Last Round Before Closing
It was two weeks since Jack had saved the world and killed Lisa. Ianto had spent them numbly waiting for the axe to drop. "Want to get a drink?" Jack had said tonight, finally, and Ianto's hands had gone unsteady with relief.
The pub was more trendy than cosy, with a long bar, and plush benches in the centre, tables around the edges. It was too late for the after work crowd, and it was Wednesday, so no night life; the only other people were a couple at the bar, and a group of four at one of the tables who were standing up to leave.
Jack said, "I've got the first round. Why don't you find us a seat?"
"All right." Not at the bar, then.
Ianto chose one of the dimly lit tables on the sidelines. Seating them centre stage would have telegraphed a defiance that he did not feel. What was going to happen would happen, inevitably, preceded by smiles and conversation. Jack was treating him to the full works. The part of Ianto that was comforted by routines was obscurely reassured; the other part wondered how Jack was going manage it. Ianto wasn't prone to opening up, less so now that his feelings towards Jack were tangled up with his feelings about Lisa. You're worse than anything down there, Jack. The instinct to verbalise that still pushed at him, but he could sense the cheapening effect of words, grief exchanged for petulance, and since her death had said nothing.
He watched Jack return with the drinks. Jack slid into the seat opposite him, smiling an easy smile.
"You're right, I have no idea what you do outside of work," said Jack, "but I bet I can guess."
"All right, then."
"You think about work."
The urge to smile took Ianto by surprise, and dragged the other emotions closer to the surface.
Jack said, "But maybe all that proves is that I know the job."
"Gets in your head," said Ianto. He looked at his pint for a long time before he took his first drink.
"Unless you learn how to relax."
Having swallowed the beer, Ianto lifted his hand to his tie and slowly loosened it. It was a symbolic gesture.
The slight rise of Jack's brows was appreciative. "You know, you can never be too relaxed."
"This will do me for now, sir."
Jack smiled broadly and lifted his drink, a clear liquid that might even be water. He'd taken his coat off and thrown it over the back of his chair, and his blue shirt sleeves were pushed up slightly, revealing his wrist communicator, a strip of brown leather. It was thrown into prominence by the way he was holding his drink, and might have seemed effeminate, except that impression was immediately contradicted by Jack's self assured manner as he tossed the drink back, and the way Ianto inevitably felt in his presence: outmanned.
Ianto caught himself staring at Jack for a few seconds too long, and looked down. At his glass, which had beads of moisture condensing on the outside.
He wished they could skip the preliminaries. He had never socialised alone with Jack, and he felt off balance, the same way he felt whenever Jack touched him, a hand on his arm, or on his back--ambushed by intimacy, as though Jack had penetrated a barrier that by rights should have kept him at a distance. Jack's easy closeness was confounding.
And there was the constant anxiety that at any moment, Jack would say her name, would ask Ianto, in the metaphorical cold light of day, to explain what he had done. They hadn't talked about Lisa since Jack had told him to go down into the Hub and finish it. Ianto hadn't had to offer anything more than those choked out explanations, reasons that were so tangled up in emotion that he wasn't sure where one ended and the other began.
"The last time you came out with the team after work was--when?" Jack was saying. "Wasn't it after--"
"The stake out."
Despite everything, the urge to smile this time was helpless and stronger. Because that had been funny, watching a lamppost for six hours because Tosh's new equipment had mistaken it for an alien life form. After, they'd all piled into the nearest pub, recalling the more ludicrous moments over drinks. The mood had been infectious, and Ianto felt it tugging at him again now, saw it tugging at Jack, who said, "Owen swore after he looked up from spilling that coffee that it had moved two inches to the left."
"You drew a gun on it."
"I thought it would attack for sure when that dog started sniffing it," said Jack. "Wasn't that your first field trip? Lucky you've got a great poker face. You must have thought we were crazy."
"My first field trip was a cup of tea with Mrs Chesterton." When Jack gave him a blank look, Ianto said, to jog his memory, "She'd bought a cold fusion device at a jumble sale."
Any advice, sir? Ianto had asked, and Jack had given him a cheerful slap on the back and said, Don't set it off, it'll vaporize the northern hemisphere. Other than that, you'll be fine. He'd had a nice cup of tea and a sit down with Mrs Chesterton, who had happily given him the device, which she'd been using as a paperweight. Then she'd offered him a cupcake. "You seem like such a well mannered young man," she'd said. When Ianto got back to the car, Jack was waiting with a shoulder leaning against the driver's door. Next time, bring me back a cupcake, he'd said. But the look in his eyes had said, Well done.
"Emily," recalled Jack, adding in the slightly aggrieved tones of someone who isn't used to being refused, "She wouldn't talk to me because I wasn't wearing a suit."
He shouldn't have doubted Jack's ability to make him feel at ease. They moved from the poorly informed aliens who'd tried to blend in wearing kilts, to the time the Millennium Centre fountain flooded Jack's bedroom. ("Can't sleep, sir?" Ianto had enquired politely--suppressing any bleariness--when the phone roused him at 3 am. "Not without a snorkel, no. Get over here.")
But it wasn't until they recalled Ianto's first day on the job that Ianto realised how effortlessly Jack had drawn him into reminiscences. He felt himself go cold. Of course Jack would make him remember. Jack was leading this dance and all of tonight's steps were choreographed. For the first time, Ianto experienced a moment of panic, and wanted to bolt.
He took another drink, fortifying himself against indecision. This was simplest. This was best. When he thought of that day, he still couldn't muddle his way through what was right and what was wrong, not when every decision was a choice between her death, or others.
Or others. His faith in his own judgement was shattered. His newborn faith in Jack was a product of need; he needed Jack to have been right. Now he needed Jack to step in and make this decision for both of them.
"--but then again, you were the only applicant who wore a suit," Jack was saying.
"Is that why you hired me?"
"Truthfully? You aced the Q and A. Why did you think it was?" said Jack.
"I tried not to speculate."
Well, hi there, handsome, Jack had said, a rather unconventional opening to a job interview, and Ianto had done his best to answer a series of what seemed like random questions (Do you like lizards? What's the square root of 529? What would you say is the best way of getting from the Millennium Centre to St Mellons during peak hour? If there was a big red button marked 'Do not press' are you the type of person who would press it, or not?) all the while trying to shake the impression that the outcome had already been decided by Jack's initial appreciative once-over. Jack didn't help matters when he stood up less than five minutes after the interview started, and said, You're in. Wanna see the secret base?
"Because you're hot? That was more like a bonus." Jack's brow furrowed. "Or, wait, do I mean cool? Cool is stylish, hot is--?"
"I'm not sure that goes far enough. What do you recommend if the guy's more than attractive?"
"A raise?" said Ianto.
Jack laughed. He only glanced down at Ianto's pint once, which wouldn't have been enough to give anything away if Ianto hadn't been expecting it.
"So, did I ever tell you about the time--" said Jack, launching into a series of anecdotes.
It suited Ianto, who preferred listening to talking. He liked the role of counterpoint, which was valued but unexposed, especially around Jack. It left him free to enjoy Jack's company without pressure. He felt himself relax another notch.
Jack told stories with unfolding punch lines, that all ended with aliens, absurdity, or variations on, "And she never even gave me her address," pronouncing it address in the American way. He was telling one now that was funny enough to make Ianto laugh--at the part where he pulled out a banana instead of a sonic blaster. They probably wouldn't be funny if anyone else told them, being quintessentially Jack. Ianto had never tried to retell any of them to Lisa, even on the nights after the team had Chinese takeout, everyone laughing and swapping stories around the table. Especially on the nights after Chinese takeout. There had been compartmentalisation on both sides of the line Ianto had drawn for himself.
"It's funny, I've never told that story before," said Jack when he was done, and the tone of his voice was different, it turned the space between them intimate. It hadn't occurred to Ianto what it would feel like to receive Jack's undivided attention.
He felt the pint glass under his fingers. Lifted it.
Took another drink, swallowing twice. When he prodded his feelings towards Jack, they weren't what they should be. He wanted to blame Jack, and during that day, he had blamed him. But for some reason the blame was now directed against himself. It had turned inward, like the grief. Ianto had somehow come to contain the entire experience; he was the sole cause, just as he alone felt the emotional after-effects. Jack had emerged unscathed, free even of blame. Ianto wanted to resent him for that.
He said, "I thought you'd try to make me talk about Lisa."
He lifted his eyes to meet Jack's. Saying her name was like a signal, and he waited for what he thought was coming.
"How did you two meet?" said Jack.
"At a pub." He took a small breath, surprised by the question. Jack didn't say anything else, and he found himself continuing, "It was crowded. We bumped into each other, and her earring got caught on my jacket. She used to wear these big loop earrings. They were sort of impractical, always catching on her clothes and things."
"But a great way to meet guys."
"That's what she always said."
Once the words started, they wouldn't stop.
"We dated for six months. We were so different, really. She was spontaneous, always trying new things--she never checked the weather before she went out. We used to go camping a lot, pick up and go at the last minute. We were always getting caught in storms and cold fronts. She made it seem like an adventure. I was a different person around her." The present was intruding on the past suddenly. "You already know that."
Jack said, "No, I didn't. I didn't know you then."
"That's how I want to remember her. The way she was then. Not--"
An inch or so left in his glass.
Jack leaned forward and placed his hand on Ianto's forearm, his thumb smoothing in an unconscious caress, warm and reassuring, the sort of touch you wanted to close your eyes and feel. It was rather easy to see why Gwen had fallen for it--why they all fell for it, all two thousand and eight of them. Why he was falling for it. Ianto swallowed the last mouthful of alcohol, then put the empty glass down.
"So when do I start feeling drowsy?" he said. The small smile was the best he could manage.
Jack returned the smile and then some, leaning back in his seat, at ease. There was no sign. "What do you mean?"
"I drank the whole glass," said Ianto.
The couple at the bar were laughing. The bartender had joined their conversation from behind the bar, where he was polishing a fork.
Jack never looked at them. The smile and the easy posture didn't change. "How did you guess that it had retcon in it?"
Ianto looked down at the empty pint. His fingers were still cupped around it, his thumb resting on the side of the glass. He remembered the feeling of relief; it was no different now that he knew for certain.
"It seemed simplest."
When he looked back up, his eyes met Jack's. He tried to muster another smile.
"It's in the contract. We've all thought about it. Suzie probably took antidote."
"There isn't one," said Jack.
"Then I suppose this is it, then." He'd never been able to hold Jack's gaze for long. "I left some instructions in the safe, a list of what needs doing around the Hub, where I keep the spare keys, that sort of thing. Odds and ends." He focused on the details of his job. "You've got a meeting with the Mayor of Cardiff on Friday. You asked me to remind you."
"You want it," said Jack, the words an unfolding realisation, his gaze searching Ianto's face.
"No," said Jack. "But who knows, maybe I did once. You know, that's one possibility that I never thought of."
"What do you mean?"
"I've taken retcon," said Jack.
"I don't remember." He said it like a punch line, with a little tilt of his glass. His lips were curved slightly.
"But you must have--"
"Some idea of what happened? Like a sense, or a feeling? It's not like that. It's just gone. You're not even aware there's been missing time, at first."
Those words broke the surface and started to sink.
His first impression of Jack had been formed by the clothes. Period military, a little cartoonish, easy to imagine him holding a champagne flute or leading a squadron, harder to imagine him ordering pizza or doing paperwork, though, sporadically, he was wont to do both. Captain Jack Harkness. Ianto had assumed Jack had served in the military, though later, without really thinking about it, he had appended more fuzzily: Sometime. Somewhere.
He looked across at Jack now, and everything was so familiar, from the blue eyes, to the flashy smile, to the unflappable charm. Jack managed to be conventionally handsome without conventional twenty-first century looks, his features a little too sculpted, lacking either rugged brawn or androgynous prettiness; nevertheless there was both symmetry and razzle dazzle, like he possessed the trademarks of another era.
"Need another drink?" said Jack.
"No. Yes," said Ianto. "Since I'm not going to remember, you're picking up the tab."
"That seems fair." Jack's smile was lurking somewhere.
Ianto watched Jack as he stood up and went over to the bar. The others speculated constantly about Jack, but they speculated without observing, like people who talk without listening. As for Ianto, he'd been too preoccupied to notice that Jack was--what?
Jack returned with a bottle of bourbon and couple of shot glasses, and poured him a drink. Ianto drank it and remembered the feeling of the muzzle of Jack's gun pressed against his temple. In that moment there had been a lack of any doubt. Jack was a killer. Jack was a killer by intention, rather than a killer through mistakes and inaction like Ianto. It wasn't all smiles between them.
"Since you're not going remember, you might as well say it," said Jack.
"I don't know if I'm sorry," said Ianto. "I never meant for people to get hurt, but I would have done anything to keep her alive. I--You wouldn't understand."
"I wasn't in love with her," said Jack. "That's why you should have trusted me."
"If I'd come to you and told you about her before--before. Would you have helped her?"
"No," said Jack. "I'd have killed her. Before she had a chance to kill anyone else."
Ianto flinched. But it was a strange kind of relief to know that the situation had been lose-lose. That there had been no way to save her, only a choice between their lives and more time. His guilt was suddenly quantified. He could never have made that choice. He knew it, and like a physical sensation he felt the surrendering of responsibility to Jack. Jack could make the decisions Ianto couldn't, and maybe Ianto could live with that. Though he wouldn't have to.
"It's funny, I never expected--" he began, and stopped.
He thought of the lamppost and his first field mission and all of the memories that Jack had turned over tonight.
"You really want this," said Jack.
He never expected to enjoy his job. It wasn't just that it was a step down; his job had been no more than the thing he had to do to keep her safe. He hadn't anticipated the simple satisfaction of cleaning a room or ordering the filing system. He looked over at Jack's familiar features. He'd suppressed any enjoyment out of a sense of loyalty to Lisa, but he could admit to it now. Forgetting wouldn't be an appropriate punishment if there wasn't something it hurt to give up.
"Whatever you decided, that's what's right. I trust you." He tried to explain it. But it was more that he had to trust someone, since he didn't trust himself.
"Good." Ianto's answer seemed decisive to Jack, who pushed his chair back and stood. "Come on, I'll call you a cab."
Outside, when the cab pulled up at the curb, Ianto opened the door and then paused.
"It's hard to imagine the Hub without you," said Jack, like the thought was only just occurring to him.
"The secret is changing the filter every time you boil the pot."
"You're more than that."
It was a little cold outside the pub. They had been the last ones to leave, and inside, the bartender was probably closing up.
"Usually, I'd kiss my date at the end of the night, but I don't like the idea of a forgettable performance," said Jack. "I'll take a rain check."
"Right," said Ianto.
He went still, his stomach twisting oddly, when Jack's fingers brushed his cheek, the touch like a promissory note, though it wasn't. Jack turned to leave.
"Just so you know," said Jack, briefly turning back, "I don't take the fact that you want to forget all this personally." He was smiling. He raised a hand in a final wave. Ianto watched him disappear around the corner, then he got into the cab.
It was 6:15 when Ianto woke to his radio alarm, a muted voice repeating the headline stories. For the first few drowsy moments he felt nothing except emerging wakefulness and the cocoon of warmth from the bed. Then he opened his eyes and pushed himself up. There was a blue sky outside that might mean a sunny day or just a block of solid cold. At 6:17 they would announce the day's weather.
In the bathroom he splashed water on his face. He had a slight headache. He didn't think he'd drunk enough last night to warrant a hangover, so it was probably the retcon--god only knew what effect Jack's 'special recipe' had on the system. The retcon--
Anxiety drove him back into the bedroom, where he took a catalogue of the familiar surroundings, there was the wall hanging he'd brought with him from London, there was yesterday's suit, hanging over the chair where he'd left it. He scrolled through the events of last night, Jack, the drinks, all of it. I trust you. He let out a shaky breath. He expected to feel tricked, or cheated of his chance to forget, but what he felt instead was echoed in moments of mislaid keys, or lost wallets. The panic of believing something missing, followed by the rush of reassurance when everything was exactly where it should be.