Before You Know It One-Off/Complete

Another fic from me. Yes, yet another fic dealing with the "Year that never Was". There are so many great ones out there. Sorry. I'd just saw DW and my muses were screaming. I'd written so many about Jack and this reset year. I'll get it out of my system yet. For the moment though, please indulge me while I post one of them. Hope you like...

Title: Before You Know It One-Off/Complete

Author: Yuma

Rating: PG-13 (Teen, strong language and mentions of violence)

Category: no pairing, angst, hurt-comfort, team fic

Word Count: 5968 words. Complete
Warning: Mentions torture. Nothing graphic though. Strong language. Spoilers from DW's Utopia and TLOTTL. Takes place after TW's To the Last Man.

Summary: In all honesty, he should have been expecting it. He was there when boys, not yet men, suffered what was first called shell-shock, then combat fatigue, to the neatly packaged politically correct acronym.

Disclaimer: Torchwood is owned by BBC, Russell T Davies, and their mutual affiliates. This is for entertainment purposes only.

TW

TW

TW

In all honesty, he should have been expecting it. He was there when boys, not yet men, suffered what was first called shell-shock, then combat fatigue, to the neatly packaged politically correct acronym. The people on this planet were so clever; always thinking up new words for old things.

Where was he?

Oh yeah…expectations. Expecting the unexpected. As Owen would put it, "what a bag of wank". Love the Welsh and their directness.

"…ack? Oi. Look over here at me for a moment, will you?"

He could still smell blood on his hair. It was coppery, thick, almost suffocating. Numbly, he looked down at himself. No blood. Did he just revive? Oh, good, they gave him his greatcoat back. He missed it. It was cold in his t-shirt although he joked it gave people something to look at besides rusty steam pipes. The guards didn't find it funny though. Figures.

"Is this some kind of joke, mate? It's not very funny. Pissing me off really."

Hm…someone else was pissed. Perhaps another evil Time Lord (because it wasn't enough Saxon was evil, but a Time Lord as well in the biggest cosmic joke he'd ever encountered) out for his daily dose of entertainment; see how much Captain Jack Harkness can endure before he screams. Usually very long; he always died before a single syllable could escape. Saxon didn't seem to mind; took it as a challenge. To quote another Time Lord (not evil but equally infuriating at times), the Master thought it was "fantastic".

Hands swept over his head, fingers mapping the bumps and curves of his skull. Knew a cranial fortune teller once in the Vegas galaxies; said he would be wealthy, have many children, and find happiness. She guessed everything wrong. Great kisser, though.

He thought he could feel the bite of a rusty knife tip digging just under his ribs. He reacted; curling inward, his shoulders rounded him like a collar.

"What is it? Where does it hurt?"

Where does it hurt? Everywhere and nowhere. Wait, that couldn't possibly make sense. He groaned. His head throbbed and he couldn't hold on to any thought long enough to reorient himself. Did Saxon just leave? Or did he come back?

An impatient tap tipped his head forward and now he was staring at his boots inches deep in sewer water and something that looked like alien guts. Alien guts? Water? Where was all this water coming from?

"Easy. You're alright…I think. Will you hold still?"

Surprisingly gentle hands carefully probed the back of his head. Martha? Tish?

Maybe they could clean the blood off his hair? He could still smell it. Metallic and sour as it dried and plastered bangs on his forehead. Hm…need a cut. How odd. If he was a fixed point, shouldn't his hair be too? Maybe they could just cut the blood out.

"…what blood? I don't see anything…"

But he could still smell it. Thick and sickly sweet, it clung to his skin, his pants as his heart pumped feebly, filling his boots with his own iron rich blood. Suddenly, a bitter taste rose to his throat.

"Ah shit. Hang on, not on me shoes."

Firm hands on the back of his neck and shoulder bent him away from his own shoes, someone's feet splashing away.

"…Ianto? Come down here…don't know…just froze…mething wrong with Jack."

Wrong? Everything was wrong. Even the Doctor said Jack was wrong. A fixed point, he called him, staying the same while everything around him grew, then decayed, and renewed again. Nothing would stay with him, because he couldn't move, couldn't go forward, and could only watch as everything orbited away because it was the natural law of things. He wasn't natural. Just alone. Alone with Saxon waiting to see what it'd take for him to make a sound before dying. He wanted to ask Saxon what was the point? There would never be a sound because he can't die.

"Sir? Are you—what happened?"

"Shit I know. We cornered it here, and then it came right at us. He had to shoot it and the cheeky bugger exploded all over us like a bloody melon…"

Ah yes, he remembered. Looked like a Praying Mantis, only it was three meters tall and carnivorous. It slipped out of the rift like a cockroach, sending frightened Weevils scrambling up to the surface. They chased it. The bullet ruptured its inner pressure and…and suddenly he could smell blood on his hair.

"…smell what blood? Did he hit his head?"

Fingers he recognized by touch gingerly parted his hair. Concern gave the person courage and he felt his chin gripped with fine boned fingers. He blinked languidly at blue eyes he ought to know a name to.

"Sir? Jack?"

He could feel their scrutiny. But what could they possibly know? It was a year no one knew. Blood was spilt silently. He grieved for deaths that were reversed. Nobody else remembered; why should he? What was there left to decipher from him?

"I think we should head back. Give me a hand with him." Annoyance softened to a crisp, yet almost worried tone; a doctor's tone that bordered detachment yet compassion as well. Reminded him of another Doctor.

A firm grasp wrapped around his forearms and up he went. Oh. Just like flying. Only…he could still feel his body, heavy yet empty hanging between two voices talking over him.

He blinked, trying to focus. What was wrong with him?

"…Gwen and Tosh are still over Pruitt Road." Another voice, usually calm and even, sounded burred with concern. "Should we—"

"Nah. You know how women are. They'll only make a fuss. All he needs is a little rest. Isn't that right, Jack?"

He should answer. And he tried but managed only to retch out the perfectly good cherry Danish Ianto got him this morning over someone's shoes.

"Bollocks."

He agreed but couldn't voice it. He choked on the smell of his own vomit and felt his knees disappear. He thought he heard someone exclaim, felt strong arms wrap around his middle, and felt his body grow cold as he pulled himself and the other down into the dark water. His last thought as he felt Saxon smear his blood over his hair was how odd that it felt good someone else was trying to hold him up for a change.

Then, he knew nothing else.

TW

TW

TW

When it was no longer dark, it was still…dark.

Jack blinked, feeling as disoriented as if he'd just revived. Habit made him take quick inventory. Bullet hole? Arrow? Knife? Killer alien with really bad breath? Stray javelin?

"Here."

Something cool was pressed to his hands and the feel of the icy, sweating glass made him realize he was sitting up on his bed, in nice dry clothes, smelling faintly of soap, deep down in the dark living space he claimed below his Hub office.

"Are you going to drink it or snog it?" A huff and the glass was pushed more insistently towards him. "Hurry up; I wasn't planning on spending the night down here." A heavy pause and the voice continued. The smirk was audible. "Not my type, Captain."

"Small favors." The mutter beyond the dim space made Jack smile.

"What happened?" Jack rasped, taking an experimental sip. He closed his eyes briefly, reveling in the cool, smooth crispness of fresh water. Nothing like the stale, lukewarm swill the guards sometimes remembered to give him—

He didn't mean to, but the spoiled taste of death seeped into the water and his body refused to take any more.

"Cripes." Jack felt himself bent over, coughing, and trying to expel the acrid stench of his own blood drying on him. Hands pounded his back. "Ianto, help me get him to the medical bay. Told you we should have—"

"Hold up," Jack wheezed.

Owen's narrow face looked so sinister in the dark that Jack almost recoiled, but his eyes were kind. When he saw Jack was alright, he pulled back. Clearing his throat, Owen breathed on the bell of his stethoscope, warming it before tugging up Jack's t-shirt around back. Jack could do nothing more than sit there, hunched over his crossed legs, staring at Ianto's shrouded profile.

The stethoscope was still cold and Jack suppressed a shiver. He felt rather than heard Ianto sitting down on the bed in front of him. It was the perfect opportunity to say something totally expected of him: sitting half dressed with two others in bed. But his mind was blank and he was feeling thick headed and stupid.

"Cough," Owen instructed, pressing his instrument just left to his spine.

"I already did," Jack complained faintly. Then he heard Ianto sigh in the dark so he dutifully coughed.

"Again," Owen demanded, moving the bell to the right now. He nodded to himself when Jack complied.

"Sounds good," he said over Jack's shoulder to Ianto.

Jack tolerated sitting there as the two talked around him as if he weren't here. He had enough when they started debating putting his feet up or not. Jack cleared his throat.

"Right." Owen sounded like he just remembered Jack was sitting between them. "What do you remember?"

There was that odd tone again; nothing like the wary, edgy attitude of the past few weeks. Jack looked over his shoulder at the young doctor and frowned. Owen's face was inscrutable.

"We were in the tunnels," Owen prompted. When Jack furrowed his brow and looked away, Owen breathed out sharply. He rose to his feet, his stethoscope clacking angrily together when he folded it to shove it in his kit. "Fine," he bit out. "Keep your bloody secrets then."

"Wait," Jack croaked although he didn't know if Owen heard, but Ianto never moved and his steadfast loyalty warmed him even though Jack knew he probably didn't deserve it. Owen was right. He did leave, still smarting over their betrayal but had forgiven them because they lost something and could appreciate something he no longer could. But he did leave.

To his surprise, Owen did stop. He could see the young man's shoulders slump a little, his head shaking, before turning back around. He still looked wary, almost, if not the same, as when Jack first came back. They all stared at him when they thought he wasn't looking for days, as if he'd dissolve or bolt any minute. At the time, he understood. Jack told himself it didn't bother him.

But it did.

The silence was long enough that Jack expected to find them both gone when he raised his head. If anything, Ianto and Owen surrounded him again.

Their close proximity reminded Jack how they weren't executed in front of him. That year never existed. The paradox, the Doctor had euphemized, was gone and Jack felt incredibly foolish for feeling like it was still there.

"You were remembering something."

Jack sucked in his breath sharply at the blunt observation. He met Owen's gaze, could feel Ianto's in the shadows. Speechless, Jack nodded, and then stopped. No, how could he remember something that didn't exist anymore? He shook his head.

"Not sure." Jack grimaced. That didn't come out right. He sighed, weary, more tired than he'd ever felt and he braced his heavy head with a hand. Alone. He needed to be alone right now and not be their leader for a moment and just…he needed to be alone again.

"Well," Owen sounded startlingly patient. "Either you were or you weren't. Which is it?"

Ianto was sitting pretty close to his feet. He died by his feet as well, eyes staring up blankly at him, still expecting their leader to make this okay. God, they were so wrong. So disillusioned and miserably unprepared and foolish to even try and rescue him—

"Jack!"

Jack's eyes snapped up, and he nearly reared back if Ianto's almost painful grip on his shoulders hadn't immobilized him. Owen was inches from his face. When had they moved?

"What?" Jack managed and tried for a reassuring smile because the twin expressions of concern were too much to look at. He could tell he'd failed when Owen sat back down on the edge of the bed, his lips pursed.

"Is this one of those things you won't talk about?" Owen guessed. He didn't wait for an answer as he rummaged through his medical kit.

Jack could feel the weight of their gazes. It was like the cloak of darkness wasn't enough.

"You said you could smell your blood on you."

A quiet voice, tentative as if stepping on thin ice, sounded startling in the nothingness Jack once relied on this space to offer. Ianto spoke, as if in question, intruding into the void. Owen turned his head sharply towards Ianto, then back to Jack, his narrowed eyes silently challenging him to answer.

It was that sliver of bravado, daring to pierce the self-imposed solitude, which made Jack answer before he realized it.

"Sometimes I can taste it." And he could, tongue swollen from thirst and drowning in the blood he vomited.

The stunned silence told Jack he never should have answered. Just like before, his answers never fixed anything; only invited more questions.

"Was this when you left?" Owen finally said, his voice hoarse like it hadn't been used in a long time.

Not deserted or run away, but just left. Before, Owen had always accused him of flight. Jack didn't know how to respond to the difference now. Wordlessly, he nodded.

"How long?" Ianto knew the right question to ask next. It was easier to answer than the others.

"Long," Jack rasped. He knew it wasn't really an answer. "But it won't happen to you anymore," he amended. Not for this planet. Not for this universe.

Owen just studied him carefully, evaluating him. It reminded Jack of meeting him for the first time years ago: a new doctor, wary and thinking Jack was some sort of con man when Jack offered him Torchwood. Jack smiled sardonically to himself. Owen was almost right. He just missed it by a century or more.

"Was that your first flashback?"

Jack stared at Owen. What was he talking about?

Owen shook his head, exasperated. He muttered to himself before looking back over.

"You did recruit Doctor Owen Harper, Harkness." Owen took his water glass, passing it behind him to Ianto.

Jack tried to ignore how his mouth watered at the sound of Ianto refilling the glass. It even sounded cold.

"All the signs were there," Owen said conversationally as he passed the glass back down to Jack. "Drink up. Good for shock."

Jack wanted to tell Owen, tell Ianto they were wrong. It wasn't shock. It wasn't…that. He'd seen boys cowering in foxholes while hell descended. He saw men clawing their nurses, cursing, thinking the Nazis had come. That wasn't him.

"Was it your first one?" Owen insisted as he grabbed Jack's wrist.

The cool digits twitching with life over his eternal pulse were too much. Saxon made him hold Owen's hand and listen to his life fade. Jack yanked his hand back. "I'm fine," he snapped harder than he really intended.

"Nightmares." Ianto's voice was startling in the dark. "He's been having nightmares."

It felt like a punch in the gut, like Ianto stepping up to join Gwen again in opening the rift. Jack growled at Ianto. "I don't sleep!"

"Could have fooled us," Owen observed in a dry voice. "You were out for five hours."

Ianto's grip on his arms kept him in bed. Normally, Jack could knock them away easily if he wished, but today Ianto's hands weighed him down.

"Easy." Owen's words soothed in the darkness. "Grab a few more hours, Captain. Nothing needs doing that can't wait."

"That thing from the rift—"

"Already bug jam, thanks to you, and being washed out to sea. Tosh is tracking for more right now in case it's a hive." Owen recaptured his hand and he made approving noises as he counted the beats. "If you want, I can give you something to sleep—"

"No." The idea of being trapped in a memory without the escape of waking up was unappealing.

"Well, my next suggestion would have been to talk but we all know how well that'll work."

Jack pulled his hand away and waved him off. "I'll sleep." He'd try. "I'll be fine." He always was. "You guys might as well call it an early day."

The shrug was audible in Owen's voice. "I still have to finish my bug samples and Gwen's still trying to persuade half of Cardiff's waterworks not to flush for the next three hours." He rose to his feet. He surprised Jack with a hand on his shoulder and offered a brief squeeze. "We'll be here for a while. We were thinking dinner." Owen paused. "Your treat, of course."

"As long as it's not pizza delivery," Jack said wearily, giving up. Ianto, certain he wasn't going to fall out of bed, sat back, pulling away and Jack felt oddly bereft.

"I was thinking curry."

"Punhara's menu is in Tosh's top drawer," Ianto instructed, not moving.

Jack could hear them talking, hushed, as Owen tried to scribble down Ianto's order for them both in the dark. Jack listened, strangely comforted by the sounds of life invading the lonely bowels of the Hub. He could hear Gwen and Tosh outside, just past the open manhole, laughing about something. Music he missed hearing for one lost year.

It's over, he thought to himself. The year that never was. Deal with it.

"Get some rest," Owen advised.

"It never happened," Jack called out before Owen could climb up the ladder. The doctor paused at the first rung.

"The thing you won't or can't talk about?" Owen asked, his face hidden.

"It won't happen to you. Not anymore," Jack stressed. "There's nothing to talk about."

Owen's exhale was loud and annoyed. "We're not asking you to tell us everything." He sounded almost amused. Jack could imagine him smirking. "I don't think we're ready for that."

"Lord, no," Ianto agreed in a light voice.

"Jack…" Owen took a deep breath. "Just let us know before you run off again—"

"I won't run," Jack rasped. Not ever again.

Owen didn't scoff this time. "Good." He started climbing up the ladder again when he stopped. "Oh, and Jack?"

Jack raised his eyes blearily, trying to make Owen out.

"I know you said it didn't happen to us. Not anymore." Owen couldn't hide the lilt of curiosity that promised more questions in the future. "But apparently it did happen."

Jack opened his mouth to reassure him when Owen continued.

"To you."

Jack's mouth snapped shut.

Apparently satisfied with getting the last word, Owen continued on up.

"Get some sleep," he said gruffly in parting. He popped his head back into the manhole with a smirk. "Doctor's orders," Owen added in a smug voice. And then his voice joined the other two.

Alone in the dark, his solitude returned, Jack was dismayed to realize the nothingness he'd hoped for wasn't enough to pacify the trembling in his fingers as he smoothed the sheet draped across him. The void now suffocated when it had soothed before. The absence of sound was a tangible presence that sat on his chest. It hurt. Jack sat there on his bed, waiting, but it wouldn't go away.

From what Owen and Ianto were not telling him, it was bad. Bad enough they took him back here and bundled him into bed like a child.

Jack scrubbed his face wearily with both hands. Their great fearless leader. He propped his elbows on his knees and stared vacantly into the dark. What did they all think? He came back after abandoning them, only to return broken.

"You're not sleeping."

Jack jerked. Damn, he forgot Ianto was here. The young man was still sitting at the edge of the bed and Jack didn't realize he was accustomed to his presence until Ianto moved away to refill the glass.

"You should go home," Jack sighed, accepting a tall glass of yet more cool water. He drained it quickly, unwilling to chance it souring again from memory.

"And you should be sleeping," Ianto countered in that damn mild voice Jack found charming at times. Today wasn't one of them. "We both seem to be very consistent with not doing as we're told, sir."

Jack scowled, but the effect was lost to Ianto in the dark. He sagged back against the wall, cushioned by his pillow.

"Look, sorry if I worried you two before," Jack began, trying to find the words that kept slipping away from his mind. "I'm—"

"You stopped breathing, you know." Ianto's voice cracked, but only a little and then he went on as if he was chatting about the weather. "Just after I came down to the sewers. We tried to get you up to the surface between the two of us and halfway there, you…well…stopped." Jack could hear him shifting as if to adjust his suit. "Breathing, that is," Ianto clarified.

Lately, it felt like all Jack could ever do was apologize and apologize. He remembered hanging between two bodies, water all around him, voices echoing and warping to screams of agony. There had been a splinter of fear that the cries came from him and he reacted, in the only way he know how to win the next round from Saxon.

"Sorry." It was a lame attempt. Jack waved towards himself, glad the gloom hid the shaking in his hand. "See? Breathing. I'm okay now."

The disembodied scoff told him Ianto wasn't convinced. And for the first time in a long time, Jack wasn't either. It was a revelation that tightened in his chest like a vise.

"If you can't sleep," Ianto said all of a sudden, "Then perhaps now would be a good time to review our quarterly operation reports."

Jack was glad for a reason to be doing something, but it didn't stop him from predictably protesting, "I said I would review them next week."

"Yes," Ianto agreed in an amicable tone. "You did promise." He paused for dramatic effect, before adding, "last week that is." Another pause. "And the week before that."

"Fine. Put them on my desk. I'll look them over now," Jack grumbled half-heartedly as he started to swing his legs around. Ianto placed a hand on his blanket covered knee, stopping him.

"No need," Ianto nudged until Jack's legs were stretched out across the bed again. He sat closer on the bed, effectively trapping him there. "We can go over the reports here before dinner." He pressed a new drink into Jack's numb hands as if he knew Jack was thirsty again.

"I can't read in here," Jack pointed out.

"Who said anything about reading?" Ianto returned. "I can give you the report now, sir."

"Uh…you?"

Jack could hear the modest smile. "It has been three weeks, sir. I think I have it memorized fairly well."

Ianto didn't wait for a reply and went straight into his verbal report, first starting with the information center that hid their main entrance. Efficient as always, Ianto broke down each section that needed attention, talking in a precise and even voice that never paused, never rose even when he repeated the need to replace the coffee machine after Jack had tried to tweak it with an alien artifact they found. They still couldn't get out all the beans embedded in the wall.

Somewhere between the necessity to replace the hothouse's fluorescent lamps and to update their tactical kits, Jack found himself drifting. Ianto's voice lowered to a comforting, familiar white noise. He could hear Owen complaining about something as Gwen laughed in that full of life laugh he always envied. Tosh surprised them both with a giggle that was free of doubt, insecurity, and unhappiness.

All alive. Yet they were all dead before and their blood intermingled with his as he hung dying above their corpses. Jack closed his eyes, wishing desperately the smell would go away. He held his tongue as he was tortured; stoic as each one was caught and brought before him. They never pleaded for their life; never uttered a word to Jack. He had never been more proud. He had never been more heartbroken.

Their silence haunted him though. Even more than the scent of his own blood on his body or a strain of Glenn Miller that reminded him of dancing with beautiful Estelle during the Blitz.

The silence between bouts of torture was just as bad. Taunting the guards helped fill some gaps, but otherwise he was left alone to smell his own filth, his blood, and the tang of fear. The soup of odors grew heavy at times and he would choke. His fear as his mind wandered in the solitude would congeal and fester in his mind. He wondered how the Doctor was, if Martha was safe, who would be brought before him next. Alone, living while everything else was dying, until all there was left was the metallic tang of blood drying on his hair.

It was the first time Jack realized he was truly alone in there.

"Jack."

It was a light touch; warm fingers grazing across his knuckles that made him realize he was cold and clenching his hands so hard, they hurt. It took several blinks before the coppery smell and wet sounds of his pained panting disappeared.

Jack relaxed his hands and focused on Ianto's pale face in front of him.

"You're alright. We're alright," Ianto said quietly because the young man always knew what needed to be heard. Ianto paused and the sounds of Owen and Gwen's friendly disagreement floated by, Tosh's mediating voice a pleasant accompaniment.

"Of course you are," Jack quipped, but it sounded weak even to his ears. "You're with the Captain."

Ianto surprised him by agreeing. "Yes, we are." He fell silent, as if debating his next words.

"Thank you," Ianto said earnestly. "For coming back."

It was a gratitude he didn't feel like he deserved. Jack grunted, scrambled back up the bed until he could pull his knees up and past his human rail, swinging his legs over. Jack grimaced; he could feel how cold the floor was even through thick socks.

"Where're my boots?" he mumbled, one hand out to brace himself, ready to rise.

Ianto sounded weary. "Stop this." A firm hand wrapped around an elbow and pulled. It wasn't much of a struggle and Jack dropped back heavily onto the bed. "Just listen to Owen for once and rest up."

"I'm fin—"

"You are not fine!"

Stunned, Jack fell silent. Outside, the talking stopped, and then it started up again a little subdued. Ianto let go, parting with a brief squeeze around his bicep in apology.

"Sorry."

Jack gave a humorless laugh. "Shouldn't I be saying that? I left you guys. I was the one who ran out on you." He was the one who left them vulnerable to Saxon, at a loss when the—No, it didn't happen, damn it.

"Yes." Ianto didn't sound happy with the reminder. "But you also came back…from wherever you went."

It sounded like exoneration but Jack was at a loss on how to accept it.

"Where did you go?"

"I—I can't answer that," Jack answered, hushed. He kept his voice low not for privacy, but because he wanted to keep hearing the sounds of life beyond the open hatch.

"Can't as in the enigmatic Captain Jack Harkness' can't or as in you can't can't?"

This time, it was easier to laugh. Jack smiled wanly towards Ianto's direction. "Both." He sobered. "I just have to figure this out inside my head. I'm not…I know you guys think I'm shutting you out, but…" His head drooped. Jack felt drained. Odd especially since apparently he'd slept more than he ever did in a week.

"We only want to help you."

Jack's mouth quirked at the gentle explanation and he shrugged one shoulder. "I know. I just need—"

"Time," Ianto finished, with an insight that always surprised everyone, including himself at times. "Well, so long as you don't go gallivanting off to space or wherever you were again," Ianto mused lightly, "I suppose we could give you all the time you need."

Jack bumped his right shoulder against Ianto's. "Thanks," he rasped, warmed by the words. He fell silent again and just listened to Toshiko complaining loudly about someone's stained coffee cup on her station. Owen generously offered up Gwen as the culprit. Jack's lips twitched when he heard Owen's outraged yelp; Gwen apparently got her revenge.

The hollow echo Jack could feel like pressure in his ear eased somewhat. If anyone said silence was just a void of sound, Jack would correct them. It may be a void of sound, but everything else amplified. He felt sweat trickling down his face, blood smelled coppery and felt sharp drying on his skin, and the lack of noise itself held a sort of sound. It was a plaintive vibration of what should have been there: life, the melodic sounds of his team, alive and ready, his own agonized cries he refused to entertain Saxon with, and the welcomed thuds of the Doctor and Martha's footsteps, safe and sound. It was a culmination of every zero and gave its own painful hum that rang excessively in his ear until it hurt.

"Pudding?"

Huh?

Jack shook his head and looked up to find Gwen, hair all around her face as she stuck her head through the opening, grinning unabashed at them upside down.

He couldn't help himself. Jack pretended to leer up at her. "Yes, cupcake?"

Gwen lobbed a plastic spoon at his head.

"Punhara gave us rice pudding and fruit salad." Toshiko's explanation sailed past Gwen's shoulder from behind. A dainty hand stuck in the hole next to Gwen's head, showing their good fortune in a clear, plastic container of colorful fruit. "Did you want pudding or fruit?"

"Fruit, please," Ianto chose, earning a snort from Gwen for his healthier choice.

"Jack, did you want to eat with us up in the board room?" Toshiko asked hopefully. Gwen's head disappeared; her shushing still audible. Toshiko squeaked and didn't ask again.

Jack opened his mouth then closed it. For some reason, he couldn't bring himself to crawl out of here and into the light he savored. Somehow, sitting here, in the darkness of his choosing was easier. Not better. Just easier.

"Actually," Ianto spoke up smoothly. "We were going to eat in his office later." Jack could feel Ianto's gaze on him. He nodded. "Thought we might as well get some work done. Quarterly operations reports."

"Oh." That was Toshiko, and she sounded so disappointed, Jack was going to change his mind when she brightened. "Operation reports? Are we getting new coffers?"

"Yes. Why?" Ianto asked, suspicion crept into the usually reserved voice.

"No reason," Gwen piped in. She popped her head in once more to offer them a sheepish grin before she disappeared again. "You may want to requisition a new hot plate though and a new fire extinguisher."

"And concrete for the floor," Tosh added.

Jack shouldn't laugh and he tried not to, but obviously he failed because he could sense Ianto glowering at him, but the higher, alarmed "Why?" Ianto gave was just too funny. Gwen answered in a bright voice, "Never mind, Ianto. We'll just eat out here, alright?"

"Try not to spill curry on the keyboards again," Ianto advised, but Jack grinned to himself when he heard the underlying plea. He laughed when Tosh gave a very uncharacteristic snort to the idea she would ever abuse her machines that way.

"Oi!" Owen could be heard, very annoyed, behind them. "I told you girls he needed to rest! What are you two doing here gawping about?"

"We were just asking which one they wanted," Gwen fired back. "We're not gawping."

"Ianto wanted the fruit," Tosh supplied.

Owen grunted. "No surprise. Tea boy probably wants to watch his girlish fi—Ow!" Owen howled and fell silent.

It was dead silent until…

"You deserved that," Tosh pointed out.

Owen growled and made a lot of noise hurrying them away until suddenly the open hatchway was clear again.

Jack chuckled and he could feel Ianto's muted laughter next to him. It felt good to laugh.

"Aye." Owen's grumbling could be heard over the opening but not seen. "You alright?"

Jack knew who the question was directed to. He thought for a moment and surprised himself by answering, "Getting there."

Owen just grunted, sounding surprised as well by the answer.

"Thanks," Jack added, looking at where he knew Ianto must be; right next to him.

"Right." The doctor could be heard shifting from foot to foot. "Food's on your desk. Best eat it while it's hot. Then straight back to bed. I'll check on you in the morning. Bed rest."

"Okay," Jack agreed begrudgingly.

"No coffee," Owen warned.

Jack groaned his agreement. Ianto muttered under his breath he'd pay ten quid to see that. Jack poked him with his foot.

"No solo Weevil hunting."

Jack could hear Ianto rolling his eyes. Jack just grunted out a promise. He was in no hurry to become a Weevil snack today.

"No sewer exploration. No shagging aliens. No defrosting soldiers. No running over sleeper aliens with the car—"

"Alright! Okay!" Jack exclaimed, but he surprised himself by laughing. "None of that. Promise. Not going anywhere."

"Better not," Owen grunted. Footsteps walked away then stopped. "I'm out here if you need anything." Owen didn't wait for an answer.

Jack closed his eyes and listened. Someone laughed in the distance and he smiled faintly. Soft, pleasant noises chattered and filled the Hub, trickling into the gloom. He could still hear the hollow thud of silence, thumping against his heart. The blood remained albeit fainter and he found it easier to breathe.

Without preamble, Ianto continued with his report, his words even and slow as he reviewed updating the visitor maps in Reception upstairs. Jack stared at the profile he could barely make out in the dark. Ianto never faltered, talking so low at times, Jack strained to hear a syllable. Outside, the other three were still loud enough to hear, but no longer audible enough to understand. Just enough noise to let him know life was singing outside his haven. Jack wondered if it was deliberate as he felt his body grow heavy.

This was what he came back for. This was what he thought about as he hung on his chains and grieved the dead. It hurt back then, God, it hurt so much. But when Saxon left him alone, it was worse. It was a wordless, soundless, cold void. The memories of Torchwood kept him warm until they returned to hurt and break him.

That cold, wiggling feeling returned in his stomach. The scent of his blood congealing on the floor grew stronger. Jack swallowed.

Ianto stopped for a moment and Jack blinked sleepily towards his direction as he felt the sheet being pulled up higher around him.

"Does it help to know we're alright?" Ianto asked, hushed.

Hell, yeah. "Yes," Jack's voice cracked. "It helps a lot."

Ianto sounded satisfied. "Good." And he continued with his report like he'd never stopped.

Yes, Jack thought as he heard the others start up again, Gwen yelping something about her pudding. Ianto never paused, but there was a chuckle under his words as he could not help but listen. Jack knew there was a smile on his lips as his eyes slid shut on their own accord.

Ianto was right. They were all alright. And that was good. In fact…

It was fantastic.

The End