Steven's temperature was back to normal, though he still looked wan. She didn't want him to miss the first day of school, and that made the final decision. "Come on, then. Get your uniform on, I'll drive you. If you start feeling bad, go to the nurse and have her call me."
"Okay." She watched him go upstairs, heard him talking to himself. Yes, this was definitely a good idea. He'd spent so much of this summer alone, it was time he made new friends.
As they got into the car, she noticed one of those ostentatious SUVs driving by and shook her head.
The second the cog door opened, Jack roared, "Where have you been?"
"I went to the site," Johnson said, with a polite calmness. "I've got readings, and I've discovered the approximate location of the alien. You're welcome."
"You stole the car, and went over my express orders. I'm not thanking you."
"I didn't suppose you would." She pulled out her gun. "Captain, I am relieving you of command."
He folded his arms. "You're really not."
"I really am. Remove your sidearm and kick it over here." She looked at the rest of them, keeping her gun trained on Jack. "He's been helping the aliens with the invasion. I have proof."
What? "This is ridiculous."
"I'm not helping the aliens, Johnson."
"The Rift has been growing in activity, both frequency and strength, since the actions of your brother and former partner, destabilising it to the point where other species can come through at will."
Jack kept the hurt off his face. He'd noticed the timing, yeah. "I won't say that's not my fault, but it wasn't intentional. They did it to get at me. It worked." And it had cost him dear.
"Then explain what you've been doing over the past week at the alien's hideout."
"I traced the residual Rift energy, and obviously so did you. You went straight to the end of the trail."
"No, I didn't." Out of the corner of his eye, he'd watched as Gwen slowly positioned herself behind Johnson. She wasn't armed, not in the Hub, but that didn't mean she was defenceless. He kept talking. "I searched for traces. I couldn't find any with the scanner I had."
"I did. Mrs. Cooper, if you so much as move another muscle, I'm going to shoot." Gwen froze.
Jack said, "Shooting me isn't going to do you any good, and we both know it."
"I didn't say you were the one I was going to shoot." Her gun moved a tiny fraction, and Jack was suddenly very aware of Ianto behind him but off to the side just enough. Jack could probably get in front of the bullet in time, but if he missed …
Too many deaths.
"What do you want, Johnson?"
"I want your sidearm. I want you to sit quietly in a cell while we wait for UNIT reinforcements to arrive. I'm going to meet them at the site, and then we'll see what you've done."
Jack reached down for his Webley, turning his head to the side as he did to meet Ianto's eyes, trying to send him a message.
Johnson said, "Please do not encourage Mr. Jones to run. I assure you, I can hit a moving target. Mrs. Cooper, please join the two of them. Now."
Jack kicked his gun over to her as Gwen complied. Johnson stepped on it, and there went his hope of a distraction.
The cog wheel turned again as Lois and Alex came down from the Tourist Centre.
Alex said, "What's going on?" as Lois pulled back, terrified.
"I've just relieved Captain Harkness of command for collaborating with the invaders. You need to choose a side or I'll choose for you."
"He'd never do that," said Lois, and Johnson put on a disgusted face.
"That's her decided, then. Doctor?"
Alex wet his lips. "I want more information."
"Fine. Go to your station, pull up the records from the SUV." Alex hurried over and logged in as they watched. His face fell as he read.
"All right," he said. "I'm with you."
"Take Ms. Habiba into custody."
Regretfully, Alex took Lois's arm. "You can't possibly believe her," said Lois.
Johnson said, "Into the cells."
As they walked, Jack noted that Johnson was happy to point the gun at the other three to keep him in check. "Alex, tell me what she's got. I know I'm not a collaborator, but I can't defend myself if I don't even know what she's told you."
"The satnav records have you located at the same address where the Rift energy signature ends. Langham House 27."
Jack stopped dead. "No. That's not possible. Not that house."
Johnson said, "After I came back the first time, I pulled up the CCTV records for the location over the past several weeks. You've been there a number of times, I can only assume getting prepared for the aliens. I went back this morning to reconnoitre the house."
"There are no aliens at that address. I can guarantee it." Alice had been brought up to shoot on sight.
Johnson indicated the cells, ignoring Janet's cries for attention from her keepers. "All in the same cell. Go."
The cell door closed behind them. Jack went to the window, heart hammering. "Johnson, if an alien hasinfiltrated that house, the people who live there are in danger. You've got to get them out of there. Please!"
"Wait here," she said, as if he could do anything else. He closed his eyes.
Zie waited until Steven and the parent were gone, then climbed down the stairs. Something had gone wrong with the signal, and zie feared all was lost. Zie could not make it back to the site alone, and cannibalising another computer would only draw attention.
The only thing stronger now than despair was hunger. Zie found the delightful fruit in the cold box, and ate standing in the cool blast of air. At the bottom of the cold box, there were more of the glass bottles that zie recalled from the picnic. Zie enjoyed fizzy and sweet, and so removed four of the bottles to bring to the sofa. At first taste, the liquid was much less sweet than zie remembered, but after a few gulps, zie didn't mind.
Steven hadn't felt good since Saturday, not really. When he got dizzy, he felt his own forehead, but the fever didn't seem to be back. He placed his head on his desk.
"Steven Carter," said the teacher. "We do not take naps at school."
"Yes, miss. Sorry, miss." He held his head up again, trying to make sense of the words on the blackboard, but the chalk letters swum in his vision, trying to form an alphabet he didn't recognise for words he somehow understood.
She'd half-expected the call, considering, but she hadn't anticipated her boss to be the one to hand her the phone. "Apparently," he said, voice caught between amusement and disapproval, "the nurse thinks your son is rat-arsed."
Alice sighed. "I'll be needing the rest of the day off."
"Yes. I think you will."
Gwen looked at him. "What's going on? Why does she think you were helping them?"
"I don't know. I really don't. There's got to be a mistake somewhere."
Ianto said, "You've been in Bristol a lot lately." It wasn't accusatory. "Lois, come here." The two of them went to a panel by the door.
Gwen said, "Jack, what aren't you telling us this time?"
He sighed. "Look, not all of my secrets are my own, okay? There are other people I need to protect."
"There," said Ianto to Lois. "The sequence is: four two three three nine."
"Who are you protecting in Bristol? Is it this alien?"
"Jack … "
Ianto said, "Jack's got a daughter and grandson there. Alright, twist it to the left."
Jack blinked. "How in the hell did you know that?"
"You're not subtle. I figured you'd tell me when you were ready. And press."
Lois pressed something on the panel, and the door slid open. She smiled proudly.
Jack and Gwen stared. "You just picked the lock?"
"After we got locked in that one time, I installed an override so I wouldn't be trapped in my own cell again."
"You never said," said Jack.
"Well," said Ianto. "I might need to lock you both in here some day, right? Anyway, Lois did the actual work. Thank her."
"Thank you, Lois," they said together.
"It's no problem. I'm getting used to being Ianto's extra pair of hands."
Gwen reached up without even looking and smacked Jack on the back of his head.
"What was that for?"
"Pre-emptive. You were going to need it in a minute."
As they reached the Hub, one of the monitors beeped. Jack loped over to see. "Bless you, Toshiko. The translation program just finished." Of course it had. The algorithm really was clever, redefining even the most unfamiliar of languages into something that could be translated. It just took time.
Jack frowned as he read the display. "Oh. Oh no. We've been going about this all wrong."
Alice helped Steven into the car. His fever was back with a vengeance, which explained his wooziness and the mad, drunken look. The school counsellor wanted to speak with her, but Alice had put it off to tomorrow, so she could get him home to rest.
Steven sickened as they neared the house. Alice stopped at a light, and debated with herself whether she should take him directly to the doctor. It was probably just a touch of 'flu, something that another day on the sofa with some soup and crackers could patch up. She hoped.
She noticed more cars on the street than were normal for this time of day. Odd. She parked the car, went to help him out.
"We're sick," he said, his face waxen.
"I know, love. We'll get you inside, rest up, all right?"
She unlocked the door, went inside. Steven swayed where he stood in the foyer, and she reconsidered the doctor. She'd take him to get checked out. That swine 'flu was making the news again, but they had shots, right? But the smell …. There was a smell in the house, foul and beery, and she stepped back, gagging. What the hell?
"Stay here," she said, though Steven didn't look like he could move at all.
Alice crept into the kitchen, saw the refrigerator door wide open, and felt fear trickle inside her. Someone had been in her house. Someone had gone through her things. She grabbed the kitchen knife almost on instinct, and then looked into the living room.
There was an alien on the sofa, empty beer bottles around it. It moved its head and looked at her with giant bug eyes.
"Steven, we have to go. Now."
"Mum … " he said from the foyer.
"Mum … " said the alien.
Alice scrambled back, not turning away from it, not letting it get behind her. "Steven. Run. Now."
Her mobile was still in the car. She had to get to the car, get out of here, call Jack. Lock this monster inside.
Finally, she turned. Three armed and uniformed soldiers stood in the doorway. A woman stood with them, all in black, bending down to place her hands on Steven's shoulders.
"Let him go."
"Where's the alien?"
"In there. Did you bring it here? Into my home?"
The woman looked confused. "What?"
Speeding tickets were the last thing on Jack's mind as he flew through traffic. They could sort that out later. Right now, there was an alien at Alice's house, and he'd missed it. He'd completely fucking missed it.
Lois said from the back, "UNIT frequency says they've just arrived at the house. They've taken a woman into custody, Alice Carter."
"What about Steven?"
"Still working on it," said Ianto.
Beside him, Gwen was on her mobile to the police in the area, letting them know the make and model of Jack's car and asking them to clear the roads. "They're handling it. What's our plan?"
Jack didn't say anything at first. "Logic. We go in and explain what's going on."
The species was old, millions of years old, and practically mythical. Jack had heard of them, of course, but the same way he'd learned of elves and fairies and Time Lords: as stories, nothing more. His mouth quirked. So the elves would be along any time, then.
The Botanists, not their name but their vocation, slipped like ghosts from world to world, collecting samples for preservation in their great topiaries. The stories said that they had plants from every inhabited planet in the universe, tended and loved and allowed to flourish aeons after their homeworlds crumbled to dust or were consumed by supernovae. "Be kind to the little plants," went the tales, "because that dandelion might be the last survivor of the whole world."
And he and Ianto had accidentally interrupted one of their collection missions. For Jack, who'd long ago lost any belief he might have had in gods, it was practically blasphemy.
He heard Ianto's intake of breath, even over the engine. "There's a biohazard warning on the house. The alien is showing serious signs of illness." He paused. "Jack, the reports say there's a child showing the same symptoms."
"That'll be the telepathy. One of the things they say, a Botanist can bond with a member of another species, trading thoughts and experiences. There's a whole story cycle about scientists and heroes and mystics all wanting to be the one chosen, but there's always some twist about it being the ploughboy or the milkmaid or something. Fairy tale stuff."
"Like with Jasmine," said Gwen. "The Chosen One."
His stomach clenched, remembering how that had turned out. "Not. Like. Jasmine." Jack gunned the engine.
"Sir," said Lois. "I don't mean to add to the worry."
"By all means, add."
"But it's just, if Ianto figured out who Alice and Steven are, it's not going to take long for someone else to do it." He saw in the rearview as Lois glanced over the Ianto, as if apologising. "I mean, UNIT and the Home Office, everyone's got files. Even if the records were buried, they'll be there somewhere."
He said nothing, drove even faster.
Steven felt hot and cold all over. Mum sat beside him, a chair by his fold-up bed, holding his hand and stroking his head, and he was so tired. The army people had set up inside the house and were tracking mud and worse all over the rugs. Poor Mum. She always fumed when Steven made a mess on the floor, and here were muddy boots up and down the stairs, running scans in his room, over his toys, everything. They'd run scans over Mum, too, but they all made lots more beeps when they came near Steven.
He was sick. He wondered if the sick made the computers beep.
He turned his head to see where the alien was. Another fold-up bed was in the dining room, with Mum's table pushed outside. The alien was on the bed, not moving.
Inside his mind, he heard the alien say, Steven.
"Yes, love," said Mum. "You're here." She was the only one not wearing a mask and plastic suit. Every time someone tried to give her one, she growled.
The alien said to him, Home. Go home.
"Stay," Steven said.
Mum said, "I'm going to stay, sweetheart. I'm not going anywhere."
Johnson watched as Dr. Lin fluttered over the alien. "Did it poison itself?"
"With the beer? Could be. I've never seen anything like this before. I hadn't seen an alien up close before this week."
"You're now the resident expert. I want it alive and ready to answer questions. We could be looking at a full-scale invasion at any moment, and this is our only hope. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. But don't you think we'd be better off with Torchwood here? They're the real experts."
"As I said, I think they've been compromised."
"We haven't," said a voice in her ear. It was accompanied by a cool prick of a gun barrel. "Step away."
"I have thirty guards in and around this building."
"Four," said Jones. "Actually, two now," he amended, as two more of Johnson's men dropped their weapons and grabbed their ears.
"Sonic disruptor," said Cooper, brandishing something distinctly alien. "It's temporary."
From the other room, the mother stood. "I'd expect it of them, you know. But how dare you bring guns into my house." This was to Harkness.
Jones let out a sigh. "Clearly, next time we should attempt to rescue you using walkie-talkies."
Harkness said, "There are a lot of ways this can go right now. Some of them, we all walk away from."
"Or just you," said Johnson.
"Or just me." She couldn't see his infuriating smile from this angle, but she knew it was there.
"You can't be trusted. You've been working with the aliens this whole time."
"No," said Harkness. "But I ought to have been. Ready to stand down?"
Johnson moved, slowly, so she could look into his eyes, not that they told her anything. "Tell me what it is."
"I don't know the name of the species. But it's not harmful. I swear."
She flicked her eyes to the mother. "How good are his promises?"
"They're rubbish," said the woman. "Always were."
"Even she says you're a liar."
"But," the woman added, "he knows what he's talking about. You won't find a better expert, and that's what you need right now."
"To save the alien?"
"I could care bugger all about the alien. But something's wrong with my son, and I'm willing to believe Jack can fix it. Can you?"
Johnson stepped back and away. His people turned off the sonic disruptor.
"Take her," Harkness said, and Cooper grabbed her arm while Habiba covered her. "Alex, what do we have?"
"Sir. The alien's sick. It may have poisoned itself."
Harkness kneeled down beside it. "I'll bet. Hello. I know who you are."
The alien turned its head towards him, but said nothing.
"I always thought you were just a story. Coming to collect the plants from across worlds. Earth is like an enormous dessert bar for you, yeah? It's a little late to say we mean you no harm, but I wanted to say, I'm sorry." He looked completely honest. "I didn't know it was you."
The alien reached out a long arm, paler now than when they'd arrived.
"You need to release the connexion you have with Steven. You're both very ill, and if you die, he'll die too. You know that." Johnson saw the mother's face blanch. "Let him go, and we'll do what we can to save you."
Interesting. The corollary was a threat without ever stating it.
"Go," said the alien. Harkness twitched. Alien expert or not, he obviously hadn't known it could speak.
"Stay," said a small voice from the other side of the room, and even as the mother turned her attention back to him, the child's life signs stabilised.
"Go," said the creature, weaker.
"Alex, you need to get this guy into a tub of water. Their planet is supposed to be mostly swamp. There's a bath upstairs." Harkness touched the creature's arm. "Thank you."
The alien's life signs destabilised. Dr. Lin enlisted the help of two guards, carrying it up the stairs into a bath. Johnson heard the water running.
"How do we save it?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"We need to interrogate it. The invasion force … "
He snapped, "There won't be an invasion. They're pacifists. They don't have any weapons, they don't take over planets. They're scientists. They think species that have guns and wars are … "
Cooper looked at Harkness. "I wonder if they've met Sarah Jane? Sounds like they'd have got on well."
Harkness said, "They'd have done a lot better if they had." He went over to the mother and child. "Hey, Tiger. How are you feeling?"
The boy said, "Where's the alien?"
"The alien's sick, sweetheart," said the mother. "Uncle Jack's here to save it, isn't he?"
Harkness went up the stairs. When he was out of earshot, the mother said, "He drives me up the wall sometimes."
"Likewise," Johnson couldn't help but say aloud.
The woman offered her a bitter smile.
Jack sprinted up the stairs to the bathroom. Alex was working on the alien in the tub, coaxing oxygen into it, trying to keep its blood flowing. Nicely done, in all honesty, for someone who'd never worked on a live alien before.
"How's he doing?"
"Not good." Alex kept the water flowing, but the alien was clearly fading. "Heart rate is dropping. I'd shock it, but I wouldn't know where to start."
Jack placed a hand on Alex's shoulder. "Do your best."
"My bag's downstairs. Get me a shot of adrenalin."
Jack hurried back down. Bag. Bag. Bag! He grabbed the whole thing, digging through it as he ran. "Here."
Alex administered the shot right in the alien's chest. Its mouth opened for a scream, but nothing came out. It fell, lifeless, into the water.
"Sorry, sir. I can't. We tried."
Jack sighed heavily. Then he brushed his hand over the staring eyes.
"I want to see him," Steven said. His face was pale and pinched, although he was so much healthier than before, so much more alive, and Alice wanted to hold him and never let him grow up, never let him leave.
"All right," she said instead, and she took his hand. "We're going up to see the alien," she said to her father, whose face was heavy with the news. "This is still our house."
He nodded, let them go.
Alice watched as Steven went to the bath, the same one where he scrubbed every day, and took the hand of the dead alien, tears running down his face. Completely unafraid.
"I'm going to miss you," he said to it. "So much."
She turned away, not wanting to see. He'd had it right in their house, right under her nose, made it his best friend, and she'd never noticed. And now, he'd lost it just like he kept losing people in his life.
"Can I have a minute to say goodbye?"
"Of course, sweetheart." Alice went into her own bedroom, which had been tossed and examined by the guards, Christ. She sat on her bed, wondering if everything had gone wrong the day she was born.
Zie was floating. Everything was warm, and quiet. Zie had clamped down zir biosigns as a last instinctive attempt to hide, and had stopped them instead. When zir brain ran out of oxygen, zie would merely float away.
Zir heart gave a lurch. Captain?
Child, we heard your call.
Joy suffused zir, and zie opened zir eyes to see the child, weeping. The thread between them had been cut, for the child's sake, and now its thoughts were lost to zir.
The child's head shot up. "You're okay?"
Okay. Zie felt life thrumming back into zir, now that the poison had run its course, now that the thoughts of zir Captain filled zir mind. They were coming. Zie had to be ready. "Home. Go home. Now."
"Home? The rocket ship?"
There was no explaining to the child that there was no ship. "Yes."
The child looked around. "Back in the woods?"
Ianto had slipped away from the others. Jack and Gwen had the situation in hand, and he wanted to get readings of his own in peace. It wasn't hard to suss out which bedroom belonged to the boy. Model aeroplanes and rockets and other toys were scattered through the room, reminding him he needed to find a present for Mica. He wondered how many of these toys had been gifts from Jack. Every time Ianto thought he had a grasp on Jack, on who he was and what he'd seen, there was something new. Sometimes it delighted and amazed him, sometimes it merely reminded him that he was a temporary note in Jack's very long life.
This was a "temporary note" kind of day.
He'd known about the Carters for three months. He'd been trying to track down Jack for an emergency when the comms were down, and found his car crossing the Severn. Once Ianto had accessed the CCTV and found him outside the house, he hadn't known what to think. Instead of pointlessly levelling accusations, he'd researched Alice's background and found an ex-lover and their child, though not the way he'd expected. With nothing to do with the information, not without starting what was sure to be a nasty row, he'd simply held onto it, hoping that eventually, Jack would entrust him with this secret as well.
Ianto scanned the room, the device fitting awkwardly in his hand. Plenty of Rift energy here, but dissipated in a fashion that suggested it was entirely due to the alien's presence, and not a new incursion.
The scanner beeped, suddenly jumping off the scale, and Ianto swore at it, tapping it against a desk with a bit more force than necessary. The scanner continued to beep, and he glared. Then he took in exactly what it was he was reading.
This was bad.
Jack went back to the stairs, but Ianto was already taking them two at a time. He'd fall and break his neck if he wasn't careful. "What?"
"Rift activity is going off the scale. I thought it was an error."
Gwen looked over his shoulder at the scanner as Ianto handed it to him. She said, "That's bad."
"Yeah." This was the largest build-up they'd seen in months, maybe since Abaddon. Bad was a good start.
Johnson said, "Is it the same aliens? The scientists?"
Lois said, "The scientists whose dead colleague is upstairs in the bathtub?"
"Come on," Steven whispered. "This way."
Mum and Gran had always told him to have at least two exits whenever possible. Safety, Mum said. Security, Gran had said. The back stairs led out through Mum's room. In case of fire, they had an extra way out. Probably hadn't thought of stashing an alien this way, though.
Steven opened the door and brought the alien inside, shutting it quickly.
"Steven, what's going on?" He froze. Mum was in her room, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. She took in Steven and the alien. "What are you doing?"
"He needs to go home, Mum. The other aliens are coming for him. We have to get him out of here before the Men in Black take him away."
"Men in … " She stopped. "When this is all done, I need to sit you down with Uncle Jack, and we're going to have a long talk."
"Never you mind right now." She stood and went to the bedroom door. "Do you know where the site is?"
"Yeah. We went there the other day."
Mum frowned, then sighed. "At least you were playing outside. All right, can you get him back there?"
"What're you going to do?"
"I'm going to distract them." She gave him a kiss and a big hug. "I'll be there as soon as I can. You are not to go off to Mars with him, understood?"
Steven unlatched the back door, and taking the alien's hand, led him quietly outside.
Jack heard a door slam upstairs, and Alice marched down like the wrath of an angry goddess.
"You!" She stomped as she had when she was fourteen, every footstep shaking the house, and Jack unconsciously took a step back as she advanced, planting her forefinger on his chest. "You waltz in here, Mister Action Hero, guns in the air, boots all over my nice rugs, and then you leave a dead damn alien in my bathtub and your grandson a sobbing mess! There's a reason you didn't have custody when I was a child!"
"Alice, look. Now's not the time … " He was not backing away from his daughter. Really.
"It's a bloody perfectly good time! You can't just come in and expect everything to be all sunshine and roses!"
Lois said, "He did save Steven's life."
Alice rounded on her, and if Lois was prone to squeaking, she would have under Alice's glare. "That's why I haven't shot him!"
She turned back to Jack and poked him in the chest again. "You always bring trouble wherever you go, and now there's an alien! In my house! Mum would be bloody furious with you right now."
Ianto said, "The activity is peaking. The Rift is opening. We need to get on site."
Jack took Alice's hands in his. They were long overdue for this conversation, but it was going to have to wait. "If I start apologising now for your entire childhood, we'll be here all day, and we do not have the time." He said over his shoulder, "Get the alien. We'll take the body to the site. I'll try to explain."
Alice pulled away and moved in front of the stairs, blocking the way. "You'll wait, is what you'll do. Steven's up there saying goodbye to his best mate, and you will give him time to do it properly, or so help me … "
"Jack!" Gwen's shout caught his attention from where she stood near the door. "The UNIT guards said they just saw Steven and the alien pulling a runner on his bicycle."
Jack stopped dead, then turned to Alice. Alice smiled at him sweetly.
He started, "I am going to … "
"Jack," said Ianto warningly, looking at the scanner.
Jack let out a low, annoyed noise. "Everyone. In the car. Now!" As they hurried, Jack said to Alice, "You are the most stubborn, conniving … "
"Confidence," said Ianto.
They piled into the SUV, and no one stopped Alice from joining them. "As in, confidence artist. It's a profession."
Gwen said, "There was an apple. It fell from the tree." Jack started the car's engine. "It didn't fall far."
"Shut up," said Jack and Alice at the same time. The others were careful not to laugh.
The bicycle practically flew, he pedalled so quickly. The alien should have been heavy and weird and awkward, but something about the wind made them both lighter than air, almost. It was wicked cool.
Behind them, he heard the engines roar to life from the army men. Maybe Uncle Jack and Mum, too. He didn't get why Uncle Jack was there, but Mum said she'd explain later. Faster and faster they went up through the woods, the old walking trails that should have caught and turned his wheels, and this was nothing like anything he'd ever done before. He glanced down, saw the air under his bike, and he let out a whoop of joy.
The alien was so happy, it almost glowed, and Steven was happy too, though it wasn't the same, not exactly. For a while, it'd been like thinking the alien's thoughts, and that was gone, and he was sad, a little.
"Here. Home." Steven's bike swerved then, and they crashed hard. Steven pulled himself up, and then helped the alien.
Lightening flashed around them. As Steven watched, a bright glow formed in the middle, and ten aliens looking just like his alien came out of a door that he swore wasn't really there. Not a rocket ship at all, but much cooler. He gaped.
One last thought, distant, came to him from the alien, Captain!, and the link was broken for good.
Zir species did not weep tears, but zir heart was filled with such joy. They had come back for zir! At last! Already the Technician was readying the machine to return them home.
Zie turned to Steven. "Thank you."
"I am gonna miss you," it said, the wet on its cheeks again.
From the end of the road, they heard tyres and rocks. The adults had come. Zie could not stay. Zie drew Steven into an embrace.
"Steven!" The parent called, and the adults came into the clearing.
"Go," said Steven. "Go home." Zie waddled towards zir friends, felt enwreathed in their love as fingers and arms embraced.
"Jack," said one of the adults looking at its own machine, "the Rift is going critical."
Another adult said, "What do we do? Jack?"
The loud adult that wasn't the parent came forward. "You are fracturing our world by being here. Your visits are breaking the Rift into pieces. Please, help us."
The Technician let out a call: Ready,then tilted zir head and moved something else on the machine, a smile at zir lips.
The last thing zie heard was the adult with the machine say, "Wait. Now this is odd."
Rooftops were totally his thing. Fresh air, great view, and very few people willing to come all the way up here to bother him, unless he brought them up himself.
"So you were wrong again." It was the first thing Johnson had said since they'd come up here.
"So I was," he said agreeably. Gray and John had broken the Rift, and the Botanists had repaired it as casually as Ianto repaired a hole in Jack's coat. There were so many questions he wanted to ask them, so many things he wanted to know, but they'd collected their friend, fixed the hole, and vanished. He didn't expect to see them again, not for many lifetimes, if ever.
"Is this a more normal level, then? Weevils and Hoix and spaceships every day?"
He nodded. "And time travellers, too. But we're not running ourselves ragged anymore." Three days, and so far, knock on wood, everything had been back like before, with only one Earth-shattering crisis at a time.
"You won't be needing our help, then."
"That's a particularly delicate way of asking why I haven't Retconned or killed you yet."
Johnson shrugged. "I'm trying to learn delicate. It's a struggle."
"For me, too." They stood for a while, watching the city. "Of my last several hires, all of them betrayed me at least once, two shot me in the head, and frankly, there isn't one of them I haven't considered stuffing full of Retcon and shipping overseas. If I had any sense, I'd do it to that pair down in the Hub right now, but I'm a selfish bastard, and I kind of want to keep them." He turned to her. "So. You want to stay?"
"I was sent to spy on you. I locked you up and seized control and put your family in danger."
"I know. But I'm putting it in your favour that you did that to try and save the world. Just don't do it again, and if we can avoid shooting me in the head, I'd appreciate it. This is Torchwood. Everyone's got demons to exorcise here." He added mentally that now they knew to keep a close eye on her, and that was easier to accomplish with her in front of them. "Do. You. Want. To. Stay?"
Johnson looked at the city. "I do."
Jack grinned. Alex had already said no, though he'd remain until Martha could be installed. "Good. And speaking of those two words, for your first real duty, you, Lois, and Alex are covering the Hub this weekend. Try not to commit another coup while we're out of town, and if you do, let Lois be in charge."
Gwen came home at six.
"I'm glad you're here," said Rhys from the kitchen. "We'll have plenty of time. My wife doesn't usually get home until midnight." He leaned out so she could see the twinkle in his eye.
She laughed and kissed him. "That gives us hours, then."
"It's fish for dinner."
"Perfect." She took off her shoes. "Remind me, did you get your good suit pressed after that do with Banana?"
"Be a love and get it in tomorrow? You're going to need it."
"Saturday. You're my Plus One."
They were late, but they'd come back from the wedding last night to find Johnson, Alex and Lois fighting off a metal-eating alien that had landed on Bute Street, and that had led to chasing Weevils, and really, Ianto had only slept about four hours and all of that after six AM.
"It's getting better," Jack had said as they'd fallen into bed, too tired even to undress. Ianto knew he was right. The Rift wasn't acting up anymore, not to the degree it had, but their jobs never did go from nine to five, even on the best days. Gwen was probably still asleep.
Ianto played with the pink-wrapped package in his good hand. Alice, veteran of many a birthday party, had said anything pony-themed would likely be a hit with a girl turning six. He hoped she was right. (She was funny, that Alice. After Jack introduced him and Gwen properly, she'd said that she'd never met vessels before. So strange.)
Jack parked the car at the end of the street without prompting. Actually, he'd driven all the way here without asking directions, making Ianto think he wasn't the only one who'd done some research. "Are you both sneaky, suspicious bastards?" was not listed as a question in any of the compatibility quizzes in the magazines Lois had placed in the Tourist Office, but perhaps it ought to be.
"When do you want me to come get you?"
"I was thinking," Ianto said, "that since I finally met your mad family, you might be inclined to meet mine?" It came out as a question rather than the casual statement he'd intended. A quick smile would likely not help and would almost certainly make the request sound even more pathetic than it had to his own ears.
"I don't know," said Jack. "Wedding together yesterday, meeting the family today." He got out of the car and took the gift so Ianto could get out more easily. "People are going to start calling us a couple."
"Heaven forbid," Ianto said, but there was Jack locking the car, and there was Jack's hand warmly in his, and here they were walking together towards Rhi's house in front of all the neighbours, and that was Jack's perfect smile set in place as they stood at her door and knocked.
Now that the job offer was real, some thought would need to be put to living arrangements. Names of Cardiff estate agents scrolled by on the screen, listings for flats, none really appealing.
The mobile, the one that never went in to the Hub, rang.
"I'm in. They don't suspect a thing." Which was surprising. Harkness's file said he'd been a con man in his past life. He surely knew that if he could see someone's right hand, the left was already picking his pocket. Agent Johnson was good at planning, at command, and in the field, but as a spy, she'd stuck out in Day-Glo colours. Exactly according to plan.
"Excellent. Keep us apprised."
AN: The next story in this series is "The Boy Who Lived."