This chapter contains heavy spoilers for 'Countrycide', as well as some disturbing imagery related to said episode. Hopefully it won't put anyone off too much. Also, I realize that Jack is probably lying when he gives his name as "James Harper" in 'Captain Jack Harkness', I've decided to accept it at face value until RD gives us info to the contrary. Just makes life simpler, you know? ^_~
Thanks for listening to me ramble, and thanks for even looking at my fic!
Past Chapters Here:
[HERE AND NOW (I): Intersection]
[THEN AND THERE (I): Memoria]
Certain for the Dead 3/?
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory
HERE AND NOW (II): Sweeter Than
Jack doesn't even bother with a cursory search of the Hub. After the others have left, each with the horrors of Brecon Beacons still clinging to them like cloying shadows, he simply heads for Torchwood Three's small but serviceable kitchen. Ianto will be there, he knows; that is, if the Welshman wishes to be found. It is a hiding place only in the broadest sense; if Ianto well and truly wishes to be left alone, he will fold himself away somewhere else. He surfaces so often from shadowy corners, from virtually seamless corridors, that there are days Jack thinks he could tear the Hub apart and still not find the other man. Here Ianto is, just at the right moment, with the right file or the right reminder, or even the right cup of coffee. Always, Jack takes what he offers with hidden gratitude, swallowing down the words on the tip of his tongue. 'Where did you *come* from?' he wants to ask, because no one can slip under his radar the way Ianto can. A silent ship in a starless sea.
Of course, broad questions are often the most dangerous, and Jack almost feels it would be rude to ask.
'And you care so much about manners, Jamie?' An airy voice-- half mocking, half fond. One of his creche-sisters? Jack thinks that must be it, just vaguely picturing blond curls and a fashionably pale hand. On the heels of that thought is genuine surprise. On a day to day basis, Jack is far more likely to remember snippets from the past hundred years than to dredge up thoughts of a childhood that has not, temporally speaking, happened yet. The Beacons had cut along his gut, though, deep enough to scrape bone. It's been a very long time since something has shaken Jack, all the way down to that fathomless void at the base of his spine. More than clutching at his heart, it also ripped at inarticulate, ancient fears, and he can see it reflected in the faces of each member of his team.
Ianto is in the kitchen, sitting at the small, round silver table with his head in his hands. Jack exhales a breath he didn't know he was holding, understanding suddenly that he *would* have torn the Hub to bits looking for the younger man. It's selfish, he knows; deep down, human beings will always be mammals. There's that instinct, that tingle along the vertebrae that urges retreat in times of stress. Into the bush, into the thickets and bramble, off to some earthy den to lick and tend to wounds. He has not begrudged this from the rest of his team, even though he is almost certain Owen and Gwen are about to make the latest in a long line of irresponsible decisions. Not the workplace romance, but the willful mix of personalities so determined to rip at each other. Gwen loves Rhys, and Owen has yet to really love anyone. Once upon a time, Jack would have thought he'd find it amusing when Harper is finally, irrevocably brought to his knees, but no more.
(That sister again, so annoying. "I hope you hit the ground hard, James. I hope it fucking breaks your back." Damn it, Jack thinks back at her, get lost. Back to my murky subconscious, under layers of silt, where you belong.)
"Ianto," Jack says, not knowing how long he's been standing in the threshold, watching the younger man. Here he is, here he is, he is alive. Pale and shaken, staring aimlessly at his own internal horrors, but alive none the less. If there is a God, he has Jack's sincere thanks.
"Jack," said on the exhale; a greeting, but also a word containing relief. It draws Jack forward, and he's put his hands on Ianto's tense shoulders before he's truly considered the wisdom of such an action. There's a moment where the younger man is still and cool as cemetery stone, but it flickers away. The muscles relax, and Jack leaves his hands there, looking down at the plate the seems to hold all of Ianto's concentration.
"Asparagus?" Jack asks, torn between humor and understanding.
"Left overs from that Italian place," Ianto answers, "it was the only vegetable in the icebox-- I couldn't..."
"Not after tonight," Harkness confirms, running his hands along Ianto's shoulders and upper arms. As if the other man is cold, or somehow numbed. Perhaps the latter is closer to the truth.
"I don't think I'll be able to touch meat again, Jack." A bare statement, almost devoid of inflection, but it carries layers of emotions to Jack's ears.
('You have to learn how to hear it,' the Doctor had said, standing between Jack and Rose on edge of a singing sea. The waves were almost grapefruit pink, Jack remembers-- populated with an algae that sighed out soprano notes. 'Quiet, concentrate. When you're still, you can feel for it.')
"It's going to be all right." Such trite words, but Jack can't help uttering them. He feels naked and disarmed, uncertain if his touch is supposed to comfort Ianto or anchor his own pained consciousness.
"It has to be," Ianto says, ever one to recognize the difference between empirical truths, and the ones humans force into being. He moves his palms flat against the table's surface, and then into fists. There's no slamming, no physical violence. Instead, Ianto is shaking, shaking so hard it rattles the table. There's a glass of water next to the take-out container, along with Ianto's personal blue-lacquered chopsticks, and two large white pills nestled on a napkin.
"Not only do you willingly eat asparagus," Jack quips, consciously forming the words, "but you eat them with chopsticks. You know, Mr. Jones, sometimes you're kind of weird."
Ianto laughs, and offers the barest tilt of a smile. "Yes, sir."
There isn't another chair, so Harkness reluctantly props himself up against the small counter. The room is close quarters-- the table is near enough that, even though he is now facing his companion, Jack can still rest a hand on Ianto's arm. It's a bit awkward, and very obvious, but right now Jack isn't certain he could move his hand even if asked to. Harassment, indeed.
"Chopsticks are actually very efficient," Ianto says after a long moment. It takes a beat or so for Jack to process the words-- he'd been looking at the deep scratch along the side of his friend's face, and the only coherent thought in his head had been 'sorry, sorry, sorry'. Haphazardly, he grasps for the threads of their meandering conversation.
"Yeah," he raises an eyebrow. "Provided, of course, that you can figure out how to hold them in first place." A real smile from Ianto, actually lingering; the Welshman picks the sticks up, so deft and elegant, his long fingers cradling them precisely. Such grace is almost obscene, Jack considers privately, full of functional sensuality. He can only stare at the dull shine of those tapering sticks, held with certainty. Ianto has the hands of gifted surgeon, or a violinist.
(An artist. He remembers that little boy and his careful drawings, pencils all tucked away by color family.
"Do you draw what your tree-friends show you?"
There had been an awful lot of red.)
'I don't want to think about that,' Jack mutters to his own mind, but it's too late. Another image surfaces-- that terrible cellar, jars like some crazy carnival of flesh. The bastard had even labeled some of them-- 'accountant's heart', 'solicitor's spleen'. Somehow, worst of all, 'lady fingers'. Almost without thinking, he reaches forward to take Ianto's free hand, squeezing tight. The other man's brief humor has fled-- he's staring at his favored hand too, dropping the chopsticks as if numb.
"Eat something," Jack entreats. "The last thing you had was from that roadside stand, right?" A distracted nod. "You need to take the pills Owen gave you, and you can't do it on an empty stomach."
"They're sedatives," Ianto says, seemingly to himself. "I really hate pills, sir. I--" A deep breath, "They're too much. I get buried under them. I told Owen that a little bit goes a long way with me, but he wouldn't cut down the dosage. I hate that feeling." Silently, but clearly, the sentence is finished with, 'I hate being out of control.'
"You took a real beating," Jack says, never the less making a note to consider Ianto's physiology. He'll have words with Owen about being too liberal with the meds. "Tonight, you probably need them."
He's not quite sure what happens next. There's a bit of a disconnect; he's watching Ianto reach for the chopsticks, and then the young Welshman is across the counter at the sink, skin pale as his stomach rebels. Jack crosses over to him, hands once again soothing along Ianto's back. It's dry heaves, he notes-- there really isn't anything in Ianto's stomach to be rejected-- and Jack knows sometimes that's worse. It's as if there's something inside of you that cannot be expelled or purged.
('Vomit up your heart and eat it.' Vi-- that was the creche-sister's name. Violet, of the snide remarks and irrational comments written on the bathroom mirror with lipstick or paint. There'd been twenty in his crèche-- unusually small-- and most of them had been close. Except for Vi. She was a vicious little thing, and everyone knew it. What happened to her? Jack sifts for a moment, through layers of time and things to come. The Time Agency hired her; an intelligence officer. Or torturer, rather. They said she had a gift.)
"She said I tasted sweeter," Ianto says presently. For a moment, Jack thinks he's talking about Vi, and then realizes with some surprise that exhaustion is clouding his mind.
"Who?" he asks, seized with the sudden desire to raze the Brecon Beacons and its residents to less than ash.
He busies himself hunting in the icebox for juice. Ianto should drink a little juice-- balance the electrolytes. He looks like he's about to fall over. There's some grape juice (is it Toshiko's? oh, well); Jack pours a glass and hands it to his friend. The other man takes it gratefully, indulging small sips without prompting. Jack stands in front of him, hands lax and nervous at his side. One sip, and another; Ianto closes his eyes and takes a few more. Then the glass is back on the counter, and Ianto is in Jack's arms. Jack closes him in easily, making a circle, a fortress, a space.
"It was his wife-- that woman with the rifle." Ianto's words slide down Jack's neck. "She licked my cheek and said... she said I tasted sweeter than the others. A different breed."
"She was insane," Jack soothes, discomforted never the less.
"They kept saying that humans were meat, like they weren't part of our species, like..." Ianto shakes his head against Jack's shoulder. "She said I should know that there are all sorts of creatures writhing under rocks."
"Whatever humanity they once had was long gone," he affirms. "You're right about that. Everything else is just ravings, Ianto. I've seen a lot of things, things you wouldn't believe, but that was... terrible. I'm sorry you had to see it."
"Sorry you took the tea boy along?" There's an edge to the tone, aggressive, but Jack recognizes it as self-hatred. He takes Ianto's face in his hands, gentle but firm.
"Listen to me, Ianto Jones." Eye to eye, almost nose to nose. "You handled an unbelievably fucked up situation to the best of your ability, which is a hell of a lot better than many experienced soldiers. Tosh told me what you did for her. I'm impressed. Or, I will be when I can feel something other than relief that we're out of there." Jack's rueful smile is mirrored on Ianto's face; they step apart, as if on the same cue, suddenly aware of how close they really are. Jack picks up the glass of juice with one hand, snagging the take-out box and chopsticks with the other.
"You can finish this in my office," Jack says to Ianto's questioning look. "I need a drink."
"These are supposed to knock me out straight off." Ianto is folding the pills up in their napkin, looking uncertain. "I should go---"
'To where ever it is you hide when off-duty,' Jack finishes in his mind. There is no verbal explanation from the other man, just a meaningful nod. "There's a couch in my office," Jack says, with an effort to be casual. "Sleep there-- it's a nice couch. Leather." Any other time, he would have winked.
"As I'm aware, sir," Ianto replies-- and there's that hint of amusement, that look that says, 'Honestly, Jack.' Fond exasperation, the captain has heard it called. He slings an arm over Ianto's shoulders and guides him out of the kitchen, flicking off the light.
Ianto is right about the pills. It takes fifteen minutes of slow, careful bites to finish the asparagus, but only two after he swallows he meds. Ianto's eyes close, tumultuous as a winter ocean; he's lax, with his head resting in the crook between the arm and back of the couch. Jack watches him sleep and breathe, both actions shallow and uncertain. The Captain himself drinks, and gazes on Ianto; forces himself to write a report on Brecon Beacons, and watches Ianto. His own mind is drifting into mist, into odd associations and half-awaking nightmares. They're like shell-shock, these dreams, sudden and senseless; he sees the Doctor's hand in the Cannibal's cellar, opens Suzie's autopsy drawer and finds Rose inside. He stands on the edge of the grapefruit sea, and the waves sing a funeral dirge. He dreams he wakes up, that Vi has written Ianto's name in lipstick, all over the glass windows and monitors. She laughing at him, and Lisa is screaming, and Ianto is somewhere (where? where!?) and Jack needs to find him, find him now. Lisa has Ianto in pieces-- she has his heart in a jar.
He jerks awake, to the hyperawareness of a body that needs sleep but has been shocked out of it. A breath, and another. Ianto is still stretched out on the couch-- Jack puts his hand on his chest so he can feel the Welshman breathing. Except, there's something under his hand, between his palm and the loose sweatshirt Ianto is wearing. The hair rises on the back of Jack's neck-- he's going to be sick, he lifts his hand and is assaulted by the smell of hothouse flowers, nauseating and exotic.
"God, no." It's the last thing he needs, the last thing Ianto needs, but that's when they strike. When you're at your limit, when they can get down into your flesh.
It's a single, red flower petal; just like those stuffed in the mouths of the dead.
"Get the hell out of my Hub," he hisses, taking his antique lighter like a weapon in his hand. He sets the petal on fire, stamps it out on the metal floor, digging his heel into it as if it's a poisonous insect. Cleans up the blackened residue, so Ianto won't ask questions.
On the couch, Ianto shivers and twitches, lost in some dream. Jack covers him with his great coat, self-conscious but tender, and sleeps sitting on the floor with his back propped up against his desk.
Don't listen to the silly physicists-- gravity may hold the world in place, but feedback makes it go 'round! ^_~