The Doctor could hear the click, click, click of Nardole’s shoes in the room next door. Back and forth, back and forth he went. There was a clink, a rattle of spoons, a muffled oath that had the Doctor mouthing “language” to the empty air before he heard the creak of the door inching open. Nardole had made tea. Nardole wished to share said tea with the Doctor. The Doctor thought this a brilliant idea, except that tea with Nardole generally turned into a far less entertaining lecture series than the Doctor cared to sit through.
A cleared throat. A rattle of spoon against teacup, this time purposeful. The Doctor ignored him. A louder cleared throat, a bang of spoon against cup. The Doctor put his headphones on, pressing play on the laptop keyboard so that the dulcet tones of the accessibility system reading a student’s latest disastrous essay (not Bill, of course) drowned out Nardole’s increasingly crass braying. Leave me alone, the Doctor thought, can’t you find a different hobby than me?
There was a splashing sound right before a bang resounded through the table, sending the Doctor’s carefully arranged chaos of papers crashing to the floor. Nardole was talking now, loudly, although the Doctor didn’t bother to filter it in over the soothing tones of the computer.
Nardole’s voice petered out to nothing after a short minute, the hapless student’s rambling introduction the only thing penetrating the silent darkness of the Doctor’s world. He could’ve remained like that as Nardole withdrew from his office, letting the age old argument lie until the next time and the next. But something compelled him, some twist of anger that seethed in concert with Nardole’s nagging voice.
He slowly, carefully, ticked off the computer’s sound, removing the buds from his ears one at a time. Nardole was eerily silent now, perhaps sensing a change on the wind, an alteration to their routine. The Doctor stood slowly, keeping one hand on the desk.
“I’m sorry, Nardole, was there something you wished to discuss?” Politeness, the Doctor reminded himself, politeness, even in anger. He was sure something about this was on those cards he kept tucked away in an inner pocket, the memory of their origins bringing a twinge of cosmic angst and that flickering panic of having forgot something very important.
“I’m not the enemy here, Doctor.” The Doctor could hear Nardole’s teeth grinding between the words. “Just, you should remember that, the next time you choose to deliberately forget everything you know about that ... being.”
“Ah, Missy, the vault, yes, your favorite topic of conversation. Isn’t there anything else you’d like to discuss? The weather patterns have been nice this week, but the meteorologists are predicting rain for Saturday. I think this is generally a good bet for Britain, don’t you? It rains so much here. I think you might’ve noticed over the last fifty odd years. Pitter patter, tick tock.” He waved a hand through the air, either simulating rain or the slow, creaking passage of time, he wasn’t quite sure.
A resounding silence greeted him. Reading expressions had never been a strong suit, especially in this life, but the Doctor felt its absence keenly now. The psychic imprint of Nardole was too faint to get a clear impression, and the physical touch required to strengthen the connection sent a frisson of anticipatory disgust through the Doctor. Nothing against you, Nardole, I’m sure your psyche is lovely this time of year.
“Say something. I thought you were ranting. Please, continue, I love a good rant.” The Doctor sat again, gesturing in Nardole’s last known direction for him to continue the yelling. Anything was better than the silence, at this point. Silence and darkness, two things that had terrified him enough as a child that growing up to become the loudest, brightest being in the universe had seemed like an excellent goal. And now he was lost in both all too frequently.
A thought struck him, a borrowed remembrance from a self that wasn’t quite real, the sound of Bill’s distress as she’d been slowly dismantled out of existence, and suddenly Nardole’s exact whereabouts needed to be known, now.
“Nardole?” He leaned forward across the table, instinctively sliding a hand towards that uncertain space. He was met with empty air for a panic stricken moment before there was a scuffle, a surprised “moop!”, and Nardole’s doughy fingers were encircling his own. Relief mixed with the discomfort of the touch and the suddenly increased sense of Nardole’s worryfearexasperationangerlove - the Doctor snatched his hand away, jerking out of his seat to pace his way over to the window. He hadn’t bothered to put on the sonic glasses just yet, the layout of his office after so many painfully linear years almost as second nature as the TARDIS.
He paused at a bit of coolness he knew was the window, looking out at the grounds, the students wandering by with their mundane, beautiful little lives. He reached out to touch one of the panes, the contact cool and cleansing after, well. There were some things he shouldn’t know, even in moments of weakness. Prying, Doctor, he scolded in someone else’s voice. Not polite. Try again.
“Doctor,” said Nardole, sounding uncertain. “We need to talk. I need you to listen.”
“Well, are we talking or am I listening? You can’t have both, you know.”
“Don’t I.” The Doctor could feel his eyes roll from across the room. “Alright, so just listen then, please. If you ever loved River Song, listen to me now.”
“Unfair,” the Doctor murmured against the glass.
“If that’s what it takes to get you to listen to me.” A thump that was probably Nardole’s fist against the desk. For such an unassuming man he could be fierce when needed. And heaven knows the Doctor needed it sometimes. “She will betray you, in the end. I may not have been around for the last time you two met up, but I know your history. You cannot trust her. You cannot let your guard down.” He punctuated each statement with a thump against the desk.
Silence stretched again, unbearable. The Doctor broke it before that inconvenient panic could rear its ugly head, “I’m sorry, am I allowed to speak now?”
“Since when have I ever actually been able to stop you? Sir.” Nardole was still angry, but the Doctor could sense a cessation of hostilities, perhaps now that he’d aired his grievances the shouting and banging could be over with.
“You’d be surprised,” he muttered under his breath before continuing, “I know all of that far better than you, Nardole. I don’t need the constant reminder.”
“Really? Because I heard you, talking to her. I heard you.” Nardole’s voice was getting closer, lower. “You told her you’re blind.”
The Doctor veered off, away from the window and Nardole’s steadily encroaching presence, followed the wall along to his TARDIS and stopped with a hand against it.
“You asked for her help.” Nardole’s voice changed directions in pursuit, feet tap-tapping across the rug Bill had given him. The Doctor hadn’t realized exactly how loud people were, honestly, deafening sometimes to listen to his students shuffle and rustle and murmur their way into class. “Her help.” Pain. The Doctor knew that tone intimately, hurt trying to hide itself away in anger. Oh, Nardole, he thought, you’ve chosen the wrong person, River chose the wrong person, the whole universe chose wrong.
He gripped the edge of the TARDIS, resting his forehead against that comforting, simulated wood, remembering the cold, harsh embrace of the vault.
“You can’t help me, Nardole.” I need to help you, I need to keep you and Bill and the whole universe safe from my best friend. Forgive me for wanting to savor whatever time we have left together before the storm.
“Your wife seemed to think I could.” Nardole, oblivious to his inner thoughts, steamrolled onto yet another reminder the Doctor didn’t need.
A whole flickering host of angry responses sped past the Doctor - that was her mistake, you didn’t help her now did you, considering she’s dead, I never asked for you, stop, leave me alone, she’s my oldest friend, I need her, I don’t need you. Shut up shut up shut up shutupshutup - he slammed the palm of his hand against the TARDIS doors, spinning around on his heel to glare in Nardole’s general direction, anger at the tip of his tongue, but then he stopped, those cards in his pocket, illegible to him now, but searing their way into his hearts - I’m sorry I made you feel unloved or insignificant. I care about you deeply. You don’t need to forgive me or understand, but know that you are important to me, and I need you - blazed across his mind’s eye, a laughing voice handing him a card, face not shrouded in darkness but in absence, you’ll need this one a lot, Doctor, every friend after me is going to thank me, guarantee it. A wink? A smile? Something before the card was tucked into his hand.
He’d never used it. He’d been very good about showing, not telling the past few decades, an English teacher’s dream, in fact. But maybe through the years, through over familiarity and constriction and the Earth’s ever present, looming gravity, he’d forgotten, just a little bit.
Start at the beginning , he reminded himself, another voice echoing him, a very good place to start.
“I’m sorry, Nardole. I realize you’re concerned about my safety and the safety of the universe. I apologize if I made you feel insignificant, unimportant, or unloved. You don’t need-”
“Doctor,” Nardole stopped him, “you can’t get out of this with some trite saying off an index card. I need to know you’re taking this as seriously as it needs to be taken.”
“I’m taking this very seriously indeed, Nardole. I told you, I know better than anybody alive what Missy is capable of. I know she’ll betray me in the end. And I have no intention of allowing her to harm anyone else while doing it.”
“And what about you? What happens when she harms you.” Familiar anger-concern again.
“I’m used to it, Nardole. I can take it.” There was a rustle, like Nardole was shaking his head vigorously enough to move his coat collar. “-to forgive me or understand,” the Doctor resumed, and this time would not be deterred, even by Nardole’s exasperated sigh. “But know that you are important to me, and I need you.”
“Do you now.” Nardole’s jaw was gritted tight again, his words muffled. The Doctor sighed and took a step towards him, reluctantly drawing nearer instead of far, far away like he wanted to. “I’m glad your index card needs me.”
“They might be trite, Nardole, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sincere. Just sometimes, I need a little help from a friend.”
The Doctor imagined him drawing himself up in a dignified huff, hurt smoothing off his features as if it had never been. “I see what you’re doing, Doctor.” Strange. Contrary to the Doctor's inner picture, he didn’t seem indignant anymore. The Doctor had almost forgotten what that sounded like.
“Good, is it working?”
“Maybe. Just, just be more careful, please.”
“Nardole, it’s me, the Doctor.”
“Yes, yes, yes, alright. People worry, that’s all.” The Doctor heard Nardole shuffle away, clinking together the cups on his desk, beginning to clear up the worst of the tea stains no doubt. A few students were probably going to get slightly browned pages back.
“Unnecessary,” said the Doctor, leaning back against the TARDIS, “these people worrying all over the place. I think some of them worry about you too, if you must know.”
“I agree, it’s entirely unnecessary. Would you care for some tea, sir? I believe I managed to fetch some crisps from Birmingham, if you’d care to partake.”
“Crisps? With tea? Oh, alright, if you insist.” The Doctor returned to his essay grading; Nardole loudly placed a teacup to his right, dumping the bag of crisps unopened on top of the Doctor’s keyboard with a purposeful rustle.
“Will that be all, sir?” he asked.
“You can join me, you know. Tea and crisps for all, I’ve heard biscuits go well with it too. You can help me grade this mess of an essay.” Please don’t leave me alone.
“I’ll just fetch the biscuits then, shall I?” The Doctor heard Nardole’s steps retreat temporarily, a certain lightness to them which had been absent for weeks. Grinning to himself, he tugged the headphones free of the computer, turning the volume up so the office was filled with the soothing tones of a rambling, unwieldy sentence about Einstein Rosen bridges, obviously heavily referenced from the movie Thor.
“Thanks, Nardole,” he murmured when Nardole had returned, plopping the biscuits a suitable distance from the tea.
“You’re welcome, Doctor.”