"Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun."
- "A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning", by John Donne
"'E's not of us."
Ianto growled at the pounding in his skull. It grew louder, moving to just one ear, and the tiny part of him that wasn't presently in pain-edged tatters realized that the pounding was, in fact, not entirely in his head but the result of heavy boots landing on a hard surface. He tried to move, and winced at multiple spikes of electric-sharp pain.
It was ridiculously tempting to just sink back into oblivion, leave the world to be somebody else's problem for a little longer. Except, he had sense enough to remember that the last time he'd taken his time returning to consciousness, he had woken to Jack dead, Owen bleeding from a shot in the leg, and Tosh in vehicular pursuit of an alien that was, in turn, chasing after Gwen. Which, as much as he adored Tosh, was something he could not in good conscience unleash on Cardiff a second time.
He ignored a thousand microscopic twinges, and managed to open his eyelids part of the way. He blinked. "Jack?"
Ianto surged up to sitting, and promptly threw up. It was an inconvenience his body had experienced numerous times before, and thus a minor blip on his awareness. Most of his attention was on his surroundings.
The mess of wiring, the metal grates, humming machinery - familiar enough details that he hadn't notice the difference until he'd opened his eyes. (Until he'd seen Jack.) But, yeah, something was definitely wrong.
Because this? Was definitely not the Hub.
He was in some sort of service passageway. There was a man standing behind Jack, whom Ianto neither knew nor had ever seen before. The man stared at him with a wary expression. Ianto's eyes, trained from childhood, took in the stranger's dark red uniform - a stiff black collar, odd loose sleeves, black buttons down the front on the left side. There were a handful of pins decorating his upper right sleeve.
"Jack?" he said again, wiping his mouth and looking up. He saw a barely discernible shifting, masked by the cloak, and then Jack's eyes, half-shrouded by shadow, seemed determined to burrow holes through Ianto's skull; but the face was carefully blank. And different from the one Ianto was used to, one which usually preceded bad news or one of Jack's many secrets.
The stranger, on closer inspection, looked about Ianto's age, but carried himself with a stiffness and surety that recalled the clean-cut landscape of Torchwood One. He turned and said something to Jack.
At first, Ianto wondered if whatever had happened had knocked his hearing askew. But no- he was picking up sounds fine, if not a little too well. (A particularly loud metallic clunk echoing from the distance made him wince.) He suffered long moments of confusion, before more of the fogginess cleared and it dawned on him that the two men weren't speaking English. It simply sounded like English, almost London, in the cadence and consonants and clipped tones, but bore none of the familiar words.
The anxious knot in his gut intensified.
Jack barked a string of words, rather loudly, and Ianto was slow to realize that they were directed at him. "I'm afraid I don't speak your language," he said, not bothering to hide his utter bewilderment.
The unknown man stared at him, looking even more curious than before, but Jack's lips twisted. A furrow appeared on his brow, accompanied by a tightening of the jaw - indicating some great internal debate. After a long while, Jack said, in clear English, "Who are you?"
Ianto blinked. "Ianto Jones." A wave of weakness rolled over him, his body reminding him that he'd need to pay attention to it at some point soon, and he was glad to be sitting. He concentrated on the present, repeated to himself that answers would come later, and hyperventilating would not help anybody.
Jack's speech was slow and carefully pronounced. "You are an unregistered person aboard this vessel. Are you a stowaway?"
Jack nodded, looked like he hadn't expected any other answer. "Until further notice, you will be considered a potential threat. Come with me."
It was all the same - the face, the voice, the body - so Ianto was moving to obey before he really processed the words. Getting to his feet was tricky, and the two men (soldiers) made no move to help him. His vision swam, his thighs trembled under his own weight, his heart did a little stutter-stop that left him breathing hard. Clearly, his body did not like whatever it was that had brought him here. But he managed to get relatively vertical under his own power, and after a few minutes of rest and waiting for his blood to sort out where it was going, he nodded at Jack to lead the way.
The light in the first corridor was dim and tinged with red. This changed to blue, and then purple, growing brighter at crossroads. Ianto spotted people moving up and down other passageways, but none passed them. Twice the walls of metal and support beams stopped and gave Ianto a glimpse of other levels. At the end of the long walk, they stepped into what appeared to be a small cage with only two walls, and handles dangling from the ceiling. Ianto grabbed one of these, past caring that Jack and the unknown soldier appeared to disdain them. But instead of going up, the cage sped off sideways, tugged along unseen tracks on a twisting horizontal path. It went too fast, and the place was too dark, for Ianto to see anything clearly, but he thought he caught a crowd of people in a bright room, and large plane-like shapes looming within a dark space. Aside from the first jolt, the ride hardly had a bump, and after a few minutes slowed smoothly to a stop in front of a well-lit and guarded platform.
The cell he was taken to appeared like a long metal box, bare save for a cot in one end and a small slot in the wall. He gratefully sank down on the former, resting his head in his hands and breathing deep.
He'd asked just one question, between where he'd woken up and the cell: "Where am I?"
At first he'd thought Jack hadn't heard him, as his voice was weak and the clatter of moving mechanical parts dominated the background noise, above a hum of muffled speech.
Of course, Jack was just building up the suspense. "A mothership, the Calliope," he'd said, right before they entered a sterile hallway lined with unmarked doors. No guards, but Ianto had known he was being watched from the moment of first waking: a sign that the security was good enough to not need any.
- - -
Ianto stared for a long time at the far wall of his little cell. Around him the ship rumbled, distant engines roaring, and if he closed his eyes he thought he could make out further sounds, living sounds, from above and below.
(Outside the door was a deathly quiet. Definitely more Torchwood One than Three.)
He ought to be thinking about how he'd gotten there, how he'd gotten then, to piece together what had come before the dark. But the memories were too fresh, jumbled and white-hot raw. It was as if his brain knew better than to come near, skittering around any useful recollections.
It had been a Thursday, though he could not be sure even of that. Time flowed without seams where there was no sun, and they'd been working back-to-back shifts for weeks. But he'd been planning a food run, and they tended to run out of takeout on Thursdays.
Coffee. Ianto remembered making a fresh batch of coffee, and checking the fridge for anything salvageable hiding in the corners. He had admonished Gwen for slipping in an extra shift, ignored her pointed look at his by-then bedraggled trousers and mud-caked shoes, and shooed her out of the Hub.
Everything was a bit of a jumble after that.
Either doors in the future did not make noise when they slid open or Ianto's ears were still trying to catch up to the rest of him; one minute he was staring into space, the next, there were two dark blue columns filling up his field of vision. Ianto blinked until his eyes refocused enough to make out smooth fabric and thick boots. He looked up, and up.
Of course it would be Jack. "Where are you from?"
Ianto swallowed. "Cardiff, Wales. Earth." And then, because he'd made his own deductions, "Early twenty-first century."
Jack nodded, clearly not surprised, but a hard edge of suspicion remained in his voice. "And how did you come to be here?"
"I don't remember." Ianto shrugged.
It had been a while since Ianto actively feared Jack. Not that he'd forgotten what Jack was capable of - that knowledge was always at the back of his mind. Perhaps he'd finally learned to live with danger, perhaps he'd seen worse things than death by Jack. An echo of it brushed him now, though.
After a long time staring, Jack grudgingly said, "Our sensors detected a temporal disturbance around the time of your appearance, a local event, and you are giving off void-space energies that match the frequency of the L2T-wave inversions. A specialist has confirmed that the event was natural."
The Rift, Ianto's brain supplied helpfully. Different terms, and likely involving science beyond his relatively scant knowledge of physics, but it could only be the Rift.
He'd visited Flat Holm just the previous week, when Jack had needed a precautionary extra hand for a new patient. It had been a matter of time, really, if one looked at the probabilities. Considering they worked practically on top of the Rift, it should be more surprising that this didn't happened more often.
He eyed Jack. How long since Cardiff, since Lisa, since Jack had surfaced from his office and discovered one of his own missing? (How long until he stopped searching for a way to get Ianto back? How long had it taken to completely forget?)
Jack stared at him further, blatantly distrustful. Ianto was good at knowing when he was in somebody else's power, when the best thing to do was to wait quietly. After a while, Jack said gruffly, "You're not a prisoner, but if you came from that far in the past, then you're a danger to yourself on board this ship. Will you assent to remaining in this cell until other arrangements can be made?"
It took a great strength of will to resist a sarcastic comment and a raised eyebrow, and nod silently instead.
"Very well. If you are in need of anything-"
"Information," Ianto blurted. He blinked at his own unplanned words, cleared his throat. "I'd like to find out where I am, when I am. Please." And then he could start searching for a way to get home.
Just then a large boom of sound, followed by a violent rocking, left Ianto pressed up against the wall and glad he wasn't standing. Jack didn't appear fazed by it, only shifted his stance a little while his coat swayed around him; he was looking at Ianto with something like dark amusement.
"That is all you want to know? No surprise? No outbursts of disbelief?” Jack cocked his head. But before Ianto could come up with an answer, Jack seemed to shrug it off. “You'll wish you hadn't asked."
Ianto gazed back at him evenly. "Unless you know of a way to send me back, I think I should know what I'm going to have to deal with."
There'd been a small but reasonable hope that Jack would tell him he'd be sent home soon, thus him knowing the future would be inadvisable. But Jack only nodded. "Very well, I will show you."
- - -
A war. The Rift had dropped him right in the middle of a bloody war.
Ianto stood and stared as images, videos, words materialized on the screen at every tap of Jack's fingers, new windows jostling each other for space.
(He was in shock, hadn't had time to come out of the initial jolt, his system all in chaos; it hardly seemed possible to contemplate the last hour, much less fit in centuries of human history. )
The part of him that was pure Torchwood, honed to operate regardless of external conditions, absorbed what he could. New file: Time-travel, Rift abduction. There’d been a section for these situations in the Torchwood Policies & Procedures. Gather information.
Footage featuring humans firing at a group that was decidedly not human. Another window covered the alien foe in greater detail - humanoid, intelligent, intricate cultural history, some psychic ability. There was a map that covered dozens of star systems, with a red dot near the center labeled 'Earth'. Photographs, news reports, samples of popular art and music.
Date: 8 Nove 3068 AD
Location: geosynchronous orbit above R-133-FT
Ianto tore his eyes away from the dizzying swirl of data to look at the man standing next to him. The eyes he met were darkly amused, a trace malicious, though Ianto sensed that it was not directed at him personally. Still, this was a stranger.
There was no question it was Jack. The universe could not be so cruel as to produce two men with that face and that force of personality, and to inflict them both on Ianto Jones in the same lifetime. Equally, this was not Ianto's Jack, not the Jack he'd spoken to but mere hours before. Normally, Ianto would take this and infer, from the little he knew of Jack's history, that this man had not yet met the Doctor, was not yet Jack.
Except, there had been recognition. Captain Jack Harkness had begun life on Earth - the name would hold no meaning to somebody who was yet to pass that way, but Ianto remembered his expression, when Ianto had called him Jack. And yet - Ianto stared a little harder, just to be sure, he could hardly be faulted for it when the other was scrutinizing him just as keenly - this Jack looked older. Cold. Not in any obvious way (and what were years, to someone like Jack?) but there was a weight that Ianto could feel, like the distance of years. It had been dark in the service hallway, in the cells, but under the glaring light of the little room with its sole tabletop computer, Ianto could make out the faint lines on his face, the teasing suggestions of light color in his hair, and he realized he could not remember for certain where this Jack was different from his.
There was another thing that bothered Ianto, like a half-forgotten memory on the tip of his tongue, until in watching Jack's hands work the computer he realized what it was: Jack wasn't wearing his wrist strap.
Still, it was a reasonable assumption that this Jack must be after Ianto's term, even assuming he'd kept to linear time. Over a thousand years, if it was the same calendar. More than enough time for mankind to take the bloody rituals of civilization to space.
Ianto knew, had known from the start, that among the endless spill of sand in Jack's altered hourglass, Ianto Jones would barely make a few grains. At best, they would be a little shinier than the average by virtue of looking nice in a suit and making good coffee.
But still, it hurt, to stand before Jack and see not one trace of recognition. He'd never thought it'd matter, since he wouldn't be around to see it, but... clearly some part of him had been young enough to hope.
He also felt, conflictingly, a warring sense of relief that Jack could forget, that maybe he was not doomed to the role of sole witness to man's unfailing mortality.
Ianto was given a while to take in the information. And then he was escorted back to his cell, where a waiting soldier passed on the message that the various authorities on board the ship had been alerted to his presence and would be holding a meeting to discuss it.
Jack nodded. "Are you in need of anything?" he asked Ianto.
"No, thank you." Ianto settled back down on the pallet.
Jack turned to leave, then hesitated. He said, over his shoulder, "The meeting will be in a few hours' time, it takes a while for all the chiefs to agree on anything. They'll have questions for you. I'll escort you to it, when the time comes."
Jack left. Ianto rubbed a hand over his arms, frowned at the clamminess of his skin. He leaned back against the wall, stretching his legs out in front of him. Breathed out, and waited.
- - -
Ianto stared at his hands and tried not to fidget. The chair was uncomfortable, the utilitarian stiffness of all things military-issue, but he was careful to keep his back straight and his expression attentive, though the group of war-scarred veterans arguing with each other only feet away barely looked at him. A handful of suspicious glares and accusatory fingers had come his way, in the beginning; he'd decided from the start that not reacting was probably the best course of action. But he was painfully aware that his fate was hanging in the balance.
And Jack wasn't saying anything.
It was difficult to not look at him, Ianto's only point of familiarity in the whole damn place. But he'd gathered enough from the three whose native language sounded like some derivative of 21st century English to guess that they suspected him of being a spy. Which made sense, seeing that it was a war zone and everything. In any case, fixating on Jack might cast suspicions his way, and wouldn't help Ianto's case.
He focused, instead, on translating the sounds he heard into words he recognized. "Our specialists have confirmed... naturally-occurring temporal event... his first appearance. No weapons or teleportation device can recreate that specific pattern."
"He can... Unless... go through all the necessary channels... out of a star system... lockdown?"
A bland-faced man who'd been mostly silent said something that made all the voices pause. Though he could not understand the words, the cold and casual finality with which they'd been delivered drove a spike of fear through Ianto's iron composure. Fear and distrust were expected- but this man's eyes spoke... indifference. He'd only looked at Ianto the one time, right after entering the room, and since then he'd been observing the proceedings with the air of somebody merely indulging the whims of others, but had real work to do elsewhere.
Objections were raised, though the delay and lack of conviction did not reassure Ianto any. Calm. It was difficult to remember that he shouldn't interfere, when it was his bloody life they were bandying about.
He resolutely did not look at Jack. The continuing silence from that pocket of the room was indication enough.
Finally the noise died down some, the notes of discord rearranging themselves into discussion. A decision had been made, then; now Ianto was being made to wait until one of them could get around to telling him what it was. To his surprise, one of the more vocal debaters, a woman of moderate age and stern expression, stepped away from the main circle and directed several questions to Jack. Jack's answers were short and concise, and at the end he made a gesture that Ianto easily read as I don't really care, do what you like.
Okay. Even breaths. It wouldn't do anybody any good for him to lose control, or appear like he was going into some sort of seizure. He hadn't expected much, had thought himself resigned to no help from that quarter, but... surely there was something? Some speck of memory, a tickle of familiarity? It always angered Jack when he couldn't remember a name the name of someone he'd been close to, as if it was a personal failure.
A warm weight on his shoulder startled him, and he reflexively jerked away. The man standing over him was one of the older specimens, clearly a veteran, but there was something comforting about him, a patient and kindly air. Someone's favorite grandfather, Ianto thought dazedly.
The man said something to him, but the jumble of consonants and vowels fitted nowhere in Ianto's moderately extensive linguistic knowledge. Guessing that Ianto couldn't understand him, the man reached down and, with surprising strength and gentleness, pried the fingers of Ianto's right hand off his left hand. Ianto blinked at the cuts left behind by his nails, shocked more by the sudden bright red than the sting he couldn't yet feel.
Nobody was looking their way. Small mercies. He looked up, tried to convey his thanks with a small smile and a nod. The old man nodded in reply, patting Ianto on the shoulder before shuffling back to where he'd been standing against the wall.
By the time the talking had died down and most of the group began to file out with the relieved air of having gotten through a tedious piece of business, Ianto had smoothed his clothing down as best as he could and locked his expression to something neutral. A tall man wearing a red and white insignia, radiating an air of being The Man In Charge, strode up to where Ianto was sitting.
Ianto instinctively stood, wondering briefly if he should salute. But he was making no pretenses about being a soldier, and in any case one mustn't make free with cultural forms unless certain of their contemporary meaning.
Man In Charge paused to give him a searching look, the expression on his face superciliously critical, and then delivered an announcement that had all the tolling and doom of a final verdict. Upon finishing, he looked at Ianto expectantly.
Ianto did his best to look impressed, or terrified, or overwhelmed, and rather suspected that the end result communicated a need for the toilet. But, well, it was difficult to react when he could not understand a word.
The figure that Ianto was very determinedly not paying any attention to appeared at Man In Charge's side. "They've decided that you're to go with me, due to many complicated political and bureaucratic reasons, but mostly because I'm the only who speaks your language. So if you've got any bombs or viral nanocomputers, pack them up because we leave within the hour."
Oh. It hadn't even occurred to him that Jack wouldn't be staying on the ship. And while it was disheartening and terrifying to see that familiar face regard him like a stranger, like a potential enemy, being trapped on the ship while Jack went away, perhaps never to return, losing even that meager link to Earth and Torchwood...
Thank you. Whoever’s listening out there.
From the vaguely malicious look on some of the other soldiers' faces, to the restrained irritation on Jack's, Ianto was pretty sure that being assigned to Jack was not a kindness for either of them, nor the safer option. It was Jack, after all.
Somewhat comforted by this small sign of consistency, Ianto released the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "Yes, sir."
- - -
Once the decision was made, Ianto found himself bundled off into the cage he'd ridden in earlier and dropped off at what looked like a small hanger. Jack was standing next to a ship, directing the loading of boxes and tall canisters into the back. The ship had the look of a transport rather than a war-vessel; the main body was smooth, vaguely egg-shaped, and the stubby wings served mainly to hold up the two pairs of engines. He nodded at Ianto impatiently, gesturing for him to get inside.
Less than two hours after the meeting, Ianto was strapped into the seat next to the pilot's, watching Jack ease them out of the hangar. Jack had confirmed it was a shuttle, used only for short-distance transport, and he’d been on the mothership but briefly in order to pick up some supplies and report to the high command.
What are the odds? Jack's presence, on the same ship as the one the Rift had spat Ianto out in. Being found by somebody who'd gone to Jack first, instead of some trigger-happy soldier who'd shoot a stowaway first rather than risk a spy.
He should be worried, suspicious. There are no coincidences at Torchwood. But adrenaline had left him empty, sore, and too worn to do more than move where directed and respond with some measure of lucidity.
Black space filled the screen in front of them. Stars. Ianto was familiar enough with alien ship technology to know that the internal environment was likely sealed from the moment the door closed, but he couldn't help feeling a drop in temperature once the shuttle left the larger military vessel completely.
I'm in space. In a space ship.
"Let me make some things clear to you," Jack interrupted his reverie without taking his eyes off the shuttle's controls.
"You're not a soldier. You're not a civilian, though we're treating you like one because we don't have a protocol for something like this. You're a refugee, a time refugee, and you've had the bad luck of being dropped right in the middle of a military lockdown zone." One of the sensors began to flash, and Jack's hands flew over the controls. Ianto only noticed the faint shuddering of the ship when it stopped, and within seconds Jack brought all the readings back to white. "Lockdown means nobody gets in or out without a lot of paperwork, and since there's no place we can even send you to, it's been decided that you're not worth the bother."
If Jack was trying to rile him up, he'd need something a lot stronger. Maybe there were advantages to dealing with a stranger.
Still, the words hit something. Ianto kept his eyes focused on a point in the air straight in front of him.
"So now I'm stuck with you. Don't remember the name you gave the chiefs, don't want it - the men will name you themselves soon enough, and that'll be the only name that counts. Since you're not a soldier, I can't give you orders. But you'll do what I say, and if you and your actions endanger my men or my base, I will shoot you without a thought. Got that?"
"Understood," answered Ianto.
"Do you know how to handle a weapon?"
"Only projectile guns." He remembered the war footage. "Early 21st century." Which wasn't strictly true, but he thought it better to make himself appear harmless.
Jack made a face. "That won't help you with our technology. And you'd be useless with our computers."
Probably true, but Ianto was getting tired of the constant reminder that he was unwanted baggage. It didn't help that he still saw the man next to him as the one who'd broken his kettle just a week ago and tried to blame it on thermodynamics.
No, Ianto corrected in his head. Not a week ago. A thousand years ago.
"I'm good at cleaning things up," he said. "And I'm told I make excellent coffee."
He stole a glance to see if the statement rang any bells with Jack, but Jack only smirked. "Cleaning up, huh? You have the stomach to get blood off uniforms? Bone fragments out of guns?"
"Actually, yes." Though he hoped that technology had progressed enough that he would have some help doing so; getting viscera out of fabric was a pain.
Jack shrugged, face doubtful. "All righty, then. The boys will appreciate having a janitor around the base."
The ship jerked, a shower of small debris bouncing off the invisible external shields. Within seconds a large dark planet filled up the screen, a flash of light around the edges indicating that its sun was on the other side. Without light, it was hard to make out any details. They entered the atmosphere inordinately quickly, and apparently right in the middle of a storm.
Thick clouds obscured visibility to nearly nothing, but Jack did not seem concerned. As they got lower, there were occasional flashes of light, and thunder that was less sound and more shockwave. Clouds gave way to high winds and thick dust. Eventually, Ianto thought he could make out a vaguely rectangular shape ahead of them, a slightly darker shadow in a lightless gloom.
"Oh, one more thing," Jack added. "I don't know where you heard that name, the one you've been calling me, but do not ever use it here. Call me Captain, nothing else."
Ianto blinked, but Jack's tone discouraged even the thought of further questions. "Understood."
- - -
They arrived in what seemed to be the dead of night. If the thickness of the roiling clouds they'd passed through was any indication, Ianto doubted the storm ever truly abated. Like a Jupiter, then, with a constant planetary storm.
Despite the strength of the winds, Jack smoothly maneuvered the shuttle into a barely-visible opening in a barely-visible structure and landed it without so much as a bump. By then, the detachment that Ianto had been feeling had engulfed his whole being. It was a little like being wrapped in cotton and floating in solution, and he puzzled over it for a moment before realizing, oh, I'm still in shock. He numbly followed Jack off the small ship, ignoring the looks from the tired-looking men that efficiently swarmed over the landing platform.
Jack walked straight across the wide and empty hanger, towards large double-doors that led into a main building. Ianto's mind drifted during the walk, and Jack didn't acknowledge his presence, so he felt quite like a ghost. Captain Jack's shadow.
Just like back home, then.
At first, the hallways were wide and tall, presumably to accommodate a large number of people heading for the hanger all at once. But they got progressively narrower as the two of them went further into the building, until there was barely room for two to stand abreast comfortably. They came to an area that Ianto, from the tiles and the smell, assumed were the bathing facilities. Lockers with solid metal doors had been built right into three walls.
Ianto couldn't help but notice that over half of them were open and unused. A few bore scorch marks or dents.
Jack pressed his palm against a black panel on the door of one locker, then looked at Ianto in expectation. When Ianto only stared uncomprehendingly, Jack rolled his eyes, grabbed Ianto's hand, and pressed it against the panel, where the outline of Jack's hand could still be seen.
For some reason, the unexpected contact incited a twitch in Ianto's gut, followed by a flush of warmth when he realized that he was reacting to Jack holding his wrist. Jack's bare fingers were warm and dry.
The panel opened. "This one's yours," said Jack. He left Ianto's side, and rummaged through a bin on the other side of the room.
Ianto was given a blanket, a towel, a pair of light shoes, and a set of clothes. The last was pressed into his hands pointedly. Numb and tired as he was, Ianto didn't even hesitate in stripping off his now-crinkled suit and pulling on the new garments. A shirt, a kind of tunic that appeared to go on top, and trousers. The cloth was a pale, sterile blue, a little rough but heavier and warmer than it looked. It was loose in the way of one-size-fits-all, but Jack wordlessly showed him the ties down the sides and how to knot one to tighten the shirt. The tunic fit better, as good as a jacket, and also could be clipped to his trousers. After a bit of hesitation, during which he was aware of Jack's eyes, he neatly folded his old clothes and placed them in the locker.
Another walk, and they entered a section where all the lights in the hallway were dim. "The barracks," said Jack. He consulted a screen on the wall.
Ianto's bunk, in the far corner of a long room full of snoring blankets, looked even more uncomfortable than the pterodactyl's nest. Here, at least, technology didn't appear to have progressed much; Ianto could believe he'd wandered into any military base back home.
He was asleep the moment his head touched the cold padding.
- - -
When the first siren rang, Ianto had been awake for five minutes and had spent three of those trying to not panic while he pieced together the rather hazy events of the previous day.
His bunk was at the very back of the room, in a corner, on the bottom, and on waking he was relieved to find the long row of beds nearly empty. He couldn't even remember if the bed above his had been occupied when he'd crawled in.
There was a sound like soft thunder, growing louder, which Ianto eventually identified as a mass of boots heading down a nearby corridor. A bar above the door was flashing yellow.
Completely at a loss, Ianto debated between remaining where he was or going to see what was going on. He was in a military base, so sirens and flashing lights probably meant an attack. Or it could be a drill. He had no idea what he was supposed to do, if he stopped a soldier to ask questions he'd probably get cussed out for being a nuisance, and simply wandering around outside was likely to make him suspect of sabotage, if not mistaken for an intruder and shot outright.
An explosion had all the lights and bed frames vibrating. Ianto stared at the wall, took in the neatly made beds around him, and got up. His muscles ached, not like after exercise but in a bone-deep sort of way, as if some of their substance had been squeezed out. He wondered if it was an after-effect of traveling via Rift, or a reaction to the sudden change in environment that'd just crept up on him.
He made his bed, straightened his unfamiliar clothes. The explosions outside grew more frequent, and it was strange, to be folding his blanket with precision neatness in a silent, abandoned room while some kind of battle was taking place on the other side of the walls. It occurred to him that he should be concerned - what if the attackers got in? was he expected to fight? - but mostly he worried about smoothing his pillow and placing his blanket just so on top of the sheets.
There was a stain on the mostly-white sheet, barely noticeable after numerous washings and bleaching - or the future equivalent of bleach - but it was there all the same. A slightly yellowish bloom near the center bottom of the sheet. The sheet must have had a different placement when it got the stain, but suddenly Ianto could see a young man, not too different from him, lying pale and senseless on the bed, his life slowly leaving him and soaking into the cloth underneath. He straightened up quickly, and slipped on the shoes he'd tucked under the bunk.
Nobody was in the hallway outside, so Ianto cautiously padded down the direction he remembered coming from the night before. His loose clothing and light shoes were definitely not suited to, say, a murderous alien coming at him with a weapon, and he kept an ear out for approaching weapons-fire.
Aside from three masked figures who paid him no mind and jogged down an adjacent hallway, he saw no one until he turned a corner and bumped into the person he was looking for.
"Jack," said Ianto, not bothering to hide his relief. The look on Jack's face made him amend it quickly to, "Captain, I mean. Sorry."
"Newbie." The explosions seemed louder, out in the hallway. Or they were getting closer. Out of the barracks, the lights were a normal brightness, and Ianto could see other people moving quickly in various directions. No outward panic or distress, at least. "Nice of you to be up. Have you eaten?"
Ianto shook his head. Jack gestured for Ianto to follow him. "I'll show you the mess hall, this bombardment should last for another ten minutes, and then it'll take twenty minutes to clear out all the suckers who tried to sneak in. You'll only be observing today, I have to tell the men about you first."
They stopped in a wide room filled with long tables. In the far end, a row of slots lined the wall. "Those are the food stations," explained Jack. "Stick your tray in to get the food, if you visit all five you get a well-balanced meal optimized for a hard day's work." The last was said in all apparent seriousness, but out of the corner of one eye Ianto thought he detected a quirk around the lips. "Dump everything over there when you're done, drinks are from that slot. Any questions?"
Jack held out what looked like the earpieces he'd seen the soldiers wearing. It consisted mostly of a flesh-colored wire that would bend behind the shell of his ear, and a discreet little nub that went right into the entrance.
"Comm piece, equipped with a universal translator," explained Jack in an impatient tone, shaking the device at him until Ianto took it. "Had our resident tech expert knock one together for you. They're not standard regulation for this base, so don't forget to take it off if we ever get visitors."
Ianto nodded, tried to fix it to his left ear after a glance at the one Jack was wearing. "Thank you".
"Most of the officers have been made aware that you're a civilian. Don't interfere with the soldiers, and they'll leave you alone."
"Yes, sir," said Ianto.
The next large blast actually shook the whole building, causing a few of the ceiling lights to flicker. Jack looked as if he did not notice, glancing up at the lights like he was wondering why a couple of them were dimming. It was a ploy that Ianto was familiar with, a game Jack liked to play, and without really thinking he forced his body to relax and exude a calm, unconcerned expression.
"Expect attacks like this to happen every few days," Jack continued. "More often, the storm is throwing debris at us. Occasionally, a ship veers off Mariner's Wake, gets lost trying to dodge the asteroid belt, and gets shot down by enemy patrols. You don't see survivors from those, but we still have to look, and scavenge what we can since we don't exactly get regular deliveries of spare parts."
There was a lot of information, and it was a little mean, even for Jack, to drop an impromptu briefing on him while Ianto was getting breakfast. Ianto suspected that Jack was waiting for him to ask for time to digest it all; a thin line on his brow grew deeper the longer Ianto simply nodded along. But not for nothing did Ianto have near-perfect recall. The enemy are called the Kriida, humanoid in physical appearance but with no known genetic ties to humans. Technologically advanced, renowned for skills in terra-forming. Don't leave the base if any of the colored lights are flashing. Don't store valuables in your mattress. The storm covers the whole planet, but it's the dust and sand that cause damage. He would jot down notes later, after mentally replaying the conversation.
Jack wandered off while Ianto ate. There were a handful of other people in the mess hall. He ignored their eyes, and none approached him. Discreet observations revealed that all of them sported some injury or other. It made sense - with the ongoing attack, the only people still at liberty would be the ones unable to man the defenses.
Food consisted of some kind of stew, a roll of bread with butter, what looked like a hard round biscuit, and a long, plump green-purple... something. Likely fruit, from its sweet smell. He couldn’t read any of the buttons on the beverage station and so took a tourist's initiative and pressed the first one. To his relief, it turned out to be sweet tea.
Ianto had wondered if he'd even be able to eat, but after the first cautious mouthful of stew, his body seemed to remember that it needed fuel to function, and the contents of Ianto's tray disappeared quickly. He didn't spend much time pondering the taste, but the biscuit was surprisingly salty. He puzzled at it for a several minutes, the only pause in his eating, until he identified the salty, smoky taste as bacon. Which... all right, meat did have a tendency to go bad easily, and soldiers needed it. The unidentifiable fruit was fresh and sweet, at least.
Jack reappeared as Ianto was putting his tray into the basin provided. Ianto wordlessly followed him out of the hall. They went down several corridors, through an area Ianto did not remember from the haziness of the previous night. More soldiers, now; it felt as if the attack was almost over, with only a few isolated explosions in the distance.
The lights were brighter, the corridors wider. Ianto caught glimpses of rooms with rows of monitors, equipment, locked rooms with guards in front. They stopped in front of one of the latter. Jack nodded at the guard, before unlocking the door. Security code, hand print, retinal scan. (No such thing as useless knowledge.)
The Captain's office was larger than Ianto had expected. He'd been thinking about Jack's office, and the cramped little room down below.
There was the prerequisite main desk, gleaming a forbidding dark grey and made of some material that was not quite metal, but definitely not wood. Behind it was a large screen, depicting the scenery on the other side of the wall in real time.
There were no windows in the base.
It was possibly Ianto's imagination, but the storm outside looked even fiercer than what he'd seen of it on the way in. The frequent flashes of lightning only gave depth to the distant churning clouds, but they also added color to an otherwise monochrome chaos - streaks of red, blue, copper-green.
The Captain walked around the giant monstrosity that was his desk and sat down. He stared at Ianto, expression blank. Ianto supposed that this tactic worked for most of the men, but despite all evidence to the contrary a good part of him still saw Jack sitting there, and out-staring Jack was a skill he'd learned long ago.
Finally Jack reached under the desk and pulled out a smooth black folder. "These are your official documents. I've included a list of your duties, with some directions left by the quartermaster. The military doesn't have a protocol for time refugees, but they are good at doctoring new identities. Here, at least, nobody will question your background. If you feel like getting creative, my advice would be: keep the lies simple, but soldiers always like a bit of adventure."
- - -
In the beginning, the men regarded him like something between a curiosity and an unwanted pest. He had to wear the standard uniform, there being no other choices on base, but he still stood out with his clean appearance and lack of visible scarring. Well, Jack didn't have a mark on him either, but there was no mistaking him for anything other than a soldier.
Ianto knew better than to try and insinuate himself into the numerous established groupings among the men. He ate by himself and used the facilities when there was the minimal number of people in there. Strangely enough, this seemed to warm the men towards him a little, and after a few days the hard-edged wariness in every gaze gave way to a general sort of curiosity.
It took about three days - that is, three cycles of sleep-wake-work-eat-sleep, it was difficult to tell actual days - for first contact. Ianto was in the mess hall, methodically emptying his lunch plate, when a woman with braids of cherry blond hair slid onto the bench next to him.
"The Captain says you're our new janitor," she began without preamble, and the translator had repeated the same words at a slight delay before Ianto realized that she was speaking English. Her words were heavily accented, the treatment of consonants and certain vowels making Ianto think of New York.
He considered a number of possible responses, and settled for a neutral, "That is the job I've been given."
"You're not a soldier," she pointed out, blatantly taking the opportunity to examine him critically. "But you're not afraid of guns, like other people from the cities. Were you drafted?" Her gaze lingered on his hands.
"Into the military? No."
Her eyes narrowed. They were a deep hazel, a shade Ianto had never seen occurring naturally before. "Are you a volunteer, then?"
Ianto wondered at the hint of distaste in her voice, shook his head while sipping some water. "No. More like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
She seemed to accept the answer, smiling at him. "Guess that counts for a lot of the folks here."
He shrugged, and cast about for further things to say. "Why don't you like volunteers?"
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "I’m an old-timer, me. We've seen kids come in here because they want to tell people that they've served in the Lantern. They don't care about what we go through, and they never step out of the base. A week later, if even that long, they're begging to go home. One good thing about the lockdown - no more pampered idiots with daddies who have connections."
Ianto nodded, filing away the information. "What's your name?"
She grinned at him. "Varys. No one's decided what your name should be, but then you haven't done much yet."
This was one part of Jack's quick and informal briefing that Ianto was still unclear on. "Can I ask how you got yours?"
He'd worried that the names were a personal thing, but Varys appeared quite happy to talk about it. "First attack after I got here, the Kriida got through the outermost defenses, and I was in the line holding the perimeter. It took hours to drive them off, long enough for my blaster to lose its charge. But I have this antique gun, inheritance from my grandfather, and I took it out and started shooting. The other guys in the line had never seen a gun used before, and they named me Varys, which in Common is the word for a full set at bowl-ball, because I took down an entire row of the Kriida," she mimed shooting a row, "pop pop pop, one after the other."
"Impressive," said Ianto, with genuine sentiment.
"Thanks." She beamed at him. "You came in with the Captain. How did the things at the mothership go?"
It had the feel of a loaded question, so Ianto was glad to be able to honestly say, "I wouldn't really know, they didn't tell me much." He wondered, belatedly, what the Jack had told them about Ianto's unexpected arrival. Not much, and apparently not the truth, if the men were assuming that he was there in some official capacity. "And J- the Captain is... difficult to read."
She grinned, and clapped him on the shoulder. "You're not bad. Sit here again after supper, I'll introduce you to some of my mates."
He nodded, resisting the urge to point out that he didn't really have any other place to go, and watched her stride back to her table. Heads bent close while she gave her report; Ianto returned his attention to his food, and tried not to feel like all his future comfort and social interactions were hanging in the balance.
It became clear, when supper came, that he met approval. The table he'd been sitting at earlier already had a couple of people from Varys' group on it when he arrived with his tray, and they jovially waved him over to sit with them. Varys herself turned up a few minutes later, and made a lightning-fast round of introductions.
He only caught a few names. Wire, Aberdeen, Yeeka, Toss, Rum-Tum. He thought he could see a trend, however: not birth names, not the way they were said and answered to. At the same time, the names fitted, like a well-worn glove or a beloved knife.
They didn't ask him his name, though one or two called him 'Newbie'. It occurred to him that perhaps by the act of speaking it they'd already named him, irrevocably relegating him to being an outsider. But by a creative use of pronouns the name was only needed twice, and in one of those a passing soldier looked around quickly before registering the new face at their table. He laughed, greeted those he knew in the group, and advised Ianto, "Don't get too used to it. We were all Newbie for a while ourselves, and I still turn around whenever I hear somebody say it. You'll get your name soon enough."
The base was like a little city, except for a distinct lack of people who weren't soldiers. There was a constant thrum of activity, without any discernible changes between the designated 'day' and 'night' hours, aside from a brief dip in activity during the transition. Everybody worked in shifts, except for Jack who worked all shifts.
(One nickname his men apparently had for him, because obviously it wouldn't do for Captain Jack Harkness to have only one, was 'Allshift'. Ianto heard it echoing in the hallway most often after grueling back-to-back days.)
It took approximately two days for him to get used to the synthesized, vaguely female voice rendering everything he heard into English. Her accent was strangely northern, but not quite Scottish. Torchwood had a few devices with similar capabilities, but only Tosh had any familiarity with them. Ianto was glad to find that he wasn't the only person base who wore one in addition to the standard comm earpiece. He did notice that the others who were so equipped had distinct little differences in appearance - a tilt of the eyes, extra fingers, an exotic skin color. Perhaps they were from outlying colonies? He imagined there were collections of major cities - major planets - wherein everybody learned a common set of knowledge, including a language. But there would always be little forgotten communities, or just people who clung to their own traditions.
He wasn't sure how everybody else was going to understand him, but it turned out the technology went both ways. After the third person he spoke to for directions quickly switched on their earpiece the moment he began to speak, Ianto deduced that the device transmitted a translation to other comm devices.
Technically, Ianto didn't have to keep to the soldiers' schedules, in much the same way as none of the Torchwood team were contractually obliged to work beyond the daytime hours of eight to five. He did try to work and sleep in regular intervals, reasoning he had a moderate chance of success without Jack actively seeking him out for odd jobs, but when he resurfaced after sleeping through two minor attacks, he learned that three men on the wall had died after their shields malfunctioned from lack of maintenance.
It wasn't Ianto's fault at all, he was still on unofficial probation and thus not given access to areas on the base beyond the ones used by everyone, and he hadn't even known about guns on the exterior. But he felt partly responsible, all the same.
Jack had called him a quintessential team player, once. He'd thought it was just another compliment, another way of acknowledging his contributions to Torchwood. But now he wondered if Jack had seen this, if the part of him that was always a soldier had realized what it meant for Ianto to be loyal to fault, how that could be transferred and used for the good of Torchwood.
- - -
The man who had the top bunk above Ianto's introduced himself as Roadrunner. Ianto barely saw him; either they had entirely different schedules, or the other man had a second bed to sleep in.
The first time they were both in the barracks-room, Ianto asked about how he got his name.
The man shrugged. "The first time I went outside... I panicked, and ran. Ran for hours. Nobody could stop me, I was a track runner at school, I think I was trying to run around the mountain. One moment, I knew that something was chasing me, and in the next I was the one doing the chasing, terrified that the quarry would get away. Eventually my body gave out, and they dragged me back inside."
"Oh," said Ianto, rather inadequately.
"It was the Wake. The Wake gets you, there's no escaping it." Roadrunner's words trailed off, and soon snores were coming from above.
- - -
Ianto bit his lip, kept in the words; he was a stranger here, an outsider, knew nothing about the man kneeling on the ground and precious little more (or nothing, nothing at all) about the man holding an old-fashioned pistol to the first man's head.
"No looting. No stealing. No giving people to the Wake!" barked Jack, coldly furious and controlled like Ianto had never seen before.
The man, his soldier's uniform bloodied around the neck and sleeves, spat at Jack's boots. "You don't know what he did, before he came here. What that monster was capable of-"
"I. Don’t. Care." The gun dug into the man's forehead. "All of that doesn't matter down here. The moment you were assigned to R-133-FT, nothing that happened to you in the outside makes a difference. We follow the same rules, or we die."
The man laughed, spine bowing back and arms thrown up on either side. "Then shoot me! Give me your justice, Captain." He grabbed the barrel of the gun, pressed it back on his head. "Prove to me that the law can be equal for all men."
Jack blinked, exactly once. The sharp crack of gunshot echoed loudly off the thick walls of the base, a strange alien sound in a world where plasma and electricity were the ammunition of choice.
Nobody moved, there were no sudden pounding of footsteps in the distance. Ianto thought of Jack being known for his gun, the rarity of those weapons now, and wondered if everybody knew what the sound of it being used must mean.
"You don't look surprised," murmured Varys quietly, beside him.
Frankly, Ianto was still processing what had happened. But later - later, he would still not be surprised. "It's not the first execution I've seen."
He could feel her surprised look. But before he could say anything, he realized that Jack's gaze was directed at him.
No, not Jack. Not with those cold eyes, when there was a dead man splattered over the wall, the blood pool trickling towards his boots.
"I guess I was expecting you to disapprove, or something."
"He's the Captain," said Ianto, a little breathless with heartbreak.
A long breath, before her eyes moved away. "Yes."
And blue-grey eyes were still on Ianto. Maybe he, too, expected Ianto to disapprove. As if it would matter if Ianto did. Ianto couldn't read him, not at all.
But he, at least, was still Ianto.
He politely stepped through the front row of silent watchers, carefully avoiding the little pools of blood as he made his way to the Captain. The Captain.
He held out his hand expectantly. Jack blinked, stared at the hand, and after a moment's hesitation slapped the pistol onto it, handle first.
Normally Ianto waited until he got to the arms room before he worked on the weapons, but this time he checked the gun and took out the bullets, which he handed over to the Captain.
"I'll clean this up, sir," he said, when the older man continued to stare at him. The sound of his voice seemed to remind the Captain that they still had an audience. He nodded tersely, dismissed the watching soldiers with a pointed look, and strode off in the direction of his office.
- - -
Very soon after that, Ianto got his name.
He walked into Commons B after inspecting the lockers in Commons A, and found a short, burly man pulling on Toss' hair. Nobody else Ianto knew was nearby, so he sighed and strode over to them.
"Toss, is this man bothering you?" asked Ianto stiffly.
She smacked the man's hand away, and jabbed him in the side. "Definitely, can you throw him out?"
"Whoa, hold it, I'm her brother," said the man, grinning at Toss and sneaking in another tug on her longest braid. "I can see why they call you Knight. You just need a suit."
Ianto blinked. "Of armor?"
"Nah, force fields don't have the right look, plus no man looks dignified jumping around with no clothes on. What you want is those black jacket things, made of real cloth, with a white shirt that has the buttons down the center." The man looked him up and down, frowning. "You know, that would actually look real good on you. You've got the height, and you're scrawny enough."
Ianto resisted the urge to back away, his thoughts doing the now-familiar dance trying to realign concepts of his old world with this new one, and beneath that was a breath of nostalgia at the mention of suits. "Um. Thank you?" He stuck out his hand. "Nice to meet you. I didn't know Toss had a brother."
"I try to pretend I don't," grumbled Toss.
"Call me Oakland," said her brother, shaking Ianto's hand. "To be honest, I came here so I could get a look at you. Normally I go to Commons D. But it's been a while since it took two whole weeks to decide somebody's name, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about."
"Name?" repeated Ianto.
"And now that Oakland's given his approval, it's set," said Toss. She grinned at Ianto. "Nice to meet you, Knight."
Ianto paid attention to the word coming out of their mouths, not just the comm device's translation - to his surprise, it sounded the same, which confirmed that they meant 'knight' and not 'night'. Ianto had learned enough of their language to know their word for the latter. He supposed that antiquated, rarely-used words would not change as much, in the evolution of the language, as the ones used in the everyday.
He needed to ask, though. “Why Knight?”
Toss looked thoughtful. “These things take on a mind of their own. I think it’s when you called the Captain ‘sir’ that the others first got the idea. Well, they wanted to call you 'Sir', but that didn't seem right, especially when you were calling the Captain that. You've always got this face on, it's really hard to read, and one guy said it reminded him of Butler, you remember that show when you were a kid? And you’re always so... “ she made a vague gesture towards his person. “Nice. Like just now, when you jumped in to save me even though you’re just a civilian.” She bit her lip, and added loyally, “Not that I don’t think you couldn't take Oakland.”
“Please.” Ianto grinned, and looked pointedly at the other man. “Why bother? You do realize I’m the one in charge of maintenance for the barracks. You know, where you sleep.”
Oakland stared at him for a moment, and then roared in laughter. “I like a man who doesn't pretend to be less or more than he is. Nice to meet you, Knight."
- - -
Hours later, cocooned in the surprising warmth of his blanket, Ianto dreamed of a chessboard. It started off the size of those mini travel versions, but grew and grew until it covered all of Wales. And between the black and white boxes, the Rift burned lines of storm-red and lightning-blue.
He jerked awake when somebody swore loudly, several beds away. Maybe because of that, when he slipped under again, he was looking down at Jack. Jack, not the Captain, Jack and his RAF coat. Nothing else, because Ianto was riding him, knees pressed in on either side of Jack's ribs. Slowly but with purpose, Jack's skin hot on his thighs, fingers and nails digging in with every sweet slide of Jack's cock into the thrumming resistance of Ianto's body.
He didn't come, but woke knowing that release hadn't been the point. He pressed his face into his pillow, the rushing sound in his ears and his own heavy breathing making it easy to ignore the latest round of sirens. The pleasure, the connection, all the memories of it, of how he and Jack communicated best.
He thought that the second dream was a lot less allegorical than the first, or at least more direct about things, the product of weeks without sex. But he just felt homesick, and lost, and above all, missing Jack.
- - -
Ianto didn't, of course, have to clean up after the entire squad. Actually, he found he had less to do for the few hundred people on the base than he'd had for the five-person team in Cardiff. It didn't surprise him that Jack insisted on his men taking care of their own things; war didn't change much, aside from the deadly accoutrements.
But occasionally - well, quite often, actually - there was a soldier injured, or sick, or otherwise indisposed, and their weapons needed to be cleaned and charged. Ianto guessed that this job had traditionally fallen to somebody in the ailing person's squad. He was glad to take it, though; it allowed him to learn about the various types of weaponry, the technology, the workings of the base.
The woman in charge of the armory introduced herself as Lace. She looked suspiciously at him for a moment, and then contacted the Captain to confirm his identity. Ianto was surprised to be given access to all the hand weapons, and that Lace was to answer all his questions; but he was not allowed to use one, even for practice.
Lace responded to his questions readily enough, but with a polite distance. She did not look askance at him when he asked things that he thought everybody else would already know, and patiently demonstrated how to clean the guns and gear, her scarred hands moving efficiently over the various components.
The soldiers had a rota for cleaning various areas of the base, but it was followed only when there were no attacks, no missions, no sudden training, which meant that most rooms saw a cursory mop or wipe-down once a month at best.
He did hardly saw the Captain at all in the first few weeks, aside from momentary glimpses in the corridors and his voice over the PA system. The situation had a distinct, bitter feeling of abandonment; made worse by the knowledge that, as far as the man was concerned, he'd already done all that could be expected of him for a stranded time-traveler he'd found on a ship.
It was easier to focus on acclimatizing to the new environment. Light-years from his planet, centuries from his time. But he was healthy, intact, relatively safe, he even had a job. He'd spent enough time at Flat Holm to not be grateful, to not appreciate just how bad it could have been.
And yet, the ache for home was growing to almost a physical pain, the sum of all the ways he did not fit in this new world. He wondered if it was driving him mad, after all; there were times when he'd suddenly grow aware of the security cameras covering the base, as if there were living eyes on the other side.
- - -
Gaining a name was apparently cause for celebration.
"Normally, we'd take the ex-Newbie out for a scavenge run to the Cherry Pits. A little taste of the life, you know? But you're a civilian, you don't need that. Plus, that place has become an absolute nightmare." Toss paused, blinked. "Um. With the storm and everything."
Ianto wanted to tell her that it was all right, he didn't mind them keeping secrets. Especially if it was something that wouldn't affect him. But he couldn't think of a way to do so without sounding like he did care, so he only made a noncommittal noise.
Toss looked a little relieved that he didn't jump to grill her, and started off again on what the others had planned. "We're gonna have drinks, of course. Not enough juice for a triple vodka, but Eyrie knows how to make this killer Continental Shake, and the Captain brought in a few cases of medicinal beer from his last time topside."
Coming up on Ianto's other side, Rum-Tum cheered and smacked Ianto's back. "We're gonna have a party!"
"Just don't eat up all the cake, like last time," said Dree. Who was, as far as Ianto could tell without directly asking, Rum-Tum's significant other, for all that they never agreed on anything.
Ianto laughed. The joviality of the others was infectious, lightening the strange mood that had hung over him lately.
He was trapped in the future. He wanted to go home, but couldn't think of how. The Captain wasn't Jack, the Captain didn't remember him, but he was still the only hope Ianto had of going back.
Ianto sighed inwardly. Oh well. On the bright side, he had responsibilities, people he could call friends, and cake.
Ianto was good at cleaning things up. Circumstances that had allowed him to develop skills like how to eliminate bloodstains from antiquated fabric had not left him a lot of other choices. So he was well aware of it, but not that such skills were anything special. Yet, within a week of his arrival, Ianto found himself being treated as the authority on equipment maintenance and building upkeep.
He'd braced for the derision such janitorial positions usually invited, but the soldiers, in their own way, expressed genuine gratitude for his help and advice, after months of making do on their mish-mash of knowledge of household practices and half-remembered childhood chores.
Ianto would return to his bunk to find packets of food left under his neatly folded blanket, usually sweets or items not produced by the computerized 'kitchens'. He kept the ones he knew how to eat; the stuff he didn't, he took with him to the infirmary, to give to somebody who looked like they needed it. Sometimes he received trinkets, small charms or handmade pieces. Those he kept, in a metal box he'd taken out of the supply room. Mostly they were wood or metal, but sometimes it was a rough gem, or something he didn't recognize.
- - -
He wasn't sure what prompted him to make the decision. Perhaps it was listening to one tale too many, or a creeping kind of claustrophobia that had been gradually pressing down on him. But he woke up one day (night?) and thought, I have to get outside.
Ianto had not been explicitly forbidden to leave the base, or at least he was quite sure the soldiers hadn't been told he was. He looked at the time, and remembered that Varys' squad was due for a scavenge run within the hour. Heart hammering, he slipped out of the barracks and made his way to the general deployment bay.
Lace was not in the armory when he entered. But his every move would still be monitored, and he hesitated. He could not carry a blaster, or any of the energy weapons, and trying to do so might raise an alarm, so he pulled out a long knife with an accompanying sheath. On further thought, he took a small dagger that could be tucked into a boot. And a shield.
The squad began arriving, and they stared when he explained that he wanted to go with them. Varys looked particularly uncertain. But Ianto had read his papers thoroughly, and knew that, legally, he could do whatever he liked, and was responsible for his own actions. A whispered conversation between Varys, Sera, Rum-Tum and Yeeka produced many shrugs and frowns.
Eventually Wire grumbled, loudly, "We've gotten no orders that he wasn't to leave, so unless one of you has a personal problem with it, let the man come if he wants to."
"I won't leave the skater," added Ianto. "I just... need to get outside."
He received several sympathetic nods. Sera, the squad leader, nodded. Varys sighed, and Toss sent her a pointed look before saying, "You heard the man. I'll be his watcher, if it makes the rest of you feel better." That seemed to settle any remaining uncertainties, and Ianto was ushered into the prep area. Fortunately extra kits were always set out, in case of last-minute changes in shift.
Despite his certainty, Ianto couldn't help glancing at the door to the bay every few minutes. Which was ridiculous; he'd barely seen the Captain since the execution, and it was true that the Captain had never told him he wasn't allowed to leave the base. Granted, it had probably never occurred to him that Ianto would even want to leave, or that a way would be made available to him.
But no intimidating silhouette appeared. Varys handed him a kit, and looked grudgingly impressed when Ianto slipped into the gear easily.
"I'm a fast learner," he said with a small smile. It also helped that he'd cleaned out a good number of the things, so he knew how it came together and how to work the fastenings. A body suit made of a dark, thick fabric. Harnesses, utility belt, weapon straps, boots. Headgear with the face visor, air purifier and transmitters. Heavy boots that had good grip and large soles.
The skater was a long, thin land vehicle with a wide base that made it look like a triangular tube. It was made up of many interlocking segments and traveled on many wheels, which allowed it to move like a snake around obstacles. It could also hover for a short period of time, and had ailings rather than walls along the sides. The seats were lined up the centre, with the soldiers facing out. Enough for a squad of ten to strap down, but handles hanging from the ceiling allowed the skater to carry more.
So far, Ianto had only seen the planetary storm through a screen or on a video feed, where it already looked violent and chaotic. Physically going out and entering it, even when secured to a vehicle and surrounded by people, was a different experience entirely.
There was no time to get used to it. The moment the bay was cleared and the doors opened, it was as if Ianto's body was engulfed by sound. Thunder in the distance was barely heard over the roar of high winds, of sand pummeling the outer walls of the base. The skater sped out into the storm the moment the doors were opened wide enough.
Ianto had been prepared for the punishing winds, but it was the sound that hit him like a wall. The skater had some kind of shield that kept out the larger debris, at least. The rough, rocky country sent them bumping and bouncing every few seconds. It was near impossible to see anything further than a few feet from the vehicle, and any strip of skin that got exposed felt as if it was being scrubbed by sandpaper.
It was glorious.
True to his word, Ianto didn't leave the skater when it stopped and the others dismounted. Toss remained with him, answering his protests with an enigmatic, "No man is to be left alone outside."
The squad trickled back in after two hours, carrying bags and boxes of their scavenging. It was an old site, apparently; they'd returned in case there was something the first two squads had missed. Nobody reported anything interesting, but Wire came in carrying strips of metallic casing, which he claimed could be used on the skaters.
The journey back felt shorter, as these things tended to, and Ianto quietly listened to the chatter that sprang up. Mostly descriptions of the site, or plans for later in the evening. It felt as if they'd forgotten him, but he didn't mind; he could see that this was a closely-bonded squad, at ease with each other and in their responsibilities, from Yeeka the skater pilot to Aberdeen the navigator.
The happy air dissolved, however, when the skater pulled into the deployment bay; the Captain was waiting by the collection tables, next to the soldiers on crew shift who would take in their equipment and scavenge finds.
"Knight," he said as they got near. His gaze was like steel and looked ready to skewer somebody, so Ianto pushed to the front. He felt the squad, to a man, pausing behind him, but the Captain didn't even acknowledge them. After a moment, Sera ordered them to begin the post-mission procedures, and the sound of equipment being collected and suits removed filled the deployment bay.
Ianto waited, though he itched to take off his own suit. Jack would have been shouting by now, threatening Ianto with bodily harm. But the Captain was silent. A few times he looked close to speaking, but he continued to glare stonily. Eventually he nodded at the squad over Ianto's shoulder, and departed, anger radiating from every line of his body.
"It's like you're not scared of him at all," remarked Wire. After the post-mission scrub-down, the squad had wordlessly headed for Commons B, taking Ianto along with them.
"Should I be?" Ianto responded with feigned casualness, sipping from the mug of tea they'd brought him. Aberdeen's work - he could never resist adding in that second drop of sweetener.
He was staring more at his shoes than at any of them, but he sensed the turning of heads. Varys cleared her throat. "You were there when he executed Weiler."
Ianto blinked, tried to place the name. His memory, ever helpful, pulled up the images: blood and viscera trickling down a wall, fragments of bone found ten feet away when he swept the place a week later. He began to guess their trouble.
"It's not that I think he can't hurt me," said Ianto slowly, rubbing a finger over the simple handle of the metal cup. "He can. It's just... he does what he has to. What he thinks he has to, anyway. And... maybe I can understand that."
"You don't hate him," said Rum-Tum, in a surprised tone.
That pulled Ianto's head up, and he glanced at the other man in surprise. "No." He frowned. "Why? Do you?"
"Maybe not exactly hate," interjected Varys. But Ianto didn't miss the way Rum and Toss twitched and averted their eyes. "But, well, we don't like him, do we? He's not one of us."
Something about the way she said it, made Ianto think that she meant more than just a difference in rank, or coming from different places. And he wanted to question her, wanted to know more about another mystery of this alien world, but he was tired, and more than a little sick of being kept in the dark.
He shrugged. "He's the Captain."
"As easy as that, huh?" Varys grinned at him, a little uncertainly.
"Down here, seems like it has to be," said Ianto. He could sense all their eyes on him, but said nothing more.
- - -
The Captain intercepted him on the way to the barracks. "Knight. My office, now."
Ianto had been expecting it, and he followed the man silently to command central. From the way everybody in their path immediately sought not to be, Ianto could only imagine the expressions on both their faces.
The Captain barely waited for the door to close and lock before beginning. "What did you think you were doing?" He rounded on Ianto, not bothering to put the desk between them. "You are untrained. There are dangers out there that you can't even imagine. By leaving the base, you endangered not only yourself, but everybody with you - an entire squad! I thought you, at least, could be depended on to keep your head and do the right thing."
Brilliant blue eyes, and the familiarity was like a punch in the gut. It was easy to remember the difference, when the Captain was cold and controlled and Ianto's memory of Jack was mostly of fire, a volatile force of nature.
It occurred to him, then, in flash that left him breathless; maybe he hadn't wanted to get out, after all, but to be let in.
"I ordered you to not endanger my men," continued the Captain. "You don't know what could have happened out there-"
"Yes, Captain, I don't know," Ianto responded, the words bursting out. "You're right, I don't know anything. I don't know why I'm here, I don't know who you are, I don't even know what this war is about. I can't ask anybody because they think I must already know, and the one person who knows how I came to be here has barely said a word to me in three weeks, until today. So why don't you fucking enlighten me, Captain."
The older man stared at him, possibly in shock at being yelled at. Quite likely nobody had ever dared. And it occurred to Ianto to be scared, because the Captain was armed, and he remembered that man, Weiler's execution, but. It would hardly be the first time the man in front of him held a gun to his head and meant it.
But instead of anger, the Captain visibly subsided, backing off to stand behind the desk. "You're right. You wouldn't know. And the soldiers wouldn't tell a civilian, I didn't think of that. Many of them like you."
"Hard to believe, I know," said Ianto, shaky and replacing volume with sarcasm.
"What?" The man frowned, blinked several times in rapid succession. "No. You are. I mean, that is -" The Captain cleared his throat. "Soldiers don't have much, besides each other. If they like you, they'll try to protect you, especially if you don't have to face the same dangers they do."
He was still hiding something. One of the first things Ianto did at Torchwood Three was learn how to hide a secret from Jack. There was something to be said in that, here, now, he was learning how to tell when the Captain was hiding something from him.
"I... suppose I can understand that." Ianto approached the desk, until the edge of it was pressing into his upper thigh. "But don't I have the right to know? I'm not a child. I'm not really a civilian, even, back in my own time. I'm not asking for military secrets. Just things everybody else knows."
He was ready to argue that it would make him safer, having that information, allow him to avoid making risky decisions. But then Jack nodded sharply. A few clicks and beeps, and the screen materialized in the air above the desk.
The first image was a sprawling collection of blue dots, the core cluster shaped vaguely like a fish; Ianto remembered seeing something like it, on board the mothership. "The Great and Bountiful Human Empire," said Jack, nodding at the screen. "Those are all the major planetary systems, established colonies, and military outposts. We are at one edge of it." He pointed at what would have been the fish's tail. Another click, and the blue was rimmed with red dots. "Those are the Kriida. The Empire has been at war with them for decades. It's said that they were our closest allies, once. Nobody remembers how we started shooting at each other, which usually means it's our fault."
A speedy series of zooms, until the screen was taken up by just one planet. "Officially, we are on planet R-133-FT. There was a colony here, once, but it failed, they found the weather too unstable. Half our scavenge runs find things they left behind. This, and the neighboring three solar systems, are currently under military lockdown."
The Captain turned off the screen and leaned back on his chair. Fingers folded, a ridge on his brow - Ianto carefully stayed still, waiting out whatever the Captain was contemplating telling him.
"Do you know the average life span of a soldier stationed on this base?" was what the older man began with.
"A little under five months. 140 days," answered Ianto. "Sera told me, when she got drunk at my naming-night."
The Captain lifted his eyebrows. "Do you know why?"
"At first, I thought it was just plain dangerous," admitted Ianto. "But after a while... that's not what it feels like, when I'm with them."
The Captain nodded. "You've been good for them. Polite, but not a push-over. You take pride in a job well done, even when you know it's not something anybody else wants to do. You care about them, you help them when you don't have to. You support me in front of them, even when you don't approve. Normally I lose it when people shout at me, but just now - you were right, and you must have been thinking all that for a while, but you didn't say anything until we were in a soundproof room with locked doors."
Once upon a time, the last would have been said with a pointed look and a leer, if not outright groping, but the Captain was bizarrely... sincere.
"Thank you," he managed.
Fortunately, the Captain did not seem to realize how bizarre Ianto found the whole thing. The seriousness in his expression sobered Ianto up again.
"I said all that, because you must understand that these soldiers, my soldiers, are not used to people being kind to them. You- you're nice, and for a time I was suspicious... But you just didn't know. You couldn't have known, I guess." Jack sighed, tensing again as if bracing himself for a fight. "These soldiers... they're criminals."
Ianto blinked, nodded. He hadn't thought of it in those terms, but his lack of surprise suggested long suspicion, from the first unspoiled impressions: glimpses of an ever-present wariness and hardened resignation. "Right."
"After the colony failed, a decision was made to build a base here. But the high casualty rate - it was obvious this was a death trap. There was no equipment that required experts, the place just needed soldiers who can point and shoot and, if they were lucky, run away really fast. The military began assigning the... less favored soldiers here. Cannon fodder. Court martials. Uncontrollable radicals. But at least they were all soldiers, you know? They signed up for it.
"And then it became public policy to include military training in schools, at the height of the war, in case the government needed more soldiers. Not even weapons training, usually just hand-to-hand and a little bit of doctored history, but it was considered military. This meant that, technically, anybody raised in the Empire can be designated a soldier. And so, for those who break the law but not seriously enough to warrant a state execution - if they were rich, or had the right connections, they were put in jailhouses. If they weren't, and the jails were full, well. They were slapped with mandatory military service, and they get assigned here. Disobedience is treason, and that is enough for the death penalty."
The room, once so large and cold to Ianto, now felt smaller, closed and oppressive. The silence seemed heavier when Jack ceased to speak, and Ianto could not think of what to say.
"And nobody knows about it," continued the Captain, so quietly and gently that the memory of Jack was nearly indistinguishable. "Most of the empire think that the war is over, or limited to a couple of skirmishes a year. Not even the newsmen come out this far; nothing interesting happens on this side of space. The man call the base the Last Lantern, after the old folktales of Mariner's Wake." His eyes met Ianto's; human blue with a tired hue. "You are in a place that doesn't exist, breathing the air of men waiting to die."
It sounded as if the Captain was quoting something. Ianto thought of Varys, of Wire, of Rum-Tum and Dree, even that new kid River; he felt a flash of helpless anger, at the faceless powers that could judge one life to be more valuable than another's.
There was nothing he could say, really, but the Captain was clearly expecting something from him. "If you're worried that it bothers me, or if I would treat them different, it doesn't. I won't."
"You don't care?" asked the Captain dubiously.
"It doesn't matter. Here, in this place." Ianto looked down at his hands. "And what you said - where I'm from, my situation is not so different." Not different at all. Lisa condemned him, even when nobody else wanted to acknowledge it. "Living on borrowed time, and all that."
"You?" snorted Jack, incredulous.
Ianto raised an eyebrow. "Even if you won't believe what I'm capable of... do you really think that all the people in this base deserve to be here?"
"No." The Captain's gaze held Ianto's. "But you don't. That, I'm sure of."
Ianto felt a little like banging his head against the table. Because here he was, one millennium in the future and facing the man that used to be Jack. Who couldn't remember him at all, but still refused to let Ianto take the blame for what he'd done.
Whether due to the isolation, the shared but unspoken elements of their pasts that had delivered them there, or the volatile environment of the planet outside, the inhabitants of the R-133-FT base had developed their own culture. Songs, stories, many books' worth of habits and superstitions. No corner of the Empire, it seemed, was spared the mix, and so Ianto gradually developed a familiarity, if unmistakably biased, with most of the civilizations of the time period.
The only common rule seemed to be: no mentions of their life before arriving at the planet. Myths were favored, for example, the more colorful the better - but nobody spoke of learning them at school, or at a grandfather's knee.
There was rarely a time when there wasn't a drill or a mission going on somewhere on the base, but somehow the men managed to congregate in one of the common rooms at least once a week. There was no plan, no set agenda. Just talk, and stories, and singing.
Some of the songs had a depth and scope that suggested they must have been handed down for years. Ianto had expected death to be a favorite theme, and was surprised to find that most of the songs were about home. Home, and rest, and probably a lot of these were references to death. Again, no mention of a specific planet, no reminiscences about Before, just dedications to the idea of home.
The most interesting pieces, to Ianto at least, were stories about the planet. At first, this seemed at odds with the unspoken rule about not including details, but Ianto realized that the whole point of that rule would be to stop the soldiers growing hope about leaving. Obviously, none of them were native to R-133-FT, and it was hardly possible to avoid discussing it when their whole existences were wrapped in it.
"We don't know anything for sure, y'know," said Wire, after he got pulled into a discussion about one of their squad's scavenging run. "Only that the colony failed. So we like to come up with stories for the little that's been left behind."
Ianto hadn't gone out, after the first time. The Captain still hadn't explicitly banned him either.
"Some of them are pretty good," said Varys. "Remember when Dree found that mask? Almost wanted to hide it in my bag. Most beautiful thing I've ever seen, even when covered with muck and scratched along the edges."
Alcohol was good for getting soldiers to talk, but it was often in short supply. There'd been newcomers, and new soldiers meant fresh supplies. If Ianto slipped his friends a touch more than they'd been rationed to have, he justified it to himself that it was for the cause of gaining more information, and it wasn't as if a little more alcohol was going to hurt them.
"The first time I heard about the Wake," Rum-Tum said, already beginning to droop, "I didn't believe it, you know?"
Varys made a small noise from the corner, where she presently had her tongue in Sera's mouth and one hand under the other woman's shirt. Next to them, Wire frowned in Ianto's direction, as if trying to remember something.
Ianto topped up his cup. He was nearly gone, anyway.
"Soldiers make up the craziest stories, it's part of the life," continued Rum-Tum. "It's usually the second time out, 's when it gets you. But sometimes it can take a few months. It's like, the Wake waits to see if you'll even live that long. Some don't. Remember that kid, Eyrie? Sweet kid. Rich family, but the parents died and the guardians didn't care. Burned him myself, after he took a bolt right in the head."
"How about you? Bet you took it better," prodded Ianto gently. Wire began to snore.
Rum-Tum snorted. "Almost had a meltdown. Everyone takes it different. I got kill-happy. The Captain understands, tolerates it to a point. Whatever they say about him, he's got a good man in there somewhere. Third time out, it stopped bothering me. It's either that, or you go mad. They say it's a disease, but I think it's the body's way of goin' mad, when folks can't cope with what they see. What the Wake shows them."
- - -
After Jack's explanation, Ianto understood better. Why the others would give him looks, sometimes, or the way they kept trying to make their excursions off-base sound harmless and fun, even though Ianto was the one who collected their bloodied suits and scratched weapons.
He had no idea how to bring it up. That he'd seen worse things, done worse, and likely paying for it now. There was no easy, or even comprehensible, way of saying, hello, I nearly destroyed the world a thousand years ago, and if it weren't for the heartless bastard that is your Captain now, I very likely would have condemned all of you to life as Cybermen.
(He wasn't an innocent, wrongly trapped on this planet, but a traitor among thieves.)
But he couldn't say all that, not in any way that would make sense. So he went and made coffee for everybody in Commons B instead.
- - -
Ianto was fairly sure that the Captain could see who was outside his door; there were at least three security cameras covering the area, since command central warranted the highest level of security. But Jack had always preferred to be old-fashioned, and Ianto didn't doubt that some things could be deeper than memory.
"It's Knight, Captain. I've something to ask."
The door slid open. The Captain's expression was polite, mildly interested. Several screens floated around him, and the area of desktop under his hand had a virtual notepad.
"Yes?" prompted the Captain.
"The Wake," said Ianto. The Captain tensed. "I want to know what it is."
Ianto had prepared for an argument, if not a shouting-match. But perhaps the Captain had been expecting the request. He asked, only, "You're sure?" and then told Ianto to meet him outside the armory in four hours.
There was a kit waiting for him, and the Captain was already suited up. He was aware of the Captain watching him as he put it on, but whether it was simply to make sure that he was doing everything correctly or if he was watching for something else, Ianto couldn't know without asking. He was grudgingly allowed one plasma blaster, on the condition that he wouldn't try use it unless he had no other choice, and instructed to leave any fighting to the Captain.
The looks the soldiers at the wall sent their way gave Ianto the impression that the Captain did not normally provide personal escort to individuals on the outside. Instead of the large deployment area, they went to a small airlock.
"We will just be walking," the Captain's voice drifted over the comm device.
"That's fine," replied Ianto, more to test that the other man could hear him. He remembered the low visibility through the dust and wind, the sudden storms, the unsteady ground. "The Wake is not far?"
The Captain looked at him, the outline of his face barely visible through the visor. "The Wake is everywhere."
The airlock allowed for a more gradual transition, between the still coolness of the inside of the base and the insanity of the winds and dust outside. than riding the skater out of general deployment. At first, the side of the rock mountain buffeted the winds a little, so Ianto had time to remember the wide, even strides that Dree had once demonstrated to him.
"Good," said the Captain with grudging approval, only a few feet away but an indistinct blur already.
They walked for about an hour, just getting beyond the innermost ring of defenses. "We've taken what measures we can to lessen the effect of the Wake," explained the Captain, "I don't know if any of them really work, but it's best to go a little further out."
Eventually, they stopped. Ianto could just about make out the outline of the rock-mountain through the screen of dust and sand, looming over the landscape behind them.
The Captain only said, "Wait and watch" to Ianto's questions. Fine, but for what? Ianto was still not entirely sure what the Wake was. Something that frightened even grizzled veterans, drove people mad, made them sick. He entirely wasn't sure why he was willingly exposing himself to it; only, there had been a note of inevitability in Rum-Tum's voice, and he was the longest survivor, so Ianto had wanted to pre-empt it, to face at his own choosing the open secret that the others had been keeping from him.
Dust and sand and assorted debris made a sound like hard rain against his headgear. Soldiers' stories flooded his mind, always glorious with all the gory details that the life made one used to. He thought of the men who'd come out and lost their suits, their visors, their air purifiers. Slow and painful deaths, even when they were brought back to the base if the exposure had been long enough. And if not, they were burned, never just buried but burned, everyone said so like it was law-
Ianto flinched, stepped backwards. For a moment, there'd been a face- a shape moving towards him, lines in the dust- were they being attack? The Kriida, he couldn't remember what they looked like. But no, the Captain hadn't moved. The thought came- something's gotten to him, why is he standing still?- and bubbling up with it, a rising panic- but the Captain, Jack, couldn't die, though he wouldn't know that Ianto knew- panic, don't panic-
He forced his eyes closed, against every instinct screaming against it. He'd plug his ears, too, if he could, because the thunder of dust, sand, and wind, and the rumble of a distant storm, now carried something more, shrill high voices- Deep breaths. In, out, in, in, out.
"Does everybody see the same thing?" the sound of his own voice surprised him. He hadn't intended to speak.
"No," replied Jack. Well, it was Jack's voice. Jack, remember Jack. No harm pretending, if it'd keep Ianto from hearing the sounds. Like screams. "It's different from person to person. Worse in some areas than others." He sounded far away, at first, but Ianto focused on him and ignored everything else, and he slowly returned to normal volume, while the hissing and roaring brought by the winds abated. "It's the most dangerous when you're alone, so until they're touched by the Wake, newbies are never left alone when they go off-base. It's almost as dangerous in a crowd, because you often can't tell what's real, and soldiers are armed. Pairs are best, but give the watcher a strong, fully-powered shield, in case. Even then, sometimes the watcher forgets themselves, or they haven't been out for a long while and it's like the first time all over again."
"So that's why you do the scavenge runs?"
"Partly. It's dangerous either way, a fine line between too much exposure and too little."
Ianto assayed a look out of one eye. Dust, sand, and beneath that a bare rocky plateau. He opened the other eye, and looked around.
"Can't see anything anymore," he reported.
"That was fast," said the Captain, sounding surprised. "Are you sure?"
Are you sure?
Please, Jack. Need you, now, please.
Slow down, I've got you. Shhh. We have all night.
Ianto realized that he was breathing hard into the comm. Embarrassment flashed like fire across his face and neck. "I'm okay! Um. Still not seeing anything I shouldn't, but I just heard- one of my memories."
"It's not uncommon. Is it over?"
"I think so." Even as he said it, the wind picked up. Over? Over? Calling to base. Power failure in Rose. Yegods, there are still people in there. Failure in Marigold. In Lily. Dahlia. Over. Over. Rose. Overoveroverover-
Ianto shook his head, then groaned. "Seeing things again."
"Take your time. I'm here with you. Just listen to the sound of my voice."
But these figures weren't dissipating, or fading in and out, like the first. "Just to check, could you look over due northwest? Right by the little flat outcropping."
"Ah." He didn't see the Captain approaching, and started when he felt the other man right against his back. "Those? Not hallucinations."
"Was afraid you'd say that."
No way of knowing if they'd been spotted yet, but the line of shapeless shadows appeared to be moving at a regular, if determined, pace. If they were heading for the base, the two men were directly in their way.
Ianto obeyed the sharp tug on his sleeve, orienting himself using his compass and making for the base as quickly as his heavily booted feet and the uncertain ground would let him. The Captain stayed a step back, catching Ianto when he stumbled, his presence a silent but persistent reminder to keep moving, faster.
Even so, they had barely passed the inner perimeter when the Captain suddenly shoved Ianto down onto the ground. Ianto, caught by surprise, couldn't quite catch himself. Pain flamed out from his left wrist, eliciting a sharp gasp. Shouting came from somewhere behind him. A series of plasma bolts zipped overhead, one landing close enough for Ianto to feel the heat as it melted a blob of barren ground.
He was not a natural fighter. He still remembered the helplessness he'd felt at Brecon Beacons, the breakdown that had been averted by Tosh's calm strength. That had been before he'd realized that there were other ways to fight and defend than the physical, and before he'd believed that there were people who'd come back for him.
It still irked, though, to lie down with his face in the dry dusty dirt while somebody else fought, took hurt, for him. Maybe he should try a few shots. Keep to the ground and crawl wide of the Captain...
He was yanked up to standing, as roughly as he'd been pushed down. The Captain shoved him in the direction of the base. Ianto managed a handful of steps before he realized that the Captain was not with him. Of course, the man's plan would be to hold off the enemy alone while Ianto got to safety.
Muttering curses under his breath, Ianto stomped back. His legs and back were on fire, from the uncommon exertion, but he thought he was getting the hang of the heavy wide boots and the constricting gear.
Later, he would not be sure why he did it that way. It had simply felt like the thing to do, and unexpected enough in the scope of their interactions so far that the initial surprise would give Ianto the upper hand, as it were.
The Captain was using his antiquated Webley. Ianto wasn't sure if this meant his blasters had run out or if centuries of using it had made the gun his weapon of first choice. Regardless, it left the Captain with one hand free, clenched into a fist down his side.
Ianto wrapped his fingers around the Captain's hand, and was surprised when the hand relaxed, his grip returned. He intertwined their fingers - because the ground was treacherous, that's all - and just ran.
He wasn't sure what he would have done if the Captain had not followed his lead, but there was one certainty that arose from the churning slush of fear and adrenaline: he would not have left him behind.
The base and its mountain seemed to appear all at once. One minute, all Ianto could see was dust and sand, the landscape a blur, and the next it was as if a screen had parted and the great mass of rock and camouflaged metal were in front of them. Ianto was dimly aware of shapes moving in the opposite direction, speeding past them, but he'd put too much into getting himself and the Captain to safety, and everything else seemed like unnecessary details.
He heard the Captain say something about the deployment doors, but Ianto headed for the airlock they'd used earlier.
The quiet inside the airlock was nearly overwhelming after the constant high winds and the unexpected attack. Ianto pulled off his headgear and took deep breaths, resisted the urge to crumple and sleep right there.
Oh right, the Captain. Ianto turned his head and met clear blue eyes. Familiar, so familiar, especially now that they held a glint of... amusement?
"Quite a grip you have there," continued the Captain, conversationally. "Good running, too. Guess you're not just a civilian, after all."
It took several long minutes for Ianto to figure out what the Captain was alluding to. He looked down at their joined hands. His crushing grip must hurt, he was glad for the gloves. The Captain's returning grip was solid and sure, and he did not appear to be in pain. Ianto tried to release him at once, but his muscles had cramped; it took more deep breaths and Ianto forcing his body to relax before he could pry his fingers off, one by one.
- - -
Days and nights ran together, it was hard to tell them apart to begin with, and Ianto easily lost track. Many times he couldn't remember if a certain thing had happened recently or many sleep-wake cycles ago, or in what order.
A new batch of soldiers arrived - three men and two women. They were smoothly appropriated into the social structure of the base, but in a slightly different manner than Ianto, who'd come in as a civilian.
One of them, a nervous young man, was taken in by another group that frequented Commons B, and given the name River. Ianto had taken one look at him and thought, this one shouldn't be here. But he didn't ask for the man's story, since there was nothing he could do about it.
They were all in the Commons, and Ianto was in the middle of a conversation with Dree, when on the other side of the room came Oakland's booming laugh. It sounded mocking, and Ianto turned to see him sneering at River.
"You think you're goin' to be a hero now, kid?" River flinched. "There are no heroes here. You weren't sent here to get a second chance, redeem your soul, whatever it was they told you. Newsmen don't know what they're talking about, these days."
"Why are we here, then?" retorted River, face red. He suddenly looked young, far too young.
Silence greeted him; but the answer could be read on every face.
In the past, this had been the point where the newcomer would break down, launch into hysterics. To his credit, River did neither; he ducked his head, hiding his face, and went still. Then he gave a deep, shuddering sigh, and said nothing else for the rest of the night.
Over time, one gained a sense that the attacks had a kind of rhythm, stretches of relative peace and periods of intense hostile action. Ianto had not known that he'd arrived during one of the former, until one afternoon they finished lunch to the sound of sirens, and after that the sirens never stopped.
A week, two weeks, three. Many were the nights when everyone in the barracks seemed awake, too exhausted and anxious to sleep. Even Ianto felt a strange deep weariness settling into his bones, though he'd only been doing his regular duties.
The whispers would start. Words flowing from one bunk to the next. Stories, for the most part. If there was a new tale, or a known favorite, the entire room went silent, so that the furthest insomniac could hear the words; there seemed almost a kind of magic to it, though likely this was because the stillness was palpable, heavy presence in the room. The dead calm that came only after magnificent chaos. Ianto listened with his translator off, the half-recognizable words painting scenes in his mind.
- - -
The gasping lungful of first breath came seven minutes later. Ianto had long hypothesized that the time between death and... awakening largely depended on the manner of death and extent of physical damage, which made sense, but the correlation was not sufficient for precise prediction.
Also, death by plasma bolt was a new one for him. Bullets, he thought grimly, good, old-fashioned lead bullets, now those I can predict to the second.
The Captain coughed. "You don't look scared to death, or even a little surprised, so I guess you knew this was going to happen."
"If you mean the attack, I hope the fact that I nearly got shot disabuses you of the notion. If you mean you coming back, then yes, I was fully expecting to have to repair your coat yet again tonight."
"Then what in blazes are you still doing here?"
Ianto raised an eyebrow. "Waiting for you to come around?"
The Captain stared at him like he was dense. "What for?"
"It's not like I need to be with the squad." Ianto caught movement out of the corner of one eye, his hand holding the Webley automatically tracking it. "And I was hardly going to just leave you here."
He still wasn't sure why he'd been requested to come along when wasn't allowed to fire a blaster. But the casualty rate was beginning to tell, and it was a little depressing to see how heartened Squad 7 had been to have even a non-combatant among them to boost their numbers; this was their second time out within 24 hours. At least it was a rescue mission, rather than a full interception.
(A storm had marooned Squad Two on a cliff face on the other side of the mountain, and the Kriida they were supposed to be ambushing were picking them off.)
The Captain's expression clearly said that, yes, Ianto should have gone on with the men and left him there, and he thought Ianto an idiot for not doing so.
Ianto calmly gazed back, I know what you think, but you don't always know what is for your own good, and having brought me this far surely you do not expect me to start backing down now?
- - -
Exhaustion told on every face. There was an extra chord of tension, too, particularly among the veteran survivors. Ianto wanted to ask, but didn't know how. Plus, the general intent seemed to be to pretend that everything was fine. Finally Aberdeen, the ever-silent Abe, murmured to Ianto over their subdued dinner, "Time's like now, that's when things like to get bad."
That night, Ianto jolted awake from a bad dream. He didn't hear anything out of the ordinary, but he could tell that he hadn't been the only one. Yet nobody left their beds. There was only a feeling intense watchfulness, and a rising, unexplained dread.
Footsteps passed the door. Two or three gave up the pretence and sat up, leaning out of their bunks. The door opened, silently. A woman's voice, one Ianto didn't recognize, said, "It's Ika." Ianto remembered a short man, balding, two barracks-halls down.
It seemed like the entire room sighed. One man quickly jumped up and slipped out the door. Ianto meant to ask, since he could hear Roadrunner shuffling about in the upper bunk, but the easing of the tension in the room left him feeling acutely his body's weariness, and the next thing he knew the room was mostly empty again and the blue storm-lights were flashing.
He learned that, sometimes, it was illness that preceded the pyres. Nobody knew the cause, and Ivy, the only qualified medical officer on the base, always offered some meaningless explanations about the complexities of viral models that neither they nor she believed. Nobody had ever found out why certain individuals suddenly began to waste away, the equipment they had was decades old, and nobody on the outside cared. The middle-aged, willowy woman seemed to take every unexplained death as a personal affront, and had a reputation for not stepping out of the infirmary while the sickness was doing its rounds.
And instead of alarm and revulsion, the soldiers gathered around their comrades. Whole squads asked for leave, and the Captain, strict on everything else, would just nod and rearrange the shift schedule.
“It doesn’t spread,” explained Sera, when she saw his hesitation in approaching the bed of a sickly man, a friend of Oakland's. “There’s no pattern to it, no season, and everybody seems to have as much a chance of becoming sick as anybody else."
Ianto's barracks-hall lost four. Somehow their squad escaped intact, but in such a closed environment, there were enough connections and acquaintances that everybody felt everybody else's sorrow.
The attacks continued through the epidemic. For the first time, Ianto chafed at being kept in the base, even though his own friends were admonishing him for doing the work of three men already, between the armory and the infirmary and keeping the base clean in the vain hope of it staving off the sickness.
- - -
And then came the day he understood the others' true horror about the Wake.
He was waiting in the deployment area when Oakland's squad stumbled in. It was clear how exhausted all of them were. The Captain was waiting as well, with stretchers, for there had been reports of an animal attack on top of the Kriida interception. Ianto listened to the debriefing as he helped the soldiers out of their kit.
They'd engaged the Kriida on perimeter five, the outermost line of defense except for the rings of sensors further out. The distance from base meant that they were also in danger from the few land animals of size that could survive in the hostile weather. A pack of drindo had attacked them. (Ianto's mind brought up images of them, like wolves but with saber teeth and thicker wire-like fur.) They'd barely got away, and likely only because the animals were more interested in the dead Kriida.
Ianto noticed that the last member of the squad was barely moving. He pressed the button for medical even before he approached the man; luckily, the infirmary was right next to deployment.
His questions were met with no answer, so he murmured soothing words while he quickly unbuckled the weapon straps and the harness. The utility belt was bloody and in shreds. Ianto saw the blood dripping down onto the floor, repeated, "It's all right, we'll get this off and Ivy will patch you right back up" as he struggled with the belt.
The fastening was caked with blood and sand. Finally, it gave, and Ianto was ready to yank it off when he noticed the curious way the body under the strap was moving. The cloth under the dark suit was already bloody, and more blood was seeping through, the skin distending without the pressure of the belt strap-
Ianto was aware of someone shouting, when the stench hit him. Blood he'd grown used to, but this was ranker, mortal, liquids intimate to the living body. He looked up - the face behind the visor was one he vaguely recognized, from the hallways or the mess hall. Glassy eyes stared at him, fixed in the look of terror before violent death.
A strange moment, then. Something was suspended within the visor, moving slightly as if there was wind within. Pale and miniscule, glittering. Dust.
Fingers gripped his arm, pulled him backwards. The belt, still in his clasp, was pulled off completely. Blood splashed on the smooth floor, the man's suit bulging and opening where claws had ripped right through it, spilling out-
Meat. Nothing but meat. They'd eat their harvest raw if they could stomach it, but rare was even better, lightly seared on the outside and full of juices still-
Jack's gun roared, cutting through past and present. Ivy released Ianto's arm, shouted something at the other soldiers. The dead man shook, stumbling from the impact of the bullets. The head looked about, as if confused by where it was. It stopped with the eyes directed straight at the Captain. It nodded. And then it... toppled over, hitting the ground with a damp sound.
Soldiers were running in through the doors. Sera appeared at Ianto's side, asked him if he was all right. Ianto made some affirmative noises, but most of his attention was on the Captain. There was an almost... fearful look on the older man's face, and the hand holding the Webley was trembling, hidden by the long sleeve of his coat. Ianto noted how everybody was giving the Captain a wide berth, though they swarmed over Ivy and Ianto and the remaining members of the squad.
The Captain put the gun away and headed for Ianto. People scampered out of his way, and Sera's nails dug into Ianto's arm. He looked at her questioningly. She frowned and let go, stepping away once the Captain was close.
"Are you all right?" asked the Captain gruffly, not quite meeting Ianto's eyes.
"Yes." What was going on?
"What was," Ianto nodded towards the body. Ivy and other soldiers were already cleaning up the blood and... other matter. "Was that the Wake?"
The Captain's face was harder than Ianto had ever seen it. "Yes. That's why we burn the dead. I should have been suspicious - they were in the Worm Winds, it's always the squad that comes back with no fatalities, and a whole pack of drindo would have gone into pursuit, the Kriida don't make good eating for them."
"Well, we're all fine." Ianto wanted to touch him. Just a hand on the arm, something. But he remembered the time when he'd hated touch. Plus, the soldiers were watching. "Thank you, by the way."
The Captain's expression flashed surprise, but nodded and headed for the doors. With his back turned, Ianto saw more clearly the looks of fear and distrust directed at the Captain.
He'd wondered for a while, why none of the soldiers ever warmed towards their leader. The Captain was strict, and cold, but Ianto could see that he cared about his soldiers, and he was never deliberately cruel or unreasonable. Ianto had met worse. And yet, even the soldiers who professed respect for him tinged it with a strange wariness.
It was only many hours later, when he was staring at the ceiling of the commons, letting Rum-Tum and Dree's good-natured bickering wash over him, that the thought came: he can't die. If he'd been here years, there must have been at least one time when he couldn't hide his death. And how that must look, in a planet where the dead go walking.
He jerked up, startling his friends. He made some excuse about going to bed early, accepted their comforting hugs and pats. Halfway to the barracks, he slipped into a service corridor - he was getting to know the place as well as he'd known the Hub - and doubled back towards the command area.
- - -
"Is that why they're scared of you?" demanded Ianto. "They think, what, you died out there and something took you over? They think you can't die because of something the Wake, this planet, did to you?"
The Captain stared at empty surface of his desk. "Who is to say that wasn't what happened? Stranger things have come out of the desert, Knight." He sighed. "That's why we have that rule. Don't give people to the Wake. When they die, we burn them. No chance of... something... using their body. Or, if it's really them come back, we're sparing them from waking up with half their face torn off."
There was something here, beneath the surface; it must be bad, for the Captain to be working this hard to gloss over it. Ianto was tempted to play dense, but the seed of horror would only grow on uncertainty, and since Canary Wharf he'd always felt some kind of obligation to face head-on whatever the darkness of humanity threw at him.
"They tried, didn't they?" he asked, eyes not leaving the older man's face. "They burned you, while you were dead."
A muscle on the Captain's right hand twitched; all else was still, like stone. "I knew they were going to do it, beforehand. They had to try, before they would follow me again, and it's not as if it was permanent."
"Not where the eyes can see, no." The Captain looked up at the growl in Ianto's voice, eyes widening at the anger twisting under Ianto's skin. "Do you think it makes it any better, that you let them do it?" Ianto took a deep breath. "Who was it?"
At this, the new openness in the Captain's eyes shuttered, and confirming the suspicion that it must be somebody Ianto knew. "It doesn't matter. And it had to be done."
Ianto's fingers clenched, knuckles knocking against the smooth tabletop. Not even punching, though he wanted to, but the sound filled the room.
And the Captain- the Captain just looked confused, as if he didn't know what to make of Ianto's barely-contained fury. He stared at Ianto with a bewildered expression.
(And Ianto never once thought, Jack, because Jack had never been so blatantly confused by him before, and never not known better than to show it.)
Before he fully realized what he was doing, Ianto found himself on the other side of the table, lowering himself down to sit, the solid warmth of the Captain between his thighs and beneath, his hands cupping the Captain's jaw, then gripping, before he tilted his head and pressed their lips together.
Straddling the Captain, he could feel the initial tension in the man's body. He remembered his first impressions of this stranger, the wall, implacable and immovable as marble. But this stillness had the thrumming of life underneath it; he wondered if it was new, or merely something nobody had dared come close enough to feel. Not quite like a string stretched fully, there was nonetheless the sense that things could go either way.
But Ianto pressed on, pressed closer, heart hammering as he breathed in deep, because regardless of names, he knew himself, and he knew the man in front of him, and maybe they would always be like this for each other, exactly like this, the truth behind a thousand different stories.
A gasp, a silent shudder, and the Captain opened up beneath him, hot and wet and stumbling, strong fingers digging into the flesh of Ianto's hip and between his shoulder blades. The movements were ungraceful, slow, as if having to be dredged up from memory. It was almost... sweet, and that was fuel to the want twisting in Ianto's gut. Ianto's body remembered better; his tongue thrust in deep at the same time as his hips rocked forward and down, just barely restraining the feverish wildness that came from months of no contact.
He did not know if it was him or the Captain who brought them to the table, but the cold, smooth surface against his back both cooled him down and made him desperate for more of the Captain's heat, more skin.
"Knight," whispered the Captain, voice harsh but his tone asking permission. Asking permission.
"Touch me, Captain," Ianto ordered. "Please. Touch me."
His fingers practically tore into the fastenings of the Captain's uniform. Fabric gave way, skin met skin, and Ianto let out a sound between a sigh and a moan. He became aware that he was gasping other things, too. Captain, captain. Oh yes, God, more, fuck. Want you, captain. Embarrassment warred with desire.
But then the Captain was murmuring, Knight, Knight, Knight, and the note of disbelief in his voice made Ianto lock his legs around the older man and pull him in closer.
The uniform trousers were highly inconvenient; the Captain didn't even bother taking them off all the way, much to Ianto's approval. The first touch of a callused, mildly shaking hand to his cock had Ianto groaning loudly and jerking up; the slide of the Captain's cock against it, wet already at the tip, nearly made him come.
"In me. Now," he gasped.
The Captain made a strangled noise. A bit of fumbling, and a pause. "I don't- I don't have anything to- to make it easier."
Ianto grabbed a fistful of shirt; his own was already undone and hanging off him. He pulled it apart, pulled the Captain down closer, licking his parted lips slow and dirty. "Don't care. Use your spit. Don't care if it hurts, I want to feel you after." His hips made rocking motions into the Captain's hand, impatient. "Want you to look at me, and, fuck, know that every step burns a little, because of you."
A deep shudder, the Captain almost whimpering. (The part of Ianto's mind that had catalogued every expression and noise from Jack wondered, how long since he- ? but he stopped it, because Jack possessed so much of him already, and the Captain deserved at least this little piece of time for his own.)
The Captain's weight left him. Ianto had a moment of confusion, but then warm hands were spreading him wide, damp lips kissing the underside of his cock, trailing downwards. The touch of tongue, the tip of it pushing inside him, and Ianto shuddering. It had been so long, when once there'd hardly been a day when he didn't get some form of release, he was nearly breathless with the need.
The first finger was still too dry, though the Captain did his best, almost feeding spit into Ianto. But Ianto made an approving noise, relished the burn, the scrape, and spread his legs further, kicking off trousers and pants. Two fingers, three.
And then it was him, hard and beautiful and relentless. One long, smooth stroke, and at the end Ianto pushed back, driving in the last inch. He could feel his body shaking, and then the Captain was kissing him, soft and sweet. An experimental thrust, a slight adjustment. Another, another, then a burst of pleasure that left Ianto swearing and digging his nails into the Captain's shoulders. The Captain made an approving noise, licking between Ianto's lips, and went for it.
Ianto slid up the desk, hands wandering up and down the other man's broad back and curling into his hair. Soft. The pleasure spiraled, each spark pushing a breathless Captain out his lips. Too soon, it'd been too long, and then his entire body was tensing, arching up.
The Captain moaned, mouthed words into his skin. A few more thrusts, a muffled shout, liquid warmth inside Ianto, and he slumped forward, catching himself on his arms.
Ianto caught his breath, unlocked his legs. He was quite sure that he would have bruises in the following days, from the Captain's grip on his hips. "Captain?"
It was feeling awkward already. The Captain began moving away, pulling out his softening cock; Ianto caught him and held him in place, until he met Ianto's eyes. "Knight."
O Captain, my Captain, rang the verse in Ianto's mind. He rubbed a finger over the Captain's lips, swollen and abused. This was another thing the Captain could have, and nobody would ever know just from looking.
For lack of better words, Ianto kissed him.
Yeeka was the shyest of the women in the squad, but also the best storyteller. Ianto worried for a while that she would mistake all the attention he paid her for something other than a ravenous interest in the wealth of stories she knew, but Dree, who had an instinct for such things, reassured him that Yeeka had eyes only for Wire, who was oblivious to all things not related to computers.
The Mariner's Wake, Ianto learned from Yeeka, was comprised of R-133-FT's sun, planetary system, and the swathe of asteroids orbiting it all, which on ten neighboring star systems created an image of a bright light with a grey glittering trail. "Many folk legends involve the Mariner," said Yeeka in her calm, gentle cadence. "Usually as a figure of wisdom, a patron spirit of wanderers, or a guide through unknown dangers. The Lantern, which this base was named after, is said to be the flash of light before the final dark, which the dead see as the Mariner reaches down to help them onto the ship, which was the first of its kind to be made and will be the last to sail, at the end."
- - -
The Captain appeared strangely subdued when he beckoned Ianto into his office. Ianto had given up on providing a context for his visits, and the Captain seemed to have accepted it as a matter of course.
For once, the desk's surface was blank. Instead, there was a box on it. Wood, Ianto identified, maybe even authentic oak. It looked familiar, and not from his time on the base.
The Captain sighed audibly, sat down behind the desk. Ianto took the seat across from him, willing himself to be patient; there was a tale, here, that should not be rushed. "I don't know where I'm from," began the Captain. "Five years. That's as far back as I can remember. Sometimes little things come up, but never anything important, and many of them don't make sense. I was evacuated from a damaged outpost. They found me in the infirmary, with no identification and no memory. The medics had kept only my coat, my gun, and this box. Figured I was an independent, or maybe a bounty hunter. The military kept a watch on me, until I was finally allowed to enlist."
"Two years ago, I was assigned here, but that you already know." The Captain gestured at the box. "I haven't thought about this in a long time. I can't open it, you see. There's a seam but no keyhole. I don't know if there's anything inside, it doesn't make a noise when you shake it."
"Maybe it's time-locked?" suggested Ianto. "Or the key is something else." Most days, he'd forget that he didn't belong here, that he was supposed to be finding a way back. He could hear his heart beating faster. Jack. This must be it. He was no longer sure if he meant Jack, or a way to return home. But here, at last, was an explanation.
"Maybe." The Captain shrugged. "It just... seemed important that you know. I have no past, no home, no trade other than war. Wouldn't know my own name if not for my necklace - there's a tag on it, and a key. And," he paused, "nobody came looking, after the evacuation. So I don't have family, or friends."
Ianto wasn't sure what was happening here, had deliberately not thought about it for some time now, but he could sense that something was being asked of him. "I have neither, as well. Here and now."
"Would you go back, to your own time, if you could?"
Deja vu left him lightheaded. Would you miss me? he wanted to ask, for the sake of completeness, except the answer was staring him in the face, plain as day, and the realization left him lightheaded. How did it get to this?
"I don't belong here," he replied, truthfully. Unable to stand the look in the Captain's eyes, he added, "But, I think, neither do you. Captain - did you ever die, before you came here?"
The Captain blinked. "What do you mean? No, of course not."
"Are you sure?" Ianto got to his feet, stalked around the desk. "Because I don't think this place, the Wake, is the reason you can't die."
"I'm- there was one time, when I wondered." The Captain frowned, tilting his head up to look at Ianto. "But what else can make a man like this? Do you know something?"
"No." He didn't, had never asked the story. He knew only that the Doctor had been there. "But you're different from the, the undead here. That, I'm sure of." He sighed and bent down, then, to keep the Captain from speaking further in the best way he knew.
Many hours later, Ianto crawled into this bunk, body exhausted in a hundred different ways. There'd been another attack, right after he left the Captain's office. Well, at least he knew now that the Captain did have a bedroom, a sparse little space adjacent to his office and accessible only through a concealed door. But at least it had a bed. Ianto stretched, and was sorely tempted to shower, to get rid of the smell of the infirmary.
His hand encountered something under his pillow. Ianto drew it out, though he'd guessed what it was from the shape. The key glinted in the dim light, cool against his palm.
("Give me a token, o gentle guardian of my sleep," Varys had drunkenly crooned once, one of the few songs in English that she knew, "a part of you under my pillow, for your dreams that are mine to keep.")
It was on a cord, black and strong, loose enough to be slipped over his head. There was a piece of cloth tied to it, thin and silky, like a ribbon. It looked like it had writing on it.
Ianto leaned out of his bunk, thrusting the ribbon into the minimal light.
He knew the handwriting. And it was in English. Fingers shaking, he read:
The day Sera died, Ianto practically supported Varys through the burning ceremony. She felt boneless, a soft weight along his side, and the wet patch on his shirt after she separates her face from it held an eerie imprint of her slanted eyes.
(The official report said: plasma blaster. It didn't say, Sera had fallen back because the whole squad was exhausted, lagging, and she never left anybody behind. It didn't say, she'd stepped in front of the blaster when she saw that Varys' shield had failed and Varys hadn't realized it yet.)
The following evening, Varys sat beside him on their usual couch in Commons B. The rest of the squad was... elsewhere.
Everyone had different ways of mourning.
When she put down her coffee and leaned over and kissed him full on the mouth, he felt not one twinge of surprise. He kissed her back, kept it slow and gentle. Her hand fell on his bicep, gently kneading the muscle.
She seemed to be looking for more, but suddenly she drew back, taking the warmth with her.
“You have someone else,” she stated. Not even a question.
“Um.” He hadn’t thought it, for a while; but, it seemed, time and reality could not negate all truths. And how could she tell? “Yes.”
Varys sighed, slumped down. “Figures.” But she rested her head on his arm, so he figured they were all right.
- - -
"Can you keep a secret, Knight?"
Ianto sat down, considered the Captain's somber expression. "Yes."
The Captain blinked at the direct answer, but nodded. "What I told you about this planet before... that was the Empire's approved version. Truth is, this planet has no tactical value to us whatsoever. Period. We'd have happily let the Kriida have it, if it weren't for this base. The Empire finds it... convenient, to have a place to send the people it doesn't want among the general populace."
"That's... not surprising, actually."
The Captain shrugged. "I haven't said anything to the soldiers. But the Kriida attacks are getting more frequent, more determined. They're in the middle of a war, engaged in at least eight star systems, and yet they keep sending forces here. We'd always thought that they believed the Empire's propaganda about this planet being a good launching point for an attack on the Empire's supply lines. But last week, they took Calloway Core, the nearest star system, and they must have figured out that there are too few ships around here, and more asteroids in Mariner's Wake than ships, for there to be a supply line." The Captain rubbed a hand over his face. "And still they come."
Ianto frowned down at the large desk. A map of the local star system, with the planet at the center, took up most of the smooth surface. The Mariner's Wake was a grey, glittering swath of space in the background. "They make around three attempted incursions a week?"
"On average. Less if there's a big storm."
"Is that counting the aerial bombardment?"
"No, those are starting to happen about every other day. On the days they don't, it's the storm throwing debris at us. Incursions are when they physically touch down and attack the base."
"You think they want something with the planet?"
"Or the base." The Captain averted his eyes. "Or me."
"Oh?" Ianto didn't prod further. He could tell when patience would work better.
"Knight, there was a reason I was assigned here in the first place. It's a war, and I'm a soldier."
"Your military sent you here to die," said Ianto coldly.
"Just because it was necessary doesn't mean they could condone it." The Captain shrugged. "I don't mind, you know. Some things have to be paid for."
Ianto's flexed his fingers. He forced his attention back to the maps. "How far in do the Kriida get now?"
"Usually, not further than the second perimeter. It's been worse in the past. A few times, we saw fighting in the hallways."
"But the attacks aren't getting bigger, not really. You'd think that, if they really wanted to get inside, they'd just build up weapons and manpower to overwhelm the base."
"The Calliope is not far from here; they know we could get reinforcements in a matter of minutes. But you're right, they aren't getting bigger, just more frequent."
The two men contemplated the image of the planet, rotating in real time. "It's like they're just trying to keep you occupied." Ianto bit his lower lip. "How far away from the base have you or yours gotten?"
"Twenty miles in all directions. And a reconnaissance ship flies around the planet every week, checking that the Kriida aren't setting up base camp elsewhere. They tried that, a year ago."
There was something else bothering the Captain. "What aren't you telling me?"
The Captain took a deep breath and looked out at the digital 'window'. "I get the feeling that the Empire is getting ready to wash their hands of us. Like I said, it doesn't matter to them if the Kriida get the planet. And when that happens..."
Ianto stared at the older man. The Captain never cared about his own fate, always seemed always surprised that Ianto did. "They won't evacuate the soldiers. You think they'll just leave them here to die."
"The Kriida won't even have to get in. Without supplies, the planet will finish us off within months."
The next scavenge mission started going wrong even before they could leave the base. Aberdeen's blaster sparked when he powered it up, causing him to drop it with a yelp of pain. The trigger somehow hit the piping at the base of the equipment table, and the bolt of plasma that shot out from it missed Toss by a hair, melting a crater into the wall behind her.
It seemed to shake the others up a little, and when the skater began making strange noises a minute after they started the engine, the whole squad seemed to hesitate, glancing at each other uncertainly. Dree cautiously got down and opened the engine compartment. He made the sign for "all clear", then dropped down to peer under the vehicle. Again, the "all clear". He made a full circuit, even clambered up onto the roof, but could not find anything wrong, nor the source of the noise.
Rum-Tum had been appointed Squad Leader after Sera's death. All eyes turned to him. He looked around at all of them, his hands fiddling with the strap of his primary blaster restlessly. Ianto knew that he was thinking of protocol - unless there was a clear problem that they could report to the Captain, the mission was a go.
Eventually, Rum-Tum signaled to Yeeka. She nodded, sent the signal for the doors to be opened.
The storm outside made it easier to ignore the sound still coming from the skater. He tried not to envision a thousand little imperfections that could lead to a disaster - an undone cog slipping into the gear belt, the hover-engines leaking flight fuel straight into the main lines, a whole segment of the vehicle coming loose. The ride was to be a long one, too, and it was difficult not to tense up at every unexpected noise.
He'd seen skaters coming back into base in abominable condition, the metal frame and a few pieces of wire the only thing holding them together, so he wasn't sure why he was so anxious. Soldiers were a superstitious bunch, he'd found, and maybe some of their selective paranoia had rub off on him.
Half an hour later, when they were expecting to pull up at the Bone Cup at any moment, Aberdeen let out a grunt over the comm system. "There's something wrong with the navigation system."
Wire deftly undid his straps, stood up, and traveled up the length of the skater using the ceiling handles until he was sitting next to Abe. "Let me see that." He poked and prodded the red and yellow tablet.
Outside, the day darkened, red and green lightning splashing the sky with color. Ianto thought, absently, that it was rather beautiful. They often spent their time outside hunched in, protecting their bodies from the winds and watching the ground for potholes or quicksand. Nobody ever looked up.
Gold and red and green, patches of blue and purple. It was like watching clouds, using one's imagination to find shapes and scenes. The many particles in the winds dispersed light, making each lightning-flash last longer and appear larger. Ianto watched a line of red appear, a purple spot blooming nearby, another red-
He jerked back. That was- He leaned forward again, straining against the shoulder straps. But the image was gone already, except for a small circle in the distance that could have been anything. Ianto shook his head. No, that wasn't possible, he'd just tried too hard to see a pattern. The Wake. It must be the Wake, affecting him again.
"Kriida!" somebody yelled. The skater changed direction abruptly, just as a hail of plasma and energy bolts hit the ground where they would have been in the next moment.
Everything became a bit of a blur. Ianto tugged his blaster out, but kept the safety on since he was still surrounded by the squad. He was on the side facing away from the Kriida, could hear the people behind him firing, Rum-Tum barking out orders on top of Abe's navigation.
Something hit the skater. The shock of impact traveled through the vehicle. Looking around wildly, Ianto spotted the collection of shapes in the distance, a second group that had been hiding in wait. "Enemy at starboard!" he yelled, aiming his blaster.
More firing. Then a second jolt through the skater, far stronger than the first. Ianto had a moment to think, We're awfully high off the ground, before sky and sandy ground rolled around, and he couldn't tell which way was up, and several voices were shouting, and the straps dug in painfully at every shock and bounce.
When it finally stopped, everything was dark and a great deal quieter. Ianto shook his head, flexing his fingers to feel that they were still there. His eyes adjusted; he was facing a wall of sand. The skater must have landed on his side. At least the sand cushioned the fall.
Varys was making the rounds, asking if they were all right, and Ianto picked up the sound of fighting in the distance. Wait, where was his blaster? He must have dropped it when the skater flipped over. Ianto fumbled at the fastenings of the straps.
"Knight, everything all right there?"
He nodded at Varys, and made the 'all clear' sign. Someone further along the line groaned, and Varys slipped past Ianto to get to them.
The main waistband was giving him trouble. He remembered it being strangely stiff and reluctant to lock when he'd gotten in, and now he couldn't push the release mechanism in far enough. He was about ready to pull his knife out and work the thing open when he heard somebody shouting over the comm, "Get off the sand! Off sand!"
The skater shuddered, and the wall of sand pushed in further. Ianto swore, whipped out his boot-knife, and slashed at the strap. It took him a few tries to get free, but then he was clambering over the seats, following the light coming from the other side.
Familiar hands helped him along once he was on the upright side. The vehicle shook again, and Rum-Tum was yelling at them to get away even as he fired his blaster at the Kriida.
Ianto couldn't see the danger, but he jogged away from the sand, joining the squad; they appeared to have reached the fringe where the familiar rocky plateau gave way to a sand-desert. Since he had no weapon, he activated his shield to full strength. He looked back just in time to see Varys, who'd clearly waited until the whole squad was out of the skater, shoot at something in the sand. Ianto thought he caught a glimpse of tentacle. She sprinted over to them.
He turned his attention back to the Kriida. The squad had adopted a defensive position, with Ianto and two injured soldiers in the middle. He could not tell how many of the enemy there were.
Abe, identifiable from his height, stepped back from the shooting. The gap he left in the line was swiftly closed. At first Ianto thought he'd been hit, but he was holding the nav tablet in the hand without a gun, and he was looking around them.
"What's wrong?" Ianto asked.
Abe waved the tablet around. "This thing. We followed the plotted course to take us to Bone Cup. But somehow we're at the Sands, two hundred miles north of where we're supposed to be. In the skater, this was tellin' me that we were in the right spot, but now it's statin' the obvious- that we're at the Sands."
"Bad luck, I tell you," somebody muttered. "Should have seen it from the start."
A pinprick of light in the distance. There was a moment of stillness, in which Ianto wondered if nobody else could see it. Then, "Missile!"
Somebody was pushing him away even before the word was finished. Ianto's legs continued the momentum, though the others were still faster.
Ianto wasn't entirely certain of what happened after that. He remembered a passing heat, than a shockwave that was more force than sound. It pushed him forward, not quite off his feet but close, and he landed in a sprawl over rough sand.
Sand is bad, tickled memory, but then things were exploding and dark shapes swarmed down from everywhere, and Ianto couldn't think of anything to do but lie very, very still.
Even so, he gradually became aware that he had no sort of covering whatsoever, that he was lying on the sand, out in the open, and the dark suit and headgear made no pretence at camouflage. He waited for a shout, a blaster against his back, or even just a moment of brilliant pain before darkness. But, nothing. Once, two Kriida in dark green suits and black masks jogged past him, inches from his outstretched hand, but it was as if they didn't see him.
He had one knife, and his shield. He had no idea where the others were, and what condition they were in. He had an emergency flare, and a compass; he thought he could make it to the base, or at least close enough for them to pick up the flare. But it would be tantamount to abandoning his squad, if they weren't all dead already.
The sounds of fighting speedily grew distant. He wasn't sure if this was a good or bad thing, but the fact that there was still fighting indicated that some of his friends, at least, were still alive. He checked that there were no lingering Kriida nearby, and was just tensing his muscles to stand up when he felt something grab his ankle.
But instead of pulling him over the ground, the grip yanked him under. Ah, yes, that's why sand is bad. Ianto flailed and kicked, but the grip tightened, and it felt as if a hundred little microscopic needles were prickling his skin at once. Numbness crawled up his leg, spreading over the rest of him with every pump of the heart, and he had a brief moment to revel in the unexpected warmth of the sand before darkness, glittering like stars, closed over him.
- - -
Ianto opened his eyes with a start. For a second, he thought he was back in his bunk, and he'd gone to sleep without showering again. But the gritty feeling on his skin reminded him, sand, and he woke up the rest of the way.
He was in a room, long-abandoned and taken over by the desert, if the sand and the disrepair was any indication. No corners, he noticed, and a real, if presently shuttered, window on the end opposite the door. The walls were curved, like a dome or a round tent. No floor, either; Ianto was lying on sand.
Gingerly, he picked himself up, automatically dusting off the suit. All parts accounted for, and he didn't seem injured, though one ankle tingled oddly. He checked thoroughly, remembering with a shudder the dead man who'd walked right back into base with his squad. But, no, he bore no mortal wounds, and he figured the dead wouldn't feel pangs of hunger.
He tore open an energy bar from his utility pouch, and munched on it while he examined the room. There were three long tables, two chairs, and shelves all along the walls. A screen mounted on one wall had likely been the computer interface. He assayed an exploratory tap, but wasn't surprised when the screen remained dark. There was writing on the frame of the door, in a script Ianto did not recognize. He looked closer. No, there were two different scripts there, distinctly separate and likely representing different languages.
It was a real door, too, with hinges and a latch. Ianto didn't recognize the wood - the color of rosewood but lighter. He traced the patterns on it, wondering what this room had been used for, if somebody had lived here. It swung open easily enough, and Ianto stepped out into a deserted hallway.
Further exploration revealed that he was in a small structure, single-storey, with a common living area and three chambers for sleeping. The other rooms had floors, made of the same wood as the doors; he glanced back at the room he'd woken up in, and realized it had the look of a workroom of some sort.
He finally located the door to the outside, and gingerly tried it. It was difficult to move, and when he managed to get it open enough to squeeze through, he saw why - layers of sand had built up on the path outside, two feet thick, and there was a strange growth that covered every surface. It looked long dead, the vines twisted and bone-dry.
This must have been the colony. We've never been able to get to it, Ianto remembered the Captain saying, It's in the heart of the storm system.
The air was dead calm. He looked up at the sky, and nearly stumbled at what he saw.
Stars. The open sky, cloudless, and the moon a brilliant yellow ball, brighter than the Earth's. But, over the tops of the decaying structures, he could see the familiar clouds, gathered like a wall. "The colony's in the eye," he whispered.
He couldn't remember how far away the colony had been from the base. The Captain had only pointed out its location on the planet's map, or where they thought it was based on the last known records of the place. As for how he got there...
Ianto stared down at his left boot, remembered a squeezing grip. He reached down and felt at the boot. It looked intact, but once he brushed away the sand and checked his other boot for comparison, he realized it was riddle with little holes. And as far as he knew the Kriida didn't take prisoners.
An animal, then? Varys had shot at a tentacle in the sand. Was this its lair, and Ianto had been deposited here to be a meal later? Again Ianto felt himself up for injuries, his imagination swimming with images of eggs and larvae incubating under his skin.
Something moved out of the corner of his eye. Ianto spun around, hands flying to the empty weapon straps on his harness.
Deep green eyes regarded him calmly. Images on a computer didn't really capture the Kriida; they appeared humanoid, yes, but the hair that had looked silver in digital form actually shimmered under the moonlight, and the slender legs didn't bend much at the joints.
"Hello," he said, for lack of anything better to do. The Kriida - Kriidon? was there a singular form? - didn't appear to be carrying any weapons, either.
"Hello," it replied, almost a mimicry. A pause, then, "You do not carry weapons."
Would he be killed if they found him lying? "I have a knife." And a shield, he wanted to add, but realized that the little disc was no longer clipped to his chest. Likely it had been dislodged on the journey here.
"They are respected. Only a fool enters the wasteland with no protection." The green gaze peered at him critically. "You are free of the weapons of fire and pain. You may have safe-conduct in this place."
"Thank you," said Ianto haltingly. "This is the colony, isn't it? The colony that failed?"
The Kriida hissed. "Of course, humans would change the story. Of course, humans would hide their shame." It waved an arm at the structures around them. Ianto noticed that it wore a several metallic bands bearing ornate designs around the upper arm, and its claws had been polished and trimmed neatly. "This was a Dying-Place. The children of Kri that died here wept before the end, and the sands taste of bitter betrayal."
Ianto swallowed. Not his war, not his people, but he knew how humans could be, both the good and the bad. "Please, how did they die?"
Thunder rumbled from the encircling storm. The Kriida blinked, its gaze going from Ianto to the sky and back to Ianto again. "This world likes you. The sands told the Ri'Ronek to bring you here instead of its babies. The wind tells me now, it's been waiting for you." It tilted its head, as if listening intently. "There is a song known only to the daughters of our people, who serve Mother Time, and you carry a piece of it."
Ianto had known what the key had been, where it had come from. He'd wondered if the Captain had suddenly remembered; but the next day he'd acted no different, save for a brief flash of warmth in his gaze when it caught a glimpse of the cord around Ianto's neck. Ianto resisted the urge to touch it. He half-expected the key to grow warm, or start glowing, but it remained cool against his chest.
The Kriida extended a claw towards him. "I am called Speaker."
Ianto reached out and shook the proffered hand. Ianto Jones, he'd meant to say, but what came out was, "Knight. They call me Knight."
Speaker bared his teeth, more of a grimace than a smile. "That was one thing the humans understood - new names for a new world. But we think it hurt them, in the end, distanced them from kinsmen who might have come to their aid, at the end." He beckoned at Ianto. "You asked a question, and the Speaker will answer. Just like of old."
Ianto followed the Kriida down the winding path. Most of the buildings - homes? - had a similar look and structure, but occasionally one would be larger, taller, or appeared to be several units joined together. At one point the path diverged, the second entering into the shadows of a larger structure. Speaker took the new direction, and Ianto had to duck under a low archway before they entered a compound.
"Imagine this place full of the sound of children laughing," said Speaker. His voice changed, became low and wistful, and it seemed as if he was speaking to himself more than Ianto. "They would play here after school, until their guardians came to take them home. Even after the crops died, and the sick stopped healing, there was always playtime."
What must have been a trellis once had collapsed in front of one of the doorways. Something about the design carved into the doorways caught his attention. And on a closer look, the same motif could be seen on the exposed parts of the wall, as well as the rusting play equipment scattered across the grounds.
"Rose," whispered Ianto. Base to Rose. He could feel Speaker's eyes on him. "This was where it started?"
"Yes." A breeze disturbed the sand and assorted debris in the playground, where previously there had been no wind. "Rose was the first building to go silent. All the other sectors followed too quickly for anybody to find out why. Children remember only what they know, and what they know is different from what the grown-ups know."
Ianto frowned. "You can... see memories?
"You cannot? Have the winds not spoken to you?"
The Wake. "How do you know that what you see is real? That what the, the winds tell you is real?"
"How can you know what any man tells you is real?" Speaker shrugged. "It is the nature of the wind to be tricky, and the duty of all thinking minds to tell truth from lie. Come, more answers can be found this way." He pulled out something from under one sleeve, and shook it until it began to emit a warm, strong light. It looked like a small square box, just large enough to fit comfortably in the Kriida's claws.
They entered the largest building. All the entrances had the decaying growth or unidentifiable debris blocking them, except for the main doors. It was obvious that somebody had previously cleared the way, and the relative smoothness of the floor along the route they took inside implied more than one past visit.
It was, quite clearly, a school. Most of the rooms contained a collection of tables and chairs, though a few had couches and small screens mounted on the wall. A wide spiral staircase at the center led up to a second and third storey, though there was also a tube that looked like a kind of escalator near the back end of the main building. The room Speaker led Ianto to was larger than the rest, situated near the staircase and was therefore at the heart of the ground floor.
The moonlight outside was barely enough to outline the round windows high up near the ceiling. Looking up, Ianto realized that the room extended into the upper floors, so that its ceiling was at the level of the roof. Things glinted in the dark, but he couldn't quite make out what they were, until Speaker pressed the little light-box into his hand, and gestured for him to raise it up.
Ianto did so, and let out an audible gasp.
Masks. He couldn’t tell how many there were. Layers overlapped on every shelf, different sizes and colors and designs. Most covered the full face, but there was a row entirely of half-faces. Half of them were child-sized.
It should have been eerie, to have so many empty eye-holes peering down at him. They glittered from the dim light of the box, so many silent, unmoving faces. But Ianto was not bothered by stillness; they reminded him of the mannequins stored at the back of his father's shop. It was the living that had frightened Ianto then, the constant and unpredictable changes.
Besides, there was something peaceful about the room. Most of the school was in a state of disarray, but aside from dust and sand, the room was perfectly ordered, each mask placed carefully on its shelf. This place had been respected, loved, and left untouched even at the end.
He looked at questioningly at Speaker, still unsure why he'd been brought to see this.
"Look closer," was all the Kriida said.
Ianto approached one of the children's shelves. Not knowing what he was looking for, he noted the exquisite workmanship - the adults must have helped, some of the tooling could not have been managed by a child's hands - and the different styles...
"Some of these are Kriida," he said aloud. He hadn't noticed, because the general shape of the head was similar. But the bone structure was slightly different, and at an even closer look, the eye-holes and the area around the nose were distinctly Kriida.
"Then..." He'd never thought to ask exactly how long the war had been going. "Both human and Kriida lived in the colony. You were at peace."
"We were allies," confirmed Speaker. "But there is more, if you can see it."
Ianto reached out to the masks, stopping just short of touching. One mask in particular caught his eye - it was blue and red, with a wavy stripe of purple in the center. It looked as if the colors simply blended in the middle, and the exact line of transition shifted depending on where he looked. The eye-holes were rimmed with golden desert-sand. There were other masks that had more elaborate designs, but he couldn't take his gaze off this one.
He floated his fingers above it, tried to imagine the child that had made and worn the mask. He was good at reconstructing features, he had his father's eye. It was most likely a girl, there was that delicate angle to the jaw, probably a beautiful child, and eyes-
He pulled back, head swimming. A school. Children. "These children were human and Kriida," he whispered. Turned and blinked at the Speaker. "We can interbreed?"
The Speaker's expression was grave, almost pained. "Yes." His voice lost some of the mystic intonation he'd been using. "Not easily, and half the time the offspring do not survive to full term. But we were at peace for a long time, and on many worlds our people mingled."
Ianto wondered what it said of his opinion of humanity, that he could already see where this the story was heading. "Was it- was it deliberate? What happened here?"
"Was it genocide, you mean?" said the Speaker. "We do not know. All we've learned from the transmissions during that last day, before the Silence, was that communication to the different sectors cut off, one by one. It began here, and those who had children left their homes to come here. The Great Storm, of which we are at the center now, was born that day. Some of my people believe that it was what destroyed the colony, others say it came to being because of what happened to the colony. But when our nearest ships arrived, battling through the storm, they found none left living. It was as if everyone had fallen asleep where they stood."
Ianto shuddered. "Is this why we are at war, then?"
"No. The war began with other things. It cannot be proven that human or Kriida had a hand in what happened here. But, perhaps, this can be where the war ends."
"What do you mean?"
"This is what I believe, from my meditations here: this storm was created by the Kriida in the colony. My people are especially skilled at terraforming and environmental control - a simple storm with few parameters would have been easy. The colony had been struggling for five years. It is possible that the sickness that swept through the colony that last day had been around for years, a virus the grew even more deadly with every generation."
"The storm has fulfilled its purpose. It has prevented the spread of the virus, and contained it to this place. Occasionally a strain of it escapes, carried by the wind..."
"Wait," interrupted Ianto. "You mean the virus is still active?"
"Yes. It is a resilient, deadly thing." The Speaker looked at him with concern. "Why are you afraid?"
"We are here, in the colony. Doesn't this mean that we are infected now, too?"
The Kriida blinked at him. "Oh. You could not tell?" He clicked two of his claws together, creating a sharp, ringing sound.
There was no sense of movement, but Ianto suddenly found them standing on a little hillock. The peculiar houses of the colony spread out around them, silent and still. The Speaker had sat down on the ground. After a moment, Ianto joined him.
"So this is a dream," he said.
"Yes," answered the Speaker. "The First People brought you here, because you have shed no blood of my people. Your body has already been found, and is being transported back to your base."
"And I suppose you're in a ship somewhere?"
"No. I am in the colony itself." The Speaker waved, and for a second Ianto saw a Kriida body sitting against a building. "It is a custom of my kind, and part of our pact with the First People, to have Speaker in this place at all times, one who has shed no blood for war. Our bodies die quickly, because of the virus, but a trained Speaker will be able to enter the dream first. We will remain here, until time and the due course of nature fade us away."
Ianto stared, at a loss for words. Finally, he managed, "And what now?"
"Now," the Speaker folded his claws. "We bargain."
The first thing Ianto heard upon waking was Rum-Tum’s voice, somewhere close by. No sirens, surprisingly enough, so Ianto felt justified in keeping his eyes closed.
“I’m telling you, there’s something goin’ on. You should have seen the Captain when he found out that Knight was missin'.”
“You think he’s sweet on Knight?”
“Ugh, don’t make me think about it. That’s just creepy.”
Suddenly, lying there wasn’t as relaxing as Ianto had thought it would be. He deliberately made a pained noise, and shuffled his feet a bit. He heard cloth rustling, and boots heading towards him.
“You awake, Knight?”
- - -
Ianto was aware that there was something he couldn't remember. Something important. He was thoroughly inspected by Ivy, after waking, until she grudgingly conceded that there was nothing wrong with him, aside from a few abrasions from exposure to the wind and sand.
The Captain was waiting outside the infirmary when Ianto was discharged. He didn't say anything, only looked Ianto up and down with wide, intent eyes. Ianto followed him back to the central section of the base, and when the Captain hesitated at the junction between the command area and the way to the barracks, Ianto cleared his throat. "Would you like to debrief me now, Captain?"
An exhale. "Yes," came the reply. "That would be best."
The next day, Ianto received a number of inquisitive looks and suggestive winks from Roadrunner and the other men in his barracks-room. He smiled lightly, refusing to give anything away, and flopped down onto his bunk with a deep sigh.
- - -
The Captain was more innocent, in some ways, than Jack. He didn't know about the Doctor, about being abandoned, knew only the pain of living while fellow soldiers died. It was a different pain from the slow stretch of years in which death stole away the days.
Except now Ianto would catch the Captain looking at him, and he'd feel the weight of that regard twofold - the future pain he represented, for both the Captain and Jack.
He still yearned to return home, still looked for signs of Jack in the Captain. But there were days, now, when the thought arose: if I have to stay in this time, and can leave this planet with the Captain, I can be content.
- - -
So much blood. It was a shocking splash of color in the repetitive palette of the desert. Uncommon, when plasma shots melted flesh and energy bolts fried the heart and nervous system.
"Knight." Her hand found his, grasped him tight. He could feel the tremors running through her; her strength had already begun to fade.
A bomb had hit the skater. By luck none of them had been on board; the squad had been digging around in the Cherry Pits. It was a collection of rocks and little craters, and its position in the global wind currents meant that a lot of junk collected there.
The rocks shielded some from the explosion. Ianto was thrown into one of the larger slabs, and rolled out of the way just before a sizable chunk of the skater's metallic frame collided with the rock right where he'd been. Rum-Tum had run a roll call over the comm channel, but Ianto had caught sight of her, remembered that she'd been standing right next to the vehicle.
"It's all right," he whispered. He was vaguely aware of the others rushing over to them. Rum-Tum said something, and all of them stayed back.
"That bad, huh?" Varys said, coughing. The shrapnel had pierced her suit in several places. She fumbled with the weapon straps.
Ianto guessed what she intended before the cold butt of the antique pistol was being pressed into his hand. More words from around them, and he heard the rest of the squad retreating. Giving them privacy.
"Varys..." he said.
"Do it," she gasped. "Please. I want it to be you. You're the only one who knows how to use this thing, anyway. And make sure... make sure you burn me good."
He bowed his head. "To the ashes," he promised.
A cursory wipe to get the blood off his hand, then he checked the bullets and cocked the gun. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. He considered asking, in this last compact, but-
"Susan," she whispered against his mouth. "I was named after my mother. Susan."
"Thank you." He had to force himself to draw back. The gun was heavy, bulky, but the craftsmanship was beautiful. It had been made to outlast the hands that held it. "I'll never forget it."
She was smiling, now. "I'll see you on the other side. My brave and noble Knight."
The sound of the gunshot seemed insignificant, in the middle of the vast desert, and after the destruction they'd just seen. But it took her last breath from her, and for days afterwards he could not hear a loud noise without hearing an echo of the shot under it.
Aberdeen and Dree had been injured in the blast, but they hobbled up to stand around the pyre as Yeeka recited the traditional rites from Varys' home planet. The ashes were already being carried away by the wind when the rescue skater arrived.
- - -
Hours later, he was lying on his side in the Captain's bed, clutching at the crisp white sheets as he was entered with inexorable slowness. He hadn't said a word since arriving back at the base, had simply headed for the Captain's office. One look at his face and the Captain had known, understood.
Ianto gasped, tried to move his hips to get more friction, but the Captain held him down. The languid pace was both torturous and exquisite, and Ianto made a choked, helpless noise each time he was filled and stroked.
A hand on his face made him realize that he was crying. The Captain gently turned his head, and kissed him, deep and sweet.
Ianto let out a sob. He'd been floating above the ground, untouchable, and now he was drowning, burning on the inside. And he let go, allowed his body to go loose and pliant. Gave up control, just for a little while, and perhaps forget everything but the Captain's solid possession.
Safe. He was safe.
- - -
Who are you?
The Speaker called us the First People. We bore you to the Meeting Place.
I... remember. But I forget, once I'm awake.
You will remember now. We are here to thank you, for making the bargain.
Oh. You're welcome.
You desire information. As a token,
Ianto blinked. He recognized the barracks-room, his own bed in the corner. But every bed was empty, and there was somebody by the door. "And who are you?" he demanded.
"Just a casual passer-by." The stranger stepped away from where he'd been leaning against the frame. "Who happens to know who you are, Ianto Jones."
Ianto tensed, then paused. "You're another time traveler, aren't you? Bloody hell, how many of you are there?"
"Frisky. I can see why our dear Captain likes you."
"What do you want?"
The stranger scowled. "To go back to my own business, but there's this pact I have to honor, while I'm on this planet. You want to go home. Cardiff, Earth. Twenty-first century. Ringing any bells?"
"Yes." Ianto straightened up. "Can you take me there?"
"Jack won't be waiting for you," said the man gleefully. "Back in the twenty-first century."
Ianto huffed, smiling without humor. "Believe me, I have no illusions about Jack pining after me. But if you're going to do it, I fully expect to be returned to the exact place I was taken, five minutes after I left." Because no matter how he and Jack were outside of the job, Jack cared deeply about his team, and Ianto would spare him what pain he could.
"You misunderstand me." The man adjusted his hat, and the upper part of his face slid into the light, eyes unnervingly black. "Jack won't be waiting for you, in your lovely little Hub, because he is not there."
"What do you mean?" Fear prickled the back of Ianto's neck. "What have you done with him?"
"Nothing he did not choose for himself. But to answer your question, so we may give your poor nerves a rest... where is Jack? You have been with him, for six months, one millennium and many light-years after you first met him on Earth?"
"I've been-" Ianto stopped. He felt his brow scrunching up, as he arrived at the only plausible conclusion and could not quite comprehend it. "You mean, the one here? The Captain is Jack?" Well, obviously he was. "I mean, the Captain is... is my Jack?"
"Yours, yes," replied the man, looking amused and pleased for some reason. "To be more precise, he is the one who coincides with your timeline."
Damn time travelers. "But he was on the planet for two years before I showed up." Was it a miscalculation? Had he decided to arrive early and be on the spot in case Ianto needed any help after the Rift's ungentle deposit? Not to mention- "And he didn't recognize me at all."
The man nodded gravely. "Yes. His presence in this war was important. On his own personal timeline, it has been five years since the two of you watched children chase pigeons by the Bay."
That day flashed through Ianto's mind - still reasonably fresh, it hadn't been quite so long for him, and held in stasis like the rest of his memories right before the Rift took him. Softly cooing birds, startled flapping, children laughing and watching. Jack had been a warm presence beside him, so bright and content; Ianto remembered finding it hard to look away.
It wasn't exactly a private moment, but it was theirs, a small bubble of time in which Ianto felt like Jack was exclusively his. It irked him to think of this stranger, this meddler, spying on it from afar.
"He was frantic when he discovered what had happened to you," continued the man, unfazed by the scowl on Ianto's face. "Perhaps I should simply show you. You will, undoubtedly, find it easier to understand."
"You appear to have misplaced something, Captain."
Jack whirled around towards the sound of the voice. The Hub looked darker than normal, even for nighttime hours. Ianto realized he was standing near the computers, approximately halfway between Jack and the unseen figure.
Seeing the Hub again, after months of living on an alien world, brought an a sudden, thick tightening to Ianto's throat. And seeing Jack, not the Captain but his Jack...
"What have you done with him?" Not surprisingly, Jack now had his gun aimed at the man's head. His wrist strap beeped, and his eyes glanced briefly at its screen before returning to the intruder.
"Your Rift took him, Jack, like it has so many others. Did you think your people are safe from the whims of random chance, simply because they are yours?"
Jack waved the arm with the strap. "You're not human, but the Hub scanners aren't detecting you. And you're giving off energy readings I've seen only once before." Jack leaned forward, eyes dark and cold with a look that Ianto never thought to see here. "You're not really here. Tell me what you're here for, or get the fuck out of my base."
"It is correct that I am not physically present in your Hub. I note, however, that you continue to point your little weapon at me. But very well, I shall state my business. I have come to make you an offer."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "For Ianto?"
The man nodded. "He has been deposited in the future, in a far, dark place. The humans there are losing the battle against an enemy they do not understand. They do not like strangers, and he will be a civilian in a war zone."
To Ianto's surprise, an expression of pain crossed Jack's face, and he lowered his gun. "And you can bring him back? You're like - like Bilis, you can step from one time to another."
"I am not like he whom you call Bilis," said the man, and for the first time Ianto saw his usual patiently amused harden into something like anger. "He is a different creature, though we have crossed paths. And I cannot bring Ianto back to you."
"But?" Jack prompted, impatient.
"I can bring you to him."
The scene changed - in the next breath, Ianto found himself in Jack's office. Like in the main Hub, the familiarity of it took his breath away. Jack's collection of alien artifacts, the ever-present pile of paperwork, files Ianto remembered pulling just that morning from the archives.
There was something different, though. Ianto looked at his surroundings carefully, until he realized that some of the items on display around Jack were glowing. It occurred to him that this was a memory, a recreation.
Jack was sitting behind his desk, gazing somberly at the man on the other side. "So you take me to where - and when - Ianto is. But you're here to bargain, which means there's a lot more to it than that. Time to lay out your cards."
"I prefer chess," said the man, making himself comfortable on the chair. It was the first time Ianto had seen him without some form of shadow obscuring most of him, and he looked... quite unremarkable, actually. He reminded Ianto of the men his father had been friends with: middle-aged, balding, a little portly. "Of all the games invented by humans, it is the most elegant. One must understand how each piece moves, their weaknesses and strengths, and to win, they must all function together. Incidentally, you may call me Piece."
"Fine," Jack bit out, patience evidently wearing thin. "You want me to be a pawn in your game? Sure. Won't be the first time. But enough dancing around the issue. I've already figured out I won't like it, if you're taking this long, so just spit it out."
"Captain, Captain," sighed the man. "For somebody who has lived centuries, you have yet to learn to let events unfold as they will. It is not as if- ah." His expression changed, shifting from amusement to something Ianto couldn't read, and he straightened from where he'd been leaning back on the chair. "Nothing will happen to Ianto Jones while we talk. In fact, I will reveal to you now that I intend to take you to a point long before his arrival, and arrange it so that you are present when the Rift deposits him."
Jack looked suspicious at the Piece's wording, but some of the tension left him. "All right. So you'll take me to the future, I find him, and I find us a way to get back. In return, I do some dirty work for you while I'm there. Is that about it?"
"Very... succinct. In essence, yes, but there is a far larger game involved. Your role in this will be... complicated."
"When is it not?" Jack muttered, staring at one of the objects on his desk.
"And you may not have your memories."
Jack's head snapped up so quickly that Ianto expected to hear the whiplash. "What?"
"Oh, you will not lose them, not permanently. But I will block your access to them. Everything from your involvement with the Time Agency to the present day, including your travels with the one whom you call Doctor."
Including Ianto. Ianto stared at Jack's stricken expression, remembered a passing comment made during his probation period, after Lisa - lost two years once, had it taken from me and for a long time after I could barely live with myself, because there's a part of me, things I've done, that I can never know about.
Piece seemed to decide that, having begun, he might as well get the details over and done with. "It's a vicious war. The human side is in need of somebody with your particular... talents. They need a soldier, someone ruthless, a leader who can fight without fear, who can complete a mission even when everyone around him is dead. They need... a Captain."
Ianto shivered. He'd used the word himself so many times in Cardiff, because people always wanted to know about the dashing man in the military coat, but it was usually said with pride and always with fondness. Now he remembered the whispers filled with fear, the occasional looks of revulsion on hardened soldiers' faces, and thought of how a single word could be said in so different ways.
"An indestructible soldier." Jack's eyes had lost their initial glaze of instinctive terror, but he still looked haunted. Haunted, and also as if he were facing a death that might be permanent. Jack's gaze traveled all over the room, like he was trying to absorb it all. And then he paused, looking directly at Ianto.
It was an effort not to fidget, to straighten the tie that he wasn't wearing, even knowing he wasn't really there and Jack couldn't possibly see him.
Except it was almost as if Jack could. He was staring right into Ianto's eyes, like he was searching for answers.
Ianto remembered the Captain in his cold, stiff uniform, his unthinking acceptance of the fear and distaste his own men felt towards him. He shook his head, as if Jack could see him, against logic and causality, no, Jack, don't.
And then, suddenly, Jack smiled. "You think I won't do it. This is a test."
"Everything is a test, Captain; and creatures like you and I have to watch others pay for our failures. This - this is more of a question. How far will you go for Mr. Ianto Jones?"
Piece didn't say anything more, but Ianto could fill in the blanks. Ianto Jones, 26, Torchwood Three archivist and general support. No one particularly special or important, with a mark on his record for treason. Or there should have been, except he'd looked and the only sign in the records that a Cyberman had walked through the Hub at all was a very clinical account, with an oblique mention of 'insubordination'.
He wondered, sometimes, if Jack would make the same choices if he were still mortal. He was quite sure now that, yes, Jack would do the same things, because he was Jack. The hero had been in him long before deathlessness had caught up.
"Whatever it takes," said Jack, leaning back with a grim smile.
Ianto stepped forward without even thinking about it, and the Hub vanished. Seeing the narrow barracks-room around him again would have been a comfort, if not for the empty beds and improbably immaculate floor. And Piece was on his bunk.
"Your Jack has done his part. But for him, you would have landed in enemy territory, and the humans would be on the losing side. Yet, ah, there is now a complication."
Ianto narrowed his eyes at the figure poking at his trinket-box. "What's happened?"
"Memory is... fickle."
"He can't remember," Ianto whispered, realizing. "You took away his memories."
"Nothing was taken! Merely blocked. But the things he's done - the person he is now, the Captain, is real. It is not something that was forced upon him and can be removed afterwards. It is a part of him, a part of the Jack Harkness you know. You may think of it as him being... lost. He cannot find the way, because he doesn't know there is a way."
"You planned this, didn't you?" said Ianto accusingly. "There's something else, something you need us both to be here for."
"Even I cannot direct the storm between Time and the Void. But you are likely correct; there is always a bigger game." Ianto realized that the man was holding something in his hand. A chesspiece. "Consider, the name they call you here. In time, you will realize that people have a habit of creating that which they have need of."
Piece held out the chesspiece; a horse's head. The detail was meticulous, and... it had been carved out of bone. "There, I have given you the information you've been seeking. The last piece of the puzzle, one might say. I have fulfilled my obligations."
For this time. You may go.
Piece vanished, and the barracks along with him. Ianto was back in the desert, though the wind passed right through him. "Thank you."
Safe dealings, Noble One, by the Mariner's will.
The Captain's face was unreadable.
“The colony didn’t fail, they were abandoned." Ianto paced the width of the office. "They were having trouble with the crops, with the weather, and there was an illness that escalated. They were left here, left to die. Human and Kriida. That’s why they keep coming. To the Kriida, we’re desecrating a burial ground.”
He knew better to plead for the Captain to believe him. Either he did, or he didn't. "They're willing to stop the attacks and leave us alone."
"On what conditions?" demanded the Captain.
"Just one." Ianto looked away. "The colony is in the eye of the main storm. The colonists generated the storm in order to the contagion from spreading. A milder version, the one that surfaces here every now and then, is carried here by the wind, but the one that killed the colony requires physical contact. The storm kept outsiders and animals from the infected."
"The Kriida have developed a cure for the illness, which they are willing to give to us to treat the victims of the inferior strain here. In return for the cure, and leaving us in peace, they... they ask that the storm be turned off."
The Captain frowned. "Turned off?"
"The storm was first created by a terra-forming machine at the heart of the colony, which they'd been using for environmental control. The same machine maintains it. They need somebody to shut it down."
"At the heart of the colony," the Captain repeated. "In the eye of a storm."
"And the virus is still active. The Kriida that managed to get through the storm, a few years after the colony died, were on site for less than an hour before they keeled over."
Understanding dawned on the Captain's face. "It'll be me, won't it? The man who can't die. You want me to go out there and do this."
Ianto bit his lip. "I don't want you to do this," he said. "Or, at least, I wish it didn't have to be you. I'd rather it be me."
The Captain was quiet for a good long while. Ianto waited, watched. But he hated, too, that in the end there was no question; the Captain would do it, because his men were dying.
"Thing is, even if I do this, they'll still hate me," said the Captain quietly. "But I couldn't live with myself, if I didn't."
It was always difficult to find something to say to hard truths. Ianto sighed, and hesitantly slipped his arms around Jack's middle, pressing in close.
- - -
They waited until the middle of the night, and there was another bombing early in the evening. They used the shuttle that Ianto had arrived in, because of the considerable distance. The storm knocked the ship around like an insect caught in a hailstorm, but it was not the reason for the sour taste in Ianto's mouth.
After an hour of flight, the Captain landed the ship in a small niche in a rocky outcropping, and secured it there using anchors that thrust out from the bottom and punched into the rock itself.
They didn't speak, only nodded at each other before the Captain opened the ramp and struggled out of the shuttle. Even inside, Ianto stumbled back from the ferocity of the winds, winced when sand was literally being propelled into the ship; he was wearing the harness without the protective suit.
Hovering above the main console was a map of the area. A square marking the ship's position sat in the bottom left-hand corner, while an outline of the colony took up a little less than half the screen - their best estimate on its position, anyway. A small blinking dot indicated the Captain's position.
They'd brought the shuttle as close to the site as they could; as it was, the ship was near vibrating from the strength of the winds outside.
Ianto watched the Captain's dot travel over the terrain contours. The Captain carried his own nav tablet, but every now and then Ianto advised him on an easier route, or simply spoke to him, about the base and the men and little nothings. It was, essentially, like being on monitor duty back at the Hub while Jack went on one of his midnight runs.
The Captain's responses grew more sporadic the closer he got to the colony, the deeper into the storm. Ianto chased away the images swimming in his mind, of what such forces can inflict upon the human body, and kept talking. At one point, the Captain turned off his mic, but the signal for the receiver continued strong, and Ianto poured his voice through the secure channel.
Finally, finally, the mic was turned on again and the Captain's voice came through, "I'm in." He sounded tired, voice scratchy, out of breath.
Ianto let out a long breath. "That's good." He enlarged the screen on the map of the colony, showing the Captain at its fringes. "I plotted a course on your nav tablet to get to the machine. Tell me if any of the roads are impassable and I'll find a different way."
"Affirmative." The little dot moved steadily along the Ianto's planned course, significantly faster now that he wasn't battling a gale. A few times he reported that the road was blocked, or there was a thick growth that would take time to hack through, and Ianto transmitted new directions.
Ianto wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but the Captain did not sound ill or weak at any point. If he keeled over and died during one of the walking intervals, Ianto did not pick it up. But perhaps his body regenerated faster than the virus could kill it.
The Captain's dot reached the designated building. For some reason Ianto tensed - this was always the point where great plans went awry, the moment before the mission was accomplished - and he listened intently as the Captain puttered around "something that looks like a gizor, you know, with the tubes and one end that glows".
The Speaker had given him the directions to turn it off. The Captain reported each switch he hit, each adjustment, and then, "There, it's off now. Well, it's stopped glowing."
Ianto breathed out, and looked at the storm through the screen. It didn't look any different, but Speaker had warned him to expect that. The machine started the storm and sustains it when the winds die down, but it is a real storm, and it must run its course.
"That's... that's great. Thank you, Captain." He covered his face with his hands. "Come on home."
The Captain certainly sounded a great deal more energetic now. "Not much of a difference, but it feels less... fierce, now." He cleared his throat. "Okay, Knight, don't be alarmed, but I'm going to try something. Take the faster route down the mountain, as it were."
Ianto had a sinking feeling at the almost boyish excitement in the Captain's voice, especially when the mic was turned off again. Sure enough, when the green dot arrived at what must be the edge of the storm, it suddenly flew off into a different direction, moving at breakneck speed. After a few seconds it changed direction, heading towards the ship again but occasionally being buffeted backwards. The dot twisted and zigzagged its way out of the storm, and finally stopped moving twenty miles away from the ship.
The Captain was still several minutes away when the ship notified Ianto that it was being contacted. Ianto hesitated, glancing at the Captain's dot, but he straightened up and agreed to accept the transmission.
A separate screen popped up. The Kriida's headgear was far more elaborate than the soldiers', and Ianto could not make out the expression under the visor.
"Is this the Knight, who spoke to our Speaker?" asked the Kriida.
"It is," replied Ianto.
"You have completed your part in the bargain, and now we honor ours." The sensors alerted him that there was a ship, a long way above, and then an object was dropping down. Too small for a person, and too bulky for a bomb. "The package contains the composition of the antivirus, and a few samples."
"Thank you," Ianto said sincerely. "And the attacks?"
"We ceased them the moment the bargain was struck."
Ianto blinked. "We had a bombing right before we left the base. And in the last week."
"Those were from the humans. It is against our custom to continue hostile actions in the middle of a bargain."
A dark shape landed right in front of the ship. "I see the package now," reported Ianto, head swimming. The bomb that had hit their skater, that had killed Varys. "Thank you."
"And we thank you, for returning the land to us. If your people require asylum, know that we are willing to grant it to them, on the condition they bring no arms nor agent of conflict among us."
"That is... very generous. Thank you."
Ianto ended the transmission, and stared down at his hands. The Kriida ship left. Presently, the Captain reached the ship, and Ianto told him to pick up the package on his way up.
- - -
The Captain's lack of surprise at the news stopped Ianto short. "You knew. You knew it hasn't been the Kriida bombing us," said Ianto accusingly.
"I suspected after they stopped the incursions," replied the Captain, as he piloted the ship back to base. "They find bombs, mass destruction from a distance, dishonorable, and only did it to get us to come out of the base. We never check the ships dropping the bombs, since it's pretty safe to assume that they are enemies, but the last one, especially after you spoke with their Speaker - and it had no call sign, no markings."
Ianto sat down. Ran his hands over the sleek metal of his chair. "But why?"
"Didn't I tell you? They want to wash their hands clean of us. And this way, they can pin it on the Kriida. Just another justification to fuel the war."
- - -
Ianto thought they had time. Time to figure things out, to get as many people out of the whole mess alive as possible. The antivirus was distributed, the patients showed signs of recovery.
Then Ianto saw Wire and Aberdeen and Heels, a woman from Oakland's squad, deep in discussion. They went quiet at his approach, which should have been a sign. He mentioned it to the Captain, but there was nothing to be done about it.
He asked River about the date. River recited it without hesitation. Ianto thanked him, and used the nearest computer console to make some calculations, all the while fingering the piece of metal hanging from his neck.
One night, the news spread through the base: Aberdeen had taken their one shuttle, and was shot down. And not by Kriida. It was a spark falling on dry tinder.
"What are you-?" The sharp impact with the wall cut off all further words. He'd thought he was alone.
"He's got my brother," said a familiar voice, right next to his ear. "I couldn't believe- but you spend so much time with him. I'm sorry, Knight, I don't want to do this. But he's got my brother, and maybe. For you, he will."
Before he could blink away the stars in his vision, much less ask what the fuck is going on, strong hands manhandled him out of the locker room and down the hallway.
"I told you, they're going to kill us!" shouted Oakland, ignoring the barrel pressed onto his forehead. "Look, the Captain won't even deny it. They're going to bomb us, and blame it on the Kriida."
Toss was holding a knife to his throat. Toss. Had a knife to his throat.
Ianto was determined to repeat it to himself until he believed it.
He was manhandled into the room. Bars and hooks along the wall suggested that it had been a supply room, once. There were too many rooms like it throughout the base, empty reminders of more productive times. Murmurs raced through the gathered soldiers; the Captain paled when he saw them.
"Go on, Captain. Shoot." The blade trembled over his skin, Toss' breath hot against his ear. "We can watch them both bleed."
Oakland's gaze darted between his sister and the Captain.
Wide blue eyes searched Ianto's. Ianto knew that his own expression was calm, neutral. This was, after all, not the first time he'd been taken hostage.
He'd forgotten, of course, that it was the first time for the Captain. Still, he didn't expect... The clatter of the gun as it hit the floor seemed to pull every eye in the room.
Toss' eyes stared at the Captain in disbelief. "You really... I knew it." Her fingers tightened around the knife handle. Ianto held very, very still, willed himself to not breathe too deeply or, heavens forbid, swallow. "You brought him. He's been your spy all along. You've been using him to keep an eye on us."
"Not a spy," protested Ianto. "'m not a spy."
"How do you explain this, then?" demanded Oakland, who hadn't moved from his kneeling position. Everybody knew how fast the Captain could shoot.
Mutiny. It was like a cycle, over and over again, even when it wasn't Jack but the Captain. But, maybe, this was another ghost he could put to rest. "Not a spy. You think he'd care about a spy?" Ianto insisted. He made sure his gaze was level with the Captain's. "But... I am his."
There was a moment of silence. "His?" repeated Toss. "As in..." She turned to stare at the Captain. "You've got to be kidding me."
"You want us to believe that the two of you are, what, fucking?" exclaimed Rum-Tum. The harshness of his tone suggested that he'd used an even more vulgar word.
"I don't know what's more disturbing, that Knight would go to bed with the Captain, or that the Captain can still get it up," Ianto heard somebody nearby mutter.
Toss was staring at him. Her grip had loosened, the knife pulling away a fraction, but Ianto didn't move, his gaze fixed on the Captain.
The older man's expression was... strange. He appeared conflicted, deep in thought, and he was staring at Ianto like he was looking for something.
He cannot find the way, because he doesn't know there is a way.
Voices rose up in argument around them, but for the moment they were inconsequential.
"He likes to fuck after missions," said Ianto. He didn't even raise his voice, so it was funny and a little disconcerting, how suddenly the whole room fell once again into silence. "Sometimes I can still smell the blood, the metal, taste it on his tongue when he pushes it down my throat. He likes to bend me over the desk, loves it when I suck him off on my knees."
The Captain was blushing, actually blushing, but there was a tinge of shame there too, so Ianto quickly moved on. "He's as human as the rest of you!" he shouted. "Captain, Captain, I know who you are." The knife edge floated just above the skin of his neck, but he ignored it. "You know that box under your desk, the one you can't open? It opened yesterday, didn't it? Five Earth years from the day you woke up in the middle of an evacuation. I'm guessing there's a wristband inside it, and a silver stopwatch. The stopwatch is mine, it has my name engraved on the back. The key you gave me, you don't even remember what it's for but you knew it can keep me safe."
There was an explosion, startlingly close, but they'd all lived too long under constant bombardment. The sirens started, colored lights flashing, and still nobody in the room moved.
He wasn't sure what happened next; his eyes were all on the Captain. Toss was arguing with Oakland, there was shouting from the other figures in the room. There was too much tension, everybody coiled tighter than they could stand. There was no time to unwind them gently, and once first blood was drawn, the meager restraint of uncertainty would unravel.
All this sped through Ianto's mind. The Captain being gunned down, helpless in his temporary death; fear and panic spreading through all the soldiers, if one of them were injured first.
So when he saw a blaster being waved around with the safety off, too dark to even see the holder's face clearly, Ianto thought: spark to the barrel. Voices rose, the fingers around the weapon clenched, no time to even look at where it was pointing. Luckily Toss had loosened her hold on him while arguing with her brother, but he still felt a light nick when he pulled his head to one side and ducked under the knife.
No time for finesse; he simply launched himself at the blaster. Its half-panicked owner automatically tracked the movement, so that by the time his finger finished closing in on the trigger, the barrel was pointed directly at Ianto's chest.
He didn't feel the bolt, but the impact of the floor as his body collapsed. More shouting, Knight, Knight, Knight. Sight faded, no breath, numbness all down his front. His heart, damaged, beat once, a last feeble attempt, and then the sense of slipping away, like sand...
Light. Sand-gold and sharp, a fire being fed to him, forced into him. His lungs pulled in air, and the first few beats of his heart bloody hurt, like dying more slowly in reverse. He was clutching at something, something warm, flesh. But his body relaxed quickly; it remembered that this had happened before, though he hadn't really understood it then.
He became aware of warm lips covering his, somebody breathing into him, except every breath pushed a wave of warmth through his body. He pressed back, returning the kiss. His fingers were reluctant to part from the warmth that they'd been digging into, especially since Ianto became aware of a mirroring grip on his own shoulder.
The kiss slowed, stopped. Warm breath ghosted over his face, tickling his nose, the abused skin around his lips.
His eyes snapped open. The blue gaze was wide with worry. He weakly patted the arm under his hand, wanting to reassure even though he couldn't remember what the trouble was.
An attempt at sitting up caused his head to swim and nausea to rise at the back of his throat. Fuck, but he hurt. His name was still being whispered, over and over again, fervent as a prayer.
He managed to get his mouth to work. "'m fine, Jack. Jack."
Ianto's hand cradled the older man's jaw. The eyes were familiar, but he couldn't tell, couldn't tell anymore. "Jack? Captain?"
He was clutched tighter, and Ianto became aware of the shudders running through the other's body. He wrapped his arms around him, clinging on.
The noises from their surroundings rushed back into his awareness. Ianto realized that a pair of boots were filling his field of vision, and there was a voice addressing him. It was Toss. Her words, however, didn't make sense, and there was something missing; it wasn't until something clattered onto the floor that he discovered his comm device was dead.
Toss figured it out the same time he did, and she frowned down at them. But her expression seemed concerned, rather than murderous or angry. She made a signal at the crowd, which produced Yeeka, and after a brief consultation she picked up the comm device and left.
"Jones, Ianto Jones."
Ianto closed his eyes, willed himself to not fall apart just yet. The voice, he knew that voice. "Jack."
The older man released him and sat back, moving slowly and gingerly, like he was in pain. Ianto immediately took in his eyes, his face, that smile, and. There he was.
It took a further act of will not to kiss him. Again. "Welcome back, sir."
Jack's eyes were still haunted, still full of somebody else. But he squeezed Ianto's arm. "I could say the same to you."
There was a question there, at least to Ianto's ears; he wondered if Jack was even aware of asking it. "Thanks to you. Captain Jack."
He received, in reward, a beatifying smile. It was one he would keep for himself, along with a hundred secret others.
Jack seemed to notice crowd gathered around them; their moment was over. He gently disentangled himself from Ianto, and helped Ianto to his feet. The soldiers he addressed in the Captain's voice, and the man Ianto remembered as the face behind the blaster was brought forward. He was clearly near fainting with terror. But the Captain- Jack shook his head, and waved him away. The man sagged, and had to be dragged out of the room.
It disturbed Ianto's inertia to see Jack fill the role of Captain so smoothly, so easily. And then he realized that Jack's life was a running story of the many varied parts he'd played; the Captain, Ianto's Captain, would be different only in that he hadn't known it was a part, at the time.
The fear and tension that had nearly choked the room at the start of all this was still there. But Ianto found himself the study of many intense eyes, and thought: a man who cannot die, among men doomed to it, must be a monster, while a man who can push death away...
And that was when the sky rained fire.
- - -
Ianto coughed and coughed, and tried to peer out from under Jack's body. Jack was heavy above him, unmoving, and Ianto could feel a dampness spreading over his side where it was pressed against Jack's middle. He shifted around, eyes blurry from the smoke and dust, and felt the point of the spike where it jutted out from Jack's body. Ianto couldn't tell if it had cut him, too, but he was sure most of the blood was Jack's. The thing needed to be removed quickly; death by impalement normally lasted only a couple of minutes.
Debris was still falling from the ruined ceiling, but Ianto wiggled out from under Jack. He looked at the beam that had fallen on top of Jack; metal, probably part of the framework, and a splintered piece had skewered Jack right through. Around him fires were crackling, growing, heating up the air.
Ianto pulled off his tunic and wrapped it around his arm. The metal beam was heavy, but at least the splinter slid out of Jack easily, and once it was clear Ianto shoved the whole piece off to one side. He nearly pressed his tunic to the spurting wound, but then remembered that it wouldn't make really make a difference, and somebody else might need it more.
Around him people were groaning on the ground. He saw shapes moving just outside the door, could hear people shouting. He thought, the bomb must have fallen right on top of the room.
Toss and Oakland, who'd been standing right next to them, lay unmoving under most of the ceiling. Ianto, not expecting to find anything, was surprised to feel very faint heartbeats from both. There were a few that... didn't have much left of them to even check.
The ones in the periphery, lookers-on or newcomers attracted by the crowd, were mostly unscathed. Ianto spotted River brushing himself off and bending down the dig somebody out.
Jack woke and immediately started hacking. Ianto knelt down and rubbed his back soothingly, fingers lingering a little on the hole in his clothing showing smooth, unmarked skin.
The two of them got to their feet. The ringing in Ianto's ears gradually faded, and he could hear the explosions continuing. Every now and then the vibrations shook more dust and loose debris from the ceiling. The wind was getting in as well; a strong gust would build up the flames even more.
But some of the soldiers had brought in fire extinguishers. They started coating the room with white foam, starting from the door. Ianto stepped away from Jack to help the wounded; Jack appeared reluctant to let him go, but after a moment went to where the fire was the hottest to search for any survivors.
The hallway was full of smoke, and from the sounds and shouts Ianto guessed that their part of the base hadn't been the only one to collapse. Soldiers were running to and fro, propping the wounded up against the walls. Ianto thought he caught sight of Ivy, following a group carrying a body.
Ianto was occupied enough that he wouldn't have noticed it if Jack hadn't turned to him and stopped, mid-sentence, eyes fixed to his chest. It was then that Ianto noticed the warmth; he looked down, expecting a wound, and saw the glow through his shirt.
The sound of the police box alarmed the dazed soldiers far more than its actual appearance did. There was no clear space on the floor; it materialized on top of a pile of debris, tilted slightly to one side.
The door opened, and the Doctor gingerly poked his head out. "Well now, what have you done this time, Jack? Never mind, hop in. You don't want to know how long I spent circling this place, trying to get a lock on my key. Terrible interference from the storm, but it's dying down now. What are you waiting for?"
Ianto gave Jack a meaningful look. Jack stepped towards the box. "Doctor, these men. You have to get them out of here."
The Doctor paused, noticed all the eyes staring at them. His expression sobered quickly, and he tilted his head, as if listening to something. "No, Jack," he said, finally. "That one next to you is one of your Torchwood people, isn't he? He can come. But nobody else."
"But Doctor," protested Jack. "This place is falling apart. They'll be buried alive in here."
"History says they were," said the Doctor calmly. He looked at the soldiers, the force of his presence both terrible and kind. "I'm sorry, I am. But there's nothing I can do."
"You can't just-"
"I can. You of all people should know." They locked eyes. "That's my final decision."
There was something in his eyes, his voice, that nearly made Ianto almost step back. He was used to the moments that reminded him of Jack's age, knew what it was like to confront the many ghosts of Jack's past. But no matter how long he would end up living, Jack was still human; his pain was human pain, his strengths were human strengths.
The Doctor was... something else entirely. Ianto could sense it, the edge of otherworldliness. The powers he restrained, the burdens he disguised. In essence it was very different from Jack, whom Ianto knew, but not entirely; the thought was born, Jack had come from that.
The core, animal part of Ianto's brain knew that this was a being he must not cross.
"I'm afraid I will be staying, then, Doctor," he said. It was a little comical, the way Jack and the Doctor's head whipped around to look at him.
"Don't think you can sway me with dramatics, Mr. Jones," said the Doctor sternly. "My ship is not a taxi. I came here because I was picking up two TARDIS keys in the timeline, both Jack's, except one of them was not being worn by Jack."
Jack frowned. "So there's another me in this time?"
Ianto ignored him. "I'm not one for dramatics, either, Doctor. But I will not leave these men to die."
"According to official records, the entire base was destroyed, no survivors." The Doctor crossed his arms. "Two days from now, the Kriida Conglomerate will arrive and establish themselves on the planet, on the site of the old colony."
"Human records? Will they count every body?" returned Ianto. Anger, sharp and unexpected, seemed to lift him out of himself. "Will they even leave their ships? Nobody knows if the colony died from a natural contagion, or an engineered one. But their bodies were just left here. The Kriida who tried to remove them became ill with the same sickness. They were left to rot."
Hands, warm hands on his back. Safe hands. But the wind was screaming in his ears. "They turned to dust. They are the dust. The bosom deserts of Mother World hold them, and the winds of Father Sky give them voice."
The Doctor, the Wanderer, the Time Lord, came close. Pressed a gentle finger to his temple. "Who's in there? Speak."
Ianto listened to his own voice say, "We are the winds and the sands and storms, Elder. We have lived here before human or Kriida ever looked at the stars and desired them. The First People built no cities, but shaped the seas and lands to our desire. We dream. Humans cannot live here, for our dreaming can drive them mad, but the children of Kri respect us."
"The Wake," the soldiers whispered. "The damn Wake's got 'im."
There was something prodding at him. The Doctor's fingers, and something beyond flesh. "There's a psychic connection there, but it's been made with Ianto's permission." The Doctor frowned. "Particles. Little microbes. Microbes with a group mind. And you're floating in the air itself. You're inside everything that lives down here."
"That is correct."
The Doctor stepped back. "What do you want?"
"What we desire, we have already received." Ianto felt the movement of his body as if through heavy water. Jack entered his vision. "Thank you, Captain, and your Knight also. We will leave him now, and remember you both."
He was turned around again. "Elder, hero of many stories, do not begrudge your children a tale of their own. There is no shame in arriving at the end; it is, after all, the best part. Farewell."
The last word was a whisper, and Ianto suddenly found himself back in control. The world tilted, wobbled, until Jack's arms wrapped around him and steadied him.
The Doctor had stepped back, and was contemplating him silently.
"That was me at the beginning, you know," Ianto felt the need to clarify. He straightened up. "I stand by what I said."
Another close explosion. Ianto could feel the men huddling in, packed into the long hallway. He resisted the urge to look up, to see if there were cracks on the ceiling.
"Jack?" said the Doctor.
Ianto didn't dare turn around. He forced himself not to tense, not to expect... and then Jack's hand gripped his shoulder hard. A declaration louder than words.
"Um, Captain? Knight?"
Ianto started. He felt Jack shift. "River?"
"Some of the missiles had been aimed at the mountain. The foundation is breaking apart; the base is going to slide right off the mountain." A clearing of the throat - River's nervous habit, remembered Ianto. "I guess I don't speak for everyone, but... it's all right, you know. I'd rather Knight be safe, we all know he shouldn't have been here in the first place. Doesn't look like that ship can hold any more people, anyway. Begging your pardon, Doctor."
The Doctor peered at River with mild curiosity, like an anthropologist examining an unexpected artifact. "What's your real name, lad?"
River shifted, glanced nervously at the others. "Henry Song," he answered, voice quiet as a secret.
There was nothing, really, that could have drawn Ianto's attention. No twitch of the jaw, no furrow of the brow, no extra blink. But suddenly he could feel a shift in the Doctor's thoughts, and the tension coiled up in his body began seeping away before the Doctor even said, "All right. Get your things, all of you." He nodded at Ianto and Jack, then frowned and called after the men, "But no weapons!"
A little later, Ianto found himself alone with the Doctor. Jack was directing the evacuation, sending the able-bodied out to search for any more survivors in the base. The rest had gathered, waiting, outside in the hallway; they'd voted to wait for everyone before going into what, for all intents and purposes, looked like a wooden police box out of a museum.
Ianto stood in the doorway, feet half in and half out, leaning against the frame. He watched the scrawny, pinstripe-suited man dashing up and down the central area of the TARDIS, exuding an air of supreme busyness while not, insofar as Ianto could tell, actually doing anything at all.
"What changed your mind?" he asked. "Was it River?"
The Doctor didn't look at him, but stopped in front of a small screen and pulled out his glasses. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"You made your decision the moment he said his name." Ianto looked around him, at all the alien technology he could never hope to fully comprehend. His own voice sounded tired. "It means something to you. I don't really care why. I just wonder - would you have agreed, if he had been somebody else?"
"You humans and your hypotheticals," murmured the Doctor, not unkindly. He stared at his glasses, still in his hand, as if unsure whether he was about to put them on or put them away. "You know, most people like me. Well, maybe not, but those who don't are at least secretly impressed. Or jealous. Sometimes all three, with a dash of murderous rage for the more villainous types. But you, Ianto Jones, are none of those. Not even intrigued," added the Doctor, as if such a thing was beyond believing.
Ianto shrugged. "I'm not the type to jump to the last page of a book to see how a story ends. And the past, well. It is what it is, and finding out how things really happened wouldn't change how everybody else in my own time thinks of things, so going backwards is only borrowing trouble, really."
"Huh. So you're not at all interested in time travel?” The Doctor’s tone clearly said that he didn’t believe it. “And yet, you work at Torchwood. For Jack." Tucking his hands into his pockets, the Doctor made his way over to where Ianto was standing, gazing at him intently all the while. Ianto wondered if the Doctor was able to read minds.
They stared at each other, the TARDIS humming peacefully around them, until the Doctor spoke again. "Several months ago, a remarkable woman named River Song gave her life to save mine, and restored the lives of a thousand other people. And that is the only page of her story I've seen so far, even though she's in my future. Now, it may well be a common name during her time, but..."
"No such things as coincidences?"
"Don't be silly, of course there are." The Doctor paused. "At least, I'm sure coincidences do happen." A frown. "Quite sure. Certainly for ordinary people, living in one place and staying in one time. But if you think about it, me traveling up and down and sideways through the whole of time and space, the chances of it..." The Doctor spread his hands.
Ianto nodded. "I guess so."
"But that wasn't what you were asking." Something started beeping in the far corner of the room. The Doctor didn't seem overly concerned about it, though, eyes fixed on some point at the top of the tall central column, or perhaps the ceiling. He appeared to be thinking. "Three hundred and fifty years from now, a weapons manufacturer called Song Alliance will design and manufacture a series of devices that could be programmed to seek out and kill specific types of humans. This led to three separate incidents of genocide. Later on, a race called the Y'khash adapted the technology to immobilize and capture young humans." The Doctor paused, and returned his gaze to Ianto. "They were called the Sorrow Storm, on the Boeshane Peninsula."
Ianto's eyes widened. "Do you mean-?"
"I don't mean anything," said the Doctor quickly. "Don't you see? It's all possibilities. Even for me, maybe especially for me. Sure, I can spend a hundred years digging through human records, tracing out every possible connection. But paperwork is notoriously good at lying, and people disappear and reappear somewhere else all the time."
"And it would take all the fun out of it, I imagine," said Ianto.
"Exactly!" The Doctor beamed at him, the prior gravity gone. "The mystery is the whole point. I'm no different from you, really, I just happen to have a bigger chessboard to look at. Or a more complicated book, if we're sticking to that analogy."
Soft sounds came from behind him, and Ianto found himself stepping into the TARDIS to make way before Jack had fully rounded the corner of the police box. Jack looked at them both, expression surprised and curious, but refrained from commenting. He was carrying a box, half full of a lot of metallic and electronic parts, and a bulky bag slung over one shoulder.
"Ooh, is that Gentille Hammer?" The Doctor excitedly peered at the box. "And we definitely need those Kranian casings. And copper wire!"
"Copper wire is a bit old-fashioned, isn't it?" said Ianto skeptically.
"A bit," agreed the Doctor, and patted the wall of the TARDIS with unabashed fondness. "But the old girl and I are old-fashioned ourselves. Her and copper wiring are like Rose and fresh chips. Well, except for the digestion part."
Jack chuckled. "Good 'ole Rose. I remember the first time I saw her eat a basket, didn't have the heart to tell her that potatoes were banned in Fallow Moon." He hefted the box. "I'll put this in the two and three-quarters storage room."
"Good idea," said the Doctor. "Thanks."
Ianto watched Jack make his way into the supposedly fathomless depths of the TARDIS. He tried to see a younger Jack, more carefree and decidedly less immortal, fitting himself into the Doctor's clockwork chaos.
When he looked back at the Doctor, he found very human eyes regarding him intensely. It felt like the Doctor was building up to some sort of epiphany, so Ianto waited.
Sure enough, the Doctor's expression changed, eyes widening. But instead of a burst of exuberance, his smile was gentle, even sad. He stepped close, not enough to intrude on personal space but still inciting an awareness of his presence.
"You said you're not a man for spoilers," the Doctor began. “Fair enough. River Song, the woman I told you about, left me a book full of the stories of my life that I haven't lived yet. Well, when I said left, I meant it was in my possession after she- And I was tempted, I really was, to flick through and maybe find some mistakes I could change. Just small things, fewer burdens to live without, you know how it is. But I didn't. And yes, I did make the decision to save these people when that boy told me his name."
He paused. "Not because I had to, because of the chance that he's the ancestor of River Song. He could be the ancestor of Song Alliance, the deaths of millions. Or both; you humans have a particular talent for multiplying. But then, the weapons of Song Alliance gave me Jack. It gave us both Jack." The Doctor shook his head. "And the kid could die, right after we drop him off. You can't live like that, as if every little thing you do decides the future. So no, I don't know what I would have done, if that boy hadn't told me his name. Hopefully the right thing. The right thing right now."
The Doctor fell quiet, and Ianto thought that was the end of it. Then the Doctor cleared his throat. "But we were talking about spoilers. And, I have to wonder. You're a young man. You have your life ahead of you, your full potential just waiting to be discovered, yada yada. I've found that humans your age are the most curious; they want to have a better idea of the future so they can do it right, as if there's a guidebook for that sort of thing. So I have to wonder - are you really not curious at all, or is it just because," the Doctor nodded in the direction Jack had disappeared to, "you think you already know how it's going to end?"
Chapter 11: epilogue
It took a while to drop the soldiers off at their respective planets. Ianto changed into the suit he'd been wearing when the Rift took him, and watched with some amusement as grizzled, scarred veterans nodded obediently along to the Doctor's admonishments about behaving well and taking advantage of their second chance.
Ianto made one request, before they turned back to Earth and the twenty-first century. The Doctor gave him a considering look, but said nothing, and parked the TARDIS.
It looked like a moon of some sort. There was barely any atmosphere, nothing to obstruct the view of the night sky. Ianto stood at the door for a long while, gazing.
"Well?" the Doctor finally asked.
"Thank you," said Ianto. "I just... needed to see it, after hearing about it so much." He closed the door.
And they went home.
- - -
"It's funny," said Ianto thoughtfully, breathing in the sea air from the Bay.
The Doctor had returned them to an hour after Jack had gone with Piece. Ianto made a mental note to ask about that story, if Jack felt like sharing. But then, he was perfectly content with his share of the story, so perhaps not. Jack was the hero, not him.
"What is?" asked Jack.
It was still night. Gwen wouldn't even know they'd gone. Six months for Ianto, five years for Jack. And in a year it would feel like a dream. Ianto had walked into the Hub and began checking all the Rift monitors and news reports. Then Jack had caught his hand. They wordlessly made their way up to the Plas, and were now sprawled over the cool concrete, staring up at the sky.
"Those stories about the Mariner," said Ianto. "I was just thinking... the people who made them, they'd looked up and seen the Lantern, and the Grey Wake, and the Night Sea." He couldn't see them, of course, Earth was in another sector of space entirely. They were out there, and that was enough. "At first I thought the Mariner was a constellation, or part of the sun, or even R-133-FT. But then I realized.. you know he's there because he's carrying the Lantern, and traveling the Sea." Jack's arm was warm next to his. Without looking, he shifted his hand, and wove his fingers with Jack's. "Those people made stories about the one they couldn't see."
"It's easier that way," agreed Jack. He shifted, a flap of his coat falling over one of Ianto's shins. "For me, I'd thought - both as Captain and my full self - that R-133-FT was my punishment, for all the things I did before, in the war."
"I think I was there to heal."
Ianto considered this. "Yeah."
They fell silent, just two figures lying in the dark. Not too far away, the sea rumbled with its secret currents and underwater storms, while above the stars glittered and glowed, the sands of the night-sea.
“Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless dores may sease,
If ever deed of honour did thee please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms,
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call Fame on such gentle acts as these,
And he can spred thy Name o're Lands and Seas,
What ever clime the Suns bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses Bowre,
The great Emathian Conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when Temple and Towre
Went to the ground: And the repeated air
Of sad Electra's Poet had the power
To save th' Athenian Walls from ruine bare.”
- Sonnet 8, by John Milton