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4.01: The Inquisition

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EPISODE 1: Unpause/The Inquisition (Expected)/Hit the Ground Running

You gotta walk like a warrior, stalk through the battlefield, keep your head up, march on;
You gotta walk like a warrior, walk-walk, walk on.
--The Mighty Underdogs, 'WarWalk (feat. Chali 2na, Raashan, Tash & Zion)'

 

Lois had assured her that no one cared about public drinking anyway, not at…twelve-fifty at night on a Tuesday.

There might have been a sign somewhere, or maybe they were perfectly okay sitting here in public domain getting a little lit. It wasn't a good idea to flaunt it probably, but they didn't much care, and Dee was working on fostering a huge disregard for authority figures. It was part of her whole plan actually: be a better person, wear more colours, talk first, shoot later, and disregard the chain of command, when applicable.

Lois, Lois, Lois. Sitting across from her at the table, looking into the bottom of her glass and sighing. "I'm empty."

There were lots of things to say to that, but Dee was working on that talk-first-shoot-later thing, and she was also starting to realise that sometimes talking was shooting and sometimes it wasn't. Cooper always gave her the eyebrow when she committed a verbal gunshot, and well, she'd signed up for it, right?

Lois poured them both fingers and set the bottle down none too gently on the warped wood. "So here's to us, and the whole thing," she said, and they clinked glasses. "I'm nervous. Are you nervous?" she asked around the rim of her glass.

Dee studied the glass and the logo on the side of it that read 'Hilton Hotel'. "I might be. I'm not sure."

Lois finished her drink and Dee wondered how many she'd had before Dee had picked her up at the pub and driven them to the store for more alcohol and then here, for a little fermented potato picnic under the stars. In the car they'd been talking about the charter they'd been writing, and the one they'd been tweaking, and the spaces that had been built and the people they were all supposed to be in those spaces. Lois hadn't known anything about what it had been like before, but Dee had, both from intel and from sifting through the rubble that she'd helped to create over a year ago.

"It will work out," Lois said finally. "We're all sorted." She tilted her head and smiled, just a little twitch. "Because it will."

Dee stared at her and sipped her drink. She didn't have much to add to that thought, because she wasn't at all sure that anything would work out. Her own contract read 'PROBATIONARY' in big red letters down the side of the page. Lois's probably didn't. But hers did.

"I think," Lois said, trying to focus on Dee's face, "there's a plan. Like a divine plan."

Dee snorted into her vodka. "Oh you do, do you?"

Lois waved her drink hand and liquor sloshed all over her skin and the grass under it. "Precisely."

That was not the answer Dee thought had been forthcoming. The trees rustled to her left and she twitched. "That's not very convincing," she said instead.

Lois reached for the bottle and poured herself another finger. If she kept doing that she'd have more than two fingers in that glass—she'd have a whole fucking hand. "You're an atheist," she admonished. "I can't talk to you."

Dee didn't have the heart to tell her that she was probably not the only atheist in their group. "Try me."

Lois smiled.

"Oh don't pull that bullshit on me," Dee said, draining her glass and slamming it on the table. She was switching to something else. "And you have shite taste in vodka. What is this? American?"

Lois pulled another bottle from her bag and set it on the picnic table—Chopin. She'd been hiding the good stuff, then. Dee pulled it from Lois's drunken fingers and unscrewed the cap, dumping Lois's five fingers out onto the grass despite her protestations, and then poured them generous drinks. Lois sipped hers and bobbed her head back and forth to some tune in her head.

"Anyway," she said to Dee. "It's complicated and if you understood it, if you got a glimpse of the master plan, your little human head, it would—" Her eyes widened and she slammed her glass on the table for emphasis. "It would explode." She imitated falling debris by lowering her wiggling fingers.

Dee knew that was coming. "Cop out."

Lois smiled the smile of the saints. "You just don't know."

"You're drunk."

"You're jaded."

Dee saluted her with her drink. "That's a fair cop."

Lois leant over the table. "I'll tell you something," she whispered, eyes darting about for effect. Dee leant in close. She had a soft spot for charming drunks, and Lois was up there on the list. Lois would be adorable drunk no matter what she did, until the chundering started, of course.

"When I was eight, I died," Lois mock-whispered in her ear. "I was dead for eight minutes. And I should be a vegetable, but I'm not." Lois waved her free hand in the air, the other one pressing on the table to hold her upright as she put all her weight on it. "I was dead, they called the time, and then, and then, I sat up and asked for a Flake bar."

Dee smiled and stared out into the distance. "Well, that is a miracle. Did you see a light?"

Lois sighed. "That's hallucinatory chemicals in your brain, you know." Dee pulled back an inch so she could focus on her face. "It was later, Dee, later. I would explain it, but I can't."

Dee thought about it for a second, and that was all Lois needed to lose her drunken balance and fall over the table a little. Lois's hand landed on her forearm, over the knife sheath under the jacket, but she didn't seem to care.

Dee pulled her arm away. "I'm straight," she said.

Lois froze, as if she was surprised by something, perhaps Dee's admission, perhaps that she was so close to her in the first place. Perhaps she'd just been on the whole divine plan thing still.

She didn't have to think about it very long, because there was a sound of rustling grass, and they turned their faces to the right to watch the police bobby make his way across the picnic area of the park towards them.

"What are you ladies doing here? Park's closed," the bobby said, hand on his nightstick. "Is that alcohol?"

"Oooooo." Lois screwed the caps on the wrong bottles and tucked them back into her bag, eyes wide. "Oops," she mumbled. "We're going to gaol."

Dee fished in her pocket and pulled out her ID. The bobby took it with suspicion and peered at the laminate. Dee quite wished she had some of that psychic paper she'd read about in the archives, but she was fairly sure the Doctor, if he ever returned, wouldn't have any to spare, and he'd never cough it up to her, at any rate.

"Torchwood, eh?" The bobby said. "Haven't seen you lot 'round in nigh over a year."

Agent Lois Habiba closed her purse with a loud zip and almost fell off her side of the picnic table. Agent Deirdre Johnson stood and slipped the slick ID back into her pocket. They had better get moving anyway. They had a big day tomorrow.

The bobby took a step back and sheathed his nightstick, rocking on the balls of his feet.

"We're back," Dee said over her shoulder as she walked out of the park and back to her 4x4 to drive Lois home.

Lois ran to catch up with her, but raised her hand and handed Dee the bag. "I just have to—wait…" She ran back to the bobby and patted his shoulder. "You just—" she pulled the velcro on his shoulder and his side, dismantling his stab vest on the left and twisting a few straps around before smoothing them out again, all so quickly no one could react, least of all the bobby. "Your vest was on wrong."

"Uh—thanks?" the bobby called after her as she jogged back to Dee, her little flip flops smacking the pavement, and her pleated skirt swishing in the bob of her trot.

"You ruined our dramatic exit. And how'd you know that?" Dee asked her as they left the park and she handed Lois the purse, the bottle clanking noisily.

Lois waved a hand. "I know everything." She slung the purse over her shoulder and staggered a bit, not because of the weight, but because she was full of vodka and a divine plan.

Dee watched her hair flip about like whippy licorice ribbons when she tossed her head and could almost believe her.

EIGHT MONTHS EARLIER:

Gwen Cooper was horrifically large. Not fat, just house-like. Dee had never been pregnant, so every pregnant woman looked frightfully uncomfortable and irritable. She walked around the tables in the café, bumped into a person who was trying to stand, and muttered an 'excuse me' before making her way to Dee's table in the back.

Dee wondered if she should stand, but instead settled for pushing back in her seat so that she was flush with the wall, and kicking the chair across from her out in a gesture of help. Cooper took it with a grunt.

"Deirdre Johnson," Cooper said, and paused when the waiter came to offer her a stimulating beverage. She ordered a tea of some sort –Dee assumed it was decaffeinated—and turned back to Dee with a smile. "I would call you Operative, but my file says that's been rescinded."

Dee stirred her cappuccino. She didn't like the way they made them here—she couldn't get what she deemed to be a decent one outside of Italy, so why bother? She fell for it every time. "Your file is correct," she said in a low tone. "You know that."

Cooper pulled a thick buff folder from her monster purse and uncapped a pen. "Yes. I've read everything I could get my hands on, which," she said, tapping the unopened folder with the blunt end of the stylus, "is a great deal. Everything, in fact."

Dee snorted. "Not everything."

Cooper smiled as the waiter returned with her tea, but it wasn't a smile for him. It was for Dee. "Yes," she said when the waiter about-faced. "Everything." She blew on her tea and studied the painting on the far wall, something by a local artist that Dee thought was supposed to be a tribute to Guernica. In reality it just looked like vomiting dogs and art-deco tea cosies. "You know how high up I go these days." Dee didn't, but Cooper knew, because she finished. "Or maybe you don't, seeing as how my files have listed you as terminated." She paused. "I've been given orders to shut you down permanently."

Dee's hand had already been on the gun in her thigh pocket, but she wasn't quite keen on the idea of shooting a pregnant woman. If push came to shove, she could kick the table and knock Cooper over, then make a run for it. She'd already reconned the back exits thirty minutes earlier.

"Well then, I've been waiting since I was given my stand down and told to turn in my ordinance. What took you so long?"

Cooper sipped her tea and made a face. "I hate tea," she said to her. "Do you?"

Dee raised an eyebrow. Her hand twitched on her gun. "It's all right. National pastime, isn't it?"

"I have orders to retcon you into a home, you know that, right?"

Dee slipped off the safety.

"But small issue there, I don't actually have a great deal of retcon handy, not after what you did to the Hub."

Dee slid the gun from her pocket, just enough that she could fire through her trousers without nicking herself. She really, really didn't want to have to shoot a pregnant woman.

"So here's the thing," Cooper told her, opening the folder and flipping through pages, completely unaware of what Dee was doing under the table. Or ignoring it. Which meant that she had someone else covering her. Dee risked a glance at the other patrons of the café: three teens sharing a small laptop in the far corner; a tall dark man scribbling in a notebook; a thin, eager looking woman with neat plaits—who looked away as soon as Dee made eye contact with her. There was nothing in her hands, but her knee jangled under the table.

Cooper cleared her throat and found the page she was looking for, and Dee returned her attention to the woman across from her. "Lois isn't the best at this sort of thing, but she is diligent," Cooper said, smiling. "She's just here for training." She tilted her head. "Because you aren't going to shoot me, not when you hear what I have to say."

Dee sat back and pressed her spine to the cushion of the bench. "Really now. Something about retconning me into a vegetable."

Cooper slid the folder across the table, and it bumped into Dee's coffee, sloshing it up from its cap of foam. "Not precisely."

Dee glanced down long enough to read the header at the top of the page Cooper had marked with a series of fluorescent arrow stickers, stickers meant to signify where blank lines required a signature. "That's a ridiculous move," she mumbled. "Utterly ridiculous."

Cooper picked up her tea, sipping from it and then resting the bottom of the mug on the top of her round belly. "Mmmm, completely insane, I know, but here's the thing." She leant in just a little and her belly bumped the table. "I need your expertise, and you need a job." She set the tea down and pushed the papers another inch in Dee's direction. "I have to deal with you one way or another, and believe me if I don't, someone will. Everyone attached to the 456 affair has been or is being dealt with. Make me a happy woman and don't make me waste resources on you."

Dee fingered the safety on her gun.

"Lois is diligent, and I mean that in the best possible way," Cooper said, possibly as a reminder that she wasn't alone. "But her experience with firearms and tactics is poor, for now. I have others I could ask," she added, "but I like the irony here. Don't you?"

Dee shook her head. "I blew up your Hub."

"It's being rebuilt."

"I killed your boss. Multiple times."

"He gets better."

"I let his grandson die."

"If I understand correctly, he did as well."

Dee blew out a breath. "I buried him in concrete."

Cooper smiled. "That's not going to be a habit, is it?" Then her face drained of warmth and she leant over conspiratorially. "I'm not being conciliatory when I say I want you on my team, but I want it clear that I am in charge. The first sign of mutiny from you, an eye twitch, a breath, the cock of a gun, and I will shoot you." That smile slipped up again, and that was almost worse than her serious face. "And if you survive that, then I'll retcon you over to a special home where no one will know you as anything but 'Poor poor Deirdre, lost her marbles'."

Over at the far table, Lois Habiba was trying to wave the waiter away so that he would unobstruct her view of their table.

Dee looked at the cappuccino on the table in front of her. She thought about the fact that she was carrying illegally and slept in a hellhole. She missed going to the salon every two weeks. She also missed decent coffee. And steak. And being able to fire big guns.

She glanced at the sheet and flipped a few pages. "May I?"

Cooper sipped her tea and sat back again, waving a hand. "Be my guest."

Dee found the salary page and blinked at the numbers. That was a lot of zeroes.

"Do the right thing," Cooper told her. "Do this, and do the right thing."

Dee took the pen from the table and signed the top page. "I serve at the pleasure of the Queen," she riffed.

Gwen Cooper turned the page and pointed to the next arrow. "Don't we all."

***

PRESENT DAY:

Tosh sat in the boat with her and tried again, the tip of her tongue peeking from the corner of her mouth in concentration. "It keeps squirming."

Gwen swished her rod back and forth and watched the line drag along the surface of the water. "You have to take it in hand. Don't be afraid to just spear it."

Tosh sighed. "I don't know how I feel about killing it. It's so…so harmless."

"Jesus, Tosh," Owen said from the front of the rowboat. "Do you want to eat or not? When you catch something we'll have a nice fry-up." He moved the oars and the boat sliced through the water.

"I don't think you're supposed to keep moving us like that," Gwen said, thinking. The boat rocked on the waves and she gestured with her rod. "How will the fish keep up with us? Doesn't that scare them away?"

Tosh glanced at Owen and they both gave her withering looks. "New girl," Owen muttered, rolling his eyes and taking another stroke with the oars. Above them gulls the size of Myfanwy soared in the sky, every once in a while coming down to snatch a fish out of the water.

There was a splashing sound from behind her to her right and she turned in the boat. "You all right there, Ianto?"

Ianto pulled another dried fish from the bucket in front of him and tossed it in the water for the giant gulls. "Perfectly. Just feeding Myfanwy."

Gwen watched a gull dive-bomb the water and come up with the salted cod Ianto was chucking into the waves. "That's not Myfanwy."

Ianto blinked at her. "And you're trying to catch a sea animal with something not even indigenous to the water."

Tosh stared at her worm. "That is a bit odd, you know," she said slowly. "Why use worms to catch fish? Worms don't live in water, do they?"

Gwen fiddled with her reel. "That's what I've always used," she said defensively.

"Neeeeeeew girrrrrl," Owen sang and the oars slapped the water flat.

Ianto threw another salted fish like a boomerang and made a ninja noise. "I bet I can get it to come all the way back," he murmured.

Gwen was about to ask about worms being bait for fish again when she felt a tug on her line. Tosh dropped her worm and hook and clapped her hands excitedly. "Oh em gee, Gwen! You got one!"

Ianto threw a fish.

"I could do better," Owen said crisply.

Gwen yanked the line and turned the reel, dragging the filament in. "It's going to cut the line," she said, rocking the boat, and she inched towards the edge of the boat in her seat and braced her feet on the gunwale.

"Nonsense," Ianto said. "That's alien wire from the archives. They use it to tow ships in space."

Gwen pulled the line—it was on something all right, and she turned the crank to bring it up. The water foamed and bubbled red, as if whatever was shooting up from the bottom was bringing with it a fountain of blood. "Uh, I don't think—"

It surfaced, and Gwen stared down at Jack, bobbing in the water, her hook piercing his lip. Jack blinked his eyes and grinned at her.

"Hey, Gwen! How ya doing?"

"Jack?" She dropped the rod and held on to the edge of the boat, leaning over. "What are you doing down there?"

Jack shrugged, casually treading water. His clothes were drenched, coat floating about him like a sheet of woolen seaweed. "Oh, you know, chillaxin. Gellin' like a felon. Stuff like that."

Tosh peered over her shoulder. "I don't think you can keep it," she told Gwen. "There's a law."

Ianto threw another fish but didn't even look. "I hear they're poisonous."

"Fuck that, they taste like chicken," Owen added, poking Jack with one of his oars. "Toss it back."

Tosh sat back on her seat and picked up her hook, resuming her baiting with interest. "Imma catch me a real man this time," she said softly.

Gwen looked back at Jack. "I've missed you," she said. "Doesn't that hurt?"

Jack pulled the hook from his lip and tossed it over the side and onto the floor of the boat. "Nah, nothing can hurt me, remember?"

"I don't think that's true," Gwen said. "But how do you breathe underwater?"

Jack smiled, all teeth, and she had the feeling that she should know better. His hands rested on hers on the edge of the boat, and then clasped her wrists firmly. "I'll show you."

He tugged her arms and Gwen could barely close her eyes before her face hit the water.

Gwen sat up and slapped herself in the nose. Her alarm was going off, and it sounded like a wailing siren. No wait, that wasn't her alarm. She turned to look at the nightstand clock: four thirty-seven. The alarm was blissfully silent. It was something else wailing.

She rolled out of the bed and shuffled down the hallway towards the door with the glow and opened it, yawning and wondering if she could manage to go back to sleep when she was done here. Probably. She had mastered the art of sleeping everywhere but in a moving vehicle.

Duncan blinked up at her, his face panicked, his little fists waving, eyes wide. "Hey Mister Man," Gwen said lightly, picking up her son and pressing his belly to her chest. "Where's the fire?"

Duncan made little noises that meant he was catching his breath after having a bit of a wail, and she rubbed his back in circles and did a circuit of the room, speaking under her breath. "It's early, yes, and Mummy has to sleep. Daddy is…" She paused and left the room to shuffle down the hallway, back to their bedroom. "Sleepin'," she whispered as she smiled at Rhys's snoring form. "Like we should be, right?"

Duncan made some sort of snergle into her shoulder, and she left their bedroom and did a lap around the flat, down the steps, into the kitchen, out into the dining room, into the living room, around the settee, then back up the stairs and into Duncan's room with the yellow nightlight, where she sat down in the rocking chair and slid down so that she could settle comfortably on the off chance that she'd fall asleep here. She didn't want to drop the baby.

Duncan made those wet noises that he used to make when he was nursing, not unlike a cow re-chewing grass, and she knew that he was almost back to sleep. Her legs propelled the chair back and forth a bit, and she tucked her head into the cushion behind her and closed her eyes. Just for a minute.

The sensation of an infant being lifted off her brought her to a rousing start, and she opened her eyes to the sun pouring into the room, and Rhys in front of her, hair askew, bathrobe hanging off one arm, boxers and T-shirt rumpled from being slept in. He grinned at her. "I win," he said.

She watched Duncan lightly slap Rhys's face with his little chubby fingers and realised that she'd been there for the rest of the night. Rhys looked at Duncan and smiled, eyes wide. "Mummy slept in the chair again, even though she bet me that she wouldn't."

Gwen pushed herself to standing and walked around him out of the room and back into their bedroom, where she was going to try to get more shuteye, but a glance at her clock told her that it was seven-thirty eight. She was going to be late.

"I'm going to be late."

Rhys stood in the doorway and looked at Duncan. "Mummy's going to be late. But wait," he said, pausing for effect. "Can you be late when you're the boss?"

Gwen threw her nightshirt at him and sprinted for the shower. "Make me toast!"

She was running the taps and painting her toothbrush with paste when she heard Rhys sigh. "Come on Duncan, yeah," he murmured on the other side of the door. "Today is Mummy's big day. Let's go make her a fry-up."

***

Maggie Hopley drained her travel mug and stood outside the giant fenced-in complex that seemed to loom mysteriously, despite how far back from the road it was set. She checked her watch again: eight twenty-eight. Two minutes, then. Two minutes.

It wasn't as if she didn't know what was inside. She'd been inside. She'd helped build it. She knew who was going to be in there with her. She'd painted her office, for Christ's sake, a nice, soothing blue colour. She'd wired the lighting in half of it. Well, okay, tweaked the lighting.

But today. Today was different. Today. It was officially done.

Secret organisations didn't have ribbon cutting ceremonies, but they did have visits from representatives of the Crown, close representatives who answered only to the head that crown sat on, and they were dropping by today to see just what they had paid for. Maggie smoothed her hair, glanced at her sensible heels, and hoped to god that she didn't spill lubricant on her blouse before they got here.

"Okay then," she told herself. "Eight-thirty." She held her hand to the scanner and let it read her palm.

"Hey there, Mags," said the voice of a very relaxed Owen Harper, and her heart fluttered in the bad way.

"Oh god, I have to fix that before he gets here," she groaned.

"Darling," Owen said from the speaker as the gate swung open, "you can't fix perfection."

This was not a good start.

***

SIX MONTHS EARLIER:

"I'm sorry that Ms. Cooper isn't here to meet you," the woman said, smoothing her skirt as she sat down across the table from Maggie. A tad nervous, this one, and Maggie wondered what was to be nervous about in the tech business. Unless this was some sort of industrial espionage. She was being interviewed in a Hilton conference room, after all. "Water?"

Maggie shook her head. "No thank you, Ms…?"

"Oh dear," the woman said, reaching across the table. "Bollixed it already. Lois, Lois Habiba." Her handshake was quick and strong, smooth almost, as if she did it often. "I work under Ms. Cooper, who has, as I told you, gone into labour this morning, so, she asked that I fill in for her. If that's quite all right?"

Maggie shrugged. "Fine with me."

Lois made a show of opening the file in front of her. It was quite thick and filled with tiny print. When Maggie tried to focus on it –she was good at reading upside down—she found that the words squiggled and blurred. Lois glanced up at her and smiled. "Confidentiality demands that until certain documents are signed, the scrambler is going to prevent your perception of written word. At least at this table."

Maggie pushed back and blinked. "Confidentiality…scrambler—"

Lois folded her hands around the pen that she'd picked up. "You know that the tech business is very competitive, and we can't very well have an interview without certain…secure documents being in play." Those hands flattened on the papers and Lois shrugged. "I'm sure you understand."

Maggie sat back. This had to be something new. There was always something new.

"About two years ago, your husband, Brian Hopley, died in an automobile accident," Lois said, not looking up from her folder.

Maggie rose. "I don't see how that has to do with—"

"And then a year later you went to a rooftop in what I understand was a suicide attempt. There you encountered one Owen Harper." Lois looked up then. "Owen Harper, who was dead." At that, Maggie sat down in her chair and stared as Lois continued. "My documents don't describe the nature of the conversation that you had with Doctor Harper, but it is obvious that you both lived." Lois paused. "Well…"

Maggie wrung her hands under the table. "We talked, that was all," she said, unsure where this was going, but glancing about to look for the exits. Two of them were blocked off with walls of boxes so high all she could see was the red 'way out' sign. The door behind her and the one on the far side of the room directly behind Lois were the only exits.

"At that point in time, Doctor Harper wrote in his notes that he shared the artefact known as the Pulse with you." Lois smiled and leant back. "I've seen video. It's very pretty."

Maggie shook her head. "I didn't know what it was. He said it was safe, and it—"

"Oh, I hope you don't think that you're in some sort of trouble, Ms. Hopley." Lois stopped. "I should have asked. Ms.? Mrs.?"

Maggie sighed. "Mrs., if you please."

"Right then, Mrs. Hopley, what Owen Harper shared with you was indeed special. How did you find it?"

Maggie paused at the question. Her head was fairly spinning. It wasn't that she hadn't thought about Owen and his alien…thing, it was more like she hadn't expected it to come up in conversation at an interview for a tech firm. In fact, she hadn't ever expected it to be mentioned by anyone at all, anywhere, unless she managed to bump into Owen again. "It was…I was…it was amazing."

Lois nodded earnestly. "An alien message to us, done in light, some too much for us to see, sound, some of it too complex to hear, and frequencies which, sadly, you didn't get to experience, but, when deciphered, were deeply beautiful and intriguing." Lois tilted her head. "Would you like to see it in its entirety?"

Maggie leant forward in her chair, over the table. "This isn't an interview for a tech firm, is it?"

Lois leant in so that her face was less than a foot away and they could whisper conspiratorially, two girls gossiping at a tea party. "No, no it isn't," she whispered.

And then she smiled.

***

PRESENT DAY:

Maggie keyed in her code and presented her eye for the retinal scanner. Gretchen still stiffened a little every time she had to look in, and no amount of assurances from any of them could convince her that it wasn't going to gouge out her eye, or at least administer a surprise glaucoma test.

The scanners were quick and state of the art, state of the alien art, actually, whatever alien she'd managed to gank it from, she wasn't sure. They took her reading in seconds and popped open the door to the first level of the complex that they had all decided, after about three seconds of deliberation, to continue calling The Hub. Gwen had got quite misty at that, but some Torchwood traditions were worth hanging on to.

Gretchen wasn't in yet, but Lois was, banging the coffeemaker and cursing under her breath. "You lousy, irritable piece of—good morning!" Lois looked away from the machine long enough to make eye contact, and that was all the machine needed to begin spewing coffee out into the space where the mug should have been. Lois whipped her head back and groaned. "Oh no no no, the grounds are—oh!"

Maggie left her fighting with the machine. She stuck to tea. Also, she was a bit afraid of the coffee machine. It had been rescued from the old Hub under the Plass (that still amazed her—the Hub hidden under the Roald Dahl Plass!), and Gwen hadn't yet been able to retire it. Gretchen said that it was possessed and used the Keurig that she'd brought from her old job and installed in the medical bay right next to the mini fridge that stored all the blood and urine samples and a small container of milk. Lois seemed determined to make the thing work, though Dee had told her to give it up and let it go. It was a monument, a memorial, and they should just let it gather dust.

Dee popped her head in from her office (Lois called it the rumpus room) and waved a hand. "Hey." She disappeared just as quickly. Dee was supposed to keep her head down the entire official visit, and so it was easier to just play it low key today.

Maggie set her travel mug on her desk, as clean as she could get it after she'd been using it as a repository for every piece of tech she'd been working on for months. Now that she had a workshop with multiple tables, and toys and gadgets that would make Tony Stark come in his pants, she could use the desk for its intended purpose, which was apparently…to store her dirty travel mugs. She stared at the six of them on her desk, holding down various piles of papers and file folders.

Lois swore out in the main atrium. "You're a monster!" The coffee machine (they secretly called it 'the ghost of Ianto Jones', but never whilst Gwen was around) whistled and shrieked. "YOU'RE NOT EVEN PLUGGED IN YOU POSSESSED THING!" Lois shouted.

Maggie lifted the lid of the nearest travel mug and was greeting by something that might have been alive. She slapped the lid down and snapped it in place, then checked the rest. Three others had fallen to the spore, and so she shrugged off her coat, tossed it and her purse into the room's one plush chair, and gathered her new life forms in their receptacles for a trip to the biohazard bin.

***

Deirdre groaned as she pushed the trolley, trying not to hit Lois in the arse as they made their way through the ASDA. "I don't see why we have to do this. Don't we have a requisition team?"

Lois waved the list written on a scrap of hotel stationary paper. They'd been out of the hotel for a month, moved into the Hub for two, and Lois still had that paper stockpiled. Dee suspected that Torchwood would be using that hotel stationary for scratch paper even when they had to build a new Hub in ninety years. "You are looking at it."

Dee leant on the push bar of the trolley. "All right then, make this fast. I have things that they pay me to do."

Lois didn't stop walking, but she did spin to make eye contact. "You're getting paid for this."

The woman was undefeatable. "I have my groceries delivered, and I shop online." She pulled a box of Hob-Nobs from the shelf and tossed them in the trolley. "Only Torchwood could get me into ASDA in the middle of the day."

Lois disappeared around an aisle and Dee dragged her feet. She wasn't in a hurry to get back to the Hub, really. Cooper had been running late and so she was flustered, and if she was flustered, then everyone else was. The haunted coffee machine had exploded this morning (as usual), and then Maggie had had a small fight with a mold alien spore thing (Dee had killed it with vinegar) from her teacups, and then Cooper had made her polish all the guns in front, and then make sure that all the doors to the armoury were deadlock sealed, for safety's sake. Then Dee had changed the sparkplugs on all the SUVs before Lois had suggested they take TW1 out for a spin to get it washed, and oh by the way, get some supplies.

She should have seen it coming.

So here they were, in ASDA, shopping for coffee and biscuits and oh Jesus, was that potpourri? Dee suspected that it had been Gretchen who had put the scented candles in the loo, but perhaps she had been wrong.

"Really?" she said, as she caught up to Lois. "Potpourri?" When Lois glanced at her, she rolled her eyes. "Take it from a woman who's been in a man's profession for…ever—we are a bunch of women, running a—"

Lois lifted her finger to her lips and made eyes at the old lady down the aisle from them who was reading the Nutrition Facts on a box of PG Tips.

"Running a secret alien monitoring and catching organisation that only answers to the Crown," she whispered. "The Crown, I might add, also being a woman." She pulled the bag of potpourri from the trolley and tossed it at Lois. "Don't give the man a reason to pull that macho shite on us."

Lois looked at the bag sceptically. "And you think potpourri is going to be the thing that drives him over the edge into mad, screaming chauvinistic frenzy?"

Dee rolled her eyes. "I'm just saying."

Lois waved the bag. "By the way, these are wood chips for Sam and Dean."

Oops. Colour her stupid then. She grabbed them back. "All right. Fine."

Lois rounded the corner to another aisle, but kept talking. "I don't see what the big deal is. We were all hired because of our skills. If we happen to all be women, then so be it."

"Oh, little one, how young you are," Dee groused. "All I am saying is Cooper better hire a man soon, before we all start synching our periods or something."

The box of tampons sailed over the shelves and Deirdre caught it before it could bop her in the head. The boxes at eye shelf height parted and Lois peeked at her from the next aisle over. Her eyes blinked a few times, large and round.

"Sorry Dee. Too late, I rather think."

Deirdre tossed the box in the trolley with a sigh. "Well, at least get some Super Plus. Some of us aren't Regular girls."

***

FIVE MONTHS EARLIER:

Gretchen Jones loved animals. Just not the giant bastard creature who was chasing her down the alleyway. She suspected, the part of her that was capable of rational thought (and Jesus was that part getting smaller by the second), that it wasn't an animal at all, but some sort of sewer monster.

That said, she didn't much care what it was, especially since it had eaten her dog, and was still chasing her down an alley (score points for going for the alleyway, that was bound to end in a chainlink fence re: disaster) with Rickenbacher's leash hanging from its mouth like a shoestring or errant piece of dental floss. Gretchen looked over her shoulder once, but not for long, because she wasn't fond of being That Girl in the horror films, and then she rounded an alleyway corner to dive behind a skip filled with what was probably the entire week's worth of rotting Chinese take-away. Her foot bumped a series of broken down wooden vegetable crates, and she bent in her crouch to find two of the sturdiest boards, one still sporting a smattering of nails.

Gretchen was fairly sure that she couldn't be any luckier when she managed to hit the creature in a big swing as it passed her behind the skip, but she was wrong—the nails wedged in its eye, well one of many, and it screamed, hands flailing for the board. Gretchen dislodged the board and readjusted her grip. Another swing hit the big eye on what should have been the forehead. The thing stopped in mid-scream and fell like a stone, straight down, then laid there, supine, unmoving.

She kicked it with her foot, picked out another board bedecked with nails and leant back against the brick wall of the building. She probably should have run, but Rickenbacher's leash lay coiled like his little tail used to when he sat by the door and begged for walkies, and she couldn't leave him yet. There was no way he was still alive; she understood that even if the thing had swallowed him whole he most likely had been crushed or drowned or suffocated inside it and--

There was a sound like running feet and she crouched down behind the skip, raising the board like a cricket bat. The thing was still when she glanced at it, and the feet approaching were human, or at least not the meaty slapping that the creature's bare clawed feet had done on the wet cement.

A woman rounded the corner and stopped a few feet from the creature, looking down at it, weapon trained on the unmoving head. It had landed face down, and so Gretchen froze as the woman approached, obviously not upset or perplexed in the least that a giant unidentifiable monster was bleeding some sort of orangeish glowy goo all over the cement.

The woman rolled the thing over with the tip of her boot and danced back quickly. Her thighs gleamed with knives in strapping and her legs were half covered in boot below that. She glanced at Gretchen and then pressed a button on her earpiece.

"Ma'am, it's Johnson. I'm in the alley behind--" She glanced at the skip and its painted logo, "Mister Woo's. We have a downed Ptx—" The thing moved minutely and Gretchen felt her heart jump back into overdrive. The woman simply raised her gun and shot it in the head once, twice, then three and four times. The sound was surprisingly little; Gretchen had only seen guns on the telly, but she had always thought they would sound louder.

"Correction, a dead Ptx. It was coming straight for me." She rolled her eyes and her hip jutted, as if she was showing attitude. Gretchen found that she was having trouble looking away from the gun in the woman's hand. "Well, it was already wounded when I got here, and if I recall correctly, ma'am--" Her eyes flit to Gretchen. "Yeah, a civvie. Okay."

Gretchen barely had time to register the woman's movements when she pulled out another, bulkier gun with an orange tip. She pointed it right at Gretchen and pulled the trigger.

***

Gretchen Jones stood outside her doorstep and called a few more times. "Rickenbacher! Rickenbacher! Here boy!"

There was no telltale rustle from the bushes, his normal hideout. The dog was gone. She'd been on the look-out for him since she'd got up yesterday and hadn't been able to find him. She couldn't remember what had happened two nights ago, either, just that she was sore and her shoes were covered in what smelled like rotting dumpster crap, and her leash was gone. This did not bode well for Rickenbacher.

She racked her brain every time she thought about it. She never forgot anything. It was a trick, a talent. She never even forgot a night of drinking, which just now meant that she was either learning a new trick or getting old. Or she'd been knocked about the head. But she'd woken up on her sofa, her house locked safely behind her.

She was late, and she took her car to the clinic instead of taking the bus, which always made her grumpy, since she had to find parking. Fran was already waiting for her with three cases (two Pomeranians with worms and a cat with a bad hairball backup) and so she hadn't time to reflect on her missing dog very long until around ten-thirty, when she finally stopped for a cup of well-cooked coffee and a dried up M&S scone. The thing sat in her stomach when she thought of her dog, little yappy scrapper that he was, with his missing ear and gimpy walk, out there somewhere from which he couldn't return.

She emerged from the makeshift breakroom out into the waiting area, where Fran was leaning on the reception counter and flipping through an old issue of The Veterinary Record. Fran was more of a Hello! person, so that in itself was another record for the day or something.

"That issue is from 1999," she supplied as she leant on the counter next to her.

Fran stared at the magazine and flipped a page. "Whatever. There's a woman across the street," she said, sotto voce. "Don't look. I think she's with MI-5."

Gretchen rolled her eyes and looked out the window to see a woman with a severe tail and a pair of black wraparound sunglasses hiding her eyes. Her clothes were monochrome black, and she leant against the wall and didn't even bother trying not to make it seem as if she was watching the clinic. She stared through the shopfront and made eye contact with Gretchen, then raised her hand and snapped her fingers.

A dog ran out from the shadows behind the woman, scampering out of the alleyway, and it sat next to her and stared at the shopfront window at Gretchen. It flicked its one ear.

Gretchen patted Fran's shoulder. "I'll be right back."

"Do you know her?" Fran called after her. "If you're not back in five minutes I'm calling the police."

Gretchen navigated the street's sparse traffic easily, and when her foot hit the kerb, Rickenbacher barked once and ran to her, butting her shins with his tiny, stubborn head. She crouched down and grasped his coat in her fingers. "Hey boy, oh you had me worried."

"We had a hell of a time getting him out," the woman said. "He's probably going to stink for a few days."

The dog barked and then farted and Gretchen made a face. "What have you been doing?" she asked the dog, who of course couldn't answer. To the woman she asked, "Where did you find him?"

The woman cocked her head and smiled minutely. It wasn't remotely comforting, and for a second Gretchen saw something else superimposed over the image of her standing there, arms crossed, feet casually at-ease.

"You," she said quietly, her hands still buried in the dog's fur. "I remember you." She stood, taking the dog with her. "You shot me!"

The woman's smile widened and she pressed her bluetooth, tilting her head away but not breaking eye contact. "Ma'am, that's affirmative." Gretchen watched her glance out into the street and at the black SUV that rolled down the cobblestone towards them, gliding like a death carriage from a Dickinson poem. There was a popping sound and her shoulder ached and she looked back to the woman before glancing down at her arm. The woman lowered her orange tipped gun, and Gretchen yanked the flechette out of her shoulder with a grunt. It fell to the ground with a clickety-clink. She hoped that Fran was dialing 999.

"What the fuck is--"

"Ms. Jones," said a voice from the backseat of the car as the window rolled down. "Agent Johnson is returning your memories from two nights ago." A woman's face appeared from the shadows, pale, long black hair with fringe, big wide eyes, but when she smiled in capitulation, just a bit of a gap in those front teeth. She didn't look like the kind of person who was supposed to ride in the back of a...whatever this was supposed to be, like she was The Queen or Miss Moneypenny or...Beyonce.

The door opened and Gretchen stepped back, clutching the dog tighter. Agent Johnson stayed out of the way, but her gun was now out of sight. She covered the flechette Gretchen had dropped to the ground with her foot, pulling it towards her.

The woman in the SUV leant out. Her face was a little worn, as if she was tired, and her cleavage pushed out of a top that was too small, as if she refused to buy bigger clothing. "Ms. Jones, do you remember what you saw?"

Gretchen thought about it and it all came back to her in a flood—Rickenbacher pulling the leash out of her hand, that thing...running and the skip and the nails—she closed her eyes and there was a steadying hand on her back.

"Easy, feels like falling a few stories," Agent Johnson said.

"Ms. Jones, my name is Gwen Cooper," said the woman in the back of the SUV. The window in the driver's side rolled down and she was greeted by a smiling blonde woman's face. "This is Mrs. Hopley." Gwen smiled widely. "We have an offer I think you might find intriguing."

***

PRESENT DAY:

Gretchen waved the bag at Lois as she walked in the door. "I brought snacks!"

Lois took the bag from her and peered inside. "Snacks?"

"Pastries. Linzer biscuits." She shrugged. "Things we could easily spike with a mood elevator."

"No one is drugging the Inquisitor," Gwen said as she came down the steps from the upper level, where her office was housed. She passed the coffee machine with an absent tap and shoved her hands in her pockets. "There's no need to drug the Inquisitor." She peered in the bag. "Also, we should refrain from calling him 'the Inquisitor' while he's here."

"Says you," Dee mumbled as she walked past with a rifle longer than her leg slung over her shoulder. She dug into the bag and pulled out a biscuit.

Gretchen gave her a weak smile. She wasn't that fond of Dee, and that wasn't anyone's fault. Some part of her shoulder always stung when Dee walked by, and that was completely phantom.

Dee gestured with the biscuit. "Name one thing that has come under the title of 'Inquisitor' that has turned out well for the…inquisited." She bit into the biscuit and sighed, walking away.

Gretchen might not be that fond of Dee, but they were solidly in the 'This is bad waiting to happen' camp. Maggie and Lois were in the 'Oh dear god' camp, and Gwen solidly cheered with her pom-poms, as if she had once been a cheerleader. She probably had.

Gwen took the bag and set it on the sideboard next to the coffee machine. "Nothing is going to happen," she reminded them. "It's been signed, sealed." She gestured at the walls and equipment around them. "Delivered. Relax."

Lois went back to colour coding something vitally important and Dee waved her hand in a salute without turning around. Gretchen shrugged up her backpack and headed towards her lab. She'd been saving a fairly gruesome and impressive Hoix autopsy for today, and she wanted to have the chest cracked and pinned by the time their guest arrived.

"Gretchen," Gwen said, catching her by the elbow and speaking softly, "That thing—"

She sighed. "No trace on my end. Has Maggie said anything?"

Gwen shook her head. "Nothing, okay. Just. You know—"

This was the daily routine, this conversation. "The second something shows up on the monitor, you will be the first to know." She paused. "Well, technically the second. Possibly the third if—"

Gwen released her arm and punched her shoulder lightly. "Go cut something up."

Gretchen skip-hopped to her lab, already pulling her hair into a tail and making a mental list of the things she'd need to line up on the tray. "I plan to, boss."

***

ONE YEAR AGO:

Lois cursed the plastic card in her hand and beat her palm on the ATM. "Oh please this isn't right!"

The screen blinked at her. THIS ACCOUNT INACTIVE. SEE MANAGER FOR SERVICE.

Figured. It said the same thing every day, it had for the past week. Sure, she'd woken the day after the 456 had been defeated and found her jail cell door ajar and the place empty of everyone. A short walk to the nearest town had got her the latest news—they were all saved, the alien menace had abated. Lois had been released, obviously, but no one had been there to tell her anything else.

She'd made some calls and got a ride to London, but they'd taken her keys, her purse, everything, and Thames House was still under partial quarantine, or at least roped off to civilians, no matter how pivotal the role they had played. And more important, Lois had learnt in the first few hours of being on the scene, she was still technically a traitor.

Her accounts had been electronically frozen, she had discovered after she had cajoled a guard to bring out her purse and jacket. She had her flat keys at least, though if she couldn't access her accounts, she wouldn't have a flat shortly. And no one was going to hire a felon, supposed felon, quasi-felon. And no one seemed, in the panic of the turmoil from Green's resignation and the power vacuum, sympathetic or at least inclined to make the time to push a few buttons and get her freed up.

This was a first world country for fuck's sake, and she'd helped the people who'd saved the planet's children. Why wasn't that opening doors? Or at least restoring her assets?

Two weeks later she was waiting out in her solicitor's office when someone sat in the chair next to her and noisily unwrapped a bag of soda crackers. She buried her face in the old copy of OK she'd unearthed and sighed.

The bag crinkled loudly, almost on purpose. "You know, they say these things are good for nausea," Gwen Cooper said, holding the bag up and reading the label before turning to look at Lois and smile. "But that's bollocks."

Lois blinked. "Oh."

Gwen cocked her head at the magazine. "Russell Crowe is looking poorly."

Lois glanced at the photo. "That's Meg Ryan."

Gwen chewed and swallowed, then covered her mouth and closed her eyes. "Oh dear," she murmured.

Lois closed the magazine and tossed it on a pile. "What are you doing here?"

Gwen stood and dumped her crackers in the waiting room bin. "Your solicitors called. We're going to lunch."

Lois stood and crossed her arms. "Lunch."

Gwen shrugged.

"Look, I appreciate the delicate touch here, but for the last two weeks I have been living on pawned items and loans from my parents." She waved her hands. "I can't get a new bank card. I can't open a new account. I can't pay my bills. I can't apply for a new position, as every background check flags me as a felon, and they don't want to hear about how the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly." Her voice rose, and the receptionist glared at her; Gwen raised a finger to her lips. "What I want isn't lunch," Lois continued in a hushed whisper, "so unless you've come with some magic cure-all or a job or a bag of cash for the meantime, I'm not interested in you or Captain Harkness or Torchwood."

Gwen checked her watch. "Funny you should mention that."

***

Gwen watched her order and waved the server away with a shake of her head. "Insert joke about morning sickness not being just for the mornings here," she joked as she sipped her water.

Lois toyed with her straw wrapper and raised an eyebrow.

Gwen sighed. "I have good news, bad news, and neutral news, but it's hard to tell which is which, so I'll just start with the basics. First, you are a traitor."

Lois opened her mouth and Gwen raised a hand. "That's neutral news. So am I, alas." She made a mock-pouty face. "Cuts me right up inside, saving the world and all. Regardless, my accounts are clear. Yours will be soon, if I rattle the right cages. Your record will be expunged. That's the good news."

"The bad news."

"You're a traitor," Gwen sighed. "Your official record will be clear, but somewhere, out there, will still be a black file out there with your name on it, and in it a detailed account of what you did; and what you did, no matter how you justify it, no matter how I justify it for you, was treason at that moment in time. Bringing monitoring equipment into top secret meetings is always treason." She drummed her fingers on the table. "You'll never get a job in the Home Office again, or any other governmental agency. Not even the Royal Mail, and they'll take anyone." Gwen laughed at her own joke, but it must have been a private one, because Lois didn't find it particularly amusing.

Lois stabbed her drink lid with her straw. "Please tell me the good news," she growled. She liked Gwen Cooper, but that like was quickly turning into the irritation she felt for all people these days, people who sailed through life with access to the bank accounts they set up, gainful employment they held.

"I can get that black file," Gwen said, eyes narrowed. All of her humour was gone. "But only if I make the right promises."

"Such as."

"Such as you working for me. Five years in Torchwood." Gwen leant forward, eyes wide. Jesus, she was probably great at interrogation, getting you to open up with all that emoting. "I'll be honest. The last time someone struck this deal, she didn't finish." Gwen glanced out the window at the cars rolling through the sluggish early afternoon traffic. That was London for you.

"What happened to her?" Lois asked, not needing to know, because she had a sense that Torchwood was one of those organisations in which—

Gwen blinked at her. "She died."

Lois sat back and closed her eyes. "This thing you did, we did, is it like that all the time?"

Gwen smiled. "Sometimes. Sometimes it's slime wrestling out in Butetown."

Lois laughed and thanked the server when she brought her sandwich. It was huge and garnished with a pickle. For some reason, what she'd seen in Thames House had put her off pickles. Some sort of colour association. She pushed it away and folded her hands in front of her face, lips pressed to index fingers.

"What if I choose to leave early? Said, 'Fuck the black file' and became a…butcher, or a shopgirl?"

"You'd be wasted as a shopgirl, and you know it." Gwen's eyes were knowing.

She ignored it. "Really though, what if after a year I told you to piss off?"

Gwen thought about it. "It's not easy to disengage with Torchwood. There are security protocols. But aside from that," she added, almost brushing it aside. "I can't get the file without promising my superiors five years. That is Her final word."

Lois almost asked who she was, but the letter was audibly capital. Oh dear. "Why isn't Captain Harkness making this offer?" she asked, turning the plate with two fingers, more out of lack of something to do than actual interest in the food on it.

Gwen's face was abnormally impassive. "Captain Harkness is taking a leave of absence."

"Ah."

Gwen sat up, shrugged and sipped from her water. "I have an appointment in thirty minutes. Are you in?"

That was how they got you, Lois realised. They carpet-bombed you and then they threatened to swoop out, leaving you mere minutes to make life-changing decisions.

Oh hell. She was young. And even better—aliens. Subterfuge. She could probably get her hands on some amazing technology and resources. And what was five years?

The last time someone struck this deal, she didn't finish.

She reached for the pickle and picked it up between two fingers, staring at the sick yellow green of it. She used to like pickles.

"Okay," she said finally, sniffing the pickle and then setting it back on the plate. All things in time. Maybe five years would be enough time to like pickles again. If she didn't find herself developing more aversions to things, that was. "I'm in."

***

PRESENT DAY:

"Dear God, how did Jack do it all?" Gwen mumbled around a bite of cold pasty. Lunch had come and gone, and she didn't know who had deposited the pasty on her desk—that was probably not wise, accepting food from unknown sources around here—but it had been a welcome thing thirty minutes ago.

"He never slept," Ianto said primly. "He also screamed 'Torchwood!' into the phone a great deal."

Gwen closed the file folder and pushed it into the 'Later' pile. "Well, I can't very well do that."

"Not a recommended course of action, no."

Gwen dug the heels of her palms into her eyes and immediately realised that she had probably just given herself raccoon eyes. "Oh bugger."

"Also not recommended," Ianto added.

She checked the clock for the billionth time: one-thirty. Their inquisi—inspecto—superviso—no, no, liaison was late. Well, maybe not. She had thought that he would be here at the gates five minutes ago, ever since they had received word that his helicopter was in flight and en route to the compound. Gwen stared at the helipad landing X on the CCTV: helicopter free.

"I suspect wishing it there won't change the velocity of the aircraft," Ianto said over her shoulder, right in her ear.

"Quiet, you," she snapped a little, and reshuffled her papers so that they looked neater. Maybe if they were neater, there wouldn't be as many, like clicking together rows of blocks in TETRIS.

"Boss?" Gretchen popped her head in the doorway, and Gwen looked up in a little bit of embarrassment. Gretchen glanced about for the other person in the room, but, not seeing him, shrugged and leant further in so that Gwen could see her shoulders as well. "No, not the thing," Gretchen said quickly before Gwen could ask again. "I just wanted to let you know that he's coming in the front gate."

Gwen rolled back in her chair and it hit the wall behind her. "What?"

Lois's voice came through the comm on her desk. "Seems the Inquisitor took a car and had them, uh, deliberately mislead us. That's not on."

"Whatever for?" came Maggie's voice as Gwen stood and dug out a compact from her purse to check her eyes—oh sad black eyes—and then examine the front of her blouse for food or alien viscera stains.

"Bureaucratic mickey-taking," Dee replied when they all exited their offices and converged on the main floor of the Hub, in the central area meant for large scale work but currently empty. Maggie liberated the three pencils from her hair and stuck them in the nearest drawer. Lois covered the coffee machine with a tarp. "He already thinks you're beneath notice, or worse yet, he's going to have expected you to have figured it out."

Gretchen shoved her hands in her pockets as Lois approached the doors, waiting to open them for their guest. "You're so upbeat," she told Dee. "No really."

Dee just stood at ease and waited. Gwen sighed and took one last look at their sprawling Torchwood compound. In her head, secretly, she couldn't call it the Hub, not yet. It still smelt like paint, and there were no water stains on the walls. But someday she'd be able to think it, and that would be a sign of something, she was sure.

It was posh, she had to admit, and what it lacked in décor and flair (and branding), it made up for in equipment and adjustments, modifications they had made and left open in anticipation of future events: gaps in the walls for future tech, space for storage and additional equipment that would come, the harbinger of the twenty-first century change that Jack had emblazoned on her spirit and memory in the manner of someone putting a cigarette out on a plastic table.

The end result was a state-of-the-art creation, windowed and lit, white and green (green made people calm, Lois said), filled with nooks of offices and suites and storage and labs. The building went up three levels and down for three. They had off site-storage and an attached greenhouse, as well as a night house (some things only grew or lived in the dark, after all), and another empty building whose shutters were still closed for the season. Since they had gone operational two months ago, they had been doing their best to break in everything, to use it all, and think of possible last minute changes or additions, but now it was ninety-nine percent finished. That last one- percent, as he dad always told her, was the padding. And part of her told her that she was going to have to defend that padding. Bureaucrats hated what they perceived as fiscal waste.

It wasn't that Gwen had expected to be given a free hand with Torchwood, but she had been a little surprised when Her Majesty had made a few demands that Gwen was sure she'd never made with Jack. The liaison being one. A thorough financial accounting being another, and hiring approval, most importantly. It wasn't as if the Queen had said no to any of them—everything was rubber stamped without complaint. Gwen sometimes suspected that she had got tired of the footloose technique of Jack's business style, and well, the whole Hub had technically exploded under his watch.

That, Gwen thought, from an outsider's view, was a fair cop.

She didn't have any more time to woolgather, because Lois was opening the access doors and they all of them turned to greet the Inquisitor. Liaison. Person. Thing.

Cardinal Reginald, III, no, make that Sir Cardinal Reginald III, was a medium height man so ordinary-looking it was surprising, and therefore memorable. His hair was that pale brown that confused witnesses when they saw someone with it on a criminal ("Was it blond? Dirty blond? No no, it was brown, but a very light brown. Maybe it was gray, can you have gray blond?"), a pair of watery brown eyes to match, and a skin tone that suggested that he probably needed am extended holiday in Majorca. In light of his unnotable appearance, he must have decided that his wardrobe should carry the impact of his presence; Gwen blinked at the tailored suit and wing tips and wondered what Ianto would have had to say about it.

"I think if I had to describe him to the police, I'd only be able to recall that tie," Ianto whispered. Gwen felt her left eye twitch. It was a very bold tie, with its regimental green stripes.

"Sir Cardinal!" she said, moving forward to intercept him as he stood in the centre of the floor and did a little bit of a crescent turn with his head, looking all around. "Welcome!"

"Mrs. Williams," he said, shaking her hand in that limp style that made her feel as if she was burning him with her
Welshness or something.

"Actually, it's Ms. Cooper," she amended, without thinking about it even as Lois made wide eyes behind Reginald. "I didn't take his name."

Reginald smiled and pumped her hand one last time. "Of course you didn't."

Lord, it was like she was shut in a room with the male version of her mother-in-law.

"Welcome to Torchwood Three," she said smoothly, and let go of Reginald's soft fingers before her sheepshearing ways could do injurious harm to him.

"Ah, that. I'm to inform you that in light of things being the way they are, this has been redesignated Torchwood One." Reginald snorted. "It doesn't do to have your number one location empty due to disaster, and your number three place the actual epicentre, does it?"

Gwen held in her breath for a second. It didn't quite matter, except for the fact that it did. She could argue about it now, but really, there was no logical reason not to rename it—

"I want you to know, I am literally turning around like an express wagon wheel," Ianto said into her ear and she had to twitch a little, because it was like a tickle on her skin.

She was about to say something about that when Reginald cut her off with the expertise of the privileged. Perhaps the head bureaucrat. "We've a great deal of ground to cover," he said, eyes still running along the upper levels with their white metal railings and the top skylights. "If I'm to be able to sign off on your little…" he blinked when one of Gretchen's timers went off and they heard her programmed alarm that was something by the Spice Girls, a song so irritating that everyone was motivated to turn it off as quickly as possible. "Club," he finished.

"Oh!" Gretchen said, turning. "That'll be my sputum!" And she disappeared into the autopsy lab to kick the centrifuge or something.

"She's," Gwen began, and then realised that she didn't have to explain, because this was what they did, and this was their territory. But Reginald focused his dispassionate eyes on her and she felt as if she had to finish the sentence or be sent to the back of the class. "There's spit."

Lois's eyes were now so wide that Gwen wondered if they mightn't have to tape them in to keep them from falling onto the floor.

Reginald set down his briefcase, a leather bag that probably cost more than the desk upon which it currently rested, and rubbed his hands together as he absently scanned the lower Hub, looking for something, perhaps. His eyes settled on Dee, and Gwen waited for signs of stiffening, of anger, or resentment from the other woman. Dee merely straightened a little in the shoulders like a soldier and let one corner of her mouth tilt up in a smirk. Gwen was relieved that some things wouldn't have to be diffused.

"Might I use your facilities," Reginald said, not actually asking, tilting his head minutely, eyes never leaving Dee's face.

Gwen cleared her throat and Lois jumped. "Oh, Sir Cardinal, I'll show you the way," she enunciated, and Gwen wondered where she'd been hiding all of those vowels and consonants. Lois turned on her wattage when she smiled, and she and Reginald sauntered off in the direction of the loo.

There was a pressure building in her head, right behind the bridge of her nose, and Gwen massaged it with a thumb and forefinger.

"Ah," Dee said as soon as the two were out of earshot. "This is going to be fun." She glanced at Gwen and smiled. "Like a root canal done by a podiatrist."

She wasn't inclined to disagree.

***

By the time he got to her, he'd already chewed his way through the rest of them, which was both unfair of her to think and also inaccurate. Sir Cardinal Reginald III wasn't the devil. Maybe one of the devil's very dry-witted upper echelon or something.

Not even that was fair, Lois decided as she dumped the rest of the wood chips into Sam and Dean's feed box. He was doing his job, and his job was to poke holes in them. Gwen had apparently stood up to his scrutiny of her leadership skills in his first round of private meetings, and he was rather going down the line. A line that he seemed to make up in his head according to…something, not rank, surely. Bra size, maybe.

Lois looked at her chest with amusement and tossed the plastic bag in the bin.

They had already heard Reginald verbally batter Gretchen's xenobiology credentials ("Veterinary school and some human medical correspondence courses? My word."), watched him sniff at the mainframe satellite servers that Maggie had set up, and cast about for things to crush under his piercing glare and caustic one liners. Only Dee seemed immune, and it was an act of nature. Lois had to remind herself that Dee was used to this sort of thing, and whilst she had expected Dee to react with sullenness and quiet antagonism, she and Reginald had left her office after their private talk, all chatty and laughing, Oh ho ho! I remember India! Pip pip, weren't those days glorious! I killed three Bengal tigers with my bare hands! as if they were in an Alan Quartermain pulp novel.

She was going to get Dee to teach her how to work the system. And to shoot the elephant gun, she reminded herself and readjusted her mental list.

"Miss Lois Habiba," Reginald said as he looked up from the leather bound file in his hands. They all had files, leather bound ones, as if buff files were just too ordinary for him.

Lois wondered if that was her black file he held in his hands. Her fingers itched to touch it. Gwen had told her that it was locked away, out of play, but not destroyed, and she longed for the day when she could get it in her hands, a tangible form (there had to be a tangible form; if there was just an electronic file, she'd print it out) that she could douse with gas and set on fire.

She'd already bought a special silver lighter for the occasion. It had a four-leaf clover on it and she kept it in the packaging in her knicker drawer. Incidentally next to her vibrator.

She wiped her hands with a damp rag and cleared her throat. "Yes, sir?"

Reginald let her hang there whilst he ran his finger down the papers in his file. Either he was speed-reading, or he was looking for something, or he was deliberately trying to annoy her. It was probably a combination of all three. "Your name has come up a bit in the briefings of the 456 affair," he said finally, and Lois tried to make her face nonchalant, remind herself that Gwen had her back, and not internally rage all at the same time.

"Oh?" She was cracker at this.

"So what is it that you do now? Here?" He waved a hand, and obviously his gesture included her feeding duties as he peered at the empty wood chip bag in the bin beside him. "Are you the one who put the scented candles in the toilet?"

Lois ignored that. "I'm the administrative facilitator and coordinator for Torchwood Three, er, One," she said, knowing that it was just a fancy word for—

"The secretary."

"I prefer Person-Who-Runs-This-Entire-Complex," she snipped and his eyebrows rose. "But it wouldn't fit on a business card. I also do field work," she added.

"Yes, Mizzz Cooper seems adamant about hiring versatile individuals," Reginald said, "Aside from the obvious disadvantage of your very…focussed make-up, she's been quite avant-garde."

Lois didn't know what to say to that. "What would you like me to show you? Would you prefer to sit? Would you like a coffee?"

Sam almost fell down the tube he was climbing through near Reginald's left, and the subsequent squeak and sound of hamster toenails scrabbling on plastic for a second made them both turn to look. Lois wasn't sure what Reginald would make of them, but she realised now that she would have to explain the yards and yards of plastic rodent tubing threaded through this whole corner of the Hub.

Dee had wanted to put them in a fifty gallon aquarium, and Gwen had been in agreement, especially after the two of them had chased after the little fluffballs for the better part of an hour, but Gretchen had said something about them being engaged and interactive enrichment and cubic feet and then she had ordered the Habitrail, possibly all of the Habitrail in the British Isles; the end result was the sixty feet of tubing that zigged and zagged through this small part of the Hub, with little boxy reservoirs here and there so that the creatures had room to sleep and play with the dozens of toys that they were given on a regular basis. Lately they had been solving the mini rubic's cubes that Maggie had bought for them off of eBay.

Right now it looked as if they wanted to sleep in the highest of the plastic arched tubes.

"We found them on a farm out in the Brecons," she said quickly and Reginald leant in to inspect the red balls of fur in the purple plastic tubing. "They're. Well, we don't know where they come from, but they're not from here." She paused. "Well, Maggie thinks they're mutant hamsters exposed to nuclear something or other." When Reginald jerked back quickly she added, "but they aren't radioactive." And then she had to say something reassuring, but all she could think of was, "We call them Sam and Dean."

"I see," Reginald said.

"After Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin." She was suddenly aware that she was twisting her hands. "Not after the characters on Supernatural."

Surely she imagined the sound of Dee's hand slapping her forehead coming from her office.

"They eat all manner of dried vegetation, but they like cellulitic-heavy compounds, like mulch and wood chips." She gestured to the plastic box on the far end where she dumped their feed. "Sometimes they get potpourri as a treat."

Reginald spared another glance at the intergalactic hamsters and then flipped a few pages in his file. "I understand that you are responsible for a great deal of the ergonomic and structural design in the building's interior," he said, and then waited, as if she could intuit whatever it was he wanted to know.

She tried terse. "Urm, yes." Then she looked at her desk, about twenty feet away, and wondered if she should be looking busier. Would it be rude to resume filing or something whilst talking to him? Was that what he wanted to see? Or would he be put out? Lois cursed herself. They should have all discussed what they would be doing when they were being questioned. Lois prided herself on possessing grace under pressure, but this polite maneuvering was sometimes beyond her if she hadn't prepared.

Reginald was waiting, and she realised that she was supposed to expand on that. "Well," she said waving a hand and starting to walk. Maybe she could give him a walking architectural tour and that would give her something to do with her hands. "When we acquired the building, it was a closed industrial complex with multiple office suites and warehouse storage. The buildings were completely stripped on the inside down to the bare walls, and then rewired and pipefit to accommodate the demands of a Torchwood facility." She scrolled a hand at the wrist and did her best impression of a Buckingham Palace tour guide. "The sub-basements were constructed with technology from the Tra system, where they dig mines using an earth displacement system that involves teleportation of some sort. Mrs. Hopley can explain the particulars if you desire.

"The interior walls in the centre were removed, but the offices recessed on the outer right side were kept, obviously. The offices in the rear of the building were knocked out and replaced with main access corridors to the buildings in the rear, including the green house, garage bay, night house, volatile substance lab, and paper storage."

Reginald pointed to the other side of the room. "And along that wall?"

Lois looked at the darkened glass that primarily formed the far-left wall, stretching high as the ceiling, and knew that the windows wrapped around the structure as it jutted out, but couldn't be seen from here. The one access door in this room was simply painted steel gray and unlabelled.

"Oh, the eyrie," she said. "We don't go in there."

Reginald's brows knit and he opened his mouth to say something, but there was a shrill beeping and a quiet trilling, both coming from things on the other side of the room; Lois felt a little bit of relief mixed with irritation. Rift monitor: yay. On the other hand, she was on a roll, and when would she ever get to show off the Hub again? It wasn't as if they gave tours.

Maggie terminated one of the alarms with her remote control (Maggie had made them all remote controls, and occasionally they used them to wage silent war across the Hub, turning the CCTV monitors on and off, or assaulting each other with music), and Gwen left her second level office to come to the railing.

"Oh yeah," Maggie said when she examined the screen at the general monitoring station. "Look at you." She tilted the screen to show them the map with its blinking locator. "Something just shot out of the Rift and hit the ground running."

Reginald joined Maggie at the monitor, and she started the business of explaining to him just what the sensors had picked up and how they tracked the spikes, all the while paring down the array of CCTV monitors in the area to try to catch a glimpse of what had just arrived. "Oh," she said, and then called over her shoulder to the rest of them. "Blowfish." She paused. "In a hover car."

Gwen and Dee unlocked the armoury and began selecting things from it, strapping on holsters and sliding knives into compartments on or under their clothing.

"I hate blowfish," Dee said under her breath as Lois retrieved one of the surplus ammunition boxes from a bottom shelf and handed it to her.

"Right." Gwen nodded. "Gretchen, where are you?"

"Tarping my body," came the answer from the lab. "Just a tic." Lois could hear billowing plastic sheeting and the sound of squeaking wheels as Gretchen tried to cover what was probably that giant Hoix she'd opened up today. Not for the first time Lois was happy for the separate ventilation system they'd routed through the labs.

Reginald watched them suit up for bear (or fish in this case; all that was missing was the harpoon and the peg leg) with interest. Perhaps he just liked guns. Perhaps he liked women with guns. Or both. "I'll be coming along," he said, and they all turned to stare at them. "The best way to evaluate your efficacy is to see it in the field."

Gwen paused for a second and then snapped her holster shut. "Fine." She smiled. "You'll understand if we don't arm you."

The smile he gave her was anything but reassuring. "Believe me, Mizz Cooper, I'm not remotely unarmed."

Comforting. Lois took a close look at the line of his suit. If there was a firearm under there she'd eat her hat. If she had a hat to eat. She'd have to buy one first, and then eat it.

Gwen shrugged. "Fair enough. Lois, you get to stay here," she said as she palmed the keys to TW1. Dee pulled her hair back into a tail, hitting the button to the garage bay doors with her elbow. Maggie picked up the extra med-kit and followed her out, Gretchen hot on her tail, Linzer biscuit jammed in her mouth.

Lois saluted with two fingers. "Right."

Gwen and Reginald were the last to leave, and when the doors swung shut on their stiff hydraulics (it took forever), she sat down on the nearest desk and breathed a sigh of relief. Dean let out a squeak and fell down in the Habitrail, landing in a giant pile of wood chips.

***

God, it would be a blowfish. Why couldn't it just be a weevil? A hoix? One of those creatures from Klum, even. Hell, she'd've taken Abaddon.

Gwen took cover behind a pillar in the warehouse in Penarth Marina and tried not to smell rotting something. It couldn't have been fish, right? They didn't bring fish in here anymore. It was probably just the rotten seaweed, flora of the Welsh coastline. But something smelled rank, and she would be glad to be rid of it.

There was a click and Maggie whispered into the comms. "He's over here, but he's ditched the hover car," she panted. "If we can, I want the hover car."

"Where is 'here'?" Dee sounded exasperated. Gwen rolled her eyes and tried not to look at Reginald's face. He had insisted on coming with her, and while he hadn't slowed her down, she would admit to displaying a certain amount of caution that she normally wouldn't have. He pressed his hand to the comm in his ear, as if he thought he could hear better by touching it. A common mistake or gesture, really.

Gretchen snorted. "Northward facing wall," she whispered. "He's just standing there."

They'd tracked the moving signal All the way from Cliff Road back up towards the Barrage, and then he'd doubled back before pulling off the street into the marina and running around the docks like a decapitated chicken. Then he'd ducked into a warehouse, where they hadn't seen hide nor hair of him for about ten minutes. Gwen and Reginald had chosen to recon the upper level of the warehouse, clunking up the wooden stairs as quietly as they could to creep along the woodwork.

Gwen checked her watch and the compass there before waving Reginald in the direction of a left walkway and pressing her finger to her lips. He nodded. At least he was listening to her and not making his own rules. That had been a concern of hers when he'd asked to come along (and if that had been a request, then she was Marie Antoinette).

"I know someone is here," the blowfish said. Gwen assumed it was the blowfish because it was the only male here besides Reginald. Gwen realised suddenly that she'd never seen a female blowfish. Maybe they didn't exist. "I can smell someone's very pungent Chanel No 5."

Ah, that would be Gretchen.

"And gun oil."

That would be Dee.

"Why are you here?" Maggie said from the ground floor, and Gwen and Reginald arrived just in time to see Maggie peek out from her pillar and glance at the blowfish. Then she ducked back again, but he'd already spotted her. Gwen could see the predatory tilt of his head as he moved to Maggie's left.

"I've got a shipment for Big Lionel," the blowfish said, his voice crisp and superior, not unlike….Reginald's in that snotbucket way.

They had to figure out how the blowfish were navigating back and forth through the Rift. As it was, they came and went as they pleased, bringing in all manner of things, and removing some things that Gwen quite wished they wouldn't—like dogs. And Jaffa cake shipments.

"From where?" she whispered into the comm and Reginald made a face at her, as if he would have preferred that she keep mum and not give their position away. It was true, the blowfish had pretty good hearing.

This one didn't. Maggie relayed her question, and Gwen watched the creature circle back along a stack of crates, now completely out of Maggie's aim, even if she turned around and entirely left the safety of the pillar she was using as cover. Gwen cupped her comm in her hand. "Dee."

"Ma'am."

"Where are you?"

"South of Maggie. I see you up there, but he can't. Look five o'clock."

Gwen glanced down and to her back right and caught the signal of Dee's flashing scope. "Got you." Reginald waved his hands and she ignored him.

Reginald tapped her shoulder and she stared at Maggie, on the other side of the crate from the blowfish, her gun up and at ready. "Mags, he's on the other side of your—"

"Oh hello," the blowfish said, coming around the corner. Maggie took a few steps back. "You are very obviously not Lionel."

Maggie did a sideways shuffle and put a great deal of distance between herself and the alien. Reginald pulled up his trouser leg and reached for a very healthy .38 he had strapped there. Gwen put her hand over his and shook her head. Maggie was a professional. Also, Gwen had a good shot of him and his brachial nerve. If he had brachial nerves.

"Don't move," Maggie said, but her hand was shaky and even from here, Gwen could see the cant of her gun was off. She'd shoot right past him and out the warehouse doors with aim like that.

"Ma'am," Dee said, "I have a shot."

"Don't unless you have to," Gwen murmured. She wanted a blowfish alive, but they were all still on edge, as the last one had woken up in mid-transit, picked his cuffs, almost strangled Gretchen, and then fallen off the upper balcony of the Quay right in front of the TIC, a moment of symbolism that was poignant only for Gwen.

There were many things about this that only had poignancy for her, and she'd think about that later.

The blowfish was obviously not impressed with Maggie's warning. "I have to move," he said, waving a hand and taking one step. "I have to breathe." He made that irritating gurgle-chuckle that blowfish made when they were amused with themselves. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

"Oh Jesus," Gretchen whispered. "If you corner us, do we not monologue?"

Gwen was going to shush her, but he reached in his pocket for something; the gun hadn't cleared his coat when the front of his chest exploded outward, and Maggie was showered with a fine spray of blood even from the distance she had. The blowfish stared at his chest for a second and then fell with the inertia of the bullet, landing right on his face with a bit of a wet splat sound. They always sounded so wet; it was a wonder their clothes weren't more damp.

Maggie's hand flew to her face and she wiped her eyes, staring at the floor; Dee came from behind the blowfish, gun leveled at the still body. "I just wasn't comfortable with that movement," she said in the comms. "Yeah?"

"You could shoot to wound next time," Gwen said, standing and making for the nearest stairwell.

Gretchen emerged from the far edge of the eastern side of the warehouse and knelt down, feeling the blowfish's neck. "He's dead," she confirmed, and then felt his top fin and stuck her fingers in the gills behind his cheeks. "Oh yeah, quite dead." She rolled him over and rifled through his pockets. "Once again, no billfold, huh." She pulled out a small box and stared at it. "Shipment?"

Gwen took the box from Gretchen and stared at the designs on it. No latches. "Bag it," she said, handing it back, and--"you could have shot out his arm," Gwen finished, pulling her comm off and stuffing it in her pocket. Part of her wanted to yell at Dee for doing this in front of the Inquisitor, another part of her wanted to just move on, and one part of her, a large part of her, didn't want to even be having this discussion in front of the Inquisitor. If Dee flipped her off now, it wouldn't look like it actually was—Dee being herself and Gwen understanding that Dee had made leaps and bounds. She knew how to follow orders. It was when she jumped the gun without orders and had to deal with the aftershocks of a bad choice that she was…less-than-teachable. They were working on that.

More importantly, Gwen couldn't explain that to the Inquisitor. That wasn't what Reginald wanted to hear, any more than he'd be pleased to hear Gwen explain that she'd hired a vet because of the inherent practicality of xenobiology being more similar to zoology, and that Gretchen was taking human medical courses to make up for what she might lack. He didn't want to hear that Maggie had been selected because of Owen Harper, or that Lois, traitor Lois, could be trusted with state secrets and that she was very very adaptable.

No, because what he saw was on paper. And on paper they looked shite.

Gretchen reached up to the blowfish's arm and pulled the laser from his hand. "Oooh, I think this is one of those ones with the London Broil option." She tossed it to Maggie, who had holstered her gun but was still looking shaky.

Dee took the laser and tucked it in a side pocket. Technically, new weaponry was hers until she cleared it, no matter how tech it was. "I couldn't shoot the nerve from behind," she said to Gwen, picking up the conversation.

Of course she couldn't. Still. It would have been convenient. On the other hand: hover car. Score.

"Well done, Agent Johnson," Reginald said from behind her and Gwen sighed when he walked out in to the centre of the room to toe the dead body. "Watch out, Mizzz Cooper, or she'll have your job." With that, Reginald side-stepped the corpse and left the main room, Maggie in tow.

Dee holstered her gun. "For the record, I don't want your job."

The blowfish corpse jerked then, involuntarily, and it coughed up a small fountain of black spit and ichor, splattering their trousers, and Gwen sighed.

Even dead, they fucked over her day.

***

Dee didn't like Reginald, but she understood the cut of his jib, as he might have called it. He was traditional in some ways, expected things to be a certain way, and while he was more than happy to alter his perception of specific things as they arrived (the advent of technology, etc), he was less happy about other things (lack of structure and discipline. There are ways that we are to do things, you see.). The first five minutes of her conference with him had been spent defending her record, and then the next fifteen had been about Cooper and her command style.

Dee wondered if this was his axe to grind, or a royal one. There was no way that Her Majesty would have left Cooper in charge for this long if she were this suspicious. In fact, sometimes when Dee read the correspondence back and forth, she wondered if she didn't detect a little bit of envy from Her Majesty; rumour had it that back in The War she'd lain low with Torchwood Three and its…sometime freelance agent.

Dee thought about Jack Harkness almost every day, whenever she passed into the Hub in the morning; she forced herself to, in order to remind herself that there were worse things than what she had done. And was it comforting, thinking that she could change herself? Be better? Different?

In the meantime, she sat on the railing that segregated the armoury area where her office was from the main floor and watched Gwen Cooper have her final words with the Inquisitor.

Maggie sauntered over, leaning on the rail and handing her a mug of tea. "What do you think they're saying up there?" From this point they couldn't clearly see more than Reginald's back in the chair and Cooper's head, bobbing from behind her desk. She gestured with one hand, and Dee tried to read her body language. Ten to one said that Cooper had her legs crossed under her desk.

"I dunno," she answered, blowing on her tea. "Don't you have some sort of listening device?"

Maggie gave her a withering look. "Does this look like Harry Potter?"

Dee sipped her tea. Oh god, too much sugar; she drank it anyway. "Abracada-bring me a sound mike?"

"I don't bug my boss's office." Maggie shrugged. "He was interested in the satellite AI network, and the offshore servers. I tried to keep back a few things." She blinked. "I just don't feel comfortable with the government knowing everything we know, you know?"

Dee smiled at her. Maggie was a paranoid, solid girl. "A little Need-To-Know never hurt the government," she mumbled. "That can't possibly be right." She shifted on the railing and watched Cooper slam her palm down on the desk. Oh hello, Hurricane Gwen. "I'm not saying you did the wrong thing."

Maggie sipped her tea with both hands and nodded when Lois joined them, standing to Dee's other side and jumping up on the railing, hooking her heels on the bottom bar to keep her balance.

"What are they saying?"

Maggie rolled her eyes. "Let me get my Extendable Ears, Hermione."

Lois smiled. "You should make some of those."

Dee handed Lois her tea and braced her hands on either side before straightening her arms and bending at the hips, so she could lift her full weight up off the bar. She held it for ten seconds and lowered herself, then tried again. It beat the bench press.

Whatever they were saying up there was a rollercoaster of good and bad, because Cooper was smiling again, and sorting through some papers, opening folders and nods of affirmation.

"You don't really want her job, do you?" Maggie asked. "I mean, we should just get that out there."

Dee rolled her eyes. This was one of the things that inspection always did: it stirred up the compost heap. Sure, it was necessary to keep the unit on track and focused, but on the other hand sometimes you churned up that half-rotten fishstick and it stank to heavens for a while. "I don't want Cooper's job. I'm not fit for Cooper's job, actually."

Lois nodded. "It's true."

"Quiet you."

"Yes sir. Ma'am. Sir." Lois wiggled on the railing. "My arse is dented," she complained.

Dee did a few more presses and Maggie watched her; Lois finished her tea and Dee was about to suggest that they all scatter so as not to look like they were trying to lip-read when Gretchen exited the med-bay and joined them, drying her hands on her labcoat.

"What are we doing?"

"Trying not to look like we're eavesdropping," Lois said.

"So we're all standing here staring at Gwen?"

"Pretty much."

Gretchen glanced at Maggie. "Don't you have something—"

Maggie tapped her lips. "Jesus, I can't hear anything with you lot yammering." She squinted and tilted her head. Dee reached out and brushed her hair from her left ear, exposing the tiny earbud.

"You do--"

Maggie cut her off with a hand wave as she stared off into space. "I'm a mad scientist with access to alien technology," she explained, eyes off-centred. "'Clearly we are at an impasse,'" she said in a gravely voice, obviously her Reginald impression.

"'Clearly,'" she continued. "That's Gwen. Oh! 'All of these decisions were made months ago, sir—'" Maggie stopped, listening.

Dee watched Gwen's face as she listened to Reginald speak. What was that face? Amusement? There was a bit of humour there, no matter what he was saying.

"He thinks we blew the thing today," Maggie told them.

"We sort of did," Gretchen said, glancing at Dee. "No offense."

Oh they were going to go a few rounds. Wonderful. "None taken. You were great, by the way, doing nothing like you did. Pro work, that."

Gretchen flipped her off.

"Hey, bright side," Lois interjected. Peacemaker Lois. "Hover car."

They all smiled. Dee patted her shoulder. "You get the first ride."

"Look sharp, they're leaving." Maggie bolted across the Hub and Dee glanced up to see Cooper standing, mirroring Reginald, who was already at her desk, sliding his leather files back into his briefcase. Lois jumped down from the rail and rushed over to her desk, shuffling some files. Gretchen leant on the rail and blinked at Dee. A timer went off in the med lab and she silenced it with her remote.

"So, are we still in business, you think?"

She didn't get a chance to comment, because Reginald was out of the office door and down the steps in a flash, his face red and his mouth set in a grim line. Cooper trailed after him, looking both smug and satisfied, if those could be two separate things. She crossed her arms and followed Reginald to the door.

It was hard to tell if Reginald was quite put out, or if he was just slightly irritated. Or if that irritation would translate into trouble for them, though if it could, Cooper would probably have looked more worried. Dee suspected that whatever she had done, it had been rather like taking a page from the Book of Harkness. Sometimes, Cooper's style was her own, but at random times, or at critical times, her mouth set and she seemed to pause, and then whatever came out of her mouth next was so obviously a remnant of her predecessor that Dee could imagine him saying it.

Not that that was a bad thing, actually, it was just still new to Cooper, like the first few rough turns around the dance floor after one had just added a new step to the routine. Sooner or later she'd integrate everything together, until she wasn't Cooper-channelling-Harkness but instead Gwen Cooper, commander of Torchwood Three, er, One.

Part of Dee was curious to see that.

"Ms. Cooper," Reginald said, and Dee heard the deferment in his voice. "I will do my best to relay your concerns and justifications to Her Majesty, though the documentation you've provided is more than likely sufficient." He wrinkled his nose and took one last look about. "Everything here seems…unsurprising."

Lois opened her mouth, but Cooper shot her a look and then extended her hand for a hearty shake. "Sir Cardinal, it was a pleasure meeting you. And I will take your suggestions under advisement." The Harkness in her voice said that she wasn't going to take anything, not even suggestions, under anywhere.

Reginald released her hand, pinged his gaze along the lot of them. Lois waved halfheartedly from her desk, and Dee saluted. "Yes, well."

And then he turned to face the doors as Cooper hit the release and they slid apart. He didn't stay for them to go back all the way, but slipped through in as dignified manner as one could when they were obviously in a hurry. On the monitor just to her right, Dee could see the car waiting to take him to the airport.

Cooper sighed and hit the button again, turning to them as the doors slid shut with a slick click. She appeared to be distracted, thinking, her arms crossed again, but she stretched, arched her back and shoved her hands in her back pockets as they stared at her. "What?"

"Oh come on," Gretchen began, "You have to tell us…" She trailed off when Cooper's gaze became hard, and she backpedaled. "Nothing at all. You can hold back whatever you like." Gretchen pumped her fist. "You are an island."

Cooper shrugged and lifted a few papers on the desk next to her, sifting through them idly. Dee wondered if she was drawing it out on purpose. "Sir Cardinal Reginald III is less than pleased with your credentials, Gretchen, and mine. And Maggie's, for that matter." Lois looked relieved and Cooper smiled. "He thinks you're overwhelmingly underqualified, Lois, and Dee, you're going to turn on us any minute."

Dee smiled. All that 'Pip pip jolly good for the empire' bullshit for nothing, then. Good to know. "Do I still want your job?"

Cooper smiled back and they batted eyelashes for a second before Cooper's face painted over in seriousness. "No, but neither one is a reassuring assessment of what's going on here. Regardless of that," she told them, sauntering to the kitchenette and opening the fridge for a bottle of something fizzy. "There is one thing we should consider, that would alleviate this whole thing." She twisted the cap off and drank half the bottle in one go. Impressive. "We do have to work with him from time to time."

"Does he want an office?" Gretchen asked. "Because I'm not giving up mine."

Cooper rolled her eyes. "We have to hire a man."

Dee laughed. "That's precious." She did not say, 'I told you so.' But she thought it very very hard at Cooper's head.

Lois raised her hand and Cooper shook her head. "No, no one is going to be fired." Lois lowered her hand. "But we'll have to think of something for him to do."

Dee shrugged. "He can take care of the cars, is what he can do. I fucking hate changing the oil and the break pads."

Cooper tilted her head at her, but it was clear that she was considering it. "We used to know a mechanic who—"

There was a sharp alarm from Maggie's office and lab, a high pitched intermittent trilling that reminded Dee of the time Lois had fast-forwarded the Dalek footage and they'd almost died laughing.

"That!" Maggie said, jumping up from her perch on the desk. "That's our thing!"

Cooper stared at her, and Maggie waved her hands as she dashed away. Seconds later an alarm went off in Gretchen's lab and she started. "Oh! The thing! That's it!" And she disappeared as well, leaving the three of them staring at each other.

Cooper's brows knit. "The…the thing!" She raced after Gretchen and they both followed, skidding to a halt behind her in front of the monitor in the med bay where the alarm was shrilling a song that sounded like a bad midi cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird'.

Gretchen punched the touch screen of the monitor excitedly. "It's strong. In this dimension, on this side of the Rift," she told them, glancing over her shoulder. "There."

They peered at the heat signature in a blob of something that might be a landmass. Dee sighed. She liked when people gave her answers and not images that could be a flock of seagulls on the Glamorgan coast.

"Where is that, then?"

Maggie burst into the room with her portable scanner dangling from one hand. "Barry Island!"

***

Maggie almost fell asleep in the back of the SUV, and that was impressive since she'd had three cups of tea that afternoon and all. On the other hand, she was still a little shaky from the whole 'blowfish turning inside out in her face' thing (Dee once told her that the ammunition for the Glock they used went in like a pence and out like a pizza. She got that now), and she understood that adrenaline could cause a crash when it vacated her bloodstream, but that was hours ago. She'd make a note to ask Gretchen about it when she wasn't lolling her head against the rest and listening to the rhythmic thumpa-thumps of the seams in the A4055.

Dee had stayed behind to mind the show and Gwen and Lois and Gretchen had come with her. Gretchen and Gwen for obvious reasons, Maggie because she had the tracking tech, and Lois because she hadn't been out all day. Even now her fingers tapped the dashboard in front of the passenger's seat.

It had been a slow trip, what with the traffic all the way out to the island, and by the time they got there, Maggie had lost about fifteen minutes to slumberland and it had taken her twice as long to use the universal key to break them into the park. Now, though, in the lazy twilight, the SUV wended around the main causeways of the park, meant for foot traffic but accommodating enough for them or a rubbish wagon. Gretchen's bio scanner was spinning like a top and all but letting off sparks, it was so very excited.

Barry Island Pleasure Park had been closed for well over a few months, and Easter was a long ways off. The roller coasters and other constructions would have provided great hiding and living spaces for all manner of creatures, that is, until the planners and workmen for the spring opening would arrive to start sprucing the place up a bit. Maggie remembered coming here a few times with her da, back before the mine had closed and they'd never had money for these kinds of things anymore.

"Never came here before," Gretchen murmured. "Always mean to, but never manage it." She glanced at the stark latticework of the coaster as they drove by.

Gwen smiled. "Got sick on the log flume once, haven't cared for candy floss ever since." She put the vehicle in park and opened her door. Lois was already out of the car.

Maggie shook her head and blinked. "I got lost in the mirror maze," she told them. "Almost broke a mirror to get out."

"Trust you to make a door when you can't find one," Gretchen laughed as they rounded the sides of the SUV for the back hatch, where Lois was unpacking the equipment. Maggie took over the scanner and turned in a little circle before pulling out her tech and trying to juggle them both. Lois took the scanner with a little smile.

"If I can get the resonator working, we'll be able to bring it out, into the open," Maggie told them, fiddling with the resonator that she'd inherited from the old Hub and hadn't quite sussed yet. Toshiko's notes had been pretty garbled, as if she had been drunk when studying it, or she just didn't know quite what to do with it. It wasn't often that Toshiko's notes were anything but precise, but when she was stropped or frustrated with what she had, sometimes her write-ups were…colourful.

The resonator is all manner of irritating, the notes had concluded. If you can get it to work, and work reliably, I will give you a shiny shiny metal and a fairy cake.

"Oh hullo, darling," Lois said, looking up from the scanner and pointing to the coaster that loomed above them, and their heads whipped around to follow her finger. Maggie had to squint in the dim light, but she saw it, a large shadow in the bend of one of the track curves, moving. A larger shape around it, probably a nest. It was amazing that no one had seen this earlier. That kind of construction took time and effort.

"Lights," Gwen mumbled and Maggie reached into the open hatchback to flick the switch. The sodium lights mounted to the top of the SUV came on with a kwuhm noise, and she and Lois pointed the two of them so that they illuminated the whole area above. It was a nest, made of rags and sticks big enough to be considered logs in places, and a bunch of white that was probably the cohesive element. Bats made guano for this kind of thing, right.

"Oh sweet Jesus," Gretchen sang, "come to mama."

Lois tilted her head. "I thought it would be bigger," she said.

Gretchen pulled on her nitrile gloves and snapped the bottoms against her skin for emphasis. Her hair wafted about her in the breeze like a light brown cloud. "Yeah, any bigger and we'd have to kill it."

"No one is killing it," Gwen said.

"Then it's a good thing Dee's not here," Gretchen muttered, and they stared at her. "I mock because I care," she amended.

Gwen fit her earpiece in and pressed the button. "Dee." Maggie hit hers and everyone followed suit. They learnt that it was just easier to listen to both sides of the conversation, regardless of whether or not they were in on it. Maggie and Lois's comms were switched to silent, to cut down on the confusion of everyone talking at once.

"Ma'am," Dee grumbled. "Having fun?"

"Scads. Talk me through this." She opened the case for the long-range rifle and reached for the dart that Gretchen uncapped.

"Careful of the tip," Gretchen whispered. "That sticks you and you won't just be down, you'll be out for the count. By which I mean 'probably dead'."

"Okay, Cooper," Dee said into the comm. "This is a modded sniper rifle, and it's going to take a bit of precision. I suggest bracing it or lying down on top of the—"

"This one doesn't fit," Gwen interrupted, jamming the flechette against the chamber. The dart couldn't even slide into the bolthole.

"What?"

"It doesn't fit." She handed it back to Gretchen carefully. "Give me another one." Gretchen handed her another dart and she examined it. "No no, a different size."

"What's going on?" Dee demanded.

"There is no other size," Gretchen said. "I filled all these per the specifications—"

"Both boxes?" Dee asked.

Gretchen was silent. "There were two boxes?" she said quietly.

"Oh for god's sake," Dee said, and Gwen set the rifle down on the lip of the SUV's bed and leant forward, both hands on the paneling. It was hard to tell, but Maggie was sure she was counting. Or saying the serenity prayer.

"Look," Gretchen snipped as she capped the two exposed tips. "You gave them to me on a day when I had three Jardax pods, a box of weevil spoor and five, count them, five dead Graba…Graba…fle…whatever they were." She slammed the lid to the case shut and rolled her eyes. "You left them on my desk! I can't remember the last time I saw my desk!"

Maggie stared off in the distance and calculated flight time and wind and weight. She eyed the equipment in the SUV and glanced at Lois. "Do we have any small zip ties?" Her fingers flipped the latches to her case up and dug about in the box for a pair of large wire cutters. Lois rummaged through another case and handed her the zip ties.

Gwen had left them to stare up at the nest above, and Gretchen and Dee were going a few more rounds. "I specifically said to you, 'There are two boxes with different sizes,' and you said 'That's no problem, Dee.'"

"Well, what are these for, then? Where's that gun?"

"I didn't stock it, because I stocked that gun!"

Maggie took the zip tie, one that looked as if it was used to secure messages on carrier pigeons' legs, and retrieved a flechette from Gretchen's box. She pulled an arrow from the quiver loaded in the SUV's weapon rack and unscrewed the head from the carbon shaft. Lois watched her with interest before doing the same. "You have to put a little bit of non-skid sheeting on the shaft and then we'll—" she wrapped the sheeting about the shaft, pressed the flechette along the length of the shaft so that the point was very exposed, and then ziptied it in place on both ends of the dart. It was lopsided and heavy, but that was fine with her, she decided as she clipped off the excess tie.

Lois did the same with the second shaft and they were working on a third and fourth when Gretchen glanced at them. "What are you doing?" Gwen burst out of her cloud of thought at the sudden question and turned, her hands in her pockets, brow drawn in consternation.

Maggie stuck her leg between the recurve she'd dug out and pressed down on one end to hook the bowstring. "Saving us a trip back here," she said.

"What is she doing?" Dee asked.

"Making a spear," Gretchen groused. "Really, you don't think that you're—"

Lois finished the fourth one and Maggie slipped off her shoes. "That's enough. If four doesn't do it, then nothing will."

"Mags," Dee said warningly.

Maggie handed Gwen the bow and clambered onto the hatchback, then bent herself around the raised back and onto the roof. "Unless you have a better idea, boss?"

Gwen handed her the recurve with a grin. "You sure you can do this?"

The fact was she wasn't sure at all. But today was about brave faces and looking good, and bravado. And also lying and chicanery and a little bit of snake oil, so she grinned. "I'm Torchwood."

Gwen shoved her hands in her pockets and stepped back, gesturing to Lois to hand her an arrow. "All right then."

"Please don't tell me she's letting you go up there with a spear," Dee said, a note of worry in her voice. That was pleasing; Maggie liked Dee, she reminded her of her sister-in-law. Of course she and Brian had spent a great deal of time in the past punking her sister-in-law on family holidays so, perhaps not precisely. Some day she'd punk Dee. When she was comfortable. So, about fifteen years, then.

She unmuted her comm. "Just reliving some glory days on the battlefield, Dee," she said, nocking the arrow and feeling the weight of it in the front. She aimed down the causeway and pulled back, raising the bow and tilting upwards, then released it with a smooth stroke, and they all watched the arrow go straight forward and then almost stop in mid-air, point straight down and then fall, like some tragic cartoon animal going down a cliff. It clattered and the metal of the flechette clinked like dropping a pound coin on the pavement.

"More pressure, higher arc," she mumbled to herself, reaching behind her for another arrow. Lois held it out and uncapped the tip after she'd nocked it. "Okay, Maggie versus the dragon, take one."

Gretchen had closed the hatch in the back, and now she and Gwen stood off to one side. Gretchen had something in her hand, what looked like a cattle prod and which probably was a cattle prod. She certainly hoped Gretchen knew what she was doing.

She stood on the top of the SUV and braced her bare feet on the shiny surface.

"Do you have any experience doing this?" Dee said, sotto voce.

"Medieval reenactment," she murmured as she canted the bow slightly and closed one eye, sighting down the shaft, using the bright red of the flechette to finish her aim. "Heavy foam arrowheads. Knew I'd use it someday. Now hush up."

Her arm ached and her fingers burned under the pressure of the string. She felt a gust of wind come up and waited, shaking just a little. If she held on too long she'd over-think it.

"Do you have a shot?" Gwen whispered.

"Okay Mags," Dee said into her ear, "Just breathe and feel the shot." Dee had apparently hopped on the Team Maggie bandwagon. Of course, if this didn't work then, well, it wouldn't be their last chance, just the last chance today, probably.

Unless it came down here to do a little bone-snapping. Oh hell, Gretchen had a cattle prod.

Maggie let out her breath, closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the sight was perfect. She inched her fingers back a slight millimetre and let fly, the arrow twanging out of the recurve and singing up in a high arc. "For the Shire," she announced and then watched as the arrow almost overshot the mark, but it hit something. That something shrieked loudly and reared up on its legs, massive arm-span jutting out into the air, eclipsing the outline of the moon behind it like some sort of Tim Burton Batman moment.

Lois slapped the next arrow in her hand and uncapped it before she had it nocked and she swung back around whilst she was drawing the string, her feet sweating on the bottoms and skidding a little on the finish. Of course they had waxed the car today, dammit. She curled her toes reflexively even though that didn't do anything to help and just made her feel tense and off balanced, so she repositioned, still sighting the now-furious thing thrashing about up in the roller coaster nest. Her previous arrow must have hit it, but it didn't stay in with all the tossing about, and she heard it fall to the ground below.

"Come on, give me something good," Maggie breathed.

"Moving targets are different, not harder," Dee said in her ear, as if she was there.

"She's staying in the same place," Gwen added, voice breathy. "So she's not too hard to track."

"Look for a pattern, and imagine where it'll be five seconds from the moment you squeeze the trigger."

"Smooth, waves in the water," Gwen whispered.

Maggie sighted with one eye again, wavered the bow back and forth to feel the rhythm of the creature's movements and then picked a location. She pulled back further and sucked in a breath, curled her pinky finger on her drawing hand. "Wax on, wax off."

It was almost Zen, as if she knew where it was going to go before it even left the bow, and it didn't disappoint; this time she saw it hit the thing in the chest and the impact was enough to make the poor thing scream even louder, and it scrabbled to the edge of the nest, apparently deciding that now would be a good time to flee. But two darts full of horse tranquiliser were getting the better of it, and by the time it had made it to the wooden railing of the track, it was almost unconscious, and plummeted straight down.

"Got ya," she whispered as it fell, landing on the cement with a crunch that probably wasn't good. But body size made a difference when falling like that, and it'd managed to mantle itself a bit on the way down. A thirty-foot fall wasn't bad for it, just awkward.

"Did you get it?" Dee asked. "Did she get it?"

Gwen snorted into her comm and gave Maggie a winsome grin. "Watch out, Mizzzz Johnson, or she'll have your job."

Oh, good that they could joke about this day already.

Gretchen danced forward, as if she wanted to run out and check the creature, but she wasn't sure yet if it was safe. The thing raised its head and crooned out something sad and pathetic. Maybe it was hurt. Maybe they'd—no, that had been the plan. Maggie had followed the plan.

"For the record, Dee," she said as she tossed Lois the bow and sat down on the edge of the roof. "I don't want your job."

This made up for all manner of blowfish issues. She wished Sir Cardinal had been here to see this exercise instead of the horrible one from this afternoon.

Finally the thing groaned a little and lay still, chest heaving in and out. Gwen approached the felled beast and dropped to her knees beside it. One hand reached out to touch the smooth hide. Maggie watched Gwen seek out something, eyes searching the skin under her fingers. She must have found it, because there was no mistaking the shine of her eyes, the shaky lilt of her voice when she breathed out, "Oh girl."

Under the heavy blanket of sedation, Myfanwy just sighed.

***

Gretchen was retrieving her bag of microwave popcorn from the popty-ping when Gwen and Lois returned from the eyrie. Gwen washed her hands in the kitchenette sink and Lois cleaned her hands with a few disinfectant wipes from a canister. They looked tired. The clock said that it was nine-eleven. Time to go home for everyone. Well, everyone but her.

"She'll be up and about in a few hours," Gretchen said, pressing the buttons on the remote that she was carrying on her labcoat and keying the closest monitor to the four-way split view of the eyrie, where Myfanwy was tucked into the huge nest they'd made for her. Odds were if she was anything like other nesting animals Gretchen was familiar with, she'd take one look at the nest they'd carefully and painstakingly assembled for her and rip it apart, starting over on her own. That was okay. It gave her something to do to cover her agitation.

"I'll stay the night and keep an eye. Don't want her adverse reacting to something." She sniffed the bag. "It smells burnt."

Gwen crossed her arms and stared at the screen. "I never thought we'd actually get her," she murmured. "I didn't even think it was her, you know, but she's got that scar from the—well, there was a cyberwoman."

Lois tilted her head. "There was a cyberwom---oh, the Hallett case."

Gretchen didn't know about the Hallett case, but she was sure that if it was pertinent here, she would eventually. She pulled open the bag of popcorn and peered inside. "Why is it that half of it burns and the other half doesn't pop?" She looked at Gwen. "Is this some sort of horrible alien machination?"

"Nope," Gwen said, leaving and walking to her office, "just piss poor British engineering."

Gretchen watched the two of them gather their things. She waved good bye over her shoulder as she sauntered through the main atrium to her workstation, away from the autopsy bay and med lab, where she kept all her papers and her computer. It was a good idea, since she had noticed that goop did fly quite often, and she had no idea what it would do to electronic equipment. She shifted a stack of papers and stared at the uncovered box of unfilled flechettes with surprise. Bugger.

Eh, tomorrow.

In any case, she keyed the monitor view on one screen to the eyrie, slipped off her shoes and called up her viewing for the evening on the other screen.

The screen went black, and then the lame PowerPoint Torchwood logo slipped in from the left. "TORCHWOOD," she said out loud in her best impression of the smooth computerised voice on the screen. "Making our world safer, for tomorrow and beyond." There she sat through the twenty seconds of red "OH MY DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN STATE SECRETS" warnings that was programmed so that it couldn't be fast forwarded through or skipped.

The screen blacked again, and when it cut in, the footage was slightly rawer, but that was because they never bothered to edit these things for anyone's consumption. As such, Owen Harper's face was a little pale, possibly because by this time in the game he had been dead. Gretchen had admired his 'still-walking-around-ness' more than once.

"Owen Harper medical and biological archives," he droned, bored, as he stared at the clipboard in his hand. "Case number 7887864—" he cut off when he got to the letter, and Gretchen knew why. "Peanut," he finished rolling his eyes. He looked at the camera. "Really, Jones? Peanut?"

Sometimes Gretchen wondered what it would have been like working for Torchwood: D.C.J., or 'During Captain Jack', as Lois called it, but which unfortunately made a drunken Johnny Depp ordering them about and asking why all the rum was gone. Behind Owen she could see the grubby tile of the old Hub. It looked filthy. She could also see the top half of the first row of morgue drawers.

"Today," Owen said, "we're going to be looking at something pretty rare, but still, fascinating." He smiled. "Like almost everything, am I right?"

Gretchen stuffed a handful of popcorn in her mouth. "You don't know the half of it," she mumbled. On second thought, though, considering the time she'd watched the film of Owen doing his own non-invasive PM, maybe he did.

Owen reached off camera and pulled in an emesis basin, lifting something black and lumpy and sticky up from it. "This is a proteus gland," he said, then looked at the camera. "Bet you want to know what it does and where it came from, right?"

Gretchen put her feet up on her desk.

***

The Plass was a completely different thing, now that the concrete had been repoured and the pillars and water tower subtly replaced. It wasn't enough that casual visitors would notice, but it was enough for her to be able to tell. The cement under her feet was newer, and the sensation of knowing that there was no longer a working Hub under her feet, but instead ruins and scaffolding and the thick metal girders under it that kept the place from caving in again was enough to raise a dull ache in her chest.

Gwen was secretly relieved that they hadn't just filled the entire gaping crater with concrete, but it would have taken a lot of concrete and dirt, and the scaffolding was more cost effective. It also meant that she could get down there via the tourist office if she needed to, not that there was much left, but if there were, she'd have egress.

Her boots clacked on the wood of the Quay as she walked along, pausing at the dead end of the closed and shuttered TIC (now operated by a retired couple who took their job very seriously, and didn't incidentally work for a secret organisation on the side, unless one counted that they were retired Torchwood and were there to guard the entrance to the old Hub). Her mobile rang, and she fished it out of her pocket, fingers fumbling with the buttons in the dark.

"Honey, hello," she said, turning to check the bench behind her for bird shite before sitting.

"He's a fusspot," Rhys said cheerfully, "But he ate some peaches!"

Gwen painted on her smile as if she was with them and it felt as if she was missing something essential. "Peaches are good," she said to Rhys as if she was talking to Duncan. It was amazing what happened to a person when they had a baby. She and Rhys had fully adult conversations about Duncan when he wasn't present, speaking to each other in the same tone they would have used when talking directly to their son. She had blamed hormones for a while, and then lack of sleep, and now she just blamed preoccupation. It was just easier to stay in croon mode so you didn't have to worry about switching over when needed.

"I'm putting him down and then going to bed, but we wanted to say goodnight." Rhys no longer asked her things like, 'When are you coming home?' because somewhere between the time that they'd ridden to London in the back of a potato truck and now he'd realised that her answer would always be, 'When I come home,' and that it wasn't personal, and that what she did just needed doing. He'd been involved in enough of their hijinks by now to get that.

Gwen mused about how amazingly spoiled for men she was. Spoiled rotten.

Duncan was fairly silent on the phone, mostly because he wasn't sure what the phone was or why her voice was coming from it, so she said a few choice words in a tone that would have horrified her to hear herself say a year ago and reassured Rhys that she was actually, truthfully, honestly, on her way home. And then she tucked the mobile back into her jacket and leant back on the bench, staring out at the water.

A little over a year ago she and Ianto'd had lunch on this very spot. He'd made some of his rather tasty tuna salad sandwiches and they had ducked out to sit in the sun, warm bottles of Lilt tucked in between their knees.

"I hated Lilt," Ianto said, sitting down next to her now and running his hands up and down his thighs. "But it was the only thing in reach when I was trying to grab things and get out of the kitchen without Jack seeing me."

Gwen smiled and set her hand on the wood bench beside Ianto. "I think Tosh bought that Lilt, or else it was grandfathered in from the nineties."

Ianto considered. "Probably the latter."

The wind kicked and a paper bag gusted past her feet. Ianto tilted his head at the tourist office. "It looks proper now."

"They have someone in full time."

"I wonder if they found that box of Skeet shooting brochures that Jack c---"

"Yeah," she said, cutting him off. "I heard about it."

Ianto smiled at the door and then down at his feet. "Ah. Good times."

"I miss you," she said suddenly.

Ianto was silent.

"I know that's pointless to tell you, but it's true." She sighed. "I don't know. Maybe this whole thing, starting over, was a bad idea." She glanced at Ianto, but he was as still as a shop mannequin, eyes set out to sea. She stood and stretched, walked to the railing, knowing that he'd follow her. It was as if part of him followed her everywhere. Maybe she carried him there, tied with some invisible cable that dragged them along, entwined like seaweed in a propeller.

The railing was chilled under her hand, and she recalled a time a few winters ago when she and Tosh had dared Owen to lick it, and they had saved the resulting footage and made a video to the Benny Hill music, and then emailed it to Jack for his birthday.

They seemed a lot meaner out of context, she decided.

"Maybe I should have just gone back to the police, or taken that position with UNIT," she mused. The lights out in the bay were few and far between, but she saw a sailboat passing, possibly home late and eager to be settled at a dock. Below her the water was dotted with butter pats of sleeping birds.

"Maybe I should just let it all go," she murmured. "I could have a life again, and—"

"Gwen?"

For a second she froze, hands on the rail, confused by Ianto actually returning conversation so readily when he—

The thud of the boots on the wood clued her in. Ianto's feet didn't make noise when he walked anymore.

It was like a movie or a show on the telly, this was, as she turned her head and then her body towards the man striding along the Taff Trail, hands at his sides, palms up. Her heart skipped the zero to sixty mode and sped right to eighty out of the gate and she fingered in her pocket for her stun gun.

He was paler than when he'd left. It made it easier to hide the lines on his face, lines of worry or age, or weariness, or maybe they'd just abated for a while. The hair was longer, fringier, more slicked, like he was doing a punk World War II impression.

But the coat. It was gone. The boots and the trousers and the button-down all the same work-a-day clothes, but the coat he must have torn or ditched or lost, replacing it with something shorter, bulkier, as if he carried his life in it instead of in a bag.

Captain Jack Harkness stood on the wooden planks of the Mermaid Quay, planet Earth, and smiled at her. "Gwen," he said again, and this time it meant something affirmative.

He closed the distance between them, and she still wasn't sure if it was him or something new her brain had dug up, or even a nostrovite in disguise. But his eyes flicked to her belly, at the flatness there and then back up, making a pit stop at her breasts and something in her clicked: this was Jack.

She took one step forward. "Jack."

Jack took that as the international hugging signal. "Oh man, I missed you—"

His arms were almost around her when her fist connected with his face, and he reeled back, the punch sending him to the ground.

END