The War Doctor pushed open the door to his TARDIS, and by all the gods that were ever worshipped in all the universes that ever were, he was tired.
Once he would never have thought that traveling could make him tired. Now it never made him anything else. Did the difference lie with the universe, or with him? Some of both, he supposed. With the Daleks and the Time Lords battling it out for control of reality itself, it was preposterous to pretend that the very nature of his travels had not changed, inextricably, from journeys of wonder and discovery to acts of defiance. But had he changed, too, and the changes were more than skin deep. Not just a new face, but a new name, a new being. A being who entered his TARDIS wearily, weighed down with resignation. The Doctor would have screamed, raged, leapt into action at what he’d left behind outside those doors. The Warrior merely sighed.
Drazel VI had been a young planet, in the grand scheme of things. Only a couple billion years old. Its first form of life had achieved sentience bare thousands of years ago; they were a lively people — bipedal, as was so common, with a fascinating, music-based method of communication that closely resembled whistling. Tone, pitch and modulation combined to form meaning, while duration altered tense, so that holding any kind of conversation with them was like an extended duet. When several people got excited and talked at once it was remarkably like a symphony.
The Doctor had really thought he would get there in time, this once, but all that the Warrior had found outside his TARDIS had been a dead world, orbiting a too-old sun like an enormous rock in space. Something had gone sideways in their past; some kind of tectonic disturbance, just after their second Ice Age. In this new present, the Drazelites had never climbed down from their trees and learned to whistle-speak. Their evolutionary ancestors had been wiped out in the resulting cataclysm — along with every other form of life on their planet.
Sitting in the heart of their world, there for whichever Time Lord the High Council had sent to find, was the signature of the beings who had altered this planet’s history.
Once the Doctor had thought he’d understood the meaning of hatred. Well, he’d so often been a fool in his long life, that it was barely worth remembering.
The message light on the TARDIS control board was flashing.
It had been flashing, actually, for quite some time. The War Doctor had seen it illuminating the console room with strobes of red light as soon as he’d climbed back inside, after confirming that there was nothing to be done for the timeline of Drazel VI. The Daleks were getting better and better at crafting Time Locks. Pretty soon, the Time Lords would be hard pressed to even tell that one had been set: Drazel VI’s timeline would look as if it had always been that way, and nothing but a lingering sense of déjà vu would ever say otherwise. Once that happened, the Daleks would effectively have carte blanche to wipe out as many species as they liked, and no one would ever be able to prove differently.
Unless they were stopped first. Which wasn’t looking likely; the Council refused to act offensively, refused even to see how dire the situation was. Instead they wasted their time and resources sending Time Lords on worthless scouting missions like this one. And despite the same answers coming back time and time again — the Daleks had been here, the Daleks had altered the timeline, the Daleks had done it in a way the Time Lords could not reverse — the Council changed nothing. More defense, more transduction barriers, more — what was that laughable term they’d coined? — sky trenches, of all things. Around their own planets and those of their allies, the species the Council had deemed worthy of protection. Laughable. Even without the witches’ draught burning in his cells, the Doctor could have told them that there would be no protection without victory. But the Council played on, while the free peoples of the universe trembled, waiting to be drowned in fire.
So although the War Doctor could see that the message light was flashing for attention, he walked straight through the console room without pausing for longer than it took to shed his coat, letting it fall carelessly to the floor next to the hat rack. There was no point in hanging it up; it was covered in the fine-grained tachyon particles that were all that remained of the original timeline’s inhabitants of Drazel VI, and would have to be burnt, lest the Doctor carry the temporal contamination back to Gallifrey. There was a complicated word for that in Gallifreyan, an intersection of never-were and always-are. Humans would say ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Doctor was too tired to think in English, though, and it had been a long time since he’d had occasion to speak it.
The Doctor really just wanted a shower. So he had one. And then a cup of tea.
Then he walked over to the console with a resigned sigh and keyed up the message.
Unsurprisingly, the Seal of Rassilon appeared, shaky with static. The first few minutes of any transmission were unreliable these days, as transmitter and receiver alike punched through the Daleks’ latest jamming technologies and came into spatiotemporal sync with each other. It was a race between attack and defense that the scientists of the Scholarium — Gallifrey’s center for research and knowledge — were just barely staying ahead of.
The first Time Lord fatalities had been discovered that way. Messages sent from Gallifrey that returned only static, because there was no longer a shared frame of reference with their intended recipients. The Daleks had been clever, hiding their first kills with their equally new ability to form Time Locks. It was a coldly elegant means of murder. Distress signals were plucked out of the timeline before they could be heard. Emergency beacons containing their owners’ biodata — a Time Lord’s last chance at immortality — ended up trapped forever in a pocket universe where no High Council existed to receive them, no Matrix awaited to promise eternal memory. How did one kill a member of a regenerative species? How did one wipe out a mind that could live forever in the Matrix, and even return from it, at the High Council’s will, to physical existence? The Daleks had found a way.
The Doctor waited through the static and the silence.
Finally, the Seal dissolved into the familiar form of the current Lord President. “Doctor,” Romana greeted formally. “Your presence is urgently required on Gallifrey for a meeting of the special wartime committee of the High Council. Return at once.”
Special wartime council indeed, the Doctor thought scornfully. They had better be ready to take action. He was too drained by what he’d just seen to feel angry, but he could sense the rage hovering somewhere not too far away. He’d feel it later, he was sure. He couldn’t seem to be anything but furious at the High Council, somehow, these days.
Well. He knew how. He just didn’t like it, and tried to spend as little time as possible thinking about how there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Speaking of falling forever…
Even so, even given that he had cause to be angry, it wouldn’t be fair to take it out on Romana. She’d inherited this whole mess, and her position on the Council was far from secure, even now. She’d travelled enough and seen enough to know that their current policy of defense wasn’t worth the neurons it was thought up by, but even her modest pushes towards action had left her coalition dangerously thin. No one sitting in Chamber had forgotten how Romana, then a Cardinal, had stood up and fought when the worst of the Council had argued for peace in their time, and tried to buy the Daleks off with blood and promises. He knew she’d argued against the treaty with the Daleks. Argued passionately, in a chamber that hadn’t had emotion echoing off its walls since Rassilon and Omega had last stood there. He knew she was arguing still, fighting every move towards stalemate and loss with every political tool at her disposal.
It was easy for the Doctor, used to action, used to a life outside Gallifrey, to think of all of the other things she could have done to stop the so-called Act of Restitution. Things that went beyond words spoken in Council and into deeds of defiance. The Romana he had known as a young man was capable of it, he would have thought. But, as with so many other things, that had been a long time ago.
If Romana pushed too hard for action, she’d end up out. Or worse. For a species so unwilling to act against their nemesis, the Time Lords were showing a marked willingness to turn on their own. Some of them were even talking about resurrecting Rassilon. It was a ludicrous threat. But Romana had to take the threat seriously.
So, no, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Romana. He tried to remember that he cared about fairness. It was easier to recall that caring didn’t matter, since Romana couldn’t hear him anyway. The message had been waiting for him, prerecorded. This wasn’t a two-way channel.
The holographic Romana’s face relaxed from its lines of official austerity. Now she just looked tired.
“It’s worse than we thought,” she said wearily. “The survey reports all say the same thing. The Daleks have managed to make a major technological leap and we’re all in very big trouble. We’ve got to do something. But getting the Council to actually behave on a wartime footing is going to be a nightmare. A worse nightmare than we’re already in, if that’s possible. I need your help, Doctor. I don’t know if they’ll listen, but your experience has got to count for something.”
Not likely, the Doctor thought. They’d never overlook the way he’d gotten his experience. Being a renegade wasn’t something the High Council would ever, ever forget. In their eyes it was the worst sin a Time Lord could commit. They’d already taken one life from him, for no better cause than a philosophical disagreement. And he could count himself lucky in the end that it was so little. Most renegades met a far more permanent death at the Council’s hands.
But here was Romana asking for his help; and here he was, actually considering it.
How many times do we have to do this dance before I stop thinking that this time might be different? he wondered. When does duty end and self-preservation begin?
It was a difficult question for any child, to decide when their parents really had gone too far. Maybe that was why so many abuse stories ended in someone’s death. Unfortunately for the Doctor, when the High Council had killed him, he’d just regenerated.
“Doctor, this is important,” Romana was saying urgently in the recording, as if she’d been able to predict his thoughts, his reactions. She might just know him well enough at that, however much they’d both changed. The image of Romana glanced quickly to the side, then back into the holopickup. “More important than that time on Woman Wept, even.”
The Doctor frowned. They’d never been to Woman Wept. They’d never talked about going, or thought about going. Why mention it now?
“So please, Doctor, come. Come as soon as you can.”
“Oh, Romana, you’ve been on the Council too long,” he murmured, as the message faded back into static and then into nothingness. It was some kind of code, but he didn’t know how to break it. Perhaps there wasn’t anything to break. Perhaps it was just a signal, a way to indicate to the Doctor that he very much wanted to be taking this seriously.
Or perhaps it was a warning? To stay away? Was Romana still enough of her own woman to give him such, should it be necessary? What more could the Council do to him, anyway? They had already blighted his youth, punished him for running from their control, taken the people he loved from him. He supposed they could kill him on the spot instead of waiting for the Daleks to do it for them. Or they could try to see if the Doctor would succeed where the Master had failed, buying peace from the Daleks with his life. But he rather thought that one attempt at paying a weregild had been enough, even for the High Council. Even they had to have seen by now that no amount of blood would buy peace.
He couldn’t not go. Even after everything, he was still a Time Lord. Some things were written in blood and bone. If he’d been able to turn his back on them, he would have done it long ago. He wouldn’t be here on Drazel VI, amidst the ruins of a thriving civilization that had never existed.
And so the cycle continues, the War Doctor thought, throwing the dematerialization lever.
The TARDIS rematerialized in the Citadel landing zone reserved for members of the Council and ‘special guests’. No one challenged him on landing. In fact, when he left his TARDIS and started towards the Council Building, several passing Time Lords acknowledged him with respectful nods. It didn’t improve his mood; it just made him realize that he’d been spoiling for a fight. Of course, he was here to attend a meeting of a Council committee at the special invitation of President Romana, so he actually did have the right to materialize there. This realization did nothing to improve his mindset.
Nor did the walk through the Citadel do much to calm him. The need to walk was annoying by itself. In most of the places the Doctor had travelled, he could materialize as close to his destination as he chose. Gallifrey was an unfortunate exception. The major cities all saw far too much traffic to allow people to land willy-nilly. For most of the Doctor’s lives the traffic control guidelines had simply been tradition codified by time. But one of the first changes to be made once the Dalek aggression became too pointed to ignore had been antimaterialization barriers going up around any place of significance.
Even so, the need to walk was secondary to the reminders all around him of the stultifying society he’d once escaped bare steps ahead of Official Displeasure. The whole Citadel was old — so old he felt it in his teeth. He was walking past buildings that had already been ancient when most of the worlds he’d once loved to visit had still been covered in molten lava from their newly-formed core. It was the first area to be settled on Gallifrey, after Rassilon had led the Time Lords out of the mists of history and settled them there, and there had been a strong taboo against any sort of redecorating ever since.
When the War Doctor presented himself to the Chancellery Guards stationed at the main gate of the Capitol building, he expected to be led directly to the Chamber of the Council. Instead they directed him to the Office of the Lord President and asked him politely to wait. He bit back several responses and managed to nod with some semblance of grace. If he snorted the moment they were out of earshot, that was his business.
The Office of the Lord President technically belonged to Romana now, but no one ever viewed its use as more than a loan. As with everything else in the Citadel, nothing had been changed since Rassilon’s day, and the antechamber’s most common use was impressing one’s friends or intimidating one’s enemies. Full of sharp edges, glittering surfaces and artefacts so old they bent time around themselves, it was not a room even its nominal possessor could possibly be at ease in.
The Doctor had, of course, been in these offices before, and therefore walked right through the ludicrous antechamber. A discreet door just off the main office led into a smaller set of rooms. These weren’t quite so bound by tradition, and, consequently, were where most of the actual business took place. Romana had chosen plain, sensible furniture. It was a stark contrast to the opulence of the official chambers. The War Doctor approved. A small table-and-chairs arrangement were tucked into one corner of the room. He selected a comfortable-looking settee and settled in to wait.
Romana entered only a few minutes later. He rose politely to his feet — after all, he had manners — but forbore to bow or salute or perform any other silly ceremonies of greeting. For one, he wasn’t entirely sure how much authority he acknowledged the Council having over him. Gor another, it was Romana. They’d known each other far too long for that sort of thing.
“Thank you for coming,” Romana said, sounding genuine. She looked tired, as everyone did, but she exuded an odd sort of energy. Eagerness, he thought it was. It leaked out around the edges of her psychic field and showed in the way her smile was a trifle sharp.
“Of course,” the War Doctor said automatically.
“No, truly,” Romana said, managing to sound earnest even as she waved him back to his settee and perched on an armchair of her own. “I’m very much aware that you are assisting us as a courtesy. Gallifrey is very grateful for what you’ve done so far.”
The War Doctor, halfway back to his seat, froze. A moment later he settled himself carefully and then fixed Romana with a piercing gaze. “All right, you’ve got my attention.”
“Not in the mood for the formalities today, Doctor?”
“Don’t call me that,” he said automatically. Then, accusingly: “You’re trying to butter me up.”
“Isn’t what I’ve said the truth?”
“Yes. But the High Council isn’t in the habit of admitting that they don’t have control of every Time Lord alive.”
“Perhaps that’s changed.”
“Or perhaps you’re trying to position yourself as independent of the Council’s prejudices. Romana, I’m in no mood for games.”
“All right.” Romana rolled her shoulders a little and sighed. “I need your help.”
“That much I gathered,” he said dryly.
She shot him a sharp look. “You asked for bluntness, so you’re going to get it,” she snapped. “You don’t get to have it both ways.”
The War Doctor held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “All right.”
Romana held his gaze a moment longer, then slumped. “All right.” She leaned forward, tapping at the table to bring up the Matrix interface. “I haven’t asked you what you’ve seen on Drazel VI yet. I don’t think I need to. I imagine that what you found was quite in line with what our other scouts have already reported.”
On the holoviewer, images flickered past: dead worlds, their inhabitants erased from time. Aneth. Glasson Minor. Kalakiki. Others.
“I’m afraid so,” the War Doctor said quietly.
Romana folded her hands in front of her. “Over the past month, we’ve found nearly fifty worlds that have had their timelines altered by the Daleks. They’re laying Time Locks we can barely detect, much less break. They’re jamming our transmissions. Since you left, we’ve lost contact with another twelve Time Lords who we believe to have been captured and killed. The Daleks have got a major new source of technology somewhere, and put simply, we are not keeping up.”
The War Doctor thought, with a sinking feeling, that he knew where this was going. “The Council knew all of this before I left for Drazel VI. They sent me anyway, instead of doing something more useful.”
“There’s more,” Romana said. She tapped at the table again. A new set of images appeared. “These were recovered from a TARDIS log buoy two days ago.”
The War Doctor leaned forward, adjusted his viewing angle with a few well-placed commands, and broke into a sudden cold sweat. “Whose?”
“No one you knew.”
“Yes, Doctor. And I wish that were the worst of it.”
The War Doctor scrolled down, not even registering the use of his old name, sweeping irrelevant bits of data aside and cross-collating other streams to more fully grasp the impossibility in front of him. “Romana…”
“The Scholarium has already told me what these logs say. I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me they’re dangerous fools?”
“No,” the Doctor whispered. “Well, yes, they are — but not about this. Not if they told you that this TARDIS was somehow forced out of the Vortex and back into n-space midflight.”
“That’s what they told me,” Romana said grimly. “I thought that was impossible.”
“Not impossible,” the Doctor said slowly. “There are several theoretical avenues that might, if realized, be able to accomplish this… but based on our current science, I would say they were all at least five years away from even a prototype. The power requirements would be enormous.”
“The Daleks have done it.”
The Doctor blew out a long, slow breath, letting himself settle backwards into his cushions. The data continued to scroll down the table. Romana reached out and halted its flow.
“Yesterday the Council tried to contact our outpost on Galenia. There was no response, so we sent out a scout.” Romana held the War Doctor’s gaze. “Galenia is gone. Wiped from existence, just as Drazel VI was. A Time Lord outpost, Doctor.”
“Wiped,” the Doctor said blankly. He felt like he was moving through quicksand. “They’ve gone that far?”
“I suspect they’ve gone farther. But the Council requires proof. This is what I can prove.”
The War Doctor shook his head. It was one thing to know, intellectually, that the Daleks’ new technology threatened to destroy all life in the universe, and that that included his own people. It was another to be confronted with hard evidence that the Daleks could actually threaten the Time Lords. The Time Lords were hidebound, domineering, and guilty of many crimes for which the Doctor would gladly see them receive their just due. But they were also ancient, and they were supposed to be eternal. The idea that they could be seriously endangered was ludicrous.
The data in front of him said that it was not. The Time Lords on Galenia should have sensed the Daleks’ attempt to manipulate their own timelines and defended themselves easily. Instead, they had been destroyed. And that simple fact transformed ridicule into something that threatened to shake the foundations on which he’d built his entire life.
“I think you’ve already figured out what I’m going to ask you next,” Romana said quietly.
The War Doctor nodded without looking up. “You want me to return to Gallifrey. Rejoin the Scholarium. Keep you ahead of the Daleks technologically, so that this can’t happen again.”
The War Doctor closed his eyes. After seeing those TARDIS logs, there was really no way he could refuse, even if the mere idea turned his stomach. The thought of returning to the laboratories he’d fled so long ago, putting his mind back into the service of the same group that had cast him out and betrayed him so often since... he honestly wasn’t sure he could even set foot back in the University without having flashbacks. But this — if the Daleks had this kind of technology — they had to be stopped. And he’d known that all along, or else why would he have taken the cup from Ohila? The man he’d been once would have laid down next to Cass and died in defiance of war. The man who had drunk from the cup acknowledged that war was a grim necessity. The man he’d become? The Warrior didn’t yet understand what he would or wouldn’t do, but he had a feeling he was about to find out.
And then Romana said, “But that’s not all.”
The Warrior opened his eyes.
Romana was watching him, very steadily, and a chill shot down his spine.
“Don’t,” he said in a low voice.
“Doctor — Warrior — I have to. Wars aren’t won by playing defense. And we’ve already proven the Daleks don’t want peace.”
“Oh, you’ve discovered that, have you?”
“Yes. This isn’t an enemy that can be bought or bartered with. We have nothing they want that we can offer them — ”
“Not for lack of trying, though, right?”
“ — so we must destroy them instead.” Romana pressed her lips together. “You know the limits of our offensive capabilities better than anyone else, Warrior. You know how ill-equipped we are to actually fight a war. We need you.”
“There are so many things wrong with this I don’t even know where to start,” the War Doctor said incredulously. “How can you talk — in the same sentence! — about needing my help, and about how well I know your offensive capabilities? How do you think I learned that, Romana? Oh, that’s right! It’s because this Council has been using them against me my entire adult life!”
“And now you ask me — you have the unmitigated gall — to ask me to break every rule I’ve ever set for myself! I don’t make weapons, Romana. Not for my allies, not for myself, not for anyone. And for the High Council least of all. How can you sit there and ask me to make weapons for the Council, after everything they’ve done to prove that they can’t be trusted?”
“Because we need them,” Romana said steadily.
“Why don’t you get someone else, then? Someone with fewer morals.” Romana drew in a breath, ready to argue, but the Doctor cut her off. “Oh, that’s right. There is no one else. They’ve spent the last thousand millennia systematically suppressing the mind of anyone else who might be able to help them, isn’t that right? Being a temporal scientist shouldn’t really be that uncommon, Romana. We’re Time Lords, for Rassilon’s sake, but the High Council just can’t stand anyone thinking outside of the box.” Romana closed her mouth, clearly deciding to let the Doctor have his rant out before trying to speak again. The Doctor would have been angry at that, too — the condescension inherent in the gesture — except he had too many other things to be furious about right now. “And the few of us who manage it anyway, who fight back against their strictures long enough to do something actually new, they cast us out. Make us renegades or worse. And then they hunt us down and try us for our so-called crimes.”
He seethed, remembering the shock of being declared renegade. The sense of being cut off, orphaned, trying to find his footing in a new, suddenly hostile universe. The way the Council had pulled him back whenever they pleased, demanding that he work for them when it was convenient, and then throwing him away again as soon as they’d done. The travesty that had been his trial. They’d had to trump up charges in his case, at least he could say that much. In any other renegade’s case the charges would have been real enough, except whose would the fault have been? The wayward child, or the society that had pushed them into lawlessness in the first place, simply because they’d dared to look at something and ask why?
“Romana, they have killed every one of us who might have been able to help, except me. And I don’t see why I should build them a gun today, when they’ll just point it back at me tomorrow.” He sighed, suddenly exhausted. This was why he tried to avoid thinking about the past. The anger that came with his memories of Gallifrey, even the happiest and best-beloved of them, was almost too much for him to control. And the energy it took to be that angry left him weaker than he liked. “I’ll scout for them, as I’ve been doing. And I’ll fight, because the Daleks are a threat, to me as well as them. But I won’t build them weapons. What would the point be anyway? They wouldn’t know how to use them. You can’t hand a human child a Sontaran blaster rifle and expect their grasp of military tactics to handle the leap.”
“I agree with you,” Romana said unexpectedly. She circled around the small table and sat down on the settee next to the Doctor, leaning in. “Which is why I have something else in mind. Something that I hope, I very much hope, will go part of the way towards making amends for the Council’s wrongs, and also solve the problem you just described.”
“All right,” the Doctor said dully, “I’m listening.”
“The Master,” Romana began.
“ — fell into the Eye of Harmony.” The Doctor pinched the bridge of his nose hard, focusing on the pinpoint physical pain as a distraction against everything else that welled up at that particular memory.
“To which he’d opened a portal within your TARDIS,” Romana agreed. “Now, as you know perfectly well, Doctor, another such portal is maintained at all times between the Eye and the Citadel.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Now, you also know that the Matrix is located in the Citadel, and that the Matrix automatically records and updates the biodata of any Time Lord that enters our demesne as a safeguard against any sort of accident. Like the one which befell the Master.”
“Accident,” the Doctor said, and laughed, an ugly sound.
“As far as the High Council knows, yes.”
The Doctor looked at Romana through narrowed eyes. “What do you mean by that?”
“Why, nothing, Doctor,” Romana said calmly. “Only that, when the Master opened a link to the Eye of Harmony, he also completed a circuit between your TARDIS and the Citadel. And, as is standard practice, all biodata records from that point in space-time were automatically synced back to the Matrix.”
“But,” the Doctor said in astonishment. “But, surely, under the circumstances — ”
“Yes, indeed, quite tragic. I can hardly believe you would have conducted such a delicate scientific experiment without sufficient safety precautions. But you two always were reckless in the lab, I’m told. Perhaps this incident will have taught you the error of your ways.”
“Romana,” the Doctor breathed.
“And since it was an accident,” Romana continued, “and since this Council — of which I was President by that time — had now seen the colossal error of its ways inherent in actually handing one of our own over to the Daleks, no matter his previous crimes, no one dreamt of expunging the data.”
“Romana,” the Doctor hissed. “Are you telling me — ”
“That the Master’s consciousness is in the Matrix right now. That, given the use of a genetic loom and a transfer-of-consciousness authority from the Council, he could be standing right here in this room with us. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.”
There was silence for a few minutes. Then, slowly, the Warrior asked: “And why on Gallifrey would they ever do such a thing?”
“The War, Doctor.” Romana smiled. “It’s all about the War. The Council wants you leading our research divisions, but you cited two very pertinent problems with this approach. The first is that you have no reason to love the Council, making you understandably reluctant to come to their aid or to entrust them with whatever weapons you might devise. The second is that, were you to create weapons for them, they would have no idea how to use them. Is that not right?”
“Yes, but — ”
“So. The Master is the solution to both of these problems. In the second case, he’s far and away the most adept Time Lord in recent history when it comes to the business of doing war. I don’t think you’ll disagree, Doctor, that he would put your creations to work most effectively. And in the first case — ”
“In the first case,” the Doctor said heavily, “it’s a bribe. Or a payment. His life for my work, is that it? You’ll give him back to me if I do what they want.”
It was an effective inducement. What just made it that much more terrible was that it was being dangled in front of him by the same ruthless Council that had started them both on the path to destruction in the first place.
“Politics is always about quid pro quo, Doctor,” Romana said tightly. “But you needn’t look at it quite so bluntly. It’s quite simple. The Council has wronged you in the past. The Council understands that this makes you reluctant to work for them. The Council wishes to make amends. This is a means by which they can show good faith. And the same goes for the Master, too. The Council has wronged him, the Council wishes him to work for them now, the Council offers him his life as an enticement.”
“So you’re not just holding his life over my head, but his as well? That’s quite an effective hostage situation, Romana. I would have thought better of you.” The Doctor was holding on tightly to his anger, as a shield against his very great want. His conscience screamed at him that this was a devil’s bargain. They not only asked him to sell the work of his mind, but to put the weapons he could build into the Master’s hands. And then have the whole under the Council’s control. No matter the offer, no matter the threat the Daleks posed, how could he possibly agree?
In his mind’s eye, he saw Cass, staring back at him through the viewport of the blast door she’d closed between them. Wild-eyed and defiant to the last.
You couldn’t save her, so you’ll save him? That’s not how it works. Cass chose her own death. So did the Master. So, for that matter, did you.
Cass had chosen death because she couldn’t believe that a Time Lord was any better than a Dalek. The Master had chosen death because he’d known, from the incontrovertible evidence of his own life, that the Time Lords weren’t any better than the Daleks. And he, who had once been the Doctor, had ended up dead because he couldn’t accept there wasn’t a way to change either of their minds.
And then you took the cup. So which of you were right — Warrior?
“Doctor,” Romana snapped, clearly out of patience. The façade of the calm politician broke suddenly, and beneath it the Doctor saw the same young woman he’d taken under his wing long ago, trapped in a nightmare situation and frightened nearly out of her wits. His grip on his anger wavered. “If it were up to me, none of this would have happened in the first place! Your trial, the peace attempt with the Daleks — I wouldn’t have thrown either of you off Gallifrey to start with, is that what you want to hear? I hadn’t even been loomed yet when you were declared a renegade, Doctor, it’s a little harsh to be holding it against me! In the here and now, I am trying to do the best I can to save my people and my planet. Maybe you can care a little about that, if there’s still any Time Lord left in you. If I thought I could accomplish this without you, if I thought Gallifrey would be better served by leaving the Master in the Matrix to rot and sending you on stupid pointless survey missions to dead battlefields, I’d do that. But it turns out that in this case victory and justice may go hand in hand. I can’t bring back everyone who Gallifrey drove out over the millennia — if I could, I would, because Rassilon knows we could use every single one of them. Most of them are lost to us forever. I have got you, and I can get the Master back. That’s all there is, and I’m too busy hoping it’s enough to save us all to be considerate of your sensibilities! Now — ” her voice climbed to a near-shout, and both of them jumped.
Romana broke off for a moment, taking deep breaths. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet, so that the Doctor had to strain to hear. “Do you want him back, or not?”
“Yes,” the Doctor whispered before he’d thought. The Warrior closed his lips tightly over the other words that struggled to escape. One part of him cried silently that this was a mistake, that he was doing something terrible he’d regret for the rest of his lives. But Romana’s real, obvious fear was doing more to silence that part than any amount of offered gratification could. It was challenging the lies he’d been trying to tell himself about how things weren’t really that bad, how the Council would defeat the Daleks in the end. The Doctor had always been able to overcome them working by himself, so how hard could it be for the combined might of the Time Lords?
He’d been willfully ignoring the evidence of his own senses. Drazel VI wasn’t an accident, or an isolated incident. The type of fine manipulation of time the Daleks had demonstrated there said quite clearly that they had become a threat unprecedented in a thousand millennia of Time Lord history. If the Daleks could wipe out an entire species so neatly and completely that the War Doctor could do nothing but walk through the ruins and mourn, then they were all in very grave danger. Not only the Time Lords but the entire universe. And his personal scruples could just take a number, because if he didn’t break out of his paralysis and act, there wasn’t going to be any future for all of them, was there?
“You’ll do it?” Romana asked. The War Doctor identified something new in her voice. It was hope.
“We will do it,” the Warrior said bitterly. “Tell the Council it’s both or nothing.” He shook his head. “I don’t care if it’s a bribe. I work with the Master or not at all.”
He meant it. It was a terrible thing to mean, and for a moment he wondered what had happened to his pride. The Doctor had always had such a lot of pride, hadn’t he? Shouldn’t it have been getting in the way now? But it must have been lost somewhere along the way, in the fiery wreckage of Cass’ ship, in the pain of rebirth on Karn. The Council owed him, Omega blast them all. Owed him more than they could ever repay, and the Master twice as much. Returning the Master to life was a very small down payment on a very large debt, but it had to come before anything else. And after all, it seemed that the Warrior wasn’t the least bit proud, because it seemed that he would do anything for that. Even build weapons for his oldest friends and enemies.
Whomever was whom.
“You can tell them that yourself.” Romana rose. “I’m going to need your help getting this through the Council.”
The War Doctor stared at her numbly. She couldn’t really think that he was going to march into that room and beg the Council to be allowed to serve, did she? Could she? Obviously she could. He opened his mouth to tell her what he thought of that, and then stopped when the expected anger failed to materialize. It must have gone the same place as his pride, because he was discovering that he didn’t care one way or another. He just wanted it to be over, this long agony of bending, so he could finally break.
Romana was waiting, watching him calmly.
“All right,” the Doctor said finally. “Let’s go.”
Afterwards, the Doctor could never remember the meeting clearly, except for one particular thing: the moment where the Custodian slumped backwards in her seat, every feature eloquent of exhausted defeat, and said, “All right.”
The Custodian had been the staunchest holdout against Romana’s insane plan. To the Doctor’s surprise, a full third of the Council had lined up behind Romana without a murmur as soon as she’d told them what she wanted. Some of them were young by Council standards, which might explain it. They weren’t yet quite so afraid of things which broke the mold, and the Master’s wrongs would only have been stories to them. Stories dulled by distance and retelling and a certain fundamental unbelief that a Time Lord could actually do the things the Master was said to have done. But some of Romana’s supporters were old — old even by the standards of their race — and they had no such excuse. The Doctor hardly dared hope they’d lived long enough to remember their own wrongs and feel moved to make amends. The best he would guess was that they were afraid enough of dying to grasp any chance. Objectively speaking, Romana’s plan represented by far the best chance of survival.
He and Romana were able to argue most of the other members of the Council around between them. Romana painted eloquent pictures of Death By Dalek, and talked in stark terms about how utterly they had been routed in the few skirmishes they’d chanced against the Daleks so far. The Warrior played the heavy, sitting stone-faced and glaring until Romana’s current target was teetering on the edge of acceptance. Then he’d move in for the kill, reminding the Councillor in question of exactly how much they needed the War Doctor’s help, his expertise and experience fighting the Daleks. The Councillor, too well accustomed to politics to even think of questioning the obvious give-and-take, would fold.
The Custodian alone held out. Her job was to oversee the knowledge of the Time Lords, and a big part of that was the Matrix. She wasn’t that much older than the Doctor, which was bad luck in this case, because she’d been an Octogenarian at the Academy when he and the rest of his Decade had started their studies. He remembered her dimly as one of the sort of stodgy, unimaginative young Time Lords who was always following the professors around and pretending to be one of them. She’d clearly heard one too many disparaging stories about those young hellions, as he and Koschei had used to be collectively known, and she made no secret about either her intense dislike of the Doctor himself or her complete opposition to recovering his old partner in crime.
The War Doctor had dealt with people like her his whole life. No amount of gentle persuasion was going to bring her around, and as Romana’s voice grew hoarse and the setting suns slanted shadows across the conference table like the bars of a cell, he finally ran out of patience with this fraud.
“Enough,” he snapped, coming to his feet and slamming a hand down on the table. The room fell silent. Instinctively, most of the Councillors present leaned back in their chairs, putting a little more space between them and the unpredictable, emotional renegade in their midst. The Warrior took no notice of them, leveling his gaze at the Custodian. She was not one of those who had shrunk back. At least she had backbone.
“I’m going to make this simple for you,” he went on, controlling his voice with an effort. One that she could hear, if the way she breathed in was any indication. “Do you want to live?”
“I — ”
“Do. You. Want. To. Live? Because that’s what this is about, Custodian. Not about rules or laws or societal conventions. This is about life or death. So. Do you want to live?”
Her lips pressed together. She was haggard, the War Doctor noticed suddenly, and pale, as if she’d recently been ill or injured. Her force of personality had been covering it.
“Yes,” she said finally. “I want to live.”
“And do you want our people to live?”
“Of course,” she hissed, offended. “But if you think — ”
“What I think is that the Daleks are capturing and reverse-engineering our technology faster than we can improve it,” the Warrior said flatly. “I think that they can already lay a Time Lock that we can’t break. I think that they can already jam our transmissions and build ships that can do almost anything a TARDIS can do. I think that if nothing changes in our respective technology curves, they’re going to be able to break the transduction barriers around Gallifrey within the next solar year.”
Pausing for breath, the War Doctor spared a glance around the chamber. Several of the lesser Councillors, the ones who hadn’t been privy to the starkest reports coming out of their science and technology divisions, were very pale indeed. The older and more senior ones looked grim. Returning his gaze to the Custodian, he saw that she’d been making the same visual circuit of the room that he had. If she’d been hoping to see support for her position, she was in for disappointment. No one was stepping forward to contradict him. If anything, they looked even more frightened than they had before.
“Unless someone has managed to resurrect Omega while I’ve been gone,” the War Doctor went on, making an effort to gentle his tone, “I’m the best research scientist you’ve got. You need me keeping us ahead of the Daleks, or we haven’t got a chance. You know that, don’t you?”
The Custodian took a couple of deep breaths. “Yes,” she admitted, “I know that.”
The Doctor inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Do you know what else I think? I think that tools aren’t enough, if no one knows how to use them. I think there’s no one on this planet who has the slightest idea how to go about fighting a war. I don’t mean logistics or organization, I mean strategy. Tactics. I think the best candidates this Council was able to find have already had their go against the Daleks and come up sadly lacking.”
At his side, Romana cleared her throat and tapped something on the table. A moment later, the screens mounted on the walls of the room lit up with images from the few skirmishes the Time Lords had attempted against the Daleks. Defeats, all of them. Total, complete, miserable defeats.
“There’s only one Time Lord within our reach who’s made any kind of study of battle,” the War Doctor said quietly. “Fortunately for us, it’s been an extensive one. You need the Master to use the technology I give you, or I may as well be inventing sticks and stones. You know that, too. Don’t you.”
The Custodian didn’t answer.
“It’s both or neither,” the War Doctor finished. “Not just because I won’t build weapons for you unless you bring him back. Not just because quid pro quo is the order of this chamber and his life is the price for my work. But because you need him. I can’t do it alone. You know that, too. I’m no more a tactician than you are. I’ve always left that to others. You need him just as much as you need me, if you want to live.”
The Custodian slumped abruptly, as if the strings holding her up had been cut. She put one hand over her face, shook her head futilely, and said, finally, “Yes, we do, I know it.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Romana rose to her feet.
“I hear a consensus,” she said formally.
No one spoke to dissent. After a moment, Romana nodded. “So mote it be.”
Stepping outside the Chamber into the cool, white hallways of the Citadel was like stepping into a different world. It was enough of a shock that the Doctor stumbled slightly. Instantly Romana was slipping her arm through his, staving off any appearance of weakness in front of the other exiting Councillors. She smiled impartially at all of them and drew the Doctor away, down several winding hallways and into a guest suite for visiting dignitaries.
“You may as well stay here for now,” she said, kindly enough, though it was clear her mind was elsewhere. “Once you’ve got the labs whipped into shape and set up the way you like we’ll bring your TARDIS in — I’m assuming you’d prefer to keep your quarters there?”
“What? Oh, yes,” the Doctor said distractedly. “Romana, there’s something we’ve forgotten.”
“The Council’s agreed, I’ve agreed — but the Master hasn’t agreed. You haven’t asked him, have you?”
“Rassilon’s Seal, of course not,” Romana said, aghast. “That’s going to be your job.”
“Mine?” The Doctor blinked, realizing that at some point he’d been settled into an armchair in the guest suite’s front room. Romana was hovering near the doorway, clearly waiting for her moment to escape. “Romana — ”
“Yes, of course your job. He’s not going to listen to anyone on the Council. Why, you were barely willing to listen to me, and I travelled with you! No, the only one who could possibly convince him is you. I’m counting on you, Doctor.”
“Oh come now,” the War Doctor said, exasperated, because Romana had assumed the winning smile and wide eyes that she had often employed while they travelled together. It wasn’t exactly that the expression worked to sway him, but it was an effective signal that the matter under discussion was important to her. It was also a confusing reminder of a simpler time, one he would just as soon do without right now.
“All right,” Romana agreed, returning to her more usual brisk, no-nonsense demeanor. “But you’re still the obvious choice for the job.”
“I suppose I am,” the War Doctor said in some dismay. He hadn’t really thought about how resurrecting the Master was actually going to work. He’d gone from disbelief at the possibility to acceptance of Romana’s offer to fighting the Council so quickly that it was only now he even realized that there was going to have to be some kind of unfortunate reunion. The Master wasn’t simply going to walk into his lab one day, peer over his shoulder and make an acerbic comment about how the Doctor never could keep his work area neat. He was going to have to go in there and get him back, and in the process the Master was sure to ask a lot of questions the War Doctor was trying very hard to avoid answering.
“Ugh,” the War Doctor said eloquently.
“Mmm.” Romana looked as if she were fighting a smile. “Well, I trust you still remember where the Matrix interface room is — ”
“I’m not senile yet.”
“Quite. Drop by when you feel ready. I’ll make sure the technicians know to expect you. And Doctor…” she paused, already partly out the door, and hesitated.
The War Doctor put up his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I really do wish there were something more I could do.”
An apology. Well, it was a start. “Don’t worry about it,” he said wearily, because after all, it wasn’t Romana’s apology he wanted. “The Daleks are quite enough for anyone to have to deal with.”
“Yes. Well.” Romana shrugged. “Get some sleep before you go anywhere, Doctor. You look done in.”
“I will,” he assured her.
She took that for the exit line it was. The War Doctor nudged the door closed telepathically — Rassilon, he was rusty at that; too much time on worlds inhabited by psi-null species — and managed to lever himself upright long enough to locate the bedroom and fumble off his shoes. Then he gave into the urge to fall onto the bed and bury his face against the duvet.
What in Rassilon’s name am I doing? he demanded of himself, rather pathetically.
The Doctor done a lot of things in his life that he wasn’t proud of, but this had to be a new low. He was selling his scientific skills to the High Council of the Time Lords. Granted, there was a war on. And, yes, that war happened to be against the Daleks, who could lay claim to the dubious honor of being the one group in the universe he hated more than the Council. Who were, in fact, completely, unambiguously, irredeemably evil and wanted nothing more than to completely wipe out all life in the universe. At least the High Council didn’t want to kill everything that moved. At least they were trying, however blindly, to uphold some worthy ideal. They were trying to be protectors, to keep watch over the timelines, as Rassilon had charged them millennia ago.
Even if they were doing it in just about the worst way possible. Even if they were getting a lot of people — including their own people — killed in the process. Even if they had thought that handing over one of their own to the Daleks to be killed was somehow an acceptable price for peace.
There it was, the crux of the matter, the one truly unforgiveable crime. They’d done plenty to him — killing his second body was the smallest tip of a very large iceberg — but the Doctor had always been good at forgiving wrongs done against himself. Maybe too good, in the Warrior’s view. Some of his past companions had certainly always thought so. But the converse was that he was absolutely rubbish at forgiving wrongs done to others. It was something he had to watch carefully in himself. Some of the moments in his history that he was most ashamed of came about when he slipped from protection into vengeance.
The Doctor would have been furious no matter who the Council had handed over to the Daleks. Nothing could justify the deliberate murder-sacrifice of one of their own. But the fact that it was the Master had pushed him well past fury into blinding, incandescent rage.
If he’d found out about it in advance, he wouldn’t have been responsible for his actions. Probably he would have kicked off a war right then and there trying to stop it. The Doctor still wondered, sometimes, why the Master hadn’t contacted him for help. Had there simply been no time? Had he tried and failed? Had he honestly believed the Doctor would have left him to that fate?
Maybe I’ll ask.
No. He snorted, rolling over so he was on his back and staring at the ceiling. No, he almost certainly wouldn’t ask. Because to ask would be to stir up too many old, unhealed wounds. Any answer the Master could make him would inevitably dip into the complicated mess that they’d made of their relationship, and the Doctor had been avoiding that topic for so long it was almost second nature.
Once they’d loved each other, and that had been simple. Then… then the Master had hated him, and that had been simple, too. No matter that the Doctor hadn’t exactly planned to leave his companion behind on Gallifrey. No one ever planned for their government to decide that they were violating the non-intervention and causality preservation strictures by tinkering with an interesting new variant of applied Omegan chronodynamics. No one intended to steal the first TARDIS they found that worked and jump out one step ahead of an arrest-and-regenerate squad, then spend the next three years of their personal timeline hiding out in various fringe planets and time periods, barely staying ahead of the Celestial Intervention Agency.
No one hoped to sneak back onto Gallifrey late one relative night, sweating and scared and determined, to find that their lover was gone, declared renegade, with a list of crimes against his newly-chosen name that had made the young Doctor feel like the world was ending.
The War Doctor wasn’t sure, just then, who he hated more: the Council, for setting the entire chain of events into motion that had led them into what they’d become — or himself, for failing to find a way to fix it, to convince the Master that he hadn’t betrayed him, that they could start over. His feelings for the Master took a humble third. Horror at the Master’s deeds rested uneasily a half-step away from the love that had never quite died, the whole of it wrapped up in a hot mess of self-loathing, guilt, and anger.
Rassilon, when had he started to carry around so much hate? The Daleks, the Council, himself, the Master… the Warrior shivered, not liking the inside of his skin very much all of a sudden. Was this what the Seeress of Karn had seen, when she looked at him? Was this why she spoke to him of fire and war?
Sleep. That was what he needed, just some sleep. He’d feel better for a rest. He always did.
Several hours later, the Doctor jerked awake and stared around the dimly lit bedroom, panting. For a moment he thought he knew what he’d been dreaming about, but then he blinked, and it was gone.
Warm sunslight beat down on the Doctor, warming him through. Hadn’t the chamber been cold, a moment ago? And, well, indoors? He wasn’t indoors now. He was standing at the intersection of two cobblestone paths, right behind the statue of Rassilon and Omega that loomed over the entrance to the Academy. The familiar shapes of classroom buildings and laboratories surrounded him. The Doctor breathed in, and smelled old paper, chemicals, and the sharp ozone scent of Time.
“Doctor,” a familiar voice called.
That was wrong. He wasn’t called Doctor, not anymore. He wasn’t worthy of the name. Not since —
But this was his past. This was the Academy. Maybe it was okay to be Doctor, here, before he’d written the name in fire across all of time and space.
Except he hadn’t yet been called Doctor, at the Academy. He’d been called —
“Theta, over here.”
Obediently the Doctor spun. Then he remembered.
The Matrix. This was the Matrix.
The Master sat a little way away, on one of the benches that surrounded the statue. His appearance was a shock. The Doctor had been expecting him to appear in the same shape the Doctor had last seen him in, the body of the American paramedic. But he wasn’t wearing that form, or the form he’d inhabited before that, Tremas’. He was in the last body that had truly been his, the one the Doctor would always associate with his UNIT days.
Almost automatically, the Doctor let his own appearance shift, until he wore the corresponding visage of his third body. The Warrior’s body wasn’t so different from that regeneration. From a distance, the Master had probably confused the two. That would account for the Master’s choice. Well, he would honor that choice. For a little while, he would set the Warrior aside and just be the Doctor again.
Wearing this appearance cost him a pang. Like the Academy, it had been a simpler time in their lives. Oh, back then the Doctor had thought their relationship had fallen to a new low, with the Master’s incessant designs on Earth. But looking back, he saw the almost playful nature of their clashes, the way that the Master could have so easily pushed harder and chosen not to. The way the Master would switch sides at the drop of a hat. The easy way they’d fall back into the rhythm of working together, as if whatever nonsense plot the Master had cooked up today were just an excuse to see each other again.
They’d both gotten so good, by then, at telling each other lies.
“Hello,” the Doctor said at last, lamely. After a moment he recollected that he was here to talk to the Master, and that that would be easier if they weren’t shouting at each other across the octo. He squared his shoulders resolutely and started circling the statue.
The Master smiled, watching his approach. He gestured to the statue. “Remember when we had our pictures taken there?”
Automatically, the Doctor looked over, then up. The statue was a famous Academy landmark. It was a common thing for new students to pose beneath it upon formally entering the Academy, resplendent in their brand-new robes. Beaming parents would snap a photo.
“Yes, I remember,” the Doctor admitted. One was supposed to stand sort of right of centre when taking the picture. Rassilon stood there looking slightly down and out over the fields, symbolically watching over every student at the Academy; he held the Seal in one hand and the Rod in the other. Omega, to his left, had one hand on Rassilon’s shoulder and other pointing upwards, out to the stars. Theta and Koschei had thought it great fun to emulate the pose, with Theta standing in Omega’s place and Koschei standing in Rassilon’s, both looking as serious as they possibly could with the impossible dignity of youth. It had been more than just a picture. It had been a promise, to each other, to be the sort of duo people built statues of. The Doctor still had his copy of the photo, somewhere, buried in a room on his TARDIS that he never entered, but had never been able to bring himself to jettison.
“You’re surprised,” the Master observed. The Doctor had finished his circuit and now stood in front of the bench. The Master looked up, watching him calmly.
“A little, yes,” the Doctor agreed, tearing his attention away from his surroundings and sinking down onto the empty space on the bench the Master had thoughtfully provided. He shook his head. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d choose to spend eternity here.”
“No more I do,” the Master answered, sounding amused. “But, like a good host, I’ve tidied up for my guest.”
“And you chose this?” The Doctor raised his eyebrows and gestured at their surroundings. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here, and neither could you.”
The Master shrugged. The Doctor realized that the Master wasn’t looking directly at him, but at some point over the Doctor’s right shoulder. The Master’s eyes were distant. “This is almost the last time in our history that we could be together without trying to hurt one another. And there are no bad memories here. I thought it would make a fitting setting for our little reunion. Perhaps I was wrong.”
“No,” the Doctor said, throat suddenly tight. “No, you weren’t wrong.”
The Master let those words hang in the air for a moment, examining them from all angles, before he let out a breath and his gaze focused sharply on the Doctor, back in the here and now. “So. What brings you to disturb my repose?”
The Doctor leaned forward, glad of the excuse to turn the subject. “The Council’s plan to avert war with the Daleks didn’t work.”
“Imagine that,” the Master said coldly.
“Yes.” The Doctor shivered. “Well, unfortunately, it came as something of a surprise to them. They’re completely unprepared to be fighting this war. Frankly, it’s not going well.”
“My heart bleeds for them,” the Master snapped.
“Master — ”
Around them, time seemed to slow. Students moved in slow motion. Birdsong stretched out. Leaves hung at improbable angles, supported by a molasses breeze.
The Master took a calming breath, and the simulated world resumed its normal pace.
“No, Doctor,” he said with quiet forcefulness. “I will not feel sorry for that pack of superstitious fools. They’ve brought this doom upon themselves. You tried to warn them, didn’t you? Of course you did, you would. I even tried to warn them, not that it did me any good. As far as I am concerned they are getting exactly what they deserve.”
The Doctor just looked at the Master, while the other Time Lord tried to regulate his breathing and pretend his lapse of control hadn’t happened.
“Master,” he said finally. “The Daleks have gotten the ability to manipulate time.”
“We don’t know from where,” the Doctor continued grimly. “But we’ve seen timeline manipulation, evidence of Time Locks and Time Loops. We even believe that they’ve developed a way to force a TARDIS back into n-space during time flight.”
“Nevertheless they seem to have done it.”
The Master shook his head in disbelief, then leapt to his feet and started pacing, as if he couldn’t bear to sit any longer. The Master never could manage stillness, the Doctor knew. He always had to be doing something.
“Those fools,” the Master breathed. “They’re finished now, aren’t they? If only they’d listened. To me or you or any one of us. We could have told them this was coming. But they were so superior, weren’t they? And now they’re paying the price.”
Around them, the familiar shapes and sounds of the Academy were blurring, colors starting to run together. The illusion of reality crumbled as the Master continued to mutter. The Doctor watched in fascination as everything slowly faded to a bare, unrelieved black. He had been sitting, back in the Academyscape, but he was standing now, without any memory of having changed between the two states. Probably he had always been standing, and anything else had been an illusion.
“What’s this, then?” he asked with forced cheer, deliberately breaking into the Master’s ranting. Time in the Matrix might have been more or less infinite, but the more the Master worked himself up remembering all the reasons he had to hate the High Council, the harder it would be to get him to accept their offer. For that matter, if the Doctor started remembering all those reasons...
The Master looked up, glancing around, and gave a slightly self-deprecating laugh. “This is the Matrix, Doctor. This is what it really looks like, when no one is putting a pretty face on it.”
“You leave it like this most of the time, don’t you,” the Doctor guessed.
“It’s better than pretending,” the Master said wearily.
The Doctor, unwillingly, shivered.
“Why did they send you?” the Master asked suddenly, moving a step closer. “Rassilon… you’re helping them, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but how — ”
“Because there’s no point otherwise,” the Master snapped. “But why? They’ve wronged you nearly as much as they’ve wronged me. What could they possibly have offered you to get you to — ” The Master shook his head in bewilderment.
The Doctor didn’t want to talk about this, didn’t even want to think about this. The reality of what he’d agreed to do for the Council was monstrous. After a lifetime of fighting for peace and coexistence, he’d become a Warrior. Agreed to build weapons of mass destruction and hand them over to the Council for the express purpose of killing others. Yes, those others were evil, needed to be stopped at all costs. But it wouldn’t end with the Daleks. It never did. Romana could talk all she liked about extraordinary circumstances, about the very real possibility that there would be no future for any beings anywhere unless he did this. But it was so very hard to remember that when the Master, the Master for Rassilon’s sake, was looking at him in bafflement and dismay, like even his understanding of the Doctor was insufficient to illuminate this mystery.
So the Doctor did what he did best: ran.
He closed his eyes, gathering his concentration, and thought of something else. He thought of summers spent on the Oakdown estates, as children, between semesters at the Academy. He thought of red grass and silver trees as one saw them while lying flat on one’s back. He thought of the distant mountains in the background and the suns brilliant in the sky.
Then he opened his eyes, and all of those things were around him.
“Doctor?” the Master asked. The Doctor turned his head — he was lying on the grass, lying beneath the suns — and saw the Master next to him, also supine, looking at him in confusion and wariness. Buried underneath, so deeply the Doctor couldn’t be sure it was really there, a little lost wistfulness struggled to be expressed.
“I thought this would be better,” the Doctor said quietly. “We hated the Academy, but we both loved this, didn’t we?”
The Master didn’t say anything for a long while. Finally, when the Doctor had given up hope of a reply, he said, “The past is dead, Doctor.” He rolled onto his side, towards the Doctor, and laughed, eyes briefly turning ugly and dark. “As dead as the Time Lords are going to be.”
The Doctor turned his face away for a moment, not wanting to let the Master see exactly how much that hurt him. He’d made himself vulnerable, showing the other Time Lord this memory, letting the Master see how much it meant to him. He should have known the Master would throw it in his face.
The light abruptly grew dim; he turned his head back and saw the Master leaning over him, blocking the sun. His fingers were gentle as he brushed hair out of the Doctor’s face. “I’m sorry,” he said, oddly contrite. “I don’t know why I said that… habit, I suppose. Being in here, you know, you’re not supposed to do anything new. This is a place of remembrance, not creation. It’s easier just to go on doing what you’ve always done.”
“Maybe you could do the things you did while you were back here, then,” the Doctor said softly, meaning in this time, in this place. This was a quiet time in both of their histories, before the Master had ever dreamed of fear, before the Doctor had ever been called the Oncoming Storm. “Maybe you could remember how it felt.” He tried to call it back to his own mind, the way it had felt to be young. Not to hate, not to rage, not to embrace madness. Just to be, eager and full of untapped potential.
“How it felt?” the Master repeated. “Doctor, when I was here, I only felt one thing.”
The Master hesitated, looking down at the Doctor. Then his face set in old, familiar lines: recklessness, determination, desire. His fingers tightened in the Doctor’s hair, tipping his face up, and then they were kissing. Like the young boys they weren’t anymore, except that here in the Matrix, they were whatever they wanted to be. The suns were beating down on them, and somewhere down the hill Koschei’s mother would be calling them in soon, but right now all that mattered were Koschei’s lips on his and their bodes pressing together and their minds —
The Doctor’s mind touched the Master’s, and the thousand intervening years between that memory and the present threw a shock of cold water on them both.
They fell apart, standing again, surrounded by the blankness of the real Matrix, empty and without form.
“I’m sorry,” the Master said after a moment, turning away as if he were ashamed.
“Don’t be,” the Doctor said vehemently, grabbing the Master’s shoulder and swinging him back around to face him. The maneuver put them back into each others’ personal space, but the Doctor didn’t care. “Don’t you ever be sorry about that.”
Distantly, the Doctor recognized that they were both still panting. The Master’s hair was disarranged, the borders around his mind soft and porous, still waiting for the Doctor to come inside. It took more strength than the Doctor was proud of, even after all of these years, to resist that unspoken invitation.
“Why did you come here, Doctor?” the Master asked finally.
A thousand answers darted through his mind: facts about the war, the Daleks, their unexpected new technology, the Council’s complete ineptitude in fighting battles. Pleas on behalf of the Universe, everyone who needed a miracle and hoped the Master could provide it. Ohila’s words repurposed: There’s no escaping the Time War. We are a part of this, whether we like it or not. The universe stands on the brink. Will we let it fall?
He could give those reasons, those perfectly valid and legitimate reasons, and the Master would accept them. Wasn’t this the chance he’d been searching for his whole life? The call to lead, to fight, to triumph? And to do it with his own people behind him, apologizing for all their wrongs and begging him to save them? The Master would come back for that alone. The Doctor didn’t need to offer him anything else.
But the Doctor still saw the light from twin suns burning behind his eyes when he blinked, and he felt the Master waiting, still and quiet and so incredibly patient. Still waiting for the Doctor to stretch out his hand and say — what? What was it the Master was still expecting to hear from him, after all these years?
“I’ve come to make a stand,” the Doctor answered finally.
The Master smiled all at once, the sort of open smile that his apparent body had never worn. It was gone in a moment, but the Doctor had seen it, and that was what he saw now when he blinked, brighter than the light of the suns.
“Do you remember what we used to say when we were young?” the Master asked.
The Doctor blinked, frowned, trying to remember which the Master might mean. They’d said so many things when they’d been young — most of them terribly naïve and foolish.
The Master laughed his old familiar laugh, and leaned forward. “One day,” he whispered in the Doctor’s ear. “One day, you and I, we’ll set the galaxy on fire.”
The looming process took three days. The War Doctor could not spend all of his time watching the Master slowly coming back to life. He had an entire Scholarium to reorganize into an engine of war, labs to set up, equipment to acquire, crusty old Time Lord researchers to browbeat and cajole into working together. But his mind kept switching back to the Master, like a needle on a record player jumping tracks, wondering if the skeletal structure had been laid down yet or if the nerves had started firing. He couldn’t focus. On the third day, when he knew they were transferring the personality matrix into the physical shell and infusing it with blood and breath and twelve regenerations, the Doctor dropped three test tubes before he gave up the attempt. Instead he threw himself into calibrating the huon particle accelerator. That was a tricky, fiddly task that, if done wrong, would take half the lab with it. It wasn’t work he’d trust to anyone else. It kept him too occupied even to recall that in the old days, this would have been the Master’s job to do, as the better engineer of the pair.
When the Doctor finally closed the last panel and pulled himself to his feet, the lab was quiet and empty. Everyone else had gone home. He sighed and stretched, knuckling the small of his back, then jumped and spun in surprise when someone clapped, behind him.
Sitting perched on one of the lab desks was a stranger. A young man, dark, slim and finely built, with a suppressed energy that promised industry and a liveliness to his face that promised irreverence. He smiled theatrically as he applauded.
Then the polite smile relaxed into something more real. He unfurled a mental greeting, and recognition slammed into the Doctor.
“Rassilon,” he said in astonishment.
The Master tipped his head back and laughed in apparent delight. “Not yet, Doctor, but give me time. I’ll catch up to that old fogey one of these days.”
The Doctor laughed too, involuntarily. “I didn’t recognize you at first,” he admitted candidly. There was no point in trying to hide that, not with the Master, who would have been able to tell as much from his face. “It’s been so long since…” he coughed, suddenly embarrassed.
“Since I had a body of my own,” the Master finished.
“Well. Yes.” The Doctor shrugged a little, trying to convey that he didn’t really care one way or another. It was absurd for a Time Lord to link the mind to the body. The Master was the Master, in any regeneration. But seeing the Time Lord in front of him now, properly Gallifreyan again for the first time in centuries, was a shock he hadn’t been expecting. He hadn’t even realized how diminished his old friend had been in those stolen bodies. The Doctor wasn’t much of a psychic, but the healthy song of the Master’s mind was clear to him even without making contact, a stark contrast to the chaotic swirl that had accompanied him in his borrowed bodies. He’d been so much more extreme, in those foreign shapes. Why hadn’t the Doctor ever considered that part of his madness might stem from being a seventh-dimensional being stuffed awkwardly into a fourth-dimensional shell? Something else to add to his lists of might-have-beens and never-weres, just in case he were ever in danger of sleeping easily again.
“You’ve changed yourself,” the Master was observing, subjecting the War Doctor’s body to a penetrating sweep of his gaze. “You didn’t look like this in the Matrix.”
The War Doctor dragged his mind away from his thoughts. “Trying to preserve some of the mystery,” he said with forced lightness.
“Is that it?” The Master stepped closer to the War Doctor and turned his head slightly, so the War Doctor had to lean in, strain to hear. “This wasn’t a normal regeneration, now, was it? Oh, don’t worry,” he added, correctly interpreting the War Doctor’s momentary freeze. “None of those other idiots will have been able to tell. To borrow a phrase, it takes one to know one.”
“No, it wasn’t a normal regeneration,” the War Doctor said finally. There, around the edges of his psychic field, came the Master’s familiar touch. This time the Doctor accepted it, let his mind yield slightly. Offered up the memory of Cass, of Karn, of Ohila.
“My dear Doctor,” the Master breathed, fascinated.
Don’t call me that, the Doctor’s mind said automatically to his, and the Master laughed.
“I can hardly believe it.” He stepped away, smiling up at the Doctor, still close enough to lean forward and touch. “Well, well. And so you started freelancing for the Council, and when their danger became acute, you came back to help them?”
“Resurrecting you into the bargain,” the Doctor pointed out.
“Another delicious irony,” the Master agreed. “You’re really going to do it, aren’t you? I thought it must all be part of one of your plots, your long games — you’ve been quite fond of those, recently — and I wanted to be along for the ride. But I was mistaken. You meant it. You’re really going to build them weapons, aren’t you? And give them to me to use?” He laughed with delight.
The Doctor turned his head, gazed out the window to the setting suns of Gallifrey. The Master reached out and slid a finger under the Warrior’s chin, drawing him back around to gaze back at the latest form of his oldest friend. “Doctor. No, excuse me. Warrior.” The Master smiled. “Are you even sure of who you are, anymore?”
“Not at all,” the Warrior said, and laughed. For a brief moment, their minds still touching, the man who had been the Doctor forgot the last thousand years. He was back at the beginning, in the Scholarium, on Gallifrey, and all of time and space was awaiting his mark upon it.
“Excellent,” the Master said. His face and hands were red with the suns’ light. Looking down, the Warrior saw that his were too.
In a distant corner of time and space, underneath the shadows of the assembling Dalek war fleet, the universe began to burn.