The town of Embargo, population less than three hundred, barely makes the map. In England it would be called a village, and a small one at that; out here it's all that remains of a postal centre and horse-change crossroads, a streak of nothing in the middle of bush-studded nothingness, with a bar named "Bar", the closed and rotting remains of the once-great post office, and the Cornrow Motel.
The Cornrow Motel is infamous amongst those who've had cause to pass through this way (musicians on tour, con men on the run, adulterers, murderers, and the very lost) for being exceptionally weird and wholly out of place. It is tall, towering over the other buildings in town, and built in the style of its time. Although the stables attached have long since fallen down, their outlines remain in the car park outside, leaving faint lines to guide cars into unneeded neatness.
Inside there is a certificate that declares it bears the royal charter to provide hostelry for members of the British nobility, signed by King George the Third.
No one, least of all the owner, knows how many rooms there are; or at least, no one has ever been able to return with a conclusive diagram of the place. It is dark, wallpapered in flock which has a dark green hue that puts one unavoidably in mind of slimy things living in dank, forgotten caves, and rather than a bar it boasts a metal-labelled 'tap room' in which nothing, even the air, ever moves.
The Cornrow Motel was, then, something of an anomaly, making it the perfect focus for a team of anomalies trained to investigate … anomalous activity and situations. Trained, of course, in the very loosest sense of the word, and not to the same standards, or by the same agencies or institutions. Team, likewise, only in the very loosest sense; it is possible that if they ever manage to agree for five minutes, the universe will end.
Mickey Smith, Ianto Jones and the self-styled "Captain John Hart", in the company of Mickey's (borrowed) robot dog, K-9, climbed out of the very, very battered and uncomfortable ex-army jeep they had been travelling in for several hundred, several thousand miles, and had a good stretch.
"Tin Dogs," Mickey suggested, in the tones of one who has been considering something for a long time.
"No, that's even worse," Ianto sighed. "We'll sound like a bad eighties Bowie album. No."
"Fuck, my back's never going to be the same again," John complained, making a rictus of pain as he leaned one way and another, his spine popping like a strip of firecrackers at a bonfire party.
"We're here," Mickey said, staring up at the motel's imposing façade like so many travellers before him. "Seems pretty … normal … from where I'm standing, though."
"I think you've mislaid your definition of 'normal' somewhere," Ianto said, putting his hands in his pockets. The day was hot, and there was a wash of sweat over his forehead, roses in his cheeks. None of them looked very at ease, although John was making considerable effort to pretend to be.
"The Sexy Investigators?" he suggested.
"No," Mickey groaned. "Inaccurate, for one."
The change in temperature that hit as they walked into the lobby was immediate and intense, not to mention inexplicable; there didn't appear to be any sign of any air conditioning, and the only visible concession to the climate was a large desk fan on the reception desk, turning this way and that. All three felt the cool air with gratitude; it was Ianto who approached the desk.
The receptionist was asleep, her arms folded in front of her and her head nestling in the crook, a mass of curly brown hair exploding in a semi-afro from behind a wide black ribbon, which acted as an inefficient Alice band. Mickey came and peered over the desk; the girl, who might have been anywhere from fifteen to thirty, paid no attention. She was plump, rounded at every angle, and her one visible eye wore clumps and flakes of silver make-up that had evidently been applied the previous night.
Ianto hesitated and pressed the ancient brass service bell's protruding nipple. It went bu-dunk. He hit it a little harder and it binged sullenly, as if it, not just the receptionist, had only just been woken from an engrossing dream.
The receptionist stirred and rolled upright like a rising wave, blinking her eyes. The embroidered patch on her black bowling shirt proclaimed her to be "Reneé", and her mouth was large and round and smeared with sleep saliva. "Oh, this is new," she said, drawing every letter out. Her accent seemed to have given up on regions and pitched itself towards the perfect imitation of Generic Southern USA. "So, you guys are either cops or musicians. Maybe both. Cop rock. That's a genre I haven't heard yet." She stretched. She had one hell of a rack and it seemed keen on bursting free of her shirt, as did her upper arms; like a bolt of red-jacketed lightning John was at the desk too, grinning like a skull.
"Neither," Mickey said with a smile. "Just looking for somewhere to stay."
"You got a reservation?"
Mickey looked at John, then at Ianto, then at the deserted lobby, which slumbered in deep treacly silence in the noon air. Not even a bluebottle moved. The fan made no noise.
"Do we need one?" he hazarded.
"Oh hell yeah," Reneé drawled, thumping a ledger bound in brown, soft leather onto the counter, "this is the jumping social heart of the entire fucking You Ess of Ay, my friend. We are full to capacity." She snorted and opened the book. "Sign in."
"Any other guests?" Mickey gave her a knowing grin as he put his name on the ruled pages. The most recent date was a good three months ago.
"Not even one," Reneé squinted up at them as Ianto pulled the ledger to him with one finger.
"Your pen leaks," Ianto observed, trying to wipe ballpoint ink off his hand.
"So does the roof," Reneé yawned. She had very white teeth. "Enjoy trying to find another motel before you pass out, IRS."
"IRS?" Ianto mouthed at Mickey, looking confused.
"Here is fine," Mickey said, concealing another smirk as John tried to wrestle the ledger from Ianto's hands before he'd finished writing in it. "Stop it, John."
"Not cops, then," Reneé decided. She slapped three brass deadlock keys on three wood-and-brass keyrings onto the counter. "If you don't like these come back and you can go sleep in different ones. We're not exactly pressed for space."
John pocketed his key immediately. Ianto examined his with disinterest before pointing at it. "1045?"
"Yeah, I know," Reneé sighed. "The engravers are retards. First they decided we have eight hundred rooms but don't send us the first four hundred, then when we finally get those assholes to admit they made a mistake and not us, they sent us these in exchange. So now we got more than two thousand rooms, but only one thousand of them have keyrings, and they aren't the first thousand." She rubbed meditatively at some of the silver gunk on her lid until it came off her eye and stuck to the back of her hand instead. "1045 should fit 085. Or 084. I forgot. One of the rooms on that corridor."
"So how many rooms do you have?" Ianto persisted.
"Mister IRS, I don't have the first clue. You can count them if you like. I'm not fucking gonna." Reneé gave him something that was only a smile because it showed most of her teeth. "Just know it's got to be less than eight hundred."
"How?" John started helping himself from a glass ashtray filled with dusty white mints.
"Does this place look big enough for eight hundred rooms?" Reneé snorted.
"Oh, sometimes you come across things that are bigger on the inside than the outside," Mickey said quietly, staring at the picture frame above her head. It contained a pencil drawing of a man with a bull's head and back legs, in the style of a child or a primitivist. "John," he added, without turning, "go get K-9 out of the jeep, we're staying."
"Why me?" John spluttered, nearly choking on a mint. "He's your pet. He hates me!"
"Him and everyone else," Ianto muttered under his breath. "I'll do it," he added more loudly, "you can go and empty the bloody bar." He said this with such disdain it was a wonder John's flesh didn't melt from his bones. For a moment it looked like John was going to be contrary, but he just glanced at Reneé.
"Bar?" he said, clearly meaning, 'where is it?'.
"Tap room," she corrected, arching her pencilled-on eyebrows. "It's that way. No beer, only liquor. You want beer, you go across the road to the bar, where they won't serve you, because you look gay." Reneé smiled with one side of her mouth only. "So. Tap room, that way, liquor only."
"Suits me," John slouched off to the bar – the tap room - Ianto to the car park; Mickey remained, smiling at Reneé's wicked eyes and cappuccino-coloured fingers tipped with chipped silver nail polish … the drawing hung directly above her head, and it was tempting to wonder aloud if she was the artist responsible.
As the others left, she said, "Are those two - ?"
"If they are," Mickey said, "I don't want to know. All they ever do is argue anyway."
"Sounds like they are, then."
In the end it was 087 that fitted Ianto's key. He worked his way along the dark, half-panelled corridor until he found a door it would actually unlock. Asking K-9 for help might have yielded results a little sooner, but if he was truly honest with himself Ianto slightly resented the robot dog having become the go-to research member of their sad approximation of a 'team'; before his ignominious exile to global investigative duties that had always been his role. Of course, he'd also been the one shagging a 51st century omnisexual with a thing for military uniforms, which was not something the current team situation should ever support. Ever.
Just because John was occasionally charming and smelt nice didn't mean he wasn't still a murdering, amoral sack of shit.
The murdering, amoral sack of shit was in a subdued species of paradise. The 'Tap Room' was, alas, empty – and John did so hate to be on his own – but he'd been handed a bottle of Beefeater Gin by the half-asleep motel proprietor (a rangy white guy in his fifties with his head clearly orbiting some distant other planet of the man's own imagining) and told to 'knock [him]self out', an order John was attempting to follow to the very letter.
It was possible that Embargo was even more the middle of nowhere than Anadyr; the Siberian city, at least, had prostitutes. John darkly suspected, too, that if Mickey was out there working his inexplicable magic on Rene&ecute;, all John could expect to get from her in the future was a slap and a very pretty sneer.
In the lobby, Mickey leaned on the counter and said softly, "What do you mean you don't know how many people have disappeared in there?"
"What I said," Reneé said with irritable sweetness – a neat trick if you could pull it off, and Mickey'd never met anyone before who genuinely could. "It's not good business to acknowledge it. Most people come out and pay their bill, some people just go in and … don't find their way back out, I guess."
"I think there's something you're not telling me," Mickey chided, only half-playful. He grinned at her, because it made her diamond-edged teeth brighten and gleam back all the more sharply.
"There are a million things I ain't telling you," Reneé said, rubbing glitter from the topmost corkscrews of her uncombed and enormous hair. "And only some of them are about this spooky old dump."
"Do you at least know where they'd have been? Which rooms were they staying in, the ones who vanished?" Mickey persisted, stroking the pages of the ledger absently under his fingers. The paper was old and worn and smelled of old paper that has been left in an attic.
Reneé shrugged. It was an impressive and glorious performance. "North end of the building, I guess. Dad and me haven't been there at all. Keys are … well. The keys to the whole place are a kinda lottery."
"And you've not considered withholding keys from that end?" Mickey asked, trying not to stare too much.
"It's right on the list of things to do next to 'figure out which keys belong to which rooms', 'go back to college', and 'quit drinking'," Reneé assured him sarcastically. It was a little like being slapped by a supermodel; painful and humiliating, but so pretty to watch it was almost worth going back for more. Mickey raised an index finger and pointed it at her slowly.
"I'm going to find out what's going on here."
"Have fun with that, Theseus," Reneé stretched, cleared the desk in front of her somewhat theatrically – there was little enough to get in her way as it was – and folded her arms over it. The resultant cleavage chasm was like looking into the jaws of ones' own death, and enjoying it. "Catch you when you're finished, maybe." And Reneé laid her head back on her elbows, and closed her silver-crusted eyes.
Somewhere between sobriety and a coma, John was not best pleased at being yanked to his feet by the elbow. "I haven't finished," he complained, reaching back to snatch up his gin by the throat as Mickey dragged him towards the 'Tap Room' door. "I haven't even started."
"Adventure," Mickey coaxed, giving his arm another tug. He also gave John a look that said John was going to get a move on and behave himself or seriously regret it.
"Alcohol," John insisted desperately. He hugged the Beefeater to him with his free arm as if protecting a beloved child.
"Not incompatible," Mickey admitted. "C'mon, help me find Ianto … and my dog." He gave John's arm another yank, and very nearly succeeded in dislocating his elbow; eventually John gave in and, taking a death-defying swig of cheap London gin, trailed after Mickey through the dim-lit corridors of the Cornrow Motel.
Two floors up, Ianto Jones laid his toiletries out on the room's bedside table, hung his spare suit on the wardrobe rail – the wardrobe looked like it had been hacked out of a fossilised tree trunk by a schizophrenic whittler with bandaged hands, and Ianto wondered if there was one in every room, and how much it had cost, and who the hell thought it was a good idea.
K-9 whirred in the corner, trying to ascertain if there were any mobile phone networks he could make Ianto's mobile connect to in the whole area. Ianto wasn't holding out much hope, but since the last four times they'd tried to call Jack on the way to Embargo they'd got the busy signal, no reply, and once a very rushed-sounding Martha ("Can't talk, Weevil loose in the base, refrigeration unit's down, gotta go – ") he really needed a little more clarification. Or just the sound of something from home, even if it was just Gwen's sleep-deprived babblings or Jack telling him to pull himself together and stop worrying.
When he'd first left Cardiff for Torchwood One (or The Institute, as they'd called it back then) there had been none of this acute homesickness; he'd been younger and less experienced and so excited by all that London had to offer. And he hadn't been alone. So he hadn't been clamping his jaw against almost literal nausea each time Plas Roald Dahl (or Jubilee's or a single fragment of the city, especially, now, the Hub, or his parents' old house) crossed his mind.
The room was unpleasantly chilly for a motel in the middle of a bloody desert.
A bang on the door retrieved him from contemplation before he could become truly melancholy.
"K-9!" Mickey exclaimed as soon as Ianto yanked the door open, and the dog trundled on over instantly, its castors squeaking.
"Hello, Ianto, nice to see you've been taking care of my robot, Ianto," Ianto said sarcastically.
"Do you have a torch?" John asked, standing in the hallway with a bottle of gin in one hand and a walkie-talkie handset clasped somewhat mysteriously in the other. One of his two holsters was filled with the gun he'd taken off some dead Panamanian gangster or other, and he looked about as civilised as he always did.
"No." Ianto didn't enquire further. It never helped.
"K-9 will be fine at lighting the way if it comes to that," Mickey said reproachfully. "Won't you, K-9?"
"Affirmative, Master," K-9's 'ears' swivelled.
"What's going on?" Ianto asked, putting his hands awkwardly in his pockets. There was a good chance he'd regret asking, but protocol demanded it of him. "Should I be worried?"
"With John around?" Mickey said, shouldering a small duffel bag the colour of day-old sick, "Always. We're heading for the north end of the motel now."
"Why don't I like the sound of that?" Ianto leaned on the doorframe.
"Because," John said with gravity and a sneer, "you are a miserable fucking tosspot with no joy in his tiny boring soul." He took a mouthful of the gin and gargled it.
"I couldn't get hold of Jack," Ianto said, ignoring him and addressing himself to Mickey. "I don't have any idea what we're dealing with here, so I really hope you do."
"What makes you think Jack does?" John muttered, drinking a little more. Ianto bit the inside of his cheek and locked his motel room door behind him.
There was a gentle cessation of bickering and back-biting until they reached the first corner in the hallway, rounded it at a walking pace, and Mickey decided to ask K-9 if he could detect anything out of the ordinary.
"Insuffi-" K-9 began. The little robot dog emitted a shrill and oddly strangled beep. "We are forty-five miles from our starting point." Another beep. "We have not progressed more than five inches. Data." A grinding sound like a stuck motor. "Insufficient temporal data."
John snorted and made a face. "Oh, good. We're all as confused as each other for once."
"Insufficient temporal data?" Mickey probed, squatting by the robot and staring at its 'face'. "I didn't ask where we were in Time, did I?"
"Affirmative. Negative. Data. Data." K-9 beeped, his 'ears' revolving like a pair of fairground rides in the control of a dedicated tachyphile. "Data data data."
"What about it?" Mickey asked tersely.
"Insufficient. Affirmative. Data data. Require universe reinstall. Beep."
"It just said beep," John pointed out, slouching against the nearest wall. "That is the most useless robot in the universe. In the whole universe. It said 'beep'."
The light behind them flickered out.
"Suggestion," Ianto said in a low voice with only a touch of a sardonic tone to it.
"Hm?" Mickey remained in a crouch, peering at K-9 with a frown. "What?"
"We go back, unpack everything you have in the jeep, and try this again with a bit for caution … and equipment." If he had been trying to avoid sounding dry, Ianto had failed spectacularly.
"Good idea," Mickey muttered, getting to his feet, "we can – yes? What is it?"
"We can't," John pointed out, slumped against the half-panelled wall, bottle dangling from his hands. He made the same oh yeah face as he had earlier.
"There is a wall." John said this with the careful precision of a society lady complaining about a fly in her soup, and gestured with his walkie-talkie hand to the darkness whence they'd come. He raised his eyebrows at Mickey and Ianto and gave them an unamused smile. "I don't … think … there was a wall there before. I'm very observant when it comes to walking through solid objects."
There was, sure enough, a wall. It looked the same as the one John leant on, except for being further into shadow, and it looked as though it had always been there. There were no movement scuffs on the skirting, no castor-marks on the carpet beside it. The same dark green flock, the same menacing oak panels, the same iron brackets containing a dead light bulb graced it as did the wall to the side.
Mickey took a deep breath and put his palm over the side of his face. "O-kay. Ianto, check the nearest door number, let's find out where we're meant to be, shall we?"
Ianto did as he was told – the door roughly opposite where John lounged was identical to the door to his own room, apart from one thing: the brass numbers screwed into it at eye-height read not "087" but rather … "π".
Ianto turned back to his team a little pale in the face and said in a deadpan voice through which frustration leaked like sun through post-storm clouds, "Pi."
"What?" Mickey said, barging past him to stare at it with his hand on the top of his head. "It can't be pi," he said, in the face of the evidence that it very clearly was, "pi is an irrational number."
There was a long, long silence.
Finally John said quite irritably, "For fuck's sake, Jones, just say it or I'm going to have to."
"Not doing it, it's trite." Ianto looked back at the door. "And you're not going to say it either, so shut up. What does the next door say?"
John craned his neck to squint at the door further down his own wall, frowned, and said as though it should have been obvious, "Also pi."
"Also pi," Mickey repeated, putting both hands over his face for a moment and stretching the skin. He looked down at K-9 from between his fingers. "K-9?"
"Insuffi-" The dog beeped a few times, then went both silent and completely dark.
"Helpful," John sneered, and Mickey threw him a poisonous look.
"Insufficient temporal data," Mickey mused, pacing between the first door marked π and the second door marked with π with a hand on his chin and the other on his hip. "So … maybe this is a Time problem?"
"Or maybe your dog is stupid." John took another good long swallow of gin. "Face it, it's been a long time coming. That dog is made out of calculator motherboards and a lump of coal or something."
"You think this place is built on some sort of … something like the Rift?" Ianto asked, pointedly ignoring John. He looked strangely in his element, so immaculate under the low light bulbs – needing only a nametag to look like some sort of hotel employee. "The Rift in Cardiff's meant to be virtually unique," Ianto went on, leaning back on the wall, "gaping holes in the space-time … whatever it is … aren't supposed to happen. I can't believe there'd be … two … of them …"
"Doesn't have to be a hole," John said lazily. He swung the bottle about indiscriminately, his eyes mostly shut. "Could be a bump or a fold."
"What?" Mickey asked in an exasperated voice.
"No, listen," John insisted, putting down his walkie-talkie but retaining the Beefeater as he attempted to draw his explanation woozily in the air, "the way we were taught, right, space-time's like a really flexible … elastic … sheet. If you alter the timeline – " he made a gesture like throwing something downwards, hard, "- it usually just bounces right back. Boing. Sometimes - very rarely – it gets a tear in it, right, and things fall through. People. Stuff. Across. Down." John made a face and opened his eyes. "I admit, I was also drunk in that class and it was very complicated and I was training for Field anyway so it wasn't …"
"Get on with it," Mickey sighed, getting down next to K-9 and fastening the cord from his trousers cuffs around the inert robot's 'neck'.
"Sheet," John repeated, to orient himself, taking another drink. He seemed to have slipped down the wall a little further – his feet were closer to the centre of the hall and his shoulders now below the top of the wooden panels. "Sometimes it gets bunched up or folds, sometimes it gets into knots. A different effect – effect – every time." He drained the bottle and dropped it the last few inches onto the floor. "Here endeth Temporal Physics for Dummies."
"So now, I suppose, we should press on," Mickey said, looping the other end of his string around his left hand.
"Shouldn't we stay here instead of going further in?" Ianto suggested, stepping away from the wall.
"What good will that do?"
"The wall might move again?" Ianto shrugged.
"Yeah," said Mickey, "and it might not. I'd rather we actively looked for a way out, thank you."
The overhead light went ping and went off. A second later the light in the wall bracket nearest Ianto did the same.
"Okay," Ianto said, "we go on."
"So glad you agree," Mickey muttered, dragging K-9's darkened husk forwards on its little castors. "John!"
"What? What have I done now?" John complained, blinking.
"You have a gun on you." It was not even a borderline question; John was John, therefore he was armed. "We'll be wanting you at the front in case we run into anything nasty." Mickey sighed. "Yes, I know 'in a motel?', shut up."
"What about if anything come at us from behind?" Ianto asked, and the steadiness of his voice was not quite complete enough to be convincing.
"There is a wall," Mickey said.
"Yes, but for how long?" Ianto fell into step behind Mickey and K-9, his feet dragging a little on the dense carpet. John slipped on ahead, his clumsy boots surprisingly quiet on the floral patterns, gun in hand, as the team moved onwards to the lit end of the new corridor.
They reached the next corner without meeting anyone or anything, without any more light-bulbs blowing, without any more walls appearing, and without John saying anything annoying at all. Mickey and Ianto read out each of the door numbers as they passed each of them:
"This one's got chrome coating."
"Pi plus 'e'."
John raised his gun to a less fire-ready position and looked back at them. "Is that good or bad?"
"Please don't ask me questions I couldn't possibly know the answers to," Mickey snapped. He exhaled slowly. "This one's pi minus 'e', Ianto. Chrome too, though."
"Are they locked?" John asked, turning abruptly. Mickey and Ianto both half-ducked away from his gun.
"What?" Mickey stopped in his tracks, partly to avoid colliding with John. "Stop waving that around! We … Ianto, try that handle."
"What handle?" Ianto asked a little too dryly to be polite. "There isn't one. There's pi plus e squared, and a peep-hole cover with – " he slid it aside with one finger, "- no peep-hole behind it." Ianto let it fall again and raised his eyebrows at them both. "This place is ever so slightly disturbing."
"No one's trying to kill us," John observed, making exactly the same face in response. "No one's taken us prisoner and no one's injected eggs into my face. This is not disturbing yet." He peered around the corner at the pretty much identical hallway to come. "So the inner dimensions aren't the same as the outer ones. Big deal."
"Alright, shut up," Mickey instructed. "Get mov—"
He broke off as the light overhead dimmed. It didn't go out, but the source flickered and faded. There were no wall brackets at this corner, and suddenly all three were having to strain to see each other's faces.
"John," Mickey reiterated, "off you go."
With a disproportionately heavy sigh John swung around the corner, gun at the ready once more. The same empty, unchanging corridor greeted him, lights low, carpet giddyingly-patterned, the smell of age and furniture-polish in the air. "All clear." He wandered along a little further and stopped by the first door he came to.
"Well?" Mickey called impatiently.
"No handle, says pi," John confirmed, somewhat disappointed and a little bored. If there was going to be there was going to be a riddle of some sort, it should at least be one with a discernable point to it, he thought. Or one which was actually a riddle rather than a jumble of fucking nonsense.
"Ianto?" Mickey asked.
"It still says pi on this one," Ianto said, re-examining the door with a bored expression and an even more bored voice.
"What do you mean, 'still'?" Mickey said, sounding quite cross. "A minute ago you said it was pi plus e squared."
"No I didn't – "
"Get round here," Mickey instructed, giving up. "There is something really not right here. Besides faulty wiring and people who number their doors with irrational numbers – "
"Say it!" John shouted, leaning back to address Ianto.
"No," Ianto shouted back, joining them in the hall. He, too, was frowning hard. "Pi plus e squared? Did I say that? I … I can't have …" he looked at Mickey, half-pleading for a resolution to his confusion. "I suppose … I did?"
Mickey nodded. There were sweat patches in the armpits of his dark red t-shirt, though the air was cold enough to raise goosebumps on his forearms. K-9 sat behind him, as immobile and unresponsive as a child's pull-along toy. "This place is clearly doing something to our heads," he said giving Ianto a reassuring pat on the upper arm.
Ianto winced and moved back.
"Or your heads are already fucked," John said, a little too happy at this prospect. He wheeled on his heel and checked the door behind him. "Ooh. Anyone want to take a guess?"
"Pi?" Ianto suggested sarcastically, rubbing his upper arms.
"Nope." John put both hands on his head, including the one that held the gun. Mickey and Ianto both flinched instinctively. "No handle and no fucking number."
"Any sign that there was one?" Mickey asked, his voice suffused with an odd kind of hopeless hope.
"No screw, no hole for a screw, no – " John peered at the door, "no discolouration. Nada. Rien. Nothing."
"I'm going to take the lead for a while," Mickey said softly. "John, I want you in the rear with that gun, okay? Make sure Ianto and I are covered. Ianto, hang onto K-9 for me." He passed the cord to Ianto, and they moved off again.
… Mickey was so startled when he came across a room door which was ajar that he almost yelped.
"Everyone else see that?" he pointed down this next, new hallway (they had by now taken so many corners that even Ianto confessed to having lost count) at the door that angled away from them, jutting a little way inwards.
"There's nothing wrong with my eyes," John said huffily from the rear.
"Yes," Ianto said, simply. He looked comical, so perfectly-groomed, with a banged-up and scraped metal dog on string beside him; he looked like that special and specific kind of crazy homeless person.
"Right," Mickey approached the door, and stared at the brass number on it for a long time. "Well. That's new, at least."
It read: ∞
"Doorway to infinitely, eh?" John said when he'd caught up. "That looks promising."
"Or dangerous," Ianto warned. It was a startlingly boneless warning, however, far milder than his usual remarks.
"Dangerous would be a great improvement on completely fucking bored," John griped.
"For once," Mickey said, sounding almost surprised at himself, "I agree with him. These corridors are doing my bloody head in. The wallpaper is getting to me. I say we do it. Anything for the chance of a change."
"You're right," Ianto said, rubbing the side of his face with his free hand, "anything not this …" he passed the end of K-9's string back to Mickey, who took it with a curt nod.
"John, you're back in front again," Mickey ordered, reaching for the hinge side of the door; John raised his gun and braced himself; Mickey pushed with his fingertips and the door marked ∞ swung gently open without so much as a squeak.
Torchwood's Global Investigation Team, Team B, disputed of title and small in number, stood stock still and as one man stared mutely at what lay beyond the wooden motel door labelled with the sign for infinity.
John broke the silence first. "Fuck's sake," he said.
"I don't believe this," Mickey groaned.
"Are we going through?" Ianto pressed. The identical corridor, six doors long, dimly-lit, wallpapered in the same ubiquitous ugly green flock, stretched out in front of them and appeared to hit either a dead end or a T-junction at the opposite end.
The lights in the corridor they stood in went out with an abrupt synchronicity that could really only be described as 'spooky', or possibly 'fucking spooky' if one were John. The team, having faced some of the most terrifying monsters in the universe and in one case being a fairly terrifying monster himself, nevertheless shared a small jump as the only light source became that of the corridor they faced.
"I think we've just had that answered for us," Mickey murmured, just a tiny bit nervous. They stepped cautiously over the threshold, K-9 rattling on the thin metal strip that met with the doorframe. "Is there any way we can wedge that open?"
"Hey, a use for K-9!" John said brightly.
"Shut up, John," Mickey said without changing his tone or even looking at him. "Nothing?" he added, looking at Ianto.
"We could use your walkie-talkie," Ianto said, holding the door open with his arm. The soft, carpeted silences between their outcroppings of conversation were unsettling, and the urge to fill them up came on him frequently.
"And if we get separated?" Mickey demanded.
"Won't do any good anyway, I left the other one when we stopped the first time," John said, unhooking Mickey's walkie-talkie from his waistband without waiting for any kind of a reply. Mickey glared but didn't stop him. "Might as well prop the door open with it."
Ianto took the useless device from John's hand and turned it until the aerial and socket for the aerial were jammed under the bottom at the hinge side. He let go of the door slowly and it remained open, creaking. "Although this does seem quite pointless," Ianto mused, getting to his feet, "when the place can just stick a wall in the way if it wants to."
"Don't anthropomorphise the bloody motel!" Mickey snapped.
"Don't use words you can't spell," John muttered.
For a moment it seemed as though one of their interminable and near-constant rows might erupt yet again, but just as everyone was drawing himself up to start bickering, shouting, and generally expressing long-held negative opinions of everyone else, John froze, his eyes growing wider. A moment later the same look of alert paranoia stalked across the faces of his teammates.
"Footsteps," Mickey muttered, flattening himself against the wall and staring down the lit corridor in the direction they seemed to be coming from.
"Running," Ianto added, though that much was obvious from the volume and beat.
All three held their breath. John got quietly into firing position, and Mickey held up his hand for him to wait.
A lone figure shot out from one side of the corridor's far end and disappeared into the other almost immediately, moving at a determined speed. About the only detail there was time to pick out was that the figure was probably male given its height, and had something red on the top half of his body.
"Okay," Mickey said, exhaling slowly as the footsteps moved away, "we know it's a T-junction now."
"Do you want me to go after him?" John asked, eyes gleaming, weapon impatient in his hand. It was obvious that whatever Mickey wanted, John wanted to play Hide And Shoot Someone's Brains Out in the motel corridors.
Ianto mouthed no at Mickey and Mickey shook his head. "We will follow the guy. Slowly. All of us. This place is a fucking maze, if you go off on your own who knows if we'll ever find you again?"
"Tragic," muttered Ianto in a voice which meant quite the opposite.
"Stay in sight of each other," Mickey finished, ignoring both of them. "So," he added. "we're not alone in here."
They peeled away from the wall and moved off with about as much stealth as three men can when one of them reeks of gin badly enough for it to be an early-warning system and another is towing a rattling metal dog along behind him on string.
By the time they reached the junction, of course, the running figure was long gone, and the corridors in both directions – left, whence the runner had come, and right, where he went – were deserted, featureless, and identical but for the blown light-bulb half-way down the left.
"This place is making a mockery of physics," Mickey complained as they came to an abrupt halt at the juncture.
"Left or right?" Ianto asked.
"Right. We'll keep following him."
"What if that's what he wants?" John asked, dangling his gun lazily from his hand, peering down the left-hand corridor with an unreadable expression on his lined face.
"Who says that's necessarily a bad thing? Come on." Mickey took the gun out of John's hand before he had a chance to protest and said, "You're on dog duty."
"Oh, I hate you so very, very much," John growled.
"K-9 is a valued member of the team," Mickey cautioned, leading them down the right-hand corridor with his pilfered gun pointing at the ceiling.
"It is the most useless collection of diodes in the history of robotics," John said, kicking the dog in one of its side-panels. It made a very satisfying clang against the toe of his boot, and Ianto rolled his eyes.
Mickey, however, said, "Kick my dog again and I will shoot you in the fucking foot."
"It's. A. Robot," John said patiently.
"John," Ianto suggested, "shut the fuck up."
"Doors," Mickey said shortly, and Ianto turned to check their first brass plate in this corridor.
"Pi plus e squared again. No handle, but there's a screwed-in plate where the handle ought to be." He gave the door a gentle shove with his palm. "Locked."
John dragged K-9 sullenly across to the opposite door, looking very much like an overgrown child who'd raided the dressing-up box before setting out for a game with his favourite pull-toy. "No number, no handle, a peephole with no light behind it- " he kicked the door with the side of his foot. "Locked."
"So he probably didn't use those – " Mickey stared on down the corridor. "Ianto, any mobile phone coverage?"
"Don't be ridiculous." Ianto took his phone out of his inside jacket pocket and stared at it. "- There. It won't even switch on. Look."
Mickey beckoned them all on with his free hand.
"Weird …" Ianto took the back off his phone as they walked, extracted the battery, and blew across the contact points. Fitting the phone back together, he pressed the little 'on' button again; the phone remained dark and unresponsive. Ianto looked back at K-9's inert shell as it rattled slowly along after John's footsteps. "Weird."
One of the light-bulbs directly ahead went out; the two on either side of it dimmed to less than half their strength.
"Should we – " Ianto began.
"No," Mickey said. "You're not afraid of the dark, are you?"
"Yes," Ianto said again, simply. "Aren't you?"
"Monsters live in the dark," John said with acute unconcern. "Horrible things come out of the darkness." He paused for a long time and raised his eyebrows at Ianto with a half-smirk. "Not going to say it?"
"Shut up, John," Mickey sighed. "We're not turning – "
One of the lights far behind them, in what had been the left-hand corridor, went out with an audible 'pop' and ping of breaking filament.
They went on.
The lights remained steady, and though the tension in the air between them began to mount as they crossed the shadow which fell beneath the 'dead' bulb, nothing happened. They passed out into the low light, and Ianto said, extending his hand behind him, "I'll take the robot now."
John passed him the string without a word or touching Ianto's hand and, dropping into a brief crouch, fished his knife from his boot as quickly as adjusting the lie of his jeans.
"You never know," he said in reply to Ianto's disgusted look. "Anyway, you've got that stun thing."
Ianto didn't reply.
"Doors," Mickey called, five feet ahead.
John and Ianto drifted in opposite directions.
"No number, no panel, no handle, nothing," Ianto said flatly. He pressed the wood with his palms, both at once. "Locked."
"Same," John said, kicking the door.
Mickey seemed about to say something, but before he so much as opened his mouth, one of the lights behind them, on the other side of the patch of darkness, went out as suddenly as if it had been smashed. They all turned to look at it.
"Is it just me," Ianto said uncomfortably, "or is the end of the corridor somewhat closer than it was?"
The end of the corridor – if they squinted through the gloom at it – now appeared to be slightly forwards of where they'd turned into this corridor from the one they'd entered through the door. It sat looking as solid and immobile and eternal as any wall ever did, the flock pattern indistinct in the bad light.
"Did you hear – ?" Mickey began, turning to look at them. The others nodded, pale-faced and tight-lipped.
"I think we're coming to a corner," Mickey said, and he spoke now in a whisper, "come on."
They had only just crept around this corner, the gun leading the way, when the remainder of the lights in the corridor they'd just left dimmed away to nothingness, too slowly to be sudden, too quickly to be unnoticed.
The next corridor was already so poorly-lit that when Mickey said, "shit" his teeth flashed like a beacon over a foggy sea. "No one …" he muttered.
"Definitely heard some– " Ianto said, but he was interrupted.
At the far end of the corridor, almost invisible in the half-light, someone stirred. A shape, human, and almost certainly male, moved cautiously, past the mouth of the hallway. It had a white face and was clad almost entirely in black, but no amount of scrutiny would render any more details than this; soon the stranger was gone, heading left into some unseen passage.
"Follow him?" Ianto asked. The air was very cold now, and he spoke from between clenched teeth, perhaps to stop them chattering – Ianto had never been great with low temperatures, and normally he'd have been moaning about it by now.
"Don't have a better plan," Mickey muttered. He didn't sound too certain about this. "The things this place does to basic physics – " he broke off as John jumped up and down with a let's see what happens now look on his face. They knew the look by now, of course. It happened whenever he was about to do something wholly irritating in an attempt to test their patience, or just before he blew their eyebrows off, or when he pointed a gun at a stranger for no reason beyond seeing what happens next. It was an expression Mickey and Ianto had learnt to dread.
"What," Mickey asked wearily, "are you doing now?"
"Were you expecting to?"
"One place I ended up in – somewhere in that Time Loop I told you about – " John threw a grin at Ianto, "you know the one I was stuck in for five years with Jack, having a whale of a fucking time," he looked back at Mickey, "near the epicentre of it, we found out – time was so slowed down that if you weren't part of that anomaly … you didn't follow events at the same speed as the rest of the matter there. Like gravity. Falling could take an hour – an hour to hit the ground if you did it right." The tone of his voice said quite clearly what that little trick had been used for – Ianto bit the inside of his lower lip and tightened his knuckles around air.
"Shall we?" he muttered.
"We haven't found any stairs yet," Mickey said so himself, "that's odd."
"Yeah, so are the moving walls and the weird door numbers, so what?" John pointed down the corridor with the tip of his knife. "Are we going or not?"
The team moved slowly down to the next junction, checking each door as they went; some had handles, all were locked; all had 'numbers', one even deviated from the theme of π to introduce i to them (and they were so excited by this that they stopped to observe it for longer than was probably normal), but it was still impossible to pick out a pattern.
At the T-junction, Ianto reminded them, "He went left."
Mickey pinched his nose and thought about it for a minute. "Okay. John, you stay here with K-9, okay?"
"What?" John said indignantly, flipping the knife from hand to hand.
"Stay. Here." Mickey growled. "I'm going left, after this guy. Ianto – go right, find out where he was coming from. We're not covering enough ground."
"This sounds like a really bad idea," Ianto warned, taking his stun gun out of his jacket and checking the charge. It was blank. "Look." He showed them the charge.
"Turn back as soon as you get to the corner," Mickey advised, "and I'll do the same. I just want to be sure we're not ruling anything out, here – but don't get out of sight of each other."
"That's if walls don't just spring up behind you," John said with a ghoulish expression, waving the fingers of his free hand like talons. "If I'm staying here I want my gun back." He held out his hand to Mickey, palm-up. Mickey sighed and passed it to him reluctantly.
"Don't fire it," Mickey instructed, setting off briskly to the left. Ianto gave the charge indicator on his stun-gun a dismal look, and moved quickly to the right-hand corridor. John slumped down on the carpet beside K-9 and swore to himself, stabbing the point of his knife down just beside the little robot dog's body.
Two doors down the corridor, Mickey began to wonder if this was such a brilliant idea after all.
The unchanging stillness, the doors which (he was starting to uneasily suspect) did change numbers when he wasn't looking at them, and the plummeting temperatures did not bode well for any of them; without K-9, a phone, any way of really marking where they'd been short of leaving a trail of blood (a horrible, morbid idea which Mickey immediately attributed to spending to much time around John), getting to a way downstairs or even out of the building was looking surprisingly difficult –
Patterpatter, went feet from in front of him. He tried to breathe quietly, willed is heart to stop thudding in such a strangled, angina-like way, and strained to listen.
Mickey broke into a run from a standing start. What, exactly, he proposed to do when he caught up with the source of the sound, since he was unarmed and … getting hungry … and feeling about as charming as an unwashed moose, he had no idea. But he was tired of skulking, and he'd turn back in a minute, it sounded like the footsteps were getting closer, and –
Mickey nearly swallowed his tongue as an unexpected side-branching corridor opened up – he kept on running from pure and startled inertia until he ran into the end wall and hurt his wrist trying to protect his face from the impact. What bothered him more than this, however, was that as he passed it he had caught a glimpse from the corner of his eye of an indeterminate number of people crouching some way down that darkened side corridor, pressed up against the walls as if waiting.
Mickey leant on the end wall, his sweat cooling too fast, his heart making threats about collapse he could only too well believe, trying to force his brain to work out the layout of the journey they'd made. The corridor he was in, for a start, seemed longer now he'd reached the end of it than when he'd glanced down it; his heart wouldn't be so aggressively fucked after such a short run. Couldn't be.
The corner turned the opposite way from the side corridor, and was utterly black. Not a single bulb leant its sickly glow to the inches beyond the corner, and for a moment Mickey was transfixed, unable to draw his eyes from the chill, dark mouth. It was impossible to tell even how far it went on.
After what felt like a lifetime, Mickey shook himself and passed back along the hallway to the side corridor – it was, at least, still there. He had briefly – but entirely seriously – entertained the notion that he'd imagined it, or that it had been there, but simply vanished as the walls had appeared earlier. It seemed more likely.
He peered around the corner. There were no people. He felt foolish, but the sensation of being followed didn't leave him, either. It dogged his rapid footsteps as he jogged (patterpatter) back to where John was still waiting, his legs extended in front of him and his arms behind.
The corridor ahead looked, of course, like every other corridor they'd wandered, stamped, shuffled, and tip-toed down so far. Ianto's stomach growled and his body shivered, from the gut-centre, in one of those unstoppable 'it is too cold to control my own movements' shakes that had been coming on sporadically every now and then, especially back in Anadyr. Somehow this was worse than Anadyr – Ianto shot a glance over his shoulder, his useless stun-gun clasped in his hand, at back where John had sprawled out on the carpet and was occasionally poking the dog disconsolately. In Anadyr, and at the lake, the cold had been logical; they were virtually in the Arctic. Cold was par to the course, there. Here, the cold was pervasive and windless, like the cold of crypts or those bloody school trips to no-longer functional mines, where you sat on a little train and stared into the damp darkness and someone threw your lunch off the back into the darkness.
Ianto's stomach made a sound again.
From behind him he heard John saying to the robot, "I bet if I took you to pieces and built a toaster even that would be able to do anything useful. You're just inherently fucked, aren't you?"
Ianto carried on into the gloom and coldness. The scar on his stomach was healed, or rather, "healed" now, but it still itched, and it was only the knowledge of how horrible and unsightly it was to do so that stopped him from scratching at it as he went along. He checked the doors, but after a few minutes the relentless march of non-numbers began to depress him, and he kept walking without looking at them.
From ahead he heard voices, soft, muffled, and indistinct. Ianto froze momentarily, backing into the nearest wall as automatically as breathing, his heart taking the opportunity to skip and jump and shove his stomach into his throat. He pointed his now-useless stun-gun ahead of him like a herald of his arrival, but no one moved; nothing appeared.
It wasn't really possible to tell how long he'd stood there, stun-gun poised, his breath clotting behind his clenched teeth, waiting for something to happen, but during the time he did, he caught John muttered more general threats at the robot dog and was almost certain he heard a hip-flask being drunk from.
Ianto moved cautiously on down the corridor, all too conscious of the sound of his own feet. He was so, so fixated on the end wall – which seemed to be shrinking away from him every time he blinked or adjusted his gaze, and on the sound of footsteps (had he imagined them?), that he only registered the corridor branching off to the same side as the one they'd entered by once he'd passed it.
He fell against the wall as soon as he realised, so suddenly that it was as if he had been knocked into it. Ianto took a long moment to catch his breath, and to pull his mind back in line. Another shiver stalked up and over his whole body from his gut, pitching him forwards as he stared into the near-darkness ahead and tried to work out if he'd really seen people at the end of that unexpected turning, or if he was just giving himself the extravagant creeps.
Ianto took a long, deep breath. Somewhere behind him he heard a swearword.
He tucked the stun-gun back inside his coat and turned on his heel. There was absolutely no point in waving around a weapon he wouldn't be able to use unless he wanted someone to attack him, after all.
It only took a few short steps to bring him back level with the corner of the side-corridor. Ianto inhaled again, touched the wooden panels beside him in unconscious superstition, and peered slowly around the corner, his eyes screwed up to pierce the half-light.
The side corridor was empty. There was no suggestion that anyone had ever set foot in it. There was no lingering waft of body heat, no displaced air, no gently swinging door that someone might have disappeared through, nothing at all.
And yet, as Ianto jogged anxiously back to the junction, to K-9's inert form and John's inebriated one, he couldn't shake the sense that someone had seen him, that someone was following them.
Mickey stamped off to the right, Jones to the left, and John sat down next to the dead weight dog for a bit of a rest. Thanks to the wonders of implants and correctional surgeries, to the medical marvels of the 51st and preceding centuries, despite the happy gin buzz wearing off in their hours of tunnel-crawling bullshit, he wasn't afflicted with anything approaching a hangover.
He was, however, feeling his age again. It was an unwelcome addition to life in the 21st century (also referred to, repeatedly, as "the fucking stone age") – things didn't always move at the same break-neck speed as they did in his home era, and the gaps between excitements were wearing him down. That was it. They were showing him the points at which his mechanisms would eventually break, and it was fucking ugly.
Stranded here in the miserable stone ages, millennia from decent medical facilities and bribeable wielders of life-prolonging technology, that breakdown wasn't optional.
John stretched his legs along the floor in front of him and stopped stabbing the carpet with the tip of his knife. He tucked it back into his boot, laid his gun on top of the stupid useless fucking robot as if it were a coffee table in a brothel, and tried not to meditate too lengthily on the incredible cruelty of it all; he could have explored either passage, gun at the ready, poised for action and adventure or something to fucking happen, but they'd made him sit here. Limp and pointless and alone and bored with the box of bits.
Of course, the box of bits could be conceivable remade into something more useful or at least less useless …
"I bet if I took you to pieces and built a toaster even that would be able to do anything useful," John growled, rather despondent. "You're just inherently fucked, aren't you?" He had no idea if he was talking to the dog or to himself.
The whole thing stank of a temporal knot – John was pretty sure he'd heard his own voice echoing back to him a few hours ago (or minutes, or days). But without his Vortex Manipulator to hand, thanks to Jones having his attack of self-preservation or heroism or whatever it was, it wasn't as if he could be sure or determine where and when it began and ended. Also, as he'd said, he'd been ever so slightly completely stone drunk in that class. Not that it would do any good to say anything … John plucked a hip flask from inside his jacket and sniffed the contents.
Mescal. Well, well. He emptied the flask down his throat in one go and sat back, his arms extended behind him to keep his torso propped up, and waited.
It was not very long before Mickey and Jones came hurtling back in clattering unison to break the same news at different pitches and speeds:
"Someone's following us."
"At least," Ianto amended carefully, as John got to his feet and brushed some theoretical dust from his trousers and Mickey surreptitiously massaged his own sternum with a slight grimace, "I think they are. I didn't get a proper look." He coughed and looked at his shoes. "When I went back there was no one there."
"Where?" Mickey put his hands on his hips and wheezed almost imperceptibly. It was now cold enough that his breath formed tiny clouds in the dim air before his mouth.
"Down this side corridor that came out of bloody nowhere, just off – " Ianto gestured to indicate, and Mickey narrowed his eyes apparently in thought.
"The same thing happened to me. Did you get to the end of yours?"
"No – saw the corridor and … well, I got a bit freaked out, really." Ianto looked a little embarrassed and put his hands in his trouser pockets, rucking up his suit jacket. "Came back here."
"Right, we'll take your turning," Mickey said decisively. "Mine's no good, the next turning just takes us into total – and I mean total darkness, and –" he examined the ceiling suddenly, "all the doors are, uh, locked."
"What about the side corridors?" John asked, adjusting his gun belts and generally fidgeting about. He smelt strongly of booze but even more strongly of the pheromone implants, which seemed to go into overtime whenever he himself wasn't otherwise too fragrant. Two pairs of eyes dilated even further.
The overhead bulb winked out.
"We're not staying here," Mickey sighed. "Got your gun?"
"Good. You're looking after K-9 again." Mickey aimed a slightly malicious smile at John and John made a face.
They set out; it was not long before they reached the lip of the side corridor, which – to Ianto's obvious surprise – was still actually there.
"John – " Mickey began in a whisper, but John – handing the robot's string to Ianto and drawing his gun with the same single movement – had already slunk round the others in a half-crouch. His gun fire-ready, his eyes straining against the grey, John leapt into the mouth of this new, perpendicular corridor.
He looked down it.
"NOTHING," John called without turning.
"We're not going down there," Mickey pointed on down to Ianto's original destination with his eyebrows raised. "Come on, John."
"Why not?" John holstered his gun reluctantly and stepped backwards, nearly colliding with Ianto in the process.
"Just takes us back the way we've come," Mickey pointed out, looking impatient.
"And how the fuck can you tell in this maze?" John griped, wiping his palm on the wall.
Mickey gave him the finger but said nothing. He took K-9's makeshift lead from Ianto's unresisting fingers and pointed down the corridor again. "After you."
Somewhere behind them, another light went out.
"Doors?" Mickey asked, towing K-9 along gently in his wake as he brought up the rear. It was quite hard to take him seriously, his trousers tucked into his boots and his silly dog dragging behind him.
"Pi," Ianto said, barely glancing to his left.
"Hello, hello," John said, smirking all over both his face and his voice. "I've found another of those infinity doors."
"Another corridor?" Ianto sighed,
"Might not be." Mickey trotted to catch up with John, K-9 rattle-rattling along behind him like a tiny trailer attached to a huge lorry.
This time, beneath the ∞ sign, someone or something had clumsily scratched a bizarre and splintery sigil comprised of a curved line and something less distinct, the likes of which –
"That's new," John said, staring at it. "Fucked if I know what that means."
"Not seen one of those before," Mickey agreed, "here or anywhere else. Ianto?"
"Why would I have seen it?" Ianto asked, a little grumpily. "I only left Europe this year, I'm not some galaxy-trotting … whateveritis … like you two – "
"No, but you've been cataloguing alien artefacts for years," Mickey said. He sounded impatient and entirely unsympathetic. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and come look at this, can't you."
With a rather sour look, Ianto came and stared at the rough squiggle on the door and blinked a few times in apparent surprise.
"Recognise it?" Mickey asked, looking intently at his expression.
Ianto rolled his eyes. "It's just the same thing repeated in Gregg and Pitman shorthand," he said with contempt so weighty it was almost tangible. "Which you would both know if you'd ever bothered to do any kind of administrative work in your entire life - "
"I.T," Mickey interrupted hastily, holding his arm up as if to protect his face.
"Field agent!" John added, waving his gun side-on in the general direction of both the others.
"So what does it say?" Mickey lowered his arm and peered at the scratches again.
"Time," Ianto said. "It just says 'Time'."
"Infinite time, huh?" John yanked the door handle and shoved the door open with his hip before anyone could stop him – he nearly fell across the threshold, and only just caught himself on the doorframe with his one free hand.
"OW," he muttered as he stepped back, rubbing a wrenched shoulder with scraped fingers.
What lay beyond the door was darkness, impossibly cold, impossibly windy darkness. High-speed winds rushed in deafening gusts past the pen doorway, bringing with it such indescribable cold that all three stepped back and Ianto immediately began shivering again. Gut-shivers wracked him as he stuck his hands in his armpits and pleaded, "Shut it!" like a history teacher in front of a class of teenage boys.
"Wait," John said suddenly, jamming his foot the way. "You know … look … I can tell …" he screwed his face up as if the words were coming to him from a long way away.
"What?" Mickey snapped.
John pointed into the impossible and inhospitable dark. "That's Lake … Lake El'gygytgyn," he said, eyeballing Ianto as if Mickey had vanished altogether.
"It's what?" Mickey repeated.
"Don't you recognise the smell?" John rounded on him. "The wind? That's Lake El'gygytgyn out … in … over …" he trailed off briefly but returned with a triumphant, "through there." He sounded so unexpectedly and uncharacteristically sincere that Mickey gave a start, and a second one when he noticed John and Ianto exchanging a look of understanding, dawning understanding breaking over both faces like a tide over a pair of discarded flip-flops.
"That voice," Ianto whispered.
"I knew it sounded like you," John muttered.
"It sounded like you," Ianto said, his hands still tucked away from the biting wind in his armpits and his shoulders hunched almost up to his chill-reddened ears.
"What are you two on about?"
"When you dived in that bloody cold lake," Ianto said breathlessly, "we only found you were in it at all because someone said, 'he's in the lake' … on the winds. I thought it was Irana … well, I didn't think much at all about it because we found you … but it didn't sound like her."
"No," John interjected, "it sounded like you or I wouldn't have fucking listened to it." His teeth chattered on the last 't', rendering it 'ttttttt-clack'.
"Like you," Ianto insisted, shaking his head.
"Are you suggesting – " Mickey looked back into the horrid blackness and shrugged. "… you probably are. Right" He burrowed his hands down into his pockets and shuddered. "Shout it."
"What?" Ianto's teeth chattered too: whatttttttt.
"Both of you. Shout it. Through there." Mickey's eyes gleamed in the low light, his clipped sentences keeping the chattering to a minimum. "The sssssooner you do, the sssssooner I can shshshshut this and stop us ffffreezing." He reached through and put his hand on the door handle, shaking so violently in the Arctic winds that he seemed to be doing some sort of St Vitus dance. Mickey struggled to raise encouraging eyebrows at Ianto.
"HE'S IN THE LAKE," Ianto bellowed almost at once, his folded arms constricting his chest and crushing the words.
John followed suit; "HE'S IN THE LAAAAAAAAKE – shut the fucking door, I'm about to lose my balls to this wind."
Mickey yanked the door shut with a bang; after the icy gusts from the doorway the mere bone-chilling cold of the hall felt almost toasty, and they slowly unfurled from their frozen huddles like ferns after rain.
"Okay – " Ianto began, but Mickey still had his hand on the door handle, and he broke off to stare at him suspiciously instead. "… what are you doing?"
"Just a hunch."
"Bugger your bloody hunches, it's very cold in there and you can't possibly think – " Ianto took a step away from the door and braced himself with an expression of indignant resignation.
"Look," Mickey said, pointing patiently to the ∞ screwed into the wood. "Notice anything?"
"No?" Ianto said, irritable. "It's a - oh."
The ∞ was alone on the door. No mysterious scratches, no sigils, no embarrassingly alien-looking shorthand, not even a dent or a scrape in the varnish. Ianto stared at it; John smirked and flopped against the wallpaper as if this were all par to the course, which – once – it sort of had been, for him.
"It's …" Ianto frowned and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Alright. But that doesn't mean the other side's going to be any different to how it was, does it?"
Without a word, Mickey pushed the door open again. An identical corridor stretched away like the embodiment of chilly monotony and Mickey said, "I told you there's something dodgy about cause an effect in this place," while looking just a tiny little bit smug.
"A knot in time," John corrected.
"You said nothing," Ianto said a little huffily, "about cause and-"
All the lights went out at once. The blackness was so sudden, so all-enveloping, that each of them wondered if he'd been struck blind or knocked out entirely.
"Did that - ?" Ianto whispered. Something about the situation demanded low voices.
"Yes," Mickey confirmed.
Somewhere a door banged, deafening in the silence, and the tension in the air intensified to an incredible pitch.
Another door banged. It sounded closer than the first, but in the absence of any landmark, or sense of proportion, directions and distance were non-existent or at least immeasurable in the most literal sense. Ianto reached out a wobbly hand for the wall to steady himself, but instead of wooden panels and flock his fingers brushed and grabbed at pressed wool. There was a shout.
"Whose arm was that?" Ianto whispered.
"Mine," John sounded rattled. "Warn me! Fuck."
"Stop it," Mickey hissed.
There was another bang, louder, maybe even closer to them, and in its aftermath everyone heard, and wished he had not heard, the unmistakeable grunt of someone or something's laboured breaths.
The Hub was quiet had trickled past like a leaking tap, and with it Gwen had finally dragged her hollowed eyes towards her own bed and the already-snoring welcome shape of her husband. Martha, bent over a tray half-filled with identical bone fragments, none bigger than an Argos pen, wore the slightly constipated, wide-eyed look of one who has been awake for several days and cannot yet see light at the end of the proverbial.
The door to Jack's office was shut, and the man himself was bent over the snowdrift of papers under which his desk had since vanished. Filing cabinets belched files from open drawers like Friday night drunks and the safe sat unlocked and empty.
Captain Jack Harkness pressed the receiver of an old grey rotary phone to his ear and counted rings on the transatlantic line. There were fourteen before a click preceded a sleepy-sounding, "Hello, this is the Cornrow Motel, Embargo. Vacancies are available right up to Thanksgiving, how can I help you?" It sounded not so much scripted as reflexive, as unthinking as a hiccup.
Jack toyed with a fountain pen. It was empty. The end was chewed. "Hello, Reneé."
"Oh," Reneé's voice assumed a tone of leaden recognition. "You again. What can I do for you, Mr Harkness?"
"Captain Harkness, but you can call me Jack." It was as reflexive as her preamble, as was the unseen wink – Jack threw the husk of the fountain pen at the overflowing hillock under which, he trusted, there was probably still a waste paper basket somewhere. He missed.
"Lucky old me," Reneé drawled. "What, Jack, can I do for you?"
"Many things, I suspect, but right now I need to know what's happened to my team." Jack frowned at an ink cartridge that had rolled out from under one of the blossoming paperwork archipelagos.
"Your team?" She sounded rightly incredulous.
"I haven't heard from them in three weeks," Jack said, flicking the cartridge away, "and I know them. If I let him Ianto would probably be making hourly progress reports. They did check in with you right?"
There was a rustling on the line which somehow contrived to sound irate, and a couple of clicks. Finally Reneé said, "They're the last entry in the ledger – Smith, Michael, company listed as Metal Dogs. Ha - … uh, … Harp? Harl? Hark? Herp? Hart? Hart, J, company … Excalibur."
"Excalibur?" Jack sighed.
"That's what I said. Quit interrupting. Oh, and Jones, Ianto – "
"That's pronounced 'Yahn-toe'," Jack said testily.
"Then he shouldn't spell it 'Ian-too'," Reneé snapped, "anyhow, he's with something called Torchwood. Those your boys?"
"That's them." Jack inhaled through his nose and out through his mouth. "So they checked in."
"Three weeks ago, yuh-huh. Is that all?"
"Did they check out again, Reneé?" Jack asked, sharp as an ice-pick and just as cold.
"No-oo. The cute one kept asking about the missing guests, so I told him they vanish up the North, and I guess they went after them, because none of them've shown up since." Reneé sighed. "Such a shame. I was thinking of letting him talk me into a drink."
"Reneé Bellmonte, when have you ever needed to be talked into a drink?" Jack snorted. "Last I tried I couldn't talk you out of one. You've no idea where they might be?"
"They're in the motel," Reneé said, and Jack could almost see her magnificent rack heave with the force of the shrug. "You want them so bad, come get them yourself."
"Fine, I will, you insufferable bitch," Jack growled. No amount of phone calls to Embargo over the years had inured him to how much Reneé reminded him of her mother in her most antagonistic moods; and she was like that every single time.
There was a bang in the background, some mumbling, and Reneé added, "Dad says can you bring him some diabetic chocolate if you're coming?"
Jack, about to hang up, gave a small start. "He's diabetic now?"
"Nope, just likes it better. Seeyah, Mister Harkness." Reneé yawned loudly into the phone; Jack hung up- and stared at the open sage for a moment before getting to his feet and pacing quite slowly to the autopsy room.
Martha's prodding at the bone fragments was, by now, as disjointed as the splinters themselves; Jack looked surprised to see her there at all.
She stared through him for an uncomfortably long time before collecting herself and saying with a mixture of apology and frustration, "I can't seem to – "
"Martha," Jack interrupted, holding her bleary and unfocused gaze, "go home and sleep before you break something. Possibly your sanity. Shoo."
She stared at him a little longer before blinking and nodding slowly, "sleep".
"Yeah, that thing you haven't done since Tuesday. Go." Jack gripped the rails and added, "Call a taxi. I don't want you driving in this state."
"It's not far, I'll walk …" Martha murmured, leaning on the wall as she rubbed slowly at her face, as if judging the distance to it with her hands was more mental effort than she could manage.
"No, you won't. Taxi." Jack pointed to her mobile phone, lying forgotten on the table beside a rack containing a solitary, empty test tube. "If you're not gone by the time I get back I'll be writing to Tom to tell him you're working too hard."
"Yeah?" Martha levered herself off the wall and gave him the phantom remnants of a devious grin, "Are you going to tell him it's your fault, too?"
Jack stuck out his tongue and carried on through to the back stairs. He passed the holding cells, the newly-repaired cold storage vaults (and that always made his heart sink and stutter like a failing engine), the shooting range, his own 'sleeping' quarters, and at last fetched up in the lower colon of the excavation, below even where Ianto had once ill-advisedly stashed his half-converted fiancé.
He bolted the door behind him, scraping rust on his palms, and picked up the first of many, many tubes, cables, and pieces of various scaffold. It was going to take a while and – Jack sighed at the low table, the incongruous companions upon it, of small laptop and large, plain urn – it was going to take a long while – he wasn't sure it would work at all. Still. If the worst came to the worst in this situation, he was going to need someone else to help carry the … bodies.
He shot another look at the urn as he slotted the first two pieces together, the schematics hazy in his mind (what he wouldn't have given for Tosh to be here for this … there was no doubt she could have corrected his patchy calculations). It had taken a long time and a lot of patience Jack really didn't have to sift through the fine dust in the isolation chamber, and a lot of alien tech claimed not to have to determine what had been inorganic matter, computers and the like, and what … hadn't. He hadn't been sure why he was doing it at first, beyond the compulsive refusal to give up on someone he'd been so certain he could save, but now he knew.
It had been a task so boring that he would have delegated it to Ianto had he not been all too able to picture the look of silent disapproval on his face. Ianto would have done it, but Jack would have felt those eyes boring into him for gods knew how long, and he could certainly have forgotten about sex. Which was a lot easier to deal with when Ianto wasn't there.
As Jack reached for a solid-state spanner and a cable tie, his mind continued to drift. It was futile to hope for even a minute that just because 'John' (the irony of the name was not lost on him, nor the fact that he'd predictably shot for something like Jack's own) had experience with a particular situation he'd actually act accordingly. John was the … he was …
Getting him out of Jack's hair might not have been the smartest decision, now he thought about it.
Jack swore and unscrewed something he'd just spent five minutes screwing together the wrong way round.
John, that fucking maniac, was someone you ideally wanted where you could see him and assess what he was breaking, not off causing untold damage out of sight, and Jack suspect he was going to pay heavily for letting his sense of discomfort get the better of his common sense.
He put three or four cable ties between his lips and continued working. Something scratched him, drew blood from him, but he paid no attention to it.
John made most people uncomfortable, usually on purpose, but Jack … Jack he made feel guilty, and not for the reasons he probably wanted. Not that Jack was usually prone to avoiding sources of guilt these days, either; he sat vigils over cold storage, counting the times he'd fucked up, the ones he hadn't been able to save, sometimes – now that Ianto was elsewhere there was no one to see and complain – repeatedly carving the Boeshane Standard "Gray" into whichever body part presented itself with whatever happened to be to hand –
Jack reached for the microwelder. Cold-welding wasn't really due to be invented for a while, but he cared less about minor anachronisms these days.
- but that was the point. Jack kept reminders of the times he'd tried and failed, to make sure he tried harder next time, to make him use the rest of his long and frequently lonely life to get it right. To get it right and make himself the kind of person the Doctor could, at last, be truly proud of.
John was a reminder of the past, but he was the kinder of reminder Jack was acutely ashamed of –
Jack twisted one cable through the juncture of two slats, stripped the insulation from it and taped it to a loop in another, almost identical cable. He was pretty sure now that Tosh would have made this mess a good deal less … messy.
- the kind of loud and obvious and breathing evidence of the time when Jack hadn't even been trying anymore. When he sunk himself into selfishness to forget everything that hurt, and … yeah, maybe fell in love a little … because that way of living was easier, more engulfing, and hid the guilt, and because he'd thought for a while that John had similar reasons.
It had transpired, of course, that this most hedonist (even by 51st Century standards), ephemeral of bastards had taken a very different path at a similar junction in life:
Jack (currently trying to align eighteen pistons in a simultaneous array) had been fourteen when he'd had to run, when he'd let go, when all the guilt and the hurting started. He'd run, and run, and run, and kept on running until he left everything that could touch him behind.
John, sometime in their interminable repeating fortnight, had quite happily told Jack about his equally formative experience, complete with sound-effects, whistling, and mimes. Jack had felt ever so slightly nauseated even then by the blasé and detailed descriptions of blood, bones breaking, the scrape of the pipe as one wild swing bounced off a wall, the image of his already-dying mother and the crack and crunch of his father's snapping fingers. The unconcern on his face still made Jack a little queasy even now ("How old … I mean, when …" he'd asked, drunk out of his skull again, and John had said, "Twelve," with the nonchalance of someone who has almost entirely lost the feelings connected to any given event).
John was a reminder Jack didn't need or want of just how far down he could sink.
Jack stretched his back and fingers and carried on. Sure there had probably seemed like a misfire in his sense at sending Ianto off in the company of the most corrupt single individual on the planet, but Jack had faith in Ianto's powers of stern disapproval – he grinned to himself. And in his ability to resist temptations Jack really couldn't. The model of self-control and exercised -… clank …- restraint.
Also, if he was really really honest, Ianto was … starting to be … just a little, tiny bit … creepy.
Not creepy exactly. Just, well.
Jack bolted a joist between a power node and a tube carrying a few feet of fibre-optic cabling, and wiped his face on his forearm.
Committed, that was the word. And intense and clingy and slightly creepy and too capable of predicting what Jack wanted or was going to do next and the whole monogamy thing chafed and –
There was a crunch and Jack guiltily unwound himself from the tube-lighting he'd just shattered.
And he reminded him, just a very, very little, of John. Only a little, and only in the sense that there was that needy, 'you're mine and no one else can have you' look in his eye, but somehow, sometimes, that was all it took.
And why the hell did he keep ending up with clingy men anyway? All the women he'd ever loved had been independent, vital, I'm Going To Bloody Shag Those Fifteen People Over There And You Can't Stop Me But I Suppose You Can Join In types, and yet these men kept cropping up. Ones who just couldn't let go of - ah.
Jack sighed, picked up a vacuum tube and lugged it to something that looked like a plant propagator full of fine silvery dust. He plugged the tube into a funnel-shaped aperture on one side, hesitated, and lifted the urn from the small table.
"I really hope these still work," he muttered, tipping the grey powdery dust in with the silvery dust already spread across the bottom of the propagator.
He took a wire protruding from its base, inexpertly fumbled a USB connector onto it, and attached it to the laptop.
"Found New Hardware," the computer beeped.
"Shut it," Jack snarled. "Mister Smith?"
The computer remained infuriatingly silent despite the tell-tale flashing logo in the corner of the screen rather giving the game away. Jack rolled his eyes.
"Mister Smith, I need you," he said through gritted teeth. The connection whirred.
"Jack Harkness," said a honeyed voice from the laptop's tiny, tinny speakers. It sounded so much bigger than the machine. A complex multidimensional shape in fluctuating shades rotated onscreen through several planes more than ought to be possible. "Good morning. How can I be of assistance?"
Jack blinked and checked his watch – it was almost five. Assembling and configuring the set-up had taken longer than he'd thought.
"I sent you his profile," Jack said guardedly.
"You did. What you're asking me to do expressly contravenes Sarah-Jane's instructions and exceeds the bounds within which I am permitted to assist you." Mister Smith sounded disapproving too. Jack was beginning to think that there wasn't a single entity who ever actually liked his plans.
"Can you do it?"
"Some of the nanites are quite badly damaged, and even with the DNA sample and other material here there still isn't a lot to work with," Mister Smith's silky voice said.
"But can you programme the preset into them?" Jack persisted stubbornly.
"… Go on, then." Jack gestured to the propagator. The webcam clipped onto the laptop's apex refocused itself.
"Manners, Captain Harkness, cost nothing."
Jack growled, "Please," in an exceptionally disagreeable tone, and there was a loud click.
The dust inside the propagator began to swirl like a tiny, localised sandstorm, glowing weakly. Jack sat back on the edge of the table, his knuckles wedged thoughtfully between his teeth. The dust was growing thicker, the glow stronger, and before long a shower of it wooshed along the vacuum tube towards the framework.
Three nozzles realigned themselves.
"Did you – ?" Jack's head snapped round to stare at the computer. The light structure onscreen fluctuated colours again.
Rather smugly for a supposedly emotionless construct, Mister Smith said, "You miscalculated. I will be performing the necessary corrections in order to obtain the most satisfactory possible result."
Jack relaxed a little and watched as fine dust fell into the tingling supercharged air amid the framework, hanging and sparkling like motes in an afternoon sunbeam, barely outlining any coherent shapes. He allowed himself the start of a smile – watching Chula nanotechnology at work was always so beautiful, the voiding of the robots' light cells as they exchanged information making them look almost like fairy dust.
A little later, when flesh and blood corpuscles and the visible infrastructure of the body's map began to form, doubling and redoubling matter, Jack revised his view a little.
When the organs themselves began to be discernable he took his knuckles out of his mouth again and got to his feet once more. He dragged a couple of pieces of ugly, twisted, alien-looking metal to the rear of the framework and kicked it into place with his toe.
"You should have done that five minutes ago," Mister Smith chided.
"Ready?" Jack asked, ignoring the snipe.
"Consciousness imminent," Mister Smith confirmed. The body suspended in the framework was still less than half organic matter. Storms of dust, of self-replicating, all-but-invisible robots, buzzed and swirled about in the vague shape of the rest, occasionally distorting as they worked on something. Trickles more of them still issued from the nozzles, and the propagator boiled like a pot of rice had somehow been bred with a million panicking bees.
"Owen," Jack said, tense enough for all the blood to drain from his face. "Owen, can you hear me?"
There was no response. Jack stalked round to the table and added, "it's okay."
Seeing lips and tongue, larynx and throat trying to form from a grey-brown airborne powder was not the strangest thing Jack had seen or even attempted to have sex with, but it still gave him a chill. The voice was tinny at first, distant and metallic.
"Owen," Jack repeated, settling into a more authoritative stance.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Owen's voice howled like a thousand off-station radios and – like a switch being hit – abruptly jerked into a normal, albeit angry, speaking voice. The rest of his body was still a mess, but the speech-production areas of corpus and cerebellum were apparently finished. "What's going on?"
"Relax," Jack said, looking Owen in the cloudy, dust-filled not-yet-eye firmly. "It shouldn't take long, now."
"Oh no, no, no …" Owen's voice groaned. Apparently the situation was becoming clear to him. "What are you doing now? Wasn't it bad enough last time you did this?"
"You really want to be dead?" Jack asked, folding his arms. It wasn't much of a question; there was a long pause, as close to a silence as the room could get with all the bustling activity contained within. "No one wants to stay dead once they've been dead, do they, Owen?"
Another long pause swept the room, and Owen said in a rough voice, "Why are you doing it?"
"I need you."
"Very fucking flattering." There was a third pause, this one shorter and louder. "Where're the others?"
"Gwen's at home," Jack said soothingly, "Martha too, by now – "
"Martha." There wasn't yet enough real face for Owen to have an expression, but Jack knew pretty well which one it would be just the same. "I suppose you had to replace me eventually."
"Can't do without a doctor, and she's not replacing you, just your role," Jack said, his throat unexpectedly tight. "And Ianto's … well. Ianto's MIA, which is why I needed you."
"And Tosh?" Owen pounced on the omission like a fox.
Jack knew he would; no amount of time would let him forget how sharp Owen was. Had been. Would be. Fucking grammar. Jack said nothing.
"Where's Tosh?" Owen snapped, and for a moment the beginnings of teeth flashed between his lips.
"She …" Jack looked at the floor. It was a mess.
"She didn't make it, Owen," Jack said at last, and he stared at the rough, cave-like ceiling with something approaching concentration. "She didn't make it and it was my fault."
There was a very long and loaded silence.
"It usually is," Owen said. "But I suppose it's better than the alternative."
"Can't save 'em all," Jack said, in the ghost of a voice with the ghost of a smile on his lips. "Isn't that what they teach you in medical school? When to give up?"
"You think I listened to that?"
"No more than I did," Jack agreed. Owen's skin was closing over more and more of the gaps now, and the hum in the air was diminishing moment on moment. His eyes were nearly fully-formed, and he had eyelids, and the suggestion of eyelashes, and – "
"You're staring, Jack."
"Cute skinny guy hanging naked in my basement? You're damn right I'm staring," Jack said automatically. "You can see already?"
"No, I took a wild stab in the dark," Owen snorted, and there was a grinding whirr behind his voice. "Yes, I can bloody see."
"Process completed," Mister Smith announced. "And by that I mean 'this is the best you will get from the materials provided', not 'a perfectly adequate human being has resulted'."
"Hey," Owen objected, "I've been alive thirty seconds and I'm already being heckled by a machine."
"Welcome to Torchwood," Jack said, unconsciously mimicking not only Ianto's delivery but his expression too. "That will be all, Mister Smith. Thank you."
Mister Smith and the connection logo vanished, but Jack yanked the webcam and mike out anyway, for his own peace of mind. He turned to Owen, who had disentangled himself from the complicated lattice with which he had been resurrected, and said by way of an introduction to the crisis, "Okay. We have a problem."
"Yeah," Owen agreed, "I don't have any clothes."
"That," Jack said with an arch of his eyebrow, "I was viewing as more of an opportunity. They're over there – " he pointed to a battered cardboard storage box among the eclectic chaos towards the back of the room and watched Owen pick his way carefully over there, with a distant expression. "So your glasses should be too."
Owen, in the process of pulling on a pair of grey boxer shorts, looked back at him over one bony shoulder with a puzzled expression, and squinted once or twice. "I can see perfectly."
Jack frowned. "You're ridiculously short-sighted. You have industrial-strength contact lenses specially made by a friend of yours in Glasgow."
"And now I can see," Owen maintained, "perfectly."
"It … huh." Jack shrugged. "They must have fixed that too. Amazing."
"Get dressed faster," Jack waved a hand, and closed up the laptop, sticking it under his arm.
Ten minutes later, as Jack backed an unexpectedly modest newish Ford Mondeo out past the garage walls (leaving the SUV for Gwen who was, in all honesty, less likely to crash it into the back of another vehicle than Jack was), Owen said, "What exactly is going on?"
"Some sort of … time problem," Jack said shortly, looking over his shoulder as he grappled with the wheel, "and the away team are missing."
"Away team," Owen echoed uneasily. He looked uncomfortable, his tongue poking about into the crevices and corners of his mouth, his throat working constantly, eyes fixed to where his fingers gripped the inside door handle too tightly. They were white with pressure.
"Sure, the Global Investigation Division – that's Ianto, Mickey, and John – "
"JOHN?" Owen sat bolt upright and glared at him as if he'd produced a cobra from his pocket.
"It's okay," Jack said as soothingly as he could while trying to negotiate two parked cars and not seriously believing his own reassurances. "Or at least it has been so far. I sent them up to check out a suspected bump in space-time – David Bellmonte's been on at me for years to look into it but I haven't been able to spare the resources until now and this time I got a message from a very good source that it had to happen. So they went in and never came out. That was three weeks ago. I'm hoping that they're just stuck in a loop, getting on each other's nerves, but in the even that something's gone wrong …"
"We ride to the rescue."
"We …" Jack grimaced and clutched the wheel. "We bury the bodies." He put the Mondeo in gear and accelerated up the early morning street.
"Jesus, Jack –" Owen braced himself against the inner wall, and his frown deepened somewhat dramatically. "… why … why can't I feel anything?"
"I have no idea. More important things on my mind." Jack changed up a gear. Another. "Look, the way things stand all I can be sure of is that time's moving differently for them than it is for us out here. It might be that we find out they've only been in there ten minutes of their own lives and they think we're nuts for worrying, or …"
"Or?" Owen gritted his teeth as Jack swerved to avoid a self-satisfied looking ginger cat curled around the white lines in the road's centre.
"… Or they may have starved to death over several months. Or there may be something else in there with them. There's no way yet of knowing." Jack floored the accelerator and Owen groped at his seat-belt.
"I can see why we always made Ianto drive now," he grumbled.
"They don't have John's Vortex Manipulator anymore," Jack finished, rocketing out of the city centre like a teenager in a stolen Porsche, "I got that much from Mickey's last report. About the only thing I did get. That kid really needs a secretary. So I'm pretty sure – FUCK!"
The lorry driver blasted her horn angrily at them and Owen, acting out of long-established habit, glared out of the passenger window at her. They passed the long vehicle slowly, and by the end of it he should have had a crick in his neck.
" … where was … oh yes. I'm pretty sure we're the only ones who can really do anything." Jack flashed his wrist-piece at Owen.
"They're in America."
"And we're in Cardiff."
"Are you going somewhere with this? Only there's quite a lot left to explain." The Mondeo roared, and Jack contrived to make the tires squeal quite unnecessarily.
"I'm legally dead, Jack. How the fuck are you proposing to get us both to … whatever this place is called? Stick me in a suitcase?" Owen clutched the side of his seat on the gearstick side and stared at Jack's face in the mirror.
Jack grinned. "Fortunately, I know some guys who have their own air transport. Called UNIT. You may have heard of them …" he changed up another gear, his teeth clenched in something that wasn't, on close inspection, even related to a smile. "And the town's called Embargo. That clear everything up for you?"
Owen was busy feeling around in his mouth with his tongue again, a frown suffusing his wide features. "Everything's changed." Owen jerked his eyes to the road disappearing under their wheels. "This isn't the Torchwood you dragged me into."
"Things were different," Jack acknowledged, taking a corner too fast.
"No shit," Owen muttered, hanging onto the SUV's inner windowsill with his fingernails as the vehicle skidded on wet ice. "I hadn't died twice."
"You're not going to beat my record," Jack said with a grim smile. "But you're right ... it used to just be people with nothing left to lose: you, me, Suzy, Ianto ... Tosh. I thought that would minimise the damage." He looked rueful. "Now Gwen's here with Rhys and her family, and Martha's here with Tom and her family ..." he brooded out over the road.
"And you've got Ianto."
"Mm - what? Anyway, I thought a field team might be a good idea. I thought it'd stop any … real … bitterness …" he peered at the sat-nav. "… Over that, and it keeps John the hell away from me, away from Cardiff, away from the Rift and all the technology at the Hub."
"And with Ianto."
"Ianto's a big boy, he can handle it," Jack said dismissively, and added with another of his calculatedly disturbing grins, "A very big boy."
"Oh shut up. I can't believe you sent Ianto to the other side of the fucking world, he's only been a field agent five bloody minutes!" Owen shook his head in disbelief. "This whole thing is fucked up. I thought the glove was a dangerous idea, now you're screwing with space and time and whatever that machine just was and you were the one who told us not to - "
Jack rolled his eyes as if he was being nagged about paperwork. "Owen, you're already dead and I can't die. That is why we are going in to find out what's happened to my worthless ex-partner and the rest of the field team." Jack accelerated even more and Owen squeezed his eyes shut in alarm. The mist had not yet evaporated from all the roads, and some of the approaching cars on the dual carriageway were using fog lights. "Anyway," Jack said even more dismissively, "Ianto and Mickey can take care of themselves normally."
"That's not - " Owen opened one eye a crack and said, "one more question."
"Who the hell is 'Mickey'?"
Bathed in the most spectacular and complete of darknesses, feeling his way along the wall with his currently inert canine-robot companion dragging awkwardly behind him, Mickey stopped again. This time he could distinctly hear – over the sounds of the team's ragged breathing – someone humming.
"What's that?" he said, stopping dead in the corridor. He knew perfectly well what it was, but the likelihood of hearing anyone humming it in some sort of temporal whirlpool in the middle of nowhere was so incredibly slim that his brain was threatening to capsize.
Behind him – the opposite direction to the humming as far as Mickey could judge – Ianto cleared his throat and said, "I believe," very cautiously, "it's your song."
"I hate this song," Mickey growled. It was entirely automatic. If someone had played this song while stabbing him in the chest he'd have thought first God I hate this fucking song before he got around to the I appear to be dying part.
"I know," Ianto sounded conciliatory – evidently remembering Mickey's drunken rant on the subject from the latter half of that stupid cruise – but Mickey couldn't help feeling a little suspicious.
Somewhere ahead of them the humming was of course joined by the fucking hand-claps.
"Who the hell is doing that?" he murmured. It was definitely coming from ahead, and the incongruousness of something - someone - trying to reproduce bubblegum pop in these tense and strange circumstances was needling him. "Who the hell would …"
"… so fine, you blow my mind …" a heavily-distorted voice whispered.
"Fuck I hate that song," Mickey grunted, trying to locate the voice, trying to identify it, and having absolutely no success. He wasn't even sure the others could hear it at all. If he hadn't just conjured it out of his imagination and unfortunately extremely intimate knowledge of the bloody tune being hummed.
"What song?" John sounded confused and annoyed and considerably further back than he ought to be.
The song – the humming, the hand-claps, the muttered lyrics that Mickey might have been imagining anyway, the whole hateful package – stopped as suddenly as it had started, and Mickey was relieved in spite of himself.
They carried on through the dark, and Mickey tried not to do the inside of his own mouth a serious injury when he found the song was stuck in his head.
The landscape around Embargo had never before played host to a helicopter. As the sound of blades whirring through the sky faded away, and various small bushes stopped shaking in apparent terror of the whirlybird, Owen said in a vaguely accusatory tone, "Everything tastes of sand."
"You're in a desert," Jack strode up across the mostly-deserted carpark, noting the battered ex-Army jeep minding its own business opposite a dented and abused Plymouth, and barely breaking step as he came up to the door of the huge building. It sat like a dropped brick in the landscape, utterly out of place, swearing at the rest of the town's architecture as it dwarfed it, looking like a Parisian hôtel had encountered Dorothy's tornado and got the rough end of the travel bargain.
"It tasted of sand in Cardiff," Owen said in a distracted, uncharacteristically distant manner. "My mouth. It feels like the fucking Sahara's in there."
"Owen." Jack stopped with his hand on the door and gave him an impatient look. "There are more important things right now than your mouth, capacious and amazing though it no doubt is." He pushed the door open with his whole forearm, and waltzed into the motel's lobby like he owned the place.
The lobby looked like it had died in 1870 or something, and even the flies on its corpse had grown bored of the inactivity and moved on to more exciting quarters. The two most immediately noticeable things were the surprising cold and the large framed pencil drawing of a minotaur on the wall behind the desk, drawn by someone who had clearly seen a lot of naked men but very few bulls, and the third wandered out of one of the two doors opposite with a bottle of something like fortified wine in her hand and regarded them with mild intrigue.
Her eyelids, half-closed over large brown eyes, had been painted an offensively bright and metallic shade of turquoise, and her pale pink bowling shirt strained against every inch of her: meaty upper arms, rolling round stomach, and utterly mesmerising breasts which must have been really troubling some industrial underwiring to be in that position.
"Well, hello Captain Harkness," Reneé took her seat behind the counter and concentrated on pouring herself a tumbler full of sickly-smelling wine. "We meet again. Finally."
"Hello, Reneé," Jack flashed her a distracted smile and came to lean over the counter's upper reaches, staring down at her with an expression of more rue than welcome. "Your dad here?"
"He's gone for episode nine thousand of Engraver Wars: Return Of The Dumbasses Who Can't Fucking Count," she said, proffering the bottle. Jack shook his head; Reneé shook her head and topped up her own glass. "He'll be back this evening. Probably."
"You gonna tell me whereabouts my team went missing?" Jack drummed his fingers on the counter, apparently too short on patience to really switch on any charm.
She curled her upper lip. "North. I told you, Jack, that's all I know." The sneer faded into a full-lipped smile which still looked far too sardonic to be sincere. "Y'know, I guess I can see what they saw in you after all."
"North," Jack persisted. Behind him Owen put his index and middle finger in his mouth and tried to scrape the back of his tongue with a look of intense indifference to the actual conversation.
"Yes, Captain Killjoy, North, on the second floor, probably. That's American second, not freaky British second, like I had to explain to the cute one and IRS. Twice." Reneé sighed and took a very large mouthful of the wine. She waved sarcastically at him, both eyebrows raised, and Jack gestured for Owen to follow him to the stairs.
"So how the hell do you know her?" Owen muttered as Jack pulled the weighted fire door open.
"I used to date her parents in the Seventies. We stayed in touch." Jack shrugged. "Also I was at the ungrateful little bitch's Christening, which was an eventful occasion let me tell you …"
"You dated both her parents?"
"At the same time?"
"It was the Seventies." Jack started up the stairs.
When they reached another junction, largely discovering it by stumbling over at the sudden lack of wall, it was a true crossroads – three options open, three new ways to get lost.
Something scraped on something solid and stony in the dark and all three heads whipped round, trying to find the source of the noise. None of them knew it, of course, but they looked very like a pack of blind meerkats in some night-vision TV documentary, moving in twitchy unison.
"I'll go that - " John began, but Ianto's hand shot out with surprising accuracy and seized his wrist, his fingers closing like the jaws of something starving around the bones.
"No one's going to split up and search," Mickey instructed, "we'll never find each other again, the echoes in this place are really weird. They're … well, there shouldn't even be echoes. There isn't enough space for them to - "
Mickey carried on for a while, explaining the physics of echoes, but John wasn't really listening. He was instead looking from his restrained wrist to where he thought Ianto's face might be, then back to his wrist, then back to the possible location of Ianto's face, with a deepening and bewildered frown.
After the long, long silence that followed Mickey's pointless lecture, John half-twisted until his arm came loose and, fumbling in the dark for a while, got Ianto's hand into his.
"Alright," he said in a more serious voice than he usually bothered to use, "I'm not going anywhere."
Ianto's fingers flexed uncomfortably in John's grip, but he made no move to pull free and the team moved onwards, K-9's inert weight trundling along behind on his string like a child's toy.
"Straight on?" Mickey said.
"Straight on 'til morning," Ianto said in a voice that was more dry than wavering, but still more wavering than he realised.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" John sighed, and they stumbled on.
"Hey!" Reneé called, and Jack stopped three steps up the carpeted stairway like some Civil War heroine.
"Yes?" he called back, motioning for Owen to hold the staircase's door open. There was a breathy silence that seemed to stretch on forever as Reneé's footsteps thumped quietly across the lobby.
She appeared in the doorway like the spirit of some eternal New Year's Eve party and held out a hand to Jack. In it were two very large, red balls of wool, gripped tightly enough to make the more imaginative male eye water. "These may help."
"Oh, is that right, Ariadne?" Jack snorted, coming down to take them from her. He also dipped a little at the knees to give her a kiss on the cheek (she smelt of wine, mostly, and a little of the biscuity sweat-smell that young people have), which was greeted with a friendly but hard punch in the upper arm for him.
"Don't die too often," she said by way of a farewell, lingering in the doorway. Then she waved her fingers at Owen in a mockery of coquettishness. "Seeyah, Frogface."
The door swung shut slowly.
"Frogface," Owen sighed, apparently resigned to this fate.
Jack grinned and bounced his eyebrows. "Suits you."
Owen thudded up the stairs behind him like a toy bear being dragged up by the wrong limb. "I suppose it's better than 'dickhead'."
Jack stuffed the balls of wool into his coat pockets, which were virtually deep enough to constitute a space-time anomaly in their own right, "I have never called you that. To your face."
"Suzy used to." Owen caught up with him in time to see Jack's grimace fold itself away again like some secretive origami beast. "What's the wool for?"
"You know the story of the Labyrinth of King Minos of Crete?"
They reached the landing, Jack consulted the tiny compass set in his Vortex Manipulator's wristband, and they set off down the nearest North-facing corridor.
"The Minotaur?" Owen didn't sound convinced.
"Right. And you know the old fairytale, in the woods … Hansel and Gretel? The breadcrumb trail?" Jack glanced at the nearest room. The door number read "065", and there were scuff-marks around the bottom of the door, as if it had been shoved against an uneven carpet.
"Yeah, of course."
"A bit like that. Completely pointless, of course, because I have this - " Jack tapped his wrist with a smile, "- which should steer us straight, temporally-speaking, but it was a nice thought. I guess she hates me a little less than I thought she did." He stopped and held his own hand against his cheek for a thoughtful, frowning moment. "Is it just me," Jack added, "or is it kinda too cold in here for a place with no air-con?"
"It's just you," Owen said pointedly, "I can't feel anything."
Jack exhaled slowly and with an experimental air as they passed by "069". It was half-visible in front of him, like a shy fog. He gave Owen a childishly triumphant look.
Owen groaned. "You know what I meant."
"Nevertheless – stop – " Jack fished one of the balls of wool out of his pocket with some difficulty and, fiddling for a good long while, finally tied the end of it to the nearest door handle.
"You have got to be kidding me," Owen muttered. "You're not seriously going to … oh come on, Jack. You've got that – "
"Better safe than sorry."
"This is ridiculous."
Jack gave him a grin that lasted less than a second. "It's always best to have a back-up plan."
"I wasn't aware," Owen grunted, "that you had one plan."
Jack began unwinding the coarse red wool slowly, paying it out between his fingers as they started off down the corridor again, and he shot Owen a mock-aggrieved look. "Oh, death has made you sassy, Dr Harper."
"Just concentrated my natural talents," Owen said grimly.
There was no way of knowing, in the darkness, how long they had inched and stumbled along. Their hands encountered a seemingly unending string of locked doors on either wall, and so far Ianto was really the only one who could determine what the plaques said by mere touch – which ones were π, which with appended symbols, which were blank and which were misplaced. He refused to explain why, claimed something about 'tactile intelligence' in an unfriendly accent, and called out the plates as they came up.
It was however John who found the door that none of them admitted to having been searching for – he said, "I think this one's another infinity one," and Mickey walked into him while following the sound of his voice. Ianto stumbled across the corridor and thumped into the wall, hard, almost as if he was testing its solidity.
"Ianto?" Mickey's voice echoed impossibly in the narrow corridor.
"Here – " Ianto felt his way along to the door, elbowing John away in the process – John fell back only far enough to let him squeeze through, and stood close enough that his breath, rising, tickled the back of Ianto's cold neck. Ianto raised his hands to the varnish and felt around; not only was there a metal ∞ held in place without screws, but below it there were scratches which a little cautious groping identified as almost certainly being the Pittman & Gregg for "Time" again. "It's … he's right. But there's …"
"More shorthand?" Mickey finished. "Right. Good. Is it locked?"
"What if it's more of the same?" Ianto asked, meaning that frozen wasteland they'd bawled into like idiots hours (or weeks) before.
"C'mon, that wasn't even the same place once we'd shut the door for a bit. I have a hunch we're not going to be seeing Lake El – Lake … whatever … again."
"Bugger your hunches," Ianto muttered, but he leaned on the door handle all the same. The door creaked loudly and swung inwards with difficulty, as if something was caught on its underside. Ianto shoved a little harder, and whatever it was rolled out of the way – the door thumped open.
"The fuck?" Mickey observed.
It was the Hub.
"That's the Hub," John said helpfully.
"Home," Ianto muttered with a kind of gut-wrenched sigh, taking a step towards it as if drawn there like a moth to a bulb. In the light streaming from the open door all three looked oddly ethereal and like they had only just woken up.
"Wait, wait," Mickey handed the string that tethered him to K-9 into John's unwilling fist. "You, stay here." He beckoned to Ianto, ignoring John's immediate and predictable complaints. "Come on, then," and stepped through the doorway, into the light.
There was a door where no door should have been – the corridor apparently ran through the centre of Jack's office and part of the partition wall - and the place was currently deserted. Distant sounds, of running water and murmuring voices, were rendered faint by the closed door. A file balanced precariously on the edge of Jack's desk, on the rim of some forgotten coffee mug, like an overhanging rock. Working almost exclusively on his well-programmed autopilot, Ianto stepped forwards with his hands out to steady and move it.
"Don't touch it!" Mickey instructed, but it proved unnecessary – Ianto's hand passed through the file without resistance and without any visual indication that one was more or less real and solid than the other.
Ianto's face as he pulled back and stared hard at Mickey was white as salt and rather more than a little horrified; even his lips appeared bloodless. "Are we … is this … Jesus … I don't know what to think."
"Different temporal planes," John called in a bored voice from the doorway.
"I have no idea what he means," Mickey whispered, peering at the file, and as he straightened up a thought struck him square across the brain as if it was wielding a brick. He blinked and grabbed Ianto by the upper arm, which he could, at least, still touch. Ianto looked alarmed and displeased by this but didn't actually jerk out of his grip. "Does Jack keep his desk calendar up to date?" Mickey hissed excitedly, his fingers digging quite painfully into Ianto's flesh.
"Yes," Ianto frowned, nonplussed and obviously annoyed, "Religiously. He's … like that … about passing time. You know."
Mickey let go and pointed silently at the red-and-white day-per-page calendar wobbling atop two blue box files and an empty, dirty plate. It showed one of the dates when they'd been in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, and for a moment Ianto frowned even harder, trying to work out what significance this held.
"You remember what Jack said when I asked him," Mickey said quietly and with some urgency, "in the jeep. He said he trusted the information he'd got about where we needed to be because he'd got it from me. A message from me telling him where we were going to be and when, and I hadn't spoken to him about it because I had no idea until he told me." He bit the inside of his mouth. "An element of Time, he said. What if I have to – " Mickey broke off and stared around the office. Everything seemed real and solid and clear as always, as if he was there on his first visit to the place, but as soon as he tried to pick up a fountain pen that lay lidless on the desk's cleared edge, his hand went through not only the pen but the desk too, leaving him feeling giddy and disoriented, as though someone had picked up the world and rattled it.
"Won't that cause a paradox?" Ianto asked dubiously, staring not at Mickey but rather at, and perhaps through, the pen he'd tried to pick up.
"I think … it's already caused one," Mickey ruminated, also staring at the pen. For all that he was standing still, he seemed quite animated. "And that's why we're here, now … if we don't find some way to leave the message, how will we know where to be? How will Jack know where to send us? The paradox we're already in would collapse, and then who knows what would happen?"
"What's this about a paradox?" John called from his spot by the door.
"Shut up," Mickey said absently, his eyes unusually bright. "Look, I just have this … this feeling that this is what we've got to do, here."
"You've been having a lot of hunches and feelings of late," Ianto said with more than a touch of suspicion.
"You can shut up too if you're not going to be helpful," Mickey grumbled, and he half-turned without actually taking his eyes off the pen. "John!"
"Still here hurry up I'm bored," John said in one impatient breath. "Also it's cold, why do you two get to be in the warm while I'm out here?"
"Any ideas about how to leave a message when I can't actually touch anything?" Mickey called, still mostly concentrating on the desk and surrounds as though in the final stages of some prestigious international Kim's Game tournament. "… huh. Isn't that Jack's …"
"Vortex Manipulator," Ianto said, then added in a sotto voce remark obviously not really intended for Mickey's ears, if the wistful tone was anything to go on, "he takes it off to shower."
"What?" John shouted.
"Nothing," Ianto snapped.
"See if you can find his Vortex Manipulator, his wristband," John insisted loudly, and there was a clank as he presumably kicked the dog in frustration. He looked absurd – there was dirt on the parts of his face that weren't in shadow, and he was still clutching K-9's string, too tight to be wholly sane about it.
"What good's that going to do?" Mickey asked irritably, giving John the benefit of his attention for a few seconds. "I can't touch anything. My hands just go straight fucking through, I can't –"
"You don't need to touch it," John yelled, craning his neck forwards and rocking on his feet as if ready to take a step. "Just let me – "
"For fuck's sake!" John punched the wall with his free hand – both of them heard the thud – and added a little more calmly, "Get close to it, there's a sensor … it can pick up temporal disturbance. There's a whole … there was a … fucking hell what was it … it can read temporal signatures. SOMETHING LIKE THAT." John insisted, apparently not wholly put off by Mickey's tone. "Just get within range, get within range and say record message and that should do it – it should capture – have you found it?"
"How close is 'in range'?" Mickey asked, walking through the desk rather than around it to get to shelf where the lights on the leather strap blinked sluggishly to themselves.
"I don't know! CLOSE."
Mickey put his hand out to the device and several of the lights flashed urgently, red and angry, all at once. "Ianto – Ianto, mate, open your eyes, I've stopped walking through furniture now – " Mickey spoke in a low monotone.
"Do you remember dates?"
"Dates. You know, when we got to Panama. Stuff like that?" Mickey appealed to him, his hand resting half-through the strap and the shelf.
Without answering or opening his eyes Ianto took a black moleskine from his breast pocket and stretched over the desk so he could pass it to Mickey.
"It … " Mickey flipped through the pages until he found one headed Panama. "Oh, good …" he added, holding the pages open. "RECORD MESSAGE."
While Mickey attempted to explain to some sort of audiovisual answering machine what it was Jack needed to do in order to avert, or rather create, a paradox already in progress, Ianto wandered around the office, trying to pick things up and put them away.
Nothing cooperated. Nothing allowed his hands to grip it, everything just sat there looking frustratingly, tauntingly solid and normal, and Ianto felt a cry of anger and homesickness clawing at the back of his throat as he looked around at the achingly familiar surroundings.
"What the fuck are you doing?" John called irritably.
"SHUT UP," Mickey suggested, and went back to trying to ladle information into the faint blue glow that surrounded the wristband.
Ianto continued to circle the office, trying hard not to brush through anything rather than walking around it, and fought against the very large and unpleasant lump in his throat that threatened to choke him. A sense of unease was building, and he couldn't work out whether it was foreboding or nostalgia, just that his guts churned and his eyes watered in the unexpected cold.
Mickey's head jerked up like a startled rabbit. "We need to go."
"I'm not leaving," Ianto said stubbornly, trying to grip the desk.
"Come on, something's not right –"
"YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF THERE," John bellowed, his foot wedged between the door and the frame. "The door's trying to shut itself and I am not getting left out here with the tin can."
"Ianto," Mickey said, watching him go statue-still in the middle of the room. "Come on."
Ianto wavered, clearly conflicted, his eyes drinking in the room as Mickey got between it and him and tried to shove him towards the door.
"COME. ON." He set his shoulder to Ianto's side and pushed him as he might have pushed a stubborn door. Ianto blinked at him and with slow, dragging steps finally walked back to the door, every second of the way clearly debating whether or not to remain there regardless.
They were scarcely through the door before John yanked his foot away with a cry of pain and it slammed just behind them; Mickey very wearily pressed John's gun back into his hand and, so doing, retrieved K-9's "lead".
"Thanks for injuring yourself to save us, John," John muttered, "Oh, no problem, I wasn't really using that foot anyway and of course I'm so hugely fucking attached to your well-being …"
"Shut up," Ianto said, his voice choked behind the omnipresent lump and not as fierce as it might have been. "Shut up."
The faint but recognisable thump of bass drifted towards Jack and Owen through the floorboards, like passing train; Jack, red knitting wool spilling in a stream like a blood trail behind him, stopped and cocked an eyebrow at Owen. "Interesting." He glanced at his wrist-piece, which had been going quietly but pointedly ballistic for some time now. "That sound familiar to you?"
Owen said, "It sounds like music," rather facetiously.
"Sounds like Boney M to me," Jack said with a too-big grin.
Owen stared at him. "I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that," he said in a pained voice. "And that I have no idea what you're on about."
Jack ran his hands over the wood of the door from which the music emanated. There was nothing unusual about it beyond someone having scratched "1978" into the varnish with a key or a compass, the way kids used to scrape their initials into school desks long ago. Jack stroked the scratches with thoughtful fingertips, red wool looped around his thumb, but if they told him anything it wasn't anything he felt moved to share with Owen.
"Are we going in?" Owen asked in impatient distaste.
"I think we'll leave them to their party," Jack said softly, still half-smiling, but with a distant look under the smile. He pulled back from the door, and added, "not a fan of disco, huh?"
The look Owen gave him was eloquent in its disapproval and disgust, so much so that the, "I can think of a lot of things I prefer," was mere garnish.
"Every time I think it's too late to get to know you I get another chance," Jack said rather too cheerfully for the circumstances. He clearly meant it to be a segue into some sort of disco-related team bonding session, but Owen was having none of it.
"Poor taste," he grimaced. He had a face made for it; Owen's grimaces were always spectacular.
They moved on past the party, paying out the thin red cable as they went, Jack trailing the fingers of his other hand along the wall like a kid with a stick against some railings.
After a silence that encompassed three doors, Owen said with the tones of one who has been contemplating a problem for some time, "I have to know … wait. No. Jack, how could you think it was any kind of a good idea to send Ianto off with John?"
Jack's smile was infuriatingly enigmatic. "I didn't say it was a good idea, just that it's not as bad as you think."
"He tried to kill us – he fucking succeeded," Owen corrected himself mid-snap, and looked appropriately aghast. "What, exactly, is 'not as bad as I think' about that?"
"I know him," Jack said calmly. "You're just going to have to trust my judgement on this one."
Owen gave him roughly the same look that he might have done had Jack just pulled a live stoat from his anus and done a jig with it, and proceeded to raise his eyebrows even closer to his hairline in censorious disbelief. "Your judgement," he said flatly. "And here I just thought you made everything up as you went along."
"I do," Jack said with an irritating serenity, "and I think after a few hundred years of doing just that I might have learned a few things, don't you?"
"You'd think," Owen said pointedly. He looked back over his shoulder and stopped in his tracks. For a moment when he spoke there was an odd, discordant buzz in his voice, as if hundreds of tiny voices were speaking at once: "Didn't … there used to be numbers on these doors?"
"Yes," Jack muttered, looking at his wrist-piece. "Yes, there did." He held up his hand, red wool spilling from between his splayed fingers – the ball didn't appear to be any smaller than when they'd started – and said with some considerable surprise, "Looks like this turned out to be useful after all."
"Is that you?" Mickey growled as humming and awkward handclaps reached his ears from behind. "And weren't you supposed to be ahead of me?"
"What difference does it make?" Ianto sighed.
"I got distracted," John said quite airily, "and you have to admit, it's a very catchy tune. Wish I knew all the words … you're so fine … mmm mmm … you blow my mind … mm mmm."
In the darkness there was no one to see, no one able to see, the expression of imminent enlightenment that Mickey adopted at this moment; all the others knew was that he went very quiet and that even John's calculatedly antagonistic humming did nothing to rouse him from whatever reverie he'd blundered into.
"Stop it," Ianto said after a while. John carried on a little longer, apparently making it clear that he took orders from no one, and then petered out into an embarrassed silence.
The murmur of distant, echoing voices therefore fell on receptive ears, and the corridor erupted in tense straining to capture the precise words.
"They're coming from behind," John said in a very low whisper. His gun traced the sound through the blackness like radar dish but he was uncertain; the echoes of the strange hallways suggested more physical space than blind groping of the walls had revealed and possibility dictated, and it was impossible to pinpoint any sound with the necessary degree of accuracy to shoot.
"Stay close to the walls," Mickey hissed, and they fell back; literally, in John's case, as he stumbled over K-9 in the dark and swore automatically.
The echoes and the relative silence leant the bark of gunfire such a fearsome weight that it felt for a moment as if the world had torn itself asunder like the bursting of an enormous paper bag, but John Hart immediately knew better. Worlds torn asunder would be preferable to the explosion of agony and hot blood from his shoulder. He slumped hard on the nearest wall and swore again, through his teeth, as he dropped his own weapon from uncooperative fingers.
"John," Mickey barked, unwisely opening himself up as an audible target, "did you just – "
"No, they just," John snapped, "shhhh."
But there were no more shots, no more voices, and the cool air seemed empty of all breath but theirs. Finally John added in a low and rather wobbly voice, "They, uhm. Hit me."
"Where are you?" Mickey asked immediately. By the rattling of robot wheels John guessed he was trying to find him already.
"Over here. On the floor, by the – yes, that was my foot you just kicked," John said, less testy than he was woozy with adrenaline and the feeling of only being anchored to his own body by the incredible pain in his shoulder.
"Okay," Mickey said – John heard and felt him crouch, his voice obviously intended to be soothing and almost working too, "where are you hit?"
"Shoulder – collar – " John grunted, keeping his jaws mashed together but failing to keep his breathing even remotely under control.
"You're going to have to take my hand," Mickey said in the same low, soothing voice, the hand in question nowhere to be fucking found. "I can't find it to check how bad it is otherwise." Which John had already worked out, and he'd have quite happily have informed Mickey just how fucking bad it was, but there didn't seem to be much point.
John groped aimlessly in the air until he encountered a hand. "Mickey?"
"No, that's my hand," Ianto sighed, and after an embarrassingly long silence he added, "which I will be needing back."
"Right," John clutched at his hand for a second longer, and let go as something touched his leg just above the knee. "Is that you?" he muttered at the same time as Mickey did; on getting the affirmative he seized the wrist and – trying not to move his torso too much or indeed at all – pulled Mickey's hand to the epicentre of his agony.
The world flashed hot and white as fingers pressed gently against the wet wool and cloth covering the entry wound, and John didn't even realise he'd shouted out until someone – it smelt like Ianto – put a hand temporarily over his mouth like a gag.
"Shh," Mickey instructed without his usual edge, still probing the site of the damage.
"Warn me," John whined, grappling with consciousness.
"Did it go right through?" Mickey murmured, his bloodied fingers like fucking knives against John's collar even with his vest in the way.
"How the – ngg – ow- thefuck - ow – am I supposed to – ggnnnn – to know that?" John gasped and growled the sentence out between jabs of lightning pain that felt as if they were shot from Mickey's fingertips.
"Ianto," Mickey said softly, "can you get your arm down his back, look - feel - for an exit wound."
John felt a hand on the top of his shoulder, pushing him slowly away from the wood-panelled wall, and hissed. The hand moved down over his back and Ianto's voice, very close to his ear, close enough top warm it with breath, said, "What am I looking - feeling - for, exactly?"
"BLOOD," John grunted. The barrel of his gun was by his hand. He inched his fingers along the weapon's length until he'd scooped the handle back into his palm and he felt a little more secure. Ianto's hand moved questioningly over his back, and the smell of him mixed with the smell of John's blood and the burnt gunpowder smell and confused the fuck out of his mood.
"Nothing," Ianto said eventually.
"Shit," Mickey muttered, pressing the heel of his hand over the wound. "There's no way I'm going to be able to get that out without being able to see what I'm doing."
Rather conveniently, Jack thought, (and by 'conveniently' he meant quite the sodding opposite), they had just reached a t-junction which absolutely should not have been there at all when the suggestion of voices floated along to their ears.
"Did you hear that?" Jack cocked his head.
"Sounds like 'Whiskey in the Jar' this time," Owen said cautiously. "If you assume the song has eight different keys and isn't choosy about which one it's in."
Jack raised his eyebrows. "Very good, Dr Harper. Now, tell me which way it's coming from?"
Owen rolled his eyes. "Humans don't have directional hearing."
"Some do," Jack glanced up first one corridor, then the other. "Unfortunately I'm not one of them. Didn't fancy the surgery – bit too unhygienic for me." He ground his teeth. "We're going to have to split – "
"Whoa, no." Owen held up his hands. "This place is a, a fucking labyrinth. We'll never find each other again."
Jack produced the second ball of red knitting wool from his cavernous greatcoat pocket and waved it at Owen with a look that could only be accurately described as horribly salacious.
Owen sighed. "How do you manage to make that look obscene?"
"Years of practice," Jack confided, pressing the wool into Owen's hand. He took the end and tied it to the length of red thread already draped the length of the corridor and currently pooling in the junction. "There we go. Left or right?"
"Wait a minute. How are you – or I – going to know when the other person's found something, and to come back?" Owen clutched the wool clumsily. His grip was too tight, as if he were not sure of where its dimensions ended. "We could keep on going for fuck knows how long."
"Timing," Jack said with another devilish and unconvincing grin. "As always. Count under your breath, Owen. Two hundred, then come back here." He tapped his Vortex Manipulator, adjusting a few things. "Meanwhile, I have this baby, which means I can keep an eye on your position relative to – " he tapped something else, "- this spot …"
"Er, what?" Owen choked, giving Jack the You Make No Sense look, the reception of which Jack was extremely accustomed. "Look, if that piece of crap can track me why the hell can't it find Ianto?"
"It can find you," Jack said, patting Owen on the shoulder in an infuriating fashion, "because you are mostly robots."
Owen shut his eyes and squirmed out from under Jack's friendly hand. "Never say that again. Whatever the fuck that was."
"I'll go right," Jack said, and whether he acknowledged Owen's request was unclear. "You go left. See you," and he set off, drooping more wool onto the dense, horrible carpet like a chef laying down a line of coulis.
"Fine," Owen said to the air in front of him, and after a short struggle with how to hold the wool so that it could unroll easily without dropping out of his hand, he walked off to the left, muttering, "one … two … three … Jesus Christ … four … robots? … five …"
About ten minutes later, long, long after Owen should have turned and retraced his steps, all the lights in the corridor went out as one, and he said, "-hundred and twenty-seven, … BUGGER."
The blackness was shaped and stifled by the smell of blood. Mickey paced awkwardly back and forth, brushing his shin deliberately against K-9 as he made each lap in an attempt to keep an idea of whereabouts he was in the corridor clear in his head. Ianto leaned on the wall a few feet down from where John was slumped, and though neither knew it both had adopted a similar pose, although Ianto had both his hands over his face in exhausted frustration, whereas John still held his pilfered gun in his left.
It had not actually been long since the shot was fired, but it felt like a cold aching eternity to them all, especially to John, who was starting to entertain the notion that the others might well just finish him off and carry on their way. It was, after all, what he thought he'd do in their position; he held the gun ready, and tried to calculate the likelihood of being able to get his knife out in time should he miss them.
"Shh," Ianto whispered, though no one had been talking.
Nevertheless three sets of ears worked against the silence to catch the meanest sound; it was not long before it became apparent what Ianto had heard.
Distant handclaps drifted into stillness, but the voices carried on, murmuring indistinctly through the air, their words distorted by the unreal echoes of the apparently unending corridor.
"That's freakish," John observed none-too-lucidly, "that sounded like that song again - ow - ngg – "
"SHH," Ianto repeated, waving a 'keep it down' hand that did absolutely no good as no one could see it.
"I'm starting to suspect," Mickey said, but he didn't share what it was he was starting to suspect, instead falling silent for a moment. "John," he said sharply, "what are you doing?"
"Stay still, then. I can hear you – " Mickey stopped again and subjected the air molecules before his face to intense but unfocussed scrutiny, his mind elsewhere. "If I can, then they can," he whispered eventually, some of the tension draining from his body.
Somewhere in the corridor there was a loud thump-clang, and a distorted cry that was still recognisable as the word, "FUCK!" –
- and much, much nearer the ear-bleedingly loud retort of a gun being fired at close quarters.
"John," Mickey shouted, clapping his hands over his ears in a largely futile gesture to stop his ears from ringing quite so much as the echoes of the appalling noise fired themselves off like a shoot-out in a drum shop. "What the hell did you do that for?"
"Them or us," John mumbled, evidently not very closely attached to even his usual brand of emotional, reactive, and slightly psychotic logic by this point.
"Somehow," Mickey said with a deep sigh, "both." He did not explain this remark, but crouched next to John again and prised the gun from his increasingly limp fingers – it presented him with no real challenge. Fumbling to check the safety had at last been engaged, Mickey stuck the gun in his waistband and sank back onto his heels.
"Should we - ?" Ianto asked, giving another of his dangling questions the opportunity to be interpreted any way imaginable.
Mickey shook his head, realised what he was doing, and said a little sheepishly, "They're gone now. Trust me on that."
And indeed the corridor seemed empty of all other life; two sets of regular breathing alone echoed against the walls, and one which sounded a lot like it was coming to an end.
Owen kept up a steady stream of swearing, because it was better than the silence and the accompanying churn of worrisome thoughts through his skull. He stopped the flow occasionally to keep himself from punching the wall; though he couldn't feel either his teeth or much of his tongue he bit one with the other from time to time, and any effect it had was purely habitual.
Red wool fell almost forgotten from his fingers, the ball unrolling smoothly in his palm. He'd dropped it twice and not noticed either time until the wool tangled his legs together. A fucking intolerable turn of events – he felt like he was just staring out of the windows of a house, or a moving vehicle, not occupying his own body. There was no proprieception whatsoever, which usually (ie, when dealing with a patient who hadn't already died twice) Owen would have attributed to some neurological damage … perhaps it was. Perhaps whatever Jack had fucking pulled in order to haul him back to some semblance of life was just not enough to get his whole brain back to 100% functionality again …
Wandering just how much of his mind he'd lost (and not for the first time either) kept Owen occupied for a while, but soon the seemingly endless blackness and cold triggered in him an very unwelcome memory and, checking his hand for the continue presence of the wool – a complex process that involved putting it to his mouth as his lips, at least, retained a little sensation – he began to swear again.
"Did you hear that?" someone whispered, quite close by. Owen almost swallowed his own tongue (and then wandered how he'd tell, now, that he had), and came to an abrupt stop.
"Hello?" he tried.
"Hello?" said an unfamiliar voice.
Ianto stared into the darkness after Mickey's cautious greeting, frozen against the wall in an attitude of unseen but potent horror and bewilderment. His heart beat somewhere behind his tonsils, but he could no longer be sure of its veracity as a vital sign, after what he'd heard … what he thought he'd heard. After wrestling with the possibilities he conceded defeat to the most probably answer, sighed, and said in leaden tones, "I have completely, completely lost my mind."
There was a pause, during which he gathered that John was either unconscious or dead, because no snide aside was forthcoming.
"No," Mickey assured him, "I heard it too. Either it's real or we're both mental."
"Yes, but it sounded like – " Ianto began, his hands hovering between clutching his head and diving into the safety of his pockets. "It was just like … which it couldn't be …"
"Ianto?" said the voice that sounded just like but really couldn't be. "Ianto, mate, you're … alive?"
"I thought so," Ianto said, hanging onto the wall with his fingernails in case that also decided to become impossibly weird, "but as I'm talking to you I'm not really sure anymore."
"What?" Mickey said, confused.
"It's me," said the voice which persisted in sounding like Owen, albeit Owen with a headcold and a mild case of something that sounded like a vocoder. "Are you okay?"
"I … this … you're dead … aren't you?" Ianto's mouth and his brain were apparently engaged in a slap-fight over who could be the more stupid and obvious but he was too utterly thunderstruck to be embarrassed yet.
There was a noisy and exasperated sigh. "Jack," said Owen's voice with palpable annoyance and disapproval, "has done something very stupid and dangerous. Um. Again. So I'm here, and he's here. Somewhere. And we've come to get you out."
"This may sound like a ridiculous question," Mickey asked, "but … how long have we been in this motel?"
Owen told him. Mickey apparently accepted and digested this information without question; Ianto's brain, on the other hand, threw a tantrum. I'm tired, it screamed, and I have had enough fucking impossible weirdness and I am not playing anymore. Give me another one of those pills. NOW. Ianto started to shiver.
"Is … er … is everyone here?" Owen asked awkwardly.
"Yes," Mickey said, as Ianto didn't seem to be saying anything anymore, "we're all here." There was a significant pause, and he added, "but John's been, well. Shot."
"Oh," Owen said, expressing approximately no concern whatsoever for the wellbeing of the fallen former Time Agent. "Oh well. Come on, then –"
"We can't just leave him," Mickey said, sounding as if he'd quite like to do just that.
"Oh but we can," Owen muttered. "Is he … did it kill him?"
"I don't know," Mickey sighed, and added in sudden flash of inspiration, "… wait, you're a doctor, aren't you? He's got a bullet lodged somewhere in his shoulder – "
"I was a doctor," Owen said, flinching himself from the brutality of the past tense, "and it's dark in here." He sighed into the blackness. "And thanks to Jack and Jack's clever ideas anything I could have done without being able to see the wound is … now … very limited." Owen made a frustrated noise and finished with, "Where is he?"
Mickey reached out in the darkness and encountered an arm. He grabbed it. "Is that you?"
"I don't know," Owen said baldly. "I can't feel anything." But the next he knew he was being yanked floor-wards via that limb, the motion of which he could feel, and he staggered into an unsteady crouch. "You're going to have to – " Owen began, but Mickey yanked on his wrist for a while before releasing him.
"You're touching his face," Mickey said, which was good because as far as Owen knew his hand could have been up a cow's arse.
He moved his head to where he thought his hand might be, and listened carefully. The shallow, uneven rasp of breath came close in his ear, and he stared up at where Mickey had probably last been.
"He's still alive. Slightly. That's the best I can do here – if you're determined to save him, we're going to have to get him back to some light."
There was a silence, then rustling. ""Ianto, hold K-9."
Ianto clutched the dog's string, exhaled, and leaned hard on the wall while a conversation played out without him:
"If you get his left – how are we going to do this and not disturb the bullet?" Mickey, tired, but surprisingly together, sounding – Ianto realised with a kind of dull and detached shock – sounding very much the leader, albeit the kind who consulted with everyone before issuing orders.
"It's okay," Owen, sounding quite startled and a little suspicious, "apparently I can hold him by myself."
"But - ?"
"I know." And in a much quieter voice, perplexingly but apparently confirming something for himself: "Oh. Robots."
Ianto stood up straight just as Mickey asked him if he still had K-9. "Yes?"
"Good. Hang onto him. I'm taking the guideline – "
Ianto realised he must have missed some of the conversation while his brain was having its short holiday from reason and reality (his body shivered violently again, and he dug his fingernails into his palms), but he took this in his stride now.
"Ready?" Owen's voice asked, somewhat muffled, and Mickey's hand reached back to clasp the sleeve of Ianto's suit, a gesture which was as much steadying as it was guiding.
They shuffled on through the darkness in relative silence; Ianto thought he could hear the unobtrusive hum of a television or a computer or something on standby, but by now he wasn't really up for trusting the evidence of his ears.
The walk seemed shorter than the way in, as return journeys always seem to, and sooner rather than later (at least by Ianto's hazy reckoning) a dim glow seemed to advance down the corridor a few feet from some side-on aperture – illuminating a streak of wall and indicating a turning, leaving the blackness around them to appear even blacker than before. There seemed to be two tiny cables of red laid out on the carpets ahead, and one of these stretched into the shadows through which they walked.
John made a bubbling noise against Owen's shoulder. The light grew ever so slightly brighter as they drew nearer to the light source, and Mickey cast an anxious glance at the gloomy silhouette of Owen, half-dragging and half-carrying John's floppy form.
"Is it just me or is he starting to breathe a little … better?" Mickey murmured.
Owen stopped and listened, holding his own breath. "Yes," he said, not indicating which half of the question he was agreeing with. He squinted down at his t-shirt, and sighed.
They had almost reached the junction when, out of the shadows opposite and without a single minute sound of warning, Jack looked like the iceberg of fate before the ocean liner of panic.
"Jack," Mickey said with evident relief.
Jack seemed quite at ease, although there was definite tension lurking somewhere in him. "What happened to John?" he asked, meeting them in the middle.
"Someone shot me," John complained, opening one eye. He rolled out of Owen's grip and crashed into the wall. Owen stifled a smirk and checked his t-shirt again. There were no marks, no bloodstains, no smears.
"Technically you shot you," Mickey corrected unsteadily. "Or at least I think that's what happened."
John, who looked remarkably well for someone who'd been shot in the collar so recently – and remarkably unbloodied at that – stared at Owen in wary recognition, pointed accusingly, and said, "Aren't you meant to be dead?" He rounded on Jack. "Doesn't anyone stay dead in this outfit?"
"Oh, you will," Jack promised him grimly. "Trust me on that."
"But," John said, groping at his own chest with a frown – he pulled his jacket and vest away from his skin and squinted down at his collarbones, "I would appear not to be this time." He tapped the unmarked skin and threw Jack a curious look. "There's no wound." He stroked himself appreciatively for a moment. "Not even a scratch. And it was bleeding all over. I remember that."
"Jack," Owen said in a put-upon voice, "what the –"
"What the fuck's going on?" John interrupted, looking wild and dishevelled as he finished Owen's sentence for him. It was a look that suited him startlingly well.
"I remember you in the class that explained localised temporal scarring," Jack said, but he was peering at Ianto from around Mickey when he spoke, rather than looking at John. "Fast asleep with your feet on the chair in front and your head on Ceno Blackamoor's shoulder. I'm not sure you'd stay awake through another explanation either."
"So we're out of the worst of the scarring – and it's just, what, reversed itself?" John groped at his own chest for a bit longer. "Or is there a bullet in there somewhere?"
"Several by now, I imagine," Jack snorted.
Ianto avoided Jack's eye and rather awkwardly handed Mickey K-9's lead, before sticking both his hands in his pockets and looking at the tips of his shoes with intent concentration. The shivering had largely, but not entirely, stopped.
"Well, I'm alive," John concluded. "Let's get the fuck out of this place. It's creepy."
"Shouldn't be too hard now," Jack said, glancing at his Vortex Manipulator. All three conscious and capable members of the away team gave him a truly filthy look at this; Jack just shrugged and said, "let's start retracing our steps, shall we?"
It was indeed a very short walk back to where the red wool hung down from the handle of a door marked "1978", from behind which still played the unmistakeable strains of "Rasputin"; Jack unhooked the wool from the handle and stuffed it back into his pocket in what was less of a ball and more of a giant knot.
John opened his mouth to say something and, for maybe the hundredth time, Mickey interrupted him with a weary, "Shut up, John."
They were almost at the head of the stairs when K-9's lights flickered into life again. There was a beep, a second, louder beep, a sound like a sink clearing, and the little robot said, "Hostile presence detected – "
"It's string," Mickey said, crouching to undo the cord from around the dog's 'neck'. "Welcome back, K-9." He picked up the dog carefully and carried it down the stairs, a cautious and tired but genuine smile suffusing his features. It was quite clearly over at last.
"Owen, John," Jack said as they made their way back down towards the lobby, "you two have a burning need to be in the bar for a bit, am I right?"
"Actually I need to – " John said.
"I don't even know if I can – " Owen said at the same time. He broke off, shrugged, and muttered something to the effect of it not hurting to try. He clattered on past the others, through the doors, and out into the lobby.
They caught a, "Good morning, Frogface," that was unmistakeably Reneé's and unmistakeably amused, but by the time the rest of them had made it down to the desk Owen had already gone.
"So, you're back, then," Reneé observed, chewing idly on a pen. "You have my wool, Captain Harkness? I might want to knit something later." She said knit as if she'd never used the word before; it was certainly hard to imagine her doing it.
Jack tossed the mess onto the counter. It sat there looking strangely obscene, like a synthetic, cartoonish foetus, if one could imagine a children's show about abortions. "You're going to mark out EXACTLY where that temporal clusterfuck upstairs begins," he said sternly, giving her the I Mean Business eye, "and you are going to do it before I leave here today. I know you know what I'm talking about – " Jack scowled at her as she gave him a dazzlingly dumb-beautiful smile. "Yeah, that didn't work when your mother did it either, cute though it is." He raised his eyebrows.
"It might be dangerous," Reneé said in the tones of someone who knows full well that it really is no such thing. She stared past Jack (her eyelids were an obnoxious, iridescent lavender today) at Mickey and her smirk grew quite Harknessian. "I'll need protection."
"Yeah, and I know what kind," Jack murmured, but Mickey had already nodded his assent. He watched Reneé spring with unexpected ease to her trainered feet, and smiled to himself as Mickey offered his arm to her. Jack turned back to Ianto, caught sight of John stealing mints from the ashtray again, and sighed. "This doesn't look like the bar to me." He glared at John for a full thirty seconds. "I can't believe you're restricting your alcohol intake for the sake of eavesdropping. This is not the John Hart I knew – or rather the – do you want me to say it? I think I still remember the whole thing."
"I didn't tell you the whole thing." John cracked a mint sullenly between his molars and sloped off to the tap room.
The door was heavy, weighted, and emblazoned with ancient brass letters informing the entering patron that this was the TAP ROOM, which made absolutely no difference to John; it was a door with booze behind it. He leaned hard on the plate metal stamped "poussez", and stumbled into the empty room.
Almost empty, John observed as he bounded over to the bar. There was already very thoughtfully a bottle of something labelled "Vodkhur" on a towel on the sticky wooden bar-top, and not a million miles from it sat Owen, lost in a contemplative silence deeper than the Marianas Trench. He had a mostly-empty glass in his hand, his elbow on the bar, and a look of distance and slight disgust on his wide, amphibian face.
John reached past him and picked up the bottle. It was almost full and exuded the same air of alcoholic menace he'd last sensed from the samogon he'd drunk on the other side of the world, not two months ago.
As John swigged from it without so much as an inquisitive sniff (and felt his tastebuds evaporating like icicles before a blowtorch), Owen said to no one in particular, "Even vodka tastes like sand."
John took another, experimental, swig. "Does not. It tastes … well … not of sand."
Owen stared at him from across some inner desert and said, knocking the glass against his skull apparently by accident, "Everything tastes of sand."
"So that's what coming back from the dead does for you," John said, twirling the bottle between his palms.
"Not last time." Owen addressed the ceiling.
John made a childish noise. "How many fucking times do you lot get to cheat death, anyway?"
"It's not so much cheating it as being on loan from it, I think," Owen sighed, and, apparently remembering to whom he was talking, he added, "Jack told me what you did. Afterwards. It doesn't fucking excuse what you did first."
"Would you care to be any more cryptic or are you going to need more vodka?"
"It's not doing anything," Owen sighed, staring into his glass. "I can't taste it, I can only just smell it, it's not even warming anything up. Fuck. This is shit. This is completely fucking shit. I can't believe he did this to me again."
John snorted, the bottle already on his lips. "I'm sorry, you can't believe Jack Harkness fucked you over again? Exactly how long have you known him?" He downed another lengthy mouthful, and turned sharp eyes on Owen. "And … what would this constitute?"
"I don't know," Owen admitted, actually looking at him at last, "but he mentioned robots. And I can hear myself buzz when I talk."
John slammed the bottle back on the bar so hard it almost split and gave him a smile so horribly manic and excited that Owen physically recoiled. "Oh yes," John breathed, bending down to extract his knife from his boot. Owen eyed him warily as John held the knife out, handle-first, and stared at him as if he was some sort of new toy.
"What … the fuck …"
"Cut yourself with it."
Owen looked into his glass again, then at John's face. "Whatever fucked up sex games or whatever you want to play, you're not fucking playing them with me, mate," he said firmly.
"I'm proving a point. Doesn't have to be a big cut." John fidgeted on his bar stool.
"I don't give a fuck what point you're trying to prove – " Owen lurched out of the way, but not fast enough:
The knife, snapped round to the right direction in a move so fast it was almost impossible to follow, flashed out and caught him on the underside of the forearm. Owen yelped from habit before realising that he'd felt approximately nothing; and then he stared at the wound.
Something that looked like fine dust, or the sand from an egg-timer, poured sluggishily forth from the knife-wound – there was very little blood – and before it even reached his elbow the direction of the flow reversed, and the sand seemed to pour through his skin like water through a sieve. Barely seconds passed before his arm was whole and unmarked, and Owen felt it was forgivable that he dropped his glass onto the floor shortly afterwards. He didn't really register the smash.
"Chula nanotechnology," John said, or rather exclaimed. He fidgeted again, as if he wanted to grope for Owen's arm, a movement not exactly designed to install the latter with a sense of security given that John was still holding his knife ready. "That'll be, oh, 80th Century … eight generation, anyway. I can't remember the dates. Oh, naughty Jack … tsk."
"Nanotechnology," Owen repeated, trying to back away from John without actually falling off the stool.
"This is perfect," John breathed. "Oh, you are worth an absolute fucking fortune in the right places. I wouldn't even have to kill you – "
"WELL THAT'S FUCKING REASSURING BECAUSE I'M PRETTY FED UP WITH DYING!"
"Just a small sample out of, say, your arm – cellular regeneration via nanotech – oh, they'd pay enough for me to buy my own fucking solar system. We can split it." John fixed Owen with a smile that went so far beyond avarice that it needed an entire new language to describe it. "Penge altid kommer først, para önce tüm, am I right? What do you say?"
What Owen said was not something John was ever to find out; he was leaning forwards on his stool with the sparkling eyes of a lunatic fixed on Owen's horrified face when the tap room door burst open, and both of them turned to stare.
Ianto's shirt was untucked and his face was a picture of something horrible. "What the hell do you know about this?" he asked John, lifting the front of his shirt.
"That," John said, sitting back on his stool and grabbing at the bottle on the bar, "is your belly. I really wish I could say I were better acquainted with it, but you're a mean-hearted tease and so I only have imagination and spying to go on."
"THIS," Ianto snapped, indicating the massive scar across his stomach.
"It … has … hair growing out of it," Owen observed unhelpfully.
"Yes," Ianto growled, dropping his shirt again and getting close enough to jab John in the chest – the most aggressive physical contact he'd made with anyone in a long time. "And he got an injury from the same source and I'm kind of wondering if he's been hiding the effects – "
"Whoa whoa whoa," John backed up, bottle in hand, until the edge of the bar jabbed into his spine. "Whoa whoa-what?" He ran his hand over his nape, his temple, the line of where something had raked him with claws it shouldn't have had; he hadn't been aware that Ianto had noticed that at injury at all. "Oh, that. Yeah, I've been shaving the hair off. Why?"
Ianto stared at him, apparently dumbfounded. "… hunting Jack down, and you don't think to mention that it's … I … you …" he said, pointing a shaking hand at John. "It's – she was – after him, and it – you fucking, fucking idiot."
John glanced sideways at Owen. "He's madly in love with me," John explained, putting the bottle back down. "He just doesn't know it yet."
"Somehow I doubt that," Owen got off his stool and advanced slowly on Ianto, his hands raised. "Explain? Slowly?"
But the explanation never came; instead the tap room door once again did the closest thing to bursting open that a weighted fire door can, and Jack, at his most dramatic, stood in the doorway like the harbinger of retribution. "What," he asked, "is going on here?"
With a great deal of interruption, talking over each other, and angry swearing, Ianto and John attempted to do so. Jack stopped them before they'd reached the end and said, "Right, right - is there anything I won't have read about in Mickey's report?"
They exchanged a look, John and Ianto, that to Jack's eye spoke absolute volumes about how right he'd been to assume the team would one day gel together; Ianto shrugged and John rolled his eyes, Jack glared at them both and John said, still looking at Ianto, "Well, Mickey did fuck the werewolf - "
Jack became electrified in an instant. "We have to find him. If anything's happened to Reneé - " he took a deep breath. "Okay, listen. The only way out of this that I can see right now that won't damage anyone permanently is to let the symbiote - it's clearly not a werewolf - pass into me like it wants to -"
"But - "
"Don't interrupt, Ianto." Jack held the door open with his back. "Once it's in me one of you is going to have to shoot me - "
John put his hand up like an eager schoolchild and sat up straight on his stool. "Bagsy!"
" - and I'd rather it was Owen, but okay, I'm sure even you can't miss at that range," Jack was already out the door, expecting them to follow. "My genetic code resets when I die," Jack explained, taking a corner at a half-run, "restores me to factory settings - that kind of thing. Any parasite won't stand a chance of surviving that. None have so far." He skidded on the lobby carpet and bounded up the stairs two and a time, ignoring K-9's plaintive beep. The others followed as fast as they could.
"You ..." Ianto panted as they ascended, "you don't have a gun anymore."
"Good point," John stuck his hand out, palm up, ahead of him to where Owen scrambled and stumbled up the stairs like a blind, drunk, or blind-drunk man. "Give me your gun."
"Would it kill you to say please?" Owen threw the gun backwards without looking and nearly hit John in the face with it.
They didn't have the chance to catch their breath before Jack was off into the rabbit warren of corridors, calling alternately for Mickey and for Reneé, trying door-handles with the indiscriminate desperation of a man whacking a burning piñata.
"What makes him think they're going to be in a room anyway?" Owen muttered, not quietly enough.
"Because I know, Reneé," Jack said over his shoulder, shoving the door nearest him with his whole body.
The others fanned out and began trying doors, but it was Jack who found them -
- the door bounced back off the wall as it was flung open, then bounced back off Jack's boot and into the wall again, and a somewhat peculiar tableaux faced the intruders. Mickey, going puce and scrabbling at his throat with both hands, was pinned against the wall by the neck, his feet not quite managing to touch the floor. He didn't appear to acknowledge their entry, being somewhat more concerned with not dying of suffocation.
Reneé, who had him pinned there with her forearm – raised above her head, some kind of preternatural strength turning her flabby body to steel – jerked her head around to watch them spill into the room with a fire in her eyes that was plainly not hers. She'd removed her shirt at some point, but the fact that she was only clad in a black-lace-trimmed pink bra of monstrous proportions did nothing to make her look any less dangerous.
"This isn't quite what I was expecting," Jack admitted, and as if the words were some sort of signal Reneé dropped Mickey onto the floor, as if he weighed no more than a pillow, and she smiled horribly at Jack.
Her body didn't seem at all changed, but there was something about her, as if she'd been blurred by a few pixels around the edges before now and had since come into catastrophically sharp focus; her eyes were wide open for the first time since most of the team had seen her, her pupils were pinpricks, and her lips drew back from both teeth and gums in a nasty mockery of her previous smiles.
"Let her go," Jack said, which seemed strange given that she had been the one pinning Mickey to the wall. "I'm the one you want, aren't I?"
"You're the one everyone wants," Reneé's voice was pitched strangely, jerking out of her in spurts with none of the cooperative grace of Irana's, but the hunger, the need came through as clear as sunlight through glass.
Somewhere in the background of this conversation, John made a derisive and rather bitter snorting sound at this.
"The immortal, unstoppable, Jack … Harkness," Reneé's voice continued as Mickey got woozily to his feet behind her.
"That's me," Jack acknowledged.
"Give me your body," Reneé said with an intensity so unpleasant that at least one of the witnesses in the room felt his gorge begin to rise. It was not a sentence that sounded in any way seductive, "or I will kill them. All of them. Including – " Reneé's hand tapped her on the sternum, or as close to the sternum as it could get, which was not very in such an impressively-engineered bra, "- including this one."
"Okay," said Jack.
"Accept, and you shall become greater than ever before," Reneé continued, her face a horrible picture of manic energy, "able to learn in seconds what others study for lifetimes. You shall have senses that surpass the fittest and finest of your species, you – what?"
"I said okay," Jack said, as Mickey stared at him aghast. "Do your thing. Just let her go, and leave them alone."
To everyone's – possibly not John's – horror, Reneé raised her left hand to her round mouth, inserted her ring finger into her mouth up to the first knuckle, and bit down decisively, not taking her eyes from Jack's.
They all heard the crunch; they all – as one man – winced at it; she removed her hand, spat the end of the digit onto the carpet like a discarded pistachio shell, and held out the bleeding stump to Jack's face.
"Open wide," she murmured. Reneé seized his chin with her other hand; Jack put up no resistance, his jaw slacker than a yokel's as the injured finger slid easily past his teeth and over his tongue.
Hardly any chance was visible from the outside: one of Jack's eyelids fluttered, Reneé relaxed first into bonelessness and then into a dead faint – streaking Jack's chin and shirt with her blood as she thumped onto the floor – and Owen shouted, "JOHN! NOW!" like a fire alarm going off.
John loosed a round into Jack's chest before a further sound could be made, and as the Jack-plus-alien-symbiote brought Jack's hand up to the fresh wound with a look of profound confusion, he fired another two into Jack's head with the lazy precision of someone scamming the air-rifle games at a funfair.
"That's enough," Mickey muttered as Jack's body slumped, lifeless, against the entranceway wall. "John, put the gun down."
"Can't be too careful," John insisted, clinging to it like a safety blanket.
"Stop shooting your ex, John –"
"It's therapeutic," John insisted, raising the gun again.
"JOHN," Ianto growled, catching Jack's arm as his body started to slide sideways and down. Owen darted forwards and caught his other side clumsily, wedging his shoulder under Jack's armpit.
It wasn't at all long before Jack's cheeks regained their colour and his forehead lost its bullet holes; he jolted upright as if waking from a bad dream, his eyes once again unglazed, and sucked in a sharp lungful of air as his heart bounced back into thunderous life. He was still messy with both his and Reneé's blood, but it was drying.
"You couldn't have gone for the head first?" Jack sighed, extricating himself from Owen and Ianto and smoothing down his coat. "I was kinda fond of this shirt."
"Reneé?" Mickey peered down at her, not very surreptitiously massaging his chest, pain creeping into the corners of his concerned expression.
"Reneé," Jack said in much less solicitous tones, "stop milking it."
Her ludicrously painted eyelids rolled back to half-mast and Reneé squinted up at him. To her credit she didn't indulge in a 'Where Am I?' or even a 'What Happened?', but just looked a bit sheepish and said, "Less said about all that, the better."
"Are you okay?" Mickey looked torn between crouching down to talk more easily to her supine form, and staying upright to trick his heart into behaving itself again.
Reneé grinned. "I'm half-naked on the floor with a real motherfuck of a headache and a load of guys staring at me." She closed her eyes briefly and exhaled. "This is not exactly unfamiliar territory for me, sweetheart."
"You've also lost half a finger," Owen observed. He didn't sound like he was in a hurry to help with that; evidently 'Frogface' was still on his mind.
"Oh well. I wasn't really using it," Reneé yawned, "my typing was shitty anyway." She half-heartedly wiped her blood-soaked hand on the leg of her jeans, and raised both arms perpendicular to her torso; Jack and Mickey took a hand each and pulled her back to her feet. "So, she said when this was done, directing an obscene look at Mickey, "where were we?"
Mickey half-laughed. "You are incredible," he snorted.
She smirked. "And he ain't even in my knickers yet." Her gaze flickered around the room. "You lot mind being somewhere not here? You're giving me stage fright."
"Somehow I really doubt that," Jack said, but he shepherded the others out all the same. No one spoke until they reached the lobby once more, and even then all that got said by anyone was simply this:
Owen looked down at K-9 waiting patiently at the foot of the stair and cringed. "Beep, beep," he said sourly, and flopped into one of the bald, scuffed armchairs that lurked like drunks in the corners of the room. Only someone who could feel absolutely nothing could have sat in one of these for more than a few seconds, the jagged springs and broken slats constituting a torture chamber for the back and behind.
John made a bee-line for the ashtray and fished out the remaining mints with a casualness that failed to mask how closely he was listening for any hint of conversation behind him.
"So that's it, then," Ianto said uncertainly, "we can go home now?"
Jack said, "What? No," in a surprised voice. "There are all sorts of unresolved things cropping up all over."
"Yes," Ianto said pointedly.
Owen suddenly took a deep and scientific interest in the state of his fingernails and the stuffing of the armchair. John stopped rolling his current mint against his teeth with his tongue and tensed up, alert and listening.
"There's some heavy disturbance in the Place Denfert-Rochereau sort of area of Paris," Jack went on, too twitchy to be convincingly oblivious, "and something's been doing some very strange things to the sheep outside of Christchurch, although I'm not sure it isn't just the locals …"
"Right," Ianto said stiffly. "It's just that I thought Owen …" he left the rest of the thought to hang.
Owen looked like he wanted to sink through the chair and soak into the carpet, and like he was giving some serious consideration to attempting just that.
"Oh, no. With Owen in this condition I want him back at the Hub so I can keep an eye on any … unexpected developments." Jack gave him a tight smile and failed to meet his eye.
"Right," Ianto half-croaked, putting his hands in his pockets.
"Fine," Ianto said distantly. "Fine."
John chose this most tense of moments to saunter over and nudge Ianto in the side with his elbow. "What did I tell you?" he said, clicking the mint against his front teeth before swallowing it whole. "I was right. I'm always ri-"
Ianto turned and punched him square in the face.
"I get the feeling," Jack said with considerable amusement, apparently addressing Owen, "that's been quite a long time coming."
John reeled backwards on his heels, clutching a bloody nose, but didn't actually fall.
"You should probably not knock him out," Jack said with another gleeful smile.
Ianto, however, was ignoring him. He followed up the punch by seizing John's face with both hands and kissing him hard through the veil of blood that had obscured his mouth already.
"That, on the other hand," Jack said, making a face, "I'm not so sure about."