The Doctor took a step back and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was finished. The machine that could end the Time War once and for all was complete. It had taken him six hours to design, three to scrounge up the parts for, and fifteen to build. Throughout all of his travels he had never before come across such a complicated scientific problem, but he had worked diligently over a space of time that would have seen the sun rise, set, and rise again over London, and he had solved it.
Now came the hard part. Now he had to flick the switch that would turn everything to ash in less than a second.
As all of the numbers and figures he had been mercifully preocupied with for the last twenty-four hours drained from his head, he began to think that perhaps there were things he could not do after all.
He turned around to see the tiny viewscreen on the TARDIS console flicker on and the image of a petite blonde Time Lady appear on it. "Romana!" The Doctor's face lit up, the doomsday device momentarily forgotten (but not so forgotten that he neglected to step in front of it to block it from her view.) "Look at you, you're lovely! And you haven't changed a bit."
"I'm just a bit more careful than you, I suppose." Romana smiled wearily, and the Doctor saw that he was not entirely correct. A few care lines had worn their way into the skin around her mouth, and there was something in her eyes that had never been there before. "How many times have you managed to get yourself killed since I last saw you? Four, wasn't it?"
"That last one was not my fault.," he protested. "I would have recovered just fine were it not for the intervention of a very pretty and well-meaning but terribly confused ape."
"It always is."
"Well you kept the curly hair at any rate. That's good to see; I always liked your curls. But whatever happened to that wonderful silly scarf?"
"I put it away. Don't worry, though – I know I still have it somewhere. But enough about me. How have you been all these years and centuries?" The more he spoke to her, the more real she seemed, and the more ashamed he was that it had even occured to him to create the machine now whirring wickedly behind him. That he had been considering actually using it seemed unimaginable. How could he have dreamed up anything that could hurt his Romana, beautiful Romana with her childish grin and lilting voice?
"Oh, I've done fairly well for myself. I'm President of the High Council now, or was until ten minutes ago."
The Doctor's eyes widened. "You're the Madame President?"
"That surprises you, does it?" She tried to fake a pout, but lost it and broke into a radiant smile.
"Not at all!" The Doctor was grinning as well. His eyes positively shone with pride and love. "So it was you who sent the summons, then. You're the reason I'm here. Good old Romana!"
"Oh, so you're calling me 'old' now, are you?"
"Who, you? You're only on your second life! You're hardly more than a child!"
Romana's smile faded suddenly. "I am old," she said quietly. "We all are. The Time Lords have reigned literally for eons. We're an ancient race now, in every sense. We would have died off long ago were it not for the Loom. I can't even remember the last time I saw a Time Lord child."
The Doctor nodded grimly. He could quite vividly remember the last time he had, but he was not about to say so.
"I wish I could keep on pretending," Romana continued quietly. "I wish today were like any other day, and you could banter with me for hours and then whisk me away to some romantic little town on that blue and green planet you seem to love so much, just like you used to do. But we're in the middle of a war, and I've wasted too much time already. I contacted you because there's something I have to warn you about."
"The Daleks!" The Doctor tensed up instantly. "How close are they?" His hands fell almsot instinctively into their habitual places on the TARDIS controls, turning dials and ratchetting levers in preparation of flight.
"It's not the Daleks. It's the High Council."
"What?" He immediately stopped what he had been doing to listen.
"They've found out what you're doing, Doctor, and they're coming to stop you. I suggest you cease stalling and activate that device you've been trying to hide from me all this time we've been talking."
The Doctor stood aghast for a moment, then stepped abashedly to the side, revealing the doomsday machine. "You knew all this time?"
"Why do you think I am no longer president?" Romana smiled again, a bittersweet smile this time.
"Let them stop me," the Doctor said dejectedly. "It doesn't matter. I can't go through with it."
"Doctor, you have to." The Time Lady's voice was gentle but carried a forceful urgentness. "Planets are dying all around us. If this war goes on much longer, the Daleks will start destroying whole galaxies. You already know that, don't you? I know what you're like; you never would have so much as considered this plan unless you were certain there was no other way. The universe will be better off without the Daleks."
"And what about the Time Lords?"
"As I said, we're an old race. We've had our time, and now it's ending. Everything comes to dust. That's what you told Skaroth when his people died."
"The Time Lords are not like the Jagaroth," the Doctor said in a tone that surprised even him. He wondered briefly whether he had retained some of his people's characteristic pompousness and self-importance after all.
"No," Romana agreed. "In some ways we're worse. We're supposed to maintain reality, but recently that hasn't been going very well, has it? There was an age when our people stopped time wars, not started them." She sighed deeply. The Doctor could tell that this was something she had been thinking for a while, but had not dared to say to anyone else. "Maybe the universe will be better off without us as well."
"I'll kill you," the Doctor said quietly.
"That doesn't matter anymore."
"We won't regenerate. There won't be enough of us left."
The Doctor nodded in resignedness. "Right. Here we go then." He began to wheel the doomsday device to the doors of the TARDIS, then stopped suddenly and turned back to the viewscreen. "How are the Tharils, by the way?"
Romana's face remained expressionless. "Dead."
"And what about the Earth?" she asked, somewhat hesitantly. "Have your humans survived?"
"Yes. I've made sure of that. And they aren't 'my' humans," he added as an afterthought.
"Good." Romana smiled again, but not as brightly as before. "I'm glad, I really am. There's still time to save them, then. But to do that, you have to–"
"I know," he snapped. "I have to burn Skaro, burn Arcadia, burn Gallifrey, burn you." He covered his face in his hands. "Why me? Why do I have to be the one to press that switch?"
"Well, you are the self-appointed protector of the universe."
The Doctor sighed and grinned a bit sheepishly. "You know, I still haven't figured out how or when that happened." And with that, he made up his mind. "Romana, before I go, I want you to know that even though it's been ages since we were together, I haven't forgotten you. I never forget. And I want you to know that I... I..." he faltered.
He took a deep breath. "I care for you, Romana."
"I know that, Doctor. Now go quickly, before the Council arrives."
The Doctor nodded and wheeled his machine out of the TARDIS and onto the fertile Arcadian soil. Standing in the doorway with his hand on the switch, he closed his eyes and let the universe run through his head. There was Susan, already dead, murdered by Daleks as she held her fallen husband. There was Leela, still out there somewhere fighting with a savage ferocity and completely unaware that the war would soon be over. And there was Romana, brave, beautiful Romana, sitting serenely in the Capitol and waiting to die. Then he opened his eyes and took one last breath of air and one last look at the sky.
Then he pressed the switch, and everything ended.
The Doctor opened his eyes and found himself staring at the ceiling of the TARDIS. "I survived," he whispered. "But how?" He dispelled that thought; he could figure it out later. Right then, it was enough to be alive.
"Romana!" he shouted gleefully, jumping to his feet. "Romana, I did it! I–"
From the viewscreen came nothing but static.
Panicking, the Doctor closed his eyes again and tried to patch into the Time Lord collective conciousness. There was nothing. Romana was dead. Everyone was dead. His home was gone, and he was alone.
And he had made it happen.
"No!" he moaned, sinking to his knees. "No, no no! That isn't fair! Why did I survive, then? I can't be the last!"
He clutched at his head as though he could squeeze the void out of it. That was when he realized: no curls. He ran his hands over his face in search of other changes and found them. His nose was bigger, his teeth were crooked, and there was a mole on his right cheek that had not been there before. So, he had died after all.
Slowly, the terror and the sharpest of the grief drained away, leaving behind a dull, empty pain. He lay back down again. He did not have the energy to do anything else. This, he reflected, was what apathy felt like. He could not remember the last time he had experienced it, but he had a suspcion that it was all the way back in his first incarnation.
He did not know how long he lay there. It might have been for days. It was long enough, at any rate, for his stomach to begin aching with hunger, and then gradually grow numb as he became accustomed to the sensation.
At last he gathered the strength to get up and fix himself something to eat. He only managed a few mouthfulls before starting to feel sick. It was another few days before he got his appetite back, days that he spent wandering through the seemingly endless corridors of the TARDIS clinging to any scrap of familiarity he could find.
When he finally managed to fill his stomach again, the leaden fog he had been carrying around in his head for the past week or so began to clear out. He wondered for the first time where the TARDIS had landed.
Alone. The word thudded in his mind even as he went to check the display on the console. Alone. Alone. Homeless and alone.
Then, as he peered over the console, another word forced its way into his head, the word looking up at him from the readout.
For the first time since his most recent death, the Doctor smiled.