Pairing: duh. ;)
Challenge: Letters from the War
Notes: This is my first fanfic in a very long time, as I have a hard time writing, so feedback is craved...feedback keeps me alive. Unbeta'd.
It circles back on you, like a shark, Jack thinks. Just when you think you are done with memory, just when you're finally ready to let the past be past, Time throws some piece of flotsam on your shore, some remembrance of the shipwreck, and it brings everything back. The pain of things that cannot be reversed. The all-too-keen sensation, more ghost than memory, of skin on skin, of lips close to your ear, of the words you almost said, but didn't.
He holds the metal box in his hands. He knows the feel of it--that grainy, imperfect metal with the flaking olive drab paint--as though the war were yesterday. How can one event be so vivid, so wrenching, that it seems to eclipse centuries of history? He has seen the end of the world, and he has seen the first contact of races from the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, the advent of weapons ten times more deadly than Earth's nuclear arsenal, the birth of nations and planets, the downfall of entire civilizations. Why do seven years in the middle of the backward 20th century on a backward little planet keep coming back to haunt him, again and again? And why, of all of the strange and horrible and miraculous and tragic occurences of those seven years, does one night in Cardiff during the Blitz haunt him most of all?
One finger runs along the tattered edge of a sheet of paper, yellow with age, filled with neat, cramped writing--a letter that was never sent. The box is full of them. Jack hadn't meant to find the box at all; it had come to him, like the orphan child of that one night, arriving in his life just when he'd thought that the poignant memory would remain just that. Torchwood had been on site at an abandoned RAF station, inactive since the war, tracking some strange energy readings. It was then that he found the box, or that it found him, hidden in the dust beneath a bunk in the long-defunct officers' quarters. Jack Harkness' bunk.
Jack waited until they got back to the Hub, until he was locked alone in his own quarters, before he broke the lock open and let memory assail him.
I've been transferred from London to Cardiff. (That's in Wales. The country next to England?) You would love it here. The countryside is beautiful--well, when it's not raining and you can see it, anyway, and the people are very friendly. I've been put in charge of a Squadron...I know, I've come so far since joining the RCAF just a year ago! But it's not me...I'm nothing special. The Squadrons just keep getting smaller and smaller, as more guys get shot. The Jerries (that's what they call 'em over here) just keep coming. Like an endless wave. Some days I really don't think we can win this thing. Some days I feel like we are all going to fight and die...for nothing. Of course I can't tell the men that, so I just sit in here and write letters. Don't worry. I'll send you one with all that edited out. I love you and miss you,
He had touched the bare springs, gingerly. They were covered in rust, and could certainly no longer hold the weight of a human body. Time did that, he thought. Instead of making everything more bearable, some things it made less bearable--the weight of words never said, of moments that could have gone differently. He imagined that other Jack Harkness lying on this bunk, the springs bowed gently beneath his warm, solid body. Did he return to it, alone, that night?
Jack's hand strokes over the surface of the letter, now. Sets it aside. Some of them are just brief scribbles, really--tiny, hastily recorded fragments of a life he finds himself envying and mourning with a heaviness that it seems will never ease. The words, though confined forever to these brittle pages, seem to ring with an innocence, a forthrightness that Jack himself has never had. Maybe once, he thinks, long ago, he viewed the world with just such a mixture of optimism and fear, but those feelings are long gone, now. To feel that way, a man has to believe in the basic goodness of things. Jack doesn't. He's seen it all go to shit so many times; maybe that's why the Second World War attracts him so much--when he's there, he witnesses a last moment just before the victors begin the long and inevitable slide into post-modern corruption. It's a bubble of optimism for the United States and Britain, a false picture of moral imperative, something that so many people believe in. For the briefest of moments, it's beautiful.
He closes his eyes, just for a second.
Jack smiles down at Flight Sergeant Wilkes as he fastens the helmet strap beneath his chin. "All ready to go?" He asks, because, while his name might be on the fuselage, the plane belongs to the crew chief. He just borrows it. Wilkes, with his tidy British moustache and uniform that always looks miraculously clean, gives a snappy salute. "Whenever you are, sir."
It's early morning, and the sun is climbing over the hills to the east, as though there were no war at all. Jack's eyes are unfocused, looking for a moment beyond the instrument panel before him, looking into the memory of last night. Then he mentally shakes himself and begins the pre-flight. Magneto switch on. Pump the foot pedals a couple times, making sure the flaps and ailerons swish through the air like they're supposed to. Check the generator power levels. When they rise to the white line, he slowly brings the throttle from cutoff to idle. Memory tugs at his chest and he tips his head back, letting it drown in the roar of his Merlin 45 engine sputtering to life.
Dear Mom and Dad,
They hit us pretty hard today. It's a feeling that no pilot can really bear, that knowledge that you just can't get up fast enough to stop the bombs from falling, to stop people somewhere from dying. Maybe we're all just arrogant bastards (Dad, don't you say anything!) but I think all of us feel like it's our job, solely ours, to stop all loss of life. When you're up there, in the sky, and you can see the earth stretching from horizon to dim horizon, you feel like something other than human...something more. As if you could reach out and hold all that life in your one hand and protect it. From everything. I wish I could have protected Shannon that way...protected her from death that came too soon. I think about my sister a lot, even though it's been so many years. Twelve? I feel closer to her here than ever.
Jack's leaned back in his chair, staring at the wall when Ianto arrives with his coffee. He looks up, manages a soft smile. "Thanks."
Ianto turns at the door, looking at him, eyes seeming to catalogue Jack's thoughts and feelings as they are displayed on his face. "Sir?"
"Is everything all right?"
Jack grins. "Of course. Just thoughtful."
Ianto nods and leaves, either believing him, or being, as always, perfectly discrete. Jack leans forward onto his elbows, hands in his hair. Another lie...they're so easy to tell. He wonders what Jack Harkness would have done. And he remembers the open vulnerability on the pilot's face. He would have told the truth. He doesn't touch his coffee; instead, his hand drifts down to the drawer in which he keeps the box of letters.
I guess if I'm going to keep up pretenses of writing letters to people who will never read them, I owe one to you. This is hard and strange.
Well, to start, I'm in Wales, at a lovely little bunker in the hills called RAF Lansberg. I'm commanding a squadron, too...bet you never thought I'd come to this, huh? Me, your annoying little brother who used to try to scare you by putting frogs and worms in your sock drawer--well, here I am. I don't know if you'd be proud of me or not. I'm not sure I'm proud of myself, really. It's just something that sort of happened. After I joined the Army, I was pretty sure I'd just be flying those T-6's for the rest of my life. Little did we know Hitler was really gonna do it, right? So now here I am, Squadron Leader. That's like a Captain in the American air corps. The men are all really great, really eager "blokes" who fly very well together--I hardly feel like I have to do any leading. It's hard, though, to see how young they are (at twenty-seven, I'm definitely the "old man") and how afraid, though they try not to show it. They see their brothers in arms get shot out of the sky every day, and they still go up. I love them. I'd do anything for them.
He pushes the stick slightly to the left. The little Spitfire bumps forward, pulled by its growling propeller through the rays of early morning. The radio is strangely silent except for Tower giving the takeoff order. He wonders...wonders how much of it was real and how much of it anyone saw. Or did it happen in his head alone? The tingle of the kiss is still on his lips and he lifts his blue eyes to the bubble of his canopy, the pupils contracting as fractured light hits them. Perhaps he, too, could disappear into it, fading from the world as James Harper had. If he tries hard enough.
"Two is go," says Tower's tinny voice on his radio. Jack is Three today. He queues up, engine thrumming now, restrained by the air brakes. He fishtails a bit to keep his speed low.
"Three is go," says Tower, as Two rumbles down the runway and lunges into the glowing sky. Jack puts the flaps down, pushes the throttle up, and his Spitfire begins to race down the strip. The squat huts of the Command Center go by, blurred into a streak of olive drab by the speed of his aircraft. He tugs the stick back towards him once he's reached take off speed, and the Spitfire's nose lifts, the wheels stop rumbling as he leaves the earth.
As the days go by, Jack feels changed. It's nothing earth-shaking...well, not catastrophically so, he amends with a wry smile. It's more like a subtle shift, like returning to your house after it's been robbed. You might be able to replace the thing that was stolen--it might not even be that important of a thing--but forever after, something has changed. You don't feel the same sense of security you felt before. Jack supposes he's done enough burgling in his day to deserve a taste of what the victim might feel. Something's been stolen out of him, something small but perhaps fundamental in ways he can't even begin to know. The first time afterwards that he introduced himself to someone as "Captain Jack Harkness," he felt it. That name he'd stolen, slipping back through the strands of time; he'd come to think of it as his, after so long. Now, like a found dog that's finally remembered its way home, it slips away, leaving him strangely bereft. Every time he says his name now, he will remember the small, desperate intake of breath that Group Captain Jack Harkness uttered just as they kissed. He will remember the long, dark lashes fluttering closed in the light of the Rift. That name belongs with the man: dead, buried in a hero's grave. But Jack has never learned to be very good at giving things back.
Wow, writing these fake letters to you is a lot easier than writing them to Mom and Dad. Don't worry, I still write to them, of course, but I don't tell them the things I'd like to tell them. They keep asking me if I'm all right, and they keep telling me about the girls back home--those childhood friends and sweethearts I've almost forgotten. They worry. Maybe they think if I had someone to come back to, I'm more likely to survive. That's a funny thought, isn't it? The thought that I might die. Sure, I acknowledge it when I'm up there, in some part of my mind, but I've never really thought that it could happen. That it might happen. If I think about that, I'll be too terrified to move, too scared to lead my men. So I don't. I push it away, just like I have to push away the deaths of those under my command that sometimes inevitably happen. I wish I did have someone, sometimes. I wish there was someone I could talk to, to ease the fear a little.
I fear myself, too. I'm afraid when I'm dancing with those girls, Shannon, because I don't love them--don't even really want them. It's a feeling that's been growing stronger and stronger every day, and I wish I could shut it out. I'm afraid that if anyone knew who I really wanted to dance with, they'd kill me or worse. Which reminds me I'd better buy a good lock for this box of letters. Haha.
The letters are addressed to a variety of people: Jack Harkness' mother and father, his dead sister, and even one to Nancy. But Jack finds himself believing, after a few days of reading them, slowly, as if to savor them--that they are letters to him. He knew so little about the life of the man whose name he took, he realizes. Jack Harkness was just a convenient statistic--a dead hero with significant rank in the RAF, someone whose records could be easily altered and his life assumed by someone else. Only now, Jack knows, he never could have stepped into that life, or filled those shoes. Jack Harkness is real--he lived, breathed, yearned, feared, and loved. Jack, in the guise of James Harper, had only been able to see the smallest tip of the iceberg, the tiniest piece of the passion and vulnerability of Captain Jack Harkness.
Jack feels a growing sense of awe, like a seed in his heart. He doesn't know if he believes in fate. But how lovely, he decides, how perfect and tragic, that Jack Harkness was the name he took, and the life he unwittingly chose to emulate.
He buries his head in his hands, sitting at his desk late one night. The team has gone home. He lets memory and wonder wash over him like warm water. I'll earn this, he thinks. It's like a promise.
Dear Mom and Dad,
How are things at home? I've been too busy lately to really keep up with the news from back in the States; I've been assigned to RAF Cardiff, a few miles away from where I am now. There you go--that's one for the censors. But I like the feeling of writing to you about where I am and what I'm doing, because it makes me feel a little more hopeful that way. Not that things are too bad, so don't worry about me. The worst part is the bombing, of course. When they hit there's really nothing you can do except hide out in the shelters and wait for it to be over. These people are so brave...to have to live with that fear every night, and still go on with business as usual during the day, as much as they can...well, that's true courage. At least when I'm up in my plane I have guns to protect me. They have nothing but church basements and tin helmets.
The guys in the Squadron are my heroes. They're great pilots, getting better every day. I have the feeling that soon they'll be able to teach this "old man" a thing or two! I really feel protective of them, like I am their old man...(and you joked, Dad, about me never getting married and having kids...well I'm still not married but I have about 70 kids now!) I worry over these boys night and day. Sometimes we lose some. I can still remember their faces. That's the thing they don't tell you about war: how hard it is to feel like these people you know and rely on and even love are getting constantly yanked from under you like rocks crumbling from a cliff face. The feeling that life is so--short. So small and helpless.
But I do what I can to make sure that doesn't happen. We get through it, day by day, just as I'm sure you do, back home. I love you and miss you.
That one, also never sent. Jack surfs around the internet on his own time and discovers that then-Squadron Leader Harkness became a triple ace the next day, and lost four members of his squadron on the same combat sortie. Jack closes his eyes, a painful smile tugging at his lips. I know what that feels like, Captain. I wish I could have told you. He remembers the blue eyes as deep as lakes, and the pain welling to the surface. He remembers the soft grip of strong fingers, the need to know, to understand that someone else knew. War has such an untold cost; it molds a human being into something new, sometimes destroys them, sometimes makes them stronger. Jack knows that Captain Harkness, had he lived, would have been stronger. Possibly, he thinks, stronger than he, Jack, could ever be.
He reads the rest of the letters over the next couple of days. Some of them are genuinely addressed to Jack Harkness' family, and just never mailed for one reason or the other. Most are private, the hurried, crossed-out script of a confession, but Jack Harkness has nothing to confess. Only that he might love men more than he loves women. Jack follows his namesake through two more promotions, through countless loveless dances, troubled dreams, glorious flights, and harrowing combats. The last two letters he almost can't bring himself to open, because the very last one is dated the day before Group Captain Jack Harkness died. He spends days, turning them over and over in his fingers, feeling the brittle, old paper whisper to him. Something is throbbing near his heart, something hard and painful. Time is a funny thing.
Sun streaks the mottled wings of their Spitfires, turning the camo paint into burning silver. How they flash in the sun! Jack smiles to himself, around the tightness in his throat. He banks easily left, taking the lead position in his Flight. He has a duty to accomplish, and he can't allow himself to think of what's past. But James Harper's words keep coming back to him, and he finds a painful truth. Who knows how much time any of us has left? I should have--
He can't complete the thought. The memory of James' lips on his own, opening his mouth, sharing a love, a closeness he never thought possible, stops all thought. There is only that feeling, only that moment, the strange alien light shining all around them, the other dancers fading away into nothingness, and the feeling of the other Captain's soft breath in his mouth, promising that he isn't wrong to feel as he does...because there is only one thing called Love, no matter who is experiencing it.
Jack lets out a shaky breath, straightening his Spitfire out into a shallow dive as he does. The sun has climbed in the sky and the world all around is colorless brilliance.
What's the cost of living the way you know you're made to live? Hatred? Death? It would be worth it. I'm only free when I'm flying, Shan. On the ground I feel trapped by so many things...the war, my rank, my duty, and the way the world is. If we can build machines that let us leave the ground and dance on the trails of air, then why can't we accept each other for who we really are? Is it so wrong to feel a certain way, just because society tells you it's wrong? Who makes the rules, and why do they make them that way?
No, I haven't found anyone, but I also can't look. I'm always going to be alone, and maybe I should just accept that. After all, there are more important things happening in the world than me being lonely. There are things to do, things I have to do. Sometimes, when I'm feeling so alone, though, I take that feeling and I expand it. I think about flying, about how the sky is so infinite all around you, and I make the feeling be that way--enormous, all-encompassing. I turn the loneliness, that love I know I could feel for someone given the right chance, into a sort of vastness. I imagine it not directed towards a single person (because I'll never find anyone), but instead towards everyone, everything. I love my men, my Squadron, my Wing, and my Group, with a love that is stretched this way. I turn it towards them, because I can't ever have someone I want, someone to love me back. That's the cost. Not so bad, right? A love that can cover the earth.
Someday this war will be over, and what then? I hope I can remember that feeling, so impossible here in the middle of death and bombs and all that hate and fear. I hope I can live a good life, Shan. I love you.
He finally reads the last letter, on a day when it's raining and the endless blue of the sky is hidden from those on the ground. He sits in a secret, favorite spot, with the box of letters beside him, on top of a roof in the shelter of a maintenance shed, and after watching the clouds pour their grief onto the hapless earth for awhile, he lifts the last letter and opens its crisp fold.
It is addressed, finally, to him, and it is painfully brief.
You changed my life.
I don't even know where to find you, because you disappeared, like maybe we all do in the end.
Were you real?
I know I'll never see you again.
Jack lets his head fall back against the wall of the maintenance shed, and he closes his eyes. The knot near his heart tightens unbearably, until he thinks he might die from it. Why did he kiss Captain Jack Harkness that night? Pity? Guilt? Love? He doesn't know, and maybe never will, but he feels he owes some sort of answer, and speaking aloud to the cold air, to the unrelenting march of Time, he says it.
"Because I'm sorry."
The Messerschmitts come out of the brightness, almost before Jack can radio that he's seen something, flickering in the light. Immediately he pulls into a turning climb; it's not the best maneuver, but the Spitfire Mk.V is a good match for the climbing power of the Messerschmitt, and he knows that he has to get to high ground, fast. Bullets streak past his tail, close enough to rattle the little ship. He looks back and sees that the Jerry leader has taken the bait--climbing to meet him. Jack plunges his foot down on the left pedal and slams the stick to the side, executing a tight roll, drifting there for a second until the earth tugs at him and he's falling. Then he brings the stick back, pulling out of a shallow dive, and he's on the Messerschmitt's tail. He opens fire without hesitation, and rakes the swastika'ed tail and wings. The Messerschmitt jolts and the pilot pops his lid, bailing out of his dead plane.
When Jack sees that Riley is in trouble, he doesn't pause. His guns find the enemy, and he feels a fierce, sad joy. He knows that he's destroying life, but he also knows that he's preserving it. That's the cost of war--that bitterness of give-and-take. "You're all right now, Riley!" He says over the radio, with a grin.
"Thank you, sir!" Comes back the bright young voice, laughing even in the midst of death.
Jack's heart soars. The sun is bursting all around him, brighter, and brighter, filling his heart with so much wonder at the beauty of this damned world that he can scarcely even feel the bullets pierce. His Spitfire skids across the sky, screaming at the hit, but even as it falls to earth, Jack is stretching out his arms, he's becoming one with the light. He's flying.