“Alexander, good to see you! Tell me young man, how old are you now?”
Alex gave a deep internal sigh.
“Six, Uncle George.”
“My, my, how time flies. Well, you sure are growing up. Big for your age, eh?”
Alex nodded solemnly.
“Uncle - my other uncle that is - says I’ll probably be as tall as Daddy.”
And there it was - that suppressed flinch, covered with a nervous smile; discomfort so palpable Alex could almost touch it. It was a shame, because Uncle George was quite nice really, and Alex could tell that he was very fond of Mum...
Aunt Emily on the other hand was so hostile that Alex could barely stand being in the same room, and he held on more tightly to Mum’s hand. Mum was his Defender and - to his great satisfaction - more than capable of holding her own against Aunt Emily. He sometimes wondered why his aunt (and most of the rest of his relatives) held such virulent antipathy towards him and Mum, because other people liked him just fine.
It wasn’t fair... But then nothing about his family, or their annual visit, was fair, he thought grumpily as they were shown into the rather ostentatious dining room.
The Family Seat was a beautiful old building, filled with history and set in large grounds with sculpted gardens. Alex could easily have lost himself in the place for days on end, exploring and discovering and drinking in the past. But children weren’t allowed to roam freely, and it was no use trying to say that he was different, and knew how to be very, very careful. Children, in his aunt’s opinion, had no appreciation for, or understanding of, history.
Although, as he looked down the table at his cousin Geoffrey, he could see why Aunt Emily might think so. Geoffrey was ten and what grownups called ‘robust’. He was busy telling his neighbour all about a cricket match at school (something that made Alex smile, because apparently they had something in common after all) - but it was obvious that he was not the type to get excited over a rare medieval illuminated script...
As he tried to concentrate on his food, Alex yet again imagined how wonderful it would be if he could bring Jack along. Jack would effortlessly make himself the centre of attention, entertaining everyone with fantastical stories and continually say things that would make people blush. But when he’d asked if Jack could come, back when he was only four, everyone - Mum, Uncle and Dad - had said ‘No’ so vehemently that he’d never brought it up again.
Second-cousin Anastasia - fifteen and wearing clothes and makeup that had made Aunt Emily frown a lot - caught his eyes and smiled at him, and he tentatively smiled back.
“It’s Alex, right? You looked like you were a million miles away. What were you thinking about?”
He sighed, and poked his exquisite dinner. “My uncle Jack. I wish he could be here...”
Anastasia leaned forward, ignoring Great Aunt Margaret who wanted the salt, and tilted her head. “Go on tell me - what’s your uncle Jack like? More fun than anyone here, right?”
Encouraged, his head still full of wishful thinking, Alex started speaking.
“Oh yeah, he’s brilliant! He’s got this really cool coat, and lots and lots of guns, and the best car ever, and his boyfriend-”
His mother’s voice cut through his excitement like a scalpel, and he instantly closed his mouth. Why couldn’t he learn to keep quiet? Jack was Torchwood, and Torchwood was off limits when talking to anyone outside Those In The Know - he was in so much trouble now, he thought miserably.
“Well this Jack sounds like a wonderful person for a little boy to be spending time with,” Aunt Emily said, eyes malicious, and Alex watched his mother slowly turn, wondering to himself how on earth she was going to save this.
“Jack is one of Doctor Smith’s... military associates. And personally I’ve always thought it prudent to foster strong support for our armed forces in my son.”
Aunt Emily looked quite unstuck.
“Oh come off it, Auntie,” Cousin Anastasia cut in. “It’s the boyfriend thing that’s bothering you, isn’t? It’s 2013, for crying out loud!”
Alex stared at her in pure, unadulterated admiration.
“Oh not the whole PC argument again,” someone sighed, and Aunt Emily quickly recovered.
“Of course not Anastasia. I’m just not sure that it’s approproiate for young children to be around guns.”
This caught the attention of Grand Uncle Arthur, who boomed from his place at one end of the long table: “Did someone say guns? Learning to shoot is an excellent skill my dear Emily, and quite frankly one that you should encourage. If people knew what they were doing there’d be far less accidents... It’s this nambly-pampy nanny state that’s ruining things. What we need in this country-”
Then several arguments broke out simultaneously, and Alex concentrated very hard on his dinner, not speaking another word as he could feel his mother’s eyes on him the whole time.
Moodily he wondered what might be happening in Torchwood right now... Maybe there were dangerous aliens and exciting chases - or maybe it was all quiet and cosy and Ianto was making coffee for Jack... Oh he’d give almost anything to be able to teleport there, even if he’d have to spend the whole day with Ianto’s chilly disapproval hanging over his head. Ianto was adamant that the Hub was not a place for children - not even if they had a brain the size of a planet. He usually referred to Alex as ‘the spoiled brat’ or ‘Timelord Troublemaker’ and plain refused to let him so much look at the subetheric resonator. Not to mention the archives, which were like an Aladdin’s Cave and drew Alex like a magnet.
But nonetheless Ianto was one of Alex’s favourite people. Ianto’s didn’t pretend to like him, never talked down to him, and was calm, professional and very good at his job. Also he loved Jack, and anyone who loved Jack automatically got a free pass in Alex’s book.
In the end the meal finally finished (7917 seconds, which was at least shorter than the previous year) and the children were ‘sent off to play’ - which meant they had to go to Geoffrey's room, and suddenly things began to look up since Geoffrey had a giant plasma screen TV and a top range Wii console. And for Christmas he’d been given the very latest 3-D Lego Star Wars game, which included lightsabre remotes - more than enough for all eleven of them.
Geoffrey immediately declared that he was going to be Luke Skywalker, and Alex supposed that this was only to be expected - it was his house after all.
“Can I be Han Solo?” he asked, telling himself firmly to remember that he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone that Han Solo was based on Jack.
Geoffrey turned and looked at him, then shook his head.
“You can be Jar-Jar Binks.”
Alex’s mouth fell open. “What?”
“Do you want to play or not?”
“I’m not going to be Jar-Jar Binks! He’s ridiculous.”
Alex was spoiled, he knew that. He usually got his own way, partly because people indulged him, and partly because he was good at ‘leaning’ on others mentally, making them agree with him. But Geoffrey folded his arms, looking down on him with as much disdain and stubbornness as could be crammed into a ten year old’s face and not all the 'leaning' in the world would make a difference, that much was clear.
“This is my house, and one day I’m going to be a proper Lord, so you have to do what I say!”
Alex swallowed. He didn’t quite know what to do - he’d never been in a position like this before. Usually he was the one to break up fights and get others to agree to a compromise. But a glance around the assembled cousins showed that there was no one who was going to be mediator here.
Then he lifted his chin and looked up at Geoffrey, not prepared to give an inch - he was a Saxon (a Timelord; the prince of the universe!) and no one talked to him like that.
“No I don’t. You can’t tell me what to do.”
Geoffrey looked a little taken aback, but was obviously not going to back down either.
“Yes I can! And- and you should be grateful that I let you play at all.”
This made Alex frown. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Geoffrey looked a little unsure, but then he went for it, obviously not going to let his younger cousin win.
“My mum says that you’re the black sheep of the family and that if your mum had a- a shred of decency she’d not come and embarrass everyone.”
“Embarrass?” Alex asked slowly, feeling something dark stir deep down inside.
“It’s... it's ‘cause your mum won’t divorce your dad, which makes her look stupid and that makes us look stupid, and people are probably laughing at us behind our back! So- so you should be grateful that we invite you.”
Alex was for once completely stumped.
“I don’t understand. That’s not funny. Why would they laugh?”
Geoffrey's eyes shone with triumph.
“I thought you were supposed to be so clever, Alexander. It’s because your dad’s a joke!”
If Alex had been a different sort of a boy, he would at this point have thrown himself at his cousin, letting his fists do the talking. But physical violence never occurred to him. The sudden burning fury in his mind was of a very different nature: It was cold and sharp and intense, and it seemed to fill him up so completely that there wasn’t room for anything else.
His father was the Master. He was death and fear and destruction - an immortal terror who had blazed across the stars for a millennium, and no foolish, monkey-descended human brat should ever speak of him like this.
“My father is the most dangerous man in the world,” he said, barely able to keep his voice level through the anger. “And if he was here he would kill you like that - and good riddance!”
He was so furious that he hadn’t noticed the door opening, but seeing the sudden change in Geoffrey's expression he turned, and looked straight into Aunt Emily’s shocked face.
Next thing he knew he was being dragged down perfectly carpeted hallways by his arm, and he couldn’t help but feeling pleased that Aunt Emily had finally lost her cool. A moment later they were standing in the doorway to the drawing room, no one noticing them until Aunt Emily spoke.
“Lucy, could I borrow you for a moment? It’s about your son.”
A hush fell over the room, but his mother merely put down her coffee cup and excused herself with a small smile, as self-possessed as ever.
Once they were alone, Aunt Emily took great pleasure in telling his Mum exactly what he'd said - but if she’d hoped to unsettle her sister-in-law, she failed. Alex’s Mum maybe went a little paler, but that was all, and she was still perfectly composed as she turned to him.
“Alexander - what have you got to say?”
He looked from face to face, and knew he ought to explain what Geoffrey had said. He ought to reason and apologise and all the rest... but his head was still full of all-consuming cold fire, and he was far beyond caring about consequences. He looked up at his mother, and met her reproachful eyes with resolute stubbornness.
“I’m not sorry.”
She didn’t flinch, but her eyebrows drew together.
“You were very rude, and you how I feel about that. Will you apologise?”
He pressed his lips together and shook his head. His mother looked at him silently for a long moment, then turned back to Aunt Emily.
“We should probably leave.”
And just like that freedom appeared. In no time at all they were dressed and standing by the door, saying goodbye. Uncle George seemed rather upset, saying that he couldn’t possibly let them spend hours in a train station waiting room, and why didn’t they just get the boys to make up - but Aunt Emily and Alex’s Mum exchanged arctic looks and Alex felt like a Cheshire Cat in reverse - his smile was big and wide, but invisible. If he had regrets, it was only that he didn’t get to say goodbye to Anastasia.
As he and his mother stood on the empty, freezing platform a while later, the pale winter sun nearing the horizon, she pulled out her phone.
“I’ll call the Doctor and ask him to pick us up - as soon as you tell me what really happened.”
He knew immediately that there was no point in beating around the bush (she’d not ask again, just wait), so he started right from the beginning and repeated the whole conversation word for word.
As she listened to his retelling, there came the strangest look into her eyes - a look he couldn’t work out at all.
“Mummy?” he asked when he’d finished. “Is it true what Geoffrey said? Is that why they don’t like us?”
For a moment his Mum seemed to be lost, her face as cool and distant as the frozen hills surrounding them. Then she shook her head.
“A long time ago now - before he ruled the world - your father did your grandfather a favour. A very big favour indeed. The family owe him, Alexander, and I won’t allow them to forget it. Gratitude... gratitude can be a terrible, terrible thing, please remember that.”
He nodded, stowing away all this new information for when he’d have time to mull it over, as his mother began pressing the buttons on her mobile.
They heard the grinding of the TARDIS before she’d hung up, and Alex for the first time began worrying about what his Uncle might say.
But then he stood up straight and grasped his mother’s hand. He didn’t care what anyone said - he wasn’t sorry at all.