Rating: PG-13

Word count: ~ 1,500

Warnings: Canon (apparent) character deaths.

Summary: It starts slowly, a whisper here, a footstep there. Jack walks through the carcass of the Hub and hears the clatter of computer keys, the clank of equipment in the autopsy bay, the tread of fine leather shoes upon the stairs.

Disclaimer: All recognizable characters are the property of their respective owners. I am in no way associated with the creators, and no copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: I seem to have an odd obsession with ghost stories, even if this isn't exactly what I was aiming for when I sat down to write it. Anyway, the title and the opening quote are from an amazing play, which should be read/see/worshiped, even if only for the beautiful, intriguing word play throughout. It belongs to James Thurber, and I make no claim. (If anyone's interested, you can read the script by Googling the title. It's fairly short and very much worth it.)

Time is dead here (touch the clocks and never start them)

"You have the only warm hand in the castle, my dear. Even the hands of the clocks are frozen. Time is dead here. I slew it myself, and wiped my bloody blade upon its beard. It's always Then here; it's never Now."

The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber


They rebuild the Hub eventually.

It takes months, years, before Jack can bring himself to walk back into that space and do anything but turn right around and walk back out. And even now, he grief is still there, still at the forefront of everything.

Before, Jack was only haunted by his thoughts, by feelings.

Now he is haunted by a past that he cannot—will not—escape.

Gwen is gone, a mother and a wife, and he would not have her back even if she asked. She's good where she is, better, because she was never one of Torchwood's broken refugees, never driven to Three as a last resort. Jack is happy for her, at the same time as he resents her for the very same reason.

She's also never quite overcome the fact that he killed—murdered—Stephen.

(Jack hasn't, either.)

But there's a new team, more lost souls drawn to the danger and destruction and heroics that encompass life at Torchwood. Young, all of them, and painfully so—Jack looks at them and wonders if Owen and Tosh and him were ever that young, or if Jack's simply been fooled by time and distance into thinking his first team was older and more worldly than they ever really were.

They rebuild the Hub one piece at a time, one room after another, and at night Jack walks through the chaos of the construction site and wonders whether things will ever approach "normal" again.

It starts slowly, a whisper here, a footstep there.

Jack walks through the carcass of the Hub and hears the clatter of computer keys, the clank of equipment in the autopsy bay, the tread of fine leather shoes upon the stairs.

The first time he hears it, he wonders if he's going mad.

The second time, he knows he is.

The third, and he's no longer quite so certain.

The fourth, the fifth, the six, and on—

By that time, he can't bring himself to care.

The new team comes and goes, breezing out on missions that Jack usually leads, tumbling in punch-drunk with victory regardless of the wounds they bear. Jack likes them all, cares for them—but it's distant compared to what it was with Tosh and Owen and him, or even with Suzie.

He won't allow himself to love them, no matter how much he likes them.

Usually, such a resolution would quickly crumble, because Jack always loves. It's a part of who he is, and he's never really been able to stop himself before.

But now he has the smell of the perfect cup of coffee, the soft mutter of a London-sharp voice, the warmth of a small woman's hand upon his arm. These ghosts distract him, pull him away from the present, and if his team mutter things about remote, aloof dictators and mysterious sods, Jack just immerses himself more fully in the tantalizing stream of vivid sense-memories.

Tosh, voice raised in rare excitement, calling him over to her computers.

Owen, quick and razor-witted as he (grudgingly) cleans the autopsy bay.

Ianto, sweet, sharp, gorgeous, brilliant Ianto at Jack's elbow, murmuring into his ear.

Jack misses them so much. So very, very much.

Like this, half-seeing them at every turn, knowing they're nearby even when they should be long, long dead—it's a balm to wounds Jack hadn't realized were still bleeding.

Perhaps it's self-destructive and stupid and a thousand other things an immortal shouldn't be, but Jack can't help it.

He'd much rather live in the past with these happy ghosts, than in the present with a group of people he does not—cannot bring himself to—love.

Gradually, carefully, one by one, Jack lets go of his ties to the world of Now, and lets himself drift back to Then.

The further he retreats from the present, the stronger the visions (if that's what they are) become.

Jack stops spending time with the team outside of the newly rebuilt Hub.

Owen walks past him in the hall, grumbling about tea boys and having to feed Janet.

Jack forgets their full names, one by one.

Tosh smiles at him across the conference table, chopsticks hovering over her takeout carton.

Jack looks around him one day, and wonders why he thought having a new team was a good idea.

Ianto climbs down the ladder into his bunk and slides into the cot beside him, warm and human and so very, very there.

Eventually, Jack looks around himself, watches Tosh and Owen argue with Ianto interjecting with the occasional smart remark, and realizes that he hasn't been back to the real world (if that's what it is) in several days.

He thinks this should probably concern him.

It doesn't.

Jack is hesitant to broach the subject, as though speaking of it will prove that this is all some fever-dream or the construct of a desperate mind.

Ianto has always been the braver of them, where it counts.

He sits at the table beside Jack, setting two coffee mugs down in front of them. One has cream, and the other is black. Jack takes the latter, inhales a long breath over it as though he can absorb the caffeine that way, and closes his eyes. The air feels heavy, and serious.

Jack doesn't want to have this talk, where Ianto will tell him that the world needs him, that he has to go back to it and leave them all behind.

He couldn't do it the first time, barely managed to survive those three losses in such quick succession. It will kill him—perhaps not him, but everything inside of him, everything that makes him Captain Jack Harkness and not someone else—to do so this time.

But Ianto doesn't give Jack the usual look that says Jack is being a brave, sweet, noble fool and needs to stop—which is a look Jack has gotten from him many times in the past. He just looks at Jack over the rim of his own cup, the coffee gone nearly beige with cream, and says, "This isn't a dream, you know."

"I know," Jack answers honestly, and of this he has never had a doubt. "My dreams are never this good."

Ianto smiles sadly at him, which is another familiar expression. "I know," he murmurs, and from the tightness around his eyes, he does. Jack has to wonder how many times Ianto lay awake beside him, watching him, soothing him through night terrors. "I know, Jack. But this is real, and I need you to see that."

Shaking his head, Jack opens his mouth to protest—because this isn't real, it can't be—but Ianto cuts him off by touching a finger to his lips. "Hush." His voice is stern. "Jack, this is as real as anything. We are all real. And we're not going anywhere. This place, this time—" he gestures around them, taking in the Hub and the Plass and Myfanwy roosting above them "—this is forever, Jack. You'll be able to leave, if you really want to, but we'll always be here waiting."

Jack can't imagine a thing that sounds more like heaven, and meets Ianto's eyes. Softly, carefully, he kisses the finger laid over his lips, and captures the pale, elegant hand as Ianto makes to draw it away.

"Forever is a long time," he says seriously.

Ianto smiles at him, warm and fond and a little exasperated, and answers, "Oh, Jack. It's not nearly long enough."