As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read my story, and I'd be thrilled to pieces if you'd could take an extra moment to comment.
Again, my thanks to Vivian for helping with the Chinese. Happy early Valentine's Day to everyone reading!
DISCLAIMER: Torchwood is copyright BBC, and Russel T. Davies. I'm making no money off this, and am not affliated with the above. Why can't we have nice things!? The short film Dumplings was written by Lillian Lee and directed by Fruit Chan. No infringement is intended in either case-- only honest admiration.
In Amnion 4/?
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory (garnettrees)
It hardly seemed possible, but-- behind the whitewashed wall facing the street-- the three apartment buildings situated at Hua She Street 10 were in worse shape than those at Number 7. Jack stood in the courtyard, looking at up the seemingly endless stacking of dark windows and concrete walkways. There was an air of abandonment here, a sense of being adrift, that had been absent at Number 7. From where he stood, Jack could see just one young housewife hanging her limp wash on the second floor. The courtyard itself was empty save for one scrawny, oddly determined tree. Further down, by the rows of covered parking spaces, Jack could see a dusty red ball and tricycle leaning against a steel strut. There were, however, no children visible, no rowdy sounds of their play, or the chuckling fan-waving of the women who watched them. Nodding under the darkening clouds, Jack let out a long, soundless breath. The white and green cooler he carried felt at once heavy and light; he was starving and tired and yet fighting the urge to bounce on his heels. He let his expression settle, honest and pained, because there was no one around the see it. The buildings at Number 10 stood paralyzed and waiting, as well they might. They would be demolished in ten months time.
Jack registered the shuffle-stomp of the landlord before he saw him, but he only turned when he heard the old man grumble a greeting.
"Mr. Yu?" the Captain felt that smile flash on his face, strange as the phantom muscle cramp of an amputee. "I'm Jack Harkness. We spoke on the phone this morning?"
"I know who you are," Mr. Yu fought the curving of his own aging spine to look Jack in the eye. Keeping his mental emanations calm and friendly, Jack returned the regard. It was as effortless; almost an after thought, like the whitewash on the gate. Briefly adjusting his thick, black-rimmed glasses, Mr. Yu finally nodded. He took a brightly colored wrapper from his pants pocket, chewing thoughtfully on a fresh piece of gum.
"Maybe it will rain today," he said, apparently satisfied with whatever he had seen-- or thought he'd seen-- in Jack. "Maybe not." The bent shoulders seemed to actually creak as he rolled them. "Come on. Some of your things have been delivered." Silently, the captain kept pace just behind the old man, breathing through his mouth to avoid the sticky, childishly sweet smell of bubblegum.
The apartment Jack had chosen was in the third building-- the tallest, and the furthest from the gate. He walked, one hand casually in his coat pocket, the other gripping the cooler as the afternoon humidity seemed to climb higher by the minute. Mr. Yu, sweating in his simple undershirt and trousers, gave the captain's RAF coat a questioning look, but let it be. Instead, he used one surprisingly strong hand to pull himself up along the metal railing of the open stairwell, muttering as he did so.
"Most people are moving out," he said, shooting Jack another sideways glance. "If they stay, it's because they can't afford any better. Government's going to tear this place down come April-- prime property, they say! And what am I supposed to do, in my old age?"
"Did you get the money I wired this morning?" Jack asked politely, already knowing the answer. UNIT and the ever-ambitious Johnson might have frozen his British assets easily, but Jack Harkness had lived on far more dangerous planets, and though more intricate deceptions than they could imagine. There were several numbered bank accounts, tucked away in corners of the globe where the extradition laws were weak, and would remain so for the next several centuries. Once, Alice Guppy had told him he'd need currency-- not that he'd needed her to point that out. He'd taken what she'd given and played by the old rules. Somewhere, rattling around his vast, internal corridors, there still existed the young man who'd proudly graduated from the Time Agency in regal black and gold. He remembered standing, hands clasped behind his back, as they recited the Temporal Code from memory. Oh, he'd winked and smirked at John across Great Hall, because he'd done it flawlessly when everyone else had stumbled at least once, the erstwhile Captain Hart included.
"I have your payment," Mr. Yu said, grunting as they turned to climb another flight. He paused, breath hitching and, for a moment, Jack considered reaching out a hand to steady the elder man. One look from those proud, narrow eyes convinced him otherwise. Jack held perfectly still, letting Mr. Yu struggle up several steps before he began to follow, and earned a nod of grudging respect in return. "Why do you want to pay so much, Mr. Harkness, to live in a place like this?"
"It suits my needs." He'd been trained, and trained well. Don't leave all your assets in one place; keep your mouth shut and, when you do open it, keep the lies simple.
Presently, Mr. Yu nodded towards the cooler. "Drugs?"
"No," Jack's small chuckle was grim but earnest.
"These stairs," the landlord cursed, seemingly changing the subject. "The elevator in this building is broken, and what's the use in fixing it?" They were approaching the eighth floor, and the room Jack had reserved. Mr. Yu let Jack push open the heavy metal door-- the apartments were all outside access only but, somehow, the concrete walkway smelled stale in a way the closed stairwell had not.
One withering hand reached across the threshold to block Jack's way as the old man enunciated, "I don't want trouble."
"You won't get any from me." That cheesy grin felt worn and frayed when he summoned it, the pain of skin irritated by harsh cloth. Or close and intimate cement. The feeling in Jack's chest eased a little when he saw the luggage stacked neatly at the end of the hallway. He'd traveled light-- another rule carefully observed-- just three bags. His military rucksack, worn maroon steamer trunk, and the functionally elegant black suitcase sat together in front of yet another unremarkable metal door, clustered like patient hunting dogs.
"Apartment 809," Mr. Yu said, the jingling of his keys the only fanfare. He quickly turned the lock with his master copy, then haltingly pulled at the cluster to remove Jack's version. This close, the smell of bubblegum was powerful, but underneath that Jack detached a whiff of tobacco, and the sweat of someone trying to give up something they were loathe to part with.
Good luck with that, Jack mentally shook his head.
(Another rule: sample the local vices to blend it, but never let them take hold. He thought of alcohol and cigarettes during the war years-- the dim lighting of the drinking dens he'd haunted before his run-in with Torchwood. Snatching a twist of pipe-- loaded with highly addictive Wormwood-- from Rose's innocent hands when they stopped off in the 32nd Century. Dancing with Toshiko on the eve of World War II; holding the squirming, hours-old bundle of his daughter in the middle of a hospital that suddenly seemed threateningly primitive. Ianto's hands, smoothing over his shoulders as he helped Jack with his coat. Ianto, pressing a brief, sweet kiss to Jack's lips when he thought the other man was asleep.
'Aren't you the holy one!' John had once shouted at him during one of their many time-loop brawls. 'The Face of Boeshane; the Agency's bright, promising apprentice! Well, I've been under your skin, lover, and I know the truth. Dig deep enough and you'll always find a hypocrite underneath.'
Somewhere, between murder rehab and one of his many orgies, John Hart was probably laughing at him.)
Something cold and firm pressed into Jack's hand-- the key to Apartment 809. Jack closed his fingers around it, grounding himself with marginal success. His body was protesting yet another sleepless resurrection, and his stomach lanced him through with hunger. Ignorant of Jack's lapse, the landlord continued speaking.
"Ms. Chen is the only other tenant left in this building-- on the opposite end of the fourth floor. She moved in when my wife and I first took charge of the complex." A look of distant, bitter consideration stole over the old man's face. "I expect she intends to die in that room." Shaking his head, Mr. Yu turned, apparently unconcerned with Jack's reaction to the accommodations. "You'll be alone here, like you asked," he added, beginning his slow, painful shuffle down the hall.
Absently, Jack murmured his thanks. He set the cooler down by the door-- far away from his other belongings-- and turned the plain metal door knob. Inside, Apartment 809 yawned its emptiness, just a wide expanse of faux wood-patterned linoleum and frosted glass windows. The main room curved in the shape of an 'L', obviously meant to act as both bedroom and living space; in the far corner, a narrow door cordoned off a small but serviceable bathroom. On the other side, there was a tiny kitchen nook with jarringly gray formica countertops, an ancient oven, and a gaping cavity for a refrigerator. Near the window, Jack could see an intricate cobweb stretching between the corners, and an old wicker rocking chair. Other than that, the apartment was just as he'd been told-- old, unfurnished, but no-questions-asked. His heart, that fresh organ, gave a little lurch. Biting his lip, Jack rocked back on his heels, feeling the open space but also the possibilities.
This is going to be home. Jack flexed his hand absently, tasting a memory. At least for a little while.
(He'd put his hand on Ianto's shoulder, that very first day, taking in the astonishment on the younger man's face with honest, friendly pleasure. They'd stood by the railing just inside the Hub's rolling cog door-- Ianto in one of his fine, understated suits, freshly pressed and ready for the job he'd finally wrestled from Jack's hands. How young he'd looked, grinning up at Myfawny as she spread her wings in the cavernous Hub, swooping around the fountain run-off and the delicate metal framework that protected the Rift monitor. That smile had stayed in place while Jack explained the invisible lift, motioning towards the graffiti Welsh dragon and the hatch that lead to the archives. Then, then he'd looked down-- seen the spread of desks arranged like a grade-school common room. Owen, Tosh, and Suzie, facing towards each other in an odd triangle. Tosh's desk had been piled with bits of computer hardware and wire, but Suzie and Owen's revealed a swath of wrappers, old Chinese takeout, and unfiled paperwork arranged like the haphazard debris of a bomb.
"That's your job," Jack had said, hand still on the younger man's shoulder. He'd felt the warmth seeping through the expensive fabric and-- though he'd told himself it was just a game-- he'd taken a moment to appreciate the flare of Ianto's scent from the prolonged, deliberate contact. Sweet but earthy, like sugar cane fresh from the field. "The archives-- which haven't been properly looked after for at least a decade-- and keeping my people from trashing the place." Ianto's smile had turned rueful and almost self-mocking, so Jack added, "Honestly, an alien could be hiding in Owen's old take-out and we'd never know."
"I told I wouldn't mind being a butler," Ianto's voice was quiet, as if he was turning the words back on himself.
"You wanted a job here, you got one," the Captain tried to keep his tone light. He ran his hand across the Welshman's shoulder, down his arm to squeeze the skinny elbow. Just the night before, he'd lain nose to nose with this young man on the cold warehouse floor; they'd felt each other's matching, pounding heart beats and almost, just almost, angled their lips. And-- because Ianto had gotten up, because he'd quickly turned and composed himself, walking away-- Jack added, "At least for a little while."
"I'm not afraid of hard work, Sir," the stubborn set of that handsome jaw erased the smile, leaving only youth and steel-grey eyes. "I told you, I'll do whatever it takes." Squaring his shoulders, he'd raised an eyebrow. "I assume you have cleaning supplies?")
Presently, Jack gazed over the dirty apartment and felt that same set in his own jaw. There it went again, that flicker-flutter of almost-hope in heart he'd regrown. Turning, Jack saw that Mr. Yu had only just reached the end of the hallway. Cupping a hand to his mouth, he called out to the landlord.
"Mr. Yu! You got any cleaning supplies?"
The old man turned, and Jack caught a brief flash of teeth that might have been a smile. "In the closet down the hall," he called back. He moved to open the door to the stairwell, then seemed to think of something else.
"Mr. Harkness?" Jack turned fully, to show he was listening. Running a hand through his thinning hair, Mr. Yu hesitated. Finally, he said, "You'd better be ready to leave here in ten months. They'll knock this place down and pave it over. This time next year, you won't even be able to tell we were here."
Jack nodded. "I understand, Mr. Yu," he said, feeling time slipping through his hands, and meaning something else entirely.
Grabbing hold of the minutiae involved in preparing for the evening, Jack buried himself in the details. It was soothing to be smothered in such a way; he focused on trivial goals, feeling the clock at his back, bending himself in mind and body. Shrugging off his coat and braces, Jack took soap and water from the ancient supply closet, getting down on his hands and knees to scrub the linoleum. The working of his muscles was smooth and mindless, narrowing his focus to the simple expanse of the floor. The walls of the apartment looked as though they'd once been blue and, with the floor clean, some of the color seemed to come back to them. The Captain hauled the abandoned rocking chair out into the hall, considering simply depositing it in another empty room. He found himself, instead, scrubbing the chair as well, chipping away the evidence of an aborted attempt to paint the wicker red. When it was clean, he carried it back inside, situating it near the widow with a strange sense of satisfaction.
He made several trips out, watching as the walkways of the other two buildings began to slowly populate with questioning faces. There weren't many, but the remaining residents of Hua She Street 10 were indeed curious about the new addition. A few more women of various ages came out with their laundry, hanging sheets and pillowslips despite a sky which increasingly threatened rain. Two old men brought their chairs outside, watching Jack while they chewed on sunflower seeds. On one occasion, Jack returned to find a row of children's faces staring solemnly down at him from a third floor walkway, arranged side-by-side like a row of delirious Russian stacking dolls. About a dozen children total, boys and girls no older than ten, eyes tracking Jack as they stood on their tiptoes or stuck fingers in their mouths. A strange, awful spike of feeling pressed like a thorn behind Jack's ribs at the sight of them; he gritted his back teeth and pretended to check the sky for rain.
There were children out in the city too, of course. The taxi passed several schools with vacant rooms and silent swings, but there were lines of parents standing outside the health clinics, keeping a light grip on small, restless shoulders. In the shopping district, Jack kept his hands in his pockets and did not look at how tightly the mothers clasped tiny fingers in their own. These women watched their children with close, fretful eyes, turning to call out precious names if they slipped for even a moment out of sight, but Jack would not let himself see. Instead, he focused procuring the sparse furnishings he would need-- a refrigerator, a bed, workbench, a small TV. He had them delivered to Number 10, tipping heavily to compensate for the flights of stairs and broken elevator. The delivery men left their own dust and debris on the floor, which Jack cleaned again because the hours were not passing fast enough. It was summer, and the sun lingered hatefully over the horizon while Jack paced like a caged animal. He brought his luggage inside the apartment, inventing more tasks. The rucksack went on the workbench, along with the remains of his wrist-strap. There would be plenty of time to work on repairing it-- the damage from the bomb would be easy compared with the Doctor's meddling. The maroon steamer trunk was his as well, and completely unscathed. He'd moved it to Ianto's flat scarcely two weeks before, grinning as the young man ran admiring fingers over the finely wrought leather and metal.
("Very nice," Ianto had remarked when Jack appeared on his doorstep with the trunk. Those slim hands caressed the lid, the worn brass lock. "They don't make them like this anymore."
"Approximately 1904," Jack had replied. Lascivious, to cover his nerves, "There's nothing like good craftsmanship."
Shaking his head, Ianto had raised an expressive eyebrow, "Did you decide to bring over some skeletons to keep mine company?"
"Clothes," Jack assured him, setting the trunk down in the front hall. "Gwen keeps telling me I smell like sex when I show up to work dressed the same as the day before." He'd grabbed Ianto's wrists, pulling the admiring hands away from the trunk and placing them on his own hips. "Care to grope something else that's aged well?"
"Gwen has an over-active fantasy life." Stormy blue eyes rolling skyward, Ianto had never the less indulged him. Hands roamed over his back, his arse; one grasped the back of Jack's neck when he'd cupped the Welshman's face and sucked on his tongue. "That's good." Vague and breathless, Ianto swayed against Jack like they were dancing. "She's right, though." One of those almost daring little smirks crept out, "Hygiene is important." He'd glanced briefly down at the trunk, before Jack tilted his chin and kissed him again. "Keep it here."
Jack had sighed into the kiss; a sigh of pleasure, but also one of relief.
Ten days later, he'd told Ianto he hated the word 'couple'.)
There *were* clothes in the trunk-- but the antique piece of luggage also contained a false bottom, saving just a few of Jack's things from the blast that destroyed the Hub. Not much, but every item was heavy with memory, and Jack left them were they were. Undisturbed bones. He situated the trunk under the window, and busied himself with the final piece. The functional black suitcase, with all its zippered pockets, belonged to Ianto. Jack removed two suits from their plastic protectors, hanging them in the closet and frowning when they smelled more of leather and travel than the man who'd worn them. There were three dress shirts-- purple, crimson, and blue-- that Jack held close for a moment, breathing in traces of something that might only have been sense memory. He hung those as well, along with their ties, and removed a carefully wrapped bundle of Ianto's personal possessions from the bottom of the bag. He'd taken only a few things, and Jack had no way of knowing if he'd guessed right as to their value to the younger man. The stopwatch was gone-- buried with Myfanwy and the endless shelves of former Torchwood employees. He thought of them all down there; the broken time piece, the sweet-tooth ptredon, all those bodies who-- friend or foe, good ending or bad-- should have been left with some semblance of peace.
He put the bundle on the high shelf, out of harms way.
The bathroom was by far the area in the most need of attention, and Jack saved it for last. For a another merciful hour or so, his mind emptied; but the clock's red numbers stared at him remorselessly when he emerged, wiping the sweat from his brow. Six o'clock in the evening; the glazed apartment windows were lit a late-sun amber that spilled onto the kitchen counter. There, the cooler sat with an almost obnoxious mundanity. The box itself was white, the lid green, and the peeling red brand sticker looked like the wink of a snake's knowing eye. Without realizing it, Jack crossed the room to stand before it; he put his hands on it and felt where the latch held it closed. He thought of Ianto's free hand, resting over his heart while the young man thrust into him from behind-- how sometimes he'd been certain those Welsh vowels were counting heartbeats instead of stopwatch seconds. The feel of Ianto's pulse against his back; how they'd turned up the radio at his flat so the neighbors wouldn't complain about shouting, only to be bombarded with truly horrible music. Ianto's honest, uninhibited laughter had felt so erotic, washing against Jack from within and without.
Sweetheart, people said.
(Ianto disliked pet names-- he'd insisted that nothing was short for 'Ianto' and was known to bite if Jack even attempted 'Yan'.)
In Chinese, it was xingan. 'My heart and my liver'. Vital organs; an intimate implication.
('Just promise me , if you're hearing this, that when you come 'round -- and you're going to, Jack, you're going to come out of this-- just... promise me you'll never bring up anything I say to you now. How's that? We got a deal?' That presence by his bedside, an unobtrusive hand on his. A tether, more essential than the respirator or monitors, even as the young man in question disregarded his own worth.)
On Boeshane, it had been tsazho. 'Bound one'. The red cord tied the spirit to the body, but it also linked souls together. Red lines on the palm, lines of destiny.
("Why is it red, Papa?" asked the boy whose name we do not speak. He sat looking up at the strong jaw and fierce blue eyes that were his own inheritance. This broad-shouldered man with a mathematician's mind and an idealist's heart. Mother and Ahmah looked on, smiling, holding hands.
"Red is the color you see when you bleed, isn't it?" A nod from the boy, who rested his chin on Papa's knee. "Red is the color of your honest feelings.")
In Welsh, of course, it was Cariad.
(I heard you whisper that word, when you thought I was asleep. I felt it in my bones as your lips moved, close to my ear. But we had a deal, didn't we? And for once, liar that I am, I actually kept my word.)
The urge was as sudden as it was overwhelming. It rushed over Jack and almost moved his hands before he could think. He would open the cooler, he would look at the thing Lan Wei had carved out of him with all her sloppy, merciless hatred. Would it still be beating? Did it even exist? There were those-- Ianto had been among them, once upon a time-- that would make a case against it. He'd look at the organ packed in ice; he'd flip open his new mobile and take a picture of it, maybe. Send it to Martha, or to Gwen. The Doctor, perhaps. Look here, he would add, I have proof! It was real and it felt, even if I never said the words.
"No!" Jack withdrew his hands as if burned, pressing his palms against his temples instead. What he hoped to accomplish by doing so, he didn't know. It wasn't as if one could hold the remaining sanity inside, like a vessel that had sprung a leak. For the first time, he thought past the evening and his macabre appointment with Lan Wei. Failure or success yawned before him, each pregnant with terrible possibilities.
If this doesn't work, I may go insane, he realized, with a dim sort of surprise.
Well, it's hardly a far trip! John Hart's voice murmured insidiously, long past having became part of the scenery. You've broken the rules, Jack-my-boy. I should say you're crazy! We used to mock this sort of thing, don't you remember? We used to sit in the smoking common, with Zheli of the cranberry-colored breasts and Etan, who gave such great head. We'd toss back hyper-vodkas and laugh about the urban legends, the tall tales. Because, we said, surely no one was ever really that stupid. Those were only stories, and we all knew the rules--
"Sexual contact is commonplace and, at times, even necessary when handling local indigenous persons. All Time Agents shall take appropriate precautions in terms of medical, reproductive, and psychic safety in order to maintain the integrity of a given mission." It took Jack a long moment to realize that he'd spoken-- that he had, in fact, recited verbatim part of the Temporal Code he'd memorized over a thousand years before. It was like a final shock of cold water, and he stepped away from the cooler completely, unable to believe it had sprung to his lips so readily, as if it had been carved along his insides. He thought, perhaps, if he stood with his hands behind his back and his feet at parade rest, he might be able to recite the whole thing. Now, and a thousand years from this moment-- 6:07 pm on July 14th, 2009.
("A thousand years time, you won't even remember my name.")
"I will," Jack said softly. So many memories, packed and shoved and stacked in his brain cells. Too much data, and only so much room. If anything could kill him, anything at all, would that be it?
Crossing the room, Jack shrugged on his coat and grabbed the key, shoving it in his pocket along with his wallet and mobile. The sun sank by inches, refusing to touch against western skyline just yet. He would go for a walk, burn off some energy, do something besides sit here and be taunted by rules and regulations written by people who could never understand.
Locking the door, he thought, This has to work, because I can't live like this for the rest of forever.
The thrum of the city became almost tangible once Jack turned off Hua She Street. He walked with his hands in his pockets, watching the hustle of salary men and day laborers, the constant jockeying of cabbies and the calls of street-stall hustlers. This was humanity, post-465, five days of terror condensed into newspaper headlines and evening broadcast tickers. Jack couldn't decide whether to feel relieved or resentful, so he settled on nothing at all. He stopped in front of a wide bar window and watched a UNIT official waffle helplessly on the big-screen tv. Lan Wei had not been lying about the global anger directed at Great Britain-- the low guttural of Chinese cursing wafted out of the bar along with the smell of cigarettes, a ground level counterpoint to the newsman's harsh assessment of the speech.
Further down the street, Jack encountered a group of high school girls loitering outside an arcade. They were giggling, leaning over to inspect each other's brightly colored cell phones, sneaking quick glances at the tall American as he passed. The older ones, the Captain discovered, didn't bother him as much as the young children. He was even able to raise an eyebrow at the little gaggle-- which caused a flurry of hair-twirling and skirt-twitching. Ignoring them, Jack instead found his gaze riveted on a bit of fresh yellow graffiti in an alley. In hasty, simplified Chinese, the artist had scribbled 'England Eats Children'. The opposite alley wall had another piece of advice-- 'All Adults Are Liars'. So absorbed was he in his study that Jack at first did not register the movement low and to the corner of his eye.
When he did turn, he found himself staring at a young girl, no more than ten years old. She was coming from the same direction he had been, attempting to edge around him in the manner of children carefully instructed not to talk to strangers. It helped not at all that she was female-- the bolt of pain, like the lowest of blows, lingered in his gut all the same. Her eyes were dark and solemn; her hair hung in long wisps around her serious face. There was nothing about her to remind him of his Alice, but the jolt of memory was there all the same. Dusky skin and almond shaped eyes, but she had an air of responsibility like Alice, who had always asked questions when the time wasn't right. Except, the time would never be right-- and that's where it was, that Catch-22. This little girl stared up at Jack the same way, as if to ask, 'You wanna tell me why you won't move, Mister?' She wore a white sundress with little strawberries printed on it, and she carried her little red plastic purse slung over her shoulder in a clear copy of Mom.
'Alice's was white,' Jack remembered. He could see her very clearly, ten years old and posed for an Easter portrait in one of those timeless little-girl dresses. The frock was blue, and the white purse had a flower that was blue too. She'd held it daintily, as if to say, 'When I am a lady, I shall carry it like this, because Mum showed me how.'
Jack all but rushed into the nearest store, just to be rid of that little girl and her silent gaze. It wasn't panic--
(stephen screaming, bleeding; alice covered tears and blood and yes, Lucia was right, you finally did kill them all)
at least, he told himself it wasn't-- but it lodged hard in his throat never the less. The girl watched him go and, after a moment of staring curiously at the spot he'd occupied, she continued down along the street and disappeared. Jack turned from the window to discover he was in a noodle shop. The patrons were absorbed in their food, and the smell of noodle rolls and rice porridge wound around him.
This time, the pain in his stomach was purely physical.
The clouds lingered heavily when Jack returned to the apartment, but the sky peaked out from behind them with the orange of heated metal. Finally, the sun was setting, and Jack felt some of his restlessness ease. Since the workbench was uncomfortable, and he couldn't quite bring himself to sit on the bed, Jack took a seat in the itinerant rocking chair. The sky shifted to dark ruby, and then a nearly-black amethyst. Almost absently, Jack let the chair rock a little on its runners, and the noodles betrayed him. With that instinctive, animal necessity of hunger satisfied, he felt lethargy begin to steal into his bones. It was dim, but it was there--- days upon unending days weighed against him. Death was not sleep; the two could never be confused, and his body sang that truth in every nerve and sinew. Before he knew it, he'd closed his eyes.
He woke-- or thought he woke-- to find the room etched in strange yellow shadows. There was a gasp in his throat, the kind he used to have when coming back from the dead. He looked around for the clock, desperate for that one, all-important delivery, but couldn't find it anywhere. The room seemed huge, it seemed like he had to search every inch of it for the time piece, but it would not present itself. The bathroom door was open just a crack-- red light spilled through it, like the dim illumination of the Hub in complete lock down. Knowing better but unable to help himself, Jack pushed it open, unsurprised when the light switch refused to respond. There was a woman in the bathtub, partly obscured by the curtain that allowed it to double as a shower. She was laying, soaking, one dark walnut toned hand hanging over the ledge.
It's Martha, he thought, and for some reason, that made perfect sense. It had to be Martha-- the strange shadow of her head was just that knot women made when they wanted to keep their hair from getting wet.
"Jack," said husky woman's voice, laced with the buzz of dying bees. It wasn't Martha at all-- it was Lisa Hallet, and as she turned towards him Jack could see the where the dull chrome of her cyberman's helmet had cracked to reveal a quivering human brain. "Once you threatened to shoot him for the very same thing." Her eyes were clinical and dead, her lips moved mechanically, and Jack was suddenly sure she wasn't soaking water, but in her own blood. "It's just the same," she accused him, lifting a crimson-stained finger. "Then you held him, you kissed him back to life in a pool of water and bits of my skin!"
"You're not real," Jack said, backing away regardless.
"Does that matter?" Lisa raised an eyebrow in a movement clearly picked up from her boyfriend. "Does it matter if I'm real, if I speak the truth?"
"I didn't understand!" the Captain told her. His back was against the door, which refused to open. "It had been so long since I'd really felt that much..."
"You're a thief," the cyberwoman said venomously. "You couldn't even guard the precious thing you stole." Slowly, Jack shook his head in denial, letting the back of his skull bang against the door. On the other side, he thought he could hear Suzie Costello screaming at Owen, the echo of a long-ago argument.
"We have rules for a reason, god damnit!" said Suzie, the sane Suzie who had never known the Glove. "We have rules for a reason!"
And, suddenly, like the skip in a record, Jack was back in the rocking chair. There came a touch on his knee that almost made him jump; he looked down and saw Rose leaning against him like a sleepy child. Her sable-on-blond hair hung just below her shoulders, and she was even wearing that fitted pink hoodie she'd favored in the days of old. His Rosie, little sister and partner in crime. Reaching down, he took her hands in his, and found that she was wearing Ahmah's many silver bangle bracelets on her arms.
"Oh, Jack," Rose said, looking at him with big, dark eyes. She brushed his hair away from his face, and those same brown eyes he knew were suddenly lit with gold. "Jack, sometimes we do terrible things to the people we love." Finally, finally it came to Jack that he was dreaming-- he felt the certainty and weight of it because he knew the Doctor would never, ever tell Rose what she had done. Her borrowed bracelets jingled as she cupped Jack's face in her hands. "But I know," she told him. "In my heart of hearts, I know what I did."
"I can't stop myself, Rose," he surprised himself by saying. She stood and embraced him, let him cry against her breast. Somewhere, distantly, Suzie was still yelling, but Rose smelled like flowery shampoo and that expensive perfume she wore when the Doctor told them to dress up. "I know better," Jack confessed, "but I'm going to do it all the same."
She was gone then, dissolving in his hands. A thousand, tiny sparks of gold that he couldn't put his arms around. Jack stared helplessly as they scattered like fireflies-- he heard a thump and the sound of dragging metal from behind the bathroom door.
It's Lisa. He could easily envision her, crawling on all fours, cogs and nerves exposed. Impossibly, the door opened outward, he saw fingers that were part silver and part flesh and---
Jack woke to the real world, gasping the same gasp from his dream. He was still in the rocking chair, but the clock was right were it should be, and the bathroom door was open. He stood, rubbing at his eyes, filled with the sudden horrible certainty that he'd slept through the very moment he'd been waiting for. What would they do with that invaluable cargo, if he wasn't there to receive it? But no, when his eyes focused he could see he still had fifteen minutes to wait. He went into the bathroom and-- after staring into the empty bathtub for a long moment-- splashed water on his face. The lingering nightmare seemed to hover in the air, an ill portent.
Eight o'clock came with a knock on the door. Jack answered it, and allowed the two young delivery men to lift their burden inside. The crate itself was too long to be suggestive of a coffin; the young men wore dark glasses and tattoos of allegiance, and they asked no questions. It felt almost anticlimactic-- Jack paid them for their trouble, though he'd already paid their boss. No more than a few clipped sentences were exchanged before they shuffled off, pocketing the money with quick, practiced twists of the wrist.
Jack closed and locked the door. He drew the curtains, though the windows were glazed and he was on the top floor. The box was marked 'fragile' in Chinese-- cui, written with the characters for 'flesh' and 'danger' combined. Carefully, he pried open the lid of the crate and set it against the wall. Inside, the sleek black tube of Ianto's preservation casket rested amongst the protective packaging. It was several inches longer than a coffin would be, the extra length housing the pilfered alien technology that preserved the body perfectly. Jack could see his own reflection in the dark casing. Slowly, gently, he drew his hands along its surface. His fingers felt where the latches were, though he made no move to undo them. That would have to wait for Lan Wei. He was sure now, very sure, that John Hart would laugh if the other man could see him, but he was equally sure he didn't care. All those rules, those stipulations, carefully outlined and memorized until they came easily even after a thousand years.
Can I tell you a secret, Ianto? Jack thought, dropping his mental shields even though it meant feeling the aching absence of the other man. Ianto had never taken any of the Torchwood PSI tests-- had, in fact, always somehow been distracted or detained from doing so by a convenient emergency. All the same, Jack had let slip once or twice, brushing against something. In the sweaty, cooling afterglow, in those predawn hours when he woke to find Ianto curled against his back, he'd bent the rules and very carefully called out with that mental song. The resonating chords he'd found in return, faint though they were, always sent a deep feeling of satisfaction seeping into every pour. I'll tell you now, because I believe you're coming back to me. We won't talk about this, though, when you come back. Do we have a deal? Good. He caressed the lid, lay his cheek against the cold, unyielding surface.
We had a Temporal Code, Ianto. It was reams and reams of data-strip long. You couldn't graduate until you'd memorized the whole thing, committed it to heart. It covered everything you could ever dream of, because the Agency had very clear agendas regarding the future, and the past. But there was one rule that wasn't on the books. It wasn't written down, you understand? It was considered so simple, so devastatingly obvious that-- in an era were everything was spelled out to the smallest detail-- no one ever spoke it aloud. We whispered about it in the student lounges. To tell you the truth, we laughed. We drank, we leaned close when it got so late it was early, and we told the stories. Urban legends. Myths. No one could actually cite a case where it had happened. If it had happened-- and I believe now that it must have-- the Agency erased it so completely that all parties involved ceased to exist.
Would you like to know that hidden rule? People didn't really worry about it, in my day and age. It was so passé. I was born on rim-world outpost, Ianto. I learned early on never to tell any one that my parents-- Papa, Mother, and Ahmah-- had a permanent marriage contract. I'd have been laughed at, do you understand? It was considered quaint, even... primitive.
It's very simple: simpler than never keeping all your assets in one place, even simpler than traveling light and keeping the lies short.
The unspoken directive was, Do Not Love.
I meant to start bringing Ianto back in this chapter, really I did. It's just... I swear to God, this story has a life of its own! Next time, I promise. I'd really appreciate it if you'd forgive this silly writer and leave a comment. It'll be like... How does one top Weevils doing the Electric Slide? It'll be like Daleks doing a conga line! *nods to self* Please?