Ianto wakes with a start. He’s cold and uncomfortable and staring out an unfamiliar scene. It’s the Hub’s workstations sideways he realises as he sits up. He must have fallen asleep on the sofa. He swings his feet to the floor and wraps his arms around himself as he slowly regains consciousness. The Hub is silent save the constant whirring and humming of machinery. The main lights are off but the ethereal blue swirling screensavers cast strange patterns on the walls, bouncing off the water tower and the murky pool around its base. To his left, the lights on the Christmas tree that Tosh, of all people, had insisted on, blink lazily.
Ianto rubs his eyes and checks his watch. It’s just gone seven in the morning. Christmas Eve. The last thing Ianto remembers is sitting down here at three thirty am, finally having run out of menial tasks to keep him occupied whilst he waited for Jack to return with his car.
He stands, stretching and shivering, and wanders up to Jack’s office. No sign of him – no coat. Ianto even sticks his head down into the bunker to check. Nothing. He retreats from the office and makes his way over to the kitchen area. Without thinking, he sets to work on the coffee machine. He figures Gwen and Owen won’t be in today, given their distractions, but he’s unsure about Tosh. Jack did tell them they could have the day off but he and Tosh have never been very good at following that instruction.
Settling back on the sofa, Ianto warms one hand on his coffee as he dials. “Hi mum, it’s me,” he says when she picks up.
He hears her sigh. “You’re not coming, are you?”
Guilt bites at him that this is her first reaction to his phone call. “No, I am,” he swears. “I’m just running late.”
Another sigh. “Just like your sister. Don’t need your mother anymore.”
“That’s not true.” Now he’s irked by the guilt trip. “There’s been a problem with my car. I just need to get it sorted.”
A pause. “I’ve put the ham on already.”
“I’ll be there, I promise.”
“Alright then love.”
She hangs up before he can say goodbye. Ianto stares down into his coffee, warming his cold nose on the steam, wondering what his mother would say if she knew where he really was.
He jumps when the alarm sounds and the cog door rolls back. Jack spies him on the sofa in the half light and Ianto springs to his feet, approaching him. All at once, he clocks the empty look in Jack’s eyes and is hit full in the face by the overwhelming stench of exhaust fumes.
Looking closer, Ianto can see that Jack’s skin is deathly pale and blotched with bright red patches, almost candescent in places. Ianto wordlessly steps forward and helps Jack out of his coat, wool permeated with the odour of petrol. Laying the coat to one side, Ianto guides Jack over to the sofa where he sinks gratefully into the sagging cushions. Ianto perches beside him.
“John’s dead,” Jack announces flatly, staring blankly ahead.
“I’m sorry sir,” Ianto says quietly.
Jack suddenly doubles over, clutching at his stomach and retching. Ianto hurries to the kitchenette and fetches out a bucket from under the sink. Dashing back, he hands it to Jack who clasps it between his knees, bends forward and vomits violently into it. Ianto tentatively reached out and rubs Jack’s back. He’s not sure it’s helping but he can’t stop himself reaching out to a man in distress.
When the retching subsides, Jack pauses for a moment with his head in the bucket, breathing heavily. He straightens up. “Carbon monoxide poisoning,” he explains in a hoarse voice, wiping bile from his chin with the back of his hand. “Takes a while to get out of the system.”
Ianto’s eyes widen in shock. “You should go to hospital.”
Jack shakes his head adamantly. “I’ll be fine.”
“At least let Owen see you.”
Jack vomits again, stomach heaving painfully with nothing left to dispel. Ianto anxiously brushes the hair back from Jack’s clammy forehead, concern overriding thoughts for the intimacy of the gesture and what it might mean for their no-strings arrangement.
“Let me call Owen,” Ianto says firmly.
“No,” Jack insists, clutching at Ianto’s arm. “I’m going to be fine. I just need…” He stops, screwing his eyes shut and swinging his head from side to side as though trying to clear something. “I need oxygen.”
“Do we have any?” Ianto gently takes the bucket out of his hands and places it on the floor beside Jack’s feet.
Jack nods cautiously. “In the autopsy bay.”
He starts to get to his feet and staggers against the arm of the sofa. Ianto catches his arm and steadies him. Jack’s head lolls lethargically to one side and Ianto wraps a strong, supporting arm around his shoulders, helping him across the Hub and down the steps into the autopsy bay. Forcing panic down his throat, Ianto tries desperately to maintain his air of calm, despite his terror. He settles Jack on the edge of the table and scans around the small, cluttered area.
“Where is it?” he asks.
Jack’s got his hands clamped over his face, heels of his hands pushed against his eyelids, fingernails digging into his own scalp. He takes deep breaths, chest heaving. “Cupboard beside the steps,” he rasps without looking up.
Ianto shoots across to the cupboard and drags out the portable oxygen tank, hefting it onto the table beside Jack. Jack grabs at the plastic face mask before it barely touches the surface and presses it to his face. Ianto quickly spins the dial to turn it on and Jack takes a huge, gasping lungful of oxygen. Exhaling slowly through his nose, he begins to breathe deeper; steadier.
Ianto watches him uneasily but Jack seems calm enough now, staring straight ahead. Ianto hops up beside him on the the autopsy table. It’s high and both their feet swing a few inches above the floor. Ianto’s idly watching his black dress shoes and Jack’s brown boots move back and forth when he feels Jack’s touch.
He looks up. Jack’s relinquished one hand from pressing the mask to his face and sought out Ianto’s hand, gently laying his palm in Ianto’s. His blue eyes above the top of the mask gaze at Ianto with an expression of unspeakable pain before he returns them to the clean white tiles of the wall in front of them.
As Ianto holds Jack’s hand, he realises that for the first time since he has known Jack, his hands are cold. As much as he hates to admit it, Ianto really wishes Owen were here right now, to reassure him that they’re doing the right thing if nothing else. The fumes coming off Jack are starting to make Ianto feel nauseas and a little light-headed.
Eventually, Jack takes one last breath and replaces the mask in its clasp on the top of the canister, slowly turning the dial to ‘off’, pulling his hand out of Ianto’s in the process.
Ianto watches him for a second. “I think Owen should check you over.”
Jack shakes his head wearily. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
“It’s just my body,” Jack hisses, fingers massaging his temples. “Fighting it off. I’m fine.”
Ianto sighs, chewing his lip doubtfully. “Do you want a glass of water?”
Jack slouches down on the table and nods. Ianto drops to the floor and disappears, reappearing a few moments later with a glass of water and the bucket. He hands the water to Jack, who accepts it with trembling hands. Jack raises the glass to his lips and, with noisy gulps, swallows the whole glass rapidly. Ianto takes the glass back and is ready with the bucket when Jack heaves and vomits the water straight back out again.
Jack sinks down again and closes his eyes. Ianto observes him worriedly, staring in confusion at the discolouration of Jack’s face which seems to be fading before his eyes, shifting under the skin.
“I’ll buy you a new car,” Jack murmurs after a moment.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ianto assures him quickly.
Jack swallows, his breathing slowing. “Take the SUV to get home today,” he offers wearily.
“Thank you sir.” Ianto stands with hands in pockets and watches Jack dubiously. His breathing is shallow now and he is sweating profusely. “I think you ought to lie down sir,” Ianto suggests hesitantly.
Jack slowly opens his eyes and Ianto sees the unshed tears glistening in the corners. “He died,” Jack says miserably. “I had to watch him die. I couldn’t stop him.”
“Come on.” Ianto reaches down and gently grips Jack’s wrist, pulling him to his feet. Jack allows Ianto to steer him out of the autopsy bay, into his office and over to the space under the floor. Jack numbly sits down with his feet dangling over the edge of it. Ianto hovers uncertainly beside him.
“You’ll probably have to get rid of those clothes.”
“Not the boots,” Jack says slowly in an empty tone. “Everything but the boots.”
“Ok.” Ianto nods. “I’ll scrub them for you, try and get the smell out.”
“Leave it to me sir.”
Jack sighs deeply and begins to slowly unbutton his shirt, staring blankly ahead. He eases it off his shoulders and hands it to Ianto. When he pulls his t-shirt over his head, Ianto is shocked to see that the skin of Jack’s torso, normally so healthy and sleek, is pale and mottled with the same glowing crimson patches as his face.
“Are you sure you don’t need medical attention sir?” Ianto asks incredulously.
Jack nods dumbly, passing his t-shirt to Ianto and leaning down to unlace his boots. He pulls them off one at a time, placing them on the floor beside him. Slowly and methodically, he sheds the rest of his clothes and drops down into the hole in the floor.
Ianto gathers up Jack’s clothes and piles them to one side. Retrieving the bucket from the autopsy bay, he washes Jack’s vomit down the sink, rinses the bucket out and tears a bin liner off the roll that is tucked beside the bottles of cleaning products. He returns to Jack’s office and peers down at him. Jack is curled up in a ball on his side, his head tucked against his knees, lying on top of the covers, shivering slightly.
“You might want to get under the covers sir,” Ianto suggests gently, but Jack doesn’t move. “I’ll leave this bucket up here just in case,” Ianto tells him, putting the bucket down next to the hole. “If you need me, just give me a shout.”
“Go home Ianto,” Jack tells him blankly.
Ianto swallows. “I think someone should stay with you sir.”
“It’s Christmas,” Jack murmurs. “Go home.”
“Nothing to go home to sir,” Ianto replies wryly. “Get some sleep.”
Ianto stands up and removes his suit jacket, hanging it over the back of Jack’s chair. Unbuttoning his cuffs, he neatly rolls up his sleeves. He quietly gathers up Jack’s fumigated clothes and stuffs them into the bin bag, before picking up the boots and leaving the office. The bin bag gets dumped with the rest of the rubbish he cleared up the night before and the boots are submerged in a sink of slightly soapy water.
Picking up a magazine from the coffee table, Ianto makes his way back into Jack’s office. Jack has pulled the sheets roughly around him and seems to be sleeping. Ianto settles down on the floor, back against the wall and opens the magazine. In truth, he does have somewhere to be but he’d rather be here, with Jack, than anywhere else in the world.
He thinks about his mum with her ham cooking, alone on Christmas Eve. When midday rolls around, she’ll pour herself a glass of sherry. Every year the same. Except this year, there’s no Rhi and the kids. He’ll go this evening, he tells himself. They’ll have leftovers and watch the Snowman, just like they always do. It’s only Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, and if she knew she’d understand. After all, he inherited it from her – this need to be needed - and right now he has someone who needs him here.
Three days later, Ianto quietly enters Jack’s office and silently hands him his clean boots and coat. Jack sets the boots down on his desk and brings the coat up to his nose, inhaling deeply. There’s no trace of exhaust fumes. He turns and hangs it on the coat stand.
“Thank you.” He smiles gratefully at Ianto.
Ianto gives a brief smile in return. “All part of the service sir.”
“I have something for you too.” Jack picks up a car key from amongst the junk on his desk and holds it out to Ianto. “It’s up in the car park, next to Gwen’s. Same as your old one, slightly newer though. Left all the documentation in the glove box.”
Ianto hesitantly takes the key. “You didn’t have to do that.” He looks at Jack sympathetically. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Jack shakes his head and sighs, sitting down in his chair and starting to unlace the spare boots that he’s been wearing for the last three days. “I couldn’t ask you to use it afterwards.” He kicks the boots to one side and grabs his old ones off the desk.
“At least let me pay half sir,” Ianto protests.
Jack pushes his feet into his boots and stands up to face Ianto. He puts his hands on Ianto’s shoulders and looks him in the eye. “Just call it a gift from one friend to another, ok?”
Ianto takes a deep breath and finally nods in concession, pocketing the car key. Jack leans forward and kisses him lightly on the cheek and Ianto can feel the heat blushing his cheeks. Ianto has only ever been kissed on the cheek by women – friends, girlfriends, elderly relatives – not by…well, whatever Jack was. His boss, certainly. Male, definitely. Friend? Possibly. Lover? Ianto slams the brakes on his train of thought. Just sex, just sex, just sex, he repeats in his head; his mantra when it comes to Jack.
Jack’s oblivious, of course, pulling back, giving him a quick pat on the arm and squatting down to lace up his boots. “Can you give Owen another call?” he asks as he pulled the knot tight. “I have a feeling he might have done something stupid with Diane.” He stands up and walks back round his desk, sinking into his chair.
“Of course.” Ianto dips his head briefly, composure regained. “Would you like a coffee sir?”