Jack hadn’t been to breakfast with Louise and Sian for quite a while. He had his own domestic life now, and didn’t have time. Their invitation to renew the arrangement came on a perfect morning for it, though. Garrett was in London for a meeting at Thames House and Gray was off school because he had a dentist’s appointment later. He told his two favourite tenants to put the kettle on.
“I can’t quite believe that you’re a family man, now,” Sian said as she watched the man and boy both enjoying their cooked breakfast at the old, well-scrubbed kitchen table. “I’m pleased. It’s what you needed, Jack. A bit of stability in your life… somebody to come home to at night who’s pleased to see you.”
Sian glanced at Louise as she spoke, and the smile that passed between the couple was one Jack understood very well. He saw the same smile on Garrett’s face when they stopped and let themselves believe how lucky they were to be together.
“Jack Harkness is a dad!” Louise brought a pot of coffee from the kitchen range and poured for him. “Couldn’t happen to a better man.”
“You know, you’re going to have to stop trying to pretend he’s adopted, though,” Sian added when Gray had excused himself from the table and gone to the toilet. “He’s the image of you. Look at those eyes. It’s perfectly obvious, Jack. You had a bit of hetero fun around the end of the twentieth century that caught up with you.”
Jack’s expression was carefully inscrutable. He wondered why he had even tried to claim that the boy wasn’t his blood relative. After all, at Gray’s school they thought he was his natural parent. Garrett had arranged his new identity that way. On paper he was born as Gray Jenkins to a fictitious lady called Josephine who named Jack Harkness as the father of her child on the birth certificate and the CSA register. On the computer system, Jack had been paying child support for the past ten years to his estranged lover and on her death had been the natural and obvious primary carer of his son.
And wherever they went, people told him how alike they were. At first it had disturbed and even frightened him when old ladies in the park had commented on how much Gray took after his dad. Then he realised there was nothing to be worried about. He and Gray were bound to be alike. They had the same DNA.
He wondered sometimes what Gray would look like when he was older. He remembered his own ‘passing out parade’ at the Time Agency, when he was twenty. He’d been a good looking young man, who was never short of company, male or female. If Gray looked like that in ten years time he’d be just fine.
He wondered whether Gray would grow up with the same sexual orientation that he had. That would give the sociologists something to think about. If DNA was all that counted, then Gray ought to have the same hard-wired predilection for sex of any kind. But then he was being brought up in his formative years by two men who had the hots for each other. So would he be more likely to follow their lead and prefer men? Or should he and Garrett wait with trepidation for the day when their son came to them and confessed that he was straight and begged them to understand his personal lifestyle choice?
“Hey, daydreamer,” Sian said to him. “We’ve got something for you.”
“What?” he asked, looking around.
“We’re not entirely sure,” Louise answered as she went to a cupboard and pulled out a cardboard box. “Found it at a car boot sale in Penarth last week. Looks like some kind of Chinese puzzle thing. Only it’s really huge. And when we saw it, we both thought of you. It looked like the sort of mystery you’d get your teeth into. And… you know… we owe you a lot, Jack. You haven’t put the rent up in all the time we’ve lived here, even though inflation has gone through the roof lately and… well… it’s maybe a funny way of saying how much we appreciate you, with an old bit of tat from a junk stall… but….”
Louise put the cardboard box in front of him. Jack put down his coffee cup and opened the lid. He looked at the large rectangular object inside curiously. It did, at first glance, look like a Chinese puzzle box, but when he lifted it out of the cardboard packaging he recognised the symbols as something else.
“Oh!” He breathed deeply in his excitement. The language was called Pythrian. The ‘Chinese Box’ came from a planet on the other side of the known universe. He had come across these sorts of artefacts many times in his first career as a time agent. He had never seen one in this century, though. It must have fallen through the rift like so many other things did.
“It’s not Chinese,” he said. “Believe it or not, ladies, you picked up a genuine piece of alien objet d’art.”
“Alien?” Louise and Sian looked at each other. “You mean…”
“Extra terrestrial, made on another planet, a long way from the Sol system.” He looked at the two women. “It’s nothing to be scared of.”
“Easy for you to say, Jack,” Louise told him. “Two of my friends were killed by those cybermen things a couple of years back. I know the government told us a load of bullshit, played it all down. But everyone knows what happened. It was terrifying. And then there was that time with those insect things… and the time….”
Louise stopped in mid-sentence and looked meaningfully at Jack. Sian had taken the little white pill and forgotten the alien entity that took over her body and forced her to do things a committed lesbian shouldn’t. They didn’t have to talk about that. But the point was made.
“Not every alien is dangerous,” Jack assured her. “There’s one at least we can all be grateful for. He’s….”
Now he stopped in mid-sentence. That was too much information.
Of course, they didn’t actually KNOW what Jack did at Torchwood. They knew that was his organisation because it was written on the side of the SUV. They knew as much as any other resident of Cardiff knew about what Torchwood was, since for a secret organisation it managed to create a fair amount of gossip and speculation. That and the two times in the past that Torchwood’s kind of business had landed at their door gave them a fair idea of what Jack’s day at the office consisted of. But they never talked about it. They seemed to understand that even he needed a little bit of normality sometimes, and they offered it to him. They made breakfast and poured coffee and Sian talked about people she knew at university. Louise told him about those aspects of her own work she was allowed to discuss. They swapped experiences of being in a same sex relationship in a society that wasn’t always polite to them. They talked about Louise and Sian’s plans to do as Jack had done and adopt a child. They did anything but talk about Jack’s work.
But twice now, his world had encroached on theirs and now it seemed to have done so for a third time.
This time, though, it didn’t seem to be something that could hurt either of them, and he felt safe telling them the whole truth about what the artefact was.
“It’s a sort of game,” he said. “An alien game. A bit like chess, only different levels. Look, I’ll show you.”
He reached to open the top of the alien box. As he did so, several things happened at once. First, there was a knock at the front door. Gray, coming down the stairs shouted that he would get it. Louise went out to the hall to look who it was. Sian stepped closer to Jack, looking at the mysterious box. Her hand was on his shoulder as she watched.
Too late, Jack noticed that his wristlet was signalling a build up of energy. There was a low, continuous beep from it and a vibration from the box as if it was harmonising with it.
Then everything went white for several seconds.
“Jack!” Sian gripped his shoulder tightly as they both swayed dizzily and tried to focus on their surroundings. “Where are we?”
“We’re… exactly where we were,” he answered. “Except….”
He looked around at the kitchen. Some of it was familiar. There was a solid fuel stove where there had always been one. There was the big, scrubbed kitchen table. But all the modern touches that Sian and Louise brought to it were gone. Instead of their shocking pink cd player on the windowsill there was an old fashioned wooden cabinet radiogram. Instead of fitted cupboards there was a Welsh dresser with china on it. Instead of a long spice rack on the wall, bundles of dried herbs hung from the ceiling.
Jack looked at the window and noted that it was criss crossed with tape – the precaution adopted during the Blitz to prevent window glass shattering with explosive force in the blast wave of bombs falling outside.
He knew the kitchen when it looked like this. He had been here before. The sight of it tugged at his heart strings nostalgically even as it filled him with dismay.
“Jack… what’s happened?” Sian repeated.
“The Chinese box,” he said. “It… was booby trapped. There was a temporal dislocation field within it. When I touched it, the wristlet reacted… it triggered something… And… we’ve been pulled back in time. We’re still in your home. But… before it was yours… during the war, I think…”
Sian bit her lip. It was that or burst into tears. Jack reached out and hugged her. His explanation had been quite blasé. He was used to time travel. She wasn’t. She was scared.
“It’s all right,” he told her in a soft, reassuring tone. “I’ll make it right. I promise.”
“How?” she asked. “Jack… I…”
The kitchen door opened. Jack saw out of the corner of his eye the woman standing there with a poker raised in her hand. She recognised him at the same time he recognised her. She lowered the poker. But her expression was somewhere between angry and deeply hurt.
Jack knew why.
“Estelle,” he said, his own expression changing rapidly as he looked at the young woman he had fallen in love with in the early years of World War II. “I’m… I’m sorry to… to….”
He let go of Sian and took two steps towards her. She looked as beautiful as he remembered. Her dark hair was tied back in a practical pony tail and she wore no make up of any sort, which served to make her look even younger than she was. But in his eyes she was always beautiful. He still thought so when he met her again in the mid 1990s, when she was an old woman. He had never stopped loving her.
“Jack…” She put the poker down altogether. He was glad of that, since she had witnessed him in her own kitchen hugging another woman. He realised that was the reason why her reaction to him was so cool.
“Estelle…” He managed to say again. “Estelle… there is an explanation for all this. Really, there is. Would… you mind if I told you it over a cup of tea. We… my friend and I… have had a bit of a shock. And I think she could do with sitting down.”
Estelle was still puzzled, but her gentle, considerate nature surfaced and she invited Jack and Sian to sit at the table while she boiled the kettle on the range and found a block of home made cake that she cut into wedges. Sian accepted the tea, but she was unsure about the cake.
“Go on,” Estelle said to her. “It’s fresh made yesterday. I did a bake for the party this afternoon.”
“What party?” Sian asked.
“The V.E. Day party,” Estelle answered. “The war is over… in Europe at least. Didn’t you hear? Where have you both been?” She looked at Sian’s clothes, a woollen tank top and jeans, and she looked at Jack. His clothes were exactly the same as they always were, grey twills, RAF blue shirt, braces and belt. He wasn’t wearing his officer’s coat. He had taken that off while he ate breakfast. Probably just as well, he thought. It had some stuff in the pockets that didn’t belong in this era, including a picture of his family - Garrett, Gray and himself.
He tried not to grieve over either of them. He didn’t know what the situation was, yet. For the moment, he was just having a cup of tea and a piece of cake with two women he was fond of.
It was a respite. Soon he would have to face the fact that they were in real trouble.
He swallowed the tea and then bit the bullet.
“Estelle,” he began. “First of all… I want you to know that Sian is a friend, nothing more. She was scared and I was comforting her. We were both pretty shocked to find ourselves here.”
“Jack,” Estelle answered. “You don’t have to explain anything to me. We… our hopes were never meant to be… the war… I understand….”
“No, sweetheart, you don’t. We’re not… exactly… I’m not who you think I am. I mean… I am your Jack. I remember so well… all that we were. I loved you so much, Estelle. I really did. I still do. But this is nothing to do with the war. The war… was over long ago for us. Estelle… we’ve travelled in time, from the future.”
Estelle Cole’s face went through a dozen emotions at once as she tried to take in what he was saying.
“How far in the future?” she asked, again glancing at Sian’s clothes.
“If this is 1945, then nearly sixty five years.” He saw her eyes widening and the question on her lips. “Estelle… when we were together… we made a promise… to love each other till we died. But I didn’t tell you I couldn’t keep that promise because I can’t die. I am immortal. Sixty-five years from now, I still look like you remember. Sweetheart, please don’t be scared. I want you to know the truth.”
“I’ve always believed everything you said, Jack,” Estelle told him. “I believed the letters when you said you’d be coming home to me. Before those letters stopped coming. I thought you’d died.”
“It just got harder,” Jack said. “To keep my promise to you. I knew I’d have to have this conversation with you one day, and it would be hard. I thought it would be easier to be lost in the war. I’m still there, of course. Won’t be demobbed for about six months. There’s still the war in the Far East to deal with. Your Jack… the airman who you loved in uniform… and out of it.”
“Oh, Jack, don’t. Not in front of a stranger,” she said with a blush. “You mean there are two of you in this time, now?”
“Yes. And yes, that’s dangerous. So as soon as we get to Torchwood and ask them to help us get back where we came from, the better. But… But Estelle… it’s good to see you, it really is… and… it’s almost worth it for that.”
“Easy for you to say, Jack,” Sian interrupted. “I don’t belong here. This isn’t my home in this time.”
“Your home?” Estelle put two and two together far too quickly for comfort. “In sixty-five years I don’t live here?”
Jack said nothing. He didn’t have to.
“I’m dead, aren’t I? I… left the house to you. And… you live here… with…”
“No,” Jack assured her. “I told you Sian is a friend. She and her partner live here. I’m their landlord…. And friend. But just that. Honestly. That’s the truth.”
“And I want to go home,” Sian added. “My home… not… not here… I’m… scared…”
She started to cry. She had held back valiantly, but now the half eaten piece of cake fell from her hands onto the plate before her and she cried openly. Jack shifted in his seat to go to her, but Estelle pressed him back. She moved her chair over to Sian’s side and took her hand gently.
“I trust Jack,” she said. “If he says he’ll get you home, then he will. He’s a good man. He’ll take care of you.”
“I know he will,” Sian admitted through her tears. “But… it just seems so…” She looked around at the room, and especially at the windows with the tape and blackout curtains. “The war is over? There won’t be any bombs…”
“It’s over,” Jack assured her. “You’re safe here, for now at least. Estelle… the best thing for me to do right now is call my people… Torchwood…. They’ll know what to do. You have a phone?”
“It’s in the hall, where it always was.”
He stood and went to do that. Estelle made a fresh pot of tea. It was ready when Jack returned from the hall, biting his lip anxiously.
“I can’t get through to them,” he said. “Nobody’s there. The girl on the exchange said most offices are shut for the celebrations. But Torchwood wouldn’t shut… Surely they wouldn’t.”
“Why not?” Sian asked. “The end of the war must be good for them, too. Perhaps they’re having a party?”
“She could be right, Jack,” Estelle assured him. “You said it yourself. You’re still in the Far East on this day…. The other you… the one who belongs in this time… so you wouldn’t know. The news, when it came, it was the biggest moment ever. We all felt so relieved. As if a huge weight had been lifted. It was wonderful. And the feeling is still with us, yet. That’s why…” She nodded towards the window. Outside, there was a lot of noise. They had all been so caught up in their own problems that they hadn’t even realised it was happening. Jack looked out of the window and saw the preparations for a street party. Tables were being set up, cloths spread, food brought out. A man with one leg was actually shimmying up a lamppost to fix coloured bunting.
Estelle came to his side. She put a hand on his shoulder. He placed his over hers.
“Your people… this Torchwood… are probably shut for today. Why wouldn’t they be? There’s nothing you can do until tomorrow. Come to the party, both of you. Tonight I can put you up. There’s a guest bedroom Sian can sleep in and there’s a huge sofa… unless you’d like to…”
She blushed as he turned and looked at her. Estelle had not been the sort of girl who slept with men in uniform for the kicks. She hadn’t even let him touch her intimately for several dates. When she finally did let him into her bed it was because she was in love with him. She still loved him. But actually asking him to sleep with her was too much for her.
Sian came to the window, too. She looked out curiously at the preparations.
“I’ve seen pictures… of this street… the party…”
“I’ll find you a nice dress to wear,” Estelle offered. “Jack, make yourself useful. Put the cakes onto a tray and bring them out.”
Jack grinned at the way Estelle had taken charge of them both and went to do her bidding. He was outside in the street when the two women returned to him, looking like sisters in neat calf length dresses and hair and make up done in the fashion of the time. It occurred to him that having two beautiful women at his side for the day wasn’t the worst way to occupy his time.
Then he thought of Garrett and Gray and his heart lurched. He thought of Gray, and Louise, both of them wondering where they’d gone. Gray would be hysterical. Just when he was starting to take his new life for granted, it was all torn apart again. And Louise would be devastated. She was devoted to Sian.
They didn’t deserve this. Torchwood had better have some answers. Those damned experiments they did with time tunnels or something like that. They had to get them back home tomorrow.
But for today, he smiled as Estelle brought him a glass of home made lemonade and tried not to notice that there wasn’t enough sugar or lemons in it.
“It’s not the only home made beverage going around,” she told him. “If you want a man’s drink Morgan at number 15 is giving out the fruits of his gin plant.”
“I think I’ll stick with the lemonade,” Jack replied with a grimace. He set the glass aside anyway as somebody brought out a gramophone and wound it up. He drew Estelle into his arms and danced with her. That was how they had fallen in love in the first place – dancing. It was pleasant to hold her now and remember those feelings. He had loved many before and since her. He loved Garrett desperately now. But he could also remember how he felt about her. His grief at being parted from his new lover was tempered by the sweetness of this old and never forgotten affair.
He danced with Sian, too. She actually laughed as she got her feet mixed up in the unfamiliar dance styles and nearly tumbled them both into the lemonade stand. She was coping with her situation, for now. His promise that it was temporary was buoying her up. She could treat it as a holiday from reality.
If he couldn’t keep that promise it might be another story.
Sian danced with other men, too. She seemed to be enjoying it. Jack danced with a lot of the young women. A lot of the time he danced with Estelle, though. It felt good to do that. When they weren’t dancing, they sat together drinking the lemonade that tasted slightly better once the initial shock wore off.
“Jack…” she said as the afternoon wore on into evening and the party atmosphere continued. “Come… to bed with me.”
“It’s only half past eight,” he answered. “Isn’t it a bit…”
“It never used to matter,” she told him. “Remember that Sunday afternoon when we…”
“I remember,” Jack replied. “Is that what you want?”
“I can’t keep you. Tomorrow, you’re going to try to get back to your own time. And I don’t know if I will ever see you… the other you… again….” She looked at him closely, searching for some clue to the future she hadn’t yet lived. He didn’t give anything away. “Please, Jack?”
He looked around. Sian was sitting with some of the women of the street. They seemed to be chatting amiably. She was all right.
He nodded and took hold of Estelle’s hand. They turned towards the house. Nobody noticed them go. As they mounted the stairs, Estelle was trembling a little. Jack was doing his best not to. He actually felt nearly as nervous as she was. It was getting on for two years or more since he last had sex with a woman. He was so stuck on Garrett that his claim to be omnisexual, to say nothing of free and easy, had given way to monogamy. He was happy and in love and he had no need to sleep around.
But he was in love with Estelle, too, and it came back to him as he slid into bed beside her and reached to kiss and caress her. He remembered all the reasons why he loved her. He remembered he had never really stopped loving her. And for a pleasant hour as the sun went down on the first day of peace in Cardiff for five long years, he enjoyed renewing the physical love they had enjoyed.
Afterwards, they lay together, warm and comfortable, listening to the sounds of the celebrations continuing after dark. There were less children’s voices now and some of the adults sounded a little worse for drink, both male and female, but everything was good natured and cheerful, as well it should be.
“In the future… where you come from…” Estelle said, breaking the silence between them. “I’m dead? I suppose… I must have been old?”
“Do you really want to talk about that?” Jack asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “Jack… we did lose touch, didn’t we? We never were together as we wanted to be?”
“It was my fault,” he said. “Not yours. I could have come back after the war. But I knew one day I would have to leave you again. When you realised that I wasn’t getting older… I thought it best if I made a clean break. It hurt to do that. It really did. But it seemed best. I am sorry…”
And he was. He had kept a distant eye on her over the years. And when she was starting to look old and frail and he worried about her, that was when he had introduced himself to her, saying he was the son of the man she knew in the war. He had kept close to her after that, but not close enough. Her death was not a natural one. And he blamed himself for not taking better care of her.
“I forgive you, Jack,” she told him.
“I don’t deserve to be.”
“Nevertheless, you ARE forgiven, Jack, darling.” She reached to kiss him again. He reciprocated happily.
“You’re not alone in that future time are you?” she asked. “I hope not. I don’t expect you to grieve over me forever. I understand that Sian isn’t your sweetheart. But is there anyone else?”
“I….” That was a difficult question to answer.
“I won’t be jealous,” she assured him. “Is she pretty?”
“Not a woman,” Jack said, deciding that honesty was the only way he could go right now. “I… live with another man… I love him very much. And we have an adopted son. We’re happy together. That’s why I want to get back. They need me. They’ll be devastated if I just vanish. Both of them.”
“Another man?” He felt Estelle draw back from him. She studied his face carefully in the soft light of the bedside lamp. She reached out and touched his cheek gently. “How… I mean… I don’t understand… How can two men….”
“I love him,” Jack said. “Love isn’t about gender. It’s about… wanting to be with somebody every moment of their life. And I made too many mistakes with people I wanted to be with. This time I grasped it with both hands.”
“But… do you mean… you sleep with a man… you… I mean…” He felt her touch his torso, her hand moving down across his stomach, and lower. “But you don’t mean… I mean, men can’t…”
“Yes, they can,” he insisted.
She asked the question in all innocence. He knew he had been her first lover. And he doubted if there had been anyone else. She wasn’t that sort of girl. And she had never imagined, in her whole life, that what he was telling her was possible.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jack answered. “It doesn’t matter. But I do love him very much. And that’s why I have to find a way to get back. It would be nice to stay here… with you… to be like this every night. But I can’t.”
“I do understand,” she assured him. “Oh, Jack… I…”
Whatever she meant to say went unsaid. A scream from downstairs and a loud crash drove away all other thoughts. Jack leapt from the bed, grabbing his trousers and pulling them on as he ran out of the door. Estelle pulled on her nightdress and followed slowly.
When she reached the kitchen, Sian was standing by the big table, sobbing hysterically. Her borrowed dress was torn and there was a bruise on her cheek as if somebody had hit her.
There was a knife in her hand. A breadknife that had been on the table from when Estelle cut up cake earlier.
There was blood on it.
Jack looked down and saw a man lying deathly still on the floor. Blood was pooling from a wound in his stomach.
He guessed what had happened. Sian had come back into the house. He had followed her with the obvious intention. She had fought him off.
Estelle stepped forward and gently took the knife from her hand before hugging her comfortingly. Jack checked the body. He was dead.
“Do you know who he is?” he asked Estelle.
“Rhodri Hannigan,” she answered. “He’s… He’s a bad lot. Only out of prison a few weeks for grievous bodily harm to an ARP warden. He…. Oh, Jack! What are we going to do?”
“You’re not going to do anything,” he answered. “Take Sian up to her room and… give her a sedative if you have anything in the house. One of your calming herbal teas, at least. Try to get her to sleep. I’ll deal with him… Both of you forget this ever happened. I’m going to take care of it.”
“Jack!” Sian looked at him and shuddered.
“It never happened,” he repeated. “Go on, Sian. Let Estelle look after you.”
Sian was too shocked to argue. She walked, prompted gently by Estelle, out of the kitchen and up the stairs. He listened to their footsteps before he turned and looked at the body again. Still dead, unsurprisingly, and not getting any prettier. Jack went to the back garden. It was a clear night. The stars were bright above. There were, he noted, no street lights, still. The war was over. There was no need for blackout, and a lot of windows showed lights for the first time in half a decade, but nobody seemed to have thought about lighting the streets. That was good for him.
He went back upstairs and got dressed first. He looked into the guest room. Sian was crying softly, but with that mentally exhausted cadence that suggested she would sleep very soon. Estelle’s herbal tea would help. Jack often suspected that some of the herbs should be on a banned substances list. And right now, that was a good thing.
He picked up the dress Sian had discarded and brought it with him downstairs. He pulled the blackout curtain from the kitchen window. It wasn’t needed any more. He wrapped the body in it and bound it tightly with string. The fabric was thick, though not waterproof. That wouldn’t matter if he moved fast. He lifted the load and slipped out into the pitch dark garden and out through the back fence to the alleyway. There was still a fair amount of noise on the main streets, but these back ways were quiet. He wound his way, keeping to the shadows, taking care as he crossed intersections, until he reached the canal. He unrolled the body from the curtain and dropped it into the water. He walked a good long mile or more downstream and then dropped the blackout curtain into the water as well. That sank slowly. It was just possible that the police, when they pulled out the body, might search the canal and find the curtain. They might keep on going another mile and find the knife, too, and another to where he dumped the torn dress with splashes of blood on it. They might even put all four things together. But the forensic techniques of this era would be unlikely to find anything that would come back upon Estelle.
He walked back to the house. He felt tired by the time he got there, but he wasn’t done yet. He spent two solid hours making sure that every trace of blood was gone from the kitchen floor, then another removing every trace of it from himself. Of course, a Luminol test by a twenty first century crime scene officer would prove without a doubt that somebody had bled over the floor and that Jack had washed his blood off his hands. But again, for this era, he had done a good enough job of covering it up.
He went upstairs. Estelle was still sitting by Sian’s side.
“She’s asleep,” she said as he entered the room. Jack sat in an armchair by the window. The street was quieter now. A few revellers stumbled home. But there was no hue and cry for the dead man. Even if he was found in the morning light, he might not be identified easily. It could be a while before the police made any inquiries. By then, they would be gone.
“At first light,” he said. “We’ll get on our way.”
“You’re going to Torchwood? The people you work for?”
“They’ll take care of you both?”
“They won’t like it,” he said. “But I’ll make them take responsibility for us. They’ll find a way to get us back where we belong. I’m sorry that it happened this way. When we’re gone… I don’t want you to worry. Put this night behind you.”
“I’ll try to do that about the bad parts,” she answered. “But I want to remember being with you, Jack. I’ll always remember that.”
“I’ll remember it, too,” he promised. “Every wonderful moment.”
Estelle came and sat on his knee. He put his arms around her as she rested her head on his shoulder. They didn’t talk very much after that. Everything seemed to have been said already. But they treasured each other’s nearness through the dark hours until the dawn broke. Jack went to the kitchen and made a pot of tea and a round of toast. He brought it to the room. Estelle had woken Sian up and they made her eat and drink with them. Then Sian put on her twenty-first century clothes and an old coat of Estelle’s over it and all three of them left the house together. Jack wanted Estelle to stay behind, but she insisted on coming with them. Torchwood would just have to accept it, she told him.
The entrance to the Hub was slightly different in this time. It was at the back of a fish and chip shop that stood in the same place the tourist office stood later. There was a garage entrance, too, but the pavement lift hadn’t been installed yet.
There was a man sweeping the floor in the chip shop. Jack smiled with relief. It was Mattie Thomas. He kept the shop as a front for the work going on below. He must have actually turned a good profit last night. It looked as if he had only just stopped serving in the past hour.
“Let me in, would you, Mattie,” Jack said. “I need to talk to the boss. Is she in?”
Mattie squinted at him for several seconds before recognising his face.
“Captain!” he enthused. “When did you get home?”
“Just this minute when I stepped over the threshold,” he answered. “Good to see you, old man. But….”
“Aye!” Mattie reached for a switch beside the fryer and the concealed door opened. Jack guided the two women down to the Hub Central. He smiled faintly as he looked around it. It was too early in the day for the sound of manual typewriters to echo around the place. Instead it was his own footsteps that echoed as he walked along the gallery above the secretarial pool.
“Jack Harkness!” A strong female voice with a Welsh accent toned down by an English education called out his name. He looked towards what would one day be his own office and recognised Mrs Gladys Powell. She was a severe looking woman, but a lot less cruel than some of the other women who had been directors of Torchwood over the years. He still had nightmares about Emily Holroyd, the late Victorian dominatrix who first recruited him.
“I need to talk to you, Gladys,” he said. “It’s complicated.”
“It always is with you,” she replied. “I hope you haven’t impregnated either of those two.”
Sian and Estelle looked at each other. Both of them blushed at such a blatant comment. Jack shrugged it off as his boss held the office door open.
He told the story quickly and without frills. Gladys raised her eyebrows at his description of the box that flung them back in time. When he reached the part about covering up the death of Rhodri Hannigan she frowned and asked if he was sure he had done enough to cover up what happened.
“I think so,” he answered. “It wasn’t exactly a Torchwood operation, but I covered my tracks.”
“I don’t like it,” she said. “But what’s done is done. What do you want Torchwood to do now?”
“Get us back to our own time. Sian has a life there. So do I. We don’t belong here. She is a law student. What chance does she have of pursuing a career in law in this time? And I can’t stay here. The me that belongs here will be back in another six months, and then we’ll have a paradox.”
“You’re from 2010?” Gladys looked at him steadily as if wondering whether to believe that part of his story. “A couple of years ago… at the start of the war… we did an experiment… there was a young man who came to us from the future…”
“Ianto Jones!” Jack exclaimed. “Yes. I let him try the experiment.”
“He took a big risk trying to go back. Did he…”
“Yes! Yes. He made it. We got him back. He’s fine.”
“I’m glad to hear it. He was a very nice young man. I was glad to have met him. But… you… We have a partial solution to your problem. You’re not going to like it, Jack.”
“What solution?” he asked warily.
Gladys explained. Jack didn’t like it. Neither did Sian.
“You… want to freeze me… and wake me up in the right year?” Her face already looked pretty frozen when she said that. Jack gently explained the idea of cryogenic freezing then turned to look at Gladys.
“I thought we didn’t have space. That was why Ianto had to risk the time tunnels.”
“That was why we worked on the problem. We’ve got one new cryo-unit. It’s in basement level 24. It’s been tested, but not on a Human subject. The… creature… we tried it on seems to have suffered no lasting harm…. It’s still a savage menace.”
“You used a Weevil as a guinea pig?” Jack was slightly disgusted by that idea, but he couldn’t do anything about it. “Anyway, only one unit… What do I do?”
“You… disappear… stay out of the way until the right time. Your… unique biology…”
Jack sighed. His heart rebelled against the idea. He wanted to be with Garrett and Gray. He wouldn’t have minded being in cryo-store for the next half a century. It was just like having a long nap. When he woke up, it would be ok. But Gladys was telling him he had to find a way to live through those decades until it was time to pick up his life.
“There’s no other way?” he asked. “A time tunnel… some bloody artefact in the archive that would fling me forward in time? Can’t you… The Doctor… send a message out to him. He’ll come and get me.”
“The Doctor?” Gladys frowned. “If he turns up here there’s a special cell in the vault reserved for him while we find out what makes him tick. I don’t understand your obsession with him. Or why you think he would help you?”
“Because he made me,” Jack murmured. But Gladys wasn’t listening. She was calling downstairs to arrange for the cryo-unit on Level 24 to be made ready.
“It can be done in an hour,” she said to Sian. “In the meantime, I’ll get you something to eat and drink. A protein rich meal before cryo-freeze helps smooth the way when you wake.
Jack was about to say something about that. Then he realised what Gladys planned. And he realised it was probably for the best. If Sian was able to forget what happened last night, forget that she killed a man who wanted to rape her, forget that anything happened at all, then it was for the best.
Gladys arranged for them all to eat in the boardroom. By the time they had finished, Sian was getting drowsy. The 1940s version of RetCon had a very fast acting sedative in it. Jack was almost carrying her by the time they got to Level 24.
“This room was sealed while I was away,” he noted as he watched an operative fix a time lock to the door. “Just another of Torchwood’s little mysteries. It will start to unlock on the appointed day?”
“And she’ll be ok?”
“You know as well as I do that there is always a calculated risk… hearts can stop with the shock. We have no idea if there is any long term risk of brain deterioration. It’s the only way to get her back where she belongs, which is what you and her both want.”
Jack followed Gladys back to the boardroom. He was alarmed to see that Estelle was slumped over the table. Granted she had been up all night, but there was something not right about it.
“You RetConned her, too!” he yelled accusingly.
“I’m arranging for her to be taken to St. Helen’s hospital. She will be told she passed out during the party yesterday evening and was taken in for observation. Her memory will be wiped of yesterday. We’re going to make sure any photographs taken of the activities in her street don’t include you and her. If her neighbours mention that she was with a man, she won’t recall who he is. They’ll put it down to bad home made gin. And in the unlikely event of questions relating to the dead man, she has an alibi.”
“She won’t remember that we…” Jack sighed. Gladys was right. It was better if Estelle didn’t remember their reunion, or any of the things he had told her about the future. When he made contact with her again, he WOULD be the son of the man she loved.
He kissed her gently and then let his Torchwood colleagues take charge of her. He followed Gladys again, down to another room in the bowels of the Hub. He waited there for an hour. He refused all offers of food or drink. He doubted they were going to Retcon him, but on the offchance….
Finally, two men came into the room. One was carrying a soldier’s kitbag and a sheaf of papers. The other brought something that qualified as alien tech, but Jack didn’t want to know what it did just now.
“These are the personal possessions of Sergeant James Holden of Byron, Illinois,” said the man handing the kit bag to Jack. “He won’t be needing them any more.”
“Why?” Jack asked, though he could guess.
“Sergeant Holden has been a patient in St. Helen’s for the past eight weeks, suffering from severe burns…. Wounded in battle. There’s a detailed medical report here. He was released from hospital yesterday and was supposed to be repatriated back to the USA on a ship leaving Cardiff docks tonight. But he killed himself. A note said he couldn’t live with his scars.”
Jack looked at Sergeant Holden’s military ID. The man in the picture was about his own height, weight, facial structure. He looked at a photo taken recently after some preliminary plastic surgery. Jack shuddered. The poor bastard. No wonder he preferred not to live.
He glanced at the machine the other man was setting up.
“Oh, shit!” he exclaimed.
“This… will be a little painful,” he was told. “It is necessary.”
They lied. It wasn’t just a little painful. It was a lot painful. If they’d left out the alien technology and just used a blowtorch on one side of his face it couldn’t have been any more painful. He did his best not to scream.
Afterwards he put on the uniform of an American army sergeant and accepted the offer of a lift to the quayside. For the next few hours he wasn’t in control of his life. He was a name on a checklist as the process of getting several hundred medically discharged men onto a troop ship bound for the other side of the Atlantic continued. His facial disfigurement meant that even the nurse who checked his medical records didn’t look directly at him very often. Few of the other soldiers did. The officers seemed glad to pass him on down the line. He wondered how much of that the real Sergeant Holden had taken before he made his terrible decision. Even the padre who came around offering biblical pamphlets to those who wanted them couldn’t look him in the eye for long.
He wondered if Sergeant Holden had a wife or girlfriend in Byron, Illinois? Had she seen a recent picture of him?
On board the ship, finally, he wearily stretched himself on the bunk he was assigned to and tried to find a way to sleep that didn’t hurt. His face felt like raw meat still. He had been assured it would be all right in a day or two. He didn’t believe it.
He was in a berth with five other men. One of them had both legs amputated. Another lost an arm. Two had one leg missing. The other was a burn victim like himself. He heard one of them crying, and a quiet, gentle voice from another encouraging him to bear himself up and try to sleep a bit.
Jack didn’t cry. But he felt like it as the ship set sail. He was going away from Cardiff, away from Estelle, away from Sian, away from where Garrett and Gray were, even if they were still in the future. He felt doubly estranged from them. He missed them both bitterly.
“Stop that,” he told himself. “You’ll end up like the poor bastard whose name you’ve been given.”
The ship crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of ships with the same Human cargo and corvettes running interference once they were in range of the Japanese Navy. Jack used the time to get to know James Holden. There was no reason why he needed to. The plan was to disappear somewhere in America once he was officially discharged from service. James Holden would never be heard of again. Jack Harkness would find a way to make a living and get through the long years ahead of him.
But he read the sheaf of letters from Mary-Anne Holden in Byron, Illinois, who talked longingly of when her boy would be coming home. She reminded him that there was plenty of work to be done at the store, and how her eyesight was failing so fast she really needed him there to help out.
He read the Dear John letter from Sue Grainger, who had been James’s girlfriend before the war began. She explained how she was sorry, but it had been so long since he was home, and she had the chance of a job in Minnesota, and it was probably best, since neither of them knew how they would really feel about each other….
Bitch, Jack thought. She wrote that letter to James while he was in hospital with his face hanging off his skull. Good riddance to her. He wondered what she might say if she knew her letter had been a contributing factor in his suicide. Would she be sorry?
He decided he didn’t care. Besides, James Holden wasn’t officially dead. She would never know what she had done.
And it was then that Jack knew what he was going to do when he got to America.
The ship docked in New York. The casualties of war disembarked, on their own two feet if they had them, on crutches, on stretchers, the blind led by the crippled. They were taken to a reception centre, fed, examined by medical officers, and sent along one by one to an office where they were paid whatever was owed to them, honourably discharged and given a travel pass to wherever they planned to go.
Jack’s train ticket took him to Byron, Illinois. He walked down the high street, aware that there was a roughly fifty-fifty split between those who stared at his mutilated face and those who quickly looked away. He hadn’t decided yet which he disliked most.
He looked up at the sign over the General Store, noting the name of the proprietor, and stepped inside.
Nobody noticed him at first. The store was busy. The lady behind the counter was doing her best to fill the orders. Jack looked at her, and then glanced around the store.
Then he moved fast, grabbing the arm of a skinny young man in a shabby coat.
“There are good men bleeding and dying still, fighting for the freedom of all right-thinking people of the world,” he said in a hard tone. “And little shits like you have nothing better to do than steal from a blind old woman?”
A silence came over the store as all other conversations stopped. Two men stepped closer. One of them identified the shoplifter as a good for nothing wastrel called Billy Doolan and told him in no uncertain terms to get out of the store and stay out. Billy Doolan ran as if his life depended on it. As the doorbell clang marked his exit a question hung in the air.
“Who are you?” somebody asked.
“And I thought I was the blind one,” said the voice of Mary-Anne Holden before he had a chance to answer. “Don’t you know my own boy, come back from the war… my hero.” She came out from behind the counter and approached him. He was head and shoulders taller than her, a tiny, slightly built woman who could have been blown away in the wind. But she embraced him so tightly breathing could have become a problem. Then she turned and addressed the staring crowds.
“Go on, away with you. I’m shutting up shop early today. Go on. Out with you.”
The customers scattered, gossiping among themselves about these new developments. Mrs Holden closed the door and locked it. She turned out the light in the shop and then took him by the hand out through the back door and up a flight of steps to the living quarters above. Jack found himself sitting at a fireside in a comfortable chair while Mrs Holden plied him with food and drink and talked about how glad she was that he was home.
When she finally sat down next to him, though, her tone was more sombre. Jack tried not to flinch as she reached out and touched his face.
“My poor boy,” she said. “They hurt you really badly.”
“It’s not so bad now, mom,” he answered. “I’m not in any pain. I’m… I’m glad to be home. I really am. I’ve got plenty of money. The army paid me all the time I was in hospital. And there’s a bonus on discharge. You can afford to take on somebody to mind that counter and stop any more thieving types like Billy Doolan. And you can take it easy. I’ll help out, too. We’ll be fine, mom.”
It was a long time since he had used that word. Far longer than anyone could guess. It came to him naturally, even so. And it didn’t feel wrong, deceiving her. Finding out that her son slit his own throat in a hotel room in Cardiff would be worse. She had accepted him as James. For a little while, at least, Jack Harkness was the dead man. James Holden had a life to slip back into.
“Son,” she added, her tone even more sombre. “I think you ought to know… Sue… She got married last week in St. Paul.”
“It’s all right, mom,” Jack answered, speaking as he hoped James would have been able to speak by now, if he had let the bitterness pass and mended his broken heart. “It was over between me and her long before. The war… it changes things. It changes people. We’re all different now…”
“You’re not, my boy,” Mary-Anne said. “You’re as good hearted as you ever were. We’ll say no more about her.”
And it was as easy as that. The next day, when the general store opened, Mary Anne’s war hero son was working there, stacking shelves, lifting boxes, filling orders. The customers were divided between those who stared at him and those who looked away. Mary-Anne lost no opportunity to tell them all that she was pleased to have her boy home and showed each and every one of them the shiny bravery medal he had been awarded along with his discharge pay. Jack had given it to her. It didn’t belong to him, after all, and it meant far more to her than anything like that ever meant to him. He rather thought James would have felt the same way.
Most of that first week he didn’t go out much. Nobody expected him to. On Sunday, his mother put out a good, carefully pressed suit of clothes and expected him to come with her to chapel. He did so. The minister shook his hand at the door, but avoided looking him in the eye.
Later that second week, after the shop was shut in the evening, he walked up the high street and into O’Rourke’s Hotel. He ordered a beer and drank it at the bar. The landlord didn’t look him in the eye as he served him. Neither did the man who bought him a second beer. But he told him he was welcome home and that he had done a fine job over there fighting those Nazis. That seemed to be the general consensus. People who still couldn’t look him in the eye agreed that he was a good man and a hero and were prepared to buy him a drink. Jack accepted as many as he thought he could handle before going home to the store and assuring Mary-Anne that he wasn’t drunk and he wouldn’t have a sore head in the morning.
He slipped into James Holden’s life. He ran the store with his mother. He socialised as much as a man with half a face possibly could in a small mid-western town. He never encountered anyone who questioned that he WAS who he said he was. There was no reason to disbelieve him.
Since very few people ever looked at him closely, nobody ever noticed whether he aged or not.
In the fall of 1964, Mary-Anne Holden died in her sleep, peacefully. Jack was sorry about that. He cried a little, in private. At her funeral he bore himself up with dignity and accepted the condolences of all those who attended.
A few days later he went to see Mr Gallagher, the owner of the gas station that stood opposite Holden’s General Store. He told him his heart wasn’t in the business since his mother passed away, and asked him to make him an offer on it as a going concern.
Mr Gallagher made him an offer. It was a little lower than the business was worth, but it wasn’t unfair. Jack accepted. He put the money into a deposit account and brought the bank book with him when he left town.
In a small hotel in Indianapolis, James Holden laced a glass of water with cyanide and drank it before lying down on the bed.
An hour later, Jack sat up. The taste like bitter almonds was on his breath, but he was alive. He looked in the mirror on the dressing table. It seemed a long time since he saw his own face. He had almost become accustomed to the one that nobody in Byron, Illinois, ever learnt to look at without flinching. He threw the rest of the poisoned water down the sink in the bathroom and rinsed the glass thoroughly.
He had paid for the room upfront. He wasn’t cheating anyone when he slipped away at first light and caught another train.
He arrived in Detroit, Michigan where, at one bank, he emptied out the deposit account in the name of James Holden and in another opened an account in the name of John Hope. He then rented a couple of rooms in a clean, respectable boarding house for working men and found himself a job at the Chrysler factory. It was a dull job on the assembly line. But it paid enough for a single man to get by.
He was still working there in 1973 when the oil crisis led to a downturn in the automobile industry. He took the news that he was being laid off philosophically and counted his last wage packet. He packed his belongings in a suitcase and caught a train to New York. Again, the first thing he did when he got there was close John Hope’s bank account and open one in the name of Joseph Hart. The difference being that John Hope was getting on for forty-five whereas Joseph Hart was only thirty-four, the upper age limit for new recruits in the NYPD.
He liked being a policeman. He stuck to it for fifteen years. He grew a moustache after the first five years. It stopped people thinking he hadn’t aged. After six years more he shaved it off and friends said he looked ten years younger.
In 1988 Joseph Hart was shot and killed in the line of duty. Jack had prepared for the possibility some time before. In the event of his death, all his worldly goods were bequeathed to a man called Jude Hodge. He claimed his inheritance and moved to North Platte, Nebraska, where he got a job in the freight yard beside the Union Pacific railroad and lived quietly in a rented flat not far from his work.
The one thing James Holden, James Hope, Joseph Hart and Jude Hodge had in common was that they never formed any close attachment to anyone, male or female. James Holden never had the opportunity, living there with his elderly mother. The other three just didn’t have the inclination. Late at night, in his rented rooms, Jack Harkness thought, sometimes, about Garrett. He still remembered his face, despite the long years since he saw him. He remembered being warm in his arms. He didn’t want or need anyone else.
One day in 1998, Jude Hodge packed his bags and left town. Nobody really missed him apart from the wages clerk at the railyard, who noted that he was owed a week’s pay.
Jude Hodge became Jeremiah Hoynes. He got a trucking licence and spent the next years driving across the United States of America delivering freight goods to wherever he was asked to take them. Nearly twelve years went by, not exactly peacefully. He woke two or three times with blood on his shirt and a broken bottle or a bloody knife by his side after some roadhouse fight. He didn’t bother declaring himself dead on those occasions. He just got back in his rig and moved on.
Sometimes at night, sleeping in the bunk in the back of the cab, he cried with loneliness. But the years went by. He watched the recent history of the world he knew from a different point of view than the one he had in Cardiff.
Then in the autumn of 2010, Jeremiah booked a holiday in Britain. He landed at Heathrow and had his passport and visa stamped. He passed through customs unchallenged. He got on a train to Bristol and from there to Cardiff. As the train passed over the River Severn, Jeremiah Hoynes joined all those other lonely men with the same initials in obscurity. Jack Harkness changed in the cramped, rattling toilet into a blue shirt and a pair of grey pants held up with braces and belt like an Illinois farm boy of the 1940s. He laced the brown Timberlands tightly and combed his hair the way he always wore it, with spiky wisps over his forehead that made him look charmingly boyish – so Estelle had once told him when he visited her to make sure she was doing all right. She had smiled and remembered his ‘father’ who always had his hair in a neat parting, combed back from his face.
He hadn’t thought of Estelle for decades. It hurt just too much. He let himself think of her for a few minutes more, then he thought about Garrett and how much he longed to hold him again. He thought about Gray. Right now, the boy was asleep in his room. Garrett was on another train going to London and that meeting at Thames House. He, himself, was sitting quietly in the drawing room of their apartment, drinking coffee and waiting for the sun come up over Cardiff. There was plenty of time to put the plan into action.
The train reached Cardiff. He hailed a taxi to take him to the Plas. When he descended the pavement lift Gwen looked around in surprise.
“I thought you weren’t coming in until later?” she said to him.
“Something I have to do on Level 24,” he answered shortly. “Martha, come with me. I need you.”
“If I didn’t know you were spoken for, I’d worry about that,” Martha replied as she followed him to the turbo lift. He looked at her and smiled widely before hugging her tightly.
“Martha Jones, I have missed your smart-ass repartee! I have SO missed it. Thanks, honey. Now I know I’m home. Just so long as…”
Martha was puzzled. What did he mean by that? But he wasn’t telling her anything. He stepped out of the lift and strode along the corridor until he reached the sealed room. He checked his watch. Then he looked at the door. It creaked slightly as it unsealed and swung open.
He stepped inside and looked at the cryo-cabinet. It was secure, still. And it was working. That was his one fear in the last twenty minutes or so. What if the power had failed and her life support gone down. Would he find a freeze dried corpse?
The process took twenty minutes. Martha wasn’t needed except as an observer. Sian’s heart started up perfectly fine by itself. Jack lifted her out of the cabinet and carried her up to the boardroom. Gwen helped dress her in the clothes that were left in a hermetically sealed container beside the cabinet. When she came around, asking the inevitable question, Jack was ready to press a cup of Ianto’s premium roast coffee into her hand.
“You’re at Torchwood,” he told her. “Something rather strange happened to us both. We got pulled into a matter transmitter – a transmat – the Chinese Box had one built into it. It landed us here. You fainted. The good news is it also pulled us back in time an hour. When you’ve drunk your coffee the lovely Ianto is going to drive us back to your house and nobody will have had chance to miss us.
And that’s what happened. Jack knocked on the front door exactly at the moment he began to open the box. Gray was coming down the stairs. Louise came into the hall to open the door. He saw a flash of light from the kitchen at the same moment she gave a surprised exclamation and Gray called out his name.
“It’s ok,” he said, stepping past Louise and reaching to hold his brother. “It’s ok, Gray. I’m here. I promised I’d never leave you, and I haven’t.”
He looked around. Sian and Louise were hugging as if they had been parted for decades. Then slowly Jack stepped into the kitchen, followed by Ianto, who carried a Reisson Energy monitor. He saw the box on the table.
“Careful,” Jack warned as Ianto stepped closer, the sensor of the monitor held out like a divining rod. Jack slipped off his wristlet and gave it to Gray to hold as he took a step closer as well.
Then both exclaimed as the Reisson Energy monitor went into the critical end of the scale and a puff of white smoke burst from the box. It coalesced into an eerie face. It had no eyes, only indentations where the sockets should be, and the mouth was full of sharp teeth. It grinned a grin that could only be described as evil and then disappeared.
The Reisson Energy reading dropped to zero. Ianto approached cautiously and touched the top of the Chinese Box. It opened up as if spring loaded to reveal a set of exquisitely carved pieces for a game.
“Whatever it was,” Ianto reported. “It’s gone now. It had one trick and it’s finished. The artefact is harmless. Pretty… and harmless.”
“Ok.” Jack reached for his coat, still hanging on the back of the chair where he sat to eat his breakfast sixty-five years ago in his personal time line. He found his mobile phone and speed-dialled a preset number.
“Doctor,” he said in a surprisingly calm voice. “Thought you ought to know, just had a run in with The Trickster…. No, I’m ok. So is everyone else. The trick backfired. But it looks like some of his little games could resurface. Watch your back…. Yeah. I’ve got plenty of people to watch mine. Though any time you’re in town. Except tonight… I’m going to be busy.”
He ended the call, then turned and smiled warmly at Louise and Sian as they hovered by their own kitchen door.
“I think we could all use another pot of coffee,” he said. “Let Ianto make it and the two of you sit down here. And you, Gray. I’ll show you how this game works. It really is fascinating.”
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