they are persuaded by the music of the bells (zabbers) wrote in tw_flashfic,
they are persuaded by the music of the bells

Stir Things Apart, by Zabbers, alternate lives challenge

Title: Stir Things Apart
Characters: Ianto, Ianto/Lisa, Jack
Spoilers: Doctor Who through S2, Torchwood through 1x04
Summary: Five ways the world ended when Ianto lost Lisa.
Notes: ~2400 words. PG-13. It was like pulling teeth, writing this one, except for the prologue. Serves me right for trying to do my own prompt. So it didn't really come out exactly as I had planned. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's still May 30th anywhere in the world anymore, and I have to get to bed so I can be perky for my *gasp* driving test tomorrow. Blame it for any insanities herein.

His fingers slip on the coffee mug.

"I'm sorry," she says.

"I'm just not interested any more," she says.

He feels like a fool. Five minutes ago he was scrambling eggs, dreaming, over the frying pan and the spatula, of slipping back into bed, of making them late for work.

"You'll be all right, yeah?"

He'd imagined leaning over her, hands flat beside her armpits, knees just touching her thighs, his weight causing a dip in the mattress. The comforter is heaped, like a soft brown dog, on the hardwood next to her night-stand; it always winds up on the floor when she sleeps over. She would open her eyes to his kiss, never until his kiss, and he knows she plans this, knows that even when she wakes she keeps her eyes closed until she feels his lips brush against hers. Her eyes, when she opens them, are sleepy but bright, and warm, so warm. He would smile to see her eyes, and he'd thought he would reach down and stroke her awake, one hand tracing her body from breast to rib to waist, along the jut of her hip and into her pyjama bottoms, the cream-coloured ones with the satin stripes.

But when he brings the coffee into his bedroom, she is already up, sitting against the headboard with her knees tucked under her chin. Even then he doesn't suspect, doesn't acknowledge the sensation in the back of his mind that something is wrong, or translate that awareness to this, to them, to what she says.

She accepts the coffee, and she sips from it, naked and natural in his carefully co-ordinated flat. He marvels at how beautiful she is, her hair sticking out in little tufts, her skin impossibly smooth. He could, he thinks, stay like this forever. And then she puts down her mug, and looks at him, and he realises, in one sickening instant, that he is wrong.


He's an adult. He can handle this. His eyes are wet, and she is a blur, and he is getting salt water in his coffee. He wants to say, no. He wants to say, you can't. He says, I'll let you get dressed. And, there's scrambled eggs in the kitchen. There's toast.

Minutes later, she joins him on the living room sofa, her bracelets clamouring as they slide toward her elbow, as she lays a hand on his upper arm. His coffee is cold and dilute, but he hasn't dropped it yet. Her hand feels distant through the fabric of his suit. She is wearing a silk sweater and a Lycra skirt. Maroon threads bleed colour into the shimmery silver. An hour ago, she was laid out before him, an extension of himself, there on the bed, transparent; he thought he knew her dreams, her moods, her thoughts. But now, swathed in fabric, she is a stranger. His previous familiarity, an illusion. She has always been a stranger.

"How long," he asks, "have you been thinking of this?"

Something like exasperation flits across her face, or so he thinks. It's gone before he can be sure, replaced by a steely patience. "It isn't like I sat down one day and said, 'when shall I leave Ianto?'" Resolve, tenderness. "It happened gradually. You must know what it's like. Sometimes things just don't work."

He doesn't, actually. He understands, but she might as well ask him to empathise with her cramps. He never sees why this has to happen. He wishes it didn't.

"I don't love you any less."

She rests her hand on his, and, out of habit, he rubs his thumb over hers, until he notices, stops abruptly, embarrassed. She sighs, shifts her weight, and takes the mug out of his grasp, sets it on the table. She wants him to look at her. He does. He looks at her little chin, at the line her hair describes against her forehead, at her mouth; how calm she is, while he weeps. He needs her. He thinks, again, how foolish. How weak. He thinks, we really will be late. I can't go to work like this.

"Maybe I should go." She leaves him, she walks away.

He rubs the tears from his face. "Lisa!" he says. "Wait."

She turns. She looks at him, and her face, too, is full of the sadness he can't control.

Ianto smiles bravely. "I'll be fine," he assures her. "We'd better get to Torchwood."

Afterwards, Ianto wonders how they could have let such a thing happen. Like all of Torchwood, he is shocked by his own negligence, by his willingness to accept a course of action he knew to be troubling. He's in his flat, alone, stirring cream irreversibly into coffee, thinking about all the things that cannot be undone.

It is true, the Doctor came and saved them from their own wilful blindness. It is true he arrived in time to see what was happening and stop it before anybody died. But it makes Ianto's breath catch in his throat every time he thinks how close they came to their own destruction. As it is, Yvonne is stepping down. Ianto and the Doctor together made sure of that.

He sips his coffee and thinks that he has forgotten to add sugar. It's strange to drink something so rich and find it so lacking. He returns to the kitchen to fetch the little box of sugar cubes. He hesitates as he sets the box down on the end table. He looks at the phone, wondering if he should give Lisa a ring.

He can't effectively run Torchwood One with her here; the recent crisis has made that obvious. There is a post in Cardiff--they're long overdue for proper supervision. He could send her to take over from the fellow who's there now, maybe have him come to London. The justifications are easy. The base is under the Millennium Centre, which should be nice, and there's lots of wild places in Wales for her to explore, he tells himself. It's a much smaller operation, but perhaps we could budget for staffing increases. The changes are necessary, whether he believes in them or not. Whether she does or not.

Ianto picks up the phone, hesitates, puts it down again. It can wait until morning.

But his fingers betray him. They've dialled before he realises, and as he slots the phone into its cradle, he hears her voice, tinny and small on the receiver.

He picks it up again. "Hello, Lisa?"

"Ianto?" Neither says anything for a long second. "What is it?"

He feels chagrined. "Erm, never mind. I'll talk to you in the morning. I'm sorry." He settles the phone in its place.

Wearily, he rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. He is haunted by the thought of what might have been. If things hadn't ended with Lisa that day, if he hadn't been working through lunch, without her to meet him or to give him an appetite, if he hadn't been there when the Doctor came barrelling down the corridor, hammering at the Archive door, clamouring for information. If Ianto hadn't thought, nothing I knew is true in this world, if he hadn't decided to take a chance on this alien, Torchwood's supposed enemy.

He sighs, a little exhalation that releases everything he has been--his uncertainties, his hesitation, the selves he's created to please Yvonne, to please Lisa--and makes way for the person he must be from now on. The person he is. He washes the rest of the coffee down the drain, and goes to bed. Tomorrow, there's work to be done.

Afterwards, he wonders how they could have let it happen. Like the other survivors, he is shocked at how badly things went wrong, at how close to a larger disaster they came. As it is, it was a tragedy, limited to Torchwood's chosen children, who, wilfully blind, refused to see the danger. He is forced, like all of them, to accept the consequences of his own negligence.

He's in his flat, alone, stirring brandy, irreversibly, into Sumatran java.

Ianto sips his coffee and thinks, he has forgotten to add sugar. It had always been Lisa's perverse delight to slip extra cubes into his cup when he wasn't looking; he had become accustomed to not adding any at all, to compensate. It's strange to drink something so familiar and suddenly find it so bitter. He looks at the brandy bottle on his end table, wondering if Lisa would have laughed at this scene.

He picks up the bottle, hesitates, tips it into his cup. Wearily, he rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. They come away wet, and he wonders how something so mundane as tears can mean anything at all in this brave new world. The Cybermen have come and gone. The Doctor has come and gone. Ianto is alone, the only one of twenty-six fighting to keep Torchwood London operational, to record what happened, to remember.

The coffee scalds his tongue, but the brandy warms him inside, a path of fire more gold than slag. He closes his eyes and sees Lisa burning, metal and flesh burning together, one of the casualties of their clean-up efforts, slain by their own bullets. She was dead long before that, he reminds himself, and tries not to think of the surveillance footage, every moment pieced together on what remains of the Archive mainframe, from canteen to conversion centre to the corridor in which she fell for good. He's watched, thirty-five times, the way she hesitates before shocking Mackenzie from Operations to death, examined the way fear pulls her body taut and tense and glistens in her eyes as she faces down the security detail, listened to the way she screamed.

He'd been working through his lunch, safe in the Archive, when the Doctor came barrelling down the corridor, clamouring for Information. He'd thought, everything I knew in this world is false, and refused to help this alien, their enemy. He can't know what difference it might have made, but eight hundred people are dead. Lisa is dead. He drinks down his coffee and thinks about the things that cannot be undone.

"I'm sorry," he says to the empty air.

He wonders how he could have let it happen. How he could have been so blind. The Cybermen hold him, waiting, their hands cold and angular on his arms. Three feet away, the saws spin and the knives descend, and Lisa is screaming, and the floors are wet with blood. He is next.

He struggles, to no avail--they are right about one thing: human flesh is weak, fallible, corruptible. All too easily swayed. Human things don't last.

The instruments stop, and, to the sound of gyros and armour, Lisa emerges. But not Lisa. She doesn't seem to see him, and he thinks, looking at that perverse amalgam of flesh and metal, that some things cannot be undone. Cream stirred into coffee. A relationship ended the morning before a slaughter. Human frailty removed in favour of machine meaninglessness.

He doesn't think of what might have been. If he had stayed in the Archives, if he hadn't gone looking for her in the canteen. He's not thinking much of anything as they strap him to the conversion table.

Afterwards, he says to her, "Nothing I knew was true in this world." He is surprised at the sound of his voice, and pauses, confused. His body is burning, flesh and metal, burning together, and he tastes coffee like gold on a tongue of slag. "I'm sorry," he says, not knowing what he means.

Behind him, shots ring out.

He sips his coffee, thinking, there is too much sugar in this. It's strange to drink coffee made by someone else, but this is his first day, and this is not London, not his Torchwood. The man before him put the coffee in his hands, black, double strong, double sweet. Ianto stirs it anyway, and Jack Harkness asks, "What are you thinking?"

Ianto says, "You can't stir cream out of coffee."

Harkness looks chagrined. "Point taken. I should have asked how you take your coffee." He grins, bright as a boy with a penny for candy. "But that's why we need you! To bring back the little civilities."

Ianto's face flushes. "It's not what I meant, sir. I was just thinking about all the things that can't be undone."

"I'm sorry about what happened to you," Harkness says softly.

"Merely the consequence of our own negligence." Ianto's voice comes out harsh, surprising. The justifications are easy. Eight hundred people are dead, but he'd been on his way to see her, he'd followed the Cybermen, pulled her out of the inferno. He puts down the coffee, hesitates. He wants to say, everything you think you know about me is false. He wants to say, even this strength is a lie. Human flesh is weak, fallible, corrupt.

He says, "There's work to be done."

Afterwards, he says, "I'm sorry." To her, to them. Afterwards, he tries to tell himself, she was dead long before we slew her with our own bullets. He's already imagined, too many times, the way she burned, metal like slag, flesh like gold. He sits in his flat, alone, thinking of nothing. He sighs, releasing everything he has had to be, the person he has had to be, to please Jack. Tomorrow, he will remember who he is.

Ianto wonders, afterwards, how they could have let such a thing happen. How the world could have ended on their watch, by their wilful, blind negligence.

It was fighting with Lisa that saved them both, locked into the Archive. While the world burned, flesh into metal, gold into slag, they negotiated what could not be undone. Now, they are alone in his flat, alone on the planet, having found that even under metal armour, human flesh is still fallible, weak, corrupt. To save the world, they destroyed it. And though they hesitate, tomorrow, there is work to be done, by their own bullets.

Ianto sips his coffee and thinks how bitter it is.

ETA: Forgot to mention, since I put it on my comment to szm's fic, that I swear I did start this before I read hers, but she said 'finish it anyway!' and it's great to see the different treatments. :) Oh, and I passed the test! (Okay, it was szm who had a similar plot point, but basingstoke who, for a different similar plot idea said I should write it anyway. I swear I will stop editing this post eventually.)
Tags: alternative lives

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