She notices in the waiting area of the IWT counseling office and holds one foot out in front of her. Wiggles her toes and feels them rubbing against the inside front seam of the shoe. It’s felt like this since she put it on, but she’s just now stopped long enough to really feel it. The shoe is canvas and rubber, a basic sneaker, and probably half a size too small. Does time dilation make your feet spread? Or did some tech somewhere type in the wrong shoe size in a rush?
She puts her foot back down. Now she notices the way both shoes encase her feet, pinching and rubbing in odd spots.
The only other person in the room with her is Harry, and he won’t look at her. Harry’s not looking at anybody, lately, except maybe his psychologist. He fidgets, leg bouncing and fingers drumming: the behavior mods would have kept him from that—the movement, the feelings making him do it—but they’re off now. Everyone from their crew is edgy, scraping against one another in various ways. Her own tension runs all along the edges of her body, a tremor and spark of panic and irritation just at the tips of her fingers and ears and toes. She pushes her hands into her thighs, her toes into the seams of her shoes, exhales.
When they’d all stood frozen and staring at the skip-lagged face of the Admiral on the main viewscreen, Harry’s fingers were the first things to move. They scrambled over the console and slammed the buttons down until the speakers let out a godawful screech and the Admiral’s voice came through.
“—you’ve been gone five years, Captain. We thought you were all dead.”
She leaves Harry in the waiting room when it’s her turn. The office is dim, carpeted, furnished with big chairs and a desk shoved into one corner. Beach sounds play from speakers she can’t find.
She sits in one chair and the psychologist sits in the other across from her, not at the desk, and they talk.
“How are you feeling?”
She’s feeling the clothes she’s wearing, now she’s noticed the shoe. The waistband of her pants, the collar of her shirt against her throat. She has her left foot wrapped around her right calf, so her shoelaces dig into her pants, into her skin.
“I guess I feel … stunned? Slow. Half-blind—they aren’t letting me access anything besides novels and old television shows right now.” She’d seen half a news headline—Exiled Imperator Poisoned in Bid to Consolidate—and a sentence or so of the story under it. Her fingers tighten on the seams of her pants. She ignores the memory, focuses on her clothes.
“That’s understandable,” the psychologist tells her. Fran. She’s pretty sure Fran’s the one who wears glasses.
“Are they really retiring us all?” Lia asks. She crosses her arms low across her stomach, hooking her fingers into the waistband. “Before they blacked out the news, I saw that they were going to retire us?” She still has three years before her first opt-out. She can—could—re-up twice more before retirement. After that she could apply for admin in the company.
“They are. Nobody knows what happened to you all out there. They don’t want to take chances.” Fran’s eyes are steady on hers through her glasses. Even admin requires occasional space work.
“I don’t … know what to. I just.” Lia stops, because she has no idea where that sentence will end.
“How old were you when you joined Inter-World Transport, Lia?”
“Twelve.” Her father got the papers after he spent a night coughing up blood instead of the usual grayish phlegm that all the adults in their town had in their lungs.
“So you’re twenty-four, now.”
“I’m—” Nineteen. No. They were gone five years. It only felt like six months. She does the math in her head. “I guess I am, yeah.”
“What had you planned to do, once your tour was up?”
“I was … I’d assumed I’d. Um. Re-up. I don’t tend to make plans past my next leave, really.” She scrubs a hand through her hair, avoiding the ports behind her ears but rubbing around the one at the back of her head, which itches today. She’d had thoughts, about maybe finally taking some of the accumulated leave time she’d banked, if things went well with Ianto. She’s never thought about any of this. Her heart speeds up as twenty-four echoes in her head; emotion floods her hands and fingers, fills her throat and sinuses. There’s too much feeling and she doesn’t want to drown in it; she wants to be able to think. She wants to be able to breathe.
She doesn’t look at Fran, who says, carefully, watching her, “Well, you’re here for the next three months. The company wants to run tests—psych and physicals, bloodwork, scans, that sort of thing—and ask you some questions about what you remember. They’re also going to make sure you have some adjustment training—”
The panic eases at the boring company BS, recedes enough so that she can manage to look at Fran and ask, “Do they even know what that means?”
Fran grins in the cynical way that she and her shipmates do when discussing their employer; Lia’s not sure if it makes her feel better or not. “I understand they’re going to be contacting people who specialize in prisoner and military re-integration.” Her grin softens into a smile. “They know this is unprecedented, Lia. They want to ease your transition as much as they can.”
“I’m sure PR is breathing down Corporate’s neck, as well.”
“They lost a transport, sixty-two percent of which was manned by people they’d more or less bought as kids. It was a PR nightmare, even in the places that don’t find IWT’s various recruitment methods controversial.”
Lia says nothing. There’s nothing to say, really; she’s glad she didn’t starve to death or die from gray-lung before she turned sixteen, and this last trip was just another six-month tour for her. But Fran’s voice saying twenty-four and reports are unclear as to whether Rhydderch’s companions were also just before the screen went black won’t leave her alone now. She grinds her foot into her calf, feels her shoelaces and the cloth of her pants against her flesh.
“Look,” Fran says, “they didn’t know why the St. Cloud disappeared, and now you’re all back and they don’t know why that happened, either—they just know all kinds of eyes are on them, yet again. The end result, though, is that they’re going to try and help you.” End results have long been the argument for Inter-World Transport: their motives may be self-serving, their tech may be ethically dubious, but they give the poor, the debtors, and the various people the world forgets the chance to become healthy, productive members of society. Plus, your cargo is delivered safely and on time by our always professional staff!
Fran’s still talking. “Over the next weeks, think about what you want to do. Five years of back pay–you’ll have money enough to live for a while before you need to work, but it’s better to walk out of here with a plan than without one.”
The first thing she remembers Ianto Couriseme saying was not to her, but to Meurig Rhydderch, the Imperator-in-exile of the Sovereign Bishopric of Laendris, on the planet Colophale. Which was now called Homshoi. The coup had been bloody and too intricate to follow when you spent six months at a time in deep space.
“It seems archaic, though—they own you until you’re, what, ten years in?” Meurig had asked her one night in the mess hall, as they picked over the last bits of food on their plates.
Ianto, until now his Imperator’s shadow, rolled his eyes. “You mean, archaic like generations of an entire family sworn to protect the royalty, whether they would or no?”
He was relaxed, slouched in a chair and leaning his head on an arm propped on the mess hall table, looking wryly at Meurig, who seemed self-deprecating but not particularly ashamed of himself. Ianto’s grin caught and kept her eyes, even though the mods tempered her jolt of reaction to it. Meurig went on, “As archaic as keeping the youngest child as surety and sending the eldest into exile, I suppose. It sounds like a goddamned fairy tale, doesn’t it?”
“If you cast it romantically, it’s easier to live with,” Lia said, and Meurig laughed, but Ianto gave her an odd, shadowed look before he smiled, slowly.
It takes forever before the Re-Assimilation Training is set up, and by then nearly all of the St. Cloud’s crew are restless, cut off from everything. That’s not new; it’s part of the job, but usually they’re only six months behind, not five years. The company blocked the news sites two hours after the ship touched down—not quite soon enough to keep her from a search once she discovered she no longer had an email account, but fast enough to cut off the first news report she found after one sentence.
They’ve let them have family news, the ones who had family. E-mail, screened; new e-mail addresses because they purged all the St. Cloud’s crew’s accounts two years ago. Dr. Quiroga’s mother has cancer, is in the middle of treatment; Piotr’s wife had their baby, and that baby is four. Lia, thinking about the solidity of family and the quake of losing five years with them, decides she’s probably lucky. She doesn’t think of fragile things, new connections, easily snapped when the ground convulses. Not much, anyway. Not really.
It’s not all sad—Iona Kawa’iia’s been stomping around mad that she saw spoilers for the end of Bitumen Falls, and now she can’t access the show because they don’t want them seeing anything that came out more recently than five years ago. And Jorge O’Malley got video of Captain Oshiro’s reaction when his wife told him she’d sold his vintage skimmer, so they’ve all seen that one. It’s not all sad. It doesn’t all have to be sad.
“Your Laendish is very good.”
Ianto fell into step with her as she walked from her station back toward her quarters. He wasn’t that much taller than she was, and he had a loping sort of walk that he tried to restrain in order to keep pace with her. His hair was plaited into two braids that he wore looped at the back of his head, but curls kept escaping along the edges and sides. “Thank you,” she said. “How’s my accent?”
“Good. Possibly a little too posh—you sound like a queen in a film. But good.” He smiled, a crooked grin, and went on, “You’re the ship’s linguist?”
“I’m one of them.” The St. Cloud was mostly a freighter, rarely took passengers. She’d been the lucky lottery winner whose head was hastily stuffed with Laendris’ dead-to-most-of-the-system language so that their last-minute additions could communicate with someone. The speed of the upload had been disconcerting; she’d dreamed in Laendish the night after the upload and woken up feeling … off-balance. Unmoored.
“Can you, say, teach? Is that possible with the ports? I’m afraid I don’t quite understand how they work …”
“Nobody quite understands how the ports work,” she said with a grin back at him. “But yes, I can teach, if I know the language. What are you looking for?”
“Could you teach me some English, before we dock? Maybe some Harekaans? Meurig seems to think he’ll be fine knowing not a word of anything, but … well, it is my familial obligation to take care of him. If you have time, of course, and if they’re in your repertoire …”
“Absolutely,” she said, with professional smile and voice. “I’d be happy to.”
There is bloodwork (lots of needles) and there are scans (full body, brain, random bits that make no sense, like her stomach and her right bicep, one of her hands). There are questions: her interviewer (whom she does not think of as an inquisitor, not at all) is a smiling, sandy-haired guy with a Harekaans accent and a dependence on his handheld. He’s scrolling through something when she arrives.
“So you have no memory of anything out of the ordinary happening on this trip?” he asks, finally looking up from where he’s been tapping notes onto the screen.
“Nothing. But I’m not bridge crew; I’m a cargo linguist. I spend most of my duty time belowdecks doing landing and retrieval prep, negotiating prices and permits in the native language; otherwise I’m pretty low on the need-to-know list.”
“Why were you on the bridge when the St. Cloud returned?” he asks disinterestedly.
“Delivering a final inventory report to Captain Oshiro. The docs messaging system was down for maintenance, so I delivered it by hand.”
“And during the trip there was nothing physical—no sudden lurching or shuddering at any point?”
She has a sudden image from an old television show, all the actors throwing themselves across the set of their sailing ship when some sort of sea monster rammed it. “No,” she says, amused and quietly delighted to feel something good.
“No sudden … um … psychic disturbances?”
She couldn’t figure out, at first, why she’d gone looking for Ianto when she wasn’t on duty. It had felt strange; her mind had offered up suffer a sea-change to her, and maybe it had been apt: muted by the behavior mods they’d implanted in her limbic system, but huge, slow, seemingly inevitable.
She shakes her head, amusement gone, and that was the wrong trip, anyway. That trip, Ianto’s trip, went without a hitch. “No, nothing like that,” she says, and fights against the urge to seize his handheld and its open access when he props it up to start typing his report.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like half my brain is missing.” She rubs her eyes, runs a finger hard around her ports where they itch and ache. “My languages are fading.”
“All of them?” Fran asks.
It hurts in her chest to explain it; she wishes the mods were active so she could talk without her voice cracking as she counts on her fingers. “I’ve still got English and Portuguese, but they’re native tongues. French isn’t too bad, probably because of the Portuguese. Bilali’s still mostly there, and maybe, I dunno, half of Harekaans and a quarter of Mandarin? I can still read Farsi, which seems completely counterintuitive. But the rest are … they’re like echoes. They sound familiar, but I just don’t know.”
“It makes sense. You haven’t had any uploads, no refreshment.”
“Yeah, I know, I just—languages are what I do. My brain is. Suited to it? They think, anyway, they say that shit but they don’t know. I keep—what good am I, now? I’m not a pilot or a medic, I’m just a linguist, it’s not like they need me anywhere else—”
“Well,” Fran says her voice soothing, “There are certainly a number of things you can do with fluency in English and Portuguese, and some—what did you say? Bilali and Harekaans. We can explore some of them, too. But Lia, you have to remember that you’re more than what you’ve done for IWT.”
It’s all true. It doesn’t help, because it’s true, but it isn’t all, and she’s not going to talk about the rest of it, about which language she’s been trying to coax out of her stupid, regressing brain.
She takes a breath, hitches in the middle, wipes her face with the palm of her hand. This is ridiculous, mourning something she knew would happen, and crying. It’s been weeks since they turned the mods off; everything should have settled by now, and she’s not sure why it hasn’t. “I didn’t think it would hit me this hard,” she says, then lets out a wet-choked laugh because obviously.
“So he’s going to fire you once he’s settled wherever it is he’s going?” Books stacked neatly around them, the lesson abandoned for the day in favor of talking to each other, and Laendish easier for both of them.
“It’s not that harsh,” Ianto said, shaking his head at his hands. He sat tailor-style, his body’s lines long, slender, a cascade of grace. He didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a bodyguard, but Meurig liked to tell stories at dinner about the part Ianto played during the coup and after it—assassination attempts foiled, the Imperator’s uprisings. Sometimes, though, in his enthusiasm, Meurig stumbled into allusions to other things, and Ianto’s body turned from flowing poise to elbows and knees and high shoulders, until Meurig speedily changed the subject. “Meurig feels a certain amount of guilt that I was sent with him, that I can’t just go back after. He doesn’t see it as firing; he sees it as freeing me from an obligation I had no say in accepting. Although he could always call me back, if they ever call him back.”
“Do you think they will?” she asked.
“No. No, that government’s ensconced for at least a generation or two.” He grinned a twisted sort of grin that matched the bitter-philosopher tone of his voice.
When he didn’t seem to want to continue that line of conversation, Lia asked, “And do you have plans for your forced semi-retirement?” She tried to sound light.
He shrugged. “I thought I’d live in the city? I can’t imagine living in the countryside—I grew up in a city. Though the idea of an entire apartment to myself is decadent.” She nodded, let out a breathless laugh because it did. “I suppose I’ll get a job. My money won’t last forever.” He grinned at her, crooked but not bitter, and asked, “Xiankin is your home port, isn’t it?”
She grinned back at him; she couldn’t seem to help but smile at Ianto when he smiled at her. It was disconcerting. “It is. We’ll have five days’ leave, then most of us are going back out for six months.”
“So in six months, you could come see my apartment. Maybe have dinner?” He tilted his head so that he was smiling at her sideways.
She raised her eyebrows, hoping her expression told him that she knew exactly what he was doing with the coy looks and the playful tone. “I could,” she said.
Harry sits down next to her in the dining hall. She’s eating, reading A Fisherman of the Inland Sea on her handheld, debating in the back of her mind whether she ought to ask for a translation of it in Harekaans or Bilali to try and keep them up the old-school way.
Harry’s doing better, if one can tell from a distance. Some days he’s withdrawn, some days he’s out of his own head and seems normal. Like today; he’s actually looking at her.
They chat for a few minutes—two of the engineering crew are going to get married once they’re released; Dr. Quiroga’s mother is responding well to treatment.
“So, you make a plan yet for after we’re out?” Harry asks her.
“No.” She takes a breath, lets it out. “You?”
“Nah. Well, taking the money and running. Maybe go to Caszoeatu, hit some clubs, lay on the beach for a couple years.”
“You have always been a hedonist, Harry, so this plan does not surprise me.”
“They’ve owned me since I was eight years old; I may as well enjoy my unexpected freedom.”
She snorts. Harry smiles at her. “So, Lia …”
“Harry Das, you are not asking me to run away to Caszoeatu with you,” she says with a laugh.
“No. I am propositioning you, though.” He raises his eyebrows, lets his smile go from genuine to cheesy.
She thinks about it for a long minute. She and Harry used to hook up on leave all the time, during the first couple of days when the mods turned off and everyone was either mainlining sugar or fucking each other through the emotional overload. It was good, and they’ve always got along well enough. “Come on,” he wheedles, “my therapist says it’ll be good for my mental health.”
She rolls her eyes and shoves him, watches him a little as she speaks. “Thanks, but no.”
He takes it fine, she thinks. “You sure?”
“I am,” she says, carefully. He squints at her.
“You got somebody else?” he asks, sly. He’s always good at sniffing out a secret. Lia’s just never had anything she cared about keeping to herself before. The problem is, she doesn’t know how to answer without lying, at least a little, and thanks to the mods they’re all awful liars due to lack of practice.
She settles for, “Kind of.”
Harry keeps watching her and finally says, “It’s that dude with the braids, trip before last.” She doesn’t respond, though her heart startles her with a heavy thud against her breastbone. “That sucks,” he says. “I mean, is he still even around?”
“I don’t know,” she says; reports are unclear as to whether. She picks up her handheld and looks for her place. “And we’re blacked out for who knows how long.”
“Five years is a long time to wait for a hookup,” Harry says. His tone is easy. His tone is always easy, but she curls her hand into a fist and digs her nails into her palm. They’ve long played this game of pushing and mocking; no matter how many times they’ve fucked, they’ve never really been intimate or vulnerable with each other, and she isn’t starting now.
Lia forces airiness into her voice. “You should go ask Kawa’iia, she’s always had a thing for you.”
Now Harry rolls his eyes and stands up. “I do not need that giant vat of crazy opened, thanks. I will make do with my right hand or possibly proposition O’Malley.”
Lia smiles, hopes it looks real. “He’s cute—you should rank him higher than your hand.”
“But he’s in session and I’m horny …” Harry fake-wails as he walks away. Lia watches him for three counted breaths before looking back at her book, waits until the doors close behind him and his footsteps fade before she puts the book down and buries her head in her hands.
Ianto kissed her. She wanted him to—something off-center and pale in her chest just longed for him to kiss her—but she ducked away before it was anything beyond a brushing of mouths together.
“Sorry,” she said, “It’s not me, it’s the mods, I promise.” She wished they shut embarrassment down as efficiently as they did lust. But when she looked at him, he was smiling at her. He took her hand, touched her knuckles one by one with his index finger until the embarrassment went away and she was left feeling a little breathless, a little lost, with that same tidal pull that sent her looking for him whenever she had the chance.
She gets herself off dozens of times to the memory of that sweet sweep of his mouth over hers. She remembers that and his scarred hands on her skin, the heat of his fingers against her knuckles, and it’s better than all of the crazy-intense sex she used to have on leave.
But after, she thinks too much. Now the mods are off for good. The world is five years older. She doesn’t know anything, really. Nothing that’s happened in the news beyond that half a headline, which fills her head with Poisoned and unclear, setting her spinning through scenarios and what-ifs where Ianto is dead, where Ianto is shattered by the death of his Imperator, where Ianto is married or in love or in mourning and has left the city or the country or, hell, the entire planet, and she just wants to think of anything else, but what else is there to think of? The future she didn’t realize was coming in the universe she’s never really paid attention to beyond the languages of the people in it?
Eventually she falls asleep. She dreams in Laendish, wakes up, and spends the rest of the night trying to fall back into the dream.
About a week before their release into the world, their net access returns.
A bunch of them are in the lounge, talking, playing cards, watching old cartoons on the big monitors, and all of them have their handhelds with them. Lia’s reading; she’s always been one of the crew who didn’t enjoy the close quarters they’d been stuck with, but lately she just wants people around, if not talking directly to her.
Harry’s pocket lights up and buzzes, then O’Malley’s and Kawa’iia’s, then a few more, right in a row. Everyone gropes for their devices. Lia closes out of her book and stares at her screen, as though that will make the net come back faster.
It lights up in her hand, vibrating, flashes a “connecting” message at her that disappears again before her heart has a chance to slow down. Harry makes a happy affirmative noise; O’Malley, who has loudly enjoyed their exile from the ‘nets, groans. The room fills with the pings and clicks and muffled swearing that comes with people setting up new tech, connecting their new email accounts; Kawa’iia lets out a triumphant, “Yes, I can download the last four Kilkennan books!” and Harry asks her, “He didn’t die before he finished the series?”
Finally a message emerges from the swirl of colors undulating on her screen: Hello, Lia, what would you like to do today?
Her hands shake as she logs onto the news nets.
Ianto smiled at the card in his hand, the smile that emphasized how crooked his nose was, and said, “I’ve not even got a device yet. I’ll have to remedy that as soon as I’m allowed.”
“Send me e-mail when you do. I won’t get it until I get back, but at least I’ll be able to find you for dinner.”
He shifted back from her on the mats—yoga and tai chi this time as an excuse to sit and talk—and said, voice much younger than usual, “You don’t have to, you know. I won’t—well, I’ll be upset, but. If you find that it’s not … with the mods off, if you find you don’t …”
“I can tell how I feel,” she said.
“Still,” he said, and brushed her knuckles with his fingertips.
“Still,” she said. “I’ll contact you, no matter what, okay? In six months. Make sure you have a handheld.”
On the day they’re released, she takes a bus downtown and goes shopping. A new shirt—black tank top with an umbrella in a circle on the front that she likes the look of—and new shoes that just slip on. As she pays for it all with her handheld the cashier tells her, with a nod to the shirt, what a great band they are.
“This is a band?” she asks, immediately losing the cashier’s interest. Clearly, she’s a dilettante in the world of music. As she changes her shirt and shoes in the bathroom of a coffee shop, she just hopes the Rainmakers are a band she’d like if she heard them.
It’s not like she’s been released from prison, she reflects. It’s not even like she’s a new immigrant—this is a major IWT hub, one of four in the system, and the largest employer in this country, possibly on this planet. Corporate has offices here; warehousing; cargo processing; intake for voluntaries and indentureds; training for plebes and leave for vets; a quarter of IWT is based out of Xiankin. She’s been here before, lots of times, though the last time was … well, months ago or years, depending. She knows where things are, she knows how to get to them, she knows where and how to find transport and how the money works. She even knows where the road construction is, since apparently it hasn’t progressed more than a block in five years.
What’s different is that she doesn’t need to check to see how much time she has left before she has to get back to base. She could go anywhere. Stay there as long as she wants. Nobody would come looking for her. Nobody could, since she didn’t give them a new address. Fran had pushed her for one, but Lia couldn’t tell her because Lia doesn’t know. It’s the first time in her life she hasn’t known where she’ll be sleeping, just that she has the money to decide later.
That much freedom makes her feel lightheaded, light-stomached, so she sits on a transport station bench to catch her breath.
The metal is warm under her. It feels good, baking through her clothes. The street is busy: it smells of fumes from the vehicles that pass by—the older ones loud and rumbling, the newer ones buzzing or humming—and food from the restaurants that are just beginning to open up for lunch. Horns honk and people talk, either into their handhelds or to each other in person; she hears ring tones and the chirping sounds of calls being made; snippets of conversations in different languages, some of which she can understand, some she can’t.
The city is always busy this time of day. She has always wondered if people actually work in offices here, or if there’s some sort of job that involves just walking around in business attire. There are IWT plebes with red-rimmed implants and newly-shorn hair walking clumped together and stiff in their uniforms with a couple of vets, younger than they are, who must be showing them around. They all glance at her, then away, then back fast when they register her ports and civilian clothes. Maybe they know what crew she’s from, maybe not—she scowls at them, command-face, and they hurry off. The civilians don’t really pay attention to her, just a glance now and then like you’d glance at anyone sitting on a bench in the middle of the day. They’re used to the IWT by now, whether or not they approve of it.
The fact that she has not, actually, planned anything past getting new clothes is not the only thing keeping her from breathing. She looks at her handheld, suddenly all strange angles and edges against her palm in her hand. Her search of the news nets gave her fewer answers than she’d hoped: Meurig poisoned and dead dominated two days’ news three years ago, with just one sentence in one article brushing near Ianto’s existence, let alone anything else. Initial reports are unclear as to whether Rhydderch’s companions were also part of the plot to assassinate him, and if he had, as accused by the Honshoi Imperator, actually established a ‘court-in-exile’ on Xiankin.
That’s as far as she’s gotten.
She pulls her feet up under her on the bench. The city stretches out around her; the world stretches out beyond that. She doesn’t know anything about the future, and it scares her breathless, but she knows what she wants to do. So she types Ianto Couriseme into the search bar.
Three steps down the gangplank, another four through the gate, and all the mods shut off at once.
It felt like simultaneously uploading the Oxford English Dictionary and the Royal Dictionary of The Feudal Republic of Bilal—it swamped her, made her lose her moorings.
It was so much more than the usual horny-happy-excited-reckless swoop of feelings unfettered; she could barely see through this to get to her quarters—thank god the retinal scans could work through tears—and she sobbed as she thought of him walking away from her with his exiled Imperator into the city, sobbed far more than probably she should have, but things always felt like more right after the mods shut off; all you could do was ride it until it settled.
Five days of leave. She spent them looking for him without expecting to find him—too soon for them to be registered and logged, not with how covertly they had been travelling—but hoping she could tell him that she would see him when she got back.
She didn’t find him.
It was all right. She’d find him after this next tour. Six months, less a week, she’d find him and knock on his door.
After fifteen minutes of searching, there’s a phone number on the screen. And an address.
She doesn’t touch the number. Instead she pulls up the GPS program.
This is really, really stupid.
Her knuckles sting from knocking at the red door of this brick townhouse. It’s on a quieter street. Residential. She gets the feeling, from the colors of the doors and curtains, the decorations on the porches and in the tiny front yards, that this is mostly an immigrant neighborhood. It’s nice. It feels friendly and looks lived-in, like people have put down roots here. But she’s still so terrified she can barely breathe. Part of her, exasperated, hopes to god that the longer she’s off the behavior mods, the easier it will be to cope with some of these emotions.
The door opens, and there he is.
She can’t talk for a minute, or breathe; she’s too busy looking at him. He’s here.
He hasn’t changed very much at all. He was twenty-one when she saw him last, so he must be twenty-six now; his hair is shorter, not braided—it’s a mass of curls. His eyes are still hazel, his nose still crooked, his skin still light brown. And his smile still takes up half his face, once it manages to spread out completely.
He says something in Laendish that ends with a soft, astonished, “Lia.”
“I … um. Hello.” She says it in English, smiles back at him, feeling slightly drunk. She runs her hand over her head and looks sideways, quickly, just to have a minute where she’s not looking at him, so she can collect her thoughts or take a breath or something, but then her eyes are pulled right back to him. “I … I can’t speak Laendish anymore—it’s faded out. I don’t know if you knew—”
“Everyone thought you were all dead.” His accent is lilting and lovely. He frowns a little and reaches out one hand to touch her shoulder.
The feeling of his hand on her skin stills her; he’s warm and right in front of her. She probably should have waited to come here until she had things better under control. Although, at this point, she thinks that might have been never.
“We can speak English,” he says. “I have a little Portuguese, too, but not much.” His hand leaves her shoulder, but stays in the air between them for a second. He takes a step out onto the stoop. “Are you—you actually found me,” he said, his voice pitched high and disbelieving. “When I heard your ship came back, I rather—” He stops, takes a deep breath, and she braces herself for something she won’t want to hear.
And then he asks, in a quieter, smaller voice, “Please tell me—you are here to stay with me, Lia?”
“I’d like to,” she says. There’s a slow surge of current rushing through her—head and arms and legs; ears and fingers and toes—she looks down at her new shoes, bright white in the sunlight. He’s barefoot, she sees, and this makes her feel better. “I’m kind of a mess right now—everything’s just gone out of my head—and they wouldn’t let us on the nets for a while, so I couldn’t look for you sooner … I read about Meurig, right before they shut us out, and I didn’t know if you were, or would—”
“I wasn’t with him when it happened; I had just left him,” he says; it is my familial obligation to take care of him, she remembers, looks up at him, concerned, but his eyes are fixed on her, his mouth is just barely smiling. Gently, slowly he puts his hands on both her shoulders as he steps closer to her. “I really had nowhere else to go, and I thought if I stayed here—but then your ship …” He pauses, laughs a small, breathless laugh, before saying, “I’ve been feeling an idiot, mourning a girl I didn’t even know for certain liked me at all.”
She looks up at him and smiles. “I liked you,” she says. The current is easing, leaving other feelings behind it. Not more manageable, but less likely to make her pass out. She thinks. “We don’t really know each other, though,” she says. His hands are still on her shoulders, and she can’t control her own hands, now; she touches him, his hands first, then his forearms. They’re strong; the skin is slightly scarred, but soft as well. She tries to focus on the words. “I mean, you probably still know me about as well as you did; it’s not been that long for me, but it’s been five years here—it’s okay if you don’t think—”
“Stay with me,” he says, and his lovely accent has a frantic edge to it. “I don’t want you to leave. I want to talk to you, and eat dinner, and … god, I don’t know, just be near to you again—we can get to know each other, and if it’s not what we wanted, we can just … stop. It doesn’t have to be romantic—”
She laughs: she’s standing on his stoop, half-lost in the feeling of his skin, and he’s telling her it doesn’t have to be romantic. He stops talking and laughs, too. “You’re really here?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I’d have been here before, too, if I could have.”
His smile goes lopsided and fades a bit. Hesitantly, he touches her head, the short-cropped hair, tracing gently around the implant over her ear. She leans her head into his hand, feels her hair catch on his calluses.
He sounds amused, maybe a little surprised, when he says, “This is you without the mods, then?”
Now she feel nervous again. “Is it okay?”
“Are you joking?” he asks. His hand tightens just a bit as he pulls her head toward his and kisses her.
Between the current, the uncontrolled feelings, and the fact that Ianto is kissing her, her knees buckle. He manages to half-catch her, but loses his balance and they fall back into his foyer.
She’s blushing as they disentangle themselves. “I’m sorry. I’m not usually so … swooning.”
“Me, either,” he says. “My ancestors would be very disappointed in my reflexes.” He reaches over her to push the door closed; she catches his hand as he moves back to where he was. He smiles at her. “So. How is my accent?” he asks.
“It’s really pretty,” she says, smiling back because she can’t not. “You’re quite fluent. I’m impressed.”
“Well, I had a lot of time to practice, and someone I missed very much that it reminded me of,” he murmurs, ducking his head to look at her fingers, touching each knuckle with a fingertip. He glances up at her with a faint frown. “And you lost your Laendish?” he asks, concerned.
“I did,” she says. She tilts her head to look at him sideways, and asks, “Could you teach it to me?”
He smiles, slow and spreading and shadowed, and says, “Yes, I can. But I’m pretty sure I owe you dinner first?”
“Dinner would be good,” she says, but neither of them move into the space—the decadence—of his front room. Lia feels Ianto’s fingertips on her hand and the heat of his arm sinking into her neck. He shifts, just a little, to put his face in her hair, his arms settling better around her, comfortable and fluent, like an accent or relief.