucky to have her. That acerbic runt of a doctor she seemed to have set her sights on certainly didn't deserve her.
A discrete clearing of the throat brought Jack's attention back to his remaining team member, Ianto Jones, who stood with his coat in his hand, looking very young.
"I don't mind staying, sir, if you'd like the company."
Jack knew what Ianto was suggesting, but for once he wasn't really in the mood. They had grown closer since the Cyberwoman debacle, but too much dependence wasn't good for either of them. "I appreciate the offer, Ianto, but you should go home and get some rest. We don't know what mayhem we'll be dealing with tomorrow."
"As you wish," Ianto said, and bobbed his head. Jack had learned to read the Welshman well enough to note slight disappointment, but mostly easy acceptance. "I'll be in bright and early."
Jack wished him a good night, and then he was alone.
It was peaceful in the Hub, but Jack was still surrounded by sound. Water gurgled at the base of the fountain. A couple of Tosh's computers made the occasional beeping noise as they cycled through tasks she had left them. High above, Myfanwy chirruped and clucked to herself contentedly; even she didn't want to go out tonight.
Jack wandered into his office and settled at his desk. Paperwork didn't hold his interest, though, so he abandoned it for the sports section of the Western Mail. From there he was easily distracted by a mention of Hampshire's Rose Bowl - certain words always grabbed his attention.
Rose. His golden girl. All teenage bravado and curiosity. Sensual and big hearted.
And her counterpart, the Doctor. An enigma, a constant challenge to Jack. Like a bomb that had already begun to explode, a full conflagration was always imminent. Only the Doctor's force of will and sense of righteous purpose contained the potential nuclear meltdown inside him, but that made him all the more fascinating. Once he'd felt the intensity of the Time Lord's personality, Jack had craved more. Like a moth to a flame, Jack thought wryly.
Shaking off the images, Jack got up and put his coat back on. He rarely slept anymore, and if he stayed in the Hub he would just go over the same thoughts again and again. What had happened on the Game Station? Why had Jack been left? Had they believed he was dead? All pointless questions.
Setting his wrist computer to warn him if any rift activity were detected, he headed back out into the city, where the rain had become mist. Jack had a favourite routine on nights like this, which started with dinner in a little café that served excellent aubergine parmesan. After that he walked along the waterfront, through the developed areas and rougher shorelines, then farther into the city.
Some nights he liked to climb. Jack knew which buildings he could get into and take the stairs to the roof; it was good exercise and used up some of his restless energy. The view from the taller buildings also reminded him of flying around in his invisible Chula ship, looking down on a world that didn't even know he was there.
He chose an office building and made the twenty-story climb. The fog had lifted, so visibility wasn't bad. Jack knew the names of all the neighbourhoods that stretched out around him, but there'd been a time when he had known all the names of the streets, and even all the shops and shop keepers. Except for occasional absences, he'd been there to see generations come and go, and to see the town sprawl outward year by year.
It made him laugh to think of all the times someone had recognized him, and then accepted his explanation of 'You must be thinking of my father/grandfather,' at face value. But what else could they do? A man who never aged wouldn't even cross their minds.
After surveying the city, Jack crawled over the railing to sit on the ledge, legs dangling, his back to the bars. The buffeting of the wind with nothing between him and a (semi)fatal fall always made him feel like he was flying.
The idea had been to not think about the past, but Jack found himself slipping into one of his favourite memories – one that he'd rerun so many times he wasn't sure how much of it was real anymore.
They were out of breath when they got back to the TARDIS, but this time they were running for the sheer joy of it, not because they were being chased. It had been a good day. They'd helped out some green-skinned people who lived under glorious blue-leaved trees, and had enjoyed a pink polar lights display afterward. Life was good.
Laughing, Jack grabbed Rose by the hips and swung her around in a circle, managing a pleasant bit of body contact in the process. When they stopped Rose didn't step away, but rather moved in closer. She deliberately brushed her breasts against his chest and looked up at him from under her eyelashes with a wicked smile. Jack was rock hard within seconds.
Sensuality dripping from the otherwise innocent words, she purred, "A perfect day, wasnit, Captain?"
He ran his hands over the curve of her waist and up along her sides. "Almost. There's one thing that would make it even better."
Rose wriggled against him deliciously and said, "Yeah? Oh, I know what you want."
"I'm sure you do, but I'd be glad to describe it in full detail, just in case."
"You want," she paused suggestively, then slipped out from beneath his hands, laughing. "You want a nice cup of hot chocolate, don't you? With marshmallows."
She danced away lightly, and Jack groaned and closed his eyes, his cock painfully trapped inside his jeans. Much more of this teasing was going to kill him.
When he opened his eyes, he found the Doctor watching him, leaning against the consol with his arms crossed over his chest and a smug smile on his face.
"You gonna let her get away with that?" the Doctor asked.
Jack shrugged. "What am I supposed to do? You gave the hands-off signal pretty clearly."
"That was before I knew you, wasn't it? Now I know you're not gonna hurt her." He waved a hand toward Rose. "Have at it."
Shocked, Rose said, "What? You're givin' him permission to make a move on me?" Jack couldn't tell if she was happy about that or not.
"Yeah, sure," the Doctor replied lightly. "You two've been sniffin' around each other since he got here, building up an impressive cloud of frustrated pheromones. Bout time you put each other out of your misery. But," he clarified, "I get to watch."
Incredulous, Jack said, "What? Don’t joke about this, Doctor. You know how I feel about you both. You've definitely given the impression of being resistant to, what are you calling it? Dancing?"
The Doctor made a face. "Not resistant, just different. Gallifreyans don't have the instant libidos you primates do. With my people there's a respectable waiting period. Usually takes weeks or months to warm up to a potential mate. We do get there, though, no doubt about that."
Both Jack and Rose were listening to him with rapt attention. The Doctor was actually talking about his sexuality. Not something that happened every day. Or ever, come to that.
Rose ventured tentatively, "So you're saying that you're, uh, warmed up?"
"Mm hmm," the Doctor agreed brightly. "Pleasantly warm, me."
"But," Jack asked, "for whom?" The Doctor and Rose together, that was a given. But where did he fit in?
The Doctor's eyebrows went up. "Is there some reason I need to choose? Want you both." Some of the casual tone slipped as a heated edge came into his voice. "Want to watch you together."
Jack met Rose's eyes. She was surprised, but beyond that she and Jack were in total agreement. Jack moved toward her, calm and sure as a predator, and her pupils started to dilate just watching him.
"So," Jack said, his voice low, "would either of you mind if I did this?" Rose was wearing a pullover shirt, but there were two buttons at the top. He deftly undid them, and brushed his fingers over the twin swells of her breasts.
With a little gasp, Rose said, "I don't mind."
The Doctor added, "Not complainin'."
Jack leaned down and ran his lips over the soft skin where his fingers had just been, inhaling the warm scent of her throat, and noticed that she was already breathing faster. Touching Rose like this was a fantasy come true, but knowing that the Doctor was watching, and approving, was almost overwhelming. He slipped his hands under her shirt to caress her lower back, and pulled her body firmly against his.
"So this is good, then?"
"G-good," she stuttered. She had gone loose and pliant in his arms. Pure male desire washed through him. He could have her. He would have her. Jack brought his mouth to hers and began the conquest with a searing kiss. Rose returned the kiss, and pressed her breasts into his chest. There was heat and pressure around his erection, where Rose was grasping it through the denim.
"Oh, good girl," Jack growled, and started running his hands over her body, exploring her hips and thighs, her arse, her breasts, while nipping at her neck with his teeth. He started loosening and tugging away her clothing, to get at more skin.
Jack was only vaguely aware of another set of hands, which didn't join in, but guided them out of the control room and into the hallway. The next thing Jack knew there was a large inviting bed right beside them. He and Rose laughed for a moment when his attempt to remove her bra interfered with her attempt to remove his shirt. Then he was pulling her down onto the white sheets, licking her, kissing her, positioning her body, opening her legs.
Jack moaned, "Oh, Rose," as he pushed into her. Her hips came up to meet his, welcoming him. The satisfaction and pleasure of being inside her was profound. "Rosie." Her arms locked around his shoulders and pulled him down for another kiss.
He rocked into her forcefully, building their excitement. Making love to Rose was as good as he'd thought it would be. It wasn't like any other woman he'd been with, because it was Rose. There was nothing casual about fucking her. She'd become special to him. They both had.
The Doctor was lying on his side next to them, also naked, watching. When Jack looked at him, it was like being hit by a stunner blast. He was blown away by the force of the other man's gaze. Jack's need for the Doctor was as just strong as his desire for Rose.
The Doctor must have seen it on his face, because he suddenly leaned forward and, wrapping one hand behind Jack's head, pulled him in for a kiss. And there, that was just amazing; moving inside Rose and kissing the Doctor at the same time. A fierce joy bubbled up through him, and he couldn't get enough of either one of his lovers.
Spurred on by the Doctor leaning over them, breathing in Jack's ear, planting kisses on Rose's flushed face, murmuring encouragements to them, Jack brought Rose to orgasm twice before reaching his own enthusiastic climax.
Afterward, Jack lay prone beside Rose, floating in a blissful haze and enjoying the damp feel and smell of sex. Now it had been a perfect day. Then he felt what could only be the Doctor's lips on his shoulder, his hand skimming down the muscles in Jack's back. When those talented fingers began breaching and preparing his opening, Jack smiled. Perfection was about to be improved upon.
The Doctor entered Jack slowly, allowing Jack to savour every moment of it. Once fully inside, the Doctor relaxed onto Jack's back, nuzzling the nape of his neck. Slow, languid thrusts were punctuated by murmurs of, "Beautiful. My beautiful Jack." It wasn't the jolly rogering of a first-time fuck. The Doctor was making love to him as though they'd been together for years already. Jack wondered if it was another expression of the slow Gallifreyan build-up to mating. Whatever the case, it was all right by him.
Jack was literally humming with pleasure when he heard the Doctor quietly say, "Rose, you all right?"
Opening his eyes, he saw Rose next to them, looking a little freaked out, to use her 21st Century phrase.
"Does this bother you?" the Doctor asked, and stopped moving.
"Oh! No," she insisted, waving a hand. "It's just. I know what men do together. Of course I do. I've just never seen. I've never been." She indicated how close they all were to each other. "Just takes some getting used to."
Jack understood what she meant. New things did need time to become familiar, at least until constant new things became the norm, as they were for him. She was probably not used to being anything other than the centre of attention in bed, either, quite understandably.
He reached over and brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. "It's okay." Flattening his palm against the side of her throat, he drew his hand slowly down, over her clavicle, until he could cup a breast. He massaged it, flicked the nipple with his thumb, and then let his hand drift to the other breast. From her reaction, he had clearly succeeded in distracting her from any embarrassment she might have been feeling.
The Doctor resumed his torturously unhurried thrusts, and Jack reflected on this new degree of perfection. Fucked slow and deep by the Doctor, whilst fondling Rose. He felt an ache inside, which wasn't physical. It was emotion and contentment and a small niggle of fear that he could lose what he'd just found. He let that go, because life was change after all, and settled back into the moment.
Rose's breath hitched, and Jack saw that one of the Doctor's hands was busy between her legs. After tickling her outside, he slid his middle finger all the way into her and continued rubbing her clit with his thumb. Rose whimpered and rocked her pelvis up into the sensation. Between the two of them, Jack and the Doctor brought her to a quick, sharp orgasm, which made her glow like a Cabriun fairy-flower.
The Doctor turned them onto their sides facing Rose, and wrapped his hand around Jack's cock, his strokes keeping time with the quicker pace of his thrusts. Rose participated by kissing them both, and then experimented with nibbling Jack's nipples. Jack groaned out loud when the Doctor increased his pace again, "Yes. Doctor!" He was hitting Jack just right now, and all the stimulation was taking him to the edge.
The burning need to come was growing, drawing Jack's attention into himself. He thrust reflexively into the Doctor's hand, searching for the trigger that would set him off. Almost! He strained forward, then pushed back against the Doctor, and that was it. The soaring release of orgasm ripped through him, leaving him spent and sated.
The Doctor wrapped his arms tightly around Jack, and soon came himself, his body tensing and stilling, then relaxing to a degree Jack had never seen before. He whispered into Jack's ear, "It won't always be like that. Gentle, like. I just wanted you… I wanted it that way this time."
"Perfect, Doctor. Perfect," was all Jack could respond.
As they rearranged themselves more comfortably, Rose snuggled in with her men. Their arms and legs all intertwined, they'd drifted happily to sleep, their new intimacy wrapped around them like a warm blanket.
Jack realized that he had been rubbing his crotch as he cycled through the memory. Had it been a bit warmer he would have pulled his cock out and had off right there, as he'd done before, but for the time being he was satisfied with the warm glow of arousal.
He did feel slightly disgusted with himself for trotting out that memory again. It wasn't like he hadn't had lovers since then. It wasn't like he hadn't been in love since then. He had, and he didn't want to diminish those loves by making them second best to something that was long over and gone. It was just that Team TARDIS was on his mind that night. It would pass.
Jack pulled himself to his feet and made his way back to the street level. The rhythmic motion of walking one step after another as he continued his patrol lulled him and grounded him, like meditation. The present was the important thing, and the present was pretty good.
The sky was lightening by the time Jack headed back to the hub, tired in a good way, his restless energy under control. Crossing the Roald Dahl Plass in the neutral pre-dawn greyness, he noticed something flicker out of the corner of his eye. By the Bay railing, two figures. He couldn't quite see them, but they didn't feel right.
Smoothly changing trajectory to bring himself closer to the apparition, Jack was curious but unconcerned. Whether it turned out to be Weevils or lost space tourists or just a couple of kids after an all-night bender, he had no doubt that he could handle it. But Jack was unprepared for the shock when the figures became recognizable.
Rose and the Doctor. Standing side by side, watching him approach. Pouty lips and bleached-blonde hair. Piercing blue eyes and close cropped head. Rose and the Doctor, just as he remembered them.
Rose called, "Jack!" and held her hands out to him. Neither she nor the Doctor moved from where they stood, however.
Jack instinctively ran towards them, then stopped a few feet away, several emotions competing for dominance. Sheer joy at seeing them again. They'd come for him, finally! But why now? Why not sooner? Why did they leave him in the first place? And were they even real? He accepted the possibility that he was hallucinating, seeing what he wanted to see, especially as there was still something flat and translucent about them.
What he heard himself say was, "You left me! Where the hell have you been?"
"We didn't leave you," the Doctor said.
With a burst of anger, Jack challenged, "The hell you didn't."
Distressed, Rose said, "Jack, no," and reached for him again.
Jack found himself responding in kind, but the Doctor put his hand over Rose's and lowered it. "He needs to know what's happened, first."
"Yeah," Jack said, "why don't you tell me what happened? What happened that led to the TARDIS disappearing in front of my eyes? What happened that made me fucking immortal? Let's start there."
"Immortal?" Rose asked, shocked.
"In a manner of speaking," Jack replied bitterly. "In the sense that I can die. I do die. Over and over and over again. I just keep waking up each time. It’s a really fun variety of immortality."
The Doctor shook his head sadly. "We don't know all the details of what you've been experiencing. The important part is that none of it is real. This place isn't real. We've come to get you out."
Jack took a step back. "What are you talking about?"
"Do you remember the Game Station?"
"Of course I remember the Game Station. How could I forget the place where the happiest time of my life came to an end?" Jack's voice cracked. Saying it out loud destroyed the defences he'd built around that truth.
The Doctor's face fell more. "I'm sorry you experienced it that way. Listen to me, Jack, we haven't much time. You're still on the Game Station. We all are. We were caught and forced into televised game shows."
"Yeah," Jack agreed, "I remember. You were in a Big Brother house. Rose was in a quiz show, only they killed the contestants who lost. I was in a makeover programme that wasn't bad until they wanted to take my face off with a chainsaw."
"That's right up to a point," the Doctor said. "Rose and I were where you said, but you're in a reality show. A virtual reality show. That's what this is." He gestured around them. "You aren't in Cardiff, Jack. Your body is on the Game Station. You were put into a coma and wired into a VR machine, and this is being broadcast to Earth for its entertainment value."
"There are like ten channels that are all you," Rose said. "They have different levels of detail, or go to different periods in your virtual life. People can fast forward or rewind to the parts they want to see."
"You're experiencing it chronologically, but it's interactive for the viewers," the Doctor added. "They can jump around. The game draws on historical record and your imagination. It's partially scripted, but your reactions influence how the game plays out. I imagine it is entertaining to watch, provided the person has given permission, which I'm assuming you didn't."
Jack took a few more steps away and sat down heavily on a bench. "No," he said numbly. "That's not possible."
"It is, Jack, I'm sorry," the Doctor said. "But we need to go now. There's something going on at the Game Station. Something controlling the games. Something that brought us here when it shouldn't have been able to. Rose and I are hooked into your game so we can get you out, but we can't move from this spot or we'll be noticed. Our bodies are there next to yours, being watched over a very sweet little blonde girl, who couldn't protect us from a fruit fly."
"Yeah," Jack said. "Lynda with a Y. And it’s the Daleks. They're in control of Satellite 5, with a massive army ready to attack."
The Doctor shook his head. "No, it isn't the Daleks. It's something else."
"It is the Daleks," Jack insisted. "Lynda dies, everyone there dies, trying to buy you time to make a delta wave generator to stop them. My first death was extermination by Dalek. Everybody dies but Rose, because you send her home."
The Doctor tried to move toward Jack, but couldn't take a step. "Trust me, Jack. That was the game. All you need to do is take our hands, and we can bring you out of the game and back to us."
Jack stood up and started pacing, staying out of touching range. "How long are you saying I've been in a VR?"
Rose said, "Three, maybe four hours at most."
He turned to face them. "Try a hundred and forty years." They looked shocked at that information, so he said it again. "One hundred and forty years I've waited for you to find me. I've lived every day of it, every hour, every minute, on the slow path, on Earth. Right here. Friends, lovers, co-workers, everyone I've known and everything I've done for a hundred and forty years. You're telling me none of it was real?"
Rose grimaced, but said, "Yeah?"
The Doctor looked bleak. Of the two, he would have a better concept of just how long that was.
What they were saying was unacceptable. Torchwood not real. The Rift. Estelle not real. Gwen, Tosh, Owen and Ianto, not real. Cardiff itself.
"No," Jack said again. "How do I know it isn't you that's the lie? You show up here, obviously a projection of some kind, with this crazy story."
Rose looked confused. "Who else would we be?"
Jack shrugged. "Aliens. Some device that's causing me to see things. A temptation. A test, to see if I'll walk away from my responsibilities, from my team, without a backward glance. Which I can't do. Yes, I know, you're going to tell me my people aren't real, but they are. They are.”
He wasn't done. "And you, Rose and the Doctor, as far as I know you left the Game Station. Doctor, you regenerated. I saw a picture of the new you. I have your hand. And you, Rose, I think you died at the Torchwood Tower when the Cybermen and the Daleks invaded."
"My hand?" the Doctor asked.
"Yes, your…" Jack suddenly thought better of pursuing that line of conversation. "Never mind. The point is, why should I believe you?"
Rose was looking at him like he was a dangerous escaped mental patient needing to be placated. "I'm not dead, am I?" she said slowly.
Addressing the question, the Doctor said, "I don't think we can convince you we are who we say we are. If this VR is good enough that you believed it for that long, then we could be a good copy, too. But Jack, think about it. Immortality the way you describe it? It's not possible, not even for Time Lords. It would violate the laws of temporal physics. I think that when you die, the game resets your character, that's all. And Daleks and Cybermen invade the Earth at the same time, and the human race is still here? Not likely. You know that."
The Doctor had good points, which caused Jack some doubt. He said, "You saved us from the Daleks and Cybermen. You could do it."
The Doctor said sadly, "I hope I never have to. For more reasons than you know. You're going to have to decide for yourself. This is a delicate system. We couldn't just smash the machine on the other side and disconnect you, and I don't want to force you back with us. It could do irreparable damage to your mind. We can only hope that won't happen anyway." He held out his hand. "Come with us now, Jack."
Rose held out her hand, too. "Come on."
He wanted to. And he didn't. "I can't."
They all stared at each other for a moment, then the Doctor clapped his hands and rocked forward on the balls of his feet. "Well! A stubborn man with a mind of his own. That's our Jack. How about this? Rose and I can jump forward twenty-four hours, your time, and be here again tomorrow morning. It'll give you time to think. To get used to the idea. But be ready to come with us then. The longer we're in here, the more danger we're all in."
Jack nodded slowly. "All right. I'll give you my decision tomorrow."
Rose looked upset. "But how can you not want to come with us? Do you not…? Do you not love us anymore?"
Talk about a knife to the heart. Loving them was not the issue.
The Doctor intervened, "Rose, leave it. It's not that simple. Both of you, this'll turn out all right, I promise."
That sounded like the Doctor. "Go on, then. Jump forward," Jack said.
He started walking back to the Hub, but the Doctor stopped him.
He turned, and the Doctor met and held his eyes.
"I didn't leave you behind, Jack. I wouldn't leave you."
Jack had to take a deep breath to cover the jolt that gave him. He nodded, and the two figures blinked out of sight.
Inside the Hub the smell of fresh coffee was filling the air, letting him know that at least one of his people was already there. Jack went to the kitchenette under the stairs and found Ianto arranging mugs on a tray.
"Good morning," he said nervously, watching Ianto, looking for any sign of artificiality. There was none.
"Morning, sir," Ianto said pleasantly, like so many times before, his plump lips making an obligatory twitch toward a smile, without quite getting there.
"Ianto," he said. When the other man stopped what he was doing and looked at him, Jack stepped forward and slid one arm around his waist and the other around his shoulders, holding him tightly against his body. He buried his nose in Ianto's hair and breathed in the familiar clean scent. It scared him to think that this might only be an illusion, and he clutched the fine suit jacket and the flesh beneath more tightly.
Ianto patted Jack's back awkwardly. They had a physical relationship, but it didn't involve hugging. "Uh, sir. Jack. Is everything all right?"
Jack clapped the Welshman’s shoulders vigorously as he released him. "Yes! Of course. Everything's fine. Just saying hello. Carry on."
Ianto poured his special coffee blend into a mug, and fixed it just as Jack liked it; no sugar, and a drop of milk. Jack took it and inhaled the intoxicating aroma. Taking a sip, he made a sound of pleasure which provoked something close to a real smile from Ianto.
"Thanks, Yan. I'll be in my office."
He made his way slowly up the short flight of stairs, looking carefully at everything around him. The detail was perfect - every crack, every smudge, every bit of forgotten detritus. How could he even question that this was real? No machine could create this level of detail, not even in the year 200,200.
He stood at his office window and watched as the others came in; first Tosh, then Owen, and finally Gwen. Using determination alone, he refrained from rushing over and running his hands over each of them in turn. He knew what they all felt like; it wouldn't be any different this morning.
They gathered in the conference room for a regular staff meeting, and Jack kept forgetting to listen to what the others were saying, he was so intent on watching their faces.
Gwen waved her hand to get his attention. “Hello? Earth to Jack.”
“Hm? Sorry, what were you saying?”
“Just that there have been reports of ghosts at the Castle again.”
“Yeah, and?” Jack said, unsurprised by the news. “We know all about that. They aren't exactly ghosts, but they’re harmless.”
“Well, apparently there are new ghosts, chasing the old ones. When they catch them, they fight it out until one of them wins, which means any nearby tourists get sprayed with slime from the explosion. So far visitors are accepting the explanation that it’s a special effects show, but the staff are getting nervous.”
Jack wondered why his mind would possibly make up something like this, or if it was part of the program. And would he have to ask himself that about everything that happened from now on?
Tosh’s tablet beeped, and she poked it a few times. “Weevil sighting. In a playground in Splott. Only one, but it’s wrecking the place.”
“Okay,” Jack said decisively. “Owen and Tosh find out what’s going on at the Castle. Gwen and Ianto take care of the Weevil.”
Four faces turned to him in surprise. Ianto said, “Me? You’re not going?”
“No. It'll be good for you to get more field experience. You can all handle this without me. I won’t always be around to take care of things.”
Which wasn’t necessarily true. If this wasn’t real and he suddenly got pulled away, they wouldn’t have to make do without him because they would cease to exist. If this was real, then Jack would potentially always be there. Always, forever. Unless he allowed himself to be taken in by some trick or trap, or walked away voluntarily.
“And what,” Owen inquired archly, “will you be doing while we’re getting slimed?”
“Important boss things. None of your business. Now get going, and stay in touch.”
The others filed out, but Ianto held back. “Are you sure everything’s all right? You’re acting a bit off.”
Jack gave him a big smile. “Everything’s fine. I’ve got a lot on my mind, but nothing for you to worry about. Have fun out there.”
Ianto raised a sceptical eyebrow, but went to get his equipment anyway.
Alone in the Hub, Jack went to his desk and brought his computer to life. The first thing he did was review the CCTV files for that morning. He easily found himself walking across the Plass, but nearing the railing he entered a blind spot, which none of the cameras covered. He walked back into the picture several minutes later.
On the one hand, the Doctor had said he was trying not to be noticed by the game program, so the positioning would make sense. On the other hand, it was a good way for an adversary to cover a deception. No help, then.
Next he reviewed the sensor logs, looking for anything out of the ordinary in that location. There was nothing, but the Doctor and Rose mentally tapping into a computer program might not be detectable by Torchwood’s instruments; they were set for recognizable temporal/spatial anomalies and physical manifestations. If he was living in a computer program, then Torchwood’s instruments would only respond according to pre-set game rules anyway. Or it could have been done with entirely mundane equipment that wouldn’t be detected, such as a hologram projector. Or, of course, he may have imagined the whole thing.
Jack spent some time with his wrist strap, seeing if it would pick up on anything the less sensitive Torchwood systems couldn’t. The problem was, how do you prove that you’re experiencing reality? There were no standard tests for that. Jack felt pain and hunger. He felt love and hate. He could feel the sun on his face. What device could be more convincing than that?
But what, really, would be the point of an apparition telling him the world he knew didn’t exist? What would an outside force gain from that that they couldn’t achieve by other means? And if Jack was imagining it, then he wasn’t fit to lead Torchwood anyway.
Owen and Tosh came back first. Before Jack let them head to the much needed showers, he asked for a report.
“Apparently,” Tosh said, “it was an ectoplasmic fight to the death. By the time we got there, there were only two left. Now there’s one, and it seems calm enough.”
“There can be only one,” Owen intoned portentously, then snickered at his own joke.
“Owen,” Tosh complained tiredly, “how many more times are you going to say that?"
"At least once more to Gwen and Teaboy. Too good to pass up."
Gwen and Ianto came back a short time later, wrestling a sedated Weevil down into the cells. The thing had put up a fight and taken refuge on top of the monkey bars, just to make things harder. Gwen had a tear in her jacket, but was otherwise fine. Ianto had suffered several cuts and bruises, and the tragedy of ruining a very posh suit.
Jack leaned on the railing looking down into the Autopsy Room, watching Owen tend the younger man's injuries. Behind him, he could hear Gwen and Toshiko discussing which of the area's dry cleaners were better at getting out which kinds of stains. They should have just asked Ianto, because he was an expert in clothing repair and stain removal, mostly thanks to Jack.
When he walked over to them, Gwen asked, "Jack, there are several Weevils down in the cells now. What do you do with them? They can't spend the rest of their lives there, can they?"
"No," Jack agreed. "Mostly, with time and a little chemical conditioning to discourage their taste for human blood, they become docile enough we can return them to the sewers. It's that or kill them, which we try to avoid but will do if we have to. The one we call Janet is a tough case. She's resistant to the drugs, but has been here long enough that we get sentimental at the thought of putting her down."
"Speak for yourself," Owen said, coming up the stairs. "You'd feel differently about it if you were the one cleaning out her cell every day."
"Oh?" Ianto rejoined, following behind him. "And how would you know anything about that?"
"Not always here, are you? When you're off somewhere I get the shit work."
Tosh cleared her throat pointedly and raised an eyebrow. "I seem to recall that it's a seniority issue. Last time Ianto was away," she said, referring obliquely to his mandatory leave of absence after the Cyber-Lisa incident, "Gwen had the pleasure, not you."
"I've done it," Owen objected. After a disbelieving silence he amended, "I did it once, anyway. That was enough. I've got better things to do than muck out the cell of an alien with all the manners of a sewer-dweller."
"Yes," Jack said, stepping back into his role as the boss. "I think you all have things to do. Anyone who doesn't, let me know and I'll come up with something."
The four scurried to their work stations and made sure to look busy. He loved them, he really did. All of them a little broken, but each with their own strengths, too. They were his family now, for better or worse. A dysfunctional, bickering, competitive family, but his.
Jack returned to his office to think. He'd considered Rose and the Doctor to be his family for a while, too. A family that lived in a time-travelling space ship, but more than that; lovers. It had been extraordinarily intense between them.
Images came to him. Memories of lovemaking and of raw sex, both.
-- Jack standing naked with his hands restrained above his head. Rose with her back to the Doctor's chest. The Doctor lifting her, holding her with his hands under her open thighs, lowering her onto Jack's erect cock. The Doctor controlling the fuck completely. Jack's only contact being with the wet heat of Rose's vagina. Erotic, primal sex. It took Jack's breath to think of it, even so many years later.
-- Cuddling together on the sofa after a long day. Relaxing, tangling up with each other. A hand brushing an arm, a leg pressing against a groin. Heat and desire building slowly, moving naturally to comfortable, lazy completion.
-- Rose and Jack stripping the Doctor of his clothes while they remained dressed; something that was difficult for the Time Lord, but which he allowed them to do. Rose kneeling, taking the Doctor's cock in her mouth while Jack stood behind him, arms encircling and holding him, palms brushing over his sensitive nipples. The Doctor trusting them to take care of him, to catch him and to carry him through his pleasure.
They had been three lovers together, equally. Each had touched the others in every way possible, no intimacy left unexplored. The Doctor had saved those impossibly long bone-melting fucks for Jack, though. Jack had never known anything like the feeling of being held by the Doctor, being held down by him, his body worked over until he was coming apart at the seams.
Jack had had other lovers both before and after, but he didn't think the kind of thing he'd had with Rose and the Doctor could happen more than once in a lifetime, not even a lifetime as long as his. And it was being offered to him again. All he had to do, potentially, was take their hands and pick up where they left off.
Things that seemed too good to be true, often were. When someone walked up to you and offered you your deepest desire on a platter, there was always a catch. Jack had been a con man and he knew exactly how playing a mark worked. Usually, though, he wasn't the mark.
"Jack, what do you want?" He was shaken from his reverie by Gwen, who was standing in his office door.
Thrown, he said, "W… what?"
"To eat. We're ordering Indian."
He looked at his watch. It was after 6 pm already, and when had that happened?
"Uh, Chicken Tikka, I think, and all the extras. Thanks."
They gathered in the conference room to eat, and then Jack kept them there talking, telling outlandish stories to make them laugh, and prompting their own stories, which were probably no more authentic than Jack's had been. He didn't want the evening to end.
Eventually, Ianto started nodding off where he sat. Owen said, "Come on then," and slapped Ianto on the shoulder, though Jack noticed that the contact was actually quite gentle. "I'll give you a ride home. You shouldn't drive after the painkiller I gave you."
Ianto sat up straight and said a little too clearly, "I'm perfectly fine."
"Sure you are," Owen agreed. "Nothing a good kip won't fix."
"I should be going, too," Gwen said. "Rhys is expecting me."
"Me, too," Tosh added. "See you tomorrow, Jack."
"Yeah," was all he could find to say as a sudden, unaccustomed panic spread through him. He wanted to keep them there, or at least say something meaningful.
There were no circumstances, however, in which saying goodbye would be a good idea. If he let them know anything was wrong, they wouldn't in fact leave. If this wasn't real and he left, they wouldn't be coming in to the office tomorrow looking for him anyway. If it was a trick of some kind and he was stupid enough to be taken in, then he should deal with it on his own and not endanger them. If he decided to stay, then there would be no reason to say goodbye.
"Right," he said. "Have a good night. Sleep well."
As they closed up their work stations and left one by one, Jack concentrated on projecting an air of calm unconcern, while inside he felt anything but. This was by far the most difficult decision he had ever made, in nearly one hundred and eighty years of life. It was harder than deciding to leave his home world to join the Time Agency. Harder than the life and death decisions he’d made as an Agent. Harder even than deciding to intercept a detonating bomb with a tractor beam, knowing that it could be fatal.
It seemed that there was no way to externally verify whether the Doctor and Rose were real or whether Cardiff and his team were real. He could spend the night going back and forth on that without reaching a conclusion, and he couldn't have it both ways. The true question was which he wanted more. Who would he choose?
This decision effected more than just him. He had to choose between a) his old lovers; the love of his life, not to put too fine a point on it, and b) everything he’d built since he’d been on Earth, everyone he’d loved, his responsibilities. Either way he would have to betray someone.
If what the Doctor said was true, then there was no one here to betray, but it wasn’t that easy. Jack would know what he’d done, if he chose to leave. He would know that he'd chosen to leave behind people who depended on him, based on no more than wishful thinking. And if the whole thing was a trick that made it impossible for him to return, he would have walked into it willingly. His people deserved better.
If he stayed, he would be turning his back on the Doctor and Rose, and on everything he might have accomplished with them. What if he wasn’t there when they needed him, and they were hurt? What if he wasn’t there to save a world or stop an injustice? Many more lives could be lost.
And that wasn’t even taking into account his own selfish desires. He ached to be with the Doctor and Rose again. They were the most profound relationship he’d ever had, and they still owned a huge piece of his heart. The Doctor, particularly, had made him the man he was today, even in his absence. At the same time, Jack was deeply attached to his wounded, troubled team. He was responsible for them, and they needed him so much more than the Doctor ever could.
The night passed quickly. The thought of going out and roaming the city again was too painful, so he stayed in and walked through all the levels of the complex, visiting the morgue storage units that contained lost friends and colleagues of decades past. He very seriously asked the hand floating in the bubbling jar what he should do, but it didn't answer.
Morning came, and Jack put on his coat; his armour and security blanket all in one. He picked up a pen to leave a note, but then put it down again. There was nothing for it but to just go, and he walked up to the Plass, sealing each exit behind him.
When Jack approached the meeting spot it was empty - no one in sight. Another surge of adrenalin ran through him at the new uncertainty. Maybe he was too early, or something had happened to the Doctor and Rose, or there was never anything there to begin with. He couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed.
He waited a few minutes, then the light changed and flickered, and Rose and the Doctor appeared looking exactly as they had before. Jack’s heart leapt in his chest at the sight. All other considerations aside, they were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. After missing them for so long, they were within touching distance.
"Hello, Jack," the Doctor said.
"Hello, Doctor. Rose."
The Doctor asked, “Are you ready to go now?”
Jack said, "Do you know what you're asking me to do? What you're asking me to leave behind?"
"Not precisely, no," the Doctor admitted. "People you care about, at the very least. Has to be done, though."
“Doctor, tell me something. Assuming what you say is true, and this is a game, I could still stay here, couldn’t I? I'll live forever here. Millions of years. Billions."
"It might seem that way, but I don’t know how long your body would actually survive on the Game Station. Not long, I think."
"But," Jack insisted, "it would be a long time for me."
The Doctor nodded unhappily. "Yes, it would."
“And if I decide to stay, will you accept my decision?”
Upset, Rose protested, “But Jack, you have to come back with us! You can’t really choose to live in a game. That’s just... that’s crazy, and I'm not havin' it!”
Jack met her eyes to try to comfort her, but didn’t say anything. It was the Doctor’s response that was important.
The Doctor watched him carefully. “It would be a form of suicide, lad. I can’t agree with that. Is it so wonderful? Are you so happy here that you would give up your life for it?”
Jack shook his head. It wasn't that he was so happy. “Just answer my question. Would you accept my decision, or would you force me to go with you?”
After considering Jack for a moment, the Doctor said, “All right. If that’s what you want. Trying to take you out of here against your will would probably kill you, too.”
Rose turned to the Doctor anxiously. “Doctor…”
The Time Lord’s face began to show his distress. “But I don’t want to lose you like this, to a stupid game show. Your place is with us. I want you with us. Want you. I’m askin’ you, Jack. Come back to us, please. I can beg,” he offered.
“No,” Jack said, “don’t beg.”
This was what he'd needed to hear. He didn't actually want to live forever. It was more important that the choice was his, as terrible as it was. And that the Doctor cared for him, valued and wanted him. It healed a wound in his heart that had grown from the idea of having been left behind because he didn't matter enough to bother with. That was the bottom line. His desire to believe that he hadn’t been tossed aside was strong enough to remove the last of his resistance.
He stepped toward them, calm at last. “I want to be with you again, more than I want anything else.”
Jack held out his hands to them, and Rose immediately grabbed one, saying “Oh, thank god. We love you, Jack, an' we're not lettin' you go.” He began to feel a tingle throughout his body.
More slowly, the Doctor reached out as well. He nodded and said simply, “I’m glad.”
When their hands touched, a jolt went through Jack, like being electrocuted, and he screamed. Then everything went black.
Jack gasped back to life exactly like he'd been doing for years, except this time there was something lodged in his throat. Disoriented, he tried to cough it out and began to struggle against whatever was restraining his limbs.
There were hands touching him, and voices. "Jack! Jack, calm down. Let me take out the breathing tube."
It was the Doctor. He wasn't sure where he was, but he was so used to obeying the Doctor's orders that he fought to control himself. There was a sharp, grating pain in his throat that made him gag, but then he could breathe again.
Opening his eyes, Jack saw the Doctor and Rose looking down at him with concern. Reluctantly, he began to remember where he supposedly was, and where he had just been. The room looked like Satellite Five, but was it real, or was this the illusion? It was too soon to tell.
The Doctor was talking. "They have you wired up like a Christmas tree. Just stay still and let me get you free."
Jack looked down at himself. He was lying on a medical bed, attached to or penetrated by dozens of tubes and wires. Unsurprisingly, he was naked. He cast a quick glance around looking for homicidal design droids. Besides Rose and the Doctor, the only other person in the room was Lynda, looking overwhelmed by the technology and, he noted, his by glorious nakedness.
He managed a weak leer, and croaked, "Hello, there. Captain Jack Harkness."
"Stop it," the Doctor scolded reflexively.
"Was just saying hello," Jack protested, as he dropped his head back and closed his eyes. He felt a little floaty. Did that mean that this was real, or that it wasn't?
What the Doctor was doing caused considerable discomfort, but was a relief as well. When one of his arms had been freed from the apparatus, Rose took his hand and held it to her lips. "It's good to have you back, sleepyhead."
He smiled for her, but wasn't yet convinced that he was, in fact, back, or if it was a good thing.
The Doctor chatted as he disconnected Jack from the medical equipment. "It's lucky we found you when we did. A lot of this isn't meant for long term care. Would have done more harm than good." When he'd finished he helped Jack sit up. "Are you up to a bit o' running around, because we've got a lot to do."
"I'm fine," Jack insisted.
The Doctor turned to the two women. "We could use some more weapons before we head up to Floor 500. Would you ladies have a look around, see what you can find?"
Rose looked at Jack and wavered. "Weapons?" she asked doubtfully.
"That's right. I'll get some clothes on this young man and we'll join you."
"All right," she agreed without much enthusiasm. To Lynda she said sharply, "Come on, then."
After they'd left, the Doctor stood so he could look Jack in the face, then cupped his hand around Jack’s cheek. "Tell me the truth," he said. "Are you all right?"
Jack wasn't sure. He wasn't the same man he'd been the last time he'd seen the Doctor in the flesh. People he cared about were gone out of reach, but he still expected to see their faces any moment. "Not really," he answered.
The Doctor met Jack's eyes. "I know you're grieving, Jack. Believe me, I know how you must feel, but you'll have to deal with it later, because we need you here, now. We don't know what we're up against yet, but it's something powerful."
Grieving didn't begin to cover it. What he didn't yet know was if he would ever again be sure that this was reality, and not just a really good fake. Was he right now living a fantasy? He honestly couldn't tell the difference. But he'd made his choice, so he'd have to go on as though it were real.
The Doctor said seriously, "Your grief is natural. The people you knew were real. To you they were. They lived through you. Jack, you're not immortal here. Through this game you've already had more time, more experiences, than any human ever has. Think of that time as a gift. Cherish it. Remember it and remember them. But be here with us now."
Jack nodded, knowing the Doctor was right. There was no other way to go forward. "I am, I promise. I'm here. I'm glad to be here."
"Good lad. So, do you think you can get dressed by yourself? I'd best see that the girls don't get into any trouble."
Jack's wrist strap was on a side table, with clothes laid out next to it. Leather trousers, a white T shirt, and a leather vest. Figured.
"Yeah. Go ahead. I'll catch up."
The Doctor stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Jack, holding him close and running his hands soothingly over Jack's back and shoulders. It felt better, more real, than his best memories had, and he hugged the Doctor tightly, his heart pounding in his chest. The Doctor looked a little misty-eyed when he pulled away but, without saying anything more, headed toward the door.
"Doctor," Jack called.
The Doctor turned. "Yeah?"
"Thanks for coming back for me. Do you think, though, that we could avoid any more visits to Cardiff for a while?"
The Doctor grinned. "I think that can be arranged."
"Oh, and Doctor, just for the record, if you run into Queen Victoria, be really, really nice to her, okay? For me?" It wouldn't be a great tragedy if Torchwood was never formed in the first place.
"Sure, Jack, whatever you say," the Doctor said agreeably, and left the room.
Jack sat for a moment, reordering his mind. This was exactly what he'd wanted for so long, to be with Rose and the Doctor again, and off on a new adventure. It was a good thing. It really, truly was. He couldn't wait to be alone with them, to touch them, to love them, to make new memories with them. His heart was warming at the thought. Any doubts could just go screw themselves.
The Doctor had said that the game was based in part on historical record. Maybe that meant that in early 21st Century Cardiff Ianto Jones, Gwen Cooper, Toshiko Sato, and Owen Harper were busy living their lives. Some day he would have to go see, but not right away. For now, his life was here.
He got up and pulled on the clothes, which fit as well as he remembered. Examining himself in a mirror, he said, "Looking good, if I do say so myself."
Then he followed the others through the door and didn't look back.