Disclaimer: Not mine! Just playing around.
Clara Oswald doesn't trust him.
He can see it in the way she still hovers around the edges of his life, hear it in every question she asks, but he doesn't need the reminders to get the point. It's just a fact that he knows, the same way he knows that it's only summer on Ventroxi for 81 (relative Earth) minutes, or that faster than light travel requires opening a quantum tunnel with an FTL factor of 36.7 recurring, or that he doesn't trust Clara Oswald either, not all the way, not like he wishes he could.
But that's just self-protection. Healthy skepticism. That she doesn't trust him is… it's… well. It's disconcerting, that she can like him well enough and all but not think him dependable, and he doesn't care for it in the least.
He hasn't had to work so hard to prove himself in a long time.
And still, he looks for the proof in her.
He doesn't mean to test her. It's just that… he has questions.
"What did you want to be growing up?"
"Ever had any pets?"
"I had a gerbil once. Ricky. Poor thing, met a bit of a bad end. Best not to talk about it."
"What's your favorite food?"
"To make, or to eat?" she asks back, without missing a beat, and he smiles.
"To eat, of course; your favorite food to make is soufflés."
At that she pauses—stumbles—misses a beat—and stares up at him in confusion. "Now how'd you know that?"
(Wrong Clara. Wrong Clara.)
"I know everything; but you've not answered my question."
"Well, alright then, Mr. Impressive," she smirks, challenging, "If you know everything, you tell me—what's my favorite food to eat?"
He takes her for scones in the Lake District, because he promised, sort of, that one time. They're not her favorites, but they're up there, she says, and it's hard to argue with 1927.
The maddening thing is, she looks normal. And for him, that's saying something: he can see the way timelines wrap around her, as they do everyone. He can trace their golden threads back, and back, and not a blip. Not a hair out of place.
He carts her around to all the beings who should know better—the Ood; the Boekind (had to avoid several awkward conversations there); even Emma Grayling, the famous empath—and nothing. Just an ordinary girl, they say.
("Isn't that enough?" Emma asks, and oh, he wishes, he wishes, he wishes.)
But she can't be.
Part of him is tempted to just check for himself, to walk in her mind and see what he finds there, but he's not tried anything like that since Craig, and besides, he learned his lesson with Reinette—a door, once opened, can be walked through both ways. And if Clara isn't as she seems, the last thing he should do is let her inside his head.
They get into a bit of a tangle on Pandarus III when he lands the TARDIS in the middle of what turns out to be a very hush-hush royal wedding ceremony, meant to bring peace to two warring clans. Pandarish weddings are always on the more sacred and secret side, if his memory serves, but it's hard to recall precisely when he last visited—with Peri, perhaps?—while he's watching Clara get forcibly dragged away from him.
Now, of course, with Clara calling after him and looking at him with pleading eyes, he remembers it all quite clearly: their strict rules about when men and women can be in the same room together, their fierce adherence to their laws.
Their unpleasant prisons.
By the time he's negotiated his way out of the death penalty, gotten arrested for his trouble, broken out of his cell using the sonic and broken out of the jail itself with nothing but a rubber ducky from his pocket and his own shoelaces, he's at a bit of a loss as to how he'll break into the female prison next door to get Clara out.
Of course, just as he's bending down to untie his boots a second time, Clara bursts out the front doors and runs past him.
"Catch up!" she laughs, sprinting towards the TARDIS, and he races after her.
"How'd you manage to get out of there?" he shouts, impressed and relieved as he overtakes her easily with his longer strides.
"Used my head. Couldn't wait around all day for you to save me, could I?" she quips, and if it were anyone else, it would be exactly the right answer, but it's Clara and all he can hear is Oswin's voice—"Why would you wait for me?" "Why wouldn't I?" "No idea; never met you"—and all he can think is she doesn't trust me.
He can't abide it. He may deserve it, but he can't abide it.
He suddenly finds himself reaching out to stop her, halting her in her tracks so he can cup her cheeks. ("Doctor, what—we've got to go," she says, but he's not listening.) Finds himself running his thumbs over the smooth expanses of skin where two dimples would appear, if only he could goad a smile out of her. Has found himself, lately, utterly entranced by the muscles of her mouth—how hollows emerge under his fingertips like sinkholes beneath his feet, creating spaces where once there was solid ground. Showing a grin that's bigger on the inside.
"Clara Oswald," he says, slowly, gravely, because he needs her to understand this, "it doesn't matter if you're locked in a Pandarish prison cell or lost in a crowd at Picadilly Circus or stranded on the moon, I will always come and find you. Every time. I will find you. That's a promise."
(He's always been terrible at keeping promises, but he's honored this one so far, across time and space and death. She deserves to know.)
Her eyes search his face for a moment, processing: looking for the truth. Whatever she finds causes her expression to blossom into something entirely new and wholly lovely—into something a lot like trust—and he's not sure what it is he's said that's transformed her so utterly, but he's grateful.
"I believe you," she murmurs, and he can almost believe that she does.
Her dimples cave into being beneath the pads of his thumbs.
("Now run," he says, and he takes her hand.)
"What's the hardest thing you've ever had to do?" he asks her one Wednesday, totally out of the blue. They'd spent the day at a Czynpethian spa; he can still see traces of bio-luminescent mud behind Clara's ears where she'd failed to scrub hard enough.
"Bury my mum," she says, so quickly he'd think it a lie, only he can hear the lump in her throat. It's not a cover; it's the only thing she could think of. It's written all over her face.
He can't stop himself from asking, even though he wants to. "What's the second-hardest?"
She blinks at him, as though it's an exceedingly odd question. (To be fair, he supposes, it is.) "I don't know," she drawls, after a moment of contemplation. "I'll get back to you."
It's just as well that Clara prefers their once-a-week adventures, because he can't for the life of him convince the TARDIS to make up a room for her. Which is frustrating on multiple levels, because while he loves the pleasure of Clara's company, he doesn't feel comfortable just ignoring the TARDIS's instincts like that. She's never steered him wrong before.
(Well. She's literally steered him wrong plenty of times, if you're looking to split hairs, but that's hardly the point.)
And yet… intended or not, there's something quite nice about dropping Clara off and picking her up again.
He'd tried, at first, to wait it out as she does—not a full week, of course, but a bit—but truth be told, he's utterly lost his taste for traveling alone. He lost it in London when he handed her his key, and he doesn't see the point of going anywhere without her.
So she says goodnight, and then he flips a switch and there she is again to say hello, one week older, with one week's worth of stories about the Maitlands, about herself, about the match that was on the night before. There is always something new about her, always another layer added, and it feels… a little bit like spoilers. Like letting your eyes skip to the bottom of the page in the middle of a tense scene, just to have an idea of where you end up. (His whole life has been about fighting that impulse. A thousand years of practice and he's still rubbish at it.)
All of which is to say, he's very proud of himself for waiting on her knock for a full half hour before he gets fed up and seeks her out that Wednesday.
"Finally!" Artie says in clear relief when he opens the door, which is—worrisome. "Clara! The Doctor's here!"
There's a commotion from upstairs. "Oh, for—Artie, your concern is very cute, but for the last time, I don't need a doct—" Clara pauses on the landing and stares at them all in confusion. "Oh. You meant the Doctor-Doctor. My stars, is it Wednesday already?"
"Has been for hours now, yeah," Angie snorts from her position on the sofa, but the Doctor pays her no mind, as Clara looks… off. Pale and sweaty, hair in messy plaits, wearing pajama bottoms and a Blackburn Rovers kit two sizes too big. He's never seen her like this.
He turns to Artie. "What's wrong with her?"
"Oi, you could act as though I'm here—"
"She's hung over," Angie says over her.
Clara gasps, outraged. "I am not hung over, Angelica, I have food pois—" But she can't finish, choosing instead to clap a hand over her mouth and flee. Presumably, the Doctor thinks, to the loo. (Retching sounds from the other side of the wall verify that theory rather quickly.)
"Has she been like this all day?" he asks the children.
"Since last night," Artie says, brow scrunched in boyish concern. "Dad stayed with her for a bit, but I don't think she slept at all. And then he had work and we had school."
Frowning, the Doctor climbs up the stairs. Following the noise, he finds Clara kneeling on the floor before the toilet, heaving violently. For a moment, he is adrift: hands flailing uselessly, fingers twitching. His instinct is to hold her hair back, but she's already quite pragmatically tied it up herself. Feeling helpless, he drops down next to her and tries to tame her flyaways anyhow.
"You look awful," he says in sympathy when she finally slumps over to rest, and he gets a wheezing chuckle for his trouble.
"You always know just what to say to make me feel good about myself."
In hindsight, that was a bit… rude. "No, I just mean. Can I help?"
"That depends," she says, and her eyes still laugh at him despite their current dullness. "I don't suppose you could go back to yesterday and stop me from eating that sushi?"
"I can't, actually. By landing today I became a part of established events. Can't cross the timeline."
"Well that's a rubbish rule."
He thinks about the times when he's followed that rule, and the times he's broken it, and he really, really agrees. "You could've called me last night. You have my number."
"Didn't think of it. Even if I had, I probably wouldn't've. But I guess we'll have to reschedule. Does Sunday work for you? I'd say Saturday, but Angie has a violin recital she keeps calling stupid, which is Angie code for she'll never forgive me if I'm not there."
"It's a time machine, any day works for me, but hold on. Who says I'm going anywhere? And why wouldn't you have called me?"
She leans her head tiredly against the side of the tub. "Doctor, I'm not exactly keen on the idea of you sitting here watching me be sick all evening. A girl has to maintain some mystery."
(If only she knew.) "But I can help! I'll nurse you back to health."
She snorts weakly. "You."
"Yes, me! I'm—nurturing!"
"No offense, Doctor, but take it from someone who's paid to be nurturing: you're not nurturing."
He knows he shouldn't be offended, but he is. "The day we met, I took care of you! I tucked you in!"
"You mean the time you rifled through my stuff while I was unconscious, stole my laptop and left me a plate of half-eaten biscuits?"
"They were—I was—fine!" he grumbles. "See if I do that again. Next time I'll leave you passed out on your foyer floor, see how you like that."
"Sounds like the start of a really great stor—ohh," she groans, and then she's pitching forward again, shoulders shaking.
He slides himself underneath her so that she can lean back into his lap when the episode passes, and spends the night fetching her tea, lightly massaging her aching stomach and trying to get her to smile.
For all his meddling and checking, there's one thing he never explores, on principal. Whomever the woman in the shop was who gave Clara his number… there are just too many uncomfortable options, and he doesn't want to know. Not if he can help it.
Some things are meant to stay secret.
"Chocolate or vanilla?"
"Twilight or Harry Potter?"
She rolls her eyes. "Harry Potter, please."
"Saturdays or Sundays?"
"Hardcover or paperback?"
"The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?"
He gapes at her, missing a step in their familiar dance around the console room. "Don't tell me you've never heard of—"
"No," she laughs, tickled by his confusion. "Doctor! The Who."
"That wasn't one of your choices," he points out, and it takes a bit of effort to keep from pouting.
"Tough. My dad's a big Beatles fan and Mum was, like, a Stones groupie in the seventies or something. Went to every single tour. So I can't choose. I pick The Who." She smirks at him. "Would've thought you'd like that, considering you made me ask Doctor who? about fifty times, day I met you."
The day he met her, indeed. (Still. He can't say he's not charmed.)
"So, when do I get to ask you the questions?"
He sputters. "What?"
"Come on. You've been quizzing me all night. When's it my turn? When do I get to quiz you?"
"Well, that's hardly fair."
"Life's not fair."
"Oh, come on. What's one itty bitty fact compared to all the loads of stuff I've told you?"
"Fine. I hate pears."
"Come on, Doctor, something real."
"That is real! For a thousand years I've hated pears, and believe me, I've changed taste buds more than a few times."
She's laughing at him. "No, I mean, like—I dunno. What were you most afraid of as a kid?"
He doesn't even think about it. "Being stuck." The look on her face intrigues him. "Why? What were you most afraid of?"
Ah. Opposites. He could almost laugh.
"Funny thing for a girl who ran away in a madman's magic box to say," he says instead, but even as he's speaking, a memory of the look on her digitized face as she cried out I don't know where I am flashes through his mind. Something between his hearts twists and pulls, painfully. He ignores it. "And what about your book? 101 Places to See?"
She shakes her head. "Going places doesn't mean getting lost, Doctor."
"But you don't know where you are. Here, now, in the TARDIS. I could've parked us anywhere. Doesn't that scare you?"
He crosses his arms, aiming for authoritative but coming off boyish. (He always does, in front of her.) "And why not?"
"Because I know exactly where I am." Her eyes sparkle in a way he hasn't seen since 1892. "I'm with you."
He takes her to the pyramids of Giza—in 1647, just because he can.
"But this was…" she says uneasily, smile slowly growing, "This was page one. Of my book."
"Page two," he reminds her gently, and the look she rewards him with is immeasurably tender.
One down, one hundred to go.
He's been parked on her lawn for seven whole minutes by the time she strides into the console room, Wednesday next. He'd gotten bored after thirty seconds of waiting for her and had crept below deck to fiddle with the engine, so her confident "I've thought of it" barely registers. "Doctor?" Not seeing him anywhere, she slides under the railing and perches herself on the floor with her legs dangling over the edge, kicking about until her toe hits him in the shoulder. "Doctor. I've thought of it."
"My second-hardest thing," she elaborates.
That gets enough of his focus that he actually stops what he's doing and turns around, repositioning himself to stare up at her. "Oh?"
"So…" she stutters for a moment, unsure of what to do his complete attention on her, "So. After uni, I'd always meant to travel. I told you that. But I went to stay with the Maitlands for a week first and then Sophie…" Clara's brow furrows and her lips twist, and it amazes him that, after a year, this still affects her. It's so human.
"She died," he supplies, when it's clear she's not going to finish that sentence on her own.
Clara stares into space. "The kids took it hard. Really hard, at first. Angie just started hating me—well, not that she's stopped—" Clara breaks off, smiling in a way he can't translate. "And then… they were fine. I couldn't understand it. They went back to school, they did their work, it was like nothing had happened. Like she'd never been there at all."
"People do all sorts of things to deal with grief," he volunteers into her unexpected silence.
She glances down at him with a wry smirk on her face, shadows of dimples painting her cheeks. "I'm well acquainted with the ways teenagers grieve, Doctor."
Oh. That had been rude. "Sorry. Your second-hardest thing?"
"Well, that's it, I suppose. I just remember… I took them out to the park, just to make them get some fresh air, remind them of what it's like to be in the sun. Sophie loved doing things like that. Used to come up with all these pretend scenarios they'd have to act in. The best kind of make-believe. And I remember so clearly—Artie was hanging from this tree branch I'd asked him not to climb, and Angie was below him, looking up. And he said they should invent a game to play, and we all knew he meant like Mum used to, but Angie…" She swallows.
"She just said, come off it, we both know we're not creative enough. So he jumped down and they both started, I dunno, texting on their mobiles. Just like that."
"And?" he asks, feeling like he's missing the point of this story.
The look she gives him, he knows he has. "And, it broke my heart."
He thinks of Amelia, and he thinks of Amy.
He says: "Ah."
Clara's gaze is far away. "Artie I can still get to sometimes, when he's in the mood for it, but Angie's just never going to… I dunno. I dunno. Sometimes growing up is easy. Sometimes it's hard."
In that moment, he thinks she understands him better—effortlessly, even—than he'll ever understand her.
"How did you meet them?" he asks, because he can't think of anything else to say. "The Maitlands."
Clara blinks, focusing on him for what feels like the first time since she walked in. "Didn't I mention? Suppose I didn't. Sophie was my nanny. Back in the day." Her eyes clear. "But enough of all that. Where are we off to today?"
"Today," he says, feeling generous—feeling like he can unbreak a heart with enough creativity, "I'm going to teach you to fly the TARDIS."
Teaching Clara to fly the TARDIS doesn't exactly go as planned.
After the salvage, he wants to treat her to something. Something better than the next page in her book, because if he goes in order that's the Great Wall of China, and he doesn't trust that he can get her there during a time that's safe, not with the way the TARDIS has been acting.
It's just. It was meant to be a gift, flying the TARDIS, and even though every gift he's ever given has turned into a curse in the end, he wants to make it up to her. He'll never get it right if he doesn't keep trying.
And it's as easy as picking out one of those golden threads in the temporal tapestry that haloes around her and finding a point of origin.
"Here we are!" he says as they step out into the sunlight. "The New Bingley Hall, County Showground, Stafford, England. Monday 17th May, 1976. Lovely."
"And what exactly is so lovely about the New Bingley Hall, County Showground, Stafford, England on Monday 17th May, 1976?"
"Well, it's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
She's too clever for this game. "Yes, and?"
"And, the Rolling Stones are playing."
"Oh, of course they are," she chuckles, dimples peeking out, and he pouts.
"What? What's that face for?"
"Nothing. It's just that I've got half a mind to go check and see if you didn't mean to take us to a Who conce—"
"Oi! Ravenwood! Wait up; the queue's not going anywhere!"
Clara freezes, and turns, and there she is, plain as day. Ellie Ravenwood, age sixteen. Apparently trying to give her mates the slip.
Clara chokes on a whisper—"Mum"—and it's like everything around them grinds to a halt. (And this always happens, he lets them get him so stupid, and didn't he learn anything after Peter Tyler? After Melody Pond? But he's too far in to regret it now.)
He'd thought, after seeing her expression at the end of the Earth, that he knew what utter devastation looked like on Clara's face.
He'd been wrong.
"That's my mum."
"Did you do that on purpose?" she asks, voice cracking on the last word, and she can barely tear her eyes away long enough to watch his face as he answers.
He chooses not to. Smiles softly, instead. "Would you like to talk to her?"
"I can't. I mean—I shouldn't. Wouldn't it cause, like, a paradox or something? She hasn't met my dad yet. What if I do something that makes it so I'm never born?"
"Are you planning on doing something that makes it so you're never born?"
"Clara. Would I have brought you here if it was dangerous?"
The hesitation and worry in her eyes clear just long enough for her to smirk at him. "That's a trick question if I ever heard one."
"Wh—you—" He blusters at the cheek of it. "Hey! It's just a concert, Clara."
"Last time you brought us to a concert a god-planet almost ate our souls."
"And didn't someone die at a Rolling Stones concert?"
He winces. "Not this one. I—look, we're going to lose her soon. I understand if you don't want to, we can just watch them play and go, but Clara, this is your chance."
Her lips twist as she turns back to where Ellie is standing in the slowly-building crowd, laughing at something a friend said. "Those blokes she's with—I know them. That's Harold Meeks, my godfather. And Trevor Blackburn, he runs a chippy in Bournemouth, moved south for the weather. And—" She goes momentarily silent as the girl who will become her mother pulls one of the boys in for a kiss. "And clearly she's still dating Andrew Caulder."
The doors to the theater open up, and people start rushing in. They lose sight of her in fits and starts. Clara looks torn.
"Go on. Follow her."
"But—I haven't got a ticket."
"Yes you do," he says, digging into his pocket and handing over the psychic paper.
She takes it from him automatically, but her look is curious. "What, aren't you coming?"
"Nah. This is your adventure. I'm just the designated driver." And he means it, too, but as he turns to leave Clara catches him by the wrist and stares at him, eyes screaming. She's never been one to hide it when she's scared, and she doesn't have to say a word for him to know he'll not be leaving her alone tonight.
He entwines their fingers and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze, and they're off. One flash of the psychic paper gets them inside the venue, and then it's just a question of locating Ellie in the crowd.
"How do we do this?" Clara asks when they catch sight of her by the stage. "We can't just walk up to her and say what's your name, be my friend."
"Why? It's always worked for me."
"Watch this," he says, letting go of her hand and forging ahead, and all of Clara's protests die on her lips when he manages to orient himself just so to get Ellie Ravenwood to plow into him backwards, yipping in pain when she steps on his foot and trips him.
"Oh my stars, look at me, I just crashed right into you," she apologizes, giving him a hand up. "You alright there?"
"No harm done, no harm done. I'm fine," he assures her as the boys she's with mock and make fun.
Her face is red. "Blimey, and the concert's not even started yet. I'm all elbows even when I'm not dancing. Maybe you'd better stay away."
"Nonsense, I'm sure we'll be fast friends, won't we?" he asks, and belatedly Clara realizes that was directed at her.
"Oh, the fastest," she chokes, wide-eyed and breathless. Unwilling to take her eyes off her mum, she gropes around blindly until she catches the Doctor's hand again.
"Well, I'm Ellie Ravenwood, and this here's Blackburn, Caulder and Meeks. What're your names?"
Clara opens her mouth automatically. "Os—" the Doctor elbows her sharply in the side, "—win. Clara Oswin. And this is the D—"
"Damned luckiest bloke in the world, about to see the Stones and all!" the Doctor covers in a half-baked Northern accent. (He's out of practice.) There's curiosity and then there's stupidity, and he's met Ellie Ravenwood too many times already to give her his name, even in passing. "John Smith," he introduces himself, reaching out his free hand. Ellie, Blackburn, Caulder and Meeks shake it in turn.
"Nice to meet you both," Ellie smiles. "You know, I've always liked the name Clara."
"You can have it off me, if you want," Clara breathes, squeezing the Doctor's fingers in a death grip. Which hurts quite a bit, actually, because she's always got those rings—
"So where are you lot from, eh?" he asks, to get them talking, and as Caulder starts going on about how they skived off school to make the drive down, the Doctor deftly maneuvers Clara's digits within his own, sliding the silver band off her middle finger and slipping it into his pocket. When she looks up at him with questioning eyes, he merely juts his chin out slightly towards Ellie—specifically, at the same silver ring on her own hand.
"I told you I didn't want a paradox," she hisses at him while everyone's attention is on Caulder.
"It's fine. Just don't let the rings touch, it won't be a problem," he whispers back.
"—parents all think we're studyin' at George Sinclair's place," Caulder finishes. The others laugh, so the Doctor laughs too, conspicuously, and Clara attempts a chuckle.
"What about you? Where're you from?" Meeks asks, and Clara looks up at the Doctor helplessly.
"Oh, we're—travelers. We go here and there, you know."
"Oh yeah?" Blackburn asks, sneering in distrust, "What's that's supposed to—"
"Have you been to Spain?" Ellie asks over them, eyes bright, and the Doctor feels a surge of affection for this woman. He can see where Clara gets it from. (In her, he can see Clara.) "I've been to France on holiday loads of times, and we took a trip to Greece last year, but I've always wanted to see Spain."
"I've been, she's not," the Doctor says, turning to smile at Clara. "Maybe that's where I'll take you next." A chord strikes in him, somewhere, and he chuckles. "I've always wanted to take a girl like you to Barcelona."
Clara ignores him utterly. "I've been to Egypt, though," she says, voice low, conspiring. "Saw the pyramids and everything."
"Lucky! Andy, d'you think we can—" She turns around, but Caulder's gone. "I'm always losing him, where's he off to?"
"That bloke over there wanted to talk to him about getting us some mary jane," Blackburn says, waggling his eyebrows and jerking his chin towards the other end of the stage. "I think they're discussing payment."
"Over my dead body he is," Clara says under her breath, before shouting, "Oi! Caulder! Get back here!"
Looking alarmed at having gotten caught, Caulder beats a hasty retreat, face stormy. "What's the matter with you? Now you've scared him off!"
"Have I? Oh, what a shame."
"Come off it, Oswin. What are you, our nanny?" Meeks groans. Clara's eyes go wide, but she recovers in record time.
"Look, I'm not saying don't smoke, I'm saying don't buy. Not here, from people you don't know. That could be laced with anything."
"See, Meeks? She's just looking out for us," Ellie laughs. "Thanks, Clara."
Clara swallows. "You're welcome."
As the night goes on, Clara gradually gets comfortable enough to release his hand, and once she does, the Doctor hangs back. This is her moment. He's just here for the music, really.
(But he can't deny there's something magical about watching her lips mouth the words you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need in the smoky light of the theater, her voice drowned among hundreds. She glows.)
After a while, the two of them are almost hard to look at. The boys don't seem to notice, but the Doctor does—the way they clap their hands and shake their shoulders in tandem, the parallel pitches when they scream for Mick, the harmonic laughter. They so clearly belong together, and for a moment, the guilt at knowing he'll have to separate them again threatens to tear him apart.
He's always doing that.
He decides to let her say goodbye on her own. He waits for her on the TARDIS for what feels like forever, and just when he realizes that leaving her alone out there might've been a mistake ("A gingerbread house," he'd told Mickey once), she runs in and throws herself at him, arms snaking around his neck as she buries her face in his collar.
"Clara…?" he asks weakly, and not for the first time, he wonders if this was a good idea. "Should I not have—?"
"No," she sobs, and he's sure she can hear the way his hearts stutter and stop under her ear, but she's not done. "No, I'm glad you did. Thank you," she breathes into his shoulder in shuddering gasps.
He tentatively rubs his palms across her back. "Are you okay?"
"That was the hardest thing I've ever done," she says, voice tremulous. "That was… that was a lot. That was a lot."
He's never had a solid grasp on how long hugs are meant to last, but when he tries to pull away from her after a few seconds she only clings tighter. It's the first time she's done that, he thinks. "Sorry, but can I just… stay here a minute?" she asks, in the tiniest voice he's ever heard out of her.
His lips twitch. "Okay," he says, just as quietly, taking her more fully into his arms. "Okay, I've got you." Without thinking, he presses a kiss into the crown of her head. She makes no sign of noticing.
It's a long while before she lets him let go of her.
He really doesn't mind.
(The last time he held her this close was on an impossible cliff on a day they never lived, and she's Clara, she's just Clara. In this moment, he can't fathom her being anything else.)
Despite his best efforts, the erased day with the salvagers continues to weigh on him. It's one thing to let her forget what she learned about him—she's legitimately safer that way—but to not let her remember what he told her, however indirectly, about herself… to not give her any kind of a hint as to what he sees in her…
She'd been afraid of him.
No matter how earned it is—and he knows he'd deserved it—he never wants to see that look on her face again.
"Doctor?" Her voice resonates from the other side of the door. "Doctor, the TARDIS won't let me in. Would you open up?"
"Jealous old girl," he murmurs, side-eyeing the conspicuously silent engine column as he goes to open the door.
"Happy Wednesday!" Clara chirps, holding up a bag of crisps. "I brought snacks."
"Well no wonder she wouldn't open up for you; you've got food. No eating in the console room," he says, snatching the bag away.
"What? Since when?" she asks, following him as he looks for a place to dispose of their newest cargo.
"Since always! You'll get crumbs in her gears!"
"Sorry," Clara mutters, casting her eyes upward, but she doesn't sound very sorry at all. "So where're we off to?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Well that's a switch. What's the hold up? Don't tell me that big alien brain's run out of ideas."
"Of course not. But before we go anywhere, we have to talk."
She sucks in a comically loud breath, smirking at him. "Oof. Not much good ever comes after that conversation starter. Planning on breaking up with me? Artie'll be heartbroken. He thinks we're true love."
The Doctor completely forgets what he was about to say. "Thinks we're what?" he squeaks. "Why does he think that?"
"Because I told them you're my boyfriend."
"Why would you tell him that?" he asks, voice rising to a higher and higher pitch.
"Well I had to tell them something, didn't I? It's not like I'd let just any bloke hold my hair back all night while I was retching on the washroom floor. But never mind that; what did you want to tell me?"
He closes his eyes, and breathes through his nose. Playtime's over. "There was a day that didn't happen, a few days ago," he admits quietly.
She laughs. "What, is that the start to bit of time travel humor? Like, the trans-dimensional equivalent of 'a fish swims into a wall, he says dam?'"
"No," he says automatically, because it isn't, but then the pun hits him and a single, delighted HA pulls from his throat. "That was clever."
"I'm very clever."
He smiles, but he knows it doesn't reach his eyes. "So you are. But no, it's not a joke. There was… something happened, and then something else happened, and it all had to unhappen, and you may have lost a few hours along the way. Important hours."
Her brow furrows. "Is this to do with my mum?"
"Hmm? No, no, this happened before that."
"Okay, so why didn't you tell me then?" she asks, but her relief is evident.
"Because—well, because I didn't want to. It's all very complex and time-travelly and I didn't want to have to explain."
"But now you do."
"I don't, but there are certain conversations that… It wouldn't be fair to…" He sighs. "I don't know how to explain."
Her eyes are laughing at him. "Clearly."
"The thing is," he says, and he takes a deep breath, "The thing is, I've met you before."
"I'm aware that we've met before." His jaw drops, but before he can say anything she goes on: "Standing date every Wednesday, pop off, see the universe? I think I've got a hang of the routine by now."
"Not this you. Other yous."
"Other mes?" Her eyebrows raise.
"From different times. Not you, but still—everything. Same voice, same face." Same fate.
"But they can't be me. I'm me."
(She doesn't get it. She doesn't take him seriously unless he's scaring her, and he won't do it again, he can't.)
"It's not that simple."
"Why can't it be? Maybe they were ancestors of mine, I dunno. Lots of people look like people; it that can't be that strange, can it? Like—I met this girl at uni, Izzie, who looked just like my mate Emma from primary school. Same nose, same brow, same knobbly knuckles. Different hair, but then, Emma dyed hers. It was uncanny. Except they were born seven months apart and Izzie was from Glasgow, so they weren't even a little bit related. But they were dead ringers. The universe is like that sometimes."
He wants so badly to believe in this. "Perhaps it is, but—"
"But what, Doctor? You already told me I remind you of someone who died. And I'm… sorry, that you lost someone. I really am. But we both know I'm not her. Or any of her, I suppose. So why are we still talking about this?"
"I just—want to be clear. About how things can get complicated." (He hasn't been very clear at all, of course, but…)
She smiles at him—those dimples—and reaches out to bop his nose. "I'm not afraid of you, silly old bear."
He doesn't have the heart to tell her she should be, even with two of them beating in his chest.
(And still there's that voice, in the back of his head. Telling him test her, test her, test her. And even if he can't have two of her meet, it would be better even to just verify it with someone else's eyes. To have Vastra—someone—anyone—say "But that's Clara," so he can finally believe what he sees.)
"How would you like to see Victorian London?" he asks.