Bill glanced at her watch briefly as she reached the Doctor's office. Four forty-three in the afternoon – two minutes early.
She knocked, tap tap-tap tap tap, and a voice from inside called out, "come in!" and she did.
The room was bathed in afternoon sunlight from the windows looking out on the campus, and the Doctor was perched on top of a tall ladder, picking his way through the books that lined the shelves going around the whole room. It was a precarious-looking position, especially considering how many things he was carrying besides the five-or-so books already balanced in one hand. It looked very much like he was multitasking.
"Bill!" he said, descending the ladder. He was grinning like a madman and he pushed his sunglasses firmly up his nose from where they had begun to slip. His hair was a mess in that sort of way that happened when you were too distracted to do anything about it, and he had that ridiculous guitar of his dangling at his side, strap looped carelessly over his shoulder. He brandished a pick, swung the guitar into position, and played a loud, dramatic chord that echoed all through the room despite the fact that there were no speakers in sight. "Ready to go?"
"Hey, you're in a good mood today!" she said, beaming back despite herself. His enthusiasm was wildly infectious, somehow – he was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, and it kind of made her want to bounce too, although she managed to restrain herself. "S'there some sort of reason why?"
"Does there have to be?" He played another chord; strummed several times and then twirled on the spot, his coat flaring out behind him. Oddly delicately, he tugged off the strap and removed the guitar from around his neck before laying it ever-so-gently on the rack that she had never noticed was there. "You can be happy for the sake of it, just the same as you can be sad for no reason at all."
She shrugged, and then said, "yeah – I guess," and then, because she didn't want him to start getting weirdly philosophical or anything because this was a let’s go on a field trip day, not a let's talk about the history and theory of eudaimonia day – not that she wasn't becoming weirdly fond of the philosophy debates for some reason, but she was promised a field trip! – she said, "so, are we going on an adventure or what?"
He flicked his sunglasses up onto his forehead, and his eyes were sparkling. "We're going on an adventure," he agreed, and led her to the TARDIS.
One quick wardrobe room detour later, and Bill was fully kitted out in what he had deemed 'practical breaking-and-entering clothes'.
"Don't tell Nardole we went and did this," the Doctor told her as he set coordinates. "He'll only start fussing and sulking, and that gets very tedious very fast."
"Are we doing something illegal, then?"
"You don't need to sound so excited about that, you know," he said, mock-chidingly.
But she got the distinct impression that he was just as excited as she was, really; because – robbing a museum! How often do you get to do something like that?
Then, within a matter of hours, everything went really super pear-shaped really super fast.
(Bill had never really understood that expression, 'going pear-shaped' – what's wrong with the shape of a pear, anyway? Pears are nice and curvy and smooth and crisp. A much better expression, she felt, would be 'going dragonfruit-shaped', because, like, whoa! Dragonfruits! Those things were spiky and weird, and completely unexpected; and they fit the whole situation-metaphor thing much better, although it was a bit more of a mouthful than 'pear-shaped'.)
The situation: she and the Doctor had just conducted a successful museum heist (which was a lot more fun than she could ever imagined it being, even with the Doctor constantly muttering things like, 'now, in normal circumstances, we would never do something like this'. It's awfully hypocritical of him, she thinks, especially since normal just isn't a thing that happens around him and robbing alien museums of priceless artefacts is definitely the sort of thing he does all the time anyway). The heist was successful in the sense that they got the artefact out of the facility without tripping a single alarm. Also, Bill learned how to pick locks, which was an awesome bonus. It was not successful in the sense that the moment they made it onto the streets, alarms began blaring and the police force ended up hot on their heels.
This culminated some five minutes later in them being backed into an alleyway by a whole squadron of alien police, holding frankly stupid-looking laser guns that looked like they came straight from the reject section of the sci-fi props department.
Which… typical, really.
"Surrender the crown," said one of them through the Darth Vader-type mask they were wearing.
"What, after we worked so hard to get it?" the Doctor asked, sounding genuinely offended. "No, thank you ."
There was a split second of silence, and then the leader made a gesture with their hand, and the Doctor's body language went all weird and tight.
"Wait, no," he said, hands raising ever-so-slightly, eyes widening behind the sunglasses – and she could tell, even in just that one moment, that something had blindsided him and something was currently in the process of going horribly, terribly wrong. And even as that thought crossed her mind, the aliens raised their rubbish stupid space guns and there was this completely fake-sounding whirr-whoosh-click noise as the space guns powered up, and then -
– and then -
– they just…
… shot him.
Point blank. In the chest. Five times that she could count, blasting straight into him with the equally fake-sounding sci-fi laser sound effects, and he made the tiniest of noises of pain and shock as he swayed on his feet for a moment, before crumpling to the ground inelegantly.
Bill's mind blue-screened for about ten full seconds, mouth open in shock. Then she was down by his side, tugging at his jacket, trying to roll him over, and she was talking without being really aware of what she was saying – asking him if he was all right (stupid question really, how could you be all right after so much laser fire), asking what she should do now, asking how to help, asking, asking, asking…
"Bill," said the Doctor hoarsely, grappling weakly at her sleeve and failing to maintain a decent hold on her. There was no blood, but when she pressed a hand to his chest, that weird double-heartbeat of his was arrhythmic and slowing fast. "Bill – I'm so sorry -"
" Don't apologise don't apologise, " she panicked, barely aware of the alien soldiers coming up behind her, raising those guns of theirs again.
He looked at her, and smiled slightly, although it was more than a little forced, and he said, "the TARDIS – get back to -"
"You are not giving me your last dying words, you ridiculous old man!" she raged. "We are not doing this! Just – just get up, and – and -"
"I'll be fine," he choked, and then coughed, and she felt at his wrist for that alien double-pulse of his but it was stuttering and failing, and then he said, "listen -"
– but then he stopped talking abruptly, and Bill asked, "Doctor? Doctor? " and he was just.
Tears were running down her face and she knew she looked a right mess, kneeling over him and sobbing desperately, but that was literally the last thing from her mind at the moment.
"Prepare to be executed for your crimes," said a soldier.
"Oh, shove off ," she spat, and would probably have started a revolution there and then out of pure, simple spite and rage and grief, but then everything went blurry and weird, and she couldn't seem to find her voice for a good few seconds, and then -
She blinked and then she was outside the Doctor's office, leaning against the wall, and she was shaking all over.
She raised her wrist, checked her watch – four forty-three PM. All right. What? She hesitated for almost a full minute before knocking on the door and receiving the Doctor’s cheery “come in!”
She went in, feeling half-awake and kind of out of it.
"Bill!" said the Doctor, grinning like a madman from the ladder as he descended to meet her. His finger came up to his nose and up went the sunglasses, and Bill got the most vivid sense of deja-vu. He strummed downwards and that dramatic chord echoed all over the room and he hopped down off the ladder to join her on the ground. "Ready to go?"
"I – um." She swallowed; stared at him for a good long minute. The Doctor, vivid and alive and animated. "Uh." For once in her entire life, she was actually lost for words.
The Doctor stared at her for a long moment. "Not to go straight for the cliché," he said, very seriously, "but you look like you've just seen a ghost, Bill."
“I’m. I’m fine.” He was dead, dead on the ground. No. Don’t think about that. Bill thought for a long moment. Hallucination? Future premonition? Weird unspecified alien effect thing? Mental time travel? All of the above? Well, only one way to find out. “So, just a guess, but are we planning on robbing a museum today?”
Another long stare, and this time the Doctor even threw in a slightly incredulous head tilt for good measure. “Bill.”
“Uh, yeah?” Whoops.
“Bill, have you been taking sneak-peeks at my lesson plan?” he asked, sounding honest-to-god sulky about it.
“Wha – no? Yes,” she hastily corrected herself. “Yes, I have. Absolutely.”
(She hadn’t even been aware that he had a lesson plan. He didn’t seem like the sort of professor, or teacher, or whatever-the-hell he was supposed to be, to do anything as mundane as ‘plan lessons’.)
“That,” he said, “is very rude. Please don’t do that.”
“Yes. Right. I know. Sorry?”
He sighed. “I wanted it to be a surprise. Oh well.” He hooked his guitar onto the rack, and said, cheerfully. “No time like the present. Let’s go rob a museum.”
Fast forward through the adventure itself, because that went off pretty much the same as it did the first time – with the exceptions of, a) Bill managing to pre-empt most of the Doctor’s terrible dad jokes seconds before he even managed to think of saying them and b), Bill surprising the Doctor with her ability to pick alien locks without so much as a lesson – and straight to the escape.
Out onto the street. Alarms blaring.
“Come on,” the Doctor said, already running off in what Bill was pretty much certain was the wrong and deadly direction.
"Let's – let's not go that way?" Bill asked, although it wasn't really a question, grabbing the Doctor's arm and hauling him over in the opposite direction to where they had went – where she had thought that they went.
For once, he didn't ask questions or anything, although he did shoot her a few strange looks as they started running.
In minutes, they had made it back to the TARDIS. The Doctor was unlocking the doors, and Bill was mentally congratulating herself on a weird time-distortion-type situation well done, when they heard the footsteps behind them and turned in near synchronisation to face the rubbish space police.
"Oh, shit," Bill said.
"Language," the Doctor said, casting a stern look at her, and that stern look turned straight to horrified and pained and shocked when a blast caught him full on in the side and threw him bodily against the TARDIS with a sickening crack as his skull hit the probably-not-wood. He slid down to the ground in a manner that would otherwise be more than a bit cartoonish.
"Oh shit! " Bill yelled, and threw herself down next to him, ignoring the advancing police from halfway across the street. "Doctor, oh my god -"
"I said, mind your language -" the Doctor gasped, trying to do something with his glasses, and Bill should have probably found it hilarious that the Doctor was more concerned with a mild curse or two on her behalf than his actual life, safety, and livelihood; but she was too busy panicking over him dying again, thank you very much.
She scrambled to her feet, tried to unlock the TARDIS and thank the gods it's opening, and somehow – somehow – managed to half-drag him inside and slam the door behind them. "Okay, okay, okay, we're out of there, now what do I do? "
The Doctor was breathing harshly, and he wasn't sitting up properly; he was just lying there next to the console where she had deposited him. It took him a full minute to respond, and when he did, it was barely even a full word. "I -"
"You're not dying. You can't die." The Doctor wrapped one hand around the console's edge like it was the only thing that would ever keep him grounded, and Bill knew that she was probably crying. "It's happening again. Oh god, it's – it's happening again. I'm sorry, god, I'm so sorry – " She hesitated for a split second, and then began to say, quite eloquently and because she felt like she deserved One Proper Swear for everything that was happening today, "oh, f -"
"Don't you dare," the Doctor said sternly, and died.
Bill had watched Groundhog Day, once. Or, well, she had watched half of it. Skimmed it, sort of. Watched the opening few scenes. Read the summary on Wikipedia?
All right, so maybe that was all a lie – maybe all she was familiar with was the 'Groundhog Day' trope page, which she had read once on a particularly intensive Tvtropes binge. But that was entirely beside the point.
The point here was that she was aware (vaguely, sort of, maybe) of the genre conventions and rules of this particular trope, and she wasn't nearly stupid enough to try to stop the loop, or time distortion, or whatever it was that she happened to be stuck in, without consulting the one person in her life who would probably know the most about this sort of thing.
"So, I think I'm probably stuck in a time loop," she said, entering the Doctor's office and cutting abruptly over his welcoming grin and cry of 'Bill!'
To his credit, he barely missed a beat. He descended the ladder that he had been standing on, forewent the dramatic power chord (probably a good thing, because she would have hit him if he tried that again, time loop or not), and skipped straight to hanging up the guitar on the rack, saying, "well, that's never good," as he did. "How long?"
"Oh, thank god," she said, relieved, practically sagging against the wall. "I thought you might not believe me."
"Of course I believe you," he said, with a little quirk of his mouth, and he rounded the desk, fiddling around in his drawers for something that she couldn't see. "I've seen more than a few in my time – been in my fair share of them, too. How long?" he asked again, then removed his sunglasses and looked at her properly. His expression gained some amount of concern, and he said, "come sit down, you look like you're about to fall over."
Bill let out a shaky breath, the enormity of what was happening right now finally catching up to her. "I might just lie on the floor and live there forever, if that's all right with you."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, despite the fact that he was usually the one being ridiculous at any given time. “Come on. Let’s talk.” He circled around the desk again, and guided her into the chair across from his. Instead of taking his usual spot behind the desk, he tugged across his chair and sat down next to her. “So. How many loops?”
“This is the third,” said Bill. “I think. Do you usually count the first loop in these sorts of things? LIke, if you weren’t aware of it yet?”
“Depends, technically speaking.” The Doctor looked relieved, for some reason. “It’s hard to tell unless you know the cause of the loop to start with.” He shook his head. “We probably shouldn’t get into that, it’s a teensy bit irrelevant. How long do the loops last for?”
“Uhm.” Bill swallowed again. “Don’t really know. Less than a day, resets at me standing in front of your office. Haven’t been timing, though.”
“Well, you must know when it ends. What event triggers it.” He frowned, considering. “Or haven’t you figured it out yet?”
“...no, I -”
“It’s all right if you haven’t, you know. You’ve only been through it twice, and time loops are tricky little buggers. We can go over everything, and -”
“Doctor,” Bill said. “I’ve definitely figured it out.”
“Ah! Good!” He grinned brightly, genuinely pleased. “Clever Bill, quick off the mark! Noticing things is key to getting out of a time loop. We’re one step closer now.” A beat. “So what is it?”
“Well,” she said slowly. “I mean. You know. Both times the loops happened so far? You kind of, sort of – died?”
The smile dropped rather abruptly off the Doctor’s face at that. “Oh,” he said.
He paused, like he didn’t want to really ask, and then... “How?”
“Uh, shot. Both times.”
He looked at her very carefully, and then said, “I’m sorry that you had to see that.”
She startled, and said, “well, I mean – it was probably worse for you?”
“True, but – I’m not the one remembering it.” He gave her a Look; one of those deep, sad alien expressions of his that he only ever really pulled out when he was remembering something. “I was in a loop a while ago,” he began, then shook his head. “Never mind. Not relevant right now. You know, the thing that strikes me as strange about all this -”
He frowned, eyebrows furrowing. “How come you’re the one remembering the loops, and not me?”
“...yeah, that is weird.” Bill leaned against one of the chair armrests, thinking. “Don’t your lot have some weird, you know; spider-sense thing? But, like, for time?”
“Spider -?” he began, then broke off, shaking his head. “Never mind. And yes – I do have a... unique perception of time. By all rights, I should know if there’s something wrong with the timestream. And from what you’re saying, there's definitely is. But. There’s nothing.”
“Not a twinge. Not from you, from the environment – from anything. And I’m sure if any alternate versions of me had sensed something, they would have mentioned it.”
“Hm. Here.” He picked up an unopened packet of chalk from inside his desk, and passed it over for her to rip open. While she was busying herself with that, he crossed over into his side-office-thing and emerged seconds later, wheeling a portable blackboard into the room behind him. The Doctor really loved his blackboards, for some reason – never could pass up an opportunity to use one. This was apparently no exception.
“Let’s talk time theory,” he said, taking a fresh stick of chalk from the box, and blowing on the end of it melodramatically. A puff of white dust floated upwards, and he allowed himself a brief, satisfied grin before he whirled around, putting chalk to board and beginning to write. “Or not so much theory, anymore. Not that it ever was in the first place. Well. It’s always good to put skills we’ve learnt into use! You can think of this,” he directed straight at Bill, over his shoulder, “as your practical exam.”
Bill crossed her arms. “An exam where if I fail, you die.”
“Yes, well, I never said it was a very fun exam.” He tapped a finger to the chalkboard, where he had drawn a timeline. At the far left, he had written ‘Bill enters office’ – at the far right, ‘Doctor dies :(‘. There was an arrow leading back from the end of the timeline to the beginning. “Our goal is to get you past this point; preferably with me still alive.” He tapped the chalk he was holding to his lips, then pulled a face as he realized that he had left a chalky stain there. “Come to think of it – that might be the way to pull you out of it.”
“What – keeping you alive?”
“Possibly,” he said. “But let’s look at other possible causes of the loop first.” He scribbled down ‘POSSIBLE CAUSES’ underneath the timeline, and added a dot point, followed by ‘RANDOM TIME DISTORTION’. “Any ideas?”
“I’d say... the loop might have something to do with that planet we – that you were planning on taking me to?” Bill said. “So – we could just fix it by not going there in the first place, maybe?”
He wrote down ‘SOMETHING ON/RELATED TO RUNIA’, and then said, “we could , but that would mean that the Crown of Embers would remain in the precise place that it never should have ended up in; and we’ll never figure out what’s causing this in the first place.”
Bill sighed. “So... we’ve got to steal it, even if you die like sixty billion times in the process?”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that.” Tap-tap-tap, he went with the chalk on the board. “Come on. More ideas – as many as we can get, and then we’ll have a crack at getting through the robbery without me dying.”
“Sure. Fine,” said Bill, although she would have been a whole lot happier if they just decided to forgo the whole crown-stealing business altogether.
Midway through this, there was an ominous-sounding crack from the ceiling above them, and they both glanced up, surprisingly in-sync, and then looked at each other.
“The structural integrity of this building hasn’t been very sound recently,” the Doctor said, turning back to the chalkboard. “I wouldn’t worry. Now, what if we -”
And of course, the ceiling chose that exact moment to cave in, and Bill had just about enough time to say, “oh, come on -” before they were both crushed under the weight of the two floors above the Doctor’s office.
Bill had to endure about fifteen full seconds of agonizing pain before there was that sensation of blurriness and weirdness again, and time pulled itself backwards.
Bill jolted upright outside the Doctor’s office, cursed to herself, and then barged into the Doctor’s office without bothering to knock this time.
“Bill!” he said, turning to look at her and descending the ladder. Sunglasses. Dramatic chord. “Ready to -”
“Yeah, sure, fine, whatever – come on, let’s steal a crown.”
Slightly stunned look. Suspicious glare. “Bill.”
“ Yes. ”
“Bill, have you -”
“Yes, I have been peeking at your lesson plan. You leave it lying on your desk all the time; it’s not hard to find. Heist time! Come on! Let’s go!”
He set down his guitar on the rack, and frowned. “You know, I’m sensing more than a bit of impatience here.”
“I’m – I’m just super hyped. For the stealing of this particular crown.” She forced a smile. “Museum heists! Super cool!”
“Hm,” he said, remarkably unconvinced by her stellar acting skills.
Despite this, a short while later found them in the console room, with the Doctor setting coordinates for their destination and Bill watching on.
“Where were you planning on parking the TARDIS?” Bill asked casually.
“A few streets away from the museum -”
“Yeah, don’t do that. Super bad idea. Park inside the museum – just next to the display case – we’ll get in and out. Simple.”
The look he was giving her now was way past suspicious, and all the way into ‘unnerved’ and ‘worried’. “Bill -”
“I’m fine, ” she said.
The TARDIS landed, and they robbed the museum, and everything was going great, and midway through their escape back to the TARDIS, a security guard who Bill could have sworn wasn’t there half a minute ago shot the Doctor in the back.
He died within seconds, the bastard.
Bill swore very loudly and angrily indeed, and this time the Doctor didn’t welcome her into his office with his now-familiar: “Bill – ready to go?” because this time, he was too busy dashing out into the hallway to see what was wrong with her.
It was absolutely infuriating.
Every time she thought she’d got the sequence of events right; every time she thought she had found a way around the twenty-or-so possible ways that the Doctor could die during the heist on Runia; something else would just pop out of literally nowhere and ruin everything. By her watch, the longest she’d ever managed to keep him alive so far was three hours and twenty-two minutes, which – well, quite frankly, that was rubbish.
It was like playing a video game – a very frustrating, very difficult video game which was stuck at one level that was repeating over and over again with a repetitive, annoying opening cutscene to the tune of “Bill!” – sunglasses – guitar strum – “ready to go?” that she was honestly getting kind of sick of.
And he just wouldn’t bloody stop dying. It had been traumatizing the first few times – and... all right, fine, maybe it still was pretty traumatizing, no matter how many times it happened – but it was honestly just getting annoying now.
On loop number twenty-five, she decided she was going to take a different route, and somehow managed to convince him that they could do the whole ‘robbing-a-museum’ thing some other time.
“Let’s go to a beach or something, yeah?” she suggested.
She was getting used to the suspicious, worried looks he kept on sending in her direction, and was also getting quite used to shrugging them off as if they were nothing too.
“All right,” he said slowly. “Let’s go to the beach, then. If that’s what you really want.”
“It is,” Bill confirmed, smiling – almost daring to hope that, for the first time, this would actually work.
There were poisonous alien crabs hiding in the sand, apparently ready for a tasty Time Lord-shaped snack.
...of course there were.
Far too many loops later, Bill jolted back into existence outside the Doctor’s office, the sound of water gushing still echoing in her ears – he had somehow managed to drown this time, despite her trying to keep him away from the nearby waterfall at all costs, but no, he had actually tripped and fallen and drowned, the absolute idiot – and tallied up everything quickly in her head. This was loop sixty-nine, by her best guess.
Nice, said that little voice inside her head with all the maturity of a teenage boy, that's the sex number.
Shut up, she told herself.
Maybe if we make it to loop four-twenty, we can take a break at trying to save the Doctor from himself and throw a weed party instead.
I said shut up.
She quickly scrolled to the bottom of her mental plans to save the Doctor list, and realized that there was nothing left on it that she hadn't tried yet already. She was out of ideas, which sounded wrong, but as it turned out, watching your friend die sixty-eight times in a row despite every single one of your efforts tended to be more than a bit discouraging.
She leaned against the wall, buried her face in her hands, and stood there for a good minute or two, blanking on what to do. She could try the randomizer again – (that was one vaguely interesting thing about these loops, actually; the thing on the TARDIS called the ‘Randomizer’ was, in fact, completely random and never deposited them in the same place twice) – but that would probably just lead to more exciting episodes of Fun New Ways For The Doctor To Perish Prematurely. And honestly, that show was getting very old very quickly. I would like to cancel my Netflix subscription, please.
After allowing herself a couple of seconds of self-pity, she pulled herself upright and entered the Doctor’s office.
He looked up; grinned. “Bill!” Sunglasses adjustment. Pick raised.
“Please don’t strum your guitar,” she requested, exhausted.
He strummed it anyway; too late to stop the action, and said, with a little frown, “all right, what’s the matter?”
“I’m stuck in a time loop,” she said.
He descended the ladder, hung his guitar up on the rack. “Well, that's never good,” he said, just like the last time – so many loops ago – that she had tried this. “How -”
“This is loop sixty-nine,” she said. “It resets whenever you die; which is often. And I don’t know why I’m telling you this, because you’re going to die in like twenty minutes whatever I do -”
“Sit down,” he said firmly, pulling out a chair at the desk.
“I don’t -”
“ Sit down, ” he said, not unkindly.
She sat. He had her tell him exactly what was going on – and the broad details, as best as she could manage, of all the previous loops – and then when she was done, he eyed her with no small amount of concern.
“...am I really that accident-prone?” he wondered, almost to himself.
“Absolutely,” she said. “...but it’s not that. Something’s messing with time – messing with you . And I can’t stop it. You just die, over and over again -”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like me at all,” he said, evidently trying for a more jovial tone. “Bill...”
There was a distant crack from above. Bill didn’t even bother looking up.
“Yeah, that’ll be the ceiling caving in on us,” she said, even as the Doctor opened his mouth to speak.
He sprung to his feet. “TARDIS,” he decided abruptly, and set off towards his spaceship.
“Won’t work,” she said, following him anyway. “The console’s going to spark and explode in two minutes, and then the TARDIS will seal off, preventing any and all overrides no matter what you try, and then -”
He all but shoved her inside in front of him, and then slammed the door behind them. “So we’ll have two more minutes. That’ll be enough.”
She half-stumbled across the console room, and went to sit on one of the short sets of stairs leading up to the balcony. “Enough for what?”
“Enough for me to talk some sense into you.” He sat down, cross-legged, on the TARDIS floor – right in front of her. She was kind of half-hunched over and only on the bottom step, so they were almost at the same height. “Oh, Bill, Bill, Bill. This is draining the life out of you.”
She gave him a Look, and sighed, and said, “you know that’s not what I mean,” then, “you’ve got to stay hopeful. I know it seems like the entirety of time and space is working against you right now – and honestly, there’s a distinct possibility that it actually is – but there’s a way out. There’s always a way out; you just need to find it. And you can find it. I know you can. Yeah?”
She swallowed. “...yeah.”
“Chin up,” he told her. “Shoulders back, fists clenched – look the universe dead in the eye and tell it, no, not today. You’re going to find it, whatever it is causing this; and you’re going to stop it in its tracks. And you’re not going to take no for an answer.”
And the way he said it, she could almost believe him.
Behind him, the console exploded in a shower of sparks, and the TARDIS lights went haywire, flickering and flashing wildly. She didn’t react to this, so he didn’t either. (Or maybe it was the other way around.) In the distant corridors of the TARDIS, the Cloister Bell began to ring.
“Stay kind. Be brave.” He stood, and placed a hand on her shoulder. Firm. Present. Not dead yet. (She was getting remarkably used to seeing him dead.) “If anybody can find out a way of this, you can.”
She bit her lip. “...and if I can’t?”
“Well, I probably won’t know any better. But you’ll be fine. Not to put pressure on your or anything, but I’m trusting you with my life. Lives? Doesn’t matter,” he said, and then grimaced. “Although I suspect the value of that isn’t very high at the moment.”
“No,” she said, surprising herself. “It’s probably higher than ever, actually,” and then, “inflation tends to do that, you know.”
He quirked his lips slightly, an ironic little smile with a touch of something gentle and genuine there. “Aha. There you are.”
And she couldn’t help but tentatively return the smile.
That particular loop reset itself shortly after that, and the cycle continued.
(Or it didn’t really pass at all, if you wanted to look at it that way. But it felt like an eternity, either way. An eternity of non-progress and far too many pointless deaths, and it just wouldn’t stop. )
On and on and on, until -
Loop one hundred. The big one-double-zero.
Yeah, I think I'm gonna stop counting at this point, Bill decided, and leaned against the wall.
Through the slightly-ajar door, she could hear the Doctor bumping around in his office like he always did just before she walked in – paper rustling, the faint thready note of a guitar string being brushed at. If she walked away from this office right now without alerting him to her presence, he would end up falling off the ladder, breaking his electric guitar in the worst possible way, and electrocuting himself in the process in precisely sixteen minutes and thirteen seconds. She had learnt that the hard way in loops fifty through to sixty-one, in which she had tried all manner of different methods of keeping him in one, relatively safe, place. Similarly, announcing her presence right now and getting him to stay in his office while staying away from his guitar would end with the roof collapsing on them in twenty-one minutes and fifteen seconds.
Heading out of the office – well, let's not try that one again. As it turned out, there were far too many unusual and cruel ways for one person to die around and in the university. Every time she thought she had managed to keep the Doctor away from every potential threat around them, a new one popped up and completely blindsided her.
Bill hadn't tried tying him to a chair and locking him in a cupboard quite yet, but she was getting close to it. Although, with the rate that things were going, he'd probably end up suffocating.
The shuffling of paper and random guitar twanging from inside abruptly stopped, and Bill realized that she was crying – only very slightly; only a few tears, a few hitching sobs. She hadn't cried since cycle nineteen, because it had become evident even that early on that it was pretty much a waste of time, but – honestly? Things were looking pretty hopeless.
"Bill?" came the Doctor's voice from inside the office. She heard him descending the ladder. "Is that you?"
This was what he always said when she made enough noise out in the corridor before four forty-five. (It was also somewhat depressing to find that even somebody as utterly unpredictable as the Doctor could be predictable when stuck in a time loop, but. Well.)
She wiped her face quickly, and said, "yeah. S'me."
The sound of footsteps. He stopped just in front of the door without actually coming out of the room. "Everything all right?" he said, rather casually, although she could tell that he had heard her uneven breath.
"I -" She drew in a deep breath, and then drew herself to her feet. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said . Or I will be when I figure out the way out of this bloody time loop, anyway. "Just – give me a minute? I'll be back, I just need to splash water on my face. Or something."
"You're sure?" And he sounded awkward and worried, bless him. He must think I'm crying about something – oh, something completely mundane and ridiculous. Bad breakup . Moira being homophobic and terrible again. "I can – "
"Nah, don't worry – I'll be right back, seriously." She paused, and then added, "and stay away from your guitar for the moment, yeah? There's been some weird electricity surges lately."
A pause, and then a confused, reluctant, "all right?" from him, which meant that she probably had twenty minutes before the loop started again, unless something she had done or said so far caused a weird butterfly effect thing to happen and killed him off earlier than usual.
(God, when had she got so blasé about this?)
She headed down the hallway, intending to just walk around the grounds for the remainder of this loop – get some space to herself, clear her head; ignore the lingering guilt that she had just left the Doctor to die alone in his office in slightly less than twenty minutes’ time. You know, just normal, cheerful stuff.
She left the building where the Doctor's office was situated and began a brisk circle around the premises, running through possibilities and solutions-that-probably-wouldn’t work in her head as she did. She was only five minutes into this when something sparked in her brain.
Hang on, she thought. If the Doctor's death is what's causing this whole thing to loop, but I'm the only person that's actually remembering anything that's going on -
There was something very weird going on here. (Yes, weirder than the time loop and the fact that the Doctor kept dying over and over again. And also weirder than the fact that this sort of thing was now apparently normal for her and she had a time-travelling alien for a strange amalgamation of tutor-slash-best-friend, and – well. Anyway.)
She could recall on at least two separate occasions in this hellscape of a loop – the numbers were getting a bit blurry, to be honest, and she couldn’t have said exactly which ones they were, numerically-speaking – that by all rights, she should have been the one to die just before the Doctor.
She stopped, mid-step, and frowned. Something occurred to her. Could she die? Was that even possible, if she was the one sustaining the loop – at least, according to the Doctor, anyway?
All right. All right, uhh. Let’s test this. Quickest, most painless way to off yourself.
Bill hadn't thought about this sort of thing for a good long while, and she was honestly finding it hard to come up with any good suicide methods that she could employ within the next fifteen minutes. It was surprising how much four years of therapy could drive suicidal instincts out of you, actually.
She could nick a knife from the cafeteria pretty easily, but then the question became how to do it . She was pretty sure that she didn't have the nerve to actually stab herself in the heart or anything, and bleeding slowly to death because she accidentally slit her wrists the wrong way didn't seem like a very good option either.
Hanging herself was completely out of the question. She didn't even want to think about learning how to tie a noose; that was just – no. That was too much.
She looked up at the Doctor's office building, noticed it was about four storeys high and had a sudden – well, she wouldn't call it a bright idea because it was really actually kind of dark, as ideas went.
Five minutes later, and she was on the roof, seriously questioning her sanity. It wasn't as if jumping to your death was a reliable method of doing it, anyway. The survival rate was higher than you'd expect – if the place you picked to jump from wasn't quite high enough, you'd probably end up in a whole lot of pain and a lot more alive than you ever intended to be. Hopefully, four-and-a-half storeys would be enough.
Oh well. If this doesn't work; the Doctor's going to die in, like, she checked her watch, fifteen minutes, anyway. It won't matter by that point.
Bill stepped up onto the edge and let the light breeze ruffle her hair. She stood on one leg for a moment, balancing herself, and determinedly did not look at the ground. She knew she didn't have the nerve to do this, not really. She didn't really want to do this. Her heart was pounding and she felt kind of dizzy.
Just as she felt like she had finally worked up the nerve to do it, and was leaning forward to tip herself off the edge, she heard running footsteps from behind her.
" Bill, no !" somebody yelled, and Bill reflexively turned halfway, to see the last person that she ever expected to be up on this roof with her right here and right now sprinting at her with a speed that she never would have expected out of him of all people.
"Wait – " she said. "Nardole, this isn't what it – oof, " she puffed, eyes widening as he grabbed her roughly around the middle, actually physically picking her up the ledge and spinning her around so she was on a far less precarious part of the roof, before she could do so much as raise her hands to stop him. "Nardole, how the hell – ow!" And now he had wrestled her to the ground – although wrestled wasn't the right word to use because he had done it without even trying – and had also twisted both her arms behind her back, rendering her basically unable to move. " Hey, you're hurting me!"
"Sorry," he said instantly, loosening his grip, and then he said, "actually no, I'm not sorry," and tightened it again. "Bill, what were you thinking? "
She wriggled a bit, trying to get out of whatever weird alien space karate hold he had managed to get her into. "I – yeah – yeah, all right, I get how it looked, but seriously! Whatever you think I was about to do, you are absolutely, one hundred percent, completely wrong. Everything's great! I've got everything under control!"
"It looked an awful lot like you were about to jump off the roof," he said, evidently unimpressed by her assessment of the situation.
"I was going to jump off the roof!" she said. "Until you came along!"
"Bill, that kills people! "
"Really?" she exclaimed – not really meaning for it to sound sardonic, but that was the way it came out. She was running out of time. The loop was going to reset in less than five minutes, and then she'd have to start back at the Doctor's office, and work up the nerve to do this again – "I had no idea!"
"Bill!" he said, sounding honestly distressed. " You're people!"
There was a short silence, and then Bill swallowed, realizing properly now exactly how this must have looked to him. "Oh – oh god. Nardole, I'm so sorry; I didn't think -"
"Damn bloody right you didn't," he said furiously.
She let her head fall back onto the concrete roof, and stared up at the sky. "Sorry," she said again.
There was a pause. “Bill?” Nardole asked, almost cautiously.
“Yeah, I’m, uh. Sort of stuck in a time loop right now,” she said dully. “The Doctor keeps dying because he’s an absolute bloody idiot who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble, ever.”
“ Oh, ” said Nardole, like that explained everything, which, quite honestly, it probably did. “Localized?”
“On me, yeah. Nobody else remembers it happening.”
“How many -”
“Exactly one hundred,” Bill reported unhappily. “Don’t ask why I’m still counting, ‘cause I seriously do not know.”
He frowned. “Ooh. That’s really not good.”
“You’re telling me.” A beat. “Are you going to let me up now?”
“Depends. Are you still planning on jumping off the roof?”
She gave the question consideration, and then shook her head honestly. Nardole stared her down intensely for a second or two, then let go of her arms.
"How'd you know to come up here?" she asked, sitting up.
He shrugged, and scooted back so he was sitting against the inside edge of the ledge running around the perimeter of the rooftop. "I saw you wandering around the building. Thought you looked a bit – you know, off ; and you weren't with the Doctor, like you're supposed to be right now, so – I followed you." A pause. "Good thing I did, too."
"Aww," she said, kind of touched by this despite everything. "You actually do care."
"Don't spread it around," he said glumly. "You'll ruin my image."
"As a badass?"
He nodded. "As a badass, yes."
"Nardole, nobody thinks you're a badass."
“Not with that attitude, they won’t.”
Bill laughed, and stood up, and went to stand on the edge of the roof again. But not like, on the edge – just behind the ledge that ran around it. She looked down at the ground, and saw how far away it was, and then shuddered.
“Rethinking your initial plans?” Nardole said from behind her.
“Just a tad, yeah.” She checked her watch, saw that the Doctor was due to die in a bit less than five minutes; then looked back at Nardole. “So, I was thinking -”
Across the street from the university, a car backfired.
She should have expected it, really – it had happened consistently every single time she had made it this far at the university – but there had been a lot going on, and she might have been lulled into a false sense of security by Nardole’s presence, as ridiculous as that sounded.
Either way, Bill startled, taking an instinctive step backwards, and of course because she was standing on the edge of a rooftop -
She saw what happened next in a series of images, one flashed rapidly after the other – like a strobe light going off behind her eyes. A blurred view of the side of the building, rushing past her. The distant figure of Nardole on the rooftop, a hand outstretched and mouth open as he yelled something. The sky, blue and cloudless. The ground. The ground. The ground, still rushing up towards her.
And then she felt her wrist burn, and -
– time slowed down almost unbearably quickly; so she could see every single frame ticking past. Like Xeno’s Paradox, she felt the distance between herself and the ground becoming halved and halved over and over again, getting closer and closer and closer to it without ever actually touching. She could see every detail of the concrete sidewalk, every hairline crack and fracture and imperfection; memorized the sight of it a million times over before something else in the universe changed, and suddenly she found herself being pulled upwards like a yo-yo. She fell in reverse, catapulted back through the air by her own potential momentum, and then slammed straight back onto the rooftop that she had started from.
“ What, ” said Bill, stumbling back and immediately falling onto her backside.
Nardole blinked once, and then said, “all right? ”, like he wasn’t really sure what else to say, then, “gosh, I guess I shouldn’t have been worried in the first place, should I?”
“Oh my god, I’m immortal,” Bill said, staring at her hands. “Oh my god. I’m like Jesus now.” She paused, considering the absurdity of this. “I mean, I’m like Jesus if Jesus was a black lesbian trapped in a probably-eternal time loop. And instead of dying for everybody else’s sins, the Doctor’s the one dying and nobody’s sinning. That I know of. And also Jesus wasn’t actually immortal, I don’t think. So really, I’m nothing like Jesus.”
“Good to know,” said Nardole, and came to kneel beside her. “And now we know that whatever or whoever’s causing this needs you alive!” he added, with a grin. “Result!”
From two floors down, there was the distant yet distinct noise of the roof caving in.
“Well,” said Bill, too tired by everything happening to express any kind of genuine emotion at this, “that’ll be the Doctor dying again.”
“Terribly inconsiderate of him,” said Nardole, and then, more seriously, “how long?”
“Few seconds,” Bill said.
“Right, then I’ll have to speak very, very quickly to get this point across.” And, true to form, he had started speaking at an insanely fast pace – so much so that Bill almost missed what he was saying. “ – don’t be like the Doctor and don’t try to do this on your own; we can help and I can help, and Bill, really you just need to ask for it -”
The Doctor died.
Loop one-hundred-and-one, and Bill strode right into the Doctor’s office without a second’s pause, thinking, all right, let’s mix this up a bit.
“We need Nardole,” she said before he could even think about strumming his guitar, “because I’m only explaining this once and he asked to get involved.”
And what followed next was a long series of loops where she and a fully-informed Doctor and Nardole tried any and all tricks at their disposal to keep the Doctor alive – some brilliantly simple, some ridiculously-off-the-wall; and none that actually worked.
“Well,” said the Doctor, after a excruciatingly lengthy amount of these loops – in which Bill had become quite adept at providing all the information of the situation in the shortest time possible and skipping past all the unnecessary dialogue cutscenes – “if we haven’t managed to work out a way out of this on our own, then – there’s one other person that might just be able to help.”
“Oh no,” said Nardole, despairingly. “Sir, you’re not saying -”
“There’s no other way,” the Doctor said stubbornly.
“Sir, with respect, there are plenty of other ways.”
“There actually kind of aren’t,” Bill said. “And trust me, I’d know. I’ve done this enough times by now. Are you talking about Missy?”
“Yes, he’s talking about Missy,” Nardole said, and sighed. “When is he not talking about Missy, let’s be honest.”
“Frequently, as a matter of fact,” the Doctor said, and looked at Bill. “If anyone can find you a way out of this loop – anybody apart from me, I mean – it’s Missy. What do you say?”
“I mean...” Bill glanced at Nardole, a bit apologetically, then shrugged. “It’s not like it could hurt. ”
“Fine.” Nardole sulked. Pointedly. “Fine. Fine. But I do this under heavy protest.”
“Yes,” said the Doctor with gravitas practically dripping from his words. “You do tend to do that, don’t you?”
“So,” said Bill, “let’s go down to the Sex Vault while we still can.”
“Please stop calling it the Sex Vault,” Nardole requested.
“Look,” said Bill, “I’m just saying -”
“I’d like to stop talking about this, right now, preferably,” the Doctor said loudly, and he really did look quite stern and angry about this so everybody shut up about the Sex Vault, even though Bill could no longer stop thinking about it now that she had brought it up.
They took the TARDIS down there, at Bill’s request – since it seemed the least dangerous way to go about doing it, really – and didn’t waste time in going directly in to see the person that they were there for. And when they entered the Vault, Missy was waiting in the middle of the room, sitting on top of her piano and messing around with a dozen-or-so
“You know, I think purple just might be my color,” she said without looking up, and she was indeed examining a tube of bright-purple lipstick.
“Missy, there’s a problem,” said the Doctor, which was apparently how he greeted her.
She rolled her eyes, not looking up. “There always is, with you. Oh, go on, then. It’s not like I have anything better to do today.”
The Doctor filled her in, with Bill contributing occasionally.
Missy sighed, finished applying her makeup, and whirled around in a swirl of purple velvet and fancy swishy clothes to face them. “Oh, isn’t it obvious? ” she sighed, smacking her lips together loudly.
“ No ,” said the Doctor, only very slightly visibly struggling to contain his irritation. Bill probably wouldn’t have picked up on it if she hadn’t just been through one-hundred-plus cycles of this crap already. “No, it really isn’t.”
Missy sighed again, all dramatic and Victorian-esque, and flopped herself back against her piano, and – all right, no matter how evil and how much older she was than Bill, that really was kind of sort of hot. For a split-second, she could actually see why the Doctor was into her and quite possibly having sex with her on his nights off – and then she locked that thought up very, very deep in a box inside her brain, stuffed the box in another box, and shoved that box into a mental closet and locked that too, before throwing the closet off a very tall mental cliff, because that was something she just didn’t need or want to think about.
“Missy, tell us now,” the Doctor was growling, eyebrows furrowed.
“Tell us or I’ll take your piano.”
Another sigh – she seemed to be in a sighing mood today for some reason – and she fell back, lying flat along the top of the piano, arms wide out. She stuck one stockinged leg straight up into the air. “Oh, fine. Really, Doctor, you’re twisting my arm here,” she said, curving her leg elegantly into a ninety-degree angle. “You. Human – forgot your name.”
“It’s Bill,” said Bill, too tired to be annoyed.
“Hm, yes – I’ve forgotten it already. Never mind all that. The time loop’s centered around you, isn’t it?”
“Uh – yeah ?”
Missy sniffed pointedly, nostrils flaring. “Funny. I don’t sense anything weird around you, and I’m sure the Doctor doesn’t either. Which can only mean one thing...” She paused, and then stuck her other leg into the air. “Localized time distortion.”
She heard, rather than saw, the Doctor stiffen behind her, and then let out a sudden noise of comprehension.
“All right, you two want to share?”
“Look at your watch, Earthling,” Missy said.
“My watch?” Bill asked, startled, and then looked at the watch on her wrist. Plain, unassuming, completely ordinary. One of the few things that she could rely on through every loop; keeping the time of each oncoming disaster perfectly, down to the second. And, now that she thought about it – she couldn’t remember ever having bought it. “Wait. But.”
“Aaaaand the penny drops,” Missy said, with no small amount of relish. “You don’t even wear a watch, usually, do you?”
“I don’t.” She stared at it, unsettled. The time was four past five, according to its analogue readout. “It’s pretty much useless when you’re swanning about in a time machine half the time. And I’ve got my phone, anyway -”
“Yes, yes, yes, boring. Don’t care.”
The Doctor moved over, raised Bill’s wrist; examined the watch. “Whatever it is, it’s not human technology. At a guess, it’s collecting energy.”
“What sort of energy?” Bill asked.
“Potential energy,” Missy said. “Potential regeneration energy, to be exact.”
Bill unclipped the watch from her wrist, wincing at how tight it had been – and somehow she hadn’t even noticed it. “So, how do we stop it?”
“Easy,” said Nardole. He tugged it away from her and threw it to the ground. And then he stomped on it, very precisely and very hard, and then did it again and again, and there was an odd sort of pop that made Bill wince and press a hand to the side of her head, even though there hadn’t been any actual audible noise, really.
And then nothing at all proceeded to happen.
“That’s it?” Bill asked, staring at her – at the broken wristwatch now lying in pieces on the floor. “That’s – we broke it? We broke the loop?”
“Well, you certainly broke something ,” Missy said, sounding bored. “Pity. It was a rather lovely watch, too.”
“So what now?” Nardole asked.
Several uncertain glances were exchanged between Nardole, Bill, and the Doctor. Missy continued looking bored, and leaned over from where she was perched on top of the piano to pick out an upside-down rendition of some long-forgotten Mozart piece.
“I suppose we’ll just have to wait,” the Doctor decided.
“Wait for you to die,” Nardole said. “Brilliant. I do like this plan.”
So they sat around in the Vault for a while, waiting for the Doctor to die suddenly and inexplicably, and after fifteen minutes nothing at all happened.
“If you want,” said Missy, sounding hopeful, “I can test it for you.”
“I’m sure I have a battleaxe lying around somewhere -”
“I said no. ”
They sat around for a while more, and then the Doctor said, very softly, “well, who knew that waiting for your inevitable death would be so boring? ” and went off to systematically disassemble the guitar amplifier that he had left in the corner of the Vault.
Fifteen more minutes found Nardole and Bill playing an increasingly complicated game of Mao with a battered pack of cards that the Doctor had found somewhere in his seemingly endless pockets while Missy picked out discordant, fractured melodies on the piano keyboard.
The Doctor had just finished reassembling his amplifier for the second time, and said, “Bill?”
She looked up from the hand that she had been examining. “Yeah – uh, if the whole loop thing was still going on, you’d’ve probably been electrocuted by now. So, I’d say it’s over.” She paused, and then just about dropped the cards. “Oh my god,” she said, feeling a million times lighter. “It’s over. ”
“And this is why you should always ask for Missy’s opinion first,” Missy declared, snapping shut her piano’s lid sharply, but everybody ignored her.
“Time loop broken, my life spared, Bill’s sanity saved – excellent!” the Doctor exclaimed, leaping to his feet with one of those sudden bursts of energy that he sometimes got. “All in a day’s work. So what now – what d’you say we go and rob a museum? I was planning on it before this all started, and -”
“Doctor, no offense,” Bill said, “but I think I’d literally rather die.”
“Ah,” he said after a moment, and he seemed to understand. “Of course. So -”
“So. I think...” She hesitated, and then decided. “Well, what I’d really like to do right about now is go and get some really good ice cream, watch some Disney films in the TARDIS library, and then pass out for twenty consecutive hours without disturbance.”
“Ice cream sounds excellent,” Nardole chimed in, and added, quite seriously, “but only if it’s mint-choc-chip.”
The Doctor looked between the two of then, then smiled. “You know what? I think we deserve it.”
“I want ice cream,” said Missy, somewhat petulantly, from the center of the room.
The Doctor sighed. “Fine,” he said, and they went and bought ice cream from the local Ben & Jerry’s, and brought it back to the Vault to share with Missy, and then they all sat down to watch Lilo and Stitch together. Missy was pleased enough with this turn of events that she restricted her sarcastic commentary on the movie enough that it was actually a genuinely enjoyable experience.
And nobody died and nothing unpleasant or terrible or heartbreaking happened to any of them ever again until at least next Thursday evening.
(But that’s an entirely different story.)