A/N: This fic is something I've wanted to write for a while, ever since I watched "Meat". Because my mind loves the "what if's" you find in shows. Like, what if Dale's gun hadn't been empty when he pointed it at Ianto? And why the hell does Gwen seem to think she has the monopoly on feelings and worrying about loved ones? She annoyed me in Meat, even if I did agree with her stance on not Retconning Rhys. But then, Gwen annoys me a lot with her attitude towards Jack.

But all that aside, this fic was also written for my best bud and wingman, Lovinjackson. Happy Birthday mate! I hope this is just the present you needed. ;) *HUGS*

xXx

"You love him...it makes you vulnerable."

It wasn't exactly a hard concept to understand. Was it? Vulnerability meant mistakes got made and when that happened? It led to the situation they had on their hands right now. What should have been a relatively simple operation had fallen apart and was now rapidly on it's way to be a mess of epic proportions.

The one shot Captain Jack Harkness had, was that the two bit low lives who had been dealing in alien meat, had let go of Rhys Williams and Ianto Jones, telling them to go stand with Gwen Cooper. Jack knew that Gwen and Ianto would be able to protect Rhys and get to cover. They could still come of this as winners...

"Dale, two more, far corner. They can't get out, it's locked."

Or not. The element of surprise was well and truly lost now. A quick glance around the side of the boxes that Jack was using as cover, told him that things had taken a severe turn for the worse. That "Dale" character had already stepped forward and grabbed Ianto, hauling him back and holding a gun on him.

Shit. That upped the ante more than Jack liked. He could see by the expression on Ianto's face, that the younger man was both embarrassed at being caught and worried about what it meant now for the others. He hated being a bargaining chip.

All Jack could do now was salvage the situation as best as possible and get his people out alive. He stepped out from behind the boxes with Toshiko Sato only a few steps behind him. Hands raised high, making it clear that they weren't threats. He needed to keep his head cool and not focus on the gun currently pressed against Ianto. One slip of the trigger finger was all it would take to shatter Jack's world. Did Gwen ever think of that? Did she ever think that every time Jack sent Ianto out into danger, he ran the risk of losing the one person in the world that he couldn't afford to lose? Gwen had been so quick to argue when Jack had wanted to allow Rhys to help them. It blurred the lines for her then, made it all the more obvious to her, what the risks were when it was right in front of you in the line of fire. The way it always was for Jack...for Ianto...for Owen...for Toshiko.

"Drop your weapons."

Jack ditched his Webley into the boxes beside him, hating the empty feeling it left in his hand. A second later, he heard the clatter of Toshiko's gun joining his. Now it was up to Jack to talk these moronic hoods down before things became bloody. It was all to buy time for Ianto. Even as he spoke - explaining to Dale and his men about the creature beside them moaning in agony – Jack could see that Ianto was working on the ropes holding his hands. That was his boy, always thinking, always one step ahead. Once Ianto had his hands free and was able to tackle Dale, Jack would be able to make his next move.

Seconds ticked by, feeling like hours. The more Dale spoke of how the creature was just "meat", the more Jack wanted to grab the nearest knife and start hacking chunks off the man, making him see if he liked being chopped up alive. After all, humans were "just meat" too.

"Dale, stop." Gwen spoke up now, trying to appeal to the man. To make him see sense. "You can still walk away from this."

Not if Jack had anything to do with it. He'd make sure that Dale and his lot paid for what they were doing here. It had been a long time since he'd resorted to using the higher level doses of Retcon. They tended to leave people drooling, mindless drones. It was something that Jack was happy to have on his conscience with this lot.

All they needed was a few more seconds. Ianto was almost free. Jack could see it in his expression and body language.

"No." Dale said simply, his eyes never leaving Gwen and Rhys. "You lied to me."

"Noo!" Rhys was on the move as soon as he saw the gun lifting and shifting towards Gwen. He put himself between Gwen and Dale without thinking, taking the bullet high in the chest, off center near the shoulder.

It was all the distraction Ianto needed to make his move. He reacted quickly, grabbing for Dale's gun and wrestling with it as he heard Jack shouting. Pushing Dale's arm up, he fought for control of the weapon as it fired repeatedly, the bullets striking the whale like creature beside them. Each shot brought out another scream of agony and Ianto felt sorry for it, he really did...but he couldn't let that gun swing back to shoot anyone else.

Jack had managed to retrieve his gun now, bringing it up to bear as he watched Rhys sliding down the wall of boxes nearby. It was hard to see how bad the wound was and had to trust that Gwen could deal with it right now. Ianto was still struggling for Dale's gun, making it impossible for Jack to get a clear shot at Dale. He saw Ianto being forced backwards by a savage punch to the back, hands clawing at his face and throat as Dale fought wildly. There was no chance of firing off a round without hitting Ianto and with frustration filling him, Jack was forced to lower his gun. There were other dangers to contend with. He would have to trust that Ianto could handle this fight alone and would be safe.

One of the steel cables began to give way, allowing the whale to roll and shift, desperately seeking to free itself and get away from the agony that seemed to be all encompassing at that moment. Jack was pushed back towards Toshiko, losing sight of Ianto. He was on his own now.

Xxx

Ianto had managed to get Dale down onto the floor, straddling the man as he threw a solid punch to his face. Dale swung a wild punch of his own, his fist slamming into the side of Ianto's head with enough force to make his vision white out for a moment. He felt himself being pushed off, too dizzy to stop himself from toppling to the ground and rolling onto his back.

Dale stumbled to his feet, aiming the gun at Ianto with both hands, seething with anger. "Die!"

The first bullet punched into the floor beside Ianto's face, sending chips of concrete flying and slicing open the skin along his cheek bone. The second bullet was fired in quick succession as Ianto lay there gasping for air and trying to shake off his dizziness. Then Dale was gone, bolting for the open door nearby and hoping to escape in all the confusion.

"Ianto!"

That was Jack. Ianto would know that voice anywhere, even over the top of a wounded alien whale's screams. His body was already trying to sit up, working on autopilot, striving to obey Jack as always even if his head didn't know which way was up at that moment.

"Go! After them!"

Ianto pushed himself to his feet, feeling a deep fiery burn in his stomach and back. Dale must have gotten in a few good blows during the struggle. He turned, looking back at the situation, his heart lurching in his chest as he realised the danger Jack was in. Rhys was down, the whale was breaking loose. It was chaos.

Ianto stumbled after Dale, intent on making sure he didn't get away. He couldn't do anything to help Jack. He had to focus on what Jack had ordered instead, no matter how hard it was to leave Jack and his friends behind. If anything happened to them...

No, there was no time for thinking like that. Ianto had to find Dale and his men.

Xxx

Owen was easy to find, still inside the lab area, mixing up a cocktail of sedatives so they could ease the creature's pain. Dale's younger brother was bleating some string of nonsense to Owen, some excuse for his behaviour. Ianto didn't have the time or the inclination to care what the man's part in all this was. Pulling his stun gun from his coat, he jammed it into the man's shoulder and watched him twitch briefly before he collapsed.

Ianto fell against the doorframe a moment later, pale and sweating, fighting to hide the tremble in his hands. The burning pain in his stomach and back was white hot now. There was a warm wetness sliding under the waistband of his trousers and dribbling down his right leg. Well, at least Ianto knew now where that second bullet had ended up.

"We gotta help them." Ianto gasped, short of breath and praying that Owen's medical skills were going to be able to concoct something. "It's out of control."

Owen scanned the various drugs and chemicals before him. "Change of plan." He snatched up what he needed and headed for the door, following Ianto as he directed him towards Jack and the others.

"You alright? You hurt?" Owen asked, casting a brief look as Ianto dropped back a few paces.

"No, just help Jack...get them out of there." Ianto shook his head. There'd be time later to worry about him. He turned and set off down another corridor, ignoring Owen's mutterings about stubborn teaboys needing to prove themselves. His mind was focused on bringing Dale, his anger growing by the minute and driving Ianto on through his pain as he thought about how little life obviously meant to someone like Dale.

Ahead, coming from one of the rooms to the left, Ianto could hear Dale and his right hand man talking loudly.

"You went and shot him, Bruv...Come on!" Greg demanded as he watched Dale zip up a bag of cash.

Dale slid the bag of money across to Greg, ready to make their getaway and let the cash cow take care of the police or whoever those nutters were that had busted in and ruined everything. As long as he had his cash, he'd find another venture to make him rich.

"Fill the other one!" Greg yelled as he grabbed the bag and headed for the door.

"I'm going as fast as I can!"

Ianto kicked the door open, letting it slam into Greg and knocking the man back against the wall as he strode in like a force of reckoning. His stun gun was already pressed into Greg before the man was able to find his footing again properly and after a quick blast of several thousand volts, Greg slid to the ground with a silent "o" of shock on his face.

Ianto was already striding towards Dale as the man reached for his gun off the table beside him. He'd barely had a chance to point it before Ianto's boot slammed into his hand, kicking the weapon across the room. Dale crashed to the floor, his fingers numb as he glared at Ianto before he rose slowly to his knees.

"Pray they survive." Ianto growled softly, pressing the stun gun directly against Dale's forehead and watching the man's skull light up blue with the current as his eyes rolled back in his head. With Dale and Greg now dealt with, Ianto turned to head back to the others. He took a few more steps before the carefully constructed facade of cool he had erected around himself began to fade and he began to falter as the reality of his condition hit home. The stun gun slid from cold, numb fingers as Ianto stumbled against the wall beside him. His knees buckled and he slid down the wall to the floor only a few feet from the door.

Ianto was trembling again, sweat bathing his brow as he peeled back his blood soaked shirt to finally have a look at the bullet wound he was carrying. A dark, bloody hole was punched through his stomach and Ianto could feel an exit wound in his lower back. He tried to console himself with the fact that there wasn't going to be a bullet to dig out. Resting his head on the wall behind him, Ianto tried to breathe through the pain, letting his shirt drop from his fingers. Jack would find him soon enough...he just needed to stay awake.

As his eyes began to slide closed, Ianto realised just how much of a task that was going to be...

Xxx

It was over and there wasn't going to be any real sense of accomplishment here today. Jack kept his hand pressed against the now still and lifeless flesh of the whale...if that's what it was. A space whale. How incredible would that be? To think there could be creatures out there like that? Sailing the stars the same way whales swam the oceans of the Earth.

All Jack only could hope now, was that it's death had been a release in the end from all the pain that had been inflicted on it.

Dropping his hand to his side, Jack turned and looked over at Gwen and Rhys. Owen had already applied some emergency first aid on the wound, but they needed to get Rhys back to the Hub and have the wound treated properly. Then they could approach the subject with Gwen of retconning Rhys. It was for the best. "How is he?"

"He'll survive." Gwen replied with a watery smile. There was a look in her eyes that told Jack she blamed him for this. That it had been a mistake to bring Rhys along. That was something Jack wouldn't argue with. Rhys shouldn't have been involved in the first place. But they had survived and they would get past this.

"We need to get out here, get Rhys seen to while we close this place down and dispose of the body." Jack stated matter of factly, before he reached up and tapped his ear piece. "Ianto, did you catch Dale?"

Nothing but silence met Jack and in an instant, his stomach turned to ice. "Ianto, this is no time for games. Answer me." Still nothing. "Owen, did you see where Ianto was headed?"

"Yeah, he took off towards the west end of the warehouse, the offices."

Jack was already on the move, his Webley clutched in his hand as he jogged in the direction Owen had said. He tapped his earpiece again, praying it was nothing but a temporary glitch...a short or something. "Ianto, talk to me."

"J...-ck..."

It was slurred, soft, almost a whisper – but definitely Ianto. Jack was running now, sliding as he took a corner and raced down the corridor towards the offices. He could see one swinging door slightly ajar and skidded to a halt before it. Inside the room were Dale, Greg and a ghostly pale, bloody Ianto Jones slumped against a side wall.

"Owen! Get over here! Ianto's hurt!" Jack heard Owen's curse over the earpiece as he pushed the door aside and crouched down beside Ianto. He automatically felt for a pulse and let out a slow breath as he found it, slower than he would have liked, but still there.

"Ianto? Hey, hey, look at me. No sleeping on the job now. Show me those gorgeous blue eyes of yours." Jack asked softly, sliding off his coat. Blood had soaked the front of Ianto's shirt and trousers and Jack could see it starting to pool on the floor too. He slid the coat over Ianto, not giving a damn if was ruined in the process. He could always get another coat, but not another Ianto Jones.

"J-Jack?"

Lifting his gaze from the blood, Jack saw Ianto staring at him dazedly. Leaning forward carefully, he placed a tender kiss on Ianto's forehead. "You had me scared for a moment there. What happened?"

"Dale. S-Shot me before he got away. Sorry, he..he got the drop on me."

Jack's brow folded into a frown. "You mean back in the warehouse?" So that's what had happened while the whale had been breaking loose and Jack had been busy making sure Toshiko didn't lose her head to a steel cable. Guilt flashed through him as he thought of the way he had barked at Ianto to go after the man. If he had known that Ianto was hurt? Jack sighed, knowing that hindsight was always twenty twenty. He looked over at the unconscious figure of Dale and wondered if anyone would really miss that man if he just disappeared? He showed no care for life, human or alien. He was nothing but human refuse.

"Rhys...is...is he.."

"He'll be fine. And so will you. Just stay awake and keep talking to me, okay?" Jack could hear Owen's footsteps hammering down the corridor. "We're going to patch you up and I'm going to play nursemaid back at your apartment for a while."

That comment drew a faint smile from Ianto, before he started sliding to one side down the wall.

"Whoa, hey, hey...easy." Jack moved instantly, sliding in to catch Ianto, holding him close. "I've got you. You're okay. I've got you." Jack pressed his lips to Ianto's hairline, blinking back tears.

This was why he had always envied Gwen and her life with Rhys. It was safe. Disconnected from Torchwood until now. She could go out into the field and not worry about risking the man she loved. Jack didn't have that luxury. Every time Ianto went out, he worried that something would happen. Another loss, another love he would bury and mourn.

"So you do have a heart."

If only Gwen knew...

Xxx

"I still say Rhys should let her take the bullet next time." Ianto was waiting for the coffee machine to finish, leaning the palms of his hands on the counter before him as he watched it go through the process. The scent of rich, fresh coffee was filling the tiny kitchen of his flat, bringing warmth and security with it.

"Be nice..." Jack grinned from his seat at the table. His eyes were glued to Ianto, drinking in the sight before him of his young lover standing there with nothing but tracksuit pants on and bare feet. Okay, so the swathe of bandages around his middle were distracting, but Ianto had proven a good patient so they didn't entirely ruin the image for Jack.

A few more days and he'd allow Ianto back on light duties in the Archives again... as long as he refrained from lifting any boxes. They'd been too lucky for Jack to want to push things and set Ianto's recovery back. The bullet had punched through his abdomen, missing anything vital as it hit the pelvic bone and richocheted off to tear out through the back. No quite a clean through and through, but Ianto was alive and that was all that mattered.

"You shouldn't let her talk to you that way, Jack." Ianto placed a steaming mug down before him, then gingerly pulled out a chair and sat down next to him. Their knees were touching under the table, a small gesture that told Jack his presence was welcome and needed.

"Ianto..."

"No, hear me out. Tosh told me what happened in the Hub. What Gwen said when you asked her to retcon Rhys. It's not right, Jack. She has no right to say those things to you." Ianto argued before he took a sip of his coffee. "I can see what she was trying to say. What Rhys did was damn brave and from what Tosh said, he's shown he can handle knowing about us. But where does Gwen get off telling you that you don't understand? Treating you like some cold hearted bastard that just gives out orders and never gives a shit about the consequences?"

"Ianto, let it go."

"No. It pisses me off when she acts so high and bloody mighty with you. Sounding surprised that you have a heart..."

Jack lifted an eyebrow in surprise. "You heard that?"

"I hung around outside...I was worried she was upsetting you," Ianto admitted, flushing with embarrassment. His hands were wrapped around his mug now, Ianto keeping his gaze on the coffee within, rather than looking at Jack and seeing disappointment at his spying. "I've never known anyone with a heart as big as yours, Jack. You put it on the line, time after time, even though you know it could be broken. You put yourself out there for people who'll never know. Gwen has no right to say you have no heart. She doesn't know you."

"Maybe...but I'm glad there are people that do." Jack reached out and lifted Ianto's chin with two fingers, meeting his gaze as he smiled. "That's all that matters to me..."

He cupped a hand behind Ianto's neck and gently drew him forward into a deep, tender kiss that was definitely going to lead to more than coffee and work.

But that was fine...Jack could let Gwen and the others handle things for the day. He had some matters of the heart to attend to...