Ianto turned the stem of his glass and watched the lights play across the dark red surface of the wine. There were candles on every table and overhead chandeliers. This was a very high-toned restaurant. What had possessed Jack to bring him here, he didn’t know. Jack had insisted on taking him and with Jack, it was no use protesting. It only caused a headache and you wound up doing what he wanted you to do anyway.
In the month after Ianto had served his suspension for the Cyberwoman crisis, Jack had dragged him to eat ten times. Ianto knew he’d lost a lot of weight. His mirror told him he was gaunt. His metabolism was such that it needed a considerable amount of fuel just to maintain itself. He hadn’t been eating enough. After the monster that had been using Lisa’s body had been destroyed, Ianto had been unable to work up any appetite. For anything.
“You haven’t finished your dessert,” Jack said
Ianto looked down at what remained of the dish. “I ate most of it.”
“There are a good five bites left.”
With a sigh of exasperation, Ianto replied, “Jack, I’ve no more room.”
Jack leaned forward and examined the dish. “All right, I’ll let you off this time. But you have to eat two next time. There’s an Italian place just north of here that has some of the best manicotti in the world. We’ll go there tomorrow."
Italian. Jack would stuff him with pasta until he exploded. “I don’t need to be fed like this every night.”
“Yes, you do.” Jack gave him one of his charming smiles. “Your suits aren’t fitting you the way I like. It’s either feed you or buy you a complete new wardrobe.”
Ianto snorted. “Food. Wine. Now clothes. What’s next, Jack? Diamonds? People will think I’m your mistress or something.”
“I’ll get you diamonds if you want them – as long as you eat while you’re wearing them.” Jack put his elbows on the table and placed his chin on his hands. “As for the other, the position of Captain’s Mistress is currently vacant. Would you like to apply? The interview is a lot of fun.”
For a split second, Ianto thought Jack had guessed his secret fantasy, but the look Jack was giving him wasn’t serious. Ianto shook his head. “You’re just being silly now.”
“I am trying,” Jack said with exaggerated patience, “to get you to smile. You don’t smile, you don’t talk, you move like a ghost around the Hub. What are you trying to do? Make yourself invisible?”
“I do my job,” Ianto protested.
“Yes, and you do it beautifully. The Hub was a garbage heap when you came back and now you can eat off the floors again. The lab equipment has quit biting us and the SUV has stopped growling every time we open a door. That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it.” Jack was the one shaking his head now. “You order food, deliver it, and disappear. You make coffee, pass it around, and vanish. I can’t find you when I look for you, but you show up if I call. It’s unnerving.”
Ianto tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “I thought it would be easier if I kept out of everyone’s way.”
Jack looked at him. “Easier for you, maybe. But not for me and not for the others. How can we show you how much we value you if you’re never there to show? Think about that for a minute.”
It was a completely different point of view and one Ianto had never considered. He thought about it. “If I make myself more visible, do I have to eat as much?” he asked finally.
Jack gave a theatrical gasp and cupped his ear with his hand. “Is that a joke I hear? It sounds like a joke. Can it really be a joke? A joke from our Ianto?”
Ianto felt himself smile. He hadn’t done it for awhile and it felt peculiar. “You are absurd.”
“Worked though, didn’t it?” Jack signaled for the check. “Come on. It’s a nice night for a drive.”
Ianto flicked his eyes at the window. The rain was falling steadily and had been for an hour. “You call that a nice night?”
Jack scrawled his name and sent the waiter away. “It’s a nice rainy night for a drive. Let’s go."
The interior of the SUV was cold, so Ianto cranked up the heat. Jack was wearing his usual coat, but it hadn’t been raining when they left the Hub so Ianto had only his suit. Let Jack sweat, he said to himself. Jack was driving toward the edge of town, humming something that Ianto didn’t recognize.
He didn’t seem inclined to conversation, so Ianto was left alone with his thoughts. He considered again what Jack had said. Ianto knew his primary coping mechanism was hiding. He retreated from situations he didn’t know how to handle, either physically or mentally. The incident with the Cyber machinery had left such a deep scar that it was easy to conceal his real self behind it. Still, Jack had a point. Ianto couldn’t hide forever.
A sudden flash of light derailed his train of thought. Jack had seen it, too. “This isn’t a thunderstorm,” he said grimly.
“Rift activity.” Ianto reached into the pocket behind his seat to for one of the portable scanners. He tuned it to check in front of them in a wide arc. “Centered about five miles northwest of our position. In the Gatcatch Preserve, I’d guess.”
“We’d better go check it out. I left the Hub on lockdown.” Jack had stopped humming.
“Should I alert the others?”
“Let’s see what we’re up against first. How high was the spike?”
“Mild, but strong enough to let something through.”
Ianto set the scanner in its holder on the dashboard where Jack could see it. He opened his seatbelt and climbed over the console into the back seat. He activated the computer and opened the seat storage on the opposite side. Ianto had remodeled the interior of the SUV shortly after he arrived to allow it to carry more equipment without sacrificing cab room.
The computer pinged and Ianto checked the screen. “There’s a gravel road on the left in half a mile,” he told Jack. “That will take us further in than this one. Do you want a tazer?”
“Yeah. I’m not carrying one.”
Ianto put a stun gun on the front seat and stowed one beside his gun in his rear holster. Jack’s rule that they always go armed when out of the Hub had made Ianto nervous at first. He hadn’t been a good shot. Jack had taken him down to the range and fixed that. Next, Ianto considered his clothing. The suit would get wet and almost certainly messy. He slid across to the other side of the seat as Jack made the turn onto the gravel.
The other seat compartment held spare clothing. Ianto rummaged around until he found a pair of his jeans. He shut the compartment and took off his suit coat. Jack’s voice made him start. “Hey! Are you changing back there? No fair. I have to keep my eyes on the road.”
Jack could crack a joke anywhere. Ianto answered with as much dignity as he could muster while wiggling out of his suit trousers. “There’s a fork ahead. Concentrate on that. Take the right one.” Ianto silently surrendered his shoes to the weather. He would have had to build a trailer to carry a spare pair of his trainers along with everything else.
Jack subsided, muttering something about missing the strip tease. The jeans were loose, so Ianto used his suit belt to tighten them up. He checked the computer again. They were close enough to get a more accurate reading. “I‘m getting one life sign in the center of the range.”
“No.” Ianto checked the readout again. “Looks human, actually.”
“Hope nothing fell on someone’s head. How close will this road take us?”
“A little less than a half-kilometer. We’ll have to hike the rest of the way.” Ianto looked up to see Jack’s teasing eyes in the rear-view mirror. He said quickly, “Don’t even think about off-roading in this weather. I’ll never get the car clean. Slow down.”
“I wish you were a little less practical and a bit more adventurous.”
“Well, I wish you were a bit less adventurous and a lot tidier.”
“Where do I stop?”
Ianto disliked having to admit it, but part of him was actually enjoying this. It was exhilarating in a way to be out of the Hub chasing down something unknown. Although he did hope he wouldn’t have to shoot anything. He did not like to shoot things, especially if they were alive and moving things.
Jack was already out of the car. Ianto donned a mackintosh, gathered up two torches, and joined him. They trudged through the rain and came upon something that looked like a path going in the right direction. The wind was picking up and branches frequently came out of nowhere. Jack kept his eyes on the scanner, directing them around trees and stones. This reserve was used by the University of Cardiff for ecological studies. The problem was that the Rift didn't give any more consideration to Earth ecology than it did Earth inhabitants. Ianto wondered what strange things might be growing that ecologists would one day be surprised by.
A raging stream brought them to an abrupt halt. In normal weather, it was probably a nice babbling brook that added a sylvan touch to the glade around them. Just now, however, it was a barrier not easily crossed without getting soaked. The banks were steep on both sides and it was too wide to jump. Ianto played his flashlight around. They were on a narrow path that had obviously seen use. Surely ecologists didn't like getting their feet wet any more than the average person.
It was five minutes before he found it, a long wide board that could just reach between banks. He and Jack strong-armed the board to the least-soggy place they could find and dropped it across the gap. Ianto tested it with his foot. "I'd better go first," he said. "Since I'm so thin now," he added, seeing Jack about to protest.
Jack shook the rain off his shoulders and grinned. "I hate it when people throw my own words back at me. Watch your step."
Ianto moved carefully forward. As long as he stayed in the middle of the board it seemed to be all right. The wind made it difficult to stay upright, so he crouched over to provide less surface area to blow at. The board wobbled once, but stayed in place. He turned to watch Jack.
At least he had the good sense to rein in that coat. In a wind like this, it would have been more useful as a sail. Jack hopped back onto the muddy bank with a bit of a swagger. To stop a string of improbable bridge-crossing anecdotes, Ianto asked, "How close are we?"
Jack flashed him a disappointed look, like a dog who'd been deprived of a treat, but checked the scanner. "About 180 meters that way," he answered, indicating with a nod of his head. He didn't move though. Something caused him to frown. "Do you hear something?"
He probably didn't mean wind or rain. Ianto listened for a moment, but could discern nothing but that. "Just storm sounds."
The frown didn't go away, but Jack moved forward again. They'd gone about twenty meters when Ianto did hear something: a very faint but piercing high-pitched keening. He started to mention it to Jack, but he didn't get the chance. Jack froze and murmured, "No. No, please no." He seized Ianto's arm and backed up along the same path they had come. The wind changed direction so that the wail rose to an alarming pitch and volume. Jack clapped his hands over his ears, turned and ran.
Ianto chased him, only just catching Jack before he fell into the stream. Ianto pulled him back from the edge. Jack attempted to fight him off, but Ianto persisted. He finally got Jack to stand still. "What's wrong?" Ianto asked, as softly as he could and still be heard.
"Get me back to the van," Jack panted. "I can barely see."
Even in the uncertain light, Ianto could see that Jack's face was pale. He put an arm around Jack's shoulders and guided him carefully across the board. It groaned under the weight of the two of them and shifted on the wet bank. Jack stumbled often and Ianto had to concentrate to lead him in the right direction. He had never been as glad to see anything as he was when he spotted the car. He opened the back door and pushed Jack onto the bench seat. Jack grabbed Ianto’s slicker and all but yanked him inside.
Ianto turned on the overhead light to get a better look. Jack's skin was clay white, with blood trickling from his nose. His eyes were ringed with bruise marks as though he had been in a fight. He was trembling violently and his eyes were wide with shock. He lurched toward Ianto, ripping the mac and scrabbling at Ianto’s shirt. Jack's hands were colder than ice, as though no blood was in them at all. “Heartbeat,” Jack managed through his chattering teeth. “I need your heartbeat.”
Ianto was out of his depth, but he knew desperation when he heard it. He opened his shirt and settled Jack’s head against his chest, propping him so that his ear was over Ianto’s heart. The effect was startling.
Jack’s eyes closed and the shuddering subsided into a slight trembling. Color came back into his face and warmth returned to his hands. His nose stopped bleeding. All within a minute of listening to Ianto’s heart.
Two or three more minutes passed, and then Jack sat up slowly. Ianto hurriedly buttoned his shirt. He was vulnerable and his shirt, wet and cold as it was, provided some protection. It had somehow felt right to hold Jack that way, close to him. He could still feel the warm imprint of Jack’s cheek against his chest. Why had that felt so good?
Sorry," Jack said. "I must have scared you."
"That couldn't have been pleasant." Talking was normal. Ianto was more relaxed when talking. He reached into a seat pouch and brought out a clean cloth, which he offered to Jack.
"No." Jack started to wipe the blood off his nose. "I'm going to give you the capsule explanation now and answer questions later. You know the Rift is a portal that allows things from other times and other worlds to come through. Well, it works both ways. Sometimes it removes a person or a thing from this world."
Ianto was startled; he hadn't considered the Rift a two-way street. "When?"
"Completely unpredictable. I assume it's been doing it for as long as it's been here. Because occasionally, it sends someone back. Someone horribly broken, but alive.”
“That noise we heard?”
“A Rift victim. Something happens to them. The Rift must come out near a dark star. All of them who have been coherent talk about it, in the brief hours when they have some sort of control. Mostly though, they just scream. For hours on end. They don’t seem to breathe; they just make that terrible noise. Like it’s some sort of adaptation, but we don’t know against what.”
He paused. Ianto waited and then asked, “And what happened to make you so sensitive to this scream? I heard it, but my nose didn’t bleed.”
Jack had been looking at the floor, but now he turned to Ianto. Although the bruising was gone, his eyes were still full of pain. “It’s not a pretty story. Shortly after I joined Torchwood Three, I found out that there were victims in the vaults. I went down to find them. It was… ghastly. They were in the lowest level. They had almost no light. Someone was bringing them food, but most of it was rotten. No one was checking to see whether they ate or not. They were in rags and had a bucket for waste.”
“In the Hub?” Ianto was appalled. He kept the Hub clean. There was nothing like that now. If there had been, he would have found it.
“Yeah. I tackled Alex about it, of course. He told me there was nothing that could be done for them. I kept on about it and he decided to show me the futility of dealing with them first hand. He took me down there and locked me in the cell between them. The official report says it was only intended to be for ten minutes, but the lock malfunctioned. I was there for 48 hours. Forty of which I was exposed to the screaming.”
Ianto had no words. There was nothing he could offer to take that memory and make it tolerable. Hr reached over and squeezed Jack’s hand. He meant it to last a moment, but Jack caught the hand between both of his. Through that touch Ianto could feel Jack’s pain and regret; Ianto wished he could draw some of it away.
Jack looked down at their hands for a moment before he continued. “I was unconscious when they pulled me out of there. According to the report I was out for a little more than a day. I woke up and the first sound I heard was a beating heart. It was my own, amplified over a speaker. The medic told me later that I’d been bleeding from my nose, my ears and my eyes. The only thing she could find in the records was a reference to heartbeats so she had rigged up something. The bleeding stopped as soon as she put it in place.”
Ianto felt Jack’s grip tighten. Maybe he still needed to feel a pulse beat. Jack seldom bled for any amount of time. He said he just clotted fast, but Ianto had seen him stop bleeding after he had had his throat ripped open; there must be more to it than that. Whatever, it was obvious that something that could make Jack bleed for a day must have been unimaginably severe. “What did you do about it?” Ianto asked. It was unthinkable that Jack would do nothing.
Jack let out a sigh. “The military had some bunkers they were using for storage out on a little island named Flatholm. I pulled some strings, got in touch with UNIT and worked out a deal to get them transferred to Torchwood. I set the place up as a sort of long-term care hospice. It isn’t exactly state-of-the-art, but I’ve tried to make it livable. It’s not like I can bring a construction crew in. It’s staffed by volunteers from UNIT. I pay them double their salaries while they are there. There are twelve Rift victims now, including the ones I found at the Hub. If we can manage to get this one, he or she will be number thirteen.”
“You say that like it’s an unlikely chance. We’re here. We can get to him and bring him back. Take him out to the island.”
“It’s not that easy.” Jack let go of Ianto’s hand and gripped his shoulder. “You saw what happened to me. I can’t get close enough until the screaming stops. And, sometimes… sometimes that’s too late.”
Jack’s eyes were haunted. This was not the arrogant Jack Ianto was familiar with; this was a Jack who had failed and had to live with that failure. Ianto took a deep breath. “Then let me do it.”
Jack shook his head. “It’s too dangerous.”
Ianto had been prepared for that. “You can’t protect us from everything. I know that’s why you haven’t mentioned this before. I heard that scream at exactly the same time you did and I didn’t react. Look, those nurses must have something to deal with the screaming. I can’t believe they just let a patient sit there for hours without checking on them. Let’s go get whatever they use and let me try to get close enough to get the victim.”
“It’s too much of a risk. I can’t help you if anything happens.” Jack’s grip on Ianto’s shoulder tightened. “Ianto, if you get hurt doing something I should be able to do and can’t, how do you expect me to live with that?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Jack. I’m not stupid and I don’t have anything to prove. I mean, if the legendary Captain Jack Harkness can’t succeed, there’s no shame in having the tea boy fail.”
To Ianto’s surprise, Jack shook him hard. “Don’t say that. It irritates the hell out of me when you put yourself down like that. You’re an important member of my team and you’ve just volunteered to go on a very dangerous mission without backup. If you keep on, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll lock you in one of the cells and make you write ‘I am more than a tea boy’ a million times.”
Ianto couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing. “That’s a punishment to be wary of.”
Jack laughed, too. “I’ll have to requisition more white boards, but I mean it. So don’t push me.” He sighed. “I finally get you to laugh and look what happens.”
It took a minute for Ianto to sober himself up. “Seriously, Jack, let me help you with this. At least let me try. We can’t leave someone out here on a night like this.”
“You’re right.” Jack regarded him steadily. “Okay, first, you stay on the comm. If five minutes goes by without you saying anything to me, I come after you if I have to bleed all the way. Second, if you experience any of the symptoms I had, you stop right there and come back. Third, wear this.” Jack shrugged out of his coat and handed it to Ianto. “It’s warm and water-repellant.”
Ianto took the coat with something akin to awe. It was an unprecedented event – Jack loaning his coat to someone else. “Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“I have one of the nurses’ noise-impact helmets here somewhere, unless you’ve tidied it out of existence. Special model. I’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work for me. It might not work for you. Regardless, any symptoms and you come right back.”
Ianto nodded. “I’ll be careful.” He added, “If by noise-impact helmet, you mean that thing that looks like something out of a 1950’s horror movie it’s in the back driver’s-side compartment.”
Jack dove over the seat to reach the compartments in the back. Ianto slid his arms into the coat sleeves. It was warm, all right – warm from Jack’s body, and that exotic scent unique to Jack clinging to it. Jack reappeared holding the helmet. It did look 50-ish with its dull silver finish and knobs on both sides. Jack gave it to Ianto who held it on his lap.
“This is the control for the noise dampening effect,” Jack instructed. “And this is a control for a white-noise generator. That can block out some of the more high-pitched notes as well. Keep the visor down; it protects your eyes. I’ll leave a tracer here. I’m going to go back to the Hub and get something soundproof to transport the victim in. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Ianto nodded. Even in the best of circumstances it would take him an hour to get to where the victim was and back. It made sense for Jack to go while he could. “Don’t smash the SUV into anything. It’s cold out there.”
Jack looked at him seriously again. “Please don’t take any chances.” Quite suddenly, Jack wrapped one hand around the back of Ianto’s neck and kissed his mouth. It was surprising, astonishing, and over before Ianto could react. “Be very careful,” Jack said, dropping his hand to Ianto’s shoulder to give it a little shake. “I’ve lost other Rift victims and I’ve learned how to deal with it. But you are Ianto Jones and part of my team. I want you back safe and sound.”
Ianto didn’t know how to respond. He covered his confusion by donning the helmet and checking the comm. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes. “ Jack was back over the console, sliding into the driver’s seat. He started the van’s engine. “Remember, at least once every five minutes.”
Even through the speaker, Ianto could hear the strain in Jack’s voice. “I promise to come back,” Ianto said. “I promise.”
Some of the tension was gone when Jack replied, “See that you do.”
Ianto got out of the van and checked the scanner. The life sign was still where it had been. The weather was also the same, still raining steadily with the wind blowing in unpredictable gusts. Rain falling on the helmet made a staccato rhythm. He checked the scanner as the SUV pulled away. The tracer was exactly where the van had been. He’d be able to find his way back here.
Even in the rain it was easier retracing their previous route than he expected. He moved quietly and quickly ahead. It was odd, but Ianto felt his spirits rising above the cloud of despair he’d been living in for the last two months. It was like having a missing gear replaced, so that everything was functioning properly again. Jack’s nagging was annoying, not only to make Ianto laugh, but to oil the machinery that made Ianto’s brain focus. He felt as if he had awakened from some sort of evil spell.
He checked his watch. Jack would be calling in thirty seconds. He decided to forestall that. “This is Robot X reporting to Master Control. Come in, Master Control.”
Ianto heard a laugh at the other end. “Master Control here. How’s the weather there?”
“No change, still very wet and windy. How’s the weather there on Xenon?”
Another bark of laughter. “Pretty much the same.” A pause then, “You sound just like my quick-witted friend Ianto. Seen him around lately?” There was a wistful note in the question.
“I think he’s on his way back, sir.”
“I’ve missed him.”
“So have I.” It was true. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes. I’m at one of the tricky bits.”
The path nearly disappeared into the brush at this slope. It was rocky, definitely easier to go down when there were two to help guide each other over the stones. Ianto congratulated himself when he made it to the bottom without slipping. He worked his way back to the path and plunged ahead.
The rain had lessened slightly, but the wind made up the difference. When Jack reported he was at the Hub, Ianto asked him to check the weather. “Is this just an early winter squall or is there something else going on?”
“I’ll check and get back to you. How close are you?”
“I’m at the stream.”
The water level was scarcely an inch below the board now and Ianto felt it slip sideways a bit on the muddy bank. Ianto sent up a little prayer that it would stay in place long enough for him to get there and back with the victim. He had almost reached the point where they had heard the sound when Jack spoke again. “It shows up as a storm, but the Rift is contributing. Low-level activity all around you. You’d better come back. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“I don’t have far to go now, Jack. This helmet thing is keeping my head dry and your coat is keeping me fairly un-soggy. I’ll be all right."
“Don’t forget you promised to turn back at the first sign of trouble.” Jack’s voice sounded very worried. It was out of character for him to fuss so much.
“I did promise. I promise again. Nothing to prove, remember?”
“Be careful. I’m on my way.”
Ianto returned his attention to the terrain. The woods were thicker now, the path less obvious. He was near the spot where they had turned back before, but he couldn’t hear anything except the rain on the helmet. He checked in with Jack three more times before he noticed it.
It was a vibration more than a sound. The comm crackled with static and the helmet seemed to move. Ianto tightened the chin strap and the helmet settled down again. He moved forward more cautiously. “Jack, can you still hear me?”
“Yes. Are you close?”
“About forty meters. I’m going to turn on the dampeners. There’s static on this end, so I may not be able to hear you. I’ll talk but I may not respond to your questions.”
Ianto knew that would make Jack squawk, but all he could hear was the static. When he switched the dampening mechanism on, the static sounds were replaced by a low humming. Over the noise Ianto could hear someone swearing. “Jack,” he said patiently, “you sound like Donald Duck. Speak slower.”
There was a pause and then he heard a low and slow, “What about this?”
“I can just make it out. Now, can you be quiet for a while? I need to concentrate.”
His vision seemed to be wavering, but that was probably an effect of the dampening field. Ianto tried to compensate for that. He took smaller steps, keeping his eyes fixed on the scanner. Even with the dampener on he began to hear a sound again, loud and sharp and high-pitched. He tried the white noise generator. It helped some, but the closer he got to the blip on his scanner, the louder the noise became. It was as though someone was trimming his hair with a chainsaw.
His resolve flickered. Could he really do this? The noise was making him nauseous. He looked up and stopped. He had found the target.
She, definitely a she, was sitting on a large stone, with her back to him. Ianto angled around to approach her from the front. His nausea increased as he got a good look at her.
Long blonde hair hung well past her shoulders and her blue eyes stared straight ahead. Her mouth was open farther than Ianto would have thought humanly possible. That was where the scream was coming from. Half of her skin was black – not the darkness of melanin but black as though someone had taken a paintbrush to her. The black skin was mottled in the same pattern as macadam on the road. Incongruously, on the leg where the skin was still normal, her foot was wearing a ballet slipper still tied with pink ribbons.
Ianto felt sick and not just from the nausea of the loud buzzing in his head. Rift victim. This is what Jack wanted to spare them. No wonder.
He approached cautiously but she seemed to take no notice of him whatever. Her eyes never flickered, never blinked. He took hold of her arm and tugged gently. It was rigid and she didn’t move. He pulled harder, but she might have been part of the rock she was sitting on. He tried lifting her under the arms, but she remained in the same position. She wouldn’t be shifted. If Ianto was going to get her moving, he would have to think of something else.
Heartbeats. That had soothed Jack’s distress. Ianto unbuttoned Jack’s coat and his shirt. It was an awkward shift, but he managed to get close enough to press her ear against his chest. For a minute she didn’t change her position at all, and Ianto was trying to think of something else, but then her head moved. She pressed it harder against his chest, leaning into him. The noise level didn’t drop at all, but her arms and neck lost their rigidity. Ianto tried moving back and she followed him, keeping her ear on his chest. He stood and she stood as well.
It wouldn’t be easy walking this way, but at least it was possible. She was tall enough that she could maintain herself against his chest with only a slight stoop. Ianto covered her with as much coat as he could and began taking small steps. She stepped in rhythm, keeping her head pressed firmly over his heart. Ianto smiled to himself. “I’ve got her,” he said into the comm, hoping Jack could hear. He couldn’t. Not even his own voice. “We’re on our way back.”
If Ianto had thought the walk in was hellish, it in no way compared to the walk back. His sense of direction was completely gone and he had to keep his eyes on the scanner for bearings. The sound pounded at him, the rain still fell, and the winds blew frigid air into the opening of the coat. Ianto couldn’t remember much of the walk; his every sense was focused on keeping the victim’s head against his chest and watching the blips on the scanner. Ever so often he remembered to say something – he wasn’t sure it was at all coherent.
After what seemed like hours, Ianto found himself at the stream. The board had water running over it, but it was still holding in the mud of the banks. Ianto prayed that it would stay that way for a few minutes longer. He tightened his hold on the victim and put a foot out. The board did not move. Pulling her along, he made his way to the middle. The wind shook the board and he was forced to stop or be blown off. The water was frigid as it ran over their feet. Another strong gust of wind hit them full force and Ianto felt the board slide sideways. Without thinking he leapt for the far bank dragging the girl with him. He fell forward with most of him still on the path, but she slipped away, slid down the bank, and went into the water.
Adrenaline surged into his exhausted muscles and he was up and running before he realized. He could see her hair in the water. He pelted down the bank, trying to get downstream of her and saw in the distance a root or branch or something jutting out from the bank. He sprinted for it and slid down bracing himself against it just in time to catch the weight of her body against his. He caught her hair in his right hand to stop her, to hang on. Using that hold he wrapped his legs around her and pulled her torso free of the rushing stream. With his remaining strength he backed toward the bank until she was securely resting against the muddy side. He crawled up the slope, reached down and hauled her back to the top.
He had enough presence of mind left to prop her up so that the water would run out of her lungs. She wasn’t using them now, but she would need them if she ever stopped making that horrible noise. It hadn’t abated at all when she was in the water and was back in full force. Ianto was on his hands and knees and wanted more than anything to lie down and rest.
The screaming had penetrated to Ianto’s bones. Everything hurt. He was freezing. She was freezing. The rain continued to come down. The wind pushed at him, trying to knock him over. The adrenaline rush was gone. He had no energy left, but….
He had to get back. He had promised and he had broken so many promises already. He didn’t want to break another.
He abruptly realized why he was so cold. He wasn’t wearing the coat. Jack would kill him slowly if he lost that coat. He scanned the ground as well he could through the rain and found it. He must have dropped it before he went into the stream. He was mildly surprised that he had done something so sensible. The weight of the soaked wool would have pulled him into the water.
Ianto forced himself to move. He crawled to the coat. The scanner was there, too. Another sensible thing. If he had dropped the scanner in the stream, he wouldn’t have been able to find his way back. Maybe his brain had not ceased working after all.
He slipped his arms into the coat and put the scanner into the pocket. The next step was to get the girl up so that they could walk. Crawling back to the car was out of the question. He moved to her side and leaned down, pressing his chest to her ear again. Using a nearby stump, Ianto pulled himself to his feet slowly. She followed, just as she had before.
Ianto vaguely wondered how long it had been since he had said anything. Jack would not be happy at the long silence. Even the light on the scanner seemed to be blinking angrily. “Sorry, sir,” he managed to croak. “A small detour.”
One step at a time. The woods were dense, and they had to get back to the path. One step and then another step. It couldn’t be far. Step and step again. Step. Step. Step….
When the ground changed under his feet, Ianto knew they were back on the path. He changed direction and again concentrated on walking. If he thought about placing his feet, everything else faded somewhat. His shoes were wrecked though. Even if he could get them clean, he could feel the broken sole on the left one. That unevenness helped him think. He could cope if all he thought about was walking.
The small rise caught him unawares and he stumbled, nearly losing his hold on the girl. It was the last straw. He wanted to kick the rocks, scream and curse them, kill them, revive them, and kill them again. All he had the energy to do was raise his head to look at the top of the rise. He stared at it. There was something up there, something that looked like a large box. Something soundproof?
Heedless of scrapes and bruises, Ianto scrambled up the slope, dragging the girl with him. The box was larger than a coffin, but roughly the same shape. He fumbled for a latch and the top rose smoothly. The box was lined with cushions and there were blankets. The inside was warm and there was a hiss of flowing air. As quick as he could Ianto placed the girl inside, shoved the blankets over her and closed the lid.
The silence crashed in on him and he barely had time to whisper, “She’s safe, sir,” before the darkness overwhelmed him.
Ianto heard music – the most beautiful music that ever was. All the greatest musicians in the world were playing a melody so sweet and pure it brought tears to one’s eyes just by being. It swirled around him, soothing everything away. Gradually, the higher notes faded and the lower notes coalesced into a rhythmic tempo that pulsed throughout his body. It was magical. It was lyrical. It was… a heartbeat.
Ianto’s eyes snapped open. Jack’s face was looking down at him. “Hello, Sleeping Beauty,” he said with his patented grin. “I thought I was going to have to wake you with a kiss. Not that I would have minded.”
Strong bare arms were cradling Ianto against a firm, and equally bare chest. His own shirt was gone, replaced by a blanket draped loosely around his shoulders. His arms were around Jack, not as though they’d been put there, but actively holding Jack closer. How had that happened? And what was he doing still lying here?
Jack must have felt him stiffen, because he tightened his hold. “Your senses took a beating out there, Ianto. Rest and listen to my heartbeat. I can feel yours, too, and it soothes me.”
Despite feeling awkward, Ianto didn’t find the order hard to follow. He could hear the echo of the music around him, playing in counterpoint to the steady rhythm of Jack’s heart. For the first time in months, his constant pain had diminished enough to feel something else. Something better. A task completed.
Only not quite. Ianto sat up and this time Jack let him go. “What about the girl? Shouldn’t we be getting her to your island?”
Jack smiled at him. Not his brash, flirtatious smile, but that rare one that Ianto had only seen when directed at a member of the team. “Isn’t that just like you?” he said. “I finally get you in a compromising situation and you have to go and think of someone besides me.”
Ianto’s world returned to its even keel. He could even return the smile. “You know I don’t like to leave things undone, sir.”
“You know I don’t like to leave things undone, Jack.”
Jack’s smile stretched into a grin. “You know, for someone who has nothing to prove, you certainly proved something tonight. Good job, Ianto Jones.”
Ianto felt a momentary whim to salute, but controlled it. “I promised to do it. I’ll be keeping my promises now.”
Jack nodded. “There are dry clothes on the front seat. I’ll secure our victim.” Jack reached for a jumper in the front seat. From its condition, Ianto was sure it was actually from World War II. When Jack’s head emerged, he continued, “This one time, I’ll respect your modesty.”
“Thanks. And, Jack?”
Ianto took a deep breath. “If we pass one of those twenty-four hours shops on the way, I’d like to get a sandwich. I’m hungry.”