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Freeze and Thaw

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It takes less than a heartsbeat for the brightest spot in the universe to go dark.

It happens too fast for either Leela or Narvin to do anything about it. One minute, the three of them are racing through the mountains at full speed, away from the band of would-be assassins hellbent on murdering the President and Chancellor and seizing the Citadel. Narvin's "I think we've lost them" hangs half-spoken between his lips. They are just rounding a sharp corner of rock, with Romana in the lead. And then there isn't any ground beneath Romana's feet, only several thousand feet of empty air.

It may be too fast for Narvin to do anything about it, but it's just slow enough for him to catch a glimpse of the look of horror on Romana's face, before she drops completely out of view. That look stops Narvin's feet, not any sort of command from his brain to his legs. It freezes him to stone. It puts a halt to Time itself.

Romana doesn't even scream.

Leela does, what may be a great while later. Narvin can't think, has lost all sense of time and the universe around him. If he could consider that scream, he would probably think it a horrible sound. He had no idea such an animal shriek could be produced by a humanoid throat. There is a moment of pause, not quite long enough for the echoes of the first ululation to fully dissipate into the air. And then she does it again, and drops down to her knees.

"Stop that," says a distant, cold voice that must be Narvin's own.

Leela doesn't stop. The world sinks as Narvin's knees bend. His hand presses itself over Leela's mouth.

"Stop that," he repeats. "They could still be following."

He isn't looking at Leela. He isn't looking at anything. He isn't thinking, or sensing, or feeling, numb as the empty moment between darkness and regeneration. But some part of his brain registers his peripheral vision, and sees the expression on Leela's face. Narvin has been loathed all his life, but even so, nobody's ever looked at him with such unadulterated hate. Her fingers wrap around his hand, and viciously rip it from her face.

"I hope they do find you," she says, tears dribbling through her voice. "You deserve no better."

He doesn't say anything. She spits into the dust at his feet.

"What kind of a man are you?" she snarls. "Romana is dead, and you do not even care!"

He does nothing, for a moment. And then he does turn to look at Leela, very slowly. "Savage," he says, in an absolutely emotionless voice, "you have five nanospans. Use them to pray to your gods, or to have a go at knifing me in the throat, I don't care which. Because in five nanospans, I am going to kill you for saying that. I am going to staser you in the head, and never feel a moment's regret about it. Do you understand me, you stupid primitive?"

It's only after he stops speaking that he realizes he's shaking. Leela's look isn't hatred anymore. But neither is it fear.

"Yes," she says, calmly. "I understand. And I think it is the most human thing I have ever heard you say." She swallows, and holds out her hand to him. He watches another tear squeeze its way from her eye, and leave a discolored streak down her cheek. "I am sorry for what I said."

He blinks twice, and takes Leela's hand, and shakes it, with a dull nod. He fully meets her eye for the first time in the entire exchange, sees the naked grief there. It hits him like a shot, and somehow Leela has her arms around him. She's crying into his shoulder, leaning into his body. And then his eyes are closing, and his mouth opening, as the agony of it finally hits him. His whole body curls in on itself, as though the pain were outside, not within, and his spine could be a wall to shelter him and Leela both from this fathomless sorrow.

"As touching as this is," says a voice, "it would be a great deal of help if one of you could give me a hand."

Leela and Narvin's heads snap to the side. Romana clings to the cliffedge, somewhat disheveled but entirely alive. "This anti-gravity gadget of yours really isn't half bad, Narvin," she says, conversationally. "I mean, I'd rather it hadn't died on me before I could make it all the way over, but as it's just saved my life I really don't think I'm in a position to complain. I'm afraid I am going to have to insist about that hand up, however."

Leela is already scrambling towards the edge, grasping Romana's hands and using all her body strength to pull Romana up. They end up in a dusty heap on the ground. Romana smiles ruefully at Leela. "I'm sorry for giving you such a scare," she says.

Leela manages somehow to laugh and start crying again in the very same breath, and squeeze Romana into a wild hug into the bargain. "Careful!" Romana says, laughing too. "I thought you were glad I was still breathing, you needn't squeeze it all out of me again."

"There is breath in you to squeeze," Leela laughs. "Oh, that is good, that is very, very good, oh Romana!"

Romana hugs her back. "I'm rather pleased with it myself, as a matter of fact."

"I am so sorry that I left," says Leela, pulling back far enough to look Romana in the eyes. "I thought I would never have a chance to tell you so."

"It's a good thing you did leave. You'd never have heard about the plot against us, otherwise, and couldn't have come back to warn us just in the nick of time." Romana bites her lip. "I missed you, Leela," she admits.

"As I did you, my dearest friend," says Leela, taking Romana's hands.

Romana squeezes, and smiles. "I suspect we're mortifying Narvin with our frightful emotionalism," she says, slightly more loudly, turning to look at him. "I don't think I've ever known you quiet for this long together, Chancellor. Haven't you anything to say to me?"

He hasn't moved since Romana's head appeared over the edge of the cliff, not so much as the twitch of a finger. But now he stands, and crosses to the women, and holds out his hands to his President. She takes them, quirking a head at his ashy face, and lets him pull her upright. "I wished I'd gone over with you," he says, in a strained undertone barely recognizable as his own voice.

Her eyes widen, and they stand in silence for a long moment, her hands in his. "Well, naturally," she says, falsely light. "You had one of these too, didn't you?" She reclaims her hands, and pulls the CIA-issue anti-gravity sphere from her pocket, proffering it to him. "I'm sure you would be jealous that I had the first try at playing with one of your toys."

"Of course," he says, after a beat, struggling to remember how conversation is meant to work, and conscious that his voice still sounds distant and strange. "I can't abide the very thought."

Romana turns away from him and gives her hands to Leela, who has been watching Romana and Narvin's conversation with interest. "We should press on," says Romana. "They'll still be hunting for us. We need to find somewhere safe to hole up until the furore dies down, and then hatch a plan for sneaking back into the Presidential Palace. The rift-powered TARDIS prototype Narvin and I have been building is almost complete--functional enough to get us off planet, at any rate, to somewhere we can finish it without dodging assassins."

"A TARDIS!" says Leela, excitedly. "Does that mean we can go home? Back to the true Gallifrey?"

"Not before we rescue K-9 from the Axis," says Romana, with a smile. "And have a go at finding Braxiatel, as well."

"But before that," says Narvin, "we lie low for a night or two. The lab with the prototype should be sufficiently well-concealed that the plotters won't stumble on it, and with a little time I can rig up a transmat to get the three of us there without having to worry about their guards."

"I really must have a word with you about that, Chancellor Narvin," says Romana. "Weren't you meant to be the one responsible for ensuring that my Chancellery Guard didn't try to kill me?"

"In my defense, they tried to kill me, too."

"Mmm. I suppose you think that means I should forgive you."

"Would it help if I mention I've a dimensionally transcendental tent that's more like a smallish mansion hidden somewhere in my pockets?"

"In that case, I won't even make you grovel for your pardon," says Romana. The way she smiles at him brings home to him suddenly how normal the conversation is, and instead of being comforting, that thought makes his stomach drop. He looks hastily away from her.

"Right," he says, forcing himself to focus. "Leela, you're by far the best tracker of the three of us."

She raises an eyebrow. "Thank you, Narvin," she says, surprised by the compliment.

"Care to select a site for our camp?"

Leela nods. "I will lead," she says. "But slowly this time. I do not have flying machines in my pockets. Romana, you will come last of all. Once in a day is too many times already."

Narvin half expects Romana to balk at someone else taking control, even in so minor a way. But she only looks amused, and a bit thoughtful, no doubt remembering Leela storming from the Citadel in protest of her own leadership. Romana nods, still smiling softly.

"You don't have pockets at all, Leela," Narvin points out, by way of distraction.

"No, but I do have a knife, and I will poke you with it if you do not follow me."

"Not cut my hearts out? Your threats are getting tamer, Savage."

"I thought there had been enough threats of killing for a little while, at least." She looks hard at him, a penetrating gaze that reminds him he should never underestimate this woman, skin-wearing human or no.

"Leela," he says, as she leads them cautiously along the mountainside, "you aren't a stupid primitive."

"And I do not care what names you call me," she replies. "I know who and what I am. I have spent this time apart in reminding myself, and I will not forget again. I am what you mean by your word 'primitive,' and I do not know the kinds of things your people know. But I have wisdom of a kind that you do not, and strength that you cannot take from me. And I am something else I had forgotten: I am true to my friends, and deadly to my enemies." She smiles at Narvin. "So you had better not be one of my enemies, is that not so, Time Lord?"

"I tremble at the very thought," says Narvin.

"No, you do not," says Leela, looking sidelong back at Romana. "But have seen what does make you tremble." She looks hard at Narvin. "What have you learned of late, Narvin?"

Narvin very carefully avoids turning around, though he can feel Romana's inquisitive gaze on his back as she listens in on the conversation. "Best keep your eyes on the path, Savage," he says, casually and a little too loud. "We wouldn't want any more accidents."

Leela smiles slightly, and turns away. And Narvin is left to avoid his own thoughts, and to try not to feel Romana's eyes, still lingering thoughtfully on the back of his head.