When the end of the Universe arrived at last, there was at least one entity who greeted it with a complete lack of surprise. Everything that has a start must have an end sometime, and Death had always known that when that time came, when there was no-one and nothing else left that needed his attentions, it would be his job to give the place a quick tidy before quietly closing the door on his way out.
He gazed on a Universe grown silent and still, lifted his scythe and swung it in a suitably dramatic fashion. Blue light crackled from the blade in the darkness, moving through something that could no longer be described as air.
The end of the Universe failed to happen.
It is hard for a skull to frown, but Death did at least look faintly concerned as he inspected his scythe, checking in case somehow it had developed a fault. None chose to reveal itself , so he gave a shrug, gripping the handle once again.
The second swing was almost as dramatic, but just as ineffective in the Universe-ending department.
Again, Death paused. After a moment's thought, he pulled a large hourglass from his robes and examined it carefully. It seemed to be empty - no, *almost* empty, the very last grain of sand balanced on the very edge of the bulb, clinging, refusing to drop.
Death stared at for a moment, then set it down on what once would have been ground. He reached inside his robes again and pulled out another hourglass - empty. And another - also empty. A small pile of hourglasses grew in front of him as Death inspected each one, checking it and finding it empty of sand, as it should be.
Finally, he came on what he seemed to be looking for. One small hourglass, with sand which constantly flowed from the top to the bottom and yet never seemed to grow any less.
THE ANCHOR? Death questioned aloud. BUT SURELY EVEN HE CANNOT HOLD THINGS TOGETHER NOW. NOT WHEN THINGS ARE MEANT TO END.
He tucked the hourglass back into his robe and snapped his fingers.
He reappeared in front of the last man in the universe. EXCUSE ME, he said, not impolitely. BUT YOU ARE HOLDING UP THE END OF THE UNIVERSE.
"Hey," the man replied, lying in a relaxed attitude on what appeared to be nothing. "I was wondering when you'd show up. Great! I've been looking for you for a long time. Even dressed for the occasion."
He gestured down at his clothes which seemed pretty commonplace to Death. White shirt, pants and a completely unnecessary long great coat considering the state of entropy had the surroundings down to absolute zero give or take a last gasp or two of time and space.
BELIEVE ME, I HAVE VISITED YOU MORE TIMES THAN YOU KNOW. The skull somehow managed to look faintly irritated. INDEED, YOUR HABITS OF FREQUENTLY DYING CAUSED SOME RATHER INCONVENIENT DISTRACTIONS IN TIMES OF WAR AND FAMINE.
"If I'd seen you, I know I wouldn't've forgotten you," the man replied, as he leaned back on what passed for space. "You've got fabulous cheekbones." He raised a perfect eyebrow and smiled in a way that was quite possibly illegal.
MOST PEOPLE SEEM TO BE PUT OFF BY THE WAY THEY AREN'T ATTACHED TO CHEEKS, Death responded a little sharply. BUT IN ANY CASE, IT IS REQUIRED THAT YOU DIE IN ORDER THAT THE UNIVERSE CAN END. He raised his scythe again, meaningfully. WHENEVER YOU'RE READY.
The man stood up and grinned as he spread his arms wide. "Can't wait! Frankly, the last few million years have been downright dull. Would it help if I assumed any sort of position?"
USUALLY THE BODY MANAGES THE PART WHERE IT FALLS OVER QUITE EFFECTIVELY ON ITS OWN. OF COURSE, LACK OF GRAVITY MIGHT CAUSE A SLIGHT PROBLEM THERE. Death stood for a moment, as though waiting for something, and then sighed. Reaching into his robes again, he pulled out the small hourglass, and tapped it impatiently. It did nothing to stop the sands which still stubbornly continued to run between the bulbs. YOU COULDN'T TRY A BIT HARDER, COULD YOU?
"Look Death...I can call you Death, right? Or do you have a first name? Azrael? Something like that? You know my name after all," He leaned over and tapped the stubborn hourglass over the bronze plaque that said Captain Jack Harkness in scrolled italic text. "Believe me I've tried. I've been killed in ways I'm not even sure I could've thought of and every time, even if it took an eon, I came back. I even spent a very long time as a giant head before I figured the whole energy form business out."
UNTIL NOW, THAT HAS BEEN NECCESARY, Death agreed. YOU WERE THE ANCHOR, AFTER ALL.
"So I've been told. Would've saved me a lot of angst and melodrama if someone had bothered to tell me at the start," Jack answered and gestured to himself self-depreciatingly. "Jack Harkness, Stitch in Time, holding the cosmos together after the Time War ripped everything apart. Well, all you have to do is snip me, and the place will unravel. Simple! Hope the scythe is sharp."
I'M AFRAID I CAN'T DO THAT UNTIL YOU'RE DEAD. Death lowered his scythe, the glittering blue of atoms dying on the edge of the blade sparkling against the velvet blackness of entropy. THAT PART IS COMPULSARY,
"Aren't I dead?" Jack asked. "Because you know, absolute zero, no air, nothing else...After I learned how to do the energy form thing it became even more difficult to die. I even tried diving into a black hole - you really don't want to know what happens to time and space when a ‘fact’ hits a singularity, Irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Things blew up, but it didn't do the job. Sorry, look I think it's got to be you at this point because if not you, then who else? Surely there are some rules out there that mean you can take me?" He smirked a little at that.
I DO NOT TAKE LIFE. I MERELY DEAL WITH WHAT EXISTS... AFTER THERE IS NO LIFE LEFT. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE. Death did at least have the grace to sound a little apologetic about it. DESPITE EVERYTHING, YOU DO STILL APPEAR TO BE ALIVE. AND WHILE THERE IS A LIVING THING LEFT IN THE UNIVERSE, IT MAY NOT END.
"Okay, there's got to be a way around this. It's only an appearance of life," Jack insisted. "A fixed point at the point of death. If I push myself over, can you catch me before I get yanked back?"
I CAN CERTAINLY TRY, the skeleton agreed. He gripped the scythe again, standing ready. IN YOUR OWN TIME THEN.
"Great. " He looked around at the darkness. "Time to go. Just as well I learned how to will myself to death. As it were. Enjoy your retirement."
And with that Jack Harkness closed his eyes and without any fuss, died.
Death was ready. He had had uncounted years of experience waiting for that moment when a person stepped out of their body, and was separated. The scythe flashed in the darkness, sharp blade moving to cut the blue thread that held spirit and body together.
It bounced back.
Ow, the spirit shape of Jack said. That's a first and there aren't many of those at the end of the universe. Your tool need a little sharpening there, big fella?
THAT DOESN'T USUALLY HAPPEN, Death noted, a little redundantly. He lifted the spirit-thread, running it through bony fingers. THIS DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE THE USUAL MATERIAL.
Do you know how many years of therapy I had before I came to terms with being a freak? Jack asked. I'll give you a clue. We're not talking even a few centuries here. No need to rub it in, I think I know how much of an oddity I am by now.
He looked a little uncomfortable. Look, can you just hold us in this moment? Before I get sucked back to life. It's not a pleasant experience.
Death dropped the thread, and snapped his fingers. Time stopped, although no clocks existed on which this could be noticed. SOMEONE APPEARS TO BE, FOR LACK OF A BETTER TERM, CHEATING, he said flatly.
Don't look at me! Jack replied shrugging. Hey, hey...every world I've been to has legends about you, and cheating death...with games? Is that true?
USUALLY PEOPLE TRY THAT IN ORDER TO LIVE, Death agreed.
Well how about we try it so I lose? That means I'm officially, by all the rules of the universe, fair game right? Jack said, sounding animated - in a manner of speaking.
OFFICIALLY, THAT SHOULD WORK. It was an idea at least. Death snapped his fingers again, and two stools and a table materialised in the void. POKER?
And you with an ultimate poker face. Gonna lose for sure, Jack said settling down happily. Deal.
The cards flicked between them into two neat piles. Death dealt with the ease of someone who had millennia of practice.
You've played before, Jack said, smiling as he sat on the stool floating in empty space. Sounds a little like castanets when you deal though. He picked up his hand of cards and then looked at Death. Okay, that's not funny, he said, almost sounding irritated.
THE RULES DICTATE THAT I MAY NOT INTERFERE WITH THE CARDS DEALT, Death said, his voice holding the world-weariness that said he had needed to explain that too many times.
So it's a fluke I've been dealt a Royal flush, is it? Jack turned the cards over, his happy-go-lucky expression vanishing. Guess I win that hand, huh?
Death threw down a handful of ones and twos, and shrugged. BEST OF THREE?
They tried best of three. Jack never had to pick up another card or do anything. Each time he turned the dealt hand over and there it was. A perfect Royal flush, four of a kind there without effort.
Jack sighed. "How about a different game?
USUALLY I STICK TO POKER, Death gathered the cards back up. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY?
Well, Jack answered, why don't we just have a think about that?
I don't understand it. How did you manage to lose at Cluedo? I thought that was right up your street, Jack protested looking down at the answer in the black envelope.
THE GAME WOULD NOT ALLOW ME TO ANSWER THAT THEY SUICIDED IN THE KITCHEN WITH THE GAS OVEN, Death said apologetically.
It's an over-rated way to die anyway, Jack said, staring at the answer. Okay, let’s try a different game.
You are seriously telling me there is a word made entirely out of Q's, Z's and X's? Jack asked looking up from the Scrabble board. But I picked them out specially!
IT WOULD APPEAR SO, Death agreed, consulting the dictionary. ALSO APPARENTLY YOU GET A TRIPLE WORD SCORE. He peered more closely at the book. DOES THIS INK LOOK WET TO YOU?
SO THAT MEANS YOUR PRAWN TAKES MY HORSIE AND TURNS INTO A QUEEN, PUTTING ME INTO CHECK MATE. Death stated. He looked back at Chess for Beginners again uncertainly. AT LEAST, I THINK IT DOES.
You know, we probably should've chosen a game that at least one of us knew how to play, Jack said. He looked around. What's with the black and white playing by the sea ambience? Okay, look, I'll just tip my metaphysical construct of a King here and I'll forfeit the game.
Out of nowhere, a metaphysical construct of a seagull swooped down and swallowed the metaphysical construct of the King Chess piece.
Hey! Hey...crap. Do you think that counted?
Death turned a page. APPARENTLY, IF YOUR KING GETS EATEN BY A SEAGULL, YOU WIN, he read slowly. MY, THESE CHESS SCENARIOS REALLY DO THINK OF EVERYTHING, DON'T THEY?
Jack sighed. Okay then. Let’s try something else.
How can you lose Monopoly when you have all of Park Lane? Jack asked in genuine wonder.
I GOT A CHANCE CARD THAT SAID THERE WAS A CREDIT CRUNCH, Death said mournfully. APPARENTLY THEY WERE MORTGAGED TO THE HILT AND I LOST THEM IN THE RECESSION.
Damn. Jack let the monopoly flutter away into nothingness. Okay, this time you pick something.
I HAD THIS SUGGESTED BY A YOUNG GIRL ONCE, Death offered Jack the large pink phone. SHE SAID SHE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO PLAY POKER.
Jack stared at it, horrifying memories coming back to him of a game where the phone gave you clues about who you were "going out with". He sighed. Forget it. Even when I was alive the answer was always "Everyone".
Look are you sure you're all right? Jack asked again. I said blue circle, not red. It sounded like you snapped something important.
I GOT A LITTLE DISTRACTED WHEN YOU TRIED TO GROPE ME, Death snapped, still massaging his arm. I THINK YOU MADE THAT GAME UP.
Hey, you've got a...very attractive pelvis, Jack replied with a smirk. Anyway, I think we better try something else. I've always had a certain advantage when it comes to playing Twister. Unusual flexibility.
BUT YOU WERE HOLDING RUSSIA! Death protested, NO-ONE EVER TOOK OVER THE WORLD WHEN THEY HAD RUSSIA. BELIEVE ME, I KNOW.
How did I manage to get control of Australia and China anyway? Jack said staring at the board as if it was going to reveal the answers. Do you actually have any countries left?
I HAVE ROCKALL, Death pointed to a tiny dot. I COULD POSSIBLY TRY TO FIGHT BACK WITH AN ARMY OF SEAGULLS, BUT OTHERWISE... NO.
I SHOULD THINK THE TITLE WOULD HAVE GIVEN YOU THE CLUE THAT THIS ONE WAS A BAD IDEA, Death complained. IT'S NOT AS THOUGH I HAVE ANY EXPERIENCE.
Right, Jack conceded victory with an air of defeat. In retrospect asking you to play the Game of Life probably wasn't the most thought through idea I've ever had.
MY LITTLE MAN FIGURE HAS APPARENTLY GONE BANKRUPT, HAD HIS ENTIRE FAMILY DIE, CONTRACTED LEPROSY AND BEEN RENAMED JOB. ON THE GOOD SIDE, IF THERE'S EVER A GAME OF DEATH I MAY PERHAPS DO BETTER. Death sighed. THIS ISN'T WORKING, IS IT?
Gotta say, I'm running out of ideas here, Jack said. And if it's not you tampering or me, then what or who is? I mean, you can't throw lucky seven every single time with a new set of dice each time, can you?
THE LAWS OF CHANCE WOULD SAY NOT, Death agreed, and then reconsidered. OF COURSE, LAWS CAN BE CHANGED.
If there's only you and I here, who's changing them? I mean, they are universal laws, you just can't go messing around with them, Jack said. Well, okay, maybe the Doctor did occasionally. And a few others, but not like this.
YOU MUST CONSIDER WHO CREATED THE UNIVERSAL LAWS, Death said patiently. DO TRY NOT TO VIEW THINGS SO... HUMANLY.
Universal Laws are bound up in the universe which I've apparently been anchoring for a long time so... Jack frowned. Are you telling me it's the universe doing this? Changing the rules?
APPARENTLY IT'S FOND OF YOU. OR AT LEAST ATTACHED TO YOU. SOMETHING LIKE THAT. Death waved a hand over the table, allowing it to vanish once more. IN ANY CASE, IT MADE THE LAWS, IT CAN CERTAINLY CHANGE THEM.
Now who's thinking humanly? Jack replied. So the universe doesn't want me to die. Why not? I'm more than ready to go. There's a lot of people waiting for me and I'm pretty tired I’ve been looking forward to dying for sometime..
BELIEVE ME, I'M MORE THAN READY TO GET ON WITH MY RETIREMENT. IT'S NOT AS THOUGH I GET A DECENT PENSION IN RETURN FOR THIS, Death said sourly.
You're the one with the magic hourglass, Jack pointed out. Does the universe have one?
A moment's fumbling, and Death produced the large hourglass from his robes with a certain amount of dramatic flair. The last grain of sand wobbled still on the edge, refusing to fall. IT SHOULD HAVE DIED BY NOW.
It looked very similar to Jack’s own. He reached out and touched the glass and touched the universe.
It's afraid, he said feeling a tightness in his throat he thought he'd left behind with his body. It's afraid of the dark.
MANY PEOPLE ARE. Death sighed. I TRIED BRINGING A TORCH ONCE BUT THEY SAID IT SPOILT THE ATMOSPHERE.
Jack just looked at him. All this time and the universe had been alive. Alive enough to feel at least.
I'm not letting you go alone you know, he said quietly. He'd done it before, gone down into death with someone so afraid, only he'd come back afterwards. But he wouldn't, they wouldn't this time. It's the last thing we have to do, and you know it.
Universes don't speak of course, or not in the way that most people can hear except for during moments of wonder and revelation, but this one reached back, desperate and lonely and afraid and needing the only being left with life within it.
For a moment, its ‘life’ flashed in front of Jack's eyes. All things that end must have a beginning, and the universe had started life alone in the void. Nobody comforts newborn universes, or tells them that asteroids are perfectly normal and nothing to worry overmuch about. No-one shows them how to heat their suns in a way that doesn't obliterate the life they're only just learning to create. They stand alone, and the only company they have is the life they create and feed.
And it did not want to return to that first lonely darkness.
But there wasn't anything else for them to do. He'd been there for a lot of it, not from the start but for a lot of it and he knew this wasn’t just him wanting but a fact. Like him, a fact of time and space. The Wrongness the Doctor had sensed. The fact of trying to exist beyond the end of time.
But if the universe was alive there was something else he knew and he smiled.
Listen to me, he said. Never alone, you understand? And this isn't the end. One thing I know about death is that you can't have change without it.
The Universe thought a question mark at him, a voiceless puzzlement at that statement. How could there be change after death? Change was surely something you could only do while still alive.
"Life finds a way doesn't it? Jack replied. Children, offspring, a part of you in something new and wonderful, or many something new and differents...
Denial, sorrowful denial. The Universe had had its children, and it had watched them leave, one by one. Like a fond parent pulling photographs out of a wallet it showed Jack them, one by one - trillions of faces, untold amount of names. Jack had lost many people in his long, long life, but the Universe had lost everyone.
All except one.
He'd thought his experiences were complete but he couldn't fathom that sort of loss.
Trust me, he said finally. Trust me. He sent images of seeds in a flower head, of him as the fixed point that made the universe finite, by his paradoxical nature. He invited it in, Captain Jack's Last Flirt, with the Universe itself.
Wherever we go, we go together, he promised.
It clung to him with a childish sort of terror, the fear of the monster-under-the-bed and the evil-in-the-wardrobe. It didn't know what was out there, what came next, and it was afraid.
Jack turned to Death. "Okay then. I think we're ready now," he said quietly. "Just for the record if I am right, and I end up fathering a whole load of baby universes, there's probably going to be a need for you. More of a need actually. Any Universe I'm involved with is going to have a lot more sex in it.And a few more decent drinks." He grinned a little at that. "Can I have a last request?"
AS LONG AS IT'S NOT FOR BACON SANDWICHES, Death granted. I ALWAYS BURN THE BACON.
Jack laughed aloud, a strong relieved laugh with unimaginable waiting behind it. Don't use the scythe. Not my style. If I'm going to die for the last time, I want a kiss out of it. From you.
If Death had possessed eyebrows, he might have raised them. THAT IS... NOT THE WAY IT IS USUALLY DONE.
Come on. Kiss of Death. It's proverbial, Jack cajoled. Who's going to know? You say we've met a lot of times. Let’s make the last time memorable.
DO I HAVE TO KISS THE UNIVERSE AS WELL? But Death sounded resigned to it already. He had spent a lifetime - billions of lifetimes - in every shape the human mind could imagine or expect. What was one more expectation?
We're one and the same at the moment, Jack replied. You never know, you might actually enjoy it.
He stepped forward. Please?
It was a moment before Death sighed and set the scythe to one side. He stepped forward a little awkwardly, not looking as though he knew quite what to do with himself. YOU CAN HARDLY EXPECT ME TO USE TONGUE.
Another low chuckle and Captain Jack Harkness, the last living thing, embraced Death with all of the passion and intensity of life finding a way, even at the very end of all things. There was a kiss; it was difficult to tell if Life flowed into Death or vice versa because the circle was suddenly joined again, becoming infinite once again in that kiss.
And that it seemed was the Answer.
Everything that begins must have an ending. Everything that ends must have a beginning. And those two things are more intricately linked than most people can ever know. Even as the Universe died, the last elements of matter collapsing to a single point, and Jack's spirit faded to transparency and then to nothing under Death's bony hands, something moved in the darkness, something that had been waiting for Jack all this time and then blue light glimmered in the void above them.
New universes bursting into life filling the nothingness in unimaginable glory, and coruscating wonder. And these ones were not alone, and would never need to be afraid as the first had been. Not while they had each other.
There was no-one to see Death's skull move into an approximation of a smile as he reached once more for his scythe. It looked as though he wasn't getting that retirement after all.
Just as well really. It wasn’t as though the pension plan had been any good anyway.