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and they did live by watchfires

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My hands are full—my head so busy,
I'm almost dead—and always dizzy;
And so, with endless truth and hurry,
Dear Doctor, I am yours

– Lord Byron

 

 

 

 

Light pours in through the bars of the window, blue beams cutting across the floor. The rest of the room is darkened – night cycle, she thinks dimly. They’ve turned the rest of the lights down. Not that ‘days’ and ‘nights’ are anything more than arbitrary to her now. They’d once held meaning, importance – something by which to measure the passage of time, dutifully recorded in white chalk against grey walls.

She’d stopped keeping count a long time ago.

She’s run out of wall space.

From where she lies, pressed into a corner, she can just about make out the vastness of space beyond. She tries not to look – the light of the bars is too bright to her sensitive eyes, and the call of the void is just as painful, that desperate, aching need to escape, to be free, to run amongst the constellations and kick up the dust of nebulas with her feet.

But she can’t even get up.

She can barely even think.

She thinks –

She thinks, with a flicker of fear, that they might have started drugging her.

She shifts, curling into herself more, like maybe she can keep warm better that way. She knows it’s false hope – she’s been here long enough to know the red prison jumpsuit that they gave her a lifetime ago is too thin to conserve any kind of heat. The cold has seeped into her bones, infused deep into the marrow. She’ll never be warm again, that’s for sure.

That’s one of the only things she’s sure about these days.

It scares her, because part of her knows she’s starting to lose things. Memories are a funny thing in a place like this – the only thing she has to keep her company, if you don’t count the other inmates she sees through the fencing they erect for their allocated daily exercise (and she doesn’t). And the problem with memories is the more you replay them, the more you turn them over in your mind, the more they scrape and fade, the more they twist into something else. They blend into each other, stirred into a miserable cocktail of bewilderment and grief and guilt, until she’s not quite sure who it was who she left behind with only one shoe, or who it was who waited for her in a garden all night, or who it was who died with a gaping hole in their chest, or whether they ever really died at all because she thinks she remembers their body gone but their tears seeping through the cracks in a metal shell –

Or if any of that happened at all.

She thinks it did.

She’s sure it did.

(She isn’t).

She knows she left people behind. People she needs to get back to. A family. But time is stretched thin, distorted, the seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years blurring into one. Past and future have traded places – what has come before is cast into uncertainty and what will come the only thing she knows for sure. Without a doubt, she will be here.

She’s been here so long.

She’s been lying here, in this spot specifically, for so long too.

Longer than usual.

They’ve stopped taking her out for daily exercise.

It’s happened before. They know who she is. Know that, out of all the depraved beings they’ve got locked up in this place, she’s the worst of the lot. Sometimes, she thinks, they decide not to risk giving her an opportunity – to escape or to cause trouble, she’s not sure. Probably both.

But this time, it’s different. Because this time, it’s not just one or two skipped days, it’s been at least ten – that’s when she stopped counting, or when she lost count, or the last number she remembers counting, or maybe just a number she plucked out of her head. She doesn’t know, but the point is, the point is that she hasn’t moved in days, in over a week, and they haven’t tried to move her either.

She thinks she knows why, this time.

She can make a very educated guess.

Shouldn’t have shown your cards, love, an old friend hisses in her head. She closes her eyes, not caring to look up. She knows she’ll see him, standing over her like he never died at all.

Of course, the Master has always treated death with the same gravitas and permeance as a parking fine.

She knows what it is really, though. There’s been no contact – she hasn’t opened the door to him. This is just her mind, conjuring up her best enemy for the sake of her sanity, not quite realising that hallucinations rather definitely make her insane.

She doesn’t much appreciate it, either, even as she aches for company.

But that’s fine. She’s used to ignoring him, by now.

“I had a dream,” she recites to herself, each word coarse and rough, “which was not all a dream.

With the past becoming more and more like a vast ocean in her mind, she’s found a few things can act as an anchor, tying her back to shore. Reminding her of – of something.

She’s not quite sure what, sometimes. Especially now, with haze encroaching on the edges of her mind.

But she can remember the words, and that’s all she has.

The Master groans, irritated. This one again? Be a bit imaginative, honestly.

It also has the added bonus of annoying him enough that he goes away. Sometimes.

“The bright sun was extinguished,” she breathes, “and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space.”

Her eyes are still closed, but she can feel them – the stars, scattered out beyond the bars of her window. In the early days, she’d stared out at them, longing filling her hearts. They’d been a comfort to her, back then. Now, they just taunt her.

Her mind stutters for a moment – the next line of the poem is lost to her. Panic flutters in her chest, a wild bird in her ribcage, and she lunges into her mind, grasping and desperate.

And – and men forgot their passions in the dread of this their desolation,” she whispers, breaths short and sharp, pressing her hands against her face, “and all hearts were chilled into –”

Into –

“– a selfish prayer for light,” she finishes. The words are barely audible now – just a hum in her throat, the scraping of breath against cold air.

The Master laughs, low.

My, my, he says. You really are a mess, aren’t you?

She screws her eyes tighter shut, wishing she could shut him out as she reaches for the next line of the poem, frantic

I wouldn’t bother, love, he says. You’re about to be disturbed.

An electronic whine she hasn’t heard in days reaches her ears, and she moves her hands from her face to find the door of her cell sliding back. She doesn’t move from the floor. She just watches as two Judoon guards enter, flanking another figure she can’t make out in the dark.

“This is the one?” she hears them ask.

“Yes,” comes the gruff response. “The prisoner has been prepped.”

“Excellent,” they reply. “Well then. Let’s get started, shall we?”

After that, she knows nothing but white.

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing that comes back to her is sound. Beeping. Humming. Talking.

“Ah. Are you awake?”

She’s not sure where she is.

“Can you hear me?”

She tries to open her eyes, but everything feels inexplicably heavy, each eyelid carrying the weight of a neutron star. It takes every ounce of effort she has to pry them open a slit.

Everything is white.

“Ah, there you are. Can you speak?”

She makes a hum at the back of her throat, her face creasing. She can’t move. Something must be wrong with the gravity in here. That’s got to be it, only –

Only her head aches, filled to bursting with a foggy nothingness. Her thoughts are dragging their feet, boots trawling through mud, and she can’t get her eyes to focus on anything. She opens them enough to make out a person-shaped blur against all the white.

The blur reaches out, and then something is patting her arm.

“Take your time,” says the voice, kindly. “You’ve been heavily sedated. It can take a while to come out of it fully.”

She frowns. It takes longer than she’d like to make sense of each word – to string them together into a sentence, into meaning.

She blinks.

“I…” she says.  

Nothing feels real. It’s like she’s a couple of dimensions removed; reality shifted slightly to the left. No, bit more than slightly, she’s – she’s been displaced, transplanted. Someone’s cut into the multiversal bulk and she’s fallen through, trapped on the wrong side, pressing her face against the fabric of the adjacent d-brane but she can’t quite – she can’t –

She can’t break through.

“I think she needs more time,” says another voice.

She –

She slips back into oblivion.

 

 

 

 

– within, without,
there are fields upon fields
of rolling red grass –

 

 

 

The habitations of all things which dwell,
her mind recites
in a desperate whisper,
were burnt for beacons

 

 

 

“– remember how we used to
run through those streets
as children?”

 

 

Forests were set on fire
she continues,
lost at sea,
unmoored,
but hour by hour
they fell and faded
and the crackling trunks
extinguished with a crash

 

“The alleys where we'd hide
from Borusa as we
skipped classes.”

 

 

She can smell pine.

 

And all was black –

 

 

 

“All gone now.”

 

 

 

 

 

The next time she wakes, she’s more lucid.

Vaguely.

“– more than we expected. We might need to tweak the dosage.”

“It’s hard to say. I’m all that passes for an expert around here, and there’s not exactly much about her species in the database.”

Something about that strikes her as incredibly funny, but she can’t quite grasp why.

Hilarious, a voice says behind her eyes, tone twisted through a smirk. Truly, this is hilarious.

She tries to turn her head, chasing the source of the voice.

You won’t find me out there, love, it says, all bristling sparks, like it’s trying not to laugh.

“Doctor, I think she’s awake again.”

There’s a rustling sound. She pries her eyes open, and this time she gets them about halfway. Everything is a blur, a washed-out impressionist painting, only it’s all white and far too bright.

“Hello again,” says one of the blurs. “Are you with me this time?”

She frowns, opening her mouth to speak – then closes it again. Swallows.

“Where…” she tries, resisting the urge to close her eyes, grasping onto reality with both hands. Pulling herself back. “…where am I?”

The words are a barely comprehensible slur. Panic tries to catch in her lungs – but something snuffs it out.

A hand pats her arm, and she’s too sluggish to flinch away.

“You’re in psychiatric care. Don’t be scared – we’re here to help you.” A pause. “Do you remember how you got here?”

She reaches into her mind, throwing a flare. But she’s stumbling, uncoordinated, and it fizzles out at her feet, leaving her completely in the dark. She’s empty.

“I don’t…” she tries. “…I don’t do hospitals.”

There’s something very wrong with her.

The blur just laughs, amused. “Do you know who you are?”

Ah – yes. She knows that one.

Somewhat.

The voice behind her eyes laughs, bitter. Hardly.

“Yeah,” she says, forcing the word past her throat, focusing on her tongue, on keeping the words clear. Her diction vaguely improves. “…I’m the Doctor.”

The blur laughs again. “No no – I’m the doctor. You’re my patient. Understand?”

What?

This is too perfect, the voice says, laughter bubbling, erratic. So glad I’m around to see this. Wouldn’t miss it for the universe.

She shifts, trying to open her eyes more, trying to focus. She needs to figure out where she is.

“No,” she says, a murmur. “No, I’m the…”

“Shh, it’s alright,” says the blur, pushing her back down. “You’re confused. It’s understandable, considering what’s happened.”

She doesn’t understand. The voice in her head is still laughing, cackling. “…what…?”

“Please don’t panic – it’s normal not to remember.”

But she can’t panic. She’s trying, the engine in her chest spinning up, but it just splutters out under the haze. Reality is too heavy, too dense.

“There was an incident,” the blur is saying, “during your allocated daily exercise.”

She reaches for it, fumbling in her memories, but all she finds is fog.

“I expect you don’t remember, but you had some kind of psychotic episode, and – well, there’s no point in sugar-coating it, I suppose.”

All she finds is darkness.

“You murdered another prisoner.”

What?

No – no no no –

Even through the muddiness in her mind, she knows that’s not right.

That –

That can’t be right –

Oh yes, laughs the voice, oh that’s brilliant – this is even better than I thought –

“I…” she says, wanting to protest – but everything is too slow, too ponderous, and she can’t make her mouth form the words. “I didn’t…”

The blur hums. “I know you think that.” He pats her arm again. “It’s alright. We’re here to help you. We’re going to make you better.”

And she tries to argue – opens her mouth to say he’s wrong, there’s been some mistake –

But she’s too slow, and he’s gone before she can.

 

 

 

 

 

They take her to a small, white room and leave her there. Her clothes are white now too, she realises abruptly. Perfect white, with the black stripe running down the left side, adorned with the intricate symbols of her prisoner number.

There’s something about the whiteness that unsettles her. She doesn’t understand it. It was red before. When did they change it? Why did they change it?

She turns her attention back to the room. It’s windowless. Bare. There’s a bed, a sink, and nothing else. That turns out to be not much of a problem, since all she does is lie there. Every thought is sluggish, mired, and she barely has the energy to sit up.

The blur who has become a man who has introduced himself as Dr Mulligan is saying something about that. Something about adjusting doses, keeping her calm.

“It will only be temporary, whilst we adjust your doses,” he’s promising. He’s sitting on a chair beside her bed, tapping away on some device. “Until we can figure out what’s best for you.”

What’s best for you? As if they have a clue about, says that voice she’d heard before, amused and disparaging in equal measure. Her gaze moves over, and sees a man sitting on the end of her bed. She thinks she recognises him – knows she does – but through the fog in her brain she can’t…quite place him.  

He looks at her. Really? That’s all it takes? They pump you full of drugs and you can’t figure out who I am?

“I’m sorry,” she says, brow creasing.

She doesn’t really understand what’s happening.

“You’re sorry?” Mulligan repeats, confused. He follows her gaze. “Who are you talking to?”

The man just grins at her, delighted. Oh – you can’t even tell now, can you?

“The man,” she asks, gaze flicking back to Mulligan. He seems to know what’s going on more than she does. Even though he says she killed someone, even though it must be wrong, even though she doesn’t remember it. “Who is he?”

Mulligan turns to look again at the man, who gives him a cheery wave, wiggling his fingers.

“I’m sorry,” he says, frowning, turning back to look at her, “but there’s no one there.”

“There is,” she insists, eyes darting back to the man who’s just shaking with laughter, thrilled about something. “He’s right there, can’t you –?”

A hand on her shoulder. Some distant part of her tries to flinch, but she’s too slow, too uncoordinated.

“It’s alright,” soothes Mulligan, in a way that is not really soothing at all. “This is just another symptom. Of the psychosis, remember?”

And in her ears, the man just laughs and laughs and laughs.

 

 

 

 

Time skips and lurches, a stone skimming over water. She blinks, and finds nothing has changed, blinks again and she’s in a completely different room. She’s sitting in a chair, head lolled against the backrest, wires trailing down. Distantly, she registers that there’s something attached to her temple. She reaches up a hand to brush against it, but someone catches her wrist before she can.

“No, no,” says a voice she doesn’t recognise. “Don’t touch that, now.”

They let her go, and without the strength to keep it up, her wrist drops back down to her lap.

She tries to look around, tries to move her head. But it’s like trying to escape a singularity – entirely impossible.

She’s always been one for impossible, though –

 

“– I try and believe in
three impossible things
before breakfast –”

 

– hasn’t she?

Oh yes, you always have, says that familiar voice again. It’s the most infuriating thing about you.

She thinks he might be lying.

I’m really not.

She frowns – has she…is she speaking out loud?

The man sighs in her ears, condescending. No. I’m in your mind. Keep up, love. And do try and pay attention – don't you want to see what they’re trying to do?

Something else is pressed against her forehead, the pressure accompanied by a hand carefully tucking her hair behind her ear. She forces herself to look up – she needs to figure out what’s going on, figure out what’s happening to her, figure out why they’re saying she killed someone – and finds Mulligan standing over her.

“Just relax,” he says. “We’re just running a few tests. Trying to see what’s going on in there.”

He taps her forehead, and she tries to move away – she doesn’t like being touched. But again, again, her body too slow to react. By the time she moves, his hand is gone, and her head just falls back against the seat, too heavy to hold up. Panic tries again, desperately humming at the edges of her mind – but it can’t break through.

Oh, come on, Doctor, the man goads. Surely you can do better than that?

She sees him standing beside her, a grin tugging at his lips and fire flickering behind his eyes. He’s holding on to the lapels of a fine purple coat, and the rest of him is decked in a checkered blue suit – nothing like the medical clothes that everyone else around him seems to be wearing.    

Surely the Timeless Child is BETTER than this? he snarls, surely it takes more than a few stray chemicals in your system to take you down?

“…I don’t – I don’t understand,” she says, a murmur.

No no, of course you don’t, he says, flippant, before scowling. If I knew it was this easy to break you, I wouldn’t have put in nearly as much effort –

“I’m…” she says, and oh, it takes so much energy to pull each word out of the haze of her mind, to twist her tongue around the syllables. “I’m not...”

Not broken, hm? the man finishes for her. Then what do you call this?

“I’m not…” she says.

“Not what?”

Mulligan returns to her line of sight, frowning down at her. He doesn’t even look at the man in purple beside him – doesn’t even seem to notice him.

She can’t answer him – how can she explain? She doesn’t even know what’s happening around her. And so she just closes her eyes and lets him think whatever he wants to think.

She doesn’t have the energy to care.

“Not guilty?” Mulligan guesses. “I know you believe that. But I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it.”

Panic bristles again, but it’s too faded, too heavy in the haze. She forces herself to open her eyes again, to look at him.

“No…” she tries to protest – but one weak word is all she can manage.

Yes,” he insists. “Come, now. Why would you be here if it wasn’t true?”

She doesn’t know. That’s what she’s trying to figure out. Because it can’t be true, so they must be lying –

Unless they’re not, hisses the man, grinning. Oh, you should have seen yourself, Doctor. You’ve always been at your most beautiful when you’re raging.

His eyes are gleaming, almost reverent. It disturbs her. There’s something about it that makes her doubt her own certainty – makes her wonder –

Could she have done something?

She can’t remember.

She can’t think.

Mulligan seems to take her silence as an answer. “Exactly. See? You know the truth really.” He squeezes her arm, and she really wishes he wouldn’t, but she can’t make herself move away. “You know you can trust what I say.”

He leaves her after that, moving out of her line of sight. She turns her head to look back, to catch sight of the man again – but he’s gone too. The space beside her is empty, like a gaping wound. Like he’d never been there at all.

Her head aches, the throb behind her eyes growing. And so, she just closes them, giving up with trying to figure it out for now. Giving up trying to think for now.

She’s too tired to make sense of anything.

 

 

 

“What happened?” she asks, later, when she finds her mind is marginally clearer. She’s back in the white room again, sitting up in bed, and Mulligan is pressing something into her arm. Injecting something.

Not injecting, whispers the man – only he’s just a voice this time. She can’t see him, even if she can feel his presence, like he’s watching through her eyes. Taking. Your blood, Doctor.

“You mean the incident?” Mulligan replies, as he moves the device away from her skin.

“Yes,” she replies. She needs to know – she thinks it’s the key to figuring out what’s going on.

The voice hums, amused. Well, you’re not wrong about that.

“I don’t think we should talk about that just yet,” Mulligan replies. “I don’t think you’re quite ready.”

“I want to know,” she says, trying to think around the fog in her head. What does she need to say, to get him to listen? “I – I want to know what I did.”

Mulligan stills. “So you believe you did do something, then?”

She swallows, deciding she doesn’t want to answer that. “I just want to know.”

He sighs, before putting the device safely in his pocket. “The guards supervising your allocated daily exercise erroneously deactivated the fences around your exercise space, and several others adjacent. There were several minutes where you and approximately five other prisoners were able to be in direct contact with each other.”

She forces her mind to focus entirely on his words, grasping at the meaning. She can feel the other presence in her mind as well, attention rapt. “And then what?”

“There was a fight,” he continues. “Nothing big, at first – not until you got involved. The guards said it seems like you were trying to pull them apart at first, but then it became very clear that you weren’t. And when they attempted to intervene –”

She shakes her head – there are flickers of memories now – of a dark grey floor, of red uniforms, of two hearts pounding a rapid staccato in her chest –

“You pulled the horn off the first guard,” he says, sounding slightly sick. “And then used the horn to continue to attack the other prisoners. Only, of course, you could actually hurt now you were armed. You managed to take one of them down, and then you – well. You knelt down and finished the job.”

Oh, breathes the voice, that’s perfect.

“It was extremely violent,” Mulligan says. “And – unprecedented, considering your previous behaviour, despite your extensive charges. Which is why they admitted you here.”

She’s still shaking her head, breaths caught in her throat. She doesn’t remember doing what he’s saying – doesn’t remember attacking anyone, and doesn’t dare believe that she ever would. She just remembers the dark floor, the red of the people around her, red on her sleeves –

She remembers dropping to her knees before someone. Someone lying still. Someone bleeding. And she reaches out –  

His hand is on her shoulder, and she manages to flinch away this time, staring at him with wide eyes.

“I was afraid this would happen,” he says, brow creased with disappointment.

 I didn’t do it, she wants to scream, but she bites her lip, knowing that he’ll just deny it. Knowing he’ll just say she’s got it wrong. But – but she knows she didn’t –

Do you know that? says the voice, and she can hear how he’s grinning. Do you know anything for sure?

She looks away, glancing down at her hands, thoughts spiralling. Her eyes get stuck on the whiteness of her sleeves – it keeps catching her off guard. It’s wrong, and she can’t get herself past it.

“Talk to me,” Mulligan says. “You’re my patient – I can help you if you talk to me.”

Yes, the voice croons. Go on then. Talk to the good doctor.

“It’s – it’s my clothes,” she finds herself answering, still staring. The sleeves are so white. “They were red before.”

“Ah, yes,” he says, clearing his throat. “We washed them.”

She snaps her gaze to look at him. What? “No – no, the fabric was red all over before. All over me.”

“Yes,” Mulligan says, sounding uncomfortable. “There was a lot of –”

He cuts off suddenly.

“Never mind about it,” he says.

No,” she insists. “They were red.”

“They were always white,” Mulligan says, certain. “I wouldn’t lie to you, would I? All the prisoners wear white. They’ve been white the whole time you’ve been here.”

“They weren’t,” she says – because they weren’t, were they? She knows that. She’s sure she does, and the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. “It wasn’t –”

It wasn’t blood, she screams in her mind.

Wasn’t it? the voice replies, laughter on his lips.

“I think you should rest,” says Mulligan, getting up. “You’re getting agitated.”

“No – no,” she says, urgent. She doesn’t want them to send her even deeper into the fog again – she’s done nothing but sleep for who knows how long, and she needs to figure out what’s happening, needs to break out of the haze she’s trapped in. But Mulligan pulls another device out of his pocket that he presses against her arm. It bites at her skin, and instantly a wave of exhaustion washes over her. She tries pointlessly to fight it, to rage against the dying of the light. But the waves wash over her, all-consuming, and pull her down, down, down into the silent depths.

 

 

 

She has a dream which is not all a dream.

There is an endless forest, spruces and cedars stretching on and on and on beyond her sight. She walks, and walks, and walks through eternity, but finds nothing.

The winds were withered in the stagnant air,” she recites, a stilted whisper, even though she can’t remember where the words come from. They don’t mean anything to her. “And the clouds perished –”

 

When she wakes, she doesn’t know how long later, she can still smell the pine.

 

 

 

 

The next few days are the same – or, rather, she presumes they are days. It’s hard to tell, with her mind fading in and out of coherency, never quite alert enough to figure out what’s going on. The seconds stretch, endless, and she gets lost in the subdivisions, splitting each moment down into mircoseconds and nanoseconds and even smaller besides, finding more and more countable infinities the further down she goes. They move her back and forth from the white room to the room where they test things, and sometimes, when she blacks out, she finds herself in the forest, wandering.

She finds she can’t make sense of any of it, and the truth of that unnerves her enough that it cuts through the haze of chemicals that have saturated her mind.

She needs to leave.

But she can’t.

She doesn’t even know if she should.

If what they say is true –

She doesn’t finish the thought, letting it dissipate into the fog.

The man that only she can see is a near constant presence in her waking hours. Not that she feels awake when she’s in them.

No. If anything she feels more awake in her dreams.

You’re pathetic, he says to her when they’re alone, when the door to the white room is locked and the lights are dimmed low. His words are cutting, disappointed, but somehow managed to sound delighted at the same time. She can’t make sense of it. Can’t make sense of him.

“Leave me alone,” she says, her voice quiet – but steadier that she’s sounded since she woke up amongst the white. Maybe she’s getting used to the chemicals. Maybe she’d get used to them completely, if they didn’t keep changing what they give her.

The man just laughs. And why would I do that? Wouldn’t want to miss the show. Really, you should have figured it out by now – but all you’re doing is moping.

“I’m not –” she hisses.

You ARE, he growls, and it’s DULL.

“I can’t – I can’t leave,” she says, voice cracking. “They – they say I killed someone. That’s what they said –”

And she doesn’t remember it, can hardly remember anything, other flickering images that flash through the back of her mind – dropping to her knees beside a body on the floor, and their clothes are red and her clothes are red and she reaches out –

The man makes a frustrated noise. This, AGAIN. It’s ALWAYS this with you.

What?” she snaps.

Your GUILT, he growls. It makes you so BORING. You’re always wallowing every time you let someone die as if you don’t already have the blood of billions on your hands.

Her breath hitches. “No – no, you’re lying.

Am I? he snarls, a grin twisting his face. Or have you forgotten where you are along with everything else?

“I’m –” She falters, grasping for something, but everything in her head is so loose these days. “I’m in psychiatric care –”

In a prison, he laughs. A prison, Doctor.

She shakes her head, balling her fists into the blanket beneath her, because he’s right, he’s right but she doesn’t want it to be true it can’t be true –

“You’re lying,” she hisses, even though she can feel it, that weight in her chest, like a thousand dying suns.

What’s a little more blood? he says between breaths, laughs coming out in violent, erratic gasps. You’re already drenched in it.

“Stop it,” she hisses. “STOP IT!”

You love to pretend you’re so pristine, but your hands are even filthier than mine, dear Doctor.

“SHUT UP!” she screams, the words spat from her mouth like venom. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

There’s a bang of a door slamming open accompanied by a rush of movement – of people. But she can’t parse it – all she knows is that there’s hands grabbing at her, holding her down, and so she fights them with all she is, writhing against them even as something bites against her arm and synthetic exhaustion washes over her.

It’s only then, enveloped in the darkness, that the manic laughter stops ringing in her ears.

 

 

 

 

She’s not sure how long after she wakes that she realises – time is a mystery to her in the all-consuming whiteness of this room – but her mind begins to feel a little less muddy. The haze is still there, but it’s lost its edge. She finds she can sit up, and so she does, leaning her body against the wall and trying to think, figure out what she remembers, but mostly all she does is stare at nothing.

What came before this?

She remembers the dark, and the cold. She remembers scratching marks onto the walls, counting and counting until she gave up. She remembers that she was forgetting – remembers that it scared her.

Was there anything before that?

She scrunches up her face, pressing the heel of her hand into her eye. There’s a headache building there, dull and throbbing.

She tries to remember what they say. About a fight – about blood on her hands, on her sleeves, all over her. But she can’t. She just remembers cold, and dark, and red and –

“Are you listening?”

She blinks, turning her head.

Mulligan is back in her room again – she didn’t even notice him come in. He’s looking at her, and she can’t decipher anything from his gaze. She just feels small, a particle under a microscope.

“Do you know who you are?” he says after a long moment.

She swallows. She knows the answer – the only thing she knows these days, like a fact she’s learnt and will keep repeating, even though she knows he won’t like it. But the man calls her by this name – the man only she can see. “I’m the Do–”

NO,” Mulligan snaps, and she flinches. “No. We’ve been over this. I’m the doctor. You’re my patient.”

She stares at him as he lets out a shuddery breath, like he’s trying to control himself.

“If you want to get better,” he says, voice steely, a thin veneer of calm over something darker underneath, “then you need to start listening to me. And you need to start putting some effort in.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“Do you want to get better?”

She doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t look at him. There’s a loose thread in the blanket she’s sitting on, and she wraps her fingers around it.

“Do you want to stop seeing things?” he presses, fierce. “Do you want to understand what’s really happening?” He pauses. “Or do you want to end up killing someone else?

“I don’t remember killing anyone,” she whispers. The thread wrapped around her fingers is so tight it’s turning her skin as white as the sheets.

“No, you don’t,” Mulligan says. “But you don’t remember much at all, do you?”

“…no,” she admits.

“So how can you be so sure?” he says. “How can you know that you didn’t?”

“Because –” The words stutter, falling short. “Because I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“But you did,” he says. “And you do remember. Because you remember the red, don’t you? You wouldn’t remember that if you hadn’t killed anyone.”

 She turns, pressing her face against the wall and screwing her eyes shut.

“Let’s try again,” Mulligan says. “Do you know who you are?”

 

 

 

They keep testing things. She can’t quite figure out what, information just beyond her reach, and whenever she tries to ask, she gets brushed off. They all say the same things, over and over – we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with you. We’re trying to help you. You’re our patient. Just stay calm.

She’s scared that if they say it enough times that she’ll start believing it.

Today, the tests are different. She’s attached to the chair again, but this time there’s a device around her head, some kind of mechanical crown. She wants to look at it, work out what it does, but she can barely find the strength to lift her head.

Fascinating, the man muses. He’s standing just beside her – she can see the purple of his coat, stark against all the white. I have no idea what it does. Although, I could make a few guesses.

She wishes he’d say something useful.

(She wishes she could remember who he was.)

You mean you still don’t know? he says, trying for mocking – only it just comes out as sad. She looks over at him, finding him clear amongst the haze, and she can see the way his true emotions dart behind his eyes, like wild birds flitting between branches.

“Tell me,” she murmurs. No one else is paying attention to her. Mulligan won’t hear her.

But the man just smiles at her tightly. No. Don’t think I will.

Tell me,” she tries again, and he just laughs.

Oh, are you going to make me? he goads. What are you going to threaten me with, Doctor? You can barely even think.

She opens her mouth, not even sure what she’s going to say – but before she can speak, a shout interrupts her. Barked instructions across a room.

Sounds like, the man says, looking around, they’re about to begin.

He’s right – there’s a whining in the air suddenly, the static before the storm. The device circling her head, a twisted halo, begins to hum. Activating. For a moment, there seems to be no effect – but then she’s tensing, every muscle in her body taut as something surges through her, ripples under her skin that bite into her, ravaging, blazing through her insides –

She gasps, a cry wrenched from her lips. In her mind, the man just laughs and laughs, unhinged, as her vision starts to fizz with grey, black crowding at the edges, pulling her down with a force she can’t fight.

But in the moment before she’s cast into the emptiness, before the darkness consumes her entirely, she reaches out into the part of her mind where the man’s voice originates, grasping instinctively. She doesn’t know what she expects to find – if she expects to find anything – but her psychic hands brush against something in the nothing, and she clings to it with a strength she didn’t know she had and tugs it towards her until –

 

– she’s dreaming again.

The forest in her mind is perpetual and deep, the light barely piercing the canopy. It looks like it should be cold, fractals of frost settling on the bark, on the pine needles – but she doesn’t feel cold at all. She can’t feel much of anything, besides a strange pull in her chest. A thread, tugging gently, as if someone is pulling the other end.

Come to me, it says. Come along.

She follows it as it leads her deeper into the forest.

Time is meaningless, a void, and the further she goes, the less she remembers where she’s been. How did she get here? Where is she? Where is she going? She doesn’t know. She reaches for context, grasping, but there is nothing but mist in the back of her mind, nothing but the cord that still tugs at her sternum.

Even so, she likes it here.

She can think here.

She walks until she finds the child.

They’re standing in the pine needles, back turned, wrapped in furs and a cloak. They must sense her presence – her footsteps are silent – because they glance back at her, eyes wide and curious.

“Are you looking for him too?”

She frowns – is she? She doesn’t know, doesn’t know who ‘he’ even is, but – maybe. Maybe that’s why she’s here.

Also, she doesn’t have another answer, and she gets the sense that admitting that she doesn’t know why she’s here or where she is –

(– or who she is –)

– might not be wise.

Besides, this is a dream. And she knows that you should always be careful what you reveal in dreams. They’re far too dangerous, after all.

“Yes,” she says. The child smiles, wonderous.

Really?”

She tries to smile back. “‘Course.”

They lean towards her with an air of conspiracy. “The other adults are too scared,” they whisper.

She steps closer, frowning. “Why?”

The child blinks at her. “Don’t you know?”

“I don’t know much of anything,” she says, and it rings truer than she appreciates.

The child hums, thinking. “Well,” they say, sounding quite important. They clearly don’t often meet someone who knows less than them, and are revelling in the opportunity. “They call him the Beast of the Forest.”

“Why?” she asks. “What did he do?”

“He scared them away,” the child says. “He always scares them away when they get too close.”

She blinks, her heart rate rising for no discernible reason. White flickers at the back of her mind.

“Why does he do that?” she asks, the words pulled from her throat through a gasping breath. Her chest is gaping suddenly, empty – she thinks someone has stolen her lungs.

“Mama says he’s hiding something,” the child continues, their voice far away to her ears. “Something he can’t bear to lose.”

She can’t breathe.

The world is fading, swung blind and blackening.

“But I don’t think that’s it,” the child whispers. She can barely hear them over the buzzing in her ears – she can’t even see the forest anymore.

“I think he’s just afraid.”

She can’t see anything at all.

 

 

Her eyes crack open, and she’s still strapped to the chair, hearts pounding with the lingering pain. The scent of pine lingers, dissonant against the sharp smell of chemicals. Her mind is slow, cumbersome, and she can barely grasp hold of the fleeting bits of conversation happening around her. But she tries anyway.

“– still unsure what these energy readings even signify –”

“– are you certain you’ve aligned the nodes correctly –?”

“– how are we supposed to siphon this if we don’t even understand it?”

“You’re supposed to be trying to understand it. So that we can siphon it –”

She turns her head, opening her eyes. She finds herself facing the doorway, the corridor stretching on beyond. The light flickers, intermittent, and below it stands the man. He smiling at her, shaking his head.

They really think they can do it, he says. It would almost be endearing if it weren’t so arrogant. They really think they can figure out what took a Time Lord a whole lifetime

There’s a hand under her chin, turning her head up and away from the door. She doesn’t have the strength to fight it. She’s not even sure if she’s supposed to anymore.

Mulligan looks down at her, his face a concerned frown.

“Do you know who you are?” he asks.

She doesn’t have an answer for him. Her mind is lost, still wandering through an eternal forest.

“You’re my patient,” he says. “And we’re helping you. We’re making good progress now. Do you trust me?”

She swallows. She doesn’t know, but –

“Yes,” she manages. She doesn’t know, but she thinks that’s the answer he wants to hear.

Very good, the man says, leaning in the doorway. Play the game, Doctor.

“Well done,” Mulligan says. “That’s good. Because you can trust me. I only want what’s best for you. Even if it hurts. You understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she murmurs. Her eyes flick to the man in the doorway again, and she sees his brow crease with a frown.

Are you playing the game? he asks, like he’s suddenly curious. Or do you really believe him?

“What are you looking at?” Mulligan asks. Her eyes move back to look at him, gaze dragging.

“The man, in the door,” she says. Mulligan frowns.

“There is no man.”

She looks back to the doorway again – but this time, it’s empty.

“You’re just seeing things,” Mulligan says, tucking a hair behind her ear. “There isn’t anything there, not really.”

“There is. I saw something,” she insists. “There was someone there –”

“That’s just the light in the hall,” Mulligan says. “It flickers off and on. That’s all.”

She blinks heavily, staring at the empty doorway, at the stuttering light.

There was someone there,” she breathes.

Mulligan sighs, before fiddling with something in his hands. She doesn’t know what – doesn’t turn to look. She’s too busy looking at the doorway, just in case he comes back.

“I think,” says Mulligan, as something bites against her arm, “that you need a little more of this.”

Exhaustion washes over her and drags her down again.

 

 

 

Her universe narrows down to three places. The white room, the testing room, the forest. The tests get more elaborate – she still doesn’t know what they’re trying to do, but more and more often it involves some kind of machine, which always hurts her. Every time, Mulligan tells her it’s helping. Half the time, her mind lost in a sea of chemicals and delirium, she believes him completely.

The man only she can see starts to get more agitated. It’s subtle at first – there’s always been an edge about him, like he’s constantly on a hair trigger. Constantly coiled, a viper ready to strike. But there’s something more there, now – a slow realisation flickering behind his eyes. Like there’s something about the tests they’re doing that disturbs him.

She remembers what he said – grasps the hazy memory out of the fog before she can lose it along with everything else. They really think they can do it.

What if they can?

She doesn’t even know what they’re doing. And, of course, he refuses to tell her, even as the look in his eyes grows more and more restless. He’s beginning to disappear for longer and longer each time, and she wonders if maybe that’s Mulligan’s doing – if these tests really are making her see what’s real and what isn’t.

The man feels so real, though.

More real than anything else in this place.

The forest remains in her mind, and she returns there every time she slips away. Sometimes she sees the child, although she’s yet to see the beast that they talk about so reverently. But more often she’s alone, walking through the trees and losing herself more and more.

The white room, of course, stays the same.

Always.

 

 

 

 

“Are you a ghost?”

She turns at the question, confused. She’s back in the forest again, trees going on forever, pine needles crunching under her boots. The child is standing behind her, so wrapped up in their furs that she can barely see their face – but what she can see of it appears to be mildly bewildered.

Dreaming again, she reminds herself.

“Why would I be a ghost?” she asks.

“Because you keep disappearing,” comes the reply.

“No, I don’t,” she replies, a little indignant.

“You do,” the child insists.

“I don’t,” she replies. “I just wake up.”

The child gives her an odd look. “What do you mean by that?

“It means I wake up,” she says, face scrunching. What’s so hard to understand?

The child just stares at her for a moment, before their face crumples a little. Eyes glancing away, restless. “I keep thinking you’ve run away. Got scared, like all the others.”

“I’m always scared,” she says. “Scared of everything, I am.”

The child frowns. “Then why are you here?”

She still doesn’t know. Still can’t figure it out. The only thing she knows is that tug in her chest, urging her onwards.

Come to me, it pleads, please come to me.

She doesn’t give the child an answer, instead moving off in the direction of the pull. It leads deeper into the forest – but then, every direction appears to be deeper. She could walk any way and still find herself more lost, alone in a dark city of xylomonoliths.   

And all hearts were chilled into a selfish prayer for light,” she murmurs, nonsensical, but somehow it grounds her. “And they did live by watchfires –”

“Do you have a name?” the child asks, walking alongside her, swinging their arms.

“Do you?” she counters.

No,” the child replies, like it’s a stupid question. “Of course I don’t. I don’t know who I am yet.”

She gets the sense that she doesn’t really know either.

“Do you not have a name?” the child says, sounding slightly awed. “I’ve never met an adult without a name.”

“Maybe I do have one,” she says, glancing around. There are still only trees – but there’s got to be something out there. Something is reeling her in, calling to her. “Maybe I’m just not telling you.”

“Why not?”

“Because this is a dream,” she says. “You should never say what your name is in a dream.”

You should also never reveal that you don’t know what your name is in a dream, she thinks with a chill.

The child scowls. “This isn’t a dream. I can smell things. Feel things.”

“Ah,” she says. “That’s how they trick you.”

“But –”

“Don’t worry about it,” she says – there isn’t time to focus on it. There’s a change in the air, darkness crowding in the corners of her vision. Deep in her chest, she knows that she’s running out of time here. “Tell me more about this Beast. What is he?”

“He looks just like a man,” the child says. “And he never moves. But he’s been here forever, since before people can remember. And he can do things in your mind – make you scared. That’s what he does to the adults.”

“So, you’ve been to him before?”

“Yes, lots of times.”

There’s a hissing in the air, static in her ears – an electric whine that grows and grows. There’s something wrong with her chest. It feels empty, too empty, like maybe someone has cracked apart her ribs and pulled out her lungs, her hearts –

“Doesn’t he do stuff to your mind too?” she manages to say, the words coming out like gasps. The seconds are ticking, sliding together, an unstoppable landslide of moments. She’s slipping on time, running out of air.

“He did, at first,” the child replies, unhurried. “But he stopped after a while, when I kept coming back. So long as I didn’t get too close.”

The darkness is growing, near swallowing her completely, but she forces out one last question – one last word –

Why?”

“Because,” the child says, just before she slips away entirely, “he said I reminded him of someone he loves.”

 

 

She wakes to find herself screaming.

There’s something wrapped around her arms, her waist, pinning her down. Panic flares – and then realises that it can flare, that there’s nothing smothering it, and immediately it overwhelms her completely. She writhes, twisting against her bounds, and there’s something eating her lifeforce, something blazing in her insides and it hurts it hurts it HURTS –

Please –” she gasps, delirious. “Stop, please STOP –!”

“Doctor, her vitals –”

Keep going – this is necessary.”

“It looks like it’s killing her –”

A laugh. “Well, yes – it’s supposed to. Almost.

Another scream wrenches itself from her throat, her back arching. She’s on fire, she’s dying, she can’t breathe through the smoke she can’t think all she can do is burn and burn and burn and –

 

– a woman stands over her
with a smile that fails to be kind
with eyes that fail to hide
their hunger,
and she burns,
over
and over
and over

“– almost there, child,”
she soothes,
just watching as she
bleeds out streams of gold
I’m so close now –”

 

“PLEASE!” she screams, voice raw and breaking. The life is being sucked out of her and it’s catching on the way out, hooking onto her organs and pulling them out through her throat. “Please – I can’t I CAN’T –!”

No no no, moans the voice in her head. He’s not laughing anymore. Not again. I don’t want to watch this AGAIN

“Doctor –”

Keep going, just a little more –”

Then there’s a BANG, a violent eruption of sound and a burst of light. Instantly, whatever is happening stops – the flames blazing under her skin are gone, and the invisible hands clawing at her insides let go, leaving whatever is left behind as bloodied, raw endings. She coughs, choking on her own amputated essence.

No!” someone is cursing. “It should have WORKED!”

 “There was too much energy,” someone replies, trying for placating but missing it entirely and hitting panicked instead. “The equipment couldn’t take it –”

“Then find something that will,” comes the brusque reply. There are other voices after that – sharp orders and snapped questions. But she can’t parse them – she’s just shaking, tears leaking from her closed eyes as she tries to force shuddering breaths through lungs that she doesn’t think are there anymore.

They shouldn’t have done this, says the voice, low and dangerous. They went too far.

She forces her eyes open a crack, and sees him there, crouching beside her. Everything beyond him is a blur, incoherent, just people moving because they all have the strength and ability to do so. Not like her, not anymore. She’s stagnant. She’s broken. She’s lost –

She watches as he reaches over, trying to brush his fingers against her face, like maybe he wants to wipe her tears away. He looks so tender like this, his eyes full of a desperate, aching sadness. But his hand is just air, just nothing – he can’t touch her.

He’s not really here.

This is too close, he murmurs, meaningless to her. Too close to what she did.   

She tries to speak, but all that comes out is a guttural gasp, the words snagging on the flayed edges of her throat.

Shh, he says. Don’t speak. I know you don’t understand.  

He glances down, and she follows his gaze, looking at her hand. It lies still, strapped to the edge of the table. She doesn’t have the strength to even twitch her fingers. But coiling around the digits – like smoke in air, like ink in water – is a bloom of golden light.

No one will ever understand.  

 

 

 

 

Reality becomes watery – more than it has been already. Breathing hurts. Her chest is a cavern, acid corroding her from within.

There are voices around her.

“Doctor, this is…more complex than we initially thought. It could take longer than anticipated. You might want to reconsider –”

“No,” Mulligan snaps. “I’m a patient man. We'll continue for as long as it takes."

She closes her eyes.

“The most recent test results were optimistic,” says someone else. “Maybe if we followed this avenue – developed some kind of conduit –”

Doctor, says the voice. You need to get out of here, love.

She doesn’t reply.

“Yes,” Mulligan murmurs. “Yes, this looks promising –”

Doctor. Come on. Time for one of your ridiculous plans.

She can’t reply.

Are you listening to me?

There are oceans in her ears.

Can you even hear me anymore?

She slips under the waves.

 

 

 

 

“Do you know who you are?” Mulligan says to her, days later. Maybe more. She’s sitting up in bed in the white room. His fingers brush her face, carefully tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

She doesn’t like it when he does that. But she doesn’t flinch away.

“I’m your patient,” she murmurs, because that’s the right answer. She glances up, catching sight of the smile tugging at his lips.

“Yes, that’s right,” he says. “Excellent. We’re making progress now, don’t you think?”

The man who only she can see is pacing behind Mulligan, unable to keep still. He’s shaking his head.

You’re an idiot, he growls. You need to get out of here. THINK. Can’t you see it? This guy is so transparent, come on. Do you really think they’d have psychiatric care this extensive in a dump like this?

She doesn’t reply to him. She knows better, by now.

“I think the treatment is helping,” Mulligan says, oblivious. “Things are better, yes? You’re happier.”

“Yes,” she says, even though her chest is a void, the cavity of her ribcage a gaping maw. Maybe that means she’s better. Maybe they took something out that shouldn’t have been there – something that made her hurt people.

 No, the man snaps. No, you’ll always be able to do that perfectly well.

She resists the urge to look at him, keeping her gaze turned down.

They’re just taking everything else from you.

“I think,” Mulligan says. “We should get you outside. Just for a little while. What do you think?”

For a moment, she does nothing, not sure what to say. Not sure if she gets a choice.

She feels like she hasn’t had a choice in a very, very long time, and now that she might have one, she isn’t quite sure what to do with it.

“Yes,” says Mulligan, clearly deciding for her. “I think we will.”

 

 

 

‘Outside’ turns out to be the prison yard. She recognises it, vaguely – or, rather, she thinks she’s seen flickers of it in the back of her mind. The dark floor is the same one she sees when she falls to her knees beside a body covered in red, when she reaches her hand out –

She shakes her head, like maybe she can make the images tumble out of her ears. No. No.

Her eyes dart around the rest of the yard, trying to grasp onto something. It’s completely empty. No other prisoners in sight.

“Go on, then,” Mulligan is saying. He’s standing just beside her, flanked by two guards. For some reason, that reminds her of something, recognition flickering in the back of her head. “You haven’t got long.” He smiles. “Don’t try anything, this time.”

She just stares at him for a moment, trying to breathe through the cavern in her chest. Then she turns, looking out again. She takes a few steps forward, a million questions thrumming in the headache that has settled permanently behind her eyes.

Go on then, love, the man hisses. He’s walking beside her, eyes glinting with urgency. She risks looking for him, just for a moment. Ask one. Make it count.

“Where are they?” she says. “The other prisoners?”

Oh yes. Yes, that’s a good one.

“It’s not time for their daily allocated exercise,” Mulligan explains. “We decided you should come out alone. For the safety of the other prisoners.”

No, she thinks, trying to pull the puzzle together. And she’s missing so many pieces, and she doesn’t even know what picture is supposed to be – but that never stops her. And what Mulligan is saying doesn’t quite fit – isn’t quite convincing enough –

He’s been telling her to trust him for so long that she’s almost started believing it.

Almost.

“If it’s not safe,” she says, a viper, hissing but stingless. They’ve been taking her venom, haven’t they? “Then why are you in here with me?”

Yes, says the man. Yes, that’s it.

“Well, that’s why the guards are here,” he replies, trying for calm, reasonable – but there’s a nervousness lying underneath.

“No,” she says, beginning to pace, her boots making a satisfying clunk against the cold, hard floor. It’s the change of environment, maybe – the break in the monotony that’s made the difference. Or maybe they just got careless, let the drugs in her system get too low. Because her thoughts are beginning to move again, grinding slowly into action for the first time in so, so long. It’s still not enough, not normal, but she can work with it. 9% capacity, at a guess. She can do a lot with 9%. “No, because – because you said there was more than one guard before, and – and there were four other prisoners. So that’s – that’s at least six people against me, and I still – I still –”

She breaks off, unable to say it.

“I’m confident that won’t happen again,” Mulligan says, not looking that confident at all. “You’re doing better now.”

That’s not it – that’s not it.

Come on, come on, the man urges. You’re so close it hurts.

She turns, still pacing. Thinking. Memories are flickering again, flames at the edges of her mind. Other prisoners on the other side of the fencing. Pacing in circles, the same square foot, over and over and over. And all of them, every single one –

– had been wearing red.

“No,” she says. She stops, staring right at Mulligan. He takes a small step back under the intensity of her gaze. “No, you didn’t want me to see.”

“I think we should take you back inside,” he says, trying for stern, the voice of authority – but she ignores him, epiphanies blazing in the gaping hole in her chest.

“You didn’t want me to see,” she snarls, “that they weren’t wearing white.”

Mulligan glances at the two guards, before giving them a nod. They move immediately, striding towards her. She flinches back, trying to move away – but there’s nowhere to run. She’s penned in, trapped, panic consuming her – no escape –

“You need to calm down,” says Mulligan.

“They were wearing red,” she counters, the words ripped from her throat as the guards grab her. She can’t help but fight against them, pulling back, but their grip around her arms is strong enough to bruise, to break. She keeps struggling anyway. “They were ALWAYS RED –”

She can see it, the images circling in her mind – the dark grey floor. The person lying still. Her, kneeling. Her hand outstretched.

“They were white,” growls Mulligan, before grabbing her chin. “LOOK AT ME. They were ALWAYS white.

“You’re LYING –!”

He lets go of her face, pushing her back into the guards. “Take her away. Keep her tied down.”

At that, he turns, storming off down the corridor as they pull her away. She screams at his retreating back, not caring what she looks like. They think she’s crazy anyway. What’s she got to lose?

They drag her back to the white room, and she kicks and fights them the whole way. It’s only when they throw her on the bed, one holding her down whilst the other fastens her wrists into a restraint, that her energy begins to wane, fatigue dragging her down. By the time they leave her, she’s lying still, shaking, the explosive ferocity of only a few moments previous evaporating completely.

And it’s then, in that moment of terrified stillness, that the man comes to her again.

You’re right, he whispers, urgent, as he crouches beside her bed. His voice cracks, each word breaking against the floor. You’re right about all of it.

She stares at him, eyes wide, breathing hard.

The fences did go down. There was a fight, he says, and there’s something in his eyes that makes her believe him. But the rest of it – you didn’t attack them. You didn’t hurt the guard. The jumpsuits were always red.

He reaches out to touch her, his hand shaking – but of course, he can’t.

You didn’t kill anyone, he breathes. Not this time.

“I don’t –” she stutters, a shudder rippling through her. “I don’t understand. You – you said –”

 I lied, he hisses. They all did.

“But why –?”

 

“– would they LIE?!” she screams,
broken,
desolate,
alone –

 

Because you have something they want, he tells her. You always have. And I thought it would be fun to watch. To see you so pathetic whilst they tried and failed to understand what you are. Just a last bit of fun, before –

He breaks off, looking away, and there’s something so pained in the way his face twists. His eyes are gleaming with dead oceans, with tides in their graves.

And they don’t understand, he says, choked. The waters are in his throat too. They don’t know a thing and they never will. But they didn’t need to – didn’t need to know how it works, like she did. They just needed to figure out how to take it. And once they have, they’ll take and take and take, and I –

The words cut short with a growl, and he stands, his fists clenching in his agitation, like he can’t bear to keep still. It makes up for her – exhausted, bound, where all she can do is lie still and try to breathe through the vast nothingness in her chest, through the way she feels like an imploding star, a black hole, collapsing in on herself from within.

They’re just doing what she did, he says, his words like glass shards, sharp and jagged against her thoughts. What they all did. It’s the same, it’s all the same

She doesn’t know who he’s taking about, doesn’t know what they did, doesn’t even know what they’re doing now but –

But there are images flickering at the back of her mind. Of a familiar ceiling viewed through a dozen different eyes; of a woman with a hardened gaze and a strained smile standing over her; of pain; of throats raw from screaming; of bleeding pure, burning gold.

She gasps, screwing her eyes shut. Because suddenly she’s not sure if she’s really here or there – if she’s a child laid on a table or something else, something much older – if she’s trapped by a man in white or a woman in grey – if they’re helping her – if they’re killing her –

And she remembers the dark, the concrete floor. Falling to her knees before someone – a body, lying prone on the floor. There’s blood, too much outside and not enough in, but it doesn’t matter, because the clothes they gave her are red already. She just reaches her hand forward, pressing against the wound as she tears herself open and bleeds gold.

“I didn’t kill them,” she gasps, clinging to the knowledge. “I was right –”

It was all just a trick, he says. To keep you here. To make you believe it. Because they saw what you did – knew you were more than what they’d thought you were. And they knew if they didn’t make you like this, if they gave you even the smallest chance to think your way out, you’d outsmart them in a second.

She moans, pressing her face against the sheets, head splitting. In her mind, she sees it – injuries knitting together under her fingers.

There never was any red, because you didn’t kill him. You did the opposite.

She can’t speak. Can barely breathe.

There was only ever gold.

 

 

 

 

 

“And so, that leads us to the most important question of all – is it infinite?” Mulligan is asking someone. She doesn’t know who – she can’t see. She’s back in the testing room, and they’ve strapped her into some kind of machine again – there’s no way to look around at the rest of the room. She can only hear his voice. “That’s what we’re trying to establish here. Because if this energy always replenishes itself, if it goes on for eternity –”

 

“– and he asks the shepherd boy
 ‘how many seconds
in eternity?’
and the shepherd boy says –”

 

But that’s not the real question, is it? the man only she can see says. She looks over at him, catching glimpses of his eyes through the components of the machine. There’s that sadness in him again – a broken, devasted gaze. The eyes of someone who cannot touch, cannot reach out, cannot enact change. Not how many seconds in eternity. You know what the real question is, don’t you, Thete?

But the act of observation itself enacts change – the act of perceiving light determines its quantum nature, a wave or a photon, and upon this law hangs all the ways that the universe doesn’t make sense. Or does, in the most chaotic way. He must know this. There’s chaos in his eyes too, flickering, barely contained. The two of them are living by the watchfires and he has taken them into himself, embedded those ancient infernos into his soul.

She wonders what he sees beyond the emptiness in her own eyes.

“The question,” she murmurs, whispers only he will hear, “is how many eternities in a second? How – how far down do the countable infinities go? How –” her headache spikes, and she gasps; the gaping cavity in her chest cracks open wider – “how many subdivisions can you make? Milliseconds? Microseconds? Nanoseconds? What is the space between two moments? What is –” she blinks heavily, the air around her buzzing with anticipation – “what is time, other than the way we try to count it, if the time between two seconds is as infinite as the time between two centuries?”

“Today,” Mulligan says, distant and proud, “we will take our first attempt to measure the true extent of this resource. To take this incredible gift from someone who has kept it to themself for so long, someone entirely undeserving, now to benefit so many others.”

No, love, he says, so sad, so sad. The question is –

The electricity in the air is building, growing. The thunderhead gathering. The machine around her hums – activating, she realises with a spike of panic that cuts through the haze, too late for her to run – too late for her to escape.

 – how much of eternity is in you?

Lightning strikes, tearing into her, ripping her apart. Muscles contract, her back arching as her veins blaze with golden fire, she’s a funeral pyre and –

 

And as she burns, she screams.

 

 

 

 

“There you are. You vanished again.”

She opens her eyes, looking up from where she’s hunched over. She’s curled into the roots of a tree, shaking.

Everything hurts. She feels like she can barely move, her very essence being siphoned from her. Something is burrowing into her, attaching itself to her insides and feeding off her soul, everything she is draining away like liquid gold down lines of tubing, collected into vats for the citadel to feast on –

“Are you ok?” the child asks, cocking their head.

Something is very, very wrong with her.

She swallows.

“Fine,” she lies, the word stuttered. “‘m fine.”

They stare at her for a moment.

“Are you…” they ask, tentative, “like him…? Are you another Beast?”

A laugh tumbles out her throat, unbidden.

“I’m no beast,” she murmurs, leaning her head back against the trunk. Her double pulse pounds, pain twisting like ice picks into her eyes. She feels sick, her skin burning. “‘M nobody. ‘M just…”

But she has no idea who or what she is, does she?

“Just a coward,” she settles on. The child frowns.

“But if you’re a coward,” says the child, “why are you looking for the Beast? You must be brave if you’re looking for the Beast.”

A smile quirks at her lips, humourless. “Ah. Brave doesn’t mean not scared. ‘M scared of everything – didn’ I tell you that?” She hums. “But I reckon I’ll get on well with this beast of yours.”

“Oh.” they say. “Well then…Coward Under the Tree. Do you still want to find him?”

That cord on her ribs tugs again. Beckoning. She reaches out for it with her mind, grasping it – and with it, she finds the strength to stand.

“Yes,” she breathes. “Take me.”

The child turns, leading. She stumbles behind, head spinning. She can barely keep herself from falling over, lurching from trunk to trunk for support, and an irritated groan falls from her mouth.

“You’d think,” she says, “that I’d be able to walk fine in a dream.”

“I told you already,” says the child, face crumpled. “This is real.”

“Common misconception,” she replies, breathless, sounding surer than she feels. “It being a dream doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

“It doesn’t?”

She opens her mouth, but her chest hitches, and a hacking cough rips itself from her throat. Gold spills out of her mouth, twisting like smoke in the air.

Not good, part of her screams. That is extremely very not good.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” the child says.

“Are you sure you’re not dreaming?” she counters.

The child seems to seriously consider it for a moment.

“I’m sure I’m not,” they say after a moment. “But if dreams can be real, then does it matter whether we are or not?”

She hums.

“Yes, that’s –” she swallows – “quite a good point, actually.”

The child looks quite pleased about that, she thinks, before they turn to focus on the route through the trees ahead.

“Come on,” they say. “We’re close now. Can you feel it?”

And she can – there’s a twisting in the air. A disturbance on multiple planes, a muddying of psychic energy, temporal energy –

She’s not sure how she knows it, but she does, as sure as this forest is filled with trees.

“What is it?” she asks, voice barely a whisper as they draw closer. “You said he was just a man?”

“I said he looks like a man,” the child corrects, “but he isn’t. He’s the Beast of the Forest.”

“But what does that mean?” she presses. “How did he – how did he get that name?”

“I told you. The adults gave it to him because he scared them. The adults name everything.”

“Do they ever get it wrong?”

“No?” the child looks at her, bewildered. “They’re adults!”

“Adults,” she says, words raspy, “get things wrong all the time.”

“Even you?”

She manages to smile, even as another waves of pain ripples through her. She shudders, clinging onto the nearest tree.

Especially me,” she says.

The child opens their mouth to respond – but then turns to look at the path ahead and gasps.

“We’re here,” they breathe.

She looks up, following their gaze, and she immediately sees him. A figure, curled at the base of a large tree, wrapped in a tattered purple coat and a checkered blue suit, the edges all burnt. He looks like he’s sleeping – no. Like he’s unconscious.

And the tree – no, the tree isn’t a tree at all. There’s a door in the trunk, swung wide open, and within is space far bigger than should fit inside. An impossible room, glowing a dim blue, with some kind of console in the middle and wires trailing out, blackened, damaged –

A breath hitches in her throat.

She knows this.

She knows him.

But two of an enormous city did survive,” she whispers to herself, haunted. “And they were enemies –”

The man – the Beast of the Forest – doesn’t stir, but she can tell immediately that he knows they’re there. There’s a fizzing of psychic energy, bristling against the clouded edges of her mind – dangerous, powerful, furious –

The Beast lashes out, a psychic blast hitting her, hard enough to knock her off her feet. She crashes to the ground, the world spinning, but pushes herself up on shaking limbs, making to try again. She knows him – she knows him, he’s got to be the key to all of this, she’s just got to get closer –

But he does it again – another wave of burning anger surging towards her, and she takes the full brunt of it, immediately hurtling backwards, head over heels and out, out, out –

 

 

– her eyes snap open, and the pain hits her again immediately. A cry threatens to escape her mouth, but she bites down on her lip, trapping it. Swallowing it. She tries to move, to get out – but she can’t. She’s still strapped into that machine. It’s no longer active, no longer sucking the lifeforce out of her, but she can feel it humming, ready. Waiting. She can hear talking – cheers, excitement, success –

She coughs, choking, gasping for breaths in between.

Doctor, the Beast of the Forest whispers, leaning close. Doctor, you need to listen to me.

She manages to nod, even as another cough wracks her. A bloom of gold spills from her mouth.

You need to get out of here, he tells her, his voice pained. But I can’t help you. You – you have to do it all on your own.

How?! she screams into the fog. She can’t even get out of this machine, let alone stand, let alone run, let alone get out of this place –

A prison.

Surely, if she could escape, she’d have done it before now. Done it when she remembered who she was.

Stop being so defeatist, the Beast snarls, and THINK. What have you got on your side?

A brain that won’t work, she thinks. A body that won’t move.

And –

She coughs again. More gold spills from her lips.

Wait –

Yes, the Beast hisses. Yes.

Before – the first time they tried it. She remembers. The machine, it –

It overloaded, he finishes for her. So come on. You can use that, can’t you?

She glances down, looking at her hand. There’s gold there too, twisting in the air.

You can overload it again, he says. They still don’t really understand. They don’t understand how much power you have. This thing they’ve made – it could only take it because you were fighting it. You were holding back.

Her breath shudders. She clenches her fist.

It’ll stand no chance if you just let it rip.

She shakes her head minutely. “I don’t – I don’t know how to control it.”

You never have. Not once.

The pain spikes again, aftershocks from whatever they’ve done to her. She lets her head fall forward, too heavy to hold up.

“I –” she starts.

You HAVE to, he says, barely concealed panic tearing through. And you have to do it NOW, or they’ll start it up again and you’ll pass out.

They’re still talking – she can hear them discussing. Assessing.

They could decide to go again any moment.

He’s right. She has to do it now.

Of course I’m right, he says as she closes her eyes, focusing. Feeling for the energy coursing inside of her – drawing closer to the inferno that rages just under her skin. Just – try not to go changing your face, will you?

She can barely hear him – the fire is growing inside her, roaring –

I’ve become quite attached to this one.

She explodes.

 

“– Doctor…I let you go –”

 

“– you can't do this to me! No!”
he screams as they twist him,
change him,
mould him into a new man,
even as he fights it with
everything he is,
“No! No! No! No–!"

 

“– Physician, heal thyself –”

 

 

“– I will not forget one line of this,”
he promises her, regeneration energy
bristling under his skin,
expectant,
 “Not one day of it. I swear –”

 

 

“– I don’t want to go –”

 

 

“– there’s this moment,” she’s saying
fervent, hands busy as she talks
to the people on the other side
of the curtain,
still bursting with newness
“when you’re sure you’re
about to die. And then –”

 

 

“– a tear, Sarah Jane? No, don't cry. While there's life, there's –”

 

 

“– almost there, child,” she soothes,
as she bleeds out
as she dies on the table
again
and again
and again,

I’m so close now –”

 

 

Everything around her burns. The machine twists and strains, buckling, melting, until she’s not longer confined by it. The room around her blazes, energy raging out of her like an inferno, a forest on fire –

 

– and the crackling trunks
extinguished with a crash,
and all was black

 

– and all is gold.

She screams amongst the flames, bones cracking and remaking, ribs breaking open and new lungs filling the cavity. She falls, knees hitting the hard floor – but she barely even notices. She can only feel the fire.

Stop!

His voice cuts through the all-consuming roar.

Stop, that’s enough!

She’s choking on the smoke.

Stop! Or you’ll change –

She doesn’t know what she’s doing, acting on nothing more than a base instinct. But she listens, clamping her mind down on the open wounds she’s bleeding out of, hands over the flames, and she –

And she snuffs it out.

Gravity takes hold of her immediately, dragging her down. Her shoulder takes the brunt of it, the concrete hard and unforgiving beneath her, her head following with a crack. But she doesn’t care. Black is humming at the edges of reality. She feels herself slipping –

NO!

She jolts, eyes snapping open.

You IDIOT, you’ve still got to ESCAPE! GET UP!

She blinks.

Oh – right.

She pushes herself up, half-expecting her arms to be weak, shaking – but they’re not. If anything, they’re stronger than ever, revitalised. She’s paradoxed, somehow both exhausted, drained down to her very atoms, and yet stronger than she’s felt in – in years –

She decides not to question it, instead scrambling to her feet and casting her eyes around the room before her. It’s the first time she’s managed to comprehend it in full, now twisted and blackened. An alarm wails overhead, red warning light flashing on, off, on, off. In the glow of it, she can see the scientists splayed across the floor, unmoving. Mulligan lies across from her, skin burnt and peeling, blood streaming from his face, unconscious – or worse –

Maybe she is a killer after all.

The Beast bites back a snarl of frustration. Stop PHILOSOPHISING, he growls, and do what you’re best at. RUN.

He’s right. She torques her thoughts away, pushing herself into action. She darts through the corridors, sometimes moving faster than she has since she arrived here, other times faltering, stumbling under the weight of her own inconsistent exhaustion. She nearly runs into a platoon of Judoon – several times, in fact. But the Beast warns her every time, moving ahead of her, unseen by the guards. She always ducks into hiding just in time, and they always march past her, unaware of how close she is.

She’s not sure where she’s going, not sure if there’s an easy way out, but a memory flickers at the edges of her mind. It feels ancient, now, a crumbling tome, but if she closes her eyes, she can just about see it – how she got here. How she arrived in the prison. A flash of light, her atoms snagged, disassembled and reassembled –

A teleport? the Beast asks, catching the thought, before humming. That would work.

“Just a matter,” she says, words jumping in between breaths, “of finding it.”

The Beast smiles. Leave that to me.

He flickers out, vanishing before her eyes. For a few moments, her chest clenches with fear. She’s alone, all alone, her head still wonky, and if he doesn’t come back –

But then he’s back, as clear and real as if he’d never left.

This way, he says. Quick!

He moves off, running down the corridors, and she chases after him as well as she can. Each hall feels endless – this whole place is a maze, and for a few minutes she starts to wonder if he’s moving aimlessly, if he didn’t actually find anything, if he’s just lying to her like everyone else –

But then she’s following him into a room with a large, curved wall at the far end, a spatio-temporal transmat pad stretching out before it.

Yes,” she breathes, already stumbling towards the control console. It’s locked out – emergency override. Probably thanks to her little firework display. But it’s fine, she thinks, as she ducks underneath it and pries off a panel with shaking fingers. She can work around that.

You need to decouple the main processor and disconnect it from the main security system, the Beast hisses, crouching down, fingers twitching. Or they’ll just override it from –

Shush,” she snaps as she does what she’d been doing already, which happens to be exactly what he’d been saying. “I know.”

Well, sorry, he growls. I’m just not certain of your mental capacity right now.

“9%,” she says, fiddling. “More now. More like – like 17% maybe.”

This is 17%?

“Maybe 18% at a push. Ha! Double from earlier.”

And you still don’t know who I am?

She doesn’t stop to look at him, doesn’t let her fingers cease in their tampering – there isn’t time, even though his words sound so, so sad.

But she doesn’t have an answer that he’ll like.

She hears him make a dry laugh. Well. That answers one question, I suppose.

Processor is decoupled, security disconnected – her workaround is complete. They won’t have long now – the chances of the system not flagging the tampering is low, probably. She shoves herself up, using the console to lean against as she stands, a wave of dizziness and exhaustion hitting her again without warning. “Ok – where to?”

Wherever your TARDIS is, he answers, casting his eyes out the door, like guards will come around any minute.

“Don’t remember,” she mutters, not quite sure if she means that specifically or just in general. She glances at him. “Where are you?”

He scowls. You don’t want to come to me. I’m not even important enough to remember.

She blinks at him. “What? No – we don’t have time for this –”

In her mind, she feels him prepare to argue with her, but before he can say anything, she’s reaching into the space within her where he resides, running on instinct as she pulls out the information she wants and takes it for her own.

The answer she gets is not exactly a set of spatial-temporal coordinates, but rather a sense of place in spacetime. But that’s fine. That’s all she needs, propping herself up against the console with one hand and tapping in an approximation of his location with the other, before setting it to erase the data after she’s gone.

Doctor, he snarls, I DON’T want you here.

“Too late,” she says, the words coming out like a gasp as she sets the transmat to go, pushing herself off the console. She stumbles onto the pad, glancing behind her as she hears a shout – guards running down the corridor, racing towards her, aiming their weapons –

But the transmat activates, encompassing her in a brilliant flash of light. She manages to flash them a smile, before it’s ripping her molecules apart and she’s gone.

 

She reassembles in the forest, and immediately collapses against the nearest tree.

Aghh,” she groans, one hand grasping at the rough bark of the trunk, the other pressed into the heel of her eye. The smell of pine hits her straight away, along with the biting coldness of the misty air, almost burning against the feverish heat of her skin. With each panting breath, a cloud of vapour appears in front of her face. “Ok – ok…”

She forces herself to look up, and finds herself face to face with someone familiar.

The child, who stands a few metres away from her, clearly stopped mid-stride, is staring at her, mouth dropped open into a capital O.

“Oh,” she manages, before giving a vague gesture that’s supposed to resemble a wave. “Hi there.”

“You’re here,” the child breathes, awestruck. “You’re really here this time.”

“I was really here before,” she protests, words a little slurred.

“No, you weren’t,” the child argues. “You were like a ghost before.”

“Just dreamin’.” She closes her eyes. “Like I said. Just – dreamin’ and wakin’ up.”

For a moment, the child doesn’t say anything. There’s just the wheezing of the wind, withering in the stagnant air.  

“Are you here to see him again?” the child says eventually.

“Yes,” she says, certain this time. And now she’s thinking about it, she can sense what she’d felt before – that twisting of time, of the psychic planes. “We’re close, aren’t we?”

“We are,” the child replies, brow creasing. “But…didn’t he hurt you last time? You won’t…disappear again?”

“It’s like you said,” she says as she pushes herself away from the tree, moving towards the child and trying not to feel so shaky. It’s funny, she thinks – now she’s really here, rather than dreaming, the trees don’t feel so infinite, so unending. It just…feels like a forest. “He was just scared.” She looks at them, and tries to smile, even though it must come across as pretty wobbly. “Come on. Lead the way. Maybe he’ll be – he’ll be less scared if he sees you first.”

The child nods, holding up their chin, suddenly very important. They move forwards, easily traversing the uneven forest floor – which, irritatingly, she finds even more difficult to manage than she had in her dreams.

That tracks, she supposes.

Her energy is still coming and going in waves, peaks and troughs, and by the time they reach the place where the Beast lies, she’s able to stand without clutching onto a tree for support. The twisting of time is potent, bitter at the back of her mouth, and she grimaces against it, uncomfortable. But that’s not his doing, she realises – no, that’s the – that’s the TARDIS behind him, damaged, leaking out raw time energy, its chameleon circuit kicking in even as it stands with the door wide open.

And –

And then there’s the man himself, lying crumpled in the dirt. His eyes are closed, face gaunt. There’s blood too – a gash on his head, long since clotted but never cleaned. The purple of his coat is caked with it too, on his right side, just where his arm is clutched around his stomach. His clothes are tattered, burnt, and covered in an achingly familiar orange dust.

Recognition hits her, so intense it makes her eyes water.

Oh, she knows exactly who he is.

And everything –

Everything he’s been doing makes so much more sense to her now.

She steps closer to him, unafraid this time. Predictably, there’s a buzzing of psychic energy, building in the place behind her eyes, ready to strike. She braces herself, not sure if she’ll manage to stay standing in the face of it –

But it just peters out, dissipating into the air. There’s no blast. No pain.

No, comes his voice, and he appears next to her – a faded image, this time. She looks at him, and his eyes are glistening with mournful acceptance. No. I’m at the end of the line here.

Something twists in her chest at that, and with it she feels her strength waning again. She stumbles closer to him, close enough that she can kneel next to his body, reaching over to touch him. In the back of her mind, memories flicker – all concrete floors and red uniforms and gold – but she pushes it aside. Her focus is entirely on him, as she pulls his body into her arms. He makes no move to resist – not in his physical form, not through the psychic projection that stands over her, watching.

“What –” the child gasps from a little way behind her. “You can touch him?”

She closes her eyes, a shudder running through her. He’s cold, so cold, and it terrifies her. He’s still alive, of course – has to be, if he’s projecting to her like this. But his presence – it feels so weak –

“No one’s ever been able to touch him,” the child continues, words a panicked, astonished rush. “No one can ever get close enough.”

No, she thinks, opening her eyes and looking down at him. She tucks his hair back, gently moving it away from injury on his temple. No, she doesn’t suppose he’d let anyone get close to him when he’s this vulnerable.

Except, something says from within her, remembering something she heard in a dream once, for someone who reminded him of someone he loves.

Her fingers are trembling, ghosting across the wound. Without her even thinking about it, a wisp of gold escapes from her skin, coiling around her fingers.

No, says his projection sharply. Don’t you dare.

She glances back over her shoulder, eyes meeting the child’s. Considering.

Last time she’d done this, someone saw who shouldn’t have, and it had landed her in an awful lot of trouble.

He growls in her mind. I don’t want you to do this.

She ignores him, swallowing. “I need you to go – go back to your people. Tell the adults –” she breaks off, trying to think through the haziness that still lingers on the edges. “Tell them the Beast of the Forest is gone. Tell them – the Coward came and found him, even when she didn’t know who she was looking for. Tell them she realised who he was, and that she –”

Took me home? he hisses. There is no home. There’s nothing.

And an old anger tries to bristle at that – an ancient wound that has long since healed into an ugly scar whilst she’s been locked up, alone with only her thoughts for so, so many years.

Maybe if he’d said this to her back then, when she’d first been teleported into that cell, she’d have hated him enough to leave him here like this.

But she’s so old now, and so tired, and she’s been on her own for so long.

He’s the only piece of home she has left.

“Tell them that she took him somewhere safe,” she finishes. “Somewhere he could heal – where he didn’t need to be afraid anymore. And so, he didn’t have to hurt your people – you could wander through the forests without fear.”

He scoffs at that. If only beasts could get such happy endings.

Maybe they can, she counters, so long as they have someone cowardly enough to give them one.

“What about you?” asks the child. “Will I see you again?”

She tries to smile. “Maybe.”

Probably not, he says, and she knows it’s more truthful than her answer.

But, of course, it is.

She’s the Coward, after all.

“Go,” she says. “Quick. I need them to know what I told you. It’s very important.”

The child hesitates for one more moment, before nodding solemnly and turning tail to dash back into the forest. She waits a few minutes – making sure they’re really gone – before she looks up at the translucent image of her best enemy above her.

“Can you – wake up?” she asks, wishing her voice wasn’t so shaky. “Properly. Not like – not like that.”

She nods at his form, hoping he understands – that holding his cold, still body is almost more than she can take right now. He huffs, rolling his eyes, but then flickers out of sight. A moment later, he’s stirring in her arms, groaning.

“…you know,” he manages, before shudder wracks him. “It was nicer…to not feel the cold.”

Relief crashes through her, even though it shouldn’t. Even though he’s so far from being ok. “I know. I’m sorry, I just –”

It hits her, then. He’s injured – no, worse than that. So why has he been lying here? Why does he still have this face? Why hasn’t he –

“You’re dying,” she whispers, knowing it’s true even as some part of her swears that can’t be right, he can’t be –

“Last regeneration,” he mutters into her coat, a misplaced smile quirking at his lips. “Just a few dregs of regeneration energy left. Enough to keep me alive this long” he sounds bitter, as if he resents the fact – “but not enough to finish the job. Not enough to start over.”

A breath leaves her throat, unbidden.

“…it’s fine,” he manages.

“It’s not,” she says, aghast. “It’s – how is it fine?”

“It just –” he breaks off. “It just is. Now you’ve –” he grunts, pained – “seen me. Dead, just like you wanted. So, you can leave. I won’t be – won’t be a blot on your conscience anymore.”

She doesn’t say anything to that. Doesn’t even try to argue with him, excess energy humming underneath her skin.

She’s already made up her mind.

Gently, she brushes her hand under his chin, nudging him so that he looks at her face. He does so, gazing up, and he must see something in her eyes – must see the light that’s seeping from her skin. Or maybe he feels it through the contact, their touch telepathy blurring the boundaries between their minds until they blend together like watercolour ink.

No…” he breathes, frowning. “I don’t – why would you waste –”

 “It’s not,” she says, an ache twisting in her chest as her hand shifts around to cup his cheek. She leans down, pressing her forehead against his. The air between them is stained with gold. “It’s not a waste, you idiot.”

She kisses him softly, their lips meeting in a tender communion, and the regeneration energy pours through it and into him. She can feel it as it heals him, their minds entangling as the gold sweeps through him like river, flowing over his injuries and seeping into the skin until it is made whole, washing away the blood. It isn’t just physical injuries that she finds – there are time wounds here too, inevitable consequences of a crash involving a TARDIS. But she mends them too, the glowing blooms smoothing over every cut, every crack, every part of him that is raw and weeping. And he kisses her back, straining his neck to reach her better, humming gently against her lips as the warmth returns to him, the life flowing back into his bones. In her mind, his screaming, shrieking essence calms, bleeding into hers until she feels complete and he feels complete and, for a moment, neither of them quite know where one of them starts and the other one ends.

It’s a few minutes before it starts to affect her, but when it does, it happens fast. Static in her ears. Her head feels weightless, and her chest – oh, no, her chest is empty again, her ribcage is a cavern, a ruined, desolate cathedral and she breaks away from him, panic building because she can’t – she can’t breathe, she can’t –

“Doctor,” says the Master, his voice far away to her ears. His hands cup her face, strong, his eyes swimming with gold, and he feels sure, he feels steadfast, he feels alive. Theta.”

When the darkness takes her this time, she welcomes it.  

 

 

 

 

 

For the first time since the white, she doesn’t dream of the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

The headache wakes her up.

She groans, face scrunching as she shifts, pressing her face into the soft fabric beneath her. It takes her a moment to register that she’s in a bed, and for a brief moment she thinks she’s back in the white room again, that she never really escaped, that none of it had been real –

Shh,” says a beautifully familiar voice, and the bed dips as someone sits down on it. “I can feel you panicking from here.”

She opens her eyes, bleary.   

The Master is looking at her, his face twisted with more emotions than she can put name too. He looks fine – healthy, none of that deathly pallor from before. The gold has faded from his eyes, settling into the usual deep brown. He’s gotten changed, she notices – he’s not wearing his purple coat, but his suit no longer bloodied and burnt, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. She frowns, trying to think past the dull pounding in her head.

“Doctor,” the Master says, his face settling on concerned.

She catches sight of oil on his skin, and suddenly the cogs in her head start turning. “…you’re fixin’ the TARDIS?”

She watches him frown, before glances down at his hands. A dry smile quirks at his lips. “Well, I had to keep myself occupied somehow whilst you were sleeping away for days, didn’t I?” He hums, amused at his own joke. “Thought it might be unsalvageable, but it’s coming together. Practically ready to fly. Probably could have fixed it up ages ago if I hadn’t been –”

He cuts himself off, glancing away. Something shifts in her chest – the unspeakably ancient part of her that dates back to when the two of them were mere boys, and she simply couldn’t bear to see him sad.

“…what happened?” she says, her voice quiet.

His mouth twists into something sharper. “Oh, nothing. Just a little thing called the Death Particle.” He looks back at her, fire flickering in his eyes. “I’d left this TARDIS in the Matrix chamber. You didn’t even realise, did you?” He looks up to the ceiling. “Disguised perfectly as a pillar. After you left, I had just enough time to get in, close the doors and send it into the time vortex – well, no, actually. Not quite enough time.” His fists clench in his lap. “The explosion clipped the TARDIS on the way out. Sent it into a spin even I couldn’t pull it out of. Ended up crashing on this dead-end planet – nothing but trees and people still living in huts.” His lips curl, bitter. “And as you saw, I didn’t make it far from the TARDIS. Couldn’t even get up long enough to burn the forest down.”

She ignores the last comment, knowing him well enough by now to know that he’s not joking. Instead, she shifts under the blankets, twisting to look at him better. She hates to think of it – of him sitting alone beneath that tree, barely able to move because of his injuries, only still alive because the last of his regeneration energy wouldn’t let him die. She wonders how much time has passed for him – is he even younger than her now, still fresh from the destruction of their planet, their people, at both of their hands? But – no, that’s not quite right. She can’t help but think of what that child had said to her in one of her dreams – that he’d been there forever. Since before anyone could remember.

“How long...?” she asks.

“Have I been under that tree?” he completes. She nods, and he looks down at the blanket, a humourless laugh growing in his throat. “Well. Between the time engines leaking and the fact I wasn’t conscious a lot of the time –”

“You don’t know,” she realises.

“No,” he says, before lifting his head up, cocking it as if curious. “In fact, I think I’ve been there for both an eternity and no time at all, what with the all the temporal energy unspooling everywhere. Certainly long enough for the natives to have come up with little legends about the big scary monster in the woods.”

“But how long did it feel like?” she presses. “How long was it for you?”

He hesitates at that, considering.

“I’m not sure,” he admits after a moment, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was…time. Just time.” A strange smile quirks at his lips. “What’s the space between two moments, anyway? It’s all eternity. All just countable infinities, no matter how far down you go.”

She thinks of all the time she spent in that prison – all the moments stretched out, meaningless and intangible in her memories. Seconds of eternity, or eternity in seconds. She wouldn’t have an answer either, if he asked her, even when she’d been keeping count at first.

“How’d you come to me, then?” she asks, squinting a little. Her headache is still there, persistent behind her eyes, but thankfully the light in the room is low. “My mind…it wasn’t open. There wasn’t contact.

He hums, amused. “There wasn’t contact. But your mind was open. Clearly without you realising.” A laugh escapes his lips. “Must have been lonely, love. So desperate for company that you left the door open for me.”

“Not as desperate as you,” she counters, but the words come out softer than she intends. “You’re the one who actually came looking.”

“I was bored,” he snaps back. “You think I wanted to sit there and wait for myself to rot when I could be tormenting you?” He laughs. “Oh, and when I found you. Couldn’t quite pin-point the exact place in your timeline when you’d left Gallifrey, but I got pretty close. But then, I’ve always been good at that sort of thing – better than you, anyway. And oh, it was perfect. Imprisoned? For crimes you couldn’t even remember?” Another laugh, tumbling from his mouth. “I couldn’t have planned it better myself. It was magnificent, seeing you cut down to size. And you thinking I was just a hallucination? Hilarious.

Her face twists with a scowl. “So what? I was entertainment?”

“Oh, don’t put yourself down, love,” he says. “You were catharsis. Oh, and entertainment too. Just a little something to keep me from going insane. Couldn’t always stay long – had to keep up concentration, and I kept…fading out. But the more I came, the stronger the link was, which made things easier. I could piggyback on your psychic signal and take a look around, listen in on things, even when you were stuck in that cell.” He laughs. “Did you realise that they didn’t realise what you’d done, at first? When you healed that prisoner? It was only when someone higher up caught wind of it that they figured it out. Someone – Mulligan, probably – knew a few passing rumours about Time Lords. About how we only get thirteen faces. Someone checked the databases and noticed that you were a few over – that you were different. So much better than a mere Time Lord.

He’s bitter when he says it, face turned away from her. Still hurt, still angry – over something that’s only ever brought her pain and suffering, even from those who were supposed to protect her.

Or – no. Maybe because of that.

Because he couldn’t stand and watch in the end, could he? Not when it got to close to what Tecteun had done. Not when they were draining her, bleeding her dry. Not when she’d been screaming.

Despite everything between them – despite the rage and pain in both of his hearts – he’d reached out to her. He’d been with her, given her the strength she needed to crawl out of that awful place. He’d been that boy again, sneaking into that old, Gallifreyan barn at night to slip under the blankets a befriend the child who wouldn't stop crying.

Slowly, she extracts one of her arms from the blankets, reaching out towards him until her fingers brush against his wrist. He turns to look at her, caught off-guard, too surprised to hide the way his eyes glisten at the edges.

She doesn’t say anything – doesn’t speak into words the truth that they both know. She just turns her hand, palm open. An offering.

 

“– take my hand,” he says,
the violet flares of the Boundary
rippling behind him –

 

“– stand with me,” he says,
under that dark artificial sky
as he holds out his hand.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted –”

 

The Master closes his eyes, expression pained – and she knows he’s remembering the same things she is. For a long moment, he doesn’t move, and she thinks maybe he won’t take it. That the two of them will keep going like this, taking it in turns to bare themselves to the other, only to get burned with yet another rejection. She should have known better. This is their game, after all, and there are rules that must be abided by, even when everything else has turned to dust and ashes around them.

She’s about to draw her hand back – to hide it away like she’d never offered it. But just as she begins to move, he reaches out and clasps his fingers around hers. Immediately, his mind presses against hers, the skin contact drawing them together. She can’t quite help the sigh that escapes her lips, her eyes slipping closed as she squeezes his hand gently. Gentler that she’s been with anyone for a long time.

There’s no point trying to speak. Any words they might say are rendered pointless as their minds become entangled, vines twisting together. And there’s nothing they want to say – nothing that should be said aloud, tainted with the basic, linear nature of speech, each word constrained to the moment in which it is spoken. Nothing they can easily put into words, besides. No – the watercolour bleed of their thoughts is a much better place for things like these to stay, hidden from the prying, eroding eyes of the universe. Just as all precious things should be.

I’m here, she thinks.

I’m here, he echoes.

She’s not sure how long they stay still like that for – countable infinities, that’s all she knows. But eventually, his hand flexes against hers, and she loosens her grip slightly. He uses the opportunity to pull away, and she can’t help but ache with the loss of it.

“Sorry,” he says, sounding genuinely regretful, “but – you have a headache the size of Rassilon’s ego, and I didn’t feel much like sharing it any longer.”

She can’t help but smile at that, even as the pain presses against her eyes. Yeah, fair enough. She wouldn’t be feeling it either, if she didn’t have to be.

“You’d think,” she mumbles, “that after all that regeneration energy, I’d get a free pass on the headache. The tiredness I get…but the pain?” Is that really too much to ask? Just for a little while.  

But the Master just hums, foreboding. “It’s…probably withdrawal.” He glances at her, eyes glinting with something dangerous. “Your brain’s been swimming in sedatives for weeks.”

Weeks. It probably had been that long. It had been impossible to tell, when she’d been in it. She sighs, pushing the thought aside. He’s right, most likely. She’s…well, no-one really knows what her biology is now, she supposes. No idea what affect it’ll have on her, having all those chemicals and then dropping them so abruptly.

It’ll probably be rough.

“Well,” she murmurs, grasping for the one comfort she has, “at least I won’t have to ride through it alone.”

“Hm,” he says – and it’s not quite an agreement. She opens her eyes, looking at him.

“Master,” she says.

“Doctor.” He glances back at her, and by the look on his face, she knows.

“…you’re not staying.” It’s not a question.

“No. I’m taking you back to your pets.” He looks away, face twisted. “You’re going to want to go back to them eventually anyway. Might as well cut to the chase.”

She hates that he’s right – that she knows it’s inevitable, that siren song of her timeline forever calling her back to Earth. Back to the planet that’s always felt more like home to her than Gallifrey.

But he’s home too, in all the ways he shouldn’t be.

And just because she’ll want to go back, it doesn’t mean…

“You could still stay,” she says. “You don’t have to go. We could –”

Travel the stars together, yes, I know,” he says, and then sighs, a harsh huff of breath. He looks up at the ceiling. “We both know how well that would go. And as for your pets, I can’t imagine them being quite so eager to have me around as you.”

Give them a chance, she wants to say – but she won’t. Because it’s less about him not liking them (although, in some ways, it is definitely about that), and more about them not wanting to be around the person who tried multiple times to get them killed, and hurt her to boot.

And it was a long time ago now, it feels, even though the first time she’d opened her eyes in this body she’d been fresh out of it – but she remembers all too well what happened to her companions last time she’d had the Master at her side. When she’d held out her hand under that artificial sky.

As much as she wants him with her, as much as she hates the thought of losing him…she can’t risk them. She won’t. Not again.

“Then I’ll stay,” she says, scrabbling. “Just – let me go see them. Tell them where I am, tell them I’m ok. Say goodbye. Then – we can go. Just you and me. Just like we said.”

A smile that isn’t really a smile – the smile of a broken thing – creeps across his face, his lips pressed into a thin line. “I don’t think you’ll like that, love. Not for long. You need someone to show off to.”

“That person could be you.”

He doesn’t say anything.

Desperation flares in her chest, bright and burning against her lungs. “Kosch–”

But he shakes his head abruptly, expression twisted, and his name dies in her throat. Neither of them move for long a moment, within which she scrambles internally for the right words, for something that will make him stay. But before she finds it, he turns back to her, leaning closer.

“Enough chit-chat,” he says, his words quiet and soft. “Still got the last few repairs. And you need to rest.”

He’s reaching his hand towards her face, and she knows immediately what he’s about to do.

No,” she says, jerking back, sick of being put to sleep, sick of losing her choices, “don’t –”

“I’m sorry,” he says, genuine, as his fingers press against her forehead before she can grab his wrist at stop him. “I know. But it’s better this way.”

His hypnosis is different to the drugs – it’s not a wave of exhaustion that drags her down, drowning her, leaving her with water in her lungs. No, this is just a seed, carefully planted in the loam of her mind, which quickly takes root and grows and blooms until the idea of sleep has consumed her, and her eyes slip closed against her will, unconsciousness enveloping her. Impossible to resist.

“Besides,” she hears him say, just before she falls away. “I have a prison to burn.”

The last thing she feels is the press of his lips against her temple.

And then she’s gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She wakes up on a very comfy sofa.

She’s not quite in the state to appreciate it – her head still pounds, and every part of her aches. She should really open her eyes and sit up, figure out where she is. But the background temporal static is distantly familiar, she’s warm, and there’s some kind of blanket draped over her. And so, for a moment at least, she allows herself to drift.

She’s not sure how long later it is, but eventually she starts to register voices talking in another room. There’s a slight flicker of remembered fear – the combination of a bone-deep tiredness and not being able to grasp where she is or what people are saying that reminds her all too much of that testing room, of Mulligan twisting her thoughts. But no-one is trying to hurt her. No-one is pressing electrodes against her skin, or sucking the life out of her body.  

And Mulligan never let her sleep on a comfy sofa, so she figures she’s ok.

Still, she forces her eyes open a crack, just so she can glance around. Just in case.

The room around her isn’t white. It’s familiar, but it takes her several long moments to grasp why. But then she hits upon the answer – she’s in Graham O’Brien’s living room, dim in the evening darkness, lit only by the soft yellow light of a lamp and the twinkling lights of a lopsided Christmas tree that stands sentinel in the corner. A sight she hasn’t seen in far, far too long. She frowns, staring at the tree for a moment, before trying to grasp the timeline out of the air. She pinches it between her fingers, trying to get a sense of where this moment lies along it. Christmas. Christmas Day? Christmas Day when, though?

But before she gets chance to figure it out, the door from the kitchen is opening. It’s shut quietly, with the carefulness of someone who doesn’t want to disturb the resting – someone who then proceeds to walk towards the coffee table and place a mug down carefully on a coaster. It’s only then that she notices the mug that’s already sat on the table, no steam curling off it, alongside a solitary custard cream.

Doc?”

She breaks her gaze away, looking up to find Graham staring at her, mouth dropped open in shock. She pokes her hand out from under the blanket, giving him a tired little wave.

Doc,” he repeats again, voice quiet, before he jumps into action, grabbing a chair and pulling it close alongside her. “Blimey, cockle. Are you alright?”

Is she? She’s not sure. She probably isn’t. Probably won’t be for a long time. Probably –

Probably never was alright. Not really.

But that’s ok. She’s ok.

She’s not alone.

Oh – and that’s when it hits her. The Master, his hand against her head –

She sits up suddenly, hand shooting out to grab the arm of the sofa when her head starts spinning in indignation. “Oh – I’m going to kill him –”

Graham sits back in surprise. “Whoa, hold on a minute –”

Her headache swells again, staging a protest. She presses her face against her hands, the heels of her palms pushed against her eyes until coloured shapes bloom in the blackness.

Ughh,” she groans, before remembering her manners. “Hiya, Graham. Long time no see.” She frowns into her hands. “Actually, if you could tell me precisely how long it’s been for you that would be handy.”

“‘bout two years, Doc,” Graham says, sounding both bewildered and astounded in equal measure.

“Ugh, ok – so that would make this, what? 2021?” Yes – that feels right. She lets herself lean back against the sofa. “Ah, good. Skipped 2020. Rubbish year.”

“Was, rather. Could’ve warned us about that one,” Graham answers, amused – but there’s an edge to it. Concern. She feels him hesitate. “How – how long’s it been for you, Doc?”

She makes to say something – some reassurance, some distraction, some lie – but it dies on her tongue.

“Doc,” he says softly after the silence stretches on too long. “Are you –?”

“I will be,” she says, words little more than a breath. “I will. I just –”

She breaks off. Graham doesn’t say anything, and for a long moment they sit in silence, hearts aching in tandem.

“We thought you were dead,” he admits after a while. “For nearly a year, we did. Well, not Yaz. She never really did, always hoped. And then after that thing at New Year’s – that friend of yours, Captain Jack –”

She looks up from her hands, frowning. “Thing? What thing?”

Graham winces, then waves his hands. “I’ll tell you later – bit convoluted, one for when you’re a bit more up and at ‘em. Ryan ‘n Yaz tell it better than me anyway. But Jack – he said you were alive. That you were in prison or something. Said he was gonna try and find a way to get you out – wouldn’t let any of us tag along. I figured at least he’d stick around after he dropped you off rather than just leaving a note, but –”

“Oh,” she says, struggling to process it all. “No – no, it wasn’t Jack. I –” Wait. “Did you say he left a note?”

In lieu of a reply, Graham gets up, crossing over to the mantlepiece and picking up something. He brings it back over, sitting down again before holding it out to her. She takes it, finding it to be an envelope with one of those tacky little bows people stick on top of presents. It’s unlabelled. She frowns, flipping it over to open it, taking out the small piece of paper within.

“We found it with you – taped to your forehead, it was,” Graham mentions, and she can’t help but pull a face. Of course, it was. “There was a knock on the door and I opened it and you were just lying there, completely dead to the world. I didn’t believe my eyes at first.” He laughs, like he still can’t quite believe it. “But there you were.”

The note is small, neatly folded in half. She opens it carefully, finding a handwritten scribble that reads:

Don’t let her run off. Make sure she sleeps. Don’t let her have any ginger.

She winces at that last one – even if the meaning will be completely lost on her human friends.

But that isn’t the only message – no, there’s a second, a telepathic overlay embedded into the paper. Invisible to Graham and the others, but bright and clear to her. A mental swirl of Gallifreyan, accompanied by a flicker of images – a old barn in the desert at night, rough blankets over young skin; the constellations in a burning orange sky over the rolling red fields of Gallifrey; his hand in hers, and her hand in his.

One day, it seems to say, we’ll find home again.

She clutches the note tightly, barely daring to let go.

“Cockle?” Graham asks, his voice barely audible. She forces herself to breathe – to release the air from her lungs.

“Yes?” she replies, blinking against her headache.

“If it wasn’t –” he starts to ask, and she knows how the question ends – feels the timeline where he does ask, that brush of uncertainty bringing the adjacent paths closer together. If it wasn’t Jack who saved you, then who was it?

But he doesn’t ask. He shakes his head instead, before looking at her, eyes glistening with fondness and worry.

“Nevermind,” he says, trying to smile. “It’s alright. Just – rest up for now, eh?” He reaches across the coffee table, picking up the newest mug and holding it out for her. “There you are. Fresh tea. That’ll help, won’t it?”

She manages to smile in return as she takes the mug. “Yes. Tea’s great. Always great. Full of tannins.”

“Right,” Graham says, huffing something close to a laugh, before indicating to the biscuits on the table. “And a custard cream too. Don’t know how long it’s been since you had one –”

Too long,” she moans.

He tries for a laugh again. “Well, there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s not much of a Christmas present, but –”

“It’s perfect,” she murmurs, warmth blooming in her chest for the first time in far too long. It seeps into her bones, burrowing into the marrow, chasing out the last of the cold that lingers. “Thank you.”

Graham just nods, looking over her one last time, before he gets up. “Rest up, cockle. And then if you’re up to it later, Yaz and Ryan will come and say hello, alright?”

She nods, taking a sip of tea and leaning her head against the back of the sofa. He takes that as an answer, and then heads back over to the door leading into the kitchen, closing it just as quietly as he entered.

There’s a brief moment of silence. Then she hears a delighted cry from the kitchen – Yaz, she thinks – followed by shushing, and then a steady, but quiet, excited burble of conversation.

She smiles, before glancing over the sofa and looking out the window. The sky is completely dark, the stars too dim to be seen past the glare of the nearby streetlamp. But she can feel them anyway, all the way out in the void – calling to her as they wander in that eternal space. Out of reach to her – but not for long. Not long now.

Darkness,” she breathes as her eyes slip close – as she loses herself in the warmth of humble living room, in the turning of the planet beneath her – “had no need of aid from them.”

In the back of her mind, she fancies that she feels something brush against her – that she feels a familiar presence turn in recognition at the poem she’d recited too many times in the dark. That he smiles. And that she smiles with him.

She was the Universe.”