Actions

Work Header

Two of Us Are Hung From the Same Twisted Rope

Work Text:

-

I don't know what's wrong with us, they just made us this way
there's a hole in you and me that pulls us together

-

Ianto was making the coffee properly for the first time in five days when everything went to shit.

It had been a long week, full of minor rift alerts and stubborn aliens, nothing too threatening but just enough to keep all of them moving, moving, moving. They'd been subsisting on takeaway and petrol station coffees for days, and Ianto was savoring the opportunity to sink into the warm, hazy comfort of the mechanics of brewing. Tension bled from his shoulders as his hands moved through the familiar performance of grinding, filling, tamping. The muscle memory of this task was so ingrained he could do fully separate tasks with each hand, mind a million miles away. Or more accurately, two floors and several corridors away, silently bemoaning the mess that Gwen had made of the 'S' files while hunting for their file on the Scocoidia Khanate. He couldn't blame her – it had been urgently necessary that she find that old etiquette pamphlet before Jack could accidentally goad the forward gunship into doing anything destructive, and Ianto hadn't been in the Hub to fetch it – but upon taking one look at the file cabinet, Ianto had turned right back around and marched to the coffee machine, knowing he was going to need fortification before he could even contemplate the task.

He had already made and delivered Tosh and Gwen's coffees, knowing they'd all been deprived long enough. His own sat to the side, and he was just tipping scalded milk into Jack's mug at the perfect angle to make it sit on top of the espresso when his head exploded.

The mug smashed against the concrete floor, the stainless steel carafe of milk clanging after it, but Ianto didn't have half a brain cell to spare for the mess because of the morass of emotions flooding him – terror, excruciating pain, abrupt resignation that this was it, this was the end, the Hub had finally vaporized, or Cardiff, or the planet – surely nothing could continue to exist inside a world that could contain this degree of impossible mental contortion – spacetime had to be folding in on itself or something, this must be what falling into a black hole felt like, like, like his entire metaphysical self stretching and ripping and shredding open to be stuffed full of the cores of stars and dark matter -

And after a moment, he felt – well, first, vague surprise that he could still feel anything at all, but on top of that he felt despairingly, overpoweringly, desperately thirsty.

He staggered over to the sink and yanked the tap open all the way, realized he was going to stick his head under the water, immediately told himself he did not want to stick his head under the water because it would make a mess and there were clean glasses drying in the rack right there, thank you, and then told himself he was going to stick his head in the sink no matter what he bloody well wanted; and in a final moment of internal warfare, confused and still in pain, head halfway to the sink, Ianto blacked out.

-

At their respective workstations, Tosh and Gwen heard an increasingly alarming series of noises: a loud thump and rattle from the medical area, followed by a horrific shattering crash and clang from the kitchen, and Ianto's voice crying out in obvious pain.

"Ianto?" Gwen cried, leaping out of her seat.

Tosh, having caught movement in the autopsy bay out of the corner of her eye, called, "Owen?"

Seeing that Gwen was beelining towards Ianto, Tosh veered towards autopsy. At the bottom of the bay, next to the worktable, Owen was collapsed on the tile. Tosh raced down to him and knelt, taking his face in her hands. "Owen? Owen!" He was unresponsive, but... how else could he be? There wasn't even a pulse to check for. God, he looked dead. He was dead! He hadn't been unconscious since he died. They hadn't thought it was possible. What if his time had run out, the resurrection gauntlet's energy had simply stopped? What was the last thing she'd said to him? Not to touch her keyboard, she was almost positive she'd yelled at him not to touch her keyboard. No, no -

She'd worked up enough of a panicky sob around the chant of his name that she almost missed Gwen shouting for her.

Tosh stumbled upright, sick with fear that she was losing two people in the same instant, with no warning. She bolted for the kitchen. Gwen was standing partially within a puddle of spilled coffee and ceramic shards, hands up towards Ianto as if she'd realized at the last moment that maybe she ought not touch him if he could be a threat. And Ianto was -

Not hurt, Tosh realized with dizzying relief, but... drinking water right from the tap? And running it over his head, splashing his face, gasping, letting water run down the back of his shirt and soak through his wool jacket. He was gasping, half-laughter, half-hysteria, maybe pain – it was hard to tell. Tosh tensed, knowing something had to be badly, horrifically wrong.

She stepped back out the doorway and shouted "Jack!" at the top of her lungs.

"Ianto," Gwen was saying, hands out, stepping forward gingerly. "Sweetheart, look at me, tell me what happened. Are you hot? Fever?"

"Thirsty," he gasped, and went back for another drink. "Fuck," he yelled into the water, and laughed and banged his hand against the counter, and Gwen nearly leapt out of her skin at the motion. "Oh, Christ," Ianto all but moaned as he threw his head back, flinging water everywhere, and rubbed at his eyes to clear them. "I'm bloody starving. Fuck. Fuck!" He laughed. His voice didn't sound right.

"We had lunch an hour ago, Ianto," Gwen said, reasonably. "What happened?"

"I'm not -" Ianto said, and turned and stared at Gwen, eyes wide, and then Tosh realized what was different about his voice.

His accent wasn't Welsh.

The next thing Tosh knew, she was being bumped out of the way and shoved back, blocked from Ianto by Jack's back, coat flared by his raised arms, hands up tight on his gun, aimed steadily at Ianto's dripping head. The water hissed at full blast into the sink, wasting. Ianto's hands flew up, and five voices were going at once, terror and panic and anger overlapping in a heady mix.

"Jack -!"

"Who are you?"

"Jack, no!"

"It's me!"

"Who are you!"

"It's me -"

"Jack, it's Owen!"

"- Owen!"

"What the -"

"Put that down -"

"I don't know what happened, I -"

"Jack, don't!"

Tosh nearly had a heart attack when Gwen grabbed the Webley by the barrel and pushed Jack's arms down. Jack stared at her for a moment, stunned by her recklessness, but she glared back with deadly determination. "No guns," she said, unflinching. "So far he's only been thirsty and crass. That's not a threat."

"That is not Ianto," Jack returned, clipped with tension.

"No," said Ianto – no, not Ianto – hands raised. He carefully reached over and turned off the tap. The kitchen was suddenly much quieter. "I'm Owen."

"What," Jack said, flat. Not a question, but a demand.

"I'm not sure what happened -"

"Compromised agent protocol," Jack snapped. He'd relaxed his arms to his sides, but Tosh saw he still had his finger in trigger discipline position, and she knew how fast he could aim.

Ianto-Owen looked Jack straight in the eye and recited Owen's 30-digit code. It was mind-bending to hear Owen's London accent and slightly higher pitch coming through Ianto's vocal cords. It didn't sound precisely like Owen, but it was unmistakable, down to cadence, tics, and mannerisms. There was no way Ianto could do this impersonation.

"Explain," Jack said shortly.

"I wish I could, but -" He stopped, bent slightly at the waist, grimaced. "Ugh, cramp."

"You just chugged a couple liters," Gwen said.

"I'm still thirsty," Ianto-Owen gasped, turning to plant his hands on the counter and leaning on them. He looked pained. "And so hungry. And, shit, I'm hot – and it's so loud -"

Tosh took a few steps forward. "It's snowing out," she said. "The heat's on down here, maybe that's -"

"No," he said, shaking his head sharply, squeezing his eyes shut. "I mean – I mean I forgot what it felt like. Blood. Heartbeat." He coughed out an amazed, rueful laugh. "It's so loud, all this – beating heart, breathing, stomach growling – ah, fuck me, I never thought I'd – I want to get drunk. I want a curry!" He laughed again, too hard, and seemed unable to stop.

"Okay," Jack said slowly, and finally holstered his gun, letting out a slow breath. "Okay, Owen, I know you're overwhelmed. But you have to know something about what did this."

Owen-Ianto nodded. "I was in the autopsy bay, checking out this device some farmer found in his sheep feed last week. It was showing readouts that looked like an EEG so I was thinking it was some kind of medical instrument. Just trying to figure out how it ticked, you know."

"You're still there," Tosh said. "In autopsy. Your body's collapsed."

"Damn," said Owen-Ianto. "Really?"

Jack had already turned and was striding towards autopsy. Tosh hesitated to follow – she turned to Owen-Ianto instead. Owen, she should just call him Owen. She reached out and touched the back of his hand where it rested against the counter. He sucked in a sharp breath, looking at her fingers, and she snatched her hand back. "Sorry," she said, "did that -?"

"No, no, I just haven't -" He reached out and took her hand again, eyes widening at the contact of his palm against skin. His hands were wet, but his palms were still warm. "It's just, I can feel you," he breathed. "I'm not numb."

"But it -" Gwen hesitated before taking a bracing breath and pushing on. "But that's because it's Ianto who can feel," she said, looking sorry to even say it. "So where is he?"

Owen blinked and shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure."

Jack came back. "I've put your body up on the table, Owen. At a glance I'd say nothing's changed with it, so I don't think it'll decay any more than when you were still inside it. But I didn't see any new devices around. What were you working on?"

"It was this tablet thing," Owen said, making a vague rectangle with his hands. It was so odd to see Ianto talking with his hands like Owen always did. "Uh, sort of this size, had two screens, folded in half with the screens together but I couldn't see how the hinge worked. Looked a bit like if the Jetsons had a Nintendo DS. One of the screens was showing a readout but the oth-"

"Wait, say that again," Jack interrupted, narrowing his eyes at Owen. "Looked like a -"

"Uh, DS? You know, for games."

"Shit," Jack said, running a hand through his hair. "We need to find it."

"What is it?"

Jack shook his head. "Nianagantha tech. Pure coincidence that that game device looks so much like one, but when it came out on the market I had a weird few months of being disoriented every time I saw this 17th Dynasty – that's, uh, the 4800s in Terra Standard, I think – device in all these childrens' hands."

"Is it medical?" asked Owen.

"Sort of," said Jack, wincing. "It was most often used in therapy by my time. Totally illegal to sell to someone without a license. Extremely delicate piece of tech, definitely not something you'd let kids handle."

"And it does...?" Owen prompted, looking remarkably just like Ianto when Ianto was glaring at Jack for making a mess.

"Mind sharing," Jack said, finally.

"Mind sharing," Owen repeated flatly.

"Seems to be more mind replacement," Gwen said, brows furrowed.

"Or maybe more like... control sharing. It's not supposed to be so complete," Jack said. "Only a little blending at the edges. Not... dumping two brains into one head."

"It's just me in here," Owen said, crossing his arms.

"Is it?" Jack asked, eyes narrowing.

Owen shifted his weight. He looked unnerved. "I mean, Christ, I hope so." He attempted a laugh, but it was flat and nervous.

"I don't," Jack said coolly. "Because if you've erased Ianto and overwritten him with yourself, I'm going to have a problem with that."

"Uh," Owen said, going pale. "Fuck. Didn't think about that. Sure he's not passed out in my old digs, being dead?"

Jack shook his head. "It shouldn't trigger a swap. It goes one way. Projects one consciousness very slightly into another, allowing one person to feel another's feelings briefly. Like I said, used a lot for therapy. Counseling."

“This is not a slight projection, Jack,” Owen said. He gestured at his – Ianto's – body. “I am all the way in here. All up in Ianto's grille. And I'm sure as hell not feeling his feelings.”

“The moment of transfer,” Jack insisted, stepping towards Owen and studying him intensely, as though looking for the echo of Ianto behind Owen's voice. “Remember it, try to break it down. How did it feel?”

“It just hurt,” Owen said. “Just pain, that's all. I felt like my head was ripping open and all of me was being squashed down into nothingness, and I -” He suddenly stopped.

“What?” Jack said, stepping even closer.

“I felt... thirsty,” Owen said slowly. “I knew everything felt horrible and wrong and different but I was just so thirsty, I haven't drunk anything in months, the instinct was overpowering. I went for the sink but I thought – or maybe not me, but something in my head didn't like it, thought I shouldn't do it. Made me look over at the cups and think, you know, 'don't be stupid, use a glass.'”

Jack released a held breath, some tension fading from his shoulders. “Sounds like he might still be in there.”

“It's just me right now,” Owen said. “But suppose me jumping in knocked him out?”

“We need readings,” Jack said, taking Owen by the shoulder and steering him out the door. “And find that tablet. Tosh, get ready to back Owen up on analyzing that device – and Gwen, I hate to ask, but could you clean up in here?”

Gwen startled into action, looking down at the floor, where she'd left a couple of milky shoe prints away from the puddle. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah, can do. Yell as soon as you have anything?”

“I will!” Tosh called over her shoulder, following Jack and Ia – no, Owen, to the autopsy bay.

Owen paused at the top of the stairs, staring down at the body on the table. He made a low sound of disgust. “Christ, look at that sad sack,” he muttered, bounding down the rest of the stairs in a very un-Ianto-ish way. He poked Owen's – his own – still chest. “Looks like any old meat suit that needs to be put on ice before it starts stinking. Sure it isn't going to decay?”

“Readings,” Jack said firmly.

“On it,” said Tosh, pulling out her PDA and rapidly directing the ambient sensors in the bay to begin taking scans.

Owen bent down and looked all around the floor, muttering to himself about which way he'd fallen, where he was looking. He clambered down and bent to look under a cart, and as he reached out to feel around, he grunted in displeasure and sat back up. He yanked his – Ianto's – tie out from around his neck with a sharp rasp of silk. “Hate these things,” he said, “can't bloody move,” and then wrestled the suit jacket off as well and tossed it to the side, on the floor.

“Whoa, hey,” said Jack, sweeping in to pick up the clothes before they could get stepped on. “Not your stuff, treat it with a little respect, yeah?”

Owen was back on the floor, grasping under the autoclave. “It slid under here,” he said, muffled. “If Teaboy's stubby little fingers would just – reach -”

Tosh thought she heard Jack mutter something about Ianto having great fingers, while he folded the jacket and tie and draped them over the rail, out of the way.

“Got it!” Owen cried, rolling up with something that really did look remarkably like a DS in his hand. He scrambled to his feet. “Okay, let me see – shit, this looks completely different from what it was reading before. Well, no, actually, it looks -”

Tosh had leaned around his elbow to look at the screens. “Doubled,” she said. She pointed at the graphs. “One is minimized. That must be Ianto. Oh – a little spike. Was that when I said his name?”

“Ianto?” Jack asked immediately, striding towards Owen. He reached out and touched Owen's temple – Ianto's temple – with a couple of fingertips. “Ianto, you in there?”

“Definite activity,” Owen said, tracking the readings.

“Try not to think so much,” Jack said. “Ianto, if you're in there, fight it. Wake up.”

“Hey,” Owen objected. “I'm not suppressing him on purpose or anything.”

Tosh pointed. “That spike was bigger. And another -”

Owen suddenly winced and clapped a hand to his forehead. “Oh,” he croaked. “Shit. Okay, mate, I know – you don't have to pu-uussshhh fuck, god fucking damn!”

Jack put both his hands on Owen-Ianto's face. “Gently,” he said. “Coexist. I know you guys struggle with that at the best of times, but you can do it. Both of you just – give each other some space.”

Owen continued to curse under his breath, eyes screwed closed tight, until, at last, the last word came out as an explosive “Ffyc!” and he sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, staggering over nothing. Jack held him up, hands going to his arms.

“Ianto?” Jack asked, and Tosh pretended not to notice how giddy with relief he looked.

“Jack?” Ianto returned, and the short 'a' vowel was distinctly different, the glottal 'k' further back in the throat, the voice deeper.

Jack pulled Ianto into a tight hug, gusting out a breathy laugh of relief. “Okay,” he said, voice slightly shaky. “Okay. We can deal with this.” He laughed again. “Now it's kinda funny, actually.”

“It fucking hurt,” Ianto said shakily. “I know what happened, a bit. It was blurry, like – from a long way off, or underwater. Is he gone?”

And then, making Jack and Tosh both freeze, Ianto answered himself in Owen's voice: “Right here, mate.”

Ianto froze, looking past Jack into the middle distance. He started talking, mouth moving all in one go, accent and pitch changing drastically from sentence to sentence. “Owen? Yeah, still here. You're conscious? Seems so. I can't... feel you in my head or anything, should I? I don't know, mate, I'm seeing through your eyes but I haven't got control of anything. Can you take back over? Maybe? Should I try? No! You said it was like being far away, but I'm right here, present and accounted for. God, this is annoying, isn't it? Can't we talk to each other in my head? Stop for a second, I'm going to try telling you something.” Ianto went silent for a long moment, while Jack and Tosh just stared. At length, Ianto – really Ianto, first – said, “Did you try? I didn't get anything.” And Owen said, “Yeah, you would've reacted to that if you'd heard it.”

“This is completely mental,” Tosh breathed.

Jack furrowed his brow. “Ianto, can you let Owen take control and still be present, like he is?”

Ianto swallowed. “No idea. I don't really want to.”

Jack nodded, but with audible regret he said, “Yeah, but we're probably going to need Owen and Tosh on point with this device, and it'll be better if he's driving instead of giving you second-hand instructions.”

Ianto sighed, closed his eyes for a moment, and nodded.

“Just test it out, first,” said Tosh. “See if you can let him blink for you or something.”

Under his breath, Ianto muttered, “Bloody Torchwood.” Then he closed his eyes and said, “All right, come on, I'm doing nothing with my left hand. Letting it go. You can have it. I'm right-handed, Ianto. Yeah, so am I, I'm not letting you have that one until I know I can get it back. Wanker.” He released a measured breath, and the fingers of his left hand twitched.

Ianto's eyes flew open and he stared down at his hand forming a fist, then releasing it. “Oh,” he said, and gave a little hysterical laugh. “Oh, that is the worst thing. Fuck, fuck, stop! Stop!” His hand suddenly flew to his chest and he clutched it, breathing hard, eyes too wide. “I hate that,” he said, shaky. And then, right back to himself, “Not my favorite thing, either. It's like trying to play a video game with different people controlling the movement and the camera. If I take over both, can you still watch and listen like I'm doing? Okay. Okay, fine, try it.”

“Ianto?” Jack asked, frowning.

Ianto closed his eyes and went still again. He took a deep breath, let it out. Took another, and then jerked. “I've -” He slowly raised his hands, clenching and unclenching them, then opening his eyes to look. Owen's voice said, “Yeah, I'm driving. Ianto, you in the passenger seat? Yep, it's bloody awful. But you can see and all? I cannot tell you how much I hate the sound of you using my voice. Well, it's no picnic for me, either. Yeah? Stop enjoying touching my skin. What? You're rubbing my hands.”

Tosh looked down, startled – one of Ianto's hands was running along the other, thumb tracing the lines in his palm, until he suddenly gripped them together.

“Hey!” Owen's voice objected. “My hands,” Ianto said firmly. “Yeah, well,” said Owen's voice, “what are you planning to do about the fact that I-you-we kind of need a piss? You're going away, is what. How, exactly? I was gone for a while, deep. You go there. I don't know how. Figure it out. This is stupid – no, Ianto, listen to me, I haven't had a piss in months, I kind of – What? I just want to feel it! What? I won't say anything – Out! Out!”

Breathing hard, Ianto stumbled again, and when he opened his eyes, his expression was hard. He shook his head at Jack. “This is going to end in tears,” he said grimly.

Jack was trying and failing to hide a huge grin behind his hand. “Oh,” he said, “I'm sure.”

And that was the moment Gwen chose to appear at the top of the autopsy steps, looking earnestly concerned. “I heard shouting,” she said. “What's the latest?”

-

"I don't know how you stand being so restricted," Ianto's mouth muttered to his brain, as he rifled through his employee locker.

"It's only restrictive if you have bad posture," he retorted to himself, and pulled out the jumper and old, loose pair of jeans he'd left here for emergencies only. He supposed this qualified as an emergency – he was about to strangle himself if Owen didn't shut up about the fit of his clothes.

"I mean, frankly I'm surprised you haven't got any weird fetish gear on under all this," Owen said, and Ianto bit his own lip hard enough to make Owen hiss, "ow!"

Ianto hesitated for a moment with the clothes in hand. He'd used the lav earlier with his eyes closed, mortified, and Owen hadn't said anything but Ianto couldn't help knowing that Owen was right there at the surface, feeling it. And Ianto had a hard time truly fussing at him for being invasive, because of his bizarre extenuating circumstances of having been dead for four months. He wasn't being gross, not really; Ianto couldn't fully begrudge him the chance to experience being alive again. But, ugh, if only it didn't have to be in his body.

So Ianto finally gave up, braced himself, and stripped. Owen had seen him naked before in the decontamination showers, anyway, in the occasional biohazard crisis that called for using them. And it wasn't like he was looking in a mirror, or even taking off his pants.

"Oh, that's better," Ianto felt his own voice half-sigh, half-moan in relief as he pulled on the loose-fitting jeans, and he made an angry noise at himself, followed by Owen's laugh at his own irritation.

"This is exhausting," Ianto muttered, and stomped back upstairs to see if things were progressing towards a solution.

It had been two hours. Ianto and Owen were finally settling into what it felt like to share control – and also what it felt like to fight each other for control, which was why they were now in a truce, attempting to play nice for a while. When they both tried to talk at the same time, a strange grinding noise came out, and Ianto had bitten his tongue hard enough to draw blood. When they tried to move in contradictory ways, it seemed like Ianto's body had severe palsy. He'd fallen twice, and his hip and knee now ached like the devil from hitting tile floor hard. He'd refused to take a painkiller because both Ianto and Owen pettily wanted each other to feel the punishment for being uncooperative, but now that time was wearing on, both of their wills were becoming diminished by exhaustion.

At the top of the stairs into the Hub's common area, Owen muttered, "Hey. Cabinet to the left of the sample fridge, top shelf, blue bottle." Ianto veered towards autopsy, found the bottle, and tipped out two pills per Owen's instruction. He dry-swallowed them and felt Owen's pulse of irritation in the back of his mind. They'd finally begun to be able to feel each other's emotions, just a bit – a flare here or there, only if it was strong enough.

The pain in his knee subsided and Ianto sighed, closing his eyes momentarily in relief. He turned and made his way back up to the workstations, heading towards Tosh and her furious typing. The Nianagantha device was clamped in one of her scanners, and from the looks of things, she had finally cracked the interface.

She glanced up as she saw him approach. "Hi. Feeling better? And, um, who...?"

"Me," said Ianto. "He's here and he won't shut up, of course, but I've got control."

Tosh smiled at him and rolled her chair slightly askew so that he could move closer to see her work. "Well, this is where I stand – a bit of bad news, I'm afraid. The reason I'm having such a hard time with it, and probably the reason it didn't function like it was supposed to in the first place, is that there's corruption in the code. It does internally record its own status, like a black box, so I can see from the time codes that it must have been deactivated when it came through the rift, but became primed at some point around the time you went out to that farm to pick it up, Ianto."

"See if I ever go on a low-threat retrieval again," Ianto muttered.

"Well, it seems to have taken an isomorphic imprint off you when you touched it then. And then, as far as I can recall, the only other person who physically contacted it was Owen. Because you filed it, and he took it out to examine..."

Owen's voice piped up, "So once it had finished taking a second biological imprint, it did its little Freaky Friday act?"

"That's the thing," Tosh sighed. "It shouldn't have, but the corruption in the code seems to be around the execution commands. You should have needed to trigger the overlay, and like Jack said, it should have been partial. But there's a sort of... kernel panic that cascades when the overlay command starts to execute. I'm seeing if I can untangle the issue, but if I can't, I'm probably going to have to reverse engineer the code itself from scratch." She looked crestfallen already, as though the very idea made her tired. "I'm sorry, Ianto - well, both of you. I don't know how long this is going to take."

"Ballpark?" Owen asked tersely.

"A few days?" Tosh said. "Depends on rift activity, whatever else comes up. I know it's mad, but from all the readings it's showing of the two of you, you appear quite stable. So if neither of you are in danger from this, um..." She hesitated, looking apologetic. "Jack said if it's not an immediate danger, if other rift activity comes up, it has to take priority."

"Son of a -" Owen's voice began, but cut off into a guttural grinding that made Tosh wince. Ianto's jaw flexed in a harsh tic and then his own voice broke in, hoarse. "That's fine." He looked grim. "It makes sense, it's the right call."

"I'm sorry," Tosh said. "But I've not got anything else now, so I'm working on this as hard as I can."

It was already approaching sundown – Ianto knew Tosh would pull an all-nighter if he didn't step in now, and a faint pulse of external compassion and concern told him that Owen was actually feeling the same way. Ianto was confident he spoke for both of them when he said, "Get some sleep, Tosh, yeah? Give it another couple of hours but go home tonight. If it's not a danger, then don't run yourself ragged over it."

She chewed her lip. "All right. But I know you have to hate this. I swear I'll get you sorted as soon as I can."

Ianto couldn't deny that he did hate it, but part of him resisted glancing over at the autopsy bay, where Owen's body still lay on the table, cold and lifeless. He took a deep breath, focused on his own heartbeat for a moment, thought about never being able to taste or breathe or feel anything ever again. Of course he didn't like this – no one expected him to – and this was probably not the way Owen would prefer to be alive, either, but here they were, now, already done and stuck this way. Might as well tolerate it.

He wasn't sure if he hallucinated the faint pulse of relief from the back of his mind.

"We'll live," Ianto said, with a slight, sardonic smile.

But then, of course, followed the question of who was doing what for the rest of the evening. Ianto turned to walk with purpose towards the kitchen and stopped abruptly, paralysis clenching in his calves. He gritted his teeth. "I'm just going to clean up," he muttered. "Gwen already did that, I've got a couple of labs running I need to check on. Yeah, Gwen cleaned, that's why I've got to – listen, what's more important, a smudgy countertop or groundbreaking medical experiments? Okay – fine, but I need to fix the filing from the Scocoi – listen to yourself! Cleaning and filing take backseat, man! The whole fucking apparatus collapses if you can't find the reference you need, you complete arse, do you understand how vital the archives are to your precious tissue cultures? Those tissue cultures could cure cancer, you fucking – You're working on bloody slime molds, not cancer, don't act like – Yeah but I could be working on – You think I don't know what your projects are at all times? I keep – Out of my shit, Ianto! Just think about lunch orders and fucking J-" He snapped off into a stuttering growl, fist half-raised as if he intended to punch himself.

Gwen had just reappeared from the tourist office mid-rant and hurriedly dropped her armload of pizza boxes off on a workstation before striding up to Ianto and grabbing at his raised hand. "Hey, hey, there, Gollum and Smeagol, let's not have a breakdown, yeah? Calm down."

"Oh, nice," Owen said sarcastically. "And I'm Gollum, am I?"

"You're both acting like the evil twin right now, you twats," Gwen snapped. "Open that hand, you're not going to have a fistfight with yourself."

With great difficulty, Ianto counted to ten and let go of his low sizzle of anger. In the back of his mind, he felt Owen's petty resistance attempting to reign itself in as well. If they didn't keep getting on each other's nerves like this, it might be fascinating to focus on their ability to feel each other's minds working – but Ianto found it difficult to care, at the moment.

"Right," said Gwen, letting Ianto's hands go. "Have a bite to eat and then just go home, yeah? I can fix that file cabinet, Ianto – no, shh, I know the bloody alphabet, it isn't going to be the end of the world – and Owen, if you'll leave instructions, I'll do whatever your experiments need."

Ianto and Owen both opened their shared mouth to object, and a choked cough came out.

"Shut up," said Gwen, not unkindly. "And you can take it to Jack, but he'll say the same thing. You're impossible like this. You can figure out a rota or something tomorrow."

"A rota," Ianto said, affronted. "For use of my own body."

"Owen isn't wrong," Gwen pointed out. "He's got things he needs to do, too. He can't help being stuck in there."

"Yeah," said Owen's voice, and Ianto's mouth scowled.

"And Owen, shut up about Ianto's work," Gwen pushed. "You know perfectly well we wouldn't get anything done around here if he weren't greasing the wheels."

A grumpy huff.

Nevertheless, Gwen was right, and Ianto took to the sofa behind Tosh's workstation to eat a slice of pizza in silent, simmering irritability. Or at least he tried to, but the moment he opened a box and smelled pepperoni, Owen wrenched his way into control, making Ianto stumble, and Ianto had the offputting sensation of his mouth flooding with saliva without his own input. Owen had inhaled two pieces and was halfway through a third when Ianto wrestled his right hand back into his control and pulled the pizza away from his face.

"Slow down," Ianto mumbled, mouth full. But his left hand, moving independently, took the slice out of his right and brought it back to his mouth. Ianto relinquished control with a huff. He couldn't begrudge Owen being hungry, or overwhelmed by rediscovering food. The feedback of Owen's hedonistic pleasure was tingling at the back of his mind in an unnerving way, no less unnerving for being deeply enjoyable.

"Don't get off on this," Owen said, taking a fourth slice.

"I won't if you won't," Ianto retorted, and Owen silenced him with pizza.

Ianto put his foot down at slice five, hissing at Owen that he wasn't going to be stuck with burning off an entire pizza's worth of calories, and promising that he'd shove Owen into the forefront to suffer from the inevitable heartburn later if he kept pushing it. "Fine," Owen huffed, looking longingly at the rest of the food.

Small blessings: Tosh and Gwen seemed to be making a concerted effort to ignore Ianto and his passenger, in acknowledgment of their discomfort at being watched while they argued and staggered and made a fool of Ianto's body. And Jack had disappeared into his office ages ago, and hadn't made a peep since.

Ianto decided to just leave without trying to say anything to Jack. Best to not open that can of worms at all. Sighing, and hoping that Owen couldn't feel his disappointment (or at least, if he could sense it, couldn't figure out the reason), Ianto called good night to Tosh and Gwen and went upstairs to the tourist office to get his coat and scarf. It had been pelting down with snow all day, and he'd be lucky if all the roads were clear back to his...

Coat on, scarf half-wrapped around his neck, Ianto froze.

"My flat," both of him said.

Ianto shook his head. "My flat," he insisted.

"I haven't slept in my own bed in -" Owen began.

"No," Ianto said flatly. "My back, my mattress." But he hesitated. "Ugh, I don't want you in my bed."

"Oh, thanks," Owen said, dripping with sarcasm. "At least I won't make it smell like a morgue. Oh, I get to see your place! I can go digging for secrets when you're asleep." He snickered.

Ianto was faltering. "I could just stay -"

"No," Owen groaned. "I had enough aches from sleeping on that sofa when I was alive, thanks."

"I didn't mean..." Ianto began, but drifted off. Of course he didn't sleep on the sofa when he stayed at the Hub.

"Oh, hell no," Owen said, abruptly catching on.

"Of course not!" Ianto snapped, offended, and finished wrapping his scarf. "Like I'd touch him with you around!"

But the door behind the desk chose that moment to scrape open, and a too-familiar American accent said, "Ianto? Thought you'd gone."

Ianto whipped around, heart thudding. "Yeah, yep," he babbled. "Going. Sir. Ugh, don't make me call him that. Shut up!"

Jack blinked and tried to repress a grin without much success. "Should I offer you a ride, or do you think you're safe to drive like this?"

"If Owen won't backseat drive, yeah," Ianto said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Right, see you tomorrow." He turned hurriedly.

"Ianto -" Jack's hand fell on Ianto's arm, stopping him gently. "You're okay, right? With my order to Tosh?"

Ianto made himself relax and turn, and offer Jack a smile. "Yeah, it's fine. I'd have made the same call."

"But there's nothing else pressing right now, so maybe she'll crack it soon."

"Don't say that," said Ianto dryly. "You'll jinx it."

Jack laughed ruefully. "Sorry, you're right. Touch wood." He studied Ianto's face. "Okay." His mouth twitched in an evil little grin. "Sure you don't want to stay over and let me -"

"Goodbye, goodnight, okay," Ianto said, turning abruptly and marching for the door. "Christ, Ianto, what are you, fourteen? Shut up! You've got it bad – Stop, stop it, I hate you -"

Jack was laughing like a maniac. "Good night, Owen!" he called, as Ianto shoved his way out into the winter chill.

-

Ianto flicked on the lights over his bathroom sink, put his hands flat on the counter, looked himself in the eyes in the mirror, and said, "Ground rules."

And replied, immediately, "Oh, that's weird, don't look at me."

He grimaced, looked down into the sink, and said, "Seriously, Owen. I'm all right with sharing for work. At the Hub, you can have half the time. If it comes to field work, or if you're needed as medic, you take over. I'll even let you have eating, if you promise not to make me sick or add a stone to me. But in my home it's all me, and you sit back and shut up."

"Ianto, I'm not actually going to ruin your flat."

"No, you won't, because if you give me any reason to suspect that you will, I will handcuff myself to the bed and leave a message for someone to come let me out in the morning."

"Ooh, kink-"

"Don't even start." Ianto turned the water on and dunked his face into a cupped handful, rubbing his eyes. "Okay, I feel even more dirty just doing this, but I have got to have a shower."

"Nothing I haven't seen before."

"God," Ianto groaned. "I hate you." He pulled the jumper off over his head, and resigned himself to trying to think as little as possible about his body until Owen vacated the premises.

The push-pull continued all evening, much as Ianto thought Owen really was making an honest effort to take a back seat. He turned on the television and spent nearly an hour arguing with Owen about films ("If the only eyes I can see through are going to be aimed at something for hours, it is sure as hell not going to be in black and white! Or French!") before abandoning the effort in a huff. Looking over his bookshelves didn't help much either. ("That is the Ian Fleming collection of a man with a real problem, Ianto. Oh, fuck off.")

Eventually, Ianto gave up and headed for the bedroom. He'd put on his sleep clothes right out of the shower, so at least he didn't have to strip down again at all, but – he caught himself, hand on the doorknob to the room.

“What?” Owen demanded. “Haven't we been over this? I pinkie-promise to keep my trap shut. What have you got in there anyway, like a sex swing, or a gimp suit, or -”

Ianto banged his forehead into the door just hard enough to make Owen yelp in pain, then pushed inside, simmering with embarrassment. As he'd just realized, the signs were not at all hidden. Two of Jack's shirts and a pair of braces were thrown haphazardly over a chair back, and the bedclothes were horribly rumpled.

“Oh my god, you didn't want me to see that you don't make your bed?” Owen said, disbelieving.

Ianto stalked over to the bedside table, picked up the half-empty pump bottle of lube, and shoved it in the drawer out of sight, ears burning.

“Oh,” said Owen.

Ianto yanked the covers back with too much force, got in bed, turned the light off, and punched the pillow before rolling into what had to be the most tense, least sleep-ready position of all time.

“Stop it,” Owen said, more quietly than Ianto was expecting.

Ianto radiated his hatred of this whole circumstance as hard as he could, hoping Owen was feeling it.

“I get it,” Owen said into the dark. Ianto closed his eyes. If it weren't for his mouth moving, and the way the sound resonated in his ears, he could almost pretend Owen was talking to him from somewhere else in the room. “You're a private person, and this is absolute shit. I really am sorry.”

Ianto took a few deep breaths, calming himself. “I know,” he said, finally. “I know. It's nobody's fault. We need a new protocol of -”

“- not touching unknown artifacts with bare skin?”

“Yes.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

Ianto sighed, opened his eyes. Stared into the empty side of the bed. Rolled over to face the window, and pretended he wasn't cold. He tugged the duvet higher over his shoulder, and finally relaxed. “Owen,” he muttered, “can you even sleep?”

“Dunno. I've missed it like hell, though. Guess we'll find out.”

-

Owen hasn't dreamed in months. He can't sleep anymore, obviously. He has learned how to transcend boredom into a state of profound internal absence, a fugue where time doesn't really pass any faster, but at least he retains little memory of how painfully nonexistent he is in all ways other than the mental. So no, he hasn't dreamed since...

Bullet, punching in. It nicks his aorta and stays in his chest, rebounding from a rib, caroming off a vertebra, lodging in his lung. It's still in there. Cut him open to take it out and he'll become a pile of chunks that can't be glued back together. It's why he died so quickly, the aorta and the lung; he's seen people survive GSWs that look so similar, from the outside, but it's never about what's outside, with the human body, it's about how badly the innards have been scrambled, and his are scrambled eggs on a hungover Saturday morning. God, hangovers, he misses even those, misses nausea and how foul a mouth can taste – he'll give anything to taste anything, even food he hates, he hates cantaloupe but he'd eat a whole one just to remember sweet, he'd bite his own tongue just to taste the

blood in his mouth, hot copper iron char, carbon flakes on his tongue, skin sloughing

Owen writhes away from the flames, sinking into slow molasses fear, no, no, don't want to feel this

Ianto hasn't dreamed in months. He has been content, finally, for the first time in so long. He has warm arms around him most nights, and the promise of them when they're absent. He has soft breathing to listen to, or the rustle of pages as Jack reads in the dark because he doesn't sleep as much as Ianto does, but he can see well enough by the moonlight, he says, and he likes to stay. In the vulnerability of sleep, Ianto lets himself believe that Jack isn't lying about liking to stay.

Nothing stays. People, places, in the crimson chaos of this burning building – floors fall out, walls collapse, he's running along the ceiling of someone else's office, he jumps through a smashed window and the body of the person running in front of him disappears from the waist up in red mist. It is an Escherian nightmare-scape, the stairs he runs upside down that lead to sideways doors and vertical ceilings and the bowels of the earth. His hands won't stay on anything, doorknobs sliding out of his grip, sleeves tearing off in his hands when he tries to pull someone back, a face he loves slipping out of his palms, mouth full of hot blood and carbon flakes, swallowing to find a voice and knowing he's swallowing the ashes of people he knows -

Ianto hasn't dreamed in – a jumble of body parts, a chest open, a heart spasming, a raw scramble of – Owen hasn't dreamed of tasting – blood was the last thing in his mouth when the lights went out and he hasn't dreamed of – ash and carbon char and a bit like sweet barbecue and blood and blood and blood and -

-

They barely made it to the toilet. Ianto was't actually sure who was in control, but they were so in tandem it didn't matter. He couldn't tell how long it took the heaves to pass – long enough for them to be dry for several minutes towards the end. Phantom charcoal lingered in his mouth. Even the bile couldn't quite cover it up.

Hands shaking, Ianto flushed and pulled himself upright, over to the sink. He tried not to think for another long few minutes, rinsing his mouth, splashing his face, letting his hands rest under the cold water until they were only trembling from chill.

He turned off the tap, stared into the drain. After a moment, he croaked, "Owen?"

And Owen, voice wavering and small, replied, "Don't go back to sleep?"

Ianto closed his eyes and nodded.

-

It was a relief to argue over coffee.

They'd managed three hours of sleep before their brutal awakening. Ianto had dozed on the couch for a few minutes around dawn, later, but it turned out not to be restful because it was then that they discovered that one of them could be asleep while the other was not. Ianto had drifted off, and then Owen had opened his eyes, surprised to have been handed the reins. In the spirit of experimentation Owen had stood up and walked around a bit, gone to the sink to pour a glass of water, and Ianto had woken with a panicked shout at the sensation of being waterboarded in his sleep. After drying off the counters and promising not to take any more solo strolls, Owen had insisted on dressing Ianto's body back into jeans and a heavy wool jumper while Ianto sulked, irritable and groggy.

Ianto allowed Owen to revel briefly in the sensation of brushing teeth. It was almost nice, being able to let his brain laze back and drift while his body got ready for the day on its own. Right up until the moment Owen walked them into the kitchen and looked at the coffee machine, and Ianto bumped him gracelessly aside.

"Jesus," Owen grunted. "I won't touch your precious, Smeagol."

Ianto rolled his eyes but he set about making coffee nonetheless. Some mornings he waited until getting to work, but he could tell this was going to be a miserable, long day in need of as much caffeine as he could get his hands on.

He didn't think much about Owen's tastes as he worked on autopilot – although he'd made Owen enough milky-sweet monstrosities at the Hub to understand where the discomfort was coming from as he ground his dark roast beans and put in far more scoops than Owen would have tolerated. But a few minutes later, when he poured the opaque black gold into a mug and only hit it with a dash of cream, Owen finally squirmed into the forefront like a child resisting a nasty vegetable.

"No, come on, you've got to be kidding," Owen whined.

Ianto blinked down at his perfectly ordinary, everyday coffee and suddenly remembered the last whole-milk latte with triple caramel he'd made for Owen before he'd died.

"Eugh," Ianto said. "No."

"For god's sake, man, put some sugar in that at least."

Ianto felt the headache threatening to bloom behind his right eye. He raised the cup to his mouth and breathed in the steam, trying to drown Owen out in smell.

"Smells like tar," Owen complained, and Ianto shut him up with a sip. Somehow he managed to swallow, even though he could feel how desperately Owen wanted him to spit it out.

"Ugh," Ianto said again, slapping his own cheek lightly. "I'm letting you have a lot, Owen, but you can't have my coffee. I am not putting that disgusting hot milkshake concoction in my mouth."

"Just – some sugar? Please?"

Eventually Ianto gave in and added a bit more cream and a reluctant half-spoon of sugar. He wrinkled his nose at it, and Owen wasn't entirely pleased either. The nature of compromise, he supposed – no one got what they wanted. The bickering about tastes lasted all the way to the Hub, and at least it beat discussing what had happened last night.

Ianto entered the relative warmth of the tourist office with a sigh, knocked snow off his shoes by the door and pulled off his coat and scarf. He rounded the counter and booted up the ancient desktop computer, and felt a tug of surprise at the back of his mind. He could feel Owen's metaphorical breath on his neck while he pulled up the email and sent off a few missives to the effect that he was ill and that the tourist office would be closed for at least a week. He ended the last with a brief congratulation to Bethan for her daughter's placing best overall in her district's primary school science fair.

“What the hell?” Owen's voice muttered.

“You knew this was a real office,” Ianto retorted. “How did you think it ran?”

“Benign neglect.”

Ianto snorted, made sure the door was locked, and headed downstairs. He didn't expect to see anyone else this early, and he wasn't disappointed. Owen held his silence in the back of Ianto's mind while Ianto went on his morning rounds, absently straightening everything to its rightful place. Three of Gwen's favorite microball pens, which she was perpetually losing, retrieved from random surfaces and set in the cup at her desk; a quick once-over of Tosh's keyboard with a can of compressed air, because she never paid attention to how much lint collected under it and then wondered why her W key kept sticking; toner replaced in the printer, a scrap of paper unjammed from the copier, haphazard receipts collected into a file for later invoicing; a pizza crust unwedged from the seat of the sofa by Tosh's desk; rubbish collected, papers sorted, mainframe woken from sleep mode, overnight non-urgent alerts rapidly catalogued and all but one discarded as false, the last forwarded to Gwen with a flag to follow up with the police.

It took no more than twenty minutes. By the time Ianto was situated in the kitchen, working on Tosh's coffee, over two dozen minor annoyances had vanished without a trace.

“What thankless thing did you do for me?” Owen asked, while Ianto ran a shot of espresso and measured out milk.

“Tightened the wheel brake on the left rear of the gurney every week or so. You'd always forget to turn off the autoclave when you left. And I'm sure I've washed and sterilized ten thousand gel casting trays.”

“I wondered why we never ran out.”

“You'd be the worst roommate who ever un-lived,” Ianto muttered. Owen surprised him with an honest laugh in return.

Tosh arrived while her coffee was still piping. She looked tired, and Ianto kept his smile warm and his expression neutral for her, giving away nothing that might make her feel under more pressure, or guilty for not being able to work faster.

“Oh, please tell me Ianto made this,” Tosh said, smiling as she hummed with pleasure around the first sip of coffee.

“Hey, I'm getting the hang of it,” Owen objected.

“Still feeling stable?” Tosh asked, setting down her coffee and her purse and looking at Ianto with concern.

“As far as we can tell,” Ianto said. “I've agreed to let Owen take over today, unless or until something comes up. He's at your disposal.”

Tosh furrowed her brow. “How was the night? I was thinking about how the division of consciousness seems to be working here and the scans seem to show that there's nothing, um, physiological separating you, it's purely a function of active self-awareness – of self-concept, I mean, you know, both of you having a fixed psychological boundary of what is and isn't you, so you must recognize when an input is from the other mind – so if those boundaries weakened or blurred, like when you're asleep, I had started to worry -”

“Tosh,” Owen cut in, shaping Ianto's mouth into Owen's most reassuring smirk, “we slept like a couple of drugged babies.”

“Oh,” Tosh said, blinking. She smiled with relief. “Good! I was worrying.”

“We're right as rain,” Owen lied through Ianto's teeth. “Let's just see if we can crack this code before Ianto and I get too much more Odd Couple, okay?”

Tosh beamed, and dove into work. Ianto sunk back, letting Owen take over listening while Tosh launched into a spiel about what she'd done so far.

The day passed largely without incident. The only minor pings off the rift were energy fluctuations too small to be actual incursions. Gwen had barely arrived before she was out again, and spent most of the day working with the police on an ongoing issue they'd been seeing with tainted ecstasy on the back-alley market. The fact that the impurity originated off-planet had baffled their toxicology labs. Ianto suffered under a combination of intense boredom and pulses of irritability at the small things he kept not being able to do – Owen didn't think to pick up a pen that fell off a table, didn't save his active files often enough, didn't sit or type exactly the same way (which led to Ianto's back and wrists starting to ache by midafternoon). For a while, Ianto toyed with the idea of taking a nap, but the morning's experience of dream-drowning made him leery.

Jack kept his distance. It was fair, and necessary, but Ianto desperately missed the small, innocuous things like Jack's hand pressing briefly between his shoulder blades as he walked past in a small space, or the murmur of thanks for his first morning cup of coffee that was always close enough to gust warm breath against Ianto's neck. Even Jack's smile from a distance, when he'd stand on the catwalks for a moment until Ianto noticed him looking.

As he'd been leaving the tourist office yesterday and Jack had teasingly offered his bed, Owen had felt every twinge of Ianto's brief flare of arousal. It was mortifying to know that Owen knew, now, how flushed Ianto could be feeling even when he kept his demeanor as cool as a statue. It was one thing for Owen to tease him about his butler persona being a fetish thing, but another entirely for Owen to peek into his head and know that Jack really could reduce him to mental putty with a smirk.

It was late when Jack finally did come around to Tosh's workstation to check on their progress. Ianto held his tongue while Owen and Tosh both enthused about how the device worked, how Tosh was managing to pick apart the flaws in the code, their theories on how it had malfunctioned in the first place. Jack gave them a proud smile, thanked Tosh for all the work she was putting in, told her to get some sleep again and not push too hard.

“And you two, as well,” Jack said, blue eyes looking into Ianto's in a way that made him suddenly uncertain that he and Owen had really succeeded at covering up their bad night. “You need sleep. Head on home early, I'd rather have you both alert whenever Tosh gets this thing ready to test.”

Ianto and Owen nodded, both of them equally untrusting that Jack wouldn't hear the lie, or the fear, in their voice.

-

It was dark in Ianto's flat once again. They'd distracted themselves from this impending necessity by going for curry and a pint after leaving the Hub – and Ianto had pretended that the prickle of tears in his eyes while he ate was from the spice, not Owen's near-orgasmic religious experience-slash-existential crisis. Not for the first time, Ianto had wondered if their thoughts were starting to bleed across the barrier more heavily. He'd thought he could hear a low, mumbled refrain of 'could be the last time, the last time, the last time' in the back of his mind with every bite.

Ianto's eyes were leaden with exhaustion. He hadn't bothered trying to find a source of entertainment to while away the evening, just gone through the robotic motions of getting ready for sleep and climbed into the bed without talking. He laid there listening to his breathing, looking at the wall, ignoring the other side of the bed, unable to bring himself to close his eyes.

After a long time, Owen murmured, “Does he stay here every night?”

Ianto pressed his lips together. His mind wanted to be irritated, but he was too tired for anything other than honesty. He was certain the bleed had become strong enough for Owen to feel his pathetic loneliness, even though he tried to suppress it.

Owen said, “I'm not trying to be an ass. I remember how hard it is to get used to sleeping alone again, after a long time.”

Ianto was silent for a moment. Then he said, also making his best effort to keep his tone kind, “Diane was only here a few days.”

And then something happened. It felt like the snap of the glass capsule in a glowstick breaking, and the chemicals swirling together, making something mad and bright and hard to look at. A fragment of a life Ianto had never seen flooded into his mind, clear as crystal – a London flat full of sound and smell and laughter, of a voice he loved dearly without ever having heard it before. Owen's face was nowhere in the memories because they were through his eyes, but he occupied every second of them with his love and grief, his ambition and determination.

He wore a suit, he knew the woman he loved was dying, he saw the people who ended up killed by her infection.

And in this moment, in his bed in his dark flat, struggling to breathe, Ianto knew the brief overlap had gone both ways, and that Owen was also seeing his distorted reflection in his lips on Lisa's, his impossible choices, his blinding loyalty.

Ianto sucked in a shaky breath, scrubbed at his damp face with the heel of his hand.

Weakly, Owen said, “I...”

“Leave it,” Ianto whispered, and he felt Owen's relief. They didn't have to talk about it.

Beyond exhausted, eyelashes gluing shut with saltwater, Ianto let himself drift off.

-

It was even worse than last time.

-

He didn't know what time it was when he woke himself with hoarse screaming, drenched in cold sweat, shaking all over as he fumbled for his phone. He blinked at the screen, eyes blurring over the contacts. Who was he calling? Who did he -? Who was -?

Owen tried to sit up and Ianto tried to swing his legs out from the covers at the same time, and the jumbled flailing of limbs ended with a rough tumble off the bed and onto the floor, zinging through one already-bruised hip. Gasping, Ianto tried to tell Owen to stop moving, let him take over, but only a rough rasp came out. Abruptly, the world went upside down and inside out, and pain slammed into his head, and it took him a moment to realize that it was because his eyes had momentarily tracked in different directions. Control was so tangled up between the two of them that neither of them even knew who they were for a long, panicked moment – each certain that they were both in control and not in control, afraid to move, afraid to speak.

Rough and jerking with every syllable, Ianto finally managed to croak out, “Call Jack.”

Somehow Owen got singular control of the hand with the phone. He tried to get up again while it rang, moving carefully, and he'd at least gotten to his knees when Jack's voice hit Ianto like a balm, and Owen reeled from the echo of his relief.

“Ianto?”

“Having -” Ianto gasped as his left leg cramped and spasmed momentarily, and then he realized he could wiggle his toes on that foot. “Having some problems,” he said weakly.

He heard the rustling that surely meant Jack was grabbing his coat and striding for the door. “How so?”

“Uh,” Ianto said. “Just. Come over.”

“Do I need to wake Tosh?”

“No,” Owen broke in. “Motor function seems to be coming back round, control's separating. I think we'll be fine until morninnnngggggggggno I need to see you, Jack, I'm sorry,” Ianto finished miserably. And to Owen, again, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't.”

“Stay calm,” Jack said, and Ianto heard the cog door beginning to roll. “I'll be there in a minute. You want me to stay on the line?”

“No,” said Owen. “No, give us a minute to calm down. See you when you get here.” And he hung up before Ianto could object.

“I'm sorry,” Ianto muttered again, leaning his forehead against the mattress.

“You're scared, I'm scared, it's all right,” Owen said. “I can survive being a third wheel.”

Ianto took a few more deep breaths. At length, he said, “Better to have someone else here to keep us from hurting ourselves, anyway.”

“True.”

By the time Jack's key scraped in the front lock, Ianto had managed to get himself into the kitchen and make a cup of tea. He sat at the small table warming his hands on the mug, breathing the steam, not actually drinking. He looked up when Jack shrugged out of his snow-speckled coat and came to stand in the kitchen doorway. His expression was trying for neutral, but he was worried.

“Hey,” Jack said. “Better?”

Ianto nodded.

Jack came over to the table and pulled out another chair. “Tell me what happened, exactly.”

Ianto cleared his throat. He'd already asked Owen to do this, so it was Owen's voice that came out next, saying, “Well, me and Tosh talked about this earlier, and what we reckon is...” He explained, patiently, using his professional doctor voice, and skimmed over the nature of the shared dreams with clinical detachment. Feedback amplification of trauma, he said. Incorrect production of sleep hormones. Two sets of neuron commands muddling the brain chemistry.

When he'd finished, and Ianto finally took a drink of his tea, Jack asked, “Did you sleep at all last night?”

“Few hours,” Ianto said, not meeting his eyes.

“Tonight?”

“Just under two,” said Owen's voice.

Jack sighed and rubbed his jaw. “You need the sleep. Medication?”

“Haven't tried it yet,” said Owen, “but the way we seem to blur together in sleep makes me hesitate to recommend any forced unconsciousness. Like Tosh said, if it's only self-conceptualization keeping us separate, then the dreams are probably helping us retain our identities. A brain's natural response to new, traumatic thought patterns is to rewire itself, integrate the new. Me being in here is a traumatic thought pattern. If I stay in here too long, Ianto's gray matter is going to rewrite itself to assimilate me.”

Jack closed his eyes and leaned his head into his hands. “All right,” he said. “I'm reversing my priority order, effective immediately. If anything world-ending comes up, our focus changes, but for now we pour our resources into fixing this. Or finding some way to slow the blurring, if we need to buy the time.”

Ianto swallowed and said, “If it comes to it, you can freeze me.”

Jack shook his head sharply. “It won't come to that. I won't let it.”

Ianto chose not to argue, but in the back of his mind he felt a brief pulse of Owen agreeing with him.

Jack spread his hands, palms up, and gave Ianto a softer look. “What can I do?” he asked, clearly handing over control of the potentially awkward situation.

Ianto sat frozen, mug cooling against his palms, unwilling to take what he wanted or even, really, to let himself think about what he wanted, not while he was being so intimately observed. It came as a bit of a shock when Owen bumped him aside, took control of his limbs, and said, “Don't be stupid, we're all fucking adults here,” before standing up and pulling Jack up by the braces.

Owen's hug was stiff and awkward, and Jack laughed softly into Ianto's hair, wrapping his arms firmly around Ianto's shoulders. Owen subsided, letting Ianto take over and relax, clasping his fingers at the small of Jack's back, turning his nose into Jack's neck to inhale comfort. Ianto thought he could feel Owen processing every piece of input after Ianto was done with it, as though on a satellite delay. Ianto tried not to think too much about Owen enjoying Jack's smell, or the firm press of his skin, or his fingers now ruffling through Ianto's hair and massaging the tension out of the back of his neck.

“I'd like to stay, if you're both okay with it,” Jack murmured. “I want you to try to sleep again, if you can. But I can keep an eye on you and wake you if it seems like the dreams are getting bad.”

Ianto nodded wordlessly. Just yesterday he would have recoiled at the idea of letting Owen participate in any degree of intimacy with Jack, no matter how chaste, but now he couldn't help but feel like Owen needed and deserved this comfort, too. Besides, it wasn't as though Ianto felt like his relationship with Jack was being compromised. He'd always known Jack loved everyone on the team. If ancient Greece had four words for different kinds of love, then Jack Harkness had the capacity for as many kinds as there were people.

“Go get back in bed, I'll wash up,” Jack said quietly, pressing a firm kiss against Ianto's temple. Owen had the good grace to stay back and be quiet while Ianto went back to the bedroom, flapped the blankets a few times to try to air out the faint musty smell of nightmare sweat, and climbed in. He closed his eyes and listened to water running in the kitchen sink, the clink of ceramic as Jack rinsed the tea mug and dried it. He covered his eyes with his hand and focused on the edges of himself in the dark.

“You have got it bad,” Owen whispered.

“I'll thank you to let me make my own mistakes without comment,” said Ianto, stomach twisting.

But Owen only sent him a wisp of resignation, regret, a hint of jealousy. “I don't think it's a mistake.”

Then the bed dipped behind Ianto's back as Jack climbed in, remarkably modest in t-shirt and boxers, and immediately wrapped around Ianto from behind. Ianto kept his eyes closed and tried to ignore Owen's mental recoil, even as he understood that the withdrawal wasn't from disgust or discomfort, but because he wanted it too much.

“You're safe,” Jack said, splaying his palm over Ianto's stomach. “Get some sleep.”

-

The rest of the night wasn't exactly restful, but being woken by Jack's soft voice every hour or two was preferable to the alternative. Because Jack talked him up and out of REM sleep so many times, Ianto felt like he'd run a marathon by the end of the night. Only during the last spell of dozing, around dawn, did Ianto feel like he got any real rest.

After being hounded by the specters of fire and steel and tendrils crawling over exposed brain all night, Ianto and Owen had finally slid into a fugue of almost nihilistic apathy. Utterly fatigued by trauma, their shared fight or flight instinct had simply buckled and given out. And the still, quiet sleep that came after was oddly peaceful, until some part of Ianto realized that he was dreaming Owen's experience of being dead.

He woke slowly, face oddly stiff and sticky. As he peeled his eyes open, he made a soft noise of confusion, and the mattress bounced as Jack reclined into view.

“Hey,” Jack murmured, and reached to the bedside table for something. It was a damp flannel, Ianto realized. Jack wiped his face with it, and Ianto blinked. “You've been crying,” Jack said, putting the cloth aside. “But it was stage 3 sleep, so I thought you needed it.” He made a vague gesture indicating his wrist strap, and the bio-scan readings Ianto knew it could show.

Slowly, Ianto nodded. He poked around in his mind for a moment and felt nothing. “Owen?” he rasped.

Owen burst into abrupt control, throwing Ianto wildly out of orientation. His limbs jerked and seized, and Jack hurriedly sat up to hold him steady and make sure he didn't bite his tongue. Ianto's throat closed around Owen's voice, grinding deep inside. He felt his sinuses prickle with more tears, until as abruptly as Owen had seized control he abandoned it, only borrowing Ianto's mouth to gasp, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

“Owen?” Jack asked, slackening his grip.

“Dead,” Owen whimpered, and Ianto gulped air for him. “Sorry, I was dead. I had to –”

“It's all right,” Jack said, raising one hand to Ianto's cheek. “You were dreaming. Ianto woke up first, you were still dreaming. How's the control?”

Ianto steadied his breathing and flexed the fingers of his right hand. He mentally prompted Owen, who flexed the left. Ianto nodded. “Stable.”

“Okay,” Jack said, slipping his hand away. “That's -”

Ianto caught his retreating hand and held it.

Jack looked down at him, gaze steady.

Ianto twined their fingers together, pushed himself upright, and put a hand around the back of Jack's neck. His mouth started to say a startled “Hold on -” but he cut it off short against Jack's.

Owen shrank back from the contact; Ianto could feel him squeezing himself into any dark crack he could find to avoid the light, as though it would burn him. Ianto focused on both pulling Owen closer and pushing the experience back to him. He wasn't sure what possessed him to do it, except that he could barely tolerate this every-man-an-island attitude anymore. He was tired and he was hurting, sore down to every physical and metaphysical particle, and he knew Owen was, too, and some part of his mind simply said fuck it.

But Jack retreated after barely a breath, and stopped Ianto from chasing after him with a hand on his chest. “Hey,” Jack said quietly. “Only when everyone's signed up for it.”

“Just this,” Ianto said, half to Jack and half to Owen. “Just once.”

Owen loosened a bit from his tight inward coiling, aching in all the same ways Ianto did. They knew each other far too well now. In the vaults of Ianto's mind he heard an echo of Owen thinking of Katie, and he responded by thinking of Lisa, and looking at Jack, and gathering up the solid beating heart of what he felt for Jack, and showing it to Owen with no restraint, showing him that it wasn't the same – that none of them were the same, Katie Lisa Diane Jack, everyone else they've ever loved, no one ever replaced anyone, they only added, grew and grew and grew. And the kiss was just a kiss, but it was comfort and recall, too, an echo that reaffirmed every kiss that came before it, a sensory imprint that transcended time.

It was probably a bad idea, encouraging the psychological burring, but Ianto didn't care. They were completely in sync when they kissed Jack again. Jack allowed it this time, melted into it with easy willingness. He seemed to sense that it wasn't about him at all, that he was only being used as a vehicle for a silent conversation between Ianto and Owen. Ianto could feel that Owen wasn't thinking of Jack, or even of Ianto; like the heat of the curry, or the thunder of his heartbeat, he was drowning himself in simple feeling, thirsty to saturate himself with enough memory to carry him on through endless unlife.

When Ianto-Owen eventually parted from Jack, mouth tingling, he wasn't sure which of him he was. Both of him began to worry that encouraging the overlay was starting to have potentially irreversible effects. He pressed his tongue to his lips, thought of lost love and pictured a woman, but that woman was indistinct, a strange blur of dark and light skin, tall and short, professional dress and bomber jacket. They squeezed their eyes closed in tandem and strained to remember the faces they'd both sworn they could never forget.

Jack's hands took gentle hold of their face. “Think about things only each of you could know about,” he said. “Remember your differences.”

With a ragged breath, Owen turned his mind to medical school, to long nights of endless studying, to his first surgery. Ianto took a sharp veer into the laundry room of the home where he grew up, the smell of machine oil and laundry soap and clean linen, the pain of the needle pricking his fingertips while he taught himself to repair the rips his father had left in the school uniform he couldn't afford to replace. Ianto thought of sucking his thumb when a little bead of blood would well up. Owen recoiled from the idea of sticking a bloody finger in his mouth, too ingrained with lessons on bloodborne pathogens. Ianto caught a glimpse of a human cadaver dissection lab and his stomach turned. Pushing hard, the two of them finally split down the middle like an amoeba back into their own identities.

Ianto, in control, opened his eyes. Jack was watching him closely. “We're all right,” Ianto said. And then Owen added, “We need to check in with Tosh as soon as possible.”

Jack nodded, looking unsettled. “Get dressed. I'll drive.”

-

An hour later, the whole team was gathered around the conference table. Gwen and Tosh were nursing takeaway coffees, looking tired and tense. Jack had finished explaining the situation, and Tosh already had her PDA out, code scrolling by faster than anyone else could read.

“If this carries on, what's the end result?” Gwen asked, bending the cardboard cup under her fingers with a too-tight grip.

“Physically, Ianto's body would be fine,” Owen said. “No harm done. I think I would fade over time, since I'm just a ghost, as it were. The physical structure of the brain has Ianto's neural pathways built in already so they'd persist longer. But eventually whatever was left of me would finish merging with Ianto and we'd both cease to exist as we are. We'd be a different person who'd be a bit of both. We'd probably both lose a lot of memories, especially where they're structurally similar. Like, two similar memories of sex would overlap and blur just enough to lose all definition. So we might remember that we've had sex before, but not who with, or when, or the setting.” He paused, and Ianto's accent added, “That would be the example you use.” Owen gave a humorless laugh.

“So you'd both die, in a way,” Gwen said.

“Bit of both,” Owen said, shrugging. “Bit alive, bit dead. Schrodinger's Torchwood employee. I'm already familiar with the feeling.”

“Won't happen,” Tosh said, and her tone was so firm that everyone turned to look at her. She looked up, right into Ianto's eyes, except Ianto knew without a doubt that she wasn't looking at him. “I'm not losing you. Either of you.”

They gave her a rueful smile.

“I'm really close,” Tosh continued, tapping her PDA. “I don't think I'm going to have to reconstruct the code, I've almost finished debugging it. The main problem is that there isn't much of a way to test it besides giving it a real go, so I want to be certain it's right. Last night I set up a simple bio-emulator so I can run simulations of the effects as I tweak the code – another few hours, I think.” She gave Ianto an earnest look. “Will you be all right?”

“Tosh, I'm fine,” Ianto said with a smile. “This merging thing, it's easy enough to resist when we're both awake and focused on it. And it helps when we focus on our differences, so all we have to do is find something to fight about.”

“So, not a problem at all,” said Jack, breezily. “Don't worry, Tosh, you've got time. Give it your best.”

“Of course,” she said, almost offended at any insinuation that she could ever do less than her best. She stood, clearly nearly vibrating with urgency to get back to her workstation and submerge herself in programming. “Is there anything else -?”

“No.” Jack waved her away, and she all but bolted. “Remember to eat!” he called at her retreating back. Jack looked over at the others. “Somebody remember to take her a sandwich later?”

Gwen gave a little half-laugh, conceding to Jack's effort to lighten the mood. But even as they broke apart the meeting, Ianto and Owen watched Gwen's expression out of the corner of their eye – she was far from calm. And Jack, although he had poured on the charm to keep Tosh from worrying, knew perfectly well that Ianto and Owen weren't able to resist the merging nearly as well as they put on.

Once Gwen had gone, Jack stopped Ianto and Owen in the door to the conference room with a hand on their arm. He studied their face. “If you feel yourselves slipping...” he said quietly.

“I'll bring up the merits of German art films again,” Ianto said, with an effort at a smile. “And I'll tell him where he can stick his subtitles,” Owen added.

Jack allowed them to deflect, but his tight smile told them that he knew they were frightened, and that he was, too. He squeezed their arm once and dropped his hands to his pockets, and Ianto knew why he was keeping his distance now, but he ached for any touch to keep him grounded, and he felt the same ache echo through Owen. But even that simple doubling of thoughts only reinforced their fear, so they resisted, nodded at Jack, and fled.

-

Sometime yesterday, Jack had moved Owen's body into cold storage. At midday, Owen and Ianto retrieved it from the bank of drawers and laid it out once again in on the autopsy table. Neither of them talked while Owen calibrated equipment and ran a bevy of fresh scans to determine that decay hadn't progressed while he'd been absent. It hadn't. Owen's body was creepily unchanging, even more so now that it lay there looking properly dead, rather than being up walking and talking.

Scans taken and sent off to Tosh, who was feverishly untangling the last bug, Owen pulled the tall stool over to the table, sat down and stared at himself for a while. He picked up his damaged hand and unwound its bandages. Broken fingers still floppy, a bit crunchy. Ianto held down his bile.

"Sorry," Owen muttered, taking up a fresh roll of gauze and rewrapping the fingers firmly. He sighed. "Fuck, I wish I hadn't done that. But shit in one hand, wish in the other, all that."

After a moment, when Owen had tied off and end-tucked the gauze, Ianto said, "Owen."

"Don't like that tone, Teaboy."

Ianto sighed. "Owen, do you want to stay?"

They were silent for a long moment, staring at a corpse and contemplating forever.

"Don't tempt me, Frodo," Owen finally muttered.

"Oh, I've had an upgrade."

"Sorry – Smeagol."

Ianto gave a humorless laugh, then sobered. "It's cruel," he said. "To make you go back."

"Be pretty cruel to kill you, too," Owen said.

"You wouldn't kill me. My half would be stronger anyway, you said. It's just an option."

A third voice interrupted them: "A horrible one." Ianto and Owen glanced up, startled, to find Gwen making her way down the stairs. She looked exhausted, hands in her pockets, loose blouse not quite working to hide her tired slump. "Please don't say that where Tosh can hear," she added, closing the distance and looking down at Owen's body.

Ianto closed his eyes. He wished he wasn't such a pragmatist sometimes – and he felt Owen agree with him wholeheartedly, not in a rejecting way, but because they were far too much alike in this. "It isn't unreasonable to consider it," Ianto said quietly. "You'd have a new, fully living co-worker with double the trained skills. No one would have to lose."

Without any real heat, but with the implacability of a force of nature, Gwen said, "You fucking bastard, both of you. We would all lose. You'd kill yourselves, and this new stitched-together man, who's he to Jack? To Tosh? Are you going to take up with both of them or are you not going to love either of them anymore? Over time will you forget what it was like to be either one of you? You'll both be gone and we won't even be able to mourn you." Her eyes were full and shining with unshed tears, but her voice was still calm and steady.

"PC Guilt-trip Cooper," said Owen's London twang, but his lips curled into a small smile anyway. "You don't have do the hard sell. I was just about to decline Ianto's generous offer of murder-suicide, anyway." Ianto's voice cut in, "Oi, that wasn't what -" He record-skipped back into Owen. "Yeah, I know. Thanks, mate. It really means a lot. I'm just... oddly enough, I'm not ready to stop existing. I'd say I want to live, but..." He looked down at his body. "Well. I guess I want to live."

Something in Gwen seemed to crumble. She took an abrupt shaky breath and sniffed ungracefully, raising the back of her hand to her nose and blinking rapidly. "Um, yeah," she said thickly, and cleared her throat. "All right, then. Good talk."

Owen stood from the stool and took the last step over to Gwen to envelop her in a hug. She stilled for a moment, then hugged him back. "Who's feeling sappy in there, then?" she said, trying to lighten her tone.

"Both of us," Ianto said firmly, and kissed the side of her head. "Thanks, Gwen." He pulled back and stepped away. "Right, I should go see Tosh."

She nodded, trying to discreetly dry her eyes without doing a number to her mascara. "Yeah, go on."

He gave her one last tight smile and headed out of the medical bay, rounding the corners to Tosh's station. She wasn't furiously typing anymore, and seemed to be fiddling with the device itself – wearing sterile rubber gloves, of course. No need for a repeat adventure. She glanced up at his approach, her drawn expression brightening. "I think I'm there!" she said. "The only trick is that in repairing the programming I also had to set it up in such a way that it should repeat the same cascade glitch it did the first time, so that it shunts all of Owen's consciousness back and not just a thread. It's a bit like setting up dominoes to fall in a particular pattern. I've run the simulation several times and I've gotten it to where it works consistently, so -"

"Just like dominoes, then," Owen said, leaning against Tosh's desk. "Only one chance at the real thing."

"Yeah," Tosh said, and stared at the device in her hands. "I'm sure I've got it," she said firmly, but she was saying it to herself, to bolster her nerve.

"You have," Owen said, almost dismissive in his certainty. "No one's as brilliant as you, Tosh. If I've got to keep ending up in mortal peril, you're always who I want on my rescue team."

She beamed.

"So," Owen said, gesturing at the device, "when...?"

Her smile faded. "Well, I'm running the simulation one more time with the new set of data you just took, just to be thorough, but since none of the readings off your body have changed, it shouldn't change the outcome. I suppose... whenever you want."

He nodded. His heart rate picked up – just nerves, he told himself, like any time they had to resort to using untested alien tech. His mouth was dry. Owen clung to the feeling, sticking Ianto's tongue to the roof of his mouth, swallowing with a click. "All right," Ianto said, since Owen seemed to have clammed up. "No time like the present. Give me a... give me ten minutes. Autopsy bay?"

She nodded and stood. "I'll get it set up."

Ianto ducked his head and walked quickly to the kitchen, avoiding Gwen's distant glance, ignoring the vision of Jack in his mind's eye, hunched over his desk tapping a pen fruitlessly against undone paperwork.

He walked up to the sink, held the edge for a moment before plucking a mug from the drying rack and filling it with cold water. He stared into it for a moment. He felt terribly alone in his head. "Owen?" he asked. When there was no response, he took a long, cool drink.

There was a feeling like a heavy sigh in his mind. When he lowered the mug, Owen said, "Don't. Please don't."

"What?"

"I don't know. Offer some last condolence. Last meal, quick wank, cigarette for the condemned man, none of that."

Ianto's mouth twitched. "I wouldn't smoke for you."

There was a pause. "But you would wank?"

"You'll never know," Ianto said primly, pouring out the rest of the water and rinsing the mug before putting it back in the rack.

"You would," Owen said smugly. "Never knew it was so nasty in here."

Ianto just laughed, leaning heavily against the counter and closing his eyes. "I won't offer anything, then," he said. "I just wanted to say goodbye."

"Not going anywhere," Owen said.

"You know what I mean."

They were silent for a long moment. Ianto felt Owen accepting his sentiment and reflecting it – a degree of respect and solidarity, still flavored with old grudge only because they wouldn't feel right without it. Ianto reached out and let their edges meld a little bit, the way he knew he shouldn't, and for a few seconds they leaned into existing fully doubled, like a psychic handshake. Then, with some difficulty, they untangled themselves until their borders felt clear.

"Therapy, huh," Owen said. "Trapped in forced couple's counseling with you for three days."

"Could have been worse," Ianto said, stepping away from the sink and heading back out towards autopsy. "Could have been Gwen."

"Christ, don't even joke," Owen muttered as they approached the bay, where everyone else was already gathered around Owen's body on the table. He came down the stairs to join them.

"Ready?" Jack asked, terse.

Owen stared down at his own face; Ianto nudged into control enough to bring their eyes up, to meet Jack's. He nodded.

Except – Owen's calm cracked and Ianto felt him lose his metaphorical spine for a moment. His eyes darted from Jack to Tosh, who stood by the bank of monitors with the device, ready and waiting. Whatever was in his expression made her furrow her brow, concerned, and she started to open her mouth – probably to ask him if he was all right, if he wanted to wait, except that Ianto could feel Owen failing and knew that this couldn't wait.

Tell her to start, Owen thought at him, fear pulsing through his voice. You're right, it can't -

I meant this can't wait, Ianto told him, and took the last two strides over to Tosh before shoving Owen into full control.

Owen carried Ianto's momentum through into pressing his lips to Tosh's, hands coming up to cup her face. She made a small noise into his mouth but it wasn't objection; her hands flew to his shoulders, one around the back of his neck, pulling him in. Owen's intangible presence went fuzzy and radiant. Ianto felt invisible and happy for it, even though it was his mouth Tosh was kissing with such fervor. He pulled himself away from the moment as much as he could, giving it to Owen, straining not to muddy it with foreign thoughts or memories.

Ianto felt Owen reach their right hand out to pick up the Nianagantha device. They'd both watched Tosh's simulations run, and they knew how this was meant to work. The device, primed, started collecting Ianto's isomorphic imprint as soon as his skin touched it. Owen pressed one last long kiss to Tosh's lips and then stepped back, holding the device up so she could see that he'd started. She stopped herself from chasing after him with obvious effort, lips pressed together to hide their trembling.

"Last cigarette," Owen breathed, and slapped the device into his body's dead hand.

It wasn't as cinematically dramatic as they could have hoped for, because it took a painfully long thirty seconds for the device to assess Owen's imprint and pair it against Ianto's. Tosh turned away to watch the progress on her monitor. "There's the trigger," she said. She sniffed, cleared her throat, and added, "And there's the cascade."

Ianto shouted at almost the same moment, grabbing his head. Amazing how quickly a body could forget how bad a certain kind of pain felt. He hadn't braced himself for this – for some reason he'd assumed it wouldn't hurt like this in reverse. Jack was at his side in an instant, holding his shoulders, keeping him steady and upright while his skull shattered and his eyes melted and an entire half of who he currently was was ripped out of him. He felt blackness threatening again, graying the edges of his vision, but this time he grabbed Jack's forearm and dug his fingers in and held onto consciousness with all he had. Until -

It all stopped in an instant, and on the table, Owen opened his eyes.

Breathing harshly, Ianto regained his balance, stepped away from Jack, and looked down to meet Owen's eyes.

"Well," said Owen. "I'm back."

Ianto couldn't help his short bark of a laugh. “All right, Sam.” He took Owen's empty hand and helped him sit up.

Gwen hurriedly intruded to hold out the archival case they'd prepared, and Owen dumped the now-recalibrating device into the box like it was radioactive. Gwen slammed the lid closed a little too hard as though she felt the same.

“Right, off to biohazard storage with this one,” Gwen said, locking the case and gathering up the file that now went with it. Before Ianto could open his mouth to say anything, she added, “I'll leave it on the assessment cart, love, I'm not even going to open the vault. Heaven forbid.” She rolled her eyes faintly and left.

“I should go – um, double-check the readings to make sure -” Tosh began, taking a step away, but Owen slid off the autopsy table to his feet and reached out to touch her arm. She stopped and looked at him, uncertain.

“I'm all here,” Owen said. “It's fine, Tosh, it worked.”

“Oh,” she said, voice small. “Well, good. Problem sorted.”

“Are you all right?” Owen asked. “Did I – I'm sorry I just went for that.”

“No, it's okay,” she said, brushing her hair away from her eyes in a way that said she wasn't, really.

“It's just – now I know what it feels like.” Owen dropped his hand from her arm apologetically. “So if you – if we ever did, again, you know, I can't really feel it like this, but I'd remember.”

“Oh,” she said, her nervous hands stilling. She gave him a small smile, self-aware of the impossible nature of their circumstances, but painfully hopeful nonetheless. “I'll keep that in mind.”

“Okay,” said Owen. He flashed her a quick grin, and Ianto couldn't believe how much he'd missed that expression on its proper pale, pointy face. “Good.”

“And you're welcome,” Tosh said, her smile broadening. “For saving your life, again.”

Ianto and Owen both raised their right hands, snapped their fingers, and declared “Gloves,” at the same moment.

Ianto and Owen stared at each other. Jack and Tosh stared at both of them.

“We need a protocol -” Ianto began, while Owen tried, “From now on, proto -” They both stopped, and glared.

“Is this going to go on for a while...?” Jack asked, looking curious.

Ianto said, “I've got to -” and Owen, “I need some -” Owen broke off into a frustrated growl.

“Space,” Jack finished, entertained but clearly knowing where the line needed to be drawn. He threw his arm around Ianto's shoulders. “Both of you need some you-time. Come on, Ianto, we're going to lunch somewhere not here.”

“Right,” said Ianto, relieved, “yes, please.” He stopped. “Wait! Lockers. I'm getting dressed first.” He plucked at his old jumper and cast Owen one last glare.

“Come on, Frodo, you dress down nice,” said Owen, smirking. “I'm sure Jack doesn't mind the easy access, either.” Tosh smacked him on the arm.

Ianto pointed. “You're still Gollum.” He strode away, Jack trailing after.

“Love you too, Smeagol!” Owen called. “Glad we had this bonding time!”

Ianto flipped him off over his shoulder, but as he walked away, he couldn't help but smile.

-