Title: The Charm's Wound Up
Author: nancybrown
Characters: Jack, Ianto, Gwen, Martha, Lisa, Tarot Girl, Lois, Johnson, OCs
Rating: PG-13
Words: 2400
Spoilers: up through CoE (characters only), mention of DW "The Shakespeare Code"
Warnings: character death (original character)
Summary: Fire burning, check. Cauldron bubbling, ditto.
Author's Note: Unbetaed. Don't ask where this came from. It fell out of my brain last night.

She doesn't believe in this nonsense. She shouldn't be here.

Society has long since abandoned superstition for science and reason. Ask anyone. She herself does not believe in anything that cannot be measured or observed. But she has heard the stories, learned at her mother's knee the words to say. Women and men too with the Sight, they live in the cities and villages among everyone else, and if you ask in the right way, you can ask your fortune.

Rumour is a common friend in their isolated community here on the Peninsula. She knows who to ask. She remembers what to say. She isn't asking for herself.

Jack's mouth was full, crumbs dropping as he laughed. It's an affectation, his lack of manners, part of his rough foreigner act. Had he landed in the middle of some wild American frontier (in Ianto's imagination, this was all interchangeable with his mental image of "Texas") Jack might have been prim and proper and posh, wiping his mouth with a fussy air.

"No, really!" Jack said around his next bite, perfect teeth blocked by chewed cake.

Well, perhaps not.

"Witches were made up as stories to oppress women's rights in the Dark Ages," said Johnson.

Gwen said, "Well, there are the ones who claim to follow the old religion. I knew girls at Uni who called themselves things like Raven Stargatherer, and dance around in the altogether." She raised her eyebrows, obviously wanting to say more but too polite to do so.

"Okay, okay, maybe not real witches. Cardiff has been sitting on a Rift in space-time for a while now. Some humans have the ability to manipulate Rift energy."

"You're talking about psychic powers," Perry said. The new technician took every opportunity he could to see how much of the science fiction novels he used to read were based on reality.

"Not exactly. I think of it as the first attempts of the species to learn to use abilities that will be pretty commonplace later. I like to keep an eye on their progress."

"Especially the young naked ones?" Gwen asked.

"I know of a couple covens with the younger types," Jack said with a grin. "But the real witches, the ones I'm thinking of, none of them are younger than sixty. If you've got power like that, you learn how to use it properly or you die."

Ianto put a number of references and half-spoken words together. His tongue was loose tonight from the beer, and he asked, "Estelle?"

Jack turned, his eyes getting a dark, pinched look. "Yeah. Estelle was one of them." Ianto regretted mentioning it. Jack brightened, the way he always did when he was pretending. "She did their newsletter. Upcoming meets, ideas to celebrate a full moon, knitting advice."

A laugh passed through the room, and Ianto let the sound wash over them, keeping his eyes on Jack's face. He always knew what Jack was thinking, what they all were thinking. Reading body language and paying attention to the words people used had nothing to do with mindreading, whatever Gwen said when she teased him for anticipating their needs too well. Anyone could acquire the skill, he'd always believed, but sometimes he wondered why so few bothered to try.

Martha came in then, her third trip to the loo. "I could hear laughing all the way down there."

Lois said, "We were talking about witches."

"Really? I met some witches once."

"Raven Starfucker," said Johnson, and even Gwen snorted.

"Carrionites, they were," Martha said, helping herself to another bit of cake. This was her combination going away party and far too early baby shower. With a quirky kind of humour, Lois had ordered a cake decorated with the monster from the Alien movies, complete with alien baby made of fondant.

"Ooo," Jack said. "I heard about them. Was that when you were travelling with him?"

"Yeah. We went to meet Shakespeare."

Jack's face went through some remarkable contortions, going through wistfulness and longing and also more than a bit of resentment. "He took you to meet Shakespeare?"

Lisa has no use for fortune tellers, but her girlfriends are all tipsy, and she's a bit as well, and squealing, they dragged her here. She has trouble focusing, tries not to giggle, as her friends' hands are taken one by one by the woman who took their twenty quid. Bernice is going to meet a mysterious man, and if she stays with him, he'll break her heart. Cara is going to have a career that involves travel.

"Your turn," Cara laughs, and grabs Lisa's hand from her lap, holds it out. The woman leans over to see. Her tongue dips out to touch her lip, like a snake, and she sits back.

Her eyes are a watery blue, and Lisa sees that she isn't old, just middle-aged and tired, with dull brown roots growing in under her too-bright auburn dye. Lisa sees a glimpse of her with a teenaged daughter who calls her old and ugly, a son who doesn't pay attention to her at all, and an ex-husband who ran off with her car.

"Not nice," the woman hisses, and the images stop.

Too much booze, Lisa thinks, and goes to take back her hand. The woman holds tight, strokes the palm. "One question."

Bernice says, "Tell us about her love life!"

Lisa doesn't say anything. She broke up with Steve two weeks ago, and everything hurts, reminding her of him. Tonight was supposed to be about forgetting him, moving on.

The woman brushes the palm again. "You will meet a man who will love you more than the Earth and the stars, and would burn them both down for you."

Cara snorts and Bernice yawns, and it's time to leave. Lisa wants to go home and sober up, and she definitely wants to forget the look of sharp pity in the eyes of the woman with the sad life.

"It runs in old Cardiff families," said Harriet, as she poured the tea. "Something about this area is magical."

Gwen thanked her for the tea. At her feet, two large fluffy Toms competed for space to rub against her ankles. "How did you know you had these … " She didn't want to use the word powers. Powers implied magic, and Gwen preferred to think of this as manipulation of natural phenomena, like Jack said.

"Gifts?" Harriet provided, when Gwen paused for too long. "Ever since I was a girl. I always knew who was calling, could hear the voices of the dead. I even always had sunny days when I wanted them, every time." She said the last with an impish smile, which Gwen couldn't help but return. If she thought she could make sunshine in Cardiff, Gwen would think herself a witch as well.

"And then you met others like you."

"The girls." She said this in the way all old ladies did when referring to other old ladies. Gwen suspected they had matching red hats and giggled when they wore purple on a dare. "The ones with real power, we know one another. Doesn't mean we like each other. But we know."

Jack had given her the mailing list for the newsletter. He'd taken it from Estelle's personal effects. "You knew Estelle Cole."

"I did. Flighty, that one. But a good heart. Things haven't been the same without her."

"And Guinevere Vaughan?"

Harriet's face twitches. "Are you with the police? Have you found her?"

"No, I'm sorry."

The disappearance didn't coincide with a Rift spike, did seem unusual enough to warrant Torchwood's attention. Jack had handed Gwen the list in case there was a link, though Gwen doubted anyone would target a population of old biddies who talked to ghosts and smelled of cats.

"And when were you first aware of your gifts, dear?"


Harriet smiled around her teacup. "The Sight. You see things, know things you shouldn't. Don't you, dear?"

"No." Gwen returned the smile, hiding her unease. "I don't know what you mean."

"I know you're not human," Jack says, sliding into the seat across from her. The girl's eyes stare back at him, her hands shuffling the cards. "You don't age. You use technology I haven't seen before to manipulate the Rift." He indicates the cards. "You know the future. So, what are you?"

She keeps shuffling. He's afraid she will lay down the cards one by one, tell him something horrible and true. But he needs to know.

She says, "I know you're not human. You don't age. You use technology I haven't seen before to manipulate the Rift. You know the future." She flips over one card, face up. "What are you?"

Jack gets up from the table and walks away.

The Rift predictor told them there would be an event out here in the cold and the bracken. The Rift predictor was a bastard, really. Martha huddled into her jacket and sipped at the hot tea. Already she missed good coffee, but her family had a history of hypertension and she simply didn't want to risk it.

"You could wait back at the car," Jack said. He felt bad about making her stay on another week, and had compensated by being overprotective in a way that was getting on her nerves.

"I'm fine." She wandered away from the others, just to the edge of the clearing. Honeysuckle and celandine and lungwort lay in their winter decay, and she remembered, oh she remembered too well the books she'd stolen from ruined libraries, learning the healing properties of leaves and stems. She'd walked the world with stories, but Martha was a doctor first.

"Look sharp, people," Jack said, and the air crackled around them.

A moment later, something heavy hit the leaves in the centre of the circle, crunching as the rest jumped back. Brownish, leathery, about the size of a football, almost certainly not alive, but it was hard to tell sometimes.

Jack went first to examine the artefact after the Rift ceased its pulsing. He prodded the item with a boot, then crouched down. "Nice," he said.

Martha hung back. There could be radiation. There could be worse. Gwen joined her by the perimeter, eyes on their new acquisition. She rubbed her temple.

"Bit anticlimactic," Martha said. "Alien footie."

"Yeah," said Gwen, rubbing her head harder. She glanced around to where Martha had been. "What were you looking at over here?"

Martha indicated the plants. "Just admiring the foliage." Gwen knew some of what had happened. She didn't need to know about Martha's desperate search for clotting agents and pain relievers as she'd walked on weary feet from village to village, and into towns, delivering babies and setting bones, and always repeating the magical story that undid the Master's work from within.

Gwen nodded, and then she picked out a path through the weeds, began walking.

"Hey," Martha said, worry blooming. She followed Gwen into the trees, figuring two armed women were much less likely to get lost or injured than one alone. "Wait up."

Gwen walked with a strange purpose, ignoring the snag of branches and thorns on her coat. Martha made her way more carefully, avoiding the thorns as much as possible. She ought to call for help, let Jack and the rest know Gwen was acting oddly. It wouldn't be the first time someone had been possessed by an alien consciousness.

"Here," Gwen said, and knelt down.

Martha saw the body and joined her, quickly assessing the injuries, the level of decay. She sighed. "Given the weather we've been having, I'd say she's been dead about a week." No signs of struggle. Some crushing of the weeds around them, and further off, a canvas bag that looked from here to be full of plucked plants. Martha felt along her bones until she came to the break. "Looks like she snapped her leg. Death from exposure would have been about twelve to twenty-four hours later."

Martha touched her comm as Gwen went through the pockets of the old woman's thin coat. "We've got a body. Follow our signal."

Gwen pulled out a driving licence. "Hello, Guinevere," she said softly.

She waits in the entranceway to the simple home, nervous and tired. Alexa can read much in the woman's line and carriage: heavy with child, skin burnished with the sun. She's lived on the Peninsula a long time already, and she's worried about bringing a new life into this world.

"I have a question," the pregnant woman says. "And I brought you this gift." She carries a basket with food, delicate tastes Alexa hasn't sampled in years.

"Sit down," Alexa says, and leads her to a chair.

She has always possessed this gift, and half the gift is observation. Some clients come to be told that everything they already suspect is true. Some come because they want comfort. A rare few come for truth. She knows them all, sees them in the streets of the small colony, watches them. She has seen this woman before, has seen her belly distended.

"This isn't your first."

The woman blinks, quick tears pricking her eyes and gone again. "My daughter was stillborn last year." She has come for comfort, then. She wants to hear that this child, or at least some child of her body, will live.

Alexa takes her hand, simply as a focus, and clears her mind, looking for the silvery thread of the baby's future. Instead of a thread, she finds a torrent, a river.

She bites her tongue so hard that she bleeds. Too loud, too loud …

"Please," says the woman.

"He will have a long life," Alexa says, because there is too much truth about this child to lie on that measure.

"Will he be happy?"

"What are you?" she hears, and she watches the woman's abdomen as it ripples under her shirt.

The torrent is everywhere, singing of grief and loss, and she quails from the lie. But this is a lifeline like no other she has read, and Alexa's curiosity has led her into worse trouble than this. She listens, and soon she can pick out the notes of hope, of forgiveness, of love and the surety that comes of being loved. So much pain, so much betrayal, and also so much more. Happy endings are a matter of stopping the story in the right place.


The End

AN: My three favorite words are "I liked this." The next story in this series is "Promotion."