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A Tree Grows in Cardiff

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The thing one had to bear in mind about the Rift was that it didn't always toss out alien overlords bent on world domination or bemusing (if useful) pieces of resurrection technology. No, sometimes the Rift was much more confounding in its choice of gifts. For example:

* Owen once got ready to slide their most recent corpse into a locked cold storage unit only to discover that the slab was already occupied by seventy-eight short green cylindrical objects-- later identified as empty alien soda cans-- neatly arranged to spell out TOSSER in all caps. Despite Owen's accusations, Ianto had no part in their arrangement, although he wished he had.

* After a small yellow disc exploded on her desk, Gwen spent three weeks in quarantine with an extremely resilient case of hiccups that also caused her to sneeze clouds of raspberry-scented smoke. No one was really certain why the disc caused hiccups, or how the hiccups were related to the sneezing-- but the fact remained that (a) it did and (b) they were. Once Jack managed to frighten the hiccups out of Gwen with a particularly improbable description of Ztelon childbirth, Ianto later filed the yellow disc in the archives as Annoying But Not Fatal, and cross-referenced it under the heading, Sort of Hilarious If It Happens to Someone Else.

* Over the years, Tosh had been forced to develop nine separate filtering programs to prevent the spread of intergalactic spam. And while the constantly-updated program was fairly adept at catching trans-galactic iterations of the Nigerian scam, Toshiko was never quite able to filter out all of the pharmaceutical and male enhancement scams that slipped across the Rift. Thankfully, the abysmal state of grammar and orthography on the Internet at large made it nearly impossible to determine which ads were from a spammer on Elthig Nine, and which originated in Swansea.

* Ianto, of course, had his own cautionary lesson in the oddities of the Rift. And after the copper kettle incident, he learned to check any and all suddenly appearing cookware for a pulse before putting it on to boil.

But it was the bio-junk that was the most troublesome, really. A runaway pet marmis from Rietlga, for example, could slip through a crack in the universe and six months later the whole of Torchwood had to go out and hunt down a litter of feral marmis-spaniel hybrids before furry lizard-things started shimmying up Cardiff's lampposts and dropping onto the unsuspecting heads of passersby.

There were also alien diseases to consider: deadly, minute, terrifying things. All it would take was one good and snotty cross-Rift sneeze to transmit something capable of annihilating humanity in a matter of days, and there really wasn't all that much any of them could do about it.

"For all we know," Owen said as he watched Ianto attack the Hub's kitchen with a bottle of cleaner and a rag, "the ideal breeding place for some alternate universe's version of the hanta virus is a freshly-scrubbed kitchenette that's been bleached within an inch of its life."

"Maybe," Ianto conceded, rubbing at a stubborn coffee ring on the table. Gwen would keep forgetting to use a coaster. He blamed years of lax police break-room policy. "Or maybe it would prefer a nice reanimated corpse."

Owen snorted. "In that case," he said, "you're as fucked as me, mate."

Ianto tried his best not to dwell on thoughts like that; it was difficult enough to round up all the visible alien life forms that slipped through the Rift. If he started to think about all the extraterrestrial variations of Ebola that were likely whizzing around the Hub on any given day he'd have to start looking for a gas mask that would complement his favorite waistcoat.

And then, of course, there were the plants.

Every few months it became necessary for the team to tramp around Cardiff with gloves and gardening shears and Tosh's turbo-charged weed-killer, destroying any non-terrestrial brambles that may have decided south Wales was a lovely place to put down roots. Jack referred to these miserable excursions as garden parties, and enjoyed them immensely.

"In some cultures," he told Tosh, "gardening is treated as foreplay. Symbolic, you know," he explained, rolling up his sleeves and sweating attractively. "All that plowing and planting and watering and bursting into blossom. I knew a girl once who was absolutely mad about pruning, of all things. All you had to do was get out the shears and fwhoosh, she was off and running for the bedroom."

Tosh blinked. Maybe once she would have been flustered, but several years of working with the captain dulled one's capacity to blush. "I don't know why you keep telling us that sort of thing, Jack," she said finally. "It's not as if we don't know that everything makes you think of sex."

While Tosh and Gwen generally tolerated Jack's garden parties-- if only because it was a nice change of pace from the usual homicidal space squid-- Owen loathed them with every fiber of his dead non-being.

"You're a sick, twisted bastard, Harkness," Owen spat, wrestling a screaming fruwa vine into a bin liner. "I hate you and I wish you'd die."

"You and a couple other species," Jack said cheerfully, gently stroking the vine curled around his bicep. It cooed and slid slowly down his forearm into the black bag. "Besides," Jack said, "it's not that bad. Fresh air, sunshine-- and fruwa's really not that difficult to manage. You just have to, you know--"

"Fondle it?"

"I was going to say coax," Jack said. "But fondling works for most things, too."

Ianto-- who didn't enjoy Jack's little garden parties any more than Owen-- was not above using a little fondling to get out of those sort of field trips whenever possible. So when Tosh popped her head into the tourist office on Wednesday morning and asked, her voice filled with dull resignation, if Ianto knew where the smaller set of coveralls was, he decided to pay Jack a preemptive visit.

*

"Ianto!" Jack said, clearly in high spirits. "Get out your sunblock. There's a weird tree at the botanical gardens we need to go take a look at."

"No," Ianto said patiently. "I've the end-of-quarter assessments to finish. You can go look at your tree, sir, and I'll stay here."

Jack narrowed his eyes. "See, the funny thing is that I kind of thought I was your boss," he said.

"You are," Ianto agreed, coming around to perch on the corner of Jack's desk, resting his right hand near Jack's left.

"Then why," Jack asked, picking up Ianto's hand and rubbing his thumb along the palm, "are you saying no?"

"Because you also asked me to do the end-of-quarter paperwork, which has to be filed tomorrow," Ianto said, threading their fingers together. "And also because Myfanwy ate my last pair of trainers, and I don't fancy ruining these shoes." They both looked down at the shoes in question.

"They are nice," Jack admitted.

"Yes, they are." Ianto ran a thumb over the pulse in Jack's wrist; Jack shivered minutely. "So, are we agreed?" he asked. "You go chase your tree, and I'll stay and finish the paperwork."

"There probably won't be any chasing, since it's a tree and all." Jack managed to look annoyed by the prospect. He did like the running bits, although Ianto suspected that was because his coat looked extra dramatic during a good sprint.

"Don't think I didn't notice that 'probably,'" Ianto warned, tightening his grasp on Jack's wrist. "I remember the snap dragons."

Jack looked down at Ianto's hand on his, and then looked back up. "I have the distinct feeling I'm being manipulated," he said.

"How odd, sir."

"I could make you come," Jack said, wide-eyed, a picture of perfect innocence. There were blue-eyed grandmothers more devious than this man, fuzzy puppies with more elaborate plans for world domination.

Ianto rolled his eyes. "I," he said, slowly, "am going to pretend you didn't say that last bit, since there is no conceivable way I can respond to it without this conversation degenerating."

Jack laughed. "You know it was funny. And also," he added brightly, "very true on multiple levels."

"Be that as it may," Ianto said, "this is one garden party I'll be missing, sir."

"It's because I didn't send an invitation in advance, isn't it," Jack said in feigned regret. "Curse these twenty-first century social mores."

"Mm," agreed Ianto. "I require at least two weeks' notice for events on my social calendar."

Jack stood up from his desk and settled his hands on Ianto's waist. "That," he said, "is a flat-out lie. You just don't want to get your hands dirty. Lazy Ianto," he said, leaning in for a quick kiss, "shirking your duty."

"Not shirking," Ianto protested. He thought he might have a rather stupid-looking grin on his face; kissing Jack had that effect on him. It was somewhat distressing. "Prioritizing. Weird tree or not, sir, it's still the end-of-quarter, and London will want our books."

Jack grimaced. "Bureaucracy. It ruins all my fun."

"I can well believe it." Ianto held out Jack's coat and tried not to sound too victorious. "Better get going, sir," he said. "You've a tree to catch, after all."

*

An hour later, Ianto double-checked his figures one last time, and then hit print with a flourish. Done and done. It was a testament to the distractive powers of his team, he reflected, that a task that only took an hour to complete in relative quiet could take nearly a week to finish when the rest of Torchwood were around. Feeling he deserved a bit of a break, Ianto flipped the sign on the door of the tourist office to CLOSED and went to make himself a victory espresso.

Ianto liked the Hub when it was empty. Maybe he shouldn't; maybe it should have reminded him of too many months of secrets and late nights and the way Lisa ended, but it didn't. He liked being the only one around to see the mountains of papers on top of Gwen's desk, the fringe of sticky notes around Tosh's monitors with arcane equations scribbled all over, liked being the sole guardian of the odd conglomeration of 3-D glasses and shoe polish and weaponry in Jack's office. And even though he made a point of yelling at Owen at least twice a week about leaving his half-empty coffee cups on his workstation, he liked that as well. After all, the disorder they left behind meant they planned on coming back-- if only to ask him to clean up the mess.

Ianto took his espresso with him up to Jack's office, and settled down at the captain's desk. He picked up the crossword Jack had started that morning in a fit of optimism before he discovered an urgent need to go haring off after greenery.

It was probably unspeakably petty, but Ianto loved finishing Jack's crosswords. After all, when one was dating an immortal time-traveler from the fifty-first century who was also one's boss, one had to take the upper hand whenever one could. In this particular case, it meant correcting Jack's penciled-in VORACIOUS with a neatly inked-over RAPACIOUS. The Alan in thirteen across was rather obviously ALDA (query: what would puzzle editors do without Alan Alda?), and twenty-four down was either MORBID or MOROSE, depending on--

"SHIT." The quiet of the Hub was broken by a loud burst of static over Ianto's earpiece, followed by Owen swearing violently in the background. He dropped his pen (thirty across, EDIFICES) and tapped on to the comm system.

"Owen?" he said, standing up from Jack's desk. Emergencies went better on one's feet. "What's the matter?"

There were more fumbling noises on Owen's end, and then, "… where the buggering fuck-- IANTO!" Owen sounded out of breath, out of his depth, and very, very loud.

"I'm here," Ianto said, wincing. In the part of his brain that was not currently on high alert, he began composing a pamphlet on proper comm procedure, with the first bullet point addressing appropriate volume and consideration for one's listeners. "What's wrong? Is everyone okay?"

"I have no fucking idea," Owen answered, frustrated and tinny over the comm system. "They're not dead, I don't know what they are but there's no way they're dead, they're just not fucking moving," he said, and Ianto very calmly decided not to panic.

"What happened?" he asked, walking quickly down the stairs to Tosh's station.

"I don't know," said Owen. "We get to the botanical gardens, right, and Jack points out this tree in the back-- bloody huge thing, spreading out all over the place-- and we go to have a look at it. Tosh wanted a sample of the bark, so we walk a little closer, and then-- fwap."

"Fwap?" Ianto paused momentarily in his efforts to search the archive database for any results under the heading Tree, Bloody Huge.

"Shut it," Owen snapped. "That's what it sounded like, all right? Something went fwap, and then they all stopped moving. Just-- stopped," he said. "They're all just standing there under the tree, like someone's put them on pause, and now there are-- I don't know, all these fucking roots growing up around their feet."

"Well, get them away from the bloody tree," Ianto bit out. "You should have shears in the SUV; cut the goddamn roots and move them."

"I tried that," Owen growled. "First thing. But it doesn't fucking work. The roots keep growing back before I can move any of them, and the more I cut away at them, the faster they grow."

"Right," Ianto said, and bit his lip. "Right, give me a moment. I'll find something," he said. And then, unable to stop himself, he asked, "You checked for a pulse, right? They're breathing?"

Owen's eye-roll was nearly audible. "Of course not, because I got my degree as a prize in a box of cereal. Yes, Jones, I checked."

"And?" Ianto prompted.

"And it's bloody impossible, is what," Owen said, sounding annoyed. "Just like everything else in this job. They're all breathing, yeah-- but they're all caught on one breath that doesn't stop. Like, Gwen's exhaling-- I can feel it," he said. "But she doesn't inhale. She just keeps on breathing out, and out, and out. Been at least five minutes by now, and she's still exhaling."

"That's not possible," Ianto said, adding Pause, Stop, Freeze, Sustain, and Time to his search parameters, along with Fwap, Plantlife, Vegetation, and Tree, Bloody Huge. Nothing came up.

"Thanks, mate," Owen said, "I hadn't noticed. Of course it's impossible, there's not enough air in the human body for it to be possible, but that sure as fuck doesn't seem to be stopping it."

"Right," Ianto said, and put his hands on his hips. It would help if he knew something about the tree beyond the fact that it was bloody huge and trying to grow around his team's feet. "Can you get the samples Tosh wanted? And a blood sample off of each of them, too? If you can relay the results back to me, maybe I can find this thing on the database."

"Should be able to," Owen said, and Ianto could hear him digging around for something. "Right. Right. Got it," he said. "This shouldn't take long." There was the sound of a car door slamming shut, and then rapid footsteps on loose gravel.

"Make sure to grab a couple leaves, as well as some bark," Ianto said. "And get Tosh's sample off her left arm-- you know she hates it when you use her right."

"Anything else you want? Shall I fetch you some tea while I'm at it, too?" Owen asked sharply, his comm echoing. The last o blurred and stretched in Ianto's ear, a skipping CD hung up on a single note.

Ianto tapped his earpiece. "Owen?" The long o-o-o-o-o continued. He tapped his comm again. "Owen? Can you hear me?"

There was no answer, only the strange white noise echoing in his right ear.

"Harper," Ianto said, slowly working up to a good, sensible level of panic. "Shit. Owen, if you don't answer me right now, you dead wanker, I'm going to--"

"Yeah, what?" Owen's voice cut through the echo.

Ianto rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Why the hell weren't you answering your comm?" he asked, trying to keep his tone even and failing miserably.

"Did you try to say something?" said Owen, distracted. "Look," he said before Ianto could respond, "I got the samples. I'll be able to bounce the results to you in a minute or so, but-- it's trying to pull them under," he said in a rush.

"What?" Ianto bit the inside of his cheek and added Roots and Foliage to his growing search list.

"The roots," explained Owen. "Tree. Whateverthefuck. The roots are wrapped around their legs and pulling them down. It's got Tosh into the ground to her ankles," he said bleakly. "I can't-- if I pull any harder on her, something's going to break or tear, and it won't be the roots."

"Wonderful," said Ianto. "Fantastic. Did you try spraying the roots with the weed-killer?"

"Yeah," Owen said. "No joy on that front."

"All right." Ianto chewed on his lower lip. "I don't suppose it would do any good to shoot the tree," he mused.

"It doesn't," Owen said dryly.

"Good to know."

There was a moment's pause, and then Owen said, "Christ. Jack's going under faster than the girls. Of course the fucking thing loves him, everything else in this bloody universe does. It's-- he's almost up to his knees, Ianto, he wasn't like that a minute ago, shit--"

Tosh's computer chirped at Ianto. "Right, I've got the samples," Ianto told Owen, thinking quickly as he opened the results. "Do you have any rope? Or a spade?"

"In the back of the SUV, yeah, both."

"Good," Ianto said, routing the spectrometer results into a separate program. "If you have to, you can dig around the girls to keep their heads above ground. And if you can find some way to tie Jack to a branch or something, that might slow down the roots a bit and buy us sometime. Jack heals fast; if something tears--"

"--it's not the end of the world. Right," Owen said. "Got it."

Ianto vaguely heard Owen rustling through the supply kit, but he was too busy watching the mainframe crunch its way through the spectrometer results. The leaf sample was unremarkable: cellulose, abscisic acid, something similar in structure to glucose, and a phycocolloid of some type. The bark and the blood, on the other hand--

"Owen," Ianto tapped his comm. "We've got it. They're all showing positive for an amboglic acid compound, like the darts we took off the giant cat last year. You must have come in contact with some pollen or sap or something." He should have realized it sooner. The darts had caused a temporal paralysis in their victims by locking and sustaining cell processes, and the only way to restart them was to introduce a system-wide shock. "I have no idea why the tree's trying to eat them or bury them or whatever it's trying to do, but they're under temporal paralysis."

"Stun gun?" Owen asked, clearly thinking along the same lines as Ianto.

"I think so. Lowest setting," Ianto said. "Try Jack first."

"Serves him right," Owen muttered, and Ianto heard the gun charge. "Him and his bloody garden parties." There was a buzz, and then the clic-clic-clic of the stun gun discharging. Then Owen said, "Jack? Oi, Jack-- oh, bugger fuck fuck fuck."

"While the profanity is entertaining," Ianto said, "it's not especially helpful at the moment. Some details, please?"

"If there's a time and a place for language," Owen said, obviously frustrated, "this has got to be both. High marks for creative thinking, but the execution was rubbish. Jack snapped out of it for a second-- turned his head and looked at me. And then he froze up again."

"Right," said Ianto, nodding. That made sense. It made life more difficult, but at least it made sense. "Because there's either too much amboglic acid in his system, or it's being continually reintroduced through exposure. So--"

"So we have to get them away from the tree in order to snap them out of it, yeah. We knew that already."

"Well, actually," Ianto said, a thought spinning in the back of his head, "we didn't. We might have supposed that proximity to the tree was a factor, but we didn't have any evidentiary proof--"

"Ianto." Owen sounded sharp and tired, the way he used to do when Ianto switched his coffee for decaf out of annoyance. "Gwen's in to her knees, Tosh is past that, and Jack's shoulders are going to dislocate soon because I've got him tied to a branch. How do I get them out?"

"Ah." Right. Disruption of cell processes. It was an absurdly stupid idea, but apparently the whole damn universe was full of absurdly stupid ideas, so: "Shock the tree."

"What?"

"Use the stun gun. A sufficient shock should disrupt the cell processes long enough for you to cut the roots and pull them clear," Ianto said. "Like a small-scale lightning strike. The stun gun's not strong enough on it's own, but if you up the charge with the SUV's battery, it might be enough."

"I don't think a car battery is going to be enough, Ianto," Owen said, but he heard the bonnet release and the hinges creak. "That's only what, a couple hundred volts on a charge?" Owen continued. "Do we have any generators back at the Hub? Something like that might-- jesus christ."

Ianto smirked into the comm link. "I believe the battery will work just fine," he said. It ought to; before he'd got his hands on it, it had been the main power cell for a Laexn interstellar speedboat, and those things could move.

"Right," Owen said, a little uncertainly. "What the hell did you do to it?"

"Tosh helped. A lot." It had been a tricky bit of work, and there was no one better than Tosh at streamlining extraneous systems. And it had been fun, mucking about in the garage on a Saturday afternoon, while Tosh gently mocked his efforts at rewiring the electrical system. "We thought it might be handy to have a battery that won't go dead if Jack forgets to turn the headlamps off again. And it means we can do absolutely fantastic things to the alarm system. Tosh reckoned it should produce somewhere in the neighborhood of four-point-three million volts, if you switch off the safety circuits."

"That the button on top?"

"Isn't it always?" Ianto did some rapid calculations in his head. "It won't be quite as strong as a lightning strike, I don't think, but hopefully that won't matter."

"Not quite as strong as a lightning strike," Owen muttered in the background, fiddling with the leads. "Why the hell is this my life? Seriously, Jones, is this why the espresso machine's impossible to work? Got alien tech wired to it, too?"

"I thought about it," Ianto admitted. "Tosh had some interesting ideas about using an alien alloy on the grinder. But I wasn't sure what it would do to the taste."

"All right," Owen said. "I think I've got it sorted." Ianto could hear something metallic clang in the background. "Positive to positive, negative on the super alien Frankenstein battery, and a ground on the stun gun."

"Sounds good," Ianto said. "Right. This shouldn't be too complicated, I don't think. Just-- untie Jack, start the engine on the SUV, zap the tree, cut the roots, pull all of them up and out of range of the root system, change the setting on the stun gun back to low, and then shock them. That ought to do it."

There was disbelieving silence on Owen's end.

"Oh-- and Owen," Ianto added, "don't forget to unhook the leads from the battery before you shock them again, otherwise you might kill them. Excepting Jack, of course."

"If this kills them, I'm telling Jack it was all your idea," Owen responded. "Right," he said, exhaling. "Okay. No time like the present. Give me a moment to untie Jack," he said, and then there was the sound of creaking wood and leaves rustling. "Bet I'm hardly the first person to say that," Owen mused.

"I can assure you, you're not," Ianto said dryly.

"More than I needed to know, mate." Ianto heard a car door open, and then the SUV's engine revved to life.

"Everything ready?" Ianto asked.

"Yeah. God," Owen said, "this is such a bad idea," and then there was a buzz and an unbelievably loud popping noise and someone shouting in absolute terror, and-- the connection went dead.

Ianto swore. He tapped his comm link frantically, swore again, and fumbled for his mobile. Of course. Of course a charge of that strength would short out the comm system. He should have realized that. He was a blithering idiot, a complete moron-- but surely Owen had his mobile with him. Maybe it had withstood the electrical surge. He pressed autodial and waited, but the call went straight to voicemail.

"Shit," he said, and tried Gwen's mobile, and then Tosh's as well, hoping that one of them would work, that Owen would hear it and pick up. Neither worked. In a final fit of optimism, he tried Jack's number-- but Jack was forever forgetting to charge his mobile, and so it might not ring even if his mobile wasn't dead.

But it did ring. It rang and rang with no answer, and Ianto had a sudden, sick flash of four dead bodies being pulled underground by hungry roots, Jack's mobile playing the first four bars of Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" over and over with no one around to turn the damn thing off.

Just as he was about to hang up and go running for his car, the ringing stopped.

"Hullo, you've reached Jack's trousers," Owen drawled, and Ianto had to put his head down on Tosh's workstation in relief. "Jack's in them right now, but I'm sure he'd much rather not be."

"Did it work?" Ianto asked, anxious.

"Did you know, Ianto," Owen said, sounding strangely calm for a dead man who'd been battling evil flora for the better part of an hour, "that when you run four-point-three million volts through some types of alien trees, they explode?"

"Oh," Ianto said faintly. "Did it?"

"Yep," said Owen. "In a somewhat spectacular manner." He grunted, and Ianto could hear wood snapping.

"Oh," Ianto said again. His brain helpfully provided a picture of Gwen, speared through by several branches. "Well. Must have been the sap. I forgot that could happen," he added, distracted. "What about Jack and the girls? Are they all right? Were they hurt?"

"Must have been the sap?!" Owen ripped at something-- maybe a root. It made a wet tearing noise over the mobile connection. "What, are there generally trees with plastic explosives inside?"

"Lightning strikes can super-heat the sap inside trees, causing it to boil instantaneously. That creates vapor, which in turn increases the tree's internal pressure, which causes the tree to explode," Ianto explained, his voice flat. "Now, are they all right?" he asked, trying not to grit his teeth.

"What? Yeah," Owen said. "I said so, didn't I."

"No," Ianto replied frostily, "you didn't."

"Well, I meant to, but I was a little distracted by the exploding tree," Owen snapped. "They're fine. A little dirty, some minor abrasions, and Jack has a leaf stuck in his ear-- but they're fine. I've nearly got Gwen out, and the roots don't seem to be growing back. I think we're pretty much clear."

Ianto exhaled. "Good. That's-- good," he said, and sat down with a relieved thump.

"Now," said Owen, "if you really want to make yourself useful, you can drive over here and help me dig up Jack. Otherwise this is going to take a while."

*
"So, no chasing, then," Ianto said, handing Jack a fresh mug of coffee doctored with a healthy slug of whiskey. Jack hadn't said anything, but his bruises were significantly worse than the ones that criss-crossed Tosh and Gwen's legs, and he had been moving a bit gingerly even after Owen slipped him a few pain pills.

"No chasing," Jack said ruefully. He went to lift the coffee to his lips and winced, his shoulder clearly protesting the movement.

Ianto silently produced a cold compress.

Jack smiled and took it, tired around the eyes. "Thanks."

"My pleasure, sir," Ianto said, and leaned against the desk. "I'll go back tomorrow and supervise the rest of the cleanup, if you like; can't risk having another of those things take root. They're altogether too complicated to sort out."

"Sounds good-- just wear a mask and be careful if you incinerate the wood. The smoke'll carry the paralytic, just like the pollen," Jack said, "and Owen seemed a little eager to use the stun gun on you. Said it would only be fair."

Ianto snorted. "Next time, Owen can come up with the plan." He moved to stand behind Jack's chair, moving the cold compress to a better position and holding it in place.

"Now there's a frightening thought," Jack said, leaning back into Ianto's hands. "Seriously, though-- it sounds like the two of you worked together well enough. Owen had almost complimentary things to say about you, and no one died," he said, and then tilted his head back far enough to look up at Ianto and grinned, "Hey, even I didn't die this time."

"And we all appreciate it, sir. Would you like a gold star?" Ianto resisted the ridiculous urge to kiss the tip of Jack's nose; it would have been entirely too humiliating.

Jack shook his head. "This is good enough," he said. "But-- christ. A huegar tree in Cardiff. I'd never seen a real one before. God, that's creepy."

"How so?" Ianto asked. "Aside from the obvious bit where they paralyze their victims and then bury them alive."

"They're like-- bogeymen," Jack said. "Only for forests. Huegar trees-- huegar means hunger. Hungry trees. You grow up hearing your mom tell you to stay out of the deep woods, or the huegar trees will pull you down and eat you. Keeps little kids from wandering off where they shouldn't."

Ianto quietly noted the shift to second person, but didn't say anything. He had a small but growing collection of possible facts about Jack: now, he added a mother who told cautionary tales about monsters in the dark.

"It's illegal to plant them on most worlds," Jack continued. "Dangerous as hell when they're in season, but if you're careful and powder the bark, you can distill out the amboglic acid. Sells for a pretty penny-- our dart-happy cat friend last year could have told you that-- so some idiots are willing to take the risk."

"Do you think that's what happened?" Ianto asked, running a cold hand up through the fine hair on the back of Jack's neck. "Someone deliberately planted it?"

Jack shook his head. "They grow too slowly in cold climates. That one had probably been around for a couple hundred years, and this was the first time it had gone into season-- believe me, someone would have noticed the smell, if nothing else." Ianto quirked an eyebrow, and Jack grimaced. "The bodies don't stay alive forever, but they do rot awfully slowly," he said. "If you're smart, you can avoid a lot of huegar trees by staying away from anything that smells like a charnel house. Anyway," he said, "Unless someone was planning on playing a really long game, this one just sprouted up by chance."

Ianto tilted his head in thought. "I'm not actually sure if that's better or worse," he said, finally.

Jack laughed. "Me neither. But that's the job, right?"

Ianto laid the cold compress on the desk. "Protecting the world from hostile seedlings, sir. That's Torchwood."

Jack grinned up at Ianto again, and then glanced back down at his desk. His eyes narrowed, and he turned about in his chair. "Ianto Jones," he said, lingering over the words, "what did I say about finishing my crosswords?"