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to lose is to win

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Seven days. And it’s not the worst resort vacation she’s ever had, but it’s up there. She couldn’t be a comfort to them right now if she tried, so she doesn’t. Instead, once they’ve returned, she spends half a day rifling through old cabinets, searching, searching.

“Vital repairs,” she tells them, so they won’t bother her, so they’ll leave her to her goggles and gloves and engine grease. Her welder’s mask, tipped over her unsmiling face. “Yearly maintenance. Best keep out the way.” She waggles her fingers invitingly, swallowing back the hard edge of her voice with her tongue. “Unless you’d like to make yourselves useful.”

They all know well enough by now that ‘make yourself useful’ is code for ‘pass me tools with stupid names that by all rights shouldn’t exist and pay attention so you can duck when there’s flames’, and they also know well enough to avoid it when they can.

“I’ve refilled the waterslides,” she tempts instead. “Just in case you were wondering.”

Try harder. Smile better.

It’s easier, behind the mask. But it’s only the quickest of fixes. She needs something better.

They file out, leaving her to her work, and she waits for them to disappear before she throws herself back into the search. Old cupboards, pantries, drawers, hidden floorboards. Bins full of odds and ends. Thousands of years’ worth of bits and bobs and junk and rubbish

She pauses in the act of throwing one of Tegan’s shoes across the room, breathing hard. The neural block she’d been looking for glints innocuously silver, spirited away at the bottom of a bin in the wardrobe. Hidden from her, she thinks, eyes narrowing up at the TARDIS’ cavernous walls, dim, blue light. Dim, blue sound, at the back of her head.

She holds it in her hand for a very long time. Too long, in the end. If she forgets—if she forgets—

Four taps, against the wall. No answer. The line rings and rings.

Tell me, she’d beg. Tell me what they did.

If she could hate them, just a bit—

But the truth of it stings. She’s hated them before and it hasn’t ever made any difference. Home will always be home, and she’d saved hers only to leave it to burn. No matter what he’d discovered—the children in their beds, the hermits in their caves, they hadn’t deserved to die.

She tosses the neural block into the back of the wardrobe, where she’d found it. Buries it again, where it shouldn’t be.

If she forgets, there will be no one left to remember.

——

If they forget him, there will be no one left to remember. No one left on his own planet who cares for him, Susan long-lost, shoeless, his family—

His family.

“Goodbye, Zoe,” he rasps. “Goodbye, Jamie.”

A hand at his shoulder, and fear thrills up his throat, old, familiar. Pain, sharp at the back of his head. Nothing good will come of this, nothing good will ever come of coming home, he’d done as they’d asked, interfered at their will, he was their tool, their weapon, he had served, he was nothing at all, he just wanted to run

But instead he was to be exiled. Outcast and alone. Forgotten.

“No,” he cries, caught in their grip, always caught in their grip, trapped again, trapped again, always, always trapped, “no, no, no, no, no, no, no—”

——

Contact.

It shakes her out of her daze, out of the warmth of the fire crackling in front of her. The TARDIS library looms above her, shelves and shelves, like a city. There’s a book in her lap but her eyes haven’t touched the pages, even though Nikola Tesla’s remarkable inventions fill them. She tries to remember how long she’s been sat there, cross-legged by the fireplace—and can’t. But it can’t have been long, no one’s come looking. The waterslides are still proving an excellent distraction. She makes a mental note.

Weeks, now.

She’s still awake.

I thought we were done talking, she says. If she sounds relieved, it’s only because she can’t escape herself, even in the confines of her own head. Having fun with your new bezzie mates?

There’s a pause she can’t decipher. The world is fuzzy around the edges. Nothing makes much sense, unless she concentrates. If she concentrates, the world will fall back into place and burn behind her eyelids.

I’m a toy to them, he whispers harshly. Sometimes, I get abandoned on the asphalt.

A pained grunt, if such a thing can exist, in a space between minds, no sound, no sight.

Ah, she answers delicately, allowing herself the briefest of nasty little smiles. A flash of teeth and curled lip in the firelight. Just desserts, is it?

No, he replies. A beautiful hiss. I’m—bored.

The smile slides from her face.

Tell me what you found, she tries.

He laughs and laughs. It echoes in the back of her head, familiar and not. His voice never changes, not really, not in here.

No, he whispers.

Gently.

Tell me, she insists, pushing, pressing, suddenly furious. Tell me, or I’ll

His voice becomes a mocking drawl. Or you’ll what?

Oh, see, now that’s just asking for it, and she casts her mind back to their childhood, the tricks they’d learned at the Academy and played on one another with cruel, flippant ease, throws him into an old death. Traken. His body decaying, thrown into the form of another, horrifying, nightmarish. The pain of rotting alive, merging with another. He howls, in her mind, and she grits her teeth in a smile even as the memory assaults them both. She’d always been good at this. Better than the rest of them.

More resilient.

He rages at her in return, even as he laughs and laughs, delighted. Furious. It’s all a thin line, with him, scalding.

I am bound, he breathes, shuddering, never to reveal my secrets, Doctor.

He leaves her with one last echoing shriek of laughter. Throws her into one of her own deaths, sends her plunging off the observatory at his hand, falling, falling. A parting gift.

——

His hands shake on the edge of a cliff that doesn’t exist. He aches for his scarf, for the comfort of something familiar around his neck, something useful. This is all a trick of the Matrix, it’s all a reality he can deny, a reality he can reject, but there’s empty air underneath him and the fear of it pounds real and terrible behind his eyes, up his throat. Familiar.

“I deny—” his throat catches raspily. “I deny—”

His shirt billows in hot, imaginary wind. This isn’t real. It’s a figment, a nightmare, an algorithm. All by design. He needs to focus, he needs to clear his name, he needs to find the assassin—

His head pounds sharply. Green flashes behind his eyes. His fingers lose their grip, and he falls and falls and falls.

——

She’d like to fall now, but she can’t. Yaz’s big, dark eyes are shiny with concern, Ryan’s hand is almost reaching for her own, always almost reaching, but their words break through the ringing in her ears, scald away the exhaustion.

Jack. Cybermen. Don’t let it have what it wants.

Weeks and weeks and weeks, and now this. She lets them lead her back to the TARDIS, but she doesn’t let them touch. Watches them wary in the corner of her eye as she stumbles, but their hands only hover. She’ll only ever let them hover. All of it is connected somehow. Jack, Ruth, the Judoon, Gallifrey, whole and safe, not ash and bone in the back of her throat. The past, washing in like the tide.

The past, threatening to wash away everything she knows.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, against the console, as she lunges gratefully at the emergency alert. Tellmetellmetellme

But against the klaxons blaring, the alerts lighting up, Earth in danger, always, always, there’s only dead silence.

——

He goes back to the tomb.

When they’re all asleep and in their beds, Tegan, Turlough, exhausted and irritated and exhilarated. Dead to world, and the TARDIS lands again with a quiet shudder in the land of the dead.

He shouldn’t be here. No one should be here. But he won’t sleep, he can’t sleep. There’s something—

The TARDIS door creaks as it opens. His head aches. She’s waiting in the dark, a solemn figure, a cutting, high-necked silhouette.

“Lord President,” she whispers, where she’s seated at the foot of the tomb. Gently. Chancellor Flavia always had a motherly aspect, but it’s withered, here. Watery and thin, in this place of death. “I thought you might return.”

“I don’t—” he says quietly, hearts pounding in the base of his throat. With legs like lead, he approaches the tomb. Places a trembling hand on the edge of it, ancient, crumbling, rugged stone beneath his shaking fingers. Gazes upon Rassilon’s eternally sleeping face. The ancient Gallifreyan script scrawled across that he’s always been able to read with ease. “I can’t—”

“I wish you hadn’t,” she breathes. “I wish you’d run, dear boy.”

“I did,” he says. “I will. I can’t be your president, Chancellor. I—” Like a magnet, his gaze draws back to the tomb. “I—only I’ve the strangest feeling I’ve—ever since I left I’ve had such—”

Hot and sick, behind his eyes. Green flashing in his mind’s eye. Faces he doesn’t know, a great sucking want that he doesn’t understand. To lose is to win. To win is to lose. Immortality a secret, a curse, a curse he doesn’t know, will never know, but—there’s something—

She’s too frail to catch him, when his knees buckle, but her hands brace his chest. One reaches up to cradle his neck. It’s almost kind.

“Oh, my head,” he breathes, voice cracking, fire behind his eyes, knees aching against cold stone. “It hurts—why does it—”

A tear, cold and wet, trailing down his cheek.

She wipes it away gently. “You’re not supposed to remember,” she tells him. “You’re never supposed to remember, but all this business, all those timelines in agony, it’s shaken things loose.” He shudders, and her careful grip tightens. Fear floods up his throat, a sucking, horrible, familiar thing. “We could make you,” she says, so softly. “We could make you serve, again. You could be the greatest leader we’ve had in generations. That’s why they had me wait for you.” She won’t look him in the eye. The turn of her mouth is so ashamed.

“Chancellor,” he rasps, and it sounds like begging. His head is in a vise. The past will crack him open and drown him. Rassilon—

A kindly face washes up on the shores of his memory. A motherly face.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers.

“I know him,” he says, lips twisting with the pain of it, eyes watery. “I know him, I know his voice, I know—”

“And you’ll forget,” she says, fingers moving to his temple, cold. “And then,” she whispers, as cool darkness floods in and calms the fire, “you’ll run.”

He sags against the tomb. Darkness encroaching. Shame and pity, swallowing her before him. Afraid of him, ashamed of him.

“You always do,” she whispers.

——

She runs, because it’s what she does. Into the TARDIS, away from her friends, away from the truth. They don’t follow her, and she’s glad. They don’t follow her, and she’s alone.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, against the wall, but there’s only radio silence, still. If she had the room for it, she’d be terrified that he’s escaped. Or dead. She’s not sure which is worse. Adventure shaken off, Earth saved by the skin of her teeth, and now the distraction’s over—what can I say, she’d breathed, I’m a romantic—she’s so angry she can feel it throb in her teeth, so cold that her fingertips are numb, so lost that—

She sinks to the ground in a corner where no one will find her, so tired that her eyelids sting. This is the dance. She gives a little and they take. They pursue and she retreats. She advances, they back off. They’ve let her be, for now, and for a moment they were so kind, so reaffirming, that she’d almost believed what they were saying.

But the truth of her is in pieces, and her head is throbbing, green flashing behind her eyes.

“I know who I am,” she whispers to thin air. It sounds like a lie. “I know what I’ve done.”

If she could only sleep—

But behind her eyes are a thousand things she’s never seen and a thousand things she wishes she hadn’t.

The past, coming in like the tide.

——

It’s all still a nightmare, an algorithm. The Matrix’s tricks haven’t changed, because they never do. It’s all nerve gas and high cliffs and sand that tugs at his ankles, the past pulling and tearing like the tide. Trials and executions and his worst fears, made unreal.

“I deny—” he tells the Valeyard, a piece of himself detached, a memory that doesn’t exist yet, it’s not him, “I deny—”

He’s a liar. It’s all lies, none of it is true, none of it is real. If he yells it loud enough, if he can only keep shouting, keep denying—

Green, behind his eyes. Sharp pain. Their eyes in the courtroom bore into his own, scalding. He’s being used. He’s always being used.

“Decadent,” he snarls, “degenerate, and rotten to the core.”

He hates them, he hates them, he hates them—

——

She loves them, she loves them, she loves them, and when they’d begged to go home, of course she’d obliged. In a way, it’s a relief. Having a moment of quiet, a moment unobserved. Time, to herself.

In a way, it’s hell. Alone prickles at her, makes her breaths come quick in her chest. She chatters to thin air, in conversation with herself, desperate.

“I could—”

Go home, she thinks, fast and fleeting. Sickening want tugging at her chest. It hurts, to sit in that sun-soaked dust, smell everything burning. But she can’t turn away. She can’t let it burn unobserved. The children, the hermits—

Tap, tap, tap, tap. Nothing.

But then a call from ancient Syria, a mystery to solve, a trap set, a finger to the ear—it’s not a nightmare that any of them would understand, but that child, that child and those eyes, and it makes green flash in the back of her head, pain like a vise—

I know who I am, she would breathe, but there’s no time. Always running. No time to rest, but that’s how she likes it. That’s how she’s always liked it. Except lately her eyelids won’t stop stinging, the pounding in her head won’t abate, and her friends shoot her mutinous glances when they think she’s not looking. She’s running herself into the ground and taking them with her and if she could stop, she would, but she can’t. If she could tell them, she would, but she can’t. They wouldn’t understand. They shouldn’t have to understand. She’s not sure how to reconcile the parts of her she’s sealed away with the image she’s presented them. She’s not sure how to shatter the glass without hurting anyone.

Especially when their fears, their thoughts sometimes feel so—

Ephemeral, she thinks, and hates herself for it.

——

“Please,” she begs him, his hands at her temple, her eyes, her eyes— “Please, don’t make me go back.”

She’s his best friend and she’s dying and this will save her, but it feels like a cruelty, a violation, hypocrisy of the highest order. There’s green flashing behind his eyes. His head aches in sympathy.

You’ll forget, something whispers in the back of his head. And then you’ll run.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, cold hands on her forehead. Cold tears down her cheeks, down his. “I’m so sorry.”

He knows this is wrong. Her fear feels like his own, and maybe it is. She knows everything he does, now, if not for long. Maybe there’s green flashing behind her eyes too.

“No,” she begs and begs, “no, no, no, no, no, no, no—”

——

“You forgot to brush your hair again,” Yaz says, leaning against a pillar tiredly. “How long have you been in here?”

“How long have you been in here?” she asks suspiciously. Ever since they’d cornered her, just before Gloucester, she’s been more wary of them sitting there, watching. “Thought you were getting changed out of your Frankenstein clothes.”

“That was hours ago, Doctor,” Yaz points out. Worried, always. “And I did. And then I slept.”

Not that it’s done her a spectacular amount of good, she notes, taking in the circles under her eyes. The tightness of her mouth. What had Yaz dreamed about, on that ship? She hasn’t said.

It would be rude to ask, probably. Maybe.

Try harder, she thinks. Smile better. Her little speech hadn’t helped, in that regard. At the top of the summit, it’s only terribly cold. Terribly lonely.

Green flashes behind her eyes, and she stumbles. Sharp pain, behind her eyes. Yaz moves forward, always almost reaching, never touching.

“Doctor,” she says quietly, resigned. “Are you alright?”

There’s an island in her mind’s eye. She falls and falls and falls.

“Yes,” she lies in a whisper.

“You don’t really seem it,” Yaz says quietly. “Haven’t really for a while.”

“I just—” Her breath catches. “I need to fix what I broke. You don’t have to come,” she pleads again. “There’s still time, I could drop you home.”

Yaz smiles sadly. She knows more than she says, always. She’s so brave it will break both her hearts.

“Can’t get rid of me that easy,” she says. “Can’t get rid of any of us.”

——

Red sand beneath his feet. Home, again, at the end of the universe, under that marmalade sky. Only he’s come to burn the kingdom down, this time, if they don’t give him what he wants.

They’ll kill you, the woman had fretted, when she’d found him in the barn. They’ll kill you!

It won’t be the first time. Hopefully, it will be the last.

They stare him down, face him off. Guns glinting in the suns. Afraid of him, ashamed of him. The confession dial is cool in his grasp, heavy in his pocket. He hasn’t forgotten. This time, something whispers. Rassilon looms, because he always does. Resurrected, redeemed. A kindly face flashes in his mind’s eye, an island, pain and pain and pain—

He throws the dial at his feet, rustles his robes. A motherly face at the back of his head. He ignores it. He forgets it.

“Get off,” he snarls, “my planet.”

——

Red sand beneath her feet, caught in the grip of her shoes. She could kill him. She won’t. You stood with me, she doesn’t say. Once. You were so close

There’s nothing behind his eyes left for her to save. Only pain and rage and fear—always fear. And there is always, she thinks, a big red button. Always her, left with her finger on the trigger.

“Become death,” he begs, ecstatic. “Become me.”

It’s what he wants. For that reason alone, maybe, he won’t get it.

Weeks and weeks and weeks of this. Uncertainty like a vise. Everything she is, spiralling. Pain, behind her eyes, miles and miles of green, a face she can’t remember, but everything she is, everything she wants to be—that’s a choice. No matter what they’d made of her. No matter how they’d used her, no matter how they’d trapped her.

I know who I am, she doesn’t say. She doesn’t have to. It’s not a lie, anymore. He’s given her a gift. To lose is to win, and he who wins shall lose, she thinks, sets it gently in his mind, Rassilon’s tomb and a game they’d played, centuries ago. Don’t you see? It’s not a blessing. It’s a curse.

And even still—

“I am so much more than you,” she says instead.

She doesn’t press the button.

Coward, any day. That’s who she is. And she runs and runs through crumbling corridors, flames at her feet, the past at her heels, and she steals a TARDIS and she runs even further.

After all—

—isn’t that how it always starts?