A/N: Major blanket influences and references for the entire story include Jean-Paul Sartre, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, assorted Greek mythology, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Shakespeare's Othello and King Lear, Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore in particular), Inception, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, and T.S. Eliot (namely The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock).
Beta'd by the lovely and all-powerful gloryjean on LJ. Brit-picked too since, well, I am a Brit.
1. GROUND ZERO
First-class compartments in trains are not luxuries she is used to.
The economy has fractured, and people do what they can to survive. Years of tyrannical rule have drained them all, and the world is a tired place.
Her best coat is frayed at the edges, and the vinyl of her heels are slightly marked. It is not ideal, but it is the best she can do. It is the best they all can do. The clock on the wall to her right reads five minutes to thirteen, and she tries not to fidget.
The compartment door on the end of her carriage bangs open, and her heart leaps to her throat. A tall figure in a pinstriped suit and long overcoat strolls in, and she relaxes a little. It is not the man she is waiting for. She is startled when he drops onto the leather seat opposite her, and she briefly wonders if her contractor had sent someone in his stead. She looks at this man facing her, long and lanky and brown-haired and no, she thinks, no, this man is good. He catches her gaze, and she drops it guiltily, almost ashamed. (her hands are streaked with blood, even if they look clean. she must not stain a good person.)
The clock reads two minutes to thirteen, and she wonders what will happen when her contractor finds another man in his seat. She wants to tell this man to go, to tell him to run as fast as he possibly can. (she really wants to ask him to take her along.) She doesn't know how to give voice to her words. He is watching her, she knows, her senses honed by years of escaping. He leans forward, and rests his arms on his legs.
Those who give the orders are not the ones who die, he tells her, and she is mystified, but she holds his words close to her heart like truths and redemption.
For luck, he says with a secret smile, and he hands her a key. She takes it, and stares at the key in her palm, warm from his touch. If she looks at it closely, she can almost swear the key is glowing.
When she looks back up, he is gone.
The compartment door is ajar.
Her contractor saunters in, all tailored-clothes and slick and polish. He reeks of wealth and opulence that makes a sad mockery of the world they live in.
He doesn't sit. Instead, he stands and stares out the window. Wasted fields and grey concrete monoliths rush past.
Rush. They are always rushing.
She doesn't know his name, doesn't know who he is. It is not her job to know. He has told her to call him the Master, and the words are vile on her tongue. She takes his messages, and runs them across cities and countries and empires. She takes his poisonous words, and spreads them across lands and seas. She is not a killer, but she is a murderer by proxy.
He hands her an envelope, and bile rises at the back of her throat. (oh, Charon, she thinks, how many would you have me deliver to you today?) She takes it, and opens the envelope. It is her job, after all.
The single sheet of paper reads: Sixteen o'clock. The Rubicon. All along the Watchtower.
She doesn't know what it means. She doesn't have to. She takes his messages, and delivers them across nations, to people like him and unlike him, all powerful and insidious and villainous. They trust nothing and no one, and so they contract those like her to be the footmen of their words.
Technology makes a bad slave, he once told her. A thousand quid to the right person will buy you the name of everyone who's ever lived, died, and will live and die. His words had been (are) viscous and dripping, and she shudders to recall them. You can't punish technology, he had continued. But people, and he had paused, as if savouring the phrase, like candy and sweet blood on his tongue. People you can kill.
She is his runner, his watcher-on-the-ground, and he is the Master.
She hands the envelope back to him, and he burns it with an engraved, ornate lighter. The ashes are white, and she finds herself thinking that they look like crushed bones.
"Harold Saxon. Canary Wharf. Get it to him." He speaks in clipped, measured tones, and she nods. She can do nothing else.
He makes to leave, and she can feel her sigh of relief on the tip of her breath. He stops, and turns towards her.
"Where did you get that?" he asks, and the key sits heavy and warm on the chain she had slipped it onto around her neck. His expression is shuttered, vaguely curious.
Lost – it was lost, she tells him, and it is not entirely a lie.
Her message has been delivered, and now she has to run.
Technology makes a bad slave, but people you can kill and torture, and many want her for what she delivers. The city is crowded at this time of the day, and she weaves in and out of the masses in turns and crosses and backtracks. She knows she is being followed, but she doesn't know by how many or who or where. She just has to run.
Hello, comes a voice next to her, and she freezes for an instant before her body screams at her to get out of there. A hand settles on her shoulder, and she realizes it is the stranger from the train. She doesn't know why she does, but she stops and ends up walking next to him.
"You're being followed, you know." He says it like it is an everyday occurrence, like they are discussing the weather, like it is not her life on the line, like there is no sniper rifle trained on her head. "There's one of the roof, over there," he says, vaguely gesturing to an abandoned apartment block to their left. "Another's twenty feet behind, and he's waiting for you to turn that corner," he points to the tiny street she had been planning to slip down, "before he shoots you. He's carrying a Glock, I think." He raises a finger to his chin, in almost-serious contemplation. "No, maybe a Beretta. Or was it a Colt? Ah, no matter. It had a really pretty rosewood grip, though."
He looks at her, and she finds herself unable to hold his gaze.
"The last one's nearer than the other two, and he thinks you're very foolish." Her breath catches. He shifts, and his long overcoat opens a little, enough to reveal the outline of a gun. "That, and he has a Glock. A Glock 17, mind you, and I know this one for sure."
She can't run. The minute she turns, he will shoot her in the back, and if she runs, she will be gunned down by the others. How could she have been so blind? Goodwill and compassion are traits that died with the economy, and she really should have known this. The best thing she can do is to keep him talking.
"Oh, the classic keep-him-talking-so-I-can-think-my-way-out-of-this tactic! I must say, I'm impressed. My contractor told me you were blond and rather dim." She opens her mouth, wanting to ask him who this contractor of his is. He notices, and makes a shushing noise.
"No, no, you know I can't tell you! That would be too telling now, wouldn't it? Removes the suspense and all that." Her mind is moving in a thousand directions all at once, and her legs are screaming at her to bolt.
"Now, see here, there's a little café up this street, with the best banana cream pie in London. We'll go there, and you will buy one. Sit in the right corner booth, and make sure your back is to the door." She is bewildered by his request, and he leads her to Martha's Patisserie. He stops her at the entrance for a moment, and his eyes are hard. "I wouldn't run, if I were you. It'd just make it more of a hassle for me, having to track you down again – not that it would take me long, I assure you – and pick up where we left off. I don't have that kind of time."
They step through the door, and a bell chimes. The café is small and cozy, with lacy curtains at the shop windows and pretty displays of pastries and cakes. She is utterly flabbergasted. Martha, she notes, is a gorgeous African-American woman, with a warm smile and inviting eyes.
"Rose! It's so lovely to see you again! How are you? It's been what, three years since we last met?" Martha is beaming, and Rose is disconcerted. She makes to reply, but he cuts her off before she can. She knows has never been here before.
"Right! So, Martha, take care of Rose for me for a bit, yeah? I've just got to nip out to settle some scores, but I'll be back in a jiffy." Martha nods. Rose can't accept this, can't accept sitting here and waiting for something. Their world is moving, and there are lives on the line, and –
"Where are you going?" she asks. There is a slight pause in the middle of his step, and he cocks his head to the side.
"To do my job." He disappears outside with the sound of bells tinkling.
Rose stands at the display counter awkwardly for several long moments, before she remembers what he told her. She slides into the booth at the back of the café, and keeps her back to the entrance. She cannot make sense of the situation.
Martha appears by her side minutes later, and hands her a plate with a delicious-looking banana cream pie. "Your usual, on the house," she says with a wink, and disappears back into the kitchen.
The vinyl of the seat is worn and faded, and the pictures on the wall are homely and comforting. She wonders at the feeling. She traces the splitting seams on the seat beneath her, and tries to press them back together.
She is not surprised when she fails.
He sits opposite her in the tiny booth, and she is hit with a sense of not-quite-déjà vu. (her thoughts drift to trains and life and keys.)
Her banana cream pie sits untouched, and she catches him eyeing it avariciously. She pushes the plate towards him, and he takes it gratefully. She watches him while he eats, in large mouthfuls and quick movements that she is sure should really look inelegant but doesn't. He is all lines and planes and utilitarian angles, and she thinks he could almost be called handsome, if not for the sadness and solemnity in his eyes.
She sits, back straight and hands folded in her lap, and waits for him to finish. (she needs to know why she is here, and all she has ever wanted was to understand.)
When the plate is empty, he places his fork down (quickly and haphazardly, she notes, and she wonders if that says something about him), and stares at her with serious eyes. He reaches inside his overcoat, and pulls out his pistol. He handles the gun like an old lover – gently and respectfully, and she knows he has used this gun many times before.
He strips the gun in economical movements, movements that she knows come with years of practice and use, and she swallows hard. He removes the magazine, and places it next to the gun frame before separating the slide and barrel. The gun is spread out before him, useless in its dissection, and words fail her.
"What are you doing?" she asks after a long moment, perplexed and too tired for games.
He leans back in the booth, tucking a hand into the pockets of his slacks. "Getting you to trust me," he replies, and she is stumped. She tries, though, tries to form sentences and string words together, but her mind is whirling and spinning, and coherence eludes her. A sudden thought strikes her, and she is compelled to lean forward across the table, towards him.
"You killed them." She is certain, but she needs to hear the words from him.
He nods. "Yes, I did."
She mulls over his reply. "That was your job?" He glances away, and that is all the affirmation she needs. He nods slowly, moments later. He traces patterns on the table between the two of them, and she wonders what pictures he sees.
"Does that bother you?" he asks.
"I – " Killing is wrong, she knows, and deaths are sad, sad things, but how can she, proxy-murderer and complicit-executioner, be the judge? She is confident when she responds, and she thinks he knows it too. "No. No, it doesn't." Suddenly, she is unsure, caught up in her guilt and the amoral nature of their world.
"Should it?" she asks, and hopes for absolution in his answer.
"I don't know." It doesn't come. There is quiet between them for several prolonged minutes, and the sound of silence is as loud as any other.
"Their deaths were quick," he supplies helpfully, and she wonders what any onlooker would think; a man and a woman in a pretty deli talking about death and killing.
"Ah," she replies, and does not deign to add more.
There are no windows for her to peer out of, and no people around them for her to observe but him, so she studies him carefully. "Why?"
He frowns, unsure of her question. "Why what?"
"Why did you kill them?" His intake of breath is a little too sharp, and his movements jerk for a split-second before they resume their prior languidness. She would have missed all these, had she not been watching him as intensely as she had. He attempts to brush her question aside, and responds with a jaunty smile that she is sure is more broken than he lets on.
"I told you, it's my job." She shakes her head, refusing to believe this as the entire truth. He runs a tired hand through his mussed hair. "It's a principle thing, you know? You're a Watcher – " He looks to her, as if for confirmation. When none comes, he nods assuredly, and she knows he has dossier on her. "– and I've always thought, who watches the Watchers?" He gestures vaguely to himself. "So yeah, here I am. Story of my life, really."
Something in his words makes her think that no, this cannot be the story, not unless the book has dozens of torn-out pages and missing chapters, and she turns to stare at the colourful pastries and cakes that adorn the display case at the counter. There is a cake, she notes, in the shape of a key.
"No," she tells him. "No. There's more. You aren't telling me something; something vital." She turns back to look at him.
There is an internal battle waging within him, and she hopes that it will end in her favour. He does nothing for a long moment, before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a scrap of paper. He slides it across the table towards her.
"This is yours," he says, and she wants to believe that he is lying. The message on the scrap is laughably short: Run. It is three letters and a dot, but she knows it is hers, knows the loops of the R and curves of the U like she knows the back of her hand. She runs a finger over the word, and feels the indentation her pen somewhere had made somewhen.
She is quiet, and she traces the word over and over again, like it will suddenly reveal a deeper hidden message for her. At length, she stops.
"I don't understand," she says, and her voice is tremulous and shaky, and she hopes he will not notice it. He does, and he watches her closely as he reassembles his gun.
"I know," he sighs, and she wonders why he sounds so sad.
He stands abruptly, and extends a hand to her. "Come on."
She takes it, and they slip away into the jungle of the city.
Run. The word lingers at the back of her mind.
"He's dead," she asks. He nods, and she turns her head away from the prone body lying on the ground before them. "I'm sorry," she continues, and he shakes his head.
"Don't be." She tries not to, but it is not something that she can help.
"We should go," he tells her, and his voice is sturdy and firm. She grasps his words like a lifeline, and takes his hand as they leave.
The Master's corpse is an image seared into her mind, and she cannot stop shaking. The Doctor tugs her to his side, and loops an arm around her shoulder. They walk for miles, never stopping or pausing, and they look like any other couple on the street. She wishes they were. They end up along the Thames, and she stares out at the sedate waters of the iconic river.
"Doctor, wait," she calls out, and grips the railing next to her. He tilts her face up to his, a question in his eyes and expression worried. "No," she murmurs, and she turns her face away from his. The Thames flows past, and she wonders how it can be so calm when their world is collapsing before them. "No. I just –" She stops, and finds her words inadequate.
His hand is still around her, and she buries her face against his solid warmth for a moment. "I wonder," she begins again, and her voice is surer this time. "I wonder, how many wars are fought between good friends?" He stiffens slightly against her, and she draws him closer, hugging him.
"I don't know what the moral is," she says, and he will pretend the dampness on his shirt is not from tears, and she will pretend that he is fine. Her words are muffled against his chest.
His hand is in her hair, and he presses a kiss to the side of her head.
"There isn't one," he tells her. It is poor comfort, but it is the truth.
Sometimes, she learns, the truth has to be enough.