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Ghost Story

Chapter Text

My name is Eiron, for all the good it's done me, and the time of my birth can't be expressed in integer coordinates. Probably better to say I was born in Time, close to the skin of the Vortex, under a fiery sky I was too small to truly remember. I know what I am and where I'm from, but the knowledge is imprecise and piecemeal, embroidered out of scraps and rehearsed so often that it becomes little more than legend in itself, words and names, sound and fury. Much like myself.

Easiest to say that I was born last, closest to the end, because even dreams have endings; I am the last child of Gallifrey, and ignorance and exile are my birthright.

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They stood in the nursery door, and through the window they could see the tachyon bombs splashing off the Citadel's glass dome. The baby was a small dark shape in that lurid light, all soft curves and silent breathing. "We can't," she said. "We can't put him through that."

"It won't be for long."

"There are reasons it's a restricted technology--"

"You've seen the reports as well as I have," he said hotly, not noticing that the baby's eyes were open. "It can't go on like this. Whole centuries brought to slaughter, the Nightmare Child run amok, abominations unleashed on abominations..."

"They say the Doctor is finally coming home, though," she said querulously, wrapping her arms around herself. "Perhaps he'll do something."

He looked into the shadows to watch their son, who was already clever enough to listen without stirring, even if he did not yet understand. "That's what I'm afraid of."

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My name is Jack, but of course nobody believes it. The 'Harkness' part is fake and always has been, yeah, but I promise, the name I was born with really was Jack. Or Jakk. Or possibly Jaeq. Look, it's not my fault you people haven't fixed the alphabet yet.

I was born in 5072, when you could still say things like "Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire" with a straight face. I was born in a backwater region of a backwater planet, and once upon a time, I was happy.

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Franklin cursed himself when he saw the tiny footprints in the sand. You look away for one moment—! Heart in his throat, he raced over the hill and down the uncertain rocks beyond, looking for any sign of the toddler who'd been on the blanket a moment go, right there, he'd just been right there. Wasn't that what the grieving parents always said? Just a moment, just for one moment you turn your back--

He found a shoe, and a torn part of a shirt—barely walking and already a nudist, his son—but the broomstick bushes were still and bare of leaves. Then he came to the top of the cliff and stopped, his heart just stopped. In the glare where the sun hit the water he could just make out a shape, pale and terrifyingly small, almost lost among the jagged, jumbled rocks. His heart stopped, and for a moment he saw himself climbing down those rocks, lifting up a small body, and carrying it home in his arms. Or maybe just throwing himself in after it.

"Da?"

Franklin jumped, and relief was so strong that it knocked him to his knees. There was his Jack, stripped of even his diaper, coming uncertainly along the sheer rocks. He looked at Franklin with the kind of deep confusion that only a baby could have, when the world was large and frightening and most things don't have names. "C'mere, soldier," Franklin sighed, throwing wide his arms, and Jack ran to him without hesitation, clinging to his neck. He was a little bit sunburnt, there was a scratch on his leg and a couple of red marks—bug bites, maybe?--on his head, just visible under all the downy black hair. But Jack was alive and well, and Franklin gathered him close, thanking God that nothing worse had happened, while Jack babbled happily in his ear.

Below them, on the rocks, the tide tugged at a small white shape and carried it out to sea.

-\-\-\-\-\-

And my name is Ianto Jones, born 1983 in Cardiff to parents who desperately wanted to be more than they were but didn't know how to go about it. Died 2009, because some things are worth dying for.

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It was later, days later, and Franklin wasn't letting Jack out of his sight this time. He trailed a short stride behind while Jack explored the beach, one part of his mind always aware of the nearby cliffs while another part listened to Jack's baby babble and tried to stop him putting things into his mouth.

When Jack trended towards the rocks, Franklin scooped him up quickly. "Not this time, soldier," he says. "You don't get to scare me half to death twice." Jack made a distressed sound and reached out towards the beach, though, and Franklin was a horrible father who would never survive his son's teens. "You want to check out something over there? Fine, but we'll check it out together. This is a recon operation, you know, best to work in teams."

He retraced his previous steps, while Jack looked around with big blue eyes. It was almost like he was searching for something, and Franklin held out faint hope he'd find the rest of the Jack's clothes as he explored the direction the baby had wandered. The rocks started to level out here, just a little, making a nice little niche—so maybe Jack had been safe all along—but there was no sign of any missing trousers. In fact, the only thing that caught his eye was a glitter of metal; and as Jack squealed, Franklin bent down to investigate.

An old-fashioned metal casing, like a pocket watch out of some tall tale, complete with a short chain, was nestled in the sand under the dry arms of a broomstick bush. Franklin tried to open it, but it seemed to be jammed, and after a moment he gave up rather than risk breaking it. "Look at this, Jackie," he said, holding it up to the baby. "Wonder where this came from?"

Jack grabbed at the chain and tried to put it in his mouth. When Franklin took it away, he started to cry, and fussed all the way home to supper. Franklin put the watch away, intending to show it off as a treasure later, or maybe ask if anybody in town had ever seen its like; but something or another distracted him, and he never did.

-\-\-\-\-\-

The Three-Fold Man?

Please.

The Doctor's got nothing on me.

Chapter Text

My name is Eiron, though at first I didn't know it; as a child, I was scarcely aware of Jack as a different person. Time Lord I may be, but all small children think the same small thoughts, and we were, after all, as close as two people can get and remain two travelers. Jack was no more aware of the difference than I was, perhaps less so—it's hard to remember so far back, and harder to put into words how we could once criss-cross a boundary so blurred as to be meaningless. At least in the beginning, we were almost an I, who sometimes dazzled our parents with small acts of brilliance or alarmed them with mentions of Other Mom and Other Dad or amused them with stories about a flame-colored sky. It was always innocent, of course, and unintentional, and as one.

We lived like this for some time before I realized that I was we, before it became clear that there was something about us—well, me—that was profoundly different from the other little boys on the Boeshane Peninsula. Jack, of course, never noticed a thing.

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Early morning, before Mom and Dad were awake, Jack slipped out of bed and crossed the room to the crib. The baby's name was Gray, which was stupid because he was clearly pink, except for the little curl of dark hair that came up from the crown of his head. "Hi," Jack tried saying, but Gray didn't stir, even though he was up over and over again during the night. "I'm your brother," Jack tried adding, but that didn't help either; maybe because it still wasn't real, like a shoe that he hadn't broken in yet.

He watched Gray sleep for a while, the little bitty fists and the little bitty feet and the little bitty rosebud of a mouth that was just barely parted for breath. He even tried poking the soft little baby tummy, but it didn't wake him, and after about five minutes Jack was already bored. What was the point of a brother if he didn't even do anything? He could hear the seabirds on the beach, and they would at least react if he poked them in the tummy—in fact, they'd react if he got anywhere near them, which was the fun part. He could sneak outside before Mom and Dad woke, run down to the beach and watch the waves come in and out, and try to chase the seabirds away from their breakfast.

Except his legs didn't want to move. He wanted to step away from the crib, but his legs wouldn't bend and his head wouldn't go up and his hands wrapped around the rail even tighter. A thought went in his head, I should stay in case Gray does something, but that was stupid because Gray wasn't doing anything.

And just like that, his body worked again. He bent his knees and waved his arms and poked Gray again just to prove it. And this time Gray woke up with a howl like the air-raid siren, and Mom came in to ask what Jack had done, only Jack didn't do anything, and when he tried to explain about the freezing she just scolded him for bothering the baby.

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It took me a while to figure out who this strange Other in my thoughts was, as he began to surface with greater frequency, partly because I had to figure out who I was first. It wasn't just that the Other sometimes usurped our body or our voice; it was the way he did it, how he struggled with the simplest tasks and seemed barely aware of the spinning of the planet beneath us, the motions of the stars. I was certain I could do so much better than him at so many things, but more and more our thoughts fell into parallel lines, and every time I was the one left mute and motionless, while the Other lumbered forward in his own oafish way.

It's a terrifying thing, to feel your body, your life slipping away, to observe with intact senses while someone else handles all the action. It is more terrible still to realize that it was never yours to begin with. Because I was aware of the Other's every thought, every action, observing all with perfect clarity; but he was barely cognizant of me. He did not remember Other Mom and Other Dad, he knew nothing of the orange sky, he was blind and deaf and stupid to things I understood with ease. It was around then I began to realize there was a division between me and we and him, and it was growing deeper every day. That there had always been that division, even if I couldn't remember how that came to be.

Everyone called us Jack, but I have a faint memory of Other Mom—my mother—holding me close and calling me Eiron. Sometimes I think she was saying, I love you, Eiron. Sometimes I think she said, I'm sorry. Either way, it was memory the Other didn't share, and so that's what I called myself, Eiron, the ghost in the machine.

-\--\--\--\-

Jack stared in dismay at the test that flicked up on his screen. The numbers seemed to crawl around by themselves, and it wasn't like he was stupid or anything, he just didn't understand this division thing. Why did he have to know division, anyway? What did they have calculators for if he had to do division!

The teacher was giving him the stink eye, because he was the only kid who hadn't picked up his stylus yet, so he picked it up. Okay. First problem. 64÷4. Who cared about stupid 64÷4? He tried counting it, but he didn't have enough fingers. Now the teacher was really glaring at him, like its eye diodes were trying to burn out. Stupid robot teachers. He hated them almost as much as he hated division. He could just put down any random old number and it wouldn't make a difference, like five, or eighty, or--

Sixteen. He wasn't sure why that suddenly made perfect sense, but he wrote it down anyway, and it looked right in the space. He wasn't even sure what he meant by look right, but it was one question down, twenty-four to go.

Next up, 72÷3.

Stupid division.

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I never hated him. Let me make that clear. I hated my silence, I hated my paralysis, and Jack was stupid and slow and reckless, and as he got older he went deaf to all but the most general nudging on my part; but I never hated him. We were too close for that; I could see too clearly the convoluted workings of his little brain. And as I could only live vicariously through him, with the rarest act of redirection, I suppose I grew to see things his way, governed by the same influences, watching from the same perspective.

I even came to love him, or as much as you can love someone you can't escape from. Perhaps it was just a peculiar form of Stockholm Syndrome. I was with Jack for his first loves and first losses and greatest achievements and darkest hours, and for lack of anything better I made them mine as well. The more important thing is, I forgave him: for being the real boy, for living and moving while I watched and waited, for never even noticing I was there. After all, it wasn't as if either of us ever had a choice in the matter.

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Mom hadn't talked for days, not until the soldiers came around in trucks to notify everyone about the evacuation. The countryside was too exposed to the enemy, they said; everyone was to relocate to Boe City, where it was possible to put up a shield.

Jack tried to help her with the packing, but there was only so much room on the trains to Boe and only so much they could carry, a boy and a woman bent with grief. They left so many things behind, Dad's books and Gray's toys and the cream-colored china plates and the broomstick bushes that bloomed in fiery color every spring; they left behind the house and the school and the beach. Mom brought pictures, and said those would have to be enough: they had to take only the things they could carry.

The night before they left Mom fell asleep on the couch, crying, watching picture after picture flicker inside the screen, and so Jack went into his parent's room and opened Dad's side of the wardrobe. He pulled down a jacket that still smelled like him, like building fires on the beach to watch the stars, all smoke and salt. It smelled like home felt, only they were leaving home, the house and the bushes and the hill above the beach where they'd buried all their dead.

Jack laid down on his parents' bed and cried for a while, for Dad and Gray and Mom and himself and all the dead people he'd helped roll into the trench. Unlike Mom, he didn't fall asleep.

Instead he crawled out of bed and went looking through the wardrobe again, digging through the old socks and cracked belts and the ties Dad never wore, touching everything one last time. Then his hands closed over smooth metal. A pocket watch, like something from a tall tale, was buried in the bottom of the drawer, a little tarnished and warm to the touch. He couldn't ever remember seeing the watch, though it seemed familiar; and it must've been Dad's because it was with Dad's stuff, and it must've been important because he'd never seen anything like it before. More importantly, it was something he could take.

He went back to his room, ignoring Gray's empty bed so he could slip the watch into his suitcase. Now he'd always have something to carry.

Chapter Text

Imperial Square was always packed these days, for one thing or another—ration trucks, military parades, emergency drills, donation drives, work call-ups. Even if there wasn't anything going on, this was where the refugees congregated, taking the trams in from the slums on the edge of the shield. Some of them were looking for work. Some of them were selling things, anything they had. Some begged. Some just had nowhere else to be.

And then there were the boys by the fountain.

Constable Guckey watched them circle in around their mark like birds of prey. One was short, baby-faced, and gingerish, while the other was all gangly limbs and sharp features that didn't yet fit his face. Teenagers, but barely, and judging by the cut of their clothes they were both refugee trash from down the Peninsula. And by the way they moved, this was not their first robbery.

Guckey watched them come together near a tall, well-dressed citizen. The short one staged a masterful stumble and collided into the mark from the front, knocking him backwards into the lanky one and dropping a stack of ragged newsheets at the same time. While the short one blubbered and stumbled and made a noisy nuisance of himself gathering his things, the tall one slipped away with something tucked under his arm. The mark blustered and gave the short one a hard kick before stalking away. Guckey checked his watch as the short boy fled the scene; the whole thing had taken perhaps five seconds.

He followed both boys to the green on the north edge of the square, and waited until they'd crouched behind a bench before making himself known. "Afternoon, boys," he said loudly, and watched them scramble to cover their loot. "Whatcha got here, then?"

"We found it!" Shorty blurted. Skinny jabbed him with his elbow and glared.

Guckey rolled his eyes at them both. "Yeah, I saw exactly where you found it. Hand it over."

The haul consisted of a wristwatch, a palmtop, and three pocketbooks, along with a jumble of scan cards extracted therefrom. When Guckey had them turn out their pockets, he came up with a couple more cards, some loose change and tram tokens, a packet of chewing gum that was probably stolen, a package of cigarettes that were definitely stolen, a very nearly illegal folding knife and some kind of fake pocket watch. "Where'd you find this, a wizard's cave?" he asked, twiddling the watch on its chain.

"It's a family heirloom," Skinny said fiercely. "Give it back."

"Heirloom? Pull the other one, why don't ya?" Guckey snorted. There was something funny about the watch, but he still slipped it into his pocket; at the very least it'd be worth showing off around the station as a laugh. "As for the rest of this, you'll be telling your story to a judge in a day or two."

Skinny raised his chin. "Or we could split it," he said.

Guckey blinked at him. "What do you think I am, kid? You think we need cops on the take with a goddamn war on?"

"Think of it as a deal," Skinny said with a grin. "You take something back to the police station, say you found it when we ran away, and you get a pat on the head or a bonus or whatever they give you guys for good behavior. We take the rest, and my mom gets to eat tonight, and we'll stay away from the square from now on. Promise."

Guckey stared at him for a full minute before bursting out laughing. "God damn it all, kid, I can't wait till you're old enough to enlist. Balls like that, you could hold down the front lines all by your lonesome."

"Does that mean you're letting us go?" Skinny asked, blinking innocently.

Of course not; Guckey knew they'd probably be in and out and back on the square again in a couple of days—too many of the damned dirty refugees in the city, not enough jail cells, even with the forced conscription—but there was a principle to the thing. He dragged them to the station and booked them into the lockup with the drunks and the protesters, where they couldn't get themselves in too much trouble. But he borrowed a desk within sight of their cell so he could keep an eye on them while he signed in all the evidence—just in case.

He almost forgot to include the fake watch, but at the last minute he reached for it in his pocket to toss into the evidence kit.

It wasn't there.

He glanced into the cell where the two boys were cooling their heels. Skinny just grinned at him and held up the watch; he made it walk across his fingers like a juggler, and then with a twist of his wrist it vanished as if it had never been. He shrugged, almost as if to apologize, and laced his fingers casually behind his head.

Guckey burst out laughing again.

-\-\-\-\-\-

You'd think that life in a pocket watch would be a precarious existence, particularly with the sort of adventures Jack gets up to. It's true that the watch was almost broken, stolen, or simply forgotten more times than I care to count, and for a long time I wasn't certain what that would mean for Jack and me. Would I simply cease to exist if he lost the watch? Would it be a quick blinking out, or would I fade away slowly? Or would I be left bodiless, shapeless, torn free of him to roam as a ghost? Was it even possible for me to exist without Jack? Could I simply attach myself to some other...I detest the word...host?

(This was before I understood my own nature, when it was easy, if painful, to think of myself as a parasite in Jack's body. It's still sometimes hard to fathom that it was really the other way around.)

I wasn't even sure how much of me existed inside the watch, or how the connection worked. I still wasn't sure just what the relationship between Jack and I was, because I had no memory of how we'd come to be as we were—something I now understand to be a kindness. The watch itself seemed to be sealed—at least, no one was ever able to open it, though I noted that Jack never tried--so there was no telling what was actually inside it. Just that, when we held it in our hands, I could feel myself in there, ticking over like a heartbeat, counting down the seconds.

Counting down to what, was the question.

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First Sergeant Bannister scowled at the line of broken men and women who shuffled out of the airlock. "This is what they offered to release?" she asked. "I think we should ask for a refund."

"Don't start," Dr. Udall said harshly. "They're prisoners of war, they deserve respect."

Bannister snorted. "They might prefer a bullet between the eyes, if you ask me."

Udall started examining the victims, starting with a boy on the end of the line. And he was a boy, couldn't be anything more: he was tall but too narrow, with a thin fuzzy beard that matched the wispy fuzz on his shaven head. He didn't react while she checked his pulse, scanned his chest, took a blood sample—he stared blankly, and she was already planning what to put on his psych referral. She took some pictures of his wounds and protruding bones and decided he was level two, non-urgent priority. "Can you tell me your name, soldier?" she asked gently.

He twitched, and his eyes snapped into focus on her face. Udall smiled without showing her teeth and took a slight step backwards. "Your name?" she prompted again, gently.

The boy suddenly began to gag, falling to his knees, while the other prisoners edged away in fear. Bannister hit the emergency containment alarms, swearing, and for a moment Udall could only watch as her patient dry-heaved on the deck. He was on all fours, his whole body clenching with each wave, like a cat with a hairball; her scanner hadn't flagged anything gastro on the first pass, but when she did a second look it picked up something inside his esophagus and coming up. "He's regurgitating a metallic mass," she told Bannister. "Tell me if it's a bomb."

Bannister aimed her rifle at the boy's head while she examined the scanner. "No," she concluded. "Not dense enough. Something that size, gotta be partly hollow."

"So how'd it get in his stomach?"

The boy hacked up mucus and bile and blood, and it didn't seem possible for the cartilages of his throat to stretch that far, but then suddenly he was pulling something out of his mouth. "Give that here," Bannister said sharply, but the boy clutched it close to his chest and hunched against it. "I said, give it here, soldier!"

"Will you calm down?" Udall snapped. If they weren't already exploding, it wasn't a threat. She crouched down next to the cowering boy. "What have you got there, soldier? Mmm?"

He looked at her with startlingly blue eyes, and then glanced fearfully at Bannister.

"Don't mind First Sergeant here," Udall assured him, as Bannister growled. "She's had PMS for the past two years running."

Slowly, the boy uncased his hands, and Udall studied the slimy mess he'd coughed up. Something round, with a chain, like a pocket watch or a make-up case. Did they even make watches like that in real life, or only in tall tales? "It's all right," she told Bannister, standing up. "Just personal effects."

"They're not supposed to have personal effects," Bannister groused.

"Don't you dare try to take it away from him," Udall snapped. She input her passcode to lift the emergency containment and pointed to the orderlies waiting outside. "You, get this boy some clothes and something to clean up with. You and you, escort him straight to psych and put him in one of the calming rooms. He's allowed to have his personal effects unless and until Dr. Meechaum decides otherwise. And if he starts to yark up anything else, get him a basin, will you?"

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I didn't have to always be in Jack's mind, of course. Maybe I wasn't supposed to be; maybe that was part of my problem. I could withdraw from his thoughts and our senses, and I sometimes imagined I was curling up inside the watch, in some warm dark place of waiting—I didn't like to, but I could. It's in my nature to be ever aware of the passage of time, but without the beat of our heart and the rush of air in our lungs, without context, what does time even mean? If I wasn't in our body, then what was the point?

I could sleep like that, in the watch—well, not really sleep, but rest my own thoughts and let time slip for hours or days. That scared me, and I didn't do it often. I would sometimes give Jack privacy in bed, not because I lack interest in sex—our common endocrine system ensured I enjoyed it just fine—but because it seemed impolite not to disclose the actual number of partners involved in the act. (Besides, there's a healthy interest in sex, and then there's Jack—don't let him play the 51st Century Culture card with you.) I would flee when Jack bored me, when he angered me, when he frustrated me—or when I was frustrated by my own powerlessness—but I could never sustain the sulk for long.

The only other times I left Jack's thoughts was when he grieved, even when I grieved with him: his family was my family, too, his friends my friends, and we lived the same nightmares. But there was nothing I could do to ease his pain, no words that I could make him hear, and so I gave him the only gift I could, which was privacy.

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Jack stood in the shower until the water ran clean; he could tell himself it was just a trick for removing the bloodstains. He peeled off his uniform, piece by piece, careful not to damage the officer's braids he'd sold his soul for as he piled each piece outside the stall; and when he was naked, he turned the water to maximum heat and scrubbed until he was raw.

There was a time, once, when he thought it was worth it; this used to be about avenging his planet, searching for Gray, contributing to the security of the Empire. But the wars were over and still the Intelligencers brought in suspect after suspect. Still he produced answer after answer, even if he had to send the subjects back in pieces. There had to be a way out of this gory dance that didn't involve eating his sidearm, but he couldn't figure out what it was, and until then—well, the Intelligence Service was supposed to be for life.

He was clean as he was going to get, at this point, and any more scrubbing would draw blood, the last thing he wanted to see more of. He shut the water off and stepped out of the steam-glazed stall to find a tall, blue-skinned woman in unfamiliar uniform standing next to his toilet. "Hello, Lieutenant," she said with a metallic click-buzz in her voice. "My name is Captain Jane 20F9-3 Honolulu. I'm from the Time Agency."

Naked as the day he was born, Jack saluted anyway. "Ma'am. Something I can help you with, ma'am?"

"I believe there is," Captain Honolulu said. "Would you like to enlist?"

Jack looked around the steamy bathroom, and at himself. "Right now?"

She cocked her head to the side, silvery eyes unblinking. "We can give you a moment to dress."

Later, he'd find out about the coup. Later he'd learn that his fellow Intelligencers were the first against the wall, their offices burned to forever conceal their crimes. Later, he'd stop to think about his mother, and it would be the first time in several years. Later, he would realize he didn't have any underwear.

But at that moment, he just pulled on his uniform trousers, then his unlaced boots and an undershirt. He looked at the jacket, with its scarlet braids, and fished his father's watch out of the pocket before tossing it over his shoulder to rest in a puddle. "Ready when you are," he said, looping the watch chain around one of his belt loops to hold it in place.

Captain Honolulu smiled, revealing translucent green teeth. She took Jack's arm as she coded the teleport into her wrist strap. "Welcome to the Agency."

-\-\-\-\-\-

I could never stay away from Jack. Could never stay away from the world. Cogito, ergo sum and all that, but how can you prove it except in relation to the things outside yourself? I couldn't give voice to my thoughts, couldn't act on my desires, but still I observed, learned, judged, remembered—even loved, sometime right alongside Jack and sometimes from afar.

(What does it mean to be loved by a ghost? In what sense could I love that which I never touched? There's a definition of love that's all endocrine glands and neurotransmitters, but Jack could and did remain perfectly unmoved; I wasn't asexual, either, just lacking the necessary equipment. At least I perfected the art of courtly love, pure and chaste from afar.

(...well, chaste; purity is a matter of definitions.)

In the long run, it might've been easier to hide in the watch and sleep the years away. I could've gone quietly into that good night; I could never have known what I know now, never have suffered as I have suffered, never have become this peculiar hybrid thing than I am. Inside the watch I might have simply faded into starlight. I might not even have cared.

Instead we joined the Time Agency, and I finally discovered what I was.

Chapter Text

The day they gave him a wrist strap and a new name, they also gave him a proper tour of the grounds—the first complete tour he'd received after months of training. "You know the main office and barracks well enough by now," Captain Holmes explained, while Jack blinked in the light of the yellow-green sun. "The Directors have their own self-contained department in the central tower. We have a library, a canteen, several forms of off-hours entertainment...this is the medical unit..."

Jack looked up at the sky beyond the dome, at the chunks of gently spinning rock that seemed ominously large and close even if he knew they were millions of miles away. Something about the setting seemed familiar, though he couldn't exactly say what—like something he'd seen in a dream, maybe. "What about life support and all that? What keeps this place running?"

"The physical plant is strictly off-limits to field agents," Holmes said promptly. "That's where atmospheric control, gravity manipulation, and water reprocessing take place. Consumable goods are produced partly on-site and partly imported, but we keep five-year stockpiles of all our staples. The location of the paradox machine is known only to the Directors."

Jack stopped short, even if the rocks in the sky kept spinning. "A paradox machine? Are you serious?"

Holmes looked at him askance. "I do not have a sense of humor of which I am aware, so, yes."

"And you don't mind just spreading that tidbit around?"

She sighed. "It's easily deducible from the nature of our mission. We cannot take the risk of one of our agents inadvertently threatening our existence with actions in the relative past, or accidentally coming back from a mission before they've left, or other such usual hazards. Our computers are good, but we're only humanoid; the paradox machine make it possible to manage those risks. Now, if you'd like to direct your attention to the recreation center..."

-\-\-\-\-\-

The Time Lords were a powerful race, all-seeing and wise, who made history itself their dominion. They were kind and humane and slow to anger, but their anger was terrible and final, and gods trembled in their shadows. They lived in a fantastic crystal palace close to the skin of the Vortex, where they gathered all the wisdom of the universe—and a fraction of all its wealth—for their own; they knew all, observed all, and galaxies trembled when they deigned to stretch out their hands.

If you think it requires unspeakable arrogance to identify one's self with a description like that...well, I am given to understand that's also one of a Time Lord's defining traits. (Jack, on the other hand, has no excuses.)

-\-\-\-\-\-

"Well, Captain, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Jack clasped his hands behind his back so the Directors wouldn't see them shaking. He smiled into the black void that hid an indeterminate number of humanoid shapes. "Well, in spite of a few early setbacks and unforeseen complications, I managed to locate the target by tracing his tachyon inversion signature from a tissue sample. I apprehended him alive before he could commit four of the seven crimes on his record, confiscated or destroyed his technology and managed to smooth over any remaining anachronisms with a healthy dose of Retcon. All and all, I think I'd call it a win."

One of the directors coughed slightly. Another said, "Are you aware that your actions briefly negated the existence of France for three centuries?"

"I put it back," Jack pointed out.

"And this tissue sample?" someone asked. "How did you obtain it?"

Jack cleared his throat. "I believe a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell."

There was a lot of whispering and muttering, until a deep, resonant voice said, "Your report, Captain, indicates no fewer than three missed opportunities to capture or kill the target, based on our reanalysis. Can you explain this?"

"I had to use my best judgment and the information available to me at the time, which is limited by the computing power of my wrist unit," Jack said carefully. "I judged the danger to civilians and threat to temporal stability to be too high, and so I avoided engagement and sought out a more opportune moment to make the collar."

"Let the record show," said another voice, higher and hoarser, "he did manage to negate four out of seven offenses. One of them capital."

More murmuring, and Jack stood as straight and tall as he could, keeping his chin up and his hands behind his back. Eventually, one of the directors sighed loudly, and the chamber fell silent. "You are a clever man, Captain," a voice said. "And you have an extraordinary ability to create your own luck. Would that all our agents were so talented. You're officially relieved of duty and released on your own recognizance, pending your new assignment."

"Thank you, Directors," Jack said, saluted, and left the room. He made it all the way to the toilets on the ground floor before he had to sit down and put his head between his knees, taking long, deep breathes until his hands stopped shaking.

He almost had his shit together when a shadow fell over him. "You all right, Fresh Meat?" a familiar voice asked. Jack looked up to see John Hart looming over him, doing a decent approximation of genuine concern.

"Yeah," he managed to say. "Yeah, just...Just finished debriefing with the Directors."

Hart barked a laugh. "Oh, don't worry, they haven't actually killed anybody in donkey's years."

"I negated France," Jack said.

"Oh. Hmm." Hart scratched the back of his head. "I think the other fellow was stealing office supplies. Still," and he clapped his hands briskly, "if they'd wanted you dead you'd already be in the Soup of the Day, so what's the use of worrying?"

Jack shrugged. "Guess you have a point there."

"Of course I have." John offered him a hand, and pulled him up easily despite the difference in their heights. "In more than one place, too," he added with a quirked eyebrow and a little twist of his hips.

Jack chuckled weakly, but suddenly a little affirmation of life sounded like a great idea. "If I let you be on top, will you stop calling me Fresh Meat?"

John smiled, which made Jack think of predators and skeletons. "If you let me do anything, I'll never stop."

-\-\-\-\-\-

The facts about Time Lords, the concrete ones, were few, and what was know was often so fantastic it had the air of myth anyway. Jack was certainly skeptical of what we learned, though of course, he hadn't met any of us yet, so perhaps he could be allowed.

Fact: the Time Lords had technology that made the vortex manipulators of the Agency look like sextants and lodestones. Living ships that glided through time and relative dimension were only their most well-known artifact, which is rather ironic considering the damn things are supposed to be able to disguise themselves.

Fact: Time Lords were long-lived, though exactly how long lived was questionable. The claim of physical regeneration was thoroughly documented and debated, with several leading authorities arguing that it wasn't really a regeneration so much as a transference of consciousness to a separate host body, while others pointed out that those authorities wouldn't know what to do with a triple helix of DNA if it divided in front of them and thus ought to shut their stupid faces.

Fact: Time Lords were clever, far more clever than the humans they so resemble, with preternatural senses and psychic abilities and an instinct for time and space and the motion of both. None of these were spelled out in detail, since nobody had ever got a Time Lord to sit down and submit to a battery of tests, but the anecdotal evidence was extensive and more than a little familiar.

Fact: Time Lords were gone, and the only traces left behind are rumors and legends and scars in space and time from the war that destroyed them. The scary thing was, nobody could figure out whether we'd won or lost.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Greenish sunlight slanted through the overhead windows onto Jack's table at the Agency's library. It housed millions of volumes, from the bloody skins on which most races made their first childish marks to the hypernovels of the ninety-second-century, which caused permanent brain damage with frequent repeated use. The archives and library together housed a thousand thousand books that were never written—or at least, never published—and ten times that number of conventional titles, if not more. And Agents with too much time on their hands were allowed—no, encouraged—to peruse the entire collection at will.

Jack was in the mythology section today. Jack spent a lot of time in the mythology section.

"Working hard, or hardly working?" someone called, and he looked up over the rim of the paper volume he was studying to find Jandos Hokim and Jessika Hauer loitering at the end of the aisle. They were dressed out for an early twenty-second century job, by the cut of their uniforms, but there was no telling if they were coming or going.

"This is pleasure reading," Jack said. "Directors still haven't decided what to do with me and Hart since we busted the loop. I think I might've broke him."

"Can't see how you could've made things any worse," Jandos said, but Jessika elbowed him, and he sighed. "Look, you got some free time? We're looking at five weeks in the Malaysian Influenza and the only way to start that out right is blind drunk."

"Sorry, drug contract," Jack said. "Again with the busted loop."

"What, they think you're going top yourself?" Jessika rolled her eyes. "What are you reading, anyway? Tall tales?"

"Something like that," he said.

Jandos reached out and tilted up the book to see the title. "Time Lords: Behind the Myth? Are you shitting me?"

He shrugged. "Hey, I just spent five years dealing with Hart, a fusion bomb, and incipient interethnic warfare. I think I'm entitled to a little brain candy."

Jandos rolled his eyes and spun on his heel. "Whatever, man. See you after the apocalypse."

Jessika, however, hung around a little longer, toying with another paper volume. "You sure you didn't break yourself busting the loop?" she asked. "I mean, you've been kinda quiet since you got out."

"It was a really bad loop," Jack said with a little shrug. "And John's not exactly had the smoothest re-entry, either."

"Yeah, but he's been smashing things and fornicating in public, which is SOP for him," Jessika said. "You've been holed up in here."

"I like it in here," he said. "No fusion bombs."

She traced the edge of the book binding with her finger. "I never believed the Time Lord stories, myself," she said. "Too much like Santa Claus. Or Jesus."

"Yeah, I don't know why I bother sometimes," Jack admitted, pushing the book aside. "Guess I just like to think there's something more to the universe."

"More?" she asked. "More than what?"

"Just...more," he said, and squirmed for a more comfortable position. "It's like...like I've been looking for something for as long as I can remember, and it always seems like it's just within reach, but I don't know what it is."

Jessika raised an eyebrow. "Sounds like you need to be in the self-help section, schatz."

"Yeah, yeah, because I was traumatized by a violent and turbulent childhood," he said, rubbing his eyes. "And since I'll never get approval to go back and fix that, maybe I'll just self-medicate with sex, drugs, and ancient mythology. What do you think?"

"Thought the drugs were off-limits until the directors decided you've still got your marbles," Jessika said.

Jack smirked at her as he stood up. "And when have I ever obeyed the Directors? C'mon, you think we can catch Jandos before he opens up the tab?"

-\-\-\-\-\-

In some ways, I didn't really become a Time Lord until Jack became a Time Agent. I am what I am, of course, but I had never really understood my own existence; I had given in to the assumption that I was a singularity, unique in the universe and alone but for Jack. Knowing that there had once been others like me—that I had, perhaps, once been something like others—was both shocking and comforting. And a little confusing, because everything we read of Time Lords indicated they were humanoid in appearance, and there certainly wasn't anything about any pocket watches. And whatever I might've been, our body was quite human, and Jack was the one who lived in it.

Still. I wasn't just Eiron anymore; I was Eiron of Gallifrey, with a people and a past. I can't overstate what that meant to me, to finally know myself, even if only imperfectly and in part.

Jack was a Time Agent while I was becoming a Time Lord, and he was good at it, and he liked it. The Agency had saved his life in more ways than one, made him the hero he always wanted to be, gave him a purpose and a family and a home. But then something went very, very wrong, and even I could see it coming from a long way off. There just wasn't anything I could do about it.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack woke up in his quarters with dawn just fringing the horizon, all shades of yellow and azure and lime. His head hurt like hell; had he been drinking last night? Hadn't he been on a mission? He didn't usually drink on missions, not unless John was around to goad him...or Jessika...or Jose...okay, so he drank on missions more than he ought to. This one must've been a doozy, though, and he was shocked he'd even made it back to base on time—but, yeah, the clock date was within his return window, and he wasn't in detox so the directors probably weren't too mad at him.

Something was wrong, though. Something more than a hangover. Something that made him kick down his sheets and take a good long look at himself. Time Agents wore their work on their bodies, sometimes literally, but he looked the same: no new scars to report, no tattoos, no open wounds, not even dirt. Nothing but some pinkish dimples in the crease of his groin, dimples that could've been anything, that could've been nothing.

Jack didn't even remember what mission he'd been on, and somehow that suddenly seemed important.

He staggered out of bed and reached into his desk, through the false bottom to where he kept the good toys. Time Agents wore their work on and occasionally in their bodies, and everybody had a radioactive counter implanted in their abdomen, one that would patiently tally up the seconds of their relative timeline no matter how knotted it became. It was useful for confirming agents' reports, preventing unauthorized field trips, and dating bodies, not to mention more mundane things like recalculating birthdays. He found the reader and pressed the wand into his navel, thinking, if I was on a mission and I really screwed up, they could've given me Retcon to conceal any mistakes. I could've crossed my own timeline. I could've escaped a paradox. I agreed to this kind of thing when I signed the contract.

He'd agreed to secrets and silence and following orders even when he didn't understand why. When he couldn't understand, for the sake of the timeline, now matter what things looked like. He'd agreed up to trust the Directors implicitly and he did, he did, except for when he kind of didn't, when the figures in his briefings didn't add up, when he lifted toys from the med labs and hid them in a false-bottom drawer. He'd agreed to keep their secrets but hadn't said anything about his own.

The reader beeped once. The numbers on the end of the wand flickered and settled.

Sixty-four billion seconds.

Two years.

Jack let the reader drop to the floor, and braced himself against the desk. One hand found the edge of his groin again, the pink dimples that could've been folliculitis or crabs or injection sites or surgical scars. He'd been off base for two years, and there was no note, no gentle warning to himself that there was something he'd had to forget. He wasn't in Medical, he was in his own room, and if he hadn't checked the counter—if somebody had remembered to zero it out, which was standard for a mission return--if he hadn't been so damn paranoid—if he'd done what he'd signed up for--

He looked sharply over his shoulder at the camera in the corner of the room. Of course Time Agents were under constant surveillance; of course the Directors had sole access to the recordings. He'd sat facing away from the camera, though, so nobody could've seen that he'd used a reader on himself. Nobody knew that he knew. But somebody knew what he didn't know, what they'd taken from him, memories too old and deep for Retcon, too complex for an engrammatic stamp.

He carefully put the reader away in the false-bottomed drawer, grabbed a computer and went to sit in the closet. Somebody knew what he'd forgotten, and how he'd forgotten, and why; and maybe there was a perfectly good reason, but Jack was going to figure it out for himself, thanks. One way or another.

-\-\-\-\-\-

(Of course I know what happened. One day I might even tell him.)

Chapter Text

So this was Jack, on a certain day in 1941: thirty-seven standard years old, former soldier, former spy, former Time Agent, adrift. He had grifted to survive once before, as a youth in the slums of Boe City, but aspiring to more he'd tried patriotism, brotherhood, and service—to his planet, to the empire, to all of human history. And over and over he met failure, sadness, or betrayal by the very people he'd offered his trust to. So back to grifting, on a higher order than before, and if he thought of his future at all he thought about revenge.

But how could he—oh, all right, we—how could we ever hope to take on the Time Agency? The all-seeing, omnipresent Time Agency that could stop us before we started from the safety of their paradox? How could we harm them when they knew Jack and all he was capable of—knew him better than he knew himself? How could we destroy them without blowing a hole through Time itself? It would've been like operating on a brain tumor—theoretically possible, sure, but liable to leave the situation far worse than it started out.

I don't think Jack actually thought of these things,though; he thought about revenge because it was easier than picking up the pieces, and he ran from century to century because sorry was so much harder than goodbye. He fucked and fought and danced and drank because it was fun, and because it passed the time, and because he genuinely felt like there was nothing better to do. If he'd been of a slightly different temperament, he might have just killed himself; instead he let the rest of the universe have a go, and got addicted to escape. Circling the drain instead of diving right into it. If there'd been anybody to look after him--

But we were alone, and I could be nothing but the niggling note of caution in the back of his mind, the instinct, the hunch, the irrational fear. And by the time he became Captain Jack Harkness, he was very good at pushing me aside.

-\-\-\-\-\-

He watched the ambulance's landing from the safety of his ship, confirming the coordinates he'd chosen after months of careful research. It couldn't be too close to the city center, or it would attract too much attention; it had to be a repeat target, or else the whole scam fell apart. As for lack of casualties...well, that was just a perk. At the Agency he'd gotten kinda used keeping his hands, if not clean, then at least regularly washed.

He'd shaken the other timeship as well, but at the last possible moment; they couldn't be more than a few weeks off. Which meant Jack needed to get on the ground and get himself into a position to hear about unusual officials asking pointed questions. Military would be best, an excuse to hang around command posts and eavesdrop...not to mention the period uniforms...and if he could make himself an officer, that meant an officer's club. Enlisted would do in a pinch, though—everybody likes a man in uniform, and in the dark of the barracks or an open shower....

First things first, though. He put the ship at station-keeping over the War Office Building and switched on the data scanners. "Okay, Computer, find me a name."

"What are your criteria?" it asked.

"Just start with a visual match and we'll pare it down from there."

The scanners flickered through the roof of the building, seeking out every document, every book, every piece of paper and uploading it to a temporary database. It took about fifteen minutes—after all, there was a lot of paper—before Computer beeped. "Sixteen matches found within acceptable parameters."

"Drop the live ones," Jack said immediately. Impersonating a dead man was so much easier.

Computer beeped again. "Nine matches within new parameters."

"Officers only?"

Beep. "Four matches within new parameters."

"Let's see 'em, then."

There was Lieutenant Richard Blackwood, MIA at Dunkirk, far too long ago. Major Alfred Thewlis, killed in a training accident, but that was weeks ago, still too far off. Flight Lieutenant Timothy Finch went down recently, but he was London born and bred, which meant too many inconvenient friends and family hanging about. And that left...

Group Captain Jack Harkness, shot down in a training flight over Cardiff just days ago, with nobody on this side of the Atlantic to identify him. The name didn't hurt, either—maybe it was a good omen?

Jack used the teleport to get into the War Office Building once Computer had zeroed in on the appropriate documents. It was a work of moments to filch all the KIA materials on Harkness, effectively erasing his death from the records; there were probably copies at his base in Wales, but it would take weeks before the RAF even noticed the error, weeks that Jack had.

A few more moments and a few acts of forgery later, Captain Harkness had been reassigned to a legate post at the Ministry of Defence. He had a month before the Germans took care of the ambulance for him—a month of the Blitz and big band and period military uniforms. And when the Time Agents showed up, he'd be getting a fat pay day, enough to lose himself in a 45th century Pleasure Labyrinth for a month or more.

Not what he really wanted from the Agency, but everybody had to start somewhere.

-\-\-\-\-\-

This was the Doctor, according to Jack: an odd-looking man in an ugly coat, who couldn't concentrate on anything and smiled too widely at inappropriate times. A madman who'd blow up a factory because he objected to the guns they made. A genius who saw what no one else did. A lucky bastard who didn't deserve his dance partner. An even braver man than Jack, because the Doctor still had something to lose, and yet it didn't stop him from jumping in with both feet.

A good man, and one who believed in goodness, even from a con artist; and somehow that made Jack desperately want to believe in him.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"I didn't know."

The Doctor glared at Jack a moment longer, and then silently went back to work with the screwdriver, despite his own dire proclamations that the nanogenes could not be stopped. Jack flexed his fingers helplessly, his mind stuck on that refrain—I didn't know, there wasn't anything inside, Computer didn't detect anything inside when I scanned it, this one isn't my fault, I didn't know—but there was nothing to be done about it, so he walked away.

He watched the masked creatures surround the fences of the crash site—Chula hybrids, apparently, an army of zombies summoned by the broken ambulance. Innocent men and women reduced to hysterical, monstrous children. "So how long until the bomb falls?" Rose asked nervously.

"Any second," Jack said. The sirens had started minutes ago, but of course nobody had recorded the exact moment of every impact, so there was no telling how close the bomb with their name on it might be. Whether the Child would get them first.

The Doctor brushed past Jack with barely a glance, moving instead to Nancy's side. "What's the matter, Captain? Bit close to the volcano for you?"

Jack glared, because how dare the Doctor, this Doctor with his bananas and his screwdrivers—what did he even know? What right did he have to judge? Jack was a conman, not an idiot, it wasn't like he'd planned it this way—he'd been so proud of the fact that this time, nobody was going to get hurt--

And he'd killed them all. Every last man, woman and child. If Hitler didn't get them, Jack's nanogenes would.

The ground shook as a bomb fell, too close for comfort, jarring him out his horror. Maybe the bomb would destroy the nanogenes?No, not if they were already airborne—if the crash landing hadn't stopped them, one Schlechter Wolf sure wouldn't. The blast would just carry them up, spread them wider, get them into the upper atmosphere and give them a ticket to infect and transform the whole world. "Doctor," Jack called in frustration, because he seemed to be the one with all the answers, the only one who knew what to do. "That bomb—we've got seconds."

Another one landed even closer. "You can teleport us out," Rose said, staring at Jack.

He couldn't quite meet her eyes. "Not you guys. The navcom's back online; gonna take too long to override the protocols."

"So it's volcano day," the Doctor called without looking at them. "Do what you've got to do."

"Jack?" Rose asked, pleading. How old was she, twenty? Nancy the same age? The Doctor...who could even tell?

How many people in London? How many people on Earth? He could flee across time and space, but if he was already contaminated, could the nanogenes on his ship fix him? What was the point, when he'd just slaughtered his own ancestors?

...Except the paradox hadn't started yet, so the timeline was still in flux. That meant there was still something to do. Something he could do. And last chances were kind of his specialty.

With a last look at Rose, he activated the teleport. He ignored the alarms as Computer's nanogenes went to war with whatever traces of the Child's that he might've brought with him; it was the work of moments to map the formations of the German fighters and find the group most likely to strafe the train station. He eased the ship forward, shadowing them from below.

He might not be able to stop the nanogenes, but he didn't have to give them a free ride into the jetstream, either. If he bought the Doctor enough time to think of something else, of course, that would be great, but for now he'd have to focus on playing catch with the Luftwaffe.

Besides, who wanted to live forever?

-\-\-\-\-\-

And this was the Doctor as I met him: a light in the darkness, a pole star, the very thing I'd been looking for since I first heard of the Time Lords, though I hadn't even known what I was looking for. I think I felt him arrive, though dimly, like the faintest ripple on water; from the moment we met him I could tell what he was, and it charged everything he did, every word he said, with extra meaning. Here was, finally, somebody who thought like I thought, in the same leaps and slides; someone who felt what I felt, and thought Jack was just as thick for missing it; somehow with two hearts that beat in time with the ticking of the watch, a rhythm as familiar to me as our own, like I'd always known it in the bottom of my mind even if I hadn't heard it in thirty-seven years. I fell a little in love with him on the spot, an absurd needy love based on a kind of loneliness I hadn't even been aware of until the moment it loomed huge.

And he couldn't fucking see me.

The watch, I know; I figured it out after a while. The metal is slightly psychic, which was tremendously helpful for deterring any of Jack's exes from lifting it as a souvenir, but a tremendous bother when it came to getting the attention of the Doctor, any attention at all. Through Jack, I could see and hear and feel him, but all the Doctor saw of us was Jack the human; the Time Lord part of me was shielded by the watch, and the more I tried to get Jack to "accidentally" reveal it the more carefully he kept the damn thing hidden.

At first I thought it was his Time Agent's instinct not to expose an obvious anachronism, even to a fellow traveler, but no, he'd had no trouble whipping out the blaster and the keytool and the teleport; the watch was more personal, more sentimental, and it made me want to strangle him with my non-existent hands. He didn't want Rose or the Doctor to see the watch because he didn't want to explain it, didn't want to have such an intimate conversation about his lucky charm and beloved heirloom. He'd tell a million stories about coed naked xenozoology but nothing about himself, because he wanted to pretend that he wasn't just as in love as I was, if for very different reasons.

(I couldn't throttle him for it, but I could give him a migraine, and retreat into the watch to let him sleep it off alone. Take that, you arrogant bastard.)

-\-\-\-\-\-

They stayed on Raxacoricofallapatorius for a few hours after dropping off the Margaret-Blonn-Egg, in order to make a few repairs; Rose had shut herself up in her room for most of the trip, so it was just Jack and the Doctor in the control room, checking over critical systems.

"Shields look good up here," Jack called from his perch high up the wall. "Though you might need to retouch the paint a bit."

"It's supposed to look like that," the Doctor called absently. "It's called distressing."

"Going for a retro look?" Jack guessed.

He glared. "Everything's retro if you go far enough forward."

"Point." He shifted around to descend the ladder again, and his foot accidentally jarred one of the odd bits of gear dangling from the ceiling like so many barnacles. "Whoops, sorry..."

He missed whatever the Doctor called back up, though, when he realized what he'd kicked: some kind of headset, a dull steely color, with long flanges that projected from both earpieces to cradle the back of the head. It was covered with all sorts of unfriendly ridges and knobs, and the thick blue cable it dangled from disappeared into the shadowy vaults of the control room.

There was one flat, round plate in the front, with a notch in it, like something was meant to slot in there. For some reason, it gave Jack a shiver. "What is this thing?" he asked, nudging it again with the toe of his trainer.

"No touching," The Doctor said before he'd even glanced up. Then his eyebrows lowered. "Especially not of that."

"I'm not touching," Jack said, continuing to bounce it off his toe. "But what is it?"

"Chameleon Arch," the Doctor said. "Changes you from one species to another."

Jack blinked. "Are you serious?"

"Like a heart attack."

The ridges along the band were definitely ominous, but Jack was intrigued. "So you just strap that thing on and it remakes your body?"

"Not just your body." The Doctor gave it a baleful look. "It changes your mind, too. Stores the old you in a secure container and makes you forget everything you were."

"So I plugged this thing in and set it to, I don't know, Chula...?"

"I said, no touching," the Doctor said severely. "That's a restricted technology. Even my people didn't use them except as a last resort...or a punishment."

"Doesn't sound like much of a punishment," Jack said. "More like what we just did for Margaret, you know? Giving somebody a second chance."

"Depends on how you define it." Something sparked on the console, and the Doctor hit it with a rubber mallet until it stopped, then continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "It's got side effects, see. Not meant to be used for long periods of time."

"What kind of side effects?"

"Oh, you know, brain damage, heart failure, insanity..." The Doctor flicked a few switches and the whole TARDIS vibrated subtly. "Sometimes the old self gets damaged, or the container leaks, or it's just shut up for so long there's nothing left to restore. You'd be stuck as something else for the rest of that species' lifespan, missing a part of yourself, and worst of all, you wouldn't even know any different."

"So maybe that is a punishment." Jack tore his eyes away from the gently spinning headset and climbed down the ladder. "Why do you have one, though? Ever used it?"

The Doctor was quiet for a while. "No," he finally said. "Too dangerous. Might forget myself and never come back. Or lose myself and end up somebody else."

Jack blinked and frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

But before the Doctor could answer, Rose came stomping into the control room in her pajamas, clutching a pillow to her chest. "Anybody know why it's snowing in my room?" she asked conversationally, and that meant a few more repairs, a few more hours at rest.

Chapter Text

Jack looked at the Daleks, hundreds of the damn things, thousands spread out around their disgusting Emperor—human Daleks, or post-human, or maybe somewhere deep down inside a little bit human still; but Daleks, the bane that had harried his own time, all times, before disappearing into the darks of those legends that he used to pass the time with. Another mystery solved; too bad nobody at the Agency was likely to take his calls about this little revelation.

The Daleks had invaded entire galaxies, exterminated planets, brought hundreds of fleets to their knees, and now they had an army that had to number in the millions. Jack had a police box, the Doctor, and a very compact laser. And just case the situation was looking a little too positive...

"WORSHIP HIM!" The atonal, metallic rasp filled the air at an ear-bleeding volume. "WORSHIP HIM!"

"They're insane," the Doctor said, staring at the Daleks in horror. "Hiding in silence for hundreds of years, that's enough to drive anyone mad--"

-\-\-\-\-\-

I knew these things. I knew these things, before the Doctor ever said a word, before Jack made any connections. Somewhere inside myself, there was a place that remembered a mother and a father and an orange sky, and it remembered the Daleks, and it remembered anger. Anger, and an equal weight of fear.

I had always known there was a reason those parents sent me away, why they never came back for us. Now I had seen exactly what it was.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

They made their plans and organized their people, and the station staff went off to prepare. Jack hung back in the control room, though, so it would just be him and Rose and the Doctor. "It's been fun, but I guess this is goodbye," he said as lightly as he could.

"Don't talk like that," Rose said uneasily. "The Doctor's going to do it, you just watch him."

"Rose." He cupped her face, remembering how she'd waltzed through the Blitz. She was all heart, Rose Tyler, and if he'd had a chance to know her better—but he had work to do, and it was best to get past any potential distractions now, before they actually became distractions. "You are worth fighting for," is all his said, meaning you and him and everything. He kissed her, because it was his last chance, and she looked at him like she might've understood.

He turned to the Doctor, who had paused to watch, and forced himself to meet his eyes. "Wish I'd never met you, Doctor," Jack said awkwardly, and trusted he's would understand what he meant. "I was much better off as a coward." And gave him the same soft kiss, the same goodbye. I will follow you anywhere, he wanted to add, anywhere you send me.

But he had to get his game face on, get focused on the fight to come. No distractions. No regrets. He'd always known he'd go down fighting, and now he had a chance to go down for a worthy cause. They had their jobs and he had his.

"See you in hell," he said brightly, and walked away.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack, hello. I know we don't talk much, but this is your better half, Eiron. I have a simple request.

Open your goddamn watch.

You've never done it. You've never tried. I admit I don't even known if it's possible, but if anyone can, it's you. And there's a reason you've held onto it all these years, through wars and time-travel and android fashionistas, a reason that has nothing to do with sentiment or luck. I have been waiting here, hiding in silence, all our life, becoming what I need to be while I watched you play the hero and the villain.

Now it's my turn to act. Now it's my turn to fight.

Just open it. Let me out.

You know, whenever it's convenient for you.

...

Any day now, Jack, seriously.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"You sent her home, didn't you?"

Maybe the Doctor was just distracted by his gizmos, which were now too complex for Jack to quite follow. Maybe that's why he wasn't looking into the screen. "Yeah," he said shortly.

So Rose was gone, safe in her own era, tens of thousands of years away from this battle. Good. "The delta wave," Jack asked, hoping the Doctor would dignify him with a straight answer now that Rose wasn't here to protect. "Is it ever going to be ready?"

"TELL HIM THE TRUTH, DOCTOR." Jack started at the sound of the Emperor's voice, and on the screen the image of the Doctor looked up sharply—but no, it had to be a transmission, there was no way the fleet could've beamed their god straight to Level 500. "THERE IS EVERY POSSIBILITY THE DELTA WAVE WILL BE COMPLETE, BUT NO POSSIBILITY OF REFINING IT. THE DELTA WAVE MUST KILL EVERY LIVING THING IN ITS PATH, WITH NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN HUMAN AND DALEK. ALL THINGS WILL DIE...BY YOUR HAND."

Jack's stomach sank, and he waited for the Doctor to argue, to wave his arms and reveal what trick would save the world. Instead, the Doctor flinched, and Jack's mouth went a little dry. "Doctor, the range of this transmitter covers the entire Earth."

"YOU WOULD DESTROY DALEKS AND HUMANS TOGETHER," the Emperor declared, something like smugness in its harsh, metallic voice. "IF I AM GOD, THE CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, THEN WHAT DOES THAT MAKE YOU, DOCTOR?"

"There are colonies out there!" the Doctor snapped, eyes wide. "The human race will survive in some shape or form, but you're the only Daleks in existence! The whole universe is in danger if I let you live!" He suddenly looked at the screen, looked into Jack's eyes, desperate and haunted. "D'you see, Jack? That's the decision I've got to make for every living thing: die as a human or live as a Dalek. What would you do?"

That was a question to be asking Rose, their beautiful barometer of right and wrong. Instead he was asking Jack, the soldier and the criminal, because Rose was two hundred thousand years away. And there were reasons for that, and reasons Jack was still here. Because like the Doctor, Jack knew how to sacrifice, even when it included himself. "You sent her home," he said sharply, meaning so much more than that. "She's safe. Keep working."

-\-\-\-\-\-

Seriously, Jack. Not fooling around here. Let me out.

The Doctor needs our help. No, not your help, my help. You're one more warm body holding the line, and that's all you think you'll ever be, but I can help him, I can do more—two Time Lords have to be better than one, and together we might be able to refine the delta wave and shield the Earth from the blast. Part of the Earth. Something.

This isn't supposed to happen, the Doctor and I both sense it: the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire won't be built on a graveyard. But the timeline is still in flux, and I can change things, do something. For once, I'm the one with the power in my hands, if only I actually had hands.

If you're so eager to destroy yourself, there's a shortcut in your pocket.

Open the fucking watch.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

"Last man standing...for god's sake, Doctor finish that thing and kill them!"

Were the bullets even slowing them down? He raced down the corridors, all the old habits coming back to him—firing one-handed even though the recoil made his shoulder ache, keeping his eyes on the oncoming enemy, pausing at every turn to make sure they kept their eyestalks on him. Every second they spent focused on him was another second the Doctor had, and this wasn't the first time Jack had been somebody's diversion. This was full-blown battle, with the world narrowed to his targets and his surroundings and his weapon and his heartbeat.

"Doctor, you've got about twenty seconds!"

And so did he.

-\-\-\-\-\-

God, you self-destructive idiot, listen to me! You can save yourself! I can save ourself! Open the watch, and we can regenerate, right? Isn't that how it works? Cheating death?

Jack, let me out!

Please!

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

He came to the gates of Level 500, the last place he could make his stand. The machine gun chose that moment to run dry; even if he'd had another spare magazine, there was no time to reload. He pulled out his sidearm and fired into the three Daleks that had chased him this far, because even if strategy hadn't required him not to go down easy, he did have pride.

The pistol only had a six-round clip, though. Now he was the only thing standing between the Daleks and the Doctor, and the world narrowed to the limits of his vision, to the sound of his beating heart.

At least he would know without a doubt that this had been worth it. Worth every second.

"EXTERMINATE," the lead Dalek declared.

"I kind of figured that," Jack said, and spread his arms wide.

-\-\-\-\-\-

This is death, without background music, without context or drama, stripped to its essentials: there is the body's autonomic symptoms of terror, the pounding heart, the stinging sweat, the trembling of the arm and legs. There is pain beyond all imagining that lights up every nerve. There are final irrational thoughts, mere spasms of neurons, too little and too late.

Death is a terrible, sudden noise, followed by an even more terrible silence.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Everything must come to dust.


All things.


Everything dies.

-\-\-\-\-\-

What are you? asks the voice, as fire fills my senses, blinding light, roaring noise.

I...I'm Eiron.

What are you?

I am a Time Lord. (Though it's hard to say with conviction, lost in a deafening void.)

What are you?

I suppose I'm a ghost. Where—where's Jack?

Jack is here.

But where is he? Am I...I feel alone. (For the first time in nearly thirty-seven standard years, I think I am alone.)

Jack is a form. A pattern in space and time. I can see every atom of his existence. I see you.

Why can't I feel him? Is he dead? (Am I alone?)

Everything dies.

Am I dead? (Or is this the Vortex, this swirling, burning chaos? Are we inside the Time Vortex itself?)

Everything dies.

You're not being terribly helpful about this.

I am the Bad Wolf.

What does that even mean?

I bring life.

(There is a sudden, terrible sound, like drums—it spears through my center, transfixing me, and it is fire—)

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack woke up gasping, woke up trembling, woke up at all.

What the hell--?

He clambered unsteadily to his feet and looked around, but this was the same corridor, the same space station. Just a distinct lack of Daleks. Had they spared him, for some reason, one more act of insanity? Were they already in the control room, or had the delta wave already come and gone? But then why was Jack still breathing?

The corridor was coated in dust...fine, gray dust and slipped easily through his fingers. Ashes to ashes. Except he'd been alone up here. Alone but for the Daleks...

Up ahead, he heard a distinctive breathy grind.

Jack ran flat-out up the last set of stairs and along a short corridor, and as his reward he was just in time to see the TARDIS fade away. No sign of the Doctor; just more dust, and a delta wave device that had never been activated. He quickly looked at one of the sensor screens, but it didn't register any other life signs in the Gamestation; Earth was safe, but Jack was alone.

"Oh, no, you don't," he snarled as the last light faded, and he opened up his vortex manipulator. The battery was nearly dead—no point in keeping it fully charged, not when he had TARDIS travel--but there ought to be enough juice for this, just enough for one last little trip--

Chapter Text

Let's do a little experiment, shall we? Find yourself a dark room, and a comfortable chair. Have a friend tie your hands behind your back, nice and firm, but not too tight because I won't be responsible for your loss of circulation. Maybe put on a blindfold, too, if the room's not very dark. Tie your legs to the chair as well. Wear a really loud watch.

Now turn up the thermostat as high as it goes, or get a rip-roaring fire going, or just hold a hot brick in your lap. (Best to pre-heat the brick, if you go that route, and have it handy.) And have your friend put a large metal drum over your head, the kind that holds oil or dangerous chemicals; in fact, the more recently it held those dangerous chemicals, the better. You friend should also have a really large stick, or maybe a lead pipe, something hard that'll make a nice loud clang when they hit the drum with it.

Which they should commence to do. Hit the drum, I mean. Nice and rhythmic. For about twenty or thirty years.

You may have to occasionally reheat the brick.

What I'm trying to communicate here—because talking about my sense of Time often seems to be in the same vein as dancing about architecture—is that I've got a bit of a blank spot. I've always been able to retreat from Jack, go hide in the pocket watch, even if I didn't enjoy it. But after the Bad Wolf brought us back, I didn't have a choice.

Whatever I was, ghost or memory or second self, I could perceive what she'd done: pinned us down like an insect, frozen us in amber, made us Fact. Made us Wrong. The Vortex itself pulsed within us, and for me it was like burning alive; it was like suffocating; it was like the constant, deafening pounding of drums. I couldn't really escape it, but at least if I was hidden in the watch, it was slightly more bearable. Of course, inside the watch I was also blind and paralyzed, ignorant of everything except time moving on.

At least, if you do with the trick with the metal drum, you'll know you're not alone.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack was already in the undertaker's carriage when he woke up the first—well, technically, second—time. There was a split second of muzzy awareness, and then he bolted upright, sucking in air and looking for the scumbag who'd pulled a pistol on him.

Except there was nobody there but a scruffy ginger teen, who started to scream. Which startled Jack enough to make him scream, too. Somewhere far off, a horse started screaming. It was that kind of night.

"What the hell is going on here?" Jack demanded.

The teen, who'd gone white under a layer of freckles and acne, fainted. A moment later, the carriage lurched to a halt—just in time for Jack to realize he was sitting in an open coffin.

The undertaker opened the carriage and stared inside, eyes bulging. "What the hell's going on here?" he demanded.

Jack looked down at the blossom of blood on his shirt, already turning dry and brown around the edges. There was a perfect bullet hole right over his heart, exactly where—where--

"I don't know," he told the undertaker, but of course, he kind of did. If a Dalek couldn't kill him, how did a measly little bullet stand a chance?

-\-\-\-\-\-

I was as surprised as Jack when we came back to life, I swear. Just because I could feel the Wrongness of us didn't mean I figured out every implication from the start. It was hard to think at all through the pain, at least at first, but a death and resurrection are a bit hard to miss. I remember each one, crisp as a photo-flash, even through the haze that made it hard to reach our common senses. The moment of darkness, the exhale of Nothing, and the sudden shock of physicality again; there was always a moment before I had to flee, when I could touch Jack's mind and collect puzzle-piece answers to questions like since when has it been the nineteenth century? and what city are we in now? and who is that man with the shovel?

And here is the awful part: every time it happened, the pain decreased. Just the tiniest bit. I didn't notice it during the first few times, because even in the midst of a multi-year bender Jack did have a shred of caution; the small, gradual change was easy to miss. It was like each resurrection used up a bit of the fire, loosened the spear just the tiniest bit. Not enough to free us, even if I'd understood just how we were transfixed; barely enough to give me space to think. I might easily have missed the cause-effect connection altogether.

At least, until Torchwood came along.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack gasped back to life on a cold table, with a voice at his elbow announced, "Thirty-seven minutes, four seconds."

"You know," he said without turning his head, "you don't have to sound like you enjoy it so much."

Alice snorted softly. "It's in the scientific interest," she said, and made a few more notations in her little book like Jack wasn't even there. One day he was going to read that thing and discover it was nothing but haiku about blood spatter. Or possibly an office-wide pool on the outcome of every resurrection.

He pushed himself upright and glanced around the autopsy area, but they were alone, and when Alice was finished making her notes she flounced off. Jack raked his fingers through his hair and winced when they snagged on mats of blood and brains; he was developing a special distaste for head injuries. He ambled into the main floor in search of a mirror, so he could see if the shirt was a total loss, and found Charles scribbling away in his own little notebook, and occasionally poking at a map. "Late night?" Jack asked.

Charles shrugged. "For some. Alice caught the target while you were down, by the way."

"Well, that's good to know," Jack sighed. "Very nice of her to tell me so, too. I swear she uses me as a human shield just so she can take all the credit."

"Why not, when you're the indestructible man?" Charles asked.

"Because it hurts," Jack blurted miserably. He was too tired for this conversation; death was nothing like sleep, no matter what Hamlet seemed to think. He wanted a shower, rest and clean clothes, in more or less that order; he should probably think about food, too, before he accidentally starved to death again. (Well, Alice said it was an accident the first time.)

Charles just chuckled at him and scribbled something on the map. "No rest for the wicked, Harkness. Now hit the showers, you smell like an abattoir."

Jack sighed again. Sometimes, he really hated Torchwood.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Sometimes I really hated Torchwood, because through them I got something I wanted in the worst possible way: the more often they threw Jack into the line of fire, the more often we came back, burning through a bit of the Bad Wolf's work. My suffering lessened as Jack's increased. If guilt were fatal, I would've added a fair number of tallies to our death toll all on my own.

Torchwood knew about me, as well—or at least they thought they did. Emilie Holroyd had enough telepathic training that I couldn't have put her off the watch even if I'd been in top form, but though she tried everything short of explosives to get it open (while Jack watched, teeth gritted, fists clenched) she never succeeded in getting so much as a filing off it. Time Lords one, Torchwood zero. She did speculate that the watch was connected to Jack's immortality, and even kept it in a vault for a few months—glorious, terrible months when I could barely feel Jack at all—but eventually it was returned to him, since they couldn't justify keeping it except through pure sadism.

(Not that sadism wouldn't have been an adequate motive all its own for this lot, but they did have a vague idea who and what they were dealing with. If Jack's patience—or his apathy--had given out, the cost of stopping him would've been terrible. It was perhaps the only thing that kept Alice from testing out certain theories regarding acid.)

Once I caught Jack wondering if the perhaps the watch was connected with his longevity, in one of those all-too-brief moments of grace after death. It was the first time he'd thought actively about the watch in decades, and his thumb even stroked the clasp, not applying pressure, just teasing. And even if no one else in our life had been able to open it, I had a hunch or intuition that Jack probably could; and the thought terrified me, because I wasn't sure I could bear to become him when our body was suffused with such Wrongness. I had a vision of the pain killing me, again and again and again, and every time the Bad Wolf dragging me back, and so I desperately shoved his thoughts off the topic before retreating again from the pounding of the Vortex.

(I didn't like to think that I might have to fight Jack for control of our body—even if it was technically my body—when the right moment finally came. But I was just as worried that he might simply wink out altogether. After all this time together, I wasn't sure what to do without his stupid, reckless thoughts twined in mine, even when they also brought me pain; and while that says something disturbing about my psychology, it was a very real fear, the slow-burning kind that keeps people up at night. People who can sleep, that is.)

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack had just gotten the bubbles at an acceptable level when Frank came down into the boiler room with a folder. "Jack, we've got one for you, disturbance in Newport, witnesses reporting--"

"Not going," Jack declared, and reached for the champagne.

Frank stopped short and took a good long look at Jack, and Jack's champagne, and Jack's Jacuzzi. The last he had improvised out of a car engine and a Trybatian incubation tank, and he was rather proud of the jets. "What do you mean, not going?" Frank asked warily.

"It's my birthday," Jack explained, and made a toast in Frank's general direction.

"You never celebrate a birthday," Frank pointed out.

"I've never been a hundred before."

Frank huffed softly. "Huh. Your centennial."

"Or thereabouts." He hadn't actually bothered to do the math on converting the exact dates, but the years more or less matched up, so he'd thrown a dart at a calendar. He settled deeper into the warm water. "Looking pretty good for my age, huh?"

Frank shook his head, and surprisingly, leaned on the edge of the tool cabinet in the corner. "Didn't believe it myself, you know. When Gerald told me about you."

"Nobody does." Jack sipped the champagne and looked at the ceiling, which was spotted with nitre. "One hundred down, less than seventy to go."

"To go?" Frank asked. "Before what?"

Before the century turned again and he could find his Doctor. "Before I can claim my pension on my home world," he said. "You want some champagne?"

"No, thanks."

"You want to hop in?" Jack poked his toes out of the churning water, just barely reaching the other side of the tank. "There's room for two."

Frank made a disgusted face at him, standing up. "You're never gonna change, are you, Harkness?"

"Not really, no." He set the champagne flute aside, and found himself tracing the lines of his own shoulder, feeling for the bones through the muscle. He'd lost the arm to a pair of particularly savage Weevils just a few days ago. Gerald had taken pictures. "I don't change, I don't mature, I don't grow as a person, I just...become more of what I already am. What I've always been. Whether I like it or not."

Frank didn't seem to know how to respond for that; after a moment of toying with the corner of the folder, he said, "I'll just pass this on to Vicky, then. Happy birthday, Jack."

"Thanks, Frank." Jack watched him retreat up the stairs, and after a moment, reached morosely over the side of the tub for a slice of cake.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack had absolute faith in the Doctor, more faith than he'd ever had in any employer, any partner, any lover in his life. He had faith that the Doctor could put him right, even if he still wasn't sure what right meant these circumstances. It at least gave him something to look forward to, something that made Torchwood bearable as decade piled up upon decade. Some day, he'd cross paths with the Doctor. Some day, the Doctor would save him.

I wasn't so sure. Not after I'd pieced together what actually happened on the Gamestation from the moments I could touch Jack's mind. Something—the Bad Wolf, perhaps—had stopped the Daleks, and the Doctor had fled in an awful hurry thereafter: perhaps he thought we were still dead at the time and there was nothing to wait for. Or perhaps he meant for us to stay behind and manage the aftermath, the way he never would.

Or maybe the Wrongness of us was so strong that he felt it, and fled from it, unable to bear our presence. God knows I sometimes wished I could do the same. And if that was true, what could he possibly do to save us? And would he even be willing to try?

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack watched Cardiff from the bell tower of the Pierhead Building, a few lights twinkling faintly through a miserable fog. A dirty little city on the forgotten edge of a dinky little island; a backwater region on a backwater planet. Not the most impressive cityscape he'd ever laid eyes on, but from above you could almost call it pretty.

"You really should stop loitering on top of tall buildings," an accented voice called from behind him. "People might think you're planning to jump."

"You should stop sneaking up on people loitering on top of tall buildings," Jack shot back, though he'd heard the soft footsteps long before the voice spoke.

Lucia wrapped her arms around him from behind, pressing her face between his shoulders. "What's the worst that could happen, Jack? You'll fall?"

"Pretty much, yeah," he said, more sharply than he should've. "Mood Abby's in, I might have to escape the morgue all by myself again. Not to mention I just found this coat."

"You and your coats," Lucia murmured, and he could imagine her rolling her eyes even as she slid her hands inside the front of said coat. "And if you're standing out here in the cold, you and Abby must be a match for each other. You only go climbing when you're grumpy."

"London called earlier tonight," Jack said. "That answer your question?"

"Well, at least it explains the shouting."

Oh, there had been shouting, all right: lots of shouting and not much said. The London office couldn't bring themselves to take this UNIT thing seriously, not when Torchwood had been doing the same thing but better for about a century. Abby wasn't about to hand Jack over for a futile mission against a potential enemy that, so far, didn't seem to know Torchwood existed; she was convinced they were just trying to poach him. And Jack had taken one look at the man in the surveillance photos, and refused point-blank to have anything to do with the case at all.

Maybe it was the Doctor, like London seemed to think. But it wasn't Jack's Doctor, and he couldn't take the risk that he'd be scrambling up their timelines. So close and so damned far, just like all the other sightings he'd tracked down...1902, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1925, 1934, 1943, 1953, 1959, 1963, 1966, 1969...and almost every one with a different face. Only those had been reports, sightings, rumors of blue boxes and bloodbaths, and this one was living full-time on Earth and working for the United Nations...

...and if he knew Jack worked for Torchwood, knew about the things he'd done...

"You're grinding your teeth," Lucia said lightly, but when Jack turned away from the lights of Cardiff, her eyebrows were low. "Why is London calling you now?"

"Why do you assume they were calling me in particular?"

"You're the mysterious immortal with a thousand secrets," Lucia said. "It's not as if they're taking a sudden interest in the well-being of Cardiff."

Jack sighed. "I don't keep secrets. I just...forget to tell people things." And then they died or left him, and new people came, and he forgot what they didn't already know, and...these things became habit, after a time. It was easier when people could forget what he was.

Lucia stroked the front of his coat and toyed with the buttons. "Hmm. Fine. So don't tell me anything. See if I climb a building for you ever again."

He seized her by the wrist, feeling her pulse point through the cuff of her glove. "I thought we agreed that this wasn't complicated?" he asked quietly.

She looked up at him with those big dark eyes, almost pulling off innocence. "Who says it's complicated? All my samples are in the incubator until morning and I'm lonely."

"You climbed a building for me."

"I enjoy the thrill of the chase."

He let her go and gave the muted lights of the city one last glance. "I'm lousy company tonight, Lucia. Maybe take a rain check on this one."

She toyed with the end of her scarf. "Sure you don't want to take your mind off things? I know we agreed 'no strings attached,' but I don't recall saying anything about ropes..."

That caught him by surprise, and he laughed out loud. "Never stop doing that," he asked.

"Using ropes?"

He reached up to stroke a curl of black hair that had escaped her beret. "Surprising me."

She laughed gently. "Oh, Captain, my Captain," she sighed, and kissed him, and Jack didn't have the heart to tell her that those verses were written for a dead man.

-\-\-\-\-\-

A funny thing happened at Torchwood, over the years, though. At first I only noticed that Jack got us killed less often. The Wrongness wasn't abating as fast. Then I realized, that when we did die, in the moments I got to touch his mind—things were different. Something had changed.

Because in 1899 Jack was a freak, a suspect, a tool. But Alice Guppy and Emilie Holroyd and Charles Gaskell, they all died. Gerald Carter and Frank Llewellyn and Abigail Dawes came and went. Lucia retired and Moira committed suicide and Ed got taken by the Rift.

Jack remained.

And at some point, the new people stopped seeing him as a strategic resource to be managed. Somewhere along the line, he became the center of the widening gyre. His past buried itself, and in the meantime he fought beside the others, and died alongside them, and then came back to fight and die again. He knew things they didn't. He could do things they didn't.

One day he revived in the middle of the Hub with internal organs still hanging out of our torso and the charred husk of a Shrodite pinning our legs, and all of Torchwood Cardiff standing around watching, and he realized that he might even be happy.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"Mail call," Rob said, tossing an envelope at Jack's desk. "You need to stop getting your personal correspondence sent here."

"Where else am I going to get it sent?" Jack asked. He caught the envelope easily and slit it with a penknife.

"At least the rest of us pretend to have lives, Harkness," Rob grumbled. "You could make the effort."

Elen came up from the archives with a box marked Xmas Party!!! balanced on her hip. "If you're got time to wag your jaws, you've got time to help me decorate," she declared. "Jack, you're tallest, you get to do the doors."

"Urgent correspondence here," he shot back. It was a Christmas card from Alice; there was a picture of her and Joe with the new baby. Steven Joseph Carter, she'd written on the back. The threat of Lucia's wrath had kept Jack away so far, but with Christmas coming up, he thought he might just be able to dare a quick visit and meet his newest grandchild. Maybe they could tell Joe he was a cousin or something.

Elen started unpacking cheap foil decorations and garlands of plastic holly all over Rob's desk, while he sputtered. "Right, so we can do these up over the doors, and I'm saving this bit for my desk, and I thought Alex might like the wreath for his door."

"You go right ahead and ask him, then," Rob said. "Better you than me."

That caught Jack's attention. "Something up with Alex?"

"He just about took James's head off on Monday," Rob said. "You were on Weevil watch, you missed it—James just asked him to sign off on a purchase order and Alex went nuts."

"He's got a lot on his mind," Elen said defensively. "London keeps trying to dump their shit on us. Immortality Gate? Oooh, that's all theirs. Pile of fiddly bits that nobody else can figure out? Give it to Three, see if it kills any of them."

Rob started picking at a limp-looking strand of tinsel garland. "Still. Something weird about this. He'd tell us if it was anything important, right?"

Jack realized they were both looking at him. "He'd tell us if we needed to know," he said, burying his face in the card again.

"Would you say something to him?" Rob asked tentatively. "If, you know, it keeps up?"

"Like what?" Jack asked. "'Hey, Chief, lighten up, you're scaring the peons?'" He dodged the piece of holly that Rob lobbed at his head. "Careful, Campbell, you don't want to open hostilities with me."

"It's just that you've known him longer than any of us," Elen blurted. "You're all...you know. So maybe he'd listen to you, even if he's not listening to anyone else. Maybe he'd tell you, you know?"

They were both looking actively worried now, and Jack squirmed. "I promise I'll say something, okay?" he asked. "It could be personal, you know."

"It's not like he leaves work any more than the rest of us," Rob pointed out.

"Maybe that's the problem?"

Elen threw one end a string of fairy lights at Jack and started unwinding the snarls. "Jack, why aren't you in charge?" she asked apropos of nothing.

Jack blinked at her. "In charge of Three? Are you serious?"

"Well, yeah," she said. "You've got more seniority than the rest of us put together, after all."

"Ha. Sorry. No." He gave a helpful tug on the lights. "Wouldn't want the extra work. I get killed often enough down here in the trenches with you peons. Besides," he added, "command's not my style. I'm much better at this whole loveable rogue thing I've got going on."

"So you've turned it down?" Rob asked.

Jack gathered up some of the slack from the lights and wound it around his arm. "Nobody's ever asked, actually."

Chapter Text

After the turn of the twenty-first century, Jack could've easily walked away. London would've sent new personnel to staff out Three, eventually, because they might've considered Cardiff a useless backwater but they knew they couldn't leave the Rift unattended indefinitely. Jack had been living reasonably virtuously for decades, making discreet investments here and there, so money had not been a concern for a long time; he had been at Torchwood for so long now that he knew their software better than they did. The next time the Doctor appeared, he would know as soon as they did, and there would be nothing to stop him.

He was 167 years old and he'd spent more than half his life on Torchwood's leash. All the reasons he'd originally had for joining up no longer applied. The century had turned for the second time, and in just a few years' time Rose Tyler was going to meet the Doctor. There was no reason to linger in Cardiff with ghosts and bad memories. No reason to wallow in his own guilt.

No reason but a madman's dying request and the possibility that he might be needed.

If Jack ever tells you that he is not a sentimental person, he is lying.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"You can't just ignore the director of the Institute," Costello was saying. "The charter for this office—"

"The charter came from the Crown," Jack pointed out, hooking up the Rift monitors. "Not Yvonne Hartman. Our operational funding is separately endowed and we have all the equipment we need at our disposal."

"There isn't any we, Captain," Costello said. "You are a single man attempting to take on the duties of a staff of five."

He poked his head up over the edge of the table. "Have you read my file?"

Costello blinked. "Why would I need to read your file?"

"So you haven't read it." He threw the switches and brought a new bank of computers to life in a shower of sparks.

"No, Captain, and I don't see what that has to do—excuse me!" Because he had to physically remove her from his path to get to the next computer station. "I am talking to you, Captain Harkness!"

"Watch me care," Jack said, as the data began to scroll. "If you'd read my file, you'd know I'm more than capable of anything the Rift can throw at me. But if you need some proof to carry back to Hartman, you can ride along—there's a spike occurring right now on Market Street, and it's big."

He snatched his coat off the hook and threw it on with a wide swish. Costello looked like she was going to have an aneurysm. "You want me to go gallivanting off with you into the field without even a sidearm?"

"What's the matter?" Jack asked. "You scared?"

She raised her chin. "Of course not, but I'm--"

"You ever been in the field before?" he continued, grabbing the science kit from under Rob's old desk. "Or are you nothing but Hartman's lapdog?"

"I am a senior researcher!" Costello squealed. "I just fail to see--"

"Then do some research." Jack waited impatiently for the blast doors to roll back. "Come see me in action. Then go back to Hartman and tell her that I don't need her, or her lackeys, to do my job."

"What makes you so sure of that?" Costello said—but she was rushing to catch up to him.

Jack gave her his best grin, just to see her sputter. "Because I'm Captain Jack Harkness, that's what."

-\-\-\-\-\-

We died more deaths in the first half of 2000 alone than in the entire decade before that. Jack gave up on such luxuries as sleep and nutrition and, at times, personal hygiene. He didn't even attempt to seduce Suzie Costello, after going to such efforts to poach her from the London office; not that she would've agreed, but he typically made a token effort with anyone who didn't seem like too much of a sociopath, and even that wasn't always a barrier.

For the first time in a century, Jack was taking his job seriously. I have to admit that I was impressed.

-\-\-\-\-\-

He gave her a week of glassy stares and hunched posture, and then Jack took Toshiko Sato to the firing range. "I'm going to need you in the field," he told her. "And that means you'll need to defend yourself."

She looked at the pistol in his hand like it was going to bite her. "I—they--my parole--" she stammered.

"You're my team now," he said firmly. "UNIT isn't going to touch you here."

"I'm just a researcher," she said weakly.

Jack put his other hand on her shoulder, feeling her twitch. "I already know you're brave, Toshiko, and brilliant, or you couldn't have done what you did. You can do this, too."

Very awkwardly, she took the pistol and wrapped her hand around the grip. Unlike a lot of beginners, she was exceedingly careful to keep the barrel pointed down and away from her; unlike too many beginners, she was practically shaking herself apart. "What...what do I do with it?"

"You give it back before you drop it," Jack said. Toshiko flinched. "Sorry. Look. This is a machine, Toshiko. It's a tool. You don't have to be afraid of it."

"I'm not..." she said, and swallowed. "I'm not. I just. This is a violation of my parole, I don't--"

Jack squeezed the shoulder he was still holding. "Look at me, Toshiko." He waited until he had her full attention. "Those people who took your mother hurt you. They made you feel small and scared and weak. So did UNIT, when they took you. Because that's exactly what those kind of people do." He pressed the pistol back into her hand, but didn't let go of it. "I can't promise you that nobody's ever going to hurt you again. But I can give you the tools to fight back. You're Torchwood now, and you are not going to be helpless anymore."

Her eyes had gone huge, but she swallowed, and then nodded. "I...okay."

"Don't believe me, do you?" Jack asked.

"Not particularly."

He took her other hand and carefully adjusted her grip. "Then it's a good thing I believe me, or else we'd be wasting our time."

That provoked a small laugh out of her, and then she froze, blinking, like she'd surprised even herself. She looked at the pistol and swallowed hard. "You...you really think I can do this?"

"I know you can," he said, and took his hands off hers. The shaking hadn't stopped, but he hadn't really expected it to. Not yet. "So, what you're holding is a Glock 19, which is the go-to sidearm for most Torchwood operations. The first thing you need to know is how to load and unload it...."

-\-\-\-\-\-

It was actually rather clever how Jack managed not to die in front of them. There were close calls, certainly, but he established early on that he would go on the most dangerous missions solo, or even disappear for days at a time without warning or explanation—to track enemies, to recover technology, to wait for his dry cleaning, to stalk the Tylers from afar. These disappearing acts infuriated Suzie, but of course, there was nothing she could do about it except quit; Tosh accepted it, like she accepted many things, because even when she stopped startling and squirming a part of her would never really be free. Jack died more often than he had to, and he died alone, and he told himself he was protecting them.

And when he couldn't protect them, he gave them guns and knowledge so they could protect themselves.

There was no one to protect him, though. No one but me.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"The fuck is this?" Owen shouted as Suzie dragged Jack into the hub.

"Juvenile stage of a Hruthillian hyperwasp," Jack tried to say, but he wasn't sure how intelligible he was, considering the various mandibles clamped around his throat and head. Suzie steered him to the bed, and he managed to collapse onto it despite the blood slicking his entire right arm.

"We need to get it off of him before he bleeds to death," Suzie said.

"I can see that!" Owen snapped. "What the fuck am I supposed to do?"

"You're the doctor!"

"Surprisingly, we didn't cover this shit in medical school!"

Jack reached out blindly and got Owen's arm. "Alkaline," he said, as clearly as he could.

"Alkaline what?" Owen asked. "Alkaline solution? How strong?"

"This is not a time for twenty questions!" Suzie shouted.

"You're rather I burn his face off, then?"

Jack would've interceded, but the hyperwasp clamped down, one clawed leg digging into his eye socket. For a moment he could only scream, except not even that, because his throat was being crushed;and then unconsciousness claimed him, and then a deeper black--

By the time he gasped alive again, he was alone in the medical area, and the hyperwasp had disengaged; he could hear gunshots and shouting elsewhere in the Hub. His eye hadn't reformed yet, but he could feel the fiery flesh of his neck and face reknitting, the collapsed blood vessels re-inflating, and he had no idea how much time he had left before somebody noticed him and started asking questions.

In the remains of his vision, he spotted the tissue regenerator-or-possibly-microwave they'd stowed in the medical bay until Tosh had time to check it out. It took a few moments to crawl over to it on the blood-slick floor, to fumble the adapter's plug into the nearest socket, and then to switch the damn thing on--

Sparks exploded around his head, and for a moment he wondered if he'd just killed himself again--

His eye burst back into shape just as Owen and Tosh, splattered with fluorescent ichor, staggered back into the medical bay. "Hi," Jack said weakly, aware that he was laying in a pool of his own blood, still partly inside the smoking husk of the regenerator-or-microwave.

"Well, at least we know it used to work," Tosh said with a sigh, lowering her gun.

Owen fearlessly knelt the middle of the puddle and tried to take Jack's pulse. Jack batted his hands away. "Oi, leave off," Owen said. "Even if that thing patched you up, you've still lost loads of blood."

"So I'll drink some clear fluids," Jack said, surveying the ruin of his coat—splotches of pale grey and scarlet that turned a deep brown-black where they touched. "Did you get the hyperwasp?"

"Suzie's breaking out the spades now," Tosh said.

He sat up and wiped the blood-soaked hair out of his face, careful not to touch his eyes. "Then I say that's a win. How'd you get it off me?"

"Bleach," Owen said. "First alkaline to hand."

Jack made himself smile, even though he knew it would look grisly. "Quick thinking, Dr. Harper. I'll be sure to mention it in your three-month review."

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack had, over time, become a fairly good judge of things he wasn't good at. His knowledge of science was patchy, so he found Suzie and Tosh to be his theoreticians. His knowledge of medicine was limited to first aid and autopsies, so he brought Owen on as his medic. He was utterly disinterested in paperwork, but he convinced himself that he no longer needed to do any without London's constant nagging—or at least, only the bits that he felt like doing, or really needed, or discovered after the fact might've been useful to have on hand before the alarms began to go off. And when it was time to clean up after a case, he made Owen handle corpses and Tosh scrub the data and Suzie manage paperwork while he distributed the Retcon personally.

All this on top of their regular tasks, on top of their caseload, on top of their personal lives or what passed for them. When Torchwood One fell and Jack took up the Institute's banner, it was obvious—at least to me—that something very shortly had to give.

And thus entered Ianto Jones, twenty-three, an archivist and a talented liar. All he knew of Torchwood Three was rumor and whisper and the odd derogatory comment about backwaters and the madmen who lurked there, and the thought of going home was far more bitter than sweet, and he had been sleeping in rented garages and storage units at the foot of Lisa's cradle and living off credit cards and washing up in restaurant bathrooms for three strenuous weeks. He thought he had nothing to lose except her, that corpses and coffee and pterodactyl shit were just the price he'd have to pay, and that it would somehow be possible to extract a happy ending from the flickering light and pulsing tubes that covered and consumed her. It was the only thing he had left to believe in, after Torchwood One was torn apart.

They were each what the other needed at one moment in time, or else Ianto would never have looked for Jack and Jack would've overlooked him. As it was, Ianto made a ridiculously half-assed attempt at flirtation and Jack didn't have high expectations, and neither of them had any idea what they were getting into.

(Of course, neither did I, at the time. I'm a Time Lord, not a clairvoyant.)

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto's day started at three o'clock, when he peeled himself off the Hub couch to shower and shave in the decontamination rooms. He hid his toilet kit back inside the tourist office alongside the dry cleaning bags that served as his wardrobe, changed into a fresh suit, and started the coffee. Three thirty.

He checked the main level of the Hub, but it was still silent and empty except for the single screen tracking Jack in the car—patrolling for a large but not particularly threatening ambulatory fungus. The others had gone home long ago, leaving Ianto to finish a bit of straightening up. If they assumed he was going back to the address in his file—if they assumed he actually lived there—well, he wasn't going to correct them. He did a last-minute visual check of everyone's work area and confirmed that the alarm was running appropriately in the background. By that time the coffee was ready. Three-forty-five.

He poured his first cup and fixed a plate of toast with marmalade, then collected Lisa's supplies from the medical unit—he could modify the inventories later in the day. It was a bit of a struggle to get everything down to the cellar room, but once he'd eased inside and locked the door behind him, he found the soft noises of the life-support unit oddly reassuring. Probably too reassuring. "Good morning," he called out, just as always.

This time Lisa answered with a weary "Morning, love," that nearly caused him to drop his plate.

He set everything on the nearest table and took her hand; she was always so cold now, no matter how he adjusted the room temperature. "What are you doing awake?" he asked. "Is the new dose not working?"

"It's no so bad," she said with a little grimace. At least she could answer the question today; on her bad days she couldn't say anything at all. "Did you get some sleep?"

"I'm fine," Ianto said quickly. "I've been busy. Reputation to keep up and all that."

"Such a swot," she said mildly, and then her face spasmed in pain.

Ianto quickly refreshed her drips, dialing up the analgesics, and replaced her IV bags. Then he sat down to breakfast. "There's still been no new Rift activity," he told her while he ate. "Loads of Weevils on the loose, though, making everyone nervous. Harper got caught trying to take home some kind of pheromone spray, you can imagine how that one went over...oh, and Costello wants a whole load of goldfish for the glove thing she's working on. I'm to pick them up as soon as the shops open. I'm almost afraid to ask what she's doing with them."

"No worse than what Peterson did with the rabbits, I'm sure," Lisa said, her voice sliding into the electronic for a moment.

"Yes, well, that was him and half his division," Ianto pointed out. "It's a bit more noticeable when it's a staff of five."

"You seem to be doing well enough," Lisa said, but her eyes opened narrow slits.

Ianto swallowed. "They don't suspect anything," he insisted. "I swear it. I edit the maintenance logs, I forge the purchase orders, I--"

"Oh, love, don't," Lisa said. "I didn't mean—I wasn't saying you. I trust you, Ianto."

"I know that," he said quickly. "I just...I know. Don't worry about me."

"Somebody has to," she said, and the respirator made her intonation hard to read, but he thought perhaps she sounded sad.

Ianto cleaned up his breakfast plate and ran Lisa's bath, carefully sponging down what remained of her exposed skin while she dozed. There were no more infections around the steel plates, though he didn't feel safe discontinuing her antibiotics; no bedsores, either, even though he dared not move her. He took his time, treasuring the closest thing to intimacy they could get anymore, and when he was finished he kissed her awake. "All done," he said. "Any other requests?"

"Did you pick up those things I asked you for last time?" she asked.

"Of course," he said; she'd made the request ages ago, but she didn't seem to remember much of the string of bad days between then and now. A small blessing, in his opinion. "Though I still think it's a bit grim."

"Compared to what, exactly?"

He pulled the small bottle out of the bag on the table and twiddled it with his fingers. "It's not going to look very good..."

"At least it'll be color-coordinated." She tried to smile, but shut her eyes again at whatever look was on his face. "Ianto, everything else that made me a woman they either cut out or plated in steel. Please give me this. Just this."

"Anything," he said, and pulled a stool up next to the life-support unit.

The silver-toned nail polish had been cheap and the clerk had given him an eyebrow when he bought it; the tiny brush felt hideously clumsy in his hands, and he couldn't easily get at her fingers without twisting them against the bonds of the machine.

But he gently, carefully painted her nails the same color as her hideous armor. And when he was done, he kissed her again, just where the cool metal met her cool skin. "How do I look?" she asked.

"Gorgeous," he lied. "You'll never be anything but gorgeous."

"Oh, Ianto...."

His PDA shrilled an alarm at him, making him start. "That'll be Jack," he said. "Ten minutes out. I need to get upstairs."

"Oh, so he's Jack now, is he?" she asked.

"I—just--everyone else calls him that," Ianto stammered, feeling sick. "I don't--"

"I know," she said quietly, bitterly. "You...just do what you have to."

He gathered up his dishes instead of meeting her eyes. "I'll come again as soon as I can. I love you."

"Love you," she murmured, already falling back asleep.

He had just enough time to lock Lisa up, do his dishes, down his second coffee of the day and prepare a cup for Jack. The Hub was still quiet; not a paper was out of place, and the tracking program shut itself down as soon as the car was back inside the garage. Jack ambled in through the main doors and raised one eyebrow at Ianto. "You're in early," he said dryly. "Why am I still surprised?"

Ianto just said, "Coffee?"

He handed the cup to Jack—when had he become Jack?--who made the usual noises of appreciation. The others didn't seem to notice the long hours their leader kept, but Ianto had made it his business to notice things like that: what Jack needed, what he liked, what his habits were. What earned a positive reaction. Ianto watched the others as well, of course, because he needed to blend in with them and navigate around them, but he didn't slip and call them by first names in front of Lisa.

Then again, none of them mattered like Jack. Ianto would do what he had to.

"So did you ever find the cat?" Jack asked, nose still in his coffee.

"Mmm? No." Ianto pretended to call up the pterodactyl's new feeding schedule, even though he'd already memorized the damn thing. "Three weeks of stool samples have come out clean. I think we can assume she didn't eat it."

"I liked that cat," Jack muttered.

"Perhaps it ran away," Ianto suggested. "Cats do, from time to time."

"Just seems like a coincidence it'd move on to greener pastures just after we adopted a big damn dinosaur, is all." Jack finished his coffee and passed the mug back to Ianto. "You know we don't give out gold stars for attendance around here. You can sleep in on occasion."

"Wouldn't want to get behind on anything," he replied blandly.

Jack's smirking was practically audible as he said, "There's something to be said for getting a little behind now and then."

Ianto flicked his eyes to the side just enough to catch Jack's smile, Jack's dimples, the rake of Jack's eyes along Ianto's body. He couldn't stop his heart from pounding, and he didn't have to force a smile. "I'm sure you're an expert on the subject of getting behinds, aren't you, sir?"

"I don't like to brag." Jack's hand fell heavily on his shoulder, hot and heavy. "I'll be in my office if the others show up looking for me. And take care of yourself, all right? I know you like that pizza place, but you should try eating your vegetables from time to time."

"Olives are a vegetable," he said deadpan, and Jack chuckled, and it wasn't until his office door shut that Ianto could breathe normally again. The imprint of Jack's hand burned straight through his shirt and jacket.

For Lisa. All for Lisa. Just something he had to do.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack was good at people, but in all the wrong ways—he manipulated them, he didn't empathize with them. His supervisors had always known that, and used it; I knew it, and had watched it lead him to sorrow. Now that Jack was the supervisor, he knew it and realized it was a liability. He figured it out, in fact, right about the time Suzie Costello blew her brains out.

Jack needed a people person, and so he recruited a Cardiff PC with nothing to recommend her except a remarkable resistance to Retcon and a heart worn on her sleeve, and told himself that she'd be his conscience, his compass, his version of Rose. And while I certainly have nothing against Gwen Cooper personally, I sometimes wonder if she wasn't the first sign that things were starting to get very out of hand.

Chapter Text

I admit that I am, on the whole, a pretty bad judge of character. I was bad at it before the Bad Wolf, when I could share Jack's every waking thought and the occasional dream; after the Bad Wolf, when I saw the world in mere dribs and drabs stolen in the moments after death and had to work to piece together events in between, I was worse.

Still, I had a sense that something would go wrong at his new Torchwood, even if I didn't anticipate the exact trainwreck that eventually occurred. Jack had lived too long as the rebel and the outsider and the one who was allowed to go around authority and get away with things, and he wasn't comfortable with the switch to being the authority that other people went around. He was too worried about keeping up his image and keeping things under control, especially when he'd specifically sought out a team of brilliant and willful and damaged people. People like himself, in other words, only he didn't ever seem to make that connection and went on doing exactly the sorts of things he'd always hated from commanders and then wondering why his team kept arguing with him and kissing inadvisable beings and getting people killed.

It's the kind of thing that makes you wonder how he manages not to drown in his corn flakes some mornings. It also explains, I think, how things managed to go so wrong so very fast.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto was at a desk. He didn't remember getting to a desk. He barely remembered leaving the storage room, the bloodbath, the...things. Things that were not Lisa. Things that hadn't been Lisa for a very long time.

Somebody was talking to him.

"Ianto, are you listening?" It was Gwen, giving him that tight smile that he was fairly certain had never reassured anyone ever. "Owen wants to have a look at you. Make sure you're not hurt."

"I'm fine," he murmured. He had never been less fine in his life.

"We'll let him be the judge of that, okay?"

She took him by the arm and guided him towards the medical unit, like he couldn't find it on his own, like he was going to shatter. Maybe he would. He couldn't really look at the blood and debris, but there was no looking away from it, and if he shut his eyes he'd only see that gore-streaked face again.

There was even blood in the autopsy bay, where Owen said briskly, "Take off your shirt. I need to know how much of that mess is yours."

He discovered it hurt to raise his arms; the physical pain was strange and intrusive, cutting through the mental fog in ways he really didn't like. Owen was uncharacteristically terse with him, with no acidic jeering, just "Turn your head" or "Deep breath" or "Any double vision?" while he examined Ianto's neck and head, palpitated his ribs and swiped his cuts and scrapes with disinfectant. Ianto wondered if he'd reached a point where even Owen felt sorry for him, then realized Gwen had probably had a few words first. She could be a bit scary.

"All right," Owen declared as he brought over two pill bottles. "You've got some signs of a concussion, whiplash injuries, and you're about to have one hell of a bruise 'round your neck, but fortunately you avoided a crushed windpipe or a fractured skull, which is why you're not dead. I'm going to give you a muscle relaxant and a painkiller, the combination of which should knock you right out for a few hours, so don't drink alcohol or operate machinery, blah blah blah--"

"I'll take those," Jack called, coming down the steps; Ianto couldn't avoid flinching. He had changed into fresh clothes and cleaned up his split lip, and he looked down at Ianto with a perfectly neutral expression. "You're coming with me."

"Making good on your promise, are you?" Ianto asked, anger sparking and burning off the numbness. "Or are you just going to Retcon me into a drooling vegetable?"

"You can come or I can knock you out and take you," Jack said calmly, like he was discussing the weather. "Your choice."

"Oi, now, any more blows to the head and his brain'll come oozing out his ears," Owen said. "And while it might be an improvement in the long run, I'm not cleaning it up."

So Ianto followed Jack back through the Hub and into the car park, up to his own car. Jack, he realized, had the keys. "Did you go through my desk?"

"Had to make sure you didn't have any other surprises up your sleeve," Jack said mildly. He opened the passenger door and then walked around to the driver's side. "Since you're in no state to drive yourself, I'm taking you home."

"Haven't got one," Ianto said. He was still standing about ten feet away from the car; he felt oddly like a spectator in the conversation, like he wasn't inhabiting his own body.

"Then I'll take you to a hotel," Jack said. He climbed in the driver's side and automatically moved to adjust the seat, probably because he was used to fixing the SUV after Owen had been driving. It left his hands floating oddly in mid-air as he realized nothing needed moving. He gave Ianto one of those neutral looks. "I'm not joking, Ianto. Get in or I will put you in."

Ianto knew, now, that Jack Harkness didn't make threats. He climbed into the car.

Neither of them spoke while Jack drove across town and pulled up near an unfamiliar hotel. He parked, said "Stay here," and then went inside. Ten minutes later he came out and rooted around the boot, eventually coming up with the duffel bag that contained the vast majority of Ianto's worldly possessions—at least, those not hidden away somewhere in the Hub. He opened Ianto's door for him. "Come on. I've booked you a room."

"I don't need Torchwood's charity," he blurted back.

"Oh, yes, you do," Jack said, and one eye twitched just a little, the finest crack in his composure. "Because right now that's the only reason you're still alive. Now. Come. In."

It was a nice room, far nicer than the hostels and storage units that Ianto had stayed in on first arriving back in Wales, with acres of bed and a sort of counter stretching under the window instead of a desk. Jack—who had insisted on carrying Ianto's bag up for him—took a seat there with his legs splayed out in front of him. "Go get cleaned up," he said, and Ianto opened his mouth to argue that, too, before he realized there wasn't a point, wasn't any bloody point. That free-floating spark of anger suddenly winked out, and there was nothing to replace it, nothing to hold him up anymore. He slumped down on the bed and buried his face in his hands.

So much blood. Such a waste. All for nothing. All because of him.

He had no idea how long he sat there before Jack said quietly, "Seriously. Get yourself cleaned up."

"Or what?" Ianto asked dully. "You'll throw me in?"

"Unfortunately, I don't think either of us would enjoy that at the moment," Jack said, and for some reason that was suddenly the funniest thing Ianto had ever heard. Laughing hurt, as all the battered muscles in his back and neck contracted, but that had nothing to do with the tears that rolled down his face.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Jack make another of those stillborn gestures, hands floating without purpose in Ianto's general direction. Ianto wasn't sure what he would do if Jack touched him, now or ever again.

He dragged himself into the bathroom and sat on the toilet for a while until the hiccuping tears subsided and another wave of mental fog rolled in. He showered, scrubbing at the blood on his hands until it was mixed with his own, watching it swirl away in the hottest water he could stand. The bruise around his neck was deep, deep purple-black, as crisp around the edges as if it had been painted on. As if Lisa had dipped her hand in ink before grabbing him by the throat. She might have just killed him outright and saved everybody the trouble.

He paused on that thought, turning it over in his mind. Save everyone the trouble. What was a little more bloodshed tonight?

How fast could Jack get through the flimsy bathroom door?

"Too much bother," he murmured aloud, voice gravelly from all the screaming he'd already done. It was perhaps the worst possible reason to live, but it was the only one he could muster, and that worried him in an abstract sort of way.

He hadn't brought clean clothes into the bathroom with him, and the thought of getting back into his stained and stinking suit made him physically retch. He needed more armor than a towel to face Jack, though, and that meant bundling himself into the cheerful complimentary bath robe hooked on the back of the door. When he stepped out into the conditioned air of the room, he found Jack standing by the windows, his silhouette just barely traced by the lights of the cityscape. His hands were jammed deep into his pockets, as if to prevent any more unthinking gestures.

Jack didn't turn at the sound of the door opening, but he did say, slow and stiff, "You weren't wrong to hope."

Ianto didn't know what, if anything, he was meant to say to that, so he sat on the edge of the bed, facing the wall. Three different-colored pills had been lined up on the edge of the nightstand; the painkiller, the muscle relaxer, and one he didn't recognize. There was no sign of the bottles.

Jack cleared his throat and continued, "You showed the kind of loyalty-bordering-on-insanity that I generally like having on my side. And I know a thing or two about needing a second chance. But this...situation isn't going anywhere until we both know where we stand. And before I can worry about whether I trust you, I have to know if you trust me."

"If I trust you?" Ianto echoed. He looked over his shoulder at the dark shadow in the window. "You're seriously asking me that?"

"We can't function as a team if I have to wonder whether my orders are going to be carried out," Jack said without turning around. "We can't function if we're keeping secrets from each other. Nothing tonight had to play out like it did, if you had listened to me from the beginning. If you had shown some trust."

"No offense, sir, but you don't exactly invite our confidence," Ianto shot back.

"That's what you signed up for, though." Jack turned around, and his face was still terrifyingly blank. Terrifying, because of what he must be trying to hide. "There's your meds for the night. The blue pill suppresses dreaming—it's not safe for regular use, but one dose won't hurt you. I'll leave a morning dose in here and the bottles at the front desk. If you decide you can trust me, then I expect you to show up tomorrow at noon to make a detailed report and discuss appropriate disciplinary action."

He didn't elaborate. "And if I decide I can't?" Ianto asked.

"The room's paid through the week," Jack said. "Anything after that would no longer be my concern."

No Retcon. No threats. Would he seriously let Ianto walk away? Didn't he appreciate the catch-twenty-two here? Ianto buried his head in his hands and let the fog roll in, let everything else drift away from him, because he had to make a choice when there was nothing left to gain.

Jack walked past and paused half a step between the door and Ianto's side of the bed. "I'll get the door on my way out," he said hoarsely, and then he was going, and then he was gone.

-\-\-\-\-\-

So maybe Jack doesn't deserve blame for Ianto, seeing as Ianto has a terrifying natural capacity for deceit and was actively deploying it against everybody. I am willing to give him a pass on that. But Gwen—there was no excuse for Gwen, no excuse for throwing her in the deep end and letting her keep trying to dive. I didn't particularly like her, at least at first, but I still felt sorry for her as I learned more about her. I felt sorry for her even when Jack didn't, and I don't know if that meant he had changed or I had.

He wanted a Rose, or to be perfectly accurate he wanted Jiminy Cricket—a prosthetic conscience for when he didn't trust his own. Except he never gave her an inch, never allowed her inside, never taught her what she needed to play that role. Instead he gave her advice only when she didn't need it, and when she did he withheld support so she would "think for herself," and he didn't notice there was even a problem until she'd already gone looking for her own solution down Owen's trousers.

And the person he did let inside was the one who had no business judging anyone else, and knew it. That's Jack, in a nutshell: always getting what he wants instead of what he needs.

-\-\-\-\-\-

He was finally getting used to seeing Ianto around the Hub at all hours again; not that it was particularly surprising to find him working late tonight. He'd done little more than throw on a clean shirt before diving in, and seeing him puttering around in jeans and trainers instead of a suit made Jack feel just a bit more unsettled, just a bit more out of place after the gory mess the investigation had become.

Funny how after all the horrors time and space had thrown at him, good old human insanity could still cut so deep.

"Need a hand with anything?" he asked, and Ianto started, as he'd been doing since he got back from his suspension. Even without his injuries, he looked exhausted; the bruises blooming on his face from his beating didn't help. Not to mention the shallow laceration under his jaw...what was it with the monsters and Ianto's neck? It wasn't exactly his best feature...

Ianto broke Jack's train of thought by flapping a pile of paper in his face. "Sign these, please."

"What are they?" Jack asked, taking the documents. They looked like accounting stuff. He hated the accounting stuff.

"Loss reports on the weapons they stole and the camping gear they destroyed, purchase authorizations for replacements, work order to install a better security system on the car and a medical reimbursement form for Gwen in the event she needs any further follow-up care," Ianto said mechanically. "Though Owen seems to think she's out of the woods for the most part. He drove her home."

"What about you?" Jack said, swiping one of Tosh's pens to start signing. Weren't they supposed to be at the point of a paperless office? "Owen take a look at your head?"

"Had it checked in the A&E," Ianto said. "Mild concussion, no fracture, just like--"

Just like Lisa, but Ianto didn't actually finish the sentence. He'd been ready enough to bring her up back at the camp, but perhaps that had just been anger talking, or bitterness that he'd so quickly slid back under the others' radar. Jack didn't know. He was normally good at reading people, but Ianto seemed to be the exception, maybe because Jack himself didn't know what he wanted to see there. What he was afraid of seeing.

"We're lucky you've got a hard head," he said after a beat, to acknowledge what was unspoken.

"Among other parts," Ianto said, and even though he was wincing and rubbing his stomach, and even though Jack knew what he meant, and even though they'd just escaped a gang of ritualistic cannibals--

"Oh, really?" Jack asked, and raised an eyebrow. Ianto grimaced and blushed in a way that was downright charming, even as he snatched at the stack of forms Jack had already signed and started straightening them compulsively. "Would that be a hint, then?"

"No," Ianto said sharply, and that destroyed any shred of mirth in the room. He glanced up at Jack quickly, then looked away, at anything else in the room. "No, sir."

Jack cleared his throat. "My apologies, then." Idiot, he thought to himself; just because they'd started to approach normalcy again, after the Jasmine case, it didn't mean things could go back to how they'd been. That hadn't even been normal, that had been acting, manipulation, and it probably said all kind of awful things about him that he knew that and still missed it. Ianto might be back on the same job, but he wasn't the same man. Jack had to keep telling himself that.

He finished signing the paperwork while Ianto did something on a computer, something that was interrupted partway through by a yawn and a wince. Ianto stuffed everything into one folder and grabbed his windbreaker off the table. "I sent you some files for review," he said quietly. "Materials from the archives that might be connected to previous 'harvests.' I thought we might be able to share some of them with the police for building their case."

"I'll check them out," Jack said. "Go ahead and sleep in tomorrow; everybody else is."

"Thank you, sir." Ianto paused by the security gates, and suddenly and looked back at Jack. "Sir?"

"Ianto?" Jack asked.

In the dim bluish light, it looked like Ianto licked his lips. "When I am hinting," he said hesitantly, "you'll be able to tell."

Oh. Oh. Jack looked at him carefully, his stiff shoulders, his lowered eyebrows. "I'll keep that in mind," he said slowly, and Ianto just might have blushed again. He definitely gave Jack a quick smile, no more than a brief spark, and then he was heading up to the tourist office, limping a little on one side.

-\-\-\-\-\-

I suppose Jack thought he was being helpful with Toshiko, too; he gave her everything she needed to protect herself physically, and even helped her sneak a few more visits to her family than the agreement with UNIT technically allowed, but she was still so alone, so isolated, so eager for human contact. That was the part that Jack missed, because Jack had been so alone for so long he'd forgotten he was unhappy, so why would anyone else be different?

Okay, maybe I'm being unfair here. Maybe he knew full well that Toshiko was lonely but didn't know what to do about it, didn't want to overstep any boundaries, didn't want to break character. Maybe he was still telling himself that he was going to walk away as soon as he found the Doctor and it was better if people didn't count on him. But either way, the consequences were the same, and we were lucky that Toshiko walked away with just a couple more scars. We were lucky that she walked away at all.

(As little as I saw of them, yes, I got attached. Even to Gwen, who didn't amuse me nearly as much as she did Jack; even Owen, with all his anger; even Susie, who betrayed us. They were strong and strange and very young, but when they weren't falling apart at the seams they were, if I may borrow a word, fantastic.)

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

There were a couple of possible reasons why Jack would ask him to do this instead of handling it personally, and Ianto wasn't sure which one bothered him the most. He chose to believe it was because Tosh needed some space from Jack for the moment, and because she needed an adequate cup of tea, and because no matter how shell-shocked they all were, she needed to tell her story for posterity.

"I think that's everything," he said after she had fallen silent for several minutes. The table was littered with empty cups and mangled tissues, and Tosh had a glassy look in her eye that he understood a little too well; he himself wasn't sure if he could hear any more of this. "I'll type this up for you, and if you have anything to add later—well."

"Thank you, Ianto," Tosh said thickly.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he added impulsively, but that just caused Tosh to look at him with a despairing grimace and stand up abruptly. He watched her go, wondering if he'd said the wrong thing, if there even was a right thing to say in this situation. Jack no doubt would've said something like Let's go get drunk and maudlin over our dead evil girlfriends, but the day Ianto started taking interpersonal advice from him would be a dark one indeed. Tosh had been kind to him when he first returned from suspension, not the grand tacky gestures of Gwen but a warm normalcy that had been infinitely more welcome. He wasn't sure if he knew how to show that sort of kindness in return, though.

He collected his notes and the recorder, binned the tissues and gathered all the cups and saucers with their murky dregs of tea. Gwen was lurking outside the conference room, staring into the middle distance, and she barely acknowledged Ianto as he passed. Owen was doing something loud and chaotic in the autopsy bay, and on a security feed he saw Tosh and Jack talking up on the Plass. Ianto wondered what they were saying to each other. If Jack was giving her the same lines he'd given Ianto. The all-purpose So You Nearly Got Murdered By The Woman You Betrayed Us For speech.

At least this time no one had died. At least Tosh didn't have any blood on her hands, literal or figurative. Jack, of course, was another matter, but that was what they'd signed up for, wasn't it?

He tried to concentrate on typing up his shorthand notes, and cleaning up Tosh's own stammered words into a nice neat statement everyone could sign off on an file. A dry, sanitized version that kept the messy bits at arm's reach and hid the blood and heartache behind euphemisms like intimate relationship and false pretenses. Ianto wondered what the file on Lisa looked like, whether Jack had cleaned it up in the same way, if he'd actually filed the statement Ianto'd rattled out to him or hidden it away somewhere, forgotten if not entirely forgiven.

Personal matters. Another nice euphemism for the things Tosh saw. She'd hardly looked at Ianto without flinching all through the interview. He wondered what she'd seen (heard? Felt?) inside his head—if she knew about his guilt, his nightmares, the constant nagging grief. Or perhaps she hasn't seen anything at all, because he was as empty inside as he felt these days.

Under the influence of the locket, Agent Sato was convinced to bring the Mary entity into the Hub...because Tosh, at least, had an excuse, had something outside herself to blame. Ianto only had Torchwood, and if he blamed the institute for the blood on his hands, if he walked away...

He jumped when Jack came into the tourist office. He noted that he was alone. "Tosh go home?" Ianto guessed as he pushed the button to open the inner door.

Jack nodded. "I'm giving her some time off to get her head in order, but I think she'll be all right." He paused at the inner door. "I hope so, at least."

"What about the locket?" Ianto asked, as he typed, Agent Sato admits that her judgment was clouded....

"Destroyed," Jack said. "Too dangerous, too unreliable and too damn tempting. We're better off as a species not knowing what's going on inside each other's heads."

Ianto looked over all he'd typed, the long words and the euphemisms that didn't include any blood or tears or sympathy. Efficient and precise. Maybe that was the only reason Jack had asked him to take Tosh's statement, because Ianto was efficient and precise. And Ianto would continue to be efficient and precise, and he would forget about Lisa, and he would serve Torchwood, because there wasn't anything else left for him to do.

And he would follow Jack down into the Hub, and into his office, because after all the rest, what was one more betrayal?

Jack didn't seem to notice Ianto following him, or noticed but chose to ignore it, until Ianto shut the office door behind them. "Something I can do for you?" he asked blandly, shrugging off his coat.

"I was actually going to ask you the same thing," Ianto said. He took a step closer to the desk and paused, because there was always the chance that this was going to go disastrously against the plan, to the extent that he had one.

Jack settled into his desk chair with a sigh. "Not really, unless you know where to scare up a good night's sleep."

Ianto pretended to think about this for a minute. "I think I know a few ways of relaxing in bed that might be useful."

Jack's eyes snapped up to fix on Ianto's face, and his brows lowered for a moment. "Just for clarity's sake," he said slowly, "was that a hint?"

"Yes, sir, I believe it was," Ianto said, and raised his chin a little in defiance of the heat spreading in his face.

Jack stood up slowly, and slowly crossed the space to where Ianto stood—as if he were waiting for a punchline, or giving Ianto time to escape. But Ianto was tired of running away from this thing, this feeling, when it was the only thing in his life that didn't hurt (or rather, didn't only hurt), and he stood his ground until Jack was practically toe-to-toe with him, eye-to-eye. "Are you sure about this?" Jack asked.

Ianto wasn't sure about anything, except that his heart was going to pound through his chest and that had to be better than another numb evening in a strange new flat that wasn't home. "I'm here, aren't I?" he asked.

Jack reached up to cup his face, which felt strange and awkward, but the kiss itself—well, the basic principles were just like any other kiss. It wasn't all that different from kissing a tall woman, if he didn't stop to think about Jack's broad flat chest and narrow hips and big hand that curled around the back of his neck to pull him closer. Ianto opened his mouth into the kiss, and wrapped his hands around Jack's waist, and there was no one left to forgive him for this, even if forgiveness had been something he wanted. There was no one who could blame him if he chose to forget.

He wasn't sure about Jack, but he slept soundly that night for the first time in weeks.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

And then Owen gave his heart away again and got it back broken worse than ever, and Jack really didn't have a clue what to do with him. He'd always had a few more issues than National Geographic, our Owen, and needed a very long leash to stay happy, but normally he made up for it by being brilliant and sarcastic and creative. Normally he could be trusted to know his own limits. He spent a rather worrisome amount of time studying Weevils, but normally he didn't try to socialize with them.

The thing about Owen was, he was always much better with people than he let on. Forget what he said about his bedside manner; you don't become a doctor if you can't deal with the public. He just very rarely cared enough to make the effort. But he did see Jack more clearly than perhaps anyone else in Torchwood—Jack included—and precisely because he didn't care, he could say things that no one else would dare to. Except possibly me, but, well, I couldn't.

And Jack, for his part, is a sucker for suicides; he's tried it too many times to have any sort of moral high ground there. It should've been obvious that Owen wasn't going to just work it out of his system in any safe, sane, or consensual manner, but he got under Jack's armor too well for any calm conversation to take place. Tough love from arm's length was the only solution Jack had, and once he committed to it he wasn't going to stop.

Like I said, it's a miracle he doesn't drown in his cornflakes some mornings. It's even more of a miracle things held together as long as they did.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto wouldn't sleep naked. Jack didn't get it. No matter how exhausted or sated or (on one memorable occasion) drugged he was, Ianto refused to go to sleep without at least a pair of boxers on, preferably a vest as well. Watching him grope about on the floor half-awake or rifle through the blankets for his pants was certainly amusing, and it didn't seem to correlate with any particularly severe body image hang-ups...Jack just didn't get it. Was there something wrong with the sheets?

For once Ianto was sleeping soundly, and there was an inviting slice of skin visible where one leg of his boxers rode up just where the sheet rode down. Jack stared at it, but resisted the urge to touch, to run his fingers against the short hairs and tease Ianto awake for a morning quickie. It wasn't like there had been had been any shortage of fucking the past few weeks, after all.

If anything, there'd been too much of it, and coming from Jack that was saying something.

He dressed as silently as he could, and Ianto barely stirred as Jack climbed up the hatch into his office. He needed to go for a walk, get some air. Get some altitude, maybe. Now that Cardiff had some proper skyscrapers, he could almost feel like he was back among the stars. He always thought more clearly on the go, at least, always traveling, always one step ahead of the consequences. Something he and the Doctor had in common.

He certainly couldn't think clearly down in the dark of the Hub, not with Ianto sleeping warm and relaxed beside him in his ridiculous pants. Not when Ianto was what he needed to think about.

Outside his office, the Hub was lit up. That wasn't right. Jack scanned the area and noted a moving shadow in the autopsy bay and a familiar leather jacket on the coat tree. He found Owen knocking about in one of the supply cupboards. "I don't recall setting any meetings this early in the morning," Jack said.

Owen started at glared, giving Jack a good chance to inspect his healing eye. "I spilled my coffee," he growled, and held up his bound hand so Jack could see the big brown stain. "Can't a man get some clean bandages without the Spanish Inquisition?"

"Need some help?" Jack asked mildly.

"No, thank you," Owen declared, rifling about with one hand. "Contrary to rumor, I did finish medical school properly."

He leaned against the railing and folded his arms. "Just offering."

Owen huffed, and found whatever supplies he was looking for. As he started fumbling the stained bandages off, he asked, "So, what about you, Captain? What brings you out of your hidey-hole this early in the morning?"

"Got a few things on my mind," Jack said with a little shrug. Things like Ianto, sleeping away down below, yet again. That had become a regular thing awfully fast, maybe too fast—he wasn't sure what Ianto was getting out of it, exactly, but he doubted it was entirely healthy. Then again, dialing it back might send the wrong messages, do more damage. And it wasn't like Jack didn't want it. Exactly the opposite.

But the century had turned twice, and the Doctor could be coming any day, and...and Ianto had been born the year of Jack's sesquicentennial, for fuck's sake. Funny how that kind of thing never used to bother him before. Maybe that meant he was finally starting to act his age. Maybe he was just getting tired.

"Fuck!" Owen blurted as a roll of gauze went bouncing away from him. Jack moved to pick it up, but Owen just snarled, "Leave off, I've got it."

"You need the help," Jack shot back.

Owen snorted. "You've already done enough, thanks."

The stitches in Owen's forearm were still ragged and black, as he covered them with sterile dressings; such a stupidly close call, all of it. He got the gauze going by himself while Jack said, "We're not your enemies, Owen."

"Yeah? Don't look like much of friends, from where I'm standing," Owen blustered.

He fumbled with the end of the gauze but couldn't knot it one-handed; Jack stepped in and tied it for him. "You're not giving us much of a chance," he pointed out.

Owen jerked his arm away. "I don't need this, Jack, okay? I don't need you. Every time I think my life can't get any worse I look up and there you are, and right now I don't need that, so just take your warm fuzzy bullshit somewhere else and let me fester in peace."

He stomped out of the autopsy bay and towards his desk, and there was absolutely no hiding the fact that Ianto was just coming out of Jack's office in yesterday's suit and still the process of tying his tie. Owen stopped short, and there was a split second of tense hesitation, like a gunslingers' standoff, before he snorted.

"Well, that explains everything," Owen declared with a sneer. "No wonder he lets you stick around, if you're sucking his cock."

"That's enough," Jack said, even though Ianto didn't expression didn't really change—perhaps a shade heavier, but no less bland. He was never playing poker against that face ever. "Don't you have work to do?"

"I'm not officially on the clock until nine," Owen declared, and dropped melodramatically onto the couch. "Reckoned I'd grab a kip until then."

"I'll be up in the tourist office, sir," Ianto said, and walked past them both like Owen hadn't even registered on his radar.

Jack watched him go, and glared at Owen, who flung his good arm over his eyes and started pretending to snore. Then he took the invisible lift up to the Plass. That walk was starting to look better and better all the time.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Our team were flying to pieces, and Jack either didn't know how to fix them or couldn't make himself care. Or, I guess, he was falling apart as badly as the rest of them—he'd come so close to the Doctor the Christmas before but never caught sight of him again, and his faith and hope and love were starting to wear a bit thin. I certainly couldn't do anything, not even for Jack, not anymore; between the Bad Wolf and Torchwood, he'd become a stranger to me, hard and bitter and tired.

So if they hadn't opened the Rift, it would've been something; and it had to hurt, or else nothing would've changed. Nothing brings people together like a little shared suffering, and nothing makes them confront their weakness better than a mistake. But because they were Torchwood—because they were them—it couldn't be any kind of half-measure, oh no. For them, all Hell had to quite literally break loose.

Chapter Text

"If Owen managed to open the Rift to get you and Tosh back, can't we do the same for these people?" Gwen asked from the doorway as Jack scanned the soldier—not because they could do anything with the data but because it felt more constructive than just flinging him into the vaults along with the rest of Time's debris. "We've still got the Rift manipulator."

Jack laughed softly. "There's a world of difference."

Gwen just huffed at him, unsatisfied.

He explained, "We're talking about taking control of Time, not bringing two people back from the past. Besides," he added sharply, looking up at her, "look at the damage Owen caused. We mess with it further, we put the whole planet in danger."

Her eyes fell to the soldier, though. On every aberration out of time, every threat about to drop out of the darkness, and Jack could hear the question she wasn't asking: How can it get any worse?

And because the worst case scenario here was hard for even Jack to imagine, he asked her, "Have I ever let you down?"

One corner of her mouth went up, like she was trying to force a smile, but she couldn't quite look him in the eye. She walked away.

-\-\-\-\-\-

So the end of the world arrived, complete with plagues and portents; never let it be said that Torchwood doesn't go out in style. And it proved the adage that when the going gets tough, the tough devolve into petty infighting and pissing competitions, because it's not as if they have anything better to do. I do sympathize with Jack on that front, really: it was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't proposition from the start, and you understand why he thought the best they could do would be to go down fighting—or perhaps wait for the crack to catch the Doctor's attention. You can understand if, just this once, he looked into the face of Hell and blinked. You can understand that he, and his team, were all too human.

It's all quite understandable, and forgiveable? Maybe that too. Because whereas Ianto seemed to like quoting Daniel's ravings, I think the most appropriate verse comes from Hebrews, when it came to our team and their myriad sins: that without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"What happens when the next carrier comes through, Jack?" Owen demanded. "Somebody carrying smallpox or Ebola or something from the future we don't even know about yet. What do we do then?"

"Yeah, well, it's not doing us any good standing around speculating," Jack snapped, turning away from him.

Owen leapt forward and stopped him with a raised hand, almost but not quite touching. "We need to be prepared." he said. "We're helpless. All we're doing here is putting sticking plasters on gaping wounds!"

Jack raised his hands, not quite in surrender, summoning a leaden calm to face Owen's fury. "What do you suggest?" he asked lightly, giving Owen rope to hang himself with so Jack could shut him up and get him back on task.

"I suggest," Owen said, deadly soft, "you lead us, and tell us what the instructions are."

"Owen," Gwen called, while Jack was trying to figure out where Owen got off deviating from the script.

"No, come on," Owen said, raising his voice now to Gwen and Tosh, and at some point Ianto had joined them, too, white-faced and staring. "You're all thinking it too." He turned back to Jack, fixing him with a glare that was as desperate as it was angry "You're the big man here. You keep all the secrets. Well, now's the time to tell us a few, and tell us how the hell we're gonna get out of this!"

Jack turned away from him, from all of them; he couldn't bear to look at their waiting faces, their begging eyes. They weren't supposed to need him like this. They weren't supposed to need him at all. He wondered, was this how the Doctor felt when the world looked up and begged for salvation? But of course the Doctor wouldn't be in this situation, because the Doctor was cleverer than that, because the Doctor had plans, because the Doctor had a fucking clue--

"You wanna know a secret?" Jack asked them all, raising his chin.

-\-\-\-\-\-

They didn't tell each other about the visions until afterwards, not that it mattered much. Any glimpse of Diana was sure to fry what little objectivity Owen possessed; Toshiko wasn't much better about her mother, if her criminal record was anything to go by. Gwen loved Rhys so much she couldn't even bear to be near him half the time, not with the stains that Torchwood had put on her soul, and she loved him enough that it made perfect sense to stun him and lock him in the cells for his own good. You can't really reason with that kind of love--it's a bit too close to crazy.

Ianto loved Lisa enough to lie for her and lie to her, to smuggle her across the country, to ignore the thing she was becoming, to paint her nails. He didn't love her enough to be faithful, though, and he wasn't going to be tricked into trying to save her; so his vision played on his guilt, by reminding him of all he'd done and all he'd failed to do. It had been bad enough watching Tosh lose Mary, even knowing exactly what Mary was; and when Gwen lost Rhys, Ianto couldn't stand by and not fix that, not save somebody, even if it wasn't himself.

(Jack was telling the truth that he didn't see anything. Maybe Billis knew better than to put him to the test, or maybe he thought there was no one Jack loved enough to make mistakes for, except himself. Really, I think it was that he loved people—all these people—too much to make any further mistakes.)

Gwen said it best, though: This is what happens at Torchwood. We all end up alone.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-\-

"How many other people have got to suffer?" Owen asked softly, and that caught Ianto's attention more than Gwen's hysterics. That, and the sudden sharp look on Jack's face, the moment before Owen declared. "I'm opening the Rift."

Owen charged up the stairs, shoving past all of them, and now was the time for Jack to say something. To talk Owen out of it, to take charge, something. Instead he met Ianto's eyes, and he looked calm, he looked resigned, he looked like he really did believe there was nothing they could do. Any maybe there wasn't. Maybe this was the end of the world.

Ianto looked into Jack's eyes and realized he couldn't take that risk.

"Make sure you stop him," Jack called as Ianto mounted the stairs. What was that supposed to mean? This time, shoot him in the head? Ianto turned to look at Jack, really look at him, at the man who'd demanded his trust and his loyalty and his body. And Ianto had given it to him because he thought he had nothing else left to lose.

There was one thing, as it turned out. "No," he said, and watched Jack's face fall ever so slightly in shock. That was as much as Ianto could bear to see.

He heard Tosh and Gwen come up behind him, but his attention immediately focused on Owen, who'd seized the first computer and logged into it. Of course nobody had thought to lock out his passwords yet, not with the end of the world at hand. "You need to enable administrator privileges before you access the manipulator controls," Ianto told him.

"Yeah, guessed that, thanks," Owen growled. Screens flickered by as he opened the program.

Tosh scribbled down an equation and stuck near the keyboard. "Input that into the manipulator first. It represents a baseline activity frequency--"

"Yeah, yeah, got it." Owen clumsily typed out the symbols and then scanned the screen. "Where's the damn 'open' button?"

"Enter emergency protocol one," Ianto said, and Tosh raised her eyebrow at him; he wondered if even she had known that little fact, one of the ones squirreled away in Jack's little black book along with his passwords and combinations. The fact that the manipulator was able to open the Rift at all meant that someone, somewhere, had thought it might someday be necessary; the fact that Jack kept the passwords hidden meant he didn't agree, but that they were hidden but so close to hand--

Jack came charging up the stairs, but Ianto carefully kept his eyes on the computer, where Gwen had taken over the typing. He would've done it himself, and done it faster, but he didn't dare get her in way at the moment: just scanned what she typed for mistakes and fed her the passwords to make it work--

--Until the sound of Jack's Webley cocking fill the room. "I said, move," Jack said coldly.

"What the hell are you doing?" Tosh asked incredulously. Ianto rather thought it was obvious.

"Final warning," Jack said flatly.

Ianto felt frozen, because he'd chosen this, and he knew Jack did not make threats; but Gwen walked forward fearlessly, maybe too fearlessly. "Come on, Jack," she sighed, like she could really bring him around with a few calm words.

Jack looked at her, looked at them all, with naked contempt. "You're a united front now," he sneered. "Toshiko, the poor girl who'll screw any passing alien that gives her a pendant. Owen, so strong he gets in a cage with a Weevil, desperate to be mauled. Ianto, hiding his Cyber-girlfriend in the basement..." He barely flicked his eyes in Ianto's direction, and no, that wasn't hate, that was anger, such deep anger that Jack's eyes were shining with tears behind his gun. "Your three comrades here pumped bullets into her, remember?"

It physically hurt not to blurt out, so did you.

Jack had handed Lisa over to a pterodactyl and filled her stolen body with bullets and Ianto had jumped into Jack's bed to forget her.

Given all that, what was one more betrayal?

"I've got to get Rhys back," Gwen said, moving forward like the well-trained copper she was, ready to disarm the suspect.

Jack lowered the gun of his own accord, and looked at Gwen like she, not Ianto, was the worst traitor of all. "Yeah. Because you're so in love with Rhys you spend half your time in Owen's bed."

He should not have said that. He really shouldn't have. Gwen slugged him, screaming, and Owen was able to seize the gun. "We're relieving you of your command, Captain!" he roared. "We're opening that Rift and getting back what we lost!" Gwen scurried back to the computer, swearing at something, but Ianto couldn't tear his eyes away from Owen, from the gun in Owen's hand, from Owen's shaking hands, and he didn't know if Owen could do it—he didn't think Owen would possibly do it—it had been hard enough to shoot someone in the shoulder, but that hadn't really stopped anything, and this time the stakes were so much higher--

"You want to be in charge, Owen?" Jack hissed, glaring down the barrel of the gun as he rose. "You've got to have significantly bigger balls."

Bang.

Bang bang.

Just three shots, but the whole world narrowed as Jack fell, the way it had narrowed to the hail of lead that brought Lisa to an end. A head wound, two in the chest, and at that range the Webley could blow clear through flesh and bone; the blood pooled out of the exit wounds, except where it spattered on Jack's still face. Everything else receded for a moment as Ianto knelt over him, staring into the glassy eyes. "What've you done?" he asked, and felt for a moment like he was going to retch.

Then he looked at Owen, who was practically trembling, who looked just as shocked. What've we done? he corrected himself numbly. What do we think we're even doing here?

"Come on, then," Gwen said, high and thin and strangely calm. "We've got work to do."

-\-\-\-\-\-

When Jack threw himself in front of Abaddon, it was the worst pain he had ever experienced, ripping screams out of him like nothing else ever had, short-circuiting his mind, pounding through him like war drums.

I'm ashamed to say I found it something of a relief.

Okay, I'll admit it, it felt good; while Jack writhed in agony, I hid in the watch, far away from our body and its billions of treacherous little nerve endings, unaffected. All I felt was the spear that held us fast in Time tremble and shift, giving more ground in a matter of minutes than it had in the last century of pointless deaths. Not enough, not nearly enough to make my pain stop, but enough to give me a bit of what I'd call breathing room. Enough to make touching Jack's thoughts just a bit more bearable.

And in that moment, as Abaddon gagged on the raw power of the Bad Wolf, Jack thought, God, is this really it?

And I thought, Of course not, you tit.

And for the first time in our whole long life, Jack answered me.

He thought, Wait, what?

And then we died. Bit of an anti-climax, at the time.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

"What happened to the Rift?" Gwen asked, after explanations and absolutions; after Owen had blown his nose and dried his eyes and growled at everyone for a bit; after Ianto stopped looking quite so gobsmacked about Jack's impulsive kiss; after they'd fessed up to the destruction of the coffee machine (cause of death: electrical overload due to Rift activity). It was only mid-morning, but they were all going to need some caffeine to deal with this, and that meant either sending an expedition to the nearest corporate monstrosity or giving Ianto free reign with a French press, a kettle and some alien tech that was probably not made of food-grade materials.

"It closed up when Abaddon was destroyed," Jack said, scanning the neat files they'd created while he was dead. All of Tosh's numbers indicated that the backwash of energy was enough to seal and stabilize the Rift, sucking in not just Abaddon but a whole chunk of time before it had opened—except for the people who'd been standing (or laying) directly on top of the manipulator when it was activated, that is. Funny how temporal physics worked out sometimes. (Funny how he'd had enough life in him to destroy a monster of, literally, Biblical proportions, with more to spare) "But it's going to be more volatile than ever."

Gwen's next question was a little hesitant. "The visions we had...we all saw people we loved." Jack realized where this was going and looked away from her. "What did you see?" she asked anyway.

There had been no vision for him. No specter from his past, none of the many loved ones he'd left behind. Just a whisper in the darkness that might've been some kind of zany hallucination of dying, and then... "Nothing," he said, even though it wasn't the question she'd asked. "There was nothing."

Just like Suzie said. Just like always. A vast blob of nothing before something dragged him back into life.

"Jack," Gwen said, dragging his attention back. "What would've tempted you? What...visions...would've convinced you to open the Rift?"

He tried to imagine it, for a moment. If he'd seen Alice coming out of the darkness with open arms. Estelle, as she was when he met her, instead of how she'd died. John, before he'd gone too far to save. If he'd seen Gray...

No. Not them.

"The right kind of Doctor," he admitted. He was the only one who mattered. And that probably made Jack more of a monster of than anything else he'd ever done.

He stood up suddenly, before Gwen saw any of that in his eyes. "Jack..." she said warily.

"Where are they with those coffees?" Worst change of subject ever, he knew, but he'd been dead for three days—again with the Biblical allusions—he was allowed to think below the speed limit for a little while. Gwen hung back in his office, maybe to give him some space, except he didn't want space just then, he wanted distractions. He searched around the wreck of the Hub for something to busy himself with--

--and his eyes fell on his Doctor Detector.

His chiming Doctor Detector.

He stared at it stupidly for a couple of minutes, because he'd had the damn thing for over a year and it hadn't so much as sneezed at him, but now it was chiming away, meaning the Doctor was here—and not just any version of him, but the same one sighted with Rose at Christmas. A Doctor who matched Jack's own timeline, give or take a century.

A Doctor who was here, and finally within Jack's reach. If he dared.

A breeze broke him out of his paralysis—somebody had left the invisible lift gaping open, and through the missing paving stone came a stiff breeze and a familiar sighing sound, a sound he hadn't heard for a hundred and thirty-eight years. The TARDIS was making a pit stop.

But with the Rift so active, it would take minutes—maybe seconds—for the TARDIS to refuel, not another twenty-four-hour layover. Which meant Jack didn't have a second to waste. He snatched a rucksack off the floor—they were still trying to knock the equipment locker back into shape—and the Doctor Detector in the other hand, and leapt onto the lift. He had to push buttons with his chin to put the lift in motion, but it gave him a moment to wrestle the tank into the bag and zip it up, then struggle it onto his back.

Later he would stop and think about Gwen. Later he'd think about Ianto. Later he'd think about Torchwood itself, the team he'd put together and broken and saved, the work they'd have to carry on without him. Later he'd realize he hadn't brought any spare ammunition or clean clothes or even his wallet.

But in that moment, he was only thinking about one thing.

"Doctor! DOCTOR!"

Chapter Text

The Doctor told us, when Jack first asked about the Chameleon Arch, that it wasn't meant to be used for long periods of time. He'd never defined how long was long, but I don't think anyone would consider 175 years to be exactly brief. That's how long Jack and I had been alive, how long we'd been...whatever we were to one another. For 138 of those years we were fixed in Time and I was trapped in the watch, stealing a moment here and there with every death.

I don't know how long Professor Yana had lived, haunted but happy, thinking himself real. I don't know how much damage was already done long before the Master went into hiding, what exactly happened when he opened the watch. But when I finally met my second-ever Time Lord, I came to understand viscerally just why a person isn't meant to live inside a pocket watch.

You see, I could also hear drums.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

For the first twenty-four hours, Jack was the Master's jester. He got a fake uniform with sequin trim, a plastic gun with a flag that said BANG, and a red rubber nose. After he put three guards in traction, the Master evidently rethought that idea.

"You shouldn't have done that," the Doctor whispered to him as Jack came back to life on the main deck.

"Maybe when I'm nine hundred, I'll have your patience," Jack murmured back, moving gingerly. That laser screwdriver wasn't the worst way he'd died, but it left one hell of a hangover.

"No," the Master said, "you really shouldn't have done that. Because now," and he leveled the screwdriver in Jack's face, "I'm going to have to think of another game. An even better one."

The world flared again with orange fire.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

It had been frustrating as hell when the Doctor couldn't seem to notice me, but flying under the Master's radar was a blessing. He never searched Jack's things personally; he sent the soldiers to do it, and since they were already compromised by the Archangel network it was easy for me to send out a simple vibe of nope, no touchy, nothing to see here, this isn't the Time Lord you're looking for. If they'd ever got as far as strip-searching him, there might've been a problem, but as it was they treated the watch much like his shoelaces or his braces—just another fiddly little piece of clothing, not worth their time so long as he didn't use it as a weapon. And not even Jack was quite creative enough to weaponize a pocket watch. (Thankfully.)

If the Master had found the watch, had found me, there was no question he'd have recognized what I was. What we were, I should say. I can't imagine what he would've done with the information. Maybe destroyed the watch to see what happened to Jack? Maybe forced it open to see what happened to me? Maybe something entirely different and infinitely worse. Jack thought he was invulnerable, but his biggest weakness was nestled in his trouser pocket and there was nothing I could do to protect us. The fear of it was constant as a toothache.

At least, between Abaddon's last meal and the Master's itchy trigger finger, I could stay a little closer to Jack's thoughts, try to give him a nudge here or there, like in the old days. I wasn't alone in the same way I had been for the whole twentieth century. I couldn't seem to make Jack aware of me a second time, so I couldn't offer much comfort, but I could take plenty.

I just had to endure the sound of drums. The steady rhythm that pounded up out of Time where Jack and I were unnaturally rooted. The constant beat that had been in my thoughts since the Gamestation. That drumbeat, and maybe it was the same one the Master heard, somehow, or maybe it wasn't, because I hadn't looked into the Vortex, I'd just been listening to it for over a hundred years.

Discovery wasn't the only thing I was afraid of.

-\-\-\-\-\-

In the first few weeks, the Master tried out several new games, including Lawn Darts, Mumbletypeg, Russian Roulette, Toclafane Dodgeball, and Jack's least favorite, Operation. Sometimes he tried to get his wife to play along, or the officers controlling the Valiant; a few times he broadcast the festivities live, though Jack wasn't sure who he thought he was broadcasting to when he'd also ordered so much of the world murdered or relocated, demolished or burned.

Maybe it was a dig at Martha, or Torchwood, or anyone else who might be thinking about raising the red flag of resistance. Maybe he just liked hearing himself talk.

Jack put up the best fight he could, under the circumstances, because it wasn't in his nature to surrender even a lost cause. Sometimes he managed to slip his bonds and make a stand. Sometimes he managed to play dead and surprise the guards, or even the Master himself. Sometimes he found a way to break the rules.

And one time, when they were up on the flight deck playing Blind Man's Bluff (made possible by the application of the laser screwdriver directly to Jack's eyes) he came within a step of escape. He stumbled and rolled into a barrier of flimsy plastic mesh, he felt the wind whipping up past his face and heard the Master shouting, and he knew that if he could find his feet and fling himself over the edge, he'd be free. The fall would kill him, of course, and if he landed on water he'd have to swim to shore and probably drown a few times along the way...

And then what? Fight?

He didn't have his TARDIS key anymore, and the spheres outnumbered the human race. He'd be hunted every step he took, and anyone he came near would become a target. His freedom would last only as long as it took the spheres to tear him apart and return his pieces to the Master. And what could he do, one man with no resources, no information? Martha was surely long gone, his team as well, and he had no idea how to find them even if he dared...

...and the Doctor was so frail, so weak, and the Jones family so helpless. Not that Jack could save them, any more than he could save himself. But at least from here he could keep trying.

So he lay there inches from freedom and let the spheres kill him, and when he came back to life the first thing he saw was the Master standing over him. He lunged for the bastard's legs, but he was still to weak and slow from blood loss, and the Master was able to easily dance out of the way. "Isn't that cute?" he asked the spheres while Jack lay on his face in a pool of his own blood. "He's still trying to fight back."

"I do have my pride," Jack ground out while the spheres giggled shrilly around him. Slowly, he managed to force himself up on his hands and knees.

The Master crouched down beside him, but kept the screwdriver at the ready. "Yes, well, we'd better work on that, hadn't we?"

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

I had already lived nearly two centuries with Jack—as Jack, I suppose, technically—probably quite a bit longer than the Master had been Professor Yana. I had survived much of that while being fixed agonizingly in Time, which thankfully the Master wasn't, since that was perhaps the only thing that could've made the situation even worse. I liked to think I was relatively sane, at least to start with—or at least sane as I could be, under the circumstances, which from the sound of things was more sane than the Master had ever been.

But from the moment the Bad Wolf brought us back (and I couldn't think of it as Rose, no matter what the Doctor said, because Rose didn't scare the shit out of me) I had been living in agonizing proximity to the Time Vortex itself. That was the source of the power that kept us alive, the origin of the Wrongness, the thing I had been hiding from all these years. And it really was like drums, a constant pounding, deafening when I was with Jack, penetrating when I wasn't.

And while I hadn't lost touch with reality yet...certainly not to the point of taking over medium-sized planets...Jack could still live for a long, long time. It would take a whole lot more dying to get us unfixed, something the Master seemed eager to assist us with, but if we had to live through that many resurrections...or if I had to stay in the watch for that many centuries...hell, millenia...

It's like the Doctor once said. Hiding in silence for hundreds of years is enough to drive anyone mad.

-\-\-\-\-\-

At the start of winter, the Master put Jack to work in the lowest depths of the Valiant, figuratively if not literally. The ship was designed to stay aloft for years at a time, if necessary, and to avoid risky and costly supply missions it had all sorts of lovely gadgets like air filters, garbage incinerators and septic tanks that needed to be cleaned or replaced periodically. It was not designed to undergo maintenance on critical equipment in flight, equipment such as the engines, but the Master fancied the occasional tune-up anyway, especially when it put Jack at maximum risk of being killed or maimed. "And," the Master generally said, "if you're a very, very good boy and do all your work properly, I might even let you wash up when you're done!"

Which meant most nights Jack spent back in the cells of the Valiant's brig, marinating in whatever blood or shit or grease he'd managed to accumulate during the day and trying to crack the door codes. He got moved to a different cell every night, which meant every night he had to start from scratch. He still tried it.

At least in this line of work he got to see the Joneses a little more often. Not so much Tish and Francine, since the Master didn't want his wait staff smelling like the engine rooms, but he worked close to Clive from time to time. Clive was Good People, Jack decided: not especially brave or strong, but he loved his family and paid his taxes and generally tried to play by the rules. He was the kind of person you trust with your car or your taxes, but he wasn't cut out for this kind of horror story. Not like Jack was.

"So what business were you in?" Jack asked Clive one day while he was dredging the water recyclers. He was fairly certain the regular crew had a machine for this, with pumps and hoses; he had a spade.

Clive looked fearfully at the soldiers standing watch nearby, but they couldn't fault anybody just for talking, could they? "Business?" he whispered back.

"Yeah," Jack said, at his usual volume. "Business. You know, your job, before all this. I somehow get the feeling you weren't a janitor."

With another glance at the soldiers, Clive mumbled, "Real estate."

"Real estate? Good industry." Jack leaned on his spade to take a breather. "Always gonna be real estate to trade. 'Course, might not be anyone left to trade it..."

"What do you want?" Clive hissed at him.

Jack looked into the sludgy mess that came up to his knees. "I wanted to say I'm sorry," he blurted out. "To all of you. All of them."

Clive blinked at him, and leaned on his mop. "What d'you mean, sorry?"

"I'm sorry this happened," Jack said. "Because I used to be in the business of preventing things like this. And obviously, I failed." Failed his team, failed them so badly they'd staged a mutiny; failed his mission, because he'd missed a year's worth of warning signs in the rise of Harold Saxon and abandoned his post without a second thought.

But because Clive was Good People, he sighed and started pushing his mop again. "Think we all fouled this one up. All of Britain, at least...I mean, I was gonna vote for the bastard..."

"No talking," one of the soldiers barked. Jack had decided that most of the soldiers in the Master's service weren't really bad people, either; they were the kind who followed orders and kept their heads down and thought better you than me when they saw Jack get stuck full of knives, but they had families and friends who would trust them with the car. They weren't actually going to go out of their way to make the hostages suffer, but they wouldn't go out of their way to help them, either, not if it risked bringing down the wrath of the Master.

Speaking of whom—the ship's intercoms gurgled to life. "All prisoners, please report to the flight deck! I think you're going to like this!"

Japan burned that night, with one sphere for every seven hundred square feet of land area, or so the Master said. It was also the closest Jack came to laying a finger on the Master for the whole year of his captivity. He lunged for him despite the Joneses, despite the Doctor, despite the bullets pounding into him and the spheres trying to shred him and the lasers burning through his nerves. Because they could smell the burning from the deck, and see the ocean boiling, and Martha might've been there, and the Master was just smiling like it was Christmas.

(Which, Jack later found out, it was.)

When he came back to life he was in chains, like some parody of Samson, not in the brig but in one of the machine rooms. Clive was mopping up the bloodstains around his feet. "Need me to move for you?" Jack asked woozily.

Clive nearly upset his bucket. "Jesus Christ, give me a heart attack, why don't you," he said, then peered closely at Jack's face. "Didn't think you were coming back from that one."

"Takes a lot worse than that to keep me down," Jack said. Though he sort of wished he could lie down; his arms and shoulders ached from taking his weight, but his legs weren't entirely up to the task either, and he could still feel bullets and bone fragments shifting around inside.

And when he closed his eyes, Japan still burned.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

(I sometimes wonder why the Master didn't try to use the Torchwood team against us; the only thing either Jack or I could ever think of was that they died too quickly, with no opportunity to flaunt it in front of us. It was romantic to imagine them leading resistance cells somewhere, perhaps helping Martha with her mission; it was flat-out denial to imagine them hidden away somewhere safe and sound, perhaps packed in bubble-wrap for good measure. Knowing them, they'd probably run right at the first wave of spheres with their guns blazing.

(Well, Tosh and Ianto probably would've gone for cover first. Still.

(The point is, it made sense that they were already dead; it was logical; and we both believed it with a fervent passion. They were dead before the Master could have them brought in; and anyway, if he'd really wanted to use them against Jack, he'd have captured them before hand, like the Joneses, instead of sending them to the Himalayas. They had died too soon, too far away, to even bother desecrating their remains.

(They were dead, and therefore safe from anything else the Master might want to do to them, and therefore we didn't have to worry anymore. Because Jack had suddenly discovered that there were people besides the Doctor he was willing to make mistakes for.)

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

He'd thought the Samson thing would be temporary, but apparently it appealed to the Master's sense of drama. Either that, or he no longer trusted Jack not to break out of the cells and go on some kind of destructive spree. After all, that's my job, he could imagine the Master saying, and when your captor penetrated your internal monologue with that kind of accuracy, that was a very bad sign.

Jack stayed in the chains for day after day. When his legs began to cramp and tremble, he'd dangle and let his arms take his weight until they were burning with pain and starting to lose circulation. Nobody paid much attention to him, not even the guards posted by the doors: the crew looked through him or worked around him as if he wasn't there, the Joneses shuffled by in a hurry if they had to pass at all, and even the Master didn't visit.

Jack stayed in chains for thirty days, without food or water or a word spoken in his direction. They wouldn't even give him a bucket to piss in, while he was still capable of pissing. Dehydration made him delirious after the first few days, and by the end of the first week his throat was too dry and cracked to even whisper with.

He saw visions of alien monsters wandering the corridors alongside the regular crew, of old friends from the army or the Agency staring at him from the shadows, of the Doctor—the old Doctor, his Doctor—saying unintelligible words before dissolving into colored lights. He saw his team: Owen saying Extreme dehydration, patient suffers from hallucinations along with the muscle cramps and heart arrhythmia—you ought to be dead by now, but we all saw how well that turned out, cheers, while Tosh shushed him and played with buttons and knobs. Gwen stroked Jack's hair and hummed to him, and Ianto kissed him, sometimes softly, sometimes with that passion that he so rarely let off the leash. They were all dead, bloodied broken messes, missing arms and missing eyes, but they were with him, and they were safe, and his lips shaped I'm sorry, I'm so sorry even if his throat couldn't voice the words anymore.

After thirty days he wasn't dead, but he wasn't sure he was strictly alive, either, not even when the Master threw a bucket of water in his face. "Let this be a lesson to you all," he declared, and Jack managed to focus enough to realized that the camera was back, probably a shipwide broadcast, maybe even worldwide at this point. "This was Captain Harkness's warning. Do you have something you want to say to me, Captain?"

Jack tried to speak, felt the tissues of his throat tear and bleed. Coughing made it worse. The Master solved this by dumping another bucket on him, but Jack just turned his head up and caught the drops, holding a mouthful of water in until he could speak again. "I want," he managed to rasp.

"Yeeees?" the Master asked eagerly. "Asking me for a boon, Captain? Would this perhaps qualify as begging?"

"I want," he said, "I want you to...."

The Master waited a moment. "Yes? What? You know it's rude not to finish your sentences, and I haven't got all day, either, I've a planet to run."

It hurt, but Jack managed to string together a whole sentence without coughing or pausing. "Well, I don't know if it's anatomically possible for your species, but I want you to go fuck yourself."

The Master laughed. "Oh, don't you ever quit, Captain? Shall we see what another month does for your disposition? Perhaps I'll put you the stocks this time, though—I've always wanted a stocks. And some of the men are getting quite lax with their target practice. It might be good for morale."

He didn't follow through, though; Jack passed out, and the next thing he knew he was being spoon-fed a weak broth by Tish, who looked almost as scared of him as she was of the Master. "Thanks," he said, slopping broth down his chin.

"'S nothing," she said, and even dabbed his face with a napkin—a pointless gesture when he was this filthy, but he still appreciated it. "You gonna be all right?"

"I'm the indestructible man," Jack reminded her wearily. "Why wouldn't I be?"

-\-\-\-\-\-

The Master had gone to elaborate efforts to craft the Doctor's personal Hell, but he didn't seem to think Jack worth the effort—he thought that mere torture and humiliation were enough to break him, when Jack had already been tortured and humiliated by far more inventive enemies going back longer than most humans had even been alive. It certainly hurt him, but that wasn't what ate away at him, and it really wasn't any worse than the early days at Torchwood once he got over all the guilt.

(Jack's one of the few people I've met who can be egocentrically guilty—so immersed in his own self-flagellation that he entirely forgets about the people he's wronged. It's infuriating, but meant well, on the whole.)

If the Master had noticed the pocketwatch, of course—if he'd known about me—things would've been entirely different. Hell, if Jack had paid more attention to the watch, now that he knew about the missing piece of the Chameleon Arch...but he was too busy suffering and dying and not going mad. And I was so busy keeping myself hidden, and worrying about going mad, that I almost missed the great denouement, the Master's most final defeat.

(Well, not the part where we died a lot and blew up a paradox and Time went backwards a little. That part was hard to miss. But I did have back up quite a bit to figure out how we'd gotten there.)

The point was, I spent a year in terror of discovery, because I couldn't defend myself and I could not, absolutely could not bear to be rejoined with Jack. But I also couldn't stay in the watch, stay a ghost, forever—not if I was going to lose my mind to the darkness and paralysis and the drums of the Vortex. Because, what with Jack in the driver's seat of our body, my mind was really all I had. A whole new spin on cogito, ergo sum; and if I couldn't think, if I went mad as the Master inside the watch, would I still even exist?

(Or something worse: to rejoin with Jack after a thousand thousand years, with my sanity long fled, perhaps with the sound of drums still in my ears. Jack and I had lived a long and violent life, and we were more than capable of committing a few atrocities at the best of times. At our worst, if we were that far gone...we could've given the Master a run for his money.)

So it looked like my options were to go mad with Jack or go mad on my own. And, granted, I probably had a few good centuries left before I really had to choose. But things were ending all around us, everyone saying so many goodbyes...it seemed like the moment to decide. It seemed like a moment of truth.

And it gave me an idea for how to save myself. A terrible idea, an impossible idea...but the only way to save myself from madness. If it worked.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

The Hub was not as he'd left it, after five months. New floors, a bit of cosmetic work...he could tell they were back from the Himalayas already, which must've been the world's fastest flight. There was lukewarm coffee on Tosh's desk, an open instant messenger window on Owen's screen: they'd left again in a hurry, too. His office was locked, and God only knew which one of them had the key—he'd lost his own on the Valiant somewhere—but he managed to get inside by picking the lock with a paper clip off Tosh's desk.

It was spotlessly clean, which meant Ianto had been in here recently. That thought made him smile, but it also made something in his chest twist. He'd taken them all for granted. God, he'd been selfish. He hadn't even realized how happy they made him until he was waiting for the Master to dangle their mutilated remains in his face. And if he was going to stay—now that he wasn't listening for the TARDIS with one foot out the door—things had to change. He had to change.

Responsibility, like he'd told the Doctor. It was time the immortal did a little growing up.

He logged into the computer (a little pleased that his passwords still worked, good sign there) and checked for recent Rift activity. It looked like there had been a small spike a few days ago...day of the election, actually, so while the others were away. Followed by police reports of stolen cars, bar fights and attempted sexual assaults committed by a suspect in an "extensive rubber mask." Jack checked the CCTV footage, and sighed; someday Blowfish were going to stop treating Earth like a Spring Break destination, but today wasn't one of them. That at least explained where his team were.

He patched his poor, abused wrist strap into the SUV's GPS tracker and found it on the move. High-speed car chases, great. He could just wait until they dealt with the situation and surprise them when they came back...but there was a tweaked-out Blowfish running loose in his city, and his people could use all the help they could get. They deserved all the help he could give them.

He would just have to catch up with them first.

"You know what would be really handy right now, Doctor?" he muttered as he grabbed a few essentials—extra rounds, mobile phone, and oh yes, his wallet this time around. "A teleport. I would really love to be able to teleport right now."

Wishes and horses, though. Jack took the lift back up to the Plass and took off running.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack and I were 176 years old. I had been with him for first loves and first losses, greatest joys and deepest griefs, all capped by a year of profoundest suffering. Whatever we were, it was as close as two beings could get and remain two travelers.

And if I wanted to keep my mind, I was going to have to leave him behind.

Chapter Text

Nearly two weeks went by after Jack raised the subject of the date (or The Date, as Ianto started to think of it—like it was something that belonged the vaults) and Torchwood seemed to settle into a new-old routine. It wasn't exactly as if Jack had never left; more like he'd been gone just a short time, just enough to take some of their paralyzing dysfunction out to the bin. Some, but not all.

Nearly two weeks had gone by, and Ianto had not touched Jack once.

His mobile rang, but on reflex Ianto almost prodded his earpiece instead. Jack Harkness, the screen said, which was even odder, because Jack was clearly driving around in the SUV according to the monitors. Ianto took out his earpiece to answer. "Hello?"

"Restaurant, fifteen minutes," Jack barked. "No excuses."

"And which restaurant is that exactly?" Ianto asked warily.

"It's a surprise," Jack said; on the monitors, the SUV came to a halt. "Use the GPS in my phone to find it."

The Date. Of course. Ianto could've protested the misuse of Torchwood resources, or claimed that he was in the middle of some project, or even simply refused. He'd sort of hoped that Jack had forgotten about the whole thing. "May I at least get a hint on how to dress for the occasion?" he asked instead.

"Casually," Jack said.

"So it's not that sort of restaurant, is it?" He had the sudden mental image of Jack setting up a candlelit table for two outside a chip shop.

"Hey, for you, dressing down is dressing up," Jack declared as if it made sense. "And that's all I'm saying. You're not getting any spoilers out of me, Jones."

"Despite the fact that I could just plug your GPS into Google Maps?" Ianto asked.

There was a slight, awkward pause. "Cheater."

He hung up, and Ianto mumbled something to Tosh about giving up for the night; she was playing with the Rift predictor again, though, and probably wouldn't have noticed a brass band marching past. He took his phone and a PDA and sat in the car park for a long time, triangulating Jack's position just as instructed. He was somewhere in the center of town, close to the Hub but not to Ianto's flat. He was waiting. That didn't necessarily mean Ianto had to go. He wasn't a trained dog who came when called.

"Oh, who exactly am I fooling?" he muttered, and started the car.

He ran back to his flat—which was starting to look properly lived-in, now that he actually, well, lived in it—and changed clothes, as instructed, swapping his trousers for jeans and stripping off his jacket and tie. He rolled up his sleeves, because it was miserably muggy out, and while looking for a pair of shoes that weren't crusted with the last thing to crawl out of the Bay he found an old belt that had slipped to the floor of the wardrobe. It was cracked with age and dotted with small, blunt silver studs, although a few had fallen out here and there. He remembered with visceral clarity that last time he'd worn this belt, when he was still trying to talk his way into a job and Lisa suggested it wouldn't hurt to flirt a bit, given Jack's reputation.

He wasn't sure what possessed him to put that belt on again tonight.

The GPS lead him to a small car park, where Jack was perched on the hood of the SUV, looking up into the clouds. Even he had conceded to the weather—the greatcoat was nowhere to be see. "Well," Ianto called, stuffing his PDA into his pocket as Jack gave him a thorough once-over. "Here we are. Spoiler-free, I assure you."

"You'd better be." Jack hopped off the SUV and beckoned Ianto to follow him; but then he hung back, so they were walking side by side. "So how are things?"

Ianto blinked at him. "We saw each other at the Hub less than an hour ago."

"Not...work things," Jack said. "Just...things." He made one of those vague hand-flapping gestures. "I don't want to talk about work tonight."

"That doesn't seem to leave us much to talk about, does it?" Ianto asked.

Jack flinched and looked away. "I can't keep apologizing forever," he said flatly, quietly. "I was wrong to leave. I figured that one out pretty quick."

It was Ianto's turn to look away at that, at the fine cracks in the paving stone that flowed under his feet. He clenched his fists in his pockets and swallowed most of the thoughts that came into his head; "Yeah. Okay." Jack looked at him like he wanted to say something else, but then just looked away again.

The restaurant was nice—nicer enough that Ianto felt out of place in jeans and that old belt, felt younger than his age. Clothes make the man, that had been his dad's favorite saying, and here he'd dressed like a snotty teenager. A hostess led them to a small booth, both intimate and private.

"Let's try this again," Jack said once the hostess had gone. "Hi, Ianto, fancy meeting you here. How've you been?"

Ianto was feeling out of place and out of kilter and suddenly had no desire to play along with Jack's strange games. "Where did you go, Jack?" he asked.

"I told you, I went with the Doctor," Jack said. "Isn't that enough?"

"Not for me," Ianto shot back, fingering his own belt under the table. "I've read all the files on the Doctor, Jack, I know he's a time traveler—he could've brought you back to the moment you left."

"Well, he could've tried," Jack drawled as he perused the menu. "With his navigation skills, we're lucky he brought me brought me back to the right year and country."

"So how long were you really gone?" Ianto asked.

Jack paused on the verge of dismissing the question: Ianto could see it, could just about hear the next step, the Does it matter? or Long enough. And if Jack had sidestepped it, then Ianto would've stood up and walked away, because he'd had since February to get past this desperate longing and Jack coming back didn't change the fact that he'd left in the first place.

Jack thought about dismissing the question, but didn't. "One year and two days," he said softly, looking Ianto steadily in the eye. "I was taken hostage. I was tortured. I missed you like crazy."

"Oh." Ianto swallowed and looked down at the menu without reading it. No wonder Jack didn't want to talk about it. Had he said anything to the others? To Gwen? Or was he genuinely opening up to Ianto because he'd asked?

"And you?" Jack asked after a moment's silence. "It was, what, four and a half months? Five?"

"Missed you, too," Ianto said softly, glancing up, and he was surprised by the fondness in Jack's eyes. "Not that watching Gwen and Owen argue over the driving rota is quite on the level of torture, but still."

"Hey, I certainly wouldn't want to be in the crossfire," Jack said, and suddenly reached out to cover Ianto's hand, where he'd started toying with the silverware. "I'm glad to be home," he said, sliding one finger along the band of Ianto's watch.

Ianto swallowed again. He'd been through all the stages of grief, already, and come out the other side, or so he'd thought until Jack suddenly reappeared. And now all it took was the touch of those hands and Ianto was right back where he'd started, where it all had started, with his heart in his throat and his conscience wailing at him. He turned his hand over so he could curl his fingers into Jack's. "I'm glad you're home, too."

-\-\-\-\-\-

Leaving Jack. I know it sounds like a mad idea. It was a mad idea. How could I separate myself from Jack? When in some ways I was Jack? The same childhood, the same influences, and oh yes, the same body. He'd been a constant presence for almost as long as I could remember, close as skin, a part of me. How could I even conceive of leaving?

When it was the only choice that didn't end in madness, is how. If Jack and I could think different thoughts, feel different emotions, and make different choices, then we could live separate lives. We had to. A Chameleon Arch had once cleaved me from my body and put Jack in my place; I just needed to finish the job, to break that last connection, and I would be free.

Free to do what?

...

Excellent question.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"You sure you don't want something stronger?" Ianto asked as he passed Jack the bottle of water.

Jack smiled slightly. "You should know the answer to that by now."

Ianto shrugged and picked up the brandy he'd poured himself. "It's always polite to ask."

It was quiet inside the Hub, with Owen and Tosh lost in their own work. Hard to believe that a few minutes ago they'd been waiting for Owen to finish surgery on Rhys's shoulder, with Gwen's hand clamped on Jack's so tight his fingers had turned blue. That a few hours ago, they'd been watching a warehouse and the fifty-ton alien inside it burn, to ensure nothing remained but ashes.

"You did good today," Jack said, out of the blue. Ianto glanced up at him. He clarified, "Back in the warehouse. Catching the bad guys and all."

"Thank you, sir," Ianto murmured. It hadn't felt like good work at the time; it had felt like punching and kicking and the burnt-plastic smell the stun guns gave off when they fired. For the first time, he had lost the fear that usually gripped him when faced with a fight; he had been angry instead, so very angry, and if anything worse had happened to the others--

Well. Nothing had. But it had all left Ianto with a sour feeling in his stomach, and the memory of a man's face behind the crackling halo of the stun gun. Sometimes he felt like Torchwood was slowly turning him into a different person, a stranger to the man who'd once walked unknowing into the building at One Canada Square. He honestly didn't know if that was good or bad.

The sound of the blast doors opening caught his attention, and through the windows he saw Gwen rush into the Hub. "I'm not doing it," she declared, flying up the steps. "I won't drug him."

"You have to," Tosh protested, looking gobsmacked, as Gwen stormed by her.

Owen turned to face her. "We can't allow him to remember," he reminded her.

"It's the rules," Ianto added wearily.

Gwen looked at them all like they were the mad ones. "None of you have any partners outside this," she said, as if that took away their right to decide.

"But we understand how you feel," Jack told her.

"No, you don't," Gwen said contemptuously. "No, you don't, Jack. You all think it's cold and lonely out there, but it isn't for me, because I have him. He matters, and I've lied to him for long enough. What he did today was so brave...braver than any of us, because we signed up for this but he didn't. He did it because he loves me. I won't take that away from him. I won't." She was all but screaming, now, bouncing on the balls of her feet like she was ready for a fistfight. "And if that means I have to quit, or you Retcon me, or whatever, then fine. Fine!"

Jack passed Ianto his water and stepped toe to toe with Gwen, like he was trying to use his height against her. "Do you really think you could go back to your old life, before Torchwood?" he asked lowly.

"I wouldn't know anything different," Gwen said, not shifting an inch.

And Jack said in a choked voice, as if he'd forgotten the other three people in the room, "I would."

Ianto shut his eyes and waited to hear what Gwen would say to that, but she didn't say anything at all; perhaps she knew she'd already won. "Give Rhys my love, and I will see you tomorrow," Jack growled, in the end, and it was another few moments before Ianto heard his heavy footsteps turn back to his office. He opened his eyes but couldn't bring himself to look at Jack's face, could barely hand back the bottle of water. Jack passed within inches of him and went straight to the desk without saying a word.

Not that it mattered, he told himself. Not that he hadn't always sort of known...but it wasn't like they'd ever made promises to one another. They could barely manage to go on a normal, civilized date. They weren't that kind of people, and Ianto had understood that long before he knew anything about immortality, and yet somehow he kept needing these little reminders. Not that it mattered, in the end.

He threw back the brandy and glanced over his shoulder; Jack was staring moodily at a monitor, watching God only knew what. Owen had gotten back to work, but Tosh kept glancing up, first at Ianto and then at the shadows that lay between her and Jack, and then back; Ianto forced a smile at her, which made her blush and look down at her hands quickly. He went silently past her and towards the archives, taking the brandy glass with him. There was always something to busy his hands down there.

It didn't really matter, because Gwen had just proved she would always choose Rhys over Torchwood, and Jack was too honorable to challenge that. And because when Jack got over his mood, Ianto would be waiting for him, just like always. Because in the end, Ianto was the one who'd always stay.

-\-\-\-\-\-

The first time the Doctor explained the Arch to Jack, all those decades ago on our personal timeline, he made some comment about losing myself and waking up someone else. At the time, I'd had no clue what he meant—I was too excited at having figured out exactly where I came from, what had been done to me, why I lived in a body I didn't really own. It was only much, much later that I started meditating on his pronoun choices, and it was still entirely possible I was grasping at straws.

But think of it this way: the Arch didn't just store my mind, it stored information on my species, the what as well as the who. That wasn't really a heartbeat I could feel inside the watch through Jack's hands; it was an energy matrix encoding the biological parameters of a Time Lord, with enough power to change every cell in Jack's body back into a cell of mine if it was unleashed. But there was no reason why it should work only on Jack—it couldn't be that specific if he was meant to grow and age like a human. There was no reason why it shouldn't work just as well on someone else.

Not that I particularly wanted to take over some stranger's body like a monster in a bad film. But there was a reason my parents had made the watch so damned hard to open, and I convinced myself it was more than the risk that Jack would open it at the least opportune moment. No, it was meant to keep anyone else from getting inside, from taking me away. I had no idea what would happen when the watch did finally open, whether I would be yanked back to Jack like a yo-yo, whether I could even avoid merging with the first sentient life-form to get in my way. But if there hadn't been any danger, the watch wouldn't be so tightly sealed. If there hadn't been some risk, the Doctor wouldn't have even mentioned the possibility.

And that meant I had a way out. If I had the nerve—and lack of heart—to take it.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Gwen and Rhys took a two-week honeymoon, and Ianto waited until the second week to take action. Partly because this was Torchwood, and a short-handed Torchwood at that, which meant the best-laid plans of mice and men could be interrupted at any moment by something explosive and sticky. Partly because it took a fair amount of preparation, which had to be done in his ample free time—see above. Partly because he was well aware of the message it communicated, and that it was weird, and Jack may well be spooked by it--

But it had been Jack who put the idea in his head in the first place. Well, Jack and the shop attendant. And it wasn't like neither of them had ever dressed up before. (In fact, he was never going to be able to look at UNIT berets in the same way again.) So he made the arrangements, and chose what passed for a quiet night, and hoped like hell that this would have a happy ending.

The CCTV cameras caught Jack returning through the tourist office, looking a bit tired but not unhappy—good. Ianto activated his comm. "Jack? You busy?

The figure on the camera paused. "Depends. Is it too early for Naked Hide and Seek?"

"No, although that wasn't quite what I had in mind," Ianto said, and couldn't quite keep his voice even, though he wasn't sure if he was betraying nerves or anticipation.

Jack didn't fail to notice. "Oh, really?" he asked, drawing the words out. "What did you have in mind, then?"

"Come and have a look," Ianto told him. "I'm in your office."

Jack hurried to the lift, and Ianto keyed from one camera to another to follow him. "You've been waiting for me, then?" Jack asked.

"Almost an hour," Ianto admitted. "Would've had a bit of explaining to do if Tosh or Owen had come back for something."

"Oh, they're adults, they can handle it."

"They're the ones who said no Naked Hide and Seek before eight," Ianto reminded him.

Jack exited the lift and came through the blast doors; Ianto switched cameras again. "Well, if you're not naked or hiding, that doesn't apply, does it?"

"Definitely not naked," Ianto confirmed, and then switched off the comm and cameras; Jack was almost to the office doors.

Jack pushed his way in and stopped short when he saw Ianto sitting on his desk. Ianto automatically straightened up under Jack's wide eyes, conscious that as he did so, the neckline of the dress slipped even lower. He'd done his research, but in the end decided there was no point in trying full drag; he didn't have the time or, truthfully, the desire to exert that much effort. In fact, he'd gone a step in the opposite direction, smearing on the most garish red lipstick and blue eyeshadow he could find, not bothering to shave. Well, not his face, anyway.

Let Jack see him for what he was, see this for a proper farce: Ianto sprawled out on his desk in a wedding dress, painted like Halloween, with the vaults of the Hub their only chapel. Let Jack make what he would of it.

There was a long pause when Jack did nothing but stare, open-mouthed and bug-eyed. Ianto resisted the urge to hold his breath. Then something in Jack's eyes sharpened, and his eyes traced a path that Ianto could practically feel on his skin: down his neck, over one shoulder where the strap was slipping, along the drooping bustline and the too-tight midsection and the loose hips, down the visible outline of Ianto's leg to where one of his shoes was threatening to slide off his foot entirely. Just that look was enough to make Ianto's heart pound and cock twitch. Fortunately, Jack didn't look much better.

"What do you think?" Ianto asked lowly.

"I think you need therapy," Jack said, but it was all fondness, all heat; he took a few steps into the room and Ianto met him halfway, wobbling on his heels. It was somewhat worth the trouble to be able to stand close to Jack and look down at him, for once. Jack pulling him into a kiss, but his hands roamed over Ianto's bare arms and down his back. He ran his fingers over the curve of Ianto's backside, dragging the excess of satin over the rough lace panties. "These gonna become a regular thing for you?" he mumbled into Ianto's mouth.

Ianto pulled back just a bit, just to see Jack's face, his smirking mouth smeared with lipstick. "Maybe," he said. "You'll have to convince me."

"I can be very convincing."

"So I've noticed."

He pushed Ianto back towards the desk, and Ianto spread his legs, forgetting for a moment he had to hitch up the skirt as well. Jack helped him with that, and gave another breathy chuckle as he followed the seams up the inside of of Ianto's stockings. "Real silk. Why am I not surprised?" he murmured, rubbing little circles on Ianto's thigh just under his suspenders, where the skin was already sensitive from the unfamiliar application of a Norelco shaver.

"I do have my standards," Ianto said, and then Jack was kissing him again, and it was all he could do to hold on with arms and leg and enjoy the ride.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Because it wasn't just about my victim, whoever I chose it to be. Yes, I would be taking over someone else's life, taking it away—not Jack, with whom I'd been living hand-in-glove (hand-in-skin?) for centuries, who after all was originally just a construct of the Arch. This would be a stranger, an innocent, someone real; and whatever actually happened to their mind—if I replaced them, if we cohabitated, even if I remained a powerless observer in their altered body—I was planning something monstrous, something that would change everything for that person forever, without their consent. It was a crime by any definition, even if it was my only hope.

But it was also about Jack, who like Pinocchio and the Velveteen Rabbit had come to be real by the steady application of life. The Doctor said something else in that long-ago conversation, about losing a part of yourself you never knew existed and, well....

I don't know how aware Jack was of me—in fact, sometimes I doubted he was aware at all—but I was leaving him, abandoning him, and apparently among the Time Lords that was some kind of punishment. And whatever punishment Jack may have deserved for a life that had been rarely straight and never narrow, I certainly had no special right to mete it out. For all I rail on about him sometimes, I do love him—I know him too well to do anything but love him, for all his faults and failings, maybe even because of them. I never actually wanted to get rid of him. I never wanted to cause him pain.

But I could either do something monstrous, or I could go mad. And if you have been paying attention, you know that is no choice at all.

There was no question I'd leave. The real question was, who would I become? Or rather, who would become me?

-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto had pulled himself together by the time the Social Services people came around, and the sight of a too-friendly woman in a pink cardigan bearing down on the boy, clipboard in hand, was enough to send him running. Jack lingered a few minutes longer before joining him at the SUV.

"Hospital says he's got family up north," he announced as he climbed in. "They were already on their way when we got here."

"So he's not alone," Ianto murmured.

"Not for long." Jack started up the car, but didn't immediately pull out. "You okay?"

Ianto looked at the clouds reflected in the side mirror. Nothing but blue skies today. "I will be, I think. Is it that obvious?"

"Just seem to be taking this one a bit personally," Jack said. "That's not always a bad thing."

"I used to go to the Electro with my father on Saturdays," Ianto found himself blurting. "Just to see stupid kids' films and stuff." Rhi wasn't allowed on these outings—not that she usually wanted to go—they'd been just for Ianto, at least until the strain of raising two kids on a shop assistant's salary got to be too much. Dad had lied a few times about the cinema being closed for cleaning or repairs, and then it really did close, and eventually there were no more Saturday outings at all. "Lots of good memories of that place."

Jack made a thoughtful noise. "Maybe that's why..." he started to say, but then busied himself with pulling out of the car park.

"Why what?" Ianto asked once they were on the road, because with Jack one never felt quite safe until he finished his sentences.

"Just that you seemed awfully sensitive to the Night Travelers," Jack said slowly. "And it makes sense, if you've got a strong feelings about the Electro, it might open you up to things you wouldn't normally be aware of."

Ianto wasn't sure he liked the idea of having a special connection to those things, whatever they were. "You and Tosh both heard the hurdy-gurdy music in the Hub," he pointed out.

"Yeah, but I didn't hear anything inside that flask," Jack said. "You said you heard voices."

Just one voice, actually. One voice crying out in terror, alone in some darkness Ianto couldn't even comprehend. "It's not like I'm psychic or anything," he said, rather than dwell on the memory. "Torchwood One screened for that along with drugs and STIs."

"Did I say psychic?" Jack asked. "I didn't say psychic, I just said sensitive. It happens to all of us from time to time."

There was plenty of time to think that over during the drive, when he wasn't gritting his teeth and tallying up moving violations. It was uncomfortable, but, he supposed, not impossible; they understood so little about the real workings of the mind, and even less about what those things from the film really were. "So I'm...sensitive," he repeated as they pulled into the Hub's garage.

"Exactly." Jack smirked at him. "Soul of a poet, you have."

"I did once write some touching verses regarding a man from Nantucket," Ianto said, straight-faced, and Jack positively cackled.

-\-\-\-\-\-

There wasn't any actual sense of urgency, so I took my time with choosing. Like I said, I wasn't going to seize on any random person. I wasn't entirely certain I could—or at least, it wasn't guaranteed, just because someone opened up the watch and I gave it a try. (How they were going to open that damnable watch was another problem entirely which I would address at the appropriate time.) It would be better if I knew where I was going, first. If I could make some kind of connection with my target. If I could somehow lure them in.

It would have to be someone close to Jack for that, though, someone he was in regular contact with—I had gotten good at broadcasting at people through the casing of the watch, but it was a blurry, short-range thing, and I would need time to build up any influence. I also decided it would have to be a male. Not that I'm old-fashioned about sort of thing (not even by 51st-century standards) but it seemed likely to be easier if my target and I had some things in common. I couldn't do much about age and didn't have a choice about species, but sex? Easily done.

And with those simple parameters, I narrowed my choices to two. There was Owen—brilliant Owen, angry Owen, the loose cannon, the wounded heart—and I did consider him at least briefly. The problem wasn't so much that he was dead, though God only knows what would've happened if I'd actually tried anything. Rather, I imagined what would happened if I joined with him and found myself sharing space with his conscious mind, the same way I shared a body with Jack. I imagined a Time Lord's long lifespan side-by-side with Owen, with no escape or respite from each other, and...no. I cared about him deeply, I did, but some people need to come with intermissions.

So that left me one option. One target. One victim. The man Jack was closest to, and thus the man closest to me, with the stoic face and the sad past and the dry, strange sense of humor. The man who loved Jack as much as I did, loved him more than he should, and thus would be an easier target. With any luck, he'd even forgive me for what I was going to do.

After almost a hundred and eighty years of being Jack Harkness, I was going to become Ianto Jones. Or at least, that was the intention. Best laid plans and all that.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto woke up, one of those sudden crisp wakings with no definite cause. They were in Jack's bunk—he refused to dignify it with the name bedroom—and Jack was still sound asleep, sprawled on his front, face buried in the crook of one arm. Ianto would have had to crane his neck over Jack's shoulder to see the bedside clock, though he knew it had to be some time before Jack's obnoxiously early alarm; beyond that, there didn't seem to be much point in getting more specific. It was warm and still, and their breathing added to the silence rather than breaking it up.

Sleeping Jack was almost an entirely different creature than Jack awake; here he had no self-presentation, no masks, no character he was projecting. He was a restless sleeper, no surprise, but there was something more honest about his midnight fidgeting than any grand gesture he made while awake. Or so Ianto liked to tell himself, when he lay awake like this, interpreting Jack's squirming like some soothsayer observing the flight of birds.

Jack was smiling now: a sweet smile that made him look younger, for once, rather than older. There was no telling what he was dreaming about. Sometimes Ianto could fool himself into thinking that Jack was dreaming about him, but he knew it wasn't likely. If Jack was as old as he claimed—if he'd had as many lovers as he claimed—it could've been anyone, anywhere, anywhen on his mind. Places he'd been, or places he would someday go, long after Ianto and Cardiff and Earth were dust and ashes.

Or maybe well before then. He'd already shown once how easily he could disappear.

Jack sighed, and shifted onto his side; the arm he'd been using as a pillow snaked out, and his hand came to rest on Ianto's chest, just right of center. Ianto held his breath for a moment, trying to memorize the feel of that hand, the shape and weight of it, the calluses and the places where it was soft. Just in case—in case of what, he couldn't say, just that the universe was full of monsters and aliens and Doctors who could drag Jack away with a snap of their fingers, and Ianto needed to hold on to what he could.

The alarm went off. Jack started once, and then raised his head, with all his hair sticking up on one side. "Morning, sunshine," he said, barely sounding drowsy—even without that universal solvent he preferred as coffee, Jack was a morning person.

"What time is it?" Ianto asked, not bothering to hide the fact that he'd already been awake some time. It wasn't the first time Jack had caught him staring, but Jack had never mentioned anything about it, and Ianto was certainly never going to bring it up.

Jack rolled over, and then froze. "That's a Rift alarm," he said, sending Ianto's pulse up a notch. Jack reached for his wrist strap and flipped it open, working the buttons with both thumbs like a texting teenager. "Big spike just outside town. Registering multiple alien life signs."

"And a very good morning to you, too." Ianto climbed over Jack's bare legs and headed for the ladder—incoming aliens was an adequate excuse to be running around the Hub in his pants. (Jack had decreed it so.) "I'll call the others."

"Not Gwen," Jack said as he secured the strap. "I gave her the morning off so she could go to that thing with Rhys."

"If it's something big, we may need her help."

"Only if she's not too hungover to aim a gun." Jack snatched up last night's trousers and tossed Ianto's shirt up the hatch after him. "She can always catch up to us when we get there."

Chapter Text

The grave was deep, maybe twenty feet deep, nine or ten feet long—though of course it was narrower at the bottom, you couldn't help that when you dug by hand. The raw smell of the living earth filled the air, and Jack fought to look up, to look his...whatever he was...in the eye.

Brother. Enemy. Memory. Victim.

"What do you want from me?" he asked, hardly able to push the words out.

Gray—and it was still a shock that it was Gray, the boy peeping out so obviously from under the man even after all this time, even with all those scars—looked at him with burning eyes. The same eyes Jack remembered, or used to remember, except it had hurt so much he'd taught himself to forget. "I want you to suffer," Gray said fiercely, nostrils flaring. "I want your life."

He then took a step back and then spread his arms wide, encompassing the field and the forest with the gesture. "This is Cardiff. Twenty-seven AD. The city will be built here over the next two thousand years. Your grave will be the city's foundations. Your blessing of life becomes a curse." For the first time, he smiled, a beautiful smile that reached his eyes and filled them with a grim light. "Each time you revive, with a throat full of earth, each time it chokes you afresh and you thrash on the edge of death...you think of me."

I always do, Jack wanted to say, but it would've been a lie. He hadn't thought of Gray for a long, long time.

Then Gray shoved him, and Jack couldn't catch his balance with his hands and feet in chains, even if he'd wanted to fight back; he fell, and the world narrowed to the damp earth under him, a narrow door of sky above. And his brother standing far above, bathed in sunlight, like an angel, John lurking just visible to one side. "Fill the grave."

"No way," John said flat-out.

"Then the detonator on your arm gets activated," Gray growled.

John looked down, like he was waiting for a hint, a strategy, a signal. And Jack had the funny idea that if he gave the right sign, John might just throw off decades of maladjustment and malaise, even if it got him blown to pieces. Hell, maybe he really was in love.

But Jack wasn't going to get anyone else killed today. He nodded, gently, and John's mouth quirked up for just a moment before he dropped the ring and picked up the shovel. Jack looked at Gray, staring down from on high, and thought I love you and I forgive you and I accept this. But he couldn't put any words together, couldn't think of anything that would break through the weight of time and failure. Nothing would be enough. Nothing had ever been enough.

Except, maybe, this.

He shut his eyes just before the first spadeful of earth landed on his chest.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-\-

There is no elegant way to be buried alive, except perhaps for those yoga masters who can put themselves in a trance like living death. No ordinary amount of calm can stand up to the basic mechanisms of biology: when you breathe in that first speck of dirt, you will cough, and every whooping breath thereafter will make you cough again, and again, and sometimes you will retch from the pain of it and sometimes your whole body will try to double over, curl in and protect itself. And eventually you will pass out from coughing, long before the weight of the soil compresses your chest into your last exhalation. Before it grows heavy enough to crack skull and ribs and hips, crush organs and blood vessels, settle into a heavy shell that completely entombs you.

Jack did his best to keep his mouth shut, though, and John, to make it quicker, aimed for the head.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack came back to a universe of pain and little else; he couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't even blink his eyes. The weight of the earth didn't even leave enough space for his heart to beat; all his blood had pooled in crushed capillaries and bruised organs, anyway. He waited to die again, waited for his oxygen-starved neurons to stop firing and his cramped muscles to stop trying vainly to contract. Come on, he urged his body, come on, give me another break, let me go.

And then a small voice in the corner of his thoughts, a tiny and definite Other, cut through the haze of pain.

It said softly, I don't think it's going to work like that.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Who are you? Jack asked, bewildered and desperate, and for a moment I was completely stumped as to how to reply. I had long addressed Jack the way you might shout at characters in a film, because I'd resigned myself to the fact that he was never going to hear me. And he chose now of all times to talk back?

Call me Eiron, I eventually said, acutely aware of the absurdity of introducing myself after a hundred and seventy-seven years. Though I would also answer to Jiminy Cricket.

Well, that right there explains why I've never heard from you before, Jack thought weakly.

Our body was a wreck, every nerve ending sending out its own hysterical alert to the damage, while safe in the watch I could feel the spear in Time starting to shift again. One kind of pain lessening while another held steady. But the energies that had kept us alive for so long were blocked, stymied, by the very weight of earth that had killed us; our body couldn't heal, so it could not come back to life, but no longer was it entirely dead, either. Only mostly dead, you might say, and without hope of miracles.

And Jack was mysteriously, mercilessly conscious for it. And somehow he could sense me. This had happened before, I remembered, when Abaddon failed to devour us; but that had lasted mere moments, so quick it might as well have been a dream. Somehow, I did not think that this time we would get such a quick reprieve.

What are you? Jack asked me, which was such a complicated question that I very nearly laughed at him. I don't think I've been down here long enough to start having psychotic breaks.

It's been six hours, twelve minutes, eleven seconds, I said. And I...I suppose you could call me a friend.

Well, I hope you're a friend, Jack thought, because this is a bad place to have an enemy.

We were encased in the earth, caught on the edge of life, and now I finally had a chance to talk to Jack frankly. I had...well, not quite all the time in the world. More like one thousand, nine hundred eighty-one years, four months, nineteen days, four hours, seven minutes, and twenty-three seconds.

Until what? Jack asked, making me realized how perilously thin was the line between thought and thought-as-speech in this peculiar conversation.

Until the rest of Torchwood starts looking for you, I told him. Assuming they noticed the moment John took us through the Rift, of course. Assuming they weren't too busy—or dead—to start a search. Assuming they had the first clue where to look.

How do you know that? Jack asked incredulously.

And that's when I really did laugh. I don't think you'd believe me if I told you.

Okay, Jack thought, mostly to himself. Never too early to go mad.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Time slowly began to slip away from him. He didn't really sleep, not in the physical sense, but his attention faded in and out. It wasn't as if there was anything to mark the passage of time: every day, every moment, was darkness, silence, stillness, and pain.

Besides, if he wanted the countdown, he just had to ask his conscience.

One thousand, eight hundred fifty-three years, Eiron supplied on cue, three months, four days, twenty-two hours, thirty minutes, eighteen seconds.

Thanks, he thought vaguely. Wouldn't want to lose track of the count.

Any time.

He ought to be more worried about the talking to himself, but couldn't muster up the energy; the constant pain was exhausting, and the amount of time stretched out in front of him was unfathomable, more than ten time longer than he'd already lived--

Eleven times, Eiron put in. Well, eleven and then some.

So you're a calculator as well as a speaking clock?

Well, if you'd rather I didn't say anything...

Jack would've laughed if his ribcage hadn't been crushed. Did I just get snubbed by my own hallucination?

I didn't mean it, Eiron said, and he actually sounded contrite. I wouldn't...I'm not going to just, you know, leave you like this.

You can't, Jack pointed out. We're stuck.

That is true.

I appreciate the sentiment, though, he added. And he did, even if he wasn't entirely sure he deserved it.

As if he'd heard that last bit, Eiron chuckled affectionately. What are hallucinations for?

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

I let Jack have his fugues, at first; sometimes I even indulged in a few myself. It wasn't as if we had much else to do, except talk to each other, and frankly I found that awkward and he found it weird. What was I going to tell him? You're secretly an alien; I'm your alter ego and I've been watching you your entire life; I've been plotting to run away with your boyfriend. I mean, I could convince him of it, since it was the truth, but did I really want to?

Did he deserve that, trapped in stillness and silence, with all those centuries spread out ahead of us? Could I honestly tell him that, if I'd been a bit quicker about things, he would currently be alone?

At first I let Jack have his fugues because they were harmless enough, and because we needed some space from one another. But the years piled up, agonizingly slow, and the longer Jack let his mind drift the more I worried. It wouldn't do any good to survive this burial if the future Torchwood just dug up a drooling vegetable.

Wake up! I called to him, eventually, and felt his mind snap back into focus. On the pain, yes, but also on me. Good. Was starting to get a bit worried there.

What's the count? he asked groggily.

One thousand, five hundred sixty-four years; eight months; two days; fourteen hours; fifty-two minutes; forty-one seconds, I rattled off.

Jack's reaction was immediate. Are you telling me I just dozed off for two years?

Hence the worrying.

What've you been doing? he asked, like he'd forgotten I was meant to be a figment of his imagination.

If I'd had eyes, I would've rolled them. Well, since the Anglo-Saxons have arrived, I thought I'd compose some alliterative verse. Would you like to hear any of it?

Only if it involves some strapping Viking warriors and a couple of half-naked shield maidens, he grumbled.

What about inappropriate use of the horned helmets? I offered.

Ow. No, thank you.

Your loss. I could feel his attention drifting again, and struggled to find something that would hold it. Can I ask you a question?

...okay, Jack said warily.

Damn, now I had to think of a question. If you could be anywhere else in Time and Space right now...

Jack snorted at me, at least mentally. Easy. Twenty feet up.

I meant in general, I said peevishly. The one place you'd want to be.

He thought about it, and in a general way I sensed him turning over memories, some faded and some burnished from frequent revisiting. I don't think there is a place, he finally said. Just people. Home is where the heart is and all that.

What people, then? I pressed. Tell me about them.

There's a lot of them.

Pick one.

Jack was starting to get suspicious. You're awfully pushy for an hallucination.

Shall I let you catch up on your beauty sleep, then?

He understood my meaning; I could feel him ruminating on it. Then he said, quite casually, So I once dated this guy with no mouth...

-\-\-\-\-\-

Time passed.

...and she says, 'I'm pregnant,' right before I jump in the water, he was explaining. I mean, I realize there's no good time or place for that kind of thing, but I was handling dangerous explosives and she'd already been bitten and—are you even paying attention?

Because there only thing worse than talking to yourself was, apparently, ignoring yourself.

I'm here, Eiron said. I didn't want to interrupt.

Okay. Just checking.

It had been, according to his speaking clock, something like six hundred years, and Jack wanted to shift. Not even really move; he'd gotten over the compulsion to thrash against the heavy earth centuries ago. He just wanted to shift a little bit, maybe change the angle of his shattered hip so it wasn't throbbing quite so sharply. He sometimes thought he could feel the bones, three pieces of ilium and two of ischium, the splintered-off knob from the end of the femur, all nestled in a pulp of damaged muscle and ligament and pinching the sciatic nerve just so. It wasn't the single most painful part of his body, but it was the most nagging, because he increasingly felt that if he could just move an inch or so, maybe even less, he could shift the bone fragments and release the pressure.

One inch. His whole world came down to one inch, if he let it.

So after you'd killed the leopleuridon, Eiron prompted him, and Jack dragged his mind back to the story.

Right. So afterwards we talked...I mean, we'd been careful, but they still haven't invent a halfway decent contraceptive by 2009, so it was bound to happen. But Lucia was so convinced that nothing had to change, nothing between us had to change, and of course she was going to keep it. It was so easy to forget she was Catholic sometimes. I let her convince me...she'd known what I was coming in, she'd seen me die so many times, and I thought she really understood, you know, really accepted it. Hell, sometimes I still don't understand it, so I don't know what I thought she could really do.

Eiron asked, So she was Catholic but she didn't want to marry you?

She wasn't a real good Catholic, Jack said. Meat on a Friday, sure, but no abortion. Or maybe it wasn't even a Catholic thing, maybe it was just her. She was—passionate. Single-handedly perpetuated about half the Italian stereotypes you ever heard of. She fell in love with Melissa the moment she skipped her period and nothing was going to change her mind.

I thought her name was Alice?

That came after.

Oh.

I guess motherhood made Lucia realized what she had to lose. What I didn't. Or maybe we'd just been together long enough that she was starting to notice her own laugh lines. I mean, I've got laugh lines. I've had the same ones since 1869. I thought she understood about me because she'd seen me come back a few times, but I guess there's different kinds of knowing. When Lucia really understood about me, about how it is for me, she started getting catty, withdrawn, keeping Melissa away from me...and then one day she quit Torchwood and told me to stay away from her daughter. Hers. It took me five years to pry them out from under cover.

Five years, and Melissa—Alice—didn't even know her own name, didn't even recognize him. Lucia's bitterness hadn't abated either; in fact, seeing him again had seemed to make it worse. She'd already had gray hairs by then, and she'd threatened to shoot him if he interfered. Alice was going to have a normal life, she said. Alice was going to be safe.

How is that different from your other kids? It took Jack a minute to realize it was Eiron asking an honest question.

The others...either I ran before they were born or after I'd had a few years to play house. I always ran and made sure they never knew...even though I kept an eye on them from a distance. But their mothers never knew, is the thing. Lucia knew. And this time, she was the one who ran away from me.

What happened to them? Eiron asked.

Jack sighed, if only in his mind. Richard died at Dunkirk. Sarah died in a train accident. William's in a nursing home with advanced dementia. A lot of my grandchildren are dead, too. It comes with the territory.

But Alice reached out to you, right?

She did. Which in a lot of ways made it worse. Around when she started college, she figured out a few things about Uncle Jack...I'm not sure if she really cared that much or if she was just pissed off at Lucia for lying to her. We had a few good years, Alice and me. I got to feel like a dad for a while.

But then she'd had Steven, and she turned out to be her mother's daughter. Eventually, she'd understood, too, and Jack was alone again.

You're never alone when you've got a voice in your head, Eiron said, and if he'd been real Jack might've said he sounded a bit choked up.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Time passed.

Jack, I called into the darkness.

There was a flicker of consciousness, a muted mental grumble.

Jack! You're not sleeping through your birthday.

That did it. His thoughts unfolded like a flower. Birthday?

Yes. Your millenial, to be precise.

That should've evoked shock, or at least something, but mostly he started trying to do the math. He was never good at math. I've been down here eight hundred twenty-three years, then?

Eight hundred twenty-two years, nine months, twenty-eight days, five minutes and six seconds, I said. Many happy returns.

God, I hope not.

I don't think God has very much to do with your returns; I'm just wishing you happy ones.

-\-\-\-\-\-

And time passed some more.

Tell me about Torchwood, Eiron asked.

There's not much to tell. But Jack needed to keep thinking, couldn't drift away again like he'd done around the time of the Norman Conquest; he'd missed two Henries that way. I work there. I save the world so other people don't have to. Fragiler people.

Is "fragiler" even a word?

Are we playing Scrabble? Besides, I'm pretty sure if I knew, so would you.

Eiron sighed. So tell me about it. What keeps you there? Sentimental value?

Please. I'd hardly spend a hundred and ten years on a job out of sentiment.

So you say.

I started because I needed the work, Jack said. I stayed because the work needed me. Sometimes it was interesting. Sometimes it was even fun. Sometimes...sometimes they just needed somebody to hold the knife, and I did it so somebody else didn't have to.

Fragiler people.

If we're allowing that as a word, yes.

He didn't have to say it, but talking was better than drifting away, so he added: I realized something, last year...I didn't have to stay. Not all that time. I thought I stayed because I didn't have anywhere else to go, but if I'd really wanted to...I think it was inertia, partly, that kept me coming back. Partly it was loneliness.

But partly you really did like the work. Do like it.

Partly. Maybe even mostly.

Even when it's terrible?

Sometimes...sometimes, even then. Because somebody would've had to do it, and if I can take that burden...sometimes that makes it okay. Sometimes that gets me to sleep.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Tell me about your team, I asked the darkness, because I needed to hear it. Because I needed to remember, too. Hiding in silence for hundreds of years...

They're amazing, Jack said warmly. They're brilliant. I want to strangle at least one of them at any given moment.

Is that how you know they're brilliant?

Sometimes. Sometimes...

He was losing his train of thought again. Tell me about Gwen, I asked at random.

Gwen is...oh, shit. Gwen is everything. Sometimes I think Gwen would be better at my job than I am. No, scratch that—she was definitely better at my job than I am. She remembered to sign things and kept the paperwork in order and people don't get so nervous when she smiles. She's absolutely terrifying when you get between her and Rhys.

Unless she invites you in.

She never asked, though. She always held back.

So did you.

Because I wasn't going to screw things up for her.

Not even when she and Owen--?

That was her mistake to make.

But you were jealous.

I wouldn't say jealous.

So jealous.

I was angry. Angry that she'd throw away something I can't ever have.

A long-distance trucker?

A boring life.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Tell me about the Doctor.

Why?

We need to remember.

Jack didn't want to remember. The memories hurt, with seven hundred, eighty-seven years, one month, ten days, seventeen hours and twenty-two minutes to go. The memories felt too far away. I've been sort of in love with the Doctor for about a hundred and forty years.

A hundred and forty plus one thousand, one hundred...

Don't start.

Sorry.

I went to a psychotherapist in the eighties, once. Had to Retcon the hell out of her afterwards, but I told her I was in love with a distant older man and I'd lost my father at a young age and I was in a stressful work environment. She gave me the number of a dominatrix. And you know what, if she'd had big ears and dressed like a U-boat captain...

It's not thing to be ashamed of. He saved you. He saved us.

He did. Saved us when we didn't even know we needed saving.

(I knew I needed saving.

Who's telling the story?) I was chasing the man I wanted to be, though. Not the man he was. I did more to betray his faith in me while I waited for him than I would've done if I'd given up and found myself a cave to be a hermit in. But I was trying. I'm still trying. It's just that I realized I've got no one else to tell me not to shoot.

Interesting metaphor.

He told me when not to shoot. But he still knew how to wield the knife himself. If I had half that wisdom...

Well, by the time they dig us out we're going to be twice his age.

Huh. You're right. I'm going to have to rub that in.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Talk about Tosh, I asked, and waited for Jack to stir. Talk about her mind. You're always a little afraid that she's smarter than you.

Our thoughts were slowing down; it seemed to take too long, and barely any time, for him to answer, not afraid. I know she's smarter than me.

She can build a sonic screwdriver from stone knives and bearskins.

Probably. She could probably fix my vortex manipulator for me if I asked her. I know she's smarter than me because she can get there from here—I could do this stuff in the fifty-first century, you know, when you can pick up interociter kits at the corner shop. Tosh can do it when she has to machine all the parts herself from scratch.

I still kind of want to stab Harold Mace in the eyes on her behalf, though.

Me, too. But then again, if he hadn't been such a bastard, if he'd seen her for what she was, we wouldn't have been able to pry her out of UNIT's clutches with a blowtorch.

Yeah. Still. Eyes.

Oh, yeah. With a rasp.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

It comes to him like a dream, slow as the centuries, barely distinguishable from his own thoughts, even though they are his own thoughts. Talk about Owen. Remember Owen.

Owen's like an onion. He reduces people to tears with surprising alacrity.

And he has layers.

Right. Layers. Armor.

He's almost as good an actor as you are, isn't he? Throwing out static at the world because he can barely handle his own feelings, let anyone anyone else's.

God forbid anyone know he has a heart under there. Thought...pot and kettle.

I wasn't going to say anything.

I wanted to save him. More than anyone but Gray, I wanted to make things right for him. Maybe even because of Gray. They're my family now, too, and I didn't endure that year to give up on them so easily.

And that's why we're going to survive this.

That's why we've got to remember.

Two hundred forty-six years, eight months, nine days, seven hours, forty-five minutes, twelve seconds.

Forever.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

We will remember this. We will remember all of this.

Remember the first day we stood in the Hub, hating the very air of the place, and accepted blood money because it wasn't like we'd never compromised before. Remember the last moment, John halfway carrying us, a gentle brutality considering what he was about to take away. Remember standing in the silence after we'd mopped up the blood and frozen the bodies and the century had turned, thinking I could walk away and not walking anywhere.

Remember the dodgy handle on the urinal in the Employees Only toilet, not that anyone but Employees Only could ever get in there. Remember how long it took to wire up the invisible lift.

Remember fighting with Suzie, day in and out, not because we actually disagreed (well, mostly) but because it was fun, because once upon a time she was beautiful as well as brilliant. Remember the first time Tosh kicked a bad guy in the face. Remember dragging Owen into work, hung-over and barely functional, because tough love is tough. Remember the look on Gwen's face when she saw the pterodactyl.

Remember the passwords to the alien morgue, because we will not have a third chance to obtain them.

Remember the passwords for the Rift manipulator. Remember the combination to the safe.

Remember Ianto stalking us across Cardiff, so desperate he was almost honest, so goddamn young. Remember his first day on the job, trying not to say he is here to make the coffee and look good in a suit because we couldn't articulate any more coherent reason to let him in. Remember the first time we teased him and he sassed us back, the little smile at our shocked expression, and believe that it was genuine even if nothing else back then was.

Remember You're the biggest monster of them all.

Remember not to put liquids in the rubbish bins.

Remember the first kiss, when he was practically shaking from nerves, and how he seems to think we can't tell he'd never been with a man before us. Remember the last kiss, on the way upstairs to meet Tosh and Owen. Remember dancing at the wedding, cheek-to-cheek, as he only would when the entire party was already in the process of being Retconned. Remember what we did to that wedding dress.

Remember that we could lose him any moment. That we have already lost him and are on third or fourth chances. Remember that we will hurt him. Remember that he is an easy target. Remember that he will probably forgive us anyway.

Remember that he can make us human. Remember that he can set us free.

Remember him.

Please, remember.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

The spade plunged into his stomach, and Jack's thoughts coalesced and swirled, because pain was pain but this was new pain, this was different, something had changed--

He gasped in dirt through ruined lungs, and died. By the time he'd come back, he was out of the earth entirely, exposed under a gaping wound of a sky. Air felt thin and insubstantial, practically a vacuum, and ghosts danced in front of his eyes, Charles and Alice—they were talking to him and he realized he had to speak again, even though he was having a hard time putting words together, putting himself together after centuries in pieces. He had to remember how to move his mouth. "What. When?"

"His mind's addled. Get us a carriage."

"Isn't he supposed to be Aberystwyth?"

"And what on earth is he wearing?"

He tried again, sinking his fingers into the spring grass for support. "When is this?" he asked. They ignored him.

They dragged him to his feet, eventually, and they took a carriage back to the Hub, and he watched Cardiff roll by--a Cardiff of coal smoke and bowler hats he had thought long gone. Stared at Alice and Charles, no matter how they squirmed and snapped at him for it. He was surrounded by ghosts. Maybe he was the ghost.

"Stop that," Charles snarled, and Jack realized he was scraping his feet against the floor, monotonous motion, just because he could.

By the time they got back to the Hub he was starting to think more clearly, though his hands and legs still shook for reasons that had nothing to do with his health. They set him down and fixed him a cup of tea, which may have been the greatest kindness they ever showed him; he didn't drink it. Charles was here but Emrys wasn't—yes, there, a newspaper on Alice's desk, 7 May 1901. "I've crossed my own timeline," he told them, until they listened. "You need to put me in the vaults. Freeze me for a hundred and seven years."

They'd hated him and they'd used him and they were narrow-minded and they were cruel. But even then, they were Torchwood.

"Alice is dealing with your contemporary self at the moment," Emilie said as Jack clambered into the chamber. "How long must we set the time-lock for?"

Jack shut his eyes and tried not to remember the suffocating crush of dirt. Tried to remember everything else. "One hundred and six years, ten months, twenty days, five hours, and twenty-five minutes. Give or take a few."

Chapter Text

We had been buried alive for two thousand years, lost in pain and silence, and frozen for a hundred more before we came to life. We had saved what we could. We mourned what we couldn't.

We were alive, but we...I...we weren't exactly well.

It's hard to describe: weakness, mainly. Our body was intact, suffused with the drums of the Vortex, and we remembered everything, had not gone mad. But we were so tired...tired of thinking, remembering, waiting. Cogitamus, ergo sumus, of course, but after so many years dead, we needed to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream...

But there would be no dreams this time. There would be no time this time. That sleep of death would be a death, a loss, evaporation. Too weak, too tired, too fragile; had to leave, to escape, to change. There was no longer a choice in the matter.

Still one chance, though. Still one hope.

Ianto. We needed Ianto.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto found him, eventually, back at the SUV, sitting in the front passenger seat with the door still open. It was bad weather for a funeral, with a wind that snatched at hats and scarves and threw moldy remnants of leaves in people's faces; Ianto doubted that had anything to do with why Jack had retreated from the graveside service. "It's almost over up there," he informed him, for lack of anything better to say.

"Good," Jack said vaguely. "You want to hang around for...are they doing anything after?"

"Don't think so," Ianto said. "And even if they were...no."

Jack nodded, and drummed his fingers on top of his hat. Ianto and Gwen and Rhys had all splashed out on new clothes, but Jack had bested all of them by coming out of the Hub in the full dress uniform of an RAF group captain, circa 1945. On anyone else it would've looked eccentric at best, but not a single guest at the funeral had said a word; one look at his face made it was obvious that the clothes were anything but a joke. They couldn't convey even a fraction of what Tosh had done for them, for the world, but they did what they could. Even when it broke every employee death policy ever written.

Or maybe it wasn't just about Tosh. Maybe because they needed this, too, the rituals and the collective expression of loss. They were Torchwood, not monsters. Most of the time.

"I want to tell them," Jack blurted, staring at his hands. "I want to make sure they know how much we cared. That we saw how extraordinary she was."

"Yeah," Ianto said lamely, leaning against the side of the car. "Just saying we worked together...it doesn't seem like enough." He'd tried to contact Owen's family and come up with a number for his mother, but the woman who had answered had said blankly I have no son and hung up. He hadn't been able to locate a father at all. And of course, there hadn't been anything left to bury.

They did what they could for Tosh, at least, and that had to be enough.

"I don't usually do this," Jack continued softly. "Funerals, I mean. I've been to too many."

But he'd still come; they had all come to stand among Tosh's family, listen to the small talk in a mixture of English and Japanese, nod while some cousin delivered the eulogy. Gwen had volunteered to say a few words as well, inadequate though they had to be, and nobody seemed to understand why the three of them were taking it almost as hard as Tosh's mother, why Jack was walking around like he'd been shot in the gut as well.

"Funerals are for the benefit the living, not the dead," Ianto said.

Jack's mouth twitched. "True. Wonder what that says about me."

The mourners were coming over the hill now; Jack glanced up at the sky and quickly looked down again, drawing a breath. Ianto had noticed ticks like that recently, and while he didn't want to say agoraphobia out loud, it seemed like a reasonable reaction to what Jack had endured, a sort of spatial Stockholm Syndrome. It was also deeply wrong, especially for someone Ianto so strongly associated with rooftops and stars, but he didn't dare bring it up. Jack had made it clear he didn't want to talk about Gray or anything related to him, saying I'll handle it myself while toying with his watch fob, and Ianto didn't know what to say to that except Okay.

"We can drop Martha and Tom at their hotel," Jack declared suddenly, putting his hat back on. "And then..."

"Your place or mine?" Ianto asked, tried to smile a little.

Jack snorted through his nose. "Maybe later. I'm not real good company right now."

"How is that different from usual, exactly?" Ianto asked, and Jack gave him a full-sized, tired smile. Maybe it wasn't all so bad. Maybe time hadn't changed him as much as Ianto had feared.

Jack clambered over the central console instead of just getting out and walking around to the driver's side, but Ianto didn't comment. Just climbed into the vacated passenger seat, which was still warm, and looked out over the cemetery grounds and the shadows that passed across them. On impulse, he reached out and squeezed Jack's hand; he couldn't say if it was for Jack's comfort or his own. But Jack looked at him and smiled again, and didn't let go until Martha and Tom were safely buckled in the back.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto was born in 1983 blah blah blah; his first memory was of his mother dying. Because you don't say things like ovarian cancer in front of a four-year-old, the nurses all told him that Mum's tummy hurt, and she needed to sleep now, and would he like a sweet? His dad brought sweets, too, chocolate and lollies and jelly babies, spoiling his and Rhiannon's appetites out of distraction or guilt while they waited the long hours in the not-quite-white hospice rooms. When Ianto asked too many questions or made too much of a bother, nine-year-old Rhi would give him a superior look at say, "Just shut up and eat your sweets, yeah?" It gave him a lifelong suspicion of overly nice people, and a taste for black coffee and other bitter things.

His mother slept a lot when they visited, and had a blue scarf instead of hair, though he knows from pictures that it used to be a dishwater blonde. Sometimes he was allowed to climb up on the bed and sit with her, and she sang him songs and held him close to her side; but at the first sign of pain or fatigue he'd be snatched away, handed off to Rhiannon or Dad or, later, one of the bevy of aunts who descended on the hospice for the end. Sometimes he was just set aside entirely, left to wait and watch until somebody had a moment to spare him.

He sat in his dad's lap all through the funeral, and his relatives all remarked on how brave he was not to cry (when they weren't murmuring about how unlucky he was, how she didn't get sick until she got pregnant). Dad and Rhiannon cried a lot that day, and Rhiannon wouldn't talk for days afterwards; Dad let the aunts hang around to help with the cooking and the wash and things while he stared off into space or looked at old pictures and cried some more.

Ianto never cried, though. He couldn't lose something he'd never actually had.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Gwen and Martha both seemed to accept that Ianto didn't remember anything that happened in the LHC's tunnel; all the victims were reporting amnesia, after all, and one can't expect brain cells to be firing at optimum efficiency when they're missing large fractions of atomic mass. Both Gwen and Martha filled him in on the details of his rescue and recovery, and they both suggested he take a few days off when they got back to Cardiff, even when he said he felt fine.

Jack, on the other hand, insisted on driving him home. "You car, Ambassador," he said, waving at the SUV with a flourish that made his watch fob jingle.

"Thank you, my good man," Ianto said about as imperiously as he could manage, but he thought for a moment about turning him down. I'm fine, I can drive myself, I don't want to leave my car in airport parking any longer than necessary. The words flitted through his head and right back out again. He got in the front. "Straight home, now, and don't dally."

"Yes, sir."

Jack drove more slowly than usual, which is to say only slightly over the speed limit, and didn't say much at first; Ianto would've thought he'd be in a better mood, considering that they'd saved the day and all the victims had recovered. The LHC was shut down until they could figure out how not to tear any more holes in reality. Martha had promised to owe them an unspecified favor, though she'd quickly added that it would have to be something that didn't threaten her position within UNIT. All things Ianto was inclined to describe as optimal outcomes.

"You okay?" he finally asked Jack, after he actually used a signal before changing lanes.

"Yeah, fine." Jack drummed his fingers on the wheel a bit. "Just thinking."

"Should I be preparing a back-up plan?" Ianto asked, without much feeling.

"Only if you're lucky," Jack said, but his heart clearly wasn't in it either.

They continued in silence for a while. Street lights flashed overhead, revealing Jack's face in orange-tinted still frames. His jaw was tight, his eyebrows low. Ianto tried not to stare.

"I don't know what you saw down there--" Jack said, then suddenly backtracked. "I do, actually. You told me on the radio right before it happened. Remember?"

"I don't remember much of anything after Gwen and I split up," Ianto said yet again, though he was now positive that Jack didn't believe that at all. But admitting he'd been lying all along opened up too many conversations he didn't want to have, at least not so soon. (Perhaps all the angel patients had told the same lie; perhaps they'd all had the same reasons.)

"I know what you saw," Jack continued, "even if I don't know what it was like. But I can imagine. If I thought for one second that they were still within reach, Tosh or Owen or..." His hand went briefly to the watch. "Or other people..."

"They were just the alien, though." Ianto had known they were just illusions of the alien, pulled out of his mind, and there had been moments of lucidity when he'd been able to ignore them; other times, though, they'd been more real than the bite of Gwen's shoulder under his arm or the frigid air of the tunnel, a haze of brilliant dead faces calling him into the dark.

"Still," Jack said. "I just want to say...I'm glad you're still here."

Ianto turned that wording over in his mind. "That's more Gwen's doing than mine," he reminded Jack, unsure what they were really talking about.

"You fought it, though," Jack said. "You didn't give up, even when you were losing consciousness. Gwen says you were being your snarky self almost the whole time."

Ianto looked down at his hands, resting awkwardly in his lap. "Almost," he repeated. There had been moments, when, if he'd had the strength to break Gwen's grip...

"And you're here now," Jack said, as if he hadn't heard Ianto. "Which, I admit, is mostly due to my extreme brilliance, but if Gwen and Martha hadn't gotten you out of the tunnel..."

"And Harrington," Ianto said, because it seemed important to remember that at least one of their enemies had been all too human.

Jack scowled slightly, another orange frame revealing the lines on his face. "My point is," he said firmly, though Ianto wasn't sure if he was irritated at the interruptions or at himself for talking so uncharacteristically around the subject. "My point is...thank you. For choosing life."

He glanced over at Ianto for a moment, and all the words he wasn't saying flitted over his face...really, for a man of so many secrets Jack could be shockingly transparent at times. Ianto reached across the central console and placed his hand on Jack's knee, where Jack swiftly covered it with his own. "'Regret is dead, but love is more than in the summers that are flown; for I myself with these have grown to something greater than before,'" he quoted softly.

Jack let out a hoarse laugh. "Again with the Tennyson. Is that just because you missed out on the whole emo movement?"

"I did have a bunch of The Smiths on vinyl," Ianto offered.

"And that explains so much," Jack said, and tightened his grip on Ianto's hand with a smile.

-\-\-\-\-\-

School seemed to like Ianto: he was polite to his teachers, well-behaved, and if he seemed a bit quiet, well, the poor boy had missed the whole first month with a broken leg, and with no mother and that father—what could be done? His spelling and penmanship had people muttering dyslexia all through grammar school, but he made up for it with a facility for maths that bordered on the supernatural, and he managed to muddle through on all his work one way or another.

Ianto did not like school: he didn't talk during lessons because he had few people to talk to, and he didn't like the teachers who treated him with overbearing sympathy because they'd known about his mother or thought his dad was a bit daft. He knew he was better at maths than anyone else in the school, but his favorite subject was history, and while the rest of his class squabbled over the latest Goosebumps book Ianto was dragging home hardbound tomes about Rome and Egypt, King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth I, Calcutta and Crimea. The hard part, actually, was getting him to pay attention to anything that had happened the last fifty years, up to and including his homework.

Not that his dad didn't try. Hugh Jones' solution to his son's school problems was to nag him, all try harder and put yourself out there and no pain, no gain. Hugh tried hard, putting in extra shifts at Debenham's to make ends meet, studying cookbooks in his spare time, keeping the garden trim and the floors mopped and both kids up to date on their jabs. Hugh sewed all the clothes Ianto wore until 1994, the only dad Ianto knew to bring home thimbles and patterns, the only one who spent evenings hunched over an aged Singer with the news in the background, griping alternately about the bobbin feed and the football results. Worse, he told people about this, lecturing anyone who would listen about how as soon as he'd saved up a bit of money he was going to go into business for himself, open up a tailor's shop. Something I can pass on to the kids, yeah? Always need tailors in the world. After all, clothes make the man.

Ianto wished that Dad wouldn't talk about the tailor's or hard work or Ianto's inability to apply himself. He much preferred it when they were quiet together, like at the cinema, or just walking somewhere, or—when it didn't end in broken legs—playing the park. And while later years would color over his memories with anger and shame, he did love his father in the helpless way all little boys do. Perhaps that was why he never quite forgave him.

(The worst day of Ianto's life between the ages of six and thirteen was the day Johnny Davies pushed him down the front steps of the school; Ianto got in trouble with his dad for tearing his trousers, and Rhiannon got in trouble with the school for punching Johnny in the nose.)

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

"The first time I died, it was a Dalek," Jack said, his breastbone buzzing under Ianto's ear.

They had chased Gwen home, had cleaned up the Hub, had verified that the sky would not fall in if left unattended for a couple of hours. Then Ianto had welcomed Jack home. Thoroughly.

"I was on a space station, in the far future from now," Jack continued, so low and calm that Ianto wondered if he realized he had an audience. Surely if he knew Ianto was still awake, he wouldn't tell his secrets, even though Ianto was already in on so many others. "The Dalek Emperor was trying to take over the Earth. The Doctor was trying to stop him. I was just trying to buy him a little time.

"Owen and Suzie both said they remembered what it was like to be dead, when they came back. That first death...the real one...I still don't remember anything about it. Maybe I just made myself forget, or maybe Rose...this friend of mine, one who honestly meant well, she brought me back. Apparently she didn't mean to make it stick, though."

Ianto decided to take a gamble and ask a question; he'd been wondering too intensely and for too long to hold it in. "How do you accidentally make someone immortal?"

Jack laughed slightly; so he had meant to tell this story. "Kind of complicated. Like I said, she meant well, but from the sound of things she wasn't...exactly herself. She also saved the world, in the balance, so I can't blame her for anything."

Ianto shifted so instead of laying across Jack he was on his side, facing him. "Is that why you were so scared of them?" he dared ask. "Because they'd killed you before?"

"I'm scared of the damn things because they're powerful, evil, and almost indestructible," Jack said. "They've attacked humanity before...and by 'before' I mean the absolute past as well as my relative one. It usually takes a miracle to stop them."

"The Doctor seems to travel with a steady supply, from what I understand," Ianto said.

Jack grinned fondly. "Sometimes. Sometimes the miracles find him." He turned that smile on Ianto. "I should introduce you someday. Properly, I mean, not on a video screen. If I can get him to sit still long enough."

"Would the universe survive it?" Ianto asked. "The Doctor and Torchwood all trying to relax at the same time?"

"True. Wouldn't want to tempt fate."

Jack rolled over so he was facing Ianto, their bodies aligned without quite touching. Ianto wanted to blurt out, I was afraid you wouldn't come back, and maybe also I can't blame this Rose either, and possibly, just possibly, I love you. But the words got all tangled up behind his teeth, so instead of saying anything he leaned forward and kissed Jack, one hand on Jack's hip for balance. Jack tried to open his mouth and make it dirty, but Ianto kept his lips together, just pressing gently, and eventually Jack cottoned on and returned the gesture, curling his hand around Ianto's nape.

It probably said something worrisome about them that such a chaste and simple kiss meant more than all the sexual aerobics in the world. He wasn't sure if it meant the same thing to Jack as it did to him, but they'd saved the world today, and for once Ianto was willing to hope. He broke the kiss but didn't move away, stayed close enough that his eyes threatened to cross. "Yeah," Jack said, apropos of nothing, and ran his thumb along the side of Ianto's face. "Yeah."

They fell asleep just like that, but when Ianto woke up, his head was on Jack's shoulder again. Jack didn't seem to mind.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto survived into secondary school, and he even had friends for a while, furtive boys in hooded sweatshirts who weren't rebellious enough to smoke in the toilets but too jaded to hand in their homework. He stayed out of trouble because he couldn't afford it—even when Rhiannon started earning (and for some reason, dating Johnny Davies) they didn't have two pence to rub together at home, and his pocket money barely covered bus fare, much less beer or pot. He couldn't even manage to shoplift correctly, getting caught red-handed with a box of condoms under his jacket on a dare from Pete Wallace.

(Ianto doesn't even remember why either of them wanted the condoms, except for the illicit thrill of having them. No one in his circle of friends had ever gotten a finger on a girl at that point, and while they were all more or less aware that homosexuals existed, none of them would've ever admitted to being one. In Ianto's mental world at the time, there wasn't a great deal of room on the spectrum between Elton John and the old man over the road who stared at children, and certainly no place for himself, even if he would've done just about anything to make Pete Wallace smile.)

His dad was furious about it, of course; his dad, who worked harder than ever just to stay afloat, who'd gone gray at some point when Ianto wasn't looking, who kept talking about the fucking tailor's even though he'd boxed up the sewing machine years ago. They'd had a fight about it, and then he'd dragged Ianto to a hearing and prodded him through his apologies, and afterwards they'd fought again. Clean your act up had been said, along with the usual try harder and for god's sake, show some initiative, only Ianto had fired back with shit town and shit life and no point and working at fucking Debenham's.

Officially Hugh's first heart attack was nearly twenty-four-hours later, but everyone knew what caused it, and if Ianto somehow hadn't noticed, Rhiannon and half the neighbors would've reminded him.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

It had been nearly a week and Jack still hadn't returned the motorcycle. "You've officially gone from 'commandeering' to 'theft' at this point," Ianto reminded him.

"It's a great bike," Jack protested.

"Which does not belong to you."

Gwen had gone to check in on Freda and then ask a few questions about an iridium-clad waffle iron that had turned up on eBay that morning; Jack, under the guise of tuning up the computers, had stripped down his vest and started crawling around under desks. Ianto suspected it was at least fifty percent real work, fifty percent ploy to distract him. In revenge, he loosed his tie. "You like the bike, too," Jack said with a bit of a pout. "Admit it."

"Given the proper safety equipment, I think it could be tolerable," Ianto told him loftily.

Jack gave him a long-suffering look that faded into a definite leer when his eyes dropped to the exposed hollow of Ianto's throat. "You like it," Jack purred, using what Ianto could only call his Sex Voice. "I can tell. The way your thighs tighten up when we take a turn..."

"That would be an attempt not to fall off," Ianto said, but couldn't reach the intended dry sarcasm; by this point his response to the Sex Voice was practically Pavlovian.

"You hold on like you're trying to climb inside me," Jack carried on, easing out from under the desk and propping himself up on his elbows. "Pressed so close I can feel your heartbeat against my back."

Ianto said, "You know that's impossible with your coat on," but he also couldn't just sit there with Jack spread out on the floor like that, knees bent and ever so slightly spread, his vest clinging just so. Ianto shrugged off his jacket and, in a calculated gesture, unbuttoned his waistcoat. "And you seem to be missing the part where I'm usually chanting, 'Please, God, don't.'"

Jack's eyes, which had followed the line of Ianto's shirt buttons down to his belt, snapped back up. He smirked. "Well, considering what we're usually doing when you call me God..."

"You need to mind your ego, Jack," Ianto shot back, and very carefully unbuttoned his cuffs. "People will think you're compensating for something."

"I'm sure you'll be quick to correct them." Jack was now watching Ianto's wrists, eyes tracking for any glimpse of bare skin. It was really absurd how easy this was sometimes. "But we were talking about the bike."

"I think the bike and your ego are intimately connected," Ianto pointed out, lacing his fingers behind his head.

Jack quirked his eyebrow. "And speaking of intimate connections--"

That was when Gwen came back. She stepped through the blast doors, looked at Jack displayed on the floor and Ianto's lack of buttons, and immediately covered her eyes. "Don't mind me, just here to pick up the bear traps, carry on with whatever you're doing," she said brightly.

"Bear traps?" Jack asked, shifting gears quickly enough.

"The waffle iron is sapient, growing, and hungry," Gwen said breezily. "Be back in an hour or so."

She disappeared into the armory. "Bear traps?" Ianto said softly.

Jack shrugged. "If she needed our help, she'd have yelled as us for fooling around on the clock."

This was true. "So..." Ianto said. "The motorbike situation."

"You like the motorbike," Jack insisted with another slow smile.

"You like the motorbike," Ianto said.

Jack stood up and came to stand in front of Ianto, nearly in his lap, hands heavy on his shoulders. "I like you on the motorbike."

Ianto hooked a finger into Jack's dangling braces and gently tugged. "Then perhaps we should give it a proper farewell before you finally return it to the rightful owner."

"A proper farewell and a thorough cleaning," Jack suggested.

"When," Ianto asked, "am I anything but thorough?"

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Half of Ianto's friends dropped out of school after their GCSEs, but Dad told him put yourself out there, so Ianto started joining clubs and making eye contact and looking up words before he tried to spell them. His marks went up a bit and his old friends drifted away, and he even managed to date a few times, bossy girls who complained about how serious he was. He still didn't have the money for trouble—even less than before, because heart attacks turned out to be complicated things, and one day the sewing machine was back on the table because Dad didn't have anything else to do.

(Ianto joined clubs and got a part-time job and even went in for sports he was fantastically bad at, and when he had to be at home he stayed shut up in his room doing homework, or "homework," or reading history books from the school library. Dad nodded and encouraged him and didn't follow, which was the general idea.)

Rhiannon went and got married to Johnny Davies, which Ianto thought was totally uncalled for, even if David was already two years old and prone to throwing grape juice on Ianto's homework. One of the aunts, down for the wedding, paid for the gown and for Ianto's tuxedo with an airy comment about looking respectable; but it was his dad who helped him with the bow tie and the waistcoat, nattering under his breath about the cut and the quality. And then they stood in front of a mirror, side by side, Ianto half a head taller, Hugh grayer than ever.

"Look at you," Hugh said. "You're a man now, Ianto. You and your sister went and grew up on me."

Ianto didn't know what to say to that, exactly.

"And you'll be off to university soon, no doubt," Hugh continued. "Keep your head down like you have been, you'll be at the top of your class, just you see. My boy," and then he started sniffling, and wrapped his arm around Ianto's shoulders so Ianto couldn't get away. "You'll do us proud, yeah?" Hugh warbled. "Me and your mother?"

"Yeah," Ianto mumbled, and looked away from the mirror and Dad's tears. "Course I will."

Hugh walked Rhiannon down the aisle. She got back from the honeymoon in time to tell him goodbye.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

New Delhi in August was miserably hot, but in the tradition of hot places everywhere, the hotels were air conditioned to the verge of refrigeration. Ianto toweled off as quickly as he could before pulling on his pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. Air conditioning like that in a city this hot was a menace to the environment...even the villains were carbon-neutral these days...

No, bad line of thought, and he wasn't pursuing it. He stepped out of the bathroom, shivering in a gust of even cooler air from a vent directly overhead. In defiance of both climate control and climate change, Jack was lurking out on the little balcony with the doors hanging wide open. Ianto watched his bent silhouette in the fading sunset for a little while, wondering if he should interrupt this brood. At least he hadn't climbed on the roof; that was a positive sign.

He avoided the issue for a few moments by picking up the clothes Jack had strewn around the room and folding them up on the foot of the spare bed. (Another positive sign, in a different sense, was that Jack hadn't gone out on the balcony naked: he'd stripped to the waist, but his trousers were firmly in place.) Ianto could feel the humid outdoor air seeping in, and the sounds of the city beyond them, a metropolis so dense that a thousand people could go missing in a day and nobody would notice. He'd always thought that India was a loud country, probably from too many films, stock scenes of the crowded bazaar and gridlocked traffic. But they'd splurged on a good hotel, the kind that could afford to air condition people to death, and the street noises outside were little different than London or Cardiff.

Jack must've heard Ianto moving around the room, because he suddenly turned around, leaning against the balcony rail. The doorway framed him perfectly, in a way that made Ianto wonder, just a little bit, if Jack was constantly on the lookout for potential dramatic poses. "I'm trying to tell myself that she was wrong," he declared, as if Ianto had asked the question.

"She killed thousands of people, Jack," Ianto said.

He sighed. "Okay, yeah, so that was wrong, obviously. But her reasons...she just wanted control over her life, Ianto. She wanted to fix her mistakes."

"Most of those 'mistakes' weren't hers to fix," Ianto pointed out. "Presuming we even accept that they were mistakes."

Jack's head fell back, eyes skyward, though from here it was unlikely he saw any stars. "That's the problem with time travel," he said quietly. "The urge to do everything over, and do it better...but of course, you can't ever really fix anything. You can't step in the same river twice."

"Because it's not the same river, and you're not the same man," Ianto finished quietly.

Jack looked at him sharply, and there was a beat of silence. "I've got a lot of regrets," he suddenly confessed. "A lot of things I'd change if I could. And I can't blame Nelly for wanting a second chance."

Ianto suddenly found he couldn't look Jack in the eye, even as he allowed himself to ask. "And if you got a second chance? What would you do with it?"

Jack left the balcony door hanging open, crossing to the bed and pulling Ianto down on top of him; Ianto came precariously close to planting a knee in Jack's crotch, but managed to catch himself at the last minute. "Here and now are the only things that matter," he said quietly. "Not who I was, but who I am. There are no second chances. And it's better to forget about the things I can't change."

"They say those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it," Ianto said.

"Hell, I've already started," Jack said, lacing his fingers together over the small of Ianto's back. "I've done the twentieth century twice, haven't I?"

"You were in a freezer the second time," Ianto pointed out.

"Technicality."

Jack kissed him then, gently at first and then with more vigor, and Ianto gave in after a token resistance. There were so many other questions he could ask about Jack and his past and his regrets, but he knew that right now there was no chance of a straight answer. And perhaps it didn't really matter, as Jack seemed to think. Perhaps if Ianto kept telling himself that, he'd even believe it.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto did go to university: read economics even though he preferred history, took computer classes because they were easy, held down odd jobs so he could afford to get into trouble. He didn't talk about home if he could help it and he called Rhiannon less and less, as it became clear they didn't have much of anything to say to one another.

Instead he concentrated on talking and dressing like he was cooler than he actually was, listening to the right music and having the right sort of phone. He did well enough academically, but only just, because there was always something better to be doing: something to read, something to watch, some place to go where he was a bright young uni student and not the poor boy with the daft dad. He was still too serious and too shy, but girls seemed to be into that, said it meant he had depth. Other guys called him an old man, but in jest, and relied on him to get them home from the pub on weekends.

And six months after graduation, he was still tending bars on the weekends and mopping floors at night and arguing with his flatmates about whether a barista counted as a skilled profession. He'd moved to London because that was what you did when you'd read economics, he'd checked the spelling on his CV and bought an interview suit (clothes make the man, it would never leave him) but despite all the talk of a booming economy he couldn't seem to get his foot in the door anywhere that didn't require a name tag and a urine test.

Christmas came and his flatmates all went home. Ianto got blind drunk, and possibly chlamydia, and rolled into bed in the small hours after the Lord's birth. The last thing he thought before falling asleep in his underwear was, I am going to end up working at Debenham's and I will never make my father proud.

The next thing he remembered, he was standing on the edge of the roof, along with one-third of his neighbors, blinking at the spaceship that was hovering over London.

-\-\-\-\-\-

He'd pulled himself together by the time Professor Courtney came back, but from the look on her face she wasn't fooled. "I've ordered another round of tests, but it'll be a while before the results are in," she said softly, sitting down next to him.

"There's been no word from Gwen," he said, toying with his now-empty coffee cup. "She should be in Swansea by now."

"Give it time," Courtney said vaguely, and there wasn't much for Ianto to say to that, so they both stared at Jack.

He was terrifyingly still, as still as death, even as his heart and lungs pumped cruelly on, steady as a ticking watch. Aside from a little redness where the EEG leads attached to his temples, he looked no different than he had when they first got him admitted. He didn't even blink; a nurse came around periodically to give him eye drops instead. The monitors sang their atonal song, steady as a Gregorian chant.

Ianto had sat more than a few bedside vigils—for his parents, for Lisa—but at least those had always had an end in sight. He couldn't quite square himself to the thought that Jack could be like this forever.

"I never thought I'd see him like this," Courtney said suddenly, softly, and that was another thing Ianto had a little trouble thinking about sensibly—sitting next to one of Jack's exes, a woman with more gray hairs than brown and deep-cut lines on her face, and knowing that thirty-five years ago she'd been young and gorgeous and Jack had looked the same. It was one thing to know these things in his head, but it was another to know it, to talk to her and have the sudden irrational thought that she was old enough to be his mother but they'd both seen Jack naked. They'd both watched him while he slept.

Ianto cleared his throat. "You knew that he...about him, I mean."

She nodded. "Saw it happen the day I met him. He was run over by a car and chasing after it on foot about thirty seconds later."

That made him laugh, though it sounded horribly wrong in the stark white hospital ward. "That sounds about right."

"He wanted me to work full-time for Torchwood," Courtney said quietly after a few moments. "He said I'd never see such advanced science, not in my lifetime. When I said no, we saw each other a few more times, but...well, you know Jack."

Not really. Not well enough. Ianto nodded anyway. "Why did you turn him down?"

"A lot of reasons," she said. "I suppose fear was a large part of it—fear of Torchwood, of monsters in the dark. That, and I never wanted my work to become my life, and Jack had no life but his work. Is he still like that?"

"I suppose he is," Ianto said. He had questions, like did Jack always live at the Hub? and did he always wear the coat? and did he ever say he loved you? But that felt intrusive, almost dishonest, talking about Jack like he wasn't even there.

And maybe, technically, he wasn't, but there was a principle to the thing.

Courtney seemed to sense the awkwardness, because she fell silent for a while, nursing her own cup of coffee. When she did speak, it was to say, "I know it's a bit grisly to think about, but I have to wonder..."

"Wonder what?" Ianto asked.

She looked at Jack, watched his chest rise and fall. "He can shrug off a bullet or a bite wound or a speeding 1971 Vauxhall Victor," she said slowly. "But this...whatever it is...it isn't fatal. As long as it's not terminal him, he reacts physically just like any other patient."

All in a flash, Ianto understood what she was saying, and it pulled out a short and irrational laugh. Courtney raised an eyebrow at him. "I told him once that I was going to kill him," Ianto said, knowing it was sort of a non sequitur.

"Oh?" Courtney said warily.

Ianto nodded. "I told him I'd make him suffer if I had the chance. I called him a monster."

"Sounds like it was a very emotional situation," Courtney said diplomatically.

"I meant it," Ianto said, looking at his hands. "Or I didn't. I don't know anymore. But either way, I suppose I'm keeping my promise."

Because he'd watched Jack die too many times. He'd watched Jack die without knowing he was coming back. And even if it was mercy killing—Ianto knew he couldn't be the one to pull the trigger. Maybe Gwen could, or the professor, but not him. Never him.

"We're hardly at the point of desperate measures yet, anyway," Courtney said firmly, and set her coffee aside. She squeezed Ianto's hand gently, her fingers still warm from the cup. "I'm certainly not giving up yet."

"Thank you," Ianto said, and watched Jack's chest rise and fall.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

They called it the Christmas Incident, said it was something in the water, redacted the word alien from every story in print. It was used as proof that Harriet Jones was coming apart at the seams, because honestly, what sort of PM believes in aliens? Ianto's flatmates came back and thought it was a laugh, and make sleepwalking jokes for the rest of the week. "You need to be locked in tonight? Not gonna go roof-walking, are you? Maybe we ought to tie you to the bed..."

Ianto remembered the cold wind in his face, though, cutting through his underwear and raising gooseflesh in unusual places. He remembered the other people on the roof and their expressions: confused, nervous, recoiling from the steep drop into frantic, crying arms. An old lady looking lost. Two little children who didn't seem to understand why their mother clung to them and trembled. People saying zombies and horrible and why wouldn't you stop? We tried to make you stop.

"They were just playing," Rhiannon said when Ianto asked her about. "You know Johnny, he thinks that sort of thing is funny."

"Mica's barely walking, Rhi," Ianto said. "I was asleep. How can you think this is a joke?"

"Oh, Ianto, you've walked in your sleep before--"

He turned to the Internet, slogging through the nonsense about stars and projectors and lizard men. Followed trails of reasonable thinking to people who were asking the same questions he was. Some people had taken pictures of the spaceship, of the "jumpers" with lights flashing about their heads. Some people, like Ianto, insisted they weren't drugged, weren't faking anything. Some people had theories, talked about telepathy or post-hypnotic suggestion or spiritual possession.

Ianto collected facts, contacting other jumpers by email, looking for patterns. He bothered the other people in his building and asked personal questions and combed news reports and photographs. He pretended to be from the NHS. He made spreadsheets.

This is going to sound crazy, he wrote, but I think it's genetic. Jumpers are more likely to have another jumper in the family than non-jumpers. In particular, if one parent was a jumper there's a 3/4 chance at least one kid was, too, and almost 100% if both parents were jumpers; only about 15% of jumpers in my sample said neither parent jumped. Given a worldwide average of 1/3 of the population on the roofs, that's a pretty significant spread! I'll upload my numbers if you don't believe me. Didn't Guinevere 1 have a blood sample on board???

He posted online about it, but the forums were C&Ded almost immediately, so he never got any answers. He told Rhiannon about it and she called him daft. He told one of his flatmates about it, and he said Ianto needed to get laid. And he told a girl about it, a tall, beautiful girl who came into the coffee shop one morning and started flirting with him, and she believed him, asked to see his data, was impressed by the logic. She said she could get him an interview at her firm, if he was interested. She said he had depth. She said her name was Lisa Hallett.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto didn't want to do anything special on his birthday, and they didn't; too busy clearing out a nest of Weevils before a new construction project broke into their territory. (Though Gwen did get him a card.) The week after his birthday, though, he got a mysterious text message from Jack, directing him to a restaurant in town. No weapons, it said, so Ianto didn't think it was an emergency, but he thought it was work related right up to the moment the greeter directed him to a table.

Because Jack was waiting for him, and he was wearing a suit.

"You're speechless," Jack observed while Ianto stared at him. "Speechless is good." It was a gray suit with a blue shirt and tie, exactly the colors that suited him best. Ianto hadn't been aware that Jack even owned anything that hadn't come from a military memorabilia shop. Single-breasted jacket with a slightly suppressed waist, gold cufflinks, the gold chain of his fob watch just visible against his waistcoat when he stood. "Do I need to pull your chair out for you?" Jack asked.

"You don't own a suit," Ianto said stupidly, but sat down before he caused a scene. "I do your dry cleaning, and in two years you've never owned a suit.

"It's a special occasion," Jack said lightly. "Thought it was worth the expense. I ordered an appetizer, by the way."

Special occasion and birthday didn't join up in his mind until much later, because Jack didn't say anything specific about it. In fact, he was doing his best to act as if it were no big deal, even though Jack in contemporary clothes was a bit like Jack in a proper office building—out of place, exotic, alien. The jacket sleeves were just generous enough to conceal his wrist strap, but Ianto caught him feeling for it a few times during the meal, as if to remind himself it was still there.

It was a really good suit, and Ianto could hardly wait to get Jack out of it.

"I said I didn't want to do anything for my birthday," Ianto reminded Jack much later, when they were back at his flat and both their suits had been scattered across the room.

"This isn't a thing," Jack said drowsily. "It's dinner and sex. We do dinner and sex all the time."

"The suit is a thing," Ianto insisted.

Jack shrugged at him and rolled over on his face. "You like suits," he said, as if that was a perfectly reasonable answer.

So Ianto hooked on his pants and started picking up, saying firmly, "They'll wrinkle," when Jack started to whine about it. He put his own clothes in the hamper and folded Jack's neatly on a chair. When he found the waistcoat, the watch was missing; he had to fish it out from under the bureau. "Where did you get this, anyway?" Ianto asked, studying the intricate engravings on the back.

Jack chuckled. "That is a long and problematic story. You like it?"

"It's...it's beautiful, actually." Always warm to the touch, he'd noticed, and lighter than it looked; perhaps it came from the future, or another world, or both. He couldn't quite hear the mechanism, but he could feel it, steady as a heartbeat.

Jack sat partway up and studied Ianto for a while. Then, quietly, he said, "Keep it."

Ianto blinked at him. "Jack, I couldn't possibly--"

"Think of it as a birthday present," Jack said, and reached out to close Ianto's fingers around the warm metal. "It's something I've been carrying around too long. And I know you've got a thing for watches."

Ianto studied his face, but Jack wasn't kidding—quite the opposite, really. "You're totally serious," he said, just to be sure.

"Like a heart attack," Jack said, and withdrew his hand. "It reminds me of...stuff. Some of it not so good anymore. Hopefully you'll make some better memories for it."

Ianto studied the watch again, tested the winding mechanism, and tried to open it. "It's stuck."

"Has been for years." Jack stretched thoroughly and then pulled up a sheet to cover himself. "Now, you coming to bed, or what?"

Chapter Text

"Torchwood lockdown commencing..."

The Hub had been built to contain explosions as well as to withstand them, to protect the city from its own protectors if need be. Ianto watched a screen with one eye as dozens of blast doors all over the base sealed themselves, locking down archives and cells and storage areas with layers of exotic alloys and old-fashioned steel and lead. But the important thing was to find the frequency that the bomb communicated on, isolate it and maybe disarm it, and if he concentrated on that he didn't have to think about--

"Ianto, you're gonna get locked inside," Jack half-sobbed, and Ianto didn't want to hear that, didn't want to know that Jack was terrified, too. When Jack was scared there was always a very, very good reason. The blast doors to the main entrance began to roll shut. "Ianto, that means now!"

Ianto just need needed to concentrate, but Jack grabbed him, wrenching his arms back and away from the keyboard. His fingers clawed at the empty air. "There must be a way to override the mechanism--"

"For God's sake, get out!" Jack growled, half-dragging Ianto backwards.

"There'll be nothing left of you!" The words burst out, and now he couldn't stop seeing it, a blast big enough to level city blocks tearing Jack to pieces, and that wasn't anything like a gunshot or a stabbing or even being devoured by Abaddon; it was more like burning a witch, because how could Jack come back if there wasn't any Jack left?

"I can survive anything," was all Jack said, and that had to be true, it couldn't be empty bravado, not right now. Ianto nearly stumbled as he was pushed onto the lift, one arm twisting briefly in Jack's grasp. Of course—only way out now, the only exit not deadlocked. Just like when Lisa--

Jack's grip relaxed and Ianto didn't plan on doing it, but he spun around and reached out desperately, one last moment, just in case. Jack was right there with him, pulling him in, kissing like even he didn't really believe—like this might be the last time—and Ianto's thoughts were everywhere, the taste of Jack and his hot hands and the alarms and the blast doors and the knowledge that he was inches away from an armed explosive.

A matter of seconds, and then Jack pushed back, and he wasn't smiling or reassuring. It could be the last time. I love you, don't leave me, I'm sorry, I wish I could save you—Ianto never had the words, and now he didn't have time. Jack activated the lift with his wrist strap and Ianto watched him, couldn't stop watching him, like he could hold him together with his eyes. Just like when they fled from what Lisa had become, when he'd had to listen to her screaming as the lift rose up--

"Torchwood lockdown...Torchwood lockdown..."

Jack said something inaudible, and between the darkness and the distance Ianto couldn't even read his lips: last words, perhaps, but lost forever. The hatch opened above him, and Ianto tore his eyes away from Jack, looked up into the cool evening air. The lift had been built in 2006, the only part of the Hub not reinforced and armored from within and without; the hatch only had to withstand the weight of pedestrians and maybe a large vehicle, it wasn't engineered to contain an explosion.

The bomb was going to explode and Ianto would be standing right on top of the weakest point in the structure.

He reached for the watch in his waistcoat, the one he still thought of as Jack's. Make some better memories for it, Jack had said, and Ianto meant for Jack to be in them. "I'll be back for you," he murmured, a promise and a prayer, and then he was vaulting out onto the plaza before the lift came to a complete stop. He took off running, not even sure where he was running to, only that he had to get as far away from the Hub as he could if he wanted to survive. And he would survive, because Jack would survive, and they were going to find each other again--

--and suddenly the stones of the Plass were leaping up under his feet, and everything was noise and light and motion--

-\-\-\-\-\-

It was slow work to slip into Ianto's mind, seeping into the cracks like varnish, learning the shape of his thoughts. Becoming part of his thoughts, as much a part of his as Jack's, though Jack was still there, background noise. We were still, fundamentally, us. A thread stretched out between them, spanning an immeasurable gulf, neither here nor there, but reaching—and perhaps it wasn't actually possible, perhaps madness and darkness were inevitable, perhaps this had all been folly—wasn't strong enough, not anymore, not for this--

And then Jack died.

And somehow, I...we remained.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Rhiannon had slipped some cash under the screen of the laptop, and Ianto wished now he'd thanked her properly, wished there'd been time. Most of it would have to go toward petrol, but he had enough for a sandwich and coffee at a roadside diner that also advertised free Wi-Fi. He hated to waste the time, but he also knew that if he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a ditch, he'd be no use to anyone.

He had never felt more love for software than he felt for Google Earth at that moment; the Ashton Down facility was a black rectangle, of course, but he could see the terrain around it, open fields and forest. A natural buffer between the public and their tax dollars at work. That was where the van carrying Jack's remains was registered, and that was what Ianto had to break into. Somehow. Then he'd just have to find Jack's remains...or better yet, Jack, though if it took him three days to recover from Abaddon Ianto didn't want to speculate on what exploding would do to him.

But Jack had seemed certain he'd come back. And even if he hadn't...well, either way, Ianto couldn't just leave him.

He sipped the coffee, which had a burnt, chemical aftertaste to it, but more importantly, caffeine. So all he had to do was single-handedly break into a high-security military compound staffed by the people who'd just blown up Torchwood, without a gun, without so much as a penknife to his name. Just sneak in and find their most high-profile prisoner, the one they obviously knew not to underestimate, and escape without getting either of them killed (again). He'd have to cross the fields and forest, but of course he was such a keen woodsman...and he'd be facing highly trained soldiers, unarmed, and if he had to kill one of them...or more than one...

No, stop it. He could do this. It was no harder than getting Lisa to Cardiff had been, and he'd done that under the noses of Torchwood and UNIT and half the government, too. Of course, he hadn't been wanted for terrorism at the time...but, his inner Jack pointed out, he'd have the element of surprise. They thought him on the run without resources. (Because he was on the run without resources.) Who would be looking for him on their very front door?

All right, so not so much "the element of surprise" as "suicidal insanity," but it was the only advantage he had, so he'd best make the most of it.

He zoomed out the map and studied it. There was a lot of open land, but he could see the pale scars of the roads, and a jumble of dirt and shadows that might be some kind of cliffs. A quarry? Yes, there was a road leading directly there from the black rectangle...perhaps the facility had started life in the private sector, offices for a strip mine or something. The pit was far enough away that he could hide the car inside it and still be within walking distance, depending on how deep it was. From there he could try to get closer to the buildings, find out what that ominous rectangle was hiding...

The laptop squealed at him, and a window popped up telling him to switch immediately to outlet power. He quickly closed the screen and left money on the table for his food. (Exact change, too; he knew it was obnoxious but he couldn't afford to tip.) Outside, he searched the car thoroughly, shifting aside the debris of normalcy—McDonald's toys and hairy, half-melted sweets and the cigarettes that Johnny always swore he was quitting—in search of anything he could use, anything at all.

He found a road map and nearly two pounds in loose change. He found Johnny's lighter hidden under the driver's seat, a pair of binoculars probably left behind after a recent football match and a bag of M&Ms that did not appear to be a health hazard. The boot was more helpful—he found a crowbar (Why? He wasn't sure he dared ask) and a gym bag with sports clothes that smelled only gently used. The kitty litter and antifreeze were somewhat less useful, unless of course he was caught in a freak snow storm, but there was a nice big torch and a fleece blanket that smelled like a dead dog. Anything practical, at this point.

A small first-aid kit turned up in the glove box, and while all the plasters were adorned with various Pokemon, there were also generic paracetamol tablets in individual paper packets. Ianto took four, swallowing dry, so he'd feel a bit less like he'd just survived a massive explosion and assassination attempt. The last place to search was himself, and he turned out all his pockets, coming up with keys and pens and an old receipt with all the ink worn off, and Jack's watch. Not exactly the Torchwood armory. But it would have to do.

After all, loyalty bordering on insanity was why Jack kept him around, wasn't it?

Ianto started the car and took off for Ashton Down.

-\-\-\-\-\-

It hurt, losing Jack, an unexpected sharpness; the thread pulled taut and then snapped, like Fate's scissors, loose ends. There was...and then there wasn't, total absence, numbness rather than pain. Something was lost, something necessary, something that had gone unnoticed for all those long years, taken for granted, background noise. Not just the body; more like the soul, if there even is such a thing. Jack had been there too long, Jack was who we were, and to be without him...it was lonely.

We were...I was....but I wasn't, couldn't be....wasn't strong enough, wasn't whole. There was a piece missing long before Jack tore away. Too many years of the pounding vortex, too many deaths, too much silence. The watch contained energy, but entropy was a law of the universe, and it was becoming clear that the center had not held. Alone and weak and damaged, there was nothing to hold onto, nowhere else to go--

Nowhere but Ianto. He remained. And he was enough.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto woke up suddenly, acutely aware that the car had stopped. The last thing he remembered they'd been arguing about whether to stop for food—Jack was gung-ho to get to London right away, and their cash reserves were low. Last thing he remembered, he'd been sitting upright, leaning against the window with his knees wedged into the back of Rhys's seat.

Now he was slumped the other direction, against Jack's bare chest, still gritty with cement dust. Jack had put his back to the door and folded one leg awkwardly under Ianto's side, his arms—and the manacles—looped over Ianto's shoulder. For a moment he thought the sun was rising—or somehow setting again—but then realized they were simply parked next to a light fixture glowing sodium orange. It was not quite the strangest position he'd ever woken in. "What time's it?" he asked.

"Late," Jack said quietly, with a gentle squeeze of his shoulder. "We did stop for burgers, but nobody had the heart to wake you."

"Thanks." And Ianto didn't even know if he was being sarcastic, either. He tried to straighten up, but between the chain and his cramped and bruised muscles he didn't get very far. "Ow," he informed Jack.

Jack smiled slightly and made no move to let Ianto free. "Sorry about the position," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "I was cold."

"That's why Rhys gave you the coat." He realized the front seats were both empty. "Where did they--?"

"Renting a room." Jack tossed his head in the general direction of a squat brick building; it looked like some kind of motel. "Charges by the hour. Not that we can afford the lost time, but Rhys keeps going on about accident rates from fatigued driving and I for one could use a shower."

"There's a change of clothes in the boot," Ianto said. "If we can get these things off you."

"Find me a bobby pin and that problem's solved."

Ianto did manage to roll over a bit, so they were laying back-to-front; he felt his spine pop into a different, though not necessarily better, alignment. Jack started playing with the buttons on his jacket, the chain puddling in Ianto's lap. "So we're going to sleep for a few hours, and then...?"

"London," Jack said. "Frobisher owes us some answers, if we can just figure out a way to get to him without getting arrested."

"I know a place we can hide," he offered. "Not exactly luxury, but it'll do for a few days, and I doubt we'll need more than that."

"You do know everything," Jack said quietly, sounding amused.

Ianto checked his watch, realizing just how late it was. "Don't suppose you saved me any food...?"

Jack huffed. "Do you think we're that rude? It's in the front seat. Hepatiti-licious."

He wasn't really interested in moving, though, even with his feet jammed up against the opposite door and the coat bunched up uncomfortably underneath him. He hadn't slept in something like thirty-six hours before they left Ashton Down; he needed all the rest he could get. He supposed in a minute Gwen or Rhys would come get them, and they'd have to sneak into some seedy motel room and there would be showering and maps and discussions and a few more hours of sleep on some well-used bed...but for now, there was Jack, safe and sound, under and around him.

Jack seemed to feel the same way, or perhaps it was the manacles. Either way, he kept his arms snug around Ianto's chest and pressed his nose into Ianto's hair. After a few minutes of stillness, he said, "I didn't say thank you for the rescue yet."

"Don't mention it," Ianto said, halfway back to falling asleep.

Jack seemed ready to say something else, but evidently re-thought that idea, because he just exhaled, long and warm, and hugged Ianto tighter.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Ianto was still there, steady and reliable, loyal to the last. Ianto, to slip inside, to cling to, to become. Ianto, who missed Jack, too, though not on the same order of magnitude; who needed Jack, too, though not quite the same way. Ianto who seemed only half-aware that anyone needed him, not for what he could do but for who he was: dry and sarcastic and idealistic and strange and serious and beautiful. Ianto was there, and Ianto was us, holding up and holding together, filling in holes that had been centuries in the making. So young, so fallible, but strong enough, at least for this.

We were alone...but not so alone. We remained. We'd survived.

Which meant that after nearly two thousand years, there was only one more step to the plan.

-\-\-\-\-\-

None of them slept much that night, but Jack barely made a pretense of it; Ianto found him on the upper level of the warehouse, staring out the filthy windows. Probably the closest he could get to a rooftop without being seen. Ianto waited a few long moments, watching Jack's silhouette in the hazy glow of morning. He was so still he might as well have been a statue. Chiaroscuro: the contrast of darkness and light.

Jack had to know he was there, after a while, but he didn't make any gesture of invitation or rebuff. Eventually, Ianto realized he was going to have to speak first. "This must've been eating away at you," he said quietly, coming closer. "Why didn't you tell me? I could've...helped."

Jack was shaking his head before Ianto even finished speaking. "No, you couldn't." Just like that: without question, and even though Ianto knew it was a lame offer, the rebuff stung.

"I tell you everything," Ianto protested, and if it wasn't the same thing—not nearly the same—it was close. Jack may not have known every single, thing, but he certainly knew the important things, the ones that really mattered, what made Ianto who he was. Ianto had thought, had hoped, the disclosure might occasionally run both ways.

Jack finally looked at him, with one of those blank, contained expressions that hid emotions felt too deeply. "Yeah? So tell me, what should I have done?"

"Stood up to them," Ianto said, though he knew how naïve it sounded. Jack looked away again. "The Jack I know would've stood up to them." He studied that familiar profile, the thousand-yard stare. A face he knew so well, had spent so much time trying to anticipate, but Jack wasn't saying anything, wasn't calling Ianto out with blistering sarcasm or gently correcting him or even denying the charge.

Jack just stared into the middle distance, and his silence was confession. But his thoughts still seemed a million miles—or forty-five years—away.

"I've only just scraped the surface, haven't I?" Ianto asked, but it wasn't a question, and it wasn't just about the 456.

Jack swallowed and looked at him again with wounded eyes. "Ianto, that's all there is."

"No," Ianto corrected. "You pretend that's all there is." Nobody needed that much surface area unless there was something enormous underneath. Ianto had seen him break character before. Was seeing it now.

"I've lived a long time," Jack said, suddenly almost angry. "I have...done a lot of things." And for a moment it seemed like he might regurgitate all of them, fling his crimes in Ianto's face and defy him to pass judgment. But then he pulled the blow, averting his eyes. "I've gotta go. I won't be long."

"You're doing it again," Ianto said, trying to hold in the urge to snap as he turned to follow Jack's exit. Jack stopped, putting his hands on his hips. "Speak to me, Jack. Where are you going?"

Jack spun, and his back straightened incrementally, as if from the strain of holding everything in. "To call Frobisher. I can't make the call from here 'cause they'll be able to trace it. Is that okay?"

His chin was up, his hackles raised. Ianto realized he'd handled this one badly; that this sin might not be forgivable. "You're the boss," he said, and bit down on anything else that might've tried to escape and made things worse.

"And just so you know," Jack said, just as relentlessly, "I have a daughter called Alice and a grandson called Steven, and Frobisher took them hostage yesterday." The words ended almost in a sob, and he stared at Ianto for a moment, looked him right in the eye, almost a dare.

Ianto was never much with words, though, and at the moment none came to him. Jack turned crisply, one of those strangely military gestures that made the coats and braces so appropriate, and walked away. Left Ianto behind. And Ianto let him go.

-\-\-\-\-\-

The watch was locked. Thousands of years ago, thousands of years from now, two anxious parents had sealed it up to protect their baby boy, to prevent exactly what we were trying to do. They wanted to make sure no one opened the watch before Jack was ready.

And we were ready now, but the question was....could Jack open it?

Isomorphic locks are ridiculously easy, but there wasn't any proof that the watch actually had one; it could have been truly sealed, or locked with a key that was lost along with Gallifrey. It could've been damaged a hundred times over, in a dozen ways, irreparably. It could simply be stuck.

And even if he could open the watch...would he?

Centuries had passed, and he'd never tried. Ever. It was Ianto's now, because Jack no longer wanted it. No longer wanted himself, it seemed, so disgusted with his past, so dragged down by guilt. There was still a thread, a connection, but it was faint and blurry, useless except at the closest range. And Jack had been able to ignore it before, repress it, close himself off. On the Game Station, when we were still young and whole, he'd ignored it entirely. How could he possibly hear now?

If the watch never opened, there was still Ianto. Comfortable, beloved. We could live a long time, even by Torchwood standards, be reasonably happy, be close to Jack. Die a human death. Would that be so bad?

Would that be so little, compared to the alternative?

Did it matter either way, if Jack wouldn't even try?

-\-\-\-\-\-

"It's all my fault."

Breathe in; breathe out. The air was growing thinner...or perhaps that was just him. "No, it's not," he managed, though for a moment he wasn't sure Jack heard him.

"Don't speak, save your breath," Jack said quickly, like that was going to help. A few more seconds? If that? What were seconds against two thousand years?

What was Ianto but a blip in time?

"I love you." The worst slipped out with the next exhale, and he let them because they were true. There was no more time for regrets, not while static built up on the edges of his vision and numbness stole up his arms and legs. The world had narrowed to the cold floor, Jack's hand, and the length of his next inhalation. Nothing more.

Jack looked down at Ianto with sadness that could not be measured. "Don't."

Bastard, Ianto thought, letting his eyes slip shut. You just offered to trade the kids for me. He wanted to ask if he was really worth so much, but it was so hard to breathe...

"Ianto? Ianto...Ianto, stay with me...Ianto, stay with me, please. Stay with me, stay with me, please..."

Jack was crying. How many times had he seen Jack weep? For Tosh, for Owen...Jack had lost so many people, and still he mourned. "Hey," Ianto said, and had the deluded feeling that Jack needed more comfort than he did. "It was good, yeah?"

"Yeah," Jack said firmly. His fingers ran up and down Ianto's face, just shy of the cut that still stung. Ianto could feel it. He could still feel that much.

He tried for another breath as the static came closer, until all he could see was Jack. "Don't forget me."

Was that Jack's smile, the character, even now? "Never could."

"In a thousand years' time..." Time immemorial, a number Ianto couldn't even get his head around, couldn't convert into wheezing breaths. "You won't remember me."

"Yes, I will." Jack's eyes bored into him, earnest, all he could see. True. "I promise, I will."

He couldn't feel the hand on his face anymore...was it still there? Was any part of him still there, or had he drifted away, flying apart like Jack had, into nothing? He let his eyes shut again and reached for a breath that wouldn't come, for last words that his lips and tongue would not shape, for I love you and I believe you and I'm sorry.

"Ianto?"

Jack clutched him closer. One hand, almost on its own volition, slid down the front of Ianto's waistcoat. It closed loosely around something in the pocket, a heavy lump that was warm to the touch.

"Ianto, don't go...don't leave me, please...please, don't..."

"HE WILL DIE," intoned the 456, "AND TOMORROW YOUR PEOPLE WILL DELIVER THE CHILDREN."

Jack glared, but there was no defiance left, no pride. He bent his head for one last kiss, as his body finally began to shut down on its own. His thumb caught on something in Ianto's front pocket, the worn catch of an old fob watch, hardly noticeable as the shadows closed around him.

There was a faint golden glimmer in the darkened room before Jack, too, slumped over. In Thames House, all was still.

Chapter Text

I

I I

III

am

am I

a

a

I

I a

I

am

an

I

I an

Ianto--

-\-\-\-\-\-

In the Middle Ages, they used to seal plague victims into their homes with bricks. Lepers used to live in outcast colonies. Quarantines for flu patients, in 1918. Now Thames House had made itself a tomb, and the bodies were piled up ten deep at doors and stairwells.

It was a little surreal, and, Dekker was willing to admit, a little thrilling—to pick his way over the dead, silent as a ghost, moving about with impunity. The last man standing. He carefully maneuvered around a banister, conscious of the baggy folds of his suit and the consequences of a tear. A solider in uniform had collapsed just inside the fire door; made a late break from his post, from the looks of it. Just as doomed as the very first deserter, though, as it happened. Dekker pulled another page off his note pad, wrote TH-13-01 in bold, black letters, and tucked it into the man's bullet-proof vest for the recovery crews.

"Mr. Dekker, have you found anything?"

He pressed the radio against his hood, so he'd be heard through the plastic. "Anyone, you mean. But no. I'm the only survivor."

"You don't have to sound so proud of it, you know."

"Why not?" He climbed over the soldier and looked around the corridor of floor thirteen. "It's a talent of mine."

"How much progress have you made on tagging the bodies? We're awaiting the last round of air-quality tests now."

"Up to floor thirteen now. Doesn't look like many people stayed this high up, though, if you don't mind me saying."

"Well, for God's sake be careful up there. We don't want to antagonize that thing any further."

"Of course, sir. What kind of man do you take me for?"

There were a few other bodies in the corridors, a few in offices, one poor bastard in a toilet with his trousers still around his knees. Dekker tagged them all with loving care, numbering them as he found them. He checked every room thoroughly, going under tables and behind desks just in case, and that meant sooner or later he had to deal with the central meeting room. The ambassadorial suite. Ground zero.

Sooner or later he had to face that thing.

He entered as quietly as he could, the protection of the suit doing nothing to quell a small surge of adrenaline up his spine. The tank and its contents thrumming along nicely, normally, the 456 moving in its inscrutable way in the murky shadows. All the dials and meters were steadily in the green. Two bodies lay on the floor: the Torchwood men, curled up in a cold parody of intimacy, one-half covering the other. He'd heard, in his time, about Captain Jack Harkness, but the man looked just as dead as his friend there among the scattered shell casings; still, Dekker pulled them apart, shoving the other one out of the way, to check Harkness's pulse. Just a precaution.

"HE WILL RETURN."

Dekker looked up at the cell. The "ambassador." It was just as it had been, showing no sign of hunger or fatigue after more than twenty-four hours, no concern at the mass slaughter it had wrought. Or perhaps concern was too human a concept for the 456. Perhaps, for it, this had been no different from fumigation.

"Return, sir?" Dekker asked, standing up. "I'm afraid I don't know who you mean."

"YOU ARE PROTECTED."

So it recognized the suit—they hadn't even been sure it had eyes in the conventional sense, or what it might be able to see through the glass and fog. Dekker took a step closer to the tank, to the being he'd spent most of his professional life studying. The one he had, in some sense, been waiting for. "That's right, yes. I recognized the alarms and protected myself."

"THE OTHERS WERE NOT PROTECTED."

"There was only the one suit," Dekker explained.

The 456 made one of those convulsive movements, God only knew what it meant—Dekker stepped backwards as fluids splashed on the glass, bile or blood or something impossible to identify. "THIS IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY," it declared.

"Well, I wouldn't go so far as to call it--"

"THIS IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY."

Dekker thought for a moment. "I suppose it is, in a way. It's kept me alive this long, hasn't it?"

"Mr. Dekker, what's the situation?"

He thumbed the button on the radio. "The ambassador's just as reported, sir. We were just...having a chat."

"Well, get down to the emergency exits. We're sending in the first way of recovery personnel."

"I haven't finished the search of this floor, yet."

"We're sending in the Army. They'll take care of the rest."

"Understood." Dekker switched off the radio and studied the 456 a moment longer. "I'll, ah, I'll just be going now."

No response.

"I must say," he said. "I must say, it's been a pleasure to finally speak to you."

No response from inside the tank, and Dekker supposed he didn't merit one. He hung the radio back on his belt and quickly scribbled out two more notes, TH-13-13 and TH-13-14. He tucked them inside the pockets of the dead men on the floor and left them where they lay, cold and sprawling.

-\-\-\-\-\-

We are, we exist, in oppressive darkness, still and silent, and the only thing I am sure of is that this is not death. This is not life, either; we are absent body, absent senses, swamped in a featureless void, but we are still in some sense Here. We Are.

Perhaps, we Will Be.

This is the place where Jack goes, before the energies of the Vortex haul him back into life, but there are no drums here. Just us. Just me, weakened and maddened and stretched thinly between life and death, stretched to the point of breaking, holding on to a body and something one might call a soul. Holding it all together, within my small power to do so.

It'll be enough, though. It has to be enough.

Please.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Jack opened his eyes to shadowy I-beams, a sodium-arc glow through milky skylights. He was cold; he must've been dead for hours for his body temperature to drop so much. Seeing as he'd been willing himself not to come back at all...

The dark space looked like some kind of gymnasium, and he was draped in plastic. A makeshift morgue for all the dead of Thames House. He sat up, looked out over all the red-wrapped bodies, the latest victims of his hubris. And somewhere among them, somewhere in the room--

He heard a movement to his left and looked. Gwen was there, kneeling, facing away. Of course. Of course they'd be laid out side-by-side, since they'd have been found together.

He didn't want to look. He wanted to lay down again and die a little longer.

But Gwen was quietly sobbing, and dealing with her meant dealing with all of it. Jack carefully moved behind her, put an arm around her shoulder and...looked. Ianto. He had been dead for hours, too, all traces of color gone from his face. In a few hours more they'd have to move him again, for refrigeration or embalming, so they could release him to his family.

Stand up to them, he'd said. The Jack I know would've stood up to them.

And he had wanted to be that Jack, had thought for a minute that he could outrun his basic nature. He'd wanted so very badly to be the man Ianto was in love with, to atone for all he'd done and all he'd failed to do. He should've remembered that forgiveness required a sacrifice.

He'd thought he could save everyone, including himself, but the truth was covered in plastic before him.

"There's nothing we can do," Gwen whimpered, leaning into his shoulder.

-\-\-\-\-\-

The energy of the bioformantic matrix...the energy of me, basically...was enough to keep us here. Keep us fixed in the dark, if just for now. I wasn't the Bad Wolf, though, not even close; I couldn't even make out the way back to Ianto's body, let alone drag us there, not while I was burning myself up just to stay in this twilight place.

I wasn't going to give up. Couldn't give up, for my own sake, our sake, all our sakes. I just...wasn't sure what else I could do. I had waited too long, grown too weak, and dammit, it wasn't supposed to end like this.

Put that on my headstone, I thought miserably as I flew apart at the seams. Too little, too late.

Then I thought, Not the most uplifting epitaph.

No. Not I.

Ianto.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"All right, where the hell's number thirteen?" Fisher asked, looking at his clipboard. "Harkness, Jack? What'd he do, wander off?"

"Lieutenant said never mind it," Collins told him. "Who's next?"

"Number fourteen, Jones, Ianto." Fisher checked the face against the photograph and stuffed the plastic sheet into the biohazard bag. "Present and accounted for, this one."

Collins knelt down and started carefully checking Fourteen's pockets, while Fisher stuck a printed bar code label on a fresh bag. "No jewelry...wrist watch...mobile...fifteen pence...wallet, yep, name confirmed...biro...the fuck, he's got a gun?"

"Doesn't look like he'd know which way to point a gun," Fisher muttered.

Collins shook his head and ejected the gun's empty magazine, then racked the slide to check for a chambered round. "Not even loaded. Fat lot of good it did him, either way, I suppose." He dropped everything into the plastic bag Fisher held out for him, then continued the checked Fourteen's waistcoat. He pulled out a fob watch, the chain coiled under it instead of hooked into place, and after examining it a moment held it to his ear. "Stopped. That's a shame. My granddad had a watch like that."

"Can you shut up about your granddad?" Fisher growled. "I want to get this done by midnight, yeah?"

"I was just saying." He dropped the watch in the bag, and Fisher sealed it and signed over the seal before tossing it onto the cart. Collins put another bar code sticker on a zip tie and fastened it around Fourteen's wrist. "All right, who's next?"

"Fifteen," Fisher read off. "Lowry, Matthew." They moved on down the line, ignoring the other crews in the room who were bagging the bodies and carrying them out to the trucks.

-\-\-\-\-

So this is it, then? Death?

No. Not exactly. Not at all, actually.

Then I take it you're not a skeletal apparition with a taste for human souls.

No. I'm...call me Eiron.

I'm Ianto.

I know.

What is this, then, if I'm not dead?

We're...stuck. We're between.

Between what, exactly?

Life and death. Heaven and Earth. Something like that.

Is that where you came from?

No. No, I'm from a long way away.

From the sound of it, so am I.

You have a point there.

What are we doing here? Just waiting?

Waiting, yeah. Waiting for a miracle.

-\-\-\-\-\-

"We got incoming," Paulson called out, and Holly sighed, dragging herself to her feet again. Jimenez gave her a punch in the arm, but honestly, it was too damn late—or early, really—for cheering up. She'd been just about to go off duty when Paulson called for them all to report, and this was the third or fourth wave of stiffs to come in. Nights like this made her wonder why she'd re-enlisted.

The stiffs started coming down one and two at a time, and Holly caught the first gurney that came her way. "Remember to check the serial numbers," Paulson was calling over the clatter of wheels and the sound of zips. "We don't want anyone getting back a pair of lacy knickers labeled Grampa Joe's, eh?"

Holly opened the bag and checked the sticker on the stiff's wrist against the one attached to the zip. Undressing a corpse was tricky work, especially in a receiving room packed with people, and the stiff was at least six inches taller than her and no lightweight. She got his tie off all right, and shoes and socks were always the easy part, but his waistcoat and shirt were an absolute bitch.

"Need a hand?" Jimenez asked.

"Get your own stiff, I've got it," Holly growled, wrestling a sleeve off a floppy arm. This was the first stiff she'd seen of this lot who had a mark on him—a deep cut on his face, and all kinds of bruises under the clothes, the old kind that had started turning colors and stood out even where his skin was turning dark from the settling blood.

She folded the clothes into a bag—nice clothes, they were, the kind of thing the family would want back—and sealed it with one of the bar code stickers from the body bag. Jimenez took it to the computer for her, while she pulled a white smock onto the stiff. Once he was decent, she zipped him up again and pushed him to the doors of the freezer; someone else took him from there. "That it, then?" she asked, looking around to see all the other stiffs handled.

"Looks like it," Jimenez said. "Think the Lieutenant will let us knock off now?"

"God, I hope so," she said.

Over the intercom, Paulson called out, "Incoming!"

-\-\-\-\-\-

I'm sorry, I thought to the darkness, to myself. I'm really sorry.

For what? Ianto wondered.

I thought I could save us, I explained as I unraveled. I thought I was strong enough.

Ianto was confused, because he knew nothing of this place except what he'd been told, and certainly didn't know anything about me. What do you mean, save us?

I can...I thought I could. But I was burning up, burning out, without the energy to even drag us back from the brink of death, let alone to regenerate...or, I suppose, just generate, this time being the first. Maybe if I'd managed this a thousand years ago. Not now.

What was different a thousand years ago? Ianto asked, because the line between thought and thought-as-speech was treacherous and thin.

I was stronger. I was whole. I was real.

And what are you now? Ianto asked.

I'm a ghost, I confessed. I'm a ghost that never lived. I've been waiting and watching so long that I've become less than a name, and I needed someone, I needed you...but I can't save us. I can't do it. I'm sorry.

This didn't make any sense to Ianto at all. Why me? Why do you need me in particular?

I almost laughed at him. In some sense I did, across the thin line between wanting and doing. There used to be a lot of reasons, I said, but those were a long time ago. All that mattered now was that we loved you. Loved you so much. As much as we loved him. We left him and we lost him and we needed...

Who's him?

I didn't even know anymore; I couldn't explain when I was being pulled apart. We loved you. We needed you. We wanted to save you. But...

But what? He demanded, more confused than ever.

We would change, I admitted. You would change.

You mean, in order to save me? Ianto asked. What do you mean?

I don't know. You're be alive, I added. I'd be whole. But I don't actually know...I don't know what would happen. I could end up trapped again, I could cease to be...

The alternative being death, Ianto pointed out.

There are worse fates, I pointed out, thinking about Owen and Suzie and Gray.

I don't want to die, Ianto said, and he felt very small and scared, reduced to basic, primal fears. He wanted Jack and Gwen and Rhiannon and the kids, he wanted hands and eyes and a heartbeat.

And I, what was left of me, I could do him one better. Literally.

I don't know if I can do it, I said, even if I strained every part of myself, even if I tried.

Is there anything I can do to help? Ianto asked, even though he still didn't have the first clue what was I was talking about or what I meant to do. He just wanted to live.

And in spite of everything, he trusted me. He chose this.

Just be, I said, just be you. Just be...us.

And I stretched out, we stretched ourselves out and reached, strained, for the long climb back, the familiar road, unraveling, giving it all, all we had, all that remained--

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

"So what do you mean by a 'funny one,' Lieutenant?" Dr. Wainwright asked briskly.

Paulson squirmed. "I didn't know how else to put it, sir. One of the attendants noticed it—didn't say anything at the time, but we were all asleep on our feet, don't suppose she thought anything of it--"

"And what did she notice?" Wainwright asked as the elevator came down to the level of the morgue.

"Rigor mortis," Paulson said. "Or, actually, she didn't notice it—she said the body was floppy, the only one of the lot that was."

"How long had the deceased been dead?" Wainwright asked. "Rigor mortis progresses at different rates in different individuals."

"I...don't know, sir," Wainwright said. "They were all brought in together, sir, but we weren't given any records. They're classified," he added, when Wainwright rolled his eyes.

"Just because they were brought in together doesn't mean they died at the same time," he said, as Paulson unlocked the freezer. "Your 'funny one' probably just hadn't gone into rigor mortis yet. Or was past it. What about lividity? Temperature?"

"You can see for yourself, sir," Paulson said stiffly. The freezer wasn't actually freezing—wouldn't do to damage the bodies—but cold enough to make him shiver. He checked his clipboard against the numbers on the body bags. "Over here."

Wainwright unzipped the body bag and lifted the hand, flexing it. For the first time since Paulson had met him upstairs, he looked interested. "How long have they been here, did you say?"

"This one was received at 0100, sir," Paulson said.

"After nearly twelve hours, you'd expect more lividity," Wainwright murmured, unzipping the bag the rest of the way. "Where did these bodies come from again?"

"Classified, sir."

"All right, fine. Can you at least tell us this one's name?"

The body on the gurney suddenly spasmed. A moment later, the freezer was bathed in golden light.

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

He was cold. I was cold. Cold and stiff and weak and dark—the room was dark—there were people shouting, and my body was heavy and stiff and didn't like to move. Crinkling black plastic, buzzing white lights. I tried to move--

Oh, hello, that's the floor--

He pushed himself up and looked around, through the dark and the forest of steel gurneys, at his white smock and white hands, and just looking made him dizzy, disconnected. The world was spinning, and he knew it was supposed to do that, but it made him feel sick, like he needed to cling to the ground and hold on. I tried to get up, but sorting out arms and legs was harder than it looks from the outside, and the gurney was no help, rolling away from my hands.

Somebody was standing over me. Somebody had a gun. "Identify yourself!" He tried to speak, but even breathing was different, wrong, and his pulse was racing, like his heart—my hearts--

"I said, identity yourself!"

He...I....we...I looked up and laughed, hardly able to focus, hardly able to speak. "Good question," I think I said, and then I grabbed hold of the gurney and pressed my face to cold metal, waiting for the worst to be over, waiting for the rest to begin.

Chapter Text

I drifted in and out of consciousness for a while; in a way, that was a blessing. I needed that time to become an I, to sort out the different bits of myself that had suddenly come crashing together. The parts that knew how a body worked and the part that knew how Time worked. The parts that had never had a heart of his own and the part that didn't know what to do with two of them. The parts that were human and the parts that were ghost.

I was Eiron of Gallifrey, sure. But I was also Ianto Jones. I was, singular and whole, but also the sum of my parts. Think of it like one of those optical illusions, the figure and the ground, where sometimes you're looking at two faces and sometimes a single cup. Or the one with the hag and the pretty girl, the drawing of two people—that's far more appropriate. I was a single set of lines that just happened to make two extremely different people, depending on the way you chose to look—but the lines themselves always remain the same.

(I'm also fairly certain that a purely human brain would've exploded from the strain of it all, so don't worry if it doesn't make sense to you.)

So I drifted, and occasionally dreamed, and tried to put myself together. I was aware of people around me, but I wasn't very communicative—too easily distracted by memories and sensations and shiny objects. I knew I was moved at least twice, but I didn't recognize anyone or anything. I didn't have the energy or concentration to climb out of bed, much less carry on a conversation, though as I recall I attempted both. Time passed, but I couldn't do much more than pass with it, surfing the hours as I came together at the seams.

-\-\-\-\-\-

And then one morning I woke up clear-headed and calm. There wasn't anything gradual about it; if my arms and legs still felt like cooked spaghetti, well, I'd been bedridden, and mostly dead before that. And if my mind wasn't exactly functioning at full speed—if I was still liable to get distracted by a shiny object—it had more to do with the sheer newness of everything than any major malfunctions in my psychological makeup. Well, mostly.

I sat up and took my bearings: I was in a small, windowless room that locked from the outside, shabby but clean. My bed took up most of the space, but there was a table and chairs pushed against the wall, and a surveillance camera in a ceiling corner, winking at me. Whoever had brought me here had set up an IV and a forest of monitors, including two EKGs, one on either side of my chest. When I started pulling off leads, all the machines burst into shrill alarms.

A moment later, the door unlocked and two soldiers burst in—one had a rifle and one had a syringe. They stopped short when they saw me sitting up. "Er, hello," I said, and had to clear my throat; I had a feeling about four or five days had passed. "Could one of you perhaps get me some trousers?"

-\-\-\-\-\-

They brought me a set of loose scrubs and paper slippers, which at least enabled me to get to the toilet across the hall and back. They brought me a meal on a tray, which I managed to eat most of, though my stomach felt rather dubious about the whole "food" idea at first. And, thus fortified, they brought me a visitor, one who I recognized immediately.

"Ashton Down," I said aloud, the moment I saw the woman who'd sealed Jack in concrete. "How did I end up here again?"

"I assure you, Mr. Jones, this time around, you're here for your own protection." She sat down across the table from me. "I don't know about Torchwood, but in London we tend to notice when the dead don't stay where they're put."

Somebody had brought me coffee, which wasn't very good—by which I mean it wasn't very good coffee, and I probably shouldn't have been drinking it in my current condition. I set my cup aside and tried to look her in the eye, tried to look confident. I may have pulled off slightly mad. "And to what do I owe that act of kindness, Ms....?"

"Agent. Agent Johnson." She poured her own cup of coffee from the carafe, and while her voice was level, she also was looking at her drink and not me. "I suppose you could say it was a favor to the man who saved the world."

It too me a moment to realize she wasn't talking about me. "You mean Jack? He did it?"

She nodded, still not looking up. "He found a means to drive them off. For good, it seems, though I'm sure that's what they thought the last time."

"Is he here?" I asked without thinking. A part of me knew that he wasn't—the same part with a sense of the turning Earth knew that Jack was nowhere nearby, though I couldn't have explained quite how. But now that I was thinking clearly, I wanted to see him, knew I needed to see him and tell him everything that had happened, had been happening his whole life. I wanted to see him and touch him and hear his voice, not sobbing or grieving, one more time.

Johnson took a deep breath. "Captain Harkness sacrificed his grandson's life to repel the 456. He left this facility late Friday afternoon. His current whereabouts are unknown."

Steven. I flinched away from the thought of it. Part of me hadn't known he existed until a few days ago, but the other part—I had watched him grow up, bought him bicycles and Lego blocks, held him in my arms. I remembered it all so clearly, memories drawn straight from Jack's mind, as if I'd been the one to carry him on my back and call him soldier. Not quite ten years old. Never to make it that far.

And Jack, Jack who had already been weighed down with enough grief and guilt for ten lifetimes, who'd blown up not so long ago, and been buried alive for a second time, which was twice too often for any one man...of course he'd disappear, after doing something like that. Of course he'd run off to wallow, hide, lick his wounds. I couldn't really blame him. "What about...what about me?" I asked, rubbing my eyes. "Does he know I'm...?"

She shook her head. "I didn't get the report myself until late Friday evening. You apparently revolutionized the life of several low-ranking officers at a military hospital, and arrangements were made to transfer you to a more secure facility."

I looked around the grim gray room, barely more than a cell itself. "I take it you made certain I didn't get there?"

"My men have removed all the documentary evidence," she said. "There's not a scrap of paper or a pixel of data to show that you were among those taken out of Thames House."

"Except for the bit where we were being broadcast live to the Prime Minister," I pointed out.

"I doubt anyone is interested in discussing much of what they did or saw these past few days," she said dryly. "The spin machine is in full swing, just like all the incidents before now. Mass repression."

I toyed with my coffee cup for a bit. It was still halfway a marvel to live in a body I could move and control, halfway a marvel to be moving and breathing at all. "So what happens now?" I asked her, watching my own hands, the flexing of tendons and bones.

She watched me for a moment, and then put two plastic bags on the table. One held my clothes, the clothes I'd died in, and the other a jumble of my things. "You were never here," she said quietly. "A helicopter is waiting to take you to Cardiff, or wherever you'd prefer to go."

I blinked at her, probably looking rather stupid. "Just like that? You'll let me go?"

She looked back at her coffee. "In the past week, I have shot one of my own agents, killed the same man three times over, watched my government offer up children to aliens and then helped kill a child to stop them. I took an oath to protect the state, once, and suddenly I find that oath...open to interpretation."

I could sympathize, I really could. "Thank you," I told her, and even meant it.

She stood up, but hesitated. "I've read the Sullivan Papers, Mr. Jones," she said. "I know what it means when a man has two hearts and a tendency to glow in the dark."

"Do you," I said, grabbing the second bag and tearing open the bar-code sticker that sealed it. The watch was inside, cold and quiescent, nothing but a piece of machinery now. I still couldn't open the damn thing.

"But as I said, you were never here," she continued. "So there's nothing for me to report to my superiors at the moment."

I supposed it was the most I could expect from her, a favor and a warning in one. "We all have our duties," I said. "Though if you're ever looking to relocate to Cardiff..."

That drew a small, bitter laugh out of her. "I don't think so, Mr. Jones. I've had my fill of aliens for the time being."

I pulled my mobile out of the plastic bag and switched it on; there was hardly any battery left. For a few moments I thought about trying to ring Jack—but no, if he really wanted to go to ground it would take more than a phone call to dig him out again. Besides, now that I thought about it rationally, if I talked to him, I would have explain it all. And when I explained—after the week he'd had, after such a long time--

Better to leave him be, for now. Letting him think me dead for a while longer couldn't exactly make things worse. Besides, there was someone else I needed to speak to almost as badly.

I dialed, and the phone rang twice...three times...connected. "Hello?"

My mouth had suddenly gone dry, and I fought the urge to cough into the phone. "Hi, Rhi," I said awkwardly "Listen. There's, uh, there's been a mistake..."

-\-\-\-\-\-

I'm sure you can imagine how the conversation with Rhiannon went. Talking to Gwen was little better, with fewer hysterics but more active suspicion; once I was done reciting every password I'd ever used in Torchwood, though, we worked out a story to explain why I'd been "falsely" reported dead. It was n't a very good story, but it would at least work for Rhiannon and Johnny, who were the only ones who really needed to know.

"But Ianto, I saw you with my own eyes," Gwen said. "How is this possible?"

"I promise, I'll tell you everything when I get there," I said. "It's...a bit complicated. Have you been in touch with Martha at all?"

"Yeah, she's stuck in New York with a bunch of screaming generals right now, but she's on her way to Cardiff next thing." She sighed. "She's offered to help...you know...clean up properly."

"Well, God knows we're going to need it."

One of Johnson's men showed me to a room of showers and left me there with a toothbrush, a razor and a towel. I cleaned myself up and then spent a few moments looking into the dented steel mirror; just looking. Time Lords were supposed to change their appearance when they regenerated, or so I always understood, but my face hadn't changed; the cuts and bruises from the explosion had healed, but that was about it. Though of course, I was a unique case, what with the Chameleon Arch thing and the body-swapping thing and the dead thing. There probably weren't any rules for things like me.

I studied my face for a long time, just getting used to it being my face looking back at me. Even knowing that Jack's body was originally mine didn't mean I'd ever thought of his face as my own, but it was the one I'd been living in for such a long time...and really, his memories were as much a part of me as my own, another piece of my puzzle.

Ianto, Eiron, and Jack. The Three-Fold Man, like I said before.

Except, if in some sense I was Jack, then why did I miss him so badly?

-\-\-\-\-\-\-

I'd asked Rhi to meet me at the heliport, and she was there with both the kids and, for some reason, Gwen. I saw her hand fly to her mouth as soon as I climbed out, but she managed not to break towards me until I was safely away from the helicopter.

Of course, when she did run to me she caught me in a bear hug and started sobbing into my shoulder. I held her back, but I'd already said my last words to her, back in London; I couldn't think of anything more intelligent to say than, "Hey. I'm here."

She pulled herself together enough to say, viciously, "You bastard," but didn't let go.

"I'm sorry," I told her. "I really am. For all of it."

"You're the worst brother in the world," she added.

"What if I gave you twenty quid?"

She laughed, sounding a little hysterical, and finally pulled her face up to look at me. Definitely not the first tears today; her eyes were red and she wasn't wearing mascara. "Oh, god, Ianto..."

"I know." I gave her a squeeze, and yes, it was good to see her again—nothing like an alien invasion to bring a family closer together. But I also couldn't help but wonder if she was going to notice a certain irregularity in my heartbeat. That thought forced me to step back, and turn to the others, though Rhi kept a vise-grip on my arm and I let her.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the kids, but Mica, apparently taking her mum's example, seized me around the legs as held on tight. David was much too cool for that, but he did approach me without sticking a hand out for cash. "Dad got arrested," he declared.

"What for?" I asked Rhi.

"Standing up to those soldiers," she said. "They're the ones who sent him to the hospital, though, aren't they?"

"Are you a spy?" David asked.

"No," I said. "Mica, love, could you let go?"

She looked up at me. "I scared the bad men away."

"That's...really good." Jack might've been a part of me, but I still didn't have his easy manner with children. I wasn't sure if I should pick her up or bribe her to let go.

Thankfully, Gwen rescued me. "Come on, love, let's get Uncle Ianto into the car before he falls over," she said, and briefly made eye contact with me. "He's just got out of hospital himself, you know."

"Mum said you were dead," David said.

"Even mums make mistakes," I said.

Rhiannon laughed shakily. "Don't start that, now, they don't listen to me anyway..." She pried Mica loose and hefted her up. "Gwen here gave us a ride, seeing as you lost Johnny's car and all."

"I didn't lose it," I said, although I realized I also hadn't asked Agent Johnson what had become of it. I looked at Gwen; she shrugged. Two lost cars in the space of five days was probably some kind of record. "I'll get it back," I promised.

Gwen hugged me, too, briefly, and then steered me into the back of the car with the kids. "Come on, get in. D'you want to go back to yours, or--?"

"He's coming home with us," Rhi said as she helped Mica with her seatbelt. "I'm not letting this one out of my sight, not after this weekend."

Gwen caught my eye again, but I shook my head; I had put Rhiannon through hell this week, and there are lots of ways to atone. "I'll be fine," I said out loud. "Rhi's cooking hasn't killed anyone yet."

David and Mica giggled. Rhi rolled her eyes at me. Gwen just gave me a skeptical smile and got behind the wheel. "If you're sure, then," she said.

"Right now I feel like I'm going to sleep for the rest of the week," I said. "So it doesn't much matter where I do it. I'll catch you up later."

And to prove my point, I ended up falling asleep in the car on the way there, halfway through a rambling update on everything I'd missed since the disaster at Thames House. And again, on the couch, after a bone-crushing hug from Johnny ("Hey, big hero! Where's my car?") and tea that Rhi all but forced down my throat. I'd had a rough day five days. I think naps were allowed.

I woke up with Mica sprawled across me to watch Blue Peter. She said, "Hi," without taking her eyes off the screen, after I attempted and failed to move.

"Hi yourself," I said. "Where is everyone?"

"David went to the Singhs to play Halo and Mum and Dad went with Aunt Gwen to get your car 'cause you lost Dad's car," she said. "I'm s'posed to keep an eye on you."

I pointed out, "You're six."

Mica nodded, still not looking at me.

I at least got her to shift to a mutually agreeable position, and we watched the end of the program together. When the adverts came on, it was like a switch flipped; she squirmed around in my lap until she was facing me. "Your chest sounds funny," she declared.

"How do you mean?" I asked, but then she poked me on the right side, making a ump ump ump noise deep in her throat. "Oh. That's...because I've been sick."

"Oh." She studied me with a solemn expression that made her look...not older, because she was so tiny, but timeless. Definitely more serious than a six-year-old should ever be. "Mum said you saved the world."

I tried not to flinch, because when the world had really needed saving I'd been clinically dead. "Your mum also said I was dead," I pointed out. "Mums make mistakes sometimes."

"Then who saved it?" Mica asked, eyes wide.

"A friend of mine."

"Was it your boyfriend?"

I swallowed around the sudden lump in my throat, even as I retroactively cursed Rhiannon and her sense of timing. "No," I said. Stopped, thought about it. "No, actually...it was a boy. A little boy David's age. His name was Steven."

"Oh," she said again, still looking solemn. Then she curled up against my chest again, resting her head between my hearts, and I let her. Steven's death had saved her life, after all, and David's and millions of others; at least some of them should know his name.

-\-\-\-\-\-

I explained things to Rhi and Johnny, when the kids were in bed, as little as I could get away with. And I told them that up front. "There's a reason we keep it all a secret. Several reasons. You saw some of them last week. I'm not going to tell you anything that I think might put you in danger."

"It's our kids they was taking," Johnny said. "Don't we deserve to know what's going on?"

"Maybe," I said. "But that doesn't mean it's safe to tell you. And honestly, in my experience, people are happier not knowing."

"And the kids are happy eating pizza for every meal, but that doesn't mean we let them," Rhi said.

"I just need you to trust me," I said.

They both looked at me like I was speaking Japanese. "Ianto, we had soldiers in our house looking for you, people were spying on us and you stole my car," Johnny said, squinting through a pair of black eyes. "If we didn't still trust you, we wouldn't have let you in, would we?"

"That's extremely touching, thank you," I told him.

"Oh, don't start, you two," Rhi said. She poured more coffee. "Just tell us what you can, okay? I don't think that's asking much."

So I told them I wasn't really a civil servant, but I didn't say Torchwood. I told them that Jack was missing but I didn't tell them why. And I convinced them that aliens exist, but I didn't go so far as to admit I was one. After all, that sort of thing had gone so well for Jack so many times in the past, hadn't it? I'll have to tell them something eventually, of course—in weeks or months or maybe even years to come. I might even tell them the truth. But just then, I couldn't bring myself to upset the fragile peace we'd come to, especially considering what it had nearly cost. I didn't want to burn that bridge before I came to it.

Instead I spent the next few days napping excessively, and helping Rhiannon stuff envelopes, and calling London in search of Johnny's car. I didn't critique Rhi's cooking or argue with Johnny or complain about the neighbors (much). I even let David try to teach me Wii Sports, with roughly the consequences to my dignity one might expect. In short, I made an effort to actually get to know my family. I wanted to make the most of the time we had.

-\-\-\-\-\-

And then Martha arrived, and it was time to talk.

We met up at the hotel, because Gwen claimed she still didn't feel safe at home, no matter how many times she swept the place for bugs. "As if we needed more to worry about in this job, after the aliens and monsters and whatnot," she sighed. "At least those don't tend to follow us home."

"Well, not with compact microphones," I pointed out.

Rhys came with us, which I could hardly object to when he also brought coffees, and Martha gave hugs all around as soon as we came to her room. "I'm so, so sorry," was the first thing she said.

"There wasn't anything you could do," Gwen said. "Don't go blaming yourself."

"I'm the one who insisted on a honeymoon without mobiles," Martha said, and dragged a couple chairs over to the end of the bed so we could all sit down. "And I also mean that UNIT officially apologizes for the mishandling of the situation. Never thought I'd say I missed Colonel Mace, did I?"

She caught us up on everything that had happened on UNIT's end, and their follow-up projects—mostly trying to figure out how the 456 had hidden their ship, if they'd actually had one, or how they'd got here if they hadn't. We caught her up on everything starting from the bomb to our brilliant plan to confront them. "Jack thought they were bluffing," I explained. "Shock and awe and all that. He figured they needed us to round up the kids for them and wouldn't be stupid enough to destroy the same resource they were trying to harvest."

"It wasn't a bluff, though," Martha said.

I had a sudden, visceral memory of gasping on the floor, numb hands, numb feet, strong enough that I had to shut my eyes against it. "No."

There was silence. When I opened my eyes again, all three of them were looking at me. "What happened, Ianto?" Gwen asked quietly.

I let out the breathe I'd been holding. "It's complicated."

"You said that before," she said, insistent without being strident. "You said you'd explain, too, and I've been waiting all week."

She didn't say I deserve to know, but she could've. She did. I took a deep breath and fished the pocket watch out of my waistcoat. "Okay. Martha, I think you know what this is."

She took it from me, turned it over, and blurted, "Oh, no."

"What?" Gwen asked, eyes going wide.

Martha's eyes flicked rapidly between me and the watch, as if one of the two were going to suddenly mutate while she wasn't looking. "I swear, I'm going to start searching people for these things," she muttered.

"What is it?" Rhys asked. "It looks like just a fob watch."

"It is, sort of," Martha said. She held it up by the chain, like a hypnotist. "It's part of a machine called a Chameleon Arch—Time Lord technology, the Doctor's people. It sort of...aliens can use it to disguise themselves as humans."

Everyone's eyes snapped over to me. "Are you saying you've secretly been an alien this entire time?" Gwen demanded.

"No, I'm saying Jack's secretly been an alien this entire time." Three pairs of eyes bulged terrifyingly wife. I sipped my coffee. "I did say it was complicated."

To them, I explained everything. Well, almost everything. Some secrets weren't really mine to tell, and some were still too close to the surface, and some were so hard to explain that I glossed them over instead of getting bogged down in the details. I referred to myself in the third person a lot, for lack of more adequate pronouns. I used gestures.

And in the roaring silence when I was done, among the wide eyes and slightly open mouths, I added, "I'm still me, you know. Still Ianto. Just, I also happen to be an alien who's been living in Jack's pocket for two thousand years, so if some of this didn't make sense, it's not my fault." I quickly slurped my coffee to stop myself rambling on even more.

"Hold on," Martha said, and went into one of her bags. She came up with a stethoscope. Without being asked, I unbuttoned my jacket and waistcoat so she could listen to my chest, one side and then the other, frowning a little with concentration. When she had finished, she sat back and exhaled sharply. "Two hearts," she announced. "Only one kind of alien that I know of fits that description."

"Well, shit," was Gwen's succinct answer. She was staring at me—she and Rhys both were—and I didn't blame them. I concentrated on buttoning up my waistcoat again, not sure what I was meant to say to that. I had the absurd urge to apologize.

Martha filled the silence, though, so I didn't have to. "So, if you're...I mean, can you tell us where Jack is?" she asked. "Because UNIT's set up a trace and found nothing at all."

"I have some of his memories," I said. "Not everything. Nothing after the bombing, really. And after that...I don't think we'll find him unless he wants to be found." And he might not want that, not right now. At least he didn't have his wrist strap with him, which ensured he wouldn't be teleporting anywhere, but short of that...well, Earth was a large planet, and he'd had a five-day head start.

"Rhiannon doesn't know, does she?" Gwen suddenly asked. "About you."

I shook my head. "I haven't told her, no. I'm not planning to."

"So why'd you tell us?" Rhys asked.

"You deserve to know what happened," I said. "And...if there's still going to be a Torchwood after all this, you need to know."

Martha frowned. "You don't really think this is the end of Torchwood, do you?"

"Jack's gone, the Hub's gone, I've had an abrupt change of species and Gwen...may not want to stay on much longer," I said.

"I'm pregnant," Gwen translated, chin raised. "And the next person who says I can't do this job and be a mum is going to get kicked."

"We've been talking about it," Rhys said, and took Gwen's hand in a show of solidarity. "Probably leave me bald before I'm forty, but knowing what's out there..."

"Unless you want to quit?" Gwen asked me. "After...all this?"

I blinked at her. Of all the possible questions she could've asked me— "No," I said. "No, of course not." Whatever it my say about my mental health, I couldn't imagine leaving Torchwood—not after two years, not after two thousand. In all honesty, I'd been more afraid of Torchwood leaving me.

"Then we're settled," Gwen said, and grabbed my hand with her free one. "We're going to put Torchwood back together, we're going to keep doing our jobs, and we're going to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again," she said firmly. "And for the record, I don't care if you're a Weevil under that suit as long as you keep making the coffee, all right?"

"I think I can manage that," I said. I suppose after everything else we'd seen, I shouldn't have expected Gwen to be put off by a few revisions to my DNA; and even if her optimism rang a bit false, even if it was nothing but empty rhetoric, the fact that she said the words at all meant something. It gave me a starting point, a place to stand.

"What about Jack?" Martha asked. "Do you think he's going to come back?"

They all looked at me. In the spirit of empty rhetoric, I shrugged. "We've managed without him before. We'll manage again, if we have to."

Gwen squeezed my hand, smiling weakly at me. "Then let's get started."

Chapter Text

This is where we started from: no base, no equipment, one agent MIA and one planning to go on restricted duty (but not, emphatically, maternity leave) in a few months. Martha was in charge of UNIT's operations at the Hub site, but she was still traveling elsewhere at least two days out of any week on other business. Rhys was good for many things, but hunting Weevils wasn't among them. The police were not on speaking terms with us, except for Andy Davidson, who was in so much trouble over his participation in the estate riot that he hardly counted.

So things had been better. But we still had a job to do. So we did it.

-\-\-\-\-\-

In the interest of getting Roald Dahl Plass cleared for rebuilding as quickly as possible, UNIT simply scooped much of the debris of the Hub into skips and hauled it away to an industrial park on the edge of town. This was where we did "processing," which largely involved picking through gravel and twisted bits of metal for anything that was both recognizable and still worth keeping. Everything else was checked for hazards—biological, radiological, chemical, psychic, anything they had a sensor for—and then disposed of according to obscure UNIT protocols for such things.

We gave Myfanwy a proper funeral, though. Some protocols are made to be broken.

And at one point, Captain Price, the officer in charge of the operation when Martha wasn't around, brought me something in an evidence bag. It looked from a distance like a lump of coal, but then I realized there were blackened bits dangling off it, scraps of something shredded and soft. "Technological," Price said. "Didn't match anything in your records. Could it be bomb debris?"

"Unlikely," I said. "Let me look at it."

She handed me the bag and I turned it over a few times. Something glittered at me under the filthy surface; it had been battered and blackened, but the thing still held its shape. I very carefully felt over the sides, and when I found a particular button I pressed it. The thing in the bag gave a shrill protesting beep, and Price jumped. "What was that?" she demanded

"Just checking the battery," I said, and opened the bag. The actual band had been mostly sheered away, but it was definitely Jack's wrist strap, and though it stank of old blood and chemical explosives it was still operational. Thank god for fifty-first century quality control. "This is personal property of Captain Harkness. I'll take custody of it for now."

"It still needs to be documented," Price protested.

"I'll take care of it," I said. "After all, it's not like UNIT is preparing your own database of our inventory without our permission, are you?"

Price was a very blonde woman, almost translucent in her paleness, which meant she blushed very easily. "Of course not," she muttered, and fled the room.

I didn't need much sleep anymore, which allowed me to terrorize the soldiers by staying late and arriving early with good spirits and coffee that I didn't share, but that evening I left at a reasonable hour, and I took the strap with me. The band was clearly a lost cause, but with a little patience and many different products, I was able to clean the actual mechanisms until they gleamed, until I could almost forget how it had been damaged. Jack himself hadn't put so much effort into it in years; the days of pride in the Agency and their emblems were long gone. All diagnostic tests said it was in perfect working order, too, the exact sort of technology Torchwood was supposed to harvest for our purposes.

I put it away, very carefully, in a box. For when he came back. If he came back. For now.

-\-\-\-\-\-

Rebuilding meant recruiting; Gwen's growing belly didn't give us much of a choice in that. The first person she tracked down was Lois Habiba, though she didn't see fit to warn me about it, which meant our initial conversation went something like this:

I found her at my desk at the warehouse, going through my inbox, and didn't recognize her immediately. Since I knew she wasn't with UNIT, I attempted a polite, "Hello?"

She looked up and me and blurted, "Oh, my god."

"Er...Lois, right?" I remembered her face now, even though I'd only seen it a time or two through the contact lenses. Oddly enough, she still looked just as terrified as she had been at the time.

In fact, her answer to my question was, "Oh god. Oh god."

"I don't mean to be rude, but aren't you meant to be in prison right now?" I asked her. Gwen had said Lois was arrested, so it seemed the logical outcome.

She just pointed a finger at me and declared, "You're dead."

I flinched. Of course, before being arrested she'd been with COBRA, watching our ill-fated stand. "Did Gwen bring you here?" I asked her, hoping for some kind of coherent reply.

But Lois was still gibbering. "I saw you—on the screen—you went to Thames House with Captain Harkness!"

"Yes. Right. Wait here a moment." I left the room that served as our de facto back-up Hub and shut the door firmly behind me. "Gwen!"

Lois did eventually calm down, but only as long as I wasn't talking or looking at her; Gwen insisted that this was a perfectly logical first new hire. "We owe her," she told me quietly when Lois was out of the room. "She risked a lot to help us. And we know she's brave, and God knows we need the help."

"Yes, she'll be tremendous help when we need to staple a Weevil to death," I said.

"I've already given her the contract," Gwen said. "It's done. Unless you're planning to pull seniority on me?"

With just the two of us, chain of command had seemed irrelevant, not to mention a forgone conclusion. "Two months is hardly a relevant difference," I pointed out, wondering why we were revisiting an old argument.

"And the hundred years before that?" she asked.

I hadn't exactly thought of it that way, and something in her voice made me realize we weren't talking about Lois anymore. "You think I'm going to try to take over for Jack?"

"Of course not," Gwen said, but she was looking too hard into my eyes. "Just wondering how to calculate your pension plan now."

"Trust me, I've no interest in leading Torchwood," I said. Jack hadn't, either, I wanted to add, but it didn't seem like the time for telling such secrets. Gwen just nodded, and I wondered how long she'd actually sat up worrying about that. "Back on the subject of Lois, what are we supposed to tell her about me?"

"The truth," Gwen said. "If I'm in command, I'm making that an order."

"Can we trust her with it?" I asked.

"We're going to have to, Ianto," she said, and when I failed to muster proper enthusiasm, she sighed. "Think of it this way: If anything should happen to you in the field, do you want to be explaining yourself while you're bleeding green and purple all over the A&E, or beforehand?" she asked.

"I do not bleed green or purple," I said. "And for future reference, I still make the coffee around here."

For some reason, that brought Gwen out laughing until tears rolled down her face.

-\-\-\-\-\-

The conversation with Lois did raise some pertinent questions, and after her next business trip Martha brought me a copy of the Sullivan Papers—really just a loose collection of trivia and educated guesses about Time Lord physiology based on UNIT's previous encounters with the Doctor. Still, it was good information to have, since left to my own devices I probably would've poisoned myself on aspirin or something equally ridiculous.

"And if you want to know more," she added, with no small arch of the eyebrow, "I still have the Doctor's number. He won't exactly turn away questions."

Of course not. As far as he knew, he was the only Time Lord in existence; he might overlook me entirely if I didn't seek him out. The same way he'd overlooked me every time before. Not that I held a grudge; not that I could honestly wish for different, from where I stood. That wasn't even a considerations as I told Martha, "No." When she raised that eyebrow even higher, I added, "Not right now, at least."

"Can I ask why?" Martha asked, and more than a little pointedly.

Which is why I looked at my hands, not at her, while I groped for words. "It's not that I don't want to see him," I said slowly. "But I'm still...I've been living human lives for so long. Maybe too long. I'm not sure what it even means to call myself a Time Lord, and I certainly don't know if I can live up to the Doctor's expectations. I mean, he and I constitute and endangered species, for god's sake."

Martha nodded. "All right. I understand that. But I also think you should tell him sooner, rather than later."

"What, that I've been hiding in plain sight all this time?" I asked. "He's not going to like that."

"He doesn't like being alone, either," she shot back.

I looked her in the eye. "I'm not going to leave Torchwood for him, though. And you know he's going to ask."

"And you can say no to him," Martha said. "I mean, I have."

"No offense, but it's hardly the same situation," I pointed out.

She sighed. "All right, all right, you win. Just...don't put it off, okay? It's not going to get any easier."

"I hardly think a few weeks will make a difference in the grand scale of things," I said, and she made a face at me while I finished signing everything.

It was only later that I realized that we weren't only talking about the Doctor.

-\-\-\-\-\-

I did look for Jack. From our room in the warehouse, I checked up on his bank accounts, searched for his usual aliases. I read up on old friends he might've gone to ground with, checked newspapers and police blotters from some of his old non-Cardiff haunts. I turned our shiny new facial-recognition software loose on news footage and blog photographs in case he was in the background. I even tried the GPS chip in his mobile, even though he'd stopped answering it.

But Jack was being even more paranoid than usual, it seemed. Hardly surprising, given recent events. And just because I had known him so long and so very well, it didn't mean I knew the first thing about anticipating him. Not when there was an endless loop of second-guessing involved, all that "they know that I know that they know that I know" nonsense. After a while it made even my head hurt. And it was a little terrifying, really, to see from the outside how Jack could just melt away like that without a trace when he didn't even have his wrist strap handy.

I explained it all to Gwen when my frustrations peaked. I may have even wandered into a full-blown rant. She just rolled her desk chair over to me and put her hand on my shoulder and said, "I miss him, too."

"That is entirely ancilliary to my point," I told her.

"No, it's not." She gave me a gentle squeeze. "He'll come back, Ianto."

I thought of all the lives Jack could be leading, all the long years spread out before him, and all he'd lost. His wrist strap was still in my desk. There was that. "Yeah," I said. "He'll be back."

-\-\-\-\-\-

Time, as it has a troubling tendency to do, passed.

We taught Lois how not to drop her gun or get eaten by Weevils, and she helped us track down a pediatric oncologist who'd been hounded out of a job for trying to study the 456's broadcasts. Martha found us a lance corporal who'd tried to lead a mutiny somewhere in Northern Ireland rather than round up kids. They weren't perfect people, but they were the kind of people we needed—brilliant and good and just a little bit damaged. Also, they didn't go into hysterics when a pack of Hoixes attacked their first day in town, which was perhaps the best job interview we could've conducted.

We finished cleaning up the blast site and celebrated the pouring of the new walls and ceilings—a rush job so that the council could finally start putting the Plass back together on top of it. We were still working out of the warehouse until we could find a few spare minutes for major reconstruction, but Gwen smashed a bottle of champagne over the damp concrete anyway, and there was cake.

I celebrated Christmas at Rhiannon's, and it was almost normal—no sleepwalking, no attacks on London—except for Mica's crayon drawing titled "Uncle Yanto Saves the World." It seemed to involve me wielding a cross between a broadsword and a hoover. There was another small figure in the corner, surrounded by stars. "Who's that?" I asked her.

"That's Steven," she said. "He's saving the world, too."

We rebuilt. We did our jobs. Gwen brought in ultrasound photos and then organized a series of secret weapons drops all over the country in case we ever had to go on the run again. I found myself doing much of Tosh's old job—not that I was actually qualified, but I was by far the best educated guesser when it came to radioactive things with unlabeled buttons, and more durable in the event I guessed wrong. Lois proved that she had either grown as a person or totally snapped by holding a Thlanarian at bay for over twenty-four hours with naught but a stapler, a pen light and a few stern words.

You know. Torchwood.

I went home alone at night, slept to the extent I needed it, volunteered to work extra shifts or go out solo. Once I tried to climb on the roof of the Pierhead Building, to look over the bay and the construction and the city lights, but it was cold and I felt like such a fool that I climbed right back down. After that, when the time got to be too much, I walked the waterfront, staring out over the little waves at the invisible point where the Rift was inexplicably tethered. It was almost as good at delivering people as it was at stealing them, and we'd used it before to amplify a signal into the stars. I wasn't the praying sort—not for any value of the pronoun—but if there had been anything worth praying to, I might have done it there.

I was an old hand, though, at waiting around this city for a mysterious traveler to return. I just hoped that this time it wouldn't take a hundred years.

-\-\-\-\-\-

And then one morning I woke up, and something was different. It was something in the slant of the light and the smell of the breeze, as if I were seeing everything—this cup of coffee, this jar of marmalade, this pigeon—for the first time. It nagged at me like a muscle ache. I tried all the way to work to put it into words, but the only thing that came out when I walked through the office door was, "Jack's here."

Gwen was on the phone, and looked up at me with wide eyes. "Hold on just a minute, okay?" She covered it partly with her hand. "You mean he's here?"

"Not here-here, just," I waved my hand. "Close. Don't ask me how I know, I can't explain it."

Gwen raised the phone to her ear again. "Ianto says he's close to Cardiff. I don't know, Spidey sense or something, you're the expert.... All right. All right, we'll keep in touch." She set the phone on the table and sighed. "That was Martha. She says Jack showed up at her sister's place in London last night. Scared the poor woman half to death, but they just had a nice chat and a cup of tea and then he was gone again. Her dad thinks he saw Jack recently, too, but he wasn't sure. Any idea what he's up to?"

An unannounced visit to Tish Jones? And Clive? "I don't know," I admitted. "I mean, unless he was..." I stopped. Surely not.

"You finish your sentences, Ianto Jones," Gwen said direly.

"Did Martha mention any traffic in the solar system recently?" I asked hesitantly. "Not necessarily close to Earth, but nearby?"

That provoked a small, wide-eyed laugh. "You think he's leaving?" she asked. "You think he's just going to stick out his electronic thumb and hitch a ride?"

"If anyone could do, it'd be him," I said. "He might be hoping to use the Rift to amplify some kind of signal. He might just be here to say goodbye."

"Can you find him?" she asked me, thought I was fairly certain she meant, can you stop him?

And the answer to that question was no, but that wasn't something I was ready to admit, and certainly not what she needed to hear. "I can try," I said. "Give me a couple of hours."

He was somewhere in Cardiff, but there was no way we could search every CCTV camera in the city, every minute of the day. I set up the computers to focus on places I thought he might linger, like the Plass, but of course Jack knew better than anyone about how to avoid the cameras in his favorite spots. I checked passenger lists of all the planes and trains that had recently arrived, but none of the names pinged me as a likely alias. I tried the GPS on his mobile again, but of course, that was still a dead end.

I took his wrist strap out of my desk and went to a half-dozen shops before I found a new band for it. It was one thing he could be coming back for, a specific thing, a simple thing. I didn't think it was the only thing. There was also Gwen; Jack would want to find out how she was getting on, and to say goodbye. If Leo Jones merited a visit, then he'd certainly stop and talk to Gwen.

And I had an idea—one that may have been colored by vanity, but only just—that she wasn't the only one, either.

-\-\-\-\-\-

The cemetery was surprisingly green for March, half the trees showing signs of life while the others were still garlanded with last year's brown leaves. I'll admit it had been years since I'd been there, but I could hardly forget the location. There weren't any headstones, just the flat plaques that the groundskeepers could easily mow over, and when I found the right one I had to brush some clumps of dried grass clippings away before the names came clear. Hugh David Jones 1949 – 2001 Devoted Father, one side said; the other was Josephine Llewelyn Jones 1956-1987 Taken Too Soon.

The lot to the left of them was empty. The lot to the left might always be empty. But Jack didn't know that. I walked a little way off into a stand of trees to watch and wait.

I can categorically say it was among the worst afternoons of my life.

-\-\-\-\-\-

He came at dusk. The clouds were letting through only small bursts of color, streaks of orange or gold or salmon, and under the yews the cemetery was already mostly dark. I watched him approach, trying to tell myself it wasn't him, even though I could feel him coming—not just the dissonance of the Vortex energy, but something else, too, something that drew my attention in, the way a steel pin will align with a magnetic field. Also, he was still wearing the coat. He walked with his back straight, but there was something brittle about his posture, like he'd crack if he moved too quickly. I couldn't see his face.

He stopped at the empty lot. Looked for a marker. Checked something from his pocket and then looked again. He studied the other graves, lingered over the one to the right, and returned to the empty lot. His head was bowed.

I shoved my hands in my pockets and walked towards him over the damp grass. I'd had all afternoon to think of things to say, to have this conversation over and over in my head, to envision all the possible endings and worry them ragged. I saw the set of his shoulders change the moment he heard me approach, but he didn't run away from the empty lot where I should've been buried.

When I was almost close enough to touch him, I stopped, and called out. "Would you like to hear a ghost story?"

For a moment he didn't move, didn't even breathe, and I knew he'd recognized my voice. After a moment he said, flatly, "I don't believe in ghosts."

"Look at me, Jack," I said, and dared come a bit closer. "Do I look like one?"

He turned around slowly. I wasn't sure if I was expecting to see a change in him; of course I knew his face was a fact, frozen in time, but I'd entertained fantasies that perhaps I'd be able to see under the skin, still, at what six months of grief and guilt had wrought.

I couldn't read his mind anymore, though. His thoughts were opaque and his expression was tired and closed. He studied my face, shoulders falling by a degree, almost hunching. "It's impossible," he declared after a minute.

"So are you," I said. "We're surrounded by impossible things every day, to the point that cheating death hardly even rates a day off."

He studied me more carefully, raising his chin a little. "How?" he demanded.

"It's a complicated story," I said, and pulled the watch from my pocket by the chain. "And it starts with 'Long ago and far away.'"

I held out the watch and he caught it without touching my hand. I watched him study it, flip it open to look at the mechanism, and then he closed it and saw the engravings on the casing. Now that it was empty, there was nothing to stop him recognizing it for what it was. "Where did you get this?" he asked tensely.

"Don't you remember, Jack?" I dared to step closer, close enough to just feel the heat radiating off him. "You gave it to me."

The word remember made him flinch, and he closed the watch in his fist. I thought perhaps he was shaking slightly. "This is impossible," he said again, but almost stridently, and he took a step back like he was going to flee.

I stepped as close as I dared, close enough to see how his eyes were shot with blood, and he automatically shifted his posture again, loosening up as if for a fight. "It's not impossible," I said. "You know how the Chameleon Arch works. You've seen watches like this before."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "It can't be true. I'm not --" But he stopped short without finishing the sentence, released a huff of breath that made a mockery of laughter.

"All your life, you've felt like you're missing something, haven't you?" I said quickly. "You've been looking for an answer when you didn't even know what the question was. That's the answer, Jack. I'm the answer." I dared step even closer, and this time he didn't tense up. "I've been hiding in silence for hundreds of years, the ghost in the machine, the silent observer. The same thing that keeps you alive was killing me, so I had to leave. But because I love you, I came back."

His eyes were huge now, so wide and blue. His mouth had fallen open a bit, and he gave a breathy little laugh, almost like a sob. "You've still got a Welsh accent," he said, apropos of nothing.

"That's because I'm still me," I said. "I'm still Ianto. Just...more."

I hadn't dared touch him yet, in case he pulled away, but he suddenly reached out and grabbed my wrist. I let him tug on it, as if he feared I wasn't solid, and let him feel for my pulse—the way my hearts were hammering, I'd have been surprised if he could tell one beat from the next. And when it looked like he was about to let go, I turned my hand and seized his, holding on. "This is insane," he said, which was a bit better than impossible, and he didn't try to break my grip. "You're...Ianto, you died."

"I was there at the time, yes."

"You died and you didn't regenerate," he said firmly. "That's not how it's supposed to happen."

"I wasn't suppose to jump into another body, either," I said, with more authority than I actually felt. "I wasn't supposed to be a separate consciousness from you. You're not supposed to be immortal. The rule book seems to have been chucked out the window a while ago when it comes to us."

"Us," he echoed. "Does that mean me, or Ianto, or...whoever you are?"

"All of the above, really," I said. "The part of me that's Ianto is the same. The part of me that's Eiron remembers being part of you."

Jack started, and that, perhaps, was the moment he really started to believe, when he heard my other name for the first time outside his own head. He was gripping my hand just past the point of pain now, and staring at me in helpless shock. "Christ," he blurted.

"Wrong trinity," I said immediately.

And Jack burst out laughing, and pulled me into his arms.

He was shaking a little; I suppose I was as well. It felt so good to hold him, even if he was a Fact; I'd been used to far worse before, and any amount of Wrongness was outweighed by the feel of his arms, the smell of him, the soft wool of his coat under my hands. For a long time all we did was cling to one another as the last of daylight fled, and I had time to be relieved that I had convinced him, at least for now. That he seemed to understand what I was and had not elected to run away screaming, which even for Jack was always a possibility. I had time to pull him as close as I could and entertain the idea that perhaps this was going to be easier than I thought.

Then Jack whispered hoarsely in my ear. "Come with me."

And even while I stole a few more seconds of his warmth, I said, "No."

He went rigid again, and pulled away like I'd burned him. I held his eyes, and fought the urge to explain, to argue, to beg—it would've all been senseless rambling. "I can't stay here," he finally said. "This whole planet is like a graveyard, I can't--"

"You can," I said. "You can come back with me. We need you, Jack." I need you, I meant, but we'd already had that conversation.

He shook his head. "You don't. You shouldn't—and anyway, I can't. I haven't traveled far enough yet." He looked away, into the cloud-cloaked sunset. "Got a lot of dirt to shake off my shoes."

"You know, I've been waiting for centuries to tell you something." I took a deep breath, and caught his hands again. "It's not all about you, Jack."

His eyes went so wide that in another other situation, I might've laughed at him. "It's all my fault," he said, seemingly shocked at having to explain this. "Steven, you...Owen and Tosh and Suzie and...all of them. Because of me."

"We all made mistakes," I said. "And we live with them. You are going to have to live with them, no matter how far you run. So I fail to see how hurting the people who still love you will atone for all your sins."

He flinched, but didn't put his hands away. "You know, you once called me a bigger monster than anything in the vaults."

"I was wrong," I said quietly.

"I don't know about that." He shut his eyes for a moment. "I began to like it. Being the hero. Saving the day. And look what I became."

"And you think that you can escape that so easily?" I asked. "That if you run far enough, you can outrun yourself?"

He opened his eyes and smiled shakily, a parody of his normal grin. "Impossible things happen all around us. Can't I hope for just one more?"

I left go of his hands and stepped back, clear of his personal space. I reached into my pocket and handed him his wrist strap. "I suppose you'll be needing this, then," I said, as businesslike as I could manage. "We recovered it from the debris. Still in working order, as far as I can tell, though I had to put a new strap on."

He tried to catch my hand again as he took the strap, but I pulled it back. "You could come with me," he said, sounding almost desperate. "There's a cold fusion cruiser surfing the ion reefs at the edge of the solar system. I just need to send a signal."

I did think about it; I couldn't help but conjure up a vision of us, together, new worlds unfolding that really were new to both of us. Of Jack rid of his demons, free and happy and strong like he'd never been. Of world enough and time for anything and everything we might ever want to do.

And then I shook my head. "No," I said again, even though it nearly killed me. "Torchwood needs me. Gwen and Rhiannon need me."

"So do I."

It was barely audible, but Jack's heart was in his eyes, and I suddenly I could see him perfectly. "Then stay," I said, and didn't bother hiding the tremor in my voice. "Live with the messes you've made, and let that be your penance. Live like a mere mortal and maybe you'll remember what it was like to be one. I'm not going to stop you going," and that was more than a tremor, that was all the emotion that I couldn't express piling up in my throat, almost choking, "but I want you to stay. Please. Stay with me."

Jack suddenly surged forward and kissed me. I grabbed his coat and held my breath, tried to memorize this moment—the shape of his hands and the taste of his lips, his body's warmth and his heart's impossible rhythm, all of it—against a dozen lifetimes of doing without. I opened my mouth to his in one last silent plea.

And surprisingly, impossibly, Jack broke the kiss and pulled me close, pressing his face into the side of my neck. "Okay," he murmured thickly, and my hearts leapt, and somewhere above us the clouds began to break apart and reveal the distant stars. "Okay. I'll stay."

-End-