The static on the shared psychic wavelength sounded all wrong. Elevated pain levels usually gave a particular tone to the background noise from the Master’s mind, but this harsh cacophony was something else entirely. The Doctor unslouched from against the console, let fall the book they were reading, and spun round to see the Master enter the control room looking even more worn and pale than usual, but with an odd glint of excitement in his eyes. On bad days he found it easier to skip vocalising entirely, so they reached out for contact. Maybe telepathy wasn’t needed, as the hand he offered them was unsteady and startlingly hot. But the link came in handy to gauge that his pain was worse than it had been in a long time, even taking into account that he wasn’t trying, or wasn’t able, to shield just how bad he felt.
He’d seemed fine - well, status quo post bellum - several hours before. And although he normally had thermoregulation problems, he was more likely to lose body temperature than the reverse. Fever… that explained his wild-eyed look, but how had the Master even managed to contract a virus or infection that was compatible with his system? The planet they’d visited together during his recent few good days had several species of people, but they’d not seen evidence of any humans, let alone anyone biologically similar to Gallifreyans. The Doctor pushed the mystery out of their mind for now.
You're very ill -- You should be in bed, let me help you!
I need… before he was able to concretize the thought, his knees buckled under him.
The Doctor caught him neatly, sliding their arms under his as he slumped against them. As they steadied him, the unnatural warmth of his whole body gave the sudden illusion that they were holding a human instead of a Gallifreyan. There'd been so much to do when they first brought the Master onboard that the Doctor hadn’t even thought about their Terrans much lately, but this... was a very strange sensation. And another thing to file away well-shielded; the Master did not share their fascination with Earthlings, didn’t even consider them properly people.
He struggled to control his balance and stand unsupported, but faltered; they held him close again. The Doctor leaned in a bit so that the side of their head touched the back of the Master’s. His hair was plastered down with sweat and his skin was burning up. Shame and fevered confusion came across the link… as well as what he needed.
Before they could make it to the nearest toilet he had to lean with both hands against the wall of the corridor and vomit. Thanks to generations of technicians, the TARDIS was fitted with near-infinite self-cleaning hallways, but even Gallifreyans hadn't perfected self-cleaning people. The Doctor guided him the rest of the way to the lavatory to rinse the sick out of his mouth, and waited close by in case he should fall again. Instead, he heaved up several more times, until nothing was left in his stomach. They helped him up and over to the sink, and dabbed at his face with a cool wet flannel.
The cold water was a shock against his skin, and he tried to push them away. Between the chills and the waves of dizziness, the Master missed his dignity even more than usual, but crawling between toilet and bedroom on all fours wouldn’t exactly have been the height of decorum either.
He let the Doctor keep their arm around his waist for support. They were nearly there when a spasm of coughing shook him so badly that they had to stop. The Doctor waited, rubbing his back, as he doubled over and hacked into his sleeve. Nothing came up; there was only pain deep in what seemed like every single tube of his respiratory system, and a burning in his throat that aggravated the soreness from being sick so many times. In spite of himself, he leaned into the Doctor’s touch. He’d run out of strength to cough and was shaking badly as he gasped for air. Finally, much later than it should have, his respiratory bypass kicked in, relieving the need to breathe for a while. The Doctor picked the Master up bodily, again without asking, and carried him the rest of the way. He was too weak to protest.
The last time he'd been this helpless, the other time they’d carried him, had been the night they’d brought him into the TARDIS. But since his time-sense was one of many casualties of the events surrounding that night, it was difficult to sort it all out. Still, he wouldn't be here now if that hadn't happened already. He pressed the sequencing words to the area of his sub-brain that should have been visualising time in all directions, but now struggled to see it even linearly. And as ill as he was now, it was harder to think about anything for long; his mind felt like a swamp. When trying to think properly about past and future events, he’d normally use his old Gallifreyan fob-watch that he'd rigged to view the Web of Time artificially. But it was in his hoodie's front pocket; he could feel the solid lump of it between his body and the Doctor’s as they carried him. Even though they knew he used it, he still preferred to keep the device in his pocket and read it by touch telepathy.
The Doctor's pity was always palpable, lapping at the edges of the Master's consciousness. But whenever they noticed him either struggling with time-sense on his own or surreptitiously reaching out to borrow theirs, a whole tide of inconvenient emotion washed in. Physical frailty was one thing, but when they remembered he couldn’t feel the time-streams anymore, he felt them trying and failing to imagine what it was like to be missing so much of the wonder -and the burden- of what it meant to be a Time Lord. And now he was literally and figuratively their burden, almost like a lower organism! He tried to push the Doctor out of his mind but didn't have the strength. In a show of courtesy, their mind scrambled out, even as they were setting his body down on the bed.
"I'm so sorry." There was no escaping it, was there?
And suddenly they were fumbling at his zip?! He just wanted to rest; instinctively he started to push their hands away, but read their intention through the contact: You won't be comfortable sleeping in these. If he hadn't been already flushed with fever, embarrassment at his own confusion would have showed in his face. The Master sank back on the bed, let them remove his boots, his worn jeans and even his rather threadbare pants. They pulled some fleece pyjama bottoms onto his legs, lifting him a little to get the waist all the way up. The Doctor was gentle and matter-of-fact, paying no more attention to his naked skin than would a parent dressing a child. If he’d been quite himself, the Master might have reacted differently, might have thrilled at the extra physical contact, might have debated with himself whether to resent the Doctor’s lack of boundaries more, or their lack of innuendo. This close to delirium, though? He just let it happen.
They made him as comfortable as possible with extra pillows and blankets, then perched on the side of the bed. The Doctor's sonic screwdriver whirred as they did a quick scan. Whatever had caused the infection wasn't in the TARDIS databases (which was worrying in itself), but they could try to relieve some of the symptoms and monitor his progress.
They did as much pain control as was safe to do telepathically, meanwhile checking the noise levels in his head. Curiously, despite the terrible headache they found, the completely separate pounding that was the 'drums' had been very nearly silent all this time. They instinctively thanked the-universe-or-whatever for small fortunate things: at least he didn't have to suffer both at once. All his other ongoing medical problems were roughly as usual for an average day, except that, as they’d already noticed, the joint pain - before palliative manipulation - had been much worse than normal.
The Master had drifted off while the Doctor was working, but a fit of deep gut-wrenching coughs startled him awake again. They put one hand down the back of his jumpers, massaging the painfully tight muscles of his back and shoulder until they made direct contact with his secondary brain, then tried unsuccessfully to adjust or block the respiratory distress. At least they could nudge his bypass to kick in sooner this time.
The Doctor rearranged the Master's clothing and bedclothes and then made contact again with both hands on his head, registering every time they touched his skin that the fever still hadn't gone down at all, was even getting worse.
We should have something in the medical bay that you can take. Was this even true? With so many unknowns and complications, there might not be anything effective without dangerous side-effects. They made sure to shield the cold worry clenching in the pit of their stomach. And tea - d’you feel like you could drink anything?
The Master shook his head weakly to emphasize his mind's answer: Couldn't keep it down. His tongue and lips were uncomfortably dry, but he'd just been coughing almost to the point of vomiting again.
The Doctor stroked his matted hair with soothing cool fingers; he felt them wishing they could smooth life itself for him. There they were again, wishing impossible things. He’d always been the more realist of the two.
I'll be back shortly. You'll try to rest?
His inner voice snarled back a wave of frustrated, wordless rage that must have left the Doctor's mind reeling.
They startled a bit, but stopped short of withdrawing from contact, perhaps trying to leave on a better note.
The sudden aggression of his own response surprised him almost as much as it did the Doctor. They'd soon brush it off as a product of exhaustion and fever, but the Master knew that he still had a little control of his mind. He should have been able to maintain a pretense, if not of civility then at least his usual rough familiarity, by force of will. He could mostly keep it together, but being this ill on top of everything else had his mental resources stretched too thin.
And sometimes the Doctor’s caring made him so angry. He didn't want their pity; just something like the mutual respect of the past. The Doctor had of course suffered and been injured before; in their current life, much of that had even been at his hand. But still, with their rapid-healing body and regeneration energy mostly intact, they didn't understand - or had forgotten - what it was like to live in near-constant long-term pain. He still had the appearance of the young and strong body that he’d willed himself to regenerate into, but some effects of the botched resurrection had proved impossible to repair, and everything took so much more energy and effort now.
All the same, whether to avoid boredom or to show them that he realised the rules of the game had changed, the Master generally let himself be drawn into the few activities open to him. Mostly he helped out around the ship, whether trying to organise their eccentric storage "system" or doing maintenance work that could only be trusted to another Time Lord of similar ingenuity. The Doctor kept him fed, monitored, and... contained.
He'd finally got the alliance he always wanted, but on their terms. All these lifetimes he’d sought their attention, but not like this. Not with their usual sense of moral superiority magnified hundredfold, not with him powerless and them in complete control.
Maybe he’d been right after all, willing himself to die that morning in the Valiant (he tried to estimate how long ago, without checking). He should have forced them to leave him for dead again (had it been a year, or two years later?) after he'd used up the last of his life-force in that fateful confrontation with the Time Lords. Should never have let them take him as a prisoner to 'care for' and to 'forgive'... and to fucking pity.
The Master regretted the current experiment more than ever.
Even through the fog of pain and delirium, the Doctor read some of this and, inadvisably, pitied him more.
The Master used his last bit of strength to transmit as much headache as possible across the link, and promptly passed out.
“Ow! bloody hell!” The Doctor broke contact, shoving the Master’s head back into the pillows. They resisted the urge to wake him up and literally lend him a piece of their mind for being so ungrateful.
They got up, rubbed their face, scrabbled fingers through their hair, scrubbing the memory of the pain out of their head… and pushed the disagreement back into a dark corner of memory for the moment. There was tea to brew and medications to find. Come on, said the Doctor to themself, there’s work to do.
Anyway they weren’t keeping him prisoner, they reasoned.
The Doctor was rifling through the badly-organised medical storage cupboards, more than half wishing that the Master had started one of his tidying binges there, instead of in the shelves of research specimens on the other side of the room.
They were his prisoner as much as anything. Well, prisoner of his ill-health, anyway. The two of them had as much free rein of the universe as ever, but their actual adventures together were confined to a bit of exploring on the few good days when the Master was well enough to leave the TARDIS. To be properly useful the Doctor would have to either leave him behind while they went out to save the day, or give up looking after assorted worlds to look after him.
It had been all very well to pledge something exactly like that - twice - when they were desperate to keep him alive, but the reality of it was not what they'd anticipated. Surely they couldn’t be expected to keep such a promise, not when people out there needed their help. Once he was over the worst of this illness, maybe they could discuss it. If only he weren’t so prickly all the time. They were the one making an effort, after all, and it wasn't like they asked anything of him in return.
The Doctor came back carrying a mug of hot sweet tea and a large bowl of ice chips in case the tea was still a no-go, their pockets full of medical supplies (including a vial of something greenish)… and all their resentment and rationalisations stored and shielded away.
The Master was sleeping fitfully, and they could see some of his troubled dreams. He must have been impatient for them to find something, because the clearest images were of the med lab. The Doctor didn’t notice what, or rather who, was missing from the dream. Hoping he'd rest, they didn’t wake him, but sank into a chair and picked up whatever book was to hand.
They’d read less than a chapter when he woke again, struggling for breath. They helped him sit and stayed beside him. Even sitting up he couldn't stop coughing long enough to swallow anything, so they emptied the contents of the small vial into a syringe and injected it directly, holding him firmly so a particularly violent cough wouldn’t jostle the needle. There was… something odd, but it didn't register until later.
The Master felt some relief in his respiratory system almost immediately, and even a little less headache. He was shaking badly with chills, though, and the contrast with the Doctor's skin told him his temperature was probably unchanged. Past errors and anxiousness about the future still swirled in the edges of his consciousness, but he hadn't the energy nor the concentration for them. As he leant against the Doctor in grateful silence, his mind made the effort to nudge theirs, like a cat's warm nose making a gesture for attention. With as much intensity as he could muster, he sent fuzzy signals of wanting to make amends.
He was so charming like this, and deceptively innocent. Even though they knew that some of what endeared the Master to them was illusion and wishful thinking, the Doctor couldn’t resist wrapping their mind around him, just as their arms already were. Worryingly, his mind radiated as much confusion as his body radiated heat.
Your fever’s still very high. I can run a cool bath...
(This was instantly rejected, indicating that the sensory shock would be too great; the Doctor didn't fancy wrangling a struggling delirious person in water)
... Or we can try to get some liquid into you.
At least they let him stay in bed without a fight. And the Master didn’t even need to open his eyes, as the Doctor’s second suggestion included the idea of the tea and ice chips that they had set on the bedside table. He indicated the ice. Soon their fingers were pressing a piece of it to his painfully dry lips, and he slurped it up. They fed him most of the bowl, piece by patient piece. Still light-headed, he felt he was floating away from pain, the only other thing he could feel was the Doctor’s mind cradling his, and their fingers sometimes brushing his mouth. He licked his lips, and the Doctor’s fingertips, too. It was oddly intimate, being cared for like this, the Doctor waiting on him... not clinically now, but tenderly. Maybe this arrangement wasn't so wrong for the both of them after all. Maybe the closeness he stood to gain outweighed the agency he was losing.
The Doctor had dipped a flannel in the ice water at the bottom of the bowl and held it as a compress on the Master’s forehead. They’d picked up some of this change of mind and shot back: justify it how you like… provided you stay.
So, he wanted the Doctor and the Doctor wanted company. They really were still both out for the main chance. This was as it should be. This was something he could process. The Master smiled as he dozed off again in the Doctor's arms.
As he slept, fevered memory-dreams returned and the Doctor watched them, half-curious. There was the medical lab, there were… the Master’s own hands? Yes, he was hunting through the specimen shelves… looking things up on a terminal… finally opening a likely container… filling a syringe… and injecting himself... Then deleting the data he had found.
Blimey… what were they up against here? Had the Master been self-medicating, trying to treat his chronic pain with who-knows-what yet-unresearched alien drugs? This wasn’t safe! There were so many reasons they’d been very careful with pain control. What if, overly hopeful to find relief, he overdosed or tried some untested substance that turned out to be hazardous to Gallifreyans?!
And why hadn't the TARDIS told them what the Master was up to? Was her taste for revenge even greater than her willingness to help the Doctor? On consideration, it probably was.
Or had the Master just thought of these experiments and not done them? Being as careful as possible not to wake him, they pushed up the sleeve of his jumper to check what they thought they'd seen earlier. Yes, there was definitely another needle mark near where they'd given him the remedy; just the one, and it was recent. After more than a few days it wouldn’t show anymore, even with his diminished regeneration capacities.
He must have injected something when he’d been in the med-bay tidying the storage cabinets earlier this week. The two of them had been working on separate projects a lot lately; it was good to be able to delegate some maintenance tasks around the ship to someone who understood them instinctively.
Like this morning. The Doctor had been tinkering with the console whilst the Master was on a separate repair job in another area… That is, they remembered, until he came into the console room feverish but almost elated, in quite a lot of pain, but almost free of the ‘drums’.
And then of course the penny dropped. Oh my stupid head!
The Doctor’s thought was so loud that it woke the Master. Their racing mind lashed out at his with thoughts thick and fast. They’d move their head, talk with their hands and break the links, code-switch to shouting almost as fast as their thoughts had been flying at him.
Sluggish with sleep and still very unwell, he struggled to keep up. Bollocks! They’d figured out his experiment… Not bad detective work, but was there no way to have some privacy around here?
The Doctor was still going, sometimes repeating themself. How COULD you, WHY would you, try something so idiotic? This is bonkers even for you! You infected yourself with a rare illness, just to stop the bloody drums? You've got to tell me what it was, so I can look it up! That’s so incredibly dangerous! Don’t you know you could have hurt yourself seriously, you could have injured your brain?
All of this came illustrated with calamities straight out of the worst of their memory and imagination, but also with everything they’d felt that day - even more than other days - whilst caring for him. The fondness they'd never really forgotten. Their constant guilt that they couldn’t help him enough. The frustration that they were both trapped by his unreliable body. The way they felt every time they thought they'd lost him: even more than the grief, was the loneliness. Worst of all, the fear that he'd already lost too much and changed too much... that this damaged body and mind weren't him anymore.
The Master kept even his inner voice silent for a while, just let the mental and verbal storm wash over him, until the Doctor mentioned brain injury.
He started to laugh, first softly and then loudly, his voice cracking from dryness and disuse. The half-dying sound of it frightened even him; it must have terrified the Doctor because they stopped shouting and stared at him. He laughed until he choked and still wheezed with laughter in between coughs that again doubled him over in pain. He made a fist and pressed it into the Doctor’s hand so hard they winced, but they didn’t break the contact.
You still don’t get it. You’ve watched me this whole time. You’ve been inside my head. You know how broken it is in there. What do you think happened to my time-sense? Temporal lobe damage! Why do I have trouble talking when I’m ill? Injury to the language areas of the brain! Isn’t my entire sub-brain damaged?! As for the primary brain, don’t you remember what the “sound of drums” even is?! Traumatic Brain Injury by fucking committee. How the hell do you think brain damage is something to scare me with?!
Also, Doctor, it worked.
I can't hear them anymore.
The Doctor cautiously let themself hope: Could the 'drums' be really gone? The Master wasn’t letting them into as many layers of his mind just now, so they couldn’t be sure if he'd managed it. But he was just genius enough to have thought of something this mad, that would actually work. They tentatively put one arm back round him, a conciliatory gesture that he seemed to ignore, but at least didn't reject.
The Master had paused; even without voicing or laughing, he still wasn't breathing well. This made thinking difficult, and he desperately needed to think. His pedantic mind amended: almost.
“They're-al-most-gone,” he croaked, but even with his voice faint and hoarse, the Doctor still heard the rhythm behind the syllables as clearly as if the Master had tapped it out with his fingers.
In what must have been frustration, he crashed aside the same mental barriers that he'd only just found the strength to put up. The Doctor could feel the beats increasing in volume as the fever receded. In a stroke of cruel timing, the drums must have only become audible again just as the Master was daring to think they’d been silenced.
This time pity and self-pity met in the middle of the link. The Doctor's throat and mind were raw from shouting out all their worry. The Master curled inwards, but as far inside himself as he could retreat, the noise and pain went even deeper, were more real than he was. The Doctor's prying mind wrapped tight around the Master's; they'd catch him from falling even if they broke him in the process. Their intertwined consciousnesses despaired together for a moment, until the Doctor shook off the cloud.
It'll be okay, you'll be okay, I promise you. We'll try together next time. We’ll find a way. I promise I'll keep you safe. The Doctor bludgeoned at the current reality with the baseless optimism that was all they had, and tried not to think about what had become of others they'd promised to protect.
The Master tried to disagree, but couldn’t manage coherent thought. He tried to blank his mind instead, but the pounding only echoed louder given more unused space. Could he crack open his skull against the headboard or the wall to end the noise? It seemed too far to drag himself, and the Doctor was in the way. But time stretched out before him, still vast although he couldn't properly process its expanse, and the noise keeping the measure, more regular than his hearts or even the old watch. The noise, always, beating down his mind, some days less, some days more, but never really gone, until it killed him or died with him. If this were the price of surviving... He was too exhausted to take the thought to its logical conclusion. The Master slumped back against the Doctor's shoulder, closed his eyes, and tried to let their reassuring lies drown out the drumming in his head.