Actions

Work Header

after me comes the flood

Work Text:

With the snow of a certain November still melting in his hair, the Doctor sets a course for anywhere at all. The Cloister Bell is ringing; it's rather like someone coming up to tap him politely on the shoulder and say Excuse me, I think it's a little warm in here while the world rages around them in inferno.

The TARDIS takes him into a long, slow orbit around a pulsar. Even with the door closed he can feel each regular steady beat of low-grade radiation, soothing as heartsbeat, the only bright thing for billions of miles of empty space. The Doctor eases his white-knuckled grip on the handbrake: the TARDIS looks after him. The TARDIS isn't likely to take him anywhere near those hundreds of thousands of fragile creatures he's become so very good at destroying. He goes to sit in the doorway, protected from the vacuum of space by a thin layer of force field, and watches the steady redshifting blink-blink-blink-blink of the pulsar. For a time it's enough; for a time it occupies his attention, and for a time after that, he pretends it does, pretends he doesn't hear the anxious angry murmur of his own thoughts. If Adelaide had to die, was it her own free will holding history in place, or did neither of them have any choice in the matter from the moment the Doctor told her the significance of events? He doesn't know which is more terrible. He closes his eyes, opens his mind, shuts out his thoughts as best he can, and listens to the universe.

The pulsar is orbited by dead worlds, ice-frozen now that their star has become a concentrated memory. He can feel their orbits swinging relentless through the sky. One planet is still afire, too small to become a star itself but leaving contrails of bright change in its wake while it helplessly follows its path around a dead sun. The Doctor can't see it; it's millions of miles off, but he can feel it all the same. Carmen's voice is as clear now as it was when she spoke, it is returning through the dark, and at the last ... he doesn't know if he'll be like Adelaide. He doesn't want to. He wants to run and run and run.

---

The TARDIS takes him to a carnival of light. Most of the inhabitants of this world are gaseous, glowing neon under a star-spanned sky. The Doctor watches the great phosphorus carousel and absently wishes for candyfloss. He leaves when all the colours and lights begin to smear together with his exhaustion. He doesn't want to sleep.

---

A great beast lived under the Hampton Court Palace, all fear and voracious appetite, and it dies on the lawn in 1564, the Doctor standing over it with a sword. It couldn't speak to tell him how it got there; the Doctor has a dozen theories, and Queen Elizabeth a dozen more.

She thanks him with a feast. He can feel her eyeing him, sizing him up, strategizing, and like a tide he is drawn towards the moment when he'll make whatever error causes her to set her guards on him some thirty-five years in her future. He could walk softly, leave before he gives any offense. He could change history -- a little, not so it matters, not so it crimps anything in the progression of Planet Earth -- and even the consideration paralyses him, keeps the Doctor eating and drinking and playing court.

When the queen kisses him, later that night alone in a corridor, she's all steel determination and clever shrewdness, holds his waist like she's testing a weapon, and feels like a bubble, a cobweb, a book the Doctor has already read. He kisses Elizabeth, sharp long-reigning brilliant Queen Bess, and is weak in the knees with relief.

He escapes as soon as he can, and spends a long while rummaging about in the TARDIS, looking for the arrow her soldier shot at its door so very long ago. He can't find it; probably left it on New Earth. Pity.

---

The Doctor sits in space again, watching the great wheel of a forming galaxy. It's young and strong and vast and beautiful.

"I think I'll call you Allison," he tells it. The cheer in his voice echoes hollowly, and the thrum of the TARDIS surrounding him isn't enough to drown it out.

---

There is no moment of decision. If he allowed himself a moment of decision, it would be as deliberate and terrible as turning back to the Martian base. But one moment the Doctor is standing in the TARDIS doorway, light from a billion fitful stars shining down on him; the next, the doors are shut and the Doctor is plotting a course its circuits know well, to a certain London estate. A few years either direction make no difference to the TARDIS.

It's snowing when they touch down. Fifty-four years from Adelaide, give or take a month, and on Earth, in England, it's still snowing. He parks in the back alley, same as he always does. When he slips out onto the street, the snow crunches faintly underfoot, soaking cold into the edges of his trainers. Round the corner he can hear shrieks and delighted laughter, and helplessly pulled, the Doctor goes, edging along the concrete wall and leaning out of the alley.

In the courtyard of the Powell Estate, tracks cut through the snow in snow-boot patterns. In the centre of the jumbled prints are two figures, one in a dark parka, one in a bright pink hoodie and a colourful trailing scarf. Both of them are laughing, throwing badly-aimed snowballs at one another; Rose gives a delighted whoop and leaps onto Mickey, who staggers momentarily under her weight before righting himself and half-running about, yelling. The Doctor hangs hard to the cold wall, as though his fingertips can anchor him, as though it's enough to watch her. As though it fulfills him, rather than make the loss more acute. In an instant he could step out, say hello, and throw a wrecking-ball into history. He can hear Adelaide in his mind, as clear as Carmen, echoing little people? with indignant shock, and he understands her: none of those brief bright souls he invites with him are little people.

He can still see Rose standing on a desolate seaside strand, tears in her eyes, laughing as she says So? to the suggestion that two realities would crumble to keep them together, and for the briefest shocking instant the Doctor agrees with her.

Rose here, now, at the Powell Estate in early 2005, tumbles from Mickey's back and lands in the snow, laughing, and pulls him down with her. Mickey crashes with a yelp and the Doctor's fingers dig numbly into the concrete. He's had his fun -- he's had his punishment -- he should go. He really should. He trembles for a long terrible moment on the edge of destruction, the desire to recapture something he can no longer have greater than his horror at considering it. Then the moment's gone, and he's walking, away from Rose, back to the TARDIS. If the emptiness in his chest and his mind echoes a little deeper, well, that's just because he needs something new to fill it. He'll go visit Shakespeare again, maybe, or get away from Earth for a bit, that's it, maybe take a jaunt to one of those brilliant theme-parks in the Magellanic Cloud, or -- or --

Key in the TARDIS lock, the Doctor pauses, his thoughts interrupted by something like a burst of static, out of tune, the universe twisting to accommodate something subtly wrong. It's fairly nearby, closer in space than in time, a medium-distance frequency from the near future. It doesn't feel like Jack -- Jack screams through the senses like a permanent bright gap -- and it doesn't feel like a Time Lord -- or not like just any Time Lord, but there's something ...

It feels very much like the Master did, regenerations ago, possessing a body not his own, and quick as thought the Doctor's at the TARDIS console and following the signal with panicked-fumbling speed.

---

He sets down in front of a wrecked building, still in London but some five years later: it was sturdy and grand once, but its brick and steel didn't survive whatever blasted it from the inside out, the whole thing carefully cordoned off from the street. HM Prison: Broadfell, reads the scorched and twisted sign under crumbling bricks and the Doctor's trainers. The air smells acrid and electric, like a copper wire with its fuse blown, and the Doctor chokes on it a little. Everything in him is screaming to run from whatever twisted and corrupt parody of a regeneration took place here, but he returns to the TARDIS and parks it properly, a few blocks distant in a residential neighborhood where its presence won't be too noticeable. He sets out on foot: the subtle queasy wrongness crackles everywhere, a signal that has earthed itself in this time and in this city, impossible to pinpoint more accurately than that. So the Doctor follows the smell of acrid copper miles on, down to the river, past skyscrapers and on to wharfs, leaving behind everything but hills of gravel, scrap metal, and great rusting ships out on the water. It's unbalancing. This wreck of a place is not what he expected.

But the Doctor stands atop one of the great gravel hills, electric wrongness catching in the back of his throat, and he hears it.

Four metallic clangs. Regular. Deliberate.

He can't help the spike of panic, but he can at least name it that: panic. Nothing more. He's been expecting it since the instant Carmen told him, feeling every moment as an uncertain countdown to this one, but somehow he still thought he'd have more time -- to prepare, to wander, to live this particular muddled life. That, when he reached this, he'd feel some kind of acceptance, a brief bright moment of calm at the inevitability.

A lifetime ago, he would have.

The Doctor sets off, the gravel disturbed by his trainers slithering and clattering down the slope, his trench coat catching the stale wind off the Thames. The four clangs come again, faster now, drawing him on. Down the hill he goes, landing with a clang of his own and racing across rusting metal half-steady under his feet. Then concrete, gravel, dirt, concrete, all of it hitting his feet with hard jolts that ground themselves in his spine, scrap metal and refuse rushing by in an unimportant blur; the Doctor can't run fast enough to keep up with the noise, and if he stops it, if he's just able to stop --

He skids and stumbles to a halt. On the dimming horizon, with the world fading to grays in an early evening around it, a lone figure is standing. It's not Harold Saxon. It's not even properly the Master; the fierce grin on his boyish haggard face, the psychic scream of mindless defiance -- they're nothing the Doctor's ever felt from him before. It dizzies him.

They stare at one another. This Master-who-is-not-the-Master, this man with Saxon's face twisted into a different sort of mania, with his unnaturally pale hair and dirty old clothes, breathes in irregular gasps, shakes with suppressed energy and it shakes the Doctor, makes the turning world an unsteady uncertain thing. The gap between them stretches a dozen yards and so many lifetimes it makes the distance unbreachable.

He still has to try.

"Please," he says, voice pitched to carry, "let me help!"

The Master tilts his head and levels the Doctor a look of disgusted disappointment. Well, the Doctor isn't going to get points on originality for that one. But what else is he supposed to say? Nice to see you again? It isn't nice. It's awful; the strange crackle of wasted energy, moving around the Master in invisible contrails at every slight movement, is making the Doctor nearly ill. He's wrong, come back in a body that looks solid and feels like decay. The Doctor hadn't bothered to consider -- had stubbornly refused to accept the Master as a possibility, to plan ahead for the inevitable, even after Carmen's words -- but he realises now that he had hoped, for the briefest of fleeting seconds, that the Master would listen this time, that the pain the Doctor had willingly shown at their last encounter would be weighed in the balance of the Master's thoughts.

Assuming, of course, that the Master has thoughts. He's like a wary animal.

"Please," the Doctor adds, a whisper, the expected begging refrain, shuffling a half-step forward, and the Master laughs at him. It's cruel delight laced with despair; it's honest, and aware, and the Doctor feels a treacherous flare of hope.

Then the Master is running.

Of course. The Doctor sets off after him again, dodging through the darkening gloom of abandoned ship-parts, trash, the detritus discarded by humanity and forgotten. He slides on loose gravel more than once, and the Master is fast, much faster than he should be, driven by the adrenaline of desperation -- or of something else. The Doctor didn't mean for this to be a hunt.

But if that's what it is ... The Doctor slows to a walk. The Master doesn't seem to need saving from anyone other than himself, so the Doctor can take his time. He has a psychic lock on the Master now. Even oceans apart, maybe whole planets, the Doctor could find him.

---

A hundred feet on he runs into Wilfred Mott.

There are a great load of other humans with him, all of them chattering happily about their cleverness at finding the Doctor, and at some other time the Doctor might have been equally delighted at their ingenuity, especially after he has Wilf's swift reassurance that none of his well-meaning friends have the faintest inkling who the Doctor is. But at this time he can't afford to enjoy these humans, their small triumphs and their curiosity about him. He herds them back towards the London crowds quick as he can.

"But Doctor, really, I've got to speak with you," Wilf is telling the Doctor, rather plaintively, probably not for the first time. By now they're back at his friends' transportation -- a bus, for game nights or the like, and the Doctor feels bewildered by it, by the strange concept of the old simply banding together and doing things for fun -- and they're far enough from the shipyards that they're probably safe from the Master.

"Now's not really a good time, Wilf," the Doctor says apologetically. He has the idea he's said it a few times before too. Wilf's friends are climbing back onto the bus, so they at least have the privacy of quiet conversation, even if curious eyes are still looking out at them.

"I know, sir, I do know that," Wilf says, twisting his shapeless red hat in his hands, "and I could see you were going somewhere in a hurry ..."

The Doctor nods, trying to do it patiently, trying to give dear Wilf the attention he deserves. The problem is that only half the danger's gone. He can still feel the Master in the back of his head, a signal out of tune, twisting his insides into knots of anxiousness; but he's far enough to be safe. The Doctor, though, the Doctor is right here, standing next to Wilf, by all these innocent people, and were the Master no more than a distant memory they would still be in just as much danger.

Wilf is looking at him with clear, tired eyes, absolutely trusting. "It's only that Donna's gone off," he says, quiet, anxious, apologetic, and just like that he's made the Doctor far more dangerous still.

"Gone off?" the Doctor repeats. "What --?"

"I don't mean she's gone funny," Wilf says quickly. "She's running about. Her mum and I can't keep track of her. When I asked where she gets off to, she told me she's tired of missing all them aliens, and she'll be looking for herself. I couldn't tell her why she shouldn't, of course, but I thought -- is there some way to stop her?"

The Doctor's air is knocked from him in a rush, half relief, half fear. "Not when she's made up her mind," he says, and he shares a painful smile with Wilf. "But it shouldn't be a danger. Not really." He takes a deep breath, and speaks quick as he can, trying to get the information out in a rush, reassure Wilf and run before he's convinced to do anything stupid. "When I locked away her memories, I locked away the specific memories -- what she can't know are any of the things we did together, Atmos or the Daleks, things like that. If anyone directly tells her, it'll trigger a relapse -- which will only put her to sleep, keep her mind safe, it'll just knock out anyone around her. But that doesn't mean she can't see anything alien; she saw me, remember, when I said goodbye. That doesn't do a thing. As long as certain pathways are closed, she's fine. All right?"

"Right," Wilf says, sounding a little dazed. "So it's a good thing she's doing this, then?"

"Yeah," the Doctor agrees, and then the full weight of it comes down upon him: even without the memories, Donna is going out and getting herself in danger. That's what he does. "And I should --"

"Right, say no more," Wilf says, and claps the Doctor on the arm. "You get on with whatever it was you're doing, sir. A pleasure as always."

Words stick in the Doctor's throat. He's gone about this all wrong. He wants to erase years. He wants to tell Wilf how frightened he is. "I'm sorry," he says, quiet, fervent, meaning it just as much as he always does, and he runs from Wilf and his bus and his small anxious life.

---

He catches up with the Master again at full dark. It takes so long in part because the Master's trail is confused, zagging and erratic. More than that, though, the Doctor is choked and smothered with the desire to see him, and it feels like a headlong rush into suicide.

So he dawdles, wanders, takes his time until it becomes unbearable.

He finds the Master crouched by one of the gravel hills, eating, the greasy scraps someone threw away. Almost as soon as the Doctor sees him, his head shoots up and he climbs warily to his feet, but it's still -- off. Still awful. Before today the Doctor couldn't have conceived of the Master kneeling, strangely unashamed, in the dirt.

That thought makes it easy. The Doctor has no fear left for himself. He begins walking towards the Master, assured, inevitable. No talking now.

The Master's face twists. He rises fluidly to his feet. The arcing electricity, the buzzing wrongness, slides into the visible spectrum: from fifteen feet the Doctor can see a sick blue-white glow under his wrists. The Master clasps his hands together, rubbing them, gathering the energy, giving it up, and the Doctor's fear coalesces into something concrete. He keeps walking, steady, slow. The Master is giving off energy he can't squander, burning himself out, and this means that the Doctor isn't, after all, dealing with a man who cheats death out of the same old defiant stubbornness he's known for centuries. Somehow, no matter that he's back now, the Master meant it when he refused to regenerate in the Doctor's arms.

He lashes out, the arcing energy crackling into a bolt that explodes an old crate into flames and timber just behind the Doctor, shaking the ground, flaring heat for a brilliant moment against his back. He keeps walking. The Master does it again, the lightning barely missing the Doctor's trainers, another fire roaring up behind him. He keeps walking.

This time the Master waits, hoarding the energy in his hands, building it, containing it. It buzzes in angry warning, illuminating the Master's face with ghastly light. It makes the Doctor want to run again, makes him want to rush up, grasp the Master's strangely too-thin wrists, beg him to stop giving up energy he can't possibly afford to waste. But he doesn't run. He keeps walking.

The next bolt hits the Doctor full in the chest.

It's not unexpected, but as with so much lately, the Doctor isn't adequately prepared. The energy leaps at him, pressing white-hot between his hearts. He staggers in shock under the urgent weight of it, at this force beating him back and drawing him on. Each step is an agony, but there's nowhere else to go, and if he can get close enough --

The energy's gone as quickly as it came. The Doctor gasps and sags, suddenly incapable of carrying his own painful weight. The ground tilts up towards him, and then -- hands, the Master's hands are against his chest, feverishly warm, holding him. His head snaps up in shock, and for a single instant he's staring right into the Master's eyes, both of them here, present. There is honest concern in the Master's face, and it knocks the Doctor back centuries, catches with longing in his throat, and the Master catches this.

Drops him.

Right.

Lying in the dirt, the Doctor tries to rise. It doesn't work; his body is too shocked by the blast of energy to cooperate. He breathes as best he can through the aftershocks of pain, and braces himself for the next assault.

There's a quiet scuffling. He forces his head up, enough to see the Master crouching back down next to him, almost at ease, as though he's broken through some invisible barrier. The Master tilts his head and looks at the Doctor, deliberately this time.

"I had estates," he says, clear, precise, deeply bitter. "D'you remember my father's land, back home?"

Yes. The Doctor does. It's rhetorical, of course; the Master knows he does, too.

"Red grass," the Master whispers, "stretching far across the slopes of Mount Perdition," and the way he says it, the name like an invocation, shatters something in the Doctor. He's taken out and unfolded these memories a million times, turning them soft and unreal: their schoolboy friendship, the long exile, Gallifrey itself refashioned into comforting stories. He'd never have imagined the Master would do the same.

They look at each other for a long moment. A strange smile hovers on the Master's mouth, painfully wistful. The Doctor remembers, with sudden clarity, a certain afternoon he hasn't thought on for centuries: the two of them sprawled on a grassy hill, debating anything and everything for aimless hours, the red sky above them and the Doctor's head resting carelessly against the Master's thigh. Now they sit in the dark, with the fiery crates behind them burnishing the Master's skin and the Doctor at his feet.

The Master settles down in the dust, the smile dropping from his face. It's unlikely that he's heard the Doctor's thoughts, but he murmurs, still precise and bitter, "Look at us now."

The Doctor summons as much strength as he can. It's not enough to lever him upright, but it's enough to force out words. "All that eloquence," he rasps, and thinks of the ruins of Broadfell and the ruins of the Citadel and the ruins in his head, "but how many people have you killed?"

"Did you like it?" the Master asks, and here, finally, is the flash of something recognizable, the sociopathic childish delight the Doctor remembers from their last encounter. It's only a flash, though -- in the next moment the Master is very serious, still in the way of a child. "Lucy was necessary. It's a shame she didn't cooperate."

Ah. The pieces fall into place -- the strange familiarity of the prison's name, the violent blast that knocked out its walls, the terrible wrongness of the regeneration there. "Your resurrection went wrong," the Doctor breathes. "That energy."

The Master glances away, skittish, unwilling to look at this head-on. "I'm hungry," he whispers. "And those humans, out there, safe in their houses, eating, eating ..."

There's something dreadfully honest about the Master now. The Doctor manages to push onto his elbows, crawl to hands and knees, trying to think. He's always taken the wrong tactic with the Master, tried to reason with insanity, beg with mercilessness, offer help when the Master would rather have died than accepted it. There has to be something else he can try, if he can't beg or help or reason.

There is something he's never tried before.

"What if," he says, "I ask you for help?"

The look the Master gives him is almost priceless. He's surprised. Good.

"There's more at work tonight than you and me," the Doctor presses.

The Master considers this. "Oh yeah?" he says, and it's something. It's a response. Maybe he's hooked.

"I've been told," the Doctor says, "something is returning."

No hook. "And here I am!" the Master says, stating the obvious, still lost. He ducks his head again, clutching at it.

"No," the Doctor says, because he has to try. "Something more."

"But it hurts --" the Master hisses, and the words catch behind the Doctor's hearts, but he presses on, trying to explain, sort into words the vast terrified disquiet in his soul without giving away too much, and it doesn't even matter, the Master's talking over him, voice cracking, "It hurts -- Doctor, the noise -- the noise in my head, Doctor -- one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, stronger than ever before!" As he says it, he scoots forward, falls forward, bringing them face-to-face again. The clarity isn't back in his eyes, but something else, almost-recognisable, is. "Can't you hear it?"

"I'm sorry," the Doctor whispers.

"Listen!" the Master insists, leaning in. "Every minute, every second, every beat of my hearts, there it is, calling to me," and the Doctor sees what's there, behind the half-frightened, half-caressing words. The Master means it, completely focused on the sincerity of his words, every scrap of his attention on the Doctor. "Please listen," the Master breathes.

It's excruciatingly hard to say, but the Doctor must. He at least owes the Master his honesty. "I can't hear it."

"Listen," the Master all but snarls, and perhaps it's the unexpectedness of the gesture, but the Doctor doesn't have time to prepare at all before the Master's smudged fingertips are resting against his temples, alive with tension, holding him fixed in place. Their foreheads press together, and the Master's thoughts flood in before the Doctor can pull up even the flimsiest of barriers.

It hurts. It's raw and dark and horribly familiar, but where the Doctor used to hear a current of angry mutterings underlying the deliberate surface thoughts, there's nothing but that screaming tension, and beneath it, pitched to a frequency that destroys every attempt to smother it, a steady beat. The Doctor hears it once, twice, three times before he feels the rhythm gaining clawholds in his mind, driven deep by the Master's desperation, and he jerks backwards out of the Master's grip, gasping.

It takes the Master a moment to focus. "What?" he demands, and when the Doctor can say nothing, he repeats it, with an echo of desperation, "What?"

"I heard it," the Doctor whispers; a million denials come bubbling up, and his tongue trips on them, because nothing is how it's supposed to be anymore. He's seen a man nearly identical to him kill Daleks that shouldn't even be; he's seen those he loved ready to destroy the Earth; he burned the Master's body, and here that body is now, on borrowed time, burning again from the inside out in increments; he refashioned Time according to his whims, tasted the power and the ashy following shock when Adelaide denied him. Nothing is how it is supposed to be: of course he could hear the drums. The Doctor clutches at the dirt, clinging to the spinning world, and whispers, "What is it? What's inside your head?"

The Master stares at him, slowly rising. His face transforms to understanding. "It's real!" he says hoarsely. "It's real!"

The Doctor can feel a flare of energy again, the Master's revelation spiking into blue cracklings under his skin, and he stumbles to his feet, babbling, "I don't know what it is, but yes, it's real, and we can find out, we'll know what it is," anything to keep the Master here, but each of his words is driving the Master further inside himself. The Master's face is full of frightened joy and the air tastes of burning copper.

Another tactic, then. The Doctor has to do this. He takes a deep breath, trying not to choke on the burning that lodges in his throat, and says, light as he can, "Fancy a bite to eat?"

The Master's head snaps up. He stares at the Doctor as though the Doctor's the mad one.

"You said you were hungry," the Doctor says, gentle, coaxing. "We'll get you a proper meal, someplace out of the way where they won't recognise Saxon."

"Everyone knows me," the Master says scornfully, but at least he's following the thread of conversation. His wild energy subsides to a hum.

"Wear the hoodie up," the Doctor suggests. "And we'll have some tea, too, get you settled."

"Your solution to everything," the Master says, but he says it smiling, the mercurial moods working for the moment in the Doctor's favour. "What's the Earth custom these days? Have me home by half-eleven, give me a kiss at the door?"

"And pay for dinner myself," the Doctor agrees. "That one might be tricky."

The Master gives a short chuckle and curls in on himself. The Doctor knows better than to go to him; he stands there, waiting out the next internal flare of bleeding energy. Tea soon enough, he tells himself, as though those same chemical properties that settle an unstable regeneration could do anything for this. What he wouldn't give for a zero room and some proper advanced biometric scans right now. Instead he has a TARDIS parked way across London -- not equipped with a zero room, thanks very much -- and the hope that tea will stablise the Master's neural pathways long enough that they can think of a better solution together.

He senses the electric flare subsiding; the Master straightens slowly, blue-white light shivering on his fingertips. "Come on, then, it's your date," he says hoarsely.

"Right, yes, right," the Doctor says, and sets off towards the city, the Master in his wake.

---

He finds a dingy café full of burnt-out light bulbs and stale smoke. It does the trick; no one looks twice when they come in. The Doctor makes their orders quietly while the Master finds a table, and they sit together by the grimy window, the Master eating two sandwiches in quick succession and sitting hunched over his cup of tea, breathing it in.

"All right," the Master says after a time, with unsurprising reluctance. "You want my help."

"Right," the Doctor says, caught out. "Well."

The Master peers at him narrowly, half-shadowed under his hood. He says nothing. He sips his tea.

They sit in silence. The Doctor shuffles through strategies and can't settle on one, because of course he can't trust himself anymore. He convinced Adelaide to kill herself. He almost talked to Rose. When Wilf turned up, it was only the Master's hovering presence that had saved him from perhaps going to Donna next, trying to rewire her mind because being alone is surely much worse than breaking the rules. And he can't say any of this, can't breathe a word, because it will give the Master every advantage possible.

"I think," the Doctor says, "something is coming. I was told that something is coming, out of the dark, and I don't -- It's not you. It didn't sound like you."

No need to mention the knocking. That's come and gone, and he's still living, and if he can fix the Master ...

The Master tilts him a harsh smile. "I can't sense anything. Not a single damn thing. Just you."

Of course he must mean that his botched resurrection scrambled his senses, but that doesn't stop the momentary jolt of horror that flashes through the Doctor. The Master didn't mean him, couldn't possibly have meant that the Doctor is the terrible thing coming; he has everything under control now.

He closes his eyes, taking several deep breaths, concentrating, aligning himself with the Master's impressions. After a fashion they are the only real things in the universe: the last two Time Lords, ripping through one another's senses. A nuclear warhead could detonate just outside the café window, and the Master's presence in the world would still be a greater distraction. It's strangely calming.

When the Doctor opens his eyes, he finds the Master staring at him with intense focus.

"What?" he asks.

"What happened to you?" the Master asks, tilting his head, examining the Doctor much too closely.

"Never mind that," the Doctor says, and he drains his tea. "The real question is, what's going to happen with you? And at the rate you're burning through your life force, we'll have to figure something out soon."

"So tell me your brilliant plan," the Master murmurs.

"Not yet," the Doctor says, and endures the Master's complicated look of resigned disdainful fury, because it means he's forgotten his dangerous question. "You can't possibly think I'm going to fix everything for you before I have a few assurances."

"You're going to bargain with my life?" the Master asks, and actually giggles over his tea. "Seriously?"

"I can't fix you up and let you just run off to destroy things," the Doctor says, nettled.

"You can't risk me not caring about my survival, either," the Master tells him, leaning across the table. One of his elbows settles in a sticky drink ring, but he doesn't appear to notice. "Here's the thing, Doctor," he whispers. "I don't care." He leans back again, draping an elbow casually over the back of his chair. "It really doesn't matter. You can take that risk or you can watch me die. Slowly. It'll hurt."

The Doctor mostly manages to suppress a wince. "No," he says, "that's hardly your style," and he ignores the awful suspicion that the Master might, after all, not be bluffing. "And really it's not -- what I'm asking, it isn't much."

The Master raises his eyebrows. The Doctor draws in a breath. I'm going to die, he thinks, but he can't say it aloud, can't make it real and give the Master any leverage, as much as he desperately wants to tell anyone at all. "Only come with me," he says, half a whisper, afraid of speaking it too loudly and startling the Master into reflex refusal. "Not to keep you -- not to fight -- just see the universe with me. That's all."

And the Master doesn't say no.

He looks hard at the Doctor, as though he can read the Doctor's thoughts and motives and intentions without even having to touch, and he asks, "Would it stop, then? The noise in my head?"

The sincerity of the question cuts deep. There are so many things the Doctor needs to apologise for, so many things he needs to fix. "I can help," he says gently.

The Master's eyes shine overbright, not quite with fear. "I don't know what I'd be without that noise," he whispers.

Brilliant. Beautiful. Sane. But they both know that already, and the Doctor suspects they've both entertained a hundred thousand what ifs over the years, if never quite the same ones, never quite at the same time. Now -- now they are both thinking, What if the drums were gone. What if we went away together; what if we didn't die; what if we made a start. He can see the possibilities occurring to the Master, no scheming, just sheer desperation, and with a thrill of terrified excitement the Doctor realises that for the first time in a millennium they might really be in the same place at the same time.

"Wonder what I'd be without you," he murmurs in return, the furthest possible thing from an accusation, and from the way the Master's mouth tilts up at one corner, eyes brimming, the Master understands it too. The Doctor, fingers trembling slightly, slides his hand across the table; the Master reaches out too, and clasps the Doctor's hand tight.

This time it's no invasion. Though the Doctor can hear the drumming, a painful throb in four/four time, it's bearable. The Master's mind is a deep black well, full of fragmented glass and half-formed thoughts; the Doctor stays hovering on the edge, cautious. His own mind is a house full of locked doors, and the Master follows the marked paths, through the births of star systems; through days when everyone, impossibly, lives; through old hopes and fears and frustrations, their sting long gone. It's all the honesty the Doctor can afford.

The Master's hand tightens further, past the point of pain, but he doesn't prod any further into the Doctor's mind. "What now?" he rasps.

"Now," the Doctor says, and he gently pries the Master's fingers loose, holding the Master's hand in both of his, "we find out what's causing the drums."

---

The UNIT facility sits quiet, an uninterrupted imposing block of darkness in the pre-dawn half-light. Getting inside alone is easily done, but the Master poses a difficulty.

At the moment he's eyeing the UNIT logo over the gate. "Seriously?"

"Yes," the Doctor says. "It's the closest large collection of alien artifacts in London, and I'm not letting you anywhere near my TARDIS while you're bleeding energy like that." At the edge of his vision he sees the Master pull a wry face that looks like agreement, but he's too busy opening the gate, sonic screwdriver at a quiet whine, to return the look. "Right. Come on."

They're two shadows sliding along the inner wall; the great steel sliding doors that lead into the warehouse yield to the sonic screwdriver without complaint. The Doctor could probably get in just as easily using his thumbprint on the keypad, but the last thing he wants is for this visit to be logged; bad enough if UNIT noticed and wanted to pull him for some unimportant consultation, far worse if Lethbridge-Stewart or, so help him, Martha Jones were to discover that he'd been here with the Master. No. Better to do the thing quietly.

The Master prowls among carefully-labeled crates, not bothering with the stamped serial numbers, his eyes narrowed in concentration. The Doctor keeps an eye on him, but he chooses the next row down: he can reasonably assume they're at least both looking for something that will stabilise the Master's body. Of course he can also reasonably assume that the Master is looking for any other technology that will give him one up on the Doctor; their moment of connection was real, but the Master won't very well stop the habit of lifetimes over a single moment.

"What are we looking for?" the Doctor asks, his voice echoing slightly in the great dark space. "A stopgap? Something that will mend your body? Something that will force regeneration?"

"I don't know," the Master tells him, meeting his eyes across a crate. "Your guess is as good as mine."

The Doctor nods grimly. His guess is that the Master is already far too damaged -- that the kind of energy needed to actually mend the Master without all of it dissipating in the process is phenomenal -- that they need the kind of time they just don't have -- He puts a stop to those thoughts, recognising them for what they are. If he crosses his own timeline, rewrites the rules to save the Master, it's only the space of a thought from there to all the things he's trying so very hard to avoid acting upon.

"Anything that will slow the process, then," he says aloud. "A temporary solution will be good enough until we find a planet with the right sort of medical tech."

"You're serious," the Master says, giving a short delighted laugh. "Right, then. What are we waiting for!" He ducks down among the crates, humming something jauntily.

The Doctor shakes his head and continues on down the line. UNIT really is ill-equipped to handle the sort of problem the Master's dealing with; all this alien detritus is confiscated rather than commandeered, and therefore of rather low quality. The best they can hope for is something with rudimentary tissue-restorative capabilities. As the Doctor drifts on, prodding carefully at each crate with his mind, he sorts through planets and times that might be able to help, technologies that can force regeneration and make sure it goes smoothly, places they might acquire new bodies wholesale.

He can't think beyond that -- too many unknown variables. He'll be with the Master, and the Master will be alive, and that is enough.

"Hah!" comes a cry of smug discovery. The Doctor straightens, trying to peer over the crates.

"Found something?"

"Maybe," the Master replies, in exactly the carefully-guarded tone that puts the Doctor on the sharpest edge of suspicion. "It's --" A chuckle. "You're not going to believe this."

"Try me," the Doctor says carefully.

The Master comes around the boxes, into the Doctor's stretch of corridor. He's holding something close to his chest and vibrating with suppressed triumph. "You really are not going to believe this," he repeats, grinning, and steps right up into the Doctor's space, still concealing his discovery. Whatever it is, it's giving off soft pulses of energy, dreadfully familiar and strangely hypnotic; without thinking about it, the Doctor reaches forward, trying to figure the thing out.

His hand touches the Master's. The Master takes that moment of skin connection, throws their newly reestablished mental link wide, and hits the Doctor with a blunt force of thought like a two-by-four. The world goes black.

---

In those moments of true unconsciousness, deeper and less guarded than the Doctor's carefully-protected infrequent sleep, the unwanted memories slide in, disjointed fragments of horror. He hides in the gutted bronze innards of a downed Dalek transport, listening to the exposed Daleks scream agonies outside, the soft giggles of the Horde with their rending blades, and feels desperately sorry for the Daleks, feels desperately ill. He stands surrounded by the Never-Weres and endures their chittering, their gentle scraping along his limbs, the unfolding of his selves in all directions, sees the Daleks he killed without mercy, and the infant experiments he failed to kill, and all the times the High Council owned him and punished him and betrayed him, and he knows to every last minute detail all the easy ways he could have prevented the War. He lies in the mud of Arcadia, frozen in the cold embrace of clay-encased corpses, and he knows that soon he will be found, and decorated as a hero for his survival, and he wants to die.

He wants to die.

The Doctor wakes in a slow painful surfacing, weighed down with the regrets of another two lives, and that is somehow worse.

---

The first thing he sees is a look on the Master's face that is pure frightened concern, but the moment the Doctor focuses, the look is gone like flashpaper. The Master grins at him. "Glad to have you with us, Doctor!"

"What ...?" He's still too muddled from the attack and nightmares both to form complete sentences. When he tries to move, he finds his hands -- and his chest and thighs and feet, oh this is thorough -- strapped securely to some kind of chair, though whether it's for interrogation or recreation, or indeed what it's doing in a UNIT warehouse, the Doctor's brain isn't quite up to figuring out yet. It's shoved back against the concrete wall by the security kiosk. The Master is standing over him, looking very pleased with the whole arrangement.

"I'd like your undivided attention for this," he announces. "I didn't know what you'd think of my little find, so -- consider these precautionary measures."

"What is it?" the Doctor demands.

Rather than speaking, the Master simply holds it out with a flourish.

It's a homing device, a palm-sized ball of metal with a small blinking receiver. It's almost entirely ordinary, but for that it's flashing a steady rhythm of four, and but for the clean precise lines of Gallifreyan writing etched into the metal. Even at a glance, the Doctor can take in the pertinent information in the message: war orders. Return to base. And a date, from early in the War, but still from the War.

"Oh," the Doctor says in nameless terror.

"Don't you see?" the Master asks, his voice gone strangely thin with emotion, caressing the words. "It was to find me, after I'd escaped to the end of the universe! It must have tried to lock on to my nearest location, but my newest body was so far away -- so it went here. I spent so much time here, in that last body, do you remember? The label on the box said 1972. But I wouldn't have known what to do with a war summons then. And now --"

"There is no War," the Doctor manages. "It's over, and you don't want it back."

The joy is gone in an instant from the Master's face, replaced by cold disdain. He gives the Doctor a sharp smack upside his head, setting the Doctor's skull to momentary ringing, the contact merely physical. "The homing signal," he says, with tight patience, "has the same sequence as the drums. It's a message, for me, through time, and I'm going to use it. It's from the War, outside the War, and it can make a connection. Bridge the gap. All I need is an amplifier, and I can call them out!"

"But why?" the Doctor demands.

The look the Master gives him is horrible in its honesty, stripped down to fear and pride and hatred and, worst of all, love, and the Master says simply, "Because living with only you in the world is unbearable."

There is nothing the Doctor can say to that. He can't take back a thousand years and save them.

"Now!" the Master says, tucking the homing device into the pocket of his hoodie, "Amplifier!"

"Let me help," the Doctor offers.

"You'll stop me," the Master says, a dismissive statement of fact, and he saunters off down the line of crates.

"At least let me explain!" the Doctor calls after him, suddenly desperate with the seriousness of things. "If you bring them back -- if you break the time lock --" The Master, very deliberately, disappears around a corner. "It'll all come back!" the Doctor shouts after him, but without very much hope. "Everything from the War -- not just the Daleks --" but he can't go on, not when he's only talking to himself. He shudders and concentrates. He should at least be able to get out of this chair.

The straps are very secure. But then, if the Master does succeed in finding an amplifier, it'll take a blessedly long time to rig the thing to a frequency anywhere near strong enough to reach through all the time and space between Earth and Gallifrey. He has at least a little while unobserved in which to get free.

The window of the security kiosk goes progressively lighter, brightening into dawn. It gives the Doctor a little more light by which to see the nuances of the various buckles and straps, although it doesn't give him any real clue as to where to begin undoing them. Across the warehouse floor he can hear the sort of shufflings and scrapings that sound like industry, and like efficiency, and like the Master well on his way to winning.

Then comes another sound, one the Doctor has been half-listening for, and entirely dreading: the kiosk's outer door opening and shutting at the arrival of the morning security guard. The Doctor tries to twist around, give some futile warning, but he can't turn enough to do any good.

To make things worse, the door between the kiosk and the warehouse opens without warning. The Doctor can twist that far, and does, more than ready to hiss instructions at the security guard -- and the words die on his lips, because he finds himself face-to-face with an equally flummoxed-looking Donna Noble.

---

The Doctor recovers first. "Be very quiet," he breathes. "Please."

"What are you doing all tied up?" Donna demands, but she does so in a whisper, so that's something.

"There's been a bit of breaking and entering," the Doctor tells her, low and fast. "Someone very dangerous is not twenty feet from us, and you need to get out quick as you can, find help."

"Oi, I'm breaking and entering too!" Donna points out. "What do you think I'm going to tell the soldiers who work here?"

"All right," the Doctor says, miraculously finding the emotional reserves to feel some of the familiar old exasperation with Donna. "Then help me out of this, at least, so I can go for help."

Donna's eyes narrow. "How do I know you didn't do the breaking and entering and are supposed to be tied up?"

"You don't," the Doctor says. He wants to tell her to trust him. He wants to take a quiet moment, and connect with her, show her that things are all right. He can't. It's far too dangerous. "And I'm sorry, but there isn't time. Please just get me out of this."

"Well," Donna says, "if neither of us are supposed to be here then neither of us will tell," and she comes forward, setting herself to the task of freeing the Doctor with wonderful efficiency.

They're working on unbuckling the straps over his ankles together when a sudden noise comes from the centre of the warehouse, a steady flat insistent beep-beep-beep-beep. Both of them freeze for a moment, and then the Doctor is fumbling in his haste to get the last strap off, hissing to Donna, "Run, quickly, you've got to --" but it's too late: the Master's come back to check on the Doctor.

"I see you've got another Earth girl to play with already!" he says, looking Donna up and down, coming closer with casual assurance. It doesn't seem to bother him at all that the Doctor's got free. Perhaps he thinks it's good timing. "They are occasionally useful. Better be careful, though! Don't let her get her hands on a gun."

"I know you!" Donna says, with some surprise, standing. "You're Mr Saxon!"

"Told you everyone knows me!" the Master exclaims. He refocuses on the Doctor, who is slowly edging up out of his chair. "Hey! Don't run away now. You'll miss the triumphant reunion."

"It won't be," the Doctor says, more hopelessly tired now than anything, wracked with fear. His time is up; he wasn't fast enough; he has no plan.

Down the row of crates, behind whatever the Master constructed, the wall of the warehouse is dissolving into a white light full of indistinct shapes. Out of the corner of his eye the Doctor can see Donna backing towards the door, her mind mercifully still making no dangerous connections; the Master doesn't even notice, already heading swiftly for the next row, to watch the fulfillment of what he has wrought.

The Doctor has no choice. He follows. The Master is standing by his construction, an amplifier holding the link, awful in its simplicity. The Doctor walks past it, past him, as close to the wall of light as he can bear, the first and only line of defense between the mad Time Lords at the War's end and the unsuspecting universe.

There are only a handful of them, in the robes of the High Council, as befits such an occasion. At their head is the Lord President, ceremonial rod in one hand, the metal glove of justice for dissenters on the other, arrogance incarnate. The Master won't recognise him. This man was returned to the Time Lords later in their mad project of resurrection, long after the Master had fled. The Master simply stands there, facing the Lord President, uncomprehending.

Somewhere in the Doctor's hearts, his last flicker of hope dies.

"My lord Doctor!" the Lord President says, with every indication of satisfaction, granting them superfluous titles they've long since rejected, "And my lord Master! We are gathered here for the end."

"Listen to me," the Doctor says, reflexively, the same old empty plea. "You can't."

"It is a fitting paradox," the Lord President says, "that our salvation comes at the hands of our most infamous child." He smiles, with a mad triumph that is all the more frightening for being nothing like the Master's. "The approach begins."

"Approach?" the Master repeats, shaken from his certainty, glancing at the Doctor.

"Don't you ever listen?" the Doctor snarls, beyond any kindness. "Something is returning! Them! All of them! And the War. You weren't there, in the final days." Now that he's started, he can't stop; all of it comes spilling out, all the fearful unspeakable things he could never have told his human companions, all the shut-away parts of himself that even the Master can never hope to really understand. He can't stop. "You never saw what was born. But if the time lock's broken, then everything's coming through -- not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could've-Been-King with his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres, the War turning to Hell: and that's what you've opened, right here. Hell is descending!"

"My kind of world!" the Master says, chin high, deliberately not understanding.

"Just listen!" the Doctor half-shouts. "Even the Time Lords can't survive that!"

"We will initiate the Final Sanction," the Lord President announces, calm and pleased and utterly unsurprised; and even through the terror and shaking anger, the Doctor understands: the homing beacon was never a search to find the deserted Master at the beginning of the War. There was no way for the Time Lords to escape from inside the lock. All of this, all of it, was deliberate, both of them played every step of the way. They probably allowed the Master to escape, just in case. He feels weak with fury. "We will ascend," the Lord President proclaims, "to become creatures of consciousness alone, free of these bodies, free of time, and cause and effect, where creation itself ceases to be!"

"You see now?" the Doctor demands. There is something insistently niggling at the back of his thoughts, important even here at the end of everything. Something out of the corner of his eye again. But he can't look away from the Master, can't risk that. "That's what they were planning, in the final days of the War."

"Then --" the Master throws out his arms, a shockingly helpless, submissive gesture. "Take me with you! Lord President, let me ascend, into glory!"

The Doctor has to look away, pained, and he's suddenly facing his faint distraction head-on: Donna. She's standing behind the Master, a look of set consideration on her face. The Master hasn't noticed her; the Lord President and his attendant Time Lords haven't noticed her. She's only human. Only human, but she meets the Doctor's eyes, raises her eyebrows, and holds up a small, business-like, UNIT-issue pistol.

The world spins away into nonsense.

She must have found it in the security kiosk. She must have paid attention to the Master's comment about guns. She must have the thickest head on any known planet, to be confronted with Time Lords and not flash on it all again. Maybe the whole thing's completely incomprehensible. But she's offering him a gun, miming the offer to throw it.

With glacial uncertainty he looks away, takes in the scene: the Master's outflung arms, his unquestioning understanding surrender, his eyes shining with tears; at the Lord President, eyes narrowed in refusal. "You are diseased," the Lord President says, "albeit a disease of our own making. No more."

He raises his glove, its edges beginning to glow a soft deadly blue, and everything snaps into place. The Doctor understands. All moments have led to this moment. He accepts his death, lets it settle in, at home with the hopelessness, and he turns to Donna. Nods.

She throws the pistol. He catches it, cocks it with an overloud crack, and points it square at the Lord President.

The glove dulls to grey metal, but he does not lower it. "Choose your enemy well," the Lord President grates out. "We are many. The Master is but one."

"But he's the President!" the Master says behind him, hoarse with terrified encouragement. "Kill him, and Gallifrey could be yours!" It twists in the Doctor's chest. That the Master should beg and bargain for his life --

He turns, safety snapped to off. For a brief terrible moment he sees the bewildered terror on the Master's face and delights in it, fiercely glad the Master finally understands and is afraid. Then the Master flails an arm out in exaggerated gesture, cries, "He's to blame, not me!" and he's only a stupid, frightened child.

The Doctor's arm doesn't waver. He's had to choose between the universe and the Master before.

The fear dissolves from the Master's face; he smiles in bitter understanding. "Ah; the link is inside my head. Kill me, the link gets broken, they go back." They stare at each other for an endless moment. The Master's eyes are still brimming with tears, bitter smile long gone. The Doctor's arm trembles, only a little. The Master's face goes hard. "You never would," he spits, "you coward."

But the Doctor is too full of pain already to register regret or remorse or empathy as anything but intellectual concepts; and the Master sees this. Perhaps he recognises it. His face shifts like quicksilver to mocking concern; "Go on, then," and fiercely, "Do it!"

The Doctor knows this. It happened only a handful of years in his past, only then it was a woman with a sleek red dress and a battered mind with her finger on the trigger. He does not feel as she felt. And the Master's face is not full of resigned hatred now; he doesn't want to die. Not by the Doctor's hand. The Doctor's finger tightens on the trigger, and the Master shakes his head, minutely, pleading.

He can't.

The Doctor turns to the Lord President again, pulled inescapably between two terrible solutions. The Lord President merely watches him archly, assured of his own immortality, sure the Doctor cannot doom him because he hasn't yet witnessed what the Doctor is capable of. The Doctor's finger tightens again. He can do this. He could do it a thousand times if he had to.

And somewhere behind him, the Doctor can feel Donna, insignificant and human and not one of the little people, not at all, watching him. Watching to see how he uses her gift. And he remembers, in the distant past that is locked to her now, the snow clinging to her hair and to her absurd wedding dress, Donna telling him kindly, You need someone to stop you.

Stop.

The Doctor whirls, his obvious third option glowing brilliantly in his mind, hope flaring up again. He meets the Master's eyes. The Master looks back at him, steady, complicated, accepting the Doctor's decision without understanding it. He does think the Doctor would kill him after all.

"Get out of the way," the Doctor tells him.

For a moment the Master stares at him, uncomprehending; then a smile spreads across his face, and later, when the universe is safe again, that smile alone will be worth it. The Doctor's seen ever-fainter echoes of that smile for years upon years, tried to keep from jealously hoarding them in his memory. This time it's real. It's the cheeky sideways quirk of understanding across the Master's face, the knowledge that they are in this together against those silly pompous fools in their robes and ivory towers; it's mischief and admiration and trust, honest in a way the Doctor never thought to see again. For a single instant, the Doctor is home.

The Master dives out of the way.

The Doctor pulls the trigger; the amplifier and homing device explode in a billow of flame. The warehouse rumbles ominously, sympathetic vibrations going up in more than one adjacent crate. The Doctor turns to face the Lord President, secure in the moment; he has what he needs. The link is broken.

The Lord President fixes him with a look of sheer vindictive hatred. "You die with me, Doctor!"

"I know," the Doctor says. He stands calm and straight as the world rages around him. The Lord President raises his glove, the blue along its length powering up into the sort of energy that will deliver death too swift for regeneration. But the Doctor doesn't run. There's been more than enough of that.

From just over his shoulder comes a voice, and he recognises it as the Master's, but it is low and earnest and would do anything for him without even dreaming of destroying him in the process. "Get out of the way," his oldest friend tells him, and when the Doctor turns to look, too astonished to understand, the Master is already throwing bolts of energy past him.

"You did this to me!" the Master roars. Another bolt. "All my life!" Another. He's using the energy so fast now that, even if by some miracle they escape, he'll be beyond anything this planet can do for him. "You made me!" The Lord President is staggering backwards, into the bleeding white light; the Master is following him hard. In a flash the Doctor realises what he's doing, and he can't -- not now -- "One!" the Master shouts. "Two! Three! Four!" and at four the Doctor is there, arms wrapped firmly around his waist, dragging him back from the edges of reaching light.

Silence.

They stand together, panting, trembling with exertion. The Doctor can feel the energy seeping from the Master, slower now but steady, his life-force an open wound. He holds the Master more tightly. He wants to say It's not fair, wants to apologise. "Thank you," he whispers, hoarse and fervent, and the Master laughs, racking and shaky.

Somewhere in the far end of the warehouse, a box explodes. It booms ominously.

"I have no idea what that was," comes Donna's voice from somewhere behind them, "and I dunno about you two, but I am getting the hell out of here!"

The Doctor turns. She's standing with her hands on her hips, looking exasperated, as though broken time locks and fights for the universe itself are faintly ridiculous and she has better things to be doing with her time. He wants to laugh and cry and hug her. He lets go of the Master. "Quite right," he says. "Er ..."

"Donna," she says. "Donna Noble." Another box explodes, somewhere rather nearer by; and next to them another box goes up in a whoosh of flame. They both jump away from it. Donna is unfazed. "Don't bother telling me, I know it was alien."

"That's --" the Doctor says, and then a crate on the other side of Donna bursts into flames too, and they're standing there trapped, the warehouse creaking and burning around them. Donna goes abruptly much less blasé. The Master for his part is having trouble even standing.

The Doctor and Donna look around frantically. "Side door," they say at the same time, spotting it; Donna comes around and loops the Master's free arm over his shoulder. "Martians are bloody heavy," she grumbles, flinching away instinctively from the Master's steadily more disturbing energy signature. Still, she helps to ferry him along, speeding up the process as the flames around them rage higher.

Sections of the roof begin to collapse.

The Doctor looks up as they go, calculating the likelihood of their getting out at the current rate of going, how much faster Donna and the Master might go if he pushed them as hard as he could, and how much he really cares about how stupid and petty and anticlimactic it usually is in the end.

A yard from the door, the Doctor ducks out from under the Master's arm and gives both of them the best running push he can.

The warehouse collapses.

---

On the bright side, he's not burning to death.

He's still partially crushed and bleeding quite a bit from a very important artery. The Doctor stares up at the sky, which is a beautifully improbable shade of blue, sun just above the horizon; the billowing clouds of smoke are beginning to turn everything orange, like the morning of a sky on a dead planet.

"Oh God, I --" Donna's saying, babbling something, "I'll call an ambulance -- oh bloody! -- I don't have my mobile! I'll go for help, I'll be back before you know it --" and she's squeezing his hand, the reassuring pressure of a concerned stranger, and running off in her impractical shoes to do wonderful, practical, brilliant things.

"Of all the stupid, arrogant, selfish things to do," the Master snaps at him. "Help me move this," and he tugs with a futile lack of strength at the beam lying crosswise across the Doctor's legs. His face is ash-smudged and otherwise starkly pale. He looks half-dead himself. He scowls. "Do you want to regenerate and crush your legs all over again?"

"No," the Doctor admits, and more or less twitches his way out from under the beam while the Master fails to hold it up properly. The next time he collapses, it's in the Master's lap. The Master's arms come up and hold him.

The world begins to go grey around the edges, from the smoke and from blood-loss. He can feel the first prickles of regeneration, drawing, insistent. It's not the first time this body's felt them. He's cheated death before. He's had his hearts restarted, frozen a star out from his head, forced his body into rejecting poison, and tricked his body out of regenerating after being shot by a Dalek. There's a lot he can do.

But his hearts are forcing the blood out, too fast to stop, his body broken ... There's nothing he can do about that. The Master hunches over him, cradling him close, and for the first time the Doctor really understands the awful sameness of their predicament.

"I'm afraid," he whispers.

"Yeah," the Master rasps. "Every single time," and drops a kiss on his forehead.

It's not as unexpected as the Doctor pretends it is. He lets his head flop back a little, and he squints up at the Master. "Why didn't you regenerate this last time?"

The Master considers. It takes the Doctor a long moment to register that the Master's eyes are still bright with unshed tears. "I liked the body," the Master says finally. "And I'm tired. That's all." He squints off at the orange-and-smoke sky. "Winning's not all it's cracked up to be," he whispers.

"I know," the Doctor says simply. He can feel his legs again, his fingertips, even the ends of his hair. Soon it will become visible gold light and remake him. Soon he'll be a new self. Maybe then he won't want to be here, tangled with the Master; maybe he'll resent it, remember his pride. It frightens him. "Master," he says.

There isn't any need to say it in words. The Master simply leans down, palms to the Doctor's skull, and kisses him, lips to lips and mind to mind. The house in the Doctor's mind has burnt to ashes, and the Master wanders its foundations, unsurprised. In the Master's head the drums are quiet. It's dark all the way down, but the Doctor keeps going, curious, deeper and deeper, until the Master pulls away, lip bloody, tasting of death.

"Not yet," he says.

"Not yet," the Doctor repeats, frowning. He should be very close to regenerating now, and yes, here's the glow, but it stays there, faint, potential: every increase above a certain level, and the Master's body drinks it up. He laughs. It hurts, but he laughs. "Not yet," he says. "Not for you either."

"Ah," the Master says, and the look on his face is a complicated mess of resigned and resentful and relieved. "Cheater."

"Always," the Doctor assures him, and he shudders, the first real riptide of oncoming regeneration coursing through him. "Hang on. Here we go."

"Not going anywhere," the Master tells him, hands tightening.

The Doctor nods. "Good," he whispers. Another shudder rolls through him. Thirty seconds at the most. He's still so frightened. He looks up at the Master, and the Master meets his eyes, holding him close, both of them here together. He wants to say I don't want to go, but what comes out is, "What happens now?"

The Master's mouth tilts up again into that beautiful honest old smile. "I don't know," he whispers.

The last of the regeneration comes, flooding through him, and as the gold flares up to remake them, the Doctor thinks that maybe the uncertainty is all right.