“Take my hand”
His mind, like a snake around its prey, coils around her, demanding, imposing, relentless and starving, his fingers closing around her wrist with a desperation that is ferally childish in its honesty. His eyes show the remnants of the smoldering cinders Missy left him. Burnt out, he’s running on fumes. On the memory of former fire.
“It’s not a game,” he insists, which is so unimaginable it’s almost nonsensical and makes her reconsider his intentions. What part of their relationship is left standing after you take away the structure and rhythm of move and countermove? Does he remember a time when they’ve ever not been playing? Because she doesnt.
There’s no time to wonder what new framework for their relationship he plans to propose, because the next breath she takes is on Gallifrey. The first foot they’ve set on homesoil together in millennia and the welcome is warm. The planet’s naturally oppressive heat aided by the flames of their collateral damage.
His searing fingers around her wrist have vanished like a raising anchor before she’s properly landed, trying to orient herself between the sight of the Citadel and the spacebending boundary. When she exhales his mind squeezes around hers a little tighter. She presses back against him with an urgency she won’t admit even to herself, fitting into the spaces he leaves like they were made for each other, because they were made beside each other. Sharing thoughts and ideas and ambitions and dreams for decades in these very fields. Well, what’s left of them.
“Look upon my work, Doctor.”
His words taste strange but somehow right, scraping away layers of earth to reach memories buried deep. As she settles into the familiarity of their minds entangled and their feet on red sand, she feels like herself, in a way that’s subtly but fundamentally different. Home, in a way she hasn’t for a very long time. Home as the memories embedded in the smell of a flower and the song of a bird and the creak of a door. Home as upbringing, home as the riverbank clay that she’s moulded from. As the riverbank he’s made out of, too. Home as kinship. Home not as a place she runs from, but a lock that she is the key to.
He turns the key and lets her lay eyes on those memories, that upbringing, that kinship, in ruins. And now she realises what’s wrong with his words. What’s right with them. They’re Gallifreyan.
“Remember how we used to run through those streets as children?”
She lets the rolling syllables crash their way through her mind like a holy flood. The right form of ‘remember’, spanning multiple regenerations, she’d almost forgotten that was something language could do. The right tense for ‘used to’, the right concept of ‘children’. Modes English doesn’t have – no language in the universe has, because no one has a relationship with time like they do – open conversational paths long since overgrown. His voice in Gallifreyan, splintery soft and yielding like decomposing wood, claims space in her brain inaccessible through English. Grammatical structures that she’s let gather dust for centuries lean into the conversational use of fourdimensional concepts with self-evident ease. The memories he’s flooding her with make eager use of the extra space.
“The alleys where we’d hide from Borusa as we skipped classes.”
Memories coursing through him like the river overflowing its bank, pulling her along. She scrambles for something to hold on to, but it’s useless. Memories, like water, won’t be held. Only passed through desperate fingers, collected in the glass jars of recordkeeping or the cupped hands of I won’t ever forget this, leaving you with empty hands and wet crinkled fingers. All gone now.
“Come on,” pleads the little boy she’s loved so dearly, standing in the ashes of the childhood they shared, “ask me why I did this.” Ask him why he felt the need to destroy the foundations of everything they were. Yes, she would like to know that. What is the worth the sacrifice of the stability that the foundation that made you grow up toward the starlight granted you? What warrants taking a shovel to the ground beneath you, a saw to the branch you’re sat on, opening tombs to ask ghosts to haunt you?
“Not telling you.”
Laughter bursts out of him like the hopeless sobbing of someone who was taught crying as a foreign language and got his idioms mixed up somewhere between his lungs and his mouth.
“Oh, crack a smile.”
Proud of yourself? Enjoying the destabilisation you’ve brought on yourself, on us, by digging up our roots and eating them?
Was there really nothing else to sustain you? What made you so hungry? Why couldn’t my friendship be enough? How do you feel now that you’ve consumed my life?
Was it nourishing at least? Are you satisfied now? Has this sated you?
“I don’t think anything will ever do that.”
No, she doesn’t either. His bottomless rage so indiscriminately destructive, so different from hers, is not something she can make sense of. His anger is an active volcano. Hers, quieter but no less lethal, gets aimed like an arrow and released without mercy. Hits unanticipated, while his shakes the ground, blocks out the sun, advertises its intentions but never its targets. Screaming watch me watch me watch me. Watch me as I destroy you, his anger demands. There will be no stepping out of the way once you’ve crossed the line, hers promises. Even Missy, calm composed classy, serene on the surface, the Doctor could feel the tectonic plates shift beneath.
“We're going to take a tour through the Capitol. Or its ruins, at least. Things I need to show you. And I know you're worried about your friends. Plotting how to get away. I can see it in your eyes. But you can’t help them, so don’t even think about it.” About them, he means. He snaps his fingers in her face.
“That. Don’t do that.” Don’t think about them, pay attention to me. His eyes bore into hers, scouring her mind for every last grain of attention and care that’s left, scraping it out. She’s the first to blink. Sighs and looks away. Accepting his proposal, for now.
“Good!” He bounces away from her, wide-eyed and giddy, trembling and bubbling with a frenetic energy. Thoughts like too high voltage racing through a too thin wire. Urging him forward. She knows the feeling. Like running downhill, at some point gravity stops giving you a choice. Run, or crash, get a face full of dirt. They used to do that, run downhill hand in hand until they forgot they had legs and running felt like flying until one of them tripped and took the other down with them. But she thought they’d left that behind them a long time ago. He twirls and skips and makes a strangled noise of excitement. She wonders when he’s going to crash.
“Start walking, Doctor!”
She takes a deep breath of suffocating air and noxious smoke and follows after him.
They walk and run and drag themselves in turn, through the ashes to the Citadel. She watches his hair turn grey with ash and his jacket lose colour, trailing a few steps behind.
“You think I’m classy?” he asks, a thousand thoughts later.
She rolls her eyes. “Very classy, making me kneel for you.”
He turns around to beam at her, walking backward. “Classic! Very regal, don’t you think?” His eyes linger on her for a moment before he adds, “Prince-like.” with a strange tone in his voice and turns back around.
The Doctor scoffs. “Did someone snatch your throne? Queen of Evil.”
“You have to know your place,” he says cryptically. She frowns.
“Looking down on me.”
“Yeah? You like that, do you?” She waits for him to open his mouth to respond and then adds, “Master.” Like an afterthought, a mockery of respect. He throws a glance over his shoulder at her.
“Yes, actually,” he says matter-of-factly
“Has a different ring to it, doesn’t it?” she asks. When he doesn’t respond she adds, “Missy.” As clarification or term of address, he can pick. He stops, letting her catch up.
“I could have made you kneel as Missy.”
“If you wanted to.” She remembers him kneeling for her. Asking, pleading, for her friendship. Only to reject it when she offered. “I know.”
Something like his old self-satisfaction shining through the cracks, illuminates the sharp edges of his brokenness. She can see herself reflected in the shards. She’d been tired but she’d been whole, and she hadn’t appreciated the extent to which until she opened the door on Gallifrey and realised the cracks put into her by him the last time they saw each other had been a promise made good on when she saw the destruction he wrought. The betrayal she’d been expecting for seventy years, the hope she’d been fending off, greater than she could have ever imagined.
“You expected me to do this.”
“Can you blame me?”
“For your hope?” He snorts, but his voice is cold. “Yes.”
She grabs his arm and yanks, turning him to face her.
“Faith,” she hisses. “I had faith in you.”
His eyes are wide, vacillating between lost and scared and disdainful. He swallows and blinks and when his eyes open again they’re cold and hard and he grins.
She lets go of his arm. “I know.”
They walk and run and drag themselves in turn, through the ashes to the Citadel. He’s in front, leading the way, running, skipping, tripping, occasionally looking back at her, giddy with anticipation over what he has in store.
Or she’s in front, running because she can’t stand to be walking here anymore, the Citadel still just the same size in the distance, walking forever to come home but never reaching, seeing its ruins waiting for her on the horizon. Inevitable. Merciless.
Or he’s in front, being pushed and kicked and yelled at by her to stop dragging his feet, you wanted this, stop dawdling.
Or she’s in front, without patience or sympathy for his shellshocked stillness at the sight of wreckage his hands made, but with a deep and bitter empathy that tugs at the thick fibrey scars in her soul that have grown from centuries of “Gallifrey” and “Last of the Time Lords”.
They walk and run and drag themselves in turn back home. Circling around each other, never keeping pace. Never side by side.
“You couldn’t have put the boundary a bit closer?” She yells at his back as she pauses to wipe the sweat from her face with a damp and grimy coat sleeve. He turns around to look at her.
“Thought running was your thing.”
She cocks her head, unamused.
“We both know it’s not mine.” He stares at her, drinking in her reaction with wide hungry eyes and the ghost of a dead grin. The rage thrumming in her veins is louder than the flames and hotter than the suns but she blinks once, watches her feet kick the sand and lets her face freeze over as she catches up with him, letting him have none of it. She’s given him enough. Time, effort, hope, chances. He’ll take anything she gives him. Except, apparently, her friendship.
In front of the gates like a mouth, broken pillars like pointy teeth, they stop and stare for a while. Sharing a moment resolutely unacknowledged by both. He moves first. She watches him hesitate, then he twirls and turns to her, grinning.
“Time Lords, Ladies, and esteemed Others, welcome to Low Town!” He spreads his arms, shaking with giggles. She can’t watch it, lets her eyes drift over the collapsed low roofs and the piles of charred mass that could’ve been anything, might’ve been people.
“Yes.” He cocks his head, considering. “Well. Such as they were.”
She shoots forward through the gates and grabs his lapels. “What did any of these people ever do to you?”
His grin drops to anger and he shoves her away. “Get off your high horse. You didn’t care about them while they were alive. Don’t pretend to do so now.” He turns around. “Come on, lots more to see.” He walks off through the slums, not sparing any of it a glance. As she follows, trying not to look, she wonders if the different intentions behind their averted gazes matter at all to the corpses.
As they pass through New Town, she tries again. “You didn’t have to do this. Whatever the Time Lords did, whatever issue you have with them–”
“Issue–” He stops and turns to her. “You think we had a disagreement? I didn’t like their policies? How they turned me into a living homing beacon, that sort of thing?”
She shrugs. “Well what else–”
“Oh Doctor, this is nothing quite so insignificant.”
“You didn’t seem to find it very insignificant when you used it as an excuse to–”
He’s in her face in an instant. “Excuses are your department. I do this–” he gestures to the broken buildings around them, “–for fun.”
I’d burn an entire city to the ground just to see the pretty shapes the smoke made.
He recoils as if she slapped him in the face.
“Don’t be sentimental,” he snarls.
Her laugh is derisive and incredulous. “Who’s taking who on a trip down memory lane here?”
“Next stop then.”
She’d thought after a millennium she’d built up a resistance, been desensitised to the sight of Gallifrey burning, but the specificity of the violence cuts in parts of her not toughened by scars. Unlike the indiscriminate carnage of the Moment, or the hypothetical of the absence, here she can see the timeline of his rampage making its way through the city. Places that held memories especially, thoroughly, viciously destroyed.
A fitting paradox that our salvation comes at the hands of our most infamous child.
A pressure in her chest that feels like pain but bubbles out like laughter.
“And destruction at those of our most beloved,” he says and looks at her.
She laughs harder. They watch each other, mentally playing hot potato with the titles to find the one that fits, slowly letting laughter overtake them like a poison. Laughter that isn’t joy at all. Laughter that boils in her veins, that drips and burns and wants to get out.
She looks at him with a grin that is a threat and he responds with a grin that is an invitation and when she leaps forward, he jumps back and trips over a piece of rubble. She didn’t even come close. She wasn’t even going to touch him. Not yet. She laughs again, short and dead. His eyes are wide and terrified and eager and hungry. She kicks a rock at him and he scrambles up and away from her, feet struggling to get traction in the dry sand. She lunges again when he thinks he’s ready for her and he turns and runs.
She gives chase. Through the ruins of painful familiarity, through the déjà vu of memories warped by flames, through friendship and animosity and despicable love and delicious hatred, through hope. Through hope crumbling around them with the thunder of crashing buildings and the piercing of shattering glass. Grabbing for his coattails whenever he turns a corner.
When she kicks at his legs and he stumbles and hits the ground, she’s onto him and he turns around willingly, giving her access to all his vulnerable points. She slams a knee in his stomach and puts her fingers around his throat, finding every soft fleshy part of him and making it bleed. He grabs at her arms, at her hands, pulling up his knees to push her away. She drops all her weight on him and lets her fingernails open skin.
They hold on to each other like drowning people, so desperate for help and so far beyond the point of being able to receive it that they’ll pull down anyone who tries to rescue them. It’s more than they’ve touched in the century they spent together. All layered up, long sleeves, high collars, buttoned up in caution. Every brush of fingers carrying the expectation of betrayal.
Betrayal has come and with it permission to indulge. Caution to the wind, hope’s been lost, nothing left to resist. So she doesn’t. And there’s a sick sort of relief in no longer having to wait for the worst to happen.
She watches his panic and exhilaration as he drops his arms down to the ground. Accepting his fate as she’ll give it to him. Like he always does. Like she always will.
Her eyes flick to a piece of rubble next to his head. Heavy, pointy, small enough to wrap her hand around. It is regrettable, she regrets it, if only because her intentions will already have been telegraphed and she won’t have a chance.
Her fingers meet his arm as he slides it between her hand and the rock. He yanks her arm out from underneath her and she loses her balance and tumbles off him, getting the wind knocked out of her by a rock in her back.
He scrambles away from her. The intention seems to be up but he doesn’t quite get there and ends up on his knees, watching her as she watches him. Silent except for the raspy breaths.
An ocean of thoughts, feelings, grudges, desires, promises swirling in his eyes. For the first time she isn’t sure she’s seen its depths. Maybe he’s found some new ones. Warped glee wars with anger on his face.
“And that tells me to be good for seventy years,” he spits, and then coughs. “Pathetic,” he sneers when he manages to speak again.
“You were.” She pushes herself up so they’re on eye level with each other. “You could’ve been.”
“Oh give it up!” His voice breaks. “Stop lying to yourself! Millennia of bad habits, you think you’re going to change that in seventy years?”
“We had a thousand,” she protests.
“Neither of us was going to last that long and you know it! It was doomed from the start.”
She scowls and kicks at his face. He takes the opening eagerly, pulling her leg away from her and making her slam to the ground again.
They fight until exhaustion forces them into stalemate. Hands and mouths and hair and clothes full of sand and ash and blood and each other, they sit back to back, each having hold of one of the other’s arms, ready to break it. Feeling each other’s shuddering breaths in their chest and thrumming pulses beneath their fingers, hot and wet and visceral and so so alive in this city of death.
Their arms drop to the ground when their muscles grow too tired to hold them and the Doctor feels sharp stones and hot sand rub into open skin, until suddenly his fingers close around hers. He squeezes until she can feel her bones grind together. She lets him. Lets him press into her back, head pushing against hers until she’s forced to bend forward, face to knees, back to back, hand in hand, she lets him squeeze her back into shape, crush her into security.
“There was never any chance for us,” comes his raspy voice, more felt through her chest than heard through her ears.
“Yes, there was,” she croaks, and sand creaks between her teeth. She tries to spit it out and when it doesn’t work she tries to swallow it. That doesn’t work either. There’s still sand between her teeth. “More than a chance, there was reality, there was–”
“Yeah.” He shuts her up with a single whispered word, heavy with regret. She pulls away from him, like ripping off her skin, leaving her cold and alone. He makes a pained noise of anguish when she wrests her hand from his. She stands up, watches him be still until he gathers the will to stand up as well.
They stand across from one another, and she sees in his eyes the memory, sees Missy.
Stand with me, she’d said. Who I am is where I stand.
She can feel those words again, standing amidst the fire and the destruction under the broken glass dome.
It’s all I’ve ever wanted, she’d said.
His eyes are wet, reflective. He holds out his hand slowly, without force, without demand, with a silent request for forgiveness, without the expectation of being given it. She looks at it, meets his eyes, takes his hand and gives it anyway. It’s not a question when it comes to him. He’s always had it, she’ll always give it.
It’s only later as she stands in the Matrix Chamber, with her oldest friend, with too many ghosts in her head, with a bomb in her hand, that she realises he had been listening to her. More than she’d anticipated, hearing things she hadn’t realised she was saying, because wasn’t that always the way. Two sides of the same coin can never see what the other is seeing.
Who they are is where they stand, where they stand is where they fall. She looks into his eyes and hears his question: fall with me.