Credit where credit is due: a big thanks to Stephenie Meyer for writing Twilight. While reading it, I would now and again start to feel my IQ slipping; every time this happened I rushed back over to the commentary window and used big words until I felt better. This commentary would not have been completed so quickly without you, Ms Meyer.
The funny thing about this fic is that I have absolutely no idea how it came into being. I think it had something to do with occasionally bumping into Koschei/Theta fics in the course of wandering the internet in search of Doctor/Master fic, and thinking offhandedly that I'd like to try my hand at it. The offhanded thought coalesced into actual resolution during the writing of dwseason5; while watching the last few episodes of s4, I found myself tracking down a lot of old school serials during the weekdays, and a lot of old school Master impressions sort of filtered their way into the s5 project. The Master is probably my favourite character in the entire show, for reasons I have yet to adequately explain even to myself, and in order to write his motivations properly I started constructing backstory in my head.
Somewhere amid all this I wondered where that fanon 'Koschei' thing had come from. I discovered that it came from a Missing Adventures novel which blithely explained how the Master had become evil because the woman he loved betrayed him; this left an extremely bad taste in my mouth, as well as being a lazy way to turn someone evil. I started considering more plausible routes along which the Master's evil could be reached; this merged with my vague ambitions at Academy fic, so that the plot became less "the love story of Koschei and Theta" and more "how Koschei became the Master (with bonus love story)". And then this fic more or less wrote itself.
On the first night, Koschei is homesick.
He's been assigned a double name just like everyone else: Psi Epsilon, a statistic that trips over his tongue. His true name is buried somewhere in the middle of his chest, in the space between the reality of his left heart and the potential of his right, under the stifling dark robes. He wants to dig it out and speak it, and in the morning his new schoolmasters will ask his name; Psi, he'll say, and Koschei, and the whole class will laugh when he blurts further that it's what his mother calls him. Called, he conjugates dutifully, called in the past tense he'll never revisit even when he's a Time Lord. He can nearly see that mocking future and he flushes hot and cold, curled up in one of the endless statistical bunks provided for Initiates.
As far as I know, I basically made up this naming convention on the spot. In doing my Gallifrey research I came upon the suggestion that Time Lords are filed in the Matrix according to Greek letter designations, and I ran with it. This doesn't actually explain names like Drax or Romanadvoratrelundar (I'm so sorry, is there anything we can do?) so, though I didn't go into detail in-story, I decided that most young Gallifreyans choose to stick with some from-home childhood name, make one up for themselves, or keep their designated letter name. Koschei is the sort of person who is going to stick to the name he already knows, and not have another one forced on him, until such time as he discovers who he is and can think up a new one for himself. Theta is the sort of person who will amiably stick with one name until the next one is provided. Obviously Ian and Barbara's "Doctor" has much better connotations than Gallifrey's "Theta".
Funnily enough, when I opened the document to write this fic, before even beginning I saved it as 'the naming of things'. I didn't then consciously set out to make names a thematic thing -- I figured the title probably had something to do with the fic eventually ending in Koschei renaming himself Master, or finding out that Theta was calling himself the Doctor now. It didn't turn out that way at all but names still ended up being extremely important.
When he closes his eyes he sees the whirl of the Vortex, blueshifting into the possible. He'd stood there amid flickering fires that cast no heat, and he'd never known how to feel homesick before but what he looked on was vertigo, the unknown; Koschei clinging to the skin of the world and so frightened. He keeps his eyes open now and stares into the close forgiving dormitory darkness, trying to ignore a faint but insistent little headache throbbing at the base of his skull.
I'm extremely uncomfortable with The Crazy Drums as a concept, especially as one that's shorthand for insanity. The drums certainly didn't drive Yana to do evil; I have heard rumours that the Doctor's sob-story explanation to Jack and Martha was total BS, although Rusty apparently changed his mind or forgot and wrote the Master corroborating the story the following episode; no old school Master ever bothers to mention them, so basically I view them as sloppy retcon. On the other hand, my general rule is to take TV canon as canon, barring particularly strange contradictions and possibly the TVM.
This means that Koschei does get the drums, but they're never called drums within the story. They're just a feature of his mind, and not one that he notices very much outside of extenuating circumstances.
Someone is crying.
It's a choked-up snuffling little sound, determined not to be heard. Koschei feels a weird flare of kinship -- they're all Prydonian here, of course, but this is different -- the little gulping breaths might have been his, except they're two bunks down. Without warning Koschei is a good deal less homesick. The words he mouthed at the Induction Ceremony come back to him, spoken with more ringing authority inside his head than he managed aloud: I will to the end of my days with justice and with honour temper my actions and my thoughts. Koschei isn't entirely clear yet on what the Ancient Law of Gallifrey has to say on what justice or honour are, but he knows intimately the sickly injustice of being far from home, so up he gets. Pads across the cool floor until he reaches the source of the barely-there noise, and insinuates himself into the bunk.
At some level, the story has to start like this. It should not read, "Once upon a time Koschei was born with special evil abilities, scared all the other children, and knew that he was Speshul."
The sniffling stops abruptly, and this other boy starts up. In the dimness it's impossible to distinguish colours, but Koschei can see that the bunk's occupant has a mass of fine light hair and features that have defined themselves into stubbornness. The boy swipes the back of his hand across his face, puts his chin up, and hisses, "What are you doing here?"
Here I make the slightly awkward confession that there is one more reason I started writing this fic, apart from all the stuff about the Master: puzzlement with Theta. There is some extremely good Academy fic out there, but there is also some Academy fic out there that features someone named Theta Sigma who is, to all appearances, at least reasonably related to the Tenth Doctor; he is composed of rakish, wide-eyed innocence, lots of happiness, and a strange tendency towards submissive behavior.
I didn't actually give it much thought until I came across this fairly hilarious piece of fanart, entitled The Doctor's Inner Child. Then the gears started working away in my brain. Assuming that the first onscreen Doctor is the Doctor's first incarnation, which seems to be the general consensus, one can still assume it took him a substantial number of years and the burden of exile for the Doctor to get as prickly as we see him onscreen. All the same, I found myself watching a few One serials curiously, because I was perfectly willing to go with a Theta who was other than rakish, happy, submissive, and wide-eyed innocent.
The things I ended up taking from Hartnell's Doctor were mostly body-language things -- the way he holds his chin, a nervous habit of rubbing his left lapel with his thumb -- a certain arrogant impatience, and the occasional "Hmm?" All the other speech tics unfortunately started with an indignant "Young man ..." which I presumed a child of ninety on Gallifrey would get in trouble for.
It's exactly what Koschei would have done, exactly. Something starts expanding in his chest. He wants to blurt out, Don't worry, you are not alone. It would be appallingly forward. He says, "Overheard you. Sorry."
And the beginning of a deliberate paralleling. The text of the show is always happy to demonstrate how well-matched they are; I imagine that, at least to begin with, the Master is extremely convinced of the "You and I are not so different," brand of villainous speech.
Also: YANA. I couldn't resist. Excuse me while I hang a lampshade on that.
The other boy's chin stays set but the rest of him relaxes a little at the apology. "Sorry," he echoes. "I didn't mean to keep you from sleeping."
Aware of being on the brink of some emotional chasm opening up beneath him, Koschei says simply: "I was having trouble anyway."
They look at each other. The chasm closes, the Vortex fades, the darkness seems less pressing and unfamiliar, and for the first time in his young life Koschei is visited by the heady sensation of understanding, and of being understood.
"Theta Sigma," the boy offers. Holds out a hand stiffly.
For this exchange, both boys are equally awkward. Not only have they only just met, but Gallifreyan society is not one that encourages close connections like the one they form here by accident and circumstance. It's not so much that they are fated to know one another as that they're in a small way misfits already, and both equally capable of becoming the sort of people they become.
Awkward but unwilling to let the moment go, Koschei takes it. "Psi Epsilon," he says, but the feeling of being unexpectedly caught in a safety net won't leave him, and it's Theta Sigma, this not-a-statistic, who's unwittingly made him feel it. He adds, "But it's Koschei, actually."
It's not his real name but a real name and Theta Sigma's hand goes very tight clasped in his. Koschei doesn't want to leave. Just by crying this boy has let Koschei know he's not alone, let Koschei feel like the strong one.
Thematic stuff! Here I accidentally foreshadowed the moment when Koschei tries to tell Theta his real-real name, and purposefully foreshadowed Koschei's desire to be in control. If we were to come at this with a Shakespearian deconstruction, which I sort of do automatically at this point (thank you, English major) I'd say that the need for control is Koschei's tragic flaw, which I think and hope is supported by the text of the show too.
If he's the strong one, and he stays, it must be for Theta Sigma's benefit. Syllogism.
He doesn't actually ask, but Theta Sigma doesn't make him leave, and eventually they fall asleep curled up together. In the first dawn light Koschei awakes and creeps back to his own cold bunk, where he falls asleep again feeling wonderfully transgressive with a grin on his face. He knows it's going to be exactly like this for months yet.
The assignation theta sigma is in strict correspondence to social rank, and while Koschei is from a family of good standing -- he wouldn't be here at all if this wasn't the case -- the psi says it all, really. Lowest possible place of Matrix filing, and he'd probably have been bumped all the way down to omega if it wasn't for the obvious reasons that no one was given that tag in the filing system.
Again, me making things up with wild abandon. I gave Koschei the name Psi Epsilon just because I liked the sound of it, and noticed upon writing this section that psi is the lowest letter I could have given him. I shrugged at the serendipity and decided it would be nicely fitting for Koschei to feel vaguely as though he suspects he's viewed as having ideas above his station and is resentful about it.
Theta Sigma is in the second group, starting with the eta students. Koschei's in the third group, starting with tau. There's no insinuation as to levels of ability, as such, involved in these divisions. There's no real reason Koschei shouldn't seek out a fellow student in a different division; no real reason but a particular sort of paralysis born of subtle social stigma and a sort of perverse pride. Koschei might catch Theta Sigma at meals -- except that switching tables is somewhat frowned upon, and by the time Koschei gets up the courage, the other boy has surrounded himself with friends and hangers-on, like he's the nucleus of some social atomic mass -- or he might catch Theta Sigma at lights-out -- except self-consciousness has caught up to Koschei with a vengeance and he can't imagine trespassing into someone's personal space like that again.
So there it is: Koschei watches this boy and memorises him from a distance. High forehead, light hair, arrogant tilt to the chin, easy smile. It would be so simple to step in, be an electron in Theta Sigma's orbit. But Koschei cannot countenance that.
All right, we can probably add pride to Koschei's list of tragic flaws. At the moment it's only resulting in harmless and non-creepy stalking, but this sort of thing could become a habit later in life.
Instead, he works very hard. He does his geometry sets in record time; then he works out how to do them very slowly, with the greatest possible precision and no margin for error. Ten out of ten, every time. Koschei learns how to manipulate the equations so they'll always come out with happy numbers. In the second year, they learn their home galaxy's great poetry forms from throughout history. Koschei entertains himself by converting iambic pentameter into binary, into quadratics, back again. Ten out of ten.
He sheds the dark Initiate robes and wears the scarlet, which does nothing to alleviate the general impression he suspects he gives people of being a black-and-white ghost with stupid hair.
I couldn't resist. There is just something so unfortunate about the little boy with the pudding-bowl haircut in the Sound of Drums flashback.
He fetches and carries for the older boys, as is expected, and even the knowledge that all the other students his age are fetching and carrying too does little to stop the upwelling of resentment. His professors merely tolerate him, having no reason to believe he's anything but just clever at the beginning exercises. And everyone else bores him.
Koschei, a decade old, only one one-hundredth of his way through his projected lifespan, can feel the world growing small.
Good marks earn free time. Koschei begins spending the afternoons he's granted alone out of doors. The Academy, situated as it is in the foothills of the Mountains of Solace and Solitude, affords a fantastic view of the valleys below, of the Capitol glittering in the distance. Sometimes Koschei sits on some half-forgotten terrace watching the double sunset. Binary. Gallifrey's system is odd in that, rather than a main sequence A star and a dwarf B, it has instead two main sequence stars of relatively small volume, orbiting one another at exactly the right distance and velocity for their gravity wells to form a symmetry rather than tear each other apart. Koschei likes that.
This paragraph originally existed as part of a larger section concerned with what young Koschei did with his free time. It eventually ended up by itself to, perhaps a little artlessly, showcase a metaphor: the binary stars. An even more awesome metaphor would have been one star in geosynchronous orbit with a black hole, but Gallifrey has two suns, so I did the best I could with the binary star system. Obviously neither Theta nor Koschei are analogous to dwarf stars; whether the laws of physical science allow a stable orbit of two main sequence stars, I don't know, but I figure in this case metaphor > science.
One afternoon he takes a tablet of prototype TTC schematics out to his favourite courtyard, all in his head and thinking of the fiddly little additions he would make to a sleek modern Type 45 TARDIS. He's so involved in considering the logistics of a remote-activated security system that he doesn't notice his normal study bench is already occupied until he's almost upon said occupant. Blond hair. Chin tucked in over some data pad.
The Type 45 mentioned here is shiny and new; a Type 45 is mentioned again near the end of the story, and referenced as being a bit outdated. I figure that, much like computer technology on Earth, TARDIS technology improves relatively quickly. The fact that a 45 is a current model when Koschei and Theta are young children possibly adds a bit of pathetic antiquity to the Type 40 the Doctor eventually steals.
The remote-activated security system Koschei considers is something the Master actually has installed in his TARDIS by the Three serial Colony in Space. I'm a nerd like that, but the Master has a security camera in a wristwatch so he's a nerd too.
Koschei is absurdly relieved to see that up close, Theta Sigma looks nearly as ridiculous in the vivid Prydonian robes as he does. Theta Sigma looks up. For a moment his eyes remain faraway and unfocused; then he smiles, a beam that lights up his small face and makes little crinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Koschei, isn't it?"
I have a confession: I think William Hartnell has a really amazingly charming smile. I may have fixated on it a little; I was worried about this until I noticed that I kept describing Theta's smile as a beam, or glowing, or lighting up. Then I gleefully ran with the light/darkness metaphor, because sometimes the old clichés still have some wear in them.
They've only talked the once. Theta Sigma will have heard anyone else call him Psi Epsilon. And yet.
"That's right," Koschei says, sitting down with all the grace he's learned so far. "And you're Theta Sigma."
"The only other theta is Omicron, and he prefers that," the other boy replies. "I think," he adds, leaning forward conspiratorially, "Omicron believes a name like that is dignified. Sounds a little bit like Omega, doesn't it?"
Koschei doesn't know the boy in question, but he feels safe in saying, "Only if you're half-deaf and have a death wish."
This prompts a burst of laughter. "Exactly! So it's just Theta, please." Theta's face becomes serious. "No one else calls you Koschei. Am I overstepping ...?"
Koschei feels again that peculiar sensation of his chest expanding. "No, not at all," he says. "Theta." Worries his lip a little. "I don't suppose you'll keep it."
He says things like this -- thoughts fully-formed inside his mind and only half-stated -- and is given blank looks. Theta's isn't; it's thoughtful. "I suppose I'll want a name that's not dignified unless it needs to be, which Theta never is. Maybe a title. Like the Castellan."
This time it's Koschei who laughs -- giggles, really, and he can only hope with time they'll turn at least into rolling chuckles -- and says, "Yes, I don't think the Castellan's ever had a name."
They laugh about this together, although it's not really that funny. Really it's relief, shared. Koschei knows Theta never does this with any of those orbiting hangers-on. He's different. He's different and safe in the knowledge of this, he shows Theta the TTC schematics he's working on. Theta wants to know if this TARDIS can make tea, and whether it's allowed to have a zeppelin hangar, since he's quite fond of them at the moment. Koschei thinks stasis chambers might be a good idea. They lean together shoulder-to-shoulder and finally, finally, it's the way it's supposed to be.
More dorky references: in that same Three serial, the Master's TARDIS also has convenient stasis chambers; in Scream of the Shalka, which is the best Doctor/Master serial ever -- shame about it not being really canon -- the Doctor's TARDIS has a zeppelin hangar, and I think the tea thing speaks for itself.
I had some small difficulty writing this scene; I'm extremely at home with proper banter when I need to be, but here I was writing two boys who know nearly nothing about one another and live in an extremely repressive society, and I needed to convey how smoothly and easily they riffed off one another. Theta is a naturally talkative boy -- Ten might have a gob on him but it's just an intrinsically Doctorish thing for the Doctor to talk a lot -- but it's Koschei who has to carry the narrative flow, and whatever I do he's bordering on sociopathy. I can't couch the interaction in terms like comfortable, because he doesn't think that way; he thinks in terms of observation that Theta is able to understand him, and comes to the conclusion that this is the proper state of affairs.
On a warm evening full of meteor showers Koschei slips quietly out of the dormitory and onto a terrace. Theta is sitting there already. He gives Koschei one of those distracted and slightly irritable looks at being torn from the spectacle in the sky before his brain catches up with his eyes and he favours Koschei with a glowing smile. "You knew I'd be out here," he accuses.
"I like watching the sky," Koschei says simply.
A lot of this fic was also the literary equivalent of drawing only the negative space. Once in a while Theta is allowed to state the obvious, but then Koschei has lines like I like watching the sky, which means things like of course I knew and but I would never be needy enough to come looking. At this point it's probably pride and an inability to know what the words are; eventually it will turn into a habit of hiding his real motivations even from himself if they're at all shameful to him.
The silence wraps itself around them, each of them in turn wrapped in amateurish psychic projections. In class they're starting to work with their developing minds. Koschei doesn't want to share his mind with anyone, the stupid small headaches or the secret grand thoughts, but now while Gallifrey tears through a burning storm of meteors, it doesn't seem so frightening.
"When I was very little I wanted to be a train conductor," Theta comments unprompted into the silence.
Koschei doesn't say anything to that. The random fact hangs unprotected between them, and it's enough.
More negative-space writing.
The train conductor line is from a random bit of trivia Five drops in Black Orchid. I have pretty much boundless love for that little glimpse of the Doctor's childhood.
Almost overnight he starts growing like mad. He hates it at first, having this stupid impermanent body be so out of his control. Then Koschei notices that while Theta has turned into a creature made entirely of elbows, he's filled out, energy settling and all his floppy hair suddenly dashing rather than silly.
So almost overnight Koschei learns how to capture his own cloud of Gallifreyan-shaped electrons. It's very simple: smile, like Theta does. Koschei tries it in a mirror a couple of times until he gets it right, smiling up, chin tucked in, like he's sharing a secret. Theta does it better, because of the way it makes his face glow, but Koschei makes up for it by giving his own the slightest edge of a smirk, and just like that the other students come, moths to a flame.
I am very taken with the idea that all the smirks and charm and authority that the Master regularly employs are perversions and imitations of mannerisms that come quite naturally to the Doctor. The Master always strikes me as being a very deliberate actor, part and parcel with all the disguises he regularly employs; also a lot of the actions he takes make a lot more sense if one assumes he's actually a bit self-loathing, and sort of piles heaps of ego over it to fill in the gap. (Actually, in typing that I notice that the Tenth Doctor can be explained by that reading also. I'm slightly terrified now.)
He's brilliant and he learns to strategically not mention his brilliance at all, so that they hang around hoping some of the brilliance will rub off on them. Koschei knows it won't. He looked into the Vortex and he saw his own singularity, and only one other person on this whole silly planet might have seen the same thing.
Doing a read-through, Emma (metaphorically via IM) turned to me and said sternly, "Aria, did you just make a singularity pun?" Yes. Yes I did. Shame on me.
But he doesn't let this shifting group of people go. He likes the attention.
Theta is messy.
Naturally, the moment they're moved to an upper level, Koschei and Theta apply to be roommates. No one is surprised, and Koschei is dimly aware that some heated debate might have gone on upstairs before the request was granted, but here they are. Now Theta's things get everywhere. Old clocks, his tea set, endless incomprehensible handwritten scribbles of equation and observation, a gramophone, silly bric-a-brac from the detritus of space.
In fact due to budget constraints the TARDIS console room is often very clean, but the Doctor is the sort of person who just gives off this feeling of never picking up his socks. Moreover, I suspect One at least of being a bit of a packrat; after becoming used to Five's sort of creepily pristine white console room, I rewatched the beginning of Unearthly Child and was astonished at the hat racks and grandfather clocks and baroque armchairs and various historical bits-and-bobs just lying around the place. It follows that Theta would also be a bit of a packrat.
I also like the idea of Koschei and Theta sending in identical roommate request forms, and the resulting upset upstairs. There would be those professors who ask rhetorically what harm it would do, those professors who think that spending more time together might set those boys to rights, and those professors who opine loudly that it will come to no good and they're likely to blow up the South Wing. That last set of professors would, of course, be right.
Theta is very good at taking said bric-a-brac -- any spare parts will do, wires and bits of string -- and constructing them into elaborate little time-flow analogues that are completed mere seconds after Koschei has finished some time experiment, and for credit, too. At first Koschei is bewildered by this behavior, as he wouldn't have otherwise thought Theta particularly capable of maliciousness. Then he notices Theta watching him for that burst of anger, gauging it like any other phenomenon, and he understands.
He learns, in the days following this revelation, how to build a spare-parts time-flow analogue himself. And he makes Theta's experiments explode. And he has the pleasure of watching the fury on Theta's face turn to dawning understanding turn to a rueful smile. They do it again, and again, and for some long while their free time is spent on ever more elaborate time experiments and disruptions. In a growing lifetime of intellectual challenges, they're collectively the best.
The bit of spare-parts time-flow analogues built to disrupt one another's time experiments is taken from the Three serial Time Monster, in which the Doctor interrupts one of said experiments with a wine cork and some wires whilst smilingly reminiscing about their schooldays. The Master is not best pleased. But I am.
Until they blow up part of the South Wing.
Something I learned from my days of writing MWPP fic for the Harry Potter fandom: it's a lot funnier if you don't actually talk about it. Talk about it as "that time with the hedgehog," or like Calvin's famous "Noodle Incident". How did they blow up the South Wing? How much of it? Were they chagrined? How long did Borusa yell at them? I have no idea. It's much better when you make it up for yourself.
"We're going about it all wrong," Koschei announces.
Theta's lying on his bed, hands folded demurely, staring at the ceiling. "Let me guess," he says. "Professor Borusa's punishment illustrates the fundamental injustice at the centre of Time Lord society, in direct contradiction to the Laws of Time it wishes to uphold."
"Shut up," Koschei says. "I'm serious."
"All right." Theta sits up. "Do tell."
"Well." Koschei fiddles with the cloth of his robe, a habit he's picked up from Theta. "We are to above all uphold the Laws of Time, correct?" Theta snorts softly, looking impatient, so he goes on, "These laws being in place so that the integrity of the fabric of the space-time continuum is maintained, and the causality of the Universe is kept in line. But --" he leans forward "-- what, exactly, decides which bits of spacetime are the correct ones?"
This opening gambit, and the conversation that follows it, are questions that actually deeply bother me about Gallifrey and the show's universe. Happily, they're supposed to. The fact of the Time War and all the talk of "fixed events" that get trotted out in the new series make the Laws of Time even more complicated, but even leaving those aside, the fundamental fact of the matter is that, yes, Time Itself might have a say in this but when everything's said and done, the Time Lords have fairly close to limitless power.
There was a line I failed to work into the fic, but which informed this conversation immensely. "The only way most Time Lords can cope with their near infinite power is to be so narrow-minded and dull-witted that they never realize the power they have." I have a vague feeling that it might be a paraphrase of Fourth Doctor quote, but this mostly has to do with the way I hear it in a mildly scathing Tom Baker voice.
"Rhetorical question?" Theta enquires.
"No. Work with me here."
"Matrix records," Theta says. "Extensive observation. Analysis."
"No," Koschei says. "Failing marks, Theta Sigma. What actually determines correct causality?"
Theta frowns a little. "The Time Lords."
"Exactly." Koschei goes back to fiddling with the hem of his robe. "It follows, therefore, that Time Lords have the power to determine what exactly the normal course of history is. We have the knowledge of the universe locked away in the databanks at the Capitol, and what do we do? Plagues and murders and genocides still happen to all the lower beings, and simply because some Time Lord somewhere observed the aftermath and doesn't want one little paradox."
Which is something that bothers me about time paradoxes. They seem to operate on the same principle as 'young people can do more because they haven't yet learned what's impossible'. If you personally haven't witnessed what's supposed to happen, well, then, it doesn't necessarily have to happen!
I generally put a lot more of myself into the way I write the Doctor than the way I write the Master, but my own paradox frustration turned out to be useful for Koschei here. I, however, have no intention of cannibalising the Doctor's TARDIS for a paradox machine later in life.
Theta listens to all of this very closely. "You've been thinking about this," he says. Koschei very deliberately gives him the duh look, which he knows gets on every single one of Theta's nerves. Not this time. Theta merely nods and says, "Rebuttal later. Go on."
I like the little silent exchange here; the idea that Theta has the inner crotchety old man even now but curbs it around Koschei, and the idea that despite this Koschei knows exactly how to wind Theta up. Also, Simm!Master gives the world's best 'uh, hello, are you dumb' look, and however dignified the other Masters pretend to be, they're not very good at it. Actually, what can I say, I just like picturing Ainley or Delgado giving the duh look. Delgado would do it with style.
Koschei sucks in a surprised breath; but then, anyone else would have snapped him down for blasphemy by now. "I did the calculations," he says. "The quantum sets we've been given? They work well in theoretical application to history. I'm well aware that changing an entire planet's continuity would have a ripple effect, but isn't that the point? 'With justice' -- it's our purpose to go out and make the universe more enlightened."
"To what end?" Theta asks. "Changing the universe -- not knowing what would happen -- you do away with one plague and the next moment some rival time-aware race might be at Gallifrey's doorstep demanding an equal share."
Koschei's lip curls. Disappointment tries to insinuate its way through him, but Theta's mind has never let him down yet. "You're talking like one of them. Like any other old fool who's confused stability with stagnation and is afraid of losing the power he has."
"No," Theta says, and there is disappointment in his voice; that he doesn't bother to disguise it is somehow shaming. "If we start acting like gods for the lesser beings, they will become gods too, but without the Laws of Time to safeguard them. Imagine the universe then."
This exchange is important. First, already we have Theta's awareness that Koschei might be extremely clever but this doesn't always make him good enough, while meanwhile Koschei has set Theta up as someone who will never let him down, especially intellectually. In fact, especially in Three's era, all the Doctor and the Master's conflicts are coloured with the sense that the Master is throwing all these perilous situations at the Doctor just to make sure that the Doctor is still in top form and deserving of the Master's attention. This is the seeds of that.
Second, for all the Doctor's constant interferences with human history where alien invasions and things are concerned, he keeps up the constant refrain of just a traveler, pretends that he's being pulled unwillingly into events, and does get out quickly when things seem sorted. Even when he's apparently the last Time Lord and therefore the ultimate authority, he makes some effort not to mess too much with the universe. He is always extremely aware of what he's capable of, and is therefore very careful. (The Seventh Doctor might skew this hypothesis somewhat, but even he keeps an extremely tight rein on his power. Still. Whatever, Cartmel, whatever.)
Being proved wrong -- and by such a silly argument, all pathos but still right -- rankles. Koschei grits his teeth. "What if it was small things? Not just preventing paradoxes, but setting little things to rights?"
" 'What if'," Theta echoes, the beginnings of a smile curling his lips. "All right then. We'll do an experiment, hmm? Forget the quantum applications. We'll set history to rights a theory at a time."
And so, a game: they adapt it from a chess variant played during the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire. They even call it chess, first as a convenient shorthand, then as a sort of code. Still adolescents, they need their sleep, but they take it in quick hard doses, three or four hours a night; the rest of the time they lie awake, squished together in one bed with their fingers flying over data pads of complex equations in six dimensions. They alter the course of the Feoh Empire. They chance the composition of a methane planet to support carbon life. They build military bases or tear them down. They change clauses in the Shadow Proclamation. The room becomes cluttered with models of wire or string; they conduct little self-contained experiments, then disrupt them. All the while they keep score, but not against each other; never against.
This game, three-dimensional chess, is briefly mentioned and never elaborated upon in the Three serial Mind of Evil; all we know in canon is that the Doctor prefers it to checkers, probably because Jo Grant can kick his arse at checkers. I ended up constructing ridiculously complex and suspiciously Calvinball-ish rules for three-dimensional chess in dwseason5, which ended up being a major plot point; I figured at least some of the people reading this would have already read the s5 project, and wouldn't want a repeat performance, so I kept it to one paragraph.
But it has to be included, not as some sort of sneaky fic tie-in, but because my ever-more-elaborate personal canon states that, after playing theoretical chess for years at the Academy, the Doctor and the Master played it once for real; look, the Doctor was extremely bored exiled on Earth. Why do you think the Master actually stalked him for an entire season? "What are you up to this time, Doctor?" "Oh, nothing, old chap, merely calculating the score -- calculating this very important temporal anomaly!!" Poor Brigadier.
There is one thing the Academy fails to teach them.
Among all the physics, art, history, music, lies a terrible gap: application. It all comes down to the same thing, really, at least as far as Koschei's been able to bring logic to the situation. Until at least the end of their first century, no Gallifreyan is given the least indication how to use both mind and body for a single end. A body, Koschei sees, is regarded as a sort of inconvenient receptacle for the mind, a thing which must be tolerated and occasionally recycles itself when the warranty starts running out. It's an entirely absurd view, Koschei decides after much consideration of the matter; their extremely resilient and effective biology alone counters this attitude most eloquently. More importantly, a mind is firmly a part of a body, and the two communicate. Often.
One of my favourite things about this universe is the concept of regeneration. After all, if you're the sort of person who switches up bodies every few years, and when that happens you also get some sort of shift in personality, what, exactly, are you supposed to think of as you? Actually, in Five Doctors, Five has a line about a Time Lord being the sum of his memories, but that isn't a very helpful definition to someone under a century old. The Doctor usually seems to solve the perennial 'who am I?' problem by wondering about it vaguely and then putting on the latest absurd coat. The Master, on the other hand, is essentially a lot of self-contained mental energy wearing the costume of the moment.
At this point, Koschei is alive to the mind-body interconnectedness in a way I don't imagine most Time Lords are. The difficulty with Koschei's view, of course, is that he treats it as an intellectual problem, a question of mechanical interconnectedness rather than symbiosis.
Koschei notices it slowly, and with growing panic. It doesn't start one day, it merely insinuates: the feeling of expansion in his chest bubbling all the way up to his brain. So that he flushes or drops things when Theta walks into the room. So that when Theta quite reasonably goes to spend time studying with other people, Koschei feels something strange, akin to rage. So that when he and Theta are arguing some point and get up in each other's faces and he can feel Theta's warm breath on his cheek and their eyes lock, his body starts behaving the way it would if it didn't belong to him at all; that flush again, all his limbs shaky. Koschei knows it's only the firing of particular synapses in his brain, certain chemicals sneaking their way through his body, but he can't control it, and it scares him.
Most of us have probably been there, in middle school or early high school; wham, there's this one kid, y'know, the one who sits behind you in bio, and you seriously want to hang out with them and be really cool and impressive but you end up looking like a fish, oh god, and it's even worse if the kid used to be your friend before you were transformed without your consent into a total dweeb.
Now imagine that no one has ever told you this is perfectly normal. Imagine that instead you've been raised on all these high intellectual ideals and have no idea what's going on. That makes it suddenly about five times as humiliating and scary.
The one thing that keeps him from losing his head completely -- hah -- is the observation that Theta seems to be suffering in exactly the same way. Blushes, fumbling words, and that habit of running the thumb of his left hand over his lapel whenever he's nervous.
"We'd better do something about this," Koschei announces one evening.
Theta looks up from his work. "No," he says, and his voice is somehow thin with panic. Uncontrolled. "It's a developmental stage. It will go away soon." He swallows thickly. "I could request a room change --"
"No," Koschei snaps. "I will not leave you simply because -- because this --" He takes a deep breath. His body belongs to him, not the other way around. "We don't run away from problems, Theta," he says. "We fight them. We master them."
I believe this marks the one instance of the word 'master' in the whole fic. I wanted to use it sparingly, and I wanted it to just slip through here as part of a philosophy Koschei hasn't finished articulating.
"How?" Theta asks.
"I'll think of something," Koschei promises.
In fact the solution is simple. If the body is a temporary house for the mind, it is the mind's to control. If the body is doing the controlling, that body is faulty. A better one merely needs to be provided.
Here begins an unhealthy liveslong attitude towards bodies, and one that is weirdly at odds with the Master's desire to stay alive at all costs. I spent some time wondering how the Master could have managed to run out of lives by the time the Doctor, who is king of crazy risk-taking, is only on his fourth body, and for some reason my brain thought that probably the Master had killed himself a couple of times. But brain, I protested, wouldn't any suicidal tendencies be completely at odds with the Master's stay-alive-at-all-costs policy? Not at all! said my brain. To begin with, Koschei wouldn't think of discarding a body as being at all suicidal. He's trading it in for a better model, one he chose, one he controls. Taking over Tremas was a case of sloppy seconds, but when the Master knew there wasn't anything better in the offering, he took extremely good care of Tremas' body. When he was shot by Chantho, he made a conscious point to regenerate young and strong. He isn't flippant about his bodies; he's a perfectionist. He'll keep going until he finds one that works.
Koschei's aware there is a certain ... unorthodoxy to this approach. No one is supposed to regenerate within their first century, so Koschei researches the why of it. Because it is dangerous. Because it is medically unsound. Because it is just not done. But nowhere can Koschei find examples of proven dangerous aftereffects, because the mere warnings have kept everyone from trying. More and more, the caution against young regeneration smacks of the spurious tales about Time Lords who commit suicide and come back as the opposite gender. Koschei won't be a woman. Koschei will finally be in control.
Of course premature regeneration is bad and awful and unhealthy. It screws up Koschei's brain patterns and makes him just that much more worrying, just as later being a living corpse and then using a non-Time Lord body makes the Master a mite bit crazier. Of course, being inside his own head, he doesn't notice this.
And maybe, some small treacherous part of him whispers, maybe if he's different, but Theta still hasn't reached a solution -- maybe he'll have a handle on the situation and he'll finally just be that one little bit better -- maybe Theta won't suggest leaving ever again.
Koschei closets himself in a classroom in the lower levels, where no one, not even Theta, is likely to find him, and considers the best approach to his solution. Carefully controlled circumstances, or getting the thing over with quickly? The first option appeals to logic, the second only to fear; there will therefore be no dramatic jumping from the Academy's tallest tower. No snapping his neck. Blood, that's the trick. Koschei is sure it will hurt, but if he's careful, it won't be enough to put him into shock. Not at first. Not until he's constructed his next self in his mind and all his atoms are switching around.
This bit of scene came into being because, in an earlier fic, fear of the dark, I had written Koschei as jumping off a tower. At the time his motivations were also purely scientific: what happens when I regenerate? Actually large portions of this fic exist because I dashed off that one, which had another point entirely but included small bits of their childhood for which I hadn't actually explained motivations or consequences, but realised I wanted to.
This decided, he wastes no time allowing this one treacherous body, which wants to stay alive, to seize his mind and weaken his resolve. Instead Koschei makes sure that this classroom has floors that are easily scrubbed and then goes looking for something suitably sharp. A knife would be best, but no thing so crude as a knife exists within the walls of the Academy. Instead he stops by his room -- leaves Theta a scribbled note, surprise for you, room 6b, sunset -- and collects a radiation register with a suitably sharp edge.
Writing the following scene made me intensely uncomfortable, so, mostly for my own benefit, I wrote in the 6b joke.
In the deserted classroom, he sits -- no sense in standing, not when he might fall over -- and brings the edge up to his neck. His stupid treacherous body is shaking with adrenaline, but with will alone he steadies his hand enough to pull the edge down through his carotid artery without it shaking at all. Deep, done. He even feels a moment of absolute stillness.
Koschei learns with horrible stunning swiftness the difference between the theoretical and the actual. There is nothing intellectual about this; it isn't like fire, not like a cut magnified a thousand times, not like any simile, it simply is: his body grabbing hold of his brain, vision going black and blood pounding terrified out and it hurts too much to scream, that's good, because it would come out something else entirely and these last few moments he can't panic can't can't needs to think needs to be clever charismatic controlled all these things he nearly is and can be if he only does it right.
There is nothing higher; his fervent pleas likely fall on a deaf uncaring universe. And still: Better, better, please just let me be --
I have written a couple of POV-character death scenes before, but never any where something happens afterwards. It's extremely weird.
Then the rush.
Koschei is lying on his side. His head hurts, a faint insistent pounding that has nothing to do with his hearts. The blood on the floor is very bright and the world is spinning, the world is hurtling through space and his hearts are racing and every part of him hums with excess energy. He pulls himself to his feet, gasping and laughing, a quiet rolling chuckle that makes the small hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. His robes are an appalling mess.
I tried to squeeze a lot of stuff into this paragraph. First, the drums make their second small appearance; I decided they had to do with the bits of Koschei that shouldn't be revealed, and only manifested when he gets stripped down to his essential parts. Second, I wanted to recall the Ninth Doctor's speech in Rose, about feeling the turn of the earth. Now that Koschei has regenerated, he's a proper Time Lord -- before he's meant to be. His mind is going to start processing all sorts of stimuli it isn't ready for yet. Third, the quiet rolling chuckle: it's something Koschei wished for near the beginning of the fic, which marks the regeneration successful in that Koschei got what he asked for; it should also be the reader's first explicit cue that this boy is firmly on his way to becoming the Master. You know that laugh.
Yes. First. New robes.
The corridors go whirling by him -- he hears students coming and squeezes himself effortlessly into an alcove -- dashes out again and finds himself in the automatic laundry. The robes he's wearing, besides being crusted with blood, are baggy across the shoulders now. Fingers fumbling for being too quick, he snatches some likely robes, switches them up, tosses the bloodied ones in the queue running through the 'in' side of the laundry. Now. Next. Theta.
This entire section, and the bit following, had to be a bit strange and disjointed; we know most of the Doctor's regenerations go a bit wonky, either because he's trying to figure himself out or because his mind hasn't settled quite right. Koschei's is the latter.
Hey, at least he didn't forget who he was. But I don't think that's ever been the Master's problem.
He dashes back out, leaps up stairways until it occurs to him that all this running about is a spectacular waste of energy and he continues up still quickly but with a bit more style. One floor, two, he's nearly there, and he enters their room with a sweeping gesture and a grin.
No one there.
Koschei frowns for a moment before seeing the note on Theta's bed and remembering. Silly. He'll have to go back down all those stairs. He turns to go and catches sight of himself in the hanging mirror above their door.
Sharper features. He tilts his head this way and that. Shorter hair, pale ginger; that's a change. A certain angle to his chin, much like Theta's. Dark eyes, almost no distinction between iris and pupil. He tries a grin; it's nearly a smirk, stunning, edgy and convincing at once.
A few more Master cues, visual this time. I believe he's ginger because I've seen it batted around in Doctor/Master circles that one of the Master's original regenerations was ginger, and I like it. It adds some fun irony to Ten's line.
Koschei presses his fingertips to the glass, leaving little red-brown smudges behind. There's a thumbprint of dried blood on his forehead. Blood. All over the classroom and that's where Theta --
He's out of the room in an instant, the door slamming behind him.
One of the things intrinsic to the Master's character is that The Doctor Is More Important Than Anything, which is true whether or not you're taking a slashy reading of their relationship. So of course here even in the midst of post-regenerative confusion, he thinks of Theta and is immediately given a bit of focus.
As he goes back down, all the life in the Academy below him rises to meet his mind, first like snowflake kisses and then like pillows, rubber balls, thrown bricks, hammers. Koschei stumbles. He nearly falls down the stairs and that's funny, that's hilariously ironically amusing and his new laugh fascinates him and the thoughts of everyone at the Academy and further still bombard him relentlessly. He skids past the classroom door and can't stop laughing, a hard gasping laugh full of tears.
Theta grabs his arms.
Theta seizes him and shakes him and says, "Koschei," and Koschei clutches at him gratefully; Theta's eyes are almost perfectly round and he's shaking like mad. Koschei laughs hysterically against the crook of his neck and rasps, this new voice hoarse with terror, "Help me."
This is probably the last time he asks Theta for help honestly, without any ulterior motives or self-justification. He does beg for his life in the Three serial Time Monster, but Delgado pulls it off with a certain amount of flair and there is an artfulness to it. The point here is that Koschei hasn't settled yet; this regeneration is not someone who asks for help, or apologises.
Something must happen then. It hurts worse than the sharp edge to his neck did; this is inside his mind. But Theta is steadying his body, pulling him along until he comes blindly and follows his friend up unseen stairs, through winding ways he can no longer recognise, and all the while he clutches at Theta and at Theta's slender threads of thought, scared and determined and the only lifeline he has. And then it's quiet.
Koschei looks around carefully. A pinkish-gray room in soothing tones. He's sitting curled on the floor with Theta's arms tight around him. His jaw aches from clenching his teeth, and tear tracks are drying on his cheeks. New. He swallows hard.
I like the symmetry of Theta taking him to recover in a zero room, and the Doctor having to use one himself later after the Master's caused his death.
"Better?" Theta asks with unaccustomed gentleness, drawing back a little and studying his face.
"Zero room," Koschei says. Clears his throat and tries again, not hoarse anymore. His voice is smooth, could be a drawl if he wasn't frightened. "This is a zero room. Clever."
Theta's gaze doesn't waver. "You killed yourself." No reproach. No question. A statement of surprising fact.
"No knowledge without risk," Koschei returns.
"You might have spared yourself the mess and found some poison," Theta says, a peculiar tightness creeping into his voice.
Koschei shakes his head. "I needed to be awake and unable to fight it."
"Stupid," Theta says. "Stupid." His hands tighten on Koschei's shoulders and then he's leaning into him, face pressed to the crook of Koschei's neck, trembling just a very little, and everything switches back into place: Koschei's the strong one. He can feel the raw potential of this new body, the sureness of it, the conviction of his cleverness and control. It will be all right.
What he fails to realise here, of course, is exactly how much he has upset and frightened Theta by killing himself. He compartmentalises it away under 'things I can fix' despite being the cause in the first place; because, of course, Theta liked who he was already. On one level it's essential that one of them change, so that they both realise the body of the moment doesn't change how they feel about each other; on another, Theta probably resents Koschei both for being so stupid and for having the guts to prove it.
"You're going to be in a lot of trouble," Theta points out, a little muffled.
Koschei laughs this rolling new laugh of his. "I look forward to it."