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never cowardly

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She should’ve known the minute the TARDIS had landed herself there and - not unlike a small, stubborn, child – refused to move.

The Doctor’s first mistake was thinking it was mistake. Time Lord arrogance was assuming if things don’t quite go your way, it must be a mistake of some kind – and not the very deliberate act of a very complex and quite sentient piece of machinery. All those years travelling and still, she always fell for it.

And yes – okay, yes. In her defence, she’d been blindsided by the TARDIS’ belligerence, that enigmatic chime that Doctor knows means that’s it, no further, old friend. She’d had no choice but to search, then. Diligently. Ripping up panels, re-fusing wires, all the while flip-flopping between curses and soothing words in ancient Gallifreyan (lyrical and far more tender than she’d ever dare to sound in company, because the TARDIS, she reasons, is a special case.) All the while the TARDIS complains in that way it does, as if it were tugging on the Doctor’s trousers, desperate for her attention.

“Excuse me, I am looking,” the Doctor mutters. “You could at least give me a clue.”

She misses the quiet knock at the door, lost in a daze of calculation. She doesn’t miss the voice, though – imploring and tentative.

“Doctor?”

The Doctor’s head snaps up. She pulls her goggles over her head and stands to her feet. 

The trespasser’s stood in the open doorway, her fingers curled on the wood. The TARDIS’ bright, orange floodlights highlight the curls and coils in her hair. She’s dressed in her usual denim jacket, laid over a rainbow t-shirt, and her smile creeps out beneath her palpable disbelief.

Bill.

Healthy. Human. Here.

The Doctor’s breath catches in her throat. She makes an abortive movement, stepping out beneath piles of circuitry - before she stops, uncertain.

Bill’s eyes land on hers without a hint of recognition. “Sorry,” she says. “I was just looking for the Doctor.”

“Yes,” says the Doctor. “That’s me.”

“Er, no. The Doctor. Old, Scottish man? Face like thunder?” her gaze turns wistful as she eyes the console room. “He travelled about in a machine that looks just like this one. Save, maybe, different interior design -”

The Doctor shakes her head. “Bill, it’s me. I am the Doctor. The same one.”

“You?”

The Doctor tries a smile that doesn’t quite fit properly on her face. “Regeneration. Remember how I explained it – turning into another person?”

Bill’s eyes narrow. “Prove it.”

“Eh?”

“You can’t just show up looking completely different, a whole new accent and everything, and just expect me to take your word for it,” she says. “You could be lying for all I know.”

The Doctor considers her for a long moment. “You once told me I run like a penguin with it’s arse on fire.”

 “Oh my God,” she shakes her head. “Oh my God. You idiot - it is you.”

And then she’s surging forward, locking her arms tight around the Doctor and bringing with her the lingering scent of rain and laundry detergent.

The first thing the Doctor notices (with a touch of disquiet) is that they’re now the same height.

The second is that she doesn’t quite mind it – hugging – not the way she usually does. It’s familiar – a kind of familiarity she hadn’t known in so long, she’d almost forgotten what it felt like. For a few seconds, just a few seconds, she closes her eyes and relaxes against the feeling – allowing herself just this one moment of indulgence.

Please, she thinks, eyes screwed tightly shut. Oh, please.

Then she steps back, and in one movement, draws the sonic from her pocket.

Bill’s grin falls as she watches, uncertain. “Doctor – it’s me.”

“Yeah, you would say that, wouldn’t you? But I’ve been fooled by this before,” the Doctor flicks the sonic up, reading the screen. “What I don’t understand is how. You were a Cyberman.”

“Hang on, what do you mean you’ve been fooled before?”

“Happened to come across another version of you,” she says, lightly. “I say that – it was just a vessel for your memories. She said that you’d been rescued by Puddle Girl.”

Bill blinks as if she’s struggling to digest it all. The Doctor doesn’t quite blame her.

“So, you knew I was out there?”

The Doctor’s gaze slips past her. Of course, that’d be the one thing Bill would linger on. “Not really,” she says. “I just thought she was trying to convince me to regenerate. Saying whatever I wanted to hear.”

Not a lie, but hardly the truth either. Because the Doctor hadn’t tried very hard, had she? Hadn’t torn apart the skies searching for confirmation – hadn’t poured in her time, her energy, her sanity too, trying to track Bill down, just to see her face again. She'd told herself that it was for the best. The Doctor been down that road before, and it had taken a kind of herculean strength to drag herself back from it. She couldn’t do that again – not to herself, and certainly not to Bill.

Because Bill - well she was happy and she was safe. It was certainly more than the Doctor could ever give her.

But that wasn’t quite it, was it?

Because if she’d torn apart the skies, and found it was all a lie? That Bill was still a Cyberman – no way back, not ever – could she have put one foot in front of the other and kept going? Another person who had placed their hope and faith in her, and another person let down --

The weight of hope was a crushing thing. And so, the Doctor had reneged on her promise to previous self - a coward, she thinks to herself, through and through.

“Wait. Convinced you to regenerate,” says Bill, full of that trademarked righteous indignation. “So, when I left him – you - in the TARDIS, all by yourself – "

“No,” the Doctor says. “Not at first. A Time Lord’s death can last a bit of time. And I was going to let it happen, too,” she turns now, speaking mostly to herself as she brushes the TARDIS consoles with her fingertips. She tries a humourless smile. “The end.”

“Why the hell would you do that?”

The Doctor pauses. “After everything that happened -” she starts, not quite certain of where the sentence is going -

Bill takes a step, reaching out. “Doctor, I’m right here.”

The Doctor’s smile doesn’t drop as much as it does sour into something terrible. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I said that you were safest by my side. That wasn’t true.”

“You couldn’t have known –"

 “I always know.”

The seconds tick on in a stretched-out silence. She doesn’t quite know why she’s admitting it, but she suspects the familiar face - her first familiar face in years – might have something to do with it (and the Doctor hadn’t quite known how much she’d missed her, Bill Potts, but now she searches her face, hungry for that recognition like a woman wandering the desert in search for water). And Bill stares back at her, lost for words, as if she doesn’t even know how to begin dealing with it.

“I keep doing this,” says the Doctor. “Acquiring people, even though I know what’s going to happen in the end – how it always ends.”

“Because you’re lonely,” says Bill. “There isn’t any shame in that.”

The Doctor glances down at her feet. “Do you know how much power this little box contains? Do you know that there’s nothing, nothing, I can’t do? Except keep people close, keep people safe –"

She turns suddenly now, anger burning bright inside her chest. “I am so ancient, I can’t even remember my age. Do you know how many times I’ve been through this? People like you, full of brightness, just fading away in front of me -”

Bill takes another step toward her. “I knew the risk,” she says. “And I’ll bet everyone else who stepped foot in here did too.”

The Doctor snorts. “The risk,” she runs a hand across her jaw. And when she catches sight of herself reflected in the TARDIS console, she’s startled momentarily by her sight. Almost as if she expects to see that crest of wild white hair, that long black coat. “And would you judge a child for wandering into the arms of a monster carrying a bag of sweets?”

 “We’re not children, Doctor,” Bill’s jaw sets. “See that’s the thing with you, you think you’re above us all. As if nobody else in the world has complex thoughts, or the ability to judge anything for themselves.”

The Doctor snorts again. Bill’s eyes narrow.

“Am I happy that they turned me into a Cyberman? Obviously not. But I gave up indignation when I realised what travelling with you meant,” she says. “And yes, I’m actually quite capable of comprehending that, despite the fact that I am, shock horror, a human being. 'Cos, you know what, Doctor? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t judge us worthy of being your friends in one moment, and then tear us down as stupid little kids in the next –"

“I’m not –"

“Yes, you are,” Bill turns abruptly, her gaze like ice. “You know, I came back because I wanted to see my friend again. My friend who I’ve spent every day since wondering about. My friend who stood by my side 'til the end. Not to watch you throw a tantrum about how undeserving you are.”

The Doctor stops at that.

She takes a step back, and then another, folding down onto the stairs like a collapsing tower of cards.

Funny that. She hadn’t noticed how tired she was until this moment. Exhaustion hadn’t so much crept as it had leapt at her, dragging her down. She feels the ache in her joints, heavy and used, as if she’d done enough running to last her a lifetime. And for several long, slow moments, there are no sounds but the ambient twitches and groans of the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s frantic heartbeats, thump-thump  thump-thumping in her hollow chest.

She wonders where she picked up the habit for self-pity. Another voice, another self - angular and spikey but always kind - reminds her that self-pity is a luxury. A luxury for other people that are not you.

Somewhere along the line, she'd forgotten it again.

In the distance Bill hesitates, arms crossed over her chest as if she’s not quite sure whether she’s finished being angry. Then she wanders over, half-reluctant, settling on the pillar beside the Doctor.  

“What are they like then? Your new travelling companion?” she knocks her elbow into the Doctor’s, like the extension of a hand in a silent truce. “As annoying as I was first?”

Companions,” the Doctor amends, with a frown. “And Bill, you were never annoying, you were curious. Curiosity, wonder, kindness. They’re worth the universe.”

Bill smiles at that, leaning against the railing.

“How could you tell I was travelling with other people again?”

“You, all by yourself?” it’s Bill’s turn to snort. “Nah, you need someone to talk at. Keeps all the brilliantly mad ideas coming.”

The Doctor can’t help but grin at the truth of that. She'd once been astounded by how quick Bill was. A few trips in the TARDIS, and she’d already had her sussed out. Staring her down in her Victorian dress, with eyes full of anguish and asking questions that needed to be asked, questions that she already knew the answer to.

“They don’t know the first thing about me,” the Doctor’s gaze drifts now. “The people who travel with me. Not one thing.”

“Why?”

The Doctor gives her a long look.

“Come with me,” she offers, instead.

Bill says nothing for a long moment. Then she sits down heavy beside her. “Yeah, maybe,” she says. “One day. When you know who you are again.”

The Doctor glances at her, and Bill meet her gaze firm. She was expecting sympathy there, pity even - doesn’t quite expect to see a sense of understanding shining so clearly back at her.

And for a long, slow time, they sit together in silence, Bill and the Doctor, watching the colours of the TARDIS fade from arctic blue to startling yellow to warm orange. A wordless silence containing more than words ever could.

Then Bill says, “So you’re a woman now.”

The Doctor’s answering laugh surprises even herself.

“I had wondered when we’d get to that bit.”

Bill grins. “Pizza?” she asks “And while we’re waiting, you could fill me in on what I've missed.”

The Doctor hesitates for a moment. There’s hope in Bill’s eyes – hope that she’d seen in the eyes of her fam too, asking her question after question and knowing they would never hear the full answers. She’s scared of that hope. Often, it’d been much easier, much neater, much safer to slap it down.

But who is the Doctor without her bravery?

She stands and grabs her blue coat, draped over the nearby railing. “I haven’t got any money.”

“Surprise, surprise,” says Bill.

The Doctor steps back, letting Bill lead the way as she shuts the TARDIS door behind them both. And when they step out into the grey drizzle of the dull November evening, she begins to talk.