Every time Jack moves, the paper inside the breast pocket of his uniform crackles and reminds him of the bad news it’s bearing. To distract himself, he looks around him. Couples are speaking, their heads leaning towards each other; a big group of airmen from another squadron monopolises a corner, laughing loudly at crude jokes and being glared at by the matrons two tables over.
He looks up every time the door chimes, and finally Estelle is here. He smiles at her and knows he couldn’t hide his unhappiness when her own smile turns dismayed.
He raises and greets her with an old-fashioned hand-kiss, provoking giggles from the group of teenagers behind him. They both ignore them as they arrange themselves at the tiny table. Jack’s knee touches hers under the tablecloth, but he isn’t complaining.
He doesn’t quite know how to breach the subject, doesn’t want to prolong the agony by making pointless small talk, so he blurts out, “I’m being sent to the continent. I have to leave London.”
True enough. It’s Torchwood business rather than war business, but then there is little difference between the two nowadays. Sometimes he thinks he was too clever by half when he decided that in the light of future events, it would be a good idea to learn to speak German like a native.
Estelle looks stricken, and he feels sick. He’s going for a good reason, the best, but he doesn’t want to abandon her. He’s very fond of — oh, hell, who does he think he’s fooling? — he’s in love with her, and he wants to marry her and have a family with her and grow old and die by her side. He wants there to be no war, to wrap her in cotton, to shield her from the hurts and the deaths and the misery. He wants impossible things. It’s nothing new; he’ll get over it.
But it’s still unfair to her.
“Tomorrow,” Jack says briefly. The mission is a matter of some emergency; he needs to retrieve the artefact before the Germans find it. Their extra-terrestrial agency doesn’t have Torchwood’s breadth and length of experience, but it’s still frightfully efficient for something that didn’t exist ten years ago.
“I’ll be able to write to you, at least,” she sighs. The turn of her mouth is distinctly unhappy, and it pains him to know that he is the one responsible for it. And that he will add more to it before he’s done.
“Ah. No, unfortunately.” Estelle looks at him sharply. “At least at first. I am not going with my squadron.” He chooses his words carefully. “Very few people can know of my whereabouts.”
She’s sharp. She nods in understanding. “Is there some place I can send you letters that you could collect whenever you’re free to do so?”
“Hm, I didn’t ask. I’ll write to you first, as soon as I am able. It might be some time, though.”
“Very well. You’ll be careful?”
It’s not quite an order and not quite a plea.
“I promise,” Jack says. He even means it.
Jack doesn’t quite remember what they ate, too busy with looking at Estelle and storing to memory as many details as he can take on: the tilt of her head as she reads the menu, the lilt of her voice, the graceful way she handles the cutlery, the curve of her neck as she looks up at the server to order.
He speaks without really knowing what he’s saying, but Estelle is similarly distracted. Fools in love, the both of them, he thinks ruefully.
When they’re done, he leaves a florin on the table, to the delight of the server, and crooks his arm invitingly. She slips her small hand around his elbow and falls in step besides him. She’s biting her lips, looking anxiously at the sky.
She turns towards him, her hand slipping down his arm until she can weave her fingers with his.
“I — Stay with me tonight?” He grins, slowly, watching her answering smile. This is unexpected: she’s young, and she was brought up proper.
She looks determined, and he’s not about to insult her by asking her whether she’s sure. She is, or she wouldn’t have asked; he knows this about her. He opens his mouth to answer just as the air-raid sirens start wailing.
Not what he’d planed to say, but this is exceptionally bad timing on the part of the Luftwaffe. They look around, looking for a sign to the nearest shelter.
“Let’s follow them,” Estelle says, pointing to a family. “They seem to know where they’re going.”
Which is to a tiny over-crowded half-buried shelter, damp and cold and stinky from overflowing toilets. One of the mothers has a small infant on her lap, and Jack resigns himself to a sleepless, sexless night. At least Estelle is cuddled against him, forced by the circumstances to half-sit in his lap.
He wraps her in his warm woolen greatcoat and soon her head grows heavy on his shoulder, despite the squeals of the baby. Without thinking, he drops a kiss on her forehead, then becomes aware of the smiling gazes of the two grannies on the bench across from them and blushes. His right arm tightens around Estelle, and he carefully conceals both their left hands.
He has no idea how late or early it is when he’s woken up by the siren signalling the end of the raid. There’s not enough light in their corner of the shelter to look at his watch, and he doesn’t dare using his vortex manipulator, not wanting to explain the blue back-light of the display screen in a pre-electronics area.
Next to him, Estelle is waking up too, stretching carefully.
“A bit stiff, but not cold. I love your coat.”
“One of the advantages of being a soldier. Come on, let’s go.”
They shuffle outside. It’s still completely dark, so maybe their night isn’t a complete write-off.
“Estelle, that question you asked me earlier?”
She looks up. “Yes?”
“I’d be delighted.”
They run back to her flat, Estelle pulling on Jack’s hand as she takes shortcuts through narrow streets and half-demolished buildings. Jack laughs, exhilarated, and she turns back to look at him, grinning knowingly.
He loves her so much.
They’re barely inside her building before he pushes her against the wall and kisses her, only letting her go when they’re both out of breath.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for hours.”
She shakes her finger at him. “Naughty. Come on, it’s on the second floor.”
Her rooms are tiny and stark, but nothing of this matters, because there’s also a bed. Jack backs her up against it playfully until she has to sit down, rather abruptly.
Kneeling, Jack takes off her shoes and low socks and traces a line up her legs with his hands. “Shame you don’t have stockings. I’d have loved rolling them off . . .”
She giggles and flushes and falls down on the pillows. Jack takes it as the invitation it is, and climbs on the bed on all fours, growling as a predator stalking his prey and pulling delighted laughter out of her.
As soon as he’s close enough, she yanks on the lapels of his uniform. Unbalanced, he sprawls, narrowly avoiding crushing her, and ends up with her face inches from him.
“Hello,” she says.
He has an unexpected flashback to another very polite woman, and determinedly pushes it away. Rose is no more than a memory, and Estelle is quite real and quite here.
“Hello,” he answers, kissing her. She slides her hands under his jacket, pulls a little at his shirt.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise him, but once Estelle decides to throw away her principles to have sex with him, she does it with an enthusiasm and abandon he could only dream of.
She’s eager to learn, reproducing on him what he does to her and adding her own twist, until he comes utterly undone at her hands.
It’s only later, much later, when the sky is starting to go pink, that Jack stops to think.
Estelle is sprawled over him, her head cradled on his shoulder, her leg thrown over his. When she speaks, her breath tickles his nipple, distracting him.
“I wish you didn’t have to leave. I wish this stupid war was over.”
Jack tightens his arm around her. “Oh, love, so do I,” he sighs.
She looks up at him. “After the end of the war, when you come back, we’ll stay together for the rest of our lives.”
It takes everything Jack has not to stiffen at her words. What can he say to her? She wouldn’t understand, and he doesn’t want to burden her with the knowledge.
“We shall.” The lie tastes like ashes in his mouth. “I love you,” he adds, because that, at least, is the truth.
She smiles at him, as besotted with him as he is with her, and at this moment, he knows that he won’t be coming back.