The bold line of time once ran smooth and unmarred. Suns were born and planets fell into orbit. Everything in its time without deviation. Then the first intelligent life crawled from the soupy muck and had a thought. It made a choice. The universe shivered and the even steady line of time began to fray.
Decisions of all sizes started to warp the edges of time. Gallifrey’s mighty Time Lords burst into being, punching holes in reality and dividing possibilities at an enormous rate. Time threw up its metaphorical hands and stopped taking such close accounting. Parallel and alternate universes formed at such a rapid clip that it would take a billion years just to name them all.
And on one such tiny wispy thread of universe, Owen Harper picks up the phone. It’s night in Cardiff and the moon walks over the water. He watches the play of light on the waves, trying to absent himself from his too still body. In the main timeline, the one that matters most to the people that care about such things, he stays like that all night until the sun comes up and it’s time to return to Torchwood. In that timeline, his morning will be spent pinned under rubble, waiting for a sheet of glass to guillotine him.
But in the thin curling possibility of this other world, he’s a little more restless, slightly more discontent. Loneliness presses in all around him, thick and unyielding. He remembers a kind hand wrapped around his and the quiet promise of companionship. In this tiny chance of a place, he picks up the phone. Even though it’s late, she answers after only two rings.
“Owen?” She asks and he could make out the soft sound of fabric brushing against the receiver. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He says automatically. “Why are you awake?”
“I fell asleep on my couch when I came home. The nap threw me off.”
She lets him get away without answering her question. She always does. He used to hate that about her. He used to want someone who would push back against him, full of razors and spite. Now the world is hard enough around him. He can forgive a little softness.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” He surprises himself by asking and her too, he supposes since it takes her nearly a minute to answer.
“Yes. I’d like that.”
“I’ll come to you.” He hangs up and pulls on a coat for appearance’s sake, shoving comm, keys and wallet into the pockets. It doesn’t take long to get to her place. They’ve always been so very close to each other, kindred planets orbiting the same sun.
She’s waiting outside, sitting on her front steps. A voluminous blue jumper swallows her slight frame, her hair swept carelessly back. She rises to her feet when she spots him in the dark. As she gets closer, he can make out redness clinging to the corners of her eyes. Has she been crying or has sleeplessness done it? He doesn’t ask.
“Let’s go down to the water.” She says as if this had been her idea. “The Rift should be quiet, just us humans out.”
He considers offering her his arm, but she’s on the wrong side. He likes to keep his broken fingers in his pocket, a brief illusion. She doesn’t reach for him. She never does. Instead she keeps perfect pace, right at his elbow.
“The stars look empty, don’t they?” He says because there are so many things he doesn’t want to talk about. “Who would think there was something up there?”
“I always hoped there was.” She looks up without slowing. “When I was little, I’d look out my bedroom window and hope some fantastic alien would come and take me away.”
“I thought little girls wished for princes or knights.”
“Not me.” She shrugs. “I wanted to travel. See everything. Have adventures. Princesses stay in towers and castles.”
“Wound up with a little of both then. An underground sort of tower, field missions aside.”
“Yes and-” She stops, a frown pulling at one side of her mouth. “That’s odd.”
“What’s odd?” He follows her gaze. She’s looking across the street to a little church and its mossy graveyard.
“I walk by here all the time.” She waits for a car to pass then crosses the street. “I was out this way yesterday morning to get the newspaper and I know they weren’t here.”
“What wasn’t here?”
“Those angels.” She points and they’re impossible to miss. Three elegant statues, wings spread wide behind them, weep into their stone hands. They’re clustered around the gate of the graveyard, not marking any obvious tomb. “I would have noticed them.”
“Maybe they were put in this afternoon.” He searches the ground for signs of work, but the grass stands undented. “Or you could be wrong.”
“I’m not.” She stands in front of them, shaking her head. “There weren’t any Rift spikes this afternoon.”
“Tosh.” He swallows hard and reaches for her arm. His fingers sink into her sweater. “I think they’re moving.”
Her next words are ripped away into darkness. He clings to her arm, lost and afraid for an eternal second. There is nothing in the dark and then it’s gone. They’re still standing together, his hand on her arm. The moon shines brightly down on them and the church looks much the same. The angels are gone. So are half the buildings on the street. There’s no sign of destruction just blank spaces or different shops and houses. It’s gone deathly quiet.
“I’m all right.” She steadies herself on his arm. “You?”
“Fine. Something’s wrong though.”
“Where is everyone? Everything?” She turns in a slow circle, taking in the changes.
A raucous laugh cuts through the quiet night air. They retreat into the graveyard, ducking behind a tomb. A small knot of men walk by, passing a bottle of liquor between them. They’re speaking English to each other with the distinctly Cardiff accent, but the slang is different and their clothes nothing modern.
“Not again.” Tosh sighs. “Can’t even have one quiet night, can we?”
“Time travel. Lovely.” He matches her sigh with one of his own. “Figure out when we are and then send out some distress signals?”
“We might have to find a place to hide out if time is moving relatively. No one’s expecting us for hours.”
They stick to the shadows as best they can. The city hasn’t entirely disappeared, reassuringly. It’s only smaller than they remember and smells a little more of industry. Barges fill the waters.
“Coal.” Tosh says quietly as they avoid a few other late night revelers. “They’re shipping out coal.”
They find a newspaper stuck in a bit of grating.
“September 19, 1922.” He read, smoothing his hands over the wrinkled headlines. “Anything awful happen that you remember?”
“No. Should there be?”
“With our luck. Where should we start?”
“They’ll look for signs around our homes.” She frowns. “Neither of our buildings exist yet.”
“Not in any form we’d want to work for. We’ll have to be careful.”
It takes them three hours to get into the base. There’s no elevator yet or shady tourist office. They wind up going through the sewers. It’s quiet in the pre-dawn hours and they leave a scattering of messages armed with stolen fountain pens and a knife. Impulsively, Owen tries to open the safe in what will one day be Jack’s office. The lock ticks loudly under his ear and the door slides open with ease. Inside there is a pile of confidential paperwork which he ignores and a stack of cash that he takes.
“We should go.” Tosh reappears, breathless. “I think I tripped an alarm.”
They’re both good at running. He tries to avoid it these days, mindful of broken toes and the loss of his pulse rising, releasing endorphins. There are more people out now, watching their hectic escape from nothing.
“We need to lie low somewhere.” She says in a dim alley way. “But not so low they can’t find us.”
“I’ve got money.” He pulls out the stolen wad, waiting for the rebuke.
“Good. We’ll probably need it. How much?”
“250 quid or there about.” He split the stack in half and gave it to her. “More than enough for a day or so.”
“We’ll need clothes first.” She tucked the money into her purse. “You’ll have to go. A man will raise less suspicion.”
“Nothing will be open yet.”
They wait in the alley, watching the sun start to climb over the brick.
“I shouldn’t have called.” He mutters. “Wandering around at night. Might as well have hung ‘Abduct Me’ signs around our necks.”
“No use worrying about it now.” She replies with brisk practicality. “Time traveling statues. It’s one for the logs.”
“Except they didn’t travel. We did.”
They debate the finer points of what makes something a time traveler until the shop across the street throws open its doors for business. Owen dishevels his hair and rips his shirt a little for authenticity before heading over. A plump matron in a violently yellow dress watches him enter with a raised eyebrow. It’s a bookshop, pleasantly packed in around its mistress.
“I’m sorry to trouble you m’am, but my sister and I were robbed this morning. We’ve been and gone to the police, but they couldn’t get us our things back. I’ve got some money left and we need some clothes and a place to stay while they investigate. Could you direct me?”
“Didn’t they point you in the right place at the station?” She tuts. “They could’ve let you some of their things.”
“I didn’t want to impose. They’ve already been so kind.” He smiles as politely as he knows how.
He gives her no information in return for the addresses, not even his name. Jack taught him that trick, unintentionally no doubt. The clothing shop is a series of negotiations. A flurry of young girls try to convince him to bring in his unseen sister and no rattling off of Tosh’s measurements convinces them that he knows what she might like. It’s only with great reluctance and insistence that he returns immediately for tailoring if something doesn’t fit that they let him depart. His own shopping seems remarkably easy in comparison. Suits with the exceptions of jacket cuts and trouser length have a sort of eternal sameness to them. He’s not thrilled with the formality, but there’s nothing for it.
“I wrestled demons for these.” He says as he hands over the goods, turning to face the street as she dresses behind a skip.
“Thanks. I hate shopping.” When she emerges, she looks cleaner and more time appropriate, but also a little lost and fragile in the loose style of the day. “Let’s go set up a base camp.”
They pack their too modern clothes into a paper bag and set out towards the recommended hotel. Along the way, they indulge in some mild graffiti on any building they recognize. Pen marks won’t last, but if they’re still here tonight they can double back with paint.
“We’d like a room for the next few days.” The clerk gives him a lascivious look which Owen chooses to ignore. He signs them in as Mr. and Mrs. J. Harkness because it might give the team a laugh if they find it.
Once in the room, the forward momentum of the morning disappears. They sit on the edge of the stiff mattress. Tosh yawns into the ensuing silence.
“You should sleep. I’ll start poking around.” He announces.
“Don’t get into trouble. We can’t risk disturbing the timeline.” She strokes the floral comforter. “Cause a paradox.”
“Right, don’t break reality. Got it.”
“So am I. I like reality. Mostly.”
The world outside has fully woken up. The streets are full of people and noise. None of them are the right people or the right kind of noise. Against all sense, he lingers outside Torchwood for an hour or so, but there’s no activity there. A creeping sense of dread and the idea of what the original Torchwood might do to someone like him eventually drives him away. On the walk back he buys a bread, cheese and bananas, nearly at random.
Plunging into the darkness of the hotel room, he settles his purchases quietly on a side table. Tosh’s eyes fly open.
“Anything?” She asks as he sets a banana in her hand.
They spend the afternoon walking slow loops around likely locations and buying discreet supplies. Under the cover of the night, they return to their penned graffiti marks and go over them with paint. They leave their room number, the street, everything as clearly as they can.
But no one comes. Days pass and then a week. Owen stands watch outside of Torchwood every night, carefully tucked in the shadows. Agents come and go, but they’re in no particular hurry. Tosh tries to build a Rift detector from scraps, but the parts simply don’t exist yet.
On the fifteenth day, Owen watches Tosh fall asleep. He doesn’t bother going out. Instead he watches the rise and fall of her chest, the flickering behind her eyelids and the twist of her body under the blankets. By years in, Tosh has seniority over him, but Jack made him second-in-command not long after he joined up. Maybe he should have lost the privilege after he opened the Rift. No formal dictate was ever handed down beyond Jack’s encompassing paternal forgiveness. Tosh still defers to him on missions, content to follow. If only he had a good idea of where to lead.
“You don’t think they’re coming.” She says into the darkness, startling him from his reverie.
“It’s been two weeks. If they were going to figure it out, they would’ve.” He moves from his chair to the edge of the bed. “We should accept that we might be stuck here.”
“I don’t think I can.” She tucks herself tighter around a pillow. “Everything that I do, everything I am is a part of the future. You can still be a doctor, but there aren’t computer geniuses now. Even if I built something myself, I can’t show it to anyone without changing the timeline.”
“We’ll figure something out. Can’t have you getting bored.”
“We can give them more time. We still have a bit more money, right?”
“Some.” It’s amazing how far a pound will go these days. “Enough. We’ll need to figure out something more permanent soon.”
They agree on two more weeks, but Owen spends most of that time trying to piece together a plan for what comes next. It’d be irresponsible to do otherwise. Faith has always been a struggle for him and even Jack has never quite managed to earn it.
“We’ll go to London.” He tells Tosh on the morning of the last day. “It’s a big city, big enough to swallow us whole.”
“Not London.” She’s sitting in the sun, a bag of bright grapes in her lap.
“We can’t stay in Cardiff.” He readies the arguments he’s spent two weeks rehearsing.
“Of course we can’t.” Her nails cut into a grape, carefully skinning it. “But if we really are stranded in the past, then I want to travel.”
“Everywhere. I always meant to see the world, but you were right. I got stuck in one place. An amazing place, but still.” She smiles faintly. “We can write letters back to Torchwood every so often. They’ll file them away as an oddity. Ianto’s bound to come across them someday.”
“They aren’t coming.” He tests the words out loud. “We’re on our own.”
“There’s always hope.” She swallows hard. “I want to play at tourist while we wait.”
“It’s a pleasure you can still have.” She pops the skinless grape into her mouth. “Seeing new things.”
“We’ll need a way to earn more money.”
“Everyone needs a doctor and there are things I can manage. I’m a quick typist.” The first signs of a smile tease at the corners of her lips. “We can steal it. It doesn’t matter.”
“Neither of us would be good at prison.”
“So we’ll break out again.”
The thing he realizes as he books a passage to France under the names Owen and Toshiko Harper is that Torchwood has turned them into adrenaline junkies with no ties to the world. They’re uniquely suited to their current situation and Owen can’t imagine being in it with anyone else. Maybe Jack would be more useful with his first hand knowledge of a bygone age, maybe Ianto would have more knowledge of Torchwood and maybe Gwen would be more determined to get home, but only Tosh would be content to be with him. Only Tosh would make it bearable.
“Do you want to see the bright lights of Paris? Won’t that be romantic.” He snarls when he gets back to the hotel. He feels prickly with his epiphany, ready to be rid of it.
“I’ve been.” She packs away the few things they’ve acquired in a steamer trunk that swallows it whole. “A long weekend with friends, a few years ago. It didn’t seem romantic then.”
“It wouldn’t now either.” He says firmly, watching her closely. She doesn’t flinch or seem to notice him much at all. “This isn’t a love story, Tosh.”
“Sometimes Owen, I think you don’t know me at all.” A small pile of books joins the clothing with a soft thud and the lid comes down. “I know all the things that this isn’t, but I’m more interested in what it will be.”
There’s no quick reply waiting on his lips, so he retreats into silence. In the end, they never get near Paris. Instead they book passage on a ship almost as soon as they make landfall and they’re off to Egypt. Owen likes it more than he expects. He has to wear a ridiculous hat and gloves to keep the sun off his vulnerable skin, but the fashions of the day allow for it. It’s November when they arrive and the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb is announced only a few days after they disembark. The news spreads like wildfire through the English speaking community.
“I want to see it.” Tosh grins as she hasn’t since they’ve arrived in the past. “Don’t you?”
“I saw most of it in a museum once.” He shrugs. “Could be interesting.”
It takes the last of their dwindling money to bribe someone into letting them in, but it’s worth it. The excavation has only just begun in earnest. Everyone rushes around in the height of excitement. They invite the newcomers in with expansive gestures and talk at cross purposes to each other. The hieroglyphs are brighter than Owen expected, protected down in the dark. Someone else's message still shouting through time.
He doesn’t know when he reached for Tosh’s hand, but they stayed linked together for the rest of the afternoon. She talks animatedly with the foreman, pointing out hieroglyphics she recognized and offering basic translations.
“I’m very sorry to bother you, sir.” A lean, capable looking man leans down in the darkness bearing a lamp. “But did you mention you were a doctor?”
“I am.” Owen released his grip on Tosh’s fingers reluctantly.
“One of the boys has broken his leg. We can set it, but it would be helpful to have someone with medical experience to look at it.”
The boy is truly a boy, working as a sort of water bearer for the digging crews. The break tears through the thin skin of his leg. Two men hold him down as he thrashes in pain.
“Is there no ether or chloroform?” Owen demands, inspecting the damage.
“The medic locks his cabinet and he’s not on site today.” The lean man, who proves to be called Richards, shakes his head. “The boy will have to do without.”
“Get him something to bite down on. Is there alcohol?”
A bottle of whiskey appears like magic. The boy drinks a shot, then Owen pours some over his own hands in vain hopes of sterilization. He sets the break quickly and meticulously.
“Did the medic lock up everything?” He runs his hand carefully down the injured leg, swabs the whiskey where the skin was broken. “I’ll need plaster for a cast.”
It’s been a long time since he set a cast, but it comes back to him readily enough. It helps that the boy has collapsed into unconsciousness. When he’s done, Richards hands him a towel dripping wet. He washes his hands clean again, confident that the boy will walk again.
“That was good work.” Richards offers, watching Owen with keen interest. “Where did you train?”
“London.” He says vaguely. “Where’s this medic of yours anyway?”
“In the city, doing God only knows what.. You’re better than him. Don’t suppose you want a job?”
“You in charge then?”
“No, that’d be Carter, but he leaves the staffing to me.” Richards grins. “You don’t have to live out here. A lot of us keep a place in Cairo. You can leave your wife in comfort.”
It takes him a moment to realize Richards means Tosh. It’s a sensible pose to take. They can’t pass as relatives and unattached women can’t travel with a single man. Still the word jars him.
“She’s the adventurous type.” He counters. “I won’t be able to talk her into staying away.”
“Looks like she could even teach Carter a thing or too. He’ll love that.”
Scanning the darkened site, he spots her talking with a bearded gentleman as she leans over a desk gesturing with a pen. The man watches her work, eyebrows lifted high in shock. Tosh doesn’t notice him, intent on the work and making her point.
“I’ll take the job.”
They stay on the site, tucked away in their own tent. Tosh gets a few leers and stray remarks in the beginning, but they fall away. It’s not clear if it’s out of respect for Owen or because she’s so absorbed in her work that she often fails to notice their attentions entirely. The translation engages her, lighting her up from the inside. There’s no danger in their work, no fear of paradox. The Rosetta Stone has already been found, the hieroglyphs tricky, but not impossible to translate. Someone did it at the time, all those years ago and now.
“Maybe I always did it.” She says thoughtfully, looking up at the star crowded sky. Her head rests on his jacket neatly folded into a pillow. A few strands of her hair brush his thigh. “I was looking at it the wrong way because I thought we’d be rescued. But we weren’t and doesn’t that mean we were always here?”
“No way to know now.” He shrugs. “We’ll use our best judgement and to hell with the rest of it.”
Activity around the site quiets by March, everything moveable ships out including Carter himself.
“You should come with us back to England.” Richards slings an arm around Owen’s shoulders on a crowded street in Cairo. “We can come back with a patron and do our own excavations.”
“Other plans, I’m afraid.” He leans into the friendly hold. “We’ll send letters.”
“We’re going on safari.” Tosh smiles, handing over money to an eager vendor for an elegant scarf. Owen takes it from her hands and drapes it around her shoulders. “There’s a party meeting in Kenya in a few weeks. They were thrilled to have a doctor along.”
“Where do you two call home anyway?” Richards watches with them with fond bemusement.
“Why go home when you can have the world?” She smiles, not at Owen or Richards or the vendor. He’s never seen her happy like this before. It’s disconcerting.
Africa spools out before them like a tapestry. They’d deliberately chosen a group of travelers more interested in art than hunting. Sketchbooks fill their ambling tour and Tosh takes to amateur photography. The Brownie sits heavy in her hands, the smell of developing chemicals lingering on her skin. The others on the tour delight in her messy results, insisting she take portraits of all of them. Owen lingers in the background, talking solely with other husbands as they suck on heavy cigars. He masters the art of appearing to smoke, to drink, to eat. Sometimes he nearly fools himself.
The nights in Cairo had been easy to fill. He would rest with Tosh awhile then join the night digging crew for a bit of company. In Africa, everyone goes to bed at a civilized hour, except for their guides standing guard in the dark. They refuse distraction. So Owen slings a camp rifle over his back and heads into the wilderness alone. It’s dangerous and foolish, but not as much as it would be for another man. Most animals ignore him, scenting only dead, unappetizing flesh. One night he comes across an entire pack of lions, asleep, but for a lone sentry. She pads softly towards him and he grips the rifle close, ready to warn her off with a blast.
She stops a few feet away from him, sits on her haunches and regards him with glittering eyes. Her body stills and a warm breeze ruffles through her fur and his hair. They watch each other solemnly across the expanse of high yellow grass. The frenzied eyes of a Weevil have nothing on the deadly serenity of the predator before him. She has no malice, no race, only instinct and precise patience.
“I’ve never been a cat person. But I’d make an exception for you.” He tells her quietly.
Eventually she grows bored with him, rising to her feet and leaving him behind to guard her pack. He stays crouched in the grass for a long time afterwards. When he finally returns to their tent, the sun has begun to slide over the horizon. Tosh sleeps on her cot, mosquito netting pulled tight around it. Her hand falls free of the covers, her brow wrinkled in some nocturnal trouble. He doesn’t part the netting to slide under the blankets with her. Though the day will eventually come, he realizes, when he will.
Tosh seems to catch his new resolve in the morning. She sits a little closer, leans her head on his shoulder as the van bumps along the dirt road. On the Serengeti, they hold hands more frequently and talk less. Her pictures take on a dreamy quality, wide landscapes with animals posed as dark blurs on the horizon. Bits of him crowd into the frames: a quarter profile, the fingers on his good hand pointing outward and his boot in the grass.
“What do you think happened to them?” She asks under a blazing sun, a herd of gazelle eating nervously nearby.
“What’s nearly happened to us a dozen times.” He shrugs as if the question doesn’t plague him too. “They didn’t figure something out or they did and couldn’t stop it.”
“I keep thinking that they’ll appear one day. Jack, especially.” She raises a hand to shield her eyes from the shifting sun. “Striding through the grass in that ridiculous coat.”
“Do you want him too?” He asks, wishing immediately that he hadn’t. Of course she does. Most of the time he still wants it too. Wants to be whisked back home to a year that he knows intimately, back to his flat and computers and definite place in the world. Back to a group of people that he respects even when he doesn’t like them particularly. Back to Jack who he hates and loves with equal fervor.
“Depends on the day.” She links her fingers with his. “It’s good here though.”
The tour group disperses in Cape Town. The city settles uneasily around both of them. From the first day they scan the ship manifests and decide on Bombay out of haste rather than thought. The trip lasts ten days and they spend them in a new pursuit, spurred on by Tosh’s ever hungry mind.
“It doesn’t make sense.” She held his broken hand in hers. “You can’t be completely numb.”
“I’m not sticking pins into myself to prove a point to you.”
“You don’t have too. No pain, I understand. But you walk. You can’t walk on numb feet and legs. You can hold things in your hand, manipulate small objects. If you were entirely numb, it would affect everything you do. You can still hear, see, smell.”
“My brain works fine. I don’t need to feel anything to see or hear. That’s sensory information relayed right into my head.” He shifts uncomfortably. It doesn’t really make any sense to him either, but he tries not to think about it too much. “I was brought back to life by an iron glove wielded by an immortal. Regular science need not apply.”
“But there has to be some sense to it. I have a theory.” She soothes her fingers over the bent joint of his pointer finger. “I think it was interrupted. If the person or alien using it knew what they were doing, maybe you would have come all the way back.”
“What good does that do me?”
“None at all.” She winces away, a return to shy habits he thought abandoned. “Except...maybe there’s a way around it somehow. You can talk. You need air to talk and we know you can’t breathe, but you talk. So that’s something. Muscle memory maybe.”
“It’s not worth thinking about.” He turns his hand under her fingers until the tips of her nails rest in his palm. “Just leave a dead man to his secrets, yeah?”
But she doesn’t. She pries at the edges of what’s possible. The experiments are careful, gentle. She slides her fingers across the back of his neck when he’s distracted playing cards, wafts strong smells under his nose and presses an ice chip to his skin when he thought her hand was empty. She doesn’t reveal her conclusions, maintaining the illusion that she’s doing nothing at all. Begrudgingly, he allows it, his own scientific curiosity aroused despite himself.
Then Bombay drugs them with color and noise. They both move through the city in slow motion, even as it swirls chaotically around them. For the first time, they don’t bother finding a translator or guide. Instead they try to learn a little of the language, tease the culture into themselves. Owen treats British ex-pats for aches and pains that tend more toward homesickness then actual ills. The money is good enough that Tosh can play philanthropist, spreading the bounty wherever she goes. She makes friends with hard working widows, who teach her hints of their crafts and cooking. It’s the first time they’ve spent their days apart. He’s surprised by how often he turns, expecting her there. It’s as if one of his limbs has gone astray.
“Where are you going?” He asks with false casualness one morning as she drapes a light blue sari around herself. The other British wives cluck scandal over Tosh’s clothes, taking him to task for his wild wife.
“To watch Kashi’s shop. Her daughter just had her first baby and I promised her I would run things for a few hours, so she can go visit.” She tucks the edges of the fabric firmly, finishing the careful work. “She must be desperate for help. Haggling isn’t my strong point.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Really?” She frowns. “What about your patients?”
“The whiny cows can live without me for the day.”
The shop is more of a market stall, displaying woman’s shoes made by Kashi’s aunts. Tosh opens for business with a casual surety while he watches. It reminds him of long Torchwood nights, before Gwen and Ianto. Jack would disappear into his office and Owen would order pizza that they’d eat at their desks, knee deep in their work. He would watch her graceful coaxing of the mainframe, trying to puzzle out how someone could be so awkward one moment and so utterly sure in another.
“Do I have something on my face?” She rubs discreetly at her mouth for crumbs.
The early morning market crowd filters by with studied disinterest. Their confusion over the white man and asian woman tending a stall made clearly telegraphed by the way they won’t quite look.
“Ah, Mrs. Harper!” An elderly man dressed all in red and holding heavy baskets steps from the crowd. He smiles with congenial broadness, rearranging his wrinkles. “I did not expect to see you again so soon.”
“Hello, Canna.” Her returning smile is equally large. “I’m doing a favor for a friend.”
“Very kind of you. This is my husband, Doctor Owen Harper. Owen, this is Canna.”
She tells him stories at night with a jumble of names. Canna sounds familiar, but it all rushes together in her exuberance and his own vague attentions.
“Your wife is a jewel among women, sir.” Canna smiles impossibly wider. “Very wise and kind.”
“Yes, she is.” He agrees because it’s true.
“From what she says, you are much the same.” The old man teases.
“Does she?” Owen lifts an eyebrow, watching Tosh flush darkly in the corner of his eye. “Well. Love is blind, sometimes.”
“I’ve never found that.” The wrinkles shifted into something cannier and wiser. “Love, true and proper love, has both eyes too wide open to blink.”
The stall is beset with a group of giggling girls, swallowing Canna back into the crowd and stealing Tosh’s attention. Owen watches them flit about, fingers lingering over pretty bead work and clucking over the prices like a million girls in a million places. Life being lived at maximum volume all around the world for years to come.
“Do you want to stay here?” He asks in the later afternoon when business has calmed down enough for Tosh to eat.
“No.” She slices through the thick skin of a mango. “I love it, but it doesn’t feel like home, does it?”
“I thought you were after seeing new things, not settling down.”
“I don’t know what I’m after, Owen.” She hewed out a viciously yellow slice of fruit, juice dripping down her fingers. “It’s been a year, you know?”
“Has it?” It doesn’t feel nearly so long, but the time adds up when he thinks about it.
“I still send out letters to Torchwood.” She smiles faintly. “It feels silly. More like a diary then anything else. I can’t help thinking that this will all end.”
“It does. Everything ends.”
She sighs and pops the slice of fruit into her mouth. Her fingers glitter wetly in the waning sun. Once he could have licked it from her fingers, a slow seduction. Now he hands her a handkerchief and tries not to think about it.
“Where do you want to go next?” He asks as distraction.
“Some place new.”
They stay a few more weeks, before disappearing from the streets like smoke. They travel onward, stopping for two months in Russia and then three more in China. New Zealand comes next and proves a disaster. Perhaps it’s the lost site of Torchwood 5. It would explain why there are aliens nearly everywhere. They don’t have the tools or the resources to fight against them. At least, that’s what they tell each other as they move on. It feels better than it should to turn tail and run from trouble instead of into its eager arms. A ship delivers them up to California. They linger in Los Angelos for a while, but it sits uneasily for both of them.
“North.” Tosh decides at random. The use the last of the India savings to buy a car. It’s a horrid rattling monster, top of the line for the time. Tosh improvises a seatbelt and they’re off. The landscape rises around them in a promise to go on forever. “There are trees a thousand years old around here. We should visit them.”
They stand in the presence of the great redwoods, impossibly dwarfed. Their hands slid together, their heads craned back to catch the far off sway of leaves in the wind. The age of them presses in around Owen and once he would have found it threatening. Now, it’s a promise. You can live this long and survive. You can live this long and be strong.
“Tosh.” He says quietly.
“I can feel your hand.” It’s like a violation of something sacred to admit it outloud, this growing awareness of touch. Still too vague to be called true sensation, but something real nonetheless. “It’s warm.”
“Oh, that’s-” She cuts herself off, eyes shining with all the things they don’t say. “When did it start?”
“I’m not sure. It takes a lot of attention, but it’s there. Faint. Very faint.” He squeezes his fingers around hers, rubs a loose circle with his thumb into the palm of her hand. “Your skin is soft.”
“Yes, well.” She laughs through sudden tears. “I moisturize.”
He doesn’t kiss her under the trees. The moment requires it’s own breathing space. Instead, he waits until she’s nearly asleep in a hotel bed that night. Their conversations lull her to sleep more nights than not these days and he can tell the exact moment she’s about to slip away. Closing the space between them, he brushes his impossibly dry lips over hers. Like the touch of her hand, the feeling is faint, but real. Her lips are warm and a little chapped.
“Owen.” She says with sleep satisfaction. Her hands reach up, clasping the back of his neck.
“Go to sleep.” He orders and she does. The morning dawns fresh with a late night rain. When they drive ever north, her hand tangles with his on the gear shaft.
Vancouver is, in an immediate and frightening way, home. A city by the water, booming with life and a familiar language are all easy things to point to, but it’s something else too. Their wandering days have come to a natural end.
“Let’s rent a house.” Tosh suggest casually only three days after they arrive. “Something we can settle in for a while.”
“What happened to seeing new things?” He asks, skin prickling in warning.
“Nothing. I just want to stay in one place a while.” She ducks her head down, runs her fingers over her camera. “It can’t hurt.”
It can’t and the rubbed raw feeling that the domesticity of a house gives him passes. They rent a small house on the edges of the city with a genuine white picket fence and a postage stamp sized garden that neither of them bother tending very closely. Out of necessity (not only for money, but so that he doesn’t go insane from boredom), he looks for work and finds a place in an elderly doctor’s practice. His name is Joshua Heathers, but everyone calls him Jolly. It’s the kind of nickname Owen loathes and winds up using anyway.
“Let me take a look at that finger, lad.” Jolly says in a quiet afternoon. They’ve worked together for a few weeks. It would have been foolish to imagine that a doctor would ignore the extent of damage to his hand, hidden in its dark glove.
“Nothing to see.” Owen shoves the errant limb into his pocket. “Just a war injury.”
“Which war?”Jolly asks, mild and unassuming.
“Personal one.” He sighs. “Look, it’s just-”
“Well. Yes.” Owen pauses. “How do you know that?”
“Because I am not an idiot.” Jolly keeps grinning, true to his awful nickname. “Lord, the idiocy of youth. Sit, lad and let me take a look.”
Reluctantly, Owen sits and draws the glove off. He keeps the finger in a light splint to steady it, but otherwise he’s given up on treating it. Jolly touches it delicately, realigning the bone. The break wasn’t clean at the time, but the months have severed the joint completely.
“It won’t heal.” He says because he doubts Jolly knows how this work. Hell, he’s still not sure. “Whatever breaks, stays broken.”
“We should amputate it then.” Jolly’s fingertips ghost over the stitches Owen redid only the night before. It always makes him think of Martha’s steady hands. “It’s getting in your way.”
“I’ve thought about it, but that won’t heal either. Not attractive, an exposed stump.”
“That’s what bandages are for. You’re a good doctor, but this is getting in your way.”
Owen looks down at his hand. The finger, the cut and the wear and tear on his skin. It’s possible that he’ll keep on going like this for centuries until all that’s left is exposed bone. Hastening the process turns his stomach, but there’s a reality to what Jolly is saying that he can’t avoid.
“All right. Let’s do it now then.”
It’s far from the first time he’s participated in his own medical care. The slow return of sensation has not yet brought back pain. Owen doubts it ever will and it’s a sick sort of pleasure to know that this should be agony and isn’t. The job is quickly and neatly done, the finger clipped at the first knuckle and then cauterized which makes it look only a little less like a vivisection. A clean white bandage over the tip and his hand looks nearly normal again.
“Thanks, Jolly.” Owen squeezes his hand experimentally. He can tell already that his mobility is improved. He misses the symmetry of his hands, a little. “Ask me whatever you want. You deserve some answers.”
“No. I don’t.” Jolly carefully clean a scalpel. “I assume its not an easy story to tell. But if you ever want to, I’d be happy to listen.”
It reminds him painfully of Jack’s steely brand of paternal comfort. So of course, Owen tells him nearly everything. He only leaves out the when and the details that smack of the future. It hurts to explain it, to drag out the story he has spent a long time forgetting. It feels safe to tell this kind old man about the things that he’s done and had done to him.
When he runs out of words, the sun has set and Jolly has poured himself a glass of whiskey. They look at each other across the desk.
“That’s some story.” Jolly finally says after a long sip of whiskey. “An amazing story. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen you myself.”
“It’s unbelievable.” Owen agrees, watching the whiskey with a longing so fierce he can practically taste it. “I haven’t told many people.”
“Good idea. Mental institutions aren’t pleasant places.” Jolly rubbed a hand over his mouth. “It’ll save me a bundle on lunches.”
“That’s it?” Owen snorts. “No probing questions?”
“Answers are rarely as satisfying as they should be. I wouldn’t mind hearing more stories about your team though. Sounds exciting.”
Every day at lunch from then on, Owen relates some alien oddity while Jolly has a ham sandwich. Sometimes Jolly comments, but most of the time he listens quietly, entranced. The rest of the day they work hard, seeing patients of all sorts and making house calls. It’s the simplest working relationship he’s ever had.
At night, he comes back to their neat little house. Without a clear occupation, Tosh has turned to writing. At first it was only letters to the people they’ve met in their travels (he scratches awkward postscripts on the ones to Richards), then brief essays about the places they’ve gone and finally thick papers under pseudonyms sent to journals of all kinds. She has opinions about everything and finds expressing them easier through writing. Sometimes after she’s gone to bed, he’ll read through the careful stack of papers. The topics jump from Egyptology to machinery to feminism to physics. Her photos hang about the typewriter, sometimes sneaking their way into her essays.
On a night of no particular importance, he sits in her chair and doesn’t read her new essay on Marie Curie or sift through the pile of photos that she must have taken on one of her long rambles through the city. Instead, he looks out the window past their ragged yard and into the sky. The night is cloudless and still. The stars shine fiercely, dead suns’ light singing through time. It’s terribly quiet and utterly lonely.
“Fuck this.” He levers himself up out of his chair and up the flight of stairs to the bedroom.
Tosh sleeps curled up on her side under the open window. He stands next to the bed for a long minutes. He’s sick of watching. Quietly as he can manage, he shucks of his shoes and socks. After a moment’s thought, he takes off his shirt and drops his trousers. The undershirt stays on to cover the hole in his chest. The blankets are cool when he slips under them with Tosh emanating a mellow heat.
“Owen?” Her eyes flutter open and she turns toward him.
“Unless you’ve got a lover you’d like to tell me about?”
“He only comes in the mornings while you’re at work.” She smiles, tucking against him as if they’ve done this a thousand times. “Plays it safe.”
“I’ll surprise you at it one day. Run him off with the shotgun.” He quips back, draping a possessive arm around her waist. “He should know better than to mess around with a married woman.”
“Not really married.” She reminds him, jaw cracking a yawn. “You should stay. Here.”
“I wasn’t going anywhere.”
He kisses her without a hint of chastity, all fire and interest. He can almost feel her wake up, every cell of her instantly attuned and interested. There were things that he could never manage again, but he’d had a long time to make his peace with that. In the here and now, his fingers and tongue were still agile and able. Tosh writhes, pants and begs in equal measure. Hands greedy, she strokes his back, ran fingers through his hair and caresses whatever patch of skin she can reach. Her lips move softly against his neck and shoulder, exploratory and eager. Unexpectedly, he experiences something akin to orgasm though it’s dulled and diffuse.
When she finally sleeps, still clinging to him as if he might disappear, he doesn’t get up. It’s quiet again, but not lonely. He can be comfortable with his thoughts in the dark for a few hours longer. In the morning, she wakes and kisses him, starting it all over again. He’d assumed that she’d taken lovers in their travels. Now when he sees her hunger, he realizes that she spent the past two years waiting for him to catch up. Her patience and foolishness stagger him.
“I need to go into the city today.” She says when they finally get out of bed. There are oranges heaped in a bowl on the kitchen table, an offering he had brought only a day or so before. A quick nip of her nail parts the skin, peeling it back. Bright drops of liquid spatter onto her fingers. “I’m out of film and milk.”
“I’ll go with you.” He says immediately even though he should go into the office. Jolly will forgive him this one day.
She pops a slice of orange into her mouth. He captures her hand and carefully licks the juice from her skin. He can only just taste it, a hint of something a little sour and a little sweet.
When they finally make it outside, he offers up his arm, they slide neatly together. Her hand, the sun and her smile are warm on his skin and the taste of orange lingers on his tongue. For the first time in too long, he thinks only of what might make her happy. They buy impractical, mad things and talk about theoretical physics. They go to a museum and quietly mock the exhibits until her giggling draws angry looks. Then they just walk, aimless and quiet, together.
Somewhere in the vast heaving crowd of the city, there is a man in a great coat. He isn’t looking for them. Isn’t looking for anyone in particular. But he’ll find them anyway in the coming weeks. He will tell them about a nuclear meltdown, the catastrophic collapse of a country they no longer call home, the death of friends they have already mourned and years of running that he can no longer sustain. They’ll listen and reach for him. They’ll take him home to heal.
All that though is still to come. Today, they walk together by the grace of the universe’s kindest assassins.