Black holes are formed when a star collapses, unable to sustain its own weight, creating an infinitely dense singularity at its center. At the heart of the singularity, time and space lose all meaning, tossed together in a jumbled heap of weight and emptiness.
At the heart of the Master's existence, the singularly of the drums beats out its rhythm, impossibly heavy, impossibly strong. Everything else is death. His body is born from death, blazing out too long and too bright, refusing to go. He should have died on his thirteenth body like any respectable Time Lord, but instead, he's become a monster of time and space, destroying everything he touches as he slides down the asymptote of death, ever nearing the end, but never quite arriving.
His body is born at the end of the universe, with the worlds burning out into cold, unblinking ice, and it never seems to forget this fact. It is born with the drums collapsing him from the inside, telling him they've always been there when he knows that they haven't.
At the conception of the Master's new body, the first sound in his head, before even the drums, is the siren-wail of the Doctor's thoughts, the desperate no stop please Master not you not you not you burning hot and deafening. There are no other Time Lords, only this broken wreck the Master used to know so well. So the Master panics, panics and runs again, runs like he's the Doctor.
And then there's his next body. It's death squared, rising improbably from a death that was meant to stick, really this time, for keeps. The Master has never been very good at sticking to his own rules. When he rises up and sees Lucy's face, he feels a wild, loose joy in his chest and realizes that he's finally gone past the point of no return. Something has changed, and he feels nothing but relieved for a total of two minutes.
After that, things get worse. Everything comes together piecemeal. English pavement under his feet. People in the streets turning their heads with recognition. The sharp scent of hair dye.
And the hunger, oh, the hunger is blinding, louder than the drums and harder to block out than the Doctor's still-shouting mind.
And the Doctor's mind comes closer and closer until suddenly the Master is standing in an empty shipyard with the smell of meat on his hands and the Doctor on his way.
One. Two. Three. Four. The reverberations of the pipe against the trash can send painful shocks down his arm as his body threatens to flare with energy.
Please let me help. The Master thinks the Doctor must have suddenly acquired a sense of humor. He watches the shock roll across the Doctor's face as the what have you become resolves itself into horrible realization. The Master tries to echo the look, when all he can really feel is joy at the mess the Doctor's mind is beaming straight into his. What have you become? Time breaks in shallow waves around the Doctor, snapping and twitching. It's gorgeous. The Master hopes it's at least partially his fault.
And so the Master runs. Because the Doctor is running toward him, not away, and the physics of it just take over the Master's body, equal and opposite.
He is so hungry.
The next time he sees the Doctor, he hands explode with lightning in the face of the Doctor's impossible calm. When the Doctor falls, the Master darts forward to catch him, considering the gesture to be payback. But the Doctor is still alive, and so the Master drops him, disgusted.
The noise in his head. Stronger than ever before. The Doctor is talking about something entirely different.
And then they change, they both change, because the drumbeat is in two heads, not one. The Doctor finally has concrete proof that the Master is not--has never been--quite as mad as promised. And if the Master isn't mad, then someone must be. And so the Master runs.
He runs straight into the arms of trouble, sliding down the endless slope toward death, not quite yet, not yet. He digs his fingers into his wreck of regeneration and holds on, knowing what the Doctor doesn't know yet: that when your body is this wrong, you have to give it up. The Master just needs to hold out for a new one. Just like last time. Just like every time. Bodies aren't you and the Doctor is an idiot. The collar hurts the Master's neck and he is so hungry. He can't think straight.
Hilariously, a stupid human stands in front of the Master and says that he wants his daughter to live forever. The Master thinks this is probably a joke on the part of the universe, and he shudders skeletal with energy, blinking bone at this man who is too blind to see it.
The plan, the Master has to admit, isn't one of his best. Then again, his best usually get him killed, and he isn't quite ready for that this time. But with everyone in the world looking like him in their suits and dresses and sometimes even stupid trainers, the Master feels briefly like he's something other than a monster. The sheer absurdity of the situation makes him feel like himself again, or a self he left behind a long time ago.
Horrifying, though, is having the Doctor tied up and strapped down and the Master still feeling utterly helpless in the face of the time blight that's riding just beneath the silly hair and pinstripes. He doesn't want to look at the Doctor, but it doesn't matter. They're both going down so fast and so hard.
And the Doctor has the gall to flatter him. Like old times. Stone cold brilliant.
Wonder what I'd be without you?
The Master has never had to face a universe without the Doctor, but the Doctor should know by now, should be well aware what he'd do alone. He'd pull time apart at the damn seams. The Master shudders with energy and dies a little more. The Doctor can't help him. The Doctor can't even help himself. But six billion people, six billion people all thinking the same thing at the same time--It's elegant.
And then the Doctor is calling him and idiot and they're right back on the same page of hate hate hate down into death.
The skies really are made of diamonds.
There is a planet-sized hole in the Master's mind, and while he doesn't think the bright little improbable gem in his palm will bring back Gallifrey, it may be able to bring back something else. The Master could stand to be tuned in to a channel with a bit more chatter besides i am the time lord victorious and i am dying dying dying all the bloody time. Besides, if he's got any chance of fighting his way into a new set of regenerations, it's got to come from the Time Lords, who can usually be made to agree to things. Satisfied, he contacts the Doctor to let him know. All he gets in return is radio silence. For once.
The missiles are a joke.
They're a joke of the sort that used to be funny but has become desperate and awful and doesn't quite translate anymore. For all he knows, the Doctor in his paranoia is about to take them quite seriously as a death threat, which isn't what Master intended at all. Doesn't matter in the long run, though. The Doctor shows up on his floor, bloody and mysteriously alive, waving a gun. Things have indeed become bad, then. This Doctor didn't used to like guns.
The Master has a secret: When he meets someone new, he counts syllables in the name. DoctorMaster: just right. Joshua Naismith: one too many
Rassilon: one too few.
And surprise, Gallifrey is coming along for the ride after all, only everything is utterly awful and the noise in the Master's head is pounding thunder-loud and he's not thinking clearly at all. He's been used, used like--well, like he'd use someone, only he'd never have the forethought for something on this scale. He clenches his teeth so hard and tries not to think about what he would have been if Rassilon hadn't wedged this noise into his head. What he and Doctor would have both been. He wants to scream.
"Just listen!" the Doctor is shouting, his same old plea. "'Cause even the Time Lords can't survive that!"
"We will initiate the final sanction," Rassilon says gleefully. "The end of time will come at my hand. The rupture will continue until it rips the time vortex apart."
"That's suicide," the Master says, feeling a gaping hole of panic open in his chest. He's clutching at straws anyhow, but this? Perhaps the Doctor is right, and their whole bloody race has gone madder than he ever did. Self-preservation is his only rule, or it was, until he was jolted into this stupid, broken body.
But Rassilon is laughing and saying, "You must think me a fool. I have had more than enough time to devise a way to avoid that." He takes something out of his robe and holds it up, turning it in the sunlight that filters through the shattered glass ceiling.
The Master's mind doesn't process the object immediately, but the Doctor takes a sharp breath. "The Key to Time," he says, and there's finally something nearly alive in his voice, even if it's only the curiosity that's gotten him killed so many times before. "But how did you get that? Because Romana and I made sure--" He stops, looking stricken, just as he always does when he mentions the name of a friend who's gone. Then his face changes and he says, "Where is Romana, anyhow? Because last I heard, she was president."
Rassilon shakes his head. "You've always asked so many questions, Doctor. It's a wonder you've lived so long."
The Master watches the Doctor's face for a shiver and is rewarded with a sudden blankness in the Doctor's eyes. When did you become so afraid of death? he wonders. You, who stepped in front of every weapon I ever aimed at one of your friends.
"I assure you," Rassilon continues, "that Romanadvoratrelundar is alive. Perhaps you would rather it were otherwise. As to this--" He holds up the Key again, and the Master knows his own arm would be tired by now. "I am the leader of a society built on time. Finding this during the war was easy. We only avoided it before because of our policy of noninterference."
Something outside crashes, and someone screams.
"But you won't interfere," the Doctor says quickly. "You're Lord President. You're the founder of a whole culture based on minding its own business. You wouldn't use the Key." The Master recognizes his tone. It's the one he uses when he's gambling, not certain.
Rassilon smiles. "I will use it only once, as you yourself used it many years ago. The ultimate noninterference."
"But hang on," the Doctor objects, "I only used it to create a time loop. I trapped myself and Romana in passing time and put the rest of the universe on a loop of a few seconds, with time essentially stopped--" He pauses. "Oh," he says, sounding slightly strangled. "The end of time. Literally, the end of time. You're going to bring the universe to a halt."
"Except Gallifrey," Rassilon says calmly.
"Wait," the Master says, breaking through his horrified fascination, "But how is that different from being trapped in the time lock? You can't separate the war from the planet—can you?"
"It's too strong," the Doctor chimes is. "It'll break through. If the war could be stopped in time, I would have found the key myself during the war and done it."
Rassilon laughs his deep, rolling laugh. "I am the first Time Lord. I can do anything."
"But there's no need to stop the rest of the universe." The Doctor sounds as though he's pleading now. "All those civilizations, they're just—stop."
"Noninterference," the Master says softly. "Brilliant."
Rassilon raises the key, which starts to glow.
"What about us?" the Master shouts, pretty sure he meant to say me.
"You will return to Gallifrey with us," Rassilon says. "And on Gallifrey, you will stand trial for your crimes." He raises his glove and the Key.
A surge of dying energy wracks the Master's body at the same time, and everything starts to go white, but not before he hears the Doctor swearing in Gallifreyan, a word that translates most nearly as an event that is constantly repeated until it wears thin.
The Master laughs at the joke before blacking out.
Gallifrey. The Master really thought he missed it. As it turns out, he was mistaken. Outside the dome of the council chamber, he can hear the soft rush of the war looping tightly over two seconds or so, running time thin, but stuck so far. The Master's fingers hum with energy as he stares around at the race the Doctor killed.
The Doctor, just as jumpy as he is, shoots him a venomous look. "But why would you do it?" he hisses under his breath. "How could you bring them back?"
The Master laughs, because at this point, it's just absurd. "Oh, listen to you. You really should have mentioned why you killed them."
The Doctor shakes a little more of what feels like blackened, filthy time energy off his hands, and the Master wonders if anyone else can sense how badly the Doctor's been messing about with time. Maybe the others don't care. "Sorry," the Doctor says finally. "I'm so sorry, I really am. I didn't think it mattered, at the time. A little respect for the dead."
The Master tries not to be very, very furious. "Right," he says. "Well done."
Rassilon is speaking to the council, and it occurs to the Master to pay attention. "They must be punished," he tells the other Time Lords. "They must finally pay for their crimes against time. The Master is not to be killed until we can find a way to remove the signal from his head, but the Doctor . . ."
The Doctor practically leaps from his skin, and the Master's bones grit out blue energy in sympathy. He doesn't understand this new kick the Doctor is on, death and the fear of it running parallel. He wonders if there's something in some bodies that makes them want to end themselves.
The Master can see the panic in the set of the Doctor's shoulders. They've both been up here in front of this council too many times, although rather than feeling panicked, the Master feels immensely comforted. This is old, this is expected. This isn't like bodies that burn from the inside out and old enemies who turn out to be more terrible than you knew was possible. Trials, he can handle. Even with the drums thundering redundantly in his head and his body trying to shudder apart at the seams, he can do this.
Sometimes he thinks the Doctor was always more terrified of the Time Lords than he was. The Master likes to keep his fears sensible and carefully contained: Daleks. Death. Being laughed at. The Doctor's fears sway mad and loose, encompassing time monstrosities and humans crying and his own people. Now, just when the Master has finally worked out how to die, the Doctor has apparently forgotten.
The Doctor's eyes are hard and bright, terrifyingly still as stars seen from afar, and the Master knows a human would be afraid. The Master isn't afraid. He's been inside that burning mind, turned out the corners and shaken it out for secrets. There are no more secrets between them; there are just misunderstandings.
"Degenerate children of Gallifrey," Rassilon says.
"I had your sash off you," the Master replies, still shaking. He knows it's partly from energy loss.
The Doctor laughs a little wildly. "But you," he says, "Whose idea was it to bring you back?"
Rassilon smiles with what apparently looks enough like benevolence to fool the rest of their race. "I will always be back. I am eternal. I am the Time Lord victorious."
The Doctor chokes on a horrible little laugh that becomes a whimper. "Oh," he says. "I see. Oh, I have made mistakes. And now I'm going to pay." He looks to the rest of the room, perhaps searching for someone who'll disagree with him. The Master certainly won't. "Romana?" the Doctor says.
The Master swears under his breath. That's all they need. He finds her in a seat near the front, gazing at the Doctor.
Romana's hair is black this time, perhaps for mourning, or perhaps because it makes her look older. The Master catches himself wondering if the war changed her, as well. She's still alive, after all, so maybe she's just like the rest of them. "Doctor," she says.
He turns away, blinking hard, and the Master wonders if he's upset with what she's become or with what he has. The Master shuts his eyes and pictures the Doctor spinning planets on their axes in his hands. It's chilling.
"I would prefer it if you didn't speak with the prisoner," Rassilon says curtly.
Romana's eyes flare, but she doesn't say anything except, "Of course."
The Doctor's terrible, expressive face screams hope in great flares, as if maybe Romana will step out of the tiered council seats and save him from Rassilon and then himself.
"Don't count on it," the Master mutters. Then, just to get a reaction, "You're dead for sure this time."
The Doctor shoots him another hateful glance, and this time it's threaded through with even more fear than before. It's somewhat beautiful.
"Master," Rassilon says pointedly.
The Master shivers openly, just to be obnoxious. His name isn't doing that much for him right now.
"You're a monster," Rassilon says.
It takes the Master a moment to realize that he's saying it in Gallifreyan, with an inflection that implies time. A time monster, an abomination, a—the Master feels sick even thinking about it. It's unfair. If anyone's a time monster, it's the Doctor. "Why not?" he concedes.
Rassilon smiles. "I heard what you were thinking. About your name."
Perhaps in another body the Master would have been sickened or furious at the idea of someone tapping into his mind without permission, but he's spent a lot of his time in this body trying to be understood, trying to get that one-two-three-four into everyone else's bloodstream, and if Rassilon wants insight into what makes the Master tick, good.
"Your name," Rassilon muses. "Only the Master isn't your name. And neither is--" He smirks. "Koschei."
The Master feels rather than sees the Doctor stiffen next to him, bristling at the intrusion into territory that belongs only to the Master.
"Your name," Rassilon says, as if he's requesting--
"What," the Master says flatly through the dull, buzzing panic. "My real--"
"We can't kill you," Rassilon says, all business again, "but we can give you at least part of the punishment you deserve." He raises the glove and says, again in that echoing voice of an orator, "We will string you out on the points of your true name, to remain in eternal pain, with your mind open, forever. Never dying."
The Master's hands are shaking with fear and barely contained bursts of lightning, but the joke doesn't escape him. Be careful what you wish for.
Rassilon raises the glove that the whole room lets out a collective gasp as the Master feels the most quiet, safe parts of him--whatever still remains unblackened and clear--turned inside out and shoved into the open air of the council room. He feels the points of his name press and prick at the base of his skull and into each of his hands and feet. He screams, both in his head and out loud, half pain and half horror. He is vaguely aware of the Doctor watching him and looking intensely pained in that self-righteous way he has. The pain coalesces in the Master's mind, turning him inside out at five points, sharp syllables too familiar to look at directly. This isn't right, his true name on display for all of Time Lord society and the Doctor. Years ago, he would have shared his name with the Doctor willingly.
There is a moment in which he feels time dissolve for him completely before the Doctor says, "Stop."
The stripped feeling in his head subsides a little, perhaps as Rassilon's focus is shaken.
"Do something," the Master says, low and fast, before anyone else can start talking.
The Doctor shrugs helplessly. "I don't . . ."
The Master gives him a look. "You've already been afraid of them. We both have. If they're not trying to kill you, they're trying to make you president. I don't know which is more . . ." He breaks off, realizing.
And for the first time that day, the Doctor is thinking the exact same thing he is.
"I claim my position as Lord President of Gallifrey," the Doctor says in High Gallifreyan.
Rassilon hesitates. "What?" Of course, the Master thinks, as the pain subsides completely and his mind shuts again. Rassilon expected to be challenged in any other way, but not through the proper political channels. It isn't the Doctor's way.
"I claim my right," the Doctor repeats, "as bestowed upon me by Flavia."
"Check the records," Rassilon says stiffly, and the Master lets out a breath he realizes he's been holding. Even mad Rassilon is as hidebound as any other Time Lord. Rules are rules.
The Master fights off a burst of energy and glances sidelong at the Doctor. The Doctor is trembling, but not, the Master thinks, with fear. He's always been willing to do nearly anything to keep himself out of power, and the Master knows that's partly out of a great fear of responsibility and partly because he knows how addictive power can be. Of course, the presidency is only the illusion of power, but in the Doctor's hands, it could be something much more. But now, there's no fear in his face. That's only that horrible, desperate hunger that the Master has never seen from the outside before
Romana shakes her head. "No need to check the records. He's right."
"But he's a war criminal," the Master says, desperate to stop this. He's survived executions before. He's not sure he could survive the Doctor.
"He's president," Romana says.
"But he will be tried," Rassilon snaps.
There's a question in his voice, and the Master is horrified. He trusted Rassilon to be cruel enough to stop the Doctor from taking power. The Master is quite used to pitching his loyalties in whatever direction seems best, but now everyone is letting him down. "You can't do this!" he shouts.
"Sick though he is, I must agree," Rassilon says, pettily, the Master feels.
"It's not your choice," Romana says evenly. The Master tries to imagine that the fire in the Doctor's eyes isn't reflected in hers. "We should never have brought you back, Rassilon. One of many mistakes we made, rebeginning lives not out of mercy, but out of desperation."
The Master becomes uncomfortably aware that many of the other Time Lords have turned to look at him. The word rebeginning clatters around his mind, nearly blasphemous in its translation.
"No," the Doctor says suddenly, cutting off the murmurs. "No more death. Not today."
Romana nods. "Then Rassilon will have to be bound again. It's the only way."
The Master is too exhausted to try to play the sides against each other this time. Rassilon can't possibly fight the power of the entire council and the Doctor.
Rassilon looks furious. "But I am your founder," he spits. "I am Rassilon. I am eternal. Never dying! Never--"
The final piece slots into place, leaving the Master breathless with pain and realization. He and the Doctor shouldn't make it out of this one alive. The Doctor, however, has cut Rassilon off with a motion of his arm. "No. You're right. You're not going to die. We've been through this. But we need--" He turns to Romana. "How do we bind him?"
She frowns. "I assumed you had a plan. Don't think we can't see what you've become. You've changed time itself, Doctor. You're really the only one here with a right to claim the power of presidency in this time of war."
The Master wonders if Romana remembers the Doctor at all, but he doesn't have long to wonder, because the Doctor is looking panicked and determined. He steps to Rassilon. "The glove," he says.
Rassilon strikes out at the Doctor, who is much too fast. After a brief, human scuffle, the Doctor drags the glove away from Rassilon. His body may be hurtling toward destruction, but he's containing it well, and Rassilon is old.
The Doctor raises the glove and Rassilon is suddenly gone.
"Where is he?" Romana asks cautiously.
The Doctor shrugs, looking absently at his hand. "The old place. One of the old places." He looks up. "Rassilon couldn't keep the war from breaking through, but I can. I can keep it all in place. I can . . ." He glances at the Master. "No more death. Never again. The time loops stays in place. It all stays in place."
The Master chokes on a laugh as his body is wracked by energy. The Doctor's desperate quest for stasis won't keep either of them alive. Not for long. "It won't work," he says.
The Doctor turns, looking as though he forgot that the Master was there. "What?"
"I'm still me," the Master says, fighting smugness as he feels the crescendo back to safety. He'll hammer home the personal mess of them in the midst of all these politics, and that will be that. "And Rassilon's right. I am sick. I won't let your perfect world stand. I'll rip it apart."
A small frown creases the Doctor's face. "Well. I'll just have to fix it, then. Fix you. You're a monster," he says in Earth English. The corner of his mouth quirks slightly, not amusement, but carefully controlled panic. "And you're my responsibility."
"You've never been able to make me better," the Master shouts, perfectly happy, even relieved, to be airing their personal conflicts in front of a huge audience. It's familiar, at least.
The Doctor stares at him for a second before purposefully turning back to Romana. "And the other prisoners," he says intently. "They're to be released." He turns to the woman in white. "They've done nothing wrong. But they are to be banished from the capital."
The woman, who the Master doesn't immediately recognize, frowns and stands from where she's been kneeling. "No," she says. "You're doing the wrong thing, Grandfather. I can't let you."
The Master is instantly displeased. Oh, that stupid product of that stupid marriage. He would have liked to have forgotten her.
Then the Doctor gets that stupid look of intense sadness on his face, and the Master knows he's about to do something utterly terrible and pretend to feel guilty about it.
"Hang on," the Master snaps, making sure the Doctor doesn't forget he's there. "Look at me. And not with that stupid face. Don't pretend you're unhappy. You wanted this. All along. You love me this way, because you can finally hate me like you wanted to. Ever since the end of the universe, you've been glad that my body's such a mess."
He thinks for a moment that the Doctor is going to hit him. Instead, the Doctor reaches out almost tenderly and touches the Master's temples. There's a horrible sensation of draining, stripping, closing, in the Master's mind, something he's never felt before.
The two men stand in front of the little house at on the edge of the sweeping red field.
"And what do I call you?" Koschei asks, unwilling to go into what he's been told is his new home.
"My name," the horribly familiar man says, "is the Doctor.
The Doctor tells him all about the accident that resulted in the memory loss, but Koschei isn't sure he believes it. He wonders how old he is. His body doesn't feel new or clean or any of it, but he only has the Doctor's word to go on, so he keeps his mouth shut and just thinks about it. He knows there must be damage, though, because there are parts of his mind that are closed off from himself. When he asks the Doctor about it, all he gets is that he shouldn't try to open them. It would be dangerous.
The Doctor comes and goes, but Koschei isn't allowed to leave the house. He spends his time studying, reading all the dull old textbooks he's sure he never liked, and planning how to grow his own TARDIS. There is something in this last that feels like rebellion, but he isn't sure why. Every few hours, a shudder of energy goes through him. It's a side effect, he supposes, of the accident.
After a week of what he's told is recovery, Koschei sees the Doctor again. This time, the Doctor looks less rumpled and more relaxed, and he offers Koschei a thick red collar. "Hello," he says cheerfully. "Got you something. It's to help with the--well. It's to help."
Koschei regards it with suspicion. The idea of being collared doesn't appeal to him, but he doesn't want to keep shaking apart, either. "Fine," he says. "We'll test it out."
The Doctor reaches out to put it on him.
The sky roars by above, orange and terrible. Koschei thinks there's something wrong in it, as if it's cycling somehow, but he can't quite place why that would be wrong. He doesn't remember. Cycles, something his head says, have to end.
On Gallifrey, the Doctor lets Koschei undress him.
The Doctor's long fingers hook around Koschei's collar, tugging a little too hard, like desperation.
"You're so good," Koschei gasps. "So good."
"I was, once," the Doctor says sadly.
Koschei feels a flare of anger that quickly grows into a throbbing headache. His fingers snap out a rhythm against the Doctor's spine, and the Doctor freezes.
"What's that? What are you doing?"
"I don't know. Make it better?" Koschei says carefully. He catches a glimpse of himself in the bedside mirror. His hair is growing out brownish, although he can't see why he ever dyed it. It looks silly.
The Doctor rolls away, to the other side of the overlarge bed. "Maybe I can. Maybe there's something I can do." He so often sounds as though he's talking to himself.
Koschei draws away instinctively, as instincts are all he has to go on now. "Yeah? And what's that?"
The Doctor reaches out and touches Koschei's temples. The headache comes to a jolting halt, but that's all. Koschei feels the Doctor's mind in his, pressing very gently, careful.
"What did you do?" Koschei asks.
The Doctor sighs. "I took something out. The . . . the headache. It's in my head now."
Koschei frowns, but he doesn't ask any more questions. His mind just veers away from them.
Koschei gets restless, but the Doctor says he can't leave the house. That it would be a bad idea. Instead, the Doctor brings him things, music and art he's taken from the Gallifreyan archives. "Time Lord culture," the Doctor explains.
Koschei hesitates, unsure for a moment. "And that's me? I'm a Time Lord?"
The Doctor's face goes still. "No," he says. "You're Gallifreyan, but not . . . no."
Koschei is especially fascinated by the array of art from different cultures. The Doctor brings him little prints of multi-planitary drawings one night, and Koschei stares at them, his brain picking out the themes quickly and easily. He thinks he must have been quite intelligent before this happened. So many cultures seem to have an obsession with death. He runs his fingers over one of the prints, which shows a misshapen alien skull lurking in the corner behind too pig-like creatures embracing.
"A momento mori," Koschei says, but the Latin trips off his tongue as something else, something musical and foreign.
The Doctor stares at him, practically vibrating with energy. "What? What did you just say?"
"Memento mori," Koschei repeats. It comes out as flat Latin this time. "You know." He hesitates. "'Remember, you must die.'"
"As if we ever forget," the Doctor mutters, as if Koschei is stupid or can't hear him.
A bone-deep shudder goes through Koschei, and he finds himself asking, "Who was I before?"
The Doctor looks at him sadly. "You were found," he says. "On the coast of the Silver Devestation."
Koschei shakes his head. "I can't remember."
"No. I suppose you wouldn't."
"Where do you go when you go out, Doctor?" he asks. I like it when you use my name. He thinks for a moment that the Doctor has spoken, but his lips never moved.
"Out," the Doctor says. "Out into the world." His face softens, the fire in his eyes flickering low. "If I told you--"
"You'd have to kill me?" Koschei asks dryly.
Koschei sometimes finds himself doing things he doesn't understand. He demands nothing but pears for the fruit bowl on the kitchen table every time the Doctor asks him what he wants to eat. He scrawls Greek letters on a napkin. When the Doctor sees them, he's furious. Koschei thinks maybe he's right to be.
Once, the Doctor says something in a language Koschei doesn't understand. It's oddly musical and it hurts to hear.
"What?" he asks.
The Doctor repeats himself and then, when he realizes that Koschei doesn't understand, he looks horrified. "It didn't translate," he says. Then, "Oh. Even she's turned against me."
"She?" Koschei asks. The Doctor looks at him and Koschei says, "I know. You'd have to kill me."
It's become a sort of joke between them, only funny until they test it to find out how true it is.
One day, when Koschei is walking in the fields near the house, he meets something. He comes to a dead halt in front of nothing, a patch of empty air. The air buzzes with a close, hot energy, and a sound just at the edge of hearing.
Koschei pushes his hateful still-blond hair out of his eyes. "Well?" he says.
That patch of wrongness weaves from side to side, as if it's uncertain. Koschei feels a quiet, thumping headache begin as the buzzing rises, until he feels as though it's inside his head. Then the shimmering place draws back suddenly. And just as suddenly as it appeared, it's gone again.
Koschei frowns and goes home.
The Doctor is sitting at the kitchen table, his ridiculous sneakers up on the counter. "Oh, hullo, Koschei," he says with that horrible false brightness.
"Something happened," Koschei says, and he tells the Doctor the story. "It was afraid of me," he finishes, feeling the urge to giggle, a quiet triumph in his chest. "Why?"
"It looked into your head," the Doctor says softly. "It was a Meanwhile. It could see your past. The lost things. And it was frightened." He shivers. "You were right after all. It's breaking through." He sighs. "This isn't going to work." He pauses for along moment. "Can I tell you a story?"
"I suppose," Koschei says guardedly. Any piece of information would be welcome.
"It's about woman named Donna Noble and what happened to her," the Doctor says.
Koschei listens carefully the whole time, trying very hard not to have a headache as the Doctor talks about a hand lost in a fight, and about DNA and biology, and about something called a metacrisis. He listens as the Doctor explains about packing a woman's mind away inside itself so she forgot who she was. Koschei catches his mind trying to look into itself, twisting uncomfortably.
When the Doctor finishes, his voice is ragged with pain. "And if she ever were to remember me, her mind would catch fire and burn." His eyes blaze and his words hang in the air, tense and heavy.
"That's what you did to me," Koschei says slowly. His fingers skip across his knee, one-two-three-four. "And if I remember you—" He presses his hand to his chest. "But I'm . . ." ba-dump ba-dump.
"Not human, no," the Doctor says ruefully. "But if you remember, your mind will burn, in other ways. And I will have to kill you. No more mercy."
And something snaps. "But the thing is," the Master—yes--hears himself says, "This mercy thing is brand new. I know you. You've burned worlds. You're shattered whole races. You've killed time and time again, in all of your old bodies. And they all think you're wonderful." A sneer twists his face. "Your pet humans. I've seen the way they look at you. But I've known you since we were kids, and I know the truth."
"Don't," the Doctor whispers.
"And the truth is, Doctor, you're terrible."
"Master?" the Doctor says reluctantly.
"Yes. I think so. You complete bastard. And while we're at it, you can put your human Donna right." His rage at what the Doctor has done to him unfolds slowly in his chest, sputtering quietly under the unimportant anger about some stupid human he doesn't even know. If he lets himself be as angry as he wants to be, he'll burn out in one horrific flare. He thinks of the closed doors in his mind, and he burns skull-like for a second.
"I can't," the Doctor says helplessly, once the Master is breathing properly again. "She'll die."
The Master laughs, feeling giddy with new knowledge and oddly, suddenly, on hope. He can feel death burning ashy under his skin again, but for now, he doesn't care. "You of all people underestimate humans. And you underestimated me." He makes a face. "Taking away my memories of being a Time Lord but leaving my memories of being Gallifreyan." He shakes off the taste of low Gallifreyan, a practically dead language, in his mouth. "This isn't going to work, Doctor," he adds, nerves jangling. He's seen the Doctor plant so much false hope. "You put everything in stasis. You even put me in stasis to stop me dying. But it's too late." The absurdity of it almost overrides the rage.
"No," the Doctor says, but there's no conviction in his voice.
"We could burn out together," the Master says. "Running. It's your favorite, after all. Running across the universe."
"But the drums," the Doctor says desperately. "I took them out. Put them in my head, instead."
The Master laughs indignantly. "And you think that will fix the damage? I've had years to lose my mind. It's too late. The only difference is that now you're going down with me."
The Doctor stands up. "You're right," he says. "We're done. But before we go, we have work to do. Let's go outside."
They stand side by side in the red grass, and the Master looks up at the orange sky, now fully aware of the terrifying war raging in five second loops just beyond it.
"The time loop is breaking," the Doctor says. "Just like you said." He shakes his head. "I went too far, Master."
The Master nods slowly, feeling some of the filthy time stain on the Doctor's psychic stamp start to fade. "Yeah," he says. "You did." He wants to touch the Doctor, but he's still too furious to grant him that. "Farther than I've ever gone," he adds, driving home the point in all its horrifying glory.
"Master," the Doctor says again, and his voice breaks as though he's saying please.
The name is an anchor, shifting the Doctor's immense power into something else, something the Master can hold in his hands. The Master shudders under its weight, but even though his body isn't strong enough to bear it, his mind still is. He nods. "All right, then."
A terrible shiver crosses the Doctor's face. "I'm going to die," he says. "He will knock four times. It wasn't just you; it was the link in your head. The signal."
The Master nods, oddly calm in the face of the sputtering storm of the Doctor's mind. "So, you die," he says, his own dying energy signature ashy on his tongue. "You've done it before."
The Doctor shakes his head and frantic static spits from his mind. The Master realizes that the Doctor's mind, which has been closed like a steel door all this time, is cracking in a hundred tiny ways. The Master, however, refuses to flinch away.
"I hate it," the Doctor says almost petulantly. "Every time. I lose myself every time. I'm always so different. I can't control--"
"Shut up," the Master says. He reaches out and grabs the Doctor's skinny arms, pressing hard with his fingertips. "You're lying," he whispers fiercely. "You're just the same every time, even if the packaging is different. That's what you've never understood. Bodies aren't you. They're just husks."
"Even if that were true," the Doctor says desperately, "My mind changes, too."
"Trust you to be the only Time Lord in existence who can't deal with our normal life cycle," the Master sneers.
"But it's awful," the Doctor says weakly. "I never would have become . . . this in my last regeneration."
The Master rolls his eyes. "Your mind, down at the core, that's not different. It still tastes the same. I still--" He thinks of the split-open honestly of the Doctor sobbing, begging him to regenerate, and he says, "I'm still here." It'll have to do, because he's burning energy fast and has nothing else to give.
The Doctor is about speak when, as is always the way in their lives, something interferes. There is a psychic snapping, so loud that the Master thinks he's hearing it out loud for a moment.
"The time loop," the Doctor says, frozen in that posture that says he's about to slam into motion. And then they're both moving, psychic wounds forgotten as they grab the threads of the time that's unraveling too fast around them.
"There's too much recoil," the Doctor shouts. "It was bound up for too long and now it's going to snap back on itself--"
"I know," the Master says, grabbing the Doctor's sleeve. "And the war's coming back through. We have to--"
"Shove it all back in the time lock," the Doctor finishes. "Gallifrey and the war."
"Use the power from the time loop snapping to lock it," the Master shouts. His skull blazes blue, and he realizes with a shock that he won't survive this. He's dying anyway, but habit makes him stall. "Can you really stand to destroy them all again? Romana, Susan?" It's a low blow.
The Doctor looks at him. "Yes," he says, so quiet the Master can barely hear him over the psychic roaring of time splitting apart. "Because you're right. I am terrible, if only this once. And so I can."
The Master accepts this, accepts the rush of death. He's felt it coming for a long time now. Then he throws his whole mind into the weaving of time. The Doctor's mind bumps against his, now wide open and burning bright orange next to the Master's blue, horrible, electric thoughts. Together, they take the spilling energy of the time loop and wind it around the time war and the planet, tighter and tighter.
"You know," the Master shouts over the roar, his voice thin with effort, "We're still on Gallifrey. No way off. If we bind it into the time lock . . ."
"We'll be trapped in the war," the Doctor says. His face is white and grim. "But the TARDISes here are all corrupted, and anyway, there's no time. I've known I was going to die for a long time now, and your body can't last."
The Master laughs. "Then let's do this." His mind slams full-force into the Doctor's, ripping both minds open. Having the Doctor's mind in his after so long is nearly too much, and the Master shudders, distracted.
The drumming is there in the back of the Doctor's mind, a soothingly familiar sound. Something in the Master's head sparks and leaps for it, intertwining with the Doctor's thoughts. They weave time and their own minds tightly together in a coil until the Master can barely stand it.
The Doctor screams, half pain--The energy leaps from his mind like a flame and it's just what the Master needed, just enough borrowed energy to keep him going.
The Master can feel the time lock closing in, hear the psychic scream of the other Time Lords, and then suddenly there's a thrumming sound at the edge of hearing. The Doctor half turns, and the Master realize he's clutching the Doctor.
"But that's--" the Master says.
"My TARDIS," the Doctor breathes, almost as though he doesn't believe it.
And out of the TARDIS steps a woman, a human-looking woman glaring for all she's worth. This sort of last-minute rescue only happens to the Doctor, the Master thinks vaguely. "Well, that's improbable," he says.
The Doctor beams. "Donna Noble."
Not human, the Master realizes. He remembers what Donna's grandfather said the Doctor did. The metacrisis. He remembers the Doctor's story. That's how she got the TARDIS to run.
"Time for explanations later," Donna says. "This place is about to be locked up, yeah?"
The Doctor looks weak with gratitude. "Yeah," he agrees.
And then run, dash across the few yards of red grass to the TARDIS.
It's only a few seconds before the silence hits the Master, the entire Time Lord race locked away as the energy slots the time lock back into place. The Master's body is trembling uncontrollably. "The drums," he pants finally.
"What are you on about?" Donna asks.
The Doctor, also on his hands and knees, looks up slowly. "I don't know."
The Master nods, rolling into a sitting position against the console. "Anyhow." He looks at Donna. "You're an anomaly," he says, trying to ignore the energy that's now bleeding freely from his body. "Half Time Lord, half human. That must be why the time stasis didn't hold you. It didn't know what to do with you."
Donna gives him a look. "Or maybe I just don't put up with time stasis," she says.
"Or with your mind burning," the Doctor says, sounding befuddled and pleased. "I thought I knew--"
"Oh, don't you always know," Donna says, smacking his arm. "Turns out you were wrong, alien boy."
The Master stifles a laugh, too energy-weak even for that. He looks at the Doctor. "So you were wrong about dying, too." He knows it's not true. Wants the Doctor to admit it.
The Doctor says nothing. "Donna, what were you doing for the past month, if you were stuck on Earth and everything was frozen in time?"
"I walked," says Donna, "the bloody earth. Not for you, either. For my mum, and grandad, but not for you. For me."
"And the TARDIS?" the Master asks. His body threatens to double up.
Donna shrugs expressively. "Found me," she says. "I think she recognized me." She glares at the Doctor. "No thanks to you. I'd slap you right across the face if I didn't think it'd kill you."
The Doctor laughs a little desperately. "I think it's a bit late to worry about that." He looks at the Master. "The signal in my head. The drumming. It's still there, and it won't stop. They'll find their way back out."
"'He will knock four times,'" the Master mocks, but there's no real malice in it. He's back in a universe with only the Doctor, and neither of them is going to last long in that world. Maybe what they both need is a fresh start.
The Doctor looks at him, eyes wild. "What if the next one is worse?"
The Master laughs. "Doesn't matter. We don't have a choice now." He's known all along that this body was going to die, but now he's regenerating in a TARDIS--albeit one without a zero room--and he might actually survive dying. Regeneration isn't death, after all, despite what the Doctor might think. He reaches out and lays one shaking hand on the Doctor's arm. "The longer you live the more afraid you become of dying. Look at Rassilon. Billions of years old and he still can't let it go. And you're so afraid of death. That's supposed to be me."
The Doctor nods, shutting his eyes. Donna is standing to the side, looking as though she's seconds away from saying, What am I, invisible?
The Master laughs. "And that's horrible. You're horrible. And it only occurred to you that what you did to her was horrible once you'd done it to me. This body, Doctor, is inhuman." The translation is clear.
The Doctor's eyes flare, scared and defiant, the best of the expressions in his lexicon. "Stop."
"Just stop," the Master sneers. "Just think. Just listen, Doctor." He can't stop the mad laughter from bubbling out of his throat again. "I scared off a Meanwhile," he says, feeling immeasurably pleased with himself. "I can deal with you."
"You're only saying that because you're a--" The Doctor stops, the Gallifreyan for time monster undoubtedly hovering on his lips.
"I know," the Master says. "This time, I am. And so are you. And that's why this needs to stop." He looks at the question on the Doctor's face. "Us," he says. "We need to end." He realizes that he's not sure how many bodies he has left. By all rights, he should only be on his second in this cycle.
The Doctor leans into the Master's body, the corners of his face already beginning to blur gold, and the Master finally stops trying to hold his shattered body together. The tips of his fingers tingle, proper regeneration for the first time in ages. He can feel the edges of the Doctor's mind, panicky but resigned, as it starts to fold and change. Together, they bleed gold light, only the Doctor is losing it too fast. The steams of regeneration energy are leaving his body at a shocking rate, perhaps because he was holding onto to it for so long.
Then everything in the Master's head is changing, and he can't focus on whatever mad thing the Doctor is doing now.
When he snaps back to himself--whoever that is--the TARDIS is on fire. The Master laughs wildly, a rich, easy laugh. He catches a glimpse of what his mind tells him is the Doctor, flailing against the console. The forehead, the Master thinks absently, is unfortunate. The Doctor is squeaking about his assorted body parts.
The Master takes stock of his own quickly, delighted to find that he seems to have a goatee, and even more that it's, yes, reddish. Then the reflective surface is obscured by fire, and the Master becomes keenly aware that someone is shouting.
"We," Donna yells, "are about to die! Don't you even care?"
The Doctor whirls around, manic and delighted. "I don't know!" he shouts with great confidence. "Isn't that just--"
The TARDIS rocks on its path, and the Doctor falls against the console.
"My dear Doctor," the Master sighs, "If you'll allow me."
He steps to the console, and together, the three of them fall toward uncertainty, cut loose from gravity.