Gwen Cooper was born into the world of Torchwood by caesarean section. There was no pain of confusion and displacement. There was no agony of loss and fear. She did not feel the twisted and aching pain of being the one left behind, the one left to go on alone. She did not feel the squeeze of lonely purposelessness constricting in waves around her, pushing her into empty darkness and despair. She did not come in screaming and crying in terror and the desolate meaninglessness of the lost.
[This one is meant to be a sequel to paperclipbitch's But He'll Get Me.]
Owen wakes with dried tears on his face and for a moment he thinks he should be surprised, but then he remembers that Katie is dead and crying is a normal reaction. Everything’s been completed: funeral, wills, sorted out money and flat and everything. Now all he has to do is mourn. Or something.
It feels like three months have gone by instead of only three years, and he’s stuck in this stupid, dead-end A&E job full of patients he doesn’t like and colleagues he can’t stand. He wonders when he’s just going to snap and kill all of them. Wouldn’t be too hard. He’s killed things before and—but that thought doesn’t fit and he has no idea where it came from. He shakes his head, ignoring it. Things slip through the cracks, sometimes.
Like the bullet scar on his shoulder, which he barely remembers. It’s like a dream, and he assumes that’s from the overwhelming pain because that’s all he seems to remember; some sort of loss and how much it hurt.
And sometimes he feels like there’s something missing inside him. And it isn’t Katie, because that’s a different kind of hurt. This one’s more meaningful, like there’s something that made him fundamentally him that’s missing. Whatever it is, he wants it back, because this life that he’s somehow acquired just isn’t working out and he hates it. Katie’s gone and his life is in pieces, and all of those shards are either depressing, boring, painful, or all three. He’s not going to lie and say he doesn’t think about ending it three times a week or so. He knows he’s got a problem; depression, grief, probably PTSD of some sort from something. It doesn’t matter.
When he’s bored and people watching in a random coffee shop he just decided to get a drink in, he doesn’t expect anything more than watching boring people going about their boring routine. He doesn’t expect to accidentally lock eyes with a very handsome man in a long coat, doesn’t expect there to be a jolt of odd familiarity and emotion, doesn’t expect the man to physically react to his gaze.
Owen goes with his instincts and runs after the man, which isn’t all that hard because the bloke is still standing there with a weird expression on his face.
Before he left Cardiff, Jack had one thing to do. He knew that the government and UNIT hadn’t really had the time to go through the rubble that had once been Torchwood Three. He left London with his shoulders hunched, weighted down under his coat.
The pit that Torchwood Cardiff had become was sectioned off by UNIT security tape. It didn’t seem to be necessary, though, as people gave the mess a wide berth, seeming to know that going anywhere near the pit would spell trouble.
[This one was going to be based on H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Outsider".]
It was a slow week. Ianto and Owen were tossing balled up bits of paper at each other lazily as Tosh tried to ignore them and work on her Sudoku puzzles. Gwen bounced between trying to get them to play obnoxious bonding games and snarking at the two men amusing themselves. Everyone was bored and all of them were on edge.
Everyone’s ears pricked up when Jack’s desk phone rang. Owen even stopped in his preparation of another projectile, but his feet stayed on the desk. Moments later, Jack trotted out onto the gantry and down the steps.
“What’s that?” Owen inquired, dropping his feet to the floor.
“Call in. We’re going to Craig Y Nos castle. There’s a report of a strange creature there. I’ll fill you in on the way there.”
The Hub burst into action, each member automatically grabbing what they knew they might need, then a mad, excited dash up to the underground car park and into the SUV. As they pulled out into the open air, Owen cleared his throat.
“So? This creature?”
“There was some sort of party going on at the castle. Fancy dress gala of some sort. Anyway, everyone was socializing and having a grand old time, apparently, when this strange creature came in one of the windows.”
“Strange how?” Gwen asked.
“Well, it’s apparently humanoid, but greyish and, in the words of the caretaker, ‘some ghastly thing out of a nightmare or a horror film.’ He said it terrified the guests and they all fled. It tried to speak to him, he thinks, but he ran off and locked it in the room and called us.”
Three days after Jack disappeared, a Sidnyr falls through the rift and ends up in Bute Park. It is a beautiful sea foam green, but it has long, sharp quills like a porcupine that it can shoot when threatened. Torchwood is lucky that it already has this alien in the database, because they know to take with them the big plastic riot shields stored down in the archives.
Owen and Ianto are teamed together, advancing on the creature from the front, while Tosh and Gwen are approaching from the back. They had discussed and decided back at the Hub that Owen and Ianto would be in front, as they were the fastest. Ianto had played rugby at Uni and Owen had been the “spitfire little one” (he had quoted with incredulous disgust) on the track and field team in sixth form.
As soon as it notices them, the Sidnyr begins firing quills at Owen and Ianto. Owen is dodging back and forth, shooting when he can, repeatedly refusing Ianto’s attempts at back up or assistance. So Ianto is dodging and shooting on his own, flicking glances over at the medic who’s been twitching away from him if he comes near. There’s a near miss when a quill that Owen didn’t see comes flying at him, but he notices it almost simultaneously with Ianto’s shout and dodges expertly out of the way.
When the girls finally manage to bring the Sidnyr down, Owen tosses his riot shield down and stomps towards the car, ignoring the others. Ianto helps the girls carry the alien and load it into the boot of the SUV.
Back at the Hub, Ianto comes down to the autopsy bay, where Owen is tossing quills into a bin. The medic’s face is dour, the harsh grimace it’s been set in since Jack’s disappearance.
“What.” The tone is clipped.
Owen looks up. Ianto’s expression is nervous. He lifts one shoulder toward his ear, a gesture Owen’s never seen before. Maybe he’s more traumatized than the doctor thought.
“I wanted to apologize for shooting you.” Ianto shrugs again. “We were both crazy back there. I know I didn’t mean what I said.”
“And I hate that you’re avoiding me, that you’re looking at me like I’m going to shoot you again. I’m not. I want to protect you, Owen. I want to be friends.”
Owen looked at the Welshman. Ianto looked earnest under his exhausted expression. Perhaps he’d been a bit rough.“All right, Ianto.” Owen grumbles. The younger man’s mouth twists in the strange version of a smile they’ve been seeing, his face a little brighter. He reaches out to touch Owen's shoulder, seems to think better of it, and goes back up the stairs.
A week later, they nearly lose Gwen. She shakes them off and goes home to Rhys. Tosh hurries home to do whatever it is Tosh does when something bad happens. Ianto and Owen stay behind in the Hub, unwilling to leave, not really wanting to be alone and not wanting to go out, either.
“We have to try.”
Those were the first clear human words Yalui heard. Then something closed around him and his school, packing them in tight, and a milky cloud ran through the water toward them. Yalui watched it rushing nearer, until it was upon them, and then everything went black.
The Kupa liked living in the Bay. It was a close enough environment to their home world that they were actually quite comfortable there. Sometime, long ago, someone had declared them unfit to be eaten, and so fisherman left them alone. They looked just like Earth fish. In fact, they looked like exceptionally large betta fish, generally being blue or green, their dancer’s fins flowing behind them in the ocean water.
Yalui had been born with the Gift. The Gift of language, of understanding the spoken language of every species on land or sea. This was rare, for his people spoke from within, and to have the Gift was to be regarded as a strange prince. Those with the Gift were often driven mad, or were the ones who first sacrificed themselves to save others. Most did not know why this was, for they did not know the experience of awareness that the Gifted did, and they could not comprehend the understanding of all speech and all the emotion of the creatures in existence. So the Gifted were to be respected, protected and regarded as unique.
The first time he’d heard a whale’s song, Yalui had sunk to the ocean floor, writhing and convulsing. The others had crowded around, pressing against him, thinking him frightened by the strange sound, not knowing that he was moved nearly to fits by the sadness and beauty of the whale’s mournful sound. Eventually, he had learned to live with his gift, though the others had always seen him as peculiar, yet needing to be respected.
Yalui and the others woke slowly, pulling themselves sluggishly up from the bottom of what seemed to be a large blue plastic kiddie pool. Looking around, Yalui noticed that one of the school was gone, a young male named Nabuno who had always been too aggressive for his own good. The school was waking fully now, and Yalui could feel the fission of fear running through the group.
“Jack, it’s not working. I can’t find anything.” A voice came from his left, and Yalui swam closer, wanting to hear, wanting to see.
“Well, try harder.”
“I can’t. There’s nothing here that I can see; I can’t find it. There’s no other cure for her, and I can’t figure out this stupid fish.”
“Owen,” said a voice lower and more musical than the other two. “I’ve been looking in the archives. These creatures call themselves the Kupa. If I read a bit more on them, we may be able to figure something out. Be patient.”
“Patience is not going to cure Tosh!”
“Let me do the work.”
Slowly, as Yalui was listening, the school began to circle, swimming around and around in one direction, ringing the kiddie pool again and again in frantic terror. He was nearly toppled in the water as he turned against the group.
Jack and Owen continued bicker as Ianto went down to the archives. He had only skimmed the file, enough that he could figure out just what the creatures were. Now he would read the entire entry and hope he could glean something useful from it.
As he read through, he became more and more fascinated with the beautiful, trout-sized aliens. He read more frantically, until he slammed the file closed, tucked it under his arm, and went to another section of the archives, where he removed a small bundle.
He made his way up to the main Hub, and gestured for Owen and Jack to go squabble elsewhere, which they did, removing themselves to Jack’s office where they could argue without disturbance.
One fish swam against the others. He was blue, with lush fins and a sleek body. He was young, scales just a bit lighter than the blues and greens of the others. And, as he struggled slowly against the current of bodies, he looked broken. He wasn’t. That was hope. Hope made him look broken, because it strangles your fear while the others are consumed by it.
Ianto looked down into the makeshift tank. A blur of blue and green circled the enclosure, rippling tornado-like across the water. One lighter blue Kupa was battling to swim against the others, nearly trapped beneath them. Ianto didn’t know why, but he chose that one.
A hand closed around Yalui and for a moment, he struggled. But as he was lifted into the air, shushing noises echoing around him, he was too tired, and simply lay there, gasping for breath.
Then he was plunged into blessedly cold, open water and breathed deeply for a moment before looking around. This tank was smaller, and transparent, and he was the only one in it. He looked in front of him. A torso, clad in black, with a red shirt and purple tie. He looked further up. A young man looked down at him, face nearly impassive, but Yalui could feel the worry. The young man held up a metal headband and a strange-looking square with a cord coming off it.
“I don’t know if you can understand me like this,” The young man began, looking like he felt slightly ridiculous. “But the file says your kind speaks telepathically, so I’m going to try it that way.”
The young man put on the strange metal headband, and did look as ridiculous as his expression said he felt, and then flicked a switch on the metal box, placing the end of the cord into the water.
“Hello? My name is Ianto. I’m sorry to bother you like this.”
“I am Yalui. I can understand you. I was born with the Gift. But this is easier.”
“I can understand all spoken speech, all creatures. Why did you take us? What are you wanting?”
“I’m sorry for our aggression. We didn’t know how to communicate with you. We need you. We need your help.”
“What do you need from the Kupa?”
“Your kind secretes a sort of fluid during Earth’s autumn season. Our friend is dying, and that fluid is the only cure we know of.”
Yalui considered this. He remembered the story from years ago of another Kupa with the Gift who had assisted another group of humans. They had killed seventeen of the school before thinking to ask for help. It made him wary. Humans were foreign to him, and many of the stories he’d heard of them had been negative. He remembered his missing comrade.
“Did you kill Nabuno?”
“Who? Oh, the one Owen autopsied? No,” The man’s eyes dulled, his mouth pulling down at the corners. He shook his head slowly, regret colouring the words he sent out. “He woke up before the rest of you. He hit his head against the side of the tank so many times that he…”
A picture flashed across to Yalui before Ianto could tuck it away, and Yalui shuddered. Despite being mind-speakers, his kind acted with fear before reason, and sometimes that resulted in worse things. He had seen the results terror brought to the Kupa before, and it was always gruesome. Because of the intimacy of mental connection, the trauma and terror of one could become magnified and result in needless deaths or hurts of many.
“I am sorry.”
“It is all right. It is good that he woke up first. If the others had seen him acting that way, they would have mimicked him.”
“I’m….I’m sorry to change the subject back to myself, but my friend is dying. I was wondering if you could help us? That fluid?”
The man frowned and looked away as if he was logging something in his mind. “That’s what it’s called?”
“Yes. The ouagras is our way of telling others it is mating season. It is simply a…smell. A signal of seasons changed. For what purpose is it needed?”
“My teammate, my friend. She was poisoned by a big black creature in the water. She’s sick. She is dying, and your ouagras is the only cure that we know of.”
Yalui knew that it would be wise not to trust Ianto, but the young man’s face was open and honest and anxious. The young Kupa could feel Ianto’s worry and honest wish to help his friends in the earnestness of his words. And Yalui knew what it was like to lose someone. He could still remember the terror when a fisherman had caught his best friend Kalioma in a smaller net. He and Kalioma’s family had waited under the boat for so long, watching, hoping. The fisherman had tossed her back into the water, but she was crooked, gasping, fins ragged. She had been ill, raging across the sea bed for three days before she’d succumbed to whatever was inside. Through it all, she had never blamed the fisherman or humans, only the general ignorance of others to their kind.
Yalui, however, had been angry and blameful for a long time, his pain from the loss of his friend far outweighing the knowledge that most humans simply didn’t know a thing about them and didn’t know or care enough to be thoughtful. He would lash out at anyone who tried to convince him that the species above was generally well-meaning and good. But the pain of her loss had lessened, just a bit. Slowly, he’d accepted that her death was essentially an accident, and his outlook on humans had changed.
“I know your experience.”
“Can you help?”
“I know the creature of which you speak, though I do not know its proper title. It is garanai, water danger. Most creatures beneath stay away. You did not know to.”
“Will you help us, then? Can you get the ouagras?” The young man’s eyes seemed to lighten as he leaned forward.
“It is a month until autumn. But I can try. Put me back in the tank with the others. Come check every so often and I will let you know what I can do.”
Ianto’s face relaxed, a look of hope breaking through in his eyes, and Yalui realized that he’d definitely made the right decision. “Thank you, Yalui. Thank you so much.”
He swam into the hand that descended into the water. The fingers closed gently, a protective cage rather than a clench, and Yalui held himself still, save the tiny involuntary gasps for breath, as Ianto carried him through the air.
The centre, the centre, the centre, Yalui chanted in his mind, hoping somehow that it would get across to the young man, though he was no longer wearing the headband. It seemed to, as Ianto placed the young Kupa in the centre of the storm of bodies, where it was clear of other Kupa and frothy with motion. Yalui opened his mind to the others, and began.
Ianto wandered about the Hub, cleaning half-heartedly, trying to settle his thoughts. He was worried about Tosh, who lay shuddering and sweating on the couch, lost in an unconscious sickness. Eventually, the worry overtook him and he dropped the trash bag on a chair and went to Tosh’s side.
“Tosh? I don’t know if you can hear me, maybe you can. I think we’ve found a cure. I’m working on it. Well, Yalui is. I’m just sat here being worried about you. Listen, when you wake up, we should go out the pub or-or something. To dinner. We haven’t been out much since Jack got back, you know?”
He stroked the hair back from Toshiko’s damp forehead and pulled the blanket further up her shivering body. Though Tosh was small, she’d never looked that way to him. But here, sick and curled on the ratty sofa, she looked tiny, like a child.
“Come on. You can do it. Come on.” Ianto wasn’t sure who he was whispering to, Toshiko or the Kupa. He stared down at his friend’s still form and hoped everything would turn out all right. Gripping one of her hands tightly in both of his, Ianto closed his eyes and thought back to the events that had brought them here.
The Rift had dropped something into the Bay a few days ago, but the team were swamped with calls and hadn’t had a chance to go out and get it. Finally, they’d all gotten onto the Torchwood boat, which they generally kept hidden by a perception filter, and motored out into the open water. Everyone but Gwen was SCUBA certified, and they’d all donned suits and dove while Gwen had stayed on the boat, keeping watch.
They’d followed Tosh, who had her scanner in a waterproof case and was following its flashing signal through the waters at a regular pace. The unfortunate thing about the ocean is that their comms didn’t work well underwater, so they were forced to resort to the usual diving hand signals. Which was fine, except when Jack had continued to make lurid hand gestures at Ianto until the Welshman kicked him in the side with a flipper-clad foot. Then they had settled into routine, following Tosh at a protective distance, specially-designed underwater guns which UNIT had supplied held at the ready. There’d seemed to be nothing wrong, though, and they kept swimming in an outward spiral the way every search was conducted.
Suddenly, Tosh’s left hand shot out, her wrist rotating back and forth in the universal distress signal. Her body seized, shook once, and went limp. Jack had torn off his mask and rushed forward, unheeding of the need for air. He grabbed her, jerked his thumb toward the surface, and kicked off.
Owen and Ianto had looked around frantically for the source of her attacker. Owen squeezed off a shot in the direction Tosh had been heading, and something screamed underwater, an invisible thing suddenly turning into a large, solid, black shape in the murky depths. Startled, the two men had begun swimming backward, guns pointed toward the creature, which started toward them, oozing greyish blood. Owen and Ianto fired again, and the creature screamed, shuddered, and drifted limply toward the surface.
As Ianto heaved himself over the side of the boat, Owen had already scrambled to Tosh’s side, mask and flippers discarded. He shook water out of his face and knelt beside Jack.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell.”
Owen grabbed his kit from Gwen’s outstretched hand and gestured toward the side of the boat. “Ianto and I shot the thing that hurt her. Go get it. It’s still in the water.” Then he bent over Tosh and began to work.
Ianto was glad he hadn’t yet started to disassemble himself, and leapt into the water beside Jack. They pulled the big black alien over the side and into the boat, far away from Toshiko.
“What is it?” Ianto had asked breathlessly as Jack prodded at the inky skin, lifting tentacles and poking about.
“I know what this is.” He turned to Gwen, face hardened into commander mode. “Gwen, get us back to the Hub, now!”
“Jack?” Owen’s voice called. “What is it, do you know?”
“She’s been poisoned. We have to get her back to the Hub, get her comfortable, get her stable.”
“There’s no cure?” Gwen had latched on to Jack’s words.
“There is. I remember there is. But I have to check, because it was in the fifties.”
They had rushed back to the docks, barely even securing the boat as they rushed Toshiko into the car, mindless of getting the seats wet, caring little for anything but saving Tosh. Jack and Ianto had rushed to the archives while Owen and Gwen hurried Tosh into the medbay, Gwen serving as assistant as Owen injected the technician with painkillers and set about examining her for anything that could be done.
Ten minutes later, Owen could find nothing, and was about to throw something in frustration when Ianto and Jack had appeared.
“I know what the cure is. Owen, you stay here, monitor Tosh. Gwen, Ianto, with me.” He led them to a storage room in the basements, tossing a huge net to Gwen and three canisters to Ianto.
“What are we going to do?” Gwen wrestled the net into a better position as she followed Jack and Ianto back out to the boat.
“Back in the fifties, a big black alien came out of the Rift that was obviously a sea creature. It landed on land, but survived long enough for the team to get to it. But when an operative touched it, it…I suppose stung him is an appropriate word, though incorrect. He was rendered incapacitated with some strange sickness, in a coma. They discovered that the cure was some sort of oil or something that this other species of alien fish emit. The fish live here in the bay, not too far out. We’re going to catch them and bring them here.”
“Yes, alive. I don’t know how to get the oil. I wasn’t part of that case; it was just relayed to me by another operative.”
They sped out into the open water again, this time much closer to the shore. Jack was bent over the side of the boat, searching for some sort of marker. Finally, he signalled to Ianto to stop the boat, and pointed down into the depths when the two agents joined him. A mass of green and blue roiled and swam beneath them, still shining in the deep.
“So we’re going to net all of them? And put them where?”
“Nowhere. That’s what the canisters are for. They’re a sort of sedative. We’ll net them, and sedate them, and then tie the net to the boat and go slowly back to the shore.”
“Is this going to work?” Ianto raised a skeptic, worried eyebrow as he took the canister Jack proffered.
Gwen had shaken her head, taking the other canister. “We have to try.”
And now Ianto was pacing through the Hub, waiting. Gwen was at home with Rhys, frustrated by her inability to do anything more than sit and stare at Tosh’s still form. Owen wouldn’t let her help him, and she had known that she’d be no help in the archives. So Ianto was alone in the main Hub, the angry sounds of Owen and Jack’s voices having died down to tired murmurs.
He checked on the tank. The fish were still now, but the light blue one he now recognized as Yalui swam to the side and looked at him. He slid his hand into the water and closed it loosely once the blue alien had swum inside his grasp.
“Is it working?” he asked as soon as Yalui was in the tank and the headband was on.
“I am young. I am not a powerful leader or a knowledgeable elder. I do not know any more than what you have told me about your ouagras cure. To us it is only a signal. I have endeavoured to convince the others to create it early. I am trying. I do not know if it will work.”
“It has to,” Ianto said aloud, more to himself than the young Kupa. “It has to work. If Tosh dies…”
“I understand. I cannot guarantee anything, but I have tried. Hopefully, that will be enough.”
He returned Yalui to the tank of Kupa after words of encouragement and thanks were exchanged. Owen and Jack were finally returning from their exile to Jack’s office.
“Well?” Owen demanded, even gruffer than usual to cover up his concern.
“Yalui is getting us the cure. It’ll be ready soon, he says.”
“He’s a Kupa. I used this,” he held up the metal box and headband. “To talk to him. It’s a good thing I picked him, I guess. Apparently he has the unusual gift of understanding every spoken language of any creature. Which means he can understand us. But the Kupa are telepathic, so in order to talk to him I had to use this.”
Jack frowned at the use of the device but said nothing. “How is he getting the cure?”
“He says the fluid is a…pheromone, I guess. It’s a smell they secrete to let others know that it’s mating time. He calls it ouagras. Says it’s too early for them to be making it, really, but he did or said something to make it happen.”
“Does that mean we’re going to have horny fish on our hands?”
“He didn’t say.”
Owen rolled his eyes. “Wonderful. In the meantime, I’ll autopsy our poisonous friend.”
The doctor headed off in the direction of the medbay. Jack touched Ianto’s arm gently, thumb stroking. “You okay?”
“As one can be at a time like this.”
Owen has met his father once. Well, that’s sort of a lie. His father hung around for the first year of his life, but he doesn’t remember that at all, of course. So technically, he’s met his father once.
He was seven, a scrawny little blondish kid in a too-big parka, with large dark eyes that were finally starting to glare out at the world in anger and distrust. He lived with his mum in a dingy grey flat on the third floor that smelled half the time of dirty laundry and the other half of the time of the sharp, brown smell of spilt alcohol. The landlord thought he and his mum were hopeless. The boys at school thought he was weird.
He had been colouring at the table, one eye on the blaring, yellow-tinged telly when the sound of the door buzzer had grated his ears. His mum had answered it. Some sort of quiet argument occurred between his mum and the caller over the intercom, but he ignored it. He was used to her angry tones.
She shuffled back into the room, barely glancing at him before going to the cabinet where he knew she kept that foul-smelling brown stuff that made her walk funny and say mean things. She was still in her faded pink dressing gown, her light brown hair messy and static and fanning out away from her face. Taking down a glass bottle, she uncapped it and took a quick but healthy pull from the bottle, shaking her head once at the burn as she put the stopper in and put it back on the shelf.
A knock sounded. Mum sighed and leaned her hands on the sink, her head hanging. Owen wondered if he’d disappointed her again; that was her usual reaction to him doing something like drawing on the wall or taking apart the VCR with his little screwdriver to see how it worked or asking too many questions about why things were the way they were. He cringed back, hoping she wouldn’t yell at him, but she just rolled her shoulders and sighed again. Then she pushed off and went to answer the door.
A man followed her inside. He was tall and big, with unruly brown hair and squinty brown eyes. His body was blocky and muscular with arms that bulged out and stretched the tiny sleeves of his white t-shirt. The only part of him that reminded Owen of himself was the thin lips, stretched wide across his face.
“Mum?” He turned round on the chair to look, a pencil still in his hand.
His mother sighed. She ran a hand through her hair and gestured vaguely towards the man standing awkwardly in the kitchen, looking both angry and wary and slightly nervous. “This is your father.”
Owen didn’t feel surprise, or happiness, or anything, really. It was just something else, just another thing that was. He was getting used to things that just were. Things that he couldn’t change, or that wouldn’t. Things he didn’t understand. Things he was slowly starting to suss out on his own.
“Hullo, Owen.” The man stuck out a hand. Owen looked at it. “I’m Dillon.”
“Okay.” He didn’t shake the hand under his nose. It looked hairy and strange. He shifted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Say hello, Owen.” His mum’s voice was harsher than normal.
“Hello, Dillon.” The man’s hands were big and cold and clammy and rough, like a fish if you rubbed it backwards. He looked at his mum curiously.
“Dillon’s gonna take you out today. He wanted to see you.” She finished the sentence off with a glare in Dillon’s direction.
“Oh.” He looked back and forth between the two grown-ups. Neither looked happy. He squirmed in his chair; he had a feeling he had to do with their frowning faces. He looked away, and mum and the man went into the other room to whisper furiously at each other as he fidgeted about and tried not to eavesdrop.
An hour later, he’d been packaged into his too-big jumper, and an ugly wool hat had been shoved on his head, and he was half-walking, half-trotting down the street beside the strange Dillon man’s right leg.
“What do you want to do, Owen?” Owen shrugged floppily in his coat. “Let’s get some lunch, then.”
They got chips at a stand and sat on a bench, eating. Owen answered Dillon’s questions about school and his mates and his hobbies with one word answers. Dillon seemed annoyed. The man, his father—and wasn’t that odd— sighed, balled up his chip wrapper and dropped it on the pavement in front of him.
“So your mum never told you about me, then?”
“Never said anything?”
“Not really. When she’s angry at me, sometimes she says stuff about you.” Owen folded his own chip wrapper into a neat square and placed it on the bench beside him. He looked up at Dillon. “How come you’re here now?”
“I just wanted to meet you. I remember when you were little.”
“I don’t remember you.”
“You were a baby.”
There was silence after that, until Dillon decided that going to the arcade seemed like a good thing to do with a seven year old, and Owen was dragged off to the flashy and loud arena of games.
They played a few games together, mostly in silence. After a four or five games, Owen rounded on his newly gained father-thing, frowning.
“Why do you keep letting me win?”
“You keep letting me win. Don’t do that. It’s stupid. You’re ruining the game.”
Dillon tossed the arcade gun back in its port. “Jesus Christ. I thought dads were supposed to let their kids win the video games.”
“No. You’re s’posed to just play the game.”
“I don’t even know why I came here. How does your mother put up with you?”
Owen shrugged. Dillon growled, spinning round and storming away, leaving Owen on his own to play the game, which was how he liked it. When you didn’t know things, when things just were and you couldn’t change them, it was always nice to just be alone. You could suss out things for yourself or leave them. He’d learnt this quite quickly. He liked being alone, most of the time. He could think or read his books on dinosaurs and mummies, or play checkers with himself. Now, he played a racing game against the computer.
It was half an hour before Dillon came back, looking a bit rumpled, and Owen had managed to go through most of the shooter and racing games. Dillon patted him on the shoulder. He flinched at the touch and looked up.
“Come on, buddy. It’s time to go.”
“No, come on, let’s go.” He gave Owen’s arm a tug, grip tightening. Owen could feel each individual finger digging into the flesh of his bicep. He released the joystick mid-game and stepped away. Dillon’s fingers clenched his shoulder the whole way out of the arcade.