Characters: Jack, Ianto, Gwen, Tosh, Owen, Rhys.
Summary: A mishandled alien device leaves the whole team with a rather noticeable problem. Some of them take it better than others.
Word Count: 4177
Warnings: Includes moderate Gwen-bashing, and what might be considered Owen-bashing too. I do like Owen, but he is what he is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Gwen, on the other hand, I don’t like at all, she’s forever trying to make out that she’s better than everyone else, so she deserves this.
Written For: FranArian. Happy Birthday!
Disclaimer: I don’t own Torchwood, or the characters. They belong to the BBC.
The device appeared completely innocuous, even boring in its mundanity; there was absolutely nothing about it to so much as give a hint that it could be of alien origin. More than anything, it just looked like a run of the mill torch, just slightly longer and thinner than most, and with no obvious way of inserting batteries. Nevertheless, having taken a quick look at it after Jack and Gwen brought it in, to see if it resembled anything already in the archives, Ianto left it on Tosh’s desk so she could examine it and try to work out what it was.
That was where Owen found it an hour or so later. Bored and looking for something to do, he picked it up, sliding the switch on the side. A beam of reddish light flashed out of the end, and as Owen played it over Tosh’s desk, he realised that he could almost see through whatever the light touched.
“Hey, this is kind of cool!” he said with a grin, turning to run the light over Gwen from head to foot, in the hopes of seeing through her clothes. Not that it worked all that well, mostly just giving him a few fleeting glimpses of her skeleton and internal organs, but hey, he was a doctor so it was an interesting enough effect to entertain him.
“Owen, what do you think you’re doing?” Gwen squeaked, jumping to her feet. “You know we’re not supposed to play with alien tech, especially when we don’t know what it is!”
“How was I supposed to know it was alien? I thought it was a torch!” Owen replied, not bothering to turn it off. “Besides, you’re one to talk. How many times have you pressed buttons on alien devices after being told not to?”
“We’re not talking about me,” Gwen said primly. “You’re the one messing about with something alien. Give it to me before you do something even more stupid. Honestly, you behave like a child sometimes.” She tried to take the torch-like object away from Owen, but he wasn’t giving it up. He tried holding it out of her reach, but since they were of similar heights that didn’t really work and she managed to grab hold of the other end.
“Get off, Gwen!” Owen pulled back, and soon they were wresting over the device like two toddlers fighting over the same toy.
Drawn by the commotion, Jack, Ianto, and Tosh came running out of Jack’s office, where they’d been going over Tosh’s findings on an item that had come through the Rift a few days earlier.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” Jack strode over to the combatants, attempting to pull them apart. “I’m all for a bit of friendly groping, but I expect to be invited to join in!”
“Owen started it,” Gwen cried, not letting up her struggle for possession of the slim cylinder one iota. “He picked up that torch thing we brought in earlier and turned it on!”
“I can see that,” Jack replied as the reddish light passed across him, washing over Ianto and Tosh too as they came up behind him. He pulled his foot back as Gwen’s heel came down on his instep. “Okay, you two, enough is enough! You’re both supposed to be adults, now act like it!” he snapped as he finally succeeded in separating the pair.
Gwen had managed to wrest the prize from Owen, shining it on him in the process. Stepping forward, Ianto whisked it out of her hand before she knew what was happening. “I’ll take that, thank you!” He switched it off and passed it to Tosh. “Perhaps you’d best make studying this your priority, since we’ve all been exposed to the light it was emitting.”
“I will. Thank you, Ianto.” Tosh took it from him and set it down on her desk before picking up one of her scanners and running it first over the device, and then over each of them in turn. “The good news is that whatever this gadget might be, there’s no evidence of it giving off any harmful radiation. That’s all I can say for sure until I do a full workup on it.”
“It’s a good start.” Jack smiled at her before turning to glare at Gwen and Owen. “The rules about handling unknown alien tech are there for a reason. Do either of you have any idea how much potential danger you just exposed us all to?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Owen said. “But in my defence, I really did think it was just an ordinary torch, otherwise I wouldn’t have turned it on.”
“It’s okay though, right?” Gwen put in. “No harm done, and I did try to get it off him.” She smiled winsomely, as if expecting to be praised.
Jack looked stonily at her. “Your actions could quite easily have turned a bad situation into a catastrophic one. Playing tug of war with an unknown device was about the worst possible thing you could have done. What if you’d broken it? Or caused it to overload and blow up? If I ever catch you behaving so recklessly again I’ll have you retconned so far back you won’t even know your own name. Got that?”
“But…” Gwen gave Jack her best wide-eyed look.
“I said have you got that?” Jack repeated.
Gwen deflated. “Yes, Jack. I’m sorry.”
“You should be. Now get back to work, all of you. And Owen, if you don’t have anything better to do, I’m sure Ianto could use a hand with cleaning out the cells.”
“Uh, no, that’s fine, I have a couple of reports I need to finish, now I come to think of it.” Owen scurried away to his desk as Gwen slouched back to hers, a sullen expression on her face.
Jack turned to Tosh. “Any chance that thing temporarily regressed them back to childhood?” he asked hopefully.
Tosh gave him a wry smile. “Sorry, Jack, but I think that was just normal behaviour for them.”
“Yeah,” Jack sighed. “That’s what I thought. Well, I’ll leave you to your investigations. Let me know what you find out.” Jack turned back towards his office, leaving the team’s tech expert already so engrossed in studying the new artefact that she didn’t even hear him.
A little while later, when Ianto came around with the team’s mid-afternoon coffees, he noticed that Gwen was rubbing her forehead beneath her fringe.
“Headache?” he asked.
“What?” Gwen looked up at him. “Oh, no, my forehead itches, probably a mosquito bite or something.”
“Want me to take a look?”
“Okay, sure.” Gwen brushed her hair aside.
Ianto stared, his eyes widened, and then he bit his lip, hard. “Oh dear.”
“What? What is it?” Gwen scrabbled for her handbag, digging in it for the small mirror she kept there. As Ianto turned away, calling for Jack, he heard Gwen’s horrified gasp behind him.
Jack emerged from his office. “What’s up?”
“I think you should see this.” To his credit, Ianto was somehow managing not to double up laughing, although keeping a straight face was proving considerably more difficult.
Ianto inclined his head towards Gwen, who was scrubbing frantically at her forehead with a damp tissue. “It won’t come off!” she sobbed.
“What won’t come off?” Jack caught her wrist, pulling her hand away, and stared for a moment before breaking out into a broad grin. “Well that’s different!”
Across Gwen’s forehead in neat, bright red letters were the words: Human. Self-righteous Hypocrite.
“What am I going to do?” Gwen wailed despairingly.
“I’d suggest not rubbing it,” Ianto told her. “You’re only making it worse.” It was true; the more she rubbed, the darker the writing became. Beside him, Jack started to scratch at his forehead, and Ianto realised his was starting to itch too, though he resisted rubbing it. Tosh, joining them, was rubbing away at hers.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Jack pointed at Gwen’s face, where the words etched into her skin were now deep purple.
“Oh my!” Tosh couldn’t quite stop the giggle that escaped.
“Owen?” Ianto called out.
“What now?” Owen emerged from the autopsy bay, where he’d retreated earlier despite saying he had reports to finish.
“Does your forehead itch?”
Owen frowned. “Now you mention it, yeah, it does a bit. Why?”
“I think we may be starting to manifest the effects of that device you and Gwen were fighting over earlier.”
“Do you think what’s happening to Gwen is going to happen to all of us?” Tosh asked sounding a bit worried.
“I think it already is.” Ianto pointed at Jack, whose forehead was now emblazoned with the words: Human. Boeshane. Sex God and Gigantic Flirt. “Whatever that thing is, it’s got your number,” he chuckled, picking up Gwen’s discarded mirror and passing it to his lover.
Jack practically preened at his reflection. “Obviously it has excellent taste.”
“And the flirt part?” Ianto raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing but the truth. Most people appreciate a bit of flirting; makes them feel good about themselves. I like to think I’m providing an important service by boosting their self-esteem.”
“Of course you do,” Ianto smirked, though exactly which part of Jack’s statement he was agreeing with was open to interpretation.
Tosh was chewing nervously on her bottom lip, one hand covering her forehead. “I’m afraid to look. Ianto, would you…?”
“Of course.” Ianto shifted to block Tosh from everyone else’s view, and gently moved her hand, breaking into a warm smile when he saw his friend’s new label: Human. Seriously Hot Genius. “Well, I think that’s quite flattering, as well as entirely accurate.” Whipping the mirror out of Jack’s fingers, and rolling his eyes at his lover’s indignant protests, he passed it to Tosh.
“Oh! That’s really not bad at all, although I wouldn’t describe myself that way.”
“Of course you wouldn’t; you’re much too modest for that.”
Reaching over Tosh’s shoulder, Owen snatched the mirror without asking in order to examine his new designer logo and gave an easy shrug. “Can’t argue with that,” he commented, handing the mirror back and turning to his colleagues, grinning as he let them see. Human. Unrepentant Wanker.
“That’s not exactly something to be proud of, Owen,” Tosh told him sternly.
“Didn’t say it was, but it’s who I am, and I’m not ashamed of being labelled with it. As far as I’m concerned anyone who doesn’t like it can stuff it.”
“Not a bad attitude to have, I suppose,” Ianto said.
Jack was frowning at Ianto. “How come you don’t have one?”
Ianto twitched slightly; the itch across his forehead was growing intolerable. “Probably because I haven’t given in to the urge to scratch yet. I was testing a theory; I think scratching or rubbing probably speeds the process up.”
“Very scientific methodology,” Tosh said with an approving smile.
“Thank you, I thought so. Right, shall we see?” He reached up with one hand, giving the itchiness a vigorous and very satisfying rub. The rest of the team watched as two lines of writing faded into existence. Human. Coffee King. Practically Perfect in Every Way.
“Well I could have told you that,” Jack grinned, holding up Gwen’s mirror so that Ianto could see his reflection.
“Whatever that device is,” Ianto decided, “it seems to have a sense of humour, not to mention a hint of Mary Poppins about it.”
“Nope,” Jack insisted, shaking his head. “I think that’s an uncannily accurate character assessment.”
Tosh nodded agreement. “It sums you up beautifully.”
Ianto’s ears turned slightly pink with pleasure.
“But what am I going to do?” Gwen asked. “Am I going to stay like this permanently? How can I ever show my face in public again?” A moment’s silence, and then rather belatedly, “What is Rhys going to think?”
It surprised none of the team that Rhys’ reaction was way down Gwen’s list of concerns. The poor guy always seemed to be an afterthought except when Gwen wanted to boast about how she had a happy relationship and this wonderful man to go home to while the rest of the of the team were a bunch of sad, loveless losers. Not that they were, of course; none of them were either sad or losers, and Jack and Ianto definitely weren’t loveless.
“I’m sure Rhys will be supportive. As for the rest, I have no idea,” Tosh said. “I haven’t worked out what the device is yet, never mind how, or why, it’s done this to us. I should probably get back to that.” Looking at Gwen’s distraught face, she added kindly, “You could try using concealer.”
“Or wearing a hat,” Owen put in, laughing.
“Owen!” Tosh chided. “Don’t be mean. Can’t you see she’s upset? It’s alright for the rest of us, but Gwen’s mark isn’t exactly flattering.”
“I can’t help it,” Owen said with a shrug, pointing at his forehead. “I’m an unrepentant wanker, remember?”
“That doesn’t mean you have to live down to your label. You could at least try to be a bit more tactful.”
“Hey, if Gwen doesn’t like the truth, maybe she should do something about it, that’s all I’m saying.”
Tosh had to admit to herself that Owen had a point; if Gwen wasn’t so self-involved, not to mention thoughtless, then maybe her label would’ve been something nicer.
“Until Tosh figures this device out, we should all stay in the Hub as much as possible and cover our foreheads in some way if we need to go out for any reason,” Jack said firmly. “Hats and headbands are workable options; Gwen, concealer isn’t a bad idea if it bothers you so much. If you don’t have any I can loan you some, although I’m not sure mine will suit your complexion.”
That pulled Gwen out of her depressed funk for a moment. “You use concealer?”
“Only when we go out with him dressed as a woman,” Ianto replied casually. “He’s quite the stunner in a dress. I don’t look as good, I don’t have the legs for it and waxing my chest really smarts.” He walked away, leaving Gwen gaping from one of them to the other, temporarily distracted from her problem.
In typical contrary fashion, as they all wanted to keep off the streets and out of sight as much as possible, the Rift decided it was the perfect time to drop sundry bits of junk here and there across the city. That meant Jack, Ianto, Gwen, and Owen were kept busy for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, tracking down and retrieving them.
Fortunately for Team Torchwood, the city was experiencing a spell of bitterly cold weather with an icy north wind blowing, so whenever they had to leave the Hub they were able to wear woollen stocking caps pulled low over their foreheads, hiding their rather conspicuous labels without drawing any undue attention to themselves.
The four colleagues took it in turns, going out in pairs, thereby leaving Tosh as undisturbed as possible so she could continue her investigations into the device that had led to their current inconvenience. In an effort to speed up the process, both Ianto and Owen willingly volunteered their assistance whenever they weren’t required elsewhere.
Too embarrassed to even think of showing her face at home, even with the aid of a thick coat of concealer, Gwen had called Rhys and told him she had to pull an all-nighter because they were in the middle of a tricky case and all hands were needed. It wasn’t strictly true, but Rhys wasn’t to know that, and what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. He was used to her coming home late, or not at all.
So it was that at just after ten that night, when Tosh finally came up with some answers about the device she’d been studying for the past seven hours or so, everyone was still present and she gathered them around her workstation to report on her findings.
“Alright, so as far as I can work out, this little gadget is a sort of scanner. You play the beam over any object you choose in order to find out what it is, along with its planet of origin, if that differs from the device’s location. It contains a very advanced sort of GPS system that can pinpoint its exact location anywhere in the known universe, as well as an extensive encyclopaedia of data on just about everything in order to identify whatever it scans.” Tosh sounded impressed.
“Clever!” Jack grinned. “What else?”
“Well, Ianto suggested it might be sort of an alien version of the x-ray machines used to check bags, packages, and even large cargo items as they pass through customs, giving an immediate readout of what’s inside. Owen said he got glimpses into things when he passed the light over them, so I tried it. The images aren’t very clear, but I think that’s just because our eyes aren’t attuned to the right wavelengths. The scanner determines the contents of packages, and labels them accordingly. It might also be used to identify the origins of travellers, like going through a passport check, identifying any notable personality traits.”
“I like that idea, especially with the labelling,” Ianto put in. “Think about it; for a start it would help with assigning different species suitable quarters on board spaceships. Not only that, but it would also let the captains know which passengers might cause trouble. Nifty when you think about it; the crew would know at a glance who to keep an eye on.”
“I can’t imagine passengers would be happy to have the machine’s assessment of them right there on their foreheads to be seen by anyone,” Gwen disagreed. She was still wearing her woolly hat.
“Ah, well, I don’t think they normally would be, or at least they wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. Under normal circumstances you’d probably have to wear special contact lenses or something to read the labels,” Tosh explained. “The thing is, this device has quite a few settings, probably for use on different substances. Owen shoved the switch on the side all the way to the top of the scale without realising, so instead of just getting a faint mark only visible using the right equipment, it’s darkened our skin to a much greater degree than it should have, sort of like sunburn but not. In some ways it’s more like having a henna tattoo; the effects should wear off in a few days, and I think repeated washing or rubbing will speed up the process.”
“But I rubbed mine and that just made it worse!” Gwen protested.
“Yes, that’s what gave me the idea,” Tosh agreed. “You rubbed yours a lot more than the rest of us did, which is why it’s so much darker; more of the pigment has been brought to the surface. Left untouched, these marks might last weeks as the pigment gradually surfaces and gets worn away a bit at a time. Think of it as being a bit like using an eraser on coloured pencil. It takes a while, but if you keep rubbing it fades right away. Just don’t rub so much you make your skin sore.”
“I’m going to run tests on mine using various substances, see if I can come up with a cleansing solution that’s gentle on the skin but effective at fading the marks. I suggest the rest of you try whatever skin products you have at home and if you find something that works, share it with the rest of us,” Owen said. “But like Tosh says; go easy. The skin of your forehead can be quite delicate and I don’t want to wind up treating any of you for chemical or friction burns. Got it?”
The others nodded.
“I’m not going home, I can’t let Rhys see me like this,” Gwen stated firmly. “I plan to stay right here until this awful mark is gone.”
“Fine,” Jack told her. “You can sleep on the sofa and keep an eye on things while the rest of us go home. It’s been a long day.”
“I’ll fetch you a pillow and blankets,” Ianto said, heading off to where he kept the spare bedding.
“But aren’t you going to stay, Jack?” Gwen asked.
“Not if you’re going to be here. I’ll come in if I get a Rift alert through my wrist strap, but there’s no need to have two of us here so I’m going home with Ianto. It’ll be nice to sleep in a big, comfy bed for once. My cot isn’t really designed for two; it’s cosy, but a bit cramped.” He clapped his hands together. “Right, finish up with whatever you were doing and head home. Have a good night, people.”
Ianto returned and made up the sofa for Gwen before leaving with Jack. Owen had already gone. Tosh saved all her work, powered down her computers and the Hub’s systems, then put the device that had caused all the trouble into a containment box and left it, along with copies of her findings in a manila folder, on Ianto’s workstation, ready to be filed away in the archives.
“Goodnight, Gwen,” she called as she left.
“Goodnight,” Gwen called back, feeling like she was being abandoned.
All alone, she went over to the sofa, pulled off her boots, and settled into her makeshift bed, where she lay awake for a long time, fitfully rubbing at her forehead until eventually the long day caught up with her and she fell asleep.
Through sheer persistence, a lot of washing, and almost constant rubbing, Gwen managed to get rid of the writing on her forehead in only three days, although it left behind a rather sore looking red patch. Owen grumbled that it was her own fault, and that he had warned her, but gave her some soothing cream to apply anyway. Arriving home, she told Rhys that she’d hit her head during a fight and Owen had made her stay at the Hub in case she had concussion. There was no way she was ever going to tell him the truth; it was much too humiliating. Besides, Rhys was so concerned that he fussed over her all evening, waiting on her hand and foot, which made up a bit for the nightmare she’d had to endure over the past few days.
Despite what he’d said about experimenting on himself to find a solution to the team’s problem, Owen soon found he was in no rush to get rid of the label on his own forehead. Leaving the Hub the first night, he’d gone out for a few drinks and without thinking, had taken his hat off in the warmth of the pub. Amazingly, despite people laughing at him, he found it a great way of breaking the ice, telling the women he met that he and his friends had got drunk and he’d woken up the next morning to find they’d written on him with a marker pen for a lark.
“Should wear off in a few days,” he laughed. “In the meantime, what you see is what you get.” Picking up a date for the night had never been easier and he was a bit disappointed to find the mark only lasted for eight days. He was almost temped to find the small device and have another go with it, but he would have had to ask Ianto where he’d put it, which would have meant explaining why he wanted it, so that was out.
The rest of the team, all of whom were trying to get rid of their labels while causing the minimum damage to their skin, were back to normal in five or six days.
“You know, that thing could even come in useful,” Owen commented once they were all label-free. “If nothing else, it could tell us the species and planet of origin of any unidentified aliens that show up. Save us some guesswork.”
Unsurprisingly, Ianto agreed. “Might even prove helpful in the archives, if Tosh can develop a way to allow the human eye to detect the correct wavelengths.”
“I’ll run some more tests and see what I can come up with,” Tosh promised.
Jack nodded approval. “Just be careful with it,” he told her, before turning to include all of the team in his next words. “Hopefully recent events will serve as a timely reminder of why we should all follow the rules regarding the proper handling of unidentified alien artefacts. We got of lightly this time, the device was essentially harmless, but next time we might not be so lucky.”
He walked back to his office, leaving his team to consider what he’d said. They really had been more fortunate thus far than they deserved to be; they’d all screwed up at one time or another, only to get away without causing a devastating catastrophe more by luck than by judgement.
It was a sobering thought.