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Helping Hands

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The Master lay curled up under the duvet with his hands over his face.  He felt so much pressure inside his head and so much light in the room, that the mere idea of opening his eyes produced waves of nausea and panic.  His heartsbeat pulsed in his ears, overlaying and echoing the beat that was always already there.  A serrated pain like the sound of yellow static radiated out from the back of his head; the only way he could tell he was conscious was how much the rest of his body still hurt.


The Doctor fiddled with some controls, trying to override the safety feature of ambient lighting.  Even with the dimmest sleepnight setting, the Master had cried out in pain.  The TARDIS didn't like people running around her corridors in the dark.  They only got more lost, sometimes damaged things, and then she had to round them up... it was an annoyance.  And she still didn't intend to change any policies to cater to that one's preferences.  Finally, the Doctor hit the right combination of programming and diplomacy, and the ship allowed complete darkness to fall, just in this one bedroom.

There was a small sound of guarded relief from the middle of the bed.  The Doctor guessed their way across the room and found a spot to sit against the headboard with one leg crossed under the other.  They felt about for the Master's face under the coverlet and ran their hands lightly over his, to check on and quieten the frantic motion they had heard:  even in the dark he was still covering his face, his palms pressed to his eyes, his thumbs and fingertips now digging desperately at his temples and forehead in a failing attempt to manipulate the pain.

Let me try?  Their careful fingers pried tentatively at his.  The only answer at first was a sharp stab through the momentary link, like electricity sparking across a gap.  He hadn’t the mental energy to shield it from hurting them, too, but despite the shock they kept trying to contain his hands, lest he hurt himself more.   The ends of his fingers were slick with what they hoped was only cold sweat.  Please, let me help you.


The Master felt the Doctor's pleading, but everything was too much and too loud, his pulse like a blunt instrument in his brain.  When he tried to make ideas (words were out of reach), his head was stuffed full with throbbing noise and shooting pain; nothing else could get through.  He had trouble even remembering how to control his body.  He concentrated, convinced his hands to still themselves so the Doctor could work, and finally signalled an affirmative.

He tried to elbow himself towards them, but moving sent excruciating spasms down his spine and he stifled a gasp.  Before he knew it they were supporting him, their arms strong around him, until his head rested on their lap.


The Doctor felt about in the dark to make sure the Master was in a comfortable position.  This kind of episode tended to make his body temperature drop, so they tucked the duvet back round him and rubbed his back and limbs.  Curled in on himself like this, hurting and shivering, he always seemed so small and vulnerable, nothing like their worthy opponent of the past; they had to shield the worry and sorrow that welled up.  Now that his struggle was not against them, they needed to remember what a good team the two of them had always made, on the rare occasions they'd ended up on the same side.

They began to explore the back of his head and neck, simultaneously massaging out tension and making contact again.  They shuddered at the levels of unshielded pain; without his usual mental barriers, it was clear how much had been already ever-present in the background and how much was compounded by the current attack.  They used to think him a coward for his focus on self-preservation, but caring for him during what had been some of his most difficult times, they’d glimpsed the toughness of a survivor.  

With a proper link, the Doctor risked experiencing the Master’s acute headache and muscle pain as if it were their own; if their mind believed the illusion, it could be just as debilitating to them as it was to him.  They’d had to figure out how to trick themself that it wasn't real, not for them, and to perceive it only in the abstract.  This decreased their empathy but let them work, and they could still feel the pain levels in the background in order to know if they'd managed to help.  With his mind wide open, they resisted the temptation to go poking about in there.  What they were trying to do was time-sensitive.  Also, who knew what awful things they might find?!  As an afterthought, it would have been wrong.

With one thumb they were in close contact with his principal brain through the little dent in the base of the skull; some of their Earth friends had called it the feng fu point.  They slid the other hand down the neck of his jumpers and searched out the auxiliary brain.  Sometimes they could get better effects by working with both brains at once.  If things went to plan, they could both decrease the manufacturing of pain-producing chemicals and confuse the pain receptors.  Under normal conditions, a Time Lord who was suffering this much would at the very least go into a healing coma.  But they'd found out, that first night in the zero room, that the Master's body had lost the capacity to enter and return from that state reliably.  So everything they tried was highly experimental, never guaranteed to work.  The thrill of the challenge nearly made the Doctor forget how sorry they felt.  


The Doctor's hands were warm, almost like a heating pad on his neck and shoulder.  If he’d been able to think clearly, the Master would have read the temperature difference as an alert that he was going hypothermic, but as it was, he only noticed comfort.  Certain impressions came through the haze of pain and would translate into understanding much later, when his brain could handle processing ideas.   He would realise he felt less apprehensive now that they had learned to ask before entering his mind, in fact before doing most things they did to care for him while he was conscious.  He would reflect that perhaps they still pitied him, but they also seemed to respect him again, at least a little.  For now, just a sensation of warmth and relative safety.

As cracks started to appear in the wall of pain, the Master began to be able to have small thoughts again.  He found it funny that since he'd been staying with them the Doctor was finally living up to their pseudonym.  Too bad he could neither joke nor laugh, as formulating words or sounds still hurt too much, but he flashed the idea at them and could feel them smile internally.  He didn't mind, for once, if they interpreted this as gratitude.

After a little while, as palliation really kicked in and he felt less need for pressure, he eased his hands off his face and felt about his neck and shoulder for theirs.  He patted the backs of their hands with unaccustomed gentleness.  He was so, so tired.


Having set certain processes in motion, the Doctor could unlink for a moment.  Telepathic pain control, effective as it was, required intense concentration and mental energy.  They slid their hands out from under his, patting them once to set his mind at rest; they weren't going anywhere.  They arched their back and wove their fingers together in a knuckle-cracking stretch, expelled shards of second-hand pain out of their mind like a dog shaking off water...

The Master reached out for them in the dark.  Their hands easily enveloped his, and with slow reassuring strokes, warmed his clammy skin and quieted the jagged edges of his still-fragile consciousness.  Relative calm was returning.   They brought one hand to his face, brushed fingertips over closed eyelids, traced smooth cheekbones and prickly stubble...  His temperature was still low; did he feel well enough to drink some tea or coffee, maybe some broth?  


With so many barriers still down, the two of them sensed together:  their vigilance, his exhaustion.  Pain decreasing to its usual background levels.    An exchange of thoughts, it almost didn’t matter who said what:  Possible yes on the coffee.  Cautious trust, finally based on more than necessity.  Glimmers of that old admiration for each other's skill and tenacity.  Acceptance that, like his relative comfort, the softness of this moment couldn’t last…  Tentative hope that, just maybe, it was something they could find again.