Jack had spent close to two thousand years buried beneath Cardiff, from a time before the Welsh capital had even been envisioned right up until he’d finally been exhumed by Torchwood agents a few years into the twentieth century. Even though most of his interment had been spent either dead or so deeply unconscious that he might as well have been, he still remembered how it had felt, coming back to life intermittently only to choke on the dirt that filled his mouth and nose until the absence of air snuffed out the last small spark of life once more. Every death had been a blessed relief from the terror and suffering of his situation.
The experience had changed him more than he cared to admit. He’d lived longer than any other human, been subjected to every kind of abuse and torture imaginable, and while there were many things he feared to varying degrees, enclosed spaces had never troubled him in the slightest. But that had changed too; now they seemed more cramped than they really were, constricting and airless, the walls forever threatening to press in, to crush and smother him. Claustrophobia; it had been such a foreign concept, unimaginable to someone who had flown any number of small craft through the vacuum of space, where what little air there was had to be constantly recycled and re-used, and there was no room to swing a cat. Yet he’d come to know the feelings it engendered all too well.
He couldn’t even sleep in his cosy little bunker anymore. That small room beneath his office had been his refuge for years, the place he retreated to when he wanted to be alone but didn’t feel like going out. Since Gray had buried him alive, the thought of spending more than a few brief moments in its dimly lit confines filled him with overwhelming dread. It was all he could do to just descend the ladder, grab a change of clothes, and bolt back up to the wide open, airy Hub, where he sucked in deep breaths to fill lungs that had become convinced they were being starved of oxygen. Some days he couldn’t even manage that much, breaking out in a cold sweat and recoiling from the gaping maw of the manhole as if it were a serpent intent on swallowing him whole.
Ianto always understood and would fetch whatever he needed without comment or the slightest trace of pity. Jack was grateful for that, among many other small considerations; he didn’t know what he would have done without the Welshman’s quiet strength to lean on. Still, it made him ashamed to be so fearful, wondering how he could expect the remaining members of his team to follow his orders, especially when it came to doing things he was too afraid to do himself.
Nowadays, he spent most nights at Ianto’s flat, which although not spacious, at least didn’t make him feel as if he was suffocating. There were big windows in every room that let in light, and air whenever he felt the need. He took to leaving the bathroom door and window ajar when showering so that the build-up of humidity wouldn’t make him feel breathless, while the curtains remained open day and night, letting the lights of the city chase away the shadows lurking in the dark corners of their bedroom.
Even so, there were nights when he would wake suddenly with an intense need to feel the wind in his face and threading like insubstantial fingers through his hair. Whenever that happened, he’d slip silently from the bed, leaving Ianto peacefully sleeping, dress quickly and make his way up to the roof. Ianto had given him a key to the access door at the top of the stairwell the day he’d moved in. The rooftop it let him out onto wasn’t the highest in Cardiff, and on some nights he’d still venture out to one of the taller buildings where he could stand far above the city, gazing out over the myriad lights that sparkled like fallen stars. Most of the time though, it was enough just to be outside where there were no walls to enclose him. He’d lean on the safety barrier surrounding the flat roof and let the cool night air and the breeze from the sea calm his racing heart and loosen the tightness in his chest, hoping that one day he would find a way past the fear, be able to finally put the nightmare experience and its after-effects firmly in the past where it belonged.
Until then, all he could do was use whatever means were available to him in order to cope, seeking out the space he sometimes needed to enable him to breathe freely. More than anything, he vowed never to forget to be grateful for the understanding and steadfast support of his Ianto, the man who made even the worst days bearable, because without him, Jack knew he’d be lost.