Ianto slowly made his way back towards the small camp, his torchlight bouncing irregularly over the barren ground. The light had just begun to fade so everything was tinged with a purplish hue. Ang, their Sherpa, had seemed cagey and evasive, and not for the first time since arriving on the mountain did Ianto suspect that something was up. All of the Sherpas had seemed off, chatting more than usual with one another, a steady buzz of anxiousness filling the air. And not one of them had any idea what to do with the four of them and their mission, which Ianto was beginning to suspect was some sort of wild goose chase. They had been up here for almost a fortnight, and still had to discover one bit of the alien tech that was supposedly buried someplace under the base camp. Something was definitely wrong. He had felt so…disconnected ever since they crossed above the tree line, like something essential was missing. Something other than Jack. Ianto sighed, shifting his messenger bag down slightly over his parka to better balance himself. Ang had given him some Alu Roti, potato stuffed bread, to share with the group. At least Owen wouldn’t bitch about that. He hoped. He could hear the other three long before he came upon them, their voices bouncing off of the rocks.
“Why in the bloody fuck is it so cold?”
“Yes, thanks so much for that, Owen. How would we ever survive without your running commentary on the weather? What did you expect? We’re in the bloody Himalayas!” Gwen’s voice sounded oddly slurred.
“Fuck off, Cooper.”
As Ianto came upon them, he could see Owen as gesticulating with the bottle of vodka he had purchased at duty-free strictly for medicinal purposes.
“Guys—not helping!” Tosh sounded irritated, and lurched forward, snagging the bottle from Owen’s fingers. She had a right to be irritated, as they had revisited different versions of this particular conversation at least thirty times. Ianto could see the group had made quite the dent in the bottle by this point. Great. One of those nights.
Owen caught sight of him first, his mouth twisting up into a cruel sneer. “Ianto!” He felt instantly filled with dread, and hoped for a moment he could just melt back into the shadows. Owen wasn’t his favorite person on the best of days, but Owen plus alcohol was his personal version of hell. “You’re just in time for another round of everyone’s favorite camping game: who’s the last person you snogged?”
“Owen!” Gwen hissed, smacking him none to gently on the arm.
“Ow!” Owen exaggeratedly rubbed the place where she made contact. “I don’t know what you’re all riled up about. It’s not like we don’t know your answer, the soon-to-be-Mrs. Williams.” Owen grabbed for the bottle but Tosh pulled it away at the last second, holding it out for Ianto. He took a long sip as he sat on the edge of the group, keeping himself apart, eyeing them warily. “So how ‘bout you, Ianto? Don’t want you to feel neglected.”
Right. Ianto had avoided having this conversation thus far, and not for a lack of effort on his part, but apparently his luck had finally run out. The weeks following Jack’s disappearance, (and very public snog), had been fraught with extreme coddling from Gwen, stuttered awkward conversations with Tosh, and no real change from Owen. He just continued to act like a gigantic arse. Ianto pretended like he was pondering an answer, and took another swig, the vodka smooth but bottoming out in his empty stomach like fire.
He cleared his throat. “Points for subtlety, Owen. Lacking in originality, though. The Russian judge gives it a 7.” Tosh smothered a smile behind her hand, but Gwen turned huge and curious eyes in his direction. Ianto busied himself with his bag, pulling out the still-warm pieces of bread and breaking some off to distribute around. “Anyone hungry, then?”
Owen snatched a piece and shoved it into his mouth. “Har fucking har, Ianto.” With his mouth full, he looked so much like Jack at that moment that Ianto felt something tighten high up in his chest and had to turn his face away. “You’re not getting off so easy.”
Ianto sighed, steeling himself, deciding that the best defense was a strong offense. “Well, at least it wasn’t a Weevil.” He knew the minute the words left his mouth that this was the absolute wrong thing to say, judging by the evil gleam in Owen’s eyes. His insides clenched in dreaded apprehension.
“So…tell us, then…you start shagging Jack before or after he pumped your girlfriend full of bullets?”
Even though he was prepared for the blow, Ianto still felt all of the air leave his lungs in a rush, and a red haze settled over his vision. “You would do well to remember that the last time you commented on my sex life, Owen, I shot you. That time, I meant to miss.” He stood with as much dignity as he could muster and, clutching the vodka bottle in his hands, blindly stumbled away from their shocked faces
“Jesus Christ, Owen! Do you have to be such a bloody bastard?” Ianto winced at the shrill quality in Gwen’s voice. Sliding down a big boulder, he effectively cut himself off from their lines of sight and took a long pull from the vodka, sputtering a bit and wiping his hand shakily across his mouth.
“Oh, give it a rest, Gwen! Like you don’t fucking want to know!” Ianto heard noises of disagreement from both of the girls, but Owen soldiered on. “Oh come on, all of you! Like this isn’t the biggest piece of office gossip…since…well…since Gwen and I were shagging!”
“Screw you, Owen!” Gwen sounded almost on the verge of tears. “You don’t have to be so cruel.”
Ianto fumbled around in his bag, rummaging out the cigarettes he had purchased in cases of extreme emergency. He shook one out, cradling it carefully in his gloved hand, and lit it, his hand shaking. He took a long drag, holding the smoke in his lungs and letting it out in a long exhale, trying to center himself. He heard someone picking their way towards him, and he prayed it wasn’t Gwen. He didn’t think he could handle that right now. He let out another exhale of smoke, in relief this time, when he saw Tosh’s small frame pick her way carefully over to him.
She stumbled a bit, catching herself on the side of the rock, and cautiously lowered herself down beside him. “I’m so sorry, Ianto. Owen can be so awful sometimes.” Ianto swallowed thickly and nodded in agreement, offering her the bottle without turning to face her. She took it from him, taking a mouthful and swallowing, all the while studying him carefully. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
Ianto gave a small chuckle. “I don’t.” He cut his eyes over to her and then quickly away again, amending. “I haven’t for a long while now.” He paused, taking another puff. “Lisa made me quit.” The silence was almost a tangible thing between them, giving him time to consider that he and Tosh had more in common than just being the “quiet ones”. He was really trying to keep his mind from visiting the fact that both of their ex-girlfriends had suffered basically the same fate at (basically) the hands of the same man, but up here, on this god-forsaken rock, something had to fill the large spaces Jack left behind. Tosh shifted slightly beside him, clearly her thoughts someplace equally unpleasant, if not the same place. He held out the pack in her direction. “Want one?”
She considered them for a moment before blinking and shaking her head. “No. Thank you. I don’t smoke.”
He nodded once, taking his cigarette out of his mouth and flicking it expertly into the distance, the orange glow from the tip arcing gently away in the dark. He reached for the bottle, which she handed over, clearly grateful to have something to do, and he swished a mouthful around, rinsing out the taste of smoke. He let the silence coil out before them a bit longer before giving her a sort of half grin, his voice lowered. "For the record, my last snog wasn't a Weevil.”
She answered with a sharp puff of air, almost a laugh, her handing flying up over her mouth. Her eyes were wide and shining . “You two sure kept things under wraps.”
Ianto shook his head. “Not really. Owen caught us out once.” At Tosh’s stunned expression, he nodded. “Had to bribe him with Hob Nobs for a week to keep him quiet. The chocolate ones.”
Her eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “Why?”
“I…” Ianto trailed off, shrugging. He never really considered why before. “I really don’t know, actually.” He studied the ground, scuffing his toe in the dust. “Habit, I guess.”
He felt Tosh’s eyes on him, and a blush crept up his neck, blooming on his cheeks. In the silence that lingered, he could hear Gwen and Owen speaking urgently in low tones. When Tosh finally found her voice, it was soft and hesitant, bordering on pity. “He’s not coming back, is he?”
Ianto gave a harsh chuckle, no trace of humor to be found. “Recognizing the sound of the TARDIS is one of the very first things you learned as new recruit at Canary Wharf.” His mouth twisted in a ironic smile, and he took another sip from the bottle. “That sound we recorded on the Plass…” He closed his eyes and dropped his head. “He wasn’t taken, Tosh. He left.”
“The Doctor.” It wasn’t a question.
Ianto nodded , not even trying to keep the bitterness out of his tone. “I’ve done a fair bit of reading on our Captain since he’s been gone.” At Tosh’s astonished stare, he tilted his head in acknowledgement. “He’s been waiting for the Doctor for a very long time.”
Tosh sighed loudly, reaching over for the vodka again and taking a pull. She coughed daintily into her gloved hand. “And here we are, stuck on this bloody stupid rock on this bloody pointless mission.” Her voice sounded significantly more slurred, and she was gesturing with the bottle.
Ianto whipped his head around to regard her, instantly regretting the movement. Whoops. Somewhere along the line they had both gotten completely pissed. He rubbed his hand over his eyes, trying to focus. “Really, what the hell are we even doing here? Since when do we take orders from Whitehall?”
“Right!” Tosh’s eyes shone with that look that Ianto had long ago identified as being on the verge of a breakthrough. “That’s just what I’ve been thinking!” She waved him off to stop him speaking, eager to continue. Her voice was laced with excitement. “I mean, do you even remember why you voted for Saxon?”
“Why I...” The question had never occurred to him before. He voted for Saxon because it seemed like the right thing to do. Something he had never even considered doubting. And when Saxon had sent them on this mission, every single one of them had just fallen into lock step, no questions asked. He fumbled through his bag, hindered by his thick gloves, but eventually pulled out his mobile. He flipped it open and confirmed yet again the lack of service. “And, it’s not like we can call anyone back in London to authenticate the mission.”
Tosh gaped at him for a few seconds before squeezing his arm excitedly. “Oh my God, Ianto, you’re brilliant!”
“Yes! Yes! Ianto, when did you start to notice that things seemed…odd?” He blinked at her stupidly for a few moments, the alcohol muddling his thoughts. She plucked the phone from his fingers and held it up for emphasis. “Everything seemed ok when we first arrived in Nepal, right? It wasn’t until we crossed the tree line, until mobile service was disrupted…” She stopped abruptly, turning her head to the side, listening.
“Tosh?” She turned towards him, suddenly frightened. “Tosh?” He grabbed at her arms. “What is it?” A moment later he heard it, too. A mechanical whirring, overlaid by what sounded like children laughing. The noise seemed be closing in from all directions, pinning them in. “Oh. That can’t be good.”
Jack could feel the music pulsating from the bridge long before he neared its entrance. The soldiers didn't even look at him, just grimly set about their task, dragging him along through the dank hallway that was illuminated by a few dingy bulbs. He thought he recognized the song as something he had heard Ianto playing in the tourist center whilst passing the time. Ianto. Christ. Another in the long litany of the sins he had been calculating during his forced sojourn on this ship. If he survived this…well…things would be better. He hoped. If he was even given the chance to try. He took a deep, steadying breath, and the soldier closest to him, who couldn't have been more than seventeen, shot him a concerned look. Jack just winked, trying to drum up a leer that would put him at ease; situation normal, all fucked up.The kid just rolled his eyes and shoved him roughly towards the entrance. “Shall we?” Jack tried to gesture as lewdly as he could, which wasn’t much at all, considering his hands were currently shackled. The soldier in front just unceremoniously pushed the doors open, revealing the splendor within. He almost vomited at the sight.
Apparently, all hands were on deck, as everyone stood at the ready awaiting his entrance. The Master, of course, stood at the center of Jack’s line of sight, resplendent in a tuxedo. Someone had even dredged up a walking stick and a cane from the bowels of this shitbox. Lucy, poor, daft Lucy, stood directly behind him in an exquisite glittering gown and tiara for fuck’s sake, blissfully smiling like someone with an intimate relationship with opiates. The Doctor, shriveled and impotent, shackled to a wheelchair, sat behind the Master’s left, his large cow eyes pinned on Jack, emanating sympathy. The servants, or so they were called if he were being kind, were lined up on either side of the main stage. Some even had trays of champagne or pigs in a blanket and mini quiches. And covering every visible surface were banners and signs proclaiming “FREAK!” in glittering fonts. As he entered, Clive Jones, his face an unreadable mask, wheeled in a cart bearing a large cake lit with at least fifty candles. Jack smirked in the Master’s direction. “Oh…you shouldn’t have!”
The Master just cackled with glee and rubbed his hands together. For not the first time, Jack thought that he should have a moustache to twirl. “Oh...I want to pull out all of the stops for you!” He spun a slow circle in front of Jack, arms open wide. “This is quite the auspicious day, after all.”
Jack’s eyes quickly roamed the room, looking for a lifeline. Tish blushed and looked away, but Francine held his gaze, eyes wide with compassion. Fuck. It was worse than he could have possibly imagined. He swiveled his eyes back towards the Master. “So, what’s the occasion?”
The Master smiled indulgently. “Well, you, of course! Perhaps I was a little understated with the theme—we could have done with a bit more streamers, but you know how it is. Good help is so hard to come by these days.” He grabbed a quiche off of a tray and shoved it into his mouth whole. “Mmm! These are so good. You should try one!” Jack just glared at him, unable to move for his bonds. The Master just shrugged. “No? Oh, well then…maybe later.” He clapped his hands together once, sounding almost like a gunshot in the big hall. He smiled at Jack widely, his face almost split in a grimace, and bounced up on his toes. “So, Freak, are you ready for your big surprise? I had them flown in special just for you.”
Jack felt his stomach flip unpleasantly and his skin prickle with a sudden rush of adrenaline. It was almost as if time had skidded to a stop, and his heart was pounding in his ears as he suddenly realized what was in store for him. He looked around, panicked, straining against his bonds, trying to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.
“Now, now, Freak.” The Master’s voice was indulgently scolding, as if Jack had been caught out a naughty boy. “Patience.” The word was drawn out for effect. The Master looked over towards a panel which held some technician, and gave a little flourish with his hand. “Maestro, if you please.” The lights unexpectedly shut off just as loud music started up, the kind that wouldn’t be out of place at a sports arena. Spotlights spun crazy patterns over the hall, illuminating faces like flashes of lightning. A microphone dropped from the ceiling, his voice echoing over the music. “Ladies and gentleman! Boys and Girls! Freaks of all ages! Now the moment you have all been waiting for! Fresh off the mountains in Nepal, I bring you the main event for tonight: the team of Torchwood Three!”
Jack stopped breathing the second he caught sight of the four huddled forms that had been shoved into the main antechamber. And then the killing began.
The knock on the door startled him, even though he had been expecting it. He had opted out of the spa treatments the rest of them team had elected to indulge in, but couldn’t resist the draw of room service. Walking to the door, he tugged the hem his t-shirt over the waist of his faded jeans. They had little time (read: none) to gather their belongings before heading to the hotel to avoid running into the other versions of themselves, but he’d been able to randomly shove some kit into a small backpack. He had grabbed his wallet off of the dresser, at the ready, but when he pulled the door open, he was unable to hide his surprise at what he found behind. “Um…hi.”
Jack was stood in the doorway, stripped down to his t-shirt, braces hanging loosely around his hips. He nodded towards the wallet, his tone teasing. “You expecting someone else?”
Ianto immediately ran his fingers through his hair, an unconscious gesture, trying to get his unruly locks under control. Apparently, despite his absence, Jack had retained his ability to put him immediately off-kilter. “I, uh…room service.” He studied his wallet, turning it around in his hands nervously. “I ordered a cheeseburger.” He silently cursed himself for the lameness of his reply.
“Ah. I missed cheeseburgers.” Jack seemed almost surprised at his own response, his eyes going wide, and Ianto waited for the inevitable backpedal. He pulled out a bottle of very good scotch, holding it out between two fingers in an offering. Redirection, then. “You mind some company?”
“You just want to filch my food.” The sarcasm was a knee-jerk reaction, a defense. Just like the suits. Not that either were particularly effective against Jack. Except now, apparently, as the man in question almost jerked backwards as if slapped. Ianto had been so caught up in his own anxiety that he failed to notice the jangling bundle of nerves standing right in front of him. Trying to hide a sigh, he pulled the door open wider in invitation and gave a small nod.
Jack hesitated a moment, quickly scanning Ianto’s face, before moving through the doorway.
“I’ll just…I’ll get some ice.” He headed over to the small stand which held a couple of plastic wrapped glasses and a tiny coffee pot, grabbing up the ice bucket. He recognized that he was trying to keep busy in an effort to avoid being alone with Jack, but felt almost incapable of stopping himself. He gestured vaguely around the room, indicating Jack should choose a place to land, not looking at him in the eye. “I’ll be right back.” As soon as the door closed behind him, he let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. He spent a few more seconds centering himself, before heading down the hallway to find the ice machine. Mission was accomplished in under four minutes, and he found himself outside of his door. Which had locked behind him. Murphy sure was a son of a bitch. He leaned his forehead against the door for a moment before knocking.
“Be right there!” Jack yanked the door open with typical gusto, smirking a little. “Locked yourself out, huh?”
Ianto pushed by him. “No. I just fancied another demonstration of your dramatic door opening skills.” He hurried over to the little stand, ripping the plastic from two glasses and plinking some ice cubes into them. He waved them towards Jack, the international symbol of “go on then”. Jack didn’t even attempt to hide his sigh and trundled over, pouring a generous measure into each glass. Ianto knocked his back without preamble, holding his glass out for an immediate refill, not waiting for Jack’s reaction. He took his full glass over towards one of the beds, sitting on the edge facing in, elbows on his knees, drink hanging loosely in one hand. He indicated with his glass that Jack should join him on the other bed across. He felt Jack study him for a long moment, and knew he was unable to keep the blush from his face, as evidenced by the heat creeping unbidden up his neck.
Jack joined him, letting out another loud sigh as he dropped heavily onto the bed. “Ok. So. You’re still mad.”
Ianto let out a little incredulous laugh, meeting Jack’s eyes for the first time since he let him into his room. “What, was I that obvious?”
Jack dropped his head in defeat. “Would it help if I told you I was really, really sorry?”
“No, Jack. What would help is if you told me the truth for once.” He leveled his gaze towards the other man, waiting for him to raise his head. When he did, his eyes skittered quickly away and he seemed to almost fold in onto himself, attempting to make himself smaller. An alarm began going off in the back of Ianto’s mind, indicating clearly that something was very wrong, but he was so distracted by his bitterness that he ignored it for the moment. “What would help is if you told me something real.”
Jack met his eyes again, an unreadable expression on his face. He gave a tiny smile. “I meant what I said before. I came back for you.”
Ianto screwed up his face. “Yes. For all of us. You already mentioned this”
Jack closed his eyes and tiredly rubbed his fingers over his forehead. “No..yes. I did come back for everyone…but…”
Ianto cut him off. “You weren’t planning on coming back at all, were you?” He couldn’t keep the venom from his tone.
Jack’s head shot up in surprise. “I…” He examined Ianto’s face for a moment, clearly not liking what he found there. He dropped his head again, studying the liquid in his glass before taking a large mouthful and settling the glass on the floor beside his feet. He brushed his hands over his thighs and picked off an invisible piece of lint. “Yes. Ok. You’re right.” He clasped his hands together and let them drop between his knees, mirroring Ianto’s pose. He let out a long breath. “You have to understand. I waited for a long time to find some answers…”
Ianto was squeezing his glass so tightly that his fingers squeaked on the surface. He licked his lips, glancing up at Jack’s bowed head. “Find the answers you were looking for?”
“Yeah I…” Jack raised his eyes, gave him a rueful grin and shrugged. “Not the answers I was hoping to find, but at least now I know.”
Ianto was trying to keep a handle on his resentment, but he knew he was losing that battle. Now that the rush of adrenaline of the last couple of hours was gone, all of the hurt had come back to the fore. “So, when he didn’t ask you to travel with him, did you just decide you might as well come back to us?” He could tell from Jack’s wince that his barb had been felt.
Jack lightly clapped his hands on his thighs and stood. “Well, I can see I made a mistake in coming here.”
Jack didn’t sound petulant or angry, just sad and defeated. Ianto felt all of the fight go out of him in a rush. He quickly drained the contents of his glass and stood. “Jack, wait.” He was about to speak when he was forestalled by a knock on the door, presumably the arrival of his room service. He rolled his eyes and grabbed his wallet, cursing the timing. He hastily tipped the porter and took the tray, ignoring her curious glance in Jack’s direction. He thanked her with a wan smile, and closed the door, walking the tray over and laying it on the dresser. He peaked under the silver domed lid, letting out a fragrant puff of steam, before turning back towards Jack.
“Ok.” Jack made as if to step towards Ianto before thinking the better the better of it. “I know I fucked up, ok? Don’t you think I know this?” He ran a hand nervously through his hair, his demeanor similar to when they were alone in the office. “Look, I’ve had a lot of time to think…”
“How much time?” When Jack seemed like he’d balk, Ianto fixed him with a stern glare.
“A year.” Fuck. Hearing his suspicions confirmed made his stomach drop. A year. Jack affixed him with a curious glance. “How did you know I'd been gone longer?”
He shrugged. “Haven’t you figured out by now that I know everything?”
“Yeah. I’m beginning to get that.” Some of the light had come back into his eyes, and Ianto grinned despite himself. Jack held up a hand. “And before you ask…I can’t. That is, I’m not ready…” He cleared his throat. “But, I will. You just have to trust me.” Ianto fixed him with an incredulous stare. “And I know I have to regain that trust. But, please, please Ianto…” Ianto amended his earlier assessment. Jack didn’t sound defeated. Jack sounded broken. “All I ask is that you give me the chance to try.”
Ianto was startled to realize his feet had taken him across the room of their own volition, ever travelling towards Jack. He reached out, gently laying a hand over Jack’s chest, feeling the steady thump of his heart. Jack seemed to go taut under his palm, and he watched with a morbid fascination as the other man tried to visibly control himself.
Jack's voice was barely above a whisper. “Oh God, Ianto. I never thought I’d get the chance again…” He trailed off and let out a shaky breath, dropping his head to his chest.
Ianto let his hand fall, instantly filled with a wave of compassion. All things considered, the past couple of months had been relatively simple. The odd Weevil, and that one alien that had turned Owen’s eyebrows temporarily blue during an autopsy, but other than that, things had been quiet. Save the gaping hole in his chest where his heart used to reside. Of course, all of that had changed once Jack had returned. “Something awful happened, didn’t it?”
Jack nodded once, slowly. “Yeah.” He seemed to steel himself a bit before looking back up at Ianto. “And I will tell you. I promise.” Ianto stared at him for a long beat, contemplating and rejecting a dozen different responses. Finally he settled on leaning forward and bringing their lips together with a soft sigh. Jack froze before relaxing into the kiss, grasping the back of Ianto’s head with unbidden desperation. He clung to him, almost as if holding onto a lifeline.
It was Ianto who eventually broke the kiss, coming up for air. He leaned his forehead against Jack’s, and let out chuckle. “You do realize the girls are going to give me hell for making this easy on you.”
Jack opened one eye. “You call this easy?”
Ianto shrugged. “Well, my impressive powers of will notwithstanding, it has been less than 24 hours since you returned.”
It was Jack’s turn to shrug. “Depends on the timeline.”
Ianto rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help smirking. He straightened, looking Jack straight in the eyes, but not moving away. “Right. Well, you should know, I expect to be wooed.”
Jack’s eyebrows shot up. “Wooed?”
“Yep. Courted, even.”
Jack laughed openly, and Ianto felt something thaw inside his chest. “Ok.”
Ianto nodded. “I like Thai and Italian, but I’m not a fan of Indian. And, I absolutely loathe bananas.”
Jack lifted one eyebrow. “Bananas? Who hates bananas?” Ianto fixed him with a mock stern glare, to which Jack held up his hands in surrender. “Ok, ok! No bananas.”
“And I will share my burger with you, but this absolutely does not qualify as a date.”
Jack’s laughter filled the air. “No, sir.” Ianto gave him a small, private smile. Jack rubbed his hands together. “Ok, Mr. Jones. Prepare to have your socks wooed off.”
“Hmm. I’m not sure if that sounds particularly pleasant. I happen to like my socks.” He walked around Jack towards the platter, carefully partitioning the burger into two. He slid Jack’s half onto a napkin and held it out to him.
“Thanks.” Ianto got the sense he was talking about more than the food. Jack held up his half up in a toast. “Cheers.”
Ianto tilted his half in a silent salute, and then took a bite of what was quite possibly the best burger he had ever eaten in his life.