The man in the corner booth had a look about him. He was a familiar face, despite the haunted look in his brown eyes and the week’s worth of scruff on his cheeks. His suit was rumpled and it was entirely possible he’d been wearing that for a week, too. He lifted the tumbler of amber liquid to his lips, taking far too big a gulp, but swallowing without even a wince, like the choking sting of the cheap alcohol went entirely unnoticed. It was a familiar sight; a lot of people were walking around hollow and traumatized.
It had been a week since the tragedy; a week and most people still weren’t talking. Some were screaming, some were crying…a good bit were drinking, but most weren’t capable of talking. Everybody knew someone who’d been lost–either to the metal men or the strange flying creatures. Some even had bodies to burry.
The events of that day would haunt everyone, all over the world, but London had taken the brunt of it. The flying pepper pots hadn’t gotten too far beyond the city before it ended in the blink of an eye; all the creatures vanishing in a blur as they were pulled towards Canary Warf and then zipped off to only God knew where.
The memorial services had already begun, lists of the dead continually being updated and revised. The city was just…numb. It had all that it could take, and then some.
He could have come from a service, for as put-together as he looked. The man at the bar looked impeccable in his well-cut navy blue suit. His hair was crisp and perfect, face freshly shaven. The man in the corner booth supposed the fellow watching him had the right idea–wash your face and get on with it. There was no sense in wallowing, like this. In not sleeping, in not eating. In trying to find a comfort that would never come inside this bottle. Or the last one. Or the one before that.
Home was a lonely, unbearable place. He still had business in London, or he’d have been off already. But he couldn’t stay in his home; too many memories there. He also couldn’t bare to walk the streets any longer, looking at the stunned, tortured faces of the other survivors. He never had anything in common with the locals. Usually he was a catalyst, part of the solution. This time, he was certainly part of the problem, but he had lost as well.
He had lost. He was lost.
This place was dark–it was a hole in the wall really–with poor lighting and one tiny window at the front near the door. It was the perfect place to hide for a bit. She was alive. He was far luckier than these others had been. She was alive and safe.
Why did he feel as empty as the man at the bar looked?
Picking up another now-full tumbler, the man in the well-tailored suit approached, probably taking the question in the other bloke’s eyes as an invitation to share misery. “Buy you another bottle?” the young man asked in a non-local accent.
The booth’s current resident shrugged and gestured for the new arrival to sit down. “Having someone to drink it with will be different.” He held up the glass, twisting it in his hand, watching the light reflect through the liquid. “Variety, being the spice of… something or other.” He frowned.
Taking a sip of his own drink, the newcomer nodded in understanding. “And it’s better than going home to an empty flat.”
Perhaps they could drink themselves under the table. Perhaps they could drink themselves to death. “I turn to say something to her,” the man in the brown suit conceded, “and then I remember she’s gone.”
His table partner nodded. “We were supposed to visit her parents this weekend.”
They sat in companionable silence, each knowing that the other understood him completely, at least in this moment. Draining glasses again, drinks were poured, and the trek toward oblivion marched on.
One of them gestured for the bar tender to bring another bottle. Even if it was the cheapest stuff on the shelf, the bill was still going to be weighty. Finally one of them rubbed his week’s worth of growth, scratching his cheek. It was evident that he was totally unaccustomed to being so scraggly. “I’m closing up her home. Her mother’s home. I can’t seem to bring myself to throw anything away.” Tapping his finger on the rim of the glass, he concentrated on his nails for a moment. “Her mother was a cow, and I’ve kept her hair dryer.” A lonely smile twistead on one side of his face. “Cow, bat…possibly an emu. If it wouldn’t be insulting to the emu. I’ll just keep it all. Maybe I’ll be able to go through it…objectively. Some day.”
Not bloody likely, though. He still had all of a certain young man’s things in a box in the bottom of his cupboard. Metal men were evil no matter what dimension they were from.
The other man nodded again, and there was a rush of gratitude from the booth’s original occupant. He wouldn’t be able to bear an inappropriate attempt to make light of the situation any more than he’d be able to bear consolation, no matter how heart-felt.
It was easier to talk to a stranger. There’d been clinics and counselors set up all around town, but it wasn’t either one’s style. They were both men with things to hide. “You were there, weren’t you?” the younger man asked, taking a sudden long swill from the glass before continuing. “At Torchwood.”
The older of the two shifted uncomfortably. “How would you know?”
Adjusting the cuff of his navy suit, the other shrugged. “I thought I saw you in a stair well. It doesn’t mean anything. Not too many of us left, now. No wonder they’re closing it down. I opted to go to Cardiff. Are you going anywhere else?”
A sarcastic chuckle and the clink of the bottle against the glass were the only things that filled the space between them for a moment. “Anywhere but here. This city, this country…this planet. Even this universe isn’t far enough away.” He sat back in the booth, resting his head against the fake leather cushion. “I don’t know if I’d be running towards or from.”
“From life? Apparently it catches up with you anyway.”
The man in the rumpled suit winced as he thought about that, the harsh taste seeming to affect him for the first time. “There’s so much I didn’t say.”
Staring into his own drink, the younger of the two contemplated this. “No amount of time is enough time. The only acceptable answer is…forever. There’s no such thing as forever, though…is there?”
The man scratched his stubble again. “I wish there was. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie.” His voice caught in his throat. “But it’s a lie worth believing. Worth chasing. And fighting for, and dying for.”
“I was ready to do that.” The young man’s eyes met his. “To take it all from her, to somehow trade my life for hers. I pleaded to God, as if there was someone to hear me. Still do. God. I should let her go. Holding on to her–I know what people would probably think.”
Closing his eyes, letting the image of her rest behind his eyelids, the man in the rumpled suit continued. “This…that doesn’t come along once in a lifetime, even. I know. When it’s there, you have to hold on to it for dear life. Never let it go. Even if there’s the smallest glimmer of hope.” With that, some of the deadness left his eyes, as if he were somehow encouraging himself. “Blow on it, make it grow… make it turn into something great. Rassilon. I wasted so much time. You think it will go on forever, but it ends so terribly abruptly, and there’s so much you haven’t said. You just…you’re left staring at a wall, wishing…for something that can’t be. I’ve…done everything. Things you couldn’t–the blood on my hands–but I couldn’t save my people and I couldn’t save her. Useless, I am. There’s got to be something though. I just need to find something…”
More silence. They both stared at half-empty glasses, each contemplating the impossible.
The smell of cigar smoke drifted their way from a round table near the door. It was a thick smell and slightly sweet. It was the smell of loneliness and remorse. “Grateful for the time we had, and all that,” the man in the navy suit muttered. “No. That’s not right at all. It isn’t over until…it’s over. Till hope runs out.”
His companion didn’t entirely understand him–but his mind was busy working out its own issues and didn’t have time to process his statement. “As much death as I’ve seen…you’d think…I could just let go. The war–well that was a war too. She made it better, after the war. It was worth living again. Life, that is. Worth it, if she’d smile.”
“Too much death,” the younger agreed, seeming to be conversing strictly with his tumbler. “I’ve seen it. She–she made me forget it. My job.”
The older man’s eyes focused on him for a moment. “You’re a cleaner, aren’t you?” The suit, the way he was able to scrub his face and go on. “Dispose of whoever and whatever they need buried.”
A single nod was his reply. “Fantastic use of my education. My mother would be proud. Getting calls to dispose of bodies in the middle of the night through creative means. Clearin’ away the evidence of the whole separate world going on around them–the one that is invisible…because of me. I’m just too damned good at my job.” He finished off his glass. “I was happier pushing paper. She said that this job…would make me cold if I let it.”
“It does. But she kept the darkness at bay,” the rumpled man nodded with understanding. “Keeps. Haveta keep… I don’t know. Living what she taught you–doing what she tells–told you to do. Haveta keep living, in my case. Once I told her to forget me, have a fantastic life. Rassilon,” he hissed out that unfamiliar word again. “But she made it–everyone leaves eventually. They all go. Why can’t I just…” He slammed the glass down, resolve suddenly filling the emptiness in his eyes. “I have to say goodbye. At least that much. I owe her that much. To see her one last time…” a shiver ran through him.
“You have to do what you can,” the other man confirmed. “Even if it’s… too little too late, I suppose. Haveta…keep fighting. She’s worth fighting for.”
There was a quiet, gestureless agreement on this. “Anything that’s left. NO matter how small. Gotta take it. Cus it’s all that’s left.” Pushing the bottle towards the young man, the booth’s original occupant rose, tossing a handful of bills onto the table. “Finish it. I…have work to do.” He smiled, even though it never reached his eyes, it was still sincere. “One last fight for her. One last stand.”
The man in the navy suit poured himself a final drink, the effects of the alcohol so much more apparent upon him than on his companion. “Then back to work. Back to…cleaning. To…what’s left. What’s left has to be enough.” The last sounded as if it were said more to convince himself of this than anything else. “It has to be–it’s…all there is.”
With an emotionless nod of encouragement, the man in the worn brown suit slid his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat and silently headed toward the door. Anything that he could do was better than nothing. Nothing was…unacceptable. He wouldn’t stand for it.
Opening the heavy metal door which was painted the same morose green as the walls, he was blinded momentarily by the white afternoon light and it appeared to swallow him as he stepped out, joining the aching throng of humanity bustling about on the streets–each one lost in his own private hell.
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