I. Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change. ~Thomas Hardy
The night was cold and damp, typical for winter in Cardiff, but generally a bad night to be out and a much better night to be inside. To watch a movie, lie by the fire, or curl up with tangled limbs in bed. Instead, Jack was running down a pack of alien hellhounds through Bute Park, swearing under his breath as he pounded through the dark. Gwen and Owen had gone after a lone runner, while he and Ianto continued after the other two creatures, turning left and sprinting across the frost-covered grass. They crashed through a copse of trees and burst into a clearing, where they stopped in their tracks, the wrong end of a strange gun pointed straight at them.
"Bloody hell," Jack swore, falling forward as he tried to stop himself from slipping in the wet grass. Ianto ran up behind him and somehow managed to catch them both.
"Nice to see you too, Jack—what is it now?" The voice behind the gun was gruff yet cultured, bitterness and sarcasm clear in the deep baritone. "Harkness, right?"
"Captain Jack Harkness, Torchwood," replied Jack. He recognized that voice, remembered it from his past. It shouldn't be here, he shouldn't be here…
The man with the gun stepped out from the shadows of a nearby pine. He was tall, yet his formerly muscular frame was now thin and gaunt; his once handsome face was worn down with years, and there was a wild look about his piercing green eyes that Jack immediately suspected hid more than the deep resentment obvious in the man's words.
"Ah, Torchwood." The man nodded, sounding both angry and amused at the same time. "That's right, you're in charge now, aren't you?"
"I am," said Jack, his lip curling in disgust at the man's appearance and attitude. It reminded him of the night John Hart had showed up last spring, only this was much worse: Parker Douglas clearly hated Jack with every fiber of his being. "What are you doing here?"
"What, no hug, no handshake—not even a punch in the face?" Douglas asked, his crooked grin more of a sneer.
"Jack?" asked Ianto, stepping calmly to his right side and eyeing the man before them. "Would you like me to punch him in the face?"
"Not yet," said Jack, trying to figure out what was going on. "What are you doing here, Parker? Last I heard, you were in prison on Volag-Noc." In the fifty-first century, he added to himself. That had been before Jack had met the Doctor, of course, but who knew how much time had passed for Douglas? He looked twice Jack's age now.
"All because of you," the man hissed. Jack felt Ianto gazing at him curiously, no doubt already turning over the man's response. "Have you ever been there, Jack? It's a horrific place…dark, cold…a frozen hellhole in the middle of outer space."
"I've been there," Jack stated simply. He knew perfectly well what it was like, even though he'd never been a prisoner there. He had endured his own personal hells over the years, however, and had little sympathy for the man standing before him, radiating resentment. Parker Douglas had gone to prison to pay for his crimes; Jack had done penance for his own and owed Douglas nothing.
"Twenty-five years, Jack," Parker said, green eyes blazing with fury. "Twenty-five years does things to a man, you know."
Jack's face hardened. "Try several hundred, sometime."
Douglas rolled his eyes and waved his gun around somewhat carelessly. Jack didn't recognize the weapon and knew he could not be too cavalier given Parker's history and current demeanor. "There you go again, Jack, always blustering in with a bigger, better story. Well, the universe won't have to worry about that much longer."
"Why, are you here for some sort of revenge?" Jack asked. He might have laughed in the man's face if not for the seriousness of the situation. How many enemies from his past would keep finding him, keep coming back for revenge? When would it ever end?
"Actually, that is why I'm here," said Douglas, pretending exaggerated surprise at Jack's deduction.
"You went to prison for a crime you, and only you, committed," Jack pointed out. "Not my problem."
"Oh, but it is your problem, Jack," replied Douglas, "or it will be soon."
"Well, you can't kill me," said Jack with a cavalier shrug, unable to keep all his bravado in check; Douglas didn't need to know that Jack meant it literally. "And I won't let you kill anyone else. Been there, done that—not letting it happen."
"I don't need to kill anyone else, Jack. I can kill you." The zealous light in Parker's eyes almost worried Jack, because this man clearly believed what he said. He believed it was possible to kill Jack even though it wasn't, and Jack knew from experience that the power of belief gave men the ability to do unspeakable, almost impossible things at times.
Jack opened his mouth to respond, but Ianto stepped closer at that moment, shooting him a warning glance that spoke volumes without saying a word: Don't antagonize him. Find out more.
"I don't like to die," Jack said casually, crossing his arms over his chest. "And my team wouldn't like it either. So how do you plan on pulling it off?"
"I was a Time Agent, Jack," Douglas replied expansively, waving his left arm and showing them the vortex manipulator strapped to it. Where he had acquired it, Jack had no idea; Parker's own wrist strap had been confiscated when he had been sentenced to prison on Volag-Noc, and he should not have been given a new one upon his release considering his past actions.
"I know things about time—how it works, how to manipulate it, how to change it." He watched Jack closely, a manic light gleaming in his eyes. "And I know what it's done to you, Jack."
"It's against regulations to manipulate the timestream for personal motives," Jack quoted automatically, Time Agent training drummed into him a lifetime ago returning automatically. He tried to ignore the prickle at the nape of his neck the man's other words stirred: I know what it's done to you. Very few people knew, and there was no way Parker Douglas could be one of them, not when he had spent years in prison, far in the future. "Orders only. Besides, trying to change time is what got you arrested and shipped to Volag-Noc. Are you under orders to kill me?"
"Oh no, once again it's quite personal," the man replied with a soft laugh. Beside Jack, Ianto tensed at Douglas's glib answer. "Besides, the Time Agency is gone, officially disbanded. There are only five of them left now. And no one is going to care about the death of a rogue agent three thousand years in the past."
"Last I heard there were seven left." Of course, that had been from John Hart, and at that point for John it might well have been true. Time Agents did not always follow a linear timeline.
"Yes, well." Parker shrugged and fingered the wrist strap on his arm, the meaning clear. So that was how he had come by it, and how he had traveled back from the 51st century. "Things happen. Soon there will be even fewer, no doubt."
"Not if I can help it," Jack said, grinning suddenly to distract the other man. His hand moved to his waist for his Webley, reflexes honed after years of similar confrontations. He instinctively knew Ianto was reaching for his own weapon as well. "Drop—"
Parker stepped back, turned slightly, and shot Ianto in the hand before Jack had even finished speaking.
"Drop yours first," he hissed. "This won't be as fun if I have to waste another bullet on your mortal friend here."
Jack frowned at the man's choice of words. Waste a shot? Mortal friend? Beside him, Ianto had doubled over, right hand clutched to his chest. He immediately began to undo his tie, wrapping it around his injured hand, jaw tight as he stood straight to face their attacker. "This isn't right, Jack," he murmured. "He knows something."
Jack hesitated, and the other man waved at the Webley. With a growl of frustration, Jack lowered his weapon, unwilling to take any more chances with Ianto's life. Douglas gestured for the gun, Jack handed it over reluctantly, and the former Time Agent tossed it behind him into the bushes with a manic grin. Then he held open his other hand for Ianto's gun and tossed that weapon away as well, a smug look on his face. Ianto glared at him the entire time, grimacing in pain; Jack wondered how badly Ianto's hand was injured.
"Good boy, Jack. Nice to know you can do what you're told now, even if you were a self-righteous son of a bitch at the Time Agency."
"I was following orders," Jack snapped.
"Ah, but see—you also had a reputation as a maverick, Jack," said Parker. "Everyone knew you didn't always follow orders. In fact, I know you lost two years of your life for it."
Jack blanched, and beside him he heard Ianto inhale sharply through his nose. "That has nothing to do with this."
"How do you know?" Parker leaned close and whispered almost seductively. "You don't remember."
Jack clenched his teeth as he thought about rushing the man, but Douglas still had a strange weapon trained on them and quick reflexes in spite of his age and imprisonment. Jack forced himself to relax, to check instincts that might make the situation worse.
"I was following orders," Jack ground out again. "What you chose to do after that is on your conscience."
"Because you don't have one, do you, Jack? Because you couldn't have just ignored those orders? You couldn't have played the maverick one more time and refused?"
"It was the right thing to do," Jack said simply, and Parker's face colored as he gave into his fury over what had happened so long ago for them both.
"She was my wife," he hissed, and he struck the butt end of the gun against Jack's temple, sending him to his knees as blood began to run down his cheek. Douglas pointed the weapon at Ianto again, motioning at him to do the same. "On the ground with him, hands behind your head. You know how it works."
"You said you weren't going to waste another shot on him," said Jack as he straightened and looked up into Parker's crazed eyes. He tapped the comm in his ear as he raised his hands, hoping that Gwen and Owen weren't too far away and would pick up on what was happening. "He has nothing to do with this. It's between you and me."
"I know. I'm not going to kill him." Douglas grinned ferally and stepped forward to run the barrel of the gun down the side of Ianto's face before turning toward Jack. "Someone should bear witness to your death, after all. One of your team." Ianto glanced sideways at Jack, an unasked question in his eyes. Jack shook his head in return; better to let Parker shoot him and believe him dead than to risk worse. Something was definitely not right with the situation, but Jack couldn't put his finger on it.
"Now, I would apologize," said Parker, stepping back with a flourish and pointing the gun directly at Jack's chest. "But you deserve this, Jack, more than anyone in all of history. So instead, I shall wish you a long and painful death, with the hope that you rot in hell for the rest of eternity."
Without any warning—no grin, no blink, not even a twitch of his finger—Parker Douglas pulled the trigger, and Jack felt the bullet rip into his chest almost instantly, tearing through muscle and bone with blazing sharp pain. He fell forward onto his hands, gasping for breath as shock set in immediately. He sensed rather than saw Ianto grab his second weapon from his ankle holster, but Parker Douglas was already transporting away, and the bullets flew through empty air. Ianto swore as he moved toward Jack, catching him when he toppled over sideways and taking his head in his lap. Jack heard him call for Owen as if from a distance.
"Hang on, Jack," said Ianto, brushing a gentle hand across his face. "Owen's already on his way."
"I'll be fine," Jack murmured, wondering why Ianto was so insistent on calling the doctor for a relatively uncomplicated death by gunshot wound. Yes, it was messy, and it hurt like hell, but it didn't usually take that long to revive. He tasted blood on his lips and let his eyes close, waiting for that moment when he passed over and the darkness surrounded him, until he was pulled across the void and dragged back to life again. "I'll come back, I always do."
"Jack, what if something's different this time?" Ianto murmured. "He said that he knew you, that he knew what time had done to you. He said that he could kill you. What if he can?"
Looking up at the worried face hovering before him, Jack tried to smile convincingly through the pain. "Not gonna happen," he rasped. And yet, even as he denied it, he began to wonder if Ianto might be right. Something was different; he could feel it inside of him, moving already, changing him. It was as if cold fingers were wrapping themselves around each and every cell in his body, squeezing them of life and their unique ability to cling to it no matter what happened. It was different from anything he had ever felt before after being seriously injured, and Jack began to have his doubts.
Maybe he wouldn't come back this time; maybe this was it. Maybe Death had finally found him, after all these years, in the form of one bullet and a rogue Time Agent named Parker Douglas.
"No, not yet," he whispered, sinking toward unconsciousness as the pain became unbearable. He reached out desperately for Ianto's hands, needing to feel their warmth when Jack felt colder than he ever had before. He was not ready for this, not yet; he wanted more time. He'd just found something worth living for—someone he wanted to stay with for as long as he possibly could—and could not bear the idea of being ripped away from that so soon. "Not now. Ianto, I—"
But then the darkness overwhelmed him, and for the first time in over a century, Jack feared it.