The Hub was quiet as Ianto switched off the coffee maker and began pouring the rich brew into the mugs lined up neatly on the counter in front of him. The weather when he had entered twenty minutes earlier that morning had been bland, Jack had reported an alien-less night, the screens of Tosh's computers swirled with harmless screensavers, and even Janet the Weevil seemed relatively calm. Everything about the day suggested it was going to be eventless, which should have been Ianto's first clue that it wasn't. He turned around, holding a cup of coffee in either hand, and nearly spilled the scalding liquid with surprise at the sight of a woman he'd never seen before standing calmly in the middle of the Hub.
She was near Tosh's array of computers, examining them and the rest of her surroundings with a cautiously curious expression on her face. Ianto would have guessed her age as a few years less than his own, and her time period as the twenty-first century. Her boots, jeans, fitted plaid jacket, and messy blonde pony tail could have belonged to a student, but there was something in her stance that suggested competence and authority far beyond university.
She spotted Ianto, standing on the level above her, and though she barely moved there was a subtle change to her posture that managed to convey a sense of rigid defense, and it wouldn't have surprised Ianto if she'd suddenly pulled a gun on him.
"Um," she said instead, "Hello."
Ianto blinked once, then turned slightly and set the coffee cups on the table next to him, keeping the blonde in his sight the entire time. "Hello," he answered carefully once he'd turned to face her fully again. Never one to abandon politeness even when confronted with a stranger who appeared to have materialized in their secure, secret base without tripping a single alarm, he added, "Can I help you?"
"This is Torchwood, yeah?" she asked, and Ianto mentally noted her London accent and the way she pronounced the name with a grim sort of familiarity. "I'm looking for—"
As if summoned, Jack chose that moment to emerge from his office, calling for Ianto as he came. "Have you made coffee yet?" he asked, making a beeline for the Welshman and the cups on the table next to him. "Because I'm trying to read some of those Heiradian texts and I might as well be reading that chicken scratching Owen calls his writingfor all the sense they're—"
He broke off as he spotted the blonde standing below them. Her gaze locked on to his and Jack went so pale Ianto was momentarily afraid he'd had a heart attack and died on the spot.
"Rose?" Jack whispered, with the air of uttering something sacred.
"Jack." By contrast the blonde called Rose's voice turned warm and strong.
"Wha— How—" Jack's stare was so intense it was impossible to tell if it was one of fear or joy. "iHe/i said… He said you were gone, you were trapped in a parallel world—"
"The walls are getting thin," Rose spoke quickly, taking several steps forward at the same time. "We've found places, ways to come through. I can't stay for long, but…" She paused, studying Jack's expression, then took a few more steps forward and seized the staircase rail in a white-knuckled grip. "It's really me, Jack," she said, low and fast. "I swear it is."
Jack didn't answer, and Ianto couldn't remember ever seeing him this speechless.
"When we first met," Rose continued, now sounding almost desperate. "World War Two, barrage balloon… We had champagne, and we danced next to Big Ben… you smelled like gunpowder and oranges—"
"And I thought your smile was brighter than any of the bombs," Jack finally replied, and if Ianto wasn't mistaken there was a hint of tears in his voice. Rose, however, began to laugh, and raced up the steps as Jack flung himself towards them so they met at the top and he swept her into his arms.
It was this hug that convinced Ianto everything was all right, that this woman wasn't some psycho ex-girlfriend or malevolent alien who would try and hurt Jack. Though her arms were around Jack's neck, her head buried in his shoulder, her knees hugging his waist while his arms were wrapped completely around her slim torso, Ianto could see this hug had nothing to do with sex. That in itself was a rarity when it came to Jack, but the expression on his face was even rarer. He looked as though the hug was simultaneously filling his heart with joy and smashing it into a million pieces, but he also looked content, as though that was only right. Jack looked as though by holding this woman in his arms he had found a bit of home.
Feeling a suspicious pricking at the corners of his own eyes, Ianto quietly and discreetly exited the room, removing himself to his cluttered little office on ground level and pulling out the melodramatic romance novel he had stashed beneath the desk. The two cups of coffee he left on the table downstairs.
"…so we ended up gathering a lot of knowledge about this reality, and when I saw your name on the Torchwood files, with everything that's been going on— I thought you might, I mean, I wanted—" Rose trailed off at the end of her story. She'd briefly explained her time with the Doctor after they'd left Jack, and the circumstances that led to her entrapment in the parallel world. Her voice was flat and emotionless, very different from the warm bubble Jack remembered. Her mannerisms were slightly altered as well. Gone was the carefree young woman who smiled at life and laughed with the world. In her place was someone with a mission, someone practical, calloused, and determined. It seemed Rose the traveler had been replaced by Rose the solider, and it hurt Jack to see it.
Realizing she had stopped talking, Jack looked up from his empty cup of coffee sitting benignly on his desk in front of him. Having Rose Tyler standing so matter-of-factly in his Torchwood office was like having two separate lives collide, and the sight was still disorienting enough that Jack didn't immediately take note of her expression. She was watching him like someone might watch a car crash or a gory movie, as though what she was seeing was making her sick but she couldn't look away.
Jack felt his insides twist, feeling sick himself that something about him could cause Rose to look like that. For a moment he could only mouth her name around the hot surge of guilt and self-revulsion climbing from his stomach up his throat.
"In the files…" Rose spoke before he found his voice, tearing her gaze away to stare fixedly at the untouched cup of coffee in her hand. "In the files we've read it says you can't die."
The burning in Jack's stomach turned rapidly to ice as he understood— Rose wasn't disturbed by what he was as much as her part in creating it, and though his iabnormality/i had come about by her hand he had never once blamed her for it. He wasn't sure how to tell her this, so he attempted to make a joke of it, grasping at some semblance of his normal cocky manner.
"I can die," he said, going for a grin and hoping it wasn't a grimace. "I just can't seem to stay dead."
Rose made a noise that may have been a sob, yet what Jack could see of her eyes remained dry. "That's my fault," she stated, the even tone of her voice beginning to waver.
"No, I don't think it is," Jack said quickly. "You were saving the world, and saving him, and that was absolutely the right thing to do. You were using a force far beyond your control and I just happened to catch some of the consequences." He leaned forward, trying to recapture Rose's gaze and make sure she understood the conclusion it had taken him so many years to reach. "It was an accident, Rose. Hell, maybe it was even fate. All I know is, I don't blame you."
When Rose continued to stare resolutely at her coffee cup, Jack added the final stroke. "And neither does he."
Her attention snapped on to him as he'd hoped it would, a glimmer of hope in her widened eyes making her look much more like the Rose he remembered.
"You've seen him?" she whispered, finally losing her brusque tone.
Jack nodded, then began telling her about his years waiting for the Doctor and how he'd finally caught up with him a year ago. As he did so, the tiny spark of light that was the old Rose Tyler strengthened and grew.
"He explained to me what had happened on Satellite 5," Jack finished with, deciding it would be best for the both of them if he didn't detail the events of the Year That Never Was. "And he told me about you."
Rose's light flickered, her eyes going dark once more. Jack stood up and walked over to her, placing a hand gently on her arm.
"He's not alone, Rose, but he misses you," Jack said quietly, feeling the blonde begin the shake under his hand. "You know how he tries to hide things like that, but it was more than obvious. Even with all his other changes, that's what I noticed was most different about him. The way he looked when he said your name."
Rose was now shaking so hard the coffee in her cup was close to spilling over the edges. She turned her head away from Jack and faced the glass door of his office, he was sure so she could stop herself from crying.
"Of course," Jack added, taking her cup away then placing his other hand on her other arm, absorbing her trembling through his firm hold. "I also noticed the way he looked in that suit."
Rose gave a very wet snort and leaned back against Jack's chest. "Yeah," she mumbled in a reasonably steady voice. "And his hair."
Jack laughed softly, sliding his hands back and forth between Rose's elbows and her shoulders, trying to help her release some of tension buzzing through her body like an electric current.
"You seem to have yourself well sorted here," Rose said with a tiny sigh as though it was some form of defeat to revert back to the playful way the two of them used to interact. "Also in a suit, I didn't catch his name—"
"Ianto Jones," Jack said quickly, aware of the sickly sweet warmth rushing into his voice but unable to stop it. Rose giggled, short and stunted as though she'd almost forgotten how, but giggled nonetheless.
"Ianto Jones," she repeated, allowing her head to drop back against Jack's shoulder, another sigh escaping her. "He's rather adorable."
"Oh you have no idea," Jack slurred, purposefully making the words so lascivious they bordered on vulgar. Rose giggled again, then as silence stretched between them she became very still. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her head off Jack's shoulder and the tension returned to her body, her face and eyes hardening.
"I've got to find him, Jack," she said quietly, her composure rippling but remaining unbroken. "And not just because…" She pulled herself from his arms and turned to face him, fixing him with a steely, resolute gaze. "There's something coming, Jack. A darkness. Worse than ever before."
"I know," Jack cut in when she faltered, seeming at a loss for words to describe this new threat. "I've been noticing some signs, some things that go far beyond normal Rift activity." He shrugged, the unexpected relief at sharing this grim portent with someone leading him to be slightly flippant. "If there is such a thing as normal Rift activity. I haven't told anyone here because things have been rough enough lately," the humor drained from his voiceas quickly as it had come, "But I've kinda been expecting the worse."
Rose blinked at him a few times, then much to Jack's surprise the corners of her mouth turned up in small but genuine smile.
"What?" he asked, nonplussed.
"It's just… you," Rose replied. "You're all responsible and taking charge now. Like a proper Captain."
"Yeah, well," Jack shrugged off the compliment with a laugh. "You're one to talk, Miss Breaking-Through-Parallel-Worlds-To-Stop-The-End-Of-The-Universe!"
Rose didn't laugh back, and her smile quickly faded. There was a moment of awkward silence in which she stared at her feet before admitting quietly, "It's all pretend. Until I can find him again, I have to pretend."
"I know," Jack said softly, reaching out to push back a loose strand of her hair and wishing he could push back her pain and let the real Rose Tyler he knew was behind it come back to the surface. "But you'll find him, Rose. I know you will. After all, it's not a real catastrophe without him around for it, is it?"
"No," Rose agreed, and she bit her lip, stiff tremors beginning to rock their way through her body once again. She wrapped her arms around her chest like she was trying to hold herself together, and squeezed her eyes shut. "It's much more than one," she whispered, the words torn from her throat.
Jack felt his heart break at this sight of Rose trying so hard to stay strong when she was clearly so wrecked inside. Memories of his own feelings at being left behind by the Doctor surged, mixing with memories of Rose as a grinning, energetic child, Rose smirking on his spaceship wearing her flag shirt, Rose dancing joyfully in the Doctor's arms. He breathed her name, aching and helpless, and took a lurching step forward to pull Rose's arms from her body and replace them with his own.
Rose fell into him without resistance, her rigid composure apparently destroyed by her final confession. The tears she had been so obstinately holding back began to fall; when Jack pressed a chaste kiss to her cheek he tasted their saltiness on his lips. He wanted to tell her everything was going to be okay, that her wounds would soon heal and there'd be no scars, but he couldn't. Rose was right, a terrible darkness was coming, and there was little any of them could do to stop it, and probably less they could to do to fight it once it arrived.
The thought filled Jack with dread, not for himself, but for everyone he knew and loved and everyone he'd never met. However, as he stroked Rose's blonde hair and let her clutch bruises into his arms, he thought about dark eyes in a devastated face, a voice laced with pain and loneliness, and thought if the darkness were responsible for reuniting Rose and her Doctor… then there might be a light in storm for all of them.
Ianto made his way back down into the Hub just as Jack and the woman called Rose were emerging from Jack's office. Both were red-eyed and looked exhausted, but there was a certain serenity to their expressions, like they had been drawing poison from a wound and for all the pain of the process the end result was still a victory. Rose in particular looked younger and brighter than she had before as Jack gave her a brief tour of the Hub, guiding her with casually familiar touches to her arm and lower back.
Jack led Rose to Ianto last, and as he shook her hand she flashed a smile that dazzled him with it's unexpected brillance.
"Jack may call himself Captain, but we both know who's really in charge," Rose said, throwing a quick look to Jack before continuing to grin at Ianto. "Keep up the good work."
Though rather bewildered, Ianto couldn't help but smile in response. Jack gave a small snort of dissent, then swept Rose theatrically into his arms.
"This isn't goodbye," he stated firmly, though he hugged her as fiercely as he had when she'd first appeared.
Rose smiled into Jack's shoulder, but her grip around his back was just as tight, her hands fisted in his coat. "It never is," she said with a strange mixture of gratification and uneasiness.
Jack laughed in the assuaging, gentle way only he could, and placed a kiss of infinite tenderness on Rose's temple. Ianto swallowed at the sight of such honest sweetness. It was a side he knew Jack possessed, but one the Captain rarely showed. His throat tightened further as Rose answered the kiss with a smile that was as beautiful as it was broken.
Then as though following a signal, Jack and Rose separated without another word. Rose turned and walked back down the steps and out of sight beneath them. Ianto listened for the alarms announcing the opening of their door, but they didn't come. He opened his mouth to question this when Jack suddenly turned and pulled him into an enveloping embrace.
"Jack?" Ianto asked, taken aback. "Is everything all right?"
"No," Jack answered. He pulled back just far enough to press his lips to Ianto's in a long, penetrating kiss. Ianto was rather weak at the knees by the time Jack pulled away, but when he forced his eyelids open he found Jack looking solemn and thoughtful. However, he didn't elaborate or explain his cryptic answer, but merely reached forward and took Ianto's hand, twining their fingers together with meticulouscare. When he looked back up at Ianto, there was something very vulnerable in expression. Ianto half expected to hear a shattering confession or devastating bad news, but Jack merely smiled, soft and slow, and asked in a voice almost completely free of sexual innuendo,
"So what's the chance of you making me another cup of coffee?"