Author's Note: This story was co-written with my friend, the much-talented Torchwood & Dr Who fan, and ever delightful Carolin. Please enjoy!
It was grey when he opened his eyes; everything was monochromatic and seemed to be moving in slow motion.
He stood and tried to take in his surroundings and couldn't believe what he was seeing. Jack was lying beside him…but he was here…wasn't he? If he was here…whom was Jack lying beside?
"Jack!" he tried, "Jack! Can you hear me?!" but an attempt to touch the other man resulted in his hand passing through Jack's head and caused the world around him to ripple as if made of water; he drew back in horror.
What was this? What was going on? He had to think…what was the last thing he remembered?
He'd inhaled that poisoned air and Jack had held him, begged him not to go, to stay with him, vowed to always remember him as it got harder and harder for Ianto to keep his eyes open, the effects of the poison making him feel something akin to tiredness but stronger…
…and then he'd woken up in this strange monochrome world.
He'd breathed in poison to which there was no cure and…oh!
No! Please no!
'Not yet!' he said aloud to the grey world around him…And nearly jumped out of his, well, his skin when a hand was placed on his left shoulder and voice said: "I'm sorry" softly into his right ear.
He turned abruptly, ready to face The Reaper…and paused.
She was not what he was expecting. He wasn't sure what he WAS expecting, if anything, but this small, pale softly spoken young woman with silver-blue hair and a kindly, if slightly sad, smile was not it.
This was death, the end of all things, and to some, the beginning of whole new worlds to some, and the only thing consistent with the mythology of The Grim Reaper was the black hooded robe the young woman was wearing. Maybe he should have asked Jack, but maybe as Jack was eternally part of the world, he never got this far, never left the world for this grey place to know.
He certainly was not standing here beside him, although he, too, was very clearly dead.
"Are you alright?" the girl asked before she looked him up and down almost critically, "that is a very nice suit," she said finally, obviously trying to be jovial and lighten his very dark mood.
He was dead. 'Alright' didn't really seem to qualify when you're dead.
'Alright', he had previously considered, was generally the diametric opposite to "dead". He didn't have much space to consider this further when she mentioned the suit. It threw him off guard.
"Er, thank you?" He paused. "Is... is Jack?"
He paused again - he knew what would happen to Jack.
Jack would return. Jack would be back, and he, Ianto, wouldn't.
"Am I-? Well, I AM dead," he said finally, "so…what happens now?"'
"Well, first things first," the girl was suddenly brandishing a very ornate, very sharp looking Japanese sword, before he could even protest or utter a sound she swung it expertly and cut…something behind him.
Suddenly he felt…different.
Freer in a way
The girl nodded in professional satisfaction.
"Now, we do the introductions," she told him, "well, I introduce myself to you, I know who you are already. I am Rio Mortiis; I'm a Grim Reaper, note the dark cloak, hood and impressive Katana, yes? Very mythical; my Boss likes us to look the part."
'"B-boss?" Ianto had a small but growing suspicion that somewhere along the lines there was something more familiar to all this than would be apparent.
She had a boss.
She was in a job.
These were concepts that could be processed and related to, unlike little else about the current situation. Although she was probably now going to name God and dismantle that theory entirely. "You have a very nice sword, by the way."
It WAS a very nice sword, ornate, but rather than with the air of some ceremonial sword-shaped piece of steel, the air that this was primarily a very, very, VERY sharp piece of metal indeed.'
"Mm," the newly-introduced Rio nodded, "my Boss gave it to me; that'd be Azriel, the Angel of Death. You might've seen his picture around your world a lot; he has a real flair for the dramatic, the Big Boss lets him because he's such a faithful servant," she turned her attention to the grey scene playing out in the background, "Poor Jack," she said sadly, "I'll need to visit him later, when this is over, I think" it was clear she was thinking aloud with that last sentence rather than speaking to Ianto.
She turned back to him and smiled in a reassuring way, "Are you ready to go, Mr Jones?"
He could, at this moment, be honest and say no. He was going to have to leave Jack, leave his sister, his brother, his nephews, Gwen, and leave the world with monsters -aliens wasn't enough- monsters, from out of space holding the world to ransom, demanding the children of Earth. Unfortunately, it looked like he wasn't going to have much of a choice about it. "Not really, but I don't seem to have much of a choice. But I do have one... one last request?"
Rio paused, tilted her head as if listening to a voice only she could hear and then nodded, "OK."
"He probably can't feel this, but..." With that, he paused, knelt with the full realisation of finality, and left Jack one final kiss, quietly whispering "Goodbye, sir, Jack, I won't forget you in a thousand years either." and with a momentary pause to collect himself, stood up. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"That's cute," one corner of Rio's mouth curled slightly upwards in a tiny almost-smile, before she offered him one black-gloved hand, "come with me. You're a lucky man, you know, I'd be envious of you if it wasn't forbidden for me to be"
As she grasped his hand in her smaller one, he noticed it felt solid and real, unlike the now fading world around them, a slight movement of air gave him the slightly unsettling feeling of moving when he was quite certain they were standing still.
The world that reformed around them was…an office?
Azriel twiddled a pen between the fingers of his left hand for a moment as he waited, and then stood up as Rio and Ianto arrived. It was rare to meet a genuine hero, someone who had died doing something genuinely altruistic, too frequently those called heroes were just those looking to martyr themselves, or those who simply did not care for their own lives enough to balance them fairly against their cause, but here was someone with everything to live for who died trying to save the world, and save those he loved, with no intention to march into the line of fire in such a way.
Azriel had been watching.
He watched a lot of things.
It was his curse, to watch and yet be forbidden and unable to change the course of what he saw. Mortals lived, and mortals died, and that was the way of things
"Hello," he said calmly, "pleased to meet you."
"Hiya Boss Man," Rio greeted pleasantly whilst setting her sword into a handy umbrella stand with a slight 'clang' of metal against metal.
"Um…" Ianto suddenly felt intimidated here. Death wasn't supposed to be friendly, he…it…He wasn't supposed to have a fairly cheerful and tastefully decorated office.
The Grim Reaper was…well, wasn't he supposed to be a skeleton in a robe with tattered black-feathered wings?
But right now, Azriel appeared as simply a man in a crisp white shirt with a black tie held with an omega pin, he had a vaguely aquiline face and glossy black hair in a ponytail, and was sitting in a black leather chair of what, had circumstances differed, could have been mistaken for a lawyer's office.
It wasn't drama, but it was functional.
"Likewise," he said finally, wondering if he should offer his hand to shake the dark haired man's or if that would somehow count against him in some Heavenly Court
Azriel offered his hand, saving Ianto the mental dilemma;
"I know, I know," the Angel said, as if reading his thoughts, "no wings, no robe, and I'm supposed to be so dramatic-" He gave Rio a glance; the reaper girl held up her hands in a mild but silent defence of her casualness towards her 'employer's' eccentricities before Azriel turned his attention back to Ianto, "- but I find it impedes conversation sometimes."
Glancing between the employee and the employer for a few moments, Ianto cleared his throat, "So, what happens now? If you don't mind me asking?" the Welshman offered nervously
"Normally Rio would have already opened a door, and there would be a tunnel of light, or fire, or whatever else your afterlife consists of, and you would walk through, or in the case of those who are faced with fire, sometimes pushed through, and you would face whatever afterlife your actions in life had brought you. But this is a rare occasion, and so I would like to talk to you first. You are allowed to sit, by the way."
Azriel himself sat first, as if to show that it was no breech of Heavenly etiquette to sit down.
"Firstly," the dark haired angel spoke once more, "I would like to thank you, not just for making my job easier, but for being a vital part of the team that despite great personal sacrifice, has done so much to pull humanity back from the kind of action that once drove me against mortals."
"I'm sorry…I did what?" Ianto asked, sitting down in a chair that hadn't been there a moment before, this was a lot to process in such a short space of time, he felt as if he had a headache but that couldn't be possible, right? You shouldn't be able to get headaches when you were dead.
"You're newly dead," Rio said, showing that she apparently had her Boss' rather creepy ability to read his mind, "so you're still reacting to circumstances like a living human" she explained in a helpful tone
"Oh, yes, sorry, I quite forgot. You have been dead all of about... 6 minutes and 27 seconds, but you died 29 days, 14 hours 53 minutes and 33 seconds ago, give or take a millisecond. Time here works... in irregular ways as our function necessitates a flow of time that is not parallel to that in other universes. I am pleased to inform you that the... "FourFiveSix" as you knew them, had their "ambassadors" killed and returned to their own planet without taking with them a single further human child, and thus, your "Torchwood" team succeeded, but unfortunately not without loss, and not without the world being a considerably altered place, but thankfully not a place where all civilisation has disintegrated."
"I've…I've been dead…for almost a month?!" THAT was a lot to take in and just made his 'headache' worse, "Jack…what…is he…will he be…?"
"He is alive, he is unharmed, and he is in mourning, but he is alive," Azriel reassured him, "Rio has expressed a desire to talk with him. Believe me, If I could click my fingers and undo your death, reunite you to face the world together and send back an asset to a planet that seems to lack in good men at this time, I would. But I am forbidden by Divine Rule, and even if I wasn't, I don't actually have that in my power. We are... celestial ushers, angels though we may be, and there are some things beyond even our power."
"He's alright…" Ianto sighed in relief, "he's alright" though he was saddened to hear that Jack was still in mourning over his death.
"No wonder you earned the ticket to The Penthouse," Rio said, sounding slightly impressed and just a tad envious, "so selfless…Boss, I hate to do this but I got to…well, you know…just check on him." she pointed towards the 'door' of Azriel's office before looking at Ianto once more, noting his nervousness at the thought of being all alone with Azriel before saying in a reassuring voice: "I promise I'll be right back. You won't know I've gone!"
"She can spend the next six years talking to Jack and still come back in 30 seconds, don't worry." Azriel flicked his pen over his hand again, this time catapulting it into his right hand with a flick of his little finger; Ianto watched the action.
"The man who had this pen was a poet, and he had it from his 12th birthday to the day he died," the dark haired angel said in a conversational tone, "which sadly wasn't very long, but he treasured it, and rather remarkably, offered it to me without any want of reward. He just wanted someone to look after it, and didn't think his family would understand what it meant. I don't think I do either, but I look after it all the same..." This appeared to be an idle musing, something that had been elicited by the gentle flicker of the light on the polished metal of the clip and gloss of the green enamel, but a musing that belied a great sorrow.
To someone who was a careful observer - and none of Azriel's clients usually were as they always had more pressing matters on their minds - it could be seen that in Azriel's office was a collection of objects that were the slow accumulation of other people's treasures, and that even the office itself was a remnant that had survived its world, even if only as a reconstitution of the ghost of a building.
Ianto took the time to look around the office, now that he theoretically had all the time in the world, in the universe to do so…
"You…you're nothing like you're described." He told Azriel honestly, "I never thought of Death as having an appreciation for…well, for things that matter to people no matter how small."
"That is because I am not death. Death is an abstract. I am Azriel. I am the Angel OF death, not the abstract itself. Death is a process, it is not animate and has no soul, but I, I suppose, am it's living representative. I, unfortunately, appreciate a lot of things. That is why I am what I am."
"Oh" was all he could think to respond, before something else came to mind; "When Rio said I'd earned 'a ticket to the Penthouse'…?"
"I think she is referring to The Elysian fields, the fields of Paradise."
"Heaven…I've earned my way into Heaven?………is there any coffee in this place?" he asked, suddenly in dire need of a large mug of pitch-black caffeine-filled coffee.
Azriel paused. "I don't know so, but I assume, as it is Heaven, that it has coffee. According the Norse it has a lot of mead. I know for a fact it has chocolate that does not fatten, I was once handed some by a rather gleeful servant of Raphael"
"…just plain black dark roast would do," Ianto mumbled, running his fingers through his hair, his mind turning inevitably back to Jack and his well-being.