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Conspiracy Theories

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A Vicodin pill arced through the air, spinning in time to the ticking of the clock on the wall. Five point three seconds later, it was safely home in the stomach of Doctor Gregory House, followed by its friend another five point three seconds later. Wilson might consider this an obsession, but House preferred to think of it as reducing life to a science.

It was getting late and House was contemplating sleep. There wasn't anything good on TV, and he was finally beginning to feel tired anyway. The only thing keeping him up was his leg, which was threatening to complain if he attempted a relocation.

He put it off for a few more minutes and then, sighing, hauled himself off his nice, comfortable couch to begin the long journey to the bathroom. He'd brushed his teeth and had just finished changing when he heard a strange noise from the living room. He barely hesitated before grabbing his cane from where it had been propped by his side and, gripping it tightly, made his way slowly to the source of the noise. He noticed nothing suspicious off the bat, so he crept as quietly as he could manage into the living room. Still, he couldn't spot anything that might have made such a sound. After a not-so-thorough search of the immediate vicinity, he decided he didn't care enough and went to bed.

The next morning House woke, got ready as usual, and was about to leave when something on the floor by the piano caught his eye. Curious, he picked it up and examined it. It was an object small enough to fit easily in his palm. It was grey and oval-shaped, and there was a small square of a slightly lighter shade in the center, but other than that it was unmarked and he couldn't find anything that might be a clue as to what it was. He couldn't remember ever seeing it before.

Though curious, he decided to examine it further at the hospital. He slipped it into his jacket pocket and exited.

* * *

 

"He's late!" Cameron exclaimed angrily, pacing in front of the table, at which was seated House's other two minions.

"It's not like we have a case right now." Foreman shrugged. Chase didn't even bother to look up from his crossword. Cameron gave them a ruffled glare.

"It's the principle of it! He shouldn't be late to work so often." She didn't get a response, so she returned to pacing. Both were used to Cameron's periodic dissatisfied fits. Five uneventful minutes later, Wilson walked in and paused, looking mildly disappointed.

"Is House not in yet?" he asked. Cameron opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted by House himself, who entered directly behind Wilson.

"I've been following you since you left your office and you didn't notice!" he admonished his friend, who rolled his eyes.

"Where have you been?" Cameron asked angrily. House raised an eyebrow at her.

"That time of the month again, Cameron? I was just getting some beauty sleep! You know how I need my rest so I can be just as bright and chipper in the mornings as you lot!"

Cameron fumed as Foreman cut in, his voice hopeful.

"Got a new case?" he inquired as House made himself comfortable. Wilson moved toward the coffee.

"Do you see me carrying a file?" Foreman raised a questioning eyebrow. "Cuddy'll drag one up sooner or later," House added, not sounding particularly enthusiastic.

Foreman adopted a cross look and stood. "Right, then. I'm going to go see if they need some help in neurology, since I'm apparently not needed here." He strode out without waiting for a response. Wilson took his vacated seat as House snatched Chase's crossword out of his hands.

"Hey! That's mine!" Chase cried.

"Not anymore it's not," House responded, taking advantage of Chase's diverted attention to steal his pencil as well. Cameron made a disgruntled sound and left the room, looking exasperated and not bothering to say where she was going. Wilson was moving his chair so he could get a look at the puzzle and Chase was about to attempt another (inevitably futile) protest when House caught sight of Doctor Cuddy, looking mildly harassed and running past the room with as much speed as her ridiculously high heels allowed. Tucking the paper into his jacket, House quickly stood and rushed out of the room, not even hearing Chase calling after him.

Once out in the hall, House opted for yelling Cuddy's name instead of trying to keep up with her, a feat that would probably have been impossible. She glanced back, shot him an annoyed look, and didn't bother to wait for him. More than a little peeved but still interested in what might have the Dean of Medicine running around so frantically, he limped after her. The faint sound of yelling from the floor below preceded the not-so-faint--and significantly more interesting--sound of shattering glass.

House grinned. Ah, potential entertainment.

He took the elevator to the first floor, took a moment to take in the chaos, and used his cane to help push through the crowd of doctors surrounding an unconscious young woman. Standing amidst the broken glass, he noticed a young man in a suit with a horribly green tie that reminded him of Wilson and a stunned expression that reminded him of Cameron the day he used her stethoscope as part of a demonstration to explain to an eighteen-year-old clinic patient how babies were made. He also noted that Foreman and Cameron had already shown up and were helping get the woman onto a gurney. He wasn't interested in her. People fainted all the time, especially in hospitals; that wasn't entertaining. He was interested in the broken glass and finding out exactly what had happened. After all, it was a hospital. The drama that happened here could often be better than anything on TV.

* * *

 

For once, Ianto Jones mused, Americans were right; New Jersey really was the armpit of America. A faint drizzle had been falling when they left the Newark airport, the sort that made everything humid and sticky without ever actually seeming to rain. It also refused to let up. Meanwhile, the car smelled disturbingly of deodorant, though he suspected that might be Owen.

Thunder rumbled behind storm clouds grey and foreboding, dull as the sheen of a cyberman’s armor, cold metal encasing burning flesh. Ianto shuddered. Best not to think about it, not if he wanted to stay professional. Funny, the difference half a year makes. The thought of pushing Lisa out of his mind would’ve been unforgivable in the months after her death, but it was hard to deny the truth, the fact that the Lisa he’d pulled out of Torchwood One had been, in fact, just another cyberman. No, never that. But not Lisa.

“Bugger me if this isn’t worse than Brecon Beacons,” Owen said.

Oh yes, just like Owen to make him think of cannibals instead of Lisa. So much better. “Shut up, Owen, or I’ll pull over and find you a burger that really is contaminated with Hep-A. Shouldn’t be too hard here.”

“Come on, Ianto, it isn’t that bad,” Tosh said. “The way you talk, you’d think someone in New Jersey comes down with a weird, unknown disease every week.”

“Are we there yet?” Jack asked, peering at the map in Gwen’s hands.

Ianto sighed and reached back to turn the map right-side up.

“Oh.” Gwen looked chagrined. “I was wondering why the Atlantic was to the west.”

“I want to know why the bloody GPS isn’t working.” Owen elbowed Tosh. “Oy, Tosh, you’re the computer genius, get on it.”

Gwen shoved the map at Owen. “It wouldn’t hurt if you learned to use a map.”

“It wouldn’t hurt if you took the middle seat once in a while.”

“It’s not every day you’re sandwiched between two lovely women.” Jack flashed Owen his most winning grin.

“Shut up, Harkness.”

“We’ve got a reading!” Tosh exclaimed.

“Ianto, was that the exit 9 to New Brunswick?” Gwen asked.

Owen rolled his eyes. “That was a six, Cooper.”

“Are you getting shirty with me?”

“Six, nine, completely different. You ought to know.”

“I’ve got a reading!” Tosh repeated.

“Where?” Ianto asked, trying his best to shut everyone else out.

“Are you having sex with Owen?” Jack asked.

“No!” replied Ianto.

Jack raised an eyebrow. “I was talking to Gwen.”

“Then you should’ve said ‘again.’”

“You and the teaboy are hardly role models for platonic office relationships,” Owen said.

“Forwarding the coordinates,” Tosh said.

“Got it.” Ianto spared his handheld a glance before returning his attention to the road with the cars on the wrong side.

“Rhys and I are getting along fine, Jack,” Gwen said.

“I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“And she’s shagging Owen,” Tosh muttered.

“What?” Three heads turned simultaneously.

Tosh sighed. “I announce a fix on the alien artifact and only Ianto responds, but I have a juicy piece of gossip and you can’t pay attention fast enough!”

Jack tapped a few buttons on his wristband. “You locked onto a band of microwave radiation originating from the object’s passage through the Rift. I’ve been narrowing the frequency search while we were discussing Gwen’s sex life, and it seems to be emanating from a spot in Princeton.”

“We figured that out back in Cardiff,” Owen said.

Tosh examined her handheld. “He means Princeton University.”

Jack entered a few last commands. “More specifically, a hospital. The Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.”

“Tosh’s readings indicate residual radiation all across the city,” Ianto said.

“Pay attention to the road,” Owen said.

“Pay attention to your job. You’ll want to be prepared when you meet a real doctor.”

“Real funny. I’m laughing my arse off.”

“The object was moved.” Tosh’s eyes widened as she considered the implications. “What if someone set it off?”

Jack shook his head. “No, we’d have intercepted some report, from the media or the FBI or UNIT, and from the analysis I did in the Hub, the technology has a massive energy output. There’s no way we’d miss that.”

“Well, either way, we’d better hurry,” Ianto said. “Alien technology loose in a teaching hospital? It’d be like Grey’s Anatomy meets Scrubs.”

“With blood and violence,” Gwen said.

“And sex.” Owen sounded far too cheerful for his own good.

Ianto felt that risking a speeding ticket was preferable to risking his sanity, so he pressed his foot harder against the gas pedal.

An hour, numerous wrong turns, and one traffic violation from an annoyingly arrogant cop named Tritter later, they finally found themselves in the parking lot of Princeton-Plainsboro. For some reason, the sun was now shining, but the drizzle continued, and the combination created wisps of steam rising off the asphalt. Shrill sirens announced the arrival of an ambulance at the other end of the hospital, and they watched as doctors rushed out to cart a patient in, looking efficient and professional until one of them slipped and fell off the curb. Ianto decided Torchwood vacations were overrated.

“So what do you suppose we’re looking for?” Gwen asked.

Jack shrugged. “Lots of things in the universe produce enough energy to blow up a continent.”

Ianto scanned the hospital. Grand, sprawling, elegant, it was clearly a modern facility, designed to attract donors as well as patients. Rows and rows of windows gave a clear view into the building, as though it were screaming on behalf of all its occupants, We have nothing to hide. But Ianto knew that glass walls just concealed their secrets by other, better means.

He was jolted out of his reverie when Gwen suddenly cried out. Then Jack was falling too. Ianto rushed over, grabbing his arm and steadying him. To his other side, Gwen clambered back onto her feet, rubbing her torn pant leg with one hand, the other still clutching Jack’s greatcoat.

Jack gave Ianto a nod and turned to Gwen. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, fine, I must have slipped.”

“Still a little weak in the knees?” Owen winked at her.

Gwen ignored him and strode through the glass front doors without waiting for them. Ianto’s nose wrinkled in anticipation of the stink of antiseptics and was surprised when the lobby smelled faintly of spruce air freshener and little else. It almost reminded him of the Hub.

They moved past the desk at the center of the lobby. Several nurses wandered past, paying them no attention. Jack quickened his pace, concentrating on Gwen. Ianto cut him off and said to Gwen, “I thought you were going to stay faithful to Rhys after he died.”

Jack’s glare was filled with disapproval, and for a moment, Ianto felt disoriented as memories of threats and doubts flooded back, reinforced by the eerily darkening skies outside. He had no time to respond, however, as Gwen rounded on him and grabbed his collar, shoving him back. His fingers tugged at hers, partly to keep her from choking him, partly to save his tie, which he was quite fond of.

“What I do is none of your business, Jack!” Gwen screamed.

Now they had everyone’s attention.

Jack and Owen ran up, trying to separate the two of them, but Gwen’s grip was ironclad. Ianto started to wheeze as his shirt tightened around his throat.

“Gwen... who… am I?” Ianto gasped.

“Shut up, Jack. I’m sick of your stupid questions!”

With a roar, Gwen threw Ianto back. He heard crashing cymbals and realized he was falling through glass. He squeezed his eyelids shut and tried to resist the urge to cushion his impact with his hands. Shards of glass fell against him like drops of cold water, tiny pinpricks against his back as he was thrown by a woman he’d thought he’d known. Then Gwen started screaming, and screaming, and screaming.

All the air was knocked out of his lungs as he smashed onto the vinyl tiling. Shaking his face clean of glass, he opened his eyes to see Jack and three nurses trying to restrain Gwen as she flailed about on the ground, kicking and punching and screaming all the while.

“Help! Help! HELP ME!” Her struggle was losing purpose, her limbs twitching from uncontrollable spasms rather than by any conscious will.

He stood, unsure what to do. A chance moment brought Jack’s gaze in line with his, and he took a step backward in shock; he had seen many emotions in Jack’s eyes, from fear to hatred to sadness, but never despair, never sheer despair. This wasn’t something Jack understood, and it wasn’t anything he had control over. It wasn’t alien, it wasn’t an enemy he could fight, it was an illness, a weakness all too human. Oh god, please no, please let her stop, please let her be all right, please make it stop.

Gwen fell still. Ianto approached with his heart in his throat. More doctors, more nurses, all rushed toward them, but Ianto didn’t study them, didn’t even look at them. His eyes were fixed on his colleague, his ally, his friend, but her eyes were fixed on the ceiling, unmoving, unseeing.

“Is she... is she dead?” he asked no one in particular.

No one answered. A wall of white lab coats cut him off from her.

Chapter Text

“There’s nothing interesting about a stroke.” House tapped his pencil against the table and waited to see which frown Cameron would give him this time. “Where would you find a feathered snake?”

“What?” Chase moved closer to try and get a better view of the crossword, so House hid it under the table.

“Teotihuacan,” replied Cameron. “Now can we get back to the case?”

House pretended to scribble in the answer. “Tay-oh-teeee, nope, doesn’t fit.”

“Then you misspelled it. I thought you spoke Spanish.” She put her hand out. “Let me see.”

“Nice try.” House rolled up the paper and swung it away from Cameron straight into Chase’s face. Chase blinked, more surprised than upset, before he snatched it and ran for the relative safety of the coffee machine. “Hey! It’s bad manners to steal from a cripple.”

“It’s also bad manners to steal from a colleague.”

“Not if he has a funny accent.”

Cameron rolled her eyes. “The man she strangled was named Ianto Jones, but she called him ‘Jack.’”

“You spoke to her friends? But none of them have cancer!”

“Maybe I actually care.”

“And Foreman’s black! Wow, we’re discovering so many new things about each other today. Your turn, Chase; care to share who you slept with last night?”

“I didn’t sleep with anyone!”

The coffee machine hissed. House got up and took the mug as soon as it finished filling. “Your shirt is rumpled, which means you didn’t iron it when you did the laundry, which means you’ve been stashing clothes at somebody’s house, which would be where you spent last night. Also, you--“ House paused, then started sniffing Chase’s hair.

“Not content with just smelling Cameron?” Foreman said.

House snapped his fingers. “Of course!” He paced over to Cameron, inhaled deeply, and slammed his cane onto the table, causing everyone to start. “Caught!”

Cameron drew herself up. “Are you suggesting--”

“People lie. Shampoo doesn’t.”

“Can we get back to the case?”

“There is no case. Mental confusion is common in stroke patients. Her clot was close to the limbic system, between the parietal and occipital lobes; it screws up her vision and her memories. The location also explains the loss of motor control.”

“She picked up her coworker and threw him five feet!”

“The paranoia and sudden anger suggests her brain was already suffering oxygen deprivation in her emotional centers, triggering a panic attack, which stimulates the adrenal glands.”

“Still doesn’t explain why an otherwise healthy young woman would get a stroke.”

“Might as well ask Wilson why cute little bald children are always hanging around his office. She has essential hypertension, there’s your etiology. Group of Keanu Reeves wannabes from England, right?”

“Wales.”

“Same thing, those foreigners. They probably stuff their arteries with ‘chips,’ and who knows what their genes look like? Maybe she snores, which is what I’ll be doing if this conversation continues any longer.”

Handing Chase the emptied mug, House returned to his office. Cameron approached the whiteboard, and without looking back, House yelled, “No touching the markers without daddy’s permission.” The door slammed shut.

Cameron turned back to her fellows. “Come on, you two don’t think there’s something to this case?”

Chase shrugged. “House isn’t interested, nothing we can do.”

“If you’re right,” Foreman said, “she’ll present with more symptoms. Just wait.”

* * *

 

Gwen’s breathing was so slow and shallow, Toshiko Sato kept glancing at the EKG to reassure herself she was still alive. The sun’s descent had brought a thick silence down upon the room. The doctors said the surgery had gone as well as could be expected, but Gwen was still unconscious and brain damage was likely. Jack had remained by her side the whole day, head bowed over her still body. Owen sat in the corner, keeping an equally constant, though more withdrawn, vigil.

The door slid open and Ianto entered with coffee. Tosh didn’t question how he’d gotten home-brewed beans; she had learned to accept that minor miracles happened when he was around. It was a small comfort now, but she was grateful nevertheless, and she gave him what she hoped was a reassured smile when she received her mug. His expression remained neutral.

Tosh wished she could do something for him. She knew he was feeling guilty about Gwen’s condition. She had seen the look in his eyes whenever Jack smiled at Gwen, or whenever the two were close together. She had noticed the small mannerisms--a twitch of the finger when he greeted Gwen, a tightness in his shoulders when he handed her a cup of what Tosh kept expecting to turn out to be Tesco instant--that grew more or less conspicuous depending on how tired Ianto was that day. And she couldn’t blame him; they all knew Jack’s reputation when it came to relationships, and try as he might, there was no way Ianto could think Jack loved him. Cared about him, yes, but enough to spend the rest of their lives together? Probably not.

Ianto’s misgivings had grown worse after Jack’s disappearance, for obvious reasons. Everyone had figured out long ago that the hand Jack kept belonged to the enigmatic Doctor, whose capture Jack had made clear was no longer part of their charter. And out in forgotten Cardiff, with Torchwood One gone, his word was law.

Tosh had met the Doctor once, during the Slitheen invasion of London and 10 Downing Street. In retrospect, after all the things she’d seen, it was strange remembering how terrified she had been of a simple augmented pig, but the Doctor had stormed in at the head of a squad of soldiers, claiming UNIT authority, and uncovered the “alien” for what it really was: a hoax, albeit one perpetrated by real aliens. And while she was still processing this revelation, the Doctor disappeared as suddenly as he’d shown up, and only the strange and haunting vworp vworp sound of vanishing alien technology told her he’d left for good.

He showed up again with Jack and a woman named Martha Jones one week after Jack disappeared. Since the TARDIS materialized by the Hub, the CCTV caught everything, and there was nothing Jack could do to deny it. The Doctor didn’t look the same as when Tosh met him; in fact, she would never have realized it was him had Ianto not told them. Apparently, Ianto met him during the Battle of Canary Wharf, and though Tosh had no logs to prove it--Ianto had long ago figured out how to stay one step ahead of her when it came to security, probably a habit acquired from back when he was hiding Lisa--she suspected there’d been one more meeting.

Ianto pulled up a seat beside Jack. “Captain?”

Jack’s voice was hushed and hoarse. “Yes, Ianto.”

“None of the hospital staff I’ve talked to report any strange sightings or events.”

At first, Tosh wondered what Ianto was thinking, ignoring Gwen’s plight, but then she realized Jack would expect her to do her job as well. She pulled out her handheld.

“Tosh?” Jack asked.

“Scanning now, Jack.” Torchwood Three had developed a more advanced technique based on Jack’s wristband for locating alien objects by isolating signals emanating from non-terrestrial technologies. The artifact they were hunting, however, seemed to emit no signal whatsoever, and as such, they’d had to fall back on scanning for microwave radiation from the energy it picked up during its passage through the Rift. They were lucky the radiation readings were high enough to detect at all, but this had been no normal passage. The last time the Rift dropped anything significantly outside of Cardiff had been when Owen ripped it open to bring her and Jack back from 1941. There had been no such disastrous attempt with the Rift manipulator this time, which was actually more disturbing than reassuring.

Rows and rows of numbers flooded her display before it generated a 3D image of Princeton-Plainsboro along with a color-chart for radiation intensity in various sections of the building. She shook her head. “There’s radiation all over the place; not only is the hospital’s equipment creating interference, the device has been here so long it’s got tracks everywhere. I can’t think of any way to pinpoint it any further.”

Jack grimaced. “Then looks like Ianto’s method is the best shot we’ve got: back to using our good old-fashioned eyes.”

“Yes, sir.” Ianto stood and motioned for Tosh to follow him. As they approached the door, however, she saw a familiar doctor coming down the hall. She smiled at them and Ianto stepped back to let her in.

“Doctor Cameron,” he greeted her.

Jack looked up. “I hope you have good news for us.”

Cameron flipped through Gwen’s files. “Her condition’s stable; that’s good. I did speak to Dr. House, and he’s reviewing the details of her case now. We’ll hopefully hear something from him soon. Now, we barely had time to exchange names earlier, so I need to know, who’s married or related to her?”

“Uh, none of us.” Jack paused. “We’re her co-workers.”

“Anyone I can contact?”

“She has a boyfriend back home.”

“If they’re not married, he has no authority to make medical decisions for her while she’s incapacitated.”

“Will she stay that way for long?” Jack asked sharply.

Cameron flinched, then said, “Hopefully not.” Jack looked ready to begin an interrogation, so she quickly added, “What about family? Parents? Siblings?”

Jack shut his mouth and looked thoughtful. Ianto stepped forward, “No siblings. Her mother and father live in Cardiff…” he glanced over and noticed Jack digging through his coat pockets, so he continued, “…but they’re in no state to travel.”

“Exactly,” Jack flourished a piece of paper at Cameron. “That’s why, traveling overseas and all, she decided to name me her medical proxy in case of emergency. I’m her boss, see, and we’re very close… but not like that.”

Cameron’s eyebrows went up at the last statement, but she took the paper, which was blank, and examined it. She handed it back. “Well, looks like everything is in order, Mr. Harkness.”

“Please, call me Jack.”

Tosh mouthed, Psychic paper? at Ianto, who just raised an eyebrow at her, as though asking, Are you really surprised?

“Well, Jack, has Gwen’s family had a history of stroke, high blood pressure, or similar illnesses?”

“No,” Ianto replied. Cameron turned to face him. “Her grandparents are all still alive, and she has a large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. She lost an aunt on her father’s side in a fire when she was twelve, and a great-uncle died of lung cancer, but he was a heavy smoker all his life.”

He circled back behind Jack and pulled his laptop out of his bag. “Here, if you’ll lend me a printer, I can get you all of her medical files.” Cameron clearly didn’t know how to interpret this revelation. Ianto shrugged. “It’s part of my job, making sure nothing interferes with theirs.”

“Has she acted differently lately or complained of pain or numbness?” Cameron asked.

“Yeah,” Owen said. “She’s been getting headaches for a few months now, and she drops things sometimes. I thought she was just being clumsy; it happens you know.”

“Do you know if she or her boyfriend has had an affair in the past two years?”

“How is that medically relevant to a stroke?” Owen demanded.

Ianto shot Jack a significant look.

“Unless... STDs? Syphilis? Really?” Owen shook his head. “She had a bloody stroke!”

Jack returned Ianto’s look.

“Not all her symptoms are from the stroke,” Cameron said. “Hypertension, while unfortunate in a woman her age, is not unheard of. However, she had an embolic stroke, a blood clot from traveling debris, and symptoms such as headache and muscle weakness wouldn’t present over the long-term unless they point toward another condition.”

“So you’re saying she has two potentially fatal diseases that have nothing to do with each other?”

“I’m saying something is wrong with her and withholding medically relevant information may cause her death!”

“You’re going down a completely absurd path.”

“And how would you know?”

“Perhaps I should introduce myself fully, Dr. Cameron. I am Doctor Owen Harper, at your service.”

“Well, Doctor Harper, Dr. House only takes cases other physicians can’t diagnose. Now would someone please answer my question?”

“Dr. House? Gregory House?”

“Have you not been listening to a word I’ve said?”

“Sorry, princess, no. But I’ve heard of House. Sure, he hates patients, but he never loses the opportunity to accuse them of being in a loveless relationship. So where is he, huh? Or are you bluffing?”

“Can it!” Jack snapped. “Yes, Gwen’s been having an affair. With Doctor Harper. So, Owen, will you stop pestering her and answer her questions, or do you want Gwen dead?”

Silence fell as Owen stared at Jack, then dropped his eyes. “I’m sorry. Dr. Cameron, can we speak privately?”

Cameron nodded and guided him out of the room. Ianto shut the door behind them.

“She was lying,” he said.

“I know,” replied Jack.

Tosh’s eyes widened. “About what?”

“About House taking the case.”

“Then why did you let her question Owen?”

“Because if she’s trying so hard to find out what’s wrong, there’s still a chance House might take Gwen’s case. Ianto’s asked around; they say House is the best doctor here, or anywhere, and I’m not going to say no to that sort of expertise. Now get going. We’re wasting time here, and Gwen’s life isn’t the only one in danger.”

* * *

 

Owen followed Cameron into the hospital labs where she sat him beside a row of microscopes. He hoped that wouldn’t be indicative of the rest of the interview.

“So you were intimate with Gwen.”

Well, so much for that hope. “What, are we in grade school now?”

“No, I mean, did you spend a lot of time with her? Have you had a chance to observe her daily habits? Do you recall any changes in routine or behavior in the past few weeks or months, apart from the headaches and the loss of coordination?”

“No.”

Cameron tapped her fingers against the counter. When no additional response seemed forthcoming, she said, “That’s it? ‘No’?”

“What else do you want me to say? It’s not like we were dating; we just do it for the release, for a little bit of escape from the daily stress, like fuck buddies, you know, or…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “No, not fuck buddies, more like--“

“I’m glad you’re so discriminating when it comes to having affairs.”

“Who died and made you Virgin Queen of the Catholic schoolgirls?”

“How many women have you slept with?”

“Oh god. Here, let me get my list. And just the women?”

“All sexual partners.”

“Oooh, all sexual partners. Sorry, your majesty, Jack and Tosh are the alien shaggers.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Cameron snapped. “You’re cracking jokes while your friend lies on the verge of death!”

“Bloody Americans, think they know everything,” Owen muttered.

“You--”

“This has nothing to do with me!” Owen rose with such force his chair went flying across the room. He swept one arm along the counter, smashing the microscopes together and flinging them to crash against the wall. Cameron cringed and ran for the phone, but he tripped her and she went sprawling across the floor. He leapt onto her and pinned her to the ground. “What the fuck do you want from me? What do you want to hear? You want to know that the last co-worker I shagged blew her brains out after murdering three people? You want to hear that the last woman I loved would rather fly a plane into oblivion than spend the rest of her life with me? You want to hear that Gwen’s just a rebound shag I don’t give a fuck about and if she dies and it’s my fault, I won’t care because I’m a cold-hearted bastard and believing that can make you feel superior? Because let me tell you, Dr. Cameron, you know shit about my life. You don’t know who we are or what we go through to do our jobs and save millions of ingrates like you while anyone we’ve ever cared about dies and we can’t do a thing to stop it, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t give a damn about your opinion of me and if I refuse to take one more condescending word from you.

“I’ve met people like you. It’s easy to stay noble when you’ve got nothing to live for. You run around, always looking for causes to uphold, people to order around, weaklings to protect, because you can’t stand being by yourself, you couldn’t survive if it was just you, sitting in the dark, in the silence, living with the beating of your own heart and the creeping emptiness of your own thoughts. You’re afraid to look into your own soul and face the fact that despite everything you’ve done, all the lives you’ve saved, you don’t know what you’re doing; you’re scared, you’re lost, you’re alone, and no matter how many broken hearts you mend, there’s no one who’ll do the same for you.”

Their faces mere centimeters apart, he could feel her ragged breath upon his cheek and the strain of her muscles against his weight. Her eyes were wide, though he couldn’t read any emotions beyond the stunned shock. Shit, shit, he thought. Now I’ve done it.

He quickly got up and retreated to the other end of the room. Damn it! He tried recalling all the words that had flooded out of him, trying to decide if any of them were damning enough that he’d have to retcon her. He blamed this on the others: Jack and how he could do no wrong in the eyes of the team, how he could abandon them, threaten them, run off with Torchwood’s number one enemy, and in the end, they all still begged for his approval; Tosh and her neediness, her sudden swings from earnestly wanting to help to being cold and distant, as though she’d never pined after him, keeping pictures of him stashed all over her apartment; Ianto and his superiority, Ianto who should’ve been on the receiving end of his tirade rather than poor Dr. Cameron, who sometimes looked at Owen as though he was something the dog dragged in, and even though Owen outranked him, Owen knew Ianto had become far more indispensable to the team. And Gwen, even when she was dying, he couldn’t help but blame her for his problems. Guilty sex was great, but only if the guilty part could be put off until he was gone. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t even enjoyable any more, yet the two of them clung to it like a rock in an ever-changing sea. What did that say about them? Moreover, what did it say about him? He didn’t feel guilty for making Gwen miserable; he was too wrapped up in his own obsession, in what could have been with Diane.

“I’m sorry,” Cameron said.

He grimaced, a downward twist of one side of his lips, “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I shouldn’t have lost my temper, and I definitely shouldn’t have touched you.”

She looked disheveled, and her lab coat had caught against the counter as she fell, tearing a long gash in the right side. She made no effort to tidy herself up. Instead, she pulled up two chairs and this time, chose to sit down rather than stand over him. He joined her, and she gave him a cautious smile.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“We’re not allowed to talk about our jobs. Confidential, special ops.”

“You already have. Sounds like police work. Plenty you can talk about without disclosing anything you shouldn’t. Lie if you must.” She laughed bitterly. “Everyone lies.”

“There you go again, trying to mend my heart.”

“You get something back for whatever you give.”

“You believe that?”

She smiled, but the wrinkles around her eyes weren’t laugh lines. “A little. Is it that much to hope someone will give back?”

“It is if you keep everyone at a distance.”

She hesitated, then pulled her chair closer. “Fine, we’ll play it your way.”

* * *

 

The nurse’s name was Brenda. The name Brenda derived from Brandon, which was Gaelic for “little raven.” Ravens grew up to pluck out people’s eyes.

“We’re just looking for the cafeteria,” Ianto said.

“Cafeteria’s downstairs. On the first floor. Where cafeterias are usually found.”

“We got lost.”

“There’s a directory on the wall.”

“We couldn’t find the lifts.”

“They’re right behind you.”

“Right, so we’ll be on our way then.”

“Yes you will.”

Ianto waited. Brenda waited. Tosh re-scanned Brenda for the fiftieth time; both of them were hoping the artifact was on her so they’d have an excuse to jump her, but alas, they were disappointed yet again. And clearly, she had no intention of letting them out of her sight unless it was to the sound of lift music.

The doors opened.

“Ah. The lift’s here.”

“Yes it is.”

“We’ll just be stepping in then.”

“Yes you will.”

“It was nice meeting you.”

“I’m sure. What was your name?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“For security purposes.”

“Ah.” Ianto nodded sympathetically. “Security’s very important. It’s what you have security guards for.”

“What security guards?” Tosh asked.

“Exactly. Run, Yvonne!” Ianto dashed off to the left. He winced, wondering why “Yvonne” was the first alias to come to mind.

“What?” Tosh said. “Who’s Yv-- oh. Hey, let go of me!”

Ianto turned the corner. Back by the lifts, he heard Brenda’s voice: “I’ve got a thermometer. Don’t make me use it.”

“What can you do with a thermom-- oh. Oh! Ow, ow, ow, I’m going, I’m going!”

Convinced that Brenda would materialize any instant amidst a burst of smoke, Ianto dodged into a nearby room. The lights were off, and he’d assumed it was unoccupied, but when he entered, he saw there was in fact a patient unconscious on the bed. Beside him sat a brusque-looking man with a cane and very nice blue eyes. He was eating a Reuben sandwich.

“Oh, hello, I’m sorry, I must have the wrong room.”

The man stared at him. “You’re the guy who went kerplowy through the glass in the lobby.”

“Uh, yes,” Ianto replied, wondering whether this would make him an easier target for Brenda. “And you would be…”

“Dr. House,” a voice said from behind him. Ianto jumped before he realized the voice was male and therefore definitely not Lillith of the Windy Hospital Gowns. “I’m Dr. James Wilson, and you must be Ianto Jones. Cameron’s spoken of you.”

“Yeah, he’s the wuss who got beaten up by a girl,” House said. “And his tie is ugly like yours.”

“Are you lost?” Wilson asked.

House whacked Wilson in the knee with his cane, though not very hard since the other doctor didn’t even wince. “No flirting. You’ll make me jealous.”

Ianto and Wilson both blinked uncomprehendingly at him, then decided to ignore the comment.

“Are you his doctors, then?” Ianto asked, indicating the sleeping man.

“No, this is coma guy,” House said, turning on the television. “He makes for excellent lunch company, and the nurses always clean up after us. They’re so much more meticulous than the cafeteria staff.”

“I, uh, I think I’ll be going,” Ianto said, peering out the window for signs of Brenda. When the coast seemed clear, he dodged out. As the door closed behind him, he definitely heard House say, “See? Wuss.”

That was when he realized his handheld was beeping like crazy. That was also when he heard Brenda say, “There he is!”

He turned to see two security guards running toward him, and he set off in the opposite direction. As he ran, the beeping grew even stronger until he reached a coat rack. He saw a passing nurse.

“Excuse me, ma’am, what’s this for?”

She stared at him. “It’s for hanging coats.”

“No, I mean, whose coats?” He eyed the approaching security guards and guessed he had about ten more seconds.

“Patients, doctors.” She leaned over and whispered confidentially, “Brenda’s been cracking down on staff dress code.”

“Figures. Well, good talking to you, got to go!” Ianto repositioned the coat rack and dashed off again. Two seconds later, the security guards crashed into the rack. Clothes went flying, and the nurse screamed as the three of them went down in a mass of light spring jacket wear. That was unfortunate; she seemed quite nice.

Ianto was adequately rewarded for his efforts when he found Jack waiting to greet him on the second floor. This would have been quite unremarkable except that every once in a while, Jack’s greetings involved breathless kissing and scandalized elderly patients frantically hobbling away on walkers. This was one of those occasions.

“I thought you’d be with Gwen,” Ianto told Jack once his mouth was unoccupied.

“Tosh is with her now. After hearing her story, I figured I’d better check up on you, make sure you’re not getting into brawls with security guards; you should never fight without backup.”

Ianto smiled. “Or at least a good old-fashioned stun gun.”

“I’m going to have to examine you, make sure you’re safe and sound and all in one piece.”

“Not in public.”

“Prude.” Jack grabbed his hand, guiding him down the hallway and into one of the exam rooms. His intuition proved better than Ianto’s, as the room turned out to be indeed unoccupied.

“Security’s going to be after me,” Ianto said.

“Oh well, the thing about security is they always notice your most distinguishing feature, so rule number one is make sure that feature is one you can change.” Jack started undoing Ianto’s tie.

“I thought rule number one was never press that big red button.”

“That only applies to Sycorax.”

“Uh, well, sir…” His waistcoat went flying across the room, which was quite a distracting thing for a waistcoat to do.

“I’d say cute’s your most obvious feature, but we can’t really change that.” Jack grinned. “So the next option would be your suit.” He started in on the shirt.

Ianto took a deep breath and pushed Jack’s hands away. “I got an elevated radiation reading upstairs by a coat rack. It belongs to the staff, but I didn’t have time to check it, what with the security guards after me and all. You’re going to have to do it. It’s by the oncology wing.”

“Killjoy.” Jack pouted.

As Jack turned to go, Ianto grabbed his hand. “You’re not mad?” he asked.

“About what?”

“About Gwen. You know, what I said to her.”

Jack considered this. “What are you willing to do to make up for it?”

“Jack!”

“All right, all right,” he raised his hands in placation. “Honestly, it was something that needed to be said, though I’ll admit that waiting to do it right before she stroked was in bad taste.”

Ianto sighed.

“And I understand why you did it.”

Ianto looked down at his feet and felt his cheeks redden. “Is it that obvious? Tosh hasn’t said anything to you, has she?”

“Have you told her anything I should know?”

“Well, no, but she gives me funny looks sometimes.”

Jack sighed. “How on Earth do other bosses run things? I mean, how do normal organizations ever get anything done?”

Ianto burst out laughing. Jack pretended to look wounded. “That’s uncalled for, making fun of a time traveler. I’m taking your tie as punishment.”

Ianto was still snickering when Jack left, but when the door closed and he was sure Jack had gone, he rushed to his waistcoat to check the pocket and make sure the transmitter hadn’t been damaged.

The Doctor had not stayed long in Cardiff; barely twenty-four hours, and he was gone again. Enough time to answer a few questions, establish who he was, what he did, why he was Torchwood’s number one enemy--Queen Victoria must have had incredible presence of mind to resist the Doctor’s charming demeanor--and he was off again to the stars. He clearly did not remember Ianto from Torchwood One; after all, they had merely passed each other in the halls, one running to save a woman Ianto later learned was named Rose, the other running to save a woman Ianto later learned was already dead.

“Ianto Jones; I’ve heard a lot about you,” the Doctor said, shaking his hand as Jack introduced them. Ianto had been pleasantly surprised, but not enough so to miss the brief flash of misgiving in Jack’s expression. Worried about how the part-time shag will misinterpret those words. Ianto felt he should be angry at Jack, or jealous, or something, but he wasn’t, and that bothered him, because he didn’t know why.

The fountain whispered as he stepped out toward the TARDIS. The Doctor was already at the door, key in hand, but he spoke without looking. “Hello, Ianto.”

“I want to speak with you.”

The Doctor nodded, and they walked in silence toward the Millennium Centre. The Doctor found a bench and took a seat. Ianto just followed his lead.

“I didn’t lie,” the Doctor said. “If I did, how could I guess you planned to intercept me? How would I know enough about you to understand what you’re thinking?”

“Jack likes to tell stories. You know about all of us, not just me.”

“Don’t miss a thing, do you, Ianto Jones?” The Doctor rapped him on the forehead. “Except where love blinds you.”

“I’m not in love.”

“Funny. Jack says the same thing.” The Doctor studied Ianto, then offered his toothy grin, so similar to Jack’s. “Ah, and the eyes give away the lie.”

“What does it matter to you? You two are the same, two immortals, always traveling, always running, always changing companions.” Ianto spat out the word, as though it were a curse.

“Which is why he won’t let go of the thought of me, even now when he knows I can’t cure his immortality, as if life was something that needed to be cured. But you see, Ianto Jones, what he loves is an idea, an outlet for his own frustrations, someone he thinks understands what he’s going through. But that’s the child in him, screaming for somebody to take care of him. One day, he’ll return to his senses, learn to love again, true love for someone who truly exists. And that isn’t me, because I may be next to immortal, but I’m fleeting. One moment I’m here, and the next…” The Doctor extended his arms and separated them slowly, tracing out the shape of a dissipating cloud. Ianto could almost see the TARDIS fading into nothingness. “I don’t linger, Ianto. There are no consequences to my actions, and for that, I must pay a price. Jack is smart, and time may yet make him wise. Perhaps my example will teach him to avoid my mistakes.”

The silence stretched for who knew how long. Ianto could check the CCTV logs and know precisely, but there was no need to. Finally, he said, “Why are you telling me this?”

The Doctor smiled again, always the same smile, but the eyes gave away the lie. “I’m over a thousand years old. Do you know how old the universe is?”

It was a question without an answer, or so Ianto thought. With that, the conversation was over, and all that remained was goodbye. The Doctor left him a device which would call him should Ianto activate it. He said it was for Jack, but Jack would never take it; he was still waiting for the Doctor to come and save him. Torchwood needed a line of communication to the Doctor. Ianto asked why him. The Doctor just shook his hand. I’ve heard a lot about you. Ianto promised he would never use it unless there was great need, and the Doctor’s eyes just twinkled as he said, “I know.”

Toshiko was typing when he returned to Gwen’s room. Ianto sat beside her and watched as she worked out a new program to sort through the various frequencies of radiation that permeated the hospital. Minutes ticked by, punctuated by the occasional growl of frustration from Tosh’s throat. After an hour, Ianto stood to stretch his legs. As he paced past the window, he glanced to where he’d parked their car, more out of habit than the expectation that it would be gone. His heart skipped a beat when he saw that there was, indeed, no car there.

“Tosh!”

She let out a yelp and jumped. “What is it?”

He quickly scanned the parking lot and saw flashing yellow lights at the intersection leading into the hospital. “Our car’s being towed! Stay here!”

“No, I can handle it!” Tosh cast a dirty look at the reams of paper she’d crumpled up over the past hour. “You stay with Gwen.”

She was out the door before he could protest. It was unlike her to leave a project, no matter how difficult, but then, the sterile atmosphere of the hospital was enough to fray anyone’s nerves. Ianto shook his head and settled down again. He was going through her calculations when he heard a moan. His eyes widened as he turned to the bed.

Gwen’s eyes fluttered open. “Rhys?” she called faintly.

Ianto took her hand. “Gwen, it’s me.”

Gwen slowly focused on him. “Ianto. Oh, it’s so good to see you. It was so… I was so…” Gwen rubbed her forehead. “What happened?”

“The doctors say you had a stroke.”

“A stroke? Me? But I’m--” She blinked, tilting her head quizzically. “Ianto? Ianto! Oh my god, Ianto, help me, I’m so scared! I’m so scared!”

Ianto tightened his grip and leaned closer. “Gwen? Look at me, focus on me! What’s wrong? What’s happening?”

“Oh, I’m so scared, the darkness, the--” Suddenly, her back arched, and she screamed. “Oh my god, I can’t see!”

“Somebody help!” Ianto shouted. Nurses rushed in as she began trembling. She let go of his hand, her arms flailing wildly.

“Ianto! Help me!” she screamed. But before the nurses could do anything, the episode was over and she went limp, breathing heavily. Ianto let out a sigh of relief, but then he saw that the panic had not faded from her features.

“Gwen, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t see color,” she whispered. “Everything’s black and white! I can’t, I can’t see…”

* * *

 

Jack had never been fond of looking for things the hard way--with his eyes. It seemed an unnecessary waste of energy, but seeing as they had very little choice...

A couple hours of fruitless searching found him somewhere in the Oncology wing without the slightest clue how to get back to Gwen's room. There was also no trace of an overturned coat rack, or a coat rack of any sort. Every bit of the hospital looked the same, all glass and contemporary architecture, and he'd been concentrating on his search instead of where he was headed.

Frustrated with himself, he cast around for someone to ask directions from, but everyone in the immediate vicinity looked like they were extremely busy or in a lot of pain. He tried approaching a nurse, but she glared at him before he'd barely opened his mouth and said, "You aren't supposed to be here unless you're a doctor or a patient. Scram." A little shaken--since when had women not tripped over themselves to help him?--he did as he was told.

As he turned the corner into another hall, he almost ran right into someone. The someone turned out to be a slightly harassed-looking middle-aged man, who upon further inspection turned out to be extremely handsome. Mentally, Jack grinned.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going," said the man, looking apologetic.

Jack gave him a winning smile. "No, it was entirely my fault. I'm Captain Jack Harkness, by the way. Nice to meet you." He held out his hand. The man smiled back and grasped his hand, shaking it firmly.

"Doctor James Wilson. Nice to meet you too."

Never one to miss an opportunity, Jack used his current plight to strike up a conversation. "I seem to have gotten myself lost. Do you think you could show me the way back to my friend's room?" he asked.

"Of course. Do you know the room number?"

"Er…" Jack realized he didn't have the faintest clue and cursed his lack of attention. Dr. Wilson noticed and gave him a sympathetic grin.

"Never mind, then. What's his name? I can look it up."

“Her name’s Gwen Cooper,” Jack told him. He didn’t bother to hide the fact that he was staring at the doctor's rear end as he turned to a nearby computer. A minute or so of quick typing was all it took to discover the room’s elusive address.

"Room 232," Wilson said, turning back to Jack. "I'll lead you there, make sure you don't get lost trying to find it." Jack was pretty sure he could find it, but he saw no reason to avoid talking to a handsome man.

"Thanks. And by the way, you have a very nice ass." Jack could see the exact moment that registered. Wilson did a massive double-take and paused, gaping.

"Um, thanks. I guess," he mumbled, then started walking again, this time a little faster. It was pretty obvious that Wilson thought he was messing with him. Jack jogged a little to catch up.

"No, really, I find you very attractive." Jack could hear the gears turning in Wilson's head as the other man tried to figure out what he was up to.

"Uh," Wilson contributed. Jack tried not to be too unimpressed by the way he handled these sorts of situations. The rest of the trip was spent in silence as Jack continued to check Wilson out as blatantly as he could and Wilson continued to try to pretend he didn't notice. It wasn't long before they reached room 232, and Jack was relieved to find the area somewhat familiar.

"Here we are, then," Wilson said. He was obviously also relieved, probably because the walk had been extremely awkward for him.

"So, you want to get lunch sometime?" Jack asked, grinning at Wilson.

"Oh. I'm sorry, but I, uh, already have someone I eat lunch with here," he said uncomfortably. "Anyway," he continued, "I really should be getting back to work. So, uh, hope your friend gets better. Bye." Then he turned and walked away at a pace that had to be a little faster than his normal gait.

"See you around!" Jack called after him. Wilson turned a corner. Damn, Jack thought, and entered the room.

* * *

 

Owen was silent as Cameron drew the blood samples. “I’ll have the labs test Gwen too, of course, but since I’m not the attending right now, I’d rather check yours ahead of time, just in case,” she explained.

Owen nodded, still a little shaken. She didn’t blame him. Truth was, she had ended up doing more speaking than Owen. He knew all the right words to say, all the right buttons to push, to keep her distracted and talking about her own problems. She had to admit, it felt therapeutic to confide to a complete stranger what she’d never in a million years say to anyone else. After all, who else could she talk to? She was hardly inclined to trust Foreman, Chase was, well, Chase, and House would just scoff and psychoanalyze her some more.

What little she had gleaned from Owen, though, was worth baring some of her own soul for. Like Rome, the man’s pain had not risen in a day; it was layer upon layer of self-deception and loss and confusion, tangled knots of love and hate. She wanted to know more; she wanted to know why, and she wanted to cure him. Maybe House was right about her, but she didn’t need House’s approval to live her own life. On the job, she deferred to him, but in her own time, she was his superior.

“You’re being protective again,” Owen said. “Stop it if you ever want me to shag you.”

“I have no intention of dancing with you.”

“Don’t play American on me. You know what I’m talking about.”

“Maybe.” She jabbed him with another needle. “Last one.”

Owen grunted. “Yeah, I know.”

“Well, Doctor Harper, since you seem to know everything, do you mind telling me why you’re so afraid to talk about yourself?”

“I’m holding out for a better deal.”

“I’ve already told you all my deepest, darkest secrets. Well, most of them.”

“You never admitted you want to shag your boss.” He grinned when she blinked. “Hey, don’t take it personally. Where I work, you have to watch out for these sorts of things.”

“Well, now you know all my deepest, darkest secrets.”

“Women’s secrets are boring. Their kisses are far more interesting.”

She laughed. “Does anyone fall for that, doctor?”

“Well,” he leaned forward, “I guess it’s time we found out.”

The door slammed open. Owen leapt to his feet, his forearm swinging perilously close to the needle still in her hand. She turned to see Owen’s boss rush in, his military coat swirling in the draft.

“Dr. Cameron, you’ll want to come quick,” he said.

“What’s wrong?”

“Gwen’s awake. She’s lost her color vision.”

“That’s one possible effect of the stroke.”

A cane pushed Jack Harkness aside as House strode into the room. “Ah, but she lost it after she woke, a fact you might have found out if you actually took time to talk to the patient.”

Cameron gaped. House gave her that intense stare that made her feel like he was sifting through her brain.

“You don’t look half so pretty with your mouth open,” he said. “I expected you to be more pleased. I’m taking the case.”

Chapter Text

The tow truck was gone by the time Tosh made it into the car park. Even worse, she found no signs indicating parking restrictions where they’d left the car. While this probably meant they wouldn’t need to pay any fines, it also meant she had no clue who had taken the car or why they’d done so.

Back in the lobby, the receptionist was less than helpful. “We didn’t report any parking violations,” he kept repeating, until Tosh finally found a phone book and went through the listings herself.

She was well into the book when a male voice said, “Hello” from beside her. She looked up to see a smiling young man in a business suit. For a moment, her mind blanked; if she’d been asked to describe a tall, dark and handsome stranger, she would’ve described him. He had close-cropped, jet black hair with prominent sideburns, but his eyes were clear light blue, pale enough to be grey. His face was rugged, but his smile was so earnest he appeared almost boyish, and his cheeks were a little flushed, as though he had just rushed in from another appointment. And, of course, he was tall--over six feet.

“Uh, hi,” she stammered, “I’m sorry, are you lost?” He didn’t look like a patient, and he wasn’t dressed as a doctor or nurse.

“I’m afraid I need the phone book; I wasn’t going to say anything, but you were taking a while.”

“I’m so sorry!” In her rush, Tosh ended up flinging the book at him. “I’m so sorry!” she said again.

He laughed. “Not a problem, I just need to return to work. I was visiting my aunt, see, she had a stroke last weekend. Oh, name’s Montgomery Pike, by the way, but people call me Monty.”

Tosh shook his hand. “Toshiko Sato.” The man looked familiar--and it wasn’t just her imagination--but he had an American accent, likely native to New Jersey, so she couldn’t have met him before. “Looking for a cab, then?”

He shook his head. “No, some idiot towed my car, and nobody here seems to know what’s going on.”

“My car got towed too!” Tosh exclaimed.

Monty’s grin grew wider. “What a coincidence.” He set the book aside and pulled out his cell. “Tell you what, probably same company that towed it, I’ll have my secretary call around and check for us.”

“You have a secretary?”

“Doesn’t everyone these days?”

Tosh wasn’t sure if he was being elitist or deflecting attention from a potentially uncomfortable topic. In either case, she moved to the doorway to give him some privacy as he made the call. Outside, the sun was down, but the sky was still lit cerulean by rays from beyond the horizon.

Monty appeared beside her and snapped his phone shut. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Makes me proud to serve this state.” He glanced over at Tosh. “I’m an aide to the governor of New Jersey; that’s why I have a secretary. I didn’t want to say because it’d sound like I was bragging, but you don’t seem the sort to jump to conclusions. They’ve called us a cab; we should know who took our cars soon enough.”

* * *

 

House’s announcement that he'd take Gwen's case had been met with varied--though predominately positive--reactions. Cameron had been brimming self-satisfaction, the froggish member of the patient's posse had displayed a mixture of relief and apprehension, and the man named Jack Harkness had grinned, invaded his personal space by clapping him heavily on the back, and led him rather forcefully from the room. He evidently wanted to speak privately with him.

"Hey, hey, if I wanted sexual favors in return for my services, I'd ask!” House protested. “No need to get intimate!"

Harkness barked out a laugh that House decided was a pretty good fake--good enough that anyone else may have thought him to be genuinely amused, but House, who was a naturally suspicious person, was not fooled. The man was up to something.

Harkness navigated them into a secluded area and turned suddenly serious.

"First," he began before House could produce another sarcastic remark, "I want to thank you for taking Gwen's case. I’ve heard you’re the best doctor around, and Gwen’s very important to all of us." House didn't bother feeling flattered.

"Quit beating around the bush and get to the point," he interrupted. Harkness gave him a put-out look.

"Right. Well, I’m going to need all of her medical files when you're done," he said.

House snorted disdainfully. "If you want copies of files, I’m definitely not the one to go to."

"You misunderstand; I don't want copies, I want the actual files. All of them."

"Yeah, right. Over Cuddy's dead body."

"I'd actually prefer not to involve your boss at all. Technically, the files are under your control right now. I just don't want them to ever return to the filing cabinets."

House rolled his eyes. "Look, mister--"

"That's Captain," Harkness interrupted.

"I don't care if you're the Prime Minister," House snapped. "There is absolutely no chance I'm going to steal files for you."

"I can pay you," Harkness tried.

"You can't pay me enough," House countered.

"I can pay more than you think."

"I'm a doctor! I don't need money, you pompous fool!"

"Well, what do you need, then?" Harkness shouted, frustrated.

"A new leg!" House shouted back. There was silence. Harkness appeared to be thinking. House raised an eyebrow at him.

"A prosthetic?" he ventured, cautiously.

"God no. No one’s cutting off my leg." There was another pause.

"Hmmmmm," Harkness said. "No, I'll have to get back to you about that."

"Oh, fuck off!"

“Is there anything else?" House stared at him.

"No," he said, then turned decisively and began to walk away. Harkness grabbed his arm in an abortive move.

"This is of the utmost importance! Do I have to resort to petty threats?"

House let out a humorless laugh. "What could you possibly do to me? How much worse could you make my existence? I’m in chronic and excruciating pain, I’m forced to deal with pushy idiots like you on a daily basis, and I haven't gotten laid in over a year."

"This is important," Harkness insisted.

"Oh yeah? If you really want to convince me to steal your friend's files, why don't you just tell me why it's so ‘important’?” House challenged. “I admit I’m a little curious.”

"I can't do that."

"Then too bad!" He shook off Jack's hand and left.

"Damn it," Jack said, with feeling.

* * *

 

It was early in the night for James Wilson, but all his work for the day was done, so he was locking up when House stalked by with the man named Jack Harkness. The two were arguing, or at least, their voices were raised and with House around, a quarrel was a safe bet.

He should have known better than to follow. He really should’ve known better, but he was always curious when he saw House with someone who wasn’t a doctor. Of course, deep down, he knew there was only one reason for House to consort with people he despised--Wilson preferred not to consider what it meant for him that House was taking this particular case--but then again, watching Harkness flirt with House could be an interesting experience too.

“Then too bad!” House roared and left.

“Damn it!”

Damn it was right. House could move fast for a cripple. And now…

Jack turned around and his expression brightened. “Oh, hey, it’s you again!”

“Uh, hello.”

“I don’t suppose you’re here to take me up on my offer?”

Wilson raised his voice. “Actually, I was kind of hoping to have a word with DOCTOR HOUSE BEFORE HE LEFT FOR THE EVENING!” House didn’t even slow down. Bastard. The elevator doors closed and it was just him and Harkness. In an empty hallway. At night.

“He must have selective deafness,” Harkness said. “Is that a medical or a psychological condition, Dr. Wilson?”

“Everything’s psychological with House,” Wilson muttered.

“Have you had dinner yet?”

“No, I--” Oh hell.

“Great!” Harkness grabbed his hand and started dragging him along. “You can show me some of the nearby restaurants; don’t worry, tab’s on me.” Suddenly, Harkness stopped and let go. He put his hand to his chin and looked thoughtful. Wilson flew past him, skidding to a stop, and as he passed Harkness, he was pretty sure his hand accidentally touched somewhere inappropriate, but the man didn’t react. “That’s rude of me. Ianto always says I’m too impulsive. I’m sorry, Dr. Wilson, do you have any prior engagements? I understand if you just want to go home after a long day at work.”

“Well, it’s been a stressful day,” he started. Harkness made some sympathetic noises that sounded genuine. Things were going well. Then habit kicked in. “It’s fine, I can show you around.”

“No one waiting for you back home?” Jack looked much too interested.

“Well, no. My wife and I got divorced last year.”

“I’m terribly sorry. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to divorce you.”

Wilson wasn’t sure what that implied, so he decided to stay silent. They arrived at the elevators and Wilson hit the down button.

“So your lunch companion is Dr. House?”

Wilson hit the button again. “What makes you think that?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at him.”

“In horrible, agonizing annoyance?” He jabbed the button once more for good measure. Damn elevator. Damn House.

“He’s got to be amazing in bed; only way anyone would put up with him.”

Damn Harkness. “I’m not sleeping with him. I’ve been married! Three times!”

Harkness chuckled. “You people and your quaint little categories.”

“You’re American too! The British don’t know everything.” Oh great, now he sounded like House. Maybe House was right; everyone was one bad day away from becoming him. What a terrifying thought.

“That’s not what I meant.”

The elevator finally arrived and they stepped in. Then the doors closed and Wilson realized this was even worse, because now Harkness was right beside him even though there was enough room for seven people to stand without touching. Harkness glanced over at him and smiled. “Are you going to choose a floor or should we just stay here all night?”

Wilson leapt forward, pressed the ground floor button, and retreated to the other end of the elevator. “Uh, so, what brings you to the States, Captain Harkness?”

“Call me Jack, I insist. And just work.”

“Strange line of work bringing you into a hospital... Jack. I’ve spoken to Cuddy, and she isn’t expecting you. What are you doing here?”

“Gwen’s sick.”

“That was after she arrived.”

“Who says our business is with Cuddy?” Harkness looked uncomfortable. Finally.

“Now you sound like you’re a hit man.”

Harkness burst out laughing. “No, our business is to save lives.”

“Then what--”

“Give me a kiss.”

“What?”

“It’s only fair: you give me a kiss, I give you the truth.”

“I’m not kissing you.”

“Why? You don’t find me attractive?”

Wilson moved in front of the emergency stop button in case Harkness had any designs on it. Pushing it to trap them together seemed the sort of action House might take--that is, if Wilson had ever contemplated him and House in such a scenario. Which he hadn’t. He definitely, most certainly hadn’t. Much. And only because you never knew what House might do next.

Harkness noticed his shift in position. “Now you’ve foiled my brilliant plan.” He didn’t move. He just grinned, as though he had Wilson right where he wanted him. Now Wilson knew there was more to this than simple flirting, but what could Harkness want of him?

“What were you arguing with House about?” Wilson asked. Harkness’ smile flickered for the briefest of instances, and Wilson saw an edge of caution enter his gaze.

“He was being stubborn,” Harkness said, looking hurt.

Wilson wasn’t about to let him go that easily. “House isn’t stubborn without good reason.” Oh no, I really hope he doesn’t tell House I said that.

“Something makes me think you’d kiss me before you let House know you said that. You’d never hear the end of it.”

Damn it. Harkness took a step closer. Wilson put up his hands. “You’re not serious.”

“Don’t worry, it’ll be our little secret.”

And somehow, Harkness slid into his arms, turning them from a barrier into an embrace. Their lips met, and the captain blocked out the world. His scent, his touch, his weight, everything about him was overpowering. Wilson groaned. This wasn’t supposed to be happening, but he felt his arms tighten around the other man’s back, and he let himself be pushed back against the wall. He opened his mouth and began to kiss him back, and though Jack wasn’t House, something about this felt right in a way he’d never imagined possible. He could lose himself in the feel of skin against skin.

Ding. The doors rumbled open, but they sounded as though they were a million miles away. Should’ve hit the emergency stop, he thought, though, of course, nobody would be in the lobby at this late hour.

“Wilson?”

At the sound of the female voice, Wilson pushed Jack away. The man clearly realized Wilson was flustered, and he loosened his grip enough to fall back when shoved. Jack’s face was flushed, and his hair was a mess. Wilson’s gaze lingered on him a little longer; he’d never known a brief kiss could cause such a mess. He wondered what he himself looked like and doubted he could pass this off as an unwelcomed advance. He was surprised to realize he didn’t particularly want to.

Then he saw the nurse who was standing there, and his embarrassment arrived, late but in full force.

“Uh, hello Tracy,” Wilson said. Damn elevator. If he recalled correctly--and he really wasn’t as good with people as House and Cuddy made him out to be; after all the human brain could only store so many hundreds of faces and histories without forgetting something--Tracy had been tearfully confiding in Wilson for the past several weeks about her boyfriend of seven years, whom she’d caught cheating on her with…

Oh no.

Tracy slapped him and stormed off in tears. Yeah, she was definitely the one whose boyfriend was gay.

“Girlfriend?” Jack asked, sounding doubtful.

“Uh no.” Wilson rubbed his cheek.

“You’re just a delightful people person.”

“Not anymore.”

Jack grinned. “Trust me, women love a little flexibility. And if word gets around, you might get your chance with House.”

Wilson groaned. Was it that obvious? Yes, a little voice in his mind replied, it really, really is.

Well, that was just great.

* * *

 

The attendant at the impound lot was not pleased at being called back after closing time. It’d taken multiple phone calls and a threat from the Governor’s office to reunite Tosh and Monty with their cars. At first, Tosh was outraged at how New Jersey politicians wielded their special privileges with such a lack of concern for ramifications. She’d even dodged Monty’s charms long enough to phone a shocked complaint back to Ianto who wryly responded that Torchwood did the same thing. After some thought, Tosh filed this observation under the category of “To be processed later” and returned to Monty.

The stadium-lights overhead cast the lot in a harsh light. The attendant kept giving them surreptitious, dark glares as they paced to the end of a row of vehicles. There, Tosh identified her Toyota Sienna rental and Monty his Honda Civic. Monty raised an eyebrow at her.

“A white minivan?”

“The contract lists it as ‘Arctic Frost Pearl.’”

“Does that make soccer moms feel sexier?”

Tosh shrugged as she unlocked the car. Monty slid open the side passenger door, whistled, and leapt in. He leaned over the driver’s seat. “Dear god, you’re not a mother, are you?”

“I wish.” Tosh turned to look at him. “Children would be so much easier to drive around.”

“Who are you with, then?”

“Coworkers.”

“Oh, that can’t be good.”

“I know. My boss keeps asking ‘Are we there yet?’ If he was my kid, I’d have spanked him long ago, but company policy stipulates that all co-workers may give back as many spanks as are administered.”

Monty laughed. When Tosh didn’t, he asked, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

“Uh.” Tosh blinked. “Oh, yeah! Of course.”

Monty slid his hands along the seat. “Nice texture, good support; I’d buy this car if I had a family.” When Tosh didn’t respond, he added, “That’s my subtle way of declaring myself available.”

Tosh still didn’t respond. Monty at least had the grace to look embarrassed. “I guess that’s your subtle way of saying you’re not interested.”

“No, no, it’s just… I’ve had a bad run with relationships.”

“I dated a mob double-agent. The political fallout was hell.”

“I fell in love with a co-worker who has slept with everyone woman in the office except me.”

“My college sweetheart tried to kill me by burning down my house and blowing up my car.”

“I dated a serial killer who liked to eat people’s hearts.”

“The girl who burned down my house was dating me because I looked like her dad!”

“The serial killer was an alien, and I still cried when she got sent to the middle of the sun!”

“You dated a lesbian alien?” Monty goggled. “That’s amazing!”

That wasn’t the reaction Tosh was expecting. “You believe in aliens?”

“How do you not? They’re all over the news these days, but wow, to have actually slept with an alien. How was it? Was it sticky?”

“It’s always sticky.”

“Good point. Would you be up for a threesome?”

“Not as a first time.”

Monty leaned forward. “What did the alien look like?”

Tosh crossed her arms. “Are you interested in me or the aliens?”

“Do I really have to choose?”

“Out of the car.” Tosh started the ignition.

Monty chuckled and climbed out, but he leaned back in through the window. “You said you’re from Wales; do you have a place to stay?”

“No.”

Monty showed her two room keys. “I didn’t feel like driving back to Newark tonight, so I booked a hotel. There’s two beds, so it doesn’t have to be awkward unless you want it to be.”

“I should be back at the hospital.”

“I have to get back to work early in the morning anyway. Your coworkers will be too busy getting over the backaches they have from sleeping on chairs all night to realize you’ve been gone. Why not get one up on them for once? It’s free lodgings, no strings attached.”

Tosh hesitated, but only for a moment. Then she snatched one of the keys and rolled up the window. “You lead, I’ll follow.”

Monty winked. “If that’s the way you like it.”

* * *

 

Gwen didn’t want to sleep; she’d been unconscious for too long, and she wished she could stretch her legs. Owen wouldn’t let her out of bed, though, and she knew he was right to insist. The room was dark now, and so silent she would never have guessed Owen was present if she hadn’t seen him enter the room. The others were gone; Tosh had gone to retrieve their car, Jack had left on what he claimed was official business, and Ianto had doubtless been sent to hack the hospital computers so they’d erase all record of their presence once she was discharged.

“Owen?” she whispered, her throat dry and her voice cracked.

She heard a chair slide against the ground as Owen leapt up. “Do you need a glass of water?”

“No.” She raised a hand, searching in the dark, until she felt Owen’s shirt and tightened her fingers around his arm. “I want… salvation.”

“You never struck me as especially religious,” Owen’s voice had an edge to it. Gwen let go, but Owen didn’t move away.

“If I was, I’d say this was divine punishment.”

“For what?” But he knew. They both knew, but she was the only one who cared.

“I, I tried to tell him, but I could only do it knowing he wouldn’t remember in the morning.”

Owen moved away. A few seconds later, she heard a swoosh and moonlight flooded into the room. His silhouette hesitated a moment before he partially re-closed the blinds. In the half-light, he pulled up his chair and sat at her side. She turned her head, and they were face-to-face. She pulled back, ever so slightly, and Owen’s cheek ticced. She laughed; it wasn’t funny, but she couldn’t help it.

“Why me?” he asked. “Of everyone available, why me?”

“You were the only one available. You always were. Not anymore, though. No one’s available now, except the one who’s in a committed relationship. Ironic, don’t you think?”

“What about Tosh?” Owen looked like he was joking, trying anything to lighten the mood and change the conversation.

“You think I didn’t consider it?”

Owen raised an eyebrow. She continued, “She wouldn’t say ‘yes.’ But I’d ask anyway, just to find something, anything. I can’t find release even in an orgasm, maybe there’s something in the lack of one.”

“There’s just emptiness.”

“It’s always empty. God, there’s nothing. That’s the first thing I learned from Torchwood: There’s nothing, just the darkness waiting for you, knowing you have to come eventually. Everyone has to, except Jack, but look in his eyes, and you can see it; it’s already there, it already has him. When Lisa electrocuted him, he died. He died, Owen, and do you know what he told me when he came back? He said, in that instant, when he thought he wouldn’t survive, he said he’d never felt so alive. How old do you think he is?”

“You envy him.”

An involuntary sob escaped her. “I’m empty already; what’s there to lose? But I don’t want to die, Owen, I don’t.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“Why can’t I tell Rhys? What would he do? Who would believe him if he told? I can’t do this; it’s like living a double-life. It was like I was unfaithful, even before I slept with you, because I’d become a different person, had a different life, and I couldn’t share it with him. I lied to him. It was so easy. I lied to him, and when I slept with you, it only confirmed what I already knew. It was like I had to do it, because if I didn’t, the job wasn’t real, but once I did, it was all too real, it became everything.”

“Gwen, it’ll be all right.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Be sure.”

Owen looked pale, though maybe that was just the moonlight. Finally, he nodded.

“What would you do if you could find Diane?”

“I’d bring her back. Or I’d go with her.”

“You’d leave everything behind to be with her?” she asked. He nodded. “And then what? What would you do? Find another adventure, one after another, jumping through rifts until the end of time? Or do you think, this time, you could make her settle down?”

She saw anger in his face, but he restrained himself and she saw it wasn’t just because she was ill. So there’d been something between them after all. She’d felt it, just a little, a sort of haunting pull even after she’d stopped having any feelings for him. She’d always wondered if he felt the same. Then it was true; you couldn’t just have casual sex and pretend everything was the same. At least, you couldn’t in the twenty-first century. She suspected you couldn’t in any other century either, Jack’s words be damned. It was a human thing, or maybe a living thing; you had to have a connection to be alive, and what embodied life more than the act of procreation?

“I don’t know,” Owen replied. “That’s not what she’d want. I think she was meant to be alone; we’d go our separate ways again, together one night for every thousand apart.”

“Do you suppose that’s love? To be with each other even when you don’t know when, or if, you’ll see each other again? Or is love the monotony of being with someone day after day, knowing each other inside out and letting the mystery and excitement fade?”

“What does it matter, Gwen?”

“It matters! It matters because that’s all I am! Jack hired me to be the human connection, but I don’t feel connected to anything anymore. This job, it changes you; how can it not? And on the outside, I go through the motions, and I seem different, but inside, I’m just like every one of you, yet I can’t even be that because if I admit I’m just like you, then I’ve become someone nobody wants me to be! And if I’m going to die, I want to know it was worth it. I need to think there’s something beautiful, something romantic out there. I need to believe in the bright light at the end of the tunnel, to think there are people waiting for me when I die and to know there are people mourning me back here.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“I need something to hold on to, but it’s all just darkness! How can anyone cope, knowing that, knowing there’s nothing and everything’s futile?”

“It isn’t futile,” he said weakly.

“Kiss me.”

“What?”

“Make me feel alive.”

“But Gwen, you just said--”

“I know what I said, but if I can’t have that, I have to take what I can get.”

“You’re not thinking properly.”

“Oh, Owen, you’d be surprised what the prospect of dying can do to the mind.”

“It confuses it. You don’t want me.”

“Then who do I want, Owen? Do you know me better than I know myself? My brain’s not addled.”

“You want Jack. You want the man who can’t die and his kiss of life.”

“I kissed him back after Abaddon.”

“And now you want me to do the same for you? I’m not your prince in goddamn shining armor.”

“Then leave. Go, and leave me to the darkness.” She stared him straight in the eyes and refused to look away. She could see the conflict in him. He burned with self-loathing as he leaned forward to kiss her, but she grabbed him and pulled him in anyway, because when she closed her eyes, she couldn’t tell the difference between a kiss of love and a kiss of pain.

* * *

 

They ended up going to a little coffeehouse just down the street from the hospital. It was almost closing time, and they were the only patrons present, but Wilson didn’t expect anyone to give them a second glance. Jack had stopped any semblance of flirting after Tracy, though Wilson wasn’t sure why. There was no logical explanation for Jack’s behavior, which kept Wilson suspicious, but for some reason, he found himself trusting the captain more and more.

He ordered a coffee, preferring to make his own meals even if it meant going hungry a little while longer. Besides, the food here wasn’t that great, but Jack seemed to have changed his mind about sightseeing and asked to go to the nearest restaurant instead. When the coffee arrived, Jack made some comment about how good his associate was at making coffee, “among other things.” Wilson didn’t follow up on that.

Jack got a Reuben, and now Wilson was sure he was just trying to mess with his mind. Nevertheless, their kiss burned in his memory, and it kept him from walking out.

“So you want to talk about it?” Jack asked.

“About what?”

“Oh, you’re kidding. First time Gwen kissed a girl, she spent the next week freaking out about it. Of course, I guess it didn’t help that she kept catching Owen replaying footage of it on his computer.”

“Where do you work?” Wilson exclaimed.

“Cardiff.” Jack took a bite of his sandwich. “Oh, god, this is awful.”

“Well, I did say--”

“No, it doesn’t taste particularly bad, I guess, but I mean, sauerkraut? What sort of sandwich has sauerkraut in it?”

“Then why’d you order it?” Wilson asked, thinking, Aha, his plan is backfiring.

“I dated someone named Reuben once, amazing sex, she could do things with her thighs that you wouldn’t believe.”

Oh dear god.

“I’ve always heard that great food can be as good as sex, so I thought, why not give it a try?”

“Um…”

“So why House? No offense, but from what I’ve seen of him, he’s an asshole.”

“Why’s it any of your business?”

Jack leaned closer. “Do you want to talk about it?” It was a challenge as much as a question, but he did seem to care, which was more than he could say about anyone else at the hospital.

Wilson shrugged. “There isn’t much to say. I met him years ago, before he ever started working here, before he had the cane. I was married at the time, first marriage. I loved her, don’t get me wrong, but the passion was never there. I married her shortly after my residency ended, and it was a life, you know. You get a job, a wife, a family, and you live happily ever after.” Jack smiled and looked wistful. “I don’t know what happened, but I was happy around him. When he listened, he could make me feel like I was the only person in the world, and even when I know he’s pretending, I don’t care. And when he laughs, god it feels so good, like I’ve done something really right.

“Christmas Eve, we hosted a party. House came with Stacy. Everyone thought I had too much to drink, but really, I only had enough to settle my nerves. The rest was water. Later that night, we were alone, I told him enough to let him guess I had feelings for him, said just little enough to have deniability the next day. It was silly, immature, but I didn’t want to let the feeling go. He rebuffed me--you can imagine how it turned out--and I, I did the stupidest thing imaginable. I went and had an affair with this other woman I met at the party, the friend of a friend, that sort of thing. I told myself I was just feeling trapped in my first marriage, but the feeling wouldn’t go away.

“After the divorce, I shut that part of myself away. It was like one of those dreams you have when you’re a kid, when you tell your parents you want to be an astronaut one day, an explorer the next, a scientist the third. It became something I stopped seriously believing would happen, so I made myself content to live with what I had. I loved all the women I married, all the women I slept with, but there’s so many types of love. I cared about them, and I was never unfaithful; it was just that one time, and I still regret it, because there was only one person I really wanted.

“I guess my discontent came through in the end. All my marriages ended in divorce. My wives cheated on me instead. I didn’t feel too bad, though, because at least they didn’t need me anymore. As long as they were happy with someone, I didn’t betray them, I didn’t lie to them, and it was all right to move on. I slept with one of my patients a while back, when she was in so much pain she could barely take care of herself. Night after night, I could barely sleep, because I was afraid I would wake up and find her dead, not from the cancer, but from my pain medications failing her. But she needed me, and I could keep her body and soul alive, just barely, but it was enough for me anyway. She recovered long enough to live her dream of traveling the world, and we parted ways because she could die happy without me.

“And through it all, House was never there for me. I’ve lost my job for him, had my practice shut down, had the police after me. I’ve broken the law so many times for him, and I’ve lent him so much money, and I want to believe he cares, but he makes it so hard. Most times, I just write it off as House being House, but sometimes, I just want to walk away, forget, start over, except I’m already doing that and it isn’t working and I can’t bring myself to leave him. I can’t stop watching over him, I can’t stop wanting to protect him. He’s destroying himself with his addiction and his loneliness, and he won’t let anyone else in, and there’s nothing I can do. If I stay around him, he’ll destroy both of us in the end. That’s not something I think, that’s something I know. But I think I can live with that.”

Wilson took a deep breath and downed the rest of his coffee. For a moment, a panic rose up in him as he wondered what he’d just revealed to an almost complete stranger. Force of habit helped him contain the fear. Finally, he brought his eyes up to look at Jack, and he was surprised. Jack looked sympathetic, but it wasn’t the sympathy of shared experience. It was more a sort of empathetic pity. Intellectually, Jack felt sorry for him, but emotionally, he didn’t understand. It was as though this sort of longing was alien to him, and in that moment, Wilson knew he’d rather have had Jack laugh at him. In that moment, he’d never felt so alone, and then, shame flooded through him. He tricked me. It was all a lie, and I fell for it. He pulled out his wallet and dug out a twenty. Jack stood.

“What are you doing? I--”

Wilson threw the bill onto the table. “It’s all right; I don’t want to owe you anything.” Before Jack could say another word, he turned and ran out of the restaurant, nearly bowling over a young man in a suit. Only after he’d passed him did he match the face with the panicked fellow who’d burst into coma guy’s room. Did he have something to do with Jack, too? No, he wasn’t going to think about that. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t care. He had no intention of having anything to do with Harkness again.

He ran all the way to the parking lot, and his breathing never slowed during the entire drive home. He barely made it back to his apartment before his gasps turned into wracking sobs, and he slammed his fist against the dashboard again and again, but nothing helped. Finally, he just gave up striving for self-control and with his forehead against the steering wheel, he let the tears flow.

He didn’t know how long he stayed there, but some time along the way, a heavy storm started pouring raindrops down on his car, their pitter-patter punctuating his own unsteady breathing. The rivulets down the windshield blurred into a flood of grey, and without lifting his head, he reached out and hit the lock on the door. He sat a while longer, lost in thought.

That kiss, it all went back to that kiss on the elevator. In the few moments they were together, Wilson could almost pretend Harkness was House. Jack smelled nothing like him, felt nothing like him, but the imagination was a powerful thing. One night, just one night and… And what? Wilson was pragmatic enough to realize one wouldn’t be enough. He wanted forever. One night, and I’ll make House a believer. A dry laugh escaped him at that thought. He sniffed. House doesn’t believe in anything, and I’m not going to change that.

Jack. He closed his eyes and tried to picture House, but the image blended with Jack’s face. He tried to force his memory, but that just made House’s face fade further. He shook his head and tried to recall the touch of Jack’s lips, and he whispered, “Greg.”

He turned off the engine and put the keys in his pocket. He squeezed between the front seats as he crawled to the back of the car, and there, he lay down and tried to pretend there would be no tomorrow. It was cold and wet and lonely, but it was better than his apartment right now. Maybe he shouldn’t have moved out of House’s apartment. The company was worth the abuse. He had no excuse to go back now, though. His stomach growled, but he ignored it. He curled up and closed his eyes. In time, darkness fell, and for a few hours, Wilson forgot his troubles.

* * *

 

The hotel room was surprisingly large. Monty was amused and laughed when he saw her looking around in appreciation.

“That bed’s yours,” he said, pointing toward the one closer to the door. “I hate smoke detectors.”

Tosh looked up and saw one blinking innocently above the indicated bed. “So as long as I stay there, my virtue will be safe.”

Monty made an elaborate bow. “Your virtue will always be safe with me, my lady.”

Tosh approached the bed and sat down gingerly. It was soft but firm, though she found the sheets too thin. Monty bounced across the room and picked up a square plastic container. He opened the lid and ran back out of the room.

“Where are you going?” she asked, but he was already gone. Shaking her head, she removed her shoes and started fiddling with the lights between the beds, watching them turn on and off in various combinations as she rotated the switch. It looked like her life.

Monty returned with a bucket full of ice, “Ice! My favorite part of hotels!”

“Okay…” she said uncertainly.

“Says the woman playing with the light switch.” He waved a plastic bag at her, which he didn’t have before. “Toothbrushes. The receptionist was kind enough to provide some.”

“Hotels have toothbrushes?”

“Only if you ask nicely.”

“Really.”

Monty sat down opposite her and pulled out one plastic-wrapped brush. “I asked nicely. Did you?”

Tosh furrowed her brows in confusion. He grinned, rocking back and forth, and she made a mental note that he became more hyperactive the more tired he got. “Oh, you’re kidding me.”

“Ask nicely or you don’t get a toothbrush,” he said, waving his around. She followed the movement of his hand with her eyes, and when she was ready, she reached out and made a quick grab. “Hey!”

“You might be a man of words, but my job requires me to be a woman of action.”

“Your job is catching aliens?”

Tosh froze. “What makes you think that?”

“Who else sleeps with aliens and talks about it as though it were normal? Sure, everyone denies it, but these organizations have to exist. Don’t worry, though, I won’t ask about it. I’ll pretend I don’t know a thing.”

Tosh relaxed a little, but Monty wouldn’t be a governor’s aide if he wasn’t competent, and he had no reason to lie. That’s what I thought about Mary too, she remembered, but she’d be careful this time. Still, no reason not to enjoy herself at the same time. She leaned forward. “So, about asking nicely…”

Monty’s eyebrows went up. “Yes?”

She kissed him. It was a brief contact, almost chaste, but from his sudden intake of breath, she could tell it meant much more. She could feel her own pulse racing. “So how’s that for asking nicely?”

“A woman of action indeed,” he replied, one corner of his mouth lifting in a self-satisfied grin. “I don’t suppose there’s more of that coming?”

“Nope.” Tosh went over to his bag, grabbed the toothpaste, and headed for the bath. “That was my thank you for helping me find the car.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s not fair.”

“Life’s not fair, Monty,” she said, swaying her way out of sight. She counted to three and poked her head back out. “Maybe tomorrow night, if you ask nicely.”

The toothbrush slipped very nicely from his grip.

* * *

 

Foreman was just gathering his things to leave for the day when Chase walked into the conference room, looking a little lost.

"Have you seen Cameron?" he asked. "I wanted to give her the results on Gwen's bloodwork before I left."

"She left an hour ago," Foreman replied, looking around him in frustration. Chase, in a fit of unusual observational skill, noticed.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Have you seen my umbrella?" Foreman said, by way of answer.

"No. What's it look like?"

"It's black. And an umbrella. I don't know, I thought I left it right here, but I can't find it."

"Haven't seen it. Why did you bring an umbrella, anyway? It didn't rain all day," Chase pointed out. Foreman shrugged.

"It's supposed to rain tonight. I checked the weather this morning."

"You're kidding. It's been clear all day! Not a cloud in the sky!"

"I'm telling you, it's going to rain." Foreman looked ready to give up searching for the umbrella. House had probably stolen it for himself; it wouldn't be the first time.

Chase had put away his bloodwork results and was putting on his jacket, getting ready to leave as well. "It's not! No way! I'd bet on it," he said confidently.

"Fine, then. Let's bet on it," Foreman said, smirking as he walked toward the elevator.

"Are you kidding? I don’t have money to throw around!" Chase protested, following him. "You've been spending too much time around House."

"We won't bet money, then. If I'm right, then you'll, I don't know, have to hit on the first department head you see tomorrow morning. Blatantly." Chase gaped.

"But that'd probably be House! I don't want to hit on House!"

"You’re gonna back out, then?" Foreman challenged. The elevator doors opened on the first floor and they both exited.

"No," Chase grumbled. "But you have to do the same if I win!" Foreman agreed, and Chase suddenly pictured Foreman hitting on House and burst out laughing.

Foreman rolled his eyes. In unison, they opened the hospital's big glass doors and stepped out. On cue, there was a loud rumble of thunder and a sheet of rain fell to the earth, with no other warning, completely soaking them.

"Well, shit," Chase noted.

Chapter Text

Chase seriously considered calling in sick for work the next day. In fact, he'd just made the decision to do so and turned off his alarm clock when his cellphone rang. Groggily, he groped around for it on his night stand. After a moment he located it and flipped it open.

"Hello?" he said, his voice slightly muffled by his pillow. He blinked several times to clear the sleep from his eyes.

"Chase," Foreman's commanding voice responded. "I know you're planning to renege on our bet! Just wanted to let you know that if you do, I'll make absolutely sure House knows all about your little crush on Cameron. I'll meet you in the parking lot at 7:30." With that, he hung up.

Cursing quietly, Chase dragged himself out of his nice, warm bed and set about getting ready for the day and resigning himself to his fate.

Forty minutes later, he pulled into his usual parking spot. It was no longer raining, but the sky was still overcast and the air was foggy, and it looked as though more rain could be expected later that day. Chase thought it appropriate. Foreman sauntered confidently over to him as he was getting out of his car, an amused expression on his face.

"You're not really going to make me do this, are you?" Chase pleaded, figuring it was worth a try. Foreman smirked at him.

"Oh, you're doing it," he said. They walked together down the lot, Chase trying to keep the pace slow to put off the inevitable for as long as possible. He could feel himself blushing already.

Up ahead of them a short ways, a car pulled into a free parking spot and Wilson stepped out. He spotted them and gave a friendly wave. All of a sudden, Chase realized something and was hit with a wave of relief.

"Foreman," he whispered, "the bet was just to hit on the first department head I saw! Not House!" He gestured at Wilson, who was busy locking his car. Foreman rolled his eyes.

"And you'd rather hit on Wilson than House, then?"

"I'd rather hit on anyone other than House!" Chase said, as though the same were true of everyone.

"Fine," Foreman agreed, only a little disappointed. "Go for it. But remember, you have to make it obvious!" Chase nodded and started jogging over to Wilson.

"Doctor Wilson!" he called. "Wait up!" Wilson turned towards him. Foreman followed behind Chase at a steady pace, making sure he was within hearing distance.

"Yes? " Wilson asked when Chase had caught up.

"Er," Chase began awkwardly. "I just wanted to say... how nice you look... today. Er." He took in Wilson's rumpled appearance and noted that he actually didn't look particularly good. Wilson gave him a strange look.

"Uh, thanks," he said. "Is that all?" Chase shot a panicked look at Foreman, not knowing what else to say. Foreman shrugged at him.

"Um, those pants make your butt look really good," he tried. Wilson's eyebrows shot up. Foreman was making hand motions at him and mouthing Give it a pat! Sighing and giving up completely, Chase gave Wilson a friendly pat on the ass and an exaggerated wink. Wilson jumped a bit and his mouth opened and closed several times.

With absolutely no warning at all, a pretty blonde girl stalked up to him and slapped him, hard. Then she gave Wilson the same treatment and stalked off again without saying anything. Chase was bewildered.

"What? What was that?" he asked wildly, his hand on his cheek. Wilson groaned.

"Tracy! Wait!" he yelled. Foreman was laughing so hard tears were rolling down his cheeks.

"What did I do? Who was that?" Chase wailed in confusion.

"Tracy!" Wilson yelled again and took off after her, though it was obvious he wasn't going to catch her.

"What happened?" Chase demanded. Foreman couldn't seem to stop laughing.

"She slapped you!" he managed, clutching his stomach.

"I know that!" Chase said indignantly. "Oh, never mind. You're useless." Foreman watched Chase walk stiffly away, his hand still on his cheek, and doubled over in laughter yet again.

* * *

 

"All right, differential diagnosis people, come on," House said as he strode into the room. He paused, surveying the area. "Where's Foreman?"

"Here." Foreman waved from beneath the table. House raised an eyebrow. While Foreman was focused on House, Chase reached his leg past Cameron’s and gave Foreman a sharp kick in the side.

“Ow!” Foreman exclaimed. “Cameron!”

Cameron looked ready to protest. House cut her off. "Don't want to know. Your umbrella is over there. I borrowed it yesterday. Differential, anyone? What might have caused an otherwise perfectly healthy young woman to suddenly stroke?"

Foreman stood up, triumphantly holding a pencil, and glared at House.

"Insulinoma could explain her vision," Cameron suggested.

"Glucose levels were normal." Chase walked over from the coffee machine, took a seat and started fanning himself with Cameron’s folder. "Why is it so hot in here?"

"Could have just been caused by anxiety," Foreman said. "What's her job?"

"I'm actually not sure," Cameron said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "They were rather vague, despite being ridiculously detailed about everything else. Some kind of special ops."

"Sounds potentially stressful to me."

"No, Foreman, she's not cool enough to be special ops." Cameron, Chase, and Foreman all ignored House.

"Her blood pressure levels were high. Hypertension commonly presents with anxiety disorders," Chase said. House glared at them.

"Come on, you guys. That's lame. I finally agree to take the case, and the best you can come up with is an anxiety disorder? It's not anxiety." Foreman was denied the chance to respond when the door opened to reveal Owen.

"I'm joining you for the differential," he said as he entered the room, his steps confident.

"No. You're not." House glared.

"Yes, I am," Owen responded, ignoring House's stare and pulling up a chair.

"Don't think so," House said, hooking the arm of the chair with his cane and jerking it away.

"I am a fully qualified doctor. And Jack wants me here."

"Oh, so you're such a little puppy you'll do everything he says? Will your master finally notice you and throw you a bone?"

"I want me to be here," Owen replied sharply, matching House's glare with one of his own. "Gwen is my friend."

"A little more than that, if I'm to believe Doctor Cameron." Owen looked outraged.

"Calm down, you two!" Cameron cut in, worried the argument would soon escalate to an all-out brawl. "House, Owen is a doctor. It might be useful to have another perspective." House turned his glare on her, opened his mouth to issue some scathing comment, then paused and turned back to Owen.

"All right then, Doctor Harper," he said. "Tell us your brilliant ideas." Owen sat down, looking smug.

"I thought it might be an anxiety disorder. Our job--" He was cut off by House's snort of laughter.

"It's not anxiety. Does anyone have any useful ideas?" Owen gaped at him.

"It presents all the classic--" he started, but was cut off once again by House.

"Shut up, you moron. It's not anxiety! Someone, please, be useful! Here, maybe this will help." He turned and began to list symptoms on the whiteboard:

Stroke
Muscle weakness
Seizure
Mental confusion
Mood swings
Loss of color vision
Elevated blood pressure

 

"Am I missing anything?" he asked.

"Don't think so," Foreman said.

"I still don't see why it can't be anxiety!” Owen obviously wasn’t used to the utter lack of respect. “We should at least make sure before we rule it out completely!"

"Hey, Harper, moron says what?"

"What?"

"Thank you." Owen and Foreman rolled their eyes. Cameron looked reproachful.

"What?" Chase asked, looking confused. House snorted.

"Can we please get back to the differential?" Foreman pleaded as Cameron slapped her hand to her forehead and made a quiet noise of despair.

"Paraganglioma," she suggested, trying to bring the conversation back on course. "Would explain several of her symptoms."

"And most of her symptoms are neurological, so it would make sense," Foreman added.

"All right," House agreed. "Order an MRI. Any other ideas?"

"You forgot a symptom." Owen walked over to the white board, grabbed a marker and started to write. House whirled on him, brandishing his cane.

"Only I get to write on the board!" he yelled, whacking Owen over the head.

Owen raised his arms to protect his face. "What the fuck! You're crazy!" he shouted. House landed a blow on the hand that held the marker, causing him to drop it. He leaned over to pick it up and grinned in self-satisfaction. Owen took a step back. "What. The. Fuck. I was just going to add a symptom!"

"We didn't forget any," House stated with confidence.

"You forgot difficulty recognizing people. She called Ianto ‘Jack!’"

"I didn't forget it. It's right there. ‘Mental confusion.’ They're the same thing." House pointed with the marker.

"They're not necessarily the same."

"Are too."

"Are not."

"You two are like children," Cameron cut in. House glared.

"Could be hyperthyroidism," Chase contributed. House made a face.

"Doubt it," he said. "Hyperthyroidism most commonly presents with major weight loss."

"It would explain the weakness, confusion, and mood swings, though. And she could have just recently started losing weight, so there hasn't been a significant enough change to be noticable," Chase argued.

"Fine, tell them to test her blood for TSH levels, if it makes you happy."

"It could be lupus. Or vasculitis." Everyone stared at Owen. "What?" he asked, staring back. House aimed another whack with his cane, and Owen had to jump to dodge it.

"Leave. Now." House sounded rather menacing.

"Fine!" Owen yelled, throwing up his hands. "You lot are all crazy! I give up! I don't know why I even bothered!" With that he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Almost immediately, he ran right into Ianto who, unfortunately, was carrying a hot cup of coffee that predictably ended up all over both of them. Frustrated and cursing, Owen stalked off down the hall without listening to Ianto's apologies.

He hadn't gotten very far before he rounded a corner and fell straight into an inconveniently-located manhole. His shout of surprise at finding one on the second floor of a hospital echoed in the hall for a few moments, and then the manhole vanished as quietly as it had appeared.

* * *

 

“We’re just taking some blood samples for more tests,” Cameron reassured Jack as she entered the room with Chase and Foreman trailing behind her. Jack nodded and stepped aside to let them through the door.

“Where’s Owen?” he asked.

“He didn’t come back here? He left before us.”

“He’s probably somewhere sulking,” Foreman muttered.

Jack gave him a sharp look, but Cameron just sighed and said, “House and him had some words. You should know House doesn’t take kindly to friends of patients trying to get in on the diagnosis process.”

“Is House in his office then?” Jack asked.

“Should be,” Chase replied, “he won’t show up here often. It’ll just be us.”

Jack winked at him. “That’s fine by me.”

Chase nearly dropped the needle he was holding. He fumbled with it for a moment, came close to stabbing Foreman, then regained his grip. He glared at Jack, who was watching with amusement. “Oh no you don’t,” he told him. “I know what you did to Wilson.”

Cameron looked up. “What’d he do to Wilson?”

Foreman mouthed, Wilson’s gay! Cameron’s eyes widened. “No, I will not go on a date with you,” she replied. Chase slapped his forehead and Foreman let out a long-suffering sigh. Jack decided to leave them to it. As he left, however, he crashed right into Ianto, and they both fell, Jack landing on top of his colleague. As Jack pushed himself up, he felt wetness on his hands. He grinned at Ianto.

“Now come on, I know you’re excited to see me, but this is ridiculous.”

Ianto glared at him with unusual force. Most days, he gave as good as he got, but right now, he seemed in no mood to tolerate any of Jack’s levity. Jack glanced down and saw the coffee stain down the front of Ianto’s shirt.

“Oh.” Jack offered Ianto a hand to help him up, but Ianto ignored it. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Jack grabbed his shoulder. “Ianto, you know I get concerned when you close up on me.”

Once again, Ianto defied his expectations and didn’t calm down. Instead, he shook off his hand and kept walking. Jack had to jog to catch up. “Ianto?”

“I would hate to concern you, sir,” Ianto said curtly.

“Did I do something wrong? Oh no, you’re not actually upset I stole your tie, are you? I’ll give it back, I promise--after it’s been to the cleaners, of course.”

Ianto rounded on Jack and slammed his fist against the counter of the nearby nurse’s station. “I saw you last night,” he hissed.

“Normally you like that.”

“At the café! With that doctor! William, or Willard, or whatever!”

“Oh, Wilson.”

“Fine, Wilson!”

“You were following me?” Jack asked. Gwen had warned him about this. Workplace sex is not a good idea, she’d said. Trust me, I know. So did the rest of Torchwood Three, because they had quite an extensive security system, and Ianto was the only one who ever bothered to wipe unwanted records. Everyone else preferred just to watch.

“No, I wasn’t following you,” Ianto exclaimed. “I was, I was... yes I was following you!”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted to know where you were going! It’s my job to make sure you stay safe!”

“It’s not like he can--” Jack paused as he realized he couldn’t exactly announce he was immortal to the whole hospital, so he finished: “--stab me with... a chemo injection.”

At this point, Jack noticed the surrounding area was unusually silent. He looked up and saw everyone staring at them. Everyone except an old man in a walker who was frantically hobbling away. Again. Then he looked over and saw the nurse sitting at the desk they were arguing over. She looked familiar, but it took him a moment before he placed her as the nurse who’d caught him and Wilson in the elevator. Oh, not good.

“Are you cheating on him?” the nurse asked Jack pointedly.

“No,” Jack replied, rather sheepishly.

“You men are all pigs!” She slapped him, then turned to Ianto and handed him a card. “Here, give me a call if you need someone to talk to. I know how it feels.” She burst into tears and ran away. A young intern noticed and ran after her, calling, “Tracy! Tracy! But I’ve been asking for your number for weeks!”

Tracy grabbed a cup from a passing patient and threw it in his face. The contents were disturbingly yellow. “Scum!”

Jack nodded to himself. “Well, Ianto, you did challenge me last week to show you a workplace stranger than the Hub.”

“This isn’t stranger; it’s just more dysfunctional. And you’re not diverting my attention that easily.”

Jack looked him straight in the eye. “If I recall correctly, you were the one who said it was going to stay casual.”

“You’ve been alive two hundred years--and I know they’ve been busy years--are you telling me casual sex has ever stayed that way? Someone always gets hurt, Jack, always.”

“Do you want it to end?”

“No! I want to hear you say, ‘I love you!’ I don’t care if you mean it, I just want to be more than a part-time shag.”

“You’ve always been more than a part-time shag. But...”

“But you don’t love me.”

“I’m not going to lie to you. But last night...” Jack looked around. “It wasn’t what you think.”

“Then what was it?”

Jack smiled, even though he knew Ianto would be able to read what he was actually thinking. “Don’t worry about Gwen’s files; they’re taken care of.”

“That’s cruel.”

“It’s you or him. You can’t have it both ways.”

“Neither can you, sir.”

Well, that was more like the usual Ianto. He grinned, and this time, he actually felt it. Wilson might be easy on the eyes, but Jack knew better than to let his feelings get in the way of his work. Torchwood was his responsibility; everyone and everything else was expendable. He might not like it, but that was how it had to be. The world had to be ready.

“You believe me?”

Ianto smirked. “You know better than to lie to me, sir.”

Jack kissed him lightly on the lips. “You’d better get out of those clothes before I do it for you.”

He sighed as he watched Ianto leave. Ianto was a patient man, but somehow, Jack didn’t think he would wait for him. In so many crucial ways, Jack differed from Lisa, perhaps in too many ways. Maybe it was for the best, but whether for him or for Ianto, Jack wasn’t sure.

* * *

 

House left the conference room feeling extremely pleased with himself, not because the differential had produced any particularly exciting or interesting ideas, but because he had so successfully humiliated the annoying man who dared call himself a "doctor." One-upping people always left him in a good mood.

His mood was short-lived, however, as he was waylaid by Cuddy on the way to the cafeteria.

"Look! A rich guy who wants to donate all his money to dying kids!" House tried. Cuddy was unfortunately too clever to fall for this.

"Right. House. You owe me at least three clinic hours today," she said, crossing her arms.

"Uhh... I can't! Wilson paged me a minute ago, he's dying of a heart attack. I have to go rescue him." House tried to push past her and make an escape, but Cuddy had the advantage of having full use of both her legs, and it was pathetically easy for her to catch him. He cursed under his breath.

"Now, House. Or I'll double your clinic hours for next week."

Seeing no immediate way out of his predicament, House submitted and made his way down to the clinic. A distracted nurse handed him a chart as soon as he got there and directed him to one of the exam rooms. He managed to swipe a couple lollipops when she turned her head.

"All right, why the hell are you in here bothering me today?" he said as he walked in, throwing the chart onto the counter without bothering to look at it.

"Stomach ache," said the man sitting on the exam table.

"Right, I suspected as much," House said. "Any other symptoms?"

"No," the man said. House paused, a little disconcerted. There was something very off about the man, but House couldn't put his finger on exactly what. The slight monotone in which he spoke was a little odd, but not entirely unusual, and not nearly enough to cause the sense of unease he was feeling by itself.

House took a minute to take in the man's appearance, and something about it gave him pause, though again he couldn't say exactly why. Individually, there was nothing remotely strange about any of the man's features, but when they were all put together on his face, they looked, in a subtle way, wrong. As if there was nothing at all to distinguish him from anyone else. No funny blemishes, no crooked nose, no tiny scars--none of the smaller features that all humans had in some form just from having lived. Everything about him was absolutely, definitively, normal. He looked to House--because there was really no other word to properly describe it--contrived. If he hadn't been in the business of looking closely at people, he would have probably never thought twice about it.

"Right," House said slowly. "Lie down and indicate exactly where you feel this pain." The man did as he was told. House felt the area for a moment and felt nothing unusual.

"You probably just have a cold," he said. "Any over-the-counter medication will relieve most of the symptoms, and you might try resting if you--"

He stopped speaking abruptly as the man sort of phased in front of him. Just for a millisecond, he was something large and reddish, and then it was as if nothing had happened. House blinked, feeling his brain rebelling and trying to dismiss what it knew it couldn't have possibly seen. House mentally told it to shut up.

"Yes?" the man prompted. He didn't seem to notice, or at least didn't acknowledge, his momentary failure to comply with the laws of the universe. House quickly collected his thoughts.

"Bed rest. Tylenol. That's it," he said, stood, and quickly exited the room.

"Damn," he muttered to himself. "I knew I shouldn't have eaten Wilson's salad yesterday. It smelled funny. He's probably trying to poison me."

* * *

 

The parking structure was very well-lit for a parking structure. Ianto felt this was a crime; there were distinct rules by which the universe operated--parking structures were supposed to be dark, weevil-infested places where people got kidnapped, hospital administrators were supposed to be old, oblivious bureaucrats, and coffee was never supposed to be on your suit. It was as though Princeton-Plainsboro existed in some extra-dimensional realm where weird things happened and Dr. House existed, not that House was necessarily a bad person. As much as Ianto disapproved of House physically battering his co-worker, he had to admit it was quite amusing to watch from a distance.

Less amusing was Cuddy, who had shown up less than an hour after his run-in with Brenda the day before. She hadn’t found him via his suit though; she’d reviewed the security footage instead. Once she’d established who he was, she’d been fairly polite, but she also made clear that he was to stay out of places where he didn’t belong. She’d then noted that he could sprint quite well and asked whether he was physically fit, had a history of illnesses, or was interested in becoming a sperm donor. He wasn’t sure why this was relevant to Gwen’s case, but Cuddy had been quite insistent that he answer her questions.

His shirt grew increasingly sticky and cold as he searched for the rental car. After a period of confusion, he found it at the top of the car park, three floors higher than where Tosh told him she’d parked it. That was unlike Tosh, he thought. Then he saw a sign on a pillar next to the car that read “7B,” exactly the location Tosh had told him. He looked up and saw a piece of roof four feet square hovering over the car, one corner attached to the pillar and the rest abruptly vanishing into thin air. As he watched, two sparrows chasing each other dropped from the sky and ran head first into the concrete. When they picked themselves up from the ground and he saw they were all right, he shrugged and opened the trunk.

Inside, he found Owen doubled over amidst the luggage.

“Ianto! Where the fuck am I? What did you do to me?” Owen tried to get up, but his hands and feet seemed to be bound together by some invisible force.

Ianto tugged at Owen, but he couldn’t get Owen’s head past the top of the trunk. Every time he tried, Owen would slam his head against thin air and curse louder. He did this a few more times for good measure before he gave up, shoving Owen into a corner so he could extricate a new suit from his travel case.

“Ianto! Get me out of here!”

“You seem to be stuck.”

“Get me out of here!”

“I’ll go get help.”

“Ianto, you bloody tosser, you better--”

Ianto shut the trunk and walked away. Most strange, he thought.

* * *

 

Wilson opened the clinic door, sighing at the prospect of two more hours of clinic duty. Normally, this was something he enjoyed. It was an escape from the constant overhang of hopelessness that lingered around his chosen specialty. These were people for whom he could do more than just make comfortable.

Today, however, he just wanted to get it over with. It had been an unnecessarily tiresome day, he thought, and certain events--and people--had been trying his normally limitless patience. After clinic duty was completed, he only had a few routine appointments and then he could go home and sleep.

This first clinic patient was a fifty-three-year-old woman named Edith Thompson. Her chart showed no previous medical conditions, she wasn't running a significant temperature, and all her vital signs had been recorded as registering within normal ranges.

"Hello, I'm Doctor Wilson," he said in a cheery voice as he walked into the room. "What seems to be the problem today?" When he actually caught sight of the woman, he inwardly groaned. The chart had failed to convey just how big she was. Not overweight, exactly, but stocky, and tall. Definitely taller than him by at least several inches. And as if that wasn't intimidating enough, she was dressed as though she was a teenager, with a low-cut white blouse and a pastel blue miniskirt.

"Hello, doctor," she breathed, batting her eyelashes at him most obviously.

He had to consciously keep himself from leaving and slamming the door behind him by telling himself that Cuddy probably wouldn't appreciate him acting like House.

"I just have this terrible chest pain," Ms. Thompson continued. "Do you need to take a look?" She started unbuttoning her blouse and Wilson's subconscious shut down in sheer horror. You have got to be kidding me, he thought.

"Uh, this chart says you have a sore throat," he stuttered.

"I've changed my mind, big boy."

The day started out so ordinary, too, Wilson lamented to himself.

* * *

 

“So what’s wrong with you?” House asked, trying to make clear that this question was rhetorical rather than literal. The patient, of course, failed to notice.

“Well, I think I’m coming down with a stroke,” the man said.

The patient was young, about twenty-one, House estimated. He glanced at the chart. Damn--off by a year. That would most likely make him a college student. By the look of his lengthy and unwashed hair, set off against the contrast of $300 Gucci shoes, he was a spoiled rich brat who got off on pretending to be a new-age purveyor of philosophy or some other equally worthless major, and who desperately needed to unite with a group of fellow kool-aid drinkers to worship grass or something. And judging from his previous comment, he didn’t deserve to be in college. All this led House to the most professional diagnosis that he was an Idiot-Who-Can’t-Tie-His-Shoes.

“You’re coming down with a stroke?” House repeated, on the off chance that this would make the man say something less stupid.

“Yes, I’m coming down with a stroke.” Well, it was worth a try.

“And why would that be?”

“My arm tingles.” The idiot held out his right arm. House whacked it. “Ow!”

“Does it tingle now?”

“No. It hurts.”

“Did it tingle before it hurt?”

“Only in the mornings.”

“Are you a social butterfly who’s popular with people but trusting of strangers and extremely gullible?”

The idiot brightened. “Why yes! Are you a believer of physiognomy?”

“No, but apparently, some bunch of idiots who had nothing better to do with grant money decided that similar types of people share similar sleeping habits, namely that they sleep on their sides.”

“I sleep on my side!”

“Do you cushion your head with your arm?”

“Yeah! Dude, you’re like psychic or something!”

House whacked him again. “You’re not coming down with a stroke. When you sleep on your arm, you cut off circulation, so when you wake up in the morning, it tingles.”

“Whoa, really?”

“Yeah, really.”

“What should I do?”

House tilted his head, wondering if this idiot might flicker and prove to be other than human, because if not, many humanists would go to bed crying tonight. “Stop sleeping.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I guarantee your arm will stop tingling if you stop sleeping.”

“Great. Thanks, man!” The patient got up and clapped him on the back as he left the room. House glared. People really needed to stop doing that.

House stood and prepared to leave, but Jack Harkness slid in between the closing door and the exiting patient, and now House was trapped. “You’re not getting those files,” he snapped.

Harkness shrugged and flashed his teeth at him. “I’m over that.”

For once, House felt a sudden urge to take care of his paperwork. He did not like this man, and it wasn’t because he now had his arm around him. Or at least, not only because of that.

“What are you doing?” House asked.

Harkness massaged his shoulders. “Your skin is very soft.”

Now, House thought, as Harkness moved into just the right position. With a flick of his wrist, he brought his cane whirling about to strike Harkness’ temple. The man let out a yell and fell back, smashing several jars on the countertop behind him. House turned to survey him calmly and was pleased when he saw him rubbing his head madly.

“Don’t touch me,” he said again.

“And here I thought actions spoke louder than words.” Harkness managed to summon up a smile, though House was pleased to note it was much less blinding than the one before.

“When around idiots, I sometimes feel the need to repeat myself.”

“People usually respond favorably to me.” Harkness started closing the distance between them again. House was alarmed. Most people responded rationally to violence; it was an appeal to fundamental instincts, the need for self-preservation and the like. At a slightly higher level, insults and demeaning comments created negative associations with House in most people’s minds, and the slightly more intelligent avoided him for that reason. Clearly he needed to try a third approach.

There was only four feet between House and the door, and Harkness was not in the way. He made a mad dash, falling at the door handle rather than actually moving his legs. In a flash Harkness was at the door, and his foot kept it from swinging open any further. House sighed. “What do you want?”

“So we’re at the bargaining stage. Almost at acceptance.”

“Nobody’s died, you moron, though your stroking colleague might if you don’t let me out of the room.”

“Your associates are running tests on her; they said you wouldn’t be checking on her for a few hours yet.”

House made a mental tick mark next to “tattle-tale” on the list of actions he predicted Cameron would take to get him to sleep with her. Creating tension came right after sleeping with Chase to make him jealous. House gave it three more months before she started to seduce him outright. He only hoped she wouldn’t take lessons from Harkness.

“It’s usually those who can’t find any sexual partners who feel the need to brag about their attractiveness,” House said.

“Maybe you should ask Dr. Wilson just how attractive I am.”

House forgot about the door. “What?” Jack looked far too self-satisfied to be making it up, but House nevertheless told him, “You’re lying.”

“Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”

“Don’t be fooled by all his divorces; Wilson’s as Catholic as he’s Jewish. He wouldn’t even know what to do with you.”

“So you haven’t heard? I’m disappointed, House. I expected you to be up on workplace gossip. You like to have an edge over your colleagues, don’t you? Or maybe Wilson’s your gateway to the hospital, and damn, he sure ain’t one to kiss and tell.”

Their stand-off was quite rudely interrupted by a pretty blonde who looked too healthy to be here with a cold. Her shoulders were a little tight, and she walked with a shuffling gait, suggesting she was nervous about some embarrassing medical condition. The force of their attention probably didn’t help her anxiety.

“Oh!” she gasped. “I’m sorry, the nurse told me this room was unoccupied and I could wait for--”

“Well, she was wrong!” House snapped. “Can’t you see I’m here with a patient?”

“Hi, Captain Jack Harkness,” Harkness offered her his hand. She shook it, looking confused. “It’s nice to meet you, Miss…”

“Lucinda Davidson,” she squeaked, blushing.

“Lucinda. May I call you Lucy?”

She nodded. This needed to be stopped. “Shoo! Your rash isn’t an STD, it’s just an inconveniently located fungus. Go find someone to write you a prescription.”

Lucinda’s eyes widened. She glanced at Jack, whose smile didn’t even flicker. This man had issues.

Jack winked. “We’ll talk later.”

“Yeah,” House said, “after I figure out what to do with his drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea.” He slammed the door on the girl’s shocked expression.

Harkness folded his arms. “Now you’re stuck with me. How do you want to pass the time?”

House pulled out his portable television and turned it on. Harkness looked disappointed but nevertheless approached to watch over his shoulder.

“Ah, General Hospital. Great show. So sad when it ended.”

House glanced at him. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, oops. Right. That’s not for years.”

* * *

 

Don’t call him. He’ll call me during his lunch break.

“Here,” Tosh said, handing Gwen her cell phone. “Can you keep this for me? And if anyone calls, tell them I’ll call them back.”

“Sure,” Gwen replied. “But why can’t you--”

“It interferes with my scans,” Tosh said, as confidently as she could manage, given that she was lying through her teeth. She ran out of the room, ears straining for the sound of her ring tone even as she headed down the hallway.

She and Monty had gone to bed not long after they arrived at the hotel--separately, of course; Tosh had no intention of rushing into a relationship. The next morning was a flurry of activity as they exchanged phone numbers on hotel stationery and rushed to beat the sun to work. Surprisingly enough, the fact that Monty knew about the existence, if not the specifics, of Torchwood did not bother her. He didn’t press her on details, and he seemed far more interested in her than her work. She felt good when she was with him. With Mary, there’d always been the sense that she was doing something wrong, something furtive, as though she was a child trying to keep her parents from finding out she’d done something against the rules. Monty was the sort of partner she could actually take home. Well, if he wasn’t a politician, anyway.

They’d arranged to meet again that night. Tosh wasn’t sure where this relationship was going, if anywhere, but she liked it that way. She could leave any time, only she knew she wouldn’t. But knowing that she was in control, it made her feel safe in a way she hadn’t since aliens crashed into Big Ben. All her life had been a blur after that, one covert organization after another, so many secrets, a million little weights that she couldn’t put down, and each one seemed so light, she always thought, Just one more will be all right.

When she returned to the hospital, Ianto told her about the coat rack he’d discovered, as well as how Jack had failed to track it down. She’d tweaked the scanner a little more as she sat with Gwen. Owen had disappeared, but she supposed he could be forgiven after staying up all night with Gwen. She only hoped he’d found somewhere comfortable to get some rest.

Keeping a wary eye out for Brenda, Tosh walked down hall after hall, trying to conceal the beeping device in her hands. She first searched the location Ianto had described, but though she picked up slightly elevated radiation levels, they were low enough to tell her the artifact had long since moved on. She next checked the readings outside each doctor’s office, but there weren’t even small spikes to suggest that the artifact had been on the floor apart from when it’d been by the coat rack. Maybe it’d been a doctor visiting from another floor...

Then she noticed a janitor wheeling a cart into a patient’s room. The coat rack had been near a janitor’s closet! She rushed back to the location, and sure enough, found a locked door. Maybe Ianto had been mistaken. She pulled out the lock-breaker Jack had let her bring from the Hub, and a click told her the room was accessible. She pushed the door open and found herself in a small enclosure, barely one by two meters in area, and disappointingly devoid of alien objects. The beeping almost stopped entirely. She took a step in and waved her handheld over a few of the shelves, hoping for a pick-up in the readings. There was nothing.

Someone behind her cleared her throat. Tosh whirled around and found herself face-to-face with Brenda. The nurse frowned. “What are you doing?”

There was no escaping, and Tosh wasn’t about to try to force her way past; she knew from yesterday how strong the woman’s grip was. There was only one thing to do; Tosh stepped closer, wrapped her arms around Brenda, and brought their heads together. Brenda let out a soft gasp as their lips met. Tosh opened her mouth, and when she applied a little pressure, the nurse let the tip of her tongue slide through her defenses. She smelled different from any man or woman Tosh had kissed before; the scent of antiseptics drifted about her, and her skin was so clean it was almost tasteless. Nevertheless, there was nothing sterile about her technique. She most certainly knew how to kiss.

Tosh let the kiss stretch for a few more seconds before she let go and they broke apart. Brenda’s face was emotionless, but the sternness was gone from her expression. Brenda brushed a finger against her lower lip and stared at Tosh. “I haven’t been kissed in a long time.”

Tosh smiled and waited. Brenda contemplated a moment longer before saying, “You shouldn’t be here. You’ve been awfully bad, and do you know what we do to those who’ve been naughty?”

* * *

 

Ianto rushed into the lobby. Jack wasn’t picking up his cell and Gwen had answered Tosh’s, saying she’d left just a few minutes ago to search for Ianto’s coat rack. Either of them would have the equipment to deal with Owen’s situation, so he headed for the lift, figuring Tosh would be easier to track down. As the lift approached the first floor, however, he heard a curious sound growing louder.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow, OW.” Ding.

A dark, blurred shape burst through the opening doors and knocked Ianto to the ground. He blinked and saw it was Tosh. He looked past her and saw the doors close on Brenda.

“Got caught?”

Tosh brushed her hair from her eyes and pushed herself up. “I tried kissing her.”

“You must not be a very good kisser.”

Tosh looked indignant. “Brad Pitt couldn’t move that woman’s heart.”

“What about Jack Harkness?”

“Someone say my name?”

They both jumped as Jack appeared from the direction of the hospital’s free clinic. Ianto opened his mouth. “Owen’s--”

“Jack!” Tosh exclaimed. The three of them froze as they realized Tosh’s scanner was beeping madly. She ran up to Jack and scanned him. The screen lit up like fireworks. Ianto looked over her shoulder and did a few quick mental calculations.

“For that level of radiation, you have to have been exposed within the last twelve hours,” he said.

“Twelve hours?” Tosh said. “More like six.”

“Not if he was in close contact for a long period of time.”

“For that long, he’d have to have been on a date or something!”

Jack glanced at the device. “Yeah, well, there was Wilson.”

“Wilson?”

“Just an oncologist. Strictly professional.”

“Gwen has cancer?”

“Uh... no.”

“Where else have you been today?” Ianto asked.

“Clinic,” Jack replied. “Three nurses, two receptionists, House, another doctor, and Cuddy, briefly. This morning, there was Chase, Foreman, and Cameron, and I’ll be damned if Cameron isn’t obscenely flirty.”

Ianto raised an eyebrow.

Jack raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’m serious, the woman’s on hormone pills or something. She’s probably trying to make someone jealous.”

“Maybe we should check the clinic before the objects of your flirtation walk out on us.” Tosh said.

“As if.”

Ianto sighed at Jack’s self-esteem and sense of sexual entitlement. He might find it amusing, or at least exasperating, if it wasn’t all that stood between them and the possible annihilation of the city.

* * *

 

Wilson's second clinic patient was no better than the first, which just seemed insanely unfair. He was a heavy, balding, middle-aged man who was, it appeared, very fond of shouting, and was definitely a first-class champion at it. He also had an alarming tendency to emphasize everything with obscenities.

"I need a fucking physical!" he announced the moment Wilson stepped into the room. Slightly put-off by his attitude, Wilson glanced down at his chart.

"All right, Mister, uh, Humphrey." The man's name was Hubert Horatio Humphrey. The Third. Oh God. He couldn't conceive of a less suitable name. "I'm Dr. Wilson," he continued, "and I--"

"Goddammit, stop your fucking blithering and get on with it! I have to get back to work and you fucking snobs have already kept me waiting forty fucking minutes! I have to make a living too, you know!" The man seemed to naturally punctuate his sentences with exclamation marks, even when he wasn't actively trying to be loud, and since right then he was, Wilson doubted there was a single person within fifty meters of the room who couldn't hear every word. It wasn't even noon yet, and he already felt his frayed nerves deteriorating even further.

"Right, sorry. I'll try to make this quick," Wilson said, trying his best to remain polite and calm. He hurried to pull together the necessary papers. "What is your reason for getting a physical?" he asked.

"For my fucking insurance agency," the man boomed. "All I want to do is switch policies! Could the bastards make it a bigger fucking issue?" Hubert Humphrey continued to rant about insurance agencies in a voice that steadily rose in volume as he made himself madder and madder. In the wake of his venting, he seemed to have forgotten about his rush to return to his job.

Wilson stared, transfixed in morbid fascination as the man's large, round face deepened from a pinkish hue into a dark red one. The excess skin on his neck wobbled menacingly, and a couple of thick veins throbbed and pulsed on his forehead. Watching him was like watching an erupting volcano that was somehow partly plugged, so that the liquid inferno inside was unable to force its way out all at once and was so very outraged to discover it had no choice but to erupt a bit at a time.

The man was so big he could probably have killed Wilson just by sitting on him. It was absolutely terrifying.

Then, sometime in the last five minutes, his tirade shifted from the inefficiencies of insurance agencies to the inefficiencies of doctors and hospitals. Roughly seven minutes in, Wilson, far past the end of his rope and fearing for his eardrums, decided he'd had enough.

"Do you want to get on with this or not?!" he yelled, the words exploding out of him. Typically, he immediately regretted it and felt bad. The man paused to stare at him in disbelief.

"How dare you speak to me that way, you fucking little shit! If you don't want my money, I'll go to another fucking hospital!"

"I apologize, it won't happen again," Wilson said wearily, all the anger having drained out of him to be replaced by absolute indifference. He didn’t bother to point out that the clinic was free.

"You're damn right it won't! That's one of the things I hate about doctors; they all think they're so fucking high-and-mighty..." And unbelievably, the man was off again. Wilson rubbed his temples. He was seriously considering fetching House and letting them deal with each other when the man himself opened the door and popped his head in.

House took less than a moment to assess the situation and then, ignoring Wilson's panicked arm motions, opened his mouth. "SHUT UP!" he roared, his commanding voice somehow carrying well over the noise Mr. Humphrey was making, which abruptly ceased. "Thank you," House said, before addressing Wilson. "What is going on in here? The nurses all think you're trapped in here with the Incredible Hulk! Apparently they're wrong, though. He's not the right color," he added.

Wilson struggled between relief and exasperation. His ears were ringing.

"Do you want to die?!" Humphrey shouted at House. House pretended to consider the question.

"I'd say dying is the last thing I want to do," he responded flippantly. Wilson rolled his eyes.

"Coulda fooled me--" Humphrey hesitated and frowned. "Wait..."

"Anyway," House continued, turning towards Wilson again, "I'm getting lunch. You coming?" He reached over and used his cane to unhook his coat from a stand in the corner of the room. Catching Wilson’s expression, he said, "Is it just me or is it hot in here? Not good for your temper." And with that, he left. Wilson engaged in a brief debate with himself over the merits of keeping his reputation versus the merits of keeping his sanity. Of course, he quickly decided on the inevitable and followed after House, pausing only to assure his fuming patient that he'd send another doctor in shortly.

Five minutes and a quick stop at the restrooms found House and Wilson on their way to the cafeteria. Wilson had calmed down considerably and was even on his way towards regaining his good mood. He and House were thoroughly immersed in a deep theological discussion.

"Every religious revelation must involve a tree, or at least be near one," House decided.

"Yes," Wilson agreed.

"Or a bush."

"A burning bush."

"A burning bush, maybe. That's why I don't trust Islam. There aren't many trees in the desert." House looked thoughtful. "Do cacti count?" he asked. Wilson hadn't considered that.

"Er, I don't think there are really cacti there. At least, not in the way we think of cacti. The Old Western type, you know."

A beat. "Wasn't the burning bush in the desert?" House asked.

"Errrr... Probably, I suppose. Or a mountain maybe?"

Another beat. "How big do they have to be to count?" House wondered. Wilson shrugged.

"I don't think they'd count unless they have leaves."

"How many trees do you think had to be cut down in order to build this hospital?" House asked, apparently losing interest in the cacti.

"Dunno," Wilson said helpfully as they both rounded a corner. "Lots, I'd imagine. Not much of it is made of wood, I suppose, but even just the amount of paperwork involved..."

"Think of how many important revelations may never be able to happen now!" House tried hard to sound distressed.

"It is truly an unparalleled loss," Wilson agreed sadly. They both spotted Cuddy approaching them from the other end of the hallway. House adopted a wary look.

"Do you think that could possibly be construed as religious discrimination? Cutting down all those trees?" he asked.

"It is quite possible." Wilson plastered on a grim expression. Cuddy halted directly in front of them and opened her mouth to speak. House, sensing danger, attempted a preemptive strike.

"That sort of religious discrimination is intolerable!" he yelled, loud enough for anyone on that floor to hear, which badly startled Cuddy. "I am utterly disgusted by you, Doctor! All those trees!" With that, House turned on his heel with a grace that belied his bum leg and limped off as fast as he could manage. Wilson gave a snort at the flabbergasted look on his boss's face before running to catch up with his friend.

"DAMMIT, HOUSE! YOU NEVER FINISHED YOUR CLINIC DUTY!" Cuddy yelled after them as they escaped.

* * *

 

They split up, Ianto heading for the patients waiting in the lobby while Tosh checked the staff and Jack burst into exam room after exam room. When Ianto’s search yielded nothing, he headed past the reception desk to help Jack. Thus far, none of the nurses had noticed Jack’s incursions, but he doubted that would last long; the sooner they finished their search the better. He was about to enter one of the rooms when Jack ran out of the next one over, his wristband beeping.

Jack grabbed a passing nurse. “Excuse me, which doctor was in here? He examined me earlier, but I didn’t catch his name, and I realized I had a question for him.”

“You didn’t get his name? That’d probably be Dr. House, then.”

“No, no, he was in another room. I remember because he made someone cry and she told me, ‘If you see a doctor with a cane named House, run as fast as you can.’”

“Oh, well let me check then.”

“Thank you.” Jack and Ianto followed her back to the desk. She flipped through the files and nodded.

“The last five patients in that room saw Dr. Wilson.”

“I told you,” Ianto said.

Tosh ran up to them. “I got nothing.”

“It was Wilson.” Jack said. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Brenda’s on the oncology floor,” Ianto and Tosh said at the same time.

Jack rolled his eyes. “Cowards.” He ran off. The two of them reluctantly followed.

When they entered the main lobby, Tosh froze. Ianto glanced at her, then followed her gaze to see a handsome young man waving at her from the front door. He remembered she’d been gone last night.

Jack noticed too. “Wow, Tosh,” he said approvingly, “you’ve been busy. It’s the American accent, isn’t it?”

The man entered and ran up to Tosh, kissing her on the forehead. “Are these your coworkers?”

“Uh, yeah,” Tosh said, still looking nervous. “This is Jack and Ianto. Jack and Ianto, meet Monty Pike.”

“Nice to meet you,” Monty said, shaking Jack’s hand.

Jack grinned. “Nice to meet you too, Monty.”

Tosh shook her head. “No flirting, Jack.”

“When were you going to tell us you’d met someone?” Jack asked, before adding in a faux whisper, “And so hot, too.”

“No. Flirting.”

“I don’t suppose I could pry Toshiko away for an hour?” Monty asked.

“Did you drive from the capital?” Tosh said.

Monty shrugged and tried to look nonchalant. “Yeah, well, it’s been a slow day.”

“There’s sort of been an emergency,” Jack said. “And--”

“Jack,” Ianto interrupted. “I think you might want to let her go.”

Jack stared at Ianto in confusion, and in the ensuing silence, they all heard it: a double shrill, insistent beeping from Jack and Tosh’s hands. As one, they both brought their scanners closer to Monty, and the beeping grew louder and more frequent.

“Uh, what’s that?” Monty asked.

“Never mind,” Jack and Tosh said, shutting off their scanners.

Jack smiled. “Special scanners; they detect sexiness.”

Ianto saw Tosh give Jack an incredulous look that Monty didn’t see. The young man looked extremely pleased and was much too focused on Tosh to give the comment any extra thought. He offered her his hand, which she took with one last glance at Jack, and they headed out the door together.

“Come on, stop staring at his ass,” Jack told Ianto. “We have an oncologist to intercept.”

* * *

 

Wilson and House retreated to Wilson’s office, figuring Cuddy would expect them to hide somewhere less conspicuous. Wilson sighed in relief as House slammed the door. He had no patients waiting to meet him, and though he’d left clinic duty an hour early, he could make it up later. At least House wasn’t in an argumentative mood; he might actually get some peace, now.

He heard the lock click. He looked up and saw House leaning against the door with a self-satisfied look. Oh, this was not good.

“Word ‘round the water cooler says you’ve been making out with my patient’s boss,” House said. “I’m sure there’s something in the Hippocratic Oath against it.”

“It also says not to give women abortions.”

“Did you just conveniently forget to deny my accusation? Oho, Wilson! You mad sex dog.”

“Oh god...”

“I heard Dean from pediatrics fancies you. You could be James and Dean, rebels without the sense to run away from bratty children.”

“It was just one kiss.”

“That what you told your first wife?”

“You know what, House? I don’t have to put up with this.” Wilson stood up. When House refused to budge from the door, he pushed House out of the way, causing him to collapse onto the sofa. House looked indignant but Wilson shook his head. “There’s a reason I didn’t talk to you; I’d hoped you’d be at least a little bit understanding, but I should’ve known that was too much to hope for. Come back when you have something supportive to say.”

Wilson unlocked the door and stepped out. He sighed, wondering where he could go now. House would be waiting in his office when he went back in, that much he knew for sure. He might as well return to the clinic and maybe go home early. Yes, that sounded like a good idea.

He turned to head for the elevator and immediately ran into Jack Harkness.

“Take off your coat.” Jack demanded.

“What? No!

“It’s urgent!”

Wilson turned and ran.

“Ianto!” Jack called.

A man in a suit appeared in the intersection ahead and charged Wilson. Wilson dodged to one side, but the other man was too fast. Ianto tackled him, slamming him against the floor. Their combined momentum sent them skidding backward into an approaching nurse who screamed and ran away.

It was all too much. Wilson screamed. “Get the fuck off me!”

He threw a wild punch that sent the other man flying. Clambering back onto his feet, he saw Jack was rapidly closing the distance between them. There was no time to run. Still in a blind rage, Wilson unhooked his stethoscope and threw himself at Jack, wrapping the cord around his neck. He slammed the captain against the wall, applying his full weight against his chest to keep him from moving.

“Stop stalking me!” Wilson yelled.

Jack head-butted him. He cried out, falling backward, and he felt a pair of strong arms grab him and pull him back. Still blinking stars from his eyes, he couldn’t recover in time. Jack pressed some angular device against a door and pulled it open, revealing a janitor’s closet. His associate gave Wilson a push, and he staggered in. Jack followed and shut them in. Wilson backed away, suddenly a little frightened.

“Did you pick up any strange artifacts in the past two days, under mysterious circumstances?” Jack asked.

Wilson tilted his head in confusion. “What? Uh, no.”

“Then you won’t mind if I check your pockets?” Jack asked. “Really, I just need to see your coat.”

Wilson hesitated a moment, then shook off his coat and handed it over. Jack rummaged through his pockets, and when he found nothing, he looked upset. He ran his wristband over the coat, and it beeped wildly.

“Empty your pockets, please?” Jack said.

Wilson complied, realizing the urgency in Jack’s voice meant this encounter was strictly professional. There was only his wallet and his keys. Jack scanned them quickly, then had him put them back.

“That’s strange,” Jack muttered to himself.

Suddenly, there was an urgent knocking on the door.

“Jack! Get out of there! She’s com-- aaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiieeeeerrghhghhhhhhhhh!!!”

The door flew open to reveal Brenda, the nurse.

“Why hello,” Jack said brightly, “I’m-- ow ow OW!”

With Brenda’s fingers tight around his right ear, Jack had little choice but to allow himself to be guided out of the closet. Once he was outside, she slammed the base of her hand against his back, and the captain went flying. Wilson felt himself relaxing in relief when she turned back toward him. He felt his heart jump into his throat.

“I expected better from you, Dr. Wilson,” Brenda said.

“Uh, I swear, I wasn’t-- oh, can I just please go?” He tried to edge past her, but she grabbed his shirt and pushed him back against the shelves. In his terror, he couldn’t take his eyes off her, but he heard the door squeak shut.

“You’ve been a naughty, naughty boy, Dr. Wilson.”

Wilson whimpered and shut his eyes. This day could not end soon enough.

* * *

 

As soon as they were out of the hospital, Monty pulled Tosh aside and looked around furtively. “There’s something I need to show you.” He opened his briefcase and rummaged through the contents before withdrawing a metallic, rod-shaped implement about seven centimeters long. It was tapered at one end and ended with a round extrusion on the other, but there were no markings or buttons on it. Tosh could see no way of activating it, though there must be some method, because plain as it looked, they both needed but a glance to realize it was alien in origin.

Tosh ran her handheld over the object, and sure enough, the artifact was practically glowing with Rift energy. Monty grinned; so he’d known what she and Jack were doing.

“This came through just hours ago,” Tosh whispered. Monty nodded confirmation.

“I was leaving the governor’s office when I heard a soft zapping sound. There was a bit of a burnt ozone smell, too, and when I checked behind the secretary’s desk, I saw this on the ground, smoking as though it were burning a hole in the carpet, though there was no damage.”

“This is not good,” Tosh said. “This came through from Cardiff. One artifact this far away from the Rift is bad, two means... well, it’s never happened before.”

“What about a few months ago with the aliens over the Taj Mahal and all that? I overheard the governor making some calls and I’m sure he said ‘Cardiff.’”

“That was... special.”

“So, what, is the space-time continuum coming apart and the universe preparing to end?”

“Nothing that drastic. Probably.” Tosh took the rod and flipped it over and over in her hands, trying to find some hint as to what it did or where it came from. “The Earth might get destroyed though.”

“Oh, well, that’s nothing to worry about,” Monty said.

“So this is what you came to see me about?” Tosh said, pointing the rod at him. He jumped out of the way.

“I was going to come anyway, just not this early. But it seemed urgent, and I didn’t know who else to turn to. It isn’t every day something materializes in the office.”

Tosh nodded. “It’s a good thing you did. Thank you. I’ll have to find some way to repay you.”

“Oh, I can think of a few ways.”

Tosh smiled. Then she focused her attention back on the rod. Come on, she thought. What do you do? Activate!

Suddenly, a shrill scream, like the blow of a whistle, sounded as though from the very air around them. A concussion exploded outward from the device, and when the blast hit her, everything fell silent, as though she’d gone deaf. Then the shockwave passed and she could hear the rushing of wind roaring away from them. A single beam of light shot out from the rod and struck a passing pedestrian.

Damn it! She quickly pointed the rod down at the ground, but the damage was done. Thankfully, it shut down before it could do much more, but the man it’d shot was sprawled unmoving on the ground.

She and Monty ran up to the man and turned him over.

“He’s still breathing,” Monty said.

The man’s eyelids shot open. He shifted his gaze from one of them to the other, his eyes wide with a sort of dazed fervor. “Am I dead? Are you... angels?”

Tosh shook her head. “No, you’re alive, thankfully.”

“Thank the Lord! He has allowed me to come back to serve Him!”

Tosh and Monty exchanged looks. She could tell he was thinking, Oh, it’s one of them. The man ignored them.

“Oh, the follies I have committed. He struck me down in punishment for my sins, but when I was afraid, He appeared in the darkness and showed me the path of righteousness. I have been granted a second chance!”

“You’re all right, sir?” Monty said cautiously.

The man grabbed his tie and pulled him closer. “I am great, young man! I am saved! Repent, or you will burn in Hell for all eternity!”

“Oh,” Monty blinked. “Great. Sounds like fun.”

“Are you being flippant?”

“Oh no, I never learned to cartwheel. I had a bad back in elementary school.”

The man paused, apparently unsure what to make of his comment. Finally, he nodded, his eyes filling with tears. “You have already sold your soul to the Devil! You are beyond salvation. Oh, may you suffer for all eternity.”

He stood up and wandered away and promptly began to rant at a particularly lewd-looking tree.

“You don’t suppose I did that to him?” Tosh asked.

“I don’t know,” Monty responded. “But promise me one thing.”

“Yes?”

“Never point that thing at me again.”

“God damn you!” the man roared as Tosh and Monty beat a hasty retreat. “You’re just like that blasphemous Giving Tree, seducing little children with your ‘gifts’ and making them play with you!”

* * *

 

Chase, Foreman, and Cameron were waiting for House for close to ten minutes before they realized he wasn’t showing up.

“Where’s House?” Cameron asked. “No way he’s still in the clinic.”

“Where have you been the last few years?” Foreman said.

“Uh, guys…” Chase was pacing by the window, and he pointed outside. “The light in Wilson’s office is on.”

“So?” said Foreman.

Chase ignored him and went through House’s office onto the balcony. Cameron shrugged and followed him out. Foreman just snickered, which Cameron thought was an exceedingly odd reaction.

Sure enough, House was in Wilson’s office. In fact, he was the only one in Wilson’s office. Sitting back in his chair, with his feet on the table, House was watching TV and twirling his cane around. The three of them clambered over the wall dividing the two balconies, and Chase tried the door. It was locked. He knocked, and House looked up.

“Let us in!” Chase said.

“Go around and use the front door like polite people.”

Foreman rolled his eyes but didn’t bother protesting. He turned and climbed back over the wall. Cameron followed.

“No, that’s ridiculous, House!” Chase said. “I’m staying here until you open the door.”

“Can’t you stand up to me on something useful?” House asked.

When they reached the door bearing Wilson’s name, they found it locked too, but House opened it for them. Cameron glanced at the side door and saw the balcony was empty.

“Where’s Chase?” she asked.

“He finally saw reason,” House replied, slamming the door shut. As he turned the lock, they heard a thump and the door shook on its hinges.

“Ow!” Chase’s muffled cry came from the other side.

“Sorry!” House said. “The door’s jammed! Try the balcony entrance!”

“Just let him in.” Cameron said.

“Don’t stand up for your lover.”

“I’m not sleeping with him!”

“Focus on your work, Cameron! I assume you’re here with the lab results, which will all be negative.”

Cameron sighed. “How did you know?”

“Because your suggestions were stupid!”

Foreman laid out several negatives on the desk. “MRI showed nothing; other than the stroke, her brain’s clean. What are you doing in Wilson’s office?”

“I’m office-sitting for him. His porn stash gets lonely.”

“TSH levels were normal,” Cameron said, “but she’s hypoglycemic, so insulinoma is still on the table.”

“Low blood sugar is also indicative of many other conditions,” House said.

“None of which explain the seizures, panic attacks, and vision.”

“Insulinoma doesn’t cause strokes. Her hypoglycemia occurred after her arrival, so it may simply be due to weight loss from the stroke. Check her heart, it’s the next most likely candidate to throw a clot in the brain.”

A knock showed Chase had made his way back to the balcony door. House got up, and Chase looked relieved until House plastered the MRI against the glass right in front of his face and yelled, “Get out of the way; you’re blocking the sun.”

“What are you looking for?” Cameron asked, suddenly wary.

“You idiots,” House said. “Foreman’s obsessed with the brain, but I expected you to know better. It’s all in the head, it always is, but whoever said the brain was the only thing in there?”

Chase tapped the glass. “It looks like there’s an angioma in her eye.”

“Wow, maybe I should’ve locked one of you outside instead. We assumed the loss of color vision was due to brain damage from the stroke, but we can already see at least one clot in her retina. What if there’s something wrong with the eye itself?”

“If it’s a cavernous hemangioma, it’s usually autosomal,” Foreman said.

“We managed to get a full medical history from the hospitals in Wales,” Cameron said. “There’s no family history of relevant diseases, and we have her parents’ DNA tests. It isn’t genetic.”

“Most people can go a lifetime without experiencing symptoms,” House replied. “But it could also be a simple clot, which would make it another symptom of an underlying condition.”

Chase suddenly turned and ran to the other end of the balcony. “Hey! What’s that? It looks like there’s someone in your office!”

“Well, tell the janitor that if he cleans up now, he’ll just have to do it again later!” House yelled. “Now back to the case; give her some starch and make sure her glucose level returns to normal, then monitor it and see if it changes. If it does, we’ll know it’s a new symptom.”

Chase was leaning over the very edge of the balcony now as he strained to get a better look into House’s office. “Hey! House! He’s going through your files! Get out of there!”

Pushing down against the concrete with both hands, Chase swung himself onto the wall and charged House’s office, but his feet came down against some dirt and lost their traction. The sudden loss of footing sent Chase crashing down onto the divider. He began sliding backwards. “Oh shit!” he said, grabbing for any handhold within reach, but it was too late, and a second later, he slid over the edge and vanished. This was soon followed by a loud thump.

“Chase!” Cameron cried, pushing House aside and running to the edge. Foreman and House followed close behind. She saw Chase sprawled on the ground a floor below.

“I’m fine!” Chase groaned. “I’m fine. Ow!”

“Come on, we’d better make sure he’s ok,” Foreman said, and he ran back into the office, dragging House behind him.

“Wait, what about the intruder?” Cameron called after them, but they were gone. She glanced back over the wall and saw that Chase was indeed correct. The man had stopped for a moment to see what the commotion was about, but as Cameron met his gaze, he turned away and nonchalantly began going through House’s drawers.

Taking care not to make the same mistake Chase had, Cameron vaulted over the wall and threw open the door.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. The man ignored her. She walked forward and grabbed his shoulder. “Sir, you need to leave immediately or I’ll call security.”

The man swung around and twisted her arm, slamming her against House’s desk. His face seemed to shimmer, momentarily revealing something scaly and dark beneath his skin, and then he hissed at her, sending small, almost aerosolized, droplets of ice cold spittle against her neck. She tried to twist away, but his grip was too strong.

“Dr. Cameron, don’t move!”

Two gunshots rang out, and she felt the pressure from the man’s weight disappear. She turned around and saw him spin apart into a cloud of black smoke. Two bullets clattered from mid-air onto the floor. Ianto Jones ran up to her and pulled her away from the desk with one hand, his other still pointing the gun around as he searched the room for where the man, or the thing, or whatever it was, had gone.

“You’re not supposed to have a gun in the hospital!” she said.

Ianto gave her an incredulous look. Right at that moment, wisps of smoke drew together out of thin-air and the creature re-materialized, this time as a towering, reptilian biped with fangs and six-inch long claws. It roared and slashed Ianto’s hand, sending the gun flying. Falling back, Ianto pushed her toward the door and lunged for the fallen weapon. The creature leapt on him, its claws tearing at his sides. Ianto screamed as the creature lifted him up and brought him toward its yawning jaws, but then it stopped, making a curious sniffing motion before tossing Ianto aside like a rag doll. He slammed into House’s desk with such force it collapsed about him.

Cameron had almost reached the door when the creature spoke, its voice boring into her head and grabbing hold of her as though she’d been conditioned to obey its every command. “You are contaminated. You know where the artifact is.” Its voice echoed within her mind, repeating over and over, and every time she heard it, her muscles seemed to lock down further.

She stood frozen in place, unable to will herself to escape as the creature took step after step forward, drawing ever closer. Behind it, she saw Ianto groaning as he struggled from the remains of House’s desk. Right as the creature came within arm’s-length of her, he reached his gun.

RUN!” he screamed, firing.

The force of his voice drove the creature’s out of her head, and suddenly her limbs were her own again. The bullet struck the creature’s shoulder. Its skin flickered and faded like a hologram in a movie, leaving only a burst of smoke in its place. Then the same thing happened to its front as the bullet passed through its body and whistled past Cameron’s ear. She screamed and ran.

The creature howled in outrage. It spun toward Ianto and bellowed, “You will stay put!

Then it turned and started bounding down the hallway after her, closing the distance between them with impossible speed.

“Somebody help me!” she screamed, watching it draw closer out of the corner of her eye. Right at that moment, a door opened before her, blocking her way. She screamed again, dodging to the side.

Surprisingly, it was Wilson who staggered out of what was apparently a custodial closet. His shirt was half-opened and his expression was somewhere between terrified and half-mad.

“Wilson, come back!” she heard Brenda’s voice calling in desperation.

Then Cameron was past the door, missing it with inches to spare. The creature was not quite as mobile, though, and its momentum carried it straight into Wilson. The poor man didn’t even see it coming. He let out a garbled cry as he and the creature tore the door off its hinges and went soaring down the hall past Cameron. She yelped, turned on her heels, and headed back the other way.

Behind her, the creature lifted Wilson up by his arms and pinned him against the wall. “You are contaminated too.”

A light seemed to emanate from the creature’s entire body as a bluish-red glow spread from it to Wilson, eventually enveloping both of them in a giant bubble. This lasted a few seconds, along with a low, bass-like hum, before the light vanished, like a bubble breaking, and the creature let Wilson slide to the ground.

As Cameron passed House’s office, a hand grabbed her, and she screamed, but it was just Ianto.

“How did you get out?” she asked.

“I’ve been trained to resist psychic attacks,” Ianto replied as they approached an intersection. “Though this... this is different. Turn right!

“Where are we going?” Cameron demanded.

“I’m not sure!”

“Well that’s great!” The creature was rapidly gaining ground.

“Might be a good idea to get it out of the hospital,” Ianto suggested. “DUCK!”

The creature leapt as Ianto pushed her to the ground. It sailed past overhead, and Cameron winced as she felt its claws tug at her back, but it just snagged her lab coat and tore it off, leaving a trail of white fabric in its wake. Ianto fired once more, and the bullet went through it just like the ones before it had. He cursed and threw the gun to the floor, its clip empty.

“That’s all you have?”

“No weapons allowed in a hospital,” Ianto muttered.

The creature was staggering back to its feet, but just as it was ready to charge, Jack Harkness ran up screaming behind it and tackled it. For a moment, Cameron felt her spirits rise, as she saw Ianto’s body language relax upon the appearance of his boss. Then the creature picked Jack up and swung him around twice before launching him through the nearest window.

“Oh my god!” Cameron exclaimed. “Will he be all right?”

“Most likely,” Ianto said grimly as the creature roared at them. “Well, here goes nothing.” He let out a yell and charged the creature in the same manner Jack had.

“Ianto, are you mad?!” Cameron cried out, grabbing the remnants of his shirt collar. Ianto let out a choked gargle as he fell backward, but at least he wasn’t going to get himself killed. Of course, the blood stains his fall left on the floor weren’t encouraging, either. Before the creature could reach them, however, Jack Harkness burst screaming out of the stairwell and tried to tackle the creature again. This time, it simply ducked, sideswiping Jack’s attack and sending him flying back out the window a second time.

“This isn’t going to work.” Ianto groaned. “Do you keep extra clothes here?” he asked her.

“Yeah, in the office, why?”

“Go change, and get rid of the clothes you’re wearing now.”

“If I get attacked again, I’m going to need to buy more lab coats,” Cameron grumbled to herself.

“Yeah, and I’m going to need to buy more suits. Now go!”

While the alien’s back was still turned to them from pushing Jack out the window, Ianto ran up behind it and grabbed the remnants of Cameron’s lab coat. He quickly draped it around himself and kicked the alien.

“Hey! After me!”

The alien turned around, sniffed, and roared, “You are contaminated!

Cameron dodged down the hallway. As she was about to enter the conference room, she noticed a dazed Wilson edging along the wall toward her. She ran up to him and grabbed his arm.

“AAAAH!” Wilson screamed before his eyes refocused. “Oh, it’s you. What happened?”

“Uh, a patient got loose.”

“A patient? That was a patient?”

“Well, of course it was a patient; what’d you think it was? A rampaging bipedal crocodile?”

“Well, no, of course not, but there was kind of some... slobbering... I think...”

“That’s ‘cause he was an Alzheimer’s patient. A really, really young... and mobile... Alzheimer’s patient. Who tackles people. Come on,” Cameron said softly, feeling bad for the terrified oncologist. “Here, follow me and you’ll be safe, ok?”

“All right, sure.” Wilson nodded, clinging onto her arm.

She quickly guided him into the conference room where she picked up her bag. Then they proceeded to the women’s restroom. When they arrived at the door, however, Wilson froze.

“Wait, where are we going?”

“Shhh, no one will find us in there; I just need to change my clothes.”

“You want me to watch you change?” Wilson went bug-eyed. “Are you seducing me, Cameron?”

“What? No.”

Wilson backed away from her until he crashed into a wall and fell to the floor. He kept trying to back away, however, resulting in his arms and legs moving about in a weird, flailing pattern. “Back away, you evil seductress!” he yelled. “All you women, all you ever want to do is sleep with me! But I’ve had enough! I’m never sleeping with a woman again!”

Just about everyone on the floor stopped and stared at them. Cameron waved nervously and retreated into the restroom.

* * *

 

As Ianto ran down the hallway, he noted that Cameron really needed to find a different brand of perfume, because the one she had reminded him of Scottish sheep on a rainy day. His sides burned from the creature’s claws, and he could feel his legs weakening with every breath he took. Maybe that was just the cloying perfume from the lab coat, though. No wonder the alien thought she was contaminated.

He let out a breath of relief when he turned into a stairwell, hoping to lose the alien, and saw Jack running up the stairs toward him.

“You got it away from Cameron?”

Ianto nodded. “She doesn’t have the artifact because she was clean when I scanned her earlier in the day.” They burst through the door leading to the first floor. “I told her to change because her level of exposure should mean very little radiation got onto her body.”

You will stop running!” The alien’s voice echoed down the stairwell and through the corridor at him. Ianto’s legs spasmed as his muscles try to seize while his brain fought the psychic impulse. Jack didn’t seem to have any problem at all, but it was clear neither of them could keep up the chase forever. Ianto was losing blood fast, and the creature could outrun either of them even on a good day.

“In there!” Ianto pointed. They raced into an exam room and started blockading the entrance with anything they could find. The bed, chairs, shelves, buckets, everything piled against the door until they could barely make it out.

When the alien arrived, it thumped at the frame and the entire room seemed to shake. Their barricade wouldn’t last long, and apart from a window, there was no avenue of escape.

“Bullets don’t work against it, but something else has to!” Ianto said, rummaging through the drawers. Jack quickly followed his lead and began to search the other side of the room.

Ianto nearly cut himself as he found the medical equipment. A quick search revealed nothing more deadly than a cutting tool, but that was better than nothing. He picked it up, telling Jack, “I’ve got a scalpel!”

“Great! I’ve got, uh... a, uh, well, a...”

“What? A gun? A needle? Laser? X-ray machine?”

“Remind me to apologize to the Doctor next time we meet.”

What do you have?

“A screwdriver.” Jack held up a small, miniature screwdriver with a yellow handle, similar to the sort used to fix glasses. “And it’s not even sonic,” he added mournfully.

The alien’s insistent thumping stopped. They both watched the door, waiting for the brief reprieve to end, feeling like characters in a horror movie. The seconds dragged on, the tense silence broken only by Jack throwing the screwdriver away in disgust. Ianto handed him a second scalpel, which he accepted gratefully, if dubiously.

Suddenly, Jack charged the window and began stabbing into thin-air. At the same moment, wisps of black smoke began creeping through the edges of the door in exactly the same way the alien had dematerialized earlier.

“Jack, what are you doing? It’s coming through the door!” Ianto said, backing away as the smoke drew closer and closer. There was no escape, though. For some reason, Jack was still grappling with some invisible monster, and all the while, the smoke drew closer and closer. Ianto screamed as it closed around him and forced itself into his mouth and nostrils. The world went black. “Jack! Jack! Help me! I’m going blind! It’s killing me!”

Ianto sank to the floor, twitching in agony.

“Ianto, stop moving!” He heard a crash, as though Jack was being thrown against the barricade, but the next instant, he could feel his captain’s arms around him. “Calm down, Ianto, and kiss me.”

“I hardly think this is the time for that, sir,” Ianto replied weakly.

Jack ignored him, and Ianto felt the pressure of his lips against his. The next instant, however, he felt something completely new, or almost completely new. A sort of warmth, like a rush of electric fire, passed from Jack’s mouth to his, and Ianto could feel the heat spread through his body. The only other time he’d felt this sensation was back in the Hub after Lisa had knocked him unconscious, and Jack had woken him with a kiss....

Ianto opened his eyes with a gasp and was relieved when light flooded his vision. He could see again! His gaze quickly shifted from Jack to the metallic object behind him. A five-foot wide, spider-like droid was struggling to escape from where it had been pinned against the ground by the bed. A faint, shimmering blue glow surrounded its body like an aura, and it moved on thick, tentacle-like legs. Their tips opened and closed, revealing razor-sharp blades hidden within, which it was currently using to try to file its way out from the bedpost. Jack had apparently sliced some of its circuitry, so it couldn’t shift itself to bring its weight to bear against the bed. Jack grinned. “So you see it now?”

It took Ianto a moment to realize what Jack meant. “That’s the alien?”

“The alien scout bot. Didn’t you wonder why it acted so stupid, like it was following pre-programmed protocols?”

Ianto shook his head. “Too busy. I was... concerned for the other people... in the hospital.”

Jack took off his army coat and applied it against Ianto’s wounds. “You’re losing blood.”

Ianto realized he was shivering, but even so, he tried to push Jack’s hands away. “You’ll... ruin the coat. Blood’s... impossible to get out.”

Jack shook his head, “What’s an army coat without a few bloodstains? Besides, you think this is my only one?”

Ianto tried to relax, but he was feeling weaker by the moment. The fact that Jack wasn’t calling for help meant it wasn’t too serious, though, so he tried to distract himself by talking. “So if it’s a hallucination... why can I see it now?”

Jack looked annoyed as the bot’s constant skittering grew more and more frantic. He had retrieved the screwdriver sometime while Ianto had been blinded, and now he stabbed it straight into the droid’s body. Its machinery failed with a high-pitched whine that built to an shrill intensity before suddenly dying out. Sparks flew as its legs went limp and the glow faded from its surface. Jack shrugged. “It was programmed to self-destruct if we tried to analyze it, anyway. Without further study, I can’t say for certain, but it seems the hallucinations were generated by a psionic emitter specifically targeted at human brain waves. I didn’t realize you weren’t seeing the same thing as me until you told me it was coming through the door, but then it all became clear.”

“Wait, but you’re human; you’re not like the Doctor. Why weren’t you affected?”

“Same reason you weren’t a few seconds ago. It was thanks to Tosh that the thought ever occurred to me, though. Remember back when she had the mind-reading pendant, and she could read everyone’s thoughts but mine? I had to make a conscious effort to get my brainwaves through to her.”

“So?”

“So what’s the only difference between you and me? Other than the fact that you can make a devastating cup of coffee.”

Ianto’s eyes widened. “You can’t die.”

“More precisely, I can’t die because I’m infused with energy from the time vortex, which apparently creates an interference field that blocks psionic waves, so my thoughts don’t get through and mind-altering devices don’t affect me.”

“Is that why you didn’t see anything when Bilis was trying to convince us to open the Rift?”

“Yes,” Jack said, but he drew the word out a little too long, and Ianto knew he was lying. He decided to ignore the fact.

“And by kissing me, you transferred some of the energy to me.”

Jack nodded. “Yes. Unfortunately, the effect doesn’t last in your case, but it was just strong enough to bring you back. The level of control it was exerting over your brain, it was obvious it was trying to shut it down, kill you.” For a moment, Jack looked frightened. “I might’ve lost you if I’d delayed a few seconds longer.”

Ianto buried his face in the cloth of Jack’s coat and tried to control the quaver in his voice. “Yes, and who would do the filing then?”

Jack smiled as though indulging a child. His brows were furrowed, however. “What did it want, though?”

“It was going after the radiation, calling it contamination, and saying it was linked to an ‘artifact.’ It’s got the same goal as us.”

“And Cameron had a large dose of it on her. So did I.”

“So did Wilson, sir. It cornered him in the hall, too.”

“Yet none of us have the artifact.” Jack frowned. “What’s the common link?”

The thought hit them at the same time. “House!” they both exclaimed.

“It was going through his office,” Ianto added.

Jack stood and frantically began unblocking the door. “Keep applying pressure, Ianto, I’ll send help!” He finally got the entrance cleared. He paused a moment before he left and said, “Of all the people it could be, it had to be House.”

“Hurry and stop him,” Ianto said.

“The man’s got more curiosity than a freshly-dead cat,” Jack added. With that, he charged off.

* * *

 

“I’m fine, seriously,” Chase protested, trying to get up from the gurney. Cuddy pushed him back down again.

“You’re not getting up until we get these x-rays.”

“House is the best diagnostician around; if he agrees I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“He isn’t Superman.”

“Funny, that’s not what you said yesterday while we were having sex in the backseat of your car,” House said. He whacked Chase in the leg. “Does that hurt?”

“Ow, yes!”

“Better do a full scan.”

“Dammit, House, you’re just trying to get into her pants by agreeing with her!” There was a momentary awkward silence as Chase realized the subject of his comment was standing right next to him. He quickly rubbed his head, “Uh, I think I might have suffered some head trauma, though. I’m feeling a little woozy.”

Cuddy looked like she was going to ask for House’s cane, or at least let him hit his employee again. House wasn’t about to disagree. “No, Chase, sex by sucking up is what you do,” he told him.

A draft announced the entrance of Cameron and Wilson. For some reason, Cameron was missing her lab coat and wearing a completely different outfit.

“Wilson, did you do naughty things to Cameron’s clothes?” he said.

Wilson glared. Cuddy drew herself up. “Wilson, I’ve been hearing complaints about you from the staff,” she said. “I must admit, I’m surprised, but the sheer number of comments is stunning.”

Wilson sighed, “What have they been saying?”

House slammed the butt of his cane against the floor and yelled, “Discrimination! Just because the man likes to get it on with men is no reason for you to side against him in a case where evil nurses are clearly trying to slander our good oncologist. For shame, Cuddy, for shame!”

Cuddy’s jaw dropped. “That’s not what I’ve been hearing. Is this true?”

Wilson frowned. “If that’s not what you’ve been hearing, then what have people been saying?”

“They said you misled and sexually harassed one of the nurses.”

“I would do no such thing! I have been slapped, hit, abused, and intimidated by the nursing staff, but I have never done those things in return to anyone!”

Cameron suddenly turned to Wilson. “You’re gay?”

Foreman groaned. “Yes. Not everyone wants to date you, Cameron.”

Cameron reddened.

Wilson looked embarrassed. “Not per se, necessarily.” He pulled out a prescription bottle and popped two pills into his mouth. House could hear everyone’s attention being drawn toward this trivial action.

Cuddy sighed. “The staff is gossiping about you, patients are complaining about you, and now you’re taking drugs? House is a bad influence.”

“Hey, hey.” House tried to look offended. “Monkey see, monkey do. Don’t blame the human.”

“I had to prescribe him some sedatives,” Cameron said, “because he wouldn’t calm down otherwise.”

“He doesn’t seem very calm right now,” House observed.

“Trust me, he was far worse earlier.”

“Yes, I was,” Wilson said cheerfully.

“He got attacked by a senile patient.”

“Typical,” Cuddy said. “I leave the hospital for ten minutes to grab lunch, and everything goes to hell.”

“Don’t worry, Cuddy, I’m sure it had nothing to do with you,” House said. She glared at him. He decided the conversation was beginning to bore him. As the others argued, House settled himself into an uncomfortable chair in the corner and watched. His mind wandered, and he thought briefly of his patient--what was her name again? Not that it mattered--but he soon dismissed that train as having no destination.

Casting his mind about for something more interesting to contemplate, he absent-mindedly reached into his jacket pocket for the crossword he'd stuck there yesterday. His eyebrows shot up when his right hand closed around something smooth and rounded. He pulled the mysterious object out of his pocket and examined it, turning it slowly in his hands. He'd completely forgotten that he'd found it the morning before, which was odd considering the less-than-normal circumstances under which it had turned up.

It was vaguely lemon-shaped and small--only about four inches from point to point, and perhaps a little more than two inches wide in the middle, at its fattest point. It was grey, though it also had a dark blue-ish tint to it when the light shone on it, and it felt impossibly smooth. There was a square of lighter grey about one by one and a half inches centered on the object that looked to House like some sort of screen, but he could feel no seam around its edges. There was nothing else, no marks or indentations or buttons, just... smoothness, to the point of seeming almost frictionless.

There was also something undeniably strange about its weight. He had not felt its presence at all when it had been in his pocket, as if it had weighed no more than a pencil or a handkerchief, but now that it was resting in his palm it felt much heavier, very heavy for its size, like it was made of condensed heavy metals. The weight was almost comforting, and this seemed bizarre to House. He would have thought there was nothing at all comforting about an object found in his own home that he'd never seen before and that appeared to have several seemingly abstract features.

Frowning, House tossed it gently into the air. It rose no more than an inch before falling back into his hand. His frown deepened and he tossed it up again, this time with a little more force. And again, it only rose an inch before dropping back down.

On a whim, he placed the object on the floor by his feet and gave it a little push. Instead of rolling across the floor as it ought to have, it appeared to roll in place. House watched and waited until it had stopped its gentle spinning, then picked it up again.

"Huh," he muttered to himself, slowly running his fingertips over the mysterious object, once again feeling the impossible seamlessness. When he turned it back over and glanced at the "screen," he was surprised to find that it was no longer blank, and he wondered what he might have done. Now, there were three black dots in an L-ish shape in the center of the screen, and one black dot in the upper right corner. He stared at it.

At that moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Startled, he whirled around to see Cameron looking worried and Chase looking annoyed. He was a little peeved that he'd been so lost in his own thoughts he hadn't even noticed them approaching. Cuddy had apparently taken Wilson out of the room so they could be empathetic together, and Foreman had wandered off in disgust--good man. Chase had clearly grown bored waiting for someone to perform an unnecessary procedure on him, so he’d limped over with Cameron to annoy House, as the two of them were wont to do.

"What's that?" Cameron asked, moving the hand she had rested on House's shoulder downwards in an attempt to take the object from him. He started, instinctively jerking his hand away and causing it to collide with the hard arm of the chair. The sudden, though minor, pain caused him to drop the object, and Cameron made a small sound of surprise. It fell to the floor and House, Cameron, and Chase stared as it spun calmly in place. House tried to come up with a suitably scathing comment, but before he thought of one he liked, Chase bent down and picked it up.

"Well that's curious, isn't it?" he mused, holding it at arms length between his fingertips, as if he thought it would bite him. Knowing Chase, he probably does, thought House, feeling a little peeved.

"Let me see." Cameron reached out to take it from him, but as her hand closed around it, her fingers pressed gently on the "screen", and it reacted by caving in.

What followed was not a loud bang or an inconvenient explosion, but a moment of utter silence. Not mere quiet, but rather the complete absence of any type of sound. When thinking of 'silence', people might imagine the lull in sound that comes from being alone in a room, or the awkward pauses that sometimes plague conversations. This could not compare. Even in those situations, there were the ever-present sounds of breathing and other bodily functions, of rustling fabric, of other background noises that tended to be ignored because people were used to them being there. In that moment, there was nothing.

And then it was over. The doors burst open once more and Jack Harkness entered with a shout, running over to them. He was followed by a pretty, Asian woman with excellent legs and a man with disturbingly prominent sideburns. House's ears were ringing and he could feel the beginnings of a massive headache, as well as an indefinable sense of sensory division that he couldn't even begin to logic away. Chase and Cameron were on the floor, but House couldn't remember how they had gotten there. There had seemed to have been no time or movement in between them standing and them lying there. The headache intensified.

"What happened?" shouted Harkness as he knelt down beside them. House ignored him in favor of first futilely massaging his temples and then conducting a thorough--but subtle, because he wasn't stupid--search for the object.

It was definitely gone. Somehow, this didn't surprise House in the slightest. Harkness shouted at him some more, but House ignored him and instead turned to the pretty Asian girl. If he had to talk to someone, a pretty girl--or Wilson, but he wasn't here--was always preferable to an angry yelling man who probably didn't like him anyway.

"What happened?" he demanded. She spared him an exasperated glare.

"You tell us. You were the one who was here!"

House stared at her blankly for a moment more, trying in vain to collect his thoughts. She did have a point, he conceded, but not out loud because it didn't actually matter.

“Well?” Harkness demanded.

“You clearly know something about it,” House said, preferring to be the accuser.

Harkness put his hands on his hips. “I asked first.”

Well, his argument certainly won over the flippant side of House’s mind, but even if he was in any mood to be helpful, he had no idea what had happened, so instead of answering, he turned dramatically on his heel--impressive for a man with a bum leg, he thought smugly--and swept out of the room. Eh... limped. But sweepingly. He needed to find Wilson, lots of coffee, and somewhere quiet and sane where he could carefully assess the last five minutes.

Chapter Text

The Doctor stepped lightly out of the TARDIS and onto the fresh, green landscape of eighteenth century Scotland. He took a deep breath, and a silly, nervous grin crept onto his face. He just stood there for a moment longer, breathing in the clean morning air, before striding off in a probably random direction.

The Doctor had, after much debate, been granted his freedom by the Time Lords, if it could indeed be called "freedom" under the conditions -- or condition, rather. The condition stated that he should be allowed to do as he wished and go where he wanted with his TARDIS, so long as he would willingly undertake any mission the Time Lords assigned to him. This would continue until they decided they no longer needed him, at which point his original sentence would promptly be carried out.

He was, of course, far from satisfied with this deal, but it was better than the alternative and so he accepted it readily. Thoughts of escape, of just flying off in the TARDIS to a place where they could never find him, had naturally crossed his mind, but he had accepted that such a feat was impossible. They were everywhere.

The biggest problem was that he had been traveling with companions for so long, it seemed he no longer remembered how to travel alone, and it happened that he was no longer very good at it. After months of persuasion, the Time Lords had granted him permission to retrieve Jamie. They had also "graciously" installed a circuit that allowed him to better control the TARDIS, which was the only real plus to the whole situation.

So there he was, and he felt excited, nervous, and scared all at once. Jamie, of course, would not remember him. He would have to induce the memories, but he would only be able to do so if Jamie decided he wanted him to, and even then, there was always the chance that Jamie would choose not to come travel with him again.

Before he could worry about all that, though, he had to find Jamie.

It turned out that this wasn't too hard. The TARDIS had been programmed to materialize as close to where Jamie was as possible, and roughly a month after he'd been returned, by his time. So the Doctor had only been walking for ten minutes when he came upon a stream and Jamie, perched casually on a large jutting tree root beside it, apparently lost in thought.

The Doctor hadn't realized how very much he'd missed his friend until he saw him. He'd never before been able to become so close to a traveling companion as he had to Jamie, and he seriously doubted he ever would again. Jamie looked exactly the same; hair, clothing, posture, everything. The boy didn't appear to hear his approach, so he placed a careful hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, trying his best not to startle him.

Jamie jumped anyway, and was on his feet in an instant, brandishing a knife.

"Who are ye and wha' do ye want?" he asked, tensed and ready to strike. The Doctor held up his hands to show he had no weapon.

"Jamie, calm down. I'm a friend," he said soothingly.

"How do ye know my name?"

"I told you, I'm a friend." Jamie relaxed a little bit, mollified by the Doctor's non-threatening stance and tone.

"Well, ye dinnae look very mean, I suppose," he admitted. "So who are ye, really? I dinnae think I know ye."

"I'm the Doctor, Jamie. We did know each other. You don't remember me." A strange look flitted across Jamie's face.

"The... Doctor?" he said mostly to himself, as if testing the words out.

"Yes," the Doctor responded, even though it hadn't really been a question directed at him.

"Why wouldn't I remember ye, then?" Jamie asked, relaxing all the way and sitting back down. The Doctor debated with himself for a moment, then gave in and sat next to him.

"It's a very long story, Jamie. But I could help you remember, if you like." Jamie stayed silent for a while, except to throw a couple pebbles into the river and watch the effects.

"How would ye do that? Some kind o' witchcraft?" he finally asked skeptically.

"You would have to trust me." Jamie skeptical look didn't go away and the Doctor began to feel worried again. If Jamie didn't even allow him to help, he would never get the boy back. The thought made him far sadder than he would have expected. Jamie had fallen silent again, staring at the stream. They sat together for several tense minutes, before Jamie looked up. His eyes were wide and confused, and the Doctor felt a wave of sorrow for the boy.

"I... have blanks where I can' remember wha' I did," Jamie said, as though imparting a huge and terrible secret. To him, it probably was. "At first it dinnae feel like anything, but the more time passes, the more I begin t' notice things. I'm different from how I was only a while ago. I can read! I dinnae used t' be able to read, but now I can and I don' remember learning! And sometimes... I dream impossible things. Great silver beasties and white rooms and, and a big blue box. And sometimes, Doctor, there's someone what looks like you do in my dreams."

The Doctor nodded in sympathy and guiltily berated himself for the pleasure he felt upon hearing that Jamie did remember him, even if it was only in the smallest, most insignificant way. The damned Time Lords couldn't even erase memories properly, and this was causing Jamie pain and confusion; it was nothing to feel happy about. There was no one here Jamie could talk to about this. And without a memory block more firmly in place, the dreams would come more and more often, and snatches of memory would begin to return. But all of this would take years, and Jamie wouldn't understand the memories he'd be recovering. Wouldn't recognize them as memories. For someone living in such a primitive time, random flashes of spaceships and aliens would be maddening. But the dissolution of a memory block could not be forced. He'd have to have Jamie's complete consent.

Given Jamie's time period and origins, the Time Lords had probably not expected Jamie to live very long anyway, and so hadn't bothered to secure the mental block properly. Being thrown back into the middle of a war where he was on the losing side did not have good prospects.

They didn't know Jamie. He could survive anything. He wasn't the most intelligent boy, but that was mostly due to technological ignorance as opposed to a lack of cleverness. And he didn't always catch on to the Doctor's complex plans very quickly, resulting in them landing in sticky situations on more than one occasion. He was also brash and tended to rush into a fight before properly considering the situation. But all of these faults he made up for and more with his intensely fierce loyalty. The Doctor had never seen anything like it in all his centuries. Once Jamie had decided someone was his friend, he would willingly and eagerly defend them with his life. He was strong, and a very skilled fighter for his age. It had been necessary, of course, given his childhood. And he fought all the more fiercely when those he loved were being threatened.

Aside from all that, one of Jamie's most prominent strengths was his incredible adaptability. Of course he didn't even come close to understanding any of the things the Doctor showed him, but even though he was curious and inquisitive, he just accepted that things were the way they were. He liked to ask how things worked, but when he couldn't understand he just accepted it. Jamie didn't walk into the TARDIS and say "that's impossible," he said, "how does it work?" In many ways, this demonstrated an intelligence far beyond average. This acceptance made Jamie unusually suited for time travel, despite his primitive background.

But now, here Jamie was, back in his own time and having dreams about places that wouldn't exist yet for centuries, and no one was around to believe him. Even the most adaptable mind would be driven insane.

Jamie was staring inquisitively at him. "Doctor?" he asked.

"Would you allow me to help you?" the Doctor asked him quietly. Jamie nodded.

"It is extremely important that I have your absolute permission to do this, Jamie," the Doctor said softly. Jamie started to look a little worried.

"Will it hurt or what?" he asked, eyes wide.

"Oh dear me, no, nothing like that," the Doctor assured him. "It's just that if you don't trust me completely, it won't work, and we won't get a second chance." Jamie smiled brilliantly at him.

"I don' ken why I trust you, Doctor, but somehow I do." The Doctor was a little bit touched, and offered Jamie a happy smile in return, then brought his hands up to Jamie's temples. The boy flinched away instinctively, then checked himself.

The Doctor closed his eyes and concentrated. He could feel Jamie staring at him, and it was a bit disconcerting. With some effort, he pushed that out of his mind, blocking out everything around him and concentrating on Jamie's thoughts. He searched for the block in Jamie's mind, and found it, like a big, ugly boulder just dropped right in the middle of everything. It hadn't been refined at all, just stuck there uncaringly. Shoving aside his anger, the Doctor set about dissolving it. Since it was so poorly done, it didn't take much effort. He supposed he was lucky in that respect, at least.

When the last of it was gone for good, he opened his eyes to look at the boy. Jamie was still staring at him with the same expression and for a moment, he wondered if he'd done something wrong and began to silently panic. Then Jamie grinned and threw his arms around the Doctor, suddenly speaking very fast.

"Och, I knew it, I knew you'd come back for me, Doctor! I would've never gone and left you otherwise! They made me forget? Why? How? Wha' took you so long t' come for me? It's been a month!" The Doctor laughed, enormously relieved.

"So many questions, Jamie! All in good time, all in good time, I promise. First, will you come traveling with me again? I would be very pleased if you did."

"Are you joking, Doctor? Why would I stay here?" The two of them stood, Jamie not letting go.

"Come with me, then! We should leave right away. I have a lot to explain..."

They headed off towards the TARDIS. Jamie insisted on clinging to the Doctor's arm the whole way, as though he were afraid it was all just another dream. But it's not, the Doctor thought with satisfaction.

A few months later...

The TARDIS materialized with its usual distinctive grinding noise and shaky landing.

"Ah ha!" the Doctor said, clapping his hands together in excited delight. "We've landed!"

"Aye, but where are we, Doctor? It's no' another Cyberman base, is it?" Jamie asked skeptically, his hand resting lightly on the Doctor's shoulder. "I've had just 'bout enough o' those!"

"No, no, of course not, Jamie. I told you, we're here for a break!" The Doctor flipped a switch and the view screen rose, revealing lush green. "There! See? A nice, peaceful forest. Good spot for a picnic!" Jamie didn't look convinced.

"Maybe, but then where exactly are we, eh? I wan' t' know! What planet?" he asked.

"Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not entirely sure. I don't think I've ever been here before. But I'm sure it will be just fine. Now come on, Jamie! No sense in spending any more time in here." He gave Jamie's arm a friendly pat, pulled the door lever, and walked out.

"Och! Doctor, wait!" The Doctor didn't stop. Giving a resigned sigh, Jamie ran out after him.

The Doctor had wandered a short distance and was examining the ground with quiet glee. "Look at this, Jamie! The soil has almost exactly the same composition as Earth. How fascinating. I wonder where we are..." Jamie, however, was not interested in the dirt. He stared at the trees.

"Doctor, these trees are green!" he noted.

"Yes, yes, most trees are," the Doctor said dismissively.

"No, I mean, they're ALL green!" Jamie insisted, tugging at the Doctor's jacket.

"What are you-- oh! Oh, yes, that is quite interesting. I see what you mean. The trunks are green as well. And no leaves, as far as I can see. What bizarre trees." Distracted, the Doctor wandered further away, and Jamie reluctantly followed. Shortly, they came up before a huge, greyish wall that shone oddly in the light.

"Fascinating," the Doctor muttered, examining it. Jamie reached out and touched it, then shouted when his hand briefly stuck.

"Och, it's all slimy!" he cried, wiping the goo off his hand on a nearby tree.

"Yes, it's curved strangely also. I wonder what it might be made out of." Before either of them could say anything else, the wall moved. It shifted a little to one side, the whole thing rippling a little, and then moved right in front of them, stopped for a moment, then continued moving in the same stunted motions. Jamie and the Doctor both jumped back with a shout of alarm, instinctively clinging to each other.

"Wha' is that?" Jamie hissed.

"Well, Jamie," the Doctor said as they both recovered from the shock, "I'm beginning to have my suspicions about this place. I think that that--" he nodded at the moving wall, "is a slug."

"Don' be daft! Slugs are wee bitty things," Jamie scoffed.

"Yes, on Earth they certainly are, but we certainly aren't on Earth." Jamie stared at him in horror.

"Ye don' mean, Doctor... these trees... they're actually grass?" The Doctor beamed proudly at him.

"Yes, very good, Jamie! That is exactly what I think!" Jamie considered this for a moment.

"I wonder if I could find a giant apple. I am a wee bit hungry," he said, looking thoughtful.

"I very much doubt it, Jamie. I think we'd best get back to the TARDIS. This probably isn't the best spot for a vacation."

"Aye, alrigh', Doctor," Jamie agreed. They turned back only to find their path blocked by something large, tan, and tree-like.

"What--" was all the Doctor managed before a whirlwind of angry, fanged mushroom descended on them. Jamie shouted and reacted instinctively, pushing the Doctor back while removing a knife from his boot in one smooth movement. He adopted a defensive stance and swung skillfully at the attacking mushroom.

He manage to nick it and the mushroom reared back, letting out a chilling cry of distress. Instead of retreating, however, it lunged back down with even more fervor.

"Run!" Jamie shouted at the Doctor, doing his best to dodge the wild attacks. One massive fang left a gash on his right arm. The Doctor scrambled up and looked around wildly for a way to help. Jamie fought bravely and fiercely, but his knife was far too small and there was no way for him to land a decent blow. He quickly realized it was futile and changed strategies, backing away as much as possible, blocking blows and herding the Doctor away at the same time. When they were finally far enough away, they turn their backs on the monster and made a run for it.

The mushroom had long reach, but it was still stuck in the ground and couldn't follow them. They could hear its roars of anger and distress as they ran, without looking back, in the direction they hoped the TARDIS was.

Jamie noticed the thick ropes on the ground and gave a warning shout a little too late. Their momentum was too great and they couldn't stop in time. Moments later, Jamie and the Doctor were swept up into a primitive net trap, and hung there, swinging gently.

"Doctor," Jamie began slowly, "your shoe is in my face." The Doctor shot him a disgruntled look. "Now what?"

"Well, I suppose we have to wait for whoever set this trap to come let us down," the Doctor said.

"I could just cut us loose," Jamie suggested, holding up his knife.

"No, no, I'd rather like to find out. This is a trap made for something our own size, and that's very curious. Put that away before you hurt somebody!" Jamie pouted at him but obediently stuck the knife back into his boot. The angle was difficult and he had to do a lot of uncomfortable shifting to reach.

It was nearly an hour later by the time anything happened, and Jamie was complaining loudly of cramping joints and pain from the gash in his arm. The Doctor was mildly worried about the wound, but there was nothing he could do about it at the moment. He had long since given up finding a comfortable position, having settled on being amused by Jamie's constant fidgeting and how he had to keep rearranging his kilt or risk flashing the Doctor. Jamie's latest attempt had resulted in the Doctor being partly upside-down, and all the blood was starting to rush to his head. He was getting more and more uncomfortable when suddenly an arrow pierced the supporting rope and they both fell right onto the thankfully soft ground with shouts of surprise.

Upon trying to stand up and disentangle themselves, they quickly discovered that they were still securely trapped inside the net. Jamie wasn't amused, and groaned loudly to show it.

"Who are you?" a voice demanded, and the Doctor looked up to see a short man dressed in animal skins standing over them and waving a spear threateningly.

"Oh, dear me. I am the Doctor and this is Jamie. Do you think perhaps you could let us out of here?" he asked.

"Aye, my legs are cramping terribly!" Jamie added. The man gave them each a rough poke with his spear.

"Ow! Well! There was certainly no need for that!" the Doctor protested indignantly, earning himself another poke.

"Now you stop that, y' hear?" Jamie tried to defend him. The man ignored them both and instead whistled shrilly. A group of about five men, each carrying some sort of primitive weapon, stepped out from where they had been hiding. Two of them threaded a large pole through the net and lifted it. Carrying Jamie and the Doctor, the whole group made their way deeper into the forest of grass. Jamie started screaming irately, but the Doctor just sighed in resignation and grabbed Jamie's ankles so the boy wouldn't accidentally kick him in the face.

It didn't take long for them to reach a reasonably small area filled with quaint huts with thatched roofs. Jamie and the Doctor were dropped roughly onto the ground.

"My word!" the Doctor cried, dismayed by their rough treatment. Jamie, apparently fed up, brought out his knife and deftly sliced the ropes. They disentangled themselves and stood, only to find themselves surrounded by short men, each with a large, dangerous-looking spear pointed at them. Jamie waved his knife around, but the Doctor slapped his wrist.

"Put that thing away, Jamie! They'll think we mean them harm!" he admonished.

"Well, they certainly mean us harm!" Jamie protested, but did as he was told regardless.

"Now, you don't know that yet. We should talk to them first."

The circle of men surrounding them parted and a tall woman stepped through. She was much more ornately dressed than any of the other people they had seen so far, and the deference with which the men treated her marked her clearly as the leader. She frowned at them.

"Who let you out of the net?" she asked. Her speech was heavily accented, drawing most of her vowels out much longer than necessary.

"No one--" Jamie began angrily, but the Doctor placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him and he quieted, but adopted a defensive pose, ready to strike at any unfriendly motions.

"We mean no harm. We just came here for a visit," the Doctor told the woman. "We were just leaving when we quite accidentally sprung your trap."

"You have strange garments. Explain."

"Yes, well, we're not from here, you see," the Doctor said. "We arrived quite by mistake. If you would kindly allow us to return to our ship, we can be out of here and you won't have to bother with us!"

"You will not leave! You are the cause of all... this, yes?" she said, waving her arms to indicate their surroundings.

"Err... I'm not sure what you mean," the Doctor said, perplexed.

"These mushrooms! They have become hostile and we have already lost three to their hunger."

"Oh! Oh, yes! I mean, no, no, we certainly had nothing to do with them. We were attacked by one before we landed in your trap! Jamie was injured, look." He grabbed Jamie's arm and displayed the wound.

"Doctor!" Jamie protested and yanked his arm back.

"So you are not their allies?" the woman asked skeptically.

"No, of course not!" As if they had never been under suspicion at all, the woman broke into a huge, toothy grin and her whole stance relaxed. The men around them also relaxed, lowering their weapons.

"I am glad! My name is Kapila, and I am the chief of this village," she said warmly.

"I am the Doctor and this is Jamie," the Doctor said, relieved. "If there is something unnatural occurring here, I would like very much to help. If you would care to fill me in?"

"Of course! We can talk just over there." She pointed towards a hut that was slightly larger than the rest.

"Splendid! Jamie here needs to get his arm patched up, though. Is there someone here who could help him with that while we talk?"

"Doctor! I wan' t' stay with you!" Jamie objected. The Doctor waved an arm dismissively.

"No, Jamie, you need to get that looked at. You don't want it to become infected." He pulled the boy a little closer and whispered in his ear. "Also, you can use this opportunity to explore the area and talk to the villagers."

"Aye, alright," Jamie grumbled.

"Wonderful!" The Doctor turned back to Kapila. "Shall we?"

* * *

Jamie had gotten his arm bandaged by a kind young woman and was now exploring the village. Thankfully, the gash hadn't been as bad as it looked or felt, and it would probably heal up nicely. In the meantime, Jamie was ravenous.

He hadn't eaten anything all day, and it was really starting to get to him. Because of this, his exploration of the village had less to do with gathering information and more to do with finding something to eat. A quick overview of the area convinced him that he wasn't going to find anything he would be allowed to eat in the village, and his best bet would be to look in the surrounding forest area. Vowing not to wander too far lest he get lost, he strode out into the forest of giant grass.

In the short amount of time he was searching, he mostly just found more massive grass. He definitely didn't find anything he'd consider potentially edible. Something, however, found him. Jamie found himself cornered by three tall, humanoid figures clad from head to toe in bright red leather, all holding vicious-looking whips. He didn't even manage a shout of alarm, much less an attempt at defending himself, before he was clubbed over the head and instantly knocked unconscious.

* * *

"So," said the Doctor, "tell me all about it. When did this... fanged fungi first start appearing?"

"Only about six moons ago. At first they were few and we could deal with them by simply avoiding them. But now they are many and we fear to even leave the village area! It is only a matter of time before one grows too close to us and attacks us in our home."

The house--using the term very loosely--they were in was small and had only one room, though it was divided into two by a deep red sheet that hung from the ceiling. Despite its small size and quaint outer appearance, the inside was filled with cloths and pillows and tapestries, all in bold red, purple, and gold hues. All in all, it rather reminded the Doctor of a fancy bordello. The sophisticated embroidery and stitchwork led him to believe that perhaps these people were significantly more advanced than they first appeared, at least in certain aspects. He admired a particularly nice tapestry that contained images that would not have been out of place in the Kama Sutra with detached curiosity, his mind racing to come up with the right questions to ask to reveal a clue about the stupid mushrooms.

"Are the people in this village the only ones? Or are there other villages?" he asked.

"No, there are many like us. We used to have a grand trading community! But now this evil has cut us off. We can no longer get enough food. If the beasts do not kill us, starvation certainly will."

"Oh dear, oh dear," the Doctor muttered, pacing and wringing his hands. Kapila watched him with an almost eerie calm.

"Sit, Doctor," she said, patting the plush, exquisitely embroidered pillow next to her. "It will do you no good to wear yourself out."

"Yes, yes, of course," he relented, sitting with very little natural grace.

"Did they just... spring up?" he asked, feeling a little at a loss.

"We have never actually seen one appear, so we do not know how they do it. They seem to sprout overnight."

"And there are no... normal mushrooms around?"

"We think the beasts have been feeding on them, for there are none left where they were once plentiful. They used to be our main source of food, and along with our cloths, our main trading material."

"That's strange," the Doctor mused. "You seem to have been hit in the very area where it will do you the most damage. Now, I can't be sure, but this sounds to me like a plot. I would guess there is someone behind all this."

"Oh, it all began near the old castle ruins!" Kapila said, the thought coming to her suddenly. "There was some strange activity there in the weeks before all this began. I sent some scouts, but they did not return. Often my scouts are gone for weeks at a time, so I did not consider it until now, with the recent events."

"But this is splendid! If we can get to the castle and stop the source, we can stop the mushrooms! Can you take me there, by any chance?" Kapila's face fell.

"It is too far. We cannot fight the beasts, and we cannot leave the village undefended lest violence comes to us." The Doctor stood and started to pace again, frustrated.

* * *

Jamie awoke in what was unmistakably a cell. It was filthy and dark and cold, and Jamie was lying in the middle of it. He sat up slowly and gingerly felt the back of his head. It hurt, but not too badly considering the circumstances.

He took a few minutes to check himself over and assess the surroundings. Aside from his bruised head and the gash on his arm, he was uninjured. Whoever had kidnapped him hadn't bothered to remove the knife hidden in his boot. Presumably, they hadn't known it was there and hadn't found it. The cell walls were made of stone and looked pretty secure, but the door itself was rusted metal and had a large, conventional lock. One that had a keyhole on both sides.

Raising his eyebrow at this, he pulled the trusty knife out of his boot and deftly picked the lock. He was by no means an expert, but this lock was suspiciously easy to pick. He suspected that the cells weren't often occupied, and therefore there was no reason to keep care of them. The door swung open with a loud squeal as the rusty hinges made themselves known. Jamie froze.

When several minutes had passed and there was nothing to indicate anyone had heard, Jamie tucked the knife back where it belonged and crept carefully out.

The room just outside the cell was large and musty, with an old wooden table in the center and not much else. There was a thick layer of dust covering everything. There were two other cells that Jamie could see, their doors wide open. One of them looked permanently rusted that way.

There was also a heavy-set wooden door that looked as though it led out of the room. Jamie tried it. It wasn't locked, so he pulled it open and stepped silently out, body tensed to defend against any attack, should one occur. None did, so he stepped further. He was in a corridor made of the same old stone as the jail room. There were no windows, and that combined with the musty, damp smell told Jamie that he was underground. The corridor was, however, dimly lit with a few low-burning torches. He considered taking one with him, but decided against it on the basis that the area seemed sufficiently lit and he didn't want to have to carry it.

Jamie moved on. There were a few more heavy doors along the corridor. Most of them looked long since rusted shut, but there were two or three that looked as though they had recently been forced open for use. He cautiously opened one of them and peered inside.

It was unmistakably a laboratory. There were long tables littered with beakers, papers, burners, and other, unidentified objects. Although it had clearly been in use far more recently than the rest of the area, it looked as though it had been several weeks at least since anyone had been in it. There was a faint odor that suggested something organic had been decaying in there for a while. Jamie shut the door and tried another. Again, a recently disused laboratory.

Jamie shut that door too and continued to the end of the corridor. He opened the door there and was greeted with an ancient, crumbling stone staircase. The walls here too were lined minimally with burning torches. Shrugging, he carefully made his way upward, struggling to see where he stepped in the dim lighting. One wrong step onto a bit of crumbling rock could mean slipping and falling, most likely not fatally but certainly loudly. He had no desire to alert whoever resided here to his presence, seeing as they had already demonstrated hostile intentions.

He'd gotten the shrewd idea that whoever had kidnapped him had something to do with the unnaturally antagonistic mushrooms. It wasn’t hard to figure out, especially after traveling for so long with the Doctor.

The building he was in was gigantic and made entirely of cold, crumbling stone. It looked to Jamie like the inside of a medieval-style castle. Once he was no longer in the lower levels, the rooms were much better lit with sunlight that streamed through high, thin windows, but it wasn't a warm or pleasant light. It was a light that cast shadows, a light that was never quite bright enough to see into corners clearly. It wasn't exactly sinister, as such, but it was far from welcoming.

The hallways on the ground floor were much larger and the ceilings in certain areas rose higher than any Jamie had ever seen. Signs of use were far more prominent, but there was very little furniture. The skin of some animal Jamie didn't recognize graced the floor of one room as a rug, and here and there would be a small table or a mirror. In one room there was a bed frame, but there had quite clearly not been a mattress in it for ages.

Instinct told Jamie to move upwards. There was another story above him, and he felt he had to find a way of getting there. Yet despite opening door after door after door, he still had found no stairs. He also had not found an exit, and even if he had been able to escape he did not know the way back to the Doctor. It would do no good for him to get lost.

Jamie was becoming seriously frustrated. The castle was so big and everything looked so similar that he had lost track of where he had and hadn't been. He was sure he was opening some doors he had opened before. He'd just given up and plopped down to pout when he spotted something bright red out of the corner of his eye.

Jumping quickly and quietly to his feet, Jamie crept towards the source of the color. It turned out to be exactly what he expected: one of those same strange creatures who had kidnapped him. The leather-clad... thing moved with a lurching gait, as though it did not have complete control over its basic motor functions. Jamie followed silently several meters behind it, hoping it would lead him somewhere helpful.

It did. It led him to a stairwell, the door to which was located in a heavily shadowed corner. Jamie had completely missed it.

There was a gargoyle above the door. It looked massively out of place, despite the fact that it was technically an ugly stone sculpture inside an ugly stone building. What little Jamie actually knew about gargoyles told him that they were supposed to be on the outside of buildings and had something to do with rainwater. He supposed that maybe this one served a different purpose. After all, he wasn't on Earth.

Jamie waited until the sound of the creature's footsteps was a suitable distance away, then opened the door and started up the stairs after it, moving as quietly as he could. They were long and winding, and there were once again no windows. Jamie had to feel with his hands a couple times to make sure he wasn't going to step anywhere unfortunate.

At the top of the stairs was yet another corridor. He saw the distinctive red disappear around a corner and hurried after it. He rushed around the corner without thinking to look first, scared of losing the creature and being lost again. He very nearly skidded directly into the creature he had been following.

"You will come with us," the creature monotoned.

"Gah!" Jamie shouted in surprise.

"You will come with us," the creature monotoned again.

"I will no-- Who's ‘us?’" Jamie asked, backing up slowly and reaching for his boot. He backed right into something hard that he knew wasn't a wall, because there hadn't been a wall there less than a minute ago. The red leather creature that appeared behind him grabbed his wrists in a grip that could easily become bone shattering at a moment's notice. Jamie froze.

"You will come with us," they intoned together.

* * *

The Doctor was still pacing when one of the villagers brought them news that Jamie had been kidnapped by a group of men in red leather.

“Oh no, oh no!” the Doctor said in response. “He always wanders off. Did they take him in the direction of the castle?”

The villager was so distraught he didn’t respond. Kapila drew the young man aside and waved some incense under his nose. The smoke seemed to calm him down, and she whispered a few words in his ear. The boy nodded, swaying back and forth as though in a trance, and whispered something back. Kapila nodded and patted him on the back.

“Good man,” she whispered as he left the tent. “He lost his sister to the mushrooms a moon ago,” she explained. “He says that your companion was indeed taken in the direction of the castle, though he did not linger long to watch, nor did he follow.” She sighed. “I never thought I’d say this, so mischievous a child he was, but he has lost all his curiosity, and it is a terrible thing to behold.”

The Doctor nodded, sharing her feelings, when a thought struck him. “You said you were traders, you pride yourselves on communication and knowledge. Surely curiosity plays a great role in your society?”

Kapila nodded, “Yes, of course, I didn’t mean to imply it did not.”

“And the mushrooms were a notable event! Did your explorers keep records of where they could be found?”

“Why, yes. We handed out maps so people would not wander into them by accident. Unfortunately, their rate of growth has long exceeded our ability to keep our records up-to-date.”

“May I see them?”

Kapila dug through the stacks of pillows to withdraw a massive sheet of papyrus-like paper that measured about one and a half by two meters. On it, the locations of the mushrooms were marked in colored ink, with different shades and hues marking the dates they sprang up. The Doctor could see Kapila’s curiosity was piqued, for she could not see why this information would interest him.

“We already established the mushrooms came from the castle,” Kapila said.

“Hmm, most interesting. Why yes, my dear Kapila, the mushrooms did come from the castle, but look, here at the outskirts, the numbers are small for a very long time before suddenly, their population exploded and they covered the remaining distance between the castle and your village.”

“Their growth is exponential, of course, even with some deaths.”

“Mushrooms have disappeared or died?”

“Yes, we’ve seen their mangled bases where they once were, as though they had been torn apart; we could only assume that scavengers got to them after they died.”

“But see, the rate of growth of the mushrooms at the outskirts is significantly less than exponential. They weren’t dying of their own accord; something was keeping their population in check!”

“You don’t mean?”

“A predator-prey model much better explains this growth than unlimited population expansion. These mushrooms can be destroyed! We must find out how!”

“No, Doctor, we can’t. You’re proposing we journey to the fringes of the mushroom growth, but that means we must go through the heart of their territory.”

“Well, not quite. Would you be willing to brave a journey through the mysterious with me?”

Kapila looked doubtful. “I will go and aid you however I can. You are our only hope.”

“I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m afraid you don’t have the hair to pull off that phrase. Now we must go!” The Doctor clapped his hands together in apparent excitement and rushed out of the house.

“But Doctor, where are we going?” Kapila called after him. Sighing, she hiked up her dress and ran after him.

Although the circumstances of their journey to the village had been haphazard at best, the Doctor soon found his way back to the TARDIS. It became clear that the giant mushroom they’d fled had not sprung up between them and the TARDIS, but rather, in the confusing environment of the giant blades of grass, they had gone the wrong way. He’d always been curious what it would be like to be an ant; now he knew, and he felt it to be quite an overrated experience.

“Come on in!” the Doctor exclaimed as he entered the TARDIS.

“In there? But it’s small. It is inappropriate for two of the opposite gender to occupy such a small space.”

“Really, Kapila? With the tapestries you have up in your home, you think this is inappropriate? Well, do not fear! Take a look!”

Kapila gasped as she peered into the TARDIS. “It’s bigger on the inside!”

“Yes, yes, everyone seems to think that.” The Doctor shut the door and ran up to the console. “Now hold on. Things may get a little bumpy.”

He reset the coordinates and made sure they would be traveling in space only. Then he slammed down a lever, and the TARDIS began to rock.

“Oh my!” Kapila gasped as she lost her footing. The Doctor caught her, but another sway of the TARDIS sent them both onto the console. “Oh my, Doctor!” she said again. “Now I’m certain that is an inappropriate place to put your hands.”

The Doctor showed her both his hands. “What are you talking about?”

Kapila glanced down. “Oh, never mind.” She quickly clambered off the console. The TARDIS stopped shaking soon afterward, and the Doctor bounded to the door. Kapila followed. “Where are we?”

The Doctor opened the doors. “The edge of the mushroom field!”

HRAAARGRAAAAACH!!!

The Doctor leapt back, arms outstretched to keep Kapila from moving past him, as a giant mushroom bore down on the entrance. “Don’t worry, we’re quite safe in here.”

HYUUUUUUUURK!

Everything went dark. Then the ship began groaning as slime seeped in through the open doorway. The two of them backed away as gill folds began pushing through the entrance, dilating spores all over the interior of the TARDIS. They heard a whistling sound, like air being forced through a tiny hole, and then the entire floor slanted as the mushroom lifted the TARDIS up in an attempt to force it down its gullet.

Kapila screamed as they went sliding toward the door. The Doctor grabbed a lever on the console with one hand and her arm with his other. He grunted, the force of stopping her driving all the air from his lungs. They hung there, panting, as the floor tilted at a steeper and steeper angle. With his hands occupied, there was nothing he could do, and there was no way to turn on the TARDIS’ drive.

“Doctor!” Kapila cried. “The spores!”

The Doctor looked over and saw the spores setting out tendrils that seemed to melt their way into the floor and walls. His attention was diverted when he and Kapila suddenly dropped another inch toward the mushroom’s stomach. The lever was slipping.

The sleeve of Kapila’s dress tore from his grip, and she began falling. She screamed, but she managed to get a firm grip about his leg. The impact caused the lever to slip a little further.

The Doctor glanced at her, trying to see if there was a way he could swing Kapila to safety before she fell any further. That was when he noticed the tendrils were beginning to sprout mushrooms of their own. As though he were watching a time-lapse film, folds and folds of cells began growing and twisting over themselves and spreading until they expanded into fully-formed mushrooms about thirty centimeters tall. Then the growth stopped.

“Oh, that’s not too bad,” he said. They were, in fact, rather cute-looking little mushrooms, insofar as inanimate fungi could be considered cute. The fact that they were possibly fanged did little to worry him, as they were all too far from them to do any harm. “They’re wee bitty things,” he added, quite proud that he could pass for Scottish if he ever met any of Jamie’s clan members.

“I don’t like them!” Kapila said, trying to pull herself up his leg.

“Look, they’re quite harmless,” he reassured her. All at once, flaps on their heads snapped open, revealing shiny black eyes, and the mushrooms opened their mouths to snap and snarl in their direction. Their little fangs gleamed under the TARDIS’ lights as drool oozed out of their mouths. “Well, they’re far away, at least. They can’t get us.” Kapila moaned. Tiny pops, like suction cups being pulled off of glass, sounded as tendrils began detaching from their anchor points. One of the mushrooms flopped from the ceiling onto the floor with a soft squishing sound and rolled around a little before righting itself with little suckers on its base. Then it began bouncing toward them. The Doctor sighed. “Oh dear, me and my big mouth.”

The lever chose that exact moment to give away. The Doctor’s fingers slipped, and the two of them screamed. Kapila clung to him tighter than she had yet, but that did little for them as they slid directly toward the doorway with nothing to stop their fall. The little mushroom snapped at them as they swept past. As they fell closer and closer to the giant mushroom’s throat, the Doctor could see its sharp fangs trying to work their way through the TARDIS’ hull.

Then, there was another lengthy screech of metal against metal as the mushroom snapped about its base, trying to work the TARDIS into its stomach. The action came none too soon as he and Kapila were about to fall through the egress when the TARDIS shook and tilted in the other direction, throwing them clear to the opposite end of the room. The mushroom shook again, this time tossing the Doctor, Kapila, and the baby mushrooms onto the ceiling.

Kapila screamed as one of the mushrooms closed its fangs on her hair. The Doctor hit it. For a moment, there was just more slime as the mushroom’s soft membrane gave way under the impulse of his fist, but then it dislodged and went flying across the room. The Doctor felt a sharp sting as another one bit down on his foot. He shook his foot, slamming it against the floor and squishing it. It exploded in a burst of mucus.

The TARDIS re-oriented itself again, and they slid along the ceiling to crash against one of the side walls. Kapila screamed and covered her face as one of the mushrooms slammed into the wall right above her head.

EEEEEEEG!” it cried as it splattered into several chunks of ooze.

“Look on the bright side,” the Doctor said, wiping slime off his face. “At least no more spores are coming in.”

Another groan, and they struck the opposite wall. This time the Doctor landed on several of the fungi, which was quite a disturbing experience, although he had to admit that it cushioned the fall quite well and at this rate, the problem of their infestation would take care of itself.

HRAGARGH!

The remaining mushrooms began closing in on them, clearly realizing this might be their last chance to get at their prey. The Doctor kicked at them as they approached, sending them in every direction to explode as they struck various pieces of equipment.
“I feel like I’m Mario,” he muttered.

“What?” Kapila asked, between wild kicks.

“Never mind, just remind me to thank Nintendo one day,” the Doctor said. Then the half-formed idea struck him. “Oh, of course!”

He jumped into the nearby corridor, then promptly fell back out as the TARDIS flipped over yet again. “Oh my giddy aunt!” he exclaimed as several more mushrooms exploded about him.

“Hurry up!” Kapila told him.

“Right, right, of course.” He scrambled back onto his feet as quickly as he could, given that he was trying to find his footing amidst an inch of slime. He charged into the nearest storage room and started tossing plungers into the main control room. “Stick these onto the floor! There should be enough slime that nothing will dislodge them!”

Kapila began following his instructions, and soon, they were pulling themselves amidst a forest of plungers, largely immune to the giant mushroom’s capricious motions. The Doctor spared a moment to pat the TARDIS’ console. “Good job,” he said, proud that it had withstood swallowing for so long. The mushroom was clearly having trouble with its meal, as rumbling moans were filling the air, the mushroom’s lamellae breaking down under the strain of its strenuous activity.

HYEEEEK!” a baby mushroom told him, popping out from behind a row of toilet plungers. It latched itself onto his arm.

“Oh my, oh dear!” the Doctor cried, shaking his arm wildly. The mushroom refused to let go, and he could feel its fangs sinking in deeper and deeper until a plunger appeared out of nowhere and latched onto the mushroom right above its eyeline. It swiveled its eyes up to peer at the rubber encasing its head and had one moment to issue a loud squeal before Kapila pulled it off him. She whirled the plunger in the air once, then twice, and all the time, the mushroom kept screaming, “YAAAAIEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeEEEEEEEeeeeeeeEEEEEEeeeeee!” in time with the Doppler effect of its elliptical motion. Then she let go and the plunger flew against the wall, crushing the creature.

“How are we going to get out of here?” she asked him.

At that moment, they heard a, “HAAAAAAAAIIIIYAAAAAAAAAAAAIEEEEEEEEEEEE!” a thousand times louder than any sound the miniature mushrooms had made. Then there was a sickening GLURP and the TARDIS lurched. The Doctor and Kapila clung to each other as there came one jarring crash after another and the TARDIS spun over and over on its side. Then there was a splash and water flooded the control room. Kapila screamed as the force of the incoming wave pulled them apart. The Doctor breast-stroked toward the console, fighting the current as the water level rose higher and higher. Finally, he reached the controls and activated the engines. Bubbles gurgled from his mouth as he sighed in relief at the familiar vworp, vworp of the TARDIS, and the water began to roar back out through the door when they rematerialized back where they’d been attacked by the giant mushroom.

* * *

 

Soon enough, they were mostly dry again. The TARDIS was pleasantly free of slime or any other remnants of the attack, although they would have to let it air out for a few days before going on any lengthy journey. The Doctor nodded in approval. Everything always worked itself out in the end, and the absence of a second attack by the mushroom was encouraging. He motioned toward a haggard-looking Kapila, and they exited cautiously.

The Doctor jumped up and down and clapped his hands together when he saw what awaited them. “Yes, yes! My suspicions are confirmed!” Kapila just gaped.

Before them, a gigantic deer some twenty-five meters tall at its head was bent over the chewed-up remains of the giant mushroom and taking casual nibbles, its eyes closed in satisfaction as its tongue swept up the slime that was oozing across the ground. As it ate, several more deer appeared. Further away, he saw a deer grappling with another giant mushroom, darting in and nipping at it, ripping off chunks of its membrane before backing away out of the reach of the fungi’s fangs.

“But they will not approach the village,” Kapila said. “The giant deer are known to us, though we understand few of their habits. Nevertheless, they prefer the forest and the trees to the grasslands.”

“Ah, but we could lure them closer! They seem to enjoy the mushrooms, but there are other delicacies deer enjoy as well.” The Doctor peered into the horizon. “Yes, yes, indeed, there are more further away, enough appetites to eliminate maybe the entire field in hours.”

“But what do they enjoy? You know more than us about these deer.”

“Hmm, well, on Earth, I remember feeding deer with salt licks, you know, giant cubes of salt, but we had to manufacture those, and it’s not like we can just put together enough salt to tempt even one of them. The quantities we’re talking about would have to be enormous.”

“What are you talking about, Doctor? You mean salt as in the white salt we use to season meals with?”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“But Doctor, salt grows on trees!”

“I, yes, yes, my dear... excuse me, you said what?”

“It grows on trees. These cubes you were talking about. Look!” Kapila pointed, and the Doctor followed her finger to one of the trees looming overhead. Its trunk looked like a thousand vines woven together into one thick mass and was probably twenty meters in diameter. The trunk extended up some hundred meters before exploding into a canopy of leaves. Amidst the leaves, hanging off of branches by some spindly growths, there were small, square-ish white splotches that the Doctor would never have recognized as salt had Kapila not said so.

“You’re sure that’s salt?”

“Yes, we harvest the fallen cubes at times to use on our food. It’s quite a delicacy and very difficult to obtain.”

“Well, I can see why.” If he could see the cubes at this distance, they had to be massive, probably larger than the deer themselves. Well, at least size wouldn’t be a problem.

“Oh no, do you mean the distance? We wait for the cubes to fall.”

“Still, it must take teams to move them.”

“No, the cubes fracture upon impact and are quite easy to carry.”

The Doctor wondered if she was deliberately being contrary now, but knowing she was not, he began to feel uneasy. “Then why exactly is it difficult to obtain?”

“Because the slugs guard the trees.”

QUEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Smush.

“Oh no, it begins!” Kapila said, grabbing the Doctor and pulling him closer to the TARDIS so they could escape at a moment’s notice.

Out of the grasses, a herd of slugs slid into view. The one leading the pack was significantly larger than the others and shimmered with a multitude of colors, like a fluorescent deep-sea squid. Whenever it let out a call, it would expand and contract, forcing air through its skin to call out, “QUEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAA!”

Squish.

The ground gave way before their bodies like loose dirt before a glacier, and they left glimmering, iridescent trails of slime in their wake. Their movement sounded significantly soft and mushy, and after their run-in with the mushrooms, the Doctor was glad they weren’t closer; he’d had quite enough slime to last him several centuries. He had a nagging feeling this pleasant arrangement wouldn’t last long, though.

At least fifty slugs were now gathered about the base of the tree, their feelers swaying in coordinated patterns as though part of some ritual. The leader puffed up almost twice its original size.

BRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOGAAAA-pshhhhhhh-EEF-EEF-EEF-EEF-EEF-EEF-EEF-EEF!”

ROOOOOEEEEWWOOOOOOOOQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSHHHHHHH!” the other slugs replied.

BRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOEEEEEEEEEEEEE-GAF-GAF-GAF!”

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTTTTHHHHHHHHHHSSSSHHHHHHHHH!”

The Doctor frowned. “It sounds like a flatulent, deaf children’s choir. What are they doing?”

“I do not know, but they try to drive off any who approach the salt trees. Only the bravest of our citizens dare make salt runs, for almost always someone on the team returns injured, and several die each year. I would forbid the practice altogether, except my people love their salt too much.”

“You should tell them too much salt is bad for you. It’s true, my dear. Unfortunate, but true.”

As the Doctor thought about the situation, he unconsciously licked his wet lips. He was surprised when they tasted salty. Looking across the plains between the grassland and the forest, he saw the massive craters the TARDIS had left as it rolled into the water. He pointed. “Kapila, do the salt trees always grow around water?”

Kapila considered the question for a moment. “Not around every body of water--that would be unfortunate, as the slugs would be everywhere. But yes, they only grew near water.”

The Doctor brightened. “That’s it! Of course, it all makes sense now! You’ve never seen salt trees by a freshwater pond, have you?”

“No.”

“Don’t you see, my dear? The ecosystem here is somewhat different from other planets I’ve been to, but it’s close enough to one called Earth that I think all comparisons are valid. Almost all living land-bound organisms need freshwater, not salt water, but those that cannot obtain fresh water must needs create their own or evolve to adapt to the salt water. Clearly these trees are from a salt-water environment, and over the years, they did both. Evolution made them incorporate salt as part of their biological processes, so they need to grow near salt water, but all the excess salt they take up is filtered out and expelled through a secondary branch system up in the canopy. As for the slugs, they’re worshipping the trees! Slugs can’t take salt; any amount they come into contact with will kill them, so the trees hold the power of life and death over them. Their activity suggests they are least semi-sentient, and therefore they would worship the trees as gods. When they are good, the trees extract salt from their environment, and when they are bad, it rains punishment down on them from the skies!”

“Doctor, that’s brilliant!”

“Why thank you, I’m rather proud of my theories myself.”

“But if, as you suggest, the snails worship the trees, how are we going to get the salt? They will protect it with all the zeal of religious fanaticism! We will be committing ultimate sacrilege in their eyes!”

“Well, that’s where the TARDIS comes in again.”

Kapila crossed her arms. “Is that a good idea? Look where it got us last time.”

“Yes, well, mushrooms don’t grow on trees, do they?” The Doctor paused and eyed her suspiciously. “They don’t on this planet, do they?”

“No, no,” she reassured him. “Er, not that I’m aware of, anyway. It’s rather high up. So I suppose it’s safest to say mushrooms don’t fall from trees here.”

“Oh, crumbs. Well, no use in delaying, my dear. Let’s go.”

When they re-entered the TARDIS, the Doctor changed his assessment and decided it needed a little more than some airing out. Thankfully, he knew a great cleaner about 10,000 years from now who did good jobs for a very reasonable price.

He programmed in the new coordinates, hoping they were accurate enough, but the branches were so wide he figured they wouldn’t have any problem. He hit the lever, and the TARDIS began rocking.

A few seconds later, they were standing a hundred meters up and looking down on the slugs below. It was disconcerting that only now did they look remotely the correct scale, but thinking in Earth terms only skewed his depth perception and made his mind trick him into thinking he wasn’t high up, and he hated to think he could fall prey to visual illusions so easily.

“Oh look, there’s a salt block just ahead,” he announced.

He went back into the TARDIS and retrieved a long length of rope. “This should do the job quite nicely.”

The salt blocks were some fifty meters on each side and suspended by a secondary network of vines that enveloped the branches. It looked as though the network extended into the cubes themselves, like the core of an apple, allowing the salt to accumulate to such sizes. The cubes were connected to the vines via one central braided stem.

Attaching one end of the rope to the TARDIS, the Doctor took the other and carefully worked his way down the vines to the top of the cube. The block was surprisingly sturdy and solid, though grains of salt shifted beneath his shoes as he made his way across the surface.

“Be careful!” Kapila warned. “We have observed the cubes with our magnifying devices, and this one looks ripe.”

“Ripe? What do you mean--” He heard a creaking noise. “Oh dear.”

He took one flying leap and grabbed the vines as the salt cube shuddered and broke loose, the stem fraying and snapping into a thousand whirling strands that threatened to pull him down with them. One flew right past his leg but missed, and then the cube was rapidly shrinking from sight.

MOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” one of the slugs bellowed as the cube landed on it. “Mroaaaaawwwrr?”

There was a wet popping noise as the slug exploded. The Doctor paused in his efforts to climb back onto the branch to stare. “That’s curious. Salt’s sort of supposed to desiccate slugs.”

“I guess our worlds are not so alike after all,” Kapila answered, helping pull him back up.

“Oh my,” he said, wringing his hands. “I didn’t mean for them to get hurt.”

“It serves them right!” Kapila stamped her foot.

The Doctor looked at her in shock. “My dear, we have killed an innocent creature.”

“I think not,” Kapila said scornfully. “These are the big slugs, larger than most. Every half moon, they raid villages to steal people and throw them into the great salt lakes. If you are right, then they were sacrifices to the salt tree gods.”

“Oh dear,” the Doctor said.

“We are more fortunate than most, since we are in the grasslands and far from the trees, but every so many moons, we lose a child to them as well.”

“I suppose that gives us the moral high ground, then. Well, we must not delay. Let’s try to get another one, a little less ripe this time, please.”

They found one a little ways further down the branch. It was smaller than the first, but not significantly, and the Doctor managed to get the rope tied around it. Then he retrieved a blowtorch from the TARDIS and cut the stem. There was a brief, concerning moment when the rope reached the end of its slack and threatened to pull the TARDIS off the branch, but the TARDIS was heavy enough to hold its ground.

“Now let me show you what else the TARDIS can do,” the Doctor said. He activated a second set of controls, and the TARDIS gently lifted into the air.

“Oh, I like this method a lot better,” Kapila said.

“Now this will require a lot of fine-tuning, so why don't you operate the controls and I can guide you from the door?”

Kapila backed away. “No, no, I wouldn’t begin to understand--”

“Oh, it’s easy! See this, just push it in the direction I tell you: forward, backward, left, or right. I’ve fixed the altitude so it won’t go up or down, which should be fine since the ground here is flat, though if you must make adjustments, you just push this knob up or down.”

“That’s it?” she asked dubiously.

“Yes, my dear, see, you’re a natural!” he cried when the TARDIS responded smoothly to her touch. He rushed to the door. “All right, now first we must lure the deer, so we must move a little further into the forest.”

He guided her slowly toward the herd of deer, then put two fingers between his lips and whistled shrilly. All the deer perked their heads up, their ears swiveling around to identify the source of the noise. Then they saw it, and he could feel their attention focus on the salt cube, but none moved.

“All right, they’ve noticed us, but we must move a little closer. Come on, forward a little, yes, now right, right, oh, left a bit, now right a little more, yes, yes, perfect! Oh no, it’s running away. Forward! Forward! No no no back!

“Make up your mind!” Kapila yelled. Then the TARDIS shook, and the Doctor winced. The salt cube swung forward in a deceptively slow arc and slammed into the terrified deer.

OOOOOOOOOOAAAAARRR!!!!” it said as it flew into the air. Kapila’s jaw dropped as the deer soared past the open doorway, its eyes wide open and its mouth foaming in terror. Then there was a loud thump as it hit the ground again.

“It’s ok!” the Doctor announced. “It’s getting up. It’s all right.”

Now all the deer were approaching out of curiosity, which did not bode well for the species’ long-term survival, but things looked quite good for the Doctor, anyway. One of the deer finally approached the salt cube and licked it tentatively. Its ears perked up, and it was about to try a second taste when the Doctor yelled, “BACK!”

Kapila hit the controls and the TARDIS soared away. The deer took only one moment to ponder this development before it took off after them. The others noticed and quickly followed behind, and soon there was a stampede. Then the Doctor noticed a problem.

“Kapila, up!” Nothing happened. “Up!”

“What? Up? Oh up!”

After the first slug exploded from the falling cube, the others had broken from the ritual and scattered, but now they were regrouping and the TARDIS was headed straight for them. Even worse, the salt lick was low enough that it would likely hit a slug. The Doctor didn’t know how the deer would react to an exploding slug, but he didn’t want to take any chances. They needed to get this done so he could find Jamie.

“Doctor, it’s stuck!”

“There’s a safety! The green button next to the lever.”

“There’s six green buttons!”

“The moderately large-sized one!”

What?

AAAAAUUUUUUUURRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” One of the slugs doubled over on itself and unfolded into a giant leap as the others whistled dramatically in what the Doctor could only assume was a war cry. It flung itself onto the salt cube, and the TARDIS tilted.

“Oh no,” the Doctor managed before he fell out through the doorway. There was a great glurp, and he was hit full on by a wave of slime as he plummeted toward the salt cube. He landed on its surface with a loud, “Oomph” and quickly stood up to grab hold of the rope. The cube was now swinging wildly, and he could hear Kapila screaming back in the TARDIS. The deer were now trampling through the slugs’ territory, and the slugs were retaliating by slamming their bodies into the deer and trapping them with slime. Before long, however, one of the slugs let out a long, lowing cry and as a unit, the group turned and began chasing the TARDIS.

“Doctor, what do I do?” Kapila cried.

“Fly us back to your village! Can you do that?”

“I think so! Should I go up?”

“No, the deer are still following! Keep going-- AGH!” He ducked as a slug went flying over his head. The cube caught it as it swung into the slug’s downward arc and there was a huge explosion.

“What happened?” Kapila yelled.

“The slugs are after us, that’s all. They seem to be intent on punishing religious blasphemy.”

We’re not luring the slugs back to my village!

“I’m afraid you have to, my dear!”

The TARDIS banked sharply right, and the Doctor nearly lost his grip as the cube began swirling in erratic circles. “Try to drive a little more carefully!”

“I’m trying!”

MOOOOO!” The cube slammed against one of the slugs and flung it into the face of one of the deer, whereupon it promptly exploded. The deer reared upward and kicked the TARDIS.

“AAAAAAAAH!!!” Kapila flew out through the doorway and landed next to the Doctor.

“Who’s driving now?” the Doctor asked. Kapila gave him an incredulous look. “Hold on tight!”

They pressed themselves against the rope as the cube slammed into one of the deer. Massive strands of fur tugged at their clothes before the deer soared away. Then they screamed, “AAAAAAAAAAAH!” as the cube swung the other direction and plowed into a slug.

SPLAT!

Overhead, the TARDIS began spinning madly, and though the altitude lock was still holding, it was beginning to lurch drunkenly, unable to follow a straight line. The cube began spinning as well.

“Oh no!” the Doctor cried. Their feet lifted off the cube as they began spinning with the TARDIS round and round and round.

EEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” Several slugs got caught up in their tornado and their remains went spinning out in all directions. Then the TARDIS let out an erratic sequences of bleeps and bloops and began losing altitude. Thankfully, through the blades of grass that were slamming into their faces, the Doctor could make out the village growing larger up ahead.

“Well, this will work out nicely! Hold on!!!”

They closed their eyes as the cube struck the ground. Massive clods of dirt exploded into the air as they plowed a furrow through the grass. The rope went taut, then made a creaking sound before it snapped. The TARDIS went flying off into the distance and slammed into the ground with explosive force.

“Let go, let go!” the Doctor yelled as the cube began flipping over. He and Kapila both let go and went flying ahead of the cube. They landed just as it flipped upside down, but then they realized they were still in its path.

“YAAAAH!” Kapila covered her face with her arms. The cube struck the ground, bounced up over them, then landed beyond her and kept rolling. It began fracturing, and by the time it reached the village, it had shattered into thousands of pieces.

“Look out!” the Doctor cried.

Kapila rolled over just as a giant hoof came down on where she had been. The Doctor stood and ran to her. Then he had to push her out of the way as an enraged slug, glowing bright red, glided past.

“My village!” she screamed.

“Mushroom!” the Doctor screamed.

The two of them jumped out of the way as a giant mushroom buried its fangs into the ground. It pulled up, and let out a rumbling roar. As one, giant mushrooms reared their heads all over the grasslands, and the deer paused, looking around. Then they turned from the village and began bounding toward the mushrooms.

Yerk?” the offending mushroom said. Then three deer tore it apart.

“Ha ha! It worked! It worked!”

“The slugs!”

“Oh, oh dear, oh my,” the Doctor said, wringing his hands.

The slugs were tearing at the buildings on the outskirts of the community, and terrified villagers were running into Kapila’s own home for shelter. The Doctor and Kapila ran up.

“Don’t you have any weapons or anything?” Kapila demanded.

“I don’t... let me think...”

“Think faster!”

“Oh my, I-- oh look.”

“What?”

The Doctor pointed at the closest slug. It had stopped attacking, and colors were swirling through its skin in a pattern of confusion. “QUUUUUUUEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeooooooo.”

Water began seeping through its skin in greater and greater quantities, and then it simultaneously expanded and imploded. Slime went flying through the air as the slug exploded.

“Yes! Of course! The salt, my dear, the salt!”

A fine sprinkling of white crystals was falling from the sky, pieces of the cube that had burst upwards on the first impact. Now they rained down on the slugs, and one by one, each exploded. Soon, the village was covered in slime but safe from any further attacks. In the surrounding area, the deer were making good work of the fanged mushrooms, and the Doctor grinned.

“Oh, this will take forever to clean up,” Kapila said, but she was smiling too.

In the village, people were exiting from the central dwellings and looking around in wonder. Then they began cheering, and the young man who had brought the news of Jamie’s capture ran up to them.

“Thank you, Kapila! Thank you, Doctor!” he said. “And look!” He picked up a handful of slug from the ground and put it in his mouth. “It tastes salty!”

Kapila and the Doctor exchanged glances, but at the boy’s prompting, they each took a bite. Kapila nodded in surprised approval. “It tastes good!”

“Well, looks like you won’t be starving any time soon,” the Doctor said, chewing thoughtfully. “Hmm, tastes like chicken.”

The boy took their hands and led them back to the village. The other villagers surrounded them, jumping up and down in excitement, and there was talk of a feast, but the Doctor held up his hands and requested silence. When the village had calmed, he announced, “Today’s developments are indeed great news, but the struggle is not over. Now that your village is safe, I must rescue my friend and make sure the mushrooms do not return.”

Several villagers stepped forward. “We will accompany you and make sure you are safe.”

The Doctor glanced at Kapila who nodded, so he accepted their offer gratefully. “Thank you, but we must leave immediately.”

“That won’t be a problem,” a brawny man said.

Kapila brushed some slime off his sleeve. “Surely you will want to get clean.”

“If I remember correctly, I heard a stream when we first arrived. Is there one between here and the castle?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sure fording it will get me quite clean, then.”

Kapila nodded. “You are a great man, Doctor. Good luck!”

The Doctor grinned and bowed. “At your service.” Then he ran for the castle, slime sloshing between his feet and the soles of his shoes. This wasn’t quite the relaxing vacation he’d had in mind, but he had to admit this adventure had a sort of unique charm to it.

* * *

Jamie was led forcefully into a brightly lit room. He didn't bother struggling against his captors. After all, even if he did manage to escape--which was unlikely, given their ridiculously strong grips--where would he go? He doubted he could even find his way back to the stairwell.

The room was large but had a slightly low ceiling. This posed no problem for Jamie, being a little short, but the leather creatures were tall and had to stoop. The room was featureless and devoid of any objects, except for the monstrosity in one of the back corners. The room was dominated by a giant glass jar, the sort pickles might come in, but instead of pickles it held what could only be described as a giant, greenish brain floating in a clear substance. There were wires coming from the lid that connected to some kind of speaker.

It became immediately evident that the speaker was the brain's way of communicating.

"Ahhh, so this is the boy! He does look delicious," the brain said, its voice female and soothing, but also with an undertone of quiet static.

"Ye're a brain? Ye're responsible for all these beasties? How?" Jamie asked, aghast. He struggled futilely against his captors for a moment.

"The inhabitants of this planet are weak. It takes so very little psychic influence to change the plant life." If a brain could grin, this one would be doing so now. The gentle female voice took on a distinctly prideful tone.

Jamie was terrified, and desperately trying not to let it show. Monsters and aliens and robots he could handle, but what was he supposed to do against a giant psychic brain in a jar? It seemed pretty helpless to look at, but who knew what it could really do? Even the Cybermen were preferable. At least he understood them to a degree.

"How do you like my boys? They looked so very much like you, once upon a time." The brain mused. Jamie was horrified.

"Wha' did you do to them?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to hear the answer. The brain laughed.

"Oh, I just enhanced them. Made them stronger, faster, more durable. They're just shells now. I had to get rid of their will so they'd do my bidding. And, of course, I dressed them. Aren't they lovely?"

"No! It's sick!" shouted Jamie, disgusted.

"Ahaha, and what would you know of it, you tiny--" The brain stopped mid-sentence and let out a deafening, echoing howl. "Intruders! Intruders! How did they get here?!" it bellowed. "Go, take care of them! Leave the boy. I'll deal with him." The minions obeyed instantly, letting go of Jamie's arms and stalking out the door.

Jamie sunk to his knees and rubbed at his arms, relieved to have full circulation returned. It's the Doctor, he thought. It's got to be!

* * *

"The mushrooms are gone! Why should we have to go in there? I feel it is a sinister place," protested Lani, one of the villagers who had volunteered to come with the Doctor. Lani was little more than a boy, but very fit and light on his feet. Kapila had assured him that Lani was an excellent warrior.

"Because," the Doctor explained, "if we don't stop the source, they will just come back. Also, I am sure that Jamie is in there and I must get him back." Now that his mind was no longer occupied by an immediate problem, the worry and fear for his friend that had been shoved into the back of his mind had surfaced and was filling him with dread.

"What are we waiting for, then?" asked Guida, a large, burly man who was Lani's opposite in almost every way. He didn't speak often, but everything about him was big and loud. He even breathed loudly.

"It's always better to assess the situation before barging in," the Doctor said. "But it looks quiet enough to me. In my experience, that's usually a bad thing, but I suppose there's no way to find out what's in there without seeing for ourselves. No sense in waiting any longer." Despite his calm tone and words, every fiber of his being longed to charge in; every nerve felt on fire, and adrenaline surged through him. With considerable effort, he forced himself to remain outwardly composed.

The final member of their little party was a short, stocky, bald girl named Qu. She was a good friend to Kapila and her self-appointed protector. She didn't say much unless necessary.

They approached the castle, doing their best to stay hidden, even though there didn't seem to be anyone to hide from. It was definitely a foreboding structure. Despite it being broad daylight out, the castle was lit as though it were the middle of the night and overcast to boot. It made an extremely surreal image.

"This doesn't belong here," the Doctor said in wonder, pressing the palm of his hand to the cold stone. "In fact, I'd guess that it isn't, in any real sense, here at all. That's why the sun doesn't appear to shine on it. I suspect it's really somewhere else, somewhere where it's currently nighttime."

"That doesn't make sense! I can see it! It's right there! I can touch it!" Lani whined.

"Yes, well, I'm afraid I don't really understand it either. It's all speculation on my part. I've really never seen anything like this; it's quite fascinating." He pulled himself away and turned to the large double doors. "Shall we go in?"

"Uhh..." Lani began, but Guida and Qu each grabbed a giant iron ring and pulled open the massive wooden doors, then stepped briskly in. The Doctor followed and after only a moment's hesitation, Lani did as well.

They found themselves in a giant foyer. There were several doors on either side of them and a short half-level staircase at the end. Curiously, sunlight streamed in through the high windows, though it cast more shadows than it dispelled, and the Doctor wondered exactly how much of the castle was here and how much was elsewhere. Above them hung a very, very old chandelier. The Doctor moved forward a few steps and beckoned for his companions to do the same, not trusting the rusted metal hooks to keep the chandelier above them instead of on top of them.

There was hushed quiet, but it didn't stay that way for long. With no warning, doors on either side of them burst off their hinges and a tall, leather-clad humanoid stepped out of each. They both held whips which they cracked menacingly.

"Run!" the Doctor shouted, recovering first and pushing the others forward towards the stairs. "Find a room!" Qu threw open the first door, then slammed it shut again. The Doctor found another and opened it to reveal an empty room. "In here!" he called, and all four ducked through. The Doctor slammed it shut and turned the lock, and Guida shoved an old, rotting dresser in front of it.

"Well, that won't hold them for long," Guida noted.

"We have to find a way of getting rid of them!" the Doctor said, pacing and trying desperately to think.

"Why don't we just fight? There are only two of them," Lani suggested, bouncing on the balls of his feet, itching for a fight.

"Oh, I very much doubt that would work," the Doctor said. "They are far faster and probably far stronger than any of us. No, we need a plan." The door shuddered from an outside blow, but held.

"The door at the top of the stairs," Qu began, "It leads to a cellar of some sort. The door is much heavier than this one, and there's a bolt lock."

"Simple but brilliant! If we can lock them down there, they might not be able to get out," said the Doctor excitedly.

"Okay, but, if they're out there, how do we get out of here?" asked Lani. The Doctor paused and thought for a moment. The door looked close to giving.

"Okay, here's what we're going to do," the Doctor said. "They're obviously mostly just drones, which means they're not too intelligent. If we stand against the wall on either side of the door, then when it opens and they come running in, we can slip out behind them. Guida, I'm going to need your spear." Guida looked doubtful, but handed it over anyway. "Good, good," the Doctor continued, and then went about explaining the rest of his plan.

Two minutes later, they were all pressed against the wall, waiting breathlessly. It didn't take long. One final blow and the door and dresser both came away, and the creatures burst in. There was a moment of confusion when they found the room seemingly empty that the Doctor and his companions used to slip out. They raced down the hall and the Doctor hauled the door open. It was perfect. Unlike the other doors, this one was extremely heavy and reinforced with what looked like iron. It was still made of wood, but it was at least six inches thick. It took up over half the hallway, and all four of them had no trouble hiding behind it. At the last moment, the Doctor threw the spear down the stairs.

The creatures dashed out of the room and, hearing what they thought in their tiny minds was their prey running down the stairs, ran down themselves. The Doctor waited a moment and then slammed the door shut, turning the lock and throwing the bolt. Then he sagged against the door, relieved. The relief didn't last long, however. He shot back to his feet.

"Jamie!" he said, and started to rush off, then paused when he realized he had no idea which direction to go.

"What?" asked Guida, confused. "What's the rush? Isn't that it? Didn't we get them?"

"Oh, no, no. Those were just drones! They're being controlled by something, or someone. And besides, we only locked them in the basement! That may hold them for a couple days, but it won't hold them forever unless we get rid of their controller." A thought struck him. "Oh dear, what if Jamie was down there?" He wrung his hands worriedly.

"Over here!" Qu shouted, having found another set of stairs with quick and efficient competency.

"Right, right, yes, that's a good idea," the Doctor said, and followed her up.

* * *

They're going after the Doctor! I have to help him! Jamie thought, panicking. He forced himself to stand up, ignoring the aching in his arms as the blood flow returned. The gash he'd suffered earlier was throbbing and the bandage felt loose, but he ignored that too. He had to get to the Doctor.

He made a dash for the open door, but it slammed shut in front of him. He tugged at it futilely, then whirled around.

"It won' open! Why won' it open?" he asked wildly, hating the feeling of helplessness that came from not being able to reach the Doctor.

"Psychic, remember? A mind this large, my masteries don't stop at telepathy!" boasted the brain.

It's a giant brain in a jar, Jamie thought frantically. Wha' do I do? How do I kill a giant brain in a jar?

"Wha' do ye want with me? Why no' just kill me?" he asked, stalling for time so he could think. Thinking wasn't his job! That was what the Doctor did!

It's a brain! In a jar! his mind supplied helpfully. Wha' am I good at? Fighting. Just fighting, and getting into trouble. I can't fight this! I can't even get to it! It's in a jar!

"Is it not obvious?" the brain was saying. "I wish to turn you into another one of my beautiful boys. Do you like to be whipped? They love to be whipped. You will love it as well, shortly."

Jamie wasn't really listening to it, which was probably a good thing. His train of thought had come to the obvious conclusion. Wait! I can get to it! It's just in a jar! It's made of glass! I can break glass! And if I break the glass...

He lunged. He threw his whole weight at the jar, his shoulder slamming against the glass. Nothing happened. Then the brain started laughing, loud and long.

"You didn't really think that would work, did you? You can't break this! No amount of battering will shatter this glass." The brain continued laughing, but Jamie ignored it and looked around for something to hit it with. Now his shoulder ached as well, and he regretted his rash attack.

The stones in the walls and ceilings and floors were old and crumbling, and there were bits of rock sitting all over. Most were too small to do any damage to anything, but a few were larger. He ran for one, picked it up, and hurled it. Without pausing to see if it did anything, he grabbed another one and threw it as well.

He glanced over at the brain as he ran for another stone. There was not even a scratch as far as he could see. Refusing to give up, he hurled another stone. Nothing. He searched for another stone large enough to possibly do any damage, but there weren't anymore. Everything else was just pebbles and dust.

Jamie thought frantically. The awful laughing noise the brain was making was driving him to distraction. He covered his ears, but there was nothing. No ideas were coming. There was nothing he could do. And the Doctor! What was happening to him without Jamie to protect him?

The Doctor flew into the room. Jamie's head snapped up, and he fell right on his ass in surprise.

"Doctor!" he cried. Three other people followed him in. Jamie paid them no attention at all.

"My word! This takes "mastermind" to a whole other level," said the Doctor, then walked over to Jamie.

"Jamie, I'm so glad you're all right! Are you hurt?" Jamie shook his head mutely. The Doctor gave him a brief hug, and then stood.

"Doctor, what the hell is that?!" shouted one of the men the Doctor had arrived with. It quickly occurred to Jamie to warn the Doctor.

"What is this invasion? Where are my boys?" the brain roared in furious confusion.

"Doctor, it's psychic! It controls people," he said urgently, standing up. The Doctor's face lost a little of its color and he spun around, barking orders to the people behind him.

"You three! Get out of here, now! Get back down and wait for us outside! If we don't come out within the hour, just run for it. Do not argue, there is no time for it, just do as I say." There was only a slight hesitation from the three, then they rushed out. The Doctor slammed the door behind them and locked it.

The brain had fallen silent. The Doctor turned and froze. Jamie approached him, cautiously.

"Doctor, wha's been happening? How do we beat this thing? I tried to break the glass, but it's a wee bit too strong for me." The Doctor didn't acknowledge him, instead staring at the massive jar. Jamie placed a hand firmly on his shoulder. "Doctor, why are you all wet?"

"Ah ha!" the Doctor suddenly cried victoriously. "Never mind that now, Jamie," he said quickly, then addressed the brain again. "You think your pitiful telepathic skills are any match for me? You cannot take over my mind!" The brain let out a soundless bellow of fury.

"If I cannot have yours, then I will certainly have the boy’s! He does not have the mental guards you do," the brain said. Jamie cast a panicked look at the Doctor, his right hand tightening on the Doctor's shoulder and his other falling to grip his arm. The Doctor just gave him a friendly, reassuring smile. The brain let out another chilling roar.

"I cannot see his mind! What is this block? He is primitive! None such as he should be able to block me!"

The Doctor stepped forward and out of Jamie's grip. All the friendliness from a moment ago was gone from his posture and his expression. When he spoke, his voice was cold and frightening. He was nothing like the kind, silly Doctor Jamie knew.

"No," he said, "you cannot see this boy's mind, because he travels with me. My ship protects him, and nothing so powerless and insignificant as you shall have any hope of breaking that barrier. Now I offer you a choice. You return to wherever it is you came from, or you die right here." The brain laughed at him.

"I may not be able to penetrate you, but neither do you have any hope of killing me. Your boy already tried!"

"So you will not leave?"

"Never! I am invincible!"

"Oh, but you are not." The Doctor looked truly sad and regretful. He turned to look at Jamie. "You tried to crack the glass already?" Jamie nodded.

"Aye, but I couldn't. There isn't anything in here to hit it with, Doctor. How do you plan to--" He trailed off. The Doctor smiled briefly at him and pulled his recorder out of an inner pocket on his jacket.

"Where physical force fails, Jamie, specific sound waves can crack even the hardest of glass." Jamie clamped his hands over his ears just in time as a loud, clear, shrill noise rang out. The brain screamed, for the first time in terror. A crack appeared in the glass of its jar, which quickly grew. Smaller cracks branched off from the first. Above them, the glass of the windows cracked as well. Abruptly, the Doctor stopped playing.

"Get down, Jamie, now!" he shouted and lunged to shield his friend as Jamie instinctively obeyed. Then the windows shattered and a rain of glass shards fell all around them. Moments later, the glass jar followed, spilling a watery liquid out all over the floor. The speaker shorted out, silencing the final terrible sounds of the dying brain.

After a minute, the Doctor carefully stood, picking bits of glass out of his hair and shaking off his jacket. Jamie stood as well, doing the same.

"Not injured, are you, Jamie?" the Doctor asked kindly. Jamie shook his head, staring at the giant brain oozing out over the floor. He wrinkled his nose.

"Let's get out of here, Doctor. That smells," he complained. The Doctor began to agree, but stopped short when the entire room flickered.

"Oh no, Jamie! We have to get out of here at once! With that thing dead, there is nothing keeping the castle here! It's going to collapse in on itself!" They both sprinted for the exit, careful not to slip on any of the glass covering the floor. The Doctor swiftly unlocked the door and they bolted out.

"I hope you know which way you're going, because I don' ken I remember!" Jamie yelled.

"I hope I do too, Jamie!" the Doctor yelled back at him. The floor beneath their feet was shifting in and out of existence in some places, and they were having to be inconveniently cautious not to step on any areas that didn't exist. They found the stairwell and raced down it, then bolted for the exit. The doors were already open, and they shot out together. Behind them, the entire castle flickered, gave a giant groan, and then disappeared for good.

They both paused to catch their breath. The large, burly man hurried up to them. "That's it?" he asked.

"That's it," the Doctor confirmed with a happy smile. The man nodded.

"Lani and Qu went back to the village. I'll take you there now. Kapila will want to thank you.

"Ah, well, we are grateful for the offer, Guida, I'm sure, but would you be so kind as to take us back to our ship instead?"

"You don't wish to stay?" Guida asked.

"I'm dreadfully sorry, but we'd really better not. We must be getting on our way," the Doctor said. Guida looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded.

It wasn't actually that long of a distance to the TARDIS, and the trip was pleasantly free of feral fungi. Guida was actually only able to take them as far as the place they'd sprung the trap, but they thanked him and the Doctor was able to find his way to where it’d crashed with reasonable ease; he only had to follow the giant scorch marks in the earth.

“Why’s the TARDIS upside down?” Jamie asked.

“Oh, never mind that, Jamie. In you go!”

"Och, I'm beat," Jamie said with relief as he entered. The Doctor followed him in, watching him fondly. “It’s a wee bit smelly in here, isn’t it?”

"Oh, I’ll get it cleaned, don’t worry. I think I had better take a look at that wound on your arm, Jamie," he said. "All that activity couldn't have been good for it, and it wasn't properly taken care of to begin with." Jamie rolled his eyes, but didn't bother arguing.

As he stepped forward to allow the Doctor a look, he tripped over an inconveniently placed shoe. With a shout of surprise, he began to topple over. He threw his arms out to protect himself, as he saw the Doctor make a belated movement towards him out of the corner of his eye. His hands caught the control panel, and he gripped it to stop his fall. One hand slammed down on the coordinate controls, and the other grasped and pulled a lever.

"Oh, no, Jamie! What have you done?" the Doctor exclaimed. The sound of the TARDIS dematerializing filled the air. "Random coordinates! We could end up anywhere!" Jamie removed his hands from the console as if it burned and stared in shock.

"Doctor," he said slowly, "what do you mean, anywhere?"

Chapter Text

Lisa Cuddy quickly ascertained that there was nothing physically wrong with either Cameron or Chase--nothing that could have made them collapse like they did, anyway. Once all the necessary tests were run, there was nothing for it but to wait until they awoke. After hearing Jack Harkness’ story and realizing his description of House’s behavior did not contradict known facts, she’d sent several nurses to hunt her offending employee down. All returned empty-handed, until she had to tell herself repeatedly that screaming his name over the hospital PA system until he showed up would probably be playing into his hands. That thought was all that kept her from doing it.

After several uneventful hours, two things happened almost at once. First, Chase woke up gasping and immediately adopted a panicked look. Second, the door burst open and House barged in, followed by a sheepish-looking Wilson.

"What is going on?” Chase managed. “I feel weird... oh my god my voice--"

House gave him a funny look. "What happened to your accent?" he asked his suddenly non-Aussie employee.

"My--what? OH MY GOD, I'M A MAN!"

"Brilliant observation. Did he hit his head?" Cuddy checked his vital signs again just to convince herself he wasn't going to drop dead. "He appears to be in perfect health. All his vitals are more-or-less normal." She shrugged.

"Can you remember what happened?" Jack asked Chase.

"What?" Chase asked.

"Chase!" House shouted, becoming bored with the proceedings, and remedying that by whacking Chase's leg with his cane. "Pull yourself together!"

"I'm not Chase!" Chase shouted back. There was a brief moment of silence.

"Are you sure there was no head trauma?" asked Wilson, looking doubtful.

"Who are you, then?" Jack inquired.

"Cameron. Obviously," said Chase.

"There was no cranial damage at all!" Cuddy said, wringing her hands.

"No. You're not," House said, staring at Chase. Chase chose that moment to spot Cameron lying on the bed next to him.

"Holy shit! It's me!" he exclaimed. "How come I can see myself? What's going on? Oh no, my makeup is smudged... I look terrible!"

"Okay, maybe you are," House conceded. The rest looked less convinced.

"Are you trying to tell me," Wilson said slowly, "that Cameron's mind is in Chase's body? Oh god. I can't take much more of this."

"It's possible," Jack said, obviously fascinated. Before anyone else could speak, there was a quiet moan from Cameron, who had awoken and was moving to prop herself up.

"Woah," she said. "I feel weird."

"Let me guess. You're Chase," House said.

"Uh. I think so?"

"You think?"

"They really switched minds!" Jack said.

"What?" Chase asked.

"I need to sit down," Cuddy announced.

"I have boobs!" Cameron sounded delighted.

"Don't you dare touch! Those are mine!" Chase shouted.

"Not anymore!" Cameron said gleefully.

"I'm not listening to this," Cuddy said, covering her ears with her hands.

"Cool!" House exclaimed.

"Is this some stupid joke? Did House put you guys up to this?" Wilson asked.

"As if," Chase said.

"I'm insulted!" House adopted an expression of mock disappointment.

"I wonder what sort of technology could do this," Jack mused.

"Bet it was that thing," House said.

"What?" Jack asked, turning to stare at House. “In the men’s restroom, you claimed you didn’t see anything!” Cuddy gave him an incredulous look as she realized Jack had known where House was all along.

"I have boobs!" Cameron contributed.

"Wish I had boobs," House muttered.

"What thing?" Jack demanded.

"Retractable ones would be nice; it’d be annoying to have them jiggling around all day."

"What thing?"

House hesitated, then described finding the bizarre object, forgetting he had it for a day, eventually remembering and noting its unique qualities, and finally knocking Chase and Cameron out when they decided to butt in. There were a few moments of silence while they all absorbed this.

"When did we become characters in a bad science fiction movie?" Wilson wondered weakly.

"About... three hours ago now, I would guess," Jack told him.

"What?" Cameron asked.

"Decameron?" House muttered, eyebrows raised. Wilson snorted. Cuddy glared.

"Glad you two find this so amusing," she snapped.

"That doesn't even make sense as a joke," Cameron-in-Chase's-body volunteered.

"What?" Chase-in-Cameron's-body said again. House felt his headache returning with renewed vigor.

House had never been one to linger on what should and shouldn't have been possible. He was a pragmatist through and through. Impossible didn't interest him; impossible didn't have a solution, or even a puzzle. If it happened, it was possible, and so he viewed people who would respond to bizarre occurrences with a cry of "That's impossible!" as unobservant morons. The answer was more important than the question, in any case. Thus, when presented with the idea that Chase and Cameron's consciousnesses had apparently switched bodies, he accepted it as true and immediately began to work on the "how" and the "why".

He also quickly decided that thinking of them as "Chase-in-Cameron's-body" and "Cameron-in-Chase's-body" was just not going to work. So even though she may look like Chase, Cameron was still Cameron, and vice versa.

"So, where did you put it?" Jack asked, interrupting House's thoughts.

"Put what?" he asked, annoyed.

"The alien device." Jack sounded equally annoyed. House shrugged.

"I couldn't find it. It fell on the ground, and I looked, but it was gone. You think I'd just let something like that out of my sight willingly?"

"You're sure it wasn't there anymore?"

"Are you stupid?"

"It must have teleported, then!"

"What?" Cuddy represented the sentiments of all her employees.

"It can't have gone far! Something that small can't have a far-reaching teleportation mechanism. Even with nanotechnology, it wouldn't fit." Jack was pacing now. "It's interesting that it somehow knew when it was time to teleport..."

"What?"

"Te-le-port. You know, disappearing and reappearing in another place? Happens all the time in movies?" Jack clearly thought she was an idiot. Cuddy huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Are you trying to tell me that there's some little... thing around here somewhere that caused this? And it can teleport?" she said doubtfully. "We're in a hospital in New Jersey, not a spacecraft in some bad science fiction show. How do you know it didn't just roll under a chair or something?"

"Right, I'm finding it a little hard to believe that you can accept them"--Jack gestured towards Chase and Cameron--"but not this."

For a few moments, Cuddy managed an awfully good imitation of a fish.

* * *

Tosh raced through the halls, leaving Monty gasping in her wake, until she found the room number Jack had given her. She threw it open and found Ianto on the ground in a pool of his own blood.

“Oh my god!” she gasped.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Ianto told her.

“Really?” Tosh said, just for the sake of having something to say, as she took Jack’s wet coat from his hands and took a look at his wounds.

“I... counted,” Ianto muttered. “It’s only two pints.”

Monty’s eyes widened, and he looked a little sick. Tosh snapped at him. “What are you waiting for? Go get some doctors!” Monty turned and ran out of the room, yelling for help.

Ianto tried to prop himself up, but he collapsed back onto the floor. “Where’s Jack? Did he get the artifact?”

“Stop moving,” Tosh told him.

They soon found a doctor from the ER to examine his wounds. The injuries were indeed mostly superficial, and the prognosis was that Ianto could be up and about whenever he regained enough blood to be steady on his feet. They moved Ianto into a room close to Gwen’s on the second floor, and then the inconvenient questions began.

“There was a patient running loose in the halls,” Ianto said to the doctor. “Dr. Cameron enlisted my help to subdue him before he put himself or anyone else in danger.”

The doctor looked unimpressed. “Really? A patient?”

“He got hold of a knife!” Ianto yelled, pretending to be outraged. “What kind of security does your hospital have, letting mentally unstable patients roam free with ready access to weapons? You should be thankful I’m not suing!”

With those magical last seven words, the doctor’s demeanor changed completely. “Oh, well, yes, I assure you it was an isolated incident. I’m terribly sorry.”

Tosh laid a hand on his arm. “If you speak with Dr. Cameron, she’ll corroborate his story.”

The doctor glanced at her and, being intelligent enough to realize when he should make his exit, retreated from the room, clutching his clipboard against his chest. As soon as he was gone, Tosh pulled Monty’s artifact out of her laptop case. Monty flinched out of the way as she waved its tip past him, nearly tripping over his own feet. He caught himself against the window, thunking against the glass and drawing the attention of everyone outside. He grinned sheepishly and shut the blinds.

Tosh showed Ianto the rod, letting it rest horizontally upon her open palms. One of his eyebrows shot up in a slightly manic manner as he examined it.

“This is Korkekian technology,” he said, glancing at Monty. “You say he found this? In his office?”

“In the governor’s office,” Monty corrected. “Look, I swear, not a word to anybody, lips sealed.” He put his thumb and index finger together and made a zipping motion across his mouth, whacking a lamp at the end of his gesture. “Ow!”

Tosh tried to ignore him as he hopped around the room clutching his hand. “I’ve never heard of the Korkekians.”

“Unlikely you would; as far as I know, word of their existence never left Torchwood One, and then its archives were destroyed in--” Suddenly, he leaned forward, causing Tosh to flinch away and himself to wince and fall backward. “You didn’t activate it, did you?”

“It, it went off, but I don’t know how I could have--” She furrowed her brows in thought, and when Ianto noticed, he quickly snatched the rod out of her hands. When she looked, she was horrified to see it glowing, but once it left her grip, the light faded away again.

“It reads brainwaves,” Ianto growled, holding the rod as though it were a poisonous snake. “You activate it by holding it and thinking about it activating.”

Tosh and Monty both leapt away from the bed, trying to find cover as soon as he said ‘activating,’ but the rod didn’t go off, and Tosh looked up in wonder. “How did you do that? How’d you talk about activating it without thinking it? I mean, mine was just a stray thought and it turned on!”

“It’s possible to disconnect your words from your thoughts,” Ianto replied.

Well, she thought, if anyone could do it, it’d be Ianto. Her brief experience with Mary’s mind-reading pendant had shown her just how hard it was to see the inner workings of his mind.

“Did you hit anyone?” he asked.

“Yes.” Tosh grimaced. “An old man outside the hospital.”

“He was on an emotional high when he woke.” It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes, and he had a religious conversion experience.”

Ianto frowned. “That’s a new one. Strict sort of religion?”

“Cromwell had nothing on him.”

“Quite contradictory, then; the original purpose of the device was to stimulate mental orgasms, a sort of cheap jokester’s toy. Yvonne Hartman had a lot of fun with it.”

“So, like a tasp in Ringworld?”

“Not nearly as addictive, because the memory is supposed to fade from the brain. Any attachment would be strictly intellectual.”

“The effects won’t last, then?” Tosh asked, feeling relieved.

“This has been modified,” Ianto replied, waving it at her. She had to force herself to stay still, and her leg jittered from the desire to get out of its way. “It sounds serious. The Korkekians are extinct now. Their homeworld vanished a couple thousand years ago, just disappeared. The light stopped reflecting off of it, and the planet was no longer there. Ten years later, their entire civilization collapsed overnight, planet after planet turned into wastelands with nothing left on them, no Korkekians, no buildings, no technology, no plants, nothing. No life, dead planets, one after another, seventy-five of them, all gone. To this day, no one has been able to figure out what happened.”

“Were they attacked?” Monty asked.

“Not that anyone was aware of, and any assault on the Korkekians would have been difficult at best. They had some of the most powerful psychic technologies in the galaxy... but the droid earlier, it must have been using Korkekian technology as well! It was causing hallucinations, powerful images...”

“So what does that mean?”

Ianto stuck the tip of his tongue out between his lips as he concentrated. “I’ve always thought the circumstances of their fall were suspicious. Perhaps it was part of a plan.” He looked straight into Tosh’s eyes, and she received an unmistakable warning: Keep an eye on Monty. “Perhaps the Korkekians aren’t as dead as we think.”

“We were going to investigate the offices in Trenton,” Tosh said.

“Good. You can’t attack without having a base nearby, so the aliens must be located somewhere close, and what better hiding place than a position of power?”

Monty nodded and crossed the room to open the door. “Come on, then. If we drive fast, we can be there by late afternoon.”

Tosh began to follow him out, but Ianto called them back for one last admonition. “Be careful,” he said, and this time, the warning was for both of them.

* * *

Half an hour later, after House, Cuddy, and Harkness had combed the room inch-by-inch and failed to locate the fallen artifact, they were all back in House’s office.

"This has to be a dream," Cameron said, examining her "new" hands.

"I doubt it,” Chase grumbled. “If this was a dream, I'm pretty sure House wouldn't be here.”

"Speak for yourself," House piped in. Cameron and Chase gave him disturbingly identical glares. "What? I'm in most of my dreams. Except that one where I’m Julia Roberts and I’m pregnant..."

"Shut up. You're making my head hurt," Cuddy snapped. Well, that made two of them, House thought.

"But if this is real--" Chase began.

"We'll see just how narcissistic you two really are."

"House!" yelled Chase, Cameron, and Cuddy at the same time.

"Nice harmony," said House, utterly unperturbed.

"This is ridiculous," Cuddy said.

"I just don't get you people!" Jack exclaimed. "What will it take to get you to believe aliens exist? I mean, what about the UFO crashing through Big Ben, or the Sycorax on Christmas Day two years ago?"

"Yes, we've heard this rant already," House said.

"Syco-what?" asked Wilson.

"Well, everything was always in Britain, wasn't it?” Chase said. “I always figured it was just the English having a weird sense of humor."

"Oh! The impudence!" House cried. "Show some respect for your home country!"

"Well, a third of the hospital did try to jump off the roof," Cuddy conceded.

"If I remember correctly, you were among them," House added unhelpfully.

"So how do we reverse this?" Cameron had apparently gotten through her denial and onto more important matters, House noted with a touch of admiration.

"I need to find the device, but it's gone!" Jack said.

"So... this could be permanent?" Cameron said.

"I'll find it," Jack assured her.

"What if you don't?"

"No one's going to believe we've swapped bodies," Chase moaned.

"Then you'd better work on your accent," House quipped. "Or Cuddy could just announce over the PA that it's Swap Accents With Your Lover Day."

"No," Cuddy said.

"Damn it, people already think I'm gay! What's going to happen when they see me mooning after House? This sucks!" Chase looked devastated. Cameron looked annoyed. House found the role reversal their body-swap had caused rather disorienting.

"Hey, you should just be thankful that I'm not on my period right now," Cameron muttered.

"Oh my god," Chase said, looking horrified, while House snickered. The door opened and Foreman walked briskly in.

"Where were you guys earlier? It took me forever to search the rest of the hospital, and now you’re back in the office! What's going on?"

"Nothing," Chase-in-Cameron’s-body said, with a strong Southern accent.

"G'day, mate! Blimey, what a great day to wrangle a kangaroo," Cameron-in-Chase’s-body said.

"What?" Foreman said.

* * *

Ianto waited several minutes to make sure Tosh and Monty weren’t coming back before he climbed out of bed. Immediately, his side began to ache. The world rocked beneath his feet, but he forced himself to focus, limping to the chair where Tosh had left his clothes. His blood-stained shirt was torn beyond hope of repair, but the coffee-stained one had dried, so he dropped the hospital gown and shrugged that on, along with a pair of pants. He was just buttoning his shirt when the door opened.

“Oh, uh, I was--” he began. Then he turned and saw who it was. “Oh no...”

Nurse Brenda cast her gaze about the room before allowing it to settle on him. The door shut quietly. “You should be in bed,” she said huskily.

A screwdriver would be very nice just about now, Ianto thought as he noticed her hair was mussed up and the top two buttons of her shirt had been torn off.

“Dr. von Lieberman said I’m fine,” Ianto said. “Really, I have papers to prove I can walk around.”

“Oh, you poor, poor boy,” Brenda ran her fingers up the length of his right arm and down his chest. “So confused.”

“Really, I’m not--”

“There’s no Dr. von Lieberman at this hospital.” Closing her fist around his collar, she spun him around. His legs chose that exact moment to give out, and he collapsed onto the bed. “There you go. Now all you have to do is lie there.”

“What do you mean there’s no-- oh, that’s not appropriate--”

“It looks like you need some gentle, medical attention there,” Brenda whispered, climbing on top of him. “Oh my, you’re a pretty one. Should shave the sideburns, though.”

“Von Lieberman was right here, I was talking to him, he introduced himself!”

“Nonsense, you probably just heard the name somewhere else... I seem to recall House mentioning him some time long ago, but that’s not important. Stop thinking about him and focus... here.” She leaned forward so that there was no way to ignore her bosom.

“What? He was in House’s thoughts? But that means-- ooaaahh!!.

Brenda unzipped his pants, not bothering with the belt. “You have wonderfully large hands. I wonder if it’s true what they say about men with large hands...”

“That’s quite enough,” Ianto said quickly, and gathering all his strength, he pushed her away, sending her tumbling off the bed. She screamed and took an IV rack down with her.

Ianto clambered off the bed, zipping up his pants, and threw open the door.

“You’re not getting away from me that easily!” Brenda screamed as she leapt over the bed and tackled him. Ianto threw her off him, and her head crashed against the edge of a countertop. She collapsed, unconscious.

Aware that the entire hospital was watching them, Ianto stood and tried his best to straighten his shirt. “Uh, it’s something in the water. You might want to avoid the drinking fountains for a few hours while maintenance works it out.”

An elderly lady standing close by jabbed her husband in the ribs. “See? I told you it had nothing to do with your silly blue pills.” She leaned over and said loudly to Ianto: “Men, they can never do anything right. I said to Walter, ‘Walter, how can something so little make you big?’ but no, he wouldn’t believe me.”

As she walked away, Ianto scratched his head. “Why do women tell me these things? Am I not a man?”

The nurse who slapped Jack earlier appeared beside him. “Aww, you’re too adorable!” she said, taking him by the arm and dragging him away.

“Where are we going?” he asked, bewildered.

“Don’t worry.” She patted his hand. “Your virtue is safe with me. I mean, I’m just not interested in you that way. The sideburns kind of put me off.”

* * *

After all was explained and Foreman was reasonably convinced by the evidence if not the logic (though he was not quite sure he wasn't dreaming), House pulled him aside.

"Foreman," he said, "I need you to do me a favor."

"What?" asked Foreman skeptically.

"Cover my last clinic hour today, would you? Good man, good man." Without giving Foreman a chance to reply, House clapped him on the back, gave him a little push in the right direction, and scurried off. Foreman gaped after him for a minute, then rolled his eyes and strolled down to the clinic.

The nurse at the desk was not surprised to see him and handed him a clipboard without comment. The first three patients went by fairly quickly, two being just allergies and one the flu.

About thirty-five minutes later he got the chart for his fourth patient, and the nurse who handed it to him gave him a strange look and said, "Watch out for this one. He was pretty strange--didn't seem quite certain about his information. He's probably a drug seeker." Foreman curtly thanked her for the warning.

The patient was a middle-aged man, brown hair, brown eyes, average height, average weight... actually, every thing about him seemed exactly average. That in itself wasn't cause for alarm, of course. They got all sorts of patients in the clinic, and some of them were bound to be average. But the man's demeanor, the way he held himself and the way he spoke, those things seemed a bit off to Foreman, though he couldn't quite put his finger on why.

"Hello, I'm Doctor Foreman. What can I do for you?" he asked politely.

"Guh. Rah," the man said. Foreman blinked. The man made a bubbling noise.

"Excuse me? Is it a throat problem?" The man bubbled some more. Foreman sighed and picked up a tongue depressor. "Well, open up and let me have a look, then."

The man opened up. He did more than just open his mouth, actually, though he certainly did do that. His entire body flickered for a moment, and then he was gone and there was a giant, red... thing in his place, all teeth and leathery skin. Foreman reeled back, but he wasn't fast enough. The creature's gaping maw opened wide and swallowed him whole.

After a few moments, it burped, shifted back into a human, and then walked jerkily out of the room, as though it didn't know quite what to do with two legs.

* * *

Chase knew something was wrong when House sent Foreman off and then scampered up to them, an expression of false cheerfulness on his face. “Okay, kiddos! How about we have some fun!”

Chase folded his arms over his chest, or rather, his breasts, or rather, Cameron’s breasts... which would make them her arms... wow, this made his head hurt. Or rather, her head...

He tried his best to give House a Cameron-like glare in the midst of all this mental confusion. “I’m not kissing you.”

“Oh, you know you want to,” House retorted. “But that’s not the point. Where are my test results!

Chase gaped at him. “You still want us to do the tests?”

“Patient’s not getting any better, is she?”

Cameron drew herself up, or himself, or... oh, whatever; he was going to have Cuddy cover his psychiatric bills anyway.

“It’s true, Chase, we’re not exactly handicapped in any way,” she said. She shifted uncomfortably. “Though I really don’t understand how you walk with--”

“Okay! That’s enough!” Chase stood and strode out of the room. As he walked, he had to concede House was right; once the novelty of having breasts wore off, he’d really rather they were retractable.

* * *

“So, a new shipment of these just arrived yesterday,” Tracy said, bouncing toward a stack of boxes. She giggled. “It was naughty, stealing some, but I thought, why not? The hospital doesn’t pay me enough to deal with some of the patients here! Oh, not that it isn’t worth it. I mean, I met you, didn’t I?”

“A shipment of what?” Ianto asked.

Tracy pulled two spherical yellow objects out of her pocket. “Stress balls! Look, you can squeeze them!” She tightened her grip on them, one in each hand, to demonstrate this fascinating property.

“How exciting.”

“Here, try it. I guarantee it’ll make all your troubles go away!” She threw one at him.

He squished it once. “Very nice, very firm.”

“Squeeze harder!” Tracy exclaimed.

He tossed it back to her. “Look, great as this is, there’s something I need to do.”

Tracy pouted. “What?”

Ianto thought for a moment. “There’s a possibly semi-sentient alien artifact loose in this hospital which channels enough energy to blow up Jupiter, and if a race bent on taking over the universe recovers it before we get to it, life as we know it will end.”

“That’s what my father said when he divorced my mother!” Tracy burst into tears.

“What!”

Tracy lifted a box of stress balls and prepared to throw it at him. “I hate you!” He ducked, but she overcompensated for its weight and fell backwards so that the entire package landed on top of her. Ianto turned and ran.

“Ianto! Don’t leave me!”

“I’ll bring you a cup of coffee!” he told her.

“Aw, you’re so sweet.” Another box landed on her. “Ow!

* * *

Cameron edged past Chase as they arrived at Gwen’s room. Gwen was sleeping when they entered. Cameron shook her gently awake and showed her the stack of Ishihara test cards they’d brought. “We’re going to show you a series of cards with a group of dots, which will all be one similar color except for the shape of a roman numeral, which will be in a different color. We’ll need you to tell us what number you see,” she explained.

“Yeah, all right,” Gwen said groggily. “I remember those things from when I was a kid. There were also the little 3D pictures where you had to pick out which one popped up.”

Cameron laughed. “None of those today, unfortunately.”

“I’m surprised House is still making you two work,” Gwen said sympathetically.

Cameron tensed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know, the whole mind-swap thing, Dr. Cameron. Jack sent us all a text.”

“You talk as though it happens every day.” Cameron laughed nervously. Chase thought it sounded extremely strange coming from his own body, because it was a distinctly Cameron-like laugh.

Gwen shrugged. “Well, I don’t know how much Jack told you, but it sort of is an everyday thing.”

“Right, well, the test.” Chase took the cards from Cameron’s hands. The test took only a few minutes, as Gwen could not read any of the numbers.

“They’re all grey,” she kept saying.

At the end of it, Cameron took a small light out of her pocket and shined it into Gwen’s eyes. “All functions are normal,” she reported.

“You look worried,” Gwen said, her own voice echoing the sentiments.

“You have achromatopsia,” Chase said, “total color blindness caused by brain damage. If you’d been able to distinguish certain colors but not others, the problem might have been your eyes and your retina rather than the brain, which would’ve given us a hint as to what is causing your illness. However, since this is simply a symptom of the stroke, we’re back to where we started.”

“Does that mean it’s permanent?”

Cameron nodded sympathetically. “Yes.”

Gwen smiled sadly. “Well, I guess it could be worse. At least I’m not paralyzed. What’s next?”

“Well, we’ve seen your brain, now we need to take a look at your heart; your brain is clear of tumors, and your blood tests indicate normal levels of cholesterol, so the stroke was likely embolic, meaning caused by a clot sent from some other part of the body,” Chase explained. “The heart’s the best candidate, so we’re going to do an echocardiogram to make sure there’s no blockages or abnormal blood flow; it’s non-invasive, which makes it an ideal first procedure. If that doesn’t show anything, then we’ll have to try a coronary angiography where we insert a catheter through blood vessels in the leg up to your heart. It’s a very simple, pain-free, low-risk procedure.”

They were preparing the ultrasound when a doctor Chase didn’t recognize entered. Cameron looked confused, so she clearly didn’t know him either. The man headed directly for Chase.

“Dr. Cameron, do you know Ianto Jones?”

“Uh, why, yes,” Chase replied, then paused, catching himself. “I do, guv’nor,” he continued in a heavy Southern drawl. “And who would y’all be?” Cameron glared at him.

“Dr. Charles,” he said. Cameron shot the man a strange look. “We’ve admitted Mr. Jones as a patient, and he says you know the circumstances under which he was injured. I ask because we suspect he may be lying.”

“Oh, uh, well...” Chase looked over at Cameron, giving her a panicked look.

Cameron looked around the room, then moved so that she was behind the doctor but still visible to Chase. Patient, she mouthed, miming a punch.

“He was attacked by a patient,” Chase said.

Cameron scissored her index and middle fingers across each other in a walking motion.

“He was running,” Chase added. Cameron quickly shook her head, mouthing, Patient was escaping. “Oh no, uh, the patient was running. Well, I mean, they were both running. Because the patient was escaping.”

Dr. Charles looked at him strangely. Cameron pointed to her head, then did some weird movements with her hands that resembled miming a zombie. What? Chase mouthed. The doctor turned around and Cameron quickly straightened and put her hands behind her back.

“Is something the matter?” Charles asked her.

“I’m Dr. Chase,” she replied, in an utterly cringe-worthy imitation of an Australian accent. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear. The patient got hold of a scalpel, apparently.”

“Yes, well, first-hand accounts are for the best,” Charles said, dismissing her and turning back to Chase. Chase groaned inwardly as he realized he wasn’t going to accept anyone’s word but his. Cameron quickly pointed at her head again, bobbing it side-to-side, then mouthed Foreman and made a wavy motion across her chest.

“Foreman has big--” he caught himself, realizing that couldn’t be what Cameron was trying to say. “Ah, uh, he, has big problems with, uh, patients... running around... when they’re not supposed to, that is. Normally, it’s great if they can run around, exercise and all that and oh,” he exclaimed, realizing what Cameron meant. “The patient had Alzheimer’s, yes, mentally ill, threat to himself, so no time to call security, no, had to get Ianto to help me.”

He’d been so flustered he hadn’t paid any attention to Charles’ own expressions, but now, he realized the man had been making very strange faces at him the whole time. Chase looked closer; now that he thought about it, the man seemed strange, as though some miniscule details about him were wrong. He looked normal, but he made Chase’s hair stand up on the back of his neck, and he was quite sure that Cameron’s hair didn’t normally stand up on its own.

“Hold on,” Chase said at the same time as Charles. They both paused.

Cameron looked confused when he said his name, Chase thought, as though she was thinking about... Then he remembered. She’d received a letter from Dr. Sebastian Charles about his work with TB in Africa just a few days ago!

“You don’t work here!” Chase said.

“You’re not Dr. Cameron!” the man roared back.

“Get down!” a third voice yelled.

Cameron and Chase both ducked, and a gunshot rang out. Blood splattered everywhere as the man collapsed.

“What the hell!” Chase looked up and saw Ianto. “You shot him! You killed him!”

“He’s an alien,” Ianto said.

“But he didn’t go poof into smoke like the other one!” Cameron said.

Ianto checked his pulse, then turned him over and slapped him a few times. Nothing happened. He then grabbed the defibrillator and charged up it up.

“That’s not what you do for people who’ve been shot!” Chase protested.

Ianto ignored him and brought the paddles down on the man’s chest. An electrical current jolted through him, and the air around him fizzled like static on a television screen. When it faded, there remained a large, leathery... thing that was fizzling and melting as though it’d been doused in acid. Its features were no longer recognizable, but it was definitely not human.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not a Korkekian,” Ianto muttered.

The puddle of brownish-red leather-goo glurped and then exploded in a puff of smoke. When the air cleared, there was nothing left. “Poof,” Chase said, earning another glare from Cameron.

“That’s unfortunate,” Ianto said. Then he stood and patted them both on the shoulder. “Well, might as well get on with those tests, then. Hi Gwen, how are you feeling?”

Gwen was wide-eyed. “Uh, fine. You’re going to have to explain this when you come back.”

“Quite. I need a cup of coffee, though.” And with that, Ianto left.

* * *

 

Jack had slipped out about a minute ago in a way that he probably thought was discreet. House noted the direction he’d gone and now that Chase and Cameron were gone--Cuddy and Wilson had long since left, probably to find an ice pack and some coffee--he went off to try some reconnaissance work.

He had a shrewd idea of where Jack had gotten to; it wasn't difficult to deduce that Jack's first priority would be to locate the curious object, and House didn't want that. After all, he'd found it, which to his mind made it his (House was a huge supporter of "finders, keepers", but only when it benefitted him).

Sure enough, Jack hadn't gone far. He was just down the first hallway on the right and was doing something with a device that looked like a small metal detector. House made sure to stay out of sight and watched, interested. Jack was waving his little device by each door along the hall, and each time finishing with an annoyed expression and occasionally a disgruntled noise before moving on to the next door.

Five doors later, Jack found a door that was apparently of interest. He waved the device over it two more times, then gently knocked. House was close enough to hear that there was no answer. Jack carefully opened the door and peeked in, then opened it the rest of the way and tip-toed through.

House meandered up and watched through the open door, careful to stay out of sight. It was difficult to suppress a snort when he saw the old lady asleep in the bed and Jack's attempts at being quiet so as not to awaken her.

Jack quickly ran his detector over most of the room, then paused and turned; he hadn't found what he'd been looking for. House ducked out of sight behind a convenient meal cart. He peeked between the trays.

Jack was sneaking out of the room, keeping his eyes locked on the old lady in the bed. This, it turned out, was a bad idea, since it meant he wasn't watching his feet. He tripped over a wire on the floor, caught himself on a precarious shelf, and caused several nice vases to crash to the floor, making a loud noise.

He recovered quickly, but not quickly enough.

"WHO IS HERE? WHAT DO YOU WANT?" shouted the old woman, not too pleased at having been abruptly woken. Jack flailed backwards, turned, dodged a thrown water bottle, sprinted out of the room, and slammed the door behind him.

"Sorry!" Jack yelled through the closed door. Something crashed on the other side. House tried to stifle his snickers, but with the bustle in the hospital it wasn't as though Jack was going to hear him anyway.

Jack didn't bother to linger. He walked briskly down the rest of the hall, his eyes on his little detector. House followed. It wasn't hard; Jack was occupied and there were plenty of people around to mask his presence. Unfortunately for Jack, the amount of people meant that it wasn't a great idea for him not to be watching where he was going.

The unsuspecting captain slammed right into a doctor, who had also been preoccupied and not paying attention. The two staggered backward. The doctor (whom House recognized as one of the board members, though he couldn't remember which department) ended up on his ass, while Jack caught himself on some poor visitor. Neither of them went down, but Jack got a long-winded lecture. House grinned, appreciating the free entertainment.

Flustered, Jack maneuvered himself away and disappeared into the stairwell. House frowned and said, "Bastard." He looked into the stairwell, determined that Jack was headed up, and then went to the closest elevator.

He got off on the third floor, in the middle of the psych ward. It was far from his favorite part of the building, and so he was a little miffed at Jack for leading him there. And speaking of, Jack was nowhere in sight.

After examining the stairwell, House heard a loud squawking noise from a room across the hall. He ducked into the stairwell just in time as Jack came stumbling through the doors, followed inexplicably by a largish chicken. Someone inside was yelling and Jack's hair and clothing were in disarray. There was a feather sticking resolutely in his hair.

"This is ridiculous," House murmured to himself, staring with wide eyes as Jack dusted himself off and turned indignantly on his heel. House cautiously left the stairwell, holding the door open so the chicken could get through, and followed.

He hadn't taken more than a couple steps when he heard a voice call out, "House!" He froze.

"Wilson," House hissed under his breath. Wilson walked briskly up to him.

"What are you doing up here?" he asked. House chanced a glance at Jack, who had indeed noticed them and was walking over.

"What are you doing here?" House countered, more than a little vexed. Wilson made to respond, but Jack beat him to it.

"What are you two doing here?" he asked, glaring at House. House rolled his eyes.

"I was following you. Duh," House said.

"Why?" asked Jack and Wilson at the same time.

"Why do you think? Don't be obtuse."

"Well, I'd appreciate it if--" Jack was cut off by his cell phone ringing. He glanced down at it. "Ianto? What does he want?"

"How should I know?" House asked. Wilson gave him a light slap on the shoulder.

"Be nice."

* * *

Neither of the tests revealed any abnormalities, which left Chase baffled. He’d been sure it’d be either the eyes or the heart, as he still wasn’t convinced that this would be a big mystery case. However, it seemed Cameron’s position was becoming more and more valid, which didn’t bode well for Gwen.

“What’s next, then?” Gwen asked. “I mean, if everything’s fine, what else could cause a stroke?”

“I don’t know,” Chase said. “What if it’s a tumor?”

“I thought that’s what you’ve been searching for.”

“No, I mean, uh, well, we really shouldn’t discuss this around you. A lot of the ideas we throw out are just that: ideas, nothing to be worried about, but patients--”

“It concerns me, doesn’t it? You can discuss it right here.”

Chase stood up. “I’m sorry, but really--”

“No! You’re not going anywhere! I want to know if there’s something wrong with me!”

“I--” Chase began, but Cameron cut him off with a hand on his arm. They exchanged a quick look, then Chase nodded and sat back down, though he knew that’d be a bad move if his suspicions were right. Well, it was in the name of science.... “Gwen, you’re right, we’ll stay right here. Of course it concerns you, and we don’t want to upset you.”

In the blink of an eye, Gwen’s hand went from the side of the bed to Chase’s throat. “You’re lying to me!”

Guhyeerghk!” Chase managed.

Gwen pulled him closer so that their faces were almost pressed together. “You’re conspiring against me, all of you, and-- oh no you don’t!” Still with only one hand, Gwen threw Chase aside, grabbing Cameron’s wrist with her other hand just as Cameron began to bring a tranquilizer down onto her thigh. Cameron cried out and dropped the needle.

Gwen leapt out of the bed as Chase scrambled for the shot. She caught him before he could reach it and threw him against the wall. “Back away from the needle!” she growled as Cameron began to kneel down. “Or I’ll kill him!”

Well, here goes nothing, Chase thought. Then he slammed his head against Gwen’s. She cried out and collapsed to the ground. He grabbed the tranquilizer and injected it into her anyway, just in case, and then they dragged her back into the bed.

“You smeared my makeup!” Cameron told him afterward.

“What?”

She sighed. “It always happens to me; the patients always beat up on me.”

“What are you talking about? She was choking me.”

“Yeah, but it’s my body,” she pointed out. Chase glared.

Suddenly, they heard a yelp outside the room, and they were forced to leave the mystery of Gwen’s sudden rage attack for a later time. Outside, they found Ianto dialing on his phone.

* * *

“Jack?” Ianto’s voice came over the headset.

“Yes?” Jack replied, eyeing House and Wilson and wondering whether to let them in on the conversation or not.

“You’d better get over here.”

Jack ran off without waiting for the two doctors; he’d rather not let House feel he had the right to interfere in Torchwood affairs. When he arrived, he found Ianto standing in front of a manhole just outside of Gwen’s room. Cameron and Chase were beside him, and just as he was despairing at the constant presence of House’s minions, he saw Cuddy striding over as well, her face grim.

“Why’s there a manhole on the second floor of the hospital?” Cameron asked.

Cuddy didn’t waste her breath on such a ridiculous question and instead stalked over to the PA system and screamed, “HOUSE!” Her voice echoed across the hospital.

House turned the corner and said in a theatrical whisper, “Really, Cuddy, you’re scaring the patients. Think about their psychological welfare!”

“Why’s there a manhole in the middle of the second floor of my hospital?”

Ianto poked the lid, which promptly spun around as though on greased hinges. “As strange as this may sound, Dr. Cuddy, I don’t think Dr. House had anything to do with this.”

“Yeah, why would I need a manhole when I have Wilson?”

“It just materialized right in front of me while I was walking,” Ianto said, as though this would make everything clear.

Jack knelt down and started scanning it with his wristband.

“I nearly spilled my coffee,” Ianto added.

“How’d you not fall in?” Cameron asked.

“Only idiots don’t watch where they put their feet, Dr. Cameron.”

“Well?” Wilson asked, clearly giving up all his preconceived notions of reality. “What do you think?”

Jack frowned. “It’s probably quantum.”

House grabbed Cuddy’s clipboard and dropped it down the manhole.

“House! That was your case report!”

“Good thing I have it all in my head, then.”

A second later, they heard a dull thump and then: “Ow!”

“That’s curious,” Jack said.

House motioned for Ianto’s mug, and Jack was surprised when he handed it over without protest. House poured the contents down the manhole. This action was followed by a loud scream and some steaming.

IANTO! YOU BASTARD!

“Oh, well that does confirm my suspicions, sir.” Ianto said.

“About what?” Jack peered down the hole.

“Well, Owen’s locked in the trunk of the rental car, sir, under very curious circumstances.”

“When’d you find this out?”

“Oh, this morning, about eight hours ago.”

“Why didn’t you mention it?”

“Yeah! Why didn’t you get help?!” Owen’s voiced echoed up to them.

Jack clearly couldn’t resist any longer. He grabbed Cuddy’s pen and dropped it. House looked on with poorly-concealed approval.

“JACK!”

“How’d he know it was me?” Jack scratched his head.

“I’m afraid that between the impressment of my services in your search for the alien artifact and the attack by the droid, sir, I never had the time to tell you, though I did try,” Ianto said.

House took a seat at the edge of the manhole and lifted his cane.

“House, what are you doing?” Cameron demanded.

“Scientific experiment, Cameron. It’s important to know how far down this goes.”

Cameron reached forward to stop him but House plunged the cane down.

“Ow!” came a second voice.

Everyone froze. Even one of the passing nurses, normally oblivious to just about everything not medical, stopped and stared for three seconds before moving on. House looked thoughtful. “I thought we were missing someone.”

“Foreman?” Cameron called down.

“Duh!”

House tried to pull out his cane, but it was stuck. He shrugged and dropped it. “Cuddy, I need a new cane.”

“Ow, it’s in my--” Owen paused. “Oh never mind, just get us out!”

“Foreman, what happened?” House barked.

“Well, it’s all sort of confusing, but I was treating this clinic patient, and suddenly, he sprouted fangs and ate me.”

Everyone took a step away from the manhole.

“This patient,” House said, “was he round and dark grey with ‘Property of the City of Princeton’ printed on him?”

“What? No! I just, well, I was pulled toward an orifice of some sort, and there was teeth, and then suddenly I was here next to Owen.”

“So it’s like some special corner of hell?” Ianto mused. “If you’re bad, you get stuck with Owen for all eternity.”

Jack giggled. Cameron stared.

A scream rang out down the hall, accompanied by dozens of shouts of, “Monster! MONSTER!” and one scream of, “My hair! It ate my wig!”

“Oh god.” Cuddy rolled her eyes.

“Sorry, boys, but looks like we have an emergency.” House jumped up and clung to Cuddy's shoulders. “Carry me?”

Jack pulled out his miniature screwdriver and set off running. “We’ll be right back! Just stay put!”

“Is that supposed to be some sick joke, Harkness?” Owen yelled.

The others followed Jack, Cuddy begrudgingly allowing House to lean on her. Cameron spared the manhole one backward glance before rushing into a nearby room, removing a wicked-looking scalpel from a drawer, and rejoining the group.

“Harkness? House?”

There was no reply.

“Damn it.” Foreman said.

A minute later, an unfortunate passer-by, who was really a very nice old man who didn’t deserve to have his IV drip taken from him, walked by the manhole, which then promptly disappeared, leaving the old man dazed and confused and sitting on the ground.

* * *

The source of the panic was in the hall outside of House’s office. Seven giant slug-like creatures were oozing slime all over the floor and blasting people with lasers emitting from their feelers. One did, indeed, have a wig hanging off its extended radula.

“Can you shoot them?” Cameron asked.

“No guns!” Jack replied, raising his little yellow screwdriver.

“I thought you’d gone back to your car,” Cameron told Ianto. “I mean, you got more bullets!”

“Actually, turns out there was one left,” Ianto said, shrugging. “But I used it on von Lieberman.”

“Von Lieberman?” House turned, surveying Ianto with new respect. “You shot von Lieberman?”

“It was an alien pretending to be von Lieberman,” Cameron said. “It also got the idea of being Sebastian Charles out of my head.”

“You shot von Lieberman and that arrogant ass of an activist?” House grabbed Ianto’s hand and shook it. Cameron slapped her forehead.

Jack yelped as one of the slugs fired a laser at him. At the last moment, he moved his screwdriver into its line of fire and the beam reflected off its tip to blast a hole in the ceiling. “Oh, this could be a little more sonic,” Jack said, bouncing the screwdriver from hand to hand as it smoked from the heat it’d acquired. Then he paused. “Did I just say that? Someone tell me I didn’t just say that.”

“Spread out!” Cuddy yelled. “We’re too easy a target.”

Cuddy and House dodged behind a nearby stretcher while Jack led Chase the other way toward the entrance of House’s office. Cameron let out a battle yell and attacked the closest slug with her scalpel. The slug turned and fired at her. She ducked, then slid on the slime and fell next to its back end. She brought the scalpel down on the skin, but it went right through, and a little puff of smoke appeared where she’d made contact.

“They’re hallucinations!” Ianto called out. “Hold on!” He ran back toward Gwen’s room.

“That isn’t helpful,” Cameron remarked. Then the slug turned to face her, and she levitated into the air. “Help!

“She’s always the one who gets in trouble,” Cuddy said, looking pointedly at House.

“What?” House said. “You think she isn’t good enough for me? I mean, I’ll admit her ass isn’t as big as yours, but when you spurn all my advances, I have to settle for second best.”

House!” Cameron screamed disapprovingly.

“Oh, why don’t you focus on your own problems?”

Cameron screamed again as she began floating toward the slug’s yawning mouth. Jack tried to grab Chase’s arm as he leapt toward her, but Chase shook him off and slammed into the slug.

“Sure! Save your lover!” House shouted from behind the stretcher.

“I’m not sleeping with her!” Chase cried, grabbing Cameron’s leg as he slipped on the slime. “But that’s my body that’s about to be eaten!” He tugged on her leg harder, but it didn’t reduce her altitude any. The slug began to extend its radula.

Cuddy sighed and left the safety of the stretcher. “Put her down!” she roared. The creature paused, glancing at her in amusement. Cuddy slapped it, sending blobs of goo onto the wall. She cringed at the thought of what it’d cost to get those stains removed, but at least she had the alien’s full attention now. “Put her down,” she repeated the demand.

At that moment, the entire creature flickered and turned into a snowy blob of static. The slime vanished from the floor and the slugs disappeared. In their place were seven hunched, leathery creatures. Though they were bipedal, their feet were lost amidst the folds and folds of flesh that rolled from their body across the floor, spreading about until they resembled highly-mobile versions of Jabba the Hutt. They each had four arms, though two were more tentacles than arms, with one eye embedded in the “palm” of each tentacle. The bottom two arms more closely resembled humanoid arms, with eyeless hands that had seven tube-like fingers.

The creatures had one head each, but they were shaped like giant urns, with foot-wide openings at the tops of their heads that were lined by fangs. A complex system of muscles and bones allowed the heads to rotate and twist about in all directions, and the neck could lengthen or contract to give their jaws a reach of anywhere from zero to four feet. If they’d been standing upright, they would’ve been at least twelve feet tall, but it appeared that their skeletal structures could dislocate portions of themselves to let the creatures fit into lesser spaces without significant discomfort. As evidence of this, the aliens’ bodies rippled like water, and portions of them would jut out or shrink back into the torso as though they were separate beings rather than part of a greater whole.

Now that the illusion was gone, they could see Cameron was being held in the air by the creature’s two functioning arms, and its mouth was outstretched to eat her. Confronted with this image, which she found much more horrifying than a slug, Cameron screamed again. Jack ran up to it and stabbed it in the eye with the screwdriver. It let out a chilling roar and shuddered, like a dog shaking water off its coat, and Cameron, Chase, Cuddy, and Jack were thrown down the hallway like fallen raindrops.

Jack looked up see Ianto typing away on his laptop.

“You could’ve done that sooner, sir,” Ianto said reprovingly.

“Well, I didn’t know what effect my stabbing the alien would have had on everyone else, and I refuse to kiss all of them; House and Cuddy would slap me.”

“I’m using the wireless signal to jam their devices’ psi-waves, sir,” Ianto said, indicating little black boxes attached to the aliens, “but the algorithm is designed to change constantly, and the program’s having a hard time keeping up.”

“Good job, but that’s hardly a long-term solution,” Jack said.

“What’s the plan, then, sir?”

“Cuddy!” Jack called. “Where can we get some high-power battery packs?”

“Storage room, but I’ll need help!”

Cameron stood shakily. “I’ll help.”

As Ianto continued typing, Jack started unscrewing the panels on the laptop. With Chase, the three of them retreated into House’s office, where Chase began throwing chairs at the aliens to keep them at bay. Jack started talking to keep his focus off the advancing creatures.

“It’s curious, isn’t it,” he said to Ianto. “They’re not wearing spacesuits.”

Ianto’s voice was strained as he shifted part of his attention from the program to Jack. “I wish Tosh were here; she’s better at this,” he said. “The lack of spacesuits, sir, would imply they know what to expect from this planet’s ecology, and that disturbing as they look, their physiology is not significantly different from Earth-life.”

“Indeed,” Jack said. “It means they’ve been here a while. But look, they have a pack around their necks, if you can call those things necks. They look like they should be multi-purpose, so in addition to generating hallucinations, they might also be a biofeedback mechanism hooked directly to their internal organ system.”

“So if we can overload the devices, they’ll cease functioning and the aliens--”

“We’ll stop their hearts, or whatever they use to keep alive.”

Cuddy and Cameron returned with massive battery packs in their arms. The aliens had blocked the doorway, though, and they were pondering what to do when House shoved the stretcher at the glass windows, shattering them. Cuddy gave him a look that contained the precise price figure of the cost of replacing those windows, but House ignored her.

Once they arrived, Jack began bypassing the laptop’s power through the packs. Once he was done, he told Ianto what he needed.

“If I stop now, the hallucinations will resume,” Ianto protested.

“Just do it!”

Ianto began typing even more frantically.

“What’s he doing?” Chase asked, dodging a swipe that smashed the chair in his hands to pieces.

“I’ve modified the wireless output to generate a pulse powered by the battery packs to disable the bio-systems hooked into the aliens’ anatomies,” Jack said.

The laptop began whining, and then all of a sudden, there was a loud discharge, like the sound of a thousand capacitors unleashing their power at once. Ianto dropped the laptop as it burst into flames from the power surging through its circuits. The aliens’ electronic devices sparked and smoked as well, and the creatures collapsed, moaning.

Just as they seemed dead, though, a wave of nothingness burst forth from one of them and Chase yelled, “Everything’s black! What’s happened?”

Jack grabbed Ianto and kissed him. Together, they turned and saw one of the aliens was still alive and pushing itself back upright. Its device was glowing but not destroyed. It hit several buttons on it.

“It has a teleporter!” Jack said, surprised. He and Ianto ran for the creature and jumped on it. Ianto jarred its hand just enough so that its finger went wide and hit the wrong button. The three of them vanished from the hospital.

They rematerialized in a rather elegant-looking room with massive windows overlooking a street several stories below. The creature bellowed and threw them off of itself, but then it stumbled.

“Who are you?” Jack demanded. “Where are you from? What do you want?”

It groaned, then leered at him, its mouth writhing in a chewing motion and its tentacles maneuvering its eyes as far apart from each other as possible. “Little fools, what have you done?” Its tentacles flipped around and around.

“That was the home recall button, wasn’t it?” Jack said. “You were trying to escape, but now you’ve led us to your headquarters.”

The creature gasped. “You idiots! Fools of Torchwood.”

“He’s dying,” Ianto said.

“And I will take you with me!” It collapsed onto the floor, its entire body expanding and contracting like a huge, heaving whale. Jack noticed the device on its body was flashing mauve now.

“The device is also a bomb! It’s programmed to detonate if it dies! Run!”

They threw open the door and ran for the staircase. Down and down they went.

“There could be other people here! We need to warn them!”

“If it’s in its home base, there shouldn’t be civilians around!” Jack said. “Besides, no time!”

The concussion from the explosion blasted them through the front doors and into the streets. Above, the top few stories of the building vanished in the inferno as a rising column of fire expanded over the road. Debris littered down around them, and they ducked behind a nearby mailbox, covering their heads, to protect themselves.

“Where do you think we are?” Jack asked. “It can’t have been far.”

Ianto looked around. “You might be surprised.” Jack followed his gaze until he saw a white obelisk on the horizon jutting into the sky.

“Oh,” he said. There were only so many places one could spot the Washington Monument. “Hmm, First Street, the sign says.”

Ianto glanced at it, then turned to the burning building. “310 First Street?” he said incredulously. “Oh no.”

“What?”

“We’ve blown up the Republican National Committee headquarters,” Ianto said.

“Why the hell do you know the address of the RNC headquarters?”

“It’s my job, sir.”

They watched the building burn for a few more moments, and then the sound of sirens became audible. “We’d better get out of here,” Ianto said. Jack nodded, and they set off down the street. As they were leaving, however, a burning piece of paper landed before them. Ianto stamped the flames out and picked it up. Most of it was no longer readable, but it appeared to be a memo. Scanning it, Jack could see nothing of note, but then Ianto pointed at a fragment of a sentence.

“‘They’ve agreed to share the secrets of the BRAIN...’” he read. Then he turned pale. “BRAIN?”

“You’ve heard of it?”

“It can’t be,” Ianto said. “It has to be something else.”

“What is it?” Jack asked, perhaps a little too insistently.

“Torchwood One was looking into it a while back, but it was more an idle pursuit for employees to consider in their spare time, a fun thought experiment rather than anything practical. BRAIN is an acronym: Beta-Radiating Abstractive Innovatory Neurology; it’s the idea of mind over matter, that humans can control or at least affect the world around them with their brains. You’ve heard of the different types of brainwaves: alpha, beta, theta, and delta, and the idea that the unconscious or subconscious can receive and send signals to the world around, but you have to be in a meditative or deep-sleep state to achieve this.”

“Uh, what?”

“Let me pose you a question. What is luck?”

“A set of coincidences that happen in your favor.”

“So why are some people luckier than other? For example, every once in a while we hear about someone who has won millions of dollars in the lottery twice, even though statistically it's next to impossible to win just once. Do the laws of probability twist in favor of them?”

“No, probability indicates that some people might just happen to have more favorable outcomes than others, because by chance, it has to happen to someone.”

“But why them in particular? And why does chance even work like that? Think of entropy; if you have a partitioned box with gas molecules on one side and a vacuum on the other, and you remove the partition, the molecules will diffuse and fill the box. However, by all known laws, chance should allow the molecules to run exactly backwards and return to a state where half the box is dense with gas and the other half is a vacuum, even without the partition present, but it never does. Diffusion occurs far more often, the universe runs toward chaos, and the opposite, though equally likely, never occurs.”

“But luck isn’t like that, because it happens.”

“But it doesn’t happen for everyone. Has the Doctor ever talked about this? Torchwood didn’t have that many alien contacts, but from what I’ve read from certain documents that have fallen to Earth, I have suspicions.”

“The Doctor...” Jack said slowly, wracking his memory for mentions of this topic. “The Doctor did once say humans were the damn-luckiest species alive, but I think he was sort of joking at the time. But he was sort of serious too.”

“What if humans are lucky because they have a physiology, a brain structure, that enables their minds to interact with the outside world more so than other species? And lucky humans are more able to tap into that ability than others?”

“That’s absurd.”

“That’s the whole basis of BRAIN. It’s the idea that, assuming humans have this ability, you can train yourself to elevate this power to the level of beta brainwaves, to conscious thought, and with your mind, create whatever you can imagine, alter the fabric of the universe to whatever you desire.”

“But there’s no way it can be true!”

“It is highly unlikely,” Ianto agreed. “Torchwood theoreticians established a number of tests in their free time to try to discover this ability and never found anything. That’s why this BRAIN reference has to be about something else...”

“But you don’t think it is.”

“No, I don’t. But BRAIN is a well-known theory in various intellectual circles, so it isn’t impossible that the political parties here would be aware of it, and if the aliens wanted their aid, what better offer in exchange for their help than the promise to let them mold the world as they wish, to flatter them by implying they are the most powerful and blessed species in the universe?”

“The luckiest species alive. Now there’s a thought.” Jack grinned. Then he turned serious again. “Why do you suppose it tried to teleport out of the hospital? It had no qualms about killing us... unless it thinks the artifact is still in the hospital!”

“But it isn’t,” Ianto said. “I’ve scanned House’s office for radiation, and there are no new readings. The object teleported out, but the aliens are still after House and the rest of us, so they must not know it activated, and therefore they think we still have it.”

“So it knew it was going to die, the others bombs had been disabled by our blast but its was still active, so it tried to flee, but then we messed up its attempt to save the artifact, and we blew up its headquarters instead...”

“We have to warn Tosh!” Ianto said. “If the aliens are in league with the political parties, I’ve sent Tosh into the lion’s den!”

“You mean the artifact she has from the governor’s office?” Jack asked. “She told me about it when we went to intercept House.”

“Yes, and I sent her after the governor! I didn’t know the aliens would be so dangerous, and if it knew we were from Torchwood, its comrades will recognize her on sight as well!”

They both reached for their phones, but then they realized they were destroyed by the laptop’s signal.

“Damn it,” Jack said. “Come on, maybe we can rent another car.”

They began running down the street.

“Jack, did you recognize the alien’s species?” Ianto asked.

“No, why?”

“Because I told Tosh I thought they were Korkekians.”

“They’re extinct!”

“They may have faked their extinction.”

“Yes, well?”

“There’s pictures of Korkekians in Torchwood One. They’re definitely not the aliens.”

Jack stopped dead in his tracks. “But they have Korkekian technology, the psi-devices are definitely Korkekian in origin... which means only one thing.”

“They destroyed the Korkekians.”

“Seventy-five planets in one night,” Jack whispered. “‘What powerful but unrecorded race once dwelt in that annihilated place.’”

Ianto smiled grimly. “‘The awful shadow of some unseen Power.’ Let’s get going.”

They jogged off again, but the rising smoke from the burning building threw a shadow onto them that they couldn’t outrun.

Chapter Text

The trunk was extremely uncomfortable and also somewhat smelly, though Foreman preferred not to think about that part. Additionally, the padding was wet, and he hoped it was just the coffee House had poured on them and not something questionable.

Harper shifted a little and rolled onto his hand.

“Ow!”

“Sorry, it’s a little cramped.”

Foreman glared at the sole of the other man’s shoe. Harper knew something about what was happening in the hospital; Foreman had noticed the patient’s co-workers acting strangely, but he’d dismissed them as a group of eccentrics. Now he suspected more was going on than they admitted. Right now, though, his primary objective was just to get out of there.

“This sucks,” Harper said.

“You think?”

More silence. Really, he’d never thought it could be awkward being trapped in the trunk of a car with someone else. He’d always imagined there’d be more screaming.

“Want to fuck?” Harper asked.

What?

“Well, nothing else to do.”

“You’re insane.”

“Christ, six years of medical school, you never fucked a psycho?”

“That’s horrible!”

“Well?”

“No!”

“You sure?”

“Yes!”

“Just a thought.”

* * *

The lobby area of the Governor's office building was almost empty. There weren't nearly as many people bustling around as Tosh had expected. Monty nodded at the receptionist as they passed, and then led her to an elevator, which he took to the second floor. As they were stepping out, Tosh's cell phone rang. She checked it and frowned when it wasn't a number she knew.

"Sorry," she said to Monty, answering it. "Hello?"

"Hi, Tosh, this is Ianto." He sounded a little out of breath and was speaking very quickly. "I'm calling from a pay phone at Union Station, look--"

"What?" she interrupted, flabbergasted. "Pay phone? Union Station? What the hell are you doing there?"

"Yes, sorry, cell phone got blown up, no time to explain, but look, I'm just calling to warn you. That guy you're with, watch out for him."

"Who, Monty? Why?"

"Er, well..." Ianto sounded uncomfortable. "It's a long story, but Jack and I have very good reason to think the aliens have heavily infiltrated the American government. You be careful up there. I'd better go make sure Jack isn't making a fool of himself. See you soon, Tosh, I hope." And with that, he hung up. Tosh gaped at her phone for a moment.

"Tosh? Everything okay?" Monty said from behind her. She whirled around, startled.

"Oh, yes, everything's fine. No worries! Anyway, let's get on with it. Lead the way!" She laughed nervously. Monty gave her a strange look, but clearly decided not to press.

"Well," he said, "the Governor shouldn't actually be in today. We can search his office if you like. I'm his aide, so we'll be able to get in without any trouble." She nodded.

"Lead the way."

The office was just down the hall. It was large enough to be a comfortable bedroom, and pretty posh to boot. There was a plush couch in one corner, and a dark wood desk in the middle with a nice-looking chair behind it. There were two slightly less fancy chairs in front of it, and a couple floor lamps, filing cabinets, bookcases, and other basic office furniture. Tosh couldn't see anything immediately suspicious, but that of course didn't mean anything.

"So, uh, what exactly are we looking for?" Monty asked, shutting the door behind him and carefully locking it. Ianto's warnings flashed through her head, but she forced her anxieties to the back of her mind. She could deal with that later.

"Anything that looks out of place. Anything that might be alien," she said. She walked over to the desk, as it seemed the best place to start, and watched Monty out of the corner of her eye as he paused for a moment and then headed towards one of the filing cabinets.

She searched the drawers and found nothing out of the ordinary. The contents were mostly just pencils and paper and pens and at the bottom on the last drawer, an old issue of Playboy magazine. She sniggered a little. The top of the desk was teetering somewhere between neat and messy, with a couple stacks of paper and an unusual amount of metal staplers, all in different colors. Disappointed, she gave up on the desk.

"Find anything?" she asked Monty. He shrugged his shoulders at her, still looking through filing cabinets.

"Just the normal boring papers and such. I helped file most of these, actually." Tosh wasn't sure if she was discouraged or relieved by this. On the one hand, if they got through the whole office without finding anything, it might mean that Ianto and Jack were wrong and Monty really was just a nice person. On the other hand, it would mean that they weren't any closer to gaining clues about the alien device.

As Tosh walked around the desk to go search a bookcase, she accidentally kicked her purse, which she'd left sitting on the floor. It toppled, spilling several things out onto the floor. Sighing in frustration, she bent to pick them up. The last thing was the alien device Monty had found. She picked it up without first remembering to check herself, then cursed as it flared and went off, sending a bolt in a random direction.

Monty shouted and ducked, and the bolt hit a floor lamp several feet to his right. For several moments, neither of them moved an inch. When it seemed like nothing was going to happen, Tosh quickly shoved the device back into her purse and stood.

"Right," she said. "Sorry about--" She was cut off by the lamp, which suddenly decided to attack her. She let out a shocked cry and staggered back, tripping over her heels and landing on her bottom. That was probably all that saved her, because the lamp flew over her head and crashed into the opposite wall. She screamed. Monty shouted a warning at her and threw himself at the lamp, which had recovered instantly and was aiming another lunge at her.

Monty tackled the lamp to the ground, but he couldn't hold it there. It seemed alive, twisting and writhing as though it wasn't made of metal but instead something organic. The casing around the light bulb slammed into Monty's forehead and Monty let go, pressing his palms to the point of impact and grit his teeth, trying to recover.

Tosh stood, faltering a little as she tried to regain her balance. The lamp lunged at her again and she swung her purse at it. It was knocked a little to the side, and she used the short amount of time she'd gained to duck behind a filing cabinet. The lamp either didn't notice or didn't care, because it came plowing right through a moment later. The whole cabinet tipped with a resounding crash and Tosh scrambled back some more.

On the other side of the room, Monty had recovered and was throwing random books at the lamp. It paused, seemingly unsure of which person to attack, then threw itself at Monty again.

Tosh recuperated quickly and yelled, "The door! We need to get out of here!"

"I'm a little busy here!" Monty yelled back, grappling with the lamp. The mess of staplers on the desk caught Tosh's eye and she hesitated only a moment before picking one up. It was metal and heavy and would probably do a fair amount of damage if thrown, even to a psychotic, alien-enhanced floor lamp. The only problem was that her aim wasn't good enough to ensure she wouldn't hit Monty. She stood there with a stapler in each hand, looking desperately for an opening as Monty wrestled with the lamp. They took out a small table and one of the chairs, and fell to the floor, rolling across.

"Monty! Get away from it! I'm going to throw this!"

"How do you propose I do that?" he managed. The lamp "kicked" his shin with its base and he grunted and kicked it back. He was grabbing it around the pole with both hands, trying to keep it as far away from his body as possible.

"I don't know! Just do it!" With a great effort, Monty wrenched his lower body away from the squirming lamp and pushed off hard from the closest wall, letting his hands go at the same time and rolling across the floor. Tosh threw both staplers at the lamp as soon as Monty was out of reach. One of them hit dead-on and crushed the light bulb casing at the top. The other missed completely. Tosh picked up two more and hurled them as well, one after another.

"The door!" she shouted at Monty, who quickly sprang to his feet and ran over. He deftly unlocked it and opened it.

"Come on! Let's go!" The lamp had taken considerable damage from the staplers, but that didn't seem to slow it down at all. It made another lunge for Tosh, who screamed and ducked out of the way. She grabbed her purse from where she'd dropped it in place of the staplers and, hurling the last at the lamp, which was coming for her, dashed towards the open door. The stapler hit the lamp head on and it bought her just barely enough time to make it through.

Monty ducked through the doorway as well, then slammed it behind him not a moment too soon. They heard a loud THUMP on the other side as the lamp ran straight into the closed door without bothering to stop. Monty and Tosh held the door shut, gasping for breath. Monty fished around in his pocket desperately for the key to lock the door from the outside. At last he found it and shoved it into the hole. Once the door was locked, Tosh dragged a heavy and expensive-looking bench in front of it as well.

They both let go of the door and stood back apprehensively for a few seconds. The Tosh let out an explosive breath and both their shoulders sagged.

"Whew!" Tosh said. "That was really, really weird!"

"You're telling me," Monty replied. "Er, what now?"

"Well, I guess we'd better keep looking.... Just not in there, of course." She eyed the door.

"Don't you think we ought to put a sign on it or something? To keep people from going in?"

"What, you don't think the great big bench in front of it is enough of a clue?"

"Well, you know how it is around here. Some people are really pretty stupid."

"Ah well, it couldn't hurt." Monty fished a pen and a piece of notebook paper out of his pockets and wrote a short "Keep out, sorry about the mess" note. Tosh located some tape in a nearby office, and they taped it to the door. "Well, guess we'd better get moving. This place is a lot bigger than I thought it would be."

* * *

Ianto hung up the phone and rejoined Jack at the ticket counter where he was buying one train ticket to Princeton.

“The station’s only two miles from the university,” Ianto heard the clerk saying as he approached. “It’s no distance at all, I assure you.”

“Thank you,” Jack replied, “pleasure to meet you Ms., ah... Ms. Thompson.”

“Oh,” the woman cooed. “You have a good journey, Mr. Harkness.”

Ianto put his arm around Jack’s shoulders. “Yes, you enjoy yourself, darling.” He planted a kiss on Jack’s cheek and saw the woman’s eyes grow wide as saucers. Jack looked no less surprised, but he managed to take it in stride, grinning back at Ianto and pulling him in for a full kiss on the mouth. Ianto knew he’d made a mistake; there’d be no end to the sly looks and wry comments from Jack after this, but for a brief moment, he’d gotten the upper hand over his captain, and it was worth it.

A gunshot rang out.

They pulled apart in time to see the glass of the ticket counter shatter, and Ms. Thompson leapt back and screamed.

Hey!” Jack looked offended. “It was just a kiss!”

“Freeze! Put your hands in the air!” a voice boomed through a megaphone. All around, doors burst open as SWAT teams charged in, weapons raised, to join the advance squad that fired the first shot. “Please do not panic; we have identified two terrorists bent on carrying out an attack on the nation’s railway system.”

“What, us?” Ianto asked Jack.

“Looks like it,” Jack said, putting his arms in the air. “On my mark, Ianto.”

A special operations team was threading through the rapidly panicking crowd. All around, commuters screamed and fanned out from the ticket counter as people began locating the source of the alleged threat. Jack waited until one of the law enforcement officers was close enough to hear, and then he said, “You’re talking about us? I assure you, we’re not looking to blow anything up.”

“You were seen fleeing the explosion at the Republican National Committee Headquarters.”

“Oh, that?” Jack said. “We had nothing to do with that. Look! Nothing on us; where would we keep the bombs?”

“Don’t move!” the man snapped, jerking his weapon in emphasis. Jack’s hands froze midway in their move to empty his pockets, as he didn’t even have a coat anymore. Ianto noticed, however, that this motion had conveniently brought his hands together so that Jack had ready access to his wristband.

“See, funny thing about sonic objects,” Jack said. “They’re so useless half the time; they can’t be used as weapons unless the beam is really, really focused, and then it drains the batteries so badly, but at the right frequencies, do you know they can resonate steel?”

“Stop showing off, sir,” Ianto said.

“Oh, well, right then.” Jack hit a button on the wristband, and an almost inaudible screech emanated from it. The guns shook in sympathy with the vibrations, and the policeman pulled the trigger, but there was an empty click and nothing happened. Jack grinned. “Looks like your weapons are jammed. Run!

Jack grabbed Ianto’s hand and dragged him after him as he took off sprinting for the train. “Oh good, the train will leave right on time!”

“I don’t have a ticket, sir!” Ianto said.

“I think we’re beyond that now!”

The train was picking up speed by the time they reached the tracks. Jack pounded on the door, but the passengers understandably didn’t override the locks to let him in. Cursing, Jack blasted the doors with a second sonic wave, causing them to slide open. As he jumped on board, an agent caught up with them and tackled Ianto. Ianto managed to keep a grip on the door, however, and the train dragged both him and the agent onward. Jack looked like he was debating whether to disembark, but Ianto shook his head.
“Get back to the hospital!” he said, letting go. He went tumbling head over heels, ending up in a pile with the agent as the train rushed onward. Jack didn’t hesitate before he took off his wristband and threw it onto the platform.

“You’ll need it!” he yelled.

Ianto extricated himself from the agent and picked it up. “Aha!” he said, clasping it around his arm. Then five agents tackled him from three different directions, and they all went down in a heap.

* * *

Lisa Cuddy could feel her head pounding as she surveyed the mess that was House’s office. It was much too late to be worrying about why aliens wanted to invade her hospital, so for once, she realized following House’s lead wouldn’t be a bad idea and decided not to worry about silly questions like that.

“Hey, what’s this?” Cameron-in-Chase’s body asked, poking through the remains of one of the bodies. Cuddy heard Chase whimper behind her at the sight of his lab coat being dragged through murky green liquid and goo.

Cuddy saw House perk up and approach. Given his previous record with alien technology, she quickly cut him off and looked for herself. Cameron tossed aside what looked like a half-roasted digestive organ and picked up a small, metal box about three inches tall and two-by-four inches in area. Pinkish lights blinked at half-second intervals.

“It looks like it was hooked up to the... internal bits. Organs, probably,” Cameron said, indicating some frayed wires. “The blast must have broken it.”

House wheeled himself over on a cot and shoved Cuddy aside. This redirected the cart toward the divider between House’s office and the conference room, and with nothing to hold onto, House crashed into the wall, fell off the cot, and rolled across the floor into Cameron. She gasped, and the box fell from her hands, bouncing across the ground and stopping just inches from the window. There was a tense silence in which the lights began flashing faster and faster and an urgent beeping emitted from the object.

“It’s a bomb!” Chase screamed. He ran past, grabbing Cameron with one hand and House with his other. He dragged both of them out of the room, and Cuddy didn’t hesitate to grab Wilson’s arm and follow. The shockwave from the explosion threw them all down the hall as a cloud of flame and broken glass smashed through the wall opposite House’s office and into a restroom. Immediately, fountains of water erupted into the air from the broken pipes, filling the hall with smoke and mist.

“House!” Cuddy roared.

“She dropped it,” House said. “And you’d better not replace the carpet. It’s finally gaining some character.”

“Oh my god!” A nurse Cuddy recognized as Tracy Kindle ran up to them and stepped on Wilson’s hand. “What happened?”

“Ow!” Wilson screamed. He stood, downed two more pills, and ran away without looking back.

“Gas leak,” Cuddy replied. “Combined with House’s incendiary personality.”

“Wow, well the fire department sure responds fast, doesn’t it?” Tracy said.

Cuddy looked outside--now only a foot away, thanks to the absence of House’s office--and saw lights blinking in the distance. They were soon followed by the sound of alarms, but they didn’t sound right. The shapes of the approaching vehicles began to resolve themselves, and Cuddy felt a strange apprehension sweep over her. “Those aren’t fire trucks,” she said. Then she heard the thump-thump-thump of helicopter blades, and a black military chopper whirled past overhead.

“That’s the Department of Homeland Security,” House said.

“What could they want with us?” Chase wondered aloud.

“Hmm, I wonder,” Cameron replied, glaring at the remnants of House’s office.

“Except they were already on their way when the alien attack occurred,” House corrected her. He popped open his bottle of Vicodin and took three pills, ignoring Cuddy’s reproving look. “Oh, I know! They can predict events in advance! It’s like that movie with Tom Cruise and the really bad traffic system in Washington DC!”

At that moment, Tracy screamed and pointed down the hall, where a spider-like robot about two inches tall skittered through the smoke and, realizing it was spotted, dashed into the debris.

“Yes, Tracy?” Cuddy said as calmly as she could manage.

“Dr. House was right! There was a spider, robot, thing...” Tracy took from her pocket a yellow stress ball Cuddy recognized as belonging to the psych ward and started pumping it.

“I didn’t see anything,” Cuddy said, feeling somewhat guilty. “It must have been your imagination.”

“Or something in the water!” Cameron added. Well, no one could ever say she wasn’t a fast learner.

“Right, you three go get House a new cane, and I’ll deal with Homeland Security,” Cuddy said.

“Carry me?” House tugged Chase’s arm.

Chase shook his head. “Can’t with these puny arms.”

Cameron punched him.

“I’ll do it!” Tracy exclaimed. House’s eyes widened as she grabbed his arms and tried to throw him over her shoulder. It predictably didn’t work, and they both fell, jarring House’s leg and causing him to roar in agony. “Gee, you’re heavy, Dr. House. I’m going to have to use my stronger side, then.”

“No, no!“ House protested. “Really, that’s--“

She picked him up again, and House looked ready to hit her, but this time she tossed him effortlessly over her right shoulder. “I walk my dogs with this hand, so it’s a lot stronger,” she declared.

“What kind of dog do you own?” Cameron gaped.

“Four German Shepherds. Come on, he’s still heavy!”

“And don’t leave the hospital,” Cuddy called after them. “The shop sells canes.”

“Ooh, I love the little shop!” Chase said.

* * *

“Get off me!” Ianto yelled, punching wildly as the SWAT agents tried to handcuff him.

“You’re under arrest!” one of them yelled back. It was strange, Ianto mused, how humans tended to yell the most obvious things when under stress.

“If you don’t let go, I shall have to do something unfortunate!” Ianto replied, remembering how Jack had once told him about a button on the wristband that one should never press except under the most dire circumstances.

“Oh yeah, what’s that?”

“I’m not sure!”

“Hold still!”

There was nothing for it. He wasn’t going to be able to throw off five officers at once, so he brought his hands together, as though giving in to the arrest, and then found the button and pressed it. Instantly, all the agents jumped back, as though expecting a bomb to go off. Ianto wasn’t sure they were wrong.

Then there was a loud screech of feedback from all the speakers in the station before the cacophony resolved into something even worse: “With a taste of your lips I’m on a ride. You’re toxic, I’m slipping under...”

“It’s Britney Spears! Run!”

As the crowd dispersed screaming, Ianto muttered, “That was low, Jack. That was really, really low.”

Vworp-vworp. Ianto jumped as he heard the sound of a TARDIS materializing, and he looked around for any sign of a blue police box. None appeared, however, and he leaned against a railing, confused, before he realized there’d been no railing on the platform earlier.

“AAAAAAGH!” he cried as a hand reached out and pulled him into empty space.

* * *

The first person Cuddy met was neither an emergency responder nor a policeman. It was a general. One General Casper Posey, to be precise, entering the lobby at the head of an entire squad of National Guardsmen.

“What is the meaning of this?” Cuddy demanded after they’d all made their introductions.

“We have orders to secure your hospital.”

“Orders from whom!”

“I’m not privileged to say, ma’am. Nevertheless, we would appreciate your cooperation.”

“What’s the reason for this, this lockdown!”

“A terrorist threat, and it appears we may have arrived too late.”

“We had an unexpected gas leak,” Cuddy responded stiffly, but the general seemed uninterested in her explanation. They already know, she thought. They’re here for the aliens.

She heard patients scream as soldiers began bursting into room after room, guns aimed high. A young couple tried to sneak through the front doors, but the police had already formed a perimeter around the building and refused to let anyone through, either in or out.

“What is the meaning of this?” Cuddy repeated, for lack of anything else to say.

“It’s none of your concern,” the general brushed her aside as he headed for the elevators, motioning for three soldiers to follow him. Cuddy paced after him.

“This is my hospital, and therefore everything that happens on these grounds is my concern! You’re frightening innocent civilians, and your actions could put them in harm’s way, and as a doctor, I won’t allow any injury, physical or psychological, done to those under my care!”

Posey’s finger hovered over the elevator’s “up” button, and then he gave her a smile that chilled her to the bone. “Admirable sentiments, Dr. Cuddy.” He reached into his pocket and withdrew a piece of paper. “We have a list of persons of interest, some of whom are on your staff.” He handed it over. “The raids stop when they’re in our custody.”

On the balcony overhead, two soldiers dragged one of her nurses past. She had blood all over her scrubs and was screaming, “You can’t enter! There’s a surgery going on!”

The general followed her gaze and spoke into his headsets, “All men are to cooperate with the hospital staff until further notice.”

The nurse wrenched her arm from their grips and stalked back toward the operating room, glaring at them but clearly shaken. Posey returned his eyes to Cuddy who snatched the paper from his hands. She took one look at the sheet and had to force back a sigh.

The first name on the list was: “Gregory House.”

* * *

“That one’s too long,” House complained, wondering how long Chase and Cameron would let him get away with this. Cameron sighed and showed him the next cane. “No, too short.”

Chase extracted one that House had thought was an umbrella and waved it in front of him. “I don’t suppose this one will be just right?”

“Just because you’re in her body doesn’t mean you have to use Cameron’s mouth,” House replied. “And yes, it’s just right... for a midget.”

“Hey!”

House looked down to see a woman standing next to Cameron, her head at waist-level. “He said it!” House said, pointing at Cameron-in-Chase’s body.

The midget kicked her in the shins and stormed out. Cameron picked up a cane and stabbed it at House’s chest. “What do you think of this?”

“Aggressive, sexy, oh, you mean the cane? It’s hideous. I mean, it looks like it escaped from some sweat shop in Cambodia and swam here in the stomach of a shark.”

“Children die in those sweat shops!” Cameron said. “I’ve been attacked, shot at, and nearly eaten; I’m in no mood for your jokes, House!”

“Everybody relax!” Tracy said. “Squeeze your balls!”

“What?” Chase asked.

“If you can’t control your body, you’re the one who’s going to get fired,” House told him.

Chase shot Cameron a dark look and handed House a yellow cane with purple polka dots plastered all over it. House took one moment to wonder what it was doing in a hospital shop before rejecting it with a look of disgust. “Are you trying to kill my image?”

“I thought you’d like it,” Chase snapped. “It’s unique, it’s special.”

“Like everyone here!” Tracy exclaimed, clapping. House snatched the cane from Chase’s hands and whacked her over the head. For a moment, she was stunned into silence, but as she rubbed her head, her look turned from one of surprise into one of righteous fury. “Now look here, mister,” she said, waving a finger at him. “That was uncalled for.”

“You got on my nerves,” House replied. “If you hadn’t clapped, then it would’ve just been a jab at the shins.”

Tracy shoved her hand into House’s pocket and withdrew his wallet, all in one forceful motion. She stormed over to the cashier and threw down three twenties. “He’ll have that one he’s holding. Keep the change.”

“Um, actually, with tax it’s $60.03.”

“Oh,” Tracy deflated, then perked up again and gave him a one. “There!” she said, sticking her tongue out at House.

“What? Sixty dollars?” House exclaimed. “You couldn’t pay me enough to take it.”

“Well, too bad, it’s yours.”

House started limping over to the counter, but the cashier pointed at a sign and said, “No refunds.”

“I’ll buy another one,” House growled. “Damn shop.”

“I like the shop,” Chase muttered. “It has bunnies.” He indicated the top row of stuffed animals at the back of the shop.

The PA system turned on with a vengeful scream of feedback, and Cuddy announced, “Would Dr. Gregory House please report to the main lobby. This is Dr. Cuddy needing an urgent consult.”

“Since when does she use my full name?” House asked. Cameron shrugged while Chase ran out of the shop and peeked over the balcony to spy on Cuddy. He rushed back.

“There are soldiers everywhere,” he hissed.

“Oooh, it’s a trap!” Tracy said.

“Brilliant deduction, Admiral Ackbar,” House replied. “Cuddy and I really need to work out a secret code system. Like, ‘House, my ass is on fire’ for when she’s in trouble. Or when she’s alone. Or when she needs her fertility shot. Wow, so many possibilities, I guess we’ll need to depend on inflection and context for meaning, like Chinese, except with more screaming...”

“I think we should get out of here,” Cameron said as two soldiers marched past the shop entrance.

“Not until I get a better cane.” House climbed onto the counter and crossed his arms.

“I think he’s in the hospital shop.” Cuddy’s voice came through the intercom in a false whisper, as though she’d meant the words for the general’s ears only but accidentally spoke them too loudly. “Oh look, my finger’s still on the ‘send’ button. Haha, silly me.”

House felt vaguely disturbed as he and Cameron exchanged identical looks of exasperation.

“Silly indeed, Dr. Cuddy,” a man’s voice came across the PA system.

“Oh yes, General Casper Posey, about forty-five years of age and two-hundred pounds with graying hair and a scar over his left eye. And look, my shirt is so inappropriately low-cut, don’t you think? And it’s getting very, very hot in here.”

Chase slapped his forehead. House grinned, “It’s like a bad porno radio play.”

“Oh, I love those!” Tracy said.

“Let’s go!” Cameron said, grabbing House’s arm and pulling him off the counter. It was too late, though, because five soldiers were entering the shop.

“Is there a back door?” House asked the clerk. “Stupid shop,” he said, when the clerk shook his head. House whacked Chase. “Go forth and let Cuddy’s example multiply.”

“What? No! I’m not doing that again!”

House filed this comment away as a line of inquiry to be pursued later. “Save your boss or you’re fired.”

“That’s sexual harassment.” Chase glared but set off nevertheless.

“Swing your hips more when you walk!” House added.

“And straighten your back!” Cameron contributed. “It’ll make your breasts look bigger.” House glanced at Cameron in surprise, but she returned his look with a cool gaze of her own. “What? Chase is hitting on the National Guard; it’s better than watching Grey’s Anatomy.”

“Um, hello,” Chase said. “Can I help you boys?”

“I can think of several ways,” one of the soldiers said, pinching Chase’s buttocks. He yelped, then changed the cry into a low growl.

“And she has an accent, too,” another one said. “I love foreign women.”

“Yeah, they can’t sue us.”

“Which one of them’s Dr. House?” a third asked.

Chase glanced back at them, looking panicked, then quickly turned to face the soldiers and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Is it me or is it getting hot in here?”

“Shoo, shoo,” House whispered as the soldiers all focused on Chase’s/Cameron’s chest. The three of them scampered toward the exit.

“Hey! There’s people leaving the shop,” a fourth soldier said, pointing. “I think she’s a whaddyacall’em? A distraction!”

“Nonsense,” Chase replied, pushing his breasts toward them. “Dr. House’s the one pretending to be the cashier.”

The fifth soldier squinted at the man, then shook his head. “Nope, that’s not him.”

“How do you know?” Chase asked.

“Because we’ve got pictures of the people on the wanted list!” he replied, holding up a set of photos.

“We do?” the third soldier said. “Oh hey, we do! Wait, you’re Dr. Cameron, then!”

“I’m on the list?” Chase said.

Cameron glanced at House. “We’re on the list?” she asked.

“See, if Cuddy had said, ‘Oops, I lost my bra,’ I’d have gotten the secret code message,” House said. “It’s all her fault.”

“Oh my, I must have forgotten to wear my bra today,” Cuddy said over the intercom. House could hear every male intern’s head turn.

“Close enough.” House shrugged. “RUN!

From the corner of his eye, he could see Chase try to dash away, but the guards had him surrounded and they knocked him onto the floor and cuffed him.

“No copping a feel!” Chase screamed.

“What do we do?” Cameron asked, no longer amused.

“We go hide Gwen,” House replied.

“I don’t think now’s the time to be worrying about our patient!”

House stopped, in part to make a dramatic point, in part to acknowledge the fact that he wasn’t up for running long distances. “Why would Homeland Security be interested in us? I mean, the hospital, sure, with things blowing up and mysterious alien sightings all over the place, but us in particular? And who seems particularly knowledgeable about alien activities?”

“Oh my god.”

“And who’s the only person of that group left in the hospital, right now?”

He didn’t wait for an answer before he started running again. A soldier appeared around the corner up ahead. “Freeze!” he yelled, aiming his gun at them. House grabbed Tracy’s stress ball and threw it at him. It struck him straight in his forehead, and his aim went just wide enough to hit the wall over Cameron’s shoulder. They dodged past, and the way to Gwen’s room was clear. Then Cameron had to go and ask the question House knew she was going to ask.

“If the hospital’s locked down, what are we supposed to do after we get Gwen?”

* * *

Ianto’s head was pounding as he woke. He must have struck his head against something as he was being pulled in, but given that he was lying in front of the door, he must not have been out very long.

The interior of the TARDIS wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1950s Dracula film. This led Ianto to deduce two things. The first was that the Doctor hadn’t found a fully-functional TARDIS and decided to help Ianto out of a fix. The second was that Ianto didn’t want to meet the owner; after all, this was a decorator who’d probably blow up a planet at the sight of beaded curtains, and anyone who didn’t at least acknowledge the possibility of beaded curtains wasn’t worth knowing.

“Who are you!” a booming voice roared. A goateed man in a flaring robe with overlarge shoulder pads stormed out of a doorway.

“Who are you?” Ianto replied. “I mean, you abducted me and knocked me out; it’s only fair you answer a question first.”

“I know nothing of fairness!”

“Really? I have a dictionary here that might enlighten you.” Ianto extracted the little book from a pocket inside his suit jacket.

The man slapped the book out of his hand and raised an instrument at him. Ianto prepared to duck aside, but the device emanated a green light that swept over him and vanished a second later. “You're human,” the man growled. “No trace of background radiation.”

“What radiation?”

“Time vortex radiation, you fool!” the man roared. “You’re no companion of the Doctor!”

“Nope.” Ianto grinned. “You got the wrong person, it seems.”

“Ah, but did I?” The man swept a piece of paper up from the TARDIS console and put it next to Ianto’s head. On it was written: ‘WANTED: IANTO JONES’ with a picture of him from several years ago. “No one hides from the Master! I know everything!”

“So you’re the Master?”

“Damn it! No, no I’m not!”

“You just said you were.”

“Yes, I am! But I knew who you were first.”

“So?”

“I always win!”

“Actually, the Doctor says you always screw up. What’s with all these titles for Time Lords, anyway?”

“So you do know the Doctor!”

“Well, not really.”

“Explain yourself!”

“We met briefly at a party.”

“A party? The Doctor does not party.”

“On the contrary, he has an extreme fondness for banana daiquiris.”

“You did meet him at a party! That bastard! I spend hundreds of years lost in time and space and he’s off partying like the day we found the Wine Cellar of Rassilon!”

“And then he did that party trick where he goes back in time and tells you what curses your mother was screaming when she gave birth to you,” Ianto said, wondering how long he could get away with blatant lies.

“Oh, I hate it when he does that!” the Master roared, crumpling up Ianto’s wanted poster. “I was not a fat fetus! My mother just had narrow hips!”

“And he used the ‘my pants are bigger on the inside too’ pick-up line.”

“Do you know Marilyn Monroe fell for that one?”

“No way!”

“Way!”

“But Jack always insisted she was smarter than she looked.”

The Master leaned forward menacingly. “Captain Jack Harkness?”

“Oops.”

* * *

Gwen woke with a start when House burst into her room. “What’s going on?” she asked. House extracted a sedative from his pocket and jabbed it into her arm. “Hey! What’s that for?” She moved to slap his hand away, but then she fell asleep.

“That was uncalled for,” Cameron said.

“You think it’s better for her health if she’s screaming while we send her bed careening through the halls?”

“Careening?”

“Yes,” House said as he saw the elevator began disgorging soldier after soldier. “Like this!”

He gave the bed a shove and it flew down the hall straight at the group of armed men. House clambered onto the bed and yelled, “Jump on!”

He was pleased to see neither of them hesitated in following his orders.

“Halt!” one of the soldiers yelled.

“Medical emergency!” House replied. “She urgently needs a hippocampus transplant!”

“That sounds dangerous,” the man said, stepping aside.

“Thanks!” House waved his cane at them as they passed. “God bless America!”

Gwen moaned. “Huh, wha--?”

House gave Cameron an accusatory look. She shrugged. “You must have picked up a placebo.”

“Then why’d she fall asleep in the first place?”

“I didn’t have time to replace all of it with saline.”

“We’re going to have a talk when this is over, Cameron.”

“Cameron?” Tracy seemed to realize for the first time that there’d been a number of strange conversations in her presence. “Why’d you call him Cameron? Isn’t Dr. Cameron the bitchy, self-righteous one with gorgeous hair?”

“Aww, thank you,” Cameron said. “About the hair, I mean. Yours isn’t so bad either.”

“Thanks, it’s just naturally glossy.”

“Show-off.”

“Bitch.”

“Whoa, down girl,” said House.

“Why are we slowing down?” Gwen asked, clearly still bamboozled by current events.

The bed squeaked to a halt in front of the stairwell.

“Oh my god!” Cuddy’s voice drifted up from the first floor. “I think my panties are missing too.”

“I promise you we’ll look for your panties after I have House in my custody, Dr. Cuddy.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” House whacked Cameron over the head, because hitting Tracy was clearly a risky proposition. “Get off and push!”

Cameron and Tracy jumped off the bed and gave it a shove. House and Gwen went flying, while Tracy staggered and fell. Cameron paused, as though preparing to help her back up, but House grabbed her hand and pulled her along after him. “Jump on, you idiot! She called you a bitch, remember?”

“Hey!” Tracy yelled.

“They’re not after you!” House reminded her. “Distract them!”

“Oh, ok.” Tracy turned toward the stairwell and waved. “Hello Mr. General, you look stressed. Have you squeezed your balls today?”

House was sorely disappointed when he caught a flash of what looked like Cuddy in lingerie just as the bed rounded a corner. He poked Gwen. “How do you get two people out of a car trunk? Your co-worker and my employee are both stuck and apparently can’t get out, and I’d like to have at least one of them back.”

Cameron lifted an eyebrow. “You care about saving Foreman?”

“In the movies, monsters always eat the minorities first.”

“Foreman already got eaten once, remember?”

“Yeah, but if we get him out, they can eat him again! Come on, you had a close call once already; you wouldn’t to ruin that beautiful hair, would you?”

“I’m in Chase’s body.”

“Exactly. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed how soft it is. It must be because you two share shampoo.”

“We don’t share shampoo!”

“Smell your hair!”

Cameron sniffed. “Oh my god, it is the same shampoo! That stalker!”

Either the two of them weren’t actually sleeping together or Cameron was a better actress than House had given her credit for. There was only one way to resolve the issue, but since the hospital charity play was several months away, it would have to wait. A plot began brewing in his mind about how to make Cuddy and Cameron assent to a performance of The Vagina Monologues for all the pre-teen cancer patients.

“You mean they’re trapped by alien technology?” Gwen asked.

“Yup!”

“Uh, House?” Cameron tugged his sleeve.

“I think I can figure something out if you can get me to the parking structure.”

“You’re not well enough to leave the building. Plus, the police sort of have us surrounded.”

“House?” Cameron’s voice grew more insistent.

“Then get me some walkie-talkies and I’ll walk someone through some possible solutions.”

“House!”

“What?” House snapped his gaze from Gwen to Cameron.

“Look that way.” Cameron pointed behind him.

He turned in time to see the railing of the balcony rush toward them. “Oh hell,” he said, and then the bed smashed into the barrier, and the three of them flew into the air. There was a lot of screaming and Cameron shut her eyes, but an emergency response team was wheeling in a stretcher with a teenaged boy on it, and they landed atop him.

“Oh my god!” the boy screamed.

“Sorry, I’m terribly sorry,” Cameron said as she climbed off him.

“Oh God, I promise you I’ll never do drugs again!” he cried.

“Well, Vicodin isn’t bad,” House told him as Cameron lifted Gwen up and ran for the elevator. He limped after her.

“House!” one of the emergency response team snapped.

As one, all the soldiers in the lobby turned to face him. Even some of the police outside, who were reforming their blockade after letting the overdosing boy through, peered in through the glass.

“Gregory House?” a soldier asked.

“Nonono, lo siento, me llamo Carlos House, y yo no hablo ingles,” House replied.

“What?” someone said.

The soldier shrugged. “I don’t know. Damn Canadians and their weird Canadianian.”

“Ciao!” House said. He took the walkie-talkies of the two nearest soldiers and followed Cameron away before they could react. Once out of sight, they dashed into the closest stairwell and headed into the basement.

“Where are we headed?” Cameron asked. “Or do you not have any clue and just hope to rely on the continued stupidity of our pursuers?”

“Well, you're breaking through the blockade and heading for the parking garage to free Foreman,” House explained. “We're headed for the morgue!”

* * *

“So let me guess,” Ianto said. “You want to defeat the Doctor, your old arch-enemy, so you decided to kidnap Jack in hopes of using his connection to lure the Doctor into a trap, but you got the wrong person and kidnapped his co-worker instead.”

“And Jack’s immortal! It’s all I want, to live forever, is that really so much to ask?” The Master let out a choked sob. “But things always go wrong. I mean, you saw the Doctor at that party, and it must have been some party, wasn’t it?”

Ianto made some noncommittal noises.

“And he was the life of the party! He always does that! He overshadows everyone, and everybody loves him and in the excitement, no one remembers you exist, and it just makes me want to blow something up, or at least redecorate.”

“Maybe, uh, you should consider shaving the goatee. It’s very last decade.”

“No! Never!” the Master roared, spittle flying from his mouth onto Ianto’s face. “I did that briefly, and it didn’t work out very well. It is my good luck charm! In fact, when I find myself in especial need for luck, I don’t wash it for weeks on end!”

“I, I can tell,” Ianto stammered, trying to ignore the ghastly, tortured remains of what looked like lutefisk staring at him from the depths of the Master’s beard. “By the way, where are we?”

“We’re still in Washington DC, present day time.”

“So, uh, we haven’t traveled anywhere?”

“Well, not far, anyway.”

“I could help you find Jack, if you promise not to hurt him. You just need to let me out. That button unlocks the door?”

“Yes, but--”

“Great! See you later!” Ianto slammed his fist onto the button and ran for the door. The Master leapt after him, but Ianto was already outside and he slammed the door on his face.

“Ow! You-- oh my Gallifreyan ginger ale! My beard is caught! It hurts, it hurts!”

Ianto sighed in relief, realizing the Master wasn’t about to leave his TARDIS any time soon. Then he noticed his surroundings, and he realized what the Master meant about not traveling far. The office was very white and very oval and very, very presidential.

It was also filled with Secret Service agents.

“What are you doing here?” one of them demanded.

“Uh.” Ianto turned to look for the TARDIS, still expecting to see a blue police box, but there was nothing there. Closer inspection revealed it to be the desk, but no one was going to believe that. “Would anyone like coffee?” he tried.

“You’re on the terrorist list!”

“No, no wait!” But it was too late. The seven agents raised their guns and fired at him.

* * *

Cameron skidded around a corner and onto the seventh floor of the parking garage.

"Okay, I'm here! Where's the car?" she gasped into her walkie-talkie, out of breath from outrunning and dodging Homeland Security thugs.

"How should I know?" House asked from the other end.

"Ask Gwen!" There was some muffled conversation.

"She doesn't know either! Why would she know? She's been in a hospital for the last two days."

"Fine! What does it look like?"

"It's--"

"Wait, never mind, I think I see it," Cameron cut him off. She was pretty sure the minivan in front of her was the right car because there was something obviously bizarre about the space around it. For example, the four foot square of roof that was hovering over it: She was sure that wasn't normal.

She quickly opened the front door, a little surprised it wasn't locked, located the lever to pop the trunk, and pulled it. She heard the trunk open, and then--

"Oh thank god!"

"Get us out of here! He's crazy!"

"Foreman! Owen!" she yelled, running around to the other side of the car.

"Cameron, hurry it up, will you?" House demanded through the phone.

"I'm trying!" she said to House, then addressed Owen and Foreman. "Wow, you guys look uncomfortable."

"No shit," Owen said sarcastically. "Get us out!"

"Okay, okay, I'm trying!" Cameron grabbed Owen by the shoulders and pulled. She only got him up an inch before he seemed to hit an invisible barrier, and no matter how hard she pulled, she couldn't get him past it.

"Ow, you're hurting me, man!" Owen shouted at her.

"Well, sorry! I'm trying to help!" she shouted back, frustrated.

"Well, help in a less painful way!"

"And by the way, I'm not a man!"

"Will you two calm down and figure out how to get us out of here? It's really cramped," Foreman interrupted. Cameron threw up her hands and let go of Owen, who was shooting her an incredulous look.

"You look like a man to me," he insisted.

"House," she said into the receiver, ignoring Owen while Foreman quickly explained that even though she looked like Chase, she wasn't. "Put Gwen on." With surprisingly few sarcastic comments about Cameron's ineptitude and a couple predictable snickers from Owen, House complied. "Gwen, you're the alien person. What should I do?"

"Alien person?" Gwen asked incredulously.

"Expert? Who cares? Just tell me what to do!" Cameron shouted.

"I don't know! Jack's the expert!"

"You must have some ideas!"

"Uh, whack it with a sledgehammer?" Gwen suggested. Cameron brightened.

"Good idea!" She glanced around her. "Wait right here, I'll be right back," she added to Foreman and Owen.

"Where the hell do you think we're going to go?" they shouted at her in unison as she took off running towards the stairwell. She slammed open the door and rushed inside.

"There must be some kind of supply closet around here. There always is," she muttered to herself. There wasn't, but there was one on the sixth floor, and it was locked. She kicked it ineffectually a few times in frustration before getting a hold of herself. She took a few deep breaths to calm down, then glanced at her feet. Right next to them was a paper clip. "Yes!" she cried, picking it up.

She didn't really know the correct way to go about picking a lock, but the lock on the closet wasn't a very good one and a couple random twists and pokes got it open. It occurred to her belatedly that the likelihood of finding anything other than some oil and tires in a parking garage supply closet was pretty slim, but she yanked the door open anyway.

It wasn't a very big closet, and as expected, there was no sign of any sort of hammer.

"I can't find one," she said to the phone.

"Look in the west stairwell fourth floor supply closet," came House's voice.

"I don't even want to know how you'd know that," Cameron said as she took off running. The west stairwell was on the other side of the building.

"I keep one there for emergencies," House explained.

"What sort of emergencies would require you to have a sledgehammer in a parking garage?!" Cameron wheezed at him, cursing the fact that Chase's body was apparently more out of shape than her own. She reached the stairwell and legged it down two flights.

"Well, for starters, the one you're in now," House quipped. Cameron made a noise halfway between a grunt and a whine and pulled the supply closet door open. This one wasn't locked, which was a good thing since she hadn't brought the paper clip with her.

Sure enough, right in the back of the small closet, behind the wheel jack, was a big sledgehammer with a long wooden handle. She grabbed it, stumbled for a moment when it was heavier than she'd thought it would be, then hauled it up three flights of stairs and back across the garage to the minivan.

"Okay!" she announced when she'd gotten there, then paused to catch her breath.

"You actually found one? Where?" asked Foreman.

"Long story. Now," she added to House, "is it really okay for me to destroy their car?"

"It's just a rental! Do it!" House yelled at her.

"Cool," she said, satisfied. "Okay, I don't think I can swing this thing with one hand, so I'm dropping the walkie-talkie. I'll call again if it doesn't work! Bye!" She turned it off without bothering to listen to House's reply. "I have no idea how good my aim is with one of these, so sorry if I hit you," she told Owen and Foreman as she pulled any remaining luggage out from around them and tossed it onto the ground behind her.

"What?!" they both shouted. Chase may not have had as much stamina as she did, but his arms were definitely more muscled, and it was easier than she'd expected to lift the heavy sledgehammer over her head. Owen screamed and Foreman whimpered and they both curled up a little tighter in the fetal position. She rolled her eyes and brought the metal head of the sledgehammer down hard on the side of the trunk.

The metal crumpled under the force of the onslaught. When she pulled the hammer away, there was a sizable dent. She grinned in satisfaction and lifted the hammer over her head again. This time, however, she misjudged how far back it was and overbalanced, falling hard on her bottom and losing her grip, which caused the hammer to fall to the concrete and make a deafening sound that echoed for several minutes. Cameron froze.

"Oops," she said. "I hope no one bad heard that."

"Why? Was that so much louder than you whacking at the car?" cried Foreman, who was by now a little hysterical.

"Dunno." Cameron shrugged and picked herself off the ground. She hoisted the hammer over her head again and brought it down a couple inches from her last hit. The dent grew. She grimaced at the noise it made, but drew it up and slammed it down again.

When she was satisfied that the left side of the minivan was satisfactorily mangled, she went to work on the other. Foreman and Owen were whimpering in terror. She finished banging on the left side, and wiped her brow on her sleeve.

"Okay, maybe that destroyed the, uh, force field or whatever it is," she said, grabbing Owen's shoulders again and pulling. He didn't come free. "Dammit! Okay, I'm going to get House again."

Cameron turned the walkie-talkie back on and pressed send, but there was no answer. She was whining about how unreliable House was when something exploded on the floor below. She slammed the trunk shut and made to duck behind the van, but something big and slimy grabbed her from behind.

She screamed and twisted, barely catching sight of the giant, red alien that held her, before they both vanished.

* * *

The morgue was dark and suffused with an eerie seasick-vomit-green light. There was also an incessant drip-drip even though House felt sure Cuddy would throttle someone if there was a pipe leak in the hospital. He decided to ignore the fact that he’d blown up an entire bathroom earlier, and it’d ended with Cuddy stripping for a man in a uniform.

On second thought, maybe that was a fact he should keep in mind.

“House, what’s that sound?” Gwen whispered.

House listened but didn’t hear anything. “It’s just your imagination,” he said, calling for Cameron again. He got nothing but static, which was strange. Gwen grabbed the walkie-talkie.

“Did you hear that? A slight electronic distortion in the background?”

“Yeah?” House said, itching for a marker to write “Paranoia” on his differential board. “What about it?”

“The aliens are tracing our transmission!”

“That’s ridiculous.” His head snapped up as he heard what Gwen was talking about: the sound of boots thumping against vinyl. “Damn, you’re right!”

The doors burst open and soldiers flooded in. House put up his hands. “I surrender! Can’t speak for the cane, though; it’s a little spotty.”

“Are those guns?” Gwen exclaimed.

House eyed her, then recognizing a few tell-tale signs of impending psychosis, shuffled a few feet away from her bed.

“Those are guns! Put down those guns!”

“You’re hardly in a position to make demands, missy,” a captain said.

“Oh yeah?” Gwen pushed herself up and leapt out of the bed with perfect coordination. In a blink, she was standing in front of the captain. “How about if I do this!”

The man gurgled as she grabbed him by the neck and threw him two stories up the staircase. The other soldiers began backing away, but it was too late. Gwen let out a piercing shriek, grabbed an autopsy table and swung it at them. It sent five men flying, and then she grabbed another soldier by the arm and swung him around like a club, beating people over the head with him.

Three seconds after her rage attack began, all the soldiers were sprawled on the floor, unconscious. Gwen then turned to face House, and he took several steps back before regaining control over his instincts. “Hey, I’m a friend,” House said, keeping his hands in the air. He indicated his leg. “Look, cripple!”

Gwen’s expression slackened, and then she gasped and clutched her chest. “House... help me!”

She crumpled onto the floor, and House ran -- well, limped quickly -- to her, turning her over and feeling for a pulse.

“Oh god,” he said, wondering why his employees were always so incompetent. “It’s a heart attack.”

* * *

The third floor was mostly devoid of people. The reason was probably because screaming attracted attention, and there had been an awful lot of screaming from the lower levels a few minutes ago. Ironically, this was the same reason why Wilson was still on the third floor at all. He'd had all he could deal with of screams and craziness, so he wandered the halls aimlessly, wondering if he dared to make a dash for the relative sanctuary of his office.

He was pacing in front of the stairwell and trying to decide if it was worth it to risk going down when a small, slightly feminine old man literally appeared out of thin air right in front of him.

Wilson reeled back, his mind rebelling against yet another impossibility. With a great mental effort, he forced himself to keep on his feet and take in the man's bizarre entrance. Aside from being old, the man was dressed in the type of clothing that had gone out of style a couple hundred years ago and was smiling at him in a slightly creepy way.

"Uh..." Wilson stuttered, unsure of what sort of greeting was customary in such circumstances.

"Hello," said the man, apparently completely unfazed by his unorthodox appearance. "My name is Bilis Manger. Could you please direct me to the room where a Miss Gwen Cooper is staying?"

Chapter Text

“Look, Mith Thuthan! A big thkeleton!”

Susan Sto Helit sighed. “Death doesn’t find lisping any cuter than I do, Janet, so it won’t get you any favors.”

“Oh. That sucks.” The little girl ran up to Death and poked him in the ribs. “My puppy died last Christmas. Can you give him back?”

Death scratched his head. WELL THAT WOULD DEPEND UPON WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM.

Susan raised an eyebrow at him.

“I sat on him!” Janet said happily. “We were playing horsey, but he wasn’t very cooperative. If you give him back, can you make him bigger?”

“All right, Janet, why don’t you join the other children in the playground now,” Susan said, taking her arm and guided her gently but forcefully into the hall.

The little girl looked ready to protest, but Susan gave her the if-you-don’t-cooperate-you’ll-lose-all-chances-at-getting-a-gold-star-this-week look and shut the door on her. Then she whirled back on Death and stalked--not STALKED--toward him with a grim expression on her face and her hair writhing out of control. “We’ve been over this before. No appearing before the children, no appearing without warning, and no letting him ever, ever, near my chocolate!” She threw open the top drawer of her desk and grabbed the Death of Rats.

SQUEAK, he protested, and a chocolate-covered almond dropped from his paws.

I THOUGHT YOU KEPT THE CHOCOLATES IN THE CABINET, Death said, looking a little sheepish. For a moment, Susan’s anger vanished as she reconsidered the mystery of her disappearing chocolates.

“Well, they clearly weren’t safe in the cabinets,” she replied. “What do you want? Recess ends in five minutes, and I want you out of here by then.”

I AM TAKING A VACATION, announced Death. He brushed some non-existent dust off his robe, as though to draw attention to the fact that it was new.

What?” Susan groaned.

I THOUGHT IT POLITE TO NOTIFY YOU IN ADVANCE, THIS TIME.

“Can’t you find someone else to be your replacement?”

THE LAST TIME I DID THAT, YOUR FATHER CHANGED THE HISTORY OF THE DISC.

“Yeah, but that happens all the time anyway.”

BINKY MISSES YOU.

“Oh, no, don’t play the helpless horse card on me.”

IT WILL JUST BE FOR A WEEK.

“Why? What sort of anthropomorphic personification needs a vacation?”

I AM YOUR GRANDFATHER, YOUNG LADY.

“That line had its day years ago.”

I COULD GIVE YOU A KITTEN? Death extracted a mewing tabby from his robe and set it down on her desk. The Death of Rats let out a little shriek as the cat promptly jumped on it and started sharpening her teeth on his skull, purring all the while.

“Explain.”

I AM DESIROUS OF TRAVELING THE UNIVERSE AND WITNESSING ITS MANY MARVELS IN THE FACE OF THE GRADUAL, CREEPING ENTROPY WHICH WILL EVENTUALLY BECOME THE ULTIMATE DEATH OF ALL ITS INHABITANTS.

“You’re going on sabbatical?”

ER, THAT DOES SOUND BETTER, YES.

“I’m not covering your vacation! At least when you have a mental breakdown, I know you didn’t shove the position on me while in your right mind.”

IT IS A SABBATICAL. IT IS IMPORTANT FOR THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE.

“You’re going to have tea with crazy cat ladies and cook quiches!”

A CRITICAL MASS OF QUICHES IS IMPORTANT FOR THE STABILITY OF THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM.

“You’re making stuff up! Never lie to someone you need favors from.”

THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS.

“And they are...?”

LOOK! AN ANTELOPE. Death pointed behind her with one hand and scooped the kitten up with his other. The cat yowled as the Death of Rats fell from her grip and scampered away into Susan’s box of chocolates. Susan didn’t take her eyes off her grandfather. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LOOK THAT WAY, he said, wiggling his finger.

“An antelope? Really.”

YES. IT APPEARS TO BE EATING YOUNG JANET’S FINGERPAINTING.

“That has no bearing on this conversation.”

WOULD YOU PLEASE CONSIDER TAKING OVER MY POSITION FOR A WEEK? I AM SURE IT WOULD PROVIDE A WELCOME BREAK FROM YOUR STRENUOUS DUTIES HERE AND PROVIDE YOU SOME TIME TO PURSUE YOUR OWN INTERESTS. PLENTY OF TIME.

Susan considered this. While she suspected she ought to yell at him some more, the prospect of having Time all to herself was certainly an interesting proposition. She suspected he’d find it interesting as well. “Oh fine.”

THANK YOU. Death turned and walked away through the side wall, taking the kitten and the Death of Rats with him. So Death was taking a break from death. Susan sighed as she considered the fact that most people lived even stranger lives than her and wondered whether she ought to feel sorry for them or not. Then she picked up the poker she kept under her desk and gave the antelope a strong whack on the behind, sending it off to harass some other classroom.

“At least this time, I know when he’ll be back,” she said to the empty room.

In the shadows, little voices giggled, and their laughter echoed sinisterly.

* * *

The universe was a vast place, so grand and complex even an immortal such as Death could not visit all its wonders. He couldn’t even begin to see a thousandth of a thousandth of a thousandth of a percent of it, but he had a week in which to savor a small sample.

SQUEAK, the Death of Rats told him as he shut his suitcase.

YES, I COULD BEND TIME AND SPACE AND BE GONE AS LONG AS I WANT, BUT THAT WOULD BE UNFAIR TO SUSAN, WOULDN’T IT?

“What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her,” Quoth, the raven, said.

ALFRED WOULD KNOW, replied Death. AND YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ALFRED GETS UPSET.

“Yes, he sulks. It’s absolutely terrifying.”

Death extracted a pair of dice from his robe and clattered them about in his bony hands. Humans had such fascinating pastimes, and the game of chance was one that had puzzled him for ages. For one thing, the laws of probabilities stated that you were guaranteed to lose at some point. The perversity of persisting in this sort of futile pursuit increased further after some fool in Überwald named Edvard Morfine formulated Morfine’s Law that anything that could go wrong would do so in a manner that would cause maximum pain and suffering. He proved this by enclosing cats in boxes with cyanide pills that had a fifty percent chance of exploding at any given moment. Whenever the observers were cat-lovers, the pill always exploded the moment before the box was opened. Whenever the observers were cat-haters, the cat escaped safely, only to be mauled by a pack of lipwigzers once out of sight, for the law was a species-blind offender (what happened to the dogs, no one yet knew, but it was presumably something awful as well).

When Death found out about this, he persuaded Susan to track down the man and convince him that the same rules governed the afterlife. As a result, the man now spent all of eternity with a succession of fifty-pound cats taking turns sleeping on his face.
Nevertheless, the fact that probability was a form of human imagination masquerading as an objective fact of life made Death wonder why people never caught on. Alfred had then introduced him to a series of books called The Twelve Step Program for Recovering Addicts. Death made it as far as Giving All Your Money to a Temple So You Can’t Spend It before he gave the study up as hopeless.

OF COURSE, Death mused, A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL.

The dice in his hands were special. They were spherical rather than cubic and possessed, as far as Death knew, an infinite number of sides, for that was the definition of a sphere. On one die was inscribed every possible spatial coordinate in existence, and on the other was every possible temporal coordinate in the forward and backward history of the universe.

“Is everything in order, Master?” Alfred asked as he entered the room, carrying a tray suffused in blue light.

YES, ALFRED, I AM READY. Death took the tray and positioned the dice over them. DEATH TRAVELS BY THE WILL OF THE DIE, HA HA HA.

“Yes, very funny, sir,” Alfred said stiffly.

Death dropped the dice. They clattered once, twice, then rolled to a stop. A flash of blue light burst forth from the tray and spread along Death’s fingers up his arms and around his body. When it faded, his surroundings had changed, his companions were gone, and he had no idea where he was.

DISCOVERING WHERE YOU ARE IS HALF THE ADVENTURE, Death said to himself, pleased at discovering a use for a phrase he’d picked up on the disc. Of course, the man who said it had then fallen into the sewers of Ankh-Morpork and been eaten by giant alligators. That was the problem with being death incarnate; you never got to see people happy. Well, that was what vacations were for.

BOOM!

OH DEAR. Death finally got a good look at his surroundings. Although everything was dark and the details of his environment were difficult to see, it wasn’t nighttime as he’d first assumed. Rather, he was indoors in a massive warehouse of some sort, and all the lights were out. Far in the distance, a red glow emanated from a room.

Death picked his way up a flight of stairs. All around, containers were broken and some sort of transparent wrapping material littered the ground. Further along, he found bodies and broken shells of metal suits of armor. It looked as though he’d teleported himself into the middle of a battlefield. Mentally, Death cursed Morfine and hoped a seventy-pound cat would soon head his way. There was so much beauty in the universe, and so much nothingness as well; in fact, by all statistical measures, Death should have found himself in the middle of deep space, but no, the first place he visited had to be a battlefield littered with dead people.

Then he arrived at the source of the light, and he peered through a doorway straight into the heart of an inferno.

OH MY, he said, and this was one of those rare instances when Death was truly left in awe. Before him on a screen was an image of a beautiful spherical planet, all shades of blue and green and brown with clusters of clouds swirling about in a way they never could on the disc. All around the sphere was pure blackness, broken only by the white pinpoints of a field of stars. A red glow covered the screen, and the planet grew larger and larger. Death suddenly realized what was happening, but for once, he could understand what it meant to see beauty in destruction.

THE TIME OF ALL THINGS MUST COME, Death said, and if he could feel emotions, he knew he would be feeling sorrow now, BUT IF DARKNESS MUST COME, BETTER IT BE A FLASH OF BRILLIANCE THAN A SLOW FADING.

All around him, the roar of rushing particles and the scream of melting metal grew louder with every passing instant. Behind him, the cargo hold began splintering. The walls glowed red, and beams crashed down from the ceiling. Death stared at the awful chaos before him, saw the bodies on the floor catch fire and burn, and then he realized someone was speaking to him.

“Who are you?” a voice repeated.

So riveted Death had been by the screen that he’d missed the figure standing before it. The sole survivor of the battle was a young boy, barely entering manhood, and he held a gun in two shaking hands, one of which had a piece of braided rope wrapped about the fingers. He must have grabbed the gun from the fallen warrior beside him when he heard Death speak, and now he aimed it at him.

YOU KNOW WHO I AM.

“No, no I don’t,” the boy said. “You don’t sound like one of them, but you could still be an android. It dressed up like you, back during the Plague.”

A burst of flame roared through the doors past Death and into the room. The boy took a step back, and the tongues of fire barely missed his face. The light illuminated his expression, and Death saw in his eyes sadness and resignation but no fear. Just an angry, raging determination, and though Death had met many heroes who’d accepted death as a final glory and many more who’d welcomed death as a relief, he didn’t think he’d ever seen someone quite like this boy, so unwilling to die yet so willing to accept the inexorable end.

Death considered for but a moment, and then he decided. This was no interference, after all, just a delay of the inevitable.

I AM NO IMITATION, he said. I CAN PROVE IT TO YOU.

“How?” the boy challenged.

I CAN SLOW DOWN TIME, IF YOU ARE WILLING. I WOULD LIKE TO TALK, BUT IF YOU WOULD RATHER NOT PROLONG THE WAITING, I WILL HONOR YOUR WISHES.

The boy blinked, but his aim didn’t shift. He seemed to suspect a trap, but he said, “How long?”

I COULD GIVE YOU FIVE MORE MINUTES.

Five minutes, nothing in the span of a lifetime, or even a day, but it was something. The boy laughed humorlessly. “Why not? Life is life.”

Death raised one hand, and the boy nearly fired, but then he snapped his fingers and all noise ceased. The boy looked about in wonder. With a finger, he reached out to touch one of a thousand sparks flying through the air in slow motion. It sizzled against his skin but when he pulled his finger away, it was unburnt, and the spark continued its glacial arc.

The boy dropped his gun and smiled weakly. “Well, at least this way, I’ll have more time to react when my friends come.”

YOU ARE EXPECTING RESCUE?

“My friends won’t let me down. He’s never let me down.”

ARE THEY ON BOARD THIS SHIP? The boy’s words sounded so silly, so ridiculous, and yet Death felt he was the fool here, while the boy was the one who knew what he was talking about. For a moment, Death could almost believe the boy would live, just from the conviction in his voice, and he wished he could read his hourglass to confirm this, but the boy was not under his dominion, and he was as blind as any other living creature in the matter of this life and death.

The boy shook his head. “It’s complicated. You said you wanted to talk, then talk, but don’t ask for my life story. I want something new before I die; I don’t need to relive what I worked so hard to escape.”

YOU BELIEVE YOU WILL DIE, YET YOU DON’T TAKE MY ARRIVAL AS A SIGN OF YOUR IMPENDING DEMISE.

“You’re the death of humans.” He looked so defiant, so proud. “But I’m not human; you’re not here for me, so what are you hear for? Or who?”

I AM ON VACATION, Death replied and instantly regretted his choice of words.

“You’re on vacation?” the boy replied incredulously. He looked furious. “So this is your idea of fun? A jolly romp through space to see how other species die!”

MY TRAVEL IS RANDOM. Death showed him the dice. IT WAS NOT MY INTENTION TO BE HERE, BUT I WILL NOT REGRET HAVING SEEN THIS. I AM THE DESTROYER OF LIGHT; THE REASON FOR MY EXISTENCE IS TO WATCH OTHERS END, BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN I DO NOT RESPECT THAT WHICH WORKS SO HARD TO DELAY ME.

“There’s nothing to see here, no delay. I failed,” the boy said, turning back to the control panel. “This planet is going to die because I couldn’t save it. These,” he pointed at the console, “these logic panels locked the controls on Earth, and I could have solved them, but that, that thing kept me from finishing.”

Death walked up beside him and looked down at the scorched metal controls. He swept one bony finger along them, and pieces chipped off at his touch. He turned to look at the boy. YOU FEEL STRONGLY ABOUT THIS FAILURE. WHY?

“I’ll never know if I was right,” the boy said.

IT IS THE PUZZLE THAT MATTERS TO YOU?

“It’s who I am! I never fit in. Nobody ever wanted me with them. I always had to force myself in, to prove myself, and even when I did, they accepted me grudgingly. Through it all, my calculations were all I could count on; they were all I could be proud of, all that I knew would never fail me.”

Death waved his hands over the control, and sparks exploded, but they flew backwards, soaring through the air in real-time, not slowly like everything else. The panel shook as it absorbed the glowing points one by one. It resealed itself and the scorch marks faded. The boy watched breathlessly as they waited one second, two, and the panel clicked.

“I was right,” he breathed. “I was right.”

IT WILL NOT SAVE YOU. I CANNOT INTERFERE IN ANY SIGNIFICANT MANNER.

“That’s okay, I know. He’s the same way, my friend. So much power in his hands, but he can’t use it, because with his power he has knowledge, and once you know the consequences of interfering, you know you can’t do it, no matter how much you want to, no matter how much it breaks your heart.” The boy sighed. “He can’t come back for me. If he doesn’t come back for me, that’s why.” He smiled sadly. “I have to believe that’s why.”

HAVE FAITH.

This seemed to strike a nerve in the boy. He turned to him with such violence his hair fell before his eyes, but Death could still feel the force of his glare. “Why? It’s been more than two minutes already. If he was going to come, he’d have come, but he hasn’t! Why should I lie to myself any more? It’s bad enough that I still trust him, but I can’t bring myself not to. Why wait for something that’s never going to happen? That’s what my people did; entire generations spent their lives waiting for something that was never going to happen, and if the Doctor hadn’t come, they’d still be waiting, wasting their lives away, putting faith in a lie! Numbers don’t lie; I can trust numbers, but everything else, everyone else... they always let you down in the end.”

AT LEAST THERE IS BEAUTY. Death cringed (or at least he would have if he'd had a face that could cringe), knowing how hollow his words must sound. It wasn’t supposed to be like this; he only appeared when people were already dead, and then he ushered them away and did his job. This comforting, this involving himself when there was nothing he could do and no reason to stay, it was a new experience, and he wondered how humans coped. He knew how to interfere, and he knew how to perform his task, but he didn’t know how just to stand there and watch someone die.

“No!” The boy slammed his fist against the console. “It isn’t beautiful! I’m sorry, but there’s no beauty in death! Dead is dead, and this planet is going to go before its time. Billions of creatures all dying too soon, and what did they do to deserve it? It isn’t fair, it isn’t noble, it isn’t beautiful! There is no good death. One way or another, it’s all the same, it ends in darkness.”

DEATH IS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT, Death replied, wracking his memories for all the countless souls he’d ushered away. Each memory burned; to him, they were as the warmth of starlight in the vacuum of space, but for one who was supposed to feel nothing, their touch was as powerful as the flames that would soon engulf this ship and the young boy. He forced himself to remember, though, to convince himself that his words were true. HEROES DIE AS HEROES NOT BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY DID IN LIFE BUT BECAUSE OF HOW THEY APPROACHED THEIR DEMISE. IF YOU TRUST THERE IS MORE TO COME, THEN THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOMETHING WAITING.

“Maybe I don’t want to find anything else.” The boy lifted up the strand of rope to his face. “My brother’s dead. My family’s gone, and if there’s another life, how will I find them? They’re in a whole other universe, different dimensions, how would I ever make my way back? I can calculate the path in this world, but how do I know the rules will be the same in the next? How do I know they’d want me back?”

YOU COULD WAIT FOR YOUR FRIENDS.

“I’m sick of waiting! I’m tired of having expectations that won’t be met.”

THEN YOU DESIRE NOTHINGNESS? YOU DO NOT WISH FOR A SOUL?

“Life is suffering,” the boy whispered. “To be is to suffer. You know this, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes.” The blue glow of Death’s eyes were reflected in the boy’s. “Dying starlight, that’s what your eyes are. All you ever see is beautiful things run down. Don’t you ever get tired of it?”

FATIGUE IS AN EMOTION FOR THE LIVING, Death said, but all his words were sounding wrong. He was feeling... doubt. IT IS NOT FOR ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATIONS TO TIRE.

“But you feel it anyway. How can you not? You’re Death, if you really are. You exist only in the minds of those you take. And anything created is only as good as its maker. You tell yourself you don’t know what it’s like to live, but you know, because life gave birth to you.”

IT... I...

“That’s something new, isn’t it? To put fear in the heart of Death.”

Death rallied. I DO NOT FEAR, he boomed.

The boy nodded, backing away as though to distance himself from Death’s distasteful existence. “You tell yourself that. You just keep repeating that to yourself. Have faith.”

YOU DO NOT MEAN THAT. YOU ARE LASHING OUT AT ME BECAUSE YOU WISH TO RAGE AT YOUR OWN SITUATION.

“And now you’re angry. Such a range of emotions for the emotionless.”

I AM NOT ANGRY! I CANNOT FEEL EMOTIONS. EMOTIONS ARE JUST GLANDS.

“Are they? What a base explanation for the driving force of life.”

ALL THOSE I MEET FEEL NOTHING.

“How do you know they’re not just numb? Ever heard of shock? Dying’s probably enough to unhinge the most well-balanced mind, even if just for a little while, and do you ever hang around to see what happens? Do you ever care?”

I CARE MORE THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE! DO NOT TAUNT ME! I GIVE YOU THE GIFT OF TIME, AND YOU MOCK ME!

The boy laughed a bitter laugh that rattled Death’s bones to their very core. “You gave me time to satisfy your own curiosity.”

THE INTELLECT IS ALL I HAVE.

“For all that intelligent life prides its intellect, you rarely see it use it. Face it, emotions drive you, emotions are what prove you’re alive. Emotions destroy you, but without them, you’re already gone! That’s the balancing act we all have to deal with, that’s what it means to be alive: to teeter on the knife-edge between greatness and insanity, and when it ends, it ends, because what cruel universe forces you to carry that burden forever? What sick gods would make you strain towards nothingness for all eternity and never let you reach even that one small peace?”

THIS IS NOT TRUE. THERE CAN BE JOY AFTER DEATH. THERE CAN BE MORE LIFE. I HAVE SEEN HEAVENS AND HELLS, REINCARNATIONS AND KARMA. THERE IS CONTINUATION, THERE IS MORE, THERE IS MEANING.

There is nothing! And that scares you! The great destroyer, you call yourself, but you’re afraid, because deep down, you know what you’re bringing to others, you know that with each of your actions, you let the end of everything come one step closer. You help increase the entropy of this universe and never think to slow it down, because you tell yourself that is the way life works, and when it’s all over, there’ll be light and happiness waiting for everyone, but what if there isn’t? What if one day, you’ve extinguished all life, and with your job done, you fade as well, and then you find that there isn’t light, there isn’t anything waiting.”

I DO NOT NEED TO HEAR THIS! YOU ARE BUT A BRIEF MORTAL, WHILE I REIGN FOR ALL OF TIME! I HAVE ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE OF A VASTNESS YOU COULD NOT BEGIN TO COMPREHEND.

“Then why stop time for me? You’re curious, but you’re afraid to listen to what I have to say, because you’re afraid my words will be true. You’re scared, then fine, leave. Go! My five minutes are almost up anyway; you’re not killing me any faster. In fact, you’ve given me four minutes I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Run, proud immortal, and while you flee, you can feel good that you gave an insignificant creature the gift of four more minutes of suffering.”

I DO NOT RENEGE ON MY PROMISES.

“I free you from your promise!”

Death could feel his own will cracking, and with it went his strength to hold at bay the ravages of time. Time, such a dangerous companion Susan had chosen for herself, and now, it broke through Death’s floodgates at the command of one small boy whose will was greater than all the heroes he’d ever met, and its waters raged through the ship, accelerating the destruction and washing all his efforts away before it. With one loud crack, Death’s influence disappeared. Sparks finished their arcs, droplets of liquid metal completed their falls, and girders continued their collapse. The roar of the dying freighter pounded at their ears, and the boy smiled.

“You hold no dominion over me.”

WHAT IS YOUR NAME? Death strained to see the boy, but smoke poured in from the hold, obscuring both of them. He could hear the boy start wheezing. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

“Do you really want to know?” the boy asked weakly, forcing the words out between hacking coughs.

YES, Death forced himself to say. He heard the boy collapse, thudding onto the ground like a dull weight, sounding no different from a falling sack of flour. Death leaned closer. I NEED TO KNOW.

The boy looked up at him, and though their faces were bare inches apart, the smoke still obscured most of his features. Death could see his smile though, and he could see the penetrating eyes that still retained their power even in his last moments of life. It was the smile that he remembered, though, the smile that never faded as the boy whispered, “I’m not going to tell you. And that... is my gift... to you.”

The boy went limp, his head dropping to the ground. Just as he lost consciousness, Death heard a distant sound, growing louder. It didn’t seem to belong on this crashing freighter, and it wasn’t a sound Death had ever heard before.

Vworp... vworp... vworp...

Death looked up and saw a blue box materialize out of thin air. Were these the friends the boy spoke of?

Death desperately wanted to pick up the boy and carry him into the box, but the consequences the boy had spoken of still burned in his mind, and he knew he couldn’t interfere.

HURRY, HURRY AND SAVE HIM, Death implored the box’s occupants, though he knew they couldn’t hear him. Rescue was so close and yet so far, and there was nothing he could do. In that moment, he had never hated himself more. Not even the day Mort and Ysabell had died did he feel so pained, for this boy had just torn down everything he’d ever known, everything he’d believed to be fact. They were all lies, even the numbers, because what were facts in the face of emotion?

NO, THIS CANNOT BE. I EXIST FOR A REASON... Death hesitated, wanting to leave, wanting to stay. The laws of the disc did not apply here, and he wanted to see the boy rescued, but he was afraid it wouldn’t happen. THERE ARE... RULES... I CANNOT FIGHT... And Death knew what he had to do.

He forced himself to take one step away from the limp body. The succeeding steps didn’t grow easier, but he made himself perform them, one after another until he was back in the cargo hold. He didn’t look back, because he knew that if he did, he would be lost.

With the last shred of self-control he possessed, he lifted the dice in one hand and the tray in the other, and before he could hear the door of the box open, he rolled the dice. He let chance have its say. Blue light engulfed him, and it was followed by the absence of sound and vision, of life and death and everything else that mattered.

There was nothing out here, not even the slightest twinkle of light from the closest star in the universe. Everything was complete blackness, and Death knew where he was; only in the furthest edges of the universe did space expand faster than the speed of light, and thus, no light would ever reach this point, not if he waited until the end of time itself.

DEEP SPACE, Death whispered to himself. DEEP SPACE AT LAST.

And the boy was right. There was no peace comparable to nothingness. His hands were still poised to pick up the dice and roll them again, but he had no will to do so. He decided he could afford to spend some time here. It wasn’t waiting, it was just rest. A true vacation.

I WILL GO BACK WHEN I AM READY, Death said. I WILL BE READY.

He would bring destruction to the universe once again, but not now. Not just now. Just this once, he would take a break from death.

* * *

Jamie waited anxiously. The Doctor was moving about nervously and wringing his hands. As soon as the TARDIS materialized, the Doctor hit the switch to open the viewscreen.

They were on a spaceship, and the spaceship was quite obviously on fire.

"Oh dear," the Doctor fretted. "Well, we certainly won't be staying here. Just let me set some new coordinates."

Jamie wasn't listening. Instead, he was staring at the viewscreen, trying to make out something he was sure had moved. "Doctor, wait, there's someone out there," he said.

"Jamie," the Doctor said sternly, "You are not going out there. You'd get killed."

"But we cannae jus' leave 'em!"

"I'm sorry, Jamie, but there's nothing we can do!" The Doctor looked clearly distressed at this, but he kept programming coordinates. "There! That should do it!"

Before the Doctor could press the button to dematerialize, Jamie dodged past him, pulled the door lever, and ran out. The Doctor's shocked cry echoed behind him and the smoke threatened to choke him, but he didn't stop. He put his sleeve over his mouth and nose and stooped low to breathe in as little smoke as possible.

He moved gracefully around various fallen wires and other debris. He tried to remember where he'd seen the movement. It occurred to him belatedly that it might've not even been a person--it could easily have just been something falling.

It was unbearably hot, and the smoke was making his eyes hurt terribly. It was nearly impossible to see. He stumbled over a piece of what looked like part of a control panel and caught himself on a chair. The metal it was made out of was scorchingly hot and he pulled his hand back, dimly aware that it was probably pretty badly burned. The still uncared-for wound of his arm ached, throbbing in time to the burns on his hand. He pushed the pain aside and looked around him, trying to determine where exactly he was.

He could barely make out the big, blue shape of the TARDIS through the smoke, despite it being no more than fifteen feet away. He turned to look straight ahead of him. He could barely make out more than basic dark shapes, some obviously controls or chairs, and some that were less easily identified.

Jamie knew he couldn't last for long. There wasn't much air, and constantly breathing in the smoke was wreaking havoc on his lungs. He coughed a few times and started off in the direction he thought he'd seen movement.

He'd moved barely more than three feet when he nearly tripped over something soft. Further inspection revealed it to be a person, though the smoke made it difficult to identify gender or age, or even whether or not the person was still alive, though Jamie guessed it was a young boy. He hoisted the person over his shoulder and started on his way back.

The heat increased. The pain in his palm and his arm increased. He couldn't see or breathe. He could barely move under the extra weight. Off to his right, something exploded. He winced as he felt the blast, felt the fire licking perilously close. Crossing the fifteen feet to the TARDIS seemed like crossing miles.

The whole room was shaking like crazy, and it was almost impossible for Jamie to stay upright, especially while he was overbalanced by the weight of the boy. Something else exploded, a little closer than the last one. Shrapnel flew past him, and he felt it cutting his legs and face. It stung, but none of the cuts felt very deep.

The TARDIS doors were, mercifully, still open, and Jamie stumbled in and collapsed instantly. The Doctor, who looked dreadfully worried, slammed the door lever down and ran over to him.

"Jamie, Jamie, why did you do that? Are you okay? Oh, who is this?" he said, all frantic movement as he helped Jamie sit up and then went about checking on the boy. Jamie tried to take too deep a breath and lapsed into a coughing fit. The Doctor shot him a worried glance and dashed over to where he'd already set out all the necessary medical supplies. He gave Jamie an oxygen mask, which Jamie took gratefully. Slowly he calmed down enough to slap the Doctor's worried hands away from his cuts and burns, gesturing for him to examine the boy instead.

"Oh, yes, of course," the Doctor muttered and switched objectives. The boy was unconscious, and his hair and clothes were dusted thickly with ashes. The Doctor strapped another oxygen mask over his nose and mouth and rummaged around for bandages.

"Is he going t' be okay?" Jamie wheezed after a few minutes.

"Well, he's suffering from smoke inhalation, of course, but his burns seem mostly minor. I'd say yours are worse, actually. If you'd just let me look--"

"No!" Jamie said, pulling back. "See t' him. I'm no wee bairn what never been injured before, I can do it myself."

"Well, alright," the Doctor said, giving him a slightly hurt look. As an after thought, he pushed the box of supplies closer to Jamie. "Do be careful, won't you?"

"Aye," Jamie mumbled, a little embarrassed by his outburst. The Doctor picked up the boy and carried him out of the console room, presumably to put him in his own room. Jamie stared at the floor and thought. About an hour later when the Doctor walked back in, he hadn't made much progress.

"He'll probably be fine, Jamie," the Doctor said. "I put him in a room near yours so you can look in on him later. He's still unconscious, but I've bandaged him up and he's breathing fine without the mask now. He should wake up in a day or so, I would guess." Jamie nodded, a little touched at the Doctor's thoughtfulness. The Doctor sat down next to him, a comforting and unobtrusive presence, silently offering his help if Jamie decided he needed any. Jamie stared at his feet for a while longer, then took a deep breath and finally swallowed his pride.

"Doctor, if ye would be willing, would ye maybe help me after all?" The Doctor beamed at him.

"Of course, Jamie," he said.

Chapter Text

Ianto watched the guns discharge in slow motion, the flashes of light and bursts of smoke, the air swirling in eddies about the bullets. He spent one moment gaping before he realized it wasn’t a trick of the mind. The bullets really were moving in slow motion.

“What the--” he managed before someone tackled him, sending them both crashing into the wall behind the President’s desk.

He looked up to see a woman dressed in black, tall and thin with hair white as snow save for one streak of black through the middle. She was also carrying a fireplace poker, though at the moment, it was stuck in an uncomfortable position underneath him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Not now,” she snapped. “There’s someone interfering with my ability to stop time.”

“That’s good to know,” he said, unable to think of any other response. Her words became fact as he heard a soft pop, like someone squeezing a roll of plastic wrap, and the bullets that’d been aimed at him smashed through the windows above them, raining down glass and plaster. “It’s probably the Master,” he added, pointing at the desk.

“That’s a TARDIS?” The woman replied, lifting an eyebrow at him. “What makes you think that’s a TARDIS?”

“How do you know what a TARDIS is?”

A bullet ricocheted off a flagpole past Ianto’s ear. Susan replied, quite sensibly, “I don’t think now’s a good time for that question.” She grabbed his shirt and lifted him up. As they stood, she threw the poker at the agents. Their next volley of shots set the air ablaze with blue lightning as the bullets struck what seemed to be a force field in the immediate vicinity of the poker. It then emitted a flat, cerulean shockwave that froze the room once more, and they dodged past the men into the hallway.

The woman snapped her fingers and the world darkened, the objects and air around them seeming tinged with hints of violet as they alone stood as solid objects amidst a pale, faded environment. “We should be far enough to be free of the effects of the TARDIS,” she explained.

“What did you do back there? Was that Time Lord technology?”

“Your friend Toshiko asked that when we first met as well, or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that when we will first meet, she asks that.” The woman extended her hand, though Ianto got the sense that the action was more a formality than a gesture of good will. “Ianto Jones, my name is Susan Sto Helit, and I’m from your future.”

Ianto considered this. Deep down, he felt rather startled, but upon further consideration, he decided the revelation was well within the boundaries of his job description, so he just nodded and said, “I see.”

“You look different with the sideburns.”

His jaw dropped. “I lose my sideburns?” he exclaimed. “But I like my sideburns! What happens to my sideburns?”

“I’m afraid telling you could cause the space-time continuum to collapse, or some such similar nonsense. I personally think Lobsang and the Doctor just enjoy spouting technobabble, like that silliness about the polarity of the neutron flow. I mean, neutrons have no charge, so where does their polarity come from? It’s ridiculous even by Discworld standards.”

“So he’s lying?”

“No.” Susan frowned. “The flow really does have a polarity.”

Uttered by anyone else, this admission would have caused the speaker to appear a lunatic. Susan had an air of sensibility, however, that caused all her statements to make the universe seem absurd instead. Indeed, Ianto got the sense that she was a long-suffering soul forced to put up with the idiosyncrasies of everyone and everything else in a way a schoolteacher might put up with a particularly stupid grade-schooler who slobbered when confronted with pencil and paper and drew when presented with food.

“So if it’s all rubbish, you can tell me,” Ianto said, just a little desperately.

“No. It might not be rubbish, and I’m not risking the stability of the universe for the sake of your sideburns. Now hurry up; time isn’t going to wait for us forever.”

* * *

In real life, people cannot just disappear in one place and reappear in another, Wilson told himself, trying to collect his thoughts. The idea that he was hallucinating occurred to him, but he preferred not to consider the implications. It's impossible. Right? Well, if anyone would know, it'd be the materializing man himself, who was standing patiently in front of him, waiting for a response. Wilson decided to ask him.

"Err, I realize this may seem like an odd question, but you didn't just sort of... I don't know, materialize in front of me there, did you? Out of thin air?" Wilson said, thoroughly perplexed with himself. Some of the events of the last few hours flashed in front of his eyes and he began to wonder if the whole day had been just a dream. Aside from an obnoxiously surreal plot line, it didn't feel like a dream. Then again, maybe House had spiked the coffee machine out of sheer malice.

"Of course I didn't, Doctor. That's impossible," the man--Mr. Bilis Manger--said calmly. Wilson was pretty sure he had but didn't press the matter for fear of being proven wrong; he didn't like the idea that he might be genuinely crazy. The two men stood for a few more moments in silence. Mr. Manger cleared his throat and gave him a pointed look. Wilson coughed, remembering his manners. He fought down his panic and confusion, popped a few more pills, and decided to examine his psyche later when he was alone.

"Right, sorry, who did you say you needed to find?" he asked, and wondered if it was after visitation hours yet.

"Ms. Gwen Cooper, please." Go figure. Outside the window, the sun was slowly starting to set.

"I think she's down one floor. I'll take you there." Wilson led the way to the staircase, down one flight, and through a few corridors lined with patient rooms. Cuddy was saying something over the intercom, but Wilson's mind blocked it out, possibly in an attempt to prevent any further damage. He vaguely noted he was walking very stiffly but couldn't bring himself to make the effort to relax.

He led the skinny old man to room 232, which he was pretty sure was Gwen's room. At least he wasn’t receiving any comments about the state of his buttocks....

"This should be it," Wilson said, knocking lightly on the door. There was no response, so he quietly opened the door and glanced inside, assuming that the young girl must have been sleeping. He took a step back as he saw the room ransacked and the bed and patient both missing.

"Hello? Excuse me, Ms. Cooper?" he called, stepping inside and looking around to make sure Gwen hadn’t decided to redecorate in some sort of fit. Mr. Manger followed him in and looked at Wilson expectantly, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. Wilson shrugged. "I guess she's not here. House must've taken her somewhere? Or something. It's probably after visiting hours, anyway. If you come back tomorrow, I'm sure you'll be able to see her." The old man gave him a tight smile, but before he got a chance to say anything, three burly men wearing uniforms and carrying guns burst into the room. Wilson, badly startled, leapt back, did a double-take to avoid the bed, realized the bed wasn’t there, tripped over his own shoe, and fell over backwards behind a recliner, barely avoiding landing on his head.

Shaken, Wilson pulled himself up. He'd barely managed to focus his vision when he saw Mr. Manger give the three uniformed men a strange smile, then vanish. All three looked as confused as Wilson felt, and he noted this with relief, because if others had seen the same thing, he couldn’t be crazy. Then one of the intruders focused on him and he ducked behind the recliner again.

Unfortunately, he hadn't ducked fast enough, and a large, blonde man with an unpleasant expression hauled him up from the floor by the arm.

"Ouch! Hey! Watch it!" Wilson shouted at them. "What's going on?"

The men didn't answer, but instead twisted his arms behind his back, threw handcuffs on him, and led him out the door and back into the hallway.

"Dammit, where are you taking me? You can't do this! It's against the law! I haven't done anything!" Wilson struggled, but there was no escaping.

Well doesn't that just beat all, he thought as he was led forcibly to the elevator.

* * *

House swore, putting as much feeling into it as he could muster, as Gwen lay spasming on the floor where she'd fallen. Rolling his eyes and cursing one more time, he knelt gingerly and began performing CPR. In between breaths, he yelled up the stairs.

"GODDAMMIT WOULD SOMEONE COMPETENT PLEASE COME DOWN HERE AND HELP SO I DON'T HAVE TO DO THIS MYSELF? IT'S REALLY ANNOYING."

Understandably, considering he was in the morgue, no one heard him. Several minutes later, the worst of the heart attack was past and Gwen was unconscious but breathing normally again, with a faint pulse. She needed to be connected to oxygen, though, and House wanted to run some tests.

He stared down at Gwen, wondering how the hell he was going to get her up the stairs. Eventually he braced himself, put most of his weight on his good leg, and through a series of acrobatic movements, lifted Gwen over his shoulders. Luckily, she didn't weigh much. He dumped her back onto the gurney. Her arm flopped over the side and swung back and forth with the motion of the cart like a dying fish. Her legs jutted out over the other edge, making it difficult to maneuver the cart without some part of her body hitting a wall. Without regard for her comfort, House pressed on, wheeling the cart towards the elevator.

The doors dinged open on the ground floor to reveal the clinic. The lobby was chaos, with papers strewn all over the ground, soldiers stationed at the doors, and patients crowded around the receptionist making noises about lawsuits. A few good nurses were trying with varied success to pull out some order, but their attempts seemed to result in more screaming. House surveyed the scene, then pushed the gurney out into the middle of the floor, put on his most intimidating face, and shouted.

"Everyone SHUT UP and listen!" Everyone froze. House felt oddly proud. "This woman just had a heart attack. She needs to be hooked up to an IV and some oxygen, and I need someone reasonably intelligent to get her a CT Scan and an echocardiogram and report back to me when they're done. Got it? Good. Now, does anyone know where my minions are? I need to fire them."

No one moved. A nurse coughed. House raised an eyebrow.

"Well?" he added expectantly. That did the trick. The silence was broken. A few nurses and a young man who was probably a resident walked up and wheeled Gwen away, and everyone else went back to what they'd been doing before, only in a slightly more subdued and less chaotic manner.

House grinned to himself and found a nice chair in the lobby to sit and take a nap in.

* * *

“So what’s next?” Monty asked. Two hours later, their search hadn’t yielded a single artifact or hint of alien involvement. Though the governor’s office was now off-limits due to the presumably still rampaging lamp, they’d searched through all the documents in every filing cabinet on the floor, aided by Tosh’s rapid scan device, which could convert any written document into an electronic file in a matter of seconds.

“Back to your office,” Tosh replied. He nodded and headed off without waiting for her to follow, and she grimaced. He wasn’t this eager to go there earlier. In fact, he’d briefly protested when she suggested going through his files, asking if she didn’t trust him. He hadn’t held back once they’d arrived, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a secret place where he hid documents he didn’t want people to see. Tosh had her own secret stash behind a panel under the stairs in the Hub, and no one would guess it was there if she didn’t show it to them.

While Monty had a room to himself--a fact which made Tosh a little jealous--it was small, with just enough space for a desk and a bookshelf and filing cabinet in one corner, a small potted plant in another. At her behest, he booted up his computer and logged on.

“There’s security protocols in place,” he said, as Tosh began trying to hack into the other computers. “You can’t get in; believe me, people have tried.”

Tosh showed him her scanner and pressed it against the computer.

“It scans computers too?”

“You know, that almost makes it sound like all its functions have some fundamental link.” Tosh looked thoughtful. “But yes, it’ll hack into any database connected to this computer.”

“Handy.”

“It also unlocks doors and trims nose hair.”

“Really…” Monty reached for it but jerked away when Tosh slapped his hand.

“It needs to stay in place until I’m done searching the files.” She peered interestedly at his nose. “And then you can trim all you like.”

“I was actually thinking about the secret storeroom the Governor keeps on the third floor,” Monty said, sounding hurt.

Before she could reply--though she did manage to give him a wide-eyed “haha-I’m-joking” smile, which she suspected looked less like Puss in Boots and more like Cheshire Cat--her cell phone rang again.

“Ianto?” she said, seeing “Unknown Caller” displayed on the screen.

“Greetings! You’ve qualified to be entered into a drawing for an iPhone!”

Tosh hung up. The phone rang again.

“Sorry about that; bad interference here,” Ianto’s voice said when she took the call. “Ow! Stop poking me!”

“I’m not poking you!” a woman’s voice crackled through the earpiece. “Look, no poker.”

“What’s going on?” Tosh demanded, switching on the speakerphone.

“I’m in the White House basement. Listen closely, ‘cause there’s no time to repeat anything.”

“Monty has a tape recorder; can I record this?”

“Yes, yes, ow! If you’re not poking me, who is?”

“How should I know?”

Monty clicked the recorder on and Tosh hurriedly interrupted: “Go on.”

“There’s a Time Lord called the Master in league with the aliens who’s apparently promised BRAIN technology--you know what that is, from your time with UNIT, correct?” he added and continued without waiting for her to reply. “--it’s been promised to prominent political leaders in the US government in exchange for their cooperation. The promise is obviously a lie, but they don’t know that. The President has either been deposed and is being used as a pawn, or he’s in on the conspiracy as well. I’ve met a woman from a planet shaped like a disc that travels through space on the backs of four elephants standing on a giant turtle, and her name is Susan Sto Helit and she’s the granddaughter of their planet’s anthropomorphic personification of Death, who exists in the form of a robed skeleton with a scythe and sword. Oh, and she’s from the future.” At this point, he paused, then said, somewhat sullenly, “when I no longer have sideburns.”

Sensing he needed a prompt to continue, Tosh said, “Okay....”

“Since the aliens can alter human perception to make us see whatever they want us to see, they can kill and replace prominent politicians. The federal government is safe because Susan says they don’t want to interfere too much. On the state level, however...”

“Oh my god!” Monty exclaimed.

“Yes,” Ianto said. “You may be working for an alien.”

“That’s too cool!”

Ianto sighed. “One last thing; we’ve found a document instructing officials to keep all items and memos pertaining to the aliens in their own homes so as to avoid attracting suspicion at work; obviously, they’re not too strict about this order, but if you’re not having any luck in the office, you might want to search the Governor’s Mansion.”

“That’s in Princeton,” Monty added.

“How convenient,” Tosh said, feeling a shiver of foreboding and a rush of adrenaline at this news.

“But there’s this secret room on the third floor where the Governor goes when he thinks no one’s looking, and he’s the only one who has access,” Monty said. “Maybe there’s something in there.”

“Actually, that’s where he keeps a secret stash of Belgian chocolates,” Susan said, her voice muffled as she sounded like she was chewing on something sticky. Tosh knew that Ianto would be giving her an incredulous look at that moment, and probably doing something funny with his eyebrows, too, and sure enough, Susan said, “Look, I just happened to run across it while I was searching for you, and some of the boxes were close to their expiration date, and I thought, Well wouldn’t that be a waste if they went uneaten?

“So the governor’s human?” Monty asked, looking crestfallen.

“Who told you only humans like chocolate?” Susan snapped. “Everyone likes chocolate. Every bloody sentient being in the universe, and they’re always trying to steal it from you! Ow!

“Did you get poked too?”

“Yes!”

“Have either of you thought about turning around right now?” Tosh asked.

“Can’t: we’re in a broom closet.”

“Maybe it’s brooms falling against you?”

“Do brooms reach into your pockets to take away pieces of chocolate?” Susan asked pointedly.

Tosh had to admit that no, most brooms did not possess kleptomaniacal tendencies. Monty looked ready to faint.

“Right, something’s groping my buttocks now, and since Jack’s not with us, I really need to go!” Ianto hung up.

Monty continued staring at the phone in horror, and Tosh began to worry about the man’s extensive imagination. She reached into his pockets and took out his car keys. He didn’t respond. She slapped his buttock, and he jumped into the air, yelping. “What was that for?” he said in a high-pitched voice as he rubbed his backside.

Tosh waggled the keys in front of his face. “Fancy a drive?”

* * *

Lisa Cuddy was getting more and more frustrated. General Posey may have been a bit of a horny creep, but he was a general and he hadn't gotten that far by being a complete idiot. Additionally, Cuddy's little stripping act hadn't gotten very far, due to her unwillingness to reveal anything real. She had yet to divest any major article of clothing, and that was irritating the man, who wasn't very patient to begin with. An extended lack of any actual breasts was unfortunately bringing him back to his senses, and Cuddy could see the exact moment when he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. His eyes cleared and he gave her a very distinct frown that wrinkled his face most unpleasantly.

"All right, Doctor Cuddy, that's quite enough. I need you to cooperate in finding these individuals," he said gruffly. Cuddy surreptitiously slipped the portable intercom mic back into its holster at her waist and hoped she'd bought House enough time to escape.

"I'm afraid I don't know where any of them are," she told him, and gave him a flirtatious wink just in case. He gave her a glare that told her quite plainly he didn't believe her for a moment.

"Doctor Cuddy, if you don't cooperate, I'm afraid we'll have to take action against you."

She thought desperately, rapidly going over half-formed ideas, but nothing that had a remote chance of helping came to her. She sighed and straightened up, pulling her blouse back over her shoulder and smoothing down her clothes. "I'm sorry, but I can't help you. That's final."

Posey growled at her and took a menacing step forward. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by another voice.

"General, we've located several of the people on the list and have them held securely, but we still haven't found House. What's the situation up here?" A man was walking down the hallway towards them. He stopped abruptly when he reached them and gave her a cursory glance. "Hello Doctor, I'm Colonel Pistachio Smythe." She nodded and he relocated his attention.

"Colonel. I have been unable to get any information out of her. She's the Dean of Medicine here, but she claims not to know anything. I definitely believe otherwise."

"Yes, sir. It would be very wise to cooperate with the National Guard, Doctor," he directed the last part at her. She shrugged.

"We haven't done anything wrong. You can't take anyone without first telling them their charges," she said, drawing herself up and trying to look imposing.

It didn't work, because right then she finally looked at this new man, Colonel Smythe, and took in his appearance. He was extremely tall, but not like a normal person is tall. He was tall like a giraffe is tall. His head towered over her and he looked down at her through slightly squinty eyes, but his actual torso and legs were only a little taller than average. His neck was abnormally long, and his head was strangely squished so it was far longer than it was wide, with his facial features all looking a little crammed in, as if otherwise they wouldn't fit. His eyes were too close together, his mouth was thin, and his nose was very long and pointed. His eyebrows were so thin and shapely that they looked like a woman's, but on his face they seemed out of place and menacing. On the very top of his head he had a short shock of black hair streaked with the beginnings of grey that was mostly covered by an army cap. His neck seemed to stretch on forever, although she thought it must have been mostly an optical illusion brought on by his ridiculously skinny torso and bizarrely-shaped head. She guessed he was well over six and a half feet tall--probably closing in on seven feet.

He wasn't built or muscled like most of the army minions were, and he wasn't slightly chubby like most of the officers, including General Posey, were. He wasn't exactly wiry or skinny either, though. He was definitely built like a man, not a teenager. He looked as though someone had taken a normal-sized man and stuck him in one of those medieval torture devices that had just stretched him out.

It might have been comical, but on this man, it was frightening.

Instead of responding to her statement, Colonel Smythe gave her a vaguely amused look, then turned back to his superior officer.

"Might I suggest, sir," he said, "that we simply put her somewhere out of the way for the time being?" The General didn't look too pleased by this suggestion.

"I suspect I could get something more out of her, Colonel, if--"

"I believe my suggestion would be much more appropriate, sir," Smythe interrupted pointedly. Posey looked a little shaken, and worried his hands as he tried to gain some ground.

"But--"

"Sir," Smythe said, with a little more force. Cuddy could see Posey wilt under the pressure of the man's intense glare.

"Oh, all right then. Lock her in her office for now. We'll question her later," he said irritably.

"Yes, sir," Smythe said, and grabbed Cuddy's arm.

"What?! You can't do this! It's against the law!" Cuddy protested. She tried to fight, digging her fingernails into the man's arm, but he didn't even flinch.

"Sorry, Doctor, I'm under orders from a superior officer." With that, he flung her into her office and slammed the door. She heard the sound of the lock being jammed and ran up to grab the doorknob. Sure enough, it wouldn't turn. She slumped to the floor with her back against the door and ran her fingers through her hair.

"What would House do?" she asked herself, barely able to believe her situation.

Outside, the last few rays of daylight slipped below the horizon and night fell upon Princeton-Plainsboro.

* * *

"What the fuck?!" Cameron shouted upon finding herself jammed into a tiny dark space in between someone's back and a wall.

"Ha, serves you right!" the person she was pressed against shouted back.

"...Owen?" she asked, surprised.

"Yeah, this would be so much better if you weren't Chase right now," Owen sighed.

"Oh god," came Foreman's voice from the other side of Owen. “That didn’t stop you before.”

Cameron tried to slap Owen but the action was aborted by the lack of space. It was stiflingly hot and stuffy in what she now knew was the trunk of the rental, and the air that was there didn't smell too great. Not to mention it was cramped as hell, and pitch black to boot. The trunk must've been closed again, she noted. The rental was a minivan, and as such the trunk was large enough to accommodate a lot of luggage, but it definitely couldn't comfortably accommodate three people. Four people, she corrected herself as she heard someone groan on the far end, behind Foreman.

"It's Chase. Or, Chase as you," Foreman answered her unspoken question. "He's a little out of it."

"Foreman, you lucky bastard. It must be amazing to have tits like that pressed against your back," Owen grumbled. Instinctively, Cameron tried to punch him, but once again all she could do was jerk weakly.

"How the hell did we get here?" she asked, trying to find some answers in lieu of beating someone up.

"We, uh, actually don't know," Foreman said, sounding embarrassed.

"How can you not know? You were here!"

"Yeah, but, well, I don't know how to explain it, but one second you weren't here and the next you were, with no in between time," Foreman tried to explain. Owen made a gesture that might have been a shrug.

"So we just... appeared here?"

"Well, no. Not really. You just weren't, then you were."

"I don't get it."

"I told you, it's hard to explain. I don't understand it myself." There was silence for a moment. Cameron nudged Owen.

"What? Don't look at me! When Foreman showed up, I was asleep so I have no idea what happened there! And I don't know what happened with you two any better than he does," Owen protested. Cameron sighed.

"The air in here is disgusting," she noted wryly.

"Yeah, just be thankful there is air," Owen grouched.

"How is that, anyway?" Cameron wondered.

"Dunno," said Owen and Foreman at the same time.

"What's going on?" asked Chase groggily from the other side of the car.

"You got me kidnapped, that's what! What if they'd killed you? I'd have been stuck with a dick forever!" Cameron wasn't in the mood to be rational.

"Looks like you didn't do any better yourself!" Chase shot back, then paused. "Where the hell are we?"

"A trunk," Foreman supplied. There was a pause.

"Well, shit," Chase said.

"What I want to know," Owen said slowly, like he was trying to figure something out, "is why we're here? I mean, if these aliens had wanted to kill us it would've been easy, right? But instead they stuck us in here. Why?" The four of them mulled that over for a bit. Cameron's anger subsided and she could feel the beginnings of panic. She did her best to quash them and consider the problem at hand.

"Well, obviously they're holding us for something. Like a prison cell," Foreman said.

"Yeah, sure, but why here? Obviously they've got pretty advanced technology. Why not just transport us to a real prison on their home planet or something?" Owen asked.

"This place seems to work well enough," Cameron said dryly.

"Maybe they're keeping us here just until they can take us somewhere else nearby? And they don't want to waste resources by taking us farther than they have to," Chase mused.

"That's probably the first intelligent thing you've said all day," Cameron quipped.

"Dammit, Cameron, if you're not going to be helpful, just shut up," Foreman snapped. Cameron huffed, but fell silent. Her back was beginning to cramp, and so was her left foot. She tried to adjust, to no avail. There just wasn't any space.

"That seems plausible," Owen added, ignoring the bickering. "So then, where nearby are they taking us that isn't ready yet?"

"What I want to know," Cameron spoke up again, "is why did they kidnap me, Foreman, and Chase? I mean, you're a member of some kind of secret alien-catching organization or something so I get that, but what do we have to do with anything?"

"We don't catch aliens!" Owen protested. He was ignored.

"I'd like to know the answer to that too," Foreman added. "We were essentially innocent bystanders. Why go through the trouble of kidnapping us and locking us in here?"

"I'm hungry," Owen said.

"There's an energy bar in Chase's left pocket, but good luck reaching it," Cameron said. Then she realized this was a bad thing to say as Owen began reaching over and his weight began bearing down upon some uncomfortable portions of her anatomy. She slapped him. “Never mind, I’m sure he’s eaten it by now.”

"Damn."

"Can we get back on-topic?" Chase pleaded. There was a soft shuffling sound as he tried to remove the bar from his pocket without anyone else hearing.

“Hey!” Owen yelled, causing Cameron to wince away in an attempt to save her ear drums.

“Hey!” Chase echoed as Foreman snatched the bar from him, ripped the wrapper, and stuffed the entire thing in his mouth in one bite.

“You’re disgusting,” Cameron told him.

“Ermfphlgurlgprt,” he replied. Cameron glared. He swallowed but failed to choke, proving her glare had no killing properties. He ignored her and looked over at Owen. "Yes, what have you and your friends involved us in?” He demanded. “Are we here by association or is there some other reason? Or is it because we were treating Gwen, and she's with you?"

"Look, I don't know any better than you guys do, okay?" Owen finally responded, sounding cross. "I've been in here all day. Do you think I've been kept up-to-date on the situation at all? Well, I haven't! And I didn't know hardly anything going into this! Our mission was just to find some sort of alien device that had fallen through the Rift and ended up here. There were some strange circumstances, but it was a fairly routine mission. None of us planned for Gwen to get sick, we didn't plan to involve you, and I sure as hell didn't plan to get stuck in a trunk! So lay off!"

"Jesus, fine, chill out!" Chase said.

"You still probably know more about this than us, though. Isn't there anything you can tell us that might help?" Foreman asked. Owen sighed.

"I doubt it. Oh, no wait--Cameron, you said the car was on the top floor?" Cameron nodded. When she realized he couldn't see her, she answered with an affirmative. "Right, if I know anything about transmatting--and I actually don't, really, that's Tosh's area--then we're here for easier access. I know Tosh didn't park all the way up here, so they must've moved us to the top for easier access."

"Great. That's wonderful to know. And how exactly does that help us at all?" Cameron asked, annoyed.

"I don't know! I thought you might appreciate any sort of information!" Owen retorted.

"Actually, even if that sounds mostly like speculation, it is nice to know. It may not necessarily help, but I feel better knowing as much as possible about the situation," Foreman reasoned.

"Fine," Cameron said petulantly. She considered pouting, but decided no one would be able to see her and she didn't want to waste the energy.

For several long, uncomfortable minutes, silence reigned. Then Owen groaned loudly.

"God, I've got to pee so bad..." he informed everyone.

"Don't you fucking dare!" yelled Cameron, Chase, and Foreman in alarm, as they tried to scoot back as far away from Owen as possible.

* * *

House’s break was not as long or as restful as he’d hoped. In fact, he’d just begun to get comfortable when two nurses came up to him.

“Dr. House,” the first said, then feeling this was sufficient input on her part, backed away and nudged the other forward a few steps.

The other was clearly bolder than the other. House would have to remember to break her spirit when the time allowed. She stiffened when he gazed pointedly at her breasts, which were on the same level as his eyes, and said, “Given the effectiveness of your exercise of authority earlier, we feel you should put your talents to use in an emergency situation, especially since you are a senior member of the staff and a veteran department head.”

House sighed. “You want me to do Clinic duty, don’t you? Well, fat chance. You have to be at least a D-cup to get me to do what you want.”

“But Dr. Cuddy’s not a--” the first nurse piped up before squeaking and clapping both hands over her mouth. House smirked at her.

“I have a bull whip in the closet,” the second nurse said sweetly, rolling up her sleeves to reveal heavily muscled arms.

“Then that’s clearly not the only thing in the closet,” House said, then jumped up as she made to grab his neck. “All right, all right, I’ll do it, but only because I’m a responsible staff member.” After all, he thought, the hospital’s under lockdown; how many patients could there be?

As it turned out, a giant rift in the space-time continuum existed in the middle of the clinic and disgorged an unending number of patients whose intelligence quotient had an inverse relationship with the number of people sent through.

“I have a cold!” someone said, grabbing his sleeve before he had a chance to take three steps.

“Good, then you’re diagnosed, shoo.”

“But-- aaaarrgh!” the man said as another patient shoved him out of the way and presented her arms.

“I’m breaking out in rashes! I think I have Gulf War Syndrome!”

“Gulf War Syndrome doesn’t exist, and even if it did, you can’t catch it from a soldier.”

“Then you admit there’s a possibility it exists?”

House eyed her cautiously. “Are you a lawyer?”

“How does that matter in any way?”

“This hospital’s under martial law. Get out of the way before I have someone shoot you for willfully interfering in urgent medical affairs.”

“But I’m dying!” she shrieked.

“You’re a hypochondriac. My suggestion is to smoke marijuana; it’ll calm you down and make you forget all your troubles. ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’”

“That’s illegal!” she protested.

“Find a loophole and sue somebody.”

“You’re counting on Dr. Cuddy to be so distracted she won’t hear about your behavior, aren’t you?” someone said to him in an a grating, cheerful tone. He glanced over to see Tracy. House grabbed her arm, and dragged her behind him as he headed for the clinic room where the nurses had taken Gwen.

“Everyone out!” House roared as he entered the room. “I’m trying to work and save a life!” Then he saw a nurse holding two paddles over Gwen’s chest. “Oh, very well, carry on.”

“Clear!”

Gwen’s body jerked as the charge of electricity raced through her. The EKG began registering a heart beat again, and there was a collective sigh of relief.

House nodded. “I don’t suppose anyone managed to perform the tests I requested?”

“She had a heart attack, Dr. House!” one of the nurses protested, but another laid a hand on his shoulder and whispered something in his ear. He glared at House and left the room, followed by the rest of the team.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no'!” House yelled as the door closed. He snapped his fingers and surprisingly, Tracy wheeled the equipment up and began prepping Gwen.

“You didn’t happen to go to medical school and decide nursing was more fun, did you?” he asked.

“Actually, I did,” she said. “UCSF Class of ’02 with a residency at Ann Arbor, but then I moved here to tend to my dying grandfather, and I needed more flexible hours than an MD would have.”

House blinked and tried not to be worried by his momentary speechlessness. “So you just sort of act cheery and stupid?”

“Yep!”

“Why?”

“It seemed fun at the time.”

More speechlessness. More worry. “Is there any chance you’d try to jump me if I hired you?”

Tracy slapped him, then handed him the ultrasound probe.

“Very appropriate balance of work and personal life,” House nodded. “I approve.”

* * *

Ianto threw the closet door open without stopping to listen for people outside, and he and Susan tumbled out together. Something roared from the recesses of the closet, and then an alien of the same species as the ones that attacked the hospital tumbled out after him.

“There was an alien in the closet and you didn’t notice?” Ianto exclaimed, as Susan had been the one to choose their hiding place while he made the call.

“Of course I noticed.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“I said ‘Is it safe!’”

“And I said it was. I’d beaten the alien up with my poker. You even saw me throw the poker away because it was bent.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“You have a hole in your pants.” Susan pointed, and Ianto noticed his trousers were feeling breezier than usual. It was more of a large gash, as the alien had maintained a rather firm grip on Ianto’s pants as he’d charged out of the closet, but the main point--that of his pants being ruined beyond repair--was understood.

“I don’t have a change of clothes!” Ianto said.

“I don’t remember you being nearly this fussy,” Susan said. “Don’t worry; I’ll go get you a pair.”

“Where?”

Susan retrieved her bent poker and exited into the adjacent room, which Ianto realized contained a stairwell leading to a meeting room. There was a loud scream and a number of clangs and crashes, and then Susan returned with a pair of pants.

“Don’t worry,” Susan said, tossing the poker away once more. “I stole it from the Vice-president’s aide, and we all know he’s an ass. Anyway, I hear most politicians stole pants from each other back when they were in university; for men who condemn sex outside of marriage, they seem awfully obsessed with getting each other naked.”

Ianto shrugged and changed. Susan looked away, and by the time he was done, she was gazing intently at a photograph in her hand.

“We should try to interrogate it,” Ianto said, indicating the once-again unconscious alien drooling on the floor.

“No time.” Susan shook her head, then gave Ianto the photograph. “I saw this man earlier when time was frozen. You need to follow him.”

“Why?” Ianto asked.

“No clue. You give me the photograph in the future and tell me to give it to you when I see you in the past so you can follow him so you can find something out that you can’t tell me about for me to tell you and then you can tell me in the future to give this photograph to you.”

“What?”

“Oh, you’ll figure out what to do; you already have. Or at least, that’s what the Doctor said.”

“No wonder Queen Victoria wanted him arrested,” Ianto muttered.

* * *

Gwen’s heart was riddled with tumors.

“What the hell?” House said.

“They’re called tumors,” Tracy replied.

“They’re also career-enders.”

“That’s mean! I realize she’s probably going to die with that many problems with her heart, but...”

“I don’t mean for her,” House growled. “Chase and Cameron are getting fired.”

“Wouldn’t that be discrimination? I suppose their switching genders comes as a major shock to you, but--”

“I had them do an echo earlier, and they reported nothing wrong with the heart.”

“What if they were right?”

“Tumors don’t appear that fast.” But House paused to ponder this possibility; he wouldn’t have accepted this case if it had been a run-of-the-mill stroke, though he had to admit he hadn’t anticipated aliens showing up. He tapped the probe a few times, causing the ultrasound to make a lot of cool new noises that might have belonged in a Star Wars movie. “I need that CT now. Damn, do you have any idea how hard it’s going to be thinking of a new way of getting past three hundred soldiers with an unconscious patient?”

Tracy opened the door and peered out. “You can’t; they’re coming for you.”

House joined her at the door. “Damn!” he said, as he saw the lawyer from earlier gesticulating in his direction. “Damn, damn, damn,” and then he raised his voice and yelled, “I’ll see you in court!”

She responded by raising both her middle fingers at him. House stuck out his tongue before dodging back into the room as the soldiers began charging for him. He locked it but didn’t think that’d keep them out for long. He glanced at Tracy, but she was looking at him as though she expected him to teleport them out.

“I’m out of ideas!” he said.

“You have to do something!”

The hinges rattled as the door buckled. House shrugged. “Maybe I’ll wake up and find out this was all a dream!”

This isn’t a dream!” Tracy screamed.

“Women.” House rolled his eyes. “You’re all so panicky and overwrought... and... that gives me an idea.”

“Yeah, it’d better have,” Tracy said, balling her hands up and showing him her fists.

“All right, quickly,” House said, pulling a permanent marker out of his pocket. For lack of a better surface, he began writing on the wall. “We’re doing a differential.”

Now?

Just do it! She came in with a stroke, but there was nothing wrong with her brain. There was also nothing wrong with the heart, but then she had a heart attack, and now there’s tumors all over it. She has an angioma in her retina, and also no color vision, but that’s more likely because of the stroke.” House drew an area linking “no color vision” with “stroke.” “Now, we thought hypertension as a cause of the stroke was too easy a diagnosis, but what if it’s true? What if stress did cause her hypertension, but we’re not looking at the right type of stress?” He drew a circle around it, then another arrow to a blank spot on the wall. The door rumbled once more, and a piece of the frame splintered off. “So what we don’t know is what’s causing the tumors and what’s causing her mood swings.” Two more arrows to the same empty space. “Tumors, mood swings, panic attacks, and stress, all from the same cause. Go!”

“Uh, could be hyperparathyroidism, the tumors might be calcium deposits.”

“No elevated calcium levels, no nausea, and all digestive functions are normal.”

Tracy flinched as one of the hinges ripped loose and ricocheted across the room. “Overactive renin-angiotensin system!”

“No good; I liked your tighter focus on the endocrine system.” House snapped his fingers. “I got it! Pheochromocytoma! Tumor on the adrenal medulla, causes the gland to release excessive amounts of catecholamines such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. On the surface, it looks like a panic attack, but it causes the same complications as someone living a high-stress lifestyle for long periods of time and is caused by a tumor, which her body seems to be riddled with!”

“How does this help?” Tracy screamed. The door exploded inwards and soldiers rushed into the room, guns raised.

“Freeze!” their captain said, aiming at House’s chest.

House raised both his hands but maintained a grip on the cane with his right. Then he looked at Tracy. “It helps because there’s one convenient way to confirm my diagnosis, and it’s by doing this!” In one swift motion, he swung the cane in an arc and brought it down on Gwen’s abdomen. It snapped in half with a loud crack.

Her eyes shot open and her body spasmed. Gasping wildly, she wheezed, “What’s happening?” The captain swung around to point his gun at Gwen, but she swept it from his hands, picked him up, and threw him through the doorway.

“Funny thing about pheochromocytomas,” House said conversationally as Gwen proceeded to lay into the rest of the soldiers before they had a chance to aim and fire. “If you poke them, they tend to release a surge of catecholamines.”

“She’ll get another heart attack,” Tracy said, but the reprimand was rather toothless given her awed tone.

“That’s why we have a crash cart ready.” House tapped Gwen on the shoulder and winced back when she rounded on him, ready to attack. “Whoa, whoa, no harm intended.” He held up his broken cane.

“Did you hit me with that?” Gwen said.

“What? This old thing? No, why would I do that? This way, please.” House motioned at the door. Gwen growled and stormed through into the clinic.

Outside, everyone was gathered in silence around the desk, where the captain had landed, smashing a computer and a chair. He moaned and was about to get up when he caught sight of Gwen and thought better of appearing to recover. House waved at the lawyer who ducked out of sight.

“Those who don’t behave get the same treatment,” House announced. “Now sit!

Everyone sat. Most didn’t even bother looking for a chair and just plopped down on the floor; they were too worried about appearing conspicuous.

“I feel dizzy,” Gwen said, then fainted. House checked her pulse.

“Still beating,” he told Tracy. Unfortunately, she realized there was a catch, so he added, “but she’s going to need surgery to remove the tumor.”

“Pheochromocytoma removals only occur at highly-specialized treatment centers, and for good reason!”

“Right, well we’ve got one operating room, and two doctors, neither of whom are surgeons.”

“Can’t it wait? You said yourself there’s no explanation for the tumors yet!”

“But her heart can’t take any more shocks; if there’s another adrenaline release, we might not be able to bring her back.”

“You should have thought about that before you hit her!”

“You think being shipped off to Guantanomo would be any better for her health? Besides, I don’t look good in orange. Shall we get started?”

* * *

“There, that’s him!” Susan pointed. They were now in a parking lot outside of the White House, and though Ianto did not dispute that the person in question matched the one in the photograph, he saw no way they could follow him if he drove off. He said as much, and Susan looked at him with a gleam in her eye. He sighed.

“Do I really have to?” he said.

Susan nodded.

“I hear from my colleague that it’s a very uncomfortable situation.”

“Nonsense, all we have to do is fix it so that you pull a latch and the trunk opens by itself.” Around them, time slowed down once more so that everything took on a purplish hue, and Susan led him to the car. She pressed her hand against the trunk, and it regained its natural color and swung open.

Ianto considered protesting one more time, but Susan was nothing if not sensible, and if this was the best idea she could come up with, she wasn’t about to give anyone else the chance to propose something better. He climbed in.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll thank me when you next see me.”

“Will I?”

“Oh yes, definitely. It already happened.” And then, with a jarring thunk, the world went dark. Ianto glanced at his watch and saw time was happily proceeding on its own once more. There was nothing more to do but wait.

* * *

Nightfall. The moon was making its slow ascent into a navy blue sky, faded behind wisps of clouds like a spotlight on stormy seas. Cuddy felt equally stranded, locked in her own office with nothing to do and no news to tell her where her colleagues were or what was happening in this suddenly topsy-turvy world. She could only assume House had made good on his escape as no one was back for her yet. Since Chase, Cameron, and Wilson had all been on the wanted list--Foreman’s absence and the manhole incident confirmed the National Guard was working for the aliens--they were searching for anyone associated with House. Once they realized that she was close to House as well, they would come for her; she didn’t trust House to keep his mouth shut, not when he could spread the misery and sow sufficient chaos to help himself escape.

A scrabbling attracted her attention, and she turned from the windows to see a man’s silhouette on the other side of the door. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw he wasn’t tall enough to be Smythe, and sure enough, the door opened and Posey stepped in, muscles tense as though expecting an escape attempt. Cuddy sat in her chair and crossed her legs, doing her best to look serene.

“What can I do for you, General?” she asked, tightening her collar.

Posey blinked, as though briefly thrown off by her sudden change in behavior, but then he took a seat opposite her and smiled. With Smythe absent, he was all assurance and authority once more, and though Cuddy struggled to keep the meeker image of Posey in her mind, it fled before his immediate presence.

“So you haven’t found them yet?” Cuddy said.

He frowned. “Tell us what you know. Dr. House is merely a person of interest to us; he is not our primary target. Once we interrogate him, he will be let free.”

“I’m afraid it’s a matter of principle, General.” Cuddy placed her hands palms down on the table in front of her and couldn’t help feeling that she was offering them to be cut off. “See, I don’t know where you’ve been living the past few decades, but here in the United States, we have strange concepts with funny names like ‘fundamental human rights’ and ‘due process,’ and we don’t take kindly to people who try to take them away from us, because we like our funny names, and as a doctor, I’m even more fond of them than your run-of-the-mill American. Therefore, I don’t care if you plan to give him a million dollars or throw him a birthday party so long as an interrogation is part of the prerequisites.”

“The terror threat level for your hospital has been raised to red and the governor has declared martial law. I’m afraid this is no longer America.”

How easily we fall. Proselytizing was a lot less fun than movies made it out to be, so Cuddy decided to switch tacks.

“I’ve always thought the terror alert system was absurd. I mean, do we really need to use colors to label threat levels? And why red? Why not purple or aqua or maroon? Or silver with gold polka dots? I personally think shininess attracts people’s attention a lot more than color charts, and it certainly makes them a lot less resentful about having to wait in long lines all day for the privilege of sitting in tiny seats on a small, shaky plane breathing recycled air for even longer periods of time.”

Posey’s eyes narrowed. “Nobody cares what you think, Dr. Cuddy.”

“You just care about what I know. And my cup size.”

Posey stood up, and Cuddy resisted the urge to wince back, but his attention wasn’t on her. Instead, he peered out through the window. “Something moved out there.”

House? Cuddy stood and walked around the desk to stand before him. “Afraid of the dark?”

Posey refocused his eyes on her. She grinned and said, “A general, scared of his own reflection? I wouldn’t expect anything else from someone who hides behind a red alert. The color’s so campy, don’t you think?”

She shut her eyes, waiting for him to strike her or do something in retaliation. Come on, House, if you’ve got something planned, now’s the time. But it wasn’t House who answered.

“‘Campy?’ Has someone been talking about me?” A voice said, sounding muffled as though coming to them through a wall or, in this case, glass.

Cuddy whirled around and stared incredulously as Jack Harkness’ head poked up past the window sill. She and Posey reacted at the same time, both grabbing for the general’s gun as Jack raised a fist and punched through the window. The gun slipped from their grip and went sliding across the ground. Posey leapt for it, shoving Cuddy aside and sending her crashing into a bookcase. Jack arrived first, though, and without bothering to bend over to pick it up, he kicked a boot out almost lazily.

The tip of his toe connected with Posey’s temple, sending him spinning and collapsing onto the floor like a rag doll. Jack then turned to Cuddy and grinned.

“I thought there was something wrong when I saw the hospital surrounded by policemen and soldiers, so I figured I’d pay you a visit and see what was going on.”

“Where’d you go?” Cuddy gasped. Jack leapt over Posey to offer her a hand, and she took it, clambering out of the pile of books that had landed atop her.

“Washington DC, teleportation device, it’s complicated.” He winked. “All you need to know is I’m back.”

“We’re in trouble,” Cuddy said, pushing her hair back out of her face.

“I see that. How’s Gwen?”

“I’m not sure; hanging in there, last I heard.”

Jack nodded. Behind him, Cuddy noticed Posey rubbing his head. She grabbed Jack’s arm and tried to pull him aside. “Jack! Watch out!”

Jack whirled around, drawing his gun, but Posey reached his first and fired. Blood splattered everywhere as the bullet went straight through Jack’s heart, and he crumpled.

“No!” Cuddy charged Posey who, dazed, was still focused on Jack. She tackled him, and they both went sliding across the floor. Posey slammed his fist into her face, and it hurt every bit as much as she’d expected it to. Stars in her eyes, she blinked and didn’t seem able to move as Posey staggered back onto his feet and bore down on her. Then, amidst the blurring colors of her vision, she focused on something shiny. Her mind might have exhorted her accuracy at describing the human condition if her head didn’t hurt so much. As it was, she merely realized she’d lost one of her shoes during the struggle and, guided by the innate attractiveness of something that was both shiny and footwear, she grabbed the high heel and swung it as Posey reached down to pick her up. The point of heel made contact with his throat and, having swung it harder than she realized, tore through skin and muscle.

It feels like sticking a thermometer in a turkey, she thought as the man’s weight fell upon her, and she was eye-to-eye with his wide and shocked gaze. Barely able to breathe and feeling as though a heel had gone through her own head as well, Cuddy could feel her consciousness slipping away. Her last thought was, I hope House doesn’t see me like this, and then she fainted.

Chapter Text

“Stop dropping her,” House hissed as Tracy lost her grip on Gwen’s shoulders for the fifth time.

“Yeah, well, most men leave the legs, which are lighter, for the woman to lift,” Tracy retorted.

“Cripple,” House said, rolling his eyes in the general direction of his leg.

Tracy grinned. “I have to admit, it was quite clever, breaking the cane to get rid of it.” House was willing to admit he’d been quite pleased with himself as well, but that was no longer true, because Tracy had taken it upon herself to find him yet another replacement, and now he had a pink cane with frills on the end and a sticker that read “World’s Greatest Grandma” a third of the way down its length.

“Drop her again and I’m going to make you carry her on your back.”

“Threaten me again and I’ll put you in a walker,” Tracy snapped back.

“Shut it, you two!”

They both froze, looking around for the unwelcome commentator, before they lowered their gaze to the person they were half-carrying and half-sweeping-the-floor-with. Gwen glared up at them. “In case you’ve forgotten,” she snapped in an uncharacteristically vindictive way, “there are soldiers around.” Well, the stroke might have turned her into a crazy bitch, House mused, but at least she remained perceptive.

“Why are you awake?” House snapped back, his mind racing with possible answers. “You’re not supposed to be awake.”

“Oh yeah, that helps a lot,” Gwen replied, then gasped and grabbed at her chest. “Oh, my heart.”

“Adrenaline surge,” House muttered to himself, feeling disappointed. At the same time, the fact that it wasn’t a mysterious new symptom supported his diagnosis. Nevertheless, it was a rather boring diagnosis, and while he wanted to be searching for the cause of the pheochromocytoma, he needed Gwen alive to do so. As such, he had to put up with the tedious task of dealing with a live human being, who was rather...

Ow!” Gwen’s leg slammed into the corner of a wall as Tracy turned the corner while House kept going straight, causing her body to contort before slipping out of his grip.

Walker!” Tracy said, looking ready to kill rather than maim.

“Oops.” House picked her up again. They rounded the corner without further delay and found themselves outside an operating room. They were about to enter when Tracy stopped, causing another unfortunate contortion of Gwen’s body structure as House neglected to synchronize with Tracy’s movements. “Now what?”

“There’s someone inside,” Tracy replied. “I saw something move through the window.”

House lowered Gwen’s legs to the ground in as smooth a manner as he could manage and peered through. “Oh, it’s Dr. Weinbacher. I phoned ahead for a surgeon because I’m already over my medical malpractice lawsuit budget this month, and while Cuddy’s breasts do heave in a majestic manner when she’s upset, I’m really over the allotted amount. In fact, I think I’ve spent all of Wilson’s too.”

Tracy’s mouth moved silently for a few seconds before they dropped wide open. “You called for a plastic surgeon?”

“You don’t suppose he could make my nose bigger, do you?” Gwen asked. “I’ve always wanted a bigger nose.” Upon seeing House and Tracy’s looks of surprise, she added, “I can pay.”

“I think her brain’s addled,” Tracy said.

House feigned shock, putting on as horrified an expression as possible. “Think of her feelings!”

“I mean, she looks gorgeous right now, so she has to have a self-image problem,” Tracy said, sounding so genuine that Gwen cooed and said: “Aww, thank you.”

“Right, in you go,” House said. “And no hugging while I’m not looking.”

House’s first impression was that the operating room had been prepared in a rushed manner. It wasn’t that the tools weren’t sanitized or laid out in a neat row, because most surgeons were meticulous enough about operating conditions that these preparations occurred as a matter of habit, rather like breathing, which no one ever forgot to do, except in short intervals of time followed by lengthy periods of catch-up. It also wasn’t that anyone had forgotten to bring in a crash cart and all manners of medicine appropriate to every possible contingency except an alien exploding from Gwen’s abdomen--though House now considered that a real possibility. Rather, the detail that gave away the urgency of their situation was the large puddles of blood splattered across the floor from the previous operation--which hadn’t gone very well--and that no one had taken the time to mop up.

Weinbacher was not a man to be caught off-guard, however. In fact, House had demanded Cuddy hire him after finding out he’d once given a woman breast implants in the middle of a west Congo village amidst a Lassa fever outbreak during a guerilla attack by an insurgency known for flailing people alive. The fact that, once he returned to the States, he had gotten away with performing the surgery illegally only added to House’s respect for him. In keeping with his can-do spirit, Weinbacher had brought along shoes with suction cups on the bottom, to allow them to keep their footing during the surgery. Some overenthusiastic intern had added his own little touch to the shoe’s design and placed the manufacturer’s little check mark logo on every single suction cup.

“Are you sure about this?” Tracy asked, eyeing Weinbacher as he kissed a little device that looked to be a liposuction vacuum and whispered to it: “Wish me luck, honey.”

“Oh absolutely,” House said, dragging her along to scrub in. As they passed the surgeon, he picked up two pairs of shoes from Weinbacher and handed one to Tracy. “Just do it.”

* * *

A Honda Civic pulled up in front of Drumthwacket, the official residence of the Governor of New Jersey in Princeton. It was accosted by a guard who quickly waved its occupants through when the passenger showed him his credentials and apologized for his forgetfulness in leaving behind his personal chauffeur’s papers.

“Personal chauffeur?” Tosh said testily once they were let onto the grounds.

“What else was I supposed to say?” Monty replied. “I got us through, didn’t I?”

The mansion was built in a Georgian fashion with large Greek columns and a plantation style lawn. In other words, it looked like the White House, but flatter and possibly belonging to a film about poltergeists. With the moon half-concealed by a veil of wispy, dark clouds, the mansion glowed white amidst a shower of shifting moonbeams, adding to its ethereal impression. It was grounded by the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs through the windows, but the warm color seemed polluted by its passage into the outdoors and became a sickly orange, like bruises tingeing pale, virgin skin.

Tosh shifted the car into park and turned off the engine, handing the keys back to Monty who pocketed them wordlessly. Now that they were here, a sinking sense of unease filled them, cutting short their chatter. While Tosh could understand why Monty might feel this way, she was at a loss to explain her own fear. Even up in Brecon Beacons, when she was about to be chopped up by cannibals, she hadn’t felt such a pure sense of terror, as though some ghostly hand was tickling her spine and she didn’t dare look back to see what it might belong to.

“Well, onward!” she said, more tremulously than she’d planned. Then she tried to step out of the car and forgot she still had her seat belt on. The subsequent flailing and gagging sounds did little to enhance her heroic image, but once she disengaged the clasp, she at least managed a halfway decent swagger.

They encountered no more guards. Tosh mentioned this to Monty, but he shrugged and said the others would have been alerted to their presence by now. “It’s not unusual for me to come.” He withdrew his Blackberry device. “Look, the governor’s secretary is already updating me on the situation. It looks like he’s in a meeting with the attorney general; those always take forever, so we should have plenty of time to do a quick search, and then I can introduce you if you want.”

Tosh watched his face for any sign of a lie but failed to find one. “Sure, of course.” Realizing she was frowning, she put on her brightest expression and proceeded onto the lawn with a slight bounce to her step. “‘Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky.’”

Monty hesitated, then followed. “‘And indeed there will be time to wonder, “Do I dare?”’” He gave her a wry smile. “Any reason for choosing a poem about love unattained?”

Tosh blinked. “I never actually read the whole thing, you know; it’s one of those things you save and never have the time to read. I was just thinking about the way the house looks.”

“With half-deserted streets and one-night cheap hotels.” Monty grinned. “Well, New Jersey never had that great a reputation, did it?”

“I hear the Drumthwacket gardens are beautiful.”

“You know, I’ve heard that too.” Monty looked thoughtful. “I’ve also heard that there are secret passageways in them.”

“We should check out the main house first; we don’t have that much time.”

Monty nodded. “Of course, of course.”

They both paused mid-step and looked at each other, really looked at each other, and they could each see their own thoughts shining in the other’s eyes. “Then again, my scanner could probably locate hidden passageways in no time,” Tosh said.

Their grins made perfect mirrors.

* * *

House lowered the mask onto Gwen’s face and asked her to count to ten. Her body responded to the sedative as expected and she was out before four, her eyelids fluttering shut. Weinbacher picked up his scalpel with a little too much glee and elbowed House.

“I never had the chance to repay you for getting a good word in with Cuddy; what say I make her a little bigger while we’re at it, eh?” he said, cupping his own nipples and then winking.

“You’re sick!” Tracy said.

“That’s just the fatty lip talking, Kindle.” Weinbacher leered. “Since you’re a friend of House, I can fix that for you; only fifty dollars.”

Tracy slapped him.

“Just cut out the tumor,” House said. “After all, I’m not sleeping with her.”

“Oh.” Weinbacher tugged his ear. “I thought she was another one of your hookers.”

Tracy slapped House. “Innocent until proven guilty,” House reprimanded her as he rubbed his cheek. She slapped him again, sending him reeling, but the shoes kept him from hitting the ground, and instead, he bent backward like one of those punching dummies that keep getting back up until you realize you need studded gloves to make an impact. His spine creaked ominously as his back bent into an upside-down “U.”

“Careful,” Weinbacher warned. “Stomach stretch marks are almost impossible to fix.”

Flailing his arms around, House finally heard a loud crack, and his body snapped back up. With one hand clutching the small of his back, which was now throbbing, and the other outstretched to keep himself from slamming down against Gwen and releasing a surge of fatal adrenaline, he bounced back into position, his shoes having stayed firmly anchored throughout the experience. Of course, he’d forgotten Tracy was in the way, and his palm slammed into her with full force, sending her bobbing backward. She screamed, and her hairnet went flying before she caught herself against the ground in a manner that clearly indicated she’d had gymnastics lessons some time in her past. Her very, very recent past. She pushed off and used her return momentum to slap House as hard as she could.

“Goddamn it, stop!” House roared as he arced backward again. On his return, his head accidentally slammed into Tracy’s and following a loud CRACK, they both found themselves on the floor, the suction cups having finally lost their grip.

“If you’re quite satisfied,” Weinbacher said mildly, “I think we should be getting on with the operation.”

“Right, right,” House replied, rubbing his forehead and moving back into position, glaring at Tracy all the while. He re-anchored his shoes by stamping down hard on the ground, and Tracy responded by doing the same thing, only harder. This was accompanied by a number of loud glops which, considering they were now covered in blood, was quite unsanitary.

“Does anyone know what type the blood on the floor is?” House asked.

“I think the important detail you should know is actually that it’s HIV-positive,” Weinbacher said.

House and Tracy both froze, staring first at each other and then at the plastic surgeon. “What?” House said, his voice suddenly dropping two octaves.

“Ahaha!” Weinbacher brushed his right hand over his chest as he emitted a high-pitched giggle, kind of like the sound a mad scientist would make if he was a seven-year-old girl. “I am only kidding. It was a joke!”

House punched him, failing to notice there was a countertop behind Weinbacher, which the man’s head promptly came into contact with. That left the surgeon looking like the girl from The Exorcist, assuming she’d fallen asleep halfway through her memorable descent down the stairs.

“Hmm.”

Tracy patted him on his left hand. “It’s okay, if you hadn’t done it, I would’ve.”

House sighed, picking up a scalpel. “Remind me why I called another surgeon?”

Tracy shrugged. “I’ve heard you’re eccentric.”

House gave her his best pot-calling-kettle-black look which she ignored, and then he bent over Gwen’s exposed abdomen, preparing to make the first incision.

CRASH!

“Shit!” cried House, his hand jerking wildly and missing Gwen’s nipple by about half a millimeter as he straightened to search for the source of the disturbance. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Tracy had grabbed a drill and was preparing to throw it at the doorway.

She was facing in completely the wrong direction. Instead of soldiers breaking in, there was an old man standing in the corner of the room with meticulously-combed white hair, in a suit and--most disturbingly--a cravat, which in many mythologies (House remembered reading) denoted the wearer as a bringer of great evil. He had disturbed a trash can upon his abrupt appearance, which had been, as far as House could tell, out of thin air.

“Did you just materialize from nothing?” House asked, feeling it was important to get these matters into the open as soon as possible.

“Of course,” the man said in a refined and confident voice. “Would that be Miss Gwen Cooper half-undressed on the table there?” He made no attempt to peer beyond House, as though trusting that all things would be revealed in good time. House supposed that was true, though he didn’t think Gwen would want to be revealing any more than necessary of herself to this clearly perverted old man.

“No, it’s the Queen of England,” House responded.

“Goodness, really?” the man said, sounding mildly curious. “She looks very young to be so old. Er, she is old right now, isn't she?” House didn't know quite how to respond to that, so he fell back on the safety of sarcasm.

“Yes. And you look very old. And British. And damn it, get that cravat out of my sight! Who are you?”

“My name is Bilis Manger,” the man calmly stated, then fixed House with a patient stare. It took House a moment to realize he was waiting for the courtesy to be returned.

He hesitated, but anyone so unwisely named Bilis must have had a traumatic childhood, and no one in a decent state of mind would think someone would believe that was his given name unless it was truly his real name. So House said, “I’m Dr. House, and this is Nurse Tracy Kindle.”

“And that unfortunate, depraved man you’ve knocked unconscious?” Bilis glanced at Weinbacher with interest, and House decided the man was sex-starved in addition to being perverse.

“Gerhard Weinbacher, plastic surgeon.”

“Most talented with a knife, then?” Bilis said. House noticed the man had a shiv attached to his belt and took a step back before he could control himself, or at least, he tried to, but the suction cups held firm and all that happened was that his foot shifted a little inside his shoe.

“What do you want?” House snapped.

“To see Miss Cooper, of course,” Bilis said, as though he couldn’t imagine any other goal in life.

“Why?”

“We are... old acquaintances.”

The pause made House suspicious. “Are you sure she’d like to renew this acquaintance?”

“Oh, she will. She most certainly will.” For a moment, House thought he saw the cravat glow bright red. Then it was just an ordinary cravat again. An ordinary, unglowing, evil, genocidal--but in no way demonic--cravat.

“Hey, what’s that?” All three of them turned to the door as voices drifted in from outside.

“It’s a sign,” a second voice said. “It reads: ‘Surgery in progress.’”

“Yeah,” the first voice answered. “But there’s no surgery scheduled for now.”

“You think terrorists might be hiding in there?”

There was a tense pause. A drawn-out pause. A silence filled with so much anxiety that the air could be cut with a sharp pointy object and, rather than yielding, would probably pull out a sharp object of its own and stab back.

Then the soldier said, “Nah, everyone knows doctors just work really slow. All that hand-washing and stuff.”

House and Tracy let out a sigh of relief. Then House noticed that Bilis had taken advantage of the distraction to slip past him, and he was now standing by Gwen’s head and caressing her cheek with an index finger.

“Wait,” the second soldier said as the two marched past the door and saw all of them standing in plain sight through the window. “Is that doctor wearing a cravat?”

“Day-um! He is!” The two soldiers exchanged terrified glances, then they screamed, “TERRORIST!” and began firing madly into the operation room.

Tracy and House barely ducked in time. Bilis, however, held up his hands and disappeared before the bullets reached him. The two soldiers rushed in.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” the first asked Tracy, offering her a hand to help her back up. The other soldier rushed over to House and pulled him up, then handed him his cane.

“That was a close call,” he said.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” House said, tensing and preparing to knock the man out. “Thank you so much for rescuing us! We were helpless hostages, and all the while, he kept waving his cravat in front of us and saying, ‘Bell-bottoms are back in fashion again, mwahahahahaha!’”

The soldiers shuddered. “How terrible!” House raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, can’t trust those damn terrorists to play fair anymore,” he added. The other man shook his head in disgust. “Bell-bottoms.” He spat on the ground, but House decided not to comment on the issue of sanitation, given the more pressing problem of broken glass and plaster lying all over the place.

As House was returning his gaze from the puddle of spittle to the soldier’s face, his eyes fell on the man's belt, upon which hung a small, cubic device, on which there was an LCD screen displaying rows and rows of multi-colored spikes. The device looked familiar, but he couldn’t place what it was or where he might have seen it.

Following his gaze, the soldier turned so that the device swung out of sight, and he said to House: “Are you all right, mister?”

“Yeah, yeah, fine. Now if you don’t mind, we need to continue the operation.”

“Oh, of course!” The two soldiers sprang to attention and saluted him. “Just remember, there’s always someone a holler away if the cravat man comes back.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” House gave him a friendly wink, which sent them on their way. As soon as they were gone, he turned to Tracy. “Well, now that all that madness is done with, let’s aaaarrggh!”

The exclamation came because at that moment, Bilis popped back into reality. He looked around, glanced at his wristwatch, and content that all was well, approached House, apparently not bothered by the slippery floor.

“How the hell do you do that?” House snarled.

“A simple bending of space and time. It’s sort of a you-get-it-or-you-don’t type of proposition in terms of putting it to practice.”

House’s mind raced for a means of getting rid of Bilis, because the most primal part of it was screaming Don’t trust him! Underneath that plea came the inexplicable sound of goats baa-ing in the background, but he put that down to fatigue. He settled upon the simple, all-purpose statement of: “That’s unsanitary.”

“I’d rather say it’s more sanitary than anything else in this room.” Bilis’ eyes flickered down to the suction cup shoes and then back up as though they didn’t want to linger for fear of being caught doing something unspeakable and improper.

Tracy took House’s cue, though, and glopped quite menacingly toward Bilis for one wearing suction cup shoes and walking as though sinking into quicksand. Bilis backed away in disgust as the shoes sent forth a spray of blood with each step, and as he fell back faster than Tracy could advance, she stopped moving and beckoned for him to come to her. Bilis came, possibly drawn by the strength of Tracy’s conviction that the world would operate exactly as she wished so long as she wished hard enough, but more probably because she was no longer splashing someone else's blood. When he was close enough, Tracy slapped him.

“Goodness, my dear, you must be gentle; I just had my cheeks botoxed.”

Tracy’s jaw dropped. Bilis leaned forward and whispered: “Gwen likes her lovers a bit on the young and spry side. Rowr.” He made a clawing gesture with his right hand and winked.

“Get out now!” Tracy said, her face twisted in disgust. “Or I’ll slap you so hard the injections come out of your ears.”

Bilis leaned away from her and took a step back. “Feisty little devil, aren’t you. Would you be interested in a threesome?” Tracy pulled her hand back in preparation for the godmother of all slaps and Bilis popped back into thin air, vanishing with as little fanfare as he’d arrived. Tracy lowered her hand and wrung them with a satisfied air.

“That ought to take care of him.”

It didn’t. As soon as she turned, Bilis was back, but before either of them could react, he said, “Oh, my dears, I did forget to mention; I met a friend of yours just before I came here, one James Wilson, you know, the sexy doctor with the well-shaped bottom.”

House had never heard Wilson described quite that way before, but now that he thought about it, it wasn’t that far off the mark, so he contented himself with a nod.

“Yes, he was trying to help me find Miss Cooper,” Bilis continued. “But then we were rudely interrupted by men with guns and he was dragged away screaming. It was quite a terrible sight. I do hope they don’t hurt him.” House didn’t find him quite convincing on the last statement, though Bilis’ honesty was now the last thing on his mind.

House advanced so menacingly even the suction cups knew better than to impede his progress. “You got Wilson captured?” The statement was not an inquiry so much as an inquisition, his voice so low it by rights should have belonged to a sub-woofer, yet Bilis and Tracy heard the question more clearly than they wanted.

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” Bilis said, sensing that he was now in danger of suffering far more than a simple slap.

“Get. Him. OUT!” House roared. “You free him with your little teleporting trick--and don’t you dare tell me it won’t work on other people, you will find a way--and if you fail, the fact that you will never see Gwen Cooper again will be the least of your worries, do you understand?

“Yes, yes, alright.” Annoyance and fright warred for dominance on his features. When he straightened his back once more, he raised a finger and said, “Incidentally, what sort of procedure are you performing on Miss Cooper?”

House reached for a scalpel but Tracy quickly said, “A pheochromocytoma removal.”

“Andisthatdangerous?” Bilis said, mashing his words together in his haste to get all the information he desired from House before the doctor-turned-madman placed the scalpel in an unmentionable part of his anatomy.

“Not so much with the right training and equipment,” Tracy said. “Good-bye!”

Bilis didn’t stop to thank her before he vanished. House looked at Tracy. “Do you suppose that was relevant to saving Wilson?”

“Well, no,” Tracy replied. “But people do tend to work better when their mind’s at ease, which is why I think you should wait a moment before you continue with the operation.”

House set the scalpel down, his mind buzzing with little bees whispering things they would do to anyone who hurt Wilson. No one was allowed to hurt Wilson. Wilson existed for House’s sadistic pleasure alone. And money-lending, of course. All of this left little brain capacity to ponder what Tracy was talking about, but then, a knock on the door was followed by a team of seven doctors in crisp green scrubs wheeling in cartloads of equipment appropriate to operating on a dangerous tumor in the adrenal gland.

“We’re looking for Miss Cooper,” the lead surgeon said, surveying the room with distaste but no obvious surprise. “We were sent by Mr. Manger.”

“Uh.” House said.

Tracy pulled him out of the way, handed the surgeons a pair of suction cup shoes each, and pointed at Gwen, indicating her to be the person they were looking for.

“He said he could travel in space and time, remember?” she whispered to House.

“Oh,” House said, looking thoughtful. “That’s quite useful.”

* * *

The interior of Drumthwacket was the typical combination of white walls and painted wood with wallpapers and curtains of different but always bold color schemes in each room. There was no doubt a Victorian would have been entirely at home there, which was another way of saying the decorations were unfit for modern eyes. The halls were devoid of people, which Tosh admitted wasn’t out of the ordinary for the middle of the night, but she couldn’t help feeling the house was too quiet for comfort. Anywhere else, and she would’ve been tensing in preparation for an ambush or the closing of a trap, yet here, she kept letting down her guard without even noticing.

No, it can’t be psychic influence, she thought, knowing that her training would have given her at least some small warning. She tried not to think about the man beside her, the big, dark, handsome, strong... No! Bad me, bad! Not the time!

“You think we should search the bedrooms?” Monty asked, looking reluctant to venture the suggestion. “It’s just that the staff goes in and out of his offices here all the time, so if he truly wanted to hide anything, it wouldn’t be in there.”

“Pervert,” Tosh replied, but she didn’t disagree, and since the living quarters were closer to their current location, she let Monty lead the way.

The first room they entered bore signs of having been partially redecorated, with a pink and flowery pastiche sort of wallpaper covering the walls and even part of the roof. Similar floral patterns had spread onto the curtains and bedding, and while the carpet remained defiantly navy blue for the time being, that didn’t stop a purple and orange throw rug from sprawling on top of the region between the bed and the door. A grey tabby had been curled up on it before their entrance, and now the cat fluffed up and hissed at Tosh, arching his back and showing his teeth. Monty fumbled in his pockets, came up with a packet of cat treats, and tossed some onto the ground. The cat decided they were his new best friends.

“They’re so much easier to bribe than dogs,” Monty remarked. “The bloodhounds Governor Streed keeps are evil.”

“I thought you said this was a guest bedroom,” Tosh said.

“I did.”

“So why does it look like it’s seeing long-term use?”

Monty frowned. “Trouble with the wife?” Then he brightened. “That’d make sense if an alien body-snatched him, right?”

“You realize that would mean he’s dead.”

“Oh. You mean, they don’t sort of just clone him and lock him up in a spaceship somewhere?”

Tosh patted him on the shoulder. “You watch too many cartoons. Come on, let’s try under the mattress.”

They positioned themselves on each side of the bed and through their joint efforts, heaved the mattress half a meter into the air. A quick glance revealed nothing, but Tosh ran her hand along both box and mattress. They dropped it back into place and smoothed down the sheets.

“You check the bathroom, I’ll check out here?” Monty suggested, pulling open a drawer. Upon seeing a bra with “Tiger” monogrammed on it, he slammed the drawer shut and said, “I can check the bathroom.”

“Are you sure?” Tosh grinned as she walked to where he’d been and re-opened the drawer. “You might find used panties in there.”

“Don’t you try to frighten me.” Monty’s voice echoed out of the three-chambered bathroom, accompanied by the tap-tapping of his footsteps on tile. “I’ve seen my fair share of used panties in my thirty year lifespan, and I can tell you, I’m more than prepared to deal with... Playboy?” Monty burst through the doorway, waving the magazine at Tosh, causing it to unfold, revealing a rather revealing centerfold. “Playboy?” he repeated. “No wonder they’re having marriage trouble.”

“I thought you said you could deal with seeing undies.”

“But, I mean, I’ve met his wife before!”

Tosh brushed her bangs aside as she looked away from him. “Nothing wrong with steamy lesbian sex.”

Monty scoffed. “Well, of course not, it’s just that the last time we met, she slapped my ass and called me... tiger....” A hunted look appeared on Monty’s face, and he waved his index finger at her. “We shall not speak of this again.”

Tosh shrugged and nodded. “No problem.” She whipped the bra out of its resting place and threw at him. “Catch, tiger.”

Monty juggled the incoming brassiere as he might a jar filled with poisonous spiders. Rather than batting it away, however, his frantic motions caused it to tangle about his head, so that he had to flail even more wildly. In the end, he managed to rip it off and dash it against the bed with such force the sheets became ruffled again. “You’re never going to let me forget this, are you?”

“Roar,” Tosh replied.

Monty threw the magazine at her and retreated back into the bathroom. Tosh took a look at the centerfold and nodded. “She has good taste in women.”

That was the last interesting discovery they made in the room, as a search of the wardrobe, the bathroom, the walk-in closet, and the storage space above the closet all turned up nothing. Monty was disappointed because he’d come up with a theory that both the governor and his wife were aliens--“See, the alien’s just sexually confused, because it’s stuck in a body of the wrong gender”--which Tosh didn't want to tell him made no sense whatsoever, because why would an alien have a human’s sexual urges to begin with?

As they were about to leave, Monty bumped the dresser by the door, knocking down a box that was doubling as a picture frame, containing seven photos of the woman and her estranged husband. The back of the frame knocked loose, revealing a hidden panel within. Monty pounced on it and pulled out a clear bottle containing an amber-colored liquid.

“Aha!” he exclaimed. “What do you suppose this could be? A conversion serum, alien secretions, a top-secret hallucinogen?” He tilted the glass container side to side, watching the contents slosh back and forth. His eyes contained a sort of manic glee.

“I think it’s whiskey,” Tosh said.

“Oh.” Monty replaced the bottle and righted the frame, taking care to return it to its original position. “The governor’s bedroom is just down the hall.”

Before he could open the door, though, Tosh grabbed his hand. He frowned, eyebrows knitted together in confusion, but Tosh didn’t explain and instead, led him to the bed without a second word.

“I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t think now’s the time,” Monty said as they sat, the bed sinking beneath their weight.

Tosh rolled her eyes. “I know this seems like a game to you, Monty, and sometimes I think that’s the best way to treat my job; you can’t take it too seriously or else you’ll go insane or, worse, become obsessed. But the longer we’re together, the more I realize you’re not cut out to do this: clandestine, alien-hunting, put-your-life-on-the-line sort of work.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she put a finger over his lips and cut him off. “Or maybe you are, or will be with time, but even so, I’m not ready to put your life on the line. If this is the alien headquarters, then this is the heart of the danger, and I can’t keep pretending you’re safe with me any longer. So now’s the time to say this, even if it’s coming a little late; I want you to get out of here, Monty, pretend none of this ever happened, or maybe use your position to get back to the hospital and make sure the National Guard hasn’t shipped your aunt off to Guantanomo. But don’t stay here. I can’t even begin to explain the risks to you, and you might be willing to stake everything on this operation, but I’m not.” She paused, then rushed on, “And maybe when this is all over, I can visit you and we can have some real time to ourselves.”

There was also the fact that if he couldn’t be trusted, now was the time to rid herself of a spy, but she left that unsaid and wished she could leave it out of her mind altogether. She studied Monty’s face for any hint of his true feelings, but his expression remained flat. His eyes roamed her face for a few seconds, likely searching for the same thing, before he said one word: “No.”

“Monty, you could die.”

“I don’t care.” When he saw Tosh grimace, he put both hands on her shoulders. “No, really, I don’t. All my life, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. I’m not going to let it pass me by.”

“Why?”

“Aren’t we wasting time here? If you’re serious about not getting caught, sitting around talking about my childhood isn’t going to help.”

“Listen, I understand the drive, the need to know what’s out there; guess how I got involved? I was a scientist, minding my own business, when an alien ship crashed into Big Ben and I landed the autopsy job. Ever since that moment, that one fleeting glimpse of something greater, of unfamiliar life, knowing it was thriving out there in the stars, visibly hidden and out of reach, and I knew that given the right opportunity, I could seize the knowledge out there and understand and feel like all the information building up and accumulating in my head would tie together and make sense. But it doesn’t, Monty, you just get more numbers, more facts, more strangeness to add to all the rest until your head feels like it’s going to explode, and still you’re hoping for that little bit more.” But even as the words flooded out of her, she could see they weren’t the ones Monty needed to hear. If anything, he looked more confused.

When she finished, he scratched his sideburns a little and said simply, “I’m not leaving you. All this alien-hunting, it’s great fun, I’ll admit, but that feeling, that sense of the one piece of information that makes everything click together? It isn’t running around after aliens, it’s running around after aliens with you. I just, I just feel like whatever it is I’m doing with you, it’s the right thing to do.” He leaned closer. “And frankly, if I die doing it, then that’s what’s supposed to happen. And I don’t want you feeling guilty, because it’s how I want to live my life.”

And with that confession, Tosh knew.

“All right.” She nodded. “Then let’s go.”

Monty’s gaze lingered on her for a moment, trying to assess the reason for her sudden change of heart, but then it snapped away and he bounded to the door with a wide grin on his face. “His quarters are right there.”

He pointed out the door as they exited the room. Just as he did, it began opening, and Tosh grabbed his arm and pulled him back into the bedroom. Keeping a crack open between the door and the frame, they peered out to see two men leaving. The first, Tosh recognized as the governor from the portrait of him hanging up in the office back in Trenton. He was middle-aged and portly, though his bulk was from muscles atrophying from disuse, yet he carried an air of authority about him, part confidence in his political power and part confidence that if it came down to it, he could still win a fight. He reminded Tosh less of a politician than of a mob member, though his hair and suit were both rumpled, diminishing the appearance of poise and danger. He smoothed the hair down as he proceeded down the hall, however, and straightened his tie as well.

“See? Confused,” Monty whispered as they took in the governor’s associate’s harassed look.

“Who’s the other man?” Behind the governor was a much smaller man, though a second glance told Tosh this impression was only in relation to the governor. Given the governor was almost 200 centimeters tall, the other man must have been around 182, which was still taller than the average. There was no denying that he was thinner, though; where the governor was big and commanding, he was lean and forgettable, the sort of man who could appear from the shadows to cut your throat and then vanish again without a trace. His was a face you didn’t forget, provided you could catch a glimpse of it in the first place.

“Attorney General Craig Howell. I told you they were in a meeting, though I didn’t know it was that kind of meeting.”

“Excuse me, text from Jack,” Tosh said, dodging back to the bed as she took out her cell. She made a show of reading the blank screen. After a period of time she judged long enough for reading an imaginary message, she began typing. The internet application popped up, and before long, she had a picture of Craig Howell on her phone, the face matching the man she’d seen perfectly. She nodded and closed the window. “Sorry, he just wanted to let us know he’s almost at the hospital and that he’ll ‘straighten things out’ once he’s there.” Tosh smirked, partly at her choice of words and partly to cover the grimace she wanted to make at formulating such a terrible lie. “Wishful thinking, in my opinion.”

Monty accepted her words at face value. “It’s clear,” he said, dodging into the hallway. Tosh jogged after him, and they both slipped into the bedroom before its previous occupants had disappeared around the corner. Neither looked back, however, and once inside, Tosh locked the door.

The room was a mess. There was unwashed clothing draped all over the wardrobes and mirrors while the bed itself looked like it hadn’t seen a housecleaner in days. Beneath the window was a desk with lamp and computer, and though the monitor looked to be collecting dust, papers leaned in several precarious stacks that appeared to have seen more recent use. Tosh also noticed the glint of metal from objects hidden amidst the mess, and upon moving closer, found a cell phone, pager, and something she didn’t recognize that resembled a cigar case with LED lights running the length of it.

“He’s forgotten something,” she whispered, realizing their absence would be temporary. She ran up to the desk and picked up the case without regard for security measures. At her insistence, Monty unlocked the door and then retreated to her side, eyeing the door as though it would open at any moment. She ran her fingers along the smooth shell of the device and felt a number of indentations, so shallow as to be invisible in the dim light, but combined with its appearance, she knew the device was alien.

“What do you think it is?”

Tosh brought it up before her eyes and peered at it, the flashing lights glowing against the lenses of her glasses. She let her fingers move of their own accord, exploring the surface and piecing together the grooves as one would roll out a tapestry, watching the details unfold until at last, a pattern emerged….

“I’ve got it,” she announced, pressing her fingers down into four of the indentations. At once, the device lit up, its skin becoming transparent as the intensity of its own light increased. The device also seemed to expand, turning from solid into gas into fog, until it became a translucent screen, like one gigantic hologram one meter square, floating in the air before them. It shimmered and different shades of gray flashed along its surface in what seemed to be a fractal pattern. Then the image settled and a map of New Jersey appeared. “Of course,” Tosh breathed. “It’s a remote!”

“A what?” Monty’s eyes darted toward the television.

“That’s sort of the right idea,” replied Tosh. “Look at these dots on the map, they indicate signals, like television channels, and the remote lets us control the state of whatever alien tech is present at these locations, like a super control panel.” The thickest cluster of lights gathered but a few miles from their present location around the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. She pressed her finger there, and the map zoomed in, the landscape expanding until they were peering down at what seemed to be a real-time satellite feed of the hospital. There were even little soldiers marching through the parking lot, and humvees patrolling the perimeters. Blockades had been set up around the building to prevent any more people from coming in and out, and lights blinked atop detour signs diverting motorists away from the surrounding roads.

Most of the blinking dots remained centered on the hospital, but one was located on the parking structure. Monty noticed it at the same time Tosh did, and he pointed at it. His finger darted a little too close, however, and the picture expanded further. Tosh caught a glimpse of their rental van, and as the image zoomed in, the background faded to black and the car became a rotating three-dimensional image. Text floated atop it, pronouncing: “Torchwood Rental Vehicle” and then, in smaller font, “Temporary Prisoner Holding Location.” Beside the image, the question “Disable Shields?” appeared. Monty was startled by the sudden change, as he hadn’t expected to touch the screen itself, and he flung his hand aside with a soft yelp. Tosh tried to grab his arm, but it was too late. Monty’s hand flung through the “Yes” part of the prompt, and the screen vanished.

A brief whisper drifted through Tosh’s mind, as though it were a memory rather than a new message, but the words were clear enough either way: “Shields disabled.” Then the device folded back up into a tiny metal casing, but this time, all the lights were flashing red. Tosh felt her heart sink as Monty put voice to her worries: “It doesn’t know we’re not the governor, right?”

“Well,” Tosh said, setting the device back onto the desk, “we needed to disable anything holding the car anyway.” The lights stopped flashing, and all seemed well until they all lit up at the same time. “But maybe we should’ve waited until we were away from the building.”

The device let out an ear-splitting, shockingly human shriek, and at once, they heard voices from outside the door. Footsteps thumped toward them, and Tosh looked around for a place to hide, but of course, they would search the room now that they knew intruders had been present. They had one chance.

Tosh threw open the window and jumped through it, smashing apart the screen and crashing into the bushes below. She had but an instant to roll to the side before Monty followed her out, thumping into the ground where she had been lying moments earlier. Part of her felt misgivings at letting him follow her any further, as he could then report her position any time, but the logical part of her brain told her that trying to lose him now would be tantamount to admitting she didn’t trust him, and that would be even riskier than letting him tag along, so she whispered, “Hurry up!” and, still in a crouch, began running along the side of the house.

Monty was close behind as they rounded the corner just in time to hear the governor yell, “They went out the window!” He poked his head out, looking this way and that, but they flattened themselves against the ground behind a rosebush, and though Tosh thought his gaze lingered in their direction a little longer than anywhere else, he soon retreated back into the room, and they both breathed a sigh of relief.

“They didn’t take anything,” a low, sort of guttural voice said.

“But they might’ve seen,” the governor replied, his own voice a little higher and stronger, less animalistic and more calculating. “They must not get away. I’ll have the guards release the dogs.”

“Oh hell,” said Monty.

* * *

“Help! I’m being kidnapped!”

Heads turned all along the hall in time to see Wilson being dragged between two grim-faced soldiers. His arms waved frantically and his feet kicked about, so that it looked as though he was trapped in a high-powered wind tunnel, but all to little effect. Most people turned away again as soon as they located the source of the commotion. Most doubtless had enough problems of their own--they were, after all, in a locked-down hospital--and didn't want to be dragged into someone else’s.

The thought of other people suffering calmed Wilson down somewhat, or at least made him feel a little better. Pain, whether physical or psychological, wasn’t pleasant to deal with, but at least it gave him focus. He was good at treating other people; that was his job, his duty. And getting arrested isn’t going to help me help them, he thought, and realizing that, he settled down, letting his body go limp. The soldiers didn’t react at all. Probably figure I’ve given up.

They reached the elevators, one of which opened right as they arrived so that there was no awkward wait with the two soldiers standing at attention and Wilson bedraggled on the ground between them. No, that awkwardness was reserved for once they were inside and the doors had closed. Wilson took advantage of the wait to ask once more: “So why am I being arrested?”

Still no answer, but rather than press the point, Wilson let the silence drag and drag. He could see the tension increase in the soldiers’ shoulders as the elevator continued its journey. Even Wilson was shocked at how long it took, but glancing at the panel, he realized they’d gotten into the wrong car, for this one was bound up before it would descend to the lobby. And someone had hit the top floor before leaving.

Wilson grinned. Well, he deserved to be lucky at least once today. He started humming. His captors really didn’t like that.

At last, they reached the top floor. The doors slid open, found no one waiting, and shut again. The elevator began descending. Wilson whistled a little louder, hoping to annoy an answer out of the soldiers soon. Then the lights went out, the car jerked to a halt, and a tinny whining died away amidst the snarling of the dying motor. Wilson saw the men’s eyes go wide.

“Wow, a blackout,” Wilson said smugly, carefully keeping the surprise out of his own voice. “What are the odds of that?”

* * *

 

“Guess what number I have behind my back,” Owen told Cameron.

“Four.” Foreman groaned from behind him.

“Stop cheating!”

“It’s a stupid game!”

“I don’t care. I’m not playing with you! You’re just trying to come up with excuses for the fact that you keep staring up at my crotch.”

“Ew!” Chase exclaimed from behind Foreman. Owen winked at Cameron, who looked simultaneously disgusted and aroused, which would’ve been a much more pleasant reaction if she wasn’t in Chase’s body.

“Look, arguing isn’t going to get us out of this trunk,” Cameron said. “But if we all work together--”

Thunk. With a creak, the boot opened up and light flooded in. Cameron let out a cry as she raised her arms up, indicating their invisible restraints were gone. A second later, she had scrambled out into the car park, followed by Chase. Owen had a lot more trouble, though, as he’d been locked in much longer and felt as nimble as a day-old corpse. He noticed, with an evil sort of glee, that Foreman was having similar problems, but soon, they had stretched and cracked their joints enough that blood was pounding through all their limbs, and they half-crawled and half-threw themselves from the car, determined never to look back.

The moment Owen hit the asphalt, an alarm shrieked, a high-pitched klaxon that emanated from the ground and the columns and even the car itself. They all threw their hands to their ears, trying to block out the sound, but even their skin seemed to be ringing in sympathy with the surrounding world.

“I think they know we escaped!” Chase screamed over the din.

Owen rolled his eyes. “You think? Run!

They broke apart, Chase and Cameron heading in one direction while Foreman and Owen instinctively went the other way. Owen had one moment to notice they were back in a central level of the car park rather than on the roof, as Cameron had described it earlier. The entire field must be down, he thought, but he didn’t intend to stick around waiting to see if the aliens would fix the problem.

The lift loomed as they reached the edge of the park, but not trusting its perilous confines, they turned and entered the stairwell in time to hear a number of pattering footsteps echo up toward them. Foreman grabbed Owen’s sleeve, as though hoping to retreat and find another way out, but the alarm was so unignorable Owen was sure the enemy would be covering every exit. And with unknown levels of technology at their disposal, he wasn’t about to try and hide.

Instead, he took advantage of Foreman’s grip to drag the doctor down the stairs alongside him. Two soldiers nearly ran into them as they rounded the landing of the next floor down. Owen dodged, throwing a punch at one of them and sending him flying down the stairs. The second reached out to grab him, his gun useless in such a close space, and Owen whipped Foreman around him and into the other man. Both went down in a heap, but Owen took a handful of Foreman’s jacket and pulled him back onto his feet before he could figure out what had happened. They jumped over the soldier moaning on the ground and continued running.

“Stop them!” a deep voice roared, trembling with subtle tones and guttural growls that originated from no human throat, and as though being jerked up by an unseen puppeteer, the soldier Owen punched sprang up and fired his gun. The two of them ducked and bullets pounded against the concrete wall beside where they’d been standing, bits of dust and cement tearing through the air. As they scrambled back to their feet, the other soldier -- the one Foreman knocked down -- leapt over the railings above them and fell a floor down, grabbing the wrought-iron bar of the railing beside Foreman and flipping back over it to land in front of them.

Heat waves shimmered through the air as the soldier’s features contorted, his skin melting and evaporating to reveal a grotesque, towering, bipedal iguana. Owen let out a great yell, throwing himself up the stairs as quickly as his hands and feet could manage, while a part of his brain kept screaming Throw the American at it; let it eat him first!

Foreman, meanwhile, was being quite obliging in regard to this plan. He simply stood there, frozen in absolute, abject terror. He wasn’t even trembling. His eyes grew wider and wider, though, and seemed in danger of rolling into his head. The iguana smiled and aimed its gun, which had transformed from a rifle into a small, red-barreled weapon with some resemblance to a caulking gun. Disintegrator. Owen remembered seeing something similar in the Torchwood archives, and this familiar, if extra-terrestrial, sight brought him back to his senses.

The alien was about to fire when a thought occurred to him. Surely Foreman’s not afraid of iguanas too? Gwen had always made fun of him about it, claiming he was the sole person in the entire world to have that particular phobia. “I bet they don’t even have a scientific name for it,” she’d teased.

He dodged the blast, throwing himself at Foreman’s feet. They both hit the landing with a grunt, but eye contact was broken and both were free from the terrible fear that’d gripped them. “Foreman, what did you see?” Owen gasped.

“My, my mother,” Foreman gasped. “And... she recognized me....” His voice drifted away, but Owen didn’t find now to be the time to ask why Foreman’s greatest fear was his mother.

“It’s a hallucination!”

Foreman glared shakily. “I know that. It was just... a surprise, that’s all.”

A whine announced the gun recharging, and they pushed apart in time for the alien to blast a hole in the landing. A creak, stretched out as though part of a slow-motion sequence, came from the quivering metal supports. Then the entire staircase collapsed, folding in on itself over and over as Foreman, Owen, and the alien--now turned into a wrinkled, leathery, tentacled mass--fell amidst twisting and snapping rods of metal.

“Oh Christ,” Owen muttered, feeling his neck to determine whether he’d pulled any muscles. Before his diagnosis got any further than Damn, my neck really hurts, he was distracted by more important issues, namely that of opening his eyes and discovering he was staring straight down the barrel of the disintegrator.

The laser blast missed his face by a bare centimeter, so close he could feel its heat on his cheek and hear the crackle and sizzle of the beam as it passed. Stunned that it had missed, he required a few seconds to notice Foreman standing where the alien had been. He’d pushed the creature aside just in time, knocking it over onto a jagged piece of railing and impaling it through the abdomen.

Behind Owen, a massive explosion forced him to whirl around in time to see what remained of the hospital’s back-up power generator soar up into the sky and take out a passing helicopter. Foreman watched the lights fade from the hospital windows with an expression similar to when he’d seen his mother. He licked his lips once, then said, “Maybe I should’ve let the laser hit you.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Owen was coming up with an even wittier comeback when a beeping interrupted his thoughts. The alien, drawing its last breaths, was eyeing him with a satisfied bent to its tentacles, and then he saw a device at its neck flashing mauve. “Bomb!” he cried, grabbing Foreman and running. They leapt the nearest wall and dropped to the grass as the concussive force of the detonation swept over them.

Foreman got back up first. “Hurry up!” he said, tugging at Owen. Owen grimaced, wondering what the fuss was about, before he looked up to see the entire car park collapsing.

“Right, I’m coming!” he said as Foreman threw himself to the right to avoid a falling piece of cement the size of a sumo wrestler. Scrambling to his feet, Owen dodged after Foreman, who didn’t look back as he ran for the hospital.

“There they are!” a woman’s voice cried from far away. Owen glanced in its direction and saw Chase and Cameron running toward them, both still moving a little awkwardly, probably due to the combination of suddenly switching bodies and then being trapped in a cramped space for a long time. Cars rained down all around them. Foreman hesitated a moment before changing course to meet with them.

“Is anyone following you?” he demanded as they approached.

Cameron shook her head, breathless, and Chase answered, “No, they cornered us on the ground floor when the explosion knocked them flat. Where do we go from here?”

All eyes turned to Owen. He scowled. “Back to the hospital. They’ll seal off the grounds as soon as they know we’re gone, and they’d have to be blind not to spot that blast.”

Cameron straightened from her hunched position with her hands on her knees and said wheezily, “The blackout will cause enough chaos to let us sneak in unnoticed.”

Owen glanced at the hospital and saw that all the lights were indeed out. The blast must have severed the power lines, and now, all that was left was the pale moonlight and the shifting glow of dying flames.

“Hurry,” Foreman said as several humvees roared past just a hundred meters away from them. “There’s a side entrance not far from here that leads into the stairwell.”

“Isn’t that an emergency exit?” Chase asked.

Foreman shrugged. “Another alarm or two isn’t going to make a difference, at this point. I just hope they can get the power back on soon.”

“Why?” Owen frowned. “That’s not going to help us.”

“It’s a hospital,” Cameron replied, sounding exasperated. “People are going to start dying if we can’t keep the machines running, and backup batteries only last so long. But I guess that doesn’t worry a great alien hunter like you.”

Owen reddened. “I’m a doctor too.”

“It’s hard to tell sometimes,” Cameron said, but her voice had softened.

The fire alarm did indeed ring the moment Foreman forced the door open, but they ignored it. “Where do we go from here?” Chase asked, pulling the door shut behind them.

“House was in the morgue with Gwen. We should find them; he might need help treating her condition.”

“What about Cuddy?” Chase asked.

“What about her?” Cameron replied.

“Well, I think we should find her.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’d feel better if we had Cuddy around.” Chase shrugged.

“No one’s going to fire you today.” Foreman scoffed. “No need to hide behind her skirts.”

“The window to her office is broken,” Chase countered. “I saw it from the garage.”

“You’re sure?” Cameron asked, her eyebrows raised. Chase nodded.

“Fine, we’ll look for House and Gwen, you two go find Cuddy,” Owen said. Foreman looked ready to dispute this division of labor, but Cameron gave him a stern look and he followed Owen down into the morgue. Above their heads, they heard the clatter of Chase and Cameron setting off upstairs.

“You’re not still trying to get me to sleep with you, are you?” Foreman asked suspiciously.

“You think those two are going to let each other out of sight? I mean, what if one of them gets the other’s body shot?”

Foreman sighed. “Alright. Mind you, I have no qualms with letting you get yourself shot.”

Owen sneered. “The feeling’s mutual.”

* * *

The car boot was musty and dark, smelling of moldy leather, gunpowder, and dead fish. Ianto couldn’t help feeling Susan had played a particularly unfunny joke on him. He was convinced her hair had been laughing at him as she closed the boot, but what was done was done.

He was brought out of his reverie by the sudden cessation of noise from the engine. The faint crackle of tires grinding to a halt on asphalt and stray stones drifted up from the underbody of the car, and then there were voices.

“How was the drive, Gordon?” someone asked. The driver made a noncommittal noise. The latch clicked, then a moment later, footsteps and the door slamming shut. Ianto waited for another minute until all the noise had died away before he grabbed the cord dangling enticingly by his head and the boot sprang open.

He surveyed his surroundings, taking in a vast expanse of fenced-in lawn and a Georgian mansion sitting in the midst of a decadent garden. Drumthwacket, he thought, recalling the governor’s mansion from the research he’d done prior to leaving Cardiff. No wonder I didn’t tell Susan where I was going. This is insane. Sending Tosh to infiltrate the place was one thing when she had someone who could bring her in and out safely, but to come here himself would endanger all three of them. Nevertheless, there must be something he had to discover that Tosh could not.

Three steps into his mission, he heard the unwelcome sound of alarms ringing through the building, followed moments later by barking that echoed across the grounds. Squinting against the light blazing from the house, he could make out six bloodhounds charging straight at him, and he retreated back to the car before realizing it was closed off and locked. Even the boot had been closed, and he cursed himself for his meticulousness.

Tosh must be in trouble, he thought, watching shadows dart back and forth across the windows. Of course, he was in trouble as well, and he wondered if Tosh was nearby if the governor’s dogs were being let loose here. Then he saw canine shapes slide around the side of the house as well, and his heart sank as he realized there must be a number of packs.

A glint of reflected moonlight caught his eye as he shifted his weight from foot to foot, preparing to dodge the first dog’s leap. Peering through the car window, he saw an aluminum baseball bat in the back seat. He shrugged off his coat without a second thought and wrapped it around his fist.

The window was a lot sturdier than he expected, and he bit back a curse as pain coursed up his arm, screaming hyperbole to his brain about broken knuckle bones. A web of cracks spread through the glass, though, and it broke with Ianto’s second punch.

He grabbed the bat, tearing his jacket sleeve on the jagged remains of the window as he pulled his arm back out in a wild swing that connected with a snout just as the first hound leapt at him. The dog whimpered and crashed into the car door to his left. He brought the bat down on a second dog but missed, and its bite tore through the jeans Susan had gone to such lengths to procure for him. With a grimace--as much due to his bleeding buttocks as to his psychological pain--he realized he only had one good suit remaining, though at least that one was safe in the Torchwood rental car.

A second jaw latching onto his shoe brought him back to reality, and he beat at the dog’s back to little effect. A fourth went for the offending hand that wielded the bat, and he had to throw himself back against the car to keep from getting bit. By this time, the first dog had recovered, and Ianto aimed a kick to its head to knock it out cold. Realizing he couldn’t outfight the entire pack, he took a step forward and nearly tripped as the dog attached to his shoe shook his foot back and forth, refusing to let go. He let the shoe slide off and ran for the house.

Immediately, a fifth hound grabbed his pant leg, bringing him crashing to the ground. He spat out a mouthful of dirt and grass as he swung blindly to keep the remaining hounds at a distance. Twice, he hit something tough and lumpy, the force of impact sending jolts up his arms. He began pulling himself away, still waving the bat back and forth. Chomping jaws, gnashing teeth, and globules of slobber gunning their way through the air filled his vision. The tear at his buttocks expanded, and he heard a loud RIIIIIIP as the entire waistline gave way and the pants collapsed, flat and unoccupied, onto the ground. He froze for the briefest of moments before his modesty lost precedence to the chance to escape, and he scrambled back to his feet and ran, his legs swinging in long arcs as he charged across the lawn at speeds faster than he’d ever achieved before.

The dogs kept pace behind him, but somehow, he managed to stay one step ahead of their sharp, yellow canines. They howled their fury at failing to outrun their prey, and he worried guards would come investigate the disturbance, but similar barks and yelps sounded all across the grounds, and before long, his pursuers fell silent as they devoted all their breath to keeping up the chase.

At last, the front door loomed up ahead, but he forced himself to turn right. No good to escape the dogs and get caught by worse, he thought, though his body vehemently protested this exercise of logic. He could see an open window leading into a darkened room, however, and his feet pounded against the concrete, a loud slap from his shoe followed by the soft thunk of his sock, as he raced up the front steps, threw himself through the hedges, and climbed in. The dogs tried to leap in after him but failed, and he collapsed onto the carpet, wheezing so hard he couldn’t even breathe a sigh of relief.

The dogs resumed their chorus of growls and howls as they hopped up and down outside the window, their heads popping into view long enough for them to bear their teeth before they fell out of sight again. Ianto dragged himself across the room, deciding he couldn’t afford to stay any longer, and threw himself through a door into the adjoining room.

The room looked to be a sitting area with cherry bookshelves lining the wonderfully windowless walls and a comfy forest green recliner sitting in the corner facing a coffee table and a silver tea set. He flung himself behind the chair to keep out of sight of the other door leading into the room, which he assumed led in from the hallway, and gave himself a few minutes to catch his breath before proceeding with an investigation of the manor.

When he finally ventured into the hall, the house was empty and silent. Floorboards creaked as he made his way toward the stairs, and though he winced at every squeak, no one appeared to challenge him. Of course, his first thought was to procure a new pair of pants, and he welcomed the lack of distractions.

Upon reaching the second floor, he listened at the first door he reached--which was to his left--and upon hearing no one on the other side, he eased it open and slid through. He had the drawers of the nearest wardrobe open before he realized his mistake, for the room was decorated in quite a feminine fashion and outfitted for one person. As if that wasn’t proof enough, a drawer full of panties stared back up at him.

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” a husky woman’s voice sounded from behind him?. He jumped and turned to see a woman in a floral pink nightgown leaning against the doorway he’d forgotten to close in his rush for clothes. She was a middle-aged woman with a touch of gray at her temples, but her skin was the smooth and burnished gold of a woman with the leisure time to care for herself and the wealth to ensure her care was of the best quality. She was eyeing him with a hawkish quality, as someone would an intruder whose appearance was a surprise but not necessarily an unpleasant one. Altogether unflustered, her posture indicated she had not a care in the world and no interest but in what she was seeing. Her fingers toyed with one slim, snow white cigarette whose burning end was smoking in an atmospherically sinister way, and she brought it to her mouth for a deep puff before drawing herself up to her full height.

She was only a few centimeters shorter than Ianto, but given that he wasn’t wearing pants, she seemed much taller indeed. If push came to shove, Ianto was sure he could escape her, but he didn’t want to raise an uproar if at all possible. In this manner, he was trying to come up with some plausible explanation for his presence when she presented one for him.

“Finally,” the woman said, putting the cigarette out in the pot of a nearby houseplant. “I’ve been asking Ron to send me my bodyguard pantless for months now. I see he’s finally gotten the message through his thick, metal-plated skull.”

“R-R-Ron?” Ianto stammered, images of all the possible reasons she could want a pantless bodyguard flashing through his mind.

“Mr. Kendall, or Head of Security Kendall, if you prefer. You boys are always such sticklers for propriety.” She eyed him up and down, as though saying there were distinct bounds beyond which the definition of appropriate behavior became much more fluid and flexible.

“Um, well...” Surely she wouldn’t actually abuse her position of privilege to the extent that, say, Jack did. Would she? Then he realized who he was speaking to, for what other lady in the governor’s mansion would need a bodyguard? Of all the people to meet, it had to be his wife! “Well, that’s what I’m here for, er...” he wracked his mind for her name, “um, Mrs. Streed.”

“You’re bleeding,” she said, the lustiness dropping out of her voice. Suddenly all business, she strode over, grabbing his shoulders--her fingers possessing unexpected strength--and whirling him around. She ran one polished fingernail up along his thigh, ignoring his wince of pain as she examined the tears in his briefs. “You’re new, then. The dogs don’t take well to newbies, and that’d explain why I haven’t seen you before.”

She grabbed a small glass jar from the wardrobe and unscrewed the lid, running her fingers along the ointment within and rubbing it into his wounds. “This should take care of things.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ianto said obediently.

“Call me Rebeca,” she whispered into his ear, rolling the ‘R’ much longer than Ianto felt she needed to.

“Uh, yes, Rebeca, ma’am.” Ianto jumped and squeaked as her hands jumped from his buttocks to his waistline and pulled his underwear down, down, down.

Her body now pressed against his, she moved her lips from his ear to his cheek, pushing the tip of her tongue against his skin. Their eyes met, and he didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone with eyes so big and round as hers. I’m getting mauled by a cougar! he thought.

“If you pull open that top drawer,” she said between kisses, “you’ll find handcuffs hidden in the back.”

Ianto whimpered but reached for the handle, at which point she suddenly pulled away from him and slapped his hand. “Honestly,” she snapped, “do you really think I’m stupid enough to believe you’re part of my security detail? You don’t know any of the protocols, and even if you did, I know who my bodyguards are.”

Ianto jumped, stunned--and also thoroughly relieved--by this new development, and then got tangled up in his briefs and fell in a heap on the other side of the bed. “You’re not calling for help, then, I assume?” he said from the floor.

“No, I suppose not,” she replied, sounding thoughtful. Ianto pulled his underwear back on and poked his head over the edge of the bed in time to see her tapping her finger against her chin and eyeing him thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should have seen how far you were willing to go. But no, I daresay we don’t have any time to waste.”

“What do you mean?”

She swept off into the bathroom, and for one terrifying moment, Ianto was sure she was going to come back with more sexually suggestive items, but all she carried was a magazine. Surely that can’t cause any problems, he thought, and then he groaned. It was Playboy.

“Look,” she said, tearing open the magazine as though to a random page, and she jabbed a finger at the first line of the article.

“‘Ho ho ho: Christmas comes early as archaeologists unearth nude sketches of rumored Pirate Queen,’” Ianto read aloud. The opposing page was devoted to a heavily smeared charcoal drawing of a woman whose beauty (and utterly X-rated nature) age and weather had failed to dull. Ianto thought the woman looked like that actress from Love, Actually and Pride and Prejudice. “Yes, so?”

Rebeca clucked, her own posture indicating she had little patience for his foolishness. “Not that actual article, or the title. We’re looking at the first letter of each sentence. Piece them together, and you get: ‘Jack Harkness, my fellow captain, we shall meet again at Shipwreck Island.’”

Ianto had to make an effort not to start. And yet, if she was working for her husband, she would’ve turned him in by now, unless she was meant to be feeding him false trails, yet what was Shipwreck Island? If they wanted to be misleading, they could at least choose a better ruse, and it was too much of a coincidence for the secret code to be a message that coherent, aimed at one of them.

“What issue is this?” Ianto asked.

Rebeca showed him the cover; it was from three months ago. Ianto sighed. Right when they began tracking new activity from the Rift. Clearly the world never intended to give him a break. “What do you think it means?” he said.

“I’ve been doing some research. There are no records of Shipwreck Island after the 1740s, and mentions of it before then are few and far between. I’d almost say someone’s been wiping out all trace of it, if I could think of a reason why.”

“But where is it? What is it?”

“It’s a mythical island, supposedly impenetrable except by those who know its secrets, and the stronghold of pirates.”

Pirates?

She grinned. “It’s connected to all sorts of myths. A Brethren Court of Pirate Lords, a final battle for the future of the seas, a great kraken larger than the grandest ship of the time, and even the Fountain of Youth. Think of any legend from the time period, and pirates following the codes of Shipwreck Island were linked to it.”

That was all well and good, but what did it have to do with Jack? Surely he’d never been that far back in the past? Jack had many secrets, but...

And then he realized what had been bothering him since he first heard the message, the real reason, he now realized, for his being so skeptical about its authenticity. We shall meet again. If the message was real, was the author a fellow time traveler, or a fellow immortal, or both?

Fountain of Youth... But no, that had no bearing on the present situation. Even if the aliens were after immortality, their actions were not those of seekers of a mystical Earth legend. Besides, the message was aimed at Jack. From a three-hundred year-old pirate? Unless the magazine itself was a hallucination brought on by a psychic field he couldn’t sense around the house, or maybe an elaborate hoax. But if the aliens had that level of technology, why didn’t they just use it on the hospital? Why weren’t they using it to capture him right now?

“You think I’m insane, don’t you?” Rebeca looked disappointed and vaguely hostile at the same time. “That’s what my husband thought. Well this”--a raised middle finger--“is for him.

“Why are you showing me this?”

“You’re from Torchwood.”

Ianto would’ve groaned if he didn’t think she might take it the wrong way. Was there no shred of secrecy left around their organization?

“You’ve been spying on your husband.”

“I also know you know who Jack Harkness is.” She shook a finger at him. “Naughty boy, keeping secrets to yourself, and after I procured a pair of pants for you.”

“Where?” he asked, suddenly acutely aware of the breeze from the air conditioning caressing his buttocks. “I don’t see any pants.”

“I’ll bring them to you if you cooperate. But they’re as good as here already.” She looked almost pouty, as though offended he didn’t trust her. Well, he didn’t, but if she could bring him pants...

“I have no idea what the message means,” he said honestly. “Jack’s never been further back in Earth history than 1850, or if he has, he’s never told me or any of my co-workers.”

“My husband’s working with aliens,” she deadpanned. Ianto frowned.

“I know,” he replied. “But you don’t think he’s an alien himself?”

“Lord no!” she exclaimed. “I mean, if you’ve seen some of his personal habits, well, those he certainly didn’t pick up from Mars. Florida, more likely. I’ve heard the men are very strange and disgusting there.”

“What exactly do you want me to do!”

“Take me with you.”

He sighed. That was what he’d expected, but... “I can’t.” Expecting some form of violent reaction, he tensed himself to intercept any move she might make, but instead, she stood, her face completely smooth, and swept out of the room. She returned a minute later with a pair of jeans.

“My husband’s about the same size as you,” she announced, stuffing it into his hands.

“You’re not going to argue?”

Her voice was sultry as she replied, “I’ll get what I want.”

He tried to suppress a shiver and failed. Before she left to replace the Playboy, her eyes held a determination that reminded him of Jack. And Jack always got his way.

* * *

“My mother never loved me!” Jarrod Talmage wailed, almost blowing his nose on Wilson’s coat sleeve (he dodged just in time). The oncologist was fairly certain a gentle pat on the shoulder might be helpful right about then, but his other arm was also occupied--by the other soldier in the elevator, who was going on at length about the drug problems he’d had in middle school and how he felt they’d help him fit in after being labeled a teacher’s pet.

“I’m sure she just didn’t know how to show it,” Wilson said. “You see, it’s fairly common for parents to project their own wishes and desires on their children, sometimes to the point that it blinds them as to who their children really are. And because of that, even though your mother was doing what she thought best for you, it now seems she didn’t love you. It’s a classic case of breakdown in communication.”

“But I just wanted to be a ballet dancer!”

The other man, Orrin Meeks, sat up straight. “Queer,” he spat. Wilson punched him.

“This is a safe zone, Orrin,” he reprimanded. “Everyone should feel loved.”

“It’s not fair!” Orrin retorted. “I was never loved! Never! Except by my teacher. And if she really loved me, she wouldn’t have loved me!”

“Uh...”

I love you, Orrin!” Jarrod blinked. “Not like that, of course. It takes a real man to do ballet.”

“How so?” Orrin looked thoughtful. “I mean, you’re swinging around women dressed in tutus. It’s the adult equivalent of playing with Barbie dolls.”

“A Barbie with a real pussy! And you wouldn’t think it, but damn, those anorexic chicks are heavy to toss around.”

“Let’s get back on topic,” Wilson said. Orrin had a light in his eyes that suggested he was rethinking the manliness of ballet-dancing. “Come on, group hug!”

“I feel loved!” Orrin proclaimed after said hugging session was completed.

“Isn’t that, like, step 7 of the recovery program for addicts?” Jarrod said, eyeing Wilson suspiciously. “Are you suggesting we’re addicts?”

“Everyone craves love,” Wilson said, rather enjoying himself. There was nothing like brightening someone else’s day to make oneself feel better. “It’s a fundamental human drive.”

The two soldiers thought this over and decided to go to Broadway together once they finished their service.

A few more minutes passed, and Wilson announced, “I’m fairly certain rescue isn’t forthcoming. I think it’s time we tried to escape.”

Jarrod’s jaw dropped as his gaze moved up to the ceiling panel so often used in movies to escape similar situations. “You tricked us into talking for three and a half hours!”

Wilson shrugged. “What can I say. I’m good at that. You don’t regret it, do you?”

At first, the two seemed on the verge of exploding into violence, but then Orrin shrugged and knocked out the panel. “You’re lighter,” he said, pointing at Wilson. “We’ll lift you out first.”

Forming a platform with their hands, they boosted Wilson up, and he soon found himself in the elevator shaft. An eerie silence had settled over the entire hospital so that no noise came through from the sealed exits above and below him. The car creaked as his weight shifted it about, sending the cables quivering and rattling.

“Can you take our guns?” Jarrod said, handing his rifle up to Wilson. Orrin simply tossed his into the air, causing Wilson to make a wild snatch for it.

“Shoot!” He cursed, which was a very appropriate thing to say, because at that moment, he lost his balance and knocked the rifle against the wall whereupon it discharged, sending a flurry of bullets ricocheting through the shaft. Sparks flew, and then a new sound entered the mix; it was the sound of fraying cables. “Uh guys...” Wilson said. “Brace yourselves.”

The cable snapped, and the car plummeted. Steel girders raced up past him as Wilson grabbed hold of the opening into the cart and held on for his life. The elevator hit bottom with a jarring crash, sending Wilson through the open panel and into a jumble on the floor. Jarrod and Orrin were slammed against the walls, but despite the debris and dust that filled the car, both appeared relatively uninjured.

Wilson looked up and saw the doors had been forced open by the impact. Three soldiers stood outside, expressions of shock on their face. Then one pointed at him and screamed, “He’s a terrorist!”

Wilson sighed and put his hands into the air.

* * *

The first sensation Jack felt was pain. A throbbing in his chest mixed with tingling as his muscles, skin and bones re-grew, expelling the bullet from his body.

Taste was the second sense to return, and he knew there was blood in his mouth. Even as he became aware of the tangy bitterness, however, it faded, flowing back down his throat and reuniting with his body. That part of the process, he reflected absently, had always felt really weird.

The smell of smoke filled his nostrils. It stung and carried an acrid tang like fumes from a burning battery. Then he heard sirens outside. That was a good sign; he hadn’t been buried alive. He hated it when that happened.

His heart began beating now, and he could hear pounding as his eardrums throbbed in sympathy with the flow of blood, mirroring the contractions in his chest. The tickling sensation of skin knitting itself back together faded away, and he knew it was time again.

A deep gasp accompanied the rush of oxygen back into his lungs, and his body spasmed as though revived by a defibrillator. Sitting up, his eyes opened. The room was as he’d left it: dark, messy and covered in blood. At first, he didn’t see the two bodies crumpled in the shadow of Cuddy’s desk, but as he stood, he noticed a glint of moonlight off something metallic. He gasped as he realized it was Cuddy’s watch, still attached to a hand extending from beneath a corpse that had a high-heeled shoe sticking out of its neck.

He threw the body off her and was relieved to find Cuddy’s chest still rising and falling. And jiggling... just a little bit.

With Posey’s weight off her, Cuddy groaned and her eyes shot open. When she saw Jack, she screamed and threw herself backward away from him. Clutching her chest, she glared at him and remarked, “I thought you were dead.”

“I was,” Jack replied, offering her a hand. She took it, and he pulled her to her feet. “And then I came back to life.”

"You came back to life," she echoed in a deadpan.

"Yes," Jack confirmed briskly. "And I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to House."

"You died, and then came back to life."

"Er, that is what I said, yes. And don't tell House."

Cuddy spared the corpse an unreadable glance and then appeared to give up. “Oh, I don’t intend to,” she said, and Jack wasn't sure if that was because she didn't believe him or if she was lying. He thought she was taking the news quite well, but then again, a woman who would kill someone with her shoe was not one to take lightly.

“We should get out of here before Smythe comes,” she added.

Jack’s reply was cut off by the door bursting open. Cuddy let out a little shriek and grabbed Jack’s arm, but Chase and Cameron turned out to be the new arrivals.

“Oh my god, what happened?” Chase exclaimed.

“You’re covered in blood!” Cameron noted.

“Why are the lights off?” Jack asked, realizing the room was darker than it should be.

“Because aliens blew up the power generator,” Chase replied. “And the parking garage,” he added as an afterthought.

Cuddy closed her eyes and groaned, not bothering to check the view outside her window. Instead, she reached for the phone on her desk and hit the speed dial.

“House is only number 6 on your list?” Cameron asked.

“He's number 6 because there isn't a speed dial number 666,” Cuddy replied. “Yes, House, where are you?”

Jack leaned closer and heard the man reply, “I’m in the middle of a surgery, Cuddy. We can have phone sex after I sew Gwen up.”

“You’re operating on Gwen?” Jack roared. Cuddy sighed and turned on the speakerphone, replacing the receiver. “In the middle of a blackout!”

"I'm a little more worried about the fact that you answered your phone in the middle of it," she told him.

“Well, strictly speaking, a dedicated team from the Mayo clinic is operating with the room hooked up to a back-up generator that they brought specifically for this purpose.”

Cuddy’s jaw dropped. “Where did they come from? And are they free to give a lecture to the students sometime this week?” Jack glared at her.

“A man named Bilis went back in time and scheduled an appointment. He evidently doesn’t trust me or Weinbacher to mess with his precious Gwen.”

“Bilis! Precious?” Jack could feel his brain trying to commit suicide. “The Bilis with the cravat?”

“Yes,” House replied rather sullenly.

Weinbacher?” Cuddy said. “That crazy plastic surgeon I fired two years ago?”

“He got fired?” a woman screamed from House’s end. “House! I’m going to kill you!”

“That’s Tracy,” House said. “She gets rather overwrought. It’s the ovaries, you know.”

“Why is Weinbacher in my hospital?” Cuddy shrieked. “He tried to give breast implants to two unconscious lupus patients!”

“You never managed to fire him. I stole the papers and used them to line Steve’s cage. I have to steal a lot of your papers, because he pees a lot.”

Cuddy gritted her teeth, her fingers reaching unconsciously for the high-heel still embedded in Posey’s neck. Breathing heavily, she managed to control herself long enough to ask, “Where are you, House?”

House gave the room number and then added, “I really wish I could see your breasts heave right now.”

Cuddy slammed down the “End Call” button and rounded on Chase and Cameron.

“We didn’t know, I swear!” Chase squeaked. “I’ve never even heard of Weinbacher!”

When they arrived at the room, Tracy met them outside. “Where’s House?” Cuddy demanded.

Tracy grimaced. “He’s not here. He said he needed to pee, and that was right about when you hung up.”

Which was over ten minutes ago, given the amount of time it took to sneak through the hospital while avoiding detection. Jack had suggested they hide under cardboard boxes to avoid suspicion, but Cameron thought that was a terminally stupid tactic.

“So you two escaped?” Tracy said brightly. “House told me all about your rescue attempt, Dr. Cameron.”

“We all did. That’s why the garage exploded,” Cameron said. “Foreman and Owen went to the morgue to look for House, but clearly he’s not there anymore. We should really pick them up.”

“How’s Gwen?” Jack asked.

“House found a tumor on the adrenal gland which caused the stroke and violent mood swings. The surgery to remove it is very dangerous, but the doctors finished an hour ago--House was lying on the phone--and she should be fine. However, a pheochromocytoma is very rare and House thinks it is a symptom of something else, so we still have to find the root cause, but at least she won’t be in danger of dying anymore.”

Jack breathed a sigh of relief. The door opened and a doctor poked his head out. “Uh, Nurse Kindle? She’s waking up.”

Tracy frowned. “The sedative shouldn’t wear off this soon.”

“There was some adrenaline released during the operation. We think that might be the reason. She’s asking to see someone, though.”

“Jack?” Tracy said, looking straight at him. He nodded thanks and entered. The doctors handed him a pair of shoes with suction cups on them, and he stared at it for a moment before noticing the blood on the floor.

“That’s not Gwen’s, is it?” he asked. The doctor shook his head, so Jack turned to Cuddy and whispered, “No matter what you see when you enter, don’t scream.

Cuddy sighed.

Gwen was lying on a cot, having been moved from the operating table and carted to the end of the room. She was covered in blankets so that he could only see her face and a halo of black hair pillowed out under her head. She looked weak, and when she saw him, she could barely manage the smallest of smiles, but her eyes were expressive enough to make up for the lack. “You’re back,” she whispered.

“How are you feeling?” Jack asked, kneeling beside her.

“Awful.”

A thousand things to say rushed through Jack’s mind, from Bilis to House to the aliens to whether she was in pain, but nothing seemed appropriate. One and a half centuries had taught him the effectiveness of silence, though, so he smiled back at her, and she seemed satisfied.

“I’m going to kill House,” Cuddy proclaimed, squishing her way through the room. “Where the hell could he be? He’s a wanted man!”

“House?” Gwen said. “House is missing?”

“Don’t worry about that, we’ll find him,” Jack said.

Gwen shook her head, the barest shifting of her head left and right. “He was acting... weird.”

“Umm...” Tracy said, the utterance carrying the meaning: House is always weird. And I’m going to kill him.

“No, it was... after the soldiers came in.”

“You were conscious during that?”

“The doctors gave me a second sedative while you were yelling at House. But... oh my god.

“What? Is something wrong?” Jack asked. “Are you in pain?”

“The soldiers! They were wearing radiation scanners. And House saw them. And he knows we’re searching for... check my bag!

Jack strode over to a nearby chair where all of Gwen’s belongings had been moved from the old room. Opening it, he checked the various pockets and found nothing. “Damn it,” he muttered.

“What’s happened?” Cuddy asked.

“House stole Gwen’s radiation scanner. He’s not hiding; he’s searching for the alien artifact!”

“That thing’s dangerous!” Cameron said. “I’m sure as hell not letting House get his hands on that again.”

“Then we have to find it before he does,” Cuddy replied. “Damn him and damn his curiosity.”

“Whoa, who said anything about ‘we’?” Jack threw his hands into the air. “You’re not coming with me.”

“We have a stake in this too, now,” Cameron said.

“And your team is missing,” Chase pointed out. “You need all the help you can get.”

Jack hesitated. Half a minute passed without him making a decision, and he knew that alone was a mistake, but what they said was true, and they weren’t incompetent. Finally, Gwen made the decision for him as she said, “I trust them, Jack.”

Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt for Torchwood to gain a few more members. Besides, everything was going to change--it just wasn’t supposed to happen like this. “All right, fine,” he said, and he couldn’t help but feel they’d all just committed to much more than a simple search.

Chapter Text

"There's no need to manhandle me. I'm being perfectly cooperative here," Wilson snapped, legitimately annoyed. Two of the three soldiers who had found him in the elevator were escorting him outside the hospital and, in Wilson's opinion, were being a little overly rough about it.

Both of them ignored him. As they marched through the lobby, they were joined by another uniformed man. "The holding space in the parking garage has been somehow destroyed," he informed them. "So we're to take him and any other prisoners to the Governor’s mansion."

"It's just him," the particularly frowny soldier on Wilson's right growled. Wilson decided to call him Chuckles.

"What?" said the soldier to Wilson's left. He was very muscled and brawny and over six feet tall, but stereotypically he seemed to be a little slow. Wilson decided he would be Bigs. The new soldier was shorter, younger, and skinnier than the other two and on top of that had a demeanor like a small dog, and so he was dubbed Junior.

"There are no other prisoners. It's just him," Chuckles clarified.

"That's it? Didn't someone manage to round up the other four?" Junior's anxiety showed clearly on his face and in his body language.

"No," Chuckles snapped.

Wilson assumed the holding space they referred to had to be the trunk where Foreman and that friend of Gwen's were stuck, and was temporarily relieved by the revelation that they'd managed to escape. He also noted that Junior had said four people had escaped, and wondered who else had gotten stuck in a trunk.

He hoped it wasn't House. Wilson didn't ever want to deal with House after he'd been stuck in a cramped space all day with no Vicodin. The results would almost certainly be explosive and long-lived.

On the other hand, it wasn't really looking like he'd be seeing House anytime soon, anyway. It was annoying that that thought actually depressed him.

Bigs apparently decided Wilson was being too slow, jammed the end of his rifle into Wilson's back and Wilson, caught by surprise, yelped in an embarrassing way. They quickly exited the building and Wilson stopped to gape at the wreckage and scattered debris that was all that remained of the parking garage. He'd heard the explosion and the resulting thunder of heavy objects falling all over the place, but he hadn't paid it much mind; he'd been a little occupied with other things at the time. In retrospect, it seemed silly that he hadn't given it more thought. It wasn't like there were massive explosions at hospitals every day. It was dark out, but Wilson would easily see the remains of a power generator smoked gently off to one side. Bigs jammed his rifle into Wilson's back again.

"Keep moving," he said. The way he spoke was indistinct and Wilson had trouble making out what he was saying whenever he talked, but this he was pretty clear on. Resigned to his fate and assuming the day couldn't get any worse, Wilson trudged on, flanked by the three guards.

They'd only gotten a couple hundred yards away from the hospital when an old man appeared in front of them. Wilson stared blearily at him, and it registered somewhere in the back of his mind that this was the same man he'd interacted with earlier. His mind wasn't currently active enough to take that thought any further, so he set it aside.

"Oh good," the man said mildly. "You are Dr. Wilson, aren't you?"

Absently, Wilson noted that the man was wearing a cravat and wondered if he'd been wearing it earlier. After some brief thought, he decided he probably had been. He nodded an affirmative to the man's question, assuming nothing he could do could possibly get him into a worse situation than he was in already.

"Good, good, I had a bit of a time finding you. Let's get out of here, shall we?"

"Excuse me," Chuckles cut in. "I don't think anyone's going anywhere without my say-so." The man in the cravat frowned at him. Bigs did not bother to waste time with such pleasantries. He aimed his rifle and shot without a pause. The old man vanished and the bullet hit a large piece of cement instead. Wilson belatedly recalled that his name had been Bilis, then wondered if that could possibly be correct.

Junior gaped at where the man had been, then started jumping around excitably. "Is he a ninja or something? How does he get around so fast? Where'd he go?" Before anyone else could get a word in, Bilis reappeared a few feet away from where he'd been before and fixed them all with an affronted look.

"That was rude!" he said. This time, Bigs and Chuckles both shot at him, but he predictably vanished again before their bullets could touch him. This happened once more and by that time, all three of the soldiers were getting really antsy.

"What are we supposed to do?" Junior wailed.

"Shut up," Chuckles growled. "Just keep moving, and quickly. Ignore him."

"D'hurrr.... How's he doin' that?" Bigs said.

"It doesn't matter. Just get moving. We just have to get to the truck."

The started moving again, at a faster pace than before. They didn't seem to have much regard for Wilson's comfort, and he was constantly jabbed or stepped on in the rush. They made it to a large truck painted an ugly color of green and Wilson was shoved in the back seat with Bigs. Chuckles revved the engine and then peeled out, heading in what Wilson assumed was the general direction of Drumthwacket, though he couldn't really see past Bigs' bulk to make sure.

Less than a minute had passed before Bilis appeared out of nowhere in the empty seat next to Wilson, smiling pleasantly. Junior shouted in surprise, startling Chuckles and causing him to swerve into the other lane and nearly hit an oncoming car.

"Christ!" he yelled, then glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Bilis. He let out a short string of expletives, ending with "shoot it already you stupid shits!" Bigs couldn't get his rifle out in the cramped space, but Junior had a handgun and he obediently emptied a round of bullets into the empty seat where Bilis had been a moment before.

"Really, boys," Bilis said when he reappeared, looking disapproving. "I'd expect better from America's finest!"

"So," Wilson said, getting impatient, "are you going to rescue me or what? Because all these stray bullets are making me nervous."

"So sorry about that, but I do need a couple seconds to concentrate if I'm to transport you as well, and these young men aren't really affording me much," Bilis replied, staring pointedly at the soldiers. All three gaped at him.

"Watch out!" Wilson shouted as the truck nearly went off the road and into a telephone pole. Chuckles threw his attention back to the road just in time and they swerved back onto the road. Junior was frantically trying to reload his gun, but his hands were shaking too badly to manage it.

"Wonderful," Bilis said, grabbing Wilson's hands. "Now just be quiet for a short while...."

Then they both vanished together, leaving a bewildered trio of soldiers behind.

"So... what now?" asked Bigs cautiously.

* * *

House hit Gwen’s radiation detector in the hopes that it would pick up a reading. “You’re almost as useless as the chick who owns you,” he told it. “And that’s only because she keeps finding new ways to kill herself every five minutes.”

Beep.

House froze. A spike drifted across the screen and vanished. It was like the machine had been sticking its tongue out at House behind his back but had been caught. He pointed the scanner in the direction he’d been facing when it went off, but nothing happened.

“Your momma was so ugly people thought she was a rejected Blackberry model.”

Beep!

A bigger spike. As long as the reading wasn’t somehow out of spite, the situation was looking brighter. House was still wary though. Trust the British to come up with a machine that tricked you if you insulted it. So he walked up to an intersection, shook it some more and yelled, “I bet the shop had to label you as secondhand before anyone would buy you!” He liked that one, because it reflected poorly on Jack Harkness as well.

A series of blips appeared when the device faced right, so House took the turn, feeling pleased with himself.

* * *

“House can’t have left the building,” Jack said. “The military would be watching all the entrances.”

The others, so fierce when declaring themselves part of the search, no longer looked as certain as they had a few minutes ago. Once the magnitude of the task became apparent, it was hard to approach it with any amount of confidence. After all, Torchwood had spent a day searching for the alien artifact to no avail--the fact that House was running around with it in his pocket notwithstanding--and the radiation would have faded so much at this point that the scanners would pick up more hits from interference than the actual trail, even if it hadn't been pretty much everywhere in the hospital by now.

“House doesn’t do things without reason,” Cuddy said. "Even if the reason is sometimes completely inane." She turned to Chase. “And you are not allowed to tell him I said that.”

“So you’re suggesting he might have thought of something I didn’t?”

Cuddy shrugged. “It’s possible. His mind works in strange ways.”

“On the other hand, maybe seeing the scanner reminded him that there’s an alien artifact somewhere nearby, and if there’s anything he can’t resist, it’s a new puzzle,” Cameron said. “He might have Gwen’s scanner, but he must realize it’s next to worthless.”

“Unless there’s something we missed,” Chase added.

“Like the creepy old man in clothing from the nineteenth century standing in the corner with Wilson?”

Chase whirled around to face the direction Cameron was pointing and jumped. Embarrassingly, Jack did the same thing. Luckily for him, no one noticed.

“Who the hell are you?” Chase demanded.

Jack was interested to see Wilson stagger out from behind Bilis. He’d never known Bilis could teleport others as well, and that could be a useful piece of information, though he assumed it made sense, because Bilis managed to bring his clothes and other inanimate objects with him wherever he went. The image of a nude Bilis flashed in his mind, and he pondered it an instant before deciding that he needed to make a few more limits for himself.

“I’m Bilis Manger,” he said. “Where is Dr. House?”

“Why is everyone looking for House?” Cuddy snapped.

“Because I brought him his Wilson. He said I wouldn’t be allowed to see Ms. Cooper unless I rescued his Wilson from the National Guard.”

“Interesting,” Cameron said. Chase glared at her.

Wilson focused on Bilis and protested, “I don’t belong to anyone!”

“Of course not.” Cuddy patted his shoulder and led him off into a corner. “Where are your pills?”

“I’m off the pills. Really, I’m fine! Why is the floor covered in blood?”

Bilis watched the proceedings with a disinterested air. Jack took advantage of his temporary distraction to close the distance between them and seize him by the cravat. “What are you doing here, Bilis? And if you try to teleport away, I swear I’ll shoot on sight next time I see you.”

“I’m here to woo Ms. Cooper.”

“Excuse me?”

“Woo. As in the first syllable of ‘whoozy,’ which is how she shall feel from the love that bursts in her mind when she sees me and realizes the deep connection we share.”

Jack pondered this a moment and decided it was so absurd he couldn’t be lying. Bilis was clever enough to think of a better story if he wanted to lie. Nevertheless, his mind rebelled against the thought of Bilis and Gwen together. “I don’t think Gwen needs more things bursting in her brain. And shouldn’t you be sacrificing goats to the son of Abbadon or something?”

Bilis took hold of Jack’s hand and pushed it away firmly. For a moment, Jack felt a burning heat radiate from the old man. “Abbadon had no son, thanks to you.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault he didn’t know when to stop. Like a goldfish, eat eat eat, that’s all it can think of, and then kerplowy.”

Bilis glared, but then the next instant, his expression was smooth again. “Yes, well, I doubt he was fertile anyway, and it’s been rather boring ever since. I mean, I spend all my life plotting to bring about the end of the world, and then what happens? The end of the world has to go and eat itself to death. Naturally, my life was rather devoid of meaning for a while after that, but then I remembered Ms. Cooper and how she made me feel all tingly when she touched me in my little shop. If you know what I mean.”

Jack noticed Chase doing a reasonable impression of a blowfish but ignored him. “Yeah, we don’t care about your little shop, and I really don’t think Gwen cares about how you feel... down there. I also don’t think she appreciates you stabbing her boyfriend.”

“Oh yes, speaking of Mr. Williams, there’s something you should know.”

Jack’s expression darkened. “You killed him again?”

“No, no, no, how crude. His death last time was merely a means to an end. I do not believe in killing my competitors, Captain Harkness. No, if I triumph, it shall be because I have proven myself superior in every way, and all shall acknowledge my victory.”

“I’ve heard things about Rhys, and I think there’s at least one department in which he has you beat.”

Bilis fixed him with a stern look that made him seem to belong to a nineteenth century painting. “As I was saying, there’s something you ought to know.”

“If you haven’t done anything to him, I fail to see how he could get into any trouble worth concerning me.”

Bilis smiled, and shivers ran down Jack’s spine.

* * *

Cardiff was lovely at mid-day. A cool sea breeze had brushed the clouds from the sky, repainting it baby blue. The unoccupied plaza before the Millennium Centre benefited from the additional light and glowed so brightly it looked like polished marble.

Though Rhys Williams didn’t walk to this part of the city often, a whim had led his feet here, and he stood before the fountain, watching his reflection in the cascading ripples. Gwen had only been gone a couple of days, but he found himself missing her. They’d had their fair share of arguments since her promotion, but after the first few turbulent months, her hours grew more regular, and their relationship had benefited from it. Now she was gone again, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to see their lives go downhill again. The fact that he hadn't heard from her since she left only served to amplify that feeling.

He had thought a walk might clear his mind, but it seemed to be doing the opposite instead. The more he thought about things, the more muddled his thoughts became.

He sighed, and in response, his stomach growled. Some chips, he decided, might help his mood. He turned around and began to head for the nearest pub, but he didn't even get three steps before he stepped onto a bit of ground that wasn't as solid as it appeared, and suddenly he was falling straight down. He caught a brief glimpse of a spacious underground room, but then he hit the floor. His head knocked against something and everything went dark.

* * *

“Rhys fell down the invisible lift?” Jack repeated, incredulous. He wanted nothing more than to borrow someone’s phone and yell at all his employees about forgetting to lock up the base before leaving. He thought about it a little longer, decided there was no reason why he couldn't, and stole Chase’s phone. He pointed a finger at Bilis. “This is not saying I believe you.” Bilis just looked at him with that insufferable air of patience.

The phone rang several times before Tosh picked up. “Hey Tosh, it’s Jack,” he said, trying his best to sound cheery.

“Aliens who want me dead are chasing me with bloodhounds right now,” Tosh replied, “so this better be urgent!”

“Did you remember to close the invisible lift hole?”

The line went dead. Jack returned the phone to Chase. “How rude. That was urgent.”

“So is that Ms. Cooper over there?” Bilis said, pointing at Gwen’s cot.

“Yes, but she’s sleeping,” Tracy said. Bilis ignored her and walked over. Jack ran after him and arrived in time to see him running his fingers down Gwen’s cheek and making cooing sounds. Jack prepared to grab him, but Tracy got there first and smacked him so hard he went flying into the wall.

“I do believe that was uncalled for, my dear,” Bilis said.

“Shut up,” Jack said. “All right, so I believe you. I don’t trust you, but I believe you. Gwen’s not getting better until House diagnoses her, so we don’t need him off on some treasure hunt that he’s unqualified to be undertaking anyway. What can you do to help us?”

“I’m not your hound. I can travel through space and time, but I can’t sniff him out.”

Jack grinned, then fished a tracker out of his pocket. He set its frequency to match the receiver’s, then handed it over to Bilis. “Do you remember how long ago you were talking to House in this room.”

“Of course.”

“Put this tracker on him while he and Tracy are busy talking to yourself.”

Bilis smiled. “You are a crafty man, Captain Harkness.” He blinked out of existence, then reappeared a second later. “It is done.”

“That’s a little weird,” Tracy remarked. Jack shrugged, then turned on the receiver. A red dot pinged on the screen, showing House was headed for the morgue. He motioned to the others and ran out the door. As they left, he noticed Bilis moving toward Gwen again, but Tracy gestured menacingly with her hand and he stepped back. Pulling up a stool, she sat down next to her patient and nodded to Jack.

* * *

Almost immediately after splitting off from Cameron and Chase, Owen and Foreman ran into a group of soldiers, cutting off their route. They had to sneak back around to the emergency exit and find another way in. Luckily, they didn't have too hard of a time getting back into the hospital via the front doors. The National Guard seemed to be in a bit of a disarray, and the hospital staff was taking a no-nonsense approach to dealing with the soldiers.

Wherever the officers were, they weren't in the lobby, and so the soldiers were being assigned menial tasks by nurses, like cleaning up and filing unimportant paperwork. Meanwhile, the majority of the civilians who had been in the clinic were filtering out slowly, and the soldiers were for the most part letting them go after confirming the weren't on the list. Of course, there were those people who loved to be in the middle of the action, and they were excitedly trying to find out what was going on by questioning the soldiers and the nursing staff, neither of which appeared very receptive to them.

Owen and Foreman slipped past the two men left guarding the door by entering as a group of people left and then ducking behind a counter. From there it was easy to get to the morgue.

House wasn't there, but it was fairly obvious that he had been recently. No one else in the hospital could cause such chaos.

The morgue was dark and dank as usual, but now there was the odor of blood overlaying the usual overly sterile smell. There were also several unconscious uniformed men on the floor near the bottom of the stairs. Owen kicked one and when he didn't respond, they pushed them all under the tables and put white sheets over them. If nothing else, it'd leave them extra confused and disoriented when they woke up.

There were also several dents in the wall. They ignored those.

"Well, obviously House isn't down here," Foreman said when they'd finished moving the soldiers. "Should we go look for him somewhere else?"

"You know what? I'm actually not that enthusiastic about the idea of going back up there," Owen said. "I mean, it's fairly calm now, but you never know when hell might break loose again, and I honestly feel safer down here. Additionally, House is a bit of a bastard and I'm not that keen on actually finding him."

Foreman laughed. "Try working with him! He's really insufferable."

"Is he always so... violent and sarcastic? And cranky?"

"It's usually worse. He has no tolerance for other humans. Except Wilson, oddly. And sometimes Cuddy."

"I noticed," Owen said dryly. "Still, I bet my boss is worse."

"Impossible! You obviously don't know House very well." If there was one contest in the world that Foreman was absolutely positive he could win, it was the Worst Boss contest.

"It's not that Jack's a bad guy," Owen continued, "it's just that he's got these really annoying habits. Like, he'll screw anyone, and he does! Even worse, women always seem to find him more attractive than me. So when we all go to a pub after work, guess who's inevitably going to end up going home alone? Me! And I normally have no trouble picking up girls!"

"That's your problem with him?" Foreman laughed. "He's got nothing on House, then! I can't say I've ever been out drinking with him and I'd never want to, but I can imagine it'd be something close to hell."

"That's not the only problem! Recently, he just disappeared for a week! Without tell anyone. We didn't really know what to do. Then he came back with this stupid excuse and of course, everyone just forgives him. Ugh, it's so annoying."

"Basically, your biggest issue with your boss is that he's too likable?" Foreman said.

"Er..." Owen said.

"House is cruel, sarcastic, egotistical, pushy, acerbic, and a drug addict. He makes us do things that are barely legal, and the whole time he's throwing insults at us. He's unbelievable."

"If you hate him so much, why are you still working for him?" Owen asked. Foreman sighed.

"As much as I hate to say it, he's the best damn doctor I know, and I've learned more from him than I ever thought possible. But you met him, you know what he's like."

"He kept hitting me over the head with his cane!"

"Yeah, he's really possessive over that whiteboard."

"Can't he find something better to be possessive over?"

* * *

“Do you think we can make it back to the car?” Tosh asked as they crawled through the bushes. Monty shook his head, and she heard several barks from just around the corner. They’d managed to make it to the front of the mansion without being caught, but it looked like their luck was out.

“The good news is the dogs should be a little calmer now that they’ve been out a while without finding any prey.”

“Great, so they’ll be able to identify our corpses afterward.”

Monty rolled his eyes, “No, I meant that if they’re calm enough not to bite the first thing they see, they should recognize me as someone friendly. They won’t attack.”

“Are you really willing to give it a try?”

“I see no other choice.” Monty stood up, put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Tosh pulled out the alien device and wondered if dogs were religious. If they were, she hoped ‘Thou shalt not maul humans’ was one of their commandments.

She didn’t have long to worry, though. As soon as Monty revealed himself, the dogs started charging. “Sit!” Monty roared, holding out his arm in a command to stop. Tosh’s heart leapt at the unexpected tone of authority. When he wanted to, Monty knew how to make people listen. Plus he had really nice arms. Calm down, now is not the time for a hormone rush. Especially when she knew Monty was part of the conspiracy, he had to be. No one fell in love that fast. No one. That was the moment she realized she’d been manipulated again, and she still felt numb from the knowledge. She wished she could believe his words rather than her suspicions, but lives were at risk, and she couldn’t stake everyone’s fate on a romantic flight of fancy.

The dogs fell over each other skidding to a halt. Tosh’s heart pounded, and she told herself it was only the adrenaline from nearly being mauled. “Well, that worked out nicely.”

Monty nodded and clapped his hands together as though brushing dirt off them. “I told you, I’m just that good-- AAARGH!” A dog jumped from the front porch and landed on Monty, sinking its teeth into his arm. The rest of the pack followed suit, howling like wolves. Tosh dodged to the side, avoiding the falling dogs but not the slobber spilling from their mouths. Monty noticed her pointing the alien device at the dog on top of him, and his eyes widened.

“No! What if you miss?” He squeezed his eyes shut as she thought, Activate! and a flash of light turned the world white. A shrill screech burst through the air, followed by that deafening silence, and when Tosh’s vision returned, she saw Monty laying in a fetal position on the grass. The dog had disappeared.

“Monty?” she asked, afraid for him despite herself.

“Damn it, Tosh, that was the scariest thing anyone’s ever done to me. And that includes the bloody hound trying to bite my arm off.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she said, but inside, she felt a wave of relief. The rest of the bloodhounds were sitting on their haunches now, licking their lips and staring at them with puppy-dog eyes. Kneeling down, she examined Monty’s arm and tsked. “This is going to need medical attention. You should reveal yourself to the Governor. He’ll be expecting you, anyway, since you showed your ID to security.”

“Right, that might be a good idea. Hopefully he won’t be suspicious, and... what the hell is that dog doing?”

Tosh followed Monty’s gaze to the wall, where one of the hounds was whining a high-pitched keen and bashing its head against the wall. She watched in fascination as it struck with a loud thunk, backed up two feet, then charged forward again.

“I think that was the one attacking you,” Tosh said.

Monty scratched his head. “I thought the device converted things into religious fanatics.”

“Right, well...” Tosh frowned. Thunk, thunk, thunk. “I guess it sort of makes sense.”

“I still don’t understand why those dogs attacked me,” Monty said. “They must’ve been really riled up. You think that second pack was chasing someone else?”

“Who else would be here? I mean--” Tosh sighed as her phone vibrated again. She picked it up and snapped, “I don’t remember if we closed the invisible lift, Jack!”

“Oh shoot,” Ianto’s voice came from the speaker. “I knew I forgot something.”

“Ianto? Sorry, I thought you were... never mind. What’s going on?”

“I’m in Drumthwacket. Are you all right? I got chased by these dogs, and I thought they might be after you.”

Monty glared at her phone for lack of a better target. Tosh shrugged and mouthed, It’s not his fault. “We’re okay,” she said. Monty glowered some more, so she added: “Mostly.”

“Good. If you’re inside, I can get you to safety, but be careful. Jack just called and he says the hospital’s in lockdown. All our names are on a terrorist list, along with our pictures. They know who you are, so don’t try tricking anyone you meet. Just avoid all contact.”

Tosh breathed in deeply and hissed through her teeth. “We’re outside. Monty was going to try to get us in, but if that’s the case...” It’s now or never. She turned to Monty and said, “You need to get that wound looked at. Go in without me and I’ll try to find one of the hidden entrances.”

Monty shook his head. “I know where some of them are... approximately. You’ll never find them without me. I’ll be fine.” He gave her a weak smile. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

“Good luck, then,” Ianto replied, which was the most unhelpful thing he could have said. Can’t he convince Monty? Scare him into leaving me! But he just added, “Call me when you get in.” The phone flashed as he hung up.

Tosh sighed. She gestured at Monty: “Take off your shirt.”

“Uh...”

“Do it!” she snapped. She regretted her outburst the instant it left her mouth, but Monty nodded and complied. From the look of sympathy on his face, he understood her anger was from frustration that she couldn’t get him to safety. If only he knew the full story. Would he be angry at me? But no, that implied he was innocent, and she knew better.

Taking the shirt, she tore off the sleeve that had been torn by the dog and used the rest of it as a bandage around his arm. He grimaced as she worked, but she had to do the thing properly. As properly as she could without antiseptics, anyway.

“That should slow the bleeding for now, but it needs to be disinfected. And know this, if you seem to be bleeding too much, I will get myself caught if that means keeping you alive.” She froze at the vehemence in her voice, but she knew it was true. Even if Monty was a spy, she wasn’t willing to let him die. Jack had told them after he returned from his absence that Torchwood was different now. Preserve life whenever possible, that was how he’d explained it. And Monty... as for Monty... well, god but does he have nice arms. Toshiko let out a choked gasp, half sob, half laugh. Monty just took her hand in his, and for a moment, she was lost in his gaze.

“I guess we’re going to have to find the entrance fast, then,” he said. “Come on.” He bounded to his feet with almost his usual energy and pulled her up with his uninjured arm. Seeing no choice, she ran after him. Behind them, the other bloodhounds continued to observe the single dog repeatedly running into the wall. Then, one by one, they each started following suit.

A few minutes later, Tosh realized Monty was leading her into the gardens. Their path was interrupted several times by more roving packs or a few guards, but the dogs were mostly stretching their legs at this point, and the guards were so terrified of the dogs they didn’t notice other humans on the lawn. As they moved deeper into the flower beds and rows of trees, the encounters grew less frequent until Monty stopped at the edge of a stone patio.

“This should be it. Rumor is that one of the trellises has a touch plate embedded in that causes some of the stones to slide open.”

Tosh ran to the walls of latticework and brushed away the flowers. Pressing her scanner against the wood, she ran the device over until it beeped. “Here, the wood is reading as harder than the surroundings. It probably has metal underneath.” She pressed her fingers against it and smiled as she heard a rumbling behind her.

Five stones rotated out from their positions and slid under their neighbors to reveal a ladder dropping into darkness. Monty ran up to it, nearly stumbling as he stopped at the edge. Tosh placed a hand on his shoulder as support and noticed his pale face.

“Are you sure you’re fine?”

He nodded. “I should go first in case I lose my grip and fall on you.”

“Maybe I can go on alone.”

“Toshiko, stop trying to lose me. I feel better knowing I’m by your side to protect you.”

He was about to go down when her scanner beeped again. The display lit up with waves of red. “The infrared sensor is picking up a large number of people down there.” She glared at him. “This entrance is defended.”

Monty looked surprised at her accusatory tone. “I’m sorry, but this is the only one I know about. If we can’t risk breaking into the house, this is our best bet. I’m still the governor’s aide, aren’t I? I’ll make the guards listen.”

“Don’t you think regular guards are more likely to accept your word?”

“They all should. I do have security clearance, and in the darkness down there, they’ll be less likely to see you or recognize you. Please, let’s hurry.” He didn’t wait for a reply as he grabbed hold of the ladder and started descending. Tosh bit her lip, but she placed the scanner in her bag and followed him into the pitch black.

* * *

When Ianto hung up, Rebeca was still staring at him with a creepy, predatory gaze. She had agreed to help him harbor Tosh after discovering she was part of Torchwood as well. He supposed she thought that having more of them present meant a better chance of getting whatever she wanted. In the meantime, she had a pair of scissors in her hands and kept threatening to cut off his pants if he tried to leave the room. His father having been a tailor, he felt this was a great misuse of the power of scissors.

“So Monty Pike’s helping your friend out. Interesting. He never struck me as the type to go against his boss.”

“You’re absolutely sure Governor Streed is helping the aliens?”

“If he isn’t, then I’m not Mrs. Streed.”

Ianto pondered her comment for a moment, but she seemed to take this as a sign of infidelity and snapped the scissors menacingly. “Uh, so, I’ve been wondering,” he stammered, trying to change the topic, “I keep hearing Governor Streed this, Governor Streed that. What’s your husband’s first name, anyway?”

“Governor.”

“All right...” Ianto said. “What’s the governor’s first name?”

“No, you fool. His first name is Governor.”

“That’s a little presumptuous, isn’t it?”

“It’s a perfectly legitimate name.”

“He didn’t change it after taking office?”

“Of course not. Why would he do that? It’d be hell for the ballots and name recognition.”

“Well, everyone would hear his name and know he was governor.”

The scissors snapped again. He wasn’t doing well at staying on her good side. At least, not when he had pants on. He thought about this for a moment as well, then quickly dismissed the notion from his mind. A lascivious smile lit up her face, as though she knew what he was thinking. He backed up from where he was sitting on her bed until he was on top of the pillows, but she never moved from her position on the chair beside her desk.

“I’m a little thirsty,” he said, remembering that he’d smelled whiskey when he first entered the room. Maybe the thought of getting him drunk would have the same effect on her.

Sure enough, she turned around, cracked open a picture frame and withdrew a bottle. “Do you want to do the honors?” she asked.

Perfect. “I assume you keep the glasses in the bathroom.” He took the bottle from her. She nodded, and he left, trying not to appear hurried. Once inside, he flipped through the drawers and located everything he needed. As he withdrew two shot glasses, he slipped a laxative into one of them and poured out the drinks. When he returned, she downed the entire shot without waiting for him.

“Another?”

She waved him away, so he went back to his spot on the bed and sipped his slowly, savoring it as he might a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. A few minutes later, he heard a gurgle, followed by an, “Urp.” He glanced over and saw her face contorted like smoke some time after leaving a cigarette.

“You bastard,” she said before making a mad dash for the bathroom.

“Sorry!” he called after her. Pocketing the scissors, he strolled out the door, whiskey bottle and glass still in hand.

He’d questioned Rebeca about the layout of the house, and if she hadn’t lied, the governor should be in his favorite lounge on the first floor where he entertained his guests. He proceeded to the stairs, which two guards were ascending.

“Hello,” Ianto said.

“Who are you?”

“Fancy a drink?” The two were close enough that they didn’t have time to react before the bottle and glass flew through the air and slammed into their heads, shattering and sending them reeling down the stairs. Ianto stepped over them, feeling a little guilty for injuring them as much as he had, and ran for it.

He slowed down as he approached the lounge. Tip-toeing up to the door, he heard voices beyond.

“I’m afraid, Governor, the situation at Princeton-Plainsboro has escalated to a point where drastic measures are necessary.”

“Really, my National Guard are sufficient for the task. The place is a mess already, but the last thing we need are aliens storming the building with hundreds if not thousands of witnesses we aren’t able to silence.”

That was odd, Ianto mused. The other man had to be the attorney general; he was the only guest of note present tonight. Yet if the governor was deferring to him, then that had to mean the attorney general was the alien! He leaned closer.

“Your men are unreliable! Just look at Montgomery Pike. The Torchwood woman should’ve been ours at the tow yard, but we held back because he was accompanying her. If you can’t even control your aide, how are we supposed to trust you with an army?”

“Well, I’m afraid Pike can be a bit overzealous at times. I assure you, he has his orders now. That wasn’t even a complete loss. You did manage to fix up the van as a transmat reception point.”

There was a loud crash as the attorney general apparently slammed his fist onto a table. Or maybe through the table. “You will follow orders or you will be destroyed! Do not talk back to me! The time for negotiation is over.”

“Please, give me two more hours. You won’t be displeased, I promise.”

There was a pause before the alien said, “Oh I’m certainly pleased right now. At least one of you can do things right.”

“Excuse me?”

“We have one of the members of Torchwood in custody now.”

Tosh! Ianto backed away from the door, preparing to go to her rescue. He bumped into something soft. Or rather, someone soft. A sharp edge pressed against his neck, and he smelled cigarette smoke.

“You don’t think I only had one pair, did you?” Rebeca asked as she drew the scissors along his skin, leaving a thin trickle of blood. “Honestly, you can’t say I didn’t give you a chance. But if you aren’t going to bring me aliens, I’m just going to have to catch them myself.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “And you’ll be my bait.”

She slammed her free hand into his side right where the robot had slashed him earlier in the day. The injuries burned like fire, and he felt the bandages go wet as he collapsed to the floor. The door opened and Attorney General Howell stepped through. He flickered, fading in and out of existence for a fraction of a second, and then he extended a hand to Rebeca.

“Well done, Mrs. Streed.”

“Please, call me Rebeca,” she said. With a wink at her husband following the attorney general through the door, she added, “I don’t think I’ll be Mrs. Streed much longer.”

Howell nodded. “Governor, an interesting option presents itself to me. Perhaps you should personally lead the Guard at Princeton-Plainsboro, and I’ll take over here. How does that sound?”

Streed stiffened. “Pike won’t listen to you.”

Howell’s eyes held nothing human in them as he turned on Streed, advancing until he’d backed the governor up against a wall. “I don’t need him to listen. In fact, I don’t even need him to be alive.”

The governor whimpered as he sidled out of Howell’s presence. At the threshold of the room, he managed a faint bow and stammered, “As you say.” He disappeared faster than the road runner, though there was a disappointing lack of smoke clouds in his wake.

Howell returned his attention to Ianto, and this time, he let the entire disguise slide. A whirl of colors accompanied the disappearance of his human form, and an alien of the same species that attacked in the hospital stood before him. One tentacle drifted up to Ianto’s face, the eyeball at the end making wet squishing sounds as it twisted about, surveying him with a sort of manic glee. Then one of its arms grabbed hold of his neck and forced him back to his feet.

“You are the human involved with Jack Harkness,” Howell pronounced. Out of the corner of his eye, Ianto saw Rebeca staring the alien, greedily devouring its appearance as though it were an oasis in a desert. He judged she was indeed playing her own game rather than serving the aliens, just as she’d told him, but clever as she might be, her meddling would backfire in the end. He didn’t intend to be there to save her when it did. Howell was too busy examining Ianto to notice. “You will cause him to spring our trap.”

“No chance of that, I’m afraid,” Ianto replied.

Howell gurgled. “You are his lover!”

“But he doesn’t love me.”

The skin on the alien rippled, as though Ianto had thrown a stone into a perfectly placid lake and disturbed everything. Hyurk, hyurk, hyurk came the noise from deep inside its body, and Ianto realized it was laughing at him. Before he realized what he was doing, he pulled the scissors from his pocket and stabbed it into the eye closest to him. Howell let out a shrieking roar strong enough to shake the entire house. As the hallucination reasserted itself, the human Howell fell backward, clutching his face as blood spewed forth from one eye socket. He punched Ianto in the stomach, knocking him into Rebeca and sending both of them flying into the next room.

Disentangling himself from her, Ianto stood and dashed for the exit, but she grabbed hold of his leg and twisted. He fell, more from the fact that she had a knack for hitting him where others had attacked him first than from her strength alone, and then guards burst in from all directions, each with a gun ready and aimed. He put his hands up.

Howell emerged through the doorway, his left eye an empty socket glowing red. “You will regret that, Jones,” he hissed, his voice a combination of garbled tones, as though five people and a synthesizer were all speaking at once. “You will regret that very much. My species believes in an eye for an eye.”

“Do you expect me to let you do that?”

The attorney general grabbed his shirt, smearing it with blood, and pulled him close. His face centimeters from Ianto’s, he bared his teeth and replied, “No, Mr. Jones. I expect you to die.”

Rebeca choked back a giggle, and the guards shifted on their feet as they pondered whether they were serving the right person. After all, the insane bad guys always lost, and usually a few of the guards got fed to piranhas along the way, or at least got pushed into vats of industrial waste. Having failed to grow up as a movie buff, Howell glanced over to see why they were laughing, and the momentary distraction was more than enough time for Ianto to press The Button on Jack’s wristband.

Since Union Station, Ianto had modified it slightly. Scary as Britney Spears’ music was, the song hadn’t been the main point of the attack. What the button actually did was emit a very low frequency sound that was below the threshold of human hearing but caused an intense feeling of unease--a similar phenomenon tended to occur in “haunted” houses and other eerie locations. Jack programmed the device to use a combination of sounds to key into the fear portions of the human brain, thus causing widespread panic. The song had merely been the object of terror that people locked onto. However, Ianto felt that was exceedingly low-brow humor. Instead, he held up his arm and yelled, “Drumthwacket is out of coffee beans! There is only generic instant left in the kitchens!”

The room emptied faster than a singles’ bar on Valentine’s Day, leaving only Rebecca and Howell. He suspected nothing would ever faze Rebeca and remembered too late that the device wouldn’t work on an alien. He ducked as Howell swung at him, but the man caught the back of his suit jacket and it tore off with a loud rip.

“I have one suit left!” Ianto yelled at him. “One! And it’s in a rental car! Do you have any idea how upset I’m getting?”

Howell tossed the jacket aside. “Actually,” he said, making that squelching hyurk-hyurk sound again, “your rental car blew up.”

Ianto punched him, hard.

* * *

Jack held a finger up to his lips and shushed his followers. Cameron drew to an immediate stop, causing Chase to run into her. Cuddy then stepped on his foot with her high heels.

“I think my big toe’s broken!” Chase screamed, hopping up and down on one foot as he clutched the other.

“You broke my foot?” Cameron exclaimed. “We’re this close to getting our bodies back, and you have to break my foot now?”

“Shut up!” Jack said, to no avail. Sighing, he directed the three of them into a nearby room and while they were distracted, shut the door and ran off. When he got far enough that Chase’s complaints no longer drowned everything else out, he paused to listen for what he’d thought was House’s voice.

“And I mean, look at that paint job. I bet, yep, says right there, ‘Made in China.’ I bet you’re covered in date rape drugs. I’m crippled and I don’t need date rape drugs to get laid. How sad does that make you? I bet you’re full of viruses too. I hope you gave some to Jack Harkness when he tried to get in your pants. Not that you wear any pants, whore.”

Jack contemplated this string of insults and couldn’t come up with a single possibility for the object of House’s scorn. It made no sense, and he could feel his eyebrows trying to crawl up his forehead as his brain worked. One thing was for sure, though: the staff at Princeton-Plainsboro were worse at being discreet than Torchwood, and that was saying something.

“Frank Zappa wouldn’t name his kids after you if you were the only thing left in the world!”

Thing? Then everything clicked, and Jack ran to the intersection to intercept House. “So beating up Gwen isn’t enough; you have to take it out on her radiation scanner as well.”

House looked genuinely surprised to see him. The man must really have been enjoying his tirade not to realize half the hospital could hear him. “It’s not my fault your team’s equipment sucks.”

“That device is one hundred percent Earth manufactured.”

“Probably why it sucks.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Yes, but it also can’t hear you. What are you thinking?” He snatched the scanner away from the doctor and saw a flat line.

“See?” House said. “It’s a masochist.”

Jack pulled his tiny screwdriver out of his pocket and flipped the back panel open. “Tell me, doctor, what do humans do when they’re upset?”

“They yell at people.”

“They also become violent.” Jack gave a few of the wires a good push, and the device began emitting a series of beeps and bloops. “Loose wires. You were shaking it while yelling, thus causing it to work intermittently. I expected more sense from you, House.”

The diagnostician shrugged. “I enjoy yelling. It helps me think. By depriving me of my temporary amusement, you’re putting your colleague’s life at risk.”

“I’ve replaced the scanner with something you’ll hate even more.” Jack flourished his hands. “Me.” To be honest, he expected House to retort with a nasty comment rather than lift up his cane and try to beat him over the temples, but his short time around the doctor had honed his reflexes, and he managed to dodge the attack. While he was ducking, he aimed a punch at House’s stomach and sent the man reeling. Jack straightened, feeling pleased with himself, when House flipped the cane around and hooked his leg as he fell. The two of them went down in a heap, and Jack felt a fist make contact with his jaw.

“Misanthropic bastard,” Jack said, punching him back.

House threw him off, then body-slammed him. The two went rolling into a door, which crashed open, rebounded off the wall, and flew back into Jack’s head. Seeing stars, Jack failed to avoid House’s retaliation. “Overly peppy personal-space invader!”

Jack managed to catch House’s next blow and twist his arm around. He stood, forcing House up as well. The doctor tried to get behind him to free his arm, but Jack threw himself backward, slamming them both against a wall. House did a little hop and brought his full weight down through his elbow onto Jack’s shoulder.

“Argh!” Jack yelled. “I’m going to have to die or see a chiropractor to get that fixed!”

“Should’ve thought of that before messing with umph!” House replied as Jack swung him off into the counter. Containers and cotton swabs went flying as House sprawled against the shelves. Jack leapt at him, but House rolled out of the way, grabbed a bottle of tongue depressors and threw it at him. The sticks exploded everywhere as the jar bounced off Jack’s head and the lid snapped open. He nearly lost his balance and grabbed the closest thing nearby, which turned out to be the handle of a cabinet. The door swung open and slammed into House’s face as he tried to charge him. Then the handle ripped off and they both fell in a heap. The contents of the cabinet spilled down on them, and Jack grabbed the closest box that went bouncing past. It turned out to be a sample of Claritin, but he didn’t really care. Instead, he set about beating House with it as hard as he could.

“Get... off!” House lifted his arms over his face to protect himself from the rain of blows, but he couldn’t get away as Jack was sitting on his good leg. His cane lay abandoned on the other end of the room, so he did the only thing he could. He grabbed the nearest tongue depressor and stuck it up Jack’s nose.

“Ow, ged id oud!” Jack yelled, beating him harder.

They were interrupted by the clicks of safeties coming off three handguns. Jack turned his head to see the doorway crowded with soldiers. “Hi,” he said, waving sheepishly at them. The stick slipped out of his nostril and landed on House’s face. “Ew!” he exclaimed.

“Stand and put your hands up!” the soldier nearest them said. Jack complied, but House barely staggered to his feet before he fell again.

“I’m afraid I need that cane, my good man,” House said.

The soldier hesitated before gesturing at the cane with his gun. “Fine, go get it, but slowly.”

Jack nearly chuckled. House took close to fifteen seconds crossing the room, putting on the most pathetic display Jack had ever seen. It took him another ten seconds to hobble back onto his feet. By then, their captors were tapping their feet. House moved a few steps closer, then smiled. “That’s better,” he said. Half a second later, all three of them were unconscious on the ground, and Jack had to admit he was impressed.

“Those two look like our size. We should take their clothes,” Jack said. “That should spare us a lot of the attention we’ve been receiving.”

House eyed him with suspicion. “You just want to strip them.”

Jack grinned. “Does it matter? I bet you’d look good in a uniform.”

House twirled the cane in warning but let Jack approach the men. Once they changed, they examined themselves in the mirror, and House grumbled that he was too old not to be a commanding officer. Jack decided he vastly preferred the old look from the World Wars. “If I’m going to look like this, I should at least get a UNIT cap,” he muttered to himself. House whacked him in the shin.

When they returned to the scanner, it was still showing an elevated radiation trace. They followed it back into the hall and into a stairwell.

“That’s leading into the morgue,” House said.

“I hate looting dead bodies.”

“It’s not stupid enough to teleport into someone, is it?”

That was a good question, and Jack didn’t know, so he shrugged and replied, “Haven’t been feeling constipated, have you?”

* * *

"I hope Gwen is okay," Owen said when he and Foreman had finally run out of horror stories about their bosses.

"I'm sure she's fine. Whatever else House may be, he isn't a murderer." Foreman screwed up his face, like it took real effort just to say those words.

Before Owen could respond, there was a thump from the above that indicated someone was headed down. "Shit!" Owen hissed. "Where can we hide?"

"There!" Foreman dashed over to the opposite wall where all the cadaver lockers were and started pulling them open. "Find an empty one and get in!" He found one just as he said that and climbed awkwardly in. He heard Owen scrambling to climb into his own and he pressed his hands against the sides of the locker and pushed, sliding the drawer closed.

He heard a deafening click. Dread slammed into him like a hammer. He pushed against the walls, trying to open it again, but sure enough, it was locked shut.

"Don't close it all the way!" he yelled, hoping Owen would hear him, but even as he said it he heard Owen's drawer slam shut. "Fuck," he said, with feeling, then hastily shut up when he heard the door open and several pairs of footsteps loudly entering the room.

"There's no one down here, sir," said someone.

"All right, come back up here," said a voice that sounded like it was coming through a walkie-talkie.

"Roger," said the first voice, and then Foreman heard them leaving.

There was a minute of silence, and then Foreman heard Owen cursing vehemently from a nearby locker. He sighed and tried to make himself comfortable.

Chapter Text

"He's awake," the Doctor commented in an offhand manner as he walked by Jamie in the TARDIS hall, roughly a day following Jamie's heroic rescue of the boy on the burning spaceship. "Do tell me what he says, will you?" he added with a wink. Jamie watched as he rounded the far corner and then calmly waited about ten minutes before suddenly dashing over to the next door, an excited grin on his face. He opened it slowly and peeked in. Sure enough, the boy was sitting up and blinking slowly at his surroundings.

"Hi," Jamie greeted, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. The boy jerked in surprise, then frowned. Jamie hoped they could be friends. The TARDIS was always more fun with more people, and he often found himself missing Ben and Polly, Zoe, and Victoria greatly.

"Who are you?" the boy asked bluntly. Jamie wasn't deterred by the boy's lack of a friendly hello.

"I'm Jamie McCrimmon. Who're ye?" he responded cheerily, still standing by the door.

"This is the TARDIS, isn't it?" This question caught Jamie off-guard and he frowned, suddenly wary.

"Aye," he said slowly. "How'd ye know that, then?" The boy suddenly brightened up but again ignored his question entirely in favor of starting to speak very rapidly.

"So the Doctor did save me, then? I knew he would! Where did you come from? Where are Tegan and Nyssa? Where's the Doctor?"

"Woah, slow down! How do ye know about the Doctor?" Jamie said, immensely confused.

"Well, I travel with him, of course."

"Ye do not. I think the Doctor would notice if he left someone on a burning ship."

"Who are you? And what's with the skirt? " the boy said after a minute of confused silence.

"The person who saved your life, and it's no' a skirt, it's a kilt," Jamie said testily. "Be a little more grateful, would ye?" There was another awkward pause as the boy digested this.

"Where's the Doctor? I need to speak to the Doctor," he said finally.

Jamie had been thinking along the same lines -- the Doctor would set this straight. "Aye, fine," he said and left to find him.

He located the Doctor not too far away, informed him testily that the boy wanted to speak with him, then followed the Doctor back into the room.

"Hello. I'm the Doctor," the Doctor said pleasantly. The boy seemed offended by this.

"No you're not. Is this some sort of stupid joke?"

"I assure you I am." The Doctor didn't look especially surprised. Jamie did.

"Oh no! Don't tell me, you've regenerated again? Already?"

"What?" Now the Doctor looked surprised.

"What?" Jamie asked at the same time. "Regener-what?"

"How do you know about regeneration?" the Doctor added.

"Well, it happened right in front of me," the boy said haughtily.

"Oh dear. I think we may have an issue," the Doctor said, wringing his hands. "What are the odds?"

"Oh...." The boy seemed to be reaching the same conclusion as the Doctor.

"What's going on?" Jamie was still mystified, and it was annoying him.

"Quiet, Jamie," the Doctor said. "What's your name, boy?"

"I'm Adric," the boy said.

"Well, Adric, I don't know you but you obviously know me, which means you must come from some time in my future."

"So how did you know to come rescue me?" Adric demanded.

"I didn't. We landed there by accident, and it was Jamie who rescued you." Jamie was sulking in the corner now. Adric didn't even look at him.

"But... you didn't know me when you found me. I'm sure of it. If we had met in your past, wouldn't you have recognized me?"

"That is the curious thing, isn't it," the Doctor said slowly, like he was thinking hard. "I hope we haven't created a paradox--that'd be a very bad thing. Still, it looks as though the universe is holding together, so I think for the moment we have nothing to fear. I'd refrain from telling me anything about myself, though."

Adric nodded but didn't say anything for a while. Eventually, he whispered, "What happens to me now?"

* * *

A little more than half an hour later, a slight jolt alerted the three of them to the fact that the TARDIS had landed. The three of them had been talking, though it was mostly Adric asking questions and the Doctor (and occasionally Jamie, not always helpfully) answering them. Adric couldn't do much explaining about himself, because he was extremely aware that anything he said could become a problem.

The Doctor jumped up from the chair he'd pulled in front of the bed. "Oh, I forgot I set her to land!" He ran out and Jamie turned to Adric.

"Come with us! I want t' know where we've landed," he said, smiling.

"Alright," Adric said, and followed him out. When they entered the console room, the Doctor was fiddling with the controls.

"What's going on?" Jamie asked and leaned over, trying to get a good look.

"Nothing, nothing," the Doctor said, waving him off. "The TARDIS is giving me some strange reading, but I'm sure it's nothing. The planet seems to be completely hospitable. Why don't you two go ahead and see what it's like? I want to finish something up here really quick, but I'll be right there, I promise."

"Aye, sure," Jamie said and pulled the lever to open the door.

"Don't go too far away!" the Doctor called after them as they exited.

Jamie and Adric found themselves in the middle of a long, deserted hallway.

"Weird," Adric remarked.

"Where are we?" Jamie asked. Adric shrugged.

"The architecture looks similar to that on Earth," he said. They chose a random direction and went that way, then took the first turn they came across.

Jamie, who had been ahead by a couple steps, wheeled backwards in shock. He nearly ran into Adric, who jumped out of the way just in time.

"What are you doing?" Adric asked angrily.

"Shh!" Jamie hissed, and gestured for him to look around the corner. Adric did, then gagged and pulled back. Just around the corner were several humanoid creatures, and they were all steadily cannibalizing another.

"Gross," Adric said.

"I do not think we should stay here," Jamie said.

"Right," Adric agreed. Jamie glanced around the corner again, watching in sickened fascination as the creatures ate. They looked as though they weren't feeling too well; they were dirty, their clothes were ragged, and the way they were eating was way beyond messy. Otherwise, though, they looked human. He stared, trying to figure out what he was looking at, and he was so engrossed that he almost didn't notice Adric pulling frantically on his sleeve. Then he heard a loud noise, and a sense of displacement slammed into him.

Jamie froze at the terribly familiar sound of the TARDIS dematerializing.

"What--" he began, turning to discover the space behind him was suddenly empty. "Doctor?!" he cried in alarm, but the TARDIS was most definitely gone, and the Doctor with it. Adric did not react calmly to this turn of events.

"Look! He left! He's stranded us here! My Doctor wouldn't do that! I knew he wasn't really the Doctor." Quickly getting over his own shock, Jamie immediately stepped in to defend his friend.

"Don' be daft, o' course he's the Doctor! There must be some sort of reason he left. Maybe the TARDIS malfunctioned or something, it wouldnae be the first time."

"Hah! My Doctor knew how to pilot his TARDIS!" Adric retorted. Jamie was prevented from responding because one of the feasting people around the corner had heard the commotion they were making and, having completed his meal, had lurched around the corner and spotted them. His actions alerted the other two and all three of them were walking haltingly towards the two boys, arms outstretched grotesquely.

Jamie grabbed Adric's arm and sprinted off down a barely-lit corridor to their left. The original lights had obviously burnt out or been otherwise cut off from electricity, and only the dim emergency lights provided any way of seeing. Their footsteps echoed loudly on the linoleum floors. The creatures were slow, though, and moved as if they didn't have total control over their limbs. As Jamie and Adric turned the next corner they were already several minutes behind. Adric spotted an open door.

"In here," he cried, skidding to a stop and dashing in. Jamie followed, pinwheeling his arms to keep from falling at his sudden change in direction. He slammed the door behind them and turned the lock.

For a few moments, they stood in silence, trying to catch their breath. Without warning, Adric whirled around to face Jamie.

"Where is your Doctor now, huh? He's run away at the first sign of danger!"

"He'll be back, I know he will be. He wouldnae just leave us here; something must've happened."

"You have too much blind faith," Adric scoffed.

"It's no' blind!" Jamie defended. "I have faith in the Doctor because he's my friend! Because he's saved my life more times than I can remember, and that counts for a lot."

"Yeah, but my Doctor wouldn't have just left us to fend for ourselves without an explanation!"

Jamie was silent for a moment, then said softly, "Your Doctor did leave ye."

Adric wilted, his mouth gaping like a fish as he searched for something to say. Jamie turned away from him and finally started observing the room they were standing in. It was dark just like the rest of the building and was in a state of cluttered disarray. There were papers and overturned desks strewn all over the floor. Books lay in heaps, dirty and torn. In one corner was a cracked chalkboard.

"We're in a classroom," Adric breathed, briefly forgetting their argument in the face of this revelation. "This was a school."

"What happened, do ye think?" Jamie asked. Before Adric could respond, Jamie's natural curiosity got the better of him and he moved further into the room, hoping to explore. When nothing jumped out and grabbed him, Adric followed. Jamie sifted through a pile of papers, which turned out to be half-graded essays.

Uninterested, Jamie put them aside and began sifting through the largest desk, which was situated at the front of the room next to the chalkboard. It had a chunk of one corner missing, and there were some unpleasant-looking scratches on the top, but it was standing upright. If anything had been sitting on top of it, it had been swept to the floor and was mixed in with all the other debris. The drawers, however, appeared to be untouched and so Jamie went right for those.

Adric, meanwhile, had found a tall metal cabinet that was still standing against a wall, though it was leaning somewhat precariously to the right. He made his way over through the mess on the floor and tried to pry it open, but the door was blocked by a large pile of badly damaged books on the floor. He kicked and pushed them out of the way and pulled the door open with a little effort.

A couple of books, markers, pens, and a globe fell out on top of him.

"Ow!" Adric cried in alarm.

"Hush!" Jamie hissed from across the room. "Be quiet or those beasties will find us!"

"Sorry," Adric grouched. "I didn't ask for all this to fall on my head or anything."

"Well be careful. There may be broken glass or something lying about. It wouldnae do any good t' hurt yourself."

"I'm not a child, you know," Adric shot back petulantly. Jamie ignored him and went back to his own explorations. Adric pouted, then bent down and picked up the globe. He examined it for a minute with detached curiosity, holding it up so he could see it better in the dim light, then made a quiet sound of surprise. "Look at this! It's the Earth! We're on Earth! We must be!" Jamie shot him an incredulous glance.

"Doesn't feel like Earth," he said doubtfully. "It feels wrong. Evil. Makes me bones shiver. Earth never did nothin' like that, not even at the worst o' times."

"Well, it looks like Earth to me." Adric examined it more closely.

"Just because they have a... statue of Earth doesn't mean we're on it," Jamie reasoned.

"Oh, no, wait," Adric responded, ignoring Jamie. "I'm obviously not that familiar with Earth geography, but I'd like to think I've been there often enough to recognize major things, and isn't the big landmass that England's on called Europe?"

"Aye, probably. Why?"

"Well, it's definitely labeled as Europa here."

"Ah hah! Told ye it wasnae Earth," Jamie declared triumphantly.

"But everything else looks right to me! Maybe it's a typo or... or maybe it's called that in a different language. Or maybe we landed in the future and the name has changed!"

"Maybe," Jamie reluctantly agreed, though he made sure to project doubt into his voice. His rummaging through the desk had revealed very few items of interest. There were lots of pencils and pens, and papers, tape and a stapler, and a wooden red apple that was only a couple inches tall. He eyed the apple suspiciously for a minute before putting it in his pocket for later inspection and moving away from the desk.

There was a single, large window on the wall opposite the door, but the blinds were drawn so tightly it was impossible to determine whether it was night or day. Jamie trudged over and tried to pull them open, but something seemed to be sticking them there and they refused to budge at all.

"These windows," he grunted as he tugged on the string, "are stuck or something! I cannae get 'em open!" Suddenly, the string snapped and Jamie stumbled backwards and tripped over a dictionary. He landed flailing on his rear end. "Ouch," he whined, picking himself up gingerly. "Well, no way those blinds are gonna open now."

"Why don't you just try lifting them up and looking under?" Adric suggested in an off-hand manner from across the room. Jamie rolled his eyes.

"I'm no' daft, ye dumb kid. Tha's the first thing I tried. They're glued down or something." Adric, meanwhile, had reluctantly put aside the globe and was examining with interest what appeared to be behind an otherwise completely innocuous bookcase. He had noticed that the bookcase looked like it had been shoved where it was at short notice, rather than put there purposefully.

He cleared away the debris on one side and tried to push it out of the way. It wuickly proved too heavy for him, though, and he only managed to move it about an inch.

"Get over here and help me with this!" he said crossly. Jamie flashed him a put out look, but as usual curiosity got the better of him fairly quickly and he trekked on over.

Together, they were able to heave the bookcase out of the way and found that what was hidden behind it was a door. It was, predictably, locked.

Jamie pounded on it and shouted, and it wasn't long before there was a distinct scuffling sound behind the door. It cracked open and there was an emphatic shushing noise, followed by a woman's head poking out. There was a very stern expression on her face and she looked to be in her mid-thirties.

"Stop all that noise! You'll wake the dead. Literally," she added as an afterthought.

"Er," Adric managed.

"What--" Jamie began.

"Who are you and where did you come from?" demanded the woman.

"Um." Adric gaped.

"What--" Jamie tried again.

"No, hold up, come in here. It's dangerous out there," the woman interrupted again. Jamie looked livid but Adric, eager to put more walls between himself and the revolting flesh-eating creatures outside the room, gratefully pulled him in.

The room they found themselves in was smallish and looked vaguely like a bomb shelter, though there were two other doors that presumably led elsewhere, a couple of folding chairs, and an armchair. The woman who had spoken to them sat in the armchair, and she gestured for the boys to sit as well. Adric did, but Jamie just crossed his arms and glared.

"Now," she began again sternly, all business, "who are you and where did you come from?"

"I could ask ye th' same thing!" Jamie sputtered indignantly.

Before the woman could remark upon this outburst, Adric cut in. "My name is Adric, and this is Jamie," he said, and tugged Jamie, who grudgingly complied, into a sitting position by the back of his kilt. "Who're you?"

"How did you get in here?" asked the woman suspiciously.

"Now wait just a minute! Be fair! Answer our question first; we answered yours!" Jamie protested. She eyed him briefly, then apparently decided they looked to be more-or-less harmless. She let a little sigh escape.

"My name is Lynn, and I'm a teacher here at Duchess. Or I was, at any rate."

"Duchess?" asked Jamie. "Was?"

"What happened here? What are those... monsters?" Adric asked.

"It's my turn! How could you not know?" Lynn interrupted in a loud whisper. "What they are, I mean. And how the hell did you get in here? Is there a way out? Have they come to rescue us?" She began to get excited. Before either of the boys could answer, a second woman stepped out of one of the nearby doors. She was clearly older than Lynn and had very short , wispy grey hair that, combined with a set of severe-looking wrinkles, gave her a very wise demeanor. Or at least it would have had it not been for her imposing militant stance.

"Judging from their reactions and their appearance, I'd say they're definitely not part of any rescue team," she said bluntly, not bothering to hide the fact that she'd been listening in. "Thus we have to ask, how did they get inside the building?" The older lady turned her severe gaze on Jamie and Adric.

"How do we get out is a better question, I think," Jamie responded stubbornly.

"Well that's the problem isn't it?" Lynn said. "They've quarantined the whole school in hopes that they could contain the virus. No one is allowed in or out, under any circumstances."

"But am I correct in guessing that neither of you were here to begin with? Lynn doesn't recognize you and neither do I, and you frankly do not seem familiar with this place. So, how did you get in, and why?" the older lady finished. Jamie and Adric shot each other sheepish glances.

"Errr... that's a wee bit hard t' explain," Jamie said nervously.

"We had a, uh, a spaceship, see," Adric tried to explain, but the older lady but him off.

"Don't lie to me, boy. I've seen liars of all types here and I don't have the patience or time for silly jokes right now." Adric rolled his eyes, not surprised, but Jamie gaped at them, shocked that the two ladies wouldn't believe him.

"He's telling the truth!" Jamie protested.

"Don't be silly," Lynn broke in, sounding testy. "If you're going to be joking around at a time like this, we'll just throw you back out there for the zombies. And we really don't want to do that, trust me."

"Look," Adric began caustically, "you don't have to believe us, but I don't have the energy or motivation to make up some silly story in order to appease you. We came here entirely by accident. Our-- uh, spaceship landed in one of your hallways and then our traveling companion left without warning, leaving us stranded--"

"It was an accident," Jamie interrupted emphatically. Adric ignored him and continued.

"We don't want to be here, and we have no idea what is going on, so if you could please just fill us in that would be great." Several tense moments of silence followed this speech. Jamie fumed and sent dirty glares at Adric, who pretended not to notice.

"All right," the older lady broke the silence. "My name is Diane. I'm not saying I believe you, but for now we can just agree to disagree."

"Great!" Adric relaxed slightly. "So, where are we and what's going on, eh? You said this was a school?" Lynn seemed content to sit back and let Diane talk, so Diane adopted a long-suffering expression and did so.

"You're in Brownstown, at the Duchess Elementary School."

"Okay, but what country? What planet? What year?" Adric cut in to ask.

"What year?" asked Diane, taken aback.

"Och, we don't know, that's why we asked ye!" Jamie said. Adric rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, our spaceship is also, uh, a time machine." A couple moments passed with the speed and grace of a glacier.

"Uh huh," Diane finally said. "Okay, then, before I continue at all, I have a question: If you're telling the truth and you really have a spaceship, how did you land it in an enclosed space like this school?"

"Oh boy. It sort of... appears. It, er, disappears in one place and reappears in another. It , uh, teleports," Adric tried to explain.

"This is sounding more and more like a tall tale," Lynn stated skeptically. Adric shrugged.

"Sorry," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "So exactly where and when are we then?"

Jamie was still a little more than vexed over being disbelieved. "It's true! How else would we get in here?"

"I wish I knew," sighed Lynn.

"It doesn't matter right now," said Diane. "It's the year 1996 and you're on the planet Gaea in the country of North America. And the world's most rare and most dangerous virus has broken out here in this school."

"Are you trying to tell me that a virus turns people into rotting cannibals?" Adric asked incredulously.

"Well, it doesn't really... It kills them, within a day, or not much more, and then attaches to the brain nerves and mutates itself to keep their bodies functioning. Well, more or less functioning. They have no heartbeat, no pulse, they don't breathe, they have none of the normal signs of life, but they still keep moving. They have an insatiable hunger for fresh flesh, and they go after other humans first. The only way we've found to destroy them is to completely destroy the brain, but we really don't have the resources to do so. There are too many."

"Why are they so slow?" Jamie asked, thinking back to the group he and Adric had seen earlier.

"Well... of course we don't know for sure," Lynn told him. "It's dangerous, of course, attempting to capture them. One bite or scratch that breaks the skin even a little and you're infected with the virus. Then you inevitably become like them, if they don't devour you first. But they don't seem to have full motor control. The bodies are essentially dead, so not everything is working properly. And their digestive systems don't actually work either, so they're not digesting what they eat. It just sits there in their stomachs and rots; that's why some of them are so bloated."

"So why, then? What's the point of eating? Where does the virus come from?" Adric's head was swimming with impossibilities and questions.

"Well, like I said, we don't really know," Lynn said, sounding uncomfortable. There was a brief pause.

"So, are we on Earth or not?" Jamie asked suddenly, as though this had been troubling him for a while.

"No. We told you, you're on Gaea."

"But.... you're humans?"

"That's what I said."

"Well, I don't get it," Jamie declared, turning to Adric, who looked a little impressed that Jamie had caught that.

"You see," he explained, "Jamie is from a planet called Earth, where almost all of the customs are nearly identical to here, as far as we can tell. They also call themselves humans. Come to think of it," he added thoughtfully, "the language must be the same as well, or nearly the same. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to understand you without the TARDIS translating for us."

"What?" Lynn frowned.

"Och, who cares?" Jamie said evasively, not in the mood to do more explaining. "Let's get back to the point! Walking dead people?"

"Well," Adric began slowly, trying to logic his way through the identical planets conundrum, "from a purely statistical standpoint, it should be possible. I mean, if, as according to theory, time and the universe--this universe, at any rate--is infinite, there must accordingly be an infinite number of possibilities. Therefore, it follows that anything that can exist, must eventually exist in some place or time. So theoretically, it's possible for a planet somewhere in the universe to have undergone almost the exact same climatic and evolutionary changes as Earth, resulting in two nearly identical planets."

"What?" Jamie said, flabbergasted, a minute or so after Adric had finished. Lynn and Diane, however, peered at him with grudging approval. He shifted anxiously under their combined stare.

"As improbable and overly convenient as that sounds," Diane declared, "it is very, very clever. You're older than you look, aren't you?" Adric blushed, then looked as though he didn't know whether to be pleased or insulted.

"Not really, ma'am, I'm just good with mathematics, and that is a well-known theory."

"Just one thing," Diane continued. "The universe isn't infinite. It has an end."

"But," Adric interjected, affronted, "it's constantly expanding! And since time is infinite, we are could conclude that it will continue expanding indefinitely. And if you don't see time as a straight line, because it most definitely isn't, then the universe is infinite." Adric suddenly seemed embarrassed by his defensive outburst and added, "Either way, though, it is just a theory." Diane mulled over this.

"Yeah, well, one thing's fer sure," Jamie groused. "There never were any walking dead people on Earth. Dead people stay that way, or else just got deader."

"Well yeah, that's true, as far as I know. There are obviously some differences. But the idea of zombies definitely does exist on Earth," Adric said.

"What?"

"Well, maybe not during your time, I don't know, I'm not so good with Earth history. But I've read several stories about them in the TARDIS library. Humans--err, Earth humans--like to use them in fiction to scare each other, like vampires or ogres. For entertainment, I guess." Adric paused. Jamie scowled. "Uh, you don't have vampires here too, do you?" Lynn shrugged.

"Dunno. What are they?"

"Um, nocturnal people with fangs, drink blood, turn into bats, etcetera?"

"Don't think so."

"This is stupid. There's no way there's two Earths," Jamie whined. In the face of so much chat and so little action he was becoming restless.

"There aren't," Adric tried to explain. "Like I said, there are differences. For example, this planet is called Gaea, remember?" Diane chose that moment to speak up for the first time in quite a while, cutting off Jamie's retort.

"Well, I must say," she said, "at the very least, you two are putting on a convincing show."

"Um, thanks," Adric said uncertainly. Jamie pouted, but did not speak. There was an uncomfortable silence that was broken a minute later by a new voice.

"Mrs. Barry? Mrs. Walters? What's happening?" A young blonde girl, thin and dressed in a slightly dirty blue shirt and skirt, stepped out of the door to their right and carefully eased it closed behind her.

"Nothing, Mary. Go and get some sleep like the rest," Lynn told her. Mary's lower lip wobbled a bit and her hand fisted a part of her skirt.

"I can't sleep," she complained. Lynn sighed.

"Oh, very well. Come here, then." Mary climbed happily into Lynn's lap and turned inquisitive eyes up at the two boys. She smiled nervously at them and then turned her attention to Diane.

"Mrs. Walters, are they here to help us?" she asked.

"No, Mary. It doesn't look like it," Diane said. Mary yawned widely.

"Then why are they here?"

"They're aliens from another planet," Diane told her, shooting Lynn a significant look. Jamie looked mildly offended.

"Och, we're not the aliens, ye are!" he protested. Mary giggled at him.

"They came here on a spaceship. But they've lost their ship and their friend and now they need help too," Diane continued.

"Wow," Mary said, awed.

"How many kids are back there?" Adric asked.

"Not enough. Eight. Mary is the youngest. As far as we know, we're the only living people left in this school," answered Lynn. Jamie made a shocked noise.

"Wait--" he stammered. "A whole great building like this, full of kids, and they're all... dead?" He looked truly horrified for the first time.

"Duh," Adric said. "Where did you think all those zombies came from?"

"I didn't think about it," Jamie muttered, ashamed and repulsed at the same time.

"This school goes from the first through the ninth grade. Mary is the only survivor from the elementary section, as far as we know," Diane said.

"And you're all just living here? How? What about food, and water?"

"Well, we were lucky. There is a water fountain in the other room that still works. The disease only travels by direct contact, so they can't contaminate the water unless they rot in it, and so far that hasn't happened. They're not smart enough to work with each other. Food is harder. We have to make runs to the cafeteria for canned food. The zombies don't go for anything other than flesh, so the preserved food in there is relatively unspoiled, but lately it's been more dangerous than ever. They're starting to catch on, and they're thick among our routes. We're running out of food, so if help doesn't come soon..." Diane trailed off, apparently at a loss for how to continue tactfully in front of a child, but the point was clear. Mary had fallen asleep on Lynn's lap.

Adric suddenly had an idea.

"If you let us sleep here tonight, we'll get you food tomorrow," he said.

"Of course," Lynn immediately agreed. "We would have let you stay anyway. We're not so cruel that we'd send you back out there."

"What makes you think you'll be able to get to the food?" Diane asked suspiciously. Adric grinned at her.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll manage. We've been through worse. Anyway, I won’t be going. Jamie will." Jamie sputtered.

"Och, what?"

"You can do it," Adric said, patting his shoulder. Jamie slumped grumpily into his chair but didn't protest. "Now, we're pretty tired.... Where can we sleep?"

* * *

"No, no, no, nononono! What's happening? Why now?" The Doctor ran frantically around the console, trying desperately to make his TARDIS stop dematerializing. Nothing he tried did any good -- it seemed like the TARDIS was going into an emergency mode.

"No! At least tell me what's wrong! Oh, Jamie, oh no, we can't just leave them there!" The Doctor banged his fist against the console furiously, not really believing that it would help but needing to let out some frustration. The TARDIS abruptly stopped making noise altogether. "What? Shut down? Why?" The Doctor looked mournfully up at the viewing screen, but it showed nothing other than empty space.

"What happened...?" Instead of wasting more time on his anxiety, he immediately set about trying to discover what had gone wrong. He opened a panel in the wall and grabbed a couple of simple tools, then closed that panel and opened a few more.

"Oh, I do hope I'll be able to find my way back," he mumbled to himself as he tinkered with the innards of the TARDIS. Not five minutes later there was a small explosion and the Doctor reeled backwards, tripped over his own feet, and landed on his rear. "Oh dear," he muttered. He wiped his brow and sighed when a large amount of soot came off onto his hand. He pulled his handkerchief out of his front pocket, wiped his face deftly, and then got back to work. Something had to be up for the TARDIS to act that way, and if he didn't figure out what quickly, who knew what could happen to Jamie and Adric?

* * *

Lynn led Jamie and Adric into a dark mid-sized room with aggressively uninteresting walls and absolutely no furniture aside from a mass of mismatched bedding on the floor, which contained at a first glance sheets, blankets, curtains, towels, washcloths, and sleeping kids.

"I'm sorry, but we can't spare any blankets," Lynn whispered regretfully as she carefully placed Mary down on an empty blanket, trying not to wake the slumbering girl. "We don't have much and the kids are using it all. I know it's chilly, I'm sorry."

"That's alright," Jamie said quickly. The room was dark but there was a small light on the ceiling that was providing a minimal amount of light, so they could see to navigate around the mess.

"There's an empty corner over there," Lynn said, pointing. "The kids tend to huddle so you should have a fair amount of space to yourselves."

"Thank you," Adric said gratefully and made his way to the corner Lynn had indicated. Jamie followed. Lynn gave them an indecipherable last glance, then exited the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. She and Diane, she had explained, were taking turns watching the door while everyone was asleep, and so slept in the main room.

Jamie stood watching the door absently for a moment, but lowered himself gingerly into a sitting position on the floor when Adric, already sitting, tugged on his sleeve.

"We're stranded here," Adric murmured softly after a short silence. "This is a pretty bleak situation...."

"We're no' stranded," Jamie whispered back confidently.

"Seems to me like we are."

"We're not. The Doctor will come for us." Adric wished he had Jamie's conviction and absolute faith in the Doctor, but he didn’t, and he decided it was better to remain silent.

Jamie watched anger and doubt war on his face. He knew the Doctor had told him not to ask questions about Adric’s experiences, but he didn’t see how it could hurt. After all, Adric didn’t recognize him which meant he wasn’t traveling with the Doctor when they met. If Adric wasn’t part of his future, it wouldn’t cause a paradox for him to find out about it. That was such an easy jump of logic the Doctor must have known... unless he’d been afraid Jamie would let something slip. Well, the Doctor could count on him! He’d do right by both the Doctor and Adric.

“If you dinnae trust the Doctor, why did ye follow him?”

Adric jumped, as though he’d been so lost in his thoughts that he'd forgotten Jamie was there. He gave him a sullen look from behind his bangs and didn’t reply.

“What were ye doin' on that flamin’ ship?” he asked softly.

Adric still didn’t speak. The minutes dragged on, and Jamie was getting ready to give up when the boy finally said, “I was trying to save the Earth. I was trying to save Earth because the Doctor couldn’t. And it’s not even my home.”

Jamie sensed a faint jab at the Doctor; what was there that the Doctor possibly couldn’t do? Sure, Adric was smart--really smart apparently; even the teachers admitted it--but the Doctor was, well, the Doctor. Then he looked at Adric huddled in the corner, his clothing ragged and scorched despite the fact that they’d been washed, and he just looked scared now. If the Doctor was here, he would know what to say, but Jamie didn’t. Jamie knew about action, not speech, so he reached out and pulled Adric to him. The boy flinched and opened his mouth to protest, but then he realized Jamie wasn’t attacking him and let himself be swept up into a hug.

“I don’t care who your Doctor was, if he was the Dcotor he would never leave any of us.” He remembered, now that the Doctor had undone the efforts of his fellow Time Lords, how lonely he’d felt back on Earth. He didn’t even know why, but the Doctor had come back for him eventually. The Doctor always came back. Jamie had never had so much faith in anything, but he sensed that Adric needed something more. “But... but I promise ye, on a McCrimmon’s word of honor, that even if he doesn’t come back for ye, I will. I pulled ye out of that fire, dinnae I?”

He half expected Adric to reply with some scathing remark, but there was no response. The boy was limp in his arms, and as he watched his steady breathing, Jamie realized the boy had drifted into sleep.

It was only after Jamie himself had nodded off that Adric stirred. His eyes had been slitted open the whole time, and now he lifted his head to get a good luck at Jamie’s face. His brow was smooth and untroubled. Dropping his head back onto Jamie’s chest, Adric closed his eyes, and for the first time since he found himself aboard an alien TARDIS, he felt safe.

* * *

When Jamie woke, he was still in a room with sleeping kids, but there were only about half as many as there had been when he went to sleep. Also, Adric wasn't there. Muffled noises from the adjoining room answered his question before his mind could even form it. He carefully stood up, winced at the ache in his back, and stepped over a few kids to get to the door.

"Great!" Adric beamed at him as he walked through the doorway. "You're up! They're really, really low on food." He gestured towards the dubious vegetables he was eating. They did look pretty weak, like there was a reason they'd been saved until last, and it was that no one wanted to have to eat them unless absolutely necessary. There were several kids sitting around eating similarly pathetic breakfasts, or else doing other various morning activities.

"Right," Jamie said blearily. He wasn't sure if he was entirely awake yet; he didn't feel like he was. There was a short silence.

"So," Adric prompted.

"So?" Jamie asked.

"So go get some! You said you would, remember? And frankly, I don't care to be stuck eating this. It's really sub-par."

Jamie thought sourly that he'd had much worse in his life and that perhaps Adric was a bit of a pussy. "As I remember it, you said I would," he protested.

"Oh, quit your whining and just do it. How bad could it be?"

"Pretty bad, I should think." The retaliation was really just for show. The faces of the children around them had convinced him long ago. Jamie was already getting ready, checking to make sure his knives were in the right places and looking about to see if there might be anything he could use for a weapon that had a little more reach.

"Again, thanks so much for doing this," Lynn said. "I don't know how we would have managed otherwise."

"Och, it's no problem. At least, not much of one," Jamie told her, and strapped a pipe to his back. "Where am I going again?"

A half-hour later found Jamie directly across from the cafeteria. He'd managed to cleverly avoid zombies so far, which was contrary to his usual abrupt and straight-forward methods, but these were creatures he'd really rather avoid if at all possible. A little subterfuge was what was necessary, and it wasn't exactly outside of his wheelhouse.

However, now there were three zombies blocking his path. Jamie glanced down at the crudely drawn map Diane had given him (along with a sack for the food), frustrated. It seemed there was no way to get into the cafeteria without an encounter, and every second he waited heightened the risk that he'd be found. There was nothing for it but to charge them.

Jamie slowly drew the appropriated pipe from where it was strapped to his back. It was heavy and metal and about three feet long, and it wasn't a weight or style he was used to, but if he lost it all he'd have were a couple of small knives, which wouldn't do too much damage to a zombie. He had to separate the head from the body, or destroy the brain.

He took a deep breath and charged at the zombies. He slammed the pipe hard into the head of the closest zombie before the others could react, and it fell to the ground with a sickening thump.

"Raaaaugh," said one of the zombie's companions. It reached out at him and made a gruesome hungry face, but it was far too slow. Jamie took it out in the same way. The third zombie grabbed his arm from behind, but its grip was weak and dead and Jamie twisted away easily, bringing the pipe down hard over its head. It made a horrible, high-pitched screeching noise, but when it fell it lay still.

"That was surprisingly easy," Jamie muttered to himself, but the pipe was much heavier than he was used to and his blows had been clumsy as a result. On top of that, the noise he'd just made would surely bring hoards of curious zombies. He didn't have long to get what he'd come for.

Jamie dashed through the cafeteria doors and screeched to a halt. The room was cluttered beyond belief, and he had to seriously watch his step to avoid tripping over some debris. There were overturned tables and trays and bits of rotting food everywhere. Worst of all, there were two more zombies who were now lurching determinedly towards him.

He took a deep breath and ran at them. They were close together and he managed to bring them down with one solid swing. He turned towards the kitchen, but one of the fallen zombies hadn't been hit thoroughly enough, and grabbed his foot, biting into his shoe. Jamie slammed the pipe down on it several times to make sure it wasn't going to move again, then bent to examine his shoe. Luckily, they were sturdy and the bite hadn't come close to piercing the leather.

Jamie stood and dashed for the kitchen, hopping over several long tables as he went. The kitchen was a mess and most of the food that was still there looked fully inedible, but Jamie darted around grabbing cans and anything else that looked okay and tossing them into his sack. When he'd fit in all he felt he could reasonably carry, he swung the sack over his shoulder like a particularly unusual Santa Claus and ran out of the kitchen, over the tables, and out of the cafeteria.

There were packs of zombies closing in from every side, and they were moving surprisingly fast, much faster than he had see them move before. There was nothing for it -- Jamie tightened his grip on the sack and charged at the least densely populated section of zombies, swinging his pipe wildly with his one free arm.

He didn't stop to aim or make sure they went down. Instead he just plowed right through them, swinging the pipe in front of him to clear a path. He felt hands grabbing at him, although somehow none caught tightly enough to hold him, and had to fight back the urge to vomit at the wet, rotten feel of them.

Horrible moaning sounds filled the air and the rank stench of rot flooded his nostrils, but he kept going. With neither the time nor the necessary number of hands to check his map, Jamie ran more or less blindly in the direction he hoped was correct. He'd broken through the first pack, but zombies were still coming at him from all angles. He felt one latch onto his sack and he whirled around, bringing the pipe smoothly down onto its skull. The sickening crack echoed throughout the hall as bone broke beneath metal.

He was quickly becoming exhausted. The zombies were no match for him one-on-one, but in sheer numbers they were overpowering. Finally, he burst into a corridor that was devoid of zombies. He could see, hear, and smell them closing in on him from behind and every side and he realized with more than a little panic that he was completely lost. Jamie glanced back once more at the fast-encroaching hoard and then resumed running. An ache in his lungs began to make itself known, but with an endurance born of experience he ignored it.

There were no more monsters coming at him from ahead, but there was an innumerable amount chasing him, with more closing in from the sides, and more kept joining them with every passing second. Jamie was beginning to realize he might not escape this time when a familiar sound reached his ears.

Relief rippled through his body like nothing he'd ever felt before. His whole body seemed to be on fire, as adrenaline pumped like a rocket through his veins. Achingly slowly, the TARDIS materialized behind him, partially blocking the mass of zombies from view.

As soon as the TARDIS was fully materialized, the door swung open and the Doctor stepped out. He glanced around and grinned when he saw Jamie.

"Oh, good, it did work! Jamie, what's going on?" he said as Jamie reversed direction hard.

"Och, no time for tha', Doctor!" Jamie shouted at him, and rocketed headlong into the TARDIS, grabbing the Doctor by the coat as he passed and pulling him in with him. He slammed the doors shut, dropped the sack, and doubled over, heaving.

"Jamie, Jamie, oh dear, are you alright? Where is Adric? And what is this disgusting old bag?" the Doctor was asking, alternating between looking Jamie over and casting worried glances at the doors.

"Why'd ye leave?" Jamie asked once he'd gotten his breath back. The Doctor looked apologetic.

"Ah, well, it wasn't me, it was the TARDIS. There's something here that causes paradox problems for her -- she couldn't stay. I just wish she'd given me a little more warning.... But believe me, Jamie, I would never intentionally leave you behind, and I've been working non-stop to get back ever since." Jamie beamed exhaustedly at him, immeasurably pleased to have had his faith validated. "That's not important right now, though, is it? Where is Adric? We need to get out of here before the TARDIS starts having serious problems again."

"Right, right," Jamie said, serious again. He'd momentarily forgotten his original mission with the excitement of seeing the Doctor again. "I need t' get this back t' the children, we need t' help them! Me and Adric found a group of survivors. They're all holed up in this wee room and they're out of food. Adric is there now. Och, how're we going t' get there now? We're probably surrounded by those nasty zombies!"

"'Adric and I', Jamie," the Doctor corrected absently. He was already fiddling with the console. "Zombies, are they? Well, not to worry, Jamie, I'm much better at piloting short distances. I'm sure I can make it. Where in the building are they, did you say?" Jamie looked dubious, but he pulled out the crude map and showed the Doctor what he knew. The TARDIS shook as it dematerialized and Jamie felt a vague sense of dread, but it rematerialized very soon after and when he opened the doors he found himself looking at several children of varying ages who were staring back at him, wide-eyed. He sighed in relief, then stepped out.

"I got the food, kids!" he said brightly. "But even better, I think I may have found us a way out of here."

The kids swarmed up to the door, looking inside while exclaiming to each other in wonder, and inadvertently blocking the Doctor as he tried to get out. Adric, Lynn, and Diane stepped out of the side door and gaped at him.

"Doctor!" Adric said, sounding disbelieving. Jamie ginned, feeling overwhelmed with joy at the knowledge that he had been right about the Doctor, and that Adric knew it.

"Where did that thing come from?" Lynn asked. "And who are you?" she added to the Doctor, who had finally managed to herd the kids away from the TARDIS and shut the doors behind him. The children were all making a lot of excited noise, and she had to strain to be heard over them.

"You can call me the Doctor," the Doctor said, and put out his hand for her to shake. She stared at it and he withdrew it after a beat. He turned towards Diane. "Nice to meet you two."

"Hush," Diane told the kids. They hushed.

"He's our friend, I told you about him! He came back, I knew he would," Jamie said. "He can get us all out of here, too!"

The kids started whispering excitedly again.

"How did that get in there?" Lynn asked.

"That's not important right now," the Doctor said while Jamie and Adric both rolled their eyes. "If everyone could pile in, I can easily get us out of this building."

"I don't think we'll all fit," Diane said, eyeing the small blue box suspiciously.

"Ah, I think you'll find we will."

They did.

The Doctor dropped off the two fascinated adults and the herd of enchanted kids some miles away from the school in a completely zombie-free zone. They discovered that there was a large perimeter around the school into which no one was allowed entry. An apologetic and mystified guard told them that their scanners had picked up no signs of life at all inside the school, which was why there had been no rescue attempt, and that it was an almost entirely contained incident - an office building only a couple blocks away had also had a zombie breakout, but it had been taken care of much more quickly and there were many more survivors. The Doctor had speculated that the reason their scanners didn't appear to work was because of the high concentration of zombies, which were essentially the opposite of life, blocking their path. Jamie, lacking the Doctor's optimism, suspected a bit of a lie, bit he was unwilling to disrupt the gleeful atmosphere by saying so.

The Doctor was fascinated by the planet, which was almost a mirror of Earth, similar enough that it could have easily been from a parallel dimension, although that was clearly not the case. "This must have been what was causing the TARDIS to jump," he remarked. "She was reacting as though it were a parallel dimension!"

The area where they'd landed was a camp that was set up just outside the perimeter, around which a tall, sturdy fence had been built. Thus far they hadn't had any problems with zombies leaving the two buildings, but the fence was a necessary precaution until they figured out how to get rid of the zombies altogether.

The camp was populated by survivors and also by the refugees whose homes had been within the perimeter. There were several hundred reasonably spacious tents, with guards and civilians milling about everywhere in between. There were large army trucks filled with rations, first aid, and other necessities. Jamie had eyed his own sad sack of dubious food, then gone and hid it underneath a nearby truck. Diane had spotted him and thrown him a wink.

By the end of the day, all the children were reunited with what remained of their families. The Doctor declared their work done, but Adric wanted to stay and explore a little more, so when they were offered a tent, the Doctor reluctantly agreed to let them stay the night.

They didn't get much sleep; the Doctor wanted to learn as much as possible about the planet as long as they were staying there, and Adric wanted to know everything there was to know about the zombies. Jamie got bored with the questions quickly, and went outside where he found several young children playing with a frisbee who taught him how to play. Adric kept casting vaguely suspicious glances at the Doctor all evening, but he never said anything. The strong feelings of relief and discovery kept all three of them in a slightly giddy state and by the time morning came about, none of them had slept too well, though it didn't really bother them.

Satisfied that everything was fine, they quietly left despite protests from the people at the camp. Everyone was curious about the TARDIS and wanted them to stay, but the Doctor felt it best for them to leave.

As the TARDIS was dematerializing, Jamie pulled Adric aside. "I told ye," he said, grinning. "I told ye the Doctor would come back! He'd never leave us on purpose."

Adric looked torn between being relieved Jamie had been right and peeved that he had been wrong. "Yeah, okay, but--"

"How are you two?" the Doctor said, unwittingly interrupting him.

"We're great, Doctor!" Jamie said. "Where are we off to now?"

"Now? Oh, I don't know. I suppose we'll have to find out."

Chapter Text

A soft light glowed at the bottom of the ladder, warm and yellow like the emanation of a homely lamp. It seemed out of place to Tosh, who’d pictured some stark research facility lit by fluorescent lights and infrared sensors. That would have been a contrast with the actual manor itself, and she supposed the reality made more sense, but when Tosh was putting her life on the line, she liked the surroundings to acknowledge her effort.

The descent seemed to last forever, and Monty’s pants echoed up to her, growing louder with each rung. Sometimes, when she gripped one of the steel beams, she felt slick drops of blood on it, and her heart ached. Still, he had chosen this path, and one way or another, he would be all right. Unless I have to fight him. Would she be able to shoot if necessary?

She shifted the opening of her bag so that she could see her scanner screen. The LCD display showed seven figures waiting at the base of the ladder, but she saw nothing. There were no shadows and no hint of movement. With about ten meters remaining, Monty paused. Looking down, she saw him motion for her to stay put while he continued down. She gave him a thumbs up, and he continued moving.

Her heart thudded in her ears as he closed the final meter and set foot on solid ground.

“Hi,” Monty said, putting up his uninjured arm in the beginnings of a wave, but then he stopped and looked about confused. Peering about, he went a ways down the tunnel, his footsteps fading away. He returned after a short pause and said, “There’s no one down here.”

“I’m reading at least seven people within two meters of you!”

“I swear, there’s no one here!”

Tosh slid the remaining distance down the ladder, unwilling to take the suspense any longer. It was further than she thought, and the shock of landing caused her legs to fold. She stumbled, but Monty caught her. She heard a sharp intake of breath as she brushed against his arm, but then she was steady. She looked around, anticipating an attack at any moment, but Monty hadn’t lied; there was no one there.

The hall was carpeted a thick, luxurious navy blue, and faux candelabras lined the walls, complete with flickering bulbs. A florid wallpaper stretched all the way to a distant doorway some hundred meters away, and the abundance of flowers made her dizzy. Her scanner reported several more guards along the way, including two by the door. All of them were invisible.

Invisible...

“Oh my god!” Tosh exclaimed. She glanced down at the scanner again, and sure enough, it now read no one present. “It’s a hallucination!”

At that moment, the world rippled, as though a shockwave passed through, and she was surrounded by the governor’s private security detail. She turned to Monty, but the men closed in and all she could see was a wall of black kevlar. She knew his protests would not be forthcoming, but even so, she waited for him to cry out, “Stop! She’s with me! I’m the governor’s aide! Take your hands off her!”

Sure enough, Monty made no noise.

“Monty, you bastard!” she screamed. She kicked at the men grabbing her, but they forced her to the ground, and she got a mouthful of the carpet. She knew she couldn’t overpower them, but she fought on anyway, kicking and punching and scratching, all the while wailing uncontrollably. “I trusted you! I wanted to believe! I knew better, but I still hate you!” Tears poured down her face, and her mad struggle nearly bought her freedom, but then one of the men slammed his foot into her abdomen and she doubled over, sobbing and choking and shrieking, “I hate you, Monty, I hate you!”

She saw a white cloth come down upon her face like a shroud, and for a moment, she welcomed it, but then she remembered that she was giving in to him, making things easier for the man who’d betrayed her, and she turned her face away, refusing to bring air into her lungs even though she’d wasted her breath in wracking cries. I’ll suffocate before I give in! But a hand grabbed her collar and jerked her up. An open palm sent fire across her cheek, and she gasped in shock. The cloth entered her mouth, and the guard stuffed it in further and further until she was choking. The smell filled her nostrils, and she felt a numbness spread across her face, into her brain and down her neck. Even as she went down, a deep moaning continued to rattle in her throat, terrible enough to give even her captors pause. Well that was fine. She hoped they remembered it. She hoped he remembered it until the day he died.

Darkness closed in, and even then, all she could think about was how it matched the color of his hair, how the strands felt in her hands as she pulled him in for a kiss that seemed a million years ago. She felt a million years old, and if that was a kiss of innocence, then this moment was the doom of old age.

* * *

House was perplexed to discover that someone had cleaned up the morgue a little since he was last there. At least, there were no more unconscious men laying about. Jack was surprised by the large dents in one of the walls, and was even more surprised when House informed him they were the result of a combination of Gwen on an adrenaline rush and high-velocity soldier bodies.

Only a couple minutes into their search for the elusive alien device, something started pounding very loudly from inside the cadaver lockers. House dove behind a nearby table, livid with shock. "What did you do," he hissed at Jack, "to bring the dead people back to life?"

"I didn't do anything!" Jack protested. House ignored him because he'd just noticed that there was a person covered by a white sheet, in front of him under the table. The person was breathing in a raspy, labored way. House yelped and scrambled backwards.

"Okay, I'm alright with aliens and all that, whatever, but dead people should stay dead!"

"Hello?" Jack said to the lockers, ignoring House.

"Who's there? Get me out of here!" screamed a muffled voice. Jack's eyebrows shot up.

"Owen?" he guessed.

"Obviously! Is that you, Jack? Get me out of here!"

"Me too!" shouted a second voice, from a locker two over to the right.

"And that's Foreman," House said. "So okay, they probably aren't dead people coming back to life, but what about these people under the tables! They're breathing!"

"Oh, they're still alive. We put them there," said Foreman.

"Right," Jack said. "We'll get you out. Hang on a minute."

"Hurry! It's stuffy in here and it smells," said Owen. Jack pulled on the drawers, but naturally they were locked. He glanced around for a key or at least a lock-picking device of some sort, but before he found one House called him over.

"I think I found it," he said, and pointed up. There the device nonchalantly sat, at the very top of a very tall cabinet. House made to poke at it with his cane, but Jack grabbed it, stopping him.

"What are you doing?" he said, aghast.

"Getting it down. Duh," House said.

"Don't just knock it down! What if something happens?"

"Alright, then you get it down." House stood back, perfectly happy to stay out of everything.

Jack huffed, then grabbed a nearby folding chair and placed it next to the cabinet. It was a little wobbly, but he decided he didn't care.

"What are you guys doing? Hurry up!" shouted Owen impatiently.

"Hold your horses," House snapped back. Jack could just barely reach the top of the cabinet when standing on the chair. His fingers scraped along the top, their tips just barely brushing the smooth surface of the device. He jumped a little, trying to grab it, and missed, knocking the device off the top. At the nearly same time he landed back on the flimsy chair, which gave way beneath him, and House dove forward to catch the falling device.

House landed stomach down on top of the device and Jack landed directly on top of him.

There was an eerily familiar complete silence.

Inside the lockers, Foreman was getting impatient. After a full minute with no more sounds he started pounding again.

"House! House! This had better not be a sick joke! Let us out!" he shouted.

"Foreman!" he heard Owen say from his locker. "I think something must have happened. It sounded like they fell or something."

"Oh god," Foreman moaned. "You know, I thought this day had hit its lower bound, but nope, if there's one thing I'm learning from this it's that things can always get worse."

* * *

Strange, Ianto mused. He could treat the fight with Howell exactly like any other fistfight, and all the punches that he landed seemed to hit the alien, yet he knew that its anatomy resembled nothing of a human’s, so how could that possibly work? Did the alien technology account for his actions in the hallucination, or did the hallucination guide his mind toward the right parts of the alien’s body to strike. And if the alien had any degree of control over the hallucination, why would it help Ianto pursue a successful fight?

Of course, given that the violent fistfight was continuing right this instant, Ianto suspected there was something wrong with his mind when he spent more time analyzing the logistics of alien technology than focusing on the battle at hand. Or rather, there was nothing wrong with his mind, but it had entirely the wrong priorities.

On the other hand, Howell had been caught off guard by Ianto’s sudden attack. His eye continued to bleed, though the flow had slowed to a trickle, but the combination of factors led to him falling into a corner where Ianto could thoroughly pummel him with little fear of retaliation. Rebeca might have been in a position to help had Howell not fallen upon her leg when Ianto punched him. As a result, she lay on the floor, and though Ianto doubted she’d even sprained herself, she seemed content to watch the brawl. From the glimpse of her face that he’d gotten, she was too amused to intervene.

The air about them began to fizzle as Howell’s human form began to break up. “Shouldn’t you be... trying to escape?” he wailed at Ianto, his voice rising and falling with the intensity of his disguise.

“That’s a good point,” Ianto said, grabbing hold of his two eye-tentacles and tying them into a knot. “But it’s not like I can’t leave whenever I want.”

Howell’s jaw reared up at him and roared, his rows of teeth almost quaking from the force of his exhalation. “I wouldn’t be so sure!” he rumbled.

Too late, Ianto saw one of his arms had grabbed hold of a grenade-shaped container on the collar around his neck. He tried to pull his hand away, but Howell undid the valve with a snap of his fingers. A mustard-colored gas burst forth with the speed of an explosion and filled the room. Ianto caught the full blast before he could hold his breath, and he staggered back as it filled his lungs. It had an acrid taste, a mix of burnt orange peels and fresh toast, and his skin began to tingle as he collapsed to the ground.

“What’d you do?” he coughed, but Howell had fallen on his back again, twitching and unresponsive. So at least the gas had the same effect on the aliens. Judging by the fact that a thick fog had now spread into the surrounding rooms, he wasn’t in any immediate danger from other people. He just hoped Howell wasn’t crazy enough to commit suicide just to take him out.

Losing his balance, Ianto fell on something soft and found himself face-to-face with Rebeca. She still had a small smile on her face, but her open eyes stared at him without comprehension. He tried to push himself back up, but he could no longer feel his arms. None of his limbs responded to his attempts to move them. A rainbow of colors swept across the room, and the walls began melting. You’ve got to be kidding me, he thought.

“Do you see the wallabies?” Rebeca asked no one in particular. “I didn’t know you could train them to tap-dance.”

* * *

When Tosh awoke, she found herself sprawled on a hardwood floor. Searing white lights blazed down at her, and she raised an arm to shield her eyes. She blinked a few times and made out... curtains?

A tremulous ‘A’ started up, echoing through an empty auditorium, growing louder as more strings joined up. She looked to her right to find herself on the edge of a stage. Below her, the pit orchestra continued tuning, and the conductor gave her a reassuring smile.

Where the hell am I? she wondered, rubbing her head.

“The better question might be ‘What did they drug me with?’” a familiar voice told her.

“Monty!” she cried out, stumbling to her feet at the sight of the man walking out from the shadowy recesses of the stage. He was dressed for a ball, complete with a suit Ianto would’ve killed for and a velvet cape the color of the twilight sky. When he moved, the stage lights made the material glimmer as though covered in a million stars. He swept her up in his arms, and she nearly forgot the last few hours.

The brush of satin against her thighs made her look down, and she saw she was wearing a maroon gown. “What did you do to me?” she asked, but the more she thought about the situation, the less it made sense. The only explanation had to be that she was still unconscious and having visions. She remembered the cloying scent of the cloth and realized it hadn’t been chloroform.

“So this is my imagination,” she said.

Monty gazed at her with furrowed brows. “A tad cliché, this, isn’t it?”

The orchestra launched into a four-four beat, and she recognized it as a tango.

“I don’t dance,” she protested.

“Well, I’m not responsible.”

What’s wrong with me? she thought as Monty pressed their bodies tighter together. Maybe the aliens are influencing my dreams. But no, she suspected this was entirely her own mind. Her sick, twisted mind.

“The sequence of steps is slow, slow, quick, quick, slow,” Monty whispered into her ear.

“I—”

“Don’t worry. It’s tango. I lead, you follow.”

Tosh had to bite her lip to keep from crying. “If that’s the way you like it,” she whispered.

The music crescendoed as they swept across the stage, one, two, three, four, quick, quick, slow. Monty’s every movement was forceful but gentle, and the pressure of his body served to suggest rather than demand where she put her next step. The air swirled about them like gusts of wind as they glided from one foot to the other, and for a while, they moved as one, their actions saying everything words could not.

As they danced, the lights began to fade. Tosh couldn’t spare the concentration to look upward, but shadows flitted at the edge of her vision the way Monty’s cloak billowed when they turned. As Monty spun her, the violins suddenly ceased, leaving only a low chorus of cellos and violas. For the first time, she saw figures of black smoke whirling about them, all paired off and spinning to the same music.

Then she realized the spotlights weren’t turning off; they were shifting to a different couple. Dust danced as cones of light swept over the dancing figures, smoke turning to flesh for the briefest of instances as the beams illuminated them. Tosh thought she recognized the men and women, some her old university mates, others random people she’d seen strolling in the streets. As soon as the light was off them, they turned to ghosts again, but one pair just grew more and more solid until all the stage was dark save for the circle in which they moved.

This was one dance the two Captain Jack Harknesses had never shared; the one from 1941 led while her Jack followed, but as she watched, they parted, and the first one stepped out of the light, disappearing before her eyes. The spotlights parted, leaving the remaining one standing alone, still as a statue while the other figures fluttered past, oblivious to his presence.

The orchestra thundered at her ears. She felt the stage tremble beneath her feet, as though they were giants tearing the world apart in their wake. Wood splintered and beams cracked, but Tosh and Monty had eyes only for each other. Faster and faster they went, shaking dust from the rafters. The violins picked up their parts again, and the room collapsed faster. Curtains tore as invisible moths chewed through them. Rust and rot ate the seats; the ground turned to dust, whirlwinds churning them into funnels that shot up like pillars.

Now, they were the focus of attention again. Brighter and brighter they grew, until halos lit up their skin and the heat from their bodies caused the air to shimmer. Their breaths mingled, and sweat dripped from her brow. Louder and louder the music became, even as entropy took the pit. She wasn’t even sure what the dance was anymore, or whether the finale was anything like the beginning, but it didn’t matter. All she knew was that she had to keep moving or turn to dust as well. Faster, faster, but still more graceful. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. The music filled her, resonating every cell in her body until she thought she would explode. She wondered if that meant it was their turn to vanish as well, but when the final note struck, it was the destruction that died instead, and the white-hot light turned to black without any intermediate transition.

They stood motionless, still pressed together, chests heaving from the exertion. All around, there was nothing.

This...

...this is your life.

The music and the heat, all the dizzying emotions that had flooded her, began draining away. She couldn’t even see Monty, but that made her feel better. Now, there was nothing standing in their way, nothing to prevent the pure truth from passing between them.

“You betrayed me!” she yelled, punching him in the shoulder.

“What makes you think that?”

“It’s obvious! You took me into a trap back in that secret passageway. You didn’t defend me! You were willing to say anything to obtain my trust! You told me you would die for me, but who decides that after knowing someone for two days? You work for the governor, and I know he’s a traitor! That tow truck--our car had no parking violations, so what were the chances of both of us getting towed at the same time? The aliens arranged it all, didn’t they? ‘Let’s attach a spy to Toshiko, because she’s so desperate she’ll trust anyone who shows an interest in her!’”

“Those are your words, not mine.”

“Fine. If you’re not a traitor, prove it!”

“I can’t.”

“Then you’re a liar!”

Monty squeezed her close until she couldn’t breathe. “I can’t prove it, not without your full consent. There’s many forms of betrayal. If I’m innocent, then you’ve betrayed me in your heart. And this proof... there’s no turning back. One of us is damned either way.”

“Then so be it!”

Her defiance met a silence that dragged on for close to half a minute. She was about to rage at him again when she realized a wind was blowing against them. Goosebumps sprang up on her skin as an ice cold chill sank into her bones. Her breath turned to fog as a faint gray light cast them into a faded world of snow.

In the distance, a soft thumping, like the beat of a heart, sounded with disturbing regularity. Monty’s face was a grim mask, and she shifted under his gaze. Her heels crackled against ice, and she saw they were standing on a frozen lake. “Oh my god!” She gasped as she saw they were surrounded by human scalps lying in irregular circles upon the surface. “Where are we?”

“The ninth circle of Hell,” Monty replied. “Final resting place for traitors.” There was an aching sadness in his voice, and she felt his fingers dig into the fabric upon her back, trembling and afraid to let her go. With a sinking feeling of dread, she turned to see the giant form of Lucifer towering over them, his ragged wings beating out the frozen winds of his prison.

“You demanded proof,” Monty said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I had no choice.” He jerked away from her, unable to stay and unwilling to go.

“What proof? Monty!” She stepped forward to take hold of his hand but realized she couldn’t move. Looking down, she saw that her feet were frozen, the ice already as high as her ankles. “Monty, what’s going on!”

“I told you one of us would be damned. There... my proof is there in your doom.”

Tosh grabbed her leg and pulled, but the ice climbed up her skin relentless as a glacier. “Don’t leave me here!”

“You betrayed me, Tosh. You didn’t trust me.”

“I’m sorry!” she screamed. The surface was rising faster now, and her hips became immersed. She started flailing, but when her hands touched the ice, they caught and started sinking as well. “I’m sorry! All the evidence was against you!”

“It’s too late,” Monty said, wringing his hands. “I can’t do anything. I can’t, and...” he ran his hand through his hair, pulling at it until chunks start falling. “Oh my god I can’t do this!”

He dashed forward, taking hold of her arms and pulling as hard as he could. Her gown tore beneath his grip, but she kept sinking lower and lower. The ice was at her chin now, and a shadow fell upon them. She looked up to see a gaping jaw come down upon them. Terrible certainty filled her; she was sure that must be what the aliens looked like. The entire invasion was judgment. She screamed, but Monty didn’t even look up. He just kept tugging at her, refusing to let her go. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. I betrayed you too,” he kept muttering.

“No you didn’t! You didn’t! Get out of here while you still can!”

The creature clamped its teeth around Monty and, with a snap of its neck, sent him flying through the air. His body tumbled about, limp as a rag doll, and disappeared into the faded heights of the cavern. She tried to scream his name, but her jaws were locked, and as her head went under, her eyes remained fixed upon the spot where she last saw him, forever pointing at the proof of her guilt.

* * *

Only about half an hour following the incident in the morgue, House woke up. His leg was throbbing and there was something really heavy on his back. Further inspection revealed that to be Jack, still unconscious. House heaved himself up, throwing Jack off. Jack hit his head on the floor with a loud crack! and woke suddenly.

"What!" he shouted. House's raised an eyebrow as he heard in the back of his mind, Ouch, my head! What happened? Oh shit the alien device! He was fairly sure it hadn't been him who thought that. His head was just fine.

Meanwhile Jack had grabbed the smooth, ovular device, which was still sitting innocuously where it had fallen, and pocketed it. Halfway through the motion of standing up, he froze.

"Ohhhh no," he said. House felt a wave of comprehension that he was sure wasn't his own, because he still had no idea what was going on. He used a table as leverage to get himself to his feet.

"What did you do to me, you bastard?" he said to Jack.

Jack stared at him. "Are you, uh, hearing voices? Or something?" he asked. Please say no. I don't want to deal with this, House heard.

"Yeah, because you did something to me! While I was unconscious! You're sick!"

"I didn't do anything to you! I was unconscious too," Jack retorted.

"So why am I hearing a voice in the back of my mind that sounds like you?" House demanded.

"I don't know! I'm hearing you!" They both stiffened.

"Oh hell," they said at the same time.

"It must've been this," Jack said, pulling the alien device back out from his pocket.

"I thought it switched peoples' minds, not linked them," House said. In a way, he wished that had happened, not because he in any way wished to be Jack, or to even be associated with him, but because Jack's body had the obvious advantage of not having a bum leg. A muffled ruckus from the direction of the cadaver lockers briefly registered in his mind, but he dismissed it in the face of infinitely more important matters. He felt the same brief notice and quick dismissal coming from Jack, but he didn't know whose thoughts had triggered whose.

"Well," said Jack, "we don't really know what it does. We only know what it did. Never assume something only has one function."

"So basically, this is just some sort of psychic alien mind-raping device?" How does it work? The nanotechnology must be astounding. Maybe some sort of neuron mutator or converter? Jack was thinking. House deliberately tried to send the thought Shut up and answer his way and was pleased to see it must have worked when Jack glared at him.

"I suppose you could think of it that way," he said. "This sort of technology is way past the limits of my knowledge and experience, but whatever it is has to work by manipulating psychic energy in some way. The number of things it is potentially capable of is infinite."

"Nothing's infinite," House said, instinctively latching onto something he could apply logic to. "Everything has an end. People only use "infinite" when they don't have the brains to imagine something really big."

"I am not arguing with you over something that inane." Jack sighed. You have no idea, House heard. "We have bigger problems to deal with."

"So what are you waiting for?" House said.

"What?"

A sense of horror House hadn't previously realized he should be feeling crept over him. "You can reverse it, right?" he said.

"Why would I be able to do that? I already said I don't know how it works!" Jack said, frustrated.

"Are you telling me that the mighty, confident leader of a top-secret alien-catching gang is stumped by a two-inch egg with an impish streak?"

* * *

The troupe of Riverdancing wallabies made a loud enough racket that Ianto and Rebeca ran no risk of being overheard despite the fact that Howell sat two seats down from them.

“You’re not very upset at being gassed,” Ianto remarked.

“We’re having a new experience, aren’t we? And I’m sure we’re seeing the same thing. Just think, if we could discover the chemical makeup of the gas, how much money a drug like this would make. Communal hallucination: it’s not restricted to people with access to exotic frogs anymore!”

Ianto sighed. “We’re not very well-dressed for the evening. We are going to be here a while, aren’t we?”

Rebeca wrinkled her nose. “When the performers smell like that, I don’t think it’s a black tie event.”

He ignored her and decided to put the limits of his mind to the test. An image of his favorite suit fixed firmly in place, he closed his eyes and concentrated. When he opened them again, his ragtag outfit had been replaced with a brushed and ironed suit with a red shirt and striped tie. “Excellent,” he said.

Rebeca leaned over and ran her finger down his cheek. “I think you’d look better with nothing on.”

For a moment, his clothing flickered worryingly, but then one of the wallabies tripped and fell off the stage onto Rebeca, redirecting her mind to more pressing matters. “I hate glitter!” she squealed, pushing the flailing marsupial away. It hopped away looking disgruntled.

“They do have good form most of the time, though.”

“Yes, they’ve adapted the performance quite well. I wonder which one of us is responsible.”

“You were definitely talking about them when I went out, so I’m blaming you.”

“What would you have preferred, Mr. Bond?”

Ianto shrugged. “I like wallabies, but I pictured a petting zoo. Oops.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew both of them would picture a similar setting, and sure enough, the auditorium popped out of existence to be replaced by an expanse of dirt and yellowing grass. The wallabies continued dancing behind a wooden enclosure, stirring up clouds of dust and foul smells.

“YAAAAARGH!” Howell screamed as his seat vanished from under him, plopping him into a large, muddy puddle. Ianto and Rebeca, more prepared for the transition, stood a distance away, leaning against the fence. A lone eye protruded from the muck, its tentacle pointed at them with a baleful bent.

“You know,” Ianto called to him, “if the gas was an attempt to win our fistfight, you’re not doing a good job at following up.” A thought occurred to him, and he eyed his companion to see if she was thinking the same thing. By the curve of her lips, she was.

They looked back in time to see the troupe of wallabies hop out of thin air and begin stomping on the alien. Taking advantage of the distraction, Ianto said, “The aliens promised BRAIN technology to your husband.”

“I don’t know. I’m hoping he dies so his lawyers will hand over all the materials he has locked away.”

“Such a devoted wife.”

“Quite.”

“So if Howell could override our fantasies, he would. Since he can’t, I can only assume that his species either lacks the imagination or the brain structure to beat the human mind.” He wasn’t about to go into the details of BRAIN technology if she didn’t already know. However, Tosh had reported that her alien tech caused people to have religious experiences, while the one they tracked through the rift switched Chase and Cameron’s minds. The aliens had a gas that could link minds while in a hallucinatory state. Everything they possessed targeted the mind, which made Ianto doubt his original assumption that BRAIN technology was just a myth. If any species was capable of inventing such machinery, it was the one invading Earth, yet given their lack of innate psionic ability, why would they create a technology that they themselves couldn’t utilize?

Unless they didn’t want to use it themselves. Unless they intended to trick humans into accepting BRAIN technology outfitted with an override. Then humanity would become a weapon, possibly the most dangerous weapon ever made...

Looking at Rebeca, he saw that her mind was beginning to probe the possibilities of their newfound world. If Howell can’t stand up to her, then I’m the only obstacle in her way, he realized. Time to distract her.

“It’s getting a little boring out here, isn’t it?” Punctuated yelps continued to emit from Howell’s direction, along with a series of squelching sounds. While both of them avoided looking at him and the offending wallabies, the mud flying everywhere was becoming a little difficult to ignore.

“What do you propose?”

“How about a treasure hunt?”

After the excitement of the alien encounter and ensuing brawl, it took her a moment to recall their earlier conversation, but when she did, her eyes lit up, and Ianto could tell he was safe for the moment. His victory, however, was short-lived, because he realized that however devious she might be, he knew what to expect from her.

He had no idea what they would find on Shipwreck Island.

* * *

Chase’s--that is to say, Cameron’s--foot was fractured. Cuddy guessed that at least three bones were damaged because of her heel; the foot was swollen and turning purple like some hideous balloon animal. She now glared at him as though he had been at fault, but surprisingly enough, Cameron was taking the situation in stride.

“He’ll need a cast,” she informed Cuddy

“Yes, I know.”

“Aren’t you upset at all?” Chase asked.

Cameron shrugged. “I figure the worst of the pain will be gone by the time I get my body back. You’re not allowed morphine, though. I don’t want to deal with a dependence just because you can’t stand a little fracture.”

“Or two,” Cuddy muttered.

“Or three!” Chase yelled back.

“Hush, you’ll attract attention,” Cuddy snapped. “I’m surprised Jack hasn’t complained about us holding him back.” There was a pause. A loaded and--in Chase’s opinion--uncomfortable pause. “Where’s Jack?”

The two women burst out of the room, forgetting all about Chase. “He left us!” Cuddy exclaimed. “After all that talk about being on a team, he left!”

“You’re supposed to be quiet!” Chase hissed, his concern for his life suddenly outweighing concerns about getting fired. Cuddy gave him a considering glance, then nodded and left, saying, “I’ll go get a cast. You stay here in case a soldier decides to check in or Jack comes back.”

Cameron looked ready to protest, her mouth open in an expression that ranged between indignant and confused. Chase wondered whether he looked that vapid when they were doing differentials or if it was just Cameron; he would have to look into that.

He didn’t have long to ponder these questions of personal vanity. As soon as Cameron shut the door, a whirring sound grabbed his attention. Cameron dashed to the window, pulling aside the blinds in time to reveal a helicopter landing in the parking lot where the humvees had cleared out an open space in anticipation of its arrival. A harried-looking man leapt through the door as soon as it opened, nearly losing part of his head to the spinning blades above. This event added little to his composure, but as soldiers surrounded him, Cameron gasped. “That’s the governor!” she exclaimed.

“So he’s showing his true colors at last,” Chase muttered, a little unnecessarily. “Well, this is good. Everyone will be too busy dealing with him to look for us.”

“No, don’t you understand? He’s probably here to make sure the job gets done right. They’re going to sweep the hospital again!”

“Don’t be paranoid.”

The door crashed open and two soldiers stepped into the room, guns raised. Chase yelped and threw himself against Cameron, nearly sending them both through the window. Clutching her tightly, he screamed “Please don’t shoot me!” in as high-pitched a manner as possible. Cameron glared at him before catching on, then redirected the stare to the soldiers.

“I’m taking care of a patient here,” she said, indicating the swollen foot. “She broke her foot when one of your men ran into her, so I’d appreciate if you didn’t make things any worse.” Chase could feel her heart pounding, but from the furious expression on her face, he would never have been able to tell she was nervous.

The soldiers lowered their guns. “Terribly sorry, sir, but we’ve been ordered to search the hospital for suspected terrorists.”

“That’s no excuse for terrorizing my patients! Can’t you at least knock?”

“That’d give away the element of surprise.”

“Oh, er, I suppose.” For a moment, she looked confused. Then she waved a hand at them. “Now get out of here! Shoo!”

The two soldiers exchanged looks and one of them mouthed: “Shoo?” at the other, but they left anyway, which was all that mattered.

A moment of silence followed their departure, during which time there was only the sound of their rapid breathing as adrenaline ran through their systems. Then Chase said, “Why do you have a hard-on?”

Cameron gave him that silly, vapid look again. “I do not!”

“I can feel it! You’re turned on! What the hell could get you aroused in a situation like this?”

“How should I know? It’s your body!”

“It’s your brain!”

“You know, I don’t even want to know why you were paying attention to what was going on down there. You’re the one with problems, if you’re feeling yourself up.”

“I do that all the time!” There was an awkward pause. “I mean--”

“I didn’t need to know that.”

“So either you enjoy being terrorized, or you really like your own body.” Chase leaned harder against her. “So soft and squishy.”

“Squishy?” Cameron’s eyebrow soared upward. Chase suddenly realized he’d made a terrible, terrible mistake.

“AAIEEE!” he screamed as Cameron stomped upon his foot. Writhing in agony, he lashed out in her general direction and knocked her legs out from under her. She fell on top of him, smashing the air out of his lungs. “God you’re heavy!”

“Then. Exercise. More!” she replied, punching him with every word.

Suddenly, they heard the sound of the door opening, and they froze.

“Oh my god,” Cuddy said. “What the hell are you two doing?”

* * *

 

In the darkness, Monty needed a few minutes to be sure he was awake and not still dreaming. Wincing as pain shot up his side, he rolled off his back and forced himself into a sitting position, legs crossed on the ground. The room was pitch black, so there wasn’t a hope of discovering where he was without moving around, and he wasn’t sure his body was quite ready for that yet. His arm continued to throb, but the cause of its pain seemed an eternity in the past. Back when I thought she trusted me.

“If I’m not meant to be with you,” he said into the darkness, “then where do I belong?”

He’d heard her screams as they tackled her, though the hallucination had prevented her from hearing his.

“She’s with me! We need to see the governor! I--”

But the guards just turned on him when he tried push his way through. He punched one, sending the man reeling into the wall, but another forced his arm behind his back, sending waves of pain and nausea through his body. As he sank to the ground, a boot caught him between his ribs, and the world went black when his head struck the floor. Through it all, the words “I hate you, Monty! I hate you!” stuck to him like the stain of some ancient, irrevocable sin.

He shut his eyes. It made no difference in what he saw, but he did it for the personal gratification. Focusing on his breathing, he began a slow count, loosening his muscles and trying to settle his mind. It was clear the governor, or the aliens, or both, knew he was a traitor. A pariah wherever I go.

No, he would prove himself to Tosh. He would rescue her, but first he had to get out. Perhaps he could convince Governor that he had been pretending thus far, fulfilling an act to perfection in case it had to be performed again, except his cell was sealed and he doubted anyone could hear him. His throat already dry from the exertions earlier in the evening, he decided to exhaust his other options before yelling himself hoarse.

The wall was cold to the touch, but smooth and dry, like plated metal. As he scooted around the perimeter, he took care where he put his hand, lest some trap of design or material catch him. The first corner he ran into caused a sigh of relief; with the room made in right angles, no one had decided to play with his mind and prevent him from discovering the room’s dimensions.

Unless this is all a trick of the mind.

That sort of thinking would get him nowhere. He wasn’t wanted, so why should anyone expend resources on him? Besides, he realized at the conclusion of his circumnavigation, there was no way out. The room measured about ten by ten feet but contained no doors or breaks in its walls for as high as he could reach. A similar search of the floor yielded the same result.

“It’s a pit,” he whispered. Before he could stop himself, his eyes drifted upward and he thought, I hope there isn’t a pendulum. “No!” he yelled, hitting himself on the forehead. “You read too many horror stories.” And not enough adventure ones with daring escapes.

He resettled himself at the center of the room. If the length or width had been less, he might have been able to push himself to the top using his legs and back, or at least reach the ladder that must be present. That was a fruitless line of thought, though.

He heard a hissing sound. It had started about a minute back, he realized, but he only just noticed it. His nose wrinkled as an acrid smell filled his nostrils. They were pumping in gas! That was hopeful, actually--if they still remembered him, they wouldn’t leave him here to rot.

He almost looked forward to the hallucination. Anything was better than the black. Anything except clowns, anyway.

Birds chirped and the wind rustled branches as he found himself in the middle of a forest. The noon sun punched through the canopy like columns descending from the roof they supported. A yellow rodent-like creature emerged from the nearby shrubbery. Its tail was bent at several sharp angles, like a mangled clothes hanger. Rearing up on its back legs, the creature tilted its head to one side as it examined him with seemingly sentient eyes.

“Are you an alien?” Monty wondered aloud. The creature scratched its head with a paw. “Well, you’re cute, at least. Are you looking for food?” Spotting some acorns hanging from a nearby tree, he headed over, plucked some and laid them on the ground at his feet, hoping its desire for food would outweigh any inhibitions about the stranger offering it.

The animal bounded over, ignoring him completely, picked up one of the acorns and took a nibble. Its ears twitched as it chewed, but then it straightened and nodded in apparent approval.

“You want more?” Monty asked as it wandered past him to the base of the tree. “Here, I can pick more.”

It stood on its rear legs again and bounced up and down. “Pika pika!” it exclaimed.

Out of the clear, bright sky, one lone thundercloud pulled together just long enough to send a jagged, blinding bolt of lightning down upon the tree. A loud crack accompanied the splitting of the trunk, and burning leaves exploded in every direction. A thousand acorns rained to the ground, sizzling, each one cracked and smoldering. Monty stood frozen, hand still outstretched just an inch from the now charred and burning plant. The air smelled of pie.

“Great,” he said. “Just great.”

* * *

Shipwreck Island was an overgrown mess. This was, of course, assuming it had any trace of civilization upon it in the first place, because if it had, no shred of evidence remained to prove the claim. Years of tides swept away at the beach until the jungle was almost at the waterline, and rotting pieces of wood littered what sand remained. The driftwood might have been remnants of ships, but there was little evidence either way.

“How lovely,” Rebeca cooed.

“Be careful of the poisonous snakes.” He kicked aside a piece of wood to reveal a hissing, multi-hued viper.

Rebeca barely gave it a second glance. “This is a dream. How can it harm me?”

“Pays to be careful.”

An echoing shriek announced some predator acquiring its noon meal. A flock of birds fluttered out of the canopy, cawing in reprimand, and as Ianto turned his gaze to follow their flight, he noticed a twisting line of grey rising over the horizon, like a thread dangling from heaven, swaying in the wind. “Over there,” he said, thinking how nice it would be if they didn’t have to walk.

In a blink, they were surrounded by thickset trees and hanging vines. Before them stood a hut some two square meters large, composed of splintered branches and molding canvas. And in the middle, sprawled upon a gleaming red and orange plastic lawn chair, was the dirtiest human being Ianto had ever seen, and that included Jack after a night of chasing weevils through the sewers. A mass of dreadlocks extended from where his head lay like a nest of snakes, and a tricorne was tilted over his eyes, serving to mask his face as well. The smoke Ianto had seen emitted from a pipe the length of the man’s forearm, and the tobacco smoke was both pungent and choking, of a sort Ianto had never smelled before.

Their coughing was what alerted the pirate to their presence, but he made no move to defend himself. Rather, he removed the pipe from his mouth and hid it under the chair, then continued to lie where he was.

“Are you expecting us?” Ianto asked tentatively.

The man leapt out of the chair and staggered a few steps to his left before finding his feet. A tree branch swept his hat off his head, but he ignored that development, choosing to stare at Ianto with bleary, blood-shot eyes.

“Jones!” he declared. “Ianto Jones.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course it’d be you. It’s always you, with your suit and your sarcasm. Never anyone interesting. Go fetch my trigger-happy doppelganger.” He waved a hand in a carelessly dismissive fashion.

“Excuse me?”

“Captain Jack!” the man said, stumbling forward and catching himself against Ianto’s shoulders. His breath smelled like he’d eaten something that’d been dead for days and flavored with garlic. Lot of garlic. Along with some really bad eggs. “Captain Jack! It’s Captain Jack!”

“Where?” Ianto grabbed onto the excuse to turn away from the man’s pungent mouth and saw Rebeca looking around frantically.

“No, no. It’s me!”

“Yes?”

“Captain Jack!”

“Where!”

“Here!”

“What do you mean here?”

“No, I mean it’s me!”

“Who are you?”

“Captain Jack!”

Something clicked in his mind--the tardiness of the development he blamed on being gassed--and Ianto said, “Oh.”

“‘Oh’ what?” Rebeca snapped.

“This man is Captain Jack. Or, also named Captain Jack, I presume.”

“Yes, yes,” Jack nodded, and with his great mass of hair, resembled nothing so much as a bobble-head doll. “Exactly—” He froze, and his eyes widened. “You don’t know me.”

“I think I would definitely remember if we’ve met,” Ianto replied, choosing his words carefully.

“Ah. Crossing of timelines and buggery like that. Well, no wonder you look so stunned. Allow me to introduce myself.” He paused, then with elaborate flourishes of the hand, he bowed and said, “Captain Jack Sparrow, proud owner of the Black Pearl and last Pirate Lord of the Caribbean." He paused, then continued as if it pained him to do so. "Except for Elizabeth, of course, but she doesn’t count.”

“Timelines,” Ianto mused. “So you’re not the Doctor?”

“Of course I’m not the Doctor,” Jack Sparrow replied, swatting his hand back and forth to bat away the suggestion. “I’m much better looking than the Doctor. Any of his regenerations.”

“But you’ve met the Doctor?” Rebeca said, drawing closer. Ianto took the opportunity to redirect Jack’s attention to her and get some fresh air.

“Yes, yes, but who cares about him, aye?”

“How do you know the Doctor?” Ianto asked Rebeca.

“Oh don’t be silly, Jones. Aside from Torchwood, he must be the worst-kept secret ever. But I’ve never met him, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Tell me, then,” Jack said, leering at her breasts, “what brings you two here if you’ve never met me?”

“There was a coded message in a magazine article.”

“Aha! So it did work. Sort of. Well, not really, since I’ve never met you and Jones is absolutely ignorant. But it still worked! I am to be congratulated.”

“You left a message for Jack?” Ianto asked.

“For any of you, really, but I was rather hoping to get Jack. Or Toshiko--she has nice legs--or Owen, it’s fun annoying him.”

“Isn’t it.”

Jack staggered back over to Ianto and winked. “Plus I think he fancies me.”

“God, you’re just like Jack.”

“I am Jack, and you’d do well to remember it! Oh, you mean Harkness. Well, in that case, you should know I have a much bigger--”

“Okay!" Ianto shouted, drowning out the rest of that sentence. "So we meet in your past, but my future. I assume, since you know about timelines and all that, you’re not allowed to tell me anything.” Ianto wondered why this kept happening to him. First Susan, now Jack. Given his luck, he’d next be accosted by something even stupider, like video game characters or something. Mario was probably just around the next corner.

“Let’s see if I can remember this properly. Because, from your reaction when you met me, again, when you will meet me and already have, but not yet, I do tell you something now. Though I didn’t know that then, or won’t know it. But I guess I’ll find out. Now. Hmm, so what should I tell you that I’ve already told but haven’t yet? Ah! We meet again, or did meet, or--”

“Jack, please choose a tense and stick with it.”

“We have met some hundred years ago, when I have been crewing a ship that has been—”

“Not that tense. And how many hundred years ago?”

“I don’t know, do I? Do I look like I’m keeping track? Do you see a collection of logs somewhere with little knife marks all over them?”

“Fine, go on.”

“We went on a treasure hunt in the Americas. Somewhere.”

“You’re very helpful.”

“So I am given to understand. There was a map, you see, but very strange, so trying to translate it into modern day analogues would be difficult at best. Nevertheless, it was a great adventure. Not so much for you, but the rest of us enjoyed it fine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I can’t tell you that.”

Ianto sighed.

“Hold on!” Jack exclaimed. “Be quiet!” Even though Ianto didn’t say anything, Jack clasped a hand over his mouth. He winced, as he felt something wriggle against his face. “Something’s coming! But what? Nothing’s supposed to be here.”

Ianto wrenched Jack’s hand away and whispered, “Then how are you here?”

Jack motioned at his pipe. “Good stuff. But if you haven’t met me, you wouldn’t know about it. So that would mean you’re here because... oh bugger.”

With a pop, Howell appeared in the tree above them, hovering like some monstrous balloon before gravity took effect, snapped the branches he stood on, and sent him tumbling onto the ground.

“You came with that thing?” Jack looked disgusted. “You know, Jones, you’re a lot of things, but I never knew you were stupid.”

“It’s not my fault. He--”

“Quiet!” Howell rasped. “The time for your human dominance is over! You are all my slaves!”

“I think not,” Jack turned and walked back toward his hut. “Goodbye.” He gave a cheery wave over his shoulder.

“You’re not leaving me here!” Ianto said.

“I’m sure you’ll survive,” Jack replied, an insufferable smirk on his face. He vanished from the dream.

Ianto returned his attention to the approaching alien. “So slaves?”

“Yessss!” he hissed.

“But we’re still in the hallucation. There’s nothing you can do.”

“On the contrary, Mr. Jones. Hallucination or not, some things stay the same.”

“Like what?”

“Like the effectsss of gassssss!” Howell lifted a tentacle wrapped around a familiar-looking container. Ianto groaned as it struck the ground and began emitting dirty yellow fumes.

“You’re kidding,” he said as he heard Rebeca begin coughing. Howell just gave him the mirror image of Captain Jack’s smirk as everything went dark again.

* * *

A soft rapping on the door announced Cuddy’s return. Wilson looked up, expecting to see House and Jack storming in, yelling at each other, but instead, there was only Cuddy, followed by Chase and Cameron, the former in a cast and crutches and the latter looking flushed and embarrassed.

“Jack ran off without us after Chase broke his foot,” Cuddy said.

“Did you see the helicopter?” Tracy asked.

Cuddy nodded. “We should get Gwen out of here. We could move to the exam room Chase and Cameron were in. They said soldiers checked there but didn’t recognize them; we can’t hope for good luck like that again, but that should buy us time.”

“How will House and Jack find us?” Wilson asked.

“I was hoping Gwen had another tracker that we could use to pick up the signal on House.”

Tracy went to check, but before she reached her, Streed charged into the room. “Aha! I found you! Hearing of the strange events surrounding the escape of Dr. James Wilson, I used my trusty alien device to analyze the residual space-time disturbance in the area to track the location that he and his rescuer teleported to, and as a result, I was able to find you, and now the credit shall be mine! All mine!”

Cameron nodded. “Then I take it you didn’t bring any soldiers with you?”

“No!”

“Good.” Cameron picked up a stool and brought it down upon his head. The governor collapsed in a heap. “That was easy.”

Tracy extracted a device almost identical to the one Jack had used to track House, except it was slightly smaller. “I guess size does matter,” she commented. Switching it on, she showed the display to Cuddy, remarking, “He’s in the morgue.”

“Let’s go.”

Bilis held a hand up. “Perhaps we should relocate Ms. Cooper. If that hooligan tracked us down, then others may as well.”

“That’s a good point.” Chase said. “We could yip yip yip!

Wilson poked a finger into his ear and twisted it about. I’d better not be going crazy again, he thought, but Cuddy was eyeing Chase strangely as well. This was moments before he fell to the ground and started chewing on Cameron’s shoe.

“Ew!” she exclaimed. “What are you--”

“The governor!” Tracy screamed. Standing in the doorway, Streed had apparently recovered from Cameron’s blow extremely quickly and was now aiming a spiral-shaped silver device at them.

“Now that’s kind of unnecessary, isn’t it?” Wilson said, his voice trembling a little as he found the object pointed at him. “What, uh, what does that do?”

“It makes you believe you’re an animal,” Streed said, his voice dripping with delight. “An animal that suits your personality.”

“So Chase is a small, annoying dog?” Cameron said, trying to repel his advance with her foot. It didn’t work very well, as he just bit down and started shaking it back and forth.

Bark! Bark!” He protested when Cameron shook him off.

She sighed. “Of course.” Giving Streed’s hand a pointed look, she winked at Wilson.

“No, I’m not distracting him!” he replied. Oops. Streed’s aim whipped over to Cameron and he eyed her with a manic look.

“Think you’ll jump me while I’m not paying attention? You’re not going to pull the same trick on old Streed twice, missy!”

Cameron gave Wilson a death glare as the device whirred, its spirals spinning like some cheap hypnotist’s toy, and she suddenly crouched down, put her hands out in front of herself, and started hopping. Wilson barely had time to take this development in before Cuddy and Tracy lunged for the governor. The man turned on them and let out a little scream, as though he hadn’t anticipated any resistance. In his rush, his aim went wide and went between them.

Hiss,” went Bilis, his tongue flicking in and out of his mouth as he glided forward bizarrely, for all intents and purposes looking exactly like the snake he was apparently supposed to be. Wilson just shut his eyes and hoped everything would go away. Naturally, this meant that two seconds later, he was knocked flat on the ground as the struggling threesome crashed into him.

He winced as the device, still spinning, went over his head. A sharp tug told him it didn’t quite make it past and was now reeling his caught hair tighter and tighter into its grip. He waved his arms about, beating at whoever was nearest, hoping this would somehow ease the situation. Instead, there was a sharp cry and a thud as a body hit the floor. All sounds of struggle ceased, though the device continued winding its way into his hair.

“Was that the governor? Please tell me the governor’s knocked out.” He got no answer. He felt a sharp tug, followed by the sounds of snip snip, and a cloud of brown strands rained down from above.

“Got it!” Tracy announced, stepping aside to reveal the alien device in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. Wilson looked over further to see Bilis crouched in a corner, entranced and terrified by Cuddy, who was on all fours and staring him further against the wall.

“Uh, what’s going on?” Wilson asked.

“Well, she got hit,” Streed replied, stroking his chin as he surveyed the scene. “And then... really, what sort of animal is that supposed to be?”

Tracy joined them. “A bigger snake?”

“A tiger,” Streed said. “She looks like she would be a tiger. Big and strong and virile.”

Wilson started choking on nothing in particular. Bilis chose that moment to flee, flopping onto the ground and rolling to the other end of the room. Cuddy bounded after him, complicating their guesswork by making no identifiable sounds. Chase was doing an admirable job of filling that void, however, as he continued to bark and woof and howl his way around the room until he caught sight of Cameron, still hopping around, and tackled her. Cameron kicked him directly in the abdomen, and he collapsed into a whimpering heap.

“I’ve got it!” Tracy exclaimed. “She must be a mongoose!”

“That’s clever.” Streed nodded. “Why, I think you’ve got it. But why would she be a mongoose?”

They both turned to Wilson, as though he would have an answer. He was spared the necessity of answering, however, as he realized that, given Streed’s intentions before he was distracted, it was much more productive to knock him out than reply. So Wilson punched him.

The governor slid halfway across the room as Wilson leapt aside and yelled, “Fire the thing! Fire it!”

Tracy took aim, but Streed grabbed a fallen tray and brought it up over his face as she fired. Wilson was still hoping the device would work through metal when Tracy dropped it and started bounding around the room, pausing every once in a while to perform a pirouette.

“Look at me! I’m a gazelle! I’m a pretty, tasty gazelle! Wheee!”

“Gazelles can't speak, you idiot!” Streed yelled.

“Well, I don’t think it really works quite the way you explained,” Wilson said, picking up the alien artifact. Streed raised the tray again, but Wilson just strode over and kicked it aside. The metal must have reflected whatever it was the alien object did, but that wouldn’t be a problem now. “See you later.” Wilson grinned and pulled the trigger. Mentally, he made a note to himself to check out some nearby gun ranges.

Streed just lay on the ground. Wilson had been prepared for many reactions, but not this. As he watched, though, Streed’s eyes narrowed, and he let out a great snort. His expression did not suggest vindictiveness. Rather, it seemed Streed considered Wilson below him and was merely considering whether to rid himself of a nuisance or not.

“Oh great. So what are you supposed to be?”

Streed huffed. “A rhino.”

Wilson had no time for a scream before Streed knocked the breath out of him, sending him flying through the doors and down the hall. He was scrambling back onto his feet when Streed charged at him, covering the distance in almost no time at all. He knew he had no chance of getting out of the way before Streed reached him, so he thrust his hands forward, hoping against hope that would be enough, and shut his eyes. There was a crunch, like sheet metal ripping.

Tentatively, he opened his eyes again and saw Streed had attempted to bite him, perhaps realizing he had no horn with which to attack. His jaw had closed around the alien artifact, however, which now lay in splintered pieces upon the floor and in his mouth.

“Oh, that’s got to hurt,” Wilson commented. Streed’s face held a mixture of agony and confusion as his mouth dropped open, allowing silver slivers to fall like snowflakes. As though in a cartoon, several of his front teeth followed suit. The governor fainted.

The next moment, Wilson was on the floor, as Tracy tackled him. She smiled as he asked, “You’re not still a gazelle, are you?”

“Nope,” she replied. She stood, helping him up, and he saw Cuddy, Bilis and Cameron standing over Streed’s prone figure.

“Breaking the device must have reversed its effects,” Bilis noted. “Which is excellent, because that means this silly man will feel his pain fully.”

“Where’s Chase?” Wilson asked.

“Still suffering,” Cameron replied. “I know that’s my body in there and all, but honestly, he had it coming.”

* * *

“Well, you must admit,” Rebeca said, once they’d regained their senses-- if managing to wake up in a hallucination within a hallucination could be called regaining one’s senses at all--“That was pretty clever. He used what he had.”

“It’s called being a one-trick pony,” Ianto replied, rubbing his head.

“I think it’s clever enough.” Rebeca sidled closer, and as came within arms-reach, she raised her hands and brought them down toward Ianto as a club materialized in her grip.

Ianto threw himself to the side and drew his gun. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’ve been thinking. What happens when we wake up? It’s kind of risky for Howell, isn’t it, if either of us wake before him. Yet if it’s just random, why would he keep coming after us?”

“So what do you think is going on?”

“I think there’s a way to speed up our return to reality. Or my return, anyway.”

“By knocking me out with a club?”

“By knocking both of you out, my dear. Quite frankly, the hallucinations are a struggle for dominance between our respective minds, linked by a psychic field generated by the gas, or the aliens, or something.”

“So whoever is the last one standing defeats the others and wakes up first?”

“Very good. You might as well put that gun down, however, because I doubt you’re willing to kill me.”

“Why not? You’re a traitor.”

“Exactly. And I might yet betray the aliens as well. Whereas if you kill me, you’re assured of Howell’s full and devoted attention toward your capture once he wakes. Do you really think you’ll get out of Drumthwacket without me?”

Ianto nodded. “You make a decent point.” Rebeca advanced like a cat eyeing a mouse. He ignored her and instead concentrated on a space about two meters above her. “But," he amended, "I hardly trust you to knock me out.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

Ianto pointed a finger upward. She had about a second to register the ACME-labeled anvil falling from the sky before it hammered her into a crater in the ground. The rumbling from the impact continued as Ianto approached the edge of the hole and considered whether his imagination had taken things a little too far. The impact had turned into a bottomless pit as the safe and Rebeca continued to tunnel deeper into the crust.

“That’s not good,” he said, though at this point, he had to admit he wasn’t exceptionally concerned about Rebeca’s survival. He did not expect Howell to charge him from behind, however, and with an echoing howl, the two of them plunged into the tunnel, down and down and down...

There was no sense of time as they descended, but it seemed mere seconds before they struck ground. The land and air was bitterly cold; when Ianto noticed the cracks from their impact, he realized he was lying on ice.

Darkness pressed heavy upon him, shrouding his surroundings in mystery, but the distant thud of a heartbeat made him colder than any change of the temperature. He felt his body growing numb and knew he had to stand before the chill seeped into him further. He rubbed his hands together before attempting to push himself up, even though every muscle in his body protested movement.

When he redirected his attention to the ice, he screamed. A face stared up at him from beneath the surface, contorted in a permanent expression of shock and sorrow. He threw himself away from the sight, scrabbling backward on hands and feet, heart pounding as he tried to process the information. Was it just a vision, or was yet someone else in the hallucination as well? Catching his breath, he forced himself to approach the apparition again, and this time, with mind clear, he realized it was someone he recognized.

“No,” he whispered, realizing what this meant. So much for his mission here. It was Toshiko buried under the ice. She had not escaped from Drumthwacket, and now... was she even alive? Or was this the fate of those who could not escape the gas.

Even as he thought, however, a warmth filled his body, and now he realized the ice was melting wherever he put his hands. Hearted by this discovery, he pressed harder against the surface, and the rock-hard surface collapsed into slurry. He reached in further and further until he got a firm grip on her shoulders, and when he touched her flesh, it was still warm.

“Toshiko!” he said. “Wake up! Tosh, it’s me!” He pulled, and she slid free from her frozen tomb.

As soon as she was free, she began moving. Eyelids fluttering, she frowned at him, “Ianto? What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here! You can’t stay! Hurry, go!”

“Calm down, Tosh. Where are we? Where do you think this is?”

A single tear fell from her eye and shattered into ice crystals as it hit the ground. “Hell, Ianto. We’re in hell.” And she pointed. As though the revelation illuminated everything, the heartbeats grew louder, and the distant darkness resolved itself into the form a winged monstrosity struggling to break free from the ice.

He began to feel the creeping cold again and looked down to see the ice crawling up Toshiko’s body, like some slime monster trying to engulf her. And from her, it began spreading on Ianto too.

“No, Tosh, look at me! This isn’t real. This is a hallucination. The aliens gassed you, and they got me too. We’re in a shared vision, but none of this is real. Whatever you think to be true will become true. As long as you don’t believe in this, it’ll be all right. It’s all fake!”

“It’s fake?” Tosh still looked confused, but the ice had stopped its steady advance. “I think I remember. I was in a tunnel, and Monty. Oh my god, Ianto, watch out!” Tosh threw herself against him, forcing him to the ground just as a club swung through the air above them. Ianto lashed out, slamming the base of his gun against Rebeca’s shin, and she collapsed.

“Found another future acquaintance, Jones?” Rebeca sneered.

“You know where we are, Rebeca?” Ianto said. “The ninth circle of hell. Reserved for traitors.”

“Oh, how poetic. But I kind of guessed that from the frozen bodies and the giant bat over there.” Rebeca staggered upright, and Ianto helped Tosh into a standing position. None of them made a move for the fallen club, but then, they could all summon another one up at a moment’s notice. “But you know what? This is a hallucination. Treachery is in the eye of the beholder, and to my eye, I haven’t done anything wrong.” She smiled. “But what about you? Have you any skeletons in your closet?”

Thudding footsteps began from behind Rebeca, and he heard the squeal of hydraulics even as he realized what was coming. The dull gleam of metal armor was the first glimpse he got of Lisa as she emerged from the darkness, and his entire body went cold.

“No, no,” he said, but he couldn’t even shake his head. His feet were rooted to the ground, and he felt himself sinking.

“Look away, Ianto,” he heard Tosh say. “Come on, you can do this. It’s not real, remember? You told me it wasn’t real!” Her voice grew more urgent, but it was also fading away. It was cold, and Lisa stood before him, eyes filled with disappointment. It was over. He thought he’d gotten over the memories, thought he was able to deal with it, but no. And now he’d failed Tosh too...

Wham! Brilliant white light dazzled his vision, and when it vanished, so had Lisa. Blinking, he glanced over and saw Tosh standing over Rebeca’s body, a bent crowbar in hand.

“That was satisfying,” Tosh remarked.

“All right, this is good,” Ianto said. “Now we have to knock out Howell, and we should be able to wake up.”

“Where’s Howell?”

A grenade bounced across the frozen landscape and landed at their feet. “Run!” Ianto yelled, grabbing Tosh’s arm and following his own advice. The sudden movement caused Tosh to drop the crowbar, but its purpose had been served. The hissing yellow gas pursued them as they slid along the terrain, and behind them, Howell’s screams of rage drew closer and closer. Gas canisters littered the ground as he threw one after another at them, and they dodged each one as though they were falling bombs.

The chase dragged on, and the two of them grew breathless. No matter what they wanted to believe, Ianto knew they couldn’t run much further. Finally, he stopped, and Tosh fell against him, breathing raggedly and unable to utter any protest to his abrupt halt. Ianto faced the darkness, hoping he appeared more confident than he felt, until Howell’s slithering form drew into view.

“Howell!” he yelled. The alien paused, though it slid for a few more seconds before reaching a full stop. One tentacle was poised over the trigger of another canister, but he looked ready to humor whatever Ianto wanted to say. “You’re a traitor, you know that?”

“A traitor?” Howell laughed. “What sort of tactic is this?” The tentacle drew closer to the release. “You think I’ll be distracted by your talk while you drop an anvil on me as well?”

“No, no mind contests, I promise. And believe me, breaking your word has serious consequences here.”

“Traitor’s circle. I know this part of your mythology.” The tentacle backed off the pin a little but still lingered far too close. At this range, Ianto knew he would not be able to escape the gas if Howell decided to throw the canister.

“Well, your panic attack with the gas gave you away, didn’t it?” Ianto said, his mind rushing ahead, checking and doublechecking the points he wanted to make. There was no room for error here. “All of your alien tech revolves around mind control. Yet, now that we’re here, you’ve given the game away. Humans have a superior imagination, and thus we could utilize the technology far better than your race ever could. So why would your race ever work so hard at developing something you can’t use yourselves? There can only be one answer: you intend to have humanity serve you. You want to develop BRAIN technology and use the human mind as a weapon. And in that is your weakness, because if the wrong human gets his or her hands on the technology, there’s nothing you can do to save your mission from defeat. So in a moment of fright, you betrayed everything your race has worked so hard to conceal, and now you’re in a contest of wills in an environment that works heavily to your disadvantage. How’s that for treachery? Accidental, yes, but if motive was everything, so many more would be innocent, isn’t that right?”

Howell quivered, but Ianto knew the words had struck home. “No,” the alien protested. “But I haven’t lost yet! And now, I shall gas you, and I will win!”

Ianto grinned. “Too late.” Behind him, he could feel the weighted presence of the monster that dominated the circle, for all the time they’d been running, they’d be running toward the center.

A bone-rattling roar shook the cavern as Howell reached to unleash the gas. Its force caused him to drop the canister before he could succeed, and then teeth closed upon him as Satan swept him into one of his jaws and swallowed him whole for the traitor that he was.

Immediately, the cavern began wavering, dissipating like smoke. His hand tightened on Tosh’s, but she put a hand on his arm. “I’m waking, Ianto, I can feel it. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

And then she was gone. Everything was gone, and he was floating in darkness, but without any sensation at all, he knew he was rising. Up and up he went, and in time, the pitch black began brightening. Waves of gray swept past him, and then a white light bathed everything.

He woke to the sound of ringing alarms and Britney Spears. A muddy haze still hung in the air, but Ianto knew he had little to fear. Most of it clustered over the forms of Howell and Rebeca, both of whom showed signs of waking as well. He figured his won victory had bought maybe minutes at best, but that was enough. He grabbed Rebeca’s scissors and advanced on Howell, but a blinking light on Jack’s wristband told him its sonic effects were draining the batteries. Shouts announced the return of the guards, and he knew he wouldn’t have time to kill Howell before he was caught. Cursing, he tucked the scissors into his pocket and ran.

* * *

"I don't want you hearing my thoughts! That's an invasion of my privacy!" House shouted, alarmed at the idea that there was no immediate way to reverse his apparent mind link with Jack. "Even worse, I don't want to have to keep hearing your thoughts!"

"I don't want you hearing my thoughts either," Jack said, "but seeing as we're sort of stuck with it, you should know it is possible to limit what gets through. Obviously we're not hearing everything, just surface thoughts, and not even all of those."

"Alright. So, explain."

"Umm... well, it's sort of the same thing as consciously sending thoughts, except the opposite."

"If it's the opposite, it can't be the same," House quipped. Jack ignored him.

"The theory is the same. If you consciously try to block me from your thoughts, I probably won't hear them. At least, not as much; I don't know how powerful this thing is." House eyed him warily but for once shut up and did as he was told. After a minute, Jack made an excited noise.

"There! It stopped! Before I was hearing an almost constant stream of thoughts from you, though most were very vague, but now I'm getting nothing!"

"I haven't been getting anything constant from you!" House said, annoyed. "Just little blips."

"Right, that's because of my training," Jack explained. "I kind of unconsciously block things like that. Since some is still getting through to you, I can assume that the same will happen with me even if you're blocking."

"This is more than just inconvenient," House gripped. "I can't be constantly concentrating on keeping you out of my head. Or keeping me out of your head. Whatever."

"Settle down. It probably won't be that hard. If you imagine a mental image of a wall or something, that's easier to maintain than an abstract block. It doesn't take as much effort as you think."

House was interrupted from being extremely peeved at the universe and taking it out suddenly and violently on Jack by a sudden BANG!. He and Jack both whirled around to face the cadaver lockers, where the sound had come from, and belatedly realized that similar sounds had been in the background of their whole conversation.

"Owen and Foreman!" Jack remembered.

"Ugh, who cares? What kind of idiot is stupid enough to get locked in a dead person drawer, anyway?" House said. Jack rolled his eyes and went over to the lockers.

"Where are the keys for these things?" he asked. House retrieved a single key from next to a sink and tossed it at him.

"One size fits all," he said. "Now that we've got this stupid, useless alien thing, can we get out of here?"

"Just hold on a minute." Jack twisted the key in one of the locks and pulled the drawer open. Owen practically surged out, jumping to the floor and immediately moving into a full-body stretch.

"Jesus, can it get any worse than this? I get out of one tightly confined space and less than an hour later I'm trapped in another! Not sure which one was worse, really." He stopped babbling and glared at them. "Took you guys long enough. What the hell?"

"I think," said House dryly, "we had more important things to deal with." Jack finished opening the other locker and Foreman got out of it at a slightly more sedate pace than, though he looked no less peeved that rescue had taken so long.

"What could possibly be more important than getting two people out of a couple of dead person lockers in which they are stuck?" Owen asked, incredulous.

"Now's really not the time," Jack cut in hurriedly. "I've got to get this thing somewhere I can examine it properly." He pulled the alien device out of his pocket and showed it to Owen briefly. "Recognize it?"

Owen frowned. "Nope. Nothing like anything I've ever seen, though if you don't know what it is I wouldn't expect that I'd know."

"Why should I care about what strange antics you and Foreman are getting up to? You're not my children, I have no responsibility for you," House cut in, a little belatedly. Foreman rolled his eyes.

"I don't even know what to say to that," muttered Owen.

Jack shrugged. "Let's go."

They hadn't even made it two steps before a noise at the top of the stairs alerted them to the presence of another person. "Shit!" Jack hissed, and motioned for everyone to hide. He ducked behind a nearby table, but no one else moved. House raised an eyebrow at him.

"Nuh uh," said Owen. "This place is hazardous. I'm staying right here, in the open." Foreman nodded in reluctant agreement while Jack slapped his forehead. At about the same time, a tall, thin man with an abnormally long neck strolled through the door as if he were on a walk in the park.

"Oh, splendid!" he said. "I do believe you are Doctor House, and you must be Doctor Foreman. We've been looking for you for quite some time, you know. And if I'm not mistaken, you two are, ah, Captain Jack Harkness and Owen Harper. Wonderful!"

"I'm a doctor too," Owen griped.

"Who the hell are you?" House snapped. Jack had pulled out a gun and had it trained on the man, who didn't seem to take notice of it.

"I am Colonel Pistachio Smythe. I am under orders to retrieve all of you, so come with me, if you would," he replied.

"I don't think so," said Foreman.

"How did you find us so quickly?" Jack asked. He held the gun steady, ready to shoot at the slightest sign of hostile action.

"Simple!" Colonel Smythe grinned. "Well, not so simple, I suppose, although the application is. Have you ever heard of BRAIN technology, Captain?"

"Hell," Jack said.

"Is that like implanting human brains into robots to create a massive and indestructible army?" asked House.

"That actually happened, you know," Owen said conversationally.

"You're kidding. That's like Typical Science Fiction Plot Version 1.0."

"No, it's not like that," Jack interrupted. Smythe shrugged.

"Please follow me," he said. He started towards the door, then abruptly spun around again, smiling in an unnervingly pleasant way. "I almost forgot! Before we head upstairs, Captain, would you be so kind as to hand me that little trinket in your pocket?"

House stiffened, suddenly alarmed. Jack's eyes narrowed, but he otherwise showed no outward reaction.

"What?" asked Foreman.

"I'm afraid," said Jack calmly, "that I have no idea what you're talking about." Don't say anything, echoed Jack's voice in House's mind.

"Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie," he said, just to be contrary. Jack rolled his eyes and Smythe's flickered over to him for an instant before returning to the captain without comment. I don't know why I bother, House heard.

"Don't make me do this the hard way, Captain," said Smythe. "I'd really rather avoid that if at all possible."

"Is that an invitation?" Jack said.

"I'd hoped it was more of a warning."

"Well sorry, but you're bang out of luck."

Smythe sighed. "I'm really not a violent man by nature, Captain. I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this." Without any further warning he surged forward, slamming into Jack and sending them both crashing into the table behind them and then onto the floor when the table rolled backwards. They were struggling for the device, Smythe trying to remove it from Jack's pocket and Jack doing everything he could to prevent him. House leapt back a little belatedly, while Owen darted forward and grabbed the back of Smythe's jacket in an attempt to pull him off Jack, unsuccessfully, and ended up being knocked onto his rear end.

Foreman took several steps away from the brawling men. "Oh no, I am not getting involved in this," he said.

At roughly the same time, Jack wrestled the device out of his pocket and out of Smythe's immediate reach, and threw it at Foreman. "Catch!" he shouted. Caught off guard, Foreman fumbled with it for a second before dropping it right on Owen's head.

"Ou--" Owen got out before there was a flash of silence.

When sound returned, Jack was making a despairing sound, House slapped his forehead, and Owen and Foreman were both looking very dazed. Smythe made a grab for the device where it had landed on the floor. Jack swiped at it and missed, and House deftly smacked the colonel over the head with his cane, but aside from a grimace it didn't seem to affect him. He pocketed it and quickly retreated, running back up the stairs and looking like he was trying very hard not to clutch his head in pain.

"What now?" House shouted at Jack. "We have to get that back!"

"Calm down. It's under control."

"Under control? How do you figure? And what's wrong with them?" he gestured at Owen and Foreman.

"I slipped a tracker on him while we were fighting. And I don't know but I wish they'd snap out of it so we can get a move on." Jack waved his hands in front of their faces. "Hellooooo? Guys?"

House took a more direct approach and slapped Foreman hard. "Wakey wakey! Not a good time for a nap! Can't have five more minutes! You're late for your bus!"

In light of this abuse, Foreman and Owen woke up.

Chapter Text

Cuddy had found Chase a wheelchair. There was really nothing else for it; he moved too slowly on crutches and he'd taken his brand-new, Cameron-induced injuries as an excuse to complain ceaselessly. Gwen had somewhat miraculously escaped the brawl undisturbed, and was sleeping soundly in her gurney. Bilis had insisted on being the one to wheel Gwen around and Cuddy had ordered Cameron to wheel Chase in what she considered to be punishment. Tracy had Gwen's IV, which meant that Wilson was stuck helping Cuddy haul Governor Streed and his considerable mass down the hallway.

"We've got to get to my office," Cuddy said between huffing breaths as she attempted to navigate carrying someone nearly three times her own weight. Wilson wasn't much better off.

"Why?" said Chase. "I thought we were going to the exam room."

"Right," said Cuddy. "Wait, hold on--" She quite suddenly dropped the half of Streed she was carrying. His head made a sick cracking sound on the floor. Wilson rolled his eyes and dropped the governor's legs.

"What?" he asked.

"Well," said Cuddy, "I was going to use the PA and force this lump--" she kicked Streed lightly "to order the National Guard out of here. I mean, honestly, do they think we haven't got any patients that need attending? As if it weren't bad enough that the staff is all scared half to death--"

"But?" Cameron prompted, cutting her off before she could launch into full-on rant mode.

"But, if you looked around your corner there, you'd see that -- no, no, don't do it, you idiot! -- you'd see that we're surrounded with almost no hope of actually getting there."

"So... we're going back to the exam room afterall, then?" asked Cameron.

"Uh, no." Cuddy looked sheepish. "That way is blocked too."

"Actually, it's in exactly the opposite direction. Even if it weren't blocked, we'd have to have extraordinary luck to make it that far," Bilis added helpfully. Cuddy glared at him.

"Right," she groused.

"So what are we going to do?" Chase asked, looking panicked. Cameron rolled her eyes at him.

"Don't be a big damn baby," she told him.

"Help me wake this big oaf," Cuddy said, then added, "Quietly!"

Wilson reached down and slapped Streed round the face a couple times, then quickly clamped a hand over his mouth when the big man awoke suddenly.

"Mmph!" said Streed.

"Hush," said Wilson.

"Good," said Cuddy. "Here's what's going to happen." She looked quite menacing. "You are going to go over to those guards and announce that the search is off and that they are to spread the word and evacuate immediately. You will also tell them to arrange for an emergency generator to be brought in and for repairs on the hospital to begin. This is very important. I will not have any more people die today because of this ridiculousness. Then you are going to come back over here for further instructions. There will be no tricks, no escape attempts, nothing clever. You will do exactly that and nothing more. I have had an extremely stressful day and I am not in a good mood. If you defy me, I will only become more cross and that is something you would not like. Am I understood?"

Streed stared at her in abject terror.

"I said, am I understood?" Cuddy said, with a surprising amount of force. Streed nodded and gibbered behind Wilson's hand. Wilson, a bit disgusted, removed it.

"Ugh," he said, observing the fresh blood and spittle on his palm. "Can someone please hand me a towel? This is disgusting." Bilis pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it out. Wilson eyed it suspiciously, but didn't get the impression Bilis much cared for anything beyond Gwen and if, in fact, it was used, he didn't suppose a little snot could make his hand any more gross. He wiped it off and thought twice about handing the handkerchief back covered in stains, then pocketed it.

"Right," said Cuddy, who had been hauling Streed to his feet with the help of Cameron. "Try to enunciate. It wouldn't do us any good if they couldn't understand you just because you are missing a couple teeth." She watched him totter wobblingly towards the guards for a couple seconds, then turned back to the rest of the group, all business.

"Well then," she said, brushing her hands off on her blouse. "We might need these. Everyone take one." She stalked over to Gwen's gurney and pulled up part of the blanket. Bilis made a hissing noise at her, but she only pulled it up far enough to reveal that she had hidden several lengths of varyingly sized pipe under it. She started handing them out.

"What's this for?" asked Chase, taking one from her.

"It's always a good idea to have a back-up plan in case Plan A fails," Cuddy explained.

"No thank you," Bilis said, gently waving away the offered pipe. Cuddy raised an eyebrow at him but did not object.

"Did you have army training or something?" asked Wilson suspiciously.

"Where did you get all these?" said Cameron.

"He's coming back," said Chase, who had a fair view around the corner from his location. Cuddy shushed everyone and positioned herself. When Streed came around the corner, she grabbed him by the shirt and pointed the pipe at him menacingly.

"Wait! I did it! They're going!" Streed was barely understandable with his missing front teeth. Cuddy took a minute to decipher what he'd said.

"And the generator?" she asked finally.

"Yes! It's on its way!" he said frantically.

"Good," Cuddy said, sounding satisfied. "Come with us. Don't make a sound. I mean it." She waved the pipe around a bit, just in case he didn't get the point. He nodded fearfully.

Cuddy led the way towards where the guards had been and sure enough, they were gone. Everyone else followed her unthinkingly, and Wilson wondered when they'd decided she would be their leader. There hadn't really been much choice in the matter, he supposed.

They all shuffled into a random exam room and Cuddy dragged Streed over to the other side with her.

"Now what?" asked Cameron, looking around.

"I thought--" Bilis began, but he was cut off by Streed, who took advantage their lack of attention and tried to bolt for the door.

He didn't get very far. Cuddy had not lied when she said she wasn't in the mood for tomfoolery, and with a terrifyingly guttural scream she launched herself at the governor, tackled him to the floor, and then grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head up. "HOW DARE YOU?" she shrieked in his face. Blood was running down his nose and it looked almost certainly broken. Everyone else took several steps back. Without bothering to wait for an answer she knew wasn't coming, Cuddy dragged herself up, grabbed the back of Streed's shirt, and hauled him up with her. Then, in an extremely impressive display, she manhandled him to the other side of the exam room, taking no care not to knock him against various furniture, and with some effort dumped him out right out of the window.

Nobody moved.

"Oops," said Cuddy in a disturbingly cheerful voice. They all heard a thud two stories down. "Silly me, I'm so clumsy." She turned back around and wiped her hands off on her blouse, then smiled at them.

They all backed away another step or two.

"Wow," said Chase after a long minute, sounding breathy. "How did you do that?"

Cuddy's eyes narrowed. "Anyway, I actually came in here to collect some things. Then we'll go find Jack."

"I mean, he was twice the size of you at least!" Chase persisted.

"Help me out here. Grab anything you think might be useful, especially sedatives in case we need them for Gwen." Cuddy continued to ignore him.

"The window wasn't even open! You pushed him right through it!" Chase said wonderingly. Cuddy twitched. "How many bad guys have you taken down already? I think I've lost count!"

"Um, I think you'd better let it go," Wilson said, in an attempt to head off impending disaster.

"Are you, like, Rambo in disguise or something?" Chase continued, completely failing to get the hint.

"Let's go," Cuddy snapped, dropping a small pile of various gauze, needles, rubber gloves, and hand towels on the end of Gwen's gurney.

"No, no," said Chase as he was quickly wheeled out of the room by Cameron. "You must be Jackie Chan! Or, no, wait, Bruce Lee! In disguise!"

Cuddy continued to ignore him, and stalked ahead instead. "Shut up!" Cameron hissed at him.

"Maybe she's Indiana Jones?" Chase mused. "Or Catwoman, hmmm, I bet House would like to see her in Halle Berry's Catwoman suit."

"ARRGGGGG!" Cuddy spun on one foot and stomped back towards Chase, who finally caught on and started cowering.

"No, no, I'm sorry! It was a joke! I don't really think you're Catwoman! AHHHHHHH!"

"Great," said Wilson. "We are making such progress. It's no wonder Jack ditched us." Bilis nodded absently.

* * *

Jack’s wristband kept up an insistent beeping as the batteries-low indicator flashed on the display. Ianto burst into the next room and slammed the double-doors shut, turning the lock and wedging a chair under the knobs.

“All right. Let’s get a scan for alien tech,” he muttered. Judging from what he’d seen, there would be far too many hits to get a meaningful result, but that wasn’t what he was after. Two seconds later, the wristband completed the operation, flashed the results on the screen and ran out of power. The image faded slowly, just long enough for him to get a glimpse of tunnels criss-crossing beneath the foundation of the mansion, each lined with what were probably gas lines.

Three bodies thudded against the doors, and the chair creaked under the stress. Through the frosted glass, Ianto saw more shadows appear even as the first set went down.

“It’s locked!” someone yelled.

“Then fire!”

Ianto threw himself to the ground, but the expected gunshots never came. A screech of feedback tore through the house, and he glanced at the wristband, half-expecting to see it functioning again. The thing remained resolutely dead, however, which was not a good sign. He looked up and saw yellow gas drifting from the ventilation like a waterfall of dry ice. Faint echoes of a piano played in his ears, growing louder as a drum started up in the background. The feedback died away, replaced by light breathing.

“This one’s for you, Ianto Jones,” a voice said into the microphone, and it sounded like Howell but also somebody else. Ianto wondered whether the alien had gone insane. “Thanks for being a complete pain in my khajzntp.”

He staggered into the next room, but the walls were turning into the contents of a lava lamp, complete with red and yellow glows. Stage lights, Ianto thought, they look like stage lights.

You walk into the room...” Howell began singing, somewhat hauntingly. “With your pencil in your hand.

Ianto kept moving even though the floor rocked beneath his feet like the deck of a ship, but darkness didn’t close in and he maintained consciousness. Howell was toying with him! He was surprised the alien dared to after being defeated earlier, but he must feel safer now that he was in control of and removed from the situation.

You see somebody naked and you... The words seemed to throb in his mind, a growing headache and a screaming cacophony.

…say, “Who is that man?”

A surging wave swept him off his feet, and he fell face-forward to the floor, which rose and fell over his hands, rippling like water as it passed. Footsteps approached from behind him. They were soft thuds that indicated bare feet on carpet. Ianto let the swells push him onto his back and he looked up to see Jack. A completely naked Jack.

“Wow,” he said, before coming to his senses. He shook his head, slapping himself a few times, but the hallucination refused to fade. Jack stepped closer, and the waves calmed in a circle around him, as though even they were too awed to do anything.

You try so haaaaaaard.

Ianto groaned and closed his eyes, but Jack bent over him and he could feel his presence even before they were physically touching. “What’s wrong?” he whispered. “You’re normally quite happy to see me.” And then they were touching. There was definitely touching going on.

But you don’t understand...

you don’t understand,... Jack gasped the words into his ear, cradling Ianto’s head against his shoulderblade, and every time he spoke, Ianto could feel bits and pieces of his memory flutter away, evaporating, and then, even that realization was gone as he no longer remembered what he’d forgotten. But there was a deeper whisper, like the shaking of a rattlesnake’s tail, and he concentrated on it, knowing he must ignore what Jack was doing to him, must remember, must remember to remember...

Forget BRAIN, forget what we came here to do, Howell whispered. You don’t understand any of it, not anymore...

As though compensating for the sudden slip, the song blared louder and Dylan roared. You don’t understand just what you’ll say when you get home.

Home. The word cracked through haze like thunder and lightning as it brought the realization that Jack was not here. Ianto was not home. It was a small aid, but enough, and Ianto used the last of his strength to push the naked illusion off him. The captain stumbled to his feet, and Ianto pushed himself away, expecting him to advance once more. Instead, Jack grinned. “Good job, Ianto,” he said. “I knew you had it in you.”

Excuse me, sir?”

“Oh get your mind out of the gutter.” But Jack looked pleased anyway. “Though that’s not a bad idea, is it? Come on, you can manipulate the hallucination, right? Well, I’m telling you now, your subconscious knows what to do. Get up!”

“I can’t!” Ianto tried to gain his balance once more, but the waves grew stronger, Jack’s presence no longer impeding them at all. He reached out for a wall to push against, but that too had the consistency of jello.

Because something is happening here

“You can! Think!”

“It’s kind of hard when you’re naked and we’re bouncing up and down on the floor!”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Fine. I guess it isn’t cheating if I say it, because everything I say, you’re thinking. Sort of. So let’s make it obvious. I need to be inside of you.”

“There’s a time and a place!”

Jack closed the gap between them in two steps. The ground might be undulating but he had no trouble navigating it. When Ianto’s gaze strayed, he grabbed his head and brought his eyes up to meet his gaze.

But you don’t know what it is

“There is only one way to counter the illusions,” Jack spoke softly.

Do you

Ianto concentrated.

Mister Jones

“The energy from the time vortex!” he exclaimed. “But... you’re not really here.” His gaze dropped to his arm. “Is the residual energy enough?”

Jack shrugged. “Why don’t you find out?”

Ianto nodded. He tore the wristband off and bit down on the end of it. The taste of leather and iron, along with a heavy dose of 51st century pheromones, hit him like a drug taking effect, and the room wobbled. For a moment, the surroundings turned back to normal, but then they split, and he could see both what the house looked like and what the gas was trying to make him see. The semi-transparent Jack looked noncommittal. “It’s enough, isn’t it?”

“Wha eef--” Ianto shook his head. If Jack was part of his own mind, he could ask the question more easily with thoughts. What if I take it out of my mouth?

“Then you lose the protection, don’t you?”

In many ways, the new view was even more disorienting, but he heard screaming from where the guards had been caught up in their own hallucinations. He shuddered, wondering what they were seeing, and started running.

* * *

Owen woke up. He reached his left arm out to swat at the shouting blur above his face, which he was pretty certain was House.

At least, he thought he did. He frowned, suddenly unsure of himself, and tried again. Once more, House and his loud mouth failed to be slapped away.

"Hey!" said Foreman somewhere to his left, but Owen ignored him. He tried his right arm, and this time he succeeded in swatting the side of House's head which caused an irritating grin but at least stopped the annoying chatter. Then House's face was gone and Owen sat up blearily and looked around.

He was on the floor of the morgue. Jack was helping Foreman up next to him, and House had moved on to making fun of both of them. He moved to stand up himself, but before he could, his left arm moved of its own accord, reaching outwards.

"What--" he yelped, surprised, and tried waving it around. Next to him, Foreman slapped himself a couple times and looked very affronted. His own arm waved about frantically for a bit, not at all in the directions he was trying to wave it.

"Alright," said Foreman, standing up. "What is going on here?"

House was laughing uproariously and even Jack looked amused despite his best efforts.

"Foreman dropped the alien device on Owen's head, and it looks like it did a partial discharge," Jack explained.

"WHAT?" yelled Owen.

"We can't know for sure what happened," said Jack. "Obviously, not without your input. But it looks to me like Owen is controlling Foreman's left arm, and Foreman is controlling Owen's left arm."

"Yeah," said Owen slowly. "Yeah, that makes... sense."

"Sense? In what possible way does that make sense?" Foreman said.

"What's up with him?" asked Owen, ignoring Foreman and focusing on House, who was still laughing. Jack glanced at House speculatively.

"Misery loves company?" he suggested after a minute, then shrugged and turned. "Anyway, we've really got to get out of this stupid morgue. It's causing more troubles than it's worth."

Fore man was still getting over the idea of being linked to Owen. "I hate you," he said.

Owen shrugged at him. At least, half of him did. Then half of Foreman shrugged back at him. "You dropped it, mate."

Jack prodded House in the right direction. House abruptly stopped laughing.

"We have to get that damn thing back now," he demanded. "As amusing as this whole thing with the two minions is, I am not enjoying being, ugh, linked with you."

"What?" asked Owen.

"I can't do that. I need to find Tosh; believe it or not, she's better at this stuff than I am," said Jack.

"Oh, I believe it," muttered House under his breath.

"No seriously, what? You guys are linked too?" Owen persisted.

"Shut up," snapped House.

Foreman sighed. "Trust me, it's not worth it," he told Owen. Owen relented. The four of them exited the morgue with relish and surveyed the heavily damaged hospital first floor. A couple of busy nurses stared at them but said nothing.

"I bet Cuddy's throwing an absolute fit," House observed.

"We should really find them," said Jack, looking guilty.

"I'd really rather not."

"I told them we'd all work together as a team, and then I sort of ran off."

"I don't blame you."

"It wasn't on purpose. I didn't even notice they weren't right behind me!"

"That's a lie, and I know it. You ditched them! I could hear Chase yelling!"

"Shut up."

"Will you two stop bickering?" Foreman cut in while Jack glared at House, who looked unperturbed.

"Where's Gwen?" said Owen, sounding worried.

"Um, as far as I know, she's with everyone else," Jack said. "That's where she was when I got separated from them, anyway. Oh." He adopted a chagrined look. "Don't freak out, Owen, but Bilis is with them."

"Bilis? What is that bastard doing there? Oh, I will kill him!" Owen made to stomp off across the hospital lobby, but Jack clapped a hand down on his shoulder to stop him.

"I said, don't freak out," he reiterated. "He's not doing any harm, as far as I can see. I think he really likes Gwen."

"Ew." Owen looked a little sick.

"Anyway," said Foreman, "let's go find them before we get attacked by more aliens."

House led the way down a random corridor.

"Um, I really don't think this is the right way," Jack said. House ignored him in favor of gleefully opening every door in what he probably thought was a dramatic fashion. "House, this isn't where we were before. I don't think they're this way!" Jack tried again. House continued to ignore him. "Fine." Jack sighed and gave up.

They passed an overturned cart that had once held all the food trays now spilled all over the floor. Owen stopped to collect all the stray pudding cups he could fit in his pockets, then, with a dirty look at his left arm, used his teeth to open one with relish.

"What?" he said defensively to Jack, who had raised an eyebrow at him. "I was stuck in a car boot for a day, and then almost immediately afterwards I got stuck in the morgue! I haven't exactly had anything to eat lately, have I? I'm starving!" Jack shrugged at him and turned around to catch up with House. Foreman also shrugged, and picked up a pudding cup for himself.

House slammed open another door and dramatically swept in to check it, but this time several piercing yelps stopped him in his path.

"Ahh!" he shouted back, startled by the sudden, unexpected noise.

"House!" someone said.

"What!" he shouted back. Then he added, "Oh. I found them." Jack walked in behind him.

"What are you guys doing in here?" he asked. Wilson, Cameron, and Cuddy all looked uncomfortable.

"Well," said Bilis, who had pulled a stool up next to Gwen's gurney. Tracy was standing menacingly behind him, ready to protect the unconscious Gwen from untoward advances. "Chase here was provoking Doctor Cuddy, and so Doctor Cuddy became, shall we say, a little upset. We came in here to treat the bruises."

"We were on our way to find you guys, though," added Wilson. Owen and Foreman walked in.

"Owen!" said Cameron, brightening. "I'm glad you're okay!"

"Oh, yeah, no greeting for me, thanks Cameron," grumbled Foreman.

"Hi Foreman," said Cameron obligingly.

"You beat up Chase?" House asked Cuddy brightly. She snarled at him. "Ooo, very sexy, the feral look! I like it! Oh, hi Wilson."

"Good to see you, House," said Wilson, while everyone else stared incredulously at him. "I was worried."

"Anyway!" said Jack. "I'm worried about Gwen. We need to do something about these ridiculous aliens traipsing about and get this hospital back in order so we can get to work on helping her."

"Actually, I've already taken care of the second bit. The National Guard is having an emergency generator shipped in, and repairs are to begin immediately," Cuddy informed them. Jack looked impressed.

"Great! So the only issue is the aliens. We need to find their leader and take care of him."

"Or her," said Tracy reproachfully.

"Er, yeah, or her," Jack said. "Dr. House, why don't you and your team stay here and monitor Gwen while Owen and I go take care of that? I believe Tosh and Ianto are already working on it."

"Fat chance," House scoffed. "I'm coming with you. I want to see some more of this!"

"Me too," said Cameron.

"You're not going without me," said Chase.

"Oh no you don't, House, you're not getting away again!" said Cuddy.

"Wilson is coming too," said House.

"I want to come!" said Tracy.

"I'll stay here with Miss Cooper," said Bilis. Tracy smacked him on the back of the head.

"Oh, no," said Jack. "You are not all coming with me! No freaking way. I need people here to stay with Gwen and make sure she's okay! And I am not leaving her alone with him!"

House looked around. "Tracy will stay. I don't want her to come anyway; she's not part of the gang."

"What--!" said Tracy.

"Bad girl. Stay. No cookie," said House.

"We'll be back soon. I hope," consoled Wilson.

"Just her?" said Jack, aghast. "You think she's enough?"

"She's like a one-man army!" Chase put in. Tracy growled at him. "Er, one-woman army?" he amended. She stopped growling, but only looked slightly mollified.

"You don't want Gwen to DIE and all be your fault, do you?" said House.

"Whatever." Jack gave up. "Let's just get out of here before it's too late, alright?"

"Where, exactly, are we going?" asked Cuddy.

"Er," said Owen.

"Right," said Jack, and pulled out a small tracking device. "I stuck a tracer on Smythe," he explained to everyone who hadn't been there.

"Who's Smythe?" asked Cameron.

"A bad guy," said House. "He stole the thingie!"

"Some army bigwig. A colonel, I think it was," Jack said.

"Thingie, right," said Cameron dryly.

"He means the alien device, the thing House was carrying around that's caused no end of trouble," Jack clarified. "We're trying to figure out how to use it so we can reverse the effects and get Chase and Cameron back in your own bodies. Also...."

Owen raised Foreman's arm. "Yeah," he said. "We've been partially linked also. We're controlling each others' arm."

"Weird," said Wilson. Foreman nodded solemnly. House noticed that Jack didn't bother to mention their own ridiculous link and approved.

"Anyway, judging from the direction Smythe is heading and the fact that Ianto and Tosh are already there, I'd say he's heading towards Drumthwacket," said Jack.

"Drumthwacket?" said Owen, laughing. He unconsciously tried to move his arm and ended up making Foreman smack himself in the forehead. Foreman glared at him but declined to retaliate.

"The governor's mansion," said Jack.

"Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go."

* * *

Ianto was in trouble. There was a wall in front of him with a door in it. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that both the wall and the door were transparent, which meant either there was a door there and Howell was masking it by showing him a wall, or there was a wall there and Howell was tricking him into thinking it was a door. The residual energy on the wristband was enough to prevent the hallucinations him from overwhelming him, but Howell had caught on by the time he made it into the basement and shifted his strategy. Now the walls were no longer melting and the floor wasn’t trying to buck him off. They were merely pretending to be things that they weren’t.

And by itself, this new predicament would not be an issue either, because he could just reach for the handle and see if it existed. The main problem was the fact that the door-that-might-not-be-a-door was one of a row of thirty stretching along a concrete-lined hallway.

“Damn,” Ianto said. A thought occurred to him. “Open sesame!”

Willing the doors to open, twenty-nine obeyed and one did not. Grinning, he ran over and pulled it open.

There was a giant pit flickering in the ground beyond. He tapped the surface with the front of his left foot and felt solid ground, but at the same time, a ripple of purple light expanded from the point of contact. Force field, he realized. Tricky.

He sucked in a deep breath through gritted teeth and realized that was a mistake as the scent of Jack’s wristband sent him into a coughing spasm. It began slipping out of his mouth, and he grabbed it to hold it in place. The ground faded further before regaining a stalemate with the pit. So the pit must be the hallucination!

Ianto closed his eyes and stepped out. When he opened them again, the pit was gone. He started running, only to be confronted by a second pit. He peered into the dim hall and saw a repeating pattern of three meters of ground followed by three meters of hallucinations for as far as he could see. It would take days to navigate, and he had felt an intense pressure upon his head the moment the wristband had slipped from his mouth. Given half a chance, Howell would use every opening he got to send Ianto deeper and deeper into the hallucination. He couldn’t risk testing every pit.

So he walked forward, certain that no one was ridiculous enough to dig a pit in the middle of a hallway. He was halfway across the surface when the force field gave out, and he plummeted into the darkness.

* * *

Rhys awoke with a throbbing headache and the obscure feeling he was being violated. Odd, he thought, then opened his eyes.

"AHHHHHH!" His scream echoed around the cavernous room as he scrambled frantically backwards. The massive winged creature stared at him with--beyond all reason--a distinctly affronted look.

Rhys stared back at it. "What were you doing to me?" he shouted at it. It cocked its head to one side and stared. Not for long, though, as soon it apparently decided everything was fine and it advanced on Rhys with what could only be called lust in its eyes. Rhys let out an unmanly shriek, stumbled to his feet, and ran.

For the first time he noticed where he was, or rather, where he wasn't, which was Cardiff. At least, as far as he knew. The massive room was unlike anything he'd ever seen in Cardiff, at any rate. He could just see a hole in the ceiling though masses of wires and metal blocks, the purpose of which he could only guess at. The brief glimpse of stars told him that what he was seeing was probably sky, which meant he was probably underground, and that it was night.

Last he remembered it had been day. What happened? he thought frantically.

He tripped dramatically over a badly angled bit of flooring and went sprawling.

"AHHHH!" he screamed again as the amorous pterodactyl descended upon him in an unfortunate manner and began, once again, violating his leg.

* * *

You raise up your head

Ianto groaned once he was sure he’d stopped bouncing up and down as on a trampoline. The ground was spongy underneath him, and he guessed it was some sort of elastic foam designed to cushion the fall.

And you say, “Is this where it is?”

Why was Howell still singing? The song came from a distance, like a garbled radio transmission. Jack’s wristband remained between his teeth, though his jaw was sore from the effort of holding onto it during the fall. He gnashed on it a bit as he waited for the adrenaline to stop rushing through his system. Doubtless, its protection was what was keeping Howell’s voice--quite good for an alien--at bay.

And somebody points to you and says

“Nobody’s pointing anything at me,” Ianto mumbled. Above him, a faint glow outlined the rectangular opening he’d fallen through. From its size, he judged he’d fallen some twenty feet.

“It’s his.”

“What’s mine?” Ianto fumbled around a bit, wondering if he’d dropped something important.

And somebody else says, “Where what is?”

“Okay, now you’re just speaking gibberish.” He looked around, but the pit was pitch black. “I don’t even see any vents or electronic equipment. What’s generating the hallucinations?”

Howell ignored him. “And you say:”

Ianto glared into the darkness.

And you say...

Ianto tapped his foot. He heard a crackly sigh.

“And you say...” Howell’s voice turned high-pitched and squeaky. “‘Oh my God am I here all alone?”

“I do not sound like that.”

Because something is happening here.

There was a rustling sound.

But you don’t know what it is.

Ianto stepped back into the rectangle of light coming down through the hole, keeping himself as far from the edges of darkness as possible.

Do you

The rustling resolved itself into light metallic clanking, like little feet tapping against the ground. Scurrying...

Mister Jones?

The sound of servos turning gave Ianto about half a second to react before five-foot long spider droid soared through the light at his face. He had brief flashbacks to Alien before he screamed and punched it.

His fist hurt a lot, and so did the rest of him when the droid’s momentum sent them both sliding along the floor. Remembering his last encounter with the model in the hospital, he expected it to draw its blades on him immediately, but instead, it just sat on him. A panel about three centimeters in diameter opened up on the main body of the droid, revealing a thin grating.

“You hand in your ticket...” Howell sang through the speakers.

Ianto groaned. “Shut up and go away!” he yelled, hoping the thing worked as a microphone too. The droid lowered itself further onto him, leaving him too busy gasping for breath to curse it. A second panel opened, revealing a color TV set.

To go watch the geek.

The screen flicked on, and he saw Tosh huddled in a square meter prison cell. “Tosh!” he gasped, not expecting any response, but she looked at the camera and her eyebrows shot up.

Who suddenly walks up to you

Tosh punched the camera.

When she hears you speak.

The camera floated up out of her reach. There was no sound, but she appeared to unleash a string of invectives at whatever was recording her. Go Tosh, Ianto thought. It was unlike her, though, to lose control so thoroughly.

And says, ‘How does it feel to be such a freak?”

The droid lifted itself up a few centimeters to give Ianto breathing room as Howell sang, “And you say, 'Impossible.'”

“Screw you,” Ianto said. He reached up and felt the edges of a yet-unopened panel on the robot and dug his fingers into them. He pulled and sparks flew as he revealed the power pack. Closing his eyes, he head-butted the droid, slamming Jack’s wristband against the charger.

Even through his eyelids, the arcing electricity turned the world white, but seconds later, the droid fell backward and bounced out of the rectangle of light, clanging as it went. Ianto extracted the wristband just far enough to see that it was charged again. Good old 51st century technology.

He keyed in a search for nearby organic life forms and located one. Dragging the broken droid along for light--its broken components sparked nicely--he saw that one end of the corridor was a dead end while the other led into an elliptical hall with numerous dead ends branching off like spokes of a wheel. He supposed it was a trap of sorts, meant to hold prisoners the aliens wanted alive, because as far as he could tell, there was no way back up.

The moment he entered the central roundabout, the singing started up again. He tensed, expecting another droid, but saw none for the entire slow curve of the passageway.

You’ve been with the professors, and they’ve all liked your looks.

There were doors along the interior of the ellipse. Cells. He examined the nearest one, but it was solid metal. Tapping it, he guessed it was about a hands’ length in thickness, but sound should be able to carry fine. He pounded on the door. “Tosh?” he yelled. There was no response.

With great lawyers and scholars you have discussed lepers and crooks.

Door by door he went, the wristband only able to tell him there was someone inside, but without knowing the shape of the cells, it was impossible to be certain which entrance was correct.

You think the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.

“Toshiko!” he yelled. An extra large fountain of sparks burst from the droid in response.

You’re very well read. It’s well known.

Ianto was certain he’d made a full circuit, but he didn’t give up. Biting down harder on the wristband didn’t make the singing stop, so he blocked it from his mind. It was becoming eerie, with Howell’s voice creating echoes as though he were lurking just behind Ianto.

He realized that dragging the droid around might be making too much racket, he took care to pause before each door. About eight doors afterwards, he heard a faint scratching in response to his pounding. “Tosh?” he said, pressing himself against the door to let his voice carry.

“Help!” The response sounded almost like a whisper, as though it was taking the person all his energy to speak. The voice was pitched enough to identify the speaker as male.

“Monty?” Ianto said. No response. “Tap once for ‘yes.’” The door clanged. “All right, stand back and I’ll get you out!”

During his long walk, he’d noticed this droid possessed a handy-looking device that resembled a laser torch. A sonic blast from the wristband weakened the metal enough for him to wrench the torch off. He flicked it on and sliced around the edges of the door, preferring to aim for the hinges rather than cut through so much steel.

The door shook and groaned as the torch made its way around, leaving a trail of molten metal that looked like red and gold streamers. As he cut through the last hinge, it shook and collapsed inward.

Well, you walk into the room like a camel and then you frown.

Monty lay on his side, and even by the droid’s intermittent glow Ianto could see something was wrong. He rushed in and reached for Monty’s arm, which he was cradling above him, recoiling when he felt blood.

“What’s wrong?”

“Attack dogs,” Monty said, his voice hoarse as a man who’d just wandered out of a desert.

You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground.

Ianto put a hand on Monty’s forehead. “You’re feverish. Can you stand up?” But even as he talked, he saw Monty’s out unfocus. He cursed as the smell of gas touched his nostrils. Holding his breath, he took the wristband out of his mouth and said, “Bite on this.”

Monty didn’t respond, so Ianto forced it into his mouth. “What? Ugh. Tastes nasty, don’t need medicine,” Monty muttered.

“Medicine’s exactly what you need,” Ianto said. Monty looked in no condition to be wandering the mansion with him. Sighing, he took the wristband back and watched Monty fall into a stupor again.

A second scan for alien tech revealed a second elliptical corridor beneath the one he’d been in, only this one appeared to have an exit on the south end. There was also another human life form detected.

There ought to be a law against you comin’ around.

“I’ll be right back, all right, Monty?”

Monty groaned. “Governor isn’t...” he said, his voice trailing off into unintelligible murmurs. Ianto waved a hand in front of his face, but Monty continued to stare into nothing. “‘In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel...’” he said, sounding like he was singing.

Ianto groaned. “Not you too.”

“‘...To show that all’s equal...and that the courts are on the level...’”

You should be made to be carrying, at all times, a telephone.

“Listen, I just have to get Tosh and some medicine for you. Then we’ll all get out of here. Just wait, ok? Just wait here.”

Monty’s eyes went wide and he grabbed Ianto’s arm. Ianto nearly fell backward in surprise. “Tosh. She thinks... I betrayed her. Save her.” His fingers lost their strength, and he rolled onto his back. “‘Now is the time for your tears,’” he sang to the ceiling.

Ianto chewed harder on the wristband, debating whether he should try to bring Monty along on his back. But no, the man was too weak as it was. Ianto left the room and turned left, where the scan told him a ladder was hidden, descending to the lower level. Howell’s song followed him through the darkness.

Because something is happening here.

In the silence left by Ianto’s absence, Monty stopped singing. Trapped halfway between delirium and hallucination, his senses nevertheless alerted him that something was wrong. Like an animal aware that a storm was on the horizon, he stared upward and waited.

But you don’t know what it is.

Too late, he realized the silence wasn’t complete. A slithering sound became apparent over the soft hiss of ventilation. Monty turned his head, seeing and not quite seeing as a silhouette stepped in from the right side of the door and filled the entryway.

“Do you, Mister Jones?”

Howell stepped into the room, half human and half beast. Monty let out a moan as the gas stopped flowing and he recognized the figure. “No, no,” he said. Howell grinned, his flashlight revealing the rows and rows of glowing teeth. His figure flickered, then solidified into human form. In his hand was a gleaming rod not unlike the one he and Tosh had discovered. He stepped closer, and Monty began struggling, but his head spun, and he lost his sense of direction every time he tried to think. Fever, he remembered Ianto saying. “Fever...”

“‘There must be some way out of here,’” Howell whispered, a sneer on his face, “said the joker to the thief.”

“No, go away, stay away.” Monty tried to push him back, but he might as well be pushing a building.

The device was cold as it pressed into his scalp. Howell’s lips brushed against Monty’s right ear.

There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.

* * *

They had made it all the way to the lobby when the aliens attacked.

"I though you got them out of the hospital!" Jack screamed at Cuddy.

"I got the National Guard out! I didn't know there were more of them!" Cuddy screamed back as she shoved Chase's wheelchair hard, sending him careening down an opposite hallway and to relative safety. At the end, he tipped over, shouting all the while.

There were three of the aliens, and that was plenty. They hadn't bothered with their illusions and appeared exactly as they really were, giant and red and pulsating, with too many tentacles and a gaping maw. They whirled towards the group with a speed and precision that belied their appearance.

Cuddy picked up a chair. Cameron scrambled around for a weapon and came up with a keyboard, Jack pulled out one of the handguns he'd purloined earlier from an unconscious soldier and threw the other one to Owen. Wilson put his coat over his head and hid behind Cuddy.

"House!" Jack roared. "Take Owen with you and go! We'll catch up!"

House glanced around and decided that he probably didn't want to stay. "Uhh... Foreman! You come too!"

"Why me!" Foreman said, but didn't argue.

"Well, you're black, so you've probably been in tons of gang fights, right?"

"No!" Foreman shouted as the three of them used an opening Cuddy made for them by tossing her chair and escaped out the front doors.

"Right," Jack said grimly, once they'd gone. "Let's do this."

Chapter Text

House navigated himself through the still gently smoking ruins that used to be the PPTH parking garage. He wasn't happy. It was well past midnight, and he should have been home over nine hours ago. If it weren't for the stupid aliens mind-linking him with that overzealous Captain, he would have said "screw it" and gone home anyway.

"Where are we going? We have to get to the governor's mansion!" Owen protested. House shushed him, looking alarmingly unconcerned. It was slow going, because House had to be careful picking his way through the wreckage with his leg, but they eventually came across a small clearing where the room had, amazingly, held up.

Right below it was a motorcycle with a sidecar.

"Wonderful!" said House, his face lighting up.

"You've got to be kidding me," groaned Foreman.

"Is that his motorcycle?" said Owen incredulously.

"Of course it is!" House beamed at it.

"He drives a motorcycle?" Owen asked Foreman. Foreman shrugged.

"The limp doesn't get in the way, apparently," he explained.

"I can't believe it survived," said Owen, surveying the crushed cars all around them. Foreman shrugged again.

"Someone up there definitely hates me," he said.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" said House, already gunning the engine. "Get in!" He motioned to the sidecar.

"Oh, hell no!" said Owen. "I am not getting in that thing!"

"Since when do you have a sidecar?" said Foreman suspiciously.

"I bring it along on days I think I might get lucky," said House. "Now get in." Foreman sighed deeply, and gave up. He climbed resignedly in.

"Ooooh, no," protested Owen. "No way am I getting in that thing! I have a deathly fear of motorcycle sidecars that I just remembered!"

House huffed dramatically. "Fine," he said. "Get behind me. But don't hold on too tight! I don't want your bosom pressed up against me."

Owen hesitated, then climbed carefully on. "Right!" said House, a little too gleefully. "Here we go!" He gunned the engine and shot forward through a giant hole in the wall and out the other side. The motorcycle landed, thankfully, on clear grass. House swerved to avoid a large block of concrete, then headed for the road.

"You're going too fast!" Owen wailed.

"Nonsense! Time is of the essence!" House shouted back over the roar of the engine. He ran a red light and took a corner going sixty, then sped up. Foreman was holding on for dear life but it was hard, since he really only had one arm to work with. The other kept flailing about wildly and trying to hug an invisible person in from of him as Owen panicked about the motorcycle.

"Stop flailing!" Foreman shouted to Owen. "You're making my arm go wild!"

"Sorry!" Owen said and tried to calm down. “Make me hold on tighter, then!”

"Heads up!" said House. "Aliens driving a truck at six o'clock!"

"Where?" said Foreman.

"Behind us!" said Owen.

"Shit," said Foreman. Owen pulled out his gun and aimed a shot at the oncoming delivery truck. It went through the windshield, but missed everyone inside. The driver looked human (though he probably wasn't), but the thing in the passenger's seat was definitely not.

Foreman ducked down into the sidecar, missing a blast of answering fire by less than an inch. Owen was having a hard time firing with only one hand to work with. Being on the back of a motorcycle wasn't helping either. He had very little time to aim before having to steady himself again. House was not the smoothest driver in the world.

"House! Stop driving so wildly! I can't aim!" he yelled.

"If I do they'll hit me!" House told him. "If they put any marks on my motorcycle, they're going to PAY FOR IT!"

"Owen!" Foreman said. "Switch places with me!"

"Absolutely not!"

"Do it or we're all dead! You'll be able to aim from here!"

"I can't!"

"Just do it!"

"We're going eighty miles an hour in town! I'll get thrown off if we go around a curve!"

"Argh!" Foreman said in frustration, then grabbed Owen by the back of his jacket and threw him bodily into the sidecar.

"AHHHH!" Owen screamed.

"Shut up and get off me so I can get out of this blasted thing!" Foreman told him. Owen opted to keep screaming. House took a curve at a particularly dangerous angle and both of them almost flew out of the sidecar. "AHHHHH!" they shrieked in unison. Foreman used the recovering momentum to shove Owen off him and onto the tiny, dirty floor of the sidecar. Then he shakily stood and half-climbed, half-leapt onto the back of the motorcycle.

"Nice!" said House in aproval of this daring move.

"Drive!" said Foreman. The truck was gaining on them. Another shot just barely missed. Owen was slowly and loudly recovering in the sidecar. "Stop yelling and get over it!" Foreman yelled at him. Owen stopped hollering but kept up a steady stream of noisy gibbering sounds even as he righted himself, turned around, and once again took aim.

Owen's next shot hit the alien in the passenger seat dead on, but it didn't seem to hurt it at all.

"Shit!" he said. "A handgun isn't good enough for this!"

"It's all we've got, so shoot!" House shouted at him and ran through three more stop signs. A cop in a police car coming up from a side road saw him and the wildly swerving truck behind him, turned on his sirens, and began chasing after them.

"Great," said Foreman. "Just what we needed." Neither House nor Owen heard him over the roaring of the engines and the blaring sirens, but all three of them noticed when the truck swerved partially onto the sidewalk and took out a whole row of mailboxes.

"I don't think aliens make very good drivers!" said House over the din. By this point, shots were ringing out all around them, most just barely missing. One dinged off the sidecar causing Owen to squeak loudly and House to swear creatively.

"YOU'D BETTER BE PLANNING ON PAYING FOR THAT!" he roared back, shaking his fist.

"For the love of God just drive, please!" Foreman said, hanging on for dear life. Owen fired another shot, which hit the driver in the chest. The truck swerved dramatically onto a lawn and almost hit a tree but was back on the road a couple seconds later.

"Nothing stops them!" Owen shouted. The cop had started firing his own gun at them, and as they rounded the next corner two more cop cars joined them, both with their sirens screaming.

"Hang on!" was the only warning House gave before turning the motorcycle sharply into a lightly wooded area.

"What! Are you doing!" shouted Owen, who had thrown himself to the bottom of the sidecar but was still clinging to it desperately to avoid being thrown out.

"Shortcut!" House shouted back. The truck burst explosively through the line of trees a second later.

"A shortcut through a forest?" shouted Foreman.

"I've always wanted to do this!" said House.

"You're insane!" cried Owen. House skillfully maneuvered the motorcycle and sidecar around the larger trees, but the truck didn't bother. The police cars had apparently decided not to take the same route, but the faint continued sounds of the sirens told everyone they had gone to head them off at the end.

Thirty terrifying seconds later, House burst through the trees and back onto the road.

"Ah hah!" he proclaimed proudly. Owen gibbered. "We're almost to the highway!" The cop cars shot out from another road about forty yards behind him, and a second later the truck burst from the forest, right in front of them. They heard a crunching sound that indicated at least one of the cars hadn't been able to stop in time. House sped forward.

The truck was having difficulties turning back around the right way and House took full advantage of this. A cop had gotten out of his car and was shouting at the man driving. He apparently hadn't noticed the alien in the next seat.

"Shoot at them!" House said to Owen.

"No point! It'll just waste bullets!" Owen said. House turned a corner the next second anyway, and sped down another road. Less than a minute later they merged onto a highway, and not too far behind them the truck, which had gotten itself moving again, followed them.

One of its tires was shot out, and it was causing it to swerve even more wildly than before, sparks flying everywhere. Cars on either side moved to get out of its way and House sped up again and maneuvered himself between two semis.

"Shoot the tires!" Foreman shouted at Owen. Owen aimed a shot at one of the front tires and hit. The truck careened to the side and barely managed to avoid the ditch. It slowed down considerably.

Owen was shrieking non-stop once again at the two massive eighteen-wheelers on either side of them. House stepped on the gas and shot out in front of them at eighty miles an hour.

The truck was getting further and further behind them and either the aliens had run out of bullets or they'd decided House was out of range.

"They're persistent," Foreman commented, when the truck still didn't pull off the highway.

It was another ten heart-stoppingly horrifying minutes before House took an exit, cutting off a minivan as he did so. The minivan honked angrily, but House completely ignored it and also Owen, who was shouting obscenities at him.

When it was clear the truck wasn't going to catch up with them, House slowed minimally, but still took the opportunity to skid onto the lawn, leaving deep tire tracks, when they reached the mansion.

Owen leapt out instantly and took a couple wobbly steps before falling on his face, still cursing madly.

"That was fun!" said House brightly.

"It is dark out!" said Owen. "You need to drive carefully when it's dark out!"

"I think the pursuing aliens might have been the priority," said Foreman. "Still, I think the forest was overkill."

"Oh, shut up," said House. "I got us here, didn't I?"

* * *

A warbling squeal gave Ianto about a second’s warning to throw himself away from the malfunctioning droid before it exploded. Debris shattered in every direction, and he heard a clang like a gong, accompanied by a shrill scream, as the door of the cell tore from its hinges and embedded itself into a wall.

When the smoke cleared, he lowered the arm shielding his head and glanced over to find a gaping a hole in the floor where the doorway had been. Twisted metal shards lay everywhere while a few broken beams poked through the hole, red lights dancing on them from the flames below, making the whole scene resemble a huge cook pot that had just boiled over.

Toshiko was kneeling in the cell, hands still hovering in front of her face, as she parted a few fingers to glare at him from the other side of the wreckage. “I thought you said you were going to cut through the door,” she said. “I did not expect the door to try to cut through me.”

“Sorry. A fuse in the droid must have shorted and caused the power to overload.” He hesitated. “Can you climb over?”

Tosh did not bother looking at the hole. Instead, she squinted and peered at something behind him. “Was that the escape route?” she asked.

Ianto turned around and instead of seeing the glowing compartment of a lift waiting to whisk them back above ground, was confronted with a dark, brick-lined shaft. “Where’d the lift go?” he said, aware his voice had gone up a pitch or so.

A loud crash answered his question, sounding like it’d traveled a long distance. Tosh lifted an eyebrow, imitating him perfectly. “I think,” she said, “the appropriate question now is: ‘Can we climb down?’”

Ianto shuffled to the edge and looked down. Though the way looked hazardous, the jagged metal almost formed a ladder, and the floor below appeared stable. “We should go back for Monty, then.”

“Monty?” Tosh’s eyes went wide. “He’s here? In the cells?”

Ianto nodded. “He’s delirious from his injuries, and they’ve been gassing him with hallucinogens. I guess it’s a good thing they don’t know you got out of Hell.”--Tosh grimaced at the recollection--“ I was going to go back for him once we got medication, but since the lift is gone, it’ll be better if we carry him along.”

Tosh put a hand to her mouth, as though she were about to cry, but she just nodded. “All right, let’s hurry.”

“There’s a ladder not far from here leading...” Ianto stopped. His hand went to his belt for a gun he did not have.

Tosh balanced herself against the edge of the wall and peered over. “What’s wrong? I...” she gasped. Her voice went flat. “He doesn’t look very delirious to me.”

Emerging into the light of the flames, Monty strode toward them like a cat stalking prey. His face was expressionless but the gun he pointed at Ianto expressed plenty. He paused a meter away and gave him a quavering smile. “I’ve never shot anyone before,” Monty said. The safety went off with a click.

Tosh screamed, a primal thing filled with rage and pain that sent Ianto reeling back to memories of another alien invasion, of the attack in London and the months of pain and betrayal that followed. If it hadn’t been for that, he wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Monty, but he remembered those moments, the need to believe all his love had not been for naught, and so when Tosh threw herself over the pit, soaring a superhuman distance to close the gap between herself and the man who had destroyed her heart, he saw Monty’s entire body quiver for just a moment, as though he were fighting off a freezing wind, before he whirled around, took aim at the new threat and fired.

* * *

Tracy studied her cards. She had a seven of spades and a queen of clubs, which was quite good in her mind, even if the table was showing her a four and nine of hearts, along with a jack of diamonds. “We’re all winners as long as we think positive,” she said to Bilis, who was twitching as he glared at his cards. When they’d started the game, Tracy had threatened that if she so much as suspected he was bending time and space to cheat, she would beat him senseless with the jar of cotton swabs.

“I meet your tongue depressor and raise you a box of sample allergy pills,” she announced, pushing forward the specified items. She grinned. Bilis would have to go all in to match her wager, as he only had two cotton swabs and a band-aid left.

Bilis’ eyelids fluttered as he stared at the cards. He lay them down on the table and removed from his pocket an antique stopwatch hanging on a gold chain. It swung as though trying to hypnotize her. “May I interest you in allowing me to substitute my wager with this authentic 1700 Swiss--”

Tracy slapped the table. “No items of monetary value allowed! Gambling is bad and, in New Jersey, attracts mobsters within thirty-one point four seven seconds.”

“I think you’re bluffing.”

“Then go all in.”

Bilis shook his head. “I fold.” He revealed his hand, a two of diamonds and five of clubs. They discovered that, had the game continued, Tracy would’ve gotten a straight. Bilis glowered. “Your luck is unbelievable.”

“Actually, it’s karma. A fortune-teller told me that in my last life, I was a butterfly in Russia where human error nearly caused them to launch two hundred nuclear warheads at the United States, but I flew into the mainframe and caused the computer to catch on fire, saving hundreds of millions of lives in the process. Oh look, it appears a portion of the wall has teleported away.”

Bilis turned around in time to see a flash of light, followed by the wall--and accompanying pieces of furniture nailed to it--deciding that the room should get a better look at the natural landscape outside. A helicopter piloted by aliens foiled the wall’s plan by blocking the view.

“How unpleasant,” Bilis commented. “Tracy, be a dear, please, and hand me the sample of nasal spray.” Tracy obliged. Bilis walked up to the edge of the room, ignoring the blades spinning centimeters from his head. “Hello, mind if I join you?” he asked. He blinked into the space between the two occupants of the cockpit and sprayed the contents of the bottle into the pilot’s eyeballs.

The alien let out a pitched scream and the helicopter jerked a bit too close to the room. The blades caught the ceiling tiles and shattered, but by the time the helicopter started exploding, Bilis had teleported back next to Gwen and Tracy and pushed them out of the room.

They dashed down the hall, followed by tongues of flame as the roar of the explosion rushed down the hall, rattling windows and shaking doors, though Tracy found the atmosphere of their daring escape ruined somewhat by the fact that Gwen had started snoring.

“I thought the fabulous Rambo doctor had taken care of the menace,” Bilis said.

“She only got rid of the National Guard. I assume the aliens answer to a higher authority than Governor Streed.”

“I don’t believe anyone answers to Governor Streed any longer.”

“That’s beside the point! The question is what they want with us!”

“I believe Ms. Cooper is the only one of us on the wanted list.”

Tracy was about to comment that it was a good thing they were now deep in the hospital when the ceiling collapsed on them. She screamed as a cart fell toward them, but it stopped just inches above her head, hovering as though time had stopped, before soaring back upward again.

“What the--” Tracy began, but then she realized her feet were no longer touching the ground. “Oh.”

The three of them soared upward past the third floor, through the gaping hole in the ceiling and up into the sky. Thankfully, Gwen’s gurney and IV accompanied the patient in flight. Less thankfully, pieces of plaster and empty syringes floated about them as though caught in a tornado. A squawking chicken slammed into Bilis’ back before being sucked up ahead of them.

A flying saucer loomed overhead, only the aliens appeared to have taken the etymological suggestion of the phrase far too seriously, for it was literally a floating saucer with what appeared, from their rapidly approaching perspective beneath it, to be a teacup placed on top. Tracy decided she did not want to spend the rest of the night as a sugar cube, so she grabbed hold of Gwen’s gurney and swiveled to face Bilis. Judging by the fact that everything was rising in a cone with the tip originating from the center of the saucer, now was a good time to apply Newton’s Third Law and push each other out of the levitation beam. She told this to Bilis, who did not seem to think this was a good idea, on account of the fact that they were a hundred feet above the hospital and rising.

“Do you have a better idea?” she yelled over the roar of rushing air.

“Yes,” Bilis replied. He grabbed both of them and the surroundings turned into a beach next to a sapphire blue ocean. Palm trees swayed in the warm breeze, and a falling coconut knocked Bilis unconscious.

“Great,” Tracy said. “How are we going to get back?”

Gwen replied by drooling on her hand. Tracy did not find this disturbing, as she was a nurse and saw this sort of thing on a regular basis, but she did wipe the saliva off on Bilis’ coat. His fingers twitched like a closing bear trap, and Tracy screamed. The man showed no other signs of consciousness, but she realized her hand was being pulled slowly but inexorably, like a pink and well-manicured glacier, toward Bilis’ face. It was like a vampire movie gone horribly wrong.

“Is that the smell of Ms. Gwen Cooper?” Bilis said, inhaling with the force of a vacuum cleaner and about as much noise. “It is like the scent of ambrosia sent down from heaven.” He raised his head and looked over. “I must have teleported us into the future whereupon they have recognized her as the beguiling nymph that she is and turned her essence into perfume so that every woman can possess a drop of pure, raw, animal sexuality.”

“She drooled on me.”

“Ah,” Bilis said, pressing her hand against his cheek. “I live for the day that I can sample that nectar from its source.”

Now Tracy was disturbed. She resolved the demands of this unpleasant emotion by slapping him. He jerked to the side, struck his temple against a seashell and lost consciousness again.

Several minutes later, a passing tourist was treated to the sight of a tall, blonde American in a lab coat shoving an elderly man’s face into the armpit of an unconscious young woman who was wearing nothing but a hospital smock, all while screaming, “Smell her, goddammit! Smell her and wake up!”

They were in Cancun, which meant the tourist continued on his way and forgot the entire incident by breakfast.

* * *

There were plenty of fallen chairs to go around and Cuddy grabbed another one as soon as House, Owen, and Foreman were out the door.

"Stop being a wimp," she snapped to Wilson, who was trying to hide behind her.

"I'm a doctor!" he said indignantly. "Not a soldier!"

"You battle cancer, don't you?"

"It's totally not the same!"

One of the aliens said something that sounded extremely foreign into a futuristic-looking walkie-talkie.

"What did he say?" Cameron asked Jack.

"How should I know? I don't speak ugly-ese!"

"I told my colleagues outside," the largest alien spoke up somewhat indistinctly, "to go after your friends." He grinned toothily--or at least, it looked like a grin to them.

"Well thanks for letting us know that," said Jack sarcastically and then shot the alien in what he thought was probably the head.

His shot took out four of the alien's massive teeth and buried itself in the back of its mouth, but the creature just grinned awfully at them and seemed not even a little harmed.

"Oh," said Wilson.

"Guess we're going to have to get creative," said Jack. "No one's got any serious explosives on them, do they?" No one answered him. Two of the aliens started closing in with a speed and grace that belied their considerable bulk. The smallest of the three, also the one that was the lightest shade of red, stayed behind and started tinkering with something ominous-looking.

Jack, Wilson, Cuddy, and Cameron all backed up as the other two approached. "Get ready!" Jack shouted just before he fired the rest of the round into the largest alien. All four shots hit point blank but the monster barely slowed. Cuddy chucked a chair at it and that gave it a bit more trouble; it tried to bat the chair away with a tentacle, but instead the chair sort of stuck to it.

"Good idea," said Jack sarcastically. "Give it a battering ram!"

"Got a better one, Captain Trigger?" Cuddy retorted. Cameron whacked at flying tentacles with her keyboard until one stuck to it like velcro and almost took her arm with it.

"Are they magnetic or something?" she asked, casting about for a new weapon and frantically ducking tentacles.

“Keyboards aren’t made of metal!”

Jack tapped Cuddy on the shoulder. “I don’t know who’s in charge of inventory here, but they look metallic to me.”

Wilson was pelting the aliens with small objects from behind the counter. The aliens were accumulating a collection of spoons, needles, scalpels, watches, pens, and other items upon their skin, while things like pencils and wads of paper fell to the floor.

"They weren't magnetic before!" Jack said, confused. "I'd have noticed. That isn't helping, Dr. Wilson!"

"Well, what do you want me to do? If bullets couldn't stop it, I sure can't!"

"Anything but that! They just look like really bad collages now!"

Indeed, the two aliens, who seemed to prefer staying at a distance and letting their long-reaching tentacles do the fighting, were slowly getting covered in random crap and were looking sillier and sillier.

"Maybe they're only magnetic under certain circumstances," Cuddy suggested in between swipes with a new chair.

"Maybe it has something to do with what that one's doing," said Cameron, pointing at the third alien, who looked like it was constructing something dubious.

"Oh no!" said Jack.

"What is it?"

A tentacle nearly took off Cameron's head, and another bruised Wilson's arm when he tried to hit it away.

"It's an earthquake machine!"

"Oh, come off it," said Cuddy.

"This is getting nowhere," said Wilson, staring at the two creatures, who were making weird growling noises that probably constituted some strange alien battle cry.

"Run!" said Cameron, who suddenly ducked behind Cuddy and ran towards the elevator. The others followed, some with difficulty, but this hallway wasn't for storage rooms and so it was thin, and the aliens were not, and though they tried they couldn't follow.

"Where are you going?" asked Cuddy.

"Regrouping!" said Cameron. "We need to find better weapons!"

Behind them the aliens gave up trying to reach them and went in another direction.

"That worries me. I wonder where they're going," said Wilson.

"No, really," said Jack, sounding wounded. "It is an earthquake machine."

"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

"It causes small, localized earthquakes by tapping into the rock below the surface dirt and vibrating it at a high frequency! They're not real earthquakes in the sense that they don't have anything to do with tectonic plates, but they act in the same way!"

"Fine. Supposing I believe you, just how dangerous is it?"

"Well, I didn't get a good look at it, but I'd say it'll probably do a circle with a diameter of just under a mile and with the hospital at the focal point, well, equate it to a five or six on the Richter Scale."

"So bad enough to knock down a building?"

"Yeah, especially since they don't take that long to charge between quakes."

Cameron ducked into a room and came out with two brooms and a mop. She tossed the mop to Wilson and a broom to Cuddy. "Better than nothing." She shrugged.

"What about me?" said Jack.

"Oh, right. Here." She tossed him a dustpan.

"And what, exactly, am I supposed to do with this?" said Jack dryly, eyeing the plastic dustpan.

"Make it up as you go! We have to destroy that stupid machine before it brings down the whole hospital!" said Cuddy. "There are still lots of civilians in here!"

"Why wasn't everyone evacuated?" Jack asked her reproachfully as she took off down another hallway.

"You were there! How were we supposed to evacuate people when the National Guard had the place under quarantine?" Cuddy snapped at him.

"Oh. Right."

"Where are we going?" said Cameron.

"If you go this way, it loops around back to the lobby," answered Wilson as they took a right. "How long will it take them to set that machine up?" he added. They were all forced to leap over several piles of broken glass where some of the numerous windows had shattered, but it didn't take them long to get back to the lobby, which was even more chaotically messy than before. The two aliens not working on the machine had lost interest in the escaped group and were systematically breaking all the glass that wasn't already broken.

"Why are they doing that? Get them away from my hospital!" Cuddy cried. Then she charged at the nearest one and whacked it repeatedly with her broom. The thing didn't pay her any attention except to sweep her several feet away with a stray tentacle, as though she were nothing more than a fly.

Wilson dodged one tentacle and shielded himself from one with his mop, but the third one caught him right in the stomach and knocked him over.

"Stop!" Jack hadn't bothered with the two knocking down walls and had instead rushed at the one with the machine. He didn't get very far; there was some sort of invisible force field surrounding the device and the mechanic alien. The force of it, however, knocked the dustpan from his hands and sent it flying across the floor where is struck the bottom of the machine. "Must be hardwired so only living creatures can't get through," Jack said, poking at the force field.

A spark flew from the machine. The alien didn't notice, but Jack did, and he ran straight back over to the others. "The casing's cracked," he whispered to Wilson, who was still picking himself up off the floor. "Go find water! That thing may be extremely advanced, but it still runs on your average electricity!"

Wilson nodded and fled back the way they'd come.

It didn't matter. A second later, the mechanic alien flicked a switch and, slowly at first, the whole building started to shake.

* * *

As was customary after crashes, a wheel fell off the wheelchair and rolled past Chase’s head. It navigated its way into a stairwell and bounced all the way down, smashing some glass at the bottom. Surprisingly, there was no yowling cat.

Chase sat up, rubbing his head and feeling like he’d been run over by a stampede of gazelles--specifically gazelles, because they could not only trample but jump up and down a lot too. Bright lights and screams came from the far end of the hallway, and Chase decided he should be thankful Cuddy had pushed him away like a murderer shoving a car with the body in it into a lake.

He was looking for an alternative form of transportation when an elderly lady drove past in a mechanized wheelchair. He caught her eye, and she drove up to him, parking on his foot. He winced but it was not his injured foot, though if she remained on it much longer, it might join the ranks of body parts that hated him right now.

“Are you my daughter?” the woman asked.

“What?” Chase said. Then he remembered he was still in Cameron’s body. He wondered when he’d stopped noticing. “No, I’m afraid not. I work here.”

“I’m sorry, you’re going to have to speak louder!”

Chase bent over so that he was level with her and yelled, “I am not your daughter!”

She stared at him, and he wondered if she still hadn’t heard, but then she grabbed him by the ear. “Stop with that stupid, fake Australian accent, Ingrid. You’re not fooling anyone. Trying to disown your mother, how disgraceful! You come with me right this instant!”

She drove off with Chase in tow, her grip on his ear lobe strong as a vise.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” he screamed, hopping as fast as he could to keep up, but she didn’t pay him any attention.

They rounded the corner and Chase was confronted with the sight of forty senior citizens in wheel chairs all lined up in five neat lines. They were each brandishing a cane like a battle axe.

“I have found Ingrid!” the woman exclaimed, releasing Chase. He turned and tried to run, but she hooked his leg with her cane and sent him sprawling. “Ingrid shall lead us into battle against the terrors that have consumed this forsaken hospital.”

“Why me?” Chase whimpered.

“Because you are young and virile! My Ingrid is like a valkyrie warrior woman.”

“Technically, valkyries collect the dead from battlefields.”

His supposed mother ignored him. Turning back to her rapt--or maybe sleeping, it was hard to tell the difference--audience, she let out an ululating battle cry, choked in the middle, paused to catch her breath, had to use her asthma medication, remembered it was time for her calcium supplement, took her calcium supplement, had to clean her false teeth after taking the calcium supplement, felt cold and made Chase fetch her a blanket, forgot she’d taken her calcium supplement, felt an overriding urge to go to the bathroom and did that instead.

Chase attempted to use her absence to sneak off, but the others raised such an uproar that Ingrid charged out, beat him over the head with her cane and left again. He was beginning to despair when the entire hospital started shaking. The floor tilted, sending the entire battalion sliding down the hall. Chase took the opportunity to stagger away as fast as he could.

* * *

An armada of flying saucers were descending upon Drumthwacket, numbering in the hundreds. They were all pink. House counted five that had kitten designs on them and seven that had frolicking puppies chasing butterflies. He thought there was one with a group of kittens beating up a puppy, but it disappeared before he could verify the sighting.

They were all design coordinated with the teacups they were carrying.

“The British are coming!” House exclaimed.

“I happen to drink coffee,” Owen snapped.

“I thought you were Welsh.”

“Wales is part of Great Britain!”

“Cut the geography lesson!” Foreman yelled. “We have bigger problems.”

“Is it me,” said Owen, “or have those cups started steaming?”

“Shit,” House and Foreman said at the same time. They glared at each other, but House shook his head and said, “There’s no time for this. Get back on the bike.” For once, there were no complaints as the two piled in, shoving and kicking for space. House climbed onto the motorcycle and gunned the engine.

“Are those attack dogs?” Foreman said, pointing at brown shapes darting around the corners of the mansion.

Owen groaned. “This just gets better and better.”

“Hang on!” House yelled, and they streaked across the lawn, leaving a trail of upturned grass in their wake. The teacups swerved to cut them off, forcing House to veer into a ninety degree turn as the first one to intersect their path upturned, pouring down a cascade of boiling tea. The murky liquid splashed in all directions, but the dogs just leapt through the spray, their fur protecting them from the heat and occasional errant droplet.

Several teacups increased speed, soaring overhead before spilling over. Columns of tea slammed down from the sky, forcing House to swerve and dodge. House tried to imagine they were just trees in a forest, but trees didn’t tend to curve in your direction and try to scald you.

“Are these more hallucinations or will bullets be able to harm them?” House asked Owen.

“I can try, but they’re too high up right now!”

As if on cue, the teacups that had emptied their contents descended from the sky. The saucers started spinning, and a foot-long blades extended all along their perimeters.

“We’re going to get killed by a Disney ride!” Foreman moaned as the teacups fell into a revolving formation around the motorcycle and sidecar. One dropped back, giving House a moment of relief before he saw the saucer allow one of the dogs to leap onto it. The ship swooped back, and the dog soared through the air onto Foreman.

The canine’s added weight caused the sidecar to sink deeper into the grass, slowing them down long enough for the saucer behind to draw terrifyingly close. Owen screamed and opened fire, using clip after clip of ammo, but the bullets bounced off.

“Forget the teacup! Shoot the dog!” Foreman screamed, pushing back the hound as its claws scrabbled against the back of the sidecar and its teeth drew closer and closer to his face. “And help me push, damn you! I can’t hold it back with one arm!” Owen swung his aim at the dog, but the car was too cramped and Foreman found himself staring into the barrel. “Not me! The dog! Not me!”

The hound snapped at Owen. In his haste to jerk his arm away, he lost his grip on the gun and it landed in the grass.

House pressed harder on the acceleration, and a spray of dirt covered the teacup behind them. The sudden increase in speed sent the dog flying, and it soared over the teacup to land in front of the pursuing pack, causing the other hounds to trip and fall into a heap.

The dirtied saucer wobbled, emitting panicky squeaking sounds. House cheered: “I think the dirt covered its vision!” The saucer dipped too much, and the front caught the ground. Soil burst in every direction as the ship flipped. The teacup fell off, bouncing across the grass and slamming into another saucer, causing it to explode. Fighting against instinct, House turned in the direction of the ball of flame, knowing that he’d be sliced to pieces if he went any other direction.

The tumbling saucer fired off its engines in an attempt to remain in pursuit. That unexpected action, combined with the turn, gave it enough speed to catch up with them just as it flipped onto its side, becoming a spinning saw blade that cut straight between him and the screaming duo. It severed the sidecar’s connection, causing it to careen off on its own.

The confusion allowed them to slip between the blades and continue in a path that led straight to the front entrance of the mansion. Lucky bastards, thought House as he watched the attack dogs regroup and chase after them instead.

The teacups started closing their circle, and House could hear the blades whirring. Shit, he thought, and realizing he had no option, he swerved once more, leaning so hard the bike fell on its side. His momentum carried him through the dirt straight under one of the incoming saucers. Small strands of his own hair drifted past like snow as one of the blades came a little too close for comfort.

As soon as he was past, he kicked with his good leg, glad he’d taken the effort to exercise it in the past few weeks, and righted the bike. The saucers reversed course and darted for him even as he raced for the mansion. He saw Foreman and Owen each trying to steer the sidecar by leaning to the side, except they were leaning in opposite directions. The car smashed into the stairs of the front porch and made it up two steps before flipping over and crashing through the front door. Owen and Foreman went in next, followed by the dogs.

The saucers zoomed forward, attempting to regroup. A teacup above deposited its contents and melted the one closest to House, but then his luck ran out. Instead of attempting to close a circle on him, they began darting, one after another, each making a separate attempt to slice off parts of his body. House weaved and two crashed into each other. He immediately smashed the brakes, causing a third to overshoot and slam into one of the teacups awaiting its turn to attack. They exploded, and the gout of flame caught one of the recently emptied saucers descending to replace its destroyed peers.

House knew the aliens would get their act together soon, but just as each pass was growing too close for comfort, the saucers lifted off as one and retreated. The sounds of splashing died away, replaced by the hissing and bubbling of tea boiling grass. The smell was disgusting.

House slowed down and realized he had reached the mansion. They must not want to damage it. Looking up, he put his thumbs in his ears and blew a raspberry at the circling teacups, waggling his remaining fingers. One of the saucers descended again, and he directed his scorn at it until he realized it was flipping on its side behind one of the downed ships.

“Uh oh.” He threw himself to the side and the saucer began spinning like mad, fanning the flames until a funnel shot straight at House. It missed him by inches, and he expected the saucer to perfect its aim at any time, but the inferno died away without moving. Getting up, he realized it had been a parting shot; they wouldn’t risk setting the house on fire.

He smelled burning plastic and looked down to see the sticker on his cane smoldering. “Yes!” he exclaimed. He was rid of that damned “World’s Greatest Grandma” logo. Then he looked closer and saw that it now read “World’s Grandma” instead. “That,” he growled, “does not help.”

* * *

Tosh slammed into Monty at the same time Ianto grabbed his wrist, twisting it and forcing the gun from his hand. Monty made no sound except a soft “oomph” as he hit the ground. He swung at Tosh and threw her off him, sending her three meters down the hall. Then he turned to Ianto and used his free hand to start choking him. His strength was astonishing, and Ianto knew he had seconds before his windpipe collapsed.

“Monty, stop it!” Tosh screamed. She brought a piece of sheet metal down on his head, and he whirled around, grabbing her instead. He threw her against a wall and pressed down on her throat. Ianto ran over and tried to pull him off, but it was like attempting to move a stone statue. “No,” Tosh gasped, tears streaming down her face. “This isn’t you. I believe you, Monty.”

Ianto hoped she was right. At the last minute, Monty’s aim had gone awry, turning what was certain death from a shot to the heart into a graze along Tosh’s shoulder. That, and the superhuman strength he was displaying now, was more than proof enough that Monty was not himself. The question was whether he could regain control in time.

Monty pulled away, and Tosh dropped to the ground from where she’d been pinned. “Monty?” she asked, staring into his eyes. He blinked, face seeming to regain expression, but then he began to glow.

“Tosh,” he gasped. “I’m sorry.” He fell apart before their eyes, transforming into tiny pinpoints of light which rushed away up the lift shaft. Tosh ran after them, but Ianto grabbed her arm.

“He teleported,” he said. “The aliens teleported him out. But he’s still alive.”

“We have to find him!” She stamped her foot in frustration. “I didn’t trust him, Ianto. I should’ve, but I didn’t.”

Ianto pulled her close and patted her back. “It’s all right. It’ll work out.”

Tosh nodded, stepping back. She stood straighter and brushed her hair from her face. Even with tear stains still fresh on her cheeks, she was the picture of determination, and she strode to the hole in the ground and began climbing down. Ianto picked up Monty’s gun and scurried after her.

The next floor down was a twisting maze lined with wires and pipes that Ianto would have assumed were service tunnels for the mansion if they weren’t so huge and so far below ground. The ceiling loomed overhead, twice as far up as the height of any human, and the width was enough to accommodate two trucks. He assumed it was meant for the aliens, which were bulkier than most people, and the size of the passage meant it held special importance.

“I see a light up ahead,” Tosh whispered.

Ianto consulted the wristband. “Heavy concentration of alien tech but no signs of life.”

“I didn’t see anything when they caught me either. Can you be sure it’s not a hallucination?”

Ianto put the wristband in his mouth and looked around. “No, it’s all real,” he said, taking it out again and wiping it clean on his pant leg. It annoyed him to use his suit in such a way, but Jack’s clothing held higher priority.

Tosh gave him an odd look, so he felt compelled to explain why he was using a piece of 51st century technology as a pacifier. When he finished, Tosh had a gleam in her eye that he saw whenever she had a new piece of tech to play with, but she didn’t say anything else.

The source of the lighting was a dead end room, but blinking consoles lined the walls and dishes that looked like satellites hung from the domed ceiling. Wires and electrical cables flowed out of the computers to lead into a single circular pad about two meters in radius at the center of the room. Tosh cleared her throat and held a hand out. Ianto handed the wristband over.

“All right, these appear to be the standard controls, but over here we have long-range neutrino controls and a quantum interferometer,” she muttered. “So if I press this and this and enter these equations... aha!”

“Yes?”

“It’s a stasis transmat. We’ve seen the aliens use ordinary teleports, but this is required if you’re breaking apart and reconstituting hazardous or unstable materials. It freezes time on items in transit, bypassing common side effects of teleportation that could trigger a reaction.”

“Does it transport life forms as well?”

“Yes.” Tosh went over to one of the panels and interfaced the console with the wristband. “The log shows that two aliens accompany each shipment of whatever they use this for. The environment on the other side is safe for humans.”

“Can we use it to teleport back into the mansion?”

Tosh sighed. “No. It appears to be a fixed-end transmit. It would take me days to recalibrate it for generic egress, and even then, I might just break it.”

“Where does it lead?”

“It won’t say.” She hesitated. “I guess we’ll have to step through and find out.”

Ianto checked the chamber of Monty’s gun. Two bullets left. Well, it was better than nothing. “I’ll go through first,” he said.

Tosh shook her head. “Access requires identity verification. I can use the wristband to hack the system, but that means anywhere we go, we have to go together.”

“All right. Together then.”

Tosh’s fingers flew across the keyboard. “Got it. Five seconds until activation.” She disconnected the wristband, and they dashed onto the pad. “Three, two, one...”

The room blinked out of existence, then came back, looking exactly the same. Then Tosh pointed at the entrance and saw a door there where the corridor had been. She positioned herself by the knob, gave him a count down on her fingers, then threw it open. He charged through, gun drawn, and was struck by a blast of heat, as though he’d run into a furnace.

“Dear god,” he said. Tosh came through the door and gasped. They stood at the start of a long catwalk that twisted and turned through a facility that stretched on and on, farther than the eye could see. Vats of molten metal glowed beneath them while troughs carried olive green sludge through various pieces of machinery, each powered my thousands of parts spinning and swinging and slamming together. Further down, rows of conveyer belts carried gleaming silver objects along what appeared to be assembly lines, and spider droids darted along the floor and up columns, overseeing the entire operation.

“It’s like an industrial waste plant,” he whispered.

“And much more,” Tosh added. “They’re manufacturing something using the trash of human society.”

“BRAIN,” Ianto said. “Yvonne once had some scientists draw up theoretical schematics for a device that might utilize BRAIN. Some of them looked a lot like what’s coming off that assembly line there, and it tallies with everything we know so far. We need to call Jack at once. Do you still have your phone?”

Tosh nodded. “I still have everything with me. I think they were confident I wouldn’t wake up.” She paused. “Wait, the alien device is missing!”

Ianto shrugged. “I’m not sure it matters at this point. I’d guess they have lots more. Let’s report back. Where do you think we are?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

“Just tell me?”

Tosh handed the wristband over. On the screen was a map, and right in the middle was a flashing red dot labeled: “Washington DC Botanical Gardens.”

* * *

The quaking caused Jack to overbalance and fall on his rear.

This turned out to be a good thing, because less than a second later an entire computer flew right over his head and fixed itself not so gently to the bulbous alien behind him. It roared. Jack's gun flew out of his pocket and copied the computer, and so did every other metal object within fifteen feet.

Cuddy shrieked in surprise when her wristwatch did the same and effectively stuck her to one of the aliens. She struggled to undo it amidst the chaos. The wall the aliens had been hacking at abruptly collapsed and neatly buried the alien behind Jack. Cuddy's was trying to rid itself of all the objects stuck to it; it was obvious that the aliens hadn't bargained for this themselves.

At the other end of the room the mechanic alien was having similar problems. It was holding down a small lever which was causing the earthquake to continue but it was having a hard time keeping it pulled because of all the junk flying at it and the general shakiness of the area.

It was only a couple more seconds before its tentacle slipped and the lever righted itself, and the room abruptly stopped shaking.

Jack carefully got to his feet. Behind him, the aliens' sudden magnetism dropped from extremely high to merely abnormally high, and most of the larger junk started falling off.

Cuddy finally managed to detach herself and threw herself backwards just in time to avoid getting hit by the flying pieces of debris caused when the buried alien exploded upwards, freeing itself.

"Cameron!" Jack called. "Where are you?"

"Here!" Cameron had hidden under a desk that had ended up toppling over onto her, but it wasn't too heavy and she was uninjured.

"I got it!" said Wilson, panting as he ran back down the corridor with a bucket only half-filled with water. "There was an earthquake! I only barely managed to avoid spilling all of it!"

"No good! We need more," said Jack. "Go get another bucket, get as much as you can! Cameron, go with him. Dr. Cuddy and I will hold them off." Jack dumped the water on the floor near the aliens.

"What are you planning?" Cuddy asked him.

"No time to explain," Jack said. "I just hope they don't have any of the properties of rubber...."

The mechanic alien had recovered and, at that moment, pulled the lever again.

"Make him stop!" Cuddy shouted. "He's ruining my hospital!"

"I'm a little disturbed that I have to tell you this, but I think your hospital is already pretty ruined," said Jack. He fell down again. "Oh no! My pants are all wet!"

Cuddy grabbed a large glass paperweight and started crawling across the floor, trying to avoid the once-again flying metal objects while doing so. When she got close enough, she chucked the paper weight at the alien's tentacle and hit soundly. The alien made a screeching noise and let go of the lever. Everything stopped shaking again, but another wall looked near collapse and the floor was covered in broken glass.

Cuddy started chucking pens and large pieces of glass and whatever she could reach at the alien with the machine, hoping to hold it off. Jack stood again, ran over to her, and dragged her up.

"Come on! You have to get out of here!"

"Why?"

"Just trust me! There!" He guided her down the storage hallway, then sprinted back into the lobby just as Wilson and Cameron were arriving again, carrying three buckets of water.

"Great! Give those to me and follow Dr. Cuddy!" He wasted no time in waiting to make sure they'd obey, but splashed the water onto the floor.

"What--!" Wilson started, but Cameron grabbed him.

"Move!" she roared and dragged him out of the lobby. Jack threw the second bucket down, then took a deep breath and hurled the last one through the force field where it poured its contents all over the earthquake machine.

There was a loud PZZZZZAAAAPPPPPP noise, then quiet. Cameron took a stop towards the lobby, but Cuddy stopped her.

"You don't want to do that," she said.

"What about Jack?"

"Just wait."

Four minutes later Jack stumbled down the hallway, looking a little bit singed.

"Electricity has got to be one of my least favorite ways to go," he said, grinning at them.

"What?" said Cameron.

"Well," began Cuddy.

"No time!" interrupted Jack. "We've got to catch up with House!"

* * *

Tracy collapsed onto the beach, exhausted from her efforts. Bilis remained face-down in the sand next to Gwen, and he was making odd moaning sounds which made Tracy think it was best to drag him away from her patient. Once she had completed this, she sat down again and kicked sand at Bilis.

“You know Gwen’s condition is still critical, right?” she said, wishing she had a stress ball with her right now. “We need to get her back to the hospital as soon as possible.”

Bilis popped up like a Jack-in-a-Box. “Ms. Cooper is in danger! We must be away!”

Tracy had enough time to roll her eyes before he grabbed her, the gurney and Gwen and teleported.

They found themselves on the Eiffel Tower. “Oh,” Bilis said, glancing at Gwen in her hospital gown. “I’m afraid I forgot the situation. You see, I was dreaming we were here in Paris. Together. Naked.”

“Get us back to Princeton!” Tracy shrieked.

They materialized in front of the hospital just in time for a man in a greatcoat to crash into Gwen’s gurney and tumble over it, falling in a heap at Tracy’s feet. Captain Jack Harkness groaned.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” Cuddy asked as she caught up, followed by Wilson and Cameron.

One story up, Chase appeared in the only clinic room that had a floor-to-ceiling view of the landscape. “Where’d the wall go?” he screamed, his voice echoing against the ruins of the parking garage.

Bilis teleported up. “Don’t be silly, my dear. Why would a wall go anywhere?” They vanished and reappeared beside the group.

“You were supposed to keep Gwen safe,” Jack said, dusting himself off.

“Aliens came for her. Given the situation, she’s in as good a condition as anyone can hope.”

“Uh,” said Cameron. “She’s also awake.”

Chapter Text

Death’s robes itched. Susan supposed that, as a skeleton, didn’t bother him too much, but she was certainly not an anthropomorphic personification of something more concerned with appearance than comfort, and she made a mental note to tell her grandfather to get some better ones. After all, she never knew when she would need to use them again.

On the other hand, there were other problems with the outfit as well, apart from the fact that they were simply silly-looking and unpractical. After all, if you were going to run around with a giant scythe, big baggy robes would only hinder your arm movement and catch on the ground. Death might not have to worry about chasing someone down--everyone came to him eventually--but there were times when she had been Death that she definitely needed to run. In any case, the robes were far too big for her, and the sleeves extended a foot past her hands. The hood fell over her face, though that worked out fine; it was a hassle when people didn’t recognize her as Death. Even when she explained it and they took her word, the old men always asked for a last kiss, which was stupid. Susan had no desire to be known for having a kiss of death.

The hourglass room was just as noisy as it normally was, but she heard the Death of Rats’ protest comment loud and clear.

SQUEAK, it said, the words resonating in her mind.

Well, two could play at that game. Death had gone on vacation, and she was two days into the week she’d promised to cover. The old habits were well-rehearsed at this point, so she glared at the skeletal rodent and replied in Death’s voice of command: SIT.

The bony skull rattled as the rat plonked down on the shelf.

SQUEAK!

“One more word out of you and I’ll have you doing tricks like a dog.”

SQUEAK?

ROLL OVER!

It was after she uttered the words that she realized her mistake. The Death of Rats fell on its side and tumbled to its right straight into an hourglass. She whipped her hand forward to catch it before the entire shelf turned into a giant game of dominos. The sand inside rocked back and forth as she caught the upper end, stopping its momentum a finger’s breadth from disaster.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Sensible as she normally was, she should never have given into temptation, but this night’s errand had her on tenterhooks.

SQUEAK SQUEAK SQUEE-SQUEEEAK!

“Poo,” she cursed. The tinkling sound of glass upon glass grew louder as she looked down and saw that her sleeve had swept across the row below, triggering a chain reaction to the right. Seven hourglasses had already fallen over, and she dashed after the eighth only to find herself stepping on the hem of the robe and falling over. Her hand went wide and missed her target, and she went rolling down the aisle. “Get to the end of the row before I make an owl pellet out of you!” she yelled at the Death of Rats.

SQUEAK, it told her reproachfully, and she saw it was already scampering after the cascade. Luckily, Death had possessed the presence of mind to make most of the bases in the form of squares, or at least something angular, and the glasses that had been knocked over simply lay where they fell rather than roll off the shelf and shatter. There’d have been a lot of explaining to do if ten thousand Discworld residents all dropped dead within five seconds of each other. Well, she supposed she could claim one of the elephants had passed gas, but that would set a bad moral example.

When she arrived at the end of the shelf, one hourglass was missing. She found it on the ground, but luckily, it remained intact. A ragged piece of black cloth fluttered from underneath it, and when she picked the hourglass up, she found the Death of Rats sprawled underneath.

“Well, you did a great job, didn’t you?” she told it.

SQUEAK.

She rolled her eyes. “You did not cushion the fall. You’re made of bones! If anything, you probably made it worse.…” Her voice trailed off as she noticed the name inscribed on the base. Well, the universe worked in strange ways, but maybe this fiasco wasn’t as bad as she’d thought. “Just who I was looking for,” she said. Focusing on the hourglass, she received an image of the person’s whereabouts, and then she dashed out of the hall.

For something without eyeballs, the Death of Rats did a pretty good job at rolling its eyes.

* * *

Ronald T. Daniels did not consider himself a particularly old person, and he prided himself on being, if not physically fit, at least not obese. Of late, his housekeeper had taken to sneaking small quantities of wheat grass juice into his morning milk. The fact that the housekeeper was color-blind did not aid the attempt at subterfuge. Nevertheless, Daniels took the hint and wrote “exercise” in big, red letters in his daily planner on a page some thirty weeks in the future. He was a busy man, after all.

Today, however, things had not gone as planned. It was a holiday, of course, which in Ankh-Morpork mainly meant more people got mugged than usual. This was not because the Thieves’ Guild upped their quota on holidays; on the contrary, thieves deserved breaks too. However, the lack of Guild activity resulted in a distinct lack of enforcement as well, which meant free-lancers could have their way without fear of nasty things happening to them shortly thereafter, ‘shortly thereafter’ being defined as within twenty-four hours, as opposed to more than twenty-four hours, which was when the holiday ended and the whole guild worked overtime to break fingers.

Normally, this did not bother Mr. Daniels. Art, he liked to declare, waits for no one, except dwarves (the saying used to go “Art waits for no man, or woman, or child, or zombie, vampire, banshee and other wee beasties, etc. etc.” but the list grew too long and cumbersome). Art also tended to wait for the Patrician, but Daniels preferred to leave Vetinari out of the equation altogether. However, his secretary had gotten drunk and broken his foot the previous night, and then the theatre caught on fire when one of Mrs. Vimes’ swamp dragons escaped. As a result, there was nothing left to do except enjoy his well-deserved holiday. He wasn’t too upset--the theatre did not suffer major damage and rehearsals would continue tomorrow--except for the fact that no dwarves had been involved in the work stoppage whatsoever. That just made him look bad.

The day had gone well. He’d rescued several kittens, danced on the roof, and lied through his teeth to the Ankh-Morpork Times reporter about his upcoming production. All in all, a splendid vacation. Now, he was tucked into bed with a nice warm cup of milk (pure white, entirely lacking in any shades of green) and thinking things were looking so up they were probably looking down.

This was why he was upset but not entirely surprised (just extremely shocked, considering he was neither particularly old nor obese) when Death came visiting.

He/it walked through the wall beside the window. Daniels considered this to be showing off unnecessarily because the window was open. On the other hand, he was duly impressed because his room was five stories above the ground with no significant ledges nearby and a storm drain that had been covered with Assassins’ Guild certified grease (the price on his head had gone up a significant amount after his previous production, “Last of the Temporal Noblemen,” premiered).

Death drew closer, the handle of the scythe dragging across the wooden floor, generating an ominous rumbling that grew louder and louder with his/its approach. Daniels decided that if he was going to voice his protest about this development, it was now or never. “Excuse me, um, O Destroyer of Life. Are you sure you don’t have the wrong person?”

ARE YOU MISTER RONALD TUTANKHAMEN DANIELS? Death asked with a tilt of his/its head that was visible only by the rippling of his/its hood.

“I’m sure there are lots of people named that in Ankh-Morpork alone.”

YOUR MIDDLE NAME IS QUITE SINGULAR UPON THE ENTIRE DISC.

Daniels made a mental note to fire his psychiatrist; this was completely his mother’s fault.

ARE YOU VERY SCARED MISTER DANIELS?

“Just a tad bit.”

YOU ARE A TAD BIT VERY SCARED? THAT IS A LOGICAL FALLACY.

“Sorry, but I don’t want a debate about semantics to be the last thing I ever do.”

YOU ARE NOT ABOUT TO DIE. PER SE.

“Just stopped in for a chat, then?” Daniels was beginning to wonder if his housekeeper hadn’t slipped something else into his milk.

Death lowered his/its hood and Daniels discovered that Death had, in fact, lowered her hood. Her hair and voice dissuaded any thoughts that this might be a practical joke.

MY NAME IS, OH BLAST... She cleared her throat, then continued in a human voice. “My name is Susan. I’m Death’s granddaughter, but I’m filling in for him right now.”

“Is he on vacation?” Daniels laughed shrilly.

“Actually,” Susan replied, completely serious, “he is. Luckily for you, I might add, because it is not your time to die and as Death, rather than as Susan, I cannot kill you before your time.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“I’m an avid follower of your series.”

“Oh. You’re one of those people.” He would have to ask the Assassins’ Guild if they had supernatural wards. “I don’t see the point of getting up in arms about ‘Last of the Temporal Nobles.’ I thought it was quite good.”

“That,” Susan said with distaste, “was immensely disturbing, but forgivable. I am here to inquire about your other production series, Firetree.”

“Let me guess, you didn’t like the goat monster.”

“Actually, I thought it was rather brilliant how its shadow ate everybody’s clothes. Incredible special effects work for the stage, even if you did cheat a little with magic at the end.”

“Thank you. Then what’s the problem?”

“There have been rumors going around the city.”

“Of what, pray tell?” Daniels was fairly certain he knew what.

“I am very fond of Posh and Oven.”

“Wonderful!”

“So imagine my consternation when I heard they were going to be killed off.”

“That’s rubbish. Completely false information. They’re going to get married and have seven kids, one of which will be a flesh-eating alien parasite, and then they’ll live happily ever--”

DO NOT LIE TO ME, RONALD!

Daniels flailed, causing his cup to slip from his hand and fly across the invisible blade of Susan’s scythe, whereupon it parted in half as smoothly as sliced ham (which was to say it jerked a little but gave way in the end). The milk splattered across the wall but miraculously managed to miss Susan.

“Are they going to die or not?”

“Even if they were, the decision’s been made. Opening night is in a week. There is no time to make changes.”

“You’re ruining the team dynamic just after everyone’s started working together properly!”

“Their story arcs have reached a natural conclusion.”

“What are you talking about! Posh has done nothing but mope after Oven and gain a reputation as being the Black Widow of Vehicular-Upper-Case-Delta!”

“That is her character arc.”

“What about her father? And her time with the Uberwaldian Intelligence Task Force? Not to mention the fact that she’s a complete genius and you’ve underutilized her talents in favor of Glen, which is totally not a girl's name.”

“Don’t you think you’re getting yourself a bit worked up over a fictional production?”

One moment, Susan was standing halfway across the room, and the next moment, she was leaning over him and a clump of his nightshirt was in her clenched fist. She shook him as she growled, “Do not kill off Posh or Oven, or you will be receiving frequent visits from me for the rest of your life. Understand?”

Daniels made some choking sound which Susan appeared to take as assent, because a second later, she was gone.

A cool night breeze swept through the window, making the curtains dance. He shut the window. When he turned around, his cup of milk had reconstituted on the nightstand and was just the right temperature. He shrugged and drank it and went to sleep, dismissing the entire incident from his mind.

The next morning, he woke up early, ran to the theatre and announced there was a slight change of plans for the ending of the next production of Firetree.

* * *

Susan shrugged the robes off as though they were on fire and flung them into a corner. Now that she had accomplished her mission, she felt somewhat guilty. Intimidating a man over a stage production was not a sensible thing to do. “Maybe you were right,” she said.

The smug “SQUEAK” she expected from the Death of Rats did not come. Frowning, she looked around and realized that, instead of the purplish-black walls of Death’s house, she was simply surrounded with pitch black. A lone sign floating in thin air stood in front her, illuminated by an invisible spotlight.

YOU HAVE BEEN DIVERTED, it read.

“And here I was thinking I’d taken a wrong turn by the elephant’s tail,” Susan muttered. The information did help, though. There were only so many things that could divert Death. She suspected she knew which one it was, and indeed, three gray shapes were materializing before her.

“Auditors,” she said. Auditors of reality, infinite in number and almost as patient, they watched the universe spin and made sure every atom behaved as it should. Only sometimes they got antsy, because the universe itself had been such a cold and physical thing, behaving like clockwork, until something messy came about. Something unquantifiable: life, and consciousness, and with it, all the emotions and imagination of countless beings, every one of them behaving in unexpected ways. Every once in a while, the Auditors decided the universe would be simpler without life and engaged in some complicated plan to remove it without breaking any laws. It usually did not work. Usually, Death intervened, dragging Susan kicking and screaming along for the ride. Today, Death was not here, and Susan had no one to drag kicking and screaming behind her. That was a little problematic.

The empty cloaks floated closer.

One said, Do not be alarmed. We are not here to harm you.

“I’m not sure you could harm me if you wanted to.”

One said, We are also not here to harm your interests.

“You’re just here for a chat, then. On vacation?” The irony of the situation was not lost on Susan. She supposed it was karma, which every once in a while managed to impose its will on even people who refused to acknowledge its existence, not unlike door-to-door religious proselytizers.

One might say we are here to engage your services.

“You couldn’t pay me enough.”

We are counting on your sense of justice. And the desire for survival.

Susan paused. Was that a hint of fear in the Auditors’ voices? True, the things weren’t supposed to feel anything, but they all acted oddly ever since that battle over the clock in which some had taken physical form and found it more than they bargained for.

“What’s wrong?”

One said, A darkness is coming, sweeping across the universe. Soon it shall reach the Discworld, which for all its quirks and psychological defenses will not survive the onslaught.

“Darkness? What darkness?”

The darkness of the mind. The madness of life which is incomprehensible and terrible. It is coming. We cannot interfere directly, but we may contact agents who can. You must go forth and fight.

“Why do you want to preserve the disc? We’ve given you no end of trouble.”

Because what is coming is worse. Life is short and finite and will one day end. Then we can continue our jobs in peace. But if this comes, life will be swept away to be replaced by something worse. The entire universe, every rock and atom and quark, will be supplanted by complete illogic. All natural laws will cease. Even we will cease, for there will be no place for us. But life shall be extinguished long before we are gone, so hurry. Hurry fast.

The auditors faded, and Susan found herself standing in the antechamber. Death’s robes still lay in a pile in the corner. Cursing, she threw the scythe into its place and yelled, “Grandfather!”

The cry was pure frustration, and she expected nothing to come of it as Death still had two days before his vacation ended, but there was a clatter like a falling bag of skittles, and Death stood before her, his dice rolling to a halt on his tray. WELL, THAT’S A COINCIDENCE.

Susan rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it.” But she didn’t give him the chance. Instead, she told him what the Auditors had said, and there was a second clatter, this time of the tray and dice falling to the ground.

* * *

“Hey Adric, look at this!”

Adric put his book down and saw Jamie waving at him from the TARDIS console. “What is it?”

“Just c’mere, will ye? This is incredible!” Jamie was bouncing up and down like that time they bought caffeine-flavored gum in Japan and it had turned out to contain copious amounts of real caffeine. Adric hurried over, because if this new discovery was anything like that, he needed to confiscate it and call the Doctor immediately. He was disappointed to find that Jamie was looking at nothing more than a stationary picture with lots of text on one of the TARDIS monitors.

“Yahoo?” Adric read. “I don’t get it.”

“Well, ye told me going through the Doctor’s files would help me learn more about tech-no-lo-gy. This wee mad thing is called the Internet.”

“What’s that?”

Jamie showed him the Doctor’s comments. “The Internet,” Adric read, “gained widespread use on Earth in the 1990s, reminder: do NOT accidentally mention this to UNIT, is an information systems technology that delivers fast access to all data stored in world-wide servers. Information is frequently presented in the form of websites. For most people, the Internet was primarily used to communicate and access porn-o-graphy. What’s pornography, Jamie?”

“Uh,” Jamie said, batting away Adric’s attempt to type on the keyboard, “that’s an entry ye probably shouldnae look at.”

“The Internet sounds neat. So we can use it to talk to anyone on Earth?”

“After the 1990s, I guess so.”

“How does it work then?”

“I think we’re supposed to enter something called an address in this space here.”

Adric flipped through the Doctor’s notes some more. “Oh, an IP address, it’s a combination of numbers that tells the computers what to access. Let’s just type something in and see what we get.”

Jamie shrugged. “That sounds good.” He punched in a string of numbers according to the format Adric indicated and hit ‘Enter.’ “It says, message board.”

Adric keyed in a search. “Message board, or forum: a place where people leave messages to each other under subject headings in a series known as threads. Hey, all we have to do is create an account. Click that there.”

“It’s asking for a username and password.”

“Hmm, let’s use ‘TARDIS’ as the username. I bet no one else uses that. And a password should be strong, so let’s use the initials of our names along with, say, the 45th through 47th entries of a Lucas number series, that should be good enough.”

“What?”

“Oh give it over.” Adric grabbed the keyboard. “There, account created. Let’s see what 20th century Earth people talk about.”

“Hey, look at that!” Jamie exclaimed. “There’s a subject that’s asking for help. And it’s got a lot of replies.”

“Hmm.” Adric read the first post. “‘I need help accessing the CIA mainframe...’”

There was a lot of information there, and the following posts seemed to be several hundred people discussing various attempts to get into a part of the Internet. “Wow, Earth people are so nice to each other,” Adric said.

“That’s terrible,” Jamie said. “It’s like the, what do you call it? Oh, right, the OP got locked out of his house and forgot his key. Come on, Adric, you’re smart, we’ve got to help him!”

“I don’t know, it sounds like the CIA, whatever it is, is a bit off-limits.”

“But the Doctor’s notes say the Internet is about the free flow of information. No part of the Internet is supposed to be off-limits!”

Adric nodded. “You have a point.” It wasn’t often Jamie got so excited about something that fell into Adric’s area of expertise. Besides, he liked it when the older boy looked up to him; it made him feel like he was an important member of the team, which wasn’t something that happened often when most of their adventures involved running and rescuing people out of traps, something that was far more Jamie's forte than his.

Several hours later, they’d worked it out with Adric doing most of the typing and Jamie looking up whatever obscure Internet lingo they needed from the Doctor’s notes, of which there seemed to be a lot. The thread was gaining replies at a rate of four point seven three nine posts per second. “Look at that!” Jamie said. “They think you’re a hero! Hit ‘refresh’ again.”

At that moment, the Doctor walked in, yawning and stretching. “Hello boys, what’s all the excitement about. Oh dear, we haven’t materialized in a sun again, have we?”

“No, no, look at this!” Jamie rushed over and pushed the Doctor to the console. “We discovered an Internet forum and Adric’s a hero on it!”

“He is? Oh my.” The Doctor bent over to read the board. “Oh my,” he said again, but this time he didn’t sound so thrilled.

“What’s wrong?” Jamie asked.

Adric looked up from the latest reply. “Nuclear proliferation,” he said, “that’s like mitosis, right?”

* * *

“Bloody hell!” Ronald T. Daniels screamed as the curtains of his bathtub flew open of their own accord to reveal a hooded, robed figure. There was no scythe in sight, but that didn’t change his feelings one bit. He splashed around a bit and gathered the bubbles in his bath to more strategic positions. “I changed the ending! I swear!”

The figure lifted bony fingers to his hood and removed it to reveal a grinning skull with eyes glowing with the blue of distant stars. Daniels screamed again before Susan appeared behind the figure and put a hand on its shoulder.

“Really, I told you this was a bad idea.”

“What do you want!” he demanded.

I ASSURE YOU, HE IS THE ONLY CANDIDATE.

“Why?” Susan asked, and if Daniels wasn’t mistaken, she sounded as annoyed as he felt.

“Candidate for what? Stop stalking me, both of you!”

Death put his hands in his pockets again and withdrew a glowing sphere, pulsating red and orange. THIS IS A PIECE OF THE SUN. I AM TOLD IT IS NOT WISE TO LOOK DIRECTLY AT IT ALTHOUGH, OF COURSE, I WOULD NOT KNOW.

“Then take a step back! The water’s hot enough as it is.”

Death obliged, then looked at Susan. She sighed. “Would you please summon your housekeeper?” she asked. “She can’t see us.”

“Why the bloody hell not?”

BECAUSE SHE IS NOT ABOUT TO DIE.

“And neither are you,” Susan added hurriedly. “The thing is, whatever gripes I have with some of your creations, you have a quite singular and powerful mind that allows you to see things most normal people cannot. Death and I cannot possibly be standing in your bathroom, or so most people would think, so their minds ignore us and we might as well be invisible.”

“That sounds like a load of crockery to me.”

Susan shrugged. “Nevertheless, it’s true. You see us, and more to the point, you have a creative and powerful mind. So please, call your housekeeper.”

“Pull the rope by the door,” he said. Susan gripped it and jerked. A bell chimed somewhere in the house, then crashed to the ground.

NOW, PRETEND THIS IS AN APPLE. Death began holding out the piece of sun and Daniels waved frantically for him to keep it away. Droplets of water splashed against the surface and vaporized beyond steam, vanishing instantly. Death looked at him again. I WILL KEEP IT AWAY FROM YOU, BUT PLEASE IMAGINE IT TO BE AN APPLE.

His housekeeper bustled into the room and walked straight through Susan, who glared and said, “She can see what Death is holding. Ask her if it’s an apple or a piece of the sun.”

Daniels scratched his head. “Er, is that object floating in front of you an apple or a piece of the sun.”

“Blimey, how’d you get a piece of the sun into the house, Mr. Daniels! Why, I bet it’s awfully warm, if I could touch it AAAAAGH OH MY [the rest of this sentence has been censored by Ofcom and the FCC, or at least it would be if they saw it]”

Once the housekeeper was gone, Death and Susan shared a long look. “You sure you were trying really hard to imagine it was an apple?” Susan said. He could only nod in reply. The two of them vanished.

Daniels splashed for a few minutes after that, waiting to see if they would reappear. They didn’t, and now his bath was not the proper temperature any longer. “You’re welcome!” he yelled before yanking the curtains shut. He pulled a little too hard, and the frame collapsed on top of him.

“This is why I hate holidays,” he gurgled.

* * *

Susan folded her arms and tried to look proper. You could get a long way just by looking proper. “I do not consider that adequate proof.”

THE DISC HAS A STRONG BELIEF FIELD ASSOCIATED WITH IT, AND DANIELS IS BY FAR THE MOST SUCCESSFUL ARTIST ON THE DISC. HIS MIND IS COMPLETELY IN TUNE WITH THE FIELD. IF HE CANNOT MASK THE IDENTITY OF AN OBJECT, THEN THE BELIEF OF DISCWORLD IS BEING SUPPRESSED.

“By an outside force.”

CORRECT. THAT IS WHY I, AS A BEING BOUND TO THE DISC, CANNOT INTERVENE. THIS TEST CONFIRMS WHAT THE AUDITORS HAVE SAID. YOU MUST GO.

“Off of the Disc. Into outer space.” Susan doubted proper encompassed such a possibility.

ALL YOUR POWERS WILL WORK ON OTHER PLANETS FOR AS LONG AS THE DISCWORLD EXISTS.

“You mean the Discworld might cease to exist?”

THE DISCWORLD IS ONE OF THE STRONGEST BASTIONS OF BELIEF IN THE UNIVERSE. IT WILL BE HIGH ON THE TARGET LIST OF ANY SIMILARLY OPPOSING FORCE.

“Grandfather,” she said, trying her best stern voice. “You’ve seen more of space than I have. I would be lost out there. It’s a ridiculous notion.”

I CAN FIND YOU A COMPANION.

“I don’t need a companion! I need an assistant!” Oops. Susan realized she just admitted she would go. Damn he was good at this.

COMPANION, ASSISTANT. THEY ARE THE SAME THING.

“Are not.”

I WILL BE RIGHT BACK.

“No! You are staying right here until I am convinced that this is necessary!”

No one was listening. Susan stomped her foot at the futility of it all, but it didn't help.

* * *

It took two days and seven trips to Earth to sort out the CIA incident. In the end, UNIT asked Adric to write a virus that they released hours prior to the time the database was hacked which put up an extra firewall and sent out false designs for a suitcase fission device. The Doctor explained to the boys that the Internet was a dangerous place, and when Adric asked about pornography, he grudgingly explained that it was introduced onto the Internet by some man named James Harker or something similar (he wasn’t sure because when the man found out he was the Doctor, he slipped something into his drink) to keep hackers distracted and protect the integrity of the system, and no, they were not allowed to see for themselves what it was.

Despite the frustration generated by their most recent adventure, the departure from Earth was quite warm. Adric made a surprising number of friends during his time there, while Jamie miraculously avoided getting shot despite drawing his knife on anyone near the Doctor or Adric with a gun in hand or holster.

“So where shall we go next?” the Doctor asked. “If you’re still interested in technology, Jamie, I’d suggest Aiur. There’s a telepathic race called the Protoss there, and they’re famous for fried foods because all they have to do is think about it. Or Adric, you like math, how about a visit to Logopolis?”

“No!” Adric yelled. Jamie and the Doctor started, and he fidgeted under their gaze. “Uh, trust me, Doctor, that’s not a good idea for now. Or, ever, really, but I guess that’s beside the point...”

The Doctor recognized the fear of crossing timelines when he saw it, so he moved on, shushing Jamie when he tried to inquire further. “All right, then what about Endor? If I remember correctly, it’s populated by giant teddy bears.”

“Actually, Doctor,” Jamie said, “before I found out about the Internet, I read that there were people living on the moons of Saturn some time in the future, and there’s this accident involving a ship called Red Dwarf. It was really sad and I was wondering if we could help out the survivors.”

“Don’t worry, Jamie, that’s a complete work of fiction, not real at all. I just liked the TV show.”

“Oh. So Mr. Flibble doesnae exist?”

“I’m afraid not, Jamie.” The Doctor patted him on the back.

YOU CAN, HOWEVER, BUY ONE OFF EBAY. LOOK. The robed skeleton that appeared on top of the TARDIS console two seconds earlier withdrew a hand from his pocket to reveal a penguin hand puppet. It waved at them, its pupils dancing a jig.

“Death!” Adric exclaimed, jumping to his feet.

The Doctor’s eyes widened. “You’ve met before?”

“Yeah, right before you rescued me from the burning ship.”

“What are you doing here?” Jamie growled.

Death pointed his finger at Adric. I HAVE COME FOR HIM.

“Oh no ye don’t!” Jamie cried, pulling out his knife. “Creag en tuire!”

“Wait!” Adric rushed forward and grabbed him before he had the chance to climb onto the console and step on something that shouldn’t be pressed. “He’s not here to kill me!”

“How do you know?” Jamie asked, still struggling.

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, I DO NOT KILL ANYONE, Death said reproachfully.

“That’s not helping!” Adric snapped.

Death stepped off the console, putting it between himself and the angry Scot. THE BOY IS CORRECT. I AM THE DEATH OF ANOTHER WORLD. I HAVE NO JURISDICTION OVER HIM. I AM HERE TO ASK FOR HIS HELP.

“His help?” The Doctor wrung his hands. “Whatever would you need his help for?”

Death reached a skeletal hand out toward one of the monitors and when it made contact, it just kept going until half his arm was submerged. Blue arcs of electricity fizzled about the screen, and then he withdrew his hand. YOU OPERATE ON A DIFFERENT PLANE OF EXISTENCE THAN MOST BEINGS.

“That’s right, I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord.”

THE MATTER AT HAND WILL COME TO YOUR KNOWLEDGE SOON. THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE IS AT STAKE. WE MUST EACH DO OUR PART.

“It’d be easier for the Doctor to do his if you told him what was happening,” Jamie protested.

The Doctor shook his head. “How did you find us? The TARDIS is in transit. It should be untraceable.”

I HAD NEED.

“Need?”

I TRAVEL BY PROBABILITY.

“Oh dear. How many trips did it take you to get here by chance?”

ONE. IT WAS A MILLION-TO-ONE CHANCE, AFTER ALL.

“I see. And you’ve met Adric before. By chance?”

ADRIC. Death considered the name. It was good enough. YES.

“I think I begin to understand the nature of your concern, even without the details.”

I HAD HOPED YOU WOULD.

“So what do you want with Adric?” Jamie asked.

MY GRANDDAUGHTER HAS AGREED TO TRAVEL TIME AND SPACE TO INVESTIGATE THE MATTER, BUT SHE HAS NEVER LEFT THE DISC BEFORE. SHE REQUIRES A COMPANION SLASH ASSISTANT.

“You have a granddaughter?” Jamie’s jaw dropped.

Death addressed Adric: SHE IS NOT AS BONY AS I AM. I THINK YOU WILL LIKE HER, THOUGH YOU MAY FIND HER MORE DIFFICULT TO DEBATE.

Adric frowned. “It doesn’t sound much different than traveling with the Doctor, to be honest. But why do you need me?”

FATE.

Adric turned to the Doctor, who nodded. “Even if the Time Lords ceased to exist,” he explained, “the universe as a whole has a temporal momentum that self-corrects any deviations from the most probable timeline. There would be many more problems without the Time Lords, but the universe would not end. Ironically, the correction mechanism tends to manifest in the form of highly improbable events, such as Death finding you twice, in the right order of your own timeline, out of the infinite points in space and time that he could travel by chance. For whatever reason, you and Death’s granddaughter are the best combination to face whatever force is pushing the universe off the proper time track.”

“But what about us?” Jamie said. “You said yourself the Time Lords are supposed to monitor the universe.”

“If I understand Death correctly, he is saying we do have our part to play, but it is not the right time for us to enter the equation.”

THAT IS WHAT YOUR VESSEL TELLS ME.

“I’ll go,” Adric said. “No, listen Jamie, if you’re getting involved too, that means we’ll meet again. Sometime in the future. So it isn’t really goodbye, and even if it was, I have to go anyway.” He glanced at the Doctor. “I wouldn’t be worthy of being in the TARDIS if I didn’t take some responsibility for the universe. I mean, that’s what the Doctor does, that’s what all of us who travel with the Doctor agree to do, whether we know it or not.”

“Now, I wouldn’t put it that way,” the Doctor said.

Jamie considered this. “But it’s true, aye?”

The Doctor sighed. “Why yes, Jamie, I suppose it is, in a way.”

THEN TAKE MY HAND, Death said. His eyes dimmed for a moment as he recalled the last time he had gotten involved with a mortal child. It occurred to him that this was what gods did, interfering with affairs and lives, but then, he wasn’t a god, and neither was this Doctor, and he’d never seen an actual god do much work anyway. He was just doing what he could while the universe continued on, oblivious in its calculations of probabilities. Maybe that was why the Auditors always lost; they could afford to, because they knew they won in the long run.

Until now. For a moment, Death contemplated a world in which the Auditors lost for good and wondered if it would not be better. But only for a moment.

Adric took his hand, and the two of them vanished in a blue flash of light.

Chapter Text

House parked his motorcycle just inside the house and took a moment to mourn for his sidecar, which was still outside and would never be functional again, even if he could retrieve it. Then he turned and took in the large foyer, wondering where to go next.

He heard dual screams getting closer and closer but ignored them in favor of trying to memorize the lay of the room for later use. Owen and Foreman shot past him, their screams echoing with the Doppler effect as they turned a corner. A second later a pack of loudly barking dogs streaked past him in hot pursuit.

"Huh," House remarked to himself. "Well, as long as they're keeping themselves entertained."

He decided to ignore the obvious difficulty the stairs would present and explore the ground level. He could hear the aliens disembarking from their silly spaceships and concluded that he'd better pick a destination quickly. There was a nice-looking door to his right and upon opening it he found himself in another hallway.

"Goodie." He frowned. He could still hear screaming and barking in the distance, but it sounded like they were getting closer again. He took a couple steps forward and sure enough, both Owen and Foreman burst from one of the doors in front of them, trying to elbow each other out of the way.

They quickly went through the opposite door and the dogs soon followed, although this time one of them noticed House and split off from the pack. House deftly and precisely hit it over the head with his cane as it charged. It fell to the floor and drooled.

"Yuck." House grimaced when some of the drool got on his shoe. He took the door Owen and Foreman had come from.

He was in a dining room of some sort. "Where the hell is that slimy colonel?" House muttered. "And where the hell is Harkness? I thought he was catching up!" He was still getting mental feedback from Jack but it was really just a lot of panic and some bizarre snippets regarding an earthquake. House didn't know what that was supposed to mean because he certainly hadn't felt any earthquake. His grumbling was interrupted when a man entered through an open door on the opposite wall.

House instantly noted that something was off about the man and ducked under the table before he could be seen. This man was walking a little jerkily, as though he wasn't quite used to his body yet. Alien, thought House.

As soon as the disguised alien got close enough, House flipped his cane out and deftly tripped it. Then he brought the cane down heavily on top of the correct spot on the alien's head. It passed out.

In the back of his mind the panic over earthquakes calmed down. House wondered if everyone had found a secret stash of LSD and when they were planning on sharing with him. A quick search of the alien's pockets turned up a pistol and, oddly, a condom. House took both, because you never knew.

The door at the other end of the room led to another long hallway. House had barely taken one step when Owen and Foreman darted out of one door and into the one on the opposite side, closely followed by about three dogs. House wondered who the architect of this place was and whether or not it was worth hunting him down and shooting him in the street.

After some internal debate, he finally decided he should probably help his minions so they could get a move-on finding Smythe. He waited. Two minutes later, Owen and Foreman burst through a door to his right and this time House was ready. He dodged out, smacking his cane around wildly. All three dogs went down before they knew what hit them.

"HAH! Who says you can't be an action hero with a bum leg?" House crowed. He was really getting the hang of this. He heavily suspected that he may have always been destined to battle evil or something. After all, he'd been battling bureaucracy for decades, and that was the same thing.

Owen and Foreman skidded to a stop and stared at him. "Woah," said Owen.

"You two are useless. Come on, we need to find that asshat colonel," House snapped.

* * *

The first word out of Gwen’s mouth was: “Rhys.” Jack rushed to her side.

“Gwen, it’s Jack. How are you feeling?”

Probably like crap, House said in his head. Jack tried not to glare because that would alarm Gwen, but in his mind, he saw House wandering through Drumthwacket. Don’t you have better things to do than use my head like Youtube? Jack responded.

She’s my patient, if you remember. But Jack thought he felt House’s presence withdraw, even if he hadn’t realized it was there to begin with.

“I... oh my God!” Gwen flinched. “What’s he doing here?” She pointed at Bilis who huffed and straightened his cravat.

“Uh.” Jack leaned closer and whispered in her ear: “He’s been helping us. It seems he has a crush on you.”

“Is that so?” Gwen said, sounding a bit too interested for Jack’s comfort. She began fussing with her hair to make it look more presentable. Then she stopped as she noticed her surroundings. “What the hell happened here?”

Cuddy muttered something under her breath that sounded like a lot of curse words. Many seemed to be German. Jack approved; if you were going to insult something, you might as well do it right.

“It’s a long story,” Cameron said. “Jack, we should get her back into the hospital.”

“No.” Gwen grabbed Jack’s arm as he started pushing her gurney. “Please, just a little longer. I want to look at the stars.”

Cameron began to protest, but Cuddy pulled her aside. “Perhaps you could find Chase another wheelchair and then look for transportation to Drumthwacket.”

“That’s a good idea.” Tracy pushed Cameron away before she could object. She threw Chase over her shoulder and carried him off.

Jack kneeled down beside Gwen and took her hand as she lay still, staring up without a word. Watching her, he felt a sudden chill as his mind took in her pale skin and cold fingers, and he wondered whether he was at a wake and only dreaming the corpse was still alive. His eyes kept going to her abdomen, searching for the rise and fall of cloth that seemed to be the sole sign of life, and he had to force his gaze back to her face.

Bilis tried to move closer but Cuddy stamped on his foot. “No,” Gwen said, moving nothing but her lips. “Let him come here. I need to speak to him.”

“What could you have to say to Bilis?” Jack demanded, but he stepped aside when Bilis approached. The elderly man leaned over, and Gwen whispered into his ear.

“What? No, my dear, simply no.”

“Use those exact words.”

“But you are fine.”

Gwen choked back a laugh. “Do I look fine to you?”

Bilis stiffened. “Very well.” He vanished.

“Where has he gone?” Jack had to stop himself from reaching for his gun. “What did you ask him to do?”

“I want to make amends with Rhys, Jack.” She held his hand as though she were drowning and it was the only thing keeping her afloat. “I love him. Not like I love you, but I love him.”

“I... what?”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing,” Bilis said, popping back into existence.

Gwen and Jack both glared at him. “Bilis!”

The man shrugged. “I can travel through time. It’s not like there’s any rush for me. Besides, Rhys is currently occupied with the pterodactyl.”

What?” Gwen tried to sit up, grabbed her abdomen and fell backward. “It hurts,” she gasped. “It hurts.” Cuddy ran up to her, a bit too late to restrain her, but she felt Gwen’s forehead and shook her head.

“She’s freezing. We need to move her inside, and I’ll get another IV.” They started wheeling Gwen away, and she gave the sky one last furtive glance before shutting her eyes, her brows furrowed in pain. Cuddy ran ahead of them, intent on returning before they got her through the lobby.

“How do you love the Captain?” Bilis persisted, sounding irritated and curious at the same time.

“Now is not the time!” Jack snapped. “She’s ill and not thinking clearly.” He turned to Gwen. “Of course, if you want to answer...”

“Do you love me, Gwen?”

“Give her a chance to speak!”

“In any way at all. Love-hate, love like a brother, love like a tingly feeling in your--”

“That is not a normal combination by the standards of any time period!”

“Jack...” Gwen murmured. The two men returned their attention to her. “What does it feel like?”

“I personally think it’s the tingly feeling,” Bilis said.

Jack hit him. “She’s not talking to you. What does what feel like?” Bilis stomped on Jack’s foot before teleporting away again.

“Dying,” Gwen whispered. “What do you see when you die?”

“You’re not dying, Gwen.”

“It’s not the same as Suzie, is it? Or John Tucker or any of the rest? I mean, the darkness, it could be because of the glove. Maybe they just don’t remember.”

“Gwen--”

“Tell me, Jack. Say something, anything!”

“I don’t remember. It’s like... going to sleep and waking up again. There’s isn’t darkness or something lurking in the shadows. There’s just literally nothing in my memories.”

Cuddy returned. “I’ve got the IV fluids here, Gwen. You’re going to be all right.”

“No, she’s not,” Jack said suddenly. Cuddy fixed him with an intense stare, and he froze, but not because of her. What are you doing? he thought to House. “Stop that, Cuddy. You think you have an eagle’s stare but you just look like a lost kitten.”

Cuddy’s jaw dropped. “House? Why are you imitating House?”

“I’m not!” Jack protested. “It... the alien device hit us while we fought Smythe for it in the morgue. Our minds are kind of linked.”

It was a good thing Cuddy had brought several bags of IV fluid because the one in her hand popped in her grip. The entire hospital ground to a halt as she screamed like a banshee whose fingers had been caught in a door. Or a banshee whose favorite pet is about to die, House said. Aw, now isn’t that a sad image? I’m going to wait to tell Cuddy that one on my own. No use making her cry if I can’t be there to comfort her.

Jack focused extremely hard and added into House’s memory the experience of being whacked really hard over the head with his cane.

“Ok, fine, I’ll accept that,” Cuddy said, wringing out what parts of her blouse she could dry without taking the thing off. “Now stop fighting him and let House give his diagnosis!”

“It’s not a diagnosis,” Jack said. “But...” He walked over and began lifting Gwen’s hospital smock. His hand froze. “Hey, what are you doing!” he snapped. His other hand reached up and slapped him twice. Cuddy took advantage of the distraction to finish the job, and they both gasped as they saw garish purple streaks extending all across Gwen’s stomach.

“Internal bleeding,” Cuddy said. She raised her voice. “Nurses, help! We need to operate immediately!”

Jack stared as Cuddy dashed off with Gwen, a sudden entourage of hospital staff surrounding them. Is that a new symptom? Jack asked.

No. It’s a symptom of that idiot Bilis teleporting her around while aliens knock down the hospital. She just came out of surgery.

Then now what? You still don’t know what’s wrong with her!

Give me time! House snapped. But underneath the anger, Jack could sense frustration. House did not feel despair, but Jack did. House mentally sighed. This is why we don’t let those close to the patient in on our decision-making.

I know, Jack replied, trying to feel humble. It didn’t work, but he sensed approval from House. He didn’t want House’s approval, but if it helped the man think, he would beg on his knees.

I think that would help, House said, grinning.

Jack kicked the reception desk.

* * *

While Jack was relieving his frustrations on the reception desk, Cuddy was getting down to business. She'd returned to the original scene after ensuring that someone with a reasonable amount of intelligence would take care of Gwen. She'd ordered Tracy to stay with her, and Bilis had stayed of his own accord.

"HEY!" Cuddy shouted, getting everyone's attention. "We have to get out of here, right?" The three sent off to find a vehicle had returned empty-handed, save for a new wheelchair, but that didn’t get them any closer to Drumthwacket.

"Uh," said Jack, looking up. "You don't have to come. You didn't get hit by the alien device."

"Yeah, as if I'm not going to come after all this," Cuddy scoffed.

"Fine. But we need a way of getting there."

"Well... my car wasn't in the garage, but there's no way all of us would fit in it with Chase's wheelchair too," Cuddy said.

"We wouldn't fit in mine either," said Wilson.

"Mine was in the garage," said Cameron sadly.

"Mine too. Oh no! My insurance company had better cover alien invasions!" moaned Chase.

"I think that's the least of your worries, actually," said Wilson.

"Shut up!" muttered Jack. Cuddy glared at him. "No, no, not you guys. Never mind. There's nothing for it; we'll just have to steal a car."

"What!" Cuddy said. "No one's stealing cars at my hospital!"

Jack's cell phone rang loudly. "Hold on," he said, and picked it up. "Ianto! You made it back to Princeton, didn't you?"

"With difficulty, yes, sir," said the voice on the other end. Cuddy listened intently.

"And you're okay?"

"More or less, but we have bigger problems right now. I'm with Tosh at the governor's mansion and we've found something you'd be very interested in."

"What?"

"Er, it's a stasis transmat, and you'd never guess where it leads."

"I don't plan on guessing," said Jack impatiently.

"It leads to DC. Underneath the Botanical Gardens."

"Underneath? No kidding."

"That's not all. It's worse than we originally thought--much worse. It's some sort of industrial waste plant, and I'd bet my life it's powering a factory for making equipment that will utilize BRAIN technology."

Jack swore. "I always wondered why the ponds looked like that. Well, we're leaving now. Owen's already there, along with Dr. House and Dr. Foreman. We'll be there as fast as we can."

"Dr. House is here? Why?" asked Ianto.

"It's a long story. Later. Be careful!" Jack hung up and turned around.

"No stealing cars at my hospital!" Cuddy repeated.

"I'll give it back. Come on!" Jack ran out the doors, leaving the rest no choice but to follow him, with Cameron pushing Chase. Jack rushed to the parking lot. A fair amount of the cars there had been crushed by falling debris from the parking garage, but most of them were intact.

"What about your car?" cried Cuddy. "You do have a car, don't you?"

"Yeah, and it's a minivan!" said Cameron. "I should know, I was stuck in its trunk!"

"Yeah, and it probably got crushed when the parking garage blew up," said Jack.

"What about that one?" said Chase, pointing to a bright red minivan.

"I don't think I've ever seen a minivan that color before. It's usually reserved for sports cars and men going through a midlife crisis, I thought," said Wilson.

"Who cares? Get in!" said Jack. Cuddy gave up protesting before she'd even started and unlatched one of the middle chairs while Jack busted open the paneling below the steering wheel. She dumped the chair on the ground, heaved Chase's wheelchair in its place with the help of Wilson, and, that finished, claimed shotgun.

"Hurry up!" she shouted at Jack while Cameron claimed the other middle seat and Wilson shuffled into the back.

"These things take time!" Jack responded about a second before the minivan roared to life. "Hah!" He jammed it into drive and skidded out of the parking space. Chase, whose wheelchair was not latched down in any way, slid backwards into Wilson, who was sitting behind him.

"AHHHH!" they both screamed in unison and, when Jack braked sharply in surprise, causing Chase to slide forward and slam into the back of Cuddy's seat, Wilson quickly undid his seat belt and slid to the seat behind Cameron instead. Cameron decided she'd better buckle hers.

"Don't scare me like that! I'm driving!" Jack yelled at them from the front seat.

"I'm sliding all over the place!" Chase yelled back.

"Deal with it!" Cuddy told him.

"He almost crushed me," Wilson whined.

"Play nice or don't play at all," said Jack as he started the car up again. Chase's wheelchair slid backwards again. He braced his feet against Cuddy's chair to stop it sliding as Jack left the parking lot and careened around a corner at top speed.

"Stop kicking my seat!" Cuddy shrieked.

"Well sorry!" said Chase, but he didn't stop. Jack turned another corner so fast that the minivan was briefly moving on two wheels, and Chase's wheelchair tipped over onto Cameron's seat.

"Move!" said Cameron, shoving it so it straightened up again.

"I can't help it!" Chase cried.

"No shoving!" Cuddy screamed.

"Stop all this racket or I will turn this car around, don't test me, I swear to God I will!" Jack bellowed.

"Are we there yet?" Wilson moaned from the back.

* * *

The teleport dropped Monty out into thin air about three feet above the floor, and he fell face-first, getting a mouth full of carpet. He spat, wondering how many shoes had tread there, and tried to get up. He failed. Screaming in pain, he managed to roll over and start gasping for air, his arm throbbing as though it had been roasted. The room swam before his eyes, but he managed to get a good enough look to see he was in the governor’s bedroom.

Rebeca appeared above him, her trademark smile that looked like a sneer but not incriminating enough to be one plastered across her face. “I thought you had his mind under control. He doesn’t look very docile to me.”

“He managed to undo the conditioning.” Monty twisted his head further and saw--upside-down--the attorney saunter out of the bathroom and sit onto the bed.

“Impressive,” Rebeca purred.

“They got away,” Monty said, fighting the fatigue that assaulted his mind. Between it and the pain, he was surprised he could get a word out. “You failed.”

“Streed is dead,” Howell told Rebeca, who was peering out the window. “He got thrown out one of those.”

“Well, I’ll have to remember to thank whoever did it.” She stroked the pane as though every window in the world had been responsible.

“I put him in harm’s way.”

“I know. Thank you.”

Howell slipped off the bed behind Rebeca. “Is that all the thanks I get?”

“Yes. Because that’s all you did.” Rebeca slapped his hand away from her shoulder. “Now that he’s disposed of, we can move on--”

“I’m not done yet.” Howell stepped behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. His hands began creeping upward. “In the language of your species, I am a man of power. You should be more grateful that I shower you with my attention and favor.”

“And?”

Howell nuzzled her neck. “I confess your species fascinates me. I have explored many aspects of your culture, but thus far, the pleasures of the flesh remain... unexperienced.”

“They shall remain that way, at least as far as I am concerned.” Rebeca’s voice had turned cold as ice. Monty heard her slide the safety off a handgun, though from his perspective she remained motionless. Howell had stiffened, though, and by his pose, Monty assumed she had the muzzle pressed against his chest.

“A gun?” Howell chuckled and overtones of his alien voice crept in, distorting the sound.

“Each bullet tip is a capsule of compressed dichlorine designed to dissolve in conditions matching your internal biology.” Rebeca pushed him back with a single finger, as though any additional contact would cause her disgust to exceed acceptable bounds. “My husband may have been worthless but he wasn’t entirely a fool.”

“This is an intriguing development,” Howell said. His tongue flicked in and out twice, moistening his lips.

“We’ve been studying you as long as you’ve been studying us. I am not helpless, and, unlike our poor, innocent Monty, quite competent in going toe-to-toe with you from the get-go.”

"You are a greater fool than your husband ever was. Shoot me and you are dead, but let me go free and I will see you dead. You can’t hold me hostage forever.”

“I don’t intend to, but you still need me. Now that the Governor is dead, his assets transfer to me, including all the documents he’s been hiding away in his little accounts. The lieutenant-governor doesn’t know about you, and your puppets in DC will wonder about Howell meeting such an untimely demise in the heart of your operation. I can assuage their fears, and besides, we have a common enemy. So long as any member of Torchwood lives, they will hunt both of us until we are dead. So I suggest your first order of business be with the two Monty failed to kill, rather than with me. Does that make sense?”

The two stared at each other as minutes ticked by. “You will take care of the three who have breached this house,” Howell said, stalking out of the room.

Rebeca touched her neck where Howell’s lips had been, but instead of showing disgust, she just deepened her smile. She returned her attention to Monty. “You poor thing, bleeding all over the carpet--no, don’t worry, I’m going to have it replaced anyway, what with Howell sliming his way in and out of the place.” She kneeled beside him and caressed his face. Through the fever, her fingers felt like ice cubes running down his cheeks.

The sudden change in her attitude toward him came as no surprise. Monty had witnessed years of fights and torrid reconciliations, moments of shocking insight negating others of petulance. She changed moods and personalities as most people changed clothes, but she had the ability to make others believe her and forget the Rebecas of the past. He suspected the trick might even extend to herself.

It did not extend to Monty because the moments before were all that mattered to him right now, but she didn’t need to know that. “What are you going to do to me?” he asked.

“You were a loyal aid to Governor, and you will be one to me. You are not stupid, Monty; you’ve been in politics long enough to know what’s good for you. This is the future, and you can rise with me.” She leaned forward, and this was the moment he’d been waiting for. “I will nurse you back to health if you let me.”

Her lips touched his, and he responded as best he could. Moaning with what he hoped sounded like passion, he put one hand against the side of her chest and let the other one drift toward her thighs. “Oh yes,” she gasped, tracing her tongue against his skin up to his earlobe. “This is good, isn’t it?”

Monty touched something cold and smooth, traced the outlines to be sure and replied, “Yes. This is perfect.”

With one smooth motion, he seized the scissors from her pocket and brought it down against her back with all his strength, knowing he did not have the speed to reach her neck. To his surprise, the blades slid between two bones of her ribcage and went through, slicing through flesh as though it were paper. He heard Rebeca draw in a sharp breath as it cut into her heart, and it sounded no different from when she was in the throes of passion.

He looked up and saw her staring at him. “Why?” she asked, sounding like a frightened child. Her hair brushed against him like strands of silk, the effect ruined by the beads of sweat that had begun matting them together. As her strength faded, her weight pressed stronger against him. Her skin felt like a newborn child’s, flushed with the influx of new emotions and experiences. For a moment, he almost felt sorry for her.

“Toshiko,” he told her, feeling her every heartbeat as another rush of warm liquid against his hand. He drew strength from the name. He had removed one of her enemies, but Tosh was still in danger. “You sent him after her. Pray she survives, or I’ll hound you through hell itself.”

Her last breath was a gurgle as her lungs filled with blood, and then she was a dead weight pinning him to the ground. Screaming with the effort, he threw her off, wondering if the effort would kill him. But he could not die so long as Tosh lived, and the conviction got him out the door. The scissors were disgusting, but he kept them until he could find a better weapon. The stairs were not far away, and he thought he could retrace his way to the basement. This was his territory, and he’d be damned if Howell got the best of him here.

* * *

House had taken care of the dogs, but there was still the minor matter of at least hundreds, likely thousands, of aliens swarming the mansion. House had the handgun he'd lifted from the unconscious alien and Owen had a couple shots left, but against that many they were essentially defenseless. They could hear them stampeding into Drumthwacket now.

"Seeing as I will obviously not be outrunning them, I suggest we make like the Spartans," said House. Then he found a door to a bathroom and went inside.

"What?" said Owen and Foreman together.

"This will do nicely," said House. "What are you waiting for? Come on!" Owen and Foreman shrugged and followed House into the bathroom. House closed the door behind them.

"This has connotations I don't even want to think about," said Foreman. "Mind enlightening us on what we're doing in here?"

"Don't be stupid. There are thousands of them, right? Well, they probably have explosives and military-grade machine guns and these walls won't stand a chance, but our best option is to get into an enclosed space where they can't take us on all at once right? Spartans. Didn't you see 300?"

"Fine," groused Foreman.

The door flew open again and they stared into the face of an alien disguised as a human. It opened its mouth to yell but didn't have time to get anything out, because Owen shot it before it could.

"Moron!" hissed House. "You should have let me take care of it! They'll all have heard that!" Owen ignored him and pulled the large rifle out of the unconscious alien’s hands. He examined it, then handed his handgun to Foreman.

"Here," he said. "You can have this."

"I'd rather have that," Foreman said, pointing at the rifle.

"Too bad," said Owen. "This is an M-16. They're generally standard issue in the army, but this one's especially nice, looks like it's been upgraded. I'm keeping it."

"Then you're standing in front," said House, moving back. He almost tripped over the edge of the bathtub, but he managed not to fall in by grabbing the towel rack. Foreman laughed at him.

Just as House had predicted, several more aliens came their way. Foreman pulled the door shut and wedged it using a scrubbing brush, but seconds later an axe smashed through one of the walls. Foreman, who was nearest to it, yelped and hopped back. The axe came through again.

"These are ridiculously flimsy walls," House remarked. Two more axes smashed through with the first one and the wall crumbled, leaving all three of them exposed. There were at least fifteen aliens in the room, and three of them weren't even disguised.

"Ugh," said Foreman. "They look like what ate me!"

"What?" said House, momentarily distracted.

"You know, remember I said a clinic patient ate me and that's how I ended up locked in the trunk? I just realized, they looked like those! And the ones back at the hospital!"

"A clinic patient looked like that and you didn't notice something was up?" asked House. "I suppose I can't be too surprised... a lot of them lot are not much better."

"He was disguised until a certain point!" Foreman yelped.

The aliens apparently decided enough was enough and attacked. The three of them yelled and, after fumbling with the scrubbing brush for a second, managed to open the door and rush into the hallway. It turned out to be a bad idea, because there were even more aliens there, and more were spilling out of other rooms by the second.

They charged. House swung his cane wildly and Owen and Foreman shot in every direction, but there was no end to them. Foreman ran out of shots quickly and, after chucking the empty gun at an alien's head, hid behind Owen.

It seemed quite hopeless, but a mere minute after their desperate battle had started, a tall, thin man rushed down the stairs behind them, shouting, "Get to the plant, you idiots! We need every possible guard there now!" Then he ducked through another door, all without ever noticing House, Owen, and Foreman.

The other aliens paused, several looking torn, but some shuffling in the back turned into a mass exodus as every single alien turned and went back outside to their flying saucers.

"That was lucky," said House.

"That was the attorney-general!" said Foreman. "I'm sure of it!"

"Plant?" Owen said.

"I bet if we follow him, we find Smythe," said House. "Come on!" Foreman grabbed various weapons from the aliens they'd taken down, and Owen followed suit, before going after him. Maneuvering was awkward when they could each only really control one arm and they had to concentrate to avoid overbalancing the other.

The door the man had disappeared behind led to an old-fashioned spiral staircase.

"Great," said House. "This is going to be a bitch." Foreman and Owen went down first and House limped slowly and painfully after them. All the action was not good for his leg. It was a long way down and ended in a cavernous room filled with piping.

There was a flash of light in the corner as the attorney-general vanished.

"What was that!" Foreman said.

"That was a transmat," said a voice behind him. He yelped and turned around.

"Ianto! Tosh!" said Owen, sounding relieved. Foreman relaxed. House finally made it to the bottom of the stairs, glanced around, and whistled. Then he looked straight at Ianto and Tosh.

"Where the hell have you two been? We could have used some help!"

"We were, ah, indisposed," said Ianto while Tosh looked sheepish. “See, this isn’t actually the transmat we used earlier. There’s a total of five in the basement, and working out the network connections in the house has been difficult.”

"It doesn't matter," said Foreman. "We need to figure out where he went!"

"We know where he went," said Tosh.

"What are we waiting for then?" said House.

"Jack's on his way."

"He's taking too long, and I haven't heard anything from him in ten minutes. Let's go!"

"Heard anything from him?" Ianto asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Long story," said Foreman.

"He'll be here any second, I'm sure," said Tosh. House grunted impatiently.

There was a loud crash from above, followed by a screeching noise. Then there was silence.

"Umm..." said Owen. The high ceiling made an ominous creaking noise.

"Move!" roared Ianto. They all threw themselves out of the way as a slightly beat-up, fire engine red minivan fell through the ceiling and landed right where they'd been standing.

"Oh my God," panted Tosh. A second later the minivan's driver side window rolled down. Jack Harkness grinned out at them.

"Miss me?" he said cheekily. Cuddy was screaming curses at him from the seat over and the faint sounds of whimpering came from the back seat.

"What--" said Tosh.

"Get in!" Jack interrupted. "We're taking this thing to alien headquarters!"

"Want a weapon?" Owen asked him, handing over two M-16s and a large axe. Jack took a rifle, gave the axe to Cuddy, and handed the last rifle to someone in the back.

"Great," he said. "Let's get going before something really bad happens!"

One of the back doors slid open and Cameron motioned them inside. House, Owen, Foreman, Ianto, and Tosh all climbed inside and crowded between the seats when there weren't enough. House gleefully kicked Cameron out of her seat and commandeered it on the basis that he was a feeble cripple. Cameron glared but said nothing.

Foreman handed around his stash of extra weapons, which included two grenades.

"With all these rifles we look like retarded gangsters," said Chase doubtfully. "Except we're in a minivan, which is hardly a gangster car. We're like the Minivan Gangsters."

Everyone ignored him. As soon as the door was shut, Jack grinned and revved the engine. The minivan roared the remaining distance and screeched to a halt onto the transmat pad.

“Hit the switch, Tosh!” Jack said. Tosh punched a command onto the wristband, and the machinery whirred to life. Lights blinked, consoles beeped. Everyone braced themselves, as though expecting the car to plunge off a precipice the next moment. Instead, the sounds died away as dramatically as they arrived, and nothing happened.

“Why didn’t it work?” Wilson asked.

“Uh, that monitor there.” Ianto pointed.

One of the displays had entered a bluescreen: “Load too large.”

Everyone rolled down the nearest window and stuck their head out to see the front and rear bumpers of the minivan protruding beyond the edge of the circle. Jack groaned.

“So much for a dramatic exit,” Chase said happily.

Chapter Text

Jack and Ianto took turns beating the front car bumper with the axe Owen had taken from the aliens. The rear one lay in a mangled heap in the corner and had taken over six minutes to sever from the minivan. The front appeared intent on outdoing its peer.

“If I may say so, sir, this is a good thing,” Ianto said between swings.

Jack was doubled over, hands on his knees and panting for air. “Explain exactly how you came to that conclusion.”

“After Monty failed to kill us, sir, Howell took up the chase and tracked our transmat to the factory. He knows we were there, and he knows we’re returning. Tosh intercepted transmissions ordering every alien fighter recalled to DC, and we believe he’s filling the entire building with hallucinogenic gas.” The bumper screeched but clung on.

“So doesn’t it make sense that we should get there before they finish all their defensive preparations?” House said.

“No,” Owen replied.

Foreman and Cuddy both turned to him. “Why not?”

“Uh,” Owen scratched his head. “Ask Tosh.”

Tosh didn’t realize they were all waiting for her answer until House threw an empty ammo clip at her. She jumped. “What? I’m sorry, were you saying something?”

Ianto let the axe head drop to the ground and leaned against the handle. “I agree with Tosh, sir. We should go back for Monty. He fought for us every bit as hard as if he were a member of Torchwood himself.”

“How do you propose we find him?” Jack asked. “There’s no time left. If we don’t get into the factory soon, aliens are going to start pouring out of every transmat and overrun us.”

Ianto looked at Tosh, waiting for her response. She sighed. “You saw the database in the plant, Ianto. It’s their only base of operations. Destroying it will effectively end the invasion. We have to do it, and now’s our only chance.”

Jack took Tosh’s hand and looked into her eyes. “Thank you, Tosh. I know this is hard for you.”

“He’s strong,” she replied. “He’ll make it.”

Ianto brought the axe down with a roar and the bumper dropped like a squirrel that had lost its footing. Gasping for air, he tossed the axe back to Cuddy, who shouldered it like a lumberjack. Everyone piled into the car, and Jack was about to ask Tosh to begin the second attempt when Foreman cut in.

“So we’re armed for the aliens,” he said. “What about this hallucinogenic gas?”

Tosh and Ianto both turned to Jack. “What?” he said. “Is there blood on my face?”

“Remember when the spider droid attacked us in the hospital, sir?” Ianto asked.

Jack thought about it, and the expressions that crossed his face went from confused to thoughtful to excited to indignant. “I’m not kissing all of you!” he said. Ianto nodded, about to mutter, “Good answer” when Jack was stupid enough to add, “It’d be physically impossible to maintain contact with everyone at the same time.”

Tosh had the keen insight to offer the wristband to Ianto before he had the chance to snatch it from her hands and injure her wrist in the process. “This,” he said. “Any article of clothing or object that has been in close physical contact with you will work to negate the hallucinations. Like so.” He put the wristband back into his mouth.

“Eeeeew!” said Foreman and Chase at the same time. Cameron, on the other hand, looked thoughtful. Owen just rolled his eyes, chalking another normal day with Torchwood up to some deity or universal force having a personal grudge against him. Cuddy glared at all of them, daring someone to ask her to stuff an article of clothing into her mouth.

“Just give me something clean,” Wilson said with a suffering air.

“Well, I’m immune,” House said. “Maybe that alien artifact didn’t do me such a disfavor after all.”

“How do you know the link will work?” Jack said before anyone could ask what the hell House was talking about. “We’ve never tested it or--”

“He has a certain instinct for jumping to the right conclusion,” Chase said.

House reached over with his cane and poked him in the forehead. “Thank you, Chase. It’s nice to know that you’ll suck up to me even when the hospital lies in shambles.”

Jack sighed. “Well, if I must, then I will strip for the greater good.” He grinned.

Before anyone could react to Jack’s offer of personal sacrifice, the transmat began powering up. Everyone stared at Ianto, who spat the wristband out of his mouth.

“I didn’t touch anything!” he protested.

“The transmat obeys conservation laws by switching the contents of the two pads,” Tos explained. “The aliens must be trying to come here!”

As though someone had switched a television channel, the view outside the window brought up a scene befitting the interior of a volcano. Streams of molten metal poured down from trenches all around, and above, the automated droids of an assembly line showered sparks down upon them. The minivan swayed as its parking spot rotated out into thin air. Four fraying ropes were attached to rings at the corners of the platform, and they went up to loop around a hook at the end of a crane.

“Shoot,” Cuddy said. “It’s a trap!”

Howell waved at them from the operating booth, then pulled a lever. The crane lurched as its arm jerked free of the weight of its load, and the minivan began the plunge that everyone had presciently expected before.

It’s a vat of molten steel down there!” Owen screamed.

Chase clutched at Cameron. “We’re going to DIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

Wilson shoved his way up to the front passenger seat which House had managed to appropriate from Cuddy. “No, don’t say anything, House,” he admonished when the diagnostician opened his mouth. “There’s something I need to tell you before we die.”

“Okay...” House said.

“I love you.”

Four jaws dropped--the jaws being the ones belonging to, in alphabetical order, Cameron, Chase, Cuddy and Foreman--followed by silence except for the sound of air rushing past the minivan. Wilson grabbed both sides of House’s head and mashed their lips together.

A jarring thud threw them apart as the minivan’s plunge came to an abrupt halt. House slammed against the door and Wilson flew all the way back into the trunk. Everyone else just shook back and forth like bobble-head dolls. The tense expectation of steel melting through the car frame and roasting them all dragged on, and on, and on. Tosh peered out the window.

“It looks like the aliens miscalculated,” she reported. “The length of the platform is roughly the same as the diameter of the vat.”

Owen groaned. “Tosh, if I’d known my life would one day depend upon geometry class, I’d have paid more attention in high school.”

“What she means is the aliens tried to plug a square peg into a circular hole,” Ianto explained. “Can’t be done.”

“So we’re not going to die?” Wilson’s voice drifted up from under a pile of rifles.

“No,” House said. “Not yet.”

“Oh. Well that’s embarrassing.”

There was an ominous creak.

“However,” Tosh continued in a Let’s-Discuss-The-Logistics-of-Playtime-My-Fidgety-Preschool-Wards voice. “The heat of the vat is sufficient to melt the platform we are on within twenty-five seconds.”

Step on the gas!” Cuddy screamed. Jack didn’t hesitate. He rammed his foot against the pedal, and the minivan shuddered before lunging forward, tires screeching. The forward momentum of the vehicle propelled the platform backward so that the forward edge of their support began falling into the vat before the minivan was fully moving. They all grabbed the edges of their seat and screamed as they soared through the air. The back tires caught the edge of the vat and the minivan flipped, tumbling through the air. By sheer chance, it landed upright fifteen feet down on the factory floor. There was a collective sigh of relief.

“That was close,” Ianto said.

“Oopsies,” Cameron said. “I dropped a grenade.”

Foreman buried his face in his hands. “Everybody out!” Jack yelled.

The doors flew open and Jack hit the trunk release, causing Wilson to tumble out the back. The Torchwood members shoved the others through unceremoniously before leaping out themselves. The minivan shattered in a thunderous plume of flame that suggested Cameron had dropped more than one explosive.

Before they could regain their feet, the world began spinning. “The gas!” Ianto yelled before he stuffed his mouth again.

“The gas must be denser than air!” Tosh exclaimed. “Jack’s clothing won’t eliminate the hallucinations completely, but if we can climb higher, we might escape it altogether!”

“Come on!” Foreman said, pinching his nostrils shut. “Strip!”

Jack unclipped his braces. “Any other day, and that would be a perfect request.” He tossed one to Owen and the other to Foreman. They both chomped onto the middle of the fabric and wrapped the ends around the back of their heads.

Jack stopped.

“Come on, Jack!” Tosh protested. “Now is not the time to develop a sense of modesty.” Everything began growing dark as the hallucinations closed in.

“I refuse to go into battle wearing only wet pants!” Jack said. “House, how are you doing?”

“Wonderful. And my wonderful vision is telling me that we are in a completely open space and aliens are setting up machine guns nests above us right now.”

“How about my shoes?” Jack asked Chase and Cameron. Seeing the look on their faces, he said, “Ok, fine.” He reached into his pocket and tossed a handful of loose change at them. “These should work too.”

Chase dumped his collection straight into his mouth, but Cameron weighed the five and ten pence coins in her hand and said, “Do you know how many people have touched this?”

“Right now, only one of them matter,” Jack said, pointing at himself. Cameron frowned but slipped three coins under her tongue anyway.

“Hey, it works!” she said. “What about you, Chase?” She waited for a reply, but all she heard was “Erp!” She glanced over. “Chase?”

“I think I swallowed them,” he said weakly. Cameron rolled her eyes.

“Faster, Faster!” Cuddy said. “Jack’s the only real thing I can see now.”

Wilson crawled out of his pile of M-16s and made a flying grab at Jack’s shirt. It tore at the seams, and he tumbled away with the entire article of clothing in his hands. “Ha!” he said, stuffing it into his mouth.

That is not the Wilson I know House thought to Jack. Jack was surprised that the overwhelming sensation he felt from House was pride. Maybe the man enjoyed driving his friends mad.

“He kissed me, too,” Jack said out loud. Wilson glared at him.

“That’s the best idea I’ve seen all day,” Tosh said, ripping Jack’s undershirt off him as well. “Come on, Cuddy!”

It was too late. At that moment, Smythe materialized behind her despite the fact that there was no transmat beam. He had a glowing orange device that looked like a battery strapped to his arm. Twisting Cuddy’s arms behind her back, he dragged her after him. Cuddy fell to the ground, and Jack took the opening to fire three shots at him. The bullets froze just before touching his chest and fell to the ground.

“Behold,” Smythe said, his voice a whisper and yet audible over the roar of the factory, “the power of BRAIN as it is meant to be used.” He lifted Cuddy to her feet and retreated behind her. “Not that I will give you another chance to fire. Know that if you do, she dies as well.” They both teleported away.

A new sound became evident to Tosh even over the cacophony, and she looked up in time to see Howell sending the crane down at them. “Chase, Cameron! Duck!” They dropped to the ground, but Howell anticipated the reaction and lowered the hook to compensate. It caught both their shirts and lifted them up like stuffed animals in an arcade.

“Oh no you don’t!” Tosh ran after them and jumped, grabbing hold of the chain above the hook just as the crane began ascending again.

“We’re going to fall!” Chase screamed, and indeed, the fabric was already ripping.

The hook soared up in an arc, soon ascending several meters per second. As it spun, Tosh saw that Howell was attempting a repeat performance of their earlier encounter. “You have to fall before we reach the vat!” she told the two doctors.

“There’s nowhere solid to land!” Cameron said.

“Brace yourselves!”

“What are you doing?"

“You’re going to kill us!”

“Three.”

“You’re aiming for that conveyor belt over there? That’s insanity!”

“Two.”

“How are we going to survive with all those moving parts chopping up metal?”

“One.”

“Aw hell.”

Tosh reached down and tugged. Her added force caused the hook to tear through their clothing as though they were held together by Velcro, and they went flying. Tosh congratulated herself on her perfect aim as they sprawled across the moving convey belt amidst jagged pieces of scrap metal, but her satisfaction was short-lived.

The crane ground to a halt, and she looked down to see a new, much larger vat beneath her, glowing and churning like a sun. The hook swung back and forth but not enough to send her to safety. She wondered if she could wait Howell out and was answered when the crane began jerking up and down like a rodeo horse. “Shit!” she said as her fingers nearly lost their grip, but she stared into the booth and thought of Monty having to confront those cold, alien eyes. Imagining the chain was Howell’s neck, she inched her way up the links toward the arm of the crane some fifteen meters above. The shaking increased, but she ignored it. Fly on a wall, she imagined. No one ever dislodged a fly once it stuck. Higher and higher she went, and she could see the look of frustration on Howell’s face as he beat rapidly at the control panel. His face gleamed as sweat poured down, and she smiled at him.

Damned if I’m going to let him win, she thought. She giggled as she looked down at the glowing morass below and added, Quite literally.

* * *

Whoever came up with the idea of see-through stairs by means of pieces of metal with lots of holes riddled in them hated humanity, Owen decided as he and Foreman clanged their way up to the catwalk five meters above the factory floor. Chase and Cameron’s screams were still audible as the crane swung them out of sight, but the stairs soon took him high enough to see them fall onto a conveyor belt. Ho