He loves it best when he and River are running away from some sort of danger or other, and River's smile is second-widest when she's running with him, as well (widest, of course, when she's proving him wrong about something). He doesn't like the sedentary stuff, the stuff where they have to do the paperwork, read up on the history, or, as in River's case, prepare the presentations.
This is a presentation before a wide variety of historians, archeological supervisors, and scientists. She's doing it on something and something or other in the 24th century, he pretends he really cares, but she's got her history wrong and correcting her would just irritate her. Basically, it's a way of showing what she's done so that someone out there will help her pay for doing more of it.
It's not necessary, he tells her. He can do a little time manipulation and fund every project she'd ever want for the rest of her life, if she desired it. But, no, of course not.
"This is my career," she says.
"I know," he replies, though he's more than a little confused and he's not pretending that he's not.
"Am I not allowed to have a career?" she snaps. "A career that's mine? I don't want your influence, not on this."
All the same, he prods a few people he knows and makes sure some of the wealthiest and most influential scientists show up at her presentation. He hates coming to these things, but he knows she can use the moral support, so he shows up and laughs loudly at the errors in her competitions' presentations. If he can't help her by showing her a better career path, he can at least give her a push in the right direction with the one she's chosen.
And there's so much he misses, he thinks. He missed all of her planning this presentation, all of her worrying and fussing. He very nearly missed the presentation itself, but she sent him a reminder on the psychic paper and he followed as quickly as he could.
He expects her to bounce up and down in excitement at such-and-such person arriving, but instead when she approaches him prior to her presentation, she looks tired.
"Long morning?" he asks, taking her hand. She looks radiant in a sparkly red dress he's never seen in her closet before, her hair piled up on the top of her head. He's a little surprised to see her in something so flashy; she usually goes for simple business suits during boring presentations like this. A woman archeologist is always seen before she's heard, she would say, and she always wants to make sure she's seen as an archeologist first, a woman later.
"Preparations," she says.
"For the speech?"
"New benefactor," she says, a little quietly. "He wanted stats written up by noon and we had none of them ready. Eliza didn't show up with the booking numbers, so I had to go all the way into..."
"New benefactor? Already? You haven’t even spoken." Brilliant. He won't have to stay, they can go out somewhere, maybe sit on the desert front. The moonlight on Sonata 3 turns everything a beautiful shade of blue and they can sit together and bask in the glow. He'll buy them wine and she can talk about what she would've said while he corrects her and curls her hair around his forefinger.
She smacks his arm, reading the eagerness in his expression. "I still have to speak; they've got a slot out for me."
"Well, it's a good presentation. I should know---"
"You wrote it."
He shakes his head and chuckles. He does so love her confidence. It's not boasting, because he knows she can back it up. Like him. It's when their confident natures clash that it becomes a problem. Never a terrible problem, but a problem nonetheless.
"So, which one of the scientists is the new benefactor?" he asks her. One of his influences? That would be nice to know but he'd never tell her if it was, that would only have her reject the money and start all over. She can be so stubborn at times.
"Not a scientist," she says, brushing some imaginary dust off her dress. "An outside historian from Axos, I think. J.H. Foreman."
"Never heard of him," the Doctor says. A historian, eh? Not one of his, but that's for the best. His ego can handle it. Probably one of the people he prodded brought the benefactor along.
"Me neither, but he said he's been following my work," River replies. She shrugs and smiles. "Funding the next two years, though. I can't argue with that." Her tone also reminds him hat she did it on her own and he rolls his eyes good-naturedly.
"You're not going to stay for the reception, are you?"
She sighs. "No. Just say 'hello' to Foreman, would you? Table B-15, I think. He told me he'd like to meet my husband."
"How did he hear about me?"
"When I turned him down for dinner. Go on, then." She points a red fingernail in his direction. "And be nice."
With that, she turns and heads towards backstage to set up her presentation materials. He makes a face, and then straightens his tie. He hates it at these meetings and he hates her career, but he won't embarrass her. Well, not unless he's had too much champagne. That's not really his fault.
He checks the tables, glancing from setup to setup before finally finding the B aisle. The upper crust of the historians, the ones that fund most of the archeological society's projects, they get the nice tables with the red velvet tablecloths and the solitary white candle in the middle.
He doesn't need a table number to know which one is B-15. The man sitting alone at that table has him fixed in his gaze and the grin on his face is instantly familiar. But there's no pleasant irony to the fact that his presence is entirely because of the Doctor.
Oh, he's aged. He's got a little white at his temple and in the handlebars of his short-snipped goatee. His smile isn't quite so wide, but there's no less madness in it.
"Doctor," he says.
The man at the table takes in a slow breath at the sound of his own name. "It never gets old, you know."
"What are you doing here?" The Doctor isn't certain when he moved from the opposite end of the room to directly next to the Master's table, but he's there, looking down at him.
"You don't have to express how much you've missed me with words, Doctor. I already know." And to curb the Doctor's obvious next question---how did you get here without me knowing?---he places a small mechanical device on the table.
"Psychic wavelength transmogrified deamplifier," he says. "So basic, Doctor, I'm certain you could block it with very little effort if you knew it was there. As it is, it's kept me fairly well-hidden these last few months. Plenty of time to read up on Professor River Song's work. On the things she's been doing, the place she's been staying…"
"You came all this way to research my wife?"
The Master's face twists a little at that word. It reminds the Doctor of the confused expression his own face wore when he saw Harold and Lucy Saxon for the first time. Complete confusion, disbelief. At the time, the Doctor couldn't figure out how Lucy convinced the Master to lower himself to such a human ritual. It wasn't as if he loved her; it wasn't as if he even recognized she was anything more than a tool.
"I find the history of humans interesting, Doctor, surely that should make you happy. Taking interest in your hobbies." He strokes his moustache and grins as the clomp-clomp of unreasonable high heels signals that River has taken the stage. The Doctor doesn't turn his gaze to look at her; he keeps it pinned on the Master. He knows his old enemy well, and if he tries to look away, he'll lose track of him.
He doesn't bother asking the Master how he survived this last time they met. If he did, then he'd never talk to him about anything else. Wars and explosions and planets of fire and cheetahs and black holes and by this point he's given up believing that the Master will ever truly die. It's been a long time since he thought he might ever want him to.
River's voice starts over the speakers, loud and strong and confident in that way she always is, but when the Master speaks in his cool, cold tones, that's all the Doctor hears.
"Doesn’t she look lovely in that dress?" the Master asks him. "Lucy once wore red, do you remember? And her eyes would shine dark with desire for power and destruction. Your wife has similar eyes, you know. They'll only get darker as you stay with her…"
"Stop it." The Doctor takes in a breath and settles himself. He can't get too emotional, not now. He thinks of the dress, at the cut and style and of course she'd wear a gift from the benefactor of her projects.
"Are you stalking my wife?" The Doctor's voice is disgusted at the idea. Not just that his best enemy might stick his nose into River's world, but that he would stoop so low as that.
"Don't be stupid," the Master snaps back. "I'm stalking you. I've just found an interesting water hole you've decided to frequent. Or didn't you know that's the way a smart lion hunts? And the smaller prey at this hole make delightful sport."
He's no lion, not anymore. The Doctor can see the age in the Master's eyes mirroring his own, and the manic insanity has given way to a colder cruelty. He's less a lion and more a snake, coiling around his victims one scale at a time. And River, it appears, is dinner.
River's voice echoes in the back of his ears, but he stares ice at the Master's smug warm smile. It's been hundreds of years since they've last seen each other. The Master is mellow, he's calm, he doesn't need to bounce up and be the center of attention. But he still needs to hurt the Doctor in his own way.
The Doctor wants to punch him. Punch him for following here when he's been so safe. Punch him for being so linear in River's life. Punch him for threatening the one good thing he's had in centuries.
But that would interrupt River's presentation and for all the Doctor knows that could be the Master's plan. She speaks another few moments and he can hear the presentation end; another archeologist takes the stage.
"What do you want?" the Doctor demands.
"You know the old saying, if you can't beat them, join them?" The Master looks back to the Doctor. "I can't kill you, so I just stay nearby, stay helpful. Wouldn't you like that? Me keeping your pets happy?"
Wait, he didn't' say pet he said pets. But there's no one else in the Doctor's life. No one the Master could've found, at any rate.
Or could he have? The Doctor remembers the empty teacups on River's patio and thinks that with the right hovercraft or a window in one of the adjacent skyscrapers---
"You two having a good time?" River's sudden presence at his side very nearly makes him jump in alarm, a fact which the Master finds nothing less than completely amusing.
"Mrs. Song," the Master stands and takes her hand, placing a kiss above the knuckles.
The Doctor's arm instinctively slides around River's waist. Her smile turns into a questioning look. Public displays of affection aren't a common practice for them, much less ones that are so possessive.
"Professor," she corrects the Master with a tight smile.
The Master nods in consent, and then takes a step back. His grin turns to the Doctor, then to River. "I was just telling your husband what a lovely couple you both make."
"Well, he's missing out on the looks, but he makes up for it in the brains department," River replies with a somewhat more relaxed smile. She's trying to ease the tension, probably thinks the Doctor just had a spat with the Master over him asking her to dinner.
"Don't sell yourself short, Professor. To win a man like the Doctor, you've got to have a mind he can rival with."
River looks vaguely flattered, but then again she can't tell that he's mocking her. She doesn't know the Master like the Doctor does, she wouldn’t know that any compliment to human intelligence is a joke to him.
"And the uber-genius children you two will make." The Master taps his nose with a gloved forefinger and puts on a mock pout. "No, sorry. I forgot. Not everything in the universe is as compatible as love."
"Stop it." The Doctor snaps.
"You've grown considerably more verbose in our time apart, Doctor."
"We're reduced to single word sentences? I might rejoice."
"And any hope I had that you two don't know each other vanishes," River sighs and shakes her head. "Mr. Foreman, I think you should go. I'll find another benefactor."
The Master's grin turns positively delighted. "Oh, she's got a little independent streak in her, doesn't she? Best watch that, hubby. Independent streak like that on one of your companions is likely to get her killed."
The Doctor feels a familiar bolt of ice shoot down his spine at the Master's words. But no, no, the Master is threatening. He's trying to make the Doctor afraid for River's life. He doesn't know. The Master doesn't know that the Doctor's already seen her end. He knows how it happens and the Master has nothing to do with it.
A small, smug smile twitches at the edges of his lips, and for the first time he's grateful he's been spoiled on that.
"I don't die easily," River replies, and she pulls out of the Doctor's embrace to stand in front of the Master.
"Of course you don't," the Master replies, mockingly.
"Damn right I don't. So walk those shiny shoes off of my planet right now. Because that brilliant speech you two weren't listening to? It was about the Teresteris. Do you know what they used to do to the genitalia of those they found invading their villages?"
The Doctor does. It involved hot pokers strapped to the fingers of torturers like nails, it was really quite unpleasant. River drums her shiny red fingernails against her shoulder and she grins. For all her pretty dress, her curls fan out around her face and she looks like a lioness about to attack. The Master doesn't move back, but his smile vanishes and becomes something else. Something judging. The Doctor knows that expression.
She's stopped being prey and has moved into the arena of rival. He's impressed, and that makes the Doctor proud and terrified all at the same time.
The Master sidesteps River and steps up to the Doctor. He's still a little shorter in this incarnation, even though they both have started to hold their age on their shoulders. The Master reaches out and moves as if to straighten the Doctor's tie, tilting it askew. That's the sort of man he is, now. Subtle ways of tossing the Doctor's world on its end.
"I've got to go," he says, as if it was entirely his idea. "Plenty of things to do. Got two worlds to run outside of the Ferestria galaxy."
He turns with the same flourish he did when he was young, the tails of his velvet cape smacking the Doctor as he does so. It verges on juvenile, but that's the sort of man the Master has always been. The Doctor wants to say something else, but it's been too long, there's too much that's happened since. And the Master just wouldn't---
The Master stops and turns. "Oh, you will tell that lovely daughter of yours that Uncle Master said 'hello', won't you?"
The Doctor's gaze flicks to River for an instant. He followed River, he found Jenny. He knows about the only two people that matter in the Doctor's life. He knows, he knows.
He looks back, but the Master's gone.
"The Master," River says, her voice breathy with realization.
"How do you know that?" The Doctor doesn't mean to sound so snappish, doesn't mean for his voice to bite like it does, but it doesn't seem to faze River. She looks at the empty spot where the Master was as if something in her mind has opened, been realized, been figured out.
Her reply is simple. "Spoilers."
Muse: The Doctor (Ten)
Fandom: Doctor Who
Word Count: 2,826
Special thanks to youwillobey for the muse-inspiring suggestion!
Also, this would not have been possible without the immense assistance of savagestime! Thank you!