Owen loved working for Torchwood. Well, most of the time he did. Sure, the hours were often long, the paperwork was a pain, and there was the whole danger to life and limb thing that had most agents not living to see their fortieth birthdays, but no job was perfect all the time.
Working for Torchwood instead of the NHS or some private hospital had more plus points than downsides anyway. Most of his patients were either aliens or already dead, often both, so there was no need for a bedside manner; the living aliens wouldn’t understand him and the dead ones were past caring. The few humans he had to treat usually ended up Retconned so they didn’t remember anything, or they were his teammates and knew him well enough not to expect mollycoddling. The worst thing about becoming a doctor had always been the patients so only having the occasional one to deal with suited him just fine.
On top of that, he had way cooler equipment at his disposal than any other medical practitioner had access to, much of it of extraterrestrial design, he was fast becoming the world’s foremost authority on alien biology and medicine, and he got to carry a gun and save the world! How many other doctors on the planet could say that?
Jack signed off on most of the research Owen wanted to do without even asking why he wanted to do it, trusting him to have good reasons, and if he didn’t feel like working he could often get away with just pretending to be busy, or even skive off completely, playing computer games. As long as there was nothing urgent needing doing nobody reacted to his occasional laziness with more than a raised eyebrow. They were all just as bad as he was anyway. Well, maybe not Tosh, she was always working at her computers, and Teaboy was some kind of OCD workaholic, but Jack and Gwen got out of doing actual work as often as they could.
So, most of the time Owen was happy as a clam working for the Torchwood Institute, but right now he wasn’t enjoying himself at all. A city boy through and through, he hated the countryside with a vengeance. That thing with the cannibals a couple of years back had made him all the more certain that anyone who lived beyond the suburbs amid all that greenness must be nutters, or worse. It was too quiet, too empty, and it smelled funny.
Anybody with any sense would avoid coming out here at all costs, and yet here he was, with the rest of the team, in the middle of nowhere, all because Jack said they had to investigate sightings of a strange animal spotted in the woods. Owen just wanted to go home, now. Never mind that it was the middle of the night and the others were asleep. How could anyone think that camping was fun? It was the most inhumane form of torture he’d ever been subjected to.
He was stuck sharing a tent with Jack and Ianto, which was another thing he wasn’t happy about. To make certain they wouldn’t be going at it like rabbits all night with him right there, he’d made sure to plonk his sleeping bag right in the middle, between theirs. It was a small tent, so the other two were crammed up against the sides, ensuring that Owen wouldn’t have to hear any disturbing sounds coming from them. They were keeping to their own sides of the tent, for which he was thankful, but while his tent mates were being nice and quiet, Owen was still hearing disturbing noises.
Something was snuffling about outside the tent.
Lying as still as he could, Owen listened, hoping whatever it was would keep well away from the tent flap which Ianto had left half open to allow the cool night air in.
‘Snuff, snuffle, snort,’ the sound went, as if it was sniffing along the side of the tent. There were quiet scratching sounds too; was it trying to get in? Maybe it was the creature hikers up here had reported seeing. Maybe it would get inside and kill them all! Maybe it had already finished off the girls in their separate tent a short distance away…
‘Scritch, scratch, snuffle snuffle, snort.’ Whatever was out there, it was moving closer to the tent opening. Owen reached for the gun under his pillow. It was a good thing he at least was awake to protect them from this monster.
Then it occurred to him; why was he the only one awake when they were all in imminent danger? He reached out his free hand towards the dark lump on his left that was Ianto, jostling him until he got a sleepy response.
“Ianto?” Owen hissed his colleague’s name in hardly more than a whisper.
“There’s something outside. I can hear it snuffling!”
Ianto rolled over and sat up, looming so suddenly beside Owen that the medic almost jumped, the breath catching in his throat. Then Ianto went completely still, listening.
‘Snort, snuffle snuff.’
“There it is again,” Owen hissed. “You heard it too, right?”
There was another snort, this time closer at hand, but it was only Ianto. “Go to sleep, Owen. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“How can you be sure of that? It could be this alien creature we’re looking for. It might get in here and attack us in our sleep! Somebody should take a look outside.”
“By ‘somebody’, I suppose you mean me.” Ianto sounded oddly amused. Pulling out a torch from somewhere, he crawled to the tent flap, slid it open the rest of the way, and slipped out.
It took Owen a second to realise Ianto had gone out without his gun, and cursing under his breath, he followed. If anything happened to the Teaboy, Jack would kill him.
He found Ianto standing in the moonlight, breathing the night air and acting like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Was it the alien? Did you scare it off?”
Ianto laughed. “No and no, it’s just what I thought it was.” He pointed his torch along the edge of their tent. “See? Our little friend there is just sniffing out dinner. The worst it could do to us is give us a few fleas.”
Owen saw, and breathed a sigh of relief. Who knew hedgehogs were so noisy?
“Can we go back to bed now?” Ianto asked, raising an eyebrow in that superior manner Owen found so annoying.
“I suppose, but I still think we should’ve posted a guard.”
“Right, because where there’s one hedgehog there might be more.” Ianto rolled his eyes.
A sudden scuffling sound made Owen jump for real this time, and he heard Ianto laugh again.
“Where’d you two disappear to?” Jack asked, poking his head out of the tent. His hair was sticking up all over the place, making him look a bit like a hedgehog too.
“Owen heard a strange sound and wanted me to investigate,” Ianto informed him, the traitor!
Jack cocked his head to one side, listening to the snuffling. “Hedgehog?” he asked Ianto.
“Don’t see many in towns these days; nice to know they’re still thriving out here. Are you coming back in?”
“I am,” Ianto said. “Not sure about Owen; he wants to post a guard.”
Shaking his head, Jack disappeared back into the tent. “Sleep, Owen; there’s nothing dangerous out here.”
“Yeah, right,” Owen muttered. “You say that now…” Nevertheless, he crawled back inside and reclaimed his sleeping bag. After a few moments, Ianto followed, lay down, and turned off his torch, plunging everywhere into darkness again. Owen lay on his back, wide-awake and listening as the minutes ticked by. He couldn’t hear the hedgehog anymore; it must have wandered off to look for food elsewhere.
There was another sound though…
‘Snuffle, sniff, snuffle.’
It sounded very close, so Owen nudged Jack this time. “Can you hear that?”
A chuckle came from the darkness to his right. “That’s just Ianto snoring. Poke him in the side and he’ll stop.”
Owen didn’t want to know how Jack knew that. It would mean they spent a whole lot more time together than he’d thought. Still, he poked Ianto as Jack suggested. There was a loud snort, some vague muttering that sounded like Welsh, and then silence.
At some point during the night, despite his best intentions, Owen must have dozed off because the next thing he knew, someone was shaking him.
“Rise and shine, Owen! It’s a lovely morning!”
He peeled his eyes open reluctantly to find Ianto kneeling in the tent’s entrance, fully dressed and with a steaming mug in his hand, which he offered to Owen.
“Not quite up to my usual standards I’m afraid, coffee made over a campfire is never going to match what comes out of a machine, but it’s still better than instant.”
Owen took the mug and sipped, surprised by how good the coffee actually tasted, especially after what Ianto had just said. “You’re dressed.” It was the only thing he could think to say.
Ianto raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Disappointed?”
“God no!” Owen shook his head. “You spend way too much time around Harkness; he’s rubbing off on you.”
“Oh, you have no idea.” Ianto actually winked.
Flustered, Owen tried to clear up the apparent misunderstanding. “I just meant you must’ve been up for a while…”
“An hour or so. Figured you probably didn’t get much sleep last night so we let you have a lie in. Breakfast is ready though, so you’d best get a move on if you want to eat while it’s still hot.” Ianto disappeared and Owen set the mug aside, quickly pulling his clothes on. Ten minutes later, he was sitting by the campfire as Ianto served bacon butties for breakfast. The girls had greeted him with smiles but no teasing, so it looked like no one had told them he’d been spooked in the night by a hedgehog. Probably saving that titbit of information for later, he thought gloomily.
“Saw a hedgehog last night!” Jack announced as they ate. “Came snuffling around our tent.”
“Really! How lovely!” Tosh exclaimed. “It’s years since I last saw one.”
“Same here,” Gwen agreed. “Too many pesticides in towns. It’s a shame.”
“Yeah, it is,” Ianto agreed. “Another native species on the decline. Soon won’t be any left at this rate.”
To Owen’s surprise, neither Jack nor Ianto mentioned him at all.
“Right, so, here’s the plan for today,” Jack announced. “We know those woods at the top of the hill are where this mystery creature is said to have been seen, so after we clear up from breakfast, we’ll split up and search the area. Gwen, you go with Owen, Tosh with Ianto… Guess that leaves me on my lonesome. Ah well, I’ll survive. We’ll keep in touch via comms. Gives us a chance to test the relay station Tosh designed for the SUV.” He was all business.
“It should have more than enough range for the area we’ll be searching,” Tosh put in. “If we need to extend our search, we’ll just have to move the SUV. Eventually I’m hoping I can reduce the size and make portable units, but right now it’s too heavy and bulky to carry with us.”
“At least it’ll allow us to communicate via our headsets even way out here, miles from the nearest cell tower. That’s something we couldn’t do before.” Jack smiled approvingly. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road!”
Searching the woods took them most of the day, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon, when they were just about ready to give up and call it a day, that they finally found what they were looking for. Or rather, Owen did, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the weird snuffling noises that alerted him.
He and Gwen were about forty feet apart, keeping each other in sight just in case of danger, but able to cover more ground than they would have if they’d stuck closer together. Poking about among some bushes and finding nothing but a lot of dead leaves, Owen had paused to ease the kinks out of his spine when he became aware of a sound that had nothing to do with Gwen crashing about in the undergrowth.
Following the sound and moving as quietly as he could, Owen parted ferns clustered along a bank at the edge of the woods and found a sort of shallow cave, inside which was something definitely not of earth. Maybe two feet tall, if it had been standing, it looked a bit like a house elf, humanoid and bipedal, with big ears and wide, watery yellow eyes, but its skin was leaf green and its body a round ball, covered in shaggy greenish brown fur. The head was also covered in fur that ran like a mane between the ears and down the back of the neck to merge seamlessly with the body fur. It was wearing little shoes on its feet, and had a bag slung around its body, and it looked up at him fearfully, trembling and snuffling. Owen tapped his Bluetooth.
“Jack? Think I’ve found what we’re looking for!”
Gwen quickly joined him and the others weren’t far behind.
“Oh, the poor thing! It looks terrified! Owen, you’re scaring it!” Gwen reached for the creature only to have it cower away, snuffling even louder.
Jack nudged his way between the pair and crouched down. “Well, hello there. You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?” Lowering his voice, he spoke again is a sibilant tone like rustling leaves. The little alien’s ears perked up and it answered in the same tongue, and when Jack reached for it, it all but threw itself into his arms like a frightened child.
Back at their camp, the alien sat by their campfire, wrapped in a towel, and nibbling on a slice of toast.
“She’s a Hyrenax,” Jack explained. “They’re a sentient species, farmers, with limited technology and no space flight capabilities. From what she told me, it sounds like she got caught by the Rift and dumped in Cardiff. She was understandably frightened by all the cars and people, not to mention the strange sounds and smells, so she tried to hide, but picked the wrong place. As far as I can tell, she must have ended up on a delivery truck bringing animal feed out to one of the nearby farms. She thought she’d found a safe place, but then the farm dogs chased her, and she just kept running until she reached the woods. She’s been up here for about a week, trying to keep out of sight, living on berries. I told her we’d see what we can do about getting her home. I’m sure the Doctor will help, if we can reach him. In the meantime, she can stay at the Hub. She’ll be safer there than out here.”
Walking away from the others, Owen sat down opposite the alien and looked at her. It was strange to realise that cities, where he felt safest, were the places that seemed the strangest and most threatening to this small… person. He supposed it was all to do with what you were used to; he’d grown up in the middle of London while the Hyrenax had lived on a farm all her life. Noise and machines scared her while Owen found the hustle and bustle of city life comforting.
“Don’t worry, kid,” he told her with a smile. “Everything’ll be just fine now, you’ll see.”
So, no dangerous monsters to save the world from today, just a small, harmless, frightened alien being who wanted to be back in its comfort zone as much as Owen did. At least it meant they weren’t battling for their lives this time around; that made a pleasant change.
Yeah, all things considered, despite a few downsides, Owen really did love his job.