The one thing Torchwood had thus far definitively determined was that when the Chula device had gone off, it'd had no effect on anyone who'd time-travelled. John didn't understand it, but he didn't have to. All that mattered at the moment were the facts, not the reasons behind them. And those facts stared him in the face in the myriad reflective surfaces inside the Hub. It caught him off guard each time and it had begun to make him jumpy. He didn't like being confronted at every turn with the shocking reality of his present existence.
That was what had finally driven him out of doors. He'd had to get out where he couldn't see himself.
It hadn't taken too much persuading to get Torchwood's commander, Gwen Cooper, to allow John out for a breath of fresh air--as long as Ace kept him company. Neither of the two of them were any use in studying the artefact; it didn't need a doctor and it wasn't going to explode.
The streets of Cardiff were effectively deserted at that hour. Not even morning delivery vans were out on the roads yet. Everything was quiet and the only lights were the ambient city light, the sliver of moon, and a few stars. The pair of them strolled near the wharf, the black water washing softly against the sea wall. John hunched up under his jumper and coat, and shoved his hands into his pockets. It was a crisp night.
"I'm not a flight risk, you know," he said as they walked.
"Tired of my company already, Baldwin?" Ace shot him a teasing smile that he caught out of the corner of his eye.
"Ah. Then this field trip is really a ploy to get me alone." Again with the smile, this time teasing and a little coy.
John offered a small smile of his own in return. "I did want to talk to you."
"That doesn't sound as promising as I'd hoped."
"You want to know about the Doctor, right?"
"How'd you guess?" joked John. He grew sombre. "I met him once.* I was in a bad place at the time. He was, too."
"Were you both alone when you met him?"
"Um, yeah, actually. Very much. Why do ask that?"
"Experience. But you didn't go with him."
She shook her head and her tone changed noticeably. "Shame. You wouldn't be in this predicament now if you had." It wasn't what she'd been going to say. John was sure of that. What she might have said instead, he couldn't guess.
"Yeah, but Sherlock still would be. And Greg," he added quickly, although not so quick that Ace didn't notice the tiny hesitation.
"You care about him a lot, don't you? Sherlock, I mean."
"Of course I do."
"Are you lovers?"
"What?" Not that he hadn't had enquiries before, but never one so direct or so sudden.
"Sorry." Ace shrugged her leather-clad shoulders. "I've never been good at the subtle stuff. Ask anyone. Tell me it's none of my business if you want. It won't hurt my feelings."
"Right then. Consider it said."
Ace laughed. "Fair enough. My motives in asking are totally selfish anyway."
John stopped walking and turned to stare out over the bay. "It's been ages since I was last in Cardiff."
Ace accepted the change of subject without comment. She stood beside him, gazing at the water. "And what do you think?"
"I think I'd like to see it under better circumstances."
They fell silent for some time. Water lapped below them. In the distance, John heard the wail of a police siren rise and fade.
Eventually, John spoke quietly. "We should get back."
"Only if you're ready. If there's anything urgent, they'll call."
"I think I've gotten enough fresh air for now." He turned to her. "Can we go?"
Ace looked ready to ask him something, but seemed to think better of it. That was twice now that she'd not said whatever was on her mind. Considering her otherwise blunt manner, it made John wonder. Normally it would have bothered him, too. Tonight he was fine with it.
"You're sure?" she asked.
"Yeah. I need to get back." He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets.
"You mean to Sherlock. Yeah?"
"You really don't get how bad this is," he said by way of answer.
"Try explaining it to me, then. Believe me, I know what it was like to be a troubled teen."
John cocked his head at her. "Sherlock said you had a history of arson."
That surprised her. "How the hell did he know that?"
He shrugged one shoulder. "No idea. That's Sherlock."
"Weird. That Lestrade might have heard about it but even that's a stretch. I was a juvie; it should be a sealed record." She frowned. "I think."
"Do you mind if I ask… Arson?"
She hesitated, then nodded once. "Why not? It's a lifetime ago now." She squared her shoulders and looked him in the eyes. "When I was thirteen, I burned down a Victorian house."
That was a shock. "Good God, why?"
"It felt evil."
"It felt evil?" he echoed.
"Yeah. It's okay, though. It was evil. The Doctor took me there years earlier when I was seventeen and I found out I was right."
John fought to parse that sentence. Clearly time travel wreaked havoc on one's syntax.
Ace went on. "Turned out there was a space ship underneath it too, but that's another story."
"You know, somehow, with everything else going on, that doesn't surprise me. Nothing seems real, so I might as well believe you, you know?"
This time the silence that fell between them was eventually broken by Ace. "So. Sherlock? Can I help at all?"
John took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out in a sharp sigh. "I wish you could. Maybe? I don't know. I didn't know him then. I really don't know how bad it was. Only what little he, Mycroft, or Greg have let me in on."
"Lestrade told me there'd been a drug problem."
John hadn't seen the two of them conferring and wondered when that bit of information had been revealed. Not that it was a big secret. A little research into police files, which it was clear Torchwood could access with disturbing ease at any moment, would have told her as much.
"Yeah. I don't think there's any danger of that now, though. It's like Martha said, the Chula device only changed our physical ages. He hasn't unlearned everything he learned from those years." He turned and looked back out over the bay again, leaning against the sea wall and inhaling the cold, salty air.
"You're sure? You don't think he's--I dunno--freaked out? Desperate?"
John almost laughed. "I expect he's both of those things and more. I know I am. It's not exactly a dream come true being 20 again, believe it or not. Sure, there are benefits, but--" He shook his head. "I was happier after I hit about 27, to be honest."
"I believe you. I can't exactly relate, but I get it." She paused then said, "Go on then. Your turn."
"I got probation for arson. Sherlock had a drug problem. What's your childhood trauma?" She asked it as if it were a joke, but he suspected she knew she wasn't fishing in empty water. Had she overheard Martha's comment about his "rough and tumble childhood"?
"Oh. Um. Fair enough." He didn't talk about it, but her own confession and the absolute emptiness of the night gave him courage. He answered candidly. "My father was a mean drunk. My mother wouldn't leave him. My sister was too scared to fight back. So I, uh, put myself in harm's way."
"That blows," she said, the simple, crass, and dated phrase full of compassion.
John pushed away from the sea wall. "I want to go back now, please. And before you ask again, yeah. I'm worried about Sherlock. Although in all fairness I should be worried for Mickey and Martha stuck dealing with him. If he hasn't aggravated them both into wanting to strangle him by now, it'll be a small miracle."
Ace laughed. "I'm a believer in small miracles. I saw loads of them when I travelled with the Doctor. Gordon Bennett!" she exclaimed, startling him.
"I just had a thought. What would your Sherlock make of the Doctor?"
John shuddered at the same time he had to chuckle. "I'm afraid to imagine. But it would be entertaining to watch."
Ace joined in his laughter. "It's good to see you smile. I know this isn't easy for you."
"Thanks. You're right, but we'll get through it."
"That's the spirit!" Her mobile rang at that moment, her ringtone something from the 1980s that didn't last long enough for John to identify. "Yeah?"
John waited, anticipation tingling his spine. Would it be good news or bad?
"Okay. We're on our way back anyway. … Okay. Bye." She rang off and looked at John. "They've found something interesting. Gwen wants everyone there so they only have to explain it once."
"Interesting. Right." That could be good or bad or indifferent, although he doubted the last if they were calling and asking the pair of them to come in. "Let's go then."
*See Fallen by methylviolet10b.