Summary: “You could very easily be poisoning these people. You might be attempting to weaken this time line by feeding it a steady diet of anachronisms–softening it up in preparation for a larger plan. You might, Master, be capable of anything. Or at least of anything but running a tea shop.”
Beta and Acknowledgments: Beta'd by aralias, a most missable miss (in the Czech sense). Mezzo for introducing me to the word 'mamihlapinatapai,' and Chatting At the Amber Teahouse, a ridiculously fluffy yuri manga, to which I attribute the gloopy sweetness herein. Kundera for his description of the Czech phrase. Tu for question mark shirt--she's like Kundera, in her way...
Other possible titles included: Teatime Lords, Teaspoon and an Even More Open Mind, Over-Steeped, Pot Calling Kettle, High Teason, Tea's Company...I COULD GO ON!!
Anticipating danger, sonic screwdriver at the ready, the Doctor pushed open the teahouse’s wooden door. From the signals the TARDIS was picking up, he had expected the place to contain an armed and obvious alien beachhead. Instead he had burst in to confront the most innocuously comfy room imaginable. The interior was crowded and cool, but still there was a great deal of seating, and an alcove sat miraculously empty at the room’s rear. Either something much more involved was going on, or, as seemed more likely, the TARDIS was simply jumping at shadows. Whether they were plotting something larger or just serving tea, the Doctor thought the place bore investigating. He made for the free alcove.
He preferred booths to chairs, and he liked sofas and divans better still. Well——in this body. In his fifth he’d have been perfectly fine with a lawn chair, if you had one. He’d liked something sturdy and wooden in his sixth, and a good plush armchair in his last. But now it was couches for him–the cozy sort you’d sink into, and have to climb and claw your way out of, so really you’d be better off grabbing a book from your pocket and not attempting to stir until absolutely necessary or until you’d finished–whichever came first.
“Well,” the Doctor murmured, opening the menu, “what have we here?”
He said this to himself, because he was between companions at the moment, but Lucie had never properly appreciated tea, anyway. Oh he’d tried to help her–Lucie Miller had been exposed to the best tea Earth had to offer (and when that didn’t work, to more exotic treasures). He’d introduced her to Queens and Emperors, and together they’d imbibed the beverage in some of the tea-drinking-galaxy’s most glittering courts–and she’d still hardly exhibited a drop (aha) of enthusiasm. She’d only just consent to a desultory cup of PG Tips if he was making some. Additionally, if called on her obvious lack of respect for tea culture, Lucie lacked the basic courtesy to really argue with him about it, so that he could correct her. She insisted on insisting that she liked tea just fine, she simply wasn’t mad about the stuff like some people.
At least now that he was on his own he’d be able to come to charming places like this without putting up with a lot of groaning from her, not to mention her traditional running commentary on how ‘naff’ all the tea sandwiches on offer sounded.
Still, the absence of sass didn’t quite make up for having no one to talk to (or talk at). The Doctor sighed a bit to himself–an old, worn sigh that encompassed his feelings on all the imperfect, lovely traveling companions and assistants to have abandoned him over the years–and began to actually read the menu before him.
He raised an eyebrow at the selection. The menu consisted of several printed pages–one for each category of tea available. But each of the offerings was particularly, strangely good. He spotted a batch of monkey-picked white lotus and jasmine, which had been a favorite of the Qing emperors, but which he’d have thought impossible to obtain it in this century. And there was a brew from a little-known plantation, which languished in total obscurity–the Doctor only knew of it because he’d once stumbled across the place itself while chasing a yeti across rural Tibet. The lady of the manor had hospitably offered him a wooden bowl of tea. It had been thick with yak butter, salted, and the Doctor had fallen a little in love. With the tea, rather than the lady, whose barking laugh at his delighted expression had exposed all three of her blackened teeth (and not to her advantage, either).
The menu boasted a full range of flushes, all of which were available to sample. It offered blends of incredible inventiveness. It promised the most delectable tastes. He could smell delicate bergamot orange on the air. In addition to flavoring Earl Gray tea, perfumers used the oil from the oranges’ peels to bind bouquets of complimentary scents together into a whole. It accomplished something similar in the teashop. It took the myriad smells, conducted the marriage of a hundred blends of tea, and it proved a good husband to each.
The Doctor had seen a thousand teashops and he had never liked one better. Which was a shame, because he’d come to investigate this one on suspicion of alien intervention and anachronism with intent.
“Can I help you?”
The Doctor looked up. Light from the room’s long French windows obscured the man’s features, and gave his clothing a harsh chiaroscuro effect. His cream shirtsleeves were cast whiter than white, and his dark trousers and waistcoat melted into each other–a long, connected streak of black. It made him look taller than he probably was.
The Doctor leaned back on his sofa, quirking an eyebrow. “Well. Hello there.”
The man gave him disinterested smile. “Have you made a decision?”
“Several. But as to your tea…” He pretended to peruse the menu, then looked up. He found the man’s eyes and stared directly into them (as well as he could manage to, half-blinded by the sun). “Perhaps you’d better choose for me. I’m in the mood for an old favorite, appropriately enough.”
“As you wish.” The man plucked the menu from his fingers and scooped it under his arm. “Darjeeling is always popular.”
He crossed the restaurant to converse with another table of customers. They greeted him warmly. They knew him.
The Doctor watched the pantomime, suspicious. Suddenly the signals the TARDIS had been picking up made a lot more sense. But what in hell was he up to?
He lingered in the restaurant far longer than could be considered polite. He ordered upwards of six free refills. He read all the magazines, twice. He had the ‘manager’ chose different blends for him (discreetly testing their potability by plunging a giant stick spring of celery, which he’d found in his pocket, into his various beverages.) Just before closing time he ducked into the bathroom. He waited there, tapping his foot and, for form’s sake, examining a pocket watch that didn’t even tell time properly on this planet.
When the Doctor heard the man who seemed to be both the shop’s owner and its sole employee step into the back stock room, he slipped out of the toilet and in after him.
The man faced a counter. He measured out dried tealeaves, and poured them into a canister with scientific exactitude.
“You took your time,” he said to the Doctor, without turning around.
“Yes,” the Doctor acknowledged. “But now there’s no one here to witness anything out on the ordinary, anything unpleasant. Or to be caught up in the crossfire. I make it a point never to spoil anyone’s tea break.” Well. Anyone but the Brigadier’s, the spoiling of which he’d made something of a game out of–but then he’d been so very bored stuck on Earth, and he’d felt rather justified a bit of harmless scone-scrumping at the time. When Alistair caught him at it, he had, of course, been of a different opinion.
The man tutted. “Do you suppose I’d harm my customers?”
“Now that’s an interesting question, because yes, I do know you, and yet you don’t seem to have. Why is that? More to the point, where is it?” The Doctor scanned the neatly labeled canisters. None of the thick, clear jars seemed to contain what he was looking for.
“Where is what?” the man asked placidly.
“Master,” the Doctor said, which was an acknowledgement, a wheedle and a warning in one.
The Master chuckled, still working at his scales. The Doctor watched the neat economy of his arms–watched the way, like a chef or a scientist, the Master kept them close to his body, tucked his elbows against the side of his chest. He had, the Doctor observed, very elegant hands this regeneration, and he used them deftly.
“You think I’d leave something so anachronistic out here, where anyone might stumble in and lay hand on it?” the Master asked, but it wasn’t really a question. “That sort of foolish carelessness is more your–”
“Cup of tea?” the Doctor interrupted, unable to resist.
The Master groaned, either in response to the Doctor’s comment, or because he had to stoop to unlock a cabinet, and he wasn’t particularly youthful this time around. The cabinet was sealed with what looked to be a heavy, old-fashioned padlock, and what felt like a psychic isomorph print.
“You might have said anything else,” the Master complained.
Ah. It had been the joke, then.
“Your predilection,” The Master suggested, turning the lock.
“Your bailiwick,” the Doctor continued agreeably.
The Master raised an eyebrow at the word. “Balliwick,” he turned it over in his mouth, then shook his head. “Oh, hardly in this regeneration.”
The Doctor leaned back against the counter at his back and watched the Master pull a wooden box out of a safe that was much wider and deeper than it had looked from the outside, before the Master had opened it.
“You’ve been keeping track of me well enough to know my verbal tics. How thoughtful of you–and while you were supposed to be dead, too.”
The Master turned around to him. There was something tight in his eyes, and it struck the Doctor that that remark might be truer than he knew. Something had happened, and the Doctor didn’t know what, which bothered him immensely.
The Master set the casket on the counter beside the Doctor and opened it. He pulled out several transparent sachets of brightly colored leaves.
“I never sell it to the customers, of course.”
“Then why do you keep it?” the Doctor pointed out, reasonable and cynical. “You could very easily be poisoning these people. You might be attempting to weaken this time line by feeding it a steady diet of anachronisms–softening it up in preparation for a larger plan. You might, Master, be capable of anything. Or at least of anything but running a tea shop.”
The Master glanced at him, unruffled. “My customers’ provincial palates are hardly capable of appreciating this, and as you suggest, their digestive tracks would positively recoil at some of them. Still, such blends are, you must concede, precious in their own right. I need hardly estimate their worth in terms of mere utility.”
As he spoke, the Master gathered a pot, a straining basket, cups and saucers. “I keep this tea for my own personal use. And, naturally, for out-of-town guests.”
The Doctor took a wary look around him. “I came to London–well, because I always come to London. But I came here tracing some very odd energy signatures. Were you luring me here with this? Is there something going on out there, while we chat over this–incidentally, exquisite looking–Venusian green pearl? Are there Boekind in Belgrave Square? Are Sontarans breathing the lowly air of Seven Dials?”
The Master raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that an up-market shopping district now? Not to my knowledge, and I can hardly imagine a squadron of Sontarans boutique-hopping. But I imagine no reassurance I can offer will satisfy you.”
“Probably not,” the Doctor agreed. His voice was amiable, but his eyes were hard.
“See for yourself then,” the Master gestured towards the door. “It should only take you a few minutes to determine whether anything untoward is occurring in the city. When you’ve made a sufficient nuisance of yourself, come back. Your tea will have finished brewing.”
Fifteen minutes later, having irritated a record number of people in the given time (borrowing a businessman’s iPhone, barging into a pub during the football and demanding they change all the televisions to various news-stations, running up to no less than seven worried-looking people in the street, demanding to know what they were Running From, and consequently enduring four conversations about unsatisfying relationships, two whinges about the economy, and one panicked slap), the Doctor slumped back into the teashop. The Master sat at the section the Doctor had occupied earlier, enjoying a madeleine with his tea.
“You know,” the Doctor said, sitting down gingerly in an attempt not to be half-absorbed by the sofa, “I had madeleines with Proust once...”
“Really, Doctor? I’d love to hear about it.”
The Doctor perked up. “Well–”
“In a hundred words or fewer.”
He slumped down in a sulk again. “Well, if you’re going to be like that about it. Who ever heard of Proust abridged? Even anecdotally?” Really, sometimes the Master missed the whole point of things.
The Master had the gall to chuckle. “Try your tea, my dear.”
With a sour expression, the Doctor lifted the delicate cup from its saucer. “Certainly, Master,” he murmured sarcastically, “anything else, Mas–oh god,” his eyes widened comically. He looked up at the Master, expression almost reverential. “Oh, Master.”
“Mm. I know.” Smug as a cat, the Master took a sip of his own. “You’ve no objection to me keeping the shop, then?”
The Doctor hadn’t consciously allowed his eyelids to flutter, and the eyes beneath roll back in pleasure. Upon realizing they’d taken some initiative in the matter, he sternly schooled them. “Hm?” he asked, confused, slightly blissed-out. “What?” he asked, tone sharper this time, the verbal approximation of a man searching for his clothing after an unwise one-night-stand. He cursed this body’s sybaritic tendencies. He wondered if the tea might be drugged (even hoped it a bit, because it would have been a terribly convenient excuse), but he knew better.
“Nothing important, Doctor. Have a cake. You could even try dipping it in the tea, as your afore-name-dropped friend would advise.”
“Oh ha ha.” The Doctor rolled his eyes (this time in a properly condescending rather than shamelessly wanton manner–v.g.), but did as the Master suggested. “Mm. They’re really very good.”
“I find the lemon zest adds interest.”
“You baked these?”
“Why not?” the Master asked, simply.
The Doctor could think of any number of reasons why not. He knew the Master was capable of making all manner of things–from incredible (in the literal meaning of the word, i.e. he could not credit them) costumes to scientific gadgetry, from doomsday weapons to the universe’s worst mistakes–but surely tea cakes was stretching it? The Master’s plans were usually more complicated, ridiculous-to-surreal, and, well, evil than
1) buy ingredients,
2) make pastry,
3) have very old friend over for tea and cake,
but the Master was busy pressing on.
“As it happens, I find myself too occupied by my other duties to bake enough for the shop, which is regrettable. People expect the sweets to be of a quality commensurate with the tea itself, but the bakery I’m forced to order from lacks my… exacting standards.”
The Doctor smiled. “You mean your obsessive perfectionism.”
The Master’s lip quirked. “Don’t tell me what I mean,” he said, not unkindly.
In silence the Doctor took the final sips from his second cup, draining it to the dregs. There was nothing left in the pot–to continue the conversation, they’d have to make another. The Doctor found that he lacked sufficient trust. The Master opened his mouth, ready to suggest it, and the Doctor preempted him.
“Thank you for the tea, Master. It’s been–unexpected.” The Master was doing something here, of course he was–it just wasn’t apparent yet. The Doctor could play a long game too, if he had to, though really it was bound to be tiresome, having to come back here like this.
“I take it you’re going, then?” And was there a hint of disapproval in the Master’s voice? Of all the cheek. As if someone who’d done what he had could call the Doctor to account for not staying to make polite conversation. “Do drop by when you’re next passing through.”
“Oh, I intend to,” the Doctor promised, with a grating smile which further implied that next time, he would discover what the Master was really up to.
Outside, there was still light. The English summer day stretched on into evening, less showy than a Midnight Sun. It was reserved and undemonstrative, with an innate wish to avoid making itself garish and ridiculous–typically British. Good old London– it always felt welcoming (even if he had been partially responsible for burning it down once). He couldn’t have the Master lurking about the place, spoiling it.
But there were very good reasons he didn’t usually let himself have quiet interludes like this with the Master. It was all too easy to forget what he’d done, what those acts had made him. It was all too easy to remember that he liked the Master–that he liked him very much.
The next time the Doctor returned to the café, about two months later, he headed straight through to the back and took his tea with the Master. They talked about the places he’d been recently, and about a companion who’d only lasted one adventure before deciding time travel really wasn’t for him. Cowardly, the Doctor called it. And he’d had hopes for the boy, too–he’d reminded him a bit of Hairy Sullivan. Largely because he was quite hairy–he’d been a fur-covered humanoid from the Meeron spiral.
Restless and irked that the Master wouldn’t just tell him the entire plan (as he often had, in the bad old days) and give this teahouse farce up for a bad joke, the Doctor left after an hour.
When he came back three weeks after that it was two a.m. and he was bleeding copiously. He soniced-and-entered stealthily, making his way to the back room——only to trip on something that hadn’t been there last time. Deeply tired and irritated, the Doctor didn’t bother to get up. In a minute someone flicked on the lights, and in another thirty seconds he was eye-level with a pair of bare feet. Looking up gave him the Master, amused (and rather handsome) in a sturdy claret dressing gown.
“Good morning, Doctor. I see you’ve found my latest acquisition. Do you like it?”
The Doctor craned his head to look at his apprehender. A cloudy, blue-green, stone elephant-like creature was propping the door open, probably in order to keep air flowing through the rooms. It was an attractive little thing–wildly out of place, given that it wouldn’t be carved by Draconian artisans for centuries yet, but not obviously intrusive. It was the sort of thing Brax would have been proud to have in his collection, and the Doctor said as much.
“I know,” the Master admitted. “I snatched it out from under him in a highly contested auction lot–I had to make a more exclusive arrangement with the purveyor, but Braxiatel’s annoyance is, as usual, worth any price.” The Master held out a hand to help him up.
The Doctor laughed. “I can imagine.” He took the Master’s hand and got to his feet, favoring his wounded shoulder, wincing when he saw the amount of blood on the hard wood floor. Oh dear. He hadn’t thought it was as bad as that. “You still have your TARDIS, then. I had wondered if that was why you stayed.”
The Master ignored the comment. “You’re injured.”
There was a flat quality to his tone that took the Doctor by surprise. “Are you worried?” he asked without thinking, wishing in the next instant that he hadn’t brought it up.
But the Master ignored that too, steering him over to the plush green divan the Doctor had decided was his favorite on his first day here. The Master darted into the back room and returned with boiling hot water to clean the wound, a cloth to apply it, and a sleek tissue regenerator.
“I had something of a misunderstanding with the Sycorax,” the Doctor said, by way of explanation.
“Standard energy weapons, then–brace yourself,” the Master said, but the Doctor still gave an embarrassingly loud cry when the super-heated wet cloth touched the charred flesh, and another when the tissue regenerator knitted him back together with sudden, brutal sutures.
“Did you come to me for help?” The Master’s voice was laden, but its burden was all wrapped up, in boxes, and the Doctor couldn’t tell whether he wanted to hear ‘yes, I came to you to be cared for,’ whether he was mocking the very idea; whether he was angry, or what specifically he was angry about.
I used to know you, he thought, so well I’d never have had to wonder, like a stranger.
“Tannins,” the Doctor supplied, (mostly) honestly. “To kick-start the healing process. You seem to have a wide variety of tea lying about–including the heavy-duty stuff, which it would have been tricky to track down in my condition.”
“Ah.” There again, textbook enigmatic. The Doctor didn’t like it. With some difficulty, he swung his legs around, making to get up, thank the Master, and head back to his TARDIS.
“Wait,” the Master said, disappearing into the kitchen, returning a moment later with something that smelled strongly of herbs.
“Bless you,” the Doctor said feelingly, taking the warm cup into his hands. He took a large swallow of the strong beverage. He could feel the buzz of a localized temporal manipulator, tingling in his mouth. The Master must have used it to hurry the Doctor’s tea along, accelerating the time-field just around the mug, so that it would brew faster. That also meant wouldn’t taste quite right–he’d sacrificed his usual perfectionism for the Doctor’s comfort. It was almost sweet.
“And how did you manage to annoy the Sycorax this time?” The Master leaned back in an armchair, looking as though he belonged to the better class of Bond villain. The Doctor thought it suited him. The claret dressing gown really was very nice. No slippers, which was a pity. A man with an enviable dressing gown should definitely have slippers to match. His bare feet were rather distracting. Perhaps, the Doctor thought fuzzily, he should buy him some–slippers, not distracting bare feet. The effect would be adorable.
“Adorable?” the Master asked, amused, at which point the Doctor realized that he’d been speaking out loud, in an increasingly muffled, far-away tone. He slipped off into sleep, which was much less embarrassing.
“Rough night, eh?”
In response to the amiable query from a young man seated at the next table with by some female friends, the Doctor cracked an eye open. It was almost noon, and the teahouse was relatively busy around him. He had a pillow under his head, a blanket tucked around his body, and an empty mug of tea by his enervated hand.
“Excuse me,” the Doctor said to the gallery, standing and marching into the back room full of righteous indignation.
“You drugged me!” the Doctor shouted, finding the Master calmly pouring water into a long row of teapots.
“Doctor, my customers!” the Master tsked.
“You drugged me!” the Doctor whispered, loud and theatrical.
“Naturally. Isn’t that what you came here in order for me to do?” The Master had the gall to look totally unruffled.
The Doctor spluttered. “No, no, I came here for some of your wonderfully strong tea. Not to have another Valeriana incident–which, incidentally, I know you used, because I can still taste it on the roof of my mouth.”
“I had some left over,” the Master gave a Gallic, unapologetic shrug and set down the kettle.
“What did you do while I was asleep?” the Doctor demanded, horrified at his own vulnerability, and at that of his unguarded TARDIS.
“I saw you settled, as you no doubt noticed when you woke. I had a shower, and then I went to sleep,” the Master said, with infinite patience. “Upstairs, in my bedroom, before you ask. You yourself managed to sleep through the entire morning rush. You must have been more gravely injured even than you appeared, but then energy weapon wounds are often deceptive. The internal ricochets can be far more damaging than the surface condition might imply.”
The Doctor whirled and stomped out of the kitchen, past the Master’s bemused customers. He furiously opened a broom cupboard and slammed the door behind him. His TARDIS was tucked directly inside. The Doctor tapped rapidly at the console, doing a thorough scan of all her systems, his own body, and the planet itself. He cross-referenced and scanned the scanners themselves, so he could trust his results.
Nothing, nada, zilch.
The anger drained out of him. Someone knocked politely on his TARDIS door. The Doctor opened it, stepping back so the Master could come in.
“Any luck finding rare neurotoxins, Doctor?” The Master asked, as politely as if the Doctor were on a safari for them. He surveyed the room. “I like the redecoration. It’s very elegant. Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to comment on it, the last time I was here.”
“You were somewhat indisposed.”
“I was a snake made of goo,” the Master said, with a sort of world-weary acceptance of the fact that his life had come to the point where he could announce such things casually.
“Aren’t we all, in one way or another?” The Doctor waved a generous hand.
The Master crossed his arms. “No.”
“Well no, I suppose we aren’t all ectoplasmic snakes.” The Doctor cleared his throat. “Thank you. For the tea.”
“You are, as always, welcome. Will you be leaving now?”
“For the moment.” The Doctor’s eyes narrowed. “I still don’t trust you, Master.”
“No,” the Master agreed. “But then I didn’t imagine you would.” He placed a green thermos on the console. “Au revior then, Doctor.”
He left, shutting the door softly behind him, and the Doctor dematerialized. The Master had been right to assume that, if not for his stealthy chemical intervention, disguised by the lingering taste of the time field, the Doctor would have discharged himself directly after visiting. He’d have pressed on and either spent a week being thoroughly sick in the Vortex, alone and unable to properly care for himself, or he would have plunged into another adventure immediately and barely come out of it with his life.
The Doctor ran the tea through a battery of analysis as well, because it would be just like the Master to do everything irreproachably and then poison the tea in the thermos as a Parthian shot. It was normal Joolian herbal, famed throughout the crab nebula systems for its restorative properties. Not even a trace of Valerian kicking about the place. It was even still hot.
Frowning despite its rare lightness and quality, the Doctor drank the tea slowly, wondering which of them had gone mad.
The Doctor visited to return an old book the Master had left on his TARDIS, centuries ago. The Master looked at the book coldly, as if he too didn’t find the excuse it presented very impressive, and told the Doctor to keep it.
The Doctor dropped in, smug as anything, to foil an alien invasion, only to discover it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Master. The Master was nonetheless willing to shut down the shop for the afternoon in order to help the Doctor work out the maths necessary to summon and confine the extra-dimensional beings stalking several major British asylums, feasting on the altered brainwaves of the disturbed as though they were delicacies. Afterwards the Doctor took him out for dinner. The parted awkwardly–the Doctor, flushed and a little drunk, practically shouting his ‘goodbye’ and dashing back into the TARDIS.
The Doctor came in the early afternoon and sat in the back room, talking to the Master whenever the other man was free. It was a slow day, and their conversation was languid and desultory. After closing time the Doctor helped him tidy, putting half the things he touched back in the wrong places. From the corner of his eye, he watched the Master scrub the countertop in strong, sure strokes. He watched the Master toss the rag in the sink with a flick of his wrist before going to wash his hands.
They had another cup together and, in the absence of guests to attend to, the Master did everything properly. Steam curled up prettily from the curvaceous pot, thickening and heating the air between them.
“You know, I hate waiting for proper tea,” the Doctor confided. “Bags and electric kettles have spoilt me.”
“You lack patience,” the Master agreed, not unkindly. “The anticipation is part of the experience. The first sip of a brew allowed to properly mature is well worth the wait. They call it the agony of the leaves. An apt description of the way the tea leaves uncurl under the hot water, yielding themselves up to it.”
The Master poured, and the tea slipped into their small, pale cups. In each case it sloshed up around the sides before sliding down into the belly. The Doctor had his hands wrapped around his cup, and he could feel the hot blush of the porcelain. He wet his lips and took a warm gulp of the liquid, almost burning his tongue.
The Master raised an eyebrow. “Greedy,” he said, and it wasn’t a criticism. “This is particularly a exquisite blend. But the experience should be drawn out. Savored.” He made a gesture, as if to ask the Doctor if he’d like him to refill his cup.
As a result, the Doctor asked the Master to fill him up again. Something that had sounded much better in his mind.
“Is this first or second flush?” the Doctor asked, in a voice deeper than he meant it to be.
“You’re on your third,” the Master murmured, which did not help. Noticing the tray before them was nearly bare, he moved as if to refill it, but then stopped, reconsidering. “We haven’t eaten yet,” he Master pointed out, gracefully ignoring the Doctor’s suite of troubled expressions. “Perhaps you’re hungry for something more satisfying than these paltry appetizers?”
“No,” the Doctor said, too firmly. “No I’m perfectly satisfied. By which I mean I’m fine with these biscuits, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” The Master got up to clear, his expression souring in a way that made the Doctor feel guilty.
It seemed so natural to walk up behind him. The Master could surely feel him there, but continued on, reaching for the soap, giving the bar a quick spin in his hands before setting it down again. The Doctor slid an arm around his waist, pressing their bodies close. The Master was slightly taller this time, and the Doctor could easily kiss the side of his neck without having to stoop. The Master ran the tap and briefly thrust his hands under it, so he wouldn’t get soap all over the Doctor’s velvet coat, and then turned around, tilting his head down to kiss the Doctor firmly, wrapping his arms around the Doctor’s chest and pulling him more tightly to him.
The Doctor made a small, settled noise, stumbling backwards. The Master followed, and the Doctor let himself be pushed back against the counter and up onto it. His head lolled against the thick wooden door of the cabinet, and he grew short of breath when the Master wedged a knee between his legs and spread them, forcing himself between them, thigh very present against the Doctor’s constrained cock.
Being taken on a freshly cleaned counter in the back kitchen of the Master’s improbable teahouse could be seen as a moment (or several) of soft madness. But eagerly clambering up the stairs into the Master’s nicely decorated bedroom and, say, gleefully sucking him off and then taking him roughly from behind while he groaned encouragement–that was less excusable. The Doctor vaguely remembered choking out lavish praise for the Master’s abilities and natural endowments in an increasingly husky voice. It had not been his finest hour.
The Master had fallen asleep directly afterwards, leaving the Doctor to fret for another half an hour, unwilling to just leave (more because it might wake the Master and force an immediate awkward conversation than because he was above such pettiness–he was decidedly not above such pettiness) and unable to sleep, until suddenly it was ten in the morning, and he was waking up to a coy autumn sun pressing at his eyes through the half-slatted blinds. He showered as quickly as he ever had in his life, threw on the Master’s dressing gown (his clothes from the night before having been abandoned in the kitchen), and stumbled down the stairs, wanting to make a discreet, Master-free exit (less a Walk of Shame than a Run of Evasive Maneuvering) and to not come back until enough time had passed that he could reasonably be expected not to have to talk about this.
But before he was halfway down the stairs, he was hailed cheerfully by a customer at the bottom. Already. He hadn’t thought the Master’s shop was even open at this hour. “You must be the Doctor,” the man said, as if this were a pleasant, normal thing for a pleasant, normal man to be called.
“That’s right,” the Doctor agreed cautiously.
“Your husband’s gone out to the shops,” the man continued. “He said to tell you to mind the store while he was out–said he wouldn’t be long.”
“Did he,” the Doctor muttered.
“So, I hear you’re a long-haul freight captain,” the man began. “Oh, I’m Todd, by the way–Todd Kingston.” He reached out a hand, and the Doctor shook it.
“Did–” Rassilon, what did they call the Master, here? “er, he say that?”
Todd’s attention had shifted to a cheerful-looking, plump redhead who was in the process of sneakily adding another spoonful of sugar to her tea, “Honey, remember what the doctor said.” The woman rolled her eyes, but put the teaspoon back in the sugar tray, conceding the point.
“Diabetes, bless her.” Todd said, turning back to the Doctor. “The wife and I noticed you’d been dropping in every few weeks or so, and I asked Cyril what sort of thing you did.”
The Master was not necessarily who the Doctor would have chosen to give him a reference. He crossed his arms. “And how did he describe what I do?”
Todd shrugged. “Just said you were in charge of a ship crewed by a lot of–if you’ll pardon me, his words–overly idealistic young save-the-world types. He implied you did a lot of humanitarian work, and were often away for long stretches of time. Said we should probably call you Doctor if we met you, because the kids all did, and you’d gotten used to it.”
“Oh,” the Doctor blinked. “You know, that’s not actually as terrible a synopsis as I was expecting?”
Todd gave him a sympathetic look. “Does he resent your job, then? I’ve been there, mate. Must be hard on a couple–still, he seems a bit older than you, I expect he knows how to be patient.”
“We’re the same age, actually,” the Doctor corrected automatically, which he supposed wouldn’t really bolster any claims he might want to make that the man had misread the situation, and that he and ‘Cyril’ barely knew each other, that they were about as married as–well, as two very unmarried things, who had possibly once been engaged, in an arguable sort of way. Anyway, that had been very long ago and was not important at the moment. “Cyril,” the Doctor mused, “Greek for Master. Typical.”
“Er, is is?” Todd blinked. “He said his mum named him after Cyril Delevanti. Told us we could call him Masters, but surnames are awfully stuffy.”
“That one in particular,” the Doctor said grimly. “I’m surprised he told you we were married.”
“It is London, we’re generally pretty open-minded.” Todd seemed taken-aback, and gave the Doctor’s current attire a pointed glance, but then recovered. “Of course you probably do a lot of your work in places where they’re more sensitive about it. You don’t even wear a ring..”
Which implied the Master did - of course he did, the Doctor groaned internally, a friendly smile still plastered on his face. Still.
“Come to think of it, I don’t know that he did say,” Todd shrugged. “Just picked up on it, I suppose.”
A fresh group of customers entered, jangling the small bell attached to the door. “Could we get two pots of black rose?” a lanky girl called.
“Oh, actually, I wouldn’t mine a refill,” Mrs. Kingston piped up.
“And some of the shortbread biscuits,” her husband Todd added.
“I–” the Doctor faltered. Generally speaking, he was both more suited to and more prepared for a sudden Cyber Invasion than he was customer service. But all these nice, friendly English people were smiling at him expectantly. And not because he had just announced something impressive, like that they would not die, not today. They didn’t want deliverance, a heroic sacrifice on his part, or even world peace. They just wanted tea.
“Doctor?” Todd asked, breaking the moment.
“Right,” the Doctor said, clapping his hands together. “Two pots of black rose, a refill on what smells like keemun–”
“That’s the one,” Mrs. Kingston agreed.
“–and some of the shortbread biscuits. I’ll be back in just a minute.”
The Doctor ran up the stairs and straight into the sad cliché of having to borrow clean clothes off another man after an ill-advised sexual encounter. From the Master’s too-neat closet he whipped out the shortest pair of plain black trousers he could find then hunted and hunted for a clean shirt small enough to fit him. The Master was only slightly taller, but his was significantly broader in the chest, and the Doctor had no intention of going around all day looking as puffy and pale as the Pillsbury Doughboy. Finally, behind the rich white and cream, old-fashioned ones the Master favored, he found what looked by both its size and by the red question marks on the lapels to be one of his own shirts, abandoned on a similar occasion. Chagrined that the Master was either confident or sad enough to keep it in his closet in case of a reoccurrence, and not happy at being reminded that this was not the first occasion on which he’d made this mistake, the Doctor shrugged it on. It did not fit perfectly, but it was an improvement on its predecessor, which smelled tragically of sex. He added a very enviable waistcoat of the Master’s. A row of clean shop aprons hung on the back of the door. Squaring himself, the Doctor grabbed one, tied it on, positioned the neck-strings so as to hide the embarrassing question marks on his lapels, and headed downstairs.
For the next two hours, the Doctor served tea. Once he got over being wary of being confused, and miffed and afraid of a confrontation with the Master where he knew he wasn’t absolutely in the right, the Doctor found he was in a pleasant, gregarious mood–possibly because, for the first time in a long time, he’d spent the night having a ridiculous amount of sex. His beaming conviviality invited conversation, and when the Master returned the Doctor was sitting in the middle of a group of middle-aged insurance saleswomen telling a story about how, back in the seventies, he’d once had to dress as an old washer woman to find out what was going on inside a business that had committed a host of ecological crimes.
A giggling woman boggled at him. “In the seventies! You must have been just a baby then!”
“Seventies? I meant the Eighties, I’m forever getting those two confused–especially where UNIT’s concerned. Beside, I’ve aged remarkably well.” He gave her a cheeky smile, then turned towards the shopping-laden Master, who was observing the scene with a raised eyebrow. “Don’t you think, Cyril?”
“I’ve always thought so, my dear,” the Master replied without missing a beat. “Age does not wither, nor custom stale. Are you going to help me carry this, or should I stumble on?”
The Doctor rose, weaving through the women and taking a cloth bag off the Master. “You recycle?” he muttered under his breath, baffled. “You’re not even trying to destroy the planet in slow, unimpressive ways?”
“Waste not,” the Master quipped. “Besides, I find plastic bags gauche.”
The Doctor rolled his eyes.
In the kitchen he slammed his bag down on the counter and hissed, “Those people all think we’re–”
The Master, putting away groceries, turned around to give the Doctor a smug, curious look. The Doctor abruptly shut up, walked into the broom cupboard where he kept his TARDIS on visits, and left.
He didn’t come back for three months. It was the longest he’d been absent since discovering the Master’s establishment.
It had only taken about a week for the Doctor to feel he had been very immature. He’d spent the next months alternately trying to forget the whole incident and to either find a way out of apologizing, or talk himself into apologizing.
When he returned, he carried a neat parcel of the Master’s cleaned clothes. It was October, and the day (unlike the fact that he had to go through this) seemed fair.
In the teashop, people he’d met or seen previously mixed with strangers. The Doctor waved at the Kingstons, who were this time accompanied by a small boy who was unmistakably their son.
In the back room the Master leaned, back straight against the counters. He was watching the door as if he’d been waiting for the Doctor. Perhaps he had been.
The Doctor set his parcel on the counter top, and cleared his throat. There was a moment of silence, so long and uncomfortable that the Doctor thought seriously about just turning around and going, getting back in the TARDIS, and in future only speaking to people who didn’t expect this sort of thing from him.
The Master quashed the notion by beginning with something else entirely.
“Is that one of your old jackets?” He nodded at the Doctor’s coat. In fact it was, one of his third body’s, tailored to fit his now-smaller frame.
“I don’t remember ever having worn this, during one of your–let’s call them ‘visits.’” The Doctor noted slyly, feeling he’d thoroughly called the Master out.
The Master raised his own challenging eyebrow. “You remember what you were wearing each and every time I paid a call?”
Touché. The Doctor gave him a cross look, and the Master gave him a self-satisfied one before continuing. “Speaking of clothes, I have some of yours upstairs. I’m occupied at the moment,” he obviously wasn’t, but the Doctor wasn’t going to argue the point, “but go and fetch them yourself, if you like.”
The Doctor brightened at the prospect. It was something to do, and a way to get out from under the Master’s inspection. The Doctor didn’t know if he only imagined the tinge of disappointment in the other man’s expression, but he felt it nonetheless.
Upstairs, the Doctor found his clothes near the front of the closet. He flung them behind him towards the bed, taking a moment to rub the pad of his thumb on one of the Master’s soft cloth jackets. He shut the door and turned around, surveying the room carefully–he’d not been in the proper frame of mind to do it, the last time he’d been up here. There were small signs of anachronism, but nothing more dramatic than the sculpture that he’d tripped over a few visits ago. The lightly glowing shelves might be from IKEA, rather than carved out of bioluminescent coral from the gas seas of Ope. A great many of the books resting on them–the Master had always been fond of reading in bed–didn’t belong to this time or place, but the Doctor didn’t suppose a great many humans found their way up here to comment on the strange jumble of alphabets the Master was able to understand.
Unless they did. It was unlikely, given the Master’s traditional disdain for intercourse, conversational or otherwise, with anyone he didn’t consider almost as intelligent as he himself was–which, the Doctor had to admit, was setting the bar very high. A trail of human lovers was not impossible, however. Especially if he were doing it to annoy the Doctor. Maybe that was why he was here. A long, slow… assault on the Doctor’s sanity.
The Doctor shook the mad paranoia off. Even convinced as he was that the Master had ulterior motives for this Kindly Old Shop Owner act, he still thought the other man was above seducing Liz or some nonsense, just to get under his skin. The bedroom might contain some clue as to his larger purpose–though surely the Master would be more careful than to invite him up here, if it did.
He spotted a picture frame turned face-down on the Master’s bedside table. Trailing a hand across the bedspread, the Doctor approached. He laid hesitant fingers on the rim, and was just about to flip it over when a voice directly behind him murmured, “Prying, Doctor?”
The Doctor jumped, stumbling into the man behind him, who caught and steadied him with a hand on his hip. “Careful, my dear,” the Master purred. “Do you suppose that’s any of your business?”
The Doctor extricated himself, turning and taking a step back, and forced a smile. To sate his curiosity, he would have to admit to thinking he was owed answers to that sort of question, which would put whatever it was they were doing in an uncomfortable context. Instead he said, “I thought you were busy?”
“Certainly not too busy for you,” the Master smiled, all easy charm, slick mockery, bitter irony and naked earnestness. “Besides, you took so long I began to wonder if anything had befallen you.”
“You wish.” The Doctor held up the two tickets he’d quietly pilfered from the bedside table’s drawer while the Master was distracted by their conversation. “The opera, Master?”
“It’s Gabrielle Muscavoy–not as a headliner, of course. Not yet, anyway. But halfway through the final aria the prima donna will suffer a brain hemorrhage, prompting Miss Muscavoy to surge up from the chorus, stepping up to the proscenium so they can close the curtain and remove the body discreetly. She will improvise a bridge so flawless that the patrons won’t realize until they read the reviews that the show very nearly didn’t go on. In seven years she’ll be hailed as the woman who re-popularized opera, and in ten as the greatest musical talent of her generation. Even for us, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“And you didn’t invite me.” The Doctor thought it would be quite something to be able to say he’d met Gabrielle Muscavoy–perhaps she’d let him call her Gabby. And on such an important night, too. “You know I love opera.”
“Almost as much as you love name dropping,” the Master agreed, smugly plucking the tickets from the Doctor’s hand.
“Well, who are you taking?” the Doctor started in, prepared to wheedle.
“No one,” the Master said, sitting down on the bed, the better to take in the Doctor’s sulking. “Why?”
“Oh come on, Master, let’s not do this. No one buys himself two tickets. You know perfectly well you bought those so that when I half-remembered that something important was going to happen today in London, and then when, upon coming here, I dropped in to see you, I’d–”
“Be drawn to riffle through my drawers and make it your business?” The Master raised an eyebrow.
“Almost inevitably,” the Doctor agreed.
“You really are something of a gothic novel heroine,” he shook his head. “You know,” the Master pretended to consider, “I might consent to bring you with me. Might,” he stressed when the Doctor brightened triumphantly.
The Doctor sighed, theatrical. “You’re sitting on a bed, I’m standing in front of you–I wonder what you could possibly want.”
The Master smirked at him. “Simply for you to ask politely, Doctor.”
“Ask politely?” The Doctor repeated, incredulous and somewhat huffy. Surely the Master wanted something a bit more personal than courtesy?
“Mm. Do you think you can manage that?” The Master lay back on the bed and closed his eyes, anticipatory.
The Doctor knelt over him, legs on either side of the Master’s, propped up on his elbows. His hair slipped over his shoulders as he bent down. His lips almost touched the Master’s. “Master, please let me come with you.”
The Master chuckled, his eyes still closed. “That’s laying it on rather thick.”
“When have you ever disliked ‘over-the-top’?” The Doctor smirked. “That’s practically your middle name. I think I know my audience.”
The Master took one of the Doctor’s hands and kissed the skin over the pulse point in his wrist. The Doctor’s breath caught, but then the Master was nudging his leg out of the way, sitting up and sliding out, and walking out the door. “You’re invited,” he called back without turning around.
“I accept,” the Doctor shouted down the hall, sitting down rather grumpily on the bed. It wasn’t as though he’d wanted the Master to take advantage of the situation. He’d just expected it.
He saw the picture frame from the corner of his eye. It might contain nothing at all, a picture of him, or of something or someone else entirely. The Master had put it here to catch the Doctor’s curiosity, and the Doctor wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of coming back to find it in even a slightly altered position.
The Doctor swung himself off the bed and clattered downstairs after the Master, grabbing an apron as he passed the door. When they closed for the day, and the Master changed into something suitable, the two walked, convivially, towards the opera house, stopping for coffee when it became obvious they were going to arrive ridiculously early. Thanks to the Master’s obsessive punctuality, and without the Doctor really noticing that he was being handled until it was over, they presented their tickets at precisely fifteen minutes to the hour, giving them ample time to claim their seats and settle.
The performance was emotive and controlled. Sumptuous. Perfect. The Master very casually brought the Doctor’s knuckles to his mouth and kissed them, once, during the third act. It was only then that the Doctor realized he’d gripped the Master’s hand at a compelling moment and not released it.
They walked back towards the Doctor’s TARDIS, chatting idly, the Doctor laughing at the Master’s very cruel and terribly accurate imitation of an absurd secondary character. He had his hands clasped behind his back He was very aware of the space between them.
The reached the TARDIS, and the Doctor, who’d been leading the way, cleared his throat. “This is my stop. Thank you–for a wonderful evening.” And my clothes, which are still at yours, the Doctor thought, internally annoyed for an instant.
“My pleasure.” The Master nodded. “There’s–”
The Doctor pressed a firm kiss to the Master’s open mouth, insinuating his tongue there. He gripped at the Master’s lapels and then his back with suppressed energy, before easing into a chaste embrace. The Doctor let go, took a step back, and glanced away before looking again at the Master, who observed him with a clouded, unreadable expression.
The Doctor nodded. “Bye, then,” he muttered, letting himself into the TARDIS and closing the door behind him. He watched the Master walk away on the scanners before dematerializing.
A month later, the Doctor stormed past the Master’s customers, his own acquaintances, with just a curt nod. He headed directly to the back room, slumping heavily down into a chair.
The Master was unruffled, but he did put down the archeology journal he’d been perusing. “I take it you’ve had a bad day?”
The Doctor gave him a disgusted look in response, laying his head down on his arms.
“Well?” The Master pushed his plate, which contained an untouched half of a cucumber sandwich, in the Doctor’s direction.
The Doctor lifted his head and looked at the Master through the curtain of hair, which had fallen over his face. “If I say they were horrible, and if I ask why I bother, and if I tell you that people are dead because I couldn’t come up with something brilliant enough quickly enough to prevent a great deal of damage being done, what are you going to say? Because if it’s that of course they were, and you’ve always asked yourself that, and that it doesn’t matter, I think I’m going to punch you or just leave. I’m not entirely sure which.”
“Try to punch me,” the Master corrected. “You’re exhausted, and I’m a very good dodger. Another colony of worthless humans, then? Destroying each other over resources, or ideology? Hardly worth the carbon they’re constructed from,” the Master said, waving a dismissive hand. “Your efforts were meaningless. You should have just left them all there, to rot in their own filthy stupidity.”
“I saved them. I couldn’t save them all, but the point is that I tried. I still–”
“There, wasn’t that simple? You bother because that’s what you do, and it matters intensely–to you. You wouldn’t be who you are without your pet causes, or your ridiculous emotional investment in what seems to be nearly everyone you meet. When one of your interventions goes poorly, you tend to sink into a slough of despond. It never lasts long enough to take proper advantage of. Trust me.” The Master stood and poured out water from one of the kettles, bringing the Doctor the resultant tea. “Let that brew. You look as though you need it.”
The Doctor, shocked into civility, blinked at him. “It was Draconians, actually.”
The Master shrugged. “I said it mattered to you, not to me. Eat your sandwich, my dear.”
Obediently, the Doctor took a bite. Other people’s sandwiches always tasted best, and this was no exception. The Master took the Doctor’s forgotten clothing from a cabinet and laid it on the table. There would be no excuse to return, then, the Doctor thought fleetingly. He finished the sandwich, gulped down the tea, and stood, grabbing the package from the table.
“Right,” he said. “Thank you, Master.”
He left almost calm, still bone-weary, but with enough restored humor to properly greet the people he’d breezed past earlier.
“Hard trip?” asked one of the regular crowd of office ladies sympathetically.
“Not one of my better days, Melissa,” the Doctor admitted.
Melissa sighed. “I suppose you’re better for being home.”
“....Yes.” The Doctor gave her an awkward grin and took a quick, furtive look back towards the kitchen. “Excuse me.”
He slipped out to his TARDIS, entered the Vortex, slept heavily, and then started out for the next planet.
When he came back it was the twentieth of December, after hours. The Doctor was delighted to discover their temporal proximity to Christmas. He’d landed in the broom cupboard, but the Master was out, and so the Doctor found the date by snooping through the neat product order forms, all in the Master’s handwriting. Not knowing when the Master would return, he headed upstairs to the bedroom, plopping down on the comfortable mattress with one of the Master’s books. The picture frame was absent. He could have riffled through all the drawers, but that would have shown bad faith, given that he’d come here in a more friendly capacity.
After about an hour, the downstairs door creaked open, jangling the bells attached to it.
“I’m up here,” the Doctor called, loud enough for the Master to hear him.
“So I can see,” the Master called back. “You’ve tracked mud all over the stairs. Where were you that had fuchsia earth?”
The Doctor winced. Not a very good start to his call. “Metabilis 1. Sorry.”
“I’ll have the Domestibots get it,” the Master dismissed his concern, heading up the stairs himself by the sound of things. Obviously he had them, now the Doctor considered it. You’d never catch the Master on hands and knees doing all the heavy polishing the gleaming wood floors would require. The again, the Doctor wouldn’t have believed the Master would willingly, manually clean up a counter if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.
The Master came in, taking in the Doctor’s position on his bed. “Presumptuous,” he teased.
“You like it,” the Doctor countered tartly, turning a page in the book he was now just pretending to read, protesting for the form of things, when the Master plucked it from his fingers and positioned the Doctor’s hands instead around his hips. The Doctor allowed himself to be kissed for a moment in this position before rolling them over, sliding his cock over the Master’s.
“Happy Christmas,” he murmured, bending down to kiss the Master.
The Master woke up late the next day, alone, and thus intensely annoyed. Groggy, it took him until he was dressed and downstairs to realize that the oven was on full blast, and someone in the kitchen was humming Christmas carols poorly but enthusiastically. The culprit was also covered in flour.
“What are you–”
“Stress baking,” the Doctor replied, smiling. “I stress-bake, this time around. But I’ve moved onto just baking, at this point. You did say you were having trouble finding anything that satisfied your obsessive perfectionism.”
“My exacting standards,” the Master corrected. “And I said that months ago.”
“Mm. Have a biscuit. It’ll have to be shortbread, only the shortbread is done. The cheesecake batter needs to go in as soon as the carrot cake and lemon bars come out. I thought I’d start on turtle clusters next.”
The Master blinked at him. The Doctor felt suddenly nervous and stupid, as if this wasn’t going to work at all. But then the Master grabbed the back of his head, fingers working into the flour-dusted curls, and wrenched him into a quick, hard kiss.
“I’ll make room in the display case,” he volunteered.
“Lots of room,” the Doctor agreed, kissing him again.
“Right,” the Master nodded, taking a step back and discreetly reaching for another biscuit.
The Doctor gave him a stern look. “Keep doing that and there won’t be any left for the customers.”
“You can always make more. Besides, I find I have rather an appetite this morning.”
The Doctor rolled his eyes. “Make us breakfast then. Anything’s better than making cheesy innuendo.”
It didn’t take long for the Doctor to notice that the Master had no Christmas decorations of any kind up in the shop.
“But you love pageantry!” the Doctor wheedled, stirring emphatically, a fleck of batter splattering his cheek after a two-vigorous whip of the spoon. “Think of it like an elaborate disguise!”
“Are you suggesting I play Santa?”
“Well, you do have the beard–” the Doctor began, only to be cut off by the Master throwing a tea towel in his face.
“Only if your TARDIS disguises itself as my Rudolph.”
“Master, Master, Master, you know that’s not fair. My Chameleon circuit can’t be repaired just like that. Besides, I like her exactly as she is. Now, if you’d consent to use yours– ”
The Master looked a little ill at the very idea.
“No Rudolph, then,” the Doctor concluded. “But this tea shop is facing a serious shortage of tinsel. And a tree! What do you think of lights and garlands?”
“That depends,” the Master considered, “are we outfitting a stripper?”
“Well if you’re going to be uncooperative–” the Doctor huffed.
The Master took a step towards him, and the Doctor, clutching his bowl, took a small automatic step back–finding himself up against the wall. The Master capitalized on his position, pressing into the Doctor as best he could with a mixing bowl between them. “You may do whatever you like to my shop. Within the bounds of good taste, naturally.”
“This from a man aesthetically offended by plastic bags. ‘Good taste’ probably means a discreet little ‘seasons greetings’ banner to you.” The Doctor rolled his eyes.
“Surprise me, Doctor.” He licked the spot of batter off the Doctor’s cheek, and went back to work.
The Doctor did surprise him–by announcing that evening that he thought he’d stay through the Christmas season.
The Master had been sitting on the couch with a glass of mulled wine, staring into the flickering tableaux of the fire he’d kept burning in the main room through the winter months and thinking, when the Doctor had settled himself into his arms, scooting down so he could nestle his head on the Master’s chest.
“The thing is,” the Doctor said, “I’ve always loved Christmas. It’s over-blown and gaudy and a bit cheesy, but perfect. It makes me happier than almost anything I can think of. Maybe it disappoints you by not being everything you’d hoped for, or by taking ages to come, but you’re largely disappointed because you love it so much, and you expect everything from it. Still–it’s one of my favorite things in the universe, and it’s been far too long since I properly celebrated it.”
“Stay, then,” the Master said, quietly.
“If you’ll have me,” the Doctor murmured.
The Master kissed the top of his head in answer.
The Doctor left after Christmas (he didn’t stay to long enough to help take down his ludicrous decorations–typical, the Master thought), but he took to spending a few nights a month at the Master’s. He dropped in, always telling the regular customers ridiculous, conflicting, amusing stories about where he’d been. He told the Master the untellable stories–as entertaining anecdotes or with heartsbreaking, unflattering honestly, depending on his mood. He did enough baking to supplement what the Master ordered from the inferior bake house, and left in the mornings.
He began to come a few nights a week, and the Master ordered less and less from the bakery, until he ordered nothing at all. One day the Doctor brought up a past misadventure, asking the Master the reasons behind one of his schemes, and the Master didn’t evade the question. The next day the Master returned the favor, and the Doctor brushed him off with a joke. Later that night, in bed, in the quiet of almost-sleep, without prompting, he answered seriously.
And then he came to spend almost every night in the teahouse, because it was more pleasant and more natural than sleeping alone. He was captured once, for two weeks, and came back with apologies and explanations, as if he owed them. He was somewhat surprised the Master hadn’t tracked him down after a handful of nights, but then what guarantee did the Master have that the Doctor hadn’t just decided, of his own volition, not to return? He might decide any visit was his last, but the Master would always be waiting–always willing, though sometimes more grudgingly than others, to welcome him back. The Doctor supposed that was really just a blatant manifestation of a worn old truth.
“You told me once that we were from slightly different time lines,” the Doctor said to the Master one day as they sipped tea poured from a Yixing clay pot.
“I also said I didn’t wish to discuss it,” the Master reminded him, adroitly refilling the Doctor’s cup.
“Please,” the Doctor caught his free hand and his eye, insistent and earnest. “It might even help you,”
The Master gave him a cold look. “It’s very like you to take everything I’m willing to give you and demand more.”
The Doctor shook his head. “I’m not going to be distracted by an argument.”
“You don’t want to know this,” the Master hissed. “Something terrible happened to us, until, one day, it didn’t. The details are unimportant, and difficult to relate.”
“Master if you still can’t be honest with me–” the Doctor pushed his chair back, as if to go.
“No Doctor, stay. You don’t believe I could have reason to be silent? You won’t trust me enough to do as I say, even regarding something that could do no harm to anyone but us? Fine. A man, who was me and was not, was thrown back onto an ever-dying Gallifrey. He fixed the world before it broke, and, to insure his own existence, he pulled me, the version of him from the original timeline, to safety in the new timeline he’d created. The point of his creation and survival fixed, he returned to where and when he’d come from. He left me to live with the impossible memory of a war we never fought, of an annihilation you cannot imagine. With a terrible fear. And I am tired, Doctor, so tired of the blood and the mess of conquest. Of the uncontrolled, unnecessary savageries…. I hope you never learn, never truly understand what such a war could make of you. What it did to you.”
Throughout the explanation, the Doctor sat silent, wrapping his comprehension around the sinking lead weight of the Master’s words.
“I’m sorry,” he said as the Master finished.
“So am I,” the Master snapped, standing. “Are you happy now, my dear? With that fragment of your mystery solved?”
“Master–” he tried.
“See yourself out,” the Master said, heading up to bed. The Doctor heard the familiar sound of the bedroom door locking–for the first time, from the wrong side. He hadn’t been dismissed from the Master’s presence for centuries, and was surprised that it hurt. If he wasn’t wanted here, he’d have to make things clear to the Master through some other means. The problem was that he was only beginning to grasp what precisely it was he needed the other man to know.
In 8709, on the sinoplanet Sakoku, the Doctor had the great honor of meeting the Lotus Prince. The famous Liu Bei, named for an ancient mythic Emperor, had united three empires, and ruled with justice and compassion. The Imperials Wars had been fought for understandable, even just reasons, but they had also been long and costly, and all of his children had died in them. His wife, upon hearing of their last son’s death, had calmly walked off a parapet. She had been his greatest general, and his constant companion throughout the long war. He felt her loss keenly, and some said this, combined with his bitter guilt over the deaths of his sons and daughters, was what drove him to what the history books concluded had been a discreet, quiet end of his own making.
His household staff discovered the suicide note, but never found his body. A very capable cousin who’d supported him during the war took up his crown and ruled in the fair spirit of his departed kinsmen. The people of the Three Empires remembered Liu Bein millennia later as the Lotus Prince: an Arthur-figure, an undying King who would one day return to them, an emblem of hope. All the Emperors after him bore his seal, and ruled, technically, in his name.
Meeting the sad, tired old warrior, who was so ready to take his own life, the Doctor thought it was clear what he had to do.
“He’s–well, I don’t know if he’s a good man or just an excellent imitation of one at the moment. But I think he could use a bit of help, when I can’t be there, and that you could be good company for one another.”
Liu Bei, Lord of Three Empires, blinked at the Doctor. “You want me to go into this teahouse and offer myself as an assistant to its master?”
“Look, I realize it sounds ridiculous, but I really think–”
“Perhaps not so ridiculous as you think, Doctor. Old emperors have often sought humble, monastic lives when weary of the business of the world. Perhaps you are right about death in anger and despair not being the escape I seek. An opportunity to do good work, simply, and, in time, to grow to love something is an opportunity to seek balance. I have wrought great change in the world–not all of it good. What I need is not the stasis of death, but the growth of a new life.”
The Doctor was taken aback. “Perhaps that’s something like what the Master thought. Though with less gratuitous goodness. You’re a very wise man, Liu Bei.”
Liu Bei grinned, the corners of his mouth crinkling. “Ah, Doctor, it is only because I am so old.”
“You forget, Emperor,” the Doctor smiled, “I’m far older than you are, and yet I often find myself making very foolish mistakes.”
“Please, Doctor–I am no longer an emperor. Perhaps your trouble is that your people have two hearts, and you are simply very young at one of them. It is no bad thing to be, and far better than not using them both.”
With a nod, the Lotus Emperor, dressed in appropriate clothing from the TARDIS, entered the teashop and, in the back room, bowed formally to the Master and asked to become part of his establishment.
The Master considered him. “How do you come to be here, your highness? As I recall, you won’t be born for millennia, and by the time you’re this age, you’re scheduled to disappear without a trace.”
“Ah,” Liu Bei’s mouth crinkled, “so you recognize me, Master. But I am simply here seeking employment.”
“And I would wager I know who gave you a lift.” The Master stood, pacing around the table. “What is this, then? An attempt to acclimate me to companions? Someone to keep an eye on me when he’s away?”
The old emperor shrugged. “He said he would prefer if I didn’t discuss it with you. But if you harbor such suspicions, I believe you should know that he spoke of you with care and concern, and seemed to hope that I could be a help to you. He said you were a good man.”
The Master gave him an incredulous look.
“Or an excellent imitation of one at the moment,” Liu Bei appended calmly.
“That’s faint praise I could actually believe,” the Master muttered. It was far better than he’d hoped for. “Tell me, Liu Bei, do you know anything about tea?”
“Only that it is delicious,” Liu Bei answered promptly. There had been little time to learn the old ceremonies in school when he was a boy. Even then, the looming conflict had overshadowed more peaceful pursuits.
“Right,” the Master pressed his hand into the counter-top, considering, “then we have a great deal of work to do.”
The Doctor visited a few days later, ostensibly to order tea and to see how his protégé was getting along.
“Terribly,” the Master, sitting at the Doctor’s table, snapped before softening. “But he’s willing to learn, and has the potential to be great, given time. I’ve started him on the teas he’s more familiar with. He can be introduced to non-Eastern and period-specific blends when he’s mastered those.”
“I’m certain he has the universe’s most capable teacher,” the Doctor ran his fingers across the back of the Master’s hand.
“Flatterer,” the Master smiled.
“Mm. I’ve been terribly lonely these last days, you see, and am now interested in inveigling my way back into your good graces.”
“Was it Julie London who said ‘cry me a river?’” The Master softened the statement with a sarcastic grin.
“You know very well it was,” the Doctor tsked. “Unless you meant Justin Timberlake.”
“I don’t think I could have. It doesn’t seem very like me.”
“No,” the Doctor agreed, “but then neither does running a tea shop. And yet here we are, with Ceylon.”
“A strange coincidence,” the Master agreed. He stood. “Coming?”
“In the middle of the day?” the Doctor gasped, faux-scandalized.
“Liu Bei can mind the shop.”
“You trust him with this bewildering array of teas?” The Doctor raised an eyebrow.
“Of course not,” the Master said pleasantly, taking his hand. “As you’ve often remarked, I don’t trust anyone other than myself. I simply care more about becoming reacquainted with you, at the moment.”
“More important even than half an hour away from the shop? Be still, my hearts,” the Doctor tugged him towards the stairs.
“If you want grandiose gestures, please see my published works,” the Master snapped back.
“Point taken,” the Doctor agreed.
“Not quite yet,” the Master countered, “but I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Liu Bei became almost as adept with tea as the Master. Then one night the Doctor found a young girl trying to break in to the shop. He took her with him as a companion, and showed her the stars. When Tricia started to display signs of being ready to go home, he began to teach her to bake.
“Have we been training replacements?” the Master asked as they cleaned up one night. Liu Bei and Tricia were off looking at the fireworks that marked the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics, and the Time Lords were alone.
“Maybe. Now you tell me, was this all a plan?” the Doctor asked, setting down the plates he was carrying and folding his arms.
“That depends.” The Master adopted a similar position across from the Doctor, his back against the cabinets there. “Has it been a success?”
The Doctor considered. “I’d rank it better than Castrovalva.”
“Though in the same vein, naturally,” the Master agreed.
The Doctor shook his head. “Why didn’t you explain it to me, from the beginning?”
The Master sighed. “Would you have believed me?”
The Doctor chose not to answer that. Obviously he wouldn’t have believed him, and he felt he’d have been right not to. Over the last centuries, what reason had the Master given the Doctor to trust him? He only barely trusted him now, after months together. “If you’re capable of doing this, why didn’t you try it earlier?”
The Master glared at him. “And if this was all it would have taken, why didn’t you suggest it?”
The Doctor winced at the blatant underlying accusation. “It was never that I didn’t love you.”
“Wasn’t it?” the Master’s voice was harsh.
“No.” The Doctor insisted, catching the Master’s eye and holding it, making the Master look at him. “It was a sort of saudade,” he began, which was a Portuguese and Galician word for a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost, which often carried a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return. “And a kind of mamihlapinatapai," which was a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desired, but which neither one wanted to start.
“I was always willing to begin,” the Master reminded him.
“Nearly always. You had your less generous moments. But yes. Thank you for that. It was everything else you did that was the problem.”
“I don’t think,” the Master conceded, “that I properly understood what you really wanted until I saw the war take it away from you. I don’t know that I understood how to go about giving it to you until the same process worked upon me. You could say my experience was ever styska se mi po tobe,” which was Czech, and amounted to something like ‘I yearn for you,’ ‘I'm nostalgic for you,’ and ‘I cannot bear the pain of your absence.’
“ When I turned down your proposition to rule the galaxy,” the Doctor told him gently, “I should have told you I’d much rather see it with you along. I know we love this place, this life. I know it’s your creation——”
The Master shook his head. “Fond as I am of it in its own right, it has always been the means to an end.” He broke the space between them, walking towards the Doctor and placing his arms on either side of him, leaning in so close his breath brushed the Doctor’s face. “But now I’ve finally defeated you, Doctor, and I find I don’t need anything but this. My victory. I’ve won. Tell me, Doctor, how does that feel?”
“You know, much better than I thought it was going to, actually?” The Doctor swallowed, and the Master grinned, delighted at the effect his proximity was producing.
He leaned in as if to kiss the Doctor, who closed his eyes. “Shall we go now, my dear?” he asked instead, in a low, silky tone.
“Why not?” the Doctor laughed. “We can always stop back and check in on them later–but there are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” the Master grabbed his coat and headed towards the broom cupboard. “Come along, Doctor. We've got work to do."