Cheating Death

by hence_the_name [Reviews - 6]

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  • Teen
  • None
  • Alternate Universe, Angst, Drama, Hurt/Comfort, Introspection, Romance, Series, Slash

Author's Notes:
Originally written for the "Luck" challenge at wintercompanion. I finished the story before "Exit Wounds" aired, so it's slighty AU.

The day of Ianto’s funeral was bright and clear and carried the sweet tang of spring on the air. Jack stood with his hands in his pockets and looked down at the pile of freshly turned earth at his feet. His boots sank into the damp ground, crushing new grass into the mud. He didn’t know how long he had been standing there alone. There had been a short graveside service earlier; Jack had stood with the rest of his team, a little apart from Ianto’s sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews, and thrown a shovelful of dirt into the grave.

There was no marker yet, nothing to say that Ianto Jones was buried here, or that Jack had loved him. Nothing to say that he had a wit like sandpaper and a smile like warm honey, or that he could track a weevil through the sewers of Cardiff but made Jack kill the spiders in the bathtub. Nothing to say that his sometime-startling capacity for ruthlessness hid a deep kindness. That he had saved the world, or that he made the best damn cup of coffee in the whole United Kingdom.

Just as well, Jack thought. They had buried an empty casket in the plot beside his mother; and it wasn’t as if a headstone could say any of those things. His body was back at the Hub, locked away in the vault. Here he would be just another name carved into a slab of granite, to be worn away by wind and rain and time, and Jack would carry the memory. One more memory, close to his heart. He sighed and turned away.

The Doctor stood a short way away with his back against the trunk of a tree, watching him sadly. Jack froze when he caught sight of him. The Doctor pushed away from the tree and took a step forward. “I’m so sorry, Jack.”

Jack didn’t remember crossing the space between them. One moment he was still standing there, staring at him; the next, he was sobbing into the Doctor’s shoulder, clutching at his lapel with one hand. The Doctor put his arms around him.

“I know,” he said. Jack shuddered against him. The Doctor stroked his hair.

“Come on,” he said, after a few minutes had passed. Jack followed him numbly, still crying, only aware of a change when the soothing hum of the TARDIS enveloped him. The Doctor steered him to the jump seat. He sagged against it and watched the Doctor at the controls, moving to a rhythm only he could hear.

***

“What happens when I grow old?” Ianto had asked him once. They were in bed, midafternoon, lying close together in the room beneath Jack’s office.

It had been a quiet day at the Hub, for once, and Jack had sent the others home early, intent on finding out why Ianto had been out of sorts all week, or, barring that, at least to cheer him up. “Is that what’s been bothering you?” he asked.

Ianto shrugged. He turned over onto his back. He had a few more lines around his eyes, but his hair was still thick and dark, and his face retained a hint of boyish roundness that made him look much younger than his thirty-six years.

“Well.” Jack propped himself up on an elbow and grinned. “If Torchwood had a discriminatory age policy, I’d be pretty screwed.”

Ianto frowned. “That’s not what I meant.”

Jack raised his eyebrows. “So what did you mean?” He was dissembling and he knew it, but he didn’t want to face this question and all its implications. Not now. Not ever, really.

Ianto sighed. “Pretty soon,” he said, “I’ll be the older man.”

“So?”

“So. What happens when I grow old?”

Jack didn’t say what he knew they were both thinking: if he grew old. Ianto was looking up at him now, under those long lashes of his. Jack gave him his most winning smile. “It’s an awfully long time before that happens,” he said, and bent to kiss him.

Ianto put a hand out and held him at arm’s length. He quirked an eyebrow. Jack sighed and looked away. “I don’t know,” he said.

“You don’t know?” Ianto repeated, bristling. He drew away as much as he could on the narrow bed. “I’m asking you a simple question, Jack. So answer it: what happens when I grow old?”

“It’s not a simple question!” The words burst from him, angrier than Jack had intended. He took a deep breath. How many people–friends, lovers–had he watched grow old over the years? Sometimes from a distance, other times close up; it always hurt. But what must it be like for them, for their bodies to sag and fail while Jack stayed young and strong; to know that he would live on, indefinitely, while their lives and then their memories faded from the world? “It’s not a simple question,” Jack said again, and this time his voice was ragged. It wasn’t, but Ianto had every right to be asking it.

“I don’t know,” Jack said, and then held up a placating hand when Ianto started to scowl again. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in ten years. Or in one year. Or tomorrow. A lot can change. Maybe you won’t want to be with me.” Ianto opened his mouth to protest, and once again Jack held up his hand to stop him. “Maybe you won’t,” he said, looking into his eyes. “And that’s okay. Maybe you’ll want a normal life, kids. Things I can’t give you.”

Ianto let out a little laugh, looking away. “And a whole lot of retcon. I think that’s unlikely.”

“Even so.” Jack reached out and touched his cheek. “Even if that’s what you decide. I will always love you. And I will always take care of you. I can promise you that much. Okay?”

Ianto nodded, still not looking at him. His throat worked. In the dimness, it took Jack a moment to see the tears rolling silently down his cheeks.

“Hey.” Jack slid down and took him in his arms. Ianto turned to face him. He rested his forehead against Jack’s shoulder. Jack stroked his hair. “Shh. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t want you to be alone.” Ianto’s breath felt hot against his skin. His voice came out muffled.

Jack drew back and slipped a hand under Ianto’s chin, tilting his head back so he was looking at him. I don’t want to be alone, either, he thought. Aloud he said, “I won’t be.”

***

“I want to go to the wake,” Jack said suddenly. The Doctor stopped flipping switches on the console and looked up at him. His face fell a little.

“All right,” he said. He looked back down again and turned a dial. “I can drop you off--“

“No.” Jack shook his head. “I want you to come.”

The Doctor stopped again. “Jack. You know I don’t really–“

“You ‘don’t really’ what?” Jack cut him off, his voice harsh.

The Doctor met his gaze for a moment. Jack stared back, eyes blazing. The Doctor looked away first. “I’ll drop you off,” he said. He pulled the monitor around to face him.

Jack hopped down from the seat and caught the Doctor’s hand before he could begin working the controls again. “You don’t what?”

He shrugged uncomfortably and avoided Jack’s gaze. “I don’t do...wakes.”

“You do now.” Jack let his hand go. “I want you to come with me.”

“Jack–“

Jack’s fist smashed into the console. Sparks flared. “I need you!” he shouted. “And I need them! Don’t make me choose!” He let out a ragged breath. “I can’t just disappear. Not again.”

The Doctor opened his mouth, then shut it. “All right,” he said.

Jack blinked. “‘All right’?”

“All right,” the Doctor agreed. His gaze flickered down to the crack Jack had put in the console. “Just don’t–break my ship–please.”

Jack followed his gaze. “Right,” he said, shaking his hand out. “Sorry. I can, um–why don’t we drive over?”

***

Jack had always expected to lose Ianto suddenly, violently: the way he had lost Toshiko, the way he still expected to lose Gwen, and Martha. But his own body betrayed him in the end. Ianto had weathered apocalypses only to find himself under attack by his own cells.

Jack’s memory of that day was at once out of focus and painfully vivid. He remembered sitting in the doctor’s office beside Ianto: He remembered the smell of the place–leather and antiseptic; remembered the way the man had sat behind his desk and looked askance at the two of them; how his eyes had flicked from their faces to the rings on their fingers before he had begun to speak.

But he couldn’t remember what the doctor’s voice had sounded like as he explained the courses of chemo and radiation that could hold the illness at bay, if only for a little while; couldn’t remember much of what was said at all until Ianto had shaken his head and said, “I don’t want the treatment.”

Jack had blinked, bringing the room back into focus, and stared at Ianto. “What are you talking about? Of course we’re going to treat it.” He’d turned to the doctor. “Of course he’s going to treat it.”

“Jack.” Ianto’s tone held a warning. He put his hand over Jack’s on the armrest. Jack pulled away.

The doctor had looked back and forth between them and suggested they think it over and call him in a few days.

They walked out of the building and across the parking lot in silence, but as soon as both car doors had slammed shut, Jack turned to Ianto and said, “What do you mean, you ‘don’t want the treatment’?”

Ianto didn’t answer right away. He took his time, turning the key in the ignition, adjusting the rearview mirror and backing out of the parking space. The wheel slipped through his hands as he turned out onto the road.

“Ianto?” Jack prompted.

“Exactly what I said: ‘I don’t want the treatment.’”

Jack felt panic rising up. His nails bit into the palms of his hands. He made a conscious effort to unclench his fists. “You can fight it! You have to.”

“It’s cancer, Jack, not an alien invasion.” They stopped at a light and Ianto looked over at him, his eyes sad. “I lose either way.”

“So you’re just going to lay down and die?”

“No.” Ianto’s eyes flashed. The light changed and he stepped hard on the accelerator. The car jumped forward. How old was he, now? Not fifty yet. But he had passed forty-five, they’d had a big party, not last year, the year before. Forty-seven. He was forty-seven. Jack blinked away tears.

“That is exactly what I’m not going to do,” Ianto continued. “I am not going to hospital and letting them inject me full of poisons that will make me even sicker than the thing that’s going to kill me. That’s not what I want.”

“There has to be something–“

“Have you ever seen someone going through chemotherapy?” Ianto glanced over at him. Jack had seen a great many people die in a great many ways, but never this. He shook his head.

“I have. My mum. Same thing. It’s not just losing your hair. It’s throwing up all the time, and barely being able to eat. Immune suppression, you know what that means? It means I’d have to be isolated in a room and you could only see me wearing a gown and a mask. You couldn’t touch me. So we can have a year and a half of that–if it’s even that long–or we can have a few more months of this. Of things being normal. If I’m going to die, I’d rather have that.”

Jack swallowed hard and didn’t answer. He looked out the window, willing himself to breathe normally through the constriction in his throat, watching Cardiff pass silently by outside.

“We both knew it would come to this eventually,” Ianto said softly after a few minutes.

Jack slammed his fist into the dashboard. “I’m not ready!”

“You think I am?” Ianto shot a glare in his direction. “We don’t all get to cheat death, Jack.”

Jack bit back a retort. They drove the rest of the way silently. As soon as Ianto had parked the car, Jack got out without a word and went inside.

He went straight to his office without looking at anyone. Peripherally, he was aware of Owen appearing from the autopsy room and disappearing into the kitchen with Ianto, of Gwen watching him climb the stairs.

He sat down at his desk, still in his coat, and stared blankly at the various papers and artifacts arrayed on the blotter. We both knew it would come to this eventually. How could he be so serene about it? The rushing hadn’t left Jack’s ears since the doctor’s office. He wanted to scream and rage and cry, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t feel a thing.

There was a knock on his door and then it opened, admitting Gwen. When had she gotten old? She was still beautiful, but her dark hair was streaked with gray, and there were lines deepening around her eyes and mouth.

“Jack?”

He blinked. “Oh, hi Gwen,” he said. He started shuffling the papers in front of him and gave her his best fake smile. “What can I do for you?”

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Wrong? Nothing’s wrong.” Jack felt the shell of numbness around him cracking. He looked down and redoubled his paper-shuffling efforts.

Gwen crossed her arms and pursed her lips, telling him, loud and clear, that he wasn’t fooling her. She’d known him too long. “Is it Ianto?” she asked.

Jack drew breath and went very still, willing himself to stay calm. Gwen waited a moment before she said again, “Jack? What is it?”

It was like a wave crashing over him. Jack’s face crumpled. He hunched his shoulders, covering his eyes with his hands. A sob escaped him.

Gwen came around the desk. “What is it?” she asked again, but he couldn’t answer. He reached for her, blindly, and wrapped his arms around her waist in a way that reminded Gwen intensely of her son when he was small. She held him close and stroked his hair. He was so old, she thought; but for all that, sometimes he was just a lost, frightened boy.

“It’s all right,” she murmured, even though she knew it wasn’t. It was just something to say.

***

Jack found Ianto in the kitchen, alone, later that afternoon. He stood in the doorway and watched him go through the familiar motions of making coffee, a job he wouldn’t relinquish even after he’d been promoted and Jack had found someone else to work as receptionist and general one-man clean-up crew.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Ianto turned around and leaned against the counter. “About before. I just–“

“I know.”

Jack looked at the floor. They stood in silence for a moment, and then suddenly Ianto rubbed his hands together and said, “Come on.”

Jack looked up and blinked. “Come on where?”

“Well.” Ianto reached for his hand when he reached the door. “If you’re right, and there is no afterlife, then I intend on committing every one of the seven deadly sins daily for the rest of my life. We’ve gotten wrath out of the way, but it’s already three o’clock, so–“

All of them?” Jack asked, letting Ianto pull him into main area of the Hub.

Ianto stopped and looked around. “Maybe just the fun ones.” He grinned and put his hands in his pockets. “Which leaves us with only one question.”

Jack raised his eyebrows, a grin beginning to form on his face. “Oh?”

“Should we start with gluttony or lust?”

***

For all his insistence that they go to the wake, when they arrived at Gwen and Rhys’s flat Jack almost couldn’t make himself go inside. Only the Doctor’s solid presence at his back kept him from turning away before Gwen opened the door. She smiled when she saw him and drew him into a hug, and then hugged the Doctor, too. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

The group inside was small: the Torchwood team, Ianto’s sisters, a few other friends. Jack wanted to be near them but found himself unable to talk with anyone for longer than a few minutes. Eventually he retreated to a corner of the sofa and just watched. The murmur of voices sounded distant, everyone’s movements strangely slow and measured, as if everything were taking place underwater. His eyes found the Doctor standing against the wall, deep in conversation with Owen. Owen was gesturing with his bandaged hand, and then he let it fall and bent his head. The Doctor reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

The sofa cushion shifted beside Jack. Gwen sat down beside him put her hand on his knee. Jack covered it with his. The gold band on his finger caught the light as he did, and he stared at it.

“It was nice of him to come,” Gwen said.

Jack nodded. “He has a way of showing up when he’s needed.” They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Jack said, “I’m going away for a little while.”

Gwen sighed. “I thought you might.” She didn’t look happy about it, but she didn’t try to argue, either. “How long?”

“I don’t know. A little while. I’m leaving you in charge.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “Better tell Owen.”

Jack looked down at her, eyes glinting mischievously. “You don’t want to fight it out?”

“I wouldn’t want to break him.”

They both laughed. Jack patted her hand and stood up. “I’ll see you soon.”

“That better be a promise, Jack Harkness.”

“You know it is.”

She inclined her head toward the Doctor. “Go on, then.”

He did.

***

Outside the TARDIS doors it was night. The Doctor had parked in the middle of a vast prairie, a flat expanse stretching all the way to the horizon, lit only by the cool glow of starlight. The Doctor paused beside his ship and drew a deep breath. Then he strode confidently off into the darkness. Jack followed him.

The grass crunched under their feet as they walked. A cool breeze ruffled his hair. With no city glow on the horizon to dim them, the upended bowl of the sky overhead brimmed with stars. Jack found himself walking with his head thrown back, the galaxy beyond a broad stroke of silver behind the glittering points of light.

The Doctor stopped abruptly and Jack almost walked right into him. He looked around. The TARDIS made a dark rectangle against the sky, but other than that there was no sign of life, nothing to indicate the spot where they stood was any different from the one where they had landed. The Doctor produced a blanket from inside his coat and spread it out on the grass. Then he stretched out on his back and laced his hands behind his head.

Jack looked down at him, bemused. After a moment the Doctor glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “Are you just going to stand there?”

He blinked. “No.” He lay down beside him.

“It’s a little different,” Jack said, “looking at them from down here. Kinda puts things in perspective.”

“Mmm,” the Doctor agreed. They lay in silence for a few minutes, not quite touching. Another breeze ruffled the grass, and a chorus of insects began to sing. “Sometimes I imagine they’re up there,” the Doctor said eventually. “Everyone I’ve lost. Watching over me.”

Jack glanced over at him. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated, expression distant as he gazed up at the sky. His eyes cut over to meet Jack’s. “It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?” he said.

Jack looked back up at the sky. “Ianto thought I was wrong,” he said after a moment. “About there not being an afterlife. He said he reckoned it was like dreaming. That those of us who wake up from death just can’t remember what comes after.”

“Like most people can’t remember their dreams.” The Doctor smiled. “I like that.”

“Do you think he’s right?”

“Dunno.” He glanced at Jack again. “Do you?”

“I don’t know.” Jack’s voice came out sounding thin through the sudden constriction in his throat. He swallowed hard and blinked away tears. The Doctor found his hand and squeezed it.

“There,” he said, pointing with his other hand. He picked out the points of an unfamiliar constellation above. “Kasterborous.” Jack turned his head and stared at him; but the Doctor was already forging ahead, naming each star in the constellation and then the ones within and around it, and Jack looked up again and lost himself in the sound of the Doctor’s voice.

After he had fallen silent, Jack asked him, “Do you believe in fate, Doctor?”

“Fate?” the Doctor repeated. “No. Why, do you?”

Jack shrugged. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I just keep thinking. All these things that happened to me. Meeting you, and Rose bringing me back. And the way that everything–everything that happened to me in the future is in some way dependent on things that happened in the past, things that I was there for. I just can’t help thinking there’s–“ He cut off, fumbling.

“Some sort of a plan?” the Doctor suggested.

“Well...yeah. I guess.”

“That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Very reassuring.”

“But you don’t believe it.”

“No.” The Doctor shook his head. “Time isn’t fixed, Jack, you know that. It’s more...” His hands came up, holding an invisible sphere in front of his face. “...wibbly-wobbly.”

Jack laughed. “Is that a technical term?”

“Yes.”

“So what do you believe in?” Jack asked.

“Luck.” The Doctor turned his head and smiled. “Chance. Serendipity.” He popped the consonants on that last.

Jack frowned. “That’s all?” he asked. He waved his hand to take in the planet where they lay, the sky above them, the galaxy beyond. “All of this is just...coincidence?”

“What you mean, ‘that’s all’?” The Doctor demanded. “A few atoms collided a few billion years ago, and we got all of this.” His gesture mirrored Jack’s. “So much life out there. There might not be a higher power guiding everything, but it doesn’t make the universe devoid of meaning. Everyone out there, they get to make it mean something. Every day.”

Jack stared up at the stars, but he was seeing Ianto’s face. He’d like that, Jack thought. A meteor arched across the sky. He reached for the Doctor’s hand again, and together they watched the star-strewn night turn into day.