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Learning Curve

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29 June 2008


Rhys Williams was exhausted.

It had been a hell of a day.  It had started off well enough – if he didn’t count Gwen getting called out in the middle of the night – but then the M4 had been closed over some sort of industrial accident.  It hadn’t helped when the phones had all gone down, and while the news was reporting that it had been a breakdown somewhere, Rhys had heard the story from one of his drivers who’d managed to report in by radio that there’d been an explosion in City Centre, near the Central Server, and it had sparked off rumours among the lads about what had really happened.

There hadn’t been much in the way of work done after that. 

With every phone in the city down, many of the businesses they usually did haulage for had closed.  Rhys had gotten the approval from Mr. Harwood to send everyone home, telling the owner that a lot of them were worried about their loved ones and didn’t have any way to reach them.  Mr. Harwood had understood – after all, this was Cardiff, and weird stuff went on all the time, and if a person wasn’t careful they could walk right into it without any warning. 

And so, Rhys found himself sitting in a near-empty pub, nursing a pint while absently watching what few people were walking past out of the window. 

There really was no need to go home.  He knew from bitter experience that, when strange shit happened, Gwen could possibly be gone for days.  He had to fight the urge every time she came home to ask her exactly what ‘Special Ops’ meant, and if there might be a day when she didn’t come home at all. 

That was a thought he really didn’t want to have.

Still, Rhys could guess some of what Gwen did, even if she couldn’t tell him outright.  He’d seen her come home hurt, and bone weary, and knew her job wasn’t in any way safe.  But he’d also seen the gleam in her eye when she’d told him that she’d had a good day…and the flash of fire when something had pissed her off so badly she’d wanted to rant about it, but couldn’t without breaking whatever thing she’d had to sign when she’d been hired. 

He hadn’t believed that ‘bit of filing’ explanation for a long time now.   It made him wonder just what else she’d lied to him about.

Rhys rubbed his tired eyes, taking a sip from his mug.  He could make out the news in the background, talking about technical failures and gas main breaks and he wondered if anyone who’d lived in Cardiff for more than a year really believed that shit anymore, and if it was true then why didn’t anyone update everything so that it actually worked.

“Rhys Williams?”

He glanced up.  A young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties stood by his booth, holding his pint and a second one that was obviously meant for Rhys himself.  He seemed as exhausted as Rhys felt, his suit slightly rumpled and his tie askew, and his blue eyes old and sad.

“Do I know you, mate?” Rhys asked, not bothering to hide his slight irritation at being bothered.

“No, but I know you,” the young man answered.  “I work with Gwen, and I’m the one who performed her background check when she was hired.”

“You work with my Gwen?”  Rhys had long stopped asking to meet Gwen’s co-workers, after her adamant denial to let him get involved with her work in any way.  She’d claimed she wanted to keep private life and work life separate, but Rhys had gotten the impression it was more than that.  He would have pressed it but he knew when to pick his battles by now.

“May I?”  He gestured toward the empty side of the booth, and Rhys nodded.  The extra pint was slid across the table toward him, and Rhys accepted it graciously.  Anyone bringing beer was welcome.

“Should you even be talking to me?” Rhys asked.  “Gwen says you’re all top secret and that.”

The man chuckled.  “We’re actually above top secret, but there’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t speak to the significant others of the people I work with.  Jones,” he extended his hand, “Ianto Jones.”

Rhys shook, noticing that his hand seemed a bit too warm, and he couldn’t help but snort at the name.  “I think you’re carrying the Special Ops thing a bit too far.”  At the young man’s confused look, he elaborated, “Your name is the Welsh version of John Smith and all.”

Jones blinked, and then snorted himself.  “I never actually thought of that.  I assure you, Ianto Jones is really my name.”  He took a drink from his own pint. 

“I would have thought you lot would have been working,” Rhys commented. 

“Oh, you mean the explosions?”  Jones nodded.  “We did make sure it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but our team is simply too small to help out with the major clean-up.  We do what we can, but sometimes it just isn’t enough.”  The sadness grew in his eyes, but when he blinked it was gone.

“Are you sure you’re supposed to be telling me that?”

Again Jones chuckled. “It’s not like the rumour mill in Cardiff isn’t already going insane with theories.”

Rhys had to admit that the man had a point.

“Does this mean Gwen’s gonna be home soon?” he asked, wanting to be there when his fiancée got back to the flat.

“It might be a while,” Jones admitted.  “She has a few more things to do back at the base.  And I have to warn you: she might not be happy when you do see her.”

Rhys winced.  That had been happening more and more lately, and it was never pleasant.  “Maybe I’ll just sit here and finish my two pints then.”

“That might not be a bad idea.” 

It was silent for a few minutes, and Jones was regarding him closely, as if trying to see something inside him.  Rhys wanted to squirm under that gaze, but managed to remain calm and finish off the first pint.  He reached for the second one, but Jones stopped him.

“What do you know about Torchwood?”

Rhys was taken aback by the suddenness of the question.  After he digested what Jones had asked, he said, “Not much, just that whenever something crazy happens, Torchwood is usually there.  Oh, and it’s been around for a long time.”

“That about covers it,” Jones replied.  “Only the craziness usually has something to do with aliens.”

“You’re shitting me!” Rhys exclaimed.  “Aliens?  In Cardiff?  Pull the other one!”  He was beginning to wonder if this was some sort of joke, and April Fools’ Day had somehow snuck up on him.

Jones, however, looked very serious.  “There’s a Rift in Time and Space running through Cardiff.  It means we get all sorts of things coming through, and Torchwood deals with it all.  Our latest case was preventing an alien invasion by stopping a terrorist cell that blew up the M4 link road and an underground petrol pipeline that served the military.  The phones going down was a strike against the citywide communications network, and what the news hasn’t said was that a prominent member of the City Council was murdered as well.”

Rhys wanted to laugh in the man’s face.  He looked around to see if there was some sort of hidden camera, and that he might end up on one of those candid camera shows where gullible idiots are pranked until someone pops up and lets them off the hook, usually a twenty-something wanna-be with a microphone and a plastic-looking smile.

There was nothing.  Only a nearly-empty pub and no one was paying them the least bit of attention.

“Prove it,” he challenged bluntly.  That was one way to get this obvious nutter off his case.

Jones’ lips twisted upward in a tiny smile.  “All right.”

He sat forward, his blue eyes catching Rhys’ gaze once more.   Just as Rhys was getting uncomfortable – which didn’t take very long at all – the other man’s eyes changed.

Rhys very nearly swallowed his tongue in shock.  What had once been very normal, if very blue, eyes had become like a cats’, with slitted pupils that widened slightly as his head moved out of the pale sunlight that was coming in through the window. They were still blue, but the colored parts were larger, rounder, obscuring more of the whites than human eyes did. 

And then, they were back to normal.

“Is that proof enough for you?” Jones inquired, the smile still on his face.

“That...” Rhys found himself speechless.  “What…”

“Would you like to see?”

Rhys nodded.  He couldn’t help it.  His curiosity was poking at him to find out just what Jones was, at the same time a part of him wanted to run and gibber in a corner somewhere.  His worldview had just been disrupted by a handsome man in a suit with a pair of very weird eyes and he couldn’t decide how to act about it.

Jones arose from his seat, and Rhys watched him walk up to the bar.  He said something to the barkeep, who pointed toward the hallway that obviously led toward the public toilets.  Jones said something else, and the man nodded. 

A wave of an elegant hand had Rhys up and out of the booth, and he followed Jones down the hallway, hoping he wasn’t going to be murdered in the alley or something. 

But they weren’t heading toward the emergency exit at the end of the hall.  Instead, Jones turned into another short hallway just before they reached the door, and Rhys found himself making his way up steps that had appeared pretty much out of nowhere. 

They were heading toward the roof, he realised.

By the time they reached the roof access, Rhys was a bit out of breath.  He vowed to try to get into better shape even as he was wondering just why Jones was taking him up there.  It wasn’t because of lack of witnesses; the barman had seen them, and in fact Jones must have asked if there was a way to get to the roof, so if Rhys suddenly did a header over the side of the building the police would investigate.  Of course, Jones was Special Ops – Torchwood – so who knew what he could get away with?

Damn it, Rhys needed to be a bit less paranoid. 

Something in his face must have showed, because Jones said, “I’m not going to do anything to you.  If anything, consider this the proof you wanted.”

“And your eyes doing that funny thing wasn’t enough?”  Rhys countered, squinting into the late day sunlight.

Jones chuckled.  “There’s more, believe me.”

Rhys opened his mouth to say he did, but the words didn’t leave him as a golden glow surrounded the young man, and his shape also began to change.

And before he could even react, Jones was gone.

A creature of green scales and wings stood in his place.

Rhys didn’t know whether to be terrified or excited.  Excited because it was a fucking dragon; terrified because it was a fucking dragon and it was looking at him with those cat eyes and baring its teeth at him in what had to be a smile of some sort. 

“Are you convinced?” the dragon asked, its voice deep but still unmistakably that of Ianto Jones.

“Um…can I get back to you on that?”  Rhys didn’t know what else to say.

The dragon – Jones – laughed.  “It’s fine.  Please feel free to gawk.”

Rhys shuffled a bit closer, and raised a hand to see if his sense of touch could confirm what his eyes were telling him.   Then he stopped, and glanced up to make sure it was all right.

“Go ahead,” the dragon urged.

The scales were hard, and yet they were slick as silk under his fingertips.  “You’re real!” he exclaimed, feeling like a child who’d just learned that Santa Clause really did exist.

Dragons were real!

His Mam had told him stories of dragons, and he’d absorbed each and every one.  He’d been sad when she’d told him that dragons no longer existed, that they’d all been destroyed by foolish men who didn’t know the true nature of the creatures.

And yet, here one was, and Rhys wanted nothing more than to tell his Mam that she’d been wrong, that dragons were still out there.  He had a feeling that she’d be as pleased as he was.

“Are there any more of you?” he breathed in awe.

“No,” the dragon answered. “I am the last of my kind.  Humans have killed all the rest.”  His voice was ancient and full of mourning.

“Can’t say I think much of my own species for doing it,” Rhys answered, taking a step back. 

“Thank you for that,” the dragon said.  The golden glow faded into view once more, and in seconds the man had replaced the dragon.  “Do you believe me now?”

“What choice do I have?”  Rhys replied.  “Are you an alien, then?”

“No, I was born here, in the year 18 BC, in a small valley north of here.”

Rhys now knew why the ‘young man’s’ eyes looked so old.  “But you now catch aliens?” It was amazing just how accepting he was now, having just seen the impossible.

“Well, we catch the bad ones and help the good ones.  Let’s continue this back downstairs, shall we?”

Rhys accompanied Jones back into the pub, where their table hadn’t been touched.  That must have been something Jones had talked to the barkeep about when he’d asked about the roof. They slid into the booth once more, Rhys reaching for the pint that Jones had brought him.

Once again, he was stopped from picking it up.

“Before we go any further,” the dragon said, “I need to know if you’re going to keep what I’ve told you a secret.”

“C’mon mate,” Rhys scoffed, “who’s gonna believe it?”

“All right.  Then, I need to ask if you want to know everything.  It’s not too late to back out.”

Rhys considered.  In less than half an hour, his entire world had been turned upside down.  He’d been told that aliens exist, and had met a real-life dragon.  How could he back out now?

“I’m in,” he answered.  “I want to know everything.”

Jones smiled.   “Then let us get a couple of fresh pints and we’ll talk.”  He reached for the full pint at Rhys’ elbow.  “If you’d chosen to walk away, I was going to let you drink this.  I added a little something called Retcon to it.  It would have made you forget the entire conversation we’d had, if that was what you’d decided.  As it is…” he reached into the inside pocket of his suit, withdrawing a folded paper and pen, “you should probably sign this so my boss doesn’t throw a fit.”

Rhys unfolded the paper, and the words ‘Official Secrets Act’ were the first thing he saw.   “Give me that pen, mate, and I’ll sign.  Just don’t ask for my immortal soul, okay?  I kinda like it where it is.”

Jones laughed.  “I can’t promise that, Mr. Williams.  It’s the government, after all.”

“It’s Rhys, and I guess I can do without it in this case.”  He scribbled his signature across the line for it, then handed the form back.  Jones witnessed it, and replaced it in his pocket. 

“Now, Rhys…how about a fresh pint, and we’ll get rid of this one?”  He stood up, taking the tainted pint with him.   “And please, call me Ianto.”

“Fine, Ianto.”  Rhys looked up at the man…dragon.   “Would you really have made me forget all this?”

“If it meant the safety of myself and those I care for, then yes.”

Rhys could accept that.  “I just can’t believe you ruined a perfectly good pint over me.”

One eyebrow went up.  “You’d care more about the beer than losing your memories?”

“Well, it’s beer, isn’t it?”

Jones…Ianto…laughed.  “I believe I’m going to like you, Rhys.”

Rhys shrugged.  “I’m just a likeable kinda guy.”

Ianto snorted, and then turned back to the bar.