"Give," said Jack, when Toshiko returned with the helmet.
"Do we have to go through this again?" Owen asked.
"I can use the helmet. You're not trying to see inside my head, you're letting me talk inside his." His hand stayed out.
"It's worth a try," Tosh said. "I may have enabled some two-way communication. It's going to be spotty."
Gwen said, "Jack, if you're in there, what's to stop Adam from getting into your head? We still aren't sure how he operates."
"Good question. Tie me to the chair. If you're not sure it's me, keep me there until you are. Gwen, you're in charge."
She nodded, swallowing.
"We can't shoot you, you know," Owen said, getting the straps ready. "You keep your memories when you die, so whatever neural thing he's doing, it'll stick."
"I know." Adam had come fully-formed from inside Jack's head, once he was past the Retcon block. Jack had died dozens of times since they'd killed Adam before.
Owen put the helmet on him, and Jack let himself be strapped to the chair. The leather seat gave only a little, his hands could wiggle but his arms and legs were bound with his own restraints. Normally, he'd enjoy this. Hell, part of him was already planning trying to talk Ianto into a repeat later, assuming this worked. For now, he was more nervous than he wanted to say aloud. Adam changed people. Adam had changed Jack's early memories of his family. Who knew how deeply he'd managed to worm himself into Ianto's mind by this point?
"Ready?" Tosh asked.
Jack kept the nervousness to himself. "Go."
He's twenty-two. He's used to wearing a tie to work, used to being another face in the office pool, used to doing his job and keeping his head down. All that vanishes whenever she walks by in a cloud of jasmine perfume. Then Ianto is tongue-tied and red-faced and he talks too loud. He's going to lose this cushy new job because he can't think straight when he's in the room with the girl from HR, and it's driving him crazy.
"She's just so gorgeous," he says in the staff room, hands wrapped around a cup of less than stellar coffee. "And I'm a complete arse when she's around."
"Sounds like love to me," says Adam, drinking his own coffee. He still looks weird with a tie, respectable. "Talk to her."
"I don't know what to say! She's beautiful. She's educated. I'm … "
" … a right tosser. You have a point." Adam nudges Ianto's shoulder. "Just go up to her and say hello. Have I ever steered you wrong?"
"Once or twice," says a new voice.
Ianto and Adam look at the man who has entered the staff room.
"What in God's name are you wearing?"
Jack said, "I have no idea what I'm wearing. Tosh?"
"Oh," Tosh said. He could barely hear her, muffled by the helmet. "You're wearing the basic armour pack from the character build."
Owen said, "It's an avatar. We didn't customise it."
Ianto's gaze goes up and down. The man is wearing chainmail, tight leather breeches, and a stern if somewhat pixelated expression. This being Torchwood, it's not the strangest thing Ianto's ever seen.
"It's an alien," Adam says, pushing Ianto out of the way. "Call security."
"I'm not an alien," says the stranger. "Ianto, can you hear me?"
Ianto nods his head.
Adam says, "He's a telepath. He's already getting into your mind. I'll hold him off."
"Ianto, I can't see you. Say something. I can hear Adam. Don't listen to him. He's an alien we found … "
"Come on!" Adam shouts. He grabs Ianto and they run, calling for the security troops. As they go, Ianto sees Lisa, and he pulls free of Adam's hand.
"Lisa, you have to run." Suddenly, this is very, very important. Lisa can't be here. She's in danger. "You have to get out of here!"
"Ianto?" This is from the stranger, who is right beside him. "Are we with Lisa? Is this in Cardiff or in London?" The man sounds frightened, but his face never changes from the digital smile.
Lisa is smart, and calm, and helpful. "We're in London."
"Okay, Ianto. This isn't real. None of this is real. You are in Cardiff now. This is a memory of Torchwood London."
"Not anymore," Adam says, and he grabs Ianto's arm.
Jack said, "Dammit, they're gone. Tosh!"
"Changing the settings. Hold on."
He is eleven, and Mam is going away. Rhiannon says she tried to burn the house down, and Rhi and Dad stopped her. Ianto wasn't there. He doesn't believe his sister, and he shouts at her that she's lying, that she's jealous. He's satisfied when she breaks into tears and shuts herself in her own room.
Dad is with Mam. He drove her to the facility by himself and left the two of them here alone. Ianto keeps wishing that he'll drive back, and Mam will be with him, and they'll say it was all a joke, all a surprise. Really, the family is going on holiday to somewhere nice together, because Mam is better now.
He doesn't know that he's crying until Adam hands him a handkerchief. "You can talk to me about it."
Ianto shakes his head. "Nothing to say."
"Did I ever tell you how I lost my parents?"
"No." Adam lives next door. Adam has always lived next door. He lives with someone Ianto has never met, even though he sleeps over all the time.
"It was awful. Our … vehicle crashed, and I was alone. I've been waiting ever since to find people who loved me and wanted me around as much as they did."
Ianto and Adam glance over. There's a stranger in chainmail standing in the doorway to Ianto's room. Ianto thinks he knows him, somehow, thinks of the abandoned Barbies in Rhi's bedroom, the headless dolls, the Ken doll who lost his left arm.
"Ianto," says the stranger. "You've got to remember. Wherever you are right now, this isn't happening. This is only a memory, and Adam is changing it. He lives inside memories. Please, Ianto." There's an echo to his voice, and also a catch.
From nowhere, Ianto hears the meow of the white kitten. White kitten with dark socks. "I can hear a cat," says the stranger. "You said you had a cat when you were little. Are you a child now?"
He wants to answer no, that he's practically grown up.
"Don't say anything," Adam hisses. "A strange man is breaking into your bedroom. He wants to touch you. We have to run."
Adam takes his arm.
"Fantastic," Jack said. "They're gone again, and Adam just told him I'm a child molester."
"Jack," Gwen said, from somewhere outside the helmet. "How are you going to get him free? If Ianto doesn't believe you, what are you going to do to get rid of Adam?"
He is twenty-three and the world is burning. "Let me help," Adam says, and he takes Lisa's other arm, helps Ianto drag her to safety as the flames and the screams surround them.
There's a man in chainmail waiting. Ianto is losing his mind. Another Cyberman? Someone from UNIT?
"Ianto," says the man, "this isn't real."
He is twenty-four, and Adam is clutching him, part in embrace, part holding him back. The others are spraying bullets at what remains of the woman he loves, and Ianto is shrieking.
Adam breathes into his ear intimately, "I've got you. You're safe now. You're going on suspension for a while, and I'll come see you every day, find out how you're doing, bring you out of your shell." The words blossom into images: Adam at Ianto's flat, Adam bringing him food and conversation, Adam giving him meaning to his life again. Adam will fill all the empty spaces in Ianto's life until Ianto relies on him like air.
Lisa's body and Annie's body are both unmoving, both covered in blood. Jack swaggers past them like a conquering hero, and Ianto has never hated anyone so much in all his life.
"Sh," Adam says. "Sh."
The man in chainmail is there. "Found them. Ianto, talk to me."
Ianto raises his tear-stained and bloody face to the man in the armour. He sounds exactly like the bastard who shot Lisa. "Fuck you."
Adam says, "Let's get you out of here."
He is nineteen, and Dad never woke up from the last stroke. The remains of their family scattered a while ago, but they have friends, and people who worked with Dad at the store. Ianto tries to be pleasant at the funeral luncheon. Some ladies from the estate are bunched around Rhi, who is sobbing again. David's playing on the rug. Johnny's drinking.
Ianto hates this place so much.
"Sorry, mate," says Adam. "I'll always be here for you."
"Ianto?" There's the voice again. A crazily-dressed man is standing on the rug beside David, but David doesn't see him at all. No-one does. He isn't real. Ianto is cracking up just like Mam did.
Finally, finally, he lets out a sob of his own.
"I'm right here," says the man, stepping forward clumsily through David. "He's using you. Making you remember him in places he never was."
Ianto turns to Adam, who puts on a patient smile. "Are you really going to believe a madman in armour over your best friend?"
Adam can hear and see the man. No-one else can. If Ianto is crazy, so is Adam. But if the hallucination on the rug is right, none of this is real.
"I need … " He breaks away from Adam, and he runs. Rhiannon and the rest call after him. Ianto at least is real. He's been having doubts.
A memory. Today is about memories. Dad fills a bad one. Ianto closes his eyes.
He is eight years old, and he is at the playground. He wants to go high on the swing like the big boys do, but he can't figure out how. Instead he sits sulking on a swing as it hangs.
Nothing is real, he thinks. This seems natural and correct in a way surpassing the smell of the air and the cut-up turf of the playground. There's a man. He looks ridiculous. Something in the back of Ianto's head tells him the man's a pervert, out to snatch little kids. Something further back tells him he can trust the man with his life. Something even deeper down than that tells him not to.
"Ianto, where are we now?"
"We're at the playground."
"How old are you?"
"Do you know who I am?"
Ianto shakes his head. He remembers something. The man can't see him. "No."
"Okay. My name is Jack. I'm your … I'm your friend."
"You don't look like my friend."
"When you're older, we'll be very good friends."
From outside the helmet, Jack could hear Owen's cut-off laugh.
Then he heard someone smacking dead flesh.
"Ianto, you need to come back with me. Adam has you trapped inside your memories, and we need you to wake up."
"I have a friend named Adam." Adam isn't here. Ianto wants to think Adam is his best friend, but that's not right. His best friend is the person he tells all his secrets to, the person he laughs with, and thinks about, and wants to share his triumphs and sorrows with. While he can remember Adam being present for every one of those, Ianto suddenly and clearly knows he doesn't want Adam there.
"You really don't."
The man sparkles and wavers like he is made of points of light instead of skin and bone. He's dressed like some dorky knight, and his smile is weird. But he reminds Ianto of another smile, another crazy yet perfect outfit, and his eyes are bright blue.
"Do you remember me?"
Memories trickle in and around him, burning like scorching steel under his hands. Ianto recoils. "Yes." It comes out in a low hiss. He's in the playground. This is where he gets hurt.
"He hurt you," says Adam, who is suddenly sitting there on the next swing. "He always hurts you. I always help you. Don't you remember?"
"Don't let him touch you," Jack says. Ianto stumbles off the swing and away from Adam's hands.
"Don't trust him," Adam says.
"I don't trust either of you."
"Good instinct," they both say at once. From the other end of the park, his father is walking towards him.
Ianto closes his eyes.
"Hold him there," Tosh said.
"I can't hold him. Adam's moving him around. Or maybe Ianto is, trying to get away."
"Just stay put a few minutes."
He's twenty-five, and the Plass is empty. The rough gang is gone. Adam isn't here either. He knows somehow that Adam will return.
Ianto goes back into the Hub. Jack is still standing at the catwalk railing, and hasn't moved since Ianto last saw him. Cautiously, Ianto climbs the stairs and walks over to him. He pushes on Jack's arm, but it doesn't yield the way Jack's skin always does under his touch.
"Right here," says the crazy man in the chainmail, from beside him. "When are we?"
Ianto licks his lips, but the nervous gesture is lost. "Last night."
"Do you remember what happened?"
His face burns all over again. "We had sex in your bunker. We went down on each other. Then I said I loved you. You made a joke. I left before I could embarrass myself further."
"Do you remember that I followed you?"
Ianto hesitates. He remembers talking with Adam as he made the walk of shame, remembers Jack mocking him from the catwalk until he fled outside. There was a gang, and he and Adam were going to fight them, and maybe they were going to go back to his place and fuck, and then there were screams.
He also remembers going home, with Jack's car behind his, and his mobile ringing while Ianto refused to answer. He remembers arriving at his flat, and taking Jack inside so he wouldn't wake the neighbours, and he remembers fighting. The words are jumbled in his head, but he remembers the meaning: Jack was scared shitless of falling in love with him, scared of what it meant, and he was sorry for the joke but he was terrified. Jack's broken hearts stay with him forever. Jack was about to say something else when his own mobile rang. It was Gwen.
"I remember a lot of things." He backs away again. Jack is the source of so much pain.
"Do you remember," Jack clears this throat. For the first time, Ianto knows the others can hear him, wherever he is. "Do you remember that I said I'm not ready, but that I'll give you whatever I can until I am? That I want this, with you?"
"I don't think you made it that far."
"Oh." There's a change in the air. They won't be alone for long. Jack must sense it too. "He'll find us here any time. Ianto, you can't run away from him now. Tosh needs you to stay put. I think she has a plan to get you out."
Adam is right there. "Clever," he says. "I almost didn't think of looking for you here."
"Leave him alone," Jack says, flexing his absurdly oversized muscles. "He knows what you are."
"Me? I'm his best friend."
"No, that's Jack." Ianto sighs. "Unfortunately."
"Jack doesn't like you." Adam nods to the statue-Jack, who comes to fluid life.
"Oh, for crying out loud," says the Jack who isn't really Jack. "Now you're inventing video game versions of me to talk to? And he still won't be all romantic and tell you that he wuvs you back. Great job there, Yan-toe. Are you going to make a pretend Lisa fucktoy, too?"
"This was not the best time to make an entrance," says a new voice, a woman. Her silky black hair is pulled back into a long, long ponytail. She wears form-fitting studded leather armour that shows off an impressive amount of boob, and her boots have heels longer than Ianto's hand.
Chainmail-wearing Jack says, "Tosh?"
"We had another helmet," she says, and she pulls out a heavy-looking sword, waving it around like a tennis racquet.
"My Toshiko," says Adam, reaching out to her. His hand passes right through her digital body.
"You can't touch me here," Tosh says. "Jack, can you get Ianto out?"
"I think so. Ianto, are you ready to wake up?"
"Do it anyway. That's an order."
Adam says, "It doesn't matter if he wakes up. He's mine now. I'm in all of his memories. You can't get rid of me without killing Ianto. What do you say, Jack? There's your choice. Kill me and you lose him."
Chainmail Jack reaches out and takes Ianto's hand. They're not touching. The avatar is only an illusion. But Ianto feels the contact anyway, and in a lifetime of memories, it's the most solid thing he's ever felt. "We'll find a way to get rid of you eventually," Jack says. "But we're getting Ianto back first." There's a firmness in his voice that drives through Ianto and pins him like a butterfly to cork, forever displayed with a small brass plaque: This specimen belongs to Captain Jack Harkness. He wants to believe it's love, but right now, he's got Jack's loyalty, and that's a fine thing as well.
"There's always option three," says Tosh, a happy note to her own voice. "We're here with our avatars. They're used for a game. I know the cheat codes. And you have to abide by your own rules."
Adam turns to her in horror.
The gun, Ianto remembers. A creature made of memory recoiled from Jack's Webley because if they believed his death, he'd die. Lovely, brilliant Tosh. He smiles as she raises the sword smoothly into the air and slices Adam in two.
"Time to go," says Jack, and he tugs on the hand he isn't really holding. Ianto thinks of home, and the Hub, and where he belongs. He closes his eyes one more time.
He opened his eyes. He was still in the Hub, but instead of the catwalk, he was in autopsy, strapped down to the bed. On the chair beside him, Jack sat with Owen's old gaming helmet on his head. Ianto couldn't lift his head to see, but he felt Jack holding his hand with a grip that said he didn't intend to let go.
Jack tore off the helmet with his free hand. Tosh lifted another off her own head. No long black ponytail, just the same haircut she'd always had. A small, triumphant smile peeked on her lips as Gwen helped her put the helmets away.
"Is he gone?" Ianto asked Owen, instead of saying hello.
"No way to tell. In theory, all we should have to do is Retcon ourselves again. Twenty-four hours should cover it."
Gwen said, "I'll call Rhys in. But Jack, he's still got the old memories."
"Make him write a note to himself to never, ever mention it to us."
Ianto lay back since he couldn't do anything else. "Retcon won't work. Adam's right. He's a part of all my memories now." Ianto poked through his mind, saw the same face growing up with him, saw Adam in his house, saw him here in the Hub. Ianto knew the memories were false, but they were as real as his memories of this morning.
"Shouldn't be," said Owen. "Those are new memories. The old ones are still in there. If we wipe out everything he changed in the last day, it ought to reset your brain." He was talking to Ianto, but his eyes were on Jack. "Ought to" wasn't the same as "will."
"If it doesn't work?" Ianto was frightened, but more than that, he was tired. He'd already done the life-flashing-before-his-eyes thing today. His life had sucked.
Jack said, "We'll worry about that later."
"It'll be fine."
Ianto couldn't suppress a memory of Adam smirking, the sounds of screams. "No. It won't. Promise me you won't let me hurt anyone."
Jack watched him. Then he nodded. "I promise."
They woke up groggy and unhappy. Ianto had had Retcon hangovers before. They never failed to make him wish he'd never heard of the stuff. Give him enough, and the wish would come true, he supposed. He wasn't envious of Owen for much these days, but the undead were at least immune to having their memories tampered with and suffering the resulting mornings after.
"Why are we here?" asked Gwen. Rhys was waking beside her, uncomfortable in his chair.
"Protocol 246," Owen said, putting down his newspaper. "You can't be allowed to remember what you forgot. It's even banned from the secure archives."
Jack was furious. "Owen, I don't like secrets. What the hell happened?"
"If I told you, it would happen again." Owen pulled a face. "Okay, memory lane time. Ianto, tell me about your dad's funeral."
"What?" What kind of a question was that to ask?
"Your dad died. He had a funeral. Who came?"
"I don't know." He thought. "My sister and her family. Some friends from where we lived, people he worked with. Why?"
"Any friends of yours there?"
"Probably. I dunno." He didn't like this questioning, really didn't like the stares he was getting from the others. "I didn't have a lot of friends then."
"No-one stands out?"
"And when they took your mum away?"
Now he was angry. "None of your fucking business."
Jack said in a warning voice, "Owen?"
Owen sounded faintly bored, and a little regretful. "These were the days you wanted me to ask about. When your dad drove your mum away, who was in the house with you?"
"Just my sister."
"No. We fought. We went to our rooms. Dad came home later." Alone.
Owen smiled like a bloody sphinx. "Okay. I pronounce you cured. Go forth and do something you promise never to tell me about to celebrate." Owen waved him off like a schoolchild.
Muttering under his breath, Ianto stormed out of the room.
He did hear Jack ask Owen, "What the hell was that all about?"
"Saving his life."
Jack found Ianto in the main part of the Hub, tidying up whatever they'd done and couldn't remember. He watched for a moment, ticking over in his mind the letter Owen had given him, in Jack's own writing. Trust Owen. If Ianto gives the wrong answer to Owen's questions, he isn't Ianto anymore. You need to be the one to do it. You owe him that. You can't touch him when you do. He'd signed the letter with his code from the Time Agency, the one he used for special circumstances and needed to know for certain a message was from himself. And below it, Ianto had scrawled his own name.
If Ianto had answered incorrectly, Owen would have told Jack. Jack would have had to kill his lover for a reason Jack wasn't even allowed to know, and Ianto would trust him, had trusted him, to do it.
Rhys had also read a letter he'd apparently written to himself. He wouldn't show the letter to anyone. Jack was fine with never knowing what Rhys's stipulation had been. He planned to burn his own letter the minute he had a lighter handy, and to try to forget it had ever existed.
Jack folded his arms. "Ianto. You okay?"
"Fine. An entire day of my life is gone, again, but I'm fine. You?"
"I'm fine, too."
Jack didn't feel fine. He felt scared. He looked at Ianto, and he was frightened all over again, and for no reason he could remember to name. The others were elsewhere, and they were alone. Jack took the chance to take Ianto's hand, though he was taking the comfort this time.
Ianto was twitchy, like he wanted to move, like he wanted to do something, say something. Jack stopped any possible words with a kiss, which Ianto barely returned.
"Let's go out tonight," Jack said. "Someplace nice. We'll make new memories."
Ianto nodded, but his eyes were focused on the catwalk. "When you're ready, I'll be here." It was odd phrasing for their date plans, and even Ianto looked startled as he said the words. Then he shook his head, and covered with a bland expression Jack didn't believe for a moment but couldn't bear to unpack with the letter heavy in his pocket.
Somewhere there was a world where Ianto had answered incorrectly. Somewhere, there was a Jack with a gun in his hand, having to choose between protecting the world from an unknown threat or saving the man he was falling in love with despite all his efforts. Jack didn't have to choose today. It was as good as a win.
"Good." With another quick kiss and a squeeze to his hand, Jack went back to his office. He had something to burn.
AN: As always, my three favorite words are: "I liked this."