Ianto woke to his alarm, and saw that he was alone. It was the third time this week, and it was only Tuesday. If a Rift alert had come in during the night, the call had not been loud enough to waken him, nor important enough for Jack to rouse him. More likely, Jack had waited until after Ianto was asleep then gone back to the Hub, or to wherever he went in the wee hours.
He chose a charcoal grey suit for the day, plain white shirt instead of the plum.
An hour later, the coffee machine at the Hub was filling the air with a warm, rich smell. Ianto had not-so-casually checked Jack's empty office, his equally empty camp bed, the abandoned firing range, and even the just-as-empty-and-this-was-getting-pathetic-so-he-would-stop-now archives. No Jack. Jack was out somewhere, doing something, and if he hadn't checked in by nine, Ianto would call or use the comm. He was not worried. He was not hovering. God forbid he should wonder where Jack had gone.
He broke down at eight-forty-five, shortly before Gwen arrived. Jack's mobile went directly to voice mail. Jack's comm was not in use.
"He's out," Gwen said, yawning and accepting her first cup of coffee with a nod. "He phoned last night to warn me I might be needed for backup, but he said not to worry and he might be gone all day."
A number of emotions prickled behind Ianto's careful expression. "That must be it, then." Jack had phoned Gwen, but had let Ianto sleep. As with anything having to do with Jack Harkness, the gesture could be taken either as a sign of affection or dismissal.
The Rift kept them busy the rest of the day. Jack didn't check in. Around five o'clock, Ianto encouraged Gwen to go home. He read too easily the consolation on her face, which he did not want to deal with today. Perhaps he'd stay over at the Hub tonight in case of another alert. He could get ahead on some work, and quite definitely not wait here for Jack, who hadn't left so much as a note. Again.
"See you tomorrow," he said, and managed a nearly-real smile.
Ianto woke to his alarm. He was alone. He lay there unhappily for a moment, noting that this was the third time this week.
Gwen came in at not quite nine, after Ianto had already been at the Hub for some time, getting the morning coffee ready and only casually looking for Jack.
"He's out," she said. Apparently, Jack had called her in the middle of the night. Gwen rated a telephone call. Ianto hadn't rated a note. He ought to be grateful for the extra sleep. As always, it was difficult to decide which interpretation was intended, and how much was merely Jack being himself.
With one Rift event in Riverside (artefact, and they had to pose as collectors, which was much easier when Jack was available to play the eccentric American), and an unusual sighting out in Trowbridge (a fortunately tamed Nefdler Dagon, and they played zoologists, which hurt because that used to be Owen and Tosh's routine), they kept busy most of the day.
It was nearly five when Ianto said, "Why don't you go home and spend some time with Rhys? I'll finish up here."
As he spoke, the cog door alarm sounded and Jack hurried in with his coat around him as though from a long trek through the winter's cold; the spring air had been brisk all day. Ianto refused to act like a puppy, jumping up because its master was finally home. Gwen had no such worries and immediately joined him. "Jack, where were you?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." He checked the time. "Almost five. Gwen, go home and spend some time with Rhys."
She pursed her lips. She knew when she was being handled. "I think I should stay here."
Jack took both of her hands and kissed her cheek. "I'm fairly sure you shouldn't. Good night."
"See you tomorrow," Ianto said, and Jack flinched. Gwen saw his expression, and she cast a glance at Ianto, with a distinct 'Fill me in later' vibe.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Jack checked the clock again. "Okay, five sharp. We've got one hour and fifty-two minutes."
Ianto was mystified. "Until what?"
Jack closed his eyes. "Come for a walk with me."
Ianto gathered his coat and began to put the Hub into evening mode. "Don't bother," said Jack. "It won't matter."
"It will if we're broken into while we're out."
"We won't be." Jack's voice had never been more firm.
Ianto paused and set down his coat. "Tell me what's going on. I'm not going anywhere with you until you do."
Jack smiled sadly and checked the time again. "Two minutes, ten seconds. Not your best time, but close."
"I'm in a time loop."
"I'm stuck inside a time loop. I've been reliving this day over and over."
Ianto felt his knees give way, and he sat down. "Tell me you're joking."
Jack took a second chair, pulled it up across from Ianto, and took his hands. His face went very still, and very serious. "I'm not. I wish I were."
He was prepared for the joke. "About eleven hours, by your count. The loop is thirteen hours long." Ianto stared at him until he gave in. "I stopped counting loops after a year of Tuesdays." Jack's eyes were always old, if you knew what to look for, and Ianto did. But yes, looking into them now was a mirror into hell.
But what if this wasn't Jack? What if this was someone controlling Jack, or a doppelganger of some sort? If it was true, and this being Torchwood that wasn't outside the realm of possibility, what if his death reset the loop? The only foolproof test was to kill him. Ianto's stomach recoiled at the mental image, too often seen in real life, of Jack's life-blood spilling out crimson on the floor.
"You're about to suggest shooting me."
Ianto jerked back. But he didn't protest.
"And that's nice. You're not going to lie and say you weren't thinking about it. I already like this loop." His grin was back, but it faded as Ianto watched him. "Say something. Please."
"We've had this conversation over three hundred times. You tell me how it's supposed to go next." Another twitch, a more pained expression than before. Ianto said, "Tell me the high points, and then tell me what we need to do."
"I start out on the far side of Bristol. I can't always make it back to Cardiff before the reset. My mobile isn't working, and my comm is out. And I run into ... issues."
"Do you die?"
"Twice a day definitely, on days I don't make it to the Hub in time, usually a third." He never dwelt upon his deaths, not the way Ianto did, morbidly fascinated and appalled by his lover's constant resurrections. But too many cracks were on Jack's face now, held together only by the same strong will that had seen him through his long life. He'd once spent another year dying nearly every day. Later he'd suffocated to death over and over in the darkness, though he'd claimed those deaths had merged into one long, shadowy period of semi-consciousness. But knowing for certain he'd die twice every day? Even Jack couldn't pretend he was unaffected. It showed in the twitch of his left eye, and the tremor in his hands.
"I don't know what I can do to stop it."
He sat back, folding those hands on his knee to stop the trembling. Ianto bent forward and covered them with his own. "What have you tried?"
"Everything. Anything. I can't contact the Doctor. I got a message through to Martha in a few of the early loops, but she asked the same questions every time, and I never got enough information to her before the connection was lost." As he spoke, he checked the clock again.
"You said you sometimes made it back here. Did we find an artefact that was malfunctioning? Something from the Rift?" Ianto stood abruptly. "Of course! The artefact that came through today." He was prevented from retrieving it by Jack's grasp.
"It's not today's artefact. That's a Zinxian refractor with a short in the main fuse. It's rubbish."
"Are you ... Of course you're certain." Ianto sat back down again. "We tested it?"
"Several times. I've also pushed through the archives for anything." He asked with grim amusement, "Do you know how hard it is to convince you I'm not crazy, then pick up a search where I can't always remember where I left off?"
"What else have you tried?"
"After about eight months, I started to wonder if I'm being punished for something. You get your semi-omnipotent alien types who love meddling with what they think of as 'lesser species' and let me tell you, they don't care about timeline consistency or protected planet status. They're too busy jerking off over their clever 'lessons,' whatever they might be."
That sounded like the Doctor, but Ianto wasn't going to say so.
Jack quirked his mouth. "He's not like that. But the Tricksters are nasty buggers, and we're just lucky the Q haven't noticed Earth yet."
"You think you're being punished?"
"Could be. So I tried making amends. I have a lot of amends to make up for. I've got a few kids running around who'd vote me as the World's Worst Father."
He couldn't hide the shock this time, nor the ensuing, "You have children?"
"Three living. You always do this, you know. Every loop where I bring up the kids, you get all weird."
"Consistency is a virtue."
Jack burst out laughing, and Ianto's heart eased a moment. That was the first genuine mirth he'd seen, rather than the sardonic smiles of someone who really had heard it all before. Perhaps that was a good sign? Something new.
Ianto said, "So making up for a hundred years of bad parenting with a single game of catch doesn't work? An entire genre of films has a lot to answer for."
"Yeah. I'm not great at interpersonal stuff. I don't know if it's something I've done, or something I've failed to do, or with who, or why." He sat back again. "I tried making amends to you, but that obviously didn't work."
"You have nothing to make up to me."
But there'd been no note. And there had been too many mornings of waking up alone, wondering where Jack had gone.
Maybe Jack saw that on his face, maybe those were routes he'd already explored. "I tried patching things up with Rhys better. I tried being nice to the police. I tried everything."
"Did you have something to apologise to Gwen for?"
He shrugged. "I tried. I even slept with her once to see if that was it. No joy."
The blood rushed from Ianto's head and into his feet. "You did?"
"The semi-omnipotents have a very primitive sense of humour. It was worth a try." His face and voice were disinterested and clinical. This wasn't Jack recounting a conquest, this was him ticking off items on a list: check for unusual artefacts, spend time with long-lost son/daughter, sleep with Gwen, call Martha. "You and I have managed to get naked fifteen times or so, but in those loops I didn't explain and just let you think everything was going normally."
"Until it reset."
"Exactly. By the way, I found out a new kink for you. When this is all over, you're gonna love it."
"I'll look forward to it." Mad, this was all mad.
Jack checked the time again. "Can we go for that walk now?"
Ianto nodded, and locked the Hub anyway. Jack could still be lying. If he wasn't, this could be the final loop.
They went outside into the growing evening. Jack bought them both dinner from a cart vendor, and they ate as they walked. Every so often, Jack would gesture with a greasy hand, "Wait for it." Sure enough, a few moments later, someone would fall, or be surprised. Ianto found himself believing, and then chided himself. Believing in Jack had never got him anywhere, except lonely and likely to be killed before he reached thirty.
Jack passed by an ice cream shop. "You know, it took me three loops to remember you don't like ice cream. I'm learning."
"So we've done this before."
"We've done everything before."
Ianto paused, and rested his arms on a railing. He could see the lights reflecting in the water, and wondered how many times Jack had seen them, had stood here. "If this is all true, why are we spending this loop taking a walk together?"
"Because I keep coming back here, to you, to this. If I'm supposed to be making something better, I wonder if I've wronged you. In all my loops, you've helped me, you've supported me, and yeah, you've also locked me up a few times, but those were bad loops and I'd've done the same. You've stood by me, and you don't even remember it. But you've never said you forgive me. I think that might be the key."
Did he need to forgive Jack? Aside from Jack's off-hand revelation about what he'd done to try to free himself, and that was something Ianto wouldn't remember when morning rolled around again, he didn't think he had much to forgive Jack for.
Even as he voiced the thought in his own mind, the hundred petty little resentments clamoured for attention: not just one morning alone, but many; not just once asking Gwen's assistance first, but often; not only overlooked when the Doctor came calling, but overlooked all the time except when Jack wanted something. And these were untrue, and unfair, because Jack did trust him, and did rely on him, and did stay as long as he could when he could. Ianto could forgive Jack those small infractions, had to forgive him because that was Jack, and he loved all of Jack, even the pieces that were hard to love.
He had more difficulty forgiving himself for being upset and annoyed and irritated at things neither one could change.
"I forgive you. All right?"
Jack took a deep breath. "Thanks. What do you forgive me for?"
Ianto couldn't answer. Jack's face closed again. "Okay." He checked the time. "I've got about three minutes left. Would it help if I said I was sorry?"
The reply was too simple. "What are you sorry for?"
They stared at each other for a long moment. Ianto wondered if they'd tried this on other nights exactly like this one, with another couple walking by, with another car horn blaring three streets over. How many times had they reached this place together, and not found the way out?
Jack turned away first. "I can't do this now. If I tell you everything I'm sorry about, you'll never know if it's because I really am sorry, or if I just wanted out of this damn loop."
"No." And that was the real problem with Jack. He was a manipulator, and a liar, and worse. Also, sometimes he was dead wrong on important topics. The loops might continue until Jack rescued some kitten stuck in a tree in Penarth, or until the Doctor came to fix everything. The loop could be broken by someone else entirely. Perhaps Gwen had to do something, or Ianto did. Too many questions, and less than a minute left to ask them, much less find answers.
"What can I do next time?" Jack brushed his cheek with his lips. "Even if this doesn't work, even if it's not the way out, I do want to make things right with you. Tell me what I can do to make it better. Please." He sounded like a child, lost not far from home, but lost in time. "Or tell me something that will convince yourself to believe me as soon as I find you again. A pass code. Anything that will make you trust me."
Ianto pulled away. A pass code. This was a trick. Not Jack stuck in a timeloop at all, but some infiltrator to the Hub who wanted Ianto's codes. All the doubts he'd held slammed back into him hard. He loved Jack, but he didn't trust Jack.
Ianto woke to his alarm, and turned to see that he was alone.
Third time this week, he knew, and it was only Tuesday.