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give up the ghost

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Grief follows, and he does too.

Locked in a cell, nothing to do but wait for time to pass, she’s given time to think. The world meanders by far away—she can almost feel it—but it’s too far away to touch. It slips through her fingers, and eventually she stops trying.

Instead, she thinks. 

There’s too much to think about. Revelations and secrets and past lives she didn’t know she had, and they swirl around her like a hurricane, no eye at the center. Trapped, she wallows, barely touches the food they give her, and instead touches memories like a child touching a hot stove, curiosity and willful stubbornness pushing through common sense.

She thinks about the Master telling her to become him. She thinks about Ko Sharmus and his sacrifice, and whether she should have been the one to do it in the end. She thinks about her friends, and whether they’re better off without her. 

She thinks a lot about the Master, and maybe that’s why, when he finally shows up, she’s almost expecting it.

“Hello, love.” His voice whispers in her ear, and she nearly jumps out of her skin.

Almost expecting it.

“You!” She spins around to face him, and blinks, because he’s not there. Nothing is there. It’s her same old cell, the walls gray and the light an ugly blue, glowing soft and dim.

“But—” She stares, and that’s when she catches him again. Just out of the corner of her eye, grinning madly, rocking on his heels, and she swivels, but he’s gone again. A wisp on the wind, a ghost at the edge of her vision, and maybe she’s finally, truly going mad.

“This is it,” she mutters, and steps back, pressing against the wall, hands scrabbling for purchase though she finds none. “You’ve done it, Doctor. You’re off your rocker. He’s not here. He can’t—”

“Can’t what?”

This comes just off to her left. She spins, hearts thumping, and this time, catches him.

“You,” she breathes, for lack of anything better to say, because it is, indeed, him. He’s standing there, plaid suit and scruffy beard, grinning like a loon, as if he hadn’t just perished in an explosion.

“You’re dead,” she says, and he grins wider.

“Then why am I here?”

“Because,” she starts, then stops, because he’s lying, a little bit. He isn’t there, or not completely. His mental presence swirls around her, ghostly and thin, and so too is he ghostly and thin, a projection or something similar.

“You’re not really here,” she breathes, relief swelling through her, only to be replaced by cold fear: is this her mind? Has she finally snapped so hard that she’s splintered her own memories into the future, dragging bits of her own worst enemy to confront her?

Maybe. She really hopes not.

“I have to be hallucinating.” She thinks out loud in the hopes that it will block him out, though he’s not even speaking. At her words, however, his grin grows and he steps forward, hands shoving into his pockets. Sauntering, in that way he’s so good at and she’s never been able to replicate, to her bitter disappointment.

“You might be,” he acknowledges with a tilt of his head. “Or maybe I managed to escape. Maybe I got to a TARDIS in time and got off Gallifrey before that thing went off.”

“You didn’t,” she replies immediately, even as she’s running through the calculations just to be sure. “You couldn’t have. It’s mathematically impossible, given the amount of time it took for Ko Sharmus to set the death particle off. You didn’t escape. I know you didn’t.”

“Ah.” If the news of his death is a disappointment, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he tilts his head to the side, regarding her, grin as ghostly as he is. It stretches like putty across his face, ill-formed and soft enough to melt, though not in a kind way. “So you must be mad, then.”

“I’m not mad,” she says automatically, though she’s not sure if that’s true. In fact, it might even be better. Maybe then she can finally let go. “Hate to break it to you, but I haven’t been here long enough to lose my marbles. Give it a couple more months. A year, maybe.”

And with that she turns on her heel, though there’s nowhere to go, and grits her teeth against the urge to turn around. She can’t quite feel him there—she’s not even sure he’s actually there—but his pseudo presence nags at her heels, drawing her attention even though she knows it would be an idiot’s move to give in.

Then something passes through her shoulder, and she jumps a fair foot in the air.

“For Rassilon’s—” she spins around, and watches the Master jerk back, hand drawing to his chest. Quick as a flash, he’s got a smile on his face, just a flicker to show that it had momentarily disappeared.

“That got your attention,” he says, and she glares at him.

“What did you—” she rubs her shoulder, where the ice-cold sensation of spilled water tingles uncomfortably. He had gone right through her, she’s sure of it. As if he’d reached out and sunk his hand through her shoulder, though that should be possible, not even as a hologram. If he were a hologram, she wouldn’t have felt a thing.

He’s not a hologram. But she doesn’t think she’s mad either.

“What are you?” she whispers, staring as he only smiles wider, his own grin bordering on a madness so familiar it’s intimate. “What happened to you?”

At these words, however, his smile drops and he shrugs, half turning away. His hands find his pockets again, and stay there.

“Dunno.” He kicks idly at the ground, though there’s nothing but dust to fly up against his shoe. As she watches, it passes through him as easily as sunlight through clouds.

Not there. He’s not there. And yet— 

“I died, I think.” He frowns over her shoulder, and her hearts leap into her throat. Which is ridiculous, because that’s just what she’d intended. End it for good—end him for good. Take his life, and ruin his plans with it.

It was all he deserved. 

“You died,” she repeats, the words clogging up her throat. “I killed you.”

Which is also not true, because it was Ko Sharmus who pulled the trigger, but—but— 

It had been her plan. It had been her original motive, she who had sent things in motion. The Master’s death may be on Ko Sharmus’ hands, but she knows it’s on hers too.

“Maybe.” He grins at her, wicked and sharp, and there’s something hard and angry in his eyes too. “Guess you finally got your wish.”

“It wasn’t my wish,” she snaps, hands balling into fists at her sides. “It was never my wish, you know that. I wanted—”

Something different. The two of them, standing together, like it always should have been. Not each other on opposite ends of a room, not staring down a trigger meant to destroy a whole planet, not— 

Not this.

“It is what you deserved, though,” she tosses in, just to be mean, and turns her back again. She doesn’t want to look at him, not like this. The implications—that he might truly be dead, that it might be his ghost, if such a thing can exist, standing before her—are too hideous to bear.

There’s silence behind her, stretching for a long moment, pulling like a tide out to sea. Then the Master coughs and clears his throat.

“Maybe it is,” he says, then laughs, a low, rough chuckle. “Still wish it had been you, though.”

“I don’t want to die,” she answers without looking back at him. “I never wanted to die. Sorry to disappoint.”

“I’m not talking about that.” She doesn’t hear him step forward, but his words are closer, louder, when he speaks next. He sighs, the sound rolling off him. “I wish you’d been the one to do it, though.”

She flinches, hard enough that, if he were alive, he might laugh. He doesn’t, though, and maybe that’s just another clue. 

“I don’t want to kill you,” she retorts, spinning around to face him. He’s closer than she thought—close enough that she can almost feel the coldness, the wrongness, sluicing off of him.

‘Ghost’ is looking more and more like a strong theory. 

“I never wanted to kill you,” she repeats, and swallows hard, biting back guilt centuries worn. “You know that. You know I never wanted any of this.” She looks him over, taking in the threadbare, scorched clothing, the phantom blood starting to trickle down one side of his face. “You really are dead, aren’t you?”

She knows the answer, but his nod hurts anyway. He frowns as he does it, like the news is distinctly unpleasant to him, but not entirely surprising.

“Then why are you here?” she asks, and he shrugs.

“Would you believe me if I said I had unfinished business?” he asks. She scoffs.

“Very cliche.” She wants to turn away, just for the effect, but resists the urge. He’s already dead and gone—the least she can do is face him.

“I guess it is.” He grins again, but this one is slower, and sadder. He reaches out then, as if to touch her shoulder, but his fingers slice right through and she has to brace herself to resist jerking away. He’s cold as the dark water of a river, enough to set her teeth chattering. “But I think I had to talk to you before I left.”

“Left where?” she asks, curiosity getting the better of her. Of course—who doesn’t want to know where they go when they die? Where the Master might go, too—that’s a particularly interesting question. 

But he shakes his head, teeth glinting softly in the dim light. “No idea, love. Sorry to disappoint. I’m afraid even I don’t know that much.”

“Fine,” she answers, though she can’t help but be a little disappointed. “Could at least pass on your message, then. So you can get out of my hair.”

The enthusiasm is all faked—she’s not exactly keen on his departure. The cell is cold, and lonely, and even her own worst enemy, or his ghost, does something to liven it up. Which doesn’t say much.

The Master frowns, brow crinkling. “What message?”

“Whatever it is you have to tell me,” she answers irritatedly. “Isn’t that why you’re here? Have to get your last goodbyes in before you leave? Don’t tell me—you’re sorry.”

To her surprise, the Master throws back his head and laughs. “Oh, dear! I don’t think it quite works like that. Or at least—” He pats over himself, as if searching for a hankie— “I don’t feel any pull for apology. Unless you plan on giving one yourself.”

“Me?” She balks, familiar anger flaring up in her. “Why would I apologize? Why should—you know what? Never mind. This is ridiculous. You’re ridiculous.”

With that she turns on her heel and stalks off, which only takes her a few feet. Crummy, small cell. She could at least do with a couple more meters.

“You’ve nowhere to go!” the Master calls behind her, and she shakes her head without turning back.

“I’m not having it out with you,” she responds. “I don’t need to. I don’t care if you’re dead. You can move on, for all I care.”

There’s silence, then. A long pause, lingering between them.

“I think that’s what I have to do,” he says quietly. “But I don’t know how.”

This has her turning around. “What do you mean, you don’t know how?”

He shrugs and looks at her, but this time there’s a flash of open fear. Unfamiliar, in that it’s been so long since she’s seen it.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” he confesses, his words stark and unguarded enough to take her aback. “I think—” he frowns again— “It’s something to do with you. Maybe. Something between us.”

He draws a finger between the two of them, beckoning. “At least, I’m assuming that’s why I showed up here, of all places.”

“Or you’re just stalking me,” she retorts, but there’s no bite to it. Instead she turns fully to face him, curiosity drawing her in despite her best instincts. “Okay. So, tell me. Why are you here?”

He looks at her then, one eyebrow raised. “Didn’t I just tell you I had no clue?”

“C’mon,” she shoots back impatiently. “There has to be something. Some inkling. What is it you want from me that will help you move on?”

And will I give it to you? she wonders silently, but doesn’t voice the thought aloud. No point. Instead, she watches as he thinks it over, hands balled in his pockets.

“Closure, maybe,” he answers at last, and shoots her a grin. “Maybe I need an apology.”

“You’re not getting one,” she snaps immediately. “You don’t deserve one.”

He only raises an eyebrow. “You’d rather me stay here to bother you?”

“Maybe you owe me an apology,” she says instead of taking his bait. “For all the times you’ve tried to kill me. Ever thought about that?”

By the surprise on his face, she can tell he hasn’t. Still, he shrugs and steps forward.

“Okay,” he says. “Sorry.”

Nothing happens. She watches him, an eyebrow raised in contempt.

“Think you have to mean it,” she says after a long moment.

“Who says I didn’t?” he says, but she can tell by the look on his face that the words are ringing hollow, and after a second he gives in and sighs. “Okay. Maybe I don’t mean it. Why should I apologize, anyway? Why should I let you win?”

Anger flares in the Doctor’s gut, familiar and worn, at his childish defense, but she tamps it down.

“Maybe because this isn’t a game,” she says, “and because I deserve one. I never wanted to hurt you, Koschei. You know that. I’ve told you about a thousand times.”

“Yeah, and yet you still did.” His frown darkens, lips dropping into a scowl, and she can already see his familiar anger rising. “Somehow, Doctor, despite how little you try, you manage to hurt me over and over again.”

“Me? Hurt you?” Rage flares up in her, and before she knows it she’s stepping forward, jabbing a finger at his chest only for it to sink right through. She draws it back quickly. “How could I possibly have hurt you? All I did was—”

“Be you,” he growls, and moves as if he wants to push her away, only to remember that he can’t. His hand, half-risen, falls back to his side. “Just—you, Doctor! You were always you, and that was enough. I used to lo—” He stops immediately, so fast he might have bitten his tongue, and swallows hard, Adam’s apple bobbing.

“You were always just you,” he says at last, the words forced out as if they aren’t the right ones but they’re the only ones he has. “And I used to love it, you know. But then you just—” 

He breaks off and shakes his head, then abruptly turns away. She watches him, reeling. They’ve never talked this closely to the fissure between them before—rarely mentioned it, always skirted around. Now that she’s standing with her toes hanging off the ledge. She wants to take the plunge. She wants to know.

“What?” she asks, and as she does, feels that age-old hurt rising up in her, the betrayal and anger and everything else. “What did I do that made you hate me? How could it possibly be my fault that you became—this?”

For a moment, he doesn’t answer. She watches his shoulders rise and fall in breaths he doesn’t need, until at last he lets out one long, slow sigh, and turns back to face her.

“You didn’t need me,” he says, his eyes dark with both rage and grief. “You used to need me. But then you didn’t. And I always did, and I hate you for it.”

He spits the words like they’re dirty, and she only stares. Unable to form a thought, unable to process the revelation sitting before her.

“You thought you were losing me,” she repeats dumbly, and he only nods, jaw tight. “That’s it? All this, because you thought—you thought I would leave?”

He doesn’t nod again. He only stares, jaw twitching. “Why else would I do it?” he says at last.

For a moment, she only gapes. Then, she explodes.

“You idiot!” She lunges forward, plunges right through him, but he stumbles back anyway as if he’s not used to his nonphysical presence. She nearly falls with the momentum, but manages to right herself and spin around to face him. “You bloody idiot! You were never losing me! You left first!”

She wishes she could hit him. Anger surges up in her, but with nowhere to go it paralyzes her into stillness. She glares at him, hearts thumping, and is so angry it takes a moment to register the surprise on his face before it drops into a scowl.

“Please.” He steps forward, but his hands are out as if in a plea to calm. “We both know that’s not true. You left to see the stars, and I—”

He pauses, takes a deep, shaky breath. Whether it’s anger or grief, she can’t tell anymore. “You left me behind. That’s when I knew you never needed me, you know. If you had meant all those things we talked about, you would have stayed.”

“That’s what you think?” she asks in disbelief. “That just because I took off once, I left you behind?” She shakes her head. “You were always smart, Koschei, but here you’re just being stupid.”

“Sure,” he scoffs. “Like you would have come back. How was I supposed to trust you? How was I supposed to know?”

“I—” she starts, and stops, because she doesn’t know what to say. “You could have trusted me anyway. That’s what friends do.” She hesitates, then adds, “and I trusted you. Longer than I should have, maybe.”

“Hmm.” he regards her for a moment, then sniffs and turns away, hands once more in his pockets. She watches as he studies the opposite wall, and waits for him to break the silence.

“Maybe that’s what I need,” he says after a long moment.

She looks up in surprise. “What?”

“Forgiveness.” He turns around to face her, a small smile growing on his face, though it’s entirely sad. “What do you think?”

“What do I— ” She balks once more, drawing back. “You want me to forgive you? Are you serious?”

“No, no.” He shakes his head, stepping forward. “I think—” Another step draws him close, and he stops, teetering on the soles of his shoes. “I need to forgive you.”

“But I don’t—” she says, then shuts up. Because who cares if forgiveness is warranted? Maybe it’s silly, on her end, to think there’s anything for her to be forgiven for, but she’s not him, after all. 

Sometimes, the hurt isn’t meant, but it happens all the same.

“Fine,” she says instead, softening the end of the word as it makes it past her lips. Trying to be kind. “You can, if you want. Forgive me,”

“I don’t know if I want to,” he says, but he steps forward anyway, and reaches out as if to brush her hair from her cheek. His fingers never make it—he draws back before they touch. “But I should, shouldn’t I? I might...move on.”

“Do you want to?” She’s watching him, watching as he moves, watching to see what he’ll do next. “Move on, I mean.”

His hand falls to his side, and she catches the tremble of his fingers before it disappears once more into his pocket. 

“I don’t know if I do,” he admits, then shrugs, playing at nonchalance. “But I don’t think I have a choice.”

“Oh.” She swallows hard, and despite herself, feels grief rise up in her throat. Old grief, ugly and thick and tired, and she hates it. She hates that he can still make her feel this way, even after all this time. “I’m sorry.”

He looks at her then, and grins, his eyes sparkling with what might be tears.

“No,” he says simply. “I think I am. But at the least, I think I can let it go.”

Then, before she can respond, before she can do anything, in fact, he turns his back to her, hands jammed into his pockets. She steps forward, words she doesn’t know to say on her lips, but it’s too late. He’s fading before her very eyes, dissolving into nothingness, and even though it’s exactly what she wants, immediately panic rises up in her.

“Koschei—” she calls, but it’s too late. He vanishes in a moment, nary a goodbye, and with only a whisper of his own voice swirling around her feet, like a wayward breeze.

She can’t make out the words, but she thinks they might be spelling forgiveness.