The Master scowls when she refuses his hand and crosses into the Boundary without him. He retaliates by explaining how he destroyed their home: all the screams, the attempts to evacuate into fleeing TARDISes felled by centuries of counter-intelligence — “Mind you, I always knew I could do it, but it was beautiful seeing it work.” — all on his own.
He’s expecting her to mourn, she figures, as he lists off the things their shared history. Attended the Academy, fled the Citadel walls, came back and embroiled themselves in political conflicts, made their mark in the planet’s history and became Gallifrey’s most infamous renegades. And he burned it all.
The Master expects her to grieve and despair and he’s not the only one.
“Come on,” he prompts at last, shaking out his shoulders in the role of the smug, pompous villain, “Ask me why I did this.”
She stares at him and she’s tired. She spent eternities trying to connect the dots between this face and the previous. Between Missy, on the cusp of redemption yet refusing out of self-preservation, and the Master once more, killing for the rush and adrenaline and thrill. Perhaps she’s still too hopeful. Perhaps she’s just in denial.
Or worst of all, perhaps she is right.
“Why did you have to leave me?”
And she throws him off guard, out of character, tears off that silly little mask of a simplistic villain he’s hiding behind, the same way he shattered her illusion of being nothing more than a heroic traveller.
Regression is a coping mechanism with which they are both familiar. They’re also the only ones left alive who can see through it.
He catches himself, schools his face into something neutral, and returns to a burning apathy.
“Not sure what you’re talking about, dear,” he lies, and for a second she can see Saxon again, charred with fury and disdain and hatred. “Ask me the right question.”
She doesn’t yield.
“Why did you abandon me? Why did you lie to me? Why did you go back to this madness?”
The Master refuses to look at her. His chest rises and falls with a clear anger and they’ve switched places now, with her pushing him until he does as she wants. She wonders if he’ll try to attack her again. She wonders if she’s at all worried about the outcome.
It’s an objectively terrible dynamic and she finds it comforting the same way the Master found falling back into old cruelty comforting, the same way she found this bright cheery exterior comforting, the way Saxon eschewed any sort of affability for outright indulgent chaos, the way her ninth and eleventh and twelfth selves had coped with loss through the prickly cold apathy of the first.
Change is frightening. Familiarity is reassuring.
“When,” she asks, and steps into his reach, “did you stop wanting to be my friend?”
He meets her eyes. It takes a moment to realise she’s smiling, just a little bit. Mocking him. Pushing him. She’s all out of soft gestures now, it seems. Being left to die does that to a person.
It’s different, she told herself before, to when the Master had betrayed her and been betrayed in turn, because they were so close to being together again. Because she’d opened up her hearts to the idea that maybe, maybe, maybe the Master wouldn’t leave again—and she was certain the Master had believed the same.
So why, why had she left him to stand alone on that ship?
“We’re not friends,” he says coolly, but his eyes are big and sad and his shoulders are shaking and not even a human would believe him. He’s easy to read, this time. Or maybe he wants to know the same as she.
The first move is always the hardest. Even moreso when you’ve already been rejected.
So she changes tactics, and takes the first step away from the Master, towards the capital—and the Master follows, like he always does.
The streets are empty and barren, nothing left of ashes and debris. She ran tests. He’d vaporised much of the population. Clean. Neat. Tidy. Mostly painless. Almost merciful. She knows the wreckage and destruction, she has it burnt into her mind and if she concentrates hard enough, she can slip into an older memory of screams and failed regenerations.
He’s expecting her to grieve and he’s not the only one who’s surprised she can’t. She had tried to cry, at first, but it was nothing more than a slight mist over her eyes and a slow freefall into hollow numbness. She could say that this body does not cry anymore, but perhaps it is the Doctor themself who’s lost the capacity for tears. Even standing in the ashes of the planet she once broke the Laws of Time to save, she cannot grieve for any of the children.
It is not until they enter the Citadel, that the Master prompts her once again: “Ask me why I did this.”
He steps closer. It’s a big room, but that’s never mattered to them.
His words are a demand, but all she can hear is a plea.
“I don’t need to know,” she answers. “And don’t think that I’m scared of what you found. We were built on suffering and corruption and the lives of innocents. There’s not much you can reveal to me that’ll surprise me, Master.”
He grabs her by the front of her coat and pulls her close and she sees him. His ruin and destruction did not originate from apathy and selfishness. She is right; she’s allowed that tiny sliver of hope.
She places her hands on the sides of his face and touches their foreheads together and she apologises. Apologises through the memories, his memories, of pain and confusion and what is this feeling why am I hurting why does this knowledge disturb me how do I make it stop?
“You did the right thing,” she says, and he gasps and shudders like she's condemned him.
“I hate you.” The Master’s hands are shaking, reaching up to seize her shoulders, not to harm her but to comfort himself. “You’re supposed to be angry. I killed them all. I haven’t turned good.”
“No,” she agrees. “You haven’t.”
It’s suddenly hard to stand and she pulls them both down to their knees, until she can slip her arms onto his shoulders and hug, for the first time in this body, without feeling like she wants to crawl out of her own skin.
But it’s shame that creeps through the sudden telepathic connection, and it’s far from unintentional. It’s their equivalent of subtle suggestion, of a verbal slip-up, from a species raised in rigid concentration and structure.
Shame, that the Master failed to meet the Doctor’s expectations. Shame, that his past killed Bill. Shame, that he could never be good enough for her—
“For someone so clever, you really are stupid sometimes,” she says, but she pushes forwards with every last sorrow she felt at his absence, at her abandonment, at his betrayal. “I told you, I’m not a good person. I don’t think any of us could ever be truly good. But we try, and that’s the part that matters.”
They were angry. They were both so angry because if they let that anger recede it would reveal nothing but anguish and despair and the deep abyss of helplessness. Anger felt like control felt like doing something.
His hand leaves her shoulder, grabs the back of her head, angles her chin forward just slightly enough that their lips touch and—
Pain. A sharp, stinging, chilling pain of a blade piercing flesh. She recoils and tries to push away, but the Master holds on tightly. The knife exits and she seizes his shoulder and feels tears that will never fall well in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, and it’s only when his breath ghosts across her skin, one hand buried in her hair and the other flat against the back of her coat, that she realises he isn't holding anything but her immobilised body.
If she tried, she could break the connection, but the Master’s digging himself into her nervous system and his own memories and now she knows how it feels to commit suicide through time.
“Missy,” rumbles through her lips, but they’re not hers. She isn’t the one talking. “Why?”
She can no longer see the ruins of the chamber on Gallifrey. Instead all she can see is the dusk light of an artificial forest, a figure walking away, and the cold, hard surface of an elevator door. Faintly, the Master is still holding onto her, caressing her hair, comforting her as though this is a betrayal with her as the victim.
The figure turns back, and that figure is also her, boots planted in the damp grass, umbrella in one hand, the heavy weight of a dress and underskirt across her hips. Yet it’s not, these are not her memories, but the sensations are overlapping and the Master had always been too good at tricking her mind.
“Oh,” she sighs, like it’s obvious and she’s just slow, “because he’s right. Because it’s time to stand with him.”
And she’s scoffing in a different voice again, roiling with disbelief and fury, but her skin is burning cold and she can’t stand. And the other her keeps talking.
“It's where we've always been going, and it's happening now, today.”
Her chest swells with a feeling she knows to be pride, while the her in the elevator hates and detests and snarls. In consciousness, her real body tightens her trembling arms around the Master's shoulders and presses her face into his chest.
“It's time to stand with the Doctor.”
“No!” The word rips out of her throat, barbed and searing and desperate. “I will never stand with the Doctor!”
She’s naive, she thinks, but she’ll get there. They will.
But then she turns her back, and she finds the last bit of strength to raise her hand, telepathically toggle the settings, and—
She can’t tell if it’s the Master who breaks the connection, or if her it is her subconscious that panics at the feeling of dying twice over and severs them apart, but suddenly she’s back in her own body, in the Master’s arms. Her skin is stinging with phantom sensations and she heaves for breath until her mind is convinced they aren’t all dying on that damned colony ship.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m—”
It takes a moment to realise the person apologising is her, muttering into the Master’s chest, her voice breaking with dry sobs. Her pleas for forgiveness echo through her head and he hears them, even though the connection’s been cut because her shields are in shambles. She grabs him by the shoulders and presses their foreheads together again and she’s sorry she didn’t know she doubted him she thought he’d left her she thought he’d given up on them but she didn’t think—
“I was wrong,” she whispers, staring into his eyes. She can’t tell what he’s thinking or feeling, not because he’s hidden himself behind impenetrable barriers but because her own feelings are spilling out too freely to decipher if his are coalescing with hers. “I was so angry. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” he murmurs to her, and his embrace around her back tightens, pulling her closer.
Can she say it? She’d begged him before, that very day. But it doesn’t matter what he says now, if she’ll always worry what he’ll do later. And vice versa.
They’re pained and burned raw and terrified of each other. Of what they’ll do together. Of what will set them apart. Maybe they can’t ever stay with one another. Maybe it’ll never ever last. Eternity isn’t guaranteed for Time Lords, but how long can they fall apart and back together before they drive each other to the final death?
“Will you stand with me?”
The Master pulls away and it’s her turn to pull him back in. She needs to know. He takes her hand and presses it against his temple and only then does she let him pull back enough to meet her gaze.
“Do you want me to?”
She can’t answer it in words, only in the uncertainty of her thoughts. If he betrays her again, she’ll cut out any lingering affection she’s ever had to spare herself the agony. If he stays, perhaps they’ll only bring out the worst in each other. If they walk away now, she’ll always wonder about what could have been.
Things are never simple between them, is it?
“I want to try again,” she says. “I want to… hope—that we can still be friends.”
He stares at her, into her hearts, reflecting the same uncertainty, wanting and fearing and gauging the risks. Something glances across their minds again. The Doctor will always choose to be kind, even if it means the Master can’t follow. Is he willing to accept that?
There are depths she can’t follow either, she reminds him gently. They used to be the same, with selfish morals and Time Lord engrained apathy. She’ll wait for him to catch up, if he doesn’t run away from her.
The ground is solid beneath her feet, as she pries herself from him and stands, confident and hesitant, waiting. She’ll wait for him. It’ll hurt. She might even deny the fact. But she will wait.
He stares up at her, exhaustion and torment and the slightest flicker of hope on his face, and admits the very same.
The Doctor smiles when he takes her hand and stands in the ashes of Gallifrey with her.