It was a grey day, late in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and not even news of the global financial crisis was cheering Missy.
It took him by surprise. She'd seemed fine (lucid, functional, better than now) the last time he'd seen her, five days ago.
"I'm going to be away for a bit," he'd said.
She'd dragged her feet across the floor, stopped the wheely chair (her new toy) spinning, folded her arms across the back and rested her chin atop them. Looked at him. "Why?"
"Chaperoning the pre-freshers student union trip to Amsterdam."
"Making a good start to the year," Missy said dryly. "I thought they were legally adults in their society. What do they want you for?"
"I'm the cool teacher!"
"You mean, they know you'll let them get away with murder. You're terrible for that. I should know." She kicked her foot against the floor, span around again. "Let me rephrase that, what do they need you for?"
The Doctor shrugged. "Something about insurance." He waited. She span. "Anything to say?"
Her revolutions slowed and stopped. "Have fun."
"Nardole will look in every day. I'll only be five days. You'll be fine."
"I'll direct any complaints to the psychic paper," she said, and rolled backwards.
No complaints had been so forthcoming so he'd dared to hope that all was fine. Nardole had seemed to think so.
"Everything's very quiet here," he'd said cheerfully when the Doctor had called. "Our friend's not insulted me once."
The Doctor should have seen that as a warning sign.
She hadn't responded to his knocks but that wasn't that unusual. Normally that meant she was in bed or her bathroom. He was surprised to find her up and in her armchair--
"I'm back. How have you been?"
--surprised that she didn't lift her head, bent over the book in her lap, even when he addressed her--
"I brought the newspapers. Has Nardole been keeping you up to date on the news?"
--surprised when she didn't turn a page in the time he took to spread the papers across the table, a reading order determined by how much they normally amused Missy.
"Missy?" Was she asleep? He knelt by her chair. Her eyes were open, staring at the page. She didn't flinch at his proximity. Where was she?
"I'm going to start reading," he said, moving back to his chair and reaching out for the first paper. "Let me know when you're ready to join in. Tuesday, 16th September 2008. Fifty billion wiped off shares. Crash," he raised his voice, though not as much as the enormous capitals of the headline demanded, before dropping it again to read the sub-headline, "mega-bank Lehman Brothers folds. Bang," up, down, "twenty-five thousand fired, five thousand in UK. Wallop, Manchester United sponsors AIG could be next."
Nothing. Not a peep of interest, not a twitch of amusement at a national newspaper using the headline "Crash, Bang, Wallop" as their entire economic system teetered around them. Just the slightest movement from her silent, steady breaths. His gaze was caught by the wheely chair, lying on its side across the vault. He remembered Missy falling off it, cackling, so recently, so different to this. She'd had her ups and downs but nothing as extreme as this, not recently. He wanted to call it sudden but he'd been away for days: she'd probably been sinking all that time while Nardole just thought of it as a welcome respite.
He was uncomfortably reminded of the time he spent at Henry VI's court during one of the King's catatonic episodes. 1453. Queen Margaret asking for a cure, needing to secure their dynasty. Being unable to help, knowing that her newborn son was doomed to die in battle, never attaining the crown she was determined to hold for him.
"16th September 2008," he repeated, refocusing his attention on the newspaper. Here, now, one day at a time.
"16th September 2008," Missy repeated after him, startled him. She didn't look up, as still as before. "You were gone five days," she said slowly, as if she had to remember how to speak. "That's one hundred and twenty hours, seven thousand two hundred minutes, four hundred and thirty-two thousand seconds, approximately. Nought point nought nought one three percent of a thousand years. Sixty years down. Ninety-four percent remaining."
He stared at her. Were these figures what had filled her head in the past days, frozen her limbs?
She pulled her legs up in a sudden shock of movement, hugged her knees to her, her book forgotten in between. Her voice broke from its monotone. "I'll never make it. Too long, too-- I'm not even sure how many regenerations I have left, how many I lost in the War. I'll die of old age first." Her breath shuddered in her chest, again, again, a whooping gasp as the weight of a thousand years bore down on her. "I can't, I must, it's too much..."
"Ssh, Missy, ssh." He sat on the arm of her chair and she scrambled around, buried her face in his coat. He stroked her hair. "Don't... we can't think this way. We're here so you can be the best you can be. It takes as long as it takes." Well, that was vague and unhelpful. He half-expected her to poke reproving fingers in his side but her mind was too full of dense grey fog, panic, a thousand predictable years too big a concept. He tried hard not to let his mind follow hers. If he sat down and thought about it, really thought about it like she had, another nine hundred and forty years, like this, shopping and papers, an ever-changing, endless parade of students and staff... He lived in the present. The present. The present. Tried not to think about the light at the end of the tunnel because that would mean acknowledging the tunnel. It had worked for him so far. It wasn't working for her anymore.
"It takes as long as it takes," he repeated. "Maybe it won't take quite that long. What do you think? Shall we make a plan? After this, I want to go to... Quinnis."
One of the first planets he'd visited after leaving Gallifrey. He nudged the image into her mind, lush jungle and purple sea and copper-coloured sky. The crunch of vegetation under their feet as they walked hand-in-hand. My friend. Felt her take a deep breath, slow, and another before she pulled back, looked up at him.
"The Crab Nebula," she said. "I saw it here, from China, the supernova, the 'guest star'. You could see it in the daytime for weeks. It's beautiful. I want you to see beauty."
"I do," he murmured, reached forward and cupped her cheek.
"No," she said, leant into his hand all the same.
They'd drawn up a list. They were never going to last long after that, not with temptation enumerated and codified, ready to be expanded upon. He started taking small trips in the TARDIS again, for the first time in decades, bringing her new stories, small treats, exotic delicacies, the time energy clinging to him.
"Like lemon," she murmured, wound tight around him, pressing greedy kisses to his skin. "Lemon and nutmeg."
"Are you sure you're not confusing me with your Turkish delight?" He swept her hair to one side, ran his hand down her back. "It was personally presented to me in gratitude by the Sultan himself."
"Were there aliens?"
He'd programmed the co-ordinates in, each entry on the list. First the distress call and then... It was rather cruel of the TARDIS to engage them, the Doctor considers. First taking him to meet his first self, now this: she thinks she knows what's good for them. The Doctor isn't sure she agrees.
She can't bring herself to leave, though. She sits in the TARDIS doorway, lost in thought, swinging her legs in space. In front of her the Crab Nebula boils, stretching across space.
Footsteps approach from behind her; somebody settles themselves next to her, slipping an arm around her waist and leaning their head on her shoulder. Back again.
"I see what you meant," the Doctor says. "It is rather beautiful, aesthetically, if you forget the destruction it comes from."
Missy tuts. "That's not it at all. It's beautiful because of the destruction, not in spite of it. A star burns for billions of years then dies, in that moment whole orders of magnitude brighter. It's a dramatic explosion seen by any sapience within a few thousand light years, the force of which births new stars. It leaves behind something entirely new with its own motion that will continue for millions more years. We can only wish to lead such lives. You never did understand. You can't worship beginnings but despise and fear endings. They're one and the same."
"They always take me by surprise," the Doctor says quietly.
Missy hums, a song aggravatingly familiar. The Doctor can't quite put her finger on it. It fades, twines elusively out of reach.
"This is down to you, isn't it?" the Doctor says, resisting the urge to look over at her and meet her blue eyes.
"If you mean the upgrade, you're welcome. Though I think I'm taking undue credit. I always knew you had it in you."
"You know what I mean. Where will you go?"
"Oh, around." The Doctor sees a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye, knows Missy's waved her hand airily. "Maybe I'll remember where I left my TARDIS all that time ago. Maybe I'll just steal a new one. Maybe I'll just steal it from myself, who knows?"
"Was it all a waste of time?"
"You could find me," she says, leans back with an arm still around the Doctor's waist and kicks out. The Doctor almost sees the toe of her boot in the bottom of her field of vision. "We've always been able to find each other. But do you really want to open that box? To know? That's the trouble with hope. It's hard to resist."
"It was real, though, wasn't it?" She has to know. Was it true?
Missy's fingers trail up the Doctor's cheek, tuck strands of blonde hair behind her ear and trace her jawline down to her chin. The Doctor shivers, looks determinedly ahead.
"You silly sausage. I haven't lied to you since Skaro," Missy whispers, lips against her ear. "Yes, it was real."
Then she pulls back, gets to her feet, smooths her skirt. The Doctor can hear her hands running across the fabric, wants so much to turn and see her.
"Of course," Missy continues conversationally, "I'm not, so I'm hardly the best person to ask now, am I?"
"Missy--" the Doctor whips around, desperate for a glimpse, for confirmation, a complete agreement of the senses, but she's gone. Again. Back wherever (whomever) she came from.
If it's her own mind conjuring Missy, she reasons, she should be able to wish her back into existence. She can't, not consciously. She tries to take comfort in that, tries to have faith in what the apparition tells her.
One day, she'll open that box, find their ending. Until then, the TARDIS takes her where she's needed. She moves forward.