Scylla and Charybdis
It happens sometimes; there's a bit of a jolt and suddenly the woman next to you is a guy you've never seen before. Hovering in the probabilistic non-space between existence and non-existence—or non-existence and all-existence—the station is supposed to be insulated, protected from that sort of thing. But things happen. Improbable things. The Flux twists, and sometimes you're leaning forward to kiss familiar lips and you open your eyes to find someone entirely different there, heaving back an arm to clock you in the face for daring. Sometimes you remember the person you were going to kiss. Most often you don't. It's the latter that makes Natan believe that there might be a god.
This time, though, the stranger doesn't look like he's going to hit him. Instead, he pulls back and his eyes go very wide, bulging a little with fear or surprise.
It's neither question nor assertion, but, like the station itself, something in-between. Even at this early stage of his training, Natan's heard it often enough, from those caught up in the torque of the Flux and cast out along the shock wave to beach somewhere and somewhen far from home. It's the voice of the unmoored.
This time, though, there's something else in the name, a sort of lightening, an opening out. It's the blossoming of recognition, maybe even hope. It takes him a second to realize that this stranger is naming him, Natan, and not himself. For some reason, Natan thinks of the tsthee, back on the Penninsula, the way their sleek heads would dart up among the swaying grasses at the sound of a familiar footfall. He remembers their bright, black eyes and their fluttering hearts beating with affection, and their telescoping beaks that could impale a man straight through.
He tries for a cocky, one-sided grin and says, "No. Natan." He works his hand between their bodies—there's a faint, receding whisper of memory, another body he once loved, but the Flux writhes with the wave and it's gone—and grips the stranger's. It's not the best execution of an Earth handshake, but it seems to have a positive effect. The stranger's fingers close tightly around his. Natan gives himself bonus points for guessing correctly. Old Earth. "Natan Shole—"
"—Cadet first class."
The stranger closes his mouth.
"You?" Natan prompts and adds another grin.
Natan squeezes his hand again and steps back to get a little space. "Please to meet you."
"Pleased," Ianto corrects automatically.
By then, the squad is there. Ianto doesn't say anything more until they're dragging him backward away from Natan and toward Department Q, but then he panics. They always panic at this point, when the squad appears, faceless behind their visors, unless there's been some kind of damage in the mind, which happens sometimes. Natan takes Ianto's panic as a good sign, and lifts his hand to wave.
His shoes leaving black marks on the tile as he struggles, Ianto screams, "Jack! Jack!" before the doors sigh shut between them, blending with the wall until even their outline melts away.
Nanos come and scrub away the scuffs. In a few moments, there's no evidence that Ianto was ever there.
The squad goes by, clearing a path through the study hall. Secure within the phalanx, Ianto marches along, unresisting. He doesn't look Natan's way, but then again, there's no reason he would, right? In any case, displaced from their tables, or just needing a distraction from quantum mathematics, the other cadets are milling around between them, blocking the view.
Chewing on the end of her stylus, Pimm speculates that maybe it was prolonged exposure to the Rift that made Ianto's brain so slippery. Department Q has done its job, layered the equivalent of chromium plating across Ianto's memory, but the patch keeps flaking off. She takes the stylus out from between her teeth and points it at Ianto's back. "Dangerous," she decides. "Bloody dangerous. He'll give us a twist, I bet. A paradox waiting to happen." Her lip curling with a slight sneer of disapproval, she attacks her figures like they can somehow save the universe from the threat of leaky anachronism, which maybe they can.
Natan stares over Pimm's bowed head down the corridor toward Department Q, where the squad has vanished behind its disappearing door, and nods. "Yeah. Maybe." He can't really hear screams.
On his tablet, his fingers tap out a regular tattoo in Jervis code, a secret language known only to the kids in his Trekking group back home: J-A-C-K. After ten or a hundred repetitions, Pimm slaps her hand down over his.
In the lift, Natan watches the numbers on the display or stares at his boots, but he can't help but cast a sidelong glance at Ianto. Still breathing hard from running down the corridor and darting sideways between the closing doors, Ianto catches him watching and gives him a polite, tight smile in return. There's interest but no recognition in his eyes. He looks smart in his cadet's uniform. He looks good. Sharply creased. Even so, there's still something... off, like the lingering smell of smoke after the damaged walls have been repainted. When he drops a data chit on the floor, Natan almost expects him to fold like crisp paper and tear along the seam, and, a little disturbed by the mental picture, Natan bends himself to retrieve the chit.
When he straightens, Ianto is staring at him, his brows lowered a little in a quizzical frown.
"What?" Natan asks, and checks out his reflection in the polished plating of the lift. "Did I miss a spot?" He flashes his teeth and smoothes his free hand over his hair. Natan looks very good in his cadet's uniform.
Ianto stands still, frozen like a statue of ice, except for the rapid flutter of his pulse in his neck above his stiff collar, and the warmth of his fingers almost touching Natan's on the chit. Ianto's got good hands, Natan thinks, inspecting his fingers with almost the same attention he's just applied to his own reflection. There's a sense of precision about them. Without thinking, Natan lifts his index finger and strokes it along the side of Ianto's, over his knuckles. When Natan finally looks Ianto in the face, he catches his breath at the sadness he sees there.
He lets the chit go and lays his hand on the side of Ianto's neck. "You okay?"
"You look so young," Ianto says, not evading the question, really, although Natan can't follow the logic.
Still, though, that makes Natan smile. "Yeah?" Almost against his will, his gaze drifts over Ianto's shoulder to check out his reflection again.
"Younger than me, even."
Something in Ianto's voice, a sort of puzzled wonder, calls his attention back. Natan asks, "How old are you, anyway?" It's hard to tell. Ianto's face is young but his eyes are old.
"Twenty-eight." A pause. "Three thousand."
This time, it's not his reflection but the unblinking eye of the camera in the corner of the car that draws Natan's gaze. "Shh," he says.
The squad is waiting when the doors open.
He's got the pulse-pistol broken down to components in under fifteen seconds. That puts him second in his class, after Ianto. Ianto's good at breaking things down and putting them back together. His hands move deftly and the not-quite placid-not-quite-stern expression on his face never changes, even when he beats all fourteen of his fellow cadets to the finish line time after time. Only once, when Natan finishes a mere half-second behind him, do Ianto's lips lift on one side in a smile that's both proud and shy.
"Maybe next time," he says, somehow managing to be condescending and genuine at once. He gets up, and when Natan puts his feet on the table and says, "Consolation prize: you make the coffee," Ianto stops moving suddenly with an awkward jerk, like he's caught his sleeve on something. He blinks hard but recovers quickly. "Not my job," he answers.
Sometimes, though, it doesn't go that well. Sometimes, maybe when they are lying in their bunks, the vid droning away on the ceiling and the suns doubling the shadows in their room, Ianto will say, "Jack," and Natan, whose fingers have tapped out the letters of that name for months now, will grunt an acknowledgement before he can catch himself.
Because of that, Ianto won't be there in the morning. Natan wonders if he simply meets the squad outside so Natan can get his beauty sleep, but he prefers the scenario where Ianto resists and his roommate is just an unnaturally deep sleeper. However it happens, he'll turn up in the mess a few days later. Natan knows that, given how slippery his brain is, Ianto should not be returning like this. But there's a war on, now, and Ianto is very good at taking things apart and putting them together.
When he introduces himself again over breakfast, Natan will smile and hold out his hand and say, "Please to meet you," believing that somehow Ianto will know that this is not Natan's mistaken use of the old Earth idiom but his secret, increasingly fervent hope. Eventually, Natan will forget to smile when they meet again, or he'll forget not to respond to this other name he's adopted against his will and against the rules, and then he'll be taking his own trip to Department Q.
He doesn't want to know about Jack, or about Ianto and where he came from or what it was that cast him into the Rift. He can't want to know. Rules hold the universe together.
He's bad at rules.
The fifth time Ianto comes back Natan teaches him Jervis code.
They lie together in the bottom bunk, Natan on his side with his arm folded under his head and his back to the room and to the camera in the corner near the ceiling. Beside him, Ianto tap-tap-taps into the open palm of Natan's other hand. His vocabulary isn't very big, and, as a kid's language, there's a lot that Jervis code can't express, but Natan doesn't need any special eloquence to understand dead and lost and destroyed and I tried.
In the narrow space of the bunk, where their breath is trapped warm between their bodies, the orderly universe is coiling back on itself. Natan closes Ianto's hand up in his fist to still the words. When he pulls Ianto to him, presses his cheek to the top of Ianto's head and holds him more tightly than is comfortable for either of them, Ianto shudders silently and twists the front of Natan's shirt in his fists. When Ianto lifts his face to Natan's, finds his mouth and explores it with the same deft familiarity he uses to dismantle a gun, he tastes like tears. In a voice that is not much more than a breath, he repeats, "I tried, I tried, I tried" and Natan swallows the words for safekeeping.
Natan graduates. Ianto does not.
Natan goes "into the field." Ianto remains in the Hub with the rest of the techs. His clearance level is low.
Each time Natan returns, Ianto is there, a still point in the eye of the Flux.
"In the field" Natan follows orders, rides the waves of change, while in the Hub at the centre of the station Ianto observes the effects of the remaking, collating data, moving things—lives, worlds—from one column to another.
Each time Natan returns to the station, he's trailing another ghost. This isn't unusual for Time Agents; their memories are graveyards populated by those unmade by their interventions. Natan holds them very close. His only defence against the ephemeral nature of history is to love those he meets completely, openly, and with a generous compassion while he can, and to remember them as they were before they became the ghosts of his uncreation. He understands now that Ianto's mind isn't slippery because of his time spent in proximity to the Rift, but because he is a lone survivor. In spite of all their efforts, Department Q can't remake him. His is the stillness of a museum, or a crypt; he is an urn for ashes, inscribed with the names of the remembered dead he fears may well have been lost to the Flux before they ever existed. Natan holds him very close, too, and taps into his hand, I know. I know.
In spite of all the evidence, Ianto cannot believe that the past is not fixed. It is, for him. Sometimes, as the universe becomes more and more liquid, a river he can never step into twice, Natan envies him with a bright, hot pain under his ribs, and he clings to that stillness, devours that certainty even though it leaves behind a bitter taste like funeral wine. And yet, the more he knows, the less he wants to know about Jack Harkness, the person he was, and will be, whose existence mocks Natan's own equally stubborn commitment to the notion of free will. Trapped between the unstable and the inevitable, he closes his fist against Ianto's words.
"It's obscene," Ianto says aloud. There's no word for that in the childish lexicon of Jervice code. He pries Natan's fingers open and thumps, Jack. I remember, assertively into Natan's palm. "I remember them all," he insists in a furious whisper.
"Quiet!" Natan hisses with a significant flick of his gaze to the camera. They've pushed the limit. It's only a matter of time before there's a disappearing without a return.
I loved them. "I loved them."
Shoving him back against the wall, Natan silences him with a kiss, harsh and then more tender as Ianto's fingers repeat more and more slowly against the back of Natan's neck, I loved them.
When the day finally comes, as he knew it would, Natan paces deliberately through the station, his body stiffening more and more as he passes through each successive room. He has to think carefully about each movement and facial expression, to keep his shoulders slouching casually, his grin lopsided and charming.
At her station in the Hub, Pimm is chewing the end of her stylus. Behind her, the monitors are blank to his eyes; Natan doesn't have security clearance, so his brain won't process the feed. He waits for her to look up, and the drumming of his fingers on her worktop seems random and meaningless.
Where, where, where
Finally, the savaged stylus strikes back with an arcing shock and she swears and bolts upright in her chair. Glaring at Natan like it's his fault, she says, "Shole. What?"
Natan's amazed his voice sounds so calm. "Where's Ianto?"
Pimm narrows her eyes at him. "Ianto who?"
Natan makes it all the way back to his ship before he doubles over, wordlessly curling around the loss and the dark, burning shame of relief.
The file is thin, just a few sheets of paper, a photograph clipped to the cover. "Not exactly compendious," he says, tapping his pen on the top page, a performance assessment. Positive. No complaints.
"I'm sorry for that, sir. The archives were damaged in the battle. A lot of information was lost."
"And your immediate supervisor?"
"Of course." Jack lets the moment of silence stretch on. In memoriam. Across the desk, the candidate waits patiently inside the sharp, perfect lines of his dark suit. His face is not-quite-placid-not-quite-stern, but nevertheless, he looks like he might tear along the seams. After throwing his pen down on the desk and watching it roll off the edge, Jack says, "Leave it," and leans back to lace his fingers behind his head. He stares up at the exposed pipes in the ceiling and listens to the distorted echoes of power tools and voices ricocheting up from the vaults. They'll be finished retro-fitting the cells today. Then it'll be time for a complimentary dinner with the construction crew to thank them for all their good work: pizza, beer and Retcon. Jack closes his eyes. He's tired. Which, given that he could now survive a gunshot to the head, but can barely endure a round of interviews for office help, seems an unfair welshing on the part of the powers that be. He wants a shower. He wants to get drunk, falling-down, throwing-up drunk. He wants to be fucked. He wants to save a round of Retcon for this one across the desk. But he knows he won't.
Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, he moans, "Harkness, you are such a weak bastard." He drops his arms to the desk with a resigned thump. "So much for free will."
"Sir?" He's all polite deference, but there's amusement there, in the brightening of the eyes.
"It's the suit," Jack says, by way of explanation. "I can't resist the damn suit."
He nods. "Very well, then, I'll buy another with my first pay cheque." A faint smile that may be schmoozing, or it may be collusion. Hard to tell.
Jack grins back and pushes himself to his feet to hold out his hand. "Alright then, Mr. Jones, you're hired."
As soon as Ianto's hand touches his, Jack's vision blurs with tears.
"Is everything all right, sir?"
"Sure." Jack lets go and shrugs. "It's just that you look so young."
Notes: This is another in the series of stories written in response to these lines from Leonard Cohen.
Layer after layer of autumn leaves
are swept away
Something forgets us perfectly
--Leonard Cohen, "For E.J.P."
Five Variations on an Inspiration: Jack Harkness
Feedback welcomed at email@example.com.