Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at works/3439688.
She heard the footsteps crunching on gravel and tightened her fingers on the stone edge of the bench. Romana always made a great deal of noise for such a small woman. Leela had given up long ago on teaching her how to pass lightly over the ground in the Capitol gardens, through the long ringing hallways in the Panopticon. She looked up. Brown eyes looked back at her. Leela couldn't help a small gasp. It was a surprise every time, seeing that small round face, those drawn-together brows.
"All right," Romana said, sitting down beside her on the bench, so close their hips touched and Leela could just close her weary eyes again for a moment and breathe in the dry desert smell of her, "you'd better tell me what's going on."
Instead of speaking, Leela reached an arm around her President, compressing the layers upon layers of priceless fabrics until she felt the form hidden within the robes of office. She was a little disoriented then, and realized she'd expected Romana to be warm. She always forgot the coldness of slow-moving Gallifreyan blood.
A breeze danced through the garden, sending ripples through the sea of Remembrance flowers, their delicate white heads rustling. It was a chill breeze, unseasonably chill for late summer. Leela shivered. Romana glanced at her.
"I see you've finally given in to conformity," she commented. "The price for comfort, I'm afraid." She sounded sad. "I always told you those furs were ridiculously insufficient protection against the elements."
Leela picked at her Castellan's uniform. It was warmer than anything the Sevateem ever had, she could admit that. And lighter, as well. She didn't hate it. She hated the fact that she didn't hate it. "I never needed protection, before," she said at last.
Romana let out an irritated huff and Leela knew before she moved that she was going to fold her arms across her chest. "Leela," she said, in that exasperated, pleading way that had always infuriated her bodyguard, "I cannot possibly be expected to advise you if you don't tell me what the problem is."
"I'm not here for advice," Leela said. She reached out a hand, watched Romana's expression melt into tired disappointment as Leela tucked a strand of pale gold hair back behind her ear. Her own hand came up, and wrapped around Leela's wrist, guided her fingers down.
"I can't give you what you want."
"You don't know what I want."
"Leela, I cannot give you anything that's not advice." Both of her hands moved to cover Leela's. They felt as cold as the rest of her. "I can predict the future, I can remember the past, and I can apply my best judgement. I can't-" Her words died as Leela leaned in to kiss her cold cheek.
A voice in the distance called out, "Leela!"
Romana's brown eyes, ever the warmest part of her, held Leela's gaze without wavering as she lifted her voice in response. "In here, Coordinator."
Leela heard Narvin panting as he hurried towards them, cutting across the flowerbeds, but she didn't look away from Romana's saddened face. She watched the other woman turn her head to acknowledge Narvin, saw the shock pass over her features. "Narvin? Rassilon's name, man, what's happened to you?"
Narvin halted a few feet from their bench. "Must you continue to do this?" he asked Leela, keeping his entire body turned towards her, as though Romana was not there. He was still out of breath, his voice hoarse. "I need you by me as my ally, not hiding in here, indulging in sentimentality we cannot afford."
Leela sprang to her feet, incensed. "I am tired," she hissed at him, furious. "I am tired of politics, I am tired of war, I am tired of this hateful planet and I am tired of you!"
Narvin managed to go pale and red at the same time. "You think I'm not so exhausted that my component molecules are probably only hanging together through stubborness? You have no idea what I have been doing lately, what I have put myself through in this probably hopeless attempt to save our civilization. You think I don't loathe every single one of those pompous cowardly pigrats calling themselves Cardinals? I have suffered every bit as much as you, Leela, but I have managed to find the strength to go on because I remember my duty."
"Do not throw that word in my face as though it should sting! I know more of duty than you will ever learn in all your stretched-out lives, and more of honor, too, and I am done. This is your civilization, not mine. Do not lecture-"
"Do you know where I just came from? An emergency Council meeting. Convened by Malthepel. Can you guess what it was about? That awful woman wanted to propose we resurrect Rassilon. This is the madness you are leaving me to deal with-"
"They are your kind, they are your problem-"
"Fifty more fatalities just last night," Narvin interrupted, cold and clipped. "At least twelve hundred injured, at a conservative estimate. Two dozen TARDISes destroyed with no way to replace them. We lost another system. That was what I had to read over breakfast. What do you suppose I shall have to read at lunchtime? Without a capable general-"
"Narvin," Romana said again.
The anger drained out of him, leaving a frozen statue. His eyelids fluttered closed, and he took a deep breath, in and out, and then he opened his eyes, and he turned.
"Madame President," he whispered, and he gave her a small respectful bow. The motion only exposed more areas of singed robe and exposed skin that had suffered a multitude of scrapes and cuts. Leela wondered if he'd come straight from the front without bothering to change or if he'd somehow managed to get in such a state just dealing with scuffles in the Capitol. She wouldn't have put it past him.
Romana sighed. "Narvin, I am no one's President any more, particularly not yours."
Leela saw something break in Narvin's face. Romana watched in astonishment as he went down on one knee.
"Madam," he said, voice cracking, "you will cease to be my President when I choose to cease following you, and not one single moment before."
Leela wished she could touch his shoulder and tell him that she was sorry. She would do it, if she thought it would bring him any comfort. She knew it would not, just as his sorrow left her cold and empty.
"Narvin," Romana said, bewildered.
The Coordinator straightened and turned to Leela, agony written all over his body. "Leela," he said, "you can't continue doing this. You have to stop."
Leela shut her eyes and shook her head. Just like a child, she thought in disgust, covering her ears and screaming at the universe to go away. How far she had fallen. How far this dying world had dragged her down.
Narvin's hands were touching her forearms. "This isn't what she would want," he said, staring at her fiercely to impress his sincerity.
She shook him off. "Do not speak to me of what she would want." It felt like the words were poison she was spitting off her tongue. "Do not speak to me," she repeated, and felt a litany of curses building up in her mouth, snake, hypocrite, coward, betrayer. She swallowed them down with difficulty, and they burned in her stomach. She knew Narvin was not the hypocrite in the garden. She knew it was not his choices that had brought them here.
"I need you," he said, still staring, and she was disturbed by the naked honesty in his gaze. "This morning an obsessive egomaniac asked me to use the Great Key to resurrect an insane tyrant and I almost agreed to do it, because I could think of nothing but how very tired I was. I need you, Leela, to watch me. To be my conscience and my measure. I can't do this without you."
"Please leave," she whispered.
He remained looking at her for a long wordless eternity, and then he spun angrily on one heel and walked out of her field of vision. She heard his boots crunching as he left the garden, treading with more caution than Romana but a great deal less care than he normally employed.
Leela knew she ought to be going with him. She was needed. "But how much of me is there left to give?" she wondered aloud.
Romana said, "He's right."
"I never thought I would hear you agreeing with Narvin."
"It has happened, once or twice." She touched Leela's elbow, feather-light. "You know I'm not her."
"I have yet to observe a difference," Leela snapped.
Romana looked exasperated again. The familiarity of this situation stung, and Leela's heart burned. "And you won't find one. Matrix simulations are only a fragment of percentage point away from one hundred percent accurate. That doesn't make them real, Leela, just very, very clever."
"You are telling me this because you care for me. Because you wish me to give you up for my own good. If you were just a program, why would you care?"
"Because she did," Romana said. "Her care for you was strong. It influenced many of her decisions. To achieve near-perfect accuracy, that factor had to be included."
"If you speak as she would and act as she would, why should I not treat you as I would her?"
Romana's hand found hers. Their fingers intertwined. Leela clung to that touch. She could feel the double pulse in the inside curve of Romana's narrow wrist, steady as if it were the beat of the universe.
When Romana spoke, her breath was warm and wet on Leela's neck, and she wanted to cry at the reminder that Time Lords were only like statues on the outside. "I seem to remember us being here before. In another garden, on another world." The pads of her fingers caressed Leela's knuckles, running far lighter over scraped and peeling skin than her feet could ever match over marble floor. "Back then, you were the one arguing for the existence of eternal souls."
Leela bit her lip to hold back tears. She tasted blood, metallic on her tongue.
"I'm nothing to you, Leela," Romana said. "Not even a ghost."
Leela could not hold her anguish back any longer. It was like a vicious snarling animal hanging from her chest, filthy claws dug deep into the flesh, turning her wounds into cancerous masses of infected meat that would never, ever heal. The Matrix reacted to her pain. She heard thunder crash overhead, looked up and saw the sky over the garden roiling with purple and black clouds. Like the atmosphere itself was bruised.
She said, "You should have regenerated. I was prepared for that. I was prepared, I would have managed! I would have learned your new face, grown accustomed to a new voice, I would have loved you no matter how you changed." There was no holding back the tears now. They rolled down her cheeks, and she tasted salt when she licked her lips. Her shoulders shook, her words came out in sobs, her nose was congested and it felt like a great pressure was squeezing her ribcage. It had been five weeks since she had last wept, and her mind returned unwillingly to that memory, to small fingers slackening in her grip and blood congealing on her furs and her naked skin and the unbearable sensation of failure too large to be fully comprehended.
She clung to the woman beside her, a rock in the storm that threatened to drag Leela under. Romana stiffened, and Leela regretted that too, regretted that she had no strength left even to respect Gallifreyan discomfort with touch. But the tension lasted only a microspan, and then she was pulled into an enveloping embrace, her head pillowed in the hollow between ribcage and knee, and a hand began stroking her hair, uncertain initially but then with growing confidence.
"They need you," Romana said, as soft and gentle as Leela had ever heard her.
"Have they not had enough of me?" It came out muffled, gasped against Romana's silk-clad thigh. "There is nothing left. You Time Lords have drained me dry."
"You survived losing Andred. You can survive without me, too. You don't need me, Leela, you never did. You were always the strongest of us."
"You don't understand," Leela said. Her sobs were fading. A numb calm was washing in to replace them. "I could go on without Andred because I had you."
The hand in her hair slowed to a pause. "I never knew," Romana said, and there was that rare tone of wonderment that Leela had always worked so hard to bring out when she could. It pained her to hear it again in this nowhere place.
"I assumed you had figured it out on your own."
"Well, as always, you overestimate my intelligence."
Leela laughed. "Now I know you are fake. Lady Romana, being humble? Impossible."
"Well, the simulation is only almost perfect."
She was so tired. She could sleep here, on this bench, but if she fell asleep she would wake to herself in what remained of the Archives, K-9 humming busily beside her. She would wake and then she would have to get up and find Narvin and attempt to do the infinity of impossible things that needed to be done, continue hopelessly plugging the leaks in the dam as the water level continued to rise outside Gallifrey's invisible walls.
"Tell me what to do," she mumbled, pleadingly.
Romana bent her neck to kiss Leela's forehead. "Let me go," she said. "Let me pass into the collective memory of the Matrix. Let me join with my ancestors, as you would probably put it. And then get out there and save my idiotic people from their own short-sightedness. That is a direct order from your President."
"But you are not my President any longer."
"No," Romana murmured. "Sometimes I don't think I ever was."
"All right," Leela said. "All right."
Still, she didn't move, just stayed where she was, looking at that familiar face, until the thunder was replaced by rain, big drops darkening the gravel, splashing off white petals, soaking into their clothing. It took less than a minute for Leela to be completely drenched, cold and clammy with water droplets frosting her hair.
She sat up. It felt like going blind again. Emptiness pressed in on all sides.
"It's for the best," Romana said.
Leela tried to speak, but she could not find the words for what she wanted to say.
They did not kiss or embrace, just stood facing each other in the rain, hands clasped.
Romana said, "Goodbye."
Leela wished she had not cried before. It would have been better to cry now, but her tears had all been shed. She rubbed a hand across her face, sniffed to clear her nose. The air ought to smell of rain and wet earth, but if it did she couldn't sense it.
Romana let go of her hands. Leela watched her wrists fall limply to her sides. She had to come up with something, some words to use in a farewell.
"Goodbye, my-" She stopped. If it were Andred in front of her, she would have said "my love" with no hesitation. But Romana was not Andred. Statements of affection made her uncomfortable, made her blush and change the subject and move a little farther away.
Romana raised her eyebrows.
Leela said, "I never asked her."
"Asked her what?" and then the machine-created spirit's eyebrows snapped together. "Oh," she said. "That."
"Could I ask you," Leela said, hesitant and afraid, "what the answer would have been?"
"Well surely you don't need to," she said, puzzled. "You must know."
Leela didn't know exactly what she was afraid of, so she tried to remember the feeling, so it could be examined later. She laced her fingers together, hoping the movement might alleviate the pain in her chest. "Still," she said, "I'd like to hear you say it."
Romana grinned, wide and bright and joyous. "Yes," she said. "The answer was always yes." Her shape began to blur around the edges.
Panic seized Leela's body. "Wait for me," she shouted as the small shape dissolved. "At the clearing at the end of the path. Wait for me, my friend."
She saw Romana nod, still smiling, and then she was gone.
Leela stood in the garden, alone.
She crouched down, hugging her knees, and stayed like that for a while, rocking slightly, pulling herself into a tiny ball.
Then she uncurled slightly, and reached over to the nearest flowerbed to pluck a six-petaled blossom, white as bone. She raised it to her face. The traditional Gallifreyan flower of mourning was utterly odorless, which struck Leela as extremely typical of Time Lords. But the petals were soft when she rubbed them between her fingers.
"I do not think you will not be waiting long," she said quietly, and only the ghosts of the Matrix heard her.