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Ground Zero

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"Did you know?"

Irving Braxiatel looked away from the glass pane before him. The voice cut through his musings, uncharacteristically cold. Braxiatel swallowed. The air seemed heavy. It had seemed that way all day. Ever since-

"Did you know?" the Doctor repeated, his eyes narrowed as he looked at Braxiatel.

"Doctor, if I had known I swear to you-"

"Do you, now? Because it seems to me that this is exactly the sort of thing you would have seen coming. Our president- our Romana, captured by Daleks on Etra Prime? You have eyes everywhere. I find it hard to believe-"


"No, let me finish. If I find that you knew about this and allowed it to happen, I'll-" The Doctor's face contorted slightly as though in deep thought. Even with this new face, round and soft like his last one, but now topped with blond curls and dressed in garish rainbow colours that made him look even more harmless, he still managed an impressive scowl.

Still, it seemed actually threatening Brax was too much for him to manage.

"I swear to you that I did not know," Braxiatel said quietly, crossing his hand over his chest in a gesture that still remained of their shared childhood. 'Cross your hearts and hope to die', the only way to know for sure that whatever prank had been cooked up had in fact been intended for some boring relative, not a sibling. They'd used it often, when they were little.

It was not technically a lie.

The younger of the two Time Lords huffed and drew himself up, filling his chest with air. After a moment's deliberation, he nodded. Together, they turned to look through the window again.

"She looks so small," the Doctor said, pained.

Braxiatel's hearts were doing a fine impression of a stampede. Romana, a prisoner of the Daleks. For twenty years. Of course the Doctor had found her- well, him and his companion, the current model being a middle-aged Earth historian with a knack for eyeing Braxiatel suspiciously- and brought her to Gallifrey.

For all her bluster and courage, Romana hadn't resisted the med-team for long. It wasn't hard to see why. She was still asleep, her bed just visible through the glass wall. She seemed impossibly small- no, she'd always seemed small, now she seemed... diminished. As though that fire that had always burned at the heart of her had been doused, however temporarily. It was a frightening thing, to see the fiercest Time Lady he'd ever known reduced to a hollow-eyed skeleton.

She'd need time. Oh, irony.

He'd rushed towards the med bay the moment he'd heard of her return. She'd still been on her feet when he arrived, flanked by firm orderlies about to take her to bed. She needed a Zero Room, really, but she'd refused anything she considered to be 'too much fuss' or 'a grossly exaggerated response to my ailments'.

Well. She was the woman who'd made a habit of going down to the Vaults as a young woman, after all. Her concept of 'danger' had always been rather underdeveloped, and the Doctor had then taken that underdeveloped little creature and punted it into another universe. Romana was, truly, unlike any other Time Lady Braxiatel knew.

As they'd escorted her into the recovery room, she'd glanced up with tired eyes. She'd barely acknowledged him, but Braxiatel supposed he couldn't blame her for it. Gallifrey had failed her. And he had failed her most of all.

"She's not sleeping, is she?" he asked. It wasn't what he'd meant to say, but it was all he could think of.

The Doctor nodded slowly. "She slept a little before the medics got to her, but... Well." He sighed. "She didn't get much sleep either way. Nightmares."

Braxiatel's throat constricted. "How bad was it? On Etra Prime?"

The Doctor's face was still a little pale. There was a streak of grime on his cheek he hadn't yet cleaned, although his companion had made an attempt with her handkerchief. She'd only succeeded in spreading it further. He shook his head slowly. "It was atrocious."

The two stood there for a moment, deep in thought. Then the Doctor put his hands in his pockets, and bounced on the balls of his feet a few times. He was still frowning, but a flightiness had taken over his movement. Braxiatel snorted knowingly. "You want to leave, don't you?"

The Doctor glanced at him, surprise and guilt written all over his face. "I- it's just that I've left Evelyn wandering around on her own. She mustn't get into any trouble."

Braxiatel smiled faintly. "Of course. Go save your damsel in distress."

The Doctor made a sound somewhere in between a laugh and a groan. "I assure you she is no damsel." He turned away, shoulders raised, but stopped before walking out altogether. "Brax- let her know, would you, that- well. Send her my regards."

Braxiatel inclined his head. "Of course, Doctor. Safe travels to you."

As the Doctor ambled out, Braxiatel could have sworn he muttered, "now, that would be miraculous."

Still smiling to himself, he turned back to the window, placing a hand against it. The cold touch of glass momentarily distracted him, so when he looked back up he was surprised to see sharp blue eyes drilling into his own. Romana was sitting up in her bed in all her gaunt, shadow-eyed glory.

Braxiatel startled, and found himself unable to break away from her gaze.

Romana's lips thinned. Then, she nodded at the door. Braxiatel blinked and opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. The hand he used to operate the door controls was clammy with sweat.

The room itself was stiflingly hot. Gaunt as she was Romana had lost most of her natural defence against the cold, Braxiatel told himself. The heat was not intended to make him uncomfortable. This was not an interrogation.

He couldn't quite convince himself of that.

He stopped a few feet away from her bed and folded his hands behind his back so she wouldn't be able to see them shake. "My lady president," he said, and bowed.

Rather than greet him in return, she observed him quietly. From this close up, Braxiatel could see that her wrists- thin, and so fragile- were bandaged. Manacles, his brain supplied. He wondered idly if they tortured her.

Suddenly nauseous, he forced himself to meet her eyes. They seemed to drill into his mind, accusing and cold. Then, some of the tension broke.

 "Brax," she said, "I'm glad you're here."

She was still beautiful, even hurt and broken. Braxiatel swept forward and into the chair next to her bed, where he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, almost overcome by  a sense of urgency to let her know that he did not leave her there on purpose-

"Romana- if I had known-" his voice came out more fragile than he'd hoped.

"When did you find out?" Romana asked. Her hand lay by her side without movement, her knuckles standing out in sharp relief. He wanted to take it and squeeze it, but he didn't dare to.

"I-" That there was a Time Lord on Etra Prime? Fifteen years ago, when he'd found out by accident. Only for his future self to convince him he should not disturb the course of events. That it had been Romana? Not until the Doctor had come barging in, clamouring for attention. "Thirty micro-spans ago."

Some microscopic emotion flashed over her face, but she smoothed it out into that same emotionless mask before he could read her properly. Her mind, too, was shielded, but he could tell that its surface did not reflect her stoic expression.

She blinked a little. "Stop that," she said, and her shields went up even further. "I don't need you to- to check up on me."

"My lady, we are all worried-"

She looked away. "There is no need for it. I am back, aren't I? In a few days' rest I will be fit to assume my office once more." She moved her hands to her lap, where they were worrying at the fabric of her blanket. Braxiatel remembered that from her Academy days- she'd always worry her hands or pluck on the fabric of her robes when she talked about her classmates.

Uncomfortable, then. And what she had just said was almost certainly a lie.

"My lady, no one expects you to resume office right away. After all you've been through-"

"I do not need their pity! Or yours, Brax," she cuts him off sharply, and oh, he'd been so wrong to think her fire had been extinguished. It was there in her eyes as she turned on him, blazing. The Daleks did not douse the flame- they fanned it.

But perhaps the flame was too erratic and wild to be effective, now.

She looked away again, her hair hiding her expression from view. She didn't wear it up like most of the other Time Ladies, instead choosing to let it fall around her face as a symbol of her free spirit. Now, though, it was longer and thinner than before, and grey appeared at her temples.

"It's on all the networks, of course," Romana continued. " 'President Romana, that poor girl, fallen victim to the big bad Daleks'."

"I'm sure no one thinks any less of you, my lady-"

"But they do. To them, I am not the woman who just saved Gallifrey, I am the women who was imprisoned by Daleks for two decades. They're all imagining it. What it was like. Well, I can assure you, nothing you imagine would even come close to- to-"

Braxiatel had imagined torture, a dank cellar, and minutes that pass by indeterminably slow. A world where the only way to measure time is by the beats of one's hearts. But thinking it, he knew,was not the same as living it. He bowed his head. She would not wish for him to see her tears.

She wiped furiously at her eyes, her mind buzzing so sharply that even with her shields up he could feel some of her distress. But Romana was never one to linger on pain or heartache for long, and when she cleared her throat he knew she would once again be Romanadvoradrelundar, President of the High Council. Not Romana, the young Time Lady who'd just been through the unimaginable.

"Now, Brax. I assume you are here to brief me on all that I've missed in the past twenty years?" She asked, her voice only shaking a little. If he ignored her physical state and red-rimmed eyes, he could almost have believed it.

He pondered her question and tried not to let his hearts break in the process. They were friends of a sort, yes, but to her he was colleague first, confidante second. Right now, he too had to take up his mantle again and become Cardinal Braxiatel, of Prydon House.

He breathed in deeply. "Of course, my lady. If you would turn your mind to the matter of...?"

By the time Braxiatel left, Romana was exhausted. She turned on her side and stared at the data pad he had left her for a while. The bed felt uncomfortably soft beneath her, as though she could sink through the mattress at any time. It made her think of drowning. She wondered if Vrint would have felt the same way, if he'd survived. But then he was a Monan- perhaps he would not have been so keenly aware of the texture of the blankets or the staleness of the recycled air in her lungs.

Romana wasn't sure when Gallifrey stopped being home, but she felt it more keenly today than she had in decades. She missed her TARDIS, missed the ability to leave the planet whenever she wanted to. Most of all, she wanted to go to House Heartshaven, to her childhood bedroom, or the library she had loved so deeply. She wanted the comfort of the House around her, not the cold embrace of the recovery room. She should have wanted her presidential robes. The sash, the rod, the... the- ah. She couldn't quite remember what other 'artefacts of Rassilon' she was supposed to have. She was so tired.

When Brax had left, she'd wanted to ask him to leave the door open. Even just a crack would have been enough. She squeezed her eyes shut briefly. It seemed that she was always at war with what she should want and what she actually wanted.

She curled her body up even tighter and briefly contemplated regeneration. A fresh start, a new body unburdened by the hurt the Daleks had put her through. This body was wearing thin, the nerves still screaming as though she'd just gone through another of the Daleks' 'sessions'. They'd preferred electric currents.

When she'd caught sight of her image in the mirror, she'd barely recognized herself. But she was still alive. Her hearts still beat in her chest, and she had helped save Gallifrey from certain destruction. How was that for pay-back? She hadn't saved Vrint, but she had sure as hell tried. And she could save his people.

She was Gallifrey's president, after all. Whether she liked it or not. Tomorrow, there would be political manoeuvring. There were speeches to be held, and a public to assure of her suitability for the office. There were snakes like Darkel to keep at bay, a new CIA coordinator to meet, and- she tapped her data pad. Ah- a meeting with the earth woman Leela.

Tomorrow, Romana would once again be Romanadvoradrelundar, president of the high council of Gallifrey. But for tonight, she would curl up in bed and acknowledge, just for a moment, that it would take more than a presidency to feel like herself again.