This could be quite nice, under different circumstances. He’s brought in a record player; it’s playing Juliette Greco. There’s a hot pot of Earl Grey and some big, solid mugs, and a stack of the biscuits they both like (the ones in the yellow packet). Missy’s tinkering, and he’s supervising, without it looking like he’s trying to supervise. It’d just take one screwdriver slipped up her sleeve and she could be out of here, him regenerating on the floor with puncture wounds to the chest and neck. She'd probably leave his face alone, at least.
Well, he’d try and put up a bit of a fight if she stabbed him with a screwdriver. Make that him, regenerating on the floor with puncture wounds to the chest, neck and his forearms. Or she could stave his head in with the hammer; get him in the temple with the screwdriver, or strangle him with the hacksaw blade. It’s lightweight and flexible enough, made of woven titanium. Suddenly, his skin is crawling. Has she ever strangled him before? To death?
“I don’t know why you’re staring,” says Missy. “Is it the punchcards?”
“Have you ever strangled me?” the Doctor asks.
Missy pulls a face and shrugs, still focusing on lining up the connections of the small brass frame. “Now is not the time for therapy, Doctor. Now is the time for quiet, so I can get these straight.”
“There’s a set-square in here somewhere,” he says, rolling the toolbox so it’s in front of him. He begins to rummage through it. Three Phillips-head screwdrivers, four flatheads, two hammers, one watchmakers mallet, magnetic fastener - “Here.”
He holds it out to Missy, who takes it. She holds it up, stares at it, one eye closed. “That’s off,” she says. “Least, I’m pretty sure it is.”
The set square goes back into the toolbox. Missy’s smallest screwdriver follows it with a clatter. So, they’re all back in. Good.
“This is the last reader, anyway,” she says. “Then I’ll have an analogue chess-playing machine.”
“I thought that’s what it might be,” the Doctor says. “Why didn’t you just ask me to bring you one?”
“Would you have brought it to me?”
“If I’d told you I wanted to build one, would you have allowed it?”
“That does raise the question, Doctor.” says Missy. “You don’t know what I’ve been building, yet you’ve allowed it.”
“You said you’d kill yourself if I didn’t allow you at least an afternoon with some tinkering to do.”
“No,” says Missy, and she points at him. She wouldn’t even need a screwdriver or a hammer to kill him if she wanted to. Not really. She snaps her teeth. “I said I’d kill myself if we played one more game of chess and this was the result. I’m amazed you didn’t put two and two together and come up with four.”
“You’re making a chess-playing machine? What’s wrong with playing chess with me or Nardole?”
Missy raises an eyebrow, goes back to checking over the frame.
“Okay, Nardole, can see why you’re not into that,” the Doctor says, because Nardole always cheats, and cheats badly. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Our games are exhausted. I’m tired of playing with you.”
Missy slots the frame into the wooden box she’d built, turns a lever on the side. Then she takes one of the brass wands that he’d had cast on her orders, screws that into an opening on the box’s side. She turns the lever again, and the lever lifts up, drops down, and then telescopes out as if it’s pushing something. There’s a light ping, and two barbed prongs poke out of the end of the lever, scythe together.
“Looking good,” the Doctor says, deciding not to ask how Missy had gotten those sharp metal fingers.
“Cards,” says Missy.
She stands up, short and silent in her stockinged feet, and slides across the Vault’s floor to the squishy leather armchair on the dais. She doesn’t make a sound until she’s tossed the cushion to one side - perhaps she’s not kidding when she says she could sneak out of the Vault any time she wanted to.
“What are you going to ask me for next?” The Doctor asks. “An accordion?”
“Something like that,” Missy says.
Still at the armchair, Missy holds up a bundle of cards that had been hidden. She crosses back across the room, sits beside the Doctor; closer than before.
“Pour us a tea, would you?” she says.
The cards are the size of regular playing cards, made of thick greyish paper that he bets she’s made by hand, from shredding up pages of books she’s read. In the boredom of the Vault, she insists on making things from scratch that really are easy to get during this period of earth history. Even when he’s offered to get it, and instead she’s shredded his first edition of the Three Musketeers. Each of the cards has had small parts of it punched out, again, presumably by hand.
The Doctor pours them each a cup of tea, watching Missy through the curling steam as she slides a card out of the pile at random, slots it into the machine.
“Ah, bugger,” she says. “Chess set.”
“Chess set,” says the Doctor, and makes to get up.
If she’s this intent on building something with no ulterior motives, at least he should encourage that kind of behaviour. Or repairing things, even though every piece of technology on earth right now is so simple to them, Missy could fix it with one hand tied behind her back. And then perhaps…she could fix the béchamel sauce dispenser in his TARDIS.
“No no, you sit,” Missy says, and slides off again to get the one (again) she’d made herself, from melting buttons off her clothes, into a plastic chessboard. He’s still not figured out what heat source she used.
He’d carved the black pieces for her out of obsidian, and Missy had insisted on making the white pieces from chrysoberyl. Again, supervised, but him acting like he wasn’t supervising, and Missy pretending she didn’t know he was supervising. No matter how old they get, there’s always games going on. There’s a rattle, bringing him back to the present, as Missy places the chess-set in front of the machine. She begins to set out the pieces, click-click-click.
“Milk or lemon?” The Doctor asks quietly.
“Lemon, please,” she says, placing the last rook in position.
She cranks the handle on the side of the box; there’s a crunching noise and then the machine begins to tick. Missy smirks, moves her first pawn. The machine rumbles, and the arm juts out and sweeps all the pieces dramatically off the board.
“Is that supposed to happen?” The Doctor asks, and Missy throws a bishop at him.
She cracks the machine open and flips something, changes a couple of dials. It’s a beautiful thing she’s built (with pieces he welded on the TARDIS to her specifications), all spindly brass and glossy knobs. Missy grins to herself.
“I double-reversed the polarity here,” she says, pointing. “Force of habit, I suppose.” She closes the machine. It clicks and whirrs, then falls silent.
“Lunchbreak?” The Doctor asks.
Nardole brings them sandwiches and an apple apiece, which is probably an insult from one of the planets he’s been on. The Doctor knows - Nardole’s not been pleased with him spending more and more time in the Vault, but it’s 2005. His past selves love this and the ensuring few years; it’s more trouble than it’s worth for him to be out and about any more than is absolutely necessary, like teaching his introduction to physics classes.
Rather, that’s his excuse. Bristol wasn’t exactly on his, Jack's and Rose's top ten list of destinations in the year 2005.
“Penny for them,” Missy says. She’s been asking this more and more lately. It seems her limit on being locked inside four walls without small talk is 63 years, but she has other limits too. Rather, how much she cares to hear about what the Doctor’s thinking. So, he could answer - “I’m thinking about Rose. She was nineteen when I met her and now she lives in a parallel universe with my alternate self, who grew from my hand. That hand of mine, that you stole.” He’s not going to do that, too much baggage. So, instead:
“They announced Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize today,” he says.
“Bold of you to assume I know who that is,” Missy says. “Something pathetic and biological, I’m assuming.”
Today, he’s going to take a swing. “We do have a mutual friend who’d be very annoyed to hear that kind of thinking.”
Missy takes a theatrical look around the Vault. “I don’t think she’s listening, Doctor. Don’t think she really cares what we’re up to. What is the weather like today?”
“It’s grey,” he says. “It’s a very dull day out there.”
Missy puts her empty plate on top of the Doctor’s, dusts her hands off and crosses the room back to her chess machine. She sits, cross-legged, in front of it, and begins to set up the pieces again. He can see her from here, and he’s still got half a cup of tea left, so the Doctor just watches. Click-click-click, as Missy sets up the black pieces, then white. She cranks the machine, turns the board so the machine is playing black, and moves her first piece; the same pawn as earlier.
Disappointingly, the machine works. With a click and a grind, the machine’s arm telescopes out, delicately selects the mirrored black pawn, and moves it to the appropriate square. Missy, expression not changing, moves her knight.
“Are you mad it works, first go?” She asks, as the machine moves another pawn, deposits it with another click.
“Second time lucky,” the Doctor says. “Unsurprised, un-entertained.”
“It would be better with electro-magnets and metal pieces,” Missy says. “I don’t suppose - ”
“You shouldn’t suppose,” the Doctor says. “If you think I’m letting you play with electro-magnets, you’ve clearly not learnt anything since you came in here.”
“You carried me in here, it’s not like I had a choice,” she says, moving another piece.
Click. The machine whirrs. Click. Missy moves another piece without blinking. The Doctor decides to leave the choice, and the Missy begging for his help, and the resultant agreement regarding her time in the Vault, and the argument that would ensue, to one side for now.
Instead, he drinks his tea and says, “You’re playing white, you don’t usually play white. And you’re losing.”
“Mm-hmm,” says Missy. She moves a piece. “I’m not playing, per se, Doctor. I’ve memorised every game in this device. They’re randomised, and I have to figure out which one the machine is responding with.”
Bit embarrassing, he’d not noticed that. “And here I was thinking it was because you’re playing white. You never play white.”
“Only because you’ll never play black, my dear,” says Missy, and that’s new. She’s not called him that for a very long time. Does she know that? Why does that make his chest hurt? “You always pick white.”
“Let me play with you,” the Doctor says. He pretends not to notice Missy’s expression. “I’ll play black, then.”
Missy looks over at him. She grins.
He loses four games in a row. He draws fifth. Missy makes him go and get her a bar of chocolate as a prize.
Netflix is nowhere near being the streaming giant it is in the 2020s, especially after the pandemic, and so the Queen’s Gambit is only available as a novel, but his copy is missing from the TARDIS (one regeneration down the line, it turns out that Ryan borrowed it and the TARDIS wanted him to keep it), and the local bookshop takes a week to get it in. Nardole refuses to let him take the TARDIS back to meet with Bobby Fischer, so the Doctor is stuck playing chess online against RusKieMaster96 and PaulAintentDead and HarmonB, because he’s been blocked from all the major chess-playing websites, or what passes for a website in the Halcyon days of 2005. It’s hard enough finding one that lets him play black every time.
“Why can’t you play on a normal chess site?”
“Something - or someone - has blocked me from all the good sites.”
“Who’s blocked you from all the good sites?” Nardole asks, leaning over his shoulder (close, Nardole. Too close) and looking at the Doctor’s too-clunky (ah, 2005) laptop on his otherwise very aesthetically pleasing desk. “I mean, what kind of site is ChessXXX.com.ru?”
“Well, someone’s been cheating at online gambling,” says the Doctor. “And it’s not me. Was it you?”
“It’s not not me,” says Nardole, too quickly, and he leaves the office in a hurry. Then, he sticks his head back through the door. “I mean, with the insecure internet connection here, it could have been anyone.”
The Doctor moves his bishop. Chances are, 4Leafy2Green0 won’t realise he’s one move off check, but the other player is a bit slow to respond, so the Doctor picks up the Queen’s Gambit again and keeps reading.
This could be quite nice, under different circumstances. He’s brought in a video player; it’s playing a miniseries about the French Revolution. He can justify Missy seeing the bloodshed considering how fake it looks on the large television screen. There’s a hot pot of Earl Grey and some big, solid mugs, and a plate of the biscuits they both like (the ones from the yellow packet).
It could be nice, except he’s still losing. Game three of the day, now.
“It’s just luck,” the Doctor says, and Missy scoffs. "It is!"
“Such a man thing to say,” she says.
He meets her eyes across the board. It’s been a while since they looked directly at each other. It’s true, of course (not the eye thing, the man thing). It’s still irritating. When will he get to be a woman? Well, he could be a woman if he wanted to, but this body, and this mind in this body, they’re male. Perhaps unfortunately. He’d hope for his next regeneration, but he’s not even managed to pull off getting to be ginger.
“Sorry,” he says.
“Stone-cold, terrifying genius,” Missy says, and she smiles. “You catch earth ideas like chickenpox.”
“Have you ever had chickenpox?”
Missy moves her queen. “I did get very itchy at one point when I was in Venice in the 13th century, but that may have been plague.”
“Bit early for plague,” the Doctor says. He moves his bishop. “Well, there'll be one back on Earth in about fifteen years. Why were you in Venice?”
“Uh, it was six or seven bodies ago,” says Missy. “I don't recall. Probably for the carnival.”
Click, goes her piece. He loses a pawn. Click. Missy loses one in turn.
“Check,” says Missy, and he looks at the board anew and swears.
Missy grins. It’s not a wicked grin, though, which again - is something. She bites the pad of her thumb.
The Doctor knocks over his king. “That’s seven to you. Today. Again?”
“I’m tired,” Missy says. “I have a headache. Not tonight, honey.”
The Doctor moves the pieces back a few moves, click-clack-click, squints at the board. “Am I just out of practise?”
“That may be part of it,” says Missy. She sits back and sips at her tea. “And there’s only so many humans you can play on the internet before they start repeating patterns.”
The Doctor knocks over his king again. “And you’re just better than me.”
“Yes, that too.”
“Scary, gorgeous space genius,” the Doctor says, not sure why the words come out like that.
Missy picks up one of her knights, the white chrysoberyl glinting bright against her dark nail polish. She turns it over in her fingertips. “Indeed. Indeed. Also, Doctor. Please consider the basic facts — don’t get into chess theory and reading Bobby Fischer’s memoirs. What’s the basic thing that’s changed?”
She rests the knight against her mouth, presses it against her bottom lip until the flesh underneath is white. Then, she moves the knight away and colour flushes back to her lip, pink. The Doctor makes himself meet her eyes. There’s a long pause. Missy opens her mouth and then -
The show on the TV begins screaming. They both jump, and turn to the show. Ah. Robespierre’s just lost his head.
“Practise makes perfect,” Missy says quietly. “Truly Doctor, back to the basics. Black and white thinking, my dear. Black - and white.”
The Doctor looks away from where they’re mopping Robespierre’s blood up with handkerchiefs, the crowd a baying mass around the scaffold.
“You don’t need to read meaning into everything, Doctor,” Missy says, and she clicks the knight against the board twice. “Sometimes Max just loses his head. The wheel turns and the violence abates for a while. That's why they're called revolutions.”
He does turn back to her at that, and she’s smiling.
“Black and white,” he says. “It can’t just be that usually I play white against you.”
“No,” Missy says. “Though I do wonder how we fell into that pattern. It’s sloppy. Bad for the brain not to get a workout.”
“Yes, but it cannot just be that I usually play white and you usually play black,” the Doctor says, for lack of anything else. “More tea?”
“More thinking time, more like,” Missy says.
She makes him laugh. He pours tea for both of them, watches the steam curling up.
“Playing black against you is a challenge,” Missy admits, drawing her fingers through the steam. “I’m not used to letting you start.”
Oh. Oh. “Ah,” says the Doctor.
“I was hoping you’d come to that conclusion by yourself, dear,” Missy says. “Over the years, whenever we’ve had one of our little…encounters, I’ve always been the one to make the first move.”
For some reason, he feels like he should apologise for that. “I do text,” he says. “I mean, I did.”
“No need to text in here,” Missy says. “But it is fine, Doctor. You know I like the chase.”
“The hunt,” the Doctor says, before he can stop himself.
“I’m so used to the way things go, of course I’m better with white,” Missy says. “When things go, the way they should go. Without the extraneous mess of your lives out there. That’s where all my plans make sense. On a chessboard. No hidden - ”
“Information,” says the Doctor quietly. “None of my friends out to work against you.”
“I have friends, who aren’t you, you know,” she says.
He knows she’s lying. She also knows, that he knows. Missy sips her tea.
“So - well. I’m well practised at beating the tar out of you when I’m playing white, when I get to go first,” she says. “When things are really square. When it’s just us, a battle of wits. Mind to mind. Cortex to cortex. Perhaps it’s good I won’t get a chance to run real-world projects for a while. Perhaps it will make things shift.”
“How do I know you’re not running a project right now?” The Doctor asks. “If that’s what we’re calling it.”
“Aren’t you a little sick of asking that question?”
“I’m a bit sick of not knowing the answer,” he replies.
Missy clears her throat. She reaches across to the chess set and puts her fingertip on top of the black queen, rocks the piece back and forth. Click, clack. Click, clack.
“Aren’t we all,” she says. “How is the weather today?”
“Well, that’s a rough topic change,” says the Doctor. “Uh - it’s cold, grey. Unpleasant wind, it’s too strong for a breeze but too weak to justify avoiding being outside. I was only out for an hour or so this morning, had lectures all day.”
Click, clack. “Any interesting topics?”
“One student asked about the difference between dolphins and porpoises.”
Click, clack. “What’s a porpoise?”
“Uh, it’s like a - well,” the Doctor says. “It’s uh, it’s like a dolphin. They’re both primarily ocean-dwelling mammals.”
Missy nods. “Perhaps you should bring in some documentaries,” she says. “We’ll both spending a lot of linear time here, we might as well get to know the flora and fauna of the planet properly.”
“I think I know them fairly well.”
He casts about the Vault for inspiration. “How is your chess machine working out for you?”
“Well, apart from you taking the fingers off it,” says Missy, and she starts twirling the queen in between her palms. “I finished it - all the games I pre-programmed. I played them all, lost four or five, replayed those. Shuffled. Replayed them all.” She purses her lips, breathes out. “It’s going to be a long millennia, locked down in here.”
“I wish I had something pithy to say about that. All the games? Really?”
He looks at her then, the chess piece between her hands, bent slightly where she sits. She looks like she’s praying.
“Do you want me to go?” asks the Doctor. “I can leave.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Missy says.
“Okay,” the Doctor says. “Alright. Another game?”
Missy puts the queen down forcefully. “You play white,” she says. “Why is it black, and white?”
“I think it was just an issue of contrast,” the Doctor says. “Easy to tell them apart. White moving first wasn’t standardised for a very long time.”
Click. Click-click-click. Missy begins to line the pieces up again. The Doctor watches her fingers, lets his eyes trail up to her wrists.
“White moves first,” he says.
“Yes,” says Missy.
“Let’s go with the standard rules,” she says. "For this century."
They lock eyes over the chessboard.
“Loser makes dinner,” the Doctor says.
“Great. I’d like gnocchi,” says Missy, smiling across at him. “Red wine sauce.”
The Doctor makes his move.