Even Jack was breathing hard by the time they’d slogged their way up the hill to the top of the ridge through knee-deep snow. Despite the cold air, everyone was hot, opening coats and pulling off hats to use as makeshift fans in an effort to cool themselves down.
“How much further?” Owen panted, last to the top and looking like he was about to collapse.
Tosh checked her PDA and pointed. “Should be down there, approximately fifteen metres to the left of that copse of trees. At least it’s all downhill from here.”
“Only until we find what we came here for,” Owen grumbled. “Then we’ll ‘ave to lug it all the way back up here, down the other side, and back to the car. This side’s even longer and steeper than the other! I still don’t see why we all ‘ad to come.”
“Because we don’t know what we’re looking for, or how big and how heavy it might be,” Jack explained with strained patience.
“Not only that but cell reception is spotty out here since the storms last week put three cell towers out of action. We might not be able to contact the Hub if we get in trouble and need assistance, so it makes sense to have everyone here to start with,” Tosh added.
The explanation didn’t appease Owen, who was still scowling. He hated being out in the countryside. “Well come on then, don’t just stand around admiring the scenery! Let’s get this done so I can go home.” He stomped off down the slope, muttering under his breath.
“Always nice to see such enthusiasm for the job,” Jack said sardonically.
“Ignore him,” Ianto replied. “You know Owen; he’s only happy when he’s got something to complain about.” Ianto plodded down the slope beside Jack, the two of them hanging on to each other to improve their balance on the uneven surface concealed beneath the snow. “If you’d told me where we were going would be so far off the beaten track, I’d have brought the snow shoes, skis, and maybe even a sled.”
“We’ve got those?” Jack glanced at Ianto, a surprised expression on his face.
“There are enough snowshoes in the archives for two people, and we have five skis but only three ski poles. We might have had to improvise a bit, but I think we could’ve managed to equip four of us reasonably well.”
“Why only five skis?” Gwen asked as she and Tosh followed the two men down the hill in Owen’s wake.
“No idea; that’s all that showed up. One pair in the mid-sixties, according to the records, the odd one in eighty-two, and the second pair a couple of years later. We’re lucky we got two pairs really, the Rift usually only sends us odd items. None of the snowshoes match, but they’re similar enough that I doubt it would matter.”
“You mentioned a sled as well?” Jack asked eagerly.
“Ah, we don’t actually have one of those, but I could’ve borrowed David’s. Mica’s is a bit small for adult use.”
“This really would be a great spot for tobogganing,” Tosh grinned. “Can you imagine swooping down this hill?”
“We’d reach the bottom a lot faster than on foot,” Ianto agreed.
Ahead of them, Owen’s feet suddenly went out from under him and he sat down heavily in the snow, slithering a few metres on his backside before managing to stop, and making the rest of the team laugh.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Owen. Tobogganing doesn’t work very well without a sled,” Ianto called helpfully.
“Up yours, Teaboy!” Owen yelled back, struggling to his feet and dusting the snow off as best he could, trying to keep it from melting and making the seat of his jeans wet. Thankfully it was a fairly dry powder rather than slushy snow and he got up quickly enough that he ended up only slightly damp, but the incident didn’t improve his mood.
They trudged onwards, keeping in Owen’s tracks as much as possible, where the snow was already broken up a bit. Owen probably had no idea that he was making things easier for the rest of the team. If he had, no doubt he’d have let someone else take the lead. Reaching the bottom with no further mishaps, they cut across the open, reasonably flat floor of the wide valley they were in, heading for the smooth, white expanse to the left of the trees.
“I hope what we’re looking for isn’t buried under the snow,” Gwen said, as she and Tosh followed closely on Jack and Ianto’s heels, using the bulk of the two men in their overcoats as shelter from the blustery wind being funnelled through the valley. “We didn’t bring anything to dig with.”
“If worst comes to worst, we can use sticks and branches from that copse to brush the snow away,” Ianto assured her, gesturing off to his right, where the small cluster of trees stood firm against the wind. “It’s not packed down hard so it wouldn’t take much effort.”
“We’re getting close, Jack.” Tosh shielded the screen of her PDA with one hand in order to see it better in the dazzling brightness. “Angle a little further to the left.”
He turned carefully. “How’s this?”
“Good enough. Keep walking forward, ten more paces. I don’t want you to get too close when we don’t know how big it is; you might accidentally tread on it.”
Following Tosh’s instructions, Jack moved forward ten steps then stopped. “What now?”
“Target should be ahead maybe four metres and slightly to your right. Do you see anything?” She screwed up her eyes, squinting past Ianto but too dazzled to see clearly. Jack had better eyesight than any of them though, thanks to the benefits of an extra three thousand years of evolution.
“Snow. Lots of snow.” Cautiously Jack took a couple more steps, peering through the glare of cold winter sunlight that was striking sparks of rainbow light from the white blanket covering the ground. “Wait, I think there is something, just poking through the surface.” Shifting sideways, he cautiously skirted the area until his back was to the sun, so that his shadow stretched out across the snow in front of him. Sure enough, the narrow point of something glassy and see-through became visible.
Leaning forward, Gwen studied the point curiously. “What is it?”
Tosh approached from the opposite direction, stuffing her PDA into the bag slung over her shoulder and pulling out a scanner instead, leaning forward precariously to get readings from the mystery object from a few feet away. “This is definitely what we’re looking for, it’s soaked with Rift energy. Most of it’s still under the snow though.”
“Picking up anything dangerous?” Jack asked.
“No, it’s inorganic and completely inert, no radiation, no detectable power, and as far as I can tell, no potentially harmful microbes.”
“Good enough for me.” Jack tugged at his gloves, making sure they were on properly, and shuffled carefully forward through the snow, feeling his way with his booted feet to make sure he didn’t step on any part of their find. As soon as he was close enough, he reached out, carefully grasped the point, and pulled gently. Nothing happened for a moment, but the point in his hands didn’t break, so he pulled harder. Snow started to shift, and gradually two more points emerged, one to either side of the one Jack was gripping, and angled away from it. “A little help here?”
Ianto immediately moved up beside Jack, grabbing the point on the left while Gwen grabbed the one on the right, and the three of them pulled together. Tosh stayed where she was, keeping her eyes on the scanner, ready to stop her friends if she picked up anything harmful, but her readings remained the same, Rift energy but little else beyond the ordinary background radiation everything gave off.
Slowly, inch-by-inch, the Rift’s latest mystery gift was revealed, but they continued to pull until the whole thing was resting on the surface.
Ianto blinked at it. “Well, that’s… interesting. Anyone have any ideas what it might be?”
Jack shook his head. “It’s nothing I’ve ever come across before.”
“Maybe it’s a fallen star,” Gwen suggested.
“Nah, it’s probably just a giant Christmas ornament.” Owen had kept back while the others worked, watching from what he considered a safe distance in case they blew themselves up, but now he wandered closer, gloved hands jammed in his armpits for warmth.
It certainly looked like an ornament of some kind. There was a clear central ball, made of glasslike filigree that, although it looked like delicate and intricately fashioned lace, had to be easily as strong as diamond considering it hadn’t been damaged by their rough handling as it had been dragged from where it had fallen. Right around the middle of the ball, a row of spikes of various lengths, broad at the bases and tapering to blunt points, seemed to grow seamlessly out of the ball part, giving it the appearance of a stylised blown-glass sun. The whole thing, measuring from the tip of one of the longest spikes to the tip of the one opposite, was about three feet across, while the ball part had a diameter of approximately fourteen inches.
“It’s beautiful,” Tosh sighed. “Such a shame that we have to shut it away on a shelf in the archives, where hardly anyone will ever see it.”
Jack shrugged. “It’s of alien origin, can’t really stick it on top of the Christmas tree on the Plas.”
Ianto got a faraway look in his eyes. “It would look pretty though. Just imagine it twinkling in the lights, a proper Christmas star, far and away better than the one Cardiff council drag out every year.”
“It really would look lovely,” Tosh agreed.
“Might be a bit too heavy for a tree-topper though,” Jack decided, trying to lift it by himself and discovering that despite its delicate, lacy appearance, it had a fair bit of weight to it. “Right, now we’ve found what we came for we should be getting back. We don’t want to be out here after dark if we can help it.”
That at least was something they could all agree on, even Owen. Grabbing hold of a couple of spikes each, they hoisted the strange crystal creation and set off back towards the hill, following the trail they’d left through the snow.
Owen was right about the hill, this side was considerably steeper and longer than the side closest to the road, and now they were burdened with their prize, scrambling up it was even harder. They puffed and panted their way up the incline, each of them gripping the ‘star’ with one hand and using the other for balance and leverage. Several times they had to pause and catch their breath before struggling onwards, but finally, after almost forty minutes, they made it to the top and crossed the ridge to where the ground fell away again on the other side. In the distance, it was just possible to make out where they’d left the SUV beside a snow-covered road, thanks to the way the slowly sinking sun was catching its windows, making them flash.
Dumping their burden on the ground, everyone straightened up, rubbing backs and rolling shoulders, fanning themselves, and groaning with relief.
“Halfway there, and the worst part’s behind us,” Jack said, trying to bolster the spirits of his weary team. “All we have to do now is cart this downhill…” He nudged at it with the toe of his boot, misjudging the distance and catching it a little harder than he’d intended. It tipped slightly, teetering right on the edge and starting to slip.
“Whoa!” Ianto’s eyes went wide and he grabbed for the star. It seemed fairly robust, but sliding down a slope where there could be rocks hidden beneath the snow might still damage it.
Unfortunately, as he lunged forward, his feet shot out from underneath him and he landed face down across the domed central part of the star, half knocking the breath out of himself. His added weight was enough to tip the balance and before anyone could move, the star and its inadvertent passenger slid over the edge and started down the slope.
“Argh!” Ianto yelled, his scream cut off abruptly by a mouthful of snow. In self-defence, he closed his eyes and mouth tightly, and even as he felt something catch on his ankle, he grabbled hold of a couple of the nearest spikes and clung on for dear life.
In a last ditch effort to prevent his lover being carried away by the runaway star, Jack had made a heroic leap, grabbing Ianto by one foot, for all the good that did either of them. From the top of the hill, frozen by surprise and powerless to help their friends anyway, the three remaining team members watched as Ianto, clinging tightly to the star, sailed downhill with Jack, still gripping his ankle, bouncing along in his wake, loose snow flying up around them as they sped across the surface.
The unlikely trio were already halfway to the bottom by the time those left behind managed to shake themselves out of their stunned paralysis and set off in hot pursuit, slipping and sliding down the slope as fast as they could, stumbling, falling, picking themselves up and carrying on. There was no way they could catch up, but that wasn’t going to stop them trying, each of them worried that their friends could get badly hurt by their out of control descent. Jack would heal, but Ianto…
Reaching the bottom, the star coasted on for several yards across the field that lay at the base of the hill before finally losing momentum and gliding to a halt. Jack released the ankle he’d been holding on to and staggered to his feet, feeling dizzy from all the bouncing, and swaying unsteadily as he tottered on shaking legs around to Ianto’s head, where he dropped to his knees, reaching out a trembling hand.
“Ianto? Are you okay?” The spikes were fairly blunt, but it any of them had impaled him… Ianto’s whole body was shaking convulsively beneath Jack’s hand and it took him a minute to realise his lover was silently laughing.
Slowly unclenching his hands from their death grip on the convenient handholds, Ianto weakly pushed himself up just enough to roll off the star, flopping onto his back in the snow, trying to catch his breath. One gloved hand came up in attempt to wipe away tears of laughter. “Sorry, I’m fine.” He peered up at the face staring worriedly down at him and snorted. “Well, I suppose that’s one way to get downhill fast.” He frowned slightly as he took in Jack’s appearance; he seemed to have snow all over him, as if he’d been rolling in it. “How’d you manage to get here so quickly?”
“You dragged me with you. I was holding on to your foot.”
Ianto blinked. “Oh, so that’s what that was. I thought my leg got caught on something. It was nearly yanked out of its socket.”
“I think my arm was,” Jack admitted, rubbing his shoulder.
“Ouch. I know how that feels.” Ianto winced in sympathy.
“It’s fine now,” Jack assured him, flexing his shoulder to prove it. “Just a bit sore. Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Probably have some bruises, that wasn’t the most comfortable thing I’ve ever ridden on.” He pushed himself up into a sitting position, automatically brushing snow off his sleeves as he looked at the star, which was still miraculously in one piece. “What the hell is it made of? I don’t see a mark on it.”
“Nothing of earth origin, that’s for sure.” Jack ran a hand admiringly over one blunt spike.
The rest of the team staggered up just then, panting. Owen wheezed up to them, just about doubled over, trying to speak but too out of breath to force any words out.
“Looks like you need a doctor,” Ianto commented.
Owen made a rude gesture in response, finally managing to gasp out, “I thought… you were… a goner… you moron!”
“Owen, I didn’t know you cared!”
“I don’t… just doin’… my job.”
Ianto patted him on the shoulder, almost making Owen’s legs give way. “You just keep telling yourself that.” He scrambled a little unsteadily to his feet, legs still somewhat shaky from his wild ride. “Well, that was fun, but I think I’ll stick to a proper sled in future. That thing’s a bit hard on the ribs.”
“When we get back to the Hub, I’m checkin’ you over,” Owen said firmly if still a bit breathlessly. “Just to be sure you’re in one piece.”
“There’s no need. I’m fine apart from some bruises.”
“Who’s the doctor here, me or you? Besides, if I don’t examine you Harkness will probably string me up by my heels.”
Jack was nodding so Ianto sighed, giving in to the inevitable. “Fine, but we’re not there yet. We’ve still got to load this and drive back to Cardiff, so we’d better bet a move on before the sun goes down behind the ridge. It’s starting to get a bit chilly.” Ianto’s talent for understatement never ceased to amaze Jack.
Together, they once again hoisted their star by its spikes and trudged across the field to the gate leading out onto the deserted country lane where the SUV waited. Ianto was limping slightly and naturally Jack noticed.
“What’s wrong with your ankle?”
“It got twisted. Apparently someone was using it as a tow-bar earlier.”
“Not your fault, you were just trying to save me and I appreciate the effort; without the extra weight this thing might’ve flipped over, and that could’ve been nasty.”
Tosh opened the gate to let them all through, closing it behind them, and a few minutes later the star was safely stowed in the SUV’s boot, covered with a blanket. The weary team climbed into the car and slumped in their seats.
“I hope the Rift doesn’t dump anything else outside the city while there’s all this snow about,” Gwen sighed, pulling off a boot. “I think these boots have about had it and I only bought them a few weeks ago.”
Reaching into a bag in the passenger seat foot-well, Ianto pulled out two thermos flasks. “Who’s for coffee before we start back?” Everyone in the back seat immediately seemed to come back to life, leaning forward eagerly. Ianto produced a pack of paper cups from the glove compartment and proceeded to dispense his heavenly brew, filling each cup nearly to the brim, the delicious aroma permeating the interior of the SUV, and soon the only sounds in the car were quiet slurps and appreciative sighs.
When the last drop of coffee had been consumed, Ianto collected up the empty cups for proper disposal when they got back to the city, and Jack started the engine, turning the heater on to further warm the car’s occupants.
Ianto settled back in his seat, content to let Jack drive for once with the understanding that he’d keep to a sensible speed. Another mission had been successfully concluded, with no major injuries, and now they were on their way home. Too bad they still had no idea what it was they had in the boot, and in all likelihood it was one of the many random items to fall through the Rift that would never be identified. Still, they didn’t need to know what it was in order to appreciate its beauty, and since Tosh had declared it to be completely harmless, maybe Jack would let them hang it in the Hub somewhere, a constant reminder that sometimes they did get nice things.
Besides, it would blend in really well with the Christmas decorations.