NO GREATER GIFT
A/N: As near as I can tell, this is the pentultimate chapter. It's also extremely long, because I figure I've kept everyone waiting long enough and I didn't want to finish it on a cliff-hanger.
Warning: There are scenes in this chapter that some may interpret as 'Gwen-bashing'. I personally do not. I consider what I've written to be Real!Gwen - insecure, somewhat selfish and unintentionally manipulative. However, she also has redeeming features, and I think I've positively resolved the 'Gwen is jealous of Jack, Ianto and Eleya' plot device. If you strenuously object to Gwen being portrayed in anything other than a saintly light, you might want to skip ahead whenever you see her name mentioned.
They met back up with Anna, the Doctor and Bobby at the entrance to the docking bays. Far from the chaos they'd envisaged, all the agents and staff had been lined up in an orderly fashion, and were being dealt with one at a time. They'd been joined by the rest of the Torchwood team and the Mendyrians. Jack's team was busy keeping the line in check, while the Doctor removed all vortex manipulators and any other piece of tech he deemed unsuitable. He was tag-teamed by the Mendyrians who were going from person to person and touching the foreheads and temples of each person, leaving behind confused and dazed men and women.
"What are they doing?" Ianto wondered.
"Altering memories," Jack answered, "and in a far more effective way than we could ever do with retcon. There are no drugs involved, so there's less chance of breaking through and remembering."
"It's just a slight alteration," Anna said as she joined them. "Instead of us, they'll remember an asteroid strike that took out their systems, and destroyed Time Agency headquarters. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but the Agency is beyond anyone's capabilities to rebuild. And strangely, not a single agent here remembered to take their vortex manipulators with them in the panic of evacuation."
"And this is all of them?" Ianto asked, eyeing the line questioningly. "There are only a couple of hundred people here."
"The Time Agency was never particularly big," Jack answered. "There was never more than fifty agents at any given time in the Agency's whole history. It was an elite group, nearly impossible to get into. But in answer to your question, no. This isn't all of them. There are maybe half a dozen agents missing, and we have to let them go."
Slowly, realisation dawned on Ianto.
"Would one of them happen to be John Hart, by any chance?"
Jack chuckled mirthlessly.
"Yep. And now I know why he looked so surprised that I didn't know that the Time Agency had been disbanded. He had to have known it was us. It was probably just a surprise to him that he'd caught me at a stage in my timeline before all of this happened."
"You could end up with a migraine, trying to work it all out," Ianto said ruefully.
"Jack?" the Doctor asked as he joined them. "Where's Maera?"
"She's coming," Anna said before either Jack or Ianto could answer. "She just needed to deal with Manger."
The Doctor's expression darkened but before he could utter any sort of a protest, Maera appeared.
"Oh my god, is that who I think it is?" Gwen asked as she joined them. Jack glanced at her warily, but kept quiet. His attention went back to Maera, who was leading a long a very docile and blank-faced Bilis Manger.
"I wiped his mind," she said bluntly. "Eleya severed his connection to the vortex, and I wiped his mind clean. He'll never be a threat to anyone ever again."
"Or capable of doing much else other than drooling," Owen said dryly as the rest of the team joined them. "The bloke's a walking vegetable. What are we supposed to do with him?"
"He will return with us to Mendyr," Anna decided. "We'll take responsibility for him. Also, it means we can keep watch for any signs that he might be recovering from the mind wipe."
The Doctor nodded his approval, despite suspecting that his approval meant precious little to the Mendyrians.
"Fair enough." He looked around and confirmed for himself that everyone else had been dealt with, Dorn and Taark included. They were the only ones left. "I think it's time to go. Everyone? Back to the TARDIS."
"So what happens now?" Gwen pressed once they were all back inside the TARDIS, safe from harm, and Manger had been taken away to the medical room.
"Now," the Doctor said as he initialised dematerialisation, "we go into orbit and wait for the big bang. Then we'll head back to Mendyr."
"Some recuperation time there will be a good thing," Jack said, looking to Anna for approval. She smiled.
"All are welcome. You may stay as long as you wish. Given that you all arrived from a different time, that should not be a problem."
The Doctor looked over at Jack.
"You don't need to wait for the explosion, Jack. Let your people witness it for you. Go and check on your friend, and take some time with Ianto and Eleya."
Jack didn't argue. Now that the adrenalin was finally wearing off, his thoughts turned to Joss. Wordlessly, he ushered his lover and his child out of the control room.
"He has some difficult choices ahead of him," Anna remarked with a touch of melancholy once they were gone.
"You mean whether he goes back to Earth, or stays on Mendyr," Bobby guessed.
"Yes," Anna confirmed. "And if he does return to Earth, then what of Eleya? Does he keep her with him, or leave her behind on Mendyr?"
"Eleya is powerful," Maera said. "She needs someone to teach her how to control her gifts. Jack can't do that for her. Not in the way that she needs."
"You think he should stay on Mendyr," Gwen spoke up, sounding a touch defensive. She said nothing beyond that, though, even though it was obvious to all that she wanted to.
"We wish that he would stay," Anna agreed. "We know that he won't. The choices he must make centre on his daughter, and whether he will remain on Mendyr long enough for Eleya to receive some much-needed tuition, or whether he can bring himself to leave her with us; at least until she is trained."
"He could stay on Mendyr as long as he needs to," Bobby said, sounding as though he couldn't understand why there was even a need for discussion. "Like you said, this is in a different time, and the Doctor has a time machine. He could bring them back to Earth, and hardly any time need had passed."
"A worthy consideration," Anna said. "Jack has chosen his people well. Still, this discussion is moot, as ultimately the choice is Jack's to make."
"He won't leave us," Gwen said abruptly, clearly doing her best not to sound petulant. "He can't. We need him."
"Gwen, we don't own him," Tosh pointed out, speaking up for the first time. "He's free to make his own choices, and that little girl should take precedence over us."
"Face it, Gwen," Owen added. "The only ones who have the right to influence Jack are Ianto and Eleya. And so help me, if you ask why Ianto, I swear to God I'm going to retcon you myself as soon as we get home."
"All right, enough with the domestics," the Doctor said. "Eyes to the monitor, she's about to go critical."
Quickly, they crowded around the monitor, which was showing the Time Agency satellite headquarters. Seconds ticked by before the explosions started -- a series of minor ones to begin with, followed by a single, monster explosion that ripped the satellite apart and sent a shudder through the TARDIS as the shockwave passed by.
When it was over, only space debris remained. The Time Agency headquarters were no more.
"It's over," Maera said softly, with relief in her voice. "They're safe, finally."
"And no lives lost," the Doctor added in a satisfied tone. "All in all, a job well done."
"One life lost," Alex corrected, her thoughts going to the Time Agent who lay dead in the Hub. The Doctor conceded with a nod.
"Yes, but not at our hands, and only in defence. Myfanwy was protecting you, Alex. Curious, really. Never imagined dinosaurs had that capability to express that sort of loyalty..."
"Doctor, how long before we get to Mendyr?" Donna cut in before he had a chance to start rambling.
"We'll be there in a couple of hours," he answered. "No need to rush anymore, and the old girl isn't exactly up to any fast flying for a while."
"Right," Donna said decisively. "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm bloody starving. Anyone else who fancies something to eat, the kitchen is this way."
She marched from the control room, confident that anyone who wanted to would follow.
"Food would be good," Alex admitted. "I don't remember when we last ate."
"C'mon," Bobby said with a chuckle. "Let's catch her up. Anyone else coming?"
They all filtered out of the control room, until only Anna and the Doctor were left.
"Not hungry, milady?" he wondered. Anna looked at him with a reproving frown, but there was a fresh sparkle in her eyes to suggest that she wasn't annoyed as she made out to be.
"You've been taking lessons in flirting from Jack."
He grinned widely, and made no attempt to deny to accusation.
"Are you happy with this outcome, Lady Anna?" he asked and her smile faded minutely
"I'm satisfied with our involvement. We took no lives, and at the same time we've succeeded in ending a growing menace. I admit, though, that it disheartens me to know that Jack will leave Mendyr again. My only comfort is knowing that this time it will be by his own choice."
"I'd be glad to bring him back whenever he likes," the Doctor reminded her lightly. "Time machine, remember?"
"Doctor. May I remind you that your life is finite?"
"So is his, and I think you knew that already," the Doctor interrupted her. "I can't say much, but Jack's life is permanently interwoven with mine, and I will be there on the day he dies for good. I'm just sorry that I can't give him the comfort of that knowledge."
Anna sighed in exasperation.
"Time Lords and their precious time lines. You really were an incredibly frustrating lot."
The Doctor smiled sadly.
"I know. Figured I'd better carry on the tradition."
She laid a hand gently on his shoulder.
"You do your people proud, Doctor. Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise."
Just briefly, the Doctor was at a loss for words. Then, his smile warmed just a little.
"As do you, Lady Anna."
Jack didn't try to hide his relief when they walked into the med room to find Joss was awake and half-sitting up in bed. He hurried over, while Ianto maintained a respectable distance with Eleya.
"Hey," Jack said as he sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. Joss grinned up at him.
"I hear you put an end to the Agency for good. Well done, my friend."
"Couldn't have done it without your help," Jack said. "And thank you, by the way, for keeping Eleya safe for as long as you did."
"Where is she?" Joss asked. "Can I see her?"
"Ianto," Jack called out, "come over here."
Ianto approached, and Eleya uttered a joyful exclamation when she finally saw who it was in the bed.
Ianto let her down carefully, and he and Jack watched with identical smiles as man and child reunited with a prolonged and enthusiastic hug.
"Look at you, beautiful girl," Joss said with a grin. "Safe with your dada at last."
"My dada," Eleya stated proudly, smiling up at Jack and Ianto in adoration. "My tad. My unna."
"Joss, this is Ianto Jones," Jack said by way of introduction. "My partner."
Joss reached up to shake Ianto's hand with a grin.
"Good to meet you, Ianto. About time this boy found someone for himself. Looks like you have Eleya's seal of approval, too."
"She's a gorgeous little girl, and I love her," Ianto confessed. "I love them both."
"And we love him," Jack confirmed.
"Good," Joss murmured. "That's good. At least something positive has come out of all this mess. Jack, I'm sorry I let them take you. That day, when you asked me to take Eleya, I should have known what was going on."
"Everything happened the way it was supposed to," Jack assured him. "Anyway, it's over now. The Time Agency is finished. There are only half a dozen agents still out there."
"Your ex-partner being one of them?" Joss queries, and Jack's eyebrows shot up.
"How did you know?"
"He went back to try and rescue you, Jack, after the Agency recaptured you. He blew it, and they tried wiping his memories..."
"That's what they did to me," Jack interrupted. "I only broke it because I left a specific trigger for myself."
"I figured it had to be something like that, to keep you from coming to find Li-Li. I didn't want to even contemplate the other possibility."
"You say they tried wiping John's memories?" Ianto pressed, his curiosity piqued to hear about this less self-serving side of John Hart. Joss glanced quizzically at Jack.
"It's the name he's going by now," Jack explained.
"Ah. Well as I said, they tried, but it seriously messed up his head. My informant told me he just went berserk, and in the end they let him go. You know he always had sociopathic tendencies, Jack? Well, they weren't just tendencies after that little brain-washing incident. He killed people indiscriminately, to the point where he was actually forced into murder rehab."
"I wondered about that," Jack murmured. Joss's eyebrows shot up.
"You've seen him?"
"In a manner of speaking. He turned up on Earth, and nearly killed one of my team. Actually, he nearly killed all of my team over an Arcadian diamond that didn't actually exist. He seemed a little surprised that I didn't know the Agency had been shut down, though."
"So he either thought he'd found a version of you post this little... event, or his head was just so messed up that he didn't remember any of it."
"He never even hinted about Eleya," Jack said.
"But he said something as he was leaving," Ianto spoke up, trying and failing to sound completely innocent. "He said he'd found Gray."
Joss's face remained blank, but Jack stiffened noticeably.
"I'll talk to you later about that," he said in an audibly strained voice. Feeling guilty for the obvious ploy, Ianto grasped Jack's hand and squeezed gently.
"Only if you want to, cariad."
He guessed that he must have sounded sincere, because he felt Jack relax again beside him.
"So the Time Agency was also responsible for Hart," Ianto murmured, deliberately shifting the topic of conversation.
"They were responsible for pushing him over the edge," Joss clarified. "He already was a crazy bas... I mean, bloke, but he at least had some degree of control and he cared more than himself. It's a sad waste."
"Well," Ianto said, "maybe if he turns up again, we can try to do a bit more to help him."
When Jack shot Ianto an incredulous look, Ianto shrugged.
"He tried to save you and Eleya. That has to count for something."
Joss smiled wearily as he passed Eleya back to Jack, and settled down in the bed. He was quickly running out of steam, and it showed.
"So what now?" he asked.
"We're heading for Mendyr," Jack said. "We'll all get the chance to rest, and those of us who have decisions to make will get to make them without pressure."
"Sounds good," Joss murmured. His eyes were flickering shut, even as he spoke. "Don't have anywhere to go anyway..."
"He's out," Jack said unnecessarily as Joss slipped into a light slumber. "I think I'll need to talk to Anna about him. He really doesn't have anywhere to go now."
"So why don't we invite him to come back to Earth with us?" Ianto wondered. "We can check with the Doctor about time lines, and if there aren't any problems, we can put it to Joss. Maybe we could go back to New York with Bobby and Alex, and work with them there in Torchwood Five."
"That's a pretty good idea," Jack enthused.
"Well, his expertise would be invaluable," Ianto mused, "and I got the impression that Bobby likes him."
"We'll run it by Bobby and Alex," Jack decided. "If they agree, then we'll talk to the Doctor. Hopefully it'll work out. I owe Joss a lot. He put everything on the line to help me and Eleya."
"If he doesn't want to come to Earth, then we'll make sure he's comfortably set up, wherever he decides to go."
"C'mon, let's find a quiet spot. We have things to talk about... and I have a couple of things to confess."
"That sounds ominous," Ianto teased lightly, but Jack couldn't bring himself to smile.
"What if I told you Eleya wasn't my only child? What if I told you that I had a daughter back on Earth who is nearly twice your age? What if I told you that I have a grandson?"
The confession was met with silence, and Jack felt his stomach knotting up with worry. When he finally gathered his courage to look up at Ianto, though, he was relieved to see not anger or disappointment, but rather thoughtful understanding.
"Honestly? I'm not altogether surprised. Look at how long you've been alive, Jack. It probably would have been more surprising if you hadn't had any other children." He took Jack's hand in his own, and squeezed it reassuringly. "Let's go find that quiet space and talk, okay?"
"So Eleya has a sister," Ianto mused. "An older sister who is actually younger than her in your time line, but was also born how many hundreds of years before her...?"
"Please don't. You'll give me a headache."
Ianto laughed softly, and felt his nerves lessen their grip on him. When Jack had told him about his daughter and grandson, he had to admit to experiencing a spark of anger. As he thought it over, though, the anger had faded quickly. When Jack told him about his unwilling separation from them, his emotions turned to sympathy. Jack's pain was obvious, and Ianto had no desire to make it worse for him.
They lay together now on Jack's bed, watching idly while Eleya played on the floor with some toys that had been supplied by the TARDIS. She was perfectly content as long as she had her dada and her tad in sight.
"So," Jack said, "are you going to tell me how come your jacket was ripped to shreds?"
Ianto cursed silently. He'd hoped to avoid letting Jack see the damage, but he supposed have known better. Jack was much more observant than most people gave him credit for being. With that thought in mind, he decided to be honest, and hope it didn't give Jack a coronary.
"Manger attacked us with that knife of his, and I shielded Eleya with my own body..."
He grunted as Jack flipped him over onto his stomach, and yanked his shirt up to examine the now unblemished flesh.
"Jack, I'm fine," Ianto gasped. "Cariad, please! Eleya's going to think we're you know what..."
"She's seen a lot worse that her dad and her tad showing how much they love each other," Jack said distractedly as he ran his fingers up and down Ianto's back. "Anyway, I just needed to see..." He let his breath out in a relieved rush. "You're okay."
It was said with an astonishment that had Ianto rolling his eyes fondly.
"I said I was." He turned over and looked up at Jack.
Ianto glanced surreptitiously at Eleya, who appeared oblivious to the goings on between her parents.
"She saved my life, Jack," Ianto said softly. "I think I was dying, and she healed me. Remember when she healed your headache? She just put her hands on me and said 'ouch go away'. Then she linked her mind to mine, and she used me to control her power. I think that somehow, she knew she couldn't control what she could do, so she used me as a controlling influence. She's an incredible little girl, Jack. She knew you didn't want her to kill anyone, and she did what she had to so that didn't happen."
Jack settled back down with Ianto, watching Eleya with love and awe. He remembered Darien's words to him and smiled. She was not Darien's daughter -- she was his. His and Ianto's.
"Think you could cope with being her tad full-time?" Jack wondered.
"I'm ready to try," Ianto answered without hesitation. Silence fell for a while, and Ianto was in danger of nodding off when Jack whispered brokenly to him.
"I love you so much, Ianto Jones."
Ianto met Jack's gaze with a soft smile.
"Daft sod. I love you, too. Jack..."
"Would you panic and run a mile if I said I'd like to make this official?"
Jack's hands, which had been roaming lazily across Ianto's chest, suddenly stilled.
"You mean, us?"
Ianto held back from speaking, knowing he'd only babble if he did. Encouragingly, there was no panic in Jack's expression -- only hope.
"I'm a pain in the ass to live with."
"I already know that, Jack."
"I don't do domestic well."
"You're smart. You'll learn."
"I won't be the wife."
"And I'll kill you slowly if you call me the wife. I think we're reasonably well-matched."
Jack kissed Ianto lingeringly.
"Yes, I want to make it official, too. I want to spend the rest of your life with you. I want to make a lifetime of memories with you and Eleya, so I'll have something to cling to when you're... when I'm alone again."
Ianto distracted him with a return kiss.
"Don't be maudlin. Just appreciate what you have."
Jack's arms held Ianto possessively, whilst his gaze lingered on their daughter.
"I do. Believe me, I do."
Jal and Kyrii were waiting when the TARDIS arrived back on Mendyr, along with the Elder Council and the partners of those Mendyrians who had accompanied the travellers. It was quite the welcoming party, and Jack once again felt a touch of melancholy that he couldn't stay. It was all the more reason, though, to make the most of what time there was, including making good on a suggestion Maera had made.
As everyone stood there, just outside the TARDIS, Jack grasped Ianto's hand and turned to Mendyr's Chief Elder.
"Anna, Ianto and I have talked, and we both agree that it's time to stop pretending we only have a casual relationship. We'd like to commit to each other formally, and we'd be honoured and grateful if you'd preside over a commitment ceremony."
Anna's weary features melted into a delighted smile.
"I would be honoured to preside over it. Ianto, has Jack explained to you the particulars of this ceremony?"
"He has," Ianto confirmed.
"You each need to choose a witness to stand up for you. It should someone who holds a special place in your heart."
Ianto smiled. That was an easy choice for him.
"Toshiko," he answered.
Jack scanned the gathered crowd, and his gaze alighted fleetingly on Gwen. She had a dual look of disappointment and expectation on her face, and he knew why. The disappointment was because she continued to harbour an infatuation for him, which had expressed itself increasingly through her behaviour the closer he and Ianto became. The expectation was because he guessed that she fully expected him to choose her as his witness, even though performing that task would probably gall her enormously.
He was sorry -- genuinely sorry -- but she was about to be disappointed all over again, because there was at least one person present who was almost as important to him as Ianto.
"Jal," he nominated, looking to the man who had been like a father to him when he'd needed it most.
"I'd be honoured, son," Jal said warmly.
"Very good. We shall make the preparations immediately."
Jack and Ianto found themselves ushered off to separate rooms in the Council Chambers. Jal and the Doctor went with Jack to help get him ready, while Owen and Bobby went with Ianto. As Jack abandoned his usual clothes in favour of a traditional Mendyrian garment, the Doctor smiled proudly at his former companion.
"Bigger on the inside," he said with a knowing grin. Jack glanced at him, and smiled wryly.
"Thanks to you and Rose."
"Oh, no, you were already a good man, Jack. Just misguided. And you had a good reason to be angry with the universe -- you just didn't remember what it was."
"I always thought I'd had my memory wiped because I'd done something wrong."
"In their eyes, you did," Jal said. "You defied them to give yourself and your daughter a better life. But it's over now, Jack. They're finished and they can't hurt you anymore. Now, stop being so maudlin and let's finish getting you ready."
Jack had to grin.
"That's what Ianto said. Stop being maudlin. I'm still trying to work out what I did to deserve him."
"You might find he's thinking much the same thing," Jal said. "C'mon, lad. You don't want to keep him waiting."
The words were barely out of his mouth when there was a knock on the door, and a familiar voice spoke.
"Jack? Can I come in?"
Jack shut his eyes and struggled not to groan.
Jal frowned, sensing Jack's reticence.
"You don't have to let her in, son. Believe me, she's not got your best interests in mind. Only her own."
"No, it's okay," Jack murmured. "Just don't go away, either of you. I don't need her making a last ditch effort to win me over to her."
Jal snorted derisively, but said nothing as the Doctor let her in. Gwen ventured into the room slowly, a nervous smile on her face.
"Sorry to interrupt," she said. "I was just hoping to have a quick word." She glanced at Jal and the Doctor meaningfully. "In private, if you don't mind?"
"I mind," Jack said firmly. "They're not leaving. This is as private as you're going to get, so spit it out, Gwen. I have a commitment ceremony to get ready for."
"About that," Gwen said tentatively. "You know it won't be legally binding on Earth?"
"We know," Jack confirmed. "That's why we're going to be putting things in motion to have a civil partnership as soon as possible."
Gwen's face fell, and she looked as though she'd just had her entire world swept out from under her. Sighing, Jack abandoned his preparations and turned to face her properly.
"Gwen, I care about all of you, but I love Ianto. He keeps me grounded, he doesn't take any crap, he's smart and gorgeous and funny, Eleya loves him... but most of all, he loves me. Now, do you want to explain what's put the bee in your bonnet? Because I thought you accepted we were together."
"I had!" Gwen protested. "I... I do! It's just... You're the one who's always said we shouldn't be tied down by labels, but now all of a sudden you want to go exclusive? It's not you, Jack. You know it isn't."
Jack's expression darkened fractionally.
"I think I'm the only person who has the right to decide that, don't you think?"
To her credit, Gwen blushed red, but it wasn't enough to stop her.
"I'm sorry, Jack, but I care about you and I don't want to see you making a mistake."
In hindsight, she knew that such a remark could easily have provoked a real rage in the Captain. Instead, Jack sighed and shook his head as understanding dawned.
"You were fine with us being together as long as it only looked like a casual relationship. That's why you were so keen to see Eleya gone. It wasn't her personally, it was that she gives our relationship a fresh foundation. You've been out of sorts from the moment you realised that Ianto is more to me than just another shag."
By then, the faint blush had spread right across Gwen's face, humiliated as she was by the truth of the accusation. Jack sighed again, but instead of giving in to the urge to shout he wrapped her up in a fierce hug.
"Gwen, you need to accept that Ianto and I are serious about each other, and nothing is going to change that. We love each other enough that we want to commit to each other exclusively. I would have thought you'd want to encourage that."
"But you always flirt with me," she protested weakly.
"I flirt with everyone," Jack countered, trying to rein in his frustration. "It's just part of who I am. Everyone else seems to understand that. You're the only one who seems to think it means anything."
"Are you saying now that you lied?" she demanded, suddenly angry. "All that time you kept reinforcing how special I was, you were just lying to me?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Jack could see the darkening expressions on Jal and the Doctor's faces and he knew he had only a short time to get rid of Gwen before Jal did it for him.
"I didn't lie," he told her. "You were... You are special, but that doesn't translate into a declaration of love. Now, I'm going to finish getting ready, and then I'm going to go and bond myself to the man I love. I hope you'll support us and be happy for us, but if you can't..."
"Yes?" she asked with a distinct tremor in her voice. Jack was quietly relieved that she was not so blinded by her emotions that she missed the ominous tone of his voice.
"If you can't," he told her soberly, "then I'll be doing it anyway, and you'll be facing a dose of retcon when we get home."
The shock on her face was palpable, but Jack continued on before she could protest.
"I can't tolerate a divisive presence in the team, Gwen. No matter how much I value you, the bottom line is that I value Ianto more, and I won't risk you trying to come between us in any way."
Tears abruptly filled Gwen's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Jack thumbed them away gently.
"You have a fiance, Gwen. Don't you think it's time you acknowledged him?"
"You expect me to settle for Rhys after you?" she whispered brokenly. Jack regarded her gravely.
"You're just settling for him, then maybe it's time to let him go. He deserves a lot better than to have someone just settle for him."
Not for the first time, Gwen looked as though she'd just been slapped.
"But what about me?"
"Today, right now, is not about you, Miss Cooper," the Doctor interrupted, deciding enough was enough. "Now I'm going to ask once, politely, to please leave."
Gwen flinched visibly under the full force of his alien stare. She looked automatically to Jack, but there was no help forthcoming from him.
"Go on," he told her quietly. "And you'd better think carefully about what you really want for your future. You've got until we get home to work it out."
Pale but finally resigned, Gwen retreated.
"She's a stubborn one," Jal remarked coolly. "We ought to let Maera sort her out. Are you all right, son?"
Jack smiled and, though he appeared weary, there was no sadness or regret to be seen in his eyes.
"I'm okay. Can we hurry this up, though? I want to go and do this before anything else happens."
The Doctor laid a reassuring hand on Jack's shoulder.
"You don't need to worry, Jack. He'll wait for you."
Jack shook his head.
"He's waited for me long enough."
Gwen left the room as quickly as her shredded dignity would allow. Her head was in a spin - that encounter had gone far differently to how she'd imagined it, and now she was embarrassed beyond measure by the reality check she'd just been served. It did nothing for her composure, either, to find Donna waiting for her, flanked by Maera and Kyrii.
"Told you she'd gone after Jack," Maera said icily. Panicked, Gwen did what came most naturally to her - she lied.
"I just wanted to wish him well. It's a big moment for him, after all."
"Dear," Kyrii said in a deceptively passive tone, "I think you've forgotten that two of us are psychic, and quite adept at reading minds. You're projecting loud and clear."
Donna sauntered forward, her expression cold and angry.
"The only thing saving you from getting a slap right now is the verbal slap you just got from Jack. How dare you try to convince him to dump Ianto for you right before they're due to have their commitment ceremony!"
"I just wanted to see if he was really sure," Gwen protested.
"About what?" Maera asked suspiciously.
"Well, that he isn't making a mistake..."
The sound of flesh striking flesh echoed resoundingly, but it wasn't Donna who had delivered the slap. It was Kyrii.
"You just stop right there, you jealous, vindictive little girl. My boy is not making a mistake. Far from it. That young man of his is perfect for him in every way, and you will not spoil it for them. Now, you have two choices. You either march yourself back to the ceremony hall and join everyone else, or Maera is going to make certain that you never remember that Jack even exists."
Gwen looked horrified, but also genuinely fearful. After witnessing the power of the Mendyrians as they'd so effectively altered the memories of the Time Agents, and after seeing what Bilis Manger had been reduced to, she had no doubt that Maera could easily do what retcon had originally failed to do - make her forget all about Torchwood and Jack.
"Jack wouldn't let you," she argued weakly.
"Jack wouldn't even know about it until afterwards, so make up your mind, child. Will you let him follow the path that he's chosen for himself? Or will you prove yourself to be no better than the Time Agency by continually interfering in his life, and with his choices?"
Gwen was stopped short by that last comparison, and the reality hit hard as it occurred to her that Kyrii was right. Her behaviour, coupled with her determination to come between Jack and Ianto, made her little better than Jack's former Time Agency masters.
"Oh my god," she whispered in horrified realisation. "It never occurred to me... Oh god, I'm sorry..."
Any sympathy she thought she might have gotten, though, was not forthcoming. Instead, Donna pointed down the corridor and spoke tersely.
"Save for your actual boyfriend. Move it."
Gwen went, all protests effectively silenced.
Owen glanced at Gwen with a frown as the Welshwoman slid into a seat beside him. She stared straight ahead, refusing to meet his gaze.
"Where did you disappear to?"
"Nowhere," she said shortly. "It's not important."
Silence met her retort, and then he spoke softly and not unsympathetically.
"Let me guess. Jack finally got you to understand that it's Ianto he wants."
Gwen's silence spoke volumes. Owen shook his head.
"For someone who makes such a huge deal about respecting others, you've done a damned good job of disrespecting Jack and Ianto."
"All right, Owen," Gwen hissed, but he wasn't done.
"I just don't get it. I thought you'd accepted them long ago. Did you really believe that you still stood a chance with Jack, even after he got together with Ianto?"
Gwen glowered at the floor, both embarrassed and angry at the unnerving accuracy of everyone's assessment of her feelings towards Jack. Cornered once more, she bit back instead of conceding.
"He's the one who always says that he doesn't like labels. Ianto ought to know by now that Jack isn't the type of man to be tied to one relationship."
Owen's eyebrows shot up, recalling Gwen's furious reaction when she found out that he'd been with Diane.
"So... It wouldn't bother you if Jack cheated on Ianto to be with you? Or would you expect him to dump Ianto altogether for you?"
"I'm capable of satisfying a man," Gwen said. She knew in her heart how petulant she sounded, but was at a loss to stop herself. Owen uttered an incredulous noise.
"You bloody hypocrite, Cooper. You don't see a problem with jumping into bed with any bloke while you keep Rhys on reserve, but those blokes are all supposed to be exclusive? Bloody hell, what did I ever see in you?"
"Shut it, Owen," Gwen whispered hoarsely, suddenly acutely conscious of the sideways looks she was getting from the Mendyrians who were gathering. Owen, however, had no intention of letting it go without a parting shot.
"Jack made his choice long ago, and that choice is to be faithful to Ianto for the duration of Ianto's life. You've got no right to interfere with that choice, so just deal with it."
Gwen slumped miserably in her chair. If anyone could have understood her situation, she thought it should have been Owen. It seemed she was on her own with her waning belief that she and Jack were destined to have a special relationship. She was so lost in her musing and her misery that it took her completely by surprise when Owen gave her a none-too-gentle nudge.
"Bloody stand up, will you?"
Startled and embarrassed all over again, Gwen stood up so fast that she nearly knocked her chair over. She glanced around surreptitiously, but no one was paying her any heed. Instead, their attention was on the back of the hall. She looked, and felt her heart break anew as it finally began to sink in that Jack had never, and would never be hers.
Jack and Ianto entered the hall hand in hand, and Ianto faltered momentarily in the doorway at the staggering sight that greeted them. It wasn't the spectacular decorations that had been put up in such a short time, or even the regal sight of Anna waiting for them at the other end. What brought him up short was the sheer volume of people crowded into the hall, looking on with joyful expressions.
"It's all right," Jack murmured. "These are all the people that I came to know the last time I was on Mendyr."
"Please tell me you didn't shag any of them," Ianto muttered, and Jack laughed.
"No, not one, I promise. Eleya was my whole world while I was here. I wasn't remotely interested in finding a partner. You are the only one in this room... on this planet that I've ever known in the carnal sense. Now, c'mon. Anna's waiting for us."
Ianto moved at Jack's gentle insistence, and they walked together down the length of the hall. As they passed row after row of Mendyrians, Ianto felt wave upon wave of warmth sweep through him, filling him with confidence, joy and love.
"Jack...?" he asked softly, and his lover smiled beatifically.
"It's a kind of reverse empathy. They're projecting their joy onto us to let us know how happy they are for us."
Ianto sighed happily, revelling in the sensation. They approached Anna, who smiled at them welcomingly.
"Jack and Ianto," she began, "you stand here now to confirm that which you have already decided; that you wish to bond your lives together, for as long as you both shall live. Do you still wish to be bonded?"
"We do," they answered him in unison. Anna nodded and stepped in close so she could lay a hand on each of their shoulders.
"In our world, bonding is more than just spoken words. It is a bonding on the heart, the soul and the mind. Are you both prepared to take this step?"
"We are," they answered. Satisfied, Anna looked beyond them.
"Would the chosen witnesses please come forward?" Toshiko and Jal approached. Anna smiled warmly at them before speaking again. "You have both been chosen to bear witness to this union. Do you support them wholeheartedly and without reservation?"
"We do," Jal and Tosh responded.
"Then we are ready," Anna declared. "Jack and Ianto, please come and sit down."
At Anna's gentle urging, they seated themselves on the floor, facing each other.
"You have committed to each other in heart, mind and soul," Anna said, and though her words could be heard by all, they were clearly meant for the couple seated in front of her. "This bond is unbreakable, even in death. You may each come to love others in your lifetimes, but this bond will remain true in this life and the next." She laid a hand gently on each of their heads. "I can't promise you both an easy road, but it will be worthwhile. Tell me, are you ready?"
Jack reached out immediately for Ianto's hands, and the younger man offered them without hesitation.
"We're ready," Jack said for them both. Anna looked to Jal and Tosh, who stood close behind Jack and Ianto expectantly. She applied gentle pressure, guiding the two men to rest their foreheads together.
"Close your eyes, dear ones, and concentrate on each other. Become one and let your love for each other be the only thing that matters. Feel yourself slipping into each other's minds, deeper and deeper until you no longer know where one ends and the other begins."
Slowly, Jack and Ianto slumped against each other as they slipped into an induced sleep. Behind them, Jal and Tosh took gentle hold of them and laid them down gently so that their foreheads were still touching.
Smiling with satisfaction, Anna stood up straight and addressed the crowded room.
"You have all borne witness to Jack and Ianto's commitment to each other. Remember it well. Now, all shall adjourn to the celebration hall. When they awaken, the bonding will be complete, and we will celebrate this joyous moment together."
At the moment that Jack and Ianto collapsed against each other Gwen started in her seat, only to be stopped by Donna who was sitting immediately behind her.
"Don't you dare, missy. Nothing is going to interrupt this."
"But what is she doing to them?" Gwen demanded anxiously.
"It's part of the bonding ceremony, Gwen," Bobby explained. "One of the Elders told me about it earlier. First they verbally confirm their commitment to each other, and then their minds and souls are bonded together."
"Are they really all right?" Gwen wondered. Maera smiled, sensing only genuine concern from the other woman now.
"Of course they are. Look."
Kyrii had collected Eleya, and was guiding the little girl over to her parents. Far from being distressed, Eleya was smiling brightly. She went first to Ianto and then to Jack, kissing each man on the cheek in turn.
"Love you, Tad. Love you, Dada."
Kyrii then echoed the gesture, leaning over to press a gentle kiss to each man's temple.
"All the blessings of the universe be with you today and always, my sons."
Satisfied, she took Eleya's hand and the two joined the exodus from the hall.
"You see?" Maera assured Gwen. "They're fine. If they weren't, we'd have a hysterical little girl on our hands right now."
"How long?" Gwen asked. "Before they wake up, I mean."
"It shouldn't be too long," Maera said. "Maybe half an hour... an hour at the most. Anna will stay with them, and bring them to the other hall when they wake up."
"All right, then," Donna growled impatiently. "Let's get moving, before all the food gets eaten."
Maera laughed out loud as they followed the departing crowd.
"Don't worry about that. I guarantee there'll be plenty for everyone."
Anna watched silently as the hall cleared and the doors were closed. She then sat down in her seat, and waited.
"So this is what it's like to be inside your mind?"
Jack smiled at the lazy question.
"I hope you're not mocking me, Mr Jones."
Ianto smiled in return and closed his eyes against the warm sunshine that beat down on them. They lay together on a bed of soft, cool green grass, an oasis in the middle of a bed of sand dunes, with a glimpse of turquoise-coloured ocean just beyond the rolling hills. They were shaded by the over-sized branches of a tree, with just enough gaps to let the sunshine through -- enough to warm them without blinding them. It was peaceful and calming, and Ianto was in no hurry to leave.
"Never," he reassured Jack. "I'm just curious. Is this anything like where you come from?"
"Boeshane? A little. I guess it's more a mix of all the placed I've ever been where I've felt safe. This is the most private part of my mind, Ianto. You're the only one to ever be given access."
"I'm honoured," Ianto told him sincerely. "This bond, though... Can it go both ways?"
Jack smiled knowingly. An instant later, the warm, tropical scape was gone, and they found themselves sitting on a soft bed in a little room that overlooked a snow-covered landscape.
"My gran's home," Ianto explained. "This was where I escaped to when I couldn't deal with my dad's expectations. It's where I stayed after he broke my arm."
Jack tensed and Ianto shuddered as he felt a wash of anger flow through him. That was an interesting side effect of the bonding.
"It was an accident," Ianto assured Jack. "He didn't mean for it to happen, and I'm not trying to defend him out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. I was seven and he took me and Rhiannon to a playground... It wasn't long after Mam had a breakdown and had to be taken away to Providence Park. Anyway, I was on a swing and he wanted me to go higher because some kid on the swing beside me was swinging high. I didn't want to, so he just grabbed the swing and pushed. He pushed too hard and before I was ready for it. I fell off at the highest point, and landed badly. My arm was broken in three places. Dad was sick with guilt over it, but it didn't stop him from keeping on trying to push me in everything I did."
"I'm sorry," Jack murmured. Ianto hesitated, and then decided it was all in or not at all.
"He wasn't a master tailor, either. I mean, he was good enough to be one, but he never got any further in his career than the menswear department in Debenham's."
Jack pulled Ianto in close to him and pressed a loving kiss to the side of his neck.
"Were you ashamed of that?"
"No... but it did make me mad that he was on my case all the time when that was the highest his career ever went. Seemed a little hypocritical, you know?"
"Mm. All dads want to see their sons excel."
"Yeah. Not as bad as yours, but yeah. It's part of the reason why I went to war so young. For a long time after he died, I spent my life trying to live up to his expectations. I guess in a way, I still am."
"It's going to be okay," Ianto murmured, hugging Jack in return. "We have each other, and Eleya."
Jack held Ianto all the more tightly, and joy swept through the both of them, enhanced and amplified by their new bond.
"Yes. We do."
They awoke simultaneously, and for a few minutes were content to just lay there in each other's arms. It took a few minutes before they became aware that they were being observed.
"Anna?" Jack queried, while at the same time rubbing his hands up and down Ianto's back to reassure the younger man that they had nothing to be embarrassed about. "Is everything okay?"
She rose gracefully from her seat and approached the two men as they sat up.
"Everything is fine. When you're both ready, I will take you to the celebration hall. All are waiting to celebrate your union; Eleya especially."
Jack squeezed Ianto's hand.
"Our little girl."
Try as he might, and that wasn't very hard, Ianto could not stop the enormous grin that spread across his face. He was on his feet almost before he realised it, and was urging Jack up as well.
"C'mon, cariad. Let's go join our little girl."
Gwen eventually made her way over to the side of the hall, watching the festivities in resigned silence. The words of everyone she'd spoken to that day whirled through her mind, but it was Jack's words above all that stuck. He was right, even though she was loathed to admit it. She had been fine with the two of them being together, but only whilst she'd thought their relationship to be casual... or, more specifically, temporary. When it had become obvious that there was nothing temporary about it, that was when she'd reacted negatively, and with Eleya there to complete their little family, she had seen the door closing permanently on any chance she might have had with Jack.
Basically, she'd panicked.
And then she was confronted with the other point Jack had made, that Rhys deserved better than to have her just settle for him. It had cut her quite badly that Jack had been the one to point out how abysmally she was treating her fiance. Jack, who had a reputation that put any street walker to shame, was settling down with his lover and child, while she continued to lust after what she'd always known in her heart that she couldn't have.
As though on cue, to simply highlight her pain, the doors opened and Anna led in the newly bonded couple. They looked so happy, and at first Gwen wanted to weep at the perceived injustice of it. It physically hurt her to see Jack and Ianto so happy together, and that in turn shamed her deeply. She watched with a searing combination of guilt and jealousy as Eleya ran to her parents, and they lifted her between them. As applause erupted, she struggled to put on a brave face as any remaining shreds of her most secret fantasies crumbled.
"It's not the end of anything, you know."
Gwen started a little at the unexpected voice. She looked up to find Bobby standing beside her, smiling kindly, and had to fight a desire to snap at him. He was making a genuine effort to be nice and the least she could do was not bite his head off.
"How do you mean?" she asked, quietly hating how strained her voice sounded. Bobby sank into the chair beside her -- something that she was immensely grateful for as it saved her from straining her neck to look up at him.
"You love Jack," Bobby said plainly, "but you have to let him go. If you don't, it's only going to end up hurting you, because no one else is going to tolerate any interference in their relationship. You need to ask yourself, are you really willing to risk losing everything? Would it be worth it?"
The questions were rhetorical, but Gwen couldn't help but answer them.
"No, I'm not, and no, it wouldn't be worth it." She looked to where Jack and Ianto slowly making their way through the crowd, accepting the multitudes of congratulations as they went. They were headed in her direction, she realised with mild alarm. It seemed she had to options -- either turn tail and run from them like a coward, or deal with her issues fast and face them properly.
Gwen sucked in a long breath and fortified herself. She may have been many things, some of them not always good, but she was no coward. She stood up, her gaze fixed on Jack and Ianto and finally taking in all the tiny things that she'd always so conveniently ignored. She saw their fingers lingering within touching distance even when they weren't holding hands. She saw the brief glances they shared every few seconds, glances that were full of love and adoration.
They were the same looks that she got on a regular basis from Rhys.
Abruptly, that one thought brought an onslaught of memories, and that finally broke the last of her resolve.
"I love Jack," she whispered to herself, "but not in the way I love Rhys."
And suddenly, Jack and Ianto were standing in front of her with Eleya. Buoyed by her moment of clarity, Gwen managed her first real smile of the day.
"Congratulations," she told them sincerely.
"Thank you," Ianto murmured, leaning in to kiss her cheek. Jack emulated the gesture. Both men were startled, though, and so was Gwen when Eleya let go of the two men and leaned across to wrap her little arms around Gwen's neck in a fierce hug.
The Welshwoman gasped a little in astonishment at the little girl's sudden and apparent acceptance, and that astonishment quickly changed to near overwhelming emotion as any remaining tensions finally evaporated. She hugged Eleya back as Bobby offered his congratulations to Jack and Ianto, and felt genuine joy when Eleya murmured "Aunty Gwen" against her shoulder.
"It's because you've finally accepted Jack and Ianto together as a couple," Bobby guessed as the family moved away to greet other well-wishers.
"How do you mean?" Gwen wondered as she wiped self-consciously at her eyes.
"Well, you've accepted them, so Eleya's finally accepted you. She's psychic, Gwen. She had to be picking up on your emotions. Now you've resolved them, she's happy to accept you."
Gwen had to concede that made sense. She gazed up at Bobby, impressed by his perception.
"You really do see a lot, don't you, Bobby?"
His expression turned slightly melancholy, but contrary to how he might have reacted to the same remark even just six months ago, he didn't brush her off.
"My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and my dad was a mean drunk, I learnt early in life to be very observant. It's not always been a good thing, though. Not everyone likes being dissected. I pissed off a lot of people, especially in the NYPD. They didn't often appreciate my... my skill set."
She covered his hand lightly with her own and offered him a warm smile.
"You'll always be appreciated by us."
"I really never thought I'd see this place again," Jack murmured almost reverently as he crossed the threshold of Jal and Kyrii's home. "I missed this place so much when we were in hiding."
After the celebrations had finally wound down, a unanimous decision had been made to remain on Mendyr for the night, and return home when everyone was fully refreshed. While the Doctor chose to retreat to the TARDIS, everyone else was offered accommodation within the Council Chambers. The exception was Jack, Ianto and Eleya, who went with Jal and Kyrii back to their home. It was an emotional home-coming for Jack especially, even more-so than coming back to Mendyr after so long away.
"We missed you being here," Kyrii said. "Now, we can easily put Eleya up in her old room. I think she'll be quite happy with that. The two of you should be quite comfortable in your room, Jack. I think the bed should be big enough to accommodate you both. There's plenty of room for movement, I think..."
"Kyrii, don't embarrass them," Jal said gruffly as Ianto reddened at the obvious suggestion in her words. "Boys, before you do disappear, come and sit down for a few minutes. We have a proposition we'd like to put to you."
Jack frowned, but kept an admirable silence, choosing to wait until they'd heard the older couple out.
"Eleya needs training," Jal said plainly, "and you can't give that to her, not on your own." Pain flared in Jack's eyes, and Jal reached out quickly to grasp his hand in reassurance. "I'm not trying to pick faults, son. It's just the simple truth."
"Are you suggesting that we leave Eleya here with you?" Ianto asked. He made no effort to hide the hostility and disappointment he was suddenly experiencing. He had honestly expected better from the couple that Jack viewed as surrogate parents. Kyrii, however, smiled gently and shook her head.
"No, sweetheart. What we're suggesting is that we come with you when you return to Earth."
The statement floored both men, and even when Jack found his voice he could do little more than stammer.
"Kyrii... It's an amazing offer, but you have to understand... Both of you have to understand that it's not like travelling to the next town to stay. You can't just come home for the weekends. If you could with us, it might mean not coming home at all."
"Jack, we do understand," Jal assured him. "We talked it over thoroughly after we discovered that Eleya and snuck back onto the TARDIS. It's clear that she won't be separated from you, and that is as it should be. It's also clear that you won't forsake your responsibilities, and we are so proud of you for that. So that leaves just one option, that someone from Mendyr should accompany you back to Earth and stay on to teach Eleya. Logically, Kyrii and I are the best and only choice."
"But you'd be leaving everything behind," Jack said, though his will to argue was rapidly failing. "Your home, family, friends... Your whole life!"
Kyrii stood and walked around to stand by Jack. She stroked her fingertips lightly down the side of his face and smiled lovingly.
"The choice is ours, and we have already decided. Our lives are tied to yours, Jack. They have been from the day that Jal found you on the road. We love you as a son, and Eleya is our grandchild in every way but blood. We are going to come with you and hopefully make that path ahead of you a little easier to walk."
"Sappy," Jack whispered, even as he let himself be wrapped up in Kyrii's embrace. She smiled lovingly at both men, and the child who sat happily between them.
"Just the truth, dear one. Just the truth."
to be continued...
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