Ianto sighed as there was a knock on the door. That would no doubt be Gwen.
He wasn't at all sure that he wanted to do this, but he had agreed. Some might have said that he only agreed under duress, but he knew that was a gross exaggeration – Gwen meant well. And in other circumstances, he would probably be looking forward to the evening ahead.
"Ianto? Are you there?" Gwen's voice came through the door.
"I'm just coming," Ianto yelled back, pulling on his jacket and patting his pockets, checking for his keys, wallet and mobile.
He opened the door to an impatient Gwen. "Come on," she said encouragingly. "You can't be late to your own birthday party."
"I know," he replied, forcing a weak smile to his face. "So you told me yesterday. And today before you pushed me out the door at work."
"That's because it's true," Gwen smiled. "Everyone will be arriving soon, and you need to be there when they do."
"Come on then, let's get going," Ianto said, showing no sign of the apprehension he had about this party.
He followed Gwen down to her car, trying not to fidget. He knew he should be grateful to her for throwing him a celebration – he would never have done it on his own. And he did have to be thankful that she'd offered to host it at her flat rather than having everyone crowd into his. Less clean up for him to do at the end, and an easy escape if he needed it. Not that he planned on needing one.
He just rather wished that if she was this set on throwing a party, she could wait a few weeks and throw it for her own birthday instead. Less pressure all around, and fewer memories to deal with. He suspected, however, that a celebration of his own continued existence was what Gwen thought he needed this year. He didn't really have the heart to disillusion her.
Even with early evening traffic, the journey from his flat to Gwen's took less than five minutes.
"Rhys!" Gwen called as she opened her front door. "Come and meet Ianto!"
Ianto followed her down her hallway, absently noting the lack of a coat rack and wondering if Gwen and Rhys were the kind of party throwers who threw everyone's coats and jackets into a bedroom.
Rhys came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a tea towel. "Hi," he said in a jovial tone, as he stuck out one now dry hand. "You must be Ianto; I've been hearing about you non-stop for the last few days."
Ianto grasped his hand and shook it, the recognition hitting him like a lead weight. He remembered this man, he would bet his life on the fact that they'd met before.
He had to think for a moment before he could place him. Oh yes… Rhys Williams. His first ever trip into the field with Torchwood Three, when he'd been left behind while he finished up Retconning Rhys and the man who'd worked in that warehouse. He prodded a little harder at the memory. Evan something.
He shook Rhys's hand firmly, hoping that he had managed to keep his thoughts over the last few seconds from showing on his face – it wouldn't do to be accidentally tripping the man's Retcon Block. "Nice to meet you," he replied. "I've heard nothing but good things about you, I promise."
"Here, give me your coat and come on through to the living room," Gwen said from beside him, waving him through. Rhys disappeared back into the kitchen as Ianto followed Gwen, shrugging out of his jacket as he did so. The room was enthusiastically, if not necessarily tastefully, decorated with party streamers and a sparkly banner.
Gwen took his jacket and ushered him into a seat on the sofa. "Do you want a beer, or juice, or wine, or…?" She waved her free hand as she ran out of options. "Before the rest start arriving." She glanced at her watch. "Which they should be doing soon. Well, unless something has come up, but they'd have called if it had, I'm sure of it."
"Uh, a beer, please?" Ianto said after a moment's contemplation. As Gwen had picked him up, he definitely wasn't going to be driving home, and alcohol might be the only way he would make it through this evening.
The next person to arrive was – thankfully, Ianto thought, not Jack – Toshiko, who looked as uncertain about the proceedings as Ianto himself felt.
Gwen bustled around them, moving things around and – from what they could hear from the kitchen – getting in Rhys's way, leaving Tosh and Ianto sitting slightly awkwardly on the sofa.
He wasn't sure what exactly it was that had him feeling so unsure about this celebration. It wasn't as if he'd never had a birthday party before. Like most people, of course, the majority had been as a small child, but Lisa had helped him throw a party for all of their friends two years ago, for his 21st. Friends and acquaintances had crammed into their flat, and… Ianto only had disjointed and hazy memories of most of the rest of the night.
What he did remember had been a good night though; he and Lisa had both woken up with splitting headaches but he hadn't actually cared.
He sighed inwardly and took a swig from his bottle of beer. His life now was so different to the one he'd had back then. It was almost as if he was someone else entirely. It might be easier if that was true. His life would definitely be less complicated.
The doorbell rang again, and the bottom fell out of Ianto's stomach. He just knew who it was at the door this time, and he didn't know how he was going to face him in this casual setting. The vaguely uncomfortable feeling he'd been harbouring all afternoon now sharpened dramatically.
Even work had been somewhat awkward and stilted for the past two days since Ianto had returned.
Nothing had been right between them since that one kiss they'd shared exactly a week ago now. It had been an impulsive move on Ianto's part – one he'd thought about guiltily in the back of his mind for months, yes, but impulsive nonetheless.
He'd been surprised and pleased at first, when Jack had kissed him back, and they'd melted together, the movement so natural it was like they'd been together for years.
But then all of the thoughts Ianto had been ignoring had come crashing back into his head, reminding him of just why they hadn't been doing this for months. He'd known Jack had been able to read the expression on his face when he pulled away by the alacrity with which Jack had gathered his belongings and left, frowning.
It had been Toshiko, not Jack, who had ended up staying with him in the following days as the injuries he'd sustained in the Beacons started to heal. As much as he loved and adored Tosh – and he really did – it just wasn't the same; they could empathise with each other over their traumatic experience, but her presence didn't imbue him with the same sense of security that Jack's could.
He just wished he knew how to fix things between them.
He heard him in the hallway before he saw him, his voice instantly recognisable to Ianto. Jack and Owen stepped through the living room door at the same time, Jack brushing off Gwen's offer of drinks while Owen looked undecided.
Jack's gaze briefly met Ianto's before they both swiftly looked away.
The buffer of the others – helped in no small part by Rhys's chatty and ebullient presence – kept the atmosphere between the two of them from becoming unbearable through the snacks, cake and presents portion of the evening.
Ianto was relieved that no huge fuss had been made on a gift; the wrapped parcels he was presented with held just small trifles, and were marked as being from the whole team, as a collective. Despite the fact that he'd known most of them for over half a year, anything more would have felt – somehow – too soon.
With the drink flowing rather freely, the conversation turned sillier and more raucous as the evening wore on. The alcohol provided a slight dulling of thought and emotion, but even so, Ianto found himself feeling less and less comfortable as the hours passed. Memories assaulted him from every direction.
Everyone was engrossed in a noisy discussion of Ianto-wasn't-sure-what, so no one noticed as Ianto slipped out for a bit of peace and relative quiet in the hallway.
Or so he'd thought.
Ianto leant against the wall and slowly slid to the floor, wincing as his still bruised ribs protested the movement.
"Are you okay?"
His head jerked up at Jack's words.
"Yeah," he answered, dropping his gaze back to the floor. "Just twisted something that I shouldn't have, that's all. You can go back and join the others."
Jack's shadow fell over him. "I didn't just mean physically okay," he clarified. "You're sitting out here on your own instead of being in there celebrating your birthday with your friends. That doesn't seem like okay to me."
Ianto shrugged half-heartedly and Jack sank down beside him.
"So," Jack began, drawing out the word. "Look, I know things haven't been right between us, and… well, I think we both know why. But we don't have to let it do this to us; you can still talk to me." He paused. "If you need to, that is."
There was a long moment of silence between them as Ianto considered Jack's words. Maybe Jack was right – maybe the only way for them to fix things was just to go on as they had before, pretend nothing had ever been wrong. Fake it until you make it. The phrase wandered into Ianto's mind, and he distracted himself for a few seconds trying to remember where he'd heard it.
"I…" he started hesitantly.
"Is it the party?" Jack asked unsurely. "You didn't have to let Gwen railroad you into it, you know. She's stubborn but she would have taken no for an answer eventually."
"I know," Ianto sighed. "It was really nice of her to do all of this for me, and I really wanted to enjoy it, it's just…"
"What?" Jack prompted softly. Ianto let his eyes lift and slide over to glance at Jack.
"I… I keep remembering bits of the last birthday party I had," he admitted. "One that Lisa threw me. And then there's…" He trailed off, waving a hand between them in a gesture he hoped Jack would interpret correctly.
"It just feels…" He blew out a frustrated breath. "It's only been two months!" He clenched his fists, a sudden flush of jittery energy flooding through him. "How can I be partying and enjoying myself? I want to, but at the same time, I don't. I shouldn't. It's all so…"
He dropped his head into his hands, unclenching his fists to massage his forehead.
He felt Jack shift a little closer beside him. "Lisa would want you to be happy, you know that," Jack murmured.
"I know she said that," Ianto agreed, straightening up but keeping his hands across his face. "But that doesn't mean it necessarily feels right. And it's hard today."
"You celebrated a lot of birthdays with Lisa, didn't you?" Jack's voice was barely more than a whisper.
"Yeah," Ianto said, turning his hands over and examining his knuckles to avoid looking up again. "Hers, mine. Even before we were together we used to be together on both of our birthdays, with friends. And then when we were a couple… most years we just spent the evening together. We didn't have a lot of money to start out with, but we'd find ways to spoil each other."
He turned to look at Jack. "Sometimes I just can't believe she's gone, that I'm never going to see her again. I have to live the rest of my life without her."
Jack twisted and leant in closer, resting his hands gently on Ianto's shoulders. "Remember, you don't have to live through it alone. You have me; you have all of us. I won't let you get lonely."
Ianto nodded slowly, drawing strength from the intensely sincere look in Jack's eyes.
Ianto wished he could blame the alcohol he had consumed that evening for what happened next, but he knew that he really hadn't drunk that much. Not enough that he wasn't in control of his own actions.
Jack was so close already, it was barely a stretch to press forward and touch their lips together.
Jack pulled away after barely a second. "Ianto," he said gruffly. "Not that I'm complaining, because I think you know how I feel about this, but…"
Ianto blinked, realising what he'd just done. Again.
Scrambling to his feet, he walked straight down the hallway and fled.
He'd walked halfway home before he even realised he'd forgotten his coat.