At first, Clara's very good about keeping a strict one-trip-per-visit limit. It's a good routine. Whooshing-groaning noise outside, the Doctor's bright grin in her window, grab an overnight bag and her travel book and away they go, and back home again in time for supper. Or close enough.
"You're not my entire life, you know," she insists. "I've got a whole world at home that's nothing to do with you."
"Better that way," he agrees. A shadow passes across his face, so swiftly she's not sure if it was ever there. "On-again, off-again traveling companions, those are the only ones for me. Just overnight stops and anniversary gifts and very brief, very safe adventures. What do you say?"
She frowns. "Anniversaries?"
"You know, theoretically," he says, too quickly, careening around the console with all the grace of a newborn giraffe. "In a year. Subjectively speaking. Where to next? Ah, Cambriaxa Prime!"
It's just that sometimes one trip turns into two turns into five without a break for home. At some point she realizes she's got her own bedroom in the TARDIS, with a shallow closet full of her own clothes. She can't remember what Angie made for supper last night because "last night" was rather a few nights gone.
It should worry her, how easy it is to lose track of time in a time machine. It does worry her. Or it will, when she's got the time for that sort of introspection.
She gets lost in the TARDIS more frequently than she'd like to admit. The damn ship just doesn't seem to like her very much. And it's not like there's a map of the place. She's tried to sketch one up, several times, but she oughtn't be surprised that a time-and-space-ship that defies all conventional laws of physics would be squirrely about maintaining a proper ground plan.
When she's really bloody exhausted and on the verge of collapse, she invariably stumbles across a series of bedrooms that are emphatically not hers. One is all pinks and yellows, not really her style. Another looks as messy as Artie's room at home, distinctly masculine in odor, with everything covered in a fine sheen of dust. Yet another has bunk beds. That one makes her giggle.
If she ever, even for an instant, entertained the notion that she's the only person to ever travel with the Doctor -- that she's somehow special -- well, the TARDIS disabuses her of that nonsense right quick. The Doctor's been around for a long, long time. He's had many, many companions.
"That doesn't mean you're not special, you know," the Doctor remarks when she mentions it. He's watching her intently. "Quite the opposite."
"I wasn't fishing for compliments," she says, rolling her eyes, but it makes her feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside all the same.
Later she asks whose were the bunk beds, because seriously, bunk beds. He winces and changes the subject.
Sometimes, he glimpses her out of the corner of his eye and flinches, as though he's just seen a ghost. Sometimes she wonders if she is the ghost, after all.
Other times, she wonders who it is he's so recently lost.
"Just how old are you?" she asks once.
He flaps his hand in the air in what's probably intended to be a flippant manner. "Oh, time traveler and all," he says. "It's so very difficult to keep count."
She's certain that if he wanted, he could tell her his age to the year, month, day, and minute. She doesn't point this out. Instead, she says, "God, what if I lose count? I mean, an extra couple of days here, a week there... Chronologically speaking, my birthday's likely changing every time I step into the TARDIS. Other people who've traveled with you -- how'd they keep a record of it?"
He's gone very, very still, in a way only the Doctor can -- that is to say, his body is in frantic motion, but his face, usually so very expressive, has become a wax mask. "Sorry, Clara," he says sincerely, "but I think you'll just have to make it up as you go along."
At some point, Artie finishes Summer Falls and moves onto the next book in the series. It's been ages since she gave her favorite childhood story a good reread. She flips it open at random, glancing down at the page.
Clara closes the book again with shaking hands. Oh, she thinks. Of course.
Emily wrinkled her nose. "It's only a garden shed."
"Nonsense!" the strange boy cried, affronted. "There's nothing 'only' about it! Unless you mean it's the only garden shed of its kind in the entire universe, in which case you would be quite correct. Well, aren't you coming?"
"But what on earth could be inside?" she asked.
He grinned widely. "Why, anyplace you might ever imagine, of course! Now come along, Emily Lake!" He clasped her small hand in his and gave it a good tug, and between the warmth of his hand and the brightness of his smile, she quite forgot to wonder how it was he could possibly know her name.
At some point, trips with the Doctor stopped being holidays from her everyday life. Now, visits to London 2013 are her holidays from traveling. One of these days she'll forget to ask him to drop her back home at all.
The thing is, though -- it's absolutely marvelous. The worlds she's seen, the people she's met, the planets they've saved (always at just the nick of time). The universe is a great big beautiful terrifying colorful glorious place, and she's gone farther than she ever could have dreamed in her attic room with her dusty travel book and its oversized leaf. Her normal, everyday life just feels so small and cramped and gray in comparison. Life with the Doctor is ever so much more vibrant and real.
She's never felt so very alive.
She wonders how anyone could bear to return to normal life after experiencing the universe through the Doctor's eyes.
They all nearly die in that abandoned extraterrestrial theme park with the Cybermen. Artie and Angie nearly die. She's much more frightened by that than she is about nearly dying herself, and then it sort of bothers her how little self-preservation she seems to have left these days.
Once the kids are shuffled back into their house, she finds herself knocking at the phone booth door, her copy of Summer Falls in hand.
"All her books have happy endings," she explains. "But that's not right, is it? Because she left you, somehow. Or you left her."
He pulls a face. "I don't like endings."
"Please," she says, stepping past him. The TARDIS hums warningly, little shocks of static electricity sparking where her fingers brush the handrail. She clutches the book to her chest and turns to face him. "I don't need the full story, I know it's painful for you, but you've got to give me something. Every day I'm with you I'm changing, and I don't know what sort of person I'm becoming, and I know all your companions are different and we're all special snowflakes or whatever but please, Doctor, I need some kind of roadmap to guide me through this." That was an awful lot of words spilling out all at once. She takes a deep breath. "I mean, it can't all be unhappy. I googled Amelia Williams, and she lived to a ripe old age and had a loving family and wrote buckets of stories, so that's good, isn't it?"
The Doctor sighs with his whole body, shoulders slumping. Sometimes he hardly looks any older than she is -- younger, even, with excitement lighting up his eyes. But sometimes, like now, he seems impossibly old.
"Amelia Pond," he says quietly. "And Rory Williams. Married couple. Not my usual. Well, they weren't married to start with. Well, she was seven to start with, so. Obviously."
He pauses a long time. She clears her throat. "Good name, Rory," she remarks, to fill the space. "First girl I ever fancied was called Rory. She played clarinet in the school orchestra. I spent a month trying to teach myself the flute just so I could join. Didn't take."
The Doctor raises one eyebrow. "This one was a boy Rory."
"I figured as much." She turns the book over and over in her hands. "What happened?"
"Same thing that always happens. They saved the world." He glances away -- not that he was looking at her in the first place. "Saved me a time or two as well. I was a better man when I was with them. Well, except when I wasn't. But they helped. Amy was a remarkable girl." He does look at her now, eyes ancient. "But it's not a contest, Clara."
"No," she says, hugging her book tight. "I know."
She's split into a million pieces, lives a thousand lives. Her fragments are strewn across time and space like a leaf buffeted about by the wind. Her paths cross the Doctor's time and time again, yet he never quite sees her, never recognizes her. She can't blame him for it. She doesn't even recognize herself.
She's the impossible girl. She was born to save the Doctor. But that's -- good. That's comforting. She's special, but at the same time, she's not -- she's another link in a long and lovely chain of people who cared so very, very much that they felt they might burst with it. Cared about the Doctor himself, sure; but more importantly, about the world they lived in. The millions of places they haven't seen yet, but they will, through his eyes. Because there's only so much one ordinary human being can see and do, but he is somehow everywhere, eternal, living through them and for them and with them. And it's worth it, living and dying hundreds of lives, because that's what connects them all together.
She doesn't know where she is, but that's all right. Someone else has been here before -- Amelia and Rory Williams, Professor Song, whoever slept in the pink-and-yellow bedroom and the messy one and the dozens of others scattered about the TARDIS corridors -- cartographers all, in their own ways, and they'll show her the path home.