"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
-Lewis Carroll ["Through the Looking Glass"]
The small white tablet sat between them. Ianto let his eyes follow the curve of it against the pressed cardboard of his kitchen table, the lack of a stamped brand name only strange in its absence. "You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland," he muttered. Jack arched an eyebrow, and Ianto could almost bring himself to laugh – might have, if he didn't feel so ill. "I take it pop culture references aren't your strong suit." Jack said nothing, only looked at him, the way that Jack tended to only look at him – as though every single movement was a test, every word an exam he was required to pass.
Ianto trailed his fingers along the bottom of his bottle of lager, then rocked it slowly back and forth against the surface of the table. It had been – how many days? They blurred, but no more than a week, according to Jack, who claimed to visit every two days. Make sure that Ianto cleaned, make sure he showered, make sure he didn't burn his flat down, hang himself in his closet, take twenty sleeping pills, suicide by police. So no more than a week, then, since Lisa and a gun to his head – Jack's Webley. Jack's Webley under the table right now like a fucking brag, 'This is the gun that killed your lover.'
"Drink," Jack said, but Ianto didn't, deciding instead to stare at the slow rise of singular bubbles from the bottom of Jack's glass of water to the top. Jack, who only drank when shit got hard. This was easy, then. This was easy. So long, Ianto. Enjoy Wonderland. "Ianto," Jack said, and habit made Ianto look at Jack's left ear – never his eyes, but close enough; not even in bed would he look in his eyes, fucking him to distraction, but the lie would be so, so obvious if they met eyes. Left ear. Just close enough. "You have a choice."
Ianto did laugh, now, but it caught somewhere on the way out and turned into some half-gasp-half-sob creature that made Jack sit back slightly. Jack, with his lip still split from Ianto's single glorious moment that night, punching the fucker right in the fucking mouth. "Choice," he repeated, hearing the hate and the hysteria in his own voice, and ask him how much he cared, go ahead and ask.
Jack nodded. "You can forget Torchwood, forget everything and live a normal life."
The laugh again, and oh that wince on Jack's face was bloody priceless, a Kodak moment if ever there was one. "There's no choice in that, Jack."
Jack was wary but measured. He took a sip of water, looking at him over the rim of the glass, that infuriating look of consideration, of measurement, sizing him up, trying to guess what he was thinking. Apparently it wasn't working. "Why isn't it a choice?"
"I won't forget her." Ianto wasn't looking at Jack. He was looking at the bottle, rocking it still back and forth with two fingers, daring it to tip over onto the table. "You aren't getting away with what you did that easily." In the reflection on the glass, Ianto watched an amber-tinted Jack ride out the storm that suddenly entered his face. Ianto hoped briefly that Jack would hit him so he could have an excuse for another swing, but all Jack did was reach across the table and lay his palm flat over the top of the bottle to stop Ianto rocking it. Ianto withdrew his hand and laid it flat on the table.
"You want to keep the memory just to punish me?" As always, very measured, very calm. Ianto wondered if they offered courses on being infuriatingly calm to Torchwood leaders.
And of course that wasn't the only reason Ianto would refuse retcon, even if it was a fucking brilliant reason, to watch Jack's last breath and know that he was perfectly justified in his absolute glee. "Yes," he said, simply, then stood.
Jack caught his arm and Ianto was once more forced to look back at him, at the small scar on his left earlobe. "If that's your reason, then the retcon is no longer a choice."
"Then it was never a choice in the first place." Ianto ripped his arm out of Jack's grasp and walked away through the flat – filled with old furniture, the pressed cardboard tables and small plaid sofa that came with it; no pictures and no bookshelves, everything temporary. He heard Jack's chair scrape back as he stood to follow.
In the hall by the door he reached out and took Jack's coat from the hook, then shoved it out to him as he approached. "If you're going to retcon me, slip it in through my taps. I know you can do it. I've done it for you. But don't come back here again."
Before Ianto knew what was happening, he was pressed against the wall by the throat and Jack's coat lay in a heap on the floor a few meters away. Jack's face was centimeters from his, his breath coming short, teeth bared in anger. Ianto was almost glad to have cracked that calm; uncaged this monster, so familiar to him now. He scrambled at Jack's hands around his neck, trying and failing to pull in enough air. But Jack didn't roll his thumbs. If he wanted to kill, he would roll his thumbs. Jack only wanted to hurt.
"That isn't your only reason." Jack's face and voice were strained and low to keep himself from exploding. Ianto could see it: the huge amount of tension building in his arms, around his eyes, could almost hear Jack's heart beating, feel the pulse in his fingertips at the back of his neck, raising welts. "It can't be your only reason."
Ianto cocked his head back against the wall and spit in Jack's face. He used the moment of disgust to bring his forearm down hard over Jack's arms, breaking Jack's hold on his throat. He slammed Jack against the opposite wall, hands at his neck, a mirror image. But Jack didn't take it; he slammed a fist into the side of Ianto's head and pain exploded in his left ear. He let go in surprise and Jack hit him again, an uppercut to his jaw that sent him sprawling on the hardwood floor of the hallway.
The world sang and went to a pinpoint for a few seconds while Ianto tried to remember how to breathe past the pain in his head and the air being knocked out of him. Jack came into frame above him, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket and using it to wipe Ianto's spit from his face, and Ianto couldn't help but think, What the fuck time period do you come from?
Air rushed back into his lungs and he rolled to his side to cough raggedly, spitting blood onto the floor. He raised a hand to his lip. Split, like Jack's. Matching injuries. He looked up at Jack, glaring down at him, tucking the handkerchief back into his pocket. "Why the fuck do you care?" His voice came rough through the bruising by Jack's hands.
Jack was silent, absolutely enraged, staring down at Ianto on the floor with his fists clenched and his teeth set against each other so hard that they all might shatter at once. Ianto could see all of that tension still, all of that fury, and he could feel something slipping, some moment he didn't even recognize, not until it was on its way out. He knew Jack couldn't answer. Maybe Jack couldn't remember why.
He rolled to sit up, arms limp at his sides, staring at the floor between his cocked legs. "It isn't."
Jack half-squatted, half-knelt down to be on eye level with him, and Ianto raised his gaze. Left ear. Minute movement inward. Locking eyes. Jack's eyes were blue. He hadn't known that. Jack said, "Then what?" His voice was calm again. But not therapeutic. Not medicinal. Just quiet.
"I did this," Ianto said, and it seemed to encompass everything: the blood on the floor, the shabby flat, the handkerchief, the black line of Jack's split lip, the red line of his own, the ache in his head and his chest and everywhere. "I killed two people."
Jack physically relaxed. The tension drained from him, and in its wake he looked almost languid, lazy. But not cocksure, not like he usually was. Still quiet. "And you can't let yourself forget that."
Ianto nodded miserably, wanting to drop his eyes to the floor but not allowing himself to, not when being able to meet Jack's gaze felt like some kind of step forward. "Remembering is penance."
Jack stood and offered his hand to Ianto. Ianto regarded it for a moment, before raising his own and grasping it. Jack pulled him to his feet, and then, to his surprise, a brief embrace. "That was the right answer," he said quietly. Then he released him and stood back. Ianto watched him, standing in the middle of his front hall, looking more open than Ianto had ever seen him. Out of the Hub, out of the strange light quality there that made everything glow half-real. Yes, it wasn't that he was open – it was that he was real. Looked real. Standing in the grey dark of the hallway, all of his colors washed out, Jack just looked human.
Ianto felt a sudden crush of tears behind his eyes. "How-" he started, but he couldn't finish. The question was too large to fit in his mouth.
Jack shook his head. "You go on. You keep moving forward. You help us save the world a few more times."
Ianto leaned against the wall, suddenly boneless, and stared up at the ceiling. "Will it ever be enough to make up for them?"
Jack came toward him and put a hand on his shoulder. "No," he said simply, with a sad little smile. "But it's better than nothing."
- - -
The film ended, and Ianto let Jack make his required snide remarks about how most of what happened was completely impossible, like he did to most science fiction. Jack usually didn't grasp the point of science fiction. The suspension of disbelief was too difficult, apparently, for somebody who already knew what happened. But it was sometimes amusing to take in his tirades, or to shut him up in some interesting and easily escalated way. Tonight, though, the rant ended quickly, and they were left listening to the credits rolling quietly by, Ianto stretched out on the sofa and sprawled comfortably over Jack's lap, pulled there only half-unwilling somewhere in the middle of the movie.
Jack's hand was absently settled in Ianto's hair, and as he watched the names rolling up the screen, he said quietly, "I guess I get that joke now." Ianto looked up at him with a raised eyebrow, not following. Jack grinned a little sheepishly in response, which made Ianto frown. "I guess it wasn't a joke. Not really." He looked down at Ianto's face. "You take the red pill…"
Ianto thought hard for a moment, then winced, sitting up out of Jack's arms. "I'm sorry," he said, uncomfortable. "I didn't think of it."
Jack shook his head. "It isn't anything to be sorry for. It's just-" He waved a hand. It's just something.
"That was a long time ago," Ianto said.
Jack nodded. It wasn't, really. Not to Jack. Not a long time. But it was certainly a lot of development ago. "But," he said, turning on the sofa to look at Ianto fully, "what is Wonderland?" Ianto's eyebrows knit together in confusion. Jack continued, "You said it then like Wonderland was the normal life."
Ianto was shaking his head before the words were even out. "I think it depends."
Ianto shrugged. "On what side of the pill you're on. On whether ignorance is actually bliss, or we just tell ourselves that because we can never have it."
"You could have had it."
"I couldn't have." He said it sternly, holding Jack's eyes with his own. "And I think you knew that when you offered."
Jack smiled, but it was so sad. "I needed to know."
Ianto nodded. "I know. I don't blame you." And that was saying a lot. Jack's eyes widened very slightly in response to such an offhand dismissal of so much, especially from this person who challenged him so often. Ianto smiled. "I don't," he said.
"So," Jack said, his own smile, a real smile, already playing at the corners of his mouth. "What is Wonderland?"
Ianto leaned across the couch and pressed his lips to Jack's. "This," he mumbled. And it was answer enough.