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Feast of All Fools

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The German officer thrust Jack through the door with sufficient force to sent him sprawling across the stone floor. His head cannoned into the opposite wall and he came to an abrupt and painful stop. Through the mist of pain he could hear the heavy door clanging shut, and the sounds of booted heels retreating down the passage to the guard-room.

A voice spoke out of the swirling, sparkling dark; husky, English, barely more than a breath.

"Welcome - to my humble abode. Though it is not so wide as a church door - not the doors of St John ad Portam Latinam, anyway. The little Thipps did a good job with those. They had the worm, you know; the worm i'the bud, feeding on their damask cheek - poetic licence, of course; oak not damask. Oak of England. ancient oak: Ancient Pistol, hanging, hanging there in France. And Bardolph, too. Looters and deserters all: hangings of Arras. They seem so still, after, but ha! I see movement. A rat, a rat in the arras! Yes, sir, Arras has plenty of them. It's good eating for rats, round here. The men have been wondering, begging your pardon sir, it being Derby Day back home, or near enough, if they might have your permission to hold a rat race? One bright spot, sir: no danger out here of any suffragette throwing herself in front of the King's rat. No; but they can't run with their tails tied together, don't you see, man? We were tied together, that was why we couldn't run, we couldn't run -"'

Jack, somehow, scrambled to his feet and stumbled across the cell, slumping down by the other prisoner and running quick, soothing hands across his face and body, trying to inventory the damage in the light from the cell window.

The other man was bruised, battered and filthy. Dried blood from a split lip had run into the straggly growth of a week or so's fair beard.

Of course, the patrol who had caught Jack had stripped him of weapons, papers, and hip-flask. He divested himself of his upper garment, shivering suddenly in the cell's chill air. He turned the battledress inside out, found the relevant patch on the inside, moistened it with his tongue, and applied it to the other prisoner's lips.

And waited.

The chemical cocktail impregnating that square inch of cloth was one of his own devising, a legacy from his Time Agency days; something which, last time he'd been in a position to check, had been banned in six separate galaxies. It couldn't – whatever rumour claimed – raise the dead (he was still looking for the substance that could bring off that particular trick himself. And, more pertinently, its antidote). But it could certainly cope with malnutrition, dehydration, ruptured spleen, broken ribs, shock and incipient hypothermia.

In about five minutes the other prisoner propped himself up on one elbow, ran his hand over his features as though surprised they were still intact, and smiled ruefully at Jack.

"I – um – get the impression I may have been babbling, somewhat."

"Sure were," Jack confirmed. "Definitely not confining yourself to name, rank and serial number."

The other man winced.

"Not that I'd worry," Jack added, belatedly. "Judging by what you were coming out with when I arrived, I guess somewhere on this base there's an intelligence officer with a bad headache. And a greatly improved knowledge of English poetry."

The other man gave a brief grunt of what might have been amusement. "And speakin' of name, rank and serial number?" he probed delicately.

"Captain Jack Harkness." He paused. "No serial number. I'm kinda an irregular."

The other man's eyes narrowed. "I trust you didn't mention that to our German friends out there. They seem to have a pointed dislike of – irregulars."

"You too, huh? Name, then?"

"Wimsey. Peter Wimsey."

It wasn't as if there'd ever been much actual doubt; the photographs he'd been supplied with were recent and, besides, he'd seen the man a time or three over the preceding decades. Always from a distance, of course. Still, Jack permitted himself a brief whistle of relief.

"That's good. I'd hate to think I'd gone to all this trouble to rescue the wrong man."

Wimsey said nothing, though his look at the locked door of cell was eloquent. Jack propped his back against the wall of the cell, crossed his legs, and smiled. "You've gotta have context. Sure, it's a locked door – "

"Of which we are currently on the wrong side."

"Now, that's part of the context. You see, when the orders came to rescue you – "

Wimsey's brows went up. "Harriet deciphered the code, then?"

His face relaxed into a curious sort of ease as he named his wife, though his brow furrowed a little as he continued. "Even so, I mentioned routes plans three and eight. Bunter and I tossed a coin for who got which. Neither of them included being imprisoned on a Nazi base for espionage. Nor the involvement of – ah – irregulars from non-combatant nations."

Jack smiled. "Ah, that would be your outfit's contingency plans. But, then, I'm not your outfit. I'm Torchwood."

Wimsey, from all he'd been able to glean, had a formidable reputation for being unflappable. Still, Jack acknowledged a faint flicker of satisfaction, he couldn't quite control the muscles at the corners of his mouth, which tensed slightly. The name had struck a chord. Good. Operating outside the Government, beyond the League of Nations was all very well, but Jack would have hated to think he was the sort of news that didn't get around.

And – yes, this Wimsey was just as good as they said he was. He'd registered Jack's reaction. His next words put it beyond doubt. "Torchwood? I – ah – didn't think I came within the remit of you chaps." He looked down at his bruised wrists and hands, turning them over and over, as though wondering whether they were about to mutate into tentacles.

"Torchwood looks after its own," Jack said.

Wimsey raised an eyebrow. "'Scuse me? If you don't mind my mentionin' it, that sounds even more off kilter than the rest of what you've been spoutin' since you arrived in my cell." He narrowed his eyes. "Arrived improperly dressed by any outfit's standards. Captain."

"Only two people who can say what's appropriate wear for the situation," Jack said, making no move to resume his discarded battledress. It would be needed soon enough, and not around his torso. "Those two being a) the man on the ground – that would be me – and, b) my commanding officer – which wouldn't be you. And my C/O was quite specific about my orders."

He took a deep breath. His tongue explored a certain filling in one of his molars, activating the Fraterculan auxiliary memory storage device implanted there. Precision was vital: merely human recall wouldn't do. His voice adjusted automatically to the unfamiliar, remembered pitch as the recording began.

"I'm glad, Captain Harkness, that I don't have to worry about you getting entangled in all this nonsense about who is supposed to be where and what the rules let you do and whether you'll still be treated as an officer if you have to disguise yourself as a sheep, or something and then get caught – not that I'm expecting you to get caught and it isn't as if it's Wales we're sending you into, though no doubt you could carry even that off with aplomb if you had to. After all, we Delagardies wouldn't have got out of France at all in 1791 if great-great-grandmamma hadn't been prepared to dress up as a fisher-girl, and stow away with her little boy on a mackerel boat, down in the what-do-you call-them, the bilges, and how it must have smelt and not at all romantic, not like those absurd books that Orczy woman produced about it; almost enough to make one turn Bolshevik on the spot, and as for that old man with his cats'-cradle there's far more solid deduction in half a paragraph of Robert Templeton than in a whole shelf-full of those, and I never did care for tea-shops, anyway, not that I'm biased – though of course you can't help being, not when it's family, however much one tries and so, Captain Harkness, I do know you are going to do everything you can to bring Peter back to us, aren't you?"

He ran out of breath, and stopped. Wimsey was looking at him rather as if he had, indeed, sprouted tentacles. "My mother – is Torchwood?"

Jack shrugged. "Ya think you were the only member of your family reinstated to your former rank for the duration, Major Wimsey?"

While Wimsey was still digesting that, Jack added, "The Dowager Duchess goes back a long way with our organisation. Even further back than me. Recruited by the Founder in person, they tell me. To check out an haematovore that'd insinuated itself into the Prince of Wales's set."

"Given the normal crop of bloodsuckers who followed Bertie around, I'm surprised anyone could tell," Wimsey muttered.

Jack smiled. "So his mother thought. At least, until they got Honoria Delagardie on the job. She must've been quite something back in the day. If she hadn't quit to become a Duchess, who knows where Torchwood might have gone?"

Who knows, with the Duchess in charge maybe Torchwood would have fulfilled the Prime Objective under its Charter.

It was, after all, very cold in the cell. So that, very definitely, was a merely a shiver.

Not a shudder.

There came the sound of footsteps running down the corridor. He cocked his head on one side; one set of booted feet sounded much like another, of course -

The door opened, and a slight, blond figure burst through, turning as he did so, grabbing at the keys which jangled from his uniform belt, and locking the door behind him before turning to face the other two inhabitants of the cell.

At the sight of the German guard, Wimsey's eyebrows achieved a positively Himalayan altitude. Jack waved his hand in an explanatory gesture.

"Wimsey, meet Heinz. Heinz; Major Wimsey." He looked at Wimsey, who clearly regarded the introduction as missing certain essential elements, and added, "Heinz is a friend of Christopher's, you see."

Wimsey's eye travelled up the German's body from the soles of his boots to the crown of his sleekly brushed, immaculately-parted blond hair. "You do surprise me." He coughed. "But – his presence here?"

Jack beamed. "Heinz put me in here in the first place."

Wimsey eyed the locked door again. "And you see that as a strategic gain because - ?"

At that moment a small axe came sailing between the bars of the window and buried itself in the wood of the cell door. Wimsey approached it and examined it gingerly. Jack, who knew what to expect, didn't bother. It would have a shimmering blue-grey blade, be cast in a particularly hideous shape and stained with the brains and blood of some poor unfortunate who'd presumably passed beyond the stage of regretting their loss. Its handle would be wrapped in filthy leather strips tanned (inexpertly) from the skin of some mutant creature. And it stank.

Jack crossed the room, picked up his battledress, and brought the shoulder badge down, smartly, against the spare button stitched to the inside seam just below the left arm-pit. The air in the cell shuddered sideways, solid objects rippled in and out of reality for a second or so. He saw Wimsey turn green and Heinz turn away, retching drily, before the cell established itself once more.

"What the Hell was that?" Wimsey demanded.

Jack shrugged. "Necessary." He nodded towards the axe. "The next one would have might ended up in your skull."

"It what?"

He smiled, cold-eyed. "Sorry. Forgot the English language won't have need of the future temporal dislocated tense for a couple of millennia yet. Anyway. Sorry about the nausea. Common side effect of time-slips."

Over by the slop bucket, Heinz was still making his internal distress at the temporal anomaly felt.
Both of them ignored him.

"Time-slips. Where – when are we?"

Jack suppressed the impulse to applaud Wimsey's perspicacity.

"About thirty seconds ahead of the action. Time enough."

Wimsey, apparently taking him at his word, went to the window, hoisting himself up on the bars and peering out. He dropped back down to the cell floor and turned towards Jack, his face unreadable.

"What are those creatures?"

Jack shrugged. "Hard to say. Soft place between worlds, right about here. Not quite a Rift – that wouldn't be something we could mess with. Not even to save the son of our Founder's special protégée. But – from time to time there are incursions. Mostly self-correcting. And if the Germans are fool enough to put a base here – " He shrugged. "Something would have come through sooner or later. Just convenient for us that it happened sooner."

The noises from outside rose to a crescendo, then died away. The silence became almost solid. Wimsey hoisted himself up to the bars of the window again. This time, when he looked at Jack, he had the air of a man who was trying rather hard to keep control of his feelings.

"All of them? All those strutting geese and their gander, at one fell swoop?"

Jack nodded. "To the last man." He gestured at Heinz. "Heinz, here, being the last man." He turned to the German officer and said, in German, "Well? Do you still want me to knock you out and have you take your chances when the relief force arrives? Or take my advice? Sweden's a nice place. Just imagine: in thirty years you'll have Abba, Volvo and Bjorn Borg. The second highest suicide rate in Europe, too, but nothing's perfect."

By way of answer Heinz reached for the keys at his belt, scrabbled, briefly, at the door and bolted through it, leaving it swinging open behind him. The sounds of his boots, retreating down the echoing corridor, were the only noise on the whole of that empty base.

"Come," Jack said, putting his battledress back on. "I'd better be getting you back to your unit. Plan three – or is it eight? – is waiting for you."

Wimsey stood his ground, feet slightly apart, looking at him across that grimy cell with cool grey eyes whose expression could have cut through the battle-plating on an Aythyafuligulan space cruiser.

"Tell me what those – " He shrugged in the direction of the window. "Tell me what they are."

"Not here."

Jack's response came automatically. Seeing Wimsey's expression he tempered it, slightly.

"Too close. Too close to the soft place to name them."

He paused, but the man before him had earned this much. "There are some people – who need to live close to the soft places. And who understand – a little. They don't always get it right." Jack' s heart turned over, thinking of Estelle; gallant, bewildered, believing Estelle. His voice, when he could speak again, was harsh. "You know Oxford, I guess?"

"Of course."

"Right then. There's a pub. On St Giles. They call it The Bird and Baby. Be in it four weeks from now. Your people will have gotten you home by then. No opposition left. Be seeing you. Thursday of that week."

Wimsey's lips parted, almost in a smile. Jack felt himself fading, let the temporal anomaly take him. Almost with the last capacity open to him he heard Wimsey say, "Never could get the hang of Thursdays. Which reminds me: Mama always told me; ‘If you get the chance, make sure you pass on best regards to that nice Mr Dent.’"

________________

The little group in the back room of the pub looked up, momentarily affronted, but seeing Wimsey, so much a feature of the Master of Balliol's luncheons, and Jack, otherwise so well known to them, they subsided back into their chairs. Both new arrivals were carrying their own pints, anyway.

The reader at the back hardly paused.

"So flew through the narrow aperture that vented onto that grim dungeon Grimnir, axe of the Orc-folk, the Thane-Cleaver (for so it had been named in writings obscured for years from the sight of men). The foul metal of its blade – long worked in the pits of Morgoth – tremored with an unwholesome iridescence, the evil shape proclaimed its foulness to the world; its haft – long bound with the half-tanned fells of foul, unnamed beasts, reeked wrongness to the heavens.

"And behind it the Orcs followed rejoicing in their deeds of slaughter, until all of that encampment lay dead beneath their ravening blade - save for the unlooked-for prisoners deep in the dungeons (long lost from sight and sore indeed their loss)."

He paused to lift his pint to his lips. And in that pause Wimsey turned.

"Y'know. I think he's playing our song."