Chapter 9

When Kate and Jenny left the Hub, Ianto saw them out. Jenny was having an interesting reaction to all the sugar she had consumed, hopping up and down, and generally twitching with restlessness.

Not surprisingly, she darted ahead once they exited the tourist office. Kate was about to dash after her when Ianto called for her to wait a moment. Kate paused outside the tourist office door.

"What is it, Ianto?"

"Have you spoken to Stephanie yet?"

"Who?" Kate's face showed no recognition.

Ianto frowned, "The girl who was with you the night of the weevil attack."

Kate blinked then smiled with recognition, "Oh yeah, I remember her. She and I were friends weren't we?"

"I think you two might have been a bit more than that. She showed up at the Hub about a week after you disappeared. She was upset enough to break through the retcon and remember the weevil attack. She was heartbroken over losing you. She accused us of kidnapping you before we told her the truth." Ianto had his arms crossed and a stern expression.

Kate shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "I guess I should go tell her I'm alive then, huh."

"Yes, you should. She was-is in love with you. You owe her some kind of resolution."

Kate's shoulders slumped. "I must seem pretty insensitive, don't I?"

"A wee bit."

"You have to forgive me. For everyone here I've only been gone three months, for me it's been eight years. It's easy to half forget a childhood sweetheart in all that time." She let out a tired breath. "I mean, what do I even say?"

"I'm sure you can figure out something. After you speak to her you need to give her this." Ianto handed Kate a single white pill. "Once she's no longer connected to you its too great a risk for her to know about Torchwood."

"Won't she just break through the retcon again?"

"Not if her subconscious is at peace."

"Alright." Kate turned to go, then paused. "Stephanie must have made quite a scene for you to feel the need to call me out on this."

Ianto nodded his head almost imperceptibly. "She hit a nerve. I know what it's like to get left behind."

The next day she left Jenny with Gwen to discover the wonders of Earth shopping, and headed off on her own to find Stephanie. It was a weekend, so she figured Stephanie might be out and about. She wanted to talk to her on her own, without having to deal with her parents or find a way to explain to them about her sudden reappearance and increased age.

Yet Stephanie was not at the arcade, nor the café, nor the wharf, nor any old haunts that came to mind. She was about to give up and look up her number in the Cardiff phone book, when she remembered something.

It was a long walk out to Stephanie's house, but a familiar one. Stephanie's family, like her own, lived at the edge of the city, where the land had been cheap enough to build a house and have a bit of yard as well. She circumvented the rather ugly old house, and found the well worn trail that headed off into the bit of scrubby forest beyond.

The dirt path had been worn smooth by years of children's sneakers, Stephanie's and hers, running up and down it. It unnerved Kate to walk it again; it was like stepping into a dream. Memories lapped back to the surface like water from an underground spring.

She and Steph had been friends long before they had been anything else. They'd met in primary school, two intelligent, lonely little girls. Kate with a mother distracted by grief, and Stephanie with a father distracted by a new wife and baby. This place had been theirs, to hide, to dream. It had been here they'd had their first awkward kiss on a chill night in October so long ago.

The sound of the birds calling, the crunch of the dirt beneath her feet, the smell of the damp leaves, it brought her memories to vivid life. She reached the end of the trail. The tree fort was utterly unchanged. Well, hardly a fort really, just a bunch of boards nailed onto some solid looking branches, to create a good platform for sitting on. Stephanie was up there, reclining cross-legged playing a wooden flute very badly. Amidst the squeaks and lost notes, Kate thought she could make out something sorrowful.

Seeing Stephanie utterly unchanged was the strangest thing she had ever felt. Her body was still painfully skinny in the way of early adolescents; her features still soft with the naivety of youth. She still wore that damn Beatles t-shirt that was far too big for her. It had been easy to return to a mother and home unaltered by time; you never expect your mother to change; you don't want your home to change. But friends, they were supposed to change, to grow with you, not get left behind.

Kate had no idea what to say, so it was probably a good thing that Stephanie spoke first. She dropped the flute, and it rolled of the uneven platform to thump solidly onto the grass below. "Kate, Kate, is that really you?" Her voice trembled.

"Yeah, Steph. It's me."

The girl was across the meadow in a heartbeat. She nearly knocked Kate over with the force of her embrace. Her words poured out in a chaotic babble. "You're alive, you're alive. I knew you'd come back. I missed you so much. You're alive. Oh, you're alive!"

She paused for breath and released Kate. "Oh, you're old. What?"

"I'm not old."

"Well you're a grown up."

"Just barely, twenty one."

"Your still Kate though, right?"

"It's me."

"Tell me something only you would know. I have to be sure you're not a shape shifter or something."

"The night your mother left you stayed at my house, because you father needed to be alone. My mother made us hot chocolate with mint, and let us stay up all night. We watched old Godzilla movies until dawn. You finally fell asleep watching the one with Mothra."

Stephanie closed her eyes and took a slow breath. Then she smiled. "Come up to the fort. We can talk there." It was strange climbing an Earth tree again, to feel the solid scratchy bark under her hands, to smell the tweet tang of sap that clung to the wood. The platform was reassuringly solid under Kate's feet.

Stephanie watched her hopefully. "So what happened? Why did you leave, how did you get back?"

Kate leaned against the sun-warmed trunk of the tree and told her story, at least an abbreviated version of it. A proper summary of those eight years would have taken more than an afternoon. She left Jenny in the story, as it seemed only fair.

Stephanie listened intently, arms wrapped around her knees as if cold. When Kate finished she looked at her for a long time. "You're not really my Kate anymore, are you?"

"Not the girl who left, not really."

"I see parts of her in you, but you've changed a lot."

"Would it have been easier for you if I let you go on hoping?"

The dark haired girl shook her head slowly. "No, you did the right thing. I'm glad to know that you're alive and well. I don't have to grieve for my friend anymore. It just hurts to lose the girl I loved." Her eyes were leaking, but no sobs troubled her.

"I'm sorry," the words nearly stuck in her throat. Stephanie looked like she needed a hug, but the invisible divide between them was too great.

Kate took the white tablet from her pocket. "If you want you can forget me completely. It might even be for the best."

"Why does everyone think that forgetting is the best way to deal with heartbreak!" snapped Stephanie. "I'm sad, not dying. I'll get over it. Leave me my own damn history and emotions."

Kate put the retcon away. She wouldn't need it. "Alright. I understand. If Torchwood comes sniffing around, just pretend you don't remember anything."

Stephanie smiled weakly, "You know I can keep a secret. I'm not going to risk forgetting everything I've learned, that there is something out there among those stars. That changes my world."

"Well a lot of what's out there is rather like the weevil that tried to eat us."

"And from what you've said, a lot of it is pretty damn cool."

"Yeah, that's true." Kate paused. Stephanie had untangled herself and was sitting cross-legged now, smiling. "So are you going to be alright?"

The dark haired girl shrugged. "Is anyone ever?"

"Your as damn sarcastic as I remember."

"It's one of my better traits, makes up for the stubbornness."

"Well, take care." Kate stood and stretched.

"You too." Stephanie called after her as she climbed down the tree. She found herself wondering about parallel universes. She'd never run across one herself but she had heard about them often enough. Was there one out there somewhere where she had never had to run away? Where she and Steph grew to adulthood together, were at university, were still together, and were still in love? Was there a place where the first awkward sparks of young affection had grown into something true and deep? Her heart ached for that last possibility, for the potential future never known.

She felt a strange urge to look back as she crossed the meadow, but she didn't. She's already spent enough of her short life doing that.

Jack stepped into the Hub and was greeted by the sound of laughter. He followed the sound to find his crack team of alien catchers gathered around the couch with Jenny and Kate, looking over what appeared to be a photo album.

"Don't you all have work to do?" he suggested, not truly meaning it.

"No Rift activity for the last two days," replied Tosh.

"The weevils are keeping quiet for once, too," added Ianto.

"Kate's showing off her scrap book from her travels," piped in Gwen.

Jack pulled up a chair and took a seat. "Well, I guess that counts as alien. Let's take a look." He leaned over to look at the book and nearly did a double take.

There was a set of two photos. In both of them, Kate was dressed in a long red coat with golden buttons, knee-high boots, leather pants, and a close-fitting top. A top hat was set at a rakish angle on her head, and a whip was coiled in her hand. In one, she looked very serious as she stood with her other hand resting on the back of an enormous blue, winged, tiger-like creature. In the next image, her face had broken into an open smile, and the tiger creature was transformed into a young, blue humanoid, which appeared to be trying to tickle her.

"Now while my imagination can come up with some interesting explanations for this, I suspect the truth is probably funnier."

Kate beamed. "Oh, this is from when I worked in a traveling show for a while. It was about two years before I met Jenny. I was out of money, and traveling through a region of space where the code on the digital currency was too complicated for me to forge. I ran into a sort of circus, right when their last beast tamer ran out on them. I took the job to get free board and transport to the other side of the galaxy."
"Beast tamer?" asked Ianto, in a deadpan tone.

"Well, not really. It was all an act. You see, Kishao, the blue guy, was a shape shifter. He would go into his animal form, and we'd do the show like he really was a big, dangerous animal. He had a great routine jumping through rings of fire, and roaring, all that-he was a complete show off. A bit of a flirt, too, but I told him I wasn't a cat person and after that he kept his paws to himself."

Gwen giggled. "Did the audience ever notice he seemed too smart for a big cat?"

"Usually not. For the longest time Kishao wanted to make shape changing back the final part of the act. We tried it a few times, but it never went over well. I don't think audiences liked realizing they'd been fooled."

"I remember that from when I used to work in a traveling show, too. Interesting life. How long did you stay with it?" asked Jack.

"Oh, about half a year, until I got where I was going. I made some good friends there, I was sad to see them go." Kate flipped to the next page. Gwen and Tosh both made "awww" sounds at the next picture.

A small creature that greatly resembled a miniature kangaroo, about the size of a rat, with cheetah spots and a horn on its head, was sitting on the TARDIS console chewing on something.

"That thing looks disgustingly cute, what is it?" asked Owen.

Kate grinned. "The only other traveling companion I've had so far, aside from Jenny."

"And the way she talks about it, you would have thought it was sentient, and not just a fairly bright rodentoid," added Jenny, who had clearly heard it all before.

"Well, she was smart, at least as intelligent as an Earth parrot," said Kate. Jenny scowled. Jack was mildly surprised that Jenny, who seemed like she would like anything cute and fluffy, appeared to loathe the memory of this creature.

Owen found this very amusing. "I do believe you are jealous of a kangaroo rat."

"Shishi was a Vonzuco, not a rat!" snapped Kate indignantly.

"Yeah, well, she chewed computer cables like one."

"You're just jealous because she was part of my life before you," teased Kate.

"I can't believe were having this argument over a rat-a dead rat, for that matter."

"You didn't kill it did you?" asked Tosh in mild horror.

Jenny made an exasperated noise. "No, the damn thing just keeled over dead one morning. They don't live very long. Kate was heartbroken."

"It's sad when pets die. I was devastated when my cat got run over." All eyes turned to Owen.

Jack got an odd expression. "Since when did you have a cat?"

"A couple years back. What, do I not seem like a cat person?"

"More the weevil sort," suggested Tosh.

"And barely that," added Ianto. "Every time I've asked him to feed the weevils he's forgotten."

Owen threw his hands up in annoyance. "Alright, so we've established I'm not the lovey-dovey sort. Can we move on?"

"Fine," laughed Jenny, leaning over Kate and flipping to a random page. Gwen and Tosh cooed over that one, too.

Five children, three human, two clearly not, waved back from around the TARDIS's main console. One human was a boy about ten; he held an infant in his arms. A girl of around five held his other hand. They all had the same shade of black hair, and were clearly siblings. They were dressed in fairly non-descript gray clothes. To their right, two aliens around the size of seven-year-old human children stood together. They had a bluish tint to their skin and red eyes. Their gender was not clear. One was sucking his/her thumb.

"Running a daycare service, were you?" asked Tosh, not noticing the distinct "don't say anything" motions Jenny was making.

Kate looked at the picture as if seeing it clearly for the first time. "No. I took care of them for a few days after their parents all died."

The cheery atmosphere of the room died with a bit of twitching. Jack took the photo album to look at the picture more closely. "What happened?" He could see now the slightly dazed expression of the children, the way the siblings clung together, normal reactions for the recently orphaned.

Jenny whispered in Kate's ear. "You don't have to tell that story now if you don't want to."

Kate shook her head. "I might as well. They asked what my travels were like. I shouldn't gloss over the sad bits." She leaned back on the couch, looking up at the ceiling, where Myfanwy was flying in lazy circles. "I was traveling in the Hijuko system, around the forty-third century. I was about fourteen. My last jump with the TARDIS had gone horribly wrong and I ended up at an out of the way space port with a completely powerless TARDIS. I bought passage on a human-owned transport ship called the Aurora. It was to go from human controlled space, into Shievaco controlled space. The two species were at that time at peace."

Jack's eyes went wide and he opened his mouth to speak. Kate held up her hand to shush him. "I know you know what was about to happen then; you're from the future, you're probably read all about it in your history text book. I didn't know, though. I'd never been that far in the future before, and none of my father's books covered history."

Three days out, we picked up what we thought were pirates on our ship's scanner. The captain made all the children go hide in the ship's cargo hold. I was included in the children. I didn't argue; the TARDIS was in the hold. I wanted to protect it.

The captain had dealt with pirates before. He expected them to fire at the ship enough to bring down its shields, and then board and try to take the ship in melee combat. There wasn't much valuable on a transport ship, aside from the ship itself, so that's what pirates were usually after. The captain thought the crew and passengers would be enough to repel boarders.

"But they weren't pirates, were they?" asked Jack quietly.

"No, no they weren't. Instead of firing at the apex of the shields as expected, they went straight for the engines. Old transport ships like the Aurora used a fairly unstable sort of fusion core. A military ship would never use something like that, but the Aurora was designed for cheap energy and with the expectation it would never see combat.

"I barely managed to get the children into the TARDIS and throw up its shields before the ship exploded. There was no time to save anyone else. The TARDIS was buffeted about a bit, but it weathered the blast, and floated in space in the guise of wreckage from the ship.

"Four of the children died right away. They were Nivocos, a highly psychic species whose family units live with a pack consciousness. The sudden death of their parents was too much for them. The oldest of the Nivocos held out for a little longer than the other four. I tried to help her, but the shock killed her after about a day. None of them are in the photo."

Jenny hugged Kate, and she buried her face in her coat. She wasn't crying, but the hands that clung to Jenny's shoulders were trembling. Jenny rubbed her back in slow circles, until the shaking eased.

The members of Torchwood shifted uncomfortably. Gwen looked like she was about to cry. Tosh was biting her lip in the way she did when faced with a social situation she had no answer for. Ianto looked distant, idly stirring his coffee. Owen stared sourly at his own hands.

Jack picked up the dropped thread of the story. "History books teach that the transport ship Aurora was destroyed by a Shievaco ship as the first act of war against the Great and Bountiful Human Empire, following a failed trade agreement between the two races. It would be an ugly conflict that would drag on for nearly fifty earth years. Most historical accounts record that after the destruction of the Aurora, an escape pod containing several children got away, and was picked up several days later."

Kate looked up. "Yes, that was the TARDIS being bright. After the blast we drifted for a few days disguised as rubble. I was too scared to send out a distress signal. However, when the TARDIS's sensors eventually picked up an approaching human ship, its chameleon circuit changed to look like an escape pod.

"We were picked up. I let them take the three human children. They had living relatives back on a nearby colony. The other two children, they were Shievaco. I didn't think they would be safe among the humans once I learned about the war. I hid them in the TARDIS.

"It took about a month before the TARDIS had enough power again to do a basic transport to Shievaco space. Shielding against the exploding ship had basically drained it. Once I got to Shievaco I looked around as discreetly as I could until I found some surviving family for the two Shievaco children." She finished her story. They sat about morosely, listening half-heartedly to Myfanwy squawk about something.

Owen suddenly sprang to his feet. "Well, now that we've once again established that all sentient species are cruel, life is bitter, and the universe in general sucks, I'm going to get back to that autopsy I was working on."

Jack caught the back of his coat, and solidly yanked him back into his chair. "Oi, hold it a minute there. I think there's more to the story." Jack steepled his hands, as he looked at the book in his lap.

"Kate, what were the two Shievaco children's names?"

"Osho and Asha"

Jack smiled. "I thought that sounded familiar. Asha grew up to be a great diplomat. She negotiated and signed the treaty that ended the war fifty years later."

Jenny poked Kate playfully in the ribs. "See, you actually did well for once."

Kate shrugged, "I'm always trying not to meddle with history, but it always seems inevitably to happen. Sometimes I wonder if the TARDIS purposely takes me to crucial moments, just to see what will happen."

"The Doctor was like that," said Jack thoughtfully. "Always at the eye of the hurricane whether he meant to be or not."

"He doesn't have Jenny with him-she can smile a hurricane into giving up its malice."

"I don't smile that much," griped Jenny. The tension that had filled the room began to ease as the girls bickered good-naturedly.

"Oh yes you do. You're like a hyper bit of sunshine, you just smile at an enemy soldier and he puts his gun down, forgets why he had it in the first place. You waltz into a tense situation and it defuses itself. You have charm, I don't have charm."

"You have charm."

"No I have wit. I can talk myself out of a situation, but I can't charm my way out."

Jenny rolled her eyes. "And yet somehow, with both of our talents, we still end up getting shot at a lot."

"Wit and charm only go so far. Running is also very important."

"I like the running."

Ianto stood up, stretching, "And on that happy note, I'm going to go feed Myfanwy before she tries to eat one of us." Tosh stood as well, leaning her neck to the side to get out a crick. "I think that program I was running should be done by now, that or my computer's crashed. I hope it's not the latter."

When Gwen and Owen showed no great inspiration to get moving Jack clapped his hands and gave them both pointed looks. "Alright, story time is over. I assume I am actually paying you all to work so get to it."

The team dispersed throughout the Hub, and Kate and Jenny made their farewells. As Jack watched the two of them depart, hands around each other's waists, giggling about something, he was glad he hadn't told them what happened to Osho. Kate didn't need to know the other child she saved grew up to be a general, eventually tried and executed for war crimes.

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