Doctor Who Season Four (dwseason4) wrote,
Doctor Who Season Four

4x07: Asterion

4x07: Asterion

(Asterion, Beta Canum Venaticorum, 3218)

The Master wonders idly when the Doctor will start asking questions. He has his own, of course, set up in a neat line like dominoes, one question leading inevitably to the next, but it must be the Doctor to ask the first question. He won't, of course; the Master knows this. He's been with the Doctor long enough now to understand something he didn't when the Doctor first suggested keeping him: this bind he's in is a peculiarly symbiotic one. He makes the Doctor's life hell and in return the Doctor endlessly forgives him, and it creates a sort of hungry feedback loop; each of them trying to break the other in the way they know best.

But today seems like a good day to win.

Today they're on a planet the TARDIS has identified as Asterion, Earth year 3218: the sun is a brilliant blue-white, the sky glowing like a gem. Three misshapen little moons are circling each other near the horizon, and the Doctor and the Master are walking along a muddy track, the dirt below them a peculiar slate colour. On either side of the track are vast tangled fields of some vividly maroon plant, and despite himself the Master is enjoying the view. The plants are probably poisonous, the bright star beating down light probably gives off enough radiation to be quite harmful to humans, and his shoes are getting dirty. The Doctor is striding along cheerfully, heading towards a cluster of life-signs that were the only ones the TARDIS managed to pick up.

"Humans!" the Doctor says happily. "Here! I didn't think they'd gotten all the way out to Canum Venaticorum this early, but here they are! Very edge of their world!"

"Doctor," the Master says, "why..." He considers how best to phrase it. "This strange cheerleading obsession with a lot of mildly intelligent apes?"

"Because that's just it!" the Doctor returns, grinning at him. The Master still feels strange whenever the Doctor grins at him; he's used to the Doctor's old bodies, to a certain chivalric politeness, to defiance, even to the occasional bit of mania, but this is something else again. This fresh-faced freckled floppy-haired man swings between happily frivolous and deadly serious as easily as breathing, and if the Master does too, that's the Doctor's fault. It's all the Doctor's fault; his fault he's spouting some stupid admiration for humans again, explaining earnestly, "They're a lot of apes that fell out of trees and started banging things together and they ended up out among the stars! That's amazing, you do have to admit that's amazing."

"Thrilling," the Master deadpans.

Whatever the Doctor has to say about humans, the city they come to after a few more minutes' walking is less than impressive. It looks as though the humans have tried using the slate-coloured dirt as a sort of concrete, but sags a little, suspiciously, like wet clay. Their city is of reasonable size despite this, and a few well-fed children are playing a complicated version of hopscotch off the main boulevard, which the Doctor and the Master wander down with varying degrees of curiosity. It doesn't take long, of course, for a few adults to spot them and go running for blasters-- so they're not as stupid as all that. The Master had suspected they might be when he saw their utter lack of defenses around the city.

A man comes out into the street ahead of the others and points a blaster at them; they've stopped walking by then. The Master watches disinterestedly, but the Doctor puts his hands up and says, "It's all right. We're just passing through."

"How?" the man demands roughly. "We're not on any of the maps."

"Oh, well, I'm an explorer," the Doctor says.

This does nothing to reassure the man. "We've got nothing to trade," he says. "Piss off. Go back to your fancy spaceship."

"But what about those crops?" the Doctor asks, gesturing vaguely back the way they came. "You could do something with them! Dyes-- spices-- fuel--"

"They're poisonous," the man says shortly. (The Master smirks.) "So what's the deal, you're philanthropist explorers or something?"

"Something like that, yeah," the Doctor says, running a hand through his hair. It stands crazily on end. "We've got no weapons, honestly. We just want to look around."

The man sighs and holsters his blaster. "Fine," he says. "But once you've had a look you'll clear out, understood?"

"Oh, absolutely," the Doctor says, his eyes wide.

So they spend the day looking around, and the Doctor spends the day talking to people. Besides the pathetic clay buildings and the blasters, the people have a few large barns full of genetically modified chickens and cows, and a huge greenhouse where perhaps a quarter of the crops survive (the slate-like earth, when properly ground and baked, makes excellent heat-retaining glass, but as one woman explains exasperatedly to the Doctor, they can't very well live in glass houses-- hence the strange concrete-esque living structures). The only life native to this planet is the poisonous maroon plant, which, if nothing else, converts carbon dioxide into oxygen very efficiently, and the solar power the furiously burning sun provides is more than enough to fuel their various electronics. Really all these people need is a lot of good rock and metal and some decent trade relations, but-- and here seems to be the crux of the problem-- the humans who originally funded the colonizing of this planet didn't like the slow rate at which progress was being made, words were exchanged, and the colonists of Asterion are now on their own.

Somehow this gets explained to them over a communal dinner, which makes the Master feel uncomfortably twitchy. The food's all right, though, as human food goes, and a few attractive women (and a count of one attractive man) have been glancing his way, so the evening isn't a total waste. Or, perhaps, he thinks, watching the first man who had talked to them cradling his blaster and staring sullenly at his plate, not a waste at all.

"Sounds as though you've fallen on hard times," the Master says, in his best voice of sincere sympathy, sliding into a chair next to the man.

"Yeah," the man says, not looking up.

"My... compatriot," the Master says, "seems to think that if you attempted to open trade relations again, with nearby colonies, you might get out of your bind."

The man snorts.

"But you don't agree," the Master murmurs. "Who's in charge here?"

"That would be me," the man says shortly.

"Yes, I thought so." The Master smiles a little. "And what is your name?"

"Greg Howard," the man says. "Look, why all the questions? Who are you, anyway?"

And he makes the mistake of looking up.

"I am the Master," the Master says softly, locking eyes with him. "And I have a suggestion for you, Greg Howard. It is not diplomatic. It is not nice. But it will get you what you want."

Howard's cheeks go a little flushed. "Yeah?"

"The ship I came on," the Master says, "has certain... technologies. I can't give you metal or stone or more of whatever else you need, but I can give you the tools to get it." He smiles. "I assume the ship you arrived in is still in working order?"

"Yeah," Howard says again.

"You have a ship," the Master says delicately, "and I have nuclear firepower. Think about it." He stands and makes his way over to the Doctor, who seems to be in the midst of telling an absolutely hilarious story, judging from the uproarious laughter coming from his audience. The Master sits down.

"And then," the Doctor says, "and then, there was this big explosion right next to where all the paintings were all hidden-- only one of them survived, and it was one of the ones that had THIS IS A FAKE on it in big letters. Oh, I wonder if the people at the museum ever looked. Would've been a shock, wouldn't it, when they figured out there was no real one to replace it?" He looks up and grins. "Oh, hello, Master. I was just telling these people about Paris."

And there's that spike of pleasure the Master feels whenever the Doctor says his name, but here-- here, offhand, in a room full of people, in the middle of a stupid story of a city long gone-- it's somehow spoiled, somehow cheapened. The Master wants him to say it and mean it.

"Muddy backwater city," he says dismissively. "Are you bored yet?"

The Doctor smiles lopsidedly and gets up. "We can go," he says.

They head for the door.

Three, the Master thinks, two, one...

"Wait!" Howard calls, running over to them. The Doctor turns in astonishment. The Master turns, hiding a smirk. "Please," Howard says. "Can-- can you help us? With-- technology. Anything."

The Doctor breaks into a grin. "Of course!" he says. "We'll do whatever we can."

So they stay the night in one of the dampish buildings, and the following morning they walk back to the TARDIS amid a blazing silver sunrise. The Doctor collects wires and bolts and trots off to the TARDIS' own greenhouse to get a few packages of seeds, and while he's gone the Master kneels down in the control room and lifts a panel and coaxes a handful of charged particles into a small jar, which in turn goes into his coat pocket. He stuffs the other pocket full of wire, which should nicely alleviate suspicion, and together he and the Doctor set off back to the little city.

The Doctor spends all morning in the greenhouses, planting the seeds he's brought and chatting cheerfully with the farmers. The Master stays in one of the cool damp houses; he dislikes getting his hands dirty. Around noon, Howard joins him near a window.

"It's here," the Master says, pulling the jar from his pocket. "That power you'll need." Howard peers at the jar, his face awed and glowing a little from reflected light. "Of course," the Master says, pocketing it, "if you simply release it, it will destroy your entire city. You'll need my help."

"Of course," Howard says, willingly enough.

The Master looks at him.

Howard swallows. "Master," he says.

"Tell me, Howard," the Master says, "how many people would protest if you had my compatriot locked up? He... won't see our way of doing things, you understand. He'll advocate diplomacy at all costs."

"We-ell," Howard says. "I know some of the farmers would protest."

"How if he resisted arrest?" the Master asks. "How if he threatened them?"

"Then there would be no problem at all," Howard says.

"Good," the Master murmurs. "I promise no one will be killed. He doesn't like to hurt people. See it done."

Howard goes.

The Master grins to himself.

The rest of the afternoon is very busy: there's a brief commotion in the greenhouse, after which Howard reports that the Doctor is locked up in a storage room. The Master touches Howard's head in brief amused thanks. Someone runs in with the Doctor's confiscated weapon, and the Master pockets the sonic screwdriver with a smirk, then calls a meeting of engineers and explains what's needed: their excellent glass is quite good enough to make missile shells, at least for the Master's purposes. "Maps," he says. "We'll need maps of this part of the galaxy; we'll need to see what planets near us have suitable metal and ore." Suitable metal means suitable missiles, suitable ships. Maybe even suitable robots, if it comes to that. Maybe some day soon he'll be capable of putting the Doctor in more effective chains than those of old age. That would be nice.

Purple twilight falls. The Master shoos his humans off to their lopsided homes, and goes into the greenhouse, humming to himself. He picks an apple, considers it, polishes it on his coat sleeve, and slides it into his pocket before picking a second and strolling out of the greenhouse, eating pensively. He walks down the grey-blue boulevard in the gathering dark, watching stars spark into sight overhead, and when he reaches the shed where the people of Asterion have locked the Doctor, he feels an amusing antiquated urge to knock.

He doesn't.

The Doctor is sitting back against a wall, wrists shackled over his head, legs sprawled out casually in front of him, although when the Master enters he pulls one up to his chest to make room, and tilts his head a little. "Little overboard, isn't it," he says.

"Your own fault for pulling your sonic on them," the Master says, sitting down next to him. "Apple?"

"Mm. Not terribly easy to spoon-feed."

"No," the Master agrees, and holds it up to the Doctor's lips. A moment's consideration and the Doctor bites into it, then leans his head back against the wall, chewing.

"Nor terribly subtle," he adds.

The Master shrugs. "You shouldn't have left me alone."

Even the Doctor's thoughts are quiet. "No," he murmurs. "Perhaps I shouldn't've." He turns his head; the Master smirks and holds up the apple so the Doctor can have another bite.

"Aren't you going to ask what I'm doing?" he inquires after a moment. "My terrible plans, now you're safely locked away?"

"Oh, but I already know," the Doctor says, glancing at him sideways in the gloom. "Even with me safely locked away, the TARDIS won't respond to you, so you'll need another ship. These people have one." He sighs and adjusts the way he's sitting. "Of course that's not all; if they'll follow you far enough to let you take their ship, they'll follow you far enough you can start invading other planets properly. It never stops, does it? You just try to take over the universe, again and again."

Dropping the apple he's brought for the Doctor onto the ground is petulant and childish, but the Master does it anyway. "And you'll always try to save it," he says, kicking the apple away and drawing one leg up to his chest, just as the Doctor's sitting.

"Yes," the Doctor says. "It needs saving even when you're not trying to destroy it."

The Master's hands ball into fists; still loose, though. "Meaning...?"

"When things are saved," the Doctor says, staring up at the ceiling, "You see them carrying on and surviving and being wonderful. But to destroy things-- to destroy things you need an audience." He looks over at the Master. "You need someone who knows what you're doing, or there's no point."

"Are you saying I need you?" the Master sneers.

The Doctor regards him steadily. "Yes."

The Master gets swiftly to his feet. "Then, Doctor," he spits, "you can stay here to rot."

"And let me die?" The Doctor looks up at him. "You won't. Killing me doesn't mean you've won."

He kicks the Doctor, hard.

The Doctor's head hits the wall with a dull thump; his legs twitch and his hands go into fists and he spends a moment struggling to breathe. But when he looks back at the Master his face is still calm, so the Master kicks him again, harder, and kneels down, burying a hand in the Doctor's hair and yanking. The fleeting look of pain in the Doctor's face abates his fury a little.

"I am winning," he whispers.

"Are you?" the Doctor rasps, opening his eyes and peering at the Master. He's wincing a little.

"You've had me locked up," the Master snarls. "Now it's my turn."

The Doctor merely looks at him impassively.

"I had Earth," the Master says. "For a year I had Earth."

"You did," the Doctor agrees.

"What do you call winning?" the Master demands. "When I've burned every world across all of time and we're standing on some dark abyss and there's no one left to save? Is that when I'll win?"

"No," the Doctor says.

The Master's pulses pick up a little.

"Me," he breathes. "If I vanished. If you couldn't sense me anywhere. If you were alone again."

A look of pain crosses the Doctor's face. "That's not winning," he says quietly. "That's running away."

The Master's free hand seizes the Doctor's collar. "So you're telling me you will never allow me to win."

Something peculiar flickers in the Doctor's eyes. "No," he whispers. "I'm not saying that."

They're inches apart and both trembling a little and the Master wants to kill him. Wants to kill him in some stupid graceless messy way-- with a knife, perhaps-- stab the Doctor in one heart and then the other and press his palms to the Doctor's chest like he's trying to stem the blood when really he'll just be feeling it well under his hands, and then he'll feel the sparks of regeneration and the Doctor's glowing new body will form at his fingertips. That would be winning, and close to, one hand buried in the Doctor's hair, the Doctor can see this imagining and shudders a little, not quite from horror.

"Let me go," he whispers. "Please, let me go and I--"

"Will smother me in compassion," the Master says contemptuously. "Act like a savior. Keep the little people safe and work all the while to make me like you. Do forgive me for rejecting this plan."

"Let me go and I won't have to escape," the Doctor says steadily. "And this will be yours, start to finish."

"Obey you, and it will be mine, start to finish?" The Master laughs, his hands tightening a little. "If you think you know me, why are you bothering to say any of that?"

The Doctor's eyes glitter. "Compassion," he says.

The Master stills. Asterion is of course the perfect place to rule; its people are too lost and too stupid to do other than let him. And from Asterion it's a very short while to other worlds; there are mercenaries and weapons that can be bought, entire civilizations to be brought to their knees before him. The universe is vast and the drums demand its vastness. But Asterion is a petty challenge. Finding weapons and mercenaries is boring work and takes time he doesn't care to waste. And this small space-- the Doctor pressed to the wall and the Master kneeling with his hands in the Doctor's hair-- this space is vast too; the dark stretches around them and the Doctor breathes in time with the drumbeats. It's impossible he can't know.

"Ask nicely," the Master murmurs.

The Doctor just looks at him, for a long, terrible moment. Then, "Master," he says, like a breath. "Please."

Silence again. The Master isn't entirely sure he can move. Maybe this really is what winning feels like. The static in the Doctor's mind is full of urgent little crackles; he's horribly afraid. The Master holds onto that fear and lets the silence stretch and somehow he's leaned in to rest his forehead against the Doctor's.

"Contingency plan?" he asks in nearly a whisper, and can feel the Doctor's shuddering little exhale like it's inside his own skin. "If I say no?"

"I wouldn't have let you off on your own like that without one," the Doctor replies; his voice is just a little too shaky to be properly amused. "They'll let me out tomorrow. Howard might not be so bright, but a lot of the others are."

"And now that you've told me?" the Master inquires. His hand in the Doctor's hair shifts a little and the Doctor shivers again.

"You still don't know which ones," he says.

"No," the Master agrees, and starts to pull away, and to his absolute delight the Doctor makes a very quiet, swallowed-down sound of protest, although when he looks at the Doctor, the Doctor's face is absolutely impassive.


He disentangles himself from the Doctor and stands, pulling the sonic from his pocket. A moment's work and the Doctor's arms fall. He winces and massages his wrists and gets unsteadily to his feet. "Thank you," he says, and looks up from his hands, frowning a little. "Why?"

"It's very simple," the Master says, and kisses him.

The Doctor stands absolutely frozen for a second, then stumbles back against the wall and seizes the Master's hair in his hands and kisses him back as though he's been starved for it. Of course he has, the Master thinks, perhaps a little dizzily; he's been living a saintly hands-off life because everyone is too fleeting, too fragile, too human. His nails dig into the Master's scalp and he's trembling, and accordingly the Master shifts against him to support both their weight and cups the Doctor's face gently in his hands and slows the kiss, and the soft sound the Doctor makes is far more than worth it. If this is twisting painfully at his insides, making him want to sob and crawl inside the Doctor's skin, then it must be even worse for the Doctor, and that makes it far more than worth it too.

He pulls away very gently; the Doctor stays pressed against the wall for a moment, his mouth a little open and his eyes very wide.

"Back to the TARDIS, then," the Master says, as though absolutely nothing has happened at all, and watches the Doctor take his cue: watches his shoulders straighten, watches the precise moment when the Doctor's face shifts out of open and vulnerable.

"And onwards," the Doctor agrees, and holds out a hand; the Master sighs and tosses him his sonic. They go to the door of the store room. The Doctor glances back up the street. "They'll be all right," he says. "I couldn't give them the metal, but they'll have a decent supply of wood soon." He sets off down the street.

The Master drops his jar of charged particles in the mud as they go. In the morning, someone will find it.

This round to him.

Previous: 4x06: Monster Hospital | Next: 4x08: The Living Ships
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