Title: Strange Monsters

Author: Aeshna

Spoilers: TW 2.12 Fragments

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.

This was one of those odd bunnies that mugged me out of nowhere I was waiting for a lift at work one morning and suddenly found I had dialogue running through my head. Happily, I was the only one there as it might have been awkward explaining just why I was suddenly swearing aloud for no particular reason... ;) Took a while to settle into a solid form after that initial burst, but it got there in the end!

Many thanks to Mimarie and Jwaneeta for looking this over for me. Feedback of any variety is very much appreciated but not compulsory I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn...

Dark, dawn-touched ripples slid slickly against stone, an ever-shifting mirror of the world above. No sense of depth, no sense of distance, just the mindless shift of one realm against another, quiescent in one moment and wind-whipped into turmoil in the next. The waters stretched out towards headlands edged in points of light, the horizon swallowed by a sky lost behind cloud, low and smothering, tinged with the orange glow of the city at his back until it vanished into darkness.

Standing at the rail, the man who called himself Jack Harkness closed his eyes and turned his face into the bitter wind that blew in across the bay, letting it freeze the wet tracks that still lingered on his cheeks. The sky to the east was lightening, the sun rising on a new day, a new year, a new century, a new millennium

Griff's voice, protesting once more that they were all celebrating a year early; the rest of the team laughing at his pedantry

but his familiar private ritual held no promise of comfort, held nothing but empty hopes and an aching hole where his heart should be. He had felt this before, this crushing desperation, this wrenching sense of abandonment, but that had been a long time, such a long, long time ago...

He tipped his head back, blinking away the sting of fresh tears as the clouds scudded heavily overhead. Oh yes, he had felt this before, had thought himself hardened to it, but a round century of friendship, of family, had left him far too open to betrayal, it seemed. Twenty-four years he had known Alex Hopkins

so wide-eyed and eager, fresh from university, trying to take it all in at once as Debbie led him into the boardroom to meet the team; Rupert rising from his seat to shake the hand of Torchwood's newest recruit

twenty-four years as friend and mentor and confidant and lieutenant and sometime lover, twenty-four years of laughter and loss and duty and joy and pain and everything between, of old friends lost and new friends found. He had always known that he would lose Alex one day they all left him in the end, could not help but leave him but after twenty-four years he was almost willing to believe that it might be to retirement, to age, to the simple frailties of the mortal.

Not to this. Never this.

A gull called somewhere in the lightening gloom, a lone voice across unnatural waters. Jack shook his head fiercely, looking down at the dark ripples and remembering all too clearly the sight and the scent of the tidal flats now hidden by the Barrage's influence. The worm-pocked expanse of silt and soil had provided rich pickings and it had not only been the curlews and the sandpipers and the snipe that probed the edges, seeking the hidden things that lurked where one world slid against another. He had long since lost count of the times they had rowed and waded and dug after Rift flotsam out in the bay, returning to the Hub invariably triumphant and inevitably caked in foul-smelling filth. In many ways the Barrage had made things more difficult, and yet

regaling Alex and Mike and Ahmed with mud-spattered tales of teammates decades dead; Griff laughing as Lisa misjudged the champagne and sent bubbles spilling across his hand; the six of them huddled beneath umbrellas, watching and celebrating as the waters rose one final time

it was the future, was what the bay communities so desperately needed. For a century and more he had watched the trade ships judge the Channel's tides, had watched the city's fortunes wax and wane. Had seen his own fortunes change, the desperate refugee become honest emigrant become broken vagabond become valued operative.

Jack closed his eyes and thrust his hands deep inside the pockets of his battered greatcoat, swallowing angrily against the tears that threatened to overwhelm him once more. He had come to Torchwood as a prisoner and had found himself a place to belong, amongst people who accepted him and his peculiarities, and if he had started his tenure as a tool, a walking weapon, then he had swiftly found himself family

dancing with Elouise under a full moon as they waited for a Klorochi emergence; holding Jimmy tight against him as they mourned for Tara and Daffyd; feeding Jaya's young daughter with stickily over-iced birthday cake; showing Quentin how to use chopsticks while Katherine heckled gleefully; teaching Mike the only-slightly-adulterated words of a J'krec'chi peace chant

in every way that mattered. Ten decades of teams flowing one into another, through six monarchs, twenty prime ministers, two World Wars and innumerable smaller skirmishes; a century of history, and now...

Alex had been right about one thing everything was changing. Had changed, all at once, at the hand of one of their own: the continuity broken, another family lost, leaving him stranded and alone once more. He supposed he should be grateful that Alex had at least waited to explain himself.

That Alex had at least apologised for not being able to take him with them.

He shook his head, looking down at the dark waters as they lapped against the stone and feeling utterly bereft. It was over, with nothing to hold him here but memories and the faded hope of finding answers to the questions he had carried for so very long. All that remained now was to decide

Jack didn't turn as footsteps scuffed lightly behind him, didn't need to. "'Turn twice' you said." He snorted and turned his gaze towards the east, towards the dawn of the new century. "Well, that was number two and, god knows, I'm ready to just get the hell out of here..."

"Poor Captain, all alone again." She stopped beside him, her small, gloved hands no cards today, it seemed resting on the rail. "They come and they go and they leave us behind."

"Yeah." He swallowed hard, his throat tightening anew against the effort of speech. "Poor me."

Silence hung between them, shivering in the whisper of wind over water, in the discordant demands of the gull. Grief sat like a stone in his gut, dragging him down, crushing him beneath its implacable weight. They had had such hopes, such history, and now...

"Did you know?" he asked suddenly, his voice rough with unshed tears. "Did you know what he was going to do?"

"No," she said, turning to look at him with her great dark eyes. "I See for those who seek their truths. He didn't seek."

"Neither did I," Jack reminded her, refusing to meet her unblinking gaze. "Not that first time. It didn't stop you."

"You're different," she told him. "I See, but you Are."

"Yeah? I'd noticed." He cleared his throat and scrubbed at his nose with the sleeve of his greatcoat. "Why are you here?"

"Because you need me to be." Her lips twitched into a small, sad smile as he finally turned his head towards her. "We stand on the outside looking in, you and I. They look out and think they know us but all they see are their own reflections. Too bound in their small lives to see what lies beyond the shore."

"They're not ready," Jack said quietly, closing his eyes as he recalled Alex's words. "They... they were the best of them, but in the end he just... And the stupid thing " He shook his head, suddenly angry. "The stupid thing is, it wasn't even real! Irrimok feedback pendant, 47th Century, designed to isolate and amplify the darkest fears of whoever opens it. Nasty little gizmo popular for sabotaging business rivals, ex-lovers, that sort of thing. Must have been part of the collection Lisa and Griff picked up last week just bits of flotsam some old dear had been fishing out of the Taff over the years and "

The tears caught him by surprise and he found himself clinging to the rail as the sobs tore through him once more, every bit as violent as they had been as he cradled Alex's cooling body in his arms; as they had been as he closed the drawers, one after another, closing another chapter of his too-long life. They were gone, they were gone, and he was left to face this bright new dawn alone. "It was meant to be me who left," he choked out through his tears. "It was always meant to be me..."

"Was it?" asked the quiet voice beside him. There was the briefest of pressures on his shoulder, and he blinked in surprise she never touched anyone. "He didn't want to leave you behind not this one, not this time. He acted out of love, only love."

"Yeah? Doesn't make them any less dead, does it?"

The faint drone of a siren sounded from somewhere behind them, the police no doubt rounding up the last, drunken revellers and sending them home or to the cells before they froze. Jack ran his hands down over his face and fished in a pocket for his already-damp handkerchief, blowing his nose loudly as he carefully pieced together the fragments of his shattered composure. The sun was rising on a new millennium, the world around him looking bright-eyed to the future... but all he could feel was old, out of place, helpless in the face of change. A century of service and "Alex gave it to me, you know. The base, the identity. Everything."

"Will you accept it?"

He snorted softly, glancing down at her though tear-wet lashes. "Don't you already know the answer to that?"

"Do I? Do you?" She smiled sadly, her huge eyes oddly troubled. "It's not... clear, here and now. The Rift obscures my Sight, and you are so, so bright with time. You cast so many shadows around you, too many shadows..."

"I cast?" Jack frowned. "You really don't know what's happening?"

"Not all things are absolute, and you?" She sighed. "You are the point around which it all revolves."

"I'm flattered," Jack murmured, trying not to think too hard about her words and what they implied. He took a deep breath. "I don't know if I can do this..."

"You would go?"

"Why not?" he asked, his tone challenging. "What's holding me here?"

"The waters cover many sins," she said suddenly, turning her gaze out across the bay. "Old and new and yet to come; times past, secrets buried. A world within the world, wrapped around and twisted through. Your world; their world."

"They're not there," he reminded her, feeling a stirring of anger. "They're dead. Gone. There's only me now. Only me."

"They were here and they will be here again. You were a part of what was." She looked back up him. "Will you be a part of what shall be? The heart of what shall be?"

Jack swallowed hard and looked away. He understood what she was saying albeit in her own strange way and he had loved them all over the years, loved them as they came and went, lived and died, ceded their place to others and left him behind. The Hub would not stand empty forever, whatever his choice, but here in the now he couldn't bring himself to think that far ahead. They weren't even half a day dead how could he think of the future, of replacements, of carrying on and on and on...? "Please," he breathed, "just let me mourn."

"There is no time," she told him, suddenly insistent. "If you don't rebuild, won't rebuild, they will. With their shiny Tower and their shiny words and their big, sharp teeth." She turned to look back towards the waste ground where warehouses had once stood, now marked by the churned ruts of lorry wheels, the muddy peaks and troughs frozen in place by the mid-winter chill. "You see them too," she said, "the inspired furnace and the singing horizons. The words in the water. The future waiting. Would you lose that? Let them take it? Take all the strangeness of this place, to be caged and catalogued and carved apart?"

"I thought you couldn't see anything?"

"Shadows shift."

"I told you. I can't..." But the thought of Torchwood One claiming the Hub and the city and they would, they would for themselves after decades of near-independence sent an edge of sudden fury coiling through his gut. This place was his his home, his history, the one safe place to which he always returned. They had no right

"Oh," she said quietly, closing her eyes and trembling for just the briefest of moments. "Thank you, Captain."

And, just like that, he knew that the decision had been made.

"So," Jack murmured, feeling a sudden, dizzying sense of relief, of purpose, rippling through him. "Here I stay."

"You will stay and he will come," she said, just as softly. "The one you have been waiting for. He will come and you will go and find what you have sought for so, so long, and then..." She trailed off, looking up at him with an expression that was almost fond. "Time here or time there which defines you most?"

He met her gaze, holding it as the old certainties of a century past faded

whooping in fierce delight and clinging on for dear life as Alice sent the carriage barrelling through the streets of Swansea; exchanging wine and songs with the men with whom he had shared the fetid trenches; the visceral rush of taking to the skies again after four long, grounded decades, surrounded by a craft fashioned from little more than cloth and string and wood-ribbed hope

releasing the hold they had not, in truth, held in generations. Waiting for the promised turn of the second century, he had never let himself think beyond the finding, beyond the knowing, beyond wondering if he could be 'fixed' or 'cured' or the hundred other careful euphemisms that haunted his darker moments. All he had ever really wanted was to find a place that he could be a part of

hunting a pack of Y'siri moondrakes through a starlit forest, Ryan and Vera wide-eyed beside him, their faith in him absolute; sharing William's delight at the birth of his son; feeling a rush of savage pride as Cardiff was declared the capital

that he could help shape into something worthwhile, where he could trust and be trusted, and he had found that here, as it had found him

stealing cakes and kisses at a street party for the Silver Jubilee as Sharmila laughed and rolled her eyes; watching the sun rise, framed by the wide windows of Edie's bedroom, as she and Tim moved languidly against him; all the thousand tiny moments that had brought him to this place

and while he still needed to find, still needed to know... at the end of it, he knew that he would come back here to whatever team and whatever fate awaited him.

His home, his history, the one safe place to which he always returned.

"Heh." Jack tipped his head back, looking up at the scudding clouds and feeling the tracks of fresh tears against his face. "'Time here or time there'? You're good at this." He sighed, fishing out his handkerchief once more. "What the hell are you, anyway?"

"Lost. Like you." She turned her face into the wind, letting it twist through her long hair, snatch at the hem of her little girl coat. "We are tied to this place, strange monsters that we are. We find our refuge and let it grow around us, grow to fit us." She smiled, as if to herself. "It called us in and we cannot help but be held in its thrall."

He nodded slowly, looking out across the slickly shifting waters towards the Barrage and the headlands now faded into rough shadows in the grey light of dawn. "In the end, it's the only thing that never leaves us behind."

"And the end is where we start from," she said simply, "each and every time they fail us, fall away, fall behind. Learn from the past, look to the future. Live in the present."

Jack turned to regard her for a long moment, then chuckled softly and shook his head. "You know, that might just be the single most comprehensible thing I've ever heard from you."

"Needs must." She reached out to lay her small hand over his larger one, the touch chill and not quite human even through her gloves. "Times change, shadows shift," she said, looking up at him with that strange, faint smile. "And Towers fall. Choose them well, Captain."

He watched her go, skipping lightly up the steps to vanish back into the shoreline city that was their home, then turned his face back towards the lightening sky. The twenty-first century was here at last.

It was up to him to make sure the world was ready for it.