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Cultural Exchange

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He goes after Leela as soon as he can get away from Romana, as soon as he can drum up an excuse. His Lady President’s pride will never let her be the one to follow, nor to order him to do the same. Chancellor or not, however, Narvin is Coordinator of the CIA. He learned long ago to take the orders Presidents don’t actually speak.

He also learned something of tracking. He’s not as skilled at it as Leela is herself, but this is the Citadel—a version of it, anyway—and not some barren wilderness. She cannot cover her tracks here. She stands out too completely in this world to ever pass unnoticed, and witnesses can point him in the right direction just as well as disturbed soil or broken twigs. Half the city seems to have seen the madwoman in skins, and his Chancellor’s robes are more than enough to compel them to reveal which way she went. And it helps that her destination is far from surprising. He knows her this well, and better.

On Narvin's own Gallifrey, the Preserve is a perfectly circular, rigidly landscaped and relatively small park on the fringes of the Capital. Here it is almost a living thing, twisting and curling through the city. It runs between streets and along boulevards, pools into large circular spaces full of trees and paths and little rivers, and then stretches out thin again to trail its way around landmarks and buildings. Narvin wonders what that difference says about this Gallifrey, as opposed to his own. Are these people less rigid? Or more fanciful planners, perhaps—he thinks the shape of the Preserve may spell out words, some message within in the larger circle of the Citadel, and vows to find an aerial map and see for himself. Or maybe the Preserve is designed this way, wild and strange, as an intentional place of danger in this dangerous world. Too many hiding places, too much potential for ambush—when assassination is this world's favorite pastime, it's not hard for a mind like Narvin's to imagine that everything and anything here was designed to facilitate any given Gallifreyan's ability to murder his fellows.

The new Chancellor Narvin isn't the Time Lord to be caught in the same mistake twice. He has already taken to wearing a staser very visibly at his hip. He lets his hand hover conspicuously over it as he stalks through the Preserve, trying to remain wary even as he hunts for the foot-marks of soft leather boots in the soil. Which does not prepare him for an arm descending from a tree limb in front of him to point a knife directly between his eyes.

"Do you plan to shoot me so I cannot tell anyone who you truly are?" asks Leela's voice, wending its way down through the leaves to his ears. "Is it come to that already?"

"Be sensible, Leela," says Narvin, unalarmed despite the knife. "I'm the Chancellor of Gallifrey. If I wanted you dead, I could've sent someone else instead of risking my own skin."

"You are not going to say that after all the troubles we have faced together, you could never think of doing such a thing to me?"

"Oh, that obviously goes without saying."

Leela snorts, but he knows he's passed her test when the knife disappears and her face dips from her branch, upside-down, to look at him. "Well, then, you have come to try to bring me back with you."

He eyes the tree trunk with distaste for a moment, but Narvin is used to doing what needs to be done, whether or not he likes it. He sits—on the ground—with his back against the tree trunk, where he can look up comfortably at Leela stretched out on her branch. "Is that what you want me to do?" he asks.

"I want you to stop playing games and tell me the truth." Leela scowls down at him. "Romana has sent you. If she wishes to speak to me, she can do it herself or not at all. Until then, Narvin, go away and let me be."

"Romana didn't send me."

"You are a liar."

"True, but not in this particular case. She wanted to send me, but she couldn't quite bring herself to descend to that level of cowardice."

"Which is what you are for," says Leela, sourly. "To descend for her."

"When necessary," he answers. "I've never been ashamed of what I am."

"Perhaps you should be."

"Is this what you need?" he asks. "Someone to abuse? You could have done that without storming out, Savage."

"Do not call me that."

"You've never objected before."

"I am objecting now."

"Right now you deserve it, Savage. When you start acting like a rational being, I will of course desist."

Narvin knows how to play for a reaction. He gets one now. Leela's eyes blaze down at him.

“You think that word means everything I am,” she snaps, absolutely furious. “You think that with one little word you can capture me, when your words are so big and your names even longer. You know nothing."

Anger is good, useful. The angrier he makes her, the more quickly she’ll come to the point. "Oh, I'm the ignorant one, am I?" he goads.

"When you think of my tribe, my savages, everything you think is wrong. We were not stupid children huddled around our fires, scratching a life from the dust. Do you know where I truly come from, which of your words truly belong to me? I am not a savage. I am an exercise in eugenics.”

Narvin would never have imagined that Leela could possibly pronounce that final phrase, much less make it sound as natural as her own name. She has learned those words, lived with them, repeated them again and again in her mind if not her mouth. This is important to her. "Go on," Narvin says, as neutrally as he can.

“My tribe did not simply happen,” Leela says. “We were created. We were made. And what we were made to be is what you think I am—warriors, not scholars, superstitious and deadly. But do you know what they thought of me, Narvin? They cast me out, because I was not like them. I would not worship their gods. I would not follow leaders who I knew were foolish. My tribe killed my father and cast me out to die, and instead of giving up I found a greater and a better life than they could ever have dreamed. I have spent my life in learning, in working to be better than I was ever meant to be. I have given everything to be more than that tribe, than the entire world where I was born, and for what? So that you and others like you, others who have had every advantage that I did not, who were taught every fine word and fine idea that was kept from me on purpose, could reduce me down to one word so small that even I know it?”

Leela is shaking with anger now. “But you cannot make me small, Narvin. You cannot make me less. You can call me whatever you like. Call me savage, call me primitive, call me stupid, you cannot make it true. You cannot make my mind as closed and empty as yours is. You believe that your brain is so big, but you have never thought anything that someone did not first tell you to think. If you had been born where I was born, you would have gone to your death worshipping a mad computer that thought itself a god. You would never have learned anything of the science you hold so dear. You would never have found your way to the most powerful world in the sky. You would never have seen or done anything, and I have done everything. So which of us is the Savage, Time Lord? Tell me! Which of us is it who deserves your poisonous words?”

There is a long silence, echoing and empty. “I might have deserved that,” says Narvin, finally, “but I’m not the one you really wanted to say all of that to, or at least not the only one. Am I?”

Leela looks at him, hard and sharp. And then, in an instant, she deflates. “You did deserve it,” she says. There is exhaustion in the words, in the slump of her shoulders.

“That isn’t an answer.”

Leela sighs. “She tries,” she says. “Romana does try. She does not wish to believe that being human makes me less. She even thinks that she believes the opposite. But that makes it harder, sometimes, to know what to say to her. I know how to deal with the likes of you, Narvin. I have strong arms. When you shove me, I can shove back.”

“Oh, thank you,” he says, and she smiles softly.

“You do not hide what you think of me. Or when you do, it is the kind thoughts that you hide. But Romana hides the other thoughts, the cruel ones. Your world grinds hatred of difference so deep into the hearts of its children, and that is why the Academy was the battlefield Romana chose for her war: because she wanted a better future, a generation to grow without that stain. But no matter how she fought, she could not undo what had been done to her when she was a girl. That poisonous hatred is still somewhere in her blood. But she does not want to believe it is so. She wishes to be better than that, and I am glad of it. I am proud that she tries to learn.”

“I’m not seeing the problem,” Narvin says. “Not from your perspective, anyway.”

“The problem is that the ideas she buries come out in different ways. Ways that are... darker, and quieter, but not less. When she will not listen, will not believe, will not hear me at all, it is hard not to think that it is because of what I am. When she cannot even for a moment let herself walk in my footsteps, instead of assuming that I will follow in hers, it is hard to remember that this is only who she is, with everyone else as much as with me. When she does not bother to explain herself to me, to tell me her plans, it is hard to believe that she does not think I cannot understand, or that I do not need to know."

"There are times when you don't need to know." A lie would come more naturally to Narvin than the truth, but Leela admires people who tell the truth. Which makes the truth its own kind of lie, in a way. Narvin finds that oddly comforting.

"Perhaps I did not, once," Leela agrees. "But I have earned the right to share in the decisions that she makes for us all, or at least to know why she makes them. After everything we have lived through together, all three of us, it is fair that I should know."

He’s not entirely certain why, but it hits him like one of her knives to his gut. "Fair?" Narvin asks, and now he's the one so angry he can hardly speak. He shouldn’t let her affect him this way, he should be in control of this situation, but he’s too affected already for that thought to register at all. "Fair?"

He can almost see her hackles rising. "You do not agree?"

"Rassilon, every time I think... I will never understand you, Savage." He sneers the word, glorying in the flash of fury in her eyes when he does. "You think anything that happens to anyone in all this multiverse is fair? When Brax fell—what do you think that was? Penance? Was he getting what he deserved for his lies? When Romana was handed the Presidency with no political experience because of who she happened to be born, was that fair? When it was taken away from her because she would have died for her people, was that fair? I have fought all my lives for my planet, been shot, stabbed, blown up and had my lives stolen, and for my trouble I watched my world fall apart, my Gallifrey. And I have kept following Romana, and fighting for Romana, because she is so much more than either of us will ever be, and she needs us, Leela. She needs you. She cares about you. Is that nothing to you, Savage? Do you think you're the only one who's ever been looked down on, laughed at, hated? Do you think you're the only one who's been willing to die for that woman without being trusted or rewarded or thanked for your pains? But the difference, the difference is that she wants you. When she knew she was leaving Gallifrey, she wanted you with her. You weren't an afterthought, an accident. And that was unfair to you, was it? That was how under-appreciated you are?"

He stands and turns away, shaking. None of that was anything he meant to say, ever, to anyone. This conversation is out of his control, and he cannot have that. "Fine," he says, flatly. "Leave, then. It was stupid of me to think that any logic of mine could..."

Leela has slithered down from her tree to stand straight in his path. And before he can stop her, she wraps her arms around him and hugs him close. Narvin stiffens, too shocked, too entirely unused to the contact to react at all.

"You have needed to say that even longer than I have," Leela says, against Narvin's shoulder.

"Let go, Leela," he mumbles, but more embarrassed than angry and—however much he may try to hide it—as much touched as embarrassed.

She holds on a long moment longer, a definite mark of protest, but releases him before that protest becomes actual defiance.

"She does want you to stay," says Leela. "She wants both of us to stay, but she will never find the words to say so. For you, perhaps, that is enough, though it does not sound to me as though that is true. And I know that it is not enough for me."

"So that's it?" he asks. "You're just leaving? Giving up?"

"I did not say that." She studies him in a way that makes him uncomfortable. He's used to being watched too closely; it comes with his profession. But furtive glances and would-be unnoticed surveillance are more his area of expertise, not this honest, open scrutiny. "If I am to stay, I need to know that I am wanted. I need to hear the words. And you may be right that Romana will never be able to say them. But they do not need to come from Romana. It may be Romana we follow, Romana who needs our help to do the great things we both know she can do. But that does not mean that she is the only one who matters. That is the point."

He wants to look away from her. For some reason, he can’t. "Leela..."

"I like you, Narvin," says Leela, calmly. "I value you for your strength. You would give all you have to protect that which you love and that which you believe in. You are many things that I might wish you were not, but you are faithful to your friends, and you do what you believe is right. In this strange dark world, I would choose you for an ally. I have already chosen you for a friend. And if the choice were mine to make, I would also choose to be by your side—but only if that is where you would have me. I do not mind being alone, but I mind being where I am unwanted." She touches him, carefully, her hand on his arm, and it's more than that hug, somehow—strange, wrong, too much. "Would you have me stay?" she asks, looking into his eyes.

He is here for Romana, he tells himself. He is here for Romana, and so the answer to that question is easy. His President needs her Savage. What his President needs, Narvin provides. There is no need for him even to consider the question on his own account. There is no need to think about all of the things Leela has just said, or anything they might have made him feel. "Yes," he says. "I want you to stay."

Something flickers shut in Leela's eyes. "That was not a real answer," she says, releasing him, turning away.

"What are you... I said what you wanted me to say!" He stops her, a hand on her shoulder, turns her back a little more forcibly than he intends. "What stupid rule have I broken this time, hmm? What..."

Narvin thinks he would probably gasp, if he could. He tries, anyway, but Leela’s lips are against his, and there’s no air, not anywhere, none left in the atmosphere, none left at all in the whole of this strange, wrong, bitter universe.

She’s always been dangerous. She’s always been the unfactored variable, the element of chaos that he couldn’t plan for or defend against. This is wrong, it’s wrong, it’s all wrong, and then his eyes are closed, and there’s tree bark against the palms of his hands, and her nails scratching his scalp as her fingers slide into his hair, and her body is pressing against his, all over, too much, too close. She tastes human, and it’s wrong, and he wants it, and he wants it to stop, and he wants more, and then he’s shoving her away, and stumbling back, and staring at her dilated pupils, her deadly, too-black eyes.

That was an answer,” she says.

Every instinct in his body screams to run. Above all, Narvin is a survivor, and he has survived this long by knowing when to run. This is everything he should never, never, never do, should never allow himself to have. He has only one life left, and this is the kind of vulnerability that will cost him those few remaining years, and probably everything else besides. He knows better than this. He is better than this. And then it occurs to him that he hasn’t allowed himself to even think Leela’s name, and then it’s too late, and his fingers are wrapping themselves around her wrist.

“Not here,” he says, gravel in his voice, unrecognizable to his own ears over the pounding of his blood. He’s walking before he’s finished the words, but she keeps pace perfectly as his steps quicken and become a full-out run. This isn’t safe; nothing here is safe; nothing will ever be safe again. Leela is holding his hand as he leads them out of the Preserve. This Gallifrey is a parody of the real Gallifrey, and Narvin is a parody of his real self, but the hidden entrance to the Catacombs is where he knows it should be. He laughs, momentarily, hysterically, because he’s too terrified to do anything else, and watches Leela as she climbs down the ladder into the undercity, and follows her down.

There is a little light down here, filtering through tiny skylights hidden throughout the city, but it’s easier to pretend that the dark is all-enveloping. It’s easier not to see, just to feel; seeing is too much like thinking, and for so long as he doesn’t think, he can go on kissing Leela, down here in the blackness where no one’s eyes can see. She tastes dark, like smoke and forests, like everything he won’t ever know. Narvin is a cautious, conservative man who chose the most dangerous profession on Gallifrey and was good at it, the best at it, and it makes only too much sense that he would find himself here in the end. This woman is nothing he has ever wanted and everything he needs, and she understands him in ways he never knew he could be understood, and beyond all of that, she is Leela. There’s nothing more to say.

He breathes in dirt and sweat and leather, and stumbles with her through the Catacombs while his lips and hands are busy with other things. There is an entrance to the secret passageways somewhere... nearly... here. These are even filthier than the last set, but Leela will protect him from the spiders—he gives another strangled, horrible laugh, and stops kissing her.

“We can’t,” he says, his brain finally catching him up.

“We will,” Leela says. The passages are lit. Her lips are swollen with his kisses.

“This is insanity.”

“Yes,” she agrees, pressing her leg between his thighs. “That is why it feels so good.”

“We can’t afford it,” he says, closing his eyes, blocking out the sight of her as he cannot block out the feeling. “Someone will use this against us. They want to kill us on this world, Leela.”

“Then let them.” There is so much despair in her voice that Narvin’s eyes fly open again. “I have not felt alive in such a long time, Narvin. But I am strong again, now. My eyes are open. I want to want again. I want to be wanted. I do not care what it costs.” She kisses him so hard that colors burst behind his eyes. “If death does stalk our steps, then I would not die without feeling again.”

He breaks. “There’s a back door to my rooms down this passage.”

“Take me there.”

He tries not to wonder whether Leela is capable of a double entendre even as crude as that. He just leads them down the corridors, and fights not to touch her, and has to stop halfway to press her up against the wall again and kiss and kiss and kiss her until she wraps her leg around his hip and growls in the back of her throat. That noise in itself is nearly enough to destroy what little self-control he has left.

“We are going to make it back to my rooms,” he gasps, pulling her hands off of him and pinning them against the wall with both of his.

“Are we?” she asks, and grinds her hips up against his.

Yes, damn you.”

He has no idea how she manages to lift her other leg to wrap both of them around his waist, but he insists to himself that his hand only ends up on her thigh to stop her falling. “No one will find us here,” she points out. “What is it that you can do to me there that you cannot do here?”

“Get you out of those skins, for a start.”

“You used to think I wore too little.”

“You do.” He groans as her teeth scrape over his neck. “Which is why we should be behind a door that locks before you’re wearing any less.”

“We will be,” she murmurs. “That does not mean there is nothing we can do here.”

He’s forgotten her free hand, the one he had to release to hold her up. She slides it down his front and between her own legs to grope him firmly through his new Cardinal’s robes. Every rational link in his brain snaps in a single blow. “Leela,” he gasps, more of a squeak in his voice than he can strictly conscience. “You’ve got to stop that... oh Rassilon... Right now.”

“Why?” she purrs, directly into his ear, as her fingers squeeze and stroke.

“Because I... I’m already so... I’m going to...” His hands are tightening compulsively as he fights against his own body. Her hand goes on, stroking relentlessly. It feels better, she feels better, than his brain can comprehend.

“Yes,” Leela says. “That is the point.”

“But... But I...”

“Narvin,” says Leela, “you are going to kiss me now.”

He has been trained all his life to obey direct orders (though not without complaint). He obeys this one. She slides her tongue between his lips, and digs her heels against his arse to shove his hips forward, and twists her wrist, and squeezes. And then he’s groaning a noise that is seven-tenths pleasure and three-tenths mortification as he makes a damp mess of his pants.

Narvin struggles to breathe and leans heavily against the wall, determined not to make this situation still worse by dropping Leela into the bargain. She untwines her legs of her own accord and stands, looking inexplicably pleased. “I know that it is not an easy thing to make you smile,” she observes, “but I had thought that might be enough.”

“I..but I...”

“Narvin,” says Leela, sliding sideways and taking him by both hands to pull him along the passageway. “How long has it been since you let someone touch you that way?”

He narrows his eyes. “Some time,” he says, vaguely.

“Mmmm,” says Leela, laughter quavering in the corners of her mouth. “I thought so. And tell me, if we had been in your bed just then, and you had got me out of my dress, how long do you think it would have been before that happened anyway?”

Narvin begins to answer, and then stops again. “...Possibly less time than either of us would strictly speaking have preferred,” he admits.

“But now,” says Leela, “when we are behind that locked door, perhaps you will have a bit more... concentration.”

“Leela,” says Narvin, staring, “did you just...out-scheme me?”

The arch of Leela’s eyebrow is practically worthy of Braxiatel.

“Leela of the Sevateem,” says Narvin, “I am proud to call you a Gallifreyan.”

The expression on Leela’s face registers her appreciation of the humor he intends, but beneath that, she’s more touched than he has ever seen her before.

“And that is what I needed to hear,” she says, softly.

“Good,” he says, equally serious, and then with a hint of a smile. “You’ve decided you just might stay, then?”

“I will consider it.” She smiles.

“If I give you my very best... concentration?”

“We shall see.”

“How soon shall we see?” he asks.

“Does now suit you?”

He looks her up and down—Leela of the Sevateem, the Savage on Gallifrey, and the most surprising woman he has ever known. “I cannot imagine,” Narvin says, “what could possibly suit me better.”