Atonement is a complicated endeavor on multiple fronts. It is difficult and humbling and the results are rooted largely in perspective, but perhaps the worst thing about it is that it often requires a degree of dress sense that is fundamentally incompatible with the Doctor’s natural state of being.
Thus, the Doctor does what anyone else would do in order to reconcile that kind of dissonance: he asks for help.
“What do doctors wear?” he asks Bill Potts as they circle the dimly lit console room together, absentmindedly raising a hand to scratch behind his ear as if to brush the query off as something nonchalant and commonplace and completely absent from any additional context that one might presume to ascribe to such a thing.
Bill merely looks at him, a confused hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “You’re joking, right? You’re not gonna turn around and suddenly claim to be a clone or a shapeshifter or not-actually-the-Doctor or something, are you? Cause I’m not exactly ready for that today.”
It takes the Doctor a long series of slow, steady blinks to walk the conversation back far enough to identify the point of miscommunication. “No, no. I mean human doctors. What do human doctors wear?”
“You don’t know what doctors wear? Whole universe at your fingertips and you’ve never watched an episode of Casualty?”
Eyebrows tilt sharply, giving a naturally angry face the general impression of an affronted owl. “Why would I?”
Bill shrugs as she reaches out a hand, dragging her fingers along the railing and delicately skirting a badly placed chair. “Dunno. Just a thing old people do, isn’t it? Watch soaps? Care about something that isn’t real for a while? Talk about it in the cafeteria of the nursing home the next day?”
“What do people wear in Casualty?” The Doctor reframes the question with an inarguable degree of exasperation thrown behind it, tone spinning the name of the show towards chaos as his teeth click together derisively.
“Nice stuff, mostly — clean, ironed, no weird stains from alien goo. Sometimes a white coat. Why? You planning a heist or something? Can I help?” She pivots on the ball of her foot, taking a step forward, shoving her hands into the pocket of her denim coat, and leaning forward excitedly.
The Doctor glances up at her with a gaze that are aloof and inhuman and full of pain. In these moments, he is untouchable — far beyond the reach of any human. By human standards, he is absolutely ancient. War and death and decay and the echoes of a hundred thousand mistakes lurk in his shadow and dog his footsteps. It’s mathematically impossible to cram that many errors into the compressed space of a human lifespan, and yet, he’s managed to rack that up that high score in the span of his last four faces alone. Such is the curse of a long life.
“No, it’s not a heist,” he says after a long, weighty pause. “It’s terribly boring and not in the least bit glamorous and, most importantly, it’s something I have to do by myself.”
Bill disappointment is tangible, but her voice remains as kind as it always is — kinder than the Doctor will ever manage to be.
“If that’s how it is, that’s how it is, I guess.”
“Thank you,” the Doctor replies.
And with that, the conversation ends.
A couple days later, the Doctor goes to Nardole, wearing a white coat and a button-up shirt, and smelling distinctly of soap. His fingers nervously fidget with the buttons on his shirt cuffs, and he’s already worn the adjoining thread so thin that one of them threatens to fall off at any moment.
“Do I look like a doctor to you?”
Nardole squints and lifts his chin, scrutinizing the entire ensemble. “You look like you, mostly. Bit less scruffy, maybe.” There’s a thoughtful pause as he clasps his hands behind his back and leans forward, nose sniffing the air between them. “And you smell weird.”
The Doctor doesn’t even try to hide his affront. “I took a shower.”
“That’d be it, then.”
Rage bubbles beneath the Doctor’s skin, setting tiny hairs on end, and he makes no attempt to hide it. “Sometimes I wish you were River.”
He and Nardole have a pattern. They take turns throwing little shots at each other, and though the Doctor often falls into annoyance, he appreciates the little exchanges all the same. They keep him humble, and goodness knows he needs a little humbling every once in a while. Without it, he’d be caught beneath the twin weights of self-importance and self-loathing and crushed in an instant.
“Who doesn’t wish they were Dr. Song?” Nardole says with a pointed glance and a bit of extra bite.
There it is.
The Doctor nods in acknowledgment and slightly begrudging approval before suddenly and forcibly dragging the conversation back to the place where it began. “Anyway —” he says, stepping backwards with a flourish and indicating the entire ensemble with a sweep of his hands — “Aside from the smell, any notes of improvement?”
“Maybe you ought to find one of those metal thingies. Y’know, the ones doctors drape around their necks.”
The Doctor’s lips part with a sigh. “That’s not very clear.”
Nardole turns back to his work with an audible sniff. “I’m the muscle of this operation, not the stylist. Ask somebody else.”
“Like who, exactly?” The Time Lord draws out the final word, lingering on it, wallowing in it, letting it marinate.
“Dunno. Maybe you should pick up somebody new. You’re always inviting people into our lives without consulting me first.”
“I do not.” The Doctor’s immediate instinct is to throw up a series of defenses, but a glare from his friend cuts his protests brutally short, and he backpedals to revise the claim. “Just the once. Just Bill, and in my defense, she basically invited herself. I was powerless to stop her, really. Faces in puddles and all that.”
Nardole does not bother with an answer, and eventually, the Doctor slinks away, thoughts ricocheting in his skull and words ringing in his ears.
The Doctor’s feet carry him down to the vault, following his hearts rather than any string of actual logic.
The sound of a piano filters through the fortified door, the fingers on the keys marking out a peculiar blend of Party Rock Anthem and A River Runs Through You. The two songs shouldn’t go together — and, indeed, they don’t — however, the player has never been particularly concerned with the petty confines of convention.
The music stops as the Doctor begins to undo the locks, filling the air with a dreadful sense of anticipation in its place. It whispers in his ears and worms its way into the beat of his hearts. It isn’t that he fears the force of nature that lurks beyond this closed door, rather, he is wary of her. The accompanying theatrics tend to escalate to absurd degrees, and he never quite knows what he might find himself standing face-to-face with whenever he dares to visit.
When he finally steps into the room, Missy is lounging across the top of the piano with her head propped in her hands and her feet idly sticking up in the air, looking all the world like someone who is utterly engrossed in their favorite television show. For a brief moment, he wonders if she’s seen Casualty, but it seems a stupid question to ask. He is usually content to play the fool — after all, he has always been the primary host of a brutally specific brand of stupidity — however, he wants her help, not her mockery, and that requires an unquestionably degree of focus. One of them has to pretend like they know how to drive this thing, and he’s the one with morals and ethics and a painful desire to do right by both the universe and other people.
But she’s been trying, and that’s all that he can ask of her, really, even though he often pushes her to do more and try harder.
It’s the rough equivalent of a learner’s permit.
“Did you bring me anything?” Missy asks, penetrating gaze following the Doctor intently as he moves closer to the barrier between them.
The question catches the Doctor off-guard, and he raises a hand to his face, wiping away his surprise. “Was I supposed to?” He feels like he’s done this before, promising her things and then failing to deliver them. Or, perhaps, she is merely taking advantage of his scattered attention span in order to work it in her favor. With her, it could be either, though the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.
“No. I did ask Nardole for a goat last week, but he told me that it likely wouldn’t be approved.” Missy’s voice drifts airily from syllable to syllable — half thought and half song. “You never let me have the fun things.”
“I let you keep the piano,” the Doctor observes, nodding at the closed lid that lies beneath Missy’s dramatically draped form.
“Not without a whole load of hemorrhaging. Thought I’d keel over dead before you dropped the notion that I’d use the strings as a murder weapon. Ridiculous really. Piano strings are much more useful for escapes.” Her accent caresses the words with quiet intensity. It always seems to intensify whenever the Doctor’s in the room or tensions run high, and he’s begun to wonder whether or not she does that on purpose, or if it’s simply an unconscious desire to find common ground between them.
Lost in thought, the Doctor fails to provide whatever response Missy is fishing for, and she swings herself upright in a huff, sliding off the piano with a bunching of skirts and a shuffle of booted feet on unforgiving floors.
“Really? I never thought I’d see the day when your tongue went numb. Have you been hanging around many cats lately? Easy thing to snatch, tongues.” Missy doesn’t dare to come near the barriers, however, she stands a couple feet back from him with her back straight and a touch of mischief etched into the lines of her face that never fails to be both warmly familiar and unshakably unnerving.
Another moment’s pause sends her sinking dramatically onto the piano bench with a sigh so heavy that it seems to crash through the floor and hollow out the world. “You’ve got something on your mind. Better hurry up and spit it out before it starts picking up cobwebs and I start getting bored.”
“Do I pass for a doctor, Missy?” The question gets no less ridiculous the more times he asks it, and the Doctor begins to wonder if there is really a point to wasting his time on it. He’s gotten into plenty of places that he’s not allowed to be before, and he’s almost never bothered with a disguise, but his brain and his nerves keep snagging on this one little detail, leveraging it as an excuse to avoid doing what he needs to do and taking account for his past actions.
“Is that why your aesthetic’s gone all sideways?” Missy asks. He has successfully sparked her interest, and her general energy increases its intensity as she scans his outfit.
“One reason, yes,” the Doctor grumbles.
“You’re going to lose a button,” Missy says, gesturing towards the loose notion on his sleeve. If one squints, it’s an observation that vaguely passes for genuinely helpful, but the judgement present in both her tone and the sharp set of her face drags it back down again.
The Doctor put his hand to the offending wrist, pressing the offending button into the fabric so hard that it threatens to leave indentations in the skin that lies beneath. “Aside from that, I mean.”
Missy shrugs. “All humans look the same to me. None of them are remotely qualified for the jobs that they’re doing.”
“We’ve had words about this,” the Doctor says carefully. Half of the lessons he has been trying to teach his old friend revolve around the value of a human life, however, it seems like the seeds have yet to produce fruit.
Missy smiles. It’s the same lazy, amused smile that an apex predator adopts upon being told that it shouldn’t play with its food. “Yes, I suppose we have.” She swings her legs around and settles her fingers on the piano keys, picking out the first few notes to the ER theme song, the sound slightly muffled by the closed lid. “But that’s hardly relevant to why you’re here now, is it?” she adds, casting the question back over her shoulder as she continues to play.
The Doctor rolls his shoulders back and releases his grip on his wrist, allowing his arm to fall back to his side. “I need to know that I look like a doctor, Missy. I have something to do.”
A curious eyebrow quirks upward. “Was everyone else busy?”
“I asked them. They weren’t all that helpful.”
Skepticism edges into Missy’s voice, and her movements slow, each note carrying more space than the last. The song is no longer recognizable as it fades away into a languid dirge. “And you think I’m going to help you?”
“Maybe.” The Doctor turns his palms upward and outward, a gesture caught somewhere between a shrug and surrender. “Don’t know yet, do I?”
Missy’s fingers gradually pick up speed, careering towards the end before crashing headlong into a deliberately mangled imitation of the final chord. After a short pause, she slides the cover shut over the keys with a sharp bang. “I think you should flash that idiotic bit of psychic paper while you commit whatever fraud you’re intending to commit and come back here when you have a goat or a hyperdrive or something halfway interesting for me to play with. I’m not interested in your precious guilt, Doctor. It brings down the mood of the whole room, and I’ve put so much work into fixing the energy in here. Rearranged the furniture and everything.”
The Doctor glances around. He doesn’t think Missy’s moved anything at all, but he gets the message and takes his cue to leave.
The calculated drumming of twin heartbeats on a polished piano leg chases him out the door.
Eventually the Doctor finally has the good sense to ask the TARDIS for help — something he likely ought to have done in the first place — and in reply, she rudely throws him into the time and place he’s been so ardently avoiding, sending him rolling out the doors before slamming them shut behind him.
She doesn’t give him a chance to change his clothes.
He’s dressed like himself and no one else, because this is a mess that he has to clean up on his own.
There’s a little red-haired girl with an imaginary friend in Inverness who is going through psychologists at an alarming rate, leaving a trail of nasty-looking bite marks in her wake.
The Doctor left her alone in a garden a very, very long time ago, promising her it would be only five minutes before he came back.
He can’t undo that, but he can give her hope. He can be the one person in the world who believes her, and maybe — just maybe — that will mean something.
Amelia Pond deserves one more small kindness in her pile of good things.