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.”
“Yes, I am.”
“You said you’d be naked! What happened?”
“They clothed me for the bidding war. They were supposed to let me wear clothes all the time, but some of the patrons complained.”
“At least they gave you some shade.” Jack cupped Ianto’s unscarred cheek. “Are you okay?” He wasn’t sure how much longer he could stand this, or even stand up.
“I honestly don’t know.” Ianto searched Jack’s eyes. “What do we do now?”
The hollow fear in Ianto’s voice annihilated any doubt left in Jack’s mind and made him want to run away as far and as fast as he could. “We go home.”
“Isn’t everyone I ever knew dead? Except you?”
Jack hoped the way he was holding Ianto still soothed him after all the space-time that had passed since they last saw each other. “At this moment, in this place … yes.”
Time and space stretched between them, thousands of parsecs stranding them apart as Ianto stood in Jack’s loose embrace whilst that look of recognising just how small a thing one is marched hobnailed across his face. “Then where is home?”
“It’s wherever and whenever you want it to be.” The last few words barely escaped Jack’s mouth, much to his dismay.
“Cardiff in 2009 might be nice….”
Jack shook his head, hoping the tears weren’t spilling out too sloppily onto … “Is that a technog suit?”
“Yup. Only thing they could find on short notice.”
“We had an unfortunate incident with our fabricators,” said the female-phasing Lodan that had just freed Ianto.
“And you are…?”
“Haniyar pen-E Marchantithan,” said Ianto. “Apologies for my rudeness in not introducing you earlier, Ma-Am.”
“The cause is more than sufficient, Mister Jones.”
“Mutual respect,” said Jack, trying not to crick his neck too obviously at her height whilst looking her directly in the eye. “You must be really important, Ianto.”
“Ianto Jones is important,” Haniyar replied, briskly. “It is time to retire to the Her Royal Imperator’s enclosure. We have little time remaining…”
“It’s true,” said Ianto before Jack could respond. “Penny gets a bit … impatient after dark.”
“You’re on awfully friendly terms with the Royal Imperator of the Crucible of Gondwana,” said Jack, peering into Ianto’s face. He looked back up at Haniyar pen-whatever.
“It’s … complicated,” Ianto replied. “And it would be better if we saved this for later.” He tugged at Jack without so much as a movement.
Jack went along, not even thinking about how this had always happened between them.
Jack and Penny hit it off immediately. Brooding in the luxury nest to which Flatt – Lord Flatt – directed him whilst his lover chatted with his protector in a language he couldn’t understand without the Babel fish in his ear, Ianto couldn’t help but feel abandoned again. More so than he had when he’d first awakened under the warm, feathered body of a giant, wingless, slightly insane bird in a zoo so far out in the universe that he had no idea where or when he was. At least when he'd woken up here on Solaxis, he'd had the benefit of knowing he'd never see anyone he knew again whilst hoping against hope that he would.
Now that Jack was here, all those hollow things from Torchwood came rushing back, pouring into him with none of the hope he'd once had of making a difference, having some meaning, having a life. But it had all been futile, anyway. From his first days at Torchwood, he'd known he would die young. Everybody did, except Jack. And it wasn't for lack of trying, in Jack's case.
Well, perhaps that was a bit unfair. Jack didn't try to die, as a rule. Just that last day at the Hub. Fucking git let himself be blown to bits by a bomb that took out half of Mermaid Quay and everything that had been the Hub and their work and all their lives, and he hadn't even let Ianto die with him. It would have been better to die with Jack, atoms intermingling, than be killed by a vomiting mass of entitled, putrefying, addicted flesh named for the radio frequency by which it extorted the Earth out of ten per cent of its children.
Ianto couldn't think about Jack saying, "I love you." It was too surreal and painful. It had been so long since he'd let himself think about Earth, especially those last few days of his life there, that the weight of it coming back all in one go was almost too much to bear. He didn't let himself go back before that, unless it was way back to before Tosh died. Before Owen died. Before Owen died for the first time. That, he could manage. He could think about Gwen's complex obsession with Torchwood and Rhys butting antlers with Jack. He could think about Owen's fragile cruelty and Tosh's fragile kindness.
He couldn't think too hard about Jack, or about that first kiss an hour or three ago. Such a stupid thing after he'd spent every bit of the money he'd won and earned selling coffee at the zoo on hiring Zabbio, the most highly decorated and recommended mercenary agent in the universe, to find the man. And oh, that kiss!
Oh, god, that fucking kiss. How the bloody fuck was he ever going to deal with that and the "I love you" thing?
He found himself wishing that he could just curl up under Penny and cry himself to sleep, as he'd done so many times over the past Solaxian moonth and a bit. He always tried not to wet her feathers, but she always seemed to know what was up and how to move so that he felt protected and noticed. Maybe he should stay here. Maybe he should call Solaxis his home for the rest of his life. Not that he knew how long that would be. Then again, Penny would probably prefer to spend her nights with Flatt. He hadn't known they were consorts and preferred not to think too hard about that.
So how was he going to get home? He'd have to sell an awful lot of coffee and participate in about ten times as many dares as he'd had to manage before in order to pay Zabbio for a ride, but then where and when would he end up? And how old would he be before he could even commission Zabbio? And who would recognise him if he did return to Cardiff? Rhiannon would surely be dead. Earth? Earth would be burnt to a cinder from climate change or some fucking Dalek attack. Or maybe the 456 took all the children after all and sucked them dry, so humanity died out.
Except there was Jack. Jack from the fifty-first century whose DNA always tested at least mostly human. So humanity had to be out there somewhere, cobbling together an existence as best it could or being kept in distant zoos. If he could find some chocolate, he could probably make enough money to hire Zabbio in about a quarter the time—
"Penny for your thoughts..."
Ianto jumped at hearing Jack almost simultaneously through the Babel fish and his regular hearing channels. "N-nothing. Just wonderin' how to get home. Know where I can find some chocolate?"
"Chocolate?" Jack's affectionate laugh nearly broke Ianto.
"Well, if the coffee's this popular, imagine what people would pay for chocolate!"
"Chocolate's an illegal intoxicant on ninety per cent of inhabited planets." Jack leaned in, his breath brushing Ianto's ear in that unbearable mix of eroticism and forbidden feeling. "You don't want to know how much and what parts of your body it would cost you to get a license."
His dick's near-instant change of state from soft to hard, both unexpected and not altogether pleasant, made Ianto reel in a way that reminded him far too much of the last time he fell down in London. He grasped fistfuls of Jack's clothing and clenched until his knuckles turned white and directed his mouth to Jack's ear. "I am not going to fuck you in full view of the Imperator or my Gondwanan mum, or whoever the bloody fuck she is," he murmured between teeth clenched against the pain and faintness.
"Trust me," said Jack. "Just say, 'Walls, please'."
"Can't trust my voice...."
"You can say it as quietly as you like, but it has to be you." Jack's voice and scent and breath and weight against him were more than Ianto knew how to bear.
"Walls, please," said Ianto, though the tight, fractured whisper he heard didn't sound like him at all.
In less than a second, the sky vanished and there was a high dome enclosing the entire nest.
The feel of Jack removing clothes – his own, Ianto's – whilst they were locked mouth to mouth like teens grabbing a desperate shag behind a shed on the way to school was something Ianto hadn't counted on. Even though he wasn't sure he'd survive it, he wanted it more than anything he'd ever conceived in all the definitions of 'want' he'd explored or imagined. He watched as his hands moved as though on their own to undo fastenings he hadn't seen before. "Where's the coat?" he heard his voice say, as his fingers opened a section of Jack's upper body covering and dove toward that glorious skin.
"Zabbio's ship," said Jack into Ianto's mouth, tongue using Ianto's teeth and lips to help make the sounds.
Ianto groaned as his dick expanded impossibly at the familiarity he'd never thought he'd experience again. "What happens," he asked against Jack's still-perfect lips, "if I say 'naked, please' right about now?"
All their clothes disappeared.
Jack grinned. "I thought you'd never ask!"
They dove into each other, entwining limbs and torsos, hardness to hardness, mouth to mouth, a frenzied rekindling of skin Ianto had thought no longer served a purpose other than to keep his organs from falling out. He was shameless about it, barely noticing that Jack was, too. "Lube, please," he managed, when Jack started to insert a finger into him. He was more surprised and taken aback than he should have been when a bottle of it materialized in his hand. "Who..."
"You," Jack rasped. He paused to cup Ianto's face. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Don't want to hurt you, either." Ianto kissed Jack as he tried to open the bottle with shaking fingers.
"Let me," said Jack, stilling Ianto's hand and taking the bottle. He poured some liquid onto Ianto's fingers and held them steady. "Just think about where you're putting that and what you want it to do while you're putting it there," he said.
Ianto froze and blinked. "You mean..."
Ianto growled and dove for Jack's mouth as his hand went where his dick wanted so desperately to be. He also found himself very glad of all those 'innovative' sessions Jack had initiated, testing his limits to the extreme and expanding them in ways he'd never imagined possible. Listening to Jack gasp and feeling him squirm as he, Ianto, inserted fingers and lube into Jack's hole was a harder test than anything he'd experienced. "I'm not going to last," he said, regretfully.
"It's okay," said Jack, stroking Ianto's hair. "I'm ready."
"Trust me. I'm so ready." There was a plea in his eyes and body and voice that made Ianto even harder.
"So'm I." Ianto kissed Jack and positioned himself, gasping as he started to guide himself into Jack's opening.
"It's okay," gasped Jack. "You can go as fast as you want. I'll be fine."
Ianto slammed into Jack, crying out as Jack did, incapable of thought or speech. He listened to Jack's cries, hoping he could pull out if necessary, but Jack was speaking in a language that Ianto either couldn't understand or that the Babel fish wouldn't interpret.
But Jack was grasping, clawing desperately, leveraging every centimetre of skin and sinew to pull Ianto further in and matching his thrusts to meet him every time, every bit as urgently as Ianto needed and wanted.
Ianto wanted this to go on forever, but the years of deprivation – millennia, it felt like – took over and before he could even think to stem the rush of his oncoming climax, the orgasm hit him and he was pouring himself into Jack as he felt Jack come against his belly.
After wave upon wave of aftershock, Ianto's erection finally began to subside, though he didn't feel that awful sensitivity that happened after every climax. He thrust experimentally. "Is that...?"
"Yeah," said Jack, with a very satisfied and still-lascivious grin. "Isn't this stuff great?"
"Oh, yeah." Ianto leant down to bury his tongue in Jack's mouth. "They'll let us take some of it home, yeah?"
"As much as you want, whenever you want it," said Jack, pulling Ianto down into his arms.
"You okay if I stay inside you for a bit?"
Jack flexed underneath Ianto to pull him in a little further, making his still half hard dick twitch. "I thought you'd never ask." He stroked Ianto's face.
Ianto kissed his palm.
"You have a tan."
"Started out as a burn."
"They treated that, right? I mean at the cellular level. Because—"
"Yes. At least, in the sense that every cell in my skin hurt."
Jack's smile spread from cheekbone to cheekbone. "I never thought I'd hear you complain again."
Ianto kissed the moisture gathering in Jack's eyes. "I've saved a lot of it up." His eyes started to close without permission. "Sorry. Can't seem to stay awake." The last thing he heard was Jack calling his name. The last thing he felt was Jack's over-protective embrace.
The voice was faint, but Jack would have heard it from a thousand metres away in a stiff wind. He turned away from Her Royal Imperator Vanemah Trinoq Pen-E, Lord Flatt of Gondwana, Haniyar, six technogs and the security guard who'd just been ordered to stop restraining him and dropped to Ianto's side within three seconds. "Ianto?"
"I—" Ianto swallowed and gagged. "I think so," he managed.
"You'll be all right," said Jack, hoping that he wasn't lying. The fact that Ianto hadn't vomited was a promising sign, but Ianto hardly ever did that, anyway. "Just lie still for a few more minutes and don't talk. Really, don't talk this time."
Ianto's eyes widened.
Jack kicked himself. "You haven't had another encounter with the 456," he said, intercepting the panic. "You've just had an allergic reaction."
Ianto's eyes widened more.
"Not to the lube," Jack said, as quietly as he could. "At least, not primarily to that."
Ianto's confusion started to turn into a frown. His skin still matched the colour of his eyes, but Jack could just start to detect a trace of pink underneath. At least, he hoped it was that and not a full-body haematoma. He also hoped that Ianto wouldn't discover his skin's current state too soon.
"You're allergic to Solaxis," said Jack, "or something on it. We're not sure what, yet." This he directed murderously at Haniyar and the technogs.
Ianto caught sight of his hand and attempted a gesture at Jack, but he couldn't manage more than a twitch and a small flail.
"It's better than it was five minutes ago...."
Even with no more than ten per cent control of his voluntary nervous system, Ianto possessed the best accusatory glare in the universe.
Jack knew better than to laugh, but he couldn't stop himself from grinning. "Really, you are getting better. I've seen people with reactions like this who – you ... don't want to know yet."
Ianto started to—
"Don't roll your eyes!" Jack calmed himself. "Trust me. Give it another ten minutes. And that's because you're an expert eye-roller with a strong stomach," he added at Ianto's rebellious stare. "The rest of us would need an hour."
Ianto held Jack's gaze with the barest hint of self-satisfaction as his skin pinked up a little more.
There was a noise at the entrance to the royal enclosure and Jack turned to see the Blowfish he'd noticed acting as Ianto's assistant at the coffee stand. The fish was struggling with a guard and a zookeeper whose uniform seemed freshly shredded.
"I must see Ianto Jones," the Blowfish said in perfect English.
"What business do you have with him?" said Jack, striding towards the fray.
"He is my friend!"
The genuineness in the Blowfish's direct response made Jack notice the cruel scars on his gill cover and the missing crest spines. "Let him go," he said to the guard and the keeper. "But you must ask Her Royal Imperator for permission to enter," he added to the Blowfish, "and tell me your name. Not in that order."
"They call me Gills."
"Your shoal cast you out, didn't they?"
"Because I told them we should stop plundering and start trading with other planets and I failed to mention a coffee grove planted five thousand light years from Earth, Captain Harkness."
"I was there," Gills murmured, quietly enough that nobody but Jack could hear him. "I hid whilst you planted the seeds and poured the green slime over them." He came closer. "And then you discovered me and told me to watch for Ianto Jones when you drugged me."
Haniyar turned just then, affable smile fading when she caught sight of Gills. "I am so sorry, Captain Harkness," she said, striding towards them. "Keeper one three seven to the royal enclosure immediately, please. Entrance one-A."
"Retcon only makes it hard for me to breathe," said Gills into Jack's ear. "It does nothing to my memory."
"That won't be necessary," said Jack to Haniyar. "Gills wants to see Ianto and he needs to ask Penny for permission to enter."
"Certainly not! The Blowfish is serving a sentence here for—"
"I can only imagine!" Jack sidled towards Haniyar. "But he did help Ianto to start his coffee ... display, right? I mean, who do you think discovered that plantation in your dump?"
"You didn't think Ianto would've gone into that thicket by himself without any clothes on for the fun of it, did you?"
"The Blowfish did!"
Jack gave Haniyar a look.
"It took the vets three days and twenty-six vials of ointment to treat his wounds," she muttered.
Jack turned reflexively toward Gills and noticed the characteristic discolouration of the digits caused by shale-based oil. He whirled on Haniyar. "You need a better medical staff," he said between clenched teeth.
Haniyar's face hardened and changed colour and shape as she loomed over Jack. "And you should have known that using MagnaGreen on soil you've just formed with OmniZolv causes a ninety per cent uptake of metals in any plants grown in said soil for the next twenty Solaxian years," she hissed back. "Fortunately, the Blowfish's flavour enhancer is a chelating agent. Unfortunately, Mr Jones never put any of it in his own coffee!"
"Does your employer know you're in your fourth phase shift?" said Jack, trying to ignore the heat of shame colouring his face.
Haniyar deflated, returning to her shapely proportions whilst keeping an extra inch of height. "Not yet. There hasn't been time."
Jack pulled a DNA chip from his wrist strap. "You know what this is?"
Haniyar's eyes widened for a second and narrowed. "Yes," she said, sharply.
"The person it alerts will take you anywhere in the galaxy within two minutes."
"For how much?"
Jack shrugged. "You may have to kiss him, but disarm him first and make sure he's not wearing anything on his lips."
"Why would you let me have this?"
"Because that Blowfish helped save Ianto's life and he's dying. He needs to get off Solaxis now. And so does Ianto."
"What about Penny?" Haniyar sounded almost forlorn, something Jack hadn't expected.
"She's the Royal Imperator of Gondwana! You think she doesn't know about your reproductive cycle?"
Haniyar blushed grey.
Jack shook his head. "Lodans ... you're worse than Vulcans, and they wouldn't exist without Gondwana, either. None of us would! Except mosquitoes."
"Mosquitoes..." Haniyar's tremor rattled her inner scales so hard that Jack glanced around to make sure nobody had heard it.
"So what do you say – do we have a deal?"
"I will make the arrangements," said Haniyar.
Jack held the chip up towards her, startled when she blocked it with her hand.
"You should know that I began making arrangements for Ianto Jones to be released immediately upon seeing his altered skin colour."
"Thank you for telling me," said Jack, sorely tempted to keep the chip. He sighed and offered it up again. "Take it."
"Why would you do this?"
"Because I once knew another Lodan in your situation. What happened to him wasn't pretty."
"This is too high a price to pay for the Blowfish."
"Yeah, but take it, anyway. Ianto would want that."
"I'll repay you if it takes ten more shifts!"
Jack slapped the thing into her hand. "Just pay it forward!" He turned on his heel and stalked off towards Ianto, wondering when he'd lost his mind.
"Zylanium," said Ianto from the narrow camp bed on which Jack had installed him.
"I should have known," said Jack, stowing the egg-shaped case Flatt had given Ianto. "Nothing else is that exact shade of blue."
"And it's a metal native to Solaxis...."
"Yup. Used to make jewellery, makeup, temperature gauges, stuff the Shadow Proclamation forbids me from mentioning until we're a thousand light years from Solaxis – or back on Earth, whichever comes first – and psycho-active lube," said Jack.
Ianto knew something was wrong when Jack's leer didn't happen. "I thought you said I didn't react to the lube."
"You didn't." Jack shut the luggage compartment. "It's safe as long as it doesn't mix with stomach acid."
"So it was ... in my food?"
"It was in the coffee."
Ianto sat bolt upright. "You mean I poisoned all my customers?"
"No! No, you didn't. For one thing, that stuff Gills has a stash of – Perfect, he calls it, right?"
"Well, that chelates soft metals like zylanium."
"So they can't interact with blood or vital organs on the way through the body," said Ianto. "And ... I never used the stuff because it didn't make the coffee taste any different to me."
"That's not the worst of it," said Jack, folding his arms.
Ianto felt his face start to fall. "Am I going to die again sometime soon?"
"NO!" Jack took a breath and couldn't seem to figure out what to do with it. "Ianto, it's my fault."
"Which? The 456 or the zylanium?"
"Both," said Jack miserably, every bit as tense as he'd been in that bloody warehouse before they went to meet the 456.
"What did you do, plant the—you planted the coffee, didn't you?"
"What, was it supposed to be some sort of signal? 'Oh, hi, Ianto, Jack was here and he says hello'? Did you plant a smiley? I hate smileys!"
"No! I planted it because Zabbio let me taste its coffee so I'd believe you were the real Ianto Jones."
Ianto lay back down on the bed. "I fucking hate time travel." He tried to shield his eyes, but that just made him dizzier. "So you knew that coffee didn't grow naturally on Solaxis and you planted coffee because Mercenary Agent Zabbio gave you my tie and fucked up my name."
"In a nutshell, yeah."
"And you knew that I'd turn blue and die from drinking the coffee you put there and didn't think to leave a note?"
"I thought Gills would tell you. I told him to look out for you after I retconned him."
"Post-retcon suggestion doesn't seem to work on Blowfish," said Ianto, trying to suss whether or not it was safe to open his eyes.
"Turns out retcon doesn't work on Gills at all, unless you want to impair his breathing," said Jack. "But it's worse."
"Out with it," said Ianto, resigning himself to whatever horror Jack might have in store.
"To make the soil friable I had to dissolve the bedrock."
"And I didn't have a lot of time to plant the beans or establish the plants, so—"
"Coffee isn't usually propagated from beans."
"Yeah, well, Zabbio didn't exactly have a bunch of cuttings lying around, and I couldn't tell it I had to go plant the coffee so you could discover it and make the stuff it was drinking."
"Of course not. How stupid of me."
Jack sighed very loudly. "Anyway, I had to get the beans to grow, so I used MagnaGreen, which is usually harmless but when combined with the OmniZolv—"
"Sets up a reaction that leaches Zylanium out of the dissolved rock and lets anything growing in it take it up. Got it."
"And I had to get back here with the NavComp I acquired—"
"Liberated from a Blowfish stealth transport – WHAT? They had twelve that were bound for the Black Market Awards festival!"
"Ah. Carry on, then."
"Well, that's about it, isn't it? I had to get back here so Zabbio's ship could get us to Solaxis. Well, most of the way. We got a little help from the space whales."
"Were they related to that one we—"
"Yes. And they passed along their gratitude to you – all of us – for easing her passing."
Ianto nodded. The horror of that incident was far more recent to him than it must have been to Jack. And why did awful things always seem to happen in warehouses? "Funny you should mention space whales. One of my customers – DorEeq – was quite fond of them. Ze came to the counter one day whilst I was setting up and ordered all the coffee I had for the day. No Perfect, nothing to go with it, just every drop of coffee I'd make before closing. Ze kept pouring it into a flask that couldn't have held more than a pint. Said it was for the whales and paid me three times the price because the other customers started trying to attack me for selling out so early. What would whales want with coffee?"
"It ... mellows them out. Speaking of, that customer of yours—"
"Was a mule, wasn't ze?"
"Yup. And that explains how they knew the scent to waft into this ship when they were protecting Zabbio and me," said Jack. He sat down on the bed, perching near Ianto's feet. "They want to meet you, you know. I promised to introduce you, if I found you."
"Which you did," said Ianto. The bed was so small it didn't take much to find Jack's hand. He was glad to feel Jack accepting the invitation. This was new between them, he realised. "How long—"
The crash from the flight deck was followed by a yelp, what sounded like stiff broom bristles on a set of out-of-tune cymbals, and a noise from Gills that Ianto classified as a curse. He was on his feet in seconds, even though Jack had to help him stay vertical as he stumbled through the doorway. He was happy to note that at least his skin was violet now, instead of cerulean.
"Hey!" Jack shouted into the fray.
At first, Ianto couldn't quite parse exactly how Zabbio and Gills were entangled, but it didn't look pleasurable. He could determine that the bristles-on-cymbals sound was coming from Zabbio, who appeared to have inserted three of its limbs into Gills' mouth and gills.
The Blowfish, on the other hand, had his hands around Zabbio's – well, the junction between the head and the rest of its body.
"Knock it off!" Jack had an olive-green egg about the size of a medium gobstopper in his hand. It was pulsating.
Zabbio and Gills froze.
"Good choice! Now retract all limbs and digits and put them back where they belong!"
"They belong in the Blowfish's air sacs," Zabbio snarled, its voice even more metallic than usual. Ianto found the change quite striking in combination with Zabbio's now jet-black scales.
"And this vile thing must be crushed and fed alive and writhing to the Serpent of Groll for what it has done!"
"And both of you will be dying in agony if she hatches, which will happen in – oh, look! Three, two, one—"
There was a horrible noise of slime and shifting air sacs and a scream from Gills that Ianto never imagined possible as Zabbio's forelimbs withdrew with great roughness from Gills' breathing cavities.
Ianto fixed his eyes on the egg Jack was holding. Its pulsation had slowed almost to a halt.
"Good. Now if we all just think kind, calm thoughts, she'll go back to sleep and I can put her in stasis where she belongs. So smile. No, really: smile. Like your life depends on it, which it does."
The spectacle of Gills attempting to lift his lips into something that could pass for a smile made Ianto start to prepare himself for the inevitable again. He barely noticed Zabbio shifting colour to aqua.
"I said like you mean it," said Jack, staring pointedly at Zabbio.
Zabbio's scales drooped as its colour shifted to orange.
The egg in Jack's hand stopped pulsating, elongated itself and curled around like a tiny puppy. It emitted a sound most like a high-pitched sigh and seemed to go dormant.
"Okay," said Jack, very quietly. "I'm going to put her in her stasis box, and then we're going to talk about the fact that thanks to you two, we now have only five Solaxian days to get to Rio."
Judging by the expressions on all the faces in the room, Ianto thought it wise to prepare for the worst. God, how he'd missed this! As he followed Jack to their quarters, he couldn't help but notice the despair in Gills' eyes. "What happened?" he mouthed, as Jack stroked the creature in his hand before putting her in a silk pouch and then into a clear box. Ianto couldn't tell what it was made of.
"We need to let her settle before putting her in the dark," Jack murmured.
"So, quiet voices, then...."
"How long does it really take to get to Rio? And is it on Earth?"
"In Solaxian terms? About ... you don't wanna know."
"Yes, I do."
Ianto felt his eyes widen. "Solaxian or Earth weeks?"
The expression on Jack's face said enough that Ianto joined him in saying, "Solaxian."
"Fuck." Ianto sat down on the bed, noting absently that his skin was now a sort of blotchy, livid pink. At least he'd be his normal colour when the end came. "So whose fault was that fracas out there and can I kill him or it?"
"I don't know, and probably not," said Jack. "Right now, I have to figure out how to get to Rio on time. And no, this isn't the one on Earth, which is good because you do not want her on Earth."
"Too many quarrels?"
"Yup. And too many loud voices."
"What's she called and will we disturb her if we fight?"
"She won't have a name until she emerges, and you don't want to be within range when she shouts it."
"Oh, so she's a sonic weapon, then?"
Jack nodded. "Any living thing within a light hour of her when she names herself will be atomized. Twelve transport ships, three planets and a large moon were sterilised by members of her family."
"And ... we came how close to being killed just now?"
Jack shrugged. "Three or four seconds."
"And you brought her along because...?"
"Penny gave her to me. I have a client who will forgive me a debt I owe if I give her this creature as a gift."
"So you're back to sub-legal trading again, then...." Ianto didn't know why his stomach chose that moment to fall through the floor, rather than all the ones in the past few minutes where he was about to be killed.
"Not really," said Jack, an edge in his voice. "It's completely legal to sell what I sell in all but the most backward areas of the universe."
"Sex, you mean," said Ianto, trying not to be 'backward'.
"Yeah," said Jack, "which is why I need to pay off this client now because Zabbio interrupted that transaction with news that you were alive, and she was not at all pleased."
"That I was alive?"
"That a Vlakkin entered the room and had business that interrupted her time with me. She left before I was given the news."
Jack sighed with a frustrated, pissed-off expression. "The point is, she has the right to exact the price for her inconvenience, both emotional and physical, from my body, if she so chooses. This little girl," he stroked the containment box, "is worth more than three galaxies."
"And what will your client do to her?"
That brought Jack up short. "Not my problem," he said at last.
In less than a second, Jack was in Ianto's face, bending over him – looming in a way that Ianto had chosen to forget, though he wasn't sure he'd ever seen Jack, the man he loved more than anyone, quite like this. "It's been two thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two years since I last saw you, Ianto Jones." He grasped Ianto's shoulder, pinning him by sheer force of personality, will and changed pheromone. "You do not want to know about the things I've had to do in that time."
Ianto recognised the brutish fragility in Jack's voice and grasped onto it so as not to think about two thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two years – or about the heart-drowning reminder that Jack would never really let him in. "All right," he said. "I'll ask when we don't have a lethal puppy embryo in a stasis box. How do we get to Rio in five days? Space whales?"
Jack's face brightened. "Zabbio?" He ran out of the room, leaving Ianto to send soothing thoughts to the snoozing pupa in the box whilst wondering if he mightn't do better managing an actual hound of the Baskervilles.
Jack brooded as he tweaked the newly overhauled navigation and engine controls. Penny's intentions had been perfect, but Haniyar's technogs had misdirected or omitted a connection or three. He was glad to find the misaligned weapons links before anyone had used the toilet or stepped into the decontamination booth. From that point forward, he back-traced linkages from the added and refitted sleeping quarters – starting with Ianto's, where he found faults in the atmospheric controls affecting hydrogen, caesium and carbon monoxide levels. After adjusting those to what a 21st-century human could survive, he despatched a message to Penny's private service outlining the problem and suggesting that a healing holiday be granted to Haniyar at the earliest available opportunity. He didn't mention the phasing issue, but knew that it would come up in the subsequent discussion.
"So what happened between you and the Blowfish?" Jack thumbed a psychic receiver into its receptacle.
"There was a breakage," said Zabbio.
"What kind of breakage?"
"The fish was clumsy and fell."
Jack's eyes flicked sideways to catch Zabbio staring fixedly at the viewscreen. "Over what?"
"The fish fell over the chair." Zabbio's colour started to shift.
"What chair?" Jack asked.
"My chair," said Zabbio, its voice growing tinnier.
Jack pondered the geometry. "Which you moved all of a sudden because...?"
Zabbio bristled. "There was a malfunction in the atmospheric manifold. I arose to mend it, but there was a gust that blew the chair into the fish's path."
"Oh. Yeah, I noticed something in the manifold. Those technogs—"
"Ruined my ship!" Zabbio started to turn grey.
"Yeah, they didn't do the best job," said Jack, cultivating quiet tones. "But overall, they improved it. State-of-the-art navcomp, expanded quarters so you can carry more cargo or paying customers, better decor..."
"Everything must be redone!"
Jack sighed. "I know. I'm compiling a report for Penny. She'll make it right once Flatt gets her to leave Solaxis. The air there—"
"It destroys non-mammal brains!"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"I did not mean to destroy the fish's keepsake." Zabbio actually sounded regretful.
"Well, that's good," said Jack, yanking a stray fastener from the connection it was piercing and jamming. "Wait... What keepsake?"
"It was a hologram. I think it depicted another of his kind."
Jack stopped in mid-fix. "Where did he wear it?"
"It was implanted in his forelimb."
Jack nodded and finished disconnecting the starboard stabiliser from the airlock. "That was his mate."
Zabbio lowered its eyestalks in a gesture of contrition. "My life is forfeit."
"No," said Jack testily, "but you're going to have to make it right."
"By finding Gills' shoal and discovering what happened to his mate."
"His mate is dead," said Zabbio.
"No. If that were the case, the hologram would've been a picture tattooed on his crest."
"The fish's crest is damaged."
"Yeah, but then the hologram would've been torn out and the implant area burned." Jack aimed his wrist strap at the control panel, scanning it. "His mate's still alive and probably in trouble, which would explain why he was willing to bribe me to get off Solaxis even though he risks getting killed by his shoal."
At that moment, the scent of coffee filled the air.
"Prime Owns is making BitterBlack!"
"No I'm not," said Ianto, emerging from his quarters, "but I smell it too. Is that—"
"Space whales!" said Jack
"Frood Crush!" said Zabbio, a look of great pleasure on its face.
"Frood Zabbio and Frood Jack!" The voice boomed inside Jack's head.
"Ah!" The voice from across the room was faint, but its pain wasn't.
"Ianto!" Jack caught him as he started to crumple under the pressure of Crush's mind voice.
"You found Ianto Jones," Crush intoned, making the new accoutrements in the flight deck shake.
"Yeah, and you're killing him," said Jack, as Ianto's ear started to bleed against him. "Lower your voice!"
"Sorry. I thought I was totally quiet," said Crush, lowering his pressure. "And this is as low as I go, I'm afraid. Cool new look, Frood Zabbio! Only it looks like it wasn't installed all the way."
Ianto writhed in Jack's arms.
"No, it wasn't," said Jack. "And we've got a major favour to ask. But can we switch so you're just talking to me? I can't protect Ianto from your psychic pressure."
"Done," said Crush, only in Jack's mind as Ianto went limp. "And please convey my apologies to Frood Ianto Jones."
"Thank you, Crush," said Jack out loud. "Ianto? You okay?"
"Feel like my brain's been blended," said Ianto.
"It'll pass," said Jack as softly as he could. "And we'll fix the ship's psionic receptors," he added, trying not to fume.
Ianto nodded and started to shift away. "I can stand."
"Give it another minute." Jack stroked Ianto's arm.
"Frood Jack," said Crush in Jack's mind, "how can we help?"
"We need to get to Rio in less than five Solaxian days," said Jack aloud. "And we have a Gondwanan Crucible Herald in accelerated metamorphosis, so it's urgent. She's in stasis, but..."
"Frood, say no more. Hop in to my mouth."
"Thanks, Crush! We owe you one." Jack gave Ianto a quick squeeze. "Ever been in a space whale's mouth?"
Jack grinned. "It's the only way to fly!"
Travelling in a whale's mouth hadn't been in Ianto's imagination since he first heard the story of Jonah. The one in the bible, not the one on Flat Holm. Everything was so smooth and quiet that he began to think he was dreaming. It was disorientating and not exactly the sort of thing he enjoyed contemplating. Of course, 'disorientating' also described waking up thousands of light years from Earth after having been properly killed by alien snot-lobsters in London and being found by one's immortal lover to whom one had written a note in blood on one's favourite death-tie.
Said lover was busy helping a hexagon-faced mercenary who changed colour according to mood to reconfigure psionic pressure receptors – whatever the fuck those were – and Ianto was lonely. And that was how he found himself at an even lonelier door. "Gills? Can I come in?"
"I cannot stop you," said a bitter voice from within.
Ianto weighed the options for about two seconds before entering to find Gills lying on the bare sleeping platform, fully clothed and ramrod straight. "How far away should I stay from you?"
"Out of arm's reach."
"No problem. I ... couldn't help overhearing some of the conversation after you left...."
"You listened through the door."
"It is what you do." Gills bit back whatever else he was going to say.
"Tell me about her ... him ... them ... your mate."
For a long while, Gills was silent, eyes open and staring into pain. "We bonded as hatchlings in the communal nest," he said at last. "Our link was strong and angered some of the bigger members of it. She was so bright...." His voice trailed off, high and unsteady. "We were formalised at a Black Market Festival in the Sea of Gold. She felt as I did, preferring trade to theft, so we began to build a secret business selling goods and weapons we made from things we found or caught.
"When word came that we were discovered, she was gravid with our offspring. I told the Ultra that I had forced her to comply with my wishes so she would not be expelled from the shoal and our offspring would be protected and raised in the traditions of our species. When the Ultra began to rip my fins and gill covers, I spat on her so she would join them. She tore away the skin where her memory would be etched if she were killed. The last time I saw her eyes, they were dim." Gills' own eyes became blank.
"I ... can't imagine what you went through."
Gills' head shifted slightly in Ianto's direction. "I think you can."
"I heard you dream at the zoo. I know about your female mate."
"That was different," said Ianto.
"Not to you."
Ianto hated honesty much of the time, even as he craved it. "That's true," he said at last.
As a silence stretched between them, Gills began a smile that spread to Ianto and they both laughed sotto voce.
Ianto's colour returned to normal at the next morning cycle, along with his libido. Sinking into Jack felt so natural and necessary that he wondered how he'd ever done without. He wasn't even all that surprised when he stayed hard after coming.
"You know," said Jack, "if you're up for it," he pushed pointedly back onto Ianto's dick, "I wouldn't mind coming inside you."
"Oh, god," said Ianto, thrusting involuntarily into Jack as his cock twitched in anticipation. "I thought you'd never ask." He held tight against Jack's back to calm himself enough to withdraw.
Jack twisted for a long kiss, languid despite his ultra-heated, unsated hardness.
"I could come again just from you doing that," said Ianto into the kiss.
"Then you'll love this," said Jack, brandishing a small, pink bead.
"More alien lube?"
"Yes. And guaranteed safe for humans. You ready?"
"Oh, yeah," Ianto growled against Jack's lips.
Jack's grin was predatory as he placed the bead ostentatiously in his own slit. "Really, you're gonna love this." He positioned himself at Ianto's hole, pausing as his eyes asked silent permission.
Ianto nodded and braced himself for ... "Oh!"
Jack paused, tip barely touching the first ring of muscle as he bent down to suck on a nipple in the way that always made Ianto lose control.
"Fuck, Jack!" Ianto was glad that they'd fixed and enhanced the privacy screens in all the guest quarters – especially the sound dampeners.
"Mm-hmm." Jack kissed his way up Ianto's neck. "Bear down," he murmured just under Ianto's left ear.
Ianto was too aroused to care how much it hurt as he all but impaled himself on Jack's dick. But instead of pain, there was a rush of heat and slick as they slid together and Jack's face transformed into ecstasy.
"Ianto!" Jack whispered it as though trying not to let it go.
The feel of Jack's long dick sliding along his prostate again and again was something Ianto had thought gone forever – and something he never again wanted to be without. He writhed against Jack, focusing on the feeling inside his body to the point where his second orgasm blindsided him as he cried out Jack's name.
Jack followed seconds later, his own climax lasting far longer than Ianto had remembered happening before.
They clung to each other, unwilling to part even as dicks softened and became sensitive. But then it was too much and Jack pulled out, wincing.
Ianto expected Jack to leave just then. It was normal between them for one of them to get up after sex and go have a wash. He forgot who'd started it, but Jack liked his space, especially after such intense intimacy.
When Jack didn't move, Ianto kissed him and started to get up, only to feel Jack latch harder onto him. "Stay." It was achingly quiet, even though they were both still catching their breath.
"For as long as you want," said Ianto, when his voice was steady enough.
"Froods," said Crush's mind-voice.
Ianto was glad the psionic receptors had been adjusted so he could hear the space whales without his head exploding. "Hello, Crush."
"Frood Ianto Jones! It is an honour to converse directly with you. Thanks for the coffee!"
"Any time," said Ianto. "What can we do for you?"
"I hate to ruin your morning, but someone from Rio just pulled alongside for Frood Jack. And she is royally pissed off!"
"I ... never thought I'd hear a space whale say those words," said Ianto.
"That's Zaphod's influence," said Jack against Ianto's chest. "Lemme guess," he said, turning his face towards the air without breaking contact, "small but swanky transport with light-speed capability but no time travel and built for—"
"She says she's Nakta 2-5 and she's here to collect what you owe her. And frood, she shot one of my kids!"
"Tell her I'll be right there," said Jack. He kissed Ianto with far more tenderness than expected. "I have to take this," he said, caressing Ianto's cheek. "And you have to stay off the flight deck because she'll kill all of us if she sees you."
"Alright," said Ianto.
Jack threw on his clothes and grabbed the pupa's stasis box.
"Do we have to give her to that ... whoever it is that would shoot a baby whale?"
Jack flashed him a grin. "Trust me," he said, and was gone.
"Crush, can you tell me what's happening?"
"Frood, I can show you! But all you'll see is spaceships and you won't be able to hear anything."
"That'll do," said Ianto. Without a screen in the room, he didn't have a credible idea of how he suddenly saw a transport – which was, indeed, 'swanky' – and a small seed-shaped thing facing off near a giant fluke, which he assumed belonged to Crush. To his surprise, when he craned his head around to try to gain greater perspective, the scene shifted and yielded more information. He could count six whales in the pod, three of whom seemed to be juveniles. One of those was bleeding fairly steadily into space.
"Crush! Will your child recover?"
"Yes." Crush's anxiety was palpable, even though he sounded certain.
"How can I help?"
"Do what Frood Jack said and bear witness to what's happening."
"I was thinking more along the lines of administering first aid," muttered Ianto.
"Noticing is first aid, Ianto Jones." Crush's space-hippy speech had been replaced with a deep, tense voice that suddenly sounded very alien.
Just then, the tiniest pinpoint of light peeked out from the seed-shaped thing.
"All passengers brace for impact!" This came from Zabbio through the sound system.
And then all the stars vanished from the room and Ianto was pretty sure he'd just left his head in another galaxy. "Where's Jack?" he asked after his brain almost came back.
"Right here," said Jack, as the door opened. "Did you miss me?"
"Oh, yeah," said Ianto, throwing himself into Jack's free arm and peering over his lover's shoulder at the flight deck, where Zabbio was picking a feather out of the flight controls.
Jack's other arm hosted a creature roughly the shape and size of a small ferret, though it looked more like an otter pup with feathers. "Meet Tezimah pen-E Trinoq, Royal Herald of the Crucible of Gondwana and the being who just saved all of our lives when she named herself."
"Er, Jack," said Ianto, "why are we all still alive?"
"Because Crush can warp space."
"I thought I felt a bit warped," said Ianto.
Jack crumpled over in a silent laugh.
"So ... can I leave this room, yet?"
"You should clothe yourself first," said Gills, poking his head around the door.
"Shit!" Ianto grabbed the first pair of trousers to reach his hand in the storage compartment. They were Jack's.
Zabbio hissed at Gills and Tezimah bristled at the tension between them.
"Shhh...." said Jack.
"I'm glad she didn't end up with Nakta 2-5," said Ianto.
Tezimah flitted across Jack's chest to settle onto Ianto's arm.
"Hello," said Ianto, as Tezimah climbed up to his shoulder and stretched across to search his face. It was a bit disconcerting when she rested her nose on the bridge of his, especially when he felt her enquiry in his mind.
"It's okay," said Jack softly. "Just roll with it."
After a long moment, Tezimah licked Ianto very fast seven times from the bridge of his nose to the centre of his forehead and groomed his eyebrows with her front teeth.
"Seven licks and a grooming: you are so in!" said Jack.
"It ... tickles," said Ianto, though he thought it was also intensely cute. And then he felt a different question. "Gills, I think she wants to talk to you."
Before Gills could respond, Tezimah leapt off Ianto's shoulder, spreading her forelimbs to reveal feathered membranes enabling her to glide into place on Gills' shoulder.
"It's alright," said Ianto. "It doesn't hurt."
"And I'll be obliged to kill you if you harm her," said Jack.
"I am aware of her position," said Gills.
For several minutes, all Tezimah did was sit on Gills' shoulder and look around the room. Her movements were gentle and deliberate.
As Gills began to relax, Ianto recognised for the first time just how much fear had plagued his friend during their acquaintance. He also noted that he was thinking of a Blowfish as a friend and wondered who he was and what had happened to Ianto Jones.
Tezimah put her tiny, feathered hand on Gills' cheek.
Gills began to tremble.
Tezimah licked Gills twice and nibbled his cheek ever so gently before gliding to Zabbio's forelimb and hissing.
"What is that creature doing?" it asked, fifth forelimb reaching for its internal weapons compartment.
Jack glared at it. "Zabbio, if you harm one feather on the Royal Herald—"
"You will destroy me unless I destroy you first," said Zabbio.
"No! No, no, no. Worse."
"Worse?" said Ianto.
"She's psychically linked to Penny," said Jack.
"Oh," said Ianto. "That would be worse, yeah."
"I do not see a difficulty with—"
"You'd have your mercenary status revoked," said Ianto.
"And your Agent license," said Gills, with a gleam in his eye.
"But that's just the beginning," said Jack. He loomed over Zabbio. "You'd be sent to Endless Beige.
Zabbio turned greige.
"Endless beige...." Ianto turned that over in his mind.
"Yes," said Jack. "Technically it's a life sentence, but really it's a slow execution."
"How's it done, exactly?" said Ianto.
"They dress you in beige. They put you in a confinement unit that's beige. All the furniture is beige and so's the food. There are no windows. All the wardens are beige underneath their beige uniforms. They're even bred to have completely beige eyes. They have to wear contact lenses on their days off so nobody knows what they do at work. Suicide's becoming pretty common amongst the Endless Beige workers."
"Imagine the prisoners don't like it much, either," said Ianto.
"You got that right," said Jack.
"I will not harm the Herald," said Zabbio.
"Good," said Jack. "Just let her do what she needs to do, and give her access to your mind. It's no use hiding from Penny, anyway."
"He's right about that," said Ianto.
Zabbio sighed, most loudly through its scales. "You have delineated case parameters adequately."
Tezimah contemplated Zabbio for a few seconds and then stuck her tongue under a scale near its ear.
About a minute in, Zabbio's hands started flying over the navigational controls. "Yes. No, that won't—Ah! Frood Crush, can you follow these coordinates?"
"No problem, Frood Zabbio. And thank you for healing my daughter, Froodette Tezimah."
Tezimah gave a brief, ear-splitting whistle that Ianto was pretty sure meant 'No problem, but don't call me 'Froodette' and glided to Jack's shoulder.
"Hi, beautiful," said Jack.
Tezimah cocked her head before sniffing Jack's ear and nibbling at it. And then she hopped onto Ianto's shoulder and yawned.
"She's tired," said Jack. "It's going to be a rough few days before she's finished emerging, and you're her Favoured One," he said, grinning at Ianto.
"If I start calling her Myfanwy, please shoot me."
"If you do that, I'm not the one you should worry about. Gondwanan Crucible Heralds are very fussy about their names, especially the royal ones!"
"Jack," said Ianto, nuzzling Jack's perfectly smooth chest skin after a round of mind-blowing sex, "why am I the favourite?"
Jack shrugged. "She likes you. And she's psychically linked to Penny, who loves you."
"But that's just it. Haniyar said that I was important but she couldn't tell me why. Why am I the favourite?"
"I don't know," said Jack, pulling Ianto a little closer and kissing his hair. "But you've had that effect on me for quite a long time."
Ianto kissed Jack tenderly. "You've been to a lot of trouble to find me."
"I wasn't the one who wrote a message in my own blood."
There was a knock on the door.
"What?" said Jack.
"We have reached the destination set forth by the Herald," said Zabbio. "Frood Crush says we must exit his mouth because this is a protected planet."
Jack frowned. "Space whales are allowed to go anywhere they want."
"Not when my people are amassing a battle shoal near protected territory." Gills came through the door. "We have reached Earth, Ianto."
"You okay?" said Jack.
"I ... don't know. What's Earth like right now? And ... when is right now? If we just warped space to get here, I have no idea how to calculate what century this is."
"Give us a minute," said Jack to Gills. "We'll be right out."
Gills closed the door.
Jack held Ianto close. "Right now, in the time system you used, this is 4731 CE, give or take a decade or two. Now what Gills doesn't know is that I can return us to sometime close to your time range, if that's what you still want."
"I thought the Doctor disabled your time travel capability."
"Yeah, that's complicated," said Jack. "That's why I can't guarantee exactly when you'd get back. Your death is a fixed point, so I can't make it un-happen. But remember those licks Tezimah gave you?"
"Who could forget?"
"Well, they amount to seven get-out-of-gaol-free cards so you can afford a mistake or six."
"That's ... unfathomable."
"And we can't just leave Earth to the mercies of a giant Blowfish battle shoal, can we?"
Jack grinned. "No, we can't!"
Ten minutes later, the Vlakkin mercenary ship was facing off against a sea of piscine battle cruisers, each one of which seemed to have a crewmember dedicated to insulting and bating the humans or anyone else who got in their way. The cacophony woke a very grumpy Tezimah, who began to puff herself out, making her still-growing feathers stick out like a colourful cactus.
"People of Earth," said a cold, female-sounding voice through Zabbio's communications array, "prepare to be taken as plunder under Article Twelve, Section Nine of the Black Market Accords. Resistance is useless."
"Mahri!" said Gills.
"What's that?" said Ianto.
"Mahri is my mate!"
"Jack, is there any way we could—"
"We have three minutes before they seize control of Earth," said Jack. "She doesn't sound like she wants to be reasoned with!"
"I must rescue her from her captors," said Gills, as alive and filled with purpose as Ianto had ever seen him.
"Zabbio," said Jack, "Can you home in on—"
"Already done," said Zabbio, its digits moving so fast over the control board that Ianto couldn't see them.
"Tezimah, you know that this is goodbye, right?" said Jack.
Tezimah deflated and leapt onto Ianto's shoulder, licking his face repeatedly.
"Penny would approve," said Jack, opening his wrist strap. "If I'm not back in two minutes or less, get the hell out of here as fast as you can," said Jack as he tapped his vortex manipulator and winked out of existence before Ianto could fuss.
Jack was back ten seconds later, a belligerent female Blowfish captive by his side. "Gills, Mahri. Mahri, Gills. Now here's the thing: If you want to detox your mate here, the safest place to do it is back on twenty-first century Earth, where Ianto kind of wants to go, maybe. You, I trust. Her? Not so much. So if you want to do this, understand that if she causes more trouble than your average homicidal drug addict, I'm going to have to end her. You got thirty seconds to make up your mind."
Mahri slipped out of Jack's grip and threw herself at Gills, who caught her in his arms and let her beat the tar out of him.
Ianto glanced at Tezimah, who seemed to be preening despite the loud voices.
"Right," said Jack. "Everyone who's coming with me, grab hold of me right now!"
The last thing Ianto saw of the 48th century was Zabbio waving a sad goodbye.
They landed in a heap outside the Norwegian church on Mermaid Quay. It was dark out, probably about 03:00 on a weeknight, judging by how quiet everything was. Ianto was surprised that Tezimah had chosen to come with them.
"What year is this?" said Ianto.
"It looks like 2019," said Jack. "So Torchwood is gone, the Rift is sealed and we're going to have to find a way to explain two alien Blowfish and one Ianto Jones coming back from the dead."
"Is Gwen still alive?"
"Yeah. She and Rhys are still alive. And they have a daughter. And for reasons that I can't get into, we can't go see them."
"What about my sister? Can we see her?"
"Maybe. But first we have to find a place to live."
"So we'd have to buy a house for an immortal, two Blowfish, a Gondwanan Crucible Herald and someone who died ten years ago by dawn?"
"Pretty much," said Jack.
"Perhaps I should use one of those get-out-of-gaol-free cards."
"Where and when would you like to go?"
Ianto's empty feeling hit him yet again. Hard. "I have no idea. Do you have any suggestions?"
Jack brightened and turned to Gills and Mahri. "Are you two still fighting?"
"Yes," said Mahri vehemently. "But I will not kill him."
"Okay, then I think we can try for New San Francisco in 4731. It's not Earth, but I think you'd like it, if you liked the Star Wars bar scene." Jack grinned. "Plus I have a place there."
"So we'd still have six more chances if this turned out to be a mistake?" said Ianto.
"Yup. And the beauty part is they don't expire!"
"Okay," said Ianto. "I never thought I'd say this, but let's go live in New San Francisco."
Jack awakens and stretches. For once, it isn't an attempt to wake Ianto up for sex. He's slept the whole night through for the tenth day in a row and his body just needs a morning stretch like a normal person. Considering the day ahead, he's surprised that he slept so well.
He's always liked New San Francisco, of course. There wouldn't have been any point in buying this place if he didn't. Not much happens here that would pique the interest of a time agency or a law enforcement cartel. The environment is clean and balanced, the buildings designed to favour the native species and ecosystems. This is what Earth should have done before everything went to hell in the West's 21st century.
It's been almost a year, New San Francisco time, since he brought his small crew of refugees here. None of them need fear the battle shoals of Gills' people because there is nothing here to attract them. He laughs inwardly, careful not to disturb Ianto's sleep, thinking about the frustrations Gills and Mahri have been experiencing on a planet that doesn't run on treasure, power or greed but on character. Practically everyone who knows that Jack owns a place here laughed, filed a complaint or had a major circulatory event when they first found out about it.
There is a provision on New San Francisco, though, that is looming for Jack. Every member of a voluntarily bonded couple or group taking up permanent residency on the planet must reveal to their partner or partners the secret most likely to destroy the union within a year of their first full night. The tradition that evolved, though it now varies a bit by region, is that the confessions happen on the same day and then the partners go their separate ways and live with a friend or at a retreat for a time after the revelations in order to clear their heads and decide whether or not to affirm the relationship. At least two weeks are required by law everywhere, but some areas encourage would-be partners to take a longer time. Jack lives in New Castro, where the rules are sparse but expectations are high and beings tend to live up to them.
Honesty between partners is not one of Jack's strong suits. He's been practising it diligently with Ianto since they arrived because he's had the better part of three millennia to miss him and he wants as much as Ianto will give him of his horribly fleeting life. And for that reason, he has left this day to almost the last possible minute instead of giving Ianto the months the man would likely need to absorb the truth that he has to tell.
He gazes at Ianto, wondering how he managed to fall so hard for someone who isn't a Time Lord. How did he come to love this very ordinary man who'd done everything wrong at the beginning and all but thrown himself away at the end?
Ianto stirs. "You're thinking again," he mutters into his pillow.
"It's Truth Day," said Jack.
"I know." Ianto turns, fully awake, and gazes into Jack's eyes. "I know you're worried."
"I don't know why. I couldn't even shoot Lisa after she killed so many people. Including me, by the way, at least 'til you kissed me."
Jack shakes his head, biting back the sorrow and tears that hadn't welled up like this since he gave up on Earth so many centuries ago. He takes Ianto's hand between his own and kisses it. It may not be the best way to hide his face, but he knows he may not get another chance at this. "I love you, Ianto Jones." It wrenches everything from him, including his dignity as his voice breaks.
Ianto tugs on Jack's hand and pulls him into an awkward embrace that is everything it needs to be. "You think I don't know you," he said against Jack's ear. "And maybe you're right and you have done something so horrible that I'll have to take a break from you for a while."
Jack's involuntary sob is poorly muffled against Ianto's neck.
Ianto holds him tighter. "But I worked at Torchwood before I ever heard of you. I heard the screams of hundreds at Torchwood One before I found Lisa half-cyberised and dragged her out. I am responsible for the deaths of Doctor Tanazaki and Annie. I almost killed Tosh and Owen and Gwen, and for the longest time, I thought I'd almost killed you. I doubt you've done anything I couldn't forgive after a few months, maybe a year."
Jack pulls away so he can get control over himself before he snots all over Ianto. "Just make sure you don't die before you come back to me, okay?"
"I'll do my best. And I promise to carry a gas mask with me at all times."
"Oh! Right, this is for you." Jack reaches into the drawer of his night table and hands Ianto a small parcel.
"Looks too small for me, assuming it's a gas mask. You sure this isn't meant for Tezimah?"
"It is a gas mask, and it's a lot better than those clunky things on Earth ever were! And Tezimah doesn't need a gas mask. In fact, she'll need her annual mustard gas treatment in a week or so. Just follow her directions when the time comes. And wear that." He points at the parcel.
"Mustard gas." Ianto looks over at Tezimah, now fully fledged and still sleeping in her favourite position: hanging by her tail next to Ianto's only suit in the wardrobe. "You sure this Truth Day thing can't wait until we've sorted that?"
Jack shakes his head. "Sorry. Truth Day is the only thing New San Francisco won't bend on."
Ianto nods. "It's why Gills and Mahri live apart. Sort of."
Jack snorted, wiping the last of his eye moisture away. "They live in adjoining rooms in a rehab commune! Every time I see them, they're together, either joined at the hip or fighting tooth and nail!"
"Which is why I'm not sure I made the right decision designating Gills as my Truth Day host." Ianto sits up and pushes back the covers. "Want to join me in the shower?"
"I never say no to shower sex," says Jack with a leer.
New San Francisco's booming tourism trade is attributable in large part to the lubricating effects of its water. It is such a draw that the Collective governing the planet's Principles of Workability had to limit the number of tourists so as to avoid stressing not only the physical resources of the planet but the emotional ones of its permanent inhabitants.
So when Jack reaches to turn on the shower and Ianto turns towards him with a raging hard-on and a feral hunger in his eyes, it doesn't take long before Ianto's braced against the wall, legs wrapped around Jack's waist as he lowers himself onto Jack's aching dick. After Ianto's sojourn on Solaxis, he's in such good physical shape that this position is easy, when it hadn't been before. Jack, too, is in better physical shape than he had been at Torchwood, which means that more of him can be inside Ianto and that makes everything hotter and easier and so much more intense that Jack doesn't know how he'll live without this for even a day. It's when Ianto slams down on him as he thrusts up and in equally hard that Jack comes without warning. "Naaaghhh!"
Ianto comes so hard that Jack can feel it against his chin as they taste and devour and pant together.
Jack makes sure to withdraw before his knees won't hold them both up anymore. "I am going to miss you so much," he says against Ianto's mouth.
There is a very long kiss, punctuated by bouts of having to breathe.
"I'll miss you too. Silly law, having to stay away for at least a fortnight."
Jack takes Ianto's mouth in another long kiss, this time without the panting. He can't bring himself to say that he'll feel lucky if they ever see each other again after the formal Decision Day.
"So we're supposed to have this meeting after breakfast, and then we must vacate this house immediately?"
"One of us has to, though it's recommended that we both do."
"She's free to do as she pleases," says Jack. "She can take care of herself until the mustard gas thing, then she'll come to one of us or call home for help."
"Ah. And ... nobody will be killed when she calls home?"
Jack laughs a little. "No, that's just when she first names herself. She can call home silently now."
"That's good to know."
There is a long pause between them as they vacate the shower and towel off.
"So I suppose we should pack, then."
"Yeah," Jack says. "I'm almost ready."
"So am I."
After the ritual breakfast of fruit, seeds and a red egg, Jack pauses to ask, "You know what we're supposed to do on Decision Day, right?"
Ianto rolls his eyes. "We meet in front of the doors of this house and declare our intentions. I thought that we'd done that by risking our lives and sanity for the last ... however long it's been. Why couldn't they just accept that?"
Jack would like to respond but can't.
Each man fetches his travel case and puts it on his side of the table. They sit simultaneously across from each other. "You go first," Jack says.
"All right," Ianto replies. "Well, the biggest secret was Lisa, but you already know about her. And then there was me telling Gwen about Flat Holm, but you knew about that, too. And then I told Gwen about your daughter, but you know about that, as well. I suppose all that's left after that is that I get a bit annoyed when you snore."
"I do not snore!"
"Yes, you do. Quite loudly, too, I might add. So perhaps when we're allowed to live together again, you could see if there's something could be done about that."
"Done," Jack says. His hands are sweating.
"It's your turn, Jack."
Jack holds Ianto's gaze. "After you died, Dekker discovered a way to send a lethal signal to the 456 so they couldn't take the children."
"That doesn't sound so horrible."
"Think about how the 456 sent signals to us."
Ianto's face went from confused to enlightened to horrified. "You had to use a child. And it would fry the child's brain." Ianto turned ashen. "Please tell me you didn't use my niece or nephew...."
"No! No, I didn't. But we were out of time and I didn't know what else to do, so ... I used the closest one we had." Jack swallows so he can get to it before Ianto says anything. "I used Steven. My grandson."
There is absolute silence. Jack feels the temperature in the room drop, though that may be an illusion. And then Ianto stands up without a sound, picks up his travel case and walks out of the house.
"I'll see you on Decision Day," Jack mouths through the tears.
He's startled when Tezimah lands on his shoulder, but he lets her rest her nose on his forehead and read him, even so. She licks him five times and bites his nose hard enough to make it bleed before licking him twice more. And then she flies out the door toward Ianto.
Decision Day dawned as any other day, but Jack can't see the light in it. It's been two weeks of pure hell during which he's felt as hopeless as he had after Ianto had died. Everything around him is silence. The only things keeping him company are the pain of Tezimah's bite and the airborne bicycles most children and young adults seemed to love – 'flycycles' Ianto dubbed them.
Ianto is not obliged to arrive until dusk, but Jack has stood outside the house since dawn.
It's a long wait.
It's raining for much of it.
There are frogs.
Jack thinks absently that it's very much like one of those biblical plagues people used to talk about on Earth all the time.
"Gills' house is in the opposite direction," a voice behind him says as the edge of the sun starts to disappear.
Jack whirls around, sodden coat entangling his ankles just enough to make him stumble but not fall.
"That's an awful thing to do to that coat," Ianto says.
Jack starts to speak, but Ianto holds up his hand.
"I, Ianto Jones, formerly of the planet Earth, do hereby declare my intention to affirm my partnership with Captain Jack Harkness, if such is also his desire."
"I..." Jack begins, without breath or vocal power. "I, Captain Jack Harkness, formerly of the Boeshane Peninsula, do hereby declare my intention to affirm my partnership with Ianto Jones, for it is also very much my desire."
"Just so you know," Ianto puts up a hand to stop Jack from sweeping him into a huge embrace, "you're going to have to tell me everything – really, everything – about what happened and why you won't do what you did to Steven to me or anyone I love."
"Done," Jack replies in a whisper.
"Come here, you." Ianto pulls a sodden Jack into his arms, patting him on the back before pushing him away. "You are so wet, the rain seems dry. You can stand out here if you insist, but I'm going inside."
"Right behind you," Jack says, taking a giant step that tangles his feet up in his sodden coat again.
Ianto catches and steadies Jack. "How long has it been since you wore that?"
"Almost three millennia."
"You need coat lessons."
"That sounds kinky!"
"Oh, yeah," Ianto growls.
After a mutual hungry stare, they fumble as quickly as possible into the house and out of their clothes as Tezimah glides over their heads and through the door with a frog in her mouth.