A/N: I may have binge watched every single one of Clara's episodes in the last few days. And 4.5 billion years led me to this. Hope you enjoy it.
She hears it before anything else. Ashildr is drinking happily, challenging some of the locals to a game of chance involving mechanical dice. She laughs, and Clara is sure she has won another dozen pieces of silver.
Clara stops breathing, a habit which she has kept up so as not to raise suspicion, so that the ace up her sleeve is never revealed until she is ready to play her trump card.
She can hear him, stuttering and stammering his way through a very one sided negotiation, buying time until he can come up with some sort of plan.
She hadn't even come looking for him this time.
She gets up, and steps towards the doors. She can feel Ashildr's eyes on her, and Clara waves a hand behind her to tell her not to worry, that she's just going for a look.
The dice roll again, clattering across the table, but Clara can still feel the eyes follow her every move.
Ashildr is one of the oldest living things in the universe. She has taken over the duty of care, the baton passed from one ancient being to the next.
It's unnecessary, but Clara doesn't mind it. It helps her not miss him as much as she might.
"Listen chaps, I really do think this has all been one big misunderstanding, I didn't say the captain was a squid, I only asked if he was related to one."
Clara smiles, and her heart, so still in her chest for so long, lifts, just a little.
The door to the veranda is open a crack, and Clara pushes a little further to peep through and find the source of the noise.
She breathes deeply, inhaling the scent of the sea. It's artificially salted, the fish and the coral and the whales imported from across the galaxy. No expense has been spared to make Nuevo Vincente the most authentic pirate experience on this side of the universe.
Only the Grenadine System can offer any sort of competition, but that's more than three hundred parsecs away, and is overrun by tourists. It does have a cocktail bar in a lagoon, and there are plenty of inflatables to lounge around in on a sunny day, and Clara likes it, but they've been there a dozen times already.
Nuevo Vincente, on the other hand, is the real deal. People spend their lives here. They run away from whatever responsibilities their home planet has dealt them, and they put on a funny hat and a ratty old coat, and they find a crew who'll take them.
The Doctor is on the plank protruding from one of the larger ships. Though the water around the dock isn't too deep, he is chained up, resembling a panicked pogo stick, with his hands futilely squirming to try and reach his sonic screwdriver.
Clara's eyes land on the anchor at the end of his chain - rusting, and past its best. It probably weighs a ton. It sits on the deck of the ship, a death sentence waiting to be cast. They're in for a shock if they think this will finish him off.
She leans on the rail, the bleached wood warmed through by the sun. She keeps her eyes on him, ignoring the cacophony of insults issued by the pirates on the ship. Some of them have raised swords, which they brandish in the Doctor's direction. When the captain (the one with the biggest hat) slams his heel into the end of the plank, it sends a shudder along the wood, and the Doctor loses his footing, stumbling backwards.
Clara's shoulders stiffen, but he manages to find his balance again. He teeters on the very end of the plank, while the biggest members of the crew lift the anchor between them and rest it on the gunwale, awaiting orders to send it crashing into the water.
Clara leans forward, squinting as she tries to focus on the Doctor's face. The breeze is blowing his fringe about, obscuring his eyes, but there is something in his expression that twists knots in her stomach.
He swallows; Clara can see the bob of his Adam's apple even from this distance, and she realises that he's out of ideas. He's chained up, and heading for the seabed with no sonic screwdriver, no spare pair of hands, and no one to save him.
Except her, because that's what she does, isn't it?
The anchor plunges into the blue, and the Doctor's eyes widen for half a second, before he is yanked sideways and disappears into the depths.
There is a cheer, and the pirates on board the ship make ready for departure, releasing the sails and untying ropes. Clara runs for the stairs, leaping down them two at a time and crashing onto the dock.
She knows he can hold his breath, knows he can spend whole minutes under the water without losing consciousness, but there is the small matter of escaping his chains. Apart from that, there's the weight of them, of that anchor, which could damage him as they drag him down, and damage his chances of getting away.
Clara sprints along the jetty as the ship pulls away, heading towards the mouth of the bay and out to open sea.
This is all a bit too authentic for her liking.
There are still ripples in the water from where he fell, and Clara kicks off her trainers before she dives in. There is a dark shape deep below, and she heads towards it, the disturbance in the water sending groups of small silver fish darting away from her.
She keeps going, ignoring the pressing silence that can still distract her some days. No pulse pounding in her ears, no bubbles as she releases tiny portions of breath. She pulls herself deeper, the blue surroundings becoming darker and colder.
His hair is floating around his head, waving softly with the motion of the current, while he twists and turns in his chains, trying to wriggle free.
She closes her fingers around the shoulder of his jacket and he looks up, his eyes widening, before his mouth opens and issues a string of angry bubbles. Although she can't hear him, she gets the hint.
What the hell are you doing here?
She uses him to pull herself down, and around the right way, so that her toes brush against the sand and seaweed. He tries to tell her to go, but he still hasn't worked out why she can stay in place quite comfortably without the help of an anchor. It still hasn't clicked that there is no air in her lungs to provide buoyancy which would, at this stage, be something of an inconvenience.
She holds her sonic bracelet against the padlock securing his chains and waits for it to do the trick.
Clara will admit, it's quite good travelling with someone who has billions of years of experience with technology from all over the universe. This way, she doesn't have to worry about outfits having pockets, she can just wear the sonic bracelet on her wrist and short of her arm being lopped off, she'll hardly ever be without it.
The Doctor's expression is somewhere between astonished and appalled, and she daren't tell him that two women wandering through time and space have solved one of his biggest problems by accessorising.
Besides, he likes having something to throw around, something to toss about while he comes up with clever ideas, something with which he can tinker absentmindedly.
Each to their own, she supposes, but she's not the one stuck at the bottom of the sea.
She pulls the padlock out of the links, and then eases the chains away from him, freeing first his legs, and then working her way up to his arms and torso.
The first thing he does is reach for her, his hand brushing her face in a way that she has missed oh so much. She closes her eyes, and covers his hand with her own, then after a moment turns her face so she can kiss the palm of his hand.
When she opens her eyes, she sees worry etched into his prominent brow, his young features contorted in concern. Ignoring it, she nods towards the surface, and the two of them kick off from the bottom, propelling their way towards air.
"What are you doing here?" he splutters as soon as they break the surface.
"Oh you know," Clara says, then breathes deeply, drawing air into her lungs to help her stay afloat more easily. "Same old same old. Saving you."
The Doctor frowns, then wipes his sodden hair away from his face as his chest heaves, water dripping down his face.
"And where'd you get that?" he demands, reaching back into the water to pull Clara's arm above the surface so he can properly inspect her bracelet.
"Never you mind," she says, tugging her arm back from him. "Come on," she says, before he can interrogate her any further. "Let's get to the shore."
They turn away from the dock and head for the beach, where gentle waves fold into themselves and splash on the sand. When the water gets too shallow for swimming, Clara puts her feet down, toes curling in the sand, and wades towards the shore, the Doctor silent next to her.
She helps him take off his jacket, which is heavier for all the water it has soaked up, and she lays it flat on the sand to dry while he toes off his boots and yanks his socks from his feet.
"Am I here?" he asks. "Did I bring you here?"
"No," she says. "You didn't bring me here."
She presses her lips shut as she sinks onto the sand and reclines, stretching her arms above her while her dress clings to her skin.
The warmth of the sun disappears, and Clara opens her eyes to see him standing above her, his barely there eyebrows drawn into a frown. His shoulders are hunched, neck craning forward in that way that always used to make her wonder if he was actually carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders.
"How did you get here?" he asks again.
"Lay down and dry off," Clara says, deflecting his question. It's one of the useful skills she honed during her time with him. Deflecting questions from her friends, her family, from Danny...
She pulls herself out of her memories and focuses on the present. She's laying on a beach, and the Doctor is grumbling as he settles himself beside her. She and Ashildr have a TARDIS, and can go anywhere they want.
Apart from the obvious, life is good.
And she's taking back a little slice of the obvious right now.
"I'm worried, Clara," he says. "I'm very worried."
She turns her head to the side so she can examine his worry in profile. She misses this face. She fell in love with this face a hundred thousand times. She misses his other face as well, the last face of his she saw, red eyed, tears glinting on the brims of his eyelids. But this face was the first face she fell in love with. When she leaned out of a window and asked if he was going to stay on the driveway all night, and he'd promised not to budge.
"You don't need to worry," she murmurs. "Everything's fine."
"So why aren't we together?" he asks, turning to face her. "Why aren't you here with me?"
"Because..." she trails off, unable to come up with a reason that would satisfy him fully. "Because I had to save you, didn't I? And you, future you that is, needed to keep out of the way."
"You're lying," he breathes.
"I know," she says, but she can't tell him. It would cleave her heart in two to tell him.
"So we're not friends anymore?" he asks, turning back towards the sky. He clasps his hands over his stomach, thumbs fidgeting against each other as he anxiously mulls over the possibilities. "Or am I dead? Are you stranded? I can take you home if you're - "
"You're not dead," she says. "You're perfectly fine, I'm not stranded, and of course we are still friends." She reaches across, placing her left hand on top of his restless ones, stilling them with one touch. "I will always be your friend, and you will always be mine."
"Then why - "
"I can't tell you any more," she says. "But don't worry, you've got tons of time with me yet."
"How d'you know?" he asks, his brow creasing again. "You don't know when I'm from."
She smiles softly and looks across to him. "You've still got this face," she tells him. "This silly old face," she sighs.
"Clara," he says, his voice barely above a gentle hum. Clara knows she would quite happily lay here forever, until they are swallowed by the sand. "Why are you so sad?"
"I'm fine," she says, and she forces a smile, mentally shaking off her melancholy.
She misses him so much.
"I'm fine," she says again, though she knows that the second iteration only weakens her assurances. "It's just been a long while since I've seen you like this. You know, with a bow tie."
He reaches towards his bow tie with one hand, giving it a little tug to ensure it's sitting right with his collar, while his other hand laces his fingers with hers.
She's missed his hands, the way hers felt in his. His next incarnation isn't big on physical contact, whereas this one, this younger one was always hugging and holding and kissing. She misses the way he used to kiss the tips of his fingers and then slap it on the top of her head in that ridiculous way that belied a small level of worry for her safety.
She could always tell how scared he was, or how relieved he was to have her back, by how he touched her.
It's the little things she misses. She can have big adventures on her own, and she and Ashildr can go to nice places and eat nice food and laugh and explore and she has a friend. She has a brilliant friend.
But she doesn't have the Doctor.
They lay together in the sun, warming through, their clothes steadily drying, and when their fronts are dry, they roll over to dry their backs. Clara rests her head on her folded arms, smiling contentedly as the Doctor tells her about all the places he's going to take her.
"The Oberitsu Expansion is just lovely," he murmurs. "Starlight splintering across space, nature at its finest."
Clara hums in agreement, remembering the pair of them sitting on the floor of the TARDIS, legs dangling in the pitch black vacuum while they ate the last of the ice cream from Castilla.
"Did I ever take you on the Orient Express?" he asks, turning his head towards her, grains of sand stuck to his cheek. "The one in space?"
"Yes," she says with a smile, and she lifts her head, freeing her arm so she can gently brush away the sand with her thumb. He closes his hand around hers, and presses his lips to the back of it. He doesn't release her, and she doesn't care. She just wants to stay like this until the tide comes in. Or longer.
She knows she can't have forever. He can't give her that. There's another her out there waiting, and maybe it's a boring Tuesday and she's desperate to jump in the TARDIS and fly away, or maybe it's a Saturday and the day is dragging no matter how many meaningless tasks she fills it with.
Either way, her time with him is finite. To be measured in hours, minutes, and seconds, rather than days, months, and years.
She'd give anything to have years.
"The Eastern Dial is really quite something as well," The Doctor continues. "Blades of grass as wide as tree trunks, and soft as velvet. They've got talking Rhododendrons as well, but they can be a bit gobby." He frowns, apparently remembering a particularly troublesome one.
"We never went there," Clara says, straining to sound like it doesn't matter.
All those plans. He must have had so many. Lunch and then breakfast and then cocktails with Moses.
She and Ashildr have covered the cocktails with Moses bit of that. It was good fun, a good recommendation.
"Well maybe I can squidge it in," he says. "Shouldn't change the timeline too much."
Clara smiles again, but she knows he won't get around to it. "Where is it?" she asks. "And when's best to go?"
"Fifty-fourth century if you can manage it," he says with a sigh. "And it's slightly to the left of the Jambian Nebula. Have you got a space ship?" His sentences run from one to the other with barely room for breath, as though he thinks he can get the truth out of her by catching her off guard.
"What do you think?" she asks, and she quirks an eyebrow, inviting assumption.
The Doctor laughs and rolls over, releasing her hand at last as he sits up. He reaches for his jacket and pulls it towards him, dragging it across the sand. He plucks a wrinkled notepad and a pencil from one of his pockets and flips to a blank page, then starts drawing. Clara sits up and wraps her arms around him from behind, resting her chin on his shoulder as she watches him draw.
"This is the Jambian Nebula," he says, tapping his pencil against a crudely drawn cloud. He scribbles the name next to it, then scrawls a few other notable landmarks around it, until at last, he draws the Eastern Dial. When he's finished, he tears the page from his notebook, and hands it to Clara, who keeps it clutched in her hand, another treasure she has selfishly sought.
But everything has to come to an end, and the sun is sinking towards the horizon, turning a soft shade of orange.
"Yeah," the Doctor says. "We should probably head back." He lifts his arm, bringing the inside of his wrist close to his face to check his watch. He frowns at it, then taps the face with the tip of his finger.
"Well that's that," he sighs.
"Broken?" Clara asks.
She loves the way he checks his watch, the way he inspects it so closely, as though being a Time Lord makes it even harder to tell the time.
"Yeah," he says, sliding the watch off his wrist. "I'll have to nip back to the eighties to get a new one."
"Can I have it?" The words blurt out of her mouth before she can stop them, and the Doctor looks up at her, his fringe falling across his eyes.
"What, this old thing?" He lifts the watch momentarily, indicating it.
Clara nods, trying to force down the lump in her throat.
"It's broken," he says, and Clara merely shrugs in response. "Why d'you want this?"
"I just..." she looks down, and a tear drops into the sand, creating a little well and then dissipating. "I just miss you," she says, and before she can say another word, he is holding her tightly, arms wrapped around her, face buried in her hair. She can feel the beats of his hearts against her own chest, a rhythm that she sorely misses.
She feels him gulp, swallowing down his own pain, pain which he cannot explain, and she holds him tighter, breathing deeply.
She hadn't realised he always smells the same. No matter what face, or body, he always smells exactly the same. She clings to him, knowing that it's nearly over. She has no idea if, or when, she'll ever get to hold him again.
"Clara," he breathes. "My Clara." He presses a kiss to her temple, his fingers combing through her hair as she hauls her grief back into line.
It's silly to grieve for someone who's still alive, who's right in front of her. But she does it all the same.
The Doctor slides the waterlogged watch onto her wrist, his thumb brushing over her skin.
"Come on," he says, and he releases her. He picks up his jacket, slings it over his arm, and holds his boots by his laces so they dangle at his side. He takes her by the hand, and they walk back up to the tavern by the dock. He's quiet the whole way, and doesn't ask questions.
She doesn't like it when he gets like this.
Ashildr is sitting at a table outside, a waning candle flickering before her as she counts up her silver.
"This is my friend," Clara tells the Doctor. "Ashildr."
"Hello," the Doctor says quietly. He offers a brief smile, but Clara can tell he's in no mood to be making friends today.
"Your lipstick's washed away," Ashildr says. She tosses a neat golden tube to Clara, who catches sight of her reflection in the window of the tavern, and applies the lipstick as best she can, ignoring the tremor in her hand.
She spots her trainers, sitting on the chair next to Ashildr, and she smiles her thanks. She's had to walk back to the TARDIS barefoot before, and she'd complained all the way.
"We have to go," Clara says, getting the words out before she can change her mind. "Need to be on our way, if we're going to make it to the Eastern Dial in time for the fifty-fourth century."
"It's the sixty-third," the Doctor responds, his voice hard.
Clara tightens her grip on the lipstick. She doesn't like it when he gets cross. She doesn't like to leave things with a scowl.
"Are you going to tell me why you don't have a pulse? Why you don't need to breathe?" He steps forward, and slips his fingers beneath the band of the watch, firm against her skin, waiting for a sign of life.
"What are you?" he demands through gritted teeth. "What are you?"
"I'm me," Clara replies, and she takes his face in her hands, lipstick and hand drawn map still held delicately in her curled fingers. "I swear it, I'm your Clara, but..."
"Then what happened?" He closes his hands around both of her wrists, but can't bring himself to pull her hands from his face.
There's no way out of it now. She needs to be honest. And she needs to reassure him. If he's angry he'll skulk about, knowing deep down that something is very wrong. That gut feeling might make it all the way back to the TARDIS with him, and she can't have that.
"I was extracted at the end of my time stream," she says, and she sees the moment his heart breaks as he realises what this means.
"But you're so young," he breathes, and his hands clasp her face as well now, like a precious treasure he cannot bear to lose.
"I look it," Clara says with a brief smile. "And I was. But you nearly tore apart the universe trying to change it. Broke all of your own rules."
His brow creases, and he waits with bated breath for her to continue.
"We're a dangerous combination, you and me." Her eyes drink in every detail of his face; the scar by his hairline, the shape of his nose, the eyes which tell her so much more than words ever could. "We love far too much." She offers a smile, but it is of no comfort to him. "But it's okay. We had to go separate ways. You in your TARDIS, and Ashildr and I in ours."
His eyes brighten at this. "You have a TARDIS?"
Clara nods. "Of course we do. And you have years with me Doctor, you have brilliant and wonderful years with me. But I've not slowed down. Ashildr and I have been travelling together for ninety-two years."
There is a moment of shock, where his eyes widen, before the information settles.
"You're looking good on it," he murmurs.
Clara laughs, and the Doctor closes his eyes, a lone tear trickling down his cheek. Clara brushes it away.
"I am living a full life," she tells him. "I'm over a hundred years old."
He lets out a soft breath, one of lamentation over all the years they will spend apart.
"And I'll get round to dying eventually," Clara tells him, "But for now, it's on the back burner."
A smile tugs at the corner of the Doctor's mouth, and he opens his eyes.
"I know," she says. "I always know."
He looks down, and Clara takes the opportunity, rising gently onto her tip toes and pressing her lips against his.
"Be good," she whispers.
"Of course," he says, and then after a moment, his eyebrows draw into a frown. "You've run into River, haven't you?" He takes the lipstick from her fingers and opens it, then gives it a sniff. "Cor," he says. "That's strong."
"Needs to be," Clara replies. "If it's going to work on a Time Lord every time."
His balances leaves him, and he stumbles. Clara catches him, and steadies him, but throughout the whole process, he never breaks eye contact.
"How many times have we run into each other like this?"
"Oh, a few," Clara says offhandedly. Ashildr moves a chair into place, and Clara lowers the Doctor into it.
"How many?" he presses, his words becoming slurred.
"Sometimes it's by accident, sometimes it's because I miss you...and sometimes, it's because our TARDIS decides that you're exactly where I need to be."
The Doctor reaches for her hand, a soft smile curving his lips. She takes it, and Ashildr passes her a tissue, so she can wipe the rest of the lipstick from her mouth.
"I'll see you again soon," she says to him. His eyes are sliding in and out of focus now. "And if you ever see a diner where it looks like there shouldn't be one...come and have a milkshake. On the house."
He manages a laugh at this, and Clara leans forward, her hand on his shoulder, watch glinting on her wrist. She brushes her lips against his forehead, and then, because she can never bear the idea of a last kiss, she kisses him once more, swearing to herself that it will happen again.
She steps away from him and picks up her shoes. She drops them to the floor, pushes her feet into them, and then ties the laces tightly.
With a life like hers, she never knows when she might need to run.
"Are you okay?" Ashildr asks. She grabs an abandoned flagon of ale from a nearby table and sets it down next to the Doctor. In a quarter of an hour he'll be as good as new, labouring under the delusion that he's taken a stealthy nap while having a drink by the beach.
It's not a terrible way to leave him.
"Yeah," Clara says, and then she steels herself, and replies more assuredly. "Yes. Thank you."
The two of them take a slow walk back to the TARDIS, and pass a police box on the way. Clara smiles, resting her hand against the wood for just a second or two, before they carry on, towards the diner in the distance.
"So, the Eastern Dial," Ashildr says. "Fifty-fourth century?"
Clara nods, and hands Ashildr the piece of paper with the map drawn on it.
"Or would you rather go to the Oberitsu Expansion again?"
Clara nods, not trusting herself to speak. Walking away is always the hardest part, and it will remain the hardest part until she is in the TARDIS, with the doors closed behind her, and the universe ahead.
"We could open that vintage merlot," Ashildr suggests. "If you fancy it."
"Yeah," Clara says, as they arrive at the diner door, with its neon 'closed' sign lighting up the window. "Yeah, that'd be nice."
An hour later, once Clara has showered away the salt and the sand, she enters the console room, her slippers scuffing against the floor as she goes to join Ashildr by the door. Clara takes a seat next to her, legs dangling over the edge, slippers just about clinging on to her feet.
Ashildr passes Clara a glass of wine, and they clink their glasses together in a wordless toast. If Clara squints, she's quite sure she can see a blue police box on the other side of the expansion, just a speck amongst the starlight.
It is still as beautiful as the first time she saw it.
"You know I never get tired of seeing this," Ashildr says wistfully. "We can come here any time you like."
Clara smiles and rests her head against Ashildr's shoulder.
"What's at the Eastern Dial?" Ashildr asks after a while.
"If I know the Doctor," Clara says, "and if I know his TARDIS, there's only one thing it can be."
"What's that?" Ashildr asks, with a smile that suggests she already knows the answer.