Braxiatel stared at the stage. With the lights off and the theatre silent, he could almost see it, his vision. The gorgeous costumes, the dazzling repartee, the choreography that would make a Russian ballet master cry tears of envy. They would do a season of only puppet theatre, and then a season of Ben Jonson and Thomas Kyd. He would hold seminars on the Verfremdungseffekt. It would be glorious.
The door to the theatre banged open, spilling daylight onto the narrow boards of the stage, the folding chairs, and the tea things in the corner. Braxiatel sighed, slumped back in his chair, and let his dreams go. As usual.
"Brax!" shouted Romana, as if she wasn't only a few feet away. "We need a new play. As a distraction. The seniors are getting restless."
"Who cares?" Braxiatel asked the ceiling. "Some restlessness would be good for them. Get them out of their armchairs and into the fresh air."
"I mean politically restless. I think they're going to object to the skate park." Romana sat down next to Braxiatel, leaning over and obstructing his view of the ceiling. "We need the skate park, Brax. We need life in this community."
"You're the council leader," said Braxiatel, trying not to stare quite so deeply into Romana's eyes. "Exert your influence. Force the skate park into being."
"I have to maintain some semblance of democracy." Romana raised her eyebrows, which had the unfortunate side-effect of making her look even lovelier than usual. "What shall you do? Hamlet?"
"No Shakespeare." Braxiatel closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to look at Romana's face entirely. "No play. We just finished the junior production of Cats last week. I need some rest. I spent a month and a half trying to teach teenagers how to dance and remember lines while also staving off jokes about 'catgirls' and similarly unsuitable conversation. We'll do another production in a month or so, after I've forgotten every tidbit I learned about cats' barbed members."
"Apparently they resemble fishhooks," said Braxiatel, eyes still firmly shut.
Romana flicked Braxiatel in the arm until he relented and looked at her. It was the action of a five-year-old, not a thirty-something local politician, but Braxiatel knew from experience that pointing this out would not end well for him.
"Remember that the community arts fund pays your salary, Sir Director," said Romana. "That money could easily be diverted to the skate park."
"Skate parks are not art," said Braxiatel.
"We'll make it a free-paint zone. Graffiti for the people. I'll ask Banksy to do the opening." Romana flicked Braxiatel in the arm again. "Come on, give me a distraction. What else is amateur community theatre for?"
"For the edification and empowerment of all," said Braxiatel, with a perfectly straight face. Romana simply looked at him, and Braxiatel shrugged. "Oh, very well," he said. "We'll do Assassins."
Romana got up, dusting off her neat pencil skirt and flashing a smile which she probably meant to be grateful and actually edged a bit too far into triumphant. "Isn't that the Sondheim that everyone thought was a bit crap?"
"It's a modern classic," said Braxiatel, mournfully. "The seniors will butcher it. It will be utterly awful."
"Your optimism continues to astonish me," said Romana. "Try to schedule your dress rehearsal during the skate park open meeting, if you please. Require attendance of everyone over the age of fifty-five. Except for Flavia, she likes skate parks."
"All hail Gallifreyan democracy," said Braxiatel, and carefully did not watch Romana's hips sway as she hurried out of the theatre to harangue someone else.
Braxiatel sat for some time, continuing not to think about Romana's hips, or her commanding manner, or her shrewd political intelligence which apparently consisted or distracting the voters with shiny objects. But eventually not thinking became something of a strain, so he stood up and went to look for his Assassins script.
Perhaps he could get the city council to pay for copies.
Gallifrey was a small town in rural England - essentially, in the middle of nowhere. Its residents were mostly livestock and elderly people with a truly inexhaustible reserve of xenophobia. It was the sort of place that raised children who desperately yearned for escape, ran off to university or city employment as soon as they reached majority, and then sheepishly returned when they realized that, while the wider world was exciting and interesting and had a smaller sheep-to-people ratio, they actually did like it in Gallifrey. A bit.
Romana liked Gallifrey rather more than a bit. True, the conservatism and backwardness of its populace was a constant source of grievance to her, but she was a progressive politician. Most everything was a source of grievance to her. When there was something wrong with something you loved, you tried to change it; that was her motto.
When Braxiatel returned to his childhood home, Romana was only five days into her term as Council Leader. She greeted him with enthusiasm and offered him a job at the amateur community theatre, because the previous director had moved to Majorca two years ago and they had to do something with the building.
Perhaps she might have presented the job offer a little more tactfully.
"This is beneath me," said Brax, still seated in his little convertible. He had arrived only a few moments ago - Romana was very quick to seize opportunities like this.
"Think of it as a vacation, Brax." Romana leaned over the side of the car. "May I call you Brax?"
"Thank you for asking, dear lady." Brax unbuckled his seatbelt. "No."
"No?" Romana straightened, allowing Brax to open the car door. "But everyone calls you Brax."
"My mother calls me Irving, my colleagues call me Braxiatel, and the people around here rarely call me anything at all." Brax got out of the car. "The only one who calls me Brax is my bro- Ah. You're that Romana."
"A pleasure to meet you at last," said Romana. "I've heard so much about you from Theta."
"Have you?" Brax opened the boot of his car.
"No, not really," said Romana. "Now, about this job-"
"I directed at the New London Theatre," said Brax, attempting to retrieve his suitcases from the boot. "In the West End."
"I'm aware of the location of the New London Theatre," said Romana. She tried to help maneuver the suitcases, but only succeeded in wedging the largest one further back into the car. "I'm aware of the location of many places in London."
"And you want me to direct community theatre." Brax's forehead wrinkled in polite incomprehension. "Why would I ever agree?"
"We'll pay you," said Romana, still shoving ineffectively at Brax's suitcases. "Not very much, I'm afraid. And you'll be Giving Back to the Community."
Brax looked at her for a very long time - long enough that Romana would have felt awkward if she were the sort of person to feel awkward. Instead, she spent her time thinking about what a dreadful mistake Brax's moustache was, and how much she liked the cut of his suit, and how the only feature he shared with his brother was a clever glint in his eyes. Finally Brax looked back down at his car and finally heaved the suitcases out.
"I suppose," said Brax, "that I can't possibly refuse such a generous offer from such a magnificent woman."
"I'll draw up a contract," said Romana. "But please don't call me a magnificent women."
Brax gave her a slight smile and almost closed the boot on her hand by accident. It was the beginning of a magnificent- no, an interesting and somewhat uncomfortable friendship. But a friendship nonetheless.
On the opening night of Assassins, Tacken and Marissa and the rest of the seniors slowly warbled their way through 'Another National Anthem.' The sparse audience, children and grandchildren guilted into attendance, looked pained, yet relieved. Braxiatel had printed the song list into the programs as a sort of countdown to release.
He watched in the wings, torn between pride and despair. Marissa and Tacken were enthusiastic, and they'd come quite a long way in a few short weeks of rehearsal. For one thing, they could remember nearly all their lines and reliably hit several notes. The best that could be said about the rest of the cast is that they only resorted to tum-te-tum when they couldn't think of an ad-lib that would rhyme. They were also reasonably good at thinking of rhymes. Braxiatel had never actually heard Sondheim with so many couplets before.
"Well," murmured Romana, and Braxiatel tried very hard not to jump. "Valyes isn't a bad balladeer. He's no Neil Patrick Harris, though."
"The Broadway cast recording is inferior to the London production," said Braxiatel. "I'll lend you my CDs."
"I'm too busy to listen to musicals," said Romana, as on stage Valyes tried to find a rhyme for 'president.' Braxiatel made the universal signal for 'there is no rhyme in this verse,' i.e. a vigorous shake of the head and a flapping hand. Valyes stuttered into silence, too confused by the gestures to continue. In his despair, Braxiatel turned to Darkel, who smoothly picked up with her character's response and set off a cascade of half-recalled lines from the rest of the cast. Darkel was a godsend, an actually convincing actor. Whenever she was on stage, Braxiatel really believed that she really could be plotting to unseat a president and cause political chaos.
"The skate park passed," said Romana. "No dissenting voices at the open planning meeting. In fact, no one came to the open planning meeting at all. Excellent work."
"Hurrah," said Braxiatel. "I leap for joy."
"Yes, you do look happy." Romana patted Braxiatel's shoulder, and then hesitated as she looked out at the stage, her gaze obviously drawn to the gaudily-colored rifles and pistols clenched in the actors' hands. "I didn't know you were going to arm the seniors. Is that wise?"
"They're paint guns," explained Braxiatel. "Part of my concept. Perfectly safe."
The assassins started herding the Balladeer off the stage, which was in the script. Marissa fired her paint-pistol in excitement, which was not in the script. Then the rest of the seniors followed, joined by Darkel, who seemed to be aiming for Valyes' throat. The crowd gasped as Valyes fell to the floor, covered in yellow and green and orange, already whining about his future bruises.
"Is this still part of your concept?" asked Romana.
"Audience engagement?" suggested Braxiatel. Tacken, chuckling to himself, shot Valyes right between the eyes. "Actually, this is not. We might need to call the authorities."
"I am the authorities," said Romana.
"I meant the police," said Braxiatel. Valyes appeared to be feigning unconsciousness, but he was a terrible actor. As usual. The audience was cheering.
"I know, I know," said Romana. "They've stopped, anyway." They listened to the rest of the play in silence. Braxiatel had given up on direction. The production was beyond anyone's control.
"Listen," said Romana, when the curtain had closed and the audience's over-enthusiastic applause had died away. "I need another favor."
"No," said Braxiatel. "It pains my heart to refuse a request from a gallant leader such as yourself, but I will be too busy to grant favors for at least the next six months."
"The council is trying to establish a neighborhood watch," said Romana, "and I need you to keep certain vigilante-action-inclined individuals away from the information session."
"No," said Braxiatel. "I mean it. You're not getting anything out of me until the Pantomime."
"You could do The Tempest," said Romana. "Or Measure for Measure."
"It breaks my heart to refuse you-"
"No Shakespeare," said Braxiatel, folding his arms in a resolute manner. "No play."
"We'll see about that," said Romana in a stage whisper, as amateur actors filtered by them, chattering about cats and babies and stroking their paint guns. "And," she added, "there will be no weaponry in the next production."
"That will be simple to ensure," said Braxiatel. "As there will be no production."
"Don't make me repeat myself," said Romana, and patted Braxiatel on the shoulder again. Her long nails caught on his shirt and pressed lightly into his skin, and he tried to take it as a threat rather than a promise.
Braxiatel had applied to approximately fifty theatrical positions in the last six months. Or, at least, he had filled out the applications. He'd sent one or two. He'd thought very hard about sending the others.
There was nothing keeping him in Gallifrey, except family ties, unfounded suspicions entertained by the London law enforcement, and an unnoticed fondness for a certain Council Leader.
But the only recent reference Braxiatel could list would be Romana herself, and she would react rather poorly to any attempt to abandon Gallifrey, even for bigger and better things. Especially for bigger and better things. She would probably answer any call from potential employers with perfect politeness, and then rant into the phone about betrayal and ignominy.
Braxiatel was aware that he was making up excuses for his own indecisiveness. But Romana's ranting was actually rather amusing to imagine.
He clicked through another page of job listings before rousing himself from his chair and straightening the cuffs of his shirt, readying himself for rehearsal.
Braxiatel adored Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, mostly out of nostalgia but also because it was damn good writing. He'd never felt personally threatened by it before, but that was before Leela had thrown the script at his head.
Well. There were always new aspects of a play to consider.
Narvin's fists were clenched and Leela had an absurdly long pocket-knife in her hand. Braxiatel smiled at them from his director's chair, and considered the utility of a clipboard as a shield.
"I cannot act opposite this, this woman," said Narvin. "How can she be a part of community theatre? She's not even from Gallifrey."
"Be careful," warned Braxiatel. "Your provincialism is showing. And your sexism."
"I am from London, not the moon," said Leela. "Do not speak of me as if I am an alien."
Narvin threw up his hands. "All right, I didn't mean to offend. But the point is, I cannot stand working for Leela for a few minutes, let alone the rest of the month."
"The feeling is mutual," said Leela. "I do not wish to see Narvin, or hear him, or speak with him. Will you have me stand on stage with cloth around my eyes and plugs inside my ears?"
"Interesting concept," said Braxiatel. "I think we'll stick with the pop-punk costume scheme. Kay worked so hard on it."
Narvin and Leela were momentarily distracted by this as they looked down at their clothing. Narvin was wearing approximately half of an ill-fitting, ripped suit, with a loose plaid tie. Leela was wearing a leather mini-dress, which suited her.
"That's another thing I wanted to talk to you about," said Narvin. "I refuse to have my ears pierced."
"And I am not dying my hair," said Leela.
"We must all make sacrifices for art," said Braxiatel. "Shall we take the scene from the top?"
"You are not listening!" Leela brandished the knife. "We are not doing a scene. We will not act. We are quitting your play."
"For once," drawled Narvin, "we agree."
"Really." Braxiatel stood up, forcing Leela to take a step back or cut him. "I somehow doubt that would go over well with the magistrates, Leela. This is your court-ordered community service. If you didn't want to act, perhaps you shouldn't have... overreacted to those unfortunate young students in the pub."
"They were causing trouble," said Leela, stung. "I am a bouncer, and I threw them out! I only wished to do my job."
"Technically you're a barmaid, and you did break two students' noses," said Narvin. "And you kicked Neeloc in the-"
"And you, Narvin," said Braxiatel. "What will your therapist say when you tell her you've given up your only hobby? Will she recommend a vacation? An enforced leave from work? That sort of thing shows up on background checks, and I know a healthy background is important for security contractors."
"My conversations with my therapist are private," snarled Narvin. "And none of your business."
"And this cannot be Narvin's only hobby!" said Leela. "I am sure that he does other things besides work and argue with me."
There was an embarrassed silence. Narvin straightened one of his shirt-cuffs, causing it to tear even more.
"On the stage, please," said Braxiatel, offering Leela her discarded script. "From the top."
Narvin stomped back to the stage, and Leela followed, still questioning him about his hobbies.
"What about cards?" she asked "Do you play bridge? You could join Andred in his bridge group - he has tried to teach me, but I have no patience for it, and he said that he might play with any fool so long as he can find a fourth-"
"Stop," said Narvin, with gritted teeth. "Can we just act, so I can get out of here?"
"Oh, yes," said Leela, and then she hesitated. "I have lost the coins."
"You had them just a moment ago," said Narvin. "Turn out your pockets."
"This dress has no pockets," said Leela. "It is extremely impractical. Look at how short it is, and how tight- no, do not look at me like that."
"I'm not looking at you like anything," said Narvin, voice tight. "I'm trying to find the coins you lost."
"You have turned red," observed Leela. "Your face is splotchy."
"Kay!" shouted Braxiatel, in a futile effort to drown the stage out. "Bag of coins!"
Kay Nighn appeared from the backstage and handed Leela the bag. Leela patted his head in gratitude, and Braxiatel winced. He liked Kay, found him a good props manager if a little robotic, and it unnerved him to see Kay patted like a small boy or a dog. Well, it didn't matter. Kay didn't seem to mind. You could practically see him wagging his tail, for all that his expression never changed.
Once Kay returned to the wings, Leela rolled her shoulders and took on a posture that she seemed to believe conveyed acting. In fact, it looked rather like her hips had become dislocated from her spine. She weighed a coin on her fist, and then tossed it.
"Heads," said Narvin, and put the coin in his own, empty bag.
Leela tossed another coin, and Narvin pronounced heads and took it. This continued for a little while, until Leela flipped a coin and then grabbed Narvin's wrist when he tried to pocket it.
"That was tails!" she hissed. "You are a cheat and a liar!"
"That's not your line," said Narvin, twisting away. "'There is an art to the building up of suspense,' you're supposed to say."
"Return my money!" demanded Leela.
"It's fake money! It's a fake game!"
Braxiatel stared at his mug of coffee and dearly wished for it to turn into wine. Two weeks of rehearsals and they still kept getting stuck in Act One.
"Why are you even here?" asked Narvin. "You're a terrible actor."
"I am an excellent actor!" said Leela. "And this is my service to the law, as you already know."
"You could be cleaning up litter," said Narvin. "You could be washing car parks. You could be anywhere but on this stage, with me."
"I am here, and we must make the best of it," said Leela. "Return my coin, and I will forgive you."
"Just restart the scene," said Braxiatel. "Please."
Tomorrow he was going to bring a flask.
The neighborhood watch went very well, when dominated by less radical and less violent minds than Narvin and Leela's. Romana put Andred and Maxil in charge of organizing the watch, and then went home to have a celebratory dinner.
Her phone rang when she was pouring herself a glass of Heartshaven Red. Awful timing, as always.
"I need to report an attempted murder," said Brax. "It hasn't happened yet, but Narvin's trying to explain the play within a play and I think Leela might beat him over the head with her prop dagger if he gets any more condescending."
"You should call the police." Romana sipped her wine. "The proper authorities."
"I've been given to understand that you are the authorities, my dear lady," said Brax. "How was the meeting?"
"Calm and reasonable," said Romana. "The council thanks you for your sacrifices. Did you really get Narvin to pierce his ears?"
"Leela called him a coward," said Brax. "And then got him drunk. I tried not to ask too many questions when he appeared with his new jewelry."
"Wise," said Romana. "Well, I have dinner getting cold and a bottle of wine breathing, so..."
"You are trying to torture me," said Brax. "I have an hour of this left. Have a good dinner, and- Narvin! No!"
There was a crashing sound on the other end of the line, and Brax hung up. Romana took another sip of wine, and found herself smiling at her phone.
Eventually the play premiered, and it was actually... quite good. Yes, Narvin and Leela were practically shouting the lines at each other, but this was proper thespian passion. Or at least it would pass for it in a dim light. And they knew all of their lines. And yes, Narvin and Leela would have probably murdered each other five times over if not for the quick thinking and bold action of Hamlet (Andred) and Polonius (Valyes). But the fact of the matter was that no one had murdered anyone, and the audience clapped very enthusiastically when the play drew to a close.
The worst part of the play, actually, was that Braxiatel's brother Theta was in the audience.
"Brax!" he shouted, when Braxiatel came out to help clear away the set. "Brax, that was amazing, utterly astonishing. Post-punk Stoppard, really."
Braxiatel closed his eyes and tried to pretend that he was imagining this. It didn't work. Braxiatel could never have imagined his brother, wearing a waistcoat and a velvet jacket in this rugged community theatre, flanked by a man in leather and a serious-looking woman with a file-folder.
"Theta," said Braxiatel, opening his eyes again. "You look different."
"New haircut," said Theta, shaking his head to display his dark curls.
"And a nosejob?" asked Braxiatel. Theta smiled at him, looking a little tense - oh, it was probably gauche to mention it, but it was obvious that Theta had had a facelift since the last time they'd run into each other. He looked at least a decade younger. His wardrobe probably had something to do with it as well. The waistcoat suited him rather better than that abominable jumper with the question marks.
"I thought you were in London," said Braxiatel, tactfully changing the subject and tactfully not asking Theta what the hell he was doing here.
"Oh, my run of Hedda Gabler just finished up. I'm on vacation for a few months." Theta strolled along the stage, picking up props and setting them down again. He almost walked into Andred, who took a step out of the way, and then another step back when Theta beamed at him.
"Very good Hamlet," said Theta. "Very good."
"Do I know you from somewhere?" asked Andred.
"My brother," said Braxiatel, coming forward to shield Andred from Theta's dramatist enthusiasm. "He's a reasonably good actor - you may have seen him on the internet, I suppose. And these are his groupies."
"We're not groupies," said the man in the leather jacket.
"This is Anji, my business manager," said Theta, gesturing to the woman. "And Fitz, my masseuse."
"I am definitely not your masseuse," said Fitz.
"You gave me a massage yesterday," said Theta.
"As a friend!"
"What do you do, Andred?" asked Theta, changing subjects with the grace and tact of a rhinoceros.
"Security systems," said Andred. "I work for Narvin - that's Rosencrantz."
"Yes, thank you, Andred." Braxiatel smiled at everyone. "What do you want, Theta?"
"This is a lovely theatre," said Theta. "Lovely stage. Lovely audience."
"Theta," began Braxiatel, but then there was a shout from downstage, and a crash as someone knocked into a low-hanging spotlight.
"Your Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fighting," said Theta.
Braxiatel didn't bother to look. "Unsurprising," he said. "We'll incorporate any blood or bruising into the aesthetic of the next performance."
"They're also kissing," said Theta. "What a fascinating reinterpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's relationship."
This was surprising. Braxiatel turned to stare at Narvin, who in turn was staring at Leela and touching his own split lip with his fingers. Leela looked a little surprised at herself, but then she kissed Narvin, apparently for the second time, and tried to crush his windpipe. Narvin fought back, but pointedly did not break the kiss.
"What," said Braxiatel.
"There are so many layers," said Theta, rapt. "The relationship between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is still confused and ambiguous, but the antagonism and passion is increased in a way that combines with your regendering of the Guildenstern role and which-"
"Are you going to do something about this?" Braxiatel asked Andred. "Leela's your wife."
Andred shrugged. "Good for her to get it out of her system."
"But Narvin's your boss," pointed out Braxiatel, almost morbidly intrigued. "Isn't this going to be awkward?"
"Good blackmail material," said Andred, thoughtfully. "I ought to find a camera." He walked away, presumably to do so.
"-might fall into a trap of heteronormativity," said Theta. "You should consider recasting Rosencrantz as a woman in the next production, Brax."
"There is no next production," said Braxiatel. "I am quitting. Leaving. I may move to Germany. This would never happen in Germany."
"You'd be surprised," said Theta. "Have you ever worked with the Monan Host? Every play is practically an orgy. Blue body paint everywhere."
There was a silence as Theta and Fitz contemplated this, and Anji and Braxiatel watched them contemplate. Braxiatel decided that he rather liked Anji. She seemed quiet, and she didn't want him to do anything. These were qualities that Braxiatel appreciated in a person.
"Oh, Fitz! Anji!" exclaimed Theta, breaking out of his reverie. "You should talk to the props manager. Ask him how he built these intricate fiberglass spiderwebs. What are they supposed to represent, Brax?"
"Transparent entrapment," said Braxiatel. "Obviously. You'll find Kay in the pub by now, I believe."
Theta waited until Anji and Fitz had left before leaning into Braxiatel's space and murmuring, "I wonder if I might ask you a favor."
"No," said Braxiatel.
"I have to do some community service time," said Theta. "Small matter of stealing a police vehicle-"
"No," said Braxiatel.
"I'm sure the judge would be pleased to see me out in the country, in my lovely childhood village, volunteering for a municipally-sponsored community theatre pro-"
"No," said Braxiatel. "No. No."
"Theta!" called Romana, appearing unexpectedly at the worst possible time, just as usual. "How long are you staying? Are you doing a play with Brax? We should put up some advertisements - do you think your fans would drive out here? The village could use a tourism boost."
"No," said Braxiatel, but Theta and Romana were ignoring him and Romana had her arms around Theta's neck - they had been at school together, he recalled, Theta completing his advanced degree and Romana an undergraduate. Theta said something that made Romana laugh.
Narvin and Leela were making terribly distracting noises in the background. Braxiatel didn't understand how they could have such little decency and self-consciousness.
"-Just asking Brax for a favor," said Theta, practically in Romana's ear. "But he keeps saying no."
"Really?" Romana glanced over at Braxiatel. "Spoilsport."
Leela's victory cry was especially loud. Braxiatel did not want to know why she was claiming victory.
"Fine!" snapped Braxiatel. "But could someone please do something about Narvin and Romana before they fall off the stage?"
"Don't worry!" called Andred. "I'm keeping an eye on them!"
"Put that camera away!" shouted Narvin. "I- mmf!"
"What is going on here?" asked Romana, leaning back from Theta to look across the stage.
"Misdirected passion," said Braxiatel. "I blame myself for putting Leela and Narvin in close proximity."
Romana raised her eyebrows as Leela adjusted her grip on Narvin's neck and Narvin adjusted his grip on Leela's- Braxiatel looked hurriedly away. "Well," said Romana. "I'm just glad they're doing it here and not at the neighborhood watch meetings. Good work."
"At your service, Madam," said Braxiatel, and sighed. His mood was rarely improved by telling the truth.
When Romana was a young woman, she left Gallifrey for the wondrous world of university education. She excelled at her classes and impressed her tutors, but she didn't get along very well with most of the other undergraduates because she was more interested in the ramifications of the theoretical distinction between Bayesian and Frequentist statistics than in getting drunk.
Admittedly this was Cambridge, so many students enjoyed getting drunk and then discussing schools of statistics. But Romana found that inebriation detracted from the purity of the experience.
After a year of social isolation and scholarly perfection, she met a graduate student named Theta. He was studying physics and had a blooming acting career. He was from Gallifrey as well, and insisted on being called the Doctor, despite his lack of claim to that high academic title. He liked punting, knitting scarves, and helping people. For some reason, his form of helping people often resulted in being chased by mobs, people with knives, or the authorities. Sometimes, just to keep things interesting, he was chased by a mob of authorities with knives.
He was the most fascinating man Romana had ever met.
Her tutors did not particularly approve of her new friend. (Except for Professor Chronotis, who approved of Theta whole-heartedly. But you couldn't really trust Chronotis' judgment.) But Romana ignored their advice and graduated with a triple first in any case. The Doctor threw her a party that culminated in a very drunk discussion of life, the universe, and statistics.
Romana found that she enjoyed drunk statistics after all.
Romana came to watch Theta and Braxiatel's rehearsals, primarily because she honestly did care about the play but also because she bet Leela a fiver that Brax would try to strangle Theta within a week.
Unfortunately, the rehearsals were utterly baffling, and there was very little strangling at all.
"Explain it to me again," said Romana.
"Theta is playing Argan, M. Diaforious, and Thomas Diaforious," said Brax, patiently. "This represents how Argan has pressed his doctors into the service of his delusions - they are no longer independent people, but extensions of himself."
"Right," said Romana. "And Anji-"
"Anji is playing all of the other characters. Beline, Angelique, Toinette, etcetera. This represents the way that Argan regards all those who criticize his perceptions as one person, co-conspirators with his illusory illness."
Romana watched Theta and Anji dash around, putting on and taking off hats to represent each of the characters.
"And you don't think that this is oversimplifying The Imaginary Invalid at all."
"Oh, it's certainly an oversimplification," said Brax. "Theta! Wrong hat! M. Diaforious wears a bowler."
Theta loudly condemned all hats, especially bowlers. Brax smiled at him.
"And this isn't a ploy to make your brother frantic and unable to remember his lines," said Romana.
"Madam Councilor, would I do a thing like that?" Brax looked Romana right in the eye, and didn't look away as he shouted "Theta, you've skipped half of Thomas' lines! We'll have to begin the scene again."
Theta made a quiet noise that sounded like a ferret being squashed. Anji patted his back. Romana wondered if she should try to make a bet on the odds of Theta strangling Brax.
"Are any of our villagers in this play?" asked Romana, as Theta took a deep breath and started over. "This is supposed to be community theatre, Brax."
"The seniors are doing the dance sequences," said Brax.
"With the gypsies?" Romana raised an eyebrow. "I should like to see that."
"I took that out due to concerns about appropriation," said Brax. "Kay is making costumes that look like germs and pharmaceuticals instead."
Romana sighed, and leaned back in her chair. "Of course he is."
"Come, make room," said Anji. "Here they are."
Theta had a night-cap in one hand and a bowler in the other. He swapped them back and forth, somehow managing to talk over himself when M. Diaforius and Argan were supposed to be speaking at the same time. Romana wasn't sure if it was astonishing or diabolical. Probably both.
"I'm taking Theta for a drink, after rehearsal's over," she announced. "He deserves it."
Brax shrugged. "Theta asked for this. I did try to say no."
"I'm pretty sure that he didn't know what he was getting himself into," said Romana, as Theta gave up and stacked the hats on his head while Anji broke character and fell into giggles.
"A metaphor for life," mused Brax. "Your line, Miss Kapoor, if you might rescue yourself from hysterics and return to the task at hand."
"Ah," said Anji, still wheezing a little and her eyes fixed on the ceiling in an effort to calm herself. "See what it is to study, and how one learns to say fine things!" Then she started giggling again, joined by Theta. Romana put her hand over her mouth to hide her smile.
Brax rubbed at the bridge of his nose, looking exhausted. He probably hadn't expected amateur theatre to be such a strain, and Romana felt briefly guilty for piling production after production on him. But then she recalled that it was all for a good cause. Politics trumped the needs of the individual, even if the individual looked as if he'd been skipping his moustache-wax.
Brax looked side-long at Romana, catching her eye. "You had better go to the pub now," he said. "I doubt we'll accomplish anything else today."
"Laughter is always an accomplishment," said Theta.
"Please," said Brax, not looking away from Romana. "Please take him."
Romana patted Brax on the back and obliged.
The local pub was mostly stocked with local ales, old men, and a broken quiz game, but Theta pronounced it 'wonderful' and 'picturesque.' Romana tried not to take that as an insult.
"I remember when old Borusa owned this place," said Theta, when they were settled at a table. "I would always come in and try to order spiked ginger beer, and he would point out that I was twelve and serve me lemonade."
"He was Council Leader once, wasn't he?" Romana stirred her drink, listening to the ice clink. "Before my family moved here."
"Yes." Theta leant back in his chair. "He went mad for archaeological expeditions, helped dig up an ancient barrow, and then got kicked out of office when the farmers who actually owned the barrow-land complained. Happens to all politicians eventually."
"Thanks," said Romana. "That's a very specific prophecy."
Theta shrugged and took a sip of his nostalgic spiked ginger beer. "How is Brax, by the way?"
"You should know," said Romana. "He's your director."
"Yes, and every time I try to ask him a personal question he tells me to get back to rehearsing," complained Theta. "You're his friend."
"I don't know if I would say that."
Theta raised his eyebrows, and Romana sighed. "All right, I suppose we are friends. He's fine. Producing some very good theatre."
"I know that," said Theta. "He's got the mind for it. It's a shame to see him trapped here in Gallifrey, disconnected from London or New York or anywhere."
"No one forced him to come here," said Romana, perhaps a little louder than she'd meant.
"Really?" Theta looked over the rim of his glass. "There was all that fuss about those stolen art pieces, you know."
Theta tapped his nose. "Still, I didn't expect Brax to stay here for so long. I doubt the police are still interested in him or the whereabouts of that Rodin."
Romana took a gulp of her drink to prevent herself from saying 'what' again. The last time she had been in Brax's flat she had remarked on the many fine examples of art that Brax kept on display. 'All reproductions,' he had said. All reproductions her non-existent hat.
"I rely on Brax," said Romana instead. "He's being very useful. Theatre is an excellent distraction."
"The opiate of the masses?" Theta raised his eyebrows. "I'm not sure I approve. I mean, I'm glad you two are enjoying yourselves, but it just seems like such a waste of his talents. Of your talents, too."
"Is that why you came?" asked Romana. "Make a play with your brother and get him all sorts of good press? Drag Brax out of hiding? "
"That would be good, wouldn't it?" said Theta. "Remind me to say that next time someone asks. No, I'm afraid it really is court-ordered. I borrowed a police vehicle, painted it blue, and then drove around London until someone noticed and arrested me. It was Fitz's idea."
"Was it really?" asked Romana.
"Well, he suggested- he agreed-" Theta hesitated. "Actually, I think it may have been my idea."
Romana patted his hand. "Doctor, please never change."
"I'll try not to," said Theta, and beamed.
The Imaginary Invalid opened to rave reviews in the local newsletter and a couple of mentions on internet blogs. 'Local Director's Stunning Vision' said the newsletter. 'Kind of odd, but interesting' said the blogs. 'Brilliant Acting by Local Boy Turned West End Star' said the newsletter. 'Why is Theta Sigma even in this?' asked the blogs. 'Why is his business manager playing half the characters?' 'Breathtaking Dancing by Community Dance Troupe,' enthused the newsletter. 'Shocked when no one broke a leg,' said one, particularly snarky blog. 'Gave standing ovation out of pure surprise.'
"It's a success!" said Romana. "Already planning your next feat, Brax?"
Brax was lying across three folding chairs in the empty theatre with a damp handkerchief over his eyes. He looked rather sweet when he was exhausted from flights of artistic success, Romana thought. Then she had a mental double-take at the fact that she thought Braxiatel, Braxiatel with his ill-considered moustache and his incomprehensible artistic vision and his long-suffering face, that Braxiatel was sweet. Then Romana was rather glad that Brax had a handkerchief over his eyes, because she thought that her double-take might have been a little too obvious.
"Has Theta left yet?" asked Brax, fortunately oblivious.
"Yes," said Romana. "But you can't rest. We have to capitalize on the surge of interest in community theatre. You could apply for an Arts Council grant."
"I will move to an island," said Brax. "A rocky, barren island, where I will live out my days in peace."
"Your fantasy sounds dull." Romana sat down next to Brax's feet. "Is that it?"
"My brother will be taken by the proper authorities and remanded to a cell," said Brax. "Which he'll share with Narvin and Leela and every other obnoxious actor I've ever worked with. The cell will be somewhat crowded, I'm afraid. Meanwhile, my island will have a modest mansion on it. Only three or four stories."
"Which you'll fill with your stolen art?" asked Romana. "Do the 'proper authorities' know about that?"
There was a silence. Brax didn't sit up, but he did pick up the handkerchief to stare at her. Romana stared back.
"Fine," he said, at last. "A new production, to 'capitalize' on the 'surge' of 'interest.' But-"
"I could do without the air quotes," said Romana.
"But," repeated Brax, "I must humbly request the involvement of the local government in this matter."
"You already have the involvement of the local government," pointed out Romana. "We fund the entire program. We pay your salary."
"No, I meant," Braxiatel flapped a hand. "Have you ever acted, Romana?"
Before departing Gallifrey, Theta left a note in Braxiatel's flat which said 'You should ask her to dinner. She speaks fondly of you. Occasionally. Well, once.'
Braxiatel did not pretend ignorance of who Theta was referring to. It would be pointless and rather asinine.
What Braxiatel did want to know was how Theta broke into his flat.
The first day of rehearsals, Braxiatel handed Romana a script with quite a lot of highlighting.
"I'm playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?" asked Romana. "Are you sure that's not a mistake?"
"It represents the duality of the characters, each incomplete without aspects of the other," said Braxiatel. "What is the ability for violence without the urgings of ambition? What is ambition without regret? What is the masculine without the feminine?"
"You couldn't find a Macbeth, could you?" said Romana, knowingly. "Did you ask Andred? Or Valyes?"
"Do not question my artistic vision," intoned Braxiatel.
"Oh, I see. Your vision." Romana winked at him. "Your vision is remarkably similar to your last production."
"It's a thematic union," said Braxiatel. "Where's Narvin? Narvin! On stage, please."
"And you've just done Shakespeare," said Romana.
"Stoppard, not Shakespeare." Braxiatel glared at Narvin as he finally appeared. "You're late, Narvin."
"Am I?" Narvin appeared unconcerned. "Not that you'll listen, but I would like to protest my involuntary casting in this play. I'm a busy man, and I don't have time for frivolity."
"Macbeth has an enormous cast," said Braxiatel. "I'm afraid I need every halfway competent actor."
"Oh, thank you," said Romana. "Such high praise."
"Then I protest being cast as Banquo," said Narvin. "I've seen what Kay plans to do for the ghost make-up, and I don't like it. He'll have me covered in talcum powder and grease paint."
"Good for your skin," said Romana. Narvin glared at her. Braxiatel sighed.
"Could we just get on with it?" he asked. "Romana, start with 'so fair and foul-'"
"I do have the script here." Romana fluttered the pages at him. "I continue to be literate. Where are the witches? We can't start without the witches."
Braxiatel rubbed his forehead. "The seniors are at a bocce tournament, apparently. You'll have to imagine the witches."
"You cast Tacken and Marissa and-" Romana hesitated, apparently unable to recall another senior's name, but she soldiered on- "as witches? That's a bit insensitive, isn't it? Ageist?"
"They volunteered," said Braxiatel. "Marissa's planning to help Kay make the armed head and the bloody child out of paper mache and pig's blood."
Narvin made a face. "Wouldn't fake blood be less... disgusting?"
"That's what I said." Braxiatel shrugged. "But Marissa's son is a butcher, and Kay thinks it would be nice to have a real stench-"
"I'm sure the Arts Council will be so pleased," said Romana. "All right, Brax. 'So foul and fair a day I have not seen...'"
Kay had outdone himself with this production. A few curtains and oddly-shaped blocks transformed into the hewn walls of a castle. The costuming was traditional and historically accurate - to early-17th century London, mind, not 11th century Scotland. The seniors looked vicious and mysterious in the shapeless black robes of witches, and Leela as Macduff seemed even more threatening and implacable than normal in silver armor with gold filigree that Kay apparently made out of tinfoil. Narvin was positively transparent in his Banquo make-up, and his acting was much improved by the fact that he shared only one scene with Leela. Matthias might take someone's eye out with his codpiece, if he wasn't careful, but he certainly looked every inch a king as Duncan up until Romana stabbed him with the stage dagger and he collapsed to the floor.
Romana. Braxiatel had to be careful not to look at her for too long. Kay had given her a man's hose and breeches under a cut-away dress that left a red-and-gold train behind her that looked stunning, if only it wouldn't keep getting caught on the prop blocks. Her sleeves billowed out around her biceps and forearms until tucking abruptly around her wrists, and her wide ruff made Braxiatel's own neck feel uncomfortably bare and vulnerable. It was unfairly attractive, and Braxiatel wasn't sure who to complain to. He had cast Romana, he had approved Kay's costume concept designs. Braxiatel simply hadn't realized what the result would be.
"My hands are of your color," said Romana, "but I shame- Brax, why are you looking at me like that?"
"Hm?" Braxiatel raised an eyebrow. "You're the only one in the scene, Romana. Who else should I look at? Is your bodice comfortable?"
"Perfectly." Romana ran her hands down the restricted, curving lines of her chest and waist, and Braxiatel tried very hard not to change his expression. "Are you worried about the play? I'm sure it will be a success."
"I know it will be," said Braxiatel, forgetting his pessimism for once in his life in favor of Romana's confidence. And it was a success, once rehearsals were over and the curtain went up. Romana sent every piece of publicity to her contacts on the Arts Council, highlighting the way Braxiatel's plays challenged traditional performance and involved community members ranging from retirees to office workers to politicians. Romana bowed with the other actors to the applause of whatever Gallifreyans could be dragged to the theatre, and hauled Braxiatel out of the wings to bow alongside.
Braxiatel smiled graciously when Kay, in charge of the lighting booth as he was in charge of everything technical, shined the spotlight on Braxiatel himself, Romana still clasping his hand after pulling Braxiatel out onto stage. The cheers of the audience were mostly for Romana, surely, but Braxiatel was briefly content to share her spotlight. He couldn't be bothered to feign dissatisfaction when he had a happy audience and Romana- that is, the cast at his side.
"One more play before the year is over," said Romana, whispering it in Braxiatel's ear. "Something fun. We've had too many dramas and tragedies, I think."
"The Imaginary Invalid can be considered a comedy," said Braxiatel.
"Not the way you staged it," said Romana, which was true. Braxiatel didn't quite have the mindset for comedies.
"I'll think about it," said Braxiatel, and Romana looked surprised, probably because he hadn't refused outright. That made acquiescence worth it, the widening of her eyes and the quirk of her lips. Braxiatel would like to surprise Romana more often, though he doubted he could manage it.
The Monan Host was looking for a new assistant director for their theatre in Berlin, and had sent around an email to likely candidates. Braxiatel was flattered to be included on this select list - he had rather thought that the theatre scene had forgotten about him.
He marked the email as important, then closed the browser. He would send an application tomorrow. Or next week. Soon. There was no rush.
He had a play to deal with, first.
"So," said Narvin, leaning back in his chair. "It seems that Braxiatel is here to stay."
Romana shuffled the papers on her desk. "Why are we talking about Brax? I thought we were meeting to discuss the security alarms on the town hall, you know, the ones that have been malfunctioning all week?"
"Power supply problem." Narvin waved a hand. "Taken care of. Are you planning to make Braxiatel an honest man?"
Romana felt her jaw drop, and she quickly tightened it again. "Are you trying to insinuate-"
"I've suspected something for weeks," said Narvin. "But it wasn't until Macbeth that I knew that you were... involved."
"We are not involved," hissed Romana. "And I am not interested in making anyone honest."
Narvin raised his eyebrows, and got up. "My mistake. But if you're interested, you could have Braxiatel for a song, I think. Some kind of German aria, if I know his tastes."
"Thank you for your time," said Romana, coldly. "I shall put your check in the mail directly."
Narvin shrugged and walked out. Romana fumed. She was not interested in Brax. She was not, she was not, she was-
Well. She might be. But she didn't appreciate Narvin bringing it up.
Braxiatel suggested Ernest because Wilde was the only comic playwright he could really stand. He didn't think about how he was going to cast the thing until he was stuck actually casting.
"Gallifrey is full of melodramatic professionals," explained Braxiatel, over tea with Romana at the local bakery. "This is perfect for dramas, but terrible for comedies."
"I'd think it would be perfect for comedies," said Romana, because she was never any help. "Melodrama is so ridiculous."
Braxiatel pressed his lips together and very carefully did not say anything about certain people's melodramatic tendencies. "The problem," he said instead, "isn't making the audience laugh. It's what will happen if Darkel or Narvin or Leela realize that the audience is laughing at them."
Romana considered this. The considering went on for quite a while. It involved absent hand gestures and quiet sound effects as Romana preemptively reenacted the carnage.
"Well, can't be helped," said Romana, when she was finished.
"We could call it off," suggested Braxiatel, without much hope.
"I've already invited a representative from the Arts Council," said Romana. "I'm hoping we can get the community theatre funded separately from the municipal budget and free up money for a public swimming pool. The play is happening."
"You realize that there's supposed to be an application," said Braxiatel. "There's a paper form on the Arts Council website, and essays to write, and you're not supposed to leapfrog the system by asking them to come to a play that is bound to be terrible."
Romana shrugged and sipped her tea. "What cast have you got?"
"Narvin as Algernon, Leela as Cecily - which I already know is a mistake, by the way, they've argued their way through every rehearsal and we haven't even done a kissing scene yet-"
"I'm sure it will be fine," said Romana, with completely unfounded optimism. "And?"
Braxiatel counted on his fingers. "Darkel as Gwendolen, my mother as Lady Bracknell-"
"I didn't know your mother was still ali-" Romana hesitated, and then continued, smoothly, "-still living in the area."
"My mother is in fine health and keeps a farm house just outside of the village," said Braxiatel. "She's agreed to leave her chickens long enough to appear in the play, though she hasn't committed to actually attending rehearsal as of yet. Seniors in the minor roles. I haven't got a Jack, that's the main difficulty."
"Call your brother," suggested Romana, dabbing at her lips with a napkin. Was she wearing lipstick, or were lips naturally that shade of blushing red? Braxiatel couldn't tell.
"Call my brother," said Braxiatel, unable to keep his disbelief out of his voice. "The professional actor. Simply call him up and ask him to play Jack."
"He acted in Imaginary Invalid," said Romana.
"Because he had a court order," said Braxiatel. "I am not calling my brother. I'll get Andred to do it."
"Whatever you like," said Romana, and patted Braxiatel's hand. Braxiatel absolutely did not go warm at her touch.
Andred said no. When pressed for a reason behind this abandonment in Braxiatel's hour of need, Andred claimed that he was planning to sit in the front row and record the whole thing on his phone because he thought Leela and Narvin might actually have sex and/or a fistfight on stage this time. Braxiatel considered this possibility. In rehearsals, Leela had slapped Narvin four times, Narvin had purposefully trod on Leela's foot three times, and there had been strange rhythmic thumping noises coming from backstage at least twice. Some form of violent or obscene display did seem worryingly likely.
"No recordings or photographs," said Braxiatel. "It distracts the actors. And might be used as evidence in a court of law."
"You can't ban recordings." Andred tipped his chin up and smiled. "I can get a covert surveillance kit from work, if it comes to that. And you know Marissa's grandchildren will want to document her every move as 'tall tree' or whatever you've got her playing this time. They would riot if you told them no."
"Marissa is playing Miss Prism," said Braxiatel, and shook his head. "You are a strange husband."
Andred shrugged, unwilling to be baited. Braxiatel sighed, and called his brother the very next day.
"Brax!" cried Theta. Braxiatel winced away from his phone. "I'd been meaning to call you! I've done you a tremendous favor."
"Oh," said Braxiatel, and maybe this wouldn't be as difficult as he'd feared. "Did Romana speak with you? Do you have time to come down for the play?"
"What?" Theta laughed in earnest confusion. "No, Brax, I talked to the Monan Host yesterday. They need a new assistant director, did you hear? Well, your name came up and I said that you were an absolutely amazing director and that I couldn't be biased since I was only your brother. They want you to apply, and I think you'll get the job if you do."
There was a pause. Braxiatel could hear Theta's breathing over the phone, imagine his puppy-ish smile.
"You remember," said Theta, when the awkwardness permeated even his own disregard for social niceties. "You were complaining about your community theatre position."
"Yes," said Braxiatel. "That is something that occasionally occurs."
"And you said you might move to Germany."
"And," said Theta, with the air of someone putting the last piece into a jigsaw puzzle, "you are a little wasted in Gallifrey, Brax. It's such a dull place."
"It has its moments," said Braxiatel, thinking of a warm hand on his own. Which was foolish, because incidental physical contact was not the sort of thing one scuttled one's career for. "I'll think about it, Theta. Now about this play-"
He explained, and Theta considerately refrained from laughing at him. But refused, nevertheless.
"I'll come and see it on opening," he said. "When's the date? I'll bring Gemma and Samson with me."
"Oh, yes?" Braxiatel could never keep track of Theta's friend-crushes, but he was sure Gemma and Samson were new. "What happened to Fitz and Anji?"
"Anji doesn't have time for me now that she's adopted a precognitive child," complained Theta. "And Fitz hasn't been the same since he joined a cult and left me with this chatbot programmed with his memories and speech patterns."
"I see," said Braxiatel. Actors.
In any case, Theta appeared to be busy with a new production of Butley and was understandably unable to commit to another play, especially an amateur community theatre production in his hometown. Plan B, then.
When Romana came to check on rehearsals, she was somewhat astonished at what she found. Leela and Narvin were standing on either end of the stage, glaring at each other - well, this was not particularly surprising. But Kay was also on stage, and Braxiatel-
"I am always smart!" exclaimed Brax, in a much higher pitch than normal. "Am I not, Mr Worthing?"
"You're quite perfect," said Kay, mechanically. "Master Fairfax."
"Miss Fairfax," corrected Brax, absently. "Oh! I hope-"
"What exactly is going on here?" asked Romana.
The four actors - or, at least, the four thespians - looked down at her from the stage. Then Brax coughed, delicately.
"Casting difficulties," he intoned. "How may I help, Council Leader?"
"What casting difficulties?" asked Romana.
"Darkel has left us," said Leela. "She said that this was a fu-" Leela stopped and frowned. "I do not like to use such words."
"To paraphrase," said Narvin, "the mighty Lady Darkel finds that comic plays are a waste of her talent for deception and her sinister aura. Also she's upset that she was passed over for Lord/Lady Macbeth last month."
"I see." Romana smirked. "So you're playing Gwendolen Fairfax, Brax?"
"Only for this rehearsal." Brax curtsied, which he was surprisingly good at for a man without a dress. "That is my fondest hope, at any rate."
"Well." Romana hauled herself up onto the stage, somewhat awkwardly - she always thought it would be easier to pull herself up than walk over to take the stairs, and she was always wrong. "I can't leave you in need, can I? Kay, off stage."
Kay handed over his script, contriving to look relieved without actually changing his expression. Brax raised an eyebrow.
"You're taking on the role of Jack? I hardly see how that helps."
"No, don't be ridiculous." Romana plucked Brax's script out of his grasp and passed him Kay's script. "You would be a terrible Gwendolen, especially with that falsetto. I shall be Gwendolen, and you shall be Jack."
"Shall I?" Brax raised his other eyebrow, and then looked down at the script. "I suppose I shall. As the Council Leader commands. Kay, alter Gwendolen's dress for Romana, if you would."
"Affirmative," said Kay, rolling out a little sewing machine on a wheeled desk. "Mistress Romana, have your measurements changed since last month?"
"I should hope not," said Romana. She caught Brax looking at her waist appraisingly, and smacked him with her script. Oh, she was blushing. Perhaps no one had noticed. Leela's knowing smile and Narvin's smirk probably had nothing to do with her.
"Right," said Brax. "From Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen's entrance. Romana, please pretend that my mother deigned to forgo pruning the orchard and attend rehearsal. Leela is reading her lines."
"Good afternoon, dear Algernon," said Leela, just barely audible over the whir of Kay's sewing machine. "I hope you are behaving very well."
"I'm feeling very well, Aunt Augusta," said Narvin. Romana thought that Algernon should sound blithe and happy, but in fact Narvin sounded rather sarcastic.
"That is not quite the same thing," said Leela. She sounded exasperated and rather threatening, which also seemed a little - perhaps innovative was a better word than strange.
"What's the gimmick?" Romana asked Braxiatel, under her breath. "Everyone's clothing is on upside-down? The whole play takes place in Jack's imagination?"
"Romana," said Braxiatel. "This cast itself is a 'gimmick,' as you put it. Anything more would be over the top."
Narvin was tapping his foot, and Romana looked up at him, then down at her script. Her line, apparently.
"Dear me," Narvin said, probably for the second time. "You are smart."
"I am always smart!" said Romana, with a wide grin that gratifyingly made Narvin flinch a little. "Am I not, Mr. Worthing?" she raised her eyebrows and turned to Brax.
"You're quite perfect, Miss Fairfax." She'd never heard Brax sound so sincere.
The magic of theatre.
"You are attracted to him," said Leela, in the pub after rehearsal.
"I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about," said Romana.
"Of course you have an idea," exclaimed Leela. "Braxiatel."
"Ah," said Romana. "Yes." She gulped at her drink, which was actually a bad idea since the local cider was rather stronger than might be expected of a juice drink. She coughed a bit of it up her nose, then tried to pretend nothing had happened while rubbing frantically at her face with a napkin.
"You should talk to him," said Leela. "It is wise to talk about such things."
"Oh yes?" sniffed Romana. "How much have you talked to Narvin?"
"Very little." Leela smiled widely, showing most of her teeth, and made an extremely suggestive gesture.
"You're an excellent source of advice, aren't you," said Romana. "You should write a column."
"I have tried," said Leela, and sighed. "Andred said that I was too honest for journalism."
"You're too honest for most things," muttered Romana. "Do me a favor and don't tell Narvin about this, will you?"
"Do not worry," said Leela. "I have said, I tell Narvin nothing. I only-"
"Yes, yes." Romana put a hand over her eyes. "I saw the gesture the first time."
Braxiatel hesitated for a long time before adding Romana as a reference to his application to the Monan Host. Technically, he supposed, you should ask a person before making them your reference. But- no. Add her to the CV but don't actually ask for permission, that was the easiest way.
Braxiatel checked his cover letter again and then sent the whole lot to the Monan Host before shutting down his computer and pretending that he hadn't done anything at all.
If this were a real acting company, thought Braxiatel, they would either have more or fewer rehearsals. He'd seen it done both ways. Scant, hurried read-throughs turning immediately to full dress rehearsals, trying to make up for lack of planning and time with passion and professionalism. Or long months of rehearsals, slowly building up from table reads to acting with minimal props to actually staging the play with everything but an audience.
The three and a half weeks of rehearsals that the Gallifreyan community theatre afforded screamed amateurishness. Braxiatel directed from the stage, correcting his own tone and gestures with the same meticulousness with which he corrected everyone else's. There was rarely a full stage - someone always had a dentist appointment, an extra load of work, a burning need to weed the garden (really, mother?). Kay kept handing people props or pieces of clothing, only to whisk them away five minutes later to alter them again.
Braxiatel found that he was enjoying himself.
"Algy," said Leela, turning to Narvin in a gown that was still more pins than seams, three weeks before opening. "Could you wait for me till I was thirty-five?"
"Of course I could, Cecily," said Narvin, two weeks before opening and wearing an awful fake flower that Braxiatel would not keep after today, "you know I could."
"Yes," said Leela, thoughtfully. "I felt it instinctively, but I could not wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It always makes me rather cross. I am not punctual myself, I know, but I-" and it was a week and a half before opening and Braxiatel had to stop Leela because she sounded much too threatening for a supposedly sweet eighteen-year-old.
"Gwendolen," said Braxiatel, when rehearsals resumed the next week, "it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?"
"I can," said Romana, sardonically. She said her every line sardonically, and it was perfect. "For I feel that you are sure to change."
They exchanged glances, and Romana's costume was finished and flattering, and Narvin and Leela were getting better at tolerating each other and Kay had finally figured out the best place to aim the spotlight without getting it in the actors' eyes.
"My own one," said Braxiatel, embarrassed as usual to be so honest. It was a very good character moment, if he did say so himself.
Everyone embraced, and Leela, surprised and with worrying reflexes, accidentally elbowed Narvin in the face. The audience - there was an audience now, for opening night - sighed or yelped, depending on which couple they were watching.
"My nephew," said Braxiatel's mother, word-perfect for all that she had missed practically every rehearsal, "you seem to be displaying signs of triviality."
"On the contrary, Aunt Augusta," said Braxiatel. "I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest."
There was a pause, and then the audience roared into life, applauding as they rose to their feet. Braxiatel beamed at them as the curtain fell. It rose again, to allow for a bow, then fell with satisfying finality.
"That went surprisingly well," said Romana, taking off her delicate white gloves. "I think the Arts Council representative liked it, don't you?"
"I hope so," said Braxiatel. "But, Romana, I have to tell you something."
"Really?" Romana raised an eyebrow. "You've finally gathered the courage?"
"I know you'll probably be angry," began Braxiatel, "but-"
"Whyever would I be angry?" asked Romana. "I think it's a very logical step forward."
Braxiatel paused, surprised, but tried his best to recover. "I'm very glad to hear you say that. I know how much you care for Gallifrey, and I don't want to detract from that."
Now Romana was surprised. "I don't see how us dating would do anything to Gallifrey. I think you're being overdramatic as usual."
Braxiatel made a noise. It was not a dignified noise, so he tried to cover it by smoothing his moustache. When he recovered, he said "I think we're talking at cross-purposes."
"Ah." Romana leaned in and looked very closely at Braxiatel's eyes, as if she were trying to see inside of his head. "You don't want to date after all."
"No! I mean, I-" Braxiatel smoothed his moustache again, but he could tell that the gesture was beginning to look less casual and more like a nervous tic. "I've obtained employment. I think I might be leaving Gallifrey soon."
"Yes, so I'd gathered," said Romana. "That was one of the Monan Host in the audience, wasn't it? Is it really necessary to wear blue body paint everywhere? Also, they called me for a reference last week."
"Ah," said Braxiatel, tensing. "I meant to ask-"
"No, you didn't." Romana crossed her arms and smiled at him, joining closed and open body language in a curiously inviting way. "Don't worry, I gave you a glowing recommendation once I got over the surprise."
Braxiatel relaxed a little. "Whatever happens, I just wanted you to know that," he hesitated. "I have truly enjoyed my time with the Gallifreyan amateur community theatre. And you are a large part of that."
"Thank you." Romana smiled wider. "I have enjoyed my time with the theatre also, Brax, and you are a large part of that."
Brax started to smile back, but then there was a crash from behind him and his burgeoning smile melted.
"Certainly Narvin and Leela didn't contribute to my enjoyment," said Romana. "They've just knocked over the tea things, by the way."
"At least they waited until the curtain closed," said Braxiatel. "I'm actually rather impressed. I think we should go out to dinner."
"With Leela and Narvin?" Romana laughed. "The way they're acting, we'd get thrown out of any restaurant in Gallifrey."
"No," clarified Braxiatel. "Just the two of us."
Romana raised her eyebrows. "So you would like to date after all, sir director?"
"I-" Braxiatel tried very hard not to fidget. "We were just discussing our mutual enjoyment of each other, Romana, and before that you seemed to be implying something about dating. I merely thought that perhaps-"
"Oh, I adore you," said Romana, her voice confident but her cheeks a little pink. "But you haven't asked me on a date."
Braxiatel opened his mouth, closed it, and realized that the strange feeling in his stomach was a mix of fondness and deja vu. "That's a line from the play."
"Yes," said Romana. "Oscar Wilde, poet of modern relationships. If it helps, I am fully determined to go on a date with you, if you would simply ask."
Braxiatel took her hand. "Romana. Would you-"
The curtain rose again, at the precise and previously-agreed-upon time which would allow the actors to greet and mingle with their audience. Braxiatel knew it was the precise time, because Kay was in control of the curtains and he would never have deviated by a microsecond.
Unfortunately, someone with a little more tact and a little less precision might have given the actors another moment.
When the curtain rose, Braxiatel's mother, Marissa, Tacken, Valyes and company were all still arrayed at the front, ready to great their public. Meanwhile, Narvin and Leela were arguing about how much violence was really necessary during the execution of a comic romance, while demonstrating a more realistic level of violence in romance by trying to throttle one another. And Braxiatel was holding Romana's hand.
"Wonderful." Theta bounded onto the stage, trailed by a young woman in a retro-Edwardian gown. "Brax, it was wonderful. Romana, you were magnificent. Have you met my friend Charley? Also - amazing, just amazing."
Braxiatel nonchalantly let go of Romana's hand in order to shake Charley's. "A pleasure to meet you," he said. "Theta, I thought you were bringing Gemma and Samson."
Theta looked blank. "I don't- Did I say that? I don't recall anyone by that name. By the way, Brax you might have warned me about your casting. Charley, do you think you could-"
Theta sidled around Charley, attempting to use her as a shield, but it was already too late.
"Aha," said Braxiatel's (and incidentally, Theta's) mother. "How good of you to visit, Theta. Can't make it to Christmas, but you can make it to Irving's play, I see."
"I wanted to see your debut, Mother!" Theta stood up straight and beamed at his mother, while still contriving to keep Charley between them. "I did mean to tell you that I would be attending, but-"
"This is your mother?" asked Charley, eyes wide. "Gosh."
Theta's mother peered at her. "Hello, young lady. No need to look so surprised."
"Sorry, hello." Charley smiled. "I just thought the Doctor was created rather than born, I suppose."
"Oh, he was born." Theta's mother sniffed. "Ten hours in labor and three doctors, it was five in the morning before we even saw a head-"
"Mother, please," said Theta and Braxiatel simultaneously, both mortified for entirely different reasons.
"I have pictures," said Theta's mother. "Not of the birth, Irving, don't look so disgusted, just of baby Theta. Would you like to see, my dear?"
"Would I," said Charley, which was Theta's cue to try and jump in between Charley and his mother instead, but it was much too late. The two women walked off, trailed by Theta and ignoring his attempts to separate them.
"So," said Braxiatel. "Romana, would you-"
"Braxiatel," said Narvin. He had a black eye and finger-bruises on his neck, and his lips were suspiciously puffy. "Leela and I are going to- we are going. We may be gone for most of the weekend. Would you contact the police if I am still absent on Monday?"
Leela was hovering behind his shoulder, with matching bruises and a wicked grin. Braxiatel closed his eyes.
"Do I need to be the contact person for this?" he asked. "Wouldn't Andred be a better choice?"
"Andred will be joining us," said Leela. "He wants to play with his new video camera."
"I haven't agreed to that yet," muttered Narvin.
"We will talk about it more later," said Leela. "It was a good play, Brax."
Brax listened to them move away, and then whispered "is it safe to open my eyes?"
"Yes, they're gone," said Romana. "What were you saying again?"
Brax opened his eyes in order to gaze into Romana's. "Would you be free toni-"
"Beautiful work!" said the representative from the Arts Council, stepping on stage.
"Ingenious!" said the representative from the Monan Host, climbing the stairs behind her.
"Thank you," said Braxiatel, but the representatives had turned and were looking at each other.
"Is that blue body paint?" asked the representative from the Arts Council. "It's gorgeous."
"It symbolizes the grief and imagination inherent in existence," said the Monan. "Is that Chagall's Wedding Candles on your dress?"
"It also symbolizes the grief and imagination inherent in existence!" exclaimed the representative from the Arts Council. "How funny!"
"Yes," said Romana. "Let's go to dinner."
"Excellent," said Braxiatel, feeling a little light-headed. "Excellent."
"Is it over?" asked a small child, still sitting in the front row. Braxiatel faintly recognized it as one of Marissa's many grandchildren.
"No," Braxiatel made a sweeping gesture with one arm. "My child, it is only beginning."
The child frowned.
"The play is over," clarified Romana. "You can go home whenever you like. Brax was being effusive."
The child's face made it very clear that it didn't understand what effusive meant, what was going on, and why it should care. After a moment, it shoved itself out of the chair and made a break for it.
In a perfect world, Braxiatel might have joined the escape, Romana's hand still clasped in his.
But in the present, imperfect world, he had to talk about his play for at least an hour with two of the currently most influential people in his career.
"I loved the violent passion in Cecily and Algernon's relationship," said the Arts Council representative. "What led you to that interpretation?"
"Playing to the strengths of my actors." Braxiatel pasted on a smile. "It's one of the most important parts of amateur theatre - a willingness to adapt to the people who are available."
"Fascinating," said the Monan. "I will be interested to see what you can do with trained actors."
"I am sure he will work wonders," said Romana, then turned to the Arts Council representative. "Braxiatel is currently considering an offer from the Host's theatre in Berlin. That's why this Arts Council grant is so important - it will allow us to continue with our high level of performance even after we lose our star director."
"We haven't technically made an offer," corrected the Monan. Romana glared at him. "But we will!" said the Monan, hurriedly. "I am sure we will."
"And I will, of course, give your terms full consideration," said Braxiatel. "It will have to be a very attractive package to pull me away from the arms of my Gallifrey."
"Such dedication," murmured the Arts Council representative.
"Such fervor," sighed the Monan.
"Such a ham," said Romana, into Braxiatel's ear. "We should go to dinner now."
"It's four in the afternoon," said Braxiatel under his breath. "But, yes. Let's."
They had to invite the representatives along, which didn't make for the most romantic dinner in all of time and space. But then the representatives got drunk on surprisingly alcoholic cider, and started giggling and playing with the Monan's body paint at the bar. This left Romana and Braxiatel to their own devices.
"I shall miss you while you're in Germany," said Romana.
"I can call," pointed out Braxiatel. "And write, and visit. It's not as if I'm falling into an endless void."
"What does the cider symbolize?" asked the Arts Council representative, much too loudly.
The Monan picked up his glass and swirled the dregs. "This cider symbolizes the futility of mankind's attempts to drown out the existential reality of their lives and deaths in senseless hedonism. This cider symbolizes the souring of spring and youth as apples become alcohol. This cider symbolizes the sweet intoxicating feeling of falling in love. I need another cider."
"That was quite good," said the Arts Council representative, and held up two fingers. "Excuse me! Service!"
"I think we should kiss now," said Romana. "That seems appropriate."
"Not here," said Braxiatel, glancing nervously at the drunken representatives, the old men who had known him since he was a boy, and the glass-eyed fish hanging above the mantle. "Perhaps later? In private?"
"Oh, very well." Romana leaned back in her chair and smiled at him. "If it offends your delicate sensibilities."
"That's not what I meant," began Braxiatel, and then he realized that he didn't exactly know what he meant. He squeezed Romana's hand, then lifted it and kissed her knuckles. This felt appropriate, if somewhat ridiculous.
"All's well that ends well," said Romana, smirking at him. "Your moustache tickles."
"For once, the Bard is not perfectly apt," said Braxiatel. "Let us say - all is well for now. Let us hope that it continues well."
"It won't," said Romana, matter-of-factly. "But in the meantime, do your hand-kissing thing again."
Braxiatel did. In the background, the Monan fell off his stool and dragged the Arts Council down with him.