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The Anecdote of the Amnesiac Aspidistra

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"Bloody Torchwood," the barman said.

"You jealous, Gareth? Looks like a crash-and-burn scenario to me. Fingers crossed. See; his date's not buying his bullshit."

Cerys gestured towards the fireplace. Its flames were as fake as the potted plants in brass bowls which part-screened the two men sitting beside the fire from the rest of the hotel bar. The expression on the taller man's angular, pale, disdainful face could only be interpreted as "Bed me now, tiger" by an insane sexual optimist with an ego the size of a minor galaxy.

Regrettably, at this precise moment the library bar contained at least one of those.

A new arrival crashed through the door from the hotel lobby. Gareth recoiled. "What the -?"

"Don't see something like that every day." Cerys smiled. "Jack the Lad'll be like a dog with two dicks."

"But are we supposed to serve her? Is that even legal?"

"Last time I looked, this hotel had a no-dogs policy. Never said anything about snakes, did they? Of course we serve her."

"But she's topless –"

"Not at present. Granted, could be awkward if the snake wriggles. Anyhow, ssh! Good evening, madam. What can we get you?"

The new arrival slid nonchalantly onto a bar stool. "A Gibson for me, please. Brandy Alexander for Horace. In a saucer, if you don't mind. No ice. And a double Caol Ila with a splash of spring water for my friend by the fireplace. Take it over whenever Captain Harkness abandons him to chat me up."

"Better be pouring it right away, then, Gareth, love." Cerys winked.

The woman winked back, wicked caramel-brown eyes sparkling. "Oh, and one for each of you, of course."

She put out a hand, tickling her snake under its chin. It gave a sinuous whole-body shudder in response. The little group by the bar found itself suddenly increased by one.

"Hi, there. Welcome to Cardiff. I'm Jack Harkness. And you?"

"He's called Horace."

Harkness creased his forehead in a puppyish, meant-to-be endearing way. "I meant, your name."

"Oh? Actually, you know, you seemed to be making eye contact with Horace when you asked. My name's Watson. Harry Watson."

Harkness's voice went down another register. "Well, Harry, what brings you to these parts?" He leaned forwards, his voice breathy, intimate. "And may I stroke your snake?"

At the far end of the bar, Gareth rolled his eyes expressively. Cerys walked over to him and dropped her voice to a whisper.

"How come he's lasted this long without someone punching his bloody lights out?"

Gareth shrugged. "Punch Jack Harkness, join the diflannwyr. Isn't that what they say?"

"Not for sex," Cerys said, with all the confidence of hard-earned experience. "Too many fish in that sea. Politics, maybe. That the Caol Ila?"
Gareth put the whisky tumbler on a tray with a small saucer of twiglets. "All yours."

Cerys headed towards the man by the fireplace. "Lining them up, are you?" She nodded towards the untouched glass of scotch on the small table at his elbow.

"Looks like it." His pale eyes glittered with malicious amusement; his air of anticipation mirrored that of the woman at the bar, utterly different from his tense, closed body language of five minutes ago.

A prickle of apprehension ran up her spine. She'd been around the licensed trade all her life; born in the upstairs room of a Barry pub, first Saturday job collecting glasses and cleaning tables for Auntie Glenys until she was old enough to serve customers. She'd known why one shouldn't play Find the Lady with strangers before she'd learnt to read. By now, she could smell a bar-room con from halfway across the room. Whatever this man and Harry Watson had going between them couldn't be on the level. But this was Cardiff, and it seemed they'd picked Captain Jack Harkness as their mark.

"Not from round here, then?" she enquired, making her voice sound casual with an enormous effort.

"London." He looked at her; a scrutiny which seemed to penetrate layers of clothing and muscle, reaching her very bones. Jigsaw pieces began to assemble themselves at the back of her mind.

Auntie Glenys hadn't just been a pub landlady. The local women had always been on at her to tell their fortunes; palms, Tarot, whatever. Not tealeaves, though. Cerys had a vague sense Auntie Glenys thought teacup divination presented a conflict of interest with the brewery. You couldn't grow up around the best cold reader in Gwent without picking up a tip or two.

This isn't a con. This is something a lot more personal. This is a war.

She slid her eyes sideways to the great mirror on the far wall, the only genuine antique in the whole place. Reflected in it, Harkness reached out to caress Harry Watson's smooth, curvy, black-leather-clad arse. The woman leaned into his embrace, murmuring something, but her snake reared its head, alert to tension in the slender body round which it coiled.

The tall man's face lit in the most astonishing smile; something between ethereal and electric. And dangerous. The hair stood up on the back of Cerys' neck.

Changeling, a voice whispered in her ear. Not of this world.
Well, you know what they say about Torchwood. And their targets.
But if this one has concealed tentacles, at least he has the manners to keep them to himself.

In that instant, she slid from friendly neutral to partisan. She checked the mirror – no risk of notice from that quarter at present – and leaned over, as if about to put the drinks tray down on the table. The tray's edge caught the tumbler already there, knocking it into the nearest potted plant, spilling its contents into the silver sand around the fake aspidistra.

"I am so sorry –"

The tall man smiled. "For taking steps, at some personal risk, to ensure that whatever Captain Harkness put into that glass doesn't pass my lips?"

"You saw him –"

"Not to swear to. He's very good. And gets a lot of practice, evidently. Did you?"

"Not this time." She caught his eyes on her and added, defensively, "And you can't get the police to do anything, not in Cardiff. Not when it's Torchwood. Also, the one time I did talk a girl into getting herself checked by the hospital, they couldn't find anything."

"Analysis requires a baseline for comparison. Move eighteen inches to your left."

She had moved before she thought to ask why. The answer was obvious, anyway. In her new position, her body screened him from any ill-timed attention from the bar. Hoping she wasn't over-egging matters, she leant in at an angle intended to suggest flirtatious interest and giggled.

He retrieved the empty tumbler from the potted plant and held it out to her. "No-one must wash that. Get it to me later. Don't let Harkness see."

"Oh, God. You were trying to get a sample and I spilt it –"

"All safely contained by the plant pot. And even Harkness is unlikely to walk out of this bar with a plastic aspidistra in his arms. Though, given the combination of his boringly predictable conversation and his obsessive search for sexual novelty, it might be a match made in heaven."

This time, her laugh was genuine, loud enough to cause heads to turn by the bar; Gareth, Harkness, and, worryingly, Horace, who stirred restively and seemed on the point of slithering over to investigate for himself.

"Don't overdo it," her companion warned, his voice a low purr. "Don't trigger the diversion before I'm clear of the room."

Diversion. This was war. But -

"You're trying to take on Torchwood armed only with a half-naked woman and a boa-constrictor?"

"You can admire the insane brilliance of my strategy later." This time, his bared-teeth grin looked like the expression of an angry cat, just before it sprang. "Which reminds me." He reached down by his feet, producing a slender white cardboard carton, Emporio Armani inscribed elegantly on the lid. "At some point Harry's going to need clothing which isn't capable of independent locomotion. Give her this when the time looks right. By which I mean; before John arrives."

"John?"

"My – " He paused, as if searching for the right word. "My backup." He glanced across at the window. "Harry's brother."

"Ah." Events at the bar were progressing about as well as she might have expected. "You think he wouldn't approve?"

"If he finds out what I asked her to do? Platonic ideal super-double-plus not good."

Or, in English, "I am so fucked".

He fidgeted with his glass of Caol Ila, taking a couple of quick gulps.

She wondered just how formidable this John must be, given that a man who had apparently written off Jack Harkness as a rather tedious sex pest had clearly been panicked into extravagant Armani-buying gestures for fear of John's wrath.

"I'll manage," she said reassuringly, holding out her hand for the carton.

Instead, he downed the rest of his whisky and stood up. "Give it to you outside. It'll hide the other empty glass from Harkness, when I walk out. Which reminds me; I'm capable of mimicking the appearance of someone who's consumed any one of thirty-two specific psychotropic substances and five of the most usual combinations. However, you've seen more of the effects of this memory erasure drug than I have. Suggestions for making it look convincing to an expert observer?"

She thought for a moment. "Nothing fancy. Just a bit confuzzled. You know; like your mate had challenged you on a bet to name each of the Tracey brothers and assign them to the right Thunderbird, and you couldn't remember if it was John or Alan who did the underwater one?"

"What?"

"Hold it right there; you've nailed it."

_________________________

A lifetime in licensed victualling prepared you for most things, but an evening shift which ended with a very drunk bare-breasted woman screaming her head off in the library bar and demanding to see the manager on the grounds that her boa constrictor had been frightened by the improper advances of a fellow guest was, at least, somewhat out of the ordinary. (This was Cardiff, the fellow guest was Jack Harkness, the manager was prepared to keep an open mind, especially since by the time he arrived on the scene Harry Watson was apologetically tearful, rather than yelling like a banshee, and decorously covered in a brown-gold knitted silk designer top the exact shade of her eyes).

And, while Cerys had been repeating for the umpteenth time that she'd been in and out of the bar all evening, but didn't know enough about snake psychology to express an opinion one way or the other on Horace's alleged trauma, Harkness's phone had rung. He'd yelled, "Gwen, what? Call up the logs. I need to know everything that's moved in this city since 21.00. On my way. And find Ianto!" and dashed out before anyone could stop him (not, in her personal opinion, that anyone had been trying very hard).

They had, eventually, coaxed Horace out from behind the optics with raw chicken-livers and yet another brandy Alexander, with no more collateral damage than a half-empty bottle of amaretto and a couple of glasses. Cerys was, by this stage, well past the end of her shift and half-asleep on her feet. Nevertheless she adopted Auntie Glenys's sound principle that, however hard it might be to stay on the scene, anyone else trying to sort out the mess would be likely to create twenty worse in its place which would then have to be dealt with tomorrow (or, to be precise, later today). As a result, it was Cerys who, eventually, summoned a taxi, poured Harry and Horace into it and despatched them to Harry's hotel (she was, apparently, booked into the St David's).

After which, the Archangel Gabriel would have acknowledged that Cerys had earned a fag, and bugger good resolutions about quitting. For once, the hotel machine was working. She was propping herself against the service entrance taking the first precious drag into her lungs when a white van drew up outside. A stocky man in blue overalls hopped out of the driver's seat and flung wide the back doors.

"Now," he said, eying up Cerys as the only staff member in sight, "can you show me these aspidistras which need refurbishing?"

She paused, for a moment. And then another blue overalled figure came out of the service entrance, back bent under the weight of a brass pot containing a – very familiar – plastic plant.

"Thanks, lads," he called back inside the hotel, his accent pure Merthyr Tydfil. And then he turned his head, and looked Cerys straight in the eyes. She kept her face calm with an effort.

"Now would be a good time to find that glass," he said, his accent unchanged. She dropped the cigarette into the gravel half-finished, ground it under her sole, and vanished inside.

When she returned the two men were putting the last fake aspidistra into the van and preparing to latch the doors.

She held out the empty whisky tumbler. "Here. Guaranteed unwashed."

His accent slid back to that of earlier in the evening. "Mycroft will be delighted. He's got Porton Down on stand-by; they've been after a sample for years."

"Cups and lips," the stocky man said laconically. "We aren't across the Severn Bridge yet."

"Oh, I've every faith in you, John. Our potential pursuers must surely have enough to occupy them. You didn't use your mobile phone to tell me you were on your way. Whose, then?"

"Borrowed it. From a bloke in a suit."

"And the bloke in a suit?"

"He's in a skip."

"In a skip? Why?"

"Objected to my borrowing his mobile phone."

"And the mobile phone?"

"In another skip. Five miles from the first one." John put his head on one side. "Still in his suit, the bloke in the skip, I'll stress. No kinky business. Wouldn't want to bring ourselves down to their level."

Cerys fancied the tall man's lips twitched, very slightly. By way of diversion, she asked, "Mycroft?" and was rewarded by a quick, possibly grateful glance.

"My brother. Our shared dislike of Torchwood is a rare point of bonding between us. Though the point in their mission statement which I find somewhat endearing is, predictably, the part he takes as a personal affront. But, fair trade. Question for question. Which one was she?"

"Who?"

"The woman you lost."

She stared at him, mind whirling. But she hadn't watched Auntie Glenys run a séance or three to let herself fall for that kind of blatant coat-trailing. "Lost? In what sense?"

He tapped one long-fingered hand impatiently against the side of the van. "The diflannwyr. That's what they call them round here, isn't it? The ones who brush up against Torchwood and are never seen again."

The cotton fabric of her uniform was thin; the harsh wind in the hotel service car park scythed through it. No need to go looking for other reasons why she shivered.

He frowned at her; concentration rather than annoyance, she suspected.

"Annie Pryce, at a guess. Twenty-six years old. Undistinguished school career, marked by truancy and reprimands. Succession of dead-end jobs culminating in that of delivery girl for Jubilee Pizza. Late evening 21 August 2007 presents herself at Cardiff A&E claiming to have been the victim of an attempted date-rape drugging and insisting on exhaustive tests. No traces of any suspicious substances found. Put down as a paranoid with an exhibitionist streak. Vanishes on the night of 9 October 2007. Circumstances of her disappearance consistent with her having left her workplace to deliver a customer order. However, Jubilee Pizza's telephone and manual records show no evidence of an order having been placed within half an hour either side of the relevant time window. No recollection from any staff working that night of where she went or why. Only other missing person report filed on the same night that of a Dr Tanizaki of the Kyoto Cybernetics Institute. No known connection between the two."

Three years of terror, sick threads of hope, chasms of despair, evasive eyes, hands shuffling papers, false, encouraging smiles, shark-cold blue eyes. Endless dead ends, never any closure. A black cloud of rushing wings overwhelmed her and she let go.

A firm hand clasped the back of her neck, forcing her head down between her knees. "No. Don't try and sit up, yet." John's voice had a calm, authoritative sound about it.

"We're going to lose our time window. Mycroft can only keep the CCTV system and all the traffic cameras off-line for another forty-five minutes, at best."

John exhaled. "Sherlock, consider it a concrete illustration of everything I've ever told you about the merits of tact. Sorry – um, ah – "

"Her name's Cerys," Sherlock supplied. "Outstanding observational skills; perhaps in the low end of the ESP range. Family connections in most of the pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants in South Wales. Cerys, if anyone offers you a counter-intelligence position in the next few days, remember Mycroft has a practically unlimited budget for this operation. Hold out for at least 50% above his opening offer."

"Sherlock, stop babbling. Cerys; mind if we load you into the back of the van? We aren't kidnapping you, honestly, just tell us where you live and we'll drop you there –"

"Not her home, John. If Harkness used his brain for thinking with more than twenty percent of the time he'd amount to an interesting adversary. Of course he'll go after Cerys to find out what she knows. Not her home and anywhere else but here, John. Fast."

Without much apparent effort, John heaved her bodily into the van. She landed next to the plant pots. The doors slammed shut behind her, John ran round to the driver's side and the van screeched off into the night.. The cold, ribbed metal of the van floor felt reassuringly prosaic beneath her cheek. The dark, swimming sensation which had pressed down on her receded. She risked sitting up.

"You know Annie's name." She hadn't intended to say it aloud, but Sherlock twisted his head to look at her.

"I know twenty-one names. So far." He nodded towards the plant pots. "My quid pro quo for getting that is access to the sources which might reveal the other names. But you do realize -"

He broke off, turning his head to look at John, almost as if looking for permission to say something. But she'd spent almost a thousand disturbed nights, tossing alone in a bed which had once been shared. Not until she saw, smelt, held in her hands something that was, had been unequivocally Annie, would the last flicker of hope die. But hope was not knowledge, and Auntie Glenys had always been strict about playing the odds.

"I'm expecting a funeral, not a reunion, if that's what you mean." She narrowed her eyes, staring him straight. "But I'm trusting you to bring me that funeral. Or I'll bloody murder you." Through the windscreen, she recognized the upcoming turn. "Left. Now. Then right at the Owen Glendower. My Auntie Glenys has a flat not too far away. Ground floor; she's not as good on her feet as she used to be since she turned eighty. But the neighbours all know her, and if Torchwood come looking, I should get enough warning to get out the back way through the allotments and make a run for it."

"Or," John said, taking the corner at a speed that had her clasping the nearest aspidistra protectively to her chest, "given Mycroft offered us a squadron of SAS to get that sample out of Cardiff, he could at least spare half a platoon to watch over Cerys. Just until everyone relevant knows we’ve delivered the aspidistras safely to Porton Down and dear God I once had a life in which a sentence like that would have struck me as mildly surreal if not completely insane, so where did it all go, I ask myself?"

"I said right at the Owen Glendower. Then straight on for a bit. Sorry. An SAS guard? Auntie Glenys would like that. Always partial to a uniform, she tells me."

"It's supposed to be a widespread trait. Practically universal, or so I'm told." Sherlock's voice managed to sound both mocking and – bruised? She thought back a few hours. Oh. That.

"Used to work for me." John spun the wheel of the white van, taking another tight bend in his stride. "Over three separate continents. Medical degree, surgical specialism, commission in the Royal Medical Corps – I can tell you, years of effort and forethought went into overcoming my natural handicaps in the getting laid department, and once again, I find myself asking where did it all go wrong? You came closer this evening of getting in with a chance than I have for sodding months."

"Jack Harkness doesn't count," Cerys said, automatically, and found she had an echo. She and Sherlock exchanged grins.

"Anyway, tonight should have put a dent in his batting average. From the little I saw, she seemed far more interested in you, Cerys." Sherlock's eye on her was – almost indecently perceptive. His observation came a lot too close to things she didn't want to think about, not just at present. She made a choked, non-committal sort of noise, just as John said, "She who?"

Sherlock yawned, elaborately. "The poor unfortunate to whom Harkness switched his attentions after I'd made it clear I was sublimely uninterested both in his job offer and his body. Anyway, Cerys, where do you want us to drop you?"

"Coming up. Pull over behind that blue Toyota."

She watched the tail lights of the van flicker out of sight round the next bend and then turned, very slowly, and rang Auntie Glenys's bell.

A decade of retirement hadn't mended Auntie Glenys's sleeping patterns. Two a.m, clearly, was still an early night for her; she was fully dressed (barring the fluffy pink bedroom slippers) when, after the briefest of checks through the spyhole in the door, she flung it wide and enveloped Cerys in her arms.

"Come in love, you look dead on your feet. Trouble? Silly question, you wouldn't be here this time of night if it weren't trouble. Not love problems, can't be; Terry's Dilla would have told me if you were seeing someone new, and you'd have gone to Uncle Ieuan if it were police, and you've always been careful about money – oh, you were on lates at the hotel this week, weren't you? That Gareth told Gwynneth that Himself has taken to treating that bar as his personal property recently. She tipped me off at the bingo last night. So; don't tell me. Not bloody Torchwood?"

"Bloody Torchwood," Cerys agreed, and allowed herself to be led inside.

_____________________________________

"So, Gwen, you're telling me you lost them?"

"I'm telling you I never bloody found them in the first place." Gwen ran her fingers through her hair and gestured at the screen. "The CCTV network has been up and down like a bride's nightie all evening."

"Has it now?" Jack leant against her desk, looking down at the display.

"A blizzard of minor blips – about five or ten seconds each – and then this last one, an hour and a half. Only just come back online. They could be half way to Aberystwyth by now."

"Clinically insane, are they?" Ianto wandered across from his own computer, holding out a print-out. He looked uncharacteristically casual in sweat shirt and jeans. His ruined suit lay in a heap in the corner of the Hub, awaiting final disposal and, from the tense, tight lines around his mouth, he was still mourning its demise. "I've been running an analysis of those earlier outages. You might find it interesting. Sir."

Jack bent his head over the printout and swore.

"Want me to run a decode of that?"

"No. No need." The CCTV outages had not been "about" five or ten seconds each; they'd been precisely timed at five or ten seconds, accurate to the third or fourth decimal place. Over the course of the evening, the pattern became obvious. Long pauses and short pauses – dots and dashes –

What with the Time Agency, the slow path and assorted cons over the years, Jack had probably fought in the Second World War for slightly over twelve years in total. For one hazy week in 1943, he reckoned there'd been a version of him serving in each of the Allied air, sea and land forces simultaneously. It hadn't been the best of times, all things considered, but at least that sort of experience taught you to read Morse.

He traced the letters out onto the printout with his pencil. Ianto leaned over his shoulder.

I'M COMING HARKNESS YOU'RE FUCKED

"What sort of person puts in the apostrophes and leaves out the commas and full stops?" Ianto murmured.

Jack ignored him.

"Someone just changed the rules. And we gotta be ready."

From somewhere high above him, Myfanwy cried out. The echoes of her scream took a long time to die. The Hub magnified every sound; he had noted that on the night over a century ago when Alice and Emily had first brought him here, when the loudest sounds in the place had been his own screams. Tonight, though, he heard something in the echoes he had never let himself hear before. Voices. Countless voices.

We are the diflannwyr. We are coming. Soon you must face us.