The Devil You Know
"I was thinking of regenerating," Romana says.
They are in the TARDIS library. It's no longer the chaotic chamber that Romana remembers; it has been refashioned into a sleek war room. The battered old novels have been replaced with treatises on war and weaponry, and a vast model of a Dalek ship covers a table.
She should have known better than to think that being here would be like coming home.
"Would that help?" Leela asks. She is sitting in one of the velvet chairs, so much more at ease here than on Gallifrey.
"Probably not. Maybe."
Romana runs an idle hand along the shelves. Some of these books even look as if they might even have been read. But then, the Doctor's not the same man, either.
"It might help."
She turns to look at him, leaning against a wall in the shadows.
"Or," he continues, "you might end up transforming yourself into a military dictator. Or an ineffectual figurehead. Or a lunatic."
Romana takes a step towards him. Her trailing hand brushes against Leela's shoulder. Not quite by accident.
"Maybe it's a risk I need to take," she says.
Leela leans forward, snatching Romana's hand and forcing her to turn.
"Gallifrey," she says fiercely, "doesn't deserve your life."
There is blood on the president's cheek, and she is crying. Or so Leela suspects from the brightness of her eyes.
But she keeps moving regardless: aim and shoot. Recharge. Aim and shoot.
This is no way to conduct a battle, in Leela's opinion, but she's no better than the so-called civilised ones: there is a gun in her hands, and she too is shooting.
This is a retreat. They are returning to the TARDIS, hoping they survive the next few minutes.
The Doctor moves behind them–Leela doesn't have to look; she is always aware of his presence–his is unarmed now, but he has delivered their weapon into the heart of the Dalek battalion. And survived.
"Sixty seconds," he says, and Romana nods and Leela takes aim and fires again, and wishes for her knives.
Romana collapses as the TARDIS doors close behind them. The only sounds are her muffled sobs and the throb of the engines.
"I'm all right," she says when Leela touches her shoulder. "I'm all right, really..."
Leela kneels to pull her into an awkward embrace, but Romana is already collecting herself. Still, she doesn't pull away.
"You see now why I didn't want you to come," the Doctor says.
"I've seen a great deal."
"You fought well," Leela tells her. And she means it: Romana has mastered the sophisticated temporal weapons of the Time Lords, and Leela herself trained her in more archaic and brutal forms, but she has privately wondered if Romana would have the stomach to use them. Even against–
Romana kisses her on the forehead, then the lips.
"I had a good teacher," Romana says.
"And besides," the Doctor says, and Romana turns back and finds he's standing before her, "regenerations in the middle of a president's term never end well. That's what Borusa always said, when I was a student."
"Generalisations make poor history."
"Yes," he smiles and she sees a flicker of life in his eyes, "but look how Borusa ended up."
It's not really funny, but she laughs. He stares at her for a moment, an incredulous smile spreading across his features.
"Don't regenerate," he says. "Leela's right, it's not worth it."
"Anyone would think you'd never heard of regeneration before." She is trying for a tone of light amusement, and failing dreadfully. "Just because you only regenerate when you die, and Leela's human–"
"We don't want you to change," the Doctor snaps.
He reaches out and takes her hand. She is abruptly aware of his presence, that psychic heartsbeat that transcends actual proximity. A constant stream of thought, nearly inaudible.
"I suppose you could call it a compliment," he adds.
"Or a sensible tactical precaution," says Leela, rising to her feet.
"Better the devil you know," says Romana with a trace of bitterness.
Leela traces their linked hands with her slim alien fingers. Another beat of emotions. Leela's all instinct and emotions, familiar and welcome.
"Precisely," the Doctor says.
Romana turns her face up to meet his kiss. Her free hand slides up to his temple. Leela is kissing her other hand, her teeth grazing the sensitive skin of Romana's inner wrist, until the Doctor releases Romana and drawing Leela towards him, whispering something in her ear that Romana can't hear.
For a fleeting moment, Romana is jealous, but it passes before she's even aware of it. She draws Leela's hair aside and applies her lips to the nape of Leela's neck and the lobe of her ear, and is rewarded with a shiver of pleasure.
Leela is taking Romana to bathe and rest, and the Doctor watches them leave with relief. He needs to be alone for a while.
Nevertheless, when Leela finds him in the Cloister room an hour later, he finds he welcomes her company.
"You are unreasonable," she says without preamble.
"I'm trying to keep her alive, Leela."
She sits beside him. "That's my job."
"You don't belong at the front either."
"And you do?" Leela is all innocence. He is not deceived.
"I'm not the president of Gallifrey," he says. "Any more. Thank Rassilon."
"We did well today."
"I hope so. Time will tell."
If they did their job properly, the temporal bomb will ensure that the battle never happened. Provided it was correctly armed, provided the Daleks didn't find and disarm it, provided they don't find another means of causing the same events.
But she's right, of course. They did well. They were a good team.
It would be so much easier if he could stop caring–if he had done things differently all those lives ago, Romana and Leela might be elsewhere and safe–and they would be different people, but safe–it would be better with other people. He finds he's lost his taste for leading the people he loves into danger. And he is learning how to look at the world and see strangers.
Leela takes his hand in hers, and he feels the usual familiar flash of teeming human emotions.
"You have us," she tells him, and he understands.
"For better or worse," he says.
And she smiles.
He doesn't quite intend to kiss her lightly on the mouth, but he does, purely by instinct. She kisses him back, swiftly, like a hawk claiming its prey.
"You shouldn't be alone, Doctor," she tells him. "It's not good for you." And she squeezes his hand and walks away.
There are three thoughts in Romana's head at this moment:
One is that she can't remember the first time she kissed the Doctor — it might have been Paris, but that seems too pat — but she knows precisely when she first slept with him. Two years into her presidency and he had turned up, newly regenerated and so lovely — and she'd been furious that he'd lost yet another life, but his joy was infectious and she had kissed him in the empty Panopticon before leading him back to her rooms–
The second memory is of Leela, telling her that even a short-lived human could move on after a spouse died. Poor Andred, first victim of this war — even a short-lived human, Leela had said, might find, with time, that it was not unthinkable to love someone else — this said with that curious look in her eye, that made Romana feel it was worth taking a chance, that an advance would not be rebuffed–
The third thought is that the Doctor is unfastening her robe and Leela's hand is sliding up her inner thigh, and the time for reminiscing is rapidly passing.
She's bare to her waist and the Doctor is kissing the curve of flesh beneath her jaw and Leela's behind her, hands sliding down her abdomen while she whispers in Romana's ear.
"I wouldn't want you to regenerate," Leela breathes.
The Doctor said something incoherent, his breath raising goosebumps on her skin and his soft hands cupping her breasts.
"...Great deal at stake," Romana manages in the moments between kisses.
"You say that," says Leela, pulling away, "but you only mean politics."
Romana is undoing the Doctor's trousers. Her hands are shaking and she fumbles.
"The war," he says, finishing the job himself and peeling his shirt off.
Romana concentrates on undressing Leela.
"The war," she echoes, leaving a trail of kisses down Leela's spine that make her breath quicken. And thankfully, Leela has no need for words after that, and neither does anyone else.
Later, when they're drowsy and distracted, Romana murmurs, "It's just that I don't want to see the war out. Not as me."
Leela silences her with a kiss and the Doctor holds her that little bit tighter.
She says nothing more, and waits for them to fall asleep. All this skin pressed against skin, all those common dreams and nightmares. She'd like to share them, but she's still the president, and there's still work to be done.
She rises slowly, but they don't stir, and slips silently out.
In the bathroom she looks in the mirror and takes stock. Same old face. Still flushed, eyes bright, hair matted.
It's not too late to go back.
Except that time never waits.
The Doctor was envisioning a death. A suicide. She has nothing so crude in mind. Simply closes her eyes and leans back, willing the change to come. New cells, new thoughts, new purpose ... she doesn't care about appearance this time, she'll take what she can get, if only she can win the war–
She cries out.
Eyes open. New eyes. Younger. Clearer. Good. Strong hands. Tall, slender body, dark hair, dark eyes. It will do. The world is fresh and the problems that seemed yesterday insurmountable have become entirely managable.
Footsteps. The others have heard; they're coming.
Look in the mirror. Smile. A familiar expression in a new face.
"Well," Romana says as the Doctor throws the door opens, "I did say I didn't care about appearances this time."
"Yes," says the Doctor drily, "but did you intend to change gender?"
"No," Romana admits.
"You..." Leela is momentarily speechless.
"You didn't need to do this," the Doctor says, but he's reaching out to touch new skin.
"I did," says Romana. "It was the right decision, you'll see. With time."
"I'll miss you," says Leela.
Romana strokes her cheek with new fingers.
"You could get used to me."
Leela closes her eyes for a moment. "I hope so," she says. Romana's hands brush her mouth. Leela says nothing, but Romana sees the flicker of a half-smile.
The Doctor's eyes are hooded; his face unreadable.
But he hasn't let go of Romana's hand, either.
"With time," he says.