Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Fans Fiction Heaven and Nature Sings - Part Eight by Echo Fain

Heaven and Nature Sings

By Echo Fain

Part Eight:

He plays for them, the Osgoods.

He stands in the gallery above the altar with his back to the chapel's windows, his face lost to shadow. He can see the two women, caught in a half-circle of security light from beyond the keep's wall. They sit together and watch him, rapt. The halogen gleams on their spectacles and their smiles and with its distance he can almost believe it's the moon.

He wears the coat Kate gave him when he went out to Scarman Estate--her sop to his pride. She said he never looked his best in anything less than a wool frock coat. She would know.

He gifted her the spanner and the Rawleigh in exchange. He won't need it and she's fascinated by the idea of human-designed time travel that incorporates TARDIS coral. Even if it is broken and dead. What good is it to him? Without its coordinate system, he can't find his way back to his family. The data he needs isn't in his field journal. He mourns the chronoanthozoa's death, mourns the pain he caused tonight, mourns all that he has lost here in this timezone.

The Osgoods gave him an engraved pocket watch. He wears it. In their honor, he dressed for this concert--giving them the full nines. And he moves with the music. He waltzes and salsas and he does the tango solitaire. Bare-faced and shivering in the chill despite his coat, he plays to forget the look of betrayal on Jack's face.

He gave them, in return for the pocket watch, his hat and mask and his violin. He knows he'll likely miss the instrument, but the human in Osgood remembers violin lessons and wants to try again. He can hardly deny her.

The Doctor was right to put such trust in them. They are worthy of that trust.

For him, forever, they'll be the best embodiment of the new peace.

They never call him by his first name. It's always Doctor Llewelyn and that helps him keep perspective. He suspects they've read his file, know who he really is. Something in how they look at they feel about him. But it's difficult to read the emotions of Petronella Osgood, either one of them, and he wonders if the fuzziness comes from their shared psychic bond. They are a hive mentality of two.

Doesn't matter, he knows. He thinks he may have time to study them. He's not going anywhere yet but it's just a matter of waiting, now. Even if that waiting stretches into years.

Eventually...the Doctor will show up. He always does.



20 December 2011; 2315 hours

He really didn't want to go this route, but Gwen left him no choice.

Lyn dropped his hand and the remote control to rest on his knee. His shoulders fell as he gave a long, hard sigh.

Jack lay only a few feet from him, mostly unconscious. Gwen slumped at the conference table, one wrist tipping her mug off-balance. When she woke, it might spill. He didn't let that bother him. Instead, he shifted on the stool and looked at the immortal.

"I'm sorry." He whispered and reached out to put the remote control on the whiteboard's ledge. "It was programmed to wipe certain details from the last two months away. You never found me. You forgot, after a while. You let it go. And that's okay, Jack. Forget me. Go in peace, cariad, and find me again far from here, a thousand years away."

He pushed off the stool, ready to be anywhere but in this room. He resisted the urge to kneel and kiss Jack; instead, he poured himself a fresh cup of tea.

The Osgoods and Kate returned, hurrying, as he stirred in the milk.

"You didn't--not already?" Osgood One was wide-eyed, concerned. Her scarf dragged the floor on one side.

"Without us?" Osgood Two stepped around the table's end and approached Gwen's dozing body.

And Kate Lethbridge-Stewart stood behind him. He could feel her watching his every move.

He laid the spoon to the side, on the tray, and swallowed the sour taste of regret with a sip of hot milky-sweet tea. He gave a hard sniff and nodded to himself. "Talk them through it. Give them plausible Zygon back stories that make them sympathetic."

His part was done. He took his tea and walked away without looking back.

He turned right at the Archive's entrance and, with Kate at his side, left the scene of his newest crime.

Upstairs, in her office in the main White Tower, he sat down on the leather couch and pulled at his glasses. Laying them to the side, he rubbed at the prickling heat in his eyes and sipped his tea. And ignored the blonde woman who sat behind the desk.

She waited for him. She was patient. She would wait as long as he needed.

They had agreed to see this through, no matter how difficult it was for either of them.

He finally looked at her. He held the mug on his thigh and twisted it back and forth as he stared at the director of scientific research. The dark burgundy wool jacket suited fine-boned Kate's coloring.

He thought about what he knew of UNIT in his own timezone. There were Lethbridge-Stewarts, then, too. He'd met a couple. On the Eye, UNIT and Torchwood were combined under one ministry.

Had he helped create the bond that would eventually end with Torchwood Orion?

Perhaps. Did it matter?

"You tried. We all did." Kate said.

He lifted his face to chuckle at the ceiling as he let himself remember--in one moment--all the frustrations of the last two hours. "Gwen bloody Cooper. She wasn't this hard to handle when it was a neural loop and weeping angels in Highgate Cemetery."

"This is bigger." She settled into her chair and crossed her arms with a frown that tilted her eyes down at the corners. "Her planet wasn't being invaded then. Her whole way of life wasn't being threatened."

"Earth's not being invaded now." He reminded her. He lifted his glasses and slid them into place. He studied her over the rims. "You're agreed to share. As long as the treaty holds and everyone does their parts in maintaining the peace, this doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, it's beneficial to both sides. It'll be hard, but..."

She met his gaze in silence for a moment and then asked. "And you're sure, Merlyn? Very sure?"

He knew what she was really asking. Was he sure the Doctor was right? As one human to another. As if he qualified as human. As one scientist to another. As one researcher to another. As one companion to another, for she was the Doctor's, too.

"Yes." He reached up and scratched the top of his head, ruffling hair out of place as he reassured Kate. "I know it's scary. I know it's slippery. But I also know you're the right person for the job. me a favor, yeah?"

She inclined her head.

"Don't let your friendship with Jack slide away. He needs the human connection. He needs you, and Martha, and Gwen. And all of it. I don't know when he'll leave Earth again, but until then...remember that he's vitally important to the survival of this kingdom in the future. Treat his heart accordingly."

She could do for Jack what he could not. What he dared not.

Kate's frown lifted at the edges. "I think your work here is done. And I want to thank you, on behalf of all Earth, for what you've given us with the armor. And your additions to the peace treaty."

"Don't tell him I did any of this." He lifted his cup again and drained the last of it. "He'll think I was meddling in humanity's future again. And he'd be right. I wouldn't have a leg to stand on in that argument."

He paused, played with the cup on the couch's sleek surface. "I'm just glad it was you at the helm and not someone else. I know what temptations come with the chance at advanced technology. I didn't want to become UNIT's enemy when I refused to give in to a demand for weapons or information."

It was the closest he'd gotten to an explanation, yet. He hadn't wanted to approach UNIT, hadn't wanted to ask for their help. After what happened to Torchwood, he couldn't be sure of how UNIT would handle his presence on the planet. The wrong person might stick him in the same prison where Toshiko Sato met Jack. He'd been tempted a few times to try contacting the Brigadier, but...

She got to her feet and opened a chrome-sided cabinet. "I think these belong to you."

His spanner. His cane. His Rawleigh.

He met her at the desk and as she laid his possessions down on its organized surface, he dropped a finger to rest on the yellow cypress cane. "You can keep this, I think...I won't be needing it. Make sure it gets shoved into a Royal collection somewhere."

Then he scooped up his spanner and looked it over. It was warped and burned and felt alien in his grip. On the night he'd crashed into the Cardiff Bay, it lay in his lap.

And the moment he put his fingers on the Rawleigh, he knew. It hadn't survived the fall.

His bones hurt suddenly, with the realization. He hadn't felt the death...perhaps because the coral lived on, in his DNA. But he needed the Rawleigh. He needed his sentient chronotech to give him access to the coordinate system. To make just one more time-jump.

He drew his fingers down and around the ruined shell, feeling the pocks and dings and holes that told of a temporal heat strong enough to melt zybanium, chronosteel, and polysium. The telepathic crystals within would be cracked.

No wonder none of the Daleks had survived the temporal fissures.

He didn't look at her as he whispered. "What are my options if the Rawleigh is broken?"

Broken was a kind word. Mostly for his own benefit. He was a coward, as ever.

"Can it be fixed?"

"No." He gripped the ruined metal ball in his hand and lifted it to rest against his heart. He raised his eyes, too. "My coral is..." He didn't say the word. Didn't need to. Seeing her face, he knew she understood.

"The Black Archive has chronoanthozoa." Kate offered. He'd told her enough about how the chronotech worked.

The information wouldn't help her build one. The components were unavailable here and would remain unavailable without strenuous work and time travel.

"It won't bond." His voice wobbled in his throat. "The coral in the Rawleigh is also in my blood. Another coral wouldn't work for me because of that. And the other components...impossible."

Saying it made it real. He was unable to find home without help. And he didn't want to ask for help. There was no telling which of the Doctor's regenerations would show up if they used the space-time telegraph and the telephone numbers were iffy, too.

If they got a Doctor who had no memories of him, it could cause a paradox. If they found a Doctor who did have memories of him, there would be an argument. There was always an argument. This time, he'd have to explain what he was doing alone on Earth and out of his timezone. He didn't want to have that conversation. Not again. It never failed to lead them back to the Time War and his place within it.

"I'm sorry." Kate's voice was silk.

Lyn held the dead Rawleigh to his chest and nodded in acceptance.


The day after today...

22 December 2011; 0834 hours

Lyn stood with his gloved hands tucked behind his back, still wearing his coat and scarf. He studied the Van Gogh and wondered about the sort of mind that would put a Van Gogh in the foyer.

It was an impossible Van Gogh. Or improbable one. But it was real. If it was here, in this place, it was the genuine article.

The sunflower looked windswept and reminded him of Jack's kitchen table, again. Not this timezone's Jack. His.

Outside, in the bitter cold, the sun was struggling to get above the horizon. He'd survived the longest night. He was sore and tired; after waking in the Archives' TARDIS coral collection, sleep was elusive.

He needed tea.

Lyn yawned noisily.

He was mentally following the shades of orange in the sunflowers when he heard the footsteps. They were slow, with a pause. A tap. He turned to find a tall but bent man in the gallery's ornate doorway.

The white-haired figure was leaning on a familiar yellow cypress cane.

The Curator moved like a man on the silk strands of a web. And that was the truth, Lyn knew. Time held no more mysteries for this one. He was timeless and out of time. Outside of time, too.

The cane was...well, it looked like Kate's sense of humor. Royal collection indeed. How perfect, to find the Curator with a cane that would--if Mother Time was forgiving--eventually find its way to the hands of a scientist too young to be dying from anything chronic or chronotic, a disease unheard of among the humanity of his timezone.

He bowed, pressing a hand over his single heart. "It's good to see you again, old man."

And the Curator beamed at him with pale blue eyes. "Oh, well met, my boy."

Lyn straightened. The tail of his new frock coat--a dark blue wool that fit like a glove--swished at his thighs. "I'm glad it's you. I couldn't be sure, but I thought maybe. Call it...gut instinct."

The Curator turned back to the door, nodding at him to follow. Step, tap, step. "As I recall, your mother had those. Gut instincts. Nasty things."

Removing his gloves and slipping them into a pocket, he walked behind the elderly one. He made small talk. "Do you like this? Content at last? You have your own museum. Your own quiet corner of Earth."

"Ah, well...we must all find our quiet corner...mustn't we?"

He unwound his scarf and let it drape free at his collar. He kept his tone light. "I feel that way about the Black Archives. I could be a keeper there. It's not so different from the Archives at the Eye's Hub tower."

"Are you happy in the Black Archives?"

"Sure." He gave a private frown, lifting his chin to lie. "As happy as I've ever been. Maybe I'll find a quiet corner there and just...stay. One of the many hoarded technologies of a future none of them can imagine. With a past they can't grasp...and shouldn't."

"Your quiet corner is far from this world."

"Well, you would know better than me." His frown deepened. "You always did."

They crossed a half-lit gallery, entered a corridor, and walked past several open doors. He peered into each. He reached out to trace his fingers along a six-sided panel in the corridor's wall and mentally blinked in pleasure at the hum he felt there.

He had to ask. He'd been summoned. "Is there something you need from me?"

"Oh, a little thing...nothing you will miss, I'm sure. Your opinion." The Curator limped on, turning on the cane to face a closed door. "There is a painting that I am sending on to its rightful owner. He's never seen the piece in question, so I need visual verification of its provenance. A spot-check, if you like. As I'm assured that you know the artist, your assistance might prove useful."

Lyn raised his brows in surprise and thumbed his glasses up. "An artist from here on Earth? From which timezone?" He'd visited many and lived in two.

"It was created by a Time Lady named the Corsair, then in her fourth regeneration. This particular painting came into the Under-Gallery's hands in the late 19th century. Its execution is flawless. A sliver of time in the life of a man. A quiet corner, as you might say."

His heart and guts did a sudden, wild flop, and he doubled his step to catch up with the old man.

There were only two extant Corsair paintings on Earth--he couldn't be entirely certain, but he was fairly sure. One was currently being housed in the Museum of London, an anonymous--and very famous--piece that framed the Great Fire itself, with the Tower of London, the London Bridge, and St Paul's in the landscape. The other was...well, from another visit, another century.

The room they entered was a small, rectangular gallery. At the head of the room, long meters from where he stood at the Curator's side, there sat a gilt-framed portrait on a stone pedestal. Above it was embedded the room's only source of light. A soft lamp that did nothing to hide the real depth of the piece.

"It is called The Clockmaker." The Curator hobble-shuffled forward on his cane.

He knew what it was called, bloody hell.

He approached the painting, playing with the gold ring on his left hand.

The flames in the fireplace crackled and shifted and danced. It was a warm room, the craftsman's study. There were books on the shelves and the desk was littered with a spill of clockworks, brass and iron and silver. Small, delicate tools. An oil lamp revealed the half-finished work of skilled hands. Revealed the stoneware plate with its loaf of bread, its cheese, its pickle. The carving knife gleamed, its edge whetted. The bottle of wine glowed with a dark burgundy shadow.

The glass over the painting was solid and he pressed his fingers to it, wistful.

The painting was a window into a bubble of time. A pocket universe glued into place between two timezones, this one and the one where he sat for a portrait that never held him at all. The Corsair had painted everything in the study--everything but him--and then made it three-dimensional and called it The Clockmaker. Being ironic.

She'd laughed when he complained, poured another glass of wine, and said he would understand her reasons someday.

He glanced at the elderly man.

"The title is inferential. As you can see." The Curator mused, tilting toward him a few inches, as if sharing a secret. "Is he hurrying, counting seconds with his boots? Is he folding the days like paper? Is his time being wasted by a visitor at the door? But...he could come back at any moment."

Soft and bitter in his mouth, his tongue betrayed him. "But he won't. Because the clockmaker's a worthless sod who can't keep his damn promises."

He stared at the painting. He didn't want to look at the Curator now.

"Would you like to keep your promise?" It was softly asked; gentle--familiar--affection.

It had worked, somehow. He'd called out to the TARDIS last night, in the Archive, and this...could this be her answer?

"Who are you sending the portrait to?" He whispered it, his voice cracking.

"Would you say this is the real painting, then? Is this The Clockmaker, by the Corsair?" It was no answer.

Lyn tilted his head to the side a little and stared into the other world. The room was a bubble. Just a bubble. A frozen moment from the 19th century, a homey bubble that smelled of Melody and of the Doctor. But it would last forever and therein lay its power.

He knew. He could read it in the old man's eyes. He was going home today.

He nodded, fighting the tremble of his mouth.

And the Curator, who couldn't be fooled by his tight, fierce smile, reached out to touch his shoulder with a fond squeeze and that same sad, gentle smile. "Oh, my's over. And you did all that could be done. It's hard, isn't it? Creating a future worth living. You can never say no to the chance. Your loved ones must live in the future you create, so you do your best...and you hope."

All he could do was nod. He nodded again and ducked his face, turning away to hide his relief. His miserable, weak heart.

The Curator sighed, sounding content. "But that much can be said of us all. Don't you think?"


PostScript: The Clockmaker

25 December 3365
Winter Solstice
0614 Imperial Standard Time
Beecham Township, Durin II

Jack woke to the smell of fresh coffee. Beyond the window, the world was quiet and dark. At this time of year, the sun didn't really do more than hug the southern horizon and daybreak was just a shade of gray and another two hours away.

Under the blankets, a small body snuggled close in the warmth. The feel of curled fingers and delicate nose pressing to his chest made him smile drowsily. Charley had climbed in at some point of the night and, despite the special occasion of today, she slept on.

Jack made himself stay still, enjoying a moment of fatherly joy.

It was officially Christmas Morning and he knew, without looking, that the land was covered in a new snow--new snow on top of old snow on top of older snow. Durin II lay within the Goldilocks' zone but was bitterly cold and ferociously snowy and dark at this point of its axial tilt.

He actually liked it here--for now. For a new homeworld, Durin II was proving itself to be just what they'd needed. The vegetation was surprisingly like the Eye of Orion's--and Sol III's--and its weather patterns were only a little different. The years were long, lasting almost five hundred days--like Eye's--and the first colony was shaping up. So far, no tragedies or trauma; the colonists had arrived prepared with the right equipment and found themselves in a lush terraformed world where seed grew fast in rich, fertile soil.

Many of the colonists were still living in the starter biodome, acclimating to the environment, but there were dozens of families homesteading outside of it, in the immediate peripheral zone. His was one such household. He was proud of that. They were self-sustaining and while the weather was still warm enough to permit it, they'd stockpiled the needed foodstuffs and supplies to survive a dark-skied winter which could keep them indoors for most of the season.

They were two hundred years and half a galaxy away from the Fall of Eye.

Safe. They were safe here.

Their names had changed--again--to protect the kids and they all wore bio-shields now. Jack wasn't willing to risk any more of his precious happiness. He'd be damned if he would be so careless as to allow danger to find an easy path to his doorstep.

Publically--not that they saw many people, living in a small colony on a tiny world in a distant corner of this largely unexplored galaxy--they weren't Jack and Ianto, Idris and Charley. They weren't even in the same timezone, now. He had to believe that the imperial warrants against Merlyn were expired after two centuries, but still they took precautions.

Merlyn had played decoy and disappeared in the modified escape pod, promising he'd find them soon. Six months on this planet and still no word. Ianto's and Charley's birthdays had come and gone--as had Merlyn's--and still, they waited with hope that their missing loved one could track their location without a path to follow. Merlyn had done it before, more than once, using Ianto's heartbeat like a long-distance sub-ether signal.

How many times now were they separated this way? But never so long--never more than a few days, a week or two. He was tired of running, tired of watching over his shoulder for those who would use his family as a method of forcing Merlyn's hand. He would rather stand and fight. But with Charley at his side? Against the Daleks and an endless horde of their human agents?

Durin II had to be different, here and now. He had to believe that, too.

After Merlyn's forced flight, he and Ianto and Idris had signed contracts with an out-going colony ship, headed for a new world beyond the easy grasp of the Empire. A new home, a new life beyond the reach of those who actively sought them. They had followed the usual plan, but with one big difference.

The long sleep aboard the colony ship. Merlyn wouldn't know about that part--he hadn't been in on the decision. That was Idris' idea and a good one. They could've used the white leather wriststrap with its enhanced vortex manipulator, but none of them were sure--yet--how Charley's DNA would react to a heightened shifting of chrononic energies outside a TARDIS. It was why they hadn't tried for a new timezone before now. He still didn't feel safe with the idea of taking Charley anywhere by vortex manipulator. He'd watched it ruin Merlyn's health with repeated use; he wouldn't risk their daughter even once if there was another way.

So, they'd gone down into cryo and slept away two hundred years of space travel.

He had to believe that Merlyn could sneak back into their last known location and find the message he'd left behind--they had, over only a few years, made contingency plan upon contingency plan--and, each time they were forced to split up, he had placed a single message in a pre-arranged spot. The message would be DNA-coded for his blond Welshman's unique genetics, a hologram note giving star map coordinates.

Hopefully, Merlyn could track them without the homing beacon of the bond his two Welshmen shared.

Was Merlyn dead?

Ianto seemed to believe so. Without some proof of their continuing bond, Ianto said, there was no way to know for certain. Perhaps it was the difference in timezone, perhaps it was distance. But, as his dark-haired husband pointed out, they were separated for incalculable distances before, and the bond had never wavered.

This was different, wrong.

So, now he lived a homesteader's life with the younger Welshman and their children, and tried to ignore the terrible hollow place in his heart which whispered in the darkness of night that he might never see his best friend again.

Had Merlyn gotten caught? Had the blond fought to the death, taking his enemies with him in a ferocious battle? Would Merlyn use all the filthy tricks up his sleeve--the legacy of John Hart's influence--in an effort to stay alive?

The darker part of his imagination knew that it was also likely that, surviving, Merlyn might decide to not return. How often had he seen the chronoticist, brutal and cruel and fierce to the very core when it came to his family, make a choice like that? Merlyn could--and might--weigh the options and decide that the collateral damage of a broken family and a ravaged heart were worth the kids' safety. His and Ianto's safety.

He might never know how it turned out.

Forever without answers was going to be difficult--until he finally forgot.

Charley slept on, her soft-warm breath soaking into his bare, hairless chest with the unrelenting rhythm of peace. Peace was good. He thought about previous Christmases and smiled to himself. He'd come to really appreciate the holiday early in the relationship he'd built with this little girl's father. It was more than a day off from whatever job he was doing. Charley was still young enough to believe in Father Christmas and Idris had taken on the duty of encouraging that belief, telling her stories of village Yuletime on the Eye of Orion.

The Doctor arrived yesterday afternoon bearing Christmas gifts for the children. Charley was given a key to the TARDIS and Idris received a portrait from the 19th century.

It was a portrait of Merlyn, painted during one of his visits to Earth with the Doctor. In the portrait, Merlyn sat at a desk covered with small tools and bits of clock. And that was the name of the painting. The Clockmaker.

It was a three-dimensional portrait. He wasn't sure what that meant but it looked so real, he felt like he should be able to say his husband's name and Merlyn would respond with a lazy, distracted 'Mmmm?'. The flames in the fireplace seemed to move. The light flickered over longish blond hair and the silver rim of Merlyn's spectacles, the rim of the wine glass. It felt like a room he could see but never enter--a real room.

He didn't want it and yet...the thing was hanging in their kitchen, where Idris put it.

The portrait bothered him more than the TARDIS key did. Maybe because--despite his dislike of it--he found a sense of comfort in looking at the thing and seeing Merlyn breathe behind glass. Even if it was just a painting.

Late last night, after Charley was asleep, he'd put out Father Christmas' gifts and filled the stockings with candies and trinkets. Ianto had found crackers, too--he wasn't sure where they'd come from, but they looked like the old-fashioned, traditional kind. It would be a good Christmas, even if they had lost a member of the family this year. It was important that Charley not feel too sharp a sting in the knowledge that her tad wasn't with them.

It was hard when Idris lit the candles after the Doctor left again. He'd seen it in his son's blue eyes--Merlyn should've been here, playing the old carols on his violin or humming as he cooked a special meal for their Christmas Eve tea. And bitching about his father.

He wished he knew where to find Merlyn. He'd use the wriststrap and go get the scientist himself. Two hundred years from where he'd seen Merlyn last, Jack lightly stroked his fingers over the soft, blonde curls of a little girl who needed him to be responsible. He couldn't go anywhere yet. He needed to be here for her.

It was for her sake--and Idris'--that they were so far from their starting point.

Secretly, between them, he and Ianto had decided that this was where the family would stay for the next century--barring a need for hasty flight. Idris and Charley would come to see Durin II as the homeworld in time. It was easy to imagine--unfairly easy--that the kids might grow old and die before ever laying eyes on their tad again.

Unfair. But, what in life could ever be judged fair?

He would get bored of this planet long before a century passed.

Unfair. Without Merlyn, it all seemed very unfair.

He knew what the Doctor would say. And he resented it.

Jack became aware that something different was happening. In the kitchen, Ianto and Idris was talking in slightly faster tones--their voices were still hushed, but the muffled words were changing, becoming sharper. Clearer.

He stiffened, focused on them. What was wrong? Something was wrong.

"Dad?" Idris said and something clanged--the copper kettle, from the sound of it.

"I don't know, I just--" Ianto answered, sounding surprised.

Their home was like most of the other Durin II homesteads, half underground and bricked with hempcrete blocks that held warm against the frozen winds and ice. There were only four rooms, set in a square pattern, with a tunnel which led to the work and storage sheds. There were hot water pipes under the floors, providing heat. The walls were thin. He could hear his husband and son clearly.

He shifted, intending to get up. Then he remembered Charley was with him.

In his arms, Charley stirred.

Jack glanced down at her just as she raised her face and looked at him with a quiet, sleepy gaze that grew sharp with thought between one breath and the next. She could hear their family's changing emotions. Pewter-dark eyes searched his features for an answer that wasn't forthcoming.

"I don't know." He murmured to her. "I should check, don't you think?"

She nodded, whispered huskily. "Daddy's scared. Something's wrong with Iddy's painting."

Jack's heart quickened, began to thump hard. 

Charley lay still, watching him as he slid his jeans on over the skin-snug thermals he wore as pyjama pants. She wore a set of her own, shirt and trousers, in union suit red. Her quiet gaze was thoughtful with concern--in the kitchen, Ianto's words had dropped back to an incomprehensible growl, and Idris--

Idris asked. "Should I go wake him up? We need to--"

As Jack bent and reached for the IG blaster which rested under the edge of the bed, the little blonde girl whispered again. "Dad? Something's coming...can you feel it? Daddy and Iddy are..."

He nodded grimly and, with the weapon in his hand, he bent over the bed and kissed her creased brow, murmuring against the warm, fragrant skin. "I know, baby, stay here. If you hear the gun go off, you run--okay? Use the service hatch and take the blanket, run for the work shed if you can. Stay there until one of us comes for you. Stay out of sight. Understand? Just...don't worry, okay? I got this."

Did he? He couldn't be sure.

His fear was made worse knowing that she could feel his uncertainty.

Jack, in just his jeans, crept away from the bed and toward the door.

He nudged it open with his shoulder and stepped through to find breakfast in its first stages. Ianto stood by the table's edge with a large brown-speckled egg in one hand and a sharp iron knife in the other, his gaze wide and disbelieving. Idris stood in front of the painting, his face tipped to the side as if he didn't understand what he was seeing.

Jack didn't understand what he was seeing, either.

Merlyn wasn't at the desk anymore. Instead, the painted figure stood by the fireplace, where a deep chair sat. In the chair was a leather sack.

Holding his weapon down by his thigh, he turned his gaze to look at Ianto. To see how the other man was taking this. What the hell was going on? Did Ianto have any ideas?

With his dark hair standing in cowlicky whorls at the crown of his head, Ianto still looked like he didn't believe his own eyes.

No. No help there.

Jack moved to stand at his husband's side and when he looked at the portrait again...

Merlyn stood before them, head cocked to the side, wearing a familiar crooked grin. He carried the leather sack over one shoulder and raised his hand--it moved at half the speed it should--to shoo two fingers at Idris.

When the wiry scientist's elbow slammed through the glass, Ianto took a step back against the table and stumbled, landing against a chair, which scooted and fell over. He dropped the egg. It slapped into the hempcrete floor wetly. The knife clanged.



Jack laid his IG blaster down on the table and bent to grasp Ianto's forearm, to haul him up. But he didn't take his eyes off the tall blond who came out of the painting as if stepping down into another room and nothing more.

His chronoticist had returned--at last--and now stood in the cozy kitchen with a leather sack slung over his shoulder. At its half-open flap, he could see a gaily-colored package.

Charley came to stand at his side, tousle-headed and wide-eyed.

He patted the little hand which wrapped protectively around his thigh now, but he only had eyes for the lanky man who opened his long arms for Ianto's rushing embrace.

From head to toe, it was his Merlyn--the best friend who had once sworn, with tears and fervent kisses, that--no matter what the cost--he'd always come home.

"Neat trick, Merlyn." His heart was calming but still raced and flipped. He smirked, glancing from the painting to the broken glass on the floor, and then back at the hybrid he loved. "Better than your last one."

Holding Ianto and Idris both in his arms, the chronoticist looked weary. But Merlyn's gray eyes sparkled with happy wetness behind his glasses. His voice was like rough corduroy and brown velvet and rich with joy. "Happy Christmas, Jack. Did I make it in time?"

The End

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