It was barely hours after Steven's death that he gave in, his Vortex Manipulator practically programming itself. It had happened so much faster this time, Jack knew, and didn't question how he knew.
He'd known, somehow, even as he watched the Fatida transportation service load Ianto's cryogenic capsule into the ship bound for Andromeda, that it would be hit by solar flares, or an engine would fail as it left the atmosphere. When he received the call that his cargo had been lost in an emergency crash landing, the renewed grief only amplified the clamor of voices inside Jack’s head, urging him to go back, go back, go back.
He managed to hold on until the end of the two days that always had to be. He’d never once, in all the times he’d lived through this hellish pair of days, found a way to save Steven. He’d never tried. It was a fixed point, Jack knew, and his daughter's screams no longer touched him. Gwen's screams as she or her husband occasionally died no longer touched him. The only thing that touched him was a thousand repetitions of I love you and a thousand times that light faded from gray-blue eyes.
As he passed through the latest loop, Jack could feel his edges being eaten away by time. In a more coherent moment, he laughed. So much for immortal, eh Doc? The universe was eating him slowly, absorbing him into herself. Surely he could not last much longer?
He opened the Time Vortex to the day before Ianto died, and walked through into a familiar alleyway. He was immediately hit with the echoes of all his previous appearances here, the weight and power of them like a hammer swung full-strength into his gut. When his time-sense and vision finally cleared, he realized that this time was not like all the others.
Between him and the corner of the warehouse where younger Jack would be waiting stood a tall blue Police Box, with a tall Time Lord leaning against it.
“Doctor,” Jack gasped. He stumbled forward, feeling as though he’d died a thousand times.
The Doctor caught him and the Tardis opened her doors, allowing the Doctor to drag him into the room that had once held all of Jack’s hopes and dreams. Now he slumped on the floor, sobbing silently as a thousand paradoxical deaths-not-his melted away and the thousand deaths of Ianto Jones pressed even more firmly on his mind.
The Doctor knelt beside him.
“You can’t do this, Jack,” he said softly.
Jack ignored him, or maybe he just focused more on the Tardis floor. Part of him was unable to think, only to plan desperately, to yearn desperately, to love desperately, and if he hadn’t loved Ianto before he would have to now, with his thousand losses echoed and magnified by repeated application to the time stream.
Jack fell to pieces on the floor of the ship, and slowly put himself back together again.
“Are you ready to talk?” the Doctor called from the console.
Jack took some deep breaths and shakily heaved himself up from the floor. He did not know how much time had passed. Distantly he knew this was important, that timing was very important right now and he should know, but a warm golden humming wafted all his concerns away. He took the Doctor’s offered hand without so much as a glance into the concerned brown eyes that watched him closely, and followed the Doctor to the kitchen.
“Drink some tea,” the Doctor suggested.
Jack drank some tea.
“You can’t do this, Jack,” the Doctor told him once he had drunk half of the tea. “The fabric of space-time was so worn down over that moment that it was about to collapse. You know what would happen then.”
Jack could only stare into his tea. Again, he didn’t know if he was ignoring the Doctor or simply unable to respond; the words barely made any impact on his grief. But a golden humming changed its frequency very slightly and the Doctor frowned.
“I’m not being hard on you because I know you were trapped in a time loop, but really Jack, you should have known better than to meddle in the first place,” he admonished, frowning. “Changing a turning point in the universe like first contact could have resulted in catastrophe, you know that!”
Jack looked up at last, peering into the Doctor’s passion-bright eyes with the dullness of a thousand deaths. “I wasn’t trying to change that.”
The Doctor’s red cheeks got even redder. “Then what?” he demanded. “What could have been worth destroying the universe?”
“I couldn’t stand it,” Jack murmured. He didn’t have enough strength left to speak. “There was no point without him.”
“You did this for your boyfriend?” the Doctor clarified. He squinted at Jack as though he could see straight inside him.
Jack felt like a wheel of cheese punched through with so many holes that he could barely sit up. “I didn’t even know I loved him until he died. But he was my best friend. My lodestone, my right-hand guy, the one I could tell anything. I didn’t realize how much I needed him until he was gone. And for all that, I couldn’t even lie to him when he died. Every time, Doctor, every time he’s died he’s told me that he loves me, and even though I kill myself out of guilt afterwards, I never say it, because he knows me so well that he would be able to see it’s not true, not the way he wants it. Not until he’s gone.”
In order to reach the Doctor Jack’s words traveled through lungs that were scratched and heavy, over a swollen and unwilling tongue, and through a wall of the deepest self-hatred and guilt.
Jack’s eyes were wide like a child’s, suddenly shining life-bright, and the Doctor could his own reflection in them.
“Maybe,” Jack whispered. “Maybe if he lives I could learn to love him back. I owe him that much. I think I could love him. I want to.”
“You won’t, Jack.” The Doctor spoke with the weight of a thousand years of seeing things worse than mere death. “You’ll meet the Reapers as soon as you leave the Tardis.”
The Doctor was apologetic; Jack was not. “I know,” he said simply. “But there’ll still be a me out there. There’ll always be a me out there, right, Doc?” he smiled, spirits raised slightly by the reminder of his upcoming doom.
The Doctor did not tell him to stop, or not to call him ‘Doc.’ He just watched with those old, old eyes, and Jack's smile faded.
“You’ll save him, won’t you?” Jack asked, pleading unthinkingly to a man he’d sworn would never have anything over him again. “I need to know you’ll save him.”
The Doctor inspected him a moment more, then nodded. “It’s the only way to stop the time loop. I’ll save him,” he promised.
Jack stood up. “Then I guess it’s time for me to go.”
At the entrance to the Tardis, the Doctor grabbed him and pulled him into a tight hug. Jack patted the Time Lord’s back, feeling nothing at the gesture he would have been ecstatic to receive not too long ago.
“I’m sorry, Jack. I’m so, so sorry.”
Jack opened the Tardis door and closed it safely behind him before opening the Vortex. He grinned the Harkness grin one last time at the Reaper that waited for him, then embraced it.