On a cold beach under low, grey sky, a small woman walks, holding a pair of red shoes in her hands. Her bare feet pick across the stony margin, and the wind catches her hair, blowing it into her face. A straw boater hangs down her back, its string tight against the front of her neck. It’s too windy today to wear it.
She doesn’t seem to have a goal in mind - just walking carefully, one foot in front of the other, step after step, as though she’s trying to remember how.
Above, on the boardwalk, a man in a brown suit watches her, and wonders how this can be.
* * *
You always said you wanted to come back here. For the opening of the pavilion.
This isn’t the opening of the pavilion.
Even at a distance, he can see the edge of her smile, her face still downturned to the rocks. I knew you’d never get the coordinates right.
* * *
“I like the new face,” she tells him when he catches up to her, crouched on her heels on the rocks, staring out at the ocean.
“My second, since I last saw you.” She doesn’t look up, so he continues, feeling the first heat of anger. “I thought you were dead, you know. ‘Destroy them,’ you told me, ‘even if it means you have to destroy us, too.’ You said I was the only one you could trust to do it. You made me push the button, Romana. You made me believe I’d killed you - killed everyone.”
“You did.” She looks up at him for the first time, and it’s something of a shock to him to realize that she hasn’t regenerated. She really is the same as he remembers... exactly as she was the last time he saw her, back on Gallifrey, or maybe even before that. The same face she wore in Paris, now softened and weathered slightly, but still just as proud.
“But... That’s impossible. That’s impossible!”
She shakes her head, and looks back down at the stones at their feet. For a long time she’s silent, then she bends down, her hand hovering over the rocks as if looking for exactly the right one, and then she picks up a smooth, grey stone and stands up, briskly walking to the water’s edge. She weighs the stone in her hand, pulls back, and skips it neatly over the water’s surface. Once, twice, thrice... four times it skips, and on the fifth it disappears into the grey horizon. “Your academy records weren’t lying about you, I see,” she tells him drily. “You really are horrid at temporal physics.”
“You’re saying this is a paradox?” The Doctor’s hearts wobble, each skipping oddly in their own time. But she waves him off, and bends to select another stone.
“Not a paradox, Doctor. Don’t be foolish.” This stone skips five times before sinking, and Romana nods thoughtfully, as though pleased with her progress, and then bends again to choose another. “It’s more like ripples. Afterimages, like when you look too long at a bright light. Don’t worry,” she adds, twisting up for a moment to favor him with an ironic smile, “I’m quite sure it won’t last.”
“Oh, honestly, Doctor. As old as you are, you ought to be used to such things by now. The time-lock we put on the war got broken somehow, didn’t it?”
The Doctor frowns, remembering Dalek Caan and his mad rantings, and Davros. “Yes.”
“And so, here we are. Echoing while the universe tries to sort itself out. Life goes on, the universe continues without us... Not even the Time Lords are so important that everything skids to a halt just because we’re disappearing from the timeline bit by bit. Fading from memory like ripples disappearing from a pond.”
“And when the ripples reach the outermost edge... when they touch the shore?”
“Gone.” This stone skips only three times, and Romana pouts for a moment before turning to hunt for another. “You’ll remember us, but that will be all. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a short while, you found it impossible to find another species who’d ever heard of Time Lords, or at least remembered them as anything other than a vague legend, a fairy story trotted out to amuse small children. ‘Once upon a time there was a vast citadel in a glass bubble, and the people inside the bubble were so ancient and powerful that they watched over Time itself, and were the guardians of it for many many millenia. Or so the legends say.’”
“But you’re here, now, you’re... Romana, stop that and listen to me!” The Doctor catches her hands in one hand, and lifts her chin with the other. “You’re alive, Romana. You don’t have to just... stand here, until you vanish! I thought you were dead, I thought I was alone, I...”
“You are alone, Doctor.”
She doesn’t try to wrench her chin from his grasp, or hit him with her fists and the rock she holds in her left hand, but, looking at her face, the Doctor guesses that’s only because she’s too tired to fight anymore. Her eyes, once so haughty and mischeivous, look empty now, their surface slick and bright, but flat as the sea before them.
“Romana, I wish... if there’d been another way...”
“Don’t try to excuse what I did, Doctor. It was my decision, and while I’m not proud of it, I stand by it. Gallifrey is a small price to pay for trying to rid the universe of the Daleks.”
Trying? The Doctor frowns before he can school his features, and Romana laughs, harsh and bitter.
“Oh, don’t try to fool me, Doctor. I know they’re not gone. That’s one of the benefits of being only an echo, myself - I can taste their metallic taint all over the universe.”
“There aren’t as many,” he attempts weakly.
“As if that matters. One Dalek alive is too many, and you know it, Doctor. One Dalek will find a way to rebuild everything. And one Time Lord...” She laughs again. He’s not sure he likes this Romana, even though by all evidence it’s the same Romana as before, the same one he traveled with and loved and argued with and, in the end, in the fire and the destruction of all things, obeyed. “Well, maybe we will finally have the answer to which of us is the superior species.”
“We never fought for superiority.”
“Of course not. But that’s what they fought for, and if they won...” She shakes her head. “I don’t blame you, Doctor. You tried. You did what I asked. You did the best you could.”
But it wasn’t good enough, was it? They both looked away, he pretending interest in a passing gull, she running her fingers over the smooth surface of another skipping-stone, tracing its curves as though trying to read something in the grains and tough little sand-smoothed pock-marks.
“What will you do, then?” he asks, his voice casual, still watching the gulls wheeling overhead. “Just stay here, waiting until you fade out of the universe? That’s not like you, Romana, even at your worst.”
“I came here, didn’t I?” She sounds annoyed - that old tone she’s always used to say ‘now I know why I got a triple first, and you barely passed your exams.’
“To Brighton,” he agrees, and then the penny drops. “To meet me?”
She doesn’t look like she wants to admit it, but she drops the stone she’s been holding and sets her hands on her hips, looking up at him with a challenging expression. “I knew you’d come back eventually. You can’t stay away from this silly island.”
“I love this silly island,” he tells her, and feels a pang for all the other things that he’s never told her he loves. Like the way she crinkles her nose when she’s annoyed at him, or how she rolls her eyes when he’s being intentionally difficult... the way the sunlight catches her hair and turns it into a mess of floating gold candyfloss...
He holds out his hand to her.
Romana frowns at it, suspicious, as though she’s never seen such a thing. “What’s this?”
He shakes his head at her, wiggles his fingers, waiting.
“Honestly, Romana.” The fingers wiggle again. “You came here to meet me, now I’m here. What else are we going to do?”
“Maybe I just wanted to tell you that you did the right thing,” she tells him. “That I’m proud of you for doing what was necessary. Maybe that was all I needed.”
“Maybe,” he agrees. “And maybe you’re not so convinced that you’re ready to fade away into nothingness, after all. I may have been rubbish at temporal physics, but you are fantastic at it, and you’re also remarkably clever with fiddly little feats of mechanics and engineering. I know you, Romana. You never give up. Even when think you should. Sometimes you just need someone there to give you a little push.”
“What if I am done?” she challenges. “I haven’t regenerated. I haven’t died, but I... I felt Gallifrey explode around me. I remember... I remember so many things, Doctor. Things I don’t want to remember. What about that? What if I don’t want to remember all of that any more?”
“What about it?” The Doctor shrugs. “I didn’t want to, either. Took a few decades, blew up a lot more things after I blew up Gallifrey. I went through a bit of a rebel period. Got all Northern and black-leather-y. It was... weird. But, absorbed the energy of the heart of the Tardis - that was a good one, remind me to tell you about it sometime - and bang, bob’s your uncle, here I am. Well, minus a few jaunts to one side or the other. Couple of invasions averted, couple of old enemies dealt with... I met Queen Victoria, you know. And Queen Elizabeth, although apparently she thinks I’m her greatest enemy, somehow.” He pauses and looks quizzically at her. “You know, I think Queen Victoria said something similar, now that I think of it. I don’t seem to do very well with queens.”
“I’m not surprised, given your attitude toward authority.” But Romana smiles, and takes his hand, almost hesitantly. She drops her skipping stone, then, and they walk toward the Tardis.
“I never minded you being in charge,” he tells her. “Well... not much, anyway.”
“Yes, you did.” Romana laughs. “You couldn’t stand the thought of me staying on Gallifrey, working with the high council... changing things from the inside. You were always so convinced that Gallifrey needed to be changed, but all you could think of doing was running from it. You couldn’t bear the thought of staying there long enough to bring about some of that change for others.”
“No...” He smiles. “Responsibility. Never one of my strong suits.”
“You carried through with it in the end,” she reminds him gently. Then she sighs. “You know I can’t go with you, Doctor. Not really. Your Tardis is a part of the proper universe, the one that always survived. If I step into that Tardis and let it touch my mind, it’s circuits will start mixing up my reality with yours, and the resulting collision could destroy the universe.”
It’s not the answer he was looking for, but on some level it is what he expected. He always seems to get goodbyes on beaches. “What will you do, then?”
“Go back to my Tardis. See if I can find anyone else who might have slipped through the cracks. If we gather together, find a place where the fabric is thin...” She hesitates. “Or maybe doing that would destroy the universe, too. Maybe we should go back to Kasterborous, to the rocks and bits of Gallifrey, and wait there for the ripples to catch up to us.”
“You can’t.” His throat is choking him, he can’t regain her and lose her again in the same day, not like this.
“I can, Doctor.” And, improbably, she smiles at him. “I can, and perhaps I will. Someday. But not yet. Today... today, I think I’m going back to the beach. Skip stones for a while, and then maybe have some fish and chips for supper. Watch the sun set, and then see if the stars will come out.”
This time she holds her hand out for him, and wiggles her fingers just as he did earlier. So much earlier.
“I’ve lost so many people since the last time I saw you,” he tells her.
Romana’s smile softens, turns a bit sad, and she nods. “The universe is like that, sometimes.”
“If you went back... if you went to find the others...”
She shakes her head. “Look.”
He looks obediently - for once in his life, obediently - at her hand, and it is fading. A shimmer goes through it, like a holographic program that’s failing, like a mirage that you see for what it is just as you get close enough to desperately wish it were real. So close he can smell her hair and the light, lemon-and-cut-grass perfume of her skin, feel the warmth of her on the cool wind from the beach, but it’s fading even as he feels it. Fading, disappearing from the universe...
“Romana, no. No, you can’t, not now, I’ve lost too many people, I--”
“Oh, shut up, Doctor.” She catches his hand in hers, and for a horrible moment he can feel her skin not synching up with his, as though her flesh and bone were already slipping out of this universe’s existence. Then something stabilizes, and she’s back, at least for the time being. It’s the worst goodbye he’s ever had - at least the others, he thinks bitterly, have for the most part been mercifully quick. Romana never did let him do things the easy way. “It’s not like you’re the only person in the universe who’s ever had to say goodbye.”
She’s right, of course. She always is, his Romana.
So they walk the beach. They talk - well, mostly he talks, about the adventures he’s had and the people he’s met since they last parted, and she listens, and sometimes laughs, sometimes teases him for the way he’s gotten so prickly and sentimental in his old age. They skip stones together, and he pretends not to notice when one drops through her fingers, temporarily not solid enough to hold it in the air. They talk about old times, too, a little - about Cambridge and Paris and E-Space and all of that, all the good times before they parted ways for so long. About how they’d always meant to travel again together, and how time never did quite cooperate.
“I think it’s for the best,” Romana tells him, brushing a small hand through her hair, pushing it out of her face as the wind tugs it forward again. “We never did get on as well as we both wanted to, you know, and our arguments upsetted poor K9 so dreadfully.”
“Yeah...” The Doctor sucks at his teeth a bit. “You’re probably right, yeah. All for the best. Anyway, you had to go be the president, and I... well, I had other things that I needed to do. Still. It would have been grand, wouldn’t it, Romana? One last time, you and me, traveling the universe? I’m older, now, I’ve changed...”
“I can see that,” she says, in a tone that very clearly says that she sees nothing of the sort, and that she rather likes it that way.
He grins, and their hands, hanging ever so casually at their sides between them, seem to twine of their own volition. It’s habit, he tells himself, and Romana doesn’t look at him or say anything - she just keeps walking along the beach, one foot in front of the other, watching the roaring sea.
They have supper at a little chippy by the shore, eating lovely golden fish and chips off newspaper dark and slick with grease, and Romana laughs as he tells her about his new friends - about Jack Harkness, who cannot die, about Rose, who saved the universe with a yellow truck and who briefly carried the heart of the Tardis in her human heart and mind, and about Martha Jones, who walked the Earth alone for a whole year, and made him take her mobile with him on his journeys so that she can call him back whenever the Earth needs him, and about Donna, who saved the universe with common sense, fast typing and a heart full of empathy. He doesn’t tell her about the metacrisis, because he has a guilty sensation that Romana would not approve. He’s not sure he does, either, anymore, but what’s done is done, and he can’t undo it.
He can’t undo what’s happening to Romana, either.
As night falls, they throw away their chip wrappers and walk out again onto the beach, and the Doctor notices that he can see a glint of the last sunlight through Romana’s fading shape.
“I wonder if it wasn’t all a waste,” she tells him quietly. “The war, my presidency, all that rushing about trying to do everything at once. If I’d waited more, if I hadn’t been so determined to bring down the Dalek threat...”
“You did what you had to,” he says, because he can’t stand the thought of Romana so unsure of herself. She only shrugs, and scoots a little closer to him on the rocky pylon they sit on.
Darkness falls, and they pretend that they can see Kasterborous above them, maybe even Gallifrey.
“I’ll have to go soon, you know,” Romana says. Her hand, lifted up above them, is like a ghost over the starlight.
The Doctor searches for a goodbye, but he’s long since found that this regeneration is terrible at those - even worse than all his prior incarnations. “We could still try. The Tardis--”
“No, Doctor. You know as well as I do that doing anything like that could seriously damage the fabric of the universe.”
“Right.” He sighs. “Right...”
Before he can think of something else to say, Romana stands up, then bends over and kisses him on the forehead. She holds onto his shoulders for a moment, and looks deep into his eyes... and he looks into hers, and sees the stars through them.
She leaves before he can say anything in return - because she knows he can’t, maybe. She always did know him a little too well. Nothing dramatic happens - she doesn’t burst into a cloud of golden energy that zips up into the sky, or disappear in a puff of smoke or anything like that. She just grins at him and walks away down the beach, her face turned up to the stars. When she’s almost out of his sight, she turns toward him, and waves, a brilliant grin breaking the distant, dim white of her face. He waves back, and grins, too, so hard his cheeks hurt, and he’s glad she’s far enough away that she can’t see the tears tracking down his cheeks. And then she turns away again, and starts running off down the beach. Her feet are light, now, nothing at all like the slow, thoughtful tread of her walk earlier, when he first saw her, and as she disappears into the darkness, he wonders if she’s really gone, or if it’s just an optical illusion, if she might turn again and run back to him, all forgiven, all just a joke. I fooled you that time, didn’t I, Doctor?
He waits a long time in the darkness, listening to the waves roll in, waiting for those words.
Orion is high in the sky by the time he gives up and leaves, walking slowly back to where the Tardis waits on the boardwalk. Just as he’s about to go inside, he notices a rock sitting by the railing. It’s a perfect skipping stone, flat and smooth and almost glowing in the starlight. He picks it up, weighs it carefully in his hand... and then pauses for a moment. He thinks of everything that’s happened, and wonders if, in some other lifetime, he’ll look back on all this and think that maybe this body is just getting old, starting to break down, starting to hallucinate. Maybe he’s been through too much, lost too many friends, and now his mind is starting to play tricks on him, bring back old friends he’s lost just so that he won’t feel so alone. He’s been prone to hallucinations in other regenerations before. Maybe that’s how this one will go out.
Then he smiles, and thinks of Romana’s broad grin and her wild laughter, and throws the stone out across the sea. It skips once, twice, thrice, four times, five times, and, yes, a sixth time before it disappears into the water. He remembers how, at the end, Romana seemed even more alive than she had done the rest of the day. And the thinks he’d like to go out like that, too - a big smile, a wave, and then - running, always, into the darkness.