Word count: ~ 1,900
Warnings: Kind-of spoilers, angst, magic, borrowed dialogue, canon gore, non-canon minor character deaths.
Summary: Twelve steps to immortality: this is the pinnacle of alchemy, of all alchemists. Ianto has reached final goal, and all he feels is empty.
A/N: I feel like this story is EATING MY BRAIN. But Countrycide is probably my favorite episode, so I wanted to get to it quickly. (On that note, if I go overboard on any aspect of the story, please let me know. I personally get a kick out of the stop-start-rewind-skip-ahead theme, and it’s fun to write, so I'm liable to abuse it. If I do, just smack me.)
The Art of Far and Near
Tosh opens her eyes to dim light and far too many shadows for comfort. She jerks upright, touching the back of her neck to check the damage. Five years in Torchwood is enough that she’s fairly used to being kidnapped, or waking up after being knocked out without warning—they all are.
“You know, I never liked camping.”
She reaches towards her ankle holster automatically, and a soft snort cuts her off.
“Don't bother. They took the guns.”
Ianto is sitting across from her, quiet in the darkness, but paler than she’s ever seen him. His hands are clasped loosely in front of him, but they keep twitching, as if he’s resisting the urge to move, to draw his circles and break the stone back down to silicone, oxygen, and aluminum.
(She shuts down the small part of her brain that insists on listing the chemical composition and percentages of each element; her mind’s always been too active that way.)
“Charming place they've got,” she says, glancing around.
It’s really not.
Ianto takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Judging by the sound reverberations and the…air quality…pretty deep underground. Chances of rescue?” He’s even more tightly contained than usual, and he looks so young out of his customary suits, away from the safety of the Hub. Tosh has to drag her gaze away, turning instead to study the walls.
“We won't need rescuing. I haven't met a cell yet I couldn't get out of,” she says firmly.
(That's a lie, her mind whispers tauntingly, calling up memories of a tiny UNIT cell kept away from all technology more complicated than a large padlock. She pushes that away, too.)
Another breath, as though bracing himself, and then he asks softly, “What were they?”
Tosh doesn't look back, giving him the privacy of his fear. There's a chute off to one side, so she heads to it, seeking daylight. “I don't know. It happened too quickly. Are you worried?”
“A little.” The admission sounds ripped out of him, unwilling.
She touches the chute, and her hand comes away wet with blood.
“Have you…?” She lets her words trail off, but waves a hand pointedly, keeping her palm facing away from him.
“I didn't know if we were being watched.”
When Tosh turns, Ianto has unlaced his fingers, letting them rest casually at his side. She wonders at the strength in them, the power they contain when they look so slim and elegant. He’s watching her, expression still tense but body forcibly relaxed, as he nods to the corners of the room. “You can affect cameras, yeah?”
She closes her eyes and calls her own magic without another word, berating herself for not doing it sooner. But she’s hidden it for so long, kept it a secret from so many people, that it’s almost jarring to be in the presence of someone who knows.
There's nothing here for her gift to latch onto, though, no systems or programming or complex code. The only thing with electricity is the fridge in the corner.
“Lights?” Ianto asks after a moment, practical even now.
Tosh shakes her head. “They're burned out. But there aren’t any cameras here. If they’re watching us, it’s not that way.”
Ianto looks away from her, closing his eyes.
(Sometimes she forgets that he’s the youngest of all of them.)
(Right now she can't think of anything else.)
He licks his lips and takes another deep breath, and says softly, “The best chance we have of finding out what they are is waiting for them to come for us.” His fingers close again, hands fisting at his sides like he’s refraining from using his alchemy to turn this whole structure to dust and sand.
Tosh watches his face, sees the tightly controlled fear there, remembers the stripped-bare corpse left as a warning for them.
Ianto isn’t a field agent, for all that he’s faced down the sidhe with them, for all that he survived Torchwood One’s fall.
A distraction, she thinks desperately. Something. Anything.
“God, I'm hungry,” she blurts, and wants to clap a hand over her mouth at the inanity of it.
Ianto looks up at her, strangely odd in his canvas jacket and sensible jeans. “You should have had that cheeseburger,” he offers.
Tosh grimaces. “Not that hungry.”
They smile at each other, a moment of bravery in the darkness.
Tosh looks away, over towards the corner. “How about that fridge?” she asks, keeping her tone light.
(As a distraction, it’s fairly far off the mark.)
(But that's the middle. It makes no sense to start the story there.)
“I hate the countryside. It's dirty, it's unhygienic. And what is that smell?”
“That would be grass.”
(That's the start, but it’s not the beginning.)
“He’s meat,” the man says, as though it should be obvious. He shoves the bound boy to the ground. “I'm afraid we're all just meat.”
The plastic sheeting crinkles behind him as he vanishes through it.
Ianto takes a breath and closes his hands in the chilly cuffs, feeling the metal dig into his skin. “Get ready to run,” he murmurs, watching the woman with the shotgun hand the man a bat as he reappears.
Tosh drags in a breath that suddenly feels too small to fill her lungs. “What're you going to do, put us on meat hooks?” she demands, and it’s a miracle that her voice doesn't waver.
The man turns to her, eyes dark with something farther from human than any mythical monster she’s ever met. “No, not yet,” he answers, and it’s not reassuring in the least. “You see, meat…has to be tenderized first.”
Ianto’s hands open, palms flat. “Praescribo,” he whispers, sharp and desperate. “Incipere.”
A circle with three interlocking rings burns itself into the cheap linoleum.
The twelve runes, shared between each ring, begin to glow.
“Oh, come on! It's just a bit of fun! Who was the last person you snogged?”
“See! You even sound like an eight-year-old! Who the hell says ‘snog’?”
“Mine was Rhys.”
“Yeah, well, there's a surprise.”
“Tosh, your go.”
“It’s easy for you!”
“Oh, come on! Spill the beans!”
“Tosh, in your dreams.”
“Three am, Christmas Eve, in front of the Millennium Centre. Waiting for a cab.
I had mistletoe.”
“Christmas? You've not had a snog since?”
“Well. Lucky me, eh?”
“So who was yours?”
(Stop. We know how this part ends.)
“It's my turn, is it?” Ianto asks. It’s impossible to stay silent, the words bursting off his tongue before he can check them—but he’s angry, too, because they were all there when it happened. They should remember what he lost. “It was Lisa.”
Gwen’s eyes are wide and pitying. “Ianto, I'm sorry…”
(The pity eats at him like nothing else. He hates it.)
“Sorry she's dead? Or sorry you mentioned it?”
(They've been ignoring it, all of them, and he can't stand it one moment longer.)
“I just didn't think,” Gwen starts, as though that’s any excuse at all.
Ianto looks up at her, looks up at them all, and a smile twists his lips, makes his face ache. “You forgot.” It’s wry and soft and more than a little bitter, traced with envy, because they can forget, they're able to. They don't have to live the rest of their lives having killed the one they loved.
“We should get some firewood,” Owen says, and it’s nearly blurted as he stands.
Gwen’s just as quick out of her seat to follow him. “I'll give you a hand.”
When Ianto raises his head from contemplation of his hands—the hands that killed Lisa—Jack is watching him.
Ianto looks away.
The man doesn't even have time to scream as he disintegrates to ash.
Tosh runs and doesn't look back.
In the enclosed space of the kitchen, the report of the shotgun is deafening
The blast takes Ianto in the heart.
(This isn’t the end. It’s a beginning.)
Gold is bendable, malleable, even when it’s relatively cold. Warm from the heat of transmutation, it bends easily. Ianto slips his hands free of the golden handcuffs and lets them fall to the ground, rising to his feet.
There's blood on his second-favorite jacket, blood on his shirt.
Even as he looks down, even as he smears his hand across the crimson wetness, the damaged flesh closes, the wound fading away.
Twelve steps to immortality, and few alchemists take it when they are as young as Ianto is now.
Twelve steps to immortality, and then there's no turning back.
The three circles are still glowing.
Ianto meets the woman’s eyes—Helen, he thinks. He called her Helen—and raises a hand, bloody palm cupped. Crimson liquid rises within, sharp with the smell of copper.
The blood drips down, hissing like acid where it touches the floor.
“Evito,” he snarls, and shoves the change into her very atoms.
Sand spills to the ground, mixing with the ash, and Ianto collapses to his knees, breathing hard.
(There's an end, if you want to leave it there.)
Jack finds Ianto sitting on the steps leading into the house, head bowed over his hands. His palms are rusty with drying blood, his hiking boots grey with dust, and Jack doesn't need to hear what happened. He can guess.
Carefully, he takes a seat beside Ianto, and asks, “You're not hurt?”
Ianto is a good liar—very good, most of the time. Right now, Jack can see the hesitation in his eyes, the furtive flicker of his expression as he bites back the words that spring forward instinctively.
“Yes,” he says at length, more guarded than such a simple question should leave him. “I'm not hurt.”
“Good.” Jack leans back on his hands, tilting his head back towards the darkening sky. There's more to deal with, other cannibalistic villagers to worry about until the local police can arrive, but just for now, Jack finds that he’s too relieved to care. “Maybe someday you'll tell me what's wrong?”
Ianto glances at him sidelong. A small smile is tugging at his lips, bare and soft.
“Yeah,” he agrees, following Jack's gaze up to the clouds above them. “I think I will.”
(Stop. Pause it here. This is as good a place to end as any.)