There's surprisingly little to clean up afterwards, at least in a physical sense. None of the usual wanton destruction of Torchwood property, no scorch marks, no bloodstains. Not a single member of the team injured, even. The only remaining signs of Mary's presence are the pendant in Toshiko's trembling hands and the darkness in her eyes.
Ianto works late anyway, because he always works late. What else does he have to do these days? He's not particularly surprised when Jack comes looking for him after escorting Tosh home.
"You knew about the pendant," Ianto says, perching at Owen's workstation. Owen always snags the most comfortable swivel chair, no matter how often Ianto tries to swap it out with the creaky one. "Why didn't you stop her sooner?"
Jack shrugs. "Technically, I wasn't sure. I didn't know about the necklace. I thought the telepathy was somehow related to the transport, yes, but I didn't quite make the connection."
"But you knew she was reading our minds."
"Hard to ignore the feeling of something scrabbling around in there, yeah." Jack gives Ianto a measuring look. "I thought Torchwood One gave everybody basic psychic training."
"Sort of," Ianto says, rubbing the back of his neck. "I know a few parlor tricks to make me less susceptible to psychic suggestion, but that's about it — they never bothered running me through the full course. There was a small department there devoted exclusively to ESP studies, but they were kind of an institutional joke. I never heard they made any sort of progress."
Jack snorts. "Yeah, they wouldn't. Humans have zero telepathic ability — as a species, we practically register in the negatives when it comes to clairvoyance. No amount of psychic training could teach one human being how to literally read another's mind. Just cheap tricks — like that damn pendant."
"But it didn't work on you."
"I know how to defend myself against a basic psych attack, sure. That's about it. I don't have much empathic aptitude, in case you hadn't noticed." He cracks a wry smile, which Ianto can't help but return. "But even true empaths are just that — not psychic, not telepathic, just very good at sussing out other people's emotions and deducing the rest from there." Jack takes a step closer to Ianto, casually leaning back against Owen's desk. "Lucky for you Tosh didn't get the pendant a couple of months ago, huh?"
His tone is light, but the barb stings all the same. Ianto meets his gaze without flinching. "Maybe," he says. "Though it might have prevented some unnecessary bloodshed."
Jack gives him a sharp look. "That wouldn't have changed the end result. We couldn't have saved her."
"I wasn't referring to Lisa."
Something in Jack's posture relaxes, a nearly imperceptible release of tension; Ianto knows he gave the right answer. "Tosh is worried about you," Jack says, and he isn't actually changing the subject. "Is she right to be?"
Ianto just shrugs. "What did she overhear?"
"She didn't tell me, and I didn't ask." Jack shifts ever so slightly, so that his leg almost but not quite brushes against Ianto's. "I didn't have to. You know, Ianto, I can't remember the last time I heard you laugh."
The air between them feels very warm. Ianto's used to that. He's also used to the way Jack's voice goes softer, deeper, rough at the edges. There's a promise in that tone. One of these days, they both know Ianto will take him up on it.
Jack is right; this has nothing to do with telepathy.
"Yeah," Ianto says quietly. "Me neither."
It's the closest thing to an admission he's willing to make. Jack accepts it, for now.
It's been one of the bad cases. Ianto can tell just by watching the way the team files back into the Hub, heads ducked down and everyone moving just a touch too stiffly, too slowly. He does a quick mental tally — all present and accounted for, no new visible injuries. But no one is meeting anyone else's eyes. He knows from listening over the comms that they got their game today. He also knows it wasn't in time to save the young car mechanic who'd been unwitting host to the alien of the week, or her three-year-old son.
They never seem to get any happy endings these days. Couldn't the Rift spit out an Ewok or Tribble every now and again?
Owen shoulders past him with a grunt, already grabbing his jacket. He's going to get stinkingly drunk tonight, never mind the autopsies. Which means someone else will need to take care of the bodies in the meantime — young woman, toddler, and yellow-tentacled alien corpse.
"We've got to call her parents," Gwen is saying, curling up into herself on the couch, eyes red-rimmed. "And the father, wherever he is."
"I'll see if I can track down his records," Tosh says quickly. "Child support payments, that sort of thing." She hides behind her computer monitors, effectively disappearing, building up her usual invisible, unbreachable walls.
Jack sits beside Gwen on the couch, hand on her knee. She doesn't flinch away, doesn't seem to react at all. Her wide, dark eyes follow Owen as he ducks through the cogwheel door, muttering excuses. They're not sleeping together anymore, Ianto can tell; not since Christmas and Diane. It's probably for the best. Gwen would've gone with him tonight otherwise, and she'd walk a little more lightly tomorrow, but the shadows behind her eyes would be all the darker for it. "We've got to call them," she mumbles again, letting herself lean into Jack's warmth.
"It can wait until tomorrow," Jack tells her gently, but his gaze seeks out Ianto, and Ianto nods. It's not going to wait. Jack just doesn't want Gwen to do the calling.
Ianto adds it to his mental to-do list. He'll take care of the human bodies first — car crash for these, he thinks. He'll preserve the adult as is for Owen's autopsy in the morning, but the child was collateral damage, and Owen won't need to work on him. That'll buy Tosh enough time to gather all the necessary contact information. Then the phone calls, first to the relations, then to the local A&E, with whom Torchwood has a standing arrangement. Then prep the alien body for autopsy as well. It's going to be a long night, but this is his job.
"Come on, let's get you home to Rhys," Jack says, pulling Gwen up with him. She curves into his body limply, like a rag doll.
As Jack leads her out, he takes a moment to reach up and clasp Ianto's shoulder, briefly, thanks and later pressed into the fleeting touch. Ianto gives him a quick smile and gets to work.
The concept of dinner-and-a-movie is so absurd as to be laughable. Ianto's done dating before, sure, in another life. He's snogged pretty girls in dark cinemas, held hands underneath café tables, even took a long walk on the beach once with Lisa (it was cold and windy, and started to rain halfway through; they wound up making love in a cheap seaside hostel instead, and it was one of the best weekends of Ianto's life). He knows how to go on dates. It's a pleasant enough way to pass the time.
Pleasant, and ordinary, and absolutely nothing that has anything to do with Jack. Frankly, he wouldn't want it to.
They have sex, of course, that first night after Jack's return, in the overpriced hotel that the team checks into for twelve hours of avoiding themselves. But that was always a given, the shagging. Sex with Jack is easy for Ianto, comfortable, familiar, even if he needs to relearn Jack's body after adjusting to its absence, even if the passage of time is reflected in Jack's too-old blue eyes. Ianto suspects Jack's been gone longer than they think he has. He doesn't ask.
The hotel, that's not a date.
Also not a date is two evenings later, when the reports of a Weevil sighting come in well after everyone else has gone home for the night. Ianto grabs Jack's coat on their way out the door, and the look Jack shoots him — surprised, as though Ianto hasn't done this a hundred bloody times before, then the sudden, sharp grin that always, always makes the blood rush warm to Ianto's face — shit, for a few seconds he forgets about the Weevil entirely.
He shakes it off, and they go off and catch the Weevil — completely routine, trussing it up and tossing it into the boot of the SUV. And then Jack's pressing him up against the passenger door, mouth hot and wet against Ianto's neck, hand expertly working down the front of Ianto's trousers, and this is not a date, thank fucking God.
Ianto arches and gasps, and wonders how long Jack had gone without basic human kindness, to get this turned on by the simple courtesy of Ianto picking up his coat. He doesn't ask.
It takes three weeks before Jack actually follows up on the whole date conversation. Not that Ianto minds, and it's hardly Jack's fault — it's as though the Rift is punishing them for Jack's long absence by throwing as much random shit at them as it can dream up. But finally they get a quiet day, which each uses to take care of all the boring everyday nonsense they've been putting off. Tosh works on a new translation program, Owen does a full inventory of his medical bay, Gwen sorts through weeks' worth of police reports, and Jack…well, Jack watches Ianto.
He watches from his office as Ianto does a thorough scouring of the Hub's atrium. He watches over CCTV (with helpful suggestions into Ianto's earpiece) as Ianto catches up on some filing down in the archives. He watches very, very closely as Ianto helps clear some of the backlog of paperwork off Jack's desk. Ianto makes sure to bend over unnecessarily a few times to help Jack watch. Well, it has been a very busy week.
"Tonight," Jack says firmly, catching Ianto's wrist before he can step away. "Come hell or high water or a fucking Weevil invasion, I am taking you out to dinner."
Ianto favors him with a sidelong glance. "The out and dinner parts being optional, I hope."
Jack huffs out a breath, looking oddly uncertain. His hold loosens, and he traces nervous patterns against Ianto's palm. "Please, Ianto," he says quietly. "I want to do this right. I need to know I haven't–" He cuts himself off and looks away. The usual mask of brash confidence slips, showing the cracks of unknown, numberless hours and days and bruises that he hasn't told Ianto about. His smooth, unmarred body doesn't reveal any scars. Ianto knows they're still there.
Ianto wonders how many times Jack died while he was away. He doesn't ask. Jack is already just a bit broken; Ianto's scared he might yet shatter.
"It's all right," Ianto says instead, gripping Jack's hand tightly for a moment. "You came back, and I'm still here. We'll figure out the rest as we go along."
"Come to dinner with me tonight," Jack says. "And just — talk to me, Ianto. We never just talk."
So they do. They go out to dinner at some ordinary local restaurant, and Ianto relates amusing anecdotes of the team's mishaps during Jack's absence — Owen's battle with the alien weeds that tried to take over his hothouse, Tosh's latest Rift prediction program, Gwen's engagement party, the wild goose chase in the Himalayas. Jack counters with a few more of his fantastical tall tales about bizarre planetary customs and misadventures on unfamiliar spaceships — none of which have anything to do with his disappearance and all of which, Ianto suspects, are true. He wonders how badly hurt — betrayed — Jack must have been, that even at his most open and vulnerable he still can't trust Ianto with the story of his Doctor, where he went or what he did or how long he was gone. And Ianto doesn't ask, because he knows that when Jack is ready, he'll tell him unprompted.
Afterwards, when they wander back out onto the Plass debating the merits of various movies currently playing nearby, Jack suddenly breaks off midsentence and takes Ianto's arm, stopping him.
"What is it?" Ianto asks, bemused. Rift alert? Weevil sighting? Itinerant blue police box?
"You haven't asked me where I went," Jack says. His eyes are intent on Ianto's face.
Ianto smiles. "No," he says. "I haven't."
They never do make it to the cinema.
Ianto gets just the slightest bit drunk after Gwen's wedding; there's a lot of leftover champagne to clean up, after all. It feels good, loosening his joints, making him feel a bit like a stranger in his own body. He doesn't get pissed very often these days. He wishes he could say it's been a stranger day than most, or a longer, but really, not in this job. Still, when he finally collapses into his bed, he falls asleep almost before his head hits the pillow.
He never sleeps particularly well after a drinking binge, and tonight's no exception; he wakes up well before his alarm, head fuzzy and aching but too wired to get back to sleep. Eventually he gives it up for a lost cause and heads over to the Hub. The coffee machine is much nicer there.
When he gets in, there's a sad little pile of confetti at the door and a lamp lit in Jack's office. Ianto wanders up hesitantly — it's actually not like Jack to be working at this time, in the strange blue-gray hours just before dawn. If Jack does decide to sleep on any given night, this is the time for it; otherwise, he's usually out and about, wandering the rooftops. Or engaged in…other activities.
Ianto finds Jack at his desk, head in his hands, gazing down at a cracked sepia-tinted photograph of a beautiful girl in white standing beside her solemn bridegroom. Something in the hunched line of Jack's shoulders indicates that he's been sitting here a long time.
Long enough, anyhow. Ianto takes Jack by the arm and firmly leads him down to bed.
They move together in silence, in darkness, tracing familiar patterns against each other's skin with lips and teeth and tongues. There's no noise except their harsh shared breaths and the friction of skin and Ianto's pulse thudding in his ears. Jack grips Ianto's bicep too tightly, presses inside him too roughly, and Ianto lets him, tasting salt against Jack's throat. Jack doesn't make a sound until Ianto reaches up to grab his face and pull him into an awkward, bruising kiss, biting his lip; then he swallows the hoarse cry as Jack comes, and the sudden breach of the sacred silence of breath and sweat-slick skin is enough to push Ianto over the edge with him.
Jack collapses onto him in a broken heap, and Ianto shifts him only enough to keep breathing. He's heavy and too warm and messy. Ianto couldn't care less.
"Her name was Samantha," Jack finally says. His voice is low and coarse. "She would have liked you."
And that's all.
Ianto holds him close, splaying his palm against the broad, smooth expanse of Jack's shoulder blade. He wonders if this will be his own form of immortality: a fading photograph in a battered tin box, Jack's warm breath against some future lover's lips — His name was Ianto. He would've liked you.
As epitaphs go, Ianto thinks, he could do far worse.
They lie tangled together through the dawn, silent and unsleeping. Ianto presses his cheek against Jack's chest, hearing his heart beat and listening to all the things Jack doesn't say.
Ianto is distinctly unimpressed with the whole ATMOS debacle. Poison exhaust is spewing into the skies, people are slowly choking to death on the streets, there's a hostile spaceship overhead, and Torchwood Three is trapped in lockdown in their own bloody base. Again.
"The gas triggered it," Ianto explains, grimly resisting the urge to put his fist through the monitors at the tech workstation. Ianto is very good at diagnosing problems. Tosh, on the other hand, would have had the lockdown reversed inside of ten minutes. He acknowledges the renewed brush of grief and dutifully files it away. "I don't think the Hub plans on releasing us until the air pollution returns to acceptable levels."
Jack grimaces. "There must be something we can do. Ianto, keep working on getting us the hell out of here. Gwen, get me all the info you can find on who's actually controlling ATMOS and what their damn problem is with this planet. I'm getting on the phone with UNIT."
As it turns out, their efforts are for naught. Jack receives a cryptic e-mail from Martha that improves his mood tremendously — not that he lets them stop working, of course, and he continues to rail on about UNIT's monumental inefficiency and idiocy on and off for hours.
Gwen's off in a corner doing a crash course in alien botany on the off-chance that one of Owen's plants might be able to counteract the poison. Ianto is still wrestling with the security systems (at least he's got the lights back up and functioning) when he feels a warm hand on his shoulder. Ianto blinks at Jack, still seeing the world in shades of code. "You've been at this for almost eight hours straight," Jack says quietly. "Take a break before you fall over."
Now that his concentration has been broken, Ianto ruefully admits that may not be far off the mark. It had been a long day even before all this ATMOS nonsense started. He lets Jack lead him over to collapse bonelessly into the couch.
They just sit together for a while. Ianto's mind keeps right on whirring, which is good, because otherwise he might fall asleep on the spot.
"You know," Ianto eventually muses aloud, "I never thought about it before, but it's odd. All the weird creatures we meet, everything alien the Rift spits out, they're all so similar to us. No matter how strange they look, they're still…recognizable, somehow. They breathe the same air. With all the galaxies and planets in the universe — how unlikely is that? Surely there must be hundreds of species for whom our atmosphere would be just as toxic as this poison gas is for us."
Jack is watching him with an odd expression, something like fondness softening his eyes. "There are. Thousands. And far, far stranger."
Ianto considers it. "Organisms that developed sentience in the gas giants?"
"Even within the suns themselves." Jack smiles, shoulder brushing against Ianto's. "It's one of the great mysteries, really. There's this whole other intergalactic civilization out there, and we know absolutely nothing about it. There could be millions of races, but our relation to them is truly parallel — two perfectly straight lines on the same plane that never, ever meet. We can't even imagine them. We have no point in common — not even molecular structure. No means of communication, and no shared needs or experiences — no reason to establish trade, or conflicts of resources. It's the perfect peaceful coexistence based on complete mutual ignorance."
"There's really nothing else known about them?" Ianto asks thoughtfully.
"I'm pretty sure I encountered one of their ships once, actually. Long time ago, when I was on my own in this tight, hot little number of a stealth ship — anyway. I noticed some weird readings a couple of sectors down, and I had nothing better to do, so I swung over to take a peek around." His tone goes soft and reverent. "It was — I don't even know how to describe it. Just — heat, and light, almost without form. I couldn't begin to imagine how it was constructed, or for what purpose. It just was. And then it was gone."
Ianto leans back and just looks at him, enjoying the play of emotions across Jack's face. "Maybe you'll find out more about them someday," he suggests. "God knows you've got the time. You could become, I don't know, an ambassador or something. Explore the stars themselves."
"Maybe," Jack echoes, eyes distant. "Someday."
Then he falls quiet.
"Jack," Ianto says wearily, "please tell me you're not thinking of all the ways you might have sex with a sun-dwelling organism."
Jack grins. "Well," he says, almost wistfully, "you have to admit, it would be different."
Gwen suddenly gives a shout. Ianto and Jack exchange a look, then dash over to join her at the monitor running CCTV footage from around the country. They can only stand by and watch as the Earth's atmosphere ignites in a roiling wave of flame — which then dissipates just as quickly. Within the Hub, claxons clang, the cog door rolls open, and the lockdown unceremoniously ends.
They blink at each other for a while.
"All right then," Gwen finally says. "I think we'd best go upstairs and help clean this mess up."
(ghosts in the machine.)
The flight back to Cardiff from Switzerland is no better or worse than any other red-eye; Jack upgrades their seats to first class, of course. Across the aisle, Gwen helps herself to the complimentary wine — God knows she's earned it — and Ianto is asleep before the plane even takes off.
Jack watches him closely, keeping a tight lid on the anger that's been simmering ever since he nearly lost his team to the creatures down in those godforsaken tunnels. Sleep softens the harsh new lines creasing Ianto's face, restores a touch of color to his cheeks and lips. But he's still far too pale, his skin too cool under Jack's fingertips. Jack covers Ianto's cold hand with his own and tries to will a bit of his own excess life and heat into Ianto through touch alone.
Too close. That was too close.
It's always too close.
First thing when they get back to the Hub, he's going to put Gwen and Ianto through every course on psychic defense he can devise. Why didn't he take care of this ages ago? It's been well over a year since he first had that conversation with Ianto, after Tosh–
Goddamn it. He has no excuse. This is completely unacceptable. He knew they were all vulnerable to psych attack — the only one with any sort of training, other than himself, is Ianto, with his stupid Torchwood One parlor tricks that clearly do fuck-all when it comes to maintaining any sort of mental defenses.
There were ghosts in our heads, Gwen had told him immediately afterward, and Ianto kept begging to be left behind with them…
Jack shoves the memory back and closes his eyes, swallowing down the fresh wave of fury, listening to the reassuring sounds of Ianto breathing beside him.
The plane starts its decent, the lights of Cardiff twinkling out of the blanket of darkness outside the window. Jack strokes Ianto's cheek gently to wake him.
"Hey," he says softly, when Ianto frowns and stirs against him. "Almost home."
Ianto blinks, eyes unfocused as he orients himself, then straightens in his seat and pulls away from Jack's touch. "Home," he repeats, voice rough with exhaustion. "Back to the Hub, I suppose."
As if Jack's going to let Ianto go anywhere near their base until he's had at least six or seven hours of uninterrupted sleep in an actual bed. "Work to be done," Jack says instead, keeping his tone light and unconcerned. "Apparently some of us need a refresher on their psychic training."
Ianto rolls his eyes. The color is coming back into his face now, making him look more himself again. "You do realize I don't actually want to be able to read your mind."
"Why not? Could be fun." He reaches out to trace a line of heat down Ianto's throat, his deliberate leer not quite offsetting the restrained tenderness in his touch. "What am I thinking now?"
"Your mind is a dark and disturbing place, Jack." Even recovering from alien possession and thoroughly exhausted, Ianto's smile is warm enough to make Jack's chest constrict painfully. God, he's gorgeous. "I'm hesitant to speculate. Why don't you just show me instead?"
I do, Jack thinks. All the time. But Ianto never quite sees it.
It doesn't matter. He'll find the right words for Ianto eventually.
There's no rush.