Inside the Hub the smell of fresh coffee was filling the air, letting him know that at least one of his people was already there. Jack went to the kitchenette under the stairs and found Ianto arranging mugs on a tray.
"Good morning," he said nervously, watching Ianto, looking for any sign of artificiality. There was none.
"Morning, sir," Ianto said pleasantly, like so many times before, his plump lips making an obligatory twitch toward a smile, without quite getting there.
"Ianto," he said. When the other man stopped what he was doing and looked at him, Jack stepped forward and slid one arm around his waist and the other around his shoulders, holding him tightly against his body. He buried his nose in Ianto's hair and breathed in the familiar clean scent. It scared him to think that this might only be an illusion, and he clutched the fine suit jacket and the flesh beneath more tightly.
Ianto patted Jack's back awkwardly. They had a physical relationship, but it didn't involve hugging. "Uh, sir. Jack. Is everything all right?"
Jack clapped the Welshman’s shoulders vigorously as he released him. "Yes! Of course. Everything's fine. Just saying hello. Carry on."
Ianto poured his special coffee blend into a mug, and fixed it just as Jack liked it; no sugar, and a drop of milk. Jack took it and inhaled the intoxicating aroma. Taking a sip, he made a sound of pleasure which provoked something close to a real smile from Ianto.
"Thanks, Yan. I'll be in my office."
He made his way slowly up the short flight of stairs, looking carefully at everything around him. The detail was perfect - every crack, every smudge, every bit of forgotten detritus. How could he even question that this was real? No machine could create this level of detail, not even in the year 200,200.
He stood at his office window and watched as the others came in; first Tosh, then Owen, and finally Gwen. Using determination alone, he refrained from rushing over and running his hands over each of them in turn. He knew what they all felt like; it wouldn't be any different this morning.
They gathered in the conference room for a regular staff meeting, and Jack kept forgetting to listen to what the others were saying, he was so intent on watching their faces.
Gwen waved her hand to get his attention. “Hello? Earth to Jack.”
“Hm? Sorry, what were you saying?”
“Just that there have been reports of ghosts at the Castle again.”
“Yeah, and?” Jack said, unsurprised by the news. “We know all about that. They aren't exactly ghosts, but they’re harmless.”
“Well, apparently there are new ghosts, chasing the old ones. When they catch them, they fight it out until one of them wins, which means any nearby tourists get sprayed with slime from the explosion. So far visitors are accepting the explanation that it’s a special effects show, but the staff are getting nervous.”
Jack wondered why his mind would possibly make up something like this, or if it was part of the program. And would he have to ask himself that about everything that happened from now on?
Tosh’s tablet beeped, and she poked it a few times. “Weevil sighting. In a playground in Splott. Only one, but it’s wrecking the place.”
“Okay,” Jack said decisively. “Owen and Tosh find out what’s going on at the Castle. Gwen and Ianto take care of the Weevil.”
Four faces turned to him in surprise. Ianto said, “Me? You’re not going?”
“No. It'll be good for you to get more field experience. You can all handle this without me. I won’t always be around to take care of things.”
Which wasn’t necessarily true. If this wasn’t real and he suddenly got pulled away, they wouldn’t have to make do without him because they would cease to exist. If this was real, then Jack would potentially always be there. Always, forever. Unless he allowed himself to be taken in by some trick or trap, or walked away voluntarily.
“And what,” Owen inquired archly, “will you be doing while we’re getting slimed?”
“Important boss things. None of your business. Now get going, and stay in touch.”
The others filed out, but Ianto held back. “Are you sure everything’s all right? You’re acting a bit off.”
Jack gave him a big smile. “Everything’s fine. I’ve got a lot on my mind, but nothing for you to worry about. Have fun out there.”
Ianto raised a sceptical eyebrow, but went to get his equipment anyway.
Alone in the Hub, Jack went to his desk and brought his computer to life. The first thing he did was review the CCTV files for that morning. He easily found himself walking across the Plass, but nearing the railing he entered a blind spot, which none of the cameras covered. He walked back into the picture several minutes later.
On the one hand, the Doctor had said he was trying not to be noticed by the game program, so the positioning would make sense. On the other hand, it was a good way for an adversary to cover a deception. No help, then.
Next he reviewed the sensor logs, looking for anything out of the ordinary in that location. There was nothing, but the Doctor and Rose mentally tapping into a computer program might not be detectable by Torchwood’s instruments; they were set for recognizable temporal/spatial anomalies and physical manifestations. If he was living in a computer program, then Torchwood’s instruments would only respond according to pre-set game rules anyway. Or it could have been done with entirely mundane equipment that wouldn’t be detected, such as a hologram projector. Or, of course, he may have imagined the whole thing.
Jack spent some time with his wrist strap, seeing if it would pick up on anything the less sensitive Torchwood systems couldn’t. The problem was, how do you prove that you’re experiencing reality? There were no standard tests for that. Jack felt pain and hunger. He felt love and hate. He could feel the sun on his face. What device could be more convincing than that?
But what, really, would be the point of an apparition telling him the world he knew didn’t exist? What would an outside force gain from that that they couldn’t achieve by other means? And if Jack was imagining it, then he wasn’t fit to lead Torchwood anyway.
Owen and Tosh came back first. Before Jack let them head to the much needed showers, he asked for a report.
“Apparently,” Tosh said, “it was an ectoplasmic fight to the death. By the time we got there, there were only two left. Now there’s one, and it seems calm enough.”
“There can be only one,” Owen intoned portentously, then snickered at his own joke.
“Owen,” Tosh complained tiredly, “how many more times are you going to say that?"
"At least once more to Gwen and Teaboy. Too good to pass up."
Gwen and Ianto came back a short time later, wrestling a sedated Weevil down into the cells. The thing had put up a fight and taken refuge on top of the monkey bars, just to make things harder. Gwen had a tear in her jacket, but was otherwise fine. Ianto had suffered several cuts and bruises, and the tragedy of ruining a very posh suit.
Jack leaned on the railing looking down into the Autopsy Room, watching Owen tend the younger man's injuries. Behind him, he could hear Gwen and Toshiko discussing which of the area's dry cleaners were better at getting out which kinds of stains. They should have just asked Ianto, because he was an expert in clothing repair and stain removal, mostly thanks to Jack.
When he walked over to them, Gwen asked, "Jack, there are several Weevils down in the cells now. What do you do with them? They can't spend the rest of their lives there, can they?"
"No," Jack agreed. "Mostly, with time and a little chemical conditioning to discourage their taste for human blood, they become docile enough we can return them to the sewers. It's that or kill them, which we try to avoid but will do if we have to. The one we call Janet is a tough case. She's resistant to the drugs, but has been here long enough that we get sentimental at the thought of putting her down."
"Speak for yourself," Owen said, coming up the stairs. "You'd feel differently about it if you were the one cleaning out her cell every day."
"Oh?" Ianto rejoined, following behind him. "And how would you know anything about that?"
"Not always here, are you? When you're off somewhere I get the shit work."
Tosh cleared her throat pointedly and raised an eyebrow. "I seem to recall that it's a seniority issue. Last time Ianto was away," she said, referring obliquely to his mandatory leave of absence after the Cyber-Lisa incident, "Gwen had the pleasure, not you."
"I've done it," Owen objected. After a disbelieving silence he amended, "I did it once, anyway. That was enough. I've got better things to do than muck out the cell of an alien with all the manners of a sewer-dweller."
"Yes," Jack said, stepping back into his role as the boss. "I think you all have things to do. Anyone who doesn't, let me know and I'll come up with something."
The four scurried to their work stations and made sure to look busy. He loved them, he really did. All of them a little broken, but each with their own strengths, too. They were his family now, for better or worse. A dysfunctional, bickering, competitive family, but his.
Jack returned to his office to think. He'd considered Rose and the Doctor to be his family for a while, too. A family that lived in a time-travelling space ship, but more than that; lovers. It had been extraordinarily intense between them.
Images came to him. Memories of lovemaking and of raw sex, both.
-- Jack standing naked with his hands restrained above his head. Rose with her back to the Doctor's chest. The Doctor lifting her, holding her with his hands under her open thighs, lowering her onto Jack's erect cock. The Doctor controlling the fuck completely. Jack's only contact being with the wet heat of Rose's vagina. Erotic, primal sex. It took Jack's breath to think of it, even so many years later.
-- Cuddling together on the sofa after a long day. Relaxing, tangling up with each other. A hand brushing an arm, a leg pressing against a groin. Heat and desire building slowly, moving naturally to comfortable, lazy completion.
-- Rose and Jack stripping the Doctor of his clothes while they remained dressed; something that was difficult for the Time Lord, but which he allowed them to do. Rose kneeling, taking the Doctor's cock in her mouth while Jack stood behind him, arms encircling and holding him, palms brushing over his sensitive nipples. The Doctor trusting them to take care of him, to catch him and to carry him through his pleasure.
They had been three lovers together, equally. Each had touched the others in every way possible, no intimacy left unexplored. The Doctor had saved those impossibly long bone-melting fucks for Jack, though. Jack had never known anything like the feeling of being held by the Doctor, being held down by him, his body worked over until he was coming apart at the seams.
Jack had had other lovers both before and after, but he didn't think the kind of thing he'd had with Rose and the Doctor could happen more than once in a lifetime, not even a lifetime as long as his. And it was being offered to him again. All he had to do, potentially, was take their hands and pick up where they left off.
Things that seemed too good to be true, often were. When someone walked up to you and offered you your deepest desire on a platter, there was always a catch. Jack had been a con man and he knew exactly how playing a mark worked. Usually, though, he wasn't the mark.
"Jack, what do you want?" He was shaken from his reverie by Gwen, who was standing in his office door.
Thrown, he said, "W… what?"
"To eat. We're ordering Indian."
He looked at his watch. It was after 6 pm already, and when had that happened?
"Uh, Chicken Tikka, I think, and all the extras. Thanks."
They gathered in the conference room to eat, and then Jack kept them there talking, telling outlandish stories to make them laugh, and prompting their own stories, which were probably no more authentic than Jack's had been. He didn't want the evening to end.
Eventually, Ianto started nodding off where he sat. Owen said, "Come on then," and slapped Ianto on the shoulder, though Jack noticed that the contact was actually quite gentle. "I'll give you a ride home. You shouldn't drive after the painkiller I gave you."
Ianto sat up straight and said a little too clearly, "I'm perfectly fine."
"Sure you are," Owen agreed. "Nothing a good kip won't fix."
"I should be going, too," Gwen said. "Rhys is expecting me."
"Me, too," Tosh added. "See you tomorrow, Jack."
"Yeah," was all he could find to say as a sudden, unaccustomed panic spread through him. He wanted to keep them there, or at least say something meaningful.
There were no circumstances, however, in which saying goodbye would be a good idea. If he let them know anything was wrong, they wouldn't in fact leave. If this wasn't real and he left, they wouldn't be coming in to the office tomorrow looking for him anyway. If it was a trick of some kind and he was stupid enough to be taken in, then he should deal with it on his own and not endanger them. If he decided to stay, then there would be no reason to say goodbye.
"Right," he said. "Have a good night. Sleep well."
As they closed up their work stations and left one by one, Jack concentrated on projecting an air of calm unconcern, while inside he felt anything but. This was by far the most difficult decision he had ever made, in nearly one hundred and eighty years of life. It was harder than deciding to leave his home world to join the Time Agency. Harder than the life and death decisions he’d made as an Agent. Harder even than deciding to intercept a detonating bomb with a tractor beam, knowing that it could be fatal.
It seemed that there was no way to externally verify whether the Doctor and Rose were real or whether Cardiff and his team were real. He could spend the night going back and forth on that without reaching a conclusion, and he couldn't have it both ways. The true question was which he wanted more. Who would he choose?
This decision effected more than just him. He had to choose between a) his old lovers; the love of his life, not to put too fine a point on it, and b) everything he’d built since he’d been on Earth, everyone he’d loved, his responsibilities. Either way he would have to betray someone.
If what the Doctor said was true, then there was no one here to betray, but it wasn’t that easy. Jack would know what he’d done, if he chose to leave. He would know that he'd chosen to leave behind people who depended on him, based on no more than wishful thinking. And if the whole thing was a trick that made it impossible for him to return, he would have walked into it willingly. His people deserved better.
If he stayed, he would be turning his back on the Doctor and Rose, and on everything he might have accomplished with them. What if he wasn’t there when they needed him, and they were hurt? What if he wasn’t there to save a world or stop an injustice? Many more lives could be lost.
And that wasn’t even taking into account his own selfish desires. He ached to be with the Doctor and Rose again. They were the most profound relationship he’d ever had, and they still owned a huge piece of his heart. The Doctor, particularly, had made him the man he was today, even in his absence. At the same time, Jack was deeply attached to his wounded, troubled team. He was responsible for them, and they needed him so much more than the Doctor ever could.
The night passed quickly. The thought of going out and roaming the city again was too painful, so he stayed in and walked through all the levels of the complex, visiting the morgue storage units that contained lost friends and colleagues of decades past. He very seriously asked the hand floating in the bubbling jar what he should do, but it didn't answer.
Morning came, and Jack put on his coat; his armour and security blanket all in one. He picked up a pen to leave a note, but then put it down again. There was nothing for it but to just go, and he walked up to the Plass, sealing each exit behind him.
When Jack approached the meeting spot it was empty - no one in sight. Another surge of adrenalin ran through him at the new uncertainty. Maybe he was too early, or something had happened to the Doctor and Rose, or there was never anything there to begin with. He couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed.
He waited a few minutes, then the light changed and flickered, and Rose and the Doctor appeared looking exactly as they had before. Jack’s heart leapt in his chest at the sight. All other considerations aside, they were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. After missing them for so long, they were within touching distance.
"Hello, Jack," the Doctor said.
"Hello, Doctor. Rose."
The Doctor asked, “Are you ready to go now?”
Jack said, "Do you know what you're asking me to do? What you're asking me to leave behind?"
"Not precisely, no," the Doctor admitted. "People you care about, at the very least. Has to be done, though."
“Doctor, tell me something. Assuming what you say is true, and this is a game, I could still stay here, couldn’t I? I'll live forever here. Millions of years. Billions."
"It might seem that way, but I don’t know how long your body would actually survive on the Game Station. Not long, I think."
"But," Jack insisted, "it would be a long time for me."
The Doctor nodded unhappily. "Yes, it would."
“And if I decide to stay, will you accept my decision?”
Upset, Rose protested, “But Jack, you have to come back with us! You can’t really choose to live in a game. That’s just... that’s crazy, and I'm not havin' it!”
Jack met her eyes to try to comfort her, but didn’t say anything. It was the Doctor’s response that was important.
The Doctor watched him carefully. “It would be a form of suicide, lad. I can’t agree with that. Is it so wonderful? Are you so happy here that you would give up your life for it?”
Jack shook his head. It wasn't that he was so happy. “Just answer my question. Would you accept my decision, or would you force me to go with you?”
After considering Jack for a moment, the Doctor said, “All right. If that’s what you want. Trying to take you out of here against your will would probably kill you, too.”
Rose turned to the Doctor anxiously. “Doctor…”
The Time Lord’s face began to show his distress. “But I don’t want to lose you like this, to a stupid game show. Your place is with us. I want you with us. Want you. I’m askin’ you, Jack. Come back to us, please. I can beg,” he offered.
“No,” Jack said, “don’t beg.”
This was what he'd needed to hear. He didn't actually want to live forever. It was more important that the choice was his, as terrible as it was. And that the Doctor cared for him, valued and wanted him. It healed a wound in his heart that had grown from the idea of having been left behind because he didn't matter enough to bother with. That was the bottom line. His desire to believe that he hadn’t been tossed aside was strong enough to remove the last of his resistance.
He stepped toward them, calm at last. “I want to be with you again, more than I want anything else.”
Jack held out his hands to them, and Rose immediately grabbed one, saying “Oh, thank god. We love you, Jack, an' we're not lettin' you go.” He began to feel a tingle throughout his body.
More slowly, the Doctor reached out as well. He nodded and said simply, “I’m glad.”
When their hands touched, a jolt went through Jack, like being electrocuted, and he screamed. Then everything went black.
Jack gasped back to life exactly like he'd been doing for years, except this time there was something lodged in his throat. Disoriented, he tried to cough it out and began to struggle against whatever was restraining his limbs.
There were hands touching him, and voices. "Jack! Jack, calm down. Let me take out the breathing tube."
It was the Doctor. He wasn't sure where he was, but he was so used to obeying the Doctor's orders that he fought to control himself. There was a sharp, grating pain in his throat that made him gag, but then he could breathe again.
Opening his eyes, Jack saw the Doctor and Rose looking down at him with concern. Reluctantly, he began to remember where he supposedly was, and where he had just been. The room looked like Satellite Five, but was it real, or was this the illusion? It was too soon to tell.
The Doctor was talking. "They have you wired up like a Christmas tree. Just stay still and let me get you free."
Jack looked down at himself. He was lying on a medical bed, attached to or penetrated by dozens of tubes and wires. Unsurprisingly, he was naked. He cast a quick glance around looking for homicidal design droids. Besides Rose and the Doctor, the only other person in the room was Lynda, looking overwhelmed by the technology and, he noted, his by glorious nakedness.
He managed a weak leer, and croaked, "Hello, there. Captain Jack Harkness."
"Stop it," the Doctor scolded reflexively.
"Was just saying hello," Jack protested, as he dropped his head back and closed his eyes. He felt a little floaty. Did that mean that this was real, or that it wasn't?
What the Doctor was doing caused considerable discomfort, but was a relief as well. When one of his arms had been freed from the apparatus, Rose took his hand and held it to her lips. "It's good to have you back, sleepyhead."
He smiled for her, but wasn't yet convinced that he was, in fact, back, or if it was a good thing.
The Doctor chatted as he disconnected Jack from the medical equipment. "It's lucky we found you when we did. A lot of this isn't meant for long term care. Would have done more harm than good." When he'd finished he helped Jack sit up. "Are you up to a bit o' running around, because we've got a lot to do."
"I'm fine," Jack insisted.
The Doctor turned to the two women. "We could use some more weapons before we head up to Floor 500. Would you ladies have a look around, see what you can find?"
Rose looked at Jack and wavered. "Weapons?" she asked doubtfully.
"That's right. I'll get some clothes on this young man and we'll join you."
"All right," she agreed without much enthusiasm. To Lynda she said sharply, "Come on, then."
After they'd left, the Doctor stood so he could look Jack in the face, then cupped his hand around Jack’s cheek. "Tell me the truth," he said. "Are you all right?"
Jack wasn't sure. He wasn't the same man he'd been the last time he'd seen the Doctor in the flesh. People he cared about were gone out of reach, but he still expected to see their faces any moment. "Not really," he answered.
The Doctor met Jack's eyes. "I know you're grieving, Jack. Believe me, I know how you must feel, but you'll have to deal with it later, because we need you here, now. We don't know what we're up against yet, but it's something powerful."
Grieving didn't begin to cover it. What he didn't yet know was if he would ever again be sure that this was reality, and not just a really good fake. Was he right now living a fantasy? He honestly couldn't tell the difference. But he'd made his choice, so he'd have to go on as though it were real.
The Doctor said seriously, "Your grief is natural. The people you knew were real. To you they were. They lived through you. Jack, you're not immortal here. Through this game you've already had more time, more experiences, than any human ever has. Think of that time as a gift. Cherish it. Remember it and remember them. But be here with us now."
Jack nodded, knowing the Doctor was right. There was no other way to go forward. "I am, I promise. I'm here. I'm glad to be here."
"Good lad. So, do you think you can get dressed by yourself? I'd best see that the girls don't get into any trouble."
Jack's wrist strap was on a side table, with clothes laid out next to it. Leather trousers, a white T shirt, and a leather vest. Figured.
"Yeah. Go ahead. I'll catch up."
The Doctor stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Jack, holding him close and running his hands soothingly over Jack's back and shoulders. It felt better, more real, than his best memories had, and he hugged the Doctor tightly, his heart pounding in his chest. The Doctor looked a little misty-eyed when he pulled away but, without saying anything more, headed toward the door.
"Doctor," Jack called.
The Doctor turned. "Yeah?"
"Thanks for coming back for me. Do you think, though, that we could avoid any more visits to Cardiff for a while?"
The Doctor grinned. "I think that can be arranged."
"Oh, and Doctor, just for the record, if you run into Queen Victoria, be really, really nice to her, okay? For me?" It wouldn't be a great tragedy if Torchwood was never formed in the first place.
"Sure, Jack, whatever you say," the Doctor said agreeably, and left the room.
Jack sat for a moment, reordering his mind. This was exactly what he'd wanted for so long, to be with Rose and the Doctor again, and off on a new adventure. It was a good thing. It really, truly was. He couldn't wait to be alone with them, to touch them, to love them, to make new memories with them. His heart was warming at the thought. Any doubts could just go screw themselves.
The Doctor had said that the game was based in part on historical record. Maybe that meant that in early 21st Century Cardiff Ianto Jones, Gwen Cooper, Toshiko Sato, and Owen Harper were busy living their lives. Some day he would have to go see, but not right away. For now, his life was here.
He got up and pulled on the clothes, which fit as well as he remembered. Examining himself in a mirror, he said, "Looking good, if I do say so myself."
Then he followed the others through the door and didn't look back.
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