The Rani had no time for ceremony, or useless ostentation. Her space station was a vast laboratory, full of unspeakable experiments, all carefully arranged, catalogued and recorded for posterity. Romana approved, of the simplicity and organisation, at least. As for the experiments themselves -- well, she had a ruthless streak of her own, as had been pointed out--
"I know why you're here," the Rani repeated, "and you're wasting your time." She held a vial up to the light. "Then again, maybe you have time to spare. My sources suggest otherwise, though."
Romana took a step forward.
"Then you have been following the war?" she asked.
For a second, the Rani's hand shook, and she set the vial down on the bench.
"Did the Doctor send you?" she asked.
"No." Romana stepped back to examine a vast crystal structure, twice her height and as wide as an ancient tree. "In fact, he argued against involving you at all. How did you extend this crystal into the fifth dimension?"
"I threw it into the Untempered Schism when I was twelve. I wanted to see what would happen." The Rani paused, then added, "the tutors wanted to expel me, but Cardinal Borusa thought it showed imagination."
"A trait somewhat lacking in most Time Lords, although I should think your particular class had an over-abundance of it." Romana ran a hand over a crystal branch, and listened to the hum of time. "How did you get it out of the Schism?"
"You should ask the Doctor," the Rani said. "Unless he's conveniently forgotten his youthful crimes."
"I expect I could trip his memory," said Romana, and she returned the Rani's smile.
"You're very young to be the Lady President," the Rani observed. "Do you have a cat, by any chance?"
"I'm more of a dog person. Do you still keep mice?"
"I've moved on to bipeds."
"Of course," said Romana. "And Daleks, I hear."
"Once. I can't say I care for the species."
"The mutations you introduced into the Movellan virus were quite effective, I thought."
"Oh?" The Rani raised her eyebrows. "I heard you got a triple first from that wretched academy, but I was under the impression you specialised in xeno-sociology. Or did the Doctor introduce you to the joys of dilettantism?"
"You make it sound positively obscene."
"One does hear stories," said the Rani, "even in this temporal backwater. I'm sorry you didn't bring your human bodyguard along. Is it true that she's six feet tall and in a permanent state of arousal?"
"No," said Romana through her teeth.
"Would you like her to be?"
"We are losing our war against the Daleks," Romana snapped, "and your assistance might give us the edge we need to survive."
"Survival?" The Rani turned, to look Romana properly in the face for the first time. "Mere survival? Is that the best you can hope for?"
"What happened to lording it over the lesser races, non-interference, parading through dusty corridors and squabbling over the alleged artefacts of Rassilon?"
"Certainly, given an immediate end to the War and a few centuries to recover. It could even happen again in my next lifetime. But at this point," Romana's voice hardened, "I need to ensure our continued existence."
"But it doesn't matter to you, does it?" The Rani hadn't taken her eyes off Romana, although her hand rested, forgotten, on the controls of a miniature gravity well. "The rules and traditions and the unspeakably tedious heritage of Rassilon."
"Gallifrey is dying," Romana admitted. "The Daleks are just hastening the process."
"And you, like a good citizen, are doing your utmost to prolong the death throes. How noble." The Rani turned away, returned to her experiment. "Were you going to offer some sort of bribe to induce me back to Gallifrey?"
Romana shrugged. "An end to your exile. A legitimate research position. Your name."
The Rani snorted. "Did you make the same offer to the Master?"
"He wasn't precisely given a choice."
"You're not coercing me."
Romana tilted her head. "Would you like me to?" she asked.
"You're welcome to try. The results," the Rani looked over her array of biological weapons, "might be interesting. From a purely scientific point of view, of course. I rarely get the opportunity to experiment on a Time Lord." She inserted the vial into the gravity well, closed the seal and activated the device. "This 'legitimate research position' -- I suppose my work would be curtailed."
"You'd be subject to the same ethical guidelines as your colleagues, yes."
"And I'm expected to be tempted by this offer? Unlike my erstwhile classmates, Gallifrey has no sentimental power over me."
"I can see that," Romana admitted, seating herself. "I'm beginning to think the Doctor has misjudged you somewhat."
"He likes to see the best in people. Always has. Pass me the molecular scalpel, would you?"
"What would tempt you to help us?" Romana asked as the Rani accepted the tool.
For a moment, it looked as if no answer would be forthcoming, then the Rani said slowly, "I'd need a new TARDIS. Mine is damaged beyond repair. I've spent too long living in linear time." She drew her vial from the gravity well. "Then, I want an uninhabited planet in an early stage of development. Orbiting a yellow star, for preference. And I want the Time Lords to turn a blind eye to my work for the next few centuries." She smiled. "No ethical guidelines, if you please. Just me and my work."
Despite herself, Romana smiled. "I think the High Council sent the wrong renegade Time Lord to Skaro all those years ago."
The Rani sniffed, a smile touching her lips.
"Had they chosen me," she said, "you might not be in this situation now."
"You mean, it could be worse?"
The Rani laughed, amusement transforming her face. "I'm beginning to understand why you're so unpopular with the High Council."
Romana waved a dismissive hand. "Politics."
"It's a waste. You'd be better off leaving Gallifrey to its fate and staying--"
"Away, I was going to say. But I wouldn't say no to the company of an equal." She turned away, rifling through data-sheafs. "Not that you'll accept the offer."
"If the Daleks win this war," said Romana, "the rest of the universe will fall quickly enough. Even your -- what did you call it? Temporal backwater."
The Rani paused.
"And if the Time Lords win?" she said.
"Then we might be able to find you a suitable planet."
"And a time capsule."
"All of that," Romana promised recklessly. "If we survive." She held her breath, waiting for the Rani's response.
The Rani put down the data-sheaths, paused her experiment, and turned to Romana.
"Desperation doesn't suit you, Lady President," she said in a low voice.
"It's been too long since I was able to feel anything else."
The Rani's hands rested on Romana's shoulders; their faces were very close together.
"Then I shall have to give you an alternative," she said.
"Come with me," Romana breathed. "We need you."
The Rani kissed her, swiftly and passionately. For a moment, Romana found herself responding, as the Rani's hands tangled in her hair. Then she pulled away.
"Coward," the Rani mocked, touching her mouth.
The Rani smiled. Deliberately, she held a single dark-blonde hair up to the light, nodded in satisfaction, and slipped it into a vacuum-sealed sample container.
"Very well," she said, locking the sample container into a palm-locked case. "To Gallifrey?"
Romana permitted the Rani to precede her into the TARDIS, and wondered how she was going to tell her advisers that she had allowed the Rani to take a gene sample. She couldn't even begin to wonder what the Rani was going to do with it.
At least, she told herself, she had acquired a powerful new piece in the political game, a new weapon in the war. And the smaller games she might play with the Rani, they, too would be interesting.
Romana closed the TARDIS doors and prepared to take her prize home.