Rating: PG-13 for repeated deaths
Spoilers: All aired Torchwood episodes (including vague ones for Children of Earth), and Doctor Who episodes Gridlock, Utopia, Sound of Drums, and Last of the Time Lords.
Summary: Ten times Death didn't take Jack, and one time he did, or ten near-Captain Jack experiences that Death had.
Notes: Written for cliche_bingo prompt "Crossover: Books and Literary". Obviously, the book/literature is Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Title from Emily Dickenson's "Because I Could Not Stop For Death"; a bajillion thanks to 20thcenturyvole for the beta!
The first time it happens, Jack doesn't really see it coming. The Daleks, yeah, sure – there's really only one way that can end – but after the inevitable extermination, he kind of expects...nothing.
And nothing isn't what he gets.
He finds himself standing just to the side of his corpse, which is disconcerting, to say the least. More disconcerting is the hooded skeleton holding a scythe standing next to him.
"You've got to be kidding me," says Jack.
I assure you, says Death, I do not 'kid'.
"The hood, the cloak, the – is that a white horse?"
Death turns around, following Jack's gaze. Yes, he says. His name is Binky. He is quite fond of sugar lumps, if you have any.
Jack glances back to where his body is slumped against a wall. "Uh," he says. "No. You can't be – what are you?"
I am Death, says Death.
"You're a cliché," Jack corrects him. "And there's no such thing."
No such thing as Death? asks Death, and points once more to Jack's body. The past five minutes of your life – the last five minutes, I should say – would pointedly disagree.
"No such entity," Jack corrects himself.
Very well, says Death. Then perhaps you are having a postmortem hallucination. If you would kindly fade into the ether, I would much appreciate it – today's a very busy day, you see, and your time is -
Death breaks off abruptly, and reaches into his voluminous robes. He pulls out a small hourglass, which is glowing with a strange, almost-alive light; he taps it with one bony finger. Well, he says, I take it back. How interesting.
The last thing Jack sees before he wakes up is the hourglass; all the sand had been emptied into the bottom, and the top bulb was still empty, but now strange golden grains were falling.
He doesn't see it coming the second time, either; he assumes his back-from-the-dead coupon is only redeemable once. And then he gets shot in the heart in Ellis Island, and once again finds himself standing next to a tall, shrouded, skeletal figure.
The first thing he does is frown. "You - I forgot about you."
Yes, says Death. I suppose you did.
"How could I forget about Death?" Jack demands.
How could you remember? Clearly, I am impossible. Death as an entity, or rather an anthropomorphised personification of the concept of death, cannot exist. How can you remember something that doesn't exist?
"I don't like people messing around with my memories," says Jack, through gritted teeth.
I did nothing to your memories. There are things that you simply cannot know while you are living. And you will certainly remember me next time, although not in the interim, I admit.
"What the hell do you mean, next time?" Jack asks. "I'm dead, aren't I?"
Death takes out the hourglass again. It's still glowing. Oh, you most certainly are, he says. But it appears that you won't remain that way. He sighs in consternation. I'm not used to repeat customers.
"Well, I'm not used to repeatedly dying," says Jack. "I guess we'll both have to adjust."
I suppose so, says Death, but he doesn't sound very pleased. Until next time, then.
The next time, Jack wakes up to a blinding pain in his chest. It fades mercifully quickly, and a quick glance at his body shows its source – he can see the sharp end of the javelin protruding from his back.
He looks around for Death, and finds him a few feet away, sitting in a lawn chair and reading a book. There's a pair of reading glasses perched on his nonexistent nose.
"You don't even have eyes," says Jack. "There's no possible way you need reading glasses."
I thought they might make me less imposing, says Death. Besides, they quite help create the atmosphere, don't you think?
"No," says Jack flatly. "It looks stupid."
I see, says Death, and obligingly takes them off. Feel free to continue with what you were doing. I brought a book.
"I just got a javelin thrown through my chest," says Jack. "I think I'd welcome a distraction."
Ah, says Death. Dare I ask who threw it?
Jack frowns. "I think we were married?"
"There was alcohol involved," says Jack dismissively. "And it seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe we're just engaged."
Ah. And yet, now I have done you part.
"Yeah, I guess."
Death waits expectantly, and Jack frowns.
You see, that was meant to be a pune, or humorous play on words, based on the traditional marriage vow.
"What?" Jack repeats, then thinks for a moment. "Oh, I get it. Because you're Death, and you've done us - "
Indeed, says Death. He almost sounds – not quite smug, but pleased with himself.
"You know, I think that would be a lot more appropriate if I weren't going to wake up again," Jack points out.
This is true, says Death.
"Anyway, I should've seen this coming," says Jack. "I'm a Gemini."
There's a moment of silence from Death, before he says, I don't see what that has to do with -
And then Jack wakes up.
The next time Jack dies, Death brings a chessboard.
I didn't know if you played, he says, but you have plenty of time to learn. It's quite a good way to pass the time, I've found.
"Right," says Jack, looking at the board. It is most definitely the kind of chessboard that only Death could have; the pawns are gravestones, the rooks are scythes, the knights look uncannily like Binky, the bishops are cranky-looking old men with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, the queens are stately-looking young women with multitonal hair and a sword, and the kings, of course, are Death. The board itself is wooden, and rests on four equidistant elephants, which in turn rest on a very large wooden turtle. "Do I want to ask?" says Jack.
Doubtful, says Death. Would you like white?
"Don't you want it?" asks Jack.
No, thank you, says Death. Traditionally, I do not make the first move; only the last.
"Somebody's overconfident," says Jack, surveying the board. "Hey – is there an extra space?"
Ah, says Death. You saw that.
"How does that even – it's just right in the middle of the board," says Jack. "That shouldn't be possible."
I should tell you now that this board was constructed by Bergholt Stuttley Johnson.1
"That means absolutely nothing to me," says Jack.
Then consider it a strategic challenge, says Death. Your move.
Jack narrows his eyes at him, then moves a pawn. Death moves a pawn in response, and Jack brings out his queen.
I see you're attempting the scholar's mate, says Death, foiling it easily.
"Scholar's mate? I haven't heard it called that before," says Jack, changing strategies. "I've only heard it called the 'Blitzkrieg'. I was there, you know. More than once."
"Yep. Pompeii, too. Pretty nice place, actually, if you ignore the random cults."
Are you trying to distract me?
"Me? Distract you? No, of course not." Jack watches Death make his next move, decides it isn't working, and gives up on distracting him. Death does seem rather unflappable.
Check, says Death.
Jack looks at the board, frowning, and moves his knight. "You're going to win this."
It does seem likely. Check.
Jack rolls his eyes, and this time moves his bishop. "Are you cheating?"
I don't cheat, says Death, bringing his rook forward two squares. And I can't be cheated, either.
Jack grins now, bringing his Queen diagonally forward. "Except, apparently, by me. Check and mate."
Death looks at the board. Huh, he says. I've never seen that maneuver before.
"That's because it won't be invented for another five hundred years," Jack admits. "Thus the cheating."
And speaking of cheating, says Death, and Jack wakes up again.
"I'm beginning to think," says Jack, looking down at his limp body, "that 'two beautiful women in corsets putting handcuffs on my wrists and electrodes on my nipples' is one of those concepts that's better in abstract than execution."
Emphasis on execution, says Death. The chess board is already set up. Your move.
I thought we might try playing a new game today, says Death.
"Already getting tired of beating me at chess?" asks Jack, standing up. His body is crumpled, broken, bloody, and in several places at unnatural angles to itself next to him, and he winces. "Those bones are going to take a while to heal, aren't they?"
Being more familiar with the dying than what comes after, I wouldn't know, says Death. Have you ever played Thud?
"Never even heard of it," says Jack, looking over the board. It's almost like a chess board, if someone had put a large, circular obstruction in the middle, and there are only two kinds of pieces - big ones and small ones.
The larger ones are trolls, says Death. The smaller ones are dwarves. The rules for motion are very simple...
Jack picks up on the rules pretty quickly, and they get to playing - Death takes the side of the dwarves, and Jack plays as the trolls.
"So, what, the dwarves can just fastball-special themselves all over the board?" asks Jack.
I can't say I'm familiar with that turn of phrase.
"Never mind. Your move."
Death wins. Of course.
"Okay, next time we're playing backgammon or something," says Jack. "And you'd think I'd've woken up by now."
I suppose being trampled to death by horses takes some time to recover from.
"True enough. What I want to know is where the hell those aliens got the horses."
"I should've seen that coming," says Jack.
I'm not one to judge, says Death. There's no game board this time - they gave up on that a long time ago, especially since it's taking less and less time for Jack to wake up.
"I really, really should've seen that coming."
Gwen is crying, and Suzie's still holding the gun; Jack isn't seeing any way this could end well.
He turns to Death. "Any way you could speed this up before the civilian gets her brains blown all over Roald Dahl Plass?"
Conveniently enough, that's when Jack wakes up.
"I still can't believe Owen shot me," Jack grumbles.
More than once, by the looks of it, says Death. This time he's brought a game of Monopoly.
"Does that mean I'm gonna wake up again?" asks Jack, pointing to the board game. "I kind of thought Abaddon, Son of the Great Beast, the Destroyer, the Great Devourer, Whose Shadow Deals Death and Kicks Puppies, et cetera, was kind of a dead-end, career-wise."
Apparently not, says Death. You're on my schedule for the next three days.
"Three days?" says Jack. "Isn't that a little biblical? And speaking of schedule, why do you even have to show up anymore?"
Because, says Death, you are having, for lack of a better term and despite the obvious inaccuracies, a near-death experience. Thus, it follows that I must have a near-you experience. And if your near-death experience lasts three days, then my near-Jack experience must last the same amount of time. Death pauses, then adds, Ignoring, of course, the obvious variations in temporal perception and the subjective nature of time.
"Does time even effect you?" asks Jack.
No. I am simply the anthropomorphic personification of the concept of Death. I know no time, or space, as these are irrelevant to my existence. All creatures die. This is an objective fact. Thus, I must exist. May I be the racecar?
Jack blinks. "What?"
For the game, says Death. If you want the racecar, I have a similar fondness for the Scottie.
Jack laughs. "No, you can be the racecar. I'll take the thimble. And hey - three days, right? We might even finish the game."
They do, several times over; by the time Jack wakes up in the Torchwood morgue, Death has won best three out of five.
"Hey," says Jack, a few deaths later, "I don't suppose you wrestle?"
"Or is there more than one anthropomorphic personification of you running around?" asks Jack. "Because the other day, Owen had a bit of a wrestling match. Was that you, or some other anthropomorphic - "
Ah, says Death. No. It was not me. Though there is only one me, there are other creatures and existences who bear a resemblance, such as any human body left alone for a sufficient period of time.
"Oh," says Jack. "Good to know. That was my only question."
Happy to oblige, says Death.
"I still remember him," says Jack.
It's not the next time, or the time after that, or even the time twenty times after that; Jack continues dying with the same frequency, but apparently practice makes perfect, and his resurrections tend to be quick now, which doesn't leave much time for chatting. This is another one of the rare deaths that lasts for a while - apparently being at ground zero of a nuclear bomb blast is another death that takes a while to recover from.
Who? asks Death.
"Ianto," says Jack. "It's been years. Do you remember him?"
Ianto Jones, says Death. Yes. I remember everyone.
"And Gwen," says Jack. "And Owen and Tosh and Suzie. And Rhys and Andy and Lois, for that matter. You know, for all that I was Torchwood for, hell, more than a century before them, they were the first time it felt like more than job, more than just biding my time waiting for the Doctor." And then he laughs. "Oh, the Doctor. I remember him, too. All fifteen of him."
I remember them, says Death.
Jack nods, pensively. After a moment, he asks, "Did you chat with them, too? Like you do with me?"
It's not my place to say, says Death, although he sounds almost sad.
"Okay," says Jack, "yeah, okay, I understand." Then he says, "I just woke up thinking about them today. I don't know why, maybe I had a dream or something and just don't remember, but it's been centuries and I'm just thinking about them. Martha Jones - oh, Martha Jones was fantastic. And Rose, and Donna, and Sarah Jane Smith, now there was a distinguished older woman! Although I'm sure you know that."
Yes, says Death.
Jack is still nodding, slowly. "I guess you get to meet everyone in this job, huh?"
I suppose, says Death. I admit, I had never thought of it that way.
"Are you ever going to take me?" asks Jack. "I mean, for real? Am I ever going to die?"
It's not my place to say, Death repeats, and this time he definitely sounds sad.
"Right," says Jack, and feels the familiar tugging at his soul that means he's about to wake up. "Well. Back to work."
xi. (and one time he did)
"Martha," says Jack quietly. "And him. Of course it was him. And they must have known - they knew my nickname. Will know," he corrects himself. "Still. I'm glad it was them, in the end." He turns to Death, his movements uncoordinated after years - centuries - millennia as nothing but a face. "Is this the end? Really?"
Yes, says Death.
"I kind of figured that," admits Jack. "Seeing as my body's miraculously reappeared."
This is who you are, says Death.
"I feel..." Jack trails off, frowning. "Different."
Young, perhaps, says Death.
"Perhaps," agrees Jack. "And you...old friend." He smiles, radiantly. "Come to see me off one last time?"
Indeed, says Death. He takes out a small hourglass, one that Jack recognizes instantly. There are no more grains falling through, golden and glowing or otherwise. It appears that I'll soon be free of your constant demands on my time.
"Was that a joke?" asks Jack, grinning.
Of course. Time is -
"Irrelevant to you, I remember," says Jack. His smile falters. "So - what now?"
I don't know.
Jack raises his eyebrows. "You don't know?"
I'm omnipresent, not omniscient, says Death.
"But are - are they waiting for me?" asks Jack. "Everyone I've - do they even exist? Is there somewhere that they are?"
I don't know, Death repeats. I suppose you'll have to tell me.
"Can I even do that?" asks Jack.
No, says Death. Do you need more time?
"Can you give me more time?" asks Jack.
No, says Death.
"Well, then," says Jack. "Fat lot of good you are. Besides, if anything, I've had too much time."
Then, says Death, I suppose this is good-bye.
Jack shakes his head. "I'm sick of goodbyes. Let's say - until next time."
There won't be a next time.
"I know," says Jack. "But it sounds so much more hopeful, doesn't it?"
I suppose, says Death. Then - until next time.
1 Bergholt Stuttley Johnson, better known as "Bloody Stupid" Johnson, is the one man in all time capable of bending spacetime through sheer creative incompetence. An architect, tinkerer, and inventor, his talents know no beginning. Notable inventions and/or architectural travesties include a chiming sundial with a tendency to explode (although in its defense, it does typically explode around noon), a maze so small that people get lost looking for it, and a manicuring machine currently in use as a potato peeler.