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Game, Sutekh and Match

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It begins like this. There's a flash of light behind him and Ianto drops the lettuce he's picked up and reaches for a non-existent gun. It's a habit now, a reflex, and he would wonder when he's managed to pick it up, except that instead he's calculating angles and distances, and projections of risk, and wondering how much damage a lettuce would do if thrown hard enough at an alien head (if it has a head). Why do things like this always happen to him? And in the supermarket?

All right, if he's being fair, it's not always the supermarket, and it's not even as though it's always happening to him either, but really. In Tesco Metro? It's not fair. It's not even cool. It will mean lots of paperwork, and retcon, and potentially, at best, an embarrassment factor high enough to preclude his to return for an inconvenient amount of time, and at worst, the refitting of the shop entirely after hefty damages.

He's irritated even before he turns round.

There are worse things in this universe than Captain John Hart, thinks Ianto, although at this precise moment he's hard pushed to name them. He scans the vegetable aisle and realises it's blessedly empty, so the retcon stocks are in less need of being depleted. On the other hand, John is smiling, and Ianto has never been comfortable with that, John smiling has so far presaged adventure and danger. He supposes John could be frowning instead – generally in his experience that's been a prelude to death and destruction, so perhaps Ianto is getting the sweeter end of the deal. He still contemplates throwing the lettuce anyway. Petty, but it makes him feel better.

He hates that John Hart reminds him now of Tosh and Owen. Of how they aren't here now because of this man. Or… He knows that's unfair. But he's not allowed to think about other kinds of revenge. There's been no way to… relieve his feelings. To get past it. And John… Dealing with John would be an excellent way to make himself feel better. After all, it's not as though anyone would even miss him.

Ianto draws himself up, and consciously relaxes his clenched fingers. Fuck, but this job gets to a person. What is he thinking? What does that say about him? Although perhaps it's all of a piece, like automatically reaching for a gun.

"You," he says at last, not trusting himself to say more.

"Me," agrees John Hart, and keeps smiling, "I was looking for Jack, but you'll do, eye candy, you'll always do. In a pinch. Would you like that?"

"I have nothing to say to you," Ianto says, simply, and turns back to his trolley, starts pushing it, just to move, just to do something. Although it's not like he can actually think about the supplies, what they need, the bloody shopping list. It's not like he can think of anything at all, other then John strolling along behind him. All the innocent people that could be hurt or at least retconned if he starts shouting.

"Pity, really," says John, from close behind, "Because I really need to talk to you. And that's not something you'll hear from me everyday. Call him, eye candy. Jack, that is. Call him and I'll go away."

Ianto stops, and stands unmoving for a second, forcing the unreasoning anger down, down, and locking it away. With short, sharp, economical movements, he takes his mobile from his pocket and flips it open. Jack needs to be told John is back in town anyway, so he's not really obeying John, he's not really doing what he's told like a good lap-dog. Not really.

The mobile rings and rings. That's strange. He's left Jack at the Hub, and as far as he knows Jack wasn't planning on leaving. The rift has been quiet, Gwen was going home to Rhys, and Ianto was going to cook when he got back, or at least prepare a proper salad for the two of them, since cooking facilities are primitive, at best, in the Hub.

He flips the phone shut and turns to look at John. Who's stopped smiling, and Ianto has a horrible feeling about that.

"What have you done?"

John grimaces, just a little, a look of regret on his face. Ianto wonders if it's real. He wonders if anything at all is real about John.

"Not me. But I wondered. Heard a rumour, that's all. Something in the wind. Sensed it."

Ianto glares at his lying face, but John doesn't flinch. He taps his wrist strap, fingering it, almost nervously. "There was a signal. If I picked it up, Jack will have done too."

"And?" asks Ianto, sensing something more, something John is holding back. Knowing there'll be more he isn't saying.

"Well. It wasn't just a signal, you see. So much as… A warning. From an automatic beacon, you might say." He throws his hands wide. He doesn't catch Ianto's eye.

"And?" insists Ianto.

"Well, it might be that… That Jack's being hunted down. That I'm not exactly here in this armpit of the galaxy for my health. It might be that…"

John looks at him finally, appeal strong in his pretty blue eyes.

"It might be that I need your help, eye candy." He kicks the corner of the chill cabinet. "It might be… too late for Jack. If I'm right."

Ianto opens his mouth, and then closes it again. There's a terrible sense of cold creeping up on him, which he knows is blood draining due to shock. John might be lying, is his first thought. John's always lying. Anyway, Jack can take of himself. He's fucking immortal, for god's sake. Ianto's not worried. He isn't.

But he's also striding for the exit to the supermarket, not even waiting for John to catch him up.

***

 

"Damn," says John, and.

"I don't believe it," says Ianto, and.

"Oh, no," says Gwen and turns and buries her head into Ianto's shoulder.

Ianto shouldn't have called Gwen. He doesn't want her to see this. There's far too much blood. Far too much. Even knowing Jack can survive any number of deaths, there's still too much blood. The Hub is awash with it. The pool below the copper fountain is dark with it, like red dye has been poured in, like some kind of prank, like a football match, or a rugby game. The smell is heavy in the air, sweet and metallic, like a butcher's shop. Like a cottage in the country.

Ianto can feel his gorge rise, and he swallows, and swallows again, with a dry throat, and he hugs Gwen, he clings to her, because they can't go though this, not again, not so soon after Tosh, after Owen. He had to scrub Tosh's blood off the steps, on his hands and knees, the cold tiles biting into his legs. He can't do it again, he can't.

John is standing very still, which is not like him. Except at the end, the last time they'd seen him, when he'd tried to sympathise with them all. They hadn't let him, though, had they? They couldn't, and Jack had been so cruel. Ianto remembers that now, suddenly. In his absence, looking through this ragged hole that Jack has left, clinging to Gwen, stupidly thinking, there's only the two of them now.

It's instinctive, Ianto thinks afterwards, instinctive comfort. He reaches out a hand and grabs John's sleeve, no more than that. Clutches at him gently. He's lost Jack too, just as surely as they have, and Ianto's glad that he can find magnanimity in the face of tragedy. That his heart is apparently less full of hate and violence than he'd thought.

John looks at him out of wide and staring eyes. But he doesn't look surprised. He doesn't even look particularly distraught, which Ianto finds surprises him in turn. John Hart may have loved Jack enough to kill him (oh yes, and hadn't Ianto wanted to murder John himself, when Jack had let that little fact slip) but that doesn't mean Ianto thinks he'd be happy that someone else has managed it. Ianto realises he's been expecting John to go ballistic, to tear off in some mad bloodbath of revenge, to give in to his violent nature in some spectacular way. He's ashamed, because he also realises that he's been looking forward to it. He's been viscerally wanting John to react – as he himself can't, of course. Not Ianto Jones. Not Jack's loyal soldier. But John is letting him down.

"This isn't right," says John, suddenly, interfering with their silence. Ianto wants to snarl something cutting, shout an obscenity. He does neither thing, of course.

John slips his sleeve away from Ianto's clutch, withdrawing literally and figuratively. "This isn't what I was expecting," he says. "Not this. This is a mistake. I've underestimated things. But it won't happen again."

Suddenly, he whirls towards them in a great shining arc, sword and guns and eyes glittering. He throws his arms around the pair of them, as they huddle, like some eccentric but kindly uncle. Gwen lets out a small sob, but Ianto is dry-eyed. John is spare and lean, his arms barely reach around them. Ianto finds he has a faceful of red wool, with a certain spicy scent enveloping him more than the coat itself. He smells like Jack, Ianto realises, and shivers, for reasons nothing to do with the cold.

"Don't worry, kiddies, I know what to do," says John, and Ianto opens his mouth, to tell him, no, don't, when it's too late. They're surrounded by the sparkle and tingle of a matter transporter, and suddenly they're somewhere else.

Ianto pushes John back, pushes him violently away, shoves him so hard Gwen is almost thrown aside with him. John is smiling again, that dangerous smile, the one with the glint of madness or humour, the one that's impossible to trust. He pokes at his wrist strap, as the vortex manipulator whines and beeps, and then John turns in another circle, slower this time, his arm held out, until the whine becomes a moan and he strides forward with a muffled shout.

Ianto holds on to Gwen's arm, his only coherent thought being that he can't have anything happen to her, Jack would kill him. He takes a breath, now John is out of arm's reach, now he has time to process. He can smell green things now, in the dark – they're outside. There's a hint of river mud too, the sound of water lapping. They must be by the Taff. Or some river anyway – it's jumping to conclusions to assume that it's the Taff.

"What the bloody fuck is going on?"

Gwen's voice is gaining strength at last, the shock of Jack's blood coating the Hub, congealing thick on her hands, is beginning to wear off. Ianto lets go, suddenly realising he's still holding her, and instead, to cover his discomfort, his sudden awkwardness, he looks towards John who is crouched over something he's found in the bushes, near the riverbank.

"You know as much as me," says Ianto, trying for neutral, for professional. Her eyes flash and he has the feeling he's fooling precisely no-one.

She marches over to John, and Ianto closes his eyes for a brief second, wishing, wishing that he could be that spontaneous, that unrestrained. He wonders if she's going to punch John, or shoot him. He wonders if he should stop her.

But Gwen stops, a little short of what it is that John's found and he hears it again, "Oh, no..." And the note of terror in her voice means that he runs over to the pair of them without another second's thought.

There's an arm on the ground. And Ianto can't process that immediately, because it's not what he's expecting, it's alien to his experience, because the arm is human, not some lopped alien appendage. It's been cut off neatly at the elbow joint, much like a person might carve up a chicken or a turkey; thigh from drumstick, wing from breast. He wants to throw up because, of course, it's nothing like a carved turkey, not really. And then he is, he's turning from the scene and he's vomiting, not carefully at all, retching into the scrubby grass, before he can even think about it, before his mind catches up and he realises. Before he lets himself realise that he recognises that hand, that just this morning it had dragged him back to bed for just five more minutes. It had stroked him to completion while he moaned into his partner's mouth just last night. There's a tiny mole halfway along the index finger, a scattering of light brown hairs on the forearm. There's... Oh Jack. Jack.

He won't cry. He won't. There's been enough crying.

There's a hand on his back now. Just resting. A solid comfort. Ianto's turning, he's going to apologise to Gwen, tell her he's fine really, and then the words stick in his throat. The comforting hand, the soothing palm, is John, and he's stopped smiling again. His eyes are bleak, unfathomably sad, with a hinted at anger that makes Ianto shiver, even as it draws him.

"Sorry, eye candy – guess we were too late."

Ianto wants to laugh, to swear, he shrugs instead, a tiny movement, knowing John will feel it. Gwen is knelt over the... appendage. Ianto is amazed, he's thought Gwen tough before, but this...

"Ianto," she says, her voice as clear as a steel bell, "Do you remember Abaddon?"

"Yes, of course. But I don't..."

"We're not giving up on him. We're just not." She turns to look at him. "Are we?"

Ianto swallows, lets something of the sick feeling inside spill over onto his face. Jack's a survivor – despite dying in, oh, so many ways. He's even died in front of Ianto more than once, and Ianto can't describe how much he hates that. But this... Although he hopes Gwen's right. If Abaddon couldn't kill Jack, then... It's such a slim chance but he can't not take it. To do that would be damning Jack all over again. Betraying him all over again. Ianto's guts squeeze. He owes Jack so much.

"You're right," he says, his voice firmer than he feels. He's proud it doesn't wobble, and he stares into Gwen's determined eyes and nods, once.

"Well, how sweet. Jack's loyal followers on the job – go, go Team Torchwood! Should I have a flag to wave?"

John's interruption is jarring, Ianto is surprised how easily the two of them have forgotten that he's there. He glances at John, and sees... A flash of pain? It looks like John too has noticed their focus, their exclusion. Ianto wants to say, it's not like that, not really. He has the stupidest urge to apologise.

"Where are we? John? Are we still in Cardiff." asks Gwen, flipping her hair back, her eyes shining with a kind of fervour.

John shrugs. "I just followed the energy signature. This was the closest – we're still in your beloved backwater. Probably. But this is only the first trace. There are others."

They all look at the limb on the ground.

"So one of us must take the... parts to the Hub, and put them back together," says Gwen, and Ianto swallows. He takes a step forward, to volunteer, and is stopped by John's hand on his arm.

"Oh no. I'll take eye candy. You can have cadaver watch. I want something pretty to look at on this quest, since I assume that I will be included? Since – correct me if I've got this wrong – I am the only person who can actually trace Jack in his current... state?"

They look at him. John is smiling again, a smug grin, but for once Ianto doesn't flinch, doesn't immediately want to pull a gun on him. Probably because the smugness doesn't reach his eyes. Instead there's a directed anger, a contained outrage. And it's probably not directed at the two of them. Ianto ignores the way his stomach flips, that's just residual nausea, thinking about Jack, about... everything.

Instead, Ianto begins to think about organisation, about sorting out logistical details. He opens his mouth to suggest a plan, just as he hears a laugh, short and barking, and then he's enveloped in John's arms again. They're surprisingly strong. Safe, in a really bizarre way. John really does smell like Jack, spicy, but sharper somehow, like lemons. A clean scent, fresh and free. Ianto closes his mouth and doesn't even bother to struggle. It's not like he doesn't know what's going to happen next. He tries to convey his apologies to Gwen with his glance, and really, truly hopes John has been telling the truth about their location.

Ianto has the chance this time to appreciate the feel of the matter transmitter function of the wrist strap. It's not an unwelcome one, it doesn't cause him to become sick, for example, like ocean travel does, or make him worry that he'll come out the other side splinched (thank you, J.K. Rowling). It's funny, really, that he's bouncing around the universe with this much equanimity. There was a time when this would have been horrifying. But he's seen real horror now, he's not bothered by parlour tricks. He can handle John.

He thinks he can. The sparkle of the withdrawing rift energy makes him shiver, and John runs his hands along Ianto's sides, smoothing his suit, tickling his ribs, with the excuse of setting him safely on his feet. His expression is wry, however. Ianto barely needs to raise an eyebrow, before John is stepping back and away. It's only then, once John's proximity has ceased to be so important, that Ianto can perceive the tang of the sea, feel the warmth of the air, realise that it's nearly dawn, a grey light delicately drawing towards the day.

It also doesn't take a genius to work out this isn't Cardiff any more.

***

 

"Where are we? John?"

Ianto spins, looking at the – palm trees – and the sea, the beautiful silver sand being gently revealed in the light. He half expects John to whip out a blanket and picnic basket, that's how perfect is the setting. He almost wants to shiver. Finding... a part of Jack in this idyllic place will poison it a little. He wants to get it over with.

"Some island. Long way from your backyard though, eye candy." He throws his arms wide, pivots on the spot. "Enjoy it, why don't you? It won't kill you."

"Where's Jack?" asks Ianto, impatient. He doesn't want to think about beautiful balmy beaches.

John pushes and prods his strap. It beeps. "The reading's a little fuzzy, I'll set a scan going. Clear up the static, yeah?" He throws himself to the ground and looks up at Ianto as he stands above him. "What? Not everything's instantaneous, not even for me. Anyway, it's not like Jack will notice. Or care."

Ianto wants to say he cares, but that sounds trite, so he doesn't. He feels uncomfortable as he towers over John, as though he's looming deliberately. John wriggles on the sand, getting comfortable. Ianto is pretty sure he won't be more comfortable sitting on the beach in a suit, but he grudgingly lowers himself to the ground. He'd feel more stupid if he stayed standing. He remains sat up though, hugging his knees.

John's still staring at him. It's beginning to feel disconcerting.

"You know, something's been bugging me, office boy. I don't get it. And it's not as though we're going anywhere for a while."

He pauses and Ianto is unhappily aware of more scrutiny.

"What the hell does he see in you?"

Ianto turns his head so fast it's a wonder he doesn't get whiplash. Since when did this become about him? Since when did it become personal at all.

"That's none of your business," says Ianto, sharply, and John laughs.

"You have no idea where you are, or where the rest of Jack is – I'd say it's just become my business, because I say so. Because I'm interested. But if you'd like to hang around here for the foreseeable future, eating... fish, or cola nuts, or whatever, then I'm not going to stop you."

Ianto glares at him, hopefully murderously. He's not sure it works because John's smiling again and lying back, making himself even more at home.

"I just don't get it. I really don't. I just want to understand," says John, and then he looks away. It's possible that he's even, finally, telling the truth. That would be typical of John, leaving out anything real until he absolutely has to. Ianto wishes he didn't feel the need at all.

"I don't know either," Ianto mutters, and hears a disbelieving snort. "I really don't – Jack is... It's complicated."

"Of course, it is," says John, more quietly and Ianto looks back at him, at his smiling face, now softened a little, around the mouth. "Nothing about Jack is ever simple."

He leans on one elbow and starts patting his jacket, his pockets. John finds the right one soon enough and brings out a metal hip flask, and shakes it, judiciously. There's a slopping sound, but it's not full.

"How about instead we play a little game, you and I? Truth or dare. I'd make it truth, dare or drink, but we don't have enough booze – unless you've got some? No? I'm not surprised. I'd make it truth, dare or murder, but I suspect you're squeamish. Quite right too – rehab's a killer."

John tips his head back and takes a long swallow from the flask. Ianto watches, mesmerised by the sight of that long throat, open and vulnerable, adam's apple bobbing as he swallows. His lips are dry and he licks them.

"Ok," he says, suddenly, aghast at himself, at the unexpected words, sounding a little hoarse to his own ears, and John laughs again, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He caps the flask, and throws it over, Ianto catches it in one lightning fast grab.

Visions of a slate grey sky, looming granite crags, and the last game of truths he played, before a village of cannibals intervened, only makes him more determined somehow. Not everything can end that badly.

John's eyes gleam as they watch him unscrew the lid and take his first swig. It burns going down, some kind of cheap bourbon, but he doesn't cough. He drank a lot worse than this in London, before Torchwood. Before he knew who he was, while he was still finding out. If he isn't still.

He hopes he isn't going to regret this.

He stares at John, wondering at himself. "Who's going to go first?"

"You've got the flask, so I'll ask," John smiles at him, his head still thrown a little back, looking up at the sky. "Where's the most romantic place he's ever taken you?"

Ianto looks at him, considering his answer, slightly surprised. It's not as bad as he'd feared, although it's entirely possible that John's making it easy to begin with. If John's question had been disgustingly intimate, or unconscionable, then Ianto would have taken the dare and damned the consequences, but this... This he can cope with. He thinks about it, trickling some of the sand between his fingers, considering the choices. Jack and he – what they have isn't romantic, not really. He has the dates they've been on, of course, but a mid-price restaurant in Cardiff Bay? Is that romantic? There's the weevil hunting, too, and Ianto loves that, the adrenaline, the private time together, but would John see it that way? Suddenly, he's short of breath, the ridiculousness of the situation he's agreed to overwhelming him. He puts his forehead down on his knees.

"It's not like that with Jack, and you know it," he says, at last, and John makes a noise of agreement, which Ianto wasn't expecting. John isn't looking at him either – that's different. He's been staring at Ianto in one way or another, since this fiasco started.

The wrist strap beeps suddenly, breaking the almost comfortable silence. John jumps to his feet, abruptly all energy, and swings his arm around until he seems to lock on to something. "There!" he says and strides off without looking back.

Ianto scrambles to follow him, with somewhat less dignity. He's not going to be left behind, whatever John's threats. He catches up to him as he is scrabbling in the dirt and sand, wiping his fingers carelessly on his already stained and worn t-shirt. There looks like there might have been marks on the ground, but John's digging has disturbed them. There's a child's sandcastle too, or something similar, in the shape of a crumbling pyramid.

Finally, John lifts up their find, reverently, almost. Ianto swallows down his bile – it's just a body part, another part of an arm, an upper part, he thinks, although possibly the opposite arm to earlier. John thrusts it into his hands and Ianto clutches it by reflex. It's cool to the touch, not bloody, smooth and intact. Not hacked about. It's just an arm.

"Two down," says John, grinning cheerfully, and Ianto... Ianto grins back. This is some mad macabre game they're playing, after all, but Ianto's up for it. Gallows humour, he can do that. Whatever gets them through.

"This," he says, suddenly, and John cocks his head a little, "This island. This is the most romantic place Jack has ever brought me."

It's funny – Ianto would never have taken John for a man who laughs loudly, or so freely, but today's held a lot of surprises. The fact he joins in, for one.

***

 

"It's a bazaar. You're going to have to buy the foot, if you don't want me to shoot the shopkeeper."

"How bizarre. What does he want? Please don't tell me he wants twenty drachmas for the pretty one."

"Don't sell yourself cheap, eye candy. I'd pay more than twenty drachmas. How about it?"

"I'm offering him my watch instead – since it's time to go."

"Your loss. And your turn too – truth or dare. Which is it?"

"All right. I want to know about the Time Agency – what is it? How did Jack become involved?

"Tell me – would you answer sensitive questions about your secret organisation? No, I didn't think so. Dare it is."

"...Drink that? That's not a dare. Not to boast but I've had scarier looking concoctions with my mother's milk. Literally."

"Please let me scrub out my brain now."

"Well, you did ask. Give it here... Mmm – tingly. How about I fill up the flask too? There must be something resembling whisky around these parts..."

 

***

 

It feels like a treasure hunt. A really morbid, sinister treasure hunt. Ianto tries not to think what the prize might be at the end, or who has been setting the puzzle. Because anything that can help him get through this has got to be good, and Ianto used to be really good at treasure hunts when he was little. He thinks about the job he's fallen into, and it makes him smile – oh, not the chasing down aliens, saving the world part of it, but the cataloguing, sorting, labelling and classifying part of it. Working out what things are, and where they go. Working out how the universe fits together from the junk that falls through the Rift, from the clues. Oh yes – he used to be bloody brilliant at treasure hunts. Still is, he supposes.

The fourth piece of Jack they track down appears to have fallen or been hidden down a well. Somewhere in… southern Africa, Ianto thinks, from the architecture in the dusty village, from the mahogany skin of the natives, all currently hiding. He can't be more specific than that, and hopes that it won't matter. His fingers itch for his PC in the Hub, even for good old Google.

He stares at John, at his smirking face, at the Mexican stand-off they've achieved. Neither of them wants to go down that well.

It's funny really, Ianto thinks, because it's not as if he believes John will cut the rope and leave him stranded. If he just wants Ianto dead there's already been a dozen opportunities. Ianto supposes… No, he knows… It's the loss of dignity that he can't face. The thought of John laughing and tormenting him before hauling him back up covered in mud and humiliation. Ianto tightens his hands into fists even thinking about it.

"Truth or dare," he says, even though it's not his turn, and watches. John shrugs and then nods, looking impatient, hunching his shoulders.

"What's the worst thing you and Jack have ever done?" asks Ianto, slowly, hoping John doesn't want to answer, but not sure he wants to hear it even if he does.

John licks his teeth, cocks his head, and then suddenly he's another person, a more terrifying one, hovering on the balls of his feet, flight or fight kicking in, one hand hesitating by his holster. Ianto puts his chin up, wondering why he's not afraid, only knowing that John's like a dangerous-looking dog, scary, but all bark and no bite, or not enough to worry about anyway.

"You should be careful, asking a man a question like that." John hasn't moved though, Ianto's cautiously optimistic.

"The worst thing? The very worst thing?" John appears to be thinking about it. "Well, there was the time we blew up the planet Shalufal, two billion people, all gone – poof – in a heart-beat, blown out like a candle's flame. Was that the worst? Oh, we were ordered to do it, and they'd saved themselves from an extinction event by causing a paradox that was ripping space and time apart, but really, it might be the worst thing. Or… Something more visceral, maybe, that's far too remote for you, isn't it, pushing a button on a wrist strap? Nah. There was this family once – men, women and children. And we shot them down in the street, Jack and I, and they thanked us as they died. The children thanked us with blood rupturing from their punctured lungs. That was fun. Is that the kind of thing? Do you want me to go on?"

Ianto stares at John, and wonders if he's lying. Knowing that he's not. Knowing this isn't the kind of thing John will lie about. Ianto wants suddenly to wash his hands. He's been handling body parts today, but he's done it before. He's killed before too, of course, but no-one human, no-one he… He knows nothing, really. Nothing. He's a fool and an impostor, and what makes him think he knows what he's doing? It's colossal arrogance on his part, really. What has he been thinking?

He looks at the well. At the small bucket hanging from the wooden crosspiece, and reluctantly climbs in.

"I'm sorry," says Ianto, simply, "I ruined the game, didn't I?"

John begins to wind the rope. He looks down on Ianto as he pulls his shoulders in to get them to fit the narrow shaft.

"Not possible," says John, "The stakes were never set. And you want to know the worst thing I've ever done, the very worst thing?" He pauses, and Ianto looks up. John is a black shadow against the brilliant pale blue of an African sky.

"I fell in love, eye candy. That was the real killer."

John doesn't talk after that, which is unusual, but Ianto doesn't try to make him. There's a stylised picture of an eye on the wall of the well shaft, and Ianto snaps it with his camera phone, ever the collector. His Jasper Conran suit is ruined, but John doesn't laugh at him, and Ianto counts that as a win. They recover Jack's hairy left calf.

 

"I don't think I've ever seen so much of the world," says Ianto, as he steps out of the golden sparkle of yet another teleport, into more bright sunshine, and filthy heat. "To be fair though, I've always wanted to travel."

"Well, never say I don't take you places," John smirks, looking across, shading his face with his hand.

They're in a busy street this time, in some primitive-looking city, with adobe walls and high windows. Ianto takes off his suit jacket, because the temperature is high, and he's already filthy and sweaty. He reminds himself that it's not exactly suffering, not really, it's more of an inconvenience. He still feels miserable. The only breath of comfort in this whole business is that Jack's... parts don't seem to be decaying, not in the normal way of all flesh. That's a hopeful thing.

John stares around with narrowed eyes. There are a lot of robes in view, in white, and cream, and beige. It could be a Muslim country, Ianto thinks. He's just contemplating trying to talk to someone, to work up enough courage, when John strides off and Ianto has to follow. He doesn't think John would leave him behind on purpose, despite his threats, but leaving him behind by accident? That, John might do. The thought is somewhat terrifying.

Because what he hasn't asked, and he really should, except he doesn't really want to know, is whether they are also travelling in time. He loves history – from a distance. But he loves indoor plumbing and penicillin more.

John's jabbering away in a foreign tongue when he catches up with him, and Ianto's reluctantly impressed. Unless Time Agents have some weird super-secret translation technology – which he wouldn't put past them. But then there's some kind of transaction going on, and suddenly John's got local currency, in exchange for... Spices? Ianto's going to go with spices. It looks like a packet of spices. Of course, it does.

Then the wrist strap beeps and John catches Ianto's eye, his gaze mischievous, and Ianto shivers, despite the heat. But uncertainties always do this to him. John leads the way, down several narrow streets, and through elaborate doors, into a spacious courtyard draped in scarlet blossoms, grey-green trees sculpted in terracotta pots; it's an oasis in a tumultuous world.

Then there's more jagged tumbling language, and money exchanges hands. The courtyard is suddenly filled with numbers of chattering, coffee-skinned boys, with very white teeth, all smiling at Ianto. He looks at John, panicked, and sees he's got his own collection.

"Relax, eye candy," John calls out, as he's hurried away. "I bought us some entertainment. While we wait. Truth or dare, remember?"

"But..." says Ianto, yet it's too late, John's gone, and Ianto is left alone. Although, nowhere near as alone as he'd like. Mentally, he's cursing John, he's remembering all the reasons he has not to trust him, he's cursing himself, for even beginning to... what? Soften towards him? Enjoy his company? Fuck. Is that what he was doing?

The boys herd him, there's no other word for it, towards an antechamber. Ianto can't stop them because they're plucking at his clothing, undoing buttons, untucking his shirt. His jacket is whisked out of his arms before he can prevent it, he opens his mouth to protest and something sticky and sweet is placed quickly within. It's hopeless. Ianto tries to break free, but the boys are teenagers, slim and far too young, he can't hurt them, he can't...

He's naked and hyperventilating before he really knows what's happening. He's handed a piece of white cotton to tie around his waist, and with quick glances between themselves, all darting humour and unspoken communication, they finally leave, with all his clothes, all but one young man. Ianto stares at the one remaining... attendant. The boy is older than some of them, late teens Ianto reckons, slim and nut brown. He's wearing a pair of loose sheer pantaloons that barely hang on his hips, and as he takes Ianto's hand, and turns to lead him out, Ianto can see the shadowy crease of his buttocks, a hint of dark hair at the crotch. He looks up, hurriedly, guilt bringing a frown to his face. He hopes he isn't blushing.

The boy leads him to what is unmistakably some kind of sauna. Sweat immediately springs to Ianto's skin, and he can see the practical point of the barely-there harem pants. He takes a breath and nearly coughs in the thick atmosphere. There is a dim half-light from the stained-glass in the small glazed dome above, which is obscured further by the billowing clouds of steam. There are bowls of water with ornate scoops dotted about. There are marble tables that he and his guide come across like islands in a shifting, boiling sea.

The boy mimes for Ianto to lie down upon one such stone platform, and reluctantly, still concerned, Ianto does so. The boy slips on a pair of rough-looking mittens and proceeds to pummel him to within an inch of his life. Ianto expects that he'd call it massage though. He expects to feel wrung out too, and he does, but he also feels great, he feels cleansed, free of all the anxiety and stress, although he also knows in some quiet corner of his mind that it won't last. He's soothed enough that the names he's left calling John are almost civilised.

Ianto is lying quietly on the cool marble, the stone bringing a much needed relief to his overheated skin, when he feels something more than the rough hessian of the massage. He feels fingers, lightly travelling down his spine, another bare hand rubbing at his shoulder, digging into the muscle, now hard, now lightly. The fingers travel lower, skimming his buttocks, never resting, light as birds. It's nice, it's...

It's a scandal, is what it is. Ianto sits up, abruptly realising that even his cotton wrap has slipped. His bath attendant is smiling, is leaning forward, and Ianto can see his brown eyes, huge in the heat, eagerly sliding shut as he moves to kiss him. Ianto is very nearly naked, in some kind of Turkish bathhouse, with a... a catamite, trying to seduce him. And he can't even hide his, umm, betraying interest in the proceedings. This must be Hell.

He lightly pushes the boy away, and moves to the edge of the marble table, trying to make his relaxed muscles do his bidding more readily. Trying to get away with something, if not dignity. The boy must not understand, Ianto sees an expression of deep unhappiness cross his features, and he could feel sorry for him, if it wasn't he himself as the reluctant customer. The boy drops to his knees and leans his head against Ianto's knee. His lashes are very long and black against his cheeks. Ianto can't help it – he lets out a tiny groan. The boy takes this as permission and begins to nuzzle inwards, mouthing at his inner thigh. Ianto grasps his curly black hair, slick with some kind of oil, but he can't help it if it's more a caress than a restraint, can he? He's only human.

It occurs to Ianto as his eyes slide shut, as the boy moves higher, that Jack would pay good money to see this. That he'd tease him, and discuss techniques, or hand him the oil. That he'd laugh at Ianto, possibly even with Ianto before... joining in.

His eyes snap open, and the sudden realisation, the abrupt understanding, means that he gathers the strength to push the boy away, properly. Ianto shakes his head, firmly, hoping that a shaken head is the universal symbol for refusal. It seems to work, and Ianto watches, mesmerised, as the boy walks away. Sways, rather, and Ianto may be wrong but there's a hint of a disappointed pout, he's almost sure. He doesn't take it as a reflection on his own attractiveness however. He wonders what John paid him.

Ianto looks round then, peering into the steam. If he's right, he won't be far… And there's the twisted smile waiting for him, with a raised glass to boot. John's eyes are shadowed, half-lidded, as he stalks towards Ianto like a panther that's too lazy to run. He passes another glass over, and Ianto takes it, wordless. John has filled it with something sparkling, it fizzes quietly, as he sits next to Ianto on the marble slab, one foot hooked up, cotton wrap slipping dangerously.

"So – you took the dare, huh? How disappointing," says John, finally, his voice deeper than usual, hoarse in his chest.

"What was the question?" asks Ianto.

"What games do you play, the two of you?"

Ianto takes a sip and leans his head back, closing his eyes. "What do you think? The oldest ones."

Their shoulders brush as they sit, and it's oddly peaceful, despite the heat, until John tells Ianto that he's left Jack's hand sitting in the aqueduct. It's more noisy after that.

***

 

"What's this symbol? It looks like a dog with square ears."

"Ancient cave paintings, yadda yadda. Appreciate your planet's art later."

"It's not art, it's new."

"So young, and yet so cynical."

"I've seen something like it before, now where…"

"Just pick up the leg and let's go home, there's a good dog."

"Bugger Jack's leg. Not literally."

"Pick it up! Before it gets washed away. This is a bloody underground stream, in case it had escaped your notice?"

"I've got it! It's the Typhonic beast. Wait. That makes no sense."

"I'd never have guessed. We're freezing our bollocks off down here. Makes no more sense that we're wading up to our arse cracks in icy water. Now move."

***

"I think I've got vertigo," says Ianto, as he looks up and up the grey wrinkled sides of the elephant. John is striding up the mounting platform and then steps onto the animal and into the howdah, as though it's the deck of an ocean liner – liable to move under him but not an unpleasant place to be.

He stares down at Ianto, grinning again, and Ianto shades his eyes with his palm. Then he realises he's grinning back. Ianto stops, and frowns. John grins more widely.

Ianto looks down, and then steps carefully up the mounting platform. He's just a little unsettled, that's all. He doesn't like being out of uniform, as it were. Feeling self-conscious, he brushes the fabric of the loose cotton trousers, and white Nehru shirt. He feels naked without underwear. John claimed, at the Turkish baths, that his suit had been beyond fixing, and while Ianto wants to argue, he has a sneaking suspicion that John was right. He doesn't want to give him the satisfaction though. At least this light cotton dries quickly after being wet. That seems to matter. Ianto has been working it out in his head – all the pieces of Jack they've found have been near, or in, water. Except the foot in the bazaar, but that had most likely been moved there.

The symbol of the Typhonic beast is indicative of an Egyptian origin; it's the symbol of Set, the destroyer, the god of chaos and storms. Ianto doesn't really understand it yet, although the connection to water may be something to do with the Nile? But what on earth has Egyptian symbology got to do with whatever attacked and dismembered Jack? Ianto doesn't understand.

Thinking about it has allowed him to climb onto the elephant with tolerable equanimity, at least. He has a feeling it's a bad idea to show weakness in front of John. He settles down in the cushioned chair in the howdah, and instantly John flicks a finger at the mahout. Ianto clutches the arm of the palanquin, as the mahout prods the beast and they are underway.

"I don't get it," Ianto says, "Why can't we use your vortex manipulator? Why the bloody hell do we have to hire an elephant?"

"We don't," says John, and lies back, his body going loose and relaxed. Ianto finds he's balled his hands into fists without even noticing. It's comforting John still produces that reaction in him. "Look – it's not an exact science, eye candy. I'm following the decaying chronon particles that Jack's body parts are emitting, and it's a weak signal. I have to bounce the effect sometimes off, oh, a local mountain, say, to get a strong enough indication. And besides… this is far more fun than my wrist strap."

Ianto doesn't look over. He knows the expression John will have, the shit-eating grin. He knows John's needling again, he's trying for yet another reaction that Ianto is loath to give. But Ianto is so tired, he's not sure he cares anymore. He's lost all track of time, but he's got a feeling that if he lets himself sleep, he'll be seeing John striding through his dreams. Still – better that than the terrible images of Jack that he'd be facing otherwise, and the inevitable guilt. He swallows.

"Here," says John, and hands him the flask. Ianto drinks automatically now, barely even feeling the burn this time of, what, cheap brandy? He's lost track too of how many times John has filled the flask up. That's probably a bad thing.

"Truth or dare?" John asks, softly, as Ianto stares out blindly through the elephant's ears, past the mahout, to the waving jungle.

He's comfortable. It's weird, but the elephant's gait is quite soothing. "Yeah, all right," he says, uneasily aware there aren't many chances for a dare. Not up here.

"It's your turn," John prompts him, and Ianto almost smiles. Oh yes, he'd forgotten that.

He thinks about it for a moment or two, and wonder of wonders, John lets him. "Back when we first met you," Ianto says, at last, "You said you'd spent five years in a timeloop with Jack."

"Yeah."

"What was it like? What was… he like?"

Ianto turns his head. He's expecting a sarcastic answer, a shuttered and remote face. But he's wrong, this time. John hasn't tensed, he's fiddling with the flask, true, but his eyes are... soft. There's a gentle curve to his mouth. John looks comfortable too, just like Ianto, it's almost... domestic. Ianto wants to laugh, it seems typical that the closest he and John get to domesticity is on top of an elephant.

John drinks again, but slowly, sipping it, like a toast. "He was young. So bloody young. We both were, I suppose. That's what I remember most. But your Jack... He's older than the hills, isn't he? Even before he was buried under them."

"He's cautious," Ianto says, "He's used to keeping secrets."

"There was a time when he wasn't like that, you know?"

Ianto shrugs. Logic dictates that Jack must have been like that once, but he can't imagine it.

"I was older than he was – then. He was, well, the junior partner, all wife comments aside." John smirks, a little, but it looks like habit, with no real heat. "I had to train him. He was so... keen to learn."

Ianto can't help it, he snorts. John raises an eyebrow. "Yeah, well..."

"I suppose," he continues, "I suppose I miss it because he grew up in that time-loop. Five years... it's a long time. Longer when you're stuck some place that literally never changes. A hick town, one bar, one hotel, in winter." He laughs. "Always winter, but never Christmas. The sunset was spectacular – but even that got boring, you know? Because it was always the same. It was a fucking miracle we didn't kill each other."

Ianto's realises he's holding his breath. He's never had confidences like this, from Jack, or John. He wonders if he can believe them.

"But you got through it," he says, carefully.

"We did. We had no choice though – we couldn't even kill ourselves. Life is always cheap, eye candy, don't you ever forget that, but there – there it was free."

Ianto has the strangest urge to lean over to John, to clasp his arm, as a brother perhaps, as a fellow human being. Possibly a little more, if he's honest. He's wary of his sympathy though, Torchwood's burnt that into him. He's not sure John would get the impulse either. He's not sure that John wouldn't... misunderstand.

John's continuing, like he's spewing words uncontrollably, now he's started. Like he's incapable of stopping.

"So, eventually, we knew everything about each other, hopes, dreams, memories. First times, last times, embarrassing moments, everything. I thought... I thought it meant something, and I wasn't wrong. It meant that Jack was vulnerable, didn't it? And what does Jack do when he's feeling vulnerable?" John tilts his head back, raising his eyes to the sky. "You know, eye candy, don't you? He's still predictable, if you know him well enough. And we do know him. We're the only ones who do."

Ianto nods, slowly, as John's eyes gleam, slitted against the sunlight. John's not wrong. He supposes. Ianto's never thought of himself and Jack like that before. But he's not wrong.

"It meant Jack ran away as fast and as far as possible. Of course, he did. And there was poor old, little old me. Left all alone. Fuck. I'm maudlin."

John shakes himself like a dog, and then takes a long drink, his throat working, the liquor spilling from his mouth, making a thin trail down the column of his neck. This time, Ianto has to look away.

They continue into the jungle, to a point that is indistinguishable from any other, except that suddenly John shouts for the mahout to stop. Ianto is glad he doesn't appear to be expected to get down, their mount still seems very high. John leaps off gracefully, sword and guns rattling, and Ianto admires his style. Just for a second.

There's a tiny spring, the colour of the dark brown loam, reflecting dark green fleshy leaves. There's a man asleep next to it, his pale skin sallow in the dappled light. Only... Ianto swallows down more nausea, when he realises that this time they've found Jack's torso, his severed neck hidden in vegetation, reducing some the horror. The elephant is uneasy, perhaps scenting the death on the air, and has to be soothed. Ianto, on its back, feels its sharp, jerky movements almost as extensions of his own feelings. He carefully leans out of the howdah, and lets his fingers trail along the wrinkled dry skin, hoping it'll help, not really sure why it matters.

John is looking up, his eyes and mouth savage. Gone is the confiding mood of earlier. Ianto stares.

"Fuck this. Fuck this. I've had enough. You know I said it was a miracle we didn't kill each other? Well, it wasn't a miracle. You get that? We just didn't die."

Ianto wishes… Well. He wishes that there was something profound he could say.

 

***

 

"How many body parts is that now?"

"You're asking me? You're the office boy. Twelve."

"And what's missing?"

"After this last bit of leg? Assuming Jack's only got ten hairy toes, then two pieces – head and balls. Could say that Jack's always losing them."

 

***

 

Ianto thinks he's put all the clues together, but he's not sure it's helped. What is still a mystery is why? In classic whodunit parlance, he's missing the motive. Ianto wonders whether to tell John. He might know and not be willing to explain, or he might have no idea at all, but pretend he knows everything. Ianto wouldn't put anything past John, who's been increasingly remote and unpredictable. He's been surly and bad-tempered. He's been joking less and randomly slashing things with his sword more. None of these things are good signs.

The thought drifts into Ianto's head that he could probably soothe John the same way he uses to stop Jack jittering, when he was hurting or in pain. It occurs to him that he'd enjoy it too. But emergency blow-jobs aren't really an option in their case, however tempting…. Ianto almost sighs. He's glad John didn't leave the Turkish bath dare until later on their quest, because now his resistance might be... lower than it was.

He feels sorry for John. That's something he's been surprised by, but nowhere near as much as he expected. He knows John would hate him for it.

Ianto watches John calibrate the next jump. He watches his brow furrow, and his teeth worry his lower lip. There's a difficulty, but Ianto supposes that's to be expected. These things are bound to get harder, quests always do. He's been glad that, so far, at least, they've remained on Earth, although he hasn't dared ask about when. Although, his first alien planet would have been really cool. He has a pang – secretly Ianto's always hoped Jack might take him to an alien world at some point. He hopes he still will.

John curses, and thumps his wrist strap. Ianto winces. He's also grateful that technology seems to be built more robustly in the future. As are the people, he supposes.

John walks over, his face like thunder. "You're not going to like this."

His heart sinks. "What makes you think I've liked any of this?" he says, trying for light, for sarcastic, for a knowing smile from John. Instead, he gets a hard stare. John slips behind him, and wraps his now familiar arms around Ianto. Ianto tries not to breathe in too much, and definitely doesn't sink into the embrace. He glances around once more – some kind of Germanic church, all dour granite and plain marble. They'd found Jack's leg in the font. He's not going to ask, he's just not. He's not going to be sorry to leave either, he's shivering in these light cotton clothes, even though John has found him some sort of long black buttoned overcoat, that Ianto has a terrible fear is some type of cassock.

He holds his breath as the golden haze from the vortex manipulator surrounds them both. Ianto feels like he's almost getting blasé about jumps, as though he's an old hand, almost as though he were a Time Agent too, as though he were partnered with John... The thought is so arresting that he stumbles as they materialise again, and John catches him tighter around the waist. It doesn't really help his state of mind.

So it takes him several seconds to process where they are. The familiar screech of Myfanwy, disturbed from her eyrie, orients him. There's the trickling noise from the water tower, the smells of coffee, damp and ozone filling his nose, the jumble of Victorian architecture and futuristic tech filling the room. The Hub. He's home, at last.

"John?" He turns a little and John lets him go, a little reluctantly. "Why are we back? We haven't finished. Some of Jack's still out there."

He really hopes that John hasn't decided to renege at the last minute – because it's not as though Ianto can do much to prevent him. He wonders where the nearest weapon might be.

"Nope," says John, lifting his wrist, prodding at it, "Some of Jack's in here. Took a lot of calibration. The Rift interferes. All the other bits of Jack don't help. It's like there's a chronon particle party happening in his pants. He'd like that."

The Hub is silent, apart from the usual background noises. Ianto wonders where Gwen is, and then is quite glad she can't see him like this. They've been gone a long time, he supposes she might have gone home to sleep, or maybe Rhys dragged her there. Ianto thinks he had some sleep too at some point – was it in the stone hut next to the fishing hole? He didn't remember much of that place though, he'd been too cold. He'd let John go fishing for Jack through the ice, while he'd huddled under bright plaid blankets and a quite disturbing quantity of furs.

It's strange, after all the places they've seen, the Hub almost feels… small. Cramped and dark, and stifling.

Rapidly, John strides over to the pool at the base of the fountain, mercifully clear of blood, for which Ianto supposes they have Gwen to thank, and then splashes in. He stands in the pool for a second, still scanning, and then he ducks his head, his sword trailing the tip of its scabbard in the water, looking under the walkways, into the shadows. Ianto restrains himself from pointing out how filthy the water probably is, how it won't do the leather of the boots or the lacquer of the scabbard any good at all. And then marvels at himself, it's as though his usual mindset has come flooding back, imprinting itself on his conscious thoughts, as soon as he entered the Hub. Weird, and potentially, he realises, also somewhat stifling.

"Aha," says John, matter of factly, and pulls out... Ianto turns away. He'd thought he'd got over his squeamishness, but apparently not.

There's a chuckle and then, "Here, eye candy – catch!"

John wouldn't. He apparently would. Ianto turns back, as quick as a flash, and with the skills he hasn't entirely forgotten from rugby at school, he catches... Jack's head. He tries not to throw up again. He doesn't want to but he can't ignore it, so he looks down.

Jack's eyes are closed, and Ianto's glad of that. He even looks peaceful, which Ianto wasn't sure whether he should have expected, or not. Jack looks like he did when he lay dead after his battle with Abaddon, with Gwen holding his hand for three days, all pale and blue. Ianto doesn't want to remember that time, he doesn't really want to know whether it should have been him who was holding Jack's hand. He's not that kind of a person though, and he knows it, but then – he is the kind of person who would travel around the world for Jack, quest to the ends of the Earth, as it were. He swallows. Jack doesn't care either way. Ianto knows that, it's all in his own head, all his second-guessing. He's holding Jack's severed head in his hands, and yet his thoughts are still selfishly all about himself. That says something.

"Come on then," says John, his voice impatient, angry. Ianto realises he's been staring. He wonders what reaction John wanted from him this time. He wonders if he got it.

He trails after John, who is striding towards the autopsy bay, still staring at Jack. Ianto still doesn't know if this is going to work – it might be that he has a little something of Gwen's blind faith, after all. He's clinging to that thought, he knows he is, to stop the crawling horror. He's holding Jack's severed head in his hands. At that moment, it's not so hard to hate John Hart.

The medical bay is all white tiles and scrubbed shiny chrome. It smells of antiseptic, as ever, and Ianto's nose wrinkles. He watches as John adjusts something on his wrist strap and suddenly, there are all the parts they've collected, revolving slowly in the suspension field. John abruptly switches it off and they thump down in an ungainly heap on the metal trolley. Ianto winces, knowing John's doing this deliberately, but not rising to the bait. He walks down the steps, slowly and carefully, and without looking at John, without trying to think or even see much of anything, he begins to sort them out. A forearm there, a hand, a shin, Jack's torso. He lays down the head first, reverently, at the top of the trolley, and if his hand happens to brush its forehead in a caress, well, that's no-one's business other than his own.

It doesn't take long. Ianto steps back and eyes his handiwork, feeling useless, feeling like he's been laying Jack out for his funeral, not his rebirth. It doesn't matter how many times he's seen Jack come back – there's always a first time that he won't. And there's that missing piece. The part of Jack that he'd most loathe to lose.

They both stand there in silence, and it's probably awkward, except that something's niggling at Ianto, at the corners of his mind. He'd thought he'd understood what the mystery was about, but there's something else, something he's forgotten – it's been a long time since he read up on Egyptian mythology. Anyway, he's not the hand-holding type, remember? He can't stay here, like this. Abruptly, he turns on his heel and goes back up the steps and heads for his work station. He doesn't think about John, or about Jack either, because a piece of research blessedly needs his attention, and this time, after far too long, it seems, he finally feels more like himself.

The myth of Osiris, and of Set, that's what he's been remembering – Set trapping Osiris in an air-tight box, and flinging him in the Nile. When Isis, his wife, goes searching for his body, to make absolutely certain of his death, Set divides Osiris into, yes, fourteen pieces. And... Ianto raises his head. And she never finds the fourteenth piece – his penis – but fashions a replacement for him out of gold. Oh dear.

Perhaps it's inappropriate of him, but Ianto finds himself smiling. Jack certainly wouldn't like that.

John's been awfully quiet, and now Ianto has time to breathe, he wonders how all this is affecting him. It must be, surely? John is still such a wild card, and although he knows John's done terrible things – Ianto doesn't doubt it really – he does... love Jack. In the privacy of his own mind Ianto can think about that, can consider it. Ianto can even own up to the possibility that he... might feel similarly. But wild horses wouldn't get either of them to admit it aloud.

Ianto's staring into the middle distance when it happens. The Rift Manipulator alarm goes crazy, making him jump, and sending little tingles of goose-bumps up and down his arms. His heart is thumping like a drum. It must be a major Rift effect, it's like the air is magnetised, tightening his skin, and he starts to go towards the Manipulator, before realising that the flashy glitter of lights are instead coming from the medical bay – Jack!

There's a laugh then, John's horribly familiar barking laugh, full of irony and despair, and Ianto stops hating John, stops feeling sorry for him, and just worries for him. They've shared a lot over the last days. He breaks into a run.

Ianto doesn't know what to expect when he skids onto the walkway, hastily snatched up gun in his hand, but it's not this. Not another alien, two of them in fact, although one of them is the by-now familiar blowfish. Perhaps he shouldn't be so blasé about them, but Ianto's almost disappointed, it's just one more alien, humanoid, dressed in a white robe, with a long snout and tall square ears. It reminds him of… of course. The Typhonic Beast. Well, he's glad something's making sense.

John is looking, well, in someone other than John, Ianto would call it anxious. But that can't be right, can it? It's enough however, his own skin is crawling from Rift effect, and John is scared of this thing, and that's plenty; Ianto pulls the trigger. It has no effect. He might have bloody known.

The beast laughs then, or what presumably passes for it among his species, and the blowfish giggles, in obscene echoing parody.

"Your weapons have no effect," it intones, and Ianto rolls his eyes.

"I am Apep, the Snake, the Devourer of the Sun. And I have had my revenge!" It's voice slowly rises in tone and volume. It pushes the trolley upon which Jack is lying and its wheels screech as they shift. Apep turns to John then, and… grins? With the length of snout and number of teeth, it's hard to tell. "And YOU! You have escaped punishment long enough."

"Umm. Yeah. About that…" says John.

"No more! No more arguments. No more excuses. This…" Apep pushes the trolley again, "Is a clear betrayal of our agreement."

Ianto wishes his gun worked, he wants shoot John himself. Fucking typical. He should have known better than to even begin to trust him. What was he thinking?

"Well," says John, beginning to smirk, "That might be true, if I'd ever agreed to anything. I don't count threats, been there, done that, got the Perulian glass shirt."

He walks around the trolley, closer to the beast. It lifts up the device it's holding, presumably a weapon. John doesn't seem to care. "Did you like my performance – ooh, I'm so scared, don't hurt me, you big bad monster – I impressed myself, I have to say." He glances up at Ianto, and is that… apology in his eyes.

"What?" says Apep, as John stalks even nearer. "WHAT! You dare…"

"Of course, I dare. Oh dear, did you not realise? I had to get you through the Rift, didn't I? I had to get you to manifest somewhere in my control. Or how am I going to kill you?"

"You are a worm beneath my heel! I will crush you where you stand! You will feel the Jackals of Anubis tearing your liver for a thousand years!"

"Blah, blah, shall we get on with it?"

John looks at the blowfish minion and it looks back. Apep raises its weapon, Ianto wonders if he should duck.

"Now!" Apep and John scream together.

There's a blur of movement, Ianto thinks that John has drawn his sword, it glitters in the air, and John is spinning, spinning... There's a crackle, and a haze of heat, the creature is laughing, as it tracks John's movements. It's gait is strange – alien – and Ianto tries firing again. It still doesn't work. He has a fleeting desire for his hockey stick before heading down the steps, towards the shifting, twisting not-quite-fight, knowing that's it's stupid, knowing that he's going to get himself killed, but being incapable of leaving John to his fate, he can't let him die alone... John's not immortal, after all.

There are scalpels on a tray, there always are, and Ianto grabs one, and for a fleeting second his eyes are away from the battle. In that moment, there's a gasp, a lurching kind of hiss, and Ianto turns back around to see... John is falling, clutching at his side, the sword clattering with a sharp ringing sound to the floor. John's lying still on the tiles – just like Tosh, Ianto's horrified mind supplies – and he runs forward with a yell. He's not letting anyone else die, not on his watch, not if he can help it. The beast swings around and Ianto watches the snout of its weapon arc towards him terribly slowly, knowing it's his last second or two of life, and not caring, knowing he's done his best, and fought the good fight, although filled with a fleeting sadness that he won't be able to say goodbye to Jack…

There's a giggle then, bizarre and odd to Ianto's heightened senses, and suddenly there's purple fluid spreading on the white robe of the beast. With a horrible screeching grunt, and as though it's in slow motion, the creature falls, toppling irresistibly towards Ianto as he desperately tries to halt his forward momentum. He manages to slide sideways as it falls past him, landing with a light crunching sound that belies its heavy looking build. Ianto is left staring at the blowfish, which is still giggling, and clutching a wicked looking serrated knife, its blade black, except where purple ichor is dripping slowly to the floor.

"Oh, what a nasty surprise, the master gets!" says the blowfish, "Do you think the eye candy was worried? Is he next on the list, he is asking himself? Does Captain Hart require witnesses disposing of, he is thinking with his bright little monkey mind!"

Ianto stares and wonders, what is it about this species?

There's a slow clap, from the floor, and Ianto turns, sharply. John's there, grinning, still bleeding, and while Ianto can't deny that's he's seen him looking better, he's also undeniably alive. The intense relief is rather startling.

It's funny though. Ianto finds he's quite comfortable with that. As it turns out.

***

 

"So, what the bloody hell was that all about?" Ianto asks, later, as John is sitting on a rickety metal chair, still in the medical bay, having the shallow graze in his side stitched up. He's laughing, silently, and his eyes are sparkling. Ianto's not sure if it's the endorphins, the really good drugs, or just the sheer lunacy that seems to be a time agent's lot in life. Both John and Jack have the weirdest sense of humour sometimes, Ianto's noticed.

"Oh, it's a long story," says John, and then laughs again, a snorting choke, before he winces, as Ianto pushes in the needle a little too forcibly.

"Tell me," says Ianto, "Or I'll…"

"Yes, yes. Don't nag, it doesn't suit you." He pauses, and Ianto watches him. "I suppose it all started when I was minding my own business somewhere in New Zealand, I think – boring place, nothing ever happens, did you know they actually have news reports about lost sheep? – and this chummy, Apep, pops up and starts threatening me. Nothing new there, I've been threatened by experts, but it seemed best to play along. Seemed that he knew I'd worked with Jack, seemed like he thought I'd know where he was. When he was, even. That was worse."

John doesn't pause this time, so much as wait. Like he's thinking of a place very far away. Or a memory he's dragging out of the depths. Ianto doesn't want to interrupt.

"I suppose… I suppose it doesn't really start there. I suppose it starts back when Jack was a child, when he was a boy with a brother he adored, living on a frontier planet, right in the line of a conquering fleet of a ships that belonged to a species calling themselves the Osirans. Of course, it was some kind of internal feud, Jack's planet wasn't even important, but the Osirans still destroyed it, killing almost everybody, except for a few they took for slaves. Or for pleasure in their torture. They weren't nice or kind, right? You get that?

It turned out that the leader of this fleet was an unpleasant fellow by the name of Sutekh, and his loyal second-in-command was Apep – do you see where I'm going with this? – and that they had a primitive form of time travel. Oh, not a patch on the vortex manipulator, but it did the job. Sutekh had gone mad, by this time, wanted to destroy all life in the universe or some such, and the other Osiran leaders, however unpleasant, didn't want that, so they hunted him, all 740 of them, across the universe, and across time."

Ianto holds his breath. It's the longest story he's ever got out of John, out of Jack, and he's glad he's finished stitching John up, because he's not sure he'd be giving it the attention it deserved. He hasn't moved away though, John is very close. John looks up at him through his lashes and Ianto swallows.

"Now this bit," says John, "Now this bit might be my fault, but how was I to know? I thought I was doing Jack a favour. I went and found Jack's adored baby brother, because I thought it might make him forgive me." John looks down again, talks to Ianto's cotton covered middle. "I thought we'd be a family again. But Gray wasn't himself, he'd been tortured by the Osirans for too long. Sutekh's creatures had twisted him into a warped image of themselves, but I didn't realise, not in time. I talked to him, you know? Telling him about Jack, how much he'd missed him, how long he'd looked for him, how he'd done so well for himself. How he couldn't ever die."

John clears his throat, and Ianto wants to be angry with him, remembering everything that Gray put them all through, what he made John do. That Gray killed Tosh and Owen. He wants to be angry, but he can't. If he could have, wouldn't Ianto have looked for Jack's little brother, if he'd known? Of course, he would.

"So – Gray doesn't want a nice reunion, and he takes the information to Sutekh, because he wants his own revenge, doesn't he? He wants to destroy everything that Jack has ever held dear, and he knows Sutekh has the means to do that. Telling this mad Osiran about a being who cannot ever die? It did the job, can't deny that. Sutekh's all fired up, he wants to destroy Jack, so he heads for Earth, being followed by the 740 Osiran's who are trying to bring him down. He misses the time window by a mile, can't say I'm surprised, and gets caught in Earth's solar system, thousands of years in your past."

John laughs and leans forward, his forehead resting against Ianto's stomach, "Fuck, eye candy, what am I saying? I'm babbling. What the hell did you give me?"

Ianto, without asking himself what he is doing, lifts his hand, and runs it lightly, soothingly, through John's hair. It's surprisingly soft. John leans into the caress like a cat, but he still doesn't stop.

"The Osirans defeated Sutekh, and imprisoned him on Mars as punishment, although he was killed finally a lot later in your history, I think, maybe I'll go find out what happened some time... Anyway – Sutekh still had followers who weren't captured, unfortunately, and that's where our friend Apep comes in. He tracked me down, in New Zealand, like I said – the sheep-herders get really lonely there, you know? – and I thought I could play along, until I could get away. I even lent him my current minion to keep an eye on him. I never expected..."

John lifts his head, Ianto's hands still in his hair, and Ianto catches his breath at the sheer pain in his face. John surges up, his hands on Ianto's hips for balance. They are very nearly eye to eye.

"I thought I'd get to Jack to warn him, in time. I didn't mean... I wouldn't... Not any more."

There's a pause then. Ianto can hear John breathing, feel it even, they're so close they're almost breathing the same air, really. John's hands are at his waist, Ianto's have slipped to his shoulders. It would be so easy to just lean forward. Ianto's heart is beating harder than a drum. He smells like Jack. And Ianto likes him, he really does. He hadn't expected that either.

"Truth or dare," says Ianto, at last, wrenching the words out, and John smiles, sadly, wryly. Is it his imagination, or is there a hint of resignation there as well?

"My turn," whispers John, and Ianto nods. The seconds pass and Ianto can't look away. He's in a special kind of agony, wondering what John will ask, what he'll dare…

"Does Jack love you?"

The question's not even a surprise, somehow. They're so close their hair could almost tangle, if it was a little longer. There's no lying, even if Ianto thought he could try, besides, he doesn't even want to.

"Did Jack love you?" he counters, and John blinks, slowly, lazily, and Ianto might have been fooled once, but not any more.

It's a poor sort of triumph, and Ianto's not even sure what it is that he's won, but John pulls away. Ianto heaves a huge breath, as though he's been running, and sits down rather suddenly in the vacated chair.

John is ambling around the medical bay, relaxed and casual. He'd fool anyone else, Ianto thinks, and wonders when he got so good at reading these things. He wishes he could give John something. A consolation prize. Something his pride could accept.

John stops, his hand on the door to the cryo-freezing units, he's tapping it, pensively maybe, only again, Ianto thinks, maybe not.

"Do something for me, yeah? Because you forfeited, right? You owe me a dare." John's eyes gleam, and Ianto swallows, feeling like it's always walking through a minefield with him, just like with Jack. They're so similar in many ways. And he knows he's the only person who would ever think that.

"Kill Gray."

Ianto sucks in a startled exclamation. He didn't expect it, and yet... He knew it wasn't going to be an easy thing, because they're way past that. But even so, killing Jack's beloved brother… Jack would kill Ianto, if he found out, if he knew. Fuck.

"I thought you didn't want me going to rehab," Ianto tries, going for light-hearted, failing at it miserably, and John grins, without humour.

"If he ever wakes up… When he wakes up, Gray will do worse than before. Much worse. He'll never stop. And Jack won't be able to prevent it. I tried to tell him."

Ianto knows John's right. There are a lot of ifs in there, but he isn't wrong. Ianto shivers, and holds the folds of his coat closer to his body. Ianto isn't in charge of the cryo-freezing chambers, but they don't currently have a doctor who is. Someone has to look after them, try to maintain them. And if that person wasn't trained, then they could easily make an error, couldn't they? And Jack might forgive them, in time. And even if the person was never forgiven, something like this, a hard decision – really, it's just disposing of a rabid dog, justice for Tosh, for Owen, but still murder – well, that might be something somebody did so that the person he loved would know he'd never have to face it. That might be something worthwhile, even if the person paid for it. Even if he regretted the consequences.

Ianto shakes his head. He's going in circles with his metaphors, his prevarications. It's actually pretty simple.

He looks up at John, leaning casually, taut as a wire. John's mouth is pulled down, sombre, frowning. Ianto is sure he is the same. They've chased all over the world for the most important man in their lives. In the end, this is such a little thing.

"Yes," says Ianto, and nods his head. "Trust me."

It's funny, but somehow Ianto thinks that John does.

***

 

Epilogue

"You're awake," says Ianto, and smoothes the hair back from Jack's brow.

It's not something to be proud of, not really, but Ianto's glad that this time, at least, he's the one holding Jack's hand. He'll call Gwen, in just a minute, in just a little while. She's pottering, checking the Rift, filing reports, whatever. She won't begrudge him this.

Jack's finally gasped into life, after days, but Ianto can't blame him. There's been a lot to fix. But it's not like the time with Abaddon – they've been able to see the healing going on slowly, as Jack's body knits itself back together. It's been a hopeful process, really.

Jack blinks at him, from the cocoon of blankets they've wrapped around him, and Ianto's heart stutters a little, as Jack asks, "How long was I out?"

"Four days, from when the healing process was begun, several more before that to collect the pieces," says Ianto.

"Do I even want to know?" asks Jack, with a lift of his eyebrows.

"Not really," Ianto says, smiling, because some of it was hilarious, after all. "You should be grateful we found the last piece though."

He waggles his eyebrows suggestively and Jack breaks into a huge grin. "Oh, really! Would I have been singing with the girls?"

"I'm sure you'd have enjoyed it. Count yourself lucky that blowfish are apparently a vegetarian species – there was something in the myth about being nibbled by fishes."

Jack laughs, a rusty sound, but Ianto thinks it's the best thing he's heard in days. But then he finds himself saying, almost without volition, "John helped us."

He watches Jack's face cloud, as he frowns. He finds it in himself to mourn that, to want Jack to meet the John he travelled with. He wants him to forgive John. Jack forgave Ianto, after all. Once.

"Never mind," Ianto says, his voice rough.

And he bends down to welcome Jack home, kissing him hungrily, sliding his tongue into Jack's eagerly opening mouth. Jack tastes of river water, of cool damp places, but Ianto doesn't care. Jack will warm up soon enough, will smell again of spices, and exotic worlds, and alien bazaars. If he's lucky, Ianto might even show him the photo Gwen took on her camera phone, of Ianto as he might have been, of Ianto looking like a Time Agent, if they'd ever recruited from a backwater like Earth.

It'll make Jack laugh, Ianto knows. That's all that really matters.