cuda: Captain John Hart in a bar (Captain John Hart)
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Play It Again Jack, Part 6

Stars filled my vision, one horizon to the other. I took a deep breath and sat up, and the distant rosy glow of city lights swam into view.

Where was I?

"How'd it go, Jack?" A familiar voice murmured in my ear; one I hadn't heard in a long time. Until I knew what year it was, I wasn't about to speculate how long.

My jaw clenched. Has a tendency to do that, considering the company. "Wish I could say I was happy to see you, John." Captain John Hart sat on the ground beside me, arms wound around his knees. He hadn't changed much. Still wore the elf boots.

"I like it when you say my name like that," John's laugh was quiet, "No pretense at all."

"Where am I? And what am I doing here?"

"You mean you haven't noticed yet? It's Napa Valley!" The expansive sweep of his arm took in the dark hills around us. "The heart of American wine country in the Twenty-First Century! Very scenic. The vintages will be better in a few years, though. Climate change, and all that."

As I turned away towards the scenery, I recognized it. It was Napa Valley. In fact, a dozen yards away, a pair of letireans from Rexel IV was calmly stripping grapes from the vines with thick, bisected lips. The same pair of letireans I'd been watching when Rex called.

"Still waking up with farm animals, eh, Jack?" John chuckled.

"Still trying to drag the Brigadier Gerard look out of the Eighteenth Century?" I could see the thick bars of white braid on his jacket even in the low light.

"There is nothing wrong with building an outfit based on the Napoleonic Wars."

"You always did think small."

"Yes, well," John retorted, eyes dropping to my lap, "I had to lower my expectations somewhat, didn't I?"

I couldn't help myself. I laughed. The exchange eased the tension in the air, somewhat, "What year is this?"

"It's 2011," John replied calmly, "but you haven't answered my question. How'd it go?"

How did what go? Saving the world? The road trip from hell, the scrapbook-style theology lessons? Finding out someone's made it their life's work to stalk me, complete with statuary? Having my life force molested by a soldier of God?

I checked my watch, then realized it would be no help. I'd reset it during my road trip with the angel, and we passed through a few time zones since then. If by 'time zones' you mean 'years.' I wouldn't have been surprised if the date panel said 'TILT.'

"It had its moments," I said, not elaborating, "What do you want, John? I'm not even going to ask how you found me."

"Maybe you should," John sounded patently hurt, "considering how you told me to meet you here," he peeled back the cover on his wrist strap, "I've been watching this spot for the past week. At some point, couldn't you have asked the angel to be more specific on a time?"

Alarm bells went off. 'Angel' was not a casual word. Not in my universe. "Why are you here, John."

"Debriefing. Unfortunately, not the fun kind. Have a look." He passed over a worn, dog-eared blue notebook. Snapping on my torch with a disbelieving look at John, I flipped open the cover and leafed through a few pages.

"This is my handwriting," I said. And it was. Most of it. There were a few side notes in a second hand. I assumed they were John's, although I hadn't seen his penmanship in years. He wasn't the kind to leave handwritten notes any more than I was.

"Of course it is," John confirmed, "next year, you'll show up on my doorstep, looking like you've been run over. You'll tell me how everyone you love is dead. What do I know? I'll have been too busy making a killing off the space junk coming through the Gulf Rift. Or... rather, you won't show up now, will you? Now that everything's been put right."

"You're from--"

"2010, naturally," I heard John shrug, "so that all of your fussing probably wouldn't erase my memory."

"That's not possible," I said slowly. My wrist strap was good for a lot of things, but time travel was no longer one of them, and hadn't been for some time. The vortex manipulator - the part that allowed me to make relatively short jumps forward and back through time as a 51st-century Time Agent - had long ago been destroyed. And repaired. And then disabled. And repaired again and then-- you get the picture. The Doctor likes to keep me on a short leash, at least where time travel's concerned.

Long story short, I couldn't have possibly gone back in time to contact John. Not even if I would have, which, believe me, I wouldn't.

Would I?

"Can't travel because your vortex manipulator is fried?" John smiled, "It still is. You make off with my wrist strap in 2012. Hence all the future tense."

I stared at John. He tapped the open notebook on my lap.

"Oh, there's nothing about your little hardware malfunction in there," John shrugged, "But if you had a working vortex manipulator, you wouldn't have come to see me, would you? Even if the world is burning down faster than a cheap birthday candle. You've been avoiding me like a bitter ex-boyfriend." He turned toward me, light hair catching the reflection of my torch from the pages, "For the record, you didn't have to seduce me. Money would have worked just as well, although I'm sure I enjoyed it. Will enjoy it. Whatever. I can't imagine my opinion of you changes that much in two years. A bastard, but a handsome bastard. I never could say no to a little empty-eyed grief sex."

I rolled my eyes, not dignifying the remark with a reply. After a few seconds of silence, John sighed and went on.

"I expect you wouldn't have come to me at all, if your grand plan worked the first run through. You showed up in 2010 with that notebook, a bottle of Retcon and a tragic expression worthy of a sonnet. You told me what happened, and then we went to work. It's all in there; go on," he prodded, "read it."

I didn't want to read it. Moreover, I didn't want John Hart watching me read it. "Later," I said, flipping the cover closed. If he was lying to me - and pieces of me still suspected he was - I wasn't going to allow him the pleasure of seeing his little prank through to fruition.

"No. Now," John insisted, "I'm not your chore boy, Jack. I didn't come all this way just to be ordered off."

"What do you want from me?"

John pursed his lips and rolled his eyes upward - a sarcastic affectation that I'd always hated, personally. "A simple thank you, for starters? 'Future me' at least gets a fuck out of the deal. But me, I had to put up with your self-pity and your self-induced amnesia for months, you ass." His voice deepened, taking on a mocking, melodramatic superhero note, "'I have to erase my memories, John,' you said, 'or else I might be tempted to act on them. I could destroy the entire timeline.' Time Agent training bedamned, Jack. Usually you're more of a risk-taker than that. I'm disappointed."

The impression of me was all wrong, might I add. I believe I have a very pleasant tenor.

"So," John continued after a pause, gesturing to himself, "front row seats for the Jack Harkness Stiff Upper Lip while you dosed yourself with Retcon and reread that damn notebook. The last three times, I even had to watch you deal with the fact that you wouldn't allow yourself to save Ianto Jones. Because the first three times, you did everything you could, and he died anyway, one way or another. Along with everyone else."

"That's a lie. I know what happened to my team."

John ignored me. I hate being ignored, and he knew it. "The only thing that could save Eye Candy was that damn angel. Not you, not Gwen, and certainly not Ianto - he followed you right in with the 4-5-6 like loyal Old Shep, every time."

A trickle of doubt settled in. I knew how Ianto's devotion would sit with pragmatic, self-motivated John Hart. He was what I had been; what I still was in more than a few dark places. Loyalty like my team had to me was - in his mind - a liability.

He was right, of course. It was. But I wouldn't trade Ianto's loyalty away. Not even to save his life.

Sounds hard and selfish, I know.

That's because it is.

"And you had to keep the angel in the deep freeze," John kept going, "because if he got to know you all, he'd have given the Winchesters the fuck off. Well, maybe 'fuck off' is a little strong," he amended, considering my scowl, "But just like every other idiot in your lot, hell-bent on a suicide run, he'd join Torchwood and fight. It's in there," John snatched the notebook and my torch, and thumbed through it. "Ah. Yes. 'Castiel considers Torchwood the best option against the Leviathan,'" he read aloud, "'Torchwood's knowledge of extraterrestrial life and containment thereof puts us ahead of the Winchesters.' Unusually professional writing, Jack. Given some of the other things you cat on about these Winchesters, though, I can almost hear how smug you were. Me-ow."

I'm willing to let John have his way for a while, but there are limits. "Can we speed this up?"

John clicked off the torch and handed it back, along with the notebook that I was still determined not to read. "You know, it's funny? An angel - the freaking celestial messenger of Christian lore and all that - decides that you have the most to offer when it comes to saving the world. And you screwed it up!"

"Your grasp of irony is so keen."

Whether he finally detected the warning in my voice and decided to heed it, or just ran out of one-liners, John sobered. "You'd come back to me, make six pages of cryptic notes, down those amnesia pills, and we'd have to do it all over again. Some mornings I'd wake up and the news would be completely different from the day before. But I always remembered, and you kept coming back every now and then. I never knew when you were going to knock on my door. I knew you were just staggering the dates, so you wouldn't accidentally overlap yourself. But fuck, Jack, you are positively exhausting."

I watched him, searching his expression in the pre-dawn light. For once, I'd have been happier if he was lying to me. If it was true, then the worst part about it all was that I had years with Ianto taken away. I left the Time Agency because they'd stolen two years' worth of memories from me. What those years could hold still haunts me. And - if John could be believed - I'd just lost far more than two. And I knew what they contained.

I know you want to know what I was feeling. Ianto. I know. But I can't.

I just can't.

Maybe the words will be ready someday. Maybe you won't be around to hear them when they are, but I've got the time to wait.

"For what it's worth," John added, so faint I nearly missed it, "I'm sorry. About Ianto."

I took a deep breath. Nodded. Not much else to offer.

"You've got a habit of collecting people who'll follow you into Hell."

I rubbed the edge of the notebook with the ball of my thumb. "I can't read this, not here," I repeated, looking up.

John was silent for a while. "You don't even care, do you?" His voice was hard, "You frigid bastard."

About what - Torchwood's guarantee of a short life? Ianto's blood on my hands? "Believe what you want," I fired back, darkly satisfied to be someone else's target for the moment, "it's never going to be worse than the truth."

"Drama queen," John snorted. "I didn't do all this out of the goodness of my heart, you know." I realized I'd mistaken hardness for petulance, which was John, through and through. I also realized - more relieved than I want to admit - he was still thinking about himself. I'd apparently used him, callously, and he was upset about that. Not my lack of outward grief. Certainly not Ianto.

Really, I don't know why I expected more from him than that. Maybe lately I've just spent too much time surrounded by people on the moral high road.

Nah. That can't be it.

I reached over and gripped his shoulder. Impulsively, I was fond of Captain John Hart for being so self-interested, self-motivated, and familiar. He leaned into me, and I let him. Just for a minute, for the sake of some human contact, I let him.

Something didn't make sense, though. Something niggled at the edge of my thoughts. I scratched at it, while I tousled John's hair and watched the letireans denude a few more grapevines. Then it hit me.

"Why don't I remember reading those notes?" I asked.

"Because it wasn't you," John answered with an easy shrug, "you've just been living through it all, following your own markers. Should make you angry, knowing you've been shepherded around like a sheep, but then again - you were shepherding yourself, so... ooh. That's an arousing thought."

That made sense, although he was right - I was furious at the thought of someone else behind the scenes, yanking my strings like a puppet. That I hadn't known, hadn't even guessed at manipulation. That my future was changed, Ianto written out of it without my say. That I'd been allowed to save Castiel, but not Ianto, Owen, or Tosh. If it had been anyone else's doing but my own, I'd be on a mission for payback. But it hadn't been. I did it to myself.

"I wonder if you'll still knock on my door next year," John mused on my shoulder, completely outside the curve of my thoughts, "raving about the end of the world. And then you'll screw me silly. I'll let you, Jack," his voice was quiet. I could never be sure if he was sincere or just enjoying his own dramatics, which was the bottom of the problem between us.

Layer on a few betrayals, some murders, and an addiction to hallucinogens, and you've got the whole problem.

"Hard to say," I let him feel my shrug. It wasn't impossible. That's what happens when you change the past. Sometimes remnants of the things that could have happened in the future still happen, or bits of them do, because they have to. Like time's stitching itself back together, where a passing traveler or a random anomaly ripped it open.

Torchwood did that once, actually.

"But I'm keeping my wrist strap locked up," John said, "Sad, you resorting to seduction and petty thievery."

"Just like old times," I laughed.

"Just like old times," John agreed, and sat up. "You really won't read that in front of me, will you?"

"It's private."

"I read it, Jack. More times than you can count. Trust me, it's a lot of laundry lists, and you haven't got anything I haven't seen before."

I looked at him, then away. I had no words; no way to make him understand. "Thank you," I said at last, gesturing to the notebook, "I've got to get back to L.A. Make sure nothing's eaten Phil and Rex."

"'Rex?'" John echoed, "my, that sounds masculine. Fun?"

"He's annoying," I said.

"Same thing," John winked, "maybe I'll drop by."

He kissed me on the cheek, rose, and started down the hill. He's gotten into the habit of doing that, and I let him. The worst he could do, after all, was poison me.

I looked up at the stars. This early in the morning, the sky was just starting to brighten around the rim. Castiel might be tumbling around in the Rift at this very moment. And for certain, his body was frozen in Angelo Colasanto's basement.

With Gray. Possibly.

My chin snapped down, and I focused on the pale gleaming scales of the creatures a dozen yards off, miraculously still unperturbed.

Maybe we'd saved the world from the Leviathan, but I still had work to do.

Master Post | Part 7
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