The civil service was ever present. It had to be, even during Christmas. Of course, nobody liked to be on Christmas duty. When she was young, Bridget Spears volunteered. She was ambitious, and she thought it would distinguish herself, mark her as someone who was serious about her dedication to the service, who didn’t simply see it as some years to pass before marriage.
John Frobisher volunteered as well. At first, she thought he had a similar motivation. After a while, she discovered this wasn’t the case. He didn’t want to appear dedicated, he really that mindful about his duty to the state, and while he was a restrained man, he also was a kind one. He wanted to give the others a chance to celebrate. She couldn’t decide whether this made her feel humble or jealous.
After they had both remained in office during the holidays for the third year in a row, Bridget began to understand that nobody noticed, or at least not in the way she had originally hoped they would. Both colleagues and superiors simply began taking it for granted. Good old reliable Bridget Spears; good old reliable John Frobisher.
Meanwhile, promotions were handed out elsewhere.
“Mr. Frobisher,” she said as they both shared a glass of punch on Christmas Eve, punch that made her feel a bit reckless despite the fact they were surrounded by files and office furniture, “were you even asked whether you would remain on duty this year? Because I was not.”
He looked at her, somewhat surprised. “No,” he replied slowly, “no, I was not, either.” For a moment, there was silence between them, and in the silence the awareness of possibilities. Then he said: “Still, it’s good to know we are trusted, isn’t it, Bridget?”
She could have shaken her head. She could have confessed her ambitions, or her beginning realization that they would not be fulfilled. She could have told him to wake up, that it wasn’t trust but simply convenience. But there had been an undertone of sadness in his voice, as well as longing. It was as if deep down, he knew what she knew, but wanted his own explanation to be true. As if he needed her to confirm it, so they could both believe again.
He needs me, she thought, and for some reason, that idea warmed her more than the punch did.
“Yes,” Bridget Spears said. “That is good to know.” And finishing her glass, she returned to work.
Alice and Joe had been fighting so much these recent months, always trying to keep it out of earshot of Steven, that she was afraid of the holidays, of all of them being together all the time for several days in a row. Steven wasn’t a toddler anymore. With four years, you noticed when your parents weren’t able to say more than five sentences to each other anymore without one of them hearing an insult hidden in them. You noticed.
Alice had good reason to know.
Then her mother’s doctor declared the woman he knew as Mrs. Sangster to be too ill to be released for the holidays, and Alice felt a sick kind of relief before guilt struck her to the core. With her mother at the hospital, with the latest chemotherapy not going too well, Alice had a reason to be not at home. It could be her mother’s last Christmas, she told Joe, and the last one Steven was able to share with his grandmother. They couldn’t just ignore this and stay at their house.
“Sure,” Joe said coldly, “this is about your mother.” He packed a suitcase, gave Steven his present several days early and left without telling her where he would go to.
Trying to keep this from her mother lasted for half an hour, until Steven was busy playing “count all the exits of this room, and the floor it is on”, one game that Lucia had introduced Alice early on as well.
“Does he have an affair?” Lucia asked. Despite the IV needles in her arms and a body that had lost far too much weight in the last year, she still had a commanding presence.
“No,” Alice said. “Not that I know of anyway. But he thinks that I do.”
Lucia frowned, then her gaze sharpend. “Jack,” she said, in that way she had of pronouncing this name, with enough intimate anger to cut glass.
“Joe never really bought the half brother from America story anyway. He said that I lied about Jack proved I still have feelings for the guy who’s obviously my ex and showing up to see me now and then. He said it’s not a marriage if one of us keeps lying. And I said it’s not a marriage when he thinks I’m cheating on him with some lame excuse, that he should know me better than that. I don’t think we’re going to last another year, Mum, I really don’t,” Alice said. It was the first time she admitted this to herself, out loud, at least. It didn’t hurt as much as she had assumed it would. Mostly, she just felt weary.
“Sometimes I wish I still had my old job,” her mother murmured. “I could kill him and blame the aliens for it. Works every time, you know.”
“I thought Dad was the one who was supposed to be dangerous,” Alice said mildly, but for some reason, her mother heard a reproof in that remark. Her thin right hand grasped at Alice’s left and held on tightly. It made Alice’s wedding ring cut into her flesh, but Alice didn’t let go, either.
“I’m sorry,” Lucia whispered. “I had to, you’ve got to believe that, cara. Had to leave, had to raise you like this. It would have been worse if we had all remained together.”
She wouldn’t say this if she didn’t have second thoughts; if she didn’t wonder whether all of them together wouldn’t have been the better alternative. Alice looked at her mother’s troubled, worn out face, and shook her head. It was then that she decided she wouldn’t take Joe back even if he asked her to.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to make a choice, Mum,” Alice said. “And stick to it. I understand that. I really do.”
It was the way everyone smelled ever since the light, that was what drove Clem mad. At least, he assumed he was going mad. It was as if some part of him was missing, as if the man had taken it along with all the other children, and Clem couldn’t find it again. He would have tried to find his home again – the orphanage hadn’t been bad, really, and at least they got regular food there – except that the adults there had sent them away with the bus. And with the man who had told them to walk into the light.
Clem wouldn’t trust any adult again, not ever.
It seemed weird now, the way he used to believe what they told him. Now that he could smell the lies on them, every time, the bitter sweat on their skin, the greed oozing out of their pores, the fakeness glimmering from every hair. But he was hungry, so hungry, so sometimes, he had to go near an adult and ask for food.
When Christmas came, it got even worse, because the smells multiplied, and the hollowness inside of him grew. And there were the lights, all those lights. Every time he caught them out of the corner of his eyes, he was sure they had returned, they and the man. It never turned out to be true. Clem wasn’t stupid, he knew what Christmas decorations were, but he couldn’t afford to be fooled, either. Better to be frightened every time than to be fooled again.
All the fear, hunger and exhaustion finally made him unable to run when the police caught up with him. At first, they felt sorry for him and tried to give him something to eat at the station while waiting for social care to arrive. He had every intention of eating. But the man handing over the cookies wore a uniform, and uniforms reminded Clem inevitably of that man, so he couldn’t help himself. He sank his teeth into flesh instead of cookies. The policeman cursed and backhanded him before calming down again. After that, nobody said anything anymore until social care arrived, and then everyone decided that something was wrong with Clem, which he could have told them if they had asked, and that he needed to be locked up.
It wasn’t as frightening as he had thought it would be. There were considerably less smells then there were outside. Just of staleness, and medicine, and desperation.
It was, Clem decided, and realized this was his Christmas gift, the scent of home.
When she was released and cleared of all charges, Lois Habiba had no idea of what to do next. The new Prime Minister had offered her a chance to stay in the service. But she had seen what this meant now, up close. Besides, even if Denise Riley was responsible for her freedom, Lois couldn’t forget what she had witnessed in the COBRA meeting. She couldn’t forget Ms. Riley offering selection criteria. Working for the same people who were capable of this would mean condoning what they had done, even after the fact.
Then there was Gwen Cooper’s offer. Gwen had contacted her to make sure Lois wasn’t still in prison, and to say she would be true to her word. “There isn’t a Torchwood right now, not really,” Gwen said, Welsh voice only slightly trembling, “but there will be again. And I could need help building a new base of operations.”
Before the 456, Lois would have jumped on Gwen’s offer, even if it meant moving to Cardiff. But she knew now what confronting aliens could mean, and she wasn’t sure she’d be capable of going through this again. She still dreamt of that child in the tank, and wondered what had happened to all the other children in the 456’s ship when the aliens died. Whether they had died instantly as well, whether their true age suddenly had caught up with them, or whether they were still drifting through space. So she told Gwen she needed some time to think about it. Come December, and a visit in London from a by now visibly pregnant Gwen, Lois was still thinking.
“I don’t know whether I can,” she said to Gwen. “Help you again, I mean.”
Gwen Cooper remained silent and drank her coffee. They both could hear the relentlessly cheerful Christmas jingles playing non-stop in the background.
“But I do want to help,” Lois added, and this was true as well. She couldn’t stand doing nothing, sitting around all day contemplating her nightmares. She needed to do something, something with tangible results, something that was of use instead of ending in yet more corpses.
“I can’t forget the children,” Lois said. She meant the ones who had been handed over decades ago, but Gwen misunderstood her.
“Listen,” Gwen said, “there is something you can do for the children. I don’t know about London and the rest of the country, but in Cardiff all families are still scared out of their wits. And they don’t want government-provided therapists right now. There’s a woman called Rhiannon Davies, she and her husband have started to get the families of Cardiff together. So people can talk to each other about what happened, help each other as best they can. It’s just, they could need someone who is good of organization. Coordination, paper work, maybe ways of getting money out of the government without letting anyone near their children. Lois, I think Rhiannon could use a Personal Assistant even more than I could. Does that sound like your line of work?”
“Gwen,” Lois said, “that sounds perfect.”
Johnson didn’t have any reason to feel sentimental about Christmas. In recent years, Christmas was when some type of alien menace could almost be guaranteed to happen. Usually it wasn’t the type that could be solved with wetwork, but she kept her people on alert nonetheless.
After the incident with the 456, this was truer than ever. There was, however, something else that was true. Several somethings. She needed sources other than the Home Office to keep her informed on what the hell was going on, so she and Gwen Cooper had achieved a hostile form of truce involving regular updates. And she still felt like shit whenever she went near a child, so she made sure to avoid them. Johnson had been responsible for many deaths, and had witnessed many more, but she still could hear Steven Carter’s cries in the back of her mind, and she suspected she would for the rest of her life.
As Christmas came closer, her determined avoidance of anyone younger than 18 turned out to be no longer possible. It was a coincidence, pure and simple. A refreshingly normal job, some Russian Mafia type in London ostensibly to buy his mistress new diamonds in Bond Street who needed to be killed without causing an international incident. It was supposed to look like an accident. The whole operation went on without a glitch until Johnson made her exit and was spotted by the porter’s little niece who couldn’t sleep.
She couldn’t kill the girl. Not after what happened to the Carter boy. Still, she needed to make sure the girl didn’t talk once the police arrived. So she tried to intimidate her.
“You won’t kill me,” said the girl, who was extremely self-possessed for her age. She couldn’t be older than eight, after all. Her pale blond hair shimmered in the dark. Given that she had drawn the right conclusions from Johnson’s presence in the building, she was also smart.
“Why is that?” asked Johnson, genuinely curious.
“I saw a Dalek last year,” said the girl. “When the world moved. I think it killed my Dad, it must have. He never came back. But it looked right at me, and it didn’t kill me. You’re not as bad as a Dalek. So you won’t kill me.”
Her logic on this was less than sound, but as Johnson didn’t want to kill her, she didn’t correct the girl. Besides, the story sounded exactly like something a child would make up to comfort herself.
“You could teach me to shoot, though,” the girl continued, eyeing Johnson’s gun.
“A gun isn’t something to play with,” Johnson said, plagued by memories of her own childhood.
“I don’t want to play,” the girl said fiercely. “I just want to know how to shoot. You know, just in case. If the aliens come back.” Staring up at Johnson, she added: “Not the Daleks. The ones who went in our heads.”
“What is your name?” Johnson asked, playing for time and trying to sort out all the unwanted emotions that threatened to well up again.
“Adelaide,” said the girl.
What the hell, Johnson thought. It’s something to do for the holidays.
“Okay,” she said. “You won’t tell anyone I was here, and I’ll teach you how to shoot. Consider it a Christmas present.”
Perhaps the girl was right. Knowing how to shoot could end up saving her life.