Zdxb-1-Delta is on fire around them. Heavy smoke is making it hard to breathe and harder to speak, and the Doctor chokes the first time he opens his mouth, coughs for what feels like an eternity even when he knows it’s only been 10.458 seconds.
It’s hell, or it would be if the Doctor didn’t remember Gallifrey burning, and if the Master wasn’t standing opposite him; impossibly alive. There’s a tiny part of the Doctor, a part that he’s ashamed of, that just thinks, he’s back and that’s what counts.
But it’s not; there are other things at stake here.
“Stop it,” the Doctor wheezes out.
“Why?” the Master asks with the perfectly sincere curiosity of a born liar. “We can fight across the constellations, isn’t that what you said?” He makes a show of looking around as if there even was anything to look at that’s not pure destruction—though maybe that’s exactly what the Master wants to see. “Don’t worry, Doctor. Your precious Earth doesn’t exist anymore in this year, so for once it truly is safe from me.”
The Doctor is aware. The year is 6 425 758 293. Humans prosper across many galaxies, if not in the one he currently is in, and yes, this means they’re safe from the Master.
But that’s not the bloody point.
“There were people here—people you killed—” He coughs again.
“Really, Doctor, haven’t you burnt our whole planet?” The Master tilts his head. “I can’t hope to equal that. Oh! I know! Do you have pointers about my technique? Is that it?”
“Master . . .”
“I’m all ears!” The Master turns to the side, putting his hand behind his ear as if to hear better.
“Come with me,” the Doctor says, all too aware of the answer he’s going to get.
“Or what?” the Master’s look is challenging.
Or I’ll stop you, the Doctor thinks, but doesn’t say. There’s nothing to stop there anymore. He’d come too late. All that’s left is for the fire to burn itself out, for the ash to settle, for the wind to blow it all away.
And the Master, of course.
It used to be that his continuous survival was just a constant fact of the universe, not the miracle that it is now.
“No threatening speeches?” the Master asks. “Where’s your holier-than-thou attitude gone?”
There’s nothing the Doctor can do to the Master here, he realises suddenly; no way to hurt him that would come even close to what the Master can do to the Doctor by simply leaving. This is not even the worst part, no; the worst thing is that the Master knows it, has realised it at some point on Valiant, has used it once already.
One could think it wouldn’t work again, but the Doctor is terrified of the mere possibility.
And yet, he’s learnt something about the Master, too. Never let it be said they are anything less than equals.
“You’re right,” the Doctor says. He walks to the Master. “You win.”
The Master’s eyes widen.
“There’s nothing to be done here,” the Doctor admits. He tilts his head, and adds, before the Master can interject, “For either of us.” He gestures around. “Let’s say I leave.”
The Master barks a laugh. “You’ll never leave me here.”
“I could,” the Doctor says. “Like I said. There’s nothing either of us can do here anymore. I can’t save it.” And yes, admitting it bloody hurts, but he has to continue, has to convince the Master. “But you can’t rule over the ashes. And there’s nothing left to destroy.”
“What are you saying, Doctor?” the Master is weirdly still now, so unfitting his current regeneration.
“Come with me,” the Doctor says again. “It’s your choice, Master. I’m not forcing you. Stay here or come with me.”
“Is dead at the end of the universe, isn’t it?” the Doctor asks mildly.
“I’m still a Time Lord,” the Master snarls. “I’ll find a way.”
“Sure,” the Doctor agrees easily. “But that’s why I’m saying it’s your choice. You’ve won already. You can do whatever you want now.”
He wonders if his desperation is showing in his face, but he’s aware it hardly matters at this point. He is desperate; they’ve established that on Valiant.
But the Master needs him too.
“How the tables have turned,” the Master murmurs. “Last of the Time Lords, eh?”
“Master,” the Doctor says.”
“Mm. I still like it.”
The Doctor looks at him, silently begging him to just answer already. But it’s the Master, of course: he enjoys even these few seconds of holding power over the Doctor.
“Okay,” the Master says.
“Okay?” the Doctor repeats.
The Master rolls his eyes. “Yes, Doctor, I will come with you.” He raises a finger. “For a while, at least. Of course, this does make you responsible for the next atrocity I choose to commit, so . . .”
You don’t have to do that, the Doctor thinks desperately. I’m here. I’ll stay with you. You have my attention.
But he knows saying it out loud would only result in more fighting. There’s no long-term solution to the problem that is the Doctor and the Master. There never has been and never will be and never can be.
A moment of break, though. A recess. An equilibrium.
(How can he call himself the Doctor if he’s willing to trade the universe for a few moments with the Master?)
The Master steps to the Doctor, so close they’re almost touching. He brings his hand up to the Doctor’s face and runs his thumb over his cheek. “Soot,” he explains, and for a long moment the Doctor can’t even understand what he means, a touch of another Time Lord suddenly causing a sensory overload. The Master leans in to whisper into the Doctor’s ear, then. “I’ll fight you,” he says. “Every moment. Like I always have. I’ll make you regret making me choose you.”
“I know,” the Doctor says.
The Master leans back, fascination shining in his eyes. “And yet, you don’t change your mind.”
“I won’t let you fly the Tardis,” the Doctor says. “I won’t let you hurt anyone when I’m looking. And yet, you’ll still go.”
He knows it, now, a certainty deep under his skin brought on by the Master’s touch; nothing like a telepathic bond that would’ve occurred if the Master had touched just a few centimetres to the right, but close enough.
“You’ll still let me hurt you,” the Master says, and he kisses the Doctor, gentle and caring for a few wonderful, horrendous seconds.
“Yes,” the Doctor says against his mouth, no doubt about that in his mind, either.
Lifetimes ago they were the best thing to happen to each other, and now they maybe are the worst, but the fact remains that with the Master, the Doctor will never be alone.