The next few days went by in a similar manner. The Doctor went out to gather new information about this Adipose company, or he vanished somewhere below the console to do repairs.
Meanwhile I sifted through the data - after I had begged for a laptop, since staring at the little screen of his console was a pain. Now I could at least be bundled up in a jump seat, with a cuddly blanket - the heat wasn't functioning while the Doctor fiddled with whatever - and a cup of coffee.
The first days I barely made any progress at all. The data was too random and much of it was completely beyond my capability of understanding. I did appreciate that the Doctor let me do this, but it was still frustrating to feel so limited. There were coordinates and data about temperature, space-time fluctuations, shifts in several energy levels. None of it seemed related to the case at all.
"Weeell… I had to start somewhere, didn't I?" said the Doctor, soot on his face and grinning sheepishly. "I'm not sure what we're even looking for."
"And what's with that stuff? Is space supposed to bend in random places?"
He tossed a glance at my screen, tilted his head from side to side and finally nodded. "Yup. You wouldn't notice, though. It's too subtle. But space, exactly as time, is never quite fixed. Twists, bends, expands, contracts… it's almost a dance," he concluded happily.
I grunted at the unhelpful response and gave up for the day.
In the evenings I went to see the Master, in case he hadn't been around all day. Sometimes he strolled into the console room to make a snarky remark about whatever, or just sat there with a random thing he was tinkering with, or - to my surprise - even helped with some of the repairs. I concluded that it was out of boredom and because a functioning TARDIS was benefitting him too, after all.
And maybe he enjoyed the company.
Getting a hang of the telepathy was harder than I had initially feared. A lot. I struggled with keeping us apart, struggled to open my mind to let us slide deeper. And as the days dragged by, I had the feeling I had made no progress at all since the beginning. It was as if I was struggling with everything at all. And it made me feel utterly useless.
"I told you, even we need decades to figure this all out. We have classes on it. Teachers, lessons, practice."
I sulked, angrily glaring at the intertwined hands in my lap. "I don't have that much time."
"Mhm, we'll see," the Master muttered. There was no way of telling what he thought of it. If he had hopes I could manage or not. He snickered. "Don't be so upset. You get what you want, in the end."
That comment startled me. Of course I also did this because I liked the connection, but that didn't mean I didn't want to help. I wanted to. With a frustrated sigh I let go of his hands, feeling how our minds slipped apart as well.
"Do you want to stop already?" came his mocking question.
"Why is it so easy when… when we're… closer?"
The Master tilted his head and lifted a brow, seemingly thinking about it for a moment, before he leaned closer, forcing me to look him in the eyes. I hated when people did that - usually. But with him there was no unpleasant feeling to it. Quite the opposite. His gaze could hypnotise me without him even trying. The sheer intensity of his very being, mesmerising me beyond any level of comprehension. I looked up and winced when he stretched out his hands to cradle my cheeks, gently holding me, his forehead on mine all of a sudden.
The connection returned, stronger than before, more intense, letting us pour into one another without any trouble.
"It's like opening a floodgate," the Master muttered. "The wider you open it, the greater the flow."
"Then why do I have to squeeze myself through a tiny gap?" I asked, sulking again. It seemed unnecessarily unfair, almost designed to mock me.
"I told you. It's dangerous." His nose brushed against mine. On accident? My eyes were completely fixated on his, the glimmer of orange sparks sitting deep within them. "Open it up too wide and you lose control, it tears everything apart, rips off what should stay in place, carries along the things that you don't want to be seen."
Memories of the day I had heard the drums resurfaced, of how utterly lost we had been, of the warmth of his… I swallowed and tried to back away, but he held me too tightly. I could feel his mirth at my struggling and also… something else. Something more. A longing, but for what I couldn't tell.
I tried to focus on it, tried to see what were his thoughts and emotions and how they differed from mine. But already I was lost, engulfed in the shared moment. And so was he, not saying, nor thinking anything any longer.
What tore me out was the sensation of him inching closer, our noses touching again, his breath against my lips. Potential. Going deeper, running high, losing ourselves entirely. I managed to open my eyes, without knowing how, saw that his were already open, watching, burning, demanding all of my attention so he could…
I winced away, this time breaking free of his grip and I felt the connection splinter into pieces, into shards of stars and embers and all the things that never were, but might have been. I gasped and heard the Master take a sharp breath, too, rage burning behind his eyes when he glanced at me.
"'m sorry," I mumbled and reached a hand out. "I didn't want to hurt you."
His look softened and a bitter smile crept on his face. "It still scares you. No matter what you tell."
My hand dropped down and I had to look away, the glowing blades of shame burning me from the inside.
"Thought you like me scared," I retorted, only because it was the only thing I could think of. The shattered connection still lingered in the form of a stinging in my head, of a twisting in my guts. He probably had the same effects, if not worse, so I thought he was owed an explanation at least. "I was just startled. And… you said it yourself, it's dangerous…" And after a pause, once more, "'m sorry."
The Master huffed and it sounded derisive. He stood up, looking down at me. There was a sneer on his lips when I glanced up, one that made me wince. "You don't understand anything," he growled. "That's why you fail. That's why you can't ever… this was a stupid idea." He ran a hand over his face. "To let a primitive thing like a human inside my head. Drums or not. What was I thinking?"
"It helped, didn't it?" I asked, feebly and close to tears of frustration and fear.
Again this derisive snort. He bent down to meet my eyes again, but I couldn't look. Not this time. Even without any connection I could feel the hatred that was directed towards me, the contempt. It was a familiar feeling. Sooner or later… I had experienced it from every person that had ever claimed I meant something to them. From every person I had ever given a piece of myself.
In the end I could never be enough.
"Get lost," the Master grumbled and went to his desk to tinker with another device.
It hurt. More than it should. I made my way through the corridor, ignoring the soft hum of the TARDIS and trying to fight back my tears.
Just this once it had appeared that I might be able to be of use to someone. But as it turned out, this had been a false hope altogether. The Master was right, how could I, a mere human, be able to learn something my species wasn't even designed for? The thought in itself was ridiculous.
"Oh, still awake?" The Doctor strolled in, a bag of crisps in hands. "I wanted to watch the stars for a while. Want to join?"
I looked up from my laptop, yawned and shook my head. But instead of leaving me to my own, the Doctor came over and peered over the screen.
"That's a site about conspiracy theories." He chuckled. "Seriously?"
"Your data doesn't tell me anything, honestly." I shrugged and dropped my gaze. "Guess my brain isn't equipped for that either. So I thought I might as well resort to things I have experience with."
"Aha! I see. The internet - a realm of knowledge, true and false, where you can find anything if you only set your mind to it. One of the greatest inventions of humankind."
"Yeah. It truly is." I glared at the screen, remembering all the hours and days I had spent there, browsing through social media, listening to psychology lectures on youtube or learning more about everything there was to know about my own condition. All in the hopes to, one day, be able to appear human enough to find a place amongst them.
The screen lowered until it lay on my fingers. When I looked up, the Doctor gave me a friendly smile. "Come on," he said, nodding to the door. "This has time."
He went to the console and manoeuvred the TARDIS someplace else, giving me no choice but to close the laptop and clutch it so it wouldn't fall to the ground from all the rumbling and shaking. The Doctor then jumped to the doors and opened them wide with a dramatic gesture, revealing space and the stars and all the colours of a distant nebula.
Hesitantly, I laid the laptop on the seat and got up, but only took a bunch of steps before halting. I was close enough to see the fascinating sight and still far enough to be somewhat on my own.
The Doctor sat down, letting his legs dangle outside. He patted the small space next to him and grinned at me. "You can have some crisps too, if you want."
"I… don't want to bother you," I mumbled, not moving a muscle.
His grin fell and he regarded me with a long look, before letting out a "mhmmm" that could mean absolutely everything. His face lit up after that and he nodded to the seat.
"Let me see what you've found. It looked interesting."
I nodded and went to grab the laptop, then squeezed myself next to the Doctor, glaring at the bag of crisps that hung in the air in front of us. The lack of gravity was fascinating and definitely one of the things I would never get used to.
"I was looking for user reviews for the product," I told him. "Many firms buy them, but you can easily see which ones are fake. No one writes like that." I scrolled through a list of ratings, all showing texts of various lengths and stars next to it. "It's weird. Every single review has five stars. Full points, no regrets."
"Well, that's good, isn't it? Satisfied customers." The Doctor chuckled.
"It's basically impossible." I snorted. "No matter how good a product is, people will always find something to complain about. But…" I showed him a bunch of reviews that were poorly written, clearly by people who weren't especially bright or who couldn't speak the language too well. "I'm pretty sure those aren't fake. And that made me look further."
"You think they are being manipulated?" The Doctor leaned closer to the screen, observing it's content.
"That was one thought, yes. Hence why I started looking elsewhere. And boy, are there many theories. Everything from aliens to microchips and brainwashing. But this one" - I pointed at one article - "is interesting."
"Mhm… went missing," mumbled the Doctor, skimming the text. "No one believed it… no police… never existed? Yeah, that sounds weird, indeed."
"Their headquarters aren't even that far. Maybe sonic your way in and see if you can find any records of their customers?"
The Doctor looked at me, brows raising, lips spreading to a wide smile. "That's a brilliant idea. I'll do that tomorrow." He chuckled and ripped the crisps bag open, took some of its contents and left the bag hovering outside the doors. "Your method was a lot more useful than mine, I have to admit."
I closed the laptop with a smile and shoved it behind me. That small compliment had almost made me blush, so unexpected was it. Especially after all the failures from before.
"So. What's bothering you?" asked the Doctor between crunches. He tipped the bag and let it float in my direction. "I'm rather sure I know who's responsible for your mood. But since you refuse to stay away…"
The bag floated in front of me and I stopped it to pick out a few crisps. "It's not so easy to stay away. Even if I wanted to. He's living and breathing and existing here as much as you and I." Despite everything it still made me angry at how the Doctor treated the other man, deserved or not.
He sighed and looked at the stars. "I know. But you know he's hurting you and you still spend more time with him than you have to." The Doctor held his hands up in defence, his look soft, an amicable smile on his lips. "I'm simply curious, honestly. I don't get why he saved your life. It's not a thing he normally does. And I don't get why he lets you come near him… at all."
"Because he hates humans so much?"
"Yes. You know only a fraction of what he tried to destroy earth and to erase your entire species from existence."
"I think that's mostly to spite you."
"Mhm…" He stuffed some more crisps into his mouth and poked the floating bag. "It's a funny thing. The Time Lords once released him on earth, had his TARDIS broken, so he couldn't even escape to somewhere else. It wasn't the first and not the last time he had to spend quite a lot of time on earth."
I huffed and grabbed the bag. "And yet he doesn't understand a thing about us." A single crisp floated away and slowly vanished into space.
"Yeah, I knooow!" The Doctor giggled.
"Same as you, by the way," I added with a smirk and laughed when he choked on his last bite.
"Oi! I'm good with humans! Mostly."
"Sometimes. At best."
The Doctor pursed his lips, but smiled at the same time. He nudged my shoulder. "Still. Tell me what's bothering you."
But that was the problem. I couldn't. Would he find out that I tried to find the drums, he would only try to stop me.
Not that it mattered anymore.
"The problem is that I'm only human. And that he has a short fuse and no manners and is incredibly impatient." I grunted in frustration.
"Impatient?" The Doctor cocked a brow. "Are we talking about the same person? I've never met anyone with more patience. Believe me… the Master has a history of taking his time. He spent years preparing for some of his schemes to work, to set everything up, etc. I can't picture him being impatient."
Confused, I blinked out at a space, feeling my mood drop quite a bit. If that was true… then what did his behaviour mean? I sunk together, oblivious to the beauty in front of me. Had I just destroyed something?
"Hey." The Doctor nudged me gently and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. "It's okay if I give you a hug? You really seem to need it."
I glanced up and nodded, even leaned against him as he pulled me into an embrace. It wasn't tight, but still comforting, soothing. "I'd never say no to a hug," I commented, smiling.
"Ah, just thought I'd ask anyway. Sorry I never asked before. I know some with your condition who can't stand any touch. Especially not if they didn't initiate it."
"Yeah, for some it's unnerving. But I like it." I made myself comfortable at his side, reaching for the crisps again and playfully poking the bag so the Doctor had to catch it.
He left one arm around my shoulders, his feet dangling back and forth. The silence of space sung to us, the darkness and the faint lights of distant suns, spinning a woeful lullaby for lonely travellers.
It felt so different to be with the Doctor. A quiet union of unspoken thoughts. The comfort of a moment ending eternally. He saw the stars with the eyes of a child and felt its wonders with a never dying awe. The universe was his playground. And everyone who lived in it his chess pieces.
I could never imagine cuddling up with him like I did with the Master, but the comfort I found in his presence was able to ground me in the moment and made all worries pale for however long he stayed.
"Ohhh, right!" The Doctor sat straight, removed his arm and rummaged through his coat pockets. "I thought about you for a bit."
"Uhhh… okay?" Was that a good or a bad thing?
"And I don't see how I can return you home with a happy ending. If there is no family or anyone else. I don't want you to be all alone. That would be nasty. And…" He pulled his hand out, holding something small in his fist. "...the Master would find a way to kidnap you again. And here I can at least have an eye on everything."
Thinking about my last encounter with the Master, I wasn't so sure about that anymore. It seemed more like he wanted me gone, and preferably forever.
"Give me your hand."
I held one out and watched as he opened his fist to let a small object fall into my opened palm. It was a key. An ordinary key, but strangely warm and almost humming with energy. Puzzled, I glanced up at the Doctor and found him smiling warmly.
"It's a key for the TARDIS. Just in case you ever get lost."
I opened my mouth to say something, anything. The small object seemed to gain weight, lying in my hand like a promise. One of a future I had never hoped to have. I swallowed and rasped out a "Thank you."
The Doctor grinned from ear to ear, snatched the floating bag of crisps and held them out to me, allowing me to lean on his shoulder again to watch the stars for another while.