Never Too Late

by lurking_latinist [Reviews - 0]

Printer
  • Teen
  • None
  • Alternate Universe, Drama, Het, Romance

Author's Notes:
Originally published November 8, 2021, on AO3.

This version of Romana is the one heard in the alternate universe of the audio "Reborn," and this version of the Doctor is the one that I imagine might live in that universe.

The pile of datacubes on Romana's desk kept growing. Her new robes didn't fit quite right, and she kept losing her balance in her new body. She hadn't gotten enough sleep in the week since that extraordinarily awful day that had culminated in her regeneration, and now her secretary—an exhausting person who had dedicated many lives to achieving this exact position—was monologuing at her, again.

Everyone seemed to think that, just because she had no background in politics, they could do what they liked with her. But while the lies told to the President of Gallifrey might be bigger than those told to the mistress of Heartshaven, they weren't actually any more convincing, and she'd yet to meet the Councillor that could be as manipulative as Antonin in his adolescence.

She'd had enough, she decided. Enough for the moment. If the position she'd barely even chosen—just accepted in a post-regenerative haze—didn't allow her to take so much as a break, what exactly was the point of being the most powerful person on the planet?

“I'm going out,” she snapped, interrupting.

“Madam President!” quavered her secretary.

She stood up, one hand on the edge of her desk as she found her balance. She wasn't even sure where she was going—she hadn't had the opportunity to see much of the Capitol—but she swept out of the room, helping herself to a safely anonymous cloak from a peg, as confidently as if she were following an established plan. The issue of a vanishing President must have been far outside her secretary's range of experience, because no bodyguards appeared at her side, no protesting functionaries stepped into her way.

She ended up outside the Capitol itself, in the three-dimensional maze of streets and aerial walkways that pressed up close to its walls, as if physically drawn to the proximity of power. Perhaps they were—that was what drew people to live there, after all.

She found herself on a walkway, a few storeys above a major street. As she stared downwards, watching the flood of hurrying people, the sensation of escape slipped away from her. The weight of her responsibility settled on her shoulders—her new, narrow, unready shoulders—in a way she'd scarcely had time to feel since the moment she'd been swept into the job. Every one of these people's lives could be affected by the things she did, she reflected. Or the things she didn't do. If she could only get the time to work out what she could do....


In the midst of her troubled meditations, Romana was startled to realize that someone had suddenly appeared next to her. She briefly wondered if she should feel threatened, alone save for the crowds far below, but although he was a big man, he looked indefinably beaten-down, and he was staring over the edge of the balcony in a dejected attitude that mirrored her own. He was not an attacker but a fellow sufferer from—whatever it was. Ennui? Or perhaps something rather more basic, she thought, running a practised eye over his worn clothes and tired face.

As she watched from the corner of her eye, he adjusted his stance so suddenly that for a moment she thought he was about to throw himself over the edge. She couldn't stop herself from gasping.

“I'm not going to jump,” he told her, with a surprisingly sweet, wry smile. “I'd only come back wrong and be sick as a dog for a week, anyway.” She was surprised at being addressed so suddenly, and it must have shown on her face, because he added, rather bitterly, “Oh, yes, I've still got regenerations. I may be a ne'er-do-well—the fact has been mentioned occasionally—but there are limits.”

She winced at the dig, and then realized he couldn't have known, and swallowed the beginnings of yet another fit of tears. They were exhausting her by now, and she kept swearing she was ready to move on with life, and then not doing it. She confused herself.

“Here to watch the people?” she said, to fill the silence.

“Suppose so,” he said. “You?”

“I'm just trying to think,” she said. “I've had a long day. I've had a long week.” She laughed, a little hysterically. “Nothing ever happened to me until, well...”

He looked mildly, politely interested. She realized that he had absolutely no idea who she was. Perhaps he didn't watch the news. She felt indefinably relieved.

“It's a good place to think,” he said, and returned to blank staring.

“Want to talk about it?” she offered in a soft voice.

“What's the use?” he said. “If you can come up with an intellectual solution to 'can't make the rent, evicted this morning,' do let me know.”

She made a sympathetic face. “Must be awkward for you—going back to the House.”

“I'm not going back,” he said shortly. “I was disowned several centuries ago.”

She supposed she must be looking startled and indignant—an expression which she was learning came very easily to this face—or else he just needed to tell someone his life story, because he gave her the abbreviated version. “Scraped through exams—stole a TARDIS—got caught—done time—now I live what's romantically called 'by my wits.'” He laughed bitterly. “Which ought to mean I do anything I can get away with, but I also have the misfortune to be afflicted with standards.”

“Although a convicted thief,” she said before she thought. She was startled and flustered and awkward and, most of all, confused as to why she still didn't feel threatened.

Fortunately, he was serenely uninsulted. “Not legal standards,” he said, “moral and ethical and, well, personal.” She didn't take him up on his exclusion of theft from the realm of morality, and he carried on: “I'd do it again if I had the chance, but you don't get a stroke of luck like that twice in your lives.”

“You really saw the universe?” she asked curiously.

“Bits of it.”

“What was it like?”

“Different every minute,” he breathed, staring into space.

After a pause, she asked: “Why not buy a TARDIS?” He laughed mirthlessly, waving a hand at his shabby clothes and single bag of possessions. “No, I know,” she said, “but surely if you saved a little bit each week...”

“That might work for you,” he said (and she thought of the constant gnawing of unexpected expenses), “but even supposing I had a little bit over each week—and managed not to spend it—almost the last thing my brother ever said to me is that he thought I was born with a hole in my pocket...” He recovered his syntax. “You're assuming I'd be employed for more than about a week. Do you know what work is available to a Time Lord with no House behind him? Practically none,” he said, “you can't do what you studied for, you haven't the training to be a technician, and I can't hold down a job in any case, I work odd jobs because sometimes they end before I lose my temper or miss a day and they can sack me.”

“But if...”

“If, if, if!” he snapped. “If the Nine Worlds aligned and the Pythia herself appeared from thin air to give me a magical purse of infinite wealth...” He sighed and his mood seemed to change—”I'm sure I'd find a way to send it all to perdition.”

Expensive tastes, she thought; he had something of the air of a gambler, something of the air of certain quondam clients who bought wine with worrying intensity, although not quite like either. But she restrained herself from making a censorious remark and instead said vaguely, “There's always something.”

He nodded gloomily.

“I've been trying to hold a House together for years, myself,” she added, somewhat against her own better judgment, “and I've finally realized it's hopeless.”

“Oh?”

“And I always wanted to travel, always swore I would if I could, and now I've gone and got myself saddled with... with another job.”

“Chuck it over,” he advised.

“It's not that simple. There are people depending on me.”

“And that's why I can't regret my choices,” he observed parenthetically. “Let everyone down all at once, then let 'em say what they like, you can wash your hands of them.”

At that worst possible moment, her communicator binged with one of those Maximum Priority calls she couldn't block. “In fact, I have to take this,” she said to him hastily, turning to leave. Then, scarcely letting herself think, she said over her shoulder, “Meet me here tonight? I'll buy dinner,” and named a time.

“I wasn't begging,” he said stiffly. “It's not the first time this has happened; I'll be fine.”

“If you were begging I'd have given you money. I want to talk to you and I'm booked outside of dinner,” she said. “Turn up or don't.”

And she walked away, in rather a hurry. On top of everything, she'd just had an idea about publicly funded vocational training. It would be unlikely to help her new friend, who seemed almost to take pride in his irregular way of life (a desire to prove somehow that he still belonged among the Time Lords, she thought, by refusing to conform to any other class's norms of behavior either), but she really did think it might do some good.


She wasn't sure if he would even turn up. She'd let herself back into her office and spent the day frantically dictating policy documents and clearing her schedule for dinner—officially this time. Then she changed into something classy but unofficial and slipped away to keep her appointment, only to find herself waiting on the bridge alone. She'd almost convinced herself that she was really looking forward to having the dinner hour to herself, when she saw her new friend's curly blond head bobbing in the distance.

“I am so sorry,” he said when he reached her, pink-cheeked from hurrying.

She dismissed his apologies and swept him off to dinner, enjoying the sensation of being able to offer glamor and luxury. There were advantages to being President, even when you were incognito, she thought, and had to suppress a laugh.

She ordered wine with their meal—something not conspicuously expensive, but nice—and was amused to note that her new friend drank very little, but loosened up out of all proportion, as if just the atmosphere was releasing some colorful character from inside him. He was leaning in, one elbow on the table, waving the other hand as he told her some kind of tall story.

“What's your name?” she said suddenly.

He did a double-take, as if he hadn't expected her to ask that. “They call me the Doctor,” he said.

She raised one eyebrow.

“Honestly,” he said, flushing red.

Oh, she thought. Disowned. Of course. Still, rather an unconventional nom de guerre.

“What's yours?” he added. “Silly of me not to have asked sooner.”

“No, no,” she said, desperately thinking what to answer. She'd grown unexpectedly fond of the freedom of talking to someone who had absolutely no idea who she was—like everyone had until so recently. So she told him, “Astra. Lady Astra of Heartshaven,” and was pleased to see that he had no reason to disbelieve her.

When they finished their meal, lingering over the end of it, they walked back to the bridge together, arm in arm. He'd offered her his arm half-jokingly; she'd taken it and kept it.

“Goodnight, Lady Astra,” he said, eyes fixed on her face.

A complex guilt crept up her spine. “Will you be—all right?” she managed.

He smiled, a smile that would've been cocky in any other situation. “Yes. I've got friends,” he said reassuringly. He took a deep breath and suddenly strode away.

“And me,” she said under her breath.


When Romana arrived in her office the next morning—a few minutes early, hoping to catch up on some work—she was greeted by the unaccustomed sight of two of her guards arresting an intruder, while their captain stood by. She instantly recognized the figure, immobilized as he was in the guards’ grip with his arms twisted behind his back. It was her new friend, the Doctor as he’d said he was called, and a peculiar stab of disappointment and betrayal twisted in her chest.

“Good morning, ma’am,” said the guard-captain, presenting for her inspection an item which she saw was her own seal. “This fellow triggered the intruder alarm. Fortunately we were able to apprehend him before he could make his escape.”

The Doctor twisted in the guards’ grip, turning wild eyes on her. “I can explain—” he began, and she saw an expression of shock and confusion cross his face as he got a good look at her. It was as if he genuinely hadn’t expected her to be there.

A hasty plan formed in her mind as the guard-captain looked toward her expectantly. What she desperately wanted was an honest explanation from the Doctor—and not the rote confession she suspected she was likely to get in court. She pasted a wide smile on her face and turned to the guard-captain.

“Well done, troops,” she said brightly. “You’ve passed. I’ve employed this man to test all our security.” She could almost have laughed at the Doctor’s changing expression as he took in the news of his new retroactive occupation, then hastily rearranged his features into a smug grin. “You’re free to go; I’ll debrief him here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said the guard-captain slowly, as his troops released their prisoner and saluted. The captain handed her seal back to her. “May I request, however, that if you undertake a program like this again, you issue the tester with formal authorization?”

“Of course, how silly of me,” she said. “Thank you so much for helping me get used to how things are done.” She saw the guards out the door, then turned to the Doctor with a sharp glare.

“Rassilon’s purple bunny slippers,” he groaned. She actually giggled at his childish mock-swearing. “What can I say?” he went on.

“You could start by explaining what you’re doing here,” she said thinly.

“I’m really sorry. But you said you were called Lady Astra!”

She crossed her arms. “So you decided to break into my office, because I”—she suppressed the phrase lied to you—”used a pseudonym?”

“I honestly did not know that you were the President,” he said. “I can’t recognize faces and I don’t watch the news. I honestly believed you when you said you were a widowed civil servant called Astra.”

“Well, I’m a widowed civil servant called Romana,” she said.

“If I’d known it was your office, I would of course have left it alone.”

She laughed, slightly, desperately. “You only burgle Presidents you don’t know?”

“Well, I did tell you I had standards.”

Romana composed herself, motioning the Doctor to a chair and sitting down behind her own desk. She held out the seal in one hand. “But why?” she said. “I mean, what for?”

“I told you what I am,” he said, a bit sullenly. A tiny piece of her missed his smile.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “What were you possibly going to do with it? You’d never sell it.”

“You could, off-planet,” he said. “If you knew the right fence. Which I don’t.”

“Oh?”

“Or,” he pursued, “how do you know I was after your seal? Perhaps I was actually interested in—this very fine statuette.”

“That’s my voice recorder.”

“Voice recorder,” he amended. “Think of all the valuable state secrets that could be in there.”

“They aren’t,” she said. “It’s my personal voice recorder.”

“Think of all the explosive personal secrets that could be in there,” he said, not batting an eyelash.

“Rassilon forbid that Gallifrey should see what a mess my shopping lists are in,” she said dryly. Although, she reflected, he might be considerably thrown off if he listened to her stories. Especially the ones about naïve young women being swept off their feet by dashing rogues. “Stop playing the fool,” she snapped. “You were very clearly after the seal and I demand to know why.”

He leaned back in his chair, smirking. “You’ve already given me an alibi,” he said. “And I don’t think you’re going to retract it and look ridiculous in front of your own guards. Why should I tell you?”

It wasn’t fun and he wasn’t funny. She buried her face in her hands, running her fingers through her hair—still startlingly thin and fine. “Because I’m asking,” she finally said. “Please?”

And, to her amazement, he softened at that. “I would’ve returned it,” he said gently. “Anonymously, of course. It was for a… friend of mine. Her son’s brilliant—he could be an extraordinary scientist—but she hasn’t the connections to get him into the right school. I was going to, well, work up some paperwork that would smooth the way. You may not know it, madam, but you are the sponsor of quite a number of prestigious institutions where your name and seal make all the difference.”

“How altruistic,” Romana said drily. “And what was your end of the deal?”

“Oh, I owe them my life more than once over,” he said cheerfully. “Stayed with them last night. They don’t need to pay me anything. Besides,” he said as if explaining everything, “it sounded like a challenge.”

Adrenaline junkie, she was thinking. That explains a lot. Still, she met his gaze with a steely look.

“Of course,” he said, “it’s possible that, while I had the seal, I would’ve taken a few minutes to mock-up something like a general pardon.”

Oddly, she felt relieved he’d admitted a selfish motive, even if only as a sidebar to the sob story that she still wanted to investigate a bit further. She was too old to believe in pure altruism. And his candor in the one matter made her more inclined to believe him overall—at least when he bothered to answer her questions.

Of course, that wasn't to say he didn't remain baffling. “How could you possibly have thought that would work?” she said, honestly curious.

He turned a faint but distinct shade of pink. “The rumors,” he said. “The rumors are that the presidential office is in nigh-leaderless disarray—the perfect target at the moment.” He grinned suddenly. “Obviously, such is not the case.”

“Flatterer.” She smiled, but then leaned forward. “Is that really what they're saying about me?”

“Don't listen to uninformed gossip,” he said. For almost the first time since she'd met him, she could picture him in the urbane milieu where he claimed to have been raised. “What do people really know?”

“They're the people I'm meant to be governing,” she said tiredly. “Oh, I don't want to think about it. Tell me all about your friend.”

“She's a food technician,” he said readily, “it's just her and her son, and she's a much better person than I am. She's the people you're meant to be governing.”

“That's ungrammatical,” said Romana.

“You know what I mean,” said the Doctor. “And I should add that I wasn't going to tell either of them what I was doing.”

“Write down their information for me,” she said, pushing a tablet across her desk, “and I'll see something is done. There must be a scholarship or something—if there isn't, there will be.”

“Would you really?” He looked straightforwardly delighted. “It would change their lives.”

While he recorded his friend's contact information, Romana stood up and began to pace. “It's all very well making a difference for one person, or two people,” she said. “But I'm supposed to be President of Gallifrey. What am I supposed to do about all the people who don't have a fool with a lockpick looking out for them?”

The fool in question returned the tablet and laid a hand on her arm, stilling her. “The fact that you're asking that question,” he said, “puts you head and shoulders above any other President of my lifetime.”

She blushed, and gestured toward her paperwork. “Now I really must deal with at least some of this. You're making me late.”

“Am I safe to see myself out?” he asked.

“No, probably not, not without a pass,” she said thoughtfully. She called one of the guards who'd arrested the Doctor and instructed him to see her guest out.

When he'd gone, Romana looked at the tablet she'd handed him. In addition to his friend's name and contact number, he'd written his own contact number.

Cheek, she thought. But she saved it.


In the middle of another headache-inducing meeting, with a jumble of text and figures on the comms tablet lying in front of her, Romana wondered what the point of it all was. She'd proposed her plan for public vocational training to the High Council, and she'd gotten very little but blank stares.

“If you don't like it,” she'd said rather acidly, “have you any better ideas?”

But they didn't. And when it trickled down through the High Council to their ambitious assistants, they were all very eager—with very cogent reasons why her project should mean more money for their departments.

Two of them were fighting in front of her now, interrupting each other with treacly pseudo-politeness. Nobody was listening to her; nobody wanted her. She tabbed between the documents open on her comms tablet, and as she did so, she accidentally opened the messaging feature.

Recently Added Contacts: “The Doctor”, it offered helpfully.

The only interesting conversationalist she'd met in... she stopped trying to work out how long. Casually, she tapped his name and typed:

Worst meeting of my life today

The reply came quickly, and he didn't even comment on the sudden out-of-the-blue message after several days.

i'm so sorry. what happened?

Is happening actually

I'm still in it unfortunately

oh dear. are you meant to be messaging?

Obviously not

But nobody's listening to me

So I might as well

i didn't mean you shouldn't! was just wondering.

I suppose I'm being rather transgressive

fancy that! would never have thought it of you.

Are you pulling my leg?

i would never lay a finger on any of your limbs without permission.

She blinked and looked up guiltily. No one had even noticed her distraction. Still, she vowed to pay perfect attention for a few minutes at least.

One of the committee—she still didn't know which was which—was concluding a speech. He seemed to be arguing that the best way to solve the problems with the current system was to spend more money on it.

She stood up, suddenly angry. “You're all missing the point,” she said. “How is Gallifrey supposed to change if we never do anything different? I've spent my whole life doing things the way we already do them. Now people keep telling me I'm the most powerful person on the planet, I have its fate in my hands, and on and on, and they still want me to do things the way we already do them.”

She was interrupted with cries of “But Madame President,” and “You don't understand politics,” and one or two slower thinkers who just came out with “No!”

“I'm not finished,” she snapped. “None of you has ever tried to make anything better in your lives. I may not improve anything but I refuse to let it be for lack of original thinking! Go home!”

Now the room was silent.

“Go home and come up with something new,” she repeated. “Get out! This meeting is over!”

Apparently stunned into submission, they filed out the door. As it swished closed, she sank into her chair, head in her hands. Her comms tablet lay innocuously on the table, and she picked it up.

Meet me in an hour, she typed.

The response came almost instantly. ???? but yes. bridge?

Yes, she typed.


She took her personal TARDIS to the meeting place. Ordinarily this would be an inconvenient extravagance, the place being only a few minutes' walk away, but she had a particular reason this time.

The Doctor was already there when she arrived. He must have been nearby, she thought, and come quickly. As she stepped out of the capsule, his startled expression transformed into a charmingly welcoming smile.

“Good to see you,” she said, taking his arm. She was surprised to feel her body shaking with nervous tension, and he must have noticed too, because he laid his other hand on hers.

“Is everything all right?” he asked immediately.

“It is now,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I've figured out how to shake up Gallifrey.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I assume you don't mean a seismic wave generator.”

She sighed. “You assume correctly. Look—we both know this ridiculous planet is stagnating in its own ways.”

“Of course.”

“But nothing will ever change, because the way it is now keeps the people who are in power, in power. This must sound obvious, but hang on a moment, I'm making a point. So the only way to change the system is to force it to change.”

“You sound dangerously revolutionary, Madame President.”

“So I'm leaving the planet.”

“How will that help? I'm sure it will be a relief to you, but with all due respect, what does it do for Gallifrey?”

“I'm leaving the planet without resigning.”

He was silent for a moment. “You'll be missed,” he said.

“Actually,” she said, “I was going to ask you if you wanted to come.”

Again, he was slow to respond.

“If you wanted,” she repeated inconsequentially, afraid she’d said the wrong thing. Then he released her arm, turned and stared at her with an expression like she'd given him a star system. “Would you?” he breathed.

Facing him, she couldn't resist the impulse to put her arms around him. He returned the gesture, folding her in a soft, warm hug. As her face nestled against his shoulder, she suppressed what felt like it might become a sob.

She broke away and looked up at him, very serious. “I'm inviting you,” she said, “because you're the only person I know who's lived offworld—and because maybe we can do some good—and because I like you.” She smiled. “Is this way of getting a TARDIS quick enough for you?”

“It is positively delightful,” he said. He broke into that schoolboy grin. “Are you ready to leave now, or do you have to go home and pack?”

“Everything I need is in there. It's fully stocked—we could live there with nothing but the robes we stand up in.”

“Oh, good,” he said. “In that case I don't have anything I need to pick up either.”

“And I left a note.”

“You're going to give them all heart attacks,” he said as they stepped into the capsule. He sounded, if anything, pleased.

“Good,” she said. “They can all have a good think while they recuperate. They can work out how to govern without a President.”

“You know they might not change that much,” he said, warningly. “They might just appoint an Acting President and carry on.”

“Then at least I'll have tried,” she said. “I tried to use my power for good, and it just made me more dependent on the system. I don't think I can even think about these things properly on Gallifrey.”

She turned to the console as he looked around the pristine white interior of the TARDIS. “I've missed this,” he said. “You don't know what it's been like—knowing the universe was out there and I was missing it. Four regenerations, Romana! Four regenerations I've wasted here.”

“Well, let's not take any longer then.” She laid a hand on the dematerialization lever. “Where to first?”