He wakes to death slowly, reluctant to move, unwilling to see where he's been dragged to this time. A buzz of pain in his chest reminds him of the alien bullets that bled his life out. Damp cold creeps up from the ground beneath him to send chills along his aching muscles even through the heavy wool of his coat.
Giving in to the inevitable, he groans, opens his eyes and loses his breath. Spread out above him and stretching past the limits of his vision are stars, the whole galaxy shining on black silk waves. He forgets that he is dead. Forgets pain and loss and allows himself to drink in heaven and be swallowed in turn.
An eon later his attention is dragged back to earth by a soft thump against his head. He shifts towards the pressure and finds himself watched by vertical golden eyes framed in shadow-less black fur. "Meow?"
"Meow yourself," he says with a grin. "So you're the Death Cat? That's a new one…" His words are cut short as several pounds of silver cat lands on his stomach and stalks towards his face. "Mer?" asks the second cat.
"Ooof. Never learned cat, sorry." He sits up, the silver cat leaping to safety as he moves. Side by side the silver and black cats regard him with unblinking eyes. Now that he sees them together he remembers seeing them before, somewhere else dark, but not nearly as cold. "What can I do for you ladies?" he asks at his most charming.
The cats turn and look at each other, tails grazing the frosted ground in tense circles. "Alright, what's going on?" he asks when the silence between him and the cats becomes more than he can tolerate.
The black cat dips her head to the silver and they both turn to face him, gold and green eyes gleaming in the darkness. He shivers from more than cold as the silver cat climbs across his outstretched leg, leaving shimmering paw prints on the fabric of his pants with each step. The cat stops at his groin, rears up on her hind legs to look him in the eyes. Then very slowly, as if making sure he is watching her movements; she raises one paw and presses it against the center of his forehead.
Around them the winds of time begin to circle, tugging at his hair and the cats' fur. And deep in his body he hears a voice. It is ages old and rumbles through his veins with a ripple of compassion. "Come to her hall. Peace may be found there."
He blinks stunned. The cat pushes her other paw into his chest and he falls back into the whirl wind, back into life.
Jack appeared on her doorstep unannounced. He was covered in at least two kinds of blood, his own and something else's from the color and sulfuric tang of it, dirt, sweat and something that smelled of wet dog. He was also exhausted. Pain etched deep lines around his eyes and carved his lips into a semi-permanent grimace. Worst of all, from her view point, he paced. Or tried to. Better to say he lurched from the back of one chair to a table top. From there to the mantle over the hearth and from there to the weapons rack at the end of the hall. Then he slid to the floor, his grime covered great coat catching on the throwing axe at the bottom of the stand.
Hella, Lady of the Dead, nodded at Modgud. The Guardian of the entrance to all of Hella's lands returned the nod then looked down the hall at the crumbled mess that was Jack and shook her head slowly. "Djúpr mein."
"Yes, very deep," Hella agreed. She looked down at the list of names in her hand. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The All-Father had a cruel way of dealing with his children, especially those destined to save the world time and time again. "Thank you for bringing me the update," she said as Modgud stood. Her friend and protector dipped her head in a shallow bow and strode out of the hall.
The Mistress of Hellheim gathered her scattered thoughts with another deep breath, closed the file in her lap, set it on the table beside her chair and moved a large chunk of obsidian very deliberately on top of the file. If she could not stop the deaths to come, perhaps she could delay them long enough for some good to come out of their sacrifice. Releasing her hopes into the stone, she leaned into the furs draped across the back of her chair and buried her bony hand into the deep black fur of the cat curled in her lap. Silence's tail paused in mid swish down Hella's softer flesh covered hand resting along the cats hip, and then continued in its lazy course. Her eyes, Hella knew from long experience, would be open and watching their guest, seeing more than most two leggeds would ever catch in a single glance.
Hella regarded her guest in her own way. Captain Jack Harkness was the name he used, but not the name he was born with, Hella well knew. The human Jack Harkness had died and gone through the halls of the dead over 60 years ago. She'd tried to find the real Harkness and see what he was like, but he had already moved on, so she left him to his new life and wished him well.
She wondered, as she often did with her guests, what the not-Jack, Captain Harkness saw when he looked at her. Her living side was facing the fire. The side of her that was exposed bone felt only extremes of temperature so the chill air of the hall was hardly noticeable along that side of her body. The living, flesh encased side of her felt every change in wind and temperature, every sensation that skin was designed to experience. Her attendants regularly placed her chair so that she could feel the warmth of the fire on her skin. That this also placed the white bones of her face and hand within the shadows was an added benefit.
An ember burst in the hearth, giving off a hint of smoky pine scent and drawing Hella's eyes from the crumbling man in the shadows to the fire. Deep in the coals figures moved, beckoning. She waved two bone white fingers in the direction of the dancers, and the visions disappeared. Messages from Muspellheim and the Fire Giants would have to wait until later.
Hella turned back to Jack and noticed that the coals had drawn his sight as well. His eyes were glazed and she could see flickers of flame dance across unshed tears. "Jack?" she said leaning forward. He tossed his head, as if chasing away something tangible and sticky. Hella knew the fire's power and feared what he might be seeing in the state he was in. "Jack!"
Jack looked up at her, confusion in his eyes. "Hella?"
He shook himself, like a dog shaking off water from the sea, deep bodied and thorough, then looked around the shadowed hall and back at Hella. "Hellheim?"
"Yes, you came to my hall. Stormed in actually, like Odin Wind-Bellower himself."
"I'm sorry," he pushed himself to his feet, and she watched his mask slam back into place. She had a Gentleman Caller now hiding the Wounded Man. "I should not…" She cut him off with a wave of her hand.
"Odin has yet to bring down this hall; so I think it unlikely you will manage the task."
"Still, I shouldn't have presumed." Jack tipped back against the wall beside the weapons rack, still unsteady on his feet. It seemed as though he pulled the very shadows with him as he shifted.
"Yet you did," she said, gently dislodging Silence. She rose from her chair to walk slowly towards him. She stopped just at the edge of the fire light, leaving him his circle of shadows.
Through the darkness Hella could see the fire reflected in his eyes, highlighting the buttons on his coat, the communicating mechanism in his ear. His mouth opened once, twice. He took a deep breath and finally spoke. "I almost killed Gwen tonight."
He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, kept his head bowed, intent on something on the floor between them. She thought he might leave his tale unfinished, but after a moment, the rest tumbled out of him like unruly children.
"I had the Skatzon in my sights, a perfect shot, and everything went wrong. Gwen was thrown into the pack as I let off a shot. I called out to her and she turned to look at me. Turned right into my bullet. One of the Skatzon came at her at the same time. Only thing that saved her life. "
Her heart ached for him. While the victorious dead went to Odin's hall, Hella was well acquainted with the sights, sounds, and mistakes of battle. Too many who should not have died, did because someone called out to them, or they had looked in the wrong direction at the wrong time, and came through her hall to weep in her arms. "That is the nature of battle."
Jack nodded, still not looking at her. "Instead of Gwen it was me. I died. At the end of the fight. We had them all rounded up, Ianto and Gwen herding them back into their ship, but we missed one. Too many of them not enough of us, and I missed one. Shot me in the chest just as I holstered my gun. I died, again."
The memories of the evening, of his team and his life seemed to wash over Jack then. The words stopped. He stood, unmoving, tears forcing their way through his tightly shut eyes. Hella watched him struggle for composure and made a decision. She turned away from Jack. He was so deep in his memories of the night, she wasn't even certain that he was aware of her existence at the moment. She walked to the front of the hall where her servant Ganglati stood waiting for her, having known, as he always seemed to, that she would have need of him. With quiet words she sent him for warm water, towels, and clean clothes. He returned shortly, assisted by her serving-maid Ganglot. Between them they carried all she had asked for, as well as a tray filled with food. The two servants walked through the hall, placed a low table close to the fire, set down their supplies and left in silence.
Hella could feel Jack watching her as she checked the placement of the meal and her requested items. Apparently he was more aware of his surroundings than she gave him credit for. She looked over to see suspicion in his eyes and raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
"I thought it was against the rules to eat the food of the dead," Jack replied.
"Seeing as how you cannot stay dead, I don't imagine my food will trouble you. But if you wish, you are welcome to starve."
Jack gave her a look, but said nothing.
"Come Captain, your dinner awaits you." She held out her hand. If he insisted on being a Gentleman, then he would not refuse to escort her to dinner, even if it was only a few meters away. The Wounded Man flinched but was quickly replaced with the Dashing, if tired, Gentleman. Captain Harkness pushed himself away from the wall, away from the shadows. He took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed the soft skin with a weary grin.
He escorted her to her seat, waited until she was settled before he pulled a second chair across from hers, took off his filthy over coat and finally sat down with a boneless grace. Hella served them both a portion of steaming stew while Jack cut them slices of the fresh bread and a fragrant blue veined cheese.
The feline guardians perked up from were they had been watching the Lady and her guest beside the fire and came to sniff at her bowl with wide eyes and shivering whiskers. She caressed Silence's ears absently and the cat flicked her tail, clearly frustrated. Moonlight reached one black paw up towards the bowl of stew and mewed when her mistress lifted it out of reach.
Hella sat back in her chair, eating her food slowly, more interested in the man before her, than her stomach. Jack ate as though he had not seen food in months. She did not think he could even taste the stew as quickly as each spoonful filled his mouth. "When did you last eat?" she asked. He shrugged, tore off a piece of bread and dragged it across the bottom of his bowl. When his bowl was empty, she refilled it without a word and handed it back to him in silence. After a third bowl, something in him was appeased. He sat back, cheese in hand, eyes closed.
She rose from her chair to retrieve the pot of water that had been set before the fire to stay warm. Dipping a cloth in the water with her skeletal hand, she looked down at Jack. "Your face is covered dirt."
"No surprise," he said around a bite of cheese.
Jack said nothing.
Hella squeezed the excess water out the cloth and leaned over Jack looking at the lines of pain and stress shaping his features. She brushed the cloth along his cheek and wiped away a layer of combat then rinsed out the cloth and repeated her ministrations on his other cheek. Layer by layer she cleaned away the grime of his day, searching for the man underneath the fatigue.
"Ah…there he is," she said when she was done.
"No," it was a whisper, barely heard, even by she who spoke with the dead.
He opened his eyes; head still propped against the back of his chair and looked up at her. Open to her. So much that he had seen burning in his eyes. "He hasn't been here for a long time."
Her heart nearly broke then. She wanted to wrap him in her arms and hold him until the world forgot that he existed, so it could no longer hurt him. But she knew better. There was only one that she could keep in safety until the end of the world. And even if she could hide Jack away, the world and time, would not forget that he existed. It would seek him out even here at the bottom of existence. Jack was meant for the world of mortals, even if he was not truly one of them himself, so she did the only thing she could do. She stepped away from her heart, pulled the ice around her emotions and offered him what he came seeking.
"What brought you to my hall tonight Jack?" She saw him shiver as the scent of the grave mound filled the room and an icy breeze stirred the fire.
Jack looked up through his grief clouded eyes at her. "I need to know," he whispered.
"Know what?" She walked around to stand in front of him. When she looked at him again, he had lifted his head from the chair and was watching her. "What do you need to know?" she asked.
"What is going on?!" he flung his hands in the air with a burst of sound that surprised her.
"What's going on with what? What are you talking about Jack?"
"What happens when I die? "
"When you die? Don't you think you're a little old for that conversation?" she knew the words were wrong as she soon as she said them.
"Don't patronize me!"
Hella dipped her head. "I apologize. I just don't understand what you are asking. "
The energy that had fed Jack's outburst vanished. He dropped his head, bowed by a weight he refused to share. "I shouldn't have come here."
He pushed himself out of the chair and began to walk towards the front of the hall. Hella reached out a hand and touched his chest, stopping him mid stride. He looked at her. She saw his eyes shift downward, change. The anger at being blocked replaced with what? Fear? Curiosity? She looked at her own hand on his chest. It was death. Her bone white hand against the dark blue of his button down shirt.
"I gave you a key for a reason."
"I don't think brooding 51st Century humans is what you had in mind."
"No matter. You choose to use it tonight, therefore you are my guest. What is it you need Jack? What sent you running from mortal warmth to icy death?"
"You're not as cold as all that," he said, caressing her hand with a sly smile.
Hella removed her hand from Jack's and stepped back. Much as she might want to indulge in the feeling of his skin against hers that was a distraction and they both knew it. She said nothing, merely watched him and waited for him to answer her question. She had seen the beginning of the world and knew that she would see the end of the world. Patience was as natural to her as breathing.
Jack dipped his head, like so many, unable to meet her gaze for long.
The silence stretched on.
"Not going to let me off the hook on this one are you?" he asked, a note of resignation in his voice.
"You began this conversation, not I, Captain."
Jack let out a sigh and nodded. The shadows retreated into the corners of the room and the fire seemed to grow brighter around them, as though his very anger and frustration had been holding back its power. Hella pushed the aura of the grave and the weight of the glaciers back as well so that the firelight was joined by warmth.
Jack walked over to the hearth and stood, one arm resting on the thick mantel, head down, looking into the flames, or perhaps something they reminded him of. "You already know I can't die, well, can't stay dead at least. And if I have my facts straight, you're not the first death god I have met either." He turned his head to see her response. When she nodded, he turned back to the flames. "It seems your kind has taken rather a fancy to me. Ever since I got myself killed and brought back to life."
"How so?" Hella picked Moonlight up from where the cat perched in her chair licking the last bits of stew from her whiskers, sat down, and then resettled the silver cat with a few comforting strokes along her length. With a yawn and a slow swish of her tail, Moonlight acquiesced to the new arrangement and closed her eyes.
"You know- I can still remember the feeling of running through that hallway on Satellite Five." He looked along the length of the mantel, seeing something far away. "I was shooting at the Daleks behind me, calling out to the Doctor 'For God sake finish that thing and kill them!' No thought but shoot, kill, and keep going. I had to buy the Doctor the time he needed to destroy the Daleks. I was a con man, helping to save humanity, who coulda seen that coming?
"And then there was a wall behind me and not enough bullets in the universe to stop what was coming next, even if I'd had a working gun.
"'Exterminate.' That was the word they always used before shooting someone." Jack pushed away from the mantle to face Hella.
"'I kinda figured that,' I said to them, because really, what else do you say at a time like that? I'd done everything I knew how to do; the Doctor was on his own, best to go out the way I came in, proud and strong." Jack grinned at Hella as he spoke. His body relaxed at last. She had to smile. He was Loki's-own-child at times, but that didn't mean he hadn't been brave. "I know, cheeky to the last," Jack went on. "But in the nothingness between that first death and my first life, there was… something…"
He is floating in darkness. Swept up on a warm tide. There is no sound at first, no light, no sensation all, only peace. When he can hear again, it is of the wind and water lapping at the shore. With sound, comes the feeling of flesh and bone. Sunlight dancing across his closed eyelids invokes his sight. The air smells of salt and sand and… home. Scent and taste, it was all there again.
He opens his eyes and is young, so very very young. Laughing, spinning in circles in the hill grass. His mother calling him home for supper. His father just coming home from work.
A tall bulky figure stands between him and the door to his house. He can't see who it is. There is no face, no true shape to the form, only radiant light and a sense of peace and welcome.
He reaches out a hand to touch the figure, fearless, and can't reach it.
He is yanked backwards. Away from the beach. Away from home. Away from the welcoming peace of that beautiful light and his heart/lungs/body/soul cry out in longing.
"I woke up. Coughing and hacking, sucking air back into my lungs with painful gulps. There were no Daleks. There was no one. Everything inside me hurting like a son of a bitch, like I was on fire. And then I heard it, the best sound in the universe, the Tardis." Jack closed his eyes for a moment, arms crossed at his chest, and so many memories dancing under his eyelids. Hella could feel the longing pouring out of him, the joy that one simple word encompassed. And then it was all gone. His eyes opened and his facade was back. "Unless it's leaving without you.
"I didn't think much about death or not dying again until a guy shot me on Earth. I was on ElisIsland playing the immigrant in 1892 and this guy comes out of nowhere and shoots me." He lifted his gaze and their eyes met. He was grinning once more, his joy at being the rogue evident.
"Odd, he tells it a bit differently," her tone was as dry as dust, a hint of a smile playing at her lips.
"Ok, fine, he was in line in front of me. Standing next to a very pretty young lady. I might have said a few words to her, commented on how lovely she looked. How was I to know she was his wife? Really! 19th Century humans and their morality issues!"
Hella raised her skin covered hand to her mouth, hiding a chuckle.
"A single shot to the chest doesn't feel the same as what the Daleks can do to a body. Still hurts though. Takes longer too," he grumbled.
"And then what?"
He wakes with a start to find himself on the ground in a moon dark forest. A carpet of leaves crunch under his hands as he props himself up to look around.
From somewhere off in the distance a dog barks and is answered by a group of howls echoing off rock formations. Deep in his gut he knows that sound means something dangerous for him.
He scrambles to his feet and begins to run. Branches slash at him to block his path. Logs appear making him trip and with each stumble the howling pack gets closer.
His heart is in his throat. His lungs strain for air. He picks himself up once more and prays for that gut wrenching pull back into life as he tries to run just a little faster.
A horn blares out behind him. The hunter has him in his sights. He turns to look back. He needs to know what follows him, but he knows he should not. A primal cold shrivels his will and still he stumbles forward.
The hunter rides a grey war horse taller than the trees around him. Lithe white dogs with red tipped ears and glowing red eyes race with the charging stallion. He gets a glimpse of the dull grey armor. The red eyes that match the pack. The black cloak that swirls around the man like smoke is the last bit of information. He recognizes the hunter, Arawn, Lord of Death comes riding for Him.
Then the twisted blessing - the pullyankrip comes and drags his soul out of the nightmare of death and back into life.
Arawn on the hunt, Hella thought. Not one to be chased by under any circumstances. And certainly not when you are uncertain as to where you belong. No wonder Jack was confused.
As if summoned by the shifting moods in the room, Gangloti appeared at Hella's side, a bottle of mead and two wooden cups in his hands. She rose and felt the weight of the night in her living limbs. She smiled at her man-servant, thanking him with a nod and taking the bottle and cups from him. Gangloti bowed and left as quietly as he had entered.
Behind her, Hella heard Jack stand, and from the sounds, stretch before coming to stand beside her. She held a cup of bubbling liquid out to him and at his skeptical look offered, "Mead, captain, nothing more. Made from Idunna's apples and honey from my hives."
"So I will live forever and die forever?" Quoting one of the legends of the drink's ingredients as he swirled the golden brew, the sweet-smelling bubbles breaking against the surface with each twist of his wrist.
"Aren't you already?" she said with a smile before taking a long drink.
"You have a point," Jack nodded his head, raised his cup to her and drank. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome."
He refilled his cup, offered her some, which she declined, and took another long swallow.
"What has Arawn to do with you and with the agony that brought you to me this evening?" Hella asked, settling herself once more in her chair.
"That's what I am hoping you can tell me." Jack wandered across the room to the ornately carved table opposite the hearth. He leaned down to look at the book which was the only item on the whole table, then wandered on down the length of the hall. It seemed to Hella that he was using movement to help him search for something within himself. "That time with Arawn was the most alarming of the meetings I have had. For a moment I thought he might actually make my death permanent. Thing was, I couldn't tell if I wanted him to or not."
"Arawn is many things. As a Lord of Death he is very good to his people, but even I would not wish to face him on a hunt. Things… happen on the hunt. I am glad that you did not stay with his pack forever."
"I guess I am too."
Jack paused in his movements, caught by something near the front of the hall. She didn't need to turn to see where he was, his hand on the serpent carvings sent shivers across her own skin and woke the beasts the watched over her doorway. She closed her eyes and willed twinned snakes into stillness.
"Who else have you met?" She asked, hoping to pull his dammed-ably curious hands away from the walls of her hall.
"Vestalina, Met-le-tashi-o Nic, Tulio, too many to count," he said turning from the carvings and waving his cup of mead in the air. The agitated beasts behind him ragged against Hella's restraints desperate to bite at Jack's back. With a final silent barked command, Hella reined the serpents in. Their blood read tongues tasted the air quickly before both returned to their frozen forms. Hella breathed a sigh of relief and stretched out her fisted hands along the arms of her chair.
"Each time it's different. At first it wasn't so bad. Lots of white light and comfortable moments of rest. But met then I met Arawn's hunt and everything changed."
"In what way?"
"It seemed that I stayed dead longer, or between death and life longer each time. It's difficult to say because time makes no sense there."
She nodded. "Time runs differently between the worlds than it does in true death or life."
"So I've noticed. Mind you there was one time when dying was almost worth the trip. I met the most interesting … well god I suppose, though I got the feeling he didn't think much of that word."
"Really?" she asked, curious at what, in death, could have intrigued one who had lived such a varied life. "What happen?"
"'Trampled to death by a bunch of terrified horses while working in the red light district of New Orleans. I still can't stand the sound of a whole lot of horseshoes on cobblestone," he shivered. "Gives me nightmares."
He is slower to wake this time. Bones crushed by horse hooves are slower to accept the peace of the void. For a moment he remembers the pain and the fear of lying trapped beneath the frenzied horses. He cries out and a white gloved hand touches his shoulder.
"Shhh, ma chere. You all right. Just rest."
He looks up along the hand to the tuxedo sleeve it is attached to, then farther up to the man? Skeleton? Staring down at him grinning. He jerks away in shock.
"Who am I?" the other says with a rumbling laugh. "I am the grave yard. I am the cross roads of life and death and endings. I have many names. You call me Nimbo and we'll be ok."
"Um… ok. Please don't take this the wrong way, but what are you doing here?"
Nimbo laughs again and the ground beneath them shakes along with him.
"Better you ask what you doing here."
"I suppose that makes sense. Ok. What am I doing here?"
"No idea!" Nimbo says, laughing and clapping his hands on his thighs. They rattle together like bones in the wind. "I came to meet you, man who can't stay dead. That's an in'resting thing in my line of work."
"Your line of work?"
"Yes indeed. Death. That funny time after life that some many folks is afraid of. In'resting things happen in death. In'resting can happen during the death time. 'Kinda why we like it, my wife and I. - My wife, she would be here too, but she got her hands full dealing with a trio of ladies who done died from the cholera over the hill."
Nimbo looks over his shoulder, nods his head, and turns back around.
"Looks like your times up." Nimbo holds out his hand and together they stand up and face the windstorm that is brewing beyond the graveyard. "Been in'resting meeting you, man out of time. Mayhap we'll meet again."
The pull back to life takes him again. Watching the storm approach and pick him up in its streamers doesn't make the shift any easier. He does find it interesting though, just like Nimbo found him.
"Nimbo? Ghede Nimbo found you?" Hella asked surprised. The old bag of bones had neglected to mention that he had met Jack when they had last talked.
"That means something?"
"It might, he is one of the keepers of the crossroad."
"I don't follow you," Jack frowned in puzzlement.
"More than keepers of the dead, they guard intersections of time and space. Places where energy meets. Where people and things can cross if they know how. Sometimes even if they don't."
"Like the rift."
"In a way," she nodded.
"So what does it mean that I met him, or that he came to see me?"
Hella shook her head. "I don't know. There are pieces missing. Tell me what else you remember."
Jack took a gulp from his mead cup as he walked over to his nearly vacant chair. Silence had stretched her full fluffy black length end to end in the chair and was snoring softly. With one hand, Jack scooped the cat up sat quickly and sat down. After a moment of confusion, the cat flicked her tail, jumped down to stalk over to her Mistress where she promptly curled up in a ball on Hella's warm and living foot. Jack chuckled and leaned his head against the chair's carved back.
"Hmmm… Greece. World War Two. I'd already lived through World War One twice. Okay, lived through it once and died through it once. I was stuck in England waiting for the Doctor to come find me. No scratch that, waiting for the Doctor to recharge at the Rift in Cardiff, since he didn't know I was still on Earth at that point. And I had to do my duty to Queen and country. I was sent on a mission to the Peloponnesians to ferret out a network of spies. Knowing I was there doing something good didn't make dying again any easier."
When he wakes this time it is to silk and softness. Warm breezes and fragrant scents. A musician is playing quietly somewhere nearby, the sound of the stringed instrument mixing with the quiet flow of water from a fountain.
He thinks that maybe this time, if he just keeps his eyes closed, it will all…
"What?" asks a voice heavy with laughter. "We will go away? Or perhaps if you keep your eyes closed in death, you will get to stay dead?"
Surprised, he opens his eyes and sits up, nearly cracking his chin into the body before him.
"Ah, but now you will never know." The voice belongs to a man, a god clearly, with olive hued skin, well muscled, wrapped in a black silk chiton. His jet black hair has a single streak of silver at his right temple.
"Where am I?"
The god shakes his head and attempts to frown. "I should be angered that you do not know."
From behind the god a woman's voice chimes in. "Enough beloved. You needn't scare him back to life; he'll be gone soon enough."
"Of course," the god bows his head in the direction of the lady robed in blood red, and then looks back at his guest. "My apologies. You are in Hades, my home, my realm, my kingdom and my name."
Hades stands and sweeps a hand out to the woman behind him. "And this is the treasure of my soul, Persephone, Queen of the Dead and of my heart."
Persephone rises from her couch to take her husbands hand, then bows towards their guest, her copper curls nearly touching the floor as she bends. "Welcome Traveler, man who cannot stay dead."
"How did I get here?"
"We brought you here," replies Persephone. "We wished to meet you."
"Why? What's with all the godly visitations?"
"You are not of this world. Not of our making or of the human's creation. You are something beyond what is yet known. And that is both interesting and dangerous."
"How can I be dangerous to you? You're death!"
"Not entirely true," Hades replies. "We are the keepers of the dead, not death itself. We guard and guide and watch over those that are dead."
"So what? Death or keeper of the dead, same difference."
"Hardly!" Hades says clearly offended. Persephone lays a hand on her husbands arm to sooth him. "We do not choose who will die or who will live," she says. "We only care for those who have already died."
"So that's it? That's why I keep seeing all of you… because I am dead?"
"In part," Hades replies. "You are unique in all the worlds. You confound us and intrigue us. And we must understand you better."
"Fine… but why?"
"To know if you will be a threat to our worlds."
"A threat to you – to death?"
"Yes!" insists Hades. "When you die…"
Persephone raises a hand to interrupt her husband once more. "You must understand that for the length of time that you are dead, you become part of our domain and our responsibility. But since you cannot stay dead, you are not truly of our world."
The curtains of the room begin to twist. The winds are rising.
"You do not have much time left" Persephone says. "Do you have any questions for us before you go?"
He sighs in desperate frustraition. "Will this ever end? Will I ever truly die? Can he fix me?"
The winds tug at his hair and drag the curtains from their rods.
"Oh dear, lost one," Persephone raises a hand to his face. Her features nearly lost behind her wind tossed hair. "That is a question that I will not answer for you. For to know the answer is to stop living. And that we cannot have you do."
"Please… Lady at least tell me…"
The howling wind pours through the room, stealing all sound. It pulls him from the Lord and Lady of Death's arms and into the echoing numbness of the void between death and life.
"Do you know what he meant by 'threat'?" Jack asked.
Hella looked past Jack, deep in thought. Persephone was usually right when it came to how much to tell the dead about the living. But, she wondered, how much do you tell a living man who cannot die?
"Lady, please… I need to know."
She stretched out her hand, skin warmed by the fire, to touch Jack's lips, silencing him. "Tell the rest of your tale and I will think on it."
Jack closed his eyes and took a deep breath. She let her fingers traced the line of his lips and find the curve of his jaw. She laid her hand flat against his check and he leaned into her palm.
"Tell me…" Hella shuddered as Jack raised a hand to touch hers. "Tell me about your next death."
Jack's fingers caressed her hand, tracing its length as she had explored the edge of his face. He kept his eyes closed, as if to savor each sensation. "My next death… was poison." He drew Hella's hand back to his lips. "Now poison," he said, kissing each finger one at a time. "Poison is a peculiar way to go because you can feel it settle into your blood and muscles."
"Not that death." Hella pulled her hand out of Jack's grasp and clenched her vibrating fingers in her lap.
"What?" Jack opened his eyes, startled.
"How do you know about…?"
She took a deep breath and asked him about the one death they'd all heard rumors of. "Tell me about Osiris."
He can still feel the impact of the javelin the next time he wakes. The weight of it presses him down into the hot dessert sand. He chokes and struggles to breath against the pressure.
"Shhh. It is over," says a voice at his side.
A cool cloth caresses his forehead. He can feel water trickle down the sides of his neck to his chest. It tickles and feels so much better than the burning heat of the sun. As soon as he thinks of the sun, it is night and he is inside lying on a silk covered couch. The air around him is cool and still. A night bird calls out and is answered several times over. He sits up and finds that he can see a crescent moon just rising over night dark hills through a widow across from his couch.
"Do you like it?"
It's the same voice. From behind him. Hesitantly he turns to see who he is dealing with this time.
The god looks as though he were carved of some dark stone. His smooth polished muscles shine blue-black in the moon light. His thick black hair is twisted in ringlets that vanish somewhere past his shoulders. A smile creeps across the chiseled face as his guest takes in his appearance. "Do I meet with you approval?"
"Not bad," he shrugs, more intrigued than he wants to admit. "Let me guess… Osiris?"
"What do you want of me?"
"Do I need a reason to have one such as you visit?"
"The rest of them seemed to; I figured you must have one as well."
The smile is gone from Osiris' face. "No. I have no motive. No ploy to use you in. Like the others, I was curious. Now however, I see that you need something very different."
"Yeah, I need to stay dead or stop dying all the time!"
"No. you need to rest," sorrow shines from Osiris' eyes. He raises his hand and the winds that had begun to creep into the room are stilled.
"How did you do that?"
"Come," Osiris holds out a hand to his guest. "I have some limited sway with the gates of fate. You may sleep for a brief while without fear of being tossed back into life before you are ready."
"What if I am never ready?" he asks, exhausted to his heart.
"Come. You need to rest."
He who would one day take the name of a human soldier, looks at the God's hand, takes a deep breath and chooses to place his trust in the Egyptian Lord of Death.
When at last Osiris raises his hand again and lets free the winds of time and change, his charge is fast asleep in his arms. The strain of his years and deaths have slipped for a while from his features, and he looks young and nearly innocent again.
Osiris leans closer to place a kiss on his lover's forehead. "You will be ready when you need to be."
Osiris closes his eyes and lowers his hand. In moments the winds sweep through the chamber, taking the man who can not stay dead with them and dragging him back to the world of the living.
"Is that what you wanted, Lady?" Jack asked harshly. "The pain of my deaths?"
"Are you afraid I would not understand how you could take peace and pleasure in the arms of a God?"
"No. Yes. I don't know!" Jack stood up and began to pace in front of the fire place. "I am tired of dying over and over again for no apparent reason or purpose. Tired of being some kind of play thing for death gods and madmen. Why am I still here when so many others aren't?" Jack looked over at Hella, millennia of frustration clear in his eyes. "Why are you all torturing me?"
"Torturing you? Is that what you think they have been doing?"
"Isn't it? Sometimes when I die, there's nothing. Just cold black darkness. No sight, no sound, nothing. Other times one of you shows up, changes the flow of time or whatever it is you do, and I am face to face with a god who demands answers that I don't have. Even your cats show up!" Hella looks quickly at her twin feline guardians, who sit now on the table across from the hearth. Their eyes are wide and their attention firmly fixed on Jack. As one they flick an ear back as if daring her to scold them for their death-walking.
"What would you call it Lady?" Jack demands, the frustration and pain clear in his voice.
"You are as Persephone described you, a being not of our making, or fully of the human's any longer. And since you cannot stay dead, you are not truly of death either. So we who have been given the task of caring for the dead needed to understand you. Needed to know who you were and how you might affect our worlds and our people."
"You have been watching me as well." She could hear the hurt in his voice, the sense of betrayal lying just below the surface now, simmering.
"In my own way."
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because I too needed to understand you," she whispered, matching his anger with openness.
"You are 'a man out of your time, alone and scared."' She saw his own words punch through him. "How did you…?"
"Know those words? I speak to the dead Jack. I walk among them. Where some gods have chosen to drag you to them, I sought out those who had once known you to understand you better."
"You've met John Ellis?" Surprise over road the anger and he stared at her in wonder.
"How- how is he?"
"With his wife and son."
"No," she shook her head, wishing she could give him what he truly was asking, but knowing the perils of mortals seeking out the dead far too well. "But he is safe and at peace."
"I'm glad." With his anger lost to confusion, Jack's feet picked up the tension of his body once more. He walked away from the warmth of the fire back to the ornately carved table and the cats that watched his every move. "He deserves to be happy."
"And you do not?"
Jack looked back at Hella, his eyes black as night, and said nothing. Hella relented first and lowered her eyes, dropping the question. Jack turned back to the cats. Midnight placed her paw on the gilded book that stood in pride of place at the center of the table.
Hella watched as Jack looked down to study the page, then look up, an odd expression on his face. "This is about you isn't it?"
"In its way, yes," she agreed, wondering what her cats were up to.
Jack looked back down at the book and began to read aloud. "'A hall I saw, far from the sun, On Nastrond it stands, and the doors face north, Venom drops through the smoke-vent down, For around the walls do serpents wind.
"'I saw there wading through rivers wild. Treacherous men and murderers too, And workers of ill with the wives of men; There Nithhogg sucked the blood of the slain, And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?'
"I don't see any great serpents dripping venom down your chimney." Hella shrugged, hiding a long standing anger at blind fools who misunderstand what they hear. "Voluspo tended to overstate what she saw in trance, particularly when was talking to Odin. And as for the recorder of that particular poem… the less I say about him the better." "But is it true? That you keep the treacherous men and evil doers? The freaks. Those who are wrong?" Hella could hear the emphasis Jack placed on his last words and wondered what he was driving at. "I keep those who Odin and Freya do not take to their halls." "Cowards and thieves," disgust dripped from his words. "Those who have no where else to go," she said cautiously. "Some were not brave enough to suit Odin and his Valkyries. Others died of starvation or neglect. No one comes to my hall by mistake."
Jack looked back at the book. "Mistake," he whispered, running his hands across the gilded lettering on the parchment. "And the other death gods? Who do they take?"
"Each to their own, as need dictates, but all the dead are cared for, that is our purpose as caretakers of the dead."
"Each to their own… leaving me where?"
"Wherever you wish to be."
Jack whirled on Hella, his body vibrating with so much pent up emotion she thought the words must finally come out or he would die from rage and pain. "You really think I have a choice?! That I can go where I want, do what I want? I don't. I'm a freak. A mistake that should not have been made."
"And where in all the nine worlds did you get that ridiculous idea?"
"The Doctor said it." Jack spat the name out like a cursed blessing. "'You're wrong Jack.' I waited centuries for him to find me. To find a mistake! A mistake he had left behind on Satellite Five on purpose, knowing I was alive. Knowing what he meant to me." Jack sank to his knees, or perhaps his knees had refused to hold him any longer, Hella wasn't entirely sure given the way he impacted with the wooden boards of the hall floor. Tears were flowing freely down his face and Hella wondered, even as she forced herself to sit in silence and be his witness, how long it had been since he had allowed himself the joy of grief. Moonlight and Silence dropped quietly to the floor and stood, like guards, on either side of Jack.
"I thought I was over it. Over being hurt by the Doctor. Used to dying and waking up every time. Over what the Master did during that year of hell. I thought that I was over watching everyone I love die. Owen and Tosh, Suzie and Alex…" Jack shook his head. "But I'm not. I can't…to lose almost lose Gwen, at my own hands! What if it had been Ianto? Oh absent gods, Ianto. One day it might be, hell it probably will be! And it doesn't matter how he dies, it'll still be my fault. No!" He slammed his fists onto his thighs. "No. I wont go back."
Hella met his angry, grief wracked eyes, with the cold calm of winter. "What will you do instead?"
"They've called me lots of things in my time," he said inching towards her, conviction suddenly blazing in his eyes. "Con man, murderer, traitor, even coward. All the sort of men you keep watch over."
Hella sighed. "Yes, but.."
Jack stopped in front of her, still on his knees, and grabbed her arms. "Then take me as well."
"Jack, I cant," she pulled back in shock. "You are still alive."
"I can fix that," he reached for the gun holstered at his waist. Both cats hissed and reared up on their hind legs.
"No," she said, shaking her head and placing her living hand on his arm to stop his actions. The cats followed her lead, relaxing into matching crouches to wait and watch, even their tails frozen in place. "No. You can not fix this with a thousand bullets Jack, or even charm." She put her hands on either side of his face, opening herself up to him, willing him to see the truth, and the understanding, in her words. "Time and Fate have given me the power to save only one prince until the end of the world and Baldur's fate was sealed long before my father ensured that an arrow from a blind god would kill the son of Odin. I have not the power, nor the will to keep you here."
"Wrong even for you." Jack tried to pull away, fighting to hide his self hatred from her, but now that she knew what he wanted, where his pain lay, she pulled up the strength of the earth to hold him still. "No," she told him, the compassion of a lifetime as the keeper of the dead in her voice and heart. "More precious than you know, and because of that, I cannot keep you here."
"Leaving me outside of time, alone, and wrong," Jack tore himself out of her grasp, apparently unaware, or uncaring, of the scratches he inflicted upon himself in the process. He stood, back to her, raw pain vibrating in every line of his body.
"Outside of time yes, but never wrong." Hella stood slowly from her chair and stepped up behind him, speaking softly to his rigid back. "Demeter will tell you that the transformation of the seed into a plant is the greatest cross road of the universe, but if you ask Ghede Nimbo he will tell you that the death of anything is the ultimate cross road. And here you are, stationed between life and death, neither living nor dying. You are a cross road in and of yourself." Hella placed her hands on Jack's arm and pulled him gently, but inevitably around to face her. Defiant eyes glared at her out of his broken mask.
"Time and the Universe have a purpose for all things and all actions, Jack. Something your Time Lord should remember the next time he wishes to tell you how wrong you are." She felt the shock of her words course through him. Emotions clashed in his eyes. She could see that he wanted to believe her, but that his years of isolation and hurt held him like a jealous lover. "There was a reason you were made as you are. One day, you will find out what that reason is. But you must make your peace with what you have become or it will destroy you before Time can have the last dance."
She felt his hands clench at his sides. "So you're telling the freak to wait for his answers."
Hella let go of Jack's arm, and stepped back, her eyes gone blacker than space. "Never use that word in my presence again." Her breath plumed between them as the temperature in the hall plummeted. Ice coated the edges of the walls at the doorway and spread across the beams of the floor making them creak in the deadly silence. The fire smoked and gutted, struggling for life.
Jack's eyes went wide. The part of Hella that was Jotun, born of a giantess and a trickster god, watch in as Jack turned to look around the hall. Saw the goose bumps prickle on his exposed sick. Noticed distantly when he turned back to her. She saw his mouth move; his hands reach out to grab her arms. And then she allowed herself to breathe. To hear with human ears once more. "Hella! Stop it! Hella?"
Hella closed her eyes and took a deep breath, reeling the storm back in to the depths in which in had lived for so long. When she looked up at Jack again she knew he would see her human eyes, she wondered why a part of her was sad about that. She pushed the thought aside. This night was for Jack, to help him find his way out of sorrow and loss, not for her theoretical losses. "I am sorry Jack." She whispered. "That is a word I cannot bear to hear used. And certainly not with the bitterness you hold."
Jack reached a hand out to touch her still ice cold bony cheek. He traced the edges of her exposed eye socket and the sharp edges of her nasal cavity. "It's a hard word for me to let go of. I thought I had. Thought I was beyond such name calling." His snort of laughter reverberated through his finger tips to tickle the line he was touching that balanced her live and dead halves. "But after a year of waking up from death after death to that word, and dying with it ringing in my ears… guess it stuck deeper than I realized. I'm sorry."
Hella reached up her own hands, bone and flesh covered both, to touch Jack's face. She wanted to feel his skin against both parts of her nature, and nodded, accepting his apology with a tired smile. "Such words are used to harm because they have power. Power gained over thousands of years of pain repeated over and over again. Do not do to yourself what the Master did. You are free of him, let that freedom stay a victory."
Jack closed his eyes. She could feel the tension in him through both of her hands. A single tear escaped and she let it fall past her fingers.
"The powers of the Universe are not mine to explain. The most I can tell you, the most that I know, is that yes, those like myself who watch over the dead, have known of you since the moment your death was taken from us on Satellite Five. That was never meant to be. But when Time chooses to act on behalf of humanity, odd things can and do happen."
Jack drew in a ragged breath and opened his eyes. He allowed her to watch as hope pushed fear back from his eyes, and loosened its hold on his muscles. "What do I do while I am waiting?" He asked at last.
"You live, man who cannot die. You live as fully and completely as any person can. And you do what you do best. Keep people safe from harm. Make the hard choices when no one else will."
"Save the world?" he snorted.
Several hours later, Jack lay tangled in the furs of Hella's bed, watched over by Silence and Moonlight. The cats had gone from arrogantly indifferent to Jack's presence, to now determined to keep him in their sights, as though he was now their charge and responsibility somehow. Hella didn't understand what prompted their change in attitude towards the Captain, and suspected she was not likely to get any answers from the ladies any time soon.
Jack had willingly agreed to a bath and more food, and then finished most of a second stew while she watched in silent amusement. She thought he might have given into sleep at last. Even his body had its limits, but it was hard to know with him.
Hella herself sat alone in the chilly hall, the file of names Modgud had brought her open once again in her lap. The lists of the Probable Dead were a regular part of her briefings as Mistress of the Dead. In times of war the lists could be a hundred pages long or more, had been that long on more than one occasion. No matter the faith or belief of the dead to come, all the death gods got matching copies of the list of names as a matter of course. Sometimes it was important to know who was due to come through another death god's doors.
Hella looked back down at the list in her lap. Two names were circled and a note had been hand written at the bottom of the final page:
These two are yours if you want them.
Her servant appeared at her side, a fur lined robe in her hands. Hella nodded. Of course she would know what was needed. "Thank you Ganglot." Hella stood and allowed the woman to wrap her in warmth. "Please ask Modgud to see Captain Harkness home as quickly as possible. Then send a messenger to Arawn and let him know that I accept his offer."
Hella stopped, almost unwilling to say anything more, even to her own servant. She reached out to touch Jack's great coat. The worn wool garment lay across the back of the chair Jack had been sitting in earlier. Gangloti must have picked up when he came into clean. The brass buttons winked at her in the torch light. No matter which way she looked, all the threads tangled here in Jack. Lives ended, others began again.
The Lady of the Dead shook her head. There was only one thing left she could do for Jack. She turned back to Ganglot. "I will be in my office. Let me know when Ianto and the boy arrive."
Ganglot nodded and backed out of the hall, taking the great coat and her errands with her.
Alone in her hall, the Mistress of Hellheim covered her face with her living and dying hands and wept for all that she could not change.