Arianne had the next three days off from work. She spent her spare time in the colony centre helping to prepare for the Sol festival. Ianto tagged along, acting as her sous chef and second pair of hands while the food teams prepared giant piles of seed cakes, massive bowls of mashed tubers with tasty, creamy spices mixed through, tureens of soups and sauces, and a mountain of roasted vegetables.
"No fish?" he asked her as they walked home together the first night.
"We cook that on the day. Big fire pits with grills and spits. You can help if you want." She patted his hand.
"I'd like to, yes."
She sang under her breath as they neared home, a sunny tune he recollected from some very late nights with Jack, half asleep or half drunk. "What's that? Jack sings it all the time."
"It's an old love ballad. Two little fish play in a pool by the shallows. One gets picked up in a bucket, the other swims away. The one that's caught jumps out of the bucket but it's on the other side of the strand, far away from its love. They call to each other but they can't hear anything except a distant echo of their song. Eventually, they both swim to the ocean, and they meet again."
"Fish? It's a fish romance?" He made a hand gesture of a little fish swimming along to make sure he got the word right.
"It's sweet," she chided.
"What's romantic where you come from? You are from Earth, from the past."
"Well, there's Romeo and Juliet," he said, pulling the first example he could.
"Really? Two dumb teenagers who kill themselves instead of talking to their parents for five minutes?"
"It's the greatest romance ever written, at least according to my last girlfriend." Talking about Lisa didn't hurt, not here, not thousands of years after her death, like saying the name of an old friend: all the fondness, none of the sorrow. "There's also Titanic, that was supposed to be incredibly romantic when I was a teen. And Twilight." Ianto paused. "Actually, a lot of romance seems to be about dumb teenagers. Maybe the fish aren't so bad."
The next day, he managed to secure a pot of blue jam. To Arianne's amusement, he set aside a batch of dough for the seed cakes, pressing it instead into small biscuit shapes and placing a precious dollop of fruit paste into each one.
"What are they?" she asked when he took the first batch out, only slightly burned, from the huge brick oven. Ianto removed them from the pan, blowing on one to cool it before offering the treat up.
"They're called Jammy Dodgers. More or less."
She bit into the hot jam, and made a face, which gradually turned to delight.
On the day of the festival, there was no work. Jack slept in, and he refused to be roused. "I'll go when I go," he grouched, and threw pillows until they left him alone.
"The bear can stay in his cave," Arianne said. "We'll go."
She brought the four of them to the picnic grounds on the edge of the colony. Ianto hadn't seen the decorations, but Gwen pointed proudly at bright red and yellow bunting she'd helped hang yesterday. Already a mass of people had gathered, and again Ianto was surprised by the variety, not just humans, but a dozen other species moving through the growing crowd unnoticed. No wonder Jack was so at home among aliens. He'd grown up with them.
Arianne led Ianto off to help load the food onto the tables. He took her orders with amusement, enjoying how she had settled so naturally into accepting his assistance. Arms laden with bowls, plates, warming dishes, cold packs, and more, he walked back and forth between the colony centre and the picnic, carrying everything he could and placing it where he was told.
He found the accents of the other colonists difficult to parse, having learned his words from listening to Jack and his mum. Arianne was an outworlder, he remembered. She wasn't a native to the Boeshane, but a woman who'd married a colony boy, and she'd stayed long after her reasons for staying were gone.
Around him, he occasionally spotted his friends. They'd split off, chatting or eating with the contacts they'd been making here: Owen with the other medics, Toshiko with the other technicians she'd been shadowing, Gwen with everyone she met. Ianto stayed near the cooks, eventually stationing himself at a fire pit where a big-chested, barrel-armed fisherman grilled what seemed to be half the sea life in the ocean. Ianto fetched plates and served up charred lumps of salty fish to the long line of diners.
There was only a small plate of Jammy Dodgers. As the day wore on, Ianto noticed Owen taking half of them. To be fair, he gave several to Tosh and Gwen as the three of them bumped into one another and separated again. Jack was nowhere to be seen. Ianto began to suspect that he wasn't coming, or if he was coming, that he was going to make a spectacle of himself, big and loud and embarrassing. Perhaps a play with the children, or a strip tease on the stage. Ianto wouldn't put either past him.
This led to the particularly nice mental image of a naked Jack sprawled out with a come hither expression. Ianto indulged that fantasy as he handed out portions of fish, recalling the firm muscles of Jack's thighs spread in his hands and the contrasting lush softness of Jack's lips as he leaned up demanding kisses.
When there came a lull in the dining due to the musicians warming up their drums and strings, Ianto took the opportunity to fill his own plate high with all the good things. The grilled fish had a sharp flavour, from the strange sea and the sprinkle of spicy sauce the chef had used on each piece. Wrapped in a sourdough flatbread, it wasn't half bad, and the bread greedily soaked up the best of the sauce. The roasted vegetables, even cold, held a succulent tang on each toasted piece. Dozens of seed cakes in all sizes had been joined on the table by a heavy load of desserts: creams and light breads and even a few layered fruit and pudding delights. Ianto had to stop himself from stuffing his face rudely, because he wanted to gorge on everything as the music went into full swing.
"Try this," Arianne said, walking up to him with a determined expression. She tapped his chin to get him to open like a little bird, and fed him a piece of fruit covered with a thick red sauce. The sweet fruit, nothing he could recognise, burst with sweetness in his mouth. The sauce was sharp, like chiles, and it burned. He gulped for air unexpectedly, managing to inhale a very small piece, which sent him into a cough.
Arianne patted his back as Ianto got his breath back, and he managed to chew the rest.
"It's good," he told her, when he finally swallowed. "Thank you."
"The spice has a kick. I should have warned you."
"No, I love hot curries."
There was a hand on his back. Ianto stiffened. From the change in Arianne's eyes, he was pretty sure he knew who the culprit was. Sure enough, Jack said, "Hi."
"About time you were here," said his mother. "Eat something."
"I had some business to do. But sure." Without waiting for an offer, he started picking pieces off Ianto's plate and popping them into his mouth.
"Rude," she chided. "Get your own."
"I don't mind," Ianto said. "He does this all the time back home."
The sad smile she'd donned at Jack's appearance went sadder. Ianto suddenly felt bad for reminding her. He made a fast decision, shoving the plate and the rest of his meal into Jack's surprised hands. "Come on," he said, as kindly as he could.
Ignoring Jack's confusion, Ianto took Arianne by the hand and led her to where the various couples and triads and children and more were dancing a complicated step. "I don't think I can do this one," he apologised in advance before making the gesture he'd seen several others extend to invite a partner to dance.
She laughed. "No, I don't think you can." But she took both his hands into hers and they stayed near the edge of the other dancers, Arianne showing him how to move his feet. He stumbled a bit, and laughed when he did to show willing. Together, they made it through three dances before she said she needed to sit and rest her back.
As they headed for the chairs, one of her friends brought by an extra cup of spring wine, pressing the drink into her hand. Arianne took a sip and grimaced, passing the paper cup directly to Ianto. He took a tentative drink, found the liquid to be tart, dry, and strong, and he emptied the whole draught before he could stop himself.
He'd ignored Jack's annoyed face as they'd danced, and ignored too Jack's sudden interest in finding friends to dance with. Now, as Ianto sat next to Arianne, who breathed heavily but happily whilst chatting about a Sol dance she'd gone to as a girl, he watched Jack swirl effortlessly in the middle of the dancers, swinging from one person to the next as gracefully as he did everything. He even coaxed Toshiko and Gwen out to the dance floor, although not Owen.
They were supposed to be on a date now, Ianto remembered. He hadn't really forgot, merely pushed it to the back of his head so he wouldn't obsess and panic. But his date was having a good time with everyone else, and his date's mum was just pleased to have someone around. Ianto wanted more wine.
"I'm getting some Jammy Dodgers," he said. "Would you like one?"
"If there are any left, yes." She fanned herself, and struck up a conversation with another woman who sat near them.
Ianto wandered back to the desserts in time to see Owen grab the last biscuit. "Could I steal that one for Jack's mum?" Owen frowned, instinctively drawing it closer, then with a shrug, he handed the sweet over.
"You owe me."
"Try the fruit on that plate," Ianto suggested, pointing to the red sauce.
He made his way back to Arianne, ignoring the fact that the music had changed to something melodic, and that Jack was swinging Gwen slowly around the dance floor. Not much of a date then. Quite the opposite. Not worth getting annoyed about. Anyway, the food was good. "Here you go."
"Thank you." She bit into the biscuit with every evidence of enjoyment. "Are you going to dance more?"
"If you're not too tired. It can wait."
She waved at him. "Go on. He's getting bored waiting for you."
Ianto stared at her in confusion. "Bored?"
"Jack." Only she didn't say 'Jack,' she said his name here, the word Ianto couldn't wrap his mouth around. "Go on," she said and chewed the Jammy Dodger as she leaned back in her chair, lounging in a very familiar fashion.
Nerves flooded back, and his dinner rumbled uneasily in his belly. She wanted him to go out there and dance with her son? In front of … Well, truth be told, none of these people cared. He saw couples and groups of every possible combination dancing and talking and just being happy as the sun slowly set. The only people who would notice were the people he'd shown up with, and frankly, Owen didn't give a damn, and neither did Tosh. Gwen unfortunately had that smitten look she often got when Jack was around, not helped at all when Jack bent over and kissed her on the forehead. But Ianto could see the gesture for what it was, even as he approached: a kindness, a wistful longing, and a firm goodbye.
Ianto reached them before they'd separated. He managed a cough that turned into half a request to cut in. Gwen stepped back, as if ready to dance with him, and then she saw how he moved towards Jack, and instead mumbled about getting another drink.
They'd never actually danced before. Ianto didn't know where to put his hands, lead or follow or something entirely new. Then Jack smiled at him, and drew him close, and none of that mattered. They started moving to the music, warm and low, a resting piece between the fervent dance steps of the rest.
"Hi," Jack said into his ear. "Having fun?"
"Starting to," Ianto admitted. "Your mother's a fantastic dancer."
"I had to get it from somewhere."
"Is that all this is, then? Food and dancing?"
"Well, we used to do a greased pig race, but that got banned after the unfortunate incident with Uncle Robert."
Ianto pulled back. "Seriously?" Jack gave him the face, the eyebrow and the clear expression of, 'You believed that?' "Idiot," he said, fondly.
"There's games," said Jack. "Half the colony is over at the pitch shouting for drunk people to throw rocks. But Mum likes this part."
"Is that where you were all day? Throwing rocks?"
"No." Jack pulled him even closer. "I've got good news. I think I've tracked down another Vortex Manipulator. We could be home as soon as tomorrow."
"That's … amazing." Ianto wasn't sure what to think. "How?"
"I've been contacting some old friends, asking questions. One's coming to visit. Quick trip home after that." Jack looked relieved.
"Is that what you've been worrying about?"
"Not exactly." The typical Harkness stonewall face went up. And then it came down again. Jack pulled him closer. "Not everyone here is a friend. Old grudges, etcetera. I knew the Time Agency would be looking for me, and I've stayed out on the boats with people I trusted in case they got wind I'd come home. The less they saw of me, the better, and that includes being seen with the four of you, or Mum."
"You weren't joking about there being a price on your head?"
"I never joke about that. Okay, not often," he said, catching Ianto's disbelief. "Anyway, they'd have a field day with me if they found out about my little parlour trick." By which he meant his immortality, Ianto could only imagine. A powerful group of amoral, sadistic, avaricious time travellers (he guessed, given the two examples he'd seen) would think all their wishes had come true upon finding out their disobedient former compatriot couldn't die no matter what they did to him.
Ianto shivered just to consider the terrible possibilities. "You're here now."
"John was right. The Agency fell. I'm free."
As he spoke, the music changed into another fast beat. Jack watched Ianto to make sure he was okay, then launched into a very complicated step pattern which Ianto could only just keep up with, and there was no time for questions.
Jack didn't swing out for more dance partners this time, keeping his hands on Ianto's as they went through several dances this way. He was sure he wasn't maintaining the same fluid motion Jack did, but he was too out of breath and happy to care, and Jack's delighted face said he didn't mind at all.
The dance was still going on, would go on as long as the food and the music and the drunk people with rocks held out, but Jack and Ianto were finished with dancing. The pair of them slipped out of the crowd between sessions, holding hands and bumping against each other as they made their quick way back to the flat alone.
Even before they reached the front door, Ianto gave in and pulled Jack in for a deep kiss. Jack pushed back, mouth grinning under his. "Inside," he ordered. "Come on." He kissed him again, and together they stumbled into the flat, past Arianne's bedroom, and safely into Jack's.
Sex hadn't been on the table since Jack's return. They'd been taking things slowly, too slowly, Ianto thought, as he fumbled with clasps and ties on unfamiliar fabrics, until Jack finally pulled his clothes over his head, holding his wrists in place with the fabric of his shirt sleeves still half-on. Ianto moaned as Jack pushed him to the bed like this, arms bound, trousers quickly coming undone with Jack's working fingers. Jack's own trousers had already puddled to the floor.
It had been like this, once. The other three would leave, and they would tear into each other hungrily. Ianto had panicked the first time Jack had bound his arms this way, fearful for what the man who'd once threatened to kill him would do. Concern became thrill as he'd learned how vivid Jack's sexual imagination could be, and even now, just the feel of the cloth binding his wrists drove Ianto wild.
When Jack pulled the shirt the rest of the way free, Ianto was almost disappointed. He preoccupied himself with kissing Jack again. God, he'd missed this, missed the slide of Jack's tongue and the breathy laughs and the warm, rich taste of his mouth.
"Wait," said Jack between kisses. He pulled away and dove his his discarded trousers. He dug through one pouch, then a second, until his face lit with glee in the dim light. He clasped his hand around something and crawled back onto the bed, sitting cross-legged next to Ianto. He opened his palm, revealing another little pot.
Perhaps it was oil, a kind of lubricant? Jack was a connoisseur of the various warming, cooling, tingling, pulsing, and quivering liquid, gels, and jellies available at Cardiff's sex shops. Once sated, he would ramble on for ages regarding the uses of same before his own words turned him on again and he'd badger Ianto into coating his fingers with the chilliest jelly they had to spread over Jack's nipples and deep inside him. Ianto preferred the crisp zing of the tingling lubes on his own cock, but had grown very fond of warming gels coating his arse.
"What's it called?" he asked, nudging closer to Jack for the feel of his shoulder pressing skin.
Jack unscrewed the lid and scooped out a tiny fingerful. As he brought the finger to Ianto's mouth and nodded for him to open wide, he said, "Chocolate."
The flavour shocked him. They'd licked chocolate syrup from each other back in the day, Jack cracking jokes about sweets during the sweet. Ianto still woke at night from heady dreams of chocolate mixed with Jack's scent, suckled daintily from the dip of his navel.
"Nice," he breathed, unable to think of a better thanks. The chocolate was fruity and sweet and thick, like the richest cocoa had been stewed with blackberries then stirred into cream.
"Would 'Amazing' be better?"
"Much." Jack scooped another fingerful into his own mouth and leapt onto Ianto, their mouths crashing together. Jack tasted strongly of the fruity chocolate, and a little of the spring wine, but mostly and always of himself. "I've spent the last two days imagining the exquisite flavour of your skin covered in this." His hand slid into Ianto's lap, fondling him. "What do you think?"
"The blankets will get sticky."
The blankets did not get as sticky as feared, because the chocolate was too good to smear. Warm, content, and yes, a bit sticky, Ianto had settled to sleep with his head on Jack's chest, one blanket almost completely covering his head. Jack's heartbeat thrummed in his ear, reassuringly steady. Jack's arm wrapped around him, also reassuringly steady. They hadn't made time for afterglow back in the old days. There'd been a few exhausted overnights, and one good sleep at Christmas (and even "good" was relative, tinged by what Jack had said he'd found when he tracked down Ianto's car). Post-coital cuddling, or whatever this was, had the flavour of something new.
Ianto liked this new flavour.
It was probably just his bad luck then that, as he drifted towards sleep, he heard someone stumbling into Jack's room.
Jack squeezed him, and Ianto took the squeeze to mean, don't move unless you want whoever it is to know you're here. This was confirmed by Jack's casual readjustment of the blanket to obscure Ianto further.
He heard more awkward footsteps, followed by a half-giggle and someone shushing themselves.
For half a second, he thought it was Jack's mum come in to check on him. Then Jack said, "Gwen?"
There was another stumble in the dark. Ianto tensed, but the arm around him squeezed again. He felt a pressure from the other side of the bed, and realised Gwen had sat down, or fallen.
"Hi," she said, voice in the same half-giggle. "I couldn't find you."
"I came back early," Jack said. "You okay?"
"Fine. Fine." Gwen had trouble getting her voice steady. The only other times he'd heard her like this were when Jack had been away, and the four of them had gone to the pub and stayed too long. The spring wine had been very tasty tonight, and although Gwen could hold her lager, wine was the quickest way to get her off her head.
The arm moved away from Ianto suddenly as he felt more movement. Jack said, muffled, "Stop." A moment later, he said more clearly, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but stop."
"Why? Don't tell me you haven't thought about this, about us. We're both here now."
The blanket shifted as Jack moved, and Ianto caught a glimpse of shadows, saw Jack grab and hold onto Gwen's wrists in a careful grip, neither pulling her closer nor pushing her away, but firmly keeping her in place. "This isn't going to happen, Gwen. You're only here because you're scared and you think you're never going to see Rhys again."
"That's not true. When we were dancing, I know you felt it too."
And what to say to that? How to even begin to remind Jack he was right here, or to tell Gwen she wasn't alone with him?
"Gwen, if this ever happens between us, it'll be because you made the choice yourself and want it. Not when you're drunk, not when you're afraid. Definitely not now."
She took a hitching breath, face crumpling into tears. Not for the rejection, Ianto reckoned, because Jack drew her into a hug and kissed her hair. "It's going to be fine," he said. "We're going to get you back home, soon. I've heard from one of my contacts. We'll be back in Cardiff by next week, and Rhys will never know you were gone."
"Not like I could tell him," she said, still sniffling. "'Sorry, love. Went to the future for a month. But I'll pick up some semi skimmed on my way home.'"
He chuckled. "Yeah. Go sleep this off. In the morning, you won't even remember."
"Can I stay here?"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Jack said, with a distinct, 'I've had this particular fantasy for over a year and I have to say no and this is unfair,' tone. "Besides, Ianto says you snore."
"Hah, he can talk. I'm up half the night with his snoring. You should hear him."
Jack smirked. "I have heard him. It's kind of cute." Ianto poked him, and was rewarded with a shift of leg closer to him. If Jack thought he was getting a blow job right now...
But the hand came back under the covers, stroking Ianto's bare shoulder fondly.
Gwen harrumphed, and then there was a louder cough of someone not trying to be especially subtle from the doorway.
Owen said, "Am I interrupting something?"
"No," Jack said, as Gwen said, "Maybe."
"Only you left," Owen said, and Ianto could hear the alcohol in his tremulous words as he also sat on the bed, "and I reckoned I'd find you all here. Half expected to find you having a three-way, but Gwen's not into those." He let out an 'oof' as though Gwen had smacked him ungently in the arm.
"Go away," said Gwen. "Jack and I are having a private conversation."
"Can't be that private if you three aren't fucking. Budge up." Owen made himself comfortable. Ianto tried to crouch into the smallest space possible, wondering how Jack was going to convince them both to go the fuck away.
Gwen said, "What three?"
Owen said, "Unless Jack's grown himself another leg, that's Jones's foot." Ianto felt the cool air on his toes and yanked his knee up as fast as he could, but Gwen had already tugged at the blanket over his head despite Jack's hurried protest.
Gwen stared at him.
"You've been there this whole time?"
Jack said, "Would you believe we had a transmat and he just popped in?"
No longer needing to stay hidden, and aware of his state of undress, Ianto sat up with a blanket wrapped around himself. Gwen was still on the edge of the bed, both hands covering her mouth as she pulled away. "Were you shagging just now?"
"Not just now," Ianto said, rubbing his hair. It had been at least a quarter of an hour. Jack was probably ready to go again.
"But he's been here. You've been here," Gwen corrected herself. "Listening?"
From the doorway, Tosh said, "Are you all in here? The room was empty and it's too quiet."
"Toshiko!" Jack said jovially. "Pull up some blanket. And could you grab Ianto's trousers, they're right at your feet. Thanks."
"Get Jack's too," Owen said, as Tosh hesitated in confusion. Owen turned. "I don't intend to see your arse, either."
"You could go back to your room," Jack said, a soupçon of annoyance in the bubbly gumbo of his personality.
Gwen had already pulled up some blanket and placed her head to rest on her arm. Muffled, she asked, "Why does the blanket smell like chocolate?"
The Time Agent didn't arrive the next day. The Sol festival was still going strong, with more games (these involving swimming out to retrieve something on a buoy) and craft displays (which none of them could identify, although one set looked vaguely like quilts). True to Jack's prediction, Gwen appeared, or pretended, to have forgotten the entire incident from last night, other than wondering why they'd all woken up together, two of them only in trousers. She wandered the displays asking question after question without waiting for the answers, almost like a child. The rest of them nursed various states of hangover and tried to keep up.
Most of the food was warmed leftovers from the feast the day before, but Jack disappeared and came back to the four of them bearing a plate overflowing with fresh nibbles to share as they walked around the displays.
"There's a weaponry demonstration this afternoon," he said, chewing. Large but delicate fingers wrapped a creamy white bite of something in a dark leaf. "Open," he said to Ianto.
Still embarrassed at getting caught last night, and with the added company the rest of the night which had meant no further alone time, the last thing Ianto wanted was to give into Jack's whims in front of them now.
"I'm full, thanks."
Toshiko picked up a small handful of the nibbles from Jack's plate, something golden and crispy. "What are these?"
"Crab cakes, more or less. Try the dip. It's lemon."
She took a careful bite, and another with the dip. A happy expression crawled over her face, and she handed two to Gwen. "That's wonderful."
Jack still had his finger roll. He held it up again for Ianto's inspection.
"What is it?" he relented.
"Ever had feta wrapped in grape leaves?" Ianto nodded, thinking of his one trip to Greece. "It's similar."
Obediently, Ianto opened his mouth and let Jack pop the nibble inside. Not bad, he decided, chewing slowly to savour the creamy texture of the cheese.
Jack foisted his plate into Owen's hands before he described the history of the colony's settlement with sweeping hand motions. As they walked, they reached a display of black ribbons, tattered and fluttering in the dry breeze like skinny ravens. Jack slowed and stopped.
"What's this one?" asked Gwen, poking through the remains of the goodies on the plate. She stopped when she noticed the expression on Jack's face. "Jack?"
"It's a memorial. There was an attack on the colony, oh, twenty or thirty years ago. A lot of people died. Others vanished. Then we went to war. More people died."
None of them asked anything like, "What was it about?" or "Who won?" Ianto thought none of them were bad at arithmetic, not bad enough not to notice that twenty or thirty years ago, colony-time, Jack would have been living here. Given Arianne's age and his, he'd have been a boy. How many people had he loved who were remembered here with these simple, sad mementos?
Flipping into the relaxed, unhindered personality he normally exuded, Jack led them purposefully towards another display of wooden carvings he swore were sex toys.
Jack made an excuse not longer after to leave them again. This time, Ianto hung back, and traced his footsteps. Jack had wandered back to the display of black ribbons. Ianto watched him, wondering if he should give him some privacy.
"It's all right," Jack said, waving him over without looking. "It's been a really long time for me. I just wanted to see if they were listed." He pored over the tiny bits of paper pinned to each ribbon, names written in handwriting of varying legibility. After a few minutes, Jack's hand paused over two.
"Want to talk about it?"
"No." Jack brushed the ribbons into place, straightening the bows. He found another ribbon to contemplate, face a study in past sorrows warmed over by centuries.
Ianto waited, pretending to read other names until Jack was ready. There were a lot of ribbons, he realised, seeing that the display went on the other side as well, stretching back.
Jack took his hand, and they began to walk in the direction Ianto had last seen the others. Switching gears again, perhaps in self-defense, Jack said, "It's not my favourite phrase to say, but, about last night. Are you all right?"
Ianto nodded. "Fine."
"'Fine,' fine, or 'fine,' not talking about it?"
"Is not talking about it an option?"
"Tends to be, yeah. So you're not okay?" Jack sounded concerned, but was that because he cared or because he didn't want to deal with the fallout?
"Nothing's damaged, nothing's unduly sore. Was there anything else?"
Jack stopped. Since they were still holding hands, so did Ianto. "Everything ended kind of suddenly. If that's bothering you, we can sneak away for a while and continue." His tone went suggestive, though the flirtation didn't quite meet his eyes, not when they'd just been paying their respects to the dead. Captain Jack Harkness might go down on his knees in the Torchwood morgue with a wink and a grin, but the Boeshane memorial was better than a chaperone.
"I don't think that's necessary. Let's find the others." He tapped the words into place with a short smile.
Jack tugged at his hand, pulling him closer. "What are you upset about?"
"Nothing. Everything's fine. Everyone's fine." He couldn't quite keep the bitterness from the last part. He pulled his hand away.
Jack sounded annoyed. "I said we could make up the lost time from last night."
"It's fine." He kept walking.
Jack tested the waters. "So we're on for tonight?"
"No, Gwen's sobered up."
"That's why you're so pissed off?"
Ianto didn't stop walking, and he definitely didn't look at Jack. "If she hadn't been drinking last night, would you have asked her to stay?"
"I doubt it. She's still upset about being so far away from Rhys. You know how she gets."
Ianto did. After Jack had vanished, she'd panicked right back to Rhys and into an engagement. Gwen didn't react well to being upset, or out of her element. When frightened, she turned to the nearest source of warmth and/or comfort. And that didn't matter to Ianto, because he did the exact same thing and was bright enough to know it.
What mattered was what he couldn't manage to make himself say out loud: Jack had obviously made the right call and had made that for good reasons. His own ethics were never to sleep with the unwilling, something Ianto couldn't fault him for, and he'd made the decision he knew Gwen would were her judgement not compromised, again not a foible. However….
Ianto was certain he hadn't factored into the decision at all. It hadn't mattered that he was right there in the room, in the bed. It hadn't mattered that Jack had been pursuing him, in his own way, for something more substantial than they'd managed before the Doctor had dragged Jack off on his adventure. Jack would always be this way, affectionate and ready, but for everyone, at any time, never staying in one place or with one person. Before, their assignations had been intentioned as merely something warm and easy at the end of a long day, perfect in their lack of obligation, and Ianto had enjoyed himself knowing it meant nothing. It was supposed to mean nothing.
And Jack had gone, and it had meant more than nothing, a great deal more. He believed he meant something to Jack as well, but he couldn't face the thought that he might not. It was too much, here and now, to form the question, "Would your answer have been different if she'd come to you sober, and would it have mattered at all that I was there, too?"
Even turning to watch Jack now, only confusion covered his face, as well as hurt that Ianto wasn't responding to him. He'd happily invite the rest of the team, the rest of the world into his bed, without pausing to consider that there was someone else there just now. His first sexual experience had taught him a total absence of jealousy; Ianto had never been so lucky. And no matter that he was beginning to understand how much he felt for Jack, he didn't think he could bear spending his days wondering how long he had until Jack left for a new adventure.
"I'm just tired. Last night was fantastic, but I think it was best as a good wrap-up. End things on a high note. Don't you agree?"
Jack's face went soft, and the hurt seeped in around the edges more. "Are you sure? I thought we were finally getting back to where we were." He reached out to try for Ianto's hand again, but Ianto pulled away.
He shrugged. "That's where we'd been. Just a bit of fun between disasters. Neither of us is ready to settle into anything more, and I think it's easier if we don't try." He wouldn't think about the warmth of laying his head just listening to Jack's heart, nor of the breathless joy from dancing with him. He certainly wouldn't let himself consider that Jack would share those simple pleasures; such a baseless fantasy was too much to believe. Jack liked him, Jack would be with him, but he'd never come home to him and want to stay. Going back to what they'd had, or continuing on this way, would only remind Ianto daily of what they'd never be.
Jack opened his mouth, then shut it again, chewing on his lip slightly like he wanted to say something else. "If that's what you want."
"There they are," Ianto lied, pointing up the hill. The others were still out of sight, though he had a pretty good idea of where they'd be. "Come on, then."
He met up with Arianne later when the food was brought out again. Her cheeks were flushed from the games she'd played, and she proudly sported a new red winner's ribbon pinned to her shirt. "I'm famished," she said, nudging Ianto to put more on his own plate in sympathy.
"I'll pop if I eat more," he said, plucking what appeared to be two golden-fried samosas off his own dish and onto hers.
"Then feed it to Jack."
Away from Jack, he couldn't hold onto his resolve as well, and he saw the recognition in her eyes before he covered his expression. "He can make a plate for himself," Ianto said, and the two of them found seats together.
Without much surprise, Ianto spied Jack not long after, arm slung in a very friendly fashion around the midriff of one of the less human colonists, a woman with a few too many arms and blue fur. Feeling rejected, he'd find a way to feel wanted. And so it went.
Arianne followed Ianto's gaze. "He always moves on," she said, and took a bite of samosa. "He tries to be a good boy, but the big Time Agent never once found time to home again after he left. Your rift dropped him here, or I would never have seen him again. And he'll keep going. He'll go, and he won't be back. I'm sorry."
Ianto could hear the lonely echo in her words, and he knew she was right.
The third Time Agent Ianto ever met arrived at the colony two days later. She swaggered up to Jack as soon as she saw him, planted a disturbingly hot kiss on him, then laughed as she pulled away, leaving him to stumble.
"How's your twenty-first century English?" he asked her.
"Excelsior," she said, twisting her head to take in the others. "These the tourists, then?"
"Yeah. Had a run-in with a rift in time and space that landed us here. They need to get home. Can you do me a favour?"
She folded her arms. "The Agency fell after you left. I don't think I want to do you any favours, Jorrad."
"But you're here," he coaxed. "And you haven't tried to shoot me. Tell me what you want, and I'll get it for you. A trade."
The woman let out a breath - Ianto never did learn her name - and dropped her arms. "As a matter of fact, I've already been paid. I should make you work for it despite that, but I always was nicer than you." She indicated her wrist strap. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yeah. Let me, let us, get our belongings together and say goodbye."
Jack left her standing, impatience and annoyance writ large on her attractive features. He spread his hands like a school teacher. "Okay, kids, pack up. We're going home."
And for words Ianto had been longing to hear for weeks, suddenly he knew his reply.
He hadn't expected Owen to be the one who replied, "The hell you are." That made the decision easier.
Ianto folded his arms. "I like it here. The climate's nice, the food is good. I even enjoy the company."
"You don't belong here," Jack said flatly, a wealth of experience in his tone.
"I don't belong there, either. There's nothing left for me in Cardiff."
Gwen put on a quick smile. "Pet, you've got a family."
He didn't even look her way. "I barely speak to my sister or her family. There are enough bodies in the morgue to fake my death without a problem." He kept his gaze on Jack, knowing if he looked away now, he'd lose the argument. "Let me do this. I want to stay."
"What are you going to do here? You can't work. You can't live with my mother."
"Actually, she already said she'd love to have me stay on. She's missed having someone else around." It was a deliberate blow, and as Ianto saw the twinge of pain move across Jack's face, effective.
"Fine." His tone was short, curt.
Toshiko said softly, "I'm considering staying on as well."
Jack's head turned, and voice like a whip, he said, "Your contract isn't up."
She startled back, stunned. Ianto felt bad for her, knowing full well he was the reason for Jack's fury and saddened to see it taken out on another. She mumbled a quiet apology, hiding her face.
Ianto said, "If you want to stay, stay. He can't force us to leave. And it's hardly a timeline concern, since we've come from the past. We can't contaminate causality or whatever his excuse is."
Now that he'd made his choice, a quivery confidence fuelled him. Stubbornly, he kept his jaw set, daring Jack to argue. But what did Jack have to barter with, ultimately? A thankless job with all the delightful prospects of an early, gruesome death?
"We're leaving in two minutes," Jack said, spinning on his boot heel. "I'm going to say my goodbyes. Alone." He went back through the door and closed it. Inside, he'd be giving Arianne the last hug he ever would, and he would be breaking her heart again. Without him there to collide against, Ianto felt his resolve weaken.
Gwen threw her arms around his neck. "We'll miss you," she said, breath hitching. He had his doubts, but he hugged her back, appreciating the gesture.
Owen shook his hand, again surprising him. "Standard advice: don't drink the water, don't sleep with anyone you don't trust not to give you alien VD, don't bitch when you wake up and realise you fucked up."
That drew a grin from him. "You too."
Toshiko was the final hug. "Are you sure about this?"
"Are you sure you don't want to stay on, too?"
She frowned and he caught her quick glance at Owen. "I'm sure. I suppose."
Suddenly Jack was back, and they were too busy getting into position around the Time Agent's strap to say any other goodbyes. The moment before they winked out of his life forever, Jack did turn his head and looked straight at him. "See you." And he was gone.
The first night passed cold and lonely. He slept in the large room in the large bed. He'd looked forward to having the space to himself for the first time in weeks. No more waking up with Owen's foot in his back, no more going to sleep listening to Gwen's snores, no more disturbed rest by whatever night terrors regularly chased Toshiko from her own dreams. Just as when the four of them had shared a tent for a week in the Himalayas, freezing and bitching at each other, Ianto was beyond done with togetherness. Now he was surrounded by too much quiet and not enough warm reminders of other humans. If Jack had grown up this way, surrounded in a bed with all the people who loved him, no wonder he tried never to spend a night alone if he could help it.
Thinking of Jack was a bad plan. He tried thinking of better subjects, kept circling back. Jack was gone, they were all gone, and he'd chosen this life. That he could make the choice had to be worth something. He wasn't regretting his decision. This planet, this colony, felt more home to him than anywhere had. The closest he'd come to fitting a place this well was the flat in London, his CDs on the shelf, Lisa's gently-used sofa in the sitting room, and the bed they'd been going to replace.
Lisa wasn't a better thought to be having now.
From another room in the flat, he heard muffled sobs.
Sleep didn't come.
On the second day, he waved Arianne off to her job then cleaned the flat. Jack had been right on one thing: Ianto wasn't suited to go out on the boats. But perhaps, if he went into the colony centre later in the day, he could ask around to see who needed assistance. He could cook, he could fetch, he could clean, he could mind children, and he could learn to do more.
He would learn to do more. This wasn't exile, this was a new life.
Arianne had put last night's dinner in the stasis room. Ianto pulled out a small stack of flatbreads and a small pot of sauce. He found a bag to pack them inside, storing everything as carefully as he'd observed Jack doing the day of the picnic. A nice walk into the colony centre, a look around, a lunch by the square, and home to surprise Arianne with dinner, this was his plan.
So resolving, he opened the door to go out.
Jack stood on the doorstep, arm raised to knock.
They stood staring at each other for a long moment. Ianto was stuck between, 'Sorry, we're full up on arseholes here, don't need more,' and 'Did you forget something?'
"Hi." As a witty hello, it lacked panache.
"Ianto Jones," Jack said, savouring the words like a long-anticipated draught. "You're a sight for sore eyes."
Finally, he saw what he'd been missing. "You're older." Jack's hair had changed, and the weariness in his eyes. If he hadn't got here the long way, he'd certainly taken his time.
"Did I get here at the right point?" Jack asked, glancing around. "No overlaps?"
"No, you left yesterday." His face pulled into a frown. "Did you pay the other Time Agent to take the team home?"
"Yes. A lot. Can I come in?"
Ianto stepped aside, and Jack came in, gazing around to refamiliarise himself with the place that, as far as Ianto could tell, he'd just been. "It's exactly like I remember. You know how you paint over things in your head after a while, and then you go back and it's not the same? It's the same."
Jack took a seat at the table, face lost in memory and wonder. Ianto sat down opposite him.
"You came back."
"I came home."
"For how long?"
He stretched and sat back. "I had to wait until after I'd been and gone again. I've been wanting to come home for years." Finally, his gaze settled on Ianto. "I missed you. I won't feel bad if you don't say the same. If I did this right, you haven't had time."
Ianto said nothing. He got up and lit the hob for tea. "How long are you staying this time? I'd hate to see you break your mother's heart again."
"Like I said, I've been waiting for years. I've spent my time travelling. I can settle here for a while." He looked around the room again, drinking in the details from memories Ianto could only imagine. "Maybe not here," he added regretfully. "I'm a few thousand years too old to be living with my mother. But close by. I want to stay for the rest of her life if I can. I've got the time."
Ianto got the bowls ready, heart hammering. Jack was staying. Jack was staying here. That didn't meant he was staying with him, and he couldn't act as though it did. "Tea's almost up. Sorry, they don't have coffee in the future."
For the first time, Jack's face split into a grin. "I thought that was you."
"What was me?"
Jack reached into the rucksack he'd brought with him. Ianto had expected clothing, and indeed, the first thing he saw was the same simple fabric worn by the colonists. Jack extracted a jar and presented it proudly. "They grow this on some of the inner planets. I thought I remembered that you liked it." The grin wavered, and Ianto could read uncertainty, and... Was that hope?
He took the jar, and with a nod from Jack, cracked the seal. A rich, earthy aroma hit him like a kiss, and he shut his eyes, just tasting the air.
"I'm fine." He looked at Jack. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Without being asked, Jack started rooting through the parcel Ianto had packed for his own lunch, taking out the flatbreads and the little pot of sauce, handling each as delicately as he would a long-anticipated treat. However young he still looked, he moved and acted like an old man reliving a happier time, and the effect was unnerving.
"How old are you?" Ianto blurted, staring at Jack.
"Currently? Around five thousand. I stopped keeping close track."
Ianto sat down again. "You really are, aren't you? And the others are dead. They've been dead for centuries." He'd known, of course he'd known, but when they'd left, the past literally had seemed another country, merely needing the right passport to visit.
"I'll tell you about them," Jack promised. "I have so many stories, if you want to hear. Mum's not going to believe them all."
"You're here." Too many enormities to take in, Ianto thought faintly. He felt as off-balance as he had the first time he'd watched Jack rise from the dead. And just like before, Jack sat there, faintly smiling, and a little worried at Ianto's reaction. When Arianne came home, she'd have the same problem, the same questions, but only one mattered. "You're really staying?"
"I really am. And I'm kind of starving right now. What do you say we talk while we eat? I could even get that coffee made for you, if you're interested."
Ianto had forgotten the jar in his hand. He looked at it again. All this time, and Jack still remembered details about Ianto. Maybe not many, but he knew Ianto's name, and that he was here, and he'd recalled something Ianto liked. It wasn't the best start, but for a new beginning, it wasn't so bad.
He pushed the jar of coffee back to Jack. "The water's ready."
My three favourite words are, "I liked this." But you knew that. :)