Something was coming. It was stirring in the shadows at the edges of the universe.
At first there were only whispers; rumours which spread through the darkness like ripples across a pond.
Eventually, it became all too apparent that they were not just stories. With Skaro readying itself for battle, the Time Lords had no choice but to do the same.
The High Council had become a council of war.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap …
Safe in their Citadel, high among the mountains of Solace and Solitude, the people of Gallifrey had always been content to watch and observe the workings of the universe. When they did interfere, though, they did not do so quietly.
In typical Gallifreyan fashion, everyone was trying to make sure that their opinions were the ones that President Romana heard first. If the situation hadn’t been so dire it would have been almost comical.
In fact, the only Time Lord who hadn’t yet spoken was the President herself. Romana sat perfectly still, keeping her body language and expression neutral. Leela, her bodyguard, stood strong and statue-like at her right hand, the impatience on her face speaking for both of them.
“We are not warriors, Braxiatel,” Inquisitor Darkel was saying in a loud, clear voice that managed to carry a great deal further than most, “But there have been warriors in our past. In order to defeat the Daleks we need to bring back the one Time Lord who will not be afraid to fight!”
“And who would that be, Inquisitor?” demanded Braxiatel.
The effect of that name was electric. And though it hadn’t been a name Romana had expected — or wanted — to hear, she had to admit it was nice that the Council was quiet for once.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap …
The debate had been raging for hours now. Romana was surprised by the amount of people who agreed with the Inquisitor. It unnerved her more than any number of rumours and horror stories from the fringes of the universe ever could. It proved that the Time Lords were really, truly scared about the coming battle, and that was something she’d never expected to see.
“We need him,” Darkel said. Her voice had lost its clear, patient tone over the last few hours. She sounded tired and irritated, and looked just as bad. “He is the perfect warrior for this war.”
“No,” said Romana firmly, “I forbid it. The Master is unpredictable. He is much more likely to be a liability!”
The authority in her voice was enough to silence everyone but Darkel. She should have expected as much.
“Yes, but you are biased when it comes to the subject of the Master, are you not, Madam President?”
Leela’s body stiffened at the comment, a barely veiled insult aimed at both Romana and the Doctor, the only Time Lords she still respected. It was only the President’s barely perceptible nod which kept her from acting in a way which would have been highly amusing to Romana but less so to the rest of the Council.
The worst thing about the comment was that it was true. And Romana knew it. The Master was an enemy of the Doctor and that made him an enemy of hers. But it didn’t make him an enemy of the Time Lords, at least on the same scale as the Daleks.
He was a renegade and an exile.
So was the Doctor.
He was a criminal.
So was the Doctor.
Maybe he was their only choice.
Romana had less than a second to make her decision, but, with a horrible, final sort of certainty, she knew that the ripples would last a great deal longer.
All eyes in the wide hall were on focused her. There was Leela, who looked worried but was determined not to show it, and Braxiatel, who seemed to be gazing right through her. He had already guessed the way this discussion would end.
So had Darkel, if the horrible triumph in her eyes was anything to go by.
“Very well,” she said, and her words seemed to echo around the Panopticon with painful clarity, “We shall bring him back. We shall bring the Master back.”
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap …
Later, when the deed was done, Romana retired to her suite to mull things over.
It would probably have been better if she’d done this before making her decision, because the more she thought about her choice, the more she regretted it. She’d allowed them to bring back one of the most dangerous Time Lords in the history of Gallifrey. Regardless of the war, and its outcome, nothing would ever be able to change that. Nothing could make it better.
Leela hadn’t spoken to her since, but was sticking even closer to her than usual. It was as if she knew Romana needed a bodyguard now more than ever, but was still loathe to be it.
Even Darkel was ignoring her (perhaps surprised that the President had actually agreed with her for once). That, however, was probably a blessing.
She’d told them to bring him to her suite. She didn’t really know why. Maybe she wanted to see for herself just how wrong she’d been. Maybe she was curious and wanted to see what his new body was like. Part of her even wanted to warn him to stay away from the Doctor.
Lost in her own thoughts, Romana didn’t notice the Master’s arrival until she heard the voice coming from the doorway, smooth as silk and dripping with charm. “You wanted to see me, Lady President?”
“Come in,” she said, aware of Leela hovering just behind him. With a wave, Romana dismissed her bodyguard. Leela looked both annoyed and a little hurt by this, but Romana was no longer watching her.
“You can leave as well, K-9,” she added to the robot dog, who did so without comment, although Romana fancied that he looked offended as well.
“Very trusting of you,” said the Master, as he entered with a spring in his step that suggested this was his suite and not hers. She noted that he took great care to close the door behind himself. “Why?”
That was a question she couldn’t fully answer. She was breaking protocol to allow him here, as well as going against her own better judgement. She knew what the Master was capable of.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?” he asked, heading directly for the cabinet on the opposite side of the chamber. There was a collection of alcoholic substances from across the universe in there, and the Master helped himself to an Earth brandy before proceeding to sprawl across a nearby divan. He looked so at home and so relaxed that she hated him for it.
“So, President Romana,” — he pronounced her title with apparent delight — “Where is the dear Doctor? It would be so nice if he could be here as well …”
“Do you really expect him to come to Gallifrey unless it was a situation of utmost importance?” replied Romana tersely, folding her hands in her lap.
“For you?” said the Master with a smile, “Yes, I do. And a Time War … well, I don’t know about you, Madam President, but that sounds rather important to me.”
Romana had no answer for that. She wished it was true, and some of the time she even allowed herself to think it was. She loved the Doctor with a hollow, aching sort of desperation, but he wasn’t the sort of person she could ever confess that to. He flitted through the universe in his TARDIS, always moving on and never alighting anywhere for very long. If he did love, it would be fleeting and beautiful, just like his very existence. She’d probably lost her chance when she’d departed for E-Space.
Not that it mattered now. Though she wasn’t a pessimist by nature, Romana didn’t think she’d ever see him again. Her place was here on Gallifrey. His was somewhere else entirely, ready to act if all else failed.
Lost in thoughts of the Doctor, Romana didn’t notice the Master crossing the room until he sat down beside her. His movements were graceful, almost serpentine, and he was suddenly far too close to her for comfort. He’d poured her a drink too, which Romana considered declining before deciding she really, really needed one right now.
He had nice eyes in this regeneration, she thought absently, even if the only reason he was watching her so intently was because he was searching for weaknesses. Nice cheekbones too. She wondered what the rest of his body was like, underneath his trademark black clothing, and wasn’t quite quick enough when it came to quashing that metal image. How unprofessional of her.
“He’s your back up plan, isn’t he?” remarked the Master. Romana was taken so by surprise that she almost sprayed her drink across the room
“How ..?” she began, but the Master’s voice cut across her.
“How can I read you?” he said with a wide smile, “Oh, that’s simple, Romana. You travelled with the Doctor, didn’t you? You learned from him. I can read Theta more easily than any book. It stands to reason that I can apply the same technique to you.”
“You know nothing about me!” exclaimed Romana furiously. If she’d been human — and even less able to control her emotions — she would probably have thrown the brandy at him.
The Master, to her horror, simply smiled, making it even harder to resist.
“I know enough,” he said. “I know that you didn’t want to bring me back, but that you also realise you had no choice. I know that the weight of your responsibilities is affecting you more than you would ever admit …”
He’d somehow managed to get closer to her while he’d been speaking. His lips were only millimetres from her ear, and his breath pleasantly warm on her cheek.
“I know you love the Doctor,” he continued, “Which is more than he will ever feel for you. All he knows is how to travel, on and on without ever looking back. He might have two hearts, but I very much doubt he knows how to use either.”
A stupid human expression, she thought. Love was nothing, nothing at all. It didn’t come from the heart. It was just an imbalance of hormones. It wasn’t logical. It wasn’t real.
“It’s ok, Romana,” he said gently, mistaking the expression on her face and reaching up to remove her headdress so that he could trail his fingers through blonde tresses, “He never noticed me, either.”
“You aren’t even half the Time Lord the Doctor is,” Romana managed, but she could feel her resolve crumbling. She would have considering saying she was drunk, but she had barely touched the brandy. It was the Master’s presence that intoxicated her, which was both extremely disconcerting and extremely arousing.
“I doubt you’ll be saying that in a few hours,” the Master crooned. His voice was silken and the hand that was slipping slowly beneath her presidential robes was delightfully cool against her suddenly warm skin. Exhaling sharply, Romana was torn between the desire to push him away and an even stranger desire to pull him closer.
“Can you hear them, Romana?” he asked as he pushed her back against the cushions.
“Hear what?” she murmured, eyelids flickering shut, hair fanning out over the pillows.
“The drums. The never ending drumbeat. On and on. It won’t stop. It never stops.”
“I don’t know what you mean …” she said, trying to sit up, but then his body was on top of hers, and his lips — so very cold — were moving across her skin.
“I can always hear them,” he breathed, “Such a shame you can’t, Romana. If I was ever to share them with anyone, I’d want it to be with someone like you.”
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap …
It didn’t come from the heart. It wasn’t about love, or lust or any of the other synonyms humans chose to attach to the same basic, primal act.
Romana didn’t actually know what it was about, or even where it came from, but it certainly wasn’t romantic. Her mind was free from the physical needs of her body, calculating quadratic equations as she tugged her fingers through his hair, counting out the Fibonacci sequence in her head as she raised her hips to meet his.
The Master wasn’t gentle. He moved deep within her, and delighted in hearing her groan out his name. He treated the bedroom like a battlefield, laughing wildly when he came, shuddering, inside her.
Sometimes, in the silence that followed, with her head on his chest and the sweat cooling on her skin, Romana could almost imagine that she heard the drumbeat too.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap …