Title: Bridges Burning In Reverse
Pairings/Characters: Ianto, Owen
Summary: “We’re not friends at Torchwood, Ianto. You can’t have friends at Torchwood. No one trusts anyone else enough for that.”
Author's Note: Fuck yes I'm finally done! I have been trying to write this fic since the beginning of July and I kept getting painfully stuck but I really didn't want to give up on it. And now it's done! It's done! I'm insanely happy about this! It was written for the "trust issues" square of hc_bingo, and that was my last square! Thanks to snarkymuch, writinstuff, thatwrongphone, tardisjournal, jolinarjackson, and a slew of Tumblr users for betaing this multiple times, reading it over, coaching me and coaxing me through all the humps, trying their best to get me unstuck, and giving tons of feedback. Huge, huge thank you to thatwrongphone whose advice and feedback cracked open my writers block and helped me finally finish this stupid freakin' story.
I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!
-Edmund, Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill
Owen is very close to falling-over drunk when Ianto finally finds him, tucked in the back corner of the bar, shaking hands loosely cupping a shot glass. Not for the first time, he wonders why the hell he’s even bothered to search through every pub in Cardiff to find the doctor, but then Owen turns bloodshot tired eyes to him and he remembers it’s because like everyone else in Torchwood, Owen’s got no one else left.
“What do you two want?” Owen demands sluggishly, and his wobbling head would be highly amusing if it wasn’t so sad.
“You’ve had enough,” Ianto grabs Owen by the shoulder with one hand, and slaps a card down on the counter with the other. “It’s time to go home.”
“Bollocks. Leave me ‘lone.”
Ianto rolls his eyes, manhandling Owen’s right arm over his shoulder and heaving him up. “You have no idea how much that idea appeals to me right now. But you need to come into work tomorrow instead of dying of alcohol poisoning, so it really is in your best interest.”
“Nngh.” Owen stumbles, shoving his face into Ianto’s shoulder. He pushes away, stumbling backward, and Ianto grabs him by the shoulders and rights him again. Owen huffs alcohol breath in his face in lieu of a thank you. Ianto slings Owen’s arm over his shoulder again and wraps a hand around Owen’s waist. They hobble out of the pub like some poor imitation of a three-legged race.
Owen slumps over and drags his feet until Ianto is practically hauling him down the pavement.
“You’re not going to throw up on my shoes, are you?”
Owen smirks sloppily. It looks half-hearted and messy. “I was trying for it. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
“Good. ‘Cause then I really would leave you on the side of the road.”
They’re silent for a while. Ianto hates dragging Owen back to his flat, but it’s close enough to the pub that they can walk. And he knows the walk will sober Owen up a little faster. He’s experimented with various ways of sobering Owen up since the beginning of his employment at Torchwood Three, and now he’s basically perfected it.
“I hate you,” Owen announces, as if he’s been thinking about it for a while.
“Because I’m supposed to, I dunno.”
Ianto frowns. Indulging a drunk Owen is not always the best thing to do, but this is a new train of thought from the usual rat-arsed moping. He hitches Owen’s slipping arm a bit further across his shoulders.
“Why are you supposed to hate me?”
Owen shrugs, nearly dislodging himself again. “Because everyone else likes you. Jack likes you because he’s shagging you, Tosh likes you because you’re scarily alike, and Gwen likes you because she pities you. So I’m supposed to hate you. That’s just how it works.”
“Okay.” Ianto knows he should dispel the idea that he and Jack have ever been properly shagging, but he really doesn’t care right now. Owen’s too drunk to comprehend an explanation, anyway. He concentrates on keeping his colleague upright and walking.
Ianto pours Owen onto his sofa, ignoring the irritable barbs sent his way, and goes off to rummage around in Owen’s kitchen area for coffee-making materials. He leans against the counter and listens to the percolator drip as he watches Owen struggling to sit comfortably on the sofa. He pours the coffee through the filter twice to make it bitter— passive-aggressiveness has always been more his style—and brings it over to Owen.
“Here. Drink this.”
“Why?” Owen wrinkles his nose at him and looks like a grumpy three-year-old. Ianto wants to pinch his cheek or ruffle his hair, but refrains. He holds the cup out again.
“It’ll help you sober up. Trust me.”
Owen scoffs. “I don’t trust you. I don’t even like you.”
“You don’t trust or like anyone, Owen.” He takes Owen’s hand, peels the fingers open, and sticks the mug against them. Owen doesn’t drop the coffee on the floor like Ianto’s expecting, but he doesn’t drink it, either.
“I like Jack.”
“Everyone likes Jack.”
“You would know, wouldn’t you? Always pining after him.”
“You’re the one with the drinking problem, not me.”
“I hate you.”
Ianto rolls his eyes. “I hate you, too.”
“Why are you here?” Owen asks suddenly.
“I…” Ianto looks at the cup in Owen’s hand.
Owen sneers up at him. His face is ugly in the dim lighting, his eyes glitter cruelly.
“Because you want to take care of me,” he sing-songs. “You need to take care of someone. First it was your fucked up robot girlfriend. Then it was Jack and all his demands. Now it’s poor sodding me. Well, I don’t need to be taken care of.”
He gestures sharply and coffee sloshes over the side of the mug. He hisses and licks the back of his hand. The coffee stain slowly widens on the sofa, a dark blot spreading against the tan.
“Obviously, you do.”
Ianto crosses his arms. “No.”
“Why are you moping around here, babysitting me?”
“Because I’m trying to be a decent person. And I’m not the one who’s moping. Anyway, I’m being nice, which is more than can be said for you.”
Owen glares up at him and there’s a moment when Ianto really wants to just punch him and walk out and leave him to clean up his own mess. But then he remembers that Owen’s life has been falling apart far longer than his own and that Owen has no sense of self preservation in the slightest, and leaving him alone like this is probably a recipe for a bigger disaster than if he stayed here and watched the medic slowly implode. So he stays where he is, because at least here he has someone to take care of, and even though he knows that Owen’s going to try his hardest to get him away, he’s still his colleague. He still matters.
“Fuck you,” Owen’s slurring to him. “I can be nice.”
“If I want to be.”
“You could try that a little more often.” The reply comes so quickly Ianto doesn’t have time to censor himself and clamp his mouth shut. He misses Owen’s grimace, too busy looking shamefully at his knees.
“I do try. But I’m a cunt. So, that makes it a bit difficult.”
“You hate everything except yourself. That might be part of it.”
Owen looks away. Even the view of the side of his face is drawn and sharp. “You don’t see me when I’m alone, Ianto.”
That jerks Ianto into focus a bit. Sometimes he forgets that the others are just as hard on themselves as he is on himself. “Sorry.”
He watches Owen grit his teeth and glares out the window at nothing in particular. “Anyway, I apparently don’t know how to be kind or loving or any of that shit.”
“Who said that?”
“Everyone. Don’t give me that look. You know I was fucked up way before I got to Torchwood.”
“We all were.”
“No, we weren’t.” Owen replies patronizingly. He goes to gesture with the coffee cup again, so Ianto grabs it out of his hand and places it safely on the coffee table. Owen raises an eyebrow at him and continues. “Tosh had a lovely little childhood in Japan. You at least had an okay time until you got to Torchwood. We all know about Gwen’s beautiful perfect little life.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Owen. We all had our own problems. But you never talk to anyone else, so…”
Owen rolls his eyes, his lips curled back in a condescending scowl. It reminds Ianto of Suzie. “Oh, and you know everything?”
“Well, no. But I talk to my colleagues. I make friends with them.” His mouth twists with momentary annoyance and he can’t help the dig. “It’s more than you’ve ever managed.”
Owen scoffs out a laugh that sounds raspy and painful. For a moment, he’s sloppy drunk again, swaying and clouded. Then he fixes Ianto with a stare that’s far too clear and serious and Ianto feels suddenly exposed to some mysterious chasm of anger and frustration. It’s not like Owen to get so openly introspective, but something seems to have pulled off the mask. He shakes his head at Ianto reproachfully and gives a derisive snort.
“We’re not friends at Torchwood, Ianto. You can’t have friends at Torchwood. You have people that have your back in life-threatening situations that you have awkward, stilted conversations with back at the Hub. But you don’t have friends. No one trusts anyone else enough for that.”
Ianto can’t believe that. He’s given these people too much not to believe it. “Tosh trusts me. Jack trusts me. You trust me out in the field.” He can’t figure out what to say to make Owen stop, to stopper the dark truths spilling from his lips.
“Yeah, that you’ll make sure I don’t get eaten. Not enough that I want to have some emotional tete-a-tete with you in the middle of the Hub.”
“Not everyone is like you, Owen. I trust you.”
Owen scoffs. “You really shouldn’t.”
“Well, I do.” Ianto feels himself nod decisively. It’s a realization he hadn’t come to properly until just now. “We work together, so I trust you."
“I can’t take care of you, Ianto. It’s hard enough keeping myself upright and breathing.”
“What are you talking about?”
Owen shrugs a shoulder and looks away. His eyes are black and shining. He’s all angles in he light and shadow and the sharpness seems unreal. “Nothing.”
“I’m your friend. You can trust me.”
Owen’s sneer of disbelief is painfully ugly. “What were just talking about?”
“Really, Owen. What’s wrong?” Ianto’s expression is far too open and trusting and his voice is too gentle and it hurts. Owen just wants him to stop, to shut up. He scowls. “Tell me.”
“I can’t even trust myself to live.” He gives Ianto a patronizing sneer. “Isn’t that nice? I can’t even be sure I’m not going to jump out in front of some giant alien fucker, or put a bullet in my head like Suzie after all this shit.”
Ianto’s mouth works. He has no idea what to say. He remembers Owen after Diane left, but he’d thought that was a one-off. “I–I didn’t know.”
“Why do you think I became a doctor? To make money? To help people?” Owen snorts derisively, gesturing carelessly at himself. “I’m a selfish prick. I’m obsessed with death. Maybe I’m in love with it. Maybe I need it, I don’t know. It’s fucked up, I can’t help it. But that sort of thing doesn’t fit anywhere except the medical profession.”
“You’re a doctor.” Ianto points out. “You fit in here.”
“I’m not a doctor. I’m a mortician. I don’t work with living patients. I work with dead ones, or dying ones. I can’t trust myself to save them, either. So what the hell am I here for?”
Owen’s expression is screwed up in a hard grimace of self-loathing, and Ianto can’t bear to look at it. He jumps up and gets a sponge from the kitchen, coming back to blot at the dark stain of coffee that has already soaked well into the sofa. They’re silent for a while, and Owen stares at the arm of the sofa while Ianto puts the sponge away, finished with his futile attempt to clean up the mess.
When Ianto sits on the coffee table again, Owen is still staring at the weave of the sofa, silent. His breath comes out his nose in little puffs of air, audible in the dim flat. When he opens his mouth, Ianto realizes that Owen doesn’t even notice he’s there.
“I should be able to help people. I’m supposed to be a brilliant doctor. But I couldn’t save Katie, and I can’t seem to save anyone else. I can’t even help myself. Good for nothing but fucking and booze. Can’t even trust myself to be ethical with those things.” Owen has fallen into the drunken somnambulist-like state, talking to himself like Ianto is just another part of the furniture. Ianto stares at his hunched figure, trying to decide whether grabbing him and covering his mouth with a hand would work.
Owen shakes his head slowly back and forth. “And Jack can’t trust me. I killed him twice. I fucked him over. I fucked me over and he shouldn’t have kept me on because I can’t save anyone. Some doctor to have on your team. Not even the right doctor. I can’t fix anything.”
Ianto feels frozen by the vehemence in Owen’s voice. The words just keep spewing, and Ianto has no way to catch them and put them back in. Owen is oblivious to his existence, his drunken anger turned inward. Ianto sits on the coffee table like a black spectre and listens. There’s nothing else to do.
“Katie and Diane and all the people I lost at the hospital back when I was a proper doctor. They said I was a brilliant doctor. I just tried not to see people when I worked. If I did, I lost them. I couldn’t hang on to their stupid little lives. Now people are dying and dead and I can’t look at them without seeing people even if they aren’t. And I know they’re already lost so why bloody bother? I look in the mirror and I see a dead man and it doesn’t help any. I can’t save me, so why try with the others? There’s no one else. There’s just me. And I’m fucked up. The world is going to shit and people are dying and I won’t be able to save them because I can’t even think of them as living until they’re already dead.”
Ianto wants to grab Owen and shake him. He can’t help his insistence. The jumble of words all pushing against each other in the air is oppressive and painful. They deafen him with their hurt and he needs to do something to break the hush that’s too loud to bear.
“Owen, would you listen to yourself? You’re a great doctor. You’ve—”
Owen jerks backward, as if startled by Ianto’s voice, as if suddenly realizing that there is a witness to his pain, and rounds on him, snarling, shoving him away. “Fuck you. That’s a lie and you know it.”
“It’s not. Why would you think that? I’m not lying to you.”
“You want to know what the problem is?” He’s all but shouting now, bent at the waist, hands balled into fists. His expression is twisted and tense, eyes glittering in the dim light. Ianto is stunned at the sudden outburst that’s just as powerful as the quiet vehemence of moments ago.
“Owen, I didn’t— What—”
“You want to know what the problem is, Ianto? It’s me! I shouldn’t even be here. I shouldn’t exist. I was an accident, did you know? My mum never let me forget. It’s like the universe is just waiting to get rid of me so it can right itself again. It’s like I should be anything else but me.”
Owen seems to deflate, then. He collapses back onto the cushions, his hands curled at his sides, all the energy drained from him. His eyes close as he leans his head back, his breath shaky and ragged. His face is slackened, the terrible secret is out and he has nothing left inside. Emptiness surrounds him as the echoes of his anger float in the air and Ianto stares at him in shock. Owen’s eyes open and he looks dully back, exhaustion and surrender in every pore.
Ianto thinks back to what he knows about Owen. To what’s in the files, to the hints he’s accidentally and purposefully dropped, to the shit he’s said while angry or drunk or disappointed. He can see himself in so many of those bits and pieces and he wonders why he never noticed it before.
“I know what it’s like, Owen. To not be able to save people.” Owen stares at him with a slightly bored expression but says nothing, so Ianto presses on. “I know it’s not the same, but when I couldn’t save my friends at Canary Wharf, and when I couldn’t save Lisa—when I couldn’t save Lisa, I felt like I shouldn’t even exist. I mean, they didn’t so why should I?”
Ianto gives a half-shrug. Most of that is behind him now. It’s his past, and unlike Owen, he can finally look back on it and feel almost comfortable and okay with it. “Jack and-and all of you taught me that I should live for myself. This job showed me that there was always something to live for. And that there was always something I could do to help people. Even if it helped only one instead of one hundred.”
Owen’s still just staring dully at him. Ianto hates digging deeper, he really does, but he feels like he has to pull that bit out of him, if only to put himself closer to the level Owen’s at right now, to get to him. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees so he can rub at his temples.
“I remember, when I was a kid. My mum was…not well. My dad raised my sister and me. It was hard. He was…not very understanding. He wanted me to be good at sports and to get on with the other boys on our estate. He wanted me to grow up and go play sports so I could get a football or rugby scholarship, or stay on our awful little estate and get a job at a factory or a shop or something. Like him. He didn’t think I’d amount to much, but he wanted me to amount to things I couldn’t do. He told me I was worthless and that I couldn’t do anything. He broke my leg once. He always pushed me too hard and I could never do what he asked. But when I got out, when I got to London, I decided I was going to be everything he believed I couldn’t be. I decided I was going to live my own life, my way. I wasn’t going to try to live up to other people’s expectations of me. I was just going to live for me. Whatever that means at the time.”
Ianto shrugs. He’s not sure how that helped, other than to make him feel just as tired as Owen looks. He runs a hand through his hair, making the strands stick up as the gel flakes off in his palm. A snort of air makes him look up at Owen, whose fists are clenched again against the sofa.
“We’re not the same, Ianto.” Owen growls without looking at him, purposefully mangling Ianto’s name. “The fact that you had a shitty life too doesn’t make us mates. It doesn’t make us any more likely to trust each other and it certainly doesn’t make me any better.”
There must be some way to get through to Owen. Ianto can’t stand to see his colleagues this way. It’s in his nature to care, and Owen’s tired and vulnerable state makes him someone who needs to be cared for. Ianto remembers Owen the way he was after Diane, the way he was when he first walked into the hub and saw Toshiko and Owen and Jack sitting at their desks, Owen hunched and angry and biting and so withdrawn it was self-destructive. He remembers how Jack picked him up and dusted him off and patched him slowly up. He can see the bandages peeling off and crumbling in front of him now.
“Owen, listen. Jack picked you. I don’t know everything about what happened to your fiancé, there’s not a lot in the file. But I know enough that Jack would’ve retconned you immediately if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He saw something in you.” Owen snorts, his scepticism made sharp by shadows. Ianto waves at him to shut up. He needs to hear this. “No, listen to me. He trusted your knowledge and your talent and who you are and he picked you. If he just wanted a doctor or a mortician, he could’ve grabbed some random person. But he saw you and he saw something special, he saw that you were right. He saw that you’d have purpose in Torchwood. He loves you, Owen, in a way that’s completely different from the rest of the team. Because he picked you himself. He knew he wanted you to be on the team, and no one else. He trusted who you are.”
Owen shakes his head as if trying to clear it, his eyes shut tight. Ianto can see comprehension dawning, despite the obvious unwillingness. “I don’t—I don’t—” He sighs and scrubs a hand across his face. It’s paler than before, the circles around his eyes are darker still. He’s limp again across the sofa.
Ianto nods gently. “It’s okay.” He stands up, puts his hands under Owen’s armpits and hauls him up, wrapping one arm around his waist to steady him. “You’re exhausted and drunk. Let’s get you into bed, okay, Owen?”
They hobble together into the bedroom. Ianto holds onto Owen’s hips as he kneels down, then leans one shoulder against his legs to keep him steady as he unties Owen’s shoes for him, lifting one foot at a time to pry them off. Owen’s hand grips Ianto’s shoulder almost painfully. His body is the only thing keeping the doctor upright. He tosses the shoes aside and stands up again. Owen blinks at him slowly. Ianto attempts to give a reassuring half smile and moves him bodily further into the room.
“I don’t know what to do,” Owen slurs, exhaustion beginning to break down his faculties. “I thought I had no one else.”
“Well, you don’t. You have us. Me and Jack, at least.” He dumps Owen onto the big purple bed, lifting his legs for him and pulling up the blankets. He draws the line at undressing his colleagues for bed and leaves Owen in his jeans and t-shirt. “Get some sleep, Owen. We’ll still be here for you in the morning. And things will look better. Trust me on this.”
Owen nods vaguely and curls up on his side, closing his eyes. He looks small and fragile, and for a moment Ianto is reminded of a child. He goes to the kitchen and fills a glass of water, putting it on the table beside Owen’s head, along with a couple tablets of Paracetamol.
He looks at Owen for a moment, trying to reconcile the angry-at-the-world arse he sees most days with the self-loathing lost boy he can see now, trying to realize that there are parts of him that identify with Owen more strongly than he should like. It’s hard to do with Owen curled defenceless in slumber, breath whistling out of his nose, looking for all the world like a hurting little kid.
Owen’s sofa is comfortable, and he can stare out at the city from here. For a moment he thinks about how Jack is right that the view is strangely comforting. Jack, who picked Owen and let Ianto in. Jack, who sees in all of them something that they can’t, some special thing that makes it possible for him to save them from themselves.
He thinks about Owen, about the new facets of the man he’s been exposed to. He knows Owen now, in a way he never expected, and for all the darkness that’s been spilled out, he trusts Owen more than ever. Because even if Owen’s mind has death inside it all the time, there’s still some strange tiny spark keeping him here, and that’s all Ianto needs.
In the morning, Owen comes into the Hub just a little late. Ianto is tidying Tosh’s workstation, and looks up as he comes in. Owen gives him a small, slow nod as he passes by. When Ianto brings him his coffee, perfectly brewed, he takes it with a lopsided smile, looking into Ianto’s face for the first time in a long while. As he lets go of the cup and drops his hand away, Ianto gives Owen’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, barely there and gone. Owen nods again and turns away, letting out a long, slow breath like he’s been holding it for months. Ianto’s hands feel warm from the mug for hours afterward.