The bottle was bobbing in the surf as if reluctant to brave the submerged rocks to reach the shore. Ianto had been standing on the beach, hands jammed in his pockets and the gusty wind tugging at his hair, for several minutes before catching sight of it as the sun broke from behind the clouds, making something glint and glimmer brighter than the surface of the water. Now he couldn’t tear his eyes away from it as it repeatedly approached potential disaster as if about to risk all in a mad dash, only to change its mind at the last second and draw back again.
If it hit the rocks, it would likely smash into a myriad sharp shards, and it was for that reason Ianto finally decided to do something about it. At low tide, the rocks now hidden beneath the churned up surface were a maze of pools that children loved to play in and around. Broken glass could cause some nasty injuries.
It was quite nippy for late June, the hot weather having departed for parts unknown, replaced by strong winds and frequent squalls of rain, but nevertheless, Ianto pulled off his shoes and socks, rolled the legs of his jeans as high as they’d go, which was never going to be high enough, and waded out into the water, feeling for secure footing with his toes and gritting his teeth against the chill of the water.
The tide was still coming in and by the time Ianto was closing in on the bottle he was drenched to the hips and cursing himself for being a crazy idiot. He should have just left the bottle to its fate, but now he’d committed himself to this daring rescue he had to follow it through.
The only reason he’d been on the beach in the first place was because he’d been cooped up in the Hub for seventy-two hours with Owen poking and prodding him. Ianto understood that Torchwood’s medic had needed to make sure he hadn’t suffered any harm from the contents of a canister in the archives that had sprung a leak and spilled all over his bare hands, but still, it had been an experience he could well have done without. After running innumerable tests, Owen had finally declared the substance to be nothing more than a strangely scented oil, completely inert and harmless. Jack had sent Ianto home to get some rest, knowing he’d barely slept for the past three days, but Ianto had desperately wanted some fresh air and had driven to this rough, lonely stretch of coast a short distance from Cardiff instead.
Breathing in the sharp, salty scent of the sea had wiped away the headache, caused by stress and lack of sleep, that had been pounding at the inside of his skull like an army of miniscule miners with pickaxes, and by now he felt almost like his old self. Aside from being drenched, and almost freezing his arse off in the waters of the Bristol Channel, that is. Maybe Owen should have been examining his head rather than his body, since is seemed he’d taken leave of his senses. All this to fetch a bit of rubbish some twit had dropped in the sea.
He made a grab for the bottle, missing when it was abruptly sucked out of reach as the wave it was riding flowed back out to sea. Jaw clenched to keep his teeth from chattering, he waited until it drifted within reach and grabbed for it again, his fingertips just brushing the slick surface before the fickle waves tugged it out of reach again. Tentatively, he eased forward a few more inches, just in time to be hit by a much bigger wave that almost knocked him off his feet and soaked him to halfway up his chest. The bottle bobbed nearby, seeming to mock him, and with a growl he snatched at it, his fingers closing around the neck.
“Yes! Got you now!” Turning awkwardly, the bottle held above his head so that the sea couldn’t snatch it away again, Ianto floundered his way back onto the beach and stood there for a moment, catching his breath, dripping and shivering. He looked around until he located his shoes and socks, sensibly left well above the high tide mark, and made for them, the dry sand quickly caking on his wet feet. Thankful that he always kept a towel and a change of clothes in his car, because when you worked for Torchwood you never knew when such things might come in handy, he plucked his shoes from their resting place and headed for where he’d parked, not even sparing a glance for the bottle he’d struggled so hard to retrieve.
He didn’t even look at it when he got to his car, just opened the boot, dropped the bottle in, planning to throw it in the recycling later, and dug out his emergency bag, retreating around to the passenger side of the car where he’d be out of the wind. Peeling out of his wet clothing and shoving everything in a plastic bag, he towelled himself more or less dry and pulled on his spare set of clothes. The wet things and emergency bag were dumped in the boot to be dealt with later, and he drove home with the heater turned up.
Back at his flat, he took the bags from the boot and trudged up the stairway to the top floor, letting himself in and making a beeline for the bathroom where he raided his laundry basket for enough dirty clothes to make up a washer load along with the wet ones. Setting that going, he retreated to the bathroom once more for a hot shower.
It wasn’t until several hours later, as Ianto sat in front of his TV eating a hastily thrown together dinner, that he remembered the bottle. He didn’t want to leave it rattling around in the boot of his car indefinitely, and anyway he needed to put his re-stocked emergency bag back where it belonged, ready for the next time it was needed, so once he’d finished eating and put his dishes in the dishwasher, he traipsed back downstairs.
The bottle was right where he’d left it and now that he was looking at it properly, he could see it was an old-fashioned wine bottle. Its cork was wedged tightly in the neck, even though there was no wine left in it, and any label it might once have had was long since gone, worn away by time and the sea.
Ianto frowned and peered through the green glass. There was no liquid in there, but it wasn’t completely empty. In the dim light of late evening he could faintly make out what looked like a slip of paper; the archetypal message in a bottle.
Hurrying back up to his flat, Ianto dug a corkscrew from his cutlery drawer and set about persuading the cork to give up its long-time home. It was in several pieces by the time he succeeded, having given its life to protect the bottle’s contents, but finally he was able to shake the sheet of paper out and unfold it.
Staring at the words, he sat down on the kitchen floor, hard, barely able to believe what he was seeing. The handwriting was as familiar as his own; he saw it every day, and even if he hadn’t recognised it, the signature at the bottom was clear enough.
‘I’m hit, not going to make it. Engine’s on fire and can’t bail out; cockpit’s jammed. Going down somewhere in the channel, unsure of position. If anyone finds this, tell Estelle Cole I love her.
Jack Harkness, Captain, RAF, June 3rd, 1944.’
Nearly sixty-five years after he’d dropped it in the sea, Jack’s message had finally reached land, but it was just a bit too late for Estelle to know he’d been thinking of her right to the end. Folding the paper carefully, Ianto put it safely in a plastic folder; he’d take it with him to work tomorrow and file it with the rest of Jack’s documents. Perhaps one day, when Jack’s grief over Estelle’s recent death was less acute, he’d show it to his boss, and perhaps then Jack would share with him the story of his long life with Torchwood and why he could never die.