Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
….I am no prophet, and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
--Love Song for J Alfred Prufrock
It’s the beginning of the end, and the Doctor can feel the anticipation of the impending battle drum so deep through his bones his teeth rattle with it.
The interior of Romana’s presidential battle TARDIS is simple, sleek and dark and a million miles from his own schizophrenically-decorated, battered old senile type 40. One lone, slight figure is silhouetted against the dim light from the time rotor, leaning heavily over the console, and raises a hand in recognition of his entrance. The Doctor steps forward cautiously; he can’t remember the last time they were alone, can’t think of the last time he’s seen her away from the hordes of cardinals and councillors and guardsmen who swarm around her every footstep.
“You sent for me, Madam President?”
He says this respectfully, for a change; in days gone by he would use her title as an insubordinate dig, would throw her position in her face mockingly and then lapse into the easy, affectionate familiarity of the nickname he’d bestowed on her as soon as they’d met. It was sure to irritate everyone else around them, so carefully holding fast to the social niceties; Romana would just roll her eyes at him or ignore it altogether, because, after all, he was the one who’d opened her eyes to the absurdity of it all, once upon a time.
No, he doesn’t do that anymore.
Romana looks grim and beautiful in the throbbing white light, a fierce, weary War Queen. She’s shed her stiff ceremonial robes for a tunic and trousers, battle-ready in scuffed boots and tough leather gloves. There’s a smear of drying red-orange blood across her neck, a vicious bruise blooming violet against her pale cheek, and it’s impossible, truly impossible, to reconcile the raw young Time Lady he once knew with this cold figure of power–Lady President of the Nine Gallifreys, Guardian of the Legacy of Omega, and Defender of the Laws of Time, along with scores of other equally impressive and mystifying titles.
“It’s been too long, Doctor,” Romana says, making herself busy at the console, hands flying over buttons and levers. She kicks a battered tool box underneath and kneels, swinging herself around and under to make careful adjustments to what looks to the Doctor like the sonic booster.
He hasn’t seen her in what feels to his old bones like years. Before the War began they had called on him, and, uncertain about which law of causality he’d irrevocably violated this time, he’d come before the Inner Council. For once, though–to his bemusement–he wasn’t being scolded, or put on trial, or even being blackmailed into doing their dirty work. The High Cardinals who hated him were begging for his help even as the words soured in their mouths, and he’d been startled into freely offering up his aid.
And Romana had sat there without saying a word, impossibly remote, eyes fixed on the Doctor. He’d avoided meeting her stare, focussing instead on the artful way her ornate, heavy robes pooled at her feet, marvelling mutely at how her long new golden hair blazed down her back, and he’d wondered if she’d gone too far, if in making herself a president fit for war she’d turned her blood to icewater, her hearts to stone.
They haven’t been near each other since, not really. The Time Lords have never had an agent quite like the Doctor, and he leaves them at a loss; the ungovernable maverick listens to their instructions, nods and offers up pacifying words of assent, then goes and does what actually needs to be done, and does it his way, because that’s what the Doctor does. He’s been fighting on the front lines, working endlessly ever since, weaving his way through history and across galaxies in a frantic, ceaseless attempt to keep one step ahead of the Enemy, but there are more defeats than victories and his failures tear at his chest with every breath through his lungs.
His path has crossed Romana’s only rarely since that first time. A handful of instances he’s been called into meetings of the Council as a silent observer, and he understands exactly how many strings Romana is pulling behind the scenes to make this happen; quiet as the proverbial mouse, he listens to progress reports from the shadows, all the while watching her–Romana, the centre of it all, the calm at the heart of the storm, with her carefully blank expression and her carefully chosen words. He has implicit faith in her ability to rule (a fact which is not a little disturbing when he realises the truth of it), but it is unsettling all the same to see the generally mutinous Inner Council bow instantly to her authority, hanging on every precisely phrased, tersely bitten-out sentence.
Just once has he come across her in battle–rather, it was after the battle was done; he was lifting Flavia’s body from the dirt (her dull unseeing eyes fixed on the stars, silvering hair stiff with blood) and Romana was being harried across a smouldering wasteland, a CIA field agent at her elbow and dozens of members of the Watch at her heels. Their eyes had met, and she’d paused, the furious set of her soot-streaked face relaxing for an instant–but she’d lowered her long dark lashes and carried on to her TARDIS without speaking to him.
And then time had cycled back on itself, and the battle had begun again, and then again, and again, an infinite ouroboros of blood and pain, the snake eating its own tail, and when he had a moment to wipe the ichor from his eyes he realised that he hadn’t seen her since the first round, that they must have gotten her out.
He doesn’t remember the last time he’s really talked to her.
So he stands still, uncharacteristically quiet, fingers worrying the lapels of his coat while she thumps around under the console. When he knew her–in the old days–she had never been much inclined to throw herself into mechanical stuff, though she was quick enough at picking up the principles. She’s changed, in more ways than one, then.
Romana rises finally, setting down her instruments with a dull clang. She looks exhausted; the weight of her centuries and her secrets lies heavy on her young new face and, almost involuntarily, the Doctor says, “Romana, when was the last time you slept?”
She stares at him for a moment, then frowns and strips off her gloves with agonizing slowness, like an arthritic human grandmother. “Linearly?” Romana asks. “Seven or eight years, I should think.” The soft white light catches her hair from behind, a brilliant corona surrounding her shadowed face, and it’s familiar to him in a way he could never explain, his throat tightening with a curious sense of preja-vu: the certain feeling that he will see this again.
But she raises her chin to look him in the eye, shifting her weight to one side, and the effect is lost. “I want you far away when the battle begins,” Romana says.
There are few beings in this universe who make the Doctor feel thoroughly wrong-footed, and Romanadvoratrelundar has the good fortune to be one of them. He blinks at her and says, very politely, “I beg your pardon?”
“We’re going to lose this battle, and the War,” Romana says. “No, for just this once, Doctor, please shut up. I know what’s coming, and I need you to survive. I need you to stop Them.”
“That’s not going to happen,” the Doctor begins, but her face tightens. “Now, Romana, listen to reason. I know it looks bad now, but there’s no reason to be so… portentous. We’ll make it out of this scrape just like the one before it, and–”
“Doctor,” she says, as level and maddeningly reasonable as ever. “We’ve lost. Or as good as, anyway. And I–I know that it’s my fault. And I’m so sorry to be the one to ask you to do this terrible thing, but–listen to me. The Emperor will arrive here soon, with Them, and ten million of Their timeships. We will fight, and we will lose, Doctor. Oh, can’t you see what’s coming? You’ve always had more foresight than the rest of us put together. I can’t do it. I can’t stop it. I’ve done everything, I’ve sold my soul–if I have one left to sell–to fight this war and keep them away, I’ve done… oh, Doctor, I’ve done dreadful, ugly things. I know I have. I’m so, so sorry for involving you in this War at all. You don’t deserve it. But,” she continues fiercely, fisting her hands against the visible hysteria that threatens to bubble over, “you’re my soldier now, and I need you to stop what’s coming. I need you to end it.”
He’s shaking his head even as he sickens with the sudden realisation of what she will tell him. The Doctor feels vulnerable and useless in this body, and he hates himself for it. He feels in the thrum of his half-human blood through his double hearts that this desperately hopeful, wide-eyed, idealistic incarnation is grossly unfit for the task at hand; if he were anyone else–the mad, confident old Teeth-and-Curls, or perhaps his calculating, manipulative previous self–maybe he’d be better equipped to deal with this chaos and heartsache. As it stands, he can’t deal with this War, wants to find a nice, isolated, safe pocket universe and hide for a few millennia so long as it means he can stop fighting, so long as he doesn’t have to look in Romana’s knowing eyes and feel the unimaginable burden of what she’s about to ask of him.
Romana opens her right hand and eyes the silver fob watch in her palm speculatively, frown forming between her brows. “You’re going to send the star into a supernova,” she says with frightening calmness, tucking the watch away into a pocket. “You’re going to send the Eye of Harmony right into its core as soon as They seize Gallifrey, and you’re going to destroy the entire system–and take Them down at the same time.”
There’s a matter-of-factness to her brisk, horrible words that puts him in mind of her former self, of the young Time Lady in a schoolgirl’s uniform, the one with the straight hair and solemn eyes who followed him, hand-in-hand, through the Jardin des Tuileries in springtime. But then, this isn’t his Romana at all. Either of his Romanas, really. Not the smug, superior, helplessly naïve child he’d been stuck with at the beginning, nor the clever and wryly capable Time Lady he’d moulded her into, the one who would become President on her own merits. This mercurial creature who stands before him is all flame and ice, cool gaze and scorching tongue, and he doesn’t know how to talk to her, how to tell her she’s wrong.
“I can’t,” he says, even while his thoughts are racing, while he figures out the technicalities of what she’s asking. It could be done. He knows how he could do it–and get out alive, what’s more. “I won’t. I won’t destroy this planet. It–it’s my home. It’s our home.”
She reaches up and trails one hand over the slick rounded wall of the time rotor. The white light pulses eerily between her fingers. “What do you think will happen if They get hold of this technology, Doctor?” she says. “It’s unimaginable. But then–you have an awfully big brain, don’t you, Doctor? You can imagine.”
He almost hates her then.
Romana lets her hand drop and turns to look at the Doctor. “You don’t fully understand what I’m asking, do you?” she says slowly, and steps forward to peer into his face. “It won’t be only the Enemy who’ll burn when you do this. It’ll be the lot of us, too. It has to–we can’t let Them figure out what’s coming, see. Because our people won’t know of it, either.”
The Doctor is torn between running for the door and throwing up. He chooses to do nothing, just stares at the floor.
Her voice is very soft, and he lifts his eyes to hers. “It’s a good plan, Doctor, and you know it.” She raises her eyebrows, adding with a rueful smile, “One doesn’t get to be President with turnips for brains,” and his mind goes to Zagreus and Charley and another one of the many narrowly averted apocalypses in his storied career.
“There has to be another way.” There’s always another way, he always makes it out, he’s never lost, he doesn’t know if at this point he knows how to lose.
“I’m a bright girl, Doctor. And you know, everything I ever learned of any use,” Romana says thoughtfully, “I learned from you. We both know that. If the Guardian hadn’t assigned me to you, I can’t imagine how I would have turned out–trapped in the Bureau of Ancient Records the rest of my lives, I shouldn’t wonder.” She shakes her glorious golden hair unconsciously, serenely beautiful face narrowing with a scowl; this hard, breathtaking new incarnation is as stunning as it is terrifying, and he thinks absently about the first time she regenerated–he still wasn’t sure why she’d picked that body, still can’t understand her insistence on taking Princess Astra’s form. He had never decided whether she’d forced that regeneration out of vanity or sheer caprice. He realises, now, that he’ll never find out.
Romana gives a short, bitter laugh, mind clearly going down the same path as the Doctor’s. “What an insufferable infant I was when I came to you, Doctor–me with my triple alpha, and that ridiculous white gown–sweet mother of Chaos, why didn’t you pitch me out into the Void the second I set foot on your ship?” Her fingers clench on the console, white-knuckled; the Doctor remembers Ribos, the arrogant arch of those eyebrows, snowflakes catching in her glossy dark curls, and it’s all he can do to not grab her hand and run and hide in the farthest, darkest corner of time and space, and forget about battles and obligations and the certain death of everyone he’s ever known and loved.
He clears his throat, because it’s the only thing he can think of to do. “It was a near thing at times, to be honest,” he says gravely, but he smiles while he says it.
She tries to smile back, but her chin quivers and, as though astonished at this break in her façade, she drops her head quickly. “No, Doctor,” she says. “I can’t–I can’t see any other way to stop them.”
He can’t either. All those years of travelling, of running for his life, that great clever mind of his, and he can’t see any other way out.
“I’m giving you eternity, Doctor,” she whispers. “You can do what you’ve always done, you can travel with your humans and your aliens and have your jelly babies and chips, you’ll have forever, you’ll have the universe, and we won’t be there to hold you back. You’ll… you’ll be a god, Doctor.”
“A lonely god, then,” he says, and she touches his cheek softly with one lily-white hand that is anything but clean.
“And you’ve always been so terribly lonely, haven’t you, Doctor? Isn’t that why you can’t function without a companion? You need something to fill up that great hollow emptiness, don’t you–the one right here?” Her voice is painfully gentle, and she pulls her hand away to thump her chest lightly, right where the Seal of Rassilon is picked out in careful gold stitches between her hearts. “I am sorry, you know. But there’s no way around it.”
“Eternity bores me,” he says wretchedly, “I don’t want it,” and Romana nods.
“But you won’t refuse me, Doctor,” she says. “You’re Time’s Champion, after all. It’s your right. It’s your duty. And you know better than anyone else about sacrifice and responsibility, don’t you?”
Loathing himself, he says, “Of course I do.”
“You’ll do it, then.” There is raw hunger and pain in her intense dark gaze.
“Of course, Madam President,” he says finally, bowing his head. And, because he can’t help himself, because he’s never been able to help himself, he adds, “Fred,” and he smiles despite the icy fingers of terror and dread lingering ghost-like at the back of his neck.
He wraps her in his arms, then, the girl she was and the woman she’s become, and she buries her cool bruised face into the velvet-and-silk of his frock coat. This loss, even while he’s holding her, is a tangible ache that throbs and burns and builds in his throat, and when she pushes herself away, hands trembling just a little, he cannot speak.
“You need to go now, Doctor,” she says clearly. “I have a battle to lose, and you have a universe to save.”
He seizes her by the shoulders, and she meets his stare proudly, blonde curls falling into her face. “Come with me,” he says. “Don’t do this. Don’t just–give up. Don’t do the honourable thing, Romana. I am begging you. Save yourself.”
“Go, Doctor,” she says, and he loosens his hands, lets her slip away from him. She’s always walking away from him, she’ll always leave him alone, and he’ll always let her, which is what makes it hurt the most; he remembers a slim figure in red silk, vanishing into the vast unformed landscape of e-space and he thinks he can’t–won’t–let her do it again but after all, he doesn’t rule her, she’s always had him on his knees. There’s a farewell shining in her eyes as she says softly, “You know what you have to do.”
He leaves her, then. He turns and walks to the door of her TARDIS blindly, moving by instinct. The door swings open; he can hear her working at the console, the sudden loud, familiar whirring of the time rotor, a sound as much a part of him as the steady throb of his hearts beating in tandem, but he doesn’t look around, can’t look up until his boots hit the dull, rust-coloured dirt and he’s standing under a pair of flaming twin suns.
He can just hear Romana’s low, lovely voice from behind him, and the Doctor turns in the doorway to look at her one last time.
He sees her smile, and then the radiant white light swells around her till it hurts and he can’t look at her anymore. “All my love to long ago,” she says as he flinches, a whispered goodbye dying on his lips.
Then she is gone, and the Doctor is standing alone under a brilliant orange sky. His own TARDIS is waiting for him, incongruously colourful in the Gallifreyan dust, and he has a universe to save.