Disclaimer: These characters belong to the BBC, not me.
Notes: Thanks to Kita, Lawsontl, Concertigrossi, and Schemingreader for helping me out with this thing.
by Rex Luscus
Gwen didn't know what to expect. Owen had said Retcon or a bullet in the neck, but then at eight AM sharp, Ianto walked in the door and started picking up rubbish, like any other morning. That was Torchwood—whatever they took from you in the night, in the morning it was back to work. And if Torchwood was absurd and unreal, then Ianto was the absurdest and unrealest part of it, fighting his little war against takeaway litter and cup rings while the rest of them defended the planet from aliens. Who worried about the state of the carpets when there was a rift in space and time? And yet Ianto went on, in his upside-down world—calmly hoovering away on the ceiling. Gwen suspected he'd have been back there at eight AM sharp picking up the place even if Jack had shot him.
She hadn't much noticed Ianto at first. She'd had a lot to worry about, and everyone else had treated him like furniture, so she'd done as they did, preoccupied with there's aliens in Cardiff oh my God. When she did think of him, it was to wonder where people like him came from. Did those odd formal manners come naturally, or did you have to learn them? Maybe he'd gone to a school—one of those executive assistant training programs where they teach you to smile like that and do ten things at once. Or he might have been from a family of domestic servants going way back, but surely those didn't exist anymore, did they? And that was pretty much the end of her train of thought, because holy shit there were aliens. She had to prioritize if she wanted to live through another day at work.
So she'd had good reasons, but she still felt bad about it—Jack had hired her because Torchwood needed someone who gave a shit about people, and she'd looked right through her first project. As she thought about it now, Ianto ought to have seemed much stranger than he had—if nothing else, how often did you meet a Newport lad who dressed like a London banker and called you "miss" like a bloody flight attendant? But everything at Torchwood was strange, so Ianto didn't stand out. Which had been exactly what he'd wanted.
He had nearly caused her death, and he didn't seem sorry, but she wasn't angry with him. He was so pathetic now, so abject. He didn't even seem upset anymore, just emptied out, stunned. Every time she looked him, he had an expression like he'd just flinched at a loud noise.
"What will happen to him?" she asked Jack as they stood at the conference room windows.
Jack shrugged. He watched Ianto pick his way between the desks for another minute before stepping out onto the gantry. "Ianto," he called. Fifteen seconds later, Ianto appeared in the door.
Jack didn't look at him. "You will consult our records and find a suitable corpse in cold storage to stand in for Annie Bennett," he said, "and then you will build an appropriate cover story. When that's done, you will go to the basement and incinerate the three bodies that are still down there."
Ianto turned green and his eyes glistened, but he didn't move a muscle. "Jack!" said Gwen, appalled.
"After that," Jack continued, ignoring her, "you will clean every inch of that room so that any trace of what happened there is gone. Am I clear?"
Ianto nodded jerkily. He coughed a little—to cover up some other sound, perhaps—and left.
"Are you mad?" cried Gwen once he was gone. "Jack, you can't make him do that all by himself." She thought of the corpse's empty skull, and the other corpse that had been "Lisa" briefly, and the scientist, horribly mutilated. "My God, he'll—"
"Ianto has a problem relating actions to consequences," said Jack, examining his nails. "This will make him understand what he did, if anything can."
"So you're rubbing his nose in it, like a—a misbehaving puppy?" She didn't quite believe that—Jack's solution made a certain kind of sense. But it was still too much, too cruel.
"Look, Gwen"—Jack gazed at her steadily—"either he learns this lesson, or he dies. Which would you choose?"
She thought of the casual lechery Jack used to throw at Ianto, and the agonized, wounded way Jack had said "You hid yourself from us" as he'd pointed his gun and seized Ianto's hair. "You fancied him," she said suddenly. "That's why you're punishing him like this."
"Maybe." Jack shrugged. "I fancy a lot of people." The smile he gave her tried to be flirty but came out ghastly and full of teeth. "No"—he went back to the window, below which they could see Ianto searching the morgue records—"no, Ianto Jones is nothing. And now he's less than nothing. I can't fancy someone who doesn't exist." He stared intently through the glass, following Ianto's every move.
It was funny how basic human kindness went out the window as soon as love or lust came into things. Well—she didn't fancy Ianto, so she was free to be compassionate. "Let one of us help him, at least," she said. The thought of getting near those mutilated bodies made her nauseous, but if Ianto could do it, then so could she.
"No," Jack replied.
She waited for him to explain himself. "No?" she prodded.
"That's right." He looked her squarely in the eye and folded his arms. "No." She tried to push past him, but he caught her by the wrist. "Go ahead and disobey me," he said into her ear. "See what I'll do."
And that was the end of it.
For the rest of the morning, her stomach felt hollow whenever she thought of Ianto down there, facing the carnage he'd caused, alone with the dead body of someone he'd loved. Could she do something for him afterward, since Jack had forbidden her to help? She tried to think of something. But then a Rift alert called all of them out. Jack ordered Ianto upstairs to coordinate, but he still hadn't come up by the time they had to leave.
They got back to the Hub just after four PM, with three sedated Weevils and a little of their spirits back—she was already so used to this place that chasing aliens through a crowded shopping mall was a comforting return to normality. When they were through putting the Weevils in cells, they came upstairs, where Ianto was sitting on the couch with his arms resting on his knees, staring at nothing. He took one look at them, got up, and went to the coffee machine.
She didn't have a plan for how to talk to him. She'd thought of catching him alone and asking him if he wanted to talk, but he never gave her the chance, and she didn't want to embarrass him in front of the others. She decided to wait until the end of the day and catch him as he was going home. But it got to be six o'clock, and then seven, and then eight, and he showed no signs of leaving. Eventually Tosh and Owen left, and Jack had shut the door to his office, leaving her alone with Ianto, who was sweeping up.
"Ianto?" she asked.
His broom paused.
She came over to stand in front of him. "Are you okay?"
"Not really," he said.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"No thanks," he smiled. It was a bad imitation of a smile, as if he'd put his fingers in the corners of his mouth and pulled up.
"It might help to talk. I won't even say anything if you like."
"Rather not," he said, without trying to smile this time.
"Could I get you something? Do you need any—"
He set the broom down. "Look, Gwen" he said, putting his hands in his pockets, "I know it's kind of your job to do this, but I don't think it's going to work this time, so can you just—not?"
"I'm not asking because it's my job," she said softly.
"You don't even know me," he said. "You couldn't even remember my name for the first week. You've never asked me a single thing about myself."
"You never seemed like you wanted to be asked," Gwen replied, trying not to sound defensive. She had too remembered his name, but this wasn't supposed to be about her.
"Well." He picked up his broom again. "Now you know why." He turned away.
"Did you want it?" Gwen asked.
He stopped sweeping and gave her a puzzled look.
"All that time you were hiding from us—did you wish it was different? If we had asked you about yourself, would you have wanted to answer, even though you couldn't?"
He looked down and shrugged. "Dunno."
"You could have friends," said Gwen. "If you want them. Do you want them?"
He swallowed and shook his head. "I don't want anything right now."
"I need to—" He set the broom in a corner and walked briskly away—not toward the entrance, but toward the toilets. She followed at a distance. Once the door of the men's had slammed shut, she ran up and placed her ear against it. She heard the sound of water running, and a few muffled human sounds that could have been weeping.
She waited for him on the main level, but he didn't reappear. Then it occurred to her that there might be another exit she didn't know about, so she checked his security status, and sure enough, he was no longer in the Hub. She knocked on Jack's door, but there was no reply. So she went home.
Once Ianto had finished cleaning up the Cyberwoman's mess, Jack suspended him. Jack gathered the others together and informed them that Ianto would be gone for a few weeks, to "give everyone a little space," and that they would have to fend for themselves as far as coffee, files and general tidiness went.
Not much changed at first; they just went to the Starbucks on Mermaid Quay, and got their own files. But after a week, the quality of life had declined appreciably in Torchwood Three. You couldn't point to anything specific—they'd kept the place clean, and Starbucks wasn't that bad—but the little comforts were absent, and certain things didn't just happen anymore. If you ran out of staples, no one replenished them; you had to go get them yourself. It didn't seem like much, but it added up.
Also, the social dynamic changed. Owen didn't actually get ruder, but it seemed like he did, because nobody interrupted his fights with Jack by announcing that lunch had arrived or that monsters were loose in Roath. Gwen tried to take over this duty, but she didn't have Ianto's unobtrusive neutrality—when she got between Owen and Jack, they each tried to get her on their side, and the whole thing escalated even more.
After a few days, Gwen started to wonder what Ianto was doing, in his flat or wherever he was. She asked Jack.
"He's fine," said Jack, staring intently at his computer screen.
"Really? Fine?" Gwen dropped into the chair opposite his desk. "Girlfriend dead, world nearly destroyed, suspended from his job, and he's fine?"
"What do you want me to say?" snapped Jack. He was always snapping lately when Ianto's name came up. "I imagine he's as fine as he can be, under the circumstances."
He rolled his eyes. "What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know—something!"
"Help him! He's had his punishment, and now he's just suffering, and you're just—sitting there."
"What would you recommend?" Jack asked, rather unkindly. "This is your area of expertise—tell me, how exactly should we go about helping Ianto? What's the plan?"
She sighed in frustration. "I don't know. But if he were lying in the middle of the floor bleeding, we wouldn't just step over him, would we? And that's exactly what we're doing."
"Fine." Jack rubbed his eyes. "I hereby delegate this task to you, PC Cooper. Do what the rest of us can't."
"Fine, I will."
Jack was possibly the most wonderful person Gwen had ever met, but he could be a right arsey bastard when he wanted to be.
Gwen found Ianto's address and went to his flat after work.
"Gwen," Ianto said in surprise when he opened the door. He was wearing flannel pyjama bottoms and a T-shirt, and his feet were bare.
"Rhys made soup," said Gwen, holding up a bag. "We couldn't possibly eat it all, so…" Actually the soup was from the deli. And since the deli was near the Hub, she now realized, there was every possibility that Ianto would notice. Hopefully chicken and vegetable was chicken and vegetable no matter where you got it.
"Um, thanks." He moved back a step, still bewildered, and she took this as her invitation to come in. The flat was just one large sitting room with a corner blocked off for a kitchen; Ianto had installed a couch to give the illusion of separate spaces. There was a door that went somewhere, maybe to a bedroom or a bath. Gwen took the soup out of its bag on the kitchen counter.
"Have you eaten yet?" she asked.
Ianto was standing motionless by the couch. He shook his head.
"Do you have anything else to eat?" she asked. He shook his head again. It was like interviewing a runaway teenager. "Would you like me to heat up the soup for you now?" she asked.
"Okay," he said.
She sat next to him on the couch while he ate it. There was a television on the floor in the corner, but no other furniture. Everything looked recently painted and new, but there were no boxes; Ianto just didn't have any stuff.
"I could run to Tesco for you," she said as he slurped the soup out of the spoon. "What do you like to eat?"
He shrugged and kept eating.
She sighed. "Where are all your things, Ianto?"
He ran the spoon along the bottom of the bowl for the last bit of broth. "I threw them out. They were from the flat I had with Lisa."
"Oh." Well, that was one way to grieve. "What do you do all day?"
"Um…" Ianto thought about it, then gave up with a shrug.
"Do you just stare at the telly?" she asked.
"Probably," said Ianto.
Probably? He'd been there, hadn't he? Well, maybe he hadn't. Strange things happened in grieving people's minds—sometimes they checked out for a bit. Ianto needed stimulation; he needed other people around to wake him up and get him involved in life again. And he clearly needed someone to take care of him.
"Do you have any family?" she asked.
Again she raised an eyebrow; usually, that was a yes-or-no question. But she decided not to poke at it, in case she accidentally touched another sore spot.
"Have any of your mates been by?" she asked.
"No. Unless Jack counts. So, no. I don't have any, actually. Mates, that is."
Ianto hadn't spoken that many words in one go since she'd arrived—but she was stuck on the first part of his reply. Jack had been round to Ianto's place? What for? And why hadn't Jack told her when she'd asked?
"Is it—" She didn't know the right way to ask this question. "Is it—okay—that he comes?" A lot of ugliness had passed between Jack and Ianto—the mutual death threats were almost the least of it. She didn't much like the idea of Jack invading Ianto's home with nobody else around to moderate.
Ianto shrugged again. A shrug was his answer for most things. "Can't stop him."
That didn't sound good. "Ianto, if he's coming here and—and—making things difficult—tell me and I'll talk to him. He doesn't have to know you said anything."
Ianto turned to her with a real expression on his face this time, even if it was derisive amusement. "How else would you have found out?"
"Yeah, good point." She blew out her cheeks. "But Ianto—" She put her hand on his knee, and he gave a little twitch, a little shudder. "You can talk to me if he's—making trouble. I'm not going to tell him. And maybe I can do something about it."
"He's not doing anything." Ianto was staring at her hand, so she carefully removed it. "He just shows up and—is Jack. You know."
"Jack in a good way or Jack in a bad way?"
Ianto smiled faintly; Gwen felt a tiny pang of triumph. "In a Jack way."
"Right, so. He's Jack in a Jack way. But he's not—being nasty, or—hurting you, or—making you do anything?"
Ianto raised his eyebrows. "Like what?"
"I dunno—making you scrub the floors?"
"He's not a wicked step-mother."
She laughed. Ianto didn't, but he looked like he might have, if he'd had the energy.
She turned to look at him. Ianto was very handsome, though not at all her type—she liked them rugged, and Ianto's features were quite effeminate, for all that he was six feet of sturdy Welsh lad below the neck. And he wasn't looking his best right now. Nonetheless, if plump lips and smooth cheeks were your thing, he was ideal, and apparently they were Jack's thing. What would she do if Jack were actually—?
No, he wouldn't. Jack could be terrifying when he was angry, but he would never hurt somebody like that. Would he? She remembered the chill she'd felt when he'd said, I can't fancy someone who doesn't exist. He'd relegated Ianto to non-existence, and yet he was coming round to Ianto's flat on the sly, doing God-knows-what.
Seeing that Ianto was done with the soup, she said, "Come on. I'm taking you to Tesco."
Ianto showed some life at this, but only to shake his head.
"Okay, I'll go myself," she said. "But you should try it—getting out a bit. Just down to the post box would help."
"Maybe tomorrow," he said, staring at the floor.
"Okay. So"—she dug a pen and a receipt out of her purse—"let's make a list…"
The next day, she went to IKEA and bought a coffee table and two chairs. At home, she filled a shopping bag with books and DVDs—she didn't know what Ianto liked, so she picked things Rhys liked and hoped she'd eventually get them back. In her linen closet, she found a large fluffy afghan and stuffed it in the bag as well. Ianto's flat was very chilly; if he was going to sit around it all day, he should at least be warm.
Ianto seemed less surprised to see her than he had the day before, but he stared skeptically at the IKEA boxes. She dragged them in one by one and stood them up against the wall. When she began to open them, he stopped her. "I can put them together," he said. "It'll be something to do."
"Good idea." She left the boxes alone and went over to the kitchen. "Have you eaten today?" His silence was her answer, so she looked inside the fridge. The milk had been opened, but nothing else appeared to have been moved since she'd put it there. She got out the eggs, cheese and mushrooms.
As Ianto ate his omelette, Gwen unpacked the shopping bag. "What would you like first?" she asked, rifling through the DVDs. "The Bourne Identity or Batman Begins? That's the newer one—no rubber suits with fake nipples. Rhys said it was brilliant."
"Um—" Ianto swallowed the last of the omelette. "You choose."
"I can't stay and watch—I've got to get home for supper."
He shrugged. "Still, you choose."
"Okay." She put in The Bourne Identity and turned on the telly. She collected Ianto's plate and washed it, and set the electric kettle going for tea. Then she went back over to the couch and covered Ianto with the afghan. He looked down at it in perplexity, as if wondering where it had come from; she'd seen the same expression on her cat under similar circumstances. She bent down, cupped his cheek, and kissed his forehead. "I've got to go, love. The tea's out for you, you just have to pour the water."
He looked up at her, his eyes big and confused. "Okay."
She smiled and left him as the opening credits rolled.
The next day, she said good-night to Jack and left at eight o'clock. She stopped by the grocery, and then went to Ianto's.
This time, Jack answered the door.
"Ah, Gwen, good," he said. "Come in—you can help."
She almost dropped her shopping bag. "Jack! You were just—I've only just—" She tried to peer around him into the flat. "Ianto?"
Jack had turned away and was striding back inside toward the couch. "Gwen's here," he said loudly. "She's going to give me a hand."
She got out from behind Jack and spotted Ianto curled up in a ball on the couch under her afghan. Jack stood over him and said in the same loud, annoying camp-counselor voice, "Come on! Rise and shine!"
Gwen interposed herself between Jack and the ball on the couch. "Jack, what are you doing?"
"I'm putting an end to the orgy of self-pity going on here." He reached around her and snatched the afghan off Ianto's curled-up form. "Ianto! Up!"
She took the afghan out of his hands. "You're being a bastard is what you're doing."
"Either help me or leave," Jack said briskly. "Ianto is going to get up, get cleaned, get fed, and get out of the house. He's had a week to wallow in his misery, and now he's going to pull himself together." He reached past Gwen again and seized Ianto by the ankle.
"Stop it!" Gwen wrenched his hand away. "This is not bloody helping, Jack!" Behind her, Ianto hadn't moved.
"Oh, and your method is?" Jack took her by the shoulders and maneuvered her aside. "I don't see your tactics making much progress here." He took hold of the back of Ianto's shirt and hefted him upright.
"That's because things take time, Jack! Leave him alone!"
Ianto had still said nothing, but he began to struggle as Jack dragged him off the couch. Gwen made to rush forward, but she was afraid that grabbing Jack would just get Ianto hurt. "Have you lost your bloody mind?" she shouted.
Jack had dragged Ianto to the kitchen. He took Ianto by the neck, lifted him up and shoved his head under the tap. Ianto had been fighting him ineffectually the whole time, but when the cold water drenched his head, he finally managed to elbow Jack in the solar plexus and spin around, flinging droplets from his hair.
"Fuck off!" he shouted. "Both of you!" He wiped off his face and stalked over to the door that went to the bedroom or bath. "I'm having a shower. You can show yourselves the fuck out."
While the shower ran in the back of the flat, Jack and Gwen sat side by side on the couch.
"You go," said Gwen. "I'll look after him."
"You'll just wrap him up in a blanket and turn on the TV again," said Jack.
Neither of them budged.
Ianto emerged twenty minutes later, carelessly shaved and dressed in jeans and a hoodie. He glanced once at them, rolled his eyes, and headed for the front door. It slammed on his way out.
"See?" said Jack triumphantly. "Success!"
"Jack Harkness, you are a piece of work," Gwen muttered, getting up. She ran down to the street after Ianto, but he was nowhere in sight.
Ianto returned to Torchwood two weeks later. For the first twenty-four hours, Gwen was ready to concede that maybe Jack's tough love had worked—here was Ianto, as smartly turned out as ever, handing them their coffee in the morning with a smile. For a very short time, she let herself be fooled by that smile. She relaxed; she even felt a sense of accomplishment. Ianto was going to be okay.
But by the next day, she'd admitted what should have been obvious—the lights were on, but nobody was home. Ianto had done exactly what Jack had asked of him, but only to the letter—in spirit, he was still curled up on that couch.
Then the cannibals happened.
They spent the week after in a state of collective delayed shock. Gwen dealt with it by reaching out to someone who could understand—and it was her bad luck that this turned out to be Owen. Ianto became their spokesman in the project of restoring normality, since in a way, that was his entire purpose at Torchwood—to be the dependable purveyor of small mundane comforts that made a bulwark against insanity. It wasn't a case of weird inverted priorities, as she'd once thought—it was necessary. But horror in sufficient quantities would burst through regardless, and the cannibals were testing the limits of what Ianto's little domestic routine could accomplish.
Eventually, they knitted and stitched themselves back together—all of them except Ianto. Jack and Tosh at least were veterans of human cruelty, and Gwen had the anxious drama of a new, ill-advised love affair to distract her, but Ianto seemed to be moving retrograde to them all, growing quieter and more torpid even while his cuts and bruises healed. He disappeared for long periods of time. Sometimes, during his rare visits to the main level, he would pause in an out-of-the-way spot, lean against the wall, and just stay like that, until someone called for him.
Gwen didn't know what to do. Was it better to keep him busy? Was it work and distraction he needed? Or did he need a proper rest, away from all distractions? There would be no use in asking him. But eventually she did ask, because there were no other options.
"I'm fine, thanks," Ianto smiled, and continued with his dusting. He was dusting the sub-etheric resonator, for God's sake. Was that even necessary?
She'd read a story by Herman Melville in school, about an odd little man in a law office named Bartleby who refused to work or leave, and who answered any requests to do so by saying, "I would prefer not to." Ianto's version of this was "I'm fine." And although he was still working, he was working less—as if he'd been caught in a patch of slowed-down time and was living at a different speed than everyone else. Given the Rift, it wasn't impossible that this might be literally true, but Tosh couldn't find any temporal irregularities inside the Hub, except for the usual ones that they all knew how to avoid. (Jack had put a ham sandwich in one, and it was still there, looking as edible as it had three months ago.)
Gwen was starting to understand the frustration of the narrator in the Melville story, who could neither ignore Bartleby nor get him to change. The temptation to do nothing was great, since that was what everybody else was doing. Jack didn't even seem to notice. Gwen herself had a lot to worry about since her life had suddenly become ten times more complicated, and she went for days without giving Ianto a thought. But when she did give him a thought, he was always the same. She still went over to his flat after work to bring him soup, but since her run-in there with Jack, Ianto no longer let her in; he just accepted the soup (or casserole, or banana bread) with a smile and a thank-you and said good-night.
A few days after the unpleasantness with Tosh's alien friend, Gwen and Tosh had a talk. Gwen invited herself along on a takeaway run—Ianto, like he often did these days, had disappeared—and on the twenty-minute walk to the Thai noodle place, she and Tosh cleared the air.
At the end of it, Tosh added, "And Ianto's not at all well."
This surprised her, since they'd never talked about Ianto—but Gwen supposed she was the unofficial HR person at Torchwood now, and everyone knew about the soup runs.
She didn't want to ask Tosh any more about what she'd heard with the pendant, because once she tugged on that thread, she wasn't sure she'd stop. So she just asked, "How bad is he, do you think?"
"Bad," said Tosh.
Clearly, what Ianto needed were friends. He didn't need Jack standing over him yelling like a drill sergeant, he needed sympathy and companionship. Frankly, everyone at Torchwood could have used a good therapeutic dose of both those things, but Ianto's need was critical. It was time to step up her pressure campaign. Since he'd returned, she had tried to include him in everything they did outside of work, but he rarely accepted—and when he did, he just sat there silently, which made everybody tense and couldn't have been much fun for him. Lately, she only asked as a courtesy, since he clearly wasn't interested. But now, she wondered if letting him stay comfortably apart from them was helping. She didn't share Jack's philosophy, but maybe Ianto needed a nudge.
"Come on, Ianto," she said the next time he turned her down. "For me?"
Ianto got that faint look of panic that men got at the threat of emotional blackmail. "I won't be any fun," he insisted.
"You don't have to be 'fun'—we're your friends. And I won't make us play any awkward games this time." She wondered if it was wise to bring up the who'd-you-last-snog debacle, but better to get it out in the open, since they were both thinking it. She sensed that the guilt trip wasn't working, so she switched to bargaining: "If you come out with us this once, I won't bug you about it again for a month." Maybe if he came this time, he'd want to come next time.
He sighed heavily, like he'd reached a difficult but unavoidable decision. "Okay."
They went to a real pub, away from the tourists on Mermaid Quay. Jack stayed behind, claiming the Rift was too active to leave alone.
They sat around a table in a corner near the back by the dart boards. Gwen sat as far away from Owen as she could; she didn't want their weird secret-couple tension to get in the way. Ianto sat between her and Tosh, hunched forward with both hands around his pint.
What could they talk about? Gwen panicked a little—so many of the standard topics were perilous now. Gossip about Jack? Not safe, since things with him and Ianto were so fucked up. Boyfriends, girlfriends, recent shags? Totally, obviously off-limits, for everybody. Stories from their pasts? Not safe either, since they all seemed to be running from theirs. Politics, money, religion? No, no, and no. What else was there?
"What is the grossest alien you've ever seen?" asked Gwen.
It was a good thing they were sitting in the corner.
"Oh, that's easy," said Tosh. "Raxacoricofallapatorians. They zip themselves up in human bodies and fart a lot."
"That's nothing," said Owen. "The Pyxytlyx eat by extruding their stomachs through their mouths—and they'll eat anything. Last year, a pack of them ate a whole primary school playground."
"With kids?" asked Gwen.
"With kids," said Owen.
"You're all forgetting the Spuglugians," said Ianto, looking up. "Their bodies are translucent mucus-filled sacks, and they reproduce by turning inside out and swapping mucus with each other."
"I knew a kid like that once," said Owen solemnly.
"Oh—God," gagged Gwen.
Later, Tosh and Ianto played darts. Tosh won, but not by an embarrassing margin.
"How are you doing?" Gwen asked Ianto as they were leaving, linking her arm with his.
"Okay," he said, sounding a little surprised. Not "fine," but "okay"—she decided she could believe that.
When they got back to the Hub, it was nearly seven o'clock. Jack stood on the gantry with his arms folded, waiting for them.
"Did we miss anything?" Tosh called up.
"No," said Jack. He sounded strange—angry.
"What's pissed in his porridge?" Owen muttered, dumping his bag at his work station.
Jack pretended not to hear him. "You can all go home for the night," he said. "Not you, Ianto."
Ianto froze on his way to the coffee machine. He said nothing, but he was looking up at Jack.
"What do you want Ianto for?" Gwen asked, drawing closer to him. He'd been almost happy earlier, and now—
"That's between me and Ianto," said Jack. "Now get going, all of you."
Ianto turned to her. "Um, better do as he says," he said, strangely blank—his almost-cheerfulness was gone, but he didn't seem nervous or upset, either.
She stared at him, then stared at Jack. "Fine," she said, exhaling. She patted Ianto's arm, and went to collect her things.
Later that week on another slow evening, plans were made to go out for a sit-down meal, and once again, Jack told them to go without him.
"Coming with, Ianto?" Gwen asked, slipping her bag onto her shoulder.
Ianto put down his mop. He seemed almost about to accept, but then he glanced toward Jack's office—quickly, but Gwen saw it—and shook his head. "Another time," he said.
Ianto didn't come out with them again. She'd promised not to pester him, but she'd hoped he might continue—it had clearly done him good. Nevertheless, his decline stopped. It stopped so abruptly, in fact, that Gwen wondered if he had been a mechanical toy all this time, and had merely needed winding up. Apart from one night out at the pub, there was no cause for his recovery that she could see.
Not that he became happy, exactly. He just went about his job with the old briskness, seeing to their needs and keeping the place clean. Everyone was relieved; if they'd learned anything, it was that Ianto was a vital part of Torchwood's ecology, so that when he wasn't flourishing, everyone suffered. Perhaps they couldn't quite put their finger on the reason for it, but they suffered nevertheless.
Ianto himself was no longer suffering, not visibly. He just kept himself aloof. She didn't take him soup anymore—he didn't seem to want or need it. He was much like he'd been when she'd first met him. Maybe that was good, or maybe it was very very bad, considering what a lie it had been then.
Then one day she needed him for something, and he wasn't answering his comm, so she went down into the lower levels. She didn't know her way around very well yet, so she spent a good five minutes wandering until she remembered the way to the archives.
Just before she reached them, she rounded a corner and met Jack's back, curved away from her as he leaned toward the wall, trapping Ianto between his arms—she knew it was Ianto from the pinstripe cuffs around his white hands scrabbling against Jack's bulk, tugging and pushing ineffectually. The wet sounds of one mouth on another alternated with struggling gasps. When Jack tore his mouth away from Ianto and turned to look at her, she thought of a big cat lifting its head from its prey. He gazed at her with the same unrepentant impassivity.
"Ianto?" she asked hesitantly. But now she noticed Ianto's hands again—grasping, not pushing. She looked at his flushed cheek, the perspiration on his temple and the little vein popping out. He was trying to catch his breath. The nature of the scene shifted, like the figure and ground of an illusion.
"It's okay, Gwen," said Ianto—exactly like he'd say to a crowd that had seen an alien spaceship crash into a carpark, hypnotizing them with his calm authority. It worked. She nodded, turned around, and fairly raced back up to the main level, blushing with delayed embarrassment.
She sat down at her desk and tried to think. The sight had shocked her, but it hadn't exactly surprised her—she knew of Jack's thing for Ianto, though she couldn't tell what nature of thing it was. But Ianto—where were his feelings on the matter?
Jack and Ianto reappeared—first Jack, then Ianto an hour later. Neither of them looked at her, or showed any signs of…anything. And she could say nothing to them without exposing her own position. That was yet another way this affair with Owen was compromising her; the sooner it ended, the better.
"Are you okay?" she got up the nerve to ask Ianto late in the day.
"Fine," he smiled, a perfect, innocent blank.
In the morning, Gwen sat down in Jack's office and said nothing for a minute or two. Finally, she said, "I hope you know what you're doing."
Jack smiled, slow and smug. "I have a fair amount of experience."
She looked at him. "You know what I mean."
He glanced away and stared into space for a moment, frowning. Then, quite against her expectations, he said, "Look at him. He's better, isn't he?" There was a bit of defensiveness in his tone, a bit of guilt.
They turned to watch Ianto out in the Hub, with his jacket off and his cuffs rolled up, wearing goggles and a heavy apron, whistling as he scrubbed a gluey patch of something that was producing yellow steam.
"He looks it," shrugged Gwen. "But I wouldn't know. He never talks to us anymore."
"Trust me," said Jack. "He's better."
Gwen sighed. Maybe he was—but Jack had made it clear that it was no longer her job to care.