So I actually haven't read much in Doctor Who. Which sometimes seems weird to me, but I think it's because I hold it too close, it's too important to me. I've spent a lot of time on it, in my head, and I'm pretty sure I've written more meta on Doctor Who than on any other fandom. Not that I've written much. But the first research paper I ever wrote was on the Doctor. And that was in 1983, and there was a lot of interlibrary loaning involved, as I recall. Okay, actually, if you don't count the Target novelisations, this might the only Who fic I've ever read. Does that make it mean less when I say it's my favorite? I hope not.
1. Tabula Rasa
When she was twenty years old and showed enough skill in quantum mechanics to be judged no longer an infant, she was taken to her Chapterhouse The word Chapterhouse invokes Dune for me. Every single time.and escorted down the endless, triple-spiraled stone stairs to a small, white room deep underground. The room was bare and unfurnished, save for the sarcophagus-like structure rising higher than her head from the exact center of the floor; the Loom was so much larger than she had imagined it, taller and more imposing and as shiny black as a gleaming blind spot in a great godlike eye, and her parents must have sensed her nervousness for they gripped her wrists imperceptibly tighter as they led her through the doorway. This is perfect world-building. It meshes with what we have seen of Gallifrey. Big structures, but oddly lacking in detail. And comparing the Loom to an eye is just right, since we know that's the sort of fragmented anthropomorphism Gallifrey is full of. All sorts of pseudo-mechanisms with strange alien sensibilities (alien even to the narrator, larger, half-taken for granted as a semi-spiritual mystery) and hidden agendas.
Her grown cousins knelt in concentric rings at the base of the Loom. Does 'grown' imply that they've already been through this? It's all stiff with ritual, calcified, which is good, a good characterization of Gallifreyan society. The Chapterhouse's third assistant Keeper of Genealogy (her parents had lobbied heavily for the first or second assistant, but the excise fees involved were outrageous) chanted the family Song of Alleles in a deep, sonorous drone, a hypnotic recitation that rang in her ears long after the lid of the Loom slowly rose of its own accord, after her mother carried her up to the Loom's shining edge, raised her to the air like a primitive offering a sacrifice and dropped her unhesitatingly inside. Every action in this is ritual, and no one speaks or moves outside of that. She fell and fell and fell, to the very center of Gallifrey, to the heart of time itself; she fell continuously, relentlessly, her stomach hollow and lungs bursting and limbs shaking with the velocity of her descent, and at the selfsame moment she hovered immobilized atop the surface of a void-dark sea, staring helplessly upward as the lid slid itself over her and shut out all familiar faces, all sound, all light. This is a good tension between conflicting descriptions of what's happening - she's falling to the center of the planet, she's suspended immobile, she's still in the room. And the comparison to a sacrifice is so transparently xenophobic and strange, since it so clearly *is* a sacrifice, if to an unreified god. Which, also - very canonical, for Gallifrey.
For the equivalent of eleven Earth years - a mere eyeblink of time, and more than half her previous life - she lay enclosed in the body of the Loom, shrouded in silence, floating suspended in a bath of pure limbic energy. Needle-sharp, small and fine enough to evade the most observant eye, the thousand thousand thousand threads of the Loom penetrated every millimeter of her flesh and did their quiet, patient work in the deepest recesses of her cells, unraveling DNA strands, examining each sequence of nucleotides for imperfections and inconsistencies, adding notes of diversity and unpredictability where they might someday prove useful, extracting deeply buried recessive traits that might presage illness or madness or social chaos thirty generations down the familial line. This is so creepy. She's been essentially taken apart, every molecule separated from every other molecule the tiniest bit. Sometimes, when it amused the Loom to do so, it took harmless throwback traits and threw them into sharp upfront relief - one might enter the Loom fair-haired and emerge newly ginger, or with a distinctly larger nose, or with a passionate taste for green onions - but these were mere diversions on the road to perfection. And that's even creepier, the idea that this huge machine or device or digestive system has whims. And that the whims are driven by some sort of reach for societal perfection. It's almost encouraging that you wind up with individuality as a result, but it's such a stagey, premeditated individuality. The Loom swallowed time whole, turned it inside out, calibrated it anew to the rise and fall of her own breath, to the beat of her own still-singular heart. And this is where I think the Loom, or the process/ritual props itself up. This drawn-out isolation, feeling like time (reality) is being re-keyed with the person inside at the heart. How do you get over that sort of self-centeredness as an individual, much less as a society?
It was here, at the center of time as she herself remade it, that Rom, sired by An, gestated by Ad, of the Vora chromosomal line of the Tre genome sequence of the ancient and venerated House of Lundar, found herself staring inescapably into herself, and what she saw was a great and bottomless emptiness that no amount of time could never fill, that no art or accomplishment could ever mask. Time roared into her and through her and turned her inside out and showed her the nothingness that was her lone self, and she was horribly, terribly afraid. I love that she's introduced here, finally, after so much text, via her genealogy. Because it's a denotation of her place in the whole, but doesn't answer at all *who* she is.
Who am I? she demanded, almost despairing, knowing the Loom heard every fleeting thought. What am I? Am I anything at all?
You are you, the Loom answered, when it deigned to pause in its work. We're left to guess at how long she waited in the dark for that.
But what is this thing you call me? she cried, from inside herself. I see inside it, and I see nothing. How can you, the Loom, create me out of nothing?
Are you a primitive pleading to its god? the Loom responded, with unmistakable disdain. More xenophobia and arrogance, shaming her for curiosity. I do not create, I only unearth and refine. I can only work with the materials given me - if you are nothing, if all of you are nothing, it is not my doing or my dilemma. If your life, if any life, is only a thin shell surrounding a great emptiness, then I take that shell and I make it beautiful. I am the Loom. That is what the Loom does. And that's it exactly - so early stated. She's being remade in the image of Gallifrey, because that's what that society is. Everyone is remade into the same thing, even though they look different, know different things - they are physically refined and then *told* that they are mentally refined. This is how you wind up with the bloated, unquestioning society that is actually shown onscreen. I really love this explanation, the extrapolation I get from this story. I always wondered how they got there in the show. Is it just that they are so much more advanced technologically than anyone else they run into that they convince themselves that they're also spiritually, morally, and socially more advanced? And they come off very decline-of-Rome, too, like they have tech but the most advanced bits are treated as religious artifacts, and like they don't actually have the missing links anymore between the tech they can reproduce and create, and the stuff they only occasionally use and spend the rest of the time venerating. Okay, I may have got off track, there.
But why should you? Why must you? What's the purpose, when everything - everything - is just emptiness inside?
But why should you? Why must you? What's the purpose, when everything - everything - is just emptiness inside?
Such naïve questions. But she was, after all, still barely out of infancy.
I must, the Loom replied, unruffled, because that is why I exist. That purpose is the I that is I. The you that is you, only I truly see. There is no rest until I have made you what you must be, and you will forget you were ever any other you. You will forget our time together entirely. These are the only relevant answers. There is no rest until that task is complete.
No rest. No rest. Eleven years of dark. With only the Loom for company. Sounds brainwashy.
She sank beneath the weight of darkness and time, drained of all curiosity, all fear. She slept and slept. Behind her eyelids there glowed the crosshatched web of a thousand thousand thousand infinitesimal threads, weaving a great bridge to carry her across the span of her own nothingness.
2. Not Hand Nor Foot Nor Arm Nor Face
When she returned to her rooms at the Academy, the Supreme High Council President's astonishing directive still ringing in her ears and the collar of her ceremonial robes stabbing her in the throat, her cousin Cavisanatrelundar was already there, awaiting her with a typically waspish look in her eyes. And...straight into her life afterwards. In full swing, at least a few years post-Looming.
"So, I hear the All-High's sending you to play nurse to some renegade madman," she noted, as she helped unhook the collar and busks, unpinned the headdress, unwound the yards of heavy brocaded cloth with the skill of a veteran lady's maid. "Better you than me, I suppose." Oh, those crazy Gallifreyan court costumes. They're great because they are huge and showily ceremonial and restrictive. Like wearing a harness and blinders.
"It's nothing to me, of course," Romanadvoratrelundar replied, with what she hoped was a well-concealed pleasure in knowing what her cousin would have given for the Lord President's special notice. She had also concealed the Key to Time tracer, rolling it tightly into a cuff of her robe. "I've nothing to do with these decisions. But the Academy was beginning to bore me, so I suppose I can spare a few decades to humor an old grandfather. If the Council really wishes it." So blasé. All for show? Part for show?
" ‘Grandfather,' " Cavisanatrelundar repeated, unbuttoning her gloves for her with swift, practiced fingers. "That's very good and respectful, calling him that. Hardly think he deserves it. Did they let you see his bio-data extracts?"
"Do I look like the Castellan? Of course they didn't." She shook her hands free of the loosened gloves. "The Lord President told me everything I might need to know - "
"Did he tell you about the old boy's Looming?" Her cousin paused, the abandoned headdress draped artfully over her arms. "His aborted Looming?" So much gossip. I bet Gallifrey is nothing but gossip, actually. Stagnant.
"Oh, indeed." She shrugged a bit, chin raised in the perfect pose of mannered detachment, and turned toward the mirror. "Only to be expected, I suppose."
The Lord President had said nothing, actually, but her own inquiries quickly told her what everyone else already seemed to know: This grandfather the Council had inexplicably entrusted with such a vital, such a terrifyingly necessary mission, something - no one had ever been certain what - in his long-ago Looming had gone horribly wrong. He had very nearly died, they said, had to be physically pulled from the body of the Loom thread by microscopic thread, and he was never the same afterwards, ever again. They said. "They" being an imprecise reference to an unspecified informational source and therefore an unreliable fact-distortion by definition, but it was unsettling all the same. They were all certain he was mad. Okay, I like this acknowledgment of 'they' particularly as I know someone with a 'they' peeve. Which I find simultaneously sensible and hilarious. Renegades almost invariably were mad. Nice way to discredit anyone who isn't following along without questioning. Renegades are crazy! Of course. Why were they so anxious to send her, blameless and having earned one of only seven triple alphas in the Academy's recent history, off to the ends of the universe with someone good as known to be utterly mad? She's spun all the way around, here, from pride to defensive resentment and fear.
"Personally, I'm not certain it's even true," she mused aloud, raising her chin even higher. "Why would they ever admit him to the Academy if he really were so, er…"
"Incomplete? Denatured? Strange terms to use. Though they make sense with the genetic emphasis. Well, I'm certain they had their reasons, though the likes of us will never know. Perhaps it was all some sort of experiment." Her cousin shrugged in distaste, then her expression grew thoughtful. "Though as they say, it's only the thinnest and weakest of strands that break beneath the shuttle…perhaps he's not a true Prydonian at all. Perhaps it's true, what they say about his mother." More 'they'.
Romanadvoratrelundar pulled out the last of the jeweled hairpins, shook out her hair with a grateful two-handed scratch to the scalp and began working a brush painstakingly through it over and over again. The action created a pronounced tonic effect whenever she was feeling irritable, as she so often found herself when her youngest cousin came by to impart words of wisdom. "What do they say about her?" she asked, frowning as she reached a stubbornly snarled curl. I like that the hairbrushing here is reframed no as vanity but rather as a coping mechanism. "You mean…Shobogan?"
"If it were only that bad." Cavisanatrelundar leaned closer, casting a shadow over the dressing table. "You'll never guess it yourself, so I'll give you a hint. What's his favorite planet?"
"Earth," she said readily. "The Lord President specifically mentioned it, he has a strange fondness for it that no one can seem to…" Then it slowly dawned on her, and she turned, the hairbrush poised in midair. "You can't mean."
"I can." Cavisanatrelundar smiled triumphantly. "And I do. It would explain so much, wouldn't it? Running off to lord it over all those unevolved little planets - anywhere he might seem a bit less freakish? That savage girl he dragged around with him?"
"So the savage girl actually exists? I thought that was just a silly rumor. I can't believe the Council is really letting her stay - "
"Andred thinks that if she's put under a bit of pressure, she'll prove once and for all that outsiders and Otherlings can't adapt to Gallifrey, they're too devolved and shouldn't be permitted anywhere near the Citadel. Then the Council will have a living example that those horrible so-called reforms the lesser chapters think they want would be disastrous." Cavisanatrelundar grinned at the thought. "Andred's own plan, I hear, he's rather clever when he wants to be. I'm sure he'll find pressuring the savage a most interesting assignment. That makes sense. And it's so sad. But really, it makes more sense than the official explanation show in the show. But anyway, your madman. All the strange ideas? And of course, primitive DNA could never withstand the Loom. And his name, when he still had a name? Not a single syllable in it, anywhere, to tell anyone who his mother is - "
Romanadvoratrelundar started brushing her hair more vigorously, unable to understand why her irritability seemed to increase with each stroke. "Of course he doesn't have a matronymic," she almost snapped. "Or a patronymic or a genonymic or anything else, he renounced his name like any other renegade when he left Gallifrey - "
"He never had one to start with, is what I'm telling you - it was left out of his name entirely. No mother. Not anywhere. Gestated, evidently, by nothing and no one." Her cousin fiddled idly with the discarded hairpins. "And he didn't renounce his name when he left Gallifrey - his own father renounced it for him, long before that. Disowned his own son's genetic line, erased his name, wrote him out of history entirely. Now, what does that tell you? It tells me there's something there they couldn't take any chance on keeping in the line, that's what. It tells me there's something…other, about him. Very distinctly other." I like that the mystery of his early life is speculated about here, but not answered.
No name. No mother. No more father. No Looming. No lineage. "And yet," Romanadvoratrelundar noted, "they admitted him to the Academy."
Her cousin shrugged. "As I said, perhaps it's all another experiment." Maybe. Or maybe he snowed them.
Just exactly what sort of creature were they sending her to work with, anyway? And why her? What had she ever done, other than spend her entire life learning and studying and paying proper obeisance to the Ancient and Worshipful Law and doing absolutely everything she was told - and, she informed the invisible audience in her mind which seemed to be smirking at every righteously indignant thought, had she happened to mention that triple alpha?
"Well, it's nothing to me, of course," she repeated aloud, yanking the bristles with unnecessary force through another tangle of curls. "Really, it's nothing."
3. Secretly, Frequently
Her parents were genetic siblings, a pairing very carefully regulated by the Council and the Chapterhouses, but often permitted in the interests of keeping the old lineages properly old: The Loom, after all, could extract any unfortunate potential consequences of such a coupling with very little trouble. This is such a neat twist - the genetic manipulation is all done after birth, so the diversity is added back into the line after it's eliminated by the pairing. In her Academy anthropological studies it had quite intrigued her, how even some of the universe's most backwards cultures also encouraged their Oldhouses to so guard their genetic singularity Yes - it's this moment of "This tradition is similar to my tradition. But how can I have something in common with primitives?" And she's intrigued, but doesn't figure it out, or generalize. (though she was puzzled, frankly, at how some of them adjudged brother and sister an abomination and then assented without a murmur to the random couplings of cousins and, sometimes, even uncle and niece). Chaos and order, innovation and tradition, diversity and purity: the lynchpins of all existence, equally significant and equally necessary. For every Black Guardian, a White Guardian. Even the silly little primitives could vaguely sense as much. So innovation and diversity are marks of the black guardian? This whole dichotomy in the Key to Time storyline confused me when I first watched it, and still confuses me.
She was not entirely pleased, however, with the circumstances of her conception. She quite envied Cavisanatrelundar: Her cousin was inescapably the product of a mother's body, yes, for the science of free-standing gestators had not yet been perfected - there had been some nasty accidents - but she had been engineered entirely outside the womb in a DNA replicator. Her cousin's Looming would have been mere ceremony, all imperfections isolated and removed before the moment of fertilization. She herself, though, she had been, as the indelicate euphemism would have it, naturally conceived - a circumstance not necessarily disgraceful by any means, but embarrassing all the same. She had been quite fascinated to discover that in some primitive cultures, natural and bastard had the selfsame meaning and implication. It made her quite indignant, that so many lower forms of life already understood this to be a stigma in a way her parents, her otherwise entirely commendable parents, stubbornly would not. All degrees of shame. I mean, we all find reasons to be ashamed of our parents when we're teenagers anyway - and I think a good argument that she's emotionally a teen can be made, through this whole story.
Not, however, that she begrudged her parents having committed a few necessary, and even one or two utterly frivolous, acts of genetic convergence. 'Acts of genetic convergence'. Jeez. There was in fact not a single inherently low or debased thing about the act of genetic convergence, provided of course you ceased doing it the instant you had successfully converged your respective genetic material (and then there were those "passionate friendships" supposedly so fashionable at the Academy, though as very few of her fellow students had ever made a single friendly overture to her, much less a passionate one, she had doubts they really existed, but her tutor had assured her these were mere silly youthful indulgences anyway). Her parents, though, she suspected of indulgences entirely unsuited to their collective centuries, though she could prove nothing. All she was certain of was that they were irritatingly fond of one another. Sometimes her mother permitted the fingers of one hand to brush fleetingly against her father's, and in front of fellow Cardinals no less. This was unacceptable. It's all so carefully sublimated in service of this greater idea of society.
"You're such a foolish little Loomling, Romanadvoratrelundar," Cavisanatrelundar would admonish her, whenever the subject came up in private. "It just makes me weep. Don't you know that all those sanctimonious gas-traps who love to prate about the cerebral approach to life keep about a dozen concubines each for all different sorts of convergences, all tucked away where no one can see them? Right there in their own homes, some of them? Who do you think keeps those horrid Shobogan brothels in business, anyway? Why do you suppose Andred volunteered himself to keep that wretched savage girl distracted? And I suppose you think that when Anrednirfenax and the others go trekking out to the edges of the Citadel, it really is to do field studies for their improbability projects - " But what she's objecting to isn't the sex, exactly - it's the physical fondness that doesn't fit.
"There are Shobogan brothels?" she interrupted, greatly surprised and not a little revolted. "You are joking, I hope."
Cavisanatrelundar shook her head in disbelief, the pearls in her headdress click-clacking like a disapproving tongue.
Her nameless, motherless, un-Loomed, supposedly mongrel, possibly heretical, quite probably mad colleague-to-be - there was, of course, no longer any way to trace his lineage, his name had never existed, his family never had been his family. Wiped out of time? This makes my head spin, a bit. Or is it just wiped out of official record? But hadn't she heard rumors, if only she could remember where, that he might (never) have been a cousin to, who was it…Glospinninymortheras? A distant cousin, at least? The House of Theras was famously inbred, everyone knew that. Notoriously, naturally inbred. Thinking about this made her feel a bit better.
Oh dear, she thought, as he backed away from her, crouching pop-eyed and defensive by that absurd tin toy as if she had raised a dagger to his chest, you're frightfully ugly, aren't you?
Then she felt quite flustered at herself. It was vulgar to take special notice of another Gallifreyan's physical appearance, much less to feel actual dismay that it wasn't what you might have hoped (and what exactly had she been hoping he might look like, an old grandfather like that?). She's all off-balance, dismayed by him and herself. He, and she had to credit him with that much good breeding, had certainly taken no notice of her appearance at all, being far too busy gaping at her in astonishment turned to disbelief shading into something resembling open hostility. She thinks it *resembles* open hostility. Yeah. Well, let him stare, it was nothing to her. And disparage her triple alpha. And throw a ridiculous tantrum because she'd dared make a place in his TARDIS console for the tracer - he would fuss over this rickety old box of nuts and bolts like her father did over her mother, it was quite disgusting - and mock her name, and actually try to order her out of his sight, and what had she done in all her life to end up cozening this condescending old nutter inexplicably entrusted with saving existence itself? She raised her chin quite as high as possible, ignoring the endless string of jibes, and brushed her hair to a relentlessly silky gloss. The thing about brushing her hair for comfort is that she's suddenly somewhere that it seems odd - she's out of her shelter, now.
"I don't suppose you know how to make tea?" he demanded, quite openly daring her to lose her temper. Yeah. That's an attack. A really passive aggressive attack.
I don't suppose you know how to boil your head? she nearly shot back. It'd be a great improvement on how it looks now - but she knew instinctively he would consider this response some sort of perverse victory. He would, too. Icy ceremonial dignity, that was what he required. Turned out, it was surprisingly easy to keep him in line: Little jabs about his age and his navigation skills and his marks at the Academy and randomly chosen bits of psychoanalytical verbiage kept him just off balance enough to be amusingly irritable, though it unfortunately didn't dissuade him from doing the very same to her. He actually sulked, like an infant, once he realized she wasn't going to go running back to the Council weeping over his cruelties. This was very amusing as well, his clear image of himself as some sort of razor-tongued wit: Cavisanatrelundar, on a bad day, could have sliced him to ribbons without pausing to button her gloves. Verbal dueling isn't the point, though. He can wait it out. And I sort of always felt like the sulking was more for his own amusement than anything else.
This was what the Council had once entrusted with a mission to Skaro? They must all be mad themselves. Barking.
"One more thing," he announced, when the tracer had finally led them to their mark and she was standing there outside the TARDIS, shivering to the bone in Cyrrhenis Minima's relentless arctic winds. "Your name."
"What about my name?"
"It's too long! By the time I've called out, ‘Look out' - " He paused in what, she'd quickly realized, was a very consciously artful confusion. "What's your name?" She's catching on a little, at least.
"Romanadvoratrelundar!" she nearly shouted, enunciating with great care as she stamped her feet for warmth.
He seemed singularly unimpressed. "By the time I've called that out, you could be dead. I'll call you Romana."
"I don't like Romana."
"It's either Romana or Fred."
Fred? She studied his face, searching for the hidden insult, but couldn't find it. Fred? Fred. "All right," she said, "call me Fred." This scene has always made me a little crazy in the show, and it gets more complex here. He's cutting away her place in society by cutting away her name. And then gving her a choice between a denatured name and one that never had meaning as far as she's concerned - one that she could actually easily make mean herself as an individual.
"Good. Come on, Romana."
Romana. Romana? She wanted to tell him this was utterly unacceptable: It was so blandly euphonious it verged on the insipid, it split her matronymic down the middle in downright crude fashion and, far more to the point, she had wanted to be called Fred. But. Changing your name, again, is one of those teen impulses. Marking yourself out. Gallifrey had many Dreds and Reds and Ods and Erds and Ads, even the very occasional Id, but there wasn't a single Fred she could think of offhand. Fred was singular. Fred was…jaunty. Fred sounded as though it might go very well with her favorite peaked red cap with the flutterwing feather. She'd have been different, I think, very quickly with Fred as a name. It would have given her permission to change into what she wanted to be. Or to do it faster. She opened her mouth to tell him her heart was quite set on becoming Fred, that he could call out "Romana" all he liked and she wouldn't ever answer to it, but then she heard a shout and wordless cry that sent her running; as she cut him down from the rope snare as carefully as she could, she had no chance to complain, she was far too busy trying not to laugh. He seemed vaguely grateful for her silence on both counts, which she supposed was the very best she could hope for. It would still have been quite pleasant to be known as Fred.
It was surprisingly thoughtful of him, bringing a cape along for her and one that went so perfectly with her gown; in the excitement of her first extra-Gallifreyan landing and her constant checking to make sure she hadn't dropped the tracer, she hadn't even considered she might need one. Doubtless he'd only meant to demonstrate by it that she really didn't know what she was doing, that without his assistance she would greet every adverse situation hopelessly unprepared. But it was surprisingly thoughtful, just the same. She's having all of these experiences after a very restricted, sheltered life. I can't decide if she's warming because she has a brothers-at-arms impulse, or stockholm syndrome. Or if he's just wearing her down.
5. Nobody Home Except Us Druids
After much frowning, muttering, brow-knitting and head-tilting, he finally handed her the Key to Time's third piece with a sullen scowl. She dipped her chin forward, letting her hair fan over her cheeks and mimicking absorption in her work, so he would not see the little smile of triumph as she clicked the pieces effortlessly into place. Beginning of one episode, end of another.
"It's not so difficult, you see, when you concentrate on it," she told him. "It's really just a matter of analyzing the angles of the surface area as they intersect - "
"Yes, yes, yes," he grumbled, rifling through a nearby closet and emerging with a long oblong box and a timeclock. "So! Care for a game of chess, K9?"
"Affirmative, master." K9 rolled toward him, tail wagging in anticipation.
"You don't want to play proper chess?" she said, as he pulled out a single flat chessboard and a paltry handful of pieces.
"Well, I can't, you see, K9 isn't programmed for any game levels past the third dimension. Now, I'm quite fond of fifth-dimensional and higher, first-dimensional has an austere sort of charm, but I can't abide second- or third-dimensional, they're just annoying - "
"And you don't know how to program a basic life functions android for moderate-level gamesmanship?" she asked incredulously. "Anyone would think you'd failed practical mechanics at the Academy, all you have to do is take a gauge four laser spanner and - " I love how, in the Doctor Who universe, all of the programming is done with physical tools. Or things named for physical tools.
"I'll play white, K9, you play black."
"I always play black, master," K9 noted, a bit plaintively. "Suggest your game strategy might benefit from the experience of going second - "
"Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, K9, don't worry yourself. Shah-mat in eleven moves."
He laid out the pawns first, dark wood and then light, placing each one on the board with oddly solicitous care. Romana watched him, then the tracer, stubbornly silent in its niche, then started drumming her fingers on the console.
"So that's Earth, is it?" she mused.
"One small and inconsequential corner of it, yes." He worked his way inward, rooks, then knights, then bishops. "Though I suppose it's proven more than exciting enough for Miss Rumsford, all told."
"Is she typical of humans?"
"A bit more intelligent and less neurotic than the average human, but yes, fairly commensurate with the rest of the species."
Romana mulled this over. "I thought she took it surprisingly well, considering that Miss Fay - Cessair, I mean - was a friend of hers."
"Rather a bit more than her friend, I should think," he said, setting up the queens.
"Really?" She frowned skeptically, uncertain whether she were being wound up. "Are you serious?"
He turned from the chessboard, with a look not nearly so scornful as her cousin's would have been but still a bit impatient. "Romana, they lived together in a house that had a single bedroom, they knew each other's personal habits intimately and Miss Fay, or rather Cessair, was markedly reluctant to harm Miss Rumsford in any way, even when doing so would have perfectly suited her otherwise nefarious purposes - I realize Earth customs aren't your stock in trade, but mere observation might have suggested they might not have been merely friends." So sad. So many of the people in the Key to Time stories are helpless against fate.
"Well, there's no need to be condescending about it," she muttered. "I just didn't realize humans could be so…well, decorous, and restrained, in their romantic attachments." In fact, she thought, humans had just risen in her estimation several very significant degrees. "I thought they were far too crude and animalistic a race to be capable of that."
"Capable of restraint? Oh, they certainly can be, yes, when to behave otherwise may entail familial opprobrium, religious condemnation, social isolation, loss of livelihood - fortunate, aren't we, to come from a gloriously advanced civilization where such petty behavior is inconceivable. Where did I put that bloody timeclock, anyway? K9!" More of Romana seeing a parallel and failing utterly to generalize.
"Three inches from your left elbow, master," K9 noted, the soul of soulless patience.
He set the timeclock, leaned over the board and moved a pawn to queen four. She rifled through the pockets of his abandoned coat, pulling out another bag of those curious gelatinous sweets; they stuck to the teeth in a highly annoying way, but to her surprise she'd grown to like them. The Doctor's eyes flickered from her to the chessboard and back again. Transparent bid for attention.
"Don't take all the green ones," he admonished her. "You always take all the green ones, it's very irritating."
Scrupulously leaving the green sweets in the bag, she took custody of every last red, orange, yellow, pink and purple, placing them in a little pile on the console and munching absentmindedly as she watched the match fail to progress. Knight to king's bishop three. Pawn to queen's bishop four. Pawn to king three.
"I'm quite fond of the raspberry ones too, you know," he remarked, eyes trained on K9's bishop as he moved it to knight five. "Don't nick them all."
One-dimensional chess really was a ridiculous, sub-infantile game, she observed, as the matches and rematches went on and the pile of jelly babies diminished (raspberry ones eaten first) - all too well suited to a shooty dog thing with underprogrammed strategy function circuits, worthless occupation for a mind of a Time Lord's caliber. Even his.
Still, it really did seem to her that he might at least have asked her if she'd like to play.
He would not look at her, was the thing. She was terribly proud of her talents for sartorial assimilation and disguise, there was hardly a humanoid-dominated planet in existence where she couldn't have passed herself off effortlessly as a native, and he seemed so completely indifferent to these efforts - all entirely on behalf of their mission, no more - that she was both nonplussed and increasingly irritated. It was, of course, highly vulgar to single out another Gallifreyan's physical appearance, however laudable the motive, but when they specifically asked you about it, as good as demanded your honest opinion, now shouldn't that have been another matter entirely? She wants to be praised for knowledge, observance, skill, and ability to perform ritual. I think we can assume that these are all things she felt she got praise for on Gallifrey regularly.
"Look, all you have to do is just get out there and walk around like you own the place," he declared, exasperated, as she fretted over the pale pink dress and openwork stockings that had looked perfect in the TARDIS and were, beneath this planet's near-perpetual moonlight and next to its riots of impossibly variegated flowers, washed out and drab and simply all wrong. "That's what I do. You don't need to waste your energy on all those silly fripperies and furbelows - " This is all so new to her, and he has so little patience, on the surface, with her posturing. And yet he's *all* posturing.
"Fripperies?" she repeated angrily. "Do you really think maintaining a proper appearance during intelligence missions is an inconsequential consideration? I realize that you could care less about blending in with the local sentient life forms, you positively seemed to relish those horrid little men at the nuclear silo calling you a ‘filthy hippie' but - "
"Romana, there are no sentient life forms on this particular planet, besides the insects and the flowers. What did you intend to do, get yourself up as a giant primrose?"
"Why are we here, exactly? We still have two more segments of the Key to - "
"Because it's a beautiful planet with no particular reason to exist other than being beautiful, and as we have a bit of time to spare I thought you might enjoy seeing it," he flared, kicking so hard at a patch of tiny, coal-black flowers as he walked that Romana almost swore she heard them yelp in indignation. "I might have known your conceptions of beauty only run to furs and coat-collars. Though you might be able to appreciate the native flora a bit more, if you could see past the brim of that ridiculous hat - " And then the frustration comes out. All this smoke to cover that he's trying to show her something nice, and she isn't getting it.
"Oh!" she cried, as at that same moment a sharp gust of sweet-smelling wind grabbed hold of her hat, pulled it straight off her head and sent it bouncing like a great pink tumbleweed across the fields of moonlit blooms. She was stricken for a moment, then thought, no, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her chase a mere furbelow through the thickets (not that she could have anyway, in these heels). She watched the hat drift and spin past a copse of yellow-flowering trees, picking up petals and flattened grass blades as it traveled.
"Aren't you going to go catch it, then?" he demanded. "Wouldn't want the flowers to start suspecting you're not one of them, now would you? Whole galaxies might fall."
He grinned at her, a predatory explosion of large white teeth. She just glared back. She'd liked that hat too, liked it very much.
"Oh, for Rassilon's sake," he muttered, the grin fading, and in a flurry of long limbs and flying scarf-ends started chasing after the hat, sprinting past the remains of a large brick wall, through a patch of peacock-blue flowers whose pollen clouds made him nearly double over sneezing, into a tangled thicket of ochre vines that slithered out and began twining round his coat, then, before Romana could shout an alarm, seemed to think better of it and release him. He emerged several moments later, raising the collapsed, torn remains of the hat high over his head and waving it before her like a semaphore flag as he marched back through the trees. He's so changeable. And even when he's harassing her he wants positive attention, which makes him mercurial and inconsistent.
"There you are," he announced triumphantly, giving it a cursory brush with his coat sleeve before handing it back. "Bit squashed, but that just gives it that essential bohemian air. Perhaps you'll stop sulking now? It's far too typical a reaction in one so young and inexperienced in the ways of the - "
"Thank you," she replied formally, picking the remains of several insects from the brim. "And perhaps now you'll stop kicking at the flowers, it hardly suits someone of your significantly advanced age."
He had, she reflected, managed to run rather an impressive distance with that absurd scarf always flapping directly underfoot, and hadn't stumbled or tripped over it once. He was rather more graceful on his feet, it seemed, than first appearances would suggest.
She meant "graceful," of course, in the purely objective sense that any other outsider might have remarked upon. No more than that. Any more than that would have been ill bred at best. Yes. Because she certainly wasn't noticing his appearance.
"There, then," she said, squashing the hat a bit more as she placed it back on her head. "How do I look?" This is the first time she lets go enough for humor. It's nice. And very very slight, self-effacing.
"Ravishing," he replied absently, having already turned away to admire a cluster of gorgeously fragrant indigo blossoms wide and flat as plates.
7. Hit with a Fish
"Well, it's hardly my fault he's so waterlogged," said Romana, as the Doctor furiously scrubbed the rust from the last bits of K9's internal machinery. "I'm not the one who just left him sitting in the reeds on a swamp-covered planet for days on end - "
"Well, if you hadn't dropped the tracer," the Doctor retorted, polishing the assembled pieces to a high gloss against his shirtsleeve, "we could have left soon enough for K9 not to end up marooned in the swamps for quite so long."
"Affirmative, master," agreed K9, from his upside-down position on the floor.
The Doctor gave her a beatific smile. "There, you see? Sad to see how little basic preparedness and common sense one learns at the Academy these days, but at least you've got someone with a bit more experience to correct your errors - "
"If I hadn't - " Romana started brushing her perfectly smooth hair even harder. "And if you hadn't been so preoccupied with wandering aimlessly around the cattails making flutes out of the reeds, you might have noticed we were being ambushed in time to prevent the whole thing from occurring at all!" I haven't seen this episode in twenty years, and even I can remember that much is true.
"Affirmative, mistress," noted K9.
"Stop intruding on the conversation, K9, it's a sign of ill breeding. And never try to hold others responsible for your own youthful folly, Romana, it only makes you look like more of a one-heart. Hand me that gauge four laser spanner, will you?" He's very arrogant himself, and a lot of it is fronting. Which I think is actually something that remains true throughout his incarnations.
"I meant what I said back on Delta Magna," she said, folding her arms. "Sometimes I don't think you're quite right in the head. In fact, there are a great number of times, such as now, that I'm quite certain you're completely out of your mind." Not 'they' anymore, but I. It's progress. At least it's active.
"Alcohol in my blood-surrogate," he replied cheerfully, groping for the spanner and knocking over a container of sonic lance heads in the process. "Must be. That was old Aldous's explanation, anyway, lovely man when he wasn't droning on and on about hypnopaedia and mescaline and boring me senseless." Oh, the name-dropping. So much de-contextualized name-dropping. I still like this, these jokes in shows, the way the hero excludes the person he's ostensibly talking to by making cultural references they won't get. It's a pretty lame way to break the fourth wall, but I'm easy. He replaced the last errant screw-joint, placing K9 upright and sitting slouched against the wall with his legs outstretched. "And on top of all that, I don't like Obstacle Golf, I've never once gone on soma-holiday and I quite like spending my time by myself - alone." His voice dropped to a basso profundo of mock horror . "So you see, if I am out of my mind, it is a happenstance for which I am entirely blameless."
"Alcohol poisoning?" Romana gazed down at him in alarm, hairbrush paused midway between scalp and shoulder. "Really? I know aspirin toxicity is always a danger, but just how much alcohol would you have had to consume for it to be - "
He shook his head, sighing. "It's from an Earth book, Romana, you wouldn't know it. That line about the blood-surrogate was a bit of a running joke. ‘Streptocock-Gee to Banbury-T, to see a fine bathroom and W.C.' - you know, Romana, your lives would be so much easier if you developed a working sense of humor, you really ought to look into the possibility once you've returned to Gallifrey. Perhaps they can re-Loom you one, it's rather a tragic oversight."
It startled her, hearing him of all people actually joking about the Loom as jokes go, it seems like it's in sort of poor taste, as well.; she resumed her hair-brushing, uncertain how to respond. Perhaps taking her silence as injury, the Doctor regarded her with a kinder expression. "Actually, you know," he assured her, "you've improved immeasurably in a short stretch of time - when I first met you, you were about the silliest, most pompous, most vainglorious creature I'd ever had the misfortune of encountering." Wow. kinder, but seriously backhanded.
"Really," she replied, frost forming around the word. "Well, when I first saw you, I thought you were one of the ugliest creatures that I'd ever met." And it's true. Which possibly makes what she's saying more hurtful. She did think that.
"Me!" he cried, his hat nearly flying off as he sat bolt upright; he looked shocked and rather hurt by the accusation. "Ugly!"
"Well, yes," she said, a bit surprised at his reaction. "I'm afraid you are rather ugly, Doctor, there's just no obfuscating the fact." Perception of beauty is a combination of cultural standards and familiarity, I think, so this makes a lot of sense to me.
His expression went from hurt to combative. "So there's not one redeeming feature you can find anywhere on me? Not a one?"
"Well, you are very tall," she acknowledged, studying him where he sat quite as objectively as she could; there was no personal animus in her observations, after all. And she's actually been invited to analyse his appearance - so it's acceptable behavior. Neither of them comments on the fact that she just admitted to a past faux pas. "But I'm afraid that's not enough. Your head's a bit misshapen, your skin appears pockmarked, your face is too broad, your nose is too large, your teeth are just plain alarming, your hair is chaotic and your eyes always look like they're on the verge of bursting out of your skull - "
"That's quite enough of that."
"You did ask, Doctor."
"All right then," he demanded, "if I'm so frightful, then who's your idea of a handsome devil? Go on, name names, if you can - "
"Anrednirfenax," she promptly replied. Well. He's the castellan on the cover of Tiger Beat, isn't he?
"Who?" The Doctor frowned for a moment, then stared at her in disbelief. "Wait, that nasty little git from the Castellany? The one with the dough-face and the sandy hair and that twitch at the side of his mouth, that's your idea of a fine figure of a man?"
"His features are perfectly symmetrical and he's admirably mesomorphic," she replied, all concerns for decorum thrown to the winds. "You can see the Eld and Vadra genomes in his physiognomy, it's really quite - " And there the author lays out the cultural definitions of beauty. It makes it easier to get into Romana's head, here.
"Genomes," he almost spat, jamming his hat back down on his head. "And of all the sandy-haired dough-faced gits in the Kasterborus to choose from, you would pick that sniveling little ladder-climbing toady. Has the look of a man who's just been hit with a fish - "
She frowned in confusion. "The look of what?"
"Hit with a fish. You know, confused, slack-jawed, off his kilter - "
"So disoriented and staggering about, then, as if he'd been hit." She put the brush down, trying and failing to piece this curious metaphor together. He's totally derailed her, and suddenly she's comfortable again. Because the direct struggle with her culture is hard. "But why with a fish, of all things? It would have be a very large fish, I should think, to have that sort of physical impact - "
"Romana, the whole point is that nobody actually hits anyone else with a fish, it's the sheer absurdity of the idea and I have mentioned before how the worst possible fate to which you can subject any absurdity is to try to pin it down and explain it?" He pulled himself to his feet in agitation. "Stop trying to reason it out and just think to yourself, how utterly gobsmacked would you be if someone came along and with no warning clapped you in the face with a fish. Well, go on, try and imagine it!"
She tried for several moments to do so, and failed. "You know, Doctor," she pointed out, "your whole ‘absurdity' depends on the supposition that no matter where one might travel in the universe, there's no possibility of encountering a civilization whose members really do strike each other with fish. That seems to me to be a far-reaching assumption unsupported by any evidentiary - " I love that she breaks it down and disproves it like that. Idiomatic expressions 0, Romana 1.
"Oh, for the love of…never mind." He stomped about the room in a welter of irritation, pushing random buttons and levers on the console in a way that would have alarmed her if she hadn't already finalized their coordinates hours earlier. "Why I even bother trying, I just don't know - "
"Doctor?" she ventured.
"Yes?" he growled. "What?"
"You do have a very nice smile," she felt compelled to say. "When you smile sincerely, that is, and not to try and throw someone off their guard." Since she got out of the struggle with herself, she can comfortably (though tentatively) go back to the conversation.
"You're very charitable," he said, not smiling. "Utterly and depressingly humorless, but charitable."
"Well, you do. It's a very…lively smile, very animated. Though you do tend to use it to try and manipulate those around you."
"Lively smile." He thought this over, then returned to abusing random bits of console. "Well, that's good to know, I've got a lively smile. The rest of me frightens small children out of their beds and makes doughty old grandmothers weep over their tattie scones, but at least my ‘alarming teeth' can occasionally manage to arrange themselves in some semblance of - "
"Are you part human?" she blurted out. OKAY. Whoa. In for a penny.
He removed the hat from his head entirely and stared at her.
"Not to the best of my not inconsiderable knowledge, no," he replied, and kept staring in such frank bewilderment that she felt her face grow hot. "Where did you ever get such a strange idea?"
"Because you are so strange," she replied, sounding childish and irrational even to herself. "And all that sentimentality over flowers, and this odd obsession you seem to be developing with your appearance, and how you lose your temper over the most ridiculous and trivial things, and your Looming, and…" She sighed. "You react to events in the most unpredictable fashion possible, usually on purpose. You're very disturbingly excitable, and you seem to speak a language you made up five minutes ago solely to befuddle everyone around you, and no matter what I say on what subject you seem to take it as a pretext to start laughing at me." Well, He *is* strange. Actually I think it's entirely possible that 'they' were right all along. After a fashion.
"I'm afraid that very occasionally you do deserve laughing at, Romana. Self-important people often do - "
"You're the most self-important person about the place," she snapped. Yes. It's true. And he should be called on it, by someone he doesn't awe simply by existing. "Next to you and your monstrous egotism, I barely even rate."
"And this bald-faced declaration ipso facto proves I'm an Otherling? How easy!" He looked positively delighted. "I must say, logic instruction has greatly improved since I left the Academy. Next I shall prove that K9 is actually a rabid Vortisaur in a tutu with a pancake on its head, via the use of a simple bottle of salad cream and an ordinary putty knife - "
"You've just illustrated my point for me very nicely, Doctor," she declared, "so I thank you. I just meant, you seem so enamored of Earth, and it's such a silly, primitive, ignorant little - "
"It's the Council's fault if I am, they're the ones who kept me holed up there for interminable decades or what felt like it playing tea boy for a lot of gun-toting little martinets." I am pretty low on my UNIT years knowledge. I'm pretty low on my pre-Tom Baker viewing, more like. He abandoned the console, throwing himself into the nearest chair. "I'm far more enamored of it now that I can come and go from it just as I like and by the way, just what are they saying about my Looming, exactly? I find I'm terribly intrigued to know."
He was smiling again, in that peculiar way that seemed perfectly friendly and only very slightly mad and which invariably made her nervous. "It, er…" She shook her head. "Nothing," she mumbled.
"Oh, I think it must be something, do tell me."
"Nothing," she repeated stubbornly, "absolutely nothing." I'd want to know, too, but I'm glad she doesn't tell him. It would make her a collaborator, when she was never that active.
"So hesitant to pour out a great kettle of nothing? I can only imagine your reaction if it were something." He pulled a deck of tarot cards from his pocket, shuffling and reshuffling with swift, deft fingers. "All I can say - as I'm sure you would be the first to point out - is that my attempted Looming was a very, very long time ago, and other than screaming myself hoarse to be let out I'm afraid I remember none of it. So your guess is as good as mine." He flicked the cards faster, giving her fleeting glimpses of the Fool, the Sun, the Ace of Wands. "Screaming myself hoarse, and bloodying my fingers to the bone scrabbling at the threads. I think I must have been trying to reach for the lid. None of me have been claustrophobic so don't ask me to explain it, you're the one with the passion for psychology - me, I gave up on the whole discipline after I tried and tried to explain to old Wilhelm why his orgone box was doomed to the dustbin and he just wouldn't believe me." His Loom is more concrete sounding. More like a coffin.
He batted the cards from hand to hand one final time, looking up with a rather pleased expression. "Care for a round of Omaha High-Low? Far more exciting with these sorts of cards - get a straight flush with the Tower and Ten of Swords and all your enemies drop dead in their sleep."
"And did they let you out?" she asked. "From the Loom?"
"Oh, straight away," he said, fanning cups, wands and pentacles in an arc between his fingers. "Straight away. And that, as they say, was that." And this is where it all starts to come together, and fall apart, for Romana. The idea that there was a choice other than passivity when confronted with the Loom is completely new.
She stared down at her own hand, at the abandoned hairbrush she still gripped absentmindedly as they talked. I have made you what you must be, she thought, the words drifting through her mind in a voice she didn't recognize. A voice composed of heartbeats and the rhythmic thud of blood through the arteries and great suffocating bursts of silence. And she doesn't remember, but it shaped her, and it's still there.
"So, K9," the Doctor asked, "fancy a game of Texas Hold ‘Em? Seven card stud?"
"There is no way to conceal my cards unless mistress holds them, master," K9 pointed out. "Also suggest that instruments of purported divination are not an appropriate card deck for a game such as - "
"Not you too," the Doctor groused. "Everyone's a bloody critic today."
Those words, Romana thought. Who had said them to her? What relevance could they possibly have now?
I have made you what you must be, the voice repeated, as she gazed at the brush she held in her hand, in her right hand. A thin shell, surrounding a great emptiness. And I think she doesn't remember it quite right, because the Loom also claimed that was all she'd ever been. But that's not useful to her now, anyway.
She had been left-handed, before her Looming. She was entirely certain of that. And here. The idea that it isn't an unbroken her, sleeked and refined and improved, but a before and an after.
8. Pot Luck
"So where are we going?" she demanded. She felt more than slightly overwhelmed by it all: the TARDIS's disappearance, the Black Guardian's appearance, K9's Shadow self, the truth chamber, the Doctor's mad fit over the Key, the necessary - but so sudden! - dispersal of its pieces after all they'd gone through to find them. The planetary thermonuclear war. All those underground passages. Everything. Yeah. And that last story is a bit traumatic.
"Going?" He looked as puzzled as a barbarian asked to recite the Seven Strictures, and twice as indifferent. "I don't know."
He didn't know. After all of this, after everything she'd been subjected to, all the jibes and needling and flippancy and sarcasm and that spot of horrific torture and all those bloody underground passages and he didn't know? The skin along the back of her head tightened and prickled with a sudden, searing heat.
"You have absolutely no sense of responsibility whatsoever!" she shouted, rounding on him with clench-toothed fury. Responsibility to what? To whom? To her? To the universe?
"What!" he cried.
He looked both flummoxed and a bit frightened, an immensely pleasing sight. "You're capricious, arrogant, self-opinionated, irrational - and you don't even know where we're going!"
"Exactly!" he pleaded, back to the wall and eyes brimming saucers of astonishment. "If I knew where I was going there'd be a chance the Black Guardian would too - hence, this new device!"
He made haste to demonstrate the randomizer he had wired into the TARDIS, with the anxiety of a salesman two Fuller Brushes from destitution. "Now no one knows where we're going," he assured her. "Not even the Black Guardian." Yes. It's a safety, and a hobble.
Not even the Black Guardian, not even the White. Not even the Council, or the Cardinals, or…her anger vanished in a puff of futility. "Not even us," she muttered dejectedly.
He smiled with such spontaneous, unrehearsed, uncomplicated joy that for a moment, just a single split second, she felt utterly loath to spoil it, in fact felt the unmistakable urge to smile back. She took the feeling and quietly stomped on it until it was dazed and bleeding. He loves that freedom. Every fight he has is against strictures. But she's not quite where she trusts she can live without strictures. Not post-Looming, as a piece of Gallifreyan society cut loose.
"Well," she demanded, "what are we supposed to do now?"
"Whatever we like," he said, his face lighting up once more. "Whatsoever we like."
"And if what I'd like is to return to Gallifrey?" Right. Her mission is done. It was a sham, of sorts, but she cold go home, take up position. She might not be able to, but she might want to try. She's probably a poorer fit than Leela at this point.
"Oh, perhaps we'll find ourselves drifting past it one of these light-years, bound to happen - but for now, Romana, no summons, no Guardians, no Cardinals, no exercise-books, the term is over and the holidays have begun, why won't you just try and enjoy it? K9! Fancy a quick round of Centrifugal Bumble-Pup - well, look there, I think he's gone and fainted from all this excitement. Either that, or his circuits are just hopelessly cross-hatched after that little misadventure with the Shadow. Hand me that A7-9 sonic lance drill, will you?"
She retreated to an alcove just off the console room, thumbing idly through back issues of Artron Energy and You and listening to him whistle happily to himself as he stripped K9 down to the gears and reassembled him, willy-nilly, yet again. Boys and their toys, her cousin would have sniffed. She quite agreed - though K9 could, in fact, be rather a dear. She searched for a pencil to take the hyperspatial mathematics quiz (it's like Cosmo! With multi-dimensional physics.), gave up quickly and resumed her chair, the pile of magazines abandoned, with an odd feeling of tiredness and mental drift. What exactly did one do with oneself, anyway, when one had nothing that one had to do? It was a truly novel feeling, and very strange. She was quite sure she didn't like it. Sheltered = restricted.
"Romana," he called, "you're sure you haven't seen that A7-9 sonic lance - "
"Quite sure!" Three inches from your left elbow, as usual. "I'm working on my thesis right now, Doctor, I do need to concentrate!"
He resumed his song, something about all going together when we go, to a cacophonous clanking, pounding and whining of machinery and claw hammers and yes, the sonic lance drill. The song drifting tunelessly above this mechanical din sounded like some sort of funeral air, she realized, as she listened more closely to the words. She quite liked death-dirges; it was such a solemn and yet such a reassuring feeling, knowing that yet another Time Lord mentality had been subsumed into the great Matrix. We will all go together when we go, what a comforting fact that is to know, universal bereavement, an inspiring achievement…
It must be great fun to be mad, she thought, just a little wistfully. Well. If she doesn't go home, she's a renegade. And if she's a renegade, by default she's mad.
He lay sprawled on the console room floor, a yo-yo dangling idly from one hand and his hat pulled low over his eyes. "Are you asleep?" she asked.
"Only in theory," he replied, pulling the hat down farther.
She'd given up asking where he thought they were headed. She'd stopped pointing out what great amounts of work she had waiting for her back at the Academy, her thesis, her temporal engineering fellowship, and surely the Council would want to hear the results of their mission firsthand, now wouldn't it? Okay, that Council hearing would be a nightmare. I kind of hope she realizes that, a little. She'd stopped threatening to disable the randomizer, though she could have done it easily, was even amused at how clever he mistakenly thought he'd been - a few twists to the demotic winch, a bit of improbability physics (his second worst subject, she distinctly remembered from the dossier, right after TARDIS navigation) to get them over the abyss and she could have had them both back on Gallifrey in time for tea, crumpets and another attempted assassination. I really liked Romana, particularly the first incarnation, because she lacked wisdom and experience, but she *was* smarter than him. At least she knew things he didn't. So why she hadn't simply done that, given the work, the thesis, the temporal engineering fellowship, she couldn't fathom, other than the strange torpor that had settled over her these past several days (weeks, months?). The TARDIS was merely wandering; she herself was adrift.
"So how is that thesis going, anyway?" he asked, without looking up. "As you once threatened to make me the subject of it, I'm naturally interested - "
"Wonderfully," she assured him. "My research is thriving." In my head, this is so obviously a lie it's almost sarcastic.
"I somehow knew it would be."
Utterly adrift. Wasn't there an Earth legend about a vessel that wandered endlessly with no fixed destination, its navigators never able to chart a course back to the harbor? Die Fledermaus or something like that? The Flying thingummy, she was sure of - no, the Wandering Jew, that was it. There was a verse in it somewhere about water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink, rather well-written for a primitive saga, she should refresh her memory of the rest of it, but that would have involved walking all the way from the console room to the library and at this particular moment that felt like a distinctly onerous chore. She should ask him, he would know.
"When you were at the Academy," she heard herself ask instead, "Did you ever have a ‘passionate friendship'?" Whoa! That just popped out.
He raised himself up on one elbow, the hat listing to one side and falling off his head. "Now, that is a shockingly personal and intrusive question, Romana." Almost as intrusive as the one about his parentage.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly, both horrified at her own rudeness and relieved he was actually capable of a proper response to it. "That was quite unforgivable of me."
"Indeed it would be," he agreed, "if we were still on Gallifrey. But we're not. In fact we've no idea where we're going at all, a fact you've angrily denounced me for more than once, so for all I know your question is not only customary but mandatory in whatever galaxy we happen to be drifting through at the moment. So why do you look so very embarrassed for asking it?"
It was then she realized that the glint in his eye she'd taken for indignation, quite righteous indignation, was actually unfettered delight. And she's off-kilter again. I imagine it would be exhausting, being around someone who never reacted to anything as you expected. Could he ever react correctly to anything, including her own shamefully inappropriate prying? She'd been rather encouraged, on Atrios, to see his downcast eyes and uncomfortable foot-shuffle when Merak started blithering in that horribly uninhibited way about loving the Princess Astra (as if anyone civilized confided such an emotion in utter strangers, as if such an intimate confession could ever be voiced aloud!). She'd felt exactly the same and it lent her a feeling she'd never before experienced toward the Doctor, that of instant camaraderie: He was still that much a Gallifreyan, after all. And now this, and she couldn't even blame him for starting it. Which was somehow, in a way she hadn't yet figured out, entirely his fault.
"All right, then," she said, politeness boldly thrown to the winds. "You'll answer the question?"
"I will not."
As she blushed fiercely, realizing what a mortifying (and worse yet, justified) trap she'd fallen into, he pulled himself upright and declared, "I decline to answer not because it's a personal and intrusive question, but because it's a ludicrous one - and it's ludicrous because I'm somehow certain it's not really the question you wanted to ask. Now, why don't you just ask it, directly and concisely, and we'll both be duly enlightened?" Ah, but she doesn't know the words for the question she wants to ask.
He waited, doing an effortless monkey-climb-the-string with the yo-yo and never taking his eyes from her face. Romana became highly interested in the pulsations of the time rotor.
"Who wrote that poem about the Wandering Jew?" she finally asked. "You know, ‘Water, water everywhere - ' " This is perfect, her evasions. And that it's clearly evasion recasts some of the previous conversations they've had.
"That's the Ancient Mariner, not the Wandering Jew, and that isn't the question you meant to ask either."
"No, really, it is," she stammered. "I didn't - "
"To ask someone if he's ever had a passionate friendship," he continued, rising to his feet with the yo-yo still sliding from hand to hand, "is a nice roundabout, some might even say a bit of a cowardly, way of asking him if he's actually capable of passionate emotions, while leaving your own self neatly out of the equation." He smiled at her with wide, bright eyes, the consciously warm, disarming twinkle of a homicidal elf. "Isn't it?" I'm not sure it is, actually. Or only partly.
This entire situation was, in fact, rapidly becoming his fault. A merciful development, from her perspective. "What are you getting at, exactly?"
"You tell me, you're the student of psychology - "
"One class!" she protested. "One, and that was only because eleventh-dimensional analytical geometry was already filled - "
"Would you like me to kiss you, Romana?" he asked. And that crosses several of her cultural boundaries at once. I like the way the implicit prohibition against physical gestures of affection reframes the current series - suddenly all that hand-holding becomes subversive.
He shrugged. "Because I'm more than willing to, you know, if it would put some of these very interesting, if ludicrous, questions of yours to rest - "
"I have never asked you to kiss me," she said, struggling mightily to maintain her temper. "Implicitly or otherwise."
"I'm aware of that," he said, slipping the yo-yo back into his coat pocket. "But this isn't the first time I've got the impression that you might possibly like me to, nonetheless - "
"If you did get that impression," she seethed, "it was entirely the product of your own wishful, delusional thinking." I feel for her here, because even if that's what she's been fishing for, this is a hard way to be called on it. But it's good for her, too. Pushes her out of her comfort zone in a totally different direction than usual.
"Perhaps so," he agreed, the smile widening. "And then again, perhaps not. And what's life without risk?"
"You know, Doctor," she said, as coolly as she could manage, "I believe I understand. You are disconcerted, and understandably so, that I've just asked you an unforgivably personal question, and you are attempting to displace your embarrassment via a series of cheap jokes."
"You are disconcerted," he replied, "understandably or not, that you seem to have developed an oddly physical curiosity about me, and you are attempting to distract yourself from acknowledging it via randomly chosen bits of psychoanalytical verbiage. The fact that this bit is absolutely true lends credibility to the idea that she really does want to be kissed. Why are you so flustered, anyway? It's hardly as though you're the first creature in time's creation that's ever wanted to kiss me, you know, there are whole species which consider my ‘alarming teeth' a marker of raging virility - "
"You really are terribly self-congratulatory," she said, not bothering to disguise her contempt. "It's disgusting."
"And you are even more terribly self-important." He tilted his head to the side, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "And terribly naïve, and terribly inexperienced, and terribly annoying, and terribly vain, and terribly humorless, and terribly intelligent, and terribly resourceful, and terribly stalwart, and terribly pretty, and terribly amusing without intending it which is the best sort of amusing, and being backed into a corner by your wrathful temper was a strangely compelling experience I wouldn't mind repeating - so you see, if you did want me to kiss you, it is a sacrifice I would be willing to make in the interests of putting this whole matter to rest once and for all." He leaned forward, shoulders knotted up in a vulture hunch. "So will you, or won't you?" It's quite a list. I like the vulture hunch.
"You really think I'm pretty," Romana said.
"Well, I have to think that. After all, K9 says so," the Doctor noted, "and he is the very definition of an objective observer. Aren't you, K9?"
"Affirmative, master," K9 piped up from the corner of the room. "Mistress's features are notably symmetrical, with an estimated Phi Ratio of - " Of course she has a good Phi. She was Loomed into good Phi.
"Shut up, K9. Well?" He leaned even farther forward, weight resting on the balls of his feet. "What do you say?"
"I don't believe you." She folded her arms. "I think you're just winding me up again."
"By saying you're pretty?" He shook his head in confusion. "Why don't you believe me?"
"Well, because…" She sighed. "Because for starters, you never say anything about what I'm wearing. It's as if you don't even notice."
"I have no interest in what you're wearing, that's why. I don't see why you fuss about it so, you would be every bit as pretty if you dressed like me - prettier, in fact, as you'd then be dashing and rakish on top of your not inconsiderable natural attributes." He beamed at her, a shamelessly self-congratulatory smile. "Of course, there'd then be the question of what to do about your strangely narrow face and freakishly small nose and utterly pedestrian teeth - "
"Now I know you're teasing me," she said sternly.
"Yes, actually, I am," he agreed. "You are improving, there was a time that would have taken you hours to figure out - but nonetheless, my offer still stands. So, would you like me to kiss you?"
She hesitated. Whatever she answered, she realized, yes or no, she was very afraid he would laugh at her, and not at all in a lighthearted teasing sort of fashion. :(
"Just the once," he assured her. "Then I'll stop. We're not Outliers and Otherlings with no sense of decorum, now are we?"
He rocked back onto his heels, waiting for her to decide. She wished she had her hairbrush, some coat pockets of her own, she hadn't any idea what to do with her hands. You don't understand, she wanted to say, as he stood there refusing to look away from her. I've never had a passionate friendship. I really didn't think anyone had. Other than my cousin, I don't even have any friends. And she didn't even really like her cousin. She feels like an outsider everywhere, now.
But that would have been a weakling's pleading, and he would have known it perfectly well.
She reached up and touched his hair, the thick curls as tangled and coarse as she had imagined they would be beneath her fingers. It was a strangely pleasant feeling, to be towered over just a bit like this. She stared into his face, examining the faint bits of webbing at the corners of his eyes, the small puckered scar on his lip. His smile had faded abruptly away, and certain she had done something wrong without intending it she broke his gaze and looked down at her feet. His hand reached out, gently lifting her chin. Her mouth, very suddenly, went dry. Lovely.
Then he leaned forward and kissed her, a grandfather's perfunctory lip-brush against the temple. And that makes it even better.
"There," he said, "now was that so very horrifying?"
She didn't answer. He had already turned away, rifling through his pockets once more until he came up with a handful of chess pieces.
"Care for a game?" he asked. "I just need to remember where I hid the board - "
"Four-dimensional," she insisted. "There's a perfectly nice cerub wood set in the library. I don't like the primitive version."
He shook his head. "K9's not programmed to help me cheat at any of the others, you see. It's one-dimensional or none." So he won't play if he can't cheat? That's sort of a compliment.
She studied his face again, searching for the veiled jibe, the sub rosa insult. Terribly pretty, she thought. Terribly stalwart.
"All right, then," she said. "But I play white."
Checkmate in twelve moves, then in seven, then five, even with K9 beeping hints into his ear. It was a strangely dissatisfying string of victories.
After some searching she found that book he liked so much, the Aldous fellow's, in the TARDIS library. Exactly the silly, hysterical sort of twaddle she might have expected to pass for literature on such a benighted little planet, no idea why the Doctor wasted his time with it, but there was one sentence that leapt from the page to stay with her, one silly, hysterical little character complaining in silly, hysterical fashion about what sounded for all the world like another Looming gone wrong: I am I, and wish I wasn't. I think putting Brave New World in a story that's about Gallifrey is genius.
It was not that she wished she wasn't herself. The whole idea was ridiculous, she was herself and inescapably so. This was the she that was she (and where had she heard that phrase before, another book, a paradoxical philosophies lecture…?). She had never been, never could be, anyone or anything else, and however much she might now drift and dither and foot-drag and procrastinate, she could have no actual rest until her purpose in lives was accomplished. That purpose, she had always been serenely, unassailably certain, that purpose in fact was the she that was she. It's very flat, put that way.
Now if only she could fathom just what that purpose actually was, everything would be far easier than if felt right now.
She wandered aimlessly amongst the stacks, picking up books at random, reading them in a quick rifling of pages and putting them down again with mounting restlessness. Poetry, the Doctor was fond of that as well; she had never cared for it herself, even when she could admire it from a purely structural standpoint the sheer self-indulgence involved never failed to irritate her. No, not entirely true, she liked "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Icelandic sagas, such touchingly clumsy primitives' attempts to craft their own Songs of Alleles. When she'd mentioned them admiringly to the Doctor he'd just laughed and shot back some base tavern ditty: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Horrid. The Doctor was also inexplicably enamored of John Keats - ridiculously overwrought and perfumed, his writing was, all those lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon. Cloyingly sweet. She appreciated a more austere turn of phrase. You are the town and we are the clock, we are the guardians of the gate in the rock. Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall. This is the time of the tragic man that lies in the house of Bedlam. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
A pair of ragged claws. She would know her purpose then, at least, and know herself, a mute rudimentary-brained scuttler across silent seas. She would never feel herself half-consciously turning away from odd corners of her own mind, a child walking down a dark hallway determinedly not seeing the monster lying in wait: the monster of emptiness, the void at the core of everything alive. The Loom, like a spectre. Nice. She feared. But she had nothing to fear. She had forgotten she was ever any other she, she had forgotten their time together entirely, entirely -
What time? Whose time? What had been done to her? To him, the Doctor, that he screamed for mercy, cried out to escape? And why was she suddenly thinking of the Loom, anyway, what did these strange (ludicrous!) existential fears have to do with the Loom at all? She had entered the Loom as a nonentity, an infant, mewling babbling know-nothing Rom, and had emerged triumphantly as herself. Never, she was almost entirely certain, had she never been anyone else.
She picked up Brave New World from the table once more, thumbing with little interest through the second half; the bits about John the Savage confused and depressed her and she put the book aside. Ridiculous, all of it. That other character had the right of it: I am I. She was she. There was nothing else to say. That was the only relevant answer.
If I am the answer, she thought, then what was the question?
He'd begun introducing her to his favorite foods one by one, assuring her that knowing how to eat aliens' native dishes properly in front of them would do far more for her assimilation skills than the right skirt length or the perfect hat. Fettucine Alfredo, he'd said this was called, and upon serving it expressed apparently sincere relief that unlike his last colleague, she had some experience with fork and serviette. She watched him expertly twine the strands around the tines, eating steadily with a look of uncharacteristically quiet pleasure, and after an awkward start got the hang of it herself; it was an odd experience to be eating clumps of dried flour swimming in thickened cow's milk, but she couldn't argue with the logic behind his serving it. She picked dutifully at her portion, making herself practice the fork-spinning over and over again.
"Something wrong with the food?" he asked. "You don't seem to like it."
"No, I do," she assured him. "I do. It's very good."
As it would have been, she thought, without quite so much pepper. Without any pepper at all, in fact, not that that had been his doing; her dish was spotted black with the stuff, she'd ground out a good third of the mill's peppercorns without even thinking to take a taste first. She had never liked peppery foods, not ever, who was it in her genetic line that had been so bloody enamored of pepper that she, post-Looming, now instinctively loaded her food down with the stuff, letting it burn her mouth and turn her stomach and ruin everything she liked? Earth food was quite nice, it turned out: this dish, tattie scones, almond cakes with quince, a strange but satisfying mélange of flavors he'd said was called pad Thai. Before she ruined it all for herself, by smothering everything in a spice she knew she hated. Such a perverse impulse for the Loom to implant.
The Doctor was watching her, a quizzical little line appearing between his brows. "You're certain nothing's wrong with the - "
"No," she repeated stubbornly, forcing down a few more bites. "I just told you, it's very good."
What could possibly have been the reason for that, she thought, a little spark of anger starting to flicker inside her chest, what could the Loom have meant by doing it other than its own petty, malicious joke? Why, for that matter, she thought as she stared down at her fork, had it been so very important to make her right-handed? Finally. Finally she is ready to question and angry at the same time. How long has it been, in the story, since they dispersed the Key? Weeks? Years?
She pushed aside her half-eaten fettucine and plucked the bag of jelly babies from the center of the table, munching on them nervously and ignoring his look of dismay whenever she took a green one. Dismay turned to irritation as she ate steadily through the bag.
"Those were mine, you know," he finally pointed out. "You could at least have asked first, it is customary - "
"So squirrel them away in a temporal pocket, if you're that anxious to keep them safe." She laughed, a short sharp sound. "Oh, that's right, you barely passed your exam in applications of elementary relativity, either - "
"What is the matter with you tonight?" he snapped. "As if you're not exasperating enough in what passes for a good mood - "
"Nothing!" she almost shouted, pushing back her chair. "Nothing is the matter with me at all!"
Romana stalked over to his side of the table, dangling the half-empty bag in front of his face. He grabbed it, glaring, and threw his fork onto the plate.
"It's also customary not to stand and glower at people as they're trying to finish a meal," he noted tightly, "and I rather thought that not having an actual savage about the place meant I didn't have to explain any of this yet again. So just tell me what I've done this time, whatever ridiculous breach of your imaginary laws of decorum it is, and let's have it out so I can eat in peace."
"My imaginary laws," she repeated, between her teeth. "Imaginary!"
"Is there an echo about the place?" He looked around in mock surprise. "And on top of that, for weeks now I've been hearing a phantom voice sneering at me for no apparent reason, I really do need to repair the auditory loop feedback system before - "
Romana leaned forward, took his face between her hands and kissed him. Acting. Finally, taking action. By the way, I find that things get zippy here. And very good. And so I have less to say, weirdly.
He dropped the bag, jelly babies scattering into all corners of the room. He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her toward him, and somehow she was sitting curled on his lap with her fingers entwined in his hair (for he had such nice hair, such lovely eyes, such an intriguing little scar on his mouth) and his lips forcing hers further apart, breaking away only to draw sufficient breath for another long, deep kiss. His hands slid slowly into her own hair, carefully skirting the dangerously sensitive nape of her neck; she was touched almost to maudlinness at the courtesy of this gesture, then she felt her breath catch and grow rapid and she very badly wanted him to be discourteous, he was a known madman a known madman! and they surely did such things without thinking twice, his arms were tightening around her and she could hear his own breath coming faster, his lips had now left hers and were sliding inexorably toward her ear, her throat -
She struggled free and leapt off his lap, smoothing her hair distractedly with both hands and fully expecting him to start to laugh: There's one for your curiosity, Romana, but did you really think I wanted to? He wasn't laughing, though, he wasn't laughing at all. He had, she realized, the very look of a man who had just been hit with a fish. It's all too much, too fast. And she gets it.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice shaking. "I shouldn't have done that."
"If you shouldn't have," he said, sounding oddly breathless, "I will be the soul of magnanimity and forgive you, just this once." He swallowed. "Or twice, or as many times as you like, really, I'm a good and generous soul - "
"I mean," she said, a weakling's pleading creeping into her words, "I don't know if I wanted to do that. I mean, I don't know if I wanted to do that - if it really were me - "
"Well, who else could it possibly have been?"
"You don't understand, Doctor!"
"No, I don't understand," he said. "So please explain it to me, Romana." No, he doesn't. And I'm not sure he can. She's in a place where she doesn't know if her impulses are her own, or the Loom's whim.
His voice was actually kind, gentle and kind like he was afraid he'd frightened or upset her, and that made it all even more unbearable. She clutched at her forehead, rubbing the temples in a vain attempt to calm herself down.
"I hated pepper," she said, pacing slowly back and forth before him. "I was left-handed. I liked poetry. I particularly liked anything long and sentimental about trees and flowers and oceans - especially oceans, even though I was a bit leery of deep water. I hated sitting inside all day studying when there were maldor trees to climb and sarlains to pick and all those old ruins to explore. I thought it was very cruel to shoot down flutterwings just to put their feathers on hats. I never fussed over clothes, never at all. I was almost never afraid of anything." She wrapped her arms protectively around herself, as if anticipating a blow. "So you see, I don't know if I just kissed you, or if someone else did entirely, and if it was someone else then I don't know what's really me or if it's all just hollow inside, if there never was anything there, I'm sorry, I've got to leave now - " Yes.
"Romana?" He sounded bewildered, almost fearful. "Romana!"
She ran from the room, feeling both angry and horribly grateful that he had the good manners not to follow her.
This is the only time we leave Romana's pov. I'm not sure it's necessary. Following this disjointed speech and precipitous flight, the Doctor sat with his brow knitted in very unproductive contemplation, the remnants of dinner grown cold before him. He replayed Romana's words over and over again in his mind, attempting in vain to string them into something resembling a cohesive string of logic, but he couldn't make head or tail of any of it and his thoughts, too, stubbornly refused to be corralled; they kept drifting back into distinctly illogical areas of their own, lingering on the taste of pepper mingled with jelly babies overlaying the singular, cool wetness of her mouth.
"What in the bottom of Rassilon's night-bucket was that all about?" he muttered.
"A kiss, master," K9 chirped. "Humanoid physical manifestation of affection, amorous or relational, expressed by pressing or brushing the lips against - "
"Yes, K9, whatever she's been telling you I'm not quite senile just yet - what I can't fathom is what she was going on about afterwards. All just sounded like the hazards of one psychology class too many, I could have told her that sort of thing's not worth her time, and yet…" He sighed in frustration. "And yet, I almost think that I know what she was talking about, even though I'm certain I don't actually have the slightest idea. And even if I did know what she meant, I don't know how or why I possibly could." He turned to K9 impatiently. "Well? What do you think I keep you around for, haven't you got any theories of your own?"
"Insufficient data, master. Mistress's speech comprised of apparently disconnected string of non sequiturs - "
"Yes, K9 - and I can't actually puzzle it out, and yet, I would swear that it almost makes sense." He abandoned his chair, rooting around on the floor for the spilled jelly babies. "But even if I stopped trying to puzzle out what she said, if I could puzzle out what I said to upset her in the first place perhaps I'd be halfway there. Or I could say it again when she starts annoying me and have fun goading her a bit, but it won't be any fun if I can't figure out how I'm meant to be goading her." He paused, his arm outstretched. "So what exactly did I say?"
"Insufficient data, master."
"You're no bloody help at all. Can't you do any better than that?"
"Negative, master. My apologies." K9 trundled toward him, antennae rotating at the sight of another clump of dust-caked sweets. "Nonetheless, suggest recent developments, while confusing, are extremely fortuitous from master's perspective."
"Fortuitous?" The Doctor polished the jelly babies against his trouser leg. "Why ever fortuitous?"
"Because, master, they increase to a minimum of seventy-six-point-three percent the probability that you will be untroubled by the mistress's advances now or in the foreseeable future - "
"Oh, get stuffed, you wretched little tin git," the Doctor snarled, and threw the crumpled sweets bag at his head.
12. I Am I
She gazed into the mirror, turning her head slowly from side to side, wondering which of her features would fade first from her memory when they were gone. She's made the decision already. She can't be herself from before the Looming, and she doesn't know what the Loom made her into, exactly, except that it wasn't her choice. This is Romana being active and making a choice, and that's just so perfect. What was that Earth saying? I know this place like the back of my hand. She studied her hand back and front, seeing for the first time the precise declivities of the lines in her palm, the slight roundness at each knuckle, the shadow of the veins just under the surface. Still well-hidden, those veins, not yet rising to prominence as the skin around them started to loosen and wither.
The Doctor's first body, his one-hearted body, he had simply allowed it to grow old and then older. The experience of that first and last true aging, he claimed, lent one some perspective on the thoughts and superstitions of other species in the universe, those helpless playthings of time; she'd been intrigued, even fascinated, to hear him talk about seeing his hair slowly turn white, aching in every joint when he walked or sat down or curled his fingers closed, stumbling over his sentences and groping for simple words, feeling sudden cascading pains seizing his chest and squeezing like great iron bands. It would be even more fascinating to experience this for herself. It would make a wonderful thesis subject: Perspectives on the Senescence of an Unregenerated Time Lord: A Trans-Temporal and Metaphysical Analysis. She should wait, then, and let time do the necessary work of changing her. However unmoored she might feel in this body, however adrift, its obsolescence was already assured. There was nothing she need do but wait. The Doctor is hungry for experience. Romana, possibly not so much. Right now, she's hungry for identity.
No. No more waiting. She brushed her hair completely smooth, ran a hand down its length to fix a memory of the texture and set the hairbrush aside for the final time.
Unmoored in this body, adrift, unknowing in a way having nothing to do with the youth and inexperience the Doctor so liked to mock. I am not I, she thought, I never have been. No, perhaps I was once, a very long time ago, but everything changed. I am not I, and wish I were. And now, I am ready to be.
But she was afraid to do it. But why should she be afraid? (If she fell unceasing into the dark heart of herself, fell into a great chasm of nothingness and never emerged again - ) There was no way to fall, not with the collective energy from a million million cells radiating outward from her body like the threads on a loom, like a trapeze artist's high wires; so many, many wires, an infinite number of pathways by which to step out of this body and walk away. Somehow she might actually tightrope-walk across that great chasm, find the substance of her actual self waiting there on the other side to meet her, after an estrangement of over a century. Her actual self. Like she might fumble toward her own form.
She closed her eyes, then opened them again, and as easily as she drew breath she felt herself exit her body, leaving it slumped in her chair. The body shook where it sat, trembled with energy and heat and fear, and fear teetered on the edge of panic but there were so very many wires, she had always been light and steady on her feet, all it would take was another step outward, just that much farther, and another, and another, and another…
And she lost her footing and she fell and fell and fell, through time and memory and nothingness and nonexistence. The great network of wires snapped, the thousand thousand thousand threads broke one by one and she was drowning, her chest crushed and imploding as the void-dark sea rushed into her nostrils, her mouth, her lungs. She sank deeper and deeper, blinded, deafened, terrified, choking on and subsumed into nothing -
The TARDIS. The floor of her room in the TARDIS, hard and unforgiving beneath her back, the lights up above shining relentlessly into her eyes. Her bones ached and her ears rang like those of a diver rushed too quickly to the surface; she raised her head and the sudden overpowering rush of nausea made her squeeze her eyes shut, fighting not to be sick. The faintest outline of a body still sat motionless in her chair, a nebulous faded shadow of herself - and yet here she was, somehow, on the other side of the room.
She groped her way towards herself, crawling slowly along the floor, taking in long, ragged gasps of air; already she was stronger, already less sick, full of a strange thrumming energy that increased with every breath. She stretched her arms out toward herself, melting effortlessly back into her shell of flesh and bone. The ringing in her ears grew louder, taking on the steady, regular rhythm of clockwork; she closed her eyes to the mirror and sat motionless in her chair, listening to the beating of her second heart. Splitting/resolving/rejoining. So this story was written to fix or explain the rather bizarre choice Romana makes to regenerate. And I think it does that. And reminds me why I liked her, and like her still.
Notes: All the screwing around with Gallifreyan loom canon (such as it is) influenced by Brave New World, The Tripods and Douglas Adams's Total Perspective Vortex. Gallifreyan naming traditions vaguely inspired by Kristin Lavransdatter. The regeneration scenario in "I Am I" very heavily influenced by a scene in the audio drama The Fourth Tower of Inverness. I stole the poker-with-tarot-cards joke from the comedian Steven Wright. The "Wilhelm" the Doctor refers to is of course Wilhelm Reich. The quoted death-dirge is Tom Lehrer's "We Will All Go Together When We Go." Quoted poems are Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse," John Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes," W.H. Auden's "The Two," Paul Celan's "Death Fugue," Elizabeth Bishop's "Visits to St. Elizabeth's" and T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." For the Doctor's fettucine Alfredo recipe, please consult Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen.
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