Bill felt it for the first time as she was walking through a market where everyone had green skin and their ears twitched on stalks.
A tug. Somewhere just under her sternum.
It made her breath catch.
She stumbled to a halt and dropped Heather's hand.
It was the strangest sensation. Not painful, not an ache exactly, but uncomfortable enough to make her close her eyes and frown, trying to pin it down. It was like someone had tied a string around her breast bone and was pulling on it.
Or maybe something under it.
Bill snorted. Just thinking about it made her feel ridiculous and melodramatic. Then it happened again--tug--and she couldn't pretend it was nothing any more. Whatever the feeling was, it was real.
Something brushed past her, knocking against her shoulder, and Bill opened her eyes as she staggered forward a couple of steps before she got her balance back.
Heather was standing a few feet away, her head tilted and a look of concern making tiny lines appear between her brows. She was half the height of the green aliens around them and there were feathers caught in her hair from the cloaks everyone wore. Bill's couldn't help smiling at her.
They hadn't known each other very well when they set off on this journey. Not the way people should know each other when they kissed and ran off into the stars. It had occurred to Bill, almost as soon as they started travelling, that this could be an absolutely crap idea. The worst she'd ever had, and she'd given away her planet to alien monks once, so she knew bad ideas.
Except it hadn't gone wrong. They'd been shy and awkward around each other, until shyness and awkwardness wore off and Bill realised they'd become friends. She'd fancied Heather for ages, but there was something special about being friends with the person you had an epic crush on.
Sometimes, Bill thought she'd fallen in love. Sometimes she knew it. Sometimes she didn't know what she felt and it all got scary.
In the middle of an alien market, Bill's breath caught in her throat when she saw Heather looking at her and it had nothing to do with the strange tugging in her chest and everything to do with the friendship-crush-THING they hadn't worked out yet. She almost marched right up to Heather and kissed her, right there next to a stall that smelled of sweaty feet and ketchup, but the feeling in her chest became a yank that almost made her crumple and she couldn't.
Heather was at her side instantly. "It's him, isn't it?"
That was the part of Heather that Bill sometimes had to take a break from. She always seemed to know. Not little unimportant things, like what Bill wanted for lunch, but big things. Frightening things.
Heather said she wasn't telepathic, but she couldn't explain what she was. She knew what her passenger needed, she said. Needed deep down. Those were the times when Bill really didn't know how she felt.
"It's who?" Bill asked, when she could breathe again.
Heather shrugged. "The Doctor."
"I..." Bill trained off, frowning again. "I don't know."
"He's crying. You gave him a tear. This is what it feels like."
Heather nodded. "It's time."
Bill swallowed. She didn't want to go back, to see his body again, so lifeless and limp. So wrong. How could he be crying? "We don't have to. There's loads to do first. Lunch, we should have lunch."
Heather took Bill's hand and the market blinked away.
They arrived in the middle of a snowstorm.
Bill screwed up her eyes against the tiny ice pellets hammering her face, but it didn't help her to see through the thick curtain. Even Heather didn't look impressed, and she usually liked anything wet and water-like, but the snow crusting her eyelashes made her blink and frown. Her lips moved, saying something, but Bill couldn't hear her over the howling wind.
Bill knew which direction the Doctor was in, even though she couldn't see two feet in front of her. It was like being a compass, always pointing Doctor-ward and unable to resist the pull now they were so close the source. She squeezed Heather's hand and pointed.
Heather nodded understanding and they set out, pushing against a headwind that kept threatening to send them stumbling back into the snow. Bill's boots sank into deep drifts and her feet were soon so cold she couldn't feel her toes. Heather didn't seem to mind the cold.
Maybe there were advantages to not being very human any more. Bill pulled her jacket closed with her free hand and tried not to wish herself less human than she was. They talked sometimes, about what Bill was and wanted to be, and they'd decided Bill should be as human as anyone could be who travelled with someone like Heather. Bill had decided, anyway, and Heather had smiled and agreed because she wasn't pushy.
She never pushed anything Bill didn't want. It was a relief after the Cyber experience. Bill never wanted to feel out of control of her body again.
Eventually, a shape loomed out of the snow. As they drew closer, Bill realised it was the mouth of a cave surrounded by ice. Exploring caves on alien planets hadn't always worked out well, but it was out of the storm and Bill knew, without having to think about it, that the Doctor was inside. There was no choice, was there?
Heather dropped her hand and breathed a sigh of relief as soon as they left the snow behind.
"I thought you liked water," Bill said, trying to shake snow out of the back of her jacket and gasping as it trickled down her neck anyway.
Heather was dry already. "Water shouldn't be solid."
"Not all ice is bad," Bill said. "Ice cubes are great. And ice skating."
For the first time, a flash of worry crossed Heather's face, but it was gone so fast that Bill might have imagined it. "I could take you ice skating."
Bill grinned. "Later. Right now...it's this way, I think."
It was the most useless thing she could have said--there was only one way that wasn't back into the storm--but Bill felt like she had to say something. Heather didn't take her hand as they walked down a passage that looked like it had been carved out of the ice. It creaked a little around them, but Bill didn't hear any drips, even though the air against her skin was only chilly, not freezing. It should have been pitch dark, but there was a soft glow everywhere with no source. Bill shivered: it definitely wasn't natural.
The passage widened out into a small cavern and Bill finally saw him.
Lying on the ground, crumpled like a discarded heap of clothing. His greying hair poking out of the hood, fluffier and wilder than ever, the only guide to show it was definitely the Doctor.
Someone else was bending over him, his back to the passage, and Bill ran towards them without stopping to think. She started to reach for the stranger but he straightened suddenly and she snatched back her hand.
He wore an odd little hat and a cloak over an old-fashioned suit. His hair was too long and very white. There was something familiar in his eyes, even though she'd never seen his face before.
"Ah," the old man said.
"What did you do to him?" Bill said.
"Do?" The old man chuckled. "Do? I didn't do anything, except for providing some sage advice he's been most reluctant to take."
Bill started to stoop to check on the Doctor, but the old man grabbed her arm with surprising strength.
"I wouldn't do that, child. It's beginning, at last, and it's best if we don't get too close."
Without knowing why, she took a couple of steps back with the old man. When she realised what she'd done, she glared at him. "Who are you?"
"Hmm?" The old man raised an eyebrow. "Didn't he tell you about us?"
The Doctor made a quiet sound, almost a whimper. Bill wanted to drop to her knees, roll him over and check on him, but the look in the old man's eyes stopped her.
"What's happening to him?" Bill said.
"He's starting his regeneration," the old man said. "He did tell you about that, didn't he?"
Bill remembered sitting with the Doctor, talking about Missy and their friendship and history. He'd talked about it, yes, but she was still fuzzy on the details.
"That's where he grows a new body, right?"
The old man chuckled. "In a sense, child. We don't so much grow a body as...find ourselves rearranged into one."
"You're a Time Lord, too?"
He didn't answer. His attention had switched to the Doctor's broken form. "Ah, that's it. He's on his way now."
A golden glow shimmered around the puddle of clothing and wild grey hair. Bill stared. "He'll be all right, won't he? I get it, new body and everything. But he'll still be him, won't he?"
"All the memories will be there, yes," the old man said. "But I find it's what you do with them that makes the difference, hmm?"
The glow grew brighter and Bill squinted. "What do you mean?"
"It's a new body, my dear. New synapses. It takes a while for everything to reconnect and it never quite fits together the way it did before."
The Doctor suddenly knelt up, head tipped back so far his neck had to hurt and arms flung out to the side. Light poured from his skin, bright and hot, and Bill's eyes hurt but she forced herself to watch through slitted eyes. His features were hard to make out in the brightness, but she thought she could see his mouth open in a silent scream.
"It's hurting him!" she said. "He never said it would hurt. He's in agony!"
The old man made a sympathetic sound. "He was afraid of the pain this time. Some Time Lords are lucky, it's no worse than a sneeze and then everything settles in. For us, though, it's always been a most unpleasant experience."
"So it's like periods, then."
The old man spluttered a little.
Bill could feel herself babbling, but she couldn't stop. "You know, some women don't even notice it and other women spend three days in bed with a hot water bottle and a stack of chocolate?"
The light around the Doctor was so bright she had to close her eyes. Her ears were ringing and her bones vibrated as though she was being buffeted by a wind that didn't exist.
"I suppose that's an apt comparison!" the old man said. Shouted, really, as though his ears were also ringing but Bill could hear him perfectly. "We left behind the need for that kind of reproductive cycle thousands of years ago."
"I guess being pregnant and regenerating would be weird!" Bill found herself shouting, too, and she couldn't explain why.
The light was bright against Bill's eyelids, so bright it hurt, and she wondered if she would vibrate apart if the process went on much longer. She was opening her mouth to tell the stranger that when everything went out.
No light. No ringing. No vibrating non-existent wind.
Bill cautiously opened her eyes. After so much brilliance, the faint glow from the cavern walls wasn't much better than total darkness. She was able to make out the Doctor's form sprawled on the floor again, but nothing else.
She started to move forward, but the old man caught her arm and held her back again.
"Best to wait, my dear," he said. "We're always a little groggy at this stage."
Bill was about to tell him where he could put his "my dear"s and "child"s when something else caught her attention and derailed that thought completely. "'We'? Who are you?"
The old man smiled gently. "You know who I am."
He inclined his head.
"That's a very rude and impertinent thing to ask," the Doctor said. "He didn't say you were rude."
"So you're one of the old ones, then."
The Doctor drew himself up with his hands on his lapels. "Quite the opposite. Yours is the oldest I've met."
Bill wrinkled her nose. "But you'll forget all about this after, yeah? That's what he said about meeting earlier versions. It all gets fuzzy after. I guess you'd get really confused otherwise."
"Time travel can be complicated."
"You're telling me."
The heap of clothes on the ground stirred and Bill held her breath. She thought the person inside the clothes looked slimmer than her Doctor, a little smaller, but it was hard to tell. The hood was pulled well down and Bill couldn't even see the hands.
The Doctor made a sound, a quiet gasp that turned into a grunt, and Bill frowned and released her breath. The voice sounded higher than she was used to.
"Not yet," the old-young Doctor said.
The new Doctor shifted around as if it was hard to get limbs cooperating properly. Another low, pained sound reached Bill's ears and her frown deepened. Had the Doctor become...?
After a long wait that almost made Bill scream with impatience, the Doctor pushed back up to kneeling, head bowed and hood still too far forward to see anything except a few tufts of blond hair. The Doctor panted softly, the sound shockingly loud in the silent cavern.
This time, the old-young Doctor didn't catch Bill fast enough, and she skidded to her knees in front of the Doctor's bent form. The Doctor flinched but didn't pull away. Bill reached out, as slowly as she could, and touched the edge of the Doctor's hood. It was ragged and frayed, as though the hoodie--all the Doctor's clothes--had been through an explosion.
Right. Yeah. He had. Bill remembered and pushed the memory away.
"Can I...?" she asked.
The lack of response was the closest Bill thought she would get to consent. The Doctor didn't shift back or knock her hand away, anyway, and Bill thought that even in such a confused state, the Doctor would manage that much if it was important.
Bill slowly pushed the Doctor's hood back to reveal a tangle of blond hair. Bright eyes blinked out from behind it, confusion showing clearly.
The air caught in Bill's throat. The face staring at her, blinking and frowning a little as though trying to recall something, was female. The Doctor had done a Missy.
"Doctor?" Bill said, just to check.
"Doctor?" The Doctor's voice was croaky and she formed the word slowly, as if she'd forgotten how to make her mouth work.
Or maybe as though her entire mouth had changed shape and she was still working out how her teeth and tongue fitted together now.
Bill smiled reassuringly. "Yeah, you're the Doctor."
The Doctor considered that for a while. Bill brushed the tangled hair back from her face. It was a pretty face, and Bill had a moment's panic as she realised it was the kind of face she usually really fancied. Shit.
She pushed the thought firmly into a small box in the back of her mind and mentally sat on it so it couldn't escape.
"I am...the Doctor." The words were slow, but they sounded more confident this time. "I am the Doctor."
"Yeah, you are."
Bill glanced up at the old-young Doctor and he gave her a paternally proud smile. Thank god he'd evolved beyond this version before she met him.
"I am the Doctor." This time, she spoke quick and sharp. "Who are you?"
The words hit Bill like a punch to the gut and she couldn't say anything. She looked around, searching for Heather.
"She left a few minutes ago," the old-young Doctor said. His voice was gentle. "I suspect creatures like her know when they're needed. She'll return one day, I'm sure."
Bill nodded and turned back to the new Doctor, who was still eyeing her warily. The Doctor had never looked at her that way, even when she was cyberised and terrifying.
"I'm Bill," she said, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. "You know, Bill? Your student? You got me into university and never give me a hundred percent on essays in case it made me lazy?"
"Bill." The Doctor seemed to taste the word and roll it around her mouth. "Bill."
"I don't remember," the Doctor said, and for the first time, fear showed in her eyes. "Why can't I remember?"
Bill looked up, but the old-young Doctor was walking away. He was halfway across the cavern already and moving faster than she expected.
He waved without turning around. "It takes time, my dear. We'll be fine."
"I advise you to leave quickly, now," the Doctor said, almost at the entrance to the passage now. "This isn't a good place to stay, for you of all people. Farewell, and look after me!"
He disappeared into the passage and Bill wanted to shout after him, but the Doctor suddenly grabbed her arm.
"How do I reverse the polarity of the neutron flow?"
"Uh, I don't know?" Bill made herself smile. "You didn't teach me that yet. Where's the TARDIS?"
The Doctor looked puzzled.
"Great, you forgot where you parked it," Bill said. "Brilliant. You couldn't have remembered that one thing?"
But the Doctor was ignoring her and pulling a strand of hair down. She went cross-eyed for a moment as she stared at it, and Bill had to fight down a giggle. "Damn."
"I'm still not ginger."
"But blonde is nice," Bill said, trying to sound encouraging. A new thought occurred to her. "Why aren't you Scottish anymore? I thought Time Lords all had Scottish accents."
The Doctor tilted her head. "Bill?"
"Yeah, that's me! Do you remember now?"
"Not really," the Doctor said. "It might take a while." A pleased look appeared. "But I remember where I parked."
"That's a good place to start," Bill said. She stood up and, after a moment's hesitation, extended a hand to help the Doctor up. "So, where is it?"
"Where is what?"
"Oh." The Doctor blinked. "Right. Yes. This way!"
Bill found herself towed in the Doctor's wake, dragged by the hand hadn't even expected the Doctor to take when it was offered.
"Hey!" Bill said, digging her heels in and forcing the Doctor to stop. "What's with the hand-holding?"
"We don't do that?"
"I thought we did. I remember it."
"You don't even like awkward hugs."
"Huh." The Doctor looked down at their joined hands. "I forgot."
"I'm getting that."
After a pause, the Doctor swayed and her face went grey. "Oh."
Bill grabbed her and managed to prop her up. She could feel the Doctor straightening up and then sort of...slumping again.
"I don't think this one is going to be easy," the Doctor said, sounding as pale as she looked.
They started moving again, but Bill was bearing a lot of the Doctor's weight and the Doctor's feet had lost the coordination she'd had for a moment. Bill regretted complaining about the handholding, if it meant she was going to mostly carry the Doctor back to the TARDIS. She was starting to see why the other one had high-tailed it out before anyone could ask him to help.
"Your younger self said it's never easy," Bill said, puffing a little with effort.
The Doctor's head lolled for a moment and Bill started to worry she was going to faint. There was no way she could carry the Doctor. She might be smaller than she used to be, but she was still tall enough for a woman and she hadn't exactly turned into a waif.
Then the Doctor straightened a little and turned her head. A warm smile appeared. There was a hint of cheekiness in the way one corner of her mouth lifted higher than the other, as though on better days, she had a killer sense of humour lurking somewhere in the confused mess of her mind.
It was her eyes, though. Bill knew those eyes. They were a different shape, a different colour, but they were the Doctor's eyes.
"It's going to be all right," the Doctor said. "Bill. Bill Potts, who cooks chips, and smiles when she doesn't understand something, and wants to know all the secrets of the universe. Everything is going to be all right."
And Bill knew it was going to be better than all right: it was going to be amazing.