"Am I at least close?" muttered Ianto, a distinct note of pleading creeping into his voice.
"Give me a minute," came Tosh's strained reply in his ear. "It isn't easy, you know, tracking an asexual embodiment of pure cosmic evil."
"It had to be pure cosmic evil, didn't it?" he grumbled, turning a corner and sweeping the area quickly with one of the guns from the "we're not exactly sure how these work, but we think it's something laser-y" crate. "Couldn't we luck out, just once, and get an asexual embodiment of the pure evil that builds up under the sink?"
Gwen's laughter echoed in his other ear, then broke off sharply. "I think I've got something!"
"Readings are picking up," agreed Tosh. "It's . . . Ianto! It's almost on top of you!"
Right on cue, there was a yelp from the next street over.
"On it." Ianto broke into a run, hoping he didn't sound as nervous as he felt. And then he actually turned the corner, and realized he hadn't known the half of it.
Pure cosmic evil, as it turned out, was dark. Sure, it had bulbous red eyes and long lines of serrated gleaming teeth, but these were all set in a cloud of inky void, so impossibly dark that the night around it seemed to glow in comparison.
Ianto's heart dropped to somewhere around his knees.
"I will tear open your torso and go hang-gliding with your intestines,"
Perversely, Ianto was grateful — it would give him a few short moments to pray before being noticed and swept up into a thousand infinite agonies—
—and then the civilian held up something little and sparkly, and the creature let out a terrible shriek before dissipating in a flash of purest grey.
"Are you sure you don't want me to dissect him?" asked Owen hopefully. "Just in case?"
Gwen smacked him on the shoulder, then turned back to the palm-sized machine sparkling unassumingly under one of Tosh's machines. "This thing really destroyed the creature?"
"Not so much 'destroyed' as 'dissipated', I think," corrected Tosh. "I'm still picking up higher-than-normal levels of background evil."
"So we should probably send a couple of people out on patrol again," concluded Gwen, fingering the grip of her own gun (from the "probably something quantum-y" pile). "Just in case."
"Yes, it's always like this around here," said Ianto, in answer to the visitor's unspoken question. "Would you like some tea?"
The man on the scanning pad jumped. "Would you mind? I mean, you obviously have a lot to do around here . . . ."
"Tea is sort of my specialty," admitted Ianto.
The visitor had been remarkably calm as Torchwood dragged him through its battery of tests. Between that unassuming demeanor and a shock of neutral brown hair that tended to fall across his generic face, it was easy to imagine him getting lost in a crowd. Still, Ianto could have sworn he'd seen the guy somewhere before.
While the other team members were poking around the alien device and debating over how it might work, Ianto handed the visitor a hot cup of tea, then said, "You're not on telly, are you?"
The man jumped again, nearly sloshing his drink all over his hands. "What? Me? No!"
Okay, now Ianto knew he was on the right track. "Some American show," he guessed, based on the accent. How many American shows did he even watch? Unless . . . . "Have you been on that mad pundit? Colbert?"
The visitor groaned. "I told him I was the wrong person for this job. Would you mind not spreading it around? I'm supposed to be undercover."
"I know the feeling," sighed Ianto. "Anything Torchwood can help with? Since you went and destroyed — uh, dissipated — our invader for us, we probably owe you a good turn."
"Probably not," said the other man, taking a sip of tea. "I'm kind of on a wild goose chase. All I know is, I'm supposed to be looking for some guy named 'Jack Harkness'."
"Look, I'm sorry, but I don't know any more than you do," he protested. "And I bet my boss doesn't either. If he had some way of getting in touch with your Jack, there's no way he would have sent me to wander around Wales hoping I'll trip over the guy."
"He must know more than he's let on," pressed the skinny guy, the doctor, glaring at Bobby suspiciously.
"He might be a psychic," mused the woman with the big doe-eyes and the gap between her teeth. "Or a time traveler. How else could he send you here with a machine that just happened to neutralize the being that came through the Rift at that exact moment?"
"I'm sure you have plenty of stuff in that arsenal of yours that would have worked on Meangarr."
It was the wrong thing to say. Even the Welsh guy, who had seemed closest to being on Bobby's side, looked startled. "You know its name?"
"No!" cried Bobby in exasperation. "I pulled it from a comic book! Tek Jansen issue 1, there's this dark scary character, the name seemed to fit — look it up!"
"We will," the tiny Asian tech specialist assured him. "Are there other representations of this character? What sort of experiences was it based on?"
"Why are you asking me?" fired back Bobby, starting to get fed up with this. "You're the E.T. specialists, right? Not that you seem all that competent. Where were you guys when the UK elected an alien lunatic as Prime Minister, huh? What were you doing when he shot our President?"
That shut them up. For a moment nobody met his eyes.
Serves them right, thought Bobby with uncharacteristic vengefulness.
Not that he regretted it. The hole in the country's heart was still too fresh.
And if Bobby was still aching from the assassination, it was nothing to how his boss had reacted. Okay, so you couldn't work for Stephen Colbert for any length of time without developing a bit of callousness to his rages and meltdowns. But something in the man had honestly broken a few months ago, to the point where Bobby was willing to fake his own death and sneak across the Atlantic if there was any chance of tracking down someone who could fix him.
It was Welsh who finally answered. "We were on a wild goose chase of our own," he admitted.
"We're only human," added Gap. Somehow it didn't sound trite or smarmy the way she said it, just sad and true and a little profound.
"On our good days," muttered Skinny.
Before the conversation could deteriorate any further, it was cut short: one of the computers had started beeping. Tiny darted over to the monitor, followed closely by Gap. "Is there a spike in the level of background evil?"
"No, the analysis of the device just finished." Tiny hit a few keys. "Oh, wow. I've never seen anything like it! Every one of these readings is . . . ."
"Off the charts?" asked Welsh nervously.
Tiny shook her head. "On the charts," she breathed. "They're all perfectly neutral."
Gap frowned. "So, what? This thing taps into some kind of force of pure cosmic neutrality?"
"Looks like it," agreed Tiny, eyes skimming the screen. "But . . . only in the right hands. The force can't be channeled by someone who's committed past acts of great good, or great harm."
She exchanged a meaningful glance with the rest of the team.
Before Bobby could work out what was going on, they were cut off by another round of beeping. "Oh," said Tiny, almost apologetically. "That one's the alarm for the spike in background evil."
Then, to Bobby's surprise, Skinny picked up the still-sparkling neutralizer and tossed it over to him. "You want to judge us?" he asked crisply. "See how well you do in our shoes."
"Caught it a couple of times." The memories had been coming back ever since Ianto had made the connection, and now he was rather wishing they had stayed vague. "If Jack knew Colbert from somewhere, though, he never acted like it."
"Oh, you watched them together?" Bobby paused. "Wait. Were you — ohhh. Um. Changing the subject now, sorry . . . ."
"You have a problem with it?" demanded Ianto, more sharply than he had intended.
"What? No! I just thought you — I mean—" After a couple more seconds of floundering, Bobby shook himself. "Your boss is very different from mine," he finished apologetically.
Which Ianto should have guessed. He had seen the Report, after all. "I can understand that."
"Must be hard," added Bobby. "Having him missing, I mean."
"It's hard on all of us," hedged Ianto. "He built this team, gave it a purpose — without him around, we're left to make it up as we go along."
"And he ditched you anyway? Uh, wow. I hope Stephen's not counting on this guy for too much emotional support."
"He's supportive!" insisted Ianto quickly. "He does care. About all of us. About me." He drew his gun and swept a corner, then motioned the other man to follow. "It's just that . . . well, he thinks rather differently from the rest of us, Jack does. Not in an alien way, you understand; he just seems to be on a different plane. I tried to keep his feet on the ground — job in itself, that was — but no matter how involved he got with whatever we were dealing with day-to-day, you always got the sense that if the opportunity presented, he would drop it all and leave in a heartbeat." He grimaced. "Which he did, obviously."
"Huh," said Bobby after a minute. "It sounds like our bosses aren't that different after a—are you okay?"
"Scream on the comm. Sounded like Gwen." Every muscle taut, Ianto tapped his earpiece. "Tosh! Where are they?"
"I will torment you with the agony of a million dying suns!"
Ianto tried to tell himself that he was cowering behind a rubbish skip as part of a sensible strategy, and not because that voice could have sent chills through a planet's core. "Fire!" he hissed.
"What, now?" whispered Bobby, quivering next to him.
"No, next Christmas. Yes, now!"
"But he'll drop your teammates!"
"It's part of the job. We knew the risks when—"
"Duck!" yelped Bobby, leaping at Ianto and throwing them both across the pavement. In the next instant the skip exploded. When the dust cleared, nothing remained but a smoking crater, reeking of sulfur and the tears of small children.
"What did you do to me?"
Under the rumble of its tooth-jarring growls about picking his nerve endings out of its teeth, he hissed, "Any time you're ready . . . ."
Bobby just groaned.
Daring to glance back at him, Ianto saw the other man struggling dizzily to pick himself up, head hanging and glasses nearly falling from his face. Not unconscious, but the blast had definitely left him in need of medical attention.
Or at least, a few moments to recover.
Trying to block the terrified whimpers of his own sense of self-preservation, Ianto jumped to his feet. "Hey! Ugly!"
"Are you talking to me?"
"I will shatter your femurs and impale you with the pieces!"
The cloud of darkness narrowed its furnace-red eyes.
"No respect for the classics,"
"Maybe that will change once I slaughter everything you ever held dear!"
His bravado faded when he caught sight of Bobby. The other man had pulled himself together enough to aim the neutralizing device at the creature, but either he was pressing the wrong button, or . . . .
"Then maybe I should just crush the breath from your puny lungs."
It wasn't just the physical strangulation. Ianto could feel what was left of his best instincts being suffocated, hatred and cruelty and all that was bad in the world closing in on his soul. Tosh's voice was carrying on in his ear ("Rift activity, right on top of you!"), but there was no point, she couldn't help, nothing could help, he knew logically that there ought to be good in the world but he couldn't imagine how . . . .
Then there was a light, impossibly bright, and for the first time out of all the near-death experiences Torchwood had put him through, Ianto could think of no reason not to go to it.
Even if, for some reason, it was mauve this time.
The shrieking continued, but it was as if the heart-shriveling terror were being drained out of the noise. It didn't hurt that the night was suddenly illuminated, with a hue that was downright gentle. And another sound filled the night . . . the laughter of children?
In spite of the fact that his head was still spinning and his glasses had fallen off somewhere along the line, Bobby hauled himself up onto his elbows, unwilling to miss even a blurred glimpse of the serenity of Pure Cosmic Good.
It was a little disappointing when all he saw was a young man — a boy, really; he couldn't have been more than a teenager — holding what looked like an ordinary, if mauve, birdcage.
"I will roast your organs on spits!"
The other two teammates looked down for the count, but to Bobby's great relief Ianto hauled himself up on his elbows and took aim at the manifestation. "Drop the cage," he ordered shakily, gun humming as it charged.
Startled, the boy looked up, then clung to his burden. "Put that away! You're scaring him!"
"Th-this is kind of a serious situation," put in Bobby hesitantly. "If that — that creature gets out of there, our whole planet is in trouble."
"He's just a little rambunctious, that's all!" insisted the kid. "Don't worry about him. The contanium here will hold him in place until he learns how to behave."
"Your planet will be reduced to a scorched wasteland!"
"Torchwood," said Ianto flatly.
Not exactly the response Bobby had expected from a secret organization. But more unexpected yet was the boy's reaction: his mouth fell open in awe, eyes shining. "You're Torchwood?"
"Um, yes . . . ."
"Well, a Torchwood," allowed Ianto.
"The best alien-fighting team ever in the whole wide universe?" gushed the kid, with an enthusiasm that Bobby could have sworn he had seen before.
"That settles it," muttered Ianto. "He's definitely got the wrong Torchwood."
And then the excitable young voice declared, "No, no, I recognize you now! Captain Jack told me all about you!"
Ianto sat up so quickly that he actually yelped, all his muscles screaming at the movement. "You're with Jack?" he croaked. "Where is he?"
"Oh, all over the place," said the visitor brightly. "Lots of worlds to save, you know. We've been chasing this lil' troublemaker for a while now."
"I will break every one of your ribs. One by one."
Ianto tried in vain to absorb that one.
"Um, excuse me," stammered Bobby, waving lightly to get the boy's attention. "Really quickly, before you leave . . . you see this little sparkly thing?" He held up the neutralizing device.
"Oh, you've got a Neutrixatron 6000x?" The kid patted the top of the cage sympathetically. "They used it on you, didn't they? Poor baby. I'll bet that smarted."
"Uh, right," agreed Bobby. "Point is, the next time you get your hands on one of those things, stick it in your pocket and hang on to it, okay?"
"Can do." The boy cast one last absurdly admiring look over the still-half-unconscious team, then held up his arm. In the midst of all the other surprises, Ianto had completely missed the vortex manipulator cuffed to his wrist. "It's been a huge honor to meet you all."
"When I get free I will make a cage for you! Out of their spines!"
And then, with a wink and a press of a button, both were gone.
"We're working on it," replied Gwen, while Tosh ran the instrument over her injuries as well. "It's just a matter of weeding out the gadgets that liquefy your internal organs first."
"Should have asked so many more questions," muttered Ianto, more to himself than anyone else. Tosh had already patched him up physically, but judging by the listless glaze in his eyes, he hadn't entirely recovered. "How's he doing? Did the Doctor give him what he was looking for?"
"Is he coming back?" added Gwen softly.
"Actually, I might be able help there," offered Bobby, standing up a little straighter. "Can you hook me up with a phone connection? And maybe another cup of tea?"
When it started into the ring tone, he grabbed for it on the first note. "Who's there?"
"Hi, Stephen," said Bobby's voice. At least he couldn't be on a cell phone: he was coming in with breathtaking clarity. "I have an update on the mission."
"Great! Let's hear it."
"Well, I have good news and bad news," replied Bobby. "The bad news is, Jack Harkness isn't here. On the plus side, wherever he is . . . he's with you."
Stephen sucked in a breath. "You found the rest of them, then. Torchwood."
"The best alien-fighting team in the whole wide universe," agreed Bobby brightly. "And they're pretty eager to talk to you."