Tosh has never been a fashionable person. She tries, but clothes were not important in her upbringing; grades were.
This morning, however, the dress she bought two Boxing Days ago catches her eye. She fingers the soft, rust-colored silk, and recalls wandering the sales just to get out of her house and not be alone.
Mostly she is fine with alone, but sometimes, even as introverted as she is, it is suffocating. Of course, being in the stores, with all those people-- all those strangers--was not much better; she remembers crying a little in the dressing room, wishing for someone to tell her whether she looked all right or not. She ended up buying the dress because when she stepped out of the changing stall to see herself in the full-length mirrors, the shop girl oohed and ahhed and made her feel a little less alone.
On a whim Tosh puts the dress on. It is lovely; a timeless cut, it clings to what few curves she has and even suggests a few that she doesn't. It makes her look like someone else. She starts to take it off, and then changes her mind. She adds a necklace, stockings, kitten heels, and just before she goes out the door, in some last salute to her usual fashion sense, pulls on a battered old cardigan.
Still, people notice.
Normally Tosh can't stand being noticed, but she tells herself it is the dress they are staring at. She even smiles at a man who holds the door open for her as she stops in to buy a bottle of water for later. Maybe the dress is like being in disguise. The Not-Tosh costume. The gawky young man behind the convenience store counter tries to clumsily flirt with her, and even though she knows she's equally clumsy, she throws him a risqué comment just as she leaves. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees his blush and smile. It puts a little bounce into her step, and for once she does not immediately regret her own silliness.
Even so, Tosh feels a little self-conscious as she arrives at the Hub. She pokes her head into the main entrance warily. Luck is with her: Ianto is not there, so she hurries inside and down the stairs. She smoothes the dress over her thighs as the main portal rolls back, and then strides inside.
She is not, she tells herself, going to even look towards the medical pit. Tosh goes directly for her desk. She wakes the computer with a flick of the mouse. Footfalls sound up the short flight of stairs; Tosh turns to see Gwen behind her.
"Morning--" Gwen stops as she sees Tosh face-on. Her eyes widen, but then she breaks into a smile. "Tosh, you're looking well today! What's the occasion?"
"Morning," Tosh replies, and she shrugs, the way she imagines Jack would shrug if someone complimented him on something so obvious as his good looks. She can't keep that up though, and she smiles broadly back at Gwen, her cheeks warm. "Thank you. I just... It's Monday."
"And what's Monday?" Gwen asks, her cheeks dimpling, leaning in, Tosh supposes, for some juicy tidbit.
"Just Monday," Tosh replies.
Gwen laughs and shakes her head a little.
"Is that an Annabel Mai?" Ianto presents her with a cup of coffee and inspects her waistline.
Tosh isn't sure, so she shrugs again. "Maybe?" He frowns at her sweater; she sheds the cardigan. He twirls his finger and she turns so he can see the dress. She is starting to feel a little silly when he says,
"It's a nice dress, but something else is different about you. Did you cut your hair?"
Tosh presses a hand to her hair and shakes her head. "No. I suppose..." she says, "I just woke up in a good mood."
"Fair enough," Ianto says, nodding approvingly.
Gwen nods, too. "You should do that more often, Tosh. You're too pretty to go hiding behind that fringe of yours." She reaches over and flips the hair out of Tosh's eyes, and the brush of her fingertip makes Tosh feel suddenly flush and warm in a way she hasn't felt since Mary. It's a good feeling, though, and she doesn't let herself feel confused about it; Gwen, she tells herself, is only reacting to the very pretty dress.
She hears the Hub door rolling open behind her, and slips quickly back into her seat in case it is Jack. The moment after she does so she scolds herself for being such a schoolgirl, at her age! Rushing to her desk in case teacher catches her fooling about. Ianto and Gwen haven't moved at all. Gwen glances over, smiles a tight smile that tells Tosh exactly who has arrived.
"Good morning, Owen," Ianto says, "Care for some coffee?"
"Love some, thanks," Owen says. Tosh begins opening the files she plans to work on, refusing to look at him. He will say something, she knows, and spoil the power of the dress. She hates that. She hates admitting that.
Owen trots onto the main platform to receive the coffee that Ianto pours for him. Tosh tracks him out of the corner of her eye even though she doesn't want to. She sees him sip the coffee, and then do a double take.
"What's this, Tosh?" She thinks, for a moment, that he might actually compliment her. She can't decide if that will be good or bad. But he doesn't do that, he says: "You honestly are going to go chasing rift baddies in a skirt and heels? Or Jack finally decided you're better off riding a desk?"
Tosh tries desperately to ignore him, but her cheeks are red hot now, and not with the pleasant flush of earlier.
"Or, wait--don't tell me, you're cutting work to go on a hot date."
Tosh looks at him in time to see him nudge Gwen in the arm with his elbow. Gwen's mouth twists with disapproval, but she doesn't come to Tosh's defense.
Tosh realizes that no friend is going to come rescue her honor; she must do that herself. She scrapes her mind for some witty comeback, some deflating defense. Her verbal fencing skills are sorely lacking. Besides, to engage him would be only playing his silly little game. Finally, she just shrugs, as if what he says is meaningless. As if it does not bother her. As if she is a beautiful woman dismissing the petty, covetous snipes of a man who cannot have her.
"It's Monday," she says, and turns back to her work. It's oddly liberating. She smiles to herself and if Owen belittles her further, she doesn't hear him. She loses herself in her first loves, engineering and maths, and puzzles out the inner workings of an alien circuit by lunch time. Jack is pleased; Tosh is basking in the familiar happiness of a job well done when Jack adds,
"By the way, looking rather drop-dead gorgeous today."
At his sincere tone, Tosh's breath catches a little and she looks at him, sure she'll see nothing more than friendly, brotherly pleasantness there. But his eyes are actually briefly lingering on her legs, and she can't help it, she's a little shocked; he seems to see her as an attractive member of the human race--which he has never done. It has always confused her a little, that; she has always been pleased to be seen as more than a novelty, an intelligent woman, but she has always also been slightly disturbed that the man who flirts with everything has never shown any interest in her.
"What's the occasion?" Jack asks, and she even sees a hint of chagrin in his face when he realizes she has caught him looking. He must feel, she supposes, like he's been caught starting at his sister's breasts. She gives him another nonchalant little shrug, the corner of her mouth quirking as she suppresses a laugh.
"It's Monday," she answers, and she strokes her dress lovingly, as if to say thanks.
Tosh wakes the next morning and her gaze falls on the rust-colored dress draped over the back of a chair. She thinks about what a lovely day she had yesterday, how nice she felt, and she wishes she could put it on again.
But Tosh knows she can't get away with wearing such an obvious dress two days in a row. A pair of tame, khaki trousers, maybe. She worries her bottom lip in her teeth and struggles with the prospect of returning to ordinary Tosh today. That fate makes it hard for her to get out of bed. She lies there and stares at the closed doors of her closet.
Surely, she thinks, there are more Not-Tosh outfits inside.
That's enough to get her out of bed and in front of her clothing. She looks restlessly through the suits still in their dry-cleaning plastic and the chemises and the skirts and the pressed trousers. Everything is pretty, she thinks, but her idea of pretty and fashion's idea of pretty don't always match up. At worst, she looks mismatched and frumpy to others--she has gotten to know that look in Gwen's face even without a mind-reading pendant--and at best, she looks ordinary.
"But who cares what they think?" she whispers. She doesn't quite convince herself, though.
Tosh runs her hand over the hanging garments. She picks out a suit she's worn only three times, to various interviews (she always got the jobs). If Owen's derision yesterday had any merit it was about her shoes--this time she digs out a pair of flats from the back of her closet. They're classy, if not completely comfortable. She dresses and then stands in front of her mirror. She rolls her shoulders back. It's not the rust-colored dress, no, but if she stands straight and smiles, she feels almost as good.
Her confidence wavers. Feeling a flutter of panic, she looks for something, anything to add to give her back that feeling she had yesterday. She discovers a tube of lipstick, purchased for a friend's wedding, used only once. She puts on the lipstick. She blots her lips on a piece of tissue paper and stares at herself in the mirror. Then she shakes her head. It is probably silly of her to be so dressed up at all. She should take the suit off, put on whatever. It doesn't matter. She's not her clothes. Opening a jar of cold cream, she scoops up a dollop on a tissue.
She hesitates, doesn't bring the tissue to her lips.
She is not her clothes, she tells herself again, sternly.
Tosh tosses the tissue in the trash, unused, her lips still bright. Her purse is on a chair in the breakfast nook; she grabs it and goes before she can change. She walks fast to work so she doesn't have to notice whether people are still looking her way or not. She doesn't stop at the convenience store the way she usually does. She gets to work, a little breathless.
Ianto is manning the main entry, shuffling items behind the information desk. She blurts, "Good morning," and keeps moving. She's afraid to stop. Afraid to see his face. Afraid of how she'll see herself reflected in his eyes.
"Tosh," he calls out before she can completely pass through the door to the Hub. She freezes.
"That's a beautiful suit," he says. She touches the lapel, feels the dense fabric under her fingertips.
"Thank you," she says again, smiling automatically at first, but then it seems to diffuse through her, all the way up to her eyes and down to her toes.
Silly, she knows, it's all an illusion, but she's carried by some new strength all the same. The door rolls back; the Hub is dim, the others not yet in. Feeling a little playful, Tosh all but struts towards her desk, liking the way her shoes ring out confidently in the empty space. Laughter twitches her lips as she sets her purse down on her chair.
"Well, good morning to you too, Toshiko Sato."
"Oh my god!" The laughter escapes Tosh's lips and rings out in the mostly empty hub. "I didn't notice you, Jack! Good morning."
"Oof! You wound me!" Jack fakes reaction to a body blow, then trots up the three steps leading to the central working space. "I'm starting to think I'm not pretty enough for you any more."
She gives him the incredulous look he deserves. "Maybe you've never been pretty enough for me." The words tumble out of her, playful and teasing in a way she could never have produced on demand.
"Ouch again! Where's my Tosh and what have you done with her?"
"I'm right here," she says, still smiling, but a little less so. She doesn't want to think that Jack would want her ducking her head in some stereotypical Japanese deference. But the joking slides away from his grin and his pleasure turns into something more sincere.
"You look good."
Tosh touches the collar of her shirt, but Jack continues,
"It's good to see you happy."
"I haven't been unhappy," she says, even though that's at least half a lie.
"I mean it. Stay happy. That's an order." Jack points at her, and then winks and the joking is back. She laughs again and shakes her head. Then he raises the file he has in his right hand, and it's back to work mode; but she's never minded that.
Gwen sweeps into work bearing pastries and she makes a point of dropping one off on Tosh's desk. She leans in close as she does and whispers, "You look gorgeous!" Tosh smiles although she's starting to feel self-conscious again; she reminds herself that they are just reacting to her pretty clothes.
But pretty clothes can't make her forget to notice Owen as he comes in. She wants to huddle down in her suit, to pull her neck in like a turtle and become either invisible, or to be incredibly attractive to him, she isn't sure which.
Tosh makes herself sit up straight. "You are Not-Tosh," she thinks at herself. "And you look gorgeous." She almost adds, "He is beneath you," but somehow that feels too petty. Feels like it legitimizes something that shouldn't be. She runs her eyes over the lines of code on her screen until she's actually seeing them instead of just pretending to. And then she stumbles over a single dropped semi-colon that's been the cause of her problems all morning.
"Ah... ha!" she exclaims, excited. "You sneaky little thing!" Her fingers fly over the keyboard as she runs a few test cases to verify what she thinks she's achieved. She pushes herself back from the console and grins like a fool. "Jack, I've got it. Let's run the analysis now!"
Jack pops his head out of his office. "Tosh," he says, "You're a genius!"
"Just a bug-hunter," she says, modestly.
"A genius," he insists. And suddenly she believes him--she believes that he really thinks that much of her. She glows under his praise.
Owen passes by on her right as she keys in the commands to run the data analysis Jack needs. He glances over at her and says, "Don't you look nice?"
She doesn't hear him at first, until he taps her sharply on the elbow to get her attention. She smiles and nods thanks to the compliment, but as he drifts away, she can't help at marvel at the fact that he had to work for her notice.
Tosh passes the pub where she met Mary on her way home. She hesitates just beyond the doorway, not moving as a couple is forced to maneuver around her. Then she straightens, and hurries the rest of the way to her flat.
She has not been back to that particular pub since her encounter with Mary.
Still, as she reheats a curry, Tosh thinks about going back.
She's feeling good from her day at work. The data analysis went perfectly once she crushed that last bug, and then she managed to be the one to take down a particularly nasty weevil that was causing havoc in the local Tesco. She'll never forget Gwen's expression after she did it; just thinking about it makes her smile to herself.
Tosh finishes her curry and washes her dish. She still hasn't made up her mind.
She walks by the rust-colored dress still draped over the chair. Her fingertips catch the silk. She decides to put it on. And once she has it on, she decides to go to the pub.
Tosh goes up to the bar and orders a glass of wine. She sips it, and then, on a whim, she turns slightly on the stool to look at all the faces around her. A man is staring at her crossed legs; she reaches to tug down the hem of her skirt, and then she stops. She won't let herself be bothered, she thinks.
She is turning back towards the bar when she sees the girl seated alone. Tosh pauses and stares without meaning to. It's like looking at herself. She recognizes the look on the girl's face, the slouch of the shoulders, the drawn-in chest. Mousy brown hair tumbles into her eyes, her whole body cupped protectively around the tonic she is nursing, her baggy jumper hiding any clue about her physique.
The girl's green eyes glance up through her hair, widen a little to see Tosh looking, and retreat back down to her drink. She's pretty, something Tosh can see despite the girl's efforts to prove otherwise.
If it weren't for the little rusty dress, Tosh thinks, she would be the twin of this girl.
Tosh gets up, crosses over. She's suddenly, keenly aware of how her high heeled shoes make her walk with a slight sway to her nearly nonexistent hips. She can feel the eyes in the room boring into her. Some part of her cries out to retreat, to get away from those looks, from the thoughts that must be in those heads--but she squelches that voice down, mashes it under her kitten heels. She lifts her chin and holds it high as she approaches the little mouse girl.
"Is this seat taken?" she says, putting her hand on the chair across from the girl and pulling it out slightly. The girl looks up, eyes flashing nervously before she drops them again.
"No," the girl says in that tone of voice that Tosh knows so well, the one that screams go away and be my friend all at once.
Tosh thinks about what to say to her. In retrospect, Mary's opening salvo on Tosh was perfect, flattering but not intimidating, not enough to make her run away. But Tosh doesn't want to be some echo of Mary. Mary, like so many other people in her life, only wanted to use her. Knew she was too mild and timid to say no.
Tosh leans forward and she says, "I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I think I know just how you feel."
"You?" the girl says, disbelieving, and even a little offended. She watches Tosh from behind the shelter of her hair, like some cornered animal. "I don't think so."
Tosh sets her wineglass down. "Let me see... You're wondering why you even came to this place just to sit here, alone." The girl opens her mouth to protest, but Tosh doesn't let her interrupt. "Any man who attempts to speak to you must be creepy or oversexed, and mostly they just don't talk to you at all, and you can't blame them. You came here because it was better than going home and staring at the television and now you just wish you were home watching anything at all, because at least you wouldn't be paying seven quid a drink for the privilege." She smiles, grimly, as the girl stares at her wide-eyed. "Am I close?"
The girl gapes. Then she blushes and nods. Tosh is glad she stopped when she stopped, because the girl looks close to tears. "Except I was thinking of curling up with my cat. Television's all cheesy soaps and reality shows these days." She brushes the hair out of her eyes and then Tosh sees the defensive shutters come back down. "Anyway, you probably read all that in a book or something."
Tosh shakes her head. She feels her mouth twist. "I know all that because I'm usually thinking it myself."
"You!" the girl repeats, but less scornfully than before. "But you're gorgeous. All the blokes in the pub are staring at you."
Tosh leans in conspiratorially. "I'll tell you why."
The girl shakes her head. "Uh-uh."
"What, it's, like, magic or something?" the girl says, a little sarcastically.
Tosh laughs and shakes her head.
"You'd be gorgeous in anything," the girl says, wistful. Then she blushes furiously, ducking harder over her drink. "Sorry!"
Tosh ignores her own blush. "Well, you want to know something?"
The girl nods.
"I was thinking the same thing about you."
The girl turns scarlet, but she smiles and sits up a little straighter. "I'm Penny," she says, in a small voice.
"Tosh. Toshiko." Tosh offers her hand. Penny takes it, and they shake. "Nice to meet you."
Penny beams her eyes bright. "You too," she says.
Tosh tilts her head and rests her chin on her hand. She takes the next risk without even worrying about it, without even thinking. "May I buy you a drink?"
"That's really nice of you," Penny says, nodding. "Thank you. But only--only if I can buy you one."
"Fair enough," Tosh agrees. She flags down a waitress and they buy each other drinks, and they talk about silly things and serious things. It's comfortable, and soon they are chatting as if they've known each other for years. Eventually, Tosh finds herself telling Penny about the past two days.
"Why do you call them the Not-Tosh outfits?" Penny says her chin in hand. Her cheeks are still flush, but this time with too many cosmos.
Tosh smiles wryly. "When I'm wearing them, I find I can be... confident. Funny. Pretty."
"But you're all that already!"
Tosh touches the strap of her dress. Penny raises an eyebrow, her eyes bright with drink, and shakes her head.
"It's just a dress. A pretty dress, but just a dress."
Tosh says, "Maybe it's made of magic feathers."
"Like that elephant movie? Dumbo! Oh my god!" Penny giggles. "But it wasn't even a real magic feather! That thing could fly all along!"
"If anything," Penny continues, "you ought to call those your Real-Tosh outfits."
Tosh blinks. "I never thought of it like that!"
Penny smiles and hunches over the rim of her bowl-sized glass. "Maybe tomorrow you should just wear whatever, but try to act like you're wearing a Real-Tosh outfit."
Tosh's own smile fades. "I don't think it would work."
Penny says, "Try." Her tone makes Tosh look up in surprise. She sees hope in Penny's face, thinks if she could read minds she would hear Penny thinking, If she can do it, I can. Please let her do it.
Tosh nods. "All right." She sits up, confidently, and smiles. "Why not?"
Penny gets her purse, digs through it. She pulls out an ivory business card, scribbles something on it, and slides it across the table to Tosh. "I've never done this before," she says, in a small voice. Tosh sees she's written her mobile number on the back. "Pretend you're just calling me to let me know what happens."
Tosh nods again, taking the card. She rubs her fingers over it, feeling the slight indentation from the pen and a faint dampness from Penny's nervous hands. She says, "I work odd hours, but I'll call you as soon as I'm home."
Penny's completely honest, faintly overeager smile drives the butterflies away from Tosh's stomach, turns them into something lovely and warm instead.
Tosh stands in front of her closet and takes a deep breath.
Her first impulse is to simply choose the ugliest outfit she can get away with. But Tosh can see straight through that urge: if she does that, and she feels wretched by the end of the day, she has a good excuse.
Wary of self-sabotage, she recreates the outfit she wore just the past Friday: a lavender cardigan, white shell, jeans. Black boots. She throws on her brown leather jacket and doesn't look in the mirror again. Clothes, she tells herself, do not make the lady.
As she passes the convenience store, she sees that the young man she flirted with on Monday is working again. Tosh wants to just keep walking, but she decides that she has to go in. Testing, phase one. She rolls her shoulders back, imagines she's wearing the Boxing Day dress. She gets her bottle of water and goes up to the counter.
At first, he looks straight through her, and she almost calls it a failed experiment right then and there. He mindlessly punches buttons on the register, asks for her money. But she makes herself smile and say, "Hello." He's forgotten to put on his nametag today, but she remembers what it said. "Allen, was it?"
For a moment he's startled, and then she can see recognition spread across his face. The fact that she's remembered his name seems to make him perk up, because he stands up straighter and grins lopsidedly. She leaves the store smiling.
Tosh breezes into the Hub and nearly collides with Gwen, who bursts into giggles. She waits for Gwen to give her the same oh, you poor dear look that she got the past Friday, but Gwen hardly seems to notice what she's wearing. Instead, Gwen touches her upper arm as she stabilizes herself and says,
"Tosh, I know you say no every time but I'm still gonna ask, you want to come out with me and Jack and Ianto for a drink tonight?" She rolls her eyes a little. "I'm getting so booored of them sneaking off in the middle and just sitting there. If you're with me we can make fun of them when they come back."
Tosh doesn't let herself hesitate. She says, almost immediately, "Sure. Why not?" In the back of her mind, a little voice tries to tell her that Gwen just wants another warm body and it doesn't matter who--and Tosh stomps that voice down ruthlessly. So what, she thinks? She'll make sure she has a good time. It's not up to Gwen or anyone else.
A genuine expression of glee sweeps across Gwen's face. "Oh good! It'll be fun, you'll see. I can't wait."
Gwen dashes off towards Jack's office, as likely to be sharing the change in their evening plans as bringing genuine work, and Tosh powers up her workstation. She heads to the upper level on the
prowl for a cup of coffee while her computer starts up.
Ianto is standing by the coffee station with a slightly distant look on his face, his eyes on the carafe as it fills with brewing coffee, but not seeing it. She says, very softly, "good morning, Ianto," not wanting to startle him. He blinks, looks at her, and says,
"Sorry, had a bit of a late night. Ah, office matters keeping me up." His smile goes lopsided and she wonders if he knows he's looking a little suggestive.
She bites back a laugh. "Not Jack?" she says, so airily that it takes him a moment before his cheeks flush red.
But he replies, with equal casualness and composure, "He does work me hard."
She can't help it, she does laugh, and they make light conversation while she waits for the coffee to finish brewing. She's never realized how much he really wants to share and yet always, retreats from doing so--it's a fascinating dance, actually, the way he drops out hints, little suggestive remarks about his life, about Jack, and then coyly goes closemouthed when she takes up his bait. She's halfway tempted to pull the same trick on him, just to see what he does, when Owen says, from behind her:
"You get a whole new wardrobe, Tosh?"
She catches the quizzical look that passes over Ianto's face before she turns.
"Not at all."
"She was wearing the same sweater on Friday," Ianto supplies helpfully. Tosh doesn't let him know that her whole outfit is the same, even though it doesn't matter. It's clean, and comfortable.
Owen looks caught off guard. "Oh. Sorry. You're just looking... nice, this week, is all."
"Thank you," she says, and she means it; but that's all she means. She turns back to Ianto and resumes their conversation.
Later, Ianto says, "Owen's right, though."
"You are a little different this week. In a good way. Have you... fallen in love, or something?"
Tosh thinks about Penny, considers, for a moment, if that's love. But she didn't meet Penny until last night. There's the dress, and the suit, but it's true--they were both just crutches, or catalysts. She shakes her head. "No. Just having a good week, I suppose."
Ianto looks at her a little doubtfully, but she doesn't mind. "It's a good look for you," he says, when she doesn't add anything else.
"The truth is," she tells him, pausing so that he leans in close, "that the elephant could fly all along."
She laughs at the confused look on his face. It doesn't matter if he understands; she does, at last, and it is wonderful.