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Everything's Changed

Chapter Text

“Are you sure?” the leader of the Time Agency repeated.

“Yes,” Jack Harkness replied.

“You are already immortal. Do you really want to go back and live through these millennia again, just to slightly alter the circumstances?”

“I have to,” he stated, defiantly. “I need to know I can do right by them this time.”

“You could fail,” they noted. “Again.”

“I am willing to take that risk.”

Their head tilted slightly before asking: “and you will let us take two years of your life for the opportunity?”

“Whatever it takes.”

They sighed. “So be it.”

The vortex manipulator fastened to Jack’s wrist abruptly began to heat up as the inferno of space and time churned inside. It felt warm and familiar at first. He recognised, with an almost sickening hunger, the exhilarating burn of the mechanics bursting into action. It was not uncommon for Time Agents to become addicted to the sensation, tearing through as many epochs and galaxy clusters as possible just to trigger the feeling over and over again. However, before the rush of dopamine could overpower him, Jack realised the metal was beginning to burn even brighter. Hotter and hotter it grew, until he could feel the skin on his wrist erupt into raw, aching blisters. The metal now seared so intensely, the pain seemed to rage inside of him and his body collapsed into shock. Paralysed in agony, he could only imagine the strap blazing through his muscle like a heated knife through butter, until only the charred bone remained.

Then, suddenly, it stopped.

With a shudder, Jack opened his eyes, awash with fiery tears, and let the city of Cardiff welcome him home. He looked up to the shadowy sky sleeping above, now home to thousands of anonymous stars, and mouthed his thanks to the leader of the Time Agency. Feeling lost without a reply, he gazed upon the svelte crescent moon, cushioned in the middle of the dusky atmosphere, and took its showering of soft rays of light over the bay as their token of acceptance.

Jack glanced anxiously at his forearm and scanned the scorched flesh held together by blackened lumps of congealed blood. Tentatively, he brushed the tips of his fingers over the musky-white radius, which was now the only thing keeping the vortex manipulator from falling to the ground. Without really knowing why, he decided to keep his eyes fixed on his arm as it healed itself. He studied the coal-like blood as it rusted away into a fine dust, and calmly observed the meaty tissue bloom around the bone like rising dough.

Within less than a minute, it had returned to normal. Jack flicked the worn leather flap over with his spare index finger and revealed the scorched keypad underneath. With a click of a few buttons, the glitched screen etched out a row of digits and coordinates. He was impressed it worked at all.

“Two thousand and eighteen,” he muttered. “The Doctor’s right. This thing is junk.

The former Time Agent let out a rough sigh. It wasn’t unusual for Jack to find himself mildly out of time - he was actually becoming quite accustomed to it - but he’d never got his head around the technology’s messy algorithms. Why had it sent him to this point in time exactly? Why place him conveniently in the middle of the Roald Dahl Plass?

Before his brain could wrap itself in knots, his nostrils flared as they caught wind of the lush, earthy fragrance of the Bristol Channel. In an instant, flashes of his former life came flooding back to him. The smell of ravenous Weevils mating in the sewers. The taste of greasy bacon butties at three in the morning. The sound of the roaring crowd on the eve of the Grand Slam. The memories kept flowing, revealing the textures and aromas and noises he didn’t even know he’d forgotten.

Oh, it felt good to be back in 21st Century Cardiff.

Who cared if it was 2018? He was back. Jack had travelled every known solar system to reach the fabled Time Agency summit just to be here. A universe where they had been spared. A universe where he could start again. He’d known the agency were the only ones who could’ve granted his request. Well, except the Doctor, but Jack suspected he or she would’ve rejected it outright. The Time Agency, on the other hand, were immediately drawn to his proposal. For one thing, they believed the number of possible universes was infinite but that didn’t necessarily mean they all had to exist. Someone still had to think them up. Even in the endless mass of space and time, the agency imagined there was still opportunity. Gaps in the market. It was why fledgling Time Agents had been told to think of themselves, first and foremost, as entrepreneurs. Jack had therefore gone to them with his pitch and, after amendment after concession after modification, managed to convince them. Once agreed upon, the leader had explained, very slowly, that the unravelling of time, just to weave it back together again, would be an intricate and volatile process. There were bound to be things Jack wouldn’t appreciate. None of that mattered anyway. All that counted was that he, Captain Jack Harkness, out of his own pure volition, had born this world kicking and screaming into existence.

Eat your heart out, Elon Musk.

There was little doubt he’d need to grow accustomed to this new universe, though. He might even need to “take things slowly”, as every one of his partners had suggested at one point or another. Changes to the timeline always brought about unexpected results, but he trusted the agency to have forged a universe almost identical to his own. Be that as it may, even the tiniest seed had the potential to birth an amazon.

But they would be alive. His team. He had no idea how this world would differ, but the thought of granting them another chance at survival filled him with a blazing optimism. He couldn’t wait to see them. Jack pined to hear their voices once again, rising together in chorus, filling his ears with tales of adventure and mystery.

Jack had no idea where he’d been in this universe, mind you. It was anyone’s guess whether the Time Agency had rewritten his history over the past several years as part of the deal. They would have to, Jack supposed, as he was very much aware he’d abandoned Earth long before 2018 came around. Maybe the team would think he had just disappeared all this time and his sudden arrival on this chilly, unsuspecting night would appear like a spontaneous homecoming.

Hopefully not, Jack resolved, remembering the last time he’d pulled such a stunt. He really couldn’t bare all the pushing and shoving at this time of night, which was strange because he liked it so much in other circumstances.

Pushing the nostalgia aside, he decided to take his first step into this brave new world. With slight trepidation, he opened his vortex manipulator and scanned the nearby area for corresponding inputs. It was just a long shot – it had no way been part of their agreement – but he tried to link to the hub anyway.

Just in case.

Then, without even pressing for a signal, a connection was made. He felt his heart race as he was logged automatically into the mainframe. Tiny chimes and bells signalled the rift was operating at full capacity and more turbulent than ever.

It was there. The hub had not been destroyed by those government leaches. His home had been saved. Without a second’s thought, Jack started to make his way to the hub as swiftly as possible. He considered the invisible lift but ruled that out as a bit grandiose - even for him.

Pacing across the Plass, he revelled in the thought of being entombed in the hub’s confined, damp walls once again. Its devastation had been a blow to his gut – quite literally – so even the idea that Torchwood’s headquarters would be hoisted to its former glory quickened his step. With a tap of his vortex manipulator, he unbolted the door to the tourist office, slammed his hand on the switch beneath the counter and sped through the corridor.

Passing through the giant cog door, he delighted in his final triumphant steps inside the hub. He placed his hands squarely on his hips and let his eyes soften to a close as he breathed in the cool, crisp air of their underground haven. He imagined Tosh peaking up from her desk, Ianto poking his head out from the hothouse, Owen rushing up from the medical bay and Gwen tearing herself away from her reports to discover who on Earth had effortlessly surpassed their security and brazenly sauntered into their control centre.

But there was nothing. His eyes snapped open. The hub was deserted. His gaze shot to the abandoned computers and clocked only an assortment of unwanted knick-knacks scattered around the sofa and coffee area. He marched up to the higher deck in hopes of finding some semblance of life, but the workstations had all clearly been abandoned long ago. The water that had once rushed beneath their feet now sat dead in the reservoirs and the lights above him soberly dimmed in and out of focus.

Bar the soft humming of the rift, the hub was eerily quiet. Jack sensed his hands rattling by his side as he contemplated what could have gone wrong. Had the Time Agency lied to him? The hub was still standing so he knew this had to be part of some other timeline. Still, he didn’t put it past them to crudely sketch a caricature of an alternate universe just to laugh and jeer at him.

He strode over to Tosh’s workstation and pressed down hard on the reboot key. A tiny spark of relief rung inside his chest as it instantly began to power up. The mainframe emerged on screen easily enough but soon started demanding the administrative access codes.

Jack frowned. It was logged off.

Tosh never logged off.

Jack tapped in her username and password in a series of reflective finger movements, but the screen blanked him outright. He tried the codes for Ianto - nothing. Growing suddenly very anxious, he attempted Owen. Again, a blanket rattle of the screen signalled complete and utter failure.

Finally, he entered Gwen’s username and password. A promising melody of beeps rung out of the speakers and a million pixels scattered and reformed before his eyes. It did not calm his nerves though, he was still very much on edge. Why was Gwen Cooper the only one with access?

He immediately clicked on the digital dossier titled ‘Personnel’ in the top right-hand corner, the home to Jack’s five conscriptions to Torchwood Cardiff.

The leader of the Time Agency had questioned Jack on numerous occasions why he would go to such lengths to save these people when, in the grand scheme of things, they did not mean much. Their vitality and bravery, albeit impressive for the time, had been lost to history for a reason. They were insignificant. With an unprecedented patience, Jack had explained that he didn’t care what they meant to the world - they meant the world to him. He’d crossed paths with so many souls since his departure from Earth, but those five had remained a constant in his heart. By this point, he must’ve suffered over a million deaths - assassination, sickness, even suicide – yet each time, without fail, he was greeted with their faces, speaking to him words of comfort, before the darkness would inevitably take over. Even now, over thousands of years old, he’d still catch glimpses of them in cities not yet built in their timeline, find strands of forgotten conversations laced in his wandering thoughts and overhear their voices in the mouths of his new lovers.

He’d persistently told them the 21st Century was where everything changes. It’d always pained him to know they’d never got the chance to see it.

He knew he had to go back.

Jack opened the file for Suzie Costello first. As the record materialised in front of him, he drew in a sharp intake of breath as he laid eyes on her photo. Jack tried, and failed, to stifle his fondness for her as he gazed into her eyes - deep and dark like caves - and recognised the woman he’d hired all those years ago. His first ever recruitment to Torchwood Three, Suzie had been an undeniable genius. Astute, resolute and brilliant - probably more than he was ever willing to admit aloud – yet he knew he’d let her talent go to waste. All because he was too consumed by his own immortality, and finding The Doctor, to notice how the magnificent alien tech Torchwood hoarded was turning Suzie’s mind against her. She may have been solely responsible for her actions, but he should’ve been there to help.

His heart jumped as he read her status. Alive. Suzie Costello was alive. From the record, it showed that she’d been dismissed from duty indefinitely in the autumn of 2006 on grounds of unstable mental health. Jack read with remorse how the team had administered an unsavoury amount of tranquiliser when she had tried to kill herself and a new recruit, before committing her to Flat Holm for constant observation.

This had the Time Agency’s fingerprints all over it. A minor incision to the timeline, neatly stitched back together with the hanging threads of reality. Their signature procedure. He couldn’t bear to imagine the torment Suzie now endured inside that facility. How could someone with such an inquisitive, astonishing mind cope with being locked up and unable to apply it?

At least she’d be alive, he told himself. This new universe had spared her the indignity of not one but two deaths. His gift to her.

Jack elected to access Owen Harper next. With a couple clicks, the employee file spotted onto the screen and the medic’s stoic face peered down at him. His photograph reminded Jack of an oil painting - one of those that celebrated the great minds of the Enlightenment – with his tight, cynical smile and hard, condescending brow. Owen had always been a gamble for the team, a rebel in his own skin. Jack had recognised the spark of ingenuity when he’d first read his file whilst pursuing Katie Russell, but it had been the searing rage at his fiancée’s grave that had convinced him he needed to recruit Owen. A doctor who single-mindedly pursued the truth and craved a purpose in life was a well needed asset for Torchwood Cardiff.

But the man who emerged from that personal tragedy was not who Jack had anticipated. Even at the Time Agency, he’d never seen someone’s personality mutate so fast. Throwing himself into a cesspit of drugs, sex and violence, Owen Harper had somehow convinced himself he could purge his body of his former life. It seemed he’d naively come to believe that if he infected himself with so much self-pity and contempt, he would no doubt build up an immunity to the unforgiving and unrelenting pain of widowhood. But it hadn’t worked; it never would’ve. In what felt like a cruel joke, Jack thought that Owen had been making real progress with working that out before the incident with Gray had led to his untimely demise at the nuclear reactor.

A feeling of relief crashed over Jack as he saw the record marked the doctor as alive. Owen Harper was living and breathing in the year 2018.

His eyes narrowed anxiously over the words ‘discharged from service’. In this universe, it seemed, Owen had been sacked due to misconduct ten years prior, precisely at the time he’d been shot in his original timeline. The Time Agency’s handy-work, no doubt. They prided themselves on their precision, cutting so close to the source that no traces of interference were detectable. Jack fancied something must have gone down very differently at The Pharm that night.

He didn’t care. He’d saved Owen. For real this time.

Next, he sought out the file marking Toshiko Sato. Opening the folder, it caught him off guard how much her image still affected him. The photo had not been taken long after Jack had settled her in Cardiff, having stolen her away from the brutal confines of the detention centre. Her skin looked sickly but her rich hazel eyes, rouged cheeks and rosebud lips made her face pulsate with life. She had a look on her face he couldn’t quite place though. He wasn’t quite sure he’d been able to at the time either. Maybe relief at having escaped a life of solitude and torment. Joy, perhaps, at being given the opportunity to put her talents to the test and really make a difference.

In all his years on Earth, Jack had never seen such brilliance come to a person so naturally. She’d been dismissed by the Ministry of Defence as a dreamer, cast off into solitary confinement by U.N.I.T. as an oddity, but he knew she was something else. He’d given her technology that wasn’t going to be discovered by the human race for thousands of years, and she’d proven herself a deft hand at everything he’d thrown at her. It had been his decision to keep her away from her mother. She had been on the verge of greatness – he owed it to Tosh to shield her from such mortal distractions. Mary, Tommy, even Owen, had showed him that she was better off without them. Jack only wished he’d been there to save her from needlessly taking the ultimate sacrifice.

The corner of his lips curled as he noted her status as alive, but the rush of relief soon faded. According to the database, Toshiko Sato had requested her own dismissal. Jack’s brow furrowed as he read how she’d handed in her notice only a few weeks after what would have been the day of her death. He hoped to God she’d not given up her life at Torchwood to run after Owen Harper.

Jack exited Toshiko’s page - quietly confident he would find out soon enough what had happened – and fixed his eyes on the final two recruitments.

Without question, he knew who deserved to be next. His fingers stiffened around the mouse as he shifted the cursor towards the Welshman’s file. Stifling a tear, Jack quickly realised how long it had been since he had truly thought about Ianto Jones. Shortly after his exodus, Jack had attempted to suppress any memory of him, turning the few moments they’d shared into tableaus of another man’s life. But now, finally, he was able to reclaim them as his own. The placing of his favourite coffee mug on his desk. Their fingers brushing up against each other. The harmonised locking of the SUV doors. His tactile hands snaking up his neck. The instinctive arching of his back as he dragged him closer. His meticulous rebuttoning of his waistcoat. Their knowing smiles meeting across the hub. The warm embrace of his wanting lips. The release of bated breath as they swayed to the wedding music. His hand buried in the matted brush of his hair.

Jack flinched.

His bloodshot eyes flooding with tears.

The frantic hands pulling at his greatcoat.

His heart collapsing into cardiac arrest.

The crack of his voice as he realised it was too late.

“In a thousand years, you won't remember me.”

Knowing he wouldn’t be able to take another moment, Jack slammed his finger down on the keyboard and the file sprung open. From the looks of the photo, it had been taken on Ianto’s first day as general administrator for Torchwood Cardiff. His face was pale and fair like finely spun wool, framed by a bed of wiry, charcoal hair. His blue eyes, cold and patient, just barely hinted at the secrets he was hiding at the time. Jack had never been unnerved by his attraction to anyone - especially not beguiling young men who threw themselves at hungry weevils and distracted pterodactyls with bars of chocolate - but he’d been somewhat thrown off kilter by the export from London. Maybe that’s why he’d given him unfettered access to the hub and seldom questioned his whereabouts after hours – he didn’t want to get too close and reveal how much of an effect he had on him.

Ianto’s death had been the requiem to Jack’s futile stint on Earth. He’d scanned the stars hoping to find another, but it had only cemented his grief. He’d woken up in the beds of men and women, human and alien, single and plural, beautiful and bizarre, yet still pined to have Ianto Jones beside him just once more. Jack had also long grown tired of his rehearsed self-flagellation, refusing the things in life he truly wanted. Immortal or not, he deserved love. He deserved Ianto Jones.

His file, consequently, was the most perplexing. As with the other members of the team, Ianto was most certainly alive, yet his status within Torchwood was the most unclear. Absent without leave. Jack read it again, realising it had been submitted to the database by the Welshman himself just one week after the 456 had retreated from Earth. Absent. Without. Leave.

Ianto had just got up and left?

What the hell was going on? He understood the situation with Suzie Costello. Owen, well, Owen had always been a gambling man - maybe his dismissal was inevitable. But what was the Time Agency playing at with Tosh and Ianto? They were not in the position to be fleeing the nest.

Not after everything he had done for them.

Not after everything they’d been through.

Why had they been saved only to be taken from him?

He decided now was the best time to check Gwen Cooper, before everything became too overwhelming and, honestly, before he bolted his hand straight through the monitor. He trusted she would bring him some form of comfort in this strange, new world. Her photo was the only one he truly remembered as well. He’d developed the habit of opening up her file late at night just to study her face. He would trail the lines of her inviting, loose smile with his finger and enter into her deep, doe-like eyes, in hopes of finding the answers to all his problems.

He hadn’t found them, Jack thought, thinking back to how their unrequited romance had perished the moment they realised she was not going to save him. He saw her photo differently now; he realised what it represented - the fighter, the maverick, the leader she was destined to become. The woman he’d made.

His eyes swelled with pride as he read how she remained the only active member of the team, which explained the access. It shouldn’t have surprised him really. She lived and breathed Torchwood.

In his original timeline, the news of her and Rhys’ passing had reached him not long after their lives had been taken. He’d never questioned who had sent the message. It could’ve been from their children - now well acquainted with the alien technology their parents brought home from work - or some Torchwood employee, duty-bound by a newly appointed leader. It had been a short but heartening announcement of their funeral.

He hadn’t attended.

Jack opened Gwen’s folder and gazed upon the familiar sight of her logbook. From what he could tell, the number of entries had become increasingly sparse over the past seven years, with the final dedicated number of admissions being back in 2011. He started skimming through, recognising with distilled indifference the detailed accounts of the so-called ‘Miracle Day’. As he scanned the entries, hoping to reason why Gwen had suddenly stopped updating her logbook, despite being an active member, he found what he feared was the cause.

‘Jack’s left.’

He grimaced. He knew the Miracle had taken a lot out of him. The inability to succumb to death so crudely flaunted in front of his face, the debauched behaviour of the transatlantic government, the repeated failings of his new team to realise what was really going on. He’d found it hard to deal with, but it shocked him to realise it had been too much to bare even with the rest of the team still with him.

He blinked.

They weren’t still with him though, were they? In this universe, something had led them astray.

Well, it wasn’t going to stay like that for much longer.

Having inspected the remains of the logbook, it appeared Gwen had only recorded a handful of entries between then and now. Realising his patience was wearing insufferably thin, he opened the final three submissions all at once, eager to decipher the Welshwoman’s whereabouts.

11th December 2015
Two weevil-related incidents. One in Llanishen which was contained by PC Andy Davidson and PC Siobhan Roberts. Another out in Merthyr Tydfil. No causalities, but the police department want a briefing about what the hell happened. If I have a spare moment, I’ll drive over there and give them a heavy dose of Retcon.

29th July 2016
Resettled an elderly Victorian woman who came through the rift. Her name is Emily Jane Pfeiffer. Found her a bungalow in Radyr, close to the Danybryn nursing home. She seems alright, all things considered. I'll check on her when I get the chance.

 17th September 2017
A few alien eggs found in the water supply. A bit busy this month so I missed the hatching. Liaised with the Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water) and the Chelonian species until an agreement was reached. All sorted but, needless to say, Rhys only drinks Evian now. 

A spare moment?

When I get the chance?

A bit busy this month?

What was keeping Gwen so occupied that she couldn’t keep up with her Torchwood duties. The Chelonian species were hard to negotiate with at the best of times. He conceded that she was the only member left, but she’d proven herself more than capable on her own. It didn’t make sense.

With an exasperated grunt, Jack closed the file and logged out. Enough, he resolved, shutting the entire workstation down, fighting the urge to slam the side of his boot into the sodding machine. He could feel his chest tightening, his rugged hands curling into fists, the back of his teeth chomping at the fleshy interior of his cheek.

Jack was exhausted. He had travelled to the edge of the cosmos, sacrificed what was left of his future, relinquished his past to the Time Agency, just so he could ask them - practically beg them – for this universe to be constructed. He knew he shouldn’t have got his hopes up. He’d promised the leader he would manage his expectations but all he’d done was learnt to deliver near perfect responses to their more cautionary tales.

He slowly attempted to steady his breathing. It was fine. What did it matter? He’d got them here once before, hadn’t he? He could do it again. The Time Agency had done what it needed to do, now he was going to do what he needed to do. And they’d better be ready, because Captain Jack Harkness was coming to get them. He just needed something that would-

Jack just about caught himself as the hub rapidly started to vibrate. He surveyed the room with unblinking eyes as lumps of concrete shifted loose from the ceiling and the building’s glass windows rattled under the pressure of the rift. The alarm hastily activated, releasing a searing orchestra of screams which seemed to howl at the moon outside. He smirked, flaunting his shiny, shark-like teeth, as Cardiff’s own crack in space and time snapped and sizzled, firing a bolt of energy through the roof and straight into the night sky.

Perfect.

Chapter Text

Owen Harper stared at the blank screen.

Motionless, like a predator sunken in the tall grass, he regarded his reflection in the monitor, bitterly examining the crude lines that now encircled his eyes and mouth. His spiderlike fingers rattled impatiently on the polished glass table, leaving behind a mess of greasy fingerprints, as he waited for the opportune moment to strike. Owen wetted his lips, chapped and bruised, before snapping at the keyboard and logging the call to the New York offices.

Owen reclined in his office chair as the faux dial tone purred out from the speakers. He tried to enjoy the imperial black leather cushioning his buttocks and rolled his head sideways until it audibly cracked. Despite his best intentions, Owen could sense his impatience bobbing to the surface and scoured his hands over his cheeks, relishing the bristles of his five o’clock (or, technically, two o’clock) shadow prickling his palms.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, pick up the phone,” he snarled.

Owen loathed working in Dublin.

Having resigned to his residency in the Irish capital, the doctor had tried his utmost to submit to the city. He refused to deny its charms. The Guinness flowed through the streets like the river Liffey, taxis still seemed to him to be ridiculously cheap, and the pilgrimage of stag do’s and hen parties ensured his libido was nursed every weekend.

Yet, still, he despised their quasi tax haven.

He hated the historic cobbled streets littered with the sound of hard shoes. He hated the pitiful American tourists gleefully handing over a fiver for a pint. He hated the way the cashier woman would half-heartedly smile at him as she passed a packet of Rothman’s from behind the counter. Most of all, he hated the ritual chit-chat he exercised with his Irish counterparts about the crap weather or ‘funny’ national differences or God forbid the state of Brexit.

But he would never move back.

Owen had been employed by Bliss Ltd for nearly a decade. After his exile from Cardiff, he’d wrangled his old contacts for potential employment, digging up as many bad memories as needed to guilt his Hippocratic chums into some overpaid consultancy gig. He’d never heard of Bliss before. From what he’d gathered from the initial exchange with the so-called Head of Business Development – whatever that meant – the corporation appeared to specialise in mood enhancers, in particular bonding monoamine oxidase inhibitors and tricyclics. It was all very ahead of its time. Well, according to their promotional material. Owen’s previous life, however, had taught him the precise expertise Bliss would’ve required to have in their arsenal to really do what their fine print said was possible. He also knew what millennia the human race would discover that particular piece of technology.

So, Bliss were either deceitful or dangerous. He didn’t really care. A job was a job. Besides, could they really be accused of moral bankruptcy when this planet was nothing more than an unsalvageable rock floating through space? Owen sincerely doubted it.

Having proved himself to be a valuable asset to the company, Bliss had practically begged him to stay with them full-time. He had been in two minds about accepting their ludicrous offer, humouring himself that they were somehow beneath him. Fortunately, it’d dawned on him, looking across the Irish sea to the coastal rock asunder, that he might not get another chance. It was only a matter of time before some acne-scarred recruiter would go through his CV and fact-check the fictitious pharmaceutical companies he’d apparently worked for in Wales. He didn’t want to have to explain why his employment history was made up of foreign cereal brands.

Screw ‘em. They were all liars. What did it matter if he was one too?

Owen had enjoyed the whims of consultancy at first. The work was minimal. He often stumbled into the office around lunchtime, weary and agitated from the previous night’s comedown, to put together some report before heading down to his boss’ residence. He mostly sat in the crook of boardrooms instructing a stockpile of ravenous stakeholders about what they should do regarding certain new drugs. Avoid trials. Rake up prices. Ignore side-effects. It was almost comical how wicked he was allowed to be sometimes. But that’s what he was, right?

The bad guy.

The villain in the two-piece suit. To be specific, a woollen grey attire with a subtle checked design with ink blue silk lining which had been tailored specifically to fit his rake-like body. The jacket had distinct notched lapels and an understated chest welt pocket. Owen kept the ensemble held together by stainless steel dress studs - bought for a wedding now long forgotten - which permanently felt cold against his fingertips as he fastened them every morning. His colleagues loved the suit. Refined. Commanding. Sharp.

Owen thought it made him look like a gargoyle.  

A grotesque.

He wore it most days, often paired with a muted navy tie and a stiff ivory shirt, which had been ironed by the stout, red-haired lady he hired to come around to his studio flat every Wednesday morning.

“Harper?” asked a voice airing from the speakers.

Owen’s eyes shot open and speedily acknowledged his laptop screen, now blazing with artificial light, and clocked the four separate video feeds.

He hadn’t expected company.

Passing over the presence of his own image, Owen perused the three international employees of Bliss Ltd.

The feed from New York was occupied by a slight, unsuspecting man in his early thirties with thin-rimmed glasses and choppy black hair. Owen recognised him as Joe Johnson, his equivalent from across the pond. Despite being in contact with him almost every day, Owen had only been in his physical presence once. He’d thought him handsome, if not slightly neurotic, and cordial - enough for Owen to realise Joe didn’t think of him as a threat.

He hated him too.

Peering at the backdrop of the other two feeds, Owen deduced that they must be broadcasting from their new units in Beijing and São Paulo. The woman in the bottom left-hand corner introduced herself as Liu Qing and offered the group a curt and determined smile. She had a heart-shaped face with sunken hazel eyes, framed with thin black eyeliner apparently well-honed over the years. Owen clocked her American accent – New York, maybe Boston - and noted how her attention flickered back and forth to Joe Johnson.  

Owen speculated how long they’d been shagging before she’d left him for a better paid job in China.

The final display was filled with Francisco de Oliveria, a bulky man decorated with unkempt grey hair and smoker lips. He just stared emptily into the webcam with his brooding, cannonball eyes before eventually mumbling something about not having a lot of time.

Owen tried to get through as much of the call without saying anything. They didn’t need his input. Bliss was just going to do what it wanted anyway, casting some experimental cocktail of drugs into the public domain and trusting their annual dividends outweighed the legal costs. As Liu detailed the properties of some new cellophane patch they were testing, Owen coolly considered whether this could be it.

It wasn’t an unprecedented thought. Owen had debated the idea many times, often as he sat silent at the end of dry conference calls in the middle of the day. Trailing his fingers across his mouth, he casually trailed through the avenues of his memory, foraging for a moment, an instant, when he felt it had not been it – the end – for him.

He could only think of her.

But that was so long ago.

The voices of the three employees swam in his head like the deep of the river where he’d entertained this thought not long ago, before being salvaged by the police. Owen pondered what was causing the delay. Maybe a part of him, one he did not recognise, still believed what that enigmatic figure had once told him. That he could save them all. That he could be saved.

Not anymore.

“Anything else?” Francisco asked impatiently, ringing his tongue across his sharp front teeth.

If only to pass the time, Owen focussed back on the conversation.

“Well,” Liu started tentatively, shifting her weight from side to side. “Has anyone heard about the new acquisition from the UK?”

Owen’s ears pricked up. He hadn’t been made aware of Bliss buying out any companies, especially not in his old hunting ground.

“Nothing substantial yet,” Joe replied smugly. “But with operational costs going through the roof, we really need to bolster our portfolio. I heard the big dogs talking about an innovation pipeline; something really impressive in the works.”

Owen bit hard into his tongue. Joe didn’t know what the fuck he was prattling on about. He was just aping the plastic news reporters he listened to as he lay comatose in expense-paid hotel rooms.

“Some crazy biotech company, sem dúvida,” Francisco muttered.

Liu leaned into her mic, so close that Owen caught the sickly moistness of her lips parting as she spoke. “This isn’t something to do with you-know-who, is it?”

“Undoubtedly,” Joe replied.

Owen seriously deliberated slapping the laptop shut and sending a note that the connection had cut off or the wi-fi had gone down or he’d somehow managed to throw himself out the window.

“Who are they?” Francisco demanded.

“They call themselves The Pharm.”

Owen blinked.

“Clever name,” Joe sniggered.

An imposing, dull pressure began to build in Owen’s head, progressively masking the sound of the outside world. All he could hear was the name – that name - reverberate in his ears like the sound of a solitary, resounding gunshot.

“Where are they situated?” Francisco pried. “London?”

“Cardiff,” Liu answered.

Owen felt his hands ball into fists beneath the table.

 “What is it with Cardiff all of a sudden?” Joe queried. “I saw a report on FOX News last night. What on Earth is going on down there?”

Owen opened his mouth to speak but caught the rising breath in his throat as he noted something blinking in the corner of his eye. He scanned his laptop, registering a single flickering icon that had not been there before. A small coloured envelope was intermittently flashing at him from the taskbar, with the number one etched inside.

By now, he had accumulated tens of thousands of unread emails - from colleagues desperate for his advice, from family members asking for money, from friends just wanting to talk – which he took great pleasure in deleting every morning, skimming only the ones that kept his bills paid. He’d checked and double-checked that every notification setting had been switched off, ensuring he would not be reminded of the pointless emails that infested his inbox. As such, he had not seen that flickering emblem, beckoning him like a wound-up toddler, since he booted up his laptop over ten years ago.

He eyeballed the icon nervously.

Cautiously placing two fingers on the touchpad, he steadily moved the cursor to the edge of the screen and pressed down on the glowing red icon.

Flowering onto the screen, his mailbox was all but barren, a graveyard to the thousands of souls who had tried to reach out to him. Except one email.

He squinted at the message, both unsettled and incensed by its brevity, and shifted his jaw uneasily upon realising the memo had been sent from his own email address. 

‘Cardiff. The Yard. This Friday. 8pm.’

Owen shut down his laptop and left Dublin.