Seeing his President sitting on the floor, staring blankly into empty space, was almost enough to convince him he was making a mistake. Before he could step back and reconsider, he hears her voice.
“I hate you.” says Romana, without even looking up. Her tone was light and conversational, like she’d merely asked him to pass her a cup of tea.
She looks over him, never quite meeting his eyes. There was something uncanny about her, but it wasn’t that she wasn’t all there, more that there was too much of her there. “You’re not wearing your Chancellor’s uniform.”
Braxiatel reflexively glances down at his ensemble- tailcoat, waistcoat, bowtie, fobwatch and a dress shirt with sleeves puffy enough that they’d be at home in a Shakespearian tragedy. It was a bit ostentatious, even for him, but he’d been inquiring about some unique artefacts, still musing over whether to cough up the extortionate price or steal it and one had to look the part. “Should I be? It was made quite clear that I hold no claim to the title.”
“I thought you’d look just like you did when you left.” She says. “We didn’t think I had that much imagination.”
He manages to turn a shrug into a grandiose gesture. “Well, I’ve had things to do, people to see. All that ceremonial garb, it’s a bit much in alien company. In any company, really, but ours is a sick world.” He pauses. “Do you like it?”
“My new outfit.”
“It’s… befitting of an art collector, I suppose.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Not of a Time Lord?”
“Are you trying to convince me you’re real?” she asks, in lieu of an answer.
He considers it for a moment. “Do you think I am?”
She reaches out to grasp his hand but finds only air, Braxiatel already stepping back. She purses her lips. “Evidently not.”
“Is that really proof?" Braxiatel asks, putting another step between them. "I could be completely solid, just hosting an unwelcome interloper.”
He frowns. “Having the past and present aspects of a vengeful spirit in my head is far from convenient.”
“It’s not because of her.” Romana sighs, seeming to tire of the charade. “It’s because you’re not real.”
He smiles and takes the easy way out. “You’ve got me.”
“You said it was because of Pandora.”
“I lied. I do that a lot. I think you noticed.”
“I know that.” says Romana, her tone flat and devoid of inflection. “We all know that. I meant, would that be because Pandora’s in your head? Or because she’s in mine?”
He joins her on the floor, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Is she?”
“There’s something in my head.” She wails, a sudden distress to her words. She clutches at the sides of her head, scratches at it, as if she could physically scrape the intruder out. “Brax, there’s something in my head.”
He leans in as close as he dares. “What is it saying?”
“Oh, nothing. Everything. Better than me. Romana the first.” Her tone changes into one he hasn't heard for a long time, gaining a childish uncertainty. “It’s not true, is it, Brax? I’m better than her. I can win at warfare, I can win at anything. Oh- not her, go away, go away!”
“You can do anything you set your mind to.” he says, trying to keep his voice soothing. “I’ve never doubted that.”
“What if I can’t? I couldn’t before. You beat her. I lost. No, I didn’t. I chose, you tricked me, tutor Braxiatel, you both tricked- no, I’m President of Gallifrey- I was President of Gallifrey- I can’t, Brax!” She took a shuddering breath. “She’s stronger than I am. She scares me.”
He hesitates, feeling like she was conversing with herself, but then again, she thinks he’s just another fragment of herself, an imagined model of his behaviour. “You scare her. She fears you more than she hates you. She’s in my head; I know what she thinks. You’re the true Romana, the one with the right to be here.”
“Which one of me?” She blinks, waiting for an answer. “Please tell me, there’s so many of us. And Pandora.” She freezes. “Pandora shouldn’t be here it’s wrong-” She starts scratching at her face, pulling at her hair, “-I can’t get her out, can’t get any of them out, Brax make them go away!”
Braxiatel reaches out, instinctively, and then forces his arms to fall back to his sides. “Please, Romana, stop. You’ll hurt yourself.” He says, as gently as he can.
She doesn’t. She curls into a fetal position and he wants to at least lift her from the floor and find her somewhere softer, to save her from the bruises she’ll no doubt develop. He doesn’t.
“I can hear her, Brax, even when I sleep, she talks, they all talk and I’m starting to believe her. There’s so many voices I can’t remember which one’s mine- well, they’re all mine, that’s the problem, too many Romanas!”
“Please, Romana, go to sleep.” He says, layering his voice with psychic suggestion but there’s only so much that can do, when he can’t allow their minds to touch.
He casts his thoughts for ways to soothe her mind that don’t involve touch telepathy. He can’t let the rightful President of Gallifrey be possessed simply because he doesn’t have the willpower to watch her cry.
The only thing he comes up with is ridiculous and relies entirely on sentimentality- a lullaby. He’s almost too embarrassed to try. It’s not singing in the alien sense- completely telepathic and devoid of words, just images, concepts, feelings, but he remembers them as remarkably calming.
They were rare on Gallifrey- any loomling over seven who requested one from a cousin would end up with a stern lecture about personal responsibility and how if they were old enough to stare in to the time vortex and glimpse the entirety of time and space, they were old enough to get to sleep themselves, and no, Theta, Zagreus isn’t really under your bed.
He has the technical skill but he’d always struggled with adding emotion to it, it required too much honesty and without that, it was just a regurgitation of a textbook. There was a reason why he collected art rather than made it.
But that hadn’t stopped Theta from asking and once, just once, Braxiatel had obliged. He’d sworn that Death herself had tried to make him her champion and while he’d never believed a word of that story, Theta had evidently terrified himself with his own overactive imagination but it had worked. Theta had fallen into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.
He focuses on that, the calmness of that moment, before he’d gotten complicated, before he’d been ordered to kill an old man and his granddaughter, before he’d murdered a President, before he’d looked into a mirror and seen someone not quite him, not yet, smile back at him. He sings the moment into a lullaby and watches as her mutterings subside into fitful sleep.
This is your masterpiece, says something inside him, this is what you’ve done.
Not forever, he counters. He’s seen her worse than this, seen her choking on too sudden freedom, unable to cope with light and food and choices and voices that weren’t robotic and words that weren’t harsh. And then he’d seen her walk through the panopticon, adorned with the rod and sash, head held high. Heard her take the oath again, no tremor in her voice, words sharp and clear, a challenge to any naysayer; saw her face down Cardinals and Coordinators and Darkel, not allowing anyone to take advantage of her ordeal. Except, perhaps, him.
She’d recover, become President again, this’ll all fade away, another memory to lock away, another trauma she’d pretend never happened, as if sheer stubbornness could erase as effectively as the oubliette. His involvement will all feel like a fevered dream, borne from her unstable mind.
Stop it, he imagines future-Romana saying to him, full of fiery indignation, because he can’t imagine a Romana without words and the one in front of him can barely string a sentence together without getting distracted by her future or her past, let alone give him the admonishments he deserves. You see people as statues, as futures, as potentials. For Rassilon’s sake, pay attention to the present.
She’s asleep still, he’d helped in that regard, but she looks anything but peaceful. He can feel her mind buzzing at the edges of his, still overstimulated, full of a being she can’t understand.
It would be so easy, he thinks- or maybe it’s not him who thinks it, to reach out and brush her fringe away, to press his fingertips to her forehead and lull her into a deeper sleep, one where no nightmare could touch her, a true respite from the chaos of her conscious mind. Or even, to relieve her of her burden, to take away the creature, to cut away her every memory of her splintering mind, to leave her just as she’d been before she’d taken a step into the Vaults.
She hadn’t given consent, had no chance to say contact, but wouldn’t anyone, if that was the price of peace? She disapproved of his earlier transgressions but she hadn’t said she’d have rather he’d not meddled in the course of history, that she’d rather have followed the path Pandora had marked for her.
He reaches a hand towards her.
He stops. He has a responsibility. He has a plan- well, several plans, and surely one of them would work. Even being back on the planet was a liability, a stupid risk borne of sentiment and guilt and whispered suggestions from Pandora. He was, for all intents and purposes, a living prison and being anywhere near Romana, near Gallifrey, was like dangling the key just in reach of the captive. He couldn’t be here, not yet, and not for this.
She might eventually forgive him for taking away the autonomy of a foolish student for the safety of the planet; she wouldn’t forgive him jeopardising Gallifrey, jeopardising the future he’d so painstakingly built, all because he didn’t have the stomach to watch the consequences of his plans. He turns to leave.
He hears her breath catch and glances back. Romana was looking up at him, caught in a lucid moment, an awareness of who she was sparking in her eyes that hadn’t been there a second ago.
“Brax?” she asks and he knew then, if he said he was real, she’d believe him.
He transmats away, disappearing the same as any phantom would.
Romana flinches awake. “Oh. Leela. What I wouldn’t give for a lockable door.”
Leela lingers next to her and lets the silence stretch. She doesn’t seem to know how to talk to her anymore. Maybe it’s because she’s now weak and entirely un-presidential, or because she’d lost her sight following Romana’s orders. Or maybe she hasn’t known how to talk to her for a long time, since lies and Andred and betrayal had fallen between them.
Romana winces and sits up, regretting falling asleep on concrete. She couldn’t shake the feeling she was missing something, overlooking something important. She’d had a strange dream- it had been remarkably detailed for a dream, but it couldn’t have been more than that. None of it had felt real, substantial. And Braxiatel wouldn’t have been foolish enough to come back.
Then again, she thinks, Andred’s death had felt so much like a nightmare that she’d dismissed it as such, until they found the body. Pandora couldn’t really be in her head again, not like that, could she?
She grabs Leela’s hand, caught in a sudden wave of urgency. “How many microspans has it been since you last saw me?”
Leela pulls her arm away. “I do not know! I do not carry a watch in my head like you.”
“When was the last time you saw- were aware of me? It’s important.”
“In the mess hall, at breakfast.” She frowns. “What is wrong, Romana? You fear you were not yourself again?”
“I thought I- I thought there was someone here.” She sighs, all of her tense energy leaving her body. She wasn’t sure why she only felt half relieved. If Braxiatel really had been there, he evidently hadn’t deigned to help fight the war she seemed doomed to lose. “I imagined it, that’s all.”
“You must not believe the lies in your head.”
“I don’t. I know that!“ she snaps.
“I am only trying to help.” Leela says, indignation creeping into her tone. “I am your friend.”
“I don’t have friends.” Romana says, and this time she means it.