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The Quick and the Dead

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OH. IT'S YOU AGAIN.

Jack squinted into the gloom. He felt ... weird. Everything recent was a blur, including where he was, exactly. Still, even confused and dazed and feeling distinctly off, he managed to fall back on a lifetime's habits: hand on hip (and why did it seem like he might not even have a hip?), head tipped at what he knew was a rakish angle as he observed the tall figure draped in black.

"Well, hello there, tall, dark, and handsome. I'm Jack Harkness; who might you—"

WAIT. YOU DON'T KNOW ME.

"I'm sure I'll remember if you put the hood back. G'kandri-5?" Jack guessed wildly, pulling a random one-night stand out of the air. Things were starting to come back in pieces, and he wasn't getting a good feeling about those pieces. Guns. Running. Daleks ...

OH. OH MY. THIS IS AWKWARD. The figure stirred and reached into its robes with—uh, wow. That was a very convincing robotic skeletal hand.

A flash of light, the feeling of every cell in his body igniting simultaneously—

The figure brought out a large hourglass in an ornate, dark frame and brought it close to its cowl.

"That's a nice scythe," Jack said, still valiantly struggling to deny what he increasingly suspected was true.

THANK YOU. AH YES, THERE IT GOES. The sand in the hourglass was tumbling upward, as if sucked back into a vacuum.

Jack took a step forward, something catching in his chest. The writing on the base of the hourglass ... he hadn't seen that script since his childhood, and that name was—

Javic Piotr Thane.

—not the name he was using now.

"Am I dead?" he asked, and it came out small and almost broken, more a child's voice than a man's.

NOT FOR LONG.

"Wait, wha—"

Light.

*

Turned out dying was easier when you had some experience at it. Sort of.

HELLO. IF YOU ARE GOING TO PANIC, PLEASE BE ABOUT IT SO THAT WE CAN—

"Hey, it's you!" Jack said. "Skeleton! Death! Remember me?"

There was the briefest of pauses from the black-clad apparition. YES, OF COURSE I KNOW WHO YOU ARE. YOU ARE JAVIC PIOTR THANE.

It threw him a little less than it would have if he hadn't seen it on the hourglass, a name he hadn't heard in a very long time on the ... well, lips wasn't entirely accurate as the—being? robot? person? didn't seem to have any.

"Yeah, that's me, but we've met before. You don't remember?"

I ONLY EVER MEET PEOPLE ONCE.

"Oh," Jack said. He started to sit down, but was stymied by the lack of places to sit. "Right, yeah. I guess I would have assumed that you ... but yeah, that hasn't happened for you yet."

AH. CONFUSION. A COMMON SYMPTOM. DO YOU KNOW WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU?

"Yeah, I'm dead." Jack tried to check the chrono function of his vortex manipulator, only to find that it didn't work here. Figured. On the other hand, what time zone was death in, anyway?

HMM. CONFUSED YET CALM. IT MAY NOT HAVE SUNK IN YET. One skeletal hand beckoned. WITH ME, THEN. I—OH—THAT'S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN—

"It does though," Jack said as the skeleton plunged a hand into its robes and whipped out an hourglass. It was the first time he'd glimpsed its face, as it leaned close to the hourglass. A skull: well, what had he expected, anyway? The bony face didn't change, and yet the confusion was obvious in its pose and the glimmer of the pinpoint lights under the edge of the cowl.

WHAT ARE YOU?

"That," Jack said as the gloomy nothing washed out around him, "is a good fucking question."

*

YOU'RE BACK, I SEE. INEVITABLE, OF COURSE. AS IT IS SAID. TAXES AND ME. HA HA. THAT WAS A BIT OF A JAPE.

"Hilarious," Jack grunted, unable to quite shake the feeling of a bullet drilling through his ribs. He was remembering his deaths better now, which didn't seem to be a plus in this case.

THANK YOU. ANYWAY, YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY.

"Do I?" Jack said, looking around. Through what seemed to be an extremely heavy fog, he could dimly glimpse elements of the Victorian alley he'd died in. They didn't seem to be somewhere else so much as one step off from the real world. Of course, it might as well have been light years. For most people, anyway.

ONCE IS CHANCE, AND TWICE IS A, A WOSSIT, RIGHT ON THE TIP OF MY STYLOID PROCESS—

"Coincidence."

YES. THAT. The skeleton extended its hand toward Jack, then jerked it back and yanked out the hourglass. WHAT.

"Byyyyeeeeeee." Jack let it trail away with a wave as the world, and the pain, washed back in.

*

OOOH. THAT ONE LOOKED PAINFUL.

*

HMM. A BAR FIGHT. UNSURPRISING.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

*

YOU KNEW SHE WAS LYING ABOUT THE JEALOUS HUSBAND.

"Oh, shut up."

*

"You know," Jack said, before the skeleton could get the first word in, "we don't have much time, and the least you could do is answer some questions."

THE MEANING OF LIFE IS 42.

"That ... made absolutely no sense whatsoever."

REALLY? I THOUGHT IT QUITE A CUT-UP.

"Look, it's not like I'm going to remember anything you tell me when I wake up, because I don't remember you when I wake up—which, come to think of it, is one of the things I wanted to ask about."

YOU DON'T? HMM. INTERESTING.

"So what is this place?" Jack asked, slightly desperate now. "Who are you? What are you? What's on the other side? Why can't I get there?"

THAT'S BEYOND THE SCOPE OF THE SORTS OF CONVERSATIONS I NORMALLY HAVE.

"What sort of conversations do you normally have?" Jack asked, aware of the clock ticking but curious anyway.

OH, YOU KNOW. THE USUAL. 'OUCH.' 'OH MY.' 'WHAT, I'M DEAD?' AND COMMENTS OF THAT NATURE. AS WELL AS A GOOD DEAL OF SCREAMING.

"Yeah, I expect so. Maybe if you ditched the scythe," Jack said.

The cowled head rotated to stare at the scythe's blade. BUT I LIKE THE SCYTHE.

"Do you actually do anything with it, though? I thought the Grim Reaper was supposed to use it to reap the souls of the dead, but I've never seen you swing it."

FIRST OF ALL, 'GRIM' IS A BIT JUDGMENTAL, DON'T YOU THINK? I STRIVE FOR 'JOCULAR.' OR AT LEAST 'MILDLY PLEASANT.'

"I ... the ... uh, okay, look, the Mildly Pleasant Reaper doesn't have the same ring at all, and—shit," Jack muttered as he felt the all-over tingling awareness of his growing physicality, sweeping away the numb not-thereness of actual death.

I LOOK FORWARD TO NEXT TIME. SORT OF.

*

"So you're just not going to tell me anything at all about death, the mysteries beyond death, and so forth."

NOT PLANNING ON IT, NO.

"It's only, I have this—er, coworker, who's having a problem with it, and I thought you might be able to ..."

OH, Death said with something that might actually have been a sigh if lungs were involved. HIM.

"You've met Owen, then."

WHY AM I COMPLETELY UNSURPRISED THAT YOU TWO KNOW EACH OTHER.

"Hey!" Jack said, feeling irrationally defensive. "I had nothing to do with—okay, maybe something to do with—"

NEXT YOU'LL BE TELLING ME YOU KNOW SUZIE VARMA COSTELLO.

"Um."

*

"Let me through."

I CANNOT.

"Why?" Jack demanded, and for the first time in all the times he'd ended up in this godforsaken nothing of a place he felt his nonexistent eyes prickle with tears. "Just—why are you keeping me here; what is it to you? Get out of my way—"

He knew it was stupid, knew it was useless—there wasn't a physical barrier between himself and small-d death. And yet he piled into Death anyway (the Grim Reaper, whatever it called itself), swinging with both fists. He felt the collision, not quite as he might have felt it in life, but the skeletal hands catching his arms were real (he didn't wonder until later where the scythe went); the feeling of the bones under the rough fabric of the robes was real.

IT IS NOT SOMETHING THAT I HAVE THE POWER TO DO.

From this close, Death's voice shivered the air around him. He wasn't sure when the fight had died out of him, or when the cold, hard hands had gone from holding him off to holding him up.

"I'm done," he said, cheek pressed against the dark robe. There was a smell to Death, but it was nothing he could ever have put a name to. Something dry and cool and papery, or perhaps more like the memory of paper. The scent of a library with no books that has been closed up for a thousand years. "I'm just done with it, tired of coming back, tired of losing people. I want to move on. See what's next."

His tears seemed to evaporate as they were shed. He pushed away after a moment, giving Death a hard shove. The bones rattled.

I CANNOT GRANT WHAT YOU WISH.

"I know," he said, and swiped a hand across his face. There was a faint tingling, the feeling of the world calling him back. Fuck the world, fuck all of it. "Why do you show up every time, anyway? By now you must know there's no point."

BECAUSE IT IS WHAT I DO, Death said, and he choked on a harsh, angry laugh, he was about to tell Death where it could take its duty and shove it, but the next words in that strange, sepulchral voice stopped him cold. BECAUSE NO ONE SHOULD BE IN THE DARK ALONE.

The world shuddered through him, and pulled him back.

*

YOU ASKED ME ONCE ABOUT DEATH.

"Did I?" Jack said. He wiped his hand across his not-actually-there face and tried to pull himself together, so to speak. He'd died in a sun going nova, along with a ship of Halletian refugees. At least the rest got out. That was going to be a bugger to come back from.

I TOLD YOU I HAD NO ANSWERS TO GIVE.

He gulped air into lungs he didn't have, and tried to let it go. He was calmer these days; he almost had to be. "And you're bringing it up now, why?"

I STILL HAVE NO ANSWERS. SOME MYSTERIES ARE BEYOND WHAT I, AS AN ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION OF DEATH, AM ALLOWED TO KNOW.

"Oh, wow. Thanks."

BUT I CAN TELL YOU THIS, Death said. WHATEVER IT IS THAT THEY GO TO, THEY GO WILLINGLY.

After a moment, Jack said, "That's your idea of being comforting?"

THEY ARE NOT UNHAPPY, Death said.

Strangely enough, that was what followed him back: what he almost half remembered, upon waking.

*

I HAVE MET YOU FOR THE FIRST TIME NOW, YOU KNOW.

"Yeah, obviously," Jack said, and then, "Wait, really?"

He tried to think back on it, that first encounter, and was a little surprised to find that he couldn't remember details. But who would, after so long. A distant memory of shock, perhaps. Seeing that skeletal figure for the first time.

By now it was the only true constant in his life. Well, that and the Doctor, for whatever that was worth.

"So what was I like?" he asked, trying for a little of his habitual Jack Harkness charm.

YOUNG.

"I literally haven't aged. I can't."

I KNOW. BUT YOU WERE YOUNG NONETHELESS.

*

"Are you really going to come every time?"

He hadn't asked it before. Or maybe he had, who knows. Two thousand deaths, or ten thousand—they were all the same after a while. It was, in its own way, almost like coming home.

OF COURSE I AM. IT IS WHAT I DO.

Jack smiled a little. "Your duty."

I HAVE GROWN RATHER USED TO IT BY NOW.

"Haven't we all," he murmured, and he moved forward while he still had time, stepped easily into the skeleton's reach, between the scythe and the half-raised arm.

THIS IS IRREGULAR.

"So am I, as you've pointed out more than a few times."

There was feeling enough in his not-there fingers to brush them along the skeletal jaw, pull it forward and kiss—not the mouth, he didn't think Death would have appreciated that, or wanted it. But the side of the jawbone, where the corner of the mouth would have been.

"I look forward to seeing you," he said, and realized as he said it that it was true—as it might not have been true of a younger, much younger, Javic Piotr Thane.

His fingers tingled; his body too. Taking him back.