No Exit (Everybody Lives)

by Bagheera [Reviews - 8]

Printer
  • All Ages
  • None
  • Angst, Fluff, Slash

For a Time Lord, losing time is just embarrassing. But the Doctor has lost time: however many hours since the last thing he remembers, which is browsing an Artefacts and Unknown Objects Stall on the Everlasting Flea-Markets of Thrax. The alley was narrow and dark, the luminous sea-green sky a narrow band between the roofs, the leather awning of the stall flapped in a slight breeze, someone touched his shoulder.

And then nothing.

Some sort of transmat device used on him, the Doctor thinks, but he knows it's not true. He has lost time between then and now. Or rather, he has lost track of time. Normally, he is a chord, thrumming with the soft, constant vibrations of time. Now the chord has snapped, and he can't feel time at all, neither within him nor without.

He's sitting in a small, precariously balanced boat drifting in a body of water: either a very calm sea, or a lake, or a very slow river. The clouds hang so low they might as well be mist. The water is grey, leaded, sluggish, like dull quicksilver. The Doctor licks his lips, considering. They taste salty, as if the insistent wind has been whipping against his face for a long time, carrying with it the taste of the sea. A bitter saltiness, like tears. The Doctor's tears have the exact percentage of salt in them as once the oceans of Gallifrey had.

Very odd, he thinks, and decides that whatever strange thing has happened, the hooded and solemn stranger sitting opposite him in the bark is probably either better informed or is responsible for it.

"I seem to be somewhat at a disadvantage here," the Doctor says cheerfully to the stranger. It always helps to be friendly and upbeat to strangers. It shows them that you're not afraid of them, and they have no reason to be afraid of you. Not that this stranger looks as if he's likely to be scared by the Doctor. "Where are we again?"

He gets no answer but a low chuckle from his companion. The Doctor narrows his eyes. Grey cloak, hood drawn so low over his eyes that the other man’s face is cast in black shadow, a sinister chuckle. The signs point towards: nutcase, not well-intentioned.

The Doctor doesn't have as much patience for nutcases as he used to, but even they deserve a chance to reconsider before he takes action. Perhaps this is all just a misunderstanding. "Let's try this again. I'm the Doctor, and you are - - ?"

Under the grey cloak, the stranger trembles, as if he's quietly trembling with laughter. Instead of solemn menace, he now exudes barely suppressed glee. This is not how a decent psychopomp should behave, the Doctor decides, and his already thin-worn patience snaps. Darting forward, the Doctor grasps the hood and pushes it back, and is suddenly face to face with the Master.

Shock makes the Doctor reel back and he nearly causes the bark to topple over. They sway and bob and the small boat lurches on the sea like a drunk on roller-skates. The Master yelps and grabs the side of the boat for support, then yells angrily, "Sit still, you moron!"

"Oh," the Doctor says, calming down and settling back in his end of the boat. This is just an illusion. He feels bittersweet at the sight his subconscious has conjured up. There are so many things he wants but cannot have while waking, and the Master is the one that is hardest: bristly, uncomfortable, uneasy, not an idyll, not a castle in the air. More like a skeleton in the closet. The Doctor infinitely prefers this kind of illusion to skipping down crimson meadows under two suns, hand in hand with Rose and Donna and everyone he has lost. Not that his mind would be that tacky, but this dark, unpleasant place is something he can almost pretend is real. If he wanted to, which he doesn't. "I'm hallucinating."

The Master gives him a scathing look. "Does this feel like a hallucination to you?"

Looking around, the Doctor stretches his senses. He listens for time again, harder this time, and hears it like a song carried on the wind from distant lands, like a dry-leaf memory of summer. Time is not gone, it just not longer lives within him. He closes his eyes and waits for the skittering sensations of spatial dimensions on his skin. But they’re not there. What he feels is something else. He's wrapped in a structure: not rigid like atoms of gold, but swinging, flexible, like a web. Dynamic, yet structured. Responsive to his mind.

The Doctor's eyes snap open, alight with interest. "Block transfer computations," he exclaims in delight, "carried out by a panatropic computer network!"

He has been nodding along eagerly like a parent listening to their child reciting a poem, and now the Master claps his hands, apparently delighted Doctor has figured it out. "Good Doctor! Right on the first try."

Then the Doctor's mind catches up with his senses and his smile falls. He feels himself paling, his cheeks growing cold. The virtual reality around him is too real, too complex, too palpable to be an illusion. His fingers clench on his pinstripe-covered knees.

"And you?"

"As real as the knife that cut your throat a couple of minutes ago." The Master spreads his hands wide, preening. It looks a bit ridiculous in his wide-sleeved robe. He notices, and with an eye-roll, makes the robe vanish. Instead, he sits there in a tasteful black suit and a red tie. "Surprisingly effective, cutting a Time Lord's throat. Maybe you shouldn't have messed around with your regenerative energies and that extra hand of yours."

Taken aback, the Doctor asks, "What?"

With mock gravity, the Master nods. "It pains me to say, Doctor, but you, mighty destroyer of Daleks and Time Lords and countless of other races, got killed in a mugging. Killed. On a flea market planet. How the mighty have fallen." The Master sadly shakes his head. "And you didn't even have any money in your wallet. I hope the thief collects antiques, because all he got for his troubles is your sonic."

"I'm dead," the Doctor realises. "You died," he goes on, now slightly hysterical. It's easier to fixate on something that isn't his own death. "And you wouldn't regenerate!"

"As you can see, I had prior engagements. But cry some more if you feel like it."

Something inside the Doctor goes cold with dread and suspicion. He stiffens, and asks in a very precise, very unforgiving tone: "What is this place?"

"But you already guessed! Come on, you know what it is. It's the place where all the little Time Lords go when they die. Heaven, afterlife, the big file cabinet of souls."

The Doctor says nothing, just stares at the Master, his gaze hard. It's what behind that gaze, his clogged up mind, that's awfully close to crumbling. The Master, unperturbed, prattles on.

"The Matrix isn't just an archive. We need it, Doctor. Regenerating after Gallifrey was gone hurt, didn't it? All that fire, a whole furnace in your head, as that old self burns away into nothing, and the new one claws its way free. The Matrix is the security net that keeps it safe if something goes wrong. Did you really think I'd risk going on without it?"

Knowledge about the Matrix was something between arcane and taboo on Gallifrey. The Doctor's idea of how the whole thing works is rudimentary at best, whereas the Master delved deep into the science of it. It's just possible that he isn't lying. He's a genius, after all.

"You rebuilt the Matrix."

"Yes."

"As a project in your free time. In case you needed a plan B and a quick exit."

"Ingenious, I know."

"And I just happened to end up here when I died."

"What, do you think I built an afterlife where anyone can just upload? No, this is a very exclusive establishment. Our own private ever after."

"But I can't be dead. Just think of the paradoxes that would create. Remember the Valeyard! And - - River Song! What about her? She had this big book full of our future encounters!"

"Did it ever occur that she might have lied to you? Maybe she's the person who mugged you and stole your screwdriver."

"She knew my name!"

"So do I, and your family members and anyone who bothered to look it up in the Matrix version 1.0. Think about it: River Song is obviously a fake name."

"Is that your expert opinion?"

"Yes. Accept it, Doctor. You're dead. There's no running from this. No last minute deus ex machina. Just the two of us, Doctor. Forever."

The Doctor wants to feel horrified at this mad, dangerous, terrifying thing the Master has done. Just the two of them, happily ever after. But instead, there is a quiet wave of relief rising in him. Relief that the Master would never choose permanent death, because the idea that even the Master, the quintessential survivalist, might choose to die, made it that much harder to hang on to life. Relief that the Master would not die rather than be with him. Relief that he's not alone.

Relief that he's done. No more fire and ice and destruction.

Approximately thirty seconds after accepting the finality of it all, the Doctor asks, "And now?"

The bark bobs quietly in the sea. The Master shrugs. "I didn't really plan much further than this."

"It's going to be very dull very quickly."

"Probably."

Again they fall silent. The Master seems not to mind the silence too much: he's still basking in his achievement and the Doctor's attention. The Doctor, on the other hand, doesn't know what to do. He concentrates, and looks at his empty hands. A coin appears, brought into existence by force of will. His fare for the ferryman. The Doctor tosses it into the water.

"So. You'd spend eternity with me."

The Master shrugs again. "It's not eternity. We both know the universe is finite. Been there, done that, remember? Besides, you have an interesting mind."

"And?"

The Master squints, but he, too, must know that this, them, here means that eventually, they'll tell each other everything. They'll even make words for the things they can't yet express. A bit awkwardly, the Master concedes, "And I think I'd rather spend eternity with you than eternity without you. If there's no middle ground."

Thinking about this for a while, the Doctor nods. "Me too."

"Aw. You do love me. And there I thought you just wanted me for my genes."

"You realise this isn’t really better than me keeping you on the TARDIS, except we can't kill each other because we're already dead."

"Wrong. This is so much better."

"Is it?"

"This time it's on my terms. Just like on the Valiant, now that I think of it."

"This is nothing like the Valiant. You're not hurting anyone." The Doctor smiles. Danger to the lives of innocents has always been the thing that stood between them, and now the Master has taken away his own strongest weapon against the Doctor. "You can't, because there's just us."

"And yet -- you, in my power, forever. Doesn't it bother you at least a little bit, Doctor?"

The Master is so self-confident. He thinks that just because he was always better at psychic control, this will never change. The Doctor has to smirk at that. He has learned so much. Done so much. He remembers sinking into the sand in the Matrix, drowning, falling; remembers being powerless. But that was four regenerations ago. Now he is closer to being the Valeyard, in power and experience, than to being his young, foolish self. He snaps his fingers, as he has learned to do with his TARDIS.

The foggy sky breaks open, revealing radiant blue. The ocean glitters with sunlight, and their little boat bobs merrily on the small waves. There is a shore, green and lively. On the shore is a city, skyscrapers and a cloud of vehicles buzzing, like small silver flies, around it. "New New York!" the Doctor exclaims. "Talk about us being in your power now."

The Master rolls his eyes slightly, and with a lazy flick of his hand the wide vista narrows, folds, pales, into a white city out of Escher's dreams. The boat becomes a wooden bench in a courtyard. He gets up to look around, and the Master follows him. Smiling, the Doctor remembers Castrovalva: the carrot the Master offered him after the stick, the kind caress after killing him. A nice reminder that he's sharing mental space with a madman whose schemes have a habit of back-firing.

Powered by that memory of the Master's defeat he breaks the world the Master built, and replaces it with another of his own: Gallifrey on the first day of spring, the snow dissolving to sludge on the hillsides, the first pale red grass shoots peeking out from underneath their melting cover, small blossoms whiter than the snow—

"This is why I didn't regenerate,” the Master scoffs. “You'd never have stopped ranting at me about Gallifrey!" He kicks at the mud in disgust. "I thought you'd get over this saccharine nostalgia by the time you died. It's disgusting, the way you wallow in it, like a pig in filth…"

The trickle of ice water ceases, the snow vanishes, the whole scene freezes into plastic stillness at the Master's command. A moment later, the grass is fire-engine red. The hills are perfectly semi-spherical. The sky is orange — not burnt orange, but orange like a whole bowl of oranges. There are silver trees on the horizon, and behind them, each one a perfect triangle, snow-capped mountains. The two suns in the sky have happy smiling faces. It's Tellytubbies for Time Tots.

Inclining his head, the Doctor avoids looking at the Master's creation. He doesn't resent the Master for mocking Gallifrey . He envies him. Laughing at terrible things is so much easier. Humour is a wonderful thing. But the Doctor doesn't have the right to laugh about any of this. Respect is the least he owes to Gallifrey.

This is more than a contest of wills. This is a negotiation. They're pitting possible worlds against each other. Comparing their private heavens and hells. So when the Doctor creates a replica of Professor Yana's work space around them, it's more than a memory drawn from his mind. He's offering something, a place where the Master did good, a place that looked ugly but was full of beauty.

It doesn't have the desired effect. The Master's faces freezes, his lips twitch, and he turns on his heels and the laboratory slips into black. Starless emptiness. Breaking matter. Dust fading into nothing. Silence that threatens to tear the Doctor's mind apart. The darkness at the end of everything. No Utopia.

The cold is hard to bear, but the Doctor takes a step forward, touching the Master's shoulder, and accepts the gloomy offering as a piece of the Master's hearts. And then he warms them with the hottest thing he can think of. Gives the Master what the Master once asked of him: the inferno that swallowed Gallifrey wraps around them. It's a heat that burst through the shields of the Citadel, that melted stone towers to glass.

Slowly the Master turns, his face slack with awe, his eyes wide and illuminated by the flames. He smiles like a child at the perfect destruction. The Doctor lets it burn. So many times he has lived through this moment, and yet never saw it to its conclusion. There was always something, some friend, some hope, to yank him back from the brink of destruction. But the Master won't. The Master didn't run from the Untempered Schism, and the Master will look at this, too. The Master will burn with him.

The final moments of Gallifrey's end are beyond the Doctor's imagination, because he fled before it happened: the tamed black hole of the Eye of Harmony — unleashed — swallowed the whole system before collapsing. But the Master remembers falling into a black hole, remembers the eternal descent, and he lends the Doctor his memory. Matter screams as its molecules are stretched and torn and boilt, space twists and flattens under the weight of a hundred suns.

Time is infinitely subjective in a panatropic network. Seconds might have passed in the real world while the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey one final time, but it might also have been centuries, millennia, all the time until the end of everything. A minute in the Matrix is as long as it feels.

But it isn't eternity, because there is a moment after. They are in a dark, soft, narrow space, and the Doctor realises that he is holding the Master in a crushing embrace. The smaller man doesn't fight him. There isn't really an up or down, but it feels as if they're lying down somewhere. It is a peaceful place, and smells the way clean towels smelled when the Doctor was a child.

"Where are we?" he asks. "Physically, I mean."

The Master moves, squirming against him. His nose digs against the Doctor's collarbone. "A ring."

"On Earth?"

"You didn't exactly leave me a lot of options."

"So what happens when - "

"We'll be off Earth by the time the sun goes nova. The ring has psychic commands built into it."

"Can you manipulate those commands? Control whoever wears the ring?" the Doctor asks, then laughs at his silly question. "Of course you can."

"Of course. Why, do you have plans already, Doctor?"

The Doctor grins. He feels the bristle of the Master's short, surprisingly soft hair under his chin. "Perhaps."

"Are they sexy plans?" the Master asks coyly, and the Doctor laughs. He likes that the Master isn't always terribly serious in this regeneration. Being silly is a very important survival skill.

"We have a panatropic network capable of supporting highly complex block transfer computations. It's pretty small at the moment, but, since you have access to the mind of whoever wears the ring, we can, presto change-o, make the network much bigger."

"I'm not trusting some human with this."

But the Doctor's mind is racing with the possibilities. It doesn't have to be some random human. There are people the Doctor trusts with this, who would help without any mind-control at all. And if the Master won't trust human loyalty, then, well, they won't have to use mind control for a very long time. No one will be hurt by it. He sweeps the Master's paranoia aside. "The Time Lords resurrected you once already. All we need to do is instruct someone to build a loom, then we can work on the Matrix ourselves. With the block transfer capabilities, we can fight entropy!"

He feels the Master stiffen in his arms as he understands where the Doctor is going with his explanation. "I should have known you'd turn this into a do-gooding mission."

"It's not - "

"You want to turn this into a second Logopolis to prevent the heat death of the universe. You want us to create an actual Utopia. You're right, that's not a do-gooding mission. Oh no, this is you deciding to play God."

The Doctor frowns. For a moment there, the Master sounded almost like Donna. "Was that a lecture on morals? From you?"

"A lecture?" The Master chuckles, patting the Doctor's side, sliding his hand underneath the Doctor's jacket, stroking his back. His fingers dig in between the Doctor's shoulder blades, then rake down again, pleased and possessive. "No, no, far from it. I would never be so boring."

"Then - ?"

"I think it's a brilliant plan. Worthy of Rassilon himself. Finally you're thinking like a Time Lord, Doctor." After a deliberate pause, the Master adds in a voice brimming with glee, "Finally you're thinking like me."

They lie entwined in the primal darkness of their minds, yin and yang at harmony. If he's thinking like the Master, the Doctor decides, then that is not a bad thing. It's time to face things instead of running. To build things instead of tearing them down. To prevent wars instead of fighting them. Time to make sure nobody dies. River Song, whoever she is, said that she had seen whole armies turn and run from him. And she didn't lie to him, because he can open the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers. Together, he and the Master can stop the stars from going out with their minds.