On the first night, Koschei is homesick.
He's been assigned a double name just like everyone else: Psi Epsilon, a statistic that trips over his tongue. His true name is buried somewhere in the middle of his chest, in the space between the reality of his left heart and the potential of his right, under the stifling dark robes. He wants to dig it out and speak it, and in the morning his new schoolmasters will ask his name; Psi, he'll say, and Koschei, and the whole class will laugh when he blurts further that it's what his mother calls him. Called, he conjugates dutifully, called in the past tense he'll never revisit even when he's a Time Lord. He can nearly see that mocking future and he flushes hot and cold, curled up in one of the endless statistical bunks provided for Initiates.
When he closes his eyes he sees the whirl of the Vortex, blueshifting into the possible. He'd stood there amid flickering fires that cast no heat, and he'd never known how to feel homesick before but what he looked on was vertigo, the unknown; Koschei clinging to the skin of the world and so frightened. He keeps his eyes open now and stares into the close forgiving dormitory darkness, trying to ignore a faint but insistent little headache throbbing at the base of his skull.
Someone is crying.
It's a choked-up snuffling little sound, determined not to be heard. Koschei feels a weird flare of kinship -- they're all Prydonian here, of course, but this is different -- the little gulping breaths might have been his, except they're two bunks down. Without warning Koschei is a good deal less homesick. The words he mouthed at the Induction Ceremony come back to him, spoken with more ringing authority inside his head than he managed aloud: I will to the end of my days with justice and with honour temper my actions and my thoughts. Koschei isn't entirely clear yet on what the Ancient Law of Gallifrey has to say on what justice or honour are, but he knows intimately the sickly injustice of being far from home, so up he gets. Pads across the cool floor until he reaches the source of the barely-there noise, and insinuates himself into the bunk.
The sniffling stops abruptly, and this other boy starts up. In the dimness it's impossible to distinguish colours, but Koschei can see that the bunk's occupant has a mass of fine light hair and features that have defined themselves into stubbornness. The boy swipes the back of his hand across his face, puts his chin up, and hisses, "What are you doing here?"
It's exactly what Koschei would have done, exactly. Something starts expanding in his chest. He wants to blurt out, Don't worry, you are not alone. It would be appallingly forward. He says, "Overheard you. Sorry."
The other boy's chin stays set but the rest of him relaxes a little at the apology. "Sorry," he echoes. "I didn't mean to keep you from sleeping."
Aware of being on the brink of some emotional chasm opening up beneath him, Koschei says simply: "I was having trouble anyway."
They look at each other. The chasm closes, the Vortex fades, the darkness seems less pressing and unfamiliar, and for the first time in his young life Koschei is visited by the heady sensation of understanding, and of being understood.
"Theta Sigma," the boy offers. Holds out a hand stiffly.
Awkward but unwilling to let the moment go, Koschei takes it. "Psi Epsilon," he says, but the feeling of being unexpectedly caught in a safety net won't leave him, and it's Theta Sigma, this not-a-statistic, who's unwittingly made him feel it. He adds, "But it's Koschei, actually."
It's not his real name but a real name and Theta Sigma's hand goes very tight clasped in his. Koschei doesn't want to leave. Just by crying this boy has let Koschei know he's not alone, let Koschei feel like the strong one.
If he's the strong one, and he stays, it must be for Theta Sigma's benefit. Syllogism.
He doesn't actually ask, but Theta Sigma doesn't make him leave, and eventually they fall asleep curled up together. In the first dawn light Koschei awakes and creeps back to his own cold bunk, where he falls asleep again feeling wonderfully transgressive with a grin on his face. He knows it's going to be exactly like this for months yet.
The assignation theta sigma is in strict correspondence to social rank, and while Koschei is from a family of good standing -- he wouldn't be here at all if this wasn't the case -- the psi says it all, really. Lowest possible place of Matrix filing, and he'd probably have been bumped all the way down to omega if it wasn't for the obvious reasons that no one was given that tag in the filing system.
Theta Sigma is in the second group, starting with the eta students. Koschei's in the third group, starting with tau. There's no insinuation as to levels of ability, as such, involved in these divisions. There's no real reason Koschei shouldn't seek out a fellow student in a different division; no real reason but a particular sort of paralysis born of subtle social stigma and a sort of perverse pride. Koschei might catch Theta Sigma at meals -- except that switching tables is somewhat frowned upon, and by the time Koschei gets up the courage, the other boy has surrounded himself with friends and hangers-on, like he's the nucleus of some social atomic mass -- or he might catch Theta Sigma at lights-out -- except self-consciousness has caught up to Koschei with a vengeance and he can't imagine trespassing into someone's personal space like that again.
So there it is: Koschei watches this boy and memorises him from a distance. High forehead, light hair, arrogant tilt to the chin, easy smile. It would be so simple to step in, be an electron in Theta Sigma's orbit. But Koschei cannot countenance that.
Instead, he works very hard. He does his geometry sets in record time; then he works out how to do them very slowly, with the greatest possible precision and no margin for error. Ten out of ten, every time. Koschei learns how to manipulate the equations so they'll always come out with happy numbers. In the second year, they learn their home galaxy's great poetry forms from throughout history. Koschei entertains himself by converting iambic pentameter into binary, into quadratics, back again. Ten out of ten.
He sheds the dark Initiate robes and wears the scarlet, which does nothing to alleviate the general impression he suspects he gives people of being a black-and-white ghost with stupid hair. He fetches and carries for the older boys, as is expected, and even the knowledge that all the other students his age are fetching and carrying too does little to stop the upwelling of resentment. His professors merely tolerate him, having no reason to believe he's anything but just clever at the beginning exercises. And everyone else bores him.
Koschei, a decade old, only one one-hundredth of his way through his projected lifespan, can feel the world growing small.
Good marks earn free time. Koschei begins spending the afternoons he's granted alone out of doors. The Academy, situated as it is in the foothills of the Mountains of Solace and Solitude, affords a fantastic view of the valleys below, of the Capitol glittering in the distance. Sometimes Koschei sits on some half-forgotten terrace watching the double sunset. Binary. Gallifrey's system is odd in that, rather than a main sequence A star and a dwarf B, it has instead two main sequence stars of relatively small volume, orbiting one another at exactly the right distance and velocity for their gravity wells to form a symmetry rather than tear each other apart. Koschei likes that.
One afternoon he takes a tablet of prototype TTC schematics out to his favourite courtyard, all in his head and thinking of the fiddly little additions he would make to a sleek modern Type 45 TARDIS. He's so involved in considering the logistics of a remote-activated security system that he doesn't notice his normal study bench is already occupied until he's almost upon said occupant. Blond hair. Chin tucked in over some data pad.
Koschei is absurdly relieved to see that up close, Theta Sigma looks nearly as ridiculous in the vivid Prydonian robes as he does. Theta Sigma looks up. For a moment his eyes remain faraway and unfocused; then he smiles, a beam that lights up his small face and makes little crinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Koschei, isn't it?"
They've only talked the once. Theta Sigma will have heard anyone else call him Psi Epsilon. And yet.
"That's right," Koschei says, sitting down with all the grace he's learned so far. "And you're Theta Sigma."
"The only other theta is Omicron, and he prefers that," the other boy replies. "I think," he adds, leaning forward conspiratorially, "Omicron believes a name like that is dignified. Sounds a little bit like Omega, doesn't it?"
Koschei doesn't know the boy in question, but he feels safe in saying, "Only if you're half-deaf and have a death wish."
This prompts a burst of laughter. "Exactly! So it's just Theta, please." Theta's face becomes serious. "No one else calls you Koschei. Am I overstepping ...?"
Koschei feels again that peculiar sensation of his chest expanding. "No, not at all," he says. "Theta." Worries his lip a little. "I don't suppose you'll keep it."
He says things like this -- thoughts fully-formed inside his mind and only half-stated -- and is given blank looks. Theta's isn't; it's thoughtful. "I suppose I'll want a name that's not dignified unless it needs to be, which Theta never is. Maybe a title. Like the Castellan."
This time it's Koschei who laughs -- giggles, really, and he can only hope with time they'll turn at least into rolling chuckles -- and says, "Yes, I don't think the Castellan's ever had a name."
They laugh about this together, although it's not really that funny. Really it's relief, shared. Koschei knows Theta never does this with any of those orbiting hangers-on. He's different. He's different and safe in the knowledge of this, he shows Theta the TTC schematics he's working on. Theta wants to know if this TARDIS can make tea, and whether it's allowed to have a zeppelin hangar, since he's quite fond of them at the moment. Koschei thinks stasis chambers might be a good idea. They lean together shoulder-to-shoulder and finally, finally, it's the way it's supposed to be.
On a warm evening full of meteor showers Koschei slips quietly out of the dormitory and onto a terrace. Theta is sitting there already. He gives Koschei one of those distracted and slightly irritable looks at being torn from the spectacle in the sky before his brain catches up with his eyes and he favours Koschei with a glowing smile. "You knew I'd be out here," he accuses.
"I like watching the sky," Koschei says simply.
The silence wraps itself around them, each of them in turn wrapped in amateurish psychic projections. In class they're starting to work with their developing minds. Koschei doesn't want to share his mind with anyone, the stupid small headaches or the secret grand thoughts, but now while Gallifrey tears through a burning storm of meteors, it doesn't seem so frightening.
"When I was very little I wanted to be a train conductor," Theta comments unprompted into the silence.
Koschei doesn't say anything to that. The random fact hangs unprotected between them, and it's enough.
Almost overnight he starts growing like mad. He hates it at first, having this stupid impermanent body be so out of his control. Then Koschei notices that while Theta has turned into a creature made entirely of elbows, he's filled out, energy settling and all his floppy hair suddenly dashing rather than silly.
So almost overnight Koschei learns how to capture his own cloud of Gallifreyan-shaped electrons. It's very simple: smile, like Theta does. Koschei tries it in a mirror a couple of times until he gets it right, smiling up, chin tucked in, like he's sharing a secret. Theta does it better, because of the way it makes his face glow, but Koschei makes up for it by giving his own the slightest edge of a smirk, and just like that the other students come, moths to a flame. He's brilliant and he learns to strategically not mention his brilliance at all, so that they hang around hoping some of the brilliance will rub off on them. Koschei knows it won't. He looked into the Vortex and he saw his own singularity, and only one other person on this whole silly planet might have seen the same thing.
But he doesn't let this shifting group of people go. He likes the attention.
Theta is messy.
Naturally, the moment they're moved to an upper level, Koschei and Theta apply to be roommates. No one is surprised, and Koschei is dimly aware that some heated debate might have gone on upstairs before the request was granted, but here they are. Now Theta's things get everywhere. Old clocks, his tea set, endless incomprehensible handwritten scribbles of equation and observation, a gramophone, silly bric-a-brac from the detritus of space.
Theta is very good at taking said bric-a-brac -- any spare parts will do, wires and bits of string -- and constructing them into elaborate little time-flow analogues that are completed mere seconds after Koschei has finished some time experiment, and for credit, too. At first Koschei is bewildered by this behavior, as he wouldn't have otherwise thought Theta particularly capable of maliciousness. Then he notices Theta watching him for that burst of anger, gauging it like any other phenomenon, and he understands.
He learns, in the days following this revelation, how to build a spare-parts time-flow analogue himself. And he makes Theta's experiments explode. And he has the pleasure of watching the fury on Theta's face turn to dawning understanding turn to a rueful smile. They do it again, and again, and for some long while their free time is spent on ever more elaborate time experiments and disruptions. In a growing lifetime of intellectual challenges, they're collectively the best.
Until they blow up part of the South Wing.
"We're going about it all wrong," Koschei announces.
Theta's lying on his bed, hands folded demurely, staring at the ceiling. "Let me guess," he says. "Professor Borusa's punishment illustrates the fundamental injustice at the centre of Time Lord society, in direct contradiction to the Laws of Time it wishes to uphold."
"Shut up," Koschei says. "I'm serious."
"All right." Theta sits up. "Do tell."
"Well." Koschei fiddles with the cloth of his robe, a habit he's picked up from Theta. "We are to above all uphold the Laws of Time, correct?" Theta snorts softly, looking impatient, so he goes on, "These laws being in place so that the integrity of the fabric of the space-time continuum is maintained, and the causality of the Universe is kept in line. But --" he leans forward "-- what, exactly, decides which bits of spacetime are the correct ones?"
"Rhetorical question?" Theta enquires.
"No. Work with me here."
"Matrix records," Theta says. "Extensive observation. Analysis."
"No," Koschei says. "Failing marks, Theta Sigma. What actually determines correct causality?"
Theta frowns a little. "The Time Lords."
"Exactly." Koschei goes back to fiddling with the hem of his robe. "It follows, therefore, that Time Lords have the power to determine what exactly the normal course of history is. We have the knowledge of the universe locked away in the databanks at the Capitol, and what do we do? Plagues and murders and genocides still happen to all the lower beings, and simply because some Time Lord somewhere observed the aftermath and doesn't want one little paradox."
Theta listens to all of this very closely. "You've been thinking about this," he says. Koschei very deliberately gives him the duh look, which he knows gets on every single one of Theta's nerves. Not this time. Theta merely nods and says, "Rebuttal later. Go on."
Koschei sucks in a surprised breath; but then, anyone else would have snapped him down for blasphemy by now. "I did the calculations," he says. "The quantum sets we've been given? They work well in theoretical application to history. I'm well aware that changing an entire planet's continuity would have a ripple effect, but isn't that the point? 'With justice' -- it's our purpose to go out and make the universe more enlightened."
"To what end?" Theta asks. "Changing the universe -- not knowing what would happen -- you do away with one plague and the next moment some rival time-aware race might be at Gallifrey's doorstep demanding an equal share."
Koschei's lip curls. Disappointment tries to insinuate its way through him, but Theta's mind has never let him down yet. "You're talking like one of them. Like any other old fool who's confused stability with stagnation and is afraid of losing the power he has."
"No," Theta says, and there is disappointment in his voice; that he doesn't bother to disguise it is somehow shaming. "If we start acting like gods for the lesser beings, they will become gods too, but without the Laws of Time to safeguard them. Imagine the universe then."
Being proved wrong -- and by such a silly argument, all pathos but still right -- rankles. Koschei grits his teeth. "What if it was small things? Not just preventing paradoxes, but setting little things to rights?"
" 'What if'," Theta echoes, the beginnings of a smile curling his lips. "All right then. We'll do an experiment, hmm? Forget the quantum applications. We'll set history to rights a theory at a time."
And so, a game: they adapt it from a chess variant played during the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire. They even call it chess, first as a convenient shorthand, then as a sort of code. Still adolescents, they need their sleep, but they take it in quick hard doses, three or four hours a night; the rest of the time they lie awake, squished together in one bed with their fingers flying over data pads of complex equations in six dimensions. They alter the course of the Feoh Empire. They chance the composition of a methane planet to support carbon life. They build military bases or tear them down. They change clauses in the Shadow Proclamation. The room becomes cluttered with models of wire or string; they conduct little self-contained experiments, then disrupt them. All the while they keep score, but not against each other; never against.
There is one thing the Academy fails to teach them.
Among all the physics, art, history, music, lies a terrible gap: application. It all comes down to the same thing, really, at least as far as Koschei's been able to bring logic to the situation. Until at least the end of their first century, no Gallifreyan is given the least indication how to use both mind and body for a single end. A body, Koschei sees, is regarded as a sort of inconvenient receptacle for the mind, a thing which must be tolerated and occasionally recycles itself when the warranty starts running out. It's an entirely absurd view, Koschei decides after much consideration of the matter; their extremely resilient and effective biology alone counters this attitude most eloquently. More importantly, a mind is firmly a part of a body, and the two communicate. Often.
Koschei notices it slowly, and with growing panic. It doesn't start one day, it merely insinuates: the feeling of expansion in his chest bubbling all the way up to his brain. So that he flushes or drops things when Theta walks into the room. So that when Theta quite reasonably goes to spend time studying with other people, Koschei feels something strange, akin to rage. So that when he and Theta are arguing some point and get up in each other's faces and he can feel Theta's warm breath on his cheek and their eyes lock, his body starts behaving the way it would if it didn't belong to him at all; that flush again, all his limbs shaky. Koschei knows it's only the firing of particular synapses in his brain, certain chemicals sneaking their way through his body, but he can't control it, and it scares him.
The one thing that keeps him from losing his head completely -- hah -- is the observation that Theta seems to be suffering in exactly the same way. Blushes, fumbling words, and that habit of running the thumb of his left hand over his lapel whenever he's nervous.
"We'd better do something about this," Koschei announces one evening.
Theta looks up from his work. "No," he says, and his voice is somehow thin with panic. Uncontrolled. "It's a developmental stage. It will go away soon." He swallows thickly. "I could request a room change --"
"No," Koschei snaps. "I will not leave you simply because -- because this --" He takes a deep breath. His body belongs to him, not the other way around. "We don't run away from problems, Theta," he says. "We fight them. We master them."
"How?" Theta asks.
"I'll think of something," Koschei promises.
In fact the solution is simple. If the body is a temporary house for the mind, it is the mind's to control. If the body is doing the controlling, that body is faulty. A better one merely needs to be provided.
Koschei's aware there is a certain ... unorthodoxy to this approach. No one is supposed to regenerate within their first century, so Koschei researches the why of it. Because it is dangerous. Because it is medically unsound. Because it is just not done. But nowhere can Koschei find examples of proven dangerous aftereffects, because the mere warnings have kept everyone from trying. More and more, the caution against young regeneration smacks of the spurious tales about Time Lords who commit suicide and come back as the opposite gender. Koschei won't be a woman. Koschei will finally be in control.
And maybe, some small treacherous part of him whispers, maybe if he's different, but Theta still hasn't reached a solution -- maybe he'll have a handle on the situation and he'll finally just be that one little bit better -- maybe Theta won't suggest leaving ever again.
Koschei closets himself in a classroom in the lower levels, where no one, not even Theta, is likely to find him, and considers the best approach to his solution. Carefully controlled circumstances, or getting the thing over with quickly? The first option appeals to logic, the second only to fear; there will therefore be no dramatic jumping from the Academy's tallest tower. No snapping his neck. Blood, that's the trick. Koschei is sure it will hurt, but if he's careful, it won't be enough to put him into shock. Not at first. Not until he's constructed his next self in his mind and all his atoms are switching around.
This decided, he wastes no time allowing this one treacherous body, which wants to stay alive, to seize his mind and weaken his resolve. Instead Koschei makes sure that this classroom has floors that are easily scrubbed and then goes looking for something suitably sharp. A knife would be best, but no thing so crude as a knife exists within the walls of the Academy. Instead he stops by his room -- leaves Theta a scribbled note, surprise for you, room 6b, sunset -- and collects a radiation register with a suitably sharp edge.
In the deserted classroom, he sits -- no sense in standing, not when he might fall over -- and brings the edge up to his neck. His stupid treacherous body is shaking with adrenaline, but with will alone he steadies his hand enough to pull the edge down through his carotid artery without it shaking at all. Deep, done. He even feels a moment of absolute stillness.
Koschei learns with horrible stunning swiftness the difference between the theoretical and the actual. There is nothing intellectual about this; it isn't like fire, not like a cut magnified a thousand times, not like any simile, it simply is: his body grabbing hold of his brain, vision going black and blood pounding terrified out and it hurts too much to scream, that's good, because it would come out something else entirely and these last few moments he can't panic can't can't needs to think needs to be clever charismatic controlled all these things he nearly is and can be if he only does it right.
There is nothing higher; his fervent pleas likely fall on a deaf uncaring universe. And still: Better, better, please just let me be --
Then the rush.
Koschei is lying on his side. His head hurts, a faint insistent pounding that has nothing to do with his hearts. The blood on the floor is very bright and the world is spinning, the world is hurtling through space and his hearts are racing and every part of him hums with excess energy. He pulls himself to his feet, gasping and laughing, a quiet rolling chuckle that makes the small hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. His robes are an appalling mess.
Yes. First. New robes.
The corridors go whirling by him -- he hears students coming and squeezes himself effortlessly into an alcove -- dashes out again and finds himself in the automatic laundry. The robes he's wearing, besides being crusted with blood, are baggy across the shoulders now. Fingers fumbling for being too quick, he snatches some likely robes, switches them up, tosses the bloodied ones in the queue running through the 'in' side of the laundry. Now. Next. Theta.
He dashes back out, leaps up stairways until it occurs to him that all this running about is a spectacular waste of energy and he continues up still quickly but with a bit more style. One floor, two, he's nearly there, and he enters their room with a sweeping gesture and a grin.
No one there.
Koschei frowns for a moment before seeing the note on Theta's bed and remembering. Silly. He'll have to go back down all those stairs. He turns to go and catches sight of himself in the hanging mirror above their door.
Sharper features. He tilts his head this way and that. Shorter hair, pale ginger; that's a change. A certain angle to his chin, much like Theta's. Dark eyes, almost no distinction between iris and pupil. He tries a grin; it's nearly a smirk, stunning, edgy and convincing at once. Koschei presses his fingertips to the glass, leaving little red-brown smudges behind. There's a thumbprint of dried blood on his forehead. Blood. All over the classroom and that's where Theta --
He's out of the room in an instant, the door slamming behind him.
As he goes back down, all the life in the Academy below him rises to meet his mind, first like snowflake kisses and then like pillows, rubber balls, thrown bricks, hammers. Koschei stumbles. He nearly falls down the stairs and that's funny, that's hilariously ironically amusing and his new laugh fascinates him and the thoughts of everyone at the Academy and further still bombard him relentlessly. He skids past the classroom door and can't stop laughing, a hard gasping laugh full of tears.
Theta grabs his arms.
Theta seizes him and shakes him and says, "Koschei," and Koschei clutches at him gratefully; Theta's eyes are almost perfectly round and he's shaking like mad. Koschei laughs hysterically against the crook of his neck and rasps, this new voice hoarse with terror, "Help me."
Something must happen then. It hurts worse than the sharp edge to his neck did; this is inside his mind. But Theta is steadying his body, pulling him along until he comes blindly and follows his friend up unseen stairs, through winding ways he can no longer recognise, and all the while he clutches at Theta and at Theta's slender threads of thought, scared and determined and the only lifeline he has. And then it's quiet.
Koschei looks around carefully. A pinkish-gray room in soothing tones. He's sitting curled on the floor with Theta's arms tight around him. His jaw aches from clenching his teeth, and tear tracks are drying on his cheeks. New. He swallows hard.
"Better?" Theta asks with unaccustomed gentleness, drawing back a little and studying his face.
"Zero room," Koschei says. Clears his throat and tries again, not hoarse anymore. His voice is smooth, could be a drawl if he wasn't frightened. "This is a zero room. Clever."
Theta's gaze doesn't waver. "You killed yourself." No reproach. No question. A statement of surprising fact.
"No knowledge without risk," Koschei returns.
"You might have spared yourself the mess and found some poison," Theta says, a peculiar tightness creeping into his voice.
Koschei shakes his head. "I needed to be awake and unable to fight it."
"Stupid," Theta says. "Stupid." His hands tighten on Koschei's shoulders and then he's leaning into him, face pressed to the crook of Koschei's neck, trembling just a very little, and everything switches back into place: Koschei's the strong one. He can feel the raw potential of this new body, the sureness of it, the conviction of his cleverness and control. It will be all right.
"You're going to be in a lot of trouble," Theta points out, a little muffled.
Koschei laughs this rolling new laugh of his. "I look forward to it."
By the time Koschei is called before the Academy Council for an official reprimand, gossip has spread afield. Stares and whispers follow him everywhere he goes. His mind to rights now, Koschei has the luxury to consider what he feels about this, and what he would have felt. He feels mostly smug. Before, he would have told himself to feel smug but secretly felt more than a little embarrassed. So it's worked. He's who he wants to be and he feels only vague contempt for who he was.
The Council doesn't assign him an essay on why What He Did Was Wrong, the way Borusa did when he and Theta blew up the South Wing. In fact, the Council doesn't dole out any of the expected punishments. He's talked to very seriously about the gravity of what he's done, told that there are limits to scientific enquiry that he is dangerously far past, subjected to thorough examinations of both body and mind, and told in no uncertain terms that he is not, under any circumstances, to regenerate again before he reaches the reasonable age of five hundred.
Koschei returns to his room in high rage. Theta is on the floor prodding at a holographic model of Universal Sector 5, and looks up so swiftly, with such relief, that it calms Koschei's rage to a simmer.
"How did it go?" Theta asks.
Koschei tells him, calmly as he can, although by the end he's pacing. "They're narrow-minded, Theta. Unimaginative. Not a single risky thought among them. Continent of Wild Endeavour!" He laughs, a hard and mocking sound. "They don't know the first thing about wild endeavours."
"But the mountains are aptly named," Theta says with great calm, eyes sparkling. That's always the way of it; he deflates Koschei's anger with a smile. I'm on your side, but where shall we get by raging? And he's right, of course he's right. Koschei sighs, sits down next to Theta and stares unseeingly at the slowly revolving model of star systems.
"Am I different?" he asks.
Theta hunches into himself a little. "Your mind feels like velvet."
Koschei stares at him. "That's one observation I'm not prepared to make comment on."
Theta huffs in frustration. "All your thoughts have a certain shape, and they're the same as they were before. I can tell it's you with my eyes closed. You've changed; you're not different."
"Huh." Koschei whirls the model absently, watching the pinpricks of light spin by. "I've thought of another thing we're not supposed to do for decades yet."
Theta turns to him with that glowing smile. "Well, it's about time."
They don't rush in headlong. They take it one concept at a time: neurology. Neurochemistry. Quantum waves. The theory behind mental communication. The various ways in which to envisage and manipulate a mindscape.
It's clear from the beginning that Koschei is going to be better at it. Everything they read is equally clear on the fact that a Gallifreyan in his first body is capable of only the elementary mental exercises, and is best led by someone past his first regeneration. They have a good laugh about that. Then they try to get a start on the meditations.
Koschei constructs his mindscape, as the first exercise suggests, like a set of rooms; his are a maze of mirrors. Theta meanwhile fidgets and can't get quiet enough to meditate, so they decide that the first joint exercise will be exploring Theta's mental rooms; when prodded into being, they are all jumbled like a mad Victorian mansion. Theta and Koschei explore among the cobwebs together, laughing. One room has a black creaking door that opens in the mirror-maze, and they stroll through Koschei's head together too. At the end they draw slowly out and end sitting on the floor with their foreheads pressed together and Theta's pulse thrumming against Koschei's thumb under the thin skin of his wrist.
"Again," Koschei says.
There are of course unforeseen consequences. (Koschei makes a mental note to add a really excellent long-term planner to the list of traits he'd like in his next regeneration.) There is no initial uneasiness from Theta, which is only right and proper, since Koschei did it for him, but this doesn't stop the uneasiness from other quarters. The nebulous group of hangers-on from Koschei's various classes keep their distance, as though he's a rather alien thing now; the same thing happens to Theta, by association and dark rumour. Eventually these students -- or at least some of the same students, and a few new morbidly curious ones -- come back, with a touch of added reverence. Koschei doesn't know if Theta's little crowd treats him any differently, and there's really no telling; Theta has a cheerfully large ego and a little more awe won't make any marked difference.
All of this is incidental. There is also one small punishment Koschei is subjected to for his reckless and much frowned-upon regeneration: every few months now he is called in to have his mind inspected for anomalies. Non-invasive, he's assured; he doesn't allow himself the luxury of believing that. But he tolerates it.
Professor Damia sits across from him in a small room on one of the upper levels overlooking the Capitol. Damia is young for a professor, self-possessed and one of those people Koschei suspects of being innately good in the way that Theta is. "Tell me, Psi," she says, "have you noticed any aftereffects of your regeneration, apart from the initial instability?"
Koschei thinks of late nights with Theta, no longer playing the invented chess, but wandering his friend's head, allowing him access in return. His own mind is a bit like red velvet. Theta's is like lemon meringue; Theta laughed when Koschei confessed this, punched his shoulder and told him unseriously to be serious.
It's definitely an aftereffect. Not actually forbidden, but ...
"Apart from the extremely welcome change in personality?" Koschei murmurs, giving Professor Damia one of the slow smiles that comes so easily to him now. "Everything is functioning with the greatest precision, I assure you."
She looks unconvinced. "No headaches? Strange impulses?"
"None I didn't have before," Koschei says, smile sliding into an easy ironic grin.
Headaches: often. None he didn't have before, that's entirely true, but they appear at odd times now, like a soft insistent tapping at the base of his skull. As though there's this fundamental bit of himself that's trapped down there, and if he peels away enough patient layers, he'll find it. If he wants to. If it's better. Whatever it is, though, it's his, and no jumped-up young professor is about to find out anything Koschei doesn't want her to know simply because a bunch of interfering old busybodies hate that he's done something none of them would have dared.
"I'll just need to take a quick look at your mind, then, Psi," Professor Damia says with gentle professionalism, and when Koschei permits a nod she flows through his head with gentle professionalism too. Koschei knows what to expect now, and quietly sets up a glass wall in front of all the mirrors; Professor Damia's mental pattern slides along the wall without seeing a single reflection, and it's such a smooth easy nice illusion that she doesn't notice a thing. She smiles, tells him to check in again, lets him go.
Strange impulses: well. That's ...
... the old problem.
Koschei doesn't have the old problem. He bled it out. But walking in Theta's mind, he can feel every dangerous little catch of breath from the inside, every small moment of weakness, because Theta hasn't learned how to hide yet. At first Koschei says nothing. Then, through that constant mental contact, things start ... coming through. Broadcasting themselves on whispered wavelengths. Theta is afraid, and smothering it down.
He's had the same solution to Theta's fear for decades: protect him.
On an evening when they're busy with other pursuits -- Koschei browsing the public Matrix records, Theta reading the print version of a book called The Complete History of Sol 3, Fourth Edition, Volume IV -- he brings it up. Not casually. In this second body he doesn't know how.
"Do you know why I killed myself?"
The book slips from Theta's fingers. He looks up at Koschei with wide eyes, falsely innocent. "Scientific experimentation."
Theta looks away. "Did it work?" he asks reluctantly.
Koschei laughs, just to watch Theta's cheeks go pink, just to watch the barest hint of a shudder. "Who's the collected one in the room?"
"I am not going to recklessly regenerate," Theta snaps. "It will pass."
"It could probably be shut off," Koschei says, as though it has only just occurred to him as a random possibility. "It would be fine work, but we've already done quite a lot ..."
"Yes, please, prod my hypothalamus," Theta returns tightly.
Silence. Koschei watches him steadily.
Theta winces, gets up, and crosses the brief space to Koschei's bed. "The moment I say the word, you're to get out of my head," he says. "If you think you're doing anything wrong, you're to get out of my head."
"Of course." It's a reasonable request. Koschei is not entirely sure he knows what he's doing. In any case, he reaches out delicately. Fingertips to Theta's temples. Whenever they touch, skin-to-skin and mind-to-mind, by tacit agreement they don't mention anything going on outside their heads. This time, Koschei pays attention.
Pulses sped up. Blood to Theta's cheeks, fingertips, places he tries furiously to ignore. Breathing a little too fast. All of it is subtle enough to pass without comment in polite company, which is exactly what everyone does until they're old enough to have iron control of mind over body and can do away with embarrassing little tells entirely.
Koschei is sick of doing what everyone does.
He traces neural impulses from Theta's blood to his brain, and off along a different path: not the internal lightnings that tell the hearts to beat faster, but the bits of chemical excitement fired up just because Koschei is in the room. He prods one lightly.
Theta gasps, not with pain, and leans hard into Koschei's hands.
Fascinated, Koschei does it again.
No fight, no resistance. Theta's fingers curl into the quilt, then tighter, white-knuckled, and Koschei suddenly realises what he's doing. He doesn't snatch his fingers away, but he pauses. "I --"
"Don't stop," Theta forces out through gritted teeth.
Koschei stares at him. "Theta," he tries, "I'm not sure this counts as informed con --"
Theta seizes his face and kisses him. Kisses him, as lesser creatures do, as Gallifreyans only do after a good deal of ceremony. The shock of a whole culture starts to well up in Koschei, and then the full force of Theta's mind goes crashing through his. It's messy. Theta's mental technique is somewhat sloppy at the best of times, and now there is no finesse to it at all; Theta just feeds in every impulse, and for the second time in his life Koschei completely loses control.
His body is Theta's, confused, angry, wanting, all the familiar things he's buried in his own past and all the things that have always drawn him to Theta, all the things Theta makes better than he ever can. He can feel his own hands and feel Theta's, and both of them want Theta's hands undoing his collar, slipping under his robes. He nudges again at that bit of Theta's mind, the confused tangle of chemicals, and oh. Nudges again harder and Theta makes this noise, this soft desperate noise into his mouth -- they're still kissing, their teeth click together from the force of it and Koschei's lips are getting bruised -- he does it again, that same spot in Theta's head while they press together closer closer and they both feel it but Theta's the one to make that amazing little sound again. And again. They stop kissing, foreheads pressed together, gasping for breath; he does it again, sliding over to another bit of chemical excitement and pressing at it and Theta gasps "Koschei," almost with reverence.
It's incredible. All this time Koschei has been afraid the universe was too small, but here it is, bound up in this boy who is so important, so terribly important and wrapped around him, desperate and focused, and a feeling of incredible power surges up in Koschei. He presses a kiss to Theta's forehead, his mouth, slides up into Theta's brain pattern again and pulls out all the stops.
Theta throws back his head and screams.
The mere echo of it hits Koschei, and even that is like real pain, like regenerating, like being himself and Theta at once and they cling together. Just cling together.
Neither of them say a word.
Theta is the one to disentangle first, reluctantly. Koschei files away the Matrix tablet; Theta shelves his book. They change out of their robes -- that's another trip to the automatic laundry, Koschei sees; thinks ridiculously that all his brilliant ideas seem to end in messy robes eventually. Theta hesitates in the middle space between their beds. Koschei reaches out and curls a hand round his wrist. Humming pulse. They look at each other and Theta smiles his glowing smile.
They are a lot bigger now than they were that first night, but they manage, and fall asleep curled together in Koschei's bed.
There is never any question of discussing it. There is merely the subtlest shift in understanding. Everything carries on as it has done: school work, chess games. They have their serious debates about changing the world. The difference is in glances, small touches, sometimes late nights like that first one. Koschei doesn't know what he's doing but would permanently die before admitting it, and he suspects Theta is the same. So they fumble their way through whatever this is, learning as they go, as they always do.
One afternoon they slip off to hide behind the atomic sheds, bringing a blanket and various schematics. Kiss, transgressive, laughing. Lie together in the red grass with Theta squinting up at the sky, Koschei's arm settled over his chest, minds brushing. "Do you think we have the right to make a difference?" Theta asks, half-idle.
Koschei looks up at him, at Theta's clear bright eyes, and it's ordinary, an ordinary day with Theta who has nearly always been there; and that's when he realises. There should be more, a supernova or a meteor shower or even a rise in the wind to herald this revelation. But the warm afternoon is perfectly still. Koschei has lost control again, suddenly without prompting stumbled upon the knowledge that this silly serious brilliant improbable boy is the most important thing, the only thing that will ever be important in Koschei's personal universe, and there's nothing he can do about it.
And Theta doesn't even notice.
"I, er," Koschei says, bewildered and tongue-tied. "Must have dozed off."
Theta laughs and repeats the question.
If this is the way of it, Koschei will need to keep a handle on the situation somehow. But the thought of Theta staying because he must -- he can't bear it. Theta will stay because he feels the same, of course. Koschei just has to make sure the rest of the world stays where he wants it too.
Nearly too late, Koschei remembers an unforeseen complication: his meetings with Professor Damia. There is a world of difference between resenting unwanted intrusions and actually being threatened by them, and he has crossed that border carelessly. Now anyone shuffling through his head won't just find all the reflective mirrors and dusty corners and dark skittering thoughts. Now they won't find just Koschei's small secrets. Now they'll find Theta, a veritable beacon.
Koschei appears punctually for this latest examination. He sits demurely in his chair. Professor Damia sits down across from him with a smile. "Good morning, Psi. How are you feeling?"
"All the better for your asking," Koschei says charmingly, with a rakish grin, relishing the cliché. His mind races.
Damia permits herself an amused smile. "I'm very glad to hear it." She asks him the usual questions: headaches? Changes? No and no, Koschei returns, thinking: I have to hide it where it can't be found. He's perfectly well aware of the crudest method, simply shoving the relevant information out of his conscious mind. He should have thought of this sooner; then he might have been able to put some time-trigger on information retrieval. If he does it now without preparation, it won't be recovered without assistance, and as much as he trusts Theta's brilliance and growing competence inside his head, going to Theta for help is absolutely under no circumstances an option. He's stronger than that, should be cleverer than that, and here's Professor Damia already reaching out into his mind --
Rather than shoving the information out of his conscious mind, Koschei just pushes down his conscious mind itself; flees along the synapses of his own self-awareness, as he's never done before.
And here -- this space in his mind isn't mirrored surfaces. It's dark, made up of some sort of pristine chaos; it pulls like the Vortex, and pulses the way his occasional headaches do, without the pain. It isn't a place, but a state of being, one Koschei hasn't known before. Distantly he notices that Professor Damia's eyes are locked on his, wide and startled, and he feels a wash of self-loathing. How stupid, to discover this with Professor Damia involved.
"Get out," he says softly. "Get out of my head, and don't dare trespass. There is nothing wrong with me. There has never been anything wrong with me. You know that."
She shudders and blinks at him. "I apologise, Koschei," she says, sounding strangely distant. "If it were up to me these check-ups would not be necessary. You may go."
Koschei is astonished, but intellectually, not in this body which is his. He stays inside the dark pulling place in his head as he stands. "Thank you, Professor," he says, and goes.
Halfway back to his room he remembers that she called him Koschei, not Psi, and has to sit down in an alcove and laugh himself breathless with shock.
"Fifth law of thermodynamics in application to -- Koschei, are you listening?"
"No," Koschei says. Theta looks extremely annoyed, so he laughs and flicks at Theta's hair until Theta hits him. This culminates, as so many things do these days, in Koschei kissing Theta and Theta slipping comfortably into his head. This time, though, Koschei pulls away. This time Theta's annoyed look is much more genuine.
"I'm thinking about something," Koschei says. "It's a surprise. Fifth law of thermodynamics ...?"
"Don't pretend you care about my study habits," Theta says haughtily, sitting back up. "'You're naturally brilliant, Theta Sigma, and if only you actually showed at your exams' --"
"Well, it's true," Koschei says, unruffled.
Theta snorts. "I get caught up in more important things. What's the surprise then, hmm?"
"A surprise," Koschei repeats, daring a smug look. Theta only rolls his eyes.
He will tell Theta. Eventually.
It's like stumbling upon the key to a door he'd never considered important and finding a vast cache of universal knowledge waiting on the other side. Koschei is paralysed with too many ideas at once, and questions. Will he be able to replicate what he did, entirely by accident, to Professor Damia? Will he be able to do more than replicate? And what, exactly, is the strange dark place he's uncovered in his head?
Koschei has the uncomfortable feeling he's read about it before. But he's read about Zagreus and the Toclafane before, too, and he is quite old enough to discern the factual in what he reads.
As to those other questions, Koschei can research the answers.
He starts by catching one of the younger students in the corridor. The sight of a young pupil fetching and carrying for an older one is common enough that this will pass uncommented, but Koschei needs to make sure this is something the student wouldn't be able to do under normal circumstances.
"Yessir?" says the boy.
Koschei looks him right in the eyes. "At the top of the North Wing is a data disc indexing rare weaponry," he tells the boy. "It is not forbidden. Fetch it, and bring it to me in the courtyard by the main gate. Tell no one who sent you." The boy stares at him, a little glazed, so Koschei adds for good measure, "You will obey me," and sends the boy on his way.
Within the hour he has in his possession information that he would be in extremely serious trouble for, were he caught with it. He laughs and pockets it.
A week of trial and error teaches him that anyone out of their first regeneration is not, as a rule, susceptible; the blind panic of his discovery on Professor Damia probably boosted the ability, or else was a fluke. He has more than one professor rebuke him for impertinence, but that is hardly a problem; for every time he is punished with some chore (which he foists off on another student at once, with a bit of persuasion) there is another at whom he can grin disarmingly and be forgiven. So Koschei learns that, too: how to charm someone with words, using that same strange space within him, although without the force of will. He makes people like him.
And he keeps collecting the little bits of data-encoded information. After all, knowledge is power.
The data accumulates enough for Koschei to begin building an algorithm from his collection. He strips the information packets to their basic components, tries various ways of piecing them together. He's not entirely sure he has enough to actually bypass the Matrix security system, but it's certainly worth a try.
Meanwhile their tertiary exams are nearly upon them, marking three-fourths of the way through their Academy education. Koschei knows it all, and Theta probably does too, but he's liable to forget most of it if he doesn't study. It is for this reason, and no other, that Koschei doesn't share his Matrix-hacking project with his friend. Graduating the Academy with distinction is a lot more important than this silly troublemaking game Koschei is playing.
"Stop studying, hmm?" Theta says, sticking his head around the door. "The fish are migrating. You can nearly hear the song from up here! Ushas and the girls are going down to observe them. Come with us."
"Ushas probably wants to dissect them," Koschei says absently. She is one of Theta's more persistent hangers-on, and clever in her own way but not worth Koschei's time, nor Theta's. He waves a hand in Theta's general direction. "Go save the fish. I'll be here when you return."
Theta laughs and slips out.
Left alone, Koschei runs his algorithm. It takes a while; he does other work. The binary stars are shining golden in through the window by the time Koschei's data pad gives a soft chime. When he turns to it, writing spins helpfully past on the little screen: password sequence accepted; insert Key of Rassilon for access. Koschei makes a face. Talented and clever he might be, but he hardly has the resources to run off to the Capitol and persuade the Keeper to let him borrow an artifact of Rassilon long enough to make a copy, thanks. Except --
Except transmat to the Capitol is allowed to senior students in good standing, provided they come with proof of a professor's permission. Before he has even finished the thought, Koschei's halfway through setting down Professor Damia's signiature, which he's seen enough times to imitate. He stares at it unseeingly. Various official trips to the Capitol have given him a reasonably good idea of the layout, and -- he checks, mechanically -- a general schematic of the Citadel is on record. Making a copy of the Key shouldn't itself present a problem: Theta and Koschei have between them a moderately large collection of mutable silicon for rather more legal projects. In fact the only difficult part of this mad idea is persuading the Keeper of the Matrix to part with the Key.
Koschei finds he's breathing hard. The Keeper almost certainly won't be in his first body. But the Keeper is a hereditary position; there's no guarantee the current one even attended an academy and learned any tricks of the mind. If he's caught he could get into terrible trouble. If he's not --
He stands in the middle of the room for a long moment, trembling a little, forged note in one hand and lump of silicon in the other. Then he takes a deep unnecessary breath and strides from the room.
"Where have you been?" Theta asks.
"Out," Koschei says. He's practically vibrating with suppressed triumph.
Theta is surrounded by heaps of data pads, models, notes. He looks distinctly unhappy with these circumstances. "Obviously," he snaps. "Out where?"
"Capitol. I felt like a day outside the Academy."
Faint hurt creeps across Theta's face. He rubs his thumb over the cloth by his collar and says, apparently to the floor, "The singing fish were outside the Academy." Koschei shrugs, and Theta's eyes flash with annoyance. "I had a good time," he says. "The girls were very nice."
Koschei makes a noncommittal noise, fumbling in his pocket for the Key -- for the Key -- pulling it out and inserting it into the data pad that holds the algorithm. It chimes quietly and begins streaming a list of contents; people, living and dead, timelines at various points in the universe starting with Event One ... He waits for Theta to ask what he's doing. He even has a story all ready; how he talked to persuasively to the Keeper, explained his interest in the Matrix and the Key, how it was for a student project, how grateful he would be for even a small look. It's a true story, if an incomplete one. Theta will spot the incongruity, prod him for details, and be extremely impressed, fascinated and perhaps a little awed, by Koschei's newfound skill. Koschei waits.
Theta merely snorts in an annoyed sort of way and bends over his work again. Koschei can't quite suppress the pang of disappointment.
He doesn't know where to begin. He has the information of the universe at his fingertips, and he doesn't know where to begin. At a loss, he starts by searching through the file directories, looking for interesting categories. Maybe biodata. His own. Unthinkingly, rather than looking under Psi Epsilon, he looks under Koschei.
Error: retroactive entry processing, the entry says.
Koschei stares at it in surprise. Not only is his name filed into the official databank, but the arcs of writing that come encoded in the error message tell him that, while the entry technically exists, it is from the future imperfect, a data entry entered later about something that has already happened out there.
There's really no dilemma to it. Koschei overrides the error message.
Koschei the Deathless, the entry header says. It talks about Sol 3, that backwater planet Theta was reading about some time ago. It talks about mythology and the safeguarding of endless regenerations. Chests and eggs and needle-points. Koschei reads the entry with a strange twisting sense of backwards déjà vu, nearly a century of education gabbling in panic at the back of his head about the Laws of Time and how this is bad, really, extremely, terrifyingly bad.
He removes the copy-Key of Rassilon and sets it down very carefully at the back of a bookshelf. He doesn't touch the Matrix again for a long, long time.
Their exams come and go. The last quarter at the Academy brings with it a different sort of education: not theoretical, nor even, in a strict sense, applicable, but social. They're to be allowed supervised excursions in TTCs within set parameters -- which is of course the side of it both Koschei and Theta are looking forward to -- but, they're told sternly during a post-exam lecture, the ability to travel throughout spacetime is only half of what it means to be a Time Lord. The other equally important half is the ability to navigate society, in the here and now, which is a good deal less risky and more important.
"Discretion is the better part of valour," Theta mutters, when they're informed of this.
"What?" says Koschei.
"Who?" says Koschei.
Theta rolls his eyes, but with fondness. Koschei remains miffed only until they have to fight their way into their official Prydonian robes for the first of the functions they're expected to attend. Koschei's pale ginger hair looks absolutely appalling with the crimson -- he feels idle nostalgia for the Initiate robes; he'd look very striking in black -- but Theta looks much worse, not aesthetically bad but horribly uncomfortable. Koschei can't resist kissing the tip of his nose and laughing at the scowl.
"We'll have to keep apart," Theta says, "once we reach this infuriating party." He sees the question starting on Koschei's face, and adds, "Borusa knows. How many times have you come in for a lecture with your clothes all skewed?"
"Ah," Koschei says, mildly appalled.
"It's youthful enthusiasm, of course," Theta says with heavy irony. "But if we don't behave ourselves in public --"
"Understood implicitly, my dear Theta."
Theta makes a face, adjusting his collar. "I should very much rather skip right to the TARDIS section of our continuing education. I hate behaving myself at these events."
Although he's inclined to agree, within the hour Koschei is alive to the absurdity of Theta's opinion. He strolls vaguely around the room, and people gravitate to him. Girls in full regalia even more absurd than their own, yes, but professors too. Theta smiles, tucking his chin down and clutching at his left lapel like a lifeline, blustery and awkward, and somehow tonight everyone sees what Koschei has seen for decades; they're drawn to Theta, despite no effort at all on Theta's part. Koschei meanwhile is making his own share of smiling conversation. He and Theta, binary stars in this small space; people gravitate towards Koschei too, but for him there is something artful in it, calculated.
Koschei finds he loves it, saying a particular phrase to elicit a particular response, switching up his masks; student, scientist, young courtier. None of them know a thing about him, but he can begin to guess things about them, from the same old words, same old gestures, flickering minnow thoughts on the surface of their mind. It is an easy act.
He wonders how Theta manages it for real.
He wonders a lot of things about Theta these days.
Going through Theta's mind now is not so much like exploring a Victorian mansion as it is sinking down through ambered layers of light. It flares in bright reflections of the mirrored corridors in Koschei's head, making them gasp and cling together. New and brilliant. But Koschei sometimes wonders what would happen if he pulled Theta down into the dark with him, into the insistent rhythm of the Vortex place. What it might illuminate there.
And then there is the TARDIS, an amiable old Type 45 used for training. Koschei finds its circuits dull, although easily navigable. Theta instantly falls in love. Not with that old 45, but with the idea of a TARDIS; for days he talks about nothing else, but gabbles endlessly about rotors and scanners and circuitry, complex bonds, the uncertain pleasure of freedom, until Koschei feels as though a silly machine is Theta's new lover, edging him out of the way. It's entirely absurd, and after a while even Theta realises this and relearns how to speak of other things. Still ...
Still, Koschei sometimes wonders: when Theta regenerates, will he continue to feel for Koschei as he does now? Koschei wants the evidence of his own regeneration to be all the answer he needs, but he knows that Theta hardly has the forethought or mental discipline to regenerate on any parameters but those of chance. There will be a core to him -- the light, the lemon meringue, the old mansion, however it manifests itself -- that stays the same, but whether that singular thing includes Koschei --
He wonders, that's all. What Theta would be like, reborn. Never enough to test it.
Not really. But.
He dreams it: crude, the twist of a knife between Theta's ribs until the air between them glows with energy, and even asleep Koschei shudders in ecstasy. Reformed under his hands Theta is still blond, hair flopping forward now and all the lines of his face softer. His eyes are the same, exactly the same, and Koschei knows the answer.
Then he wakes up alone.
There is nothing particularly remarkable in that. Some days he wakes up first; some days Theta does. Now and again Theta kicks in his sleep and Koschei has to move to the other bed in fond sleepy disgust. That Theta is not in evidence probably means he has an early lecture.
Worry starts to creep in around midday, after Theta fails to appear at a class he takes with Koschei. He is nearly ready to dismiss the worry as mere paranoia when he hears a whisper in the corridor: "-- stole one of the training time capsules, that's what I heard, and he's out somewhere in time right now --"
Koschei freezes and whirls on the hapless pair of students, only forty if they're a day, and snarls, "Who did?"
The girl merely stammers, but the boy makes the mistake of looking into Koschei's eyes. Koschei isn't even trying, but the boy's face goes slack, his eyes glazed, and he says, in a distant sort of way, "Theta Sigma, sir."
Koschei swears -- a minor blasphemy, a conjunction of perverse things, two selves/one point -- and runs for his room, scrabbling at the back of the bookshelf for the copy-Key. But the Matrix, when consulted, is pathetically useless; it tells him that designate Theta Sigma is out of ambit, 1862 HE, Medusa Cascade. Not what he's doing. Not why he's doing it. Not why he left Koschei behind. In desperation Koschei cross-references the coordinates; the Medusa Cascade, of course he's heard of the Medusa Cascade, he thinks angrily as soon as he sees the entry. There's a spacetime rift in it, spewing out wasted energy and the detritus of history. But why --
He has a sudden sneaking suspicion. The idiot. The reckless, selfish idiot.
He spends the rest of the day in a blank hum of fury. There is no point going back into the corridors only to dodge the rumours or fail to attend at his lessons. All the time he can hear the talk rising outside, everyone asking the same question as the one that pounds relentlessly around Koschei's skull: why didn't Theta Sigma take his best friend with him?
Nagging hunger eventually drives Koschei from his room down to the dining hall; of course this is when Theta chooses to return. A circle of silence surrounds Koschei, while everywhere else the rumours slowly coalesce into something like a solid fact: Theta Sigma went to the rift at the Medusa Cascade. And he closed it. All by himself.
Koschei does not slam his way from the dining hall. Koschei ambles, completely self-possessed, from the dining hall. Now that solid fact has been reached, new rumours are being generated. Theta is suspended; Theta is expelled; Theta is Gallifrey's new hero and the professors are granting him an honourary professorship. It's probably the first. Slap on the wrist, a few extra lines, wait until you're older, off you go.
Theta is not back when Koschei reaches their room. He will be. Koschei sits in the lowering dark, hating the shadows, waiting.
When Theta does arrive, he turns the light on and jumps a little, spotting Koschei sitting perfectly still on his bed. Theta does not look chastened. Theta looks overwhelmed, slightly dazed, very tired, and extremely pleased with himself. "Koschei!" he says.
"Expelled?" Koschei asks flatly.
"No, no," Theta replies, running his thumb nervously over his lapel. Stupid gesture. "A month's suspension. I'm being sent home tomorrow." He laughs a little, not looking particularly amused. "I can only hope my mother is more forgiving than the Council."
"What exactly are you being punished for?" Koschei enquires, voice quite even, though with a falsely sweet edge. "Reckless abduction of a TTC? Unauthorised meddling in history? Perhaps just plain stupidity?"
Theta blinks. "We talked about this."
"Yes." Theta moves cautiously over to sit on Koschei's bed, facing him across the room. "Improving the universe, you know. I hardly thought it prudent to deal in actual events, but objects -- You know. The rift increases entropy appallingly, and sometimes poor souls get snatched right out of their time and thrown out the other side into space; no harm in stopping that." He shifts under the flat mild look Koschei is leveling at him. "I sealed it. I thought, there are two ways: months of planning and calculations and probably mucking it up, wasting a good deal more energy. Or using my name."
There follows a ringing silence.
"That's why you didn't bring me with you," Koschei says.
Theta's eyes dart away, then back. "Yes."
"I would tell you mine," Koschei says hoarsely.
"Don't be stupid," Theta says, the habitual look of faint annoyance settling on his face.
Koschei looks him straight in the eyes and says the first syllable. The walls hum. Theta's face goes nearly white; he leaps across the room and claps a palm over Koschei's mouth. "Are you insane?"
Koschei shoves him off. "Are you?"
"I didn't say it in the middle of a populated building on Gallifrey!" Theta snaps.
"That's right; you said it to empty worthless space millions of miles from here; you bound it up and left it there! How could you be so stupid?"
They're both on their feet, trembling. Theta blinks, wets his lips, says, as though to a slow revelation, "You're jealous."
You didn't trust me to hear it. You didn't trust me to keep it safe. The words claw at the back of Koschei's throat; what comes out is far more appalling. "We do everything together." His face burns with shame.
Theta is still very pale. "Do we," he says, with harmonics in his voice of Koschei at his worst.
Koschei grits his teeth. "You know we do."
"Really," Theta says. "You must think I really am quite stupid. Excursions to the Capitol. Hours on those data pads. Sending the children on errands all the time."
"It doesn't matter what you're doing," Theta goes on tightly. "I wouldn't think you'd have to tell me everything that you do. I have other friends; you're allowed them too, not that you ever really bothered to have any --"
"Stop," Koschei says in horror.
"But it's not just that!" Theta says, his eyes glittering. "I've asked; you haven't told me. It's not like you to deliberately keep secrets. I suppose you're entitled. But I never have, and you seem to think that's your right. All of me. It doesn't work that way."
"Shut up." Koschei's voice cracks.
"I have eyes," Theta says, ignoring it. "I have eyes, and I know you. You send the children on dangerous errands. Things you might not do yourself. Things they couldn't know on their own, and would be afraid to do. There's no law, I'm aware, but I can't believe you'd hypnotise --"
"-- and there's something else." Theta's voice is rising now, a little tremulous, and Koschei realises with a jolt of horror that Theta's eyes are glittering with tears. "In your head, Koschei, there is never anything but reflections of me, but somewhere underneath it is the rest of your mind, and I don't -- it feels --"
"Shut up, shut up --"
"-- like void --"
Koschei seizes Theta's shoulders, shakes him, says wildly, "Stop talking! Obey me!"
A flush slowly suffuses Theta's cheeks. "What," he says, with deliberate softness.
Koschei drops numb hands to his sides. "Theta --"
Theta stumbles back a step. "Leave," he says. "Go. Come back tomorrow. I'll be gone by then."
"I didn't mean to," Koschei says faintly.
"I know," Theta says, looking straight at him. "But you did."
Koschei wants to close the space between them, and hold Theta until he understands how very much Koschei didn't mean it. Koschei wants to apologise; Koschei wants Theta to apologise. Koschei wants to turn back time to the beginning of this conversation, to the moment when Theta awoke to sneak out and steal a TARDIS, to the very instant Koschei discovered the strange darkness in his head. He wants Theta to help him. He wants a lot of things.
"What can I do?" he asks.
Theta shrugs, a horrible little helpless gesture. "I'll be gone for a month. Something will present itself." He must see the look on Koschei's face -- whatever it is -- because he adds, more gently, "Change. I haven't the faintest inkling how to begin, but you need to change." He goes to the door and holds it open. "Drax or someone will let you kip in their room tonight."
Koschei nods numbly and lets the door close behind him.
He finds a glass edge in one of the labs. He finds a set of robes from the laundry. He goes to the zero room, unoccupied. The spare set of robes he folds neatly in a corner. He pulls off his own, spreading them out crimson on the smooth floor. The glass nicks his thumb and he smiles distantly.
This time, he'll be the sort of man who plans ahead. This time, he won't show hurt. He'll be incredibly smart, and Theta will see he's changed, and Theta will forgive him.
The ache in his chest is so terrible that this failed body can't focus on being afraid, can't send out the adrenaline. He slices cleanly through the same spot and sets the glass aside; he collapses onto his discarded robes, waits for the darkness, waits for the burst of light.
The dark pours in very quickly this time; familiar, waiting, surging up from his head and wrapping up every bit of him. The light is a long time coming.
He hadn't thought to bring a mirror. Leaving the zero room in the early hours of the morning, this new self settled, Koschei takes a detour through one of the echoing reception halls, studying his reflection closely in the dim light. He has kept the beard, which seems a little more sure of itself than last time; dark hair, expressive eyebrows; he tries the smile, which really is a smirk now.
He doesn't check for the colour of his eyes.
When he arrives at his room, Theta is awake and packing. He glances over at Koschei in the doorway. "Yes?"
Koschei's heartsbeat picks up. Theta doesn't recognise him. Of course. He has little reason to suspect. For the barest moment Koschei considers pretending to be someone else; a new professor, a lost student, the friend of a friend. But the absent look Theta's giving him is already nearly too much to bear.
"It's me," he says.
"Oh," says Theta.
He sits down abruptly on his bed.
Koschei hesitates in the doorway. It is emphatically Theta's move.
"That is not what I meant," Theta says at length.
"It was all I could think of."
"So," Theta says, tangling his hands together, white-knuckled, "this is a reset button? We should assume everything is all right because you became someone new to get away from it? You've gone through two lives, Koschei!"
"But I'm sure this one will be an absolute success," Koschei returns mildly.
Theta stares at Koschei for a long moment, then slams the rest of his things into his trunk and drags it behind him out the door, avoiding Koschei as he does so. "Goodbye," he says. He leaves.
Koschei shrugs and goes inside. Theta has a month to get used to things.
He's brought before the Academy Council. They look very grave; this time they don't tell him how dangerous this sort of regeneration is. It is Borusa, not Damia, who inspects the inside of Koschei's head. The mirrors are gone, in any case, and Borusa hunts through the darkness, cold steel in Koschei's mind.
"How long has this been happening?" Borusa asks.
"Since the first time," Koschei says.
Borusa nods. "Theta Sigma won't be rooming with you when he returns," he says. Koschei's head snaps up. "At his own request," Borusa adds. "As for you, you're unfortunately much too brilliant to justify an expulsion."
Koschei looks at him thoughtfully. "You don't much like me, do you, Professor."
"We might go so far as to say I loathe you, yes," Borusa says.
Koschei smiles. This time, he's the sort of man who smiles at terrible things.
He dreams that he has a shovel, with which he digs a hole at the base of a peculiar green-leafed tree. He pulls out an iron chest, which he pries open with the shovel. The furry, floppy-haired creature that springs out convulses once in Koschei's hands and transforms itself, in the way of dreams, into a flat-billed bird, which honks and lays an egg in some alarm. Koschei cracks the egg open on the edge of the chest; it crumbles in his hands, mere bits of shell. Koschei dusts his hands and looks around frantically, although he has not a clue what he's looking for. He turns to Theta, who has been watching the proceedings with interest. "Where is it?" he demands.
"I never had it," Theta replies. "I saw it once. It's beautiful."
"Tell me where it is!"
Theta shakes his head. "Not until you learn to ask," he says, and leans forward conspiratorially. He has a walking stick, which strikes Koschei as absurd. "Don't believe them," Theta says. "It was never in a needle." He chuckles, with a wry edge that is strangely new. "How time flies."
Koschei wakes alone.
He makes no effort to find Theta when Theta returns, nor does he make any effort to stay away. Theta, being Theta, takes the same approach. Random odds have them catching eyes occasionally in class, meaninglessly, and that is all for some time, until they happen to turn opposite corners at the same time and start walking down a corridor next to each other.
"Hello," Koschei says. "Good holiday?"
"Good exile," Theta returns. "My mother believes you are an extremely bad influence."
"She's probably right," Koschei says. "Mothers usually are."
"My academic prospects aren't wonderful," Theta says. "I was delivered a lecture on that. My parents seem to feel the best course would be to marry me to a girl of good standing."
"Also reasonable," Koschei agrees. He can picture her already. She'll be likable, and charmed by Theta's bluster, and make silly unknowing jokes about his old school friends. Koschei will enjoy her company. Theta will be pleased, then bored. Koschei can see the whole thing.
"And you?" Theta asks.
"I expect I shall tour the universe, or take a professorship. To annoy Borusa."
Theta smiles faintly, a shadow-smile. "Of course."
Koschei thinks: it doesn't end here. It doesn't end with a girl, or a fight, or a petty punishment; it doesn't end in starfire or black holes; it doesn't end in death; it never will. Someday he'll know Theta's name. Someday they will play their games outside the shadow of this world. Someday Theta might even forgive him. He almost laughs, and catches another glimpse of Theta's face. Theta is watching him, rather wryly.
"Yes," says Theta. "I know."
They reach a split in the corridor. They go their separate ways.