Disclaimer: I own no part of anything here that is recognizable.
Author's Note: Many, many thanks to Paradox, my beta, for her patience with the many false starts, revisions and complete rewrites it took to get this chapter out.
Dirt, dark and bitter, gagged Jack as he watched Ianto do... something. Jack had never actually figured out everything that Ianto did. He made his way down to the center of the Hub and waited for Ianto reach him.
"I'd like to have two weeks off." Ianto said stiffly before Jack could get a word out.
"Really?" Jack smiled to hide his surprise. "We were going to go to Nightside tomorrow. There's this place called Divas! I wanted to show you."
Ianto sighed and gave Jack a sick smile. "I really need the time off. I'm sorry."
Jack flinched at the last two words. "Are you able to help arm the SUV at least?"
"Arm the SUV?" Ianto looked incredulously at Jack. "What for?"
"The traffic in Nightside is a bit wild. Dog eat dog wild." Jack's charming smile took on an edge. "We could use your help."
"No you don't." Ianto said quietly. "Gwen and Mickey are better with guns, you have a native guide and Martha is a doctor. What do you need me for in a place like that?" Irritation rose in Ianto's throat. "I've been listening to Ethan talk about that place. What am I supposed to do when my PDA gets possessed or the SUV's computer gets invaded?"
"You're resourceful." Jack shrugged, teeth glinting whitely. "We'll figure it out like we always do." His mind skittered away from thoughts of Alice Guppy, Owen Harper, Toshiko Sato and everyone in between.
"No," Ianto shook his head slowly.
"Fine," Jack's expression darkened as quickly as a light snapping off.
Ethan touched the gleaming black surface of the SUV just to see the guns pop out again. "Are you sure you don't want to add my biometrics to the secure list?" The cold blue barrel nearest Ethan twitched slightly in time with him.
"Positive," Jack bit out, throwing a duffel in the back of the SUV. "Get in."
"Touchy touchy." Ethan climbed in behind the driver's seat, rolling his eyes. "Who pissed in your cornflakes?"
Gwen hopped into the shotgun seat and readjusted it for her height. Ethan didn't miss the look of satisfaction that crossed her face as she settled into the seat.
Jack's smile was made of sharpened glass as he wrenched open the door and thumped behind the wheel of the SUV. Ethan covered his ears a moment before Jack brought heel of his palm crashing against the horn. The sound that resulted made Ethan's teeth itch as his bones vibrated. The second blast was shorter but still made Ethan regret Mickey's suggestion for refitting the horn and alarm systems.
"Coming!" Martha's voice bounced out of one of the Archive rooms.
Jack glared in Martha's general direction. "The sooner we leave the sooner you can get back to that fiancée of yours!"
"Oh, is that what this is about?" Ethan nodded. "You thought he was going to wait around until you got bored."
"You don't know anything about it." Jack turned his glare to the rear view mirror.
"Your kind always gets bored." Ethan felt secure in thinking that being temporarily indispensable would protect him.
"Oi!" Gwen turned around. "Stop it the both of you. I mean it, Jack."
Mickey's bag hit Ethan's feet hard enough to bruise. "What'd I miss?" Mickey swung in behind Gwen.
"The boss is having a tiff with his secretary." Ethan said at the same time Gwen said, "Don't ask."
Wincing as Jack hit the horn again, Mickey frowned. "Jack's serious about him? Serious enough to have an actual couple fight?"
"He thinks he's serious." Ethan leaned back and closed his eyes.
"I said stop!" Gwen glared.
Ethan held up his hands in mock surrender at the same time Martha arrived with a full backpack.
"Move over," Martha gestured. Mickey sighed and unbuckled himself to scoot into the middle seat. "Now I'm ready."
"What took you so long?" Jack demanded, peeling out of the lot before Martha had closed the door.
"I had to double check the vacuum seals on the-" Martha started.
"I don't want to hear it." Jack turned a corner harder than necessary.
Ethan shook his head and stared out the window. He decided to start with the traffic. It would give Captain Harkness something to do.
The first addition was a shiny silver car that wasn't quite a 1970 Chevy. It turned a corner into traffic with perfect manners. Ethan smiled as he realized no one was paying attention to it. He reached into the possibilities and the buildings grew darker and closer together.
"Where am I going, Heath?" Jack asked sharply.
"Head towards London." Ethan said quietly. He thickened the cloud cover before changing the sky to night. That change left him a little winded. "You might want to stock up on petrol first." He belatedly checked to make sure the currency was still the same.
"I don't recognize this part of Cardiff." Gwen peered out at the dark landscape. A car with an unusually blocky frame zipped past.
Ethan waited in the car while Gwen bought five extra gallons of petrol and put them in the back. He itched to get moving. Looking up at the sky through a break in the clouds he realized just how badly when he saw that while he had succeeded in changing the sky the stars were the wrong color.
Gwen shut her door firmly, frowning and scrambling to get her safety belt fastened before Jack hit traffic. "The man in the station had the strangest tattoos."
Tuning out the chatter, Ethan focused on small changes that should get him closer to the Nightside. Since the Nightside wasn't actually part of London things were both easier and more difficult. The Nightside had a distinctive texture that was hard to mistake for anything else but it also was surrounded by a void like a castle with a moat. The trains were allowed through the moat but the truce wouldn't hold for the SUV. It was like the brain puzzle so often posed to children; how do you make a circle with a dot in the center without ever lifting your pencil? You have to fold the paper.
But every time Ethan could feel the Nightside getting close he was pushed away. Not harshly but like someone shut a door just before he reached it. Over and over the possibilities slid away from the Nightside. He tried to circle back. The moon was important. He had to get the moon right. If he could set the moon then everything else should fall into place. If he could focus hard enough-
The slap that made his ears ring came as a complete surprise. He only realized he'd closed his eyes when he opened them to glare at Gwen. "What was that for?"
Gwen wiped her hand on her trouser leg. "What's what? You looked to be having a fit."
"Well I wasn't." Ethan wiped his sleeve over his face, surprised to notice that he was covered in sweat. The view out the windscreen captured his complete attention. The buildings were crumbling into nothingness, abandoned to the elements for decades. "That's not good."
"I don't want to hear that." Jack's voice was brittle in the unnatural stillness.
Nothing moved. Nothing grew. Ethan was pretty sure there was no wind because it would have knocked over most of the hulking ruins. He shuddered. He was so close to the Nightside he could taste it in the air yet this place was as different from the Nightside as anything Ethan could have dreamt up. The Nightside was alive; thrashing in agony and filled with sickness but above all full of motion and blood. This desiccated place was so long dead it counted as extinct.
"Just a mo." Ethan muttered. He thought of reaching into the possibilities with both hands and grabbing and yanking and grasping and pulling and-
Something gave. Ethan opened the door to be ill and found himself staring into row upon row of graves. Fog swirled slowly between them and a cold wind raised the hairs on the back of Ethan's neck. Tombs and mausoleums stretched from horizon to horizon in any direction he looked. Turning the air blue, Ethan began looking for the door out.
Jack pressed down the accelerator as he followed Ethan's instructions. Tasteless marble and granite monstrosities hurled past the windows and dark tire tracks scarred the greenery behind them but Ethan could feel the change in the air. The Guardian was awake. The scent of mold and old earth and stale air penetrated the SUV. He wasn't sure which one of them started screaming first but when he looked behind them he could see the tidal wave of dirt rushing towards them.
Then they were out of the cemetery and driving down the road in front of a funeral home.
"What was that?" Jack asked, his voice ripping into the stunned silence as he slammed on the brakes.
"When was the last time you came to the Nightside, Jack?" Ethan tried for a lighthearted tone even as his voice betrayed him by cracking.
"It's been a few years. Even so, I know that that wasn't the Nightside." Jack's glare lashed at Ethan. There wasn't even the pretense of a smile.
"A few years ago there was an uprising of sorts." Ethan kept his eyes on the road.
"Of sorts?" Gwen asked, her pupils returning to normal as she calmed.
"And the Authority decided it would be best if the dead were kept safe and... unmolested." Ethan shifted in his seat, painfully aware of the look of horror Mickey was giving him and even more uncomfortably aware of the lack of surprise from Jack. "So all the bodies are kept in another dimension and guarded so that they don't get up and walk around again. It's the only business the Authority won't leave up to the private sector."
"This is the Nightside?" Jack asked, expression neutral.
"Yes. If you continue down this road you'll be back in the thick of it." Ethan nodded. "This is the Necropolis and the Street of Gods is-"
"We're not going to the Street of Gods." Jack's smile floated back into place, as nasty as before.
"Then where?" Ethan asked cautiously.
"The oldest pub in the world."
From the moment Suzie left the girls' school she felt like something was watching her. Putting her back against her employers' car, she turned to watch the house. She could feel it staring at her like it knew what she was. An accusation hung in the air, taunting Suzie. She pulled her gun free and cradled it against her chest. A girl of about nine gave her a funny look through the front window but she barely noticed through the wave of memories that rocked her.
She noted the reappearance of the Finns with a deep sense of relief that never made it to her face. She simply nodded and put her gun away; focusing on the task at hand instead of the one she couldn't change. Behind the soldiers was a group of women about ten years younger than Suzie. She couldn't bring herself to acknowledge them with more than a flicker of her attention. Besides, a glance was all she needed to know everything necessary to know about the group dynamic.
Vi didn't trust the Finns anymore than Suzie did and the other three women looked to her for direction. Even the sullen one with the blue bangs. The way they handled their bags suggested that their strength was in the same range as Suzie's so they might be as monstrous as Suzie. She would have to keep an eye on them.
"Mr. Giles said the plane would be ready to leave in four hours and it takes two hours to get everything on board." Vi's dark auburn hair was braided away from her face in a style that made her look five years older. "The flamethrower needs a lot of fuel. Burning, stabbing, and we have some holy water just in case." Vi smiled. "Xander's been briefed. You won't have a problem following his orders? Most of Buffy's exes do."
"Xander and I have always got along just fine." Riley said, looking a little taken aback.
"Hmm, interesting." Vi's smile grew. "I guess that says something."
"About me and Buffy?" Riley had the completely confused look of someone trying to make sense of a sudden gravity shift.
"No, about Xander." Vi winked at Sam.
Riley shook his head in bemusement. "We'll follow you. Are you using an airport or an airstrip?"
"Private airstrip hidden in a rural area to the west." Vi looked at the rusty van the Finns had used to reach London and wrinkled her nose in disdain. "You guys would be better off loading your equipment into our van and riding there with us. I'm assuming that heap wasn't chosen for sentimental reasons."
Sam fixed Vi with a skeptical look. "And leave us dependent on you for transportation."
"The airstrip was hidden by the Devonshire Coven. It's simpler to just ride with us. Willow boosted the space in the back. It can hold everything we need and more."
"That doesn't change the fact that we'd be entirely at your disposal." Riley pointed out.
"I've been briefed on who the pair of you are. I've been briefed on who she is. I know what the pair of you are carrying." Vi said almost too quietly for Suzie to hear.
"All the more reason to keep us as separate from you as possible." Riley said in a tone that was blindingly out of character even to someone who had known him for as short a period of time as Suzie had. She could picture Riley Finn in many places where he might be threatening. To an ally halfway through a mission was not one of them. The look he gave Sam when she put a hand on his arm was scalding. "It wants you," he growled. "It's getting stronger and it wants you."
"I'm not new at this." Vi glared up at Riley. "I was fourteen when Sunnydale collapsed. I've been fighting this war ever since then and I've never needed drugs to do it."
Suzie made an impatient sound. This was why she hated working with others; they never played nicely and if they weren't fighting for territory then they were grandstanding for the troops. She was an expert bounty hunter. Dealing with violent expressions of jealousy had become mundane early on, certainly enough so that she could recognize it coming a long way off. This was not that so it was either for her benefit or the girls'. Suzie hoped it wasn't hers. She was bored.
Riley observed Suzie without looking at her. "Fine. We'll ride to the airstrip with you but we get separate vehicles once we hit the ground in Russia."
"That's up to you and your contacts." Vi responded.
The sunlight glinted off of Penny's pale blond hair. Ianto appreciated the effect but felt it was undermined by the touch of self consciousness in her pose. Pose was the correct word. She was standing so that her cool white outfit was perfectly framed by the doorway of the building she was waiting in front of.
"Was that your friends I saw peeling out of here a few minutes ago?" Penny asked casually.
"Yes." Ianto said shortly. "I'd like to take you up on your offer." He felt the lump of his cell phone in his pocket. If necessary he could call Rhi to come bail him out. That thought steadied him as it usually did. There was nothing bad enough to make him call his sister for help.
"We won't tell you all our secrets of course." Penny said as she led him down a small side street to a nondescript car that was likely outfitted with more extras than a stack of DVDs. "You'll need to prove yourself to us first."
"Of course." Ianto got in the car next to Penny after putting his luggage behind in the backseat. "But I will need to know something to make an informed decision, won't I?"
"Perhaps." Penny smiled faintly. "What do you want to know?"
"I learned a few things working in London. I'm sure you've read up on that so I won't go into detail." Ianto looked out the window at the buildings flashing past. "I need to know who's in charge."
"That would be Harry Drood." Penny said without any change in inflection. "Backing him is the Inner Circle which includes myself and the Serjent-at-Arms."
"I checked one of Torchwood One's old security networks." Ianto said quietly. "You went silent for some months last year."
"Yes. There were some problems internally. We have taken care of those." The delicate skin around Penny's eyes tightened.
Ianto was reminded that everyone in the Hall was family. Maybe not in the way he thought of it or anyone else he knew thought of it but family nonetheless. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Penny's mouth hardened. "We lost them years ago. Since then the Matriarch and her Council have been forced into the backseat which I'm sure pleases you. Eddie made sure of that."
"Maybe you should try starting at the beginning." Ianto suggested. "Which one is Eddie?"
"That's not important since he and his girlfriend took off and left us to pick up the pieces." Penny said in a low tone. "Before leaving he removed the Matriarch and created the new Inner Circle. You should feel fortunate you were not there that day. Since then, to help with morale and learning the skills we need we have been allowing rogues to come in out of the cold and recruiting outsiders. You're more respectable than most of the outsiders even with your Torchwood contacts."
"You said you want me to help in the library." Ianto reminded her.
"Harry feels we have enough people teaching and our librarian is having... difficulty adjusting." Penny said softly. "You're an outsider but you know more about being Family than some of the rogues."
"What did he do, read from the Necrono-"
"Don't say it!" Penny said sharply. "He-"
"If I'm going to be working with him then telling me the truth would be a good idea, wouldn't it?" Ianto interjected.
"I wasn't-" Penny looked at Ianto. "Yes, I was. He spent eight years in a mental hospital. Even if he went in sane he didn't come out that way." The rest of the ride went much the same way. Penny would not discuss why the family had turned itself inside out or who the factions were (of course there were factions, any group of people that large had factions), or what fight they were currently engaged in.
By the time they had rolled up the winding, green lane to the gates of the Hall Ianto had a working understanding of what his trial period would be like. No sleep and less rest for zero thanks. He was old enough to have his own room and he would be shown a route to take from that room to the library. He was to stay out of anything that looked like it might keep secrets, especially the pocket dimensions that existed here and there throughout the Hall. The Head Librarian would tell him which sections of the library he could look at and if he came across something he couldn't identify, it would be wise not to read it for his own safety.
As soon as the car began up the drive towards the Hall itself Ianto's attention was captured by the grounds. He had thought that living in the Hub would have made him immune to fantastic headquarters. It wasn't that the Hall was more impressive than the Hub; it was more that the Hall was such a completely different kind of impressive. The Hub was all high tech metal grating and organic cybernetics; the Hall was a mixture of magic and high tech. Griffins gamboled on the front lawn while robotic guns tracked the car's progress up the drive. Ianto spotted a building near the edge that was falling apart. He nearly asked Penny what it was for and why it was being allowed to fall apart but he held his tongue. Curiosity was not a virtue among the Droods.
He exited the car and slung his duffel over his shoulder after waiting for Penny's nod. The second Drood he saw was an imposing middle aged man. "Good afternoon." Ianto smiled cheerfully. Now would probably be a good time to start hiding behind that hard working facade that had fooled Ja- Torchwood Three for so long.
"Hand over your weapons." The man said in a monotone.
"The Serjent-at-Arms is the only one allowed to be armed inside the Hall." Penny stated without gloating.
Ianto shrugged and opened his bag to remove the gun he'd smuggled in it. "I didn't really think that was going to work."
The Serjent-at-Arms didn't dignify that with a reply. "He carries no other weapons."
"Really?" Penny gave him a curious look for the first time.
"Like I could sneak more than one." Ianto rolled his eyes.
"Very well." Penny led Ianto into a drafty stone hall. She didn't even glance at the priceless art that lined the corridor. "Your room is in this wing. You are expected to remain here until and unless you choose to become one of us."
"Who are we fighting? We're always fighting someone." Ianto asked as she opened the door to a small, rather bare room.
Penny gave him a hard stare, gauging his reaction. "The Loathly Ones."
Martha disliked the clanking sound of the stairs as she made her way down into Strangefellows. Once at the bottom she refused to look at her feet. If she did, then she might see whatever was making her stick to the floor. That left only one place to look; the denizens of the pub. If it could be called a pub. Captain Jack smiled and nodded to the man behind the bar who scowled at him in return. Martha knew she should pay more attention to him but he was the least interesting looking person in the place; a dour man all in black. Even the leather clad transvestite dancing on a table seemed rather tame compared the Things lurking in the shadows and he was wearing gadgets Martha would have sworn only UNIT had access to.
Something that looked like a reanimated corpse picked its arm up off the floor and shuffled away from Captain Jack. Unfortunately, he bumped into two vampires arguing about which one was the real Dracula. The resulting fight ended when the man behind the bar whistled. Martha had to blink. Female bodybuilders were not the kind of bouncers she had expected given the clientele. She wouldn't have been surprised if the furniture came to life on command and ate people.
After a frozen moment Martha hurried to catch up with Jack. She smiled. She had to see this.
Jack bellied up to the bar and shone a charming smile on the bartender. "I'll have a glass of whatever is most expensive and something that won't kill my friends." He ignored the bartender's grunt and suspicious squint. "Been a long time, Alex."
"Not long enough, Harkness. I really should throw you out." Alex grabbed a bottle and poured Jack a drink from a brightly colored bottle.
"That's why I always make sure to keep my bar tab paid." Jack pulled out money and didn't even flinch when Alex seriously short changed him. He abruptly grabbed Mickey's arm. "Don't even think about touching the bar snacks. I need you able to do something more than worship the porcelain god."
"You always say such nice things." Alex said sarcastically as he returned to cleaning his glasses.
Martha looked around and realized that Gwen had struck a conversation with someone completely covered in bandages and Heath was cowering at a nearby table trying not to be noticed. Since he had nearly thrown himself out of a moving vehicle to avoid coming she had thought he would stick closer to Jack. "How did you end up working at a place like this?" Martha asked before thinking.
"Family business." Alex turned to glare at Jack. "Tour groups now, is it?"
"No. I was wondering if you'd know anything about where Shotgun Suzie's been lately." Jack said.
"Heard she was on a job for a Transcendent Being." Alex said with ill grace.
"Do you know anyone who might know how to find her?" Jack swirled the drink in his glass but didn't touch it.
Martha cautiously sniffed her own and decided she didn't want to risk it.
"John Taylor might know but who knows where he is?" Alex shrugged.
"Taylor's back? I thought he left." Jack looked genuinely interested. "I also heard he and Suzie left on bad terms."
"That's old news." Alex sniffed and left to pour another O positive Bloody Mary.
"That was productive." Jack muttered.
"Who's John Taylor?" Mickey asked.
"Private Investigator with a Gift." Jack wound up, getting ready for Tale Telling mode. "He's supposed to be the son of someone big only no one knows who. His mother erased herself from the records. I'd rather not face him down if I don't have to. Not with you around. If he and Suzie are doing business together again this could get very ugly very fast."
When she thought back over it later Martha still had no idea where the girl came from. One moment it was Mickey, Jack and herself at the bar and the next there was a scowling teenaged girl standing in front of them. "I'm Mad," the girl announced.
"Hello, I'm Captain Jack Harkness." Jack said without missing a beat.
"Father Time wants to see you." The girl continued to scowl, unaffected.
"If this is about that continuum it was already dented." Jack said. When the girl still didn't warm to his charm Jack nodded. "The Time Tower, right?"
"Yes, now." The girl stalked towards the stairs and waited like a cat waiting to be let out.
"Don't worry, Alex. We'll be back before you know it." Jack sauntered away from the bar, Martha and Mickey in tow. Ignoring Alex's mutterings he approached Gwen with a smile. "We have an invitation to the Time Tower."
Martha thought Heath was going to be sick right there. "It's not even in Nightside. It's in Shadows Fall..." He drank his drink in one gulp which made Martha reevaluate his bravery. He looked at the teenaged girl and froze. "Oh, yeah. I guess we are." He smiled at Jack. "Don't worry. This will hurt you far more than it will hurt me."