Queen Defender of the faith: Defender of the faith

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Defender of the faith

Defender Of The Faith

Title: Defender of the Faith
Rating: PG
Summary: Torchwood answers to the Queen, serves the people, and shoots some wildlife.
Notes: Set after Exit Wounds and before Children of Earth. I suppose in one sense this could be considered RPF.
Warnings: None.

***

My Dear Captain,

First and foremost, allow me to condole with you on your recent loss. While I did not have the pleasure of knowing Dr. Harper or Ms. Sato personally, I have encountered their work from your own reports and from outside sources which could not have given higher praise to their intelligence, courage, and a certain amount of sly ingenuity which has embodied Torchwood under your command. I understand that I cannot begin to fathom their loss to you personally, but I hope you, Mr. Jones, and Ms. Cooper will accept my sympathy. Your comrades will be honoured to the utmost of my power, and -- as ever -- in due time. What a tiresome phrase, but I fear it is necessary.

To other matters: this recent loss highlights some administrative issues which I wish to address in person. I would like to request your attendance, and that of your team, at the usual meeting-place and as soon as may be convenient. I hope this will be a painless and reassuring meeting for us both, and I trust that you will not be unhappy to see me again. I am certainly anticipating your lively conversation with fondness born of happy memories.

With hopes that you are as well as may be, given the circumstances, I await your reply.


***

Jack looked down at the single thick sheet of cream-colored paper, mouth twisting slightly. He had no doubt the sympathy was in earnest, but it was also an introduction to the meat of the letter, an undeniable command to attendance. He hadn't had contact in a while, so perhaps it was simply time, but...

He sighed and tucked the letter in his pocket, twisting around on the ratty but comfortable couch. Ianto was sitting on the spiral staircase, opening the rest of the mail with a precise concentration, apparently trying not to think about anything but the paper in his hands. They were doing that a lot these days, him and Gwen both. Jack didn't fault them for it. He felt Tosh and Owen's loss as keenly as they did, and he wasn't much better at facing it than they were for all he'd had centuries to learn.

"Anything interesting?" he asked, watching Ianto slit the envelope open with a pocket-knife.

"Adverts, bills, and bank statements," Ianto answered.

"Domestic," Gwen said as she settled into her desk, a cup of coffee cradled in her hands. Ianto glanced at it.

"I could have made you a fresh cup," he said.

"I'm not fussed," Gwen replied.

"Yes, but I could have..."

"It's only me, Ianto," she said gently. Ianto nodded and turned back to the mail, but only for a second before he looked up. "Jack, do you need...?"

"I'm fine," Jack said. "Gwen, can you check the Rift activity algorithms?"

Gwen nodded and went to Tosh's...to the mainframe station, studying the monitors. "Probably quiet for a while."

"Like a fault-line," Ianto said. "One big event, and then it goes dormant."

"Good," Jack said. "Go home and pack your overnight bags. We're going on a trip."

Ianto and Gwen telegraphed a complicated series of expressions back and forth before Ianto turned back to him. "Jack...you're a bit rubbish at holidays."

"This is business. We're going to Scotland."

"Is there something in Scotland?" Gwen asked.

"Torchwood Two?" Ianto suggested.

"There's a lot of things in Scotland. It'll do us good to get out of the Hub. Go," Jack ordered. Ianto set the mail down on the corner of Gwen's desk, gave her a hapless look, and followed her towards the door. "Be back tomorrow morning at seven," he called after them. He could just barely hear their voices in the corridor before the Hub door began to roll shut.

"We can leave the Hub without leaving the country," Gwen said.

"What do you want me to say? He might be right."

"The last time we went somewhere for our health you nearly got eaten!"

"I hardly think that's going to happen twice."

Jack smiled and got up from the couch. He had calls to make. If they left in the morning they could be in Glasgow by early afternoon, at least the way Ianto drove.

***

When Jack came up the next morning Ianto had already arrived, checked in at the Information Centre, and gone for the SUV. It was parked with flagrant illegality on the Plass, its flashers casting yellow beams into the fog off the bay. Ianto was sitting sideways in the driver's seat with the door open, feet resting on the running board. He was sipping coffee from a travel mug and -- surprisingly -- was out of the usual suit.

"Any sign of Gwen?" Jack asked, accepting a tin cup and a shot of hot black coffee from a thermos tucked between the seats.

"She's just called. Rhys is driving her over. Don't think he's best pleased," Ianto added.

"I'll have to resign myself to suffering his displeasure," Jack answered.

Ianto seemed about to reply, but instead he straightened slightly and looked over Jack's shoulder. Two white beams of light appeared: the headlamps of Gwen's car, Rhys at the wheel. He parked and leaned over to kiss her goodbye but didn't turn the car off as she climbed out of the passenger's side door and hauled a bag after her.

"Ianto?" she said pleadingly. Ianto passed her a second travel mug. She threw the bag in the back seat and climbed in after, cupping both hands around the mug and drinking deeply. "Thanks."

"Driving?" Ianto asked Jack, but the captain shook his head.

"You start."

"Fair enough. Gwen?"

"I'm ready," Gwen said, yawning.

Ianto turned the engine over as Jack climbed in, eased the brake off, and pulled the SUV off the Plass and onto the empty early-morning Cardiff streets.

Gwen was mostly quiet in the backseat, double-checking the remote Rift monitors as Ianto guided them onto the M4 and around Newport, aiming for the bridge that would carry them over the Severn and into England. By the time they had crossed, Gwen had fallen asleep, coffee notwithstanding.

"Straight shot up to the M6," Ianto said idly, settling comfortably into a speed somewhere between 'illegal' and 'superjet test-pilot'. Jack wouldn't have marked out Ianto as a speed fiend right off, but he always had a few surprises up his sleeve. "Thought we'd stop for lunch in Carlisle. I mapped us to Glasgow," he added hesitantly.

"Good. Let me know if you want me to drive. I'll take over in Glasgow anyway," Jack told him.

"Isn't Glasgow where we're going?" Ianto asked.

Jack grinned. "That's a surprise."

"Mmh." Ianto looked like he'd been about to say something, but instead he kept his eyes on the road.

"What?" Jack asked. Ianto glanced sidelong at him. "Criticizing my command decision?"

"No, sir," Ianto answered.

"You were going to say something."

"Yes."

"Well?"

Ianto chewed on his lower lip. "I was going to say that if Owen were here he wouldn't let you get away with that kind of bollocks."

Jack turned away, looking out the window.

"Don't be Owen," he said.

"I wasn't..." Ianto didn't finish the sentence.

"You're not wearing a suit."

Ianto glanced down at the hoodie and jeans he was wearing, then quickly back up at the road. "We're going to be sitting in a car for six hours. I didn't see the point. I packed them."

"Practical Ianto," Jack murmured.

"Always, sir."

They drove in silence for nearly two hours, Jack staring out the window at the countryside scrolling past, Ianto with his eyes conscientiously on the road.

"I've been in Cardiff for a long time," Jack said finally, tired of staring at the side of the road. "I know it better than anyone, I think. I don't get out of it much."

"Shocking you haven't gone native," Ianto remarked.

"Who says I haven't?" Jack inquired, in a reasonable imitation of Ianto's accent.

"What on Earth was that?" came a voice from the backseat. Jack turned to see Gwen rubbing her eyes with one hand.

"Jack thinks he's funny," Ianto said.

"Jack is funny," Jack replied.

"Boys," Gwen said warningly.

"Jack was saying he hasn't seen much of the country outside of Wales," Ianto continued.

"Trips to London and Glasgow and some moving around when I was in the service," Jack said. "They kept me on a pretty short leash. Made sense."

"They?" Gwen asked quickly. Jack glanced at Ianto. He was pretending not to pay attention, though Jack could practically see the young man's ears perking forward.

"It's not like I founded Torchwood," Jack said, which was a good enough line between truth and defensive fiction. He hadn't, after all, even if that fact was irrelevant to the question.

"I wouldn't put it past you," Ianto said.

"Ianto thinks he's funny," Jack said to Gwen.

"Don't make me separate the pair of you," Gwen threatened, smiling.

***

They pulled into Glasgow around two, which was probably just in time; Ianto and Gwen were both looking frazzled from so long in the car. Jack was feeling jumpy himself, which he was sure Gwen at least was picking up on. Their brief stop for lunch hadn't been terribly restful -- bad food, hurriedly eaten -- and considering how much further than Glasgow they were going, a rest-break was definitely what they needed.

"Do I need to change into a suit?" Ianto asked, as they entered the Glasgow city limits. "Ought to look well-turned-out for Two, oughtn't we?"

Jack gave him a look.

"Am I being neurotic?"

"Just a little," Jack said.

"So who actually runs Torchwood Two?" Gwen asked from the back. "All you ever said was that he was a strange man in Glasgow."

"Archie Young's a nut," Jack replied. "But we've known each other a long time. So he's sort of...our nut."

"I've never had any trouble with him," Ianto said.

"You've spoken with him?" Gwen asked. Jack could hear the edge of police-interrogation in her voice.

"Only through e-mail. Congenitally incapable of attaching a file to an e-mail on the first try. He seems otherwise reasonable."

"Turn here," Jack said, and Ianto obediently left the highway. He directed Ianto through the winding Glasgow streets, occasionally consulting the GPS to get his bearings until they were approaching the hilly outcrop where the University stood.

"Is his base under the University?" Gwen asked.

"He doesn't have a base," Jack replied. "He teaches here. There he is."

He pointed to a man standing on the steps of one of the buildings, waving furiously at them. The man was fiftyish, balding, with a considerable white beard and a barrel-chested build. He'd only just been starting on the beard when Jack had seen him last, during the cleanup after Alex killed Torchwood Three.

"It must be quiet in Scotland," Gwen said. "Alien-wise, I mean."

"Torchwood Two serves a different purpose."

"What does he teach?" Ianto asked warily.

"Philosophy." Jack said, aware that he sounded grim.

"Hello!" the man hailed them as the car rolled to a halt. "Welcome to Glasgow. Jack, good to see you again."

"Likewise, Archie," Jack said, allowing himself to be clapped on the arm as Archie shook his hand vigorously.

"It's too long, too long indeed," he said. "And you've brought your wee kids with you!"

"Had to. Presence of all, as soon as possible."

"Oh, yes? Well, they look all right," the man said. Jack could feel Ianto and Gwen bridling slightly under the skeptical glance he cast their way. The pair of them had pulled closer, standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the outsider.

"Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones, this is Archie Young, head and sole staffer of Torchwood Two," Jack said, wondering just how much more awkward this was likely to get.

"Mr. Young," Gwen said, accepting the offered hand before Archie turned to Ianto.

"Good to meet you in person, sir," Ianto said. Anyone who didn't know him might miss the slight chill in his voice.

"Call me Archie. No need to stand on formality. That one tried it on when I was a raw recruit, thinking I should call him Captain," Archie said, jerking his thumb at Jack. Oh god, he was going to tell stories. "I soon set him right. Pleasure to meet you both. Have you et? It's been a long road for you and not getting any lighter out."

Ianto shot Jack a desperate look. Both of them looked like the last thing they wanted was to cram into a booth in some pub somewhere.

"We've been driving since eight. Why don't, uh." Jack tried to think of a good excuse for them to walk around a little. "Why don't we head to your archives..."

Archie raised an eyebrow. "I don't keep hardcopy, Jack."

"Why not?" Ianto asked, sounding faintly horrified.

"Spies," Archie said. Jack put a hand on Gwen's arm to stop her from following the line of questioning. That way lay madness. "But maybe you'd like to stretch a bit. No need to distract me. You're entitled; come this way. The views from here are tremendous."

He led them down the road they'd been on, shaded on one side by trees, through a second car-park and up to a little rounded outlook with a flagpole at the center, gesturing at the panorama before them with a smile. Jack had to admit it was a gorgeous view of Glasgow. Gwen and Ianto didn't seem to be in a mood to appreciate it, but he shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down happily on the city spread out before him.

"He likes roofs," Gwen said to Ianto in an amused undertone.

"I have good hearing, too," Jack replied. Gwen bit her lip. Ianto eased himself down onto the grass next to the outlook and stretched his back, curling forward over his knees. Gwen stood next to Jack and nudged him gently.

"We come all this way for the view?" she prompted.

"No more you did," Archie answered for Jack. "This is not your final destination."

"Well, now I'm frightened," Ianto said solemnly. Gwen laughed and dropped down next to him.

"What is then?" she asked.

"That's for Jack to decide when to tell. Glasgow's just an outpost, you know, a listening station. I listen," he said, cupping a hand around his ear.

"Ten pounds if you ask him what he hears," Ianto whispered to Gwen, and Jack swallowed a laugh hastily. "Twenty if the answer is 'voices'."

Jack shot him a quelling look, and Ianto subsided.

"We're not far," Jack said. "We'll be there before nightfall. Archie has some equipment for us."

"If it's camping, Jack..." Ianto started.

Jack smiled a little, his I know it's funny but it's not that funny smile, and sat in the grass next to Gwen. Archie leaned against the flagpole, back to the view, facing them. They were silent for a while.

"I was sorry to hear about your team," Archie said after a moment. "It's never easy, losing folk."

"Have you been with Torchwood long?" Gwen asked.

Jack winced inwardly.

"Oh, yes. I guess it'd be twenty-five years and more," Archie said. "Long enough to know Happy Jack here when he was Alex's right hand and Yvonne's before."

Jack glanced at Ianto, but Ianto's face betrayed no sign of surprise. Then again, he was the archivist and had probably already known that Yvonne Hartman had worked briefly with Torchwood Three. Her reign of terror had been short but memorable; she'd been shunted there for six months in the late nineties after Brenda died and until Three could train a new leader. Nobody'd liked it. Jack least of all, because he did sort of feel that after a hundred years of service a promotion might be in order.

He'd never wanted his promotion the way he eventually got it.

Archie, lost in memory, didn't notice. Or if he did, didn't care. "Long enough to remember when Glasgow had more than just me, knocking round in the University. We had a team once," he continued. "Nothing so posh as Cardiff's, mind."

Jack could imagine what Gwen was thinking: if Cardiff was posh by Two's standards, they must have been a pretty ragged bunch. And they had been. The misfits that even London and Cardiff couldn't manage.

"What happened?" Gwen asked.

"Wasn't enough work to fill the hours. Picked people who were too smart for their own good. Didn't watch over 'em carefully enough. Take your pick. The end is they got into mischief and got themselves killed," Archie answered. "That was ten years ago. Since then...just me. London said I didn't need anyone else."

"That sounds like them," Ianto said. Archie looked amused.

"That's not to be with your lot, now; Himself will find you some new playmates," he said, nodding in Jack's direction. "That'll be good."

"Torchwood, the same the world over," Ianto murmured. Jack put a hand on his shoulder and looked up at Archie.

"You have something for me," he said, just as eager now to escape as he had been to stop and rest a moment before. Archie dug in his pocket and tossed Jack a small black box.

"What is it?" Gwen asked, as Jack stood and dusted his trousers off.

"A key," Archie said.

"To what?"

"A door we'll need to open," Jack answered. "Come on. We should be going. Archie, always a pleasure."

"Likewise," the man said, shaking his hand. "Look after yourself, Happy Jack."

"I always do."

***

"Jack," Gwen said, slowly, about an hour and a half into their continuing journey, "we're in the middle of nowhere."

"This isn't nowhere," Jack replied easily. "This is Scotland."

Ianto, in the backseat, grunted something that sounded perilously like "close enough". Jack ignored it. Gwen looked down at her GPS, which at the moment placed them squarely on the only road for miles and in continual danger of leaving it, considering the occasional branch-off which was completely unmarked by the satellite map.

"Seriously, where are we going?" she asked.

"Almost there," Jack assured her.

"There's nothing around for miles."

Jack raised his eyebrows at her before turning back to the road.

"Unless it's unmapped," she guessed. Jack ignored that, too.

"What did you think of Archie?" he asked finally.

"He didn't seem as crazy as you said he'd be," she said. "He did seem a little bit crazy. Running a Torchwood branch alone probably does that to you."

"He sent a wreath for Suzie," Ianto said, apropos of nothing.

Gwen twisted around. "What?"

"He sent a wreath. When she killed herself. He was copied on the report," Ianto repeated. Jack felt his hands clench on the steering wheel. "He might have done for Owen and Tosh, too, I don't know. Suzie didn't have anyone to tell, not that we knew of, so we got the wreath."

"What'd you do with it?" Gwen asked.

"Put it in the bay. Seemed the thing to do. I thought it tactless to bring it up."

"Did we send a wreath?" Jack asked. "For Owen and Tosh?"

"Flowers. Lilies for Tosh, orchids for Owen."

Gwen frowned. "Orchids?"

Ianto just nodded, his figure-it-out-for-yourself poker face on.

"Ostentatious but delicate," she guessed. "And almost more trouble than they're worth."

Ianto tapped his nose.

"Should we have gone to the funerals?" Jack asked. Both of them looked at him in surprise.

"I couldn't," Gwen mumbled.

"I don't like funerals," Ianto said shortly. He returned to working on something on the computer mounted in the back of the passenger's side seat. "If we're going to Easter Head, by the way, you've long since missed the turning for the A9."

"Why would we be going to Easter Head?" Jack asked.

"Shot in the dark. Northernmost tip of Scotland. Seems like something you'd do."

"It'd be typically inconvenient of aliens to crash down there," Gwen added.

Jack shook his head and flicked the turn-signal, despite the fact that there were no other cars on the road. He pulled them off the motorway and onto a side road, stopping when it ended abruptly at the edge of a narrow river with a small podium on the bank. He leaned out the window and slotted the little box into the podium. This ought to at least impress Gwen and Ianto a little.

The car went beep. Ianto grabbed the back of Gwen's seat in surprise as the ground lurched and several metal posts rose out of the water. When they reached a uniform height they snapped apart and the tops formed right-angles to the posts, latching onto each other.

"Neat, huh?" Jack said, driving over the rickety metal bridge. Gwen sat back and exhaled.

"This is a private road," Ianto observed. "On private property. In fact I believe it would be safe to say royal property."

Jack pointed over the edge of the steering wheel. "Welcome to Balmoral."

***

Unusually, for Jack -- for Torchwood -- they went to the kitchen entrance. To be precise, they pulled up to the rear of Balmoral Castle, summer home of the royal family. Jack left the SUV parked in the middle of the gravel drive and jumped out, waiting for them to hesitantly join him before he walked up to the nearest door.

"Hi," he said to the man standing in the doorway in some kind of livery uniform. "We're here to see Lizzie."

"Oh, my god," Gwen said faintly.

"Should have worn the suit," Ianto remarked to nobody in particular.

"We've been expecting you, Captain," the man said, standing aside.

They were led through a series of corridors to a well-lit room and greeted at the door by a pack of Corgis. Gwen looked like she might have a fit. Ianto tried to defend himself against the small growling creatures worrying the hems of his jeans.

"Just shove him off, there -- naughty thing," someone said from inside, and both of them looked up sharply.

"Ma'am," Jack said, with the traditional affect: Mum. The Corgis immediately abandoned Ianto and Gwen and took up with Jack, fawning and pawing at his shoes.

"Figures," Gwen muttered.

Jack beamed and put his head through the doorway. "Reporting as requested, Your Majesty."

"Come in, then, and do sit down."

There were a handful of comfortable-looking chairs in the room, and a fireplace with a roaring fire. Perched in one of the chairs, glasses in her hand and a stack of papers on her knee, was a woman with neat white hair and a faint smile on her face.

"Do I curtsey?" Gwen hissed at Ianto from behind Jack.

"Do I look like I know?" Ianto hissed back.

"Jack Harkness, so good to see you again," she said, offering her hand to him. Jack took it, then turned it over and kissed her knuckles. He got a small smile for his effort.

"Ma'am, this is Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones," he said. "My staff."

Gwen picked up on the pun and started to snicker, then stopped. Filthy puns in front of the Queen was probably not something he should make a habit of. Still, life was short...well, metaphorically anyway...and he'd always enjoyed teasing Lizzie.

"Ianto, Gwen, may I present Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen -- "

"Jack," she said remonstratively.

" -- Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith." Jack winked at her. "I can do the Latin if you want."

"That will not be necessary. Sit; we don't stand on formality at Balmoral, and Torchwood is notably...cheeky in its address, by tradition," she said. Ianto sat on the edge of a chair. Gwen, looking as though she really wanted to curtsey, sat on another. Jack perched himself on the arm of Ianto's chair and grinned.

"It has been in my mind for some time to speak with you," she said seriously, addressing herself to him directly and ignoring Ianto and Gwen for the moment. "Having passed some recent crises, I believe now is the time to pull together and regroup, to inventory Torchwood's services and examine its future duties. I've spoken with Mr. Young already, at rather...uncomfortable length, as it turns out."

"I told you," Jack said.

"Cheeky," she repeated. "Your staff look startled, Jack. I hope they're not idiots."

"I didn't warn them," Jack replied. "They haven't been with Torchwood as long as we have."

"Mm. I suspect Jack's told you Torchwood answers to no higher authority than itself?" she asked Gwen, who fumbled for a reply. "I thought so. Once, we kept a very close eye on your organization's activities, but Torchwood proved rather headstrong and severing connections seemed best. With London, at least. Cardiff has always served the crown, rather than the government, quite faithfully. In that sense you are true representatives of the people, not unlike myself."

Jack preened. The Queen laid her glasses aside and sat back, studying them.

"I should like to ask you some questions," she said finally.

"Answer honestly," Jack added. "No secrets here."

He saw Gwen's hand slide off the arm of one of the chairs, and Ianto's hand as well, on the same side. They were angled so that neither Jack nor Lizzie could see between them, but he suspected they were holding hands.

Which was sweet, really, and made him obscurely proud.

***

"I can't believe you," Gwen said an hour and a half later, as they stood in one of the high echoing hallways of Balmoral castle. She was apparently still reeling from all of it. Jack didn't mind. Kept her on her toes. "Is there anyone in the world you won't make a pass at?"

"You're shocked by this?" Jack asked. "She's the Queen. Not flirting would have been disrespectful. Besides, we've known each other since she was twelve."

"Oh, that's all right then," Ianto said dryly.

"Sirs? Ma'am? This way, please," said a youngish man in the same plain uniform all the household staff seemed to share. "You've been assigned rooms for the night, and I'm sure you're hungry. We're having meals brought up."

"This is surreal," Gwen added as they walked.

"You should have seen her when she was nineteen. What a spitfire," Jack answered, nostalgia washing over him.

"You didn't," Gwen looked horrified.

"Why not? She was lonely. I showed her a good time. She liked me," Jack added wistfully. "At that time, not many people did."

"I suppose you changed the royal nappies on the princes?" Ianto asked.

"Oh god, not Prince Charles -- " Gwen began.

"Nope. I have many responsibilities, but nappy duty isn't one of them. I only ever met the young ones once or twice. Diana didn't like me. Said I creeped her out. Probably true."

"Why would the Princess of Wales be frightened of you?" Gwen asked.

"Well," Jack said, and tried to think of a subject to change the conversation to.

"Jack," Gwen insisted.

"She's -- was -- in the future the myths get a little garbled," Jack said finally. "Kings and queens get mixed up. Some people thought she was like King Arthur."

Both of them stared at him.

"You know. When humanity needs her, she'll rise again. With a sword." He made a slashing motion with one hand as if he were holding an imaginary Excalibur. "There were a lot of myths. I can't help that. Imagine meeting King Arthur and finding out he was basically a socially-conscious fashion plate in a bad marriage. You'd stare a little too."

"I think my favorite part," Ianto said thoughtfully, with the slow deliberate drawl that meant he was teasing Gwen, "was when the Queen asked you if you shot, and you gave her a list of all the firearms you're qualified on."

"I didn't know she meant game-shooting!" Gwen protested.

"I'd love to see you take out a pheasant with a semiautomatic," Jack remarked.

"I'm sure she could," Ianto said, as a woman approached the young man leading them and they had a hushed conference. He turned and gave them an ingratiating smile.

"Captain, ma'am," he said. "I'll take you along to your rooms. Mr. Jones' presence has been requested." At Ianto's frown, he added hastily, "Only for a little while, sir."

"I could get used to sir," Ianto sighed, and followed the young woman off. Jack offered Gwen his arm as they proceeded down the hall.

***

Balmoral, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not have WiFi. Fortunately Torchwood's reach was extensive and Tosh had set up a universal network so that they could get access from anywhere in the world as long as there was a satellite somewhere overhead. Now if only he could remember his goddamned Universal Network password.

"Ianto," he said. Ianto, already in his pajamas, looked up from the chaise where he was sitting. "What's your network password?"

"A string of random numbers Tosh gave me," Ianto replied. He flicked to the front of the cheap pasteboard diary in his hands and ran his finger down the page. "Yours is 964XTV877."

"Why do you have my password?" Jack asked, entering it carefully.

"Because you don't," Ianto said serenely, without looking up from his diary. Jack was formulating some kind of authoritarian reply to that when there was a hesitant knock on the door.

"It's open," he called. The door opened and Gwen put her head around it, peering in. "Hi-ya."

"Hi," Gwen said. "Can I come in?"

"Sure," he said, even as Ianto pulled his legs up to make room for her on the chaise. She looked like she might have slept for a while. It was late enough he probably should make them both get some sleep, but she also looked like she needed the company. She looked at Ianto and covered her mouth.

"What?" Ianto asked.

"I should have known your pajamas would have pinstripes."

"Funny," he said as she sat on the end of the chaise. Jack watched Ianto slide the diary into his lap so that she could prop her arms on his knees, chin resting on her arms. Theoretically he knew that Gwen and Ianto were friends, but a year ago -- six months ago -- neither of them would have done that. They all touched more now, as if to reassure themselves that the others were alive. On their last mission outside the Hub, Ianto had fallen asleep on Gwen's shoulder in the back seat of the car as Jack drove them home.

"You get lonely too?" Gwen asked Ianto.

He tilted his head at Jack. "He did."

"I did not," Jack retorted as the computer connected to the network with a beep and Rift readouts began appearing on his desktop. All quiet in Cardiff. Good.

"You were waiting in my room, Jack," Ianto pointed out.

"I was hoping you'd bring more Beef Wellington back with you."

"That was good, wasn't it?" Gwen said. "And the bath in my room is huge. I had to send Rhys a photo from my phone before he'd believe me."

"How'd he take it?" Jack asked. She shrugged.

"He's Rhys." She plucked at the book in Ianto's lap. "Is that the infamous diary?"

Ianto raised an eyebrow.

"Jack mentioned it."

"Oh, he did?" Ianto drawled.

"It's a security risk," Jack grunted.

"It used to have a lock on it," Ianto said pointedly. "An alien lock keyed to my retinal scan."

"I keep meaning to give that back to you."

"What are you writing, then?" Gwen asked, and then got that look that said she'd just realized she might have asked a question that was a little too personal.

"This and that," Ianto answered, and Jack relaxed. "Isn't every day you're invited to stay as guests at Balmoral." He hooked the clip of the pen on the page and frowned down at it. "Friday," he read aloud. Jack pretended not to listen when Gwen looked over at him. "Met the Queen."

They both waited.

"And?" Gwen finally prompted.

"That's as far as I've got. I'm torn between a historical diatribe about England's invasion and attempted subjugation of the Welsh, or saying She was nice."

Gwen laughed and Ianto smiled. They were rare occurrences these days, but even rarer was both happening at once.

"Met the Queen. She was nice. Weather continues fine," Gwen said, and Ianto's smile widened slightly. "Jack usual incorrigible self. Gwen still very nosy."

"I did get the recipe for that shortbread they brought with dinner," Ianto offered, holding up a slip of card before tucking it back in the diary. "Bit pants at cooking though, doubt I'll use it. Still, no knowledge is wasted."

"Give it to Rhys; he likes cooking."

"Might do," Ianto allowed.

"Is that where you were when they pulled you away?" Gwen asked. Jack muffled a snort. Ianto made a face that was difficult to categorize.

"No," he said briefly, and pretended to be reviewing his diary.

"Tell her," Jack said, grinning at him.

"I was teaching defensive driving in the SUV," Ianto said slowly.

"To?" Jack encouraged.

"To Prince Phillip. He's mad for big cars."

Gwen burst out laughing, burying her head in the pinstriped flannel covering Ianto's knees. Jack set the laptop aside and came to sit next to her, shoving her over gently.

"But it's fun, isn't it?" he asked, trying not to sound pathetic. "I didn't want you scared. I like them, Lizzie especially. They like you. It's important. We serve by her order. And I need to fast-talk her tomorrow to keep her from assigning us new people."

"Don't we want new people? Eventually?" Gwen asked. She sounded oddly regretful. Perhaps she felt as he did, that the time wasn't right yet.

"My people," Jack said. "My choice. I don't want strangers. I picked you."

"Not me," Gwen said. "I picked you."

"Pushed in," Ianto murmured, but he was still smiling. "Like me."

Jack looked at them both, confused. Gwen rested a hand on his arm.

"You picked Owen and Tosh," she said. "Not us."

"Who says?" he retorted, injured. "I could have retconned you again. Him," he pointed at Ianto, "I could have kicked out of Cardiff. I threatened to. Anyway, neither of you were as much of a pain in the ass as Owen. When I recruited him he punched me in the head. A lot."

"You probably deserved it," Ianto replied. He wrote something else in the diary. "No evidence of aliens yet, ample shortbread supply. Day firmly in plus column so far."

Jack reached over and closed the book, taking the pen out of Ianto's hand. "You should sleep, both of you. They're gonna want to talk to you again tomorrow. We'll go home after that if we can."

Home. Cardiff. The Hub. Gwen and Ianto, yes, and that was good, but there were also the yawning, silent gaps where Owen and Tosh had been. The empty spaces.

"How long is it going to be like this?" Gwen asked suddenly. "When Rhys is home late, I just stay at the Hub. Ianto doesn't go back to his flat for days at a time. I can't be alone without thinking of them. I miss them."

Ianto fiddled with the cap of his pen. Jack couldn't quite meet her eyes.

"Stay here," he said finally. "The room's big. You can have the bed with Ianto."

Gwen lifted an eyebrow at him.

"What? I don't sleep much, the chaise is comfortable," Jack said. "If you're worried about your virtue I'll find a sword to put between you. Very 18th-century Scottish."

"That won't look at all scandalous tomorrow morning," Gwen said reluctantly.

"It won't," Jack replied, trying to convey how serious it was. "This is one of the few places in the world they understand Torchwood, Gwen. They know who we are. They know what we see. Besides, who would they tell?"

In the end, she accepted the bed without even needing the sword, and Jack stretched himself out on the chaise. He'd slept in worse, after all. But he didn't need as much sleep as they did, and while he breathed deep and even and tried to relax, he couldn't drift off. Especially when he heard Gwen speaking in the darkness.

"I didn't think he slept at all," she said in a hushed voice.

"Neither did I, at first," Ianto whispered back, like a kid at a sleepover. "I don't think he has to."

"So why bother?"

"To make us comfortable, I suppose." There was a long silence. "I think it does end, eventually."

"Has it, for you?" Gwen asked. "With...with London, I mean."

"Sometimes. Sort of. Once in a while I'm afraid of the day it'll end completely, I don't want that. But -- Tosh and Owen, we know he'll remember them. Like us, when we die."

"Hard on Jack," Gwen said.

"Maybe. But...London is something I have to carry. There aren't many survivors left. That's not fair either. And we've both put our consciences on you."

"Have you?"

"Well. Our humanity. Right? So. We carry what we can. You get our consciences. I get our memories. He gets...us. He's the captain. He's supposed to carry more than us." Ianto's voice slurred slightly, as if he were falling asleep. "Got to divide it up or we'd go mad...not that we might not be anyway..."

He sighed and the silence descended again, but it wasn't as oppressive as the times they were alone. Jack heard soft creaks from the chaise as Ianto moved in his sleep; Gwen was not-quite-snoring as she drifted off too. '

His people were here and safe. He could let himself sleep for a little while too.

***

Jack woke to the sound of a safety clicking off.

He opened his eyes, but he didn't move. If they were aiming at him it wouldn't matter, but if someone was after Gwen or Ianto he wanted the element of surprise.

He swept his gaze as far left as he could, where he thought the sound had come from; there was a pale blur in the darkness near the window. Gwen, on the bed, pushed herself to her elbows. Jack glanced at her and put his finger to his lips, wondering if she could even see it in the gloom -- she wasn't much more than a shadow herself, and he had better eyesight than most.

Finally able to turn his head, he managed to resolve the white blur into Ianto, still in his pajamas, crouched next to the curtained window and peering out. A dark spot on his thigh turned out to be his sidearm, lowered but clenched in one hand. Jack exhaled in relief, briefly.

"Ianto," Gwen whispered, and he held up a hand. She glanced at Jack, chewing on her lip. Jack eased himself silently out of the chaise. Ianto glanced at him, held up two fingers, and then pointed at the window.

"Human?" Jack asked, voice hardly audible even to himself. Ianto shook his head, then shrugged, uncertain. Jack grasped a handful of his shirt and pulled him back gently. Gwen was sitting on the edge of the bed now, watching alertly, waiting for orders.

"Go left and out," he said in Ianto's ear, then gestured for Gwen to join them.

"My gun's in my room," she said.

"Get it and go left with Ianto. I'll go right."

Ianto was already shrugging into his coat and lacing his boots up over bare feet by the time Gwen slipped out of the room. Jack gave him a sharp nod and bent to peer through the curtain. He couldn't see much, but there were dark shapes moving outside the window, menacing shapes with long branching tendrils that waved in the air.

Gwen met them in the corridor, gun drawn, trainers hastily knotted, coatless but with her hair pulled back and tied up in an elastic band, her earpiece hooked on her right ear. Ianto, shoving his own earpiece on, followed her down the hall in one direction, and Jack watched them for a moment before he went in the other. They'd get outside first, but hopefully he'd have a better vantage point than they would and get a cleaner shot. Or at least draw any hostile attention.

Outside, on the lush grassy field below their window, he could just about make out two large shapes -- were those horns, or some kind of tentacle? -- and a handful of smaller ones. Offspring, maybe, or some other race working in tandem. Beyond them he could see a pale face, Gwen or Ianto, hard to tell at this distance and angle. No, that was Gwen; Ianto was taller and, from the movement of the shadows, he was circling wide to cut them off if Gwen and Jack couldn't keep them in crossfire.

Coincidental, really, that aliens should attack on the one weekend in years that Torchwood was at Balmoral...

Suddenly, as things will if one stares at them long enough, the two larger shadows coalesced into familiar shapes. Jack inhaled.

"Don't -- " he started to yell, but there was a thump as one of the figures charged Ianto, who was thrown aside even as he fired three shots in quick succession. The other shadow leapt away.

"Got something," Ianto called with grim satisfaction, and Jack watched through the dim light as he levered himself up off the ground and took off running. "Gwen, stay there! I'll go after them!"

Jack rubbed his forehead and tapped his earpiece, opening the comm. "Ianto."

Ianto's breathing was heavy. "Christ, Jack, they're really fast -- "

"Ianto, stop running."

"What?"

"Stop running, Ianto."

Ianto's breathing slowed. "Why? I could have caught them."

"They're harmless."

"My ribs beg to differ."

"Come on back," Jack said with a sigh, just as curtains began to open and lights to flick on. The dim light through the windows was enough for him to take in Ianto's handiwork. It was enough for Gwen, too, who started to laugh. A full-throated, no-holds-barred laugh, the kind he hadn't heard from her in ages. She staggered and fell on the ground, still laughing, and it was infectious; he knew Ianto would be either furious or mortified, but he couldn't help it.

Ianto appeared as a shadow in the distance and then broke into a run, which sobered Jack up. From where he was, it must look like one or both of them were hurt.

"We're fine!" he called.

"What was it?" Ianto called back as a door opened and two more people emerged. One was Lizzie, resplendent in an ankle-length nightdress, carrying a large-bore hunting rifle in one hand. Behind her, Prince Phillip raised an electric torch menacingly. It set Jack off again, and he was still wheezing as Ianto stopped nearby.

"Oh, no," he managed. "Ianto, you..."

Gwen interrupted him with another burst of laughter.

"Ia - hah - hah..." she said and then gave up.

Ianto looked completely confused, and not a little worried. Jack gestured at the space in front of them, and Phillip obligingly played his torch over the ground. Lizzie bent down regally and picked up one of the smaller "aliens" by the ears.

It was a hare.

"Bugger," Ianto said, then looked horrified that he'd sworn.

Jack managed to get to his feet, putting reassuring hands on Ianto's shoulders and shaking him gently. "You have to forgive our Ianto," he said to the others, over Ianto's shoulder. "He's a city boy. Doesn't know what a charging buck looks like."

"Deer and bunnies!" Gwen gasped. "We were almost invaded by Bambi and Thumper!"

"Forgive nothing," Lizzie said approvingly, "there's good eating on wild hare. Look, Phillip. He's got two. Be a dear and take them inside."

Prince Phillip accepted the hares gravely and disappeared into the house. Jack leaned on Ianto's shoulders and chuckled in his ear.

"Torchwood one, Beatrix Potter nil," he crowed.

***

Ianto was inconsolable.

"I shot Fiver," he said, folding his arms on the table and resting his forehead on them. Jack, sitting next to him, cleaned Ianto's sidearm with quick, efficient movements. Beyond them, one of the servants was doing much the same thing to the hares.

"Fiver?" Jack asked.

"Hero of Watership Down," Gwen supplied, trying not to smile. "Course you didn't, Ianto."

"In front of the Queen," Ianto continued.

"You thought you were defending the sovereign of the realm," Gwen said. "I think it's very heroic of you."

Ianto lifted his head, gave her a dry look, and let it fall back on his arms. Jack smiled and offered him the freshly-cleaned gun. "Here. Maybe tomorrow she'll take you shooting."

"She'd best not. I might shoot her by mistake," Ianto moaned.

"I think it says a lot about your marksmanship," Gwen said loyally. "Besides, that's at least one meal taken care of."

"Jugged hare for lunch tomorrow," one of the kitchen staff called.

"See? We're practically earning our board. Come on, back to bed," Gwen urged.

Ianto let Gwen haul him up by the arm, following her and Jack back to the bedroom. Once inside, Jack turned and cupped one hand around his jaw, forcing his gaze up to Jack's own face.

"Are you really worried about the Queen?" he asked. Ianto cut his eyes to one side. "Don't be. I told you, you and Gwen belong to me. You get that?"

He glanced at Gwen, who nodded. When Ianto nodded against his hand, he kissed him lightly to make the point and then released him. "Get some sleep. You'll need it for tomorrow."

***

It wasn't Ianto who was asked to walk out with Her Royal Highness the next morning, however.

It was Jack.

The captain's presence was requested as the three of them ate breakfast in a small room off the kitchen, a more companionable and informal meal than Jack suspected was going on in the main dining room. Ianto was stiff from his fall but had resolutely insisted on a suit, which meant that as per usual a giant napkin was tucked in his collar as he ate. Gwen had tried to style her hair a bit and he could tell she was wearing the best clothes she'd packed, but Gwen was big on the clothes suiting the job, and wearing a t-shirt underneath the long-sleeved shirt was probably the closest she'd come to businesswear.

"Ms. Cooper has been invited to tour the castle's security facilities," the servant said, standing at attention in the doorway. "Mr. Jones' assistance is requested in the library. Captain, if you would make yourself available, Her Majesty will be touring the grounds at ten."

"Tell Her Majesty I await her pleasure," Jack said, grinning wickedly at the man. He was met by stone-faced solemnity. Apparently the staff had been warned about him. That always took the fun out of it.

Lizzie was waiting for him, walking-stick in hand, when he emerged from the kitchen. She wasn't exactly the picture of the warrior queen, but there was something there; she took after her grandfather the most, he'd decided years ago. He could also see her great-great grandmother's spirit in her, but Victoria's severity was gentled in Elizabeth by temperament and the demands of modern diplomacy.

He'd hated Victoria passionately because she was an enemy of the Doctor and therefore she was his enemy. But it was hard to blame her descendants for it, and Torchwood was his life now. Perhaps he ought to be kinder to her memory.

"Well?" Elizabeth prompted. "Don't stand there mooning, Captain."

"No, ma'am," he said. He offered her his arm. They walked in silence until they were out of sight of the castle and rambling seemingly at random through the scrub and trees of the Balmoral estate. When they finally stopped they were atop a small hill, looking down. Jack felt her disengage her hand from his arm, gently, and glanced sidelong at her.

"It makes one feel very small, looking on the expanse of the country this way," she said. "I seem to recall you have an affinity for high places yourself."

"It gives perspective," Jack allowed. "The others don't really get it, I think."

"The young generally don't. They think it's somehow self-aggrandizement. Looking down on the world. But there are times when it's good to feel small." She sighed. "And then there are times when one must lead."

"Don't look at me. You're the boss," he said, but he grinned at her. He knew what was coming, or rather what he would have to do. This was a dance he'd learned as a young confidence man, and honed on Elizabeth's own ancestors. "How are you, Lilibet?"

She looked at him. "You haven't called me that since I was a child."

Damn.

"You looked young, standing there," he said, which was more than half-true.

"You're a flatterer, Jack, and you want something. Never mind; I enjoy being flattered by handsome men, and so few make the effort anymore."

He chuckled. "I'm just looking out for my team, Lizzie."

"It does rather take the sting out of your games, knowing you don't ever do it for your own gain. Are you not funded well enough?"

"No, it's not that. We'll get up to full staff again, but it needs to be on my terms. I need to be the one to pick the new kids. My people trust me, but they don't trust the institution."

"They are part of the institution," Lizzie said, looking out at the countryside.

"Which could be part of why they don't trust it," Jack answered. "All I want is a little time for them to grieve and the right to pick my own replacements for Owen and Toshiko."

"And you?" she asked. "Do you grieve anymore, Jack?"

"More every time, it feels like," he told her. "Don't you?"

She didn't answer for a minute, and when she did it wasn't actually an answer at all. "You were a grown man when I was thirteen. I must say you've aged uncommonly well."

Jack laughed. "I eat a lot of vegetables."

"Do you know, when I was a young woman my father took me aside -- the day he caught us under the oak -- "

"Oh, god..." Jack covered his face with his hands. "I'd repressed that."

"Never mind. It's long history now. He told me I should never ask you this, but then my father was wrong about some things, and I feel now..." she trailed off thoughtfully. "I should like to know, Jack -- what are you?"

He let his hands fall, tucking them up in his sleeves, uncertain how to answer. He could tell her the story, but what would be the point? He could lie, but that would be even more pointless.

"I'm a fact," he said finally. "A fixed point in time and space."

"Never older, never younger?"

"Younger, once." Jack sighed. "And not unchanging."

"I'm sorry, Captain."

He chewed on his lip, ducked his head, and decided that was probably enough sympathy to get him what he wanted. Time to change the subject. "What do you think of my people, by the way? Bearing in mind that I'm biased."

"Ms. Cooper and your Mr. Jones?"

"Are we that obvious?" Jack asked, secretly pleased.

"He isn't. You never could hide that kind of thing."

"It's part of my rugged charm and dashing personality."

She smiled. "I like Ms. Cooper immensely. She has vim."

"She does have that," Jack answered.

"And quick-draw Mr. Jones..."

"He's young. Go easy on him."

"Go easy? I'd hire them both as bodyguards if I thought you'd stand for it," she replied. "No, I think you've quite the pair in those two. Don't let them drift when you get your numbers back up."

"No, ma'am."

She turned to him, studied his face. He remembered her as a young girl, first a child and then a beautiful, clever young woman, but in that instant he decided he preferred her as she was now -- strong, wise, still beautiful, but calmer than she had been. She understood now what it meant to serve your life for the country.

"When I was young you spoke a great deal about freedom," she said. "And sometimes about yours. Do you remember what I told you then?"

"That it would be politically inexpedient to remove me from the organization," Jack answered. Fifty years had taken the bitterness of the phrase out of his mouth. "And that it would destabilize Torchwood. You were right."

"With an average service expectancy of two years, we couldn't afford to lose someone like you," she sighed. "And we still cannot. But -- once you rebuild your team, once things are ticking over again...if you wanted to be free..."

"I could have cut free anytime in the last ten years," he replied. "Alex would have let me go. I had the chance to leave Earth completely last year. I don't want to go anymore."

"That's very pleasing to hear. I ought to knight you, to be honest," she mused.

"I've gotten used to captain."

"So you must have."

"Lord Harkness, now, that has a nice ring to it," he said, and nudged her daringly with his elbow. She laughed. "No, I'm...fine. I wouldn't know what to do without Torchwood."

"In that case, I suppose you'll carry on as usual."

"Like you."

She smiled. "Far longer than I will, Captain."

"Probably so." There was real regret in his tone.

"It's all right. Mind you look after my grandsons, though."

"Your grandfather said the same to me about you."

"Yes, well, I'm sure he meant my virtue or some other nonsense. In terms of my own offspring I imagine they'll simply need a bit of a shove now and again to keep them in line."

"Yes, ma'am," Jack said with a smile.

"It's a very different world to the one I grew up in," she continued, eyes still on the vast expanse of Balmoral's grounds. "Very different indeed. I appreciate a constant."

"I'd almost think that was your way of saying you liked me," Jack teased.

"I appreciate you, Jack, in ways I doubt you understand," she said. "And the people of Great Britain appreciate the service Torchwood provides, whether they know it or not. Never forget that."

"I never do."

"May I ask you one other thing?" she said, turning to him.

"Anything," he told her.

"I never met Ms. Sato and Dr. Harper. I know the loss is great, but...I should like to know about them. If your current people are anything to judge by, they must have been no less extraordinary."

"Owen was..." Jack groped for words. "Mischievous. Abrasive. He could be cruel when he wanted, but I don't think he meant anything by it, most of the time. He wanted to be everyone's big brother -- nobody got to pick on them but him."

"How like boys."

"How like humanity."

"Perhaps so," Lizzie allowed. "And Ms. Sato?"

Jack tipped his head back, closed his eyes against the glare off the clouds. "She was a genius. There wasn't anything Tosh couldn't do if she wanted. Probably -- definitely smarter than me. And just sly enough to get away with it. She was really special. The kind you have to look at close to see."

"You sound like you loved her."

"Of course I loved her. I loved both of them." He opened his eyes and looked at her. "I feel so old, Lizzie."

"That makes two of us."

Jack tipped her chin up and kissed her delicately. "You still got it, though," he said. She smiled and batted his shoulder.

"Cheeky Jack."

"Always for you, ma'am," he said. "Should we go back?"

"I think so, yes," she said, and turned away from the view. "By the way, Emma's had puppies again. I don't suppose Torchwood wants a mascot?"

Jack shot her a grin. "I'm afraid Myfanwy'd try to eat a corgi if she found one in the Hub."

"Myfanwy? What are you keeping in that cellar of yours these days?"

"She's a pterodactyl. Ianto keeps her as a pet."

Elizabeth laughed.

***

When they returned to the castle, there was an urgent telephone call that Lizzie said she ought to take. Jack went looking for his staff, eventually directed to the library by one of the servants. He could hear Gwen's voice as he approached; he leaned in the doorway, staying in the shadows, eavesdropping shamelessly. Well, a good boss used every advantage he could.

"...jokes about how little security the Royals had," Gwen was saying. She was sitting in a large overstuffed leather chair in the small but opulent library. "Didn't they let someone dressed like Superman get through and climb Windsor Castle a few years ago?"

"Batman," Ianto answered distractedly, setting a pile of books on the table nearby. He'd shed his suit coat and was rolling his sleeves up, probably to keep the cuffs from getting dusty. "Superman could have flown," he added, shooting Gwen a smile over one shoulder. Gwen leaned forward.

"But Balmoral's stitched pretty tightly. They have all kinds of safeguards and monitoring systems up here. If you sneeze, they probably know about it. They must have had consultants in or something."

"Or it's always been there, and they deliberately misinform the public," Ianto said. "Letting harmless stunts go on, gives the impression that they're easy prey, and an otherwise conscientious attacker, someone who poses a serious threat, might get sloppy."

Gwen was staring at Ianto's back in surprise. Jack watched the pull and shift of his shoulders as he sorted the books. After a second he paused and straightened.

"It's probably good Torchwood keeps me busy, or I might get into real trouble someday," Ianto said thoughtfully.

"Yeah," Gwen agreed, looking wary. "So -- you're temping for their librarian?"

"Librarian," Ianto snorted. "They haven't got one. And it shows. This," he held up an innocent-looking book, "is an alien tract on mid twenty-second century galactic weaponry, probably a gift from Torchwood, and this," he held up another, "is a romance novel from 1904. They were shelved together. With the biographies. Although potentially they were put there on purpose. The weapons handbook is faintly seductive."

"Purpose?"

"Well, I assume I'm not here because Balmoral particularly needs tidying. It's some sort of test. I imagine your tour of the security system this morning was the same."

"But I wasn't tested," Gwen said. "Though...the security head did shake my hand and tell me I was doing a good job at Torchwood when we finished."

"Then you probably passed. Ask a lot of smart questions, did you?"

"Hm?" Gwen looked confused.

"You usually do. They probably wanted to see if you understood the system well enough to ask about it. Whereas I," Ianto said, hefting one of the piles he'd just made, "am being gently interrogated as to my organizational skills and thoroughness as an archivist. Also possibly my honesty."

Jack could see there was no real rancor in Ianto's attitude, not like yesterday when he'd been more than a little annoyed that the SUV was being treated as Prince Phillip's personal carnival ride. Jack, on the other hand, could be irritated enough by this for both of them. He'd personally vouched for Ianto's honesty and, given that he'd never registered a formal report on Lisa, they had no reason to doubt one of his people.

"They'd know if you stole the weapons manual?" Gwen asked, looking equally angry.

"Or just didn't bring it to their attention," Ianto shrugged. "I knew there was a reason they got Jack out of the castle for the morning."

"Nature walks with the queen," Gwen sighed. "Do you think he really..."

Ianto paused in shelving to look at her. Jack listened intently. "There are so many ways that sentence could end, Gwen. You're going to have to specify a variable."

"Do you think he and the Queen, when she was younger -- " she began, then changed tacks. "Jack's charming, but he's not exactly in her social circle, is he?"

Ianto considered it, studying the spine of a book. "I think we lie a lot less than we used to."

"You and him?"

"All of us. We know how short life can be, especially for us. And Jack might have all of time, but he knows we don't."

Gwen nodded, chewing on a fingernail. Ianto finished shelving the first pile and moved on to another, glancing at her.

"You've been quiet," he said. "What do you think of all this?"

"Which?"

"This. Leaving Rhys in Cardiff, meeting the Queen, being tested to see if we're good enough for Torchwood. Rhys must be a bit jealous."

"I think he was gobsmacked more than anything," she replied. "And a bit proud. Our Gwen, meeting the Queen! Aliens and monsters he's perfectly happy to keep quiet about, this he whined about not being able to tell Banana Boat."

"I could have Banana Boat killed if you want," Ianto offered.

"That's sweet, but he's Rhys's mate."

"Maimed? Imprisoned?"

"Ianto!"

"I'm only saying. And you ducked the question."

Gwen shrugged. "It's Torchwood, isn't it? We go where we're needed, do what we have to. I get that now."

Oh, Gwen.

"And there are worse places to kip for the night," Ianto agreed. "The food's good and the library's interesting at least. Also, it isn't nice to eavesdrop, Jack."

It took Jack a second to realize the comment was directed at him. Gwen was looking guiltily at the doorway.

"Well, my ears were burning," Jack replied, stepping inside and taking the books out of Ianto's hands. "They're not expecting you to re-shelve the whole library. Sit down, and I'll tell you what the Queen said."

They seemed pleased that Jack would get his way, though -- as he'd thought they might -- rather more pleased that they were thought well of. Sometimes humanity absolutely baffled Jack, even after two hundred (two thousand) years. Sometimes, on the other hand, even Gwen and Ianto were predictable. It was heartening in a strange way.

They finished in the library and took lunch in the same small nook off the kitchen, Jack and Gwen enthusiastically partaking of the hare Ianto had shot the night before. Ianto stuck with the potatoes and bread served alongside it; Gwen called him fussy. Jack listened to the two of them bicker and said very little. No need to talk, really.

"We should be on the road soon. I'd like to get back to Cardiff before midnight," he said finally. Ianto set his fork down, wiping his mouth, but Jack stopped him before he could get up. "I'm driving; I'll get the SUV."

As he'd half-expected, Lizzie was in the hallway outside the kitchen. He leaned against the stone and tipped her a grin. "Word to the troops?" he asked, gesturing inside.

"One likes to leave the faithful with a good impression," she agreed. "Back to Cardiff and your pet pterodactyl, then?"

"Send me letters," he said, kissing her cheek. "I like them."

"Goodbye, Jack," she replied. She turned and disappeared into the kitchen, and a second later there was the scrape of chairs as Gwen and Ianto stood to attention. Jack smiled to himself and went to get the car.

***

They stopped in Glasgow briefly to drop off the Balmoral back-door key and let Archie know they were on their way back to Cardiff. Jack handed off the wheel to Gwen somewhere south of Liverpool while Ianto sat in the back seat and went over possible Rift-activity reports from local law-enforcement. His personal email also had a handful of hopeful messages from UNIT-based medics; apparently word was getting round that Torchwood needed a doctor.

"Shall I forward them?" Ianto asked.

"Why are they sending them to you in the first place?" Gwen asked. Ianto raised an eyebrow at her in the rearview mirror. "Sorry, you know what I mean."

"Sucking up to the secretary, one assumes," Ianto said.

"Long time since you've been the secretary," Jack remarked.

"As I'm sure our eventual doctor will notice," Ianto replied smoothly. "Forward or not?"

"They look like they're worth my time?"

"One or two."

"They send photographs?"

"You're not allowed to hire someone on the basis of having good hair," Ianto reminded him.

"Why not? Worked for you two."

The car swerved slightly as Gwen cuffed Jack on the shoulder, laughing.

They pulled into Cardiff a little after seven, the city traffic slowing them slightly. Jack sighed happily. He knew every inch of the city, had watched it change and changed with it over the decades, and it felt like it was welcoming him back.

Gwen glanced at him questioningly. "Work?"

"No -- might as well go home. We can leave you at your place. I'll drop Ianto off and check in at the Hub."

Rhys was waiting in front of the building when they pulled up, hands in his pockets, smiling. Gwen glanced at Jack, who held his hands up innocently.

"Texted him," Ianto said from the backseat.

"Evening," Rhys said, leaning through the driver's-side window to kiss Gwen hello. "Thought you might not be back tonight."

"Long trip," Gwen said as Ianto passed her bag forward. She climbed out, and Jack got out to change with her. Rhys, one arm around Gwen's waist, didn't move.

"Don't reckon you'd like to come up for dinner?" he asked. Jack blinked. "Made enough for four."

"I..." Jack glanced at Ianto, who was leaning over the front seat to listen in. "You probably want a quiet dinner with Gwen..."

"S'all right, Jack," Gwen said, giving him a sharp, significant look. "You have to be famished."

He hadn't heard much from or about Rhys since the other man had been accepted, more or less, into the circle of Torchwood. He assumed that it eased the pressure on Gwen that Rhys at least knew what she was doing when she was called out at all hours. Jack hadn't even considered what Rhys must have thought of them losing Owen and Tosh, or what he must have done to help Gwen through it. He forgot sometimes that Gwen had someone else, someone outside of him and Ianto.

"Long trip for you lot," Rhys continued, somewhat stiffly. "Might as well have a good feed. We don't mind."

Was Rhys trying to...what, be nice to Gwen's boss? Maybe?

No. Rhys knew that he'd lost two employees, and Gwen and Ianto two colleagues. And all three of them had lost their friends. He was offering what odd, domestic support he could.

"Ianto, you could do with some feeding-up," Gwen said. "Come on."

"There's wine and a roast. Make a night of it?" Rhys suggested.

Jack scuffed a shoe on the pavement, studying Rhys's face. No ulterior motive there. Rhys honestly wanted them to come up for dinner.

"Okay," he said. "Thanks. That's good of you."

Rhys's face split in a grin. So did Gwen's. "Pleasure's all mine."

"Ian-to!" Jack called, and Ianto scrambled out of the backseat, locking the SUV behind him. Rhys held the door for them.

Oh, Jack thought, as Rhys took out the slightly overdone-looking roast with a remark about feeding those on the Queen's service, and Ianto got into some debate with him about the best of the Bond books. I remember this. It's family.

Gwen uncorked a bottle of wine and poured out three glasses and then -- with a grin at Jack -- a fourth wineglass of cold water. Ianto tucked his napkin in his collar. Rhys passed Jack a bowl of potatoes.

Jack liked Lizzie, and he liked Cardiff and (a dark little voice said in the back of his head) he liked the power of Torchwood. But he could have left, if that was all, could have gone anywhere on Earth or gone with the Doctor when he was asked. He'd stayed in Cardiff -- he'd stayed with Torchwood -- because it was good to protect something. Families. Human families.

His family.

END

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