The first time Jack died, he had enough time to look round confusedly, see the figure in black and go “Wha-” before he was gasping back to life.
The second time he got as far as “Who ar-”.
The third time he was rather more badly minced by the experience, and got out a whole “Look buddy, you'd better have a pretty good explanation for-”.
The next few times were along the same lines. Jack was becoming used to the idea that he couldn't die. However, being met by the Grim Reaper each time (who just stood there in silence until whatever it was kicked in and Jack came back to life) was really very creepy. It had taken the first few goes to accept that it was the Grim Reaper standing there, but there was only so long that Jack could ignore the scythe.
Jack being Jack, there was also only so long that he could ignore the fact that he was being stalked by a tall dark stranger with a large (agricultural) implement.
Usually there wasn't much time between dying and coming back to life again, though as he got used to it the period of disorientation grew shorter. So Jack started small, with the patented Harkness grin a few times, then working in a wink, then next time a 'Hey', a 'How you doing?' and so on. Still no reaction from the dark figure. Jack's next line of attack would normally be one of the other senses – he was well travelled enough to know that not all species worked on sight and sound, but he was fairly sure he couldn't manipulate his pheromones in a non-corporeal state. He wasn't sure if he could even touch, and if he could, whether he really wanted to give Death a friendly pat on the shoulder.
He kept up the low grade flirting. Persistence generally paid off.
“Since we keep meeting like this, shouldn't we get to know each other?”
Jack woke up, but the conversation was only shortly interrupted as the nice lady from Torchwood killed him again.
I RARELY MEET PEOPLE MORE THAN ONCE.
“Well aren't I the lucky guy then?”
A bucket of water to the face and Jack was back in the land of the living. A bullet in the head and he was back with Death.
“Why do you keep turning up anyway? It's not like I stay dead.”
That was the last he saw of Death for a few days. But Jack rarely stayed out of trouble for long.
IT IS A NICE DAY. THERE IS LITTLE RAIN.
I BELIEVE ACQUAINTANCES ARE SUPPOSED TO EXCHANGE PLEASANTRIES.
Jack found it hard to concentrate after waking up from that one. How did you make small talk with the Grim Reaper? Given his current line of work, it was more than likely that they were going to be meeting again. He'd successfully chatted and flirted with every species he'd ever met, but Death was something different. Though on the plus side, Death appeared to be making some effort of his own, which was something. Jack assumed that Death was a 'he' from the deep voice, not having the confidence to try and sneak a look at the pelvic bone to find out for certain.
Small talk. With Death. But Jack was up to the challenge.
“So, busy lately?”
I AM ALWAYS BUSY
“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”
Jack resolved to put more thought into it next time, but before he'd had the chance to some idiot had thrown him out of a fourth floor window.
THERE IS CHOLERA IN MOSCOW. A MAIL STEAMER HAS SUNK OFF CEYLON. A LANDSLIDE HAS ENGULFED A VILLAGE IN BRAZIL.
YOU ASKED IF I WAS BUSY. I HAVE LEARNED THAT HUMANS EXPECT ELABORATION.
Jack had some time to think in the Torchwood infirmary, as the doctor pulled the hundreds of glass shards out of his back. Death only had brief interactions with people, so he didn't know the rules. That was fine, he could work with that. What he needed was an opener that was specific, and uncontroversial.
In retrospect, Jack's plan to entrap by seduction the alien who'd been choking people to death with her thighs could have done with some work.
“How've you been?”
AS I ALWAYS AM. AS I HAVE BEEN FROM THE FIRST DEATH OF A LIVING THING, AS I WILL BE UNTO THE LAST.
“That's good then, right?”
GOOD? YES. I SUPPOSE.
Things went well from there. Each of Jack's deaths resulted in a little more information being winkled out. The fact that Death had a house came as a surprise; the crotchety servant a little less so. On a couple of his more alfresco deaths he got to meet Binky, the horse. Other things he felt that Death was being a bit more cagey about. There had been other mortals living with him, but they had died. Others who Death had been connected with, who had inevitably died.
Jack had a sinking feeling that the only person who really understood what he was going through was Death. True irony for the immortal. But it was true. Torchwood had gradually become like family – a tragic family. Five years was the average life expectancy for one of them. Get to know them, to love them, then watch them die. That was certainly something he and Death had in common.
He shared this observation with Death after an explosion had killed him and two team-mates (if he was killed with them he got to say goodbye. It didn't make it any better). Death laid a skeletal hand on his shoulder.
LIFE MEANS DEATH.
“Not for me.”
He stayed away from conversations like that from then on. He had a feeling that Death knew things about his future that he wasn't ready to know.
Jack had been chasing after the alien, jumped a bannister, started running down the stairs – then tripped on his coat, fell down the flight and broke his neck at the bottom.
THE LONG COAT IS RATHER IMPRACTICAL.
“That from a man who wears full length robes.”
I DO NOT NEED TO RUN. I AM EVERYWHERE.
Jack resisted the temptation to ask Death about Torchwood business. This was a personal relationship. No need to bring work into it. But there was a question he wanted to ask. So after the thing with the razor sharp teeth had made a partially successful attempt to eat him, he asked.
“Do you know where the Doctor is?”
THE TIME LORD? YES.
“Would you tell me where?”
HIS PATH IS TANGLED ACROSS TIME AND SPACE. HE IS HERE, BUT NOT NOW. HE IS NOW BUT NOT HERE.
An impasse. Then Jack got run over by a train. He'd never been run over by a train before. An interesting experience, albeit painful. And gritty – he thought he must have swallowed half a coal bunker and most of the gravel off the track on his way down, which he was going to sincerely regret later, but he wasn't going to think about that now.
DO YOU LIKE CATS?
CATS. DO YOU LIKE THEM?
“More of a dog person.”
The glow in Death's eyes seemed to dim a little.
Jack bought a kitten and made every attempt to like it. It was black and Jack called it Nergal. Everyone else at Torchwood called it Sooty. It was also apparently the only being in the universe completely immune to the Harkness charm. Jack resorted to buying its love, until one day there was a resounding 'crack' from the desk that Nergal had just leapt onto as it snapped under the weight. He was forbidden from feeding it anymore, so resorted to catnip and toys. Nergal lived out the rest of his days in a contented catnip haze, but he still didn't like Jack.
Jack was crossing the road to get to the confectioners (his latest conquest had declared that she would do anything for a quarter of mint humbugs, and Jack wanted to put that to the test) when he was run over by a tram.
He was distinctly embarrassed by the indignity of it when he met Death.
THEY ARE VERY QUIET.
“Yeah. They are. Sneak up on you.”
PERHAPS YOU SHOULD SUGGEST THEY HAVE WARNING BELLS PUT ON THEM.
“As a public service, of course, I mean that could have happened to anybody.”
Jack found that Death was a lot more understanding than the Torchwood team about the tram incident. For example, Death didn't laugh so much that he had to sit down.
The next alien used a whaling harpoon on him.
“Hey! I liked that coat.”
YOUR TEAM DOES NOT. MAYBE THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO BUY SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
“What do they know about style? Although,” Jack took a good look at his corpse, “Something shorter might show off my ass better.”
The very natty suit and jacket that Jack bought as a replacement was not a success. Half of the team developed a tendency to fall over or run into things when they were running behind him, the other half referred to it as the 'monkey in heat' outfit. He was summoned to the office of the Head of Torchwood Three, who ordered him to wear long jackets and coats in future.
Jack resolved never to take fashion advice again from someone who wore robes all the time.
Fashion though soon became less of an issue, as military chic was in for every able-bodied adult male. World War added to Jack's repertoire of death, including being blown up whilst having sex.
The soldier underneath him froze and Jack looked up. “Really? Damn.”
THE GERMAN ARTILLERY WAS MOVED FORWARD IN THE NIGHT. THERE IS VERY LITTLE LEFT OF THE OUTBUILDING YOU WERE IN.
Jack picked his friend up and kissed him hard and desperate. “I can't come with you. I'm sorry, but I can't, I'm so sorry.” He knew he was gabbling, but there was so little time for these goodbyes. “And I can promise you that there are a lot worse ways to go than that.” He flashed a brilliant grin and was rewarded with a weak smile in return.
IT IS TIME.
Many more goodbyes; stepping in front of the shell as it landed, but seeing the shrapnel slice all the way through him and into the men behind him. Giving his gas mask to the nearest nurse at the dressing station, but having nothing for the four others beyond her. Keeping going because he knew what had to be done – alien tech in the wrong hands at such delicate stages of history would be disastrous. Most never went back to Torchwood, instead weighted and dropped overboard on his way home.
Getting shot in the head by snipers was becoming positively boring. But the figure bearing the scythe being an admittedly skinny young woman in a black lacy dress was new.
“What happened to the usual guy?”
She gave him a look that had silenced many a lesser man. “World war and world pandemic at the same time. Busy.”
“How do I know you've not just stolen the scythe?”
IS THIS BETTER?
Her face faded back from skeletal to a withering look.
“You must be Susan, his granddaughter.” He gave his best grin and held out a hand, “Captain Jack Harkness.”
He took a step forward, but was pushed back with the end of the scythe. “Grandfather warned me about you.”
“Immortal and irresistible. What's a guy to do?”
“Be less of an idiot.”
Three days after the Armistice Jack was hunting an energy spike in No-Man's Land. After going over the ground fifteen times and losing all feeling in hands and feet, he concluded there was nothing there, and kicked the nearest object in frustration.
An unexploded shell, which promptly became exploded.
“No-one need ever know of this.”
Jack pleasantly roared through the Twenties and Thirties, acquiring some very dashing hats and suits. However, the hat probably wasn't good enough to be worth going back into the lair of the Ynti-Beast for. Especially as by the time he recovered it the thing was covered with dubious mucus. Jack managed to kill the Ynti-Beast as it killed him, which was something.
“Look, I told you, leave or die. It wasn't that hard.”
“You could have sent a distress call, you could have asked us for help to mend it, but no, you ate two policemen and a phone box instead. You deserved that!”
Death looked on as the Ynti-Beast tried to kill the already dead Jack, and Jack pointedly ignored it.
GENTLEMEN, I BELIEVE YOU BOTH HAVE PLACES TO BE.
The Second World War expanded Jack's repertoire some more. Seconded to a fighter squadron in the south of England to have an undercover look at some odd happenings (and a less undercover look at some very attractive people in uniforms), Jack ended up flying Spitfires.
Part way through a sortie he got the strangest feeling that he was not alone, generally an impossibility with the size of a Spit's cockpit. Then a voice beside his ear said HELLO, and Jack had to explain to the rest of the flight why he'd just screamed like a girl over the radio when they couldn't even see any enemy planes yet.
He flicked his radio off. “What the hell are you doing here? I'm not dead. Yet.”
I HAVE BEEN SEEING RATHER A LOT OF YOUNG MEN DEAD FROM PLANES LIKE THIS. SOME ARE STILL ENTHUSIASTIC AND USE PHRASES LIKE 'WIZARD PRANG'. I WISH TO KNOW WHY.
“So you're joyriding with me?”
YES. IS THIS A WIZARD PRANG?
“No. Look, it's kinda hard to concentrate with you there.”
I SHALL BE QUIET.
Jack didn't really want to upset Death (who did?), and didn't think he was going to win this one, so went back to concentrating on flying. After another few seconds he listened and sniffed. “Are you eating popcorn?”
WOULD YOU LIKE SOME?
“So not appropriate right now.”
The conversation was ended as they sighted and engaged some enemy fighters. Jack went down in flames, a fact he attributed entirely to Death starting to hum at the most inopportune moment.
“Do you know how painful burning to death is?”
I AM SORRY. I WAS CAUGHT UP IN THE MOMENT.
Jack clenched his fists in frustration and silently repeated his inner mantra of 'It's not Death's fault, he doesn't understand' a few times.
“Just don't distract me at work, ok? I can't die but other people can.”
Death looked as much like a kicked puppy as a seven foot skeleton can do.
“Hey, all I mean is that when lives are at stake or anything like that I need to focus. Any other time you just turn up.” Jack realized with surprise that he'd put a hand on Death's shoulder. It wasn't as unpleasant as he thought it would be. With the robe on top, no worse than a bare skinny human shoulder.
Jack stopped that thought process right there and then. It was very rarely that he found out he had limits, but 'thinking about Death in a sexual context' appeared to be one of them.
“So, are we good?”
I AM NEITHER GOOD NOR BAD. I AM.
“I meant, are we still good with each other? Are we still friends?”
It was only after he'd woken up and pulled himself out of the crispy remains of his plane that he realized the import of what they'd said. He was friends with Death, and Death was friends with him. Not in some sort of metaphorical blues-song sort of way, but for real. 'Death's my only friend who doesn't die after a relatively short period of time' didn't really scan for blues anyway. The idea was so silly that Jack started laughing.
The people who found the semi-naked charred RAF officer laughing hysterically by the side of his wrecked plane were very nearly successful in having him put in the loony bin.
Once he'd had his mild freak-out about the concept Jack was fine with it. Death was painful and inconvenient enough that he wasn't going to throw himself off any buildings just for a chat, but at the same time it was nice to catch up when he did die.
After he'd been taken out by an alien explosive in a Cardiff park, he found himself spending the time waiting for his body to put itself back together feeding the ducks with Death.
“You know that Jack's not my real name.”
YES. THE HISTORIES OF EVERY LIVING THING ARE WRITTEN IN THE BOOKS OF MY LIBRARY.
“So you know everything about me.”
“You know every time I've lied to you.”
THEY WERE MOSTLY EXAGGERATIONS.
“You don't mind?”
LIES ARE THE ONLY THINGS THAT KEEP HUMANS SANE.
They lapsed into silence, and threw more bread for the ducks.
The end of November, and snow lay thick on the streets. Jack was chasing a Haemovore through back alleys, two other members of Torchwood behind him. He caught up and tackled it to the ground, but not before it had slammed its long fingers through his chest. The other two caught up and tied it up before it could do any more damage, but Jack had already bled to death.
“Can I send you a Christmas card?”
Jack was proud of himself. It was very rarely that anything fazed Death, but apparently Christmas cards were one of those things.
CHRISTMAS IS A CELEBRATION OF A BIRTH. I AM DEATH.
“C'mon, it's all about the food and the presents now.”
I DO NOT HAVE AN ADDRESS.
“I'll give it to you next time I see you.”
ARE YOU INTENDING TO DIE AGAIN BEFORE CHRISTMAS?
“Well no, but I probably will.”
Death looked thoughtful.
NOT A CARD WITH ROBINS. I DISLIKE THE CARDS WITH ROBINS.
After that Jack remembered to write a card without robins at the end of November and keep it in the pocket of his greatcoat.
A few Decembers later he was trying to get a grip on an ice-covered fire escape, but it was too cold and his fingers were slipping and he was falling...
Jack grinned. “Merry Christmas!”
Jack held out his card, and was surprised to see Death holding out a card in return.
“Wow. Thank you.”
The card was slightly damp. Jack opened it gingerly. Attached to the front was a large amount of bark and some snow that was in the process of melting. He smiled even wider.
ROBINS WILL NOT STAY ON. LOGS COVERED WITH SNOW ARE MUCH EASIER.
Death opened his card. It had taken Jack some time to find just the right one – kittens frolicking in a light snowfall. Was it Jack's imagination, or did the blue in the eye sockets glow a little brighter for a moment?
The year aboard the Valiant had no cards. Pain and death in so many different ways. He hallucinated some of the time, old friends and lovers, even old enemies. So he was never sure if it had been real when Death had said
I DO NOT INTERFERE. FOR DEATH TO INTERFERE IN THE LIVES OF MORTALS WOULD BE A DISASTER FOR THE UNIVERSE.
And then those eyes blazed with an anger he hoped never to see again, and Death said
BUT IF THERE WAS ANY WAY TO INTERFERE NOW, I WOULD.
Afterwards he never dared ask if that had really happened.
Grey's punishment had been easier to bear. His penance.
Death seemed to know forwards and backwards in time, and remembered the man he wasn't to meet for over a thousand years. He talked a lot with Death, in between choking on the earth of Cardiff. About family. About duty. Lives well lived and lives lost.
They played chess too.
Jack was awful at chess, and didn't particularly get much better over the course of 1800 years. He wasn't a sore loser, but he did worry aloud to Death that all the practice he was giving him meant that the next person who challenged Death to chess would have the odds stacked against them.
THEY ALWAYS DO. I AM VERY GOOD AT CHESS.
The problem, Jack thought, with getting Ianto to do something was that he was a bit too efficient. Like those reports for UNIT he'd got him to write – on time, accurate (well, as accurate as Torchwood ever was when talking to UNIT), nicely presented, good spelling and grammar, appropriate detail and so on. Someone at UNIT had immediately smelled a rat, as no report from Jack ever had those qualities. He had been told that when they wanted a personal report from someone, it meant personal.
So getting Ianto to do his Christmas cards was simultaneously a brilliant and terrible idea. Ianto was experienced in forging his signature (he'd started that a month after he arrived, when Jack wouldn't sign the purchase order for the good coffee). He was also good at databases and making up inane pleasantries. On the bad side were the various concessions (generally related to sex, coffee and time off) that Ianto was wringing out of Jack in return for not calling the Prime Minister 'snookie pie' and praising his 'buns of steel' in the card.
“Jack? Why do you have 'Death' on your Christmas card list?”
“Ianto, I have a lot of people on my Christmas card list-”
“There's also no address. Shall I give it to the postman and then shoot him?”
“Specific card? Festive robins with little scythes held under their wings?”
“He doesn't like robins.”
Ianto looked at him speculatively. “I still don't know when you're telling the truth, you know.”
“Just leave that one and do the rest.”
Jack picked up a pen, and the card he'd picked out.
To my oldest friend,
Who's always there for the bad times,