The night was clear, a warm summer breeze stirring the low trees and rippling across the wheat fields that lay beyond the overgrown hedgerows. The moon, three-quarters full and tinged with gold, hung low in a sky brilliant with stars, the shimmering brushstroke of the Milky Way bright this far from the light pollution of the nearest town. A fox barked sharply somewhere in the distance, answered a moment later by another, and there was something ancient and timeless about the land, something one step removed from reality....
Gwen Cooper shook her head and took another swig from her bottle of cider. Being a step or three removed from reality was something she'd become more than used to in the past year.
The heat from the bonfire stung her cheeks and Gwen leaned back on her elbows, watching the others laughing and drinking around her. It wasn't often that the Torchwood team got to celebrate a successful outing in company, never mind company as unlikely the motley — and somewhat hygienically-challenged — group of eco-protesters now plying them with charred veggie burgers and homebrew scrumpy from a random collection of glass and plastic bottles, but it felt good to simply relax and enjoy the moment for a change. The tensions of the past few days had been draining, and if the mission's resolution had been less bloody than anticipated, it had been largely down to enlisting the aid of people who knew the character and the lay of the land far better than any satellite scan could manage. Gwen was still a little fuzzy on exactly how Jack had convinced a group of determinedly anarchic tent-dwelling neo-hippies to happily cooperate with a quasi-military government agency equipped with possibly the largest and ugliest four-by-four in the country, but she strongly suspected that the concept of 'free love' had come into it somewhere. Possibly repeatedly.
Former policewoman or not, Gwen had decided that she really didn't need to know the details.
She could see Toshiko a short distance away, laughing as one of the women — Katie? Kelly? — wound coloured threads into her dark hair in bright imitation of her own varicoloured dreadlocks, and Owen's voice could be heard from the other side of the fire as he entertained his audience with some hopefully-non-classified tale. Of Jack there was no sign and Gwen suspected that their team leader had taken the opportunity to wander off with one — or possibly more — of his admirers. He'd be back before dawn, no doubt, looking smugly satisfied and slightly debauched and wearing a selection of scratches and lovebites like duelling scars. There were times when Gwen wondered if Jack's enthusiastically omnivorous sexual habits were the reason why he had chosen Britain over his homeland — she just couldn't imagine him fitting with what she knew of the CIA and the US military. Not that any of the team really knew much of his background beyond what —
She started at a sudden hollow boom that repeated and turned rhythmic as someone began drumming on a now-empty cider keg. One of the men pulled Toshiko to her feet and began dancing around the fire in time to the beat, the both of them laughing as they stumbled over each other's feet. Others joined them, two of the women dragging Owen into view, and Gwen suddenly decided that she wasn't in the mood to dance. Rolling awkwardly to her feet — the ground didn't seem to be quite where she'd left it and nowhere near as stable as she recalled — she grabbed for her bottle and escaped the circle of firelight before anyone could intercept her.
The night air was cool against her face as she wandered away from the bonfire, placing her feet carefully as she adjusted to her scrumpy-scrambled sense of balance. The sound of drumming grew fainter with distance, covered by the softly fluctuating whispers of nature. An owl drifted along the field's edge, its wingbeats silent, and Gwen smiled to herself, wondering if this was a glimpse of the world her distant ancestors had known — the sound of the wind in the trees, the heady mix of fire and laughter, the taste of fermented apples. Her life was filled with technologies that even the modern world would consider more magic than science, but there was something about the simplicity of a night like this that just felt right.
Of course, she acknowledged, that could just be the cider talking.
She stopped as the breeze stilled and the constant susurration of the leaves momentarily hushed to reveal another sound, soft and melodic and quite unexpected. It took a few moments for Gwen to work out that it was coming from the edge of the field where the vehicles were parked, by the narrow lane that led down to the coastal road. Walking towards the familiar black hulk of the Institute's modified Range Rover, she could hear the sound of singing more clearly, but she couldn't make out the words nor recognise the tune. The melody was haunting, however, and the singer's baritone voice confident and quite beautiful, hitting every note with deceptive ease. Slowing her steps so as not to disturb the hidden vocalist, Gwen tried to discern the lyrics but quickly realised that the song was not in any tongue that she knew, the structure of the words as unfamiliar as the singer's lilting accent.
One of their new friends, no doubt, although she couldn't quite work out why he was hiding across the field from the others and not serenading them at the bonfire. Unless, of course, he was singing to himself while he sat in the shadows and slashed their tyres.... Gwen stopped, looking critically at the dark shape ahead of her, then swore under her breath and started forward again. If there was one thing that this job had taught her, it was that it never hurt to be too careful... and besides, she didn't much fancy calling out the RAC to tow them back to civilisation. Explaining the laser cannon in the boot would only be awkward.
Moving as silently and as steadily as she could, Gwen moved around the car's blunt prow and stepped into the shadows that lay between it and the lane, turning sharply on her heel as she loudly said, "So, what are you doing hiding back here, then?"
Jack actually jumped, snapping his jaw shut and grabbing for his bottle before it toppled over. "What did it sound like I was doing?" he shot back, a little defensively.
Gwen blinked at him, barely visible in the shadowed darkness as he leaned back against the vehicle's dusty black flank once more. "Oh. I, er, I'm sorry. I didn't expect to find you here."
"What, you thought I was off getting lucky with one of the Great Unwashed back there?"
She felt herself flush. "Well, to be honest with you... yes."
There was amusement in his voice as he said, "Nah, did that earlier. I just, you know, wanted a bit of time to myself before the next round."
"Right. Of course." Gwen turned to go, feeling embarrassed. "I'll leave you to it."
"Oh, just sit down!" Jack moved a few bottles aside and patted the ground beside him. "Please?"
Gwen hesitated a moment, then moved to join him. "How much have you had?" she asked, nudging one of his empties with her foot. "This is strong stuff."
"I've had stronger." Jack leaned his head back, staring up into the clear night sky.
"Right." She took a mouthful of her own drink, then smiled. "Just thought I should check. I mean, what you Americans call 'cider' packs slightly less of a punch than our version, as I understand it...."
"I have been here a while, you know." His tone was dry, but there was an edge to it that she couldn't quite interpret. "Takes more than a half gallon of apple-based rocket fuel to scare me."
Gwen thought about what they had faced earlier in the day and shivered. If Jack hadn't flinched at that, then there was likely very little that the orchards of England could do to him other than dull the memory a bit. She turned her head to look at him. "Are you all right?"
He didn't return her gaze. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You're not normally the solitary type." He didn't answer and she searched for an easier topic. "I didn't know you could sing like that."
"Now you do." Jack sighed and ran a hand across his face. "There's a lot that you don't know about me, Gwen. Trust me, it's better that way."
They sat in silence for a few moments before Gwen tried again. "So, what language was it you were singing in?" She lifted her bottle, swirling the contents in the moonlight and frowning as she saw how little was left. "I usually have a good ear for that sort of thing, but it wasn't one I recognised."
He snorted softly. "I doubt it's one you'd have come across before," he said, "I... picked it up when I was a kid. It's not something you hear much of these days."
"Your accent sounded odd," she added, slapping at a mosquito on her arm and noting that he hadn't actually answered her question. "Not like your usual Yank."
Jack chuckled, scuffing the toe of one booted foot on the packed dirt. "Yeah, well, you know how it is. You learn a language with a particular pronunciation...."
There was something in his tone that made Gwen frown and turn towards him again. It was hard to see much of anything in the depths of the car's shadow, but his gaze was still fixed on the stars and there was an uncharacteristic stillness to his features that gave her pause. He was right — there was a lot that she didn't know about him. For months now she had worked and fought alongside Jack Harkness, but beneath his easy banter and cheerful flirtation there was always the sense of something being held back, held close, something every bit as dark and as deep as anything they investigated.
Something that, she suddenly realised, was entirely too close to the surface in this shadowed, star-lit field. Putting her bottle down, Gwen smiled and said, "So, you're not really American, then? That's just the accent you learned the language with?"
She had meant it as a joke, something to lighten the mood and encourage him to open up a little, but he almost choked on the mouthful of scrumpy he'd been taking. This time he did look towards her, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his dark shirt. "You're full of questions tonight," he observed.
"Questions and cider that could probably strip paint," Gwen agreed, feeling the warmth of the alcohol in her veins. She paused, considering his reaction to her last words. "Still, don't ask, don't get, right?" She took another swig and said, "Are you American?"
Jack closed his eyes, toying with the neck of his bottle. "No."
"Oh." Gwen frowned, trying to fit that into her worldview and failing. "You sound American."
"Like I said, you learn the language...."
"Does it matter?" He glanced at her briefly, then looked away again. "Right now, for all intents and purposes, I'm British. I work for the government, same as you."
She considered that for a moment, then another, more worrying, thought occurred to her. "Are you human?"
Jack laughed. "Yes. I'm human. Got the medical records to prove it, too. Anything else?" He flashed her a wolfish smile, barely visible in the darkness. "If you want to know the colour of my underwear, I'd be happy to show you...."
"You don't wear any," Gwen reminded him.
"I'd still be happy to show you." His voice was husky as he moved closer to her, and Gwen was suddenly very aware of him as male, aware of his scent and his body heat, and it would be so very easy to just turn her head and part her lips and —
The small, still-rational part of her cider-addled mind reminded her of what his mouth had probably been doing earlier in the day, the suspicion that it wasn't only his verbal skills that had gained them their unlikely allies coming to the fore once again. She raised a hand and tapped him lightly on the nose with two fingers, breaking the moment. "I'll pass, thanks."
Jack blinked, his eyes crossing, then sighed and settled back against the car again. "You're no fun."
"Really? Why don’t you come a little closer and prove it," he purred, and Gwen rolled her eyes, bringing her near-empty bottle back to her lips. She could feel sediment coating her teeth as the last of the liquid splashed into her mouth, and she coughed and spat on the grass, trying to clear her tongue of the bitter dregs. Jack laughed. "Yeah, you've really got to watch for that with this stuff...."
"Shit, what did they put in there?" she spluttered. "Toxic waste?"
Jack took a mouthful of his own drink. "I thought dead rats were traditional with scrumpy? Like the Gusano in mescal?"
Gwen stared at him. "Like the what in what?"
"Tequila worms?" He shook his head in apparent dismay. "Your education is lacking...."
"So educate me. I mean," she added quickly, before he could start suggesting a curriculum, "oh, I don't know — what were you singing earlier? Teach me that?"
He looked at her for a long, drawn-out moment, then shook his head again. "Not that one. It's too... complex."
Too personal, Gwen heard, wondering where he had learned it himself, what it meant to him. "Something else, then? In — what language did you say that was?"
He quirked a smile. "I didn't."
"Fine, be the International Man of Mystery," she groused, grabbing his bottle out of his hand and taking a swallow of its contents. "I swear, the more I find out about you, the more questions I end up with!"
"And that's just the way I like it." Jack rescued his drink and leaned back with a sigh. He was silent for a few moments, then he quietly began to sing.
"Tershé ke-gyan érvrel e velshaii, mé-shei tei vyé oràn.
Gelshyé varsein je, li-sonshe whermis e usara, blé doràn.
Dosaranshé, merdren je belshe,
Jérsbel médran, jérsbel e brii,
Versarené, li-caland célandri, bersheraldji je e meysan herdràn."
Gwen stared at him again. To her ears, it sounded like an incomprehensible mix of French, Russian and Chinese, with maybe a little Maori thrown in for good measure, and he didn't sound even slightly American. "That... wasn't what you sang before."
"I thought something a little more upbeat would be better," he said, his usual accent slipping neatly back into place. "Easier to memorise."
"Right." She frowned. "Sing it again?" He smiled and repeated the verse and she concentrated on listening hard to the sound of the words. "Tarshie keegan evil —"
"Tershé ke-gyan érvrel e velshaii," Jack corrected helpfully.
"Tershee keg-yan... you're making this up!" Gwen hit his arm as he started laughing, which only made him laugh all the harder. "That is not a real language — you need to tie your tonsils in knots to get the words right!"
"And this from a native Welsh speaker?"
"Oh, shut up!" Gwen folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the car, pouting. "What does it mean, anyway?"
"The song?" Jack cleared his throat, fighting down his amusement. "It's... I'm not quite sure how it would translate exactly. It's something sung at... sports matches, team games. A bit like rugby or football, that sort of thing. It's... well, it's traditionally sung when the audience feels that the senior officiator has made a bad judgement, calling into question the accuracy of his senses, his bloodline and his sexual tendencies, or lack thereof."
Gwen giggled. "So, 'the referee is a blind, bastard wanker'? You're teaching me a terrace chant?"
He grinned. "Some things are universal."
"I don't think I need to know any more. I'd never remember it when I sobered up anyway." She turned her head to look up at the car, belatedly realising that she was leaning against the driver's door. "I hope they don't expect us to be going anywhere too early tomorrow morning."
"They can expect all they want." Jack patted a wheel arch fondly. "After what I've had to drink, I'm not going to be fit for travel until I've got a Full English breakfast and half a bucket of aspirin inside me, at the very least."
Gwen licked her teeth, feeling sediment still stuck there, and grimaced. "I was thinking more of a stomach pump."
She almost poked her tongue out at him, then thought better of it. "So," she said instead, "exactly how many people do speak your tonsil-twisting mystery language, then?"
There was a moment of silence, then he sighed. "Not many. Not in this day and age."
"Shame. I think I'd have liked to have heard a bunch of you singing that at the Millennium Stadium."
"You wouldn't." There was something in his voice that made her frown and really look at him, sitting in the darkness with the starlight barely illuminating the elegant planes of his face. He looked... lonely, she thought, which was not an emotion she had ever thought to attribute to the ever-flirtatious Jack Harkness, and on the heels of that came the realisation that the only way he could hear his curious mother tongue was to speak it himself. She suddenly felt immensely sad on his behalf — the effect of the scrumpy, no doubt — and shuffled closer to drape a friendly arm across his shoulders. He turned his head towards her. "Gwen?"
She smiled and gave him a quick squeeze. "Jack," she started, with all the warm affection of the extremely drunk. "I don't know who the hell you are or where the hell you're really from, and I know that you're not going to tell me, but you're not alone. And you'll find your people again someday, I know you will. Or they'll find you."
He stilled and muttered something incomprehensible under his breath. After a moment he said, "I need you to promise me something."
Gwen blinked at him, startled by the sudden seriousness of his expression. "Jack?"
"If you ever, ever hear anybody else speaking like that, I need you to do two things." He held her gaze fiercely. "First, tell me. And second, get yourself and the others as far away as you can and don't look back. I mean it."
"I promise," she said quietly, crossing the fingers of her free hand in the darkness and feeling like a four year old for doing so. "Jack — what did you do?"
"Enough," he said quietly, then smiled at her reassuringly. "Had a falling out with some former employers. Let's just say that I'm not exactly top of their Christmas card list any more."
"Just top of their hit list?" she ventured.
He shrugged. "They're a long way away and they don't know enough about the Institute's history to risk blind interference this far upstream. I think I'm safe enough for the moment."
Which might be reassuring, Gwen thought to herself, if she had the faintest idea what he was talking about. "You leave everywhere you work like that? With them wanting to kill you?"
"No." His gaze shifted to the skies again, his expression unreadable. "Last place I worked before I joined Torchwood... I don't think they're looking for me at all."
She gave him another squeeze and laid her head on his shoulder, feeling suddenly queasy. "I think I might be sick," she announced solemnly.
"Not on me, you're not!" Jack pushed himself away from her hastily, overbalancing as he did so and collapsing onto his side in an undignified heap. "Aw, crap," he muttered as he tried to manoeuvre himself back into a vaguely upright position. "This isn't fair. What do they put in that stuff?"
Gwen snickered, nausea forgotten at the sight of him floundering drunkenly on the ground. "Dead rats and toxic waste, remember? I did tell you it was a bit strong for you Americans...."
He turned his head to look at her in exasperation... and then they both collapsed into helpless giggles, rolling on their backs on the grass and laughing until they could barely breathe. They lay there gasping until a familiar female voice from somewhere above them said, "Hah! You owe me a tenner, Harper — I told you they weren't shagging."
Gwen raised her head from where it had come to rest on Jack's stomach to see Toshiko and Owen peering down at them. "How long have you been standing there?"
"And how come you're still standing up?" Jack added from beneath her, then mumbled, "I need to pee."
"We heard you howling about something, so we thought we should make sure that nothing was trying to eat you," Toshiko said, then hiccupped and waggled her eyebrows suggestively in the moonlight. "Nothing that you didn't want to get eaten by, anyway."
"And we're still vertical because we're leaning on the car," Owen told them, a little too carefully, then grabbed at the wing mirror to stop himself toppling over sideways. "Which I guess we're going to be sleeping in, because I don't think any of us are sober enough to get the tents out."
"Out, maybe; up, forget it," Gwen said with a laugh and let her head fall back, feeling as much as hearing Jack's grumbled complaint about his bladder. The mission report on this one would likely make for fascinating reading. She'd feel like well-trampled shit in the morning, she suspected, but morning was still hours away and she was surrounded by the people she trusted most in the world. Even the one that she seemed to know less and less about with every hard-won revelation. She smiled and yawned, suddenly tired and utterly content. "Comfy."
"Don't even think about falling asleep there." Jack poked at her shoulder and Gwen frowned as he levered himself up, his movement followed a moment later by a soft electronic beep and the sound of the car unlocking. "Come on, Cooper, time to get you to bed. Not far to crawl...."
"Yes, sir." She winced as her warm pillow slid away and found herself gazing up at the stars that had held Jack's attention for so much of the night. They no longer looked as remote or as friendly as she recalled from her childhood, and she wondered just what it was that Jack had been seeing in the skies. Danger? Adventure? Or home?
Yawning again, she rolled over and stumbled for the back seat of the car, and didn't give the stars another thought.
~ fin ~