Spoilers for all of Children of Earth.
Thanks to Kathy, for beta-reading.
Getting through to London had been Johnson’s first priority. She had to confirm that it had worked, that the 456 were blown to kingdom come. That it hadn’t been for nothing. Then there were arrangements she had to make regarding certain recordings made by Torchwood, because Johnson was no fool, and her survival instinct was as keen as ever. Now that everything was over, the entire cabinet from the PM downwards would want to get rid of those who had done their dirty work, and she definitely wasn’t the only government agent in charge of wetwork. She was, however, the one who possessed those recordings Torchwood hadn’t stored elsewhere, and she made sure people on the other end of certain phone lines knew that.
It was one way to avoid thinking about what she had witnessed.
Then Decker asked to speak with her. She was surprised; she had assumed he’d be half way back to London by now. She certainly hadn’t given orders to restrain him.
“You need to order an autopsy on that boy,” he said without preamble, eying the gun she had used on his foot earlier.
“Even if they’re all dead,” he explained. “There could be others out there. If they come, we need to be able to replicate the… effect. So we need to know exactly how it worked.”
She was surprised to find her throat constricted.
“We saw how it worked,” she said slowly. It wasn’t that she couldn’t follow his logic. Johnson was a supremely practical woman, and if she had much in the way of scruples, she would never have been as good at her job as she was.
Not much good now, are you? Alice Carter had asked her, and the doubts that had grown ever since Gwen Cooper had shown her the surveillance footage had finally boiled over, and propelled her to action. The voice of that boy was still ringing in her ears. The voice of his mother. Decker’s words made sense, but right now, the thought of ordering an autopsy on the child lying dead in the base’s medical lab, his mother probably still holding him, sickened her to a degree she wouldn’t have thought herself capable of anymore.
“It’s a dead body,” Decker said. “Nothing more. What else is it good for? They’re not going to give him a national funeral for saving the world now, are they?”
Before she could stop herself, her hand was at his throat and she had him pinned against the wall.
“He did save the world,” she hissed. “Show a little respect.”
“I guess that’s what you’re doing now, talking to London,” Decker said sarcastically. “Those phonecalls were all about the boy and about nothing else, I’m sure.”
Disgusted, she let him go. “Stay away from the med lab,” she said shortly, and left her office. It wasn’t a refutation of his unwelcome truths, he knew it, and she knew he did. On the other hand, he had made her realize she was behaving like a coward. She had avoided the room where they had brought the boy, and she had avoided Alice Carter. Someone had told her Jack Harkness had left the base, and she had been relieved. But now she imagined Alice next to the body of her child, alone. She had intended to order someone to drive Alice back to her house, and to have the undertaker her base usually employed take care of the child. Both actions suddenly seemed cheap and insulting beyond anything Decker had suggested. Without Alice, millions of children would now have left Earth as drug supplies to some alien bastards. It had been Alice who had made her realize how far she had gone from her mission, and Alice who had suffered worse by the way that mission had finally been fulfilled than anyone else on the bloody planet.
It’s not sentimentality, Johnson told herself. You honour soldiers who gave everything, that’s all. You show some respect.
She found Alice Carter in the medlab, but not at her son’s side. Instead, the woman was arguing with the army surgeon who served as the base’s doctor. “But it’s possible,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Cyrogenic sleep. I know it is. Maybe you can’t help him now. But someone could, in a hundred years. Or two hundred.”
“He’s dead, Ma’am,” the surgeon said as gently as he could, which wasn’t very; like most people working for Johnson, he hadn’t been chosen for his manners. “Nobody can help him now.” Then he spotted Johnson over Alice’s shoulder and looked vaguely relieved.
“Out,” Johnson said brusquely, and he instantly obeyed her order. Once he had left, Johnson hesitated, then stepped towards Alice, whose back was turned to her. In truth, she had no idea what to say. If one of her men died on duty, his friends knew better than to expect comfort from her, though she usually did say he had done them proud. Not words you use in the context of a child who had screamed to his death. It wasn’t that Johnson wished Captain Harkness had made another choice. If he had, she’d have been the one who had to countermand his orders; it was her base, and she couldn’t have let the aliens leave with the children, not after having committed herself to saving the world above any other priority. But she wished another choice would have been possible.
A tried and true cliché like “I’m sorry for your loss” wouldn’t cut it, either. In the past two days, Alice hadn’t left her with the impression of having use for bland phrases. Especially since the last thing she had heard from Johnson had been Johnson urging her father to sacrifice his grandson for the greater good. Finally, Johnson settled on the truth.
“I had word from London,” she said. “The 456 are gone. The children are safe.”
What she meant was that Steven hadn’t died in vain, but before she got that last sentence out, Alice had whirled around and held a medical scalpel against Johnson’s throat. There were no tears in her eyes anymore, though you could still see the dried traces on her cheeks.
“I told you I’d kill you if you hurt him,” she said. There was no threat in her voice; just emptiness.
Johnson held very still. It was a good while since anyone had got that close, and damn it, she should have seen this coming. She had read Alice’s file, and the woman had managed to take down one of Johnson’s soldiers and disarm him with nothing more than a chopping board. Of course she’d be able to spot any number of lethal instruments in a medical lab. And she had the will; when arresting her, Johnson had not doubted this in the slightest.
Johnson kept silent, feeling the cutting edge pressed against her skin. She didn’t beg for her life, or point out that Alice wouldn’t make it out of the base alive. Right now, she suspected Alice would prefer being dead anyway. It seemed ironic to have gone to the trouble with the recordings earlier today, though. On the other hand, they would be released in the event of Johnson’s death, which would serve the government right. Those bastards didn’t deserve to get away with anything. She had always known she’d die in the service; well, she had hoped she would, since being run over by a drunk driver or slipping on a banana would really be insulting. This death was not exactly what she had had in mind, but it would do.
“You don’t deserve to die,” Alice said, and let her hand drop. “Anymore than he does.”
No comparisons to your father, thanks, Johnson thought, because it was the kind of stupid thing the mind would come up with after a narrow escape, and caught Alice’s hand, taking the scalpel. Alice’s skin was cold. So was the temperature all around, Johnson realized; night had fallen, and Johnson wasn’t keen to spend measly government budgets on central heating, so she had ordered the radiators powered down after sunset. She could just imagine Alice turning into a ice statue in this room, as in that Greek myth some teacher had wasted Johnson’s time with at school. Something about a woman who sees all her children die, killed by the gods who live forever.
“Come with me,” Johnson found herself saying, the offer only phrasing itself in her head as she spoke it out loud.
“You can kill me right here,” Alice said and turned away from her again, towards her son, then stopped mid-motion as Johnson hadn’t let go of her right hand.
“Look,” Johnson said, “you need a hot shower. And some fresh clothing. Tomorrow I’ll drive you back to your house if that’s what you want. My quarters are better than your cell.”
“Do I look as if I want any of this?” Alice asked, some faint traces of anger finally interrupting the monotone emptiness of her voice.
Actually, she looked like hell, her curly black hair damp from the combination of cold, sweat and tears, her sweater and jeans crumpled and slept in. There were some blood stains on her sleeve. They must have come from the boy, from his mouth and nose. His face was very clean now; either the surgeon or Alice herself must have washed it.
“You look like you need it,” Johnson said.
Alice looked at her, looked her up and down as if trying to decide something. It’s not an apology, Johnson thought. I just can’t stand the thought of you being alone in this room with your dead son. Maybe she should have let one of the guards handle this. Almost certainly she should have. Some of them, who had played football with the boy earlier and had been avoiding her eyes ever since, would have volunteered. But Johnson believed in everyone handling their own responsibilities and Alice Carter was hers. Had been from the moment she had identified the woman as Harkness’ daughter and had suggested to Frobisher taking her hostage.
“I’m not in the selling forgiveness business,” Alice said at last, wearily.
Stung, Johnson replied: “That’s good, because I’m not asking for any. I’m just offering a shower.”
Alice looked down at their hands, still clasped. “Let me go,” she said, and Johnson opened her hand. Then the other woman stepped towards the bed and kissed her son’s head. Straightening, she turned towards Johnson.
“I don’t want him to be alone tonight,” she said, and there was a slight tremor in her voice. Recalling her desperate cries when the boy died, Johnson suddenly felt the fear that hadn’t been there when Alice had held the scalpel against her throat. She didn’t want to hear the woman crying like that again. Anything but that. And it would happen, sooner or later, if she kept being around this woman; Alice was bound to break down again. The whole idea of offering Alice her quarters had been insane.
She opened her mouth to say “fine, stay here,” but found herself saying “I’ll post a guard” instead. It was just that she didn’t want to be a coward, Johnson told herself; she wanted to be true to her responsibility. She didn’t have much else left she could say she had been true to. Alice gave a tiny nod, and Johnson opened the lab door to yell some orders, forcing herself not to turn around to check whether Alice was following her. After the guards had been posted, she heard the other woman’s footsteps behind her.
Johnson’s quarters weren’t luxurious, and she didn’t have any family pictures here; she’d been an orphan since the age of four, and had never had any reason to get sentimental about her teachers, either. There weren’t many personal items, full stop, because she needed to be ready and on the move at all times. But she was rather fond of her couch, which wasn’t military issue but bought for comfort, and she hadn’t boasted about her shower. Hot water at all times wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity. She led Alice there and tried not to wonder about razors and cut veins.
“I’m not going to kill myself. I don’t deserve to die, either,” Alice said. “He — he wouldn’t be dead if I hadn’t convinced you first.”
Johnson couldn’t disguise her startled reaction, so she actually said what she thought this time. “Are you psychic?”
“No,” Alice said with an unreadable expression. “But my mother used to have a job like yours, Agent, and I grew up with her.”
I don’t want to be compared to your mother, either, Johnson thought and didn’t care to examine why that was. Instead, she said: “Fresh towels are on the left,” and closed the bathroom door behind her. After putting one of the sports suits she used for exercising on the couch, together with some underwear, she waited for the noise of hot water to drown out anything else from the bathroom, then left her quarters again to order the autopsy. Because Decker had been right. More 456 could come. And by the time they did, Earth needed to have found a way to replicate the effect without using any more children. An order to make sure the boy wouldn’t show any signs tomorrow morning didn’t change the bitter taste in her mouth, nor did it change the necessity.
By the time she came back, Alice was out of the bathroom, dressed in Johnson’s sports suit, which was a bit too small for her but not uncomfortably so, and sat on the couch, knees pulled upwards. Her hair was wet, and she wore one of the towels around her shoulders. It was a disconcertingly domestic image.
“I didn’t find your hair dryer,” she said. Wordlessly, Johnson went to her desk and pulled it out. Alice took it, but it slipped through her fingers and fell to the ground. As it turned out, it was broken.
“Never mind,” Johnson said. “Time to get a new one anyway.”
“What will you do now?” Alice asked unexpectedly. “Stay here? They’ll try to get rid of you, sooner or later.”
That was what had impressed Johnson about the woman from the get go. She wasn’t stupid.
“I have my insurances,” she returned, and suddenly wondered whether it was really worth keeping them. Whether it wasn’t better to release what material she had, get it over with. Less than an hour ago, she had thought it wouldn’t make such a bad death, getting this done.
“You could look for another employer,” Alice said, and Johnson looked up sharply. Alice’s blue eyes were still bloodshot from her earlier tears, but they were focused on her with an unnerving intensity.
“I thought,” Johnson said slowly, “you weren’t in the business of selling forgiveness.”
“I’m not. But I’m starting to wonder about punishment.”
For you or for me? Johnson wanted to ask. Or would we be the ones to deal it out? Or all of the above?
Maybe it was just the whole bloody, miserable day, hell, the whole week, but right here, right now, stated in the quiet voice of a woman she hadn’t even known until this Wednesday, it didn’t sound like such a crazy idea after all.
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” she said, and silence settled between them at last.
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