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One little world on a very thin thread

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Nardole told the Doctor to drop Bill off at home before bringing their passengers to Head Office. Without a companion, the Time Lord was easier to manage, and far less likely to run off into another ill-advised adventure. The Doctor agreed without a fight. He seemed slightly cowed, which Nardole thought appropriate. Did he even realize how close he’d come to leaving the vault unguarded?

Nardole had a job, and he’d been doing it to the best of his abilities for over half a century. He was the Doctor’s minder. That was what the Doctor had hired him for. Sometime, several decades back, he’d also been the Doctor’s friend, but it was impossible to balance both. You couldn’t discipline someone while maintaining the pretense of being their buddy. Today proved it. Nardole couldn’t afford to be nice, to be understanding. He had to take charge and force the Doctor to stay put by any means necessary. Tough love. Because the Doctor was getting older, more fragile, and less easily repaired, while the thing in the vault was getting stronger, and increasingly difficult to keep under control.

If the Doctor had died…

Nardole wasn’t certain if the Time Lord still had the capacity to regenerate. He was very old. So old, that River had been taken unawares by him at their last meeting. A Time Lord could, occasionally, squeeze out a few faces past the thirteen body limit, but it generally wasn’t worth the side effects.

“I’ll be in my office,” the Doctor said, when they arrived back on Earth. Cold, dismissive. “Don’t bother me.”

Nardole lingered in the TARDIS after the Doctor disembarked. He found a toolkit and started dissembling the console. The fact that the ship didn’t electrocute him in response told Nardole that the TARDIS agreed. The Doctor needed to be grounded. He also needed a stern lecture.

Nardole saw on the viewscreen that Bill had slipped into the office to talk to the Doctor.  He noted that she had changed her outfit, and that the dermal regenerator had done a good job on her face. The Doctor didn’t rise to meet her. He was sitting at his desk, legs in the air, trying to give off an air of nonchalance. Nardole could practically feel the guilt radiating off of him. Bill had almost died twice. Between that, and the adjustments Nardole had made to the TARDIS, perhaps the Doctor would think twice before galivanting off again. Still, Nardole had words that needed saying. He waited until Bill left (“laters,” indeed), and slipped out.

The Doctor clumsily removed his legs from the desk and bowed his head, avoiding Nardole’s gaze. He had shades on. Probably his eyes were still sore after the treatment. Nardole didn’t care. He wouldn’t stop just because the Doctor wanted to sulk. What had he said on the station? That the biggest problem with the universe was people saying, “it’s not my fault?” He needed to grind into the Doctor the full extent of what he had done. No holds barred.

“Never again,” Nardole said, taking care to enunciate the individual words.

“Stop talking, now.”

The Doctor removed his shades to rub his eyes. His voice was different from usual. Angry, but also vulnerable. Quiet. Defeated. Still raspy from his time in the vacuum. He’d let Nardole fix up his eyes with the regenerator, but had refused a full examination. That was something else to force him to once the lecture was over. Probably, he was more hurt than he was telling. He looked pathetic sitting curled up at his desk. Nardole refused to give into the urge to drop the subject and wrap the Time Lord in a hug. There would be no getting off easy this time.

“I’m serious. We were so close to not making it back. Then what happens to the vault? You know what’s at stake here.”

“Really, stop talking.”

Nardole gritted his teeth, and kept going. The words felt like they were rushing out of him. All of the things he'd kept shoved down over weeks and months and years. The Doctor would listen, whether he wanted to or not.

“What if you got killed out there? What happens to your precious Earth then? You need to be here, and you need to be ready if that door ever opens. Look at me!”

“I can’t.”

Nardole remembered all the times in the past few weeks when he’d come into this office to find the Doctor and Bill departing the TARDIS, laughing and giggling, dressed in anachronistic clothing, smelling of alien flora, Bill asking some inane question. And when Nardole tried to tell him off, the Doctor would get snarky and pretend like nothing had happened, like Nardole was too stupid to put together clear evidence, like he was an uppity servant, and not a one-time friend who had taken a vow to stand by his side. How could he be so irresponsible?

Nardole knew it was hard for the Doctor, staying on one planet, in one place, existing in linear time. But the Doctor acted like it was a prison, when, in reality, it was just the way 99.99% of the universe went about their daily lives.

“What if you came back injured? Or sick? You really think our friend down there won’t know that? Won’t sense it?”

Nardole clenched his fist, feeling the strain of gears and pulleys, the slight whine as he squeezed tighter than the system specifications advised. He should have been the one to remove his helmet for Bill. The Doctor had built an oxygen exchange into his cybernetic interface, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. Nardole was angry at the Doctor, but he was also furious at himself. He could have powered down and given up his helmet. Stupid. Selfish. And the Doctor had very nearly paid the price.

 “LOOK AT ME!” He shouted, louder.

“Nardole, I can’t. I really can't.”

Nardole’s cooling system sent out an icy surge to counter the heat build up from the fear those words inspired. He looked at the Doctor, really looked, without the overlay of righteous indignation. The Doctor wasn’t afraid of being scolded (of course he wasn’t; he was thousands of years old, and he’d spent most of that time actively courting being told off), he was scared. Terrified even.

“I can’t look at anything ever again. I’m still blind.”

The Doctor stood there, swaying slightly, breathing hard. The signs were all painfully clear, now that Nardole was aware of it. The Doctor's eyes were clear, but they were focused slightly to the left of where Nardole was standing.

“Sir…” Nardole said. He felt shaky, suddenly, ashamed, but still angry enough that he nearly said, “Well, that serves you right,” and only stopped himself just in time.

“Don’t say it.”

“Don’t say what?”

“That it serves me right. That this is my fault. I am aware. I will deal with the consequences.”

“But the vault…”

“I will deal with the consequences!” the Doctor roared, before slumping back into his chair. It spun slightly under the force of impact, whacking the Doctor’s knee against the desk. Nardole carefully restrained his impulse to ask if it hurt. The Doctor’s breathing was ragged.

“I…” Nardole started.

“Go away,” the Doctor said, waving his hand vaguely. “Please, just… go away.”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Nardole said, straightening up, reminding himself of his duty. This was a shock, but they would adapt to it. They had to. But there were other things to attend to. “I need to know if there’s anything else.”

“What do you mean, anything else?”

“You know very well what I mean. You refused to let me examine you in the TARDIS. I assume that was some sort of misguided attempt to prevent Bill from learning about your new status.”

“Yes, and… I was hoping it would come back, in time.”

“I will say, anything that a dermal regenerator can’t heal after twenty passes isn’t likely to heal at all.”

“No.”

“Is there anything else?” Nardole waited for a response. The Doctor fiddled uselessly with the papers on his desk, shuffling them into unorganized piles. Nardole realized that his duties would probably soon expand to helping the Doctor mark the uninspired papers of sleep-deprived students. He wasn’t looking forward to it. The Doctor wasn’t answering his question.

“You need to tell me what else is wrong,” Nardole said, raising his voice again.

“Mucus membranes,” the Doctor said, and let it hang for a moment as his hands continued skittering across the desk. “My tear ducts are malfunctioning, but useless eyes don’t need any lubrication, so, while uncomfortable, that isn’t a problem. What is more alarming: I know there’s a fire in the grate, but I can’t smell the smoke. I know you’re standing there beside me, but I can’t smell the oil you use to grease your joints. I can’t smell the paper and leather scent of this office, or the fresh, spring breeze floating in from outside. I don’t know if it’s permanent. I don’t think I’ll be able to taste anything when you bring me tea next. If I’m able to swallow. My throat is burning. It hurts to talk. It hurts to breath. I know my lungs were affected. I’m not certain how badly.”

“I did notice you were panting a fair bit on the station,” Nardole said, trying to stay calm.

“The great toe on my right foot is fractured, and I have a good collection of bruises and abrasions on my shins. I’m sure I’ll add more to the collection as time progresses.”

“You’ll get better at finding your way around. You’ll adapt.”

“I already am.” The Doctor fingered his shades before placing them back over his eyes. “Sonic. I’m training myself to use sound to navigate. Like a bat, or a dolphin. Do you know what a dolphin is, Nardole?”

“I have a vague idea. That’s good. That’s very good.”

“It is, isn’t it?” The Doctor curled in on himself again, his forehead brushing across the paper strewn desktop. “It hurts, Nardole. Everything is dark, and I am all alone, sailing on a raft with no shore in sight. Evolution is extraordinarily stupid, you know, putting all of the sensory organs on one squishy perturbance.”

“I’d be more inclined to describe your head as thick, or fluffy, than squishy,” Nardole said.

The Doctor sighed, and then made a sound that might have been a laugh, but it was dark and hoarse.

“It feels squishy at the moment. Space has so many ways to harm you. The cold. The lack of atmosphere. The lack of pressure. I know that you’re to my left, Nardole, a few feet away at most, but you sound like you’re twenty feet away, underwater. All of the little noises are gone. I know there are birds outside, and students rushing across the lawn, and if I strain hard enough, I can get a sense of them, for a moment, and then I’m alone again. All I can hear is the blood rushing through my veins, like waves on an endless sea.”

Nardole bent forward, meaning to take the Doctor’s hands, to tap out the Morse Code letters for, “I’m here for you,” but the Doctor sat upright and kicked away from the desk before Nardole could reach him.

“Don’t touch me. Don’t you dare touch me.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The Doctor stood up and started walking away from Nardole, one hand trailing along the bookcase covered walls for support. Nardole could see the tension he carried in his shoulders through three layers of fabric. Nardole spook rapidly to his back:

“Now that I’m aware, I can pop back into the TARDIS and get the regenerator, and we can make you a bit more comfortable –“

“No.”

“But you need –“

“No. Everything else will get better on its own. Or it won’t. But until then, there’s hope. I won’t have you run that thing over me and take that away.”

“But there’s the possibility that without treatment –“

“No, Nardole. Please, stop talking.”

“But, Sir.”

“Go away. Go to Birmingham, to buy some crisps like you were supposed to.”

Nardole noticed the way the Doctor’s hands crept up to cover his ears as he talked. He’d done that before, Nardole realized, like the sound of his own voice was hurting him.

“Okay,” Nardole said, softly. “I’ll be in the TARDIS, if you need me.”

Nardole slipped away, and turned on the view screen. He watched the Doctor make a few stumbling attempts to walk around his office before ripping off his sonic shades and tossing them across the room. Then he sank down to the floor. A frail, old man, lost in his own personal hell. There were no tears, but then, there wouldn’t be.

Nardole thought of all the years they’d spent together. He thought of how the Doctor had changed, become more abrasive towards Nardole, and more open towards everyone else. He thought of the petty insults and pointless bickering. He thought of all the strained smiles and the Doctor’s increasingly erratic lecture subjects. He thought about how he’d watched the Doctor diminish over the years, fade away, and he hadn’t entirely realized it until Bill had come around and livened him up again. Nardole had been happy about that, at first. Happy to see a genuine smile after so long.

Happy enough to overlook a few TARDIS trips on the sly. Complacent enough, after so many years of good behaviour, to let his guard down. He should have known the Doctor would take off his helmet. It was his job.

Nardole went back into the office, knelt to the Doctor’s level, and wrapped him in a hug.

“I’m sorry,” Nardole said.

The Doctor shook silently under his arms.