The Discovery, by Kaneko
Notes: 2,700 words in response to the Exposure Challenge. Thank you to julad and giddygeek.
There were reports of a yellow (or blue or maybe orange) meteor, and Tosh's scans showed that something had landed in the approximate vicinity of Yr Elen.
"But that's miles away," Owen said, sounding as horrified as if the reports were of serial killings. "In the mountains."
"That's right," Jack said. He was smiling as though he couldn't think of anything better in the world than traipsing about the Welsh countryside, just weeks after it had almost eaten them. Or maybe he was smiling like a sadist. It was difficult to tell with Jack sometimes. He looked around expectantly. "Who's coming?"
"Thing is," Gwen said, and she really did look disappointed, "I kind of had a date. With Rhys. But-"
"No, no," Jack said. His smile disappeared. "You've got a life, remember?"
"Right," Gwen said. She looked down at the report she'd been filling out. "Yes."
"Any other volunteers?" Jack said, and when Ianto glanced up, Jack was looking at him hopefully. "Anyone?"
Ianto felt his heart start to sink. He'd never been a big fan of the outdoors - and he'd disliked it even before he'd almost been eaten by cannibals, so it was a proper, genuine, nothing-therapy-could-do-anything-about personal preference. He could already see where this was going, though. It was going to be him trekking up the mountain and probably him carrying all the bags. He always did get the shitty jobs. He kept his mouth determinedly shut, and after a long moment Jack turned his gaze to Owen.
"Oh, it's just that I'm really, really busy," Owen said. "With-" He gestured vaguely towards the autopsy table with his coffee mug, then seemed to realise the table was empty. "Um." He shrugged. "Yeah, basically, I just don't want to go."
Jack smiled warmly. "That's fine," he said. "Because I really, really needed someone to start on the annual expenditure report anyway." He ignored Owen's groan and Ianto's belated "Oh, but I wouldn't mind starting on the-" and headed to the door. "Perk of being the boss," he said. "I get to pick. Ianto-" he glanced at Ianto, and Ianto felt his heart sink even more. "You're with me." "Tosh, could you stay and provide intel?"
"Not a problem," Tosh said. "Oh," she added. She looked up from her screen. "Better pack your waterproofs. It's raining up there."
It wasn't raining up there, it was bucketing, as only Wales could bucket. No waterproof in the world could have withstood it. Ianto's certainly hadn't. His hair was soaked under his hood. His socks squelched. Even his elbows chafed unpleasantly when he hoisted his backpack higher. He blinked rain out of his eyes and trailed miserably behind the blank wall of Jack's back and shoulders.
They'd been hiking in near-silence for nearly three hours - it had taken two just to get to the base of Yr Elen. The climb itself wasn't particularly steep, but the ground was pebbly and grassy and lethally slippery, and Ianto couldn't remember when he'd last been so wet for so long. They hadn't seen a single other person since the Spar shop in Gerlan, where the man at the counter had given them a hiking map and said, "It's pissing down, you nitwits". Right now, they could have been alone in the universe but for Tosh's voice crackling occasionally in their ears, saying things like "Change course three degrees west", or "Sorry, no, my mistake. That should have been two degrees west". Or, horribly cheerfully, "Not too far now. Honest".
"We won't have the light for much longer," Ianto blurted into the silence, hoping he sounded practical rather than grumbly. He didn't think he'd quite managed it. "It's already going to take us three hours to get back."
Jack looked back at him over his shoulder. He actually looked pretty miserable too. His teeth were chattering. "Are you tired?" he said to Ianto. "We could stop for a bit." He shrugged off his backpack and started to unzip it. "I think I have some chocolate in here somewhere."
Ianto pushed up his sleeve with some difficulty to look at his watch. The rain smeared the glass face almost instantly, but not before he'd glimpsed the time. Four o'clock. He sighed. "No, we'd best continue. Don't want to be walking round here in the dark."
"You really are almost there," Tosh said suddenly in their ears. "Can you see anything?"
Ianto looked around. He could see wet rocks, wet grass and wet, wet sheets of rain.
There was a pause as Jack looked around too. "Nothing yet." He clicked off his earpiece. "Just for a minute," he said to Ianto. "I could do with the rest."
He helped Ianto slip his backpack off and then coaxed him to sit on the muddy ground. ("You're already dirty and wet.") Ianto winced at the unpleasant squelch when he sat. The SUV was going to be hell to clean. He looked up and found Jack grinning fondly at him. "We can put sheets down in the car," he said, as though Ianto had voiced the thought. He produced a Mars Bar from his pack and broke it in two. "So what do you think?" he said, handing Ianto half. "Ordinary meteorite?"
"Hard to know." Ianto cupped his hand under the chocolate as he bit into it - more out of habit than to catch any crumbs. Jack was right - between the rain and the mud he was already hopelessly filthy. He chewed and swallowed. "The colours don't necessarily mean anything - most likely elements in the rock vaporising in the atmosphere."
"Maybe," Jack said.
They sat quietly for a while, eating their chocolate while the rain pattered onto them. Thunder rumbled distantly. Ianto glanced at Jack sideways while he ate. He watched Jack's eyes go distant. The longer they sat, the more Jack seemed to freeze into a kind of emotional stillness. He stared at nothing much, eating neatly and quickly like it was fuel and not food. All trace of the fond smile disappeared until his face seemed as blank as a stone.
Ianto finished his chocolate and wiped his fingers carefully on a damp handkerchief. When he shifted his weight, the mud under him resisted glueily. He shuddered. "What do you think it is?" he said - more to break the silence than anything else, to change the expression on Jack's face.
Jack didn't say anything, and for a long, horrible moment it was as though Ianto was alone on that cold hill with a statue. Then his face relaxed. "Oh I don't know," he said. "Alien lights. A Spinex ship. A gang of Kracs. They fluoresce when they're angry."
Ianto eyed him. He wasn't sure if he was being teased.
"Maybe an emissary from Weevil World?" Jack suggested. He ate the last of his Mars Bar in two bites, then stood up, holding out a hand to help Ianto to his feet. "Aren't you dying to find out?"
Ianto gripped Jack's hand and shivered. Cold rain dripped down his face, down his neck, down his ankles into his shoes. He thought he'd never cared less about finding aliens.
"You ready?" Jack said. He lifted his free hand and thumbed a trickle of rain from Ianto's cheek. It didn't do much - Jack wasn't any drier than Ianto was - but it suddenly seemed a little less cold.
"Ready?" Jack said again, and Ianto nodded a little dazedly.
Two steps later, the rain had drenched his face again and he slid on flat piece of rock. But he was back on track; he was looking for the meteor.
If it was a Spinex ship or a gang of Kracs - and Ianto was about 90 per cent certain there was no such thing as either - they didn't make a peep as Ianto and Jack continued their wet slog up the mountain. It was like there was nothing else in the world at all but rain and sludge and the cold. Ianto fixed his eyes on Jack's mud-caked shoes and walked and walked and walked and walked, until eventually, Tosh told them to stop.
"You've gone past it," she said. "Are you sure you didn't see anything?"
"No, we're trudging around in the rain for fun," Ianto snapped. There was silence on the other end. Ianto winced. "Sorry, Tosh. No, we haven't seen anything. Visibility isn't wonderful, though."
"Well, it's somewhere very close by," Tosh said. "Try going back the way you came."
It took twenty more minutes of tripping over rocks and sliding on grass, and then suddenly Jack stopped dead in the middle of the track and cursed under his breath. Ianto stumbled into him.
He put his hand on Jack's shoulder to steady himself. "Did you see something?" he started to say, but Jack was already darting away. "Jack?" Ianto hurried after him. About fifteen metres from the track, Jack threw himself onto his hands and knees. Ianto had to skid sideways to avoid crashing into him. "Jack," he said again.
There was a hole in the ground - nothing like the enormous crater Ianto had been expecting. The mouth was perhaps the size of a basketball. Jack peered into it. When he looked up again, his face was filled with wonder. "This is Yr Elen," he said. He sounded shaken. "Ianto, this is Yr Elen."
"Yes, Jack," Ianto said carefully. "We've been climbing it for some time now." What were the symptoms of hypothermia, he wondered. Loss of mental acuity? "Do you feel dizzy at all?" he said worriedly. He squinted through the rain, trying to see if Jack's lips were turning blue.
Jack seemed to be somewhere else. "I've seen this track in vids," he said. He sounded almost reverent. There was a look on his face that Ianto had never seen before - vulnerability or awe. "I just didn't recognise it. It looks different in the rain."
"Is there an alien down there, Jack?" Ianto said carefully. Jack didn't seem frightened, but he didn't seem completely composed either.
Jack blinked up at him. Then he got slowly to his feet, and cupped Ianto's face in his hands. His fingers, even through the gloves, were freezing, but Ianto found he didn't care - not with Jack's face just inches from his. His lips weren't blue. "Ianto, this is-" Jack opened his mouth and then closed it, like he couldn't find the words.
"What?" Ianto said. And Jack didn't seem frightened, but Ianto was starting to feel uneasy. "Is there something down there?"
Jack shook his head. He kissed Ianto gently on the mouth, and then took his hand. The kiss was over before Ianto had had a chance to respond. "Come here." He tugged Ianto down.
Ianto crouched with some difficulty on the slippery rock. A stone poked his knee, and another poked the palm of his free hand. Jack had kissed him, he thought hazily. His mouth still felt warm from it. It was the only warm part of his body.
"Okay, now-" Jack squeezed his hand, and Ianto took a deep breath. Despite the cold and the discomfort, Jack's excitement was infectious. "Tell me what you see."
Ianto slid his hand reluctantly from Jack's grip to steady himself. He squinted. His heart felt like it was beating too fast. The hole was deep. He couldn't see anything but blackness. He squinted harder. It was almost as though something- he craned his neck. Something in the tunnel was glinting or glowing. "What is that?"
Jack put his hand on Ianto's shoulder. Rain trickled from the edge of his sleeve onto Ianto's neck. It was startlingly intimate. Ianto swallowed. "Jack?"
"I think it's the Yr Elen fossil," Jack said. He still sounded shaken.
Ianto stared down at the thing. His eyes must have been adjusting, because he could see the glint more distinctly now. It was pulsing darker and brighter and darker.
"So the meteorite-"
"Is just a meteorite, I think." Jack's voice was hushed. "But look what it uncovered."
The thing glinted and pulsed and after a moment, Jack's words started to sink in. "You-" Ianto frowned. "You've seen this before?"
Jack licked his lips. His teeth were chattering. He looked away. "Not exactly."
"You said you'd seen it in videos."
Jack didn't answer. They crouched there shivering. Ianto rubbed his wet gloves together. It wasn't particularly warming.
"I had to study it at school," Jack said. He didn't seem to be joking. "It was found in 2010 by a group of hikers."
That was nearly two years away. Ianto felt the hair at the back of his neck rise.
"And then-" Jack said. He stopped.
Ianto shivered and shivered and he couldn't tell if he was shivering with cold or shock. He waited, but Jack didn't start again. Well, that was it then, he thought. That was as much as he was going to tell. He tried not to feel disappointed. It was more than the others knew, he was pretty sure of that. He touched his mouth where Jack had kissed him.
"I um-" Jack said suddenly. "It gets put into a museum." He took a deep breath. Ianto watched his shoulders rise and fall. He looked more vulnerable than Ianto had ever seen him. "And one day, not very long from now, a scientist from Cardiff University will find it and dust it off and run some tests on it. And she'll work out how to use it to make energy. A lot of energy."
Ianto blinked, trying to let that sink in and work through the implications all at once. "Enough to power Cardiff?"
"Enough to power the world," Jack said. He looked up to meet Ianto's eyes. "Enough to get us to the stars."
Ianto swallowed. He looked down at the crater. The fossil pulsed quietly in its dark hole. It didn't look like something that was going to change life as the world knew it.
"I shouldn't be telling you any of this," Jack said. "Could cause an anachronism. But-" he laughed shakily. "But we just found the Yr Elen fossil. And we can't tell anyone - history says it doesn't get found until 2010. And you didn't know. I wanted you to know."
"And now I know." Ianto smiled at him tentatively.
Jack nodded. "And now you know."
They stayed up there a while longer - Jack didn't seem to want to leave. But eventually, their earpieces crackled, and Tosh said, "Have you found anything?"
Jack blinked a couple of times. He wiped his hand over his eyes
"No," Ianto said quickly. "Or, that is, yes, but nothing to report. We've run some scans. It's just a hunk of rock. Nothing special."
"Oh that's a shame," Tosh said, and Ianto murmured that yes it was and no, no need to bring it in for tests.
Later, back at the car, they stripped off their wet clothes. Jack wandered, unabashedly naked, around to the back of the SUV. Ianto snuck a look or two. He was all lean lines and muscle. When he reappeared, Ianto had on dry trousers and was buttoning his shirt.
"Oh, I missed the good bit," Jack complained. His eyes followed Ianto's fingers, and he grinned when Ianto flushed. There was the smallest trace of the Yr Elen Jack in the grin; Ianto could see it now that he knew how to look. "Guess what I found," Jack added. He held up two good thick blankets and a black rubbish bag - the kind Ianto used for bodies. "For the wet clothes."
They settled into the car, and then there was a wonderful moment when they wrapped themselves in the blankets and turned the heater on. Ianto leaned his head against the backrest and closed his eyes in bliss.
Beside him, Jack sighed luxuriously. "Aren't you glad I brought you instead of Owen?" he said.
Ianto grinned. His feet hurt and it was going to take hours and hours to get the mud out of his socks and trousers and - oh God - his shoes. But he was finally dry. And he'd glimpsed something that would one day be a miracle.
"Yes," he said. "Thank you." Then he leaned over to return that kiss.