five times Death stopped for Jack (and once he didn't)

by kaydee falls [Reviews - 4]

  • Teen
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, Character Study, Slash

Author's Notes:
Thanks to SullenSiren for the excellent beta.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.

i. mauled by Weevil

Weevils again. She's only been with Torchwood a few weeks, but Gwen's already learned to hate Weevils. And she drew the short straw tonight, so it's her out here hunting with Jack, in the freezing bloody rain, while Owen and Tosh work on that weird gizmo thing that fell through the Rift earlier and Ianto mans the comms. "'It'll be good practice, Gwen,'" she mutters to herself, echoing Jack's words to her earlier. "Like I never had any practice jogging through rainstorms as a bloody constable."

She sloshes through a puddle that soaks her trousers up to her thighs. Gwen pushes her drenched bangs out of her eyes and condemns Jack, Weevils, and the universe at large fluently and in no uncertain terms.

"You do realize your comm is open, right?" Ianto's voice in her ear, rich with laughter, and she curses again, switching it off.

There's a shout from the other end of the alley, and a snarl. "Gwen!" Jack yells. "A little help, here?"

Gwen grips her stun gun tightly in both hands as she jogs towards the sound of Jack's voice. She finds Jack and a Weevil engaged in some sort of staring contest, a couple of meters of pavement and rain between them, Jack's back pressed up against a chain link fence as the Weevil snarls again but doesn't move forward.

She hesitates, hanging back, not wanting to startle the creature. It's out of stunner range, and Jack's got the spray. If she can get in close enough without alerting the Weevil to her presence… "Jack?" she murmurs, tapping her earpiece. "Where's your weapon?"

"Other side of the fence," Jack replies, his finger on his comm, not breaking eye contact with the Weevil. "Don't ask. Speaking of which — Ianto, you'd tell me if anything were coming up behind me, right?"

"CCTV blind spot, sir, the system's not perfect. I can tell you nothing's approaching from either end of that alleyway nor across the surrounding roofs."

"Well, it's a start," Jack huffs. "Whose idea was it not to cover all the alleys in Cardiff? Isn't that where you'd expect crime to occur?"

"Crime and pornography, yes, sir. I'll be sure to get right on it."

Gwen thinks she can see a grin flash across Jack's face, gone before the Weevil can mistake the briefly bared teeth for a challenge. She inches closer, hugging the wall of the building, and steadies the stunner in her grip. The rain's letting up a bit, but that just makes her movements more likely to be heard.

She's not sure what happened to set it off — if she made some noise, or if Jack twitched in just the wrong sort of way, or if the Weevil just plain bored of the standoff. But with no warning whatsoever, the creature gives a vicious snarl and lunges forward.

Jack yells and throws himself out of the way, just barely fast enough; he ducks and rolls while the Weevil smashes headlong into the fence. Gwen takes a split second to assess her chances of getting close enough to the creature to stun it without being mauled, and dismisses her odds as slim to none. "Here!" she calls to Jack, tossing the stun gun over.

He catches it easily and whirls around to face the Weevil. This time, he's not quite fast enough. It all happens too quickly for Gwen to react: the Weevil lashes forward, claws swiping across Jack's neck just as Jack gets the weapon up. There's a flash of lightning from the stunner; Jack screams as the Weevil howls, and they both crash to the ground.

"Oh, God," Gwen breathes. Her ear hurts from Jack's last yell. She runs forward, heart in her throat.

"What was that?" Ianto demands over the comm. "Jack, what's going on?"

Gwen reaches the two limp bodies. Jack's being crushed beneath a hundred kilos of unconscious Weevil, and she can smell the acrid scent of burnt flesh through the rain-drenched air. "Jack!" she shouts. "Jack, I'm here, let me help you–" It takes all her strength to shove the Weevil off him, but she manages.

When she can see Jack, she wishes she hadn't. His throat's a gory mess, blood mingled with rain soaking into the collar of his coat. His eyes are wide and unseeing. He's not breathing.

It's not the first time she's seen Jack die, and it probably won't be the last, but that doesn't make it any easier. She kneels down beside him, no longer caring about the muck and wet on her trousers or the rain trickling down the back of her neck, and waits.

"Are you there? What's happened? Gwen? Jack?"

Oh, God, Ianto. Ianto doesn't know. None of them do. She can't — fuck. Gwen touches her earpiece with trembling fingers, and doesn't know what to say.

That's when Jack gives a shuddering gasp and sits bolt upright.

"For the love of God, will someone tell me what's happened?" Ianto sounds more than a bit panicked now.

Jack stretches, his spine popping audibly. The slashes on his throat have already healed. "Sorry about that, Ianto," he says into his comm, his eyes meeting Gwen's. She gives him a tiny smile, and he nods. "Got conked on the head, really knocked me out for a second there. The Weevil's been taken care of."

Even through the earpiece, the relief in Ianto's voice is apparent. "I thought I heard someone scream. It's a touch unsettling."

"Never tell me you were worried," Jack teases.

"Not in the slightest, sir. Just that Owen was getting that power-hungry look in his eye, and I do so love to disappoint him."

Gwen laughs.

ii. drowned

Some days, the Rift belches out random space junk. Some days it's a bizarre alien device. And some days, it's an enormous fucking jellyfish-cum-octopus-cum-bloody-kraken, who's taken out half the team in one fell swoop of its translucent purple tentacles. Owen really fucking hates his job sometimes.

So now he's left to hover over the girls, barking orders at the medics who've finally shown up and wishing he could just be left alone for thirty minutes to treat them himself rather than watch these useless so-called professionals botch the job. Tosh has a nasty sting on her leg that's swelling an ugly shade of puce, Gwen was half-suffocated by one strong tentacle, and somewhere Mr. Walking Wounded Jones is wandering around the harbor with a cracked rib in search of their fearless leader. Because of course, of course, when they'd finally dispatched the beast to its watery home (and, hopefully, grave), it had to drag Jack down into the Bay with it.

And then there are all the onlookers who'll need a good strong dose of retcon, and guess who's gonna have to brew that up? That's right, him. God, Owen needs a drink. And then maybe a fuck. Gwen's been a bit tetchy lately, especially since that weird stalker of hers died, but there's a new club Owen's been meaning to try out…

His earpiece crackles to life. "Owen, I've found Jack."

"About fucking time," Owen grumbles. The medics have Tosh and Gwen well in hand, so he turns and starts walking toward the SUV. "Where is he?"

Ianto gives his location, then adds, "The police are pulling him out of the water now." His voice is far too calm. Owen breaks into a jog. "Owen…he's not breathing."

"I'm the one who gave you your bloody CPR certification, so you can fucking well use it," Owen snaps, jumping into the SUV. Ianto's not far, he can get there in two minutes, tops. "I'll be right there."

His med kit's in the backseat. He doubts he'll have the chance to use it. God, could this day get any better?

When he gets there, with some nasty snipes at the coppers who actually try to hold him back for a moment, he can already tell it's too late. Jack is sprawled across the pier, clothing completely sodden, skin pale and waxy. Ianto's bent over him, still performing CPR with economical efficiency, but it's a lost cause and he clearly knows it. He doesn't look up as Owen approaches, his gaze fixed on Jack's face.

Owen feels for a pulse. There isn't one. There probably hasn't been one since shortly after the alien pulled Jack into the water twenty minutes ago. "Ianto," Owen says roughly. "Stop."

Ianto ignores him, leaning down to cover Jack's mouth with his own, trying to force air into his lungs. It's almost a kiss, and yet nothing like a kiss at all.

Owen grabs Ianto's shoulder. "It's useless, Jones, give it up."

"I can't," Ianto says, voice harsh.

"You can," Owen retorts. He pulls Ianto back, away from Jack's body. Ianto turns to look up at him with haunted eyes, and Owen flinches. "I'm sorry, mate," he says, almost gently. "It's over."

And suddenly Jack's gasping and spluttering, twisting away to cough up half of Cardiff Bay.

Owen and Ianto just gape at him.

"Wow," Jack wheezes, sitting up. "Let me tell you, tentacle sex is not all it's cracked up to be." He turns to Owen and Ianto, cracking a grin. "Hey, which one of you was–"

Ianto makes a soft, incoherent sound, barely more than an exhale of breath, and lunges forward to capture Jack's mouth with his own again. This time, it's a kiss, all right.

Owen thinks there are some aspects of his coworkers' private lives he'd really be just fine not knowing, thanks.

"Right, that's enough of that," he says finally, somewhat mollified by the way Ianto flushes as he pulls away. "You," he tells Jack, "will need a full medical scan, because I don't want to find out tomorrow that you've got lung damage and possibly pneumonia from swimming in the Bay in bloody November, and you," he pokes Ianto's shoulder, "have a cracked rib that needs taping. You're lucky you didn't puncture a lung giving this useless sod mouth-to-mouth."

"Yes, sir," Ianto mutters, but he winces and presses a hand to his side when he tries to stand. Owen helps him to his feet, waving off Jack's attempts to intervene.

"You stay put," he instructs Jack. "I'll be right back."

"I can make it to the SUV just fine," Ianto says shortly. "I've been walking around for twenty minutes on my own already, you know."

Owen snorts skeptically, but lets Ianto go. "Fine," he says. "We'll be with you in a minute, and then we'll all be taking a nice field trip to A&E to meet up with the girls and get you two idiots checked out."

Ianto nods and walks stiffly off to the SUV. Owen turns back to Jack, who's already upright and watching Ianto's retreat with some concern. "He'll be fine," Owen snaps, blocking Jack from going after him. "So will Tosh and Gwen. But you–"

"Right as rain," Jack says blithely, then seems to notice his dripping clothes and frowns. "Well, nothing a hot shower and change of clothing won't fix. Wanna help me out with that, Dr. Harper?"

If Owen rolls his eyes any harder, he might strain something. Jack grins and starts to push past him.

"Jack, hold on," Owen says. "You — you were dead."

"Apparently not quite," Jack replies. "Ah, the wonders of mouth-to-mouth."

Owen shakes his head. "No way. Not possible. It was too long. Even if Ianto did manage to get your heart started again, get you breathing, you should have permanent damage. You can't be deprived of oxygen that long without some brain damage, or–"

"Owen," Jack says, quiet but firm. "I'm fine. Does it really matter why? Look, maybe that alien we were dealing with kept me — breathing, somehow, down there. I don't know, I was unconscious for most of it, but weird stuff happens to us all the time with the Rift. So let's just be glad everyone's fine, and drop it." He cocks an eyebrow, smirking. "You are glad I'm fine, aren't you?"

"Bastard," Owen mutters. "Yeah, I am."

Jack grins widely and walks away, apparently deciding the matter is closed.

But still, Owen wonders.

iii. torture

Some days, when he's feeling particularly magnanimous, the Master brings Jack upstairs to put on a bit of a show for the Doctor. It would probably be poor manners for the Doctor to mention that watching his old friend die over and over again in increasingly inventive ways isn't really his idea of a good time.

Jack is…wrong, but that doesn't make this right.

The Doctor never looks away while it happens. He figures he owes Jack this much, at least: to witness. Especially as that's all the Doctor can do, these days, trapped in this wreck of a body.

His body may be confined to one very particular space and time, but his mind whirs with reckless abandon, relentlessly counting down the months and weeks and days and hours and minutes and seconds until Martha's mission will be completed. Eight months, three days, five hours and precisely twenty-six minutes to go, and Jack has just died his three hundred and sixteenth death aboard the Valiant.

The Master, ever easily distracted, dashes away to deal with some new exciting catastrophic project, something involving Kyoto; Jack's body forms a crumpled heap at the foot of the Doctor's chair.

He watches and counts backwards through time.

"Fuck," Jack groans, rolling over. He quickly becomes entangled in his chains as he tries to straighten his mangled limbs. Eventually, he manages to get his wrist up enough to brush the filth-matted hair out of his eyes.

The Doctor watches, counting the links in Jack's chains, measuring the adjustments in pheromones in the air as Jack stretches, blinks, shakes off the remnants of death.

Finally, Jack looks up at him. "I'm still here."

"You always are," the Doctor rasps out. It's been four days, eleven hours, fifteen minutes and twelve seconds since he last spoke.

Jack's mouth twitches in a crude approximation of his old smirk. "I meant, here, with you. Usually I wake up back in the engine room."

The Doctor shrugs, a slight shift in the hunch of his aged shoulders.

They simply regard each other for a while — three minutes and forty-seven seconds, to be precise. The Doctor has come to appreciate precision more than usual these past few months.

"You know what I miss most?" Jack finally says. "Apart from not dying on a regular basis. Well, actually, I kinda was dying on a fairly regular basis, but there's regular and then there's regular, you know?"

"Jack–" the Doctor starts, but Jack waves him off.

"No, what I really miss are the showers in the Hub." Jack glances down at himself and wrinkles his nose. "God, those showers. I mean, first off, communal showers are one of the finest inventions in twelve galaxies, seriously. After a good day's alien attack, there is nothing better than stripping down and — oh, man, this one time, Ianto — I told you about him, right?" There's a soft expression on Jack's face, and the Doctor just nods and lets him talk. "Yeah, so, I'm covered in this weird magenta goo, and I mean magenta, this is a hue that was not ever intended for goo form. Ianto finds me in the showers–"

But the Doctor's not fated to hear the end of the magenta goo story, because that's when the Master skips back in, shouting something insensible about photons, and cheerfully shoots Jack in the back of the head.

"Oh, for chrissakes," Jack mutters, and dies again.

Three hundred and seventeen, the Doctor counts, the number in his mind's eye like a blank wall with scratch-marks tallying it up, plenty of empty stone yet to fill in.

iv. death by pterodactyl

It's Sunday. Not that the notion of weekend has ever carried much weight in Torchwood, but it was rougher slogging than usual after Jack disappeared, and now that he's back, the team has relished in at least one full day off per week — since Jack's always at the Hub anyway, he can bloody well mind it on his own every now and then. Owen's fucked off to spend the day playing pool and drinking heavily, Rhys has forcibly dragged Gwen out of Cardiff for a day trip, and Ianto's doing…well, whatever Ianto does on his days off. Laundry, maybe. Someone must press all those suits.

So when Tosh heads into the Hub at a little past noon this Sunday, she has every reason to believe she'll have a nice long afternoon to work on her pet projects in peace and privacy. There's a bit of code on that theoretical time lock that needs tweaking, after all.

She's not expecting to find Jack's dead body sprawled across the center of the Hub, Ianto sitting patiently next to him, while Myfanwy flaps overhead with the occasional indignant squawk.

"Oh, my God," Tosh gasps, and experiences a brief moment of abject panic before remembering: that's right, he'll be back soon. She wonders how many times she'll have to watch him die before it sinks in properly.

Ianto glances up and gives her a pleasant smile. "Tosh. I thought everyone was taking the day off?"

She tosses her bag down at her workstation, then crosses over to them, trying to focus on Ianto rather than Jack's corpse. "I wanted to work on — well, not work, not properly. Just some coding on the side." She shrugs at his raised eyebrow, feeling her cheeks flush. "It's just a bit of fun."

"You have a novel definition of fun," Ianto says, almost fondly. "Sorry to interrupt your plans. He's a bit slow waking up this time — multiple lacerations take longer to heal than a simple gunshot wound."

She has to ask. "What happened?"

Myfanwy squawks again, and Tosh's eyes widen.

"She wasn't best pleased by his swanning off for months," Ianto says, by way of explanation. "I told him playing keep-away with her chocolate bar was a bad idea, but…well, that's Jack for you."

Tosh almost smiles. "He's been trying to win us all back over, hasn't he? He dug up three separate alien gadgets out of the archives that helped boost memory on the mainframe when I complained about disk space."

"He bought several rounds of drinks for Owen at the hotel bar that first night," Ianto adds. "And I'd rather not ask what he did for Gwen, but she's gotten over her abandonment issues right quick."

"And you?" Tosh asks, not quite hesitating. "Has he won you back over yet?"

Ianto looks down at Jack's still face and smiles softly. There's a light in his eyes she hasn't seen in months. "We're getting there," he says. "I've forgiven him for worse."

It takes longer to click than it really ought, and then Tosh gasps and glances up at the pterodactyl and away again with sudden revulsion. "Oh, Ianto," she says, feeling a little ill. "How could you watch–"

"Don't worry about it," Ianto says quickly. "Not that it was particularly pleasant, but not because of — this had nothing to do with Lisa."

"But Myfanwy–"

"Jack murdered Mary by sending her into the sun," Ianto says quietly. "Do you blame the sun?"

Tosh shakes her head mutely.

"Neither do I," Ianto says. He reaches down and strokes Jack's hair lightly. "And after a while, we don't even blame Jack anymore, do we?"

Jack, demonstrating his innate flair for the dramatic, chooses that moment to gasp his way back into life. He thrashes about frantically at first, then stills when Ianto bends over him, cupping Jack's cheek in his hand.

"Hey," Ianto says, with the faintest hint of a smirk. "Welcome back."

Jack stares at him a moment. "She didn't."

"She did," Ianto confirms.

"Oh, God," Jack groans. "You're never going to let me live this down, are you?"

Ianto grins, and Tosh wonders that the whole Hub isn't illuminated by the brightness of it. She realizes abruptly that she can't remember the last time she saw Ianto grin like that — if ever.

"Not a chance," Ianto says. "And I've got Toshiko as witness. Right, Tosh?"

"Right," Tosh agrees, and finds it's easy enough to laugh about it, once she starts.

Overhead, settling into her nest, Myfanwy flaps her wings in a manner that can only be described as smug.

v. explosion

There's nothing like a good hostage situation to alleviate the tedium of Torchwood's daily life. Because God knows the whole secret-organization-dedicated-to-chasing-aliens business gets boring right quick without the occasional spot of mortal danger.

Ianto grips his handgun, watching the three-meter-tall yellow insectoid extraterrestrial clack its mandibles over Gwen's head. It has her firmly clenched up against its abdomen, a large spherical device in its claws pressing into her chest. The clacking echoes eerily in the empty warehouse.

"Cheap plastosomatic explosive," Jack explains to Tosh and Ianto in low tones. "Not much oomph to it, but it's still a bomb. Sends out a nasty shock wave that basically liquefies your internal organs if you're standing too close. Not much range to it, though."

They keep their guns trained on the alien's head, but that's purely a formality at this point. Gwen already tried shooting the thing. The bullet ricocheted off its exoskeleton, and Gwen just earned herself a nasty gash on her leg and a leading role as hostage in today's little drama.

The creature tugs Gwen even closer, jostling her. "You will accede to my demands, or I will blow the girl to kingdom come!" it announces. Ianto would rather not think about the mechanism by which it manages speech. Although it clearly learned English from watching bad American sci-fi films.

Ianto watches Gwen, whose leg is still bleeding freely, which brings up the worrying notion that the alien might have nicked an artery. She's wavering somewhere between terror and mulish determination, and maybe five minutes away from passing out due to blood loss. He sidles closer to Jack. "It does realize we have no actual means of contacting its ship like it wants us to, right?" Ianto murmurs.

"Logical reasoning has never been a defining feature of this particular species," Jack replies, mouth pressed into a grim line. "Neither has compassion. They're low-grade criminal scum. I wouldn't return this one to its ship even if we could."

"Is it desperate enough to detonate the device?" Tosh asks quietly.

Jack shrugs. "Desperate or just plain stupid enough, maybe. Of course, that'll take it out, too…"

Ianto can feel Jack tense beside him as he reaches the logical conclusion. Oh, this is so not Ianto's favorite day ever.

"Okay," Jack breathes. "Tosh, your job is to get Gwen to the SUV, understand? Owen's waiting there, he's got his med kit, he'll take care of her." Owen is rarely allowed out in the field these days, a side affect of being undead. He's probably close to ripping the SUV apart in frustration by now.

"But how–" Tosh starts, then cuts herself off. Ianto can see comprehension dawn as she looks quickly to Jack and then back forward again, biting her lip. She doesn't glance over at Ianto. He doubts she'll be able to meet his eyes for a while afterward, either.

He feels the warm pressure of Jack's hand on his shoulder, and has to force himself not to flinch away. "Ianto," Jack says, voice low in his ear. "When I'm in place — shoot the bomb."

Ianto's grip on his gun tightens. "Yes, sir," he grinds out, keeping his eyes on the alien and Gwen.

Jack gives his shoulder a quick squeeze, and then steps out into the open space of the warehouse, making a big show of dropping his weapon. "Hey!" he calls. "Let's just talk this over, okay?"

"You will bring me to my ship!" the alien clacks.

"Sure, sure, of course we will," Jack says soothingly. "Anything you say. You're in control here. We'll contact your ship just as soon as my team gets back to our base. All of them."

"Do you think me a fool?" the creature sneers. He hugs Gwen closer still, and she cries out in pain. "I will keep the pretty one as collateral!"

Jack gives it his most charming grin. "Oh, but I'm so much prettier, aren't I? Take me as collateral instead. Let her go, and take me."

"Jack," Gwen says warningly, but the bloodstain on her trouser leg is spreading unabated, and she's starting to swoon in the alien's grip. Her skin is very pale.

"Come on," Jack wheedles, as the alien hesitates. "Look at her, she needs medical attention. She'll just slow you down. And she's worthless to you. Me, I'm Torchwood's leader. I'm much more valuable." His voice softens as he takes another step forward, and Ianto's gut clenches. "Take me instead."

In one fluid movement, the alien shoves Gwen away and springs forward, wrapping a few of its long legs around Jack's neck and chest. "All right," it snarls. "Fair trade."

Jack doesn't even put up a token struggle, almost relaxing into its hold. "Let my team get her to a doctor, please."

"Call my ship!"

"We will, I promise," Jack says persuasively, though the press of the alien's claws into his neck can't be comfortable. "But they can't do that here. You've got me, I'm clearly not going anywhere. Let them take care of it."

The alien twitches, shifting its weight from side to side. Logical reasoning really isn't its strong suit. "Take the girl away," it finally says, jerking a leg in Tosh and Ianto's direction. "But if you aren't back with my ship in one hour, the captain gets it!" It presses the explosive device against Jack's chest threateningly.

Ianto reaches out to touch Tosh's arm. "Go," he says quietly.

She nods tightly and goes, running to Gwen. Gwen grits her teeth and manages to stand, with Tosh's assistance, and the two of them stumble-run out of the warehouse. Gwen shoots one agonized glance back at Ianto, but he just waves her on.

And then it's just Ianto, the alien, and the alien's hostage.

"Run along," the alien snaps. "Unless you want to watch your captain perish."

Ianto's eyes meet Jack's, for a long moment, and Ianto tries to communicate if you don't get up again, I will track you down into Death and hurt you with his gaze. Some of that must have gotten across, because Jack's lips twist into a wry smile, and he nods.

"Yeah," Ianto tells the alien. "All right." And he shoots the bomb.

As explosions go, it's not all that impressive. Just a sudden flare of light, and the sense of a great wind rushing past him. Ianto drops to his knees with the pulse of energy, but apparently Jack was right, and Ianto's well out of range of the worst of it.

The alien wasn't, though, given its crumpled form across the warehouse floor. And neither was Jack.

Ianto pulls himself to his feet and stumbles over to Jack's still body. His heart stutters in the usual quiet panic — that this time, this time, the death might be permanent. That Jack won't be getting up again. He always does, of course, but Ianto worries all the same. Worse, though, is the nagging suspicion that Jack wonders the same thing — and quite possibly hopes for it.

"I hate you so much sometimes," Ianto informs the corpse of the man he just killed.

It only takes a minute or so, and then Jack's sitting upright with a sudden gasp, the life flowing as violently back into his body as it had departed. Ianto steps away. His hands are shaking, and he belatedly remembers to holster his gun.

"Hey," Jack says with a grin. "It worked."

"As one might have expected, sir," Ianto replies stiffly, turning away. "Shall we return to the others?"

"Hold on a second, Ianto–" Jack grabs Ianto's arm, forcing him to turn back. Whatever he sees in Ianto's face makes him loosen his grip. "Thank you," he says softly.

Ianto jerks away from Jack's hand. "All part of the service. Sir."

Jack frowns. "Ianto…"

It's very, very difficult not to punch him in the face, but Ianto restrains himself, curling his hands into fists at his sides to stop the trembling. "Why me?" he demands instead.

"Your marksmanship is better than Toshiko's," Jack says, far too glibly. He steps in, too close, deliberately crowding Ianto. "And because I knew you'd do it."

Ianto feels this says something more than a bit disturbing about his and Jack's relationship.

In one swift movement, Ianto grabs Jack's coat by the lapels and yanks him in for a bruising kiss. "Never again," he mutters against Jack's lips. "Never, never again, Jack, and don't you dare ask me."

Jack brings his arms up to envelop Ianto in a fierce hug. "I won't," he promises.

For now, Ianto chooses to believe the lie.

vi. because I could not stop for Death

It would be fair to say that Jack has been somewhat off his game lately. He thankfully doesn't remember much of the two thousand years he spent buried beneath Cardiff, rarely having had the chance to wake up properly between deaths, which is why he still has a relatively firm grasp on sanity. But that's still two millennia of death and rebirth and death again, aging him slowly, wearing his body down; he doesn't look older, but he feels it. Just a bit.

The nightmares aren't fantastic, either. Not to mention the nightmare he'd finally awoken to, in which his long-lost brother murdered two of his dearest friends and it was all kind of Jack's fault. That sort of situation defies any attempt at humorous innuendo, really.

So Jack's been just a touch off his game these past couple of weeks, which might explain why it takes him so damn long to realize that Ianto's not responding over the comm anymore.

"Goddamn it," he half-shouts, tapping his earpiece. "Gwen, when did we last hear anything from Ianto?"

"About ten minutes ago," she responds, and from the sudden tension in her voice it's clear that she just noticed, too. "He said he was heading up to the roof."

Jack immediately bolts for the nearest stairwell, gun in hand. They're tracking a small band of intergalactic black market ringleaders, who were on the run from the Judoon and trying to find a nice quiet backwater planet to dump their stash of goods. Torchwood already sent most of them packing, but one lone alien has chosen this textiles factory to make its last stand. It's angry, desperate, and has absolutely nothing left to lose.

Kind of like Jack, except Jack still has exactly two things left to lose — two people — and one has now gone missing.

He bursts through the steel door onto the factory roof, and stops dead in his tracks. (Not literally dead. Not this time. Not yet.)

Ianto is there, standing right at the edge, looking more than a bit roughed up and silently furious. His suit jacket is missing and there's a long rip along the sleeve of his shirt, blood lightly staining the edges. He's unarmed, his earpiece a shattered electronic mess at his feet. The alien — vaguely humanoid, if you ignore the eyestalks, with a body that absolutely defines androgyny — is standing a meter or so away, pointing Ianto's gun at his head.

When the alien speaks, its voice sounds like grinding pebbles. "Drop the gun," it says tonelessly, and Jack complies without hesitation.

God, he hates hostage situations. What is it about Torchwood that says abduct me, please in so many alien languages?

Jack looks between the alien and Ianto, considering. He really doesn't have much leeway here. "Hanging in there, Ianto?" he calls.

"Seem to have misplaced my dignity," Ianto replies sourly. "Do let me know if you find it anywhere."

"I'll make it up to you later," Jack says. He turns to the alien. "What exactly do you hope to get out of this situation, might I ask?"

The alien doesn't answer, just gives a little jerk of the gun in Ianto's direction. "Stand over there, with him."

"Gladly." He walks over to stand beside Ianto, feeling the wind at his back, a good five stories to the pavement below. Eh, he's fallen off much taller buildings than this. He glances over to Ianto, who meets his eyes with a small nod. No serious injuries, then, but the long cut on Ianto's arm looks rather deep.

The alien just watches them, gun still pointed at Ianto. Now that just won't do. "Hey," Jack says sharply. He's pleased to see the gun swing in his direction. "What do you want, anyway?"

"Death," the alien replies, in that gravelly voice. "Yours, preferably. His too. And the woman downstairs. And maybe that man down on the street, there, and the lady driving that lorry, and the people in the shops and the restaurants and the houses of this useless stinking wasteland of a planet. And then, and only then, my own."

Great. Another goddamn nutjob bent on mindless destruction. Jack was mildly irked before, but now he's becoming downright cross. "Any particular reason for the planned massacre?"

The eyestalks protrude a bit further in his direction. "You killed my people. Why shouldn't I kill yours?"

Jack can see the stairwell door inch silently open, and he keeps talking to keep the alien from noticing. "I didn't kill any of yours. Just shipped them off to the proper authorities. You are criminals."

"The Judoon are executioners, not policemen," the alien says, the barest hint of a sneer in its voice. This seems to be as expressive as its capable of being. "You killed us as surely as if you pulled the trigger yourself."

Its own fingers clench tightly around the gun, and Jack notices the long claws at its fingertips, razor-sharp. The claws on one hand are stained red with blood. Ianto's blood.

Anger boils up in him, making Jack feel blessedly light-headed. People need to stop hurting his team. "So go ahead," he snaps, watching Gwen creep up into position behind the alien. "You want to kill me, just fucking kill me."

Ianto stiffens beside him, but Jack doesn't care. He's so goddamn tired of this bullshit. The alien's arm trembles, and it raises the gun from chest-level to point directly at Jack's head. "I will," it hisses.

"Do it," Jack demands. "Pull the trigger. Go right the hell ahead."

And he wants it to, he really wants it. The shock of impact when the bullet hits his forehead, the flare of pain so quickly quenched, and then the darkness and peace, however brief, the blessed nothingness of death before life drags him back up into the nightmare again.

Gwen is in place.

"Do it!" Jack yells, and hears the two guns fire in perfect unison.

But instead of the expected bullet to the head, he feels another body slam into his as Ianto throws him sideways and down, just at the last instant. The breath is knocked out of him as he hits the ground, making his lungs ache, but he instinctively grabs hold of Ianto and rolls them both away from the roof's edge, avoiding the much longer drop. For a few moments, he just lies there beside Ianto, trying to remember how to breathe.

Then he looks over and realizes that there's blood running down the side of Ianto's face. A lot of blood.

Two gunshots. Gwen's bullet went through the alien's head. The alien's bullet should have gone through Jack's, but didn't, because Ianto–

"No," Jack says, bending over Ianto. His voice sounds like it's coming from somewhere very far away. "No, no, nononono–"

Ianto groans and sits up, wincing. "Ow." He reaches up to press his hand to his temple, and looks vaguely confused when his fingers come away smeared with blood.

Jack opens his mouth and closes it again, completely at a loss, heart clenching painfully.

"Oh, God," Gwen says, crouching down beside them. She pulls a little pack of Kleenex out of her pocket, and Ianto gratefully takes a wad of tissues to soak up the blood trickling down his cheek. "Ianto, you're absolutely mad, you are."

"I'm all right," Ianto says, carefully feeling his temple. "The bullet grazed me, that's all. No real harm done."

Jack rocks back on his heels, staring at him. "You're bleeding," he points out, never one for subtlety when stating the obvious will suffice.

Ianto shrugs. "Head wounds bleed a lot. Doesn't mean anything. It's already stopping." He waves the fresh tissues as evidence, and sure enough, now that the initial rush of blood's been cleaned up, it doesn't look so bad.

Just a graze. As in, bullet passing right past Ianto's head. Bullet that was meant for Jack. Jack is several light years away from being even remotely okay with this. "Gwen," he says tightly. "Can you give us a moment?"

She looks from Jack to Ianto and then back again, forehead creasing in concern. "Right," she says, standing. "I'll just, ah, call Andy in to help us deal with the body, yeah?"

Jack waits until she has retreated back down into the stairwell, then gets to his feet and stalks away from Ianto, trying to keep from screaming.

"Jack," Ianto says, voice oddly gentle. "I'm fine."

"You took the bullet," Jack says harshly, refusing to turn and look at him. "For me."

Ianto sighs. "Not exactly. And I wasn't trying to…intercept it."

"But you could have. A split second later and you would have."

"I wasn't–"

"I can't die!" Jack shouts, whirling around to face him. "Not permanently! It doesn't matter if I get shot, because I will get right the hell back up again! You won't."

Ianto moves forward and then stops abruptly, as though an invisible wall stands between them. "I know," he says.

"No way," Jack grinds out, hands clenching convulsively with the repressed need to touch him, "no goddamn way am I losing you, not now, not after Tosh and Owen–"

"I know," Ianto says again, just as fiercely. "That's why I — so soon after — I can't watch you die right now, Jack, I can't."

Jack keeps his arms folded tightly in front of him, but he can't look away from Ianto. God, he's so young. And beautiful, and strong, and fragile. So fragile, the human body, and Ianto doesn't even realize it. None of them do, not really. Not until they've broken, been broken time after time after time, so damn easily.

This isn't about losing yet another member of his team. This is about losing Ianto, who is something more than that, something else entirely, even if Jack can't find the words to tell him.

"Ianto," Jack finally says. "I will die again, sooner or later. And again. And again."

Ianto steps forward, deliberately shattering the space between them. "But not today," he says softly, laying a gentle hand on Jack's arm. "I'm going to die, too, Jack. Sooner or later."

Jack flinches — at Ianto's words or his touch, he's not sure. "Only once," he says, voice harsher than he intended.

"Only once," Ianto agrees. He smiles then, incongruously brightly, and Jack doesn't want to blink, doesn't want to breathe. "But not today."