RING OF TRUTH
The sun was still shining brilliantly as the Doctor turned the dinghy's bows back towards the island. His brief interview with the castle's solitary prisoner had left unfinished business which he could not have brought himself to mention to Jo; her absence - dispatched on a footling errand to the naval base - was all the spur he had needed to alter his plans and retrace the journey only just made.
Bold sunlight flashed back off the waves, causing him to crease his eyes to avoid the glare. There was some mystery in these calm waters, some devious plan hatching in the formidable mind of his great adversary, some new threat to Earth's stability his fellow Time Lord had devised to torment him with, but that was not what drew him back to the island. He knew perfectly well how this present sense of urgency had become implanted in his consciousness; a message flashed from brown eyes to grey across the tiny dimensions of the prison cell, holding the kind of sincerity that had never failed to bring a shiver to his spine.
We have not been honest with one another, Doctor, that look had told him, with affectionate indulgence. Not in centuries. Perhaps it is time we were.
No, most assuredly Jo - who, with her innocence and her clear-cut sense of values, tended to see stereotypes everywhere she looked - could not have been expected to understand that something as insubstantial as a wistful expression in the Master's eyes had brought about this imperative. From their first meeting she had stereotyped him as someone on the side of the angels and the Master as something unremittingly evil, and she hadn't wavered from that view since; she couldn't be expected to distinguish the subtler shades of grey, the shifting mists of perception that characterised their relationship. How could he even begin to explain to her the call of a terrible allegiance that over-rode every other consideration in his existence? How could she hope to understand the dalliances with devils that were so carefully concealed in his past?
The island's governor, Colonel Trenchard, was surprised to see him back again so soon, and raised an eyebrow at his request to re-interview the prisoner.
"Something you forgot to ask?" he suggested, his crusty tone making it clear that he felt his extravagantly-dressed visitor was a fool occupying far too much of his valuable time.
The Doctor smiled at him distractedly. "Memory not what it was," he said. "Began to decay a couple of centuries ago; now I have a lot of trouble remembering my own name." He concluded this remark with a grin so outrageous that Trenchard feared for his sanity. "My dear fellow, feel free to speak to the Brigadier if you're not happy about it," he added, winningly.
"Ah ... uh, no, no, that won't be necessary, I'm sure. No sense in troubling the Brigadier over a small matter like this. Take as much time as you want - anything to oblige UNIT."
"Then you won't object to withdrawing the guards and the video surveillance for the time being, I take it?"
"Withdraw the ... ! Doctor, I hardly think the Brigadier would approve....."
Now there, the Doctor thought, I agree entirely. Lethbridge-Stewart doesn't much approve of me in the first place; if he ever got wind of any of this he'd choose a nice comfortable cell for me right next door to the Master. And would that be such a tragedy?
"Colonel," he said, mildly, "I think you'll find my authority from UNIT sufficient to cover such a request. I'll vouch for the Master's good behaviour for the duration of my visit, if you wish."
The colonel shot him a measuring glance, an eyebrow lifting in disciplined disbelief. "Very well; but I'll double the perimeter guards. If either you or the prisoner attempt to leave the island before I'm perfectly satisfied everything is in order, I'll have you shot. Dead. Do I make myself clear?"
"Abundantly, Colonel Trenchard," the Doctor told him, with a courtly half-bow that suited his elegant Edwardian attire. "Now, if you'll be so kind ... ?"
With poor grace Trenchard escorted the Doctor from the small office and down a corridor into the heart of the island's ancient fortress, pausing at length outside a heavily-guarded door.
"Saunders ... Symes ... report to Sergeant Keegan; tell him I sent you to reinforce the guard at the main entrance," he ordered the two uniformed men brusquely. "If anyone at all tries to leave without my personal permission, the order is 'shoot to kill' - understood?"
"Yes, si r." At his command, the two men left their posts at either side of the doorway and made off smartly in the direction of the main gate.
Trenchard turned to the Doctor. "Very well," he said. "You have half an hour. Don't waste it. I'll be in my office."
His conduct supremely eloquent of disgust, Colonel Trenchard turned sharply and marched back down the corridor.
The Doctor paused outside the door, collecting together his courage, smoothing the ruffles of his shirt with an unconscious gesture and settling the midnight blue opera cloak more comfortably over the wide-shouldered velvet smoking jacket of the same colour. Part of his agile mind was rehearsing the conversation to come, whilst another part was shrinking from it with the abject cowardice his companions would never have suspected lay buried beneath his expansive nature. With a shrug he halted the vivid fears that had been plaguing him, only too aware that the man on the far side of this plain, if somewhat forbidding, wooden door was capable of picking up on them and using them against him. It wasn't precisely telepathy - not at this distance - but it was a good deal more than intuition, and the Master was also perfectly capable of taking advantage of it.
He had raised a hand to the door, the cascade of goffered silk at his wrist an odd contrast to the austerity of its chipped paint, before realising that one does not knock at the door of a prison cell. Fully aware of the hesitancy he was displaying and suddenly annoyed by it, he opened the door rather briskly and entered the room in a flurry of swirling cape.
Too bright, too cheerful, too sudden, he castigated himself. Learn some caution, can't you?
The Master looked up from his book only slowly, the kind of languidly measuring look the Doctor had thought was a thing of the past between them. His eyes held a mildly questioning expression, as though he could not quite understand what could be so important as to rate a second visit in the same day.
You understand perfectly well, the Doctor thought, with a savagery that astonished him. Isn't it time for the truth? Wasn't that what you insisted on?
"Why, Doctor." The Master's greeting was carefully balanced between formality and warmth. "No Miss Grant this time?"
The Doctor raised a hand to the back of his neck, a characteristic gesture that had always betrayed when he was slightly at a loss. "No," he conceded. "I felt we should talk - privately."
"Ah. Then you do still sense my thoughts. I was beginning to wonder whether we had both changed too much for that to be possible." Closing his book with elegant, unhurried movements he set it aside on a low table and gestured to a chair. "Perhaps you should be seated?"
"I - prefer to stand, thank you," responded his visitor, inspecting the tomes on the bookshelf with an expert eye. He was fully aware that he was merely procrastinating, and the assured silence from the other man served only to mock his lack of decision. "You have a good library here," he remarked, absently. "Philosophy, engineering, fluid mechanics, geology ... I thought you found this planet too backward for your taste?"
"In some respects," the Master conceded, watching him unswervingly. "The people, on the other hand ... are quite fascinating. Miss Grant, for example. Charming, if a little - empty-headed."
"Jo has a lot of good qualities," the Doctor observed, realising too late that he had allowed himself to be manoeuvred into defending her. "Loyalty, for example."
"The one virtue you prize above all others, as I recall."
"The one you found yourself quite unable to exhibit," was the slightly acid response.
"True, true. However my lack of virtue is not the subject under discussion," the Master reminded him disarmingly. "You long ago ceased to expect anything good of me, and it pleases me to fulfill your expectations. Tell me, is Miss Grant ... is Jo more than merely a companion? Is she perhaps a consort as well?"
"Is it any of your business?"
There was a slow, calculating silence from the Master, and when he spoke again his words were chosen with exquisite care.
"Earlier today I offered you a handshake, which you declined," he said, his tone softened and conciliatory. "Your reasons for not wishing to touch me are understandable, but nevertheless I had the opportunity to notice that after all that has happened between us you are still wearing the marriage token I gave you. I would say that makes your consorts my business, wouldn't you?"
The Doctor spun round, glaring back at him in stunned, horrified fascination. "I believe ... I will sit down after all," he half-whispered, the breath suddenly stolen from him by the velvet smoothness of the Master's words, the eminent reasonableness of the sentiment and the irrefutable certainty that worse was to follow. Faltering, he stepped across the room and lowered his tall, slender frame into an ancient armchair. "Your memory ... has returned?" he asked, the redundancy of the question annoying him even as he spoke.
"Little by little," the Master conceded.
The Doctor's eyes lowered to his hands, and he inspected - as though for the first time - the silver ring he wore on the smallest finger of his right hand. He remembered with a twinge of pain how determined he'd been to introduce the Earth custom of the wedding ring to Gallifrey, and how his own two marriages had been sealed by the exchanging of rings; rings that tightened on him now like slender silver nooses.
"A delightfully impractical tradition," the Master was saying, almost gently. "You were always so besotted with human beliefs and ceremonies it's hardly surprising you wanted to adopt some of their practices as well - and even their fashions. I must say, I approve whole-heartedly of this latest persona; Seventeenth century, is it not?"
"Early Twentieth, actually."
"Ah. The sybarite in your nature expressing itself through your clothes. Yes, I must admit that although your insistence on human forms and customs caused a few raised eyebrows in the High Council I always found it..... " he paused, selecting the words with caution, ".....exceptionally attractive. I suppose your Miss Grant would be scandalised to learn that?"
Pulling himself together after his shock, the Doctor made a determined attempt to re-enter the conversation. "In the first place," he said, forcefully, "she isn't my Miss Grant. I believe it's Captain Yates who takes her fancy at the moment, but I can assure you she and I are not ... involved."
"I'm delighted to hear it. And in the second place?"
"In the second place, certain types of ... involvements ... are not recognised in human society; not openly, at any rate. And what Jo understands by the word 'marriage' is scarcely what you and I took it to mean when we entered into our arrangement."
"Indeed." The Master got to his feet and turned away, the dark grey robe he wore over his ordinary white silk polo-neck and plain black trousers fluttering bewilderingly as he moved. "Well, human semantics are far more your field of study than mine, Doctor. Most human marriages being formed primarily for the purpose of procreation, I can see that you might find the word inappropriate in our case. Very well, then; more than a betrothal, less than a marriage. Does that satisfy you?"
"No." The word was spoken and repeated in tones of bruised intimacy, underlining the pain of centuries; at once both devoted friends and implacable enemies, there was no path by which they could draw close to one another and no gateway by which they might escape.
"These words ... " the Master went on, emotion surging against control and causing the smallest possible quiver in his voice. "My dear Doctor, it grieves me to criticise this race you care so much about, but their languages are quite inadequate at a time like this. English is scarcely the language of lovers, is it?"
Despite the awkwardness of the situation, the Doctor could not help chuckling. "No, it isn't. We used to converse in Old High Gallifreyan. You wrote verses in it."
"Verses? I? Verses dedicated to you?"
"Difficult to believe, isn't it? Nevertheless ... "
The Master had turned and walked over towards him. He stood now, close beside the Doctor's chair. A tiny tendril of quasi-telepathic thought uncurled between them, a tentative reaching out one to the other.
"Communication between Time Lords does not necessarily require a spoken language," the dark man reminded him gently. "If you would consent to being touched, we could share our thoughts. Does the prospect alarm you?"
"Yes." The syllable was a mere hiss of despair from parted lips, an exhalation whose sequel was a bewildered gaze as the white-haired man stared up into a look of gentle acceptance. "I can't forget who and what you are," the Doctor breathed. "Only a fool wouldn't be afraid of you."
"And we both know you're far from being a fool, however much you may choose to appear as one. Oh, in my exile I watched you, Doctor; I grew to hate the capering clown you regenerated into - but more than anything else I hated the High Council for what they had done to you. To us. My crimes are my own; your punishment on my behalf was unnecessary and excessive."
"Altruism, Master? From you? I can scarcely believe my ears!"
Wounded by the rebuke, the Master bent low over the Doctor's chair, face threateningly close to the other man's. "Waspish as ever? I thought we had promised one another the truth - or have you deceived me again? Very well, then; for infringing the rules of the High Council and conducting illicit experimentation in time travel - for bypassing the petty tyranny of their redundant regulations - I was exiled from Gallifrey. What excuse did they offer for involving you in my punishment? And what justification did they put forward for the barbarity of your sentence? Why did they age you the equivalent of forty years in a human lifespan and turn you into that ... dried-out relic? It sickened me to see you like that; do you wonder I vowed revenge?"
The savagery of the Master's condemnation of his fellow Time Lords was not lost on his hearer. Almost despite himself the Doctor reached out and wrapped a restraining hand around the other man's wrist.
"Calm down," he suggested, faintly. "I had no idea you knew what was going on. They swore - Borussa swore, he was Castellan at the time - that your memory had been removed; your memories of me were destroyed. Knowing that, it was easier for me to plead guilty at my trial. I wasn't punished for your crime, you fool, but for my own."
"What crime? You were innocent; I never involved you in my schemes!"
The sadness of a bitter smile twisted the Doctor's face. "The crime," he sighed, the long-ago memories returning in a scalding flood of pain, "of loving you. I did, you know. For a very long time."
"And I you," was the startling response. "Just as long, and perhaps longer." He allowed time for the words to be absorbed before continuing. "But I notice you are touching me, Doctor; surely you aren't still afraid to share your thoughts with me?"
Slowly and deliberately the Doctor uncurled his fingers from around the Master's wrist, but allowed the tips of two fingers to dwell on the back of the man's hand. "You could have forced telepathy on me, but you didn't. Is it possible you still ... ?"
The Master's smile was wolfishly eloquent. "Ah, Doctor, all things are possible. But since we must confine ourselves to reminiscences, do you recall our first field assignment from the Academy? You insisted on travelling to Earth's sixteenth century to study fresco painting under that man ... Buonomini, wasn't it?"
"Just so. We shared a quaint little room above a wine-shop, with pigeons nesting in the rafters; we slept together on a straw mattress with only one blanket; you carried the transmat beacon everywhere with you, hidden in the soundbox of a musical instrument."
"You started a fight in a tavern," the Doctor recollected suddenly. "Maestro Buonarotti dismissed us for uncivilised behaviour, and we went off to become mercenaries in the Papal army."
"Yes. And when we had finished there we went to the planet Cauldron, in its barbaric Sixth Era, five thousand years into its past. I desired to join their warrior elite and learn the secrets of their famous military strategies, and I persuaded you to serve as my squire; I believe that was where you acquired the habit of calling me ... "
" ... Master? Yes, but I had no idea that you would take it to heart."
"That was much later, after the accident. Before that, when we returned to the Academy, we registered our union with the High Council. Oh, we were little more than children, I admit it freely, but what we felt was real enough. We had both done our dynastic duty by that time - married at the direction of the High Council and fathered the requisite number of children. After that, we were free to choose for ourselves. No-one made any objections at the time, as I remember."
Unconsciously the Doctor stroked the back of the Master's hand. "Not then. But you know as well as I do that all such bonds are supposed to dissolve when one or other of the parties regenerates. You regenerated twice: the first time when you were injured in the explosion and the High Council awarded you a regeneration to save your life; the second time, spontaneously, a few days later in the Zero Ward. By the time you recovered consciousness your memory had atrophied; you didn't even recognise me. I wanted you back as you had been, with your memories - your personality - intact. Made quite a fuss about it, in fact. It didn't make me very popular."
"So I should imagine. And as soon as my condition had stabilised sufficiently I was sent into exile. I had nothing; I was forced to rely on the services of the Meddling Monk even to obtain a Tardis so that I could at least profit by the experience."
"And have you? Profited, I mean?"
"To a certain extent - but never, until my memory had begun to return, did I understand ... the value of what I had lost."
His hand lifted to the Doctor's cheek, fingertips straying into wayward strands of silver-and-gold hair. His mouth was drawing closer; hypnotised by velvet brown eyes the Doctor found himself moving towards the Master preparing to accept a kiss that would be the betrayal of everyone and everything he cared about, turning his face towards the tenderness he recollected with such vivid clarity from the distant, lost past, almost allowing his fingertips to stroke across the other man's cheek and bury themselves in his hair.
Almost, but not quite.
"Rassilon protect me!" he said suddenly, firmly. "You haven't changed, have you? Still trying to undermine my defences by every tactic at your command! You're not the man I fell in love with, you're somebody completely different - a megalomaniac, a criminal! Did you think I would just swoon in your arms like some Victorian virgin?"
Disentangling himself from the Master's grasp he stood up, strode across the room, and stuffed his hands into his pockets as though afraid they might betray him.
"You're a prisoner," he went on, less certainly. "You're here because you tried to sell this planet to the last of the Daemon race in exchange for your own advancement. All your protestations about your change of heart are just so much idle talk unless you tell me where your Tardis is, and you refuse to do that. You would never allow telepathic contact between us in case I found out where you had hidden it; you are as well shielded as I am, and you have the all-fired nerve to talk to me about truth! I'm not afraid to acknowledge that we were once lovers, but that was centuries ago; we've both regenerated since then, and all our debts to one another are paid. There's nothing between us any more, Master; there never could be."
The Master had recovered his composure and returned to his armchair, watching the other man with well-concealed compassion.
"My dear Doctor," he said, smoothly, "nothing worth achieving is ever easy. I'm prepared to wait for you for as long as it takes. One day you will return to me; one day, when the world is quiet, I'll call you and you'll come to me, wherever I am. I guarantee it. You still wear my ring. I, as you see," he went on, lifting his left hand with its huge black onyx signet for inspection, "still wear yours; that guarantees it."
"Never. It's over. It must be over."
"If you insist, then of course I must agree with you," the Master told him, a gently mocking laugh in his tone. "Our relationship from now on shall be entirely as you wish it. But do me the honour of remembering why I was in such ill-favour with the High Council, and what the experiment was that caused my downfall, Doctor, and grant me the possibility of having, later, perfected it."
"You were ... " the words strangled in the Doctor's dry throat, " ... trying to see into your own future," he said, unable to look at his interlocutor. "Do you mean to tell me you succeeded?" Spinning, he faced the Master across the room with such a look of alarm that his former lover ached to reach out to protect him from his fears, a gesture that would have been horribly and irrevocably wrong.
"I can tell you how our story ends," the Master said, softly. "Not with your death or mine. I have seen several regenerations into your future, met companions of yours who in the present time-line are only children; take my advice and don't let yourself get mixed up with a dark-haired American girl," he added, whimsically. "She really is more trouble than she's worth. The rest of them are likeable enough, I suppose; even your precious Brigadier cares for you, although he does not choose to admit it. You're safe enough with them, until we are reunited."
"I won't listen!" the Doctor told him suddenly. "You can't pretend there is any future for us after everything we've been to one another over the years!"
"I don't pretend. Pretence is unnecessary. I know what I have seen, and that is enough. Accept it now or accept it later, Doctor, you will accept it in the end. In lives to come, we will be lovers again."
"I can't accept it. I can't accept you. Why in Rassilon's name did your memory have to return? It was easier to hate you when I knew you had no recollection of the past. I need to hate you; don't try to change that."
The Master's chin lifted as he absorbed this information and dealt with it within himself. The attraction that still existed between them was no longer disguised; he could imagine pulling this lean, strong body into his arms and making love to it as he had, many years ago, with the younger form of the Doctor's very first body - making love not merely physically, but in the entire and complex exchange of telepathic thought until there was no longer any separate consciousness, until he and the Doctor were truly one. He guarded the memory of the future he had glimpsed so briefly; himself in another form, still dark, bearded and intense, the Doctor young and blond and innocent-looking with cornflower blue eyes. It was not for now - not for this tall, white-haired dandy in his extravagant Edwardian finery, although the emotional pull between them was undiminished - but for that future regeneration with the boyish looks and enthusiastic manner of the first that he guarded his secret.
If you had shared my thoughts you would have learned more than the location of my Tardis, he mused, watching as the other man squared caped shoulders and drew together his composure. But you're not ready yet to learn the disposition of my heart; far better you think of me as the merciless tyrant constantly opposed to your will. One day you will discover that your will and mine are the same thing, and that no decree of the High Council can keep us apart if we choose to be together.
"Miss Grant will be wondering where you are," he said, urbanely. "Perhaps it's time you returned to her. You could do worse for a consort, you know; she really is a delightful creature, as far as human females go. I would certainly give my approval to such an arrangement."
"You have no right to ... " Goaded into replying, the Doctor stopped himself before he could become embroiled in another argument.
"No. Perhaps not. Very well, then, Doctor, at your request I relinquish any rights I may once have had over you, and require you to do the same with respect to myself. Now, our union is dissolved. Does that satisfy you?"
Grudgingly the Doctor nodded. "It should never have come into existence," he said, sourly, "but we are both released. I'll notify the High Council; they still consider you my responsibility."
"An insult!" declared the Master. "To both of us."
"Yes." Irresolute, the Doctor paused in front of the door, aware that Trenchard's allotted half-hour was drawing to a close and impatient to be away from the Master's reminiscences of past folly. "Is there ... anything else you require before I leave?"
"Before we resume hostilities, you mean? Yes, there is one thing."
The Doctor steeled himself. "And that is?"
"I think you know." Rising to his feet again the Master closed the distance between them, his right hand reaching out to settle familiarly on the ruffled shirt front, stroking with unbelievable tenderness over frosted silk, dipping to dance across the accelerating double heartbeat shielded by the luxurious velvet jacket. "Don't be churlish, Doctor; I have given you your freedom - in terms your sweet Jo would understand, a 'divorce'."
Unbidden, the Doctor's hands settled in their accustomed pattern on the other man's waist, sliding around him beneath the grey robe, drawing them chest-to-chest, heartsbeat-to-heartsbeat in a perilous embrace.
"You have turned me loose so that you can bring me back when you choose," he said, reflectively. "You really are a Machiavellian monster, aren't you?"
The Master's smile was beguiling. "Why, thank you, my dear Doctor, I take that as a compliment."
"I meant it as one," the Doctor informed him, softly. "This time."
"So you did."
The closeness of the Master's mouth beneath his drained away the last of the Doctor's resistance. It had been such a long time, so many centuries, and such a bitter journey since they had last embraced like this; death and regeneration had pursued them, tearing them apart, throwing them together in new and terrible configurations of pain and loss, but the constant had remained deep within them both. Not for nothing had their love, and their subsequent enmity, become legendary amongst the loremasters of Gallifrey; two of the greatest figures in their planet's history, they had been manipulated and mauled by a corrupt High Council now purged from existence ... too late to reconcile the conflicts between them. Yet there had been that brightness once, and he had built the fortress of his life on its foundation.
Without hesitation, this time, he bent his head forward and touched his lips to the Master's in a kiss that brought a sudden flare of telepathic revelation between them, blinding and deafening and searing nerve-endings, cauterising the wounds of the past, sealing the doorway to recrimination. The Master's mouth was warm, moist, a temptation that could have swayed him from his duty had he not managed to construct a hastily improvised partial shield around his mind. He had never been proof against this man's kiss - nor the Master against his, he acknowledged. If sanity was ever to prevail, all knowledge of their previous connection must be bundled into the lumber room of memory, hidden behind locked doors, abandoned forever; he knew perfectly well that the Master had sought this kiss for that very reason - as a reunion, and a farewell.
It ended, and for a moment he held the Master close, his face pressed against the man's temple.
"In memory of what was," he whispered, some rogue part of his mind revelling in their contact, the warm presence in his arms, the caress of the Master's breath on his cheek. "May I go now?"
The Master disengaged himself from the embrace. "You may," he said, refusing to meet the Doctor's concerned, almost affectionate gaze. "Thank you. You must know that nothing has changed concerning whatever may take place outside that door."
"My dear fellow, I didn't doubt it for a minute; I've known you too long. Very well, then; until we meet again."
"Until then, Doctor."
The opening and closing of the door barely impinged on the Master's consciousness; every last shred of awareness was concentrated on the reconstruction of the defences so willingly lowered in the Doctor's presence, on banishing the diamond-hard, ice-brittle betrayal behind his eyes before it could quite form a tear. And yet, before having done with sentiment altogether, he crossed the room and rested a palm upon the roughly-painted door, taking a deep breath and expelling with it the last traces of his need for his former love.
"In memory of what is yet to be, Doctor," he said, softly - and the laugh that followed his words grew and magnified until its terrible insane quality gripped and shook the ramparts of his prison.
* * *
Based on Season Nine, Story Three, Episode One: 'The Sea Devils'
Click here for the sequel MOMENT OF TRUTH