The light that had been so brilliantly bright around them as to make them seen like they were the only two people left in the world faded, leaving Captain Jack Harkness alone in the middle of the dance floor.
The band which had been playing had stopped and Jack was aware that the whole dance hall had their eyes on him.
How much had they seen? It had felt as if it had just been himself and James there for those few incredible moments. He knows that everyone must have seen the dance. The dance, while it would raise a few questions, wouldn't be anywhere near as bad or hard to explain as the kiss. He might even be able to pass the dance off as some cultural difference between the US and England. Or rather Wales, as he'd rapidly realised on being posted to Cardiff that nothing seemed to offend the people he met quite so much as being called English. The fact that the mood in the room seemed confused rather than openly hostile gave him hope that that he's not in more trouble than he can talk his way out of.
The hush that had fallen over the Ritz ballroom was broken by a young airman. “Where'd the other Yank go?”
Variations of “I don't know” were chorused back by the baffled looking men and women that were standing around the edge of the dance floor.
A few men rushed past Jack to the door Captain Harper had left through as somebody else called out, “The foreign woman who was with him has gone too.”
“I don't care about her or him,” said a middle aged man joining the younger service men at the door. “The ARP warden will have our guts for garters if he saw that light, that's if Gerry’s bombers ain't picked up on it first. Come on, we'd better check the black covers are still on the windows.”
It was surreal, Jack thought, as people moved past him, barely acknowledging his presence as they tried to identify and presumably stop from happening again, the unknown source light that had filled the room. The air raid little more than an hour earlier had left people on edge and the idea that the bright light might bring bombs raining down on their heads occupied more of their thoughts than two Americans dancing, however odd it may have been.
Nancy is the first to speak to him. Walking out to him in the middle of the dance floor, she stopped in front of him, her hands on her hips. “What was that Jack Harkness? Are you trying to make a fool of me?”
“No, of course not.” It's the truth. He hadn't been thinking about anything other than himself and the mysterious Captain James Harper, not that he could tell her that.
“Then why'd you dance with him?” she asked, hurt and anger clear in her eyes.
“He danced with me as a bet,” Jack replied, thinking fast, trying to buy himself a bit of time and come up with a story that hopefully everybody would believe. He knew that people were watching them, and he took hold of Nancy's hand. “He said he'd taken a bet that he could dance with another American before he shipped out, and he was going to lose the bet unless he danced tonight. He told me he was leaving in the morning; I guess he figured it was better to dance with me than lose four dollars.”
“Is that a lot of money?” Nancy asked sounding rather less annoyed than she had before. “Not that I hold with gambling, mind you,” she added quickly.
“A few pence short of a pound.”
Her eyes went wide. “That's more than I earn in a week. My mam's right, you Americans do have more money than sense.”
He smiled at her, relieved that she was accepting his version of events. He hated that he had to lie about it, about what it really was,and what it meant to him, but for all their sakes he knew that he had to. “You're not angry with me then?”
“So long as you don't dance with anybody but me for the rest of the night.”
“I promise.” He didn't feel like dancing. Passing off what he'd just shared with James as nothing more than a stupid bet had left him feeling hollow. The knowledge that the desires he has to keep repressed and hidden out of fear of what would happen, leaves an ache inside that he doubted would ever truly fade.
He could hear people muttering about it not being right and about how Americans had more money than sense and see the suspicion in their eyes as they stared at him, uncertain of whether he was telling the truth.
But before anybody could raise any objections or question his version of events, there was a loud, reverberating sound, and everybody turned to look for the source of the noise.
Standing at the top of the stairs, a small brass gong in his hand, stood Bilis Manger, the owner of the Ritz Ballroom.
“Really now,” he said as he walked down to the dance floor. “Are you honestly going to let an ill advised bet between two men who risk their lives for you and this great nation spoil your evening?” Bilis looked at them, his odd pale eyes seeming to cut through them all, and it didn't take long for everybody to look decidedly uncomfortable.
A murmur ran through the crowd then they fell silent, nobody wishing to challenge Bilis’ confirmation of the reason behind the dance.
There was something about the small, dapperly dressed old man that was deeply unsettling, and Jack knew that crossing him would be a very bad idea, even if he had no clue as to why.
“Now let's have no more of this foolishness,” Bilis said, still gazing intently at the people in the room. “And for those still wondering what the source of light was, it was merely the headlights of the car sent to collect Captain Harper and Miss Sato shining through the doors.” He turned towards the band leader. “Now, Mr Hughes, something lively if you please. This is supposed to be a celebration, after all.”
Mr Hughes nodded and then spoke briefly to the band, and a few moments later the bright tones of the 'Bugle Call Rag' filled the room.
As people started to fill the dance floor once more, Bilis made his way across to Jack and Nancy. “If I may speak with the good Captain for a moment, Miss Floyd?”
“Of course, Mr Manger,” Nancy replied with a rather uneasy smile, no more willing than any of the rest of the crowd to contradict their host. “I'll just be over with Elsie and Cora.”
With the story of the ill advised dance bet passed on to the Evan's sisters, who worked with Nancy at the telephone exchange, Jack suspected that the story would be across Cardiff by the following evening, no doubt with a dozen people who weren't even there who would swear that they saw the money for the bet changing hands themselves.
“I'm sorry about the commotion, Mr Manger,” Jack said to Bilis when the other man hadn't said anything.
“Hardly a commotion.” A smile entirely devoid of humour passed across Bilis' thin lips. “I'm sure that 'Captain Harper' was glad of the distraction.”
Jack couldn't fail to notice the emphasis that he'd put on the name and said so that only Bilis could hear, “You don't think that was his real name.”
Bilis looked at him, mocking amusement in his eyes. “Did you truly believe that it was?”
“No,” Jack replied sadly, realising that he'd probably never see the other captain again. If there hadn't been a room full of people who'd seen him too, Jack thought that he'd begin to believe that he'd imagined him.
Bilis turned to go. As he did, he said, “Don't worry, Captain. Your secret, for what it's worth, is quite safe with me.”
Unsettled by the fact that Bilis had seen through his lie and by his parting lines that had been more ominous than reassuring, Jack was about to follow him and ask him just what he meant when he realised that Bilis was gone.
Jack looked around. There was no way Bilis could have left the room, yet he wasn't in it either.
“He does that. And don't cross him, nobody crosses Mr Manger for long,” Nancy said quietly, as she walked over to him. Looking round to make sure that Bilis really was gone, she added, “Davy reckons he’s got connections with things. Bad things that even the police won’t touch.”
“You think so?” Jack replied, unsurprised that Nancy's younger brother had an opinion on it. The kid seemed to have an opinion on everything.
“You know Davy, his mouth don’t always meet his mind most days." She took hold of his arm. "I wouldn't think no more about it. Now how about a dance?"
The dance continued late into the evening and it was past eleven when the band finished playing the last slow dance of the night.
By the time Jack and Nancy were ready to leave he was confident that most people there believed the story of the bet. He'd made a point of dancing with Nancy, buying the men in his squadron a round of drinks and making a few references to the men about the kind of 'girlie shows' that had been the rage in New York shortly before he'd caught the ship over the Atlantic a more than a year before.
The hardest part had been listening to the comments made by some of the men and women there, about how they knew that there couldn't have been anything odd about him and the other captain. Because in their minds men like that wouldn't have the guts to go and fight for their own country, never mind volunteer to fight for somebody else's. They were weak, they'd be working as artists or poets or actors, they would be the kind of men who'd put their names down as conscientious objectors. Some expressed outright hate, while others said it was a mental illness and they were to be pitied rather than reviled.
It made him feel ill listen to it, but there was no alternative – anything less than agreement would be met with suspicion and possibly violence later on, once he'd left the Ritz Ballroom and there was nobody else around to witness it.
So he'd nodded and agreed where they expected him to, only speaking up when a few men, buoyed by alcohol, started to talk about what they do if they found out a man preferred affections of another man. A quick 'there are ladies present' soon put pay to that kind of talk, and earned him a few approving glances from some of the older people at the dance.
The dance with James had unsettled him. It had been a long time since he'd found himself in the company of a man who felt the way he did, and longer still since he'd acted on it – the prohibition had still been in force all those years ago, and some of the speakeasies that had sprung up allowed more than one kind of illegal activity.
He'd been a much younger man,, barely in to his twenties, when he'd frequented those places. He'd drifted away from them as money had gotten tighter when the depression had really started to bite, and by the time the prohibition had ended in thirty-three he'd no longer been part of that scene.
It was a surprise to find that he missed it after so many years. It was Captain James Harper's fault that feelings and desires so long kept in check were once more upper most in his thoughts. Yet he couldn’t find any dislike for the fact. He'd felt more alive in those moments on the dance floor with Captain Harper than he'd done a long time.
"Is something wrong?" Nancy asked, as she walked back to him with her coat, which she'd gone to collect from the cloakroom, over her arm.
“Just tired and thinking about home,” Jack said, going with the safest answer he could think of. “Wondering how the folks are getting on. I've not seen them since thirty-nine.”
“I can't imagine what it would be like not to see Mam or Davy for more than a year," Nancy said, sympathy in her voice. She took hold of his arm. "You know you're always welcome round at my Mam's if you're lonely; you only have to ask."
"I know," Jack replied, wishing that he was able to share the real reason behind his loneliness. He hated having to lie to her. Nancy was great young woman, caring but not afraid to speak up for herself. He was sure that if they both got through the war and he took her home to his family they'd think so too.
The clock on the far wall of the dance hall softly chimed the half hour, and he smiled at Nancy. Then, taking her coat he held it out for her to put on. "I think it's time I walked you home."
It was only a few minute’s walk from the Ritz Ballroom to the small terrace house in Grangetown where Nancy, her mother and brother had lived since her father had died a few years before.
“You can come in, if you'd like,” Nancy said quietly, leaning back against the door. “My Mam will be sound asleep by now, and Davy is away to Nain's farm in Brecon.”
“I shouldn't,” Jack said with more reluctance than he felt. He wondered if this was some kind of test to see if he really was interested in her, or just using her as cover. “And I shouldn't be telling you this, but I've got a training exercise in the morning, just putting a few new pilots through their paces. I'm going to have to get back to the airfield.”
Nancy nodded sadly. “It's a bit of a walk. You can borrow Davy's bike if you want. The chain might need a bit of oil, but he won't mind.” She smiled. “And it'll give you a reason to drop by again when you bring it back.”
“I'd better walk,” Jack said, wanting the time it afforded him to clear his head and try to understand why he'd nearly destroyed not only his own life but that of James Harper by kissing him in front of so many people. “I can't risk having the light on, and the roads will be too icy to try it with out.”
She looked disappointed, so he quickly added, “But I can call in and check it over, make sure it is just oil it needs, if you'd like.”
"Of course. I should have an evening in a week or so. Might even be able to get away early enough for Sunday dinner."
Nancy smiled, bright and happy. "I'd love that, and I'm sure Mam won't mind you coming over."
“Until Sunday then,” Jack said, and kissed her on the cheek.
Jack waited until Nancy had let herself into the house and closed the door behind her, before walking away.
The night was cold and clear, the stars overhead sparkling in the dark, frosty sky as Jack began the two mile walk back to Tremorfa and RAF Pengam Moors. Jack pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his greatcoat, his thoughts turning once more to the mysterious Captain James Harper.
He'd worn a similar coat, although now, as Jack thought about it, the coat had been a little different, the cut of it longer and the material softer, as if worn with age. The more he thought about him the less the man's presence and attitude made sense.
He was sure that he would have heard if there was another American volunteer serving in the RAF and based in Cardiff or the nearby airstrip at St Athans. Some kind of special service was a possibility, he supposed. Perhaps he'd been part of the newly formed parachute regiment, who were rumoured to be going into active service in next couple of months.
Perhaps that had been the reason behind him taking the risk. Maybe he really had been shipping out in the morning, off on some mission that he suspected to be a one way ticket.
Jack stopped, a shiver running through him that had nothing to do with chill winter's night. That death could take a man who’d seemed so alive felt impossible, yet death came to them all in the end – the life expectancy of a combat pilot was measured in mere weeks.
It was too cold to stand still for long, so Jack started walking again. As he did, his thoughts turned back to the few nights so long ago when he'd felt as free as he had in those moments on the dance floor with James.
The speakeasies were long gone back in the US and had never existed in England. He knew there were places though where, if he'd wished, he could still act on his desires. But outside of the theatre community in London he was uncertain of where he could go, and the laws meant that he could hardly ask. It made for a life that was lonely and only half lived, where he had to constantly be on his guard against any action that might be misinterpreted.
So why, Jack wondered, had he been so reckless tonight? Nearly being found holding James' hand had been bad enough, so why, when James had pulled him out onto the dance, had he followed him? And the kiss.
Jack stopped again, closing his eyes. The kiss was burned into his memory, the feel of James' lips on his own. They had been so warm and sure, so confident in what they were doing. If they'd had more time alone, if they'd known they wouldn't be interrupted, would he have done more?
It was a question that Jack didn't have an answer to. Or at least not an answer he was comfortable admitting even to himself. He felt a flush spread across his cheeks and the sting of tears in his eyes. He couldn't tell if it was loss or shame or anger, and if it was anger whether it was directed at himself for being so reckless or at society because it wouldn’t let him love who he pleased.
There was nothing that he could do though apart from hope that maybe one day society would change. He knew there were those who'd say that he should hope he'd stop feeling those kinds of desires. Jack knew, though, that wouldn't, couldn't happen – he was who he was for better or worse and nothing in the world could change that.
RAF Pengam Moors was quiet except for a few sentries on their nightly patrols, and the airman on the gate saluted him as Jack made his way over to the low block of brick buildings that served as the officers’ quarters on the base.
The morning dawned fine, the weather crisp and clear with a light breeze blowing in off the Atlantic. The airfield was hive of activity as Jack, and the group of pilots he was in charge of training, left the Nissen hut that served as a classroom. The men, a lot of them little more than boys, talked eagerly about taking to the air as they walked across the grass strip to where their planes awaited them.
At the other end of the strip by the hangers a new shipment of Spitfires had arrived. The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary, who flew the newly built or repaired planes out to the airfields were they were needed, stood around with other members of the ground crew on their tea and cigarette break now that they'd delivered their cargo.
Just a few years earlier, Jack thought, the idea that women could work in such a role, could pilot a military aircraft at all, even if it were in a non-combat situation, would have been unthinkable. Yet here they were, flying Spitfires and Hurricanes from the factories to the airfields where they were needed without the ability to fight back if they were attacked.
Wars changed the world. The Great War had shaken society and this war, he was sure, would do the same. Perhaps if they won there would be a fairer world for all on the other side. Jack hoped so, as what else were they fighting for but a better, safer future for all?
“Got your eye on one of them, sir?”
Jack turned to see one of the flight lieutenants watching him. Realising how his staring at the Auxiliaries must have looked, he said, “My eyes are firmly with Nancy, she's the only girl for me.”
“Glad to hear it,” the man said, something cold and unpleasant in his voice as he walked closer. “Only I'd heard a rumour you'd been dancing with some other Yankee fellow in a dance hall. We don't hold with that kind of stuff here.”
“We don't back on the other side of the pond, either,” Jack said hoping he sounded as disapproving as the lieutenant did. “And I'm guessing you mean the guy who bet a whole heap of money that he could find another American to dance with before he shipped out.”
“I heard that too.” He stared intently at Jack, and then said, “I'd better not hear about anything else like that.”
“You won't, believe me,” Jack replied, aware that he’d have to keep a close watch on the man. “I only did it because I couldn't let a fellow American lose a bet.”
Still not looking entirely convinced, but unable to prove anything, the flight lieutenant went his own way, and Jack breathed a sigh of relief. Soon he'd be back up in the air in a single-seater Spitfire, where life seemed much simpler, the world below just a distant problem, at least for a couple of hours.
The training exercise was almost over for the day, and Jack was making mental notes about the men under his command as to who needed more training and who was ready for combat when they got the call. Two squadrons of Messerschmitts had been sighted coming in up the Bristol Channel.
“Looks like we’ve got company,” Jack said, as he watched as the closer of the two squadrons approached, the Messerschmitts moving out of their tight travel formation and into a looser, more manoeuvrable combat one.
“Orders, sir?” His radio crackled as the lead airman in the training formation called through.
They were outnumbered and out gunned, many of the men in the squadron with him barely ready to be signed off from training for solo flights. Yet there was only one thing that he could do. “Engage them, stop them from getting to Cardiff, they’ll be looking to take out Roath Docks. Try to keep them pinned down and don't let them get above you.”
Jack could hear the fear in the other man’s, who he knew to be barely twenty, voice. “We'll get through this. Keep the sun at our backs where we can; let’s keep every advantage we can.”
The Spitfires in his squadron peeled off one by one, harrying the German aircraft, forcing them back into a tighter pack and keeping them there. One of the Messerschmitts, seeing a gap, broke free, but soon went down, fire trailing from the near side engine, as it spiralled in to the cold waters of the Bristol Channel.
Meanwhile, another plane, which was damaged and almost certainly no longer fight capable but was still airworthy, turned and headed away from them, across the channel.
“It's working, keep at it men,” Jack said encouraging them, even though he had no idea if his radio was still working at this point.
His plane shuddered, the controls faltering. For a moment he couldn't tell the cause, and then he saw flames coiling out from one of the engines mounted on the wing, the fire licking towards the main fuselage and threatening the fuel tank
A quick look up revealed that there was nothing but clear sky above him, and Jack was about to release the catches and begin the process of bailing out when something flickered bright and brilliant in front of him, flooding the cockpit with light that seemed even stronger that the weak winter sunlight.
Whether it was death or something else, Jack couldn't say. It reminded him of the light in the dance hall that James had stepped into before vanishing.
There was no heat to the light and the sounds of flames crackling on the nearside engine, the whine of the other and the shrill of the warning systems all faded away. Images of Nancy and James flashed into his mind, and Jack closed his eyes and smiled.