He was still trapped in the conversion unit when she found him, his pale, bloodied flesh ensnared within a cruel lattice of steel and silicone. The air was thick with smoke, with the scent of spoiled meat, dim lights flickering red and violet in the confused shadows, and it was hard to work out exactly what she was seeing, hard to tell where the twisted machinery ended and he began. For a brief and glorious moment she thought that she had found him in time, that the knives hadn't yet started their butchery....
And then her shaking fingers raised the torch and she saw.
Ianto's eyes were closed but there were fat tears wending their way down his smoke-smeared cheeks, a display of simple human emotion a universe removed from the monstrosity surrounding him. His face was untouched, but the rest... oh, the rest was a nightmare blend of metal and mesh and sinuous tubing wrapped around and threaded though the sturdy body she knew so well. They had taken something beautiful and carved it into their own warped image and she couldn't –
The sound of her own voice, low and despairing, startled her, and she swallowed hard as his eyes snapped open and fixed on her face. "Ianto?" she tried again, forcing herself to calm, "it's me, it's –"
"Lisa?" he whispered, and his familiar Welsh lilt sounded so normal.... "Lisa? What happ– where am I? Are you all right?"
"You're still at Canary Wharf, love." She set the torch aside and reached up to stroke his face, careful to avoid the edges of the metallic helmet that framed his features. "You're in the Tower and – oh god, how much do you remember?"
"I... it hurts, Lisa. It hurts and I can't... I – oh." His eyes squeezed shut once more. "The ghosts. They were... huge, silver and we couldn't escape, we couldn't – Louise tried and they killed her, right there. They were everywhere and then...." He bit his lip, then pulled in a choking breath. "Then they strapped us into these things and there were blades and... they were making me into one of them." His eyes opened and the pain in his gaze broke her heart. "Weren't they?"
She nodded mutely.
"Oh, god." He trembled within the machinery's frame and she wondered if he was trying to get up, wondered what would happen if he succeeded. "But you're all right? Please, Lisa – tell me you're all right?"
She nodded again, gently stroking her thumb across his mouth. "I'm all right, love. I'm fine. I was in one of the shielded storage units, talking to Hanif and Krista and Burgess – it locked down when the ghost shift... when everything happened, when it all went wrong. The things couldn't get at us."
The desperation in his tear-filled eyes eased a little. "You were safe?"
"Yes. We were... safe." Safe even when they wanted to fight, when the open comms meant that they could hear the battle, could hear the screams. Safe when their entire world was ending and all they could do was cower in their bunker, caught between the frantic need to help and the instinctive animal desire to stay low and silent and hope that the danger would pass them by. They hadn't been cowards by choice but that didn't make it any easier to deal with.... "The lockdown released in the end. After it was over. After they were gone."
"Good," Ianto breathed. "Good. Were there...." He paused. "Are there many? Survivors? Is Torchwood –"
"No." Lisa shook her head. "Not here, not One. There's maybe two dozen of us left, give or take, and not all are...." She swallowed hard. "The other units are coming in – Three has seniority now."
"The provinces? The American?" He sounded faintly horrified. "We don't need –"
"We do," she told him sadly. "It's them or UNIT and nobody wants to sell out to those idiots."
"Doesn't matter." He sighed and flexed his gauntleted hands. "They'll destroy it all anyway."
Lisa let her head fall back, gazing up at the cracked and stained ceiling overhead and fighting down the lump that threatened to choke her. It would be a kindness, she thought, if the Tower finally gave up its fight and collapsed on top of them both, but if the world were fair then it would have been Burgess or Llewellyn who found him and she would never have known his fate....
If the world were fair, then none of this would have happened in the first place.
"Gone," Ianto said, his voice cracking. "All gone."
"Not quite, my love." Please, please don't....
"Yes." His features contorted miserably. "They did this to me and then they left me unfinished."
And there it was, so simple and so quiet and so like the words of all of the others they had found. Lisa smothered her sob, brushing away the tears that threatened to blind her – for a moment there she had so nearly let herself believe.... But then she remembered Caren stalking through the blasted remains of Development, her eyes blankly murderous; remembered Terry from Accounts fighting to free himself from the conversion frame, hellbent on killing whoever came closest. And she remembered Cindy, trapped and helpless and talking as though the conversion was all she wanted, was all that mattered for her and for them. They thought themselves still human but there was more to this than metal and it lurked just beneath the surface, waiting, just waiting....
A sharp crack came from somewhere nearby, the sound of the shot echoing and amplifying oddly through the corridors. Ianto tried to turn his helmeted head towards the door. "What was that?"
She took a step back, her hand going to her mouth. "Oh, god...."
His eyes were confused, pleading, but she had heard it, she knew she had heard it, the reverberation changing his voice for just that brief unguarded moment. And she couldn't do it, couldn't lie to herself, not with so very much at stake. She loved him, loved him as she had never loved anyone else, but Cindy's conversion hadn't been anywhere near this far along and she –
Lisa dashed the tears from her eyes again, swallowing hard as she made her decision. She loved him.
And that meant that she owed him this much, at least.
"I won't let them hurt you, Ianto. I swear, I won't let them hurt you." The gun was heavy in her right hand, a solid weight that she had not relinquished since escaping the shielded store. "Oh, please, I love you so much...."
"Lisa?" He smiled, the expression as genuine and honest as any she had ever seen on him. "Love you too. Always."
"Then forgive me," she whispered, and pressed the gun's muzzle against helpless flesh where it joined the moulded chestplate, pulling the trigger once, twice, before she lost her nerve. "Please, please, forgive me...."
~# # # # #~
It was Hanif who found her sitting and sobbing in a pool of Ianto's blood, was Burgess who quietly took the gun from her trembling hand. It was Graham who led her back up into the daylight and Krista who brought her the change of clothes and who sat and wept with her in the corner of the fifth floor canteen, pouring the pain and the fear out onto each others' shoulders as they grieved all that had been lost and all that had been done.
And then, when there was nothing left to do but face the prospect of a future without, it was the tall American with the long coat and the ancient eyes who laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and told her that she had done the right thing, that there had been no other way. Told her that sometimes the acceptance of responsibility for another's fate, however painful, was the truest mark of courage.
Told her that, for that alone, he had an opening for her on his team if she wanted it.
She didn't accept immediately. She needed time to think, time to mourn. The Tower still stood broken and empty on the London skyline, a reminder that nothing was forever and no one was invincible. Ianto had loved it there, had loved everything it stood for, had loved the purpose and sheer presence of the place. He had been so happy there....
In the end, though, Torchwood One had fallen.
But Torchwood had not. And if the Institute's future now lay in the very place that Ianto had spent most of his short life longing to leave, then that, she finally realised, was where she needed to be.
She owed him that much, at least.