Title: Small Wonders
Summary: "You are allowed to go home, Tosh. I'm the only one who's meant to live down here."
Spoilers: Incredibly vague for DW3.11, Utopia, and DW3.13, Last of the Time Lords. Set sometime early in TW season 2, but no spoilers for anything on the show.
Disclaimer: Not mine, no matter how many DVDs and toys I buy! Everything here belongs to RTD and to Auntie Beeb, who already has my licence fee.
Notes: And now for something a little different – inspiration for this one came about on a recent trip to the US, while looking at the mineralogy display in the Field Museum in Chicago. They have a rather pretty piece of mesolite in their display and the rest just sort of followed on from there, with a few bits of dialogue culled from a snippet written last year.
Thanks as always to my wonderful betas, Mimarie and Jwaneeta – any remaining weirdnesses are all mine. Feedback of any variety is much appreciated but not compulsory – I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn...
Quick fingers flew over the keyboard, adjusting, refining, altering parameters as they scrolled across the screens before her. She almost had it now, the pattern settling further with each careful correction; calculation and intuition indistinguishable as the algorithm strengthened, wrapping itself around the alien data and slowly drawing sense from the swirling script they had found etched into the surface of a luminescent curved blue panel seemingly abandoned in the back of a churchyard in Pontypridd. There had been similar pieces in the archives, going back over a century, one quite clearly a companion piece to their latest acquisition, and she was certain that they had enough to go on now. The translation programs were art as much as science, but in the right hands, with the right coaxing, they could reveal wonders that made up for all of the fear and violence and uncertainty. Just a little more, a little –
Toshiko Sato jumped and swore as a loud beeping and the urgent metallic voice of the computer suddenly broke her concentration and she pushed back in her chair, trying to refocus her eyes enough to make out what the Rift monitoring system was telling her. She sighed, annoyed at the interruption. "Your timing is impeccable," she muttered at the screen.
"I do my best." Toshiko jumped again, startled, and felt the grin at her back. "Were you aware that it's three in the morning?"
"It is?" She peered at her watch, then turned as Jack leaned across her workstation to frown at the blue type swiftly filling the screen. "I lost track."
"You always do." His smile was fond as he skimmed the readings. "You are allowed to go home, Tosh. I'm the only one who's meant to live down here."
"I know, I know," she said with a yawn. "But the translation program –"
"Will still be there in the morning." In the harsh white light of the desk lamps, Jack looked as frustratingly fresh as he always did. "Okay. Rift activity was centred on Saint Fagan's Road out in Fairwater. Just a blip but it looks like it brought something with it."
"Yes, but whatever it is, it's small, stationary, and readings indicate non-organic. No notable energy signature." Toshiko smiled, relieved that they weren't being invaded and equally relieved that they wouldn't need to bring the others in – nobody appreciated night call-outs. "Should be a simple retrieve and return."
"Guess I'd better get to it, then!" Jack turned to go, then frowned as Toshiko grabbed for her coat and the handheld scanner. "Er, Tosh? Emphasis on the 'I'd' there. You need to go get some sleep."
"I'm here and I'm awake," she told him, shrugging into her jacket. "And if it turns out to be nothing, you can drop me off at home and make sure I actually get there."
Jack regarded her for a long moment, then nodded. "It's a deal. And I don't want to see you back here until you've had a solid eight hours. Or until I call you in," he added over his shoulder as he turned to fetch his greatcoat. "One or the other..."
'Whichever is sooner,' Toshiko finished to herself with a smile as she made a last adjustment to the scanner's frequency and set off after him. Somehow, she rather thought she knew which it would be.
The streets of Cardiff were oddly peaceful in the small hours of a Wednesday night, with just the occasional taxi or ungainly supermarket lorry as competition. The rain caught the orange glare of the streetlights, shining gold in the air, silver as it played through security lights and headlamps, casting abstract reflections of shop fronts and road signs on the wet tarmac. Toshiko watched the streets glide by in the quiet dampness, grateful that Jack, for once, didn't seem to be in a tearing hurry to reach their destination. She smiled as he stopped at a red light. "Are you feeling all right? You usually speed up when you see one of those."
"Contrary to popular belief, I am familiar with the Highway Code," Jack told her, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. "I just prefer to think of it more as... guidelines." The lights switched to amber and the SUV instantly leapt forward with a loud squeal of protesting tyres, slamming Toshiko back in her seat. Jack grinned at her. "Better?"
"Much," Toshiko said, hearing her voice come out a little higher than she'd hoped. She clung to her seatbelt as he went barrelling down Clare Road, having apparently taken her words as a challenge. "It's just as well you don't have a driver's license," she told him. "If you did, you'd probably have more points on it than the average supermarket loyalty card..."
Jack snorted. "Oh, please. I've been here longer than those idiots at the DVLA, and that whole 'retaking your test when you're seventy' thing? Just asking for trouble."
"Right," said Toshiko, making a mental note to check when the DVLA was founded. "When were you due to retake?"
Jack glanced at her and his grin widened a fraction. "C'mon, Tosh. If I told you guys everything, it'd just take the fun out of it!"
"True, but the occasional hint might be nice." Toshiko grabbed at the armrest as they took a corner a little too fast for her liking. Jack laughed, but slowed down to something vaguely approaching the speed limit. "Thank you," she breathed.
"Just trying to make sure you don't fall asleep on me..."
"I don't think there's any fear of that," she told him, and they lapsed into companionable silence again as the SUV purred along Cathedral Road. Despite her words, Toshiko found herself blinking at the hypnotic rhythm of the windscreen wipers, her mind threatening to drift away from her. She frowned, forcing herself to concentrate on the road ahead.
"You okay, Tosh?" Jack's voice was soft, concerned. "Want me to take you home?"
"No, no – I'm fine." She sighed and ran a hand down over her face. "Really." She glanced out of the side window, trying to avoid looking at the wipers as they continued their tireless pendulum sweep. "I just wish the weather was better."
"Nothing wrong with a splash of rain," Jack told her, and there was a sudden edge to his voice that made her frown and look at him. "You'd be surprised at how much you miss it when you can't..." He trailed off.
"You missed it while you were... away?" Toshiko asked cautiously, abruptly awake. Jack liked to project an image of utter openness, a bright sheen of flirtation and flash, but she had long ago realised that it was all surface, an armoured carapace that covered something deep and dark and as frightening as it was fascinating. She liked Jack, would trust him with her life, but after four years she couldn't honestly say that she knew him. Four years and she didn't even know his real name...
"Yeah," he said quietly. "I missed the rain. Missed the feel of it, the smell of it, the taste of it... Just not as much as I missed you guys." He smiled sadly, as if at remembered loss. "But, that's done now. I'm back here. Where I belong."
"And you found what you needed?"
Jack gusted out a sigh. "I got my answers, if that's what you mean."
"And?" she prompted gently.
"And apparently I'm living proof of why it's a bad idea to play god without having first read the manual."
"Oh. Right." Toshiko nodded slowly and waited, not certain how much he was willing to share. It was always so hard to tell with Jack just where and what the limits were, these moments of apparent honesty few and far between and impossible to predict. "So –"
"I'm a freak, Tosh," Jack said suddenly. "An abomination. A mistake. Someone thought they were doing me a favour and ended up writing me into the fabric of space-time. Permanently."
"Oh," she said again. A small part of her wondered at the fact that she was even thinking of taking that statement at face value, but if there was one thing this job taught you... "I'm... sorry?"
Jack shrugged. "Don't be. It's not something that can be changed; I just have to learn to live with – heh." He snorted softly at his choice of words, then smiled. "Has its downsides of course – if I'm going to be around until the gravitational collapse of the universe, then I'm afraid you're kinda stuck with me!"
"I'm not sure that's a disadvantage," Toshiko told him, returning the smile. She hesitated a moment. "So you really are immortal?"
"Yup. Can't be killed." He frowned, rolling his shoulders slightly. "Can be contained, which is no fun at all, but that's why I have you guys, right? Keep me out of too much trouble?"
"I'm not sure any force on Earth is strong enough to manage that." She watched his face as the streetlights played across the windscreen, a constantly shifting mask of white and gold and shadow. It was hard to imagine forever, the generations and millennia coursing past and leaving the man beside her untouched, caught in a single impossible moment while humanity changed around him, evolved or went extinct. She wasn't sure if she should envy or pity him. "But you're all right with it? With just... living?"
"It's not like I have any choice," Jack said softly, catching her eyes a moment before returning his attention to the road. "But, I'm happy with that, now. I'm happy just knowing that I'm a well-meaning mistake, that I wasn't kept around for a reason. I don't have a higher purpose, Tosh. There's nothing pre-ordained for me. I just am."
"And that's good?"
"I'm free," he said simply. "Free to do what I like, choose my own path."
"And you chose to come back here, to us?"
"Yeah." Jack's smile was wide, genuine. "Yeah, I did." Something outside caught his attention... and the moment broke, slipping away as suddenly as it had arrived. "Here we are," he said, all business again as the SUV passed under the momentary shelter of a railway bridge. "Saint Fagan's Road, coming up. What's the scanner say?"
"It's about a quarter of a mile ahead," Toshiko reported, peering at the blue lights as the scanner exchanged information with the main arrays at the Hub. "Still stationary, readings confirm non-organic but chemically complex." She glanced up as the SUV slowed to a crawl, trying to get a visual as the scanner flashed with increasing urgency. "Not yet, not yet, nearly, not yet... stop!"
Jack pulled in beside a battered bus shelter, its broken glass spread around it like crystalline gravel that sparkled in the rain. Toshiko lifted the scanner, then nodded. "This is it."
"Great! Let's go get it." Jack swung his door open and jumped out, apparently revelling in the downpour. Toshiko watched him a moment, recalling his words of just minutes before, and shuddered. Something told her that she didn't want to know the details.
Climbing out of the car, she ducked beneath the questionable cover of the bus shelter and looked around, not immediately spotting anything that looked out of place. "So where is it?"
"Right there." Jack stepped up beside her, his hair dripping and broken glass crunching beneath his feet. He trained his Maglite on something on the ground beside a graffiti-scarred litter bin. "Take a closer look," he told her, his smile encouraging. "It's harmless."
"You're sure?" Toshiko frowned at the object, leaning forward as she switched the scanner to close analysis. It was about the length of her hand, brilliant white and glistening with water droplets that clung to a forest of fine glassy spines. It seemed to be formed of two rough domes, both prickling with fragile-looking spears. The smaller of the two was elongated at the outside edge, making the object resemble nothing so much as a crystalline hedgehog, and it was –
Toshiko blinked and rubbed at her eyes, then looked again. It was slow, to be sure, but there was definitely... "It's moving? But the scan said – still says – inorganic."
"Not all life in the universe is carbon-based, Tosh." Jack pulled her down to crouch beside him. "Silicon-based is rarer but it's there if you know where to look. Looks like we have a stray."
"Oh yes." He indicated the – front? – end of the thing and handed her the torch. "See?"
There was water trickling across Toshiko's scalp, working its way under the collar of her coat. She ignored it, brushing shattered glass aside with her sleeve and getting down on her hands and knees to peer more closely at the crystalline creature, the Maglite's powerful beam illuminating details and reflecting from the spines and the raindrops until the entire thing appeared to glow. From this new vantage she could see... not so much paws as four pale bifurcated paddles, tucked safely beneath the smaller of the spiny domes, wrapped carefully around –
"It's eating the glass?" The creature was clutching one of the fragments of shattered bus shelter, turning it slowly, so slowly, as it crept forward on what seemed to be a translucent series of blunt stumps, almost hidden beneath the slender spines. "I don't see a mouth."
"You won't. There's an absorptive surface under the forequarters. It presses its food against that and dissolves it, takes it in that way." Jack chuckled. "Just don't ask me to explain the chemistry."
"It's beautiful," Toshiko breathed, reaching out to –
"Ah, ah," Jack tapped her wrist in warning. "Don't touch. The spines are more resilient than they look, but it's very easy to catch one wrong and it will break off in your skin."
Toshiko frowned, pulling her fingers back. "It's poisonous?"
"No, but you'll end up with a glass spike in your hand, broken off at skin level. It... kinda hurts."
She glanced up, squinting against the rain. "You sound like you speak from experience?"
"When don't I?" Jack winced theatrically, then stood. "Come on, we need to get this little guy back to the Hub before he goes wandering into the road, gets himself squashed and trashes someone's tyres."
"Is that likely?"
"Hey, it looks like a hedgehog – you really want to see how deep the resemblance goes?"
It took them half an hour to shoo the thing – albeit very slowly – into a portable containment unit. Both were soaked to the skin by the time they tucked it into the relative safety of the SUV's boot, Jack throwing his sodden greatcoat in beside it. Toshiko pushed her wet hair back from her face, wringing it out as best she could, and laughed. "Well, this certainly isn't how I thought I'd be spending the night..."
"What, on your hands and knees, getting wet with me?" Jack grinned wolfishly and winked at her, although the effect was rather ruined by his startling resemblance to a half-drowned rat. "You're the one who wanted to come on the pick-up."
"How could I have missed this? Getting down and dirty with my boss in the heart of Fairwater. In the middle of the night. In the pouring rain." Toshiko smiled as she tugged open the passenger door of the SUV, then looked from the expensively-upholstered seats to her dripping clothing. She sighed. "Ianto is going to kill us."
Jack laughed. "Oh, Ianto lives to mop up our wet patches."
"I'm not sure he'd agree with you about that." Toshiko settled gingerly into the car seat, smoothing her wet skirt over her thighs as best she could. She turned as Jack climbed in beside her. "What are we going to do with it?" she asked, waving a hand towards the back of the SUV. "It seems rather slow and harmless."
"By the standards of most silicon-based lifeforms, our spiky little pal there is a veritable speed demon," Jack told her, starting the car. "And yeah, it's harmless so long as you don't try to poke it. I'm sure we've got an old plastic aquarium that we can put it in. Not much point using glass – it'll just eat its way out."
"You want to keep it as a pet?"
"Sure, why not? We'd need specialist industrial equipment to dissect it, and besides," he added, waving a hand vaguely towards the skies, "it's got to be easier to housetrain than a Pteranodon."
Toshiko laughed at that particular memory. "And its leavings have to smell better."
"Leave it long enough and it'll shit diamonds."
She blinked. "Really?"
"Really." Jack chuckled. "Can't digest any carbon contamination in its diet, so out it comes, in the densest form it can manage! But continents will move faster than its glassy little innards, so I wouldn't hold your breath..."
Dawn was just starting to lighten the eastern horizon as the SUV pulled up outside Toshiko's flat. She snapped out of a doze as Jack turned the engine off, her momentary disorientation giving way to acute embarrassment as his breath tickled warmly against her cheek. "Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty," he murmured.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I must have –"
"It's almost five AM, Tosh – you're allowed." Jack climbed out of the driver's seat, moving around to open the passenger door. He still looked as annoyingly fresh as he always did. "Come on, Toshiko," he told her, amused. "Time for tired little Torchwood techies to go beddy-byes. And I don't want to see you again before lunchtime, right?"
"Right, right..." She yawned and undid her seatbelt, pulling a face as she peeled herself out of the car, her damp clothes clinging clammily to her skin. "Oh, that's disgusting..."
Jack's smile was a pale flash in the half-light. "Want me to check you over for wrinkles?"
Toshiko giggled, then clapped her hand to her mouth. "I need to sleep," she groaned. "I almost found that funny."
Jack laughed and took her arm, leading her out of the road. The rain had finally eased off and the birds were singing loudly in the trees, blackbirds and starlings raucously serenading the dawn. A milk float was rattling its way up the street towards them, its hum still muted by distance, and the clipped bark of an urban fox sounded from somewhere nearby. Cardiff was wakening around them, as unaware of the small wonder that had arrived during the night as it invariably was of the horrors and glories that the Rift discharged into its midst. The city was a heady mix of the mundane and the monstrous and the magical and she –
She blinked and shook her head. She really needed to get some sleep.
"You okay?" Jack asked as they stopped at her door, Toshiko fishing in her pockets. "Think you can make it to your bed before you fall asleep?"
"I'm fine." She held her keys aloft triumphantly and smiled up at him, then smothered a yawn. "I'll leave my phone on, just in case..."
"We'll try not to have any world-threatening crises before at least two in the afternoon, I promise." Jack squeezed her shoulder fondly. "Goodnight, Tosh."
"'Night, Jack." Toshiko raised the key to the door... then turned on her heel to catch at the damp cotton of his sleeve. He turned back towards her and she stood up on her tiptoes to press a brief kiss against his cheek. "Thank you."
He grinned. "Hey, I wasn't about to let you catch the night bus..."
"Not for the lift." She shook her head tiredly. "For coming back. For... for letting me in. You didn't have to."
He pressed a kiss of his own against her forehead. "Thank you for listening," he said quietly, his smile fading into something comfortably companionable, the old shadows blessedly absent. Toshiko thought it rather suited him. "And it's true – I've found my answers and found my peace. It won't always be easy, I know, but I'm... happy with what I am. Be a pretty miserable version of eternity if I wasn't."
"I guess it would be." She wrapped him in a quick hug and stepped back, key in hand. "So, I'll see you later."
"Not before lunchtime..."
He laughed, walking backwards for three steps before turning with a cheery wave and making his way back to the dark bulk of the SUV and Torchwood's unlikely new guest. Toshiko wondered what he'd decide to name it.
Smiling to herself, she let herself in and headed for her bed, to dream of worlds of living rocks, crystalline creatures that scattered diamonds behind them, and a man who would outlive the universe.