"Eh, Jix! You in?"
"Scuse me, gorgeous." Jix ran his best fingernail down the most erotic olfactory nerve he'd ever experienced and turned toward the bar. "Whaddya want?"
"You got a visitor."
"Not interested!" Jix turned back to Nakta 2-5. "Now, where were we?"
"You were stimulating my sixteenth olfactory organ," she growled.
"So I was," Jix leered.
He was just getting to the pheromone sac beneath his client's ear when he caught sight of a large, off-hexagonal face behind her left shoulders.
Nakta 2-5 stiffened and turned green, nostrils flaring and then shutting altogether. "There is a Vlakkin behind me."
"Yes, there is," said Jix, glaring at it.
Nakta 2-5 rose, segment after sexy segment, to her full height – almost twice Jix's. "You will service me at a location and time of my choosing."
Jix rose, crossed his arms in an X, palms out, and snarled in compliance.
Nakta 2-5 swept out of the pleasure house, unwary patrons flung against the walls in her wake.
Jix turned on the intruder. "You owe me two million credits and two weeks in the Luxury Hospital on Rio."
"Two weeks? She must like you a lot," said the Vlakkin.
"What do you want, Zabbio?"
Zabbio drew itself to its full height – about two-thirds that of Jix – and locked its hands in front of itself, palms out. "Are you armed?"
Jix stood brusquely and mirrored the gesture. "Of course I am."
Zabbio nodded once. "As am I."
"So I gathered," said Jix, eying the array of blasters, grenades and stunners – some psychometric – festooning Zabbio's flak jacket.
Zabbio drew a small orange dome from the top compartment and placed it on the table. "Is this neutraliser acceptable to you?"
"Ouch! A Werbag Dome? I'd rather have a Parthigan Stun Block, but they're not allowed in here, so you can have it as long as I can check it with this." Jix pulled his own jacket open, moving slowly and visibly to extract a five-centimetre strip of flexible pink metal that he placed near the dome.
Zabbio rolled its eyes in their stalks, but nodded. "A Vandian Arbitrator. Your tech honours me." Its voice was sullen as it sat on the platform vacated by Nakta 2-5. The platform rose to place Zabbio's head at the appropriate height above the table.
Jix frowned. "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"My podmates taught me to sit when I was newly hatched."
"No. The thing with the eyes."
Zabbio stared at Jix, eyes fixed in their stalk sockets.
Jix sighed. "Like this?" He rolled his eyes dramatically.
"From the client that paid me to transport this and a message." Before Jix could look away, Zabbio opened its torso and pulled out a soft parcel about the size of a pair of gloves. It tossed the packet on the table.
"Ugh! A little warning, please!"
Zabbio closed up its body and waited.
"I take it there's something more?"
Zabbio nodded. "After you open it, I am to convey information."
"Wow! Must be serious if you have to wait." Jix looked sharply at Zabbio. "Lots of credits, too."
Zabbio folded its forelimbs, assuming its waiting stance.
Jix sighed. "This better be good," he muttered, as he undid the seam on the package. "Ah! Flexible atmospheric concentration bubble. Did someone get killed?" He brought the package to his nose and thumbed it open the rest of the way.
Two seconds later, Jix had Zabbio pinned against the floor. "Where did you get this?" And then he felt the sickening zap of the Werbag Dome.
When he came to, not more than a minute later, he was tied to his platform and panting in the aftermath.
Zabbio ruffled. "My client would be gratified by your response. He said you would pay extra for that."
"Your client was wrong," snarled Jix. He refused to blink, no matter how much his eyes stung as he looked at the oddly shaped piece of fabric and its stripes of blues and greys. The scent from the packet had driven him mad, raging into the dark depths he'd forced himself to bottle. "But I will pay you extra to tell me who and where he is."
"That is already paid. But you will pay the extra five hundred credits my client promised."
Jix struggled against the bonds lashed around his hips, ankles and wrists, and paid the price in a painful scorch where they made contact with his clothes and skin. "AAAGH!"
"He said you would require the rest of what he paid me for, first." Zabbio picked up the strip of fabric that Jix had thought he'd wiped from his memory and held it out. "You did not look carefully at your gift." It waved a forelimb extremity at Jix's right wrist.
Jix hissed as the lash whipped off his wrist, and snatched the thing from Zabbio. "Where did you get this?" he demanded, feeling his face contort as it hadn't in over a century of Standard, static, linear time.
"My client designated me first to reveal his nomenclature as Yen-todge Owns."
The last thing Jix remembered as he lunged for Zabbio was the Vandian Arbitrator turning purple.
This time, it took him twelve minutes to regain consciousness. The use of his hand and its attached arm was still restricted, clutching the fabric at exactly the right distance to notice the scrawl of lettering from a language he'd expunged from his thoughts as soon as he'd teleported off a ball of blue and green and pain.
He tried not to understand it. Tried to pretend that it didn't matter to him. Tried not to notice the brown crust of the lettering – tried to pretend that a paintbrush had made it, rather than a finger. But as much as he tried, he couldn't help but know what he was looking at. Couldn't help recognising the curl of the first letter. Couldn't pretend, even to himself, that he didn't recognize the scent of the person who'd worn that fabric around his neck, or of the blood that he'd dabbed away once too often.
"Where did you get this?" Jix asked a third time, remembering a ridiculous saying that always punched him in the gut during his stranding: Third time lucky. He decided not to notice the despair or the plea in his voice.
"Prime Owns was in an exhibit on Solaxis along with seventy-two other reclaimed oddities at the zoo. He was very popular with the patrons. He played well with the refreshment tech. They were raged when he was sold to a private collector."
"Ianto Jones is dead," said Jix. "He died over a century ago." He stared at the writing on the tie, trying not to think about how a Vlakkin century was about nine hundred and ninety-seven years on that blue ball.
Zabbio nodded. "He said you were there. That is why he gave up his toy. He said it would make you find him."
"All exhibits keep one toy. It renders them quiet."
Jix shook his head, even though he visualised exactly what Zabbio was saying. "This is called a 'tie'."
"Irrelevant. It is his toy."
Jix stiffened, and the Arbitration Field reminded him of his powerlessness. "Who bought him?"
"Darla of Klom."
"He got sold to an Abzorbaloff?"
"Then there's nothing I can do to save him, whoever he really is." Jix settled within the Field, but the Arbitrator didn't seem fooled. He tried to toss the tie at Zabbio, but his arm and hand wouldn't move.
"Darla of Klom is very young."
"So she can't absorb anything bigger than a cat yet. So what? By the time I get to Klom, she'll be absorbing everything that moves."
"The transfer of property is delayed."
"The patrons blockade the exhibit. They demand refreshment. They accept only from Yen-todge Owns. Only Prime Owns makes BitterBlack." Zabbio peered earnestly at Jix, its eyes enlarging. "It is necessary."
Jix couldn't help a bitter smile. "I used to hear that a lot about Ianto's coffee." I used to say it a lot, myself.
And then Jix twigged. "Wait ... you're one of the patrons blockading the exhibit, aren't you?"
"And you're addicted to cof—BitterBlack."
"So you didn't get paid."
"I got paid in BitterBlack."
Jix tried to lean forward, and this time, the Arbitration Field allowed it. "Then give me some."
Zabbio stepped back, horrified. "I will not!"
"I need proof that this – what do you call him? Yen Todge Owns? – is the Ianto Jones he claims to be."
"You cannot have my BitterBlack!" Zabbio inserted a forelimb extremity into a blaster pocket.
The Dome and the Arbitrator started to vibrate.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," said Jix, though he sort of wished that Zabbio would.
Zabbio removed its extremity from the weapon.
"I only need a sip from your flask." Jix looked pointedly at the square bottle affixed to Zabbio's belt.
"It is a reasonable demand," muttered Zabbio. It offered Jix the flask.
The Arbitration Field released Jix, catching him off-guard. He nearly dropped the tie, but caught sight of something as he recovered his grip. "Thanks," he said, taking the flask in his left hand – the polite one for dealing with Zabbio. He twisted out the stopper and sniffed the contents. And then he closed his eyes and drank as the tears came. It was all he could do not to take more than one large mouthful, far more than he'd promised Zabbio, who would measure it in drops. He handed back the flask with great difficulty. "I'll pay you five hundred credits for that. And five hundred more when I find Ianto Jones."
"You'll pay me a thousand for the BitterBlack and five hundred that my client promised you would pay. He has already paid me to help you find him."
"You mean I'm gonna be stuck on a transport with you all the way to Solaxis?"
"We must hurry. The pilot is impatient and you are inefficient."
When he was finally ensconced in the sleep pod designated for him, Jix had a chance to examine the tie Zabbio had given him. He forced himself to reckon with the language and the blood in which the main message was written:
It flooded back to him, as he'd known it would, and he hated it. It hurt. It called him to account, not only for the death Ianto had suffered, but also for the fact that he'd tried so hard to break his promise. He'd rationalised that he was just giving himself some time to heal from all that had been Earth, the 456, Siriath – he couldn't think about Siriath – and that he would, of course, make a point to remember Ianto Jones on the thousandth anniversary of their joint death. Ianto's second. He still couldn't think about the third.
Even though he did.
All the time.
This 'Yen Todge Owns' couldn't possibly be Ianto – not his Ianto, at any rate – but even if this imposter looked just a little bit like Ianto, Jix would free it from the Absorbaloff. That form of living death was something he could empathise with a little too well.
He sighed and turned the tie over, opening the inner fold. He found another message, this time in tiny print and written with a point of some sort:
Sorry for the blood, but just when you want it, nothing else stains permanently. I am now a pet who's been sold to Darla, a child. She's killed six other pets like me, and I'd rather my death had meaning. Hopefully, you'll find me serving coffee naked in a zoo, rather than dead in a sewer on Klom.
Jix lay back and wept for all that had been and would come for a good minute, and then wiped viciously at his eyes. "My name is Jix," he said, savagely. "And you aren't real. So don't!" He turned over and clamped his eyes shut, determined to sleep. The tears seeped slowly from his eyes, and he blamed it on being allergic to liars, because this entity on Solaxis wasn't Ianto Jones. And even if it was, it just mustn't be.
One Solaxian Moonth ago (twenty-seven solar months, for the irretrievably Earth-bound)
Ianto Jones awoke with a gasp of air to rival anything he'd ever heard from Jack.
Jack. He had felt Jack slipping away as he did, had felt Jack's lips sliding off his.
He remembered nothing after that. No consciousness of being dead. He wondered if he'd been anaesthetised, instead of actually killed.
But then he remembered what happened when Lisa killed him, or almost did, and that made him more certain that he died. Or almost did.
He blinked and let the world come into focus. Jack must be around somewhere.
Or maybe not, because instead of lying on a hard floor, he was on a mattress.
He was also naked, though something covered him. Something feathery. Something with feathers. Something warm and with feathers that was breathing. He wasn't on a mattress. He was in a nest.
For an insane moment, he was overjoyed that Myfanwy had survived the destruction of the Hub and had found him and saved him, warming him back to life. But then, he remembered that Myfanwy didn't have feathers.
He took stock of his situation as best he could, and was glad that he seemed to be facing the breast end of the bird. He was also grateful that this particular bird had no odour discernible to him.
And then he realised that he was probably focusing on the wrong thing, and that it might be better to sort out why he was situated under a giant bird, what the threat level was, and whether he was actually dreaming or pretty seriously dead.
Since the bird was sitting on him as though he were a chick, it seemed unlikely that the threat level was high. He squirmed experimentally.
He turned onto his side.
As his activity level increased, so did his need for air and his sense of how hot he was. He poked the bird once, twice, three times, each harder than before.
The giant breast moved a little, and there was a muffled sort of cooing cluck from what sounded like yards above.
What Ianto found odd was the sound of clicking and skirring from somewhere off to his left, and he began to wonder if his current protector might have giant chicks that were planning to evict him, or worse.
His alarm increased when the muscles above him vibrated with a sound that could only be one of agitation. And then the same organism that had clucked at him earlier squawked and rose – or levitated. There were no legs.
As Ianto was contemplating that discovery, a short, oblong shape moved towards him, clicking. Against the backdrop of unaccustomed bright light, he couldn't discern any further details, such as a face or lethal mechanism. A limb unlocked itself from the shape's right side, or perhaps technically its left, if its front were facing Ianto. But Ianto stopped trying to figure that out when the limb deposited a wriggling, slimy thing into his right ear. "Ugh!" He pawed at his ear in panic as the thing wriggled deeper into it.
The shape started clicking more agitatedly, to the point where it became higher in pitch, more like chittering, and its limb bent around Ianto's arm, stopping him.
"No! It's burrowing down! You have to let me go! Take it out!" He fought with what might he seemed to have in that moment—
"—be all right!"
Ianto blinked the blur from his eyes – no contacts – and thought he could discern something like a face developing on the oblong. "What did you put in my ear?"
"A Babel fish."
Ianto blinked again, ostensibly to clear his vision, but more to clear his brain. "A B—a Babel f-fish?"
The topmost fifth of the oblong bent down and up twice. "It is a language symbiote."
Ianto nodded, taking in both this information and the fact that he now noticed no further discomfort from his ear. "So it won't eat my brain, then?"
The oblong clicked rhythmically and Ianto felt a wave of warmth from it. "It feeds upon brain wave energy, not brain fabric."
"Brain fabric..." Ianto passed a hand over his forehead. "Where am I?"
"You are in the Solaxis Zoo. We are part of the Abandoned Oddities exhibit."
"And Solaxis is a ... planet?"
The oblong twisted twice. "It is a class M asteroid."
"Sounds like Star Trek," muttered Ianto. He took the chance and rolled carefully to a sitting position.
"Star journeys are not permitted for exhibits unless the owner arranges it."
"Owner?" Ianto felt an instant rush of hope, followed by a flush of annoyance. "Who's the owner?"
"He is the plastic surgeon."
Ianto's hope vanished as quickly as it had come. "Yeah, but what's his name?"
"He is The Appearance Surgeon. Look!" The oblong pointed up to what looked like a giant television screen.
Ianto followed the oblong's point to find a video of a human-shaped being cutting assertively into a cat's face. He looked away. "What's your name?"
"I am Flatt."
"Flat?" Ianto thought that needn't be said, but that his companion had – well, maybe not balls.
"Oh. Well, Flat-t, good to meet you." He stuck out his hand. "Ianto Jones."
"Yen-tudge Owns." Flatt bent just above the halfway point, but didn't touch Ianto.
"No, it's Ianto ... Jones."
"Yen-tuh...dge-Owns." Flatt bent again, deeper.
"Yes, all right. And—Whoa!" Ianto rolled out of the way as the giant, levitating, feathered breast returned and started to land on him.
"My eggling isn't right," a voice squawked from a place Ianto still couldn't make out. And then a huge beak with what looked like one enormous breathing hole leaned down towards him.
"Get off me!" Somehow, somewhere as he had rolled away from the warmth of the nest, Ianto realised, he'd lost a good bit of his confidence. He remembered his first day at Torchwood and pulled himself together.
But then Flatt bent back. "Your eggling has a name, now. She is Yent-uhd d-Dge'Owns."
"He," said Ianto at the same time as the enormous beaked head that looked down at him.
Flatt looked at them both, and Ianto could finally see a pair of shutter-like slits moving rapidly up and down. "But you have an ovipositor."
"That is the sperm-placement organ of the male primatoid."
Ianto gazed up at the huge beak, noting that it didn't move whilst its owner spoke. He also re-evaluated his estimation of his protector's intelligence, though he rather doubted her sanity. If it was a 'her'. He felt certain that it was, but he tried not to be sure. "Thank you for, er, brooding me!" he shouted up at her/him/zir.
There was a warm, vibrating coo from the head, which turned sideways to display a large eye that looked, for want of a better word, friendly.
"May I ask your name?"
"I am Mama."
"Penny," said Flatt, in a warning sort of way. "Remember that you are not to claim new exhibits as your chicks."
Ianto looked from one to the other, wondering how best and soon he could make his escape.
Mama/Penny ruffled zir feathers and made a low noise that sounded like a cross between a cluck and a grumble.
"She can't help it," said Flatt, in a stage whisper that emphasised the click of zir voice. "She was dropped on her head when she was an egg."
"Oh." Ianto inclined his head toward Flatt. "Is that why she doesn't have any wings?" he whispered.
Flatt drew back and twisted in a statement that he questioned Ianto's intelligence. "She is of the Ratite Oligarchy."
Ianto blinked at Flatt.
"The uppermost family of the Crucible of Gondwana," Flatt supplied, astounded. "The most illustrious planetoid facility of the Great Open Question," ze continued, when Ianto didn't catch on.
Flatt clicked impatiently. "To suggest that she should have wings is unthinkable!"
"Ah. How foolish of me."
"Flaaat-T," warned Penny. "He doesn't know these things." She levitated slightly and turned towards Ianto, showing him her whole face for the first time. There was a warm light in her eyes, which were framed by long lashes that surprised him in their blue silkiness. "What is your home?"
"Earth." It felt so stark to say. Such a small, odd sound, wispy without Jack's 'R' taking it over and making it seem strong. Ianto's legs decided not to hold him anymore, and he sank to the ground under a wave of insanity.
He'd died. He shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be anywhere.
He was alive. He was in a zoo. As an exhibit. He didn't even know how he'd got there.
He was alone, with a board and a bird for companionship and a fish in his ear so he could talk to them. He felt as insignificant as he'd always tried not to be, and thought of Douglas Adams' clever warning about just how impossible it was to recognise one's importance in the universe unless one happened to be Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Or the Doctor.
He didn't know he had his hands over his eyes until he felt something brushing against them.
"I saved your toy," cooed Penny, very gently, and very close.
Ianto uncovered his face enough to recognise the tie he'd been wearing when last he'd been on Earth. He took it in his hands and retreated to the quietest corner he could find, not too far from Penny, and held it whilst he went mad.
"What the hell did you do to this thing?" Jix held up the cooled blob of molten quadra-steel, shaking it for emphasis.
"I did nothing," said Zabbio, folding its forelimbs across its torso.
"Yeah, right. And you're a natural blue."
Zabbio's eyes widened on their stalks. "You doubt my colouration?"
"Oh, please! One millisecond of fluoronic lighting and your cuticle shows up greige."
Zabbio bristled, scales lifting and expanding its size by fifteen per cent.
Jix flashed the fluoronic probe he'd been using on the navcom unit and downloaded the resulting image to his wrist strap. "Hah! Told you!"
Zabbio growled at its picture. "Were it any but Yen-todge Owns that had hired me, you would be dead six point five times for that!" Its UltraBlu scales flattened suddenly, adding to the crestfallen look its face had acquired. "You will not tell Prime Owns of this?"
"What, that you threatened to kill me, or that you're really a blond?"
"Oh, never mind!" Jix turned back to the innards of the navcomp. "So how long has this thing been suffering short-term memory loss?"
Zabbio perked up. "Is that what it is?"
Jix stared. "You call yourself a merc and you don't even know what's wrong with your navcomp? How the hell did you find me in the first place?"
Zabbio quivered. "I became impatient." It fidgeted with its PrīmBlast particle eliminator.
"You shot it?"
Zabbio inclined its head to its right.
Jix held up the blob of metal, accusing.
"It required punishment."
Jix shook his head. "So you flew here by the seat of your pants?"
Two of Zabbio's eyestalks swivelled around and down to examine the seat of its trouser-hose.
"It's an expression! It means—"
"I am aware of your humour." Before Jix could protest, Zabbio fluffed out its scales. "I have inscribed the Level Five Thousand slab for Instinctual Navigation on the Technical Mountain of Trvikk."
Jix narrowed his eyes. "What grade?"
"Impressive. Then how come you can't get us to Solaxis without a navcomp?"
Zabbio deflated by thirty-something per cent. "Now that Prime Owns is desired by the galaxy, the Solaxian authorities have moved the asteroid. Only this unit will allow us to penetrate the interference field they have generated around it."
Jix's heart sank without his permission. He eyed the blob of metal with an unspoken inquiry.
Jix sighed – or maybe growled – and shot to his feet, tapping at his wrist strap. "This is gonna get complicated." He set the coordinates and looked up at Zabbio. "See you in a few!" He pressed the final button. "Oh, and I might throw up on you...."
It was worth the time trouble he was going to cause just to see Zabbio's face go beige.
Ianto yelped as his fingers hit a force field for the thirty-seventh time that day. He'd been out for ... he didn't know how long, really, because he didn't have a watch anymore, and the days on Solaxis were interminable.
As he nursed his fingertips back to something resembling normal feeling, he heard a rustle behind him.
"You won't get out that way."
Ianto whipped around at the sound of the low, gruff voice. A voice that he was pretty sure was speaking English. "Oh, no...."
"I take it you've met my kind, at some point?"
"Yeah, but, er ... he? Yes, I think it was a he.... He was clothed. You're, er...."
"Not." The blowfish smirked, which made Ianto feel a bit sick. "And if he spoke English from that long ago, he was probably from my shoal. Not that I was ever really one with the rest of them." The smirk turned into a downward curl of distaste.
"Thieves and vagabonds, the lot of them. Best observers of xenopsychology in the galaxy, and they use it to steal antiques." The blowfish blinked – something Ianto realised he'd never seen a fish do. "What's your name?"
"Er... Ianto Jones." Ianto pronounced his name carefully, unable to remember the last time he'd thought to say it so slowly.
The blowfish smirked again. "I take it the others have thoroughly ruined your name, Mister Jones?"
Ianto considered fainting for half a second. "You could say that. And, er, you are...?"
"The closest you'd come to it would be Gills. My shoal accused me of wasting air whenever I tried to dissuade them from their thieving ways, so they derided me thus."
"Pleased to meet you." Ianto found himself disturbed by the truth in that. "Er, where did you come from?"
"We do not reveal our origin."
"No, I meant here. I haven't seen you before."
Gills' face turned sour. "I keep to myself."
"I didn't think you ... did that."
"We do when we have no other choice." Gills turned his head to the side, revealing a nasty scar on the gill cover and four missing spines on his crest. The skin that had joined them was cruelly torn and scarred, ragged where scales no longer protected it, and where it looked like teeth had ripped it.
Despite their long-healed appearance, the wounds still made Ianto wince in sympathy. He swallowed. "Wh-who did this to you?"
"My shoal cast me out."
Ianto nodded, doing what he always did at Torchwood when he couldn't understand something and had to. "How long have you been here?"
"Two Solaxian Moonths." Gills sounded weary of it.
"What's that in Earth terms?"
"Five and a half rotations around your sun."
"So the days here are ... how long?"
"Thirty-two of your hours."
"Oh, God...." Ianto clutched his right eye, as if it would keep the thing from leaping out of its socket. He hadn't realised just how bad a headache he'd had.
"There are plants in there." Gills waved at a very narrow opening between the shack he'd cobbled together as shelter and the seared pathway whose closer edge seemed to correspond with the forcefield Ianto kept bumping. "They make fruit that makes heads feel better."
"Don't suppose you've picked any of it to spare, have you?"
Gills eyed Ianto as though contemplating killing him. And then his face changed. "If I give you what I have, will you pick more for me?"
"If it cures my head, anything!" Then Ianto thinks. "Why would you want me to pick it?"
"I do not heal well from the thorns."
"Oh. Yes, of course. I'd be happy to pick some more for you, when I can see straight."
"Then come." Gills turned and entered his dwelling.
The door was low enough that Gills had to duck, so Ianto had to bend quite low to get in. That didn't do anything good for his head.
Gills turned right, entering a tiny alcove where it seemed he put things that mattered to him.
Ianto couldn't discern what those things might be in the sudden dark of the shelter, especially when he was coping with such a bad head.
And then Gills was pushing a handful of small, red berries into his palm. "They are bitter-sour, but they will make you feel joy, in a while. Chew them well."
Ianto put one in his mouth and bit down. In that moment, he saw stars. He also knew why his headache felt so illogical and familiar, and that these berries would make him feel brilliant, but not today. He chewed the bittersweet thing and swallowed, resisting the toxic urge to eat the rest and refusing to weep for joy.
At last, he looked up at Gills, head throbbing with pain and purpose. "Show me where these plants are," he said, only slightly surprised at his feral tone, "right now!"
When Jix materialised, he wasn't too surprised to see all of Zabbio's eyes swivel around to greet him, one after the other, after the other. Vlakkins did the best multi-takes.
"You are two seconds late."
"Couldn't be helped." Jix brushed off a spider, which promptly crawled up Zabbio's leg, a bit dazed. "Brought you a pet," he offered.
"That is considerate. Why are you green?"
Jix shook his head with a grimace and emphatically waved Zabbio off. "I've gotta shower." He offered the pilfered navcomp unit.
Zabbio moved back. "Decontamination will not work?"
"Let's just say you really, really want the quantum dissolution drain to work this time."
"It is repaired." Zabbio pointed towards the shower with all but one of its eyestalks and three of its limbs.
Jix sighed and put the unit down. "This thing is clear. Note the no green."
Zabbio eyed it sceptically.
"Well, scan it, if you don't believe me!" Jix turned and stalked off towards the shower.
He stepped into it, glad he'd returned naked, hoping that the soil microbes turning him green would do as advertised. He also hoped that the Doctor would never find out what he'd done, and that Zabbio was taking the appropriate precautions cleaning the stuff he'd tracked into the ship.
As he watched the green go down the drain, Jix's memory jolted back to the last time he saw the Rift in Wales – to a house full of ghosts and an ancient evil trying to punch through it into the world where his friends and family lived – to the last time he'd seen Ianto Jones die, this time forever. That Ianto had been a re-creation, one so real that it – he – had taken Jack's – Jix's – breath away and made him feel all those unliveable, necessary things again. If this Yen-todge Owns was another fake, Jix would spend the next million years killing anyone who took his interest before they could hurt him one tenth as much.
He took longer than he needed to clean himself. One great thing about water showers: nobody could tell one had been crying. Not even oneself.
The area behind Gills' habitat was an overgrown thicket of thorny shrubbery in various shades of red, green, yellow, purple and (disturbingly to Ianto) blue. It also hid a treacherous underpinning of objects that didn't feel natural, and that threatened to twist or sprain Ianto's ankles at nearly every step.
Gills picked up the pace a little. "There is a berry bush!"
Ianto made the mistake of looking up as he stepped. His ankle turned on something that came apart under his foot, depositing him on the floor. "Fuck!" He picked up the object on which he'd tripped, ready to throw it far from him in a fit of headache-driven rage, and stopped. "A fry pan?" He turned it in his hands. It was dirty, but shiny when he scratched away the grime. The metal looked like steel, but he couldn't be sure. He looked for a maker's mark, hoping against hope that he might find something from home, but found only indecipherable scratches on its bottom.
He felt underneath leafy, gnarled twigs and found its lid. The thing was a deep dome and had a handle on it that looked designed for someone with two very thick fingers. It was also clear that the handle had come partway off. He looked more closely at the pan and noted a short grip that seemed well worn but serviceable. Against his better judgement, he reached in to pick up whatever piece of rubble came to hand. He pulled up what seemed most like a very old shoe, which he dropped instantly. He looked up at Gills. "This is a tip, isn't it?"
"A tip of what?" Gills cocked his head as only a Blowfish could.
"I thought you'd been to Earth. Specifically to the UK in the twenty-first century."
"Only my erstwhile shoalmates."
"Ah." Ianto made a mental note that shoal communication wasn't perfect. "A 'tip' is a rubbish heap."
"Ah! Yes, this is the refuse allotment of the prison."
"Prison? I thought we were in some sort of zoo."
Gills gave him a baleful look.
"Of course. I'm—"
"I can go no further." Gills turned abruptly and left.
"—sorry." Ianto looked where Gills had pointed and rose. He had walked three steps when he realised that he had nothing in which to carry berries. He looked down, saw something pink and slimy, and decided to go back for the fry pan. If he took the lid, as well, he'd be able to double the load.
It was hard going, but he pressed through the tangle of vegetation, doing everything he could to minimize ankle-twisting and other damage. An early accident with a thorn across the nipples taught him to cover those with the fry pan and his crotch with the lid. If he survived this experience, he'd have to find a way to make himself some clothing.
Twenty yards in, though it felt more like miles, Ianto Jones found himself facing a coffee tree. He couldn't tell how old it was, but it didn't matter. All his focus was on the masses of berries that were all ripe and well within his reach – his for the taking. When he could see through his misty eyes, he plucked as many as he could fit into the pan. And then, with some clever manoeuvring, he stuffed several more handfuls under the lid. Arranging the pan over his genitals and making himself as thin and invulnerable as possible, he wove his way back through the thorns.
"Oh, great, just what we need!" Jix beat Zabbio to the punch of turning off the new navcomp before the pod of space whales could blow out its core with their chatter.
Zabbio's eyestalks had retreated into its head in order to block out some of the hypersonic wails of the pod.
Jack made a note to tell Ianto of the Vlakkin ability to block sound with their eyes. And then he shook it off and reminded himself that he was Jix, and that he was most likely chasing a con man. A con man who'd got hold of Ianto's tie.
And some of Ianto's blood. There hadn't been any blood when Ianto died, except for that scar on his cheek.
Jack would never forget that scar.
And then the ship whirled and pitched as it shouldn't, and Jack peeled himself off the back wall and forced himself into the co-pilot's seat to stabilise the ship.
"Jiiiix!" Zabbio never called him by name. "The-e-e-y ha-a-a-ave hu-u-u-urt my-my-my shi-i-i-ip!"
Jack – Jix – looked properly, and saw that Zabbio was now round, purple and nearly devoid of eyes. "Hey, it's okay." With all but the most basic sensors blind, he activated the window and spun the ship slowly round to get a visual on their situation. At first, he couldn't see anything. "More contrast," he told the main computer.
"Contrast is at maximum," replied the sexy, non-gendered voice.
"Zoom out fifty percent!"
As the ship turned, a huge eyelid passed by the window.
"Whoa!" For once, Jix – Jack – JIX, dammit! – was glad to remember Torchwood. "Good thing I speak Space Whale!"
It took him just half an hour – his time – to perfect the roast. That was after the hour it took to clean the fry pan and its domed lid. Fortunately, water was not rationed here, and all of the specimens – inmates, as Gills called them – were given food and medical care as and when. Ianto had discovered the latter on his return from Gills' place when Penny had cooed and squawked in horror at the wounds he'd had from the thorns. Though he was grateful to have been treated for the wounds, he hadn't appreciated waking up with the sense of retcon pervading him. "I don't suppose you'd give me back my clothes?" he'd shouted, to no avail.
He was grateful, though, that the Abandoned Oddities Exhibit was run more like a wild animal park back home, than an actual zoo. At least he could go visit Gills' tip and search for equipment and maybe clothes.
One useful find was a lidded jar that seemed to be made out of some sort of ceramic. It wasn't exactly airtight, but it wasn't porous, either, and would do nicely for storing the roasted beans. As with everything in the tip, it had required extensive cleaning. Scrubbing at it with a makeshift bundle of rough leaves that Gills assured him weren't poisonous, Ianto had felt oddly grateful for his experience clearing up mess and cleaning finicky machines.
As Ianto shook the hot beans inside the metal mesh bowl that Gills had used to strain meals that didn't bear thinking about, he was driven mad by current smells and past memories. Tosh wafted through his mind.... No. She didn't waft. She came in and sat down, making her presence known in that way that would look crass on anyone else. He missed her so much that his face stung. If she'd been with him here, watching him rid the roast of all remaining bits of husk, she'd have been smiling and breathing it all in, waiting for him to brew a fresh batch. She might even have nagged him, though it never really felt like that when she did it.
He watched a piece of silverskin drift up and out of the bowl, following it as the wind bore it away. A weight descended on him with the realisation that she was now truly gone, her body atomised by the explosion that destroyed the Hub – destroyed everything they had and were and would be.
I'm glad Owen didn't live to see that.
Ianto was surprised at that being his first thought. But then, Owen did surprise people, sometimes. There was a dull ache deep inside as he realised that the destruction of the Hub might have hurt Owen more than any of the rest of them. He deeply regretted the role he'd had to play in helping Owen to come to terms with his living death. It had been so cruel helping Jack to kick the man out of the only home he really felt he had.
But then, he'd been cruel to Gwen, too, helping her to discover the truth about Flat Holm and that boy ... Jonah Bevan. Jack's vehemence about Ianto disobeying his orders had been a cover for the pain of seeing the light in Gwen turn to Torchwood rot. It wasn't until the next morning, when he saw Gwen walk into work, that Ianto had understood why Jack had clung so hard to him after their row.
He watched another set of chaff catch the wind and float away, the last protection shaken off burnt seeds that would never grow.
He'd been cruel to all of them except Tosh and Suzie. He was too scared of Suzie and too fond of Tosh. He didn't think he could ever be cruel to her, not really, though he'd tried a bit. That was when a tear stung his eye. He absorbed it.
But it made him think of Jack.
He still didn't understand what happened between them. He still didn't know why things got so bolloxed up when it seemed like they'd been on some sort of even keel.
Except that he did.
And it was his fault.
He'd never been any good at being honest about his deepest feelings. And then he'd fallen so deeply in love with Jack, despite knowing every reason why he shouldn't, and why it was the worst idea in the universe, that there was no way it wasn't going to crash and burn. Why had he pushed so hard – and so dishonestly – for a declaration? It hadn't needed saying. Jack showed him how he felt. He'd agreed to monogamy – offered it, even – and stuck to it. After Gwen's wedding, they'd slept together every night, even when sex was off the table. Nine mornings out of ten, he'd wake up with Jack's arm draped possessively over his waist. They'd coped with each other's nightmares and sicknesses and deaths. Every time Jack came back, he'd reached for Ianto. And eight nights out of ten, Jack had slept – really slept – all the way through whatever sleep cycle Torchwood permitted. Ianto knew, because Ianto watched. And he loved. And so did Jack, and Ianto ruined it.
And then he'd died. And he'd told Jack he loved him. And Jack had made all those muddy feelings so clear in the way he'd begged the 456 for Ianto's life. And Ianto hadn't been able to make him feel any better about himself, and had been so afraid that Jack would consign him to the dustbin of oblivion.
For a few horrible moments, the beans swam before Ianto's eyes, and he didn't think he could stand them, or life, or himself. He nearly had a heart attack when he realised that Jack was still alive out there, somewhere, somewhen.
The idea began as the tiniest whiff of dream – something so fragile that not a soul in the universe dared remark it until it solidified and built and grew.
Ianto watched the last piece of husk lift and circle and drift towards the Solaxian sun. He poured the beans into the jar and mapped out a path.
It was when the whale pod wafted the smell of coffee into the ship's airlock – as only a pod of hyper-intelligent space whales could do – and Zabbio let it into the control room that Jix became Jack and stayed that way.
The whales also taught Jack how to synthesise a better version of coffee, but he still resented the hell out of Zabbio as it consumed the rest of Yen-todge Owns' BitterBlack. The miniature grenade launcher that Zabbio was training on him to protect its treasure didn't help his mood any. Slow-insertion diamond shard grenades were an excruciating way to die.
And then he looked out the window and saw the gorgeous effects of the Lower Galactic Current, and everything but finding Ianto went out of his mind. Ianto's love of acquiring experiences and knowledge crashed through his brain, filling him with memory and feeling. All he could see was Ianto's face boggling at the sight of red-shifting clouds of plasma and space dust. If they passed close enough to a nova, he could point out trails of gold in the stardust. Assuming, of course, that the sensors and enhancements were working properly. Even Ianto knew that getting that close to a nova was a terrible idea. Jack didn't want to see Ianto die again.
Neither did the whales, apparently. They were quite fond of him, and not because of his coffee – although the one who'd first recognised his name had become quite the addict. (Jack didn't ask how.) The child who had died in the warehouse back in Cardiff all those centuries ago had felt to them her gratitude for Torchwood's help in her last, agonising moments. They regretted that only Jack and Ianto were available to thank.
The coffee scent was as close to exactly right as Jack could ask, and was different enough from the smell that Ianto exuded back at Torchwood that he could be sure that the whales were giving him the true representation of the famed coffee god on Solaxis. He would have felt better, though, if the whales had actually laid eyes on this Yen-todge guy. The image they could have communicated to him would have eliminated uncertainty. Except, of course, it wouldn't have. There were so many possible ways to fake an identity that Jack had to close his eyes and re-focus his mind on solving a mystery, rather than on rescuing a lover.
He smiled at Zabbio as it consumed the very last drop of ecstasy from its preservation vessel. At least a good cup of coffee would be waiting for him on Solaxis, and he wouldn't let Zabbio have a single drop.
Zabbio held Jack's gaze in a mutual gloat.
Gills sniffed suspiciously at the gourd of hot, black liquid Ianto offered him.
"Popular Earth drink. I, um, had a bit of a reputation for making it well."
Gills took a sip and instantly spat it out. "Bitter!"
"Ah, yes. You might want to try sweetening it a bit? I noticed you like the sweet bit of the berry...."
"Ah!" Gills went to a nook in the alcove and pulled out a vial of opalescent liquid. He stroked it fondly. "This. This was my toy!"
"And I just got a tie."
Gills cocked his head.
Gills started to twist the top of the vial and then stopped. He eyed Ianto. "I do not want to waste this. It is very precious."
"You sound like Gollum," muttered Ianto.
Gills gave Ianto a suspicious look.
"Very interesting character in a movie. One of my favourites." Ianto smiled and nodded at the gourd. "I don't know what that is, or how it will interact with the coffee, but if the smell of the coffee goes well with the taste of that liquid, it might be worth risking a drop."
"This is worth five thousand credits a drop."
Ianto decided to hold Gills' gaze, rather than trying to persuade him. Easy to do, when he was gagging for another cup, himself.
Gills gazed at him for a long time, unblinking. And then he nodded, slowly. "You are strong. That is worth the risk." He twisted the top of the vial about a millimetre to the right and let one pinhead drop escape into the gourd.
The coffee turned iridescent for about three seconds and then went dark again. To Ianto, for a mad minute, it looked pregnant.
Gills sniffed it again, raised the gourd at Ianto and took a sip.
His eyes went wide, his upper lip curled; he swallowed the first sip and then took another. And then he looked as though he was going to say something to Ianto, but changed his mind. He addressed the gourd again and didn't come up for air until he'd drained the last drop.
"Did you like it?"
Gills held out the empty gourd.
Ianto sighed and emptied the remains of the coffee from the bigger one into it. "Won't take long to brew some more," he said.
"You wish to escape," said Gills, about halfway through his second gourd of coffee.
"Don't you?" Ianto didn't take his eyes from the pot in which the next round was brewing.
"There is no shoal for me out there."
"There might be. I could teach you how to make this."
Gills looked at Ianto over a very slow sip. "What would you want in return?"
"Unlimited access to the tip, everything you know about this place and its owners, and half your toy."
Gills' crest rose.
"If I'm right about this," said Ianto, before Gills could speak, "we're going to make so much money that you could buy an ocean of that ... stuff."
"Perfect," said Gills.
"Glad to be of service," said Ianto, a little confused.
"The name of the 'stuff' is 'Perfect'."
"Oh. What does it taste like?" Ianto decanted the coffee carefully into the carafe gourd.
"Whatever one desires in the food it touches."
"Does it work on humans?" Ianto poured himself a gourd-cup of coffee.
Gills took in a deep breath – still an odd thing for Ianto to see done through the sides of one's face. "You may try."
Ianto held out his cup.
Gills allowed one tiny drop of 'Perfect' to fall into it. "You must wait until it turns black again."
"Why? What happens if I don't?"
Gills smiled at him. "You die."
Ianto made very sure to wait until all traces of colour left before sipping.
He sipped again, and a third time. "Doesn't taste any different."
"Perfect does nothing to a substance that is already exactly as one wishes it to be."
"Then I'll only need a quarter of what you have."
Gills cast an eye at him.
Ianto recalculated. They were very tiny drops, after all. "An eighth."
Gills finished his cup, rinsed it with water and held it out.
Ianto started to fill it with coffee.
Gills stopped him halfway up and began to drink. His face wrinkled and he paused. He inhaled and seemed to reset. Then he drank in earnest, draining the cup dry.
"I thought you hated it without Perfect."
Gills licked his lips and smiled. "I acquired the taste."
"How rare is Perfect?"
"I own half of the galaxy's supply of it."
"Do you have milk and sugar on Solaxis?"
Gills fell silent, half closing his eyes. He seemed to be straining at something, scales drawn tight over his face. Then his eyes popped open. "Ah! Yes, in raw form."
"That ... took a while."
Gills' lips curled, sourly. "Milk is a difficult concept."
"Ah. So where do they keep the cows?"
"She lives half a day from here."
"And the sugar?"
"The sugar mine is at the farthest edge of my demesne."
Ianto eyed the vast expanse of thorns. He stood up and still couldn't see the end of them. He'd need clothes or a way out to the path beyond the forcefield in order to get to the mine. Madly, he wondered if salt grew in canes in this place. "Don't suppose she lives with a sheep, does she?"
Gills frowned. "Ah, yes, you Welsh and your sheep. Legendary throughout the galaxy for—"
"Glad we're galactic legends for something," said Ianto, before he could think seriously about throttling Gills. "Rather it was Rugby." He looked around for something in which to carry roasted coffee beans. "I have to make some clothes before I can get to your sugar mine, so ... cow now?"
Gills snorted. "You cannot afford her."
"You make her sound like a sex worker," muttered Ianto, still looking around. "Do you have something to carry beans in? Like a pouch, or a small bag?"
"When was the last time you checked your shield modulator?"
"I ... do not remember."
Jack squeezed himself out of the crawlspace. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me. You know you need to overhaul these things every twenty cycles, right?" He held up an exploded chunk of polycarb. "Otherwise they tend to die."
"The technoforms only say that to extort credits from cowards," said Zabbio in a sandy growl.
"Not about the OmniBlock5! I helped them write the specs!"
"You are their Unique Source?"
"Yeah." Jack tossed the ruined device to Zabbio and rose, dusting himself off. "And there isn't another one within a standard kiloparsec radius of our position. So what are we gonna do about them?" He pointed at the view screen.
"They are not a threat."
"That's a Sontaran annihilation fleet!"
"I can destroy them in battle." If Zabbio had saliva, it would be practically drooling.
Jack shook his head. "We're travelling with beings protected under Article 9 of The Shadow Proclamation. You can't even upset them!"
"We can leave them and kill the Sontarans. They do not pay well."
"We are not leaving the whales!" Jack folded his arms across his chest, feeling his face contort into shapes of frustration. "They're my only chance at getting to Iant—Yen-todge."
"He is important to you."
"Yes." Jack shook his head, as if he could make his brain fall out.
Jack took a deep breath and pushed it out. "Because he makes great cof—BitterBlack. The Sontarans are on course to go right through us."
"We must hide before their sensors discover this ship."
Jack opened his mouth to speak. And then he grinned and picked up the telepathy enhancer. "Crush, we need to hide from the Sontaran sensors. Can you help?"
The closest translation of the warm thud of response-feel from Jack's gigantic new friend was, "Sure thing, dude; hop in!" The map to the exact safest spot in Crush's mouth was promptly uploaded to Jack's brain. "Thank you, my friend," Jack thought back.
Without a word, Jack took over the helm and disengaged the navcomp.
Zabbio jumped as the ship lurched out of phase with the auto-grav. "Where are you taking my ship?"
"Into a safe place," Jack murmured, "and we need to be silent." He pointed at the fast-approaching fleet and then nodded towards the empty seat next to him. 'This is going to get rough,' he mouthed.
Zabbio sat and fastened the stealth-mode restraint system into place around its body.
Jack appraised the system – well-improvised – and Zabbio's skill – impressive – and gave an approving nod. He looked the question, 'Are you ready for this?'
Zabbio flicked its eyestalks in assent.
It took about five minutes – and Jack was a bit surprised that he was thinking in those time units – for him to guide the ship towards the place where Crush could suck it in like a piece of edible space flotsam.
Zabbio was a shade of magenta-infused purple that Jack couldn't describe.
"Are you going to puke?"
Zabbio just sat and undulated, its colour slowly returning to normal.
"We are supposed to be silent," said Zabbio.
"Not when we're inside a space whale. They dampen all sensor technolo—Oh! Sure, just a minute...." Jack programmed the communications array. "Crush wants to say hi."
"Greetings! Lovely arc for a swim. Too bad about the angry froods."
"Frood?" said Zabbio.
"Slang," said Jack. "Just roll with it." He closed his eyes. "Hi, Crush, nice to hear you in the ears as well as the mind. I have a companion here from Vlakkis. Its designation is Zabbio."
"Greetings, frood! Delighted to house you in my mouth."
Zabbio's face turned slightly mauve. "It is an honour," it said, responding to Jack's glare.
"The zarking honour is mine."
"What is 'zarking'?" asked Zabbio.
"A sign that Crush, here, has spent some questionable time with Zaphod Beeblebrox. He doesn't belong here!"
"We sent him back to his own current after we absorbed his language and story," said Crush. "You have a shortened fin on the right side."
"Huh?" Jack buried his face in the ship's diagnostic portal.
"This ship does not have 'fins'," said Zabbio, bristling to a third again its size.
"Geez, Zabbio, don't you ever do a pre-flight check? Your starboard stabiliser's been sheared in half!"
"You forgot? What happened?"
"My client failed to leave a sufficient number of credits on hir payment leaf."
"So you went after hir and ... what? Your busted-up navcomp made you run into hir transport? Oh, no, I forgot – you fly by the seat of your—"
"Frood Jack, please calm yourself. It is of no zarking matter."
"Sorry." Jack held his head against the psionic pressure for which Crush was named.
"It is of no matter. We offer you sanctuary whilst we hear your story. Tell us why you are travelling to Solaxis to see the righteous frood Ianto Jones."
Jack looked at Zabbio, who was fixing him with a gaze of entitled, lethal curiosity. Nothing he'd yet done had felt harder than this would, and he still didn't know quite why. He sighed, leaning back into the comforting weight of Crush's mind. "A very, very long time ago, Ianto Jones was someone I ... someone who ... someone I knew."
Zabbio looked at him.
"Very well," Jack added.
Zabbio cocked its head.
Something should be happening, Jack thought. Zabbio should be asking him some sort of earnest question.
"He was my lover."
Zabbio nodded and untied itself from the Captain's seat. "Unsurprising." It walked off in the direction of the starboard stabiliser.
Jack felt a sting through his heart that hadn't happened since the last time he'd seen Ianto – the real one.
"Tell us of him"
"He's—he was ... so afraid ... the last time I saw him. He thought—" Jack had to swallow the break in his voice. "He thought I'd forget him. As if I ever could. I told him I wouldn't. Told him I'd remember him. He didn't believe me. I remember all of them. All the ones I've loved. I work at it, goddammit!" He slammed his fist on the panel, too close to the controls, activating the alarm.
Zabbio emerged at speed from the access crawlspace near the stabiliser. "What is the emergency?
Jack deactivated the alarm. "Sorry! I, uh, got a bit emotional. Haven't used that curse in a long time...." His grin was very fake, even for him.
Zabbio gave him a visual snarl.
"No harm has been done, Frood Zabbio. Your ship is as it was when you arrived, and the angry froods have passed without incident."
"I am gratified to hear that. Can we leave, now?"
"That is not advisable. Your fuel regulator does not match your supply, and I can taste that you will be stranded in a spatiotemporal void without our help. We offer you transport to Solaxis."
Zabbio narrowed its business eyes. "What do you seek in return?"
"Wrong question," hissed Jack.
"Frood, we make this offer in friendship."
"That is against the Universal Code of Mercenary Commerce as agreed and ratified by—"
"Zabbio!" growled Jack.
"We are not signatories to commerce. But if you wish to offer us something, we wish to meet Ianto Jones."
"Done," said Jack. "If he's really alive and ... himself."
"Most excellent, Frood Jack! Now, please tell us of him. And you."
It took a long time for Jack to speak. Trying to tell anyone about Ianto was so hard – always had been. Ianto had defied every attempt at categorisation. Their relationship had been more recalcitrant. Jack hadn't wanted Ianto anywhere near him, at first. Ianto had been irritating, persistent, devious, treacherous, whiny, cowardly and devoted to a fault to those he loved.
He'd also been eager to learn, highly adventurous in bed, ready to help Jack and eventually the team in whatever manner was needed, and had grown oddly into one of the bravest men Jack had known. He had betrayed and defied Jack many times over, once enough to warrant execution, and yet had kept Jack interested in coming back. Interested enough that Jack turned down the Doctor's offer to be a companion again.
"He shouldn't have come with me. I shouldn't have let him. I shouldn't have wanted his company so much." Jack wasn't crying. He was so over Ianto's death that anger was better. So over it, especially after he said goodbye to the ghost in the Rift. The Rift he'd closed, sealing that one last, desperate hope into a rocky grave no better than the likely disposal of Ianto's remains at Thames House. He hadn't stuck around long enough to find out whether Ianto'd had a funeral.
"Froooooooooood...." It was a low keen through psyche and nerves that soothed and wrung emotion out of every fibre of Jack's being.
"I miss him, all right? I'm going to Solaxis to see if Yen-todge Owns is my Ianto Jones, and then I'm going to ... I don't know what I'm going to do." Jack wiped everything on his face that was wet in one rough motion.
"You will save him from Darla of Klom."
"I might feed him to her," snarled Jack.
"No." It was gently intoned, but clear. A heartfelt prohibition against violence, borne of experience still too painful to tell.
Jack visualised a hug, returning some of the comfort he'd just been given. "No," he agreed. He hoped he could bear it if this man on Solaxis didn't turn out to be Ianto.
The idea that it might actually be Ianto was much more frightening.
Peaches was not a sex worker. She was a therapist: a damned good one, much to Ianto's dismay. Even more irksome was the fact that in order for her to produce milk, she had to be told secrets that he preferred not telling. It stimulated the hormones that made her body think that she had children to feed, and made Ianto wonder about her Terran relatives. But she did give great milk that complemented his coffee even without benefit of a proper machine. He imagined it would foam up nicely in such a device, but for now, he just whisked it into a vast gourd of coffee and stood back as Penny drank it.
Her eyes changed. She blinked on first taste of his coffee exactly as Jack had done. She clicked her beak and clacked her tongue and dove back in to consume a huge gulp of it.
She went absolutely still.
She breathed in slow, calming rhythm.
She levitated thirty yards into the air, puffed out her feathers and opened her mouth.
"Protect your hearing portals," said Flatt, amidst a thick set of clicks that Ianto had learnt meant that danger was near.
Ianto complied, but not soon enough.
Penny let out a deafening noise, best described inside Ianto's battered brain as bray-keen-screech-foghorn. It went on for minutes.
By its end, Ianto was writhing on the ground and Flatt was – nowhere to be seen.
And then something shimmered on the edge of Ianto's vision and an oddly shaped figure morphed into view. It was rectangular and white with a black stripe down its front. It had a head and four limbs – two on which it walked and two hanging off the top corners.
Ianto blinked. "Human!"
The figure stopped, its head moving in his direction.
Ianto blinked again. "Clothing! Where can I get some?"
The figure turned away and moved towards Penny, who was still high in the air. It pointed a short, wand-like thing at her for about five seconds, and then pointed it down at the coffee. After about a minute, it squatted down and stuck the wand into the coffee for about two seconds.
Then it rose and turned towards Ianto, pointing the wand at him.
Of the thousands of things that went through Ianto's mind right then, the one he didn't expect to come out of his mouth was, "I could make that suit look better on you."
The figure paused for a second. And then it proceeded toward Ianto, pointing the wand at him like a weapon.
Ianto had already died once. He didn't want to again, but he didn't want to sacrifice his dignity any more than he already had. He looked it straight in the place where its eyes ought to be under the opaque, head-to-toe garment, and let it raise him from the ground – surprisingly gently – and guide him to the place from which it had come. He closed his eyes as they reached the place where he thought he'd be obliterated.
He felt a sort of moist prickling everywhere on his skin. Everywhere. He wondered with some resentment if his guide – keeper – was protected from that by its clothing. And then he realised that the keeper had stopped touching him just as they stepped through whatever it was from the outdoors into a very boring room with four walls, a floor, a ceiling and no windows, doors or lighting. "Why's it light in here?"
The keeper turned towards him, issuing a guttural series of noises that began with something that sounded like "Beth". It sounded like a question.
The Babel fish vibrated in what Ianto understood as pain.
He looked up at the keeper in confusion.
The keeper repeated the noises, separating them as though speaking to an idiot.
The Babel fish vibrated enough to make Ianto's ear hurt.
"I'm sorry, but I don't understand you. Who's Beth?"
The keeper was silent for a moment, and then drew itself up to its full height of about six foot ten and looked down at Ianto. "What ... is ... your ... name?"
Ianto blinked and felt a little faint when he realised that he'd heard that through his non-fish-inhabited ear. "You speak English?"
"That is your name?"
"No! My name is Ianto Jones."
"Where are you from?"
"Where on Earth?"
"Wales. Cardiff, most recently. Sort of."
"Where did you work?"
Ianto hesitated only a moment before saying, "Torchwood."
The wall to his left disappeared. "Mister Jones."
Ianto whipped around to see a very female-looking human. Humanoid, he corrected as he noticed that she/ze/it/he was at least seven feet tall and had six fingers on each hand. She/ze/it/he was dressed in something that looked very much like the iron-grey suits that secretaries of a certain age wore during his days on Earth. She/ze/it/he also sported what looked like iron-grey hair in an iron-grey bun that added another four inches to her/zir/its/his height. She/ze/it/he was beautiful, in a peculiar, alien-that-might-eat-you sort of way. "Uhm ... yes?"
"I am Haniyar pen-E Marchantithan. You can call me...." She/ze/it/he frowned, revealing a feathery structure to the eyebrows, and pulled a small egg-shaped thing from a pocket, scanning it. "Ah, yes. Ma-Am."
"So you're, er, female? I didn't want to presume so far away from my place and, er, time?"
"I am going through a female phase, and thank you for your consideration." The tone made it clear that she was quite unimpressed, which meant that the words might indicate that he was somehow valuable.
Despite Jack's training to the contrary, Ianto found himself wishing he wasn't. He inclined his head, remembering his dealings with diplomats. "I apologise for any slowness in adjusting to my new surroundings."
Haniyar smiled, slightly. "The cause is sufficient. Do you know how many Ianto Joneses there are in early twenty-first century Wales?"
"I, er, never bothered to check."
"Our records indicate that there are only fifty-two of them." She looked at him as though she were looking over pince-nez, though she wasn't wearing them. "Get rid of all the ones that are really named 'Ifan' or 'Ivan', and you're left with three. And you'd be surprised how difficult it is to arrange for getting them all here to sort them out and find the right one."
Ianto mustered enough coherence to say, "Why ... are you doing this?"
"To find Ianto Jones, of course. The right Ianto Jones."
"Right, then. I'm the wrong one."
"What makes you say that?"
"I am of absolutely no importance."
"No?" Haniyar beckoned to the keeper. "Your sensor, please."
The keeper handed over the wand.
Haniyar spoke eleven slurred syllables at it – some sort of passcode, Ianto thought, as he noted that the Babel fish didn't translate – and examined it.
She turned to Ianto. "According to this, it contains the exact liquid compound for which Ianto Jones is famed throughout the universe."
"Coffee? Not unique to me. Anyone can make that." Ianto nearly choked on it, but kept up his 'Harmless' smile.
"Oh, no. Not like you." She held out her hand, palm up. "Cup, please."
"I'm sorry, but I don't—"
A white cup materialised into her hand, open side down.
She frowned. "Technog issue one-one-three-seven still unresolved," she said, pointedly.
She glanced over at Ianto and turned up the corners of her mouth. "Sorry about that." She righted the cup and tilted the wand over it.
The milky coffee that poured out of it was enough to fill the cup almost to the brim, much to Ianto's surprise. She raised it to her lips.
"I wouldn't drink that! Penny was just drinking it when, er, he...?" Ianto pointed at the keeper. "...took the sample."
"I know." She sounded almost reverent. She took a sip of the liquid as though it was the most precious and rare thing in the universe. Gills hadn't been that enamoured of Perfect.
She drank it slowly, savouring every part of the experience. When she was finished she bowed her head, mouthing words that Ianto couldn't decipher by sight. She turned towards him, her face somehow lifted. "You are Ianto Jones."
Ianto felt his heart sink as his ego soared. "How do you know?"
"Only you can correctly cook the seeds of the coffee fruit—"
"Roast," muttered Ianto.
"—even in a primitive vessel over a crude fire. Only you preserve the correct balance of 3-methylthiopropionaldehyde in the brewing."
"It's nothing, really...."
"And only you, of the seventeen Ianto Joneses we brought here, recognised the coffee planted here to identify the right Ianto Jones."
"Seventeen? I thought there were only three who fit your criteria."
"Records can become ... muddled over vast distances of space and time, Mr. Jones. We needed to be sure. Especially given what we know – or rather, don't know – of what happened to your records after your death."
"You know about the 456?"
Haniyar's lips curled in unmistakeable loathing. "Disgusting creatures for whom you have too good a name."
"Have to agree with you on that." Ianto ran his hand through his hair, which reminded him that he was naked. It also made him aware that his tolerance for being naked around clothed aliens was nearly gone. And when he looked down at himself in the dimmer light of the room, he realised that he was bright red, and that it wasn't from embarrassment. "I, er, don't mean to be rude, Ma-Am, but I wonder if I could have some clothes?"
Haniyar frowned. "We do not let our exhibits wear clothes. It interferes with the natural experience we set up in our habitats."
Ianto forced himself not to seethe. "I woke up in a giant bird's nest. That is not a natural experience for my species."
"It is an honour for anyone of your species to be under the protection of—" She swallowed. "Penny." The way Haniyar bit it out made it clear that she thought she should be announcing the queen of the universe just before ordering Ianto's execution.
"I'm glad you think highly of her. So do I. She's been ... very kind to me at a difficult time." Ianto rubbed weariness from his eyes. "Why am I here?"
"Because you are of interest to my Employer, and you need protection from those who would harm you."
"So you're putting me on display in a zoo?"
"You haven't been on display, yet. But you're going to be."
Ianto's blood ran cold. "How, exactly?"
"You, Mr. Jones, are going to introduce the universe to coffee."
"That was my plan, but I thought you said it was famous."
"It is. Just not yet."
"I have to sit down...."
"Chair for Mr. Jones, please."
Ianto waited to sit until the chair solidified where it should.
"You perceive time as a separate thing from space. I know that it's all the same—"
"—fabric, yes I know."
"Very good, Mr Jones!"
"Doesn't mean I can quite see it that way."
Haniyar smiled. "Your brain contains the necessary structure to conceptualise space-time as I do, but you haven't practised it."
"So ... you perceive it all in one big ... sort of ... lump?"
"In a manner of speaking. I see time as you would perceive ... a forest. Individual events in areas and subgroups that form a bigger whole and keep shifting. It's—"
"Yes, though I was going to say 'timey-wimey'."
"Sounds like the Doctor," Ianto muttered.
"Oh! Do you know the Doctor?"
"Never met him. Can't get away from him."
"So ... why now? The coffee ... introduction, I mean."
Haniyar's face changed ever so slightly. "I can't tell you that."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no! This is not your fault, Mr Jones. I just hate time paradoxes. They make the universe all ... wrinkly." Haniyar smoothed her suit.
"So I'm going to go on display by introducing coffee to the universe ... how?"
"We have a new habitat. Display BitterBlack zone, please."
The wall in front of Ianto revealed a counter in a colour he couldn't name. It looked to be about six feet long by about two and a half feet wide. He couldn't tell how high it was because the view was from directly above it. The only reason he could discern the scale was by the size of the coffee machine sitting on one end of it. "That's—"
"It's not just from Earth. It's ... mine!"
"Yes, Mr Jones, I thought I mentioned that."
"The Hub was destroyed...."
"And we reclaimed its most valuable objects."
"Oh, I am sorry, Mr Jones. I meant to say assets. My English isn't particularly good."
"Your English is excellent," said Ianto.
"Yes, well.... Shall we go visit your new enclosure?"
Ianto examined the rest of the image. "Where's the toilet? Where do I sleep?"
"You'll go back to your nest when you aren't on display."
"How are you going to transfer the coffee to the customers?"
"You will serve it to them, of course!"
"Ah. Then I'll need clothes. You wouldn't want me transmitting exotic diseases to your clientele."
"All our specimens are sterilised upon arrival," Haniyar huffed.
"Well, then, you wouldn't want me to contract anything from any of your visitors."
"All visitors enter through sterilisation units."
"Then give me some clothes so that I can have some fucking dignity, or so that I can stop being sunburnt! I'm not supposed to be red all the time!"
Haniyar blinked and went silent, staring. And then she bent her head once and mouthed something that looked like a prayer. "My employer offers apologies for having hurt you, and for not understanding your need for corporal privacy," she said, quietly. "Will you allow our veterinarians to treat you for your injury?"
"That might be a good idea." He glanced at the coffee bar on the wall/screen. "Don't suppose you could put up a bit of shelter there, could you? My species can die from too much sun."
"My employer informs me that I am to do whatever is necessary to keep you safe from harm until you are released back into the wild."
"When am I going to be released?"
"When the time comes."
Ianto knew better than to ask.
Jack awoke from a languid dream about space dust, supernovas and quiet times with someone called Janto Cooper at the William Jones Holiday Palace on Gwack. As the vestiges of the dream wisped away, he resolved to look up Gwack on his wrist strap, now that he had his fingers back.
"Frood Jack, we are about to exit Frood Crush," said Zabbio.
"Great! Maybe I can stop dreaming that I have fins. I don't, do I?" Jack looked at his hands.
"Negatory," said Zabbio. "However, I have considered having some installed."
"Yeah? Well, you have the scales for 'em," said Jack, with a wink.
"Thanks for the compliment, Frood!"
"Sure. No problem." Jack stepped into the lavatory. "If I never hear that word again, it'll be too soon," he muttered, after he closed the privacy hatch.
When Jack emerged, Zabbio was humming.
It looked relaxed. The set of its back looked happy – something Jack hadn't seen until their timeless sojourn inside Crush's cheek fold. Its voice had mellowed almost as much as its word choices.
Jack smiled. "Hey. You ready to leave?"
"I have digged our time with Frood Crush. It has been awful."
"I think you mean 'awesome'," said Jack.
"It has been full of awe, therefore awe-full."
"Never let a space whale teach you a language he's learned from Zaphod!"
"Froooooods," said Crush. It was mournful – a fact more pronounced by the fact that they no longer needed the telepathy enhancer.
"Aw, Crush. Is it time, already?"
"How far away are we?"
"Just a few thousand miles."
"That close? And you're thinking in Earth terms! Definitely time for us to leave." Jack gave Crush a mental squeeze of a vestigial shoulder.
"Our fuel reserve will not let us travel that distance," said Zabbio. "And he is thinking in Vlakkin terms. We should stay longer."
"Then your pay will be delayed," said Jack.
"Can you give us a boost, Frood Crush?"
"No problem, Frood Zabbio. Here are the coordinates to the back of my throat."
"Thank you, Frood."
"No offence, but if you sneeze us out, won't that blow us off course? "
"Not if you position your ship as instructed before ejection. You will reach the Solaxis Zoo twenty-five point seven-three-nine Earth hours later."
"Fantastic! Zabbio, wanna—"
"We are at launch point," said Zabbio. "Frood Crush, are we correctly positioned?"
"Indubitably, Frood Zabbio. Prepare for launch...."
Jack sat down, bracing himself and the chair as best he could for a sneeze powerful enough to send the ship thousands of miles through space. "Ready!"
"Ready," said Zabbio, with perfect calm.
"Farewell," rumbled Crush.
"Farewell! Thank you!" Jack squeezed his eyes shut, waiting.
"I miss Frood Crush," said Zabbio.
"What do you mean, 'miss him'?"
"Ejection was successful," said Zabbio.
"Huh?" Jack opened his eyes and activated the window. "Oh. Wow! I didn't know how much I missed seeing the stars!"
"We were Crush's guests for two grade three time bundles."
"Three and a half months," murmured Jack.
"Why do you insist on thinking in irrelevant measures of space-time?"
"I have to be able to talk to Ianto," said Jack, as the fear of it sank in. "What if he's dead? What if he's gone? What if he's part of Darla's ass?"
"At least your question now varies from, 'What if it isn't him?'" said Zabbio.
"This is going to be the longest day of my life," said Jack, barely registering Zabbio's presence.
"Mine also," muttered Zabbio, flicking a wistful eye at the weapons locker.
"One miniature BitterBlack nothing added," said Ianto, handing it up as high as he could to the ten-foot walking stick whose name the Babel fish still couldn't translate. The stick angled himself so that his fingers would reach the tiny cup. His people broke if they bent, and Ianto had asked Haniyar many times for a mechanism by which this very nice repeat customer might be served. The stick rattled his thanks and dropped a tip into Ianto's hand. And then he rattled, "I will bid on you."
The press of customers waiting to get their coffee began to applaud, the sound spreading as the word passed from being to beings about the bid intent.
"Thank you. You are most kind." Ianto stuffed the money into the pumpkin-sized gourd under the counter before greeting his next customer. "Ah, Madame Txihn! Gills, we need the Perfect, please."
"I wish to attempt it without embellishment, today."
"I am honoured by your bravery. What strength do you favour this hour?"
"I shall attempt grade three."
"Flawless choice, as always." Ianto filled a gold tasting cup with his Robust roast and bowed, turning his back as he handed it to her. This time, he knew he hadn't spilt a drop. He kept his position as all around the bar fell silent. He could sense the collective holding of breath.
There was a tingly hum interrupted by rapturous sighs and an occasional cough. "Perfect manners, perfect bitter, perfect black. I will bid for you."
Nobody made a sound.
"Perfect manners, perfect silence, perfect day. When I win, Ianto Jones will stay on Solaxis and be the only maker and seller of BitterBlack."
There was a collective breath.
"Perfect breath. I am content." Madame Txihn placed the tasting cup with just the right amount of noise on the counter.
"You do me the greatest honour, Madame Txihn."
"As you have done me."
Ianto turned around and smiled, and the crowd erupted in cheers.
"I will also bid on Ianto Jones!"
There was an uproar from the crowd that translated to, "Wait your turn!" and "How dare you?" and "Interloper!"
Ianto, as always, ignored the interruption and focused on his next potential bidder. "Mister Bon, your presence warms me. May I be permitted to serve you in this moment?"
"You may grant me a size two, grade two with cold milk, Prime Owns. I would like it to be the colour of my palm."
Ianto dispensed the coffee and placed the cup next to Mister Bon's outstretched hand. He poured the milk into it, stirring, until the exact colour match had been achieved, and then picked it up. "I offer my life if this cup displeases you."
Mister Bon accepted the cup and bowed. "I accept your offer." He sipped and gurgled. "Though I do not need your life. I will bid on you, that you may be saved from absorption and may continue to serve the honoured guests on Solaxis."
The crowd applauded.
"I, too, will bid on Ianto Jones!"
Ianto froze at the voice.
"Prime Owns is upset," someone said. The word spread like fire through the crowd.
"No, you won't! He's mine!"
That voice caused him to shudder.
"Darla of Klom!" It came as one utterance from those gathered. They all pressed closer to the bar.
"She's not supposed to be here! It was agreed!"
There was a roar of affirmation.
"Ianto Jones is mine!"
"No! He's my pet! Daddy bought him for me!"
Ianto shivered, clamping down, refusing to say the name, even to himself.
Gills put his arm around Ianto's shoulders. "Prime Owns is suffering!" he shouted. "You recognise that voice," he whispered into Ianto's ear as the clamour grew.
Ianto nodded, in spite of himself. Then he shook his head.
"Which is it?" hissed Gills.
"I've wanted to hear it for so long. What if it isn't him?"
"The one you paid the mercenary to find?"
The crowd roar was so loud that Ianto couldn't hear himself speak. Emergency alert blasts ripped as a sonic wave through the zoo.
And then there was a deafening bang and a burst of green, focused light shooting straight up into the air.
The crowd fell silent.
"Under Article seven-five-nine-nine of the Code of Claims and Commerce, in accordance with Shadow Proclamation Directive two, I declare that Ianto Jones is mine by right of coital partnership, and I hereby assert my claim!"
"Where's your proof?"
Ianto didn't recognise that voice, but the question spread.
"Ianto Jones will certify my claim."
"He can't certify anything! He's an exhibit!"
"Pets recognise their owners," said another voice.
"Ianto, tell them who I am!"
"I can't see you or smell you," said Ianto. "I don't know who you are."
"See? He's mine," shouted Darla.
"Let him through," yelled someone else.
"Yeah, let's see some coital partnership!"
"I can't do this," said Ianto, though he knew he could, no matter how much he hated the idea of having all his hopes dashed or met.
And then the air was rent by the same sound that Penny had trumpeted when she'd first drunk the coffee over a Moonth ago.
The crowd fell to the ground, some clutching their hearing portals, others kneeling as though to royalty.
"Make way for the claimants!" That voice belonged to Haniyar. "By order of her Royal Imperator Vanemah Trinoq pen-E!"
The crowd shuffled itself until two paths appeared.
Ianto despised the sight of Darla oozing down the first one. It seemed as though the crowd might agree with him.
He was so busy looking at her and trying hard not to imagine his impending doom that he didn't see the other claimant approaching.
"Prime Owns," said a familiar, prickly voice, "I have performed the tasks for which you hired me. Here is the target known to you as Captain Jack Harkness."
"I—" Ianto swallowed, refusing to look at Zabbio's target. "I thank you, Agent Zabbio."
"You must confirm or deny correct target acquisition," said Zabbio.
Ianto closed his eyes and centred himself as best he could. And then he looked.
The man looked older. Just by a few years, in an ordinary life, but Ianto knew that Jack had lived for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years since they'd last seen each other. It broke his heart. "Jack...."
"Do you confirm target acquisition, Prime Owns?"
Ianto was silent, rapt.
"Ianto?" Jack's voice cracked, and Ianto couldn't decipher the emotion that caused it.
"Yes," whispered Ianto. "Yes," he repeated, louder. "I confirm that this is Captain Jack Harkness, the target I paid you, Mercenary Agent Zabbio, to seek and recover for me."
"And do you confirm either claimant?" said Haniyar.
Ianto looked the person he hoped – knew – was Jack straight in the eye. "I confirm that the claimant known to me as Captain Jack Harkness and I did engage in coital partnership."
"NO!" screeched Darla.
"Guards, control the child," said Haniyar. She turned to Ianto. "Did that partnership end by free volition of either or both parties?"
"Only if you count stupidity as a choice," said Ianto.
"I insisted on confronting the 456. They killed us. Me—"
"You wouldn't have died if I'd thought to get you a gas mask," said Jack, tightly.
"I should've been better prepared or not gone in at all. I just—"
"—wanted to be there with me. Fight for England—"
"Wales – like always."
"I'll take that as a 'no', then," said Haniyar, with uncharacteristic warmth.
"I didn't want to end it," said Ianto.
"Neither did I." Jack's voice was so broken that Ianto barely managed to stand his ground.
"Then by the power vested in me as Overseer of Collections of the Solaxian Zoo, I hereby declare Oddity Ianto Jones, also known as Yen-todge Owns, Prime Owns and something only Lord Flatt of Gondwana can pronounce, claimed and no longer eligible for containment or sale. You will be released into the wild after a short transition time, during which your claimant may stay with you, as he sees fit."
"What about Gills and Penny and, er, Lord Flatt?"
"My employer, Her Royal Imperator, and her consort are, of course, at absolute liberty to do as they please. As for Gills, his sentence is nearly served. Perhaps you would like to bid on him when he is available?"
Ianto glanced at Gills. "I'll think about it," he said. Then, "Wait ... Penny is your employer?"
Haniyar smiled. "Of course. And she welcomes you and Captain Harkness into her enclosure for your transition period, if you so desire. It is private, warm and bigger than you have been allowed to see."
"That sounds fine," said Ianto.
"Works for me," said Jack.
"Any chance you could let me, er, be with my coital partner?" said Ianto.
"Oh, of course! Do forgive me. Open coffee bar, please."
Two-thirds of the bar vanished and Ianto was in Jack's arms. "Jack—"
"I love you."
Ianto stopped short. "That didn't need saying," he said, searching Jack's eyes.
"Yes, it did," said Jack.
"How do you know it's the real me?"
"I just know...." But then Jack pulled back, eyes narrowing. "Ever heard of a broad called Siriath?"
"Not that I know of. Why?"
"You sure you never heard of a Welsh demon called Siriath? Keeper of the dead, or something?"
"No. You sure it wasn't an alien posing as a demon? It's happened before."
"More like an alien who became the demon. But really, you never heard of Siriath?"
"Jack – if you are Jack, that is – why are you ... oh, wait.... You don't mean Cyhyraeth, do you?"
"Some sort of Welsh legend about a hideous woman that moans when people die. Never really did believe in that sort of thing—"
Jack put a finger on Ianto's lips. And then his face changed and he turned Ianto's head slightly to the left. "You still have a scar," he murmured, tracing it.
"From the Hub explosion," said Ianto, cupping Jack's hand.
"I missed you so much."
The kiss should have been awkward after all that had happened between them. It should have hurt, but in an awkward, I-don't-know-you-anymore sort of way, not with such a deep, excruciating realisation of mutual love and grief. It was beautiful and horrible and everything that Ianto had ever needed in his vastly interrupted life. He hung on shamelessly, because he thought he would never be able to let go of it, and because Jack was doing the same.
When they pulled apart just enough to breathe and gaze at each other, Ianto touched Jack's face. "Thank you for finding me."